David Bowie: ‘Toy – Box Set’ – Bowie’s Lost Album Finally Sees Official Stand-Alone Release

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OK, let’s get the monkey-boy, er I mean the elephant in the room out of the way right off the bat. This cover art is amongst the worst I’ve ever seen. The Rock Chick wandered in yesterday and said, “God that picture is freaky,” in an almost frightened voice. Bowie was a beautiful man, why he chose this cover art will just have to remain one of life’s mysteries. Please don’t judge this book by it’s cover. Now, on the with the post…

Last Monday, January 10th marked the sixth anniversary of rock n roll icon David Bowie’s passing. I’m still sad about that. Bowie was indeed a titan, a true rock star. His image can still be found everywhere. Every time there’s an art fair in town, whether it’s on the Plaza, Westport or Brookside, there are always works featuring Bowie’s visage. The most popular seems to be the image from the cover of Aladdin Sane, with the iconic blue/red lightning bolt drawn across Bowie’s face, his spiky hair deep orange. Bowie was a hero to all the misfits and outcasts. He sang from a real outsider’s point of view on songs like “Is There Life On Mars?” and “Changes.” He came out as bisexual when to do so could have ended his career. He blasted MTV in it’s early days for not featuring enough (or really any) black artists. Even though he’s gone I still see his face on t-shirts of young girls wandering Westport or painted on murals several stories tall. I can’t help but think, when I see people with Bowie shirts on, have they actually heard the music or is he just a symbol of something bigger?

I’m a huge Bowie fan. Now that he’s gone I look forward to his birthday, January 8th, every year as his team releases something new on or around that date annually. A few years ago it was the EP No Plan and last year it was the previously unreleased double-single, “Trying To Get To Heaven” with “Mother.” I will admit to you, I wasn’t always keenly watching for new Bowie releases. I grew up in the American midwest and frankly I was aware of Bowie but really knew very little about him. Our rock radio station (remember them?), KY102 would play select tracks. I remember hearing “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Changes.” I think they’d occasionally play “Heroes.” His most played track in Kansas City was probably his duet with Queen, “Under Pressure.” If Bowie ever came up in conversation it was sort of like Elton John at the time – he was maybe gay so you had to keep your distance. Ah, the insecurity of the adolescent male. I’d like to say I was cool even in junior high and I was early on the Bowie bandwagon and bought Low or Hunky Dory at an young age, but alas, my journey to Bowie was slow and likely to most of his true fans, very uncool indeed.

I’ve written before about the fact that most people end up making their first purchase of an artist whose been around a while by buying whatever is then current. For example, my first Stones LP was the (at the time) recently released Some Girls. My first Who album was Face Dances, which I think only I like, because the first single “You Better You Bet” was played constantly on KY102 at the time. I can’t even claim being so cool that I did that with David Bowie. When I was in junior high he came out with Scary Monsters. I’d like to tell you I jumped on his bandwagon at that point and bought that album. I liked the song “Ashes to Ashes,” who didn’t, but it was my brother who bought that record. And he’s 3 years younger than I am. Even Scary Monsters would be a cool LP to begin your Bowie journey on… nope, not me. I was holding out.

I waited to make my first tenuous step into Bowie’s music until I was in college. Yes, it was the song “Let’s Dance” that brought me into the fold. Let’s Dance came out in 1983 and I think it’s Bowie’s most commercially successful album. Even worse than admitting “Let’s Dance” was my real entry point for Bowie, I was really enticed by the amazing video that was in high rotation on MTV. I loved the line from that song, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” After hearing “Modern Love” I broke down and bought the album which I’ll admit was a bit uneven but with Nile Rogers producing and on rhythm guitar and the then unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, you couldn’t go wrong. I know Let’s Dance was shamelessly pop-friendly and not hipster, avant garde like say, Lodger, but I don’t care. I remember a friend from high school, Brewster, who had ended up in Lubbock sending me a Bowie bumper sticker he bought at the Bowie concert from the ensuing tour entitled The Serious Moonlight Tour so it appears I wasn’t the only one on the bandwagon after Let’s Dance. I still have that sticker in a box somewhere. Everything I own is in a box somewhere these days.

