Wednesday, March 29, 2006

For the Record: An Elegiac, Nostalgic Whine About the Past

I now have an iPod. I like it. After almost non-stop activity over the course of the past two weekends, I have now transferred some 2,100 songs from my music collection to my computer to my iPod. Only 100,000 or so to go. All I need now is a 400 GB external hard drive and another seven or eight 30 GB iPods to hold it all. Still, I’m happy. I tend to listen to the iPod in Shuffle mode, my own private jukebox that plays the best music in the world -- mine. But there is a part of me that mourns what is passing. And what is passing is this:

Once upon a time, in a land called Campus Ghetto, a smattering of cultural outposts known as record stores beckoned the unsuspecting music fanatic. And the brave inhabitants of Campus Ghetto could, if they dared, venture from record store to record store, browsing to their heart's content amidst stacks of vinyl in musty, smelly attics and dank basements. But there were dangers everywhere. The brave musical fanatic might encounter that out-of-print Emmitt Rhodes album in the used shop, or an intriguing Muddy Waters/Eric Clapton collaboration that was just too good to pass up, but he was likely to arrive home with a stack of vinyl under the arm, a hefty credit card bill, and a spouse who wondered how they were going to eat for the next week. One typical response that I’ve heard music fanatics give: Let them eat Cake. Not that Cake was all that good of a band.

Getting past the sales counter was part of the adventure. Kurt Schieber, owner of Schoolkids Records in Columbus, Ohio -- record producer, concert promoter, music critic for the local rag, and unofficial Arbiter of Cool -- would invariably offer his opinions on the records in the stack. A smirk and a raised eyebrow was enough to cause deep dejection that could linger for days. A smile or an approving nod was enough to lift the spirits.

But that was then. Now you never have to talk to a human being. You never have to interact with the snarky record store clerk with his Mohawk and his minimum-wage salary and his head full of music trivia. You never have to argue with Kurt Schieber about the merits of Boston (technological dweebs or musical innovators?) or whether Elton John officially lost it after 1971’s Madman Across the Water (my take) or a couple years later after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Kurt’s take). You can just click a mouse button, download from iMusic, and never experience anything more challenging than a five-minute wait time for your new album.

Excuse me. I mean songs. I don’t know if people buy albums anymore. Maybe they do. But most people I know download songs. Albums are those puzzling anachronisms from which you choose the songs that are really good.

Which is too bad. Because I really like albums. As in record albums. I like the physicality of them, the weight of the vinyl, the big gatefold covers with the outrageous artwork, the way they line up on shelves to provide the perfect Space Age Bachelor Pad look. And the truth is, a lot of music is best heard in the context of similar music, and I’m not talking about overblown, forty-five minute, multi-part cosmic prog rock suites, either. Born to Run wasn’t the title single and a bunch of filler. It was a fully realized collection of songs about growing up romantic and desperate in Jersey, and the whole was most definitely greater than the sum of the parts. The unbridled passion and hope of “Thunder Road” eventually gave way to the grim realities of “Jungleland,” and you realized that maybe the kid didn’t find redemption beneath a dirty hood after all. You don’t find those connections in individual songs. You find them in albums.

And I hate to admit it, but I miss the guy with the Mohawk. He was a pretentious jerk, but he knew his stuff, and he always set aside new releases from Any Trouble and Human Sexual Response for me because he knew that I, of all the denizens of Campus Ghetto, would most appreciate them. Interacting with Biff at Best Buy just isn’t the same. Biff plays clarinet in the high school marching band. He would snicker at a band called Human Sexual Response, but he wouldn’t listen to them.

Schoolkids Records burned to the ground five or six years ago. Kurt gave up the record store business and contents himself with writing music reviews in The Columbus Dispatch. He probably has an iPod, too. But I bet my iPod jukebox is better than his. I’ll probably never run in to him to find out, though. There is no “there” anymore. I can take my iPod anywhere, which sometimes seems suspiciously like nowhere.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Caught Up in the Story

For as long as I can remember I have loved stories and I have told stories. When I was nine or ten years old the neighborhood kids would congregate in my garage and ask me to make up stories. And I did. Hopefully they never told their parents. God knows what they would have thought. I had recently discovered creepy ghost stories and monster movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and my stories usually involved variations on haunted houses where the eyes in the paintings moved, or strange half-man, half-lizard hybrids that would slink from the lake to terrorize the local inhabitants. Usually I would combine the two themes, with the lizard ending up in the haunted house. But the neighborhood kids were an easy audience, and these tales enthralled them. They could have listened forever, or at least until their moms called them in for lunch. At any rate, they would usually ask me to tell them another one, and I would oblige, making up more ghastly, spooky stuff as I went along.

But truth is always stranger than fiction, even when it comes to ghastly, spooky stuff. Here’s another story. Mark Palmer was a young man I never met. He was the pastor of a small house church in Columbus, Ohio, and he had a profoundly positive impact on many of my friends. Two years ago his wife Jennifer died of cancer, leaving behind a grieving husband and an infant son. Mark remarried a little over a year later, and was only a few months into his new marriage when he found out that he had colon cancer. Yesterday, he lost his long, courageous fight to that dreaded disease, leaving behind a grieving wife and a four-year-old son who celebrated his birthday the day before daddy died. He will be too young to remember his parents. Here is Mark’s story in his own words, except for the last few entries, which were completed by his wife. I shake my head. The tears well up in my eyes for a man I didn’t even know. It’s unbelievable; no one could possibly believe it. It’s too melodramatic. Any good editor would tell you that it’s way, way over the top.

Thirty years ago I got caught up in another story, the one of Jesus of Nazareth. I had spent six months of Ohio University dormitory life arguing, often vehemently and derisively, against the idiotic tenets of the Christian faith with people who had the annoying habit of loving me in spite of my best efforts to alienate them and piss them off. I couldn’t get rid of them. And I couldn’t get rid of Jesus, either. I read his story, the one contained in the four gospels, and he was just as profoundly annoying. I wanted to admire him from a respectful but uninvolved distance, kind of like Abe Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi, and he wanted to be followed and worshipped. It was puzzling. For a megalomaniac he was remarkably gentle and inviting. For the so-called Lord of the Universe he was concerned about the smallest, most insignificant things – lost lambs, prostitutes, slimy corporate tax collectors, half breeds, poor widows, the homeless, prisoners in jail, the sick, the grieving -- all manner of people who didn’t have their shit together, just like me. And so I decided to give this Christianity thing a trial run. If not completely satisfied within thirty days, I could revoke my conversion and my emotional and spiritual investment would be cheerfully refunded. At least that’s how I approached it at the time. And, to be honest, there were ulterior motives as well. The girl I loved was falling in love with Jesus. And I didn’t want to be left out of the action, although at the time I wasn’t really sure that the action had a lot to do with Jesus.

And so, on March 28, 1976, thirty years ago today, lying alone in an Ohio University dormitory bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior and I prayed the “sinner’s prayer.” I probably didn’t think of it precisely in those terms. The “selfish asshole” prayer probably would have been the preferred terminology because that was who I better understood myself to be. But it was sincere as far as it went. I was a selfish asshole, and I had been a major jerk to people who had done nothing but care for and about me, and I wasn’t proud of that fact. It was, at best, a conflicted conversion, half prompted by love and half prompted by lust. Make of that what you will. And that was pretty much what I prayed. Make of that what you will, God. If you can do anything with this conflicted mess, you’re welcome to it.

Thirty years down the line it’s still a mess. Look at what happened yesterday and try to fathom the bottomless hole in the hearts of many people in Columbus, Ohio, and that four-year-old little boy left without a mother or father. There are no words and there are no explanations other than perhaps love, a love that is somehow as real as it is inscrutable and mysterious. Don’t try to grasp that cognitively. It doesn’t work. But it’s true. And it’s okay to admit that it’s a big mess.

All I know is that the story goes on. I was wrong. It turned out that the action had a lot to do with Jesus. There have been days (okay, years) when I’ve tried to run away from that, numb it, keep it at a safe, manageable, respectable distance. But Jesus isn’t manageable or respectable. He breaks into the pain sometimes, and sometimes he doesn’t, and there’s no predicting it, no magical incantation to make it work, nothing but the assurance that the story doesn’t end, and that we’re caught up in a tale that will go on forever.

I am not the same person I was thirty years ago. And yet, in some ways, nothing has changed. I keep repeating the same prayer every time I’m faced with the inscrutable. “I don’t understand,” I tell God. “I’m angry, and confused, and more sad than you can imagine. And I love you. Make of that what you will. If you can do anything with that, you’re welcome to it.”

And that’s what I pray today. The story doesn’t end. It keeps going. I’ve seen that again and again in my own life, times when I have despaired of hope, times when I was convinced that God could not change me, that I was destined to sink under my own selfish assholedness, but it wasn’t the end, and God had another chapter to write. The story goes on, and I’m still caught up in it. It can’t be stopped by impure or mixed motives or lust or addiction or fucking cancer, which I hate with all my heart. It’s a good story; the best story, in fact, better than anything I could ever make up. It’s the story of the gentle and inscrutable mercy of God, and I pray that the family and friends of Mark Palmer will be caught up in it today.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Living Bubba

... or why rock 'n roll matters (from Paste Magazine)

I wake up tired and I wake up pissed
wonder how I ended up like this
I wonder why things happen like they do
but I don't wonder long cuz I got a show to do

I'm sick at my stomach from the A.Z.T.
Broke at my bank 'cause that shit ain't free
but I'm here to stay (at least another week or two)
I can't die now cuz I got another show to do

Don't give me no pity don't give me no grief
Wait till I die for sympathy
Just help me with this amp and a guitar or two
I can't die now cuz I got another show to do

Don't give me no preachin' no self servin'
I ain't no angel but nobody's deserving
I can dance on my own grave, Thank You!
but I can't die now cuz I got another show...

Some people keep saying I can't last long
but I got my bands I got my songs,
liquor, beer, and nicotine to help me along
and I'm drunk and stubborn as they come
chain smoking, guitar picking, til I'm gone gone gone

I ain't got no political agenda
Ain't got no message for the youth of America
'cept "Wear a rubber and be careful who you screw"
and come see me next Friday cuz I got another show...

Some people stop living long before they die
Work a dead end job just to scrape on by
but I keep living just to bend that note in two
and I can't die now cuz I got another show...
-- Drive-By Truckers, "The Living Bubba"

In 1997, Drive-By Truckers played Bubbapalooza for the first time. An annual festival at Atlanta’s immortal Star Community Bar in Little Five Points, Bubbapalooza was a three-night showcase for a tragedy-laden little movement called “The Redneck Underground.” The movement was named and originally led by a performance artist named Deacon Lunchbox, who’s rising star was cut way too short by a horrific van accident that also claimed the life of half of Atlanta’s fantastic, The Jody Grind. Surviving members Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft went on to become vital members of the Atlanta and Chicago music communities in the years to come. Bubbapalooza itself was the brainchild of doomed Cabbagetown guitarist and songwriter Gregory Dean Smalley.

In 1995, I had been employed as a sound guy for a small club in Athens, Ga. called The High Hat Club. I was a fan of one of Greg’s bands, The Diggers. They were everything I needed at the time—rude and loud and very belligerent. If Greg were to cover “Shoot Out the Lights,” he’d probably introduce it as a song “by my favorite wife beater.” Towards the end of many a night, Greg ended up on stage butt-naked. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man before he got sick. Unfortunately, by ’95, Greg was dying of AIDS. He responded to his death sentence by joining several more bands and playing constantly, sometimes several nights a week.

