Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I Love Young People

Thom Yorke--"After The Goldrush (live)" (mp3)
Cracker--"Teen Angst" (mp3)

Teaching in a well-to-do, mostly white private boys' school, as I have done for the past 25 years, I have long since stopped doing battle with my students over politics. Many of us, when we were younger, found ourselves in do-or-die philosophical wars with our students over all things political. But there was a price to be paid for that; after all, we were not teaching political science. We were teaching English. And if you want your boys to stick with you through a hard text, you're going to have to put some things aside. That was an epiphany that took awhile.

For the longest time, we refused to acknowledge that our students were more conservative than we were and would continue to be so.

It seemed to go against the order of the universe. But the universe changes.

I'm glad.

This time around, I can't claim that my students have seen the light, have come over to my side of things, have cast off their parents' wealth-and-religion based conservatism to embrace the promise that is Obama (although I have noticed more students in the Democratic ranks than ever before). No, some have come back from the summer having volunteered for the McCain campaign, and many of them still hiss when the Young Democrats announce their meetings during clubs period.

That doesn't matter to me. One reason I love the neverending stream of 18-and-under boys who populate this school is because they show me that things have changed far beyond what this country understands yet.

Case in point: it doesn't cross most of my seniors' minds that anyone would let race determine who they would vote for in a presidential election. Maybe that isn't quite right. They will talk about the "old racists" and what the "old racists" will do or say, but they talk as if those people, though still living, represent the values of another time. And they don't hold those older people in judgement either; there's more likely kind of a shoulder shrug or matter-of-fact restatement of those beliefs.

I'm not naive enough to ignore the haters out there or the under-their-breath mutterers, but most of the students I teach have the hubris, perhaps justified, to want to challenge the economic policies of a candidate who wants health care for everyone; they're not interested in discussions of race.

Maybe we've beaten it out of them: too many years of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, Native Son, The Color Purple, and the like. That is a possibility, because they aren't going to embrace a novel for its race any more than they are going to reject a candidate for his. They're like, 'Okay, I get it. Racism was bad. Please stop beating that message to death. We'd rather talk about whether or not individual suffering serves the greater good.'

My students have told me more than once, in more than one way, that the racial issues that I want to bring up don't matter to them. We forget, I think, that they've always lived in a world where if the black quarterback is better than the white one, then, of course, he should be the one who starts. We want to win, don't we? Apply the same thinking to any situation. And, for the same reason, they'd be upset if we went to them and said, 'We haven't ever started a black quarterback, so we need to start one now.' It would make no sense to them at all.

So we look at the upcoming election as being one of groundbreaking, historic proportions, a victory after years of struggle, a mandate for America. What do our students think? Maybe a little of that. They're certainly aware of it. But, more likely, they're thinking that if Obama wins, it will be because he ran the more effective campaign, and if he loses, it will be because he didn't. Sure, he faces obstacles, some of them unfair, some of them unethical, but so does any candidate, and it's his obligation to figure those out and to outmaneuver his opponent. That's the only way to win, isn't it? No one ever said it was going to be fair.

Thom Yorke's live performance of Neil Young's "After The Goldrush" took place at Young's Bridge Concerts. The well-known Cracker tune is available at Itunes.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ah, Those Little Instrumentals

A quick little post to test a new file-storage site. Enjoy.

Lloyd Cole--"Backwoods" (mp3)
Carlene Carter--"First Kiss" (mp3)
Leo Kottke--"Sailor's Grave on the Prairie" (mp3)
Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane (featuring Eric Clapton)--"Rough Mix" (mp3)
Buckingham Nicks--"Stephanie" (mp3)

I have written before about my love of very short songs, and, indeed, it did lead to a sharing of some of the great offerings of the genre from various readers/listeners. This, I guess, is kind of a subset of that.

I have another favorite: the instrumental tracks that appear on people's albums and cd's from time to time. There is a temptation to dismiss these as half-finished ideas or afterthoughts, but as someone who fiddles around on various stringed instruments myself, I can vouch for the fact that some pieces of music simply don't seem to lend themselves either to words or to excessive repetition of the verse/chorus pattern.

What to do with these little gems? I love them on mix cds, either as a quick intro at the start before a real rocker or as a breather between songs in the middle. They also can go a long way towards creating a tone shift.

Of course, including Leo Kottke in this mix is a bit disingenuous since so much of his music is instrumental, but some of the best choices come from his catalogue.

Check these out. Even without words (though you can hear Carlene Carter shouting exuberantly in hers), these instrumentals have memorable melodies and staying power. Who knows? You might come to like them well enough in their own right that you'll find yourself spinning through your Ipod looking for the pretty little Lloyd Cole thing, what was the name of that? What are your favorite instrumentals?

Lloyd Coles' instrumental can be found on Etc., Carlene Carter's on Little Love Letters, Leo Kottke's on 6 and 12 String Guitars, Pete and Ronnie's on Rough Mix, all available at Itunes. . Buckingham Nicks is out-of-print.

Friday, August 29, 2008

We Had Joy, We Had Fun, We Had Seasons In The Sun

Norman Blake--"Northern Winds" (mp3)
The Broken Family Band--"Diamonds In The Mind" (mp3)

I know I'm a bit obsessed with seasons and passages these days, but I think fall has lost its starting point. Heat and drought makes things in nature happen when they aren't supposed to, and so things are cranking up and winding down in the ground around here in some crazy ways.

Similarly, in the human world, things are ending and beginning in crazy ways. Fall can be the best time of year for sports, music, and weekend mornings, but there's still a summer hangover to be dealt with.

Here's what I'm trying to process right now:

My child is gone to college; I got misty-eyed during the rerun of Apollo 13 last night, when they made it through the atmosphere, when I knew they were going to make it through the atmosphere.

We're two weeks into school and we're about to get a day off. After the summer in Korea, my students here seem unfocused and uninspired.

College football starts tonight on a Thursday, while Barack Obama will be giving his acceptance speech in a football stadium.

I'm just now starting to get interested in grilling out; I want to do some full-throttle tailgating somewhere, even though I don't have a game to go to.

Jason Kidd has given his Olympic medal to the wife of a casino owner.

Hurricanes are threatening in the Gulf and, always, in the back of my mind, I'm feeling that "New Orleans dread" that I thought I had put away.

Leaves are falling like crazy off my neighbor's tree. I wish he'd get his rake out. Ha! But the days and nights are hot.

My grass, after leftover tropical storm rains, looks better than it has all summer, as do the roses, plants, herbs, and vegetables.

I want to put an Obama sign in my yard, but everytime I've ever put a sign in my yard, the candidate has lost the election.

In spite of how dead my grass gets by the end of July, last year, I still had to cut it into November.

I'm feeling letdown from all the time spent not watching the Olympics.

I'm anticipating my soon-to-come letdown from not watching the Democratic Convention.

The tension between trying to savor the last season of The Wire while desperately wanting to know what happens makes it hard to start each successive episode.

The straight-ahead Christian-revivalish rock of "Diamonds In The Mine" comes from the Broken Family Band cd, Balls. Oddly, Norman Blake's little diamond, "Northern Winds" is hidden in the middle of Steve Earle's post-heroin comeback cd, Train A Comin'. Both are at Itunes.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Drinking and The Deadwood Effect

Party Pit - The Hold Steady (mp3)
Drinkin' Problem - Lori McKenna (mp3)

How many people you think the people he talked to have talked to by now? I guarantee at this minute my whole fucking action downstairs is fucked up, and nobody's drinking and nobody's gambling and nobody's chasing tail. I've got to deal with that. -- Al Swearengen, Deadwood

Gotta hand it to the Amethyst Initiative.

