Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Month Of Christmas

Louis Armstrong (with Velma Middleton)--"Baby, It's Cold Outside" (mp3)


For the next 25 days, imagine that we have given you one of those wooden box Advent calendards with all of the little doors with the days of the month on them, except that each day when you open one, it will be a Christmas song. Oh, we'll be doing our regular posting each week, but expect a little aural gift from us each day as well.

Come Thanksgiving, it's hard to get anything but Christmas music on a public cd player in my household. We're often slow to decorate, but we get the music going pretty darn early. There's a pecking order, too.

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas--Vince Guaraldi. I do claim with some pride that long before this became ubiquitous holiday listening, this was a favorite. We even own this baby on vinyl. The beauty of it is that you can listen to it a billion times and it never gets old, so you never care that you hear it in the grocery store.

2. The Bells of Dublin--The Chieftans. John introduced us to this one, and it has been a key to the playlist ever since. Brilliant guest contributions from Jackson Browne, Burgess Meredith, Nancy Griffith, Rickie Lee Jones and others. All of the songs run together and create an old world Christmas vibe that feels timeless. In my humble opinion, it is the best Christmas cd to play at night in front of a fire, though it is also the soundtrack to any present-opening festivities.

Beyond that, it's pretty hard to break through. Shawn Colvin has had some success, as has a compilation called Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas. Also, a cd of a full choir doing traditional classics like "In The Deep Mid-Winter."

A guy who made big inroads into the playlist last year is Sufjan Stevens. His "homemade" cds, Songs For Christmas, that he made his family over the course of several years are guaranteed to become family favorites for us, too. As you would expect from Stevens, he not only touches on or reinterprets some classics, but he also writes several soon-to-be classics of his own.

And that's the point, isn't it? I don't think the world needs a new version of "Blue Christmas" at this point. Try if you must, but Elvis pretty much owns that one. Same with many of the other classics. So the challenge becomes to offer either 1) a stunningly-different reinterpretation, 2) a traditional Christmas song that no one else has been recording, or 3) a new song. I'm partial to all three and find that the most successful Christmas cds contain at least two of the three types of songs. As group like Brooks and Dunn have proven, though, you can do all three on a cd and still put out pure crap.

Good Christmas music is tougher to create than you might think.

Based on the last week down here in Florida, there is a chestnut that has been roasting on the open fire for decades and is now ready to be shared once again. Everywhere we have gone, it seems we have heard someone's version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I can't believe how many times I've heard it in the last 5 days. Of course, Florida does have its share of senior citizens, so that may skew the TJMaxx playlist, who knows? But maybe that's a good place to start--with a light, sexy, funny, and fun holiday song to get everyone in the mood.

I promise you, though, from here it goes to the weird to the wonderful to the obscure to the slacker versions of that ultimate commercial endeavor--the Christmas song.

"Chinese Democracy": The 17 Year Itch

Today's post does not contain a song, as any posted G n' R song would undoubtedly result in the shut-down of our blog, not to mention the repossession of our homes and children.

I bought Chinese Democracy, but my motive for doing so is elusive.

Sure, I was one of the millions who owned (and still owns) a copy of "Appetite for Destruction." I listened to friends' copies of Lies but never bought it. I hardly even sniffed in the direction of their legitimate follow-ups, Use Your Illusion (Parts I and II!).

So it's not like I'm much of a G n' R fan. "November Rain" was overrated, and the only thing Axl's involvement with supermodel Stephanie Seymour managed to accomplish was to totally kill her hotness. She was part of the Sports Illustrated "Big Three" in the '80s, along with Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson, but she jumped the supermodel shark with Axl. (And don't kid yourself; without Seymour in that video, it's not nearly as popular.)

My judgment on the album after the first listen: Not bad. This call still holds, more or less.

My immediate thoughts after a third and fourth listen: I had no idea Axl Rose was such a big Rush fan. Seriously, each listen brings our more Prog Rock and less Hard Rock. None of these songs have the masterful touch of Neil Peart's lyricism or his drumming, but Axl's voice is four notches away from Geddy Lee's -- some would say that's an improvement -- and the guitar work in places is impressive enough.

Understood that Rush holds no monopoly on progressive rock, or whatever the hell that particular genre of rock is called, but they're the band I know that does it best.

What made Appetite such a huge success was not its high IQ nor its layers of experimental sound. G n' R rocked the late '80s because they dumped a huge vat of make-up remover on the increasing glam-ification of the hard rock scene. They made hard rock ugly again. Ugly, raw, and catchy as hell.

Well, that version of G n' R might be somewhere in Chinese Democracy, but it's on life support and barely breathing. In its stead is stuff that, while not bad, ain't what I personally was looking for in an album by Axl and whoever else he could get to play on it.

As I close out Day Five of owning this CD, what keeps coming back is this: Why did this take 17 years? Peter Gabriel is infamous for taking eons between albums. Eons in his case being five or six years, which is how long he was going between albums until Up, in 2002, was a decade in the making. To me, Up was a colossal disappointment, in part because you can't help but ask what the hell took so long to make songs that feel less than inspired.

My expectations for G n' R's 17-year itch weren't nearly so unreasonable, so their output isn't nearly so disappointing. But is it really enough for such a wait for my conclusion on Chinese Democracy to be: "It's not bad"?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Simon and Garfunkel--"Hazy Shade of Winter" (mp3)
Leo Kottke--"In Christ There Is No East Or West" (mp3)

It may be a personal stereotype of mine, but I find elementary school music teachers to be a wacky sort. I'm basing that on my own experience, and that of my children. Music teachers for the young tend to be the kind who accentuate emotions, expressions, and enunciations beyond what even a child would find acceptable. Kids know these women are odd, too, though they probably can't articulate exactly why. The woman at my children's elementary took it one step beyond, as we found out every year at the Thanksgiving program.

"I don't know why," she would say, "but Thanksgiving always makes me think of war." And she would launch the children into a program of patriotic battle songs--"Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the like. Maybe a couple of "gobble, gobble, gobble" songs thrown in for show.

For years, I made fun of her. Now, I think she was on to something.

Thanksgiving is the strangest holiday we have, and her inexplicable connection to war helps to capture the essence of it. It is, arguably the most important family meal of the year, since it is a holiday that is only about that meal. There is no event, no church, no particular visiting for the most part (unless your family is blended, for one reason or another) for the simple reason that most of your family is likely already with you, if at all possible.

And yet, it is also a holiday of loss and longing. If it were a French holiday, they would call it Remembrances Of Things Past. Maybe it's because there is such a focus on family and nothing but a meal and a few half-interesting football games to occupy our minds that the palpable nostalgia tends towards loved ones who are no longer there. Maybe it's the weather. While Christmas always holds the promise of snow, and even if it doesn't come, all of the music will allude to a kind of virtual snowfall, Thanksgiving, more often than not, holds the promise of a bleak day--leaves off the trees, possible rain, likely cold, empty streets, a grey day where night comes early and there's little to do after darkness falls but lie around wishing you had eaten just a little bit less.

That description would lead you to believe that I dislike Thanksgiving. Au contraire. I've never much minded opening old wounds to take another look at them, and having a day with not much going on that invites revisting childhood and ancestors and even lost parents is an opportunity that our fast lives don't afford us very often.

So enjoy the gray day and the chance to think deeply about someone(s) you haven't thought about for awhile, and if the chance comes to head outside with the cousins or their children to throw the football around, either in anticipation of the meal or to try to work some of it off, by all means go for it. For just like soldiers in a war, our own love of comrades and family keep us focused on our tasks at hand and sane during the times between.

FOOTNOTE: I am in Florida for Thanksgiving this year. Florida sucks for Christmas; it feels all wrong. But for Thanksgiving, somehow it feels perfect. The bright sunny days and cool evenings, the bustle of activity, the plethora of old people, the joy of being outside as much as possible, it's all so alive. No complaints.



