Monthly Archives: September 2015

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VII, Letter D

Devo-Are-we-not-menjpg

Ahh. The letter D. D is for Dali’s Car. D is for Miles Davis. D is for Death Cab for Cutie. D is for the Decemberists, Deerhoof, Destroyer, Devo, Neil Diamond, Thomas Dolby, The Doors, and Mike Doughty. Taking up only two small shelves, four little cubbies of the ikea compact disc cabinet, the D artists in my collection are few but fantastic. Glancing over the roster here, there is nothing to which I am not looking forward! The letter D in my collection spans nearly six decades and represents some pivotal moments in my musical memory. It also represents at least one artist of significance to me, one of my current favorites, for which not a single cd exists in the collection.  Downloads and vinyl make up for the majority of my musical purchases now over the last year or two, so when it comes to a letter that features one of these, what am I to do? I may have to break the rules and bust out a record here and there–otherwise I would have to neglect discussing almost ANY of my current favorites in this wacky project of mine. That just doesn’t seem right. Does it? On the other hand, my most recent musical excursions don’t necessarily represent this “autobiographical” approach. The very new music for me represents the NOW and hasn’t had yet an opportunity to sink itself into memory, hasn’t attached itself to experience.  So I’ll be selective then about the current music and the vinyl and I won’t even begin to dive into the hard drive for recently downloaded material.  This project is also about rescuing the cd collection from oblivion, right?  So let us proceed.

Dali’s Car, “The Waking Hour.” For some reason, I missed the phenomenon of Peter Murphy’s Bauhaus; I discovered David Sylvian’s Japan instead, so when Japan had ceased to be a thing for a number of years and I had exhausted all the solo albums, I found Peter Murphy’s solo work, and then late, perhaps a decade after its release, I discovered this supergroup collaboration between Peter Murphy and Japan’s bass player Mick Karn, arguably the greatest bass player ever to emerge from the glam/punk/new wave movements of the late 70’s and early 80’s. It’s awesome to hear them together, but the tunes are not strong, and after the incredible work of Steve Jansen’s drumming in Japan, these dumb electronic drums and programs are really disappointing.  There are beautiful moments, though, and the bass playing alone is worth the price of admission.

Miles Davis, “Amandla.” Jazz music you can dance to.  Not a record that was spinning in heavy rotation when I first bought it, nevertheless, this evening I find it very enjoyable.  And I find myself dancing to it.  And grooving on the drums in a big way.   

Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism.” An early mid-life crisis record for me that brings back some painful memories around 9/11 and various personal catastrophes of the years that followed.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel sad listening to this record. It was 2003 and things were on the mend. I remember listening to “Trasatlanticism,” my first Death Cab record, over and over again in the car as I made my way to the offices of various therapists. Perhaps Ben Gibbard’s honesty, his comforting Kermit the Frog delivery, the psychological disequilibrium nearly always present in his lyrics were better medicine for me at that time than anything else. A beautiful, rocking, poignant record.     

The Decemberists, “Castaways and Cutouts.” I both love and hate the Decembrists.  I love them because they’re very good.  They’re interesting.  Meloy’s lyrics are literary and fun, although they’ve become on recent albums less daring, almost pedestrian, he’s still very much a writer’s lyricist. I hate them because I’m jealous of their success.  My band shared a stage with these guys in the late 90’s somewhere on a weeknight on a tiny stage playing for next to nobody.  A few years later they would be giants locally and on their way to stardom.  They worked really hard, though, and because they’re very good, their success is deserved.  I have everything they’ve done, I think, so my love for them overshadows my hatred. That’s a good thing.  Hey, let’s begin a record with a lyric in the point of view of a dead baby! That’s bold. This record, not as refined sonically as what would follow, is nevertheless bold and great.     

