Monday, December 31, 2012

These Are The Voyages

It’s time.
Words: the Final Frontier. These are the voyages to the Bottom Of The Glass. Its five-year mission: to explore strange perspectives, to seek out new music and song arrangements, to boldly write how no man has written before.
Yeah, it's hokey and bold and completely BS. The starship Enterprise had a five-year mission, too. Tells you what those damn mission statements are worth, right?

In March of 2013, Bottom of the Glass will turn five. We will have spent five years writing about anything and everything, with a particular affection for popular and rock music from the past half-century.

We’ve written close to 1,200 entries and received more than 800,000 page views without making a penny of profit. Our fan base has fluctuated and changed with the years, and we have valued everyone who visited, most especially those who chose to return. I can think of few compliments more valuable than a return reader.

My personal mission with BOTG was to condition myself for writing, to do so consistently and regularly, in the hopes of eventually translating that conditioning into a more ambitious project. (And to embark on an adventure with a true friend and mentor. Because I’ve never embarked on an adventure with a true friend that I’ve lived to regret. Yet.) After five years of enjoying BOTG for what it is -- a very healthy psychological escape and means of (sometimes) creative expression -- it feels long past due to try something bolder. And what better time than at the dawn of a new year?

It’s time.

This fall, I was made aware of a young adult novel written by a girl who graduated high school the same year I did. She was a stunning, mesmerizing young lady who went on to become a licensed psychologist. I caught wind of her book on Facebook, saw that it was being offered for free via Kindle for a limited time, and immediately pounced on it.

One night in high school after an away basketball game in town, I was given the rare opportunity to go hang out with some of the popular kids. We all went over to one guy’s house and just hung out. Listening to music, watching TV, talking, all of it without the presence of alcohol or tobacco, which always seems trumped up in its omnipresence in teen movies. Anyway, this young woman, this future author and I, we found ourselves in a private conversation where we listened over and over to the lyrics of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel, sifting through the references, debating what the hell Billy was ultimately trying to say.

(But seriously, what is the fire, who did start it, who tried fighting it, how did they fight it, and why didn’t they fucking win?)

While I’m proud of this former classmate, mostly what I felt as I read the first 40 pages of her book was this burning annoyance in the depth of my chest: jealousy. She finished what I have failed to finish.

Am I a better writer than her? Can I write a better story than her? Honestly, that’s not really the origin of my jealousy. How can I know whether I’m better at marathons when I’ve never finished one? So in the mental competition between myself and her as a novelist, she's kicking my ass either way.

So, it’s time.

My writing endurance is solid. I am now addicted to scheduled writing. Eight to 10 entries each month, 600-800 words each entry. If I took half of my entries from the year and dedicated those words to a novel, I’d have between 40-50,000 words. That’s roughly half the length of your standard YA novel.

What I know with near-certainty is that I still remember that encounter while she does not. She probably had a thousand encounters with smitten boys trying to seem smart and discussing some song or poem or book with her, while I only had a handful.

But this girl, and Billy Joel, and being 40, all of it’s screaming that it’s time I invested serious time and energy into doing this. It’s time.

I cannot say what the future holds for BOTG, either long-term or short-term, because part of the fun has been that Bob and I haven’t worried too much about it. I plan on continuing once each week with BOTG for as long as Bob will have me, for as long as the two of us can keep it going, but BOTG was never entirely the ends for me but rather the means to something, and it’s past time I explore that.

Wish me luck. It'll take some luck.

Friday, December 28, 2012

This Is Life

It is three days past Christmas, but we are determined to get a family Christmas picture taken and to send it out as part of a "New Year's" card.  We have chosen our favorite fried chicken place as the whimsical setting for the photo.  We have recruited one of my daughter's friends to handle the photo shoot in exchange for lunch.  

My wife is late from court, so we sit at the table with our drinks and wait, make small talk, change what we will order more than once.  Get some lemons for the iced tea.  The usual.  

When my wife comes, I say, we will take the picture.  My younger daughter disagrees, saying the waiter won't understand why there is no one at the table.  We spar a bit, gently.  My wife arrives, jacked up from her time in front of a judge with two other lawyers she terms "jackasses."  It's the usual, trying to get her to detox from work and to enjoy a simple, weekday lunch.  We order in a flurry of last-minute changed orders--words like salad, buffalo chicken, chicken fingers, Ranch dressing, cole slaw swirl around as the waiter tries to keep up with our energy.

Then we begin to talk about the photo itself, but my wife can't break away from her phone, her work.  Another phone vibrates.  My younger daughter picks it up.  "It's Chrissy," she says, which is weird, because Chrissy is my older daughter's friend.  My younger daughter answers, says, "Yes, she's right next to me" and hands the phone to my older daughter.

Then everything changes.  My older daughter's emotions, first of all, because she is irritated at Chrissy, who has asked her if she has heard anything, and my daughter says, "Heard what?  Just tell me."  And as she is told, her face goes blank, then her hand covers her mouth, then her eyes begin to tear up, then she is crying, then my younger daughter is holding her, all while we watch and try to understand.  When she can finally talk, she tells us that a friend of hers, someone we all have known since kindergarten, has been killed in a car accident.  

Then everything changes.  Her friend, sitting next to her, our photographer, goes to her own phone, trying to get her own information from a different friend.  My younger daughter has not stopped hugging her sister, even as the phone conversation continues.  My wife and I go from quick shock to quicker tears, and we, too, try to figure out our own ways to get information.

And then the food arrives, quicker than it ever has at this restaurant--2 buffalo chicken salads, 2 fried chicken salads, and a 2-piece white meat plate--so we accept the food before we have time to tell the waiter we don't want the food, and he doesn't seem to know, or maybe he does, or maybe he knows something but not what, and so wants to drop the food quickly and get away from us.  And so we have our food right on top of our shock right on top of our grief.

The rest of the meal is mundane and chaotic.  We eat without thinking, picking here or there, saying what people say when they don't know what to say, leaving to take or to make phone calls, putting food in our mouths because there is nothing else to do, there is nowhere else to go yet, and because we might as well, a little food, a little energy, a request for to-go boxes.  But where will those boxes go?  

And we pay and we part.  My older daughter and her friend to a house where other friends are gathering.  My wife to try to shut down her work obligations.  My younger daughter and I back home where her grandmother awaits.  

The rest of the day becomes talking, looking at pictures, making a cake to take to the family, keeping hair appointments, remembering the young woman as she was when she was a girl and when we knew her best, lamenting this or that, saying things within this family about that family and its problems, sitting, talking, looking, waiting, searching the Internet for information, speculating, mourning, retelling, sitting closer, switching attention to the dog, making phone calls, sending texts, critiquing Facebook grieving, telling stories, finding more pictures, looking for reasons and finding things that don't make sense.

This is not morose.  This is not overly-dramatic.  This is life, like it or not.  The sudden, inconvenient, shocking, unexplainable event that takes over a day and days to come, the unexpected and unable to plan for.  What you will feel, what you will think, what you will say and regret or say and surprise yourself, what you will come to know or what you knew but didn't know you knew, you can never know until this happens.  What will come out or what rationale you will create for the irrational, all of these things will rise from the dark, fetid dirt like mushrooms. 

Sometime later, you may find a way to account for this and you, but you cannot account for it now, except to know that you are alive and that you have added even more weight to that journey ahead.  This is life.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Houses of Cards

Happier - Guster (mp3)

I’m going to start a new seasonal business for set-up in malls across the country.

Facing one side will be Santa’s chair and the elves, and the moms will line up with their little darlings to get that priceless pic of their precious screaming in terror from having to sit on the lap of some bearded old dude.

Facing the other side will be a fake family. Three children dressed in matching sweaters, and two picture-perfect white adults of somewhat indistinguishable age, the kind of adults you can’t quite tell if they’re under 30 or approaching 40 because it doesn’t matter, because they’re adorable and perfectly put-together either way...

You see, back around Thanksgiving, my wife put up a fancy felt board of sorts at our doorway this holiday season, on which she has pinned the dozens of cards sent to us over the holidays.

