Songs for Dad

Note: Our father passed away unexpectedly a year ago. We wrote about him as part of developing the idea of this blog. He is responsible in no small part for both of us and everything we do. We miss him greatly.

Long before my Dad actually died, when we first came up for the idea of a doing a music blog as two brothers, one of our first topics was songs we’d play at our father’s funeral. It was supposed to be a joke as my father, the Elder, and I have always shared a morbid sense of humor.

Examples include: my father making us promise that we’d suffocate him with a pillow if he ever became what he called a “vegetable”; Dad daring my sister to touch our deceased step-grandfather at his wake; asking us to stuff his beloved golden retriever so he’d always be there with him. The retriever, now mine by default, is staring at me as I write this and I can assure you it would be funny, albeit very creepy.

My father died probably exactly the way he wanted except far too soon–but I’d imagine that’s the same for everyone. He didn’t suffer long. He was never a “vegetable” and there wasn’t a huge fuss over him because no one had any clue how sick he was until it was too late.

This is turning too much into a eulogy and I have already done that. Let’s shift to the actual topic of the day, songs for my father. I want to talk about songs I remember him really liking as well as some songs that were actually used at his funeral and his wake which was really more of a party (what he wanted when he died).

Before I launch into the songs and why, I need to emphasize that the man was deaf from a young age–so deaf at the end that there was no existing technology to improve his hearing. They somehow fucked up in the incubator and pumped in too much oxygen and it blew one of his ears out and left the other severely damaged. I had a friend who sells hearing aids test him last fall and he was 90% deaf at 61. Many people didn’t realize how deaf he was because he was crazy skilled at reading lips; talking with him one on one seemed no different from conversing with anyone else.

I was lucky to have a best friend for a father and this was hard fought.  It wasn’t until circumstances dropped me in the parents’ house after grad school that we really solidified our relationship. I wouldn’t trade the last year and a half I got to spend with him for anything and I hope in some way this piece of writing will spurn people to get to know their parents if they don’t already.. Lastly and most selfishly, I need to write this as I am still having great trouble dealing with the loss and although I am crying as I write, I think it will be cathartic in the long run.

He once told me of seeing Jimi Hendrix during his opening slot for the Monkees in the Midwest sometime in the late 1960’s. Even with a head full of acid, he described the music to me as “a bunch of monkeys banging on trash cans in the jungle”. He couldn’t hear anything above the distortion.

Needless to say, he wasn’t into the jam like I was. He liked tight song structure and succinct lyrics like all of the folk songs he loved . That being said, I think one will see the amusement in some of the songs he enjoyed as it was very unlikely he ever had any idea what the lyrics were saying. He never explained why he liked songs the way the Elder and I will spend endless hours discussing minute details of long dead musical artists and this is one of the many small parts that made him who he was. He liked stuff and the reasons why either didn’t exist or not for us to know.

1. “What a Friend we have in Jesus/ Swing low Sweet Chariot”-Traditional

Christian Hymns: Both of these songs were played at the services for my father and for good reason. He loved the old spirituals and would always tell people that he and I had a Sunday morning choir group, followed by an off key hum before launching into either one of these tunes in his perceptably terrible singing voice. The man was very good at a lot of things but singing was never one of them. Hell, he was almost completely deaf, cut him a break. I sometimes sang with him because he found great amusement in it even if no one else did; other times, I just laughed because it never ceased to be funny to me.

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A Year Ago this Week, The Sister

Note: We introduce, the Sister

This is a post about remembering the week in my life to date that has been the worst. It’s 3am on January 30, 2012, and I am unable to sleep. Maybe it’s the fact that the 24-week old baby in my belly likes to be the most active in the middle of the night, maybe it’s because my husband is out of town and the only warmth I have at night comes from a 22 pound beagle. Those are probably just excuses, I know the real reason I cannot sleep—exactly one year ago, around 2 in the morning Mountain time, I got the phone call that I never believed would come so soon.

Several hours before I received this call, I spoke to my younger brother on the phone. I was riding a train back from Denver to the small cowboy town in western Colorado where we currently live. I had just spent the week in a mandatory, rigorous training for my job known as “boot camp.” I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and was riding the Amtrak in the middle of a stretch of 28 tunnels in the middle of the Rockies. I was listening to the conductor point out the natural beauty on the outside of the train and had no cell reception.