Deerhoof, “Friend Opportunity.” My first and still my favorite Deerhoof album. These guys are nuts. There’s no other way to describe them. Lead vocals by Satomi Matsuzaki are strange, surreal, nonsensical, and cute (in an adorable way, not precious), even if she’s singing about complete weirdness, which is usually the case. The guitars are noisy, angular, poly, and the drummer is nuts, so nuts, at times I think he’s one of the greatest drummers in rock and at other times I’m not sure if he knows what he’s doing. He never does the obvious thing. I wish my drumming was more like this. This album, for me, successfully marries a perfect balance between experimental music and great pop. I fear my descriptions are inadequate.  Here’s a video for the opening track:

   

Destroyer, “Poison Season.” Time for vinyl.  Destroyer, Dan Bejar’s solo venture, a singer-songwriter with a band name, is a recent discovery of mine. I first heard this guy on the first album I bought by the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers and four or five years ago now I picked up my first Destroyer album. I’ve downloaded or purchased on vinyl everything I have from this guy, but I couldn’t ignore it for this project as I might ignore some of the other music in the alphabet that appears in my collection only on vinyl. Destroyer’s kind of impossible to ignore. One of the most unique male singers, stylistically speaking, in recent memory. His voice is super distinctive, strange, imprecise, nasally, a bit whiny at times but always engaging, poetic, rhythmically unpredictable. And his lyrics. “Oh shit, here comes the sun.” My new favorite line.  Think Al Stewart meets Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits on helium.  That’s terrible.  I can’t describe it.  Like a lot of things I really love, it’s weirdness is central while it is inescapably memorable, hummable, melodic, and super well-crafted. It’s an album I’ve only had for a few weeks now and I’m listening to it over and over.

Devo, “New Traditionalists.” This record: because it was the first concert my wife and I, barely out of high school, saw together and it was this particular tour with the conveyer belts and the fake hair and I remember we were in the balcony of The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (then The Paramount) and it was shaking and we thought we might not get home alive.  Great concert. A few great songs, but really, for me, this is the first Devo album that was not great all the way through.   

Devo, “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo.” I had to go back to the beginning with this band.  I first heard/saw Devo on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and I didn’t know what I was seeing.  I was 14. It was, for me at the time, the strangest thing I had ever witnessed in pop music.  Their cover of “Satisfaction” is for my money the best cover rendition of any song ever.  That drum pattern, over and over again through verse and chorus with only a simple 16th note snare fill here and there, changed my life. Hey, where’s two and four? Fuck two and four. And lets wear yellow jump suits and pretend we’re machines. They rocked. Every tune on this record bizarre and beautiful. And that album art. Are we not men? We are Devo indeed. And as I reflect on my first reaction to this music, I’m fascinated by the fact that at first it repelled me. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand that this was something musicians could do. It seemed to break all the rules of the known universe. Same with my first Talking Heads record, “Fear of Music.” I took it back for a refund! It later became for me, as this record from Devo did, one of the most important records of my youth. Some of us are intrigued by what we don’t get–and we go back for more eventually. There’s a disposition for you. It explains a lot.

Neil Diamond, “His 12 Greatest Hits.” Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies. It’s Neil Diamond time. What a hoot. Great, complex, lovely songs. Another album I didn’t have as a kid, but these tunes, all of them, etched on my little radio head.  It’s strange. Many of these tunes I can sing along to from memory still. But these lyrics. Pretentious or dumb or both, completely at one with the era, blatantly sexist sometimes, especially in “Cracklin’ Rosie,” they seem downright funny to me now. But I can hear The Monkees in almost every one of these songs.  They were meant for each other. Was “I’m a Believer” never a hit for Neil? I don’t remember hearing it the first time until The Monkees did it.

Ani Difranco, “Dilate.” I admire much about Ani Difranco: her courage, her guitar playing, her distinctive voice, her feminism, her righteousness, but I cannot really say that I dig her music all that much.  I love all the various ways she can sing “fuck you” in that opening track, perhaps the best song on the album, but after that, all the songs sound the same and her delivery is often way more over the top than it needs to be and I just get tired.  60 minutes. Not necessary.

Thomas Dolby, “The Flat Earth.” The first Dolby album, featuring the iconic new wave of “One of Our Submarines” and “Blinded Me With Science,” was a big hit with me, but this record, perhaps the first monumentally influential record of my post-high school life, was a game changer. The songs were so good, the arrangements were a huge leap forward in sophistication from “The Golden Age of Wireless” and perhaps from any other new wave music of its era, and the lyrics were so literary and smart, I spun this record again and again. Maybe the first new wave record worthy of study–for songwriters, engineers, lyricists, singers, and synthesizer wonks. Dolby seemed to have found the perfect hybrid between the machine and the man–so much sonic information from synthesizers and drum machines but with a warmth and soul you’d expect from, say, a 70’s era Elton John record.  Every song on what was once side one of the LP, “Dissident,” “Flat Earth,” and “Screen Kiss,” as I listen to the album tonight for perhaps the hundredth time over the 30+ years since I bought it, is equally fresh, as emotionally poignant, as inspiring as it ever was.  Only five albums of new pop tunes released in three decades, Thomas Dolby takes his time with his music.  The rewards have always been worth the wait.  His most recent record, “A Map of  the Floating City,” is every bit as vital and interesting as “Flat Earth,” if not more so. I remain a huge fan.

