#178: A Friend Has Commented On My Memory

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 2.26.17 PM

the result of reposting a “memory” of myself from exactly one year ago

A Friend Has Commented On My Memory

Facebook tells me when someone,
a friend presumably, has commented
on my memory. I like this.
I like, first, that my friends can see
my memory. It’s remarkable.
No where else is it possible to
for friends to see my memory.
If they are in a room with me,
perhaps, and I say something like,
I remember the time–
then, it seems like friends are able,
however corrupted or filtered
it may have become,
to see my memory, or at least,
a very small slice of it.
It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood.
Maybe friends are commenting
on my lack of memory. They’re
saying something like,
That Michael Jarmer, his memory
is not what it used to be.
That’s an unpleasant thought.
Or worse, they might be commenting
on their own memory of me,
in which case, they might be saying
something like, Gee, that Michael
Jarmer turns out to be nothing like
the way I remembered him.
Or worse still, the very worse still,
they speak of their memory of me
because they think I am no longer alive.
You know, in memoriam.
This last possibility is the most troubling.
But I comfort myself: how likely is it
that Facebook would be telling me
what my friends thought of me
after I was gone. Right? Not likely.
How likely would it be that I’d be
checking my Facebook in the afterlife?
Not likely. So I arrive back where
I started, saying that I am appreciative
of the fact that my friends are able to see
and then comment upon and sometimes
even go so far as to like my memory.
I remember as I am remembered
and it’s a loop that goes around
and around.

4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VI, Letter C

piccit_crash_test_dummies___god_shu_536634462

A wrench in the works for my project of listening to compact discs, one at a time, all the way through, touching at least once on every band or artist in my collection: I bought a new turntable for the basement listening lounge!  I have been distracted this week by vinyl and paused my project to bip around in the alphabet with the LP record: Here Comes Everybody, The Bird and the Bee, Eels, and Other Lives. Okay, no more screwing around.  Back to the C compact disc grind. Not a grind. Pure joy, actually.

In my rush to get to Elvis Costello I accidentally skipped a C artist, and, disappointingly, have discovered the first truly BAD record in my compact disc collection.  Julian Cope’s “Peggy Suicide” is definitely one for the hopper.  This guy can’t sing and he can’t write a song. His appeal seems to come, perhaps, from his politics maybe, his new wave cred, his striking good looks (at least in 1990), and his experimental, mystical, artsy bent. There may be a few interesting moments, but overall, it’s not good. And vaguely remembering this appraisal from my last listen 26 years ago, I groan out loud as soon as the display tells me this baby is 76 minutes long. God no. Make it stop.

Counting Crows, “August and Everything After.” Another pirate.  Someone must have been trying to turn me on to this band.  They went so far as to print a facsimile of the album cover to slide into the jewel case for the cdr. I like the hippy dippy grooviness and the musicianship, but I find these guys terribly boring. I don’t see it. Another one into the hopper.

Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits.” Yes.  This is in my collection.  I don’t know why.  I may have stolen this CD from my parents’ music library. I know I would not have bought it. But it was before my time and after theirs; if my parents bought it, it was out of some vague sense that, yeah, here’s this guy, we know a couple of these really nice songs, should probably have it. No doubt, there are classics here, and that probably, more than anything else, explains its presence in my house, however it arrived here. I’ve got some serious childhood sentimentality around some of these tunes.  “Time in a Bottle.”  “Operator.”  “I Got A Name.”  Hell yeah.  And “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Any early 70’s childhood experienced even in the least degree with music would have been unable to escape Jim Croce.

Sheryl Crow, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” I remember the video for “All I Want to Do” and I remember thinking that Sheryl Crow was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I remember, too, at the time of its release, not being quite smitten enough to buy the album, and that I didn’t really think much more about Sheryl Crow until I realized that Kevin Gilbert played on this album and wrote some of these songs.  So years later I found this cd in the used bin and felt I had to have it, for Gilbert’s sake, really. More on this later when we get to the G’s.  There’s no doubting Crow’s talent.  But except for a few tunes on this disc that are really pretty spectacular, it’s not for me an especially captivating record.

