Saturday, May 31, 2008

Chattanooga Music Scene sparks 4-alarm Fire!

Shelby Lynne--"Where I'm From" (mp3)
Michelle Shocked (featuring Levon Helm)--"Secret To A Long Life" (mp3)

Our often-maligned music scene deserves a break this summer. We've got a number of very fine, somewhat under-the-radar kinds of acts coming to town, and I'm not even talking about the cumbersome Riverbend venues.

Our clubs are alive. You may have seen the article in the Times/Free Press this week about J.J.'s Bohemia, Tremont Tavern, and the Market Street Tavern and how those venues have spearheaded a revitalization of our music scene. They offer both opportunities for local bands and quality, lesser-known acts from elsewhere. All true, no doubt, but you may be thinking: of course, our local paper would do a feature like that. It's self-serving for our city. But how much of an impact are these clubs really making?

Here's a funny coincidence. The day after article ran, I got an email from my friend B who lives in that city with all those statues of Confederate generals and, for balance, Arthur Ashe. B does like to keep a low, anonymous profile, but I'll tell you that he is the one who introduced me to R.E.M. way back when, to Yo La Tengo, to Pavement, to Guided By Voices, among many others.

So I was intrigued when he emailed me and said, "Monotonix are coming back to jj bohemias – Friday june 27. I want to see them. I think you should as well." I didn't know who Monotonix is, but I always trust B's musical instincts. And if you see them in action, you will be inspired to want to see them, too, and J.J.'s has the kind of close quarters that may recreate that same out-of-control vibe you see in the YouTube video. Though I doubt anyone will be drinking beer out of a shoe. We can hope, though, can't we? It seems people around the country know about our clubs.

Now, the bad news for me, musically, is that I'm not really going to be in town much this summer, but if I were, here are the shows I would be considering:

6/6: Scott Miller at Rhythmn and Brews. I never listened to the V-Roys; instead, I got into this guy through some of the covers he does of Neil Young songs from the Hawks and Doves era. I like the sound of his band.

6/9: Black Diamond Heavies at the Bessie Smith Strut (for free, of course). If you've been, you know that the Strut is one of the best nights in Chattanooga, that there is nothing at all like it, that it is one of the best-smelling streets in the world. Oh yeah, they have music, too, and these guys are supposed to be pretty good.

6/20: Tinsley Ellis at Midtown Music Hall. I've given a fair amount of my hearing to this man, especially at the now-defunct Brew and Cue on McCallie Ave. back in the '80's. Then, he had the albatross of being named one of the "Next Stevie Ray Vaughn"s hanging around his neck. Now, he's comfortable in his skin, and must be experienced live as none of his CD's do his talents any justice. If you like guitar, this is the show.

6/27: Monotonix at J.J.'s Bohemia. Scroll up, click on the link, watch the video. Wish you were younger.
6/27: Jason Isbell at Rhythm and Brews. I've never been more than on the fringe of the Drive-By Truckers fanaticism, but I've never heard a bad song. This guy played with them for 3 CD's and is supposed to put on a good show.

6/28: Shelby Lynne at Rhythm and Brews. I've been a Shelby fan since her first CD. Even when they tried to sex her up, I shrugged off my preconceptions and stuck with her. Amazing, amazing voice. And I promise, if we ever have another "Jesus Week" on this blog, her "Jesus on a Greyhound" will be a definite part of the playlist.

8/8: Michelle Shocked at Nightfall. I like this whacky woman about half the time. I think I like the concept of her more than I actually like her. Especially when she released the "campfire tapes," one of the original low-fi moments. Great idea, very authentic, but not something I wanted to listen to much. But some of her songs are quite good and Nightfall is, after all, free.

These are just some shows I know about. I'm sure there are many more good ones out there. If you're willing to wade into Riverbend, you've got Galactica, the Greencards (part of my summer mix!), and a bunch more.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Music for the ADD generation?

The Eames Era--"Let Me Spin" (mp3)
The Sheds--"Smoke Me Tonight" (mp3)
Billy Bragg and Wilco--"Ingrid Bergman" (mp3)
The Capstan Shafts--"Hip To The Sweet Blue World Again" (mp3)

I loved Elvis Costello's Get Happy when it came out, and though I rarely listen to Elvis anymore, it remains my favorite of his albums to this day. It just has so many damn songs on it, and they keep coming at you like waves when you're in the water at high tide. You barely catch your breath and another one smacks into you.

I have a weakness for a really short song.

Pop music in miniature is such a beautiful thing because of the restrictions it puts on the artist. No intro, no fat, no pomposity, no extended solo, no repetition of the chorus over and over. Classic "shorties" range all the way from Springsteen's "Candy's Room" to Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" to the Monkee's "Steppin' Stone." But because these are radio-friendly hits, they push almost to the upper boundary.

A really short song, a genre I am creating right here right now, must clock in at less than (but not equal to) 2 and 1/2 minutes, though it preferably takes less than 2 minutes to "get r done." This may seem a bit long, but I have so many favorites that sneak over two minutes, that I wanted to allow a little leeway. But more than 149 seconds feels too long to me. So here are my criteria, however subjective they may seem:

1. the song lasts less than 2 and 1/2 minutes.

2. the song is a stand-alone song, not a transitional song in a rock opera or other thematic setting. For example, the Who's "Do You Think It's Alright" or Pink Floyd's "Goodbye, Cruel World" both qualify in terms of their brevity, but they lose both meaning and appeal out of context. Personally, though, because it tells the whole story, I think "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" qualifies.

3. the song must feel like a complete song, not an incomplete idea, not a snippet of something longer, not a reprise version of another song.

4. ideally, if #3 is accomplished, when you listen to the song, you don't realize how short it really is because it has done so much in so little time.

5. the song has vocals. As a lover of bluegrass and other guitar music, I could pull out numerous breakdowns, rags, and other instrumentals that are smart enough to only repeat their melodies three or four times to keep from getting boring, but these don't really fit the spirit of really short songs.

Some of the real genius efforts of the genre even stay under the one minute mark. Two of the songs above, Capstan Shafts' "Hip To The Sweet Blue World Again" and the Eames Era's "Let Me Spin" are particularly fine examples. Imagine that. A whole song. Less than a minute. Sixty seconds into "Stairway To Heaven," for example, we are only beginning to find out that "there's a lady who's sure all that glitters in gold."

If you think about it, there are bands who have mined really short song gold for virtually their whole oeuvre. Seminal underground punk band The Minutemen (hence the name) and surf rockers the Ventures, of "Walk Don't Run" fame both come to mind. And Elvis C. does like the short song.

It would be easy to think of the really short song as a novelty. I disagree. I see it as a perfect example of form fitting function. You say what you need to say and get out. Imagine if Joseph Conrad had tried to turn his masterful novella Heart of Darkness into a full-blown novel three or four times its length. Was it really necessary for Tommy James and the Shondells to repeat "Crimson and Clover/Over and Over" as many times as they did? I don't know. Maybe it added emotional weight to the song, if I knew what crimson and clover actually meant.

But I do know that sometimes less is more, and maybe music is the ideal medium to demonstrate that. If you have a favorite really short song, I'd appreciate knowing about it. I'm always looking to add to my Ipod playlist of really short songs.

The Eames Era, Billy Bragg and Wilco, and the Capstan Shafts are all available at Itunes. The Sheds are the best unsigned band in America.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Fruits of Freedom

Your Stripes - Buffalo Tom (mp3)
Liar - Tonic (mp3)

Freedom is a Lie.

