Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To Boldly Go

For the first time in 19 years, I will spend more than a week living alone, sharing personal, residential space with no one. No wife. No children. No roommates. Six weeks of solitary residential weeknights. Some call what I'm doing "getting a masters degree," but it might as well be called "exploring new worlds.”

When I moved into my new and ephemeral digs over the weekend, the alien nature of this new solitude hit me like a heat wave. Well, actually, that was because the spartan apartment hadn't been running its sole tiny A/C unit for three weeks prior to my arrival, and the place was pushing 100 F. My new place was running a fever. The physical space reflected my inner thoughts.

Five days later, it's clear the difference in "empty time" is other-worldly.

At home, "empty time" means "on call." It's not unlike a doctor, being a parent. Your children might not need you in the moment, and they might not need you most of the evening, but you must always be available. Even if you're escaping domestic madness with an extended potty break -- oh come now, we ALL do that -- your children feel entitled to cut even that moment short for a legion of possible reasons, from a lost toy to a spilled drink to a sibling saying mean things.

When you're on call as a parent, which is all the time, many people like me have trouble committing to projects, because all of that focus can be -- will, inevitably, be -- blown with the needs of a kid tugging literally or metaphorically on your sleeve.

In this new alien place of solitude, empty time means utterly empty. Vacant of responsibility, a vacuum of human distraction. I don't even have a TV. Filling it requires constant, conscious choice. You’re not on call for anything. You must call yourself to act.

This is not a reflection of "better" or "worse" ways to live. It's not about the misery or glory of parenthood or of singletons. It's about atmospheric change. It’s about astronauts who struggle to stand after having been weightless for months or deep sea divers who stay down too long and surface too quickly.

At one point a couple of days ago, I got out of bed and made five round trips from the kitchen and back to the bed in the span of maybe 10 minutes, not because I needed things from the kitchen, but because I was dazed and in shellshock to be awake and have no one to answer to, no children to wake up, no child to instruct or keep on schedule, no food to contemplate preparing, and no wife to greet and warmly wish on her merry way. I was walking back and forth looking for the duties that were going unfulfilled in my mind.

This feeling is why so many separated and divorced couples struggle with depression, regardless of whether their soon-to-be or ex-spouse was a tyrant or nightmare. It’s why so many marriages fail to survive that first year, as the realities of cohabitation with a ring weigh down a former singleton in ways incomprehensible before the union.

As I stand at my tiny table, typing on my tiny laptop in a tiny apartment, I am grateful for the opportunity before me, to experience a slice in time entirely different from what I have known most of my life. But I am more grateful that this experience is exactly that: a slice, a temporary stop on the round trip back to my own bed, and my own kitchen, and my own family, complete with a wife who tolerates my snoring and children who will once again tug at my sleeves, whine in my ear, and snuggle next to me on our couch.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Epiphany #39: The Tie

It's time to retire this tired sports cliche--"A tie is like kissing your sister," said Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz after a scoreless tie against Duke in 1953.  Whether Coach Erdelatz said it first or not does not matter; it stuck.

We've all parroted it at one time or another.  I know I have.  In particular, I remember a UT football game back in the 80's when the Vols were unable to stop UCLA from tying the game late.  My father-in-law and I spent the rest of the evening wallowing in the sentiment.

But I am here to tell you that a tie is in no way like kissing your sister, and I don't even have a sister.  Push the perhaps suspect/creepy/misogynistic implications of the statement aside, at least for a second, and look it clinically as it might relate to a sporting contest.  Does it imply that there is no joy in tying?  Does it suggest that a team expected to get something more?  Does it merely mean to capture the unsatisfying nature of neither team winning?  

If the World Cup soccer I've been watching for the past week and a half is any indication, none of those interpretations are true.  And, as you might guess, The Tie (yesterday's USA vs. Portugal match) is distinctly on my mind as I write this.

A quick review of the psyche of the two teams involved in that contest would suggest, at least to me, that all of the following assessments are true:

a. one team was bitterly crushed to be tied in the final seconds.
b. one team was ecstatic to avoid a loss.
c. one team, before the Cup started, and maybe even going in, or at least the commentators who analyze that team, would have been more than satisfied with a tie against the fourth-ranked team in the world.

d. one team, had the game ended 1-1, after a tying goal, instead of 2-2, after giving up a tying goal, would have walked away quite pleased.  As would the fans streaming out of the bars.

Doubtless there are other interpretations, but I don't think anyone walked away from that match saying, "Well, that was underwhelming and a complete waste of time."  For the spectator, it was a tense, exciting, nerve-wracking experience and some darn good soccer, along with a couple of mistakes.

