Friday, April 29, 2005

Darth Vader, Blogger

Yes, the Dark Lord has entered the blog-o-sphere: http://darthside.blogspot.com/

This is truly wonderful stuff. Some of the comments on the Dark Lord's postings are equally great. Here are two of my favorites:

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Mojobo Unfufu said...

Dear Sir,

My name is Mojobo Unfufu, and I am an exiled leader from the planet Smogo. When the Empire took complete control of the planet, I was forced to flee with my family.

We did not have time to take our money and the treasure of Smogo out with us. However, secret operatives on the planet have kept it safe from Imperial eyes.

As the treasure is being liquidated and moved off of Smogo, we need people to help us launder the money. If you would help us out, that would be great. You pay a one time transaction fee of $4000 and we will wire you ten million credits. You get to keep one million for your troubles.

Please send all your personal information to unfufu704@holo.net. We will arrange a meeting on an outer rim world.

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Joseph said...

Darth Vader,
Sith Lord Flagship Executor
c/o Imperial Navy

Lord Vader,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback on our latest capital assault line, the AT-AT walkers. Although we try to consider every combat scenario, our design team must admit that low-altitude aerobatics with tow cables really caught us off-guard. You bring up a more substantive point, though: the legs. Mechanical legs are a weakness in any design. We blast-shielded them, reinforced them, and made them very stable, but in the end, legs can get tangled, stuck, or Vorm Rat-tied, as you put it.

As a result of your brilliant suggestions, we are redesigning the new AT-AT capital assault systems based on hover technology, subsequent to some recent corporate acquisitions from the Trade Federation. In an effort to foster goodwill between us, we humbly offer the first production run to you, gratis.

As promised, the original design team for the AT-AT present-day have been transported to your command ship, along with their next of kin. They are all very pleased to be considered worthy of your personal audience, and look forward to working on that "personal project" you mentioned.

Keep in touch,

Movii Ykesso
AT Industries & Design
Coulomb's Drift

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Father of the Braid, Pt. 1

Mornings at our house pretty much revolve around hair. Mine has mostly fallen out now, so I don’t get to join in on much on the morning mayhem. Nevertheless, there are still three women who jockey for position in front of the bathroom mirrors, the sink counters filled with an assortment of brushes, combs, gels, sprays, dyes (maroon, blonde, and black for Emily), clasps, barrettes, and various geegaws of unknown origin or purpose.

The Sunday morning hair drying ritual usually starts about 45 minutes before church. One hair dryer starts, and then another, and soon the house sounds like a 747 ready for takeoff. Our overloaded electrical circuits struggle to keep up under these circumstances. One running hair dryer is fine. Two running hair dryers are fine. However, two running hair dryers and a running microwave oven are enough to overload the poor circuits. The whirring stops. The house goes suddenly dark. And so I make routine runs to the basement to flip various switches to ensure that the Whitman family is neatly coiffed and infused with hot coffee. I grumble, or worse, every time I do this. We are late for church every single week, and it drives me crazy that in twenty-three years of marriage and almost nineteen years of parenthood we have not been able to get it together sufficiently to make it to church on time. “How tough can this be?,” I ask every week, fuming as we speed down the freeway, in no mood to worship God.

Tough enough, apparently. Lately we have adopted a compromise. I drive to church alone, and make it in time for the opening worship song. The little remaining furze on top of my head sticks out all over, but I don’t care. Kate and Emily and Rachel follow at some indeterminate later time, looking good. Everybody’s happy. Almost. Because for a few minutes there at church I look around and feel horrible, like something’s missing. Like my family.

Now we are entering upon the Great Prom Season, a time in which vast sums of hard-earned cash are spent on dresses, shoes, hair styles (of course) and makeup. Kate and Emily informed me a couple days ago that someone will be showing up at our house on Great Prom Afternoon to personally do Emily’s makeup. He is, apparently, an award-winning makeup dude. And he is coming to our house to personally apply the makeup on my daughter’s face. Cool. To my knowledge I have never met an award-winning makeup dude, and I quiver with excitement and anticipation.

During the past couple of weeks the three women have been engaged in glorious, marathon shopping sprees, while I sit home and watch baseball with the sound turned off and listen to rock ‘n roll. There are worse fates. They come home with bags full of dresses and shoes and purses, then model the clothes for me, agonizing over whether the black purse or the green purse goes best with a particular gown. “What do you think?,” they ask me.

This is the unanswerable question. You might as well ask Britney Spears to explain the notion of One God in Three Persons.

“Looks good,” I offer cautiously.

“But do you think the black purse or the green purse goes better with the gown?”

“You know,” I say, struggling to find my inner Gucci, “they both look great.”

I am no help. I know it. In twenty-three years I have never adapted to this whole confusing, bewildering world. And it goes far beyond fashion. Just when I start to think that I’m getting the hang of this husband and father business, it changes on me.

On Monday evening Rachel’s boyfriend Matt stops over. He informs us that he has ordered his tux for the prom. No word on whether he will have a matching purse. Matt is a good kid. He is sixteen, a big, easygoing, bright, articulate young man whose world seems to revolve around school, band, and video games. And my daughter.

“So,” I say to him nonchalantly, “any thoughts about what you might like to do for a living?”

As soon as the words are out of my mouth I regret them. I cannot believe that I have asked the question. The kid is sixteen years old. When I was sixteen years old my principle concerns in life were scoring some weed and getting rid of acne. And Matt appears to be farther along the path of social development than I was.

He takes it as a joke. Good. “Oh,” he says, “you know, I was thinking that maybe I’d start out as a small-time drug dealer and work my way up. Or join the Mafia.”