The Doors, “The Best of the Doors.” One of my elder siblings had a Doors record or two when I was a wee lad.  I remember distinctly “Morrison Hotel” in the collection. As a kid, they didn’t really float my boat: too sober, too much rock for my childhood bubblegum palate–but as a young adult they fascinated me, and without having any particular affinity for any one Doors album but having all of the hits in my consciousness as a child growing up with the radio, this anthology of the greatest hits was a good bet. The mystique of this band was half the draw: the strangeness of Jim Morrison, the unhinged quality of his work and his life, those crazy words, that Oliver Stone film in the early 90’s with Val Kilmer, the incorporation of many of these tunes in all of those Vietnam War films that came out of the 80’s–somehow I just figured The Doors had to be a part of the collection.  And then I realized that I really liked them.  They were a good band, an original American thing, experimental, odd. Tonight I listen to the whole collection, all 19 songs, an hour and a half of glorious psychedelia.

Mike Doughty, “Golden Delicious.”  Goddamn, I miss Soul Coughing. I know Doughty hates them and his history with them, but I haven’t finished reading his “Book of Drugs” and I don’t understand why he left the band and half suspect he’s a bit kooky.  That’s not fair, I know.  But I have heard stories that the guy won’t even sign a Soul Coughing record for a fan and I think that’s just stupid. There’s groovy stuff on his solo records, but this one, my favorite of the two I have, is glitchy, it skips, and the best song on the record, “I Wrote A Song About Your Car,”  is unplayable.  Go figure.

Mon Dieu!  Sacre Bleu!  I am through the D section! I started this project in February of this year and it’s taken me seven months to get through 4 letters of the alphabet.  Not bad, actually.  I find that each time I finish one of these entries I feel the internal nudge to continue.  It’s a project that interests me. I realize, though, as I look at my blog entry stats comparatively, that I may be alone.  This may be a thing I am doing entirely for myself.  I accept that.  “You are writing primarily to please yourself,” says William Zinsser. In most cases, but in this case in particular, I know this is true for me.

2 Comments

Filed under Music

#182: Child’s Play

minecraft-cover

My boy has taken to video recording
his game play and adding
commentary over the top.  He’s
seen this on you tube.  Some of
his heroes are dudes who video-
tape themselves playing video
games, who have become
celebrities of sorts; thousands of
viewers can’t get enough of dudes
playing video games filming them-
selves playing video games.

I want to be dismissive of this
kind of entertainment.  I want
to say it’s total bullshit. And yet,
when I hear my boy by himself
in the other room, playing,
commenting on the proceedings
to an imaginary audience with
whom he seems to have a
tremendous rapport, attempting
to capture it all on the iPad
pointing at and recording
the action on the screen, I think, yes.

What did I do as a kid?
I watched Star Trek and then
I pretended I was Captain Kirk
and my stuffed animals were
my crew and my less favored
stuffed animals were bad aliens.
We fought each other in
the hallway. There was dialogue.
There were sound effects.
There was that Star Trek
fight music. I was always
victorious and my legions
of imaginary fans kept coming back
for more. Ultimately, it’s the
same damn thing, isn’t it? Except
I didn’t have a camera on a
stupid smart device.
If I did, you can be sure
I would have captured
every single moment.
And either I am trying to
rationalize my son’s screen
time or I am realizing that,
though the medium is different,
the two activities are
essentially the same,
equally creative, valuable
beyond compare in the endeavor
of every child to become
the person they want to become,
a captain of the Starship Enterprise
or a video game genius with
throngs of adoring viewers.
Who’s to say which of these
pasttimes would have the
greater real-life application?
I could probably say, but for now,
I hesitate.