Strategically, of course, a tie is not neutral at all.  In the World Cup, you still get a point for a tie to add to your total.  Even in football, a tie counts differently than a loss and works in your favor, percentage-wise.  A tie pushes you forward, just not as much as a win.  A tie, in the case of the U.S., means a slightly-better position going into the last "Group Of Death" match against Germany.  A tie for Portugal means that they live to fight another day.  Maybe not worth throwing a party over, but better than.....

Maybe the British have it right.  In their soccer vernacular, they talk about scoring "an equalizer," they note that a goal allows a team "to get level."  Implied in this is a kind of homeostasis of the pitch--so many things have had to happen in order for a the two teams to be back on an even footing.  And they don't seem to lament that.  If two worthy combatants battle to a draw and walk away, they seem to see something noble in that.

America, of course, hates the tie.  Hockey has done away with it.  Football makes it extremely difficult to still happen (at the pro level--it can't happen anywhere else).  My blog mate texted me last night to say, "If America celebrated draws, we'd still answer to a king."  We have very much bought in to Coach Erdelatz's notion, adding a dose of capitalism as well, suggesting that if two teams tie, we "didn't get our money's worth."

But as last night showed us, it isn't the tie itself that is the focus of judgement--it's how you tie.  World Cup soccer teaches us that, in most matches that have ended in a draw, there is little that is ho-hum about that circumstance.  It may be very frustrating, it may be a tribute to two evenly matched teams, it may be more than one of the teams ever could have realistically hoped for. but I promise you, no sisters were kissed at the outcome.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

To Be Understood, As To Understand

My daughters made me a mix CD for Father's Day. A mix CD of songs I own. Because, y'know, we're all on the same iTunes, and 95% of everything on there is stuff I bought or burned.

That's not the appropriate initial response to a gift, by the way. Especially to a gift from children who are provided little spending money. Thankfully, I'm at least smart enough lately to keep smartass thoughts like this to myself, and my blog, in moments of intended generosity. My eldest is more of the music obsessive, but my second definitely left her imprints on the selection as well. Their CD was an invitation of sorts, a gift not about music, per se, but about how they see me through the music library we share.

1. Open Up Your Heart & Let the Sun Shine In - Frente!
2. Stay Gold - First Aid Kit
3. Full Circle - Aerosmith
4. More Than a Feeling - Boston
5. I Will - Dia Frampton (with Blake Shelton)
6. All Too Well - Taylor Swift
7. Home - Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
8. Backwards Walk - Frightened Rabbit
9. The Only Exception - Paramore
10. Out on the Town - fun.
11. The Show - Lenka
12. Even If It Breaks Your Heart - Will Hoge
13. I Melt with You - Modern English
14. Dog Days Are Over - Florence + The Machine
15. You'll Be In My Heart - Phil Collins
16. Baby Of Mine - Alison Krauss

Four of the songs are ones I used to sing to them when they were babies. One of them I still do. One verse every night I tuck them in.

My earliest memory of rock music is here.

At least one song representing all five decades of my life are here.

One of my most recent purchases is included.

They chose two songs by bands I pretend I discovered, two more from bands I've seen in the last year, and two more we all sort of fell in love with as father and daughters.

They chose a playlist that's built like a good meal. It's got cheese, a decent measure of meat, a bit of fluff, and some homegrown natural farm fresh ingredients. It's got vitamins and minerals, fiber and fat. It nods to history but lives in the now.

Some really great music binds people, but some music doesn't. OK Computer, for example, is one of the better albums of the last quarter century, in my opinion, but it is not the sound of bonding humans together. It's a lonely, isolating listening experience built to remind you what a lonely, isolating world we have constructed for ourselves. And I appreciate that message.

Further, I appreciate why Bob and others with half a brain would loathe Phil Collins. Because, I mean, he's Phil Collins.

But if you want to bond with your elementary school daughters -- or even your middle school daughters -- just trust me that "You Will Be In My Heart" goes a lot farther than "Karma Police."

I don't want to go too deep into the meanings of the songs on the mix. I could. I'm tempted to. OK OK, I have. I've secretly thought about the songs and wondered about the messages and all that, because it's fun to do, but their gift wasn't intended that way. The message they intended is in the forest, not the trees. And it's a special message.

It's a good mix. They'll get even better at it. My eldest has a wider and better appreciation of music at 14 than I did at 20. More importantly, it says they understand the parts of me they need to understand. They know what I like, and they know what moves me, and they know that the two aren't always the same thing. They know what I want for them isn't nearly as much about me as my blog is about me. They know that the very act of their hearts beating is the most treasured reality in my whole world, that Who they are, What potential they possess within them, Who they might become, What they like or Whom they love are entirely secondary to their mere existence in my life.