Not quite a quarter of cards came from older couples or those with empty nests, and none of those cards included photographs. They were just cards. The majority of cards, by far, came from Marrieds With Children. One single amazing photo of the family, or of just the children. Or a photo collage of each individual child, sometimes with the parents in a separate shot as well.

Married people with children with a minimum income range of $50,000 per year send Christmas cards with pictures on them. That’s just what we do in 21st Century America. It’s so ingrained and expected that people do it even while they complain about the stupidity and pressurized feel of this tradition.

Wealthier couples send cards that scream of wealth. Professionally-shot photos, often in black and white, on thick card stock, sometimes even done with with die cuts or on letterpress, the kind of thing now available through Apple’s iPhoto in the hopes of helping upper middle class Marrieds With Children buy what was previously only available to high class MWCs.

My many friends and relatives who have not yet married have never, to the best of my knowledge, sent photo Christmas cards. Doing so requires a level of shamelessness or satire few are willing to pull off. None of the couples who have divorced in the last few years sent us a card, not even just one with a collage of the children. Once they settle back into a new cozy relationship with a replacement heterosexual mate and possibly additional children, they’ll likely rejoin the Christmas card photo battalion.

I was in Target on Christmas Eve and ran into an absolutely gorgeous divorcee we knew. She and her hubby used to send us Christmas cards of their family. As we stood in the overlong checkout line, talking politely about our kids and the crazy holiday insanity without ever bringing up her current relationship status*, I realized we hadn’t received a card from them in two, maybe three years.

(* -- Side Note: I’ve decided that it’s even more uncomfortable to talk about someone’s divorce than it is to talk about their having a terminal illness.)

These cards, they’re like instant dividers. They identify your social class, your financial portfolio, your marital status, your parental status, even occasionally the degree of religious fervor.

I’d like to bring us all back under the same Christmas card umbrella. I’d like to do Apple one better. With my mall photo service, single people and divorced people will finally be able to get family portraits taken so that they, too, can make Christmas Cards to send to all the people they’re supposed to love. Rather than be forgotten by their MWC pals, drowning in their pile of MWC cards, they can jump straight to the forefront, with rumors of the origins of their mysterious new perfectly-formed family!

If it goes well enough, soon enough married people will come in, too. Just for that chance to see what that new family looks like in the dressing room mirror. Just for one brief alternate universe Christmas moment.

When I make my first million, I’ll send you a Christmas card with my new family on it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Oh, Baby, You Are The MOST!

In a continuing effort to not be one of those people who declares something the "Best" at the end of the year (and therefore have disparagement heaped upon me), I've come up with a different word for my end-of-year list of superlatives and unsuperlatives: MOST!  Instead of the all-encompassing "Best," I've decided to write about the "Most."  This way, the majority of one that constitutes your scribe cannot be accused of inflicting his opinions as certainties, mere as the results of votes taken down in this dimly-lit basement when I was the only one here.  So here goes:

MOST SATISFYING MOVIE EXPERIENCE:  Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.  As usual, I don't have any idea what the national critics have to say, but this off-kilter tale of innocent love in New England makes its quirkiness serve the larger purpose, unlike, say, Fargo, and so the characters matter and the charm of the film is so overwhelming that even Bruce Willis is perfect.  Yes, it follows the standard comic pattern, but in no way that is standard.

MOST RAUNCHY MOVIE EXPERIENCE THAT SOMEHOW MANAGES TO BE SWEET AS WELL:  Ted, hands down.  Endearing characters and a heart that Family Guy has never had.  The writing is clever, the acting is top-notch, and you never doubt the premise.  Plus, an homage to the 1980's Flash Gordon.  Way better than it has any right to be.

MOST POWERFUL BOOK:  Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat.  I taught this one to a group of boys--female writer/female narrator, and though their praise was not universal, they could not deny the overwhelming complexity of ethical choices that the book presents in a very human way.  You may not particularly like Grace Winters, but you cannot deny how her station in life impacts the decisions that she makes.  No survivor in any situation emerges unscathed, and she never withholds her thought processes, however unsavory they might be.

MOST EDIFYING CONCERT EXPERIENCE:  Seats behind the stage at Springsteen--twice!  As everyone likes to remind me, I fought for decades the need to see Springsteen again after the transcendent 1978 shows, but the man "rages against the dying of the light" better than anyone, and it would be a callous person who did not get caught up in the infectious joy that Springsteen and co. delivered each time I saw them.  Love or hate his music, he is America's consummate live performer in our 237 year old history.

MOST INNOCENT CONCERT EXPERIENCE THAT MANAGED TO FREAK OUT CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS:  So, at least in Chattanooga, we still have some work to do on accepting gay people.  Sufjan Stevens' Christmas show was a pinnacle of joyous innocence, a Christian celebration that also gently mocks all of the holiday's commercial trappings, but that goes all out in expressing the artist's love for its sacred origins.  Sometimes true believers freak out other people, even those who see themselves as true believers, and that seemed to happen here.  A wondrous spectacle that I will remember for years to come, everytime I listen to Stevens' original songs.

MOST AWESOME CHRISTMAS GIFT:  Yep, I'm rockin' the Big Green Egg.  God grant me the fortitude to actually take care of it.

MOST USEFUL APP (TIE):  Zite and Pinterest.  Even though I don't like the Zite upgrade that has happened in the past few weeks, no form of media got me through the presidential election like Zite.  Building continually on my preferences, Zite gave me Nate Silver and Rachel Maddow and other sites that actually knew what was happening in the election, especially when the mainstream was buying the bullshit.  That I cook regularly from Pinterest is a testament to its ever-growing usefulness.

MOST LEGITIMATE PROOF THAT TELEVISION IS BETTER THAN MOVIES:  The list continues to be overwhelming:  Scandal, Game Of Thrones, Season 2, Homeland, Bored To Death, Archer, Veep, The Newsroom, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and yes, even The Office, which may not be as funny as it once was, but the writing may be better than ever. 

MOST "ADULT" EXPERIENCE:  No, not that kind.  I'm talking about testifying in a child-custody hearing, but then, I'm only a minor player and I know the principals never expected to be there, either.  Add that to the list of things I never thought about having to do.

MOST DISAPPOINTING SPORTS YEAR:  The Vols, the Pirates, the Steelers, my high school, no hockey, the list is endless.  That, like Billy, I also kind of lost interest, made the losses worse, not better.

MOST EXCITING TRAVEL STORY:  Leaving New York City just late enough that it wasn't too much of a stretch to claim that we barely got out of there ahead of the hurricane.  And, add to it the disillusionment of discovering that an airline will sell your seats out from under you even when they know that you will land in Charlotte in time to make your connection.

MOST EXCITING TRAVEL:  My Blues grant to Mississippi ranks as the top trip because it was a trip where my friend and I committed to a total immersion into the blues--every song, every second in the car had a blues song playing in the background, and that was only the soundtrack for exploring the history, geography, food, museums, reading, photographing, graveyard searching, juke joints, and accidental discoveries that constitute a full exploration of a topic.

MOST INVIGORATING FOOD: Getting to eat at Momofuku in NYC, the pastrami sandwich at Katz's Deli in the same town, finding Hansen's Sno-Blitz finally open in New Orleans, the Oreo Concrete at Ted Drewe's in St. Louis, the steak and fries and salad at Doe's Eats in Greenville, and, most of all, Tuesdays at NaGoYa with my pals.

I hope it was a "most" year in some positive ways for you.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tie-In, Buy-In

I know that a lot of women will probably disagree with me, but I don't care what Brad Pitt smells like.  Even more, I don't want to smell like him.  Nor do I want the woman in my life to smell in a way that Brad would like.  It isn't personal.  It isn't because I'm threatened.  I just don't see the connection.

Walk through a shopping mall these days, and you will see any number of stars, not advertising their own works, but serving as the face of some corporate product.  You can see Taylor Swift.  You can see has-beens like Brittney Spears.  Or you can see Brad.