2 Comments

Filed under Parenting, Poetry

#181: I Am From Jarmers

oak tree wisdom

On the very first days with my sophomores in the new school year, I asked them to write some goals for themselves, things they wanted to learn or accomplish in the new year in English Language Arts. I gave them the spiel that often goals are stupid things because we allow them to slip away or think of all kinds of excuses to put them off, especially if those goals are only in our heads.  It’s one thing to “think” a goal, it’s another thing, a better thing, to write it down, and it’s still a better thing to say it out loud to someone who might be able to hold you accountable or give you encouragement and help. And I also try to avoid asking students to do things that I would not be willing to do myself.  So, I wrote my own goal for the year–and because it’s personal, therefore meaningful, it won’t work for one of the goals I set for my administrators (go figure)–but in the effort to make it stick, I shared it with my sophomores. My goal this year is to write more often with my students.

We began with a poem by George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From,” which has been used I think a gazillion times by teachers as a model for student writing about their origins, literal and figurative origins. We read the poem, observed its various moves and strategies, and then wrote our own.  Mine turned out nicely, I think.  But check out the original, too, by Lyon.  It’s better.

I Am From Jarmers

I am from the Oak,
the giant Oak in my yard
that’s stood there for decades,
maybe centuries.

I am from stuffed animals
piled up on the bed.
I am from Star Trek and
I Dream of Jeanie.

I am from an above ground
swimming pool,
long summer days in
the heat, in and out
of the water 10 or 15
times every day.  

I am from babysitters
covered in tanning oil.
I am from Risley Park
where a gigantic teepee
used to stand, gone now
for twenty years.

I am from camping in the woods
and at the beach  
and from a Father who loved
the outdoors
and a Mother who loved
almost everything and every one.

I am from alcohol.

I am from Jarmers.  

I am from Catholicism,
the quiet, the ritual,
the family car ride
every Sunday to Mass.
I am from the fear
of Satan and wonder
at my brother the born-again.

I am from music of the last half
of the twentieth century;
I am from punk and new wave.

I am from the drums,
from blistered hands and
sizzling cymbals and
punctured bass drum heads.
I am from ringing ears.

I am from the middle class.
I am from dumb luck
and Rex Putnam High School
and Clackamas Community College
and Lewis and Clark College
and Warren Wilson College,
all these places making me human,
giving me a life to live.  

3 Comments

Filed under Poetry, Teaching

#180: Another “Workable” Solution

class-size

It turns out that the brave colleague
who volunteered to teach five preparations
in order to relieve another colleague of a student
load of 217 did not, after all, have to take on
five preparations. Instead, two of her small
classes were swapped straight across
with two of the other teacher’s giant classes.
These moves in the schedule
gave both teachers a new preparation
on the last teacher work day before
students arrived on campus and
decreased the student load of the teacher
burdened with 217 all the way down to
something like 197! –but only if this teacher
agreed to take on a third preparation up from
the two he started with. And when students
started shifting, as they are wont to do
at the beginning of a school year,
students continued to be added to his
197, bringing his student load back above
the 200 student mark again.

I don’t understand the math.
I don’t have a head for this thing they call
the master schedule. I’m glad to see a teacher’s
load reduced, but I wonder how much better
the number 200 plus is from the number 217.
It’s 17 plus or minus better, sure, but is it any more possible
to teach 200 plus or minus kids to write than it is 217?
And I’m curious about how my other
colleague will do with a large class of kids
who are already extremely disadvantaged
like most of the particular kids taking this
particular course for which she swapped out
her freshmen.

And I think about my own situation,
considerably more humane, but it’s like
splitting hairs in the end. I faced today
a group of 36 students on the first day of
a college credit course called Writing 121.
I faced another group of 36 10th graders
and gave them watercolors. My total number
of students clocks in at about 174 kids.
4 of my 6 classes award college credit.
For all of my classes I must and am sincerely
willing to heed the clarion call of equity and
rigor for all, high expectations and all that.
But there is a disconnect as
wide as the Pacific and as deep as the
Atlantic, an embarrassing little hiccup
in the system between what we purpose to do,
what we are charged to do, and what is actually
possible in a world where a single teacher
is asked to effectively teach (and know well)
anywhere from 174 to 217 teenagers at one time.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

#179: A “Workable” Solution

Today the English Department
got together to figure out how
to relieve a colleague of a student load of

217.

That’s all I really have to say.
The fact alone is enough.
One of our colleagues
was assigned 217 students.

The obvious solution,
hiring another teacher,
is apparently out of the question.

A school is given so many
positions of full time employment
and it is what it is and for the most part
cannot be changed.

It might be of interest to reveal
how we “solved” the problem:
One heroic individual volunteered
to teach five preparations.

This was a “workable” solution.

2 Comments

Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching