Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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New Year Tradition? A New Way to Experience Music? 2020!

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Does this guy look ill? 

Section 1: A New Year Tradition?

I hope this does not become a New Year’s Tradition, but two years in a row now, I have been ill going into New Year’s Eve and absolutely down for the count on the first day of the new year. Coupled with that has been a tradition that I hope will continue, but please, without the illness: I’ve had a drumming gig two New Year’s Eves in a row now with a cover band I’ve played with for a couple of years. It’s a great experience and a coveted one to have good gig New Year’s Eve and a total honor to play with musicians that I sincerely want to share the experience with, but being super sick and needing to play the drums for two to three hours, suppressing coughing fits, sweating through the aches and pains in the body, trying to remember through the fatigue how the parts go, how these wooden things in my hands work, hoping that I don’t pass out, sneeze, or throw up–these things do not make for the drummer an enjoyable performance experience! Needless to say, I survived the gig and played most all of my parts correctly, and, except maybe noticing a little less than usual animation behind the drum kit, no one save my bandmates were aware of the compromise. But Jesus, when I got home at nearly two in the morning, I felt like I had been hit by a train. When we’re in a bad way, we often say, hyperbolically, that we feel like we’re dying. When I got home in the first couple of hours of 2020, I felt, without exaggeration, like I was dying. Here I am on January 2, not fully recovered, but clearly, no longer dying, able to compose a blog essay, on the mend, as they say. But now my wife and my son both also have come down with a thing–which may or may not be my fault. So we are celebrating the New Year together all convalescing in various household compartments, taking turns being the nurse to the other sickos in the house.

I did learn a couple of things about drumming a show while sick, and, for some inexplicable reason, practiced this learning somewhat intuitively while I was playing. So for those of you who might need to do some sick drumming at some future date (not to be confused with “sick” drumming, which is always recommended), here’s what I did, and what you might keep in mind, to get through:

  • Don’t sing if you can help it. The back ups will not likely be missed. If you’re singing lead on one or two songs, skip ’em. If you’re the lead singer for a consistent part of the show, I’m so so very sorry. It will be the worst thing ever.
  • Don’t rock out like you usually do. Give almost a zen-like concentration on simply playing the parts–leave the physical showy stuff out.
  • Don’t take any deep breaths: promotes coughing fit.
  • Don’t laugh if someone on stage does something or says something funny: promotes coughing fit.
  • Generally speaking, keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose in order to avoid a coughing fit. It might be useful to note that my condition at the time, not a flu per se, but a super nasty virus of some sort, was in my chest and my throat and not in my sinuses. I would not recommend keeping your mouth shut if you couldn’t breathe through your nose. No one likes a sick drummer, but people like dead drummers even less (I’m told).
  • Have water and hot tea both easily at your disposal. The tea quelled the urge to cough. The water prevented drying up and withering away.
  • Don’t consume any alcohol. It turns out my illnesses have paved the way for two completely dry New Year celebrations in a row!

I hope you have found the preceding helpful or at least somewhat interesting. I think it might be the first time in my entire blog history that I have given any kind of instruction about drumming. It may really be the only drumming instruction I have any kind of authority to give!

Section 2: A New Way To Experience Music? 

For the longest time, just as, in the beginning of the smart phone revolution, I resisted getting a smart phone, I have resisted subscribing to any music streaming service. I have thought of myself as a purist. If I was interested in a record, I would buy it. If I was really interested, I’d buy it on vinyl. If I wasn’t as sure, I’d buy a CD. If I was experimenting with something new or if I was low on music funds, I’d pay for and download the album from iTunes or the Emusic subscription service. My righteousness came from the twofold conviction (which I believe is borne out by evidence) that one, the quality of the streaming audio would be inferior to both vinyl and compact disc, and two, that streaming services paid little to nothing to artists. I first started evolving on the issue when a mastering engineer friend of mine told me about TIDAL, a high quality, hi-fidelity streaming service created by and curated by musicians. But this was three years ago. That ruminated for a long time. The next phase of the evolution of my thinking was brought on by the resident 14 year old. My son requested for Christmas a family plan subscription to Spotify.

