Category Archives: Culture

Melt The Guns

For those of you who have been following my project of listening to my music collection from A to Z and writing reflections on each album: no, I am not jumping ahead from D to X.  Instead, inspired by a friend of mine posting this tune in Facebook on the day we learned of yet another  school shooting, this one in my own backyard, so to speak, I felt compelled to post it here–not just the audio, but these lyrics, penned by Andy Partridge of the great XTC (an English pop band) in 1982.  Nineteen-eighty-fucking-two.  It only takes a quick google search to learn that school shootings in the United States did not originate in the late 20th century and into the 21st. We have a long history of them going back all the way to the 18th century. However, I think it’s safe to say that none of these shootings were of the magnitude and the devastation of the ones that we’re now seeing in our time. In 1982 Andy Partridge could not have imagined the depths to which his brethren across the big pond would sink in their efforts to hold on to their personal arsenals despite one devastating loss after another devastating loss. And yet, here’s this tune, so spot-on, so embarrassingly true.

Please read along while you listen.  Neither the audio or the lyric are reproduced here by permission. I’m hoping, that if he ever finds out, Andy Partridge will forgive me.

Melt The Guns

Programmes of violence
As entertainment,
Brings the disease into your room.
We know the germ
Which is man-made in metal
Is really a key to your own tomb.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

Children will want them,
Mothers supply them,
As long as your killers are heroes.
And all the media
Will fiddle while rome burns,
Acting like modern-time neros.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

I’m speaking to the justice league of america.
The u s of a,
Hey you,
Yes you in particular!
When it comes to the judgement day and you’re standing at the gates with your weaponry,
You dare go down on one knee,
Clasp your hands in prayer and start quoting me,
‘cos we say…
Our father we’ve managed to contain the epidemic in one place, now,
Let’s hope they shoot themselves instead of others,
Help to civilize the race now.
We’ve trapped the cause of the plague,
In the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If you listen quietly you can hear them shooting from grave to grave.
You ought to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

“Melt The Guns” is track #7 on the album English Settlement by XTC. It was written by Partridge, Andy.

Lyrically, this song is not perfect–not very many rock tunes are.  There are places in this lyric that confuse me and bits of it that don’t seem quite right, philosophically. But what I most admire about this indictment is the attention it calls to the way in which guns have been embraced by American culture to the degree that our society lacks all imagination for any other vision. It is a madness so pervasive that we do absolutely nothing after grade schoolers are gunned down in Newtown. I also appreciate the song’s bridge where Partridge points the finger directly at the United States! And in this fascinating move (if I understand it correctly) Andy points the finger right back at the U.K.   –as if somehow England left us not only with our independence, but with our guns and our second amendment–an abused and misused and misunderstood little piece of the constitution if ever there was one.

I have very little to add to this conversation.  It’s all been said so well and so eloquently by countless others.  It’s more personal because I work in a school and because I have a child in school–along with millions of others who must also be tired of this new terror and sick to death that our politicians do nothing about it. It seems to me that any politician who takes money from a gun lobby should be ineligible for office. Vote these fuckers out, please.

I’m way anti-gun.  I’m in favor of strict gun-control. I will never have a gun in my household. I have mixed feelings even about my son’s nerf gun arsenal. No, actually, the feelings aren’t mixed.  I feel bad. But I understand that it’s not just about guns; it’s about a lot of other things too. I’ve read so many articles over the last couple of days about this subject (I should probably stop), that I have difficulty remembering all the sources, but this piece by Mark Manson stands out, not only because he calls attention to much of what we don’t understand about the issue and its causes and effects, but because his conclusion comes down to a level where every individual has some agency and control–and that is about the way we care for one another, the way we are in our communities, the way we love and the way we listen. Empathy. He’s right.  I think about the way I could help. I think about the way I could take better care of my students. And then I remember that I have 178 of them. I have classes of 36 kids in the same room at the same time. One of my principal charges as an educator, a core-value of mine, to KNOW my students, is next to impossible in these conditions. It is the nature of the beast that the students I most need to help are suffering in silence and I will never know it.

Andy Partridge of XTC was correct, too, decades before it would be up in our faces like it is today, but he only described part of the problem, albeit a huge part of the problem.

Do we want to live in a less violent society? Do we want teachers and students to work and learn without constant fear? Do we want to feel and actually be safe in public places, in movie theaters, concert halls, malls, fares and markets? Do we want automatic weapons and assault rifles out of the hands of any civilian, no matter how upstanding, no matter how law-abiding, because we understand that these kinds of weapons have only one real purpose? If we can keep our cities and planes safe from terrorists abroad for 15 years running, can we not do something to keep our citizens safe from the terrorism of gun violence at home? We must act as if these things are not only possible, but absolutely non-negotiable. The eternal optimist: I think it can be done.

