Sunday, December 28, 2008

Land of Hope and Dreams

Don't let anybody tell you that Bruce Springsteen doesn't write gospel music. I'll take this over the entire Contemporary Christian Music oeuvre. I'm in the midst of writing a long essay on Springsteen for Image Journal. I'm having a blast.

In the meantime, there is this, The Land of Hope and Dreams:

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder's rolling down the tracks
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Big Wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train
Carries saints and sinners
This train
Carries losers and winners
This Train
Carries whores and gamblers
This Train
Carries lost souls
This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin'
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin'
This Train
Carries broken-hearted
This Train
Thieves and sweet souls departed
This Train
Carries fools and kings
This Train
All aboard

This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin'
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin'

-- Bruce Springsteen, "Land of Hope and Dreams"

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Great Christmas

It was a wonderful Christmas. We had a great family time. I also received two of my favorite presents of all time:
  • Seasons 1 - 3 of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show
  • A stack of books:

    The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories -- Leo Tolstoy
    Bob Dylan -- Performing Artist (1960 - 1973) -- Paul Williams
    Bob Dylan -- Performing Artist (1974 - 1986) -- Paul Williams
    Bob Dylan -- Performing Artist (1986 - 1990 and Beyond) -- Paul Williams
    The Complete Short Stories -- Oscar Wilde
    Daniel Deronda -- George Eliot
    The House of the Dead -- Fyodor Dostoyevksy
Life is good.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christ Came Down

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees

and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagon sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings
-- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Christ Came Down"

Thanks, Gary.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Four Unheralded Pop Gems

Unless you're a music geek, you're probably unfamiliar with these artists. And that's too bad. They deserved better. All of them made music that recalled more famous artists/bands. And all of them made music that was the equal of the more celebrated popsters.

Any Trouble -- Where Are All the Nice Girls? (1980)

Those of you with long and/or lascivious memories may recall Stiff Records (Motto: If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck). Stiff was the little label that could, and in the late '70s and early '80s it may have featured a roster which, artist by artist, was better than any other record label. At one time or another the label was home to The Adverts, Elvis Costello, Desmond Dekker, The Feelies, The Go-Gos, Graham Parker, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Kirsty MacColl, Madness, Motorhead, Nick Lowe, and The Pogues -- as eclectic and excellent a bunch as one could hope to find in that era. And Any Trouble.

Any Trouble's trouble was that they sounded a lot like Elvis Costello. You know what I say? Not a problem, particularly given the fact that Costello all too soon embarked on the various genre exercises that have characterized most of his career. This is the pure, unadulterated Angry Young Man phase, the This Year's Model phase. And that was a pretty great phase. Any Trouble do it well, too, and Clive Gregson (that's him with the glasses and receding hairline; you'd be pissed off too) wrote short, combative, and highly melodic New Wave tunes that could hold their own with the master.

Bash & Pop -- Friday Night is Killing Me (1993)

This is the best of the post-Replacements album. That's blasphemy, I know. Paul Westerberg has had an uneven but occasionally great solo career. And I like Paul Westerberg. But I like Bash & Pop better. This was Tommy Stinson's short-lived band, and Friday Night is Killing Me is their one and only album. Yes, it's derivative. It sounds like The Replacements, which means that it also sounds like The Stones and The Faces at their most lubricated and ragged; balls-to-the-wall Blooze Rock. What's different is the ambivalent nature of the songs. There's a desperation to these party tunes, and Friday night doesn't always sound like such a fun time. The album got no label support, and it sank like a stone upon its release in 1993. If you're a 'Mats fan, do yourself a favor and try to track it down anyway.

Starry Eyed and Laughing -- Starry Eyed and Laughing (1974)

1974 was a lousy time to be a champion of jangly guitar pop. The Byrds' run was over, and bands/performers like R.E.M. and Robyn
Hitchcock had yet to ascend the new pop throne. And so this band of Brits (named after a line in Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" no less; how very '60s) released a pristine batch of chiming pop tunes that appeared at just the wrong era. Nobody bought it. So buy it now. It's the missing link between McGuinn's Byrds and Peter Buck's R.E.M. And the hooks are better than anything McGuinn did after 1967, or anything Pete Buck did after the mid'-80s.

Emmitt Rhodes -- Emmitt Rhodes (1970)

I been listenin' to Paul's records/I think he really is dead. -- Larry Norman, 1973

Emitt Rhodes was listening to Paul's records, too, and the Macca influence is all over his solo debut album. SoCal popster Rhodes built himself a home studio in his parents' garage and set about the task of painstakingly recording the perfect Beatles album, instrument by instrument, note by note. And the upshot is that this One Man Band might have made a better post-Beatles album than any of the Fab Four, and almost certainly made a better album than anything McCartney released during the '70s. That's taking nothing away from the occasional greatness of Lennon and Harrison in the 1970s. But it's most certainly stating that Rhodes made a perfect -- truly magical -- pop album all by himself, and his original songs have held up better than almost anything else from that era. He couldn't sustain the greatness. But for one album he got it exactly right. I listened to this album for the first time in a long time a couple weeks ago. I can't even fully express how wonderful it was. Maybe I'm amazed. Maybe you will be, too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pondering an American Tune

This is something I wrote for Paste a couple years ago. It's an end-of-the-year reflection, a taking stock of the geography of the heart. It seems appropriate today as well. I know so many people who live in uncertainty, in fear, in the growing realization that life as we have known it is changing, and that nobody knows what the new life will look like. More than ever, this seems like an American tune.


It’s a restless 3 a.m., the most melancholic hour for insomniacs. And it’s a month near the dispirited end of a hellish year in which too many people have died. Sometimes I can block it out, and sometimes I can’t. The thoughts that swirl around my brain tell me that tonight I can’t.

The house settles around me. Everyone else is asleep on this Thursday night; work beckons again in just a few short hours. But sleep isn’t coming, at least not for a while, so I wander downstairs, check my e-mail, read the CNN headlines, and look out my window at the few lights still on in my neighborhood, wondering who else is up and prowling their hallways. I put on the headphones and settle back with an old friend, Paul Simon’s American Tune—the perfect late-night accompaniment to insomnia. With somber, stately melody cribbed from a J.S. Bach chorale, Simon’s gentle, hushed delivery unsuccessfully masks the images that churn with nocturnal disquiet:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees

but it’s alright, it’s alright

we’ve lived so well so long

Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

It’s an American tune from the early 1970s, conceived in a different world—Ho Chi Minh and Richard Nixon, fresh memories of Kent State and My Lai—but it’s a sentiment all too contemporary for those who descend daily into London tube stations, who fearfully cross Baghdad streets or inhabit the splintered ruins of Asian villages inundated by the tsunami. It must ring in the ears of those who endure genocide in Darfur, those who suffer from sub-Saharan Africa’s AIDS plague. Death carries no passport, and it’s no respecter of nations. And we too here in America have heard that insistent refrain. Poor New Orleans, pummeled and drowned, struggles to return to something approaching normal life. A Cleveland, Ohio suburb loses 14 of its young men in one bloody day in Iraq, and a community seeks to comprehend the gaping hole in its heart. Even closer to home, my father-in-law lies in his newly dug grave while two dear family members battle cancer. And at 3 a.m., I can’t help it. I wonder what’s gone wrong.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

and sing an American tune

Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright

You can’t be forever blessed

Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day

And I’m trying to get some rest

That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest

We cross the oceans and send rockets hurtling to the moon, planting our flag on whatever scrap of rock we can find, claiming the land and its allegiance as our own. But it’s not. We’re misfits and strangers here, always voyaging, never able to escape from ourselves or the inevitability of our demise. And there are days when it appears we’ve learned nothing, least of all how to love. Just turn on the news. Or take a look at my heart. I think of the words I’ve spattered this year like bullets, fired willy-nilly out of anger, arrogance, stupidity, even naiveté, always amazed that the gun goes off when I pull the trigger, always slightly stunned when that scent in the air turns out to be gunpowder and not the sweet perfume of the scattered roses in my mind. It’s the shock of recognition, the one clear moment that comes only when all the distractions and entertainments have faded, when there are no more excuses, when the mirror reflects our true image. What can you do? In my case, you pray. And you play the single greatest song of a singularly great American songwriter. You shut up and you listen. Some nights that’s the best thing you can do.

