Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Funky Western Civilization

I see that the traveling edition of "So You Think You Can Dance?" was at the Schottenstein Center last night, featuring many of the amateur dancers who are now celebrities on your TV screen. To mark this momentous occasion I offer you one of my favorite dance tracks:

come on everybody
get on your feet
get with the beat
there's a brand new dance craze
sweeping the nation
and it's called the funky western civilization

well there's a riot in the courthouse,
there's a fire in the street
there's a sinner bein' trampled by a thousand pious feet
there's a baby every minute bein' born without a chance
now don't that make you want to jump right up and start to dance?

let's do the funky
the funky western civilization
it's really spunky
it's just like summertime vacation
you just grab your partner by the hair
throw her down and leave her there

they put jesus on a cross,
they put a hole in j.f.k.
they put hitler in the driver's seat
and looked the other way
now they've got poison in the water
and the whole world in a trance
but just because we're hypnotized,
that don't mean we can't dance

we've got the funky
the funky western civilization
it's really spunky
it's just like summertime vacation
you just drag your partner through the dirt
leave him in a world of hurt

you get down, get funky, get western
(own up to it boys and girls)
and if you try real hard maybe you can even get,
you know, kinda civilized

(mesdames et messieurs, bon soir. this is joan of arc. tonio has asked me to personally deliver a rather special message. he say he just cannot get enough of my 15th-century wisdom. he say he loves it when i talk with him like this. and after many a saturday night of doing ze funky western civilization together, i know for a fact he agrees with me when i say [in french]:you can bullshit the baker and get the buns, you can back out of every deal except one)

this is the funky
the funky western civilization
it's oh, so very spunky
it's just like summertime vacation
all's you gotta do is find some little kid somewhere
and throw him way up in the air (never mind the parents)

yes it's a funky
a funky western civilization
and it may seem kinda skunky, you know
but it's hitting every nation (all across the universe)
that's 'cause all's you gotta do is grab your partner by the hair
throw her down and leave her there
-- Tonio K., "The Funky Western Civilization"

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Hold Steady/Art Brut

Saturday night I went to see The Hold Steady, the second time I've seen the band in the past six months. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have an ongoing love affair with The Hold Steady. They are, without question, my favorite rock 'n roll band working today, and their concert back in March was easily one of the highlights of my year. So it pains me to write that Saturday night was a letdown. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I don't think so. I know what this band is capable of delivering. And they simply didn't deliver. On the positive side, let me extend kudos to guitarist Tad Kubler, who is my power-chord hero. Kubler alone almost carried the show. But overall I have to confess to some disappointment, primarily because singer/songwriter Craig Finn appears hellbent on living up to the self-destructive lifestyle he writes about. Staggering about on stage, forgetting a quarter of the lyrics, and mistiming your vocal entrances isn't my idea of a musical good time.

What is? How about Art Brut, who opened for The Hold Steady and blew them off the stage. I had heard a couple tracks from their first album, but really hadn't paid much attention to them. My mistake. These guys (and girl) are cheeky, droll, witty, and very loud, always a good combination. "Look at us/We formed a band!" goes Art Brut's semi-hit, and that's as concise an encapsulation of what they're about as you will find. Featuring songs that sound like they were each written in ten minutes (and probably were), their set consisted of fifteen three-minute pop/punk anthems overflowing with references to popular culture, about being young, in love, and in love with pop music. Lead singer/songwriter Eddie Argos was part punk, part buffoon, and I loved him. In a world of deadly serious, earnest guys with poetry and guitars, how refreshing to find someone who still thinks that rock 'n roll is fun. Art Brut reminded me of the early B52's, but without the beehive hairdos. They write wonderful songs, and their two (and only two) albums just rocketed to the top of my "Must Acquire Soon, Maybe Today" list.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Coheed and Cambria, I'm Not There Soundtrack, John Fogerty

Coheed and Cambria – No World for Tomorrow

There are concept albums, and then there are meta-concept musical careers. NYC’s Coheed and Cambria are now four albums into an ongoing saga about something or other, revisiting musical motifs and lyrical themes that all vaguely seem to tie in to Rush’s 2112 and dystopian visions of a dark future. Be very afraid. To their credit, these guys have the prog-rock chops to pull it off, and lead singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez has clearly absorbed some valuable histrionics lessons at the Shrine of St. Geddy Lee. But for better or worse, this music makes me want to go hibernate in the basement and play Dungeons and Dragons, not shower for days, and subsist on Mountain Dew and Cheetos. It’s best if I pass. My wife agrees.