Freedom with a capital F, the notion that a human being is free, means having the ability and choice to lie, to deceive, to subvert. In other words:

Freedom = Deception

While I'm sure this is an entirely unoriginal idea, it came to me most recently while listening to an NPR Morning Edition story on women in Basra struggling for freedom under the oppressive shackles of their culture, especially prior to the American insurgence.

One woman confesses to going home at night and putting on makeup, then washing it off before leaving her home the next morning. "It allowed her, she says, to feel more feminine in the confines of her home," the reporter says.

Presently, in a more liberated Iraq with her increased freedom, she is described as follows: "She's dressed in a white jacket and a form-fitting purple satin skirt. Her toenails are painted with silver glitter. Her makeup looks like it was applied with the giddiness of a teenager. Still, she's afraid."

Now, read carefully this Iraqi woman's comments to the reporter, as she's made up like a teenager and trying to mimic Carrie Bradshaw. Everytime I hear it or read it, it knocks my head sideways: "The civility is temporary. The problems in Basra won't end because all we do is cover these problems up. They do not attack the cause."

My wife manages our church's very successful summer camp. Two days ago, she was hemming and hawing about one of her 17-year-old counselors who wears these mammoth diamond earrings. She didn't think it was appropriate for him to wear them while shepherding around kids at a summer church camp, but she didn't want to "infringe on his freedom."

Iraqi women equate Freedom with makeup and fashion?
Teens equate Freedom with earrings and tattoos?

Have I gone mad?! Are Amigos falling from the sky??

Perhaps it will betray my own desperate need to come across as high-minded and intellectual (although quoting The Three Amigos prolly shoots that goal in the proverbial foot), but when the hell did satin skirts and tats become symbols of the Freedom for which we are willing to send our soldiers in harm's way to protect? Why do we insist on equating individuality and freedom of expression with what goes in and out of our nostrils?

And can I express how troubling it is that Iraqi women seem to have managed to catch up to our superficial obsessions in the blink of an eye? If Freedom was Mel Gibson, they apparently skipped the Braveheart stage and went right into What Women Want.

These thoughts were giving me mental indigestion, so I continued processing.

One of my biggest personal pet peeves is the equating of freedom and individuality with permanent splotches of ink in our flesh, piercings of one sort or another, or even clothing items. I look at these people, modestly intelligent younger folks who have permanently altered their flesh so they could "express themselves," and wonder, Couldn't you just write something?

Others need to free themselves with surgery. Bigger chest. Bigger dick. Different reproductive organs (that don't reproduce). Bigger lips. Fake muscles. Smaller stomach. These people feel imprisoned in their own bodies and are convinced that doing one thing or another to alter their appearance means personal Freedom.

Hell, who am I to say they're wrong? Maybe doing this stuff really does free them.

There's a new movie coming out about people who fantasize and fetishize the notion of being crippled. They get off by riding in wheelchairs and wearing leg braces and scheme about permanently disabling themselves. I chuckle thinking about women with fake tits and Botox and fake lips watching the trailer and having this conversaition:

"Wow, those people are messed up."
"What kind of messed up person gets turned on thinking about being crippled?" "Seriously."
"So, when's the next time you inject botchulism toxin into your face?"
"Next Tuesday. Can't wait. My eyes are looking so crinkly and old, I can't even look in the mirror. When's your lap-band appointment?"
"Two weeks. Can't wait. Once that's done, and now that my tits are huge and firm, I'm gonna be the hot slut my husband has been fantasizing about."

Our screwed-up notion of Freedom actually goes back to the mythological (or not) Garden of Eden, where our two protagonists bit that damn fruit just so they could feel Free. We claim the serpent deceived them, but did it? It might not have told them the whole truth, but it didn't lie.

Until A&E bit in, they didn't really understand right from wrong. They didn't really understand sin. They were like infants, morally. They had two simple rules. That's it. (1) Don't Eat That, and (2) Don't Eat This. They did what they were told and never thought much else about it, kind of like vacuum cleaners or weather vanes. But after they ate, they were suddenly aware of the notions of deception, of lies. ("The serpent deceived us!")

Yes, they were Free.

And what's the very first thing they do? Cover themselves. Adam & Eve were the planet's first fashionistas. The fruit made them aware of their own imperfections. I'd bet a thousand bucks that Eve immediately started smearing various berries on her face, thus inventing rouge and lipstick as well. Then come Cain & Abel and their immortal tale of murderous envy. Cain wants to Keep Up with the Joneses so badly he kills for it.

Deception. Fashion. Envy. These are the first first-fruits of Freedom.

And here's what rankles me. Whether I like it, whether my higher mind accepts it, whether it annoys me, we cannot have Big Freedom without Insignificant Freedom. Iraqi women can hardly start to grasp equal rights if they can't even wear pants. Most teenagers don't even know what a "fireside chat" is, so maybe they need to equate Freedom with that treasure trail tattoo before they can grasp Guantanamo Bay and rendition.

We must crawl before we can walk. Sometimes we must crawl because we're in a small space or someone Jeff Gillooly'd our leg. I am wrong to agonize about people fixating on the superficial Freedoms if I truly hope that they might one day appreciate or concern themselves with the larger ones.

Therefore, I raise my drinking glass -- albeit with shaky and uncertain hand -- to this wonderful bastion of Freedom:

I'll try to only throw up in my mouth as opposed to all over someone.

"Your Stripes" is off Buffalo Tom's third album, Sleepy-Eyed. "Liar" is off Tonic's third album, Head On Straight. Both are available on iTunes, although I personally recommend purchasing each band for selective songs rather than entire albums at a time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Graduation, Part Deux

They Might Be Giants--"I Should Be Allowed To Think" (mp3)
BOAT--"I Really, Really Think You Should Rethink Your Life" (mp3)

I had occasion to go to the 5th grade graduation of my godson.

Now, I know there are plenty of people out there who don't see the merit in a 5th grade graduation or an 8th grade graduation or celebration or whatever you want to call it, but that's not what I'm about here. The ceremony itself is what is worth talking about.

I also know this was a Christian school (and all--as Holden would say) and that, as one of the mothers at the school told me, "It's a scary world out there." Still, I am wondering about the indoctrination of our children.

A few nights ago, I was listening to a children's book author on NPR and he was talking about how he had learned after many years working for Sesame Street that it was important not to talk down to children. And yet, the ceremony I observed did exactly that. The principal had the same "boys and girls" voice for the 5th graders as she did for the 1st graders. Every grade, every teacher was a safe haven that no student wanted to leave. And if I caught the messages correctly, here's what had been stressed to these children in grades 1-5 who participated in ceremony:

a. According to the song, all children are "stars," but while some stars are "bright and glad," some are "meek and mild." And that's just the way it is.
b. Perfect attendance matters more than almost anything, since the only certificates of merit handed out were to those who had not missed any school. Congratulations, children, on your genetics!

c. Boys play; girls dance. To demonstrate the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," the girls did the traditional Shaker dance while the boys played the musical instruments.

d. Friends out there in the world can be dangerous. You must choose only friends who share your values, and especially those who follow Christ.

e. The moment that absolutely creeped me out the most was when the entire student body from grades 1-5 stood in front of us and sang, "You Are In Control." Now, I fully understand that the song was directed toward God, but even so, I object to how many times during the ceremony the students were told to leave things in His hands, that He will always be there, that He will never let you down. God had such a presence that He was even responsible, according to the music director, for one particular song being repeated twice in the program.

f. School survival matters more than anything. I already knew this, but at a ceremony where a number of 5th graders were leaving for new schools, the students who were staying at this school were the most celebrated. Classic comment: "This is one of our nice boys and he's staying to make our middle school strong!"