At that point I went out and bought his greatest hits package, Changesonebowie figuring that was all I needed of Bowie. I was playing “Space Oddity” one rare sober Friday night and I remember the guy across the hall asking me “Why I was playing Sunday morning music on a Friday night?” It was one of my roommates Drew who plunged into Bowie at that point, leaving me behind. He brought home Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s masterwork, and I was at least moved to tape it onto cassette. That was the entire extent of my Bowie collection for the next fifteen years. I bought Tonight when it came out because I liked “Blue Jean.” But to me, it was a huge disappointment and I sold it quickly at the used record store. I was aware of the release in spring of ’87 of Never Let Me Down and the ensuing Glass Spider tour but I largely ignored it. After that Bowie retreated into his “side project” Tin Machine and floated out of my consciousness. In the 90s he went into this heavy electronic/industrial thing and even worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. I had begun to think of Bowie as basically an artifact struggling for relevance. Although I loved the song, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” which was the only track that reached my ears during those days.

But then in 1999 something happened. I was listening to the radio and I heard a song “Thursday’s Child.” It was from a new album from Bowie, Hours… and I loved it. I know, another odd entry point back into Bowie, but I’m not a music snob. If a song hits my lower brain stem I’m in. Critics were lukewarm on the album, it was composed as a soundtrack for a video game and had a song with lyrics composed by a fan in a contest, but I really thought it was a return to his classic sound. It’s described in Wikipedia as the beginning of his “neoclassicist period,” whatever that means. It was only then, at the end of one millennium and the dawn of another that I plunged into Bowie. I went back and started buying all of his LPs, from The Man Who Sold The World up to Scary Monsters. I joyfully followed Bowie’s every twist and turn on that back catalog and that’s when I became a huge fan. I also realized how much I’d been missing out on… That newfound fandom was only solidified when Heathen came out in 2002. It’s an album everyone should own and it’s exactly the type of late-career type of LP B&V was founded on. He followed up with the brilliant Reality in 2003 and it was on that tour, that I finally joined my friend Brewster in actually seeing Bowie in concert. “Station To Station” was the highlight of the evening. The Rock Chick, sadly, was a bit baffled by the evening as she wasn’t as familiar with his stuff as I was… but marriage is a compromise.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I discovered there was an unknown chapter to that fruitful 1999 to 2003 period. Apparently jazzed with how his backing band had sounded on the tour for Hours, Bowie decided to head into the studio. He was excited to have a band honed on the road, doing live shows and he wanted to capture that. On that tour he had decided to start revisiting songs from his early pre-fame period when he was just a struggling Mod in London. They were playing various tracks on the tour like, “You’ve Got A Habit of Leaving.” Bowie’s plan was to hole up with his touring band, Mark Plati (multi-instrumentalist/producer), Earl Slick (guitar), Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Mike Garson (keyboards), and Sterling Campbell (drummer) and record an introspective version of Pin Ups his 70s LPs of cover songs that I featured on my list, B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs. While he covered other artists on Pin Ups, on this new album Toy he was going to go back over 30 years and cover himself. The plan was to do a surprise release of the album which is common now but way ahead of its time in 2000 but that’s Bowie for you… a visionary. Apparently there wasn’t the technology available yet to go from studio to release in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately the record company wasn’t as excited about Bowie revisiting his early catalog as he was, they wanted an album of new songs, and they rejected Toy. Let me just say, I doubt the cover artwork helped any. The sessions did lead to Heathen…so there’s that.

As I mentioned, a decade later in 2011 Toy was leaked to the internet and became a widely bootlegged album. I don’t condone bootlegging but I won’t lie I’ve been an owner of a number of bootlegs since I was in college. I had a copy of Toy on a CD that I got from sources that shall remain hidden. While most Bowie aficionados look down on this record, I think it’s damn good music and a hell of a lot fun. A couple of tracks from Toy had been released as b-sides for Heathen so some of it had seen the light of day. I loved that it was Bowie singing passionately with a band that does sound road tested and rocking these old songs. It was modern and yet it had that mid-sixties mod energy. Listening I felt like everyone involved was wearing a suit with a parka and riding a scooter while taking pills. With titles like “I Dig Everything” you definitely get a sixties vibe which is nothing but a good thing.