The Cure, “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” What a great band. What a great lead singer, one of what I like to call the greatest worst singers in rock.  He’s imprecise, whiny, sometimes operatic, but always 100% in. Emo? Okay, yeah, this guy might be the king of that kind of thing. I forgot how cool they were.  How they were not afraid to drone on a thing for three and a half minutes in order to create a vibe, how inventive the drum parts were, how unattached to two and four, but how, when it was necessary, like in “Just Like Heaven,” it could be absolutely square in service of the perfect pop tune.  Here’s a record whose seventy some minute running time is forgivable, not because every single thing is perfect and nothing is superfluous, but because their ability to change up the vibe from song to song and to create interest sonically in a six minute tune with no chorus to speak of earns them the right to stretch.  One of the best of the last of the great 80’s bands.  I’m sad I never saw them perform.

Curiosity Killed The Cat, “Keep Your Distance.” My wife is heading to bed early so my nine year old and I go downstairs to listen to music together.  He encourages me to carry on where I left off in the letter C.  This is our first joint listening venture since I embarked on this project.  He’s aware of it, but up to this evening has not been a participant.  What a fortuitous time to begin. This obscure band from England put this record out in 1987–a hugely important time in my own musical history, my wife and I, as Here Comes Everybody, having written our first “good” songs and made our first professional recordings. And I was reaching out to find as much cool new music as I could find.  This record here is a kind of funky new wave dance record, reminiscent of the first record from The Blow Monkeys but with more muscle and a decidedly less nerdy vocal croon. The opening track is “Misfits,” and my son and I find ourselves dancing together in the basement. He’s busting out moves I’ve never seen him make before and it’s glorious.  This record holds up, is musical, tight, and, as of this evening, approved by a nine year old boy.

We have time for one more record before we go to bed, and it’s another gem, for some reason incorrectly alphabetized after Croce, Crow, Cure, Curiosity and not before: Crash Test Dummies, “God Shuffled His Feet.”  Produced by Jerry Harrison, formerly of Talking Heads, and released in 1993, this great record rocked my world just as the David Byrne solo record I wrote about earlier did. It was a time of incredible personal and artistic growth for me.  I remember listening to this record over and over again at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, where I would realize that my pursuit of a writing vocation was no longer negotiable, and where I learned about the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Life changing stuff. And this band, a writer’s band, lead singer Brad Roberts having graduated with a double philosophy/English degree, absolutely floated my boat. I don’t think I know of a single band fronted by a singer who goes this low–not a typical pop music thing.  And they captured an absurdist bent that mirrored my own–I was after all, beginning work on the first novel I would ever write, a novel, appropriately enough, about spontaneous human combustion.  It fit right into the world of The Crash Test Dummies. Here’s this thing, not anywhere close to the best song on the record, but it was, after all, the hit. Remember? The nine year old is amused.

Jesus, I realize again that my alphabetizing is totally messed up.  Must be that during the move four years ago, compact discs were put in boxes in a particular order and then came out of those boxes sometimes in a different order. Either that, or I don’t know how to alphabetize.  That’s not likely, as I am, obviously, correcting the mistakes.  Somewhere between Counting and Crow if correctly alphabetized, a band that brings up the rear of my C section in its current f-ed up order, a band for whom I should not limit myself to just one album because they were and are a truly great band and I think I have every studio record they ever released, is New Zealand’s Crowded House. The pedigree of this band, as it is, spread between three other artists in my collection, Split Enz, Neil Finn, and Tim Finn, provides me with the inclination to choose just one–the only Crowded House record to feature the brothers Finn, an indisputable great album: “Woodface.” A celebratory record. 1991. The Finn brothers together again. I was gainfully employed. Felt like an adult. Some rocking good years, the next decade maybe the best decade ever thus far. And this album, not a clunker in the bunch, a perfect pop masterpiece to ring in the last 10 years of a dying century and to end, albeit incorrectly, my collection of artists and bands that begin with the letter C.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume V, Letter Costello

trust

It happened when I was listening to The Beatles; I couldn’t choose which record to listen to.  It happened again with The Boomtown Rats, again with Cheap Trick, and now, in my mission to listen to one cd from each artist represented in my collection in alphabetical order, I am faced with choosing a single Elvis Costello album from the 25 that I possess. I found with The Beatles, with The Boomtown Rats, and with Cheap Trick that it could not be done. I’m not even going to try with Elvis, the second most liberally represented artist in my entire collection. That would just be dumb.