Once again, an "elite" and "educated" and "intelligent" people have coagulated into one collective and made some wildly insane suggestion to an American public that prefers to remain "unelite," "uneducated" and "unintelligent." In other words, we're sure you've got your high-fallootin' reasons for coming up with this idea, but you're too snooty and smart, and we don't heed advice from geeks.

What's the Amethyst Initiative, you ask, other than a kick-ass name for a fantasy football team? It's a group of college and university presidents and chancellors who have united to propose lowering the legal drinking age back to 18.

These are people who are forced to spend a much larger percentage of their time contemplating the risks and dangers of alcohol use in young adults. And these discussions, these experiences, have them inclined to believe 18 is the right age. Is it because they're sick of policing the problem? Is it because it's a law that is so proudly and constantly broken that it encourages kids to have less respect for the law? Do they hope to remove some of they worshipful myth of alcohol? (Actually, they do a pretty good job of answering this on their site. You should go read it.)

One common thread with journalistic reports is to compare how the United States handles a societal ill compared to other civilized countries, as can be viewed in this CNN "iReporter" article. It's a natural thing to do, to compare apples to apples and ruminate on why one orchard deals with a problem better than another.

Why is it that Australia, a country not exactly founded under the most impressive of purposes, handles its liquor better than we do? How can the UK with its millions of pubs be that much more responsible than we are? How in the name of all that's holy can anyone claim that Russia handles its vodka more responsibly?

Yet, strangely enough, none of these countries have the same per capita deaths of younger adults due to alcohol-related issues.

Although I'm completely in favor of lowering the drinking age to at least allow 19 and up to drink (maybe 18 if you're drinking on a college campus and have a college ID or something), I'm not really sure even 20 years of such a law would tame our Girls Gone Wild, beer bonging, upside down melonball culture.

I believe this because of Deadwood.

Granted, Deadwood is only slightly more historically accurate than The Amityville Horror or Macbeth, but as in all great creative works of art inspired by reality, this great HBO show reveals deeper, harsher truths about our country.

Ours is a wild land. We're a wild people. In some ways, we white-ass pilgrims brought civilization to the untamed expanse. But in others, the untamed expanse made us wild. Don't mess with Texas. Don't tread on me. Outta my cold dead hands. Shoot first, ask questions later. We love our tough talk, and we love our tough leaders.

Even me, the wussified, girly-man who prefers loving to fighting and negotiation to nukular aggression, found myself loving outlaw cutthroat businessman Al Swearengen more and more with each season of the show. In season one, I rooted fully for Seth Bullock, the lawman with a slight anger management problem, and feared, nay loathed, Swearengen. But the farther along the series goes, the more you realize Swearengen (as depicted in the show) isn't amoral or even completely unethical. He's brilliant, and he has adapted his own laws and priorities to the wild and untamed civilization in which he lives.

We don't particularly like laws or rules, kings or dictators. We like things the way we like 'em, and screw you if you wanna try to tame us or confine us.

When your entire country is born under such conditions, how can we expect to be anything less than what we are: gun-totin', whisky-swiggin', 2-minute sex with multiple partner-havin', flag-wavin' yahoos.

Legalizing alcohol or lowering the age limit won't curb the binge drinking. Not much, anyway. Legalizing drugs won't decrease drug use, although it might make the underworld a little less violent. Taking away guns probably won't keep us from shooting a whole heap o' people every year.

We is what we is, methinks.

"Party Pit" is from The Hold Steady's album Boys and Girls in America. "Drinkin' Problem" is from Lori McKenna's album Unglamorous. Both are available at iTunes and's mp3 sites and should be purchased forthwith if'n you c*#ksuckers know what's good for ya.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Children Have To Grow Up (I Guess)

American Music Club--"Another Morning (with Kathleen)" (mp3)
Emily Haines--"Expecting To Fly" (mp3)

If you want a real kick in the crotch (I'm being gender inclusive here), try sending your first child off to college for the second year.

Oh, the first year is all right. Terrible, but all right. You have the excitement of your child making her big move off to college. The whole family mobilizes for the experience--running around the house gathering everything you think she might need, cramming the car so full that you can't see out the back window for the trip to college. You push her towards independence, counsel her about money, offer her wise advice about drinking and sororities, while at the same time, you want to get to know her college and her friends who go there and their parents.

The college welcomes you and helps to smooth the transition. When you return home, your grief is tight and focused. You live for breaks and trips up to college and you throw yourself into other things. You have other children at home and you cling to their lives and activities, as their leaving for college is comfortably in the distance. Come Parents' Weekend, you encounter other parents who don't seem nearly as torn up that their daughter (or son) isn't home and you give yourself a reality check of sorts. Briefly.

But when she returns home after that first year, you are presented first with the Great Deception, and then with the Great Realization. First, the Great Deception. Most colleges get out pretty early and stay pretty late. You trick yourself into believing that your child has come home for good. It's easy. She has nearly 4 months at home, reassumes ownership of an automobile, tells you when she's going downtown to meet her friends. You talk to her four or five times a day on the phone. In short, she settles back in.

More than ever, she is mature and helpful. She wants to do things with her family--movies, meals, trips, shopping, parties. She works, but is available when the contractor needs someone at home so that he can schedule his workers. As you do the modern family rat race, you suddenly have another driver, another greeter, another hostess, another voice on the phone, another responsible adult. It can't last.

And as the summer comes to an end, you confront the Great Realization. Your child is leaving again, she has one less year of coming home, and soon she will be gone for good. Freshman year creates the comfortable illusion that college will last a long time; sophomore year points you (and her) towards the finish line. All of a sudden, people start asking about majors, you start pondering the semester abroad, her summer job in your city will no longer quite good enough (an internship in a large city or exotic locale would be far more impressive!)

And worst of all, in three more years (maybe 5, if grad school is in the picture), you will not want her to come home. Of course, you'd be glad to have her, but coming home means failure, means diminished job prospects, means people you know will wonder why your child isn't out on her own, means the four or more years of college somehow didn't quite do what they were supposed to.

But those aren't the real issues. The real issues are more obvious, and they all center around the idea that the child that you never wanted, on some level, to grow up has done so. On to the next stage of life.

American Music Club's "Another Morning" is available at Itunes; Emily Haines is also there, but her version of Neil Young's "Expecting To Fly" is not.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Best Music is Packaged - A Rebuttal

A response to Bob's previous post

Thunder Road (live) - Bruce Springsteen (mp3)
Talent Show - The Replacements (mp3)

Give me recorded music over concerts anytime. But first, I must digress.

Before I saw him perform at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill in 1993, I was hardly a fan of Bruce Springsteen. Before Courtney Cox hopped up on stage with him in 1984 whilst I witnessed the event from my living room watching MTV, I didn't know Bruce from Adam.

I was 12, fer' Chrissakes. I still thought "Hello" by Lionel Richie was a kickass song. (Lionel's first two solo albums were amongst the first dozen I ever purchased.) I was too naive to even appreciate the disturbing stalker professor nature of the song.

Born in the USA became the first in a string of Springsteen album purchases for one of my best friends, and as all good friends should, I worked hard at liking that huge LIVE 1975-85 box set he got for Christmas, even though that song "War" and the video of it really just scared me.

As a sophomore, I finally began to buy into his brilliance when a hallmate forced me to sit down and listen all the way through "Thunder Road" three times. This was while a keg party raged all around us, but John swore my lack of appreciation for the song was much more important than any girl. By the third time, I knew he was right.

A year later, Bruce had released both Better Days and Lucky Town to an array of opinion, but I was a nascent fan, so he could do no wrong. A girl I pined over for two years mentioned he was coming to town, so we camped out together and got second row upper level seats. Hell, just getting to be in line with her was worth the money. We were going on a date! I thought!