And they hear it, constantly, in the music we share.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Epiphany #38: Summer Mix 2.0

Each year for about the past 20 years, I have made a Summer Cruisin' mixtape or CD or Google Drive folder or whatever's next of songs for a friend to play as he drives around in his car during the hot months.  A week or so ago, I posted this year's model.

But, really, that was just a surf through stuff that was on my computer that I thought might sound good together.  I give it a "B."

As for me, I wanted a reliable group of songs that will keep me grooving as the grill is going or as the beer is chilling or as the grass is growing (having just been cut) or as the party is starting or as the short night is descending or as the car is sweltering at a stop light.  And for that, this year, I took a different approach.

Armed with a bit of monthly cash on my eMusic account, after deciding I really didn't want the new Chrissie Hynde or Jack White CDs all that much, I stumble from link to link to link and hit upon a band called Sugarman Three.  I had no idea who they were, but I started listening, and what I heard, sounded like the summer I was looking for.  And from there I arrived at a new kind of mix (for me):  4 CDs in a playlist on shuffle.  They would have to be different, but compatible.  When the list was finished, here's what I had:

Sugarman Three,  
Sugar's Boogaloo--I think they call this "acid jazz."  These three cats (because we're talking about a retro jazzy sound here) play mostly old cover in an instrumental combo of Hammond organ, saxophone, and drums.  Occasionally, they add a guitar or another instrument.  When I sampled their songs, especially a funky, instrumental version of Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," I thought, 'This is just familiar enough, but just different enough, to keep my interest for quite awhile.'

The Robert Cray Band, In My Soul--I've been a Cray fan for decades, but in his middle period, he seemed to become more of an R + B singer and less of the guitarist I admired so much.  A click into the "Blues" section on email revealed this latest CD of his, and a quick sampling of it revealed to a sparer sound and a more intimate production that told me it would be a good fit.  Cray's CD is full of interesting changes, superb vocals, and tasteful, sometimes lengthy, and, most of all, clean guitar parts.  It sounds like he's been listening to Dusty Springfield and channeling her stellar production into his blues.

Lafayette Afro Rock Band, Soul Makossa--I only heard a few seconds of a few of these songs before I knew I'd give this one a try.  I didn't know what "afro rock" is, but the sampling I did took be back to Hugh Masekela in the 1960's--wah-wah guitar, horn charts, sax solos, sometimes vocals layered over a hypnotic, repetitive groove.  These are the kinds of songs where you have no idea how long they are.  You only know that while they were playing, you were inside of them and that was a good place to be.

Benmont Tench, You Should Be So Lucky--Tench is Tom Petty's keyboardist and an original member of the Heartbreakers.  His first solo CD is a low-key affair, with tight production and stellar songwriting.  Tench isn't the singer Petty is, and his songs aren't rockers.  Instead, they tend to be mid-tempo songs and ballads in the older style, a touch of Randy Newman or early Tom Waits.  The songs sneak up on you, with strong melodies and vocals that are evocative, if not polished.  Petty sings back-up on "Blonde Girl, Blue Dress," one of the strongest numbers.

What ties them all together?  A couple of things I'd say.  Musically, there is a keyboard underpining, mostly organ, that says nothing is in too great of a rush here.  Sonically, they all sound like summer to me, songs to be heard when the weather is hot.

Put these babies on your Spotify playlist or whatever you're using these days, put a lime in your Red Stripe Light, open a folding chair, and give a listen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My Father's Day Gift: A Scourge

On Sunday, I celebrated Father’s Day by reminding myself what a s#!theel I am.

I should probably be in jail for almost killing my children in the summer of 2012.

Heading home after picking my three children up from camp, I dropped by a grocery store to pick up the evening’s dinner ingredients per orders from my dear wife, who was working late. It was a list of six ingredients. I knew it would be a quick stop, so I told the kids to stay in the car lest their mere presence double the time needed to fulfill said mission. As is the rule - yes, I've done this many times - I left the keys in the car and had the kids lock the doors, but I failed to realize just how hot it was. It had rained earlier that afternoon, but the sun and humidity had it in the high 90s. The line was longer than expected, so the expected 5 minutes became 10, maybe 15.

By the time I got back to the car, all three children were drenched in sweat, and the older two -- 12 and 11 -- where wild-eyed with the beginning of panic. Ten more minutes and who knows what could have happened?

Someone could have called 911. I could have been arrested and charged with abuse, or worse. I could be facing jail time or thousands, possibly tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer fees trying to prove I'm not a criminal nor an unfit parent.