I sit in my office, bathed in the blue glow of a computer monitor in a darkened room, pounding out this grim end-of-the-year reckoning. I won’t be sad to see the end of 2005. Auld Lang Syne, and good riddance. We traffic in sorrow, the real hard coin of the realm, and music sometimes speaks hard truths. Tonight I listen to Paul Simon, to a beautiful melody and words that sting, and ponder the minor miracles: how we manage to rise above the broken-heartedness and our own damned culpability, how we somehow find the strength and courage to get up, bleary-eyed, and do it all over again.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Little Drummer Boy

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

This is the cheeziest of all Christmas carols, a veritable Disneyfied version of the nativity story. Who the hell is this mini Ringo Starr who crashes the stable? And why didn't Joseph tattoo his rhythmic butt several times and chase him away? And what would have prompted him to accept the drummer boy's sorry line: Hey kid, I know you're sleeping, but listen to this cool little hip-hop break?

So I hated the song for years. Decades. For as long as I've watched those ridiculous claymation Christmas specials. But my buddy Michael Gallaugher performed it at a church a couple years back, and I heard it in a new way. I got nothin'. But what little I have -- even if it truly is nothin' -- I give it to you. That actually makes sense to me. It made sense for the shepherds, too, two thousand years ago. It makes sense for me today. The beat goes on.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

That's Ronald Reagan's funeral. My dad's was slightly less ostentatious, and took place in a small room at the back of Jerry Spears' Funeral Home on the west side of Columbus.

My dad has now been dead for two and a half months, but the phone calls from miffed creditors and the bills in the mail just keep on coming. They are particularly appreciated at this festive time of year.

For those of you following this engrossing saga, my dad left no money, a mound of bills, and a nice little surprise for us: if we wanted him buried, we were going to have to pay for it. So my sister and I did that. Nevertheless, the prospect of dealing with his financial "estate" (a euphemistic word if there ever was one) is not something I desired. Or agreed to. Or will even remotely do. But it's tough to ignore when the miffed creditors keep on calling. Isn't this what probate court is for? One would think so. But probate court is a vague, nebulous entity, and there's nobody to talk to, and there's nobody for the creditors to bug. So they bug us.

There's a locked box containing whatever legal papers and financial records that my father bothered to keep. It currently resides at a lawyer's office on the west side of Columbus, complete with a letter from me, notarized by another lawyer, stating, "I don't want this. It's all yours. Have fun." The lawyer who has the locked box wants $200 from us to open the box. Are we going to pay $200 for the lawyer to open the box? No, indeed we are not. It shouldn't take a math genius or a legal wizard to figure out that zero assets minus thousands of dollars of unpaid bills = nothin'. Nada. The ol' blood from a turnip routine.

Nevertheless, the creditors keep calling, and the lawyer's waiting for his $200 (he will be waiting for a long, long time), and every day brings new and delightful discoveries in the life of Robert D. Whitman, deceased. Perhaps, some day, these discoveries will cease. But in the meantime we field the irate phone calls and open the unpaid bills and throw them away, and wait for the mysterious, all-powerful probate court to kick it into gear.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cold Trail Blues

Cold trail blues
I could use
Any kind of sign
That you’re still on the line

Cold trail blues
I’ve been searching throughout the world for you
No matter how I call
I’m no closer at all

It’s almost like you never came
I swear I almost lost your name
Once you meant so much to me
I thought your love would set me free

It's a modern-day psalm, and I hear it the way I hear David's laments, although I'm sure there are many followers of Peter Case who simply hear it as an unrequited love song. And it is certainly that. But it's so much more.

I've noticed a couple things. First, the trail gets colder when you leave the trail. Imagine. You wander off, seeking a shortcut through the woods, and before you know it the trail seems hopelessly hidden, impossible to find. Second, usually through no discernible navigational skills of your own, it is sometimes miraculously possible to stumble back onto the trail. Who knows why this happens? You have nothing to do with it. One moment you're secure in your lostness, rambling aimlessly, figuring that any minute now you'll forge a new trail that will be just as good as the old one, even though you haven't seen a fellow traveler for weeks and you're out of food and water. The next moment you're plucked from your rootless wandering and set back on the path. It's almost like somebody was watching out for you. Or maybe you just stumbled into grace. Again. It works either way.

Cold trail blues
Something I need that I just can’t find
Is it too late now?
Am I too far behind?

There’s a whole new crowd out here
And they just don’t seem to care
Still I keep searching through this gloom
I’ll find your trail right through this room

Cold trail blues
Something I need that I just can’t see
Is it too late now?
Are you here inside of me?

Cold trail blues
I could use
Any kind of sign
That you’re still on the line
-- Peter Case, “Cold Trail Blues”

I've had the cold trail blues. Anybody who tells me they haven't is either deluded or functioning on such an elevated spiritual plane than I'd be reluctant to hang out with them for fear of contaminating their blissful existence. But sometimes the signs that you could sorely use present themselves anyway, almost unbidden. You might not even recognize the signs as the means of rescue. You might view them as unwelcome interference, pointers that you don't need, clear directions out of the maze when you could have eventually figured it out for yourself. That's why the best signs are unusually clear and direct, and say things like "This way, moron." Sometimes that's what it takes. Those of you who know me, remind me to tell you about some of the signs I've seen of late. They've been in big, bold letters, and they've been lit with neon. Right now I can see the trail, and I feel stupid and thankful.

2009 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music

It's not too early to start plugging the Calvin College 2009 Festival of Faith and Music. The dates are April 2 - 4, 2009, and the lineup looks spectacular. Speakers include Cornel West, Makoto Fujimura, and Andy Crouch. Musicians/bands/performers include The Hold Steady, Vic Chesnutt, Kenneth Thomas and Baby Dee. And the proverbial Many More!

I've been a part of the last two FFM conferences, and they've been both great fun and wonderfully thought-provoking. I think Asthmatic Kitty head honcho Michael Kaufmann and I are doing our Bandspotting judging again, wherein we play slightly more demure but less photogenic versions of Simon Cowell and Paul Abdul (I get to be Paula this year) and spotlight some up-and-coming musician/band. Last conference's winner, Ryan Lott (Son Lux) has done quite well for himself, and was featured on NPR's "Best Albums of 2008" show last week. It's a great time, and the fine folks at Calvin go all out to ensure the propagation of fine ideas and fine noises emanating from various classrooms and stages. You all ought to come.

The Decemberists vs. Devo

In the Lego Rock Star World, all rock stars look like disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Bob Dylan, for example, looks like Rod Blagojevich holding a rake. Johnny Cash looks like Rod Blagojevich holding a rake.