You need to know, however, that my experience was slightly abbreviated. They brought up a stroke victim to award a prize to an essayist, but in the middle of his ramblings, the director of maintenance or the physical plant took the microphone from him and announced that the police were outside ready to give tickets to anyone on the wrong side of the road, which was us (in more ways than one, I fear), so we rushed outside and sped away.

The Boat song comes from their cd Let's Drag Our Feet, while the Giants song comes from John Henry. Both are available at Itunes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Happiness and Exorcisms

You Don't Need to Laugh (To Be Happy) - Frankie Miller (mp3)
I'll Make You Happy - Rick Springfield (mp3)

"We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny fuckin' Kaye!" -- Clark W. Griswold,
Christmas Vacation

I consider myself something of an anti-comedian.

Best I can tell, most comedians have these wild and gregarious stage personas whose ultimate goal, whilst up in front of said audience, is focused on making people laugh, on making them happier on some level of amusement. Behind the scenes, most of the successful comedians have been divorced multiple times and are on one kind or another of psychotropic medication. Except for maybe Sarah Silverman.

On the other hand, every official form of communication I manage to squeeze out of my system seems hell-bent on covering morose, depressing, or otherwise somber topics. Death. Religion. Fears. The Golden Girls. And hell, you shoulda seen my poetry. Although I was never wont to dress in black turtleneck sweaters and maintain a level of unwashed greasiness requisite for all great coffee shop poets, I decidedly preferred my verse to be burdened with throat-clearing gravitas.

In real life, I'm fairly certain I'm seen as a happy guy. Like, happy as Bing Crosby dancing with Danny f*#king Kaye happy. People see me, they generally see a fella who is High on Life most of the time, with no other illicit substances necessary.

Comedians construct a persona who is funny and gregarious to cope with the demons and monsters who haunt their darker hallways. I try to expose my monsters and demons to the light in order to protect the real me, who's mostly gregarious and happy.

My healthiest writing tends to serve as a form of exorcism. My writing is that short fat lady Tangina from "Poltergeist." It comes in. It waddles around in my haunted thoughts. It scares the piss out of the ghosts. It proudly declares "This house is clean" even if it really ain't, even if the ghosts are more asleep than banished.

These thoughts stem somewhat from reading the feature story in the latest New York Times Sunday Magazine, called "Blog-Post Confidential." Written by Emily Gould, blogger extraordinaire, it explores her tumultuous past with the world of blogging and becoming something of a celebrity. She also explores her nature, her need to share private crap with some portion of the Internet World via blogging... and the consequences both positive and negative of doing so.

This got me wondering why exactly I love doing this so much. Why is writing on here somehow fulfilling in ways my paper journal is not? Why can't I be a funnier writer when I'm a generally happy person? Why so glum, sourpuss? Why do I want to write to other people, even if only in the most marginal of ways?

Exorcising my unhappy emotional demons. Ridding my mind of those nit-picky cultural ghosts. These are the best excuses I could find, I reckon. But thank God they're there to be exorcised. Otherwise I'd have to make some up.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

Steve Earle--"Johnny Come Lately" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen--"Chimes of Freedom(live)" (mp3)

I spent most of tonight watching the first disc of the Ken Burns PBS documentary The War. Before I started watching it, I was in Target and picked up one of those crazy books about what it means to be a father or something like that. I read a few pages. One of them stated that (I'm paraphrasing) "being a father means taking your children to see the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor so that your children can learn what freedom costs." Which I'll be doing in less than two weeks. So, yes, you could say I'm totally in the right mindset for Memorial Day.

I don't want to make too much of Memorial Day, because I can lay no claims to it. But my father is a WWII vet, serving proudly on Guam and New Guinea against the Japanese and my grandfather served at a submarine base in Brest, France during the first World War. I have an uncle who fought in Vietnam, a great uncle who fought the Germans hand to hand in Europe, and an uncle of my wife's who did the same. Most important to this day, I have a relative on my mother's side, an Eshelman, buried at Gettysburg. I imagine most, if not all, of you also don't branch out too far on the family tree before you encounter military service and, possibly, sacrifice, too.

If I can do Memorial Day right, come tomorrow at 7:45 am, I'll be driving to work with Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" blasting inside the Camry. Thirty-nine years later it remains an absolute work of genius, and there is no other performance I know that captures so well the dichotomy between patriotism and its consequences. Somehow Hendrix, through his guitar, knew that deconstructing the national anthem could capture the folly of Vietnam more than any protest song. By sundown, I'll have a mix of other relevant songs playing, including the two that accompany this post.

Someday I'll probably address it more in depth, but my own dichotomy about war is living through the Vietnam War but still using WWII as a reference point. Tonight when I told my wife I was going to watch The War, she asked, "Which one is it?" I replied, "There's only one." That's still where I am.

And when Memorial Day comes tomorrow, yes, it is more than a cookout to me.

Still, I know all you fans want to know what I'm cooking for Memorial Day. Well, I'm taking kind of a Mexican angle, with two kinds of tacos--carnitas (pork slow roasted in a chipotle rub) with a roasted tomatillo salsa and fish (tilapia) tacos with a mango-jalapeno salsa. On the side, poblano chiles and corn in sour cream, a fresh tomato-avocado salsa and chips, and cantalope.

I hope you get your grill on and enjoy the holiday, or at least what little remains of it when you get home from work like me. Support the troops and bring them home, too.

"Johnny Come Lately" appears on the classic Steve Earle cd Copperhead Road, available at Itunes. "Chimes of Freedom" comes from a same-title Springsteen ep also available at Itunes.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Family Reserve - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Seal My Fate - Belly (mp3)

Sleep deprivation can have magical powers. Between an epic battle raging between a virus and my intestines, the juggling of two vomit-laden children and one perfectly healthy infant, and the stress of a super-sized work project, I found myself on the seriously short end of the sleep stick last week. My rough guess is, even with a few Costanza naps under my desk, I churned on just under four hours of sleep a night for a week straight.

To be fair, part of this is my own doing. Were I a wiser man, I would be forcing myself into the bed the minute all my childish things were put away, sometime around 9:30 p.m. If I managed this, my nightly sleep would notch up to a much more acceptable range.

Aye, there's the rub. To sleep, perchance to dream... or to wake, perchance to savor life and solitude. (I'll let you guess which line wasn't cribbed from Shakespeare.) If I choose to hit the hay the minute I've finally rendered unconscious all of the little creatures under my roof, I abandon the one healthy stretch of time in my day that's mine mine mine all mine.

The late evening is my vampire time, when I can release the selfish monster in me. A long list of things I love to do -- some of which I need to do -- can only be done after 9:30 p.m. at night while young children slumber. Many of these nights, the wife and I actually hang out for a while, which means most of my vampiric activity is on hold until 10:30 or 11.

Sleep or satisfy my bloodlust for movies, writing, music, poker, reading, etc. Damned either way, so Choose Life, right?

My love for these debatably important activities is so powerful, it often overrides my own logical acknowledgment that they are mostly shallow pursuits. And it certainly overrides my own logical acknowledgment that decent sleep is more important.

Lately my unstable, middle-of-the-night thoughts have been on death. And why not? What better topic when denying sleep it's due?

The Grim Reaper has been especially unfriendly to me and those around me this year. The tragic and unfathomable death of a student. The recurrence and metastasizing of cancer in another student, an amazing guy, forcing him to wrestle with questions of mortality and meaning most of us will avoid altogether. He's moved next door to Death, and although he keeps trying to put his house up for sale, move to a better and safer neighborhood, the housing market slumped at just the wrong time. Here's to hoping he can sell that damn money pit and move far far away from Death for 50 or 60 years.

