Friday, August 30, 2013

Courage & Vulnerability

One Diamond, One Heart - Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)

Sea Diver - Mott the Hoople (mp3)

Wherein we discuss the power of vulnerability and shame, surviving child sexual abuse, and good dogs, but not in that order.

Here’s when I love my dog the most. We’ll be playing -- I’m the only person in the house who really plays with the dog the way dogs want to be played with. I'm the harshest disciplinarian, but also the most fun. My hand becomes a spider or some creature with a life of its own, and Chip treats it as such. He paws and jumps and bites at it in ways he would never do with any other part of my body.

Chip, a small terrier-sized mutt, isn’t comfortable doing this game with one of my feet. I think because feet are riskier. More damage can be done unintentionally with a foot, at least when that foot is attached to my leg. Also, he won’t play the game with any of my children in physical proximity. When they try to play the same game, he won’t do it, I think because he cannot relinquish his role as their protector. (Which is kinda funny, since he’s a crappy protector. Terrier-sized mutts ain't the best bet for protecting stuff.)

Whenever I have to tell him we’re done, that the roughhousing is over, I just pat the floor gently, and Chip crawls over to me and rolls over. It’s his way of showing that he knows I’m the Alpha Dog, but I don’t love my dog the most in that moment because he recognizes my superiority, but rather because of the vulnerability on display.

He trusts I won’t hurt him.

This morning, thanks to a link from NPR on Twitter, I discovered Brene Brown, a researcher whose two TED talks have been viewed millions of times over. Her research has focused on two key interrelated concepts: vulnerability and shame. Her knowledge is stunning and her delivery masterful.

I needed to hear Brene Brown this week. Finding her was one of those glorious moments of kismet where the food of her words and voice fell from the Internet heavens into my lap, like Manna.

You see, the past week on has been, like, Pedophile Week or something. First they had an article by what is a “good pedophile.” It’s a terribly uncomfortable read, which obviously means it’s important... even if I couldn't bring myself to finish it. That piece was followed -- wisely -- by an article looking to explore the issue of pedophilia not as a predator or victim, but as a knowledgeable, mostly-dispassionate researcher.

Finally, they concluded with the most moving of all, an essay from the wife of a survivor of child sexual abuse. The article is brave because it acknowledges vulnerability and weakness in a person to whom we are most want to give wide berth and understanding, and who better to be frank and blunt in an unflinching (but loving) way than a spouse?

(Disclosure for non-regulars: As many as one in six boys and male teens in America are sexually abused. I am but one of millions, and I am OK, wanting neither pity nor admiration, but in light of all these topics, this fact seems inescapably crucial to it all.)

Like most of life, it is in the chemical combination of many experiences where the greatest comforts and revelations emerge. Reading the story of that husband, struggling but surviving, and his amazing wife, and then following that up (albeit unintentionally) with Brene Brown’s talks, gave me a feeling of tremendous pride and empowerment.

As Brown says so beautifully, shame is what makes us human, but it is oh so destructive. Vulnerability might be an area our culture must continue working on, but it’s oh so vital. Vulnerability isn’t a prized trait if it’s not used judiciously. Being vulnerable all the time to all people in all ways isn’t admirable anymore than being incapable of it.

While I have enough flaws that it would take me a dozen lifetimes to dent the stack, I can at least rest my head in the comforting thought that I have worked through much of my shame, and I have never sacrificed my willingness to let myself be vulnerable in the right settings.

Sometimes we need reminders that we’re all right, that we are doing some things well, that we might be fortunate enough to have someone (or several someones) who love us enough to stand by us in our darkest times, our most vulnerable times, our most flawed times. And sometimes, even those of us who somehow have all of these blessings, who have so much that they should never be able to lose sight of it all, sometimes even they need reminders.

Millions have watched Brown’s 20-minute talks. What an amazing gift she has given, a talk all but guaranteed to allow a listener to walk away feeling better about themselves and about humanity, a priceless reminder to a countless audience.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Frankenstein's Monster Miley

Picking on Miley Cyrus is only as challenging as falling out of a boat and hitting water. Best I can tell, she’s just a Kardashian with a better singing voice, a Paris Hilton whose home videos just haven’t quite yet made their way out on the Internet. Yet.

But it’s Monday, August 26, and it is literally impossible to visit a single news or social media site on the Interwebs without running across her name. The fact that she flossed her privates with a foam finger and twerked Robin Thicke’s junk is more important than chemical weapons in Syria, the unrest in Egypt, immigration reform or even whatever divisive thing Ted Cruz has said in the last 48 hours.

I’ve got Christian friends and relatives who are on Facebook praying for Miley. Because she’s a “lost soul.” If she knew Jesus, she wouldn’t have her bum all up in Robin Thicke’s business. And she wouldn’t be engaging in #TeddyBearPorn, or whatever is going on there.

I’ve got male friends in their 20s up to their 40s who make jokes on Facebook about how nasty Miley is while simultaneously noting that she is blessed with a Very Special Tongue.

And then there are the people I don’t understand, the ones who say things like, “I feel so sorry for Billy Ray. What a heartbroken dad he must be.”

And to that I must respond, with great passion and conviction: You, Billy Ray, are not the victim; you are the Grand Poobah perpetrator.

Billy Ray is Dr. Frankenstein. He is the anti-hero protagonist of Mary Shelley’s modern sequel, except he’s scarier, because instead of finding a corpse, Billy Ray just took his daughter and experimented with her. He put a couple of bolts in her neck and turned her, gradually rather than through one simple lightning strike, into a girl who makes her money by becoming as over-the-top slutty with a healthy dash of plagiarism from Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”-era pedophilia schtick.

When I see Miley Cyrus, I don’t even know if she’s a real person. She seems more like this vacant soul that has created a “character” or a “personality” in order to make money, and I’m fairly certain that she has no idea who or what she is underneath. Miley wouldn’t want to commit to a fixed and actual personality lest it get in the way of selling more eyeballs.

Then you have brilliant logic -- paid for by Huffington Post, no less -- that suggests we shouldn’t criticize Miley because she, at some point, emerged from a woman’s womb. That’s right. Because Miley is “someone’s daughter,” we shouldn’t be mean.

If Miley danced like that on the lawn of your child's middle school, I'd hope the proper response would not be "don't be mean; she's someone's daughter." And what is MTV but one nationwide middle school, a place where the only people older who go there are David Woodersons of the world.

Please understand, I’m not being a total Tipper Gore here. I’m not blasting all wacky female performers. I am convinced that Lady GaGa might be batpoop crazy, but there is a level of greater maturity and intentionality to her persona, her schtick, than there is with Miley, or Amanda, or Lindsay, and so forth. Same with Madonna and Katy Perry. Madonna was 25 before anyone cared who she was, how little clothing she wore, or what kind of sexual positions she recreated on a bed on MTV. Katy Perry began as a crossover Christian act and sort of gradually unleashed herself as she became an adult and didn’t hit the bigtime until 25, just like Madonna. Lady GaGa was at least of legal drinking age before she broke out.