As a teenager, discovering that I was nearly alone on a new wave island in suburbia, I gobbled up everything I could find that struck me as inventive, weird, nerdy, out of the mainstream, and I made quite a few important discoveries. The Talking Heads, Blondie, XTC, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Japan, and Elvis were the harbingers of my adolescence. We had a classic rock station that was making some forays, late at night, into this territory, and of course, we had MTV in its very nascence. I don’t know if I saw Elvis before I heard him. I think I heard “Watching the Detectives” on the radio, and “Radio, Radio,” on the radio. That must have been it. For some reason, though, it didn’t occur to me to buy a Costello record until he was three albums into his career. It was the song “Oliver’s Army,” I think, that really did it for me–so “Armed Forces” was my first purchase–and perhaps, I don’t remember exactly, it could have been the video that finally sold me. After a quick perusal, though, I find the verdict is in. No, it couldn’t have been the video. This thing is terrible. Bad enough to kill a great song. Don’t watch it.

And yet, no, a terrible video cannot kill a great song. I have personal experience with this. “Oliver’s Army” is a great song. As a youngun, I often found myself drawn to tunes the lyrics to which I didn’t understand. I still don’t think I understand this song, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it–its giddiness, its exuberance, its changes, its tongue twisting lyric, and that awesome chorus tag: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here today.” And now that I think of it, remembering less poorly perhaps than before, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was my first Elvis love–and I remember distinctly hearing it on the radio radio late at night.  So, is it “Armed Forces?” I don’t know!  I haven’t even started listening but for the last few days I’ve had nothing but Elvis on the brain.  What about that first album? Such a perfect thing–such an odd thing–terrific songwriting–almost a kind of country record, and yet, strange, odd, exuding a personality unlike anything I’d ever encountered, horrible sounding, and yet, here’s a record that saves the very best song for last! Don’t get me wrong, “Alison” is a great song, but “Watching the Detectives” is one of the very greatest songs. Oh, crap, finding it impossible to choose, I begin at the beginning and can’t stop myself until I’m five albums in! Here goes:

“My Aim Is True”: A terrible sounding great album.  And it’s only now that I realize (unless I realized before and just forgot about it) that The Attractions had not been formed yet, so none of the greatness of that band is apparent here.  No matter.  As I’ve said, “Watching the Detectives,” with or without The Attractions line-up, is worth the price of admission. If I remember correctly, this was the third Costello album added to my collection.

“This Year’s Model”: This was my second Elvis record–and holy shit, what a revelation.  That first track, “No Action, ” tossed me into spasms of ecstasy.  I mean, OMG, the drummer Pete Thomas practically solos through the whole thing.  It’s full of kinetic energy; it’s explosive, bombastic, much punkier and more rocking than anything on the debut record, a clear transformation–and it worked a similar transformation on me, albeit, backwards.  This is the first album with The Attractions, perhaps the mightiest backup band for a solo artist ever assembled in the world of Michael Jarmer. They were absolutely smoking. Check out the “Ticket To Ride” drumset effect in “This Year’s Girl” and the punk-ass jazz fusion of “Lipstick Vogue.”  And then there’s “Radio, Radio,” indelibly etched into our minds as a kind of protest song in that first Elvis appearance on Saturday Night Live. Sophomore slump? Not even close.

“Armed Forces”: Again, my first Elvis record, and my what a record.  From the lead vocal solo pick up of “Oh I” to the downbeat “just don’t know where to begin” of “Accidents Will Happen,” to the raucous closure of “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” this record absolutely rocked my teenage geeky soul and it continues to rock the soul of this old man.  As a kid, I remember being so struck and taken by Elvis’s very particular vocal styling, a kind of nasally Bob Dylan meets Tom Petty, but only English and super smart and way more inventive and musical.  And this, along with my parallel discovery of The Boomtown Rats, really brought to my ears and brain for the first time the idea that rock music could really be about something big–even though I didn’t quite understand any of it. It had a weightiness to it, a gravitas.  Sonically, I love the way the drums sound on this record and the roller-skate organ continues to kill throughout.  This music makes me happy.

“Get Happy”: Here’s a radical idea–let’s put 20 songs on a single 12″ record, 10 songs a side! I think it’s important to mention that even though all these records are now in my cd collection, I bought all these albums when I was a kid on vinyl, the compact disc still six or seven years down the road. By necessity, because of the limitation of the LP format, all the songs on this brilliant record must be super short.  There may be only one or two tunes on this entire album that clock in over three minutes. So the record flies by. And there is gem after gem here, too.  Most notably, “Five Gears in Reverse,” “Opportunity,” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” Great songs.  Soulful and short.  But this record didn’t captivate me quite as much as the previous three, but it was still beloved. This record, though, perhaps more than the previous three, improves with age–possibly, it seems less stuck in time, less tied to an era than its predecessors.