Heh. Smart ass. Not with my daughter, Don Guccione.

Emily is a seasoned veteran of the coded, heavily layered world of high school relationships. She finds a way to navigate the intricate maze of popular and unpopular kids, in groups and out groups, preps and skaters and punks and Goths. She has friends in every camp. She has a boyfriend – one Jordan, whose career aspirations are even more inscrutable than Matt’s – and a posse of girlfriends who finish each others’ sentences. Lately she has been coaching Rachel on the fine arts of fashion, makeup, and musical coolness. She is the funniest person I know; quick witted, sharp-tongued, exasperating and loveable. If she manages to live through her twenties, she will be one hell-raising, unconventional, delightfully self-assured adult. She also graduates from high school in five weeks. In four months she’ll be gone, off to college in another city. Welcome to parenthood. Just when I’m starting to get the hang of it, they leave.

This is what is supposed to happen, I remind myself. It’s good. Leave your father and mother and go off to college and study fashion merchandising and find some heterosexual makeup dude, if he exists, and become one flesh. But it doesn’t feel good. I will look over at church and see an empty chair that is missing a well-coiffed young woman. I will miss the stereophonic sounds of dueling hair dryers. I won’t have to run down to the basement to flip the breaker switch. We may get to church on time. But I will look around and feel like something’s missing, and this time it will not arrive fashionably late.

We are coming down to those days. I pray that I will be alive enough and awake enough to cherish every Braidy Bunch moment.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Power Pop Goodness

The mix CD swap is happening again. Since others have posted the contents of their mix CDs, I thought I'd share, too. Anybody is welcome to one of these, although it would be even better if you could compile a mix of your favorite music and pass it along to me as well. That's the real purpose here: music says a lot about who we are. So put together the music that means the most to you, and let me understand you better.

Here's what's on my Power Pop Goodness CD. It's loud, crunchy, and melodic. I love The Who and The Kinks, and the bands/artists on this CD, although they've recorded most of these songs within the past year or two, clearly love them too.

1. Plan to Stay Awake -- The Deathray Davies
2. Creation Myth – Dear John Letters
3. Freakin’ Out – Graham Coxon
4. Solar Sister – The Posies
5. Sparky’s Dream – Teenage Fanclub
6. Hold Me Up – Velvet Crush
7. Four-Eyed Girl – Rhett Miller
8. Department Store Girl – The Rosenbergs
9. Sort It Out – Caesars
10. Speed Racer – The Redwalls
11. Don’t Let Me Go – Michael Penn
12. Hi-Fi Killer – American Hi-Fi
13. Denise – Fountains of Wayne
14. Nothing Gets Me Down – John Davis
15. Secretarial – A.C. Newman
16. Season is Over – Matthew Sweet
17. Louie Louie – Fastball
18. Fingerpops – Garageland
19. Box Full of Letters – Wilco
20. When Everything Was Alright – Sam Roberts

Friday, April 22, 2005

Radiohead and the Unwashed Masses

I have been struck of late by the dichotomy between the public perception of Radiohead (who?) and the almost godlike status they claim among rock critics and mavens of popular culture. Here is a band that has had one certifiable hit ("Creep," from the 1993 debut album Pablo Honey), and yet is semi-widely acclaimed (or maybe I just keep strange company) as the most important band on the planet, a band that is creating hugely important music, both from the standpoint of influencing other musicians and in providing trenchant cultural commentary.

A case in point: David Dark's very good book _Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons_ argues that Thom Yorke is creating genuinely apocalyptic works -- apocalyptic not in the sense of addressing the end of the world, but in the sense of the future pushing into the present, "cracking the pavement of the status quo ... announcing a new world of unrealized possibility," as Dark puts it. Heady stuff, particularly for guys with guitars and synthesizers. Now David Dark is a very smart man, and when I could follow his meandering trail I genuinely enjoyed his comments at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. But I wonder if he's overstating the case. It's the old conundrum: If an apocalypse falls in the middle of the forest, does anybody hear it?

Radiohead, of course, does have a fairly sizable and fanatical base of followers. I'd probably number myself in those ranks. But the music simply does not reach the unwashed masses. It is not played on the radio, at least in Columbus, Ohio, it is not featured on the non-musical cable TV music channels, and therefore it does not register for most people, even those who would consider themselves music fans. For Billy Ray and Wanda, watching Hollywood Access and Entertainment Tonight from their farmhouse outside Bucyrus, Ohio, Radiohead does not exist. This isn't exactly Beatlemania we're talking about here. The revolution came, and somebody forgot to notify 95% of the western world.

But ... there is that fanatical base, and they tend to be a proselytizing bunch. I've recently encountered two new albums that do their best to pass the word. Brad Mehldau's Anything Goes contains a fine jazz interpretation of Thom Yorke's "Everything In Its Right Place." And upping the ante, classical pianist Christopher O'Riley has released an entire 15-song cycle of Yorke's songs entitled True Love Waits: O'Riley Plays Radiohead.

Those who have followed Mehldau's career will know that the Radiohead cover is nothing new. Slowly making his way through the Yorke back catalogue, one song per album, Mehldau should be set well into the 22nd century. His earlier covers of "Exit Music (for a Film)" (available on both studio and live albums) and "Paranoid Android" (from his 2003 album Largo) are well worth seeking out. On "Everything In Its Right Place," he works his usual magic. The song is recognizably Radiohead, but Mehldau's left hand dispenses plenty of dissonant block chords, filling in for the schizoid nature of the lyrics, while the right hand elongates the melody here, chops it into staccato machine gun fire there, and generally deconstructs a song that is already heavily deconstructed in its original incarnation. It's a tour de force, and it's what makes Mehldau great. I don't know of a finer jazz pianist working today.