I have told many friends about this particular concert. It was, simply put, the single most impressive concert experience I've ever had. Springsteen played for right at three hours (maybe 2:45 if you take away the breaks between two encores), all the while my date-slash-friend held a lengthy and flirty conversation with the two Army dudes from Fort Bragg sitting behind us. But even her betrayal wasn't enough to take my attention away from Bruuuuce, whose joy for performing has been plenty well-documented.

He sang "Thunder Road" the way he performs it on the MTV Concert album, the way some dude who was older in the tooth would sing it, all the while crying for and laughing at the young twenty-something who wrote the song in the first place. That song is so freakin' amazing that it's stunning at any speed, even with the inestimable Roy Bittan laying down some mood-altering organ instead of pounding on that wonderful piano. "Light of Day" was so transcendent that I to this day can even listen to the Joan Jett/Michael J. Fox version and still adore it.

The whole damn concert was an emotional injection of musical adoration. It made you love music more to see these veterans up there having the time of their lives performing songs they'd played thousands upon thousands of times before.

But then came the part that made the experience truly unique.

The lights went up. The roadies came out and started breaking down the stage. The crowd thinned out, but I was stuck with my date -- except now she was clearly just my friend, because she was still talking to this one Army dude while his friend and I exchanged frequently uncomfortable looks.

And then we heard some girls squealing. And we heard applause. And we saw the remaining ants on the floor below us rushing toward the stage, or what was left of it. Our eyes went to that area, where we witnessed The Boss and his E. Street Band taking off the roadie coveralls. They had merely sized the stage down for a more intimate set to be played only for the true fans who refused to leave and the goobers whose attempts at romance backfired.

We all ran down to the floor and enjoyed what, if memory serves, was another six-song set. They played long enough that word had spread to the exiting masses, several more thousand of whom came rushing back, packing the floor. (And this was before cell phones and text messages!)

The concert had converted me to a fan. That final encore made me a believer.

Of the many amazing concerts I've seen, The Boss @ the Dean Dome tops them all.

But if I had to choose between my memory of that experience or my ability to listen to any of my Bruce songs anytime I want to, I'd take the albums every time, and I wouldn't even have to think twice.

The reasons are simple:
  1. Simple math, really. In 1991, I saw the Zoo Station concert in Atlanta, 10 rows from the floor, for $35. Or, in album math, roughly the price of three albums. If I wanted to see anyone who has ever sold more than 500,000 albums in their career in 2008, I'd have to fork over at least six or seven albums' worth of cash. The concerts haven't gotten twice as good. If they were only worth three albums in 1991, then they ain't worth a penny more today.  
  2. I've never had some fucking moron scream out "FREEBIRD!!!" while I'm listening to my iPod.
  3. On my iPod, no jerk next to me sings so loud I can't hear the Bono or Patty or Geddy, and I can sing along as loudly as I want without someone else thinking of me as that same jerk.
  4. No one holds up fucking lighters every time they hear a cheesy ballad on my iPod.
  5. Without the recorded music, nine times out of ten I wouldn't go to the concert. The egg really does precede the chicken more often than not for concert-goers.
  6. Finally, and most importantly, for every Great Concert Moment in my life, there are 20 times when I was stranded on an emotional island in my room, or in my car, or somewhere else, and I heard a song, and my isolation was gone. Or I was overwhelmed with love, and I heard a song, and it me to an altogether even higher place of joy. Or I was sad but had held back my tears until I could be alone, and a song put its hand on my shoulder and let me lean into the nape of its neck to lose myself in a healing cry. As amazing as music can be in bringing people together, it's even more valuable to me when I'm alone with it.
 If all concerts were like Bruce's in Chapel Hill... it would at least be a harder decision.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

'"Live Music is Better" Bumper Stickers Should Be Issued'*

*quoted from the Neil Young song "Union Man" off Hawks and Doves.

John Hiatt--"Have A Litte Faith In Me (live)" (mp3)
Richard Thompson--"Don't Renege On Our Love (live)" (mp3)

Got to see Robben Ford last night downtown. Never bought one of his cd's; haven't ever really even heard him, except on other people's stuff. He's the guitarist backing up Joni Mitchell on her classic live cd Miles of Aisles. He's even played with Miles (Davis). He duels with Stevie Ray while backing Jennifer Warnes on her cover of Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan."

But I'm not necessarily here to talk about Robben Ford. Great show, though, Robben. Guitar, bass, drums, my favorite of all band line-ups. Inspired soloing. Fresh-sounding songs with chord changes that would make Stevie Wonder proud. And unlike several other gunslingers I know, Ford a) can actually sing and b) interacts with his band. One of the things that bugs me about the late, great Roy Buchanan is that the band behind him lays down the most basic rhythm they can because they know he is the show. Ford gives the other two players their own space and spotlight. I knew I was in the presence of one of the better guitarists on the planet. Melodic, too.


I hate to break the news to you youngsters out there, but the older you get, the harder it is to rev it up for a live show. Anytime you think you might want to see someone live, there are a thousand reasons waiting to talk you out of it--kids, weariness, responsible behavior, money, parking, convenience, what to wear, how to drink beer and drive home, inertia, etc. The most overwhelming reason of all is simply that you're older.

Live music is a necessity of youth and a luxury of wealth. As the years have accumulated, I've gotten to see most of the "big names" that I wanted to see live (Tom Petty is a notable exception), and now if they're still big and still out there, I'm no longer willing or able to pay the ticket price for a big name rock show. When the Eagles busted out their "Hell Freezes Over" tour, and may they rot in hell for doing so, they jacked the price of concert tickets to a level from which prices have never recovered and never will. It's like gas; they know people will pay, so why lower prices?

So when I go now, I go for smaller bands that are still good--Son Volt and Gillian Welch are recent ones I've seen for low prices. Incredible shows, both. A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a free show starring Michelle Shocked and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. As you get older, you have to want to make the effort.

But everytime I do make the effort, it reminds me how worthy it is to go see live music. Aside from the obvious family pleasures of children and intimacy, it is difficult to even come up with the short list that compares with live music. A great meal, maybe. A noble deed, perhaps. A party with friends. A sporting event, if the weight or outcome matters. Not a movie. Not a book. Not a beer.

I know this: I'm more alive when I'm standing in the audience in front of a band or a singer, maybe the speakers are a little too loud, maybe even (see warning from earlier guest post) I'm drinking a Michelob Ultra in public, maybe there's a light rain. Who cares? And it's these smaller shows that feel more authentic to me now. Maybe I'm just becoming a cheapskate.

As we stood by the left speaker the other night, peering between the wall and the front column at Robben Ford working the entire fretboard, a former student reminded me how much Chattanooga's music scene sucks. I nodded, but then recalled that since January, without a whole lot of effort or money, I've seen Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffin, Buddy Miller, Shawn Colvin, Robert Plant, Allison Kraus, Michelle Shocked, and Robben Ford. I can't speak for Chattanooga, but as a live concertgoer, I'm not doing too badly.

Richard Thompson's live track comes from off the grid. John Hiatt's comes from Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan, available at Itunes. Both artists have appeared at Chattanooga's Nightfall.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

She Once Was A True Love Of Mine

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash--"Girl From The North Country" (mp3)
Pete Townshend--"North Country Girl" (mp3)
Pete Townshend--"North Country Girl (live)" (mp3)
Sam Bush--"Girl Of The North Country (live)" (mp3)
Roy Harper--"North Country" (mp3)

There are those songs that get into your soul. This is one of them.

I first heard the song, as most of us probably did, as a duet between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline:

If you're travelin' to the North country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine.

The next time I heard it, I was playing it, at a "faculty jam" in the '80's, with my friend Steve, playing Cash to my Dylan. The duet versions are interesting, because by the end of the song, the men seem to be competing for the favors of this much-remembered woman.