The "call 911" reaction isn't silly speculation. It's the expected response circa 2014. Shoot first, ask questions later.

We are now so inundated with the news of countless people’s idiotic moments, or just their natural idiocies, that we no longer see them as human or events as tragedies. Instead we see them as opportunities for us to express our own proud judgment, our superiority, in Internet comments. Shoot first, ask questions later.

There are at least 15 reasons why I don’t deserve Father’s Day recognition in the first place. Topping that list is Steffi.

When I was 16 and handed the keys to my first car, my mother’s 1981 Toyota Corolla hatchback, a car I neither expected nor for one second took for granted as a sign of privilege and status, I named it Steffi in honor of Steffi Graf, on whom I had a tremendous crush. Graf had begun to take over the tennis world, and I was taking German in high school.

How could I have known I was violating Rule #24? I guess I should’ve named the car “Becker” or “Boris.” Who knew that referring to modes of transportation as female was insulting? Hell, I deeply and sincerely thought it was a term of affection. I also know of at least a handful of women who also refer to their cars as women.

Why does feminism insist on being a bully?

Best I can tell, the only way a man is allowed into their club is by tucking his tail between his legs and apologizing for everything ever done by anything born with a penis. If we are not openly humiliated, ashamed and embarrassed, at all times and in all circumstances, by the inexcusable awfulness of our gender, we are not a friend to the feminist movement.

Best I can tell, “Rad Dad” magazine is printed feminist version of Silas from The Da Vinci Code (YouTube). And, for those smart enough not to read it, Silas was f*#king crazy. Self-flagellation may have its purposes, but I have yet to find many who engage in it on a constant basis who aren’t a part of exactly the kind of extremist patriarchy against which feminists rankle.

I found myself particularly touched Sunday by an Instagram post from Holly Williams, daughter of the “legendary” Bocephus. It was a quote from Anne Sexton:
“It doesn’t matter who my father was. It matters who I remember he was.”
I wonder how many people have judged her for loving her father, have questioned whether Hank Jr. was a good man or a good dad. I doubt Rad Dad magazine will celebrate Bocephus as a model of fatherhood. Nor would I, in all likelihood. As if it’s our business. As if we should have any right. That quote cuts deep.

My wish to us all is that we can find a place, a secret members-only corner of our hearts, where we can find the true meaning of holidays. Whatever holidays you hold dear, be sure to keep a sacred space where you can protect the value and weight of a day for yourself and those whose opinions most matter.

Haters gonna hate. They can’t rain on your parade unless you let them.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Epiphany #37: No Money

Soon after we arrived at the mall, I discovered that I had left my wallet at home.  While this was not an immediate problem during lunch at Salsarita's (lunch is way cheaper when you forget your wallet!), the prospect of spending a couple of hours at the mall without a dime in my pocket felt both frustrating and demoralizing.

How would I survive?  What would I do?  What is the point of being at a shopping mall if you can't shop, and by "shop," I mean buy?

Pseudo-philosopher that I am, I decided that this would become a morally-instructive experience, that I could learn much about myself by merely observing the activities that everyone around me was indulging in.  I would be able to weigh in on our capitalistic society.  I could articulate an understanding of unnecessary impulse buying by watching it in others without the distraction of my own impulses.

Alas, that was not to happen.  I had a friend with me--my iPad--and I brought him with me into the mall.

Rather than get caught up in a store-to-store study of Saturday buyers, Mr. iPad and I would "opt out," would stake out our spot in the first store we entered, which happened to be the Barnes and Noble.  We would get a seat.  We would do business--emailing, reading, maybe even a little writing like this, and make productive use of our time.

But then I got an even better idea.  In the Barnes and Noble Starbucks outpost, my daughters were buying drinks to accompany their shopping.  As I approached them, they saw me, but didn't offer to buy me one, but I realized they might help me in a different way.

"Did either of you bring a pair of headphones?"  I asked.  My older responded affirmatively.

"I'll just be sitting here," I said.  "You call me or come find me when you are ready to go."

They nodded and went back to their order.

And what I decided was that I could use the time to start catching up on Game Of Thrones.  Or maybe something else.  I could sit down to a show or a different movie.

And that's when I realized, wait a second, no money?  Who am I kidding?  I'm sitting in B & N with an iPad that's loaded with an HBO app, a Comcast Infinity app, an Amazon Prime app, a Kindle app, an iTunes store app, and any number of others..  I can shop 'till the cows come home--for books, games, movies, songs, or just more apps.  I can indulge in the fruits of the money I'm already spending with my various subscriptions and funded accounts.