More than these, though, my father's death in October opened the most cobwebbed and creaky cellar doors. It's forced me to evaluate my existence as the sole birth-son to a twice-widowed mother and the reigning patriarch of my family. "Billy" and "patriarch" are not two words that should ever be used in the same sentence.

Even if he was a constant reminder of what I don't want to be as a father and husband -- Dad was a very good man, don't take this as some "Bastard Out of Carolina" confession -- the end of his existence, of his inhaling and exhaling and sitting in that La-Z-Boy watching game shows and Auburn football games, hit me hard in a symbolic manner. I had lost my primary guidepost and cautionary tale of fatherhood. This loss became somehow more haunting with the birth of my (first and only) son some three weeks later.

I never wanted a son. Can't lie. Can't candy-coat it. My two daughters were exactly what I wanted. They were fun and beautiful and brilliant (hey, permit a Daddy his moment of pride), but they were just alien enough to protect me from my own hang-ups and fears.

But a boy... a boy... I was one of those once. I'm s'posed to somehow know more about them. With his birth came the requisite passing on to him my own fucked-up sense of what it means to be the Man of the House. And when he's a teenager, when he's in college, when he's got his own family, he's gonna see me as the symbol of so much that's wrong and right with Dads. The sins of the father might not be visited upon the son, but perhaps the sins of the son -- my rush to judgment of my father -- does indeed linger into his own fatherhood.

I'm frightened of my son's judgment. My infant son, of all the freakin' things. Hell yes I should be afraid of my daughters' judgments as well. A wiser man certainly would be, but I'm just naive enough, just clueless enough about women, to hold those fears at bay.

With my daughters, I'm unreasonably proud of the father I can be.
With my son, afraid of the man I can't.

My worries about his future judgment seem inextricably tied to my sudden mortality. Never have I felt more mortal, more fragile, than I have these last six months. Maybe that's why I won't choose sleep. Our fears in the dead of night are the most selfish and vampiric hungers of them all.

"Family Reserve" is from Lyle Lovett's fourth album, Joshua Judges Ruth. "Seal My Fate" is from Belly's second (and final) album, King. Both are available on both iTunes and Amazon's MP3 site.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Outside Looking In

Green Cat's Eye--"Fallen On Deaf Ears" (mp3)

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!“

--Stephen Crane

Or did he?

Something funny happened on the way to graduation. I got the time wrong.

After the initial surprise, then embarassment, then panic, then temptation to just leave, I went to get my gown on, encountered another guy who got the time wrong, and we took the back way upstairs and stood behind the crowd to watch our students graduate in front of our colleagues while we lingered in the distance.

Except for one former student who gave us an evil glare, the people around us didn't know who we were or where we were supposed to be. And so we became part of the clapping, cheering, wandering-to-and-from-the-bathroom, distracted masses that make up a graduation audience. In the stands in front of us there were juice boxes, snacks, programs either dropped to the floor or being used as fans. In front of us, people formed groups of family and friends, and they only came alive for the 15 seconds when their graduate's name was announced, when he crossed the stage to get a diploma and a handshake, and when he walked back to his seat. And then they returned to whatever they had been doing--texting, fiddling with cameras, or, in the case of the young woman below us, just plain moaning.

The enlightenment for me, though, was not about the crowd. My binoculars, so to speak, were zoomed in on my fellow faculty, on the events up on stage, on the mass movements of students and faculty. I have such a mentality of not wanting to get in trouble, not wanting to be embarrassed publicly, that I spent several moments focused on where I should be sitting. Was there an empty seat there? should I have walked in late? did the headmaster or upper school head up on stage notice that I wasn't there?

But then my perspective shifted. It no longer mattered where I supposed to be and what would happen because I wasn't. Instead, I had more of a Dickens' Christmas Carol moment, where I got to see what life would be like if I wasn't there, but without all of the negative flow charting. I'll admit I like to think that I am part of some grand endeavor that is making a difference somehow. In cynical terms, I'm a necessary cog; in idealistic terms, someone who tries to make that endeavor better. Anytime I start pondering my work role, though, Willy Loman starts talking in my head, and this time he's saying, "I'm vital in New England." Those of us watching the play know that he isn't. It's self-delusion, and tragic at that. I don't have to deal with that yet. I'm not worn out. But as more and more I start to see myself moving away from my endeavor, there is a kind of release in watching the whole grand machine churn on with me nothing but an observer. So the funny thing that happened at graduation was that maybe I graduated from thinking that I had to matter so much. Maybe it's time to stop investing and to start withdrawing some funds.

After the ceremony had ended, my fellow miscreant and I joined the seniors. We were the first to congratulate them. They seemed surpised that we were there already. That lasted for about one minute and then the overflow crowd descended and we were back in the flow. I did get some teasing from friends at a dinner later that night, but that was the only recognition of my absence.

Now that it's days later, my perspective has been somewhat confirmed in an additional odd way: no one has commented on my not being with the faculty at graduation--not the people I started with 25 years ago and always sit with, not any of the other administration, not even the busybodies of the faculty.

Maybe, when you are on the outside looking in, the view, though at first isolating, reminds you of your freedom.

Green Cat's Eye is not really a band; it's a couple of students who composed a song about society for the final project in my class. But the song seemed appropriate to this post in any number of ways. And, they're talented students.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Journey is the Reward

Can't Go Back Now - The Weepies (mp3)

When Bob, my partner in crime, suggested back in March that we start this blog, it took maybe 20 seconds to agree to his proposition.

Write? About Life? About Music? Share the space with a guy whose musical knowledge and taste kicks Promethean ass? What was there to decide, really?

Although I still think we're searching for our "voice," for that thread, that feel that binds all of it together (or at least I am), only two months in I've found this blog doing more for me than I would have ever reasonably expected of it.

Primarily, it has awakened me to a world of seriously good music that I'm certain I would never have discovered on my own. Because I've focused most of my music postings on songs from my past, I've neglected to promote two months' worth of amazing recent songs from an array of bands with a menagerie of styles.

For the first time in four or five years, I'm more inclined to spend my "allowance" (yes, mock if you like... but that's a topic for another time) on music than on movies. And spend I have, gleefully. What's superkewl about the bands I'm discovering is that their albums are usually on discount. iTunes or Amazon will have the digital versions for $7.99 or less. Now, thanks to a dozen or so very enjoyable music blogs (see our links at bottom left) and other music sites, I have a means of testing out entire songs, reading reviews, and then purchasing at a discount.

Here's just a sampling of the bands whose songs I've seriously considered posting but held off because to do so would somehow break my self-imposed imaginary rule of "no new s#it" (in order of my discovery of them):
  • Goldfrapp
  • The Bravery
  • Sia
  • The Blakes
  • The Heavy
  • The New Frontiers
  • The Weakerthans
  • The Weepies
  • Mates of State
Of these, I'd say The Bravery's "The Sun and the Moon" is the weakest. I bought it because they're an '80s flashback to The Cure and... well, mostly just The Cure. But it still gets played plenty. In this collection, "the weakest" is only slightly damning.

Goldfrapp is some super-sultry dance music. The Heavy is a flashback to the great days of '70s Rock & Soul. The Mates of State are pure male-female pop deliciousness, and The Weepies are just one notch down on that same scale. The Weakerthans have a Mountain Goats feel to them, and The Blakes are catchy indie rockers. The New Frontiers feel like what might happen if Coldplay listened to more country and folk. And Sia is Goldfrapp after a gallon of Goldschlagger, but I mean that in a mostly complimentary way (I was gonna say "Goldfrapp on valium, but the alliteration was too tempting and tasty).

I couldn't pick a favorite if I tried, although having purchased the new Mates of State album earlier today, I'm gonna have a hard time NOT listening to that album for at least a couple of weeks. It's delish.