After some research between TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify, I decided to appease the teenager and not the audiophile. I’m sure he’s happy, but it has already, in the two weeks or so of subscribing, revolutionized my music listening experience. For good or bad, I cannot say. On the good, I am honestly enjoying the service. No question. I have added to my library and listened several times from start to finish albums that I was curious about, albums that have been perpetually on a wish list, albums that, in physical form, are out of print and circulation, albums recommended to me by friends, and albums that were on everybody’s best of 2019 lists. So, in a very short time, I have been able to listen to and enjoy a number of new records that would have absolutely broke the bank had I acquired them in a record shop. And I haven’t paid a penny yet–it’s a three month trial!  And as most of the listening I have done has been at my computer desk through my powered Audioengine desktop speakers, through the Bose bluetooth, or in the car, the loss of audio quality has escaped me. And the bad?

There are no liner notes. No songwriting credits. Don’t know who the musicians are. Don’t know who produced, engineered, or mastered. Don’t know where it was recorded or mastered. There’s nothing to hold. There are no lyrics. There’s no art outside of a front jacket. Those are negatives.

And this: It’s an embarrassment of riches. It seems not right somehow to be able to listen to any album I want from start to finish from any artist I choose, over and over again, but I can. I can download albums as well, so that when I’m on the road without the mighty wi-fi I can still listen to my favorites. $14.99 a month. What’s wrong with that? And of course any young people reading this are just shaking their heads in disbelief. What is wrong with this guy? Clearly, in my defense, the artist benefits less, far less, from my patronage. The brick and mortar shop where I usually buy my records benefits not at all. And these last two, perhaps, are the negative aspects of streaming music services that give me the most pause.

Since the first section of this blog entry ended with a list, let’s follow up and conclude section 2 with another list. Here is some justification, some rationalization, some arguments about why my decision to subscribe to Spotify won’t ruin the music industry:

  • I will do my part to support musicians and local businesses by continuing to buy physical products, records and cd’s. Music Millennium has not seen the last of me!
  • Because the budget for such things has a limit, because I can’t buy everything that interests me, artists and albums that I may have NEVER heard I will get to hear! They won’t get their cut of a $20 to $30 ticket price for new vinyl, but they will get a couple of pennies every time I listen to a song. And I am what you might call a loyal listener. If I like a thing–I’m going to listen to it a bunch of times.
  • And, if I find myself liking a thing enough to listen to it a bunch of times and it becomes a favorite–at this point fidelity is an issue and I will buy the physical record.
  • Every once in a moon, I will buy a new album that does not (pet peeve of mine) include a digital download card. This can now be removed from my list of peeves. New ELO album didn’t have a download code? Spotify has it. Download it there. That seems doubly good for Jeff Lynne, and it sure beats paying $30 for a record, finding it without download card, and liking the record so much that you are compelled to purchase it AGAIN on iTunes so that you can travel with it!
  • Finally, as a person of a certain age who nevertheless still gets a huge thrill out of discovering new musical artists, the main benefit of Spotify might just be the new possibilities for discovery that await–totally on my own just plunking around–not to mention the completely untapped potential (of which I know the youth is totally down with) of it’s social networking and sharing possibilities. I understand that shared playlists are a big hit with the kids.     

This concludes the first blog entry of 2020. Recovering from illness. Sad that I did not fully enjoy New Year’s Eve as I would have liked, but full of gratitude for the opportunity to play and with these people–people who have become dear to me over the last couple of years. Again, disappointed that I did not accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish before heading back to work after winter break, but, again again, not surprised, and thankful to have been able to do what I’ve done–not the least of which–four gigs in two weeks time. Now that I can see better health right around the corner, and despite recent news events that scare the shit out of me, I am hopeful and optimistic about 2020. Whatever we need to do to make our communities, our cities, our country, or the world a better place, let’s do that. Music is a starting point. Amen.

 

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Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution

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As the song says, it’s been a long time since I rock and rolled. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of literal rocking and rolling on the drums. I’m speaking figuratively about the kind of rock and roll that typically manifests itself in poetry, fiction, and right here on the blog site. Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September. I don’t like it. After awhile, it gets under the skin and begins to itch. Left untreated it can fester and come out sideways. So without an idea in my head, I start writing today just so I can say that I wrote something. Here I am writing words, stringing them together to form sentences, stringing sentences together to form paragraphs, the first of which ends right here, on December 25, Christmas Day, 2019.

The only way to stop the block is to write your way through it. I get that. I believe it. I tell my students this. So allow me to write my way through the block. What the block represents, I hope, is simply a lull, a fallow period before an enormously stupendous harvest. What the block represents, I fear, is a faltering of creative powers, a diminishing of skill, a kind of inspiration death. The latter possibility is too terrible to consider and I find myself fighting a mighty battle against it. After all, I’ve had dry spells in creativity before and I’ve always come out the other end and continued to create.