I’m out of things to say for now. Here’s some material to consider:

Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-simple-truth-about-gun-control

Need “ammunition” for an argument against the pro-gun crazies? Look here.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/4-pro-gun-arguments-were-sick-of-hearing-20151001

And then there’s this from The Onion, which strikes me as not even a piece of satire, but an honest statement about our insane belief that we are helpless against terror: http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-prevent-says-only-nation-where-regularly-ha-51444

And we’ll leave it at this:

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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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.

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#177: Trigger Warning

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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.

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A Talk at the 2015 Rex Putnam High School Graduation Ceremony

Class of 2015: Good morning!

Many of you have seen a music video on youtube in which a young man wearing a yellow suit, a blue bow tie, and beige converse high tops, bounces up and down, gestures maniacally, and moves rhythmically in a way that sort of resembles “dancing;” his eye make-up is sweating off, and he’s lip syncing to a song he wrote about a “blue refrigerator.” Have you seen this thing? Okay, well, I have a confession to make. That guy was me. I know. I was that guy.

It was 1987, I was probably not more than three years older than you are now, having dropped out of college because my parents had not anticipated me wanting to go and had run out of money, and having recently tied the proverbial knot with my high school sweetheart, I thought for sure, with all of my soul, that I was going to be a rock and roll star, that I would make my living making weird rock music about kitchen appliances and I would only have to work at 7-11 until I signed the multi-album record contract.

This is just to say that when I was your age I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That’s not entirely true. How about this: I didn’t know where I was going. I would not have been able to tell you that by some fluke of super dumb luck, I would be able to finish my English degree and continue on for a Masters in Teaching at a swanky private school, tuition free. I would not have predicted, in my wildest dreams, even after I decided that teaching might be a thing, that first of all, it would be a profession that I would love, and that secondly, I would end up spending an entire career back where I had started—at my alma mater—at Rex Putnam High School. You think 4 years is a long time? Try 31.

To start with, if my job tonight is to impart some kind of wisdom to you good people about your future, here’s the first part:

You have no idea. You have no idea.

Looking back I think that I should have been absolutely terrified. To be 21, married, working at a convenient store: terrifying. But I wasn’t terrified. And neither should you be. Maybe you’re as clueless now as I was then, or maybe you have some notion, some direction, or maybe some of you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but I’m telling you, you will go mostly blind into the future, and the challenge is to be prepared for all kinds of surprises, to be okay with that, to revel in the uncertainty of it, the ambiguity of it all, the mystery, the adventure, and, as Rilke advised us, to “learn to love the questions themselves.”

I’m having a déjà vu moment here. In 1983 I spoke at my high school graduation. I was Grant Luecke, a less impressive Grant Luecke(1).  I only remember one thing I said. I concluded with some family story about my dad taking me to the oyster beds at Hood’s Canal and rewarding me with a drink of his beer if I could swallow a raw oyster from the shell. And the whole point of that little anecdote was to say to my classmates that the world was their oyster and that they should eat it raw.

What a dumb thing to say.

I mean yeah, okay, we’ve all heard the cliché, yes, that the world is our oyster, but no, it’s really not. It is not a thing to be swallowed or eaten or conquered—it owes us nothing—and we have no right to demand that it fulfills all of our wishes. So one of the reasons I am so honored and thankful to the class of 2015 for inviting me to speak at your graduation, is I finally get to revise the speech I gave 32 years ago. And to deliver it in a better venue. In my day, we held the graduation ceremony in the gym at Rex Putnam. That’s right.

So, how would I revise that “world is your oyster” piece of non-wisdom nonsense?

I guess I would advise against the notion that your job from here on out is to go out and “get,” but rather, your job is to go out and “be,” to go out and “live,” to go out and “connect” meaningfully, respectfully and joyfully with people and the world, and to find a sense of authenticity, to be authentic.

Live your own life, not someone else’s. Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your stupid smart devices and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself. Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology. Don’t be a tool. There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts. Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

Notice I haven’t said anything in my revision of the oyster advice about writing a great essay or analyzing text or reading great literature. Don’t get me wrong, here. It’s not that I don’t think these things are monumentally important—but they are not the end—they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it–the true purpose of the last 13 years of your school experience: Learning to befriend your mind, learning to use your mind well will help you create a more peaceful world, will make you more empathetic and less selfish, will help you make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own passions, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you. As far as your future goes: treat your life as if it were a work of art and a gift to the world. Try to make it beautiful. And as Frederick Buechner has said, try to find “a place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Surprisingly, as clueless as I was in 1987, I was attempting to say some of these things in that silly video for an otherwise pretty good song. Find yourself a blue refrigerator, people. It will keep things cool.