Now I don't care that there are giant posters of Brad all over the shopping mall. He is a star; he's a good-looking guy.  I just don't like seeing him in an advertisement.  I'd rather see him on a movie poster.  But, instead, he's hawking Chanel 5.  Is that for men or women?  I don't know enough about it to know.

What I do know is that Brad does not dictate my cologne, my after shave, or even my soap, since the latter is probably what I most regularly smell like.  Because a) I don't really care about it all that much and b) I'm not sure what the source of his expertise is. 

It's possible, only possible, that I might seek out a particular guitar product because, say, Eric Clapton endorses it, and his own talents are beyond question.  But only possible, I suggest, because even though he knows guitars, I'd still wonder in the back of my mind whether he really uses the product or whether he is just paid to say he uses it? 

And that's the trouble with all of these tie-ins.  Does Brad Pitt really legitimize a perfume or a cologne? Do I really think it's a great status symbol to wear the same watch that Eli Manning does?  (Although I suppose one could argue, how does any beautiful model or sexy photograph really capture the properties of personal products?).  The point here seems to be different, though, because some current movie stars or music stars or other celebrities seek to become a "brand" rather than a human being known for a particular talent or trait.  

Branding, to me, is overreaching.  Branding attempts to push a person beyond his or her sphere of legitimate influence and into a ubiquitous presence, a kind of personal corporation.  Even though I acknowledge that there must be ungodly sums of money that comes one's way as result of tying oneself to all kinds of different products and circumstances, I'm still surprised that stars agree to do it.  I think it makes them look foolish.

Probably, that's just me.  For I have plenty of fellow music lovers, for example, who refuse to see the negative impact of a good song becoming the soundtrack for a television commercial.  They don't see that that makes the song somehow less good.  Maybe because it doesn't.  Or maybe it does because the song is selling the car and the car is selling the song and the repetitiveness of a popular ad could create a concert situation where instead of internalizing the lyrics of a classic tune, I might have an insatiable urge to get in a rugged vehicle and do things in it that only professional drivers on a closed, test track are able to do.

It's maybe worse when the people are the brands.  Take Taylor Swift, for example, whose face is also all over the mall connected to products and whose most recent CD cover looks more like a GAP or Banana Republic photo shot than a thematic representation of the music inside.  It's almost like Swift or her handlers have realized that her career arc will be very, very brief and that they must get everything while the gettin' is good.  

Some say that's practical; I say that's cynical.

The problem is that mega-exposure and overly-ambitious (as in, what the heck are you hawking that for?) make that brief arc a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If I have to be assaulted with Taylor Swift or the Kardashians or the fading male beauty of Brad Pitt everywhere I go, I'm not going want to look at them or hear from them for very long before I'm completely sick of them.  I'm not going to acknowledge the quality of Taylor Swift's new CD because I can't take her seriously as a musician because she's out selling everything everywhere.

Over-exposed celebrities are, perhaps without their realizing it, creating their own obsolescence. In fact, I'll push this line of thinking one step further:  usually by the time the advertisers get ahold of you, you're already finished, at least finished as what you were that made them want to use you for their ads.  The sad spectacle of Brad Pitt selling smells in the mall is undeniable, because we all carry our own commercial cynicism, which tells us:  If You're Doing That, It Must Be Because You Have To.  Right?

Careful, stars, you get what you're paid for.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is Variety The Spice Of Life?

I took Billy's recommendation and purchased the highly-regarded Japandroids CD, Celebration Rock.  It's a pretty good listen in a way--high-energy, straight-ahead rock with good "rock" lyrics (meaning songs filled with disenchantment with the adult world, which has always been one of the themes that rock handles best).  It'll stir your coffee if you crank it in the car on your way to work.

In addition to the provocative opener "The Nights of Wine and Roses," I am especially partial to "Fire's Highway" and "Adrenaline Nightshift."  But I'll stop my praise there because my purpose is not to re-review the CD or, really, to even talk about Japandroids except as an example for a larger question.

The thing that struck me about the CD was how similar all of the songs were.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not about to become the rock version of that idiot who says that all bluegrass sounds the same.  But what I am suggesting is that the speed and the approach of the songs is similar from the first to last song of that short CD.  Notice I did not say "repetitive."  Notice that I am not calling Japandroids a one trick pony.

But their CD is an aural assault from beginning to end, and I'm pretty sure that they wanted it that way.  I'm also sure that we all know at this point that the guitar-and-drums two person band is no particular limitation in and of itself.  From the Flat Duo Jets and House Of Freaks in the 80's to The White Stripes and The Black Keys and others I may not know, this kind of band has proven to be most anything it wants to be.  No, Japandroids know exactly what they're doing, fitting music to theme.

But it's also fair to say that if you like one of their songs, you'll probably like all of them.  If you don't, well, their palette dictates that you're either in or you're out.

I contrast them, however, with another favorite CD I've mentioned this year, Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.  The aging Boss explores all kinds of musical styles on his CD.  Some of them enrich his music; some are kind of ho-hum, maybe new to him but not so new.  But both CDs are still very good, and in both cases, given the evolution of musical listening, I will gravitate toward favorite songs rather than straight, top-to-bottom listening of the CDs.

Still, this got me to wondering about variety.  Is the greater artist the one who keeps trying new things instead of doing what he or she always did, but with increasing skill or experience?  Do we expect variety?  Do we want it?  Does familiarity breed contempt?  

There are several restaurants that I go to that I always list among my "favorite" restaurants in this city, but the reality is that I order the same thing, or choose from among the same two or three things, every time that I go to those places to eat.  Would I be better served to try something new each time, to be able to say that I've eaten the entire menu and can attest to its breadth and quality?  Am I limiting myself by continuing to go with what I know that I will enjoy?

The situations, of course, are not analogous.  It can get pricey to have to order a new meal if you didn't like the one you ordered.  It's easy to change songs or CDs if you aren't into what you are listening to.  And were we to drift into a discussion of friendships or relationships or careers, who knows where we would end up.

I think most of us end up as a contradictory mix of wanting to try the new and clinging to the comfort of the old.  We lean either way whenever it suits us, maybe feeling risky and frisky when the context is a little safer, less so when there is something really at stake.  Yes, new things, new options, new outlooks can refresh, but change for change's sake wouldn't seem to have much lasting power either.

Me, while I like to think of myself as open to the new, I often have to be dragged toward it and have my head dunked in it before I will say, "Hey, that is pretty good."  Here's hoping that a band like Japandroids will have reasons to broaden their sound and their approach, not because those are commercial considerations, but because an ever-ripening outlook demands it.

(My apologies to readers, since this is only half thought out.  Sometimes that is the nature of the blogging game!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brokeback Ocean

Take a gander across the spectrum of music critics, and the runaway frontrunner for Album of the Year is Frank Ocean's Channel Orange. On Metacritic's 2012 scorecard, there's not another album that comes close.

There's a better than 50% chance that you have never heard of Frank Ocean or Channel Orange. It's only the 74th-best-selling album of the year, half the sales of my own pick, Celebration Rock. So, how was someone this far under the radar so universally acclaimed as having released The Best Album Of The Year.

The answer is simple: Brokeback Mountain.

Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" vied for Best Film of 2005 even though hindsight and the decreasing power of its groundbreaking gayness allow reasonable minds to recognize it as a flawed and derivative film. As a Hollywood elevator pitch, it's "An Affair to Remember" meets "Shane" starring Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, and that's pretty much all it is. Plus Randy Quaid, who was batshit nuts.

The nominations and the accolades were more of a nod to the courage it took to make a very standard Hollywood movie out of a taboo(-ish) topic. The movie was courageous, and it was groundbreaking in a way. And it can be debated whether those characteristics alone merit the hype bestowed upon it.

But “Brokeback Mountain” is a movie, and Channel Orange is music, and there is a crucial and ultimate difference between the experience of film and the experience of music. Most normal people (I am not normal) will see most movies only once or twice in their lives. The first encounter with a film is everything, often the only thing.

Music is entirely different. Most normal people who buy an album will listen to that album over, and over, and over. Loving an album is to consistently return to its well of sound, to drink it in again and again.