So one has to use one's imagination. Still, I'm struck by the resemblance between the Lego Decemberists and the real-life Devo. I love the fact that the Lego on the left is wearing a red flowerpot on his head. I love the fact that the real-life members of Devo are wearing red flowerpots on their heads. I also love the Colin Meloy lego, who actually looks like Colin Meloy. I blame this more on Colin Meloy than anything else, since Legos only have about three basic facial types.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Susan McKeown, Celtic Woman

My local PBS station insists on broadcasting an abomination called the Celtic Woman Christmas Special about four times per day. This is the same special where the well-known Christmas carol "Danny Boy" is sung sweetly and mawkishly, just as it is in every faux Irish pub in County Franklin, Ohio. All of this is apparently intended to prime the pump for viewer donations, since the Erin-by-way-of-Vegas extravaganza is interrupted every ten minutes or so by earnest pleas for money. I am almost, but not quite, ready to send them money so that they won't show the wee lasses with the Big Broadway voices and the muscular bodhran player in the sleeveless shirt ever again.
In contrast, there is the lovely music of one Susan McKeown, born in Dublin (Ireland, that is, not Ohio), now residing in NYC. Susan sings her own songs, but also the traditional music of her native land, and she does so not at all mawkishly. She has a lovely alto that recalls less Broadway-ready Celtic singers such as Sandy Denny, who recorded with an influential little band called Fairport Convention, and June Tabor, who recorded with The Oyster Band when she wasn't working as a librarian. Yes, the singing librarian. Look, these are relatively prosaic lives (June's, anyway; Sandy's, not so much). They all just happen to sing better than the Broadway wannabes.
Susan McKeown can hold her own with the best of them. And that's saying something, because Sandy Denny and June Tabor have the kind of miles-deep soulfulness and melancholy cry in their voices that can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. For original songs that still manage to sound hundreds of years old, you might want to pick up Susan's 2002 album Prophecy. For traditional material with a twist (as in accompanied at times by a Malian band, at other times by a Mexican mariachi band, and at other times by, imagine this, Irish musicians), try Susan's superb 2006 album Sweet Liberty. For an Irish take on klezmer music, as filtered through Woody Guthrie (look, this is too good to make up), hunt down her 2007 collaboration with The Klezmatics called Wonder Wheel.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fleet Foxes vs. Geico Caveman

One is an indie rock star. The other is a television commercial star. A free online insurance quote to the first person who can correctly identify which is which.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


The Rolling Stones are millionaires
Flower children pallbearers
The Beatles said "All you need is love"
And then they broke up
-- Larry Norman, "Reader's Digest"

Is it possible to change? Really change, not in some superficial way, but be re-oriented, re-wired from the heart outward? This is the promise of Christianity -- "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" That was written by a cantankerous man named Paul. He was cantankerous before he met Jesus; full of himself, sure of his righteousness, confident in his actions. And he was cantankerous after he met Jesus; full of Jesus, sure of his righteousness, confident in his actions. He did change. In some deep, deep ways he changed. But he was still a sanctimonious asshole many days. He didn't always get along with people, including people he was leading in and into the faith. He and the apostle Peter, another headstrong individual, didn't particularly like one another at times. They quarreled. Paul told Peter he was a hypocrite. Peter later wrote a couple snide comments about how Paul's letters weren't very easy to understand.
These irksome individuals actually give me hope. Because I am an irksome individual. And perhaps I can still be changed.
I can't do it. I can't make it happen, although I recognize that I'm not some passive vessel that will somehow magically be filled with Change Juice. But I can't do it. There's some evidence -- 53 years' worth now -- that some patterns, some ways of thinking, some ways of behaving are pretty ingrained. I don't know how to not think that way, feel that way, behave that way. I need to be re-wired. And this is after 34 years of my so-called Christian walk, or stumble, or whatever term you want to use to indicate lurching, spastic movement that finds me flailing convulsively on the ground as much as it finds me moving forward.
There are certain attitudes that I know are right, though, even when I find myself wholly disheartened by the asshole I can be, and am. Here are some them: I'm wrong. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Help me. Save me.
All things have not become new. I still act out of insecurity, and need, and just plain selfishness. I've seen the futility of such actions. I just don't know how to change. I need to be ripped wide open. I need a new heart. This is change I can believe in.

Year's Best Magazine Cover

h/t Trip McClatchey at Teenage Kicks.

The High Cost of Living

Has no one else heard Jamey Johnson's latest album?

I don't know if it's really true that the stars shine most brightly from the gutter. Maybe so. I do know that there's a whole sub-genre of popular music that deals with addiction and rueful regret. For all the unbridled celebrations of hedonism in rock music, there are a few folks who have dared to flip the coin over and show what life looks like on the other side -- The Hold Steady's "How a Resurrection Really Feels," Lou Reed's "Heroin," Steve Earle's "Cocaine Can't Kill My Pain," Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Tonight's the Night." Add this one to the stellar list.

Country music deals in cliches and occasionally clever turns of phrase. It's rare when the clever turns of phrase accompany a song that isn't cliched at all, that sounds so raw and so transparently vulnerable that there's no doubt that it emerges from a real, and really desperate, life. Jamey Johnson's "The High Cost of Living" is such a song. The facts: Jamey really did lose his wife. He really did lose his record constract. He really did end up in jail. And he comes out scarred, and wiser, and his wisdom sounds something like this. It's truly the best song I've heard this year. You'll never hear it on the radio. You ought to hear it anyway.

I was just a normal guy
Life was just a nine to five
With bills and pressure
Piled up to the sky
She never asked
She knew I’d be
Hangin’ with my wilder friends
Looking for some other way to fly

And three days straight was no big feat
Could get by with no food or sleep
And crazy was becoming my new norm
I’d pass out on the bedroom floor
And sleep right through the calm before the storm

My life was just an old routine
Every day the same damn thing
I couldn’t even tell I was alive
I tell you
The high cost of livin’
Ain’t nothing like the cost of livin’ high

That southern Baptist parking lot
Is where I’d go to smoke my pot
Sit there in my pickup truck and pray
Staring at that giant cross
Just reminded me that I was lost
And it just never seemed to point the way

As soon as Jesus turned his back
I'd find my way across the track
Lookin’ just to score another deal
With my back against that damn eight ball
I didn’t have to think or talk or feel

My life was just an old routine
Every day the same damn thing
I couldn’t even tell I was alive
I tell you
The high cost of livin’
Ain’t nothing like the cost of livin’ high

My whole life went through my head
Layin’ in that motel bed
Watchin’ as the cops kicked in the door
I had a job and a piece of land
My sweet wife was my best friend
But I traded that for cocaine and a whore

With my new found sobriety
I’ve got the time to sit and think
Of all the things I had and threw away
This prison is much colder than
That one that I was locked up in just yesterday

My life is just an old routine
Every day the same damn thing
Hell I can’t even tell if I’m alive
I tell you
The high cost of livin’
Ain’t nothing like the cost of livin’ high

-- Jamey Johnson, "The High Cost of Living"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The End of Futility?

All of you whiners who complain about your city's lack of sports success, I don't want to hear it. Portland? An NBA championship as recently as 1977. Seattle? Again, an NBA championship in 1979. Memphis? Yeah, okay the Grizzlies suck, but they're the only pro sports franchise in town, and they've only been in town for less than ten years.

None of you can hold a sorry candle to Cleveland, which has three pro franchises which have now gone a combined 142 seasons/years without a championship. That's 38 years for the neophyte Cavaliers, 44 years for the Browns (who also suffered the ignominy of being shipped off to Baltimore by former owner Art "Satan" Modell), and 60 years for the Indians.

Still, the die-hard fans hope against hope. The latest mirage is the Cavaliers, who have won 9 in a row, and are off to an 18 - 3 start in the current NBA season. It's not only that they're winning. It's how they're winning. They've won those last nine games by an average of 22 points, something unheard of in the NBA. And so the opressed blue-collar yokels, laid off from the Ford plant, naturally start talking foolishness. An NBA championship is on the way. The sustained futility will end in June.

Sure. I understand it. Keep hope alive, and all that. It's either that or resign yourself to unemployment and degradation in a town where it starts snowing in October, stops snowing in May, and where the main river catches fire periodically. But some of us know better. We remember the Game 7 World Series collapses by the Indians. We remember football games in the '80s, characterized by the epithets The Drive and The Fumble, wherein the Browns choked away two of their altogether too few chances at greatness.

