Five Feet High and Rising – Johnny Cash – 1959

Five Feet High and Rising MP3

I credit my father with my earliest exposure to Johnny Cash.  And whenever I hear this song, I end up thinking of him and wrestling with how I feel about him.  Because this song makes me feel a genuine affection for him that I don’t normally feel.  And something about Johnny Cash’s history and his own problems with the demons of alcohol and drug addiction establishes some kind of crossover connection between my father and myself that leaves me with all of these contradictions.

My father was not an alcoholic or a drug addict.  I used to kind of think of him that way when I was much younger, and perhaps he had his days of excesses.  But I was definitely not a witness to that.  If getting home every day and having a few beers is an alcoholic then I guess there are a lot of alcoholics.  My father’s response to everything was to get mad.  At least that’s the way I remember it.  So when I was in treatment for depression and drug addiction, his response from 2000 miles away and no real contact for a couple years was to get angry.  His disapproval mirrored my own of him.  I was trying so hard not to be him that my only option was to become him.

I don’t give my father much credit for who I’ve become today.  But as I get older, I really relate to a lot of my father’s traits that I would have considered to be defects.  He really had a problem with not being able to tolerate people he considered to be idiots.  His self-righteousness could be so vehement that he could tip the scales toward making himself wrong in the ferocity of his passion alone.  It wasn’t always rage, but that was a trait as well.  It seems that I am following his path there as well.  He told me once in one of our rare telephone conversations after I had become an adult, “I just don’t get angry anymore.”

And really that is some good advice.  It doesn’t really accomplish much.  And I can see other areas that I followed his path.  I am very generous with my time and expertise.  I like doing things with kids.  Doesn’t matter if they are my kids or not.  My father coached a Little League baseball team when he didn’t have any kids on the team.  But one of the biggest influences that he has had on me was music.  Specifically 50’s music and Johnn Cash.

Now whenever I hear this song, I can hear my father singing it.  I can see the look on his face.  He had that same deep baritone voice that I seem to have inherited.  His speaking voice slightly vibrated the walls.  His yell was like a physical blow.  My wife complains that my speaking voice will keep her up from the other side of the house.  She can’t hear it, but she can feel it.

The thing I am missing in listening to this song as an mp3 is the static crackling from the stylus on the record player.  I can see the heavy brown carpet in the living room.  The strange 60’s panelling.  The windows open.  The sun coming in from this giant window in the front of the house.  Maybe it was not giant, everything is bigger in a memory of childhood because you are so small and the world is so big.  I remember my father as this hulking figure that had to duck through doorways.  I know he was only about 6 feet tall.

It’s funny how I can be so affected by this song.  It’s definitely a country song.  Like out in the country.  My existence has always been more suburban or urban.  I never lived anywhere this rural.  I know my father didn’t either.  I wonder if his affection for things like this was inherited from his father who definitely had some more rural roots.  At least from what I know of my grandfather, his roots would be more rural.  Desert rural.

Everything I remember about my father is shadows and fog.  And while I was having a tough time in life, it was easy to give my father credit for influencing all of those troubles.  Now that I am having a better time of it, and I have a son of the same age as I was when my father was still around, maybe it’s time to remember some of the good things about him.  I love Johnny Cash.  I mean who doesn’t?  But I am so grateful that I have Five Feet High and Rising on general rotation in my head because I heard it when I was so young.  I guess he isn’t such a bad guy.

I love how relaxed Johnny Cash’s voice in this song.  I love how he just writes a song and sings it.  I really want to be so much more like Johnny Cash.  Post drug addiction of course.  As he aged, his sense of wonder was reflected in everything he did.  I could be so fortunate as to emulate this.  And there is this sort of relaxed irony in the music and lyrics.  They are talking about a flood here.  No one is relaxed while the water is covering everything they own.  It’s this larger metaphor for everything.  Look around you.

“How high’s the water mama?  It’s 3 feet high and rising.”

Not a damn thing you can do about it.  It’s gonna rise as much as it rises.  If it rises too much, then we are going to swim or grab something that floats.  “Five feet high and rising.”

Why Can’t I Be You – The Cure – 1987

Why Can’t I Be You MP3

In April of 1987, I went to treatment for depression and drug addiction.  I spent a few months in psychiatric intensive care, which was enlightening.  Let’s just say I needed to be there.  Then when I was no longer a huge risk, they sent me over to the adult unit.  I was the only 17 year old sent to the adult unit.  My history was determined to be a risk to the adolescent units.

By the time I made it to the adult unit, I had a full beard and crazy hair.  I had the beard because in a psyche ward, every time you want to shave, they get a psyche aid to bring you your razor and watch you shave in the metal mirror.  Everyone is assumed to be a suicide risk.  You are in a psychiatric ward!  What do you expect?  Well, I really couldn’t handle it.  For some reason, I was okay with every other invasion of my privacy.  The hourly checks while in my room sleeping.  Sharing a room.  Having to get my vitals checked every morning before breakfast.  But I just couldn’t handle having someone watch me while shaving.

So I kept that beard for months.  There were a lot of people in that ward that were young adults.  I call it ‘the treatment binge of the 80’s’.  It took a long time for the girls to warm up to me, but I made a lot of friends.  Eventually the girls would talk to me.  And I guess I got over myself about the beard after about 3 months in there, and I finally shaved.  Suddenly everyone told me about how I looked like an ax murderer with the beard.  And the girls were a lot friendlier.

As the time for release would near, a patient would be given more freedom with the outside world.  First you would have a pass to spend the day with your family.  They could come pick you up and drop you off.  Eventually, they would let you out on your own to venture into the world and come back in the evening or after a few hours.  This gave patients the opportunity to try out the world to see if they were ready.  In the case of the young adults, if your nearing release time coincided with another person’s nearing release time, then you spent a lot of time with that person.

In my case, it was one of the girls that had been afraid of me when I first came over.  We would go to meetings together and she would describe how incredibly scary I looked.  I can imagine what I must have looked like to other people, because my turn around on seeing who I was and what I was doing with my life was a few weeks before I shaved.  I looked in the mirror and actually saw myself.  What I saw was something like Alice Cooper in all his makeup.

This girl and I became very close.  She was only a year older than me.  I didn’t have a car.  She had a tiny yellow convertible MG.  Put two lonely messed up young people together and what do you get?  You get crazy messed up romance.  We arranged all of our individual and meeting passes together.  We were inseparable.  And we had an incredibly good time.  I was really smitten with her.  She was all the fun I didn’t have being a young person.  She dragged me to the beach, to her college campus, meetings, her family’s house, my family’s house, Beaumont, Huntsville…

I never really had that much fun being young.  I was always too serious and way too serious about the trouble I got into.  She broke my seriousness up and never let it drag her down.  I was always crazy anxious at all of the new and normal experiences I was having with her, but I did it anyway.  ‘Normal’?  That’s pretty funny.  We were having a relationship while locked up in a psyche ward.  That should tell you everything you need to know about who I am right there.

So The Cure was coming to town and she was a big Cure fan.  I was a Cure fan too.  But not in the sense that she was.  I really liked them and I had a lot of goth friends from high school, but I was always a punk.  So I didn’t buy their albums or wait for their live appearances.  She saw that they were coming and went nuts about it.  She insisted that we had to go get passes to go out the night of the show and buy tickets and go to it.  In fact, she was all legit about it too.  We weren’t going to get passes for a meeting and go to the show.  We were going to ask our treatment teams for passes to go to the show.  Remarkably they let us have these passes.

And this is where this song should be cued, because the video that I have in my head for this song is what I am about to describe.  Edited into small 2 second clips like a video.

The day before the show, I was sitting in the recreation room smoking cigarettes.  She was taking a nap in her room.  I was sitting next to an older adult, probably in his 40’s.  He was reading the paper.  He turned to me and pointed at an ad in the paper, “Aren’t you going to this show tonight?”

“No it’s tomorrow night.”

He said, “No it’s tonight.  See.”

He was right.  It was that night and it was already about 6pm.  We weren’t going to make it, but I had to tell her.  So I went down to her room and woke her up.  Being in her room was a big no no.  But I knew she was going to freak.  And she did.  We didn’t even have meeting passes for that night.  If we had the nurse’s station call our doctors and request passes, there was the real possibility that they would either say ‘no’ or give permission for the pass too late.  So we just walked out.  I don’t remember how we got her keys, because they take those from you when you come back in.  But I do remember that we just followed people through locked doors.  In one case, there was a psyche aide who just assumed we had a pass and held the door open for us.

“You’re so gorgeous I’ll do anything!”

We got in the car and she drove like a maniac.

“I’ll kiss you from your feet to where your head begins.”

We didn’t have tickets.  I don’t remember what our plan was for buying tickets the next night, but I couldn’t imagine where we thought we were going to get tickets that night.  We just drove to the Houston Coliseum.

“You make me.  Make me hungry again.”

When we got downtown, we parked on the street somewhere and ran to the Coliseum.  We happened to come up to the back stage entrance where the tour buses were.

“I’ll run around in circles.  Til I run out of breath.”

We asked the first person we saw where the ticket office was.  He didn’t know and told us that he thought the show might be sold out.

“I’ll eat you all up.  Or I’ll just hug you to death.”

You have to understand.  I was 17 and she was 18.  It must have been one of those classic moments in working live shows.  We must have been the funniest sight in the world.  And she was cute beyond description.  She was 4 foot 10 and about 100 pounds.  And I can still see exactly what she looked like when she asked almost hysterically, “Have you seen any scalpers?”

“Everything you do is irresistible.”

This guy.  The first person that we ran up to on the street at a show we were certainly never going to get into held the backstage door open and said, “I don’t know.  You might get lucky.  The ticket office is right over there.”  And he pointed inside like he was pointing to something.  We walked through and he closed the door behind us.  It took us a few seconds to realize what he had done for us.  And then we could see that the lights had turned off and the crowd got loud.

“Everything you do is simply kissable.”

We ran around in the dark trying to figure out where the hell we were and how the hell we were going to get into the actual arena so we could see the show.  We busted through a door.  We could hear the music.  There was a tunnel and some lights.  We ran up the tunnel and came out on a lower section right next to the stage.  Since it was The Cure, no one was sitting anyway.  They were all dancing.

“Why can’t I be you?”

This was one of those moments.  I knew I was going to remember every minute of it while it was happening.  I don’t know where she is.  I wouldn’t even know how to begin to find her.  I don’t remember her last name.  After we were released from the hospital, our relationship fizzled.  It’s not a way to begin a long term relationship.  But back in 1987, we broke out of a psyche ward to see The Cure.

They were playing this song.  And Robert Smith is a mountain on stage.  Really there are very few people that have that kind of stage presence.  And on video he always came off as a shoe gazer.  I didn’t think he would be that interesting onstage, but he is just one of those personalities that can just stand there on stage.  And he has everyone.  It was one of the best sounding shows I have ever seen.  So much attention is paid to Robert Smith, but there is a great band up there.  I really don’t have much to say about the song.  It’s a party song.  It really has that whole 80’s party song feel.  And every time I hear it, I see this bowl of people dancing.