Growing up under the spotlight is different, and it’s not unlike drugs, which is to say the earlier you start, the more dangerous the substance is to your system, the more addicted, the more dependent. Mr. and Mrs. Billy Ray basically had a crack baby, except they addicted their daughter to fame and attention rather than to any technically illegal substance.

Congrats, Cyrus family. I hope all that money is worth it, because if that was the gamble you intentionally took, at least you can pretend that you won.

For those who believe I’m being too harsh on the parents and not enough on Miley, I eagerly welcome your counterpoints and thoughts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Secret To Writing

Yeah, I'm the one who likes to check in on the state of this blog from time to time, to see where we're  headed and to reflect on where we've been.  I was driving my daughter back to college today and my mind wandered, as it tends to do while driving, and I pondered the reality that Billy and I have each written well over 650 posts each for this little hobby.  The posts tend to average about two pages of writing each.

In simple terms, we've each written War And Peace.

In snippets, mind you, and over the course of some five years, but we have cranked out the pages.  And some of it has been pretty darn good.

Take Billy's recent piece, "Tuff Enough."  A beautiful piece of writing.  Clever, well-connected, inspired and inspiring.  That's hard to do.  There are pros who do it for a living who can't do that most of the time.  It reminded me of the Holly Williams concert I saw a week or so ago.  Ms. Williams had that rare ability to connect with both the drinkers who wanted to rock and the Christians who wanted to be uplifted.  How hard is it to do both?  Yet, Billy's piece does that.

Or his piece on the graffiti artist who was killed by the Miami police.  He took a position that I continue to disagree with.  In fact, we wrote about our divergent positions at length, but we did it by smart phone so that our little blog wouldn't turn into our private dialogue.  We wanted to leave space for others to weigh in on a significant national controversy.  But no one did.

I am reminded by what might be kind of a throwaway Springsteen line, but one that seems to reverberate on a daily basis:  "Is there anybody alive out there?"

So, anyway, I've discovered the secret to writing for about the one thousandth time and I thought I might share it.  It's simply this: the more you write, the more there is to write about.  

That's what I think about when I read some of Billy's recent pieces.  That's what I think most nights when I find that my free time goes not to television, but to writing.  While there is maybe something simmering on the stove for the next day or week or month, there are many things simmering in my mind.  

I think both of us are way past the point of 'What am I going to write about?'  We are in a different place, which is 'What order do I write all of the things I want to write about in.?"  There are those topics with no time sensitivity butting up against things that are happening juxtaposed with the casual comment that sparks a post or the love of music that we always seem to return to.  With all of those tensions, things get lost in the shuffle.

The more you write, the more there is to write about.  That is one of the beautiful truths of life.  For if you are on a path to self-discovery, as many people are, then you are indeed in the driver's seat, and it remains up to you how far you want to or are willing to drive.  

As always, we appreciate your reading our stuff and we hope that you will stay with us as we push ahead.  And if you want to drop a comment once in a while, well  it's nice to know that you are in the car with us.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tuff Enough

Tuff Enough - The Fabulous Thunderbirds (mp3)

It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived. ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Antoinette Tuff might be the bravest woman who ever lived.

Maybe our names don’t determine our fates, but by God her name was heaven sent on August 20, 2013. She’s Tuff, dammit. She's Fabulous Thunderbirds Tuff. She’s Jackie Brown tuff. She's Atticus Finch tuff.

Since I’ve never met the woman, since I’ve only heard her on a telephone for some 20 minutes, I might be exaggerating, making one too many assumptions. But if I’m wrong about Antoinette Tuff, it’s only by a matter of degrees.

On the off chance you just got back from Mars and haven’t heard of this woman, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version. Crazy young white dude with an automatic weapon barges into McNair Elementary Learning Academy* in Atlanta.

Michael Hill is there because he wants to die. No question about it. And what better place, if life has lost its meaning, if you can’t seem to end your own life, if you want to make damn sure you’ll end up dead, than an elementary school in 2013 if you’re a heavily-armed white guy?

But even crazy homicidal suicidal young white men have some part of them, buried deep maybe, that wants to be talked out of it, that wants to believe there’s hope. Our modern society doesn’t much care about that part of them. To be fair, we can’t really afford to worry about that, when the lives of a few, a dozen, a hundred small children are on the line. It’s easier and far more practical to dream of armed citizens capable of ending the threat with a trigger and decent aim.

But that hope is in there somewhere, and Antoinette Tuff found it.

She talked to an armed madman like he was a human being. Armed only with her faith in God and what must be a deep belief in herself, she squared off with Michael Hill with her head and her heart. She squared off with him, not against him.

No one died. Not one soul was lost from this earth. Not the kids, not the adults, not the police, and not even Michael Hill. She not only saved him; she showed him love.

“Just stay calm and don’t worry about it. I’m gonna sit right here so they’ll see that you didn’t try to harm me. It’s gonna be alright, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you though and I’m proud of you, that’s a good thing you’ve just given up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

That, dear reader, is the voice of God.

Christopher Hitchens himself could crawl out of his grave, walk undead and rotting to my side and tell me in his snotty British accent that God wasn’t real, but I know better, because I heard Antoinette Tuff in my TV on a Thursday morning in August and knew to the depths of my soul I was listening to the voice of God.

She’s an elementary school bookkeeper. She’s the kind of person in the kind of job that no one pays any heed, that most politicians think is a waste of education-directed taxpayer dollars. The most cynical can believe she only saved one life, but I hope we can at least agree to be thankful that we’ll never really know for sure how many lives got saved.

When the event was over, when she exhaled and said “Oh Jesus” and let her fear and relief be heard, it was in that moment that I full-on wept with admiration for Antoinette Tuff, because you knew in that moment she was just a bookkeeper who found a kind of internal strength and focus that was built to last exactly as long as it needed to and not a minute longer.

Ms. Tuff had the kind of moment they write books about, the Atticus Finch kind of courage. It’s naked courage, courage unarmed, looking in the face of possible death via one or many bullets, knowing the only thing to protect you is your heart, your soul, your voice, and Leaning In, as they say it nowadays.

I sort of hope we don't find out too much about Ms. Tuff. Modern journalism usually means spending a long stretch of time placing someone on a pedestal while searching for something that will eventually bring it all crashing back down. The news loves houses of cards; easy to build, and easier to knock down. I don't want her bronzed, and I don't care whether she's been married for 20 years and a devoted mother and friend or the single baby mama of 14 children who has a rap sheet longer than my left leg.

What truly matters is that moment, a moment and a test most of us would fail, a moment that she, for reasons we might never truly grasp but would be wise to appreciate, was a real hero.

You can hear the WABE report on the call or the complete unedited audio of the call at WABE’s web site.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

If you want to play a CD, play it on your CD player, not your concert set list

So, lunch conversation today centered on the pros and cons of a band playing one of their classic albums straight through in its entirety as part of a concert.  Certainly the trend is growing, with bands and artists as diverse as the Pixies, Rush, Huey Lewis, and Cyndi Lauper all being mentioned among the road warriors who are playing a record with cult status or big sales top to bottom during recent or current tours.

As far as my lunch compadres and I could figure out, it may have been Steely Dan or Bruce Springsteen who started the trend, though we weren't sure and there is little doubt that both answers are wrong.