O'Riley's musical preaching is, impossibly, even better. I'm not a classically trained pianist, but I do know that this music is enormously complex and enormously moving. Regardless of the apocalypse, O'Riley has figured out that behind all the dire warnings, the existential despair, and the technological dystopia is the undeniable fact that Thom Yorke writes beautiful melodies. I had feared a sort of New Age arpeggio fest when I bought this album, but O'Riley strikes just the right balance between exuberant, flashy romanticism and difficult, knotty lines. He has prodigious technique, as befitting a classical dweeb who cut his teeth on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3, but he also has an inherent feel for the subtle undercurrents in Radiohead's music, effectively mimicking the uneasy, fractured nature of many of these songs through chordings that are always just a little off, a little dissonant, as if the romantic facade cannot quite cover the ugliness peeking through the artificial beauty. And that, of course, is very, very Radiohead. True Love Waits is a wonderful album, one that non-Radiohead fans could fully enjoy as well. But the music is all the more impressive when one fills in the missing lyrics as one listens, and marvels at how O'Riley communicates in finely nuanced ways through only a box with eighty-eight keys.

True love may wait, but I see that O'Riley has a newly released album of Radiohead songs. I'm impatiently ordering it today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Jesus, Bastards, and Bad Burritos

When a friend read my story about musician John Davis, he commented, "That doesn't sound like a conversion to me. It sounds like he ate a bad burrito."

I can sympathize. I'm wary of sensational, emotional conversion stories, and my first inclination is to assume that they've been, well, if not fabricated, then at least substantially embellished. As a young Christian, I used to see this weird sort of "top this testimony" dynamic at work all the time. So you were a drug-abusing transvestite before you came to Christ, huh? Well, I was a drug-abusing transvestite in a motorcyle gang of drug abusing transvestites, and Jesus spoke to me when I was on acid and told me to put away the drugs and the bikes and the dresses and to follow Him. Etc. Etc.

The thing is, I really do know people whose lives have been instantly transformed by an encounter with Jesus. That encounter may or may not have been an emotional one. And so, I suspect that what we really struggle with is the radical inbreaking of God into human lives. In some ways we prefer the slow grind of infinitesimal transformation, because that makes more sense to us. It's a lot like going on a diet or studying for another degree. Just keep plugging away at it and eventually you'll see some progress. What doesn't make sense to us is the kind of testimony of John Davis -- one day I was a raging, out-of-control alcoholic, and the next day I had been delivered of the need to drink. That somehow seems unfair -- at least to me. It's the spiritual equivalent of stomach stapling to a perpetual dieter. What! You mean you didn't have to work at it, when my own story involves successes and failures, slipping back into an old way of life, pain and trauma, slowly being changed into someone who, by nature, I am not. It's not fair!

We're also (rightly) suspicious of sensational conversion stories that often turn out, in the long run, to be little more than a temporary reprieve from the usual self-centered life. And so we prefer to wait and see, and that's a reasonable approach in the case of John Davis.

All I know is that human beings are extraordinarily complex creatures. What seems like a legitimate encounter with God may turn out to be a passing fancy, driven by guilt or short-lived willpower, or even a bad burrito, for all I know. But I don't want to rule out the possibility that God still breaks into human lives radically and powerfully. And I want to pray for those situations to occur, because although they may not always be fair, they are always glorious. I know so many people who ought to be dead, and who are not, and who are living reasonably healthy, whole lives, people whose stories of addiction go back generation after generation, and who sincerely believe that the chain of madness can be broken in their generation. I am one of them. This is miraculous, and I don't use that word lightly. For some people the chain has been snapped in two instantaneously. For most people it's been a slow, grinding process where the chain has been weakened little by little. In all cases, though, it's miraculous.

This doesn't happen by willpower. I don't know any addicts who believe that they can will themselves into sobriety. They've all tried it, because that's the easiest solution, and it doesn't work. It happens by the power of God.

I am afflicted with the disease of cynicism, and I can very easily slip into a mindset where I doubt and mock anything and everything. And I suspect that the little bastard on my shoulder who is whispering derogatory things about (melo)dramatic Christian conversions is, in the end, more concerned with my vanity and my feelings of superiority than he is about Christian charity. Lamentably, I often choose to listen to him when I should really be saying, “Get thee behind me, you little bastard."

I think about a friend, or perhaps ex-friend now, I've met recently. He had some issues in his life, as we all do, but I genuinely liked him, wanted to help him. Kate and I personally lent him a fair amount of money so that he could get back on an even footing. Life was improving for him until he split, with our money, for parts unknown.

Now he's gone. Part of me wants to kick myself for being so naive and so stupid. I knew this could happen. But part of me -- the better part of me, I'd like to think -- would do it all over again. He talked a good game. He had me convinced of the legitimacy of his faith and his dedication to following Christ. And maybe he is legitimate on one level. I understand that kind of moral schizophrenia. And maybe he'll be back. But I'm betting against it. In spite of that, I'd still like to silence that smug little bastard on my shoulder who cynically points out that God can't *really* change people easily and that quickly. As usual, I was wrong. But so is the smug little bastard.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Dwight Yoakam: The Fine Art of Re-Invention

Another new article for Paste Magazine ...

