The Hold Steady: Spinners

hold_steady_teeth_dreams

“It sounds like Christian rock.”

So this month’s favorite album is quickly disparaged by the middle school music critic who rides shotgun with me on my daily rounds. But what does he know? He likes hip-hop, spends inordinate amounts of time studying the violin, has no frame of reference for the great and hallowed canon of rock ‘n roll music.  But he has an ear, and the crunchy chords, the peppy beat, the anthemic sweep on the top half of Teeth Dreams reminds him of certain Sunday mornings.

It’s tasteful, it’s slick, it’s pro – and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except that The Hold Steady’s not that kind of band. And Craig Finn’s not that kind of singer. The guy from Pitchfork called it “handily the Hold Steady’s worst-sounding album.” (That’s an excellent review, by the way. It really negates the need for anyone to write anything else about this album again, ever.) He’s got a point.

I’d have dialed it in differently. But it’s still The Hold Steady, still the same beat-poet meets E-Street vibe. If you peel back the production, if you give the songs a chance to breathe, the kids come out like they always do. Emerging from chillout tents, the party pits. Hoodrats crawling up from under crumbling bridges, boys and girls wrapped in that American sadness.

Just like my experience with band itself: The Hold Steady found me once I saw through the media-molded Brooklyn-based pose, the hipster affectation, realized that they were mid-west born, great-lakes raised. Priests of the prairie, shouting out loud about this stuck-between-stations life, setting free the souls shackled to another second-string city. These are my people, I tell ya. We’ve knee-scraped the same prayers, clutched at the same cross, hail-mary’ed our last-call hopes on another shot of abandon.

“She’s two years off some prairie town, she goes out most every night, she dresses up and she spins around.”

That’s from “Spinners,” the second track on the album. It catches up with one of these kids somewhere in NYC. She’s trying it all on, figuring out how it works for Carrie Bradshaw and Lena Dunham, defiantly failing. This girl, I’ve seen her before. I’ve watched her graduate year after year, shook hands with her parents at the late-May parties. Wished her well on the internship, the indentured adventure to the big city.

I keep getting older. She stays the same.

And I’ve got a hunch I’ll be growing old with these guys too. That’ll be me on the porch with Craig Finn someday: rocking-chaired with a don’t-mind-if-I-do flask, spinning stories about the same wide-eyed kids. Over and over and over.

So then, here’s my take on the tune:

 

play here: Spinners

download link: mp3 @320

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

harold_fry

“Every summer I fight the dream of running away.”

It was a decade and a half back when I wrote that, on another sweaty night sans AC. With my old basemented band, as we scratched off another chance to win a little national exposure. Our management guy tossed us a tip about a soundtrack contest for an upcoming major motion picture.  The movie, you ask?  None other than that celebrated classic, the Ashton Kutcher vehicle Dude, Where’s My Car?

The song was “Summertime #2″ – written during our middle period, the year or so between getting the boys out of the garage and finally getting the garage out of the boys. If I remember it right, we had half a shot of getting our song in the film.  At the time the idea of running an online contest – and the magic of streaming songs over the internet – was still kinda fresh and cool. I think we came in something like twenty out of one hundred. Nowhere near the top, but it was another one of those little affirmations that made us think that we might be on to something if we just kept on truckin’.

The contest needed a one-sentence description to post along with the song. It fell off of my fingers onto the submission form: “Every summer I fight the dream of running away.” The line wasn’t from the lyrics, but it seemed to capture just the right amount of ambiguity for maximum pop-hook potential. Looking back, it’s one truth that I’ve kept tucked tight, hidden away, a constant in my ever-modulating cosmology, my fluctuations of faith. So many hopes and burdens I’ve dropped along the way, but I’ve never quite quit on my Cassady dreams of indestructible machines, my mental montage set to Springsteen. The trip never taken.

All that bites my ankles and nips my nose sooner and sooner every year. As I moved north the tease, the taste of summer breeze comes later and later, and there’s not a drop of unfrozen water to slake the thirst.  And the knees hurt more and more. And the sleep becomes more dear. And crushing the sixer looks less sexy and the sexy looks like too much work. The woo-hoo has up and gone. And now the wild’s just wilderness.