"Hazy Shade of Winter" first appeared on Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends; Kottke's version of "In Christ There Is No East Or West" is from his out-of-print Greenhouse cd.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving: "Too Big To Fail"

Everyday I Think of Money - Stereophonics (mp3)
Bright Future in Sales - Fountains of Wayne (mp3)

Would someone please explain to me what the hell the phrase "too big to fail" actually means? Is "too big to fail" something akin to calling a huge ocean liner "unsinkable"? If so, then America seems to have sailed right into one hellacious iceberg.

If CitiGroup is "too big to fail," then why the hell is it failing? If Detroit's carmakers aren't "too big to fail," why does it feel like losing those companies would be pretty darn catastrophic? More importantly, why are we allowing companies to get so large that they can be declared "too big to fail"? Isn't this a problem we should chew on going forward?

To me, a mere serf who couldn't even manage his Columbia House membership, I honestly don't get it. To me, it seems like our government is picking -- somewhat arbitrarily -- which companies are really important, which ones are only kinda important, and which ones are "too big to fail." Am I s'posed to just trust them that they know what the hell they're doing? Like I trusted 'em that there were WMDs? (OK, so I didn't trust 'em then, either.)

I don't mean to sound like an ignorant conservative, but it really feels like our government is handing out welfare checks with NINE ZEROES on them to a bunch of idiots who just proved they can't manage their own affairs. Conservatives get upset that we hand out teensy tiny checks to poor mothers who are "too lazy" to find employment, but this one bailout could probably put our entire country's welfare roll into houses for a year or two.

If people get pissed off that our government creates an entitlement mentality in the hearts and minds of the extremely poor by giving them a teensy pittance of cash and food stamps, what are we telling corporations by handing them the equivalent of a bajillion welfare checks?

Hey, I've got a plan! Why not kill two birds with one stone? The government can buy up a whole bunch of houses (thus helping the housing market) at reduced cost and place homeless welfare recipients in them for a year. [Yes, this is mere random conjecture, but it's no more idiotic-seeming that trusting the greedy Wall Street bastards who captained these Titanics to make the right decisions going forward.]

Here's what I'm thankful for in this holiday season:
  1. That I'm too poor to be all that terribly affected by this collective stupidity... so far, anyway.
  2. That all I've lost so far is half of my retirement.
  3. That I never promised anyone a rose garden, or even much of a weed garden.
  4. That I can criticize and mock our elected leaders no matter which decisions they make, because either way we're probably screwed for a while as a nation.
  5. That even if Obama does a lot of stupid things, he'll seriously deliberate them first, try his hardest to ingest the opinions of the highly-educated experts around him, and sound intelligent about it when he explains it all to the American public. (And he'll probably say the phrase "Now look..." about a million times in four years.)
I raise a big ol' chunk of cranberry sauce and a big ol' glass o' chardonnay to you on this severely recessed Thanksgiving! Here's to being sincerely grateful that, no matter how crappy it is, it's all still pretty damn good.

The Stereophonics song is off their least-impressive album of all time, Just Enough Education to Perform. The Fountains of Wayne song is from Welcome Interstate Managers, their best album. Both can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"I Walked Right Out Of The Machinery"

Peter Gabriel--"Solsbury Hill" (mp3)

There are a small handful of songs that matter so much to me that I'll stop what I'm doing and try to listen, anytime, anywhere if I hear one of them start up.

"Solsbury Hill" is one of those songs. For me, maybe not for you. Some songs can be the soundtracks of our lives, songs like Springsteen's "Glory Days," that can churn along in the background as part of the collective consciousness of this country. It's almost an impossible song not to like because it captures such a shock of recognition for all of us, either we've been there or we know someone who has.

But when I hear "Solsbury Hill," I'm never content to have it play in the background. I always want to lean in and hear it.

Now, I'm not the greatest Peter Gabriel fan in the world. I like some of that creepy-voiced, artsy stuff he did with early Genesis. I like a fair number of his earlier songs, ending sometime around "Sledgehammer." I like the song that John Cusack plays on his boombox in Say Anything, trying to reconnect with Ione Skye (I've never really know the name of it consistently, and it isn't on his greatest hits, surprisingly). I like the song he does with Afro-Celt Soundsystem that Billy put on a New Orleans mix a couple of years ago.

So we're not talking about Gabriel here so much as we are talking about the song. It's got that great opening riff, those overdubbed acoustic guitars capoed up a few frets, and the repetition of that riff enough times that it really gets into your head before Gabriel ever starts singing. And, since he's coming from a "prog rock" background, the orchestra, but muted this time, mimicing what the guitar is doing.

It's kind of a story song, since the narrator goes to a specific place and, chronologically, things happen to him--the appearance of an eagle, the voice talking to him, his return to society at the end--but the details are so generalized that it's impossible to nail down the situation. That doesn't always work in a song, but I think it works here.

I guess, more than anything, it's one part of the lyrics that really get to me:

When Illusion spin her net,
I'm never where I want to be.
And Liberty, she pirouette[s],
When I think that I am free.

We all like to think that songs speak to us. Unfortunately, when they speak to me, they are usually songs that focus on isolation, various failures, or forced confrontations with truths that I'd probably rather not confront. But having a good melody and a cohort, of sorts, who seems like he or she is right there, well, as Mary Poppins says, that's the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Poetically, "Solsbury Hill" feels like it is Gabriel's "Tinturn Abbey," his on-the- spot, head back to nature manifesto that charts a fresh or revised belief system, even though he's not satisfied or reassured by what he sees in those around him.

His ambiguous plight that sends him hiking away from society in order to get a fresh perspective on things has a hopeful outcome: not only does some otherworldly voice speak to him and provide him with a cohort, of sorts, but he also resolves by the end to head back down the mountain. Maybe. That whole notion of "you can keep my things/They've come to take me home" has an ominous feel as well, but that's probably just me.
Though it's a classic song now, "Solsbury Hill" always sounds to me like it was written yesterday. Liberty, she pirouettes when I think that I am free. Exactly.


Peter Gabriel's first solo album/cd is available at Itunes.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Safe Havens?

Bastards of Young - The Replacements (mp3)
Leave - Glen Hansard (mp3)

I stumbled on this item on the news wire today. The world's definitely gettin' weirder.
Safe Haven Divorce Law Backfires on Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS
(AP) - Nevada state lawmakers are discussing the possibility of convening an emergency session after a well-intended law has reaped serious negative consequences on the state.

Since early November, disgruntled wives have been abandoning their husbands by the truckloads, deserting them in casinos with a few hundred dollars and the clothes on their backs, leaving them to the care of the cruel and heartless Las Vegas rules of evolution.

The law allows wives to leave their husbands inside any casino in the city limits and sign a simple divorce decree on their way out. The divorce requires a straight payment of $2,000, although many wives have tipped the judge and others in excess of another $1,000 for allowing them such a brilliant plan.

"Divorce is a staple of American life," explained Joey "Two Exes" Campanini (R - Dist.34), who sponsored the legislation. "We figured Vegas was the pioneer in fly-by-night weddings, so we should be the ones to invent the fly-by-night divorce."

By signing the "Express Divorce" settlement, wives agree to ask for no more than half the marital assets, with child support to be determined later by an arbitrator of the state's choosing.

Since the law went into effect on November 4, more than 40,000 husbands have been kicked to the casino curb, many losing every penny of their possessions within hours of arriving and being placed into the care of the state, causing an unexpected burden on the government and the casino industry, a redundancy in Nevada.

"We didn't expect quite this many men left on our doorstep," admitted Timmy "Gonads" Lipnicki, a junior vice president at the Luxor. "We were told to expect around 500 each day, but we've had almost ten times that number.