Various Artists – I’m Not There Soundtrack

About fifteen years ago one of my friends, an avid Dylan collector, sent me eight ninety-minute cassette tapes chock full of Dylan covers. They ranged from the obvious (The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix) to the painfully obscure (Joey Powers, Moose), from the sublime (Johnny Winter, Van Morrison) to the ridiculous (Mae West, Lawrence Welk, William Shatner). I didn’t realize at the time that that was just the tip of Quinn the Eskimo’s iceberg. To give you some idea of the magnitude of the issue, The Bob Dylan Covers website currently lists 5,870 unique covers of 350 Dylan songs by 2,791 artists. And the website hasn’t been updated since 2002. All of which begs the question: do we really need another 34 Dylan covers?

Thankfully, the answer is yes, as the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ upcoming film I’m Not There readily attests. For starters, music superviser Randall Poster has assembled an indie dream team for the soundtrack, enlisting the services of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, The Hold Steady, Iron and Wine, Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, Yo La Tengo, Antony and the Johnsons, Cat Power, The Black Keys, and Calexico, along with wily veterans Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Richie Havens. Second, he’s mostly avoided the obvious song choices in favor of a wildly eclectic mix from throughout Dylan’s career, including several obscurities/outtakes that will be familiar to only the most diehard Dylan fans. Third, he’s involved the maestro himself, uncovering a previously unreleased Dylan and The Band Basement Tapes chestnut (the title track) to wrap up the proceedings.

Not all of it works. Callow surfer dude Jack Johnson thoroughly botches his cover of “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind.” The usually reliable Sufjan Stevens offers a woeful misreading of “Ring them Bells,” a dirge when it originally appeared on Oh Mercy, here transformed into the usual Fourth of July marching band set piece. But there are many, many delights and surprises, starting with Tweedy’s soulful reading of “Simple Twist of Fate,” Malkmus’ letter-perfect sneer on “Ballad of a Thin Man,” My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James’ and Calexico’s rootsy take on “Goin’ to Acapulco,” Sonic Youth’s spooky, feedback-drenched version of the title track, and The Hold Steady’s raucous cover of the Highway 61 Revisited outtake “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” The house band, featuring Television’s Tom Verlaine,Wilco’s Nels Cline, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on guitars, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood’s John Medeski on keyboards, is dazzlingly inventive throughout.

Like the song selection itself, Poster’s musical direction splits the difference between safe, familiar arrangements and more radical, risk-taking moments. The end result is endlessly satisfying, and will appeal to longtime Dylan fans, and a new generation of fans attracted by the indie lineup. Forty-five years down the line, the music of Bob Dylan matters more than ever. It’s gratifying to hear that musicians the age of his grandkids are onto that fact as well.

John Fogerty – Revival

John Fogerty can do anything and everything except write a decent song. His voice, one of the greatest in the history of rock ‘n roll, is still miraculously intact at 62. His swamp rock guitar work, often imitated, is still as dirty and gritty as can be. But bad things happen when he opens his mouth:

But if tomorrow everybody under the sun
Who's happy just to live as one
No borders or battles to be won
But if tomorrow everybody was your friend
Happiness would never end
Lord, don't you wish it was true

Fogerty unhappily marries the worst of sixties sunny utopianism, man, with rhymes that the Hallmark Company would have the good sense to reject. It’s a deadly combination, one that mars the otherwise excellent Revival. Fogerty namechecks his old band (and its sound) on “Creedence Song,” updates “Fortunate Son” with a new and great political screed called “Long Dark Night,” and steals the guitar riff from “Sunshine of Your Love” on “Summer of Love,” giving the aging hippies two nostalgic thrills for the price of one. All of which is fine, or would be fine, if the lyrics weren’t so hamfisted and inarticulate. Once upon a time Fogerty’s songwriting could be considered bracingly straightforward. Now it seems merely straightforwardly awkward. I dreamed John’s rhymes still sounded new. Don’t you wish it was true? Lord, I surely do. I bet you do too.

Name Your Price

PASTE Magazine Subscriptions On Sale For, Well,
Whatever You Want...

“the best among American music titles”
– The Wall Street Journal

Decatur, GA (October 29, 2007) – Beginning today, and continuing for the next two weeks, PASTE magazine will be offering one-year subscriptions—and readers can name their price! New subscribers can sign up, and loyal subscribers can renew online at for a minimum payment of $1, though all are encouraged to pay what they think the subscription is worth. Anyone paying more than the $19.95 PASTE typically offers for a one-year (11-issue) subscription will be thanked in print, in a future issue of PASTE.