The narrative presents an interesting set-up, which many traditionals songs use. The speaker, a man asks, presumably, another male traveler to look in on this girl that he used to love. Though the speaker making the request is wistful and still clearly has feelings for the girl, there is no attempt in his request to try to reestablish contact with the girl.

Instead, he seems worried about the preservation of her beauty, as well as her health and safety. It's as if he both wants to know and doesn't want to know if she is still the girl of his memory.

Which, of course, she is not. How could she? Time has passed. And, given the transient nature of the narrative, it seems equally unlikely that the speaker and the traveler will ever reconnect again either.

When I heard the song again, Pete Townshend was weighing in, both on a solo album and on a live album, with an update to the story:

Please let me know if she remembers me at all,
A hundred times I've hoped and prayed
That way up there near the Roman wall
She didn't suffer when the fall-out sprayed.

This post-apocalyptic rewrite doesn't really work too well for me, but the power of the song, I think, almost overcomes both the illogic of the verse (she can't remember too much if she died in a nuclear aftermath) and the 80's keyboards.

Then, a few years ago, Sam Bush, the great bluegrass mandolinist, took me back to the more traditional setting with his live version from Telluride. His is a powerful version, driven by Jerry Douglas' superb dobro-playing and the insertion of rising and falling passing chords that add musical drama both before and duirng the verses.

Finally, last year, by accident, I got probably as close as I'm likely to get to the original source when I came across a version by British folksinger Bert Jansch. His version, by far the most understated of all, nevertheless, captures the sense of loss that pervades the song as well as any version.

Though "she was once a true love of" the narrator, there is a resignation that he can't go back to her. And that's why the song gets into your soul.
The Dylan/Cash, Townshend, and Bush versions of the song are all available at Itunes. If interested, you can also get versions by the likes of Joe Cocker, Bruce Hornsby, Rod Stewart, John Gorka, the Eels, and John Waite, among others.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ethics Schmethics in a Charlie Brown World

Beckon - I Nine (mp3)
Scared, Are You? - Better Than Ezra (mp3)
NOTE: (8/20 - 2:20 p.m.) is back up. For the moment. Enjoy the songs while they last!

With the return of hundreds of adolescent males into our daily existence inevitably comes the reminder that this time in their lives is chock full of absolutes and absolute uncertainties. If there's two things teenage boys know for certain, it's (a) they have no doubts about some stuff, and (b) they are totally clueless about other stuff. Often they don't even know which things fit into (a) and which fit into (b) until decades later, but they'll rarely admit it.

Teenage boys love breaking rules and dancing on the edge of the cliff, but apparently they also insist that the edge of that cliff be defined and clear. They push limits by their nature, but to do so requires that they know what the limits are to begin with.

Two of the topics central to both of the summer reading books I proctored were how teenagers create and hone their own ethical framework, and the minimal sideline role adults tend to play in the crucial moments of a teen's life.

The Charlie Brown Factor

This observation is neither original nor uniquely named. It's merely observing that, in most young adult fiction and in most teen-centric movies, adults serve minimal purpose. They are the incompetent, clueless, comic relief. Or they are the overmatched and overconfident enemy. Or they are the helpless concerned observer unable to reach the drowning teens, doomed only to see them swallowed by the water.

If you need to meet any of these archetypes, rent any two John Hughes films, and you'll find them.

Adults like myself, who feels connected to students and their lives, who has dedicated a hefty portion of his life working to serve and direct them, don't particularly cotton to the notion that we are fringe players at best, comic foils at worst. What makes this all the more agonizing is how true it feels.

When I think back to my miserable teenage existence, adults were almost always limited to these roles. Not because I didn't respect them. Not because they weren't important to me. I listened to them. I craved their advice and presence. I dearly loved my parents and many of my teachers.

However, when I think of those crucial moments in my young life when the shit hit the fan or the rubber hit the road, it was almost requisite that I had no port -- no adult -- in the storm. In fact, perhaps because of my love and respect for so many adults, their absence was all the more essential for me to cut my teeth on life's hard knocks.

Adults were still vital, though, and I try and remember this in my current role. I relied on adults for advice. Sometimes the advice was prior to the tempest, and sometimes it was afterward. Sometimes it was during the calm amidst the storm. But just being able to go to them before or after made all of it seem more survivable. I also relied on them to nurse my wounds when I fucked up, or electrify the fence when I tried jumping over, or hug me when I felt so alone that the word alone seemed insultingly insufficient.

We can't be there for them in those life-altering moments of crisis. But we still have a part to play on their stage.

Ethics, Schmethics!

If as teenagers we must most often face our darkest moments without the lifesaver of adults we love by our side, we still manage to go into battle with our ethics as our shield. Some of us bring our faith as our sword. (Or our helmet, if you're not the aggressive type.)

Teens often go into the darkest battles without adults because adults tend to weigh down this armor. We older folk are often so concerned with protecting the perceived ethics of a situation that we neglect the human being trapped under that heavy ethical gear.

David went into battle with Goliath with no armor, no massive weapons. He went in without shield or sword or helmet. He had a strap of leather, and that's it. He picked up a nice-lookin' rock on the battlefield.

I'm inclined to believe that ethics make us the Goliath. Ethics weigh you down. They make it tough for you to breathe. You can't keep that shield up high enough to protect you. You can't swing that sword fast enough to hurt anyone. You can't see anything clearly with that damned helmet swallowing your skull.

Don't misunderstand. I'm all for ethics. But they weigh a ton, and the best ones make for better lovers than fighters. Working in a school that claims to value character education and ethical development, I've witnessed dozens upon dozens of boys whose ethical armor proved brittle and irreparable. What's more frustrating is that the fewer ethics tethering a boy down, the more he seems to get through adolescence unscathed. He tends to do the scathing. Sometimes to others, but eventually to himself.

I realize I've made David the bad guy in my crappy little metaphor, but the more I'm here, the more I see the kids I most loathe sliming their way through the system with smiles on their faces. They bring little of value to themselves into the battle and thus have less to lose, less to repair in their losses. They win because they bring nothing with them but a little strap of leather and a few rocks they can pick up on the way. They're guerrilla warriors who do whatever it takes.

As a teenager -- hell, even as an adult -- it's terribly difficult to hold onto your ethics when witnessing one battle after another where the dude with fewer or no self-regulated rules comes away bloodied but seemingly victorious. We're left repeating our little mantra and working to convince ourselves we believe it: It's not a sprint; it's a marathon. It's not a sprint; it's a marathon.

Often, if we can just survive those vicious blows and keep plugging away underneath all the heavy trappings of ethics, we can even take comfort that, eventually, our mantra proves true. If we manage to live that long.

"Beckon" is from I Nine's debut album, Heavy Weighs the King. "Scared, Are You?" is from Better Than Ezra's second album, Deluxe, Baby. The first is available only on iTunes, the latter on both iTunes and's mp3 site.

Other inspirations for this post: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman, and this article on

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Kirsty MacColl--"Last Day Of Summer" (mp3)
The Shaky Hands--"Summer's Life" (mp3)
Bob Dylan--"Summer Days" (mp3)

For us school types, at least at this school, the summer is officially over. It ended as it usually does, with a whimper, rather than a bang, with a series of small ("really, we only need you for a few minutes," "the meeting shouldn't last more than an hour," "you only have two hours in the morning and two hours at night; otherwise you're free") obligations and requirements that eat away at increasingly larger portions of the day until you find yourself where we are right now--with a full day of school under our belt.