Frank Ocean's smooth R&B album manages to do something daring, altogether groundbreaking. He manages to craft an album around the fact that the object(s) of his affection are male. And... Ta-Da! Best Album!

Before you go off assuming this is some homophobic rant, I should warn you: I own 2 1/2 Scissor Sisters albums, and I'm not afraid to go quoting enough lines from "Skin Tight" to knock your head akimbo. While I don't consider myself an aficionado of unabashedly gay music, I've never been bothered or uncomfortable with it, either. If it's got a beat, I can dance to it. If it's got some harmonies, I'll sing to it.

But here's the thing about Channel Ocean: it doesn't have much beat, and it doesn't have much harmony. It just meanders along with a slow boring groove and mostly slow boring songs. It sounds a lot like R. Kelly on valium, basically.

The album doesn't suck. "Pyramids" is fairly strong, and "Bad Religion" is an intriguing change of pace   where the organ and percussion arrangement works very well. But as a whole, it plods.  The subject matter matched with the musical genre might well be groundbreaking, but it's not a well worth back to over and over. If that's true, if it's not an album that begs repeated listening, then how supremely good can it really be?

Like "Brokeback Mountain," Channel Orange deserves recognition for Ocean's courage and for crossing a line few if any have been able to cross with quality. But to be the best, mustn't it also be sonically awesome rather than just "decent" + "gay"? Or is pretty decent (gay) R&B enough of an accomplishment?

If so, that's a damning statement about the quality of music in 2012. Decide for yourself. You can stream his album here or here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Album of the Year: A Generation's Bonfire

Celebration Rock, the sophomore outing from the two-man group known as Japandroids, dares to condone things seemingly long forgotten by our culture: doing stuff that ain’t good for you, and flipping off anyone who raises an eyebrow.

Long lit up tonight and still drinking, / Don’t we have anything to live for? /
Well of course we do, but until it comes true / We’re drinking

Their message to this generation of coddled and overprotected youth is not one of nihilism but a call to live their lives by learning the only way we ultimately can: by doing. It is a 35-minute call to arms for the coveted 15-30 demographic to get off their asses and take ownership of their own fate.

We are in a musical era filled with the lyrics-by-numbers of One Direction and the autotuned synths of endless R&B/hip-pop acts. Those rare bands and musicians not obsessed with getting laid, falling in love, or recovering from a break-up tend to fall into a category apparently known as “Nu-Folk” or New Folk, depending on what side of the pond you’re on. For all of my love of this sound -- from Frightened Rabbit and Admiral Fallow to the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons -- it is not the music of reckless abandon or youthful intensity.

Wildness is our treasure / so boldly surrender / to me and to the night

In a year of mostly harmless, mostly acoustic- or synth-driven, often contemplative rock music, the Japandroids released something urgent and primal. It dares to attempt what was once the sole purpose of rock: the celebration of impulses, the war of our dark and decent urges, the siren call of desires in our youthful skulls.

Hitchhiked to hell and back / riding the wind / Waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin
When the plunder of the poets, / thunder of a punk’s guitar
Beat life to my body / sulking drunk at the back of a bar

With only eight songs, Celebration Rock is what they call “muscular” and “lean.” Such a short album demands to be respected as a collection, demands to be given no passes for moments of crap. The only less-than-mindblowing song on the entire collection comes with their cover of Gun Club’s “For The Love of Ivy.”

The lyrics won’t have Keats writhing in jealousy from his grave, but they do pack weight in their words. In "Younger Us" they describe almost every college-aged memory I still cherish:

Remember saying things like ‘we’ll sleep when we’re dead’
And thinking this feeling was never gonna end
Remember that night you were already in bed
said ‘fuck it’ got up to drink with me instead

This band knows me. That’s what it feels like when listening to them. It feels like they’ve been watching my entire life play out on some DVR in their mystical living room. Of course that's silly. But I know I'm not alone. Lots of people hear this album and feel a part of them has been captured. And when a band can tap into that many spines, they've done something magical.

Get up and go out and live your f*#king life. Make a bunch of stupid mistakes. And risk screwing up not because nothing matters; risk it because that’s how we grow up. Muscles can’t build up if they don’t first break down, and neither can people.

"The headphone jack is now...
on the bottom! Mind... blown."
The album’s concluding song, “Continuous Thunder” offers an observation that, every time I hear it, I do that little mind-blowing pantomime from the Samsung commercial, because in a few lines he describes everything wrong with our romantic ideals and everything that kills relationships:

If I had all of the answers / and you had the body you wanted /
would we love with a legendary fire?
And if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire / Would you still take my hand tonight?

Silly people, he's saying. Love between two souls isn't bettered by personal perfection. Love is only strengthened through the willpower and determination to keep holding hands through fire and through rain. Love is about "no matter what." Such is not the sentiment of nihilistic youth, but of someone who has seen fire, who has seen rain, and who believes we've shielded our youth, ourselves, from the weather for far too long.

Other Top Albums of 2012:
Silver Age - Bob Mould
Red - Taylor Swift
Battle Born - The Killers
Handwritten - The Gaslight Anthem
Some Nights - fun.

Tree Bursts In Snow - Admiral Fallow

Sunday, December 16, 2012

No One Can See You

On a Saturday night drive to the grocery store:

As I go into the right turn that will take me down the hill , across a busy intersection, underneath the interstate, and finally to the road where the grocery is, a bicycle races past me in the dark.  No lights near us anywhere, except a Christmas tree in the distance.  No lights on his bike, no reflector on the bike, no light clothing.  Why I don't hit him, I don't know, except that he has speed and I don't and he goes through the lane before I can get into it.

He looks back at the me, that sixty year old man on a one-speed bike more of the kind that would belong to a teenager without a car, like what the hell am I doing.  'I didn't see you,' I say out loud to counter his look, and we continue toward the intersection, unsure of our lanes, and he turns back to look at me again and his hat flies off and lands in the road.  I speed past him, leaving him to pull off and contend with oncoming traffic and what that will do to his hat.  

And I know that I have been lucky.

There is a turn before you get to road that the grocery is on, a back road that will get you to the same grocery parking lot, but in a more direct way.  It is almost an alley, and it runs past a low-rent (literally) motel where people live for weeks or months at a time.  I know nothing of their lives, except that the rooms open out onto the alley and sometimes people leave their doors open and sit on the concrete and talk between rooms.

On that dark Saturday night before the rain comes, I zip along that road and don't see the man walking alongside it towards me, on my side, right next to my car as I pass him.  His clothing is dark,too, and he makes no concession to my car.  He just walks.  I just miss.

By now, I am mad.  Isn't there a societal obligation to present yourself so that others can see you and not endanger you?  What are these people thinking?

I get my groceries and leave the store.  

On the road back to my house, a dark road with large drainage ditches on either side where the water rushes when it rains too much, where cats hunt rats in the dark, where streetlights are few and far between, I picture where I will turn into my neighborhood ahead.  What I don't picture is the family or partial family that walks along it, on my side, their backs to me, a mother, an older boy, and a small girl, or an older sister and brother and a girl, with a plastic bag and a destination, finishing the walk back to where they live, I guess, though it is late now.  Irritated, I think that they have no business being on this road.  It has no sidewalks.  It is not safe.  But it is the path from where to where.  

So I swerve more to the center of the road, them seemingly oblivious to my coming, my luck holding again, since no cars come towards me.  It is all I can do to get in my driveway, turn off the car, grab my bags, and know with some comfort that I will not be out again that night.

No one can see you, I think.  Don't you know that?  All of you are out where you shouldn't be, and you put me in danger by putting yourselves in danger.  My anger continues for a moment, then I am through the front door of my house and it is gone.

No one can see you.  But we pretend by day that we do.  We pretend.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rise of the Bogeyman

"The silicone chip inside her head / gets switched to overload"

On the evening of Friday, December 14, I sat in a movie theater with my three children. My toddler son nestled into the crook of my right arm and on my lap. My two daughters sat to the left of me, my arm behind the neck of one, my palm on the shoulder of the other. We were together.