The campaign came about from a casual conversation at the PASTE offices discussing the recent Radiohead campaign and the Jim Collins book, Good to Great. “We were curious to know what our customers thought we were worth. And what better way to find out, than to let them tell us,” explained PASTE President/Publisher Tim Regan-Porter. “While it’s certainly a bit unconventional, we also see it as a chance to get our product in the hands of people who could become lifelong fans. It’s been our experience that once people become familiar with PASTE, they turn into loyal readers,” added Regan-Porter.

Interested readers can order multiple subscriptions to PASTE, as long as there is a valid mailing address, so even gift subscriptions are encouraged. Each issue of PASTE comes with a CD sampler, so one subscription will give you 11 CDs of great music, in addition to the award-winning writing and entertainment coverage.

Voted “Magazine of the Year” by the PLUG Independent Music Awards for 2006 and 2007, and having won the Grand GAMMA Award (along with 4 Gold awards and 1 Silver award) at the 2007 GAMMA Awards, Paste is rapidly emerging as the go-to source for music and film aficionados.

Favorite Songs of 2007

Yeah, I know, there are still two months left in the year. So things could change. But it just seemed time for a new list because:

1) Lists are fun.
2) Lists are educational, and
3) Lists provide the illusion of order and objectivity to our increasingly chaotic and inscrutable lives.

So this is the 4-CD box set, complete with 64-page illustrated book and collectible "Best Songs of 2007" stamps. I dearly love all these songs, all of which have been released this year. And since they cross genres and moods, I won't even begin to try to fit them into some sort of coherent/consistent mix. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

CD 1
1. Filibuster XXX – Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra
2. Beautiful Machine, Parts 1 – 4 – Apples in Stereo
3. Keep the Car Running – The Arcade Fire
4. Direct Hit – Art Brut
5. For Agent 13 – The Besnard Lakes
6. Fiery Crash – Andrew Bird
7. Country Caravan – Blitzen Trapper
8. Suffering Time – Bottom of the Hudson
9. Down in the Valley – The Broken West
10. Melody Day – Caribou
11. Ain’t Gonna Worry No More – Peter Case
12. Brighton Beach to Santa Monica – The Clientele
13. Maasai – Damien Dempsey
14. It’s Natural to be Afraid – Explosions in the Skies
15. My Moon My Man – Feist

CD 2
1. Scar That Never Heals – Jeremy Fisher
2. Long Dark Night – John Fogerty
3. People Get Ready – The Frames
4. Bushels – Frog Eyes
5. American Highway – Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
6. Hurricane Judy – Future Clouds and Radar
7. Everything in its Right Place/Maiden Voyage – Robert Glasper
8. Trapeze – Patty Griffin
9. No Pussy Blues – Grinderman
10. Wave Backwards to Massachusetts – Hallelujah the Hills
11. You Can’t Fail Me Now – Joe Henry
12. Downtown – Malcolm Holcombe
13. Wonderful World – Jolie Holland and Booker T. Jones
14. Enemy – Jesca Hoop
15. Goin’ to Acapulco – Jim James and Calexico

CD 3
1. All My Money on You – Diana Jones
2. If I Were You – Chris Knight
3. 31 Candles – The Mendoza Line
4. Fake Empire – The National
5. Place to Be – Christopher O’Riley
6. Spotlight – Anders Osborne
7. Bros – Panda Bear
8. Lord Franklin – The Pentangle
9. Young Folks – Peter Bjorn and John
10. Killing the Blues – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
11. Bodysnatchers – Radiohead
12. Draconian Crackdown – Rasputina
13. Put a Penny in the Slot – Fionn Regan
14. Make Money Money – John Reuben
15. To the Dogs or Whoever – Josh Ritter

CD 4
1. Chemicals – A.J. Roach
2. Cool Sounds Are Here Again – The Safes
3. Rainy Day Man – Patti Scialfa
4. Swamp Thing – The Soul of John Black
5. Oh God, Let Me Back In – Southeast Engine
6. You Got Yr Cherry Bomb – Spoon
7. Long Walk Home – Bruce Springsteen
8. Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest – Devon Sproule
9. Superette – Tandy
10. Beauty – Linda Thompson
11. Dad’s Gonna Kill Me – Richard Thompson
12. Grey in L.A. – Loudon Wainwright III
13. Utilities – The Weakerthans
14. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues – The White Stripes
15. Let It Roll – Willard Grant Conspiracy

