Monday, December 24, 2007

Favorite Albums of 2007

1. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons -- Banging Down the Doors
2. Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
3. Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
4. Joe Henry -- Civilians
5. Bruce Springsteen -- Magic
6. Frog Eyes -- Tears of the Valedictorian
7. Peter Case -- Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
8. Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
9. Anders Osborne -- Coming Down
10. Future Clouds and Radar -- Future Clouds and Radar

Honorable Mentions:

Ryan Adams -- Easy Tiger
Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra -- Security
Aradhna -- Amrit Vani
Art Brut -- It's a Bit Complicated
The Bad Plus -- Prog
The Besnard Lakes -- The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse
Andrew Bird -- Armchair Apocrypha
Blitzen Trapper -- Wild Mountain Nation
Bottom of the Hudson -- Fantastic Hawk
The Broken West -- I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Caribou -- Andorra
The Clientele -- God Save the Clientele
Damien Dempsey -- To Hell or Barbados
Do Make Say Think -- You, You're a History in Rust
Feist -- The Reminder
Jeremy Fisher -- Goodbye Blue Monday
John Fogerty -- Revival
The Frames -- The Cost
Mary Gauthier -- Between Daylight and Dark
Robert Glasper -- In My Element
Patty Griffin -- Children Running Through
Grinderman -- Grinderman
Hallelujah the Hills -- Hallelujah the Hills
Herbie Hancock -- River: The Joni Letters
Malcolm Holcombe -- Gamblin' House
Jesca Hoop -- Kismet
Diana Jones -- My Remembrance of You
Rickie Lee Jones -- Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
Chris Knight -- The Trailer Tapes
Miranda Lambert -- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Eric Lindell -- Low on Cash, Rich in Love
Mendoza Line -- 30 Year Low/Final Reflections of the Legendary Malcontent
Charles Mingus -- Cornell 1964
Peter Mulvey -- Notes from Elsewhere
The Narrator -- All That to the Wall
The National -- Boxer
The New Pornographers -- Challengers
Okkervil River -- The Stage Names
Christopher O'Riley -- Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake
Panda Bear -- Person Pitch
Graham Parker -- Don't Tell Columbus
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss -- Raising Sand
Radiohead -- In Rainbows
Rasputina -- Oh Perilous World
Fionn Regan -- The End of History
John Reuben -- Word of Mouth
Josh Ritter -- The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
A.J. Roach -- Revelation
Alasdair Roberts -- The Amber Gatherers
The Safes -- Well, Well, Well
Patti Scialfa -- Play It As It Lays
Sigur Ros -- Hvarf/Heim
Six Parts Seven -- Casually Smashed to Pieces
The Soul of John Black -- The Good Girl Blues
Spoon -- Ga Ga Ga Ga
Tandy -- To a Friend/Did You Think I Was Gone?
Linda Thompson -- Versatile Heart
Richard Thompson -- Sweet Warrior
Various Artists -- I'm Not There Soundtrack
Loudon Wainwright III -- Strange Weirdos
Watermelon Slim -- The Wheel Man
The Weakerthans -- Reunion Tour
The White Stripes -- Icky Thump
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Let It Roll
Yndi Halda -- Enjoy Eternal Bliss

Best Box Sets

Miles Davis -- The Complete On the Corner Sessions
The Pentangle -- The Time Has Come 1967 - 1973
Various Artists -- Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965 - 1970
Various Artists -- People Take Warning: Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913 - 1938

Biggest Disappointments

Iron and Wine -- The Shepherd's Dog
Modest Mouse -- We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
The Shins -- Wincing the Night Away
Son Volt -- The Search
Wilco -- Sky Blue Sky
Lucinda Williams -- West

Friday, December 21, 2007

Favorite Songs of 2007

I used to agonize over “Best Album” and “Best Song” lists, factoring in the cultural import of the music, the lyrical astuteness, the pervasiveness of the hooks, and the proficiency of the musicianship, and then calculating the overall results based on a complex formula known only to me and a couple folks at NASA. Now I don’t. Now I just focus on the music I listen to the most. And trusty iTunes actually keeps track of these things, so now I know.

10. Country Caravan – Blitzen Trapper

Blitzen Trapper’s third album Wild Mountain Nation is a tribute to ADD and short attention spans. It’s a dizzying lo-fi psychedelic prog rock power pop alt-country indie rock jamfest – and that's just the first five songs. But on “Country Caravan” they hold it together for an entire two minutes and twelve seconds, and perfectly recapture the cowboy stoner vibe of the early ‘70s Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

9. Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest – Devon Sproule

Behind an atmospheric country-noir accompaniment that gives her plenty of room to stretch out vocally, 24-year-old wonderfolkie Devon Sproule conjures images of a lazy summer evening in the South, a lingering conversation over rum-ginger zingers, the slow, languorous turning from friendship to something that will become much more than friendship. It's a perfectly realized moment, augmented by singing that is equal parts Joni Mitchell folk confessional, Victoria Williams looseness and sweet playfulness, and Billie Holiday stylized blues.