Prog rockers were doing it 40 years ago.  The Who did it, more or less, with Tommy way back when the album first came out.

But we are talking about something different, something I would call "The Nostalgic Playback."  The complete album as part of concert playlist craze that is popping up everywhere attempts to lure concertgoers who either a) want to reconnect with one of the great musical moments in their lives, b) want the guarantee that they will get to hear certain favorite songs, or c) want to experience cornerstone songs from before they were born from artists they have come to love through their parents' CD collections.

One has to believe that somewhere Billy Ray Cyrus is mounting a musical campaign to include all of Some Gave All.

The three of us, three hibachi-eating amateur music critics, were of three minds about the trend:

A. One of us had no problem with it, endorsed it, had seen numerous Springsteen shows where the entire album played was a highlight, including numerous songs rarely ever played live.
B. One of us was opposed to it, thought even the Rush concert he had seen where they played all of 2012 got boring after awhile, said of my desire to hear Fleetwood Mac's Rumors straight through, said, "You can do that right now, put on the CD."
C. And then there was me.

I like that Steely Dan does it.  I like that Springsteen does it, but as with most things, from using the flavor of chipotle to the purchase of Frampton Comes Alive!,  if too many people start doing it, that's when I've had enough.  And, in fact, I think it has already moved from a nice treat for hard core fans to a marketing gimmick.

Also, I challenge the notion of a "classic" album.  A classic album is a record or CD that holds up because it is so good, not because because it sold so many copies.  Just because it had a bunch of hit singles or so many weeks or months at the top of the charts does not mean it is a classic.  And we all agreed that this puts Cyndi and Huey in separate conundrums because some of the songs, perhaps most, on their big sellers are not very good.

There is a reason some songs are not played in concert.

And so I find myself straddling the fence.  Yes, there are albums I would like to see performed live.  No, I don't hope the trend lasts.  We even had a good time speculating on some of the weird possibilities that the trend might spawn.  Indeed, Peter Frampton, were he to do it, would have to play his famous live album as a live concert, making it even more redundant.  If Squeeze did, their "album" would actually be a collection of their greatest singles.  If the Eagles did it, I'd have to shoot myself in the head.  But then, I'd do that if I were at an Eagles concert in the first place.

It was Nick Carraway who proclaimed, "you can't repeat the past," and Gatsby who thought he could refute him through sheer force of will.  Who was right?  What if the past you are trying to repeat, as is the case with these artists,  was something that didn't happen the first time around?  What chance do you have when age and desire have taken their toll?

It is interesting to ponder, though it's hard to argue against two realities--that the original recorded version is often impossible to beat, but that there is indeed great joy when an artist performs a song that has always been a private little gem, a "deep cut," if you will, for you that you are now hearing among many people and it feels like you and the artist are somehow sharing it with them.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meeting Matt Nathanson. Twice. Sorta.

I Saw - Matt Nathanson (mp3)

I met Matt Nathanson in a Tower Records in Boston in 2003. I was feeling out of place, a Confederate in King Harvard’s Court, as it were, and Tower was a familiar and welcomed site, the first friend I’d met in this temporary space.

Matt was hanging out in the “Listen to This” sampling stations. He was Disc #3, if I recall correctly, and I knew right away we would be good pals.

The album was Beneath These Fireworks, and it was Nathanson’s major label debut, but he’d cut his teeth the old school way, touring and recording several independent records over the previous decade. By the time he’d honed his schtick -- the schtick of the scrawny, lovelorn and lost 20something white guy, the Anti-Dwayne Johnson -- he, like me, was no longer even 20something.

We both romanticized our younger days in unhealthy ways. The confusion and heartbreak, the aw shucks smile and shrug even in moments when the heart has exploded inside your chest. This twisted wish that we’d been hurt more often, or more deeply, that we wanted more chapters in our life’s YA novel. Or maybe he really was that cool and I'm just projecting. No matter.

Several years and another album later, I got to meet Matt Nathanson again in what had to be one of the five most awkward concerts of his entire life. This pop singer-songwriter, who was clawing his way to the top via songs about love and lust and the ugly and beautiful aftermath of both, was the headliner for a concert in North Georgia.

Matt’s a Yankee California transplant with minimal experience to small-town Southern culture. He’s smart enough to know about Jesus and the South’s odd dysfunctional relationship with the fella, but he was under the impression that all those churches he passed by on every dang block were how we handled the matter. He didn’t realize Jesus lives in our gas stations, our fast food restaurants, and even our amphitheaters.

No alcohol was served at the concert. A huge chunk of the audience arrived in Baptist megachurch busses. Half the audience was under 18, and most of them doe-eyed small-town girls.

And there’s Matt.

He’s up on stage, singing songs about “you and me, yeah oh yeah / tangled in hotel sheets / you wore me out” (“Still,” from Some Mad Hope, a damn fine song). I totally love that song, but all I could think was that the first five rows were filled mostly with girls who (I hoped) still thought sticking a tongue in someone else’s mouth was like flying to the moon. He was seranading girls -- and they were very swooney -- who didn’t quite realize what “Come On Get Higher” was about.

Matt, I imagine, cut his teeth the hard way. Many a night it was him and a guitar, and he had to entertain. If it cost him blood or life expectancy, he had to figure out how to keep those crowds tuned in. So he has a lot of stand up comic stuff going on in his routine. And he knows how to use a killer cover song to hold onto possibly-drifting attention. (Specifically, a "Princess" into "Jessie's Girl" that's nigh-impossible to forget.)

But a lot of his talking revolves around the same subject matter as his songs. Love. Broken hearts. Mind-blowing sexual experiences. Often all wrapped into a single person. And, being a Massachusetts boy, he grew up thinking foul language was just another part of American vocabulary.

None of this went over all that well in North Georgia. He tried to keep his speech clean -- PG-13 at worst -- and he tried not to act or sing “too horny,” whatever that means, but you can’t take the sting out of the scorpion, and you can’t take the horny young male out of the pop troubadour. I thought he put on a helluva show, and I was angered that the crowd couldn’t appreciate him properly.

Matt released his fourth major label album this summer. Last of the Great Pretenders is the second-best album of the lot (Beneath These Fireworks is tough to beat, an album where the similarity between songs is undeniable at times, yet the aura of the collective work just packs such an overwhelming and yearning punch). Maybe I like it because it feels like he’s accepted getting older, as if turning 40 made him realize he needs to write songs about his youth like he’s looking back rather than like he’s holding on with the desperation of a wounded pit bull.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Revving It Up For The 31st Time

No one who is not an educator understands the psychology of starting the same 9-month cycle year after year after year.  Maybe the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe.  It is not clear where all those children came from in the first place, but she must have gone through a lot of 9-month cycles, eh?

So I'll tell you, and where I'm wrong, maybe other teachers can chip in.