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Dwight’s Yoakam’s 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today features a title that has to be one of the greatest musical in-jokes of all time. Yoakam has made a 20+ year career out of brushing the cobwebs from yesterday’s sounds (in particular, rockabilly and the classic mid ‘60s Bakersfield loping swagger of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard) and transforming them into something fresh and relevant. So one suspects that beneath the cowboy hat that perpetually covers his face, Dwight had his tongue firmly in his cheek. He apparently still does, in fact, given a couple of the Monty-Pythonesque interludes on his new album.

Between filming the final takes of Bandidas, his latest movie, where he chases Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek around the dusty streets of Durango, Mexico (it’s a rough job, but somebody has to do it), Yoakam found the time to record a new record. Blame the Vain, Dwight’s eighteenth album (not counting the numerous compilations and tribute albums on which he appears), represents something of a departure for the veteran singer and songwriter. It’s his first musical foray without longtime producer and guitarist Pete Anderson, his first stab at production, and his fist recorded output with a new band that features players as varied as former George Jones guitar slinger Keith Gattis and seminal Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall. Why the change?

“Well, I think it’s incumbent on any songwriter to find new inspiration throughout his or her life,” Yoakam says. “And in the last couple of years I’ve been rethinking just how to go about this process. This time I wanted to go for a more stripped down, austere sound, and I’d been playing with the Sin City All Stars in L.A., sitting in with this loose collective of folks who love to play country and country-rock music. It just seemed like the logical place to begin when I started recording the new album.”

Blame the Vain’s twelve songs will still sound reassuringly familiar to Yoakam’s longtime fans. It’s not like the man has gone and recorded a hip-hop album, although the two spoken-word rants here (with a British accent, no less) at least leave that door open for the future. The album’s songs are equally split between the rockabilly rave-ups and Bakersfield honky tonkers for which Yoakam is best known and the sadsack ballads that have always characterized the best country music. As always, Dwight’s singing and songwriting are first-rate.

“The best songs tend to write themselves,“ Yoakam says. “I just try to be still long enough so I don’t interfere with the process. The songs on this album just led me along for the ride. On “Intentional Heartache” I started out with just the first two lines: “She drove south I-95 straight through Carolina/She didn’t use no damn map to find her way.” I really had no idea where that song was taking me. But I lived with it for a while, let the music drive the lyrics and the lyrics drive the music, lived with that symbiotic relationship, you know, and I let the song take me where it wanted to take me. Pretty soon there was a story there, a whole history there, that I could have never envisioned when I started.”

The process is nowhere better realized than on “I Wanna Love Again,” an update of the classic Bakersfield sound that is part cornball romantic lament and part existential angst that could have come from nowhere but the deepest recesses of the heart.

“It’s funny in a way,” Dwight says. “You start off with a stereotypical love song, and eventually you realize that you’re writing about middle age, and a loss of joy in your life, and a desire to recapture that sense of reckless spontaneity and abandon. This whole album is like that. It took me places I didn’t expect to go. And I hope that sense of fun and pure joy in making music comes through. Almost everything else has changed, and yet it all comes back to the joy of making music.”

In the end, that’s the conundrum with which Blame the Vain confronts the longtime Dwight Yoakam listener. The man has managed to re-invent himself, find new wellsprings of creativity, and still sound like no one but Dwight Yoakam. And he’s done it while still sounding consistently good. In twenty years, Dwight Yoakam never made a bad or even mediocre album with Pete Anderson. He hasn’t made one without him, either. – Andy Whitman

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

John Davis: A New Suit for the Man in Superdrag

This is a new article for The Mars Hill Review (http://www.marshillreview.com)

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His earliest musical memories involve automobiles -- little Deuce Coupes, classic Chevy 409 engines, and, of course, daddy’s T-Bird, which provided the wheels to never-ending fun, fun, fun. Those early Beach Boys songs are embedded deep in John Davis’s memory, and profoundly influenced the music Davis made with his former band Superdrag. And so it is only fitting that Davis would experience his spiritual epiphany, his “road to Damascus” blinding light, when he was behind the wheel of a car.

“I was barreling down the Interstate at 80 miles per hour,” Davis says. “I was on my way to buy a new suit for my wedding. And believe me, Jesus was the furthest thing from my mind. I had absolutely no intention of changing anything about my life. I can’t explain it rationally. How do you ever explain this stuff in a way that makes sense? But I started feeling uncomfortable. And then I broke out into a cold sweat. It was terrible. And it was terrible in ways that went way beyond the physical. It was like I was staring at my life, and all I saw was a yawning black hole. So I started praying, crying out for help. I mean, I was literally cruising down the highway, yelling at the top of my lungs, just telling God that I was tired and sick, that I couldn’t live like this. And then it was like a cool breeze washed over me. I just knew. I can’t explain it in any way other than that. But sometimes you just know that you know. And it was like God was telling me, ‘I’m here now, so what are you going to do with me?’”

“That was it,” John Davis says. “God gave me a new set of clothes, new heavenly robes before I ever made it to that store for my tuxedo. That was a little more than three years ago. I was a raging, out-of-control alcoholic up until that moment. And I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since that day. God delivered me from the crushing need to kill myself.”

And now he wants to sing about it. Davis’s self-titled debut solo album, recently released on Rambler Records, is a musical chronicle of a changed life. The music will sound instantly familiar and striking to anyone who followed Davis’s career with Superdrag, and the basic building blocks – Beatlesque power pop (particularly as filtered through the loose raggedness of Big Star and The Replacements), intricately layered Brian Wilson song structures and Beach Boys chorales, indelible choruses and hooks – will sound reassuringly the same. But the message is something altogether different.