Friday, October 26, 2007

Music Publicists

It's a strange, lonely world. And the drugs must be plentiful. How else to explain this:

"Lion Land" (the name of the album) is basically an e-card sent to grandma back in Africa from a tribe of lions on their first visit to Disneyworld/Kissimmee St. Cloud Florida. Damns and whirlpools of itchy frightening frequencies tenderly romance lyrics that orbit the worlds of ecstatic parochial school patriotism and junglebook moral codes. Industrial beats are stocked by hems of cinematic synthesizers suckering you, as a sunset might, into having an emotional moment. Quinn's feral musicianship flows freely through every anthem and a warm, howling wave of screams and whispers and pounding drums will feel at times like fuzzy hugs, at other times feel like the result of letting a blind lion cub into the kitchen to invent a new recipe for lasagna."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jesus and the T-Rex

Some images require no commentary. With thanks to Joshua Neds-Fox, who spotted it first.

Five More Days

Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick but after I get sick I just get sad.
Because it burns being broke and it hurts to be heartbroken
But always being both must be a drag.

She's been calling me again. She's been calling me again.
Your little hoodrat friend's been calling me again.
And I can't stand all the things that she sticks into her skin.
Like sharpened ballpoint pens. And steel guitar strings.
She says it hurts, but it's worth it.

Tiny little text etched into her neck it said "Jesus lived and died for all your sins."
She's got blue black ink and it's scratched into her lower back.
It said: "damn right I'll rise again."
Yeah, damn right you'll rise again.

I've been dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park.
I've been plastered. I've been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church.
I've been plowed, but I ain't ever been with your little hoodrat friend.
What makes you think I'm getting with your little hoodrat friend?

Your little hoodrat friend got me high though.
We were 17 and stuck up in Osseo.
She said it's funny even true love gets troubled by Stillwater
and washed up in the Mississippi River.
Her claddagh ring was pointed at the people.
She said "St. Theresa comes to me in dreams."
She said "I ain't gonna do anything sexual with you.
I'm kinda saving myself for the scene."

I've been dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park.
I've been plastered. I've been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church.
I've been plowed, but I ain't ever been with your little hoodrat friend.
What makes you think I'm getting with your little hoodrat friend?

She said: City Center used to be the center of the scene.
Now City Center's over, no one really goes there.
Then we used to drink beneath this railroad bridge.
Some nights the bus wouldn't even stop.
There were just way too many kids.
I was waiting for my ride and I got jumped from behind.
I got punctured. I got stopped by the cops.
They found it in my socks, and I got probed.

But I ain't ever been with your little hoodrat friend.
What makes you think i'm getting with your little hoodrat friend?
-- The Hold Steady, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend"

The Year of the Runner Up

  • January, 2007 -- The Ohio State Buckeyes lose to the Florida Gators in the NCAA Football Championship Game
  • April, 2007 -- The Ohio State Buckeyes lose to the Florida Gators in the NCAA Basketball Championship Game
  • June, 2007 -- The Cleveland Cavaliers lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the National Basketball Association Finals
  • October, 2007 -- The Cleveland Indians lose to the Boston Red Sox in the Major League Baseball American League Championship Series.

    You can tell a lot about a city by its airport(s). I recently traveled to Europe and witnessed this firsthand. In Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport, where I had a three-hour layover, I could wander the concourses, shop for clothes, grab a quick meal from one of 100 restaurants, browse in several bookstores, and surf the net throughout the Wi-Fi enabled facilities. In Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where I had a two-hour layover, I could order a baguette, buy some fromage, and wander the futuristic concourses and marvel at the architectural wonder of a building that, in fact, looks like an airplane. In Columbus, Ohio, my departure and termination point, I could surf the net in the five-foot-by-five-foot Wi-Fi enabled zone called Wai Fai Beach, complete with plastic palm tree, eat stale nachos at the Buckeye Hall of Fame CafĂ©, and buy an Ohio State Buckeyes – 2002 National Championship t-shirt. We take our Buckeyes seriously in these parts. It’s all we’ve got. That, and corn, and insurance salesmen.