Imagine a job where the same sales pitch begins year after year.  You make it.  You aren't even entirely sure that the potential customers listening to your pitch are in the market for what you are selling.  To be sure, they are a captive audience, but that guarantees absolutely nothing.  And they are going to have to gauge their own self-interest in the enterprise over and over for a very long time.  Nearly a year.  The product does not come pre-assembled.  The customers are going to have to put it together themselves.  To have any hope of closing the deal, making the sale, satisfying the customer, you are going to have to offer a lot of incentives, maybe even some "freebies" just to keep them on the line.

Or a play that has so many acts that it takes most of the year to perform.  The play does not fit any distinct pattern of drama or tragedy or comedy.  That is decided by the actors as they go along, and individually, not as a group.  For some, they will triumph from the chaos.  For others, they will be their own worst enemies.  The outcome is uncertain, and when the next performance begins a year later, all of the actors in the play are different.  Except you.  

You will be playing the same role each time, but your performance will be informed by your previous performances, and unlike other plays, your character ages each time he or she takes a bow.  The next show is the next year.

Or a game, maybe a carnival game, where your job is to give out the prizes.  There are no particular rules, or at least not the same exact rules for everyone who plays.  There may be one who throws perfect darts and pops the balloon time after time, but he or she will have to throw those perfect darts day after day for months, because one slip up and someone else may get to choose the biggest stuffed animal.  Some may never hit a single balloon, but there is a good chance that they, too, will come away with some kind of prize.  Maybe not the kind a boy gives to his girlfriend.  Not everyone can pin the tail on the donkey.  

And you?  Whether salesman or actor or carney, you must maintain your enthusiasm for the endeavor.

But that isn't really it; that's not the challenge.  Because it isn't hard to generate the enthusiasm.  You the salesman believe in this sale.  You the actor believe you were born to play this role.  You the game master would likely rather give out the prizes than not, so you pass out the encouragement and share the tricks of one who has won one of the big prizes him or herself.

No, ultimately those metaphors aren't the ones that you are looking for.  How you really see yourself is as a magician who is going to stand in front of an audience.  It is an audience that has seen a lot of tricks, maybe even some of yours, and they know that the show is going to be long, that they are going to get restless in their seats, and that they fully expect to be amazed or, yes, they will want a refund, and if they don't get it, they will make sure the next audience coming in knows the weaknesses of your show. 

Between shows, maybe you either try to refine your tricks or look for some new ones.  But there is more than practice involved.  After all, over time, the cards are going to get worn, the props faded, the magician's coat frayed and tattered.  You are going to need more than practice; you are going to need a spark.  The problem is that when you've had it, you never quite knew where it came from.  And so each year, year after year after year, you walk into that classroom and hope or pray or will that the magic will be there.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Hoop Dreams

For some time now, I have been thinking about playing basketball again.  Although I enjoy watching a variety of sports, the only one that I ever played with any marginal skill or success was basketball.

My basketball “career”, such as it was, had 4 phases—the backyard phase, which extended from grade school through high school and consisted of the joyous afternoons and weekends playing pick-up games on the way home from school or on the weekends, the “competitive” phase, which lasted exactly 4 years, from 6th through 9th grades and involved a lot of practicing and sitting on the bench, but not much actual playing time and which culminated in being 3rd string on the Mt. Lebanon Junior High School 9th Grade Section 8 champions, and which resulted in the last real trophy of my life 41 years ago, the intramural phase, those years of college and graduate school where anyone who couldn’t play had long since stopped trying and those who were left ranged from decent (me) to really good former high school varsity athletes who were still looking to win, and the adult phase, which actually had two different periods, a highly-competitive couple of years when I first started working at this school and the young teachers would play at night, and the later, now infamous, league that began after “Pistol” Pete Maravich died at 44 and all of us who were older decided to get together on a weekly basis and play a casual, somewhat slower game without keeping score until the final game to 10 baskets.

And suddenly, I have a desire to play again.

This news will not rock the world of sports. I doubt that many people who know me will read this and take it very seriously.

There are too many things that stand in the way:
  1.  I am not in shape to play basketball.  Though I’ve never suffered any serious athletic injury and could theoretically step on to a court right now, the reality is that I need to weigh less and be more accustomed to at least jogging before I lace up the b-ball shoes.

  2. I am not in shape to play basketball.  And by this, I mean, the times I’ve shot a basketball in the last 15 years are almost none.  The occasional effort, where I’ve tried the old, reliable flat-footed jump shot I used to shoot, usually end in me hearing “Air Ball” in my head, because the repetitive motion of shooting the ball does not have the power behind it that it once had.  Dribbling, especially with my non-dominant right hand, would be pretty silly.  Stopping and starting and stopping and starting, the constant motion of basketball, will tell in these muscles quickly.

  3. I don’t know who I’d play with.  My neighbor across the street, who is probably 12 years older than I am, is the only one still around that I used to play with.  The others have retired or moved on.  It would take some work to drum up a consistent batch of players.

  4. I don’t know what kind of game we would play.  I know that, even in shape, I can’t play the quick game of fast breaks and steals, but I also don’t like the thought of doing nothing but walking up and down the court.  How do a group of men, by nature competitive, find a game at a middle speed?

  5. I don’t know where I’d play.  The modern, upwardly-mobile, semi-suburban answer is to build my own court in my back yard, hire a contractor and convince my wife to allow me to financially indulge in a childhood fantasy, a return to the roots and all of that.  Or to use the school facilities, but I don’t know about the red tape there.  When we used to play at school, they would relegate us to distant locations that no longer exist.
But it’s kind of thrilling to ponder, all of it.  The shoes I don’t have, the ball I don’t, the shorts I don’t have, and basically every detail that I don’t have.  For whatever reason, none of those obstacles seem very important.  Instead, I feel like all I need to do is to push it a little bit in the community, take a few steps personally to start conditioning, make a concrete purchase so that there is something tangible that my eyes will keep coming into contact with, and it all might magically come together.

That’s why they call them dreams.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Set Phasers to Stun

Phaser - Superdrag (mp3)

The Gene Rodenberry estate recently unearthed a Star Trek script that never got made.

In the episode (“Set Phasers to Stun”), the crew visits a planet where a Tribble Collector’s prized possessions run amok and they must track down “The Collector” before the planet is overrun. Apparently due to their breeding abilities, it’s illegal in most galaxies to collect Tribbles, but because they’re so harmless and cute, an underground industry has thrived.

When they finally find The Collector, the feeble man attempts to flee, and Kirk says to Spock, “Set phasers for stun.” Spock does, and Spock shoots, and the sweet alien Tribble Collector they were trying to stun ends up dead. Spock and Kirk go on trial because the planet's leader needs a scapegoat even though he called the crew to investigate. Scotty beams 'em up right before they're executed.

Of course that's not true. I made all of that up. Or did I?
BAY HARBOR ISLANDS, Fla. — Israel Hernandez-Llach, a skateboarder and 18-year-old artist, was typically adept at dodging police officers while he tagged Miami Beach walls with his signature, “Reefa.”
This was the lead for the New York Times’ surreal report on the seemingly accidental death of Mr. Hernandez-Llach. This young man was tagging a building. The cops showed up. He ran. They chased. They shot him with a Taser. Israel died.