Le Kick – American Fangs – 2009

Le Kick on MySpace

There was a flop house for a punk band on Houston’s east side in like 1985.  Depending on the day, you would find any number of people there.  Because of lifestyle concerns (meaning most of the residents were up all night and slept all day), the windows were rigged to keep the sunlight out with wood and duct tape.  This also helped with containing the noise, because if there wasn’t a stereo blasting punk music, then there was a punk band blasting out of one of the bedrooms.  Most people would be hard pressed to remember what the outside of the house looked like.  No one can recall ever having arrived or left the house during the day.

Punk bands from out of town would stay there while in town.  And while today one can imagine that bands would meet online and communicate logistics like, “Hey we’re coming there.  Can we crash at your place?”  In 1985, I have no idea how bands would communicate concepts like these or how they would meet.

The nights spent at this house were confusing for many reasons.  Especially on the weekends or if a band was there from out of town.  You could be sitting on the couch and someone that you didn’t know would walk up and ask something like, “Hey can I use your bathroom?”  or “Can I crash in your bed man.  I’m beat.”  Knowing it was useless to say that you didn’t live there, you might answer in the affirmative just for expediency.  “Sure man, it’s right over there.”

One night in particular, a bunch of people went to the Grateful Dead concert at Southern Star Amphitheater in Astroworld (that’s a story on it’s own).  This strange older guy named Jack that did these amazing psychedelic paintings was staying at the house at the time.  So he went along to this show.  When the show was over, Jack was definitely on his own journey.  He decided he was going to walk back to the house. It was confusing, because everyone was certain that Jack didn’t know the way back to the house.  He wasn’t from Houston.  And he definitely was in no condition to be finding his way to a house in a bad neighborhood in an unfamiliar city.  Especially on foot!

Everyone went back to the house without Jack.  A few hours later with everyone on their own journeys, it was uncharacteristically quiet in the house.  Then the door started rattling as Jack fumbled with his keys in the door.  And voices  could be heard, like he was talking to someone.  To everyone inside, the sound built as the lock turned.

“m on that other baby girl know where i can get more?
crash ready to burn so you know what it do”

Then Jack walked in with about 6 girls. All of them about 20 years younger than him. “Hey I found these girls on the way home and I have to do a Tarot reading for them.” A knock on the door. “Hey there you are!” Another 10 people came in.

“and shes a dime, just watchin for her man in the back”

More and more people kept arriving.  There was loud music.  The band that actually lived in the house started playing in the rehearsal bedroom.

“everybody knows where you keepin at”

The place was hopping.

“you keep walking by”

Jack did about 100 Tarot card readings.  The core of people that were there when it was quiet were kind of huddled on the floor.  Jack came over and did readings for them too.  It was like a circus had descended.  It wouldn’t have been surprising to see sword swallowers and fire jugglers.

“100 grand that his mattress can hold”

Perhaps the strangest part of the whole scene was how no one acknowledged that they didn’t know each other.  The people that arrived would sit on the floor with the people that were there from the beginning and vice versa.  The mood in the sit on the floor group was mild awe and muted intense conversations and the mood of the rest was loud party.  People kept asking who lived in the house.  No one knew how to answer, “I thought you lived here.”

“walkin round the town with a red carpet on”

And it turned out that the later arrivals didn’t know each other.  Jack had managed to meet about 10 separate parties of 5 or 6 people while walking home and gave them all directions to the house.

“everybody knows where you keepin it at.”

At some point, the party just stopped.  The last person to leave that was going to leave opened the door on the gray dawn and closed the darkness back in.  A jug of orange juice was passed around and everyone fell asleep where they sat.  In the morning, people sat around chuckling to themselves about the inexplicable nature of the evening.

“you keep on walkin by”

Jack was really intense and bizarre with this long brown beard and hair with streaks of gray.  He was round and short and his art was amazing.  He would wander from place to place and never hung onto or sold his artwork.  He did some covers for some Houston punk albums and crashed on a floor.  When he was done with Houston, he just left.  People told stories about hearing that he was in the swamps in Louisiana doing more artwork.  But he never stayed anywhere for long, and that story about the swamps went on for years.  He just disappeared.

Holy shit!  Sometimes I am just so happy to hear something the first time I hear it.  There is so much energy and momentum in this song.  And there is a good fusion of influences here.  There’s punk, rap, 70’s and 80’s metal with maybe some Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana mixed in.  It’s so much fun to listen to how each of these influences are recognizable and indistinguishable at the same time.  The song starts driving in the beginning and drives itself right through the end with this paste of abstract lyrics that coalesce into a punk rock anthem melody in the choruses.  The energy level of the drums and bass is crazy and then they just pile this raw guitar mayhem on top.  The singer’s voice sounds like he chewed some nails before grabbind the microphone.  This song is why punk was created and why it has survived.  A lot of the time, I hate the way punk can be rehashed for no good reason.  This is no rehash.  This is something new.

The song for me obviously is the embodiment of this one night.  All of the chaos.  All of the metaphors with no explanation and no meaning that end up creating meaning in their meaninglessness.  Who knows where this ends up?  Who knows where Jack ended up?  Who knows where anyone ends up?  We are all just a handful of dice thrown in the air.  Let them fall how they fall.  It’s also the embodiment of Houston punk rock.  These guys are kick ass!

“you keep walkin by”

This weekend should be interesting.  Two release shows that I really want to see.  American Fangs at Rudyards on Friday the 30th and Ume at Walters on Saturday the 31st.

Prophets – A.C. Newman – 2009

Prophets MP3

There’s a feeling in this song that I can’t quite get to.  And I can hardly understand what’s he’s saying, but I don’t think not knowing what he is saying is the thing that is keeping me from knowing what this song means to me.  The feeling is just too abstract and it pulls me in all these directions.  I keep thinking of all these seemingly disparate themes.

“I was the silent partner I found”

It’s so hard for me to start writing these blog pieces sometimes.  The words “I” and “me” creep into the writing so much.  I understand now why a writer has to write so much.  You have to write that much to get beyond all that you have to say about yourself.  The pull to confess and be heard is overwhelming.  But to hear myself write about me day after day when sometimes it isn’t actually useful in getting to the emotion I am trying to express is truly disheartening.  On the other hand, this is what I came here to do.  And whether or not I use pronouns that indicate that I am the subject of my writing, the fact remains.

“Myself with some rabble that stood on the mound”

We all have a story.  And the stories are specific. And the number of stories is truly boggling. Today I stood in a reception area on the 18th floor of a building in the medical center looking out over the city.  It occurred to me that there were 6 billion people out there.  One hundred years ago, none of these 6 billion people were alive.  And in another one hundred years, all of the 6 billion people that are alive right now will be dead.  But there will still be 6 billion people alive.  Maybe more.  Just not us.

“There are too many prophets here.”

And there is this satisfying longing in the song.  I am on the 18th floor of a building full of people looking out over the city.  I can feel the people.  I can feel their thoughts.  I am 12 and walking through the woods in the cold.  The cold is thorough and satisfying.  And I will get where I’m going, but I’m in no hurry.

“I took it in silence.  I took it to heart.”

I am in Hawk Mountain Sanctuary watching the raptors catch an air current and shoot into the sky.  I have been walking all day and my legs hurt.  I have been depressed, elated, happy, sad, angry and now satisfied.  I am driving at night in Houston and it feels like there are no other people in the world besides me even though there are cars driving alongside of me.

“I carried it quietly over the wall.”

I am reading someone else’s story.  I can relate to every word.  I am suddenly lonelier than I have ever been.

“There were too many prophets there.”

While the song has a traditional tag line lyrical structure and the music follows along in the same model, the arrangement is definitely not your traditional pop song.  I like how he isn’t always on the beat with the vocal even though the vocal and the arrangement were obviously meant to harmonize.  There’s sort of this slurring around the time with the vocal, but it’s not sloppy.  It’s just a masterful handling of time.  All of the instruments are raw without giving way to noise.  It’s more of an organic feel.  Not quite acoustic, but not electronic either.  All of these elements make the song sound like it was through composed, but it’s got sections and moves along like a song.

Moving through the world is mysterious.  We’re all going to do it and we are all going to die.  And none of us knows what’s going to happen.  And none of us knows what’s happening right now.  But there is this feeling that we know.  And we want to put it in words.

“Here is my heart.  Here is my song.”

And while we all have the same spontaneous reactions to something beautiful or the overwhelming enormity of our universe.  Or the realization of just what it means for there to be 6 billion of us.  Communicating what this really means to us is impossible.  And our words always fall short.

“There are too many prophets here.

Third Rail – Aaron Trumm – 2006

Third Rail MP3

I worked at a large medical insurance company in Quincy, MA for a couple years of my 20’s.  I did several stints at this company for different reasons and under different circumstances.  (They made me interview every single time to make sure I could act like I cared.)  Mostly around school breaks.  After I decided to stop going to school, I took a job at this company full time.  I moved to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music.  Four years pass and a lot of school and I find myself working at this meaningless job doing something I hate.  This is like a rite of passage in the United States.  There is nothing that will break a young person’s spirit more than the meaningless existence of going to an inconsequential job.

I was trying to put together a band at the same time and I was also doing this community theater music in Brookline.  There wasn’t a minute of my day that wasn’t scheduled.  And I did get a lot done.  But there is only so long that you can keep up that kind of pace.  To maintain the idealism that keeps a person creative requires a lot of energy.  Energy that is sapped by going to a job that you can’t care about.

Every day I would get up and I’d be late.  So there would be a ton of stress from opening my eyes.  And I would hurry on to the subway and make my way through my day.  And yes, this is one of my clinically depressed periods.  But the T, the MBTA train system, was the bright part of my morning.  The bright part of my day.  I loved riding the T to and from work.  I loved looking at all the people and seeing the expressions that were probably on my face.  I loved the dirty, grimy, cold wetness of winter in the tunnels.  The sounds of metal wheels grinding on the track.  The moldy smell of a cave.  Looking into a dark tunnel and wondering what it would be like just to take off down the track and explore the tunnel.  The flash of the third rail.

“Sometimes I see a flash from the third rail and I wonder where it’s from.”

There is all this grey and darkness and then there is this flash of light.  And looking around, I always wondered whether anyone else was seeing the contrasts.  The purple and white colors flashing on the walls in the darkness.  On people’s faces.  Lighting up the shadows of those already on the train.

“It’s like a pinhole shot from a 38 that broke the aching sun.”

I’m always amazed at the personal space that people take on public transportation.  There is so much privacy there even when it’s packed.  Sometimes people don’t follow the etiquette and it’s taken as a grave offense.

I took a short fiction writing class in school once to satisfy an English requirement.  It was a strange class because it was at a music school.  We had to write a short story a week.  One of my stories was about a man that lost his job and became homeless.  This story was based on a guy I saw at that time on a corner by one of the T stations I used to get to work.  The first time I saw the guy he was wearing a suit and begging for change.  My first thought was about how the guy was better dressed than me and he was begging me for change.  And he was definitely mentally ill, but it was obvious that he had lost his job in one of the bouts of layoffs that accompanied the recession of the early 90’s.  But over the period of a month, I saw the suit disappear, and then he slowly deteriorated.  He ended up looking like that’s all he had ever been doing.  A homeless guy begging for change on a street corner.