On any given night, I’d head to work at 9pm to sound check whatever band was playing. On the other hand, if Greg was playing, I always headed in an hour early to make sure I had everything in proper order for him. If this f---er could get up there and play in that condition, he certainly wasn’t going to have to wait around for me to get my shit together. Most of the times he played there, he was fronting a rag-tag outfit called Gregory Dean and the Bubbamatics. They played a mixture of Greg’s songs from various bands he’d been in, a few songs by some of his friends (including Scott Miller), a few rambunctious country covers by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, a blistering version of Georgia Satellites’ “Six Years Gone” and a bluegrass version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stump From the Sun” (sic).

Some of his antics were silly and seemed ridiculous, except that Greg had only weeks to live. He was a true believer. His songs cooked under their seemingly funny surface to reveal the same ageless longings that have earmarked great rock ’n’ roll songs since the beginning of the form. He would sound check, then head upstairs to High Hat’s cramped little office, where he would rest until showtime. Some nights, it would take him what seemed like an eternity to climb those stairs, and he would seem totally drained by the time he reached the top. I’d take him a joint I brought from home, in case he wanted it, and he was all too happy to light it up.

We’d sit there and have a little idle chatter. We weren’t close friends by any stretch; I hardly knew him before that time. I was, however, blown away by his conviction and what he was doing. It made me question and eventually reaffirm my own convictions and beliefs. Usually we just talked about surface stuff. The time he opened for Hellhounds, how he loved the Georgia Satellites and hated Gram Parsons. Greg was very opinionated and relished a good disagreement. It sometimes felt like he was giving you the flinch test. He’d tell an offhand joke about his condition and then measure our response. He didn’t want pity and by his very actions he commanded respect.

Some nights, he’d place a barstool on stage behind where he stood to prop him up for the set. When he wasn’t singing, he would lean back on that barstool and play his ass off. He would lean forward semi-upright and sing in that raggedy voice and crack nasty jokes between songs, occasionally looking like he was about to fall off the stool and drop dead on stage, but he stayed on his feet and never went down. As the terrible disease progressed, he got worse and worse. But the shows stayed consistently rock solid.

These were not packed houses, mind you. Some nights there wouldn’t be but eight or nine people in the audience. That wasn’t the point. The point was the playing. The Rock. By that time, it was what he was living for. It was the point of his existence.

I need to reiterate that I didn’t really know Greg well—not his hopes or dreams, not his family. I only knew a few of his friends and I was just getting to know them. And they weren’t all that informative. Greg did seem prone to self-mytholization (who ain’t), and, whether intentional or not (again, I don’t really know), his larger-than-life persona combined with his tiny physical stature made him the kind of man myths revolve around. On top of all this, he loved a good story and would certainly not hesitate to exaggerate if it enhanced the entertainment value. He was, as I said, a true entertainer and was constantly performing—whether it was on stage or in that tiny office.

I didn’t know either of Greg’s wives, and have still never met his son. I know he loved him, because folks who knew him better said so, and I certainly never saw any hint of a guy who would ever feel otherwise. But I was just a hired soundman with a beer and a joint. I was the guy you tell to turn up your monitor, someone who you might talk about a rock record with. Not someone you confide in or share your personal feelings with. Greg wasn’t that type anyway, and he just didn’t know me that well.

The next to last time he ever played the High Hat, he was feeling a little better and was “on” as shit. He played one of the most amazing rock shows I have ever seen in a small club (and Lord knows that’s where the best rock shows live). He and his band were all obviously having a great time. I was thrilled I’d thought to bring my boombox so I could at least get a good room tape of the show. Unfortunately, the boombox was very old and decided to crap out and eat my tape that night, so the show only lives in my memory (which is probably alright anyway).

Three weeks later he returned, but it was all different then. He looked 90 years old, and his weight had fallen to well below 100 pounds. Death was definitely closing in on him and he knew it. As we were smoking upstairs, he suddenly looked me square in the eyes and said, “You know, I’m dying, man.” “Yeah,” I said. There wasn’t really anything else to say, but I guess he just needed to verbally acknowledge it.

I did manage to get that night’s show on tape, and it’s one of my prize possessions. Technically, it wasn’t nearly the equal of the one that got away. The show was, however, even more miraculous, given his deteriorating condition. After the show, Greg went ahead and booked the band for another show the next month. He also asked me if I wanted to open for him at a show in Atlanta.

Later, after Greg’s death, another member of “The Redneck Underground,” Redneck Greece compiled a CD of Greg’s songs (Bubbapalooza Volume 2). Most were covered by other people, as Greg didn’t get to record nearly enough during his too short life. They did use one of my “boombox recordings” (Smalley’s gnarly “State of Co-Dependency”) from that evening.
I was still in the process of putting together my band, Drive-By Truckers (our first show was still three months away), and I was picking up gigs whenever and wherever I could with a band called The Possibilities. They had been together for years by that time, and would sometimes, as a side project, back me up on my own songs under the name The Lot Lizards. (Lot Lizard is trucker slang for a prostitute who sometimes frequents truck stops and rest areas, providing her service for lonely truckers).

The show was at a small dive called Dottie’s and it was my first time ever playing in Atlanta with a band. Greg was playing that night with Redneck Greece under the name Small Greece. It turned out to be his last live performance. We played a hard rocking set and were quite well received. Small Greece was excellent. There was a better crowd than any of the High Hat shows and Greg, although not feeling well, was in better spirits.

During a rambunctious cover of a Waylon Jennings song (forgive me for not remembering which one), Greg had a coughing fit and had to skip a verse. Annoyed, at the end of the song, Greg snarled into the microphone “Sorry about that second verse but I didn’t wear a rubber.”

You could hear a pin drop in the crowded club that moment. But Greg just laughed then launched into another rocker. Unapologetic and unflinching. Anyone else’s awkward discomfort was not his concern. He had the meanness and a job to do. He didn’t have time for that shit. He only had a little bit of time left and he had a lot he still wanted to do.

A few days later, my band and I were invited to play Bubbbapalooza. Greg had arranged it. I called him to thank him, but his wife answered the phone. She said that Greg was very sick and was back in the hospital. This time he probably wouldn’t be coming out. I felt bitch-slapped and went out to walk my dog. While out in the field behind my house, a song hit me and I ran back inside to write it down before it slipped away. I wrote it in about the same length of time it takes to play it live.