Perhaps, as I believe that creativity feeds more creativity, I have found myself over the last several months wanting in several of the activities or conditions that inspire productive periods for me, and engaging in too many activities that don’t.

Things I know feed my creative spirit that I have not been doing:

  • Writing regularly and consistently, anything, poetry, fiction, blog entry.
  • Reading: Freely reading, NOT the kind of reading I do in preparation for teaching.
  • Making original music, writing songs: Playing drums in a cover band, while fun, exhilarating, and somewhat lucrative, somehow does not do the entire trick.
  • Being in community with other creatives: Socially or artistically–facebook don’t cut the mustard, and convening with a writing community once a year ain’t enough.
  • Meditating.
  • April: All of the other months of the year that aren’t April, they’re just not April. I need to do more April.

Things I’ve been doing that don’t help.

  • The opposite of all of the above descriptors.
  • Facebook.
  • Generally speaking, the internet.
  • Feeling abjectly depressed about the gov’ment, fearful of another four years of said gov’ment, and unable to resist the “what horrible shit went down today on the clown car” impulse.
  • Allowing anxiety about certain monumental and impending life choices to paralyze me into making no choices about anything whatsoever, related or not.

‘Tis the season to make the resolutions, yes? Do more of the stuff that feeds the creativity and less of the stuff that doesn’t. Can we get specific? Can we find some small achievable goals that will build on each other over time so that 2020 becomes a year of productivity and creative health? Okay, then, let’s try a thing. Let’s make a damn list. Here’s a list of achievable stuff that, if I accomplish, would make me feel pretty great about the new year:

  1. Write a thing, at least one thing, once a week. It doesn’t have to be a finished thing.
  2. Read for pleasure, at least one book a month.
  3. Write an album’s worth of songs. For almost a decade I wrote six songs every month. This should not be a problem.
  4. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me–therapist, financial advisor, friends, my courage community–toward optimum discernment regarding these monumental and impending life choices.
  5. Meditate more often–and generally speaking, take better care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Regular exercise, anyone?

That’s a good list. It seems within reach, reasonable. It’s a positive list. I noticed that I didn’t list things that began with the words “stop,” “don’t,” or “resist.” It’s all “do more of” rather than moralizing about what I should do less of. I’m going to make a copy of this thing and post it somewhere where I can see it every day. Maybe I’ll make myself a chart. Get all Benjamin Frankliny up in here. I’m pretty pleased with myself. I’ve written my way through the block and have decided upon some resolutions. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, and to me. Let’s do this.

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Car Crash Haiku

Damaged bumpers from car accident

As we were about to read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for the poem of the day, I was introducing my students to a poetic formal structure I was pretty sure none of them had ever heard of, the villanelle. To begin with, I explained to them that a formal structure was one in which the poet was following a set of rules. I asked them if they knew of any formal poetic structures, and as it turns out, most of them were familiar with these two giants: the sonnet and the haiku. We unpacked what they could remember about the rules of a sonnet, and then the haiku. Many of them recited: five, seven, five. Okay, a haiku is a three line poem in which the first line is five syllables long, the second line is seven syllables long, and the third line five syllables long. I do not consider myself a haiku scholar by any stretch, but I ventured to guess out loud for the edification of my charges that there might be other “rules” at work in a haiku, especially in its most traditional form. I speculated that many haiku are meditative in tone and usually incorporate some nature imagery. And then I told them that they were unlikely, for example, to find very many car crash haiku. After one student suggested that Car Crash Haiku might be a great name for a band, I laughed out loud, agreed, came pretty close right then and there to walking out of the room to form such a band, and then, having embraced the idea fully, I suggested a student could actually do a series of car crash haiku, thought better of it, and claimed the idea for my own–which, you know, is kind of a cheat–because any individual in that room could go out into the world with their own series of car crash haiku and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. So, this little paragraph is just to say that somebody might be generating some number of car crash haiku in the near future. It could become an entirely new haiku school. I just wanted people to know how it started. You’re welcome.

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#344: Who Let The Dogs Out?

They let themselves out, thank you very much.
On a warm, August night, 11 pm, something outside
catches their attention, and the larger of my two dogs
simply stands up on her hind legs and, using
the handle, opens the latched screen door.
And they run. Together. Free to run and roam.
They cross the busy street into the neighborhood
of brand new houses across the way and again,
partners in crime, they pillage, side by side.