8. Fiery Crash – Andrew Bird

You can’t beat a guy who knows how to whistle. Andrew Bird can also write fine, enigmatic lyrics, and effortlessly, endlessly inventive melodies. But I’m telling you, it’s the whistle.

7. 31 Candles – The Mendoza Line

A snarky, snarling mess of rage and invective, this is the best song on the best breakup album of the year. The spurned Shannon McCardle turns on then-husband Timothy Bracy with a vengeance, coyly noting the “fucking kitty” on the shirt of Bracy’s new romantic interest, and accusing him of “building a shrine around his dick” as electric guitars rampage in the background. Apparently the marital counselling didn’t take. Needless to say, there will be no followup from this pair.

6. Chemicals – A.J. Roach

I’m still enthralled by the biblical framework and the raw, Appalachian vocals and instrumentation. This is bluegrass gospel for the halfway house. Who else would turn a tale of addiction into a Psalm?

Whiskey is my shepherd, I shall not want
It maketh me lie down in a strange woman’s bed
It maketh me talk out of both sides of my mouth
It maketh me feel like I’d be better off dead

5. Lord Franklin – The Pentangle

Originally released back in 1969, this song (and most of the Pentangle catalogue) was re-released this year. So I’m claiming it. Maybe it’s John Renbourn’s mournful soulfulness. Maybe it’s the twin guitar leads, as Renbourn and Bert Jansch play rings around each other. But this two hundred year old folk song sounds surprisingly contemporary, and utterly timeless. That’s because missing what you can never have back never goes out of style or fashion.

4. You Can’t Fail Me Now – Joe Henry

It’s a love song. It’s a prayer. It’s both. But this is church from the 2:00 a.m. salloon, where the communion cups hold single-malt Scotch, and where the priest is a Boho piano player and poet who offers his dazzling liturgy to an indifferently bored or drunk congregation. This is the prettiest song I’ve heard this year, and the perfect marriage of world-weary poetry and jazz dirge. And something remarkable and utterly unexpected given the 2:00 a.m.doldrums: hope.

3. Radio Nowhere – Bruce Springsteen

“Radio Nowhere” is an arena-rock, air-guitar anthem that makes me want to jump up and down on the newly refurbished couch cushions and incur the wrath of my spouse. “I want a thousand guitars,” Brooooce sings. “I want the pounding drums/I want a million different voices speaking in tongues.” It turns out that I do too.

2. American Highway – Ezra Furman and the Harpoons

So here’s a 20-year-old kid doing acoustic Dylan circa 1964 and Bringing It All Back Home. Surrealistic imagery? Check. Frenetic strumming? Check. Dubious nasal whine? Check. There are a million and one Dylan acolytes out there. But this time the song lives up to the hype.

1. Down in the Valley – The Broken West

The debut album from L.A.’s The Broken West is good. But “Down in the Valley” is sublime, a perfectly realized power pop anthem, complete with chiming guitars, multi-part harmonies, and a hook-filled singalong chorus that will instantly conjure memories of all the great ones, from Big Star through The dB’s through The New Pornographers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


So this one is, according to the traditionalists, the Silver Anniversary. But it won’t be, primarily because of lack of silver. And gold. This is the Flat Broke Anniversary. Two kids in college will do that to you, and a deluge of unforeseen hospital and doctor bills, and the joys of home ownership that include new back doors because the old one has rotted away. Oh well. So we’ll eat dinner at home tonight. In the immortal words of marital counselors George Jones and Tammy Wynette, “We’re not the jet set/We’re the old Chevrolet set/Our steak and martinis/Is draft beer and weenies/But ain’t we got love?”

Our first home was a cockroach-infested place on 17th Ave. in Columbus, about a quarter mile down the street from the Ohio State Fairgrounds. Every year in August the sheep and cattle would head back to Green Acres at the end of the fair, and the approximately 2,500,000,000 flies that had been hanging out with their barnyard hosts would end up in our apartment. Across the street was Camp’s Carryout, which got robbed every Saturday night. Camp’s was a fine place to pick up the occasional six-pack or bag of chips, but you quickly learned to avoid it on Saturday nights because somebody was going to show up with a gun. And so we mostly stayed in our 3rd floor apartment, which was at the exact same height as the elevated train tracks next door, and the trains would rumble by and shake our humble abode, making conversation impossible for five or ten minutes. We didn’t have much furniture. We had a bed, a couch, a rickety kitchen table and a couple chairs, and an awesome stereo system. Priorities were priorities.

We’ve picked up a lot of stuff along the way, but I’ve still got that awesome stereo system. It’s my constant companion. As is Kate. Kate was in nursing school when we got married. I was substitute teaching for a whopping $32 per day. Archery? Sure, I can be an archery teacher today. Frankly, I don’t give a rip about the stuff. We were poor then, we’re less poor now, but none of it matters. Kate was, and is, the best thing to ever happen to my life. I know what matters. I’ll just have to look across that no-longer-rickety kitchen table.