But no one wants to give in without a fight, least of all me. I've come home, put my shorts, t-shirt, and sandals on, lit the mosquito coils on the deck, and planned an evening of watching it get darker even while it stays warm outside. I've watered the roses, looked at the new growth on the tomatoes and peppers and basil. The grass is as dead as it was yesterday, the bugs as plentiful. So I've taken my ukelele and gone to sit in the lingering heat, trying to find the right song for the twilight.

There will be many other attempts to preserve that summer feeling. The football team being away for three weeks will help--that's a chance to get to some Nightfalls on Friday nights. We will still have hot weekends where we won't have to think about school or "back to school" or any of that. The grass will grow again.

And then there's Labor Day. I don't know how I feel about the post-Labor Day start of school anymore. That's the way it was here way back when, and we've slowly crept backwards ever since, to where we're now two weeks early (it could be closer to three, but Labor Day is on the 1st this year). And now I guess I've adjusted to it.

But now it's hard to imagine a more bittersweet holiday, like we get a second end to the summer a couple of weeks from now. Still, you can bet between now and then I'll be out there grilling, playing music on the Bose, trying to keep the basil alive, and feeling the almost-imperceptible coolness creeping each night.

Kirsty MacColl, The Shaky Hands, and Bob Dylan are all available at Itunes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pop Culture Disappointments On a Galactic Scale

Indie Queen - Marvelous 3 (mp3)
Disappointed - Connells (mp3)

In this wild life of ours, those of us with an unhealthy love for certain portions of popular culture are destined to be disappointed on occasion. Even those, like myself, who are very careful and selective in our obsessions can frequently find ourselves disappointed in ways and to degrees we never imagined. In stupid pop culture stuff!

So here are just a handful of disappointments that went well beyond the acceptable level:


I recently spent three torturous nights getting through Richard Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko, a 2 1/2 hour epic film called Southland Tales. With an ensemble cast culled from every corner of the pop culture universe -- Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?? The short fat lady from Poltergeist?? Nora f*#kin' Dunn from SNL?? -- even someone as unschooled on the critical lambasting this film had received could sense that Kelly was flying towards the sun with mere wings of wax.

But Southland Tales is no run-of-the-mill failure. It takes the simple notion of box office failure, tacks on 45 minutes of head-scratching randomness, throws in a scar-faced Justin Timberlake, and comes out with something that makes Showgirls look downright Oscar-worthy. Let me put it another way. Timberlake might very well have been one of the best things about the movie.

Some critics gave it props for being "ambitious," whatever the hell that means, but last I checked, an ambitious turd is still a turd. Maybe it is to movies what Ulysses is to novels, which is to say shitty and incomprehensible but so full of geeky biographical and referential goodies that it finds a fan base sometime in the future.


I'm what truly obsessed Peter Gabriel fans would call a poser. Like most folks my age, I didn't discover the guy until he came out with So. But after discovering it, I went back and got a few of his previous albums and also loyally purchased his 1992 follow-up, Us. The album was thick with sound, and although it wasn't thickly morose, almost every song felt passionate, expressing some deep emotional baggage.

As I was in college in the early '90s, my technological distractions were minimal, so I could safely waste hours in my room listening to albums over and over, and this one got heavy replay. Except for the song "Steam," which felt like Peter was writing a song specifically as some kind of sequel to his two big hits from So, "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer."

When word of his next follow-up, UP, came in 2002, I'd had a decade to build up my excitement. It only took six or seven patient, start-to-finish listens to conclude I hated that damn album. What made me angrier is that, half a year before Up was released, Gabriel had come out with "When You're Falling," a song with the Afro Celt Sound System, a song I wildly adored. (Unfortunately, the song also came out shortly before 9/11, which wasn't the time for us to hear about the celebration of falling large distances.)

My point is, Up sucked. If you liked it, great. I don't mean to piss on your parade. But for me, there wasn't a damn thing redeeming about an album that required 10 years -- a decade of precious life -- being that Gawd-awful. Go buy "When You're Falling," and you own something better than anything on that album by a loooong mile.


As previously mentioned, I love comic books. I love the mythology and notion of superheroes. Anything exploring these notions is guaranteed to earn my attention if not my devotion, and I willingly give such things the benefit of the doubt.

So Heroes was virtually guaranteed to impress me. It was taking the genre seriously. It had a plan. And it had a healthy budget.

The episodes were compelling, and I was enthralled. Granted, it never quite managed to overtake my love of Lost, but that's partially because Evangeline Lilly could only be in one series at a time and partially because I felt loyal to J.J. Abrams for casting Locke from Alias and Jack from Party of Five, two beloved shows of mine.

As the series finale edged ever closer, I started getting nervous, because what had been paced so deliciously and delicately over the course of 20 episodes was starting to feel rushed and crammed. And not in the good way that the latter half of Lost's third season did. It felt like they rushed it because it was poorly planned. Maybe not planned at all. And the "epic concluding battle" between Sylar and the do-gooders was so wildly pathetic in its special effects and so underwhelming in its scope and direction that I watched it a second time just to make sure it sucked as badly as I thought it did.

It did. It totally sucked.


OK, so it never actually got released. Maybe it never got finished. But anything that carries that much hype, with the guaranteed sales of coming from a band named Guns 'n' Roses, but never makes it out of the production booth... well, it was bound to disappoint. It was a stone cold lead pipe lock for suckage. I'm frankly glad it never came out so idiots like me didn't insist on giving it a chance to kill what teensy bit of hope exists that maybe it could have been good.


I can't really think of more than three or four books I've read to completion that I despised. Mostly because if I'm halfway through a book and don't remotely like it, I just won't finish it.

...Dunces is one of the exceptions to this rule. I kept reading because I kept working to convince myself that maybe I was missing something in it, something essential to enjoying it. Lots of folks whose opinions I truly respect love this book. And it's supposed to be funny. And it's all based in New Orleans. These are HUGE factors and ones I kept in mind whilst pushing myself deeper into my own misery.

But the closer to the end I got, the more I was confident that I totally "got it," but didn't remotely like what I'd "gotten." Understand that one man's trash is another man's treasure, but it sure as hell wasn't my treasure, or my pleasure to read.

But at least it taught me a lesson that I continue to believe firmly: Sometimes, for reasons beyond comprehension, you ain't gonna like something most others you respect adore. It's neither a defect on your part nor a brainwashing on theirs. It's merely the mystery of taste, and it's what makes life truly worth living.


OK folks. Kick in on this one. Disagree with any of mine? How about offering one of your own? I'd love to know some examples in your own time of encounters with pop culture that were galactically disappointing.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Taking Umbrage Is Retarded

Get Over It - OK Go (mp3)
If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough - Roger Alan Wade (mp3)

Two different people forwarded me this email last week:
You may or may not have heard about the movie coming out in theatres around the country on Wednesday that is being protested by a number of national disability groups.

Special Olympics has joined the group. The protest centers on the movies use of the word 'retard' and one of its characters. I'll not try and launch into an explanation which I'm sure will be inadequate. Honestly, I'm not up to date on this issue. Instead, I have copied the link to a news release that came out of Special Olympics in DC today, and was published in a number of national media...including Associated Press. This should fairly give you enough information ... and you can seek out additional information.
USA Today has an even better version of the story.

So I just need to get this straight. Tropic Thunder, a film in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a white guy who surgically alters himself so he can portray a black guy, is being protested by the mentally handicapable...? We're to believe that repeated use of the word "retarded" is picket-worthy but blackface is OK in the right context?

Naw, screw the whole blackface part. That distracts from the stupidity of this particular protest. We're to believe that repeated use of the word "retarded" is picket-worthy on any film?? That's just... just... well... challenged.

Most hypersensitive, hyperdefensive people might dismiss my insensitivity to their plights as a sign I'm a good ol' Southern WASP who's rarely if ever been mocked for my identity or suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous humiliation for the amusement of the masses.