But my larger point is, ain't a damn one of these bands I would have heard without starting down this Bottom of the Glass yellow brick road with Mr. Scarecrow.

I agreed to start this because I love writing, and I looooves me an audience, even if it could fit in my living room. What I never expected, not in a million years, was to have a universe of amazing music opened up to me.

I'm including the first song off The Weepies' "Can't Go Back Now" in honor of high school graduations everywhere. Simple yet beautiful lyrical advice for those souls departing adolescence and entering a new dimension of sight and sound.

"Can't Go Back Now" is off Hideaway, available both on iTunes and's MP3 site.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Musical Coda to 'Jesus Week'

Jack Logan--"Female Jesus" (mp3)
Justice of the Unicorn--"Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend" (mp3)

In lieu of the "missed hits" which no one misses anyway, here are a couple of fun little twists on the Gospels that are irreverent, creative, and probably blasphemous. Both songs add sexuality to the mix--a no-no as we found out when The Last Temptation of Christ was released as a film.

Hailing from Georgia, Jack Logan was maybe the original lo-fi, super-prolific songwriter who would record with whomever was around under whatever recording circumstances were available at the time. His idea of a good time on the weekends was making music with his friends. Sounds pretty fun. He may still be doing it. I wonder if Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices got his idea from Logan. "Female Jesus" comes from his CD Bulk which skimmed the surface of his garage sale full of home recordings.

"Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend" is as fresh as someone else's blog this week. It gives Jesus a kind of teen angst that he is working through.

Both songs, in my opinion, have an endearing sweetness and honesty to them. I recommend them highly.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Happy Summer from Uncle Bob!

For many of the past recent summers, I have put together my "Summer Cruisin'" mix as a CD. It is an ongoing homage to a series of record albums that came out several decades ago, compilations of '50's and '60's driving/beach/love songs. Since summer is so often a time for travel, I like to have a set of songs to keep me company. And, I'd like to share them with you.

When I pick my summer tunes, in my head I am sitting on a deck, charring or smoking meat, drinking beer with a lime in it, chatting or snuggling with my woman, smelling sweet and freshly-cut grass, following the slow flight of a plane overhead, and waiting for the darkness come in around us.

When I pick my summer tunes, I am walking along the beach with an Ipod, a James Bond in my own right, traveling with my soundtrack wherever I go.

When I pick my summer tunes, I am in a car driving to a destination far away, and because it is summer, I am in no particular hurry to get there.

So, yes, I am shamelessly suggesting that you download these songs and listen to them all summer long as a gift from good old Bob. If you aren't inclined to create them as a playlist in order, then think of them as a swimming pool that you can dip into when you feel like it.

The Wrong Trousers--"Video Killed The Radio Star(live)" (mp3)
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers--"Roadrunner" (mp3)
The Sheds--"Reflection of the Sun" (mp3)
Solomon Burke--"Can't Nobody Love You" (mp3)
Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins--"Handle With Care" (mp3)
T. Rex--"Bang a Gong (Get It On)" (mp3)
Bill Mallonee--"Stay With Me" (mp3)
Hindu Love Gods--"Rasberry Beret" (mp3)
Acid House Kings--"This Heart Is A Stone" (mp3)
The Polyphonic Spree--"Section 22(Running Away)" (mp3)
Johnny Mercer--"Glow Worm" (mp3)
Tullycraft--"The Punks Are Writing Love Songs" (mp3)
The Greencards--"Time" (mp3)
Stereophonics--"Have A Nice Day" (mp3)
BoDeans--"Paradise (live)" (mp3)
Throw Me The Statue--"Lolita" (mp3)
Joseph Arthur--"Let's Embrace" (mp3)

Most of these songs are available from Itunes, except The Wrong Trousers is an audience recording, the Sheds do not have a recording contract (their songs are downloadable from their website, recommended!), and the live BoDeans cd, Joe Dirt Car, may be out-of-print.

Musical Heresy... or Not So Much?

The Bends - Radiohead (mp3)
All I Need - Radiohead (mp3)

One of my longest and closest friends hates pizza. Always has. Although it's generally considered an Italian-inspired dish, I can think of few things more un-American than disliking pizza. In my 36 years, I can't even recall another soul who disliked pizza.

I still love the guy, but who the f*#k doesn't love pizza? What kind of mutant freak who loves any kind of unhealthy food would dare deny his or her tastebuds the culinary orgasm that is pizza??

This is exactly how I feel when I admit to the following: I don't like Radiohead.

Now, there's two responses to this declaration. The first, as signified by my wife, is "Who's Radiohead?" (Yes, that was her actual response.) To the world of folks like my wife, my dislike of Radiohead is no more consequential than my dislike of red velvet cake or Abercrombie & Fitch. But then, my wife isn't very into music in remotely the same way many of my friends are, so her response and those like her are kind of irrelevant in the land of music blogs, no?

The other response, likely offered by most anyone reading this tripe, is directly parallel to the one I get when I tell true music lovers that I love Hanson. They first look to see if I'm kidding, and then, when they realize I'm actually not kidding, that I actually like frakkin' Hanson, they get this look of nauseated confusion, as if everything they once assumed about me was now under suspicion.

I didn't always dislike Radiohead. In fact, they burst into my life like an unexpected supernova.

I purchased The Bends from a store near my house that was going out of business in 1995. I was just out of college and had just been "let go" from my bartending job at the time, so I wasn't exactly rolling in dough. But I needed to get my fix with music, so I just bought seven or eight CDs by bands I'd heard of, hoping I could milk enjoyment from them at massive discount. What a find. That CD is easily one of my five favorite CDs from the '90s.

I even went back several weeks later and purchased Pablo Honey, a damn fine album that didn't have quite the arena rock bombast of their second effort. When OK Computer emerged, I was definitely one of those making his way to the store that first day to see where Thom Yorke & Co. took their brilliance.

Although the critical raves were immediate, OK was a difficult pill for me to swallow. Oh, I learned to enjoy it. I grew to appreciate its brilliance, its ambition, its grasp. But it took patience and work, something anyone who knows my musical preferences will attest doesn't come particularly natural to me.

My patience and work in learning to love OK Computer would end up haunting me.

Kid A and Amnesiac followed. A hoarde of disciples and critics gushed praise, but even the biggest fans I knew kept saying things like, "It takes some getting used to" or "It's not what you'd expect" or "It's very experimental."

For me, the only kind of "very experimental" that generally results in my liking an artist more than before is when the bandmates sat around in the recording booth asking whether or not a song needs more cowbell. When albums from bands I love are described as "very experimental," what that really means is it has a 96% chance of sucking.

But with Kid A, I listened and listened and listened. You learned to enjoy OK Computer, you can learn to enjoy this, I said to myself. But, dammit, I was wrong. I am incapable of learning to love Radiohead v.2.0. After trying on and off for eight years, I can finally admit it.

Radiohead is the James Joyce of the alternative music world. In my very skewed opinion, a novel requiring detailed side study of the author's intentions or hundreds of footnotes ain't much of a novel. It's more of like a study guide with a plot.

Radiohead exists to provide musical "intellectuals" an easy Mason-Dixon line between their kind and the primates in their midst. Those who don't truly love Radiohead are posers, simple as that.

But here's what I can't escape. Here's what is incontrovertibly true: if some no-name band came out with any of these last four Radiohead albums, they would either (a) still be some no-name band you'd never heard of, or (b) the album would never have seen the light of day.

I mean, Patty Griffin, who's gotta be one of the more highly-respected and adored musicians in certain country-folk circles, had one of her albums shelved back when she was still up-and-coming. I've heard over half of it, and it kicks delicious buttock, but the dorks who sell albums didn't see the greatness and shelved it. And refused to give the stuff back to her, because music suits are bastards, which is precisely why lots of people don't feel so bad about kicking their financial teeth in when it comes to downloading music.