“and every evening someone lingers in a broken doorway shallow
and he knows he’ll have to sleep tonight on concrete wet with breath”

And I think of that guy a lot.  Because it’s so easy to see how close we all are to giving up.  It’s so easy to see that most of this doesn’t make any sense.  There are better ways to think through this life and utilize all of the energy and hope that is born into us and trained out of us.

“We call him crazy but he’s just a prayer sent all the way from somewhere else.”

We are all walking prayers sent from somewhere else and trying to find our way back.  Trying to maintain the hope that was sent with us in a world that is trying to destroy hope.  And from time to time, we are given fleeting glimpses of the place we came from.  In the light of the third rail.  In a magical connection with ourselves or another human being.  In the sun.  In the recognition of our similarities when everything around us celebrates the exploitation of our differences.

“I can’t believe the things we leave, I can’t believe the things we take.”

We have to somehow make this recognition of hope happen over and over again.  And it’s damn near impossible with all of the material maintenance that comes with being human.  And life can get away from you and the years pass.  And you find yourself further and further away from what you thought you were trying to accomplish.  And then it’s a whole other effort to find the same beauty in the place you find yourself.  Because this darkness is inevitable.  It’s a death and rebirth in the light of the third rail.

I love the darkness of the arrangement.  The plaintive piano.  The attempts of the arrangement and the movement to free itself.  And it never quite makes it.  I love Aaron Trumm’s phrasing.  There ends up being a lot of oddly timed couplets with triplets and quarter note triplets that move the rhythm more than the drums or bass.  It’s like the bass and drums are fixtures for the vocal line to play with.  And while this really is supposed to be true in general, this is almost never the case.  Usually songwriters find a melodic fixture and leave the melodies as fixed as the rhythm.  By unhinging the vocal melodies, the door opens for every part of the arrangement to be heard from different perspectives.  This gives the ordinary elements of the arrangement an other-worldly feel.  Just like the light from the third rail.

Interview – Simon Bookish – 2006?

Interview MP3

I was unable to find this MP3 for sale.  I just keep listening to it on the Simon Bookish MySpace music site.  If anyone knows where to find it, let me know.

In my 20’s, I probably had somewhere around 50 or more jobs.  I really was always just trying to make enough money to get to another town or to support a creative endeavor or both.  To get a job, you usually have to interview for 10 different jobs to get one job.  So if I averaged 10 interviews for each job, I probably have been on about 500 interviews.  I got pretty good at the whole process.  I also figured out that if you interviewed a lot, even for jobs you didn’t want, that you would get better at interviewing.

For a creative person that doesn’t necessarily want a job, this is torturous.  I started trying on different characters.  I treated the interview as a rehearsal.  During some periods of time, I would only keep a job for two weeks.  Either because I really didn’t want the job and didn’t know that during the interview process or they really didn’t want me and didn’t know that because I was playing a character.  After sort of finding a way to enjoy interviews by inventing a performance rehearsal for myself, being out of work became kind of exciting.  Another opportunity to practice acting.  In most cases, this would be the most creative and challenging part of the entire job.

I have found the persona that interviewers seem to enjoy the most is the pushy character that points out everything they are doing wrong.  People seemed to like this and found it entertaining and reassuring.  “This is what you are trying to do?  Well why don’t you try this?  Let me challenge the fundamental philosophy of what you are trying to accomplish.”  People like to laugh at themselves.  People like to think that by hiring you, they will do their jobs better.  The funniest part of this story is that the character started off as a persona and then it turned into what I do for a living.

But there is still this disconnect between who I am and who I present to people at work or in an interview.  But I do think that everyone is like this.  And at that point the whole thing becomes absurd.  Everyone really would rather be doing something else, but everyone has to make money somehow.  So while the interview is about verifying whether a person has the skills to do the job, it is mostly about figuring out whether the job applicant can act like someone who cares about the job.  For example, no one likes working with the guy that constantly points out that we are all just slaves to the system.  You know!  The guy that presents all of this information to everyone in the office like they had not thought it themselves and already come to terms with it.  And everyone wonders how that guy made it through the interview process.  Because the interview process is supposed to weed out people that don’t fit well with the team.  And most team players know how to act like they care about the job.  And really, this caring about the job business, is probably the most important part of any job.

Leo Chadburn is Simon Bookish.  And this song quantifies the absurdity of the interview.  Sitting in a meeting room with a long conference table.  Even if it’s not that imposing, it’s still some kind of meeting room and you have never been in it.  Someone comes in and asks a series of inconsequential questions that really don’t get to the heart of who you are or what skillset you have mastered.  Not to mention, this interviewer doesn’t want to be doing this job either.  So they just make notes and appear to care about what they are doing.

“She sits down next to me
I forget who she is immediately
The questions she asks are very vagues
I forget them too
I mumble vague responses”

But I have had some fun in interviews.  After a while, you learn to figure out when you don’t want the job.  So once you recognize that part, you can do whatever you want in the interview.  And this song reminds me of that:

“Leo, which British Monarch do you most identify with and why?
I reply, with conviction, ‘Queeeeeeeeeen Victoria!'”

I love how the music captures the spirit of the interveiw.  I usually am very tense even when interviewing someone else.  And I have problems with anxiety.  I have an anxiety attack in almost every interview.  I am very good at hiding it.  So the music gets really frenetic right at the point where I would start to lose it in an interview.  And there’s this whole automaton feel to everything.  Like we are all just robots submitting to the scrutinization process.  Why do you want to work here?  I will make something up now because the reason I want to work here is that I need money.  His moment of honesty toward the end “Queen Victoria!” is even presented in this awkward robotic sound.  The interviewee malfunctioned.  The whole thing rolls off with these sort of David Bowie theatrics.  The disjunctive noise that breaks up the music just adds to this.  I kept looking around for more information on the song, because I have a feeling it’s part of a larger musical piece but it stands on its own for me.

It isn’t that we don’t want to work.  It’s that we would find other ways to be productive if left to our own devices.  Hats off to those people that are doing exactly what they want to be doing.  But in all the jobs that I have held, I have come across too many examples of people doing something other than what they truly want to be doing with their day.  Most of us get through our day with the satisfaction that comes from putting in a day’s work.  And even doing a job you don’t like can be partially fulfilling in that way.  But I love how this song presents the absurdity of our interactions when we are bringing people together to do a job.  The interview!  The ultimate excercise in irony.

Believe – The Bravery – 2007

Believe MP3

They sat in a one bedroom apartment in Houston off of Gessner watching a movie on the VCR and eating frozen pizza.  Only one of them had a job at any given time.  None of them were in school.  The movie ended.  Dan went off to the mattress in the bedroom to sleep.  The other three sat and talked about Pigs on the Wing.  It was all coming.  Something.  They could feel it.  Then Justin looked at the door.  Mark and Larry followed his gaze.  An ominous darkness filled the room.  Justin pulled a shotgun out from behind his chair and sat with it on his lap.  They sat in silence.  It was 1988.

“The faces all around me they don’t smile they just crack.”

These were bright but rudderless kids.  There was a feeling that they should be doing something.  They had passions and things that they would like to be successful at someday but had absolutely no idea of what the first step toward those goals might be.  Life was just a long night of staring at a door that everyone was too afraid to open.

“Waiting for our ship to come but our ships not coming back.”

This night might always end with one of the three throwing the door open and standing aside…  Just in case.

“We do have time like pennies in a jar.  What are we saving for?”

If there had been an ounce of sanity in the room, maybe one of them would have asked what the hell they were sitting there for.  What exactly were they expecting to be on the other side of that door?  If any of them had been thinking clearly, it might have occurred to one of them that really what all of them needed to do was get up, grab everything that they absolutely needed and get in one of their shitty cars and drive to Austin or California or New York or… Mars.  Anywhere but sitting in a living room in a crappy west Houston apartment with a shotgun pointed at a door.

“We sit and throw our roots into the floor.  What are we waiting for?”

There was a general agreement within the walls of this apartment.  Life is full of disappointments.  There is absolutely no winning in this life.  All of the cards are stacked.  The game is fixed.  There is nothing and no one to believe in.  Especially ourselves.

“I need something to believe.  Cause I am living just to breathe.”

One would die a few months later.  One would die 15 years later.  Somehow karma tied these four together for this night.  Somehow it seems right that it should mean more than it did.  Perhaps there is some kind of existential question that remains unanswered.  Perhaps not.

“Something’s always coming you can hear it in the ground.”

If you pack too much meaning into every event…  If you find a way to make everything mystically significant…  If you change everything about your life just because of the lyrics of a song…  If you sit too long in that chair with a shotgun staring at that door…

“I am hiding from some beast
But the beast was always here
Watching without eyes
Because the beast is just my fear
That I am just nothing
Now its just what I’ve become
What am I waiting for
Its already done”

So much had to happen to make everyone scatter. So many tragedies. So many dumb Texas punk rock deaths. So many unspeakable things that no one even wants to make art about. No one wants to commemorate this senseless time in any of their lives. They just want to segment those parts of their brains and go on surviving. Fucking “pennies in a jar”. Who knows what fiction I am talking about? Is it all fiction? “What are we waiting for?”

This song just reaches up and grabs me by the throat.  Before I started trying to figure out what I was going to write about tonight, I was sitting here struggling with anxiety.  I have the flu and it’s holding on as long as it can.  So I was feeling kind of helpless.  Then… BELIEVE!  The instrumentation is dense.  There are a lot of layers and a whole lot of movement.  And it doesn’t seem like any of them let up the whole time.  But I can imagine when an entire group manages to release themselves from staring at the door and get up and write something like this, then well…  you must have some energy that needs to be released.  It sort of reminds me of the The Eels and the Smiths.  But it also has a unique energy all its own.

You can spend your entire life staring at the door.  You can spend an entire life holding yourself back.  You can spend an entire life being afraid of death.  You will be vindicated when death finally gets you as it will.  But your life will never be satisfied by its end.  Life in defiance of death is pretty weak, but it sure beats life in fear of death.

“And I need something more
To keep on breathing for
So give me something to believe”

Maybe it’s time for all those conversations you have been avoiding.  Maybe it’s time to be okay with wanting something satisfying out of your life.  Maybe there are fates worse than death and you are living one of them.  Maybe a lot of really bad things have happened between now and then.  Maybe none of these things are true.  Either way, you should stand and be counted.  Put the gun down and open the door.

Help I’m Alive – Metric – 2009

Help I’m Alive on Myspace

There’s something I keep trying to capture with all of this writing.  I am still not satisfied that I have come anywhere close to it.  I guess part of this is that I am trying to quantify what it is that makes a song good.  There is an abstract truth to any piece of art that can’t really be expressed.  Trying to explain it like it is a concrete concept is impossible.  So the hope for me with these blog entries is that they are an artistic response to an artistic expression.  A derived work.  In doing so, I hope I end up paying tribute to the original work.  An artistic act of appreciation.  This asumes that what I am doing doesn’t suck.