Amadou Diallo. Tragedy. Oscar Grant. Tragedy. John Torretti, recently beaten to death in Sacramento. Tragedy. Hell, there are dozens of tragic and unfortunate deaths at the hands of overzealous, even bloodlusty, police officers every year. But from everything in the write-up from the August 8 New York Times, the death of Israel Hernandez-Llach was not one of those kinds of tragedies.

That an 18-year-old is dead is unfortunate, to be sure, but articles like this practically spoon-feeds chum to conservative radio and Fox News types always eager to show how quick "lib'rul" newspapers are to create the tragedy needle in a healthy haystack. The article first introduces the main character, the now-dead “artist” whose first failed attempt to “adeptly dodge” police ended with him dead. Oh yeah, we forgot to mention, it’s graffiti. Graffiti is his "art."

An "unbiased" reporter might call it "non-commissioned art on other people’s property," to make it seem like a charitable act, a donation of his time and talent. And I know when I’m watching trains roll through Chattanooga with 214 different dudes’ names tagged “artfully” on the sides of the railcars, I’m totally in awe of the artistic abilities on display. It’s breathtaking. I want to go and thank the nice “artists” who are out there “expressing their inner muse” all over the place.

In the Times' article, because there is so little merit to accusing the police of doing anything all that off-the-wall -- other than chasing a fleeing suspect who was, um, actually doing something illegal -- the article quickly delves into all the past wrongdoings by police officers. Apparently the only people who are guilty in the present based on past behavior are police officers. Even more frustrating, it doesn't even have to be the same cop(s) in the same town(s). One bad cop makes all other cops bad.

Israel’s grieving family came back with this quote: “Art is nothing to be killed for.”

Yes, because clearly the police are Art Killers. Masterpiece Murderers. They were originally on the trail of Gustav Klimt and Frida Kahlo -- the Bonnie and Clyde of the paintbrush world -- until they found out both of them were already dead, and the dang cops were so angry about it that they just tracked down this poor innocent 18-year-old “artist” and shot him a bajillion times.... I mean, hit him one single time with a much safer device, a friggin’ Taser.

Swimming pool deaths of children 0-14 per year: 390.
Police-related Taser deaths in 13 years: 500.
Yet somehow this is where we want to pitch our tent on police brutality?

Five hundred Taser deaths in the 21st Century ain't ideal, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s a teensy weensy fraction of deaths from police gunshots. Especially 10, or 24, or 41 Shots, which sometimes happens when police trigger fingers get itchy and the adrenaline kicks. So forgive me if I’ll take my chances with the dang Taser. Or, better yet, maybe I’ll just not flee when police officers are chasing me. Or, better yet, maybe I won't go around defacing property that ain't mine.

Maybe Israel’s parents will also sue McDonald’s for closing down and shuttering that restaurant he was tagging. If McD's hadn’t closed down, Israel would never have tagged it, and thus never be Tased. They’ll probably win millions, because McDonald’s has been guilty of this kind of thing before, as the New York Times will happily report in their next story on the matter.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fantasy Band Auction Draft!

Every Time I Think of You - The Babys (mp3)

Change - John Waite (mp3)

In Dreams - John Waite (mp3)

In just a couple of weeks, millions of mostly sane but inexcusably bored males (plus 19 females) all over the country will begin drafting their fantasy football teams. I’ve been participating in fantasy football in some shape or form since the summer of 1994, when I was a bartender in Chapel Hill, N.C.

A friend texted me a question about fantasy football while I was out at dinner over the weekend. The song “Change” by John Waite was playing over the restaurant speakers, likely from some XM radio 80s station. I’ve always kinda liked John Waite, so obviously, the next thought that came to me was:

“If there was such a thing as Fantasy Rock Band, I wonder how much John Waite would go for in the draft...”

This would have to be an auction draft, where each player auctioned off to the highest bidder, and for the sake of ease, let’s just say each team’s salary cap is $100, and you have to draft five players and and four backups.

There will be no White Stripes or Japandroids in Fantasy Rock Band, my friend. All bands will conform to the Def Leppard and early ‘80s Journey Rule of Five: lead singer, lead guitar, bass, drums, and a fifth optional player for keyboards or second guitar*. You should have enough players to have one 5-person band on tour and another 4-person band off the road “recording a new record” or snorting coke off hooker’s butts or something. (* -- I guess you could form a band with oddball instruments like The Hooters or the New Bohemians, but you're not gonna win the league...)

Your league will have 20 teams with owners ranging from 25-55 years of age, all of whom may have unique opinions about great rock, but all of whom know the fair market value range for an Avett Brother or a star saxophonist.

The scope of the teams will be throughout rock history, with each member’s value to a complicated mix of their entire career and their peak moments. Obviously, no one can afford the Beatles. The estimated cost for any single Beatle would crush the cap, since Lennon and McCartney would easily run you $40-50 each. Harrison could cost $30, maybe more if someone in your league believes he was the Essential Beatle. I won’t insult Ringo by estimating his worth, but it’s probably in the $90 range.

In Fantasy Rock Band, John Waite would make a great backup lead singer. I’d pay $4-5 for him, but I doubt anyone else would bid on him, because he’s kind of an overlooked sleeper. If someone made you close your eyes and told you to build an arena rock band from scratch, odds are pretty good that the lead singer’s voice would sound a lot like John Waite’s. Powerful with just a bit of scratch to it, and slightly higher than the average male vocal register, but none of that falsetto crap, and not a voice so high that he can’t wear leather pants and overdose on hairspray and hair gel and lose every last molecule of his heterosexuality.

The strangest thing about Waite’s career is that music writers seem to give him the most credit for the least successful part of his career, as lead vocalist for 70s vanilla rock band The Babys. The way some critics write about The Babys, you’d think they had a couple of platinum albums or had some massive cult following, neither of which is true. They had talent, for sure, including future Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and other recording journeymen.

Through five albums of decent power pop, they never climbed higher than 22 on the charts and had only two singles crack the Top 20. This doesn’t make them bad if they’re Velvet Underground, but if your entire sound is geared for the charts, failing to do well in that venue ain’t so great.

Waite’s solo career is summed up by most people with two words: “Missing You.” And hell, that’s two pretty good words when it comes to hits from the ‘80s, but he flirted with the Top 20 charts several more times in his career. My personal favorites include the aforementioned “Change” and the unsung best wedding song never played at weddings because he says “kiss my ass”: “In Dreams.”

And then Bad English, the bastard lovechild of Journey and The Babys, roared like a Mini-Damn Yankees to a couple of power singles before fading quickly into irrelevance. But they went plantinum, fer chrissakes, and it's halfway decent vanilla power pop to boot.

Waite got through almost two decades, fronted two bands and owned a decent solo career to boot. I’d take him as my backup fantasy lead vocalist any day. If my starter Gordon Sumner (a bargain at $18) went down with tonsillitis, I could sub Waite in for a few weeks and rely on him to keep us in the game.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Message For Our Times

Take the three summer action blockbusters(?) I saw--White House Down, Pacific Rim, Star Trek: Into Darkness--and put them in a blender.  You don't want to pulverize them.  You don't want to turn them into mush.  You just want to chop them finely, so if you have a "Pulse" button, use that to process them.

