Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

During a recent exchange with the good Historian over Twitter, I learned that the flagship alternative rock station of Boston MA, WFNX, has been sold to the media conglomerate Clear Channel. While much of WFNX’s ‘identity’ (its catalogue, call letters, etc.) will remain the property of the local media company Boston Phoenix, it is a sad day when one of the better radio stations in the country goes the way of the evil empire.

Why is Clear Channel Evil? First, let’s be clear about what Clear Channel is: it is a media corporation that not only includes billboards (sight pollution) and hundreds of radio stations across the country (noise pollution), but it has also dabbled in television, live events and news. Its modus operandi is to buy a station, strip it down to bare bones, and deliver one of its common formats like Kiss or Magic or some other anodyne and boring fare.

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Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

On the Radio: The Musical Chimera

The goat head breathes fire!

In Ancient Greek myth the terrible Chimera—part lion, serpent and fire-breathing goat—represents the degeneration of the offspring of the earth and the type of marginal monster mankind needs heroes to kill. By destroying such beasts in stories, early man, in part, assuaged his own fears of the unknown and tamed the world around him.

(we even get a nice adjective from this that is not commonly used in English: chimerical, “fantastic or imaginary”; perhaps even “unnatural”).

Modern science, however, uses the term to describe a creature made from the parts of distinct species. For us, disturbingly or not, the threats to the order of things come not from the earth itself but from our own ‘unnatural’ meddling. (Although I am not so sure that scientists use this term pejoratively, as we might expect.)

Why am I thinking of the Chimera? Well, as I have mentioned, I have been listening to the radio a good deal thanks to the demands of parenthood. Now, recently, I wrested the control of the station from my wife and children (well, from my children who can’t articulate what station they want to listen to; my wife isn’t in the car when I do this…) and returned to my adolescent roots: the local independent alternative rock station.

Now, local alternative independent rock stations are really not all that different from one state to another (unless they are college stations, a topic for another post) : they all tend to play the same ‘classic’ alt-rock songs from the 90’s, they all play too many Foo Fighters tracks (a rant for a later date), and they all play the latest alt-rock hits. So, as a result, my brother and I can live 3000 miles apart and hear the same songs every day by listening to our ‘local’ and ‘independent’ rock stations.

Where is the Chimera, you ask? One song that I cannot escape is Fun’s “We Are Young”. I don’t want to tear the song down—it is actually quite catchy, appealing content-wise, and not hard to listen to. After hearing it, I find myself humming it as I walk from house to car or even in bed when the baby won’t sleep (and when I feel far from young).

The problem with the song is that I feel like it is not one song, but two. The first verse and the last bit sound like something from a David Gray or Mumford & Sons. The middle part sounds like a discarded AWOLnation track or a glam-rock anthem from the 1980’s. The two parts just don’t go together at all. They are so ill-fit  as to make the pairing unnatural, chimerical. (Now, this may be intentional (to create a jarring feeling, to wake the addressee into thinking about fleeting youth and to “gather rosebuds” while we may) but I suspect it is not).

Or so I thought. I decided to embark upon an experiment to test the case. It was simple and fast. I tricked my wife into listening to the radio station that was more than likely to play “We Are Young” every hour. When it came on, I let my wife listen for a few seconds and then turned the volume down. Then I asked her, do you know that “We are young song” (and I sang her the chorus). She did. I told her the song I just turned down was the first part of that song. She swore at me . I turned it up and waited for transition. Typically, laconically, my wife said: “that’s stupid”.

I am not sure I agree with that, but I do wonder about the effect on the audience of the contrast. Cynically, I suspect that the chorus was written first and the rest of the song just thrown around it. (Which is, incidentally, the way I feel about Maroon 5’s highly chimerical “This Love”). But even if that is the case, should we care if part of the song is so good?

In the case of Maroon 5, I think the contrast between the parts makes this creature completely monstrous and the song unlistenable. For Fun’s “We Are Young”, the more I hear it, the more the less beastly it seams

PS: Although I am not the biggest fun of the type of a cappella that plagues small college campuses, I actually like this version of the song a lot:

Airline Music

I hate flying. I really do. There’s something wholly unnatural and weird about being in a pressurized tube at 38, 000 feet that occasionally shakes everywhere when you hit turbulence. I know I have mentioned multiple times that the Elder J and I grew up in the sticks, but this doesn’t mean I haven’t traveled. I have flown all over the country and to Europe, semi-regularly since I was very young but I still hate flying. It never changes.

Once I turned 21, I would get drunk when I flew to numb the stress I felt but I quickly learned that this also is not the best plan. Well, its fun for a little bit, but hangovers seem to hasten at high altitudes or I spend way too much money on Jim Beam Black nips and snack plates as free food on a flight has gone the way of the dodo.

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The Worst Concert Ever

“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)


While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.

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Songs of the Year—1994 Geek Rock Comes out

You say I only hear what I want to.
You say I talk so all the time so.
And I thought what I felt was simple,
and I thought that I don’t belong,
and now that I am leaving,
now I know that I did something wrong ’cause I missed you.
-Lisa Loeb

Songs of the Year: “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “I Should Be Allowed to Think,” They might Be Giants
Runners-up: “Better Man”, Pearl Jam; “Animal”, Nine Inch Nails
Honorable Mention: “21st Century Digital Boy”, Bad Religion; “All Apologies”, Nirvana

1994 was the year that, for however brief a moment, cardigan sweaters were cool. Thick-rimmed glasses were no longer tokens of an embarrassing limitation but rather a sign of honor from a glorious Geekdom. Green Day were geeky punks. Weezer sang a song about 12 sided die.

1994 saw the release of albums that surprised and stuck around. I still remember the furious onslaught of the The Lead Singer as he tried to persuade me to love Green Day’s Dookie by enumerating everyone he knew (who was cool) who liked it. He should have known that this was the wrong tack to take with me. Contrarian I was.

The list of great albums that came out in 1994 is long, but a few highlights include: Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, Weezer’s Blue Album, Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys, Stranger than Fiction, Bad Religion, Definitely Maybe, Oasis, Ready to Die, Notorious B. I.G., Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing. Tracks from these CDs would dominate the world for the next few years. But not me. Not yet.

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Unreal Shows

Unreal(istic) Live Shows

To complete a trilogy of entries on live music, I want to write about some shows I was not able to attend because of not being alive. I won’t wax poetic on about how music in my generation isn’t as cool and all that(….but it isn’t). Maybe it’s because it actually it isn’t as cool or more aptly, there hasn’t been the time to create the mythology around the music. Oh yeah, and I cannot forget the fact that the bands of today are alive and generally still perform while all of these bands do not or can not. We all want what we can’t have.

The first show I will never be able to see is easy: Hank Williams Senior, sometime in the mid 1940’s and with a good pedal steel guitar player. Old timey honky-tonk music may be the music closest to my heart for a myriad of reasons that warrant their own entry. But, to sum it all up, I think that type of music is as real as it gets and Hank is the godfather of it all.

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