Toy was finally released in last year’s box set Brilliant Adventures (1992 – 2001). The running order and track list was slightly altered from the 2011 bootleg but the sound is better and I think it’s an even better version of Toy. The day before his birthday, last Friday, Bowie released Toy as a box set of its own with the original LP, a disc of alternative versions and a third disc entitled Unplugged And Somewhat Slightly Electric. The original Toy is all rock and roll. He was right his band was really tight. The track I’ve been obsessed with since it came out as b-side is “Conversation Piece.” It’s a melancholy rumination from the eyes of a young person wondering if they’ll ever amount to anything or connect with anybody. I think it ranks amongst his best deep tracks. “I Dig Everything” is a ferocious rocker and the perfect opening track. “You’ve Got a Habit Of Leaving” is an elastic rock song. “Karma Man” is my current obsession as it wasn’t on the bootleg. “Shadow Man” is a beautiful ballad. Most these tracks just rock, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “Let Me Sleep Beside You” are prime examples. This isn’t Bowie setting new directions, this his him rocking out and gads, having a great time doing so.

The second disc, full of alternative versions, might be the bootleg versions I had in 2011 although I can’t be positive. It kicks off with “Liza Jane” a great bluesy, harmonica tune that I just love because well, everything I dig can be traced to the blues. I think this may just be a remastered version of the 60s original although the vocals sound 2000 to me. I’m like most people, I’m not familiar with Bowie’s pre-“Space Oddity” work so this is all a new treat to me. There’s also a track “In The Heat Of The Morning” that’s a solid rock tune that’s not on disc one. Disc two is interesting but it’s probably for obsessives like me who ruminate over different tempos and guitar parts.

Disc three, the Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric disc, is as advertised, Bowie’s band playing the Toy tracks in a more stripped down fashion. I don’t know if this disc was recorded in 2000 or Plati, who produced all of this just went in and re-recorded the backing tracks behind Bowie’s vocals like they did for the “updated” version of Never Let Me Down a few years ago. I like the stripped down versions of the Toy material, it’s like a lost Unplugged concert that we never got to see or hear (not that these performances are live). If you like Toy you’ll dig the Unplugged versions on disc 3.

Once again Bowie has a birthday and he gives us the gift of his music. I really think Toy is worth checking out for any Bowie fan. Especially if you dig his latter day work like Heathen, Reality or even the great LP The Next Day. It stems from a great period for Bowie and he had a great inspiration trying to capture the magic that a great band delivered live in a studio. I highly recommend pouring a nice glass of wine and kicking back with Toy, you will be rewarded.

Cheers!

Review: Documentary, ‘Under The Volcano’ – A Wonderful Lookback At AIR Montserrat Studios

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the throes of the dreaded Dry January these days. It’s very hard to self entertain during the coldest, grayest time of year, especially without booze. Let’s all admit it, January sucks. The Holidays, however you feel about them and whichever you choose to participate in, are over and it’s just a long, dark slog until Spring. Or at least until Valentine’s Day if you’re into that sort of Hallmark Holiday. But with the cold, Midwest weather there’s really no outdoor activities to help divert the winter blues. All there is to do in Kansas City these days is eat and drink… not that there’s anything wrong with that but currently I’m not doing one of those things.

This last weekend my beloved Chiefs played their game on Saturday instead of the usual Sunday football game. My friend Doug came over to watch the game with a couple of boxes full of non-alcoholic beer. While Doug isn’t joining me on the long, slow slog of Dry January he was kind enough to support me. I was surprised how good that beer was, but perhaps I just miss beer. I don’t miss the bloating beer brings on…  Anyway, when Sunday rolled around there were a ton of NFL games on to watch, all of which had playoff ramifications but I could tell the Rock Chick was not enjoying being a “football widow.” I knew I needed something on Netflix and I needed it fast. Some buddies of mine have me in that most dreaded of things, a group text. But last week on the aforementioned group text one of my friends mentioned a documentary that came out last March, Under The Volcano. He said to me specifically, “You’ve probably seen this already, but if you haven’t, you’ll dig it.” I had seen that it was on Netflix (and it was actually on Showtime this last week) but for some reason both the Rock Chick and I thought we’d already watched it. We tend to watch anything about rock n roll if it looks like it’s well done but in fact, we had not seen it. I knew this might be the thing to save my wife from the football induced boredom I was subjecting her to.