As the train rumbled toward civilization, somewhere around Vail, Colorado, my cell phone indicated that there was a voicemail. It was from my younger brother, and he sounded frantic. I called him back and he was angry that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone, not with me, nor my older brother. He informed me that my father was very sick and had been hospitalized. When I listened to the symptoms and assessed the situation, I tried to be the stronger older sibling and assured him, “the doctors will take care of him, they’ll pump him full of antibiotics and he’ll be fine—don’t worry.” I didn’t hear from my brother again for about 12 hours.

Now what’s funny is I find myself having a ridiculous music memory about this time. On the train that day, I was listening to the soundtrack from Mamma Mia, a musical created solely to display the idiotic music of Abba in a “Story.” I think listening to that soundtrack at the time is excused based on the fact that throughout that week, I’d been beaten into a mental submission and worked harder and for more hours than any young lawyer should ever have to.

After I spoke to my brother that day, I told him to call my husband to keep him posted as I wasn’t sure how well my phone would work during the rest of the train trip. When I arrived home, I remember my husband and I went grocery shopping and I spent the evening reading cookbooks. I received word from my mother and brother that they were leaving the hospital, and that my father would be fine, and that he wanted them to bring him his laptop and some newspapers when they returned the next morning.

 

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Our Entries This Week

Note: There is very little about music in this entry; it is about memory

How do you measure the passing of a year? (No, this is not a Rent allusion)

In the past year, I became a father. I made countless ER visits. I made hundreds of phone calls. I send thundreds of emails. I know I drove 20,000 miles or more because odometers can’t lie. I ate at least 2500 calories a day. I ran 25-30 miles a week and slept less and less each month.

This year I became a father to a son; I watched my daughter learn to crawl, to walk and to say her first words. And I did it all one man short. This year I became a father and lost one.

Before my brother and I started this blog, but after we started planning it, our father died suddenly. His death, far too soon and completely unexpected, has brought our family to its knees. We have all dealt with it in different ways and the law of unintended consequences has reigned—my sister will have a child this spring; my wife and I had a second child sooner than we would have, my brother has sacrificed his life to be the good son and companion to our mom.

And we have all found ourselves losing it in different ways. I got the call from the Younger J at 3 AM. We had spoken the day before, I knew my father was sick, but we all thought it was minor, that he would be fine. When I woke my wife and told her, her sobs were the first thing that made me feel anything at all. She redefined grief-stricken for me; so wracked with emotion was she, that when she called her mother, she feared something had happened to me or our daughter.

I did not cry for 11 hours. My brother, sister and mother suspect that I am something of a robot, that I do not feel like normal men. The obverse is true: I have spent so much of my life fighting off tears that I have become a master of sublimation. At 3:01 AM I went into mission mode. I had to buy plane tickets, pack sufficient diapers, cancel classes, notify my wife’s employer and arrange for family members to come in from around the country.

I did not cry until I was 25,000 feet above the ground. The night before, we had been in the Emergency Room for one of my daughter’s many ear infections. (Yes, granddaughter and grandfather were in the hospital on the same night, 3000 miles apart.) My wife fell asleep as soon as we were seated on the plane, exhausted from grief. I rocked our daughter to sleep and put on my iPod. I pressed play. Jose Gonzalez’s album Veneer had been paused the day before. The stupid machine started at “Heartbeats”; I made it, maybe, 30 seconds into the song.

 

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The Desert Island List

Popular culture is filled with lists and list-making—from top 100 (or 25 or 10) shows about sports, music and movies, to magazine articles (top 65 sex acts!) to, yes, blog entries. We can’t seem to resist making ranked lists. I don’t remember this being as ubiquitous when I was younger. Indeed, from my reading of literature and history this seems to be a peculiar mark of our age.

(That is not to say that the act of ranking or other judgment was any less important for prior generations but rather that the particular form of the rank listed seems at home and entrenched in the past 20 years or so.)