The Death of Dives

You’ve probably been in such places. The darkness is broken only by the neon beer signs over the bar. There’s a pool table in the back, and there may or may not be enough pool balls to play a game. The bathroom walls are covered with graffitti. The floor is sticky with some unknown substance that adheres to the bottoms of your shoes. There are exposed pipes on the ceiling, and they leak what appears to be some kind of noxious green liquid. Up in front, a bunch of kids are bashing away on guitars and drums, making an unholy racket. And you and the other fifty people present are having the time of your life.

I love dives. I’ve spent some of the best nights of my life in dives. And there are fewer and fewer of them as the years go by. The old, one-of-a-kind concert venues are being replaced by gentrified yuppy enclaves that have names like Lifestyle Communities Pavillion. I wasn’t aware that soullessness was a lifestyle, but what do I know?

One of my favorite dives, Little Brothers in Columbus’ Short North neighborhood, closed its doors this summer. Before it was Little Brothers it was Stache and Little Brothers, at the corner of Woodruff and High on the Ohio State University campus. Over the course of thirty years I saw well over 100 concerts there – great jazz artists like Phil Woods, old blues masters like Muddy Waters, country/folk gems like Buddy and Julie Miller, and countless rock ‘n roll shows – Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Richard Thompson, Bruce Cockburn, and many, many more. If you were big enough to draw 100 people, but not big enough to sell out the basketball arena, you played at Little Brothers.

And now it’s gone. I read today that Seattle’s Crocodile CafĂ©, another dubious dive that featured absolutely fabulous music, closed its doors last night. It’s happening everywhere. No doubt Seattle has its yuppy music enclaves as well, where scenesters dressed in designer indiewear can look good and pretend like they care about the music. But it stinks. I miss those sticky floors. And the chance to see great musicians strutting their stuff while I stood five feet from the stage.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Random Musical Notes

Dan Fogelberg

The death of Dan Fogelberg makes me sad. Fogelberg was certainly guilty of churning out his share of schlock, but for a while there, in the mid-to-late '70s, he produced well-crafted albums like Souvenirs and Nether Lands that were clearly indebted to the CSN&Y sweet harmony vibe. He didn't create any great music, but he made a lot of perfectly fine, pleasant, melodic rock. And man ... 56 years old. And prostate cancer. Both hit a little too close to home right now.

The Resurgence of Romanticism

I’ve read a couple interviews with famous musicians in the last few weeks that make me realize that romanticism, and all its attendant emphasis on heightened sensory experience and awareness, is alive and well. No great surprise there, I know. There is a reason, after all, why sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are linked together. But I’m still always a bit taken aback when I read the justifications for the lifestyle.

So let’s get it out on the table. I start with the basic notion that human beings are selfish. They don't have to work particularly hard to be self-centered jerks. It comes as naturally as breathing. At least that's the way I've found it to work for me. The problem is that such a view is antithetical to the Christian message that we are to die to ourselves and live for Christ, to be a servant, to think more highly of others than ourselves, etc.

So, as a Christian, I'm going to struggle with any view that enshrines and celebrates selfish behavior, or that suggests that such behavior leads to better art. That's not to say that I can't be a selfish jerk as a Christian. I can be, and often am. But I don't want to be that way. And the problem that I have with the whole romantic movement is that it holds up as an ideal a way of life that, frankly, I've needed to repent of. I spent years of my life living for new and more intense experiences. I wanted to feel everything, deeply. And I excused selfish, self-destructive behavior that affected not only me but many people who loved me as the price that had to be paid to produce great art. Aside from supreme arrogance, I was also guilty of rationalization and denial. The problem was that I wanted to feel. I wanted to feel really good, and I wanted to feel really bad, and I was convinced that only in experiencing those extremes could I explore my true humanity. I was, in fact, a stereotypical romantic.

But it's a lie. Just to pick an obvious example, I love John Lennon as much as anyone. But I don't believe he needed to be an absolute shit to his first wife, or that he needed to ingest LSD continuously throughout a three-year period, in order to produce the art he made. There are many great artists -- among them Emily Dickenson, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Leo Tolstoy, Michelangelo Buonarroti, J.S. Bach -- who led fundamentally decent lives. They may have had their prickly sides; most of them did, in fact. But they weren't pursuing pleasure as if it was the Holy Grail, and rationalizing it all away in the name of Art.

It's interesting to note the case of one Eric Clapton. I remember reading an interview with Clapton from the mid-'80s in the now-defunct Musician Magazine. And Clapton rattled off the typical romantic shpiel -- that one had to suffer for one's art, that one had to live an extreme life in order to produce great art. Compare that with his recent autobiography. There Clapton admits that he had it all wrong; that he screwed up his life, and the lives of those who loved him, by holding to such views. I tend to think of such retrenchment as "maturity." :-) But I think he's right. Passion has its place in art. It can be channeled in marvelous ways. But if left unchanneled it simply overflows into every area of life, and that's not good. I see the romantic movement as advocating a veritable flood of passion. The problem was, and is, that people drown in the flood.

The National

Okay, maybe I missed something. Paste Magazine named The National’s Boxer as the Best Album of 2007. So I decided to listen a little more closely. And after several more listens I’m still underwhelmed. It’s not a bad album. It’s a pleasant Coldplay-like MOR fest featuring a baritone with a headcold, and who writes better lyrics than Chris Martin. But Album of the Year? Sorry, not even in my Top 100.

Bram Tchaikovsky

Bram Tschaikovsky’s wondrous 1979 album Strange Man, Changed Man has been re-released. Power pop fans should rejoice. Following the Beatles template, the band turned the amps up to 11, worked on some chiming guitar runs, and practiced the multi-part harmonies. And the results are stunning. “Girl of My Dreams,” as lightweight lyrically as the title sounds, is nonetheless an absolute classic of the power pop genre, with a superb singalong chorus and a cascading, majestic guitar riff that will be embedded into your brain the moment your hear it. As a bonus, there’s a cover of Neil Diamond’s/The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” that is actually worth hearing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Southeast Engine

I have a friend who is the director of several homeless shelters in Athens, Ohio. He's the king of a dubious empire, and business is booming. Athens is tucked away in the southeast corner of the state, thirty miles from the West Virginia border. There may be a higher percentage of homeless people in and around Athens, Ohio than in any other town in America. There's a 20,000-student university there, and a few thousand former coal miners who, if they work at all, now work at the Taco Bell on Court Street or the Wal-Mart out on State Street because those are the only jobs to be found. The coal is long gone, and anybody with any sense gets the hell out of Dodge as soon as they clutch that precious degree. It's a wonderful, picturesque college town, and it's a desperate, unforgiving place to make a stand and try to make a life. It's Appalachia and academia, town and tattered gown, and it offers a unique perch from which to articulate the shabbiness.

And perhaps that's why Southeast Engine -- Athens natives a few years removed from the graduation ceremony, and still hanging out in that idyllic little college town -- sound like they do. You can tell that lead singer/songwriter Adam Remnant has his English degree, and he drops enough literary references to make sure you know he’s spent some time in old Ellis Hall. But there’s a restlessness and desperation at the heart of his music that suggests that the old Athens malaise has already set in, and that feeling trapped isn’t the exclusive domain of suburban executives with midlife crises and cherry red sports cars. His band plays what has often been described as Americana, alt-country, roots rock. Pick your label. All I know is that Remnant sounds a lot like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, that the soulfulness in his world-weary rasp is palpable, and that his band makes the kind of racket that Tweedy and company did before they decided to get all arty and experimental on us and mix in the radio static and amplifier hum.

There are three albums now – Love is a Murder, a Mystery of Sorts, Coming to Terms with Gravity, and the new one, A Wheel Within a Wheel, which is one of my favorite albums of 2007. A few of the songs try too hard. But most of the time Remnant gets it just right, a smart guy hanging out in a place where religious loonies handle snakes, and where nobody can get a job. He’s longing for truth, longing to be someone better than he is, full of faith and doubt, spooked by spirits and spooked by the image that stares back at him from the mirror. He’s a wonderful songwriter, and Southeast Engine is a very fine band.

We stayed up all night talking
Just to understand what goes on
When you're sleepwalking
What goes through your head
Because you say you don't remember
You were walking through the walls
And like a ghost your heart is ancient
But your mind just can't recall
So cover yourself in a long white sheet
And cut two holes for your eyes
Your spirit weeps when your mouth declares
That this life is just to die

And you will not survive the cost of life
You'll be buried in the ground
Or burned into tiny ashes
And swept across the land
But what matters is bound to show somewhere
Your blood will soon transform
Into another form of life
You don't leave you just return
So cover yourself in a long white sheet
And follow the path to the holy sea
Let the water forgive your sin
Until your mind is totally emptied

It's the father, it's the son, it's the holy ghost
This is what I had feared the most
It's the father, it's the son, it's the holy ghost
This is what I had feared the most
This is joy, this is pain, this is relentless
This is stating the obvious
This is joy, this is pain, this is relentless
This is stating the obvious
-- Southeast Engine, "Holy Ghost"

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Yeah, I know, I said I wasn't going to post anything new today. I lied.

Every year, my favorite/least favorite issue of Paste Magazine is the one where the year's best albums, films, and books are ranked. Every year Paste gets it completely wrong. This is because they don't publish my own rankings. Most people seem to operate according to these sensibilities as well, except they're not me, and therefore I disagree with them. They all suck.