Certainly, I don't have to lament my "poor" status at the mall.  I'm carrying an entire mall with me, and it's way bigger than the one I'm sitting in!  It contains every store in the world.  And most of what I buy these days isn't tangible anyway.

So did all of that make me feel better or worse or what?  Well, I'll leave that for you to decide.  Rampant (or even intermittent) capitalism makes me uneasy, but it hasn't prevented my indulgences, so I swallowed whatever hypocrisy I could and sat at a table in the "Pet" section of a bookstore near the bathroom, put on headphones, shut out the consumers around me, and watched two episodes of people living in a world in a time, distance, and imagination from us who seemed to be doing exactly the same things we are doing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Epiphany #36: The City Life

I guess I need that city life,
It sure has lots of style.
But pretty soon it wears me out,
And I have to think to smile.

--Neil Young

Plunge into the middle of one of the world's largest cities when you're used to the pace of a sleepy little city in the American South, and you may not know what hit you.  I didn't.  For four straight days in New York City, I had to drag myself awake at a time of day when most people are sitting down to eat supper.

That's right--by about 4 o'clock in the afternoon each day, I was back in my daughter's apartment, stretched out in a chair or on a blow-up mattress, falling into a deep 45 minutes to an hour or so NAP.

And what had I done to have my body demand such a complete shutdown?

Well, simply live is the answer.  You know, the whole stand in line to get a bit of breakfast, walk down to the subway, buy a subway pass, jostle and stand and shift around to get on and off the train, keep conversations quiet or eyes cast down if a psychotic person gets on the train and starts demanding attention of one sort or another, walk up the stairs into the light and try to orient yourself, go this way or that, walk everywhere through crowds of people, you know the drill.

Or maybe not so simply living.  And maybe that's my point.  See, just to accomplish the little things in the big city takes a lot of work.  That fact that we were there to move my daughter out only hammered the point home more obviously.  Moving from the eighth floor of a building requires a stage-by-stage approach of getting things out of the apartment and into the hall, out of the hall and into the elevator, out of the elevator and into the foyer, out of the foyer and into the street, and finally into the car.  And each step requires eternal vigilance, since items sitting out briefly and in the open are assumed to be either up for grabs or not safe.

I love New York City.  I'd visit it every chance I got.  But living at the pace I normally do here in Tennessee, I can't simply cross the bridge into Manhattan and be good to go.  It's a campaign--I have to plan, strategize, secure provisions, etc.  That goes without saying, perhaps.  But the real work comes in getting myself ready. I can't be my Tennessee self in NYC.  I need to, as Eliot said, "prepare a face to meet the faces [I] meet."

City life requires me to be more sure of myself, less random, less compassionate, more assertive.  And those tools don't present themselves immediately.  My daughter sent my meal back in an expensive restaurant because the pasta was only lukewarm.  I couldn't do it, tried to talk her out of it, because I was intimidated by the surroundings.  She insisted (and was right to), battled-hardened after two years living there.

The irony is that, in some ways, New York City is an easier life.  You don't need a car; public transportation and a good set of shoes will get you everywhere. You don't need to stockpile much of anything; you just walk outside and get it when you need it. There is more of everything in closer proximity--stores, restaurants, groceries, parks, cultural opportunities.  You don't have to worry about your house, your yard, your trash pick-up or your leaves.  And still, thorough, daily exercise is a natural result of that walkingest of cities.

The other irony, which is so often the irony of travel, is that just when I am beginning to feel a sense of comfort, confidence, and mastery in the big city, it is time to leave and go home.  And those skills don't travel with me.  Because I have no need or use for them back home, they erode quickly.

But the ultimate irony is that I do live in a city myself--crime, traffic, sprawl, tall buildings, and most any of the problems or challenges one might associate with urban living.  It just doesn't feel like it when I'm in New York.  I guess that's what happens when one city is 50 times bigger than the other one.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Riverbend: The Wal-Mart of Music Festivals

The Riverbend Festival began last weekend. The annual summertime event in Chattanooga is more than 40 years old. It has grown into a (sorta) 9-night monster event occupying mad acres along the riverfront.

Riverbend. Where people reserve the best spots with
lawn chairs and prevent anyone from standing
up and, y'know, enjoying the concert.
"I can't believe I'm going into Wal-Mart. I can't stand this place," my wife says every time she goes into Wal-Mart. Which is more than she would like to admit. Riverbend is exactly like that for most Chattanoogans.

Listen, I know it's kinda mean, but it's true. It's the best music festival Chattanooga can get, the big box music chain that tries to be everything to everyone but just seems kinda sleezy and cheesy.