Living life is a constant struggle for me.  There is this idea that my heart is attached to.  We should all have a much more passionate existence.  That every moment should build on the moment before.  If I think too much about it or try to improve my existence based on this concept, I either become depressed or self-destructive.  It’s so easy for me to think that my current emotional state could be fixed by dismantling my life the way it is and re-inventing myself and every aspect of my life.  In fact, that’s how I used to respond to difficulties in my life.  Just get up and change everything.

“I tremble.  They’re gonna eat me alive.”

The problem with doing this is it is just self-destructive.  It certainly is easy to be your own muse.  Everything is fresh and alive.  You actually see everything that you are looking at.

“Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.”

I once shared a bottle of Thunderbird with a bunch of homeless guys under an overpass.  I was a teenager.  This is an experience I could never forget.  Regardless of the haze my mind was in, there was a lot that registered.  These were nameless and faceless fixtures on the side of the road.  Now I always see their eyes.  Next time you see a homeless person, give them a dollar and look in their eyes.

“Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

In high school I had this gigantic crush on a girl in my gifted and talented classes.  She made it clear that she had a crush on me.  We sat next to each other for years.  She sent friends to talk to me.  I couldn’t respond.  The word got around.  My best friend at the time confronted me about it when we were eating dinner with his parents.  His father said, “You are afraid of girls.”  I lied to get out of it.  I made up reasons why I didn’t like her.  He was right.  I was afraid.  I am simultaneously attracted to my own passion and terrified of it.

“Come take my pulse, the pace is on a runaway train.”

As I have aged, things come a little easier.  I build on previous successes.  I do the best I can.  I have plenty of regrets.  I learn a lot from my son and other kids.  Being excited is something I have a hard time doing.  I love watching him when he can’t keep himself composed because he’s so excited.  Composure is something I struggle for.  I would rather just let myself be that excited.  To erase anxiety from my vocabulary and just be so excited that I can’t sit still.

“If you’re still alive, my regrets are few.
If my life is mine, what shouldn’t I do?”

I want all of those things that belong in their time to stay in their time.  I don’t want to travel back and correct all of my mistakes.  I just want to make sure I miss less of what is so beautiful about life as life occurs to me.

“while my blood’s still flowing
and my heart still beating like a hammer, beating like a hammer.”

I like Emily Haines’ register changes.  The simplicity of her approach.  Knowing that she has really said what she needed to say with the few words she used.  James Shaw’s change ups are nice.  Emphasizing the existentialism.  And each of the transitions build up and then drop off.  Enough changes to keep the interest flowing.  Plenty of continuity to keep the idea alive.  And this is just as much a musical idea as it is a lyrical idea.  It could have easily been a ballad that doted on itself.  But there is all of this build up to defeat and then changing to victory over adversity.

“If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.”

I don’t want to be that tight.  I want to approach life with passion and grace.  I don’t want to worry about all that.  I don’t want another 20 years to pass and to think of them as lost.

“Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Everything is Everything – Lauryn Hill – 1998

Everything is Everything MP3

I am always changing my mind about redemption.  I am conflicted.  On the one hand, I appreciate the concept and have to admit that it is a selfish appreciation.  My life has been filled with mistakes.  Not to get mistakes mixed up with accidents.  Some of the mistakes I am talking about were intentional acts of cruelty.  Hurting people on purpose or by omission.  So I like the idea of redemption.  And I guess in my world, I believe that redemption is not a passive act.  You can’t just recognize that you did something wrong.  You have to change.  But then I have this idea that there are some things that you can do for which you can’t seek redemption.  There are some things you can do that are unforgivable.  These are just conflicting concepts.  I have learned to live with both residing in my head at the same time.

Everything is Everything always makes me think about redemption.  And then I end up thinking about my mother.  My mother who raised 3 boys mostly by herself.  Who made the hard choices when they had to be made.  It’s very easy to fault her for things that went wrong in my life.  Some of it is easily her fault.  But the thing that I always get to when I think of laying blame at her feet is the nature of motherhood.  In some ways it’s a no-win role.  Especially for a single mother.  When I think of something my mother did wrong, it’s so easy to call her and talk to her about it.  When I think of something my non-existent father did wrong, it’s so easy to call my mother and talk about her role in that.  I know that my father wouldn’t give a shit about the subject, and he would end the conversation.  So I don’t call him ever.  There’s no payoff.  The sympathetic ear is my mother’s.  That has to suck. She gets to answer for the mistakes of both parents, and he never has to answer for anything.

“I wrote this song for everyone who struggles in their youth.”

Is redemption available to the father that never has to answer to the children he abandoned?  The idea makes me furious.  Me forgiving him is one thing, and I don’t offer it.  He doesn’t really want it anyway.  So who cares?  But does he deserve a karmic salvation if he privately acknowledges his wrong and makes up for it with generosity or emotional availability to another family?  I don’t know the answer.  The questions are rhetorical.  And even though I talk about that type of redemption making me furious, I really am at peace with the concept more than this statement suggests.

But then I think of my own middle class suffering and compare it to the idea of being second class citizens in your own country, and I think that relatively speaking, my suffering pales in comparison.  And true poverty is way beyond that.  Combine the two and you have the perspective that I hear Lauryn Hill coming from in Everything is Everything.

“It seems we lose the game before we even start to play.”

And so here we are in the week that a black man was sworn in as president of the United States.  And I was thinking about that as I fell asleep.  Then I woke up an hour later at like 11pm and I had Everything is Everything in my head.  And I thought of being dragged along by a bunch of punks when I was 15 to throw rocks at the KKK march in Dallas.  The police could have easily arrested or stopped us and the small groups of black teenagers that we met up with along the way.  But they didn’t.  The time for this type of expression was over and everyone knew it.

“And the ones on top won’t make it stop.  So convinced that they might fall.”

The struggle isn’t over for equality, but it’s nice to reflect on what a monumental leap forward this week has been.  It’s so interesting to think that the first serious consideration of a hip hop album for Album of the Year was only 10 years ago.  Now there’s a black president.  What planet am I living on?

All of the arrangement on this song is so dramatic.  So many nods to so many influences.  It goes way beyond hip hop, R&B or soul.  It’s a song with universal appeal.  And by far, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the most important album of the year it was released.  And this song is always the first thing that comes to mind for me about the album.  What an inspired production by an amazing group of people.  And I remember it being one of the more meaningful Album of the Year Grammy Awards that I can remember being given to anyone.  And I think it was Whitney Houston that presented it, and I remember how she hopped around the stage.  She was so excited after she read the card.  That sticks out in my mind like the thousands of images I have seen this week of black people crying.

There’s a lot of connected concepts, but I really don’t know why redemption seems to be a concept that sticks with this song for me.  I guess it’s the slow march of time.  I like to believe that things are getting better.  That the human race causes itself less suffering than it did 100 years ago.  That maybe we can really achieve world peace.  That our descendants can redeem our current ignorance.  That there is some kind of collective psyhological evolution that we are achieving.  That redemption is available to us all because we are all truly trying to do what is best.  Maybe it’s too optimistic, but I have only to point at our black president as a reminder that anything is possible.  Maybe it’s even possible right now.  All it would take is for us to all collectively change our minds.  And even that sounded impossible last year.

“After winter, must come spring.  Everything is everything.”

Viva La Vida – Coldplay – 2008

Viva La Vida MP3

I feel like an asshole writing about Viva La Vida. Yesterday I wrote about A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. A Whiter Shade of Pale deserves a couple of gigabytes of criticism, interpretation and commentary. With this in mind, I plan on writing about that song again some time in the future, because my commentary falls way short. In contrast, Viva La Vida has been written about by everyone on the internet.  Coldplay has also weighed in on the subject in interviews, but in line with my idea that the lyrics are an unreliable way to interpret the narrative of a song, I also believe that the commentary of the poet, author, musician, composer or artist is an unreliable way of getting to the real meaning of a particular work.

In another fiction there is hubris.  Prolonged criminal activity is obviously dangerous.  But it’s the mental game that is mostly in play.  Most people can walk into a convenience store and steal a candy bar as an experiment and get busted.  The only thing you have to say most of the time is, “Man I don’t know why I did it.  I just picked it up and put it in my pocket.”  This will work the first time in an argument for leniency in almost all cases.  It might even work the second time.  But after that, no one is with you.

When you have a criminal operation running, the problem is knowing when to stop.  Any organized attempt at black market economics has so many pitfalls that can’t be avoided.  As you make more money, more people become involved.  As this goes on longer, you have made possibly a lot of money, but there are entry level people who have not made very much money.  They need the operation to keep going to make a living or to get the “big payoff”.  So the pressure is on.  Long after you know that you are attracting attention and it’s time to quit, new acquisitions are looking at longer scams.  Any crime of genius is beautifully simple.  A weakness in the system is exploited quickly and for maximum profit.  Any organization around this event is quickly disbanded when the deed is done.  This is rarely what happens.

There was this meth lab that was busted in Northwest Houston in 1983.  It started simply enough.  A man with a family who had extended family that were bikers.  His body shop was not doing very well, and he had children.  So he started making meth amphetamines which were very popular with oil field workers, bikers, weathermen and punk rockers.  The market was ripe and he made a lot of cash very quickly.  The problem was that once he provided enough of the right people with a good supply, then they all required more.  Since he had made quick money and he didn’t have to put out any more money to continue, he made more when he really didn’t need the money.  Suddenly a mostly abandoned body shop had 24/7 traffic.  He had a giant trailer in the back lot with a door in the side of it.  They dug a hole under it and put a trap door in the floor of the dumpster.  Suddenly they had a manufacturing operation that many families depended on for income and many junkies depended on for a fix.  When personnel was tight, the kids would be down in this underground lab stirring beakers of chemicals.  The personnel was always tight.

The pressure was on to ignore the signs.  It was easy to do so.  After a year of operations and supplying Houston’s finest with private stash, who thought that anything would change.  But of course the change did come, in the form of 50 cops descending on the body shop.  I watched the footage on TV in between Saturday morning cartoons.  Families were separated.  Those that remained at liberty, pointed fingers at each other.  Repercussions were felt everywhere.  A lot of junkies had to sober up for a while.  Someone else eventually filled the need.

A simpler example is a gang selling crack on a street corner.  When an operation like this first begins, it usually begins in desperation on a street corner in a poor neighborhood.  You need money somehow, so you will do anything to get it quickly.  Kids have bad judgment and left to their own devices, they will just stand on the corner selling to friends and anyone who pulls up in a car.  The very simple plan is to just run if the cops come.  Also, the need is greater than the punishment for a minor.  So just do it until it falls apart.  Desperate friends join the operation and suddenly there is a gang of thugs on a street corner in a residential neighborhood.

There’s a guy on the corner with kids.  He calls the police repeatedly.  The police come and drive by.  Of course, the kids take off when the cops are near and the cops aren’t really committed to doing anything because the people that pay their salaries are in other neighborhoods.  They aren’t going to risk their necks for this guy.  In their minds, if this guy was a decent man, he wouldn’t live in this neighborhood.  One day the man gets sick of it and goes out and confronts the kids on the corner.  Having been out there for years now they ask simply what the man is going to do about it.  This is where they make a living.  They think of this guy as threatening their livelihood, but they see it as an empty threat.  The man sees their point and sort of gives up.