Among the charges leveled at Paste’s recently published list of the Best Albums of 2007:

-- What a lame-ass, mainstream list. Why can’t you be adventurous and cool, like me?
-- Who the hell has even heard of these albums? Why don’t you list something we might have actually heard? Or at least I might have heard?
-- Where the hell was Panda Bear/Menomena/Dirty Projectors/The Bastard Fairies/Aqueduct? How did you manage to forget about the best album of the year, and why are you not Pitchfork?
-- Umm, Paul McCartney? He’s still alive, you know.
-- You hate Britney Spears, just like every other lame-ass, pretentious music publication except Rolling Stone. I love their pictures. And I looooove Britney. She’s talented, she’s a good mom, and she is better off without K-Fed.
-- Charles Mingus released the best album of 2007, even though he’s been dead for 28 years (Editor’s Note: this is actually a correct view).

I could go on and on, but for a fine, entertaining representative sampling of these views, you might want to check out the article and extensive comments section over at stereogum.

There’s a familiar, comforting cycle to these events. Paste and other publications boldly set forth their views. Then the music fanatics get on their blogs and publish their Top 10 Most Overrated Albums of the Year and Top 10 Most Overrated Music Magazine lists, and the aggrieved music critics counter with their Top 10 Most Overrated/Pretentious/Clueless Music Bloggers lists, and the hilarity just goes on and on.

But here are some facts, facts I tell you, that may help you keep it all in perspective.

-- If you check the list of Upcoming Releases on, the most comprehensive music resource on the web, you’ll find that there are approximately 400 - 500 albums released every month. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of albums self-released every month by bands/musicians who have their own MySpace page, an Apple computer with Garageband, and the wherewithal to press a few CDs for their families, friends, and the potentially millions of fans who just need to hear the music to be won over to the cause.
-- Assuming only the 400 – 500 albums per month listed at, there were 5,000 – 6,000 new albums released in 2007. If you listened to the radio in Columbus, Ohio, even to that progressive NPR station, you heard about .1% of the new music released this year, roughly one new song for every 1,000 new songs released. At the other extreme, if you were a music critic who listened to new music non-stop, rarely slept, never bathed, had no social life (related?) and no discernible means of employment – in other words, if you listened to new music 18 hours per day, 7 days per week, without a respite, and without, you know, actually taking the time to write anything about the music you heard – you would have barely been able to listen to all the new music released this year, and you still wouldn’t have scratched the surface of all those self-produced/self-released albums. And you would smell.
-- It’s hard, if not impossible, to take it all in.
-- This is art, not algebra.
-- People are different. This can be a good thing. I learned this from Sesame Street long before I heard that washed-up, worthless old hippie fart Jessie Colin Young and the Youngbloods exhort us all to smile on our brothers and love one another right now. And you see how well the lesson has stuck. But really. People are different.

Just as a footnote, in an article just published at, the fine writers/critics associated with that organization just posted their own lists of their Top 10 albums from 2007. Of the approximately 20 writers/critics and 200 albums represented, roughly 150 of them are unique. Let me repeat that: roughly 150 of them are unique. Nobody agrees with anybody. And you know what my #1 favorite part of the article is?

1) The 50 aggrieved commenters who complain that their own favorites are not represented.

Writer's Strike/Transfiguration

In solidarity with the Hollywood writers and their ongoing strike, there will be no new thoughts today. Instead, we bring you a re-run.


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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hating Led Zeppelin

I hated Led Zeppelin for a long time. Part of it was the presence of those interminable songs about Gollum and Valhalla at every stonerfest, and earnest stoned mystics proclaiming the utter heaviosity of it all. Part of it was my aggrieved sense of injustice, knowing that Page and Plant had ripped off deserving blues musicians wholesale and credited their non-creations to, you guessed it, Page and Plant. And part of it was pure and simple jealousy. Okay, it irritated me that these Viking hippies could have their pick of an unending line of groupies and still have enough testosterone left over to casually toss heavy furniture from hotel windows. It wasn’t fair.

So what did I do? I followed my inner elf. I studiously ingored the Led Zeppelin siren song, proclaimed my independence of stonerfest groupthink, and snatched up all the British Trad rock I could find. Okay, they weren’t exactly equivalent – Fairport Convention’s and Steeleye Span’s songs about woodland nymphs and faerie queens and Led Zeppelin’s thunderous blues anthems. But impossibly the two converged, and my life has never been the same.

The occasion was a song on the Led Zeppelin IV album called “The Battle of Evermore.” The day the album came out, one of my friends, knowing my fondness for all things Fairport Convention, brought over the album. “Listen to this,” he said. And there it was – the exquisite voice of Sandy Denny, lead singer for Fairport Convention, entwined with Robert Plant’s banshee wail, proclaiming yet another Tolkienesque tale of dark lords and ring wraiths and epic warfare. But this time it sounded great.

I didn’t rush out and buy the Led Zeppelin back catalogue. That took almost another 30 years. But I did cautiously explore some of the earlier music, and backed off some of my intractable positions. “Gallows Pole,” a folk song on Led Zeppelin III, had actually been credited (correctly) to “Trad.” I recognized it from a much earlier Leadbelly album, but at least Plant and Page hadn’t claimed it as their own. “Tangerine,” from the same album, actually sounded pretty, a quality I never expected from the Barons of Bombast. I grudgingly admitted my admiration for this music.