Music Midtown is more like Target. Jazzfest is more like Whole Foods and Costco combined. SXSW is like the most awesome but most expensive farmer’s market/flea market bonanza the music world has ever known. Bonnaroo is like… huh? I lost my train of thought, but this Boo-Berry is delicious!

But back to why Riverbend is the Wal-Mart of music festivals.

First, the crowd frequently looks as if it were pulled from a People of Wal-Mart photo collage. Some of the people who pile into the riverfront like sardines to eat London Broil on a Stick for $8 are so notoriously disturbing in their fashion sense and lack of decorum that Nooga.com recently ran a couple of stories about a favorite people-watching pasttime called Riverbend Bingo. The best and most accurate quote about the game: “If you didn’t hit bingo within 30 seconds most nights, you weren’t near the site."

Second, the food. The London Broil reference is gp hardly a joke. The prices are steep and the food offered is at best - at absolute BEST - a crapshoot aiming toward "decent enough if you're drunk and hungry." The food in Atlanta is consistently better, at least by a smidge, and surpisingly comparable in price to Riverbend cuisine, a fact which should surprise anyone who knows these two cities, because you can get a fancy IPA in Chattanooga for $3-4 in most places, but you’re lucky to find Bud Light for less than $4 in Atlanta, and you’re likely to pay $5-7 for anything fancier. Although I’ve never been to Jazzfest, I can only just promise everyone to trust me on this: the food there is a dozen times better than anything Riverbend could imagine in its wettest festival dream.

Finally, and most importantly, the music. At other festivals, if you want to get a primo spot for the featured act, you better get there early, and you better push and shove and prepare to sweat and be generally miserable. But at Riverbend, you can just show up after lunch, drop a few folding chairs off in an open spot, and fully expect those chairs to be there waiting for you whenever you come back. It is, simply, a bush league (Busch league?) way of saving seats, the kind of thing only old people could believe is a good idea, because it basically guarantees that few people can enjoy the music standing up. And if it’s a sit-down concert, it’s going to generate sit-down excitement. Which is an oxymoron. You can't be excited sitting down. Unless sex is involved. Which I hope to God isn't the case at frappin' Riverbend, because ew gross.

The other venues get the Chili Peppers or Springsteen. We get Joan Jett and Boston. They get Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons. We get Young the Giant. They get Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. We get Gary Allan and Justin Moore.

Almost eveyrone sits. No one gets within a stone's
throw of the performer. Good times.
This downgrade is financial. Riverbend is a smaller town and a smaller festival. There’s a reason Trader Joe’s isn’t in Chattanooga. So I’ll forgive Riverbend of this crime. The crime of weaker name power pales in comparison to the time limit main acts are given. With the rare exception this year given to Widespread Panic, who was permitted to play for three hours in the hopes they might finish a single song, Riverbend limits the main stage to 90 minutes, which means maybe 80 minutes of music once you account for the disappearance and return for a requisite and half-hearted encore.

Finally, the featured act is, at best, 200 feet away from the closest spectator. You can either stand on a hill and see the performance “eye to eye” from half a football field away, or you can stand at the bottom of the ginormous stage and get a crick in your neck for the slight chance that one of the musicians might spit or sweat on you from high above. Or you can watch on a screen. It is in every sense of the word, counter to everything that is supposed to be awesome about a staged music experience.

Some people work pretty darn hard to make Riverbend a decent experience. They're like those Wal-Mart managers who really really care, who want to have the best Wal-Mart ever, who believe deep in their hearts that this Wal-Mart will be better, will be More Than Wal-Mart. It's an uphill climb, and I respect them for trying. They've got a long way to go, but I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Epiphany #35: The Summer Mix

A summer mix is not the easiest thing to construct. I've always been able to convince myself that I could do it, whether or not that was true.  Below is my 2014 version--I hope it's light and breezy, more vibey than heavy with chords, more thematic in terms of music than in lyrical content.

Used to be a few years back that I could have presented these songs in a way that allowed you to listen to the mix, but now I've had to give you those that I could find on YouTube and allow you to dive in where you feel like (or never, if that is the case).

Think of You
                           MS MR
You Can All Join In               Traffic
Heavy Things               Phish
Check On It               BeyoncĂ© & Slim Thug
Shake It Up And Go               B.B. King
Fragments of Time               Daft Punk feat. Todd Edwards
Go Down Moses               Natalie Merchant
Some People Say               Allo Darlin'
Kid You're On Your Own       Augustines
Volunteers of America       The Both
You n Me n XTC               Chris Stamey
Wond'ring Aloud               Jethro Tull
A Feather's Not A Bird       Rosanne Cash
Red Eyes                               The War On Drugs
Cut Me Down                       Lloyd & Will Cole
Speed of Sound                       Coldplay
Crazy Women                       Brandy Clark
Strange & Beautiful               Aqualung
We Are Alive                       Bruce Springsteen

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How Taylor Swift Became Ke$ha Became Sia In Three Song Degrees of Separation

Here's the pop song mashup novel I've concocted in my head. It's the five-year tale of a fun-lovin' party gal. It starts with "22" by Taylor Swift. A year later, it's become "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha. Four years after that, it's "Chandelier" by Sia.