But there’s still that urge, when the mercury skips up past sixty-five, when the weather’s good enough for a ride or a walk or window-down drive. The temptation to start off, to say screw it for a stint or a season. Not forever, mind you. There are good and worthy things to be done in the here if not the now. But for a bit…  You won’t miss me.

Harold Fry, the head-down old hero of Rachel Joyce’s Oprah-approved novel never would have guessed that he needed to do the same. But then he set off to deliver a letter, on foot, to the far side of England. He journeyed from coast to coast, relived a whole life in the space of a few months – he got his legs, found his stride, and then lost it again before returning to the sea.

For once he had a reason to start walking, to see a friend before it was too late, to pay a penance, to find grace.

And here I am. I’m on that dulled edge of midlife, that place where Harold once was, his turning point between the fun-loving, dancing young man and the quieted and scared father, buckled and bent. There’s this danger that what you do here on this half-way plateau will define you for the rest of your days, that what you achieve or foul-up during these years will be stuck with you, chiseled on your tomb. Set in stone, cemented.

Unless you keep quick, unless you keep walking.

And so I do, and so I must. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. I feel my strength grow with each step, my smile stretch and my eyes flicker. Head high, arms wide. My friends, my family they cheer me on. And I find that I’m not dreaming of running way anymore, not fantasizing of flight and its flawed freedom. I’ve given it up, traded it in for a better model. A new hope stirs, one harder to hold but so much more worthy: To live a life of chasing after.

Gweilo

gweilo

A friend of mine from the last life taught me that the best way to know a new place is through spine-cracking a good book.  Not a hard-backed history or a glossed-up travel guide, but a real book.  A story.  A solid fiction to open up your reality.

Find a writer with a razoreye for detail, a pitchperfect ear. An author who can seize the great muchness of life and filter it through stinkyreal flesh, through characters of unpure invention. Hang your facts on their broken hearts, their feats and failures, and you’ll start to understand what’s really going on. Let these creations be as spirit guides, ghosts to walk beside you, all-hearing and knowing companions. Faithful friends to ride with you on vomitous busses, to usher you through uncertain cuisine, to code-break customs.

Buzzing with the maxim, I hive-minded my way to a book called Gweilo in the run-up to my first visit to Hong Kong. My new friend for the road was going to be a kid named Martin.

Gweilo, written by Martin Booth, didn’t exactly fit the original criteria: it’s a memoir, not a novel. But you can’t tell me there’s much of a difference between a youthful reminiscence and the bildungsromans that we’ve all adored as gospel truth. Close enough for me.

The plan was to read far and wide before hitting the ground. I wanted a fact-fillable framework in my mind, a matrix to be explored upon touching down. Of course, time ran out and Gweilo shifted from introduction to early-morning companion as my jet-lagged self sprung out of bed too soon too often.

Good too, because blessed synchronicity followed me and Martin on our days. I read about Christmas on The Peak on December 25th.  I traced his rough-climbed journey up to the mountain monastery on the very same morning as our scheduled outing to the Big Buddha that now levitates atop Lan Tau. (The modern pilgrimage is now assisted by subway and bus, but I’d like to go back and do it the old-fashioned way.) Seemed like everywhere I went in this fresh-built city of 7 million was an ancient place already known. Martin had told me about it.

Glad too, because his time in Hong Kong – as the son of a post-war British naval administrator – overlapped precisely with the arrival of my married-into family. This was a part of the history I wasn’t told, or if told, I didn’t understand: That Hong Kong wasn’t much of a place before then, before the revolution, before they all arrived.

Mao-swept, innumerable. Fleers and fliers, a flood of single-suitcased refugees.  A sharp and restless throng who soon haggled and bartered an imperial outpost into the first great engine of the east.

Without Martin, I wouldn’t have known the questions to ask. I wouldn’t have had eyes to catch what my elders could still see. I wouldn’t have known how to find my place, to feel the ghosts between the graves, the ossuaries of the ancestors.