Greg passed away a few days later. He went home and died at his mother’s house. Many of his closest friends were there by his side holding him in their arms. Only hours before he passed he was playing his guitar and watching “Raising Arizona.” A couple of days later, the show he had booked at the High Hat became a memorial show in his honor. It was packed with friends as well as folks who had never seen him in his lifetime. Redneck read a letter from his son Raymond (then about 9 or 10 years old) and everyone had tears rolling down their faces. There was much partying and much good rock played that night. Somewhere, he was smiling and making shit-eating remarks about how much better he was already drawing in death.

We played Bubbapalooza that May 25th at 6pm in front of about a dozen people. It was The Lot Lizard’s last gig. I already had the lineup together for my new band, but alas, fate had to jump in one more time. Late that night, my good friend and soon to be band-mate Chris Quillen was killed in a car accident.

Over the course of the next year, Drive-By Truckers did some recording, picked up as many shows as we could and began building a following, particularly in Atlanta at Dottie’s and The Star Bar. I was, at first, hesitant to play “The Living Bubba” live, as I really didn’t know Greg all that well and felt I had no right to write anything so personal (from his point of view, no less). But I did confide it to a few close mutual friends who were always very complimentary and all said I should play it for Greg’s Mama.

In May of 1997, we played Bubbapalooza in front of a packed house that included “Mama” (as everyone affectionately called her). As we began “The Living Bubba” she walked up to the front of the stage and stared me square in the eyes as I sang Greg’s song. When it was over, she walked up on stage, threw her arms around me and said “You done my boy right.” No review or compliment that my band or me ever get will ever equal that. - Patterson Hood, lead singer/songwriter for The Drive-By Truckers - May 29, 2003

Sufjan Stevens, Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal

From a review of Sufjan Stevens’ album Seven Swans on “Sufjan Stevens could calm even Chuck Norris down with the sound of his voice.”

Now, this is a fairly audacious claim. Chuck Norris is the most easily excitable man in the universe, and he could kick your sorry butt if he was a quadriplegic, so it would take something far more powerful than Sufjan’s admittedly pleasant voice, something along the lines of half a dozen elephant darts filled with the most powerful sedatives known to man or beast and fired directly into Chuck’s bulging pecs, to calm him down. And even then he could still fend off several Ninjas and/or terrorists if the need arose.

In a more realistic comparison, Sufjan Stevens could almost certainly calm Steven Segal with the sound of his voice.

From Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt Energy Drink Asian Experience web site:

Cold Weather Alert: Due to the cold temperatures of the winter months, customers have been experiencing exploding Bawls. We at Xoxide are very concerned for the safety of our customers and do not wish for their Bawls to freeze. We recommend that if the ambient temperature of your area is at or below freezing, that you refrain from ordering carbonated caffeine beverages during this time. Customers who wish to place orders for these products may do so at their own risk. Neither Xoxide nor UPS will replace, refund, or process any claims for broken Bawls, exploded Rocket Fuel, or any other damaged beverage during this time.

I’ve seen strong, virile men erupt in exploding bawls at Sufjan concerts; overcome with great, heaving sobs as Sufjan sings of John Wayne Gacy Jr. and his friend who died on Casimir Pulaski Day. This seems to be a natural, although heretofore unexplored, connection that Sufjan may want to investigate. The Stevens/Steven connection is almost assuredly a heavenly sign. The whole Sufjan Stevens Energy Drink angle probably merits some attention as well, and may sell particularly briskly in Reformed church youth groups or warmer climates.

Find Your Blog Cloud

What is a blog cloud? It's an analysis of all the words used in your blog, displayed as a cloud graph in which the most frequently used words appear in a larger point size than the less frequently used words.

So what do you really talk about on your blog? Find out here.

The words that appear most frequently in my blog: Album, Andy, Emily, God, Good, Jesus, Life, Like, Love, Kate, Music, People, Rachel, Time, Years. I can live with that.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Steve Earle and Scott Miller

Steve Earle might have been the best rock 'n roll songwriter during the Clinton administration, and he had a run of six albums that started with 1995's Train a Comin' and ended with 200o's Transcendental Blues that was as great as the legendary string of releases put together by The Beatles and Bob Dylan in the '60s, Van Morrison from the late-'60s to the mid-'70s, and Bruce Springsteen from the mid-'70s through the early '80s. Then George Bush got elected, Steve got pissed off, and his once-finely-nuanced lyrics turned all mushbrained and self-righteous.

Here's his incisive political commentary on Condoleeza Rice from his latest album The Revolution Starts Now:

Oh Condi, Condi I’m talkin’ to you girl
What’s it gonna hurt come on give me a whirl
Shake your body now let me see you go
One time for me Oh Condi I love you so
Skank for me Condi show me what you got
They say you’re too uptight I say you’re not
Dance around me spinnin’ like a top
Oh Condi Condi Condi don’t ever stop

For the (Congressional) record, I am no fan of the Bush administration in general or Condoleeza Rice in particular, but this kind of condescending smarminess is distasteful at best, and at worst the kind of misogynistic shite that gives men a bad name. So until Steve recovers his brain (probably after the 2008 presidential election, assuming a Democrat is elected), I'm going to pass on future releases and look for solace elsewhere.