"To be honest, we passed this law because we thought it would increase traffic in the poker rooms and the strip clubs, but these bozos are goin' broke so fast they're not helping us. No wonder the wives dropped 'em like a bad habit," added Lipnicki, who has been married to the same woman since he was 16, although he proudly boasts of five mistresses.
Nevada's problems come on the heels of a similar recent problem in Nebraska, where that state's Safe Haven law, intended to allow parents to drop unwanted infants off at hospitals without fear of criminal charges, led to chaotic results. Before that state could change the letter of the law, more than 35 children -- most over the age of 10, and many from states beyond Nebraska -- had been abandoned in cornhusker hospitals.

Likewise, women are flying in with their ne'er-do-well husbands from every state in the Union and can't find a casino quickly enough.

"It's rekindled my lfaith in God," said Roberta Sanders, who left her husband Willie in the Rio on November 6. "I'd been praying to Jesus for a decade to give me the perfect way out of this miserable shithole of a marriage, and on Halloween I read about this law passing. It's true that God answers prayers in His time, not ours. Praise His name!"

Other wives shared similar sentiments. Said Sheila Gunderson of Duluth, Minn., "That fucknut didn't even notice I'd left him there until three days later." The fucknut in question was her husband Ralph, who blew his 2-day winnings at craps on an overnighter at one of the brothels out of town. "I dropped him off on Thursday and signed that bill with tears of joy in my eyes. Ralph called me on Sunday morning wondering why I hadn't shown up to meet him for breakfast. What a moron. What further explanation do I need for why I left him?"
When contacted by cell phone, Mr. Gunderson was perplexed. "I was wondering why she was being so sweet, why she seemed so excited about going to watch me play the slots for a long weekend. I shoulda known. She hasn't smiled like that since before we had our first kid back in '85."

He declined to answer further questions because he felt he was due to rebound at the roulette tables, but his numbers would only be hot for the next 20-30 minutes.
Alas, the above story proves (a) how often I fantasize about writing for The Onion, and (b) why they haven't knocked on my door to hire me.

But the insanity surrounding Nebraska's problems with their well-intentioned Safe Haven law bothers me so much I think I'm losing sleep over it. My only defense mechanism is to make light of what is a truly horrifying statement about our society.

Some want to dismiss this as bad parenting and leave it at that. Others want to explore how a society as advanced as ours could leave so many parents without any decent support system. I only hope that the unintended consequences in Nebraska might be enough caffeine in the system to force people with power and influence to start asking deeper questions and trying to address deeper problems about parenting in the 21st Century.

God only knows what must be going on inside those households to drive parents to such an extreme and irreversible decision. We're not talking about spouses here, grown adults whose screw-ups and foibles can be cut off from us with a couple of lawyers and a lot of asperin. We're talking kids. Kids who must have problems at a level I can only imagine.

When I try to imagine what kind of problems lead to such an end, it leaves me exhausted from sadness. It's so sad I have trouble writing about it. So I make Las Vegas divorce jokes! Ha!

Why do we romanticize the notion of having children when parenting is more like raw oysters than chocolate? Why do so many people continue to believe having a child is no harder than having a puppy? Why do some parents, who perhaps began as dedicated and involved and loving, find ways to numb themselves and create a distance when their children become less-cuddly teens? Why do some parents hate their children and express it from the earliest days on? Why are some children born with wiring so screwed up that even the most patient and loving of parents can't manage? Why why why why why? So many questions, all of them ugly and unintentionally judgmental, all of them begging for answers that might prevent the words "Safe Haven" from ever again having to be used in this horrifying context.

Both songs can be found on iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site. The Replacements kick heavily-intoxicated butt.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ever Walk These Streets?


There's probably no good reason why I should like The Streets. A 51 year old man living in Chattanooga, Tennessee listening to a young British guy with a thick accent and an idiom I don't really understand (rapping is called "spittin'") who, when he isn't telling autobiographical stories of pill-popping and club-hopping in London, is trying to rap with the same bluster as inner-city African-American rapper. Except that his taunts are things like, "My crew laughs at your rhubarb-encrusted verses."

On top of the that, the instrumentation can be repetitive and amateurish, so that everything doesn't quite add up, almost but not quite, like a homemade cake that didn't come out like the picture in the recipe but still tastes pretty good.

Thus is the transformative power of music. Even if we can't quite figure out the context or the meaning, if there's something engaging about the songs, we'll hang with them.

Welcome to The Streets. If you've never heard them (him, it's one guy, Mike Skinner, who drags in various friends when he needs them), and you're willing to listen to a couple of introductory tracks I've posted, then you're about to enter a world where (again, imagine an American rapper doing this) our protagonist starts over swelling, synthesized strings and declares himself "45th generation Roman." I love that.

It's a world where if you can't feel the effects of the first pill, you take another, and maybe another, and then deal with the consequences. It's a world where when you're out in the city, eyes are on you because you are young and wild, and the only thing that enables you to feel impervious to the "geezer stares" is the love of a good, or not so good, woman.

There's poetry here, don't doubt that, and bravado and vulnerability of a kind you've likely not experienced. Who else do you know that would close a song like this: "Stand by me, my apprentice. Be brave. Clenched fists." Who else would, in the middle of a song ("Weak Become Heroes") where he's painted a thorough picture of an ongoing nightlife over a repetive keyboard, stop, and have the sudden realization that 5 years have passed and he's been doing the same thing over and over every night during all that time.

The Streets are not afraid to make fun of himself (pronoun disagreement intentional) at the same time he is spouting a manifesto for a new kind of music that he is creating. You've got to love a guy who can admit that "[w]e both saw things from the same point of view/ She loved me and I did, too."

It's a superficial world where men worry about their hair, where rolling papers and Playstations and Mickey D's are cornerstones of a lifestyle, and I can't necessarily tell what it is he's musically rebelling against (although he says things like "This is not a club track," so it probably English pop music he despises), but, ultimately, that doesn't matter. As a listener, I get caught up in the drama of it all and, not surprisingly, end up on his side in whatever war he's fighting.




All of these songs come from The Streets' first cd, Original Pirate Material, available at Itunes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

O.A.R. "catches a crab"

O.A.R.--"Get Away (live)" (mp3)
Neil Young--"Heart of Gold (live)" (mp3)

From the Free Dictionary:

(Naut.)
a phrase used of a rower
- McElrath.
when he fails to raise his oar clear of the water
when he misses the water altogether in making a stroke.


O.A.R. is the latest of many, many, many reputable bands to succumb to the desire for a hit single. I was driving to the grocery store this afternoon and listening to the radio station my daughter had left on, and Rick Dees' show was on. When he announced that the next song was O.A.R's "Shattered (Turn The Car Around)," my jaw dropped. And it dropped even farther when I heard a bouncy little song that sounded a lot like the rest of the crappy stuff on the radio.

What? O.A.R.? Aren't they a jam band? Don't they play at places like Bonnaroo? I don't know much about O.A.R. My friend John has put them on a mix or two. But I do know that they were a band with some credibility as recently as last year. Do they still have it? Should they? The official Itunes review says that "this time around they had some help from songwriter Gregg Wattenberg, who penned hits for Chris Daughtry and Five For Fighting." Yeesh! How intentional can you be?

People who know me or who read these pages know that I can be a music snob. And perhaps the thing that chaps me the most is when I think somebody has "sold out." I turned against Carlos Santana, R.E.M., and many others when I thought they had sold out. It's a sliding scale. Here are my perhaps-hard-to-defend criteria:


1. The band or individual doesn't usually have radio-friendly hit songs, but now has them.

2. The band or individual seems to have changed their/his/her basic sound to accomplish #1.

3. The band or individual has to have been pretty good at one time; otherwise, I wouldn't give a crap.

4. Integrity can be regained.

I know, I know, it's a carefully-wrought aesthetic argument I'm crafting here, so there is bound to be some gray area. But if I stick to these four rules, then I can make allowances for those people I like who appear to have "sold out" (Bruce Springsteen on Born In The U.S.A.) and those who have tried and failed (Liz Phair), thereby avoiding my wrath.