And I wept. Quietly, in the hope they might not notice, I wept.

"And we can see no reasons / 'cuz there are no reasons"

The movie was about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy. They're known as "The Guardians," and they're forced to band together in order to combat the resurgence of the Bogeyman, who has found a new and powerful method of harnessing fear and destroying the beliefs of children.

I didn't expect to enjoy Rise of the Guardians, but I cannot imagine a movie more serendipitously suited to this moment in our lives. Almost completely free of irony -- call it the Anti-Shrek -- the film has been knocked by some critics for being formulaic and predictable, a clear reminder that film critics have watched many films yet have no frappin' clue what kids see when they watch movies.

"All the playing stopped in the playground now"

The animated film is adorable and entertaining and includes genuinely valuable character messages about hope and wonder, joy and faith, the kind of movie that will likely find a long life as a rental and regular Christmastime movie for cable TV.

At the conclusion of the film -- spoiler alert, I guess -- the Guardians, backs against the proverbial wall, are rescued by the children. Yes, those very same precious souls the Guardians are charged with protecting are the ones who, in the end, guard the heroes. Then, both the Guardians and children combine their strengths to face up to and ultimately topple the Bogeyman.

"And the bullhorn crackles / and the captain tackles / all the problems and the how's and why's"

At one point during the climas, Santa offers a monologue that, while a bit foggy, goes something like this: "The Guardians exist for the children. Without children, the world is lost. The children are everything."

The screen got blurry. Sandy Hook. My body began convulsing. Newton. After a dazed and emotionally-wrecked afternoon of fighting nausea and, in small segments until I couldn't handle it, attempting to imagine the depth and inescapable breadth of the sorrow of those parents and family members in a small town far away from me, more tears were necessary.

"He can see no reasons / 'Cuz there are no reasons / What reason do you need to die?"

Yesterday, today, tomorrow, I will continue drifting. Thinking of those parents, of the families of those teachers and the principal. Praying that the child witnesses might never fully grasp the weight or horror of that Friday morning.

In light of events at Sandy Hook School on the morning of December 14, the Guardians have their work cut out for them. The Bogeyman is real, and Sandy Hook had no magic bunnies or jolly bearded men in red who could show up to protect them.

Not even faith in God can protect us -- or our children -- from a bullet; it can only protect our hopes that a final heartbeat is only the beginning.

I do not believe God had some grand purpose in these events, that everything happens according to some plan, but I do believe in God, and I believe he has made many omelets out of broken eggs. And after the events at Sandy Hook, I believe He has His work cut out for him.

As for us? I just don't know. I don't know if we're capable of fixing what's broken in us. But if we do have a chance, if our species can be redeemed, then Santa's words hold the secret:

The children are everything.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lost That Lovin' Feeling

What does the ‘80s look like in concert form?

A saxophonist walking back and forth at the front of the stage, belting out a solo lasting several minutes? Check! A second percussionist who spends a serious portion of his time on stage banging not one, but two tambourines, often into one another? Check! Two men hovering around retirement age, surrounded by mostly younger musicians they hired just for this tour? Check!

The Hall & Oates concert I attended with my wife on Monday night served as a reminder that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. Although the median age of excited ticket-holders hovered in the high 40s, I was stunned by the younger attendees. “Out of Touch” was the most recent song they played. Anyone under the age of 28 wasn’t even a zygote when Darryl claimed that he was soul alone, that soul really mattered to him.

To only be fair, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are: Hall & Oates 2012” was an overpriced experience. I guess they tried to warn us with the title, right? They did what they wanted, which was to make money. They were what they are, which is old and a bit frayed at the edges.

Darryl Hall's voice in its prime truly was a signature thing of beauty. It had white man soul and a healthy range, and he could belt out primitive sounds -- ooh! woo-woo! awwww! -- with the best of his generation. And while the value of being able to shift from soul-infused folkish rock to the New Wave Pop powerhouses they became in the ‘80s can be debated, they did it with nary a hitch, as if they’d been saving up for a synth and a saxophonist and splurged for both at just the right time.

Many of the creative license of their concert involved the simple fact that Darryl Hall cannot sing like he once could. This isn’t a capital crime; the guy is 66, for Christ’s sake, and unlike many AARP-friendly never-say-retire bands, H&O songs depend on that signature vocal. So, without that, the concert was bound to be a disappointment for me.

At the 58th concert minute, Darryl said these words: “Thank you and good night!”

We all knew this was merely the first pre-encore exit, but that it occurred before they had even completed an hour of their show was troubling. They played two encores, and their total playing time managed to tick right past the 90-minute mark, so it could have been worse, but it sure as hell could’ve been better for tickets ranging from $50-80.

"Live from Darryl's House," Hall's show that began
as web-only but now shows on Palladium channel,
is great, because it reminds of how much talent and
ability Hall still has without reminding us that he
can't do what once made him money: that is,
Hit The Big Notes.
Surreal Choice #1 was Hall’s use of a serious echo on his vocals. For three songs, his voice would repeat repeat repeat. Surreal Choice #2 was the 5-minute saxophone solo performed by no one the audience knew, traipsing back and forth at the edge of the stage, almost as if someone might throw him their panties.

We sat in the lower balcony section, two rows from the edge, a few rows in front of about a dozen college-aged kids. Those kids were awesome, because they really did love the music, but they also took pleasure from the utter kitschiness of the experience. They laughed aloud at the echo machine. They snickered at the never-ending sax solo. But they also danced and laughed and sang along the way Hall would’ve sung if his voice still had it. (To be fair, Hall’s voice wasn’t totally toasted. He could hit the notes here and there when he fought it, but there was no way it could hit all the notes to all those songs for 90 minutes.)

When the band returned for its first encore, the fans knew they could sit in their seats no longer. They stood. They rushed the stage. They, and my wife and I with them, danced harder and clapped louder and shook their hips sider to sider. The crowd -- not Hall, and not Oates -- made the concert the almost-success it almost was. They willed it to remind them of the songs they loved and the band they enjoyed, and by the second encore, they’d even managed to fool me into believing it was a better concert.

Such is the power of nostalgia.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Douchey Bob's Best CDs Of 2012

I doubt this has much in common with any of the "Best Of" lists out there.  I can't help that.  These are the ones that got a lot of airplay from me this year, repeated listenings that revealed new depths or that simply turned pretty good songs into personal favorites.  Troutking's criticism aside, I have no interest in suggesting that these CDs and songs should hold any particular emphasis for anyone but me, and I share them with you only because there may be a thing or two here that you haven't heard.

When I listen to entire CDs, that likely means that I'm on the road, to and from work or to and from somewhere far away from here, and that I'm alone.  These CDs were good companions.  I especially enjoyed listening to a lot of women this year, as evidenced by four women-fronted bands on this list. 

In no particular order:

The Lumineers--The Lumineers

Probably the place where my tastes intersect with conventional wisdom.  I listened to this one a lot, and if I stepped away from it some as it became more and more popular, well, that's just me.  The good news is that you can skip the more popular songs like "Ho Hey" and still find plenty to latch onto, from the short opener "Flowers In Your Hair" to ballads like "Dead Sea."  I have called this band, in various places, The Avett Brothers meet Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and end up better than either one.  I'm sticking to that.

Annie and The Beekeepers--My Bonneville

Much as I love acoustic-based music, this is the only CD on this list that honors that.  Also a "freebie" from the BOTG mailbox, My Bonneville is the most "ready for prime time" CD I heard from our mailbox this year.  I tried to learn more about this band, but their website was never quite up and running when I checked.  The aching vocals and the songs are so strong that I had to wonder where all of this came from.  It's like this band burst upon the scene fully formed.  The title track is a foot-stomping acoustic number with a sexy edge, but the range of the songs is equally impressive; from the dreamlike "Wake Up Mama" to the majestic "Light At The End" to the wistful "Come On" that closes the album, these are mature offerings.  The production has the superb separation of the best acoustic recordings.  There's a bit of that Gillian Welch old-timey feel, but Annie's bunch have a voice and sensibility all their own.