But back to my point, which is that her shelved album was pretty darn good, but it never saw daylight. If she'd somehow tried to release Amnesiac, it would never have seen daylight, either. No way. No chance. Kid A is a Richard Bachman book that Stephen King burned rather than publish.

I've spent the last three nights fiddling on this computer and playing my entire Radiohead collection -- everything but Hail to the Chief -- on random. All this did was serve to confirm that there ain't a single song on the last three other albums containing anything that holds a candle to their work on the first three.

Radiohead is a Tootsie Roll Pop, and I'm sick of licking and believing there's any candy goodness somewhere deep inside.

Wow. I feel better now. I've held that in for a long time. I'm probably out of the club now. I'm prolly blackballed from all the cool people music parties from here forward.

"The Bends" is off Radiohead's second album of the same name. "All I Need" is off their latest, In Rainbows, now available just like all other albums, proving that their little download ploy was more marketing trick than attempt to revolutionize an industry.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Since Jesus Week Is Over, Let's Get Back In The Gutter With Another Contest!

The Challenge: What are the raunchiest lyrics you ever heard on mainstream radio?

The Parameters: The lyrics have to come from songs that people have actually heard. We're not talking about what you heard on WAWL at 2 AM, Hank! Stuff that slipped by, words whose special meanings maybe people didn't figure out at the time. And song lyrics, Billy, not double-entendres from some Tivo-ed episode of Golden Girls!

The Prize: A best of Hanson compilation CD compiled by our own compiler, Billy! And the cover and cd book will include rare photos from Billy's private stash of Hanson photos cut from teen magazines.

The Documentation: Make sure you let us know the name of the song, the artist, and, of course, the lyrics in question (in a slightly larger context, if necessary).

The Deadline: Like any of you will enter anyway. But if you do, how about gettin' 'em in by midnight, Friday, May 23rd? Enter by adding a comment or by emailing.

The Problem: I already have the winning entry in my head and I'm playing it over and over. Actually, that is a problem. I think I'll go to church.

Missed Hits #4

Lloyd Cole--"Tell Your Sister" (mp3)

Back in the early '90's, after the demise of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Cole put out a couple of stunning solo CD's that were largely overshadowed by Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend CD. Why does it matter? Because the two were/are friends, played on each others' CD's, and shared the same highly-regarded session musicians, especially the late great Robert Quine on guitar. Girlfriend was a critic's darling that garnered a lot of press and probably is a CD that many of you own. But to my ears, the Lloyd Cole CD's sounded better then, and sound even better now. While Cole's eponymous first solo CD is probably the better of the two, "Tell Your Sister," which opens the second CD, Don't Get Weird On Me, Babe, sounds the most like a hit single to me. An update of one of Elvis' first hits, "Little Sister," this rocker has an insistent beat and an urgent vocal that sometimes has so much to say that Cole has a hard time getting back to the refrain 'Why don't you come down to Rue Morgue Avenue?' I dig the Poe reference, yeah, but I will give props to Matthew Sweet for the fetching photograph of Tuesday Weld he chose for his cover. Lloyd Cole seems to always show himself brooding on the cover of his CD's. Maybe that's what made the difference.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Confessional Quid Pro Quo

The Town Halo - A.C. Newman (mp3)
Testimony - Robbie Robertson (mp3)

Hey. You. Come closer to the screen. Like, really close.

I need to tell you a secret that I've never told anyone before. I'm very afraid to tell it, because if I do, you might not like me anymore. But keeping it to myself is torturous in its own right, because it feels like I'm lying to everyone. And if I'm the only one with my secret, it starts feeling like I'm lying even to myself, living out this fantasy where the secret stays buried even though it says so much about me.

But... can I trust you? Can you keep this secret? Can I rely on you to be my friend, even if you don't particularly approve of my secret?

If not, please don't read any further. Stop right here. I'll give you a paragraph of meaninglessness so you can slow down, reverse, and move on to another web site before stumbling on something you don't want to see.

Still here? OK. How's the weather up where you are? Gettin' hot down here. I friggin' hate summer. No more corduroys. No more sweater vests. No more windbreakers. No more jackets. Gone are the fun layers of winter. OK OK, enough BS. Here's my secret:

Some of my earliest sexual fantasies involved "The Golden Girls." Although my primary target of lust was Betty White, I had plenty of drool for Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur. Estelle Getty didn't really do it for me. Too old.


Um. Wow, those crickets sure are loud tonight.

Can I trust you to keep this, y'know, just between us? Are we still friends? I know how totally screwed up this is, I do. It's wacky. Which is precisely why I can't just keep it pinned down in the butterfly album of my soul.


Now there's this thing. This thing between us. This sense that I've let go of too much, revealed too much of myself while you're there, covered and comfortable like Hugh Hefner in a bathrobe.

Maybe you can tell me a secret now. You know, so there's not this thing between us, this difference between the knowledge you hold over me and what I hold over you. Not that knowledge between trusted friends is a weapon, necessarily. It just... makes things weird. The best friendships are a see-saw where both sides carry equal weight. Sure, there's times when one friend is up and one is down, and then weight and gravity work to shift sides. But the best friendships could, when they wanted to, balance that see-saw perfectly. Like the scales of justice.

I'm not sure which is worse, being the friend who unleashes the heavy burden, or being the friend upon whom that burden is unleashed. My memories of times when I was on one side or the other still linger like barflies after last call, even from my childhood. In fact, it seems like most of these moments occurred between elementary school and college.

In the world of disclosures, confidants and friendships, someone always has to jump first. Worse, the very cautionary tale your mother gave you as a kid becomes the very thing you're supposed to do as a friend. If your friend jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge, do you jump in after him or her? In this case, yeah, you sorta should if you can.

"The Town Halo" is off A.C. Newman's most recent CD, The Slow Wonder. "Testimony" is from Robbie Robertson's (formerly of The Band) absolutely stellar self-titled 1987 CD that included a bevy of phenomenal guest musicians including Stewart Copeland, Peter Gabriel, and U2.

And I never actually had sexual fantasies about "The Golden Girls." Not that there's anything wrong with that. I was more just trying to make a point about the nature of confessions and friendship.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What I Learned At The Drug Testing Center

Lil' Troy--"Baller" (mp3)

So I was starting a post about what it was like to be in the drug-testing center yesterday (I need the test to teach in Korea this summer) and these students came in with their final project, which was a rap song about society. After that, I was done for. I just went with the rhythm of their song. What were my results? You figure it out!



Yo, I done been tested,
I been inspected,
My pee been resurrected,
And I ain't infected.

No crack, no blow,
No sugar cube, no Ecstasy!

And like Mandela
I'm avoidin' that cella
And I'm here to tell ya
I ain't no seller
No buyer neither
No Ropey-Dopey,
No Bear the Smokey,
No Midnight Tokey.

When I close that door,
They said, 'don't you flush,
'Don't you wash,
'Don't you touch
'Nuthin', touch nuthin'
'We waitin', we watchin',
'We listenin'
'To yo pissenin', pissenin', pissenin'

'Just bring that cup,
'We'll split it up,
'Half for the tube
'N half for the gov.'

Yeah, some bitch with gloves
Was holdin' my juice,
Making sure it's warm,
Not no substitute.

Then I pay my bills,
They say, '10 more'
'You want it overnight
'Stead of in-store'

Then they make me sweat,
Keep me up all night,
Wonderin' if I done wrong,
Or if I done right,
Or if I'm jus' unlucky
Or if they out ta get me.