    It’s been a tough year to be a Buckeye and a Cleveland sports fan. I have a degree from The Ohio State University, but I was in my mid-twenties and had already graduated a couple times from other colleges before I showed up on campus, so I never really viewed my OSU years as part of my true college experience. I worked full time, went to classes, and drove home. Maybe that explains my ambivalence toward the spectacle that is Ohio State sports. I have witnessed the phenomenon of middle-aged women dressing up in cheerleader uniforms in corporate America, shaking their pompoms in the midst of the cubicle farm, and leading the faithful programmers and software architects and project managers in a rousing rendition of the Buckeye Battle Cry. “O H,” one side of the cubicle farm chanted. “I O,” the other side chanted back. It was one of the more surreal moments of my life.

    But I have been touched by the madness as much as anyone. I grew up in Columbus, where toddlers are taught to venerate the memory of the legendary football coach St. Woody Hayes, and where two-time (and the only two-time, mind you) Heisman Trophy Winner Archie Griffin is mentioned in the same breath as Abe Lincoln and Jesus. I grew up loving the Cleveland Browns, and the Cleveland Indians, and later, after a bout of NBA expansion, the Cleveland Cavaliers. These passions are embedded deep within my DNA. You can’t live here and be unaffected by it. Even the insurance salesmen drop their actuarial tables and turn into raving lunatics on football Saturdays.

    And it’s been a bad year to be a Buckeye. We are experiencing the curse of the Boston Red Sox, the major league baseball team that, for decades, was the perennial also-ran – almost always good, but never good enough to win it all. So I suppose that it’s only fitting that the Indians, who had the best record in baseball this year, should be eliminated from the playoffs by the stinking Red Sox.

    Four times this year we have been to the borders of the promised land, only to be turned back. Four times, with the most recent ignominy occurring last weekend when the Indians choked, blew a 3 games to 1 advantage, and lost three straight to the Red Sox.

    The current Ohio State football team is 8 and 0, and ranked #1 in the country. Do not be fooled. These people will break your heart, guaranteed. Don’t even start to fantasize. It’s not worth it.

    The problem is that it’s all we’ve got. It’s either the Buckeyes or stale nachos and Wai Fai Beach. Maybe it’s time to move to Paris.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bruce Springsteen Finds the Old Magic

I want a thousand guitars

I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices
Speaking in tongues
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Radio Nowhere"

Me too.

I’ve heard all the arguments: Bruce Springsteen, at 58 years old (with heavy emphasis on “old”), should not be making rock ‘n roll records. There’s something unseemly about it, like Laura Bush wearing a bikini. And he’s made a derivative rock ‘n roll record at that, one that plunders dubious musical treasures such as Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny),” as well as his own back catalogue.

You know what? I don’t care. It’s still Magic. That Tommy Tutone track, the first single which is billed as “Radio Nowhere” on Bruce’s album, makes me want to play air guitar and jump on the couch cushions. And I don’t care if “Livin’ in the Future” sounds just like “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” You know why? Because “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded by anybody, any time, and if Bruce wants to copy himself, he could hardly steal from a better source.

So let’s dispense with the criticisms right away. First, Brendan O’Brien’s wall-of-sound production sounds great when you’re caught in rush hour traffic, forced to listen over the overtaxed minivan sound system (sorry, no rolling down the window and letting the wind blow back your hair on Orange Barrel City freeways these days), but not so great when you’re trying to focus on the individual instruments. Second, the venerable E Street Band members, due to their busy schedules, mailed in their parts piecemeal, and it sounds like it. Band chemistry? Not here.

The good news? The best news, in fact? This is a Bruce Springsteen rock ‘n roll album, a glorious, strutting, anthemic arena shaker, full of big gestures and big statements the likes of which we haven’t heard since Born in the U.S.A. And in truth, we haven’t heard some of these sounds since the Ford administration and Born to Run: Danny Federici’s circus calliope on “Livin in the Future,” Professor Roy Bittan’s lyrical piano intro on “I’ll Work For Your Love,” those impossibly outsized sax breaks from Clarence Clemons, the old trick of kicking it up a notch with a quick key change before launching into one of those patented, wailing solos.

Springsteen, of course, is a long way down Thunder Road from those early evocations of primal joy and angst along the Jersey Shore. Of late – hell, for most of the past twenty years – he’s been working in Woody Guthrie troubadour mode, spinning out modern-day protest music that is occasionally transcendent, but more frequently dour and downbeat. So let me note that those who view Magic as some sort of triumphant return to escapist songs about girls and cars have totally missed the point. It is nothing of the sort. “Livin’ in the Future,” that “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” knockoff, may feature a mindless “Nah nah nah nah” singalong chorus, but the verses are a merciless indictment of an administration driven by fear and lies. Most of this album works on the level of standard boy/girl melodrama, but it also works as an extended metaphor for the uneasy malaise of our times. Almost all of it rocks. Bruce has, in fact, made an album of social commentary you can dance to.