And so we believe that the Cavaliers will find a way to lose, perhaps by blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead in the deciding Game 7 against the Lakers. Wait and see. Still, we can enjoy the regular season before Lebron James ships off to New York, or L.A., or wherever it is that media-savvy superstars head to escape the snow and the burning river. We will still have Burning River Ale, truly one of the best ales on the planet (the carcinogens are the secret ingredient), of which the entire city will partake liberally after watching the Cavs lose that Game 7.

P.S. I don't live in Cleveland. I live in Columbus, a much more habitable city, where it only snows November through April. I'm still a huge fan of all the Cleveland teams.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Favorite Albums of 2008

The usual disclaimers apply.

Disclaimer #1: No, I haven’t heard all 8,000 albums released this year. I’ve heard somewhere between 600 and 700 of them, which makes me at least 93% likely to be wrong. But hey, this isn’t math class, and I make no claims to objectivity. These albums are my favorites from 2008. You might think that the one you’ve heard that I haven’t heard is the best album of 2008. And you might be right.

Disclaimer #2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get it out of your system now and be done with it. I am deliberately trying to be obscure. Who the hell has even heard of these people? I am a sell-out who includes ridiculously well-known artists such as Bob Dylan on his list. Who the hell actually believes that Bob Dylan could make the best album of the year when he’s, like, 87 years old? So go ahead and vent, then read Disclaimer #1 again.

Disclaimer #3 – “Biggest Disappointments” does not translate to “Worst Albums of 2008.” Don’t go there. “Biggest Disappointments” means “I like these folks, but they didn’t come up with their strongest material this year.” Yes, Britney Spears and Nickelback released new albums in 2008. Yes, on some lists they might qualify for Worst Album of 2008.

Disclaimer #4: Factoring in cultural relevance, innovation, and aesthetic impact, I eventually throw up my hands in despair and use the only objective measure I know to evaluate music. I figure that if I play it a lot, I probably like it. These are the albums that have spent the most time in the CD player and blasting over the iPod earbuds this year.

1. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs – Rare and Unreleased 1989 - 2006

These are the leftovers, the orphans, the stray live tracks and soundtrack tunes that didn’t make it onto the albums of the past twenty years. And if anyone has actually paid attention, you might have noticed that no Bob Dylan album has ever topped my Favorites list before. So how did the rejects make it to the top? Because Bob Dylan has thrown away more masterpieces than almost any other songwriter has ever written. Because Daniel Lanois, Dylan’s go-to producer, and the man whose suffocating sonic gauze can make Bob Dylan sound like U2 sound like Emmylou Harris, is nowhere in sight. And because the old geezer, left to his own raw, stripped-down devices, sounds utterly and fantastically compelling, marshalling his fine blues-based band, and tossing off tunes like “Red River Shore” and “’Cross the Green Mountain,” songs of such luminous beauty that they amaze in their rueful truthfulness. He has no peers, and he keeps schooling the kids.

2. Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes

Ryan Lott, who records under the name Son Lux, is a classically trained pianist and hip-hop and Radiohead fan who makes upside-down music. The eleven songs here consist of lyrical fragments – short phrases repeated, like a mantra, like rosary beads – that serve as the musical anchor, much like the rhythm section traditionally serves as the musical anchor. The froth, the variety, comes from the ever-changing rhythms and tempos, the synth blips and beeps, the Rachmaninoff sturm and drang, the found sound effects, the stitched together samples – including a virtual Maria Callas aria painstakingly constructed note-for-note from previous Callas recordings. The result is an electronica collage that is a bundle of contradictions; noisy and meditative, hypnotizing and endlessly, continually evolving. If Beck recorded in a monastery, this is what he might sound like. This is the best debut album I’ve heard in years.

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science,

Art rock meets the dance floor. Return from Cookie Mountain, the previous album, was a fine album that only critics could love. Dear Science builds on those strengths – insightful songwriting, inventive soundscapes – but adds the pop hooks and funk rhythms of Prince and Michael Jackson. Essentially a scathing commentary on the plastic McWorld in which we live, the social barbs are wedded to impossibly infectious music. The result is the dance soundtrack to the apocalypse.

4. Anathallo – Canopy Glow

To steal what I wrote in Paste:

Sufjan Stevens propped open the door to the marching-band practice room earlier this decade, and since then several of his band-camp compatriots have strutted out onto the wider field of popular music. Chicago septet Anathallo is at the head of this geeky class, and the band upholds its reputation on sophomore album Canopy Glow.

Like its predecessor, 2006’s Floating World, the band’s latest album mixes sensitive folkie singer/songwriter fare with strings, horns and all manner of hand percussion, creating a dizzying and frequently gorgeous mashup that splits the difference between Animal Collective, the Salvation Army band and the neighborhood glee club. It’s the same approach Stevens has employed so masterfully on albums such as Illinois, but there are some important differences. First, everybody sings, and although guitarist/pianist Matt Joynt and autoharp player Erica Froman handle the lion’s share of the vocals, there’s a marked emphasis on choral harmony that’s mostly absent from Stevens’ albums. Second, almost everybody bangs or pulls on something—bass drums, glockenspiels, Velcro, balloons—and there’s a primal rhythmic focus here that nicely offsets the egghead sensibilities. I’d call it an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, but the members of Anathallo are probably inclined to bang on the kitchen sink, too. All of which would make for an idiosyncratic but disposable effort if the songs weren’t so well constructed. “The River” is typical: Starting with pensive piano, the song builds layer upon layer, first adding contrapuntal vocals from Froman, then a trumpet, then a cello and percussion before building to a cascading, swirling climax of strings and horns and multi-layered vocals. It is sweeping, symphonic and breathtakingly beautiful.

The lyrics are quirky and mystical (one song ruminates on a Cool Whip bowl used as a baptismal font); the song structures are endlessly inventive, constantly subverting standard verse/chorus/verse construction. And it’s all elevated by a transparent focus on beauty and wonder. This is a marching band that’s veered way out of formation, and is making utterly original music.

5. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

To be truthful, this is the album I’ve played more than any other in 2008. So why can’t I elevate it to the top spot? Because of those nagging qualities I noted above: cultural relevance, innovation, aesthetic impact. All of which is to say that you’ve probably heard this kind of thing before.

But so what? What we have here is a Scots trio that loves those anthemic early U2 albums, complete with a lead singer with an impossibly affecting, mournful brogue. But what they do with that familiar musical template is utterly bracing and fresh. The songs here, chronicling self-loathing and the desperate search for meaning, for human contact, are so transparently raw and vulnerable that they startle in their intensity:

Twist and whisper the wrong name
I don't care and nor do my ears
Twist yourself around me
I need company, I need human heat
Let's pretend I'm attractive and then you won't mind
We can twist for a while
It's the night, I can be who you like
And I'll quietly leave before it gets light

That’s from a song called “The Twist,” the furthest thing from the Chubby Checker classic. In this dance, people get hurt. It’s a remarkable, intensely written album that is matched by the musical theatricality.

6. Sun Kil Moon – April

Another near-masterpiece from Mark Kozelek, which means that the songs are too long, seemingly interchangeable, and damn near perfect. Nobody does elegiac ballads better than Kozelek, and he offers 74 minutes of them here (even the electric songs are ballads), mining the golden regret of lovers come and gone, childhood memories, recollections of adolescent friends long disappeared. The songs, albeit a little too uniform, are uniformly lovely, and the sense of yearning and sadness is palpable. This is music for 3:00 a.m., when all the lights are out, and the ghosts of the inaccessible past come knocking.

7. Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit – Alarum

Actor Johnny Flynn goes slumming on his fine debut, adopting a Dickensian ragamuffin persona to explore the lives of London down-and-outers. In the process, he marries the Trad sensibilities of Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson with the biting wit and contemporary concerns of Billy Bragg. His folk/Trad band The Sussex Wit contributes extremely obtrusive accompaniment, and I mean that in the best sense – soaring like The Waterboys at their most anthemic and occasionally approaching the manic Celtic punk energy of The Pogues.

8. Jamey Johnson – That Lonesome Song

Outlaw country with a conscience. There’s the usual Outlaw debauchery chronicled here, delivered in an Alabama drawl that is equal parts honey and whiskey. There’s also regret, fury, helplessness, despair, and a nice dollop of gallows humor. It must have been a hell of a breakup. On the final track, Jamey notes that his music can be found in the racks right between “Jennings” and “Jones.” That actually sounds about right.

9. Josh Garrels – Jacaranda

Garrels is a gentle, meditative Christian folkie, a latter-day Bruce Cockburn who finds God while sitting on a riverbank and watching the rippling water. He’s also a tough-minded social protest singer who rails against the casual indifference of those who exploit the poor to make a buck, who rape the planet to line their own coffers. He writes about the birth of a child, the death of a grandparent, the wonders and trials of a new marriage. He sounds like a real human being. He also sounds like Ben Harper, which helps considerably, and his third album is a reminder why soul – in all its sonic and spiritual senses – will always be a welcome tonic.

10. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons – Inside the Human Body

There have been four great rock ‘n roll geeks: Buddy Holly, Jonathan Richman, David Byrne, and Rivers Cuomo. Maybe it’s time to add Ezra Furman to the list. Furman’s sophomore (and sometimes sophomoric) album is a bit of a letdown from last year’s stunning debut Banging Down the Doors. But only a little. He’s still hopelessly geeky, impossibly romantic, and entirely over the top in his approximations of early Bob Dylan and early Violent Femmes. He’s also loud, brash, and a very fine songwriter, and his band cranks up the amps to 11 this time just to keep up with the wordy motormouth.

Honorable Mentions

The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain
Adele – 19
The Baseball Project – Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails
Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
Black Francis – SVN Fingers
Blind Pilot – 3 Rounds and a Sound
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down in the Light
The Botticellis – Old Home Movies
Eddie “the Chief” Clearwater – West Side Strut
Hayes Carll – Trouble in Mind
Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel – Dual Hawks
Damien Dempsey – The Rocky Road
Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Dub Pistols – Speakers and Tweeters
Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
John Ellis and Double Wide – Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow
Firewater – The Golden Hour
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
The Fleshtones – Take a Good Look
The Frontier Brothers – Space Punk Starlet
Jacob Golden – Revenge Songs
Hacienda Brothers – Arizona Motel
Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
Malcolm Holcombe – Gamblin’ House
Jolie Holland – The Living and the Dead
The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
Chris Knight – Heart of Stone
Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim
Adam Marsland – Daylight Kissing Night
Nico Muhly – Mothertongue
Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity
Matthew Ryan – Matthew Ryan and the Silver State
Mando Saenz – Bucket
Darrell Scott – Modern Hymns
Shearwater – Rook
The Spinto Band – Moonwink
Mavis Staples – Live: Hope at the Hideout
The Tallest Man on Earth – Shallow Grave
Waco Brothers – Waco Brothers Alive and Kicking at Schuba’s Tavern
Loudon Wainwright – Recovery
Watermelon Slim and the Workers – No Paid Holildays
Steve Winwood – Nine Lives

Best Reissues and Box Sets

Ed Askew – Little Eyes
Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model
Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking
Genesis – Genesis 1970 – 1975
Roy Harper – Stormcock
Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool
Mogwai – Young Team
Otis Redding – Live in London and Paris
Rez Band – Music to Raise the Dead
Ike and Tina Turner – Sing the Blues
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue

Biggest Disappointments

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
Shelby Lynn – Just a Little Lovin’
Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Sigur Ros – Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
Lucinda Williams – Little Honey

Friday, December 05, 2008

Smelling Merde from Every Quarter

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.
-- Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer

I play the game well for months, sometimes years at a time. I'm a happy little American consumer, which is my purpose in life, and I go to work and earn a paycheck, and then I spend the paycheck on things like roofing shingles, and I keep the American economy humming. It's not humming all that well, and it seems to have lost the tune, but I do what I can.

Then I hit some sort of a wall. Not a literal wall; I could buy that, or pay somebody else to scale it for me. But a metaphorical wall where I, like my literary hero Walker Percy, look around and ask the unanswerable questions: Is this it? Roofing shingles? Scrimping and saving and bowing and scraping and wearing a servile, shit-eating Uncle Tom grin -- Yassuh, I'd sho nuff love to write 'bout database capacity planning -- to pay for two college tuitions for my daughters so that they too can one day buy roofing shingles, and carry on in the grand American tradition?

Gauguin sailed off to Tahiti and hung out with the naked Polynesian women. John Lennon dumped Cynthia and married Yoko. And some of the people I've known -- middle-aged-slouching-toward-senility geezers like myself -- have bought the cherry-red sports car and absconded with their secretaries. I'm not going to do any of those things, mainly because a) they're deeply wrong, and b) I truly love my wife and kids, I recognize how wonderful I have it, and I'm not stupid. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand the basic impulse to chuck it all, to just walk away from the never-ending treadmill. Some people envision getting off the treadmill. They usually call that retirement. But having lost 40% of my hope for the future -- at least that future -- over the past few months, I'm fearful that I'll keep on bowing and scraping until the day I keel over of a heart attack.

That's it? A heart attack in exchange for roofing shingles? That's the wall. I'm not sure I see any way over it or around it.

I'm an IT consultant, a hired gun. I work for six months, a year, on a given project, and then I hitch up the old Chevy Cavalier and mosey on over to the next town and the next dirty job that needs to be cleaned up. That means that once or twice per year I try to convince some hiring manager that I'm the IT sherriff they've been looking for all along, that I'll whip all the lowdown IT varmints into shape, send 'em slinking off with their tails between their legs. Hire me. And I'll start that process again in another few weeks.

Right now I'm not sure what I'll tell them. Why should you hire me? Beats me. You'd probably want to hire someone who's excited about the job and actually wants to do it. You'd probably want to hire somebody who's thrilled at the prospect of paying off those roofing shingles. Me? I'll talk to you about Walker Percy and why he had it right. I'll talk to you about why it's all a big, stinking pile of merde without God in the equation, and that even with Him on your side you still might want to hold your nose.

What's that smell?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Music for Decorating the Tree

I tend to go in for really arcane Christmas music like Bruce Cockburn covering a 17th century Huron Indian carol or The Fleshtones doing up the holiday garage-rock style. But my wife and daughters like the traditional schlock, including Johnny Mathis singing "It's a Marshmallow World in December," perhaps the most revolting holiday recording ever. So we've (okay, I've) had to compromise, which is exactly what I've done the past few years. Faced with familial revolt and the prospect of decorating the Christmas tree by myself, something had to give.

Here are some suggestions on what does not (and does) work that may come in handy in the near future.

First, I tried Elvis. Everybody likes Elvis, right?

Got no sleigh with reindeer
No sack on my back
You're gonna see me comin' in a big black Caddilac
Oh, it's Christmas time pretty baby
And the snow is falling on the ground
Well you be a real good little baby
Santa Claus is back in town

Nope, they weren't buying it. Too lascivious. Nobody likes a slimy, jive come-on while attaching barbed hooks to ornaments. "How about something more traditional?," my wife suggested. Strongly.