With love, deep appreciation and gratitude for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2015.

 

(1) Grant Luecke was the student speaker at this graduation ceremony.

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#157: A Spectacular Cat Gif

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Pretend, for a moment, this poem
is a spectacular cat gif, and you like it.
You like it very much. You like
your liking it, and you share or reblog,
perhaps you’ll even tweet, instagram, or vine;
you’ll repost in every imaginable
format and your friends will follow
and follow, like and like,
to the extent that this
spectacular cat gif, which is not
really a spectacular cat gif,
but a poem, will go
absofuckinglutely viral. This will
all be very good for me and my cat,
who co-writes most of my poetry,
as we will instantly be known
as the greatest (in this moment)
producers of poems disguised
as spectacular cat gifs
on the entire world wide web.
Some will say that we have
broken the internet and that
will also be good for me and my cat.
It has been our design all along.
Finally, we will have our dominion
over the very short attention spans
of internet users far and wide
and our poems disguised as
spectacular cat gifs will become
the stuff of legend for as long
as it takes to view a single cycle of this
spectacular gif.

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume II, Letter B

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Herein you’ll find volume two of a written record of the experience of attempting to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist represented in my collection. I think I’m crazy and I don’t know how long I can maintain or persist in this folly. I managed in two weeks and about 3,000 words to get through the A section. The B section, as I have said, proves a daunting task to say the least, as, for some reason, I have acquired an uncharacteristically vast collection of music produced by bands or artists whose names begin with the letter B, many of which have provided me with the most important music of my life. So, here’s a start, but no conclusion, to the second musical letter in the alphabet.

Burt Bacharach, “The Best Of Burt Bacharach, 20th Century Masters.” I think these tunes are permanently etched on the consciousness of any American human being that was listening to music in the 60s and early 70s. This particular record, though, is a collection of original Bacharach recordings of these classic tunes, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” et al, and not the ones popularized and made into megahits by a half a dozen different artists covering his tunes in later years. No matter. These are mostly instrumental versions of these tunes, but they still give off that same vibe, that same irresistible and almost indescribable Bacharach thing, a thing I wouldn’t fully appreciate until his collaboration with Elvis Costello in the 90’s, which, btw, totally blew my mind, and came to me during a period of intense inner work and transformation, some toward the good, some not so much toward the good. If Bacharach is anything, he’s bittersweet.

The Bad Plus, “Give.” Hey, it’s a jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) that plays like a rock band and occasionally, at least once on every album, does some whacked out cover tune of a grunge classic, a disco tune, or a hard rock anthem. As silly as that sounds, over the last decade or so I have found these guys kind of irresistible. This record may have been my first acquisition of The Bad Plus. They do rock like no other jazz trio has, I think. And it is indeed jazz and not fusion, it seems to me. Why do I say that? Here’s an attempt: There’s upright bass, almost always. The piano is doing things that jazz piano players do. But the drums? This drummer, Dave King, is nuts, out of control, is no jazz drummer, mind blowingly good and wildly eccentric. He rocks the jazz, rather than fuses the rock and the jazz, which, I think, is what the fusion is supposed to do. I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, but neither often does The Bad Plus. P.S. The covers on this record of The Pixies’ “Velouria,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” will both melt your face off, as they did mine.

Barenaked Ladies, “Born on a Pirate Ship.” A kind of guilty pleasure, I have to admit, because I have always found these guys infinitely charming, smart, talented, all of that, but I have not ever taken them seriously in the way that I have other bands doing a similar kind of thing stylistically. They’re too clean cut, too earnest, not edgy enough, but simultaneously, super engaging. This record is, perhaps, more adventurous than most of what would follow. I would stop listening altogether after the “Stunt” record. I think I have one of my student teachers to thank for turning me on to these guys in the late nineties. This young woman, like this band, had goodness written all over her. And sincerity. It’s a rare quality and enviable in people and in bands, especially when they are successful.

The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds.” This is a different kind of guilty pleasure: guilty, because I didn’t encounter this record as a fully blown album until I was an adult, even though these tunes, a few of them huge radio hits, surrounded my childhood. Given my older sister’s propensity for great pop music, and through her my first and lasting encounter with the “Sgt. Pepper” album, for which “Pet Sounds” was a likely inspiration, I’m surprised this album was not in her collection. Listening to the mono version, because, apparently, that’s what you do, I’m thinking, yeah, this is clearly a beautiful, inspired record (it ain’t no surf music), but ain’t no “Sgt. Pepper” either.