My guiding angels in this argument are Ernest Hemingway and Neil Young. Hemingway chided F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing short stories for big money on the side, which then gave Fitzgerald the income and flexibility to pursue his true literary endeavors. Hemingway saw this is a corrupting compromise which, once done, could never be undone. What we don't know, but can surmise, is that Fitzgerald was making a buttload more money than Hemingway was at the time (yes, incredibly, at the time one could get rich publishing short stories in magazines) and that's what drove Hemingway to criticize him. As for Neil Young, he's probably one of the few major rock stars who can legitimately claim that he never sold out, hence his "hit" MTV video, "This Note's For You." His crazy, sporadic career appears to be driven by nothing more than his own artistic muse, which, admittedly, has taken him some strange places, but never to corporate sponsorship or the need for a hit song. Or so the legend goes.

And, as I noted above, I have to disagree with Hemingway somewhat. I can see how serving both money and art would lead to a dangerous compromise, but I'd like to think that it isn't a fatal one. Heck, we all have dark periods when we aren't ourselves and aren't who we want to be, and if there were no chance for redemption, what would be the point of anything?

But for now, I guess I'll just remain my usual smug self, and when I hear that O.A.R. song, I'll think, 'Man, that's some shit. Kinda catchy, though. '

"Get Away" comes from O.A.R.'s first live cd, Any Time Now. Neil Young famously said that he "headed for the ditch" after the surprise top 40 radio success of his album, Harvest. In fact, he refused to play "Heart of Gold" for many years; this live version comes from a Farm Aid concert.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All I Need

All I Need - Bethany Dillon (mp3)
Flowerparts - Bob Schneider (mp3)

You're all I need.

Two teenage girls sang a song with that line in it at church this Sunday. It was a pretty enough song, probably originally by some contemporary Christian band, and the two girls did a fine job with the vocals. Unfortunately, when one is in a particularly cynical and dark place spiritually, then cynical and dark things can bloom from even the harmonics of hopeful teenagers.

They were singing about God. God is all they need.

Part of me wishes to hell that were true. Part of me wishes life could be so simple as narrowing down our needs to God And Nothing Else. Get rid of all the distraction. All the detritus. All the inessentials. And all that would be left is you and the one thing you need: an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-loving deity who cannot be seen, who cannot be touched, who cannot be held.

If all I needed was God, I could have managed an altogether different life. No aching need for that wacky notion known as a "soul mate." No overwhelming yearning to be a father. No longing for the acceptance of peers or even a need for friendship. Altogether different notions of success and mission.

And those two girls. They would be so much better off if all they needed was God. Their bodies would not be their enemy. They wouldn't fight-- and primp -- tooth and nail for the acceptance or approval of drooling boys. Shows like Gossip Girl would never make it past the first three or four episodes, because we'd all be too busy watching preachers and gospel programs.

The other part of me, though... finds the notion of needing nothing but God very unpalatable. I'm admittedly working in extremes here. I guess there are people out there who can say "You're all I need" and mean it only in the good and healthy religious sense. I guess there are people out there who say this and aren't part of some Yellow Deli or People's Temple collective.

Most of the people I know who truly sing this and believe this and try their damnedest to live this are... um... Truth is, they're probably better off. I can say they're clueless, or they're disconnected, or they're naive, or they live in a very unstable glass house of fantasy. And it's mostly true. But none of those things are in and of themselves all that awful if you're bound for Eternal Glory, right? So what if you don't fall in love and have a family or find your passion in things beyond hymns of praise or Holy Scriptures? We're just here for a few minutes in comparison to that afterlife. No big sacrifice if you keep it all in perspective.

Maybe I'm a believer who's too far gone. I need much. I find myself enraptured by the easy brilliance of this scene from The Jerk. Although we don't all need stuff in quite this literal a way, the scene is just one more reminder that all great comedy captures a pearl of truth:

We can't need just one thing.

We're not capable. Sure, we want to believe we can, because if we could just narrow it all down, life would be so much simpler and less messy that the one we're stuck in. AllMusic.com claims more than 400 songs include the words "All I Need" in the title. I'm thinking of making a song called "All I Need is a Unicorn," because both notions are equally fantastical.

When I try to imagine singing "You're all I need" about any one person, or any one thing, or even God, it gets kinda icky and scary. I need lots of people. Some of them are specific people, and some are in the abstract, but I need them all. I need people I haven't even met yet, people who might not even have been born as I write this.

The words "You're all I need" conjures notions of addiction, and not the kind of addiction that gains you favor in Heaven. I think of alcoholics and compulsive gamblers, of overeaters and exercise freaks, of unhealthily-obsessed lovers. I think of people who have lost perspective, and maybe some of their grip on reality along with it.

Even the most devoted of childless spouses end up buying a puppy or tackling separate careers. Even the most dedicated and devoted parent yearns for other ways to find meaning. And 99.9% of religious folks have needs beyond food, water and their Creator regardless of whether they can admit it to themselves.

Maybe this is the devil on my other shoulder whispering in my ear. Maybe this is just one more sign I'm in big f*#kin' trouble when I die. But I yam what I yam. I've spent most of my life trying very hard NOT to be so completely focused or obsessed with a single thing that the other important stuff in my life fades out. I'm kinda proud that, so far, I've managed this goal quite nicely. Life has always felt more like a never-ending mixtape than a longplay version of "Every Breath You Take."

We're on a big, cool planet with billions of cool people. Wouldn't it be a crime not to need as much of the good parts and as many of the right people as we can find?

After all, this is my Father's world. Right?

"All I Need" is from Bethany Dillon's So Far... The Acoustic Sessions and can be found on iTunes and Amazon.com. "Flowerparts" is from Bob Schneider's third studio album, The Californian, available only on iTunes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bringin' The Wood

Bill Morrissey--"Birches" (mp3)
Neil Finn--"Weather With You (live)" (mp3)

I bought a load of wood yesterday, half a rick. It's one of the things that I like to do best--you know, stand outside on a cold, slightly rainy day, shooting the shit with the guy at the fruit stand who is both selling the wood and living the life that involves selling that wood.

For half a rick, I get to live that life briefly.

Bringing home the wood is among the manliest of endeavors, and that's probably why it's such a special event to those of us with suburban sensibilities.

Of course, I could just sit in your SUV and minivan and let him load the wood, but how pathetic. I've got to do it all.

"How much wood you want?"

"As much as can fit in there," you say, pointing the vast cargo space of your vehicle with the back seat down.

"Looks like she'll take about a half a rick."

"Sound good." And with that, you're in, cheerfully engaged in manual labor that you would dread if you had to do it alone in your own yard. Hmm, let's see, I need load this stack of heavy shit into my car, drive it over there, and then unload it again? Not how I'd typically want to spend my Saturday.

But here there's two of us, and, like the men we are, we take turns loading our own piles of wood into our own arms, maybe trying to outdo the other guy every once in awhile, maybe me adjusting the stack inside the car, just because it is my car. And of course we don't worry about the dirt, leaves, wood chips that fall all over the car.

What I really like is when I get home. I like to pull the car right up in front of the house so that the back of the car is right in front of the porch. And I like to stack up all of my wood, as slowly as I want, a couple of logs at a time, placing each piece strategically so that I slowly build a kind of wood puzzle that is tightly-packed, solid and level, inside the brick porch wall.