Then I tried the King's College Choir. The pre-pubescent kids sang these lovely, ancient carols in their soprano voices, but even I had to admit that it got weird about three songs in. "I Saw Three Ships" -- have you ever listened to that song? Jesus and Mary as members of the Palestinian navy, sailing into Bethlehem (which, last time I checked, is landlocked)? It's very strange.

Then we tried George Winston's December. "It's pretty," I suggested. "It's instrumental. There's no bizarre nautical language." Okay, the family was game for George Winston. For a while. Eventually my youngest daughter started complaining about Pachelbel's Canon. "Everybody plays Pachelbel's Canon," she said. "It's boring. Besides, it isn't even Christmas music." This from the young woman who loves "It's a Marshmallow World in December."

The fourth time was the charm. Tony Bennett. Thank God for Tony Bennett. He's stodgy and traditional enough to appeal to the Johnny Mathis/Nat King Cole set. But the man can sing. And swing. He's got several Christmas albums, but the best is the recently released A Swingin' Christmas, his new set with the Count Basie Orchestra. There are the familiar Christmas favorites. There are great arrangements from the Basie band. And there are multiple examples of why Tony Bennett is simply one of the greatest singers ever, and his phrasing is a wondrous and holy thing. Everybody will be happy.

So that's my suggestion: Tony Bennett. You'll have help decorating the tree. Your loved ones who don't necessarily go in for Tuvan throat singing will be very satisfied. It's a win/win proposition.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

No Depression/Depression

Fear the hearts of men are failing
For these are latter days we know
The Great Depression now is spreading
God's word declared it would be so

I'm going where there's no Depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there

In this dark hour, midnight nearing
The tribulation time will come
The storms will hurl the midnight fear
And sweep lost millions to their doom

I'm going where there's no Depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there
-- A.P. Carter by way of Uncle Tupelo, "No Depression"

I said I would only write about music. So I'll try to write about music. Uncle Tupelo's No Depression is a fabulous album. It spawned a very fine music magazine of the same name and a musical genre/movement of the same name. You should own this album.

So there. That's No Depression. Now let me tell you about depression.

Depression is finding yourself in tears in the middle of the workday, and concerned co-workers wondering what's wrong with you, and you passing off your red eyes as something caused by allergies -- allergies being particularly problematic when it's December and 20 degrees and every spore-bearing plant and microorganism is dead. Sure. Why are you in tears? God only knows why. You certainly don't.

Depression is waking up at 3:00 a.m. in a panic. It's letting the waves of fear wash over you, and having no idea where they come from. Why are you afraid? You have a wife who loves you, and kids who love you, and who are wonderful near-adults now, and a good, challenging-but-not-overwelming job that more than pays the bills, and a boss who thinks you're the bees knees, and a fun hobby/second job that lets you spout off your opinions and get paid for doing so, and friends, and a great church with a great pastor who loves you, and new albums from Anathallo and Eleni Mandell to make you very, very happy. What the hell are you afraid of? God knows. You don't know.

Depression is thinking about all the books you might have written -- great books, too, the ones that would have been read in college classrooms a hundred years from now -- but didn't because you're too depressed to write for any sustained length of time. It's looking back on all the fucking waste. It's getting bummed out because you're bummed out all the time. It's a vicious cycle. It comes around every year about this time, when it's dark when you leave for work and dark when you leave work and most dark when you just want to hoist your middle finger to everybody who tells you to just buck up and count your blessings. Fuck you. What do you know or understand about any of this?

If you're me, here's how you cope: you escape. You escape in a book or an album, or, when you're feeling particularly frisky and counter-cultural, through more illegal means. You know why? Because it works. For a while, and after a fashion, you don't feel depressed. And then you come to your senses, usually against your will, kicking and screaming into the harsh light, and figure out that your wife is pissed off at you, that you've deeply hurt people who care about you, and that you're making a mockery of what you claim to believe and who you claim to be.

And if you're at all cognizant, you also recognize that God is involved in this process, sometimes miraculously, spectacularly, and painfully involved.

Figure it out. I certainly can't seem to do so. Welcome to the world of Andrew J. Whitman, Christian Asshole.

The Book of Broooooce

The book of Broooooce is officially kaput. I thought it was going to happen for a while, but it didn't. I was working with an enthusiastic publisher, and I got as far as outlining the book and writing several sections of it, but ultimately the fine folks at the publishing company determined that it was difficult, if not impossible, to publish a book with a low, low retail price that was still chock full of photos (and about 100 pages of words from me).

So, all you publishing types out there, want to work with a reasonably articulate and highly opinionated Brooooce fan who has already got half a book in the can?

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone

Here's the album cover for Neko Case's upcoming album Middle Cyclone, due out in March. Now, I love Neko, and I can't wait to hear the new album. But I will confess to being take aback by that cover, which looks like it ought to be featured prominently in the latest issue of Testosterone Monthly. Here we have a beautiful neo-hippie chick, a vintage car, and a sword. It's enough to make me want to buy a fire pit and a chainsaw, and join my neighbor in chopping down all the trees in suburbia. Chop wood. Make fire. Drink beer. Leer at women. Good.

It's the sword that really does it for me. Without the sword, Neko merely looks like Tawny Kitaen in that Whitesnake video. Merely. But with the sword she looks like a Fair Elven Maiden Warrior, Liv Tyler ready to kick some Orc butt.

As I said, I can't wait to hear the album.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Craig Fuller

It is fitting that you can't find an Internet photo of Craig Fuller from his glory days with Pure Prairie League. Back in the day (and we're talking the early '70s here) he had hair down to the middle of his back, and he was writing songs that pretty much defined what came to be known as Country Rock (yes, before there was alt-country, y'allternative, and Americana, there was just Country Rock). For what it's worth, it's hard to find his old music these days, too. And now he looks like the guy who sold you life insurance last month. It's okay. Some of us remember.

Pure Prairie League's music came along at a time when I was discovering the wonders of Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University. Athens was a picturesque little college town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, and Woodstock had hit hard, and the long-haired hippie freaks had found a home amongst those hills. The homes -- student ghetto specials, but nobody really cared -- didn't have back porches. They had front porches. And on warm fall or spring days, long-haired musicians could invariably be found on them, picking acoustic guitars and banjos and mandolins, sawing fiddles, strumming dulcimers. It was the hollers of academe, and there was a hoedown on every street corner.

Well, you can have your Eagles and your Pocos. I was happiest with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Pure Prairie League, the latter a bunch of hippie-freak Ohio natives who seemed launched from those front porches. The first PPL album was solid enough, drenched in electric guitars and pedal steel and soaring harmonies, but it was the second album, Bustin' Out, that sealed the stoner cowpoke deal. The whole album was a flat-out masterpiece, but it was the single called "Amie" that turned heads, an FM radio staple that so perfectly captured a time and a sound that I still can't hear it without thinking about those Athens front porches. Soon every would-be stoner cowpoke was playing it -- in local bars, in dormitory stairwells -- and Craig Fuller, who wrote and sang the tune, was the patron saint of every kid who ever wanted to write a pretty, plaintive love song, string together a sweet acoustic guitar riff, and get the girl. Which was pretty much every buckaroo I ever encountered.

A couple years later a new Pure Prairie League album came out, and I bought it the day it was released. There was no Craig Fuller. Where the hell was Craig Fuller? It turned out that Craig Fuller was trying to avoid the draft (yes, it was that time, too), and that fronting one of the better known rock bands of the era wasn't the way to do that. So the rest of the guys carried on without him. There was still the basic country rock template, but it wasn't the same. And although the lineups changed almost every album after that, and at one time took in a young Vince Gill, the magic just wasn't there anymore. It turned out that I wasn't a Pure Prairie League fan as much as I was a Craig Fuller fan. And I couldn't wait for Craig Fuller to resurface from the bunker, or wherever he was hiding, and get on with the business of crafting great country rock tunes.