To dismiss me for this reason is both accurate and ridiculous. True because I am indeed a Southern WASP. Ridiculous because (a) I own a scooter and look awkward riding it; (b) I wore JAMS a lot. In 1992; (c) I collected comic books in high school; (d) I own 10 Rick Springfield and Hanson CDs; (e) Do I really really need to go on?

I get mocked. I got mocked a lot as a little kid. I got mocked plenty in high school. I passed out at a fraternity house in college and woke up with permanent marker on my nose, cheeks, ears, and both kneecaps, and I had "TOOL" written in beautiful capital letters on the back of my neck and on my stomach (with an arrow pointing up, not down).

I've always identified with Cinderella, as we were both raised in a house with wicked step-siblings who enjoyed verbally and physically terrorizing us. (Go ahead and insert your snickering gay commentary and get it outta your system.) While Cinderella fraternized with mice, my step-brothers preferred placing me in locked rooms with several possums. In real life, they don't talk, and they're not cute. Not when you're seven, anyway. This was one of any number of acts from my growin' up that formed my notion of what is offensive and what is worth just getting over.

However, it's different to be mocked as an individual as opposed to being mocked for your involuntary membership in a group. There's no Dorks United Movement or anything that stands up for my kind as a collective, so I can't claim to suffer the same level of indignities as women, homosexuals, minorities, the mentally challenged, the physically challenged, the overweight, the underweight, models, or cat lovers.

In college, I was the poorly-timed butt of several jokes. A friend infamously skilled at putting his foot in his mouth at the wrong times managed to tip past the scale of the culturally acceptable, and all I could do was shrug, acknowledging with him that he deserved his shame. And then laugh at him. Let's call him Julius.

The first time I was hobbling out of a building with my newly-broken ankle, incompetently using my crutches to navigate some stairs, when Julius shouted at me from across the quad. "Hey! Cripple! Gimp! Yeah you! You look pathetic!!" he shouted. He didn't notice that, about 3/4 of the way from him to me was a young lad in a wheelchair. Because, well, Julius wasn't talking to that cripple. Vitriolic arrows of hate were fired from many bystanders' eyes at my pal that day.

Another time, a large group of acquaintances -- most of us were still getting to know one another -- were headed to the dining hall when Julius punctuated a conversation with, "Yeah, Billy's a real bastard." And everyone kinda nodded, not knowing the depth of Julius' attempted humor. So he explained. "No, really. Billy's, like, 24 hours away from being a bastard. Like, in real life!" He was trying to explain the joke, you see. So he kept explaining.

My biological father was killed in a car wreck the day after I was born. Ha!

To me, his joke wasn't remotely offensive. I'd known Julius for years and was used to his wit, which often had the acidity of high molarity hydrochloric acid. But I knew him, and I knew his intent, and he knew I had relatively thick skin in these matters. Nothing to take offense at, honestly. But I also knew he'd overstepped his bounds with everyone else in our company. The conversation died like Thelma and Louise driving over the cliff. Three different girls in the group pulled me aside at one point or another to make sure I was OK. The guys just kept saying things like, "That's cold, dude."

But "retarded"? Are they really trying to make that the next N-word? Do we really need another N-word? Isn't one word that is known merely by its first letter enough? As Dumbledore so astutely observes in the very first Harry Potter, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself," so how many Voldemorts do we want in our lexicon?

Is "retard" really worth that fight? Is Tropic Thunder the right place to dig in the heels and fire away?

My smell test in matters of offensiveness is admittedly egocentric: If I don't see the big deal, then our culture ain't ready to think it's a big deal. And if our culture ain't ready, then taking the wrong tack to bring it to our attention only annoys and alienates, distancing the very people needed to change the culture.

So to those of you hypersensitive to the plight of folks rarely referred directly as retarded? You'll need to come back in a decade or two. For now your complaints are only annoying and reek of seeking attention for a problem that's not nearly as dire as others in our midst. (If you want proof, check and see how many times people refer to Obama as "retarded" to scare your votes away and compare them "black" and "Muslim.")

"Get Over It," admittedly closer to an bona fide "hit" than we're generally aiming for on this blog, is from OK Go's debut eponymous album. "If You're Gonna Be Dumb..." is from Roger Alan Wade's first album -- yes, he now has two -- All Likkered Up. I'm actually pretty sure both are available on iTunes and's mp3 site but was to ashamed to look the latter up.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Do The Hustle

Ryan Adams--"Chin Up, Cheer Up" (mp3)
Shelby Lynne--"Life Is Bad" (mp3)

I turned in to the Conoco, planning to pick up a six-pack of beer. Surprisingly, there were other no cars at the pumps, an odd circumstance at 6 o'clock on a Thursday night, and I parked at a pump closest to the store. As I walked toward the empty store, I noticed a guy on my left, standing outside, talking on the phone. I nodded at him and him at me.

Inside, as I pulled beer out of the cooler, the young cashier tried to sell me two-for-one hot dogs. I couldn't see them; I couldn't smell them, so I declined and took my Michelob Ultra to the counter. "Slow night," I said. "I can't believe there's no one here."

"Yes, it's surprising," she said.

In the summer, especially, I don't like to stop here most evenings because there is usually someone who needs bus money, who is trying to get to see his sister in an Atlanta hospital, and any other number of stories that sound perfectly reasonable until the next time I buy gas here and hear the same story again. Sometimes when I need gas and would like to stop there, I'll say angrily to myself, "Why can't I just buy some gas and not be hustled?"
When I was almost to my car, I heard a voice saying, "Hey, hey, hey!" When I turned it was the guy on the phone, now off, and he said, "Are you from around here?"

"Yes, " I said flatly.

"Do you know where Jasper is?" He walked towards me.

"Yes," I said flatly.

"That's where I'm tryin' to get to. I left my wallet on the hood of a car and then I ran out of gas at the ridge cut. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes," I said flatly.

"It's a long walk from here, I'll tell you that," he said. "Do you think you could help me out? I swear to you I'm not a bum. I'm a welder. I been welding all day in the heat and now this happens." He looked like a welder to me.

I reached into my pockets, but I only had a dollar bill. "Let's go inside," I said. I have another mindset, and it's the one that usually kicks in when I'm leaving a tip. It's the "Hey, the world has gotten pretty tough and I'm not doing too badly so I'll leave you a little more" frame of mind, and it kicked in now.

But it's been a rough month and even though payday was a good two weeks away, I figured I'd give him ten bucks. I tried to withdraw $10, while he stood off to the side, telling me about the day he'd had. I told him we occasionally had students from Jasper, but how hard it was because of the different time zones. The ATM dispensed bills in increments of $20 dollars. So I went for $20. Plus, $2.25 in convenience fees. I figured I'd get change at the counter.

"Can you do it for ten dollars?" I asked.

"Aw, the gas can alone is going to cost me seven."

At that moment, something shifted in me, and I felt had. I handed him the twenty, switching into the mode of just wanting to leave.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "Can you do it?" It was the first time I'd been hit up for money since gas went so high, and I realized that, if true, he was was right that the $20 wouldn't go too far.

"It's no problem," I said. "Good luck to you." I shook his hand and walked out of the store. The clerk gave me a skeptical look.

I walked out to my car. After starting the car and pulling forward, I had it in my head to take a left out of the lot and circle back so that I could see whether or not he was really buying a gas can. One time, this guy was hitting up my wife and daughter for food money at the Walgreen's just as I was coming back from Little Caesars with a pizza, and when my wife told me what was going on, I immediately gave him the pizza, thinking we'd just get another one, but when we were driving home, we saw that he'd just as immediately thrown the pizza away; it wasn't why he wanted the money.

So I looked both ways to see if I could turn, but then I took a right, not quite sure if I was putting my faith in humanity or if I just didn't want to know.