The Bears, “Self-Titled.” From 1987, the first disc in the collection that is a pirated copy of somebody else’s album. I don’t have too many of these, surprisingly. When we were kids we copied records from everyone and their dog onto our cassette recorders, and for some reason, when the collection turned toward digital, I insisted on buying most every one of my acquisitions. I’m spinning this thing—and as cool as it is—I remember none of it; I might be listening to the record for the first time, which goes to show, it seems to me, that we value the things (especially art things), that we pay for! This is really great pop music from a band that features one of the most inventive guitar players in rock, Adrian Belew. In this regard, perhaps, he has the honor of showing up twice in my collection under the same place in the alphabet. I’ve got all kinds of Adrian Belew. And here’s this thing I’ve never heard, or at least don’t remember that I’ve heard—what a nice surprise.

The Beatles. How do you decide, when you’ve got the whole catalogue in your collection, which record to spin from The Beatles? There’s a part of me that wants to spin every single one in chronological order because they’re all that good and they’re all that important. I realize, if I did that, the B section of my music library would go on forever. Should I listen to the one that had the most personal impact on me, or should I listen to one equally loved but late discovered? Should I ask facebook friends for help? Okay, did that. We’ll see what happens: Early on it’s a facebook tie between “The White Album” and “Abbey Road.” But for now, if I had to pick just one damn album by The Beatles, I would have to choose the one that was my first, the one that had the most early influence on my musical brain, the one that I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor spinning over and over again on her little portable suitcase turntable, the first album for which I committed to memory every single little word and to this day still remember. It has to be The Beatles, “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It turns out, though, that I could not stop at just one. There may be only a handful of groups or artists in my entire collection of which I will not be able to choose just one; The Beatles are the first. So I also spin “The White Album” and “Revolver,” in that order.

Beck, “Midnite Vultures.” I’ve got to say, I loved the 90’s. It was a transformative decade for me, a time of enormous growth, youthful energy coupled with the benefits of an adulthood on an upward and forward trajectory in almost every sense. I established myself in a profession, I earned an MFA in creative writing, I finished my first novel, and I discovered a meditative practice, and all the while I was rocking harder than I ever had. This Beck record comes as maybe one of the last and maybe most  important records of the decade, 1999. It’s brilliant, fun, absurd, absolutely infectious, groovy and geeky, all at once. Nicotine and Gravy. Debra, I want to get with ya, and your sister. Oh baby. And I just have to say right here in this space how proud I am of Beck for winning a Grammy this year, and in his modesty and humility and good humor, without even trying, for making Kanye West look like a tool.

The Bee Gees, “Greatest Hits.” In 1979 it became the fashion to hate disco and everything associated with it, so I was dismissive about the Bee Gees of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomena and pretty much failed to make the connection between those tunes and the earlier hits, in particular, “Nights On Broadway” and “Jive Talking,” which to me tonight, sound absolutely and totally hip. Rocking. Got the whole family dancing for a few minutes. This is a two-disc collection of almost 40 tunes. I can’t quite make myself spin the second disc—not at all because I couldn’t stomach those disco era tunes, but because there are so many B’s and a limited amount of time. “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby.” There’s a good line. Perhaps, this music, more than any other music of this era, has my puberty written all over it. Ick. That didn’t sound right.

Beirut, “The Flying Club Cup.” It’s the 21st century and a lot of pop music is beginning to sound like it was made a long time ago. This American band almost defies description. Are they a big band? A marching band? It’s worldy (new word alert), but from which part of the world? France? South America? New Orleans? I don’t have a good enough handle on these things to make a firm determination. What I do know is that it’s at once fresh and classic sounding, familiar and strange. But the bottom line is that there are stellar performances here and good tunes, strong lyrics, inventive and sophisticated, beautiful singing. And horns. And accordions. What sounds like a percussion section as opposed to a drum set player.

Adrian Belew, “Mr. Music Head.” Bringing the 80’s to a close, here’s a whacky record from a whacky guitarist for a whacky 20 something pop music fan with a serious progressive leaning. I think I first discovered Adrian Belew’s madcap guitar and vocal work on King Crimson’s classic “Discipline” album and I was hooked. This, his fourth solo album, more pop than progressive, is sometimes silly, irreverent, and sentimental. It’s still cool. Great record for painting—which is the thing I was doing while I listened today.