I had to wait another couple years. This time Craig Fuller had a new band who called themselves American Flyer, after the sled. A supergroup of sorts (other members had played in The Blues Magoos, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Velvet Underground), they seemed poised for greatness, the next Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young ... and they sank like a (country) rock. Don't ask me why. The two albums (American Flyer and Spirit of a Woman, if or when you can actually find them) are just fine. Better than fine, actually. But they simply didn't sell. Here's what I know: while ten million people were buying The Eagles' Hotel California, Craig Fuller was quietly writing better songs and releasing better albums. It didn't matter. "You can check out anytime you like/But you can never leave" Don Henley told us, but he was wrong. Craig Fuller left. After a dispirited but decent wrap-up album with former American Flyer mate Eric Kaz (Fuller/Kaz), Fuller cashed in his chips and walked away from the music business. He was gone for more than a decade.

He re-emerged in the late '80s as the lead singer with Little Feat. By that point I didn't care. Lowell George was long gone, and I didn't want to hear my one-time musical hero covering songs I associated with another musical hero. So I stopped paying attention.

For me, Craig Fuller's music will always be associated with the 1970s. I hear he's re-formed Pure Prairie League. And no, I won't be checking out that reunion of old geezers, either. These things just depress me. But those five albums from the '70s (Pure Prairie League, Bustin' Out, American Flyer, Spirit of a Woman, Fuller/Kaz) retain a timeless excellence for me. Yeah, nostalgia probably plays a role. But these were great songs in 1972, and I think they're great songs in 2008. I don't have a front porch, and I long ago got the girl, but I'll still sing along with "Amie" every time I hear it.

iTunes, Editing, and Genre Confusion

iTunes is goofy. I've imported thousands of CDs to iTunes, and then synched iTunes to my iPod. And I've been aware for some time that many of the artists, album titles, genre labels, etc. shown in iTunes were flat-out wrong. The band Aradhna appears as both "Aradhna" and "Aaradhna." Bruce Springsteen appears as both "Bruce Springsteen" and "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band," even though some of the albums labeled "Bruce Springsteen" are with the E Street Band. The indie rock band Blitzen Trapper has an album classified as "Holiday" music (summer solstice, maybe?), while Bruce Cockburn's album Christmas (nothing but Christmas songs) is classified as "Folk." Go figure.

In any case, I'm trying to rectify the mess by manually editing the entries in iTunes. And it's a cumbersome and laborious practice. Typically I have to triple- or quadruple-click on an album/song/artist/genre, delete what is there, and then type in what I want, on a track-by-track basis. What I'd really like to do is to make mass editing changes (e.g., change all the "Folk" genre labels for that Cockburn album to "Holiday'). Is there a way to do this? Anyone who can offer insight will be saving my time and my sanity. Thanks.

Or, alternately, I could skip the whole thing. As my wife puts it, "Don't be so anal." As if the Bruce Springsteen/Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band mislabeleling was just some minor little nitpicky thing. Crazy women.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Year-End Lists

This is the best time of year, and it's just beginning. The magazines and websites bravely set forth their Top 10 (20, 50, 100), and then everybody else takes potshots.

Here's how it works:

1) Magazine publishes list.
2) Stereogum reposts list on website.
3) 893 hipsters leave comments, stating that the 1,493 albums mentioned in the comments are the albums that really should have appeared on that Top 10 (20, 50, 100) list.
4) 1,922 hipsters leave more comments, ridiculing the tastes of previous 893 hipsters. Popular rejoinders include:
a] I can't believe you put [Album_Name] at #33. You suck.
b] No, you suck. You're probably some 14-year-old who has to repeat fourth grade for the fifth time.
c] Yeah? Well you're probably some 55-year-old boring old fart in slippers who has to carry around a colostomy bag.
d] No, I'm not. What's a colostomy bag?
e] I knew you were clueless.
5) 2,873 commenters leave comments stating that lists themselves are stupid, that they, as the true arbiters of popular taste, are above lists, and that they are content with creating a year-end music matrix, the goal being to sniff haughtily at the very presupposition that music can be numerically and/or objectively rated.
6) All hell breaks loose when 5,983 commenters begin the round-robin debate on aesthetics, invoking names such as Cicero, Duns Scotus, Alberti, Shaftesbury, Hegel, and Ulrich of Strassburg.
7) Pitchfork publishes the definitive list at the actual (December 31st) end of the year.

Five more weeks to go, and that doesn't even include all the post-mortems of the Pitchfork list.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Il Divo -- The Promise

Are we not men?, the smouldering cover asks. No, we are Il Divo, they proclaim, better than those "Whip It" nerds from Akron, better and more numerous than the three (old, fat) tenors, we are four young James Bonds who can, get this, sing opera AND Abba!

Which they do on The Promise. From the same marketing masterminds who gave us The Backstreet Boys and American Idol comes installment 5 of International Sex Appeal. And let's just be honest and say that it works just fine as international sex appeal. The pre-fab group is made up of tenors Urs Buhler (Switzerland), Sebastien Izambard (France), and David Miller (U.S.A.) and baritone Carlos Marin (Spain). They are a multi-cultural, mult-ethnic stud farm, programmed at the factory to facilitate love in all its carnal and romantic incarnations, and if this album, candlelight, and a little Merlot doesn't do the trick, you're probably hopeless.

The title track (actually "La Promesa" as billed on Track 2 because, hell, it just sounds more smouldering, but you can't put that on the album cover because it would confuse all the Wal-Mart shoppers) is typical; over-the-top emoting sung in Italian. It's what these guys do, although they toss a little Spanish and French into the mix to keep it exotic and interesting. There's a hyperventilating cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a song now so ubiquitous that I'm waiting for it to show up on Maxi-pad commercials. There's "Amazing Grace" with bagpipes, just like in my old Presbyterian Church. And yes, there's Abba's "The Winner Takes It All" sung in Italian, a sort of awkward rockin' aria that leaves me, and seemingly the four studs, utterly baffled.

It is what it is, music for babymaking, dripping in romantic schmaltz, and my prediction is that hundreds of thousands of PBS-watching, Merlot-sipping suburban women will flock to the call. Guys, get ready. Simon Cowell (yeah, that Simon Cowell) and David Krueger (producer and engineer for The Backstreet Boys) have found their backdoor men. Cha-ching!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Short, Private History of the Big Game

I don't know when it started, but deep in the recesses of early childhood I was taught to revere the man. My father would regale me with tales of Great Americans: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Lee and Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, St. Woody Hayes leading the Ohio State Buckeyes against the hated Michigan Wolverines in the famous 1950 Snow Bowl.

In my family, St. Woody Hayes had the special aura usually reserved for presidents and Popes. A light shone around him, and he blessed all who crossed his path. His shadow fell on small, sickly children and they were instantly healed, growing up to become big, strapping linemen. He carried a football around with him that seemed like a natural body appendage, and we longed just to reach out and pat that football, knowing that we would be better human beings if we could just touch it for an instant.

We actually ran into him one day in the early 1960s at Lazarus, a downtown Columbus, Ohio department store. Woody was buying Christmas lights, as I recall, and we were behind him in the checkout line. My father could hardly contain himself. He was so servile and obsequious that he almost bowed. "This is my son, Andy," he proudly told the old coach. Woody was gracious, kind, and avuncular. "It's wonderful to meet you," he told me, patting me on the head. "Stay in school."

I was six years old. Having recently discovered the wonders of the alphabet, I resolved to take him up on his advice. But I never forgot that moment. And I never lost sight of the fact that the third Saturday of November was a high holy day, better and more important than Thanksgiving or Christmas. That was the day of the annual Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. At that time the game wasn't even televised, so I huddled near my radio, listening to every play on WMNI, the Voice of the Buckeyes.