Months pass.  The police put together a drug enforcement task force to produce some results and get some money from some federal grant program.  They set up a complicated net to produce evidence and then one afternoon about 50 cops descend on the street corner and arrest everyone involved.  They all go to prison.  Those that remain at liberty point fingers.  Junkies…  Need…

On a slightly more macrocosmic scale, Blagojevich was recently busted for selling influence and specifically for selling Obama’s senate seat.  Now it appears that he knew that they were tapping his phones.  It sounds inexplicable that he was so explicit on the phone when he knew that federal agents were on the line.  But hubris is the final sin of the criminal mind.  “I’ve been doing this for years and the feds have threatened me.  I waited for the other shoe to drop for a long time.  It isn’t going to drop.  I’m untouchable.”  Even now, he thinks he has enough dirt on enough powerful people to remain untouchable.  He may destroy some people’s reputations but he is on his way down.

All of these people, “I used to rule the world.”

The thing I hate about this song is that it really is a great song.  I was impressed with it the first time I heard it.  It’s like Coldplay was sitting in on a conversation I had with a friend.  I said, “I’m not much into Coldplay.”  Him, “Really.  Tell me why.”  Me, “That last popular album was just one song.  They had a good idea and did it over and over again.”  Then I heard this song and I was pretty impressed.  They don’t sound completely different.  They just developed and enhanced their sound and found a new direction for what they were doing right.  I tend to start rebelling against the “in” thing and they are surely the poster boys for “in” right now.  But this ends up begging the question, “Is a song necessarily bad because it is popular?”

I guess the idea is that if your average indie band had enough money in their personal bank accounts that they didn’t ever have to work again, a following that would like anything that they did and a large label funding a large project with as many people involved as necessary for any idea, then the indie band would be Coldplay.  But maybe this hypothetical indie band would come up with something more profound and unique.  Or maybe that indie band would take their capital and involve a lot more artists?

Or maybe they would have a large operation already developed that involved people that the members of the band worked with on a daily basis.  Maybe those people would have names and faces and families that depended on this band to make a living.  The success of the next project would determine whether these people could continue their relationships with each other.  An entire community of people dependent on the success of a single project.  Much like any small to medium size company.  To accomplish this under pressure with the amount of style that Coldplay did it with Viva La Vida is very impressive.  They got the pop world discussing metaphor.  Even if they don’t get it right most of the time, it is quite an accomplishment.  It isn’t Dylan Thomas, but it’s a start.  And that arrangement is kick ass.  They used an orchestra and didn’t sound like assholes.

But the fact is the size and scope of any project they do is determined by the number of people that depend on them.  Metallica seems like a good example of a band that has to keep doing huge projects to keep the Metallica Corporation solvent.  They don’t pull it off nearly as well.  But it’s an impressive organization.

“Oh who would ever want to be king?”

In the end, I think Coldplay is talking about themselves in a hypothetical future.  It doesn’t matter which crime you are committing, eventually hubris catches up with you.  It’s sort of a cry from the top.  And oh right!!!  Are we supposed to feel sorry for them?  Knowing that we wouldn’t feel anything for this narrative, they metaphorically ask us to feel sorry for a fictional narrator.  I think it’s an interesting device.  And certainly there isn’t anything this thought provoking happening anywhere else in the pop world.

A Whiter Shade of Pale – Procol Harum – 1967

A Whiter Shade of Pale MP3

Another reason I started my blog was this song.  I looked on the internet for any sort of essays or blog entries about personal impressions or meanings around it.  Nothing.  I was incredulous.  How is it that one of the most haunting songs of the classic rock genre has nothing written about it?  Maybe there is something in print, but I doubt it.  All I can find written about it is that it was recorded, there were lawsuits finally settled around 2005 or so and the original version was much longer.  It’s very easy to find the lyrics to just about any song these days.  But no critical writing of any kind.  Really I am still sort of baffled by this.  You can look for any song and pretty much end up with the same result.  Nothing.  So I figured, what the hell, why don’t I do it?  I know all of these songs meant something profound to me.  I can do a serious critique of some kind.  Who cares if anyone takes it seriously?  I really believe there should be something there other than the lyrics and evangelical Christians co-opting the concepts when someone looks it up in a search engine

I went to high school at St. Thomas High School after I was basically kicked out of public school.  St. Thomas eventually kicked me out as well, but not before making a profound impact on the way I thought about the world.  I packed a lot into my year at St. Thomas.  I really tried to make it happen there.  It felt like my last opportunity for a normal childhood, which of course meant that the opportunity didn’t really exist.  Kids with normal childhoods don’t feel this way.

I loved all of my classes and I loved the atmosphere.  There was a lot of ambition and curiosity.  If I had been there from the beginning, maybe I would have made it through.  But once again, high school was probably not made for me.  I wish I had known this sooner.  But I really think it was better for my final discovery of this to be preceded by a lot of suffering.

One day I showed up for school, and I stood outside the building.  There was no way I could make it inside at that moment.  I didn’t know what to do, so I went into the woods behind the school and just laid down in the leaves to stare at the sky.  It was a gray midwinter day and the trees were as bare as trees get in Houston.  I don’t know what I thought about.  But the morning moved like soup.  Same as the tempo in A Whiter Shade of Pale.

“The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away”

My world started deconstucting at that point.  A lot of my irreverance was sort of built from an understanding that it was all for nothing.  And I lived that way for a long time.

The first time I saw The Graduate was at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston.  It was the 30th anniversary of the original release, so they were showing it for a couple weeks.  It was interesting that I got to see it on the big screen.  Two scenes in the movie have this same feel.  The first is when Dustin Hoffman is using the scuba gear in the pool and he lies on the bottom of the pool staring up.  You get the impression that he really is looking for any way to eliminate the noise from all the pressure around him.  The second is the end of the movie when Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross are on the back of the bus, and you see the dawning realization that despite their victory everything is still impossible.

“and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been closed”

And then you see them both their faces “turn a whiter shade of pale”.

I didn’t like taking responsibility for my actions over a long period of time, so I would create situations where I knew I woundn’t be in one place for very long.  I would put a time limit on it at times.  I would think, “I’ll stay in the city for six months and then drive away and go someplace else.”  And in driving away my irreverance fell apart.  I lost my right to the existential crisis.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it came to.  There’s something about this song that brings all of the reality of my existential contemplation to an embarrassing end.

“She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.'”

In the plodding thickness of the apparent nonsense, I find a very personal criticism of my inability to respond to stimulus appropriately.  I am failing in school.  I go sit in the leaves and wait for someone else to decide.  I graduate from college and sit at the bottom of the pool listening to myself breathing.  I destroy every chance of being with a girl I feel would be perfect for me, so I create a situation where I can rub both of our noses in it.  Rather than take responsibility for my actions, I would just create situations where I didn’t have to think about it.  And drive away.  I loved to make other people decide for me.

“But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be”

Compulsion is so inexplicable.  Every tragic flaw seems to have roots in compulsion.  And as the events unravel in any given tragedy, there seem to be so many lessons that compulsion refuses to learn.  There are so many stories that make up my life where just thinking about them I turn “a whiter shade of pale”.  At the time, I didn’t think I had any other choice, but in retrospect, it’s obvious that I had plenty of choices.  And for the outcome, I have no one to blame but myself.  “And so it was later…”  And so it was always later that we knew.  I think this song is about regret.  Not what might have been but regret in the nature of grief.  Sometimes we just make a lot of mistakes and there is nothing to be done for it.

“And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale”

This song is one of those moments where everything just came together.  There are universal truths just floating on the ether, and sometimes if you are open to it and prepared to hear that particular truth, then you are the vehicle for expressing it.  Procol Harum is the vehicle for expressing this truth.  There is no subtracting an element of this ensemble to express it with the same power.  It just happened that they were prepared and inspired, and they plucked this truth off of the wind and gave form to an idea so abstract that it can’t be adequately explained outside of the context of the song.

Broken In All The Right Places – i am jen – 2005

Broken In All The Right Places

I used to go to this club on Lansdowne in Boston called Axis.  I went there enough that I usually just walked in without paying.  I knew the bouncers, the cashiers and the bartenders.  I look at pictures of myself from this period of time and wonder how that happened.  I looked awful.  I wonder if I ever looked in the mirror.  I had this bizarre long pony tail and my hairline was receding despite the fact that I was 23.  I was obviously overweight.  And I had these weird large glasses that looked like something out of the 60’s or 70’s.  Not a good retro look or anything.  I just really looked like a nerd.  I don’t know how to explain it any other way.  I looked terrible.  I mean I still look like a nerd, but the hair, the glasses.  What the hell?

Axis was definitely a scene bar.  It felt like Numbers in Houston which is why I went there all the time.  I was sort of homesick.  And for some reason I always felt like dancing at this time.  So I went there by myself a couple times a week.  Sometimes I would drag friends from Berklee over.  And maybe that’s got something to do with the appearance.  There were a lot of nerds at Berklee.  We were music nerds.

There is also this “never enough” thing at Berklee.  There was this Psychology 101 class where when the teacher got to the clinical therapy sections of the semester, he would demonstrate group therapy by asking a simple question.  “How many of you don’t practice at all anymore?”  More than half the class would raise their hands.  Then there would be the other half that would be practicing like 8 to 12 hours a day and going to classes.  I was in the 8 to 12 hours group.  I would fall asleep playing the guitar.  Everyone felt like they were not doing enough.  Everyone felt like they didn’t belong.  The inevitable discussion that followed would be what the teacher pointed to as group therapy.  But 15 years later the fact remains, there was no way to get all the work done that we were assigned in a full time semester.

I love Broken In All The Right Places.  But it makes me feel like I did at that time.  I couldn’t really break through to anyone.  I dated all of the time.  Looking at the pictures of myself at the time, I really wonder how this was possible.  I was awkward, a terrible conversationalist and just flat out weird.  There is this humility in I Am Jen’s presentation that I find perplexing.  She is the scene!  How is it possible that she feels so outside?  I am on the outside and it doesn’t feel like her music.  I walked through Axis looking at people like her and wondering how I could possibly meet them or be that cool.  My visual memory of the time is like I am looking at a fishbowl all of the time trying to figure out a way to get inside.

“You know I never thought I was a beauty queen
and I never felt like a part of the scene”

But I guess if I look at the evidence of everything that I did and all the places that I was and all the people I knew, I was the scene.  Maybe scenes are all about insecurity.  I remember how awkward I felt and how I would blurt things out and I was too loud.  When I see those pictures, I feel every ounce of insecurity I felt at that time.  But it’s also an insecurity that I find endearing in kids that I see at that age now.  And at the time, I saw the startled looks on people’s faces as “What the hell is wrong with this kid?”  When really it was probably, “Wow he is talking to me!  What the hell am I going to say?”  I know that’s what I was thinking whenever someone talked to me.  I guess we were all “Broken in all the right places.”

Jen Scaturro has this simplicity in her productions that is truly remarkable.  There’s all this separation.  I tend to overcrowd mixes and I definitely can’t leave things alone.  She has all these singular instruments laying it out there.  Then there will be three or four going at the same time.  Very little blending that isn’t treated as a singular voice in a larger contrapuntal idea.  And I love this sort of Suzanne Vega relaxation in her vocals.