As I continued to paint a wall in the basement, I took the opportunity to spin a couple more B records, but because I was painting, unable to take any notes, I listened to these two back to back and can only say a few things about both: Belly, “Star.” It’s 1993 and Tanya Donnely from Throwing Muses forms a new band, a rocking thing standing out in the early days of grunge as being particularly upbeat, melodic, and delicious.  A few tunes really hum along and I remember liking them, and continue liking them as I’m listening and painting, even though before putting this record on I would not have been able to sing you a single line even if I had a gun to my head.  A good record I totally forgot about–so how good could it be, right? Well. . .  And then comes Dan Bern, “Self-Titled,” from 1997.  Another anti-grunge record, this thing is full-on folk, guy with acoustic guitar, a Bob Dylan with a sense of humor.  And I’m not kidding about the Dylan thing–this guy sings almost like he’s doing an impersonation of Bob.  I respect Dylan, but was never a fan.  I bought this Dan Bern record, I remember, because the guy was political and he made me laugh.  Not a whole lot of staying power in my musical consciousness, though, but again, good painting music.

The Bird and the Bee, “Self-Titled.” From 2007, this record has the distinction of being the first pop album our young son, Emerson, really took a shine to, and at two years old, his first favorite record with a parental advisory sticker, the first record to which I remember him actually singing along. The duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin created this sweet and hook-laden mash-up between electronica and melody driven pop—and it’s a beauty. Clever, inventive, difficult to forget, expertly performed and recorded—with some curse words thrown in. And I discover on this evening another gift of proceeding with this mad task of listening to all of these neglected cd’s languishing on shelves.  On a few occasions, especially if there’s a piece of information I need, like the date the record came out because the liner notes on the cd package are too damn small to read, I’ll do a little webby research to find out some stuff.  On this occasion, I discover that Greg Kurstin was in another one of my favorite 90’s bands, Geggy Tah, and things click for me that hadn’t clicked before!

Bjork, “Selmasongs.” The Icelandic mid-to-late-eighties band The Sugarcubes was a revelation to me.  On principal, I’ve followed Bjork’s musical solo career ever since.  It’s been a rough ride.  She’s a true genius, I think, and I admire her adventurous and experimental spirit.  It’s hit and miss, though, and I was disappointed in the sterile production and overuse of machines in her first two solo records after being so totally spoiled by the incredibly rocking skill of the drummer and the rest of the musicians from The Sugarcubes.  This record, however, the soundtrack to the terribly bleak film in which Bjork had the starring role, “Dancer In The Dark,” is tremendously powerful and frightening and beautiful.  I pulled this one out because I think it is my favorite Bjork record. It was a heart breaking film.  The music, too, is painful, but it’s difficult to listen to Bjork’s singing and unconventional arrangements without smiling, without feeling a little hopeful.

I realize, have realized for some time, even though I’ve been railing against the conclusion, that I cannot finish the B section of the music collection in one blog post.  So, knowing that I still have 19 more B artists to cover, I conclude tonight by listening to one more compact disc, the first album I bought by the Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian, the 2003 release, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” I feel kind of like a DJ.  I wish there was a way, a quick way, say, through telepathic communication, while my readers were reading this, to project album cover art and clips from songs and me doing funny dances interspersed amongst all these words, to truly make this a multimedia experience. Sorry. I didn’t do any of that. I’m going to shut up and listen to this record.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you about it.  Here goes:  I’ve been following Belle and Sebastian ever since I bought this record, but this first track, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is still my absolutely favorite song ever by this band.  The subject matter is serious, delivered from the point of view of the bad guy, an office manager who is sexually harassing his female employees, but the tune itself is a romp, dramatic, cinematic, full of these lovely tempo changes and wonderful musical surprises, something this band doesn’t do very often. And after “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” the record evens out and becomes significantly less adventurous, but still a lovely listening experience.  “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a cuckoo.”  Indeed.  Good night.  Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead. Wish me luck on finishing up with the B’s.  Do you think, dear reader, that we will ever, in a thousand years, reach the letter Z?

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Filed under Culture, Music, Self Reflection

Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume I, Letter A

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I have often thought of my record collection, now mostly a compact disc collection, supplemented by the occasional download and maybe 100 vinyl LPs, as a kind of musical autobiography. Listening to records for me has always had the same kind of effect as looking through a photo album, or reading old journal entries. The music contains vivid imagery and memories of nearly my entire existence so far on this planet. Only in my earliest years, up through about the 2nd or 3rd grade, are my memories not infused with music. Even then I know, and I bet I’ll discover more explicitly, I was surrounded by the music of my older siblings. At any rate, by now, 50 years young, I have amassed quite a collection, most of which gets listened to on very rare occasions, favoring, as I do, the most recent musical acquisitions over my old favorites.  Thus, I have decided, since I now have a kind of chill listening area in the basement close to the music cd library, to jettison the iTunes mind hive for awhile and listen to at least one cd by every artist in the collection from A to Z.