It all culminated in the national championship year of 1968. Sister Mary William, my eighth grade teacher, assigned us an essay entitled "The Greatest Day of My Life." I wrote about November 23rd, 1968, the day the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines 50 - 14 en route to the Rose Bowl and a victory over O.J. Simpson and the USC Trojans. That was the Michigan game in which Woody, up 48 - 14 late in the game, went for a two-point conversion after a touchdown, and made it. "Why did you go for two when you were already ahead by five touchdowns?," reporters asked Woody after the game. "Because I couldn't go for three," he said. It was a glorious day, and at that point it was the pinnacle of my youthful existence. What the hell. I was only thirteen.

Then we moved. Chicago was a pro sports town. To my amazement and chagrin, no one seemed to care about Ohio State vs. Michigan. "How 'bout dem Buckeyes?," I would say, an expression as commonly understood as "Good morning," in Ohio, and I would be met by puzzled stares. People only cared about the Cubs and the Bears and the Bulls. The only college to speak of was Northwestern, an egghead university where they couldn't play sports worth shit. Even so, my dad and I dutifully drove up to Evanston every other year and watched the Buckeyes dismantle the Wildcats. Midway through the fourth quarter, when the score was usually something like 70 - 3, a desultory chant would arise from the Northwestern stands:

That's all right, that's okay
You're gonna work for us someday

It might have been true, but at the time I didn't care. The Buckeyes, and Woody, were the best.

I moved to Athens, Ohio for college, and for a few years there I lost sight of the Big Game. I had other things on my mind; Jesus, Kafka, Shakespeare, weed, girls, not necessarily in that order. I still made it down to the dorm lounge to catch OSU vs. Michigan, but dorm lounges are dorm lounges, and the game was more of an excuse to party than to pay attention. The Archie Griffin years are a mystery to me. But I still followed Woody, was aware of his endearingly passionate antics; storming out onto the field and harranguing the officials, snapping the occasional sideline marker over his knee. Woody was a card.

In the late '70s I moved back to Columbus to attend grad school at The Ohio State University. And I missed -- totally missed -- my first OSU vs. Michigan game. It was a fairly traumatic experience. I was working part-time at a Christian bookstore, and the owner insisted on playing soothing classical music -- Mozart and Bach, mostly -- for the erudite, pious patrons. I begged him. "Look," I said. "Just this one time, let's play the radio. Everyone will understand. These are folks who care more about St. Woody than they do about St. Augustine." But he wouldn't budge. I fumed through multiple playings of the Brandenburg Concerti. The biggest game of the year, possibly of my life, was happening a mere mile from where I grinned like an automaton at all the pathetic customers who actually had the audacity to shop for theological works and Precious Moments figurines while history was being made. It was hard to maintain that grin.

Then, the end, that tragic denouement in which Woody was finally proven to be a crazy, deranged old coot. After losing to Michigan at the end of the 1978 season, Woody actually coldcocked a Clemson player who had the temerity to intercept an Ohio State pass near the end of the Gator Bowl. My friends and I watched in horror and amazement.

"Did Woody just punch that guy?" somebody asked.

"No," somebody else responded. "At least I don't think so. He couldn't have."

"No, but he did," somebody else opined.

And he really did. You can watch it here.

And that was it. Woody Hayes, one of the three greatest Americans to ever live, according to my father, was fired ignominiously.

Shortly afterward I got married, and fairly early in our marriage Kate and I ventured, with some trepidation, up to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The bumper sticker that I used to have on the back of my Chevy Nova, the one that read "Directions to Ann Arbor: north 'til you smell it, west 'til you step in it" proved to be surprisingly accurate. It was my first time in the heart of darkness. And I was stunned. Ann Arbor was a charming college town, full of great bookstores and music stores and ethnic restaurants, and although I kept waiting for the slavering, blood-thirsty zombies to emerge from darkened doorways, it never happened. I've gone back a few times since, and each time I've had a blast. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been fed a load of incredibly biased propaganda.

No matter. Come the third Saturday of November the denizens of Ann Arbor are my mortal enemies. It has always been this way. It may always be this way. For most of my marriage we've decamped to a state park in southeast Ohio for the Thanksgiving holidays, four days of hanging out with Kate's family -- a time that has often coincided with the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. It's isolated down there, eighty miles from anything, and trying to pull in the OSU-Michigan game has often proven to be problematic. Nevertheless, I've done what I can, adjusting and re-adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to try to eliminate the snowy reception. I've made it through the mediocre Earl Bruce years, suffered through the debacle of the John Cooper years, and ultimately triumphed through the Jim Tressel years; five victories in a row now, and counting, most certainly counting.

I watched the game yesterday, this time in the comfort and privacy of my family room. The HD TV signal came in just fine. Truth be told, I lost interest about midway through the third quarter, when it became apparent that the game would be a rout, and that the Buckeyes would win quite easily. There was something a little sad and tawdry about the proceedings. For the first time in my lifetime my dad wouldn't have his eyes glued to a TV set. My dad was gone, and Woody was long gone, and Michigan sucked. I'm glad the Buckeyes won. I would have been far more glad if both teams had come into the game undefeated, the way they seemed to do every year when Woody and Bo were duking it out for the Big Ten championship, and often a national championship. I've figured out that there have been quite a few "Greatest Days of My Life" since that 1968 stomping, and it's been good to gain that perspective. But I watched the game yesterday and thought about Woody and my dad, and how a game -- The Game -- has framed my life. I was thankful for the memories, including the fresh ones of watching Beanie Wells barrel down the sidelines and into the end zone.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Big Game

We train 'em up young in these here parts. The first words that Columbus toddlers learn are "mommy," "daddy," and "Fuck Michigan."

So there's the Big Game here tomorrow, except this year the Big Game has lost some of its gravitas and import. First, the Buckeyes, at 9 -2, have been abject failures. Ask 75% of the people in Columbus and they'll tell you that they suck. Second, Michigan's suckage is off the charts. They suck when they come into the Big Game at 11 - 0. This year they are 3 - 8, which has all the eye-popping surreality of Britney Spears singing Puccini or a Hold Steady review in Christianity Today Magazine. We need a new vocabulary, something that will take in mega-suckage of such monumental proportions that all previous suckage is relegated to a footnote.

Me? I had kinda forgotten about the Big Game. And so it was probably fortuitous that I found myself on the campus of The Ohio State University last night for reasons that had nothing to do with football. At 11:30 p.m., helping to load gear into a van after a concert, I was stunned to see hundreds of nearly naked and drunken OSU students making a beeline to the center of campus. There, amidst the inspiring architecture of the world of academe, lies Mirror Lake, an algae-covered swamp during the beautiful Ohio autumn days (Sept. 23rd - 28th), but last night frozen over with a thin sheet of ice. And all the nearly naked and drunken OSU students were jumping into Mirror Lake. This is apparently a hoary tradition that dates back to the '30s when all the students drove around in Packards and wore beaver coats. But it has survived down to our frantic telecommunications age, and I could see various clumps of students frantically texting their friends to come on down and participate in the collegiate camaraderie.

We decided to watch for a bit. "O-H!," one particularly drunken and belligerent frat boy chanted in my face. I considered my options. "S-H-I-T!" came to mind. I let it pass, which was probably a good idea. He ran off to jump in the lake. After fifteen or twenty minutes or so the students started jogging back to their dorms. "I'm so cold," one miserably wet young woman told us as she shivered her way back to south campus. I thought of starting the "N-O! S-H-I-T!" chant. Again, I let it go.

So now I'm stoked for the Big Game. I'm hoping to borrow a toddler, perhaps from one of our church friends. There's no better time to get started, and to help train up a child in the way he should go. In another eighteen or nineteen years he or she will be ready to jump in the lake.