And Martin, full-up with the foolish zeal of youth, rubbed off on me. He gave me courage, lent me his ambition. If this kid could dive in, I knew that I could too.

You’ve Never Been, Part 2: People Who Died

jim_carroll_grant_wentzel

I caught on to Jim Carroll right around the time he shuffled off. Not sure what made me think to give Catholic Boy a listen, but there’s a fair chance that his death had something to do with it, that some obit came into my orbit and made me curious. Maybe I streamed Leo’s Basketball Diaries first, picked up the record second. Whatever it was, “People That Died” immediately sank into my head, left a mark, and I thought “by gosh, that’s truth there, that’s what it is.”

And then I thought: You’re a fucking idiot. You don’t know anyone who’s died. I mean not really. Not your people. WWII’s people, the Great Depression’s people. But not your people. You don’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve never been to Rikers, rumbled with bikers, never scored dope down on St. Mark’s, never really been to the city at all.

Until this year. Until not one but two were lost last winter. One quick one slow, one hospital lingerer another down in one blow. Lucky me, now I know people who died.

We don’t fall as fresh and fast as Carroll’s pals. There’s no blaze of glory, no movie-making magic. It’s not so poignant, so poetic when we go down after fighting on for a few more rounds. We take our time, stiffen the upper lip and wait it out a few more years. Push it back and push on. Make it work, get a job. Find a girl, settle down. Man up and fake it a little longer.

But now I know: When Jim sings about his friends he could be singing about mine. I wasn’t wrong to think it applied. I wasn’t wrong then and now I don’t want to be right. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish I was just another fucking idiot kid nursing an adolescent bent, sniffing out the tragic cracks of life. That our wild-eyed expectations, our declarations of mad intent, were not hid in our hearts like long-bearded prophecies. But that we left our longings lie – laughable larks, follies of life-drunk delusion to be forgotten with the dawn.

That we could burn forever “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” without the fizzle-crash of cold morning smokey dissatisfaction with how it turns out. How it always turns out.

I don’t want it to be true. It take it all back. I miss you.

[…]

And I remember when you drove me home that night, another night that went so late we didn’t beat the sun. And I remember when you played me your tapes and told me to shut up and listen. And I remember when you crashed my party. And I remember when I crashed yours. And I remember the times when we forgot to sleep. And I remember the times when we laughed. And we laughed when we were good. And we laughed when we were bad. We laughed the night I saw you last.

Business called me to hustle your new town. Another swing at life, faking a fling of good fortune. Look at me! I’m a self-made man on a tie-wearing trip to your city, spreading some money around. I done good – let me prove it to ya. And you’re doing fine too.  I’m so sure of it, you’ve kicked the habit right? It’s just drinking now, right? That’s no biggie. Sure sure, that’s fine. Wait, a new dealer? How’d you manage…how do you meet these people? You’re such a crazy nut! How ’bout another round, on me!

And you drove through my town a year or so ago. To start a new life with a girl in tow. And I didn’t call you to stop you to tell you to stay. I was too sad for you to see me this way. Puffy-eyed and pasty-faced and paxil-ed out. But you were happy right? You must have been happy! We’re always happy when nailing down shiny-fresh stakes in virgin turf and dreaming of the newness to be known. How could you not have been happy?  You’re supposed to be happy, dammit. We’re all supposed to be happy. Lord Almighty, we’ve seen the light! Right? No more sorrow no more…?

The bullet and the blood and the brains on the street and the baby wailing from the womb.

The IV drips and the mad rush of life slips to a yawning end.

[…]

These are people who died. Yes,
These are people who died.
And they deserve their own song;
They deserve their own stage.
Just as true.
Every bit as real.
And don’t you fucking tell me that it’s not.

 

 

play here: my take on People Who Died

download link: mp3 @320

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

tom sawyer

Here’s a book I never thought I’d read. Not that I was against it, quite the opposite, I thought I should. Twain’s been on my short list since I visited his white-washed fences and limestone caverns a few years ago, his boyhood home being just over the Mississippi from my Dad’s place in the free-state of Illinois. I just never thought I’d get around to it.