And I suppose I just mellowed. Robert Plant was involved in a serious car accident in the mid-‘70s, and lost his young son not long after that. Whatever petty jealousies I might have harbored seemed just that – petty – and not worth holding on to. In spite of that impossibly great mane of hair and outsized ego, he was just a guy, prone to screw ups and inexplicable tragedies, just like me.

Five or six years ago a certain breed of layabout stoner/slacker started hanging out at my house, one generation down the line. They were the friends, and sometime boyfriends, of my daughters. Stuffing down my inner urge to grill them about career goals, I asked them instead about their musical tastes. And it turned out that most of them liked, God help me, Led Zeppelin. “Jimmy Page is godlike,” one of them told me. “’Black Dog’” is the greatest song ever written,” another solemnly intoned. “Nah,” I countered. “’Communication Breakdown,’ that’s the essence of balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n roll.” TouchĂ©, dude. It struck me as odd that I was using the phrase “balls-to-the-wall” when discussing music with an acne- ravaged sixteen-year-old-kid, but maybe Led Zeppelin does that to you. I felt like wearing a Viking helmet and throwing furniture.

So I bought the back catalogue. Every studio album, the two live multi-disc albums, the set of outtakes and in-studio appearances from the BBC. I still don’t understand why Robert Plant, he of the fantastic mane and the Viking countenance, was worried about Gollum stealing away with his girl. Relax, man. Toss a couch. But now, finally, I can hear what was there all along. Sure, the band ripped off some of the greatest American music ever made. But they set fire to it and pummeled it and sent it soaring. They might be the greatest rock ‘n roll band, ever.

They just got back together, the three surviving original members, and Jason Bonham, a slacker/stoner one generation down the line, and played an incendiary set in London. Sixty-year-old men aren’t supposed to act like this. But these guys spent their formative years pillaging and plundering, and if they’re older and a bit wizened, they’re still bound for Valhalla. By all accounts they were great. I missed them the first time around, and couldn’t have cared less. Now I’d like to see them, hear that banshee wail before it fades.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tonio K.

This man is shooting a toilet. I like that.

His name is Steve Krikorian, but he's known in the music world as Tonio K., a name boldly copped from a Thomas Mann short story called "Tonio Kroger." As a teenager he played in Buddy Holly's old band The Crickets, but Buddy had been dead for about fifteen years by that point, and young, impressionable Steve was probably scarred for life by a touring regimen featuring a Buddy Holly impersonator performing old rock 'n roll hits in dive bars and juke joints. Wouldn't you be?

At any rate, he emerged twisted. His first proper album was called Life in the Foodchain and was released in 1978. It's one of the best albums ever made. I'm not kidding. It's funny. It's sad. It's killer rock 'n roll. It's razor-sharp social commentary. And it's evidence of a questing spirit, somebody looking for truth. There are a million and one breakup songs out there. But this is the funniest one, and the one that still sounds closest to actual experience to me:

now i know it's not unusual
it's nothing so unique
there's probably hundreds of wonderful love affairs
that go bad in this town every week
(it's a big town)
but all of them others
them sad-hearted lovers
could cry in their beer, what the hey
it didn't concern me
was none of my business
i never had nothin' to say
but suddenly darlin' the table has turned
you have left me for somebody new
and now it's hard to express the resentment i feel
for the years that i've wasted on you

but let me put this another way ... ok?

i'm full of h-a-t-r-e-d
i'm bitter and malign
you've got me p-i-s-s-e-d off
i'm angry most of the time
why don't you g-o t-o h-e-double"l"
you tramp you philandering bitch
i'm going to k-i-l-l one of us baby
give me time and i'll decide on which

i know i'm acting immature
i know i'm acting like a child
i should display some self-control
instead of going wild like this
and i do wish i could accept all this
as simply "life" which includes pain
and act upon the actual fact
that nobody's to blame
yes i wish i was as mellow as for instance jackson browne
but "fountain of sorrow" my ass motherfucker
i hope you wind up in the ground

i'm so full of h-a-t-r-e-d
i'm bitter and malign
you've got me p-i-s-s-e-d off
i'm angry most of the time
why don't you g-o t-o h-e-double"l"
you tramp you philandering bitch
i'm going to k-i-l-l one of us baby
when i'm sober i'll decide on which
(but then again, maybe with the proper counseling,
we can work this out)

I'm full of H-A-T-R-E-D
What's that spell?
What's that spell?
-- Tonio K., "H-A-T-R-E-D"

Don't look for that on Praise 'n Worship radio. But I truly appreciate the fact that Tonio, best known as a Christian recording artist, will claim that that song was written when he was a Christian. Hey, Christians have bad days and bad years too. About ten years later he was writing songs like this. It's considerably more restrained, but no less powerful. The guy just writes truth, and all of his albums are worth tracking down.