And last, but not least, “Trust.” I might go out on a limb to say that this might be my most favorite Elvis album ever. I’m not going to die by those words, but I know that if I could only take one Costello record with me to the desert island, this would certainly be one of the contenders. I remember vividly that I was listening to this record late one night when my girlfriend knocked on my bedroom window. There’s nothing really sordid to report.  She just stood out there and we whispered back and forth for awhile before she snuck off back to her home down the street.  That must have made me one happy camper, and as she walked off, I may have boogied by myself in the bedroom to “Clubland,” “Strict Time,” “Luxembourg,” “Watch Your Step,” and the groovy collaboration with Glen Tilbrook from The Squeeze, “From a Whisper to a Scream.” There was something about the lyric and musical variety of this record and it’s lush production that set it over the top for me–not to mention that I was in love.  That love and the pursuant heartbreak wouldn’t last more than a year–but this record, this record was built for the long haul. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. This drum part. The space. The lyrics. That bass line. That cool vocal delivery.  Elvis at his early career best, I think.  Cheers. Finally I get get back to the conclusion of the letter C.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

IMG_2591

It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

7 Comments

Filed under Culture, Literature, Poetry, Self Reflection, Teaching, Writing and Reading

#177: Trigger Warning

02-sm-Illustration Photo

Trigger Warning:

The following poem
may contain upsetting
material.  The poet wants
to warn you about it
in advance so you can
decide whether or not
to proceed, knowing
full well that you might
be upset by the poem’s
contents.  It has become
the convention of late
for writers, for readers,
for teachers of writing
and reading, to provide
warnings such as these
to guarantee that no
one is ever unwittingly upset.
This is so kind.
Isn’t it good to know
that writers and readers
and teachers care so
much about your feelings,
care so much about
your emotional well-being
that they would avoid at
all costs writing or reading
or teaching material
that might upset you?
They know and appreciate
how upsetting it is to
be upset–especially when
it could have been
avoided in the first place.
Maybe some day in
the glorious future
writers and readers
and teachers will not
need warnings because
their concern for your
psychological welfare
will prevent them from
writing, reading, or teaching
anything upsetting, anything
that might possibly require
a trigger warning, and the
word trigger will go back
to being and remain always
only the name of a movie star
horse. And that, my dear,
dear friend, is the real
trigger warning.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Poetry, Writing and Reading

#176: On 29 Years of Marriage Measured in Cats and Dogs

On 29 Years of Marriage Measured in Cats and Dogs

It’s possible to measure out a marriage
in pets. Up to year 29, my wife and I have had
two cats and two dogs. Our first pets as newlyweds
were all about the same age, relatively speaking,
so about half way through our history in wedlock
the two cats and the first dog died. We rescued
our next dog not a year later from a relative,
and that dog, the best dog ever, is old now,
and, as they say, on her last legs.
For some odd reason, this year
has been a dog year, a total dog year.
Perhaps, out of guilt for running over the old
dog backing the car out of the driveway,
and despite the fact that she miraculously
survived with nothing but a tire track to show,
we took on the task of rescuing dogs.
We fostered one dog, nearly fell in love
before finding it a home. We adopted another,
only to find out days later he was deathly ill
with some intestinal parasite. We
entertained the crazy notion after that,
perhaps, out of further guilt for giving up
the sick dog, of adopting two dogs at once,
at which we tried, and then failed. Totally overwhelmed
and stressed, we found a home for one and
kept the other, a rot, hound, spaniel mix,
a friendly but rambunctious pup, cute as hell.
I don’t know what it means that we
have had five dogs in our lives in as many
months, what it says about our marriage;
I don’t know why after 28 years only two dogs
and at year 29 four consecutive visits, one permanent.
Are we not busy enough? Do we not have enough
to do? Are we so overflowing with love
that we must find ways of spreading it around?
Would it kill the kid and the old dog to have too much
of a good thing all to themselves?
One of us was less enthusiastic about the dog project,
hesitant, doubtful, trepidatious, finally giving in.
Taking on the care of an animal is a commitment
and requires mountains of negotiation and compromise.
Plainly speaking, it’s hard work.
And at the risk of seeming almost pathologically
unsentimental, writing an anniversary poem
essentially about dogs, let me just say
that marriage or wedlock would perhaps
work more often for people if they would take
it as seriously as they take the care of their beloved animals,
which I believe, despite the various and sometimes momentous
challenges along the way, my lovely wife and I have done for 29 years.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume IV, Letter C