"Chandelier" is a hauntingly sad song. It might be the most hauntingly catchy upbeat pop song since fun.'s "Some Nights." "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third-Eye Blind also falls into this category, as does "Bad Romance" by Lady GaGa, just to name a few. Personally, few things are as compelling to me as a musical artist who wants to take you to a dark place through a catchy hook.

My love of this genre goes at least as far back as the Violent Femmes, probably to Andrew Gold's "Lonely Boy." The genre goes beyond that to, predictably, "Billy Don't Be a Hero" and "Leader of the Pack." We humans have always liked our darker moments to have a nice hook.

It's not just music. One of the most awesome short poems in the history of the universe is Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me":
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye 
a fish hook
an open eye
(For those who don't catch the double-meaning here, the first "hook into an eye" is a reference to screen doors of yore, how they would latch with what is called a hook and eye. She then mutates that image of two people connected by a strong attachment into something altogether more macabre. And I love it.)While Sia's newest pop sensation -- and for all her social oddities, she's become a pop song generator of the highest caliber -- is not a terribly complicated song, I promise you that most listeners will fail to see it as the heartbreaking cautionary tale is was clearly intended to be, just as most people in the '90s mistook "Under the Bridge" as a last chance romantic slow-dance at prom.

In my imaginary pop song trilogy of one young woman's descent, what begins as that sort of naive desperate and confused mix bag yearning for independence that is "22" in Part One, becomes someone who has begun to lose her bearings but still be too carefree to see it in "Tik Tok." What was originally "a perfect night" has become a regular thing, where waking up the next morning in a strange house is neither unusual or all that troubling. In fact, waking up somewhere else and not quite knowing how you got there has become a goal. But it's still fun.

By "Chandelier," the protagonist is partying out of a desperate need to ignore or escape what is supposed to be her life.

Party girls don't get hurt.
Throw the drinks back 'til you lose count.
Live like tomorrow doesn't exist.
In the morning, gotta run (because) here comes the shame.
Keep my glass full til morning light,
'cuz I'm just holding on for tonight.
I'm holding on for dear life.

It's a simple song and quite repetitive. But stuck in that minor chord, and with a voice exploding in plaintive desperation, it is a brilliant cautionary tale pop song for a generation that romanticizes the notion of a party life that could possibly exist sans consequences or risks. Even if a young woman manages to survive a wild night without some dude attempting to take advantage of her with or without her highly inebriated consent, she must still survive the battle going on in her own head, a battle that will inevitably have fallen soldiers if it involves night after night of drinking in desperate abandon.

This is the story of how a Taylor Swift becomes a Ke$ha, who (if she's lucky) becomes a Sia, a brilliantly-talented songwriter whose demons are so powerful they can no longer even be bottled, whose issues keep her from being able to face the audience ala Stu Sutcliffe. (Some might believe this is a publicity stunt, but seeing how Sia is 38 and was doing quite well with her songwriting lately, I just don't buy that.)

Of course the songs aren't about them, the performers. Of course Taylor Swift and Ke$ha and Sia aren't the same people in different moments on some "Back to the Future" timeline. Of course not. But... I'd still love for someone to expertly mash up these songs. It would make for a compelling story.

Monday, June 2, 2014

brody dalle

It's the summer of '87 in South Carolina. I'm 15. My parents have rented this place across the road from the beach, because Dad says, “You pay twice the price to keep from having to cross the road.” My friend Davey was supposed to come with me but his grandfather died unexpectedly two days before we left, so he had to stay.

I mostly figure out how to entertain myself. I walk the beach a lot listening to my Walkman. Sit in the hammock on the back deck of the house and read. Watch the VCR tapes I brought with me. Play cards with my mom.

The second night we're there, I'm in the hammock reading when I look to the house next door and realize I can see straight into one of the bathrooms. A woman is in there, drying off after her shower. She could be 31 or 46. Clueless 15-year-olds like can't tell much difference. Besides, I'm too distracted by her nudity and by the opossum-in-the-street frozen uncertainty of whether I'm doing something wrong and should flee, of whether I could stop staring if I even wanted to stop. Which I don't. Because, y'know, boobies.