And then I feel like I’ve totally missed the point of her song.  It’s like this song reminds me of something that I have to experience as rejection.  But then I think of 5 years after the period of time that I am describing.  The time when I met my wife.  When I just decided that whatever I was doing was okay.  And I remember the conversation we had on our first date where we were obviously trying to scare each other away with long descriptions of all the ways in which we were broken.  We weren’t hiding anything.  And in hiding nothing, it became very easy for us to become inseparable.  And really most of the time, her presence is as clear to me as this mix.

“but when I look at you and you look at me
I never want you to change a thing”

Really it’s so much easier to just be…

“Broken in all the right places.”

What’s the Frequency Kenneth – R.E.M. – 1994

What’s the Frequency Kenneth MP3

It is so easy to get caught up in your impressions of a song by what is being said in the lyrics.  It’s also an unreliable way of interpreting a song.  I think there is no greater example of this than What’s the Frequency Kenneth.  You can plug “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” into any search engine and find that the title references the story of Dan Rather being mugged on the street in New York City.  The assailant punched him repeatedly asking, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”  While I am sure that the title and concept is inspired by this event, I am sure that this isn’t the whole story.  I don’t know what that story is to R.E.M., but I don’t think that matters.

I listened to this CD frequently in 1996 at work.  I had a dumb job in the Medicaid billing department located in the basement of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA.  I lived in Boston.  Lemuel Shattuck is a state mental facility as well as acute care for the state correctional units (prisons).  I sat at my little desk in the basement with my stacks of paper from various agencies, my monochrome monitor and all the other trappings of my tenure as a bureaucrat.  I don’t know how old that hospital was, but it felt like it was at least 100 years old.  I don’t think I have ever had a more depressing job.  Working in that basement office made me a likely candidate for the state mental inpatient ward on the 8th floor.

I split my home life in Boston between a room I rented in a house that a friend of mine owned in the South End and my girlfriend’s apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay.  Both of these places were way out of my league.  I couldn’t afford the rent on the parking places really.  I was really trying to build something.  My forays into creativity were always lame and characterized by initial successes followed by dizzying bouts of failure.  I couldn’t hold a job.  I couldn’t get up on time for work.  I couldn’t pay for most of my meals.  I felt like I owed money to everyone.  That was mostly true, but I really didn’t owe as much as I felt like I did.  I didn’t even own the Monster CD.  It was my girlfriend’s.  Most of my life was really trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

I can’t even begin to describe how exhausted I was most of the time.  It was summer and the office in the basement was hot.  There was this window unit air conditioner that was behind my desk.  At some point in July when it first got hot enough, someone stepped behind me to turn it on while I was on the phone with my girlfriend who was having a depressive meltdown.  I used to go down to the cafeteria pay phone to continue these conversations because they were just too bizarre to have in a quiet office with a bunch of co-workers.  I hung up the phone and stood up to go down to the cafeteria.  I fell forward into the filing cabinets.  I was too dizzy to stand.  My stomach was doing somersaults.  My co-workers were concerned for my well-being only in the sense that they wanted whatever was wrong with me to be over.  As I looked up at the rotating image of my blonde co-worker, whose name escapes me, my only thought was, “I have to leave this job.”

It took me another month to figure out that I was allergic to mold, and this allergy manifested itself by making my inner ear swell.  So I left that job for a much cushier job in Wellesley at a women’s health practice where I continued doing medical billing to insurance companies.  Essentially a bureaucrat again.  And I still listened to Monster on my CD player.  For some reason, What’s the Frequency Kenneth made me cry.

So one day in November or something I left for work without a hat.  It got cold and started raining around 3pm.  I left work at 5pm.  By the time I got off the commuter train in Copley Square, the sleet was coming down hard and horizontal.  The temperature must have dropped from 65 to 32 or lower over the course of the day.  Just cold enough for sleet but not yet cold enough for snow.  That would come later.  I was crossing the street and I got blown back.  I struggled in the wind and wondered what the hell was wrong with me.  I looked up and barely got out of the way of the people crossing in the opposite direction who were flying toward me and struggling to stay on their feet.  The sleet was beating on my forehead.  The walk to my girlfriend’s apartment was painful.

When I got there, I buzzed her apartment.  She buzzed me in.  I made it halfway up the flight of stairs to the second floor and I fell over.  My stomach lurching.  My inner ears must have frozen or I walked into a pocket of mold spores or something.  So I am lying on my back waiting for some sense of equilibrium to return and I see my girlfriend lean over the railing to ask if I am all right.  And right then with the world spinning, I could hear quite distinctly:

“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”

There is nothing worse than your best efforts resulting in failure and being misunderstood.  I am a talented person.  I like to think I am pretty smart too.  But everthing I did up until I was about 27 left me with nothing but experience.  Here I am lying on my back after quitting a job to get away from an allergy that had me lying on my back in the basement of a state corectional facility hospital.  Every time I hear Michael Stipe’s voice in What’s the Frequency Kenneth, I hear his exhaustion.  I don’t know where it was he thought he was going, but I hear the sort of bitter irony in his reflection on Dan Rather’s misfortune. Here is Dan Rather, one of the biggest journalist’s of his time, and he is being beaten by a crazy man on his way from work.  Not only that, but then the very media for which he was an icon was blowing the incident into an international event with speculation about KGB involvement.  I get the sense from the Monster CD that Michael Stipe was having an exhausting experience with his celebrity.

“You wore a shirt of violent green, uh huh…”

Then there is this glam rock feel.  I just spent 20 minutes trying to verify whether Peter Buck used a Fender Vibrolux amplifier to create that crazy sound in the choruses.  In my narrative, that’s what it is.  It’s so perfect, it hurts.  There’s this twisting bass melody that reminds me of the world spinning.  And thinking about that reminds me that it was during the recording of this song that the bassist discovered he had acute appendicitis and had to immediately go to the hospital.  There is apparently a tempo change as a result of this pain that was never corrected.  That’s perfect too.

“I never understood the frequency, uh huh…”

No I never did understand the frequency.  I couldn’t understand a fucking thing.  I went from one thing to another with this giant question mark over my head.  A beating from a schizophrenic might have brightened my day.  And that makes me return to the staircase with my girlfriend.  We would be breaking up in a year or two.  I feel a genuine affection for the suffering that was our relationship.  Nothing was going right for either of us, but we couldn’t relate to the nature of each other’s misfortunes.  There was a complete disconnect.  She helped me up the stairs, gave me some coffee and rubbed my head with a towel.  Despite our differences, we were a genuine comfort to each other in a time of distress.  Everything was out of our control and changing.  Even the timing of our relationship couldn’t have been worse.

“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”

That may be one of the greatest lines ever uttered in a rock and roll song.

Zwei Streifen Im Blau – Couch – 2006

Zwei Streifen Im Blau MP3

In any sort of music critique, it is so easy to rely on the narrative provided by the vocalist.  But it is a complete misconception that there is no narrative in instrumental music.  Our ears have fallen deaf to music that provides no literal vocal narrative.  The narrative is, nonetheless, still there.  We just have to learn to hear and then to trust that we hear it.  Shostakovich related in his memoir that Russian culture had a rich history of instrumental narrative.  His explanation of the narrative in his own work made me listen to all music differently.  What I understood after reading that was that even the lyrics of a song were unreliable as a guide to a narrative.

Communication is complicated.  You can say the same thing many different ways and it can mean different things.  Tone of voice can help a listener determine if sarcasm is intended or sincerity.  Misinterpretation of tone can also lead to misunderstanding.  There is no one way to hear anything.  We hear everything through our own filters.  This makes the interpretation and criticism of music open to anyone.  It also opens the door to an infinite number of narratives.

My narrative about Zwei Streifen Im Blau begins with a listener and a musician.  The listener keeps asking questions and the musician keeps answering with music.  The listener is confused.  The musician repeats the question in music.  The listener still doesn’t understand and starts to talk over the music.  So the musician repeats himself.  Then there is this sarcasm where the musician and listener exchange phrases repeatedly.  The musician says: “Don’t you understand what I am saying?”  The listener says, “No I don’t understand.”  But obviously the listener understands.  He keeps answering the question.

At one point, the musician breaks down and tries to start over.  “Do you hear this?  Can you recognize your own question?  I’m repeating your question back to you?”  Then there is this chorus from the listener where he keeps repeating with his hands over his ears, “I don’t understand.”

I’m trying to reach you.  I’m trying to reach you.  Do you hear what I am saying?  You are not alone.  Here is all this warm sound.  Here is the embrace of the arrangement of sound.  Here is 4 minutes and 30 seconds of compassion.  Don’t you even understand what it sounds like anymore?  Listen to it enough and you might begin to hear yourself.  Listen to your own pleas.  Let me teach you how to listen to yourself again.  Let me show you what your reflection looks like.

It’s the conundrum that faces us in the age of technology.  There is more communication than ever before.  But as we communicate more, we forget the basic rules of communication.  Here in this narrow format, we lose all sense of the purpose of communication.  Communication isn’t just for providing noise to digital receivers.  Noise that only serves as evidence that we exist.  “Ping I’m here.”  Existence is a valid thing to communicate.  But being is lost when we forget to tell our narrative.

What is your narrative?  Do you have time to listen to an instrumental and provide your own narrative to yourself?  It’s possible that the answer is “no”.  There are valid reasons for that answer.  Most of the time that is my answer.  Life is full of business that has to be attended to that doesn’t leave time for contemplation of instumental music.  It’s easier to have the narrative packaged and handed to you.  But you have to admit that it’s sad.

Zwei Streifen Im Blau calls for a renaissance of language.  It isn’t merely a translation problem.  We have lost our passion for communication.  The passion for learning something new from each other and from ouselves.  Communication is a puzzle and we all come from different countries with different cultures.  If we reject immigrants and tourists who can’t communicate in local dialects, then we reject anything we don’t understand at first blush.  We reject instrumental music out of hand.  We reject narratives that don’t immediately make sense.  We don’t even try on different narratives that help us to understand the plight of our fellow human beings.  Our rejection of language barriers becomes our insulation against anything that makes us uncomfortable.  We wallow in the bitterness of our self imposed isololation.  We have only to try to say something real when we have already succeeded.

I love the mix of analog and digital sounds in this song.  Rather than one dominating the song and the other providing some cohesion, the mix leaves room for both.  The sounds are distinct.  There is a lot of patience in the composition.  There are themese that have to develop for the transitions to make sense.  Then in the end there is an abupt but subtly dissonant surrender from the musician, “I give up.  He won’t hear me.”

Kiss It Off – Little Feat – 1973

Kiss It Off MP3

Here is a completely obscure piece of 70’s rock. And in this song is every feeling or memory of the late 60’s through the 80’s that everyone who lived this version of that era would like to quietly sweep under the rug.  Or maybe anyone who lived through a period of their life in any time that was addled by drugs and/or alcohol.  It’s fun to sit around and tell anecdotes about addiction and all of the crazy things that can happen.  But the psychic reality of living through something like this is captured in this song.  And that is precisely the reason the song is so obscure.   Lowell George was a train wreck and a genius.  The most painful kind of genius.  A talent that could reach and touch those around him with every artistic breath.  But his addiction must have wrecked everyone.  I feel every ounce of that pain in Kiss It Off.