Neil Young--Psychedelic Pill

You can toss the lesser material from Psychedelic Pill and still have a stunning, complete, mature modern record from an aging rocker that is near an hour long.  The three extended jams--"Drifting Back," "Ramada Inn" and "Walk Like A Giant"--make the other material on the CD almost superfluous, even though there are some pleasures in the other songs.  "Ramada Inn," in particular, goes where no other 6-decades rocker has gone, which is a confrontation of the realistic toll a life of drinking has taken on a relationship.  Young's gift has always been to use simplicity to his advantage, and here the sparse lyrics and simply sentiments like "He does what he has to" or "She does what she needs to" take on multiple meanings as the narrative evolves.  While Mick Jagger and the boys haul out their catalog one more time and pretend to be young again, Young's work now continues to focus on reflection with a simmering anger about what has been compromised or didn't work out. These are not always his best songs, but the lyrical explorations are superb in the best three songs.

The Royalty--Lovers

Billy got the CD for free from the BOTG mailbox, he went to see the band along with about two other people in Knoxville, he gave me the other copy of their CD that they sent.  Along the way, I bought my daughter a car, unloaded my old car, and inherited hers.  Which also brought me the CD system I'd bought her last Christmas.  This was the only CD I had in the car, so I played the shit out of it.  And it grew and grew and grew on me.  I don't really like the production, which I find to be cluttered and noisy, but I admire the songs, top to bottom, especially "Bartender," "Please Lie," "Saint Bowie," and "Won't Be Long."  This band has a range of styles and influences that they make all their own.  I'm sorry I missed the show.

Sufjan Stevens--Silver and Gold

Sufjan may be the Quentin Tarantino of Christmas, taking sometimes subpar, B-grade material, infusing it with his own wit and charm, and elevating it to the status of art.  Remixing those stale ideas and adding centuries-old hymns and his own compositions, he invites a re-examination of an entire genre with an approach that is simultaneously respectful and playful.  Nothing and everything is sacred in Stevens' hands--he'll invent whatever melody he wants to sing a popular ditty you've heard a thousand times, but in doing so, he will give the song more gravity.  If I don't enjoy these 5 CDs quite as much as the first five, it's only because the forays into electronica don't always work for me, though the "remix" of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is brilliant.  Also contains my Song Of The Year, "Christmas In The Room."

Bruce Springsteen--Wrecking Ball

Probably my runner-up for Song Of The Year is "Wrecking Ball," Springsteen's clever use of the destruction of The Meadowlands as a challenge to all comers, including Time.  The rest of these songs didn't really speak to me until I saw them repeatedly live, but the fact that these are songs he has toured behind so successfully speaks to their strength.  "Death To My Hometown," "We Are Alive," "Shackled and Drawn," and "Land Of Hope and Dreams" are all show highlights.  "We Take Care Of Our Own," which I didn't get until we played it as a band, is the CD's "Born In The USA," embraced as a slogan for a presidential campaign even while it documents a government's failures.  There is simply no one better in concert than Springsteen, maybe for all-time in popular music, and he used these songs to prove that once again.

Donald Fagen--Sunken Condos

With the exception of one solo offering, every incarnation of Steely Dan or its individual efforts has deeply enriched my life.  Sunken Condos is a small project from Donald Fagen, kind of an apartment jazz-rock offering, but, like the others, it simply dazzles.  The songwriting, the musicianship, the idiosyncratic singing, the intimate production--this is pop music at its finest, its most literate, its most authentic craftsmanship.  I don't think it's quite as good as Morph The Cat, but then, you didn't hear that one either.

Allo Darlin'--Europe

The soundtrack of my summer, or one of them.  Allo Darlin' is the only non-American band on my list.  Airy, breezy, and Euro-poppy, Europe is not as deep as it wants to be, but it doesn't want to be that deep.  It captures relationships that I'm too old for and sentiments a continent away, but it also captures the places of a season and makes me want to be a part of them.  "Neil Armstrong," "Capricornia," and "Some People Say" are jangly gems, but, really, all of the songs make you want to put on a backpack and go live a fuller life among people with accents that have no apology.  In a way, it reminds of that Frente! CD from some years ago, which I loved against all reason.

Bright Little Field--Treatment Bound

Nothing more than a Replacements tribute album by a ukulele band, Treatment Bound nevertheless enriches the 'Mats entire catalog.  Sure, these are not the definitive versions of the songs, but when these guys lo-fi something that was already lo-fi, they find edges and nuances that aren't in the original songs.  And why wouldn't you "read" a love letter to someone you love?

Nora Jones--Little Broken Hearts

It's fun to not be this big Nora Jones fan and to read comments from fans of hers who find this "jagged little pill" to be too negative and jarring for their tastes.  Me, I've always loved the vitriolic, vindictive song--"Positively 4th Street" or "Stupid Girl" (Stones or Neil Young) or Jenny Owens Youngs' "Fuck Was I"--because that is when artists really bare themselves.  Someone Nora Jones loved did a number on her with a much younger woman, and this is her musical payback.  I am with Nora from the first note to the last; she gets the last and only word because I don't give a crap about hearing his side of it.  These are brutally painful, dark songs and yet there are still should-be hit singles in the mix.  That Jones was willing to play along with the conceit of the movie Ted only adds to her bruised charm. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Death Of The Bookstore

My wife goes in because of the magazines.  I go in because of her, because of the magazines.  My students go in because I am making them in an attempt to engage in the quickly-archaic act of hanging out in a bookstore.

The other people in the store are old.  We're old.  I tell my students that it will be fun, that it makes for a great date, that they can get coffee.

The massive center of the store is filled with the non-books, the electronic devices in their various incarnations, with all of the accessories and the carrybags that go with them.  I have such a device, but not the one this store sells, and I don't even use that device.  My students, who we all thought would abandon books in favor of these devices, didn't, but that didn't send them to the bookstore looking for more actual books.  I did.

There are plenty of staff in the store, manning the large information stations, but not the checkout areas.  We try to avoid them, but they call to us, seeking to find ways that they can help us to find what we're looking for, but like my students, we are looking for nothing.

My students must browse the stacks and find ten books they want to read.  Some of them will pretend, and do it online.  I don't have ten books that I want to read; the imminent death of the bookstore has made me shy away from them the way people try to avoid visiting the sick in the hospital.

All of America, it seems, is reading the same five or six books, Young Adult series and soft-core pornography and historical retellings by talk show hosts who continue to reveal their ignorance in nightly ways.  I have read none of those books, but I know enough of them to see their various permutations and spin-off scattered throughout the store.  There are entire aisles, entire areas of the sprawling stores that one wonders if anyone has been in all month.

Nothing is where it was the last time I was in the store.  Well, some of it is, but not the sections where I decide to look because it is Christmas and a functional book still makes a nice gift.  The novels have crept close to the coffee, the cookbooks have been banished over near the self-help.  In the music section, with its pristine offerings of books and movies, two saleswomen talk to each other to pass the time.

The Internet became the bookstore, and then the Internet bookstore became a much large everything store.  The real bookstore has become the library, there if we might need it, what we really want not there.  The library has become the resource center, there when we rarely need it.

A mother and her teenage daughter cut through the store as the straightest path to their car.  An older couple looks lost, and only looks older because we forget how old we are, both couples trying to capture an old habit.  No one is hanging out.

At the checkout, the young woman tries again to get me to buy the store card that my wife failed to buy when she bought her magazine.  When she sees I'm buying a cookbook, she tells me that anyone who buys a cookbook gets a half-price deal on a large boxed cookbook behind her.  I decline; she resigns herself.

Tomorrow, the store will open again, this time without me, without you, without my students.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Guilty and the Damned

The following is a work of fiction. Mostly.

I am a teacher. I work in the public school system. For the past seven years, I’ve had my dream job: teaching band in the middle school I attended 25 years ago. Well, that was my job until last week. Now I’m unemployed.