Apparently in the mid to late sixties Beatles’ producer extraordinaire George Martin formed a company, Associated Independent Recording (aka AIR). I had no idea George Martin was going to be at the heart of this story. As soon as I heard that, I sat up straight in my chair and started paying more attention. Martin started this company and opened his own state of the art studio in London, on Oxford Street. I think Martin produced Rubber Soul there. The man was genius. Growing tired of the big city and feeling the need to get musicians away from all of that and more isolated for focus, Martin discovered and fell in love with the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Known as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” Montserrat was this sort of unspoiled gem. Martin fell in love with the island but he especially loved the warm and wonderful people there. He bought a property there and eventually bought built a studio down there in 1979, long after the Beatles had gone their separate ways.

In today’s world of Pro Tools, digital files being sent around on email and folks recording music on their phones, it’s hard to understand how musicians and producers used to actually all get together in the same room and play music together. And, lets face it, in the late 70s and 80s, the time covered in this documentary, record companies had bigger budgets. It was a time of decadence but it was a time of great music as well. Often bands or solo guys with their backing band would retreat to the country or some remote location with a studio and live, party, write and record as a group, or some might say, like a family. And what better place to get away from the distractions of the world than in paradise. Many of the guys would bring their family and make it a holiday. They’d work a few hours on music and then off to the beach of if you’re Sting, off to windsurf.

I was aware that there was a studio on Montserrat and vaguely aware that some of my favorite albums were recorded there but had never really investigated it. Again, I had no idea that George Martin was involved. He lived there and would often pop in to check out how things were going even if he wasn’t producing the record. That’s like having Roger Federer come down to check on how your tennis game is coming along. The island of Montserrat is simply beautiful. However, the island has a “dormant” volcano that stands over the island and the proceedings here like a silent, dangerous, smokey sentinel. It’s like recording at the feet of the famous “Iron Man” of Black Sabbath. I knew AIR Montserrat studio closed in 1989 and I kept thinking… “my god, what happened, did the volcano go off?” The studio itself was like a resort. They had a pool right outside the studio – lots of rock star photos jumping into the pool – and an onsite cook and bar. Many locals who worked at the studios or who had gotten to know the rock stars are interviewed and I enjoyed hearing them as much as I did the rock stars. This documentary reminded me a lot of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, only with much better surroundings.

The first album produced at AIR Montserrat was by the Climax Blues Band for those of you who feel like getting in the “way back” machine. Jimmy Buffett was the second artist to record there because – hello, he’s Jimmy Buffet the island guy. So influenced by the island and it’s primary geological feature he called that record Volcano. I love that he bought out the whole bar at the studio one night. If they weren’t drinking at the bar, many of these rock stars would venture out to these little, rundown neighborhood bars nearby and hang with locals. How cool would that be? Especially for the rock stars… to be able to act like a normal person.

So many great acts did records at Montserrat. McCartney did Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, his first work with George Martin since the Beatles broke up and sadly only weeks after John Lennon was murdered. The Police recorded Ghosts In The Machine and Synchronicity there and Sting fell in love with the place. He recorded his first solo record there too. Artists from Gerry Rafferty to Duran Duran did albums there. They talk about the studio having its own particular sound, like the island was in the space between the notes. That laid back Caribbean vibe soaked into the music like rum into a pineapple. I knew without checking the internet, for example, that Eric Clapton must have recorded Behind The Sun there. Keith Richards brought the X-Pensive Winos down there to record Talk Is Cheap and vowed he’d get the Stones back together and bring them down. As it turns out, the Stones did reunite and recorded Steel Wheels there. Again, so many great albums were done down there.