The ranked list is at once enchanting and distorting. By selecting and sorting items we create hierarchies of value. So, perhaps one influence on the ranked list may be found in the particular form of American free market capitalism (although, I wouldn’t jump to defend this point). We like the list because it is a simple, even elegant, expression of where items stand in relation to one another—essentially of how much they cost. The list, then, is a statement, a declaration of relative worth.

The list, however elegant, is also a fine way to distort value because it says nothing about the quality of items on the list in relationship to categories excluded from the list (e.g., a list of great books compared to a list of great paintings), it provides no information about the relative quality of the items on the list (is item 1 as much better than item 2 as 2 is to 3?), it indicates in its absolute form nothing about the context of the list composition or the parameters imposed upon or by the list maker.

Yet, I suspect because of this distortion, we continue to make lists. (We like the simplicity of the leveling effect.) Another feature of this may be that our world of judgment, especially when it comes to taste and choice (restaurants, music, movies, etc.), is so crowded that to make any decisions at all one must at some level ignore most options. Yes, as horrible as it is to admit, most of our consumer decisions are rendered arbitrary by the overwhelming number of our options. We can only choose by disavowing either many aspects of the choice or a plurality of options. Listing becomes a convenient way to carve a manageable set out of an endlessly replicating and expanding field.

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Songs of the Year 1994

Note: Occasionally we will be running posts that look back to the music we remember from certain years.

1994 was a big year in music, for me and for the world. Kurt pulled the trigger and effectively lionized himself for eternity; Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane fame pointed a shotgun at police officers in a drunken stupor. Shotguns seemed to be a motif of the year but for me, it was all Nirvana and little girls in Bumble Bee suits dancing around in a field to neo-hippie melodies. Weezer and Green Day too, with a little bit of sullen Sound Garden thrown in. This year also brought us the birth of Justin Bieber who would begin his unholy reign years later.

As I’ve said numerous times before, I was a diehard Nirvana fan as a youth even though I could barely understand what Kurt was singing most of the time. I’m sure if I’d known the words, I as a third grader could not identify with the kind of personal desolation he appeared to have felt to spurn his suicide. I don’t even think I would have understood if I had heard the words. Let’s face it; I was a lower upper middle class kid growing up in the woods with numerous friends and a seemingly loving family. My main concern was what snacks I would eat on a given day and if I could convince my mom to drive to Ben Franklin’s department store to buy X-Men trading cards.

I stole my brother’s cds and I don’t think I ever gave back the original copy of Nevermind. I had to buy In Utero and I  remember setting up a fake stage with my two friends who were brothers and pretending to perform the entire album. I got the plastic guitar and the giant foam microphone because I played the lead singer, megalomaniac as I was, while my friends backed me up on a broom and various pots respectively. I would lip-sync to songs like “Rape Me” and “Scentless Apprentice”, even then realizing the beauty of Nirvanas arguably best written song “All Apologies”. I was really sad when he died and I vaguely remember crying. Still kind of bums me out now.

I also had a serious fascination with Green Day and their gigantic album Dookie which my sister listened to non-stop. She loved that band and even got the ‘rents to buy her a low cost Harmony electric guitar which now sits in my basement (a piece of crap, although we did pull it out and hook it to a bass amp not long ago to see if we could make it sound cool). All of the songs were good to my young ears and I still love “Longview”. It perfectly epitomizes the general malaise of the young male, specifically “when masturbation lost its fun / you’re fuckin lonely.” Vulgar, but right to the point of the single male.

One time in music class when it was one of my fellow student’s turns to bring in and share a piece of music. She brought in this cd and played “Basketcase”. Our teacher, an ultra Christian whose son I was friends and had attended their Waco-style Church one Sunday, sort of flipped out. She was like “I can’t believe the depravity of these lyrics. Not only are they using curse words but they also talk about being stoned, having sex, and whores!”

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Article Link: tUnE-yArDs

Go here for an interesting article by the novelist Chuck Klosterman on ‘indie’ fame.

 

The article is most about the artist tUnE-yArDs but offers the interesting subtitle “the perils of critical adoration”. Klosterman senses well the disconnect between what critics like and praise now as opposed to what consumers like, on the one hand, and what will actually prove to be influential and aesthetically pleasing in the future.