The school has changed a little since I was a student. More free lunch kids. A little bit more racial diversity, but still mostly white. Tons more kids from single-parent households.

My parents were fine. They weren’t, like, The Best. But they were fine. They both worked, and they worked a lot, and when they weren’t working, they weren’t spending their free time to taxi me around or play chess with me. By the time I was 12, I was pretty much expected to take care of myself. I rode my bike to my music lessons. I fixed my own breakfast and dinner and packed my own lunch. All that stuff. None of this was a big deal; it just was what it was, right? This didn’t make my parents bad. I didn’t suffer from, like, neglect.

Still, having a couple of teachers take a special interest in me when I was growing up was a big deal. I mean, these adults, they don’t know you. They’re not family, and they seem super-smart or talented. And they see something in you, something they connect to and want to grow, like you’re a special flower in their own little greenhouse. Were they more important than my parents? Of course not. My parents were, like, the concrete foundation, and you can’t build anything without that. But these teachers built rooms in me, and it was like a total Extreme Makeover kind of thing, and I know how much better I am because of them.

So of course I knew I wanted to be like them. I knew by ninth grade I wanted to teach, and the reason I worked so hard on the oboe wasn’t so I could be a master; it was so I could teach other kids to play it better.

What I never quite expected was how hungry some kids could be. Kids today, there’s just more hungry kids. What I mean is, they leave their homes without any emotional nourishment. I say my parents didn’t give me much time or attention, but I never doubted that they loved me, that they cared about me. I’ve got kids in my classes now who enter my room starving for encouragement and affection, starving for someone to believe in them, or maybe just to acknowledge their existence.

Some of the teachers at my school think I’m weird because I listen, actually listen, to these kids. They say I listen "too much," or I'm "too close."

I let them talk about their home lives, or their girlfriends and boyfriends, or just about friends and belonging. And I don't look around to make sure I have adult witnesses before letting them talk. Wherever they are and I am when they need me, that's when I listen.

Since I'm in the small-town South, it’s not some big controversy that I share my faith with these kids. Most of them already go to church; none of them get too bothered or spooked by mention of Jesus. But it’s kind of a big deal, right? Jesus? Worth a mention or two? Not during class, mind you. Just when we're talking.

Other teachers are freaked out that I’m friends with them on Facebook, or that the kids have my cell number. But I give individual lessons -- extra money! yay, Christmas! -- on the side a lot, so it’s kinda important to be able to reach these kids.

I got married right after college, so that was a decade ago. We’ve got two kids. It’s pretty awesome. Exhausting, though, right? I was at a Bible study the other night and one of the other dads there was talking about how he’d read that the hardest part was going from first to last. One minute, you’re the most important part of your wife’s day. All of a sudden, you’re the last part. And that’s, like, only fair. That’s what having kids is about. Putting them first and stuff. Delaying your own gratification. Sometimes, you know, for months.

Once in a while a kid will text me about their love lives. Nothing pornographic. Nothing that’s about me and them. Just “he broke up with me” stuff. “He likes someone else” stuff. Yeah, it’s mostly girls, because that’s what girls text. Boys text me things like “I scored 12 points in our game tonight!” And that conversation pretty much ends when I text back, “Great!!”

It feels good to be needed like that. Not in a dirty way. Just needed. By kids who are so hungry for attention, and validation. And all they need is a little text message or a nod and a smile and a listening ear, and maybe their entire life turns out differently. And yeah, I’ll admit, there’s times at home when I feel a little invisible or undervalued, so it’s nice to see that glow in the eyes of these kids, the glow that I’m meaningful, that I’m a big deal to them. Maybe that’s a little selfish of me. But is it wrong? Geez, I sure hope not.

Late on Thanksgiving evening, I got a text message from one of the girls. She sent it out to a group and included me. “Who wants to go Black Friday shopping with me????” I replied back “I DO!!!!!” because, well, I’m old, and I have two kids, and it was almost midnight. And I’m a guy. So it seemed like pretty obvious sarcasm to me.

What I didn’t know and couldn’t have expected was what happened next.

Here’s the next text I get, sent just to me: “What do you mean?”
So I just kept up the joke: “Let’s stay out shopping all night!! Yay!”
And then: “Why are you so interested in me?”
What? At this point something was clearly wrong. “What do you mean?” I replied.
Then: “Why are you texting me so much?”
“There’s some kind of misunderstanding,” I wrote.
“Why do you want to go shopping with me?”
“I don’t. I just want to go to bed.”

First, I obviously could have phrased it better. But it was midnight. And it’s text messaging. So adding “with my wife so that I may get at least five hours of rest before one of my kids wake up” seemed too much.

Second, I didn’t know that the girl’s father had seen my reply to her original text and taken her phone. I didn’t know he was the person texting me from “What do you mean?” onward.

Two days later, I’ve been suspended with pay and being interviewed several times by a detective. I’ve given permission for the police to search my computer and phone records. One minute I’m making a joke about Black Friday with an 8th-grade girl, and the next I’m suspected of being a child predator. What’s even more horrifying is how many of my colleagues act like I’ve done something wrong!

A week later, the detective tells me they’re not going to press charges. No evidence of anything terrible. Duh. How many perverts would have a clean computer and no records of anything awful, right? Then, in a hearing with the school district, they encourage me to resign.

“But I haven’t done anything wrong,” I insist. It’s surreal to me that I’m sitting in this hearing while I can name at least a handful of teachers who have been pulled for DUI or even have drunk on the job. I replied to a text message on Thanksgiving, and I’m in the crosshairs.

They tell me if I resign, they’ll keep it out of the media, and they’ll help me get another job when the next school year comes around. They say it would be easier on everyone. My family. The school. The kids.

My wife is being so supportive, but I can sense it. There’s this gap now. This gap between us. This flicker of doubt. Why was he texting a 13-year-old girl? Even though she was sitting right with me on the couch when I did it.

Of course I’d do stuff differently if I had a do-over. I’m ashamed and horrified and confused. I’m being accused of... ugly, ugly things. Hoping I can avoid the publicity and save our family the embarrassment, I agree to resign.

It’s all over the news that very night. I’ve been forced to resign because of “Inappropriate Communication” with a student. The girl’s mom has called everyone except President Obama. She’s mad that I’m not going to jail. I doubt I’ll be allowed to teach again. The one job I ever wanted, the career I wanted for my whole life, the thing I felt God had called me to do, and it’s over. All because of a few text messages.

I’m still lost and scared. Lots of students and families are showing their support and offering to help and pray, and that means a lot. They know me well enough to know I’m not capable of those ugly things. And my family will stay together, even if it’s going to be tough.

And the questions keep coming up in my head as I try to figure it all out. Am I a danger to kids? Are teachers like me a bad thing? Am I the collateral damage of protecting kids from perverts? Are kids better off with distant and cold teachers who can keep their jobs? If I ever get the chance to teach again... can I be a teacher who doesn’t, who won’t, connect with kids desperate for connection?

Am I what’s wrong with teaching, or are our fears killing what’s right?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Song Of The Year Is A Christmas Song

The best song I've heard all year, and I've been hearing it a lot lately, because I keep playing it, is Sufjan Stevens' "Christmas In The Room."

A Christmas song as Song Of The Year?  Well, why the heck not?  In my world, that means it's in heavy rotation for a solid month and likely gets more listens than any other song I hear that year.  

And why not a Christmas song?  A great Christmas song likely has staying power in another way--in years to come, we will hear other (lesser) versions by other (lesser) artists who figure out what a good song it is when they are searching for fresh material for their Christmas cash-in CD.  Cover Sufjan and you've got instant cred "with the young people."  

And why not a Christmas song?  For such a bloated genre, there have been precious few new compositions that have added anything to the canon.  There have been precious few new compositions.  Few compositions have been precious.  So the accomplishment of writing a "keeper" in the Year of Our Lord 2012 is really something.