And here's what you will get once you've pushed that button a few times and stirred to an even consistency (depending on your ability to follow what follows, you may also get some possible spoiler alerts):

Kirk saves Spock. One Jaeger robot saves the other.  The last remaining Jaeger robot saves the world. Channing Tatum saves the President of the United States.  Spock saves the starship Enterprise.  Channing Tatum saves his daughter.  (Brief apology here: I blended Pacific Rim a little too finely and no longer have the names of the characters)  Cocky, hotshot robot guy and the actor who plays Stringer Bell in The Wire and is the star of Luther sacrifice themselves and their robot to give other robot final chance to save the world.  Kirk saves at least some of Starfleet Command. Channing Tatum saves the world from mutually-assured destruction.  Spock saves....

I think you get the idea, right?  I'm also very confident that you could take any of the blockbusters I didn't see--World War Z, Man of Steel, etc.--and add them to the mix and this plethora of people saving people and institutions and planets would expand.  I'm certain of it.  Pardon me for being so late to the epiphany game, but it only dawned on me last night that virtually every epic blockbuster movie is based on people saving people.  

And it really isn't just action movies.  Comedies, animated movies are almost always about somebody saving someone else, rescuing them from certain doomed love or putting it all on the line to confront social wrongs--bullying, alienation, discrimination, materialism.

Critics of Hollywood like to point out all of the bad messages oozing out of Hollywood, and there's no doubt something to that, but underlying all of these films is sacrifice, loyalty, dedication, risk for others, putting one's life on the line for a noble cause, 

But if you delve into literature, especially modern literature, nobody saves anybody.  Now why is that? Probably the last character to save/sacrifice himself in literature was in a Charles Dickens novel.  I exaggerate, of course. Characters may try, but either they can't or the person to be saved is not worth saving, or the attempt is flawed or goes badly wrong, and the "rescuer" is destroyed.  Think about it.  People don't save each other in Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vonnegut, McCarthy, Hurston, or Ellison novels.  There's no Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, Tony Kushner character coming to the rescue.  Ain't nobody keeping Anna Karenina or Randall P. McMurphy from their inevitabilities.

Nor do we ourselves do much saving in our lives.

We may try to gently steer someone back onto a path.  We may suggest counseling or try to get him or her into church.  We might commiserate with the person needing saving, might get together behind his or her back with a bunch of others and say a lot of sentences that begin with "Somebody needs to..."  

But put it all on the line?  Huh.  Stand up to evil, whatever or whomever that evil may be, for someone else? Not hardly.  Do anything or everything in the name of friendship or love?

Or go global.  Is anyone, Republican or Democrat, really working to save the poor?  The starving?  The diseased? The middle class?  As long as we have our energy needs met, does it matter what fracking is doing to North Dakota or Ohio?  As long as we have all the clothing choices we want, do the working conditions in Bangladesh matter?  Do you wake in the night with a burning desire to swoop in and save people you don't know?  Or ones that you do?  Pockets, only pockets of people feel these urges, and I am not one of them.  Most of us  certainly don't want to do anything that will jeopardize friendships or allow our children to be at risk or force us to do without.  We don't want to have hard conversations or to make difficult, life-changing choices.

So there exists a huge disconnect between the message for the age, which is what I would call the endless hammering of the "heroes risk it all to save people" theme of all of these movies, and the ways that we behave in our lives.  That message is too prevalent for us not to take notice.  The disconnect isn't that shocking.  The question is, why?  Why are we watching these movies?  Why are they being made in endless variation over and over and over again?  Is it so we can vicariously experience what it's like to care about someone or something to take that kind of chance, to make that kind of sacrifice?  Or is it because the cliche has become so mindless that we know what will happen and there's nothing vicarious about it at all?  It's up there on the screen and we're down here.

Or maybe it's just the action.  Maybe if we had the chance to steer those robots or fire those weapons as a way of being the hero, then we'd be more attracted to the job.  Maybe the message is being used to sell the action, to justify the explosions.  Maybe the whole thing is just a sham.  Certainly, movies are full of unrealities, but if the actual giving up of something important--comfort, safety, security, choice--to help out someone is one of those fictions or special effects, then I think we're really in trouble.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sound City

Pinky - Elton John (mp3)
Crystal - Fleetwood Mac (mp3)
If you love rock and roll. If you love knowing the recipe for great studio albums. If you love the heartbreaking bittersweet story of progress and those left floundering in its wake. If you love people who define success differently from dollar signs. If you love Ewoks over Stormtroopers.

If you love Stevie Nicks or Neil Young, Tom Petty or Ronnie James Dio, Rick Springfield or Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana or Barry Manilow. If you just f*#kin’ love f*#kin’ music, man.

If any of these, then you owe it to yourself to watch at least the first hour of the documentary Sound City.

Holy places are often ugly and dirty. Holy grails are sometimes long boards full of knobs and switches designed by obscure German engineers. This movie celebrates the dirty holy space known as Sound City and the Neve board through which dozens of Platinum-selling albums and hundreds of others were born.

Directed by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Sound City is ultimately a bit self-congratulatory, because the second and third act of the Neve board’s life is owed in large part to Grohl. Nirvana’s Nevermind was recorded at Sound City on the cheap as the studio was on its last gasps, and that stroke of fortune kept the tape-based analog recording studio thriving for another decade and getting by for another after that.

Then, as Sound City finally succumbed to the Brave ProTools New World of music production and closed down, Grohl swooped in for Act III and bought the Neve board for his own “garage” studio. There it gave birth to Foo Fighters' Wasting Light, which never quite made Platinum in the U.S., but that feat's almost impossible for modern rock acts in the 21st Century.

Throughout the film are interviews with rockers and producers meant to remind you what is at the soul of all great rock and roll, and it’s not about style or room design or perfect pitch or iambic pentameter or topping the singles chart. And if you need to know what it's about, then you really really need to watch this documentary.

The final 45 minutes of Sound City is dedicated to chronicling the recording of the movie’s “soundtrack.” Grohl convinced/invited an impressive number of key Sound City-bred artists to come in and record songs via the Neve board. You can take this part or leave it.

Sure, I enjoyed the hell out of watching Stevie Nicks and Rick Springfield and Sir Paul as they jam through the old school creative studio process with Grohl, but the soundtrack is in truth a matter of hit-and-miss. It frequently sounds like a "What if The Foo Fighters hired ______ as their lead singer" experiment, which is basically what it is. And as much as I loves me some Foo, an experiment like that is bound to be hit and miss.

The final complete product accidentally reminds the viewer that even the best analog sound board and the best sound studio in the world doesn’t guarantee sonic immortality. Still, that last stretch is a reminder of what used to be so amazing about studio albums “back in the day.” They were recorded by real people playing real instruments with real talent, which is to say it was done with glorious imperfection after untold hours of playing and playing and playing in a small room together.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Disney Owes Six Flags a Thank You

Go Faster - Black Crowes (mp3)
Take A Ride - The Dirty Guv'nahs (mp3)
Bugs Bunny is smiling because
he's fictional. And because
he's running away from the park,
not toward it.
Six Flags Over Georgia is the best advertising DisneyWorld never had to pay for.