As in Heart of Darkness, we are Marlow’s audience at the mouth of the Thames waiting for the tide as dusk settles on us.  There are shadows and fog, and Marlow’s features are obscured.  The only thing that is clear is his voice.  And somehow the faraway look in his eyes stays with us even as the light fails.  I don’t necessarily want to hear what he is saying.  He tells us about Kurtz in the jungle and how the jungle finally claimed him.  George is both Marlow and Kurtz.  I feel like he is telling us about how the jungle will claim him.  It’s almost like he made some kind of peace with himself about this.  He’s kind of speaking from purgatory.  He is not himself.  The Lowell George that is with us is on the rest of Dixie Chicken album telling us about the Fat Man in the Bathtub and reminiscing about a girl down south in Dixie Chicken.  Kiss It Off is the man we don’t want to know.

The band is with him one way or another.  I wonder how everyone felt about the song.  Was it something that everyone was living?  I don’t even know how far along Lowell George was at the point that the song was conceived.  And Dixie Chicken is definitely the best Lowell Goerge era Little Feat album.  But Paul Barrere and Bill Payne seem to be producing sounds so in line with where Lowell George is coming from that I wonder if they were having their own struggles with the Heart of Darkness.  At least they survived.  But I hear it in everyone’s performance.

“You were the child of some electric nightmare.  You could move mountains, the swords of fire.”

And Marlow could tell you about sitting in abandoned houses for hours waiting to die.  Lying in bed sweating and waiting for someone to come help you.  Walking up and down a hallway while a soup of vague gestures to those around you gave no voice to the vague thoughts that dominated your obsession of the moment – to get through the next 8 hours.  The next hour.  The next five minutes.  To make it to the end of the hallway without your heart exploding.

“They keep you around to watch the house of gold.  Keep the hungry away from the sacred grove.”

And what of those vague thoughts.  To write about a thought, you have to understand it first.  And sometimes, the compulsion is about revisiting thoughts that you don’t understand.  You think if you get to that state of mind again, you could actually bring back something insightful and damn near revolutionary.  There’s something in the fog that’s just out of reach.  You almost understand it.  You can feel it.  The distraction is the physical body.  And that distraction will kill you and you won’t bring anything back.  But you keep pushing it like this.  And at some point you split.  You are no longer the face you show the world.  The face you show the world is real.  It just offers no clues about who actually lives behind that face.

“You were holy and you made me wonder how.  But you looked like a devil who would seize and shake you down.”

And even when you do want out, you realize that you have no idea how to do that.  The jungle has you.  Your entire existence is singular with that jungle.  And the need has primacy.  The thought about how to end that need is always so much further down the list.  You can’t even pay attention to that thought.  Taking action on it isn’t even a consideration.

“On the hopes of a tyrant, no one makes it over.”

But you never actually bring anything useful back.  Sometimes you think you do, and you try to explain it to someone.  But that person would be alarmed at best.  Downright terrified for you and themselves at worst.  You can’t even explain it to yourself in the cold light of day.  And every now and then, you sit on a gently rocking boat at the mouth of a giant river in the twilight and you can be honest with the people just inside the ring of fog.  But you still can’t really reach them.  And twilight only lasts so long even when it feels like it will last forever.  And that’s as close as you get to anyone.  A brief embrace at the mouth of the yawning darkness where you can explain exactly what despair tastes like.  And then the darkness has you.

“There is no peace.  Is no love.  Milk-toasted love.  Ain’t no velvet glove.”

PDA – Interpol – 2002


On March 26 of 2003, me and my wife got in the car and started driving to St. Luke’s Hospital in the medical center in Houston.  She was in labor with our son.  Or more accurately her water broke and he was coming out one way or another.  The Interpol CD had been in the CD player of our Jetta for a while.  The song that was on when I started the car was PDA and we put it on repeat until we were on the way home from the hospital 3 days later.

There has been so much water under and over the bridge in nearly 6 years since.  As humans, me and my wife have always had a black mark on our foreheads.  Nothing has come easily in either of our lives.  Sometimes this is the case to this day.  When you are a child, there are things that can happen that virtually hardwire your brain to have a certain response to certain situations.  Hopefully, that hard wiring is an optimistic and compassionate response to even the worst situations.  In our case, the hard wiring creates a dramatically tight and stressful situation in the best case scenario.  Thank the stars we are way too stubborn to give up.  We’ll do almost anything to work out whatever is going on for our son.

Our son is a magical gift in our lives.  And as the soundtrack for his birth, this song sends me back to my first eye contact with him.  For the 20 hours that followed our arriving at the hospital, I had PDA in my head.  And all that optimism in the chorus – “Sleep tight, grim rite, we have 200 couches where you can… Sleep tonight…”  – was with me as I greeted our newest human.  We have been waiting for you.  Any couch, any bed.  We had to put him under a blue lamp for a while to treat his jaundice, and we talked about how it was the light from our planet.  He just needed it to make the transition.  I tell him whenever we hear this song that it is his birth song.  “I KNOW DAD!”  He gets sick of hearing me say it.

The verses of PDA sound like someone making fun of me and my wife when we fight.  Like I can see a video of us arguing and whoever is speaking, their voice comes out as Paul Banks’ voice.  First her, “You are the only person who’s completely certain there’s nothing here to be into.  That is all that you do.”  Then me, “You are a past sinner, the last winner, and everything we’ve come to makes you you.”  You can mix and match these.  It makes sense either way.  Neither of us is making sense and that’s sort of the point.

We don’t do this nearly as much as the years pass and we slowly get about the work of rewiring our heads.  It takes a lot of patience and compassion.  Something that we had in short supply 10 years ago, but something we have a lot more of now.  I feel bad for our son sometimes.  He didn’t sign on for our lame attempts at getting better over time.  Then sometimes I think we are the perfect parents for him.  We err and then we try again.  That’s in the end the most important part.  Keep showing up.  Admit when you are wrong.  Apologize.  Try better next time.  Sometimes I believe we are the gifts to him that he has been to us.  I guess I’ll leave the final analysis for him when he grows up.

It’s sort of absurd to try.  And that’s what I hear in this song.  “Sleep tight.”  “200 couches.”  We are our own absurdity.  We should just get up every morning and put on clown suits and pull on each other’s noses.  But with as much as has passed, there is still a genuine love and affection.  I wouldn’t come to this planet and put on my clown suit with anyone else.

“Yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to.”

I love that driving raw simplicity in the music.  Makes me want to pogo.  A song is irrelevant without the meaning the listener gives it.  I know this song has nothing to do with me or the situation I described, but it lends itself to my narrative just as well.  These are the pieces we drag along with us.  These magical audio events that keep time to the passing years and remind us of things that have nothing at all to do with the music.  Just other planets.  Other lives.  Other times.  Lending order to the absurdity of our memories.  What do I know?  What do you know?  At least we are from the same planet.

“Sleep tight, grim rite, we have 200 couches where you can… Sleep tonight…”

The Conductor – Ume – 2009

The Conductor MP3

I have no idea what band I saw first at the Cabaret Voltaire in Houston.  It was the early 80’s and it was likely to be something like Bark Hard, Stark Raving Mad or Blind Ignorants.  But I do remember that it was a revelation.  What an amazing thing it is to be a part of something that is actually happening.  The energy.  I went to the Cabaret Voltaire regularly for years and other clubs were added to the list.  The quest is that original feeling.  Is something new happening here?  Can I feel a part of this?  Are these guys going somewhere?

These are the feelings and questions that drive me to see new live music.  And to tell the truth, I don’t like most of the music I have seen.  But the exhiliration of seeing a good show more than makes up for all the bad shows I have had to suffer along the way.  And who knows?  Live music is a mixed bag.  Sometimes a band has an off night.  Sometimes the sound guy sucks.  Sometimes the show you hear coming out of your monitors on the stage is totally different from what the crowd is hearing.  But it’s hard to give a band another chance if I thought they sucked the first time I saw them.  There are just so many things that can go wrong.  But when it’s right, it’s so amazing.

I’ve seen so many bands come and go on the Texas scene.  Some were popular and I always thought they sucked.  Some were never popular and I always thought they were great.  I have actually been in some decent bands that didn’t last a month.  I have hated some bands that I knew were better than I’d ever be.  I guess what sort of defines our Texas rock/punk/alternative scenes is bands that should have made it and bands that almost made it.  Then there are the bands that self destruct right before or as they were onto something big.  There are a few that kind of stuck it out and made a name for themselves.  But I always felt like we even defined ourselves by our lame ass scene that can’t keep it together.  But you know what I hate more than anything?  It’s trying to explain to people in Houston or Austin that there is a good scene here.  There are a lot of really good bands.

The Cabaret Voltaire had this sort of legendary scene associated with it.  Really on any given day you would find about the same number of people there for any band.  That’s mostly because a punk scene really holds together pretty easily.  The goth scene had that too.  There aren’t any cohesive genres holding any scenes together anymore.  Maybe it’s something lost.  I don’t know.

I didn’t actually go out to see any live music when I walked into Notsuoh in March of 2007.  I just happened to be going to Notsuoh to hang out with some friends.  Ume got on stage and blew me away.  Here was all of the energy of the early punk scene in Houston.  Here was a cohesive aesthetic.  A powerful performance.  A lot of passion and significance.  I search for this experience, but I just walked into this one.  Obviously they have a following that knows a lot.  I asked people in the crowd to tell me more.  It was hot as shit in there and I stayed for the whole show.  It just doesn’t happen very often.

I liked the Urgent Sea CD.  There’s a lot of great raw sounds there.  And now they have an EP release coming up next week on January 24th.  Go Ume!  I like Sunshower and I love The Conductor.  The Conductor is the same raw sound they had on that stage in Notsuoh.  It’s got something new as well.  Some new optimism that I didn’t hear in anything on Urgent Sea.

“Conductor won’t understand.  This embrace is like quick sand.”

And maybe that’s where I’m going with this whole post.  I have all this crap to say about how some “scene” doesn’t hold together very well.  It’s all some pessimistic bull shit.  I spent half this post getting down on some hopeless mythology that perpetuates through Texas scenes.  But really it’s time to ignore shit like that.  Ume is out there.  They aren’t the only thing happening.  If the first time in months I walk into a random club with live music and hear something I really like, it really is just time to get out more often.

Then there is this narrative.  As far as I can tell, The Conductor is this metaphor for being trapped into a certain direction.  We can’t get off this train.  Somehow we started this momentum, and now we can’t get off.  “Think I’ve made a bad mistake.  We just passed through 7 states.”  But then there seems to be all this temptation later in the song to sell out.  You’ve ridden it this far, why not “change our sound, make a mint”.  Maybe our Texas alternative/punk scene is just more dedicated to the basic fundamentals of punk.  Do what you do.  Do it well.  Don’t measure your success in dollars or fame.  Measure success in how much you enjoy what you are doing.  Maybe I got the whole thing wrong, but that’s what I heard.  It feels right, so I will stick with it.