So much music has been neglected. I don’t blame iTunes entirely, because, in truth, I think the iPod technology has allowed me, through the mighty powers of the shuffle, to listen to more of my music then I did before.  But so much of my collection in compact discs has not been digitized and catalogued on to the hard drive, so a lot of it is languishing on the shelves in the basement studio.  So I embark this evening on this project.  It’s ambitious.  I don’t know if I have the stomach (or the time) to finish, but that’s not stopping me. I guess I have to convince myself that there’s a good reason to keep and store all of this music–and that this music, since I have it still, must be somehow meaningful to me.  As I listen, I’ll post some thoughts about how each artist has made an impact on my life–or not.  Maybe this might be a good opportunity to conduct some late winter, early spring musical purges.

If I actually accomplish this task in the way I’ve envisioned it here, this blog post might end up somewhat book-lengthy, and no blogger on the planet in his or her right mind would submit readers to these kinds of shenanigans.  So I propose to do one letter at a time.  Even this, it seems to me, may be pushing the limit, and I may discover that each letter may need multiple entries. Oh well, here goes: Volume I, Letter A.

First up:  ABBA, “Mas Oro.”  A bit of an embarrassing first stop, this is music from my late childhood and early adolescence, heard on the radio a billion times right before I became a serious young music consumer, but influential, no doubt, with it’s indelible pop orchestrations and sweet harmonies and lyrics that could really tug at you if you let them, and as a grade-schooler, a sensitive little boy suffering perhaps from one or two of my very first experiences in “love,” I was all over it.  I only added Abba into my collection as an adult, feeling that any serious pop music collection could simply not do without it. I must have been 10 years old when I first heard these songs.

AC/DC, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It.” In the same way I discovered Cheap Trick when they opened for Kiss, I discovered AC/DC when they opened up for Cheap Trick.  I didn’t really have a concept of hard rock or metal; I mistakenly identified these Aussie rockers as a punk band. Without the staying power for me as some of my other teenage idols, this, AC/DC’s first live album, is the only record of theirs I decided to buy on compact disc to replace all the vinyl AC/DC records I lost when I sold the whole kit and caboodle in a  lust for little silver plastic things that everyone was claiming as a far superior medium in the mid 80’s.  At any rate, I love the sizzle of this record.  The energy is palpable. I was jumping up and down with glee.  I lost my hat. And I remembered, when my parents were out, thrashing about the living room with my air guitar, a Wilson tennis racket.

Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming.” It’s 1981. I’m a sophomore in high school, one of two or three kids in my entire suburban neighborhood listening to punk and new wave music. I start dating (crazy to think) the girl who would become, only five years later (also crazy to think), my wife. This may have been my first (and last) musical conquest—forcing her to listen to and appreciate all that jungle drumming, yodeling, swashbuckling, theatrical, gun-toting, new romanticizing, Native American and Mexican music appropriating Antmusic. It was “our” album that year. It’s a nutty, infectious record, uncharacteristic of 80’s production stink. I gotta say, it holds up. I don’t think Adam Ant has done anything since that is as good.

Nichole Arden, “Under the Skin.” I’m only four artists into the collection and I find a record for which I know nothing about. I didn’t buy this disc. Someone gave it to me, I’m sure, but I don’t know who and I don’t know why. I have no memories or associations with it whatsoever. It’s 2001, the year my band Here Comes Everybody was on the “Astronauts” tour, and maybe we wandered into her territory and somehow came upon this record. The woman on the cover, Nichole, I assume, is lovely, ghostly, and mysterious. I like her. Let’s listen: It’s groovy folk rock, venturing into heavier territory, nicely executed, beautifully sung, smart words, strong musicianship, high production value, but pretty pedestrian, no surprises. I likely listened to it once and put it away, a photo in the photo album of people and places I don’t recognize, but good enough not to toss.

Alice in Chains, “Self Titled.” During the 1990s, I took to grunge hook, line, and sinker as the new new wave, the new punk, and I listened to “Dirt” over and over again–but I didn’t own it on cd; I made a pirate recording with my new DAT machine! I no longer have a DAT machine so I can no longer listen to “Dirt,” my favorite grunge record of all time, sadly, still not back in my collection. But I have this thing, the fourth record from the band, a record that does not figure hardly at all in my musical memory. Perhaps, I bought it too late, when I was over the nineties, onto other things. I put this baby into the player and the display immediately tells me the record clocks at 64:53. The nineties was the decade of the stupidly long record. I’m over that now, too. I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way through. Dark, dirty, minor, moody, melodic, almost medieval, groovy, but it’s no “Dirt.” The only tune that feels familiar to me is “Heaven Beside You,” an almost perfect Nirvana derivative. While it doesn’t ring very many bells, it’s undeniably good. The second band already in my collection of albums under “A” (that I know of) to have lost one of its members to drug or alcohol addiction. Presciently, the last tune on this record begins with a rendering of “Taps.”

Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes.” It’s 1991, and before grunge kicks into full throttle, we discover its antithesis and epicenter, all at once, in this brave, edgy, beautiful singer songwriter piano player. I was still twenty-something, straight out of a lefty liberal arts college education, on the cusp of my budding new career as a high school English teacher, and thinking here was the Joni Mitchell of my generation, or at least, or more appropriately, Kate Bush 2.0. While we were still renting, climbing ourselves out of poverty, making new friends, charting new territory in every conceivable way, this record rocked our world. It’s been forever since I last spun this album. The production is decidedly eighties: big reverbs, huge drums, dramatic string arrangements. This was still a daring record, and seems so still to me tonight. “Silent All These Years,” I think, is a classic, and “Me and a Gun” is still absolutely terrifying.

Laurie Anderson, “Strange Angels.” Of all my records filed under the “A” category, I have the most Laurie Anderson titles of any other artist. I think I have almost everything she has done. I discover Laurie in the late eighties, see the concert film “Home of the Brave,” and I become a true convert. She does the things that most resonate with me as an emerging adult artist and music fan. She’s arty, she’s political, she’s visual, she’s literary, she’s funny, she’s bizarre, she’s experimental. But I followed the trajectory up to this particular album as her output began to resemble more and more something like actual pop music, and I completely dug it. Even though it’s her most accessible record, it’s unapologetically far from commercial, but nevertheless, hooky, smart, toe-tapping, funny, inventive, and spooky. Before I even spun this one, I knew the opening lines by heart: “They say that heaven is like t.v., a perfect little world that doesn’t really need you.” Yeah.

Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe, “Self Titled.” When is a Yes album not a Yes album? Or: When is a Yes album filed, not at the end of the alphabet, but at the beginning? When it’s titled “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe” and is released in 1989. I am surprised how familiar this record is to me when I start to spin it. I must have listened to it a lot when it was new, for a few months at a time, maybe longer, before I filed it away for 25 years. I was newly married, newly employed, newly financially independent; I must have been feeling very progressive indeed.

Andrew Sisters, “Ultimate Legends.” This might have been a study record for my wife René as she prepared a couple of years ago to drum in the pit orchestra for a musical called The Andrew Brothers in which a trio of hapless Andrew Sister male roadies have to do the show dressed in drag when the real McCoys all get sick and can’t perform. Hilarity ensues. My parents may have listened to this music as teenagers or young adults. Dad, off to the Navy for service in WWII and then Korea, would certainly have heard this. I don’t know when I would have become aware of its existence—some music simply becomes so ubiquitously famous, one would have to be living under a rock not to hear it somewhere, some time, in some place or other.

Angel, “White Hot.” It’s 1975, and the country needs a response to Kiss, and so this band, instead of dressing up like clown-faced devils in black, dresses up as, well, angels. They’re lovely. Their music, decidedly macho, belies their feminine attire. Very confusing for an adolescent. But, from my vantage point, the musicianship and the songs were stronger than any Kiss album. But the production on “White Hot” in 1977 is almost identical to that of “Destroyer” and “Love Gun,”  the greatest Kiss albums ever. So they were the Angel yin to the Kiss yang and I loved them, saw them in concert, one of my first. Listening tonight there is much headbanging and fistpumping. A truly good, rocking, overlooked band, unfairly picked on by Frank Zappa.

Angel City, “Face To Face.” Maybe it was an Australian thing, but I mistook this hard rock outfit, in the same way I mistook AC/DC, as a punk band. Doc Neeson’s stage presence was more new wave than metal, manic, frenetic, but undeniably geeky, unlike most of the metal posers of the day. He was for a time my absolutely favorite front man and gave me tons of inspiration and material for air band performance after air band performance. Peers that didn’t know me well would remember my high school assembly antics posing as Doc Neeson more than they would remember anything else about me. The album still rocks. It’s a little pedestrian in the song department; there’s not much inventiveness here, but for Doc Neeson, in memory of Doc, and his indelible influence over my own stage persona, I would not part with it for the world.

Animal Logic, “Self-Titled.” I was heart-broken when the Police split up, but given the enigmatic and goofy Klark Kent project and the truly inspired collaboration with Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway for the Rumble Fish film, I was excited about what my favorite drummer, Stewart Copeland, might be up to next.  It’s 1989 and here we have Stewart Copeland and bass genius Stanley Clarke with a singer named Deborah Holland.  Another cd in the collection that I haven’t listened to in 25 years.  It’s immediately familiar, so much so that I can practically sing along–especially with the choruses, hooky, clever, poppy.  Stewart’s drums are louder here than they ever were on a Police record, Stanley Clarke’s bass work is phenomenal, and Deborah has kind of a Martha Davis thing going on.  The record rocks pretty hard, is full of really strong songwriting, but lacks the adventurousness that I was hoping for from Copeland.  I forgive him.  I don’t know how many rock records he drummed on after the Police; I totally lost track of him, it seems. But this is one, and it’s a good one–even though it might be another 25 years before it spins again.

Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine.” Oh my gawd.  I don’t care how eccentric or weird or how unpredictable she is as a live performer, her recordings are nothing short of marvels, every single one, and this one in particular, a masterpiece, I think.  Her lyrics are raw and honest, her vocal performances almost completely free of any kind of studio wizardry, and her bands, or the musicians that help her flesh out her records, invariably stellar and inspired.  This record is perhaps my favorite Fiona record and I might even go so far as to say that out of all the compact discs in the A section, this one might be the greatest.  There’s never a dull moment.  That 50 minutes felt like 25.  And when this record came out, my son was on the way.  He was born in November and I’m guessing that I listened to “Extraordinary Machine” through most of the pregnancy–and a lot. For some reason, though, this music  does not stir memories of these months, of these specific experiences–rather  the music stands on its own, outside time, outside my experience, as something inviolate and pure. Weird.

The Apples in Stereo, “New Magnetic Wonder.”  The most contemporary thing in my entire A section.  This record was released in 2007. What a beautiful mess. It’s undeniably some of the happiest music you’ll find in the psychedelic, lo-fi, anthemic nerdy pop, alternative rock vein.  24 tracks over a little more than 50 minutes, there’s plenty of snippets, lovely little non-sequiter instrumentals in the middle of all of this Beatle-Byrd-esqe-Robyn-Hitchcockian melodic pop. I remember listening to this record in the 16 foot Airstream in my first year with it.  It was a good soundtrack to those years when I was happier than I had been in a long, long time, and happier than I have likely been since. So it’s good to listen to it now, and a good reminder, despite this particular song’s commercial abuses, that “the world is made of energy/and the world is electricity/and the world is made of energy/and there’s a light inside of you/and there’s a light inside of me.” Amen. Maybe one of the coolest records of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The Association, “The Greatest Hits.” I was only four years old when this greatest hits compilation came out, but I don’t know how early in my life I would have been listening to it.  I guess it would depend on when my older sister Janet would have been allowing me to spin records on the little portable suitcase turntable she kept in her bedroom.  Probably later, two years, three years, no matter. It would have been before I was ten, and I would have my sister to thank for introducing me to good pop music: The Association, The Monkees, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits. She likely has no idea how much in debt I am to her for allowing me into her musical world.  “Cherish,” “Never My Love,” “Along Comes Mary,” and “Windy,” would have indelible influence over my pop instincts. There’s a lot of really goofy things on this record, however.  All of it painfully earnest and serious.  It’s funny looking at youtube videos of these guys: in between their very earnest and serious tunes, their banter was irreverent and comedic. I had no idea. But listening closely now, there are clues–in particular, “Time For Livin,'” which may have found safe haven on an XTC record. No wonder I remembered liking them enough as a child to buy the cd as an adult.

Audioslave, “Self-Titled.” The lead singer from the recently defunct Soundgarden joins forces with with the remaining members of Rage Against the  Machine. What could be better, right? Well, with this, the last compact disc in my A collection, we’ll see.  I have, before spinning this disc, absolutely no memory of this music released in 2002, maybe for good reason, and maybe having nothing to do with the quality of this band or this music.  Let’s see: As expected, impeccably performed, groove-laden, crunchy, angular, and unlike the Rage music, containing something like melody, but nothing as hooky and memorable as the last Soundgarden record.  In fact, as good as it is, for whatever reason, it is fairly unremarkable, difficult to remember, lacking any sustaining hooks and memorable moments.  I suspect that this may be as much if not more my fault as it is Audioslave’s fault.  I did not give this record the attention it deserved, perhaps, as it fell on the precipice of an enduring personal crisis that would not lift for another couple of years. But listening with new ears, remembering almost nothing from it, it seems now fairly skippable, although not without illuminating or inspiring moments.

Holy crap!  Only being able to commit a few late evenings here and there, getting through the A section of my cd library took me three weeks.  At this rate, this could go on for a very, very long time.  And I have no idea if any of this is interesting to a single soul, or if it is singularly a self indulgent exercise for an audience of one.  It was fun to do. It was somewhat revealing: in the A section alone I found a little mini-history of myself and a  microcosm of my musical tastebuds.  The B section looms large, is easily twice as musically voluminous, covers every decade of my life and then some, includes many of my most influential heroes, will be, if I can muster up the courage and the time, a grand adventure.

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February 8, 2015 · 11:00 am