In a political era when protest music has often degenerated into the realm of sputtering, red-faced invective, and when even top-drawer songwriters like Steve Earle are reduced to name calling and insults, it is a joy to hear measured and literate commentary. And on the album’s best song, the lovely, elegiac “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen again assumes the mantle of the blue collar Everyman – that old trick again -- and in that voice he delivers a withering analysis of the state of the union:

My father said 'Son, we're lucky in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.'
Its gonna be a long walk home.

We’ve heard this – we’ve heard all of it, in fact – before. But we’ve never heard it played this way in the past; flat out, reveling in the din of a thousand guitars and Max Weinberg’s pounding drums, the tongues speaking a cautionary tale in a transcendently joyful language. And that is ultimately the triumph of Magic. It is a sad album, at times even a desperate album. But none of that overrides the couch jumping factor, the desire to propel my sagging, middle-aged body through the air like a rock ‘n roll comet; bright, fading fast, but burning. This is what Bruce Springsteen does for me, what he’s always done for me when he’s at his idealistic, arena shaking best. It is, and always will be, magic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Levon Helm -- Dirt Farmer

Levon Helm, iconic drummer and singer in The Band, is back with a miracle of an album. I don't think that's an exaggeration, and Helm would surely agree, as his liner notes attest. Helm almost lost his life to throat cancer a few years back. He most assuredly lost his voice. So the fact that he is singing at all is significant. The fact that he is singing this well is almost mind-boggling. The man is 67 years old, has been to hell and back, and he sounds as great as he did on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The timbre has changed a bit (he's more Ralph Stanley caterwaul these days), but there's the same masterful phrasing. And he digs down deep into the loamy dirt.

Listening to Dirt Farmer, Helm's first solo album in 25 years, it occurred to me that this is the album he's been waiting to make all his life. Levon's always had that hardscrabble southern grit and soulfulness that seems to be bred in the soil of Helena, Arkansas, his native town. Here he employs it on thirteen songs, many of them from his childhood. The Carter Family is represented here, and Steve Earle, and Buddy and Julie Miller. There's an old blues tune from J.B. Lenoir, and a half dozen tracks from the ubiquitous "Trad." Frequent Dylan sideman Larry Campbell produces and plays guitars and fiddles, Levon plays mandolin and drums and sings, and daughter Amy from Ollabelle adds some exquisite harmonies that help to soften dad's feral howl. It's great stuff, raw but very accessible, and it makes me want to revisit every note the man has ever sung. He's a national (okay, for your Canadians who want to claim him, an international) treasure, and we should sing his praises while we've still got him.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How I Spent My Fall Vacation

Kate and I are back from our vacation in Italy. Our itinerary took in Rome, Venice, Padua, Florence, Siena, and Rome again. Aside from airplanes and *#$^ Delta Airlines (cancelled flight and a lost vacation day on the front end, lost luggage on the back end), it was a magical experience. Here are some scattered thoughts.

The Maze

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.
-- Zork I

Venice is beautiful. Venice is maddening. Some sadistic Doge, back in the 1400s, conspired with the city planners to make the streets as confusing as possible. There was a certain perverse logic that went something like this:

1) Make no street longer than 200 feet.
2) If possible, ensure that the street dead ends at water (either the Adriatic Sea, or a canal).
3) Even though the streets cannot, by law, be longer than 200 feet, change the street name two or three times along the way.
4) Streets shall not be straight. Curves are good. Circles are better.
5) Add helpful arrows to point to tourist landmarks, such as the Rialto Bridge and San Marco Piazza. But make sure the arrows point in several directions simultaneously.
6) Provide future generations of tourists with a useless map that contains approximately 10% of the streets in Venice. And then watch the ensuing hilarity.

We spent hours wandering around in circles. As a Point A to Point B kind of guy, I found this inordinately frustrating. "Get lost," Rick Steves' travel guide advised us. "You're on an island. How lost can you get?" As it turns out, pretty lost. Venice is also the Niagara Falls of Italy, with tacky T-shirt and trinket shops around every curve, and it's amazing how much alike Venice's Best T-Shirts! on Via Canal dei Francesca can look when compared with Venice's Most Awesome T-Shirts! on Via Canal dei Francisco.