you've been a prisoner
been a prisoner all your life
held captive in an alien world
where they hold your need for love to your throat like a knife
and they make you jump
and they make you do tricks
they take what started off such an innocent heart
and they break it and break it and break it
until it almost can't be fixed

well i don't know when
and i don't know how
i don't know how long it's gonna take
i don't know how hard it will be
but i know you will go free

now you can call it the devil
call it the big lie
call it a fallen world
whatever it is, it ruins almost everything we try
it's the sins of the fathers
it's the choices we make
it's people screaming without making a sound
from these prison cells in paradise where we're chained to our mistakes

well i don't know when
and i don't know how
i don't know how much it's gonna cost you
probably everything
but i know you will go free

you can't see the jailer
you can't see the bars
you can't turn your head around fast enough
but it's everywhere you are
it's all around you
and everywhere you walk these prison walls surround you

but in the midst of all this darkness
in the middle of this night
i see the truth cut through this curtain like a laser
like a pure and holy light
and i know i can't touch you now
and i don't want to speak too soon
but when we get sprung
from out of these cages baby
god knows what we might do

well i don't know when
and i don't know how
i don't know if you'll be leaving alone
or if you'll be leaving with me
but i know you will go free
i know the truth will set you free

the truth about who you are
the truth about who you were always meant to be
-- Tonio K., "You Will Go Free"

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Charles Whitman and Other Celebrities

That young, fresh-faced fellow is Charles Whitman. His name is easy for me to remember, for obvious reasons. But a lot of people remember his name. He's a celebrity. In August of 1966 he killed his wife and mother, and then ventured down to the University of Texas, where he climbed the bell tower and started shooting random students traipsing across the campus. All told, he killed 14 people and wounded 31 others. Charles was the first -- or at least the first widely reported -- wacko sniper on the loose.

Yesterday a young kid who had just broken up with his girlfriend and been fired from his job at McDonald's walked into a mall in Omaha, Nebraska and started firing his rifle. Eight people were killed, falling amidst the holiday decorations, before he turned the gun on himself. He left behind a suicide note that read, in part, "At least now I'll be famous." His name was, apparently, Robert Hawkins. And I don't want to know his name.

For what it's worth, this is the fourth time this has happened in a shopping mall in the U.S. this year. I'd advise you all to shop online. And that doesn't include the horrific murders on the Virginia Tech campus this spring, where 33 kids who made the mistake of showing up for their early-morning French and German classes were mowed down by another crazed sniper.

But that suicide note bothers me a lot. It's probably asking too much for CNN and FoxNews to let it go, to not send their reporters scurrying to the scene of the crime, to not interrupt their regular programming to bring us live and up-to-the-minute interviews with terrified shoppers who hid in the clothing racks to avoid being plugged with bullets. But I still hate that suicide note. I don't want Robert Hawkins to be famous. I feel for his family, who apparently didn't feel much for him in the first place. I hate the destruction that brokenness brings. But I don't want him to be famous. Let the names of his victims be famous. Publish them far and wide. And forget about what's his name.

Feel like a failure? Does your life amount to nothing? Just go and shoot a bunch of random people. Then people will know who you are. You'll be famous. You'll be on the front page of the newspaper, and even American Idol winners don't get that kind of treatment. My heart feels sick. Charles Whitman -- and CNN, and FoxNews -- look what you have wrought. I remember the wrong names, and I wish I didn't.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


It used to be that a "dude" was a guy. And only a guy. For instance, once upon a time it would have been appropriate to say, "Dude, Viagra can help that," but not "Dude, are you having your period?" As another example, everybody's favorite grammarians, Aerosmith, once wrote a song called "Dude Look Like a Lady." And this was noteworthy, and worth singing about and writhing on stage over, because most dudes did not.

But now, from what I can tell from my hipster/indie friends who are up on the latest slang, "dude" is a cross-gender noun meaning "person." When did this happen? And why? And what word has replaced the formerly serviceable "dude" to mean "generic male slacker"?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Walk Hard

Good musical parody walks a fine line. Play it too broadly and it’s good for a laugh the first time, and then you never want to revisit it again. Who wants to listen to a comedy routine when you already know the punch lines? Play it too subtly and it’s just not that memorable. Why listen to an imitation of serious artists when you can listen to the real thing?

Walk Hard, the soundtrack to the John C. Reilly spoof of musical biopics, gets it just right. Covering a dizzying variety of musical styles, from ‘50s rockabilly through ‘60s folkie protest to ‘70s disco, Reilly manages to come across as both a first-rate clown and a genuine musical talent. It’s not surprising that these songs are funny. What is surprising is how listenable this album remains long after the jokes have run their course.