The-letter-C-the-letter-c-22187021-2560-2560

Welcome to Volume IV of my crazy project of listening to a single compact disc from start to finish from each musical artist represented in my neglected cd collection and then writing about it in a blog post. Wow, that was a mouthful.  The B section was bountiful; it took two volumes of blog and many moons to complete.  Now Summer is upon us and I can feel time opening up for more listening. I predict that I will be through the C section before the end of this current month of July in the year of our dog, 2015. We begin with

Cake, “Comfort Eagle.” This record is so damn catchy.  I listened to it once with utter joy and then, maybe a full week later, the tunes still swirling around in my brain after only one listen, I had to listen to it again.  Cake, they are a wonder.  How could a singer with such a lack of stylistic flare, such a deadpan delivery, be so stunningly memorable?  Partly, it’s the delivery coupled with the lyrics and of course the melodies, which are sometimes more spoken than sung, nevertheless, infectious and difficult to abandon.  I’ll just give you a few lines.  “Swim in your kidney–kidney-shaped pool.”  The greatest misleading lyric turn since David Byrne’s, “Do I smell? I smell home-cooking,” from “Cities.” “You are an Austrian nobleman, and you’re commissioning a symphony in C.” Of course I am! “I am an opera singer.” Of course you are!  And perhaps the most famous Cake line ever: “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lo——–ng jacket.” Of course you do, and so do I!  And finally, more profound and about as seriously as Cake ever takes itself: “We are building a religion.”  This album brought me through, perhaps, the darkest period of my adult life. 2001. Thank you, Cake.

Camper Van Beethoven, “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.” Oh my god, it’s been a long time since I heard this record, the only record from CVB in my collection.  I could, without listening first, recall by memory the first two tunes, at least in part, by their lyric hooks.  “Eye of Fatima,” I could have hummed a bit of, and “O Death” I could have hummed in its entirety, but other than that, I could not have sung or remembered another single track. I tried to guess the album’s release date.  I thought 1989 and I was off by only one year.  But I could have purchased the record in ’89, as I associated it with living in the basement of my in-laws for a year while my wife and I got our feet on the ground financially.  So, not bad.  Music and memory. That’s part of what this whole project is about.  I’m surprised I only have one record from this group, because, as I listen I rock and I am immensely happy. This is a record that needs to go back into rotation, I think.  This one needs to be sucked up by the mighty iTunes program so that it can be carried around and shared between all the devices.  It’s that good.  And it’s a nice springboard, I think, into the 90’s.  Its lost most of the aspects I would associate with what I like to call the 80’s stink.  A cool, rocking, kind of progressive record. Rock band with fiddle. And David Lowry’s snotty but lucid drawl. Dig it.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica.”  I haven’t started listening yet.  I’m afraid.  I suspect that the only reason I have this record is that I have been since the early 80’s a Frank Zappa fan, and Zappa was a collaborator of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, and Zappa produced this album in 1969, so if nothing else, it represented for me a sweet little piece of Zappa history.  Also, more credibility piled on once I learned that another one of my 80’s rock heroes, Andy Partridge from XTC, was also a fan and heavily influenced by the Beefheart.  Okay. So I bought this record(cd) long ago, the album cover sporting a portrait of a dude who appears to have a fish for a head and is wearing some kind of pointy top hat.  Why am I afraid?  I know it’s an important record, and undoubtedly I bought it because I was informed that it was an important record, and I know I can’t remember anything about it off the top of my head, and I know it will be weird, and I’m afraid that I will not like it. Here goes.

Holy shit. It’s weird all right.  But awesome.  I can’t look away.  It’s like a train wreck in the very best possible sense. Perhaps the weirdest record in my collection. But listening now, after a bourbon, I can hear the influence on Andy Partridge’s angular guitar playing, and the guy from Gang of Four.  That’s what happened.  That’s why this is so remarkable.  And the words, holy crap, the words are “magical” indeed.  And as chaotic as the music sometimes is, it is surprisingly listenable–unlike other groups I love (The Flaming Lips) in their most experimental moments.

The Cardigans, “First Band on the Moon.”  What a perfect pop record.  There’s not a clunker on the thing.  This band exudes charm.  I’m in love with Nina Persson all over again.  And these are the best worst-sounding drums I’ve ever heard, boxy, compressed, like toys, but nevertheless awesome.  And their cover of “Iron Man” is one of the greatest recorded covers ever.  It is as unlikely and beautiful as is GWAR’s version of a Pet Shop Boys tune in the Onion’s AV Room.  It’s 1996, but timeless.  I don’t have very many specific memories associated with the record because I think it’s one that I kept listening to consistently over the next 19 years.

Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”  I caught on to Canadian singer songwriter Neko Case through The New Pornographers, hadn’t realized at first they were a kind of supergroup of stellar artists all in their own right.  This is the first Neko record I bought, and it’s as far from The New Pornographers as one could go, it seems to me. I don’t even know how to categorize this record.  Is it country? Is it folk? Is it the blues? The answer, perhaps, to all three of these questions would be yes.  The drums are huge, played with heavy brushes.  The reverbs on her voice are wide open. The lyrics are astounding and profound.  And that voice is absolutely to die for. This record is only 10 years old.  I was listening to this album when my boy was an infant. This is not necessarily a happy record, but I know how happy I was when I found it. A beautiful, quietly disturbing and comforting listen.

The tweeters in my JBLs both died tonight–in the middle of the Neko record.  Headphones, then.

The Chamber Strings, “Month of Sundays.” This is, I think, only the second pirated cd I’ve pulled off the shelf in two and a half letters of the alphabet.  I’m not happy about it.  Some years ago, after a friend of mine burned me a copy of this record, told me to check it out, and I did, I should have gone out immediately and bought a copy. I might still have to do that, not only because I’m generally against pirating music, but most importantly because this is a truly great record. I’d not heard of them at the time my friend passed this to me, years after its release in 2001.  Because of record label issues, bad distribution, and the singer songwriter Kevin Junior’s drug addiction and poor health, the band kind of fell apart and then into obscurity–but nevertheless developed a rabid cult following, of which I now consider myself a part.  It’s pop music, but it’s melodic, smart, lush, serious, loose, yet expertly performed.  It’s a pop record that really breathes, feels legitimately human.  It feels like a record made without computers of any kind.  Note to self: buy a real copy of this record.

Tracy Chapman, “Self Titled.” “Talking about a revolution. . .Finally, the tables are starting to turn.”  It’s kind of sad.  This tune is probably just as relevant now, if not more so, than it was in 1988.  But we didn’t really get, and we’re still waiting for the revolution she’s singing about. It’s in progress.  It’s gathering some momentum.  She was 27 years ahead of her time.  “Fast Car,” again, profound, smart, heartfelt, poignant.  What happened to Tracy Chapman? I totally lost track of her.

Cheap Trick, “In Color and in Black and White.” My god.  Here’s another band for which it might be extremely difficult for me to listen to only one album. It’s almost impossible for me to express what this crazy rock band means to me.  I saw them open up for Kiss in 1976 and I immediately loved them. And after listening to a 40 minute set, I already knew the tunes after a first listen and had already decided how much better than Kiss they were.  There’s no comparison. This was my first Cheap Trick record, their second album. That opening guitar riff.  Bun E Carlos’s explosive drum entrance. Robin Zander’s evocation,  “Hello there, ladies and gentlemen.  Hello there, ladies and gents. Are you ready to rock? Are you ready or not?” I’m a 50 year old guy, but listening to this record tonight with headphones on, I am as excited as a school boy.  They rocked. But they were melodic and funny, sometimes smart, quirky, adventurous, the Heavy American Beatles, and between that voice (the best power pop singer EVER?), those nerdy Nielsen antics with the hats and the picks and the 1001 guitars, those 12 string bass parts, and the pure, effortless, pulsating, literally smoking drums of Bun E., I’d almost go so far as to say that Cheap Trick was (IS!) the greatest power pop band American music has ever produced.  And they’re still going!  There was a dark period in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but after 1997’s self-titled “Cheap Trick,” they completely reestablished themselves as a continuously relevant force in rock and roll. I haven’t missed a record since. Okay.  Let’s do this one, too: Cheap Trick, “Self-titled” (1997). 

In case you were worried or curious, I found a pair of Boston Acoustic Satellite Speakers with a matching subwoofer.  Headphones no longer necessary.  These babies sound pretty good.