But here's the thing: those canals flow in their fetid fashion through the most gorgeous city you will ever see. Pastel-colored fifteenth and sixteenth century palaces are everywhere, and Renaissance churches overflowing with artistic masterpieces, and delightful piazzas full of bubbling fountains that look like they belong in museums, not slaking the thirst of some soccer-playing kids on the square. So we got lost. So what? It took me a couple days to figure that out, but so what?

You Don't Say

"GRAHT-see," I say to the young woman at the checkout counter.
"GRAHT-see-AY," she corrects me.
"Mi scuzee," I say.
"It's okay," she replies.

It's a good thing that almost everybody in Italy speaks English. I had the best of intentions. A friend loaned out her 24-CD set of Italian language instruction, and I really did intend to listen studiously on my drives to and from work. But there were albums to review, and new albums to listen to, and it didn't happen. And so we arrived in Italy armed with a 30-word vocabulary, including tortellini, gnocchi, mozzarella, and vino.

It turned out that it really didn't matter that much. The Italians we met were friendly, helpful, and more fluent in English than I had any right to expect. Granted, it would have been difficult for them to carry on a conversation with me about, say, the merits of premillenialism vs. amillenialism. But that's some boring shit anyway, and most people were only too happy to assist us with directions to museums, prices, and the location of the nearest WC, which were the things we needed to talk about. Thanks to nothing I did, the language barrier turned out to be no barrier at all.

The Birthday Girl

There are far worse places to spend one's 50th birthday. This is Kate perched atop a piazza overlooking the city of Florence.

Royale With Cheese

You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

What'd they call it?

Royale with cheese.
-- John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction"

I swore that I would not be that guy. The ugly American who moans that there's no ice in the water glasses, and that it's impossible to find a regular-sized cup of coffee around here. But I became that guy against my wishes.

Italians do some foods really, really well: pastry, coffee, wine, gelato. And they do some foods really, really poorly, including the ones you would think they would do well: pasta, pizza, and seafood. It's possible that there are random trattorias and osterias out there that prepare and serve these foods in delectable concoctions, but we couldn't find them, at least in Venice. Well, more correctly, we found them, but with ridiculous tourist prices ($70 for a hunk of fish; that's not for the meal, that's just for the piece of fish). With the plunging value of the dollar against the Euro, we decided that we didn't need to indulge that badly.

And that left us with ham and cheese. Here's the deal: the Italians are inordinately fond of the pig. I have nothing against the pig, and have been known to scarf down bacon, ham, sausage, and the occasional pork medallion. But when the only meat you can find on the menu involves the pig, and when every lunchtime panino is some fancy-sounding variation on the serviceable ham and cheese sandwich, you start to long for a little variety.

So I decided to be adventurous. "I'll have a speck panino," I told the guy at the counter.

It turned out that speck is some inedible part of the pig. Intestines. Brains. Something like that. Trust me. You wouldn't like it. And so, out of self defense, we finally located a McDonald's. And yes, I ordered a Royale with Cheese. It was mighty, mighty good, too.

Pissing Away Our Money

Everything in Italy costs money. Everything. It costs $1.50 every time you pee at a public WC. It costs $6.00 for two people to sit down in an outdoor cafe. Just to sit. Food is, of course, extra. We spent a lot more money than we should have. We didn't have many options.

Traveling Companions

Perhaps because we were starved for conversation beyond "Grazie" and "Buon giorno," the normally reticent Andy and Kate became flaming extroverts when they encountered English-speaking travelers. We met Jeremy and Caroline from Manchester, England, in Venice for their honeymoon. We met married doctors Jay and Sandy from Tampa, Florida, who were planning to bicycle through Tuscany. We met Dan and Gloria, from Hollywood, California, whose California mission-style house gets tranformed into a house in Pennsylvania every week on a television show I've never seen. And I met a longtime e-friend, Martin, with whom I've corresponded on various Internet discussion lists for more than fifteen years. Martin lives in Seattle, Washington but our families hooked up in Florence, Italy. Go figure.

Thumbs Up

This is the thumb of St. Catherine of Siena. It has been preserved in a reliquary in a cathedral in Siena for the past six hundred years. We also saw the tongue and vocal chords of St. Anthony of Padua, and the entire grinning skeletal remains of several other saints.