Yo, I done been tested,
I been inspected,
My pee been resurrected,
And I ain't infected.

No crack, no blow,
No sugar cube, no Ecstasy!

And like Mandela
I'm avoidin' that cella
And I'm here to tell ya
I ain't no seller
No buyer neither
No Ropey-Dopey,
No Bear the Smokey,
No Midnight Tokey.

So if ya don't believe me
You can all jus' leave me.
Later, hater.

"Baller" became a major addition to my listening repertoire as a parting gift from Colby Rankin. Available at Itunes.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Gym Rats

Editorial Note A: Due to technical difficulties, and because a week to God is however the f*#k long God wants it to be, The First-Ever BOTG Jesus Week has been extended to eight days. Unless He tells me to stretch it to nine or ten.

Editorial Note B: By God, we'll get at least the last week's worth of music up and running very soon. Probably by Wednesday (tomorrow) night.

(sponsored by Yeungling)

Post #5: Gym Rats

Always Running Home - Paloalto (mp3)
Washed by the Water - Will Hoge (mp3)

I got a mix CD in the mail today from my good buddy Mark. It was the final product of an experiment which went far better -- and cost far more -- than either of us ever would have imagined.

Basically, he sent an email to 19 people in his email circle asking for songs that would perhaps inspire a little more gusto in his exercise routine. The "carrot" he dangled -- probably absent-mindedly, thinking only a couple of us would respond -- was that he would provide all participants with a CD of all his favorites. Mark ended up receiving almost 200 recommended songs, not including entire albums that got plugged by one person or another. I won't go into my theories on why Mark got so many responses, 'cuz all of them involve making fun of him for one reason or another.

What was certain, however, to all who know him was that Mark would obsess over this. He's meta-obsessive. He's never going to stalk Jodie Foster or anything, but his bulldog nature is unwavering, and once he's focused on something -- a person, a competition, a professional goal, a color of M&M -- he's going to bleed that passion dry and then keep squeezing.

Everyone also knew he'd follow through, not just on sending every CDs, but on using the songs for their original purpose -- to boost his obsessive exercising. Although he occasionally falls off the wagon, most of Mark's life has involved a heavy dose of physical exercise. Preferably in a form where he can push himself to an unreasonable zenith. Also preferably in a form where he can burrow into the weak psychology of others.

He's not a Gym Rat, but he is an Exercise Freak.

Exercise Freaks enjoy their rush even alone on an open road, on a basement weight bench, on a solitary mountain trail. Gym Rats require a very specific environment in order to feed their needs. They savor particular machines or benches. They feast off the social aspect, of people constantly buzzing around them, all of their endorphins and hormones bouncing off one another like radio waves. Exercise Freaks need nothing, need no one. Gym Rats need other Gym Rats.

I worry sometimes that, if I was stranded alone on an island, I would lose my religion. I wouldn't lose it all at once. It might even hang out for a while and keep me company, like Wilson the Volleyball. It would help keep me sane at times and even sustain me in those darker moments. I would eat dinner with it and want it by my side even if I gave up all hope.

But eventually, I fear I'd fall asleep and wake up only to discover that my religion had floated away while I slumbered, drifting well beyond my grasp, never to be retrieved.

Some of us, even those whose faith is carefully considered and deeply heartfelt, still need other living creatures around us to help keep that faith strong and reliable.

I'm more of a Jesus Rat than a Jesus Freak.

Will Hoge is a struggling but stubborn musician headquartered in Nashville. He is a touring rock madman who puts on one helluva live show. "Bible vs. Gun" is from his EP America. "Washed by the Water" was first performed at a Nashville concert to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina and was later included in his most recent album, Draw the Curtains.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Christian Music's Dead

(sponsored by Yeungling)

Post #4: Christian Music's Dead

Jorma Kaukonen--"I Am The Light Of This World" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris (with Ricky Skaggs)--"Green Pastures" (mp3)
Blind Faith--"Presence of the Lord" (mp3)

Bill Mallonee, in his song "Punk Rock's Dead," argues paradoxically that

Punk rock died the day
The first kid said,
'Punk ain't dead.'

He's right, of course. The moment you find yourself having to argue how vital something is, that's the moment you should probably realize it isn't. The same kind of reasoning applies to contemporary Christian music: the second the first A & R man got the idea of marketing musicians as Christians, the first time a music store created a CD section entitled "Christian," the whole genre was toast. It doesn't take a genius to see why. At that split second, it all became about the money.

I'm not naive enough not to realize that all music is about money. Whether it is something Mozart wrote because it was commissioned by royalty or whether the hat gets passed in a Mississippi juke joint on behalf of the blues singer, music is commerce. But when you put the Christian label on the music and use God and Jesus the way Cadillac uses that sexy, but annoying, woman from Grey's Anatomy, you've stepped into holy doo-doo, in my book.

In 1974, I went with a friend to see Seals and Crofts (he had free tickets, I swear!). After the show, they invited members of the audience who wanted to stay around to hear about the the Bahá’í Faith. I think we stayed for a little while, but that isn't the point. We didn't go to the concert for religion; we went for "Hummingbird" and "Summer Breeze." Contrast this approach with going to a Christian concert to hear Christian bands play Christian music.

If Emily Dickinson is right that "[t]he soul selects her own society," then Contemporary Christian music overrides that kind of free will. I think that Billy is right that this kind of music isn't going to convert anyone. Instead, what it says is that if you are a Christian, this is the kind of music you should be listening to. It turns faith into a brand name so that it will be accessible for the masses. And just like when you order a Happy Meal at McDonalds and you also get Ronald McDonald, the golden arches, and the free movie tie-in toy, so too when you choose Contemporary Christian music, you also get the "traditional family values"agenda that goes with it--"Um, I'll have the Michael W. Smith Special; could I get that with a side of intolerance toward other religions, a double order of anti-gay inuendo, and an 'I Support The War' travel mug?"

But since this is mostly about the music, let's look at the real dark side of the Christian genre. They decided that the best way to sell Christian music was to try to make it sound as much like mainstream pop and rock music as possible. Ponder for a moment what a satanic bastardization of logic and musical styles this truly is. One of the strongest foundations of our traditional, national genres of music--folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rockabilly, rock and roll--is the gospel and spiritual tradition. You can hear the elements of gospel in everything from Elvis to U2. But you aren't likely to hear it in today's popular music, which relies on a blandness of vocal, instrumentation, and technology that has little connection with those traditions. So now you Christian marketeers are going to borrow the most obvious cliches from popular music so that young (and old) listeners will be lured to "godly" music with familiar pap? It's no wonder that no Contemporary Christian song has emerged as a classic, mentioned on lists of the greatest modern songs, or that very few have crossed-over to mainstream radio. Though as bad as that is these days, I like their chances.

I offer, in contrast, three songs by reasonably well-known artists (if you don't know Jorma Kaukonen, he played in the Jefferson Airplane) that are all Christian songs. Kaukonen came to "I Am The Light of This World" by way of his studies with fingerpicking master Rev. Gary Davis. When you hear it, you'll discover how the beautiful complexities of the music complement the lyrics. Emmylou Harris' version of "Green Pastures" is the definitive one for me, probably because Ricky Skaggs' harmonies take it even higher. At the time she recorded it, it was perfectly normal to include a beloved traditional or gospel song on a regular country album. Blind Faith's "Presence Of The Lord" comes in between Eric Clapton's Cream and Derek and the Dominoes years. In addition to Stevie Winwood's stunning vocal, I'm sure that if Jesus played the guitar and wanted to show us other worlds, he would have a wah-wah pedal as Eric does here.

I love Christian music, but I guess I never thought it had to announce itself as such so commercially.