And recently I've found it in an unassuming guy named Scott Miller. Scott is the former leader of a band called the V-Roys, who put out several good to great albums in the late nineties and the early part of the oughties. He was signed to Steve Earle's Artemis label for good reason; he sounds just like Steve Earle. And more importantly, he still writes songs like Steve Earle used to write, like this one from his brand new album Citation, which covers the same overheated territory as Steve's Condi song, but which does it much more poetically, and with some evidence that its author has been taking his cues from Bruce Springsteen rather than Michael Moore:

Back when freedom was a stranger
But it was something we felt
I found myself a girlfriend
I couldn’t believe it myself
We took a Chevy Citation
That a friend would let us use
When we got tired of waiting
For what we wanted to do
I had her crawling up the window
She had me shaking in my seat
I could smell her on my fingers
She said I tasted so sweet

Just some West Virginia back roads
There never was much else
Jam a tape into the player
I couldn’t believe it myself
Those drums they shook the speakers
The bass it shook me to the core
If the Boss had been a preacher
He could ‘ve led us to the Lord
She knew all the lyrics
And they sang so true
Just two rock n’ roll spirits
With nothing better to do

Now the past it is a stranger
And I found someone else
Got car payments and a mortgage
I can’t believe it myself
But I don’t mind getting older
If you get smarter when you do
And the burdens that you shoulder
Well, that’s what defines you
I’m sure they crushed the Citation
I know the 8 track broke
We’re such a complicated nation
But I still got rock n’ roll

Yeah, I've got the English degree, and like flowery odes to sunsets. But you still can't beat songs about cars and girls. And since Steve is only writing about girls in power, and since Bruce is driving a luxury SUV, I'm going to stick with blue collar Scott Miller and Chevy Citations.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Paste Issue #21

The new issue of Paste Magazine is out, with The Flaming Lips on the cover. There are great stories on the Lips, Built to Spill, and one of my musical heroes, Alejandro Escovedo. I have a column on the late, great bluesman Chris Whitley, and about half a dozen album reviews.

And while I always appreciate the accompanying CD and/or DVD, let me note that this issue has both, and they are both superb. Usually the hit/miss ratio on the CD is about 50/50 for me, but this time it's about 75/25, with absolutely great songs from Built to Spill, Rhett Miller (of the best cowpunk band in the world, The Old 97's), Guster, The Wood Brothers (of Medeski, Martin, and Wood), Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda), Donald Fagen (the mastermind behind Steely Dan) and Norah Jones' side project The Little Willies. The DVD might be even better, and features 30 music videos (as eclectic a bunch of videos as you'll ever find, including Johnny Cash, Bright Eyes, Beth Orton, Merle Haggard ("Mama Tried"!), The Decemberists, Amos Lee, The Arcade Fire, and Bloc Party), a batch of fine short indie films, and a video record of the fact that the editors really do appear on CNN once per week.

What, you're not familiar with Paste? Then hie thee to your neighborhood Barnes and Noble or Borders, or if you're feeling lazy and don't want to venture out into the snow, as I'm feeling today, you can always subscribe here.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Embracing Suffering

One of the hallmarks of my church, and one I very much appreciate, is its focus on embracing suffering. The idea is that where there is brokenness, darkness, dysfunction, that is where the church should be. I’m thankful for the many people in my church who lay it on the line daily, often at great risk to themselves, and who strive to be light in the midst of sometimes overwhelming darkness. They do it within our church community in ministering to the broken people in our midst (pretty much all of us, as best I can tell), within our local community as a whole, and indeed throughout the world. They do it by reaching out to those who reside in a nursing home for the destitute in Columbus, Ohio, by bringing life and love to orphans in Cambodia, by offering healing and wholeness to kids sold into sex slavery in Thailand. It’s not about writing checks. It’s about being there, in person, and being the face and arms and legs and heart of Jesus for real, tangible human beings of infinite worth.

I confess that I often feel inadequate and overwhelmed by such a focus. I like my nice, comfortable suburban life. Confrontations with the Boss from Hell often seem like all of the spiritual drama I need during any given week, and I have no great desire to ratchet up the level of warfare. Embrace suffering? Maybe I’ll just write about it. Let’s call it a big blog hug and be done with it, okay?

Without going in to too many gory details, my family history, what I lived with growing up, included adultery, alcoholism, mental illness, emotional and physical abuse, suicide attempts, ambulance lights flashing in the driveway in the middle of the night. You would think that someone in his fifties ought to be over it by now, but I am not. My natural inclination is still to run from it, and in the past I’ve chosen some fairly unhealthy ways of running. My family coped, if you can call it that, by ignoring the madness. We never talked about it, and we studiously avoided any mention of the insanity. Pay no attention to that slavering, fanged monster over in the corner.

I used to think that no one could have possibly experienced some of the things I’ve experienced. I told myself that somehow the level of suffering I encountered was enough for anyone in one lifetime, that I’d had my quota, and that nobody would understand me or believe me if I shared my story anyway. I’ve since come to realize that my story is far from unique, that many people have experienced variations on the Theme from Terror World, and that what I encountered was only a tiresome repetition of an old, sad story.

And so on some level I came to an uneasy truce with my past. I recognized it for what it was, found some level of healing and wholeness, and experienced some degree of real freedom and joy in my new life with my wife and kids. I figured that I’d carry the shrapnel around until I died, but at least I wasn’t going to die from my wounds.

Over the course of the last year the shrapnel has flared up again, and old wounds that I thought were healed have become infected and inflamed and angry red. I don’t know of a powder or pill for this, but I do know of a church, and a counselor, who have proved invaluable in helping me. And so, last Saturday, I sat down with my father and had the first real conversation I’d had with him in more than thirty years. We talked about the past, about the big, fanged monster, and I called it by name, and didn’t flinch, and spoke from a place of brokenness, because that is who and what I am. I spoke not to blame, but because I wanted to embrace suffering, to tell him that all of that pain and remorse can be healed, and that it hurts like hell but that it’s worth it.

And he talked. It was like the floodgates were opened. It wasn’t magical. Nothing can restore the past that is gone. But at least it was honest, and he talked about remorse, and he apologized, and I talked about forgiveness, and I hugged him for the first time in decades and didn’t feel like I was embracing raw sewage. Why is it that I can readily believe that some unknown, anonymous kid in Cambodia is of infinite worth, while I can’t believe that my parents are worth the time of day? But I at least caught a glimpse of the truth. Even him, Lord. Please redeem him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Cambodia. Maybe I will. But I do know that last weekend I went to a place that I had never gone. It was a risky journey, one worth mentioning and commemorating. For those of you who are praying types, please pray that I’ll make the return trip, and that I’ll find it in my heart to embrace suffering.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I Have Succumbed

To this.