 

 

Klosterman does a good job of describing the music and isolation what makes it good (experimental, not avant-garde; good rhythms). There’s a little chaos in the music; but there is also a decent design. The vocalist is quite adept at seeming untethered to melody but returning just in time to avoid dissonance. The sound is different, but not totally unique (I have heard simile drumming, vocalisms and dissonance in other bands). The combination is striking: the spare sound of drums, arpeggio guitar and almost haunting vocals on “Powa” feels somewhere between Animal Collective, The White Stripes and a child of Wolf Parade and David Byrne (with some soulful Prince sprinkled in for good order).

Most impressive–the vocalist can range from sounding like a flighty mezzo-soprano, to a screaming tenor a la 1990’s bands like Collective Soul (at times the vocals remind me in breathing of The Bedouin Soundclash). Check out some tracks if you want to bear witness to a tremendously talented and eclectically styled vocalist.

What Klosterman could mention more (and only just implies) is that critics look for something very different from what attracts an audience.  And, while critics (and snobs) often claim that this difference is a function of good taste, time often proves the critics wrong. This leaves us something to contemplate–the does the critic’s pose prevent him/her for seeing art and music for what its worth? Is an artist like tUnE-yArDs favored only because of difference?

Modern Classics: 13 Songs by Fugazi

Note: We think it is a good idea to review old albums in addition to new ones. Music isn’t fast food; some of it is meant to last.

Rated by Spin Magazine the 29th best album from 1985-2005 (behind albums by Oasis, Pavement, the Pixies, Wu Tang, Liz Phair and U2, to name a few, but ahead of The Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction), Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989) is by far the band’s best album. Problematically enough (for those who care about albums), it is not even originally an album at all but instead the combination of two EPs.

The album consists of, appropriately, 13 pop-length songs (averaging under three minutes each). The energy, focus and style of almost any track on the album would best most tracks on the rest of Fugazi’s releases, if you prefer your hardcore to come in short melodic songs with beginnings, middles and ends. Perhaps more importantly, the music and its messages represent the best of what Fugazi has to offer.

The sixth song, “Suggestion”, is the heart of the album musically and ethically. If any Fugazi song could have been a popular single in the 90’s, it is this one. The chaotic guitars start out searching for a riff, anchored by the rolling rhythm of the bass and drums. The song’s title appears in the first line: “Why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion?” The later “Is my body the only trait in the eyes of man”, at home in the overall song, seems as if it could have inspired the conversation that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt have on the bus in Fight Club when they point to a picture of a man with a six-pack and ask whether this is what a man looks like.

Indeed, social and capitalistic pressures on the definition of masculinity, the central idea of the song, features in the bridge-crescendo (“Suffer your interpretation of what it is….to be a man”). The song ends with something of a whimper (though not a whine) as the topic shifts to a female character, undone and victimized herself by the pressures and expectations of masculinity. The balance of personal reflection and social commentary over now dissonant and then melodic sound is essential what makes Fugazi unique.

From the first track, in fact, 13 Songs is exceptional. The opening bass line and sharp drum hits of “Waiting” preface nearly poetic lines (“I am a patient boy/ I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait / My time is water down a drain”). The vocals of the two singers (Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto) nicely contrast one another—the clarity of vocals on the first track is nicely offset by the more gravelly verses of “Bulldog Front”.

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Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

Sharon Jones is the exact result of James Brown and Tina Turner having a love child. I was completely unaware of her until I went to a one-day music festival in Northhampton, Massachusetts called the Royal Family Records Getdown Festival. This is the record label created by the band Soulive that features the related band Lettuce and all of the individual artists’ solo-work. I have seen Soulive a bunch of times since my first show at the spring fest concert at my college in 2006 and have also been fortunate enough to have seen Lettuce everywhere from outdoor festivals to tiny clubs. They are probably the funkiest band on the planet and never disappoint.

So, when I heard about this show I was interested. I loved both bands and the headliner was Soulive and John Scofield, an amazing jazz guitarist. His collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood, A Go Go, was a major influence on the creation of Soulive and to see the band with this legendary guitarist was unreal. Charlie Hunter was also there, as well as Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, but the real find was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. I had never heard of them and my mind was blown.