The movie’s plot, which traces the career arc of the mythical Dewey Cox, allows Reilly a great deal of leeway in the main role. Loosely based on the life of Johnny Cash, Dewey gets to dabble in early rock ‘n roll, country duets, protest music, sixties psychedelia, bloated countrypolitan schmaltz, and the kind of stripped down, hard-won “wisdom” that characterized Cash’s last few albums on American Recordings. And, of course, every licit and illicit relationship and drug known to man. But because this is a spoof of musical biopics in general and Walk the Line in particular, the results are predictably skewed.

Sometimes Reilly plays it strictly for laughs, as on the winking, double-entendre filled “Let’s Duet,” which probably has Johnny and June rolling over in their graves, or on the faux-protest song “Dear Mr. President,” which skewers both aching sincerity and political correctness. But more frequently the results are more nuanced. “Royal Jelly” is a dead-on Dylan impersonation, with impeccable phrasing, imagery borrowed wholesale from the mid-sixties Dylan catalogue, and off-key harmonica work. It is, of course, also utter nonsense, and that’s what makes it delightful. “(I Hate You) Big Daddy” marries Elvis’s hiccup and sneer with an adolescent diatribe about insufferable parents. “Beautiful Ride,” a big, bloated impartation of life lessons, is so cliched that it revels in the absurdity. But not by that much. I can recall too many songs that were almost, but not quite, just like it in the late sixties. And the disco cover of David Bowie’s “Starman” simply has to be heard to be believed, and recalls Bill Murray in all his SNL lounge lizard glory.

And make no mistake, Reilly is a revelation. He has the voice to pull off these disparate styles, and he’s enough of a musical chameleon to make them all more than believable. And really, that’s the charm of this album. Sure, it’s funny. But all of these songs are almost – almost – thoroughly believable. If you don’t listen closely, you’d swear you’ve heard them all before. And that’s the nature of the best parody. Walk Hard cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. You won’t know whether to laugh or to squirm. And that’s what will keep you coming back for more.

Living Water

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."
-- John 7:37-38

Allright, I will readily admit that this is terrible biblical interpretation, but I'm going to acknowledge the connection anyway.

Today, for the first time in more than a month, I've been able to pee on my own. That sounds like a mundane, if somewhat inappropriate, message. It's not. Doctors have told me that it wouldn't and couldn't happen. But it did today. Three times so far. I never thought I'd want to do cartwheels over basic bodily functions. But I do. Praise God. Excuse me. I'm going to drink some more water now just so I can see it again.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Making Room

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
-- Luke 2:4-7

Pain makes you selfish. I’d like to put a spiritual spin on that, but that’s the bottom line. If there is a universal principle here somewhere it roughly translates to this: when your penis hurts, it’s difficult to think about anything else.

Meanwhile life (and death) goes on. I walked (like John Wayne) into work this morning to be handed several impossible deadlines, all of which need to be met in the next few days. My sister-in-law, who is a damned good teacher, and head of an award-winning program that teaches art to high school kids in the hood, was informed Friday that her position is being eliminated. Apparently ghetto kids don’t need art. Our friends Matt and Quenetta welcomed their baby girl, their first child, prematurely to the world yesterday afternoon. She lived for three hours and died in their arms. My California brother-in-law Mark called me earlier this morning to inform me that his father had just passed away from cancer, and that he and my sister will be in Columbus most of this week. They need all the support we can give them.

And I only know one thing: my penis hurts, a lot.

Adrienne said in her sermon yesterday that God loves us perfectly, and that we cannot be loved any more than we are. I heard this, agreed with it in theory, and wondered what it meant for somebody who pees blood instead of urine. I’m looking for the perfection. I don’t mean that in a snotty way. I mean that I really do want to come to an understanding, even if it is a dim and imperfect one, of what the perfect love of God means in the midst of suffering and great pain, mine and others.

The current Pope, Benedict XVI, doesn’t like popular music. He’s made a series of inflammatory statements that infuriate me, and remind me how much damage those who are clueless and who wield great power can unleash. But he’s recently released an encyclical called SPE SALVI facti sumus (In Hope We Were Saved) that amazes me and heartens me, and reminds me that the aesthetically challenged can still have great spiritual insight. Benedict wrote, in part:

All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. This is so first of all in the sense that we thereby strive to realize our lesser and greater hopes, to complete this or that task which is important for our onward journey, or we work towards a brighter and more humane world so as to open doors into the future. Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance. If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope. It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere.

And this is what I am called to do, painful penis and all. I am called to be an ambassador of hope at a specific time -- today, this week -- to specific people who may, and probably do, feel hopeless. The timing is bad. But the timing is never good. It’s never convenient. But we make room. We open up the dirty, uncleaned room at the back of the inn of our hearts, and we open up the windows and haul in a mop and a broom and we say “No, you don’t need to leave. You’re welcome here.” We make room for hope. We make ourselves available, in all our inadequacy and incompetence, to be agents of hope. A world in darkness sees a great light. We, if are faithful, reflect the light: dimly, but consistently, and perhaps never more importantly than when we don’t feel like shining at all. God, help me. And help them to see the hope to which we are called.