Books, like bands and brands, get attached to certain slices of life: Narnia for the kids, Harry Potter for the ‘tweens. The epic battle between Beats and Ayn Rand for the undergraduate mind. Which is the long was of saying that I didn’t think Tom Sawyer was for me.

I thought it was for kids, maybe bigger kids at best. The sort of safely-assigned text on which a middle-schooler could practice his prose, a prompt on which to pen a theme.  (A “book report”, in the parlance of my times.) If I didn’t get around to it back then, I doubted I would now. My mistake.

In his preface, Twain states:

Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.

And that he does. Tom reminds me so much of myself, if only I had some major boyhood balls.

This kid gets into it.  He couldn’t be older than eleven or twelve, but he’s already wading waist-deep into the river of life. Sneaking out, running off, practicing tricks nicked from drunks and murderers and thieves. Bleeding and scavenging, thought twice dead but living to tell the tale. This isn’t pure fantasy either, as Twain states: “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.”

Here’s what gets me: Somehow we all grow up thinking that yesterday was a more innocent time.  That the good old days have been lost to violence and fear and decay, that Tom Sawyer had it so much better as he lay back on a summer’s night looking up at shinier stars, unobstructed by the haze of modern life.

Nah. Safety first is the motto of our times, all cushy and measles free. If we’ve lost anything, it’s not innocence but grit. Tom and Huck knew how to handle real trouble, and we need them now more than ever. We need our Soda Pops and Pony Boys, our mischievous run-a-mucks, rude boys and rock ‘n rollers. We need ring-leaders to raise up gangs of adventure, to explore new frontiers, to shepherd our sons and daughters to the wild edge and safely back again.

If Tom were here and took a look around, there’s only one thing he’d say: “I can lick you.”

And then he would. He surely would.

You’ve Never Been, Part 1: Alphabet City

rickenbacker_girls

Now it’s getting to the point where I could only listen to music released by old friends, path crossers, and fellow travelers and have a fully-loaded iPod. With more than enough quality and variety to fit any occasion.

The latest addition to that list is the solo record by Todd May. Todd’s a guy that I spent a few good hours with back in Columbus, a guy who’s first band, The Lillybandits, were big on the scene when I was new to town. He’s been getting out a lot since then, playing guitar for Lydia Lovelace all over the place. I didn’t know that he was still writing – or working so hard – but I guess he’s one of those guys who can never quite kick the habit of making music.

It was a nice surprise, full of good songs, but the one that I can’t shake is “Alphabet City.” He calls it a “postcard from NYC”, but I still had to look up what he was talking about. Turns out that Alphabet City is the east-side of the East Village, around Avenues A, B, & C. Underground velvet territory back in the day.

I’ve mentioned before how New York looms large on the far right coast of my imagination. Towering 100,000 concrete stories into the sky, casting its daybreak shadows over every town east of the Mississippi, with a bull’s eye staring down on the rust belt.

For a 17-year-old kid in Akron, driving around with a sun-warped cassette of Walk On The Wild Side, watching a late-night VHS of Taxi Driver, there was something ominous, unassailable about that town. Wildman plans would be hatched every night, to rocket there and back before daybreak and dawn. But no matter how fast and far you drove the family car, or how hard you licked up midnight’s teenage kicks, you still woke up knowing that you’d “never really been to the city at all.”

By the time I made it to The City, things were already getting tidied up and Giulianied. And by then I didn’t care. My new summer town was broad-shouldered Chicago, and college weekends in Pittsburgh satiated my crumbling-concrete curiosity.

But I still go back and think about it. Some of those old NYC records are new to me, and whenever I hear another one, I wonder. I wonder if I could have kept up or if I would have been crushed. I wonder if I could have lasted a week around CBGBs, made it a day writing my own Basketball Diaries. Seemed equal parts playground and nightmare, and sometimes I don’t think I would have survived the game.

As Todd sings, “You and I weren’t built for that speed, or that level of temptation… and that’s just as well.” That might be the truth. At this point, it’s alright that I’ll never know.