The cats, who like all things that are new, are very happy with this new perch.

And, this is just the beginning. Because then I get to carry inside the perfect pieces of wood as the first step in one of man's most primal duties: firestarter.

FOOTNOTE: Not only a great story song, "Birches" also captures the conflict between passion and sensibility in a marriage better than anything I've ever heard (or read). All using a wood-burning metaphor.


"Weather With You" comes from Finn's 7 Worlds Collide; "Birches" is on Bill Morrissey's Night Train. Both are available at Itunes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dad

Father, Son - Peter Gabriel (mp3)
Life Class - W.G. "Snuffy" Walden (mp3)

One of my more enduring memories from childhood is sitting in our living room on Saturday morning and watching Looney Tunes. My father would take a break from working in the yard or from whatever project he was buried under and plop down with a drink in his swivel rocker. I would sit on the floor next to him, and we would watch together.

My father had three different kinds of laughs. He had:
  • a social laugh -- "heh heh hehhhh"
  • a snicker intended to amuse others -- it was a cross between Mumbly the Hanna-Barbara dog and a duck quack
  • and a sincere, deep, belly laugh.
It was that last laugh, the un-self-conscious laugh of someone alone in the den with his young son, that was the most infectious to me. Although Foghorn Leghorn was one of his favorites, it was Daffy Duck that seemed to evoke the most laughter from Dad.

My biological father died just a day after I was born, which, while certainly tragic for my mother and relatives, meant I never really knew what I was missing or had lost. So the man I knew as my father was actually my step-father. He adopted me when I was five. I practically begged him. Not to get all conservative and preachy on anyone, but we all have this aching need for parental figures of both genders in our lives, from childhood on up. And I hungered this man to be in my life. I don't remember asking him to be my father, but I can vaguely remember the sense of emptiness that his presence somehow made go away.

Frank was a grossly imperfect man. He drank too much. He conferred too little. He was a little too antiquated with views on gender and race. But he was also a lifelong example of a man who prioritized humility and championed respect, loyalty and responsibility, and he loved his family -- even his adopted son -- more deeply than he was ever capable of expressing. The only ways he knew were by keeping all of our birthday cards and notes we wrote him tucked away in a file cabinet and other similar, small gestures.

I can't say I ever idolized him. I can't say he's my hero, not in the way many sons think of their fathers. But it's frustrating to me that praising him as simply being a devoted and loving (and imperfect) father isn't good enough. It was more than good enough for me, and a far better option than 99% of the alternatives. I never expected perfection, and he gave far better than I deserved.

It's been just over a year since Dad died. (Cancer. Not a particularly unique story there, although suffering doesn't have to be unique to feel that way.) He lived longer than I ever expected by making it to 74. I honestly had no idea how losing him might affect me. I spent years preparing for the inevitability of his death, but no time accurately contemplating what it would mean.

In 2006, the two of us traveled to Auburn. It was the first time he'd been back to his alma mater in decades. He'd always settled for watching the football games on TV. I can't imagine being much happier about any single decision in my life than I was about arranging for and enjoying that weekend with my father. I go back to that weekend frequently, and it's a sign of our odd biology that recalling such happiness could be so seductive and yet so agonizing.

Dad would definitely snicker that I've struggled more with his passing than I ever thought I would. I'm trying my best to show it in small gestures. The father's way, handed down to the son.

Everytime I watch Looney Tunes and find myself laughing un-self-consciously, I end up crying a little bit, too.

"Father, Son" is from both the
Barnyard soundtrack (no kidding) and Gabriel's 2003 compilation Hit. "Life Class" is from the thirtysomething soundtrack. The first can be found at iTunes, the latter I couldn't find anywhere outside my own CD collection.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Do You Wanna Touch?

Dirty World - Traveling Wilburys (mp3)

We humans are touchy creatures. We're touchy about people touching us, and we're touchy about touching other people. If our skin (and nature) is sensitive, it's especially alert to having the right or wrong people making contact.

For better and worse, I'm a touchy person. There's something in me that feeds off making physical contact with friends or acquaintances when I'm in conversation. It's not a necessity, and I won't go out of the way to feed some desperate need. But all things being equal, there's something empowering and energizing about making (non-sexual, non-aggressive) physical contact with another person. A hand on the shoulder. A pat on the back. A slight pseudo-punch on the arm. Or, in the rarest circumstances, a hug. Yes, hugs are very, very good, but they can also be horrifically awkward if done in the wrong circumstances, so guys tend to go with the "Half-Hug," also known as one arm around the shoulder with both males facing in the same direction.

On Wednesday night I was out with a group of female coworker pals, and the touchy nature of coworkers was the center of discussion. One of our coworkers has a habit of touching both male and female coworkers in very awkward ways. Nothing criminal, mind you, just icky.

A finger "tickle" above the beltline. The smirking tug of a ponytail. A very brief back/neck rubbing. We were criticizing these things and the awkward feeling they create, and my guilty conscience was going haywire, because he's only slightly more touchy than I... but I have the benefit of being scrawny and pathetically harmless-seeming while he's larger and gives off that slightly icky vibe.

When I confessed my fear of hypocrisy, my perceived harmlessness and secure marital status seemed to be key factors in why my attempts at touch were not taken in the same negative manner.

In the rational part of my mind, I get it. Most of us have this electronic security system in our bodies, and that system goes off in different ways when different people touch us. As healthy and beneficial as hugs can be, in theory, some hugs do nothing but cause that security alarm to blare inside us. I'm fortunate that my touchiness doesn't caure that alarm to go off in others very often. That I'm making contact in very obvious, non-sexual ways does not, in and of itself, exonerate me.Nor does the fact that my aim is true and my intentions pure, because in these matters, motives are meaningless and perception from the touched party is everything.

Still, it does make me just the slightest bit sad for my touchy coworker. He wants his touch to be healthy the way hugs are healthy. I doubt -- although I can't be 100% certain -- his intentions are any more nefarious or lecherous than mine, but something about his approach sets off those alarms.

We all need human touch. We all need hugs. Those of us who get more hugs and have more physical contact with our counterparts and allies tend to live healthier and happier lives. It sucks that some of us are ickier than others. Unlike the fairy tales, sometimes frogs are just frogs. They'll never turn into Prince William (or, at left, Vladimir Putin).

Sometimes we feel icky when someone touches us because our bodies are smart, and sometimes they react in a defensive way because of concerns much deeper than someone's size or looks.

And sometimes, unfortunately, life and the human response system just ain't fair.

"Dirty World" is from the Traveling Wilburys' debut album and can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com's site. "Carnival Game" is from Cheap Trick's 1997 eponymous album, and I could only find it on iTunes. It took a lot of willpower to post none of these songs: "Human Touch" by Springsteen, "Human Touch" by Springfield, and "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama and Me

XTC--"The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead" (mp3)

"he looked a lot like you and an awful lot like me" --Andy Partridge


The following original article about Barack Obama is reprinted from The Guardian UK. After all of the hoopla about how Sarah Palin was one of us, I thought I might compare myself to Obama. I have added in italics how I stack up.

Fifty things you might not know about Barack Obama (or me)

By Jon Swaine

(and Bob)


• He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics. I once had an impressive collection of comic books that my mother threw away; my more impressive baseball card collection she sold to someone for $10.

• He was known as "O'Bomber" at high school for his skill at basketball. I had a friend in 9th grade who insisted on calling me "Cassius," though I never knew why.

• His name means "one who is blessed" in Swahili. My name is a verb, meaning "to float up and down in water."

• His favourite meal is wife Michelle's shrimp linguini. I don't generally find that Italian cooking is the proper setting for shrimp.