In a world where many Christian rock artists long to cross over to the world of MTV and Top 40 singles on Clear Channel radio stations, John Davis did a U-turn on the highway of life. After years of mainstream success and MTV airplay, now all he wants to do is sing about Jesus.

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“I don’t feel any sense of entitlement for anybody to listen to anything I have to say,” Davis states matter-of-factly. “I’m not trying to shove anything down anybody’s throats. I’m just telling my story. And if it resonates with some people, then great.”

The story dates back to a childhood spent in Knoxville, Tennessee, and to a conservative Christian upbringing that found John Davis in church three nights a week.

“The church was literally in our back yard,” he says. “We walked out behind my house, and we were there. My dad was a deacon, and held other offices in the church at various times. We were very, very involved. And I heard the gospel message clearly. It wasn’t like this was new to me.” But adolescence ushered in the usual period of rebellion and questioning. Rock ‘n roll only accelerated the process.

Davis fronted a number of local bands before forming Superdrag in the early 1990s. The band’s 1995 debut album Regretfully Yours was the stuff of rock ‘n roll legends. The first single “Sucked Out” was a major hit, a jolt of pure power pop adrenaline that crossed over from alternative stations to mainstream radio and garnered airplay on MTV. The non-album track “Alright” had the good fortune to end up on the soundtrack to the wildly popular Clueless, and hundreds of thousands of music fans were exposed to a new band thanks to the breakout success of the movie. In an era when grunge-still ruled the airwaves and dominated the musical landscape, Davis’s tightly constructed songs and sure pop sensibilities marked Superdrag as the Next Big Thing. Along with like-minded musicians such as Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Weezer, and The Posies, they had rediscovered melody and welded it to a sturdy foundation of raw, punkish power chords and a backbeat. The future seemed limitless.

But Regretfully Yours turned out to be the commercial high point. Subsequent albums were well received critically, but suffered from a lack of label support. Months of constant touring sapped the energy and patience of the band, but that didn’t stop John Davis from continued experimentation, musical and otherwise. “I’m Expanding My Mind,” a track from 1998’s Head Trip In Every Key, showed off both a late-sixties Brian Wilson obsession and a preoccupation with psychedelia in all its manifestations.

“It’s part of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle,” Davis explains. “It’s that whole ridiculous, romantic notion that self-destruction is part of the job description. Hank Williams did it. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin did it. So you have to do it, too. And it’s easy to fall into it. But it sucks the life out of you. Eventually you lose hope.”

It’s a theme that is readily apparent in Superdrag’s music. It is easy to brand it as fashionable cynicism, but in truth it goes much deeper and darker. On “Annetichrist” John Davis sang:

Nothing's cool Nothing matters
I'm jumping off the bridge

It is the sound of the yawning black hole.

“I had talked myself out of the notion of a loving God who cared about individuals,” John Davis says. “And life just got seriously crazy. I’m not saying that there weren’t fun times along the way. I have nothing but love for the guys in Superdrag. I know they care about me, too. And the drugs and the drinking actually work on a certain level, you know? But it got horrible, and it got horrible fairly quickly.”

“The truth is I had no hope; none at all. My grandfather was the greatest guy; one of our biggest fans. He’d come to the shows and he actually liked what we were doing. And when he died a few years ago, it sent me into the worst tailspin. That’s when the drinking really got ugly. By that time I was going through a fifth or more of sour mash whiskey every day. And the drinking got stupider and stupider, and I got more and more depressed. During our last tour, when we were promoting our album Last Call for Vitriol, I would just sit in the van before shows and listen to the saddest country music I could find and guzzle whiskey. I spent a lot of time crying, or wanting to punch somebody, or both. Then I’d go out on stage, hammered out of my mind, and pretend like I was having a wonderful rock ‘n roll time.”

“I had no time for God,” John Davis says. “I never even really thought about God. I figured that the next time my body would enter a church would be when it was inside my coffin. And I figured it wouldn’t take me that long to get there, either.”

Those were the basic ingredients: John Davis, one life out of control, all hope sucked out. And it remained that way until that fateful night on the Interstate.

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John Davis, the album, opens with the hushed piano chords and soaring, plaintive vocals that could only come from one person: Brian Wilson. Okay, two people. But it is genuinely startling to hear how painstakingly and lovingly John Davis has captured the Pet Sounds sonic landscape. “I Hear Your Voice,” the opening track, sounds like a long-lost track from that Beach Boys masterpiece. With echoes of “God Only Knows” and “You Still Believe in Me,” the song is a soul-searching prayer that finds Davis confessing his own spiritual poverty before it builds to a wordless multi-tracked chorale wherein Davis proves that he can imitate Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Carl Wilson equally well. It’s gorgeous and thrilling, and a whole different kind of fun, fun, fun. The Beach Boys homage continues on “Salvation,” the second track, which captures the upbeat, poppier side of Brian Wilson, and recalls mid-sixties Beach Boys hits such as “California Girls” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Although there are echoes of sixties and early-seventies musical icons throughout the album (the early Beatles on the impossibly infectious “Me and My Girl,” John Lennon’s more raw and anguished solo work on the bluesy, growling “Have Mercy” and “Tear Me Apart,” Bob Dylan and The Band on “Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home”), Davis still finds room for his own musical imprint. Superdrag fans will recognize the familiar power chords and fuzzed out guitars on the album’s first single “Nothing Gets Me Down” and the cautionary “Too Far Out.” It all sounds fresh and uncalculated. Only on the ballads “The Kind of Heart” and “Lay Your Burden Down” does Davis succumb to the dreaded CCM disease and let the Christian sloganeering overpower the music. It’s the conundrum of every Christian musical artist, and Davis struggles to find the balance.