 

 

play here: Alphabet City

download link: mp3 @320

Thirteen On The Quick

big star

For the last few Septembers, the persnickety music snob in me has felt the need to post a social media announcement to the effect that this would be a good time to listen to Big Star. While that might be true, I have to admit that I had nothing to add to the conversation.  I was just fishing for “likes” to make life a little less lonely as the sun set sooner and those hoary blues began to loom.

This time around, let’s change that by doing some proper contributing.

I’ve been trying to find a quick-and-dirty way of recording covers and demoing original tunes to pass around to y’all.  Big Star’s “Thirteen” seemed like some good material to practice on. The song’s been stuck in my head for weeks now.  Not sure when and where I heard it again, but what a tune.  It’s my kind of show-don’t-tell writing: simplicity through specificity, an uncluttered canvas to reflect all your imaginings and lost-longings and misty-minded recollections.

Either that, or I just never got over junior high.

My trouble these days is that I can kill a lot of time trying to get everything balanced out when building a bigger production with drums and keys and all that nonsense. And I don’t have the time to do it all the time.  I gotta find a way to get it done in an hour. Close the gap between inspiration and presentation. Real life (and real practice!) demands my attention.

Another thing: Some of my favorite albums are the little ones, like Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, or Pedro The Lion’s “Hard To Find a Friend.” That’s where I want to be. Capture some lightning in my bottle move on to the next adventure.

I recorded this in two takes – a straight vocal/guitar pass and then another acoustic guitar overdub.  I ran some of the stuff through my Fender Deluxe Reverb for an authentic (if non-traditional) echo, and trimmed it up with the normal eq/comp-type plugins.

I’m trying to find a process.  And I’m trying to find a sound.  I’m trying to use what I have to get together a no-excuses go-to setup to suit my songs and flatter my pipes. Gotta put it out there. ‘Cause when I don’t, I die a little inside.

Wish me luck.

 

play here: Thirteen

download link: mp3 @320

Mia Sings About Your Boyfriend

It seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being three years ago when Best Coast released their debut album with the fantastic single Boyfriend. Every summer’s better with a new splash of that let’s-go-surfing sound, and Best Coast have done it twice in a row.

At the time she was only 5, and her little girl voice singing “she’s got a college degree and I am only 5 years old” was an inspiration. The disconnect between that cute kid and the song’s “she’s prettier and skinnier” lament was great enough to be charming, even silly. But they grow up so fast, don’t they? Now, performing it again at 8 and about to enter into the 3rd grade, the distance between innocence and experience is shrinking fast. She’s got an intuitive grasp on the ‘tween dramas. Feels all the Marcia Marcia Marcia pain on the Brady Bunch. There’s only so much a dad can do, but I’d do anything to keep her heart from breaking before it’s had a chance to grow a lot bigger.

As you can guess from the above, this song (like all of my recording experiments) took longer than I thought. A new deadline – grandma hoped for a new tune for her birthday – gave us the boot in the butt to finish it up in time for the celebration. I’m glad we did, but I fear that someday her therapist will use it against me.

 

play here: Mia Sings Boyfriend

download link: mp3 @320

Death In His Grave

john_mark_mcmillan

Ninety percent of my playing out these days happens on a Sunday morning. And even though I’ve been doing it for years, I’m still learning how it’s done. Up-and-at-‘em early on a well-appointed stage, it’s a strange gig filled with its own expectations and frustrations, triumphs and trainwrecks, blessings and curses. In other words, just like any other scene. But a lot more sober-er.

Last year I was asked to do this song for Tenebrae, easily the gothiest night of the Christian calender. You might know it as Good Friday, the night of Christ’s crucifixion.  Our service starts in a near-silent sanctuary, lit only be a few candles, blown out one by one as our meditations merge with the recounted Stations of the Cross. A little macabre, and much more effective than that Mel Gibson flick.