• He won a Grammy in 2006 for the audio version of his memoir, Dreams From My Father. Using two cassette recorders, I once cut a version of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" at a beach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that captured the waves crashing ashore and a taped rhythm guitar, while I sang and played lead guitar live, getting 4 different tracks onto a cassette tape, perhaps the first lo-fi recording in history?

• He is left-handed – the sixth post-war president to be left-handed. I, too, am left-handed, though I eat right-handed, but while in Korea this past summer, I instinctively learned to use chopsticks left-handed, even though I play guitar right-handed.

• He has read every Harry Potter book. I have read every Hemingway book.

• He owns a set of red boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali. I have Roberto Clemente's autograph.

• He worked in a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop as a teenager and now can't stand ice cream. I worked in a bakery as a teenager, and, as a result, have a strong distrust for store-bought baked goods. except for thumbprint cookies.

• His favourite snacks are chocolate-peanut protein bars. I had to quit keeping pretzels in my office for my students because I was ripping through them like crazy.

• He ate dog meat, snake meat, and roasted grasshopper while living in Indonesia. I have an intact dog.

• He can speak Spanish. I have never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music.

• While on the campaign trail he refused to watch CNN and had sports channels on instead. I thought a good portion of CNN's election year coverage sucked, but I do have a thing for Campbell Brown and, just based on seeing him on TV, my wife outed Anderson Cooper.

• His favourite drink is black forest berry iced tea. I am drinking my favorite drink as I write this; it comes from the oldest brewery in America.

• He promised Michelle he would quit smoking before running for president – he didn't. If that's the only promise he's ever broken, he's in great shape.

• He kept a pet ape called Tata while in Indonesia. My friend Tommy has a brother-in-law's brother named Tanu.

• He can bench press an impressive 200lbs. I weigh an impressive 200+ lbs, which means he can probably bench press me.

• He was known as Barry until university when he asked to be addressed by his full name. My original name was to be Todd Robert, until my father decided that other kids would make fun of me by calling me "Hot Toddy."

• His favourite book is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I bought a copy of Moby-Dick just this year, intending to read it.

• He visited Wokingham, Berks, in 1996 for the stag party of his half-sister's fiancĂ©, but left when a stripper arrived. I am pretty sure I would have stayed.

• His desk in his Senate office once belonged to Robert Kennedy. I believe every JFK assassination conspiracy theory.

• He and Michelle made $4.2 million (£2.7 million) last year, with much coming from sales of his books. I have written a novel, a writing help book, and a cookbook, all of which have netted me $0.

• His favourite films are Casablanca and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. My wife likes films; I like movies, preferably World War II movies.

• He carries a tiny Madonna and child statue and a bracelet belonging to a soldier in Iraq for good luck. My Ipod never leaves me.

• He applied to appear in a black pin-up calendar while at Harvard but was rejected by the all-female committee. Most likely, I, too, would have been rejected.

• His favourite music includes Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bach and The Fugees. My daughters think that The Fugees' version of "Killing Me Softly" is superior to the Roberta Flack original. Plus, here's perhaps the only raunchy classical music joke you'll ever hear: Why did Bach have so many children? Because his organ didn't have any stops.

• He took Michelle to see the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing on their first date. I also took my wife to see Do The Right Thing, when she was pregnant with our first child, and, powerful though the film was, we were so tantalized by the pizzas coming out of the oven in that movie that we went right across the street and got pizza as soon as the movie let out.

• He enjoys playing Scrabble and poker. I find the sign "Liquor in the front. Poker in the rear" unceasingly funny for some reason.

• He doesn't drink coffee and rarely drinks alcohol. He doesn't teach.

• He would have liked to have been an architect if he were not a politician. I plan to build a brick oven in my back yard.

• As a teenager he took drugs including marijuana and cocaine. No cocaine for me, Barry!

• His daughters' ambitions are to go to Yale before becoming an actress (Malia, 10) and to sing and dance (Sasha, 7). My childhood ambition was to become "an ice cream man on a battleship." I'm sorry, I have no explanation.

• He hates the youth trend for trousers which sag beneath the backside. I don't like tatoos, piercings, and am especially freaked out by those earlobes that get stretched real big.

• He repaid his student loan only four years ago after signing his book deal. This pisses me off for some reason.

• His house in Chicago has four fire places. When I was 11, I came home to find the kitchen on fire and my father asleep on the couch and I briefly became the hero of the family.

• Daughter Malia's godmother is Jesse Jackson's daughter Santita. One of Emma's godfathers is the former drummer of Spinart recording artists, The Technical Jed.

• He says his worst habit is constantly checking his BlackBerry. My wife does the same thing, even in bed. If Blackberry advertises a soundless scroll button, they're lying.

• He uses an Apple Mac laptop. The school owns my laptop, is reluctant about updating to the latest version of Itunes, and won't let me download the program so that I can "watch instantly" on Netflix.

• He drives a Ford Escape Hybrid, having ditched his gas-guzzling Chrysler 300. Growing up in Pittsburgh, we had a gold Chrysler 300 with a black interior. Not only was it hot as a motherfucker, but, stylistically, what was my dad thinking?

• He wears $1,500 (£952) Hart Schaffner Marx suits. The black suit I currently wear came from Target and cost less than $100.

• He owns four identical pairs of black size 11 shoes. My feet are also size 11. I wonder if he has Birkenstocks.

• He has his hair cut once a week by his Chicago barber, Zariff, who charges $21 (£13). My barber, LaDonna, of the Pioneer Barber Shop in East Ridge, cuts my hair 3 or 4 times a year; she charges $12 and I tip her $2. She vacations in Daytona Beach each year.

• His favourite fictional television programmes are Mash and The Wire. Dude, I cannot believe that McNulty tried to fake a serial killer!

• He was given the code name "Renegade" by his Secret Service handlers. On a website that generated Mafia names when you entered your name, my friend Chet came out as "Chimpy Nuts."

• He was nicknamed "Bar" by his late grandmother. As a child, my dad called me "Boo"as an affectionate nickname; my brother effectively tormented me with the same nickname. Tone matters.

• He plans to install a basketball court in the White House grounds. Once on a very cold night in Pittsburgh when I was about 13, my parents allowed us to use the hose to create a thick layer of ice on our drivway and play ice hockey all night; in the morning, the sun heated the blacktop underneath and ruined it quickly.

• His favourite artist is Pablo Picasso. I got no problem with that. Which period?

• His speciality as a cook is chili. Cooking is my specialty.

• He has said many of his friends in Indonesia were "street urchins." I wonder what they said about him? Probably that he pals around with terrorists.

• He keeps on his desk a carving of a wooden hand holding an egg, a Kenyan symbol of the fragility of life. I have pretty soft hands and am fairly adept at the egg toss, even at long distances, but, like all things, eventually that egg must break.

• His late father was a senior economist for the Kenyan government. I have a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Go figure.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Listen w/o Prejudice: Rush

The third in a four-part series. Click here for the Preamble.

Rush is the Star Trek of rock.

Geddy Lee is the Jewish Kirk. Neil Peart is Spock. And Alex Lifeson's gotta be Bones McCoy. Instead of pointy Vulcan ears, we air drum every detail of Peart's solo from "YYZ" or "The Rhythm Method." Instead of bathing in Shatner's overdone melodrama, we shriek along with Geddy's trill voice.

Those who love Rush are blindly devoted. We can't remotely figure out why their songs aren't blaring out of speakers in millions of homes every day and night.

Just as Trekkies (or Trekkers) can tell you the episode numbers of specific lines or specific villains, Rushies can identify the song -- and probably chorus or verse -- of any given riff or lyrical line from the band's entire collection. Some fans, like myself, have a devotion that is more decidedly Rush: The Next Generation as opposed to Old School Rush. My undying devotion for All Things Rush doesn't really kick in until Permanent Waves, although there's plenty to adore about the older stuff, too.