The Conductor is everything that I miss about that Cabaret Voltaire scene.  Self absorbed without being self conscious.  Raw power without senseless violence.  Metaphorical without the obscurity.  Purposeful without preaching.  Driving intensity with direction.  Everyone is on in the original sense of Ume as I understood it.  Ume really sounds like they are enjoying this ride.I hope I can make it over to Walter’s on the 31st.

Everybody’s Talkin – Harry Nilsson – 1969

written by Fred Neil

Everbody’s Talkin MP3

I find the hardest thing to do when writing, especially about music, is catching myself when I am trying to be cool.  It’s quite obvious to most people when someone is trying to be cool.  I don’t think that people put it like that.  It just generally comes off as just bad.  This happens with music as well.  I know I have been guilty of it with making music.  I have done a lot of bad writing and made a lot of bad music.

When I started this blog, I thought I was going to be doing a new Indie CD each week.  Rather than 365 songs, I was going to be doing 52 new CD’s in a year.  I didn’t want to do any bad reviews.  This was a pretty important part of the whole focus of the blog.  No negativity.  Only write about CD’s that I liked and effected me in some deep way.

The immediate problem I ran into was finding 52 entire CD’s that I liked enough to write something meaningful.  I almost gave up on the entire idea when it occurred to me that it would be difficult to find 365 songs that I actually liked.  It might even be difficult to find 52 songs that were meaningful enough to me to write something acceptable, but the idea of writing about 365 songs seemed like a really formidable challenge.  So I was intrigued enough to actually get up every day and think about a song that I might write about before I went to sleep.  In doing this, I ended up running into a bunch of new Indie music that I actually liked, which was a complete surprise.  Because I really had been looking before but couldn’t come up with anything.  So now that I was finding Indie music, I was giving up on writing about songs that meant something to me and looking for NEW songs that meant something to me.

So I have been thinking about Everbody’s Talkin for a couple days now, and I knew that I had to write about it.  But I started thinking about my non-existent readers and how uncool I would look if I wrote about a Harry Nilsson song.  Then I thought about how I would start this entry with this justification written above as the introduction and how that would come off as trying to still be cool.  I also thought about the possible residual coolness that might be conferred to me around the cachet of being able to write about something with so much kitsch.  My conclusion is that being honest is hard as shit sometimes.

And maybe in all this, I am talking about the song anyway.  Maybe I am talking about the movie as well.  I always got the sense that Midnight Cowboy was essentially about what happens when you think you’re missing something cool.  “I should be in New York City.  That’s where everything is happening.”  The John Voight character gets there and everything goes wrong.  Whatever tragedy he was escaping by trying to get where it was all happening is compounded by the tragedies of actually being there.  He was trying to be cool.  And the image of him standing there looking like a yokel when he thought he had it all together is basically the metaphorical image of me trying to be cool.

The song comes in at the end of the movie as Dustin Hoffman is dying and it picks up the narrative after everyone figures out that this attempt at coolness has been completely miserable.  It’s about being home.  The music is simple and after all of the darkness and complexity of a day in the life of Ratso is offset by this description of a place that exists in a dream.  But it’s really there.  You just have to stop trying to be so cool.

But then the really surprising part of this story is about Harry Nilsson himself.  Somehow he was a good friend of John Lennon and Ringo Starr.  The whole 70’s Lennon/Ono separation where Lennon went to Los Angeles for a couple years was spent with Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr and resulted in this crazy ineffectual drunken Harry Nilsson album produced by John Lennon.  Also, Harry Nilsson owned a London flat that was used by people that knew him as a crash pad, and that’s where both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died four years apart.  Obviously distraught after Keith Moon died, he then sold the flat to Pete Townsend.  I’ve always thought of Harry Nilsson as pretty uncool and certainly disconnected from any of my childhood rock gods.  Shows what I know about being cool.

And for a final twist, I believe that Harry Nilsson had a little bit of the cool bug himself.  It seems that his career would have gone a lot further had he stuck to a sound.  But he really was just too cool to come up with a single sound and aesthetic.  If he could have put 3 albums together that sounded similar, he would have had a following that would stay with him throughout his career.  But he just kept jumping around.  Just at the point he was ready to capitalize on the early his late 60’s and early 70’s pop successes, he did an album of show tunes that no one cared about.  For all of his success and connections, he really was just too cool to build success upon success.  He had to show everyone how versatile he was.

“Backing off of the Northeast wind.  Sailing on the summer breeze.”

There’s something sort of ordinary about everything in this song.  Sparse in every way.  Few lyrics.  Simple concept.  There’s only bass, drums, guitar and violins.  I don’t know what it is about Harry Nilsson’s performance, but it really captures this really homesick feeling for me.  I know I have heard the original version by Fred Neil, but this is the popular version that has stuck in my head.  And while the song wasn’t written for the movie, I won’t ever be able to separate the song from the scene of Ratso slowly dying in the back of the bus on the way to Florida.

“And skipping across the ocean like a stone…”

I Lost My Color Vision – Burning Hearts – February 2009

I Lost My Color Vision – Burning Hearts MySpace

I love music that has a sadness that burns with this kind of optimistic intensity.  But Burning Hearts does it for me.

I used to walk up and down Clay Road.  Do you need a map?  I don’t know how many times I made this trip.  I have been thinking about this walk for a couple of days.  There were various reasons that I made the trip so often, but really the walk was probably more important than the destination.  I usually define most of my experiences in the dramatic context of events.  “This tragic event happened…”  “We went here and did this…”  When really the reality of day to day life has nothing to do with events.  It’s all about movements of people.

I had friends that were on the east end of the journey.  And there were stops to make along the way.  Places that I had some kind of business to take care of one way or another.  But I know my reasons had nothing to do with this.  I would spend an hour, or sometimes more if I made stops, walking to visit with people for less than 45 minutes.  Then I would turn around and walk home.

There was something about the movement of walking that actually felt good.  Much of my teen years were just a sort of deperate loneliness.  I found it hard to breathe at home.  Things weren’t necessarily bad at home.  There was drama there.  But none of it fully explains who I am or how I got that way.  I have always been sort of a brooding character.  My big question has always been, “Why are we here?  What’s the purpose?”

Existential questions used to make me feel completely isolated.  Motionlessness made me feel stifled.  I could think and contemplate and feel like I was getting somewhere when I was walking, or at least outside.  So I would invent places to go.  And then I would go there.  And when I got there, I would invent another reason to seek a new destination.  Just keep moving.  A big part of my identity was tied up in this, and I truly miss it.  I miss driving around the country.  I miss walking for 5 to 10 miles on a whim.  Running does it for me a little bit.  But really it no longer does the same thing.  I can’t feel as constricted and repressed as I did then.  So the release isn’t the same.

Despite being dirty and sweaty by the end of that trip, I would sit in the bayou for as long as I could to avoid having to go home.  The bayou was just a tributary of the larger bayou system.    There was a small cement part that made sort of a half pipe (maybe a one third pipe) where we would skateboard,hang out, smoke and wait for trouble to find us.  I would sit in the dark leaning back on the inclined cement still warm from the day and feel my muscles tingling.

Sometimes in motion I can catch glimpses of myself in the universe from a distance.  I can feel the global spherical nature of the ground I am walking on.  I can see myself as a spec of dust on a giant ball of debris in a mostly empty universe with billions of stars and trillions of existences and experiences as meaningful and precious as my own.  For a second I am not alone.  For a burning instant I feel all the hope of life and all of the sadness of the gaping distance between me and everything else.

In my adult life, I can miss everything.  Sitting at a desk.  A computer.  I forget that in motion life is in a completely different context.  I lose my color vision and I see the world in shades of grey.  If I stay there long enough, I start to think:

“What does one need color vision for anyway?”

I Lost My Color Vision really sort of leans these concepts against each other for me.  There can be a real joy in depression.  Really, walking up and down the street in the burning heat is no solution to feeling isolated.  But it’s a “…rainbow on the wall…” in an otherwise hopeless existence.  I really miss being depressed.

“You planted some flowers on the same spot I’d been planning to drop a nuclear bomb.”

I can see the stars above my head as I walk in the grass on the side of Clay Road, there are no sidewalks.  I know the stars weren’t there.  The glow from the city lights tends to block them out.

“I have all the right to feel blue if that’s what I’m into.”

I can feel the smoke in my lungs as I’m lying on the warm concrete in the bayou.  It’s warm and dark.

“No colors can change my mood.”

I walk home and wonder whether I’ll be able to sleep.

“You painted a rainbow on the wall.”

Wild Is the Wind – Nina Simone – 1966

written by Dimitri Tiomkin, Ned Washington 1957

Wild Is the Wind MP3

I hate that when I am listening to something like this, and I feel like I have to go back to look everything up.  “Who is playing the piano there?  Who is on the bass?  How did she feel about this song?  Who are Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington?  Did Johnny Mathis do it better in the original version?  What the hell did the David Bowie version sound like?”  Maybe it’s the music school in me, but every time I start listening to something with the kind of historical significance of Wild Is the Wind, I feel like I have to have a history book open.

No wonder I started getting turned off to jazz at Berklee.  And really, it wasn’t their fault.  I showed up with a profound lack of knowledge and respect for great American music.  It’s tough to grow up in the USA and not end up this way.  No wonder Berklee recruits so many foreign students.  Yes, it adds to the prestige of the school, but the foreign students would show up and be years ahead of us in every subject.  I remember sitting in Jazz History and the European students knew all the answers.  A lot of them would place in later classes beyond classes that I already had a hard time not failing.  The most frustrating part of this state of affairs is that the first thing I feel when trying to write about Wild Is the Wind as sung by Nina Simone is stupid.  But hell it wasn’t the foreign students’ fault that they knew their shit.

I was walking by 1B (a recital hall in one of the Berklee buildings) and heard a voice in a small ensemble.  Berklee was great for this.  In between classes, I might be making my way down the hall and I would hear something coming from a room.  I’d duck my head in the doorway to see what was going on.  In this case it was a tiny Japanese girl singing Wild Is the Wind.  She sounded just like Nina Simone.  Everyone in the room was sitting there mouths agape.  When the song was over she said “Thank you.” in a tiny Japanese voice with an embarrassed smile.  It took everyone a minute to remember to clap.

Love is impossible.  And love is more than impossible under bad circumstances.  It’s also all that you have sometimes.  And while I don’t think Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington meant for the song to have overtones of the civil rights movement, Nina Simone has all of that history in her voice.  The struggle of millions is this thick soup.  Her voice is plaintive without being sappy or overly sentimental.  It’s like the evidence of the dispossessed in the intimacy of real love.  Not the love that goes out to dinner and brings roses.  The love that has no idea what tomorrow will bring.

I don’t know if it’s possible for this kind of subtlety to occur from any contemporary musician.  To sing about love and everyone knows damn well that you are singing about the struggle for equality.  To be able to perform a song outside of its original context and make it mean something entirely new.  This kind of subtlety.  This kind of genuine melancholy is gone from popular culture almost entirely.

There is no way to look that up.  Nina Simone is like her own movement in history.  Somehow she was able to project this rich imagery with her voice.  A strong narrative that went beyond her technique and the mere lyrics of a song.  She went further into something deeper and personal.  An interpretation with significant moral and cultural overtones.  Wild Is the Wind indeed.