On Saturday, August 3, thanks to some free tickets from work, I took my two tween daughters and one of their friends to Six Flags, a Last Days of Summer surprise road trip. The trip was intended to be the kind of experience that, when I’m 70 with a pickled liver and massive mental and physical health issues, my daughters would remember.

“I know he’s an awful person now,” they’d say, “but remember when we were in middle school, and he took us to Six Flags Over Georgia, and we had the absolute best day in the history of our lives? Don’t we owe him now?”

Now, after our experience, I’m mostly hoping they don’t pull the plug on me. I’m exaggerating, of course. I have a DNR clause in my will.

For the price of entry -- which is to say free -- SFOG was worth the trip. I’m not sure I would have paid much more than that, and we’ll be in no rush to go back.

Mater Gets Hosed
Your car can go to Six Flags for $20.
But it can't ride anything or enter the park.
It just gets to sit and wait for you.
Parking for Six Flags Over Georgia was $20. Most reasonable people don’t care, but I care. The way I figure it, SFOG charges your car half the admission price simply to sit in the parking lot and wait for you. No rides. No fun. Do you think Lightning McQueen would stand for this?

Flash Pass My A$$Thanks to odd notions of what “good capitalism” means, Six Flags has created Flash Pass. It’s basically a super-sized egg timer on a carabiner, and it serves the same purpose as Disney’s “Fast Pass.” For the lowest rate of $35, the device works precisely like Disney’s. You get in an imaginary line for a ride, and the timer lets you know when your wait is up. Then, ta-da, you jump to the front. You can pay more to get more advanced versions.

If you pay for a Flash Pass, you have officially paid as much for SFOG as you would for a day at Disney World. But you still will be lucky to ride more than 12 good rides in a day. At least that's what the guys who Flash Passed in front of us at 10 p.m. to get on Superman told us.

Singles and Empties
Even the girls noticed. Every ride was drowning in inefficiency. We’d watch coasters go up with empty seats. Not just one or two. Every run had empties. On one MindBender run, we counted seven empty seats including two completely empty 2-person rows. And we’d been in line 80 minutes.

Six Flags doesn’t have a “singles” line. It’s not a complicated concept. I’d rather see a bunch of singles fill spots than see empties on rides while we wait. And by wait, I mean Vladimir and Estregon hardly waited longer. In the 12 hours we were at SFOG, we rode six rides and stopped just under an hour for lunch. Do the math on that average wait time.

Don't believe these signs.
What they mean is "2 Hours...
plus or minus another hour."
Waiting in Hell
Disney was most missed in the wait lines. First off, none of the SFOG “estimates” on time were accurate. On Goliath and Superman, we entered and passed the “90 Minutes Wait from Here” by several rows only two end up waiting close to 2 1/2 hours for both. The only time our wait time was overestimated was Thunder River.

They make you "rent" lockers for your backpacks and purses. For $4, you can use any locker near the ride you're on. On your ticket, it says if you don't get your bag by a certain time, it will charge you an additional fee, which I guess didn't apply to the "all day" rental. And thank God, because four of the six times we were late getting back due solely to the length of the lines.

In line, we never once encountered air conditioning. Unless you count "a nice breeze." In line for Batman The Ride, we entered two “sewer tunnels” and one abandoned warehouse. All three were akin to sweatshops. Several people had to excuse themselves from the line from fear of passing out in the thick air.

L astly, the only ride with anything approaching a distraction was Superman: Ultimate Flight. While waiting, you could read some signs detailing Superman’s most famous villains and allies. Some damn signs. That was it, and it was the best in the park. At Disney, almost every long-wait ride has themed entertainment. As you get close to the ride, they even have high-end videos to go with the event. Disney has made its mission to minimize the misery of waiting, and it was never more obvious than standing for 11 hours to ride six rides at SFOG.

If this comes across as a grouchy bitch-fest, I prefer to see it as an apology to Disney. Although I’ve never really complained about much at Disney World, I clearly failed to understand just how good you have it there. Semi-entertaining waits. Free “fast pass” options. Mostly happy employees. Clean parks. Stunningly efficient ride loading and unloading.

I’m sorry, Disney. I underestimated you. You the Mufasa of Adventure Parks, and Six Flags isn’t even decent enough to be Scar. Six Flags Over Georgia is more like Pumbaa. Or one of the fleas on Pumbaa's smelly butt. Part of me hopes they go bankrupt again, except I'm sure we'd bail them out as being "Too Big (Rollercoasters) To Fail."

Goliath was pretty awesome, though. So I'll give you that.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Rocked By The Ages

The human mind, despite its many infinite possibilities, is distinctly unsuited to dealing with aging.  It isn't that the mind cannot cope with the idea of getting old; it's that the mind willingly gives in to the person inside the body and agrees to participate in the deception.

For who among us does not have a mind that tells us that we feel younger than we really are?  I am 56 years old, but I can easily tell myself that I am 35.  And I can believe that.

But you can't spend time in Florida, at least in the part where I am, and not confront your age.  The issues of aging are everywhere--the super-slow cars that you can get stuck behind on the road, the other customers in the stores you frequent, the ubiquitous consignment stores and Salvation Army stores and Goodwill stores with their vast inventories of the leftover items from ended or downsized lives, the "retirees" who work the jobs that you'd expect to see teens working anywhere else.  This is a perpetually old place.  The names just change, year to year.

This is a place where when I take my children to a movie, the ancient woman at the box office says, "That will be twenty dollars," and while I hand her the money, I'm wondering how $20 divides by three, only to find out that the three of us did not pay the same ticket price.  My children's tickets cost $7.50, while mine cost $5.00.  Because I received, without asking, the "Senior Discount."  You have to be 62 to receive that discount; I am 56.  It was assumed.  Ouch.

The human mind, at least mine, also grapples unsuccessfully with the context of aging.  By this, I mean, that we can't keep up with who the elderly are around us because we move ever closer to their ranks.  For example, because of my parents, especially my father who is still living and in the upper ranks of the elderly population age wise, I have this set notion that elderly people I see around me are veterans of The Great Depression and the Big War.

But then, I was out walking the other morning and this old guy zips by me on his racing bike.  He's got all of the gear--racing helmet, spandex, tight shirt.  Except that the shirt has the album cover for Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? On the back.

You think that didn't jar me?

Wait a second, my mind said.  If that guy is about 65, then he was 21 in 1969, the year of Woodstock (the real one).  He might have gone, might have dropped acid, probably had a bunch of Beatles albums, certainly would have been drafted, might have served in Vietnam or participated in a bid protest on a college campus, read Ken Kesey.  That's the guy riding past me on his bike, living, or at least staying, at a retirement community in Florida, where people play golf and sit around at Panera in groups to talk about their health issues, going out with his wife and another couple to get an early supper.

Of course, we get these reminders when our favorite rock stars have their birthdays, but who thinks of them as real people?

But see how the years have snuck past me, us?  How I lost context while I was living it?   The last time I overheard a party social at the condo community, they were still dancing to Sinatra.  What's happening now?  Are old folks dancing to "Crimson And Clover" and "American Woman" at these affairs, like some kind return to Shindig and American Bandstand?