“It’s hard,” he admits. “On one hand, you want to tell people about Jesus. Jesus changes lives. He changed my life. But there is so much already out there, so many preconceptions that people bring to the table, that it’s impossible to do what I do without offending somebody. I’m going to be perceived as too preachy. Or I’m going to be perceived as watering down the truth. So I try not to worry about it. I’m focused on telling my story. This is what Jesus did for me. Listen, when I was downing a fifth of whiskey a day I could rationalize and make excuses with the best of them. I was doing all right by some standards. They weren’t very high standards, but there you go. But still, I was out there, making rock ‘n roll, and people were paying money to hear me do it. So I understand how the defensive walls can be up. But all I’m here to do is tell people that they matter and that it can be better, and entertain them in the process. It can be a lot better.”

That generosity of spirit is readily apparent on the album’s twelve songs. “Do You Know How Much You’ve Been Loved?,” the concluding track, throws a musical life preserver to those who are drowning in their own self-sufficiency. It shows a John Davis who is characterized by compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. And something else – clear-eyed honesty and vulnerability. Maybe John Davis doesn’t know any better yet; maybe he’s na├»ve enough to think that he can actually continue to be himself and to abstain from the feel-good slogans, but one hopes that the CCM industry doesn’t latch onto him and smooth over the searching and the questions. On “The Kind of Heart,” an otherwise standard-issue Christian ballad, Davis sings, “Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words/When taken at face value, it seems so absurd/To believe in a love that comes on like that.” It’s refreshing in its candor, and unlike so many of the write-by-the-numbers musical Hallmark Cards one hears in CCM, it bears the imprint of a real human being with a beating heart.

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On a bright April afternoon John Davis is on a tour bus, on his way from Pittsburgh to Manhattan, where he will perform at an East Village club called Mercury Lounge later that night. He’s running late, and nothing so far has gone according to plan. The bus has been making suspicious grinding noises that threaten a breakdown, and there is unexpected construction on the highway. It’s the same arduous schedule he’s known for years, the same routine of sheer boredom punctuated by two hours of musical intensity, the same interminable road trip with its trials and temptations. And it’s the kind of moment that would have pushed him over the edge three years ago. But this time everything is different.

“It’s like switching careers without really switching careers,” Davis explains. “Outwardly I’m doing the same things I’ve always done, at least from a musical standpoint. We roll into some town and up to some bar, we set up, and we play rock ‘n roll. At this point we’re not doing the church circuit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you usually don’t have the same kinds of conversations that I’m able to have right now. I love it when somebody comes up to me after a show and says, ‘Hey man, you’re not drunk. What’s your problem?’ Because that’s when I can tell them my story, and tell them about Jesus.”

The journey is a big part of that story, the long, circuitous sojourn that has taken him from church to rebellion to church, with a thousand detours and side trips along the way. It is a journey that has taken him through the blaring clamor of stardom, or something very much like it, and left him empty. And it is a journey that promises something better in the hushed piano chords that accompany a prayer of repentance and confession.

“Look,” he says. “This is a blessing. To compose songs, to sing them, is the best thing I can do as a human being. If I wasn’t doing this, I honestly have no idea what I would be doing with my life. This is what I do best. So I don’t take any of it for granted. Sure, it’s hard sometimes. It’s hard to be away from my family. But I’m playing with guys who are not only great musically, but who are believers, who are there to support me. I’m doing what I love. And this time I’m doing it for somebody other than me.”

He’s thankful for the opportunity to sing his new songs before an appreciative audience. And he’s thankful for the newfound serenity that is centered on serving God, his wife Wendy, and his infant son Paul.

“He’s named after the apostle,” Davis explains. “And McCartney and Westerberg. And Les Paul, the great guitarist and guitar designer. It all fits together.”

It certainly does; like a puzzle where the missing piece has finally snapped into place. It’s all part of a new life characterized by hope. It has to do with highways that open up to new vistas of the heart. It has to do with old-fashioned rock ‘n roll and a new suit of clothes. And it fits just fine.

Friday, April 08, 2005

John Prine: On the Outskirts of Paradise

A new article for Paste Magazine ...

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And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
--
John Prine, “Paradise” (1971)

It’s not exactly Paradise. It is, in fact, Nashville – if not Hell, then at least Purgatory – where an aspiring songwriter lurks deep within the heart of every waiter, longing to be set free, and where stardom is only a Stetson hat and an open mic night away. But for John Prine, the gravel-voiced veteran songwriter, it is home. And these days, almost thirty-five years after his stunning debut album, it’s a home that is filled with unexpected joys and pleasures.

“My boys are nine and ten now,” Prine says. “And I do what every proud parent does. I go to Little League baseball games. I attend the school functions. And when I tour, I leave on Thursdays and return on Sundays to make sure I can be around during the school week. It’s not the most exciting life. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

The new, domesticated John Prine is in sharp contrast to the man who spent his twenties in an alcoholic haze. Now 59, his hair is short, hardly longer than the crewcut he must sported back in his Army days, and shot through with grey. The lines on his face reveal the years of hard living. The voice, always a rough and rugged instrument, has been made even coarser by the throat cancer surgery that derailed him at the end of the last millennium. But don’t be deceived. John Prine’s body may have been to hell and back, but this is the man who wrote “Please Don’t Bury Me” and bequeathed his stomach to Milwaukee should that city ever run out of beer. He will not go easily or without a fuss. Thank God. And he shows no signs of letting up now, although his legacy is formidable and cannot really be improved upon.