I am a Rushie mostly because my friends were Rushies. Andy, my three-years-older friend since before I wore my first pair of Underoos, started playing these guys for us on his turntable when he could sneak away Exit... Stage Left from his brother's collection. It probably didn't hurt that, at just the time we were really discovering this band, we were also heavily into Dungeons + Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkein's collection.

Yes, I realize this makes the entire Rush thing pathetically predictable. Didn't Rush's entire fan base come from goobers who played D+D and loved the LOTR trilogy, you may be asking yourself? And if you are asking yourself that, you're a mean person. A bully or a bully wannabe. Go listen to your death metal and leave us geeky prog-rockers alone.

The first song I ever remember making me think, Yeah, this is my kind of band wasn't "Tom Sawyer" or "The Spirit of Radio," but the lesser-known "Red Barchetta." It was about a teen, a car, and an open road. Although I wasn't remotely interested in cars or going so fast I might die in them, it was a story I could connect with, and the music arced so well with the words. And -- let's be honest -- that one dude could pound the crap out of those drums. (For the record, it also most definitely qualifies as a great storytelling song, per Bob's post from yesterday.)

After "Red Barchetta," it didn't take much work to want to listen to "YYZ" and "Tom Sawyer" over and over. And because I only had a cassette tape copy of the concert, this required my rewinding, waiting, and playing. Rewinding, waiting, and playing. Back in the '80s, if you really loved a song, you had to endure silence and the imperfect art of searching for its beginning when you rewound. It was so much more of a dedicated love than you whipper-snappers have now, with your REPEAT button. You kids don't know what love is!

But that's for another time.

What Rush fans adore, what is the pinnacle of Great Rock for us, is instrumental mastery, technical dead-on balls accuracy*, and lyrical poetry that explores topics beyond getting laid... or breaking up after getting laid... or reuniting after breaking up after getting laid.
We drool at their concerts because the only thing more breathtaking for us than masterfully-arranged and tightly-produced recorded songs is to hear them played live, by only three people, missing nary a note, a beat, or a word.

Rush is, for all intents and purposes, the anti-jam band. The magic of their music is not the ability to stretch one song into a 20-minute walk in the woods, but rather to prove that what they executed in the antiseptic confines of a recording studio is no sleight-of-hand. It was really Rush, and they really did it with three dudes.

Just as anti-Trekkies think the original TV show is hamfisted and overdone, anti-Rushies believe their music is over-produced and pseudo-intellectual. Or, even worse, it's just intellectual. Which, like, goes against everything Rawk is about!!

Their albums since 2112 have almost all been either concept albums or albums strung together with a loose theme. Power Windows, for example, explores themes of power and transition -- either socially, geographically, politically, or spiritually. Counterparts explores interpersonal relationships, which might be de rigeur for many bands but is rarely-trolled territory for this Canadian trio. Roll the Bones looks at issues of mortality and fortune. Vapor Trails -- their first album after a double-whammy of tragedies for Peart, who lost his only daughter in a car accident and his wife shortly after to breast cancer -- explores (shocker!) the gamut of emotions in dealing with loss and struggling to overcome tragedy.

My All-Time Top Eleven (Lesser-Known, post-1983) Rush Songs:
  • The Enemy Within
  • Marathon -- Better the tortoise than the hare, right?
  • Prime Mover -- Neil's observations of life as an unexpecting father
  • The Pass -- arguably, musings on teen suicide
  • War Paint
  • Dreamline
  • Between Sun + Moon
  • Everyday Glory
  • One Little Victory (available with this post)
  • Secret Touch -- The risks and rewards of letting others into your heart
  • The Way the Wind Blows (available with this post)
Best post-1983 albums to purchase: Counterparts for overall stupendousness or Vapor Trails for their most musically aggressive and bombastic. If you'd rather hear a wide range of their ouevre, just buy one of their live albums. Exit... Stage Left, A Show of Hands and Rush in Rio are all fantabulous.

This post is dedicated to my fellow Rush fan and co-commissioner of our fantasy football league, Randy. For the Rushies out there, I welcome your respectful disagreement with any of this. For the non-Rushies, I only ask that you go easy on us. We're prog-rockers, not fighters.

Rush's 18 studio CDs, five concert albums, and dozen or so compilation albums are mostly available through iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tell Me A Story

Beck--"Mexico" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen--"Highway 29 (live)" (mp3)
Bobbie Gentry--"Ode To Billy Joe" (mp3)

The hardest type of song to write is the one that tells a story. You've got to get all of the elements in there--plot, character, etc.--plus you've got to make it fit the structure of the song, not only getting your tale to fit a rhyme scheme but also any kind of chorus you might have that hammers your theme home. To make matters more difficult, you have very, very few words with which to get your story told, and even though you can probably only sketch it out at best, I think most people want a story that's fresh and original.

Quite a challenge, I'd say.

Maybe it isn't the hardest kind of song to write, but I do think that it is the type that I most admire. Occasionally. Too many story songs break me quickly, especially if the stories are clunky or cliched. And, if the song is to be any good or successful at all, the story has to be one that you want to hear more than once or twice. That means there at least have to be parts of it that a listener looks forward to over and over--twists or special turns of phrase or line or image that produces a chuckle.

And so, I offer a few spectacular examples of the genre.

The Beck song, "Mexico," a little heard gem that came on a compilation of songs performed live at a radio station, almost doesn't sound like a Beck song at all. Just him and an acoustic guitar and a slacker tale of a guy and his friends who decide to commit a small-time hold-up at the McDonald's where the narrator used to work. The tale is full ironic, funny details. It's hard to know if it was intended or not, but the kind of careless guitar playing and twangy, off-key vocals fit the story to a "t."

Bruce Springsteen's "Highway 29" is an economical masterpiece of the genre. It's the story of a man who gets seduced into committing a crime by a woman, but as he ponders his fate, he realizes that "it was something in me" that causes him to do what he does. Springsteen also dispenses quickly with any obvious parts of the story:

It was a small town bank,
It was a mess,
Well, I had a gun,
You know the rest.

That resignation pervades the song until its a powerful, but inevitable, conclusion. It's a song where every word counts.
Probably my favorite story song for over 40 years now has been "Ode To Billy Joe," by Bobbie Gentry. And, like the rest of the world, I still don't know what the heck it means. But Gentry's song is narrated by a young woman trying to keep her composure, while her rural Mississippi family is sitting at dinner and mulling over the news that "Billie Joe McAlister jumped off the Talahatchee Bridge."

The mystery? Well, over the course of dinner, the mother reveals to her daughter that she ran into the preacher, who saw "a girl who looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge/ And she and Billie Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Talahatchee Bridge." Many have speculated as to what that something was--everything from a ring to a baby to the innocence of the '60's--but no one has yet come up with a satisfactory answer that I know of. So I keep listening to her tell the story.

I'm not aware that Beck's "Mexico" is available anywhere, but the other two songs are available at Itunes.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rockin' In The Toys R Us

Jason and The Scorchers--"When The Angels Cry" (mp3)
Dan Zanes--"No Sky" (mp3)

I don't know how I feel about rock and rollers who look to extend or improve their careers by switching to the children's market.

There was an article in the paper yesterday about Dan Zanes, who has been one of the most successful to make the switch. I don't know that much about him--he was in the Del Fuegos, who I never really listened to, but I did get his solo cd, which I liked, even though no one else did, apparently. So, having children led him to switch is career to writing children's songs, and now it's become very lucrative for him. I guess that's a good thing.

In the Chattanooga Times Free Press article, he says, "The hours are different, the band is better, but the spirit is the same. We're playing music we have an emotional attachment to and we want everyone to be a part of it and have it feel like a party."

For kids. Kind of like a wedding singer for toddlers. You sense, I'm sure, a slight, slight derisive tone here.