Chicago, “Chicago Transit Authority.” This record was way before my time.  I was 5 years old.  But my oldest brother, 12 years my senior, had this album on reel to reel.  Yeah, he had a reel to reel tape deck. And between my brother and A.M. radio, I would have heard much of this famous record as a child. I thank the Almighty Almighty my siblings were avid music listeners.  If they had not been, there’s no telling whether or not I would have ever caught the bug that has shaped so much of my life. At any rate, only a decade or so ago, these first few Chicago records were remastered and rereleased on compact disc.  I felt that these records, at least the first two, were too important not to have a home in the collection.  So here I am, 45 years later, grooving on this music, miraculous in a way, that a band with such progressive leanings could land so many hit songs.  “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Listen to that jazzy opening.  Could a thing like this ever hope to be a hit on pop radio in this dark day and age? On the flipside, though, musicians got away with all kinds of shit in the 60’s and 70’s.  How about a 6:47 tune called “Free Form Guitar” which consists of nothing but, you guessed it, free form guitar?

Toni Childs, “Union.” 1988.  The first and last Toni Childs record I ever bought.  It’s groovy.  80s stink on the production. More spiritually minded, perhaps, than a lot of 80s fare. Cool musical ideas.  A strange, singing voice, an old soul voice. I’m not sure why I bought this record, initially, because it’s unlike a lot of things I dig. I often have found myself buying music, especially as I became an adult, that I thought somehow would diversify my musical experience, broaden my horizons.  Toni Childs was also a very beautiful woman to this 24 year old young man and that could have had something to do with it. There are cool moments on this record, though. I know I gave it some deep listening towards the end of that decade.  First time I’ve listened to it, perhaps, since then.

The Church, “Starfish.” Man, I don’t know, I’m four songs in, and even after the hit, which is a pretty darn good song, “Under the Milky Way,” I’m about ready to pack it in. Not a very adventurous band. Brooding. Lush, but predictable and dull.  Makes me want to gaze at my shoes.  I’ll hang in there. I understand the appeal, I think, but at the same time, I understand why this  record did not have staying power with me.

Billy Cobham, “Power Play.”  It’s 1986. I had not moved completely through my prog-rock jazz-fusion phase. I am probably not yet through it. However, this record strikes me now as an especially dumb entry in the genre, as it attempts, using synthesizers and drum machines (drum machines, my god, on a Billy Cobham album), to make itself “contemporary.”  And as prog-jazz-fusion goes, it’s not that prog-jazz-fushiony. There are moments, though, as there are on records like this, especially for musicians, when one is simply blown away by the precision and skill. When it’s good, it’s really good. Otherwise, it’s background music played by some of the best musicians in the world.

Cockeyed Ghost, “Ludlow, 6:18.” Perhaps the only group or artist thus far with which I have a personal acquaintance. I know this guy. I’m not sure how we connected, but he did a house concert at our place during one of his many extensive tours and he hosted us in Los Angeles in a club on one of only two tours my band ever made–down to LA and back, once in 1999 and again in 2001.  I think we played with Cockeyed Ghost in ’99.  I don’t even remember the name of the club.  At any rate, I have a few of this band’s records, and because they’re not “local,” they ended up in the general collection.  A good, solid rock band.  A singer who tries sometimes too hard to be Brian Wilson fronting Cheap Trick.  Good songs, though.  Some intricate moves.  Some angry-about-the-record-industry lyrics–always a big hit.  Crazy key changes.  A moving song about a girlfriend-that-could-have-been who committed suicide.  Heavy. Overall, though, a good rocking vibe.  I’m glad I know this songwriter.  I’m glad his music is in the world.

Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head.” I really wanted to listen to “Parachutes,” the debut record, but alas, it was a pirate, and worse, I couldn’t find it.  That’s a record that ripped my heart out for some reason and I have super fond memories of it, even though I haven’t listened to it in ages.  Never bought a real copy of it, either.  So I choose this, the next best thing, I suppose, before Coldplay got all arena rock on our asses.  Not a fan of the evolution of this band, but loved the first two records. Let me see if this one holds up. Oh yeah.  This guy is such a great terrible singer.  That was part of the charm, I think. I pictured him as a grizzly guy with a big beard and was kind of disappointed to learn he was so clean cut and cute.  This record rocks more than the first, is less intimate, but some of these tunes are gems.  And I know what it was about them that struck me. At this time in my life, they seemed to be speaking straight at me, to me directly, personally.  That second tune, “In My Place,” is a prime example. In 2001, 02, 03, I was lost, I was lost, I was scared, tired and under prepared. Absolutely. And then there was “Warning Sign.” And the truth is–I miss you.  Holy crap.  I think I recently saw a friend of mine place this song against a collage of pictures of his deceased wife, a cancer victim, a friend of mine from ages ago and a super huge influence on my life, and I didn’t know she was sick.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think I’ve remembered this incorrectly.  It was a different Coldplay song my friend used in the video collage of our mutual friend, but nevertheless, this is maybe the tune I heard.