All of these songs are available from Itunes on, respectively, Quah, Roses In The Snow, and Blind Faith. If our music server recovers, I hope you can sample them here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Great Disconnect In The Sky

(sponsored by Yeungling)

Post #3: The Great Disconnect In The Sky

The Reivers--"He Will Settle It" (mp3)
Warren Zevon--"The Indifference of Heaven" (mp3)

One day a week or so ago, my wife and I were driving downtown to a restaurant when I said, kind of out of the blue, "Do you think that everyone is just practicing various levels of self-deception about God?"

It was a slow day on the radio, I guess.

She agreed with me. We kept driving, both trying to figure out in our own minds what I'd just said. Don't worry; this is not going to be an argument in favor of atheism or agnosticism or nihilism or the Yellow Deli. It's just a public wondering about how we interpret a higher power.

Here's what I think: there is a great disconnect about what happens up there in the sky or at least in that place where it's most convenient to look when we want to ponder things greater than ourselves. It all depends on whether you are inside of a situation looking out or outside of it looking in. F. Scott Fitzgerald first talked about "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," and it is this schism that we daily struggle with. Because, let's face it, our two basic views of God, or at least mine, do not reconcile, even in the slightest way.

FIRST VIEW: If you have a loved one in grave circumstances, say, in the hospital, then you are likely to see, or at least to wish for, God's presence and oversight in every yawn, every blink, every shift of a muscle. You talk to God, at least in your head. More likely, you beg and plead for anything, even the slightest improvement. You believe that God can and may or even will act. Even something as obvious and predictable as a rally after a powerful dose of antibiotics is ignored in favor of the power of prayer.

SECOND VIEW: If, however, you are not emotionally engaged, then on some level, you know that this is a silly, even dangerous, kind of understanding of God. You start with why a single swing, a lucky punch, puts a young man in a life-threatening situation. From there, you reject the oft-heard notion that this is somehow part of a divine plan that we mortals are not blessed to understand. Then you intuit that the God you think you know would never do any such thing, would not allow the random to rule more powerfully than his will. Furthermore, you know that He would not tease or dabble in a family's pain and upheaval. And then you conclude that God is not involved or even that whatever higher power there is doesn't have that role or ability.

I have certainly been on both sides of this one. When Robin was near death after a misdiagnosed appendectomy, you can bet I was talking in my head and praying, and even the note from Moms in Touch, a group I might have made fun of, was one of the most comforting messages I received. At the same time, I agree with Robin when she talks about her social work years with child sexual abuse cases and how no god could ever have a glorious plan that involved the kinds of things that were done to those children.

Musically, I suffer from the same dichotomy. Ever since John Lambert first introduced me to the Reivers' song "He Will Settle It," it has remained for me one of the most spiritual pieces of music I've ever heard. And, I've continued to make the assumption that the "He" in the title was a reference to God or Jesus, but there's no concrete evidence, just three verses of various kinds of despair and struggle and getting by, then the resolution of the refrain: "But I know, [H]e will settle it."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Zevon's "Indifference of Heaven" seems equally appropriate to our condition most of the time:

Gentle rain
Falls on me
All life folds back
Into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of heaven

When things go badly, as they always do eventually (though in the song, Zevon ramps up the pathos even more to create some grim humor), it's hard not to think that whatever force is there that guides us is benign at best. At best.

And so, yes, I conclude, that we typically add our conceptions of God to our many other daily self-deceptions and that this is what we need to do, have to do, want to do, suffer from, take comfort in, and otherwise juggle with all of the other balls we have in the air. Which conception is the more deceiving? I haven't made that choice yet. I expect I'll try to keep both up there at the same time.

The Reiver's "He Will Settle It" comes from a mix cd known only in our family as "John's Greatest Mix." Perhaps he can tell you which CD it originally came from, but it is now out-of-print. Warren Zevon's "The Indifference of Heaven" comes from his concert of 1/12/96.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Praise & Worship THIS!

(Sponsored by Yuengling!)

Post #2: Praise & Worship THIS!

Too Far Out - John Davis (mp3)
Undo Me - Jennifer Knapp (mp3)
The Pilgrim Song - Josh Bales (mp3)

There's this guy sitting at his computer with playing random stuff through his speakers. A Newsboys song comes on, and instead of skipping to the next one, he listens. He's never gone to church. Wouldn't know Jesus from Shinola. But he listens. And something about the words and the music, they move him. A seed has been planted. This dude will become a Christian.

I'm sure the above or something like it has happened. But then, I'm pretty sure people have spontaneously combusted. Neither are events I expect to witness in reality.

I was in this cheesy church children's musical recently, and the woman who directed it offered the "Break a Leg" prayer for us before we went out there. "Dear Lord, if there's someone in the audience who's never heard of You, may we be the vessel for You to reach them...."

This isn't a unique prayer. It's muttered a lot before church events. And I'm, like, scratching my head, wondering when the last time a purebred Heathen stumbled into our Gothic religious monstrosities without the slightest clue about Jesus. It's not like you could accidentally mistake most churches -- even the newfangled warehouse-lookin' ones -- for a Wal-Mart or a carpet store.

That's how I feel about Christian music. It's not made to seek lost souls. It's comfort food for Christians. Anyone who sees it differently might as well expect another Spinal Tap drummer to spontaneously combust.

In spite of that, once every year or so, I'll dive in and buy an album by an artist whose work is expressly Christian. Musical Tithing, maybe. Like much of my Christian existence, I tend to keep this act to myself. I don't generally go bragging about it or asking my fellow music lovers, "Hey, have you heard that new MercyMe album? It totally kicks Christian ass." ("It really kicks Cross"?)

I'm more apt to discuss my admiration for Hanson than I am for Christian music. Where's the kitschy fun in Christian tunes? That kind of fun left once Stryper and DeGarmo & Key fell into obsolescence (which was, to be fair, roughly 30 minutes before they finalized their first albums). D&G's funniest/best/worst song was "Boycott Hell." Dude, I listened to that thing allll the time. It was the Deathstalker II of Christian music. I couldn't tell if they were serious or making fun of their own genre.

Amy Grant's rise to crossover recognition -- with plenty of help from U2 -- made it so Christian music in the 21st Century really isn't very different in instrumental quality and composition than all that good Satanic stuff.

Sure, the lyrics still frequently struggle. But that's only 'cuz Christian Rock is limited to coloring in the lines, while Satan Rock can go anywhere, say anything. John Davis' "Too Far Out," which musically could have come straight off a rollicking Superdrag album, still struggles with a chorus of "Thank you Jesus. Abba, Father. All things are possible with you."

I specifically chose the first two songs because they are in-your-face Yay Jesus songs. The final song I chose because I play this song many times over everytime someone I know dies, and I'd love to know it was played one day at my own funeral. I don't know a single song that has evoked more private tears from me, driving down the road in the strange privacy of my car, than this one has.

This isn't my Secret Sinister Plot to convert anyone. Not sure I could listen to lots of Yay Jesus music if it merely reminded me how I was going to Heaven while the rest of you bastards were headed on that Great Downward Spiral with Trent Reznor. Fortunately for me, I'm pretty confident we're all going to the same place. Christian music merely reminds me of a destination for which we're all bound. Whether you like it or not, dammit.

Nevertheless, if you ain't Christian, I don't see you downloading those first two songs and hitting Repeat until Jesus returns. It's just decent comfort food for us mostly-obedient sheep.


"Too Far Out" is from John Davis' eponymous solo CD and could in theory be purchased in CD format on Amazon. "Undo Me" is from Jennifer Knapp's first CD, Kansas, available on iTunes. Josh Bales' albums can be purchased via iTunes.