So I keep rocking in the hammock, book open. I conveniently position the book so I'm looking over it and at her. This gift of an inappropriate moment lasts perhaps five minutes, but it feels like an entire Cinemax movie. At one point, I worry that she notices me watching her, but she continues her business, blow-drying her hair and slipping into a black lace nightgown before walking out and turning off the lights.

Who knows what I did the next day. Whatever I did, alone or with my parents, was merely prelude and clock watching and plotting to ensure I could be on that hammock at the same time, just in case this miracle moment was part of a routine.

I returned to the hammock early. I'm not five pages in when she walks into that inter-dimensional portal. This time, instead of seeing the scene in medias res, I get the alpha and omega. I see her disrobe, disappear into the shower, and reenter my line of sight wet, to dry off.

After I eat my ham sandwich lunch the next day, I grab my Walkman and head for a nap on the hammock. I see her. She's stretched out on one of those tri-fold plastic sun chairs. She's lying on her stomach. Her neon orange bikini top is untied, the strands dangling off the edges of the chair.

Her head turns just a couple of degrees. Her sunglasses reflect the sunlight. She waves at me. I am too cowed to move. She smiles. I wonder if astronauts can hear my heart pounding from orbit.

That night, she again takes a shower. Same time. She's in there longer. She knows I'm there. She is soaking up my lust like ultraviolet rays, and it gives her body a glow.

This story is complete fiction. But that woman in the bathroom is Brody Dalle.

I'm 17 and my sister is a sophomore in college. In October, I travel to Athens to visit her and watch the Bulldogs play the Vols, and I get to stay the night in her dorm room.

After the game, she takes me with her to a party. I mostly hold a solo cup of piss-tasting beer in my hand, but I only take sips whenever I can manage to not think about what's in the cup. Several of Jane's KD sisters have oogled me like a stuffed animal Jane won at the county fair. I'm soooooo cute. I'm soooooo adorable. I'm soooooo much sweeter than their pain-in-the-ass younger brothers with their zits and violent fits. My sister smiles and agrees. We've always gotten along. We don't know why, exactly. We've just know we're lucky.

My sister's maybe-boyfriend shows up, so she disappears. Her one non-sorority friend sits next to me. Her eyeliner is caked on, and she wears a ripped-up Black Flag shirt and combat boots. She smokes like a chimney. Her voice is scratchy and deep, like she wore her voice to bed without washing or ironing it for a week straight. It is the voice of someone who has seen more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

She talks at me. Not that she doesn't care to know about me; she just sees quickly that I don't have much to offer. No wild tales. No exotic adventures. Both of us would rather hear her talk.

Into her who-knows-how-many'th beer, she grabs my hand and says “Let’s blow this party.” We walk the campus for an hour and she talks about her plans to work in a bar like CBGBs, learn to work the sound, maybe work her way into music production.

She plops me down on a concrete bench and keeps talking, but she rubs her hand slowly up and down on my thigh and says she loves feeling buzzed and reckless. “I wish we could be riding a motorcycle right now,” she says.

She kisses me once, letting her tongue make the briefest of contact with my lips, and then laughs and grabs my hand and walks me back to the party. Her laughter wasn’t mocking or insulting.

This story is complete fiction. But that young woman whose tongue caressed my lips for a brief second is Brody Dalle.

Brody Dalle is the female voice of rock ‘n roll.

I bought Brody’s new album, Diploid Love. It’s received mixed reviews. I like it, but I can’t lie. I like the album because Brody Dalle, with only her voice, paints in my mind the idea of every desirable, unreachable, brilliant, tortured woman I’ve ever wished I was cool enough, unstable enough, miserable enough to understand.

I had no idea who she was until May 2014 when I heard a song from her new album and realized she was the lead singer of the briefly-lived Spinerette.

So now I know her name and have seen a few pictures, but I don't know her. I don’t really want to know anything about Brody Dalle; it would screw with my illusion. She is Rock. She’s the sex, the drugs, the head banging and the seduction, the shot glass and the shattered guitar, the El Camino and the old school jam box. She’s Courtney Love and Shirley Manson and a dash of Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett. There might even be some Lita Ford and Janis Joplin in there.

Unless you’ve been trapped under a rock for the last several decades, you won't even try to use up all your fingers and toes to count up the badass women rockers out there. Not now, and not really ever. There’s not many badass rockers period, penis or no penis, making music in 2014. Rock is going the way of the dinosaur -- or it's at least in some deep form of hibernation -- but anyone out there who can rage against the dying of the light is likely to get my enthusiasm. And Brody Dalle, on some level, at least in my mind, is raging.

So Brody, thanks for all the memories we never had together. Keep that rock flame lit.