And this.

For those of you too lazy to follow the links, that's a 30 GB iPod With Video Playback (Black) and an Altec Lansing InMotion IM7 Portable Audio System. The iPod will be fun, but the little earbud is a serious problem (particularly when you've already got a hearing aid in your ear), so I'm most excited about the iPod cradle/docking station/speakers. First, the contraption looks like a big mortar shell, so if you can't drive particularly annoying people crazy through the music you play, you can actually lob the device at them and cause serious damage. Second, I was amazed by the quality of sound that comes out of that little mortar shell. I compared it to the better-known and higher priced Bose SoundDock, and thought it blew the Bose out of the water.

I'm a happy guy. Anybody know an easy way to convert vinyl --> .wav files --> MP3s --> the IPod?

An Uncool Rant

Some anonymous person sent me a nasty e-mail message that accused me of trying desperately to be cool, and that essentially stated that fifty-year-old rock 'n roll critics were kind of pathetic. I should apparently take up mahjong or bingo and eventually just quietly shuffle off to the nursing home.

For all you inquiring minds out there, I am a fifty-year-old balding guy with a beer gut and a hearing aid. If I have ever been cool, it was sometime back in the Nixon administration. And if you think I am currently laboring under the delusion of being cool, I will be happy to introduce you to my wife and daughters, who will be more than glad to share my many uncool moments with you, some involving flatulence and drool (although never at the same time, to my knowledge).

It is apparently scandalous to some people that a middle-aged geezer should like rock 'n roll. If I were acting my age, I would limit my conversation to golf, fertilizer, and my 401K plan, and if I wanted to talk about music, I could occasionally bring up Lawrence Welk or wistfully look back on Beatlemania. Well, I plead guilty. I have never stopped caring about music. More true confessions: I have also never stopped reading or going to the movies, juvenile though these activities may be. I have never figured out that at some age, apparently now long past for me, "maturity" is supposed to set in and I'm supposed to become a Boring Old Fart and stop engaging my mind. If that is immaturity, then I'm willing to live with it.

None of it has a thing to do with being cool. It has to do with being human, and being alive. So look at me, Mr. Anonymous Critic, being uncool by blowing my cool. If that helps to reinforce your stereotypes, then I'm happy to oblige.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What I Am Missing


"In its 19-year history, it has grown from being a jolly spring get-together for a few hundred US indie labels and musicians in search of a deal, to an international gathering that is the most important date in our music industry calendar." The Guardian, March 25, 2005

1,400 bands. Sixty stages. Six days of dawn-til-dawn general musical mayhem, non-stop concerts, schmoozing with the industry movers and shakers, free beer and barbeque all week long just for flashing the shiny press badge, backstage passes and interviews with my favorite musicians in the world, and a chance to hang in one of the coolest cities on the planet, Austin, Texas.

Every year I delete all my e-mail invitations, don't send away for the press badge that could be mine, decline my Paste brethren's gracious invitations to attend, and remain in Columbus, Ohio instead, earn a paycheck, put the kid (soon kids) through college, and write, at least this particular year, the J.P. Morgan Chase Network Node Manager (NNM) Installation and Configuration Guide. Hmm, The New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian, and Mogwai, all on the same stage at the same tiny venue, or more documentation on the Duplicate Message Reduction dedup.conf tool? Choices, choices.

I will not be bitter. I will not envy my Paste brethren and their damned short sleeves in the seventy-degree weather and their hospitality tent featuring free beer and barbeque and performances by Richard Julian, Collin Herring, Amos Lee, World Party, The Plimsouls (The re-formed Plimsouls! With Peter Case! Good God.), and The Go! Team. I will not grow resentful over the Ohio sleet and the NNM Installation and Configuration Guide. I will be a happy corporate boy and sit on my swivel chair in my cubicle and think happy corporate thoughts.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Current Listening

What has caught my ear of late …

Van Morrison – Pay the Devil – Van could sing the proverbial phone book, and I’d be hanging on his every digit. Here he’s singing country classics from the likes of George Jones and Hank Williams, complete with sobbing pedal steel and hoedown fiddles. It’s not as incongruous as it sounds. Van may be a classic soul/R&B singer in the vein of Ray Charles (insert bad heroin addiction joke here), but George and Hank had soul to spare as well, and these songs translate well. Thankfully, Van makes no attempt to replicate the twang in his vocals. He simply sounds like Van Morrison, and when he bites down hard on a bluesy, boozy 3:00 a.m. torch song like “Big Blue Diamonds,” he simply owns the material. It’s another fine album from a restless musical spirit who can pretty much do whatever he pleases.

Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts of the Great Highway – This album is several years old now, and I keep coming back to it. It’s probably been in the CD player more frequently than any other album during that time. Mark Kozelek, former lead singer and songwriter for Red House Painters, has always had a serious Neil Young fixation, both in the high-register whine of his vocals and in the sonic shredding of his electric guitar. The shredding is still in evidence, particularly on “Salvador Sanchez,” but he mostly dials it back on this pensive, introspective, and frequently beautiful acoustic set. It’s a classic sound, Neil in Harvest mode more than Crazy Horse mode, but what really wins me over are the songs, which are uniformly well written, full of longing and remorse and not always happy memories, a guy wrestling with creeping mortality and the ghosts of loved ones.

I put my feet up on the coffee table
I stay up late watching cable
I like old movies with Clarke Gable
Just like my dad did

I think I’ve seen that movie, and I think I’ve lived that memory. So maybe this is my soundtrack to my fifties. I surely love the album.

Iarla O Lionaird – Invisible Fields – The best album I’ve heard in this still young year. Irishman O Lionaird sings in Gaelic, and these ballads in lesser hands could induce the Snorin’ o’ the Green. Fortunately, he has a spectacular tenor that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Even more impressively, O Lionaird is a sonic adventurer, not content to regurgitate traditional sounds. What he does with synthesizers and harmoniums here is akin to what Sigur Ros does with the electric guitar, and the slowly building whisper-to-a-scream crescendos will remind you of Iceland’s most famous sons. This is ravishingly lovely music, the kind you put on when the cherubim drop by for a pint of Guinness.

The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving and Reconstruction Site – I’m not sure what it is about Manitoba. It’s got to be one of the most godforsaken regions of the world, full of snow eight months per year and wheat and little else the other four, and the only reasonably close place to vacation is Fargo. One might think that the provincial pastime would be suicide. But tenaciously life affirming poetic souls seem to spring up there just the same, first Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, now John Samson, lead singer and songwriter for The Weakerthans. Samson can do introspective navel gazing like Joni, but on songs like “Aside” and “The Reasons” he updates the venerable genre and still rocks like crazy, something of which Joni could never be accused. He mixes it up with elements of power pop, punk, country rock, and folk. The only constant is the consistently excellent writing. These two albums are like old friends, and the literate, power-chord loving Samson sounds wise beyond his years.

Rock Kills Kid – Are You Nervous? – Yes, this is a blatant U2 knockoff, and there are times you’d swear that you’re listening to a previously unknown outtake from Boy or War. But previously unknown outtakes from those albums still sound like a better idea to me than, say, Zooropa or Pop, or about 90% of the music released these days. It’s derivative, but at least they’re stealing from the best. A recent appearance on “The OC” and the currently #1 requested song on KROQ also tell me that they’re going to be huge with the Abercrombie and Fitch set. I’ll try not to hold that against them.

Kocani Orkestar – Alone At My Wedding – A billing as the best Macedonian brass band in the world makes me wonder about the competition. I don’t really know much about Macedonian culture, and maybe the residents of Radovis and Strumica go apeshit over dueling darbukas on Balkan Idol. But the makeup of this band still intrigues me -- two gypsy singers, accordion, darbuka, banjo, clarinet, saxophone, and four, count ‘em, four tubas. Here in Big Ten country we put those folks out on a football field. And really, this album does have the feel of a Gypsy Marching Band. It’s strange, otherworldly, and often great fun. Give me an S. Give me a K. Give me an O-P-J-E. What’s that spell?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Casimir Pulaski Day

With apologies and condolences to Erik, who reminded me of what day it was yesterday, and why it matters.

Section 1. The first Monday in March of each year is a holiday to be observed throughout the State and to be known as the birthday of Casimir Pulaski. – Public Act 80-621, Illinois General Assembly, September 13, 1977

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
-- Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”

As a young Christian in college, a friend handed me a stack of books written by the Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer and assured me that they would provide a better intellectual foundation for my faith than anything else. And to some extent he was right. But in one of those books Schaeffer took on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about “the leap of faith.” Schaeffer, following Descartes, went to great lengths to emphasize the rational nature of the Christian faith, to assert emphatically that it makes sense, that it holds together in the light of the most rigorous intellectual questioning. And he took Kierkegaard to task for the seemingly irrational response of “the leap of faith.”

I never bought Schaeffer’s argument, and here is why: he never knew Sarah Scott.

Sarah Scott was four years old when she died. She was the daughter of my friends Paul and Shirley Scott. She was a “surprise” baby; one of those kids born when her parents were close to 40. And her conception was only the first surprise. Upon her birth, Sarah showed all the evidence of having Down’s Syndrome, which was confirmed within hours of her birth.

There were many other surprises along the way. I watched my friends closely, watched their initial shock and dismay turn to unconditional love, watched what initially seemed to be a great burden turn to many moments of joy and deep pleasure. And it wasn’t hard to understand why. Sarah herself loved unconditionally. In a world where everyone else’s efforts seemed halting and stumbling, Sarah simply loved everyone she encountered, in the most natural and unforced way imaginable. She had a big smile and a hug for everyone she met. I believe I learned more about love from her in her short life than anyone I’ve encountered.

Then one normal, mundane Monday afternoon her mom put her down for a nap. She woke up, somehow got her head caught in between the bars of her crib, and in her efforts to extricate herself, strangled to death.

I heard the news and reacted the way countless others have reacted through the millennia. You’ve probably experienced it. The air is sucked out of your lungs. You feel like you’ve been sucker punched, and that you may never breathe again. There is a hole in your soul, and all the finest sentiments in the world cannot address it, because you cannot replace what cannot be replaced. And I found that death wasn’t abstract at all. It was very, very personal. A little girl named Sarah was gone, and the million things that made her special, that made her unique, were gone with her, and the hundreds of well-meaning friends did not and could not help at all, for the simple reason that they were Not Sarah. I felt that, and despaired. I truly cannot fathom what her parents must have felt.

At her funeral members of my church said the kinds of pious platitudes that only made things worse. “She’s in a better place now,” they told Paul and Shirley, who were overcome with grief. “God wanted her to bring joy to the angels.” I bit my tongue and sat on my hands, for fear that I would use them to punch some well-intentioned, clueless brother or sister. I didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could say, and there was nothing I could do to stop from crying, crying that just seemed to go on and on, without respite.

In these times the idea of a loving God seems like a cruel illusion, and I frankly wondered if Schaeffer had ever experienced the death of someone close to him. Because in those situations, Christianity is anything but rational. It is the difference between the logical C.S. Lewis of The Problem of Pain, with its nice, neat arguments, and the undone C.S. Lewis of A Grief Observed, a great, aching mess of a book, the story of a mere thinking, feeling man, not a theologian, dealing with his wife’s protracted and painful death from cancer.

For what it’s worth, I am a firm proponent of the leap of faith. And make no mistake. It is a leap across a great chasm. Sometimes it seems a lot like pedaling your bicycle as fast as you can to the edge of the Grand Canyon, and flying off, and believing that you’re going to sail all way to the other side, defying gravity. It seems to me that there are only two options if one is intellectually honest (hi, Mr. Schaeffer). One can believe that senselessness has the last word, that people simply die – brutally, inexplicably, without meaning or purpose – and that is all there is. Or one can believe that the senselessness will one day make sense, that we really do live in the shadowlands, that real life is yet to come, that every tear will be wiped away, that there will be no more death or mourning. I believe the latter. I hold on to that truth. But surely the author of the Book of Hebrews is right: faith is the evidence of things not seen. And I profoundly distrust anyone who tells me that the Christian faith makes total sense in this life. It does not. They either have not thought enough, or they haven’t lived enough, and time will bring them to that place of the silent scream that they have not yet experienced.