"Chin Up, Cheer Up" is from Ryan Adam's underappreciated solo album, Demolition. "Life is Bad" is from Shelby Lynne's breakthrough CD, I Am Shelby Lynne. Both are available at Itunes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Small Celebration Is In Order

Patti Griffin--"Blue Sky (live)" (mp3)
Neil Young--"Don't Be Denied (live)" (mp3)

What you're reading right now is our 100th post on this blog, which takes us almost to the half-year mark (well, give or take a month). If you count our late start in March, this is our sixth month in business.

A Few Fun Facts:

1. According to our labels that we enter to identify each post, it is no surprise that "music" dominates, but you might be interested to know that the rest of the top labels include, in order, "parents," "Korea," "teens," "God," "balance," "love," "racism," and "sex." If these were word magnets on my refrigerator, I'd probably drop "Korea" and come up with something like "Teens love sex, balance parents, God, racism."

2. Before we started, we thought we might each post one time each week. So far, I have made 52 posts, Billy has made 47, and we've had one guest post. But several of mine were very short when I was just posting "missed hits," so the reality is that this ship has two captains, an even keel, and continues to sail.

3. Most popular posts, in terms of comments, have been Billy's ruminations on hit music today vs. the 80's and my first post upon arriving in Seoul, Korea. I do not count the extended verbal sparring between Tommy and me over wienerschnitzel.

4. In our visual cornucopia of photos, cartoons, charts, and stills, ranging from bucolic gardens and action heroes to slutty barmaids and chaste singles, Billy's photo of the ugly naked man that my wife refers to as "The Minotaur" wins hands down as the most foul and unnecessary visual posting.

5. Despite our efforts to spread the music around, there are a few artists whose songs have graced these pages more than once: Patti Griffin, Bruce Springsteen, Will Hoge, Pete Townshend, among others, come to mind.

6. Longest comment, practically a blog in and of itself, goes to Tommy of Jersey. Shortest, most indecipherable comment goes to Jennifer from Texas, who only said, "Sweet Jesus, Billy," but we never really knew why or how it was to be taken.

7. Best contestant in every lame contest we have tried goes to Josh E. Honorable mention goes to our #1 supporter, John.

8. No Big Head Todd has been posted on this site. Coincidence? The Todd-man does not look happy about it.

9. Our working portion of this site is littered with drafts never completed. Among the beguiling unfinished offerings: "Two Pennies For The Ferry," "Death To Micromanagement!!!!!!!," "A Brief Flirtation With a Leading Lady," and "Beer: The Miniseries." May these gems, if deserving of a good polish, someday shine for your eyes.

10. According to tracking by, the most listened-to track we've posted is "Hey, Muscles, I Love You" by Muscles.

Here's to another 6 months and a full-year celebration featuring you all taking us to dinner! Thanks for reading and listening.

Bob, on behalf of Billy, too

For this special celebration, my gift to Billy is a rare live Patti Griffin track, arguably my favorite song by her, and a killer song from Neil Young's Time Fades Away, a raw live album never released on CD. Neither is available at Itunes or anywhere else, EXCEPT RIGHT HERE! Enjoy. Billy, I love you, man. Keep the dream alive.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Devil's Advocate for the Adulterous Advocate

Your Next Lover - Lori McKenna (mp3)
A Girl in California - Nine Days (mp3)

I caught wind of John Edwards' daliances slightly ahead of the curve thanks to my regular visits to, a geeky little discussion + news site that posted this as it was starting to really percolate in late July. So I felt like friggin' Drudge when Edwards came out and shocked the world with his confession last week.

The reaction of acquaintances has been fairly surprising, to be honest. Shock, mostly. Edwards' infidelity has been a much larger surprise to (left-leaning?) people, it seems, than that of Wild Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, I'm like, The dude pays FOUR HUNDRED FRIGGIN' DOLLARS to get his friggin' hair cut! He spends as much on his hair per year as Spitzer spent on that prostitute. Any guy who loves his own hair that much is waaaay too full of himself to sleep exclusively with one woman.

But here are some other thoughts that have sprouted from the Edwards scandal:

Edwards said he has sought his wife's forgiveness and his God's forgiveness, and so he basically doesn't care what the rest of us think. Since it's hardly our business to begin with, I couldn't agree more. If you enjoy this story for its juicy context, or if you enjoy watching the overly ambitious and well-coiffed get their come-uppance, that's fine and good. But I'm kind of violently anti-TMZ and anti-paparazzi at the moment, and for me this is just a slightly higher-class version of celebrity rubbernecking I can do without. This really should be between him, his wife, and his deity of choice. Well, and the "other woman "who seems to have gotten a sweet-ass deal out of it.

If reporters gave a flip about my private life -- and if you thought The Truman Show was a boring concept, my daily existence is even more snooze-a-riffic -- and had the unmitigated gall to ask me if I was having affairs, or smoking crack, or surviving solely on a diet of Pop Tarts, Mountain Dew and Twizzlers, I'd like to think I could answer them in such a way that gave them nothing good yet amused me to no end.

If they ask and you say "No" because it's the truth, then you're only helping their cause, because they can then use you as an example of those who "have nothing to hide," allowing them to bring down that judgmental hammer harder on another's head. So I'd like to think I would say I'm sleeping with everyone. Kate Beckinsale. Ashley Judd. The whole cast of The Golden Girls (except for Estelle Getty, of course, God rest her sweet soul). Tom Cruise. Barbara Bush (the older AND the younger). Say their names, I'm sleeping with them. And they're all just using me for the sex.

My point is, once Edwards screwed around, is he really obligated to, according to our society's odd little rules, confess it in detail to the first reporter to ask the oh-so original question of "Have you ever had an affair?" Is George W. Bush required to explain in great detail his past drug use or even admit he did cocaine just because some bonehead asks him? Are we really better off as a country if they tell the truth to us when it's none of our business?

In my book, if goobers with no right to do so ask anyone such questions, it's not lying to tell them whatever you want. "I sleep with Martians. We spoon, mostly, but sometimes we use toys on each other. I prefer Martian Menages after my Martian Massages. And if you've never been rubbed down by a Martian, you haven't truly lived!"

Our Puritanical society has somehow bought into the bullshit that you can't be a great politician without being a lily-white clean slate of perfect family values. Being outstanding or gifted in one area of life does not require being outstanding or gifted in another. That's like saying you can't be a great rock guitarist without sleeping with 40 women a year. Or that Donald Trump can't be successful in real estate unless he's also a devoted and loving father. It's so oddly unrealistic and foolish that I don't even know why we continue to allow this myth to propagate.

Almost every person I've heard pontificate on his infidelity says something akin to this: "And he couldn't have done it at a worse time. His wife is fighting for her life against cancer, and he's off fucking around! What a jerk!" First off, I wasn't aware there was a proper or acceptable time for adultery. Is there some space shuttle re-entry in adultery, where there's a few "perfect windows" in the atmosphere wherein it's acceptable and understandable for married folks to screw around?

Jimmy's always been a devoted husband and father, and although he slept with that drunk librarian two years ago, it was at a time when his wife was healthy and everything in his life was going well, so it was no big deal. If he'd fucked that librarian back when Shelly had been diagnosed with diabetes, well, that would have been another story... Then Jimmy would have been one disgusting sumbitch.

Let's go one step further. (Since my writing on this entire topic automatically qualifies me for the "Perhaps He Protesteth Too Much" Award, no point in leaving any stones unturned.)

Isn't it maybe a little more acceptable for the dude to seek his needs elsewhere at a time when his wife is utterly and completely incapable of being there for him? So long as Edwards didn't abandon his wife emotionally, so long as he was there in the ways she needed him, why isn't his shoplifting some pootie on the side more acceptable when Elizabeth is sick rather than when she's shiny and healthy as a pearl?