Paula Cole, “This Fire.” I’m not sure what to say about this record.  Is it good?  Yes. Musically and compositionally interesting, sophisticated.  It sounds good. It’s a little too much like a Tori Amos record. Interesting, disturbing vocal inflections; she seems sometimes to be barking–otherwise, she sings beautifully.  A hit, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone.” You all know that one.  A good record, and yet, one that did not withstand the test of time for me. The best songs are the first three or four and then it’s all kind of down hill.

The Colonoscopy. Not a record, not a band, but what I actually had to do this week while working my way through the C section.  I’m 50.  It’s what you gotta do.  Everything they say about having a colonoscopy is true.  The day of preparation sucks, the procedure itself is a piece of cake, a walk in the park, a day in the sun. Except for the fear. In my case, unwarranted. Everything looked good–so they tell me.

Shawn Colvin, “A Few Small Repairs.” This record holds up for me as well as most other female singer songwriter records over the last twenty years.  Except for anything St. Vincent has done.  My god, when will I ever reach the letter S?! After all this while (it was released in 1996), “A Few Small Repairs” still sounds fresh, vibrant, timely, contemporary, and groovy. That’s a pretty great voice. And these are pretty great words.  And these musicians, especially this drummer, are pretty astounding. I’ve followed her over the years, but not a single one of her records is as successful to my ears. “Sonny Came Home.” Dynamite opening track. I gotta say though, that as the record moves along, it gets progressively less interesting.

Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting.” 1990 BMG record club binge shopping brought me familiarity with Concrete Blonde. I choose this record from two of the band’s records in my collection, neither of which I can recall a single specific thing about. Until “Bloodletting” starts spinning. It all comes back.  Bombastic and bluesy rock tinged with a kind of gothic metal merengue. A good record. Most all of the records I bought during my BMG music club months bring back memories of poverty and living in my parents-in-law’s house for a year and nevertheless feeling stupidly happy.

Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare.” My first venture as a young man in the late 70’s into what would become known (later) as shock rock.  Kiss didn’t count.  Spitting blood didn’t count–not compared to the nightmare world of Alice Cooper. As a pre-teen, I started with the record he made with Elton John’s collaborator Bernie Taupin, “From the Inside,” saw that concert, and then worked my way backwards.  “Welcome to my Nightmare,” along with “Goes to Hell,” would have been one of my first acquisitions in the back catalogue. The title track is epic.  There’s a kind of dorkiness about the way it’s sung, I thought, but the elaborate arrangement and the dense instrumentation takes the tune to really far out places.  Vincent Price’s appearance on “Black Widow” is delicious, and the segue from the previous track, “Devil’s Food,” is exquisite.  “Some Folks” provides the evidence that Cooper had a healthy sense of humor to go along with his morbid interests.  “Only Women Bleed,” a beautiful, powerful, disturbing song, but lyrically speaking, is about the most unlikely hit single in the universe. But the second half of this record–almost every track after “The Department of Youth,” that whole  Steven sequence, is some of the creepiest rock music EVER up to this point in my early rock history. How is it that Alice Cooper became a conservative who loves to golf? I can’t get over that. I’m glad he’s still alive though.  He almost didn’t make it.  My discovery of him at that Bernie Taupin period was the culmination of his rehabilitation, hence, a record about a group of residents in an insane asylum. A brilliant record in its own right.  But I gotta add (obviously Alice had quite a hold on my early teens) that, even though it’s not the record I chose to listen to tonight, that “Flush  the Fashion” in 1980 became my absolute favorite Cooper record ever.

At nearly 3500 words, 3500 words that very few human beings will ever read, I realize what’s still to come in the letter C and  I understand that this letter, too, just like B, will need two volumes.  But I’m excited, because what’s coming up next is an artist that had a profound impact on my personal life, my musical life, my emotional life, my aesthetic orientation, the whole ball of wax, and who continues to blow my mind.  I’ll need some space for him. Like the Beatles and The Boomtown Rats and Cheap Trick, he’s an artist for which picking just one album will be a gargantuan challenge.  I’ve got 25 Elvis Costello albums to choose from, so far in the alphabet, the largest collection of records from a single artist. So wish me luck, and for now, let’s bring this episode to a close.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music