I’m in the house cursing. I grab the double dog
lead and arm myself with a couple of biscuits,
and out I go. They will not come to me. I follow,
doggedly, into neighborhood streets. Calling after
them, but not loud enough to wake anyone
and unfortunately, not loud enough to get the
attention of my freedom-crazed pets. A bit of good
news: they make their way down a dead end.
They go to the very last house, and because
they are dogs, they sense another dog inside.
The house is dark. It’s 11:00 pm, but inside,
a little dog starts with the yapping. And all
the sensory lights outside go on. I manage,
somehow, with the treat, to capture one of them,
the door-handle dog, larger, younger than
the other, still with a degree of puppy love
for the humans in her care. She takes the biscuit
and I leash her up. Meanwhile, the other one
sets off a car alarm when she runs underneath
and I am certain that these people are coming
outside with baseball bats. They don’t. The dog
makes her way back down the street, goes into
another back yard through an opening in a fence,
and I am pissed at this one. She emerges.
I throw the treat down on to the pavement and
finally, she approaches. I’m feeling vindictive
and when she gets close enough I scoop
up the biscuit and deftly grab that collar.
No treat for you, I say. I lead them both home
and boy, do they get an earful.

Damn dogs. I love them both,
but at times like this, I really hate them.
But look at that face. And that other one.
My hatred is impossible to sustain
and I will snuggle with them both
before I turn in for the night.

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Life Envy: The FOMO

 

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I want to be living that life. By myself, late at night, sitting in the dark of the back yard with my phone, the dog, and a drink, I actually heard myself say this out loud: I want to be living that life. It’s crazy, I know, but looking sometimes at pictures of people on Facebook doing things you would like to do, having experiences you would like to have, you get this feeling, an inescapable feeling that you are missing out. We call it FOMO. I must admit that I have experienced the FOMO. I try as best as I can to massage my FOMO into something like happiness for the person in the post: I am so glad they get to have this experience. Then, I take it a little bit further by thinking that I am so glad they decided to share this moment with their friends, of which I consider myself one. Then, the conclusion of the exercise is to think or actually say out loud how grateful I am for the experiences I have had, the luck, and the privilege. I know, in these moments, I have had experiences that some of my friends have never had, and I know that I am super fortunate because of that. In 95% of my waking existence on the planet I would not trade my life for anyone else’s. But on this last occasion, when I caught myself expressing the FOMO out loud to no one in particular, to the trees, to the dog in the yard, to the martini I was sipping, to myself, I panicked for a moment. What is it about this that I desire? The person in question may be beautiful. It may be that they seem extremely happy or content. In all likelihood, they are in a place I have always wanted to go, seeing something I have always wanted to see, learning something I have always wanted to learn, successful at something at which I too would like to succeed, or doing something I know I would enjoy but find I have not yet had the opportunity to enjoy. It is ridiculous and ridiculously human, a tendency we have always had, to be envious of others, but now exacerbated by social media because we are not only hearing ABOUT the experiences of others, we are seeing them in photo, or seeing and hearing them in video, ALL THE TIME. And that pushes the buttons of desire and envy. But . . .

It’s like meditation. You don’t beat yourself up when your mind wanders. Instead, you simply notice its wandering, you pay attention, and then you come back to the breath or the mantra and you continue. Maybe that’s why I said it out loud: I want to be living that life. I was paying attention. It was kind of an alarm set off by my internal brakes to the wheels of envy and desire. This is better than what I suspect a lot of people do: they see their friends and acquaintances living a great life and they begin to feel anxious and sad without being aware of the connection. And we have to remind ourselves, don’t we, that our facebook personalities are self-curated. Some people select only the happiest moments and ignore the trauma and sadness, others, in an effort to be authentic, balance the joy and the suffering, while still others use social media to essentially suffer in public. While the middle way seems most admirable, none of these strategies are inclusive of a life. They’re still just snapshots. Judging me from my facebook posts, it might seem like the only thing I ever do is play the drums and listen to music and that I am an extremely cheerful guy. Only partly true. There are things that make me fearful or anxious; there are issues that need attending in my own inner and outer work; I sometimes question, as William Stafford does, if “what I have done is my life.” It is pointless to haunt one’s self with What If questions. If one is haunted by a What If question, perhaps some action is necessary. But if one is suspicious, self-reflective enough to recognize the FOMO for what it is, sure, go ahead and say out loud, I want to be living that life. In the next moment, though, allow the gratitude to bubble up for this one–and then put your phone away, write a poem or read a book, or have a drink outside with your dog.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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