If one of you readers is willing, I would really appreciate you breaking down the Affair Scale for me. From 1-10, when's having an affair a 1 and when is it a 10? This might help all those readers out there who want to know when it's most acceptable to have an affair. If they're gonna be immoral, at least they can be considerate.

"Your Next Lover" is from Lori McKenna's super-mega-awesome album Unglamorous. "A Girl in California" is from Nine Days' latest EP, Slow Motion Life Part I. Both can be purchased through iTunes or on's mp3 site.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One Person, One Song, One World?

The Magnetic Fields--"Acoustic Guitar" (mp3)
Hot Chip--"My Piano" (mp3)

If you've ever gone into a music store, not the CD kind, the musical instrument kind, then you know how annoying it is to hear wannabe guitarists, for example, playing snippets of classic songs when they try out the axes. It's been awhile since I've gone shopping for guitars (I think it coincides with when my first child was born), but "back in the day," it was mandatory that you would hear, with varying levels of proficiency, the opening to "Stairway To Heaven," the fingerpicked progression of "Dust In The Wind," the one string, single-note-at-a-time version of "Smoke On The Water" or "Sunshine of Your Love," or, in the later 80's, the early alt-rock opening of "Driver 8." Today, who knows?

Well, trust me, it's even more annoying to be the person who can only play parts of songs. In my now 33 years of playing guitar, I've had entire years where I only played parts of songs, sometimes only parts of my own songs. And when you get into that kind of rut, you lose the purpose of why you learned the guitar in the first place. It isn't to show off the fact that you know parts of the great songs of rock. A lot of people can do that. The purpose is to play music for other people and for yourself.

But, then you've got no-talent-ass-clowns like Kid Rock out there, trafficking in Lynyrd Skynrd riffs in order to scare up a hit. I don't even know what bullshit his song is slinging, something about summer. All I can remember is the repetition of "Sweet Home Alabama" over and over.

In this age of rampant sampling, rehashing, and outright stealing, it's probably only a matter of time before someone presents a concert of riffs, or, maybe even more likely, sells copyrighted riffs online. You can pay an arm and a leg to sample "Kashmir," or, for only a fraction of the cost, you can buy one of my soon-to-be classic patented riffs!

So what I'm advocating is this: it is a worthwhile societal goal that every person (or most) should be able to play one complete song on an instrument of his or her choice or destiny. Any person at any age can learn to play an instrument. Any person can master, for example, Neil Young's "Helpless" on the guitar or the spiritual "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore" on the piano or "Dear Prudence" on the ukelele or "Three Blind Mice" on the recorder.

That is my proposed benchmark for humanity. Everybody who can learns to play one song. Heck, I smell another Coke commercial.

But it needs to be the whole song: learn the chords, learn the words, and play the thing from beginning to end. And learn it well enough that you can play the whole thing in front of someone else, maybe your spouse or your children or your sibling.

What would this do for us as a society? Well, think about it. There are several potential benefits. First, I would argue that music is already one of the common denominators on this planet. But it's one thing to listen to it; it's another to share it. Second, think about what you're not doing if you're practicing music. You're not watching one of the two hundred reality shows currently clogging the airwaves. Koreans claim that eating kimchi makes you smarter; I claim that playing music makes you smarter. And third, songs are like Cheetos. Who would learn just one? We could become a society of musicians.

But then John McCain would claim that Barack Obama is the biggest rock star in the world, and that would piss off Bono, because he thinks he's the biggest rock star in the world, and that might either a) cause Bono to renounce his philanthropic ways or b) write one song, the absolutely definitive song, for the entire world, and then we'd all learn it and all play it and then we'd get sick of it and stop playing music.

But at least Kid Rock would have a ridiculously well-known song to base his next hit single on.

The Magnetic Field's 69 Love Songs is one of the great pop opuses (opi?) of the 20th century. You can experience the genius in the song above which name-checks Steve Earle, Charo, and G.W.A.R. all in the same sentence! And, like up-and-comers Hot Chip, it's available at Itunes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Children Make You Cry

Happy Alone - Kings of Leon (mp3)
Hand Me Down - The Wallflowers (mp3)

One of the tragedies of higher education is how little we specifically and accurately remember decades later. While I hold tremendous value to the education I received, from Kindergarten up through my teensy undergraduate degree, its value is mostly in things that are now almost ingrained into my system as breathing.

Yet there are moments, experiences in classrooms, etched like several dozen teleplays into my cranium. Winning the contest of who could keep the balloon up in the air longest when I was in kindergarten. Telling a huge sixth-grade bully to kiss my ass on the playground when I was in fourth grade and somehow running and dodging long enough that he gave up beating the shit out of me. Writing down my seventh-grade English teacher's "Rules of Thumb" because I feared him killing me if I didn't. Having my 10th grade teacher tell me that I really was a good writer and should consider submitting my poems to the school literary magazine.

I remember fewer moments from college. You can insert your standard "too drunk" jokes here if you like, but the truth is, by the time we get to college, the sheen of uncharted educational territory had worn off quite significantly. It was difficult to enter a room, encounter an aha moment that didn't get blurred or marginalized with earlier ones.

But I remember with amazing clarity the day as a college senior in the fall when I walked into one of my psychology classes and had one of the lectures of my lifetime. It wasn't a Randy Pausch lesson, mind you, but maybe in its own way it was just as mind-awakening.

Caryl Rusbult, charismatic instructress of a class on "Interpersonal Relationships," walked into my class and asked us if we planned on getting married at some point. The 30 or so with me, mostly female, nodded or agreed silently to ourselves that we did indeed. Then she asked how many of us hoped to maximize our happiness. She asked it like the answer was obvious. Of course we all want to live the happiest lives we're capable of living, right?

And that's when she dropped the bomb. If we meant it, she said, then the happiest we can ever hope to be is married and without children.

Her studies back in 1993 showed it. Studies continue to show it. Having children makes people less happy.

Dr. Rusbult was not only a brilliant research psychologist, she was also a captivating speaker and educator, something that happened plenty at UNC but wasn't ever to be taken for granted. "Interpersonal Relationships" was easily one of my favorite two or three classes. This lesson was the cornerstone of that semester.

Don't worry. Nothing about psychology is ever all that simple, and the reality of children is that, like everything, it's a matter of trade-offs. No children = happier marriages and, according to some studies, happier individuals. With children, however, parents are less happy but report higher levels of a sense of purpose and meaning.

This isn't intuitive. At least not to me. Having a greater sense of purpose doesn't make you happier. Having a greater sense of purpose (kids or other) means more stress, a greater sense of responsibility, a higher concern for failure. Purpose and meaning are heavy notions. They weigh down our souls. But when we can carry those burdens through and look back, with our tri-focals from our nurse-assisted living facility, purpose and meaning allow us the chance to be proud.

What I loved about Dr. Rusbult's lesson was not that she discouraged me from having children. Such was never her goal to begin with. She was aiming for something much more substantive, something that is at the heart of most great learning opportunities. She merely wanted us to understand that, if we buy into the myths of certain experiences -- the wonderful super perfect awesome world of parenting, fer instance -- we hurt our chances of surviving the difficulties.

Most of us would be happier drivers if we had that new TomTom, the one that keeps you up-to-the-minute on local traffic situations. We might still choose to drive straight into the traffic jam, but once we've made the conscious choice to dive into it, that jam loses much of its power to piss us off. We knew what we were getting into.

I will forever be in Dr. Rusbult's debt for providing me that advanced warning at a time when I could hear it and willingly absorb it. If only our country had some magic way to prepare all parents and wannabe parents for the happiness they were sacrificing so they could raise children.