On Casimir Pulaski day I remember a great song, and a great loss, and the great hope that still some days doesn’t make sense.

Friday, March 03, 2006


It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance -- for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? -- Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead

Kent State University, which has been around for a hundred years, and has paraded forth a million or so graduates during its time, is most famous for gunfire. On May 4th, 1970, after several days of intensifying confrontations between anti-war protesters and local police, the National Guard was called in and opened fire on the protesters, killing four young men and women. Two of them were Kent State students who were strolling between classes on a bright spring day, minding their own business, thousands of feet away from the violent confrontations.

I remember the times quite vividly. In Columbus, Ohio, where I lived, the Ohio State University closed its doors a month early. It just shut down and sent everybody home. Kent State touched off an inflammatory outpouring of grief and outrage at Ohio State and many other universities, and there was every indication that the students, had they stuck around, would have burned the whole damn campus to the ground. Neil Young wrote an anthem about it, and it was better than the Star Spangled Banner, more biting, more full of howling anger and pain, and nobody forgot the words:

Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?

Now my daughter strolls those Kent State walkways, and I worry. Anything can happen. Probably not gunfire from soldiers, although my paranoid mind refuses to dismiss the possibility. But just about anything else; rape, robbery, deadly bird flu sweeping the campus, food poisoning from the cafeteria, a broken neck from slipping on the ice, pneumonia from the chill Lake Erie winds. Worry. Fear. Paranoia. Welcome to my life.

So Kate, Rachel and I ventured up to Kent, Ohio last weekend to survey the potential carnage. From the very start my innate sense of melodramatic catastrophe was dealt a severe blow. Emily appeared to be suspiciously healthy and happy. She had an active social life, and her grades were good. She informed us that she had decided to change her name to Katryn, which is her middle name. Cool. First Kate, now Katryn. I’m thinking about changing my name to Kateman. But other than that little surprise, she seemed remarkably upbeat and confident, and unremarkably funny, because she’s always funny. The kid makes me laugh, and it was great to see her.

We wandered the campus, and it was cold; the coldest day of the winter, in fact. Everyone else had the sense to remain indoors, but we strolled the campus walkways, scanned the shops in downtown Kent, ventured in to a few stores as much to warm up as to shop. Then the three Whitman women spotted the vintage clothing store, which was my signal, as it always is, to get lost for a couple hours and fend for myself.

So I did. I found my way to Spin-More Records on Main St., down a block or so from the vintage shop, and found a little slice of vinyl heaven. There was the usual assortment of beat-up Peter Frampton and Eagles albums from the seventies, but a little digging also uncovered some hard-to-find Johnny Burnette rockabilly records from the fifties, and a Cannonball Adderly album I’d never seen, and some Moby Grape and Electric Prunes albums that must have provided hippie solace at one time, maybe even around the time of the Kent State shootings. Over in the corner, behind a glass case, were some old 45s, one of which appeared to be the Johnny Cash single “Get Rhythm” on Sun Records.

“Is that really an original Johnny Cash single on Sun Records?” I asked the owner, a grizzled old geezer named Phil. “Of course,” he said. “Want to see it?”

Does Johnny love June? So Phil unlocked the case and gingerly passed the sacred single over to me. “Damn,” I said, which is short for “I cannot believe I’m holding one of the rarest records in the world in my hands.”

“How much?” I asked him.

“Not for sale,” Phil told me. “It’s like that American Express commercial. Some things money can’t buy. This is one of them.”

Yeah, I understand that, Phil. So with an approving nod I passed the record back to him, being careful to hold it along its edges, making sure my fingerprints remained far away from those precious vinyl grooves. Go ahead and lock it away in that ancient reliquary of a dusty glass case. I get it. It’s like a splinter from the holy cross, a remnant of the chalice used at the Last Supper, a little chip of a martyr’s bone, something old and hallowed and precious beyond words. And so I bought a bootleg Pogues record from Phil, but I touched the hem of Johnny’s greatest single and lived to tell about it.

I rejoined Kate and Rachel and Em, er, Katryn and we headed to Starbucks. We procured our steaming cups of coffee and a giant cookie that we split four ways, sat down at a corner table and caught up on life. We talked about classes, and music, and roommates, and that moment where a kid catches the vision, when “what I want to be when I grow up” becomes more than a hazy future hope, and when the plan to get there starts to fall into place. We talked about everything and nothing. We were noisy, and we laughed a lot. We were a family.

Kate has had a recurring dream in which the four members of our family are simply sitting together, laughing with one another. If you’re going to have a recurring dream, that’s not a bad way to go. Some days, some months, that vision has seemed far removed from reality. But there we were, sitting in a Starbucks in frigid Kent, Ohio, laughing loudly, drawing disapproving stares from the studious types around us, being disruptively boisterous and silly, and I realized that the dream had taken on substantial flesh and bones. For a moment, for the space of a fading late afternoon in northeast Ohio, all creation had turned to radiance. Anything can happen. The shit can hit the fan at any time. But it occurred to me that at that moment I was perfectly, unreservedly happy.

Sometimes I think only the most devout saints or the craziest of men and women can live this way; live in this hypercharged, sacramental reality where the mundane world is touched with flame, where a Johnny Cash relic unites two musical pilgrims, where a Starbucks latte becomes a communion cup, an overpriced cookie becomes something like the bread of life. I am not a devout saint, and I don’t think I’m crazy, but I’m grateful for the glimpses. They don’t last, but they are worth taking out of memory’s pocket, holding them up to the light, examining them and savoring them. And all the way back home, on that long, boring stretch of I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus, I thought about the goodness and sweetness of life.