Just to give a little perspective on this show, I was realizing as we drove in that I had poison ivy. I had it basically all over my body and it slowly became worse as the show wore on. I had stupidly rolled in a patch while clipping back my grandmother’s lilac bushes. The only time I didn’t think about it was during Sharon’s set. She lights your world up. The energy on stages reminds me of James Brown but the dancing is straight Tina Turner. She crackles and pops with electricity her entire set, not a single falter for a solid hour. Apparently, she is over the age of 50 and only has experienced  mainstream success as of late. She has previously worked jobs such as prison guard and armored car driver in NYC. This woman is badass. I could on and on about her but just watch the videos and that will explain it all. I have been lucky enough to see her twice now and she delivers 150%.

Lastly, her band is internationally recognized for their work on the late Amy Winehouse’s smash album Back to Black, as well as countless other contributions to the funk/soul genre and beyond. The power of the horns and tightness of this combo is absolutely stunning and unlike any other live band I’ve ever seen. Go see this band. You will leave the concert a person changed.

What You Were (Not): Fugazi

“You’ve got your hands over your ears / you’ve got your mouth running on / you’ve got your eyes looking for something / that will never be found” from “Give Me the Cure”

When I was in high school in the overwhelmingly white backwoods region the Family J calls home, learning about music (outside of the few stations we could receive clearly which included double doses of top 40’s, easy listening, Oldies, Country and Classic Rock) was a task that both challenged and defined. Classic Rock came with acid washed jeans and cigarette smoking in elementary school. Country blared from pick-up trucks with gun racks. Most high school students were wired into MTV and/or Rick Dees’ weekly top 40.

Some of us tried to define ourselves against these stand-bys by gravitating towards the obscure (or not).  Why we did this is hard to explain without humility and self-deprecation. The choice to be ‘different’ is made for many reasons—some have it made for them, some accept it as a confirmation of long-felt dislocation, and others (probably me) embrace it because it is attractive. The mundane everydayness of the ‘mainstream’ pales in comparison to the drama of alienation, otherness, and imagined persecution.

So, in the days before the internet, when ‘alternative’ music began to seep into the top 40 and received heavy play on MTV, the new arms race of self-identification centered around obscurity. To be different one had to possess a musical sensibility and style that was unreplicated and that was, even if impossible so, ‘original’. For musical taste, the obscurity aesthetic is a bit of a paradox. Like conforming to non-conformism, espousing an exclusive taste in the obscure is a bit of a shell game. And here’s why: the pose of the obscurist also entails claiming superiority of product over the more popular examples. It is thus not obscurity that is highlighted but the excellence of the ‘original’ individual’s taste (and this works for most art forms as well as palette and eye).

For some, these poses came easier than others. Geography gave some a regular stream of instruction from a local college radio station. Others benefited from older siblings who initiated them into the mysteries of the underground. And, even others were industrious and daring—sneaking out to small gigs in near-by towns, scouring music magazines and hanging out at record stores. I, on the other hand, was the oldest, out in the sticks, with a mother who listened to Neil Diamond and a deaf father. I have an interview I did when I was in elementary school. I listed the Monkees as my favorite band. I liked Weird Al before a significant (and persistent) They Might Be Giants obsession. I was not, by any means, cool.

But that did not keep me from trying to play the game. The band that I advertised to others as the token of my ‘otherness’ and excellence in my darkest poseurship was Fugazi. You couldn’t find Fugazi on the radio or on MTV. Most music stores in the area did not sell Fugazi albums. This band was the ultimate for the bluffer’s pose. I had learned about Fugazi from an older artist-friend who was the epitome of an underground music connoisseur. (He made Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume look like a two-bit hack.) As I learned later, much of his pronouncements were also poses—they were just better than, cleverer than, and most important of all, prior to mine.

Fugazi’s  DIY ethic, anti-capitalist rhetoric and belligerence towards record companies made it, at least in theory, a perfect band for a quasi-idealistic non-conformist during the swan-song of hair bands and at the dawning of neutered rap and hip-hop (before suburban white kids were listening to Gansta Rap). Fugazi, as I learned, wouldn’t market through merchandise (hence the “This is not a Fugazi T-Shirt” t-shirt), charged an egalitarian 5 dollars for all shows and an affordable 5/8 dollars for each album.

Was I never this 'cool'?

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