It’s been that way for a few decades now. John Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album was a mindblower, a perfectly realized collection of songs from a musician already in his prime, one of the best singer/songwriter releases of all time that sounded impossibly wise, irreverently funny, and devastatingly sad, sometimes within the same song. “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery” captured the timeless heart of brokenness, loneliness, and loss, while “Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” showcased his wicked sense of humor and razor-sharp wit. It was a hard act to follow.

“I’d like to think I’m still relevant,” Prine says, thinking back on the musical detonation that was his first album. There are no worries on that front. As long as men and women struggle through loveless marriages, and jingoistic patriots still invoke the glory of the flag (hmm, could such a thing happen in 2005?) and old people still grow lonesome and need someone else to give them a voice, John Prine will remain relevant.

But the question remains. After you deliver a masterpiece at the ripe old age of 24, what do you do for an encore?

In John Prine’s case, you do just fine. You keep making music, you deliver a few more masterpieces along the way, and you string together a thirty-five year career with numerous musical highlights and no real musical low points.

Fair and Square arrived in late April, Prine’s seventeenth album, and his first album of original material in nine years. It’s the kind of album that Prine fans will instantly recognize and love – raucous, tender, funny, wise, and compassionate; the pointed political barbs tempered by the plain-spoken, aw-shucks demeanor that finds Prine more in the company of Will Rogers than Michael Moore.

“I’m kind of dug in by now,” Prine admits. “I’m not really going for a new sound. But I’d like to think I’m dug in about twenty different ways. I do like to mix it up; electric guitars and mandolins on the same song, Hammond B3 organ and pedal steel, bluegrass and rockabilly tossed in there, torch songs, country songs, a little Irish music, all thrown together.” Fair and Square is the typical eclectic Prine jambalaya, and it features the stellar fiddle playing and harmonies of Alison Krauss and the alt-country sass of Mindy Smith. It’s also the first Prine album produced by John Prine. “It’s a really hard job,” Prine says. “I wanted to do it, and I’m glad I did it. But I’m also glad Gary (Paczosa, who has engineered albums for Krauss and Smith) was around to help me out.”

There were a couple new releases between 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, Prine’s last album of original material, and Fair and Square. A live album drew primarily from Prine’s 1990s work, while a superb collection of classic country duets featured Prine’s trademark ragged, soulful vocals paired with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Iris Dement. But nine years is still a long time between stretches of new material. What took so long?

“Well, there was a little thing called throat cancer,” Prine says wryly. Amazingly, he laughs about it. “And what can I say? The writing just goes a lot slower these days. I don’t know why exactly, but it probably has something to do with my two boys, and how busy my life is. With Fair and Square I’d write two or three songs, then head to the studio to lay down some demos, and then six or nine months would go by, and then we’d do it again. Eventually we had an album. I used to just sit around and wait for lightning to strike, for the inspiration to fall on me. Now I actually have to work at it, and I get up in the morning and walk around with a yellow legal pad and jot down ideas as they come to me. I actually schedule time to work on songwriting, and that’s something I never used to do. But it’s still hard to schedule inspiration.”

Whatever it takes, John. Fair and Square has the classic Prine sound and the classic Prine biting wit. The tongue is firmly in cheek on “I Hate It When That Happens to Me” and the self-deprecating “Crazy as a Loon,” but bruised hearts and melancholy are never far from the surface, either, and “The Moon is Down” will surely be recognized as one of Prine’s saddest and most desolate songs. “Yeah, I’m kinda proud of this record,” he finally concedes after some prodding. “It’ll hold up, I think.”

You get the impression that he actually believes it. In an age of relentless self-promotion and raging egos, it’s hard to escape the notion that John Prine might be that rarest of musical creatures– someone who’s endured enough sorrow and experienced enough joy to figure out that there might be more to life than the latest CD promotion.

“I like the album a lot,” he tells me, trying to explain his relatively low-key reaction. “But look, I went through throat cancer surgery in 1998. It was a big deal. It was life threatening. I took a 14- or 15-month break from the music business and had radiation on my throat and vocal chords. And after that I had to drop the key down to sing a lot of my old songs. And it’s funny. They came out as something different than they’d been, almost something new. It’s weird, but I find that I’m enjoying them all over again. They’re like old friends who have changed, but who are still old friends. I travel around, play my songs, and I’m constantly amazed by the people who come to see me. They know all the words and sing along with me. They tell me later how much this or that song or album meant to them. That’s better than any CD release. That’s better than any Grammy award, for that matter. That’s why I do what I do.”

In March, Prine traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to share the stage with Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States. Before an appreciative audience he talked about the songwriting process, played several of those old friends, and soaked up the atmosphere. “I was really honored,” Prine says. “I brought my kids, and we had a great time. It was this old, very formal room, wooden pews, kind of like a church. And then I found out later that it was the same room where Alan Lomax recorded so many of the great artists; Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards. It’s the room where Woody Guthrie recorded his Dust Bowl ballads. How cools is that?”

Characteristically, Prine didn’t include himself in the list of the greats. But there are those who know. For In Spite of Ourselves, his 1999 country duets album, Prine simply picked up the phone and started dialing. “I started calling my favorite female singers,” he said, “all the people I’d ever wanted to sing with. It was a crazy idea, but I just went for it. It didn’t matter what genre. I called Emmylou and Lucinda and Iris. I called Melba Montgomery, who used to sing with George Jones and Charlie Louvin and Gene Pitney. I called Delores Keane, the great Irish singer. And the first nine people I called said ‘Yes.’”

