When you wish upon a star…
In the preface of the debut issue of the Ukulele Occasional, publisher Jason Verlinde ponders, “How does the UO hope to distinguish itself from all other ukulele magazines?”
Such is the specialized nature of the magazine world these days, I suppose. And we thought alt-country was a niche market…
As was the case with No Depression (way back in 1995), the Ukulele Occasional has sprouted in Seattle, created by a couple of established professional journalists who decided they’d rather be doing something more fun in their free time. Verlinde, the publication’s co-editor as well as its publisher, works full-time at Amazon.com as a classical and jazz editor; his co-editor, Bay Area resident Michael Simmons, writes reviews for Amazon and also contributes regularly to Acoustic Guitar and other publications.
Simmons worked for many years at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto and became something of an expert on the ukulele, as demonstrated by his informative contributions about various uke models and makers. But the editors wisely have kept the UO from being too player-oriented; there’s plenty here for the sideline enthusiast or even just casually interested readers.
Some of the artists who out themselves as ukulele fans and/or pickers might raise a few eyebrows. There are interviews with the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (who has written a few songs on/for the ukulele) and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who became fascinated with the uke on a recent trip to Hawaii). There’s even a piece on the late actor Peter Sellers’ bizarre ukulele collaboration with seminal English folk-rock band Steeleye Span (written by no less an authority than Lord John Wesley Harding of the ancient ensemble Minstrel in the Galleries).
Artwork tends toward the offbeat, which seems fitting for both the subject matter and the publication’s appearance (a perfect-bound 6×9 format that resembles a small catalog more than a magazine). Justin Green’s two-page comic strip wonderfully details the “rags-to-riches-to-rags” life story of Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike, best-known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio. Robert Armstrong (a.k.a. “Beachless Bob”) offers strumming tips accompanied by rudimentary cartoons, sprinkled randomly throughout the issue’s 128 pages.
Somewhat surprisingly, the UO either intentionally avoided or just overlooked the highest-profile ukulele connection in popular music as of late. When George Harrison died in November 2001, one of the surprising revelations that surfaced from the subsequent flood of obituaries and remembrances was Harrison’s obsession with ukuleles. Tom Petty commented that his own house was littered with ukuleles Harrison had brought over as gifts whenever he visited; and on Paul McCartney’s blockbuster U.S. tour in 2002, George’s old Beatlemate honored his memory by performing Harrison’s classic “Something” — solo, on ukulele, in front of sold-out arenas.
Maybe the UO is just saving such tales for future issues. Their second one is tentatively due in late February (copies of #1 are still available through their website, www.ukemag.com), and promises a focus on the Hawaiian ukulele tradition. They also plan to incorporate reviews; and, unlike our situation at ND, in which we can review just a small percentage of stuff that gets sent our way, the UO declares on its website: “We will run reviews of everything ukulele-related we can get our hands on, including actual ukuleles.”
Whether there’s enough interest and/or subject matter to ever make the Ukulele Occasional more than occasional remains to be seen. In the meantime, we wish them the best of luck in continuing to rise above all the other uke-mag pretenders cluttering up the newsracks.