"Christmas In The Room"?  It's a stunner.  Built around a simple, repetitive, but nifty indie guitar riff that hooks the listener immediately and then becomes the anchor (you get the feeling Stevens comes up with this kind of thing in his sleep), the song uses that negating approach, you know, telling you all of the things that something isn't.  In this case, that something is a Christmas experience between two people:

No travel plans, no shopping malls
No candy canes or Santa Claus
For as the day of rest draws near
It's just the two of us this year
No silver bells or mistletoe
We'll kiss and watch our TV shows

No traffic jams, no ice and storm
Far in the house the fire is warm
No Christmas tree, no great parade
It's just an ordinary day
No parties planned, no place to go
It's just the two of us alone
And in the house we see a light
That comes from what we feel inside

Stevens strips away all of the adornments of Christmas in a way that lets us know that none of those things matter.  He does it in a most tender and loving way.  Why the couple hasn't gone in for even a Christmas tree or a decoration in the house is not explained.  It doesn't even seem to matter.  It isn't necessary.  After all, it's "just an ordinary day" that Stevens is writing about.

But is this a song about Christmas?  Maybe not.  Or not exclusively.  With the simple trick of making Christmas a simile, an abstraction, he makes his point more universal:

I'll come to you, I'll sing to you
Like it's Christmas in the room
I'll dance with you, I'll laugh with you
Until it's Christmas in the room
Until it's Christmas in the room

The song of the year is a love song, a love so encompassing and powerful that it can create the complex joys of one of each year's greatest days (if not the greatest) just from two people being together, singing, dancing, loving.  

All of that might not make my case, though, without the music, instrumentation, production.  I heard an earlier version of this song last year, built around piano chords, with the same lyrics and melody, but in a different arrangement, and it came off as not bad, but kind of meandering.  The vocals aren't as breathy, there are unnecessary Sufjan-esque instrumental breaks between verses, and, most of all, that lightly-gizmoed acoustic guitar isn't there.  Add the guitar and you hear in the vocals how Stevens believes what he's singing.   

So this year's best song was a song last year, apparently, but it wasn't this song.  The rewrite has taken most of the same basic pieces and compressed them into a tight, sharp focus.  It will likely be a "song of the year" for me for many years, at least during the month of December.

You can get "Christmas In The Room" for free as part of Paste Magazine's Holiday Sampler here

Friday, December 7, 2012

Billy BOTG's Best Songs of 2012

Presented below is my Top 10 Songs of 2012. Do not confuse the word "favorite" with the word "best." I do not claim these to be the best songs of the year, because I'm not the kind of douchebag who believes I have the omnipotent-like power of ascribing such value to songs when I've only heard, like, 1/1,000,000th of the songs that were released this year. I only claim the list below to be the most awesomest songs I heard and loved. (I saved Taylor Swift and Pink for the end so the snotty judgmental types could just stop reading at that point.)

“Continuous Thunder” - Japandroids (YouTube)
Picking the best song from this album, easily the most consistently start-to-finish amazing of the year, was virtually impossible. The pupil-dilating and aggressive turns of phrase keep pelting you from this two-man army. While not overly clever, they’re clear, and they’re strong. And this song closes with such a perfect stretch: “if i had all of the answers / and you had the body you wanted / would we love with a legendary fire? / and if the cold, pissing rain flooded that fire / would you still take my hand tonight?” In other words, is being a supreme human being what makes for supreme human love, or is the best and strongest love as simple as holding onto another’s hand no matter how hard it rains, no matter how low the fire burns?

“Out on the Town” - fun. (YouTube)
Here’s what I like about fun.: they’re proof that some intelligent people still love pop music. While the inspiration for his bands’ sounds might often originate with Queen and ELO, I’ve found that his persona and writing reflect a bit of Robert Smith, the outsider freak of questionable sexual preference (but straight) who wondered why his music wasn’t taking over the world. The equally super-awesome song “Some Nights” says as much, as he wonders just now much real life, normal life, he’s sacrificed to be underappreciated in the world of music. The album closes with what could serve as a second metaphor for his frustrations, as he’s desperate to get into your house, to be a part of your life, but instead he’s stuck out there causing a ruckus all by his lonesome. For musicians, loneliness and isolation often linger regardless of silly things like failure and success.

“Battle Born” - The Killers (YouTube)
Ambition in rock is hard to come by these days. We don’t have enough artists willing to take on an entire country, willing to stick an accusatory finger in its face and then give it a big ol’ bear hug, but that’s what Brandon Flowers dares to do here. It’s a break-up love song to an entire country, the once-good-ol’ US of A. About the only thing he could’ve done to make this song more unabashedly epic would have been to have the chorus from the Rocky soundtrack singing “gonna fly now!” in the background. I’m a patriot at heart, but an honest one, and this song satisfies both of those needs beautifully.

“Here Comes My Man” - The Gaslight Anthem (YouTube)
Writing a song from the p.o.v. of the opposite sex is tricky business, and it rarely makes for great songs. Kate Bush pulled it off with “This Woman’s Work,” a work of true genius. While “Here Comes My Man” might not knock Kate off the gender-bending pedestal, it’s a captivating work nevertheless. The lyrics in the bridge are words for any workaholic to keep in their briefcase.

“Ho Hey” - The Lumineers (YouTube)
You mix a gutsy background refrain with a simple notion -- “I belong with you / you belong with me” and what you have is a song where the greatness is about the gestalt. My read is the song is about two souls committed to other people. “Think of what might’ve been” ... “We’re bleedin’ out.” Doesn’t matter, though. The song’s deliciously catchy regardless of the meaning.

“Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” - Stars (YouTube)
Stars can make a better pop song in their sleep than most radio-saturated acts will ever know. Nothing terribly difficult or layered about this song, since the title pretty much says it all. But they do manage to squeeze one more classy couplet in for good measure: “Take the weakest thing in you / and then beat the bastards with it.” I don’t really care what the purpose of those lines are; I only love that it’s clear he’s holding onto love and a little bit of anger.

“Star Machine” - Bob Mould (YouTube)
This first song on Mould’s Silver Age was a welcome burst of raucous preaching to the sold-out souls of music. As I wrote earlier, a caveman-simple feral kind of euphoria erupts in me when Bob explodes with  righteous indignation, and he whips it out from the first note on this one. I'm not saying this is the best song on what is Mould's best album in a while; but it sets the stage for the Mould Experience circa 2012 perfectly.

“Sometimes He Does” - Lori McKenna (YouTube)
Are you in a relationship? Are you a man? Do you sometimes suck at being a decent husband/boyfriend/human being? Don't read a self-help book. Don't finish that bottle of scotch. Don't watch more Dr. Phil. Just play this song and, once each week, pick out one of the lines and do it. Do it for her. If you don't see a change in your own heart and attitude, not to mention a change in your significant other, your money back. But ACT NOW WHILE RELATIONSHIPS LAST!

“All Too Well” - Taylor Swift (YouTube)
Mock Ms. Swift at your own risk. The woman makes deeply personal songs filled with a level of specificity that you just don’t find in platinum-selling pop music. She paints three scenes, all with specifics and practically time-stamped and pinpointed on Google Maps. She weaves them together and comes back to them all later on in the song. I don’t care if it’s about her and Jake; what I know is nothing about this song feels fake, or forced, or anything but the genuine sound of a young woman whose heart got squished like a grape, and when she returns to the image of her scarf, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, my breath gets short. I keep souvenirs of loves gone south from my younger days, and this song reminds me why.

“Try” - P!nk (YouTube)
Pretty simple pop song, really, but P!nk manages a feat in “Try” that few have pulled off. She has written an emotional and rocking pop song about both stubborn fidelity and fiery, seemingly-inescapable infidelity. For those who have better things to do than follow Pink’s personal life, she married her husband, and then they split, and then they got back together. They have a baby. They seem to have some serious knock-down drag-out nuclear warfare kinds of fights. So the song’s sorta about not giving up on a relationship, a tribute to how they’ve fought and gnashed and gnawed to stay together. But then again, on another dimension, it’s also about cheating and trying to survive it. It’s about how even if you find yourself as “the bad guy (or gal)”, there’s still life and love out there worth hunting. Pulling off both interpretations in a single song is impressive.