Prine sounds genuinely amazed, but it’s not hard to figure out. Some of the most talented women in music work with him for the same reason that his fans still show up at the concerts. The man knows how to write great songs. He’s been doing it for thirty-five years, and I’m curious to know how the process has changed, how he sees himself now in light of the precociously wise smart-ass who wrote that 1971 masterpiece.

“I barely know that guy anymore,” Prine answers, pondering his words to find just the right tone. “I’m about as far away from that person as I can be, and I can never go back to that place. And you know, I don’t really want to go back to that place. I was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years old when I was writing those songs. I was innocent in some ways, and full of myself in some ways, and I was headed for some trouble and some wild times. Now I go to bed at 10:00 or 10:30 and get up and drive my kids to school. The emotions are mostly the same, because that’s where the songs come from. The politics are probably about the same. But everything else is different.”

“Better different or worse different?” I ask him. He laughs, this cancer survivor, this musical poet laureate, and I know what his answer is going to be.

“Better different,” he says. “There’s no question. Better different.”

It’s not Paradise, but it’s something very, very good all the same. He apologizes, thanks me for the conversation, and tells me that he has to go now. It’s time to pick up the kids from school.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Thoughts on the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music

“I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.” – Jack Kerouac

Kate and I attended the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend. It was a gathering of musicians, academics, producers, writers, and fans, all discussing music from a Christian standpoint, and it was a whole lot of fun.

The music I heard was beautiful, disturbing, otherworldly, earthy, rooted in tradition, avant-garde, childlike, wise. It was all of the above, and more. The highlights for me were Sufjan Stevens’ lovely and ethereal set Friday evening and Pierce Pettis’s and Bill Mallonee’s folk sets Saturday evening. Two acts – The Danielson Famile and Half Handed Cloud -- plied their Captain-Beefheart-meets-Syd-Barrett-and-Mr.-Rogers-in Sunday-School songs before an appreciative audience. You either like this sort of inspired performance art or you don’t. I don’t. It’s the same hipper-than-thou weirdness that turns me off to a lot of indie rock, as if greatness is found in willful amateurism and atonal shrieking. But I have to say that it is comforting and inspiring to know that there are Christians out there who are, in fact, really, really out there. I like the theory, even if I don’t always like the execution. And with some of this music, execution should have been a viable alternative. It was God honoring and godawful.

There were many, many highlights , and a couple lowlights. Let’s dispense with the bad news first. David Dark, a very bright man, and author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, delivered two keynote lectures that were as dense and convoluted as the title of his book. It may be evidence of my feeble mind, but for someone who purports to find meaning in “lowbrow” entertainment, his lectures struck me as heavily academic, surprisingly meandering, and devoid of a point. Or maybe it’s that there were several dozen points, and I was missing the Big Point that was meant to serve as a unifying factor. In short, he had a lot of interesting and good things to say about many things that vaguely had to do with God and culture. Maybe it was an aural collage or something, and I again missed the avant-garde nature of the presentation. The undergraduate take: he used a lot of big words and rambled. Grade: C.

Okay, on to the good stuff. It was great to finally meet Josh and Nick from Paste, after many phone and e-mail conversations. They did a wonderful job of explaining the Paste “worldview” and the guiding principles behind the web site and the magazine. I met Phil Christman and Matt Fink, who write for Paste. It was great to hang out with Bill and Brenda Mallonee. I loved hanging out with Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, a warm and gentle Irish bloke with good things to say. I ate dinner across from Pierce Pettis, and told him how much his music has meant to me. And I talked to his 17-year-old daughter Grace, a delightful spitfire, about Charles Darwin of all things, surely the most intense discussion with a 17-year-old I’ve ever had. I talked about music criticism with Sufjan Stevens, and puzzled with him over how to resolve the conundrum of using words to explain what cannot be adequately captured in words. And I met Dan and Amy Fox from Columbus, whose words I have read with interest, but whose faces were unknown until Friday. That was a pleasure. I met many other delightful fans of music -- guys in their thirties in Led Zeppelin cover bands, aspiring musicians who have just moved to NYC, lots and lots of folks with fire in their belliles and a burning desire to ramble on about how rock 'n roll saved their lives, just like me.

I think my workshop on music criticism went well. I enjoyed it. It seemed to flow fairly well. I babbled for a while, showed some slides, and played some music. People asked good questions. And before I knew it, it was over. Then I was inundated with kids wanting to drop off their band’s CD so that I could, you know, maybe listen to it and review it. And kids who were aspiring music critics who wanted to know how to get into the business (my advice: luck out and get on a mailing list with guys who want to start a music magazine). And assorted hangers-on and well wishers who just wanted to talk about music. It was a blast.

I was also struck by how difficult and how lonely this way of life is. We talked with some old friends until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Their marriage is crumbling. It may not survive. And it may not survive because of the damned artistic ego; the ego that is absolutely necessary to sustain an artist in the midst of indifference and apathy; and the ego that is hungry and thirsty for affirmation from others, even when that affirmation comes from a place of brokenness and dysfunction. I understand it. I am not immune to those temptations, and I fully appreciate how easy it would be to head down a path that leads to destruction. I intend no judgment here. But I do hate it. I hate the damage it does to human beings, the pain it causes, the emotional wreckage that results. God have mercy on us, artistic bastards that we are.

And so it was bittersweet; much joy, but also a fair amount of sorrow, wondrously affirming and deeply disturbing. It beat the hell out of sitting around the house watching basketball. It was a holy mess.