At the time, I recorded some scratch tracks to feel out the tune and practice it up. A year later, the same request arose again, so I found the old files to remind myself of my first take on the music. Not able to leave well enough alone, I started adding a few more things: sampled Feist for the drums, put a little Xmas in the bridge, and came up with a smeary organ sound by layering a warbly tape-delay on the old guitars.

In the end, I found it worth a second listen. I hope you do too.

 

 

play here: my take on Death In His Grave

download link: mp3 @320

Gilead, a Novel by Marilynne Robinson

gilead

Much as I hate moving, a new home does bring hope for a new garden. Spade in hand, I survey my new domain, looking for a ripe spot to notch out a new plot. What I seek is fecundity, and then I plan to slice it down.

Where the grass grows the best is where my plants will too. I hate that. I’d rather try to make something work in the rocky no-man’s land behind the fence or along the garage. But the sun shines where the sun can, and the rain pools in places I can’t always control. So, cruel landlord that I am, I do what I must. The native shoots and leaves I’ll soon slay for the greater good of peppers and tomatoes and peas.

I wonder what the first settlers thought when they arrived in places like Kansas. After walking for weeks through Appalachian mountains, under forests thick enough to blot out the sky, then over the still-green hills of Iowa tumbling up from Mississippi and back down to Missouri. They must have thought they’d hit the Californian desert, that they’d gone too far and should put the Conestoga in reverse. This wouldn’t seem a place to plant a garden. Not to me.

Marilynne Robinson disinters these pioneers of the prairie in her novel Gilead.  It’s an interesting work – conceived as a memoir written by a dying Iowan preacher from the first half of the last century, penned to his young son who’ll soon be growing up without a dad. His forefathers first came to Kansas not to build a life, but out of a sense of altruism. A quick wave of migration flooded the western territory before the Civil War broke loose, as antebellum Jayhawks and Freelanders fought to stake claim in the virgin sod, to bring the new state into the Union on the side of the Abolition.

Under the circumstances, nothing was built to last.

Nor was much built with any permanence just up and over in Iowa, where the bulk of the novel takes place. The town, Gilead, is filled with people from somewhere else – New Englanders mostly, with a few Negroes who ran north and recent European immigrants thrown in. And they’re all willing to move again when trouble comes, when the drought arrives and the dirt starts to blow, when the wars cull their young, or when luck simply runs its course.  While here, they toiled at the ancient work of man – they subdued the black earth, bore babies, established a grid of order on the open land.  But when looking back at Gilead, they find that there wasn’t much that they had left behind.

This is the essential sorrow of the Midwest, and Robinson taps into it like the deep root of a prairie thistle. She welcomes us to the in-between country, or fly-over country as you’d call it now. Always an ephemeral place, a great swath of transition, defined by what it has not more than by what it has. You’ll know it as the place without forests, without mountains, without deserts, without coasts.

Yes, the fullness of life can be known in these parts, there is no reason why anything worth doing can’t be done on this land. Our Reverend looks over his sermons and finds he’s written as much as Augustine and Calvin, that he’s contributed to the scholarly conversation as thoughtfully as any man can. He’s experienced extremes of love and loss, of plenty and want, seen great virtue and heard all manner of confessions from his congregation. As he says, “There have been heroes here, saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth even if no one remembers it.”

Nothing is unknown to the people of Gilead, though it wouldn’t do to speak of it in polite company. Still, life is spread thin on this patch of the Earth’s flat crust. Even the wooden church where he preaches wasn’t meant to stand:

“They’ll tear it down once I pass away.”

“A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our own children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That’s all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lance could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest.  There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me, I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”

“Just look at this place. Every time a tree gets to a decent size, the wind comes along and breaks it.”

This is the great conundrum of the plains: It’s just as good as anywhere else, but never the best. Caught between gratitude and yearning, stuck in a place that meets our needs but can never satisfy our wants, we are thankful for the blessings yet nagged by a sense of a better life somewhere over the next horizon. The very same drive that brought us here pulls us to move on again, to plant new gardens in new fields. We make a proud use of the present, but as for the past, it fades like Grandpa’s Kansan grave. Half-marked with a wooden cross, soon and sadly lost as another generation moves away.