I'm not ready for old people to act in ways that I don't consider ways that old people should act.  It's too unsettling for my mind.  And we all realize that is because I want to be able to keep my distance between me and what I consider old.  Maybe you're the same way.

I got a taste of it at a wedding a few weeks ago, when the singer in the wedding band who stepped up to sing "Brick House," was, again, a guy who had to be in his 60's, who, as one of many voices in the band, had probably always been the one who sang "Brick House."  But now, watching him sing it to and with a bunch of sorority girls and a young bride, there was no trick that my mind could play that could convince me that his age or mine weren't what they really are.  And I had to turn away.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Civil Wars Go Out With A Bang

Long Time Gone - The Civil Wars (w/T Bone Burnette) (mp3)

The second -- and likely final -- studio album by The Civil Wars deserves to be considered one of the year’s highlights in pop culture melodrama even before it's released. If my hunches are correct, the album will find itself in the pantheon of Timeless Art Borne Of Dysfunction, beside such classics as Rumors, “Casablanca,” “Apocalypse Now," and "Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

In fact, before I’ve heard a single note from the new album (out Tuesday, August 6), I’m going to review it in four words and do so with supreme confidence:

“Better than Barton Hollow.”

If you know about the band but didn’t know about their relationship, think back to the days of The Separation & Divorce of Roseanne and Tom Arnold, and you’ve got the general idea. If you are looking for deeper and more personal look at it, you can read Joy Williams’ interview with The Associated Press.

But let’s think more about Roseanne and Tom for a minute. What happened to both of them after we stopped caring that they hated each other? Exactly. Their hatred was great theater, and it’s reasonable to believe the hatred inspired a brief stretch of decent performances out of Tom Arnold (especially “True Lies”), a man everyone knew to be an NTAC when we first saw him on screen. He was the male Anna Nicole Smith. Except that he wasn’t even famous for posing nude before hooking up with Roseanne.

A band named The Civil Wars was almost predestined to be short-lived. (Fun fact: The Civil Wars the band outlasted The Civil War the war, but just barely. If they ever get back together, I hope they rename themselves The Civil Union.)

I bought Barton Hollow after hearing the first 30 seconds of “Poison & Wine,” their knee-buckling song of dysfunctional relations that left me gasping for breath and wishing for happier times, like back when E.T. turned white and keeled over, or when Alice jumps off the cliff after Uncas dies. “Poison & Wine” is easily one of the most heartbreakingly perfect songs ever to be written about people who don’t know how to leave one another.

But here’s the dark secret about Barton Hollow, an album that hit Gold in the U.S., rare air for spare country/folk music: it’s only got two really great songs, and this is hardly up for debate. The rest of the album is full of what can best be described as “decent” and worst be called “slow and occasionally plodding.” The two songs are so amazing that they actually elevate the album into something more, but give me any dozen songs by Lori McKenna or Patty Griffin, and that’s a better album than The Civil Wars’ studio debut.

But their second album? That will be a different story. They cut their teeth on the road. They're older and wiser as musicians in the public eye. They recorded with Taylor Swift and sang a Michael Jackson cover. They became A Real Band... even if they grew to despise one another in the process. They made this album despite their spite, which to me suggests it was an album that had to be made, that would have haunted both their souls if it was left lingering in notebooks and in draft form. All that resentment and dysfunction from events we can only lustily imagine in our prurient thoughts will build a timeless classic.

I’m betting The Civil Wars go out with a big bang. And maybe, if the explosion is powerful enough, it might even find a way to spark new life...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Got Yer Ears On?

Down here in Florida, I've been known to get off my ass once in awhile and get out and walk 3-4 miles.  It's a morning ritual: drag out of bed, run fingers through hair, put on dirty shorts and t-shirt, grab condo keys and cell phone, oh yeah, and an iPod and headphones.

I bought a pair of inexpensive Klipsch cover-your-ears headphones from some online site a few months ago, and they have become my go-to pair.  This morning as I walked down the steps to the road,  I scrolled through the iPod and settled on The Cars' first album as my walking music, and off I went.

 As "Let The Good Times Roll" began, the rhythm guitar started alone on the far left and a dipsy-doodle synthesized bass thing joined in from the left. Within ten seconds, I had the epiphany that I had never heard this record before, even though I've, no doubt, listened to the hits off of it hundreds of times.

(And, as a side note, if the Cars' music is something you ho-hum at this point in your life, give it another try as party music, workout music, driving music.  Each song is a tight, little pop gem, deeper cuts like "I'm In Touch With Your World" are worth exploring, and, if you didn't already know, Elliot Easton is one of rock's finest lead guitarists, bar none, whose chops, versatility, and ability to make the most of a 15-20 second solo are astonishing.)

The first pair of headphones I ever owned came from Radio Shack.  There was a coupon in the paper that offered them for free just for coming into the story, so I convinced my mother to drive me out to the mall on a Tuesday school night, no easy feat.  The headphones came as a kit, so I "built" my first pair (the fact that I could do that means it was an awfully simple kit).  This must have been 1972.

The reason I know that is because the record I used to test them was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Trilogy, a prog-rock masterpiece from about that time.  The sonic range of those free earmuffs can't have been much, but, like this morning's experience with The Cars, the opening moments of hearing that album through headphones led me into another world.

Accidentally, it was the perfect test record because it began with a back-and-forth between Keith Emerson's Moog synthesizer and Carl Palmer's huge pile of percussive instruments, including, most memorably, a conga.  I could hear the modulation of the Moog, I could hear the reverb that played out behind the conga, I could hear the silence between.  The music rose up and down, from aggressive crescendos to single notes.  Had I been sitting on a stool, I would have fallen over when my ears received the full brunt of it.  And then the next song, "From The Beginning," opens with beautifully-recorded, intricately-picked acoustic guitar.

I could not contain the feelings that the music stirred in me.  I looked around for someone to share it with, but I was in my room, my parents were downstairs in front of the television, and my brother hid out upstairs in his teenager's loft.  And, of course, I was wearing headphones, the ultimate solitary experience.  There was nothing to do but listen to these passages over and over again so that mind could begin to get used to them and to process that this was what it was going to be like for some time.  Had I owned a copy of Dark Side Of The Moon, I probably would have had to jump out the window out of sheer joyous aural overload.

Today, headphones do not serve the same purpose.  We fear too much noise, and rightly so.  I certainly have paid some of that price.  If you see a young person on a train or in a school hallway, usually their headphones are set on drone, not stun.  Their music functions as a kind of low level white noise, not that different from the sound machines some people use to get to sleep.  And it often plays in a car that same way.

Not that today's world is designed to allow us to experience music in isolation.

But a great (or not-so-great) set of headphones as the vehicle for listening to an incredible piece of music remains an unparalleled sonic experience.  If the world will leave you alone long enough to revisit a favorite in its glorious, uninterrupted entirety, you will not be sorry for the time spent.  And if you tie it in with exercise, people will probably leave you alone, especially if you are moving quickly away and can't hear them anyway.