There is a part of me that really doesn't understand the focus on relics. Then I remember that I have traveled to Cleveland and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame to view Eric Clapton's guitar pick, also encased behind glass. So we saw several Saint Hall of Fame locations.

At St. Anthony's stomping grounds in Padua, we saw the devout kissing the good saint's tomb, and rubbing their hands against it. Some people pinned notes to a wall next to the tomb. Some people posted pictures of little kids who had simply disappeared, loved ones who hadn't been heard from in thirty years. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. Watching the devout, some of them in tears, I hope and pray he can help them find their loved ones. I don't fully understand it. But I understand that hole in the soul, that feeling that a big part of your life has been torn away. Please do whatever it is you do, St. Anthony.

All This Useless Beauty

What shall we do do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty?
-- Elvis Costello, "All This Useless Beauty"

Our church meets in the auditorium of an elementary school. Every Sunday we set up the folding Samsonite chairs, and then we take them down at the end of the service. The only art to be found comes from the occasional display from Mrs. Jorgenson's 4th grade class.

I suppose people travel to Italy for different reasons. But for us, it was a chance to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. And to see art. And so we spent the time we weren't wandering around lost, or sitting in a cafe or restaurant, touring a dozen world-class museusms and two dozen monstrous cathedrals. We saw a monastery in Florence whose cells were decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico. The good brother spent the last few decades of his life creating art that he believed only his fellow monks would see. We saw a chapel in Padua that is covered from floor to ceiling with paintings by the early Renaissance master Giotto. We saw Gothic, high Renaissance, and Baroque churches dripping with sculptures from Michelangelo and Donatello and Bernini, paintings from Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci and Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese, Ghirlandaio and Fra Bartolomeo and Fillipo Lippi. And we saw dozens of works that even I, perhaps the least visually oriented person in the universe, recognize from my meager knowledge of art. If you wanted a crash course in the art of western civilization, at least as created by white guys from ancient Rome through the late Renaissance, you could hardly do better than follow our itinerary.

It was all too much. I couldn't take it in. Consider, for a moment, that the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice is covered -- and I mean that every square inch of the interior of a fifteen-story building is covered -- with millions of tiny tiles that comprise the most majestic mosaics to be found on the planet. Consider that it took a large group of highly skilled artists a couple hundred years to make that happen. And then consider that San Marco was one of several such establishments we visited on one day of a fifteen-day trip, and that I haven't even mentioned the paintings or the statuary or the jewel-encrusted crucifixes, or the mind-boggling architecture of the building itself. Multiply by infinity. Blow your mind.

It was all too much; useless beauty everywhere, an embarrassment of riches, both literally and in terms of the incalculable worth of the artistic vision that found palpable reality. That writhing fellow above is Laocoon, a priest of Troy who warned his fellow citizens about that strange looking wooden horse in Virgil's Aeneid. Here he is assailed by sea serpents. His image, found in the Vatican Museum and carried across the space of twenty-two centuries, still startles. Astoundingly, it is carved out of a solid block of marble. No one knows the name of the sculptor who sat patiently, month after month, year after year, carving those rich details, capturing, impossibly, the look of sheer terror. Out of solid rock.

I don't worship art, although I know people who do. Theologically, I'm part of a good, upstanding Protestant tradition that is suspicious of all the extravagance, all the unnecessary frills. No pomp and ostentation where we come from; no sir. But we're missing something. Maybe you had to be there. I can recognize that a Samsonite chair and a neon-lit elementary school auditorium will do the trick. But I can be thankful for, and amazed by, all the useless beauty.


And kingdoms rise

And kingdoms fall

But you go on and on
-- U2, "October"

There are ruins everywhere in Rome. There are the obvious tourist traps -- the Colosseum, the Forum. But we were astounded to find a stray column, a random bit of carved rubble, almost everywhere we turned.

It was a sobering thing to see the ruins of a magnificent civilization. In Largo Argentina, a once bustling market square, wild cats prowl around the disintegrating columns. It was once an important center in the most important city in the world. Now it is the denizen of cats.

We touched down in Columbus Saturday night and caught up a bit on the news from Iraq, the baseball pennant races, the ongoing saga of Lindsay Lohan's rehab. It's good to be home. We missed our kids, and we missed our friends. I missed Starbucks, my iMac, and Donato's Pizza. But I remembered those crumbling columns, and I tried to keep it in perspective. I tried to remember what lasts.

Great vacations, sadly, do not. But I am so grateful for the opportunity to see these things.