Alas, the Stones were the last group to record there. Spoiler alert – it wasn’t the volcano that destroyed AIR Montserrat, that honor went to Hurricane Hugo. The destruction caused by that hurricane brought to an end a really wonderful point in time in the annals of recorded music. The property now is “returning to the jungle.”

I was really entertained by this documentary. If you’re into music and how it’s recorded… nay, how it used to be recorded this documentary is for you. It’s really cool seeing all these guys like Dire Straits down there doing their most famous albums. You even learn the truth about how Sting ended up singing on “Money For Nothing,” a story I won’t spoil here. Check it out… it’s January, you’ve nothing else to do, especially if you’re going dry like me!

Cheers!

Reflections On And The Beginning Of The Dreaded ‘Dry January’ – A Cleanse From Bourbon

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“I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass” – Pete Townshend, “Empty Glass”

A belated Happy New Year to all of you out there! I hope everyone had a safe and fun holiday season. I have to admit, I’m just happy I survived it… all the events, the family politics, the sensitive feelings… Covid. Thank God it’s over. I know not everybody feels that way. I know the Rock Chick has gone into her annual post-holiday funk. She invests so much into it – and she really does a lovely job – when Xmas is over she can’t help but feel let down. I know there are a lot of people like her. I think even those of you who love the holidays can use a break when January rolls its ugly face onto the calendar. My corporate masters have seen to it that both the end of every year and the beginning of another are painfully busy so I haven’t had a lot of time for rock n roll. Oh sure, with the advent of the “mute” button one might walk past my home office and hear both conference call discussions and at the same time Neil Young singing “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” in the background. My 13 year old self would be proud.

What people tend to forget this time of year is that Winter really only just began. Winter’s official start is on December 21st, aka the Winter Solstice. Strange we celebrate Christmas around that time… it’s almost as if the Church co-opted Pagan holidays and aligned their significant dates to that calendar. It gives you pause or it should. Anyway, since Winter only officially began, we have 3 hard months ahead of us. Seasonal affect, the depression some people feel during this gray and cold time of year is real. I dated a woman, years ago, who would wilt like a flower without the sun. I took her to Miami one January and it was like she’d gotten a blood transfusion. The next thing I knew she was cavorting around the beach topless. I can’t say much about those days only that I love Miami but I digress. Sadly I don’t live in a sunny climate. I live in the American Midwest so it’s relentless gray cold. If you’re out there and you’re feeling blue, reach out to a friend. You’re not alone. We should all treat mental health issues very seriously.

In terms of all of this post-holiday funk, winter blues, crappy time at work I have resorted to the dreaded Dry January, as is my annual habit. I actually started doing this, in miniature, years ago in my mid-20s. I spent a lot of New Year’s Eves/New Year’s Days in Chicago visiting my friends Doug and Bert (name changed to protect the guilty). Every year was the same thing. We’d go out in the cold slushy streets of Chicago to some party a bar was throwing and drink a whole lot in search of that elusive New Year’s Eve hook up. The closest I ever came to that goal was a guy we knew named Brian ambushing me with a head butt. I think I was concussed. Of course there was the one year Doug disappeared with a woman leaving Bert and I alone in some tent. It was virtually impossible to get a cab as there was a sniper at Cabrini-Green in the projects. We finally had to fist fight a couple of South Side chicks in order to get a cab. After one of them body checked me against the rear quarter-panel, I jumped in and pulled as hard as I could to close the door and the handle came off in my hand. Bert was left to slug it out with those ladies. I think he had a black eye. I’m certain one of those gals had done time. He had to battle around the cab in order to get in. He still accuses me of cowardice in the face of the enemy on that one. Bert, I broke the cab’s door. I’m sorry.