On the one hand, the first several waves of children's music were such shit, that when my children were that age, I could barely stand to listen to it. In those days, it seemed like of you were going to sing for kids, your name had to end with the "ee" sound--Barney, Raffi, Yanni, whatever. And the music, sung either in an annoying mock-animal voice like a chipmunk or a dinosaur or sung in a mugging, super-smiling, over-the-top manner couldn't bridge the gap between the young'uns who would chant the stuff like Moonies and the adults who alternated between grimacing and getting a little programmed themselves.

In my humble opinion, the kid-friendly versions of classic rock songs weren't much better. So along come the new breed, guys like Zanes and one of my favorite rockers, Jason Ringenberg, formerly of Jason and the Scorchers, and now performing under the moniker, Farmer Jason.

These guys bring credibility with them. Their songs are more likely traditional tunes or authentic updates, and you don't mind listening along a bit.

But here comes the philosophical question: do kids really need dumbed-down or gently-interpreted versions of real music? Last summer, I gave my friend John a burn of my favorite songs by the Sheds, an unsigned band from around Cincinnati that I discovered on another blog. A few listens of that and his kids were clamoring to hear the songs again and again. Now, granted, their favorite song was about a bunch of musicians meeting up at a trailer to get wasted and maybe playing a few tunes, but his whole car would be singing along: "Kind bud, can I get another beer?/ There's a cooler in the front and a cooler in the rear."

More to the point, I guess, is whether you maintain your musical integrity when you switch to children's music. I fully understand that a guy's got to eat, and if all you've done to earn money is to play music, it's kind of hard to switch to insurance when you're 42 years old. I think I'm probably being romantic when I imagine starving musicians sticking to their "rock and roll code," whatever that is, even as the market dries up around them. But I can still picture Jason and the Scorchers up on that stage, spitting out "Gold Ball and Chain," heavy metal lead guitarist Warner Hodges wailing away, one cigarette in his mouth and another pinched between the strings on the head of his guitar, beers flowing, people pushed up against the stage, each drumbeat or chord robbing me of a little more hearing.

Maybe this is why Neil Young once suggested that "it's better to burn out than to fade away." Hell, even Jerry Garcia put out a children's record. Kind of.

Friday, November 7, 2008

F^#k Abstinence! Help Me Jeebus!

Sin So Well - Rebekah (mp3)
The Way the Wind Blows - Rush (mp3)

Ninety-five percent of Americans are deflowered before their wedding night. Only five out of every 100 of us make it to the altar as virgins. Mormons, atheists, Catholics, the Amish, Moonies, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, blacks, honkeys, dwarves, all of us.

This ain't the first time I've carped about this topic. Or even the second time. It won't be the last. For every single uncontrollable lusty urge we adults have, teenagers have, like, 200 of them. They have one for, like, everytime they say "like." Except they're expected to fight every single one of those urges, where we can go wake our spouse or significant other and have quick emergency sex. [NOTE: I've never done this, but I've read about it. OK, I've never even read about it, but we still have more options than teenagers.]


So long as there's millions of jackasses with blinders on who prefer their fairytale pretend 14 A.D. world where dinosaurs roamed with St. Paul over the one where actual people with blood and reproductive organs happen to reside, this topic will continue to fascinate me.

They act like Jesus was this unsympathetic block of ice who only spoke to or tolerated perfect people. If I weren't such a Christian, I'd want to bash their skulls with a dildo.

My dander got raised this time because of two recent stories. First, I just got around to reading the Newsweek issue that includes an article about the fading strength of the "Abstinence-Only" sex-ed movement. Then, in a conversation with a co-worker last week, I learned about a TV show called -- and I'm not even kidding -- "Purity Balls."

Stop chuckling. If you would like to know more about ... um ... Purity Balls, you can read a New York Times article, or if that rag is too socialistic and liberal for you, read the Glamour magazine article.

Mama doesn't like when I sin so well
Heaven's kinda far but I swear that when I'm comin' it's close
'Cuz I sin so well
Lead us not into temptation
Oh but what a way to go...

If Promise Rings rate a 7 out of 10 on the Awkard 'n' Icky Scale, then Purity Balls go to 11. It's one level of odd for a young lass to make a pledge to her Creator and wear a ring to symbolize that promise. It's an altogether different universe of FUBAR for a girl and her father to exchange vows.

The father vows to protect his daughter's chastity until she marries?!? Duuuuude, the only way in hell you can be absolutely certain to make good on that promise is to lock her up and eat the key (in a very non-sexual way). Who the f*#k do these guys think they are, Superman?? Do they have super-hearing? Can they hear the zipper on their daughter's jeans as she sits in her boyfriend's basement on the other side of town? And can they fly at the speed of sound over to his house, vibrate through the walls, and rescue her before that damn boy's fingers and other digits can do the walking?

"Are you ready to war for your daughter's purity?" Did a pastor really say that? Did he say it out loud? As if chastity could be protected like Fort Knox? As if a teenager's vagina can be defended like Iraq? What would a "troop surge" look like?

This pastor said it to a room full of men who, odds are, impregnated their wives prior to their being married or otherwise had sex with multiple women before settling down with the Missus. (OK, there's always those few dorks who couldn't get laid in a morgue who can, thanks to rose-colored glasses and revisionist history, look back on their virginity as some badge of honor, even though they had absolutely no say in it whatsoever.)

God might have to forgive me, but I just don't think He wants us to bury our head and ignore reality. Humans are not ostriches. That's why God made ostriches.

We can only go the way the wind blows
We can only bow to the here and now
Or be broken down blow by blow


What does it do to a child to be raised by a father who actually thinks he can control her virginity? What does it do when she believes having sex banishes her from the grace of God? How many Bristol Palins must there be before we stop shaming kids into dark corners in abandoned houses and right into teenage pregnancies?

Jesus wasn't trying to program us to walk into walls, like we're malfunctioning robots or something, too stupid to adjust to the shifting sands of time. Deep down, these people -- who are my brothers and sisters in faith no matter how much it pains myself or them -- know it. They know it because most of them work on Sundays (or condone those who do), and most of them happily condone the touching of a dead pig on Saturdays and Sundays, not to mention allllll that tasty, scrumptious, pulled pork BBQ! If you want more fun examples, just watch that oh-so-awesome clip from The West Wing.

White weddings were a brilliant idea for kids who married at 12 and 13. But Americans today get married, on average, at 25 years old. Sorry, but I don't believe Jesus ever intended people to wait 1/3 of their lives and stave off the most insanely hormonal phase of their lives anymore than God intended to make Sunday football punishable by death. Otherwise, Jeff Gordon is going to hell for failing to keep the Sabbath holy every time he gets in that damn car.

To SuperChristians, that makes me The "R" Word: a Relativist.
In SAT-speak, Relativist : Evil :: Uppity : "N Word"
Apparently, when they call someone a "relativist" is, well, relative.

Extremist religion -- particularly conservative Christianity -- is going to either be the death of all of us, or it will end up choking on its own vengeful angry bile. What do they care if they destroy us, since they're so hellbent on getting to heaven, and so very confident that they're the most specialest superduperest Chosen People among all of God's people? They've got nothing to lose, in their minds. Meanwhile, I'm happy to wait a while, enjoy the ride before having to step onto that great escalator to the sky.

Take these Purity Balls and shove 'em. And stop exchanging vows with your daughters; that's just sick, dudes. Besides, she's just in it for the bling of the ring. And just like her Mommy and Daddy, she ain't gonna deserve that white dress she wears when you give her away.

"Sin So Well" is from Rebekah's only album, Remember to Breathe. "The Way the Wind Blows" is from Rush's 18th and most recent studio album, Snakes + Arrows. Both can be purchased through iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.