After those big, long weekends in Chicago I did something strange for a man in his 20s. Who am I kidding, I did this into my mid 30s. Whether I was in my Arkansas exile or Kansas City in the later years, I would take the first weekend in January, like this very weekend, and I would retreat to Pittsburg, Kansas, a small hamlet in the southeast part of the state, to see my grandmother. Both my grandmothers lived in Pittsburg but at the time one of them had gone into a home with dementia. I loved both my grandmothers. My Grandma Marj was a wonderful woman and I loved her with all my heart.  She would sit at the kitchen table for hours talking to us. She’d ask about our lives and oddly for an adult in those days, she seemed interested in the answers we gave. She made you feel like an adult, like you were important. I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend time with her in those later years. My presence seemed to confuse her. I asked her, the last time I went by, if she knew who I was. She pointed to a picture of me she had on her shelves and said, “You’re the man in that picture.” I remember wiping tears from my eyes as I walked to the exit. Mom told me to stop going by…

So in those later years, I’d go to Pittsburg the first weekend in January, post-New Year’s Eve in Chicago and I’d have my “Dry Grandma’s Weekend” with my other grandmother, Frances. I wish every day I had met the Rock Chick earlier so she and my stepdaughter could have met Frances. She was a ton of fun. She always wanted to play a game. She and I would have epic Crazy-8 card games when I was a child. While I loved her dearly, she was an ungracious winner who constantly accused me of cheating…which I would deny. But in truth, because of her habit of standing up and dancing around the table when she would beat me, yes, I cheated. There it is Grandma. Again, I’m sorry. As an adult I’d call her on a Friday morning and ask if I could come visit. She usually had plans to play bingo – the woman loved to gamble – and she’d sound bummed that I’d ruined her games of chance. But by the time I pulled in on Friday night she’d have a jar full of freshly baked chocolate cookies and a pie made from scratch. She’d pull that off in a matter of 4 hours. We’d always go to Chicken Mary’s with Frances’ sister, my beloved aunt Molly. Frances would slip me 40 bucks before Molly arrived and tell me to insist on paying. Molly never let Frances pay for her dinner but she’d let me. “Games people play, when they wanna say ‘I love you’…” Sadly all of that ended in 1999 when Frances passed. She’d been at the hair dresser and was heading home to watch an NFL playoff game (I’m guessing she had money on the Broncos) when she passed. I wept like a child that day as I did for both my grandmothers.

Those weekends in Pittsburg, where I drank absolutely nothing were a strangely refreshing thing in my life. It was like a booze and emotional reset. I’d relax in the company of these old ladies and do everything I could to make them laugh. It was like getting off the party treadmill I was on for just that brief moment to get clarity. Its probably not dissimilar to the Buddhist concept of letting go of the wheel of suffering…and believe me my life had a lot of suffering in those days. I’d take time during the dry weekend to contemplate the coming year and assess how little I’d accomplished up to that point. When my grandmother died, I decided I’d start doing a Dry January in earnest to honor both my wonderful grandmothers. I remember when my friend Al (named changed to protect the guilty) who I was hanging out with at the time, joined me one year. He hated hanging out in bars trying to talk to women while we were both stone cold sober but he hung in there with me. He’d always say we were holding hands and skipping away from looking really gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…but we were both single men in our 30s, tall and thin. Even my sainted mother was wondering…

Anyway, last year my friend Doug joined me in the endeavor, but this year at the request of his family he’ll not be joining me in Dry January. So I’m going it alone this year. And like those years so long ago in Pittsburg, for me it’s a chance to reset. I love a good tumbler of bourbon on a cold winter’s eve but not so in January. I’m going to get through the mess that is my work life right now, listen to as much rock n roll as I can and try to get my bearings. I read on the internet recently – so it’s gotta be true – that even quitting drinking for one month has amazing health benefits so there’s that. I’m more focused on the mental health benefits. I hate to admit it but I tend to lose a few pounds during Dry January. I actually sleep better. Like most people I’ve got a few things I need to sort out this year and a clear perspective may just help me do it. I’m like all of you, I’m just trying to fight off the darkness inherent in our existence and fight toward the light.

To all of you out there, again, Happy New Year. I hope you’ll join us here at B&V in 2022 for what appears to be an exciting year for rock n roll. I don’t make resolutions but I will say, I’m hopeful to see a few more concerts this year. I really dug getting back to the live music experience – standing in the dark with strangers in a communal setting, vibing on music – at 311 and Joan Jett/Cheap Trick last year. I want to get back to that!! And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get that new Stones album I’ve been hoping for over a decade now…  Hopefully you’re all safe and happy. Stay warm and stay cheerful. It’s too easy to get down in January.

Cheers!