Mother’s Day

Yeah this isn’t the most cheery song, but it’s clearly about mothers. I’m lucky because, although I may not always see eye to eye with my own mother, she has been there with unwavering support my entire existence. Lastly, I spent a lot of time listening to this song with my best friend Jay in his Honda accord while in high school when my mom was probably wondering where I was and what I was doing. So, thanks for never calling the police on me Mom!

Mother’s day is upon us again and I figured I’d write a quick post after just cooking breakfast for my mom, doing some gardening at the family compound in Maine and then going to see her sing with an adult community chorus that she has joined after which I will cook her a steak on the grill while enjoying a few Coronas (which are her favorite). I don’t always get along with my mother as well as I could and there have been a wide swath of conflicts over the years covering everything from when exactly I was coming home with her car to throwing up in her azalea bushes to not picking up after myself almost ever. I don’t always show her how much I do care about her but she knows deep down that all three of her kids got her back and we will do anything to help her as she always has done for us.

My mom laid the foundation for my love of music more than any one person and set me on the musically charged path in life that I am now walking. There was music in our house nearly all the time whether it was from CDs, the radio or my mom playing the piano. All of us kids got all of our music skills and appreciation from our mother. More on that in a minute.  Every year for her birthday and sometimes Mother’s Day, I get her some discs at the local music store and there is always at least one soul/r&b record like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, or whatever new one I can find.

It has not been an easy couple of years for my Mom. Beginning with my father’s passing three plus years ago, she had a run of bad luck that included some health issues which put her into the hospital for a few weeks back in 2011, health issues of her parents, various financial issues from  the untimely passing of Dad and the very recent loss of our favorite furry friend Remy. Through it all, she has remained steadfast in dealing with her problems and pushing on, making a joke when she can and still helping others even when she could barely help herself.

This selflessness is another thing all three of us kids got from her, as well as the ability to relate to damn near anyone we meet which makes us one of the most versatile family of conversationalists that I’ve ever come across. It used to embarrass us when my mother would start talking to people she didn’t know on the subway in NYC when the Elder J lived there, but now I see it as a genuine desire to learn more about people and to spread kindness wherever possible.

Another one of the many oldie style tunes that I associate with my Mom and Dad playing at top volume in whatever P.O.S. car we were rocking at the moment. She often tells the story of one of her brothers singing this song at her grandfather’s funeral while everyone was weeping upstairs. This is not a bad funeral song.

I sat in my garage the other night thinking about what else I need to build some Adirondack  chairs out there as I have cleaned out my father’s woodshop for me to use. My Mom came out and was pretty sad about missing our beloved golden retriever and the waterworks started. One of the few grievances I have with my mom is that she has always been a crier. Like, she cried every time I headed back to college after a visit to Maine, which was pretty often.  She cried so much that I barely responded when she did it which made me feel like a bad son.

A lighting bolt of knowledge struck me as I sat in the garage and I started to tell her how she personally is responsible for my love and knowledge of music and no one has done anything for me that means as much as this does. The waterworks really started then, but I think they were more tears of joy than of melancholy.

I took piano lessons as a youth but didn’t stick with them which is one of my biggest regrets. I was trying to transpose the guitar chords of this old folksy song to the piano the other night while singing it and couldn’t figure out why the D chord sounded wrong. My Mom knew the answer but said “Just keep trying, you will figure it out” knowing full well I had to stick a minor note in there to make it work which I eventually figured out through trial and error. It was a lot more helpful to make me figure it out then to tell me and this is just one of the slices of musical genius in my mom.

I’m not sure I could even properly explore all the ways my mom influenced me when it comes to music. This blog is one of the biggest examples that everyone can see as she is clearly the foundation of the Elder J’s, Sister J’s and my love and appreciation for music as well as how it relates to your life. She gave us the opportunity to listen to all types of music, the access to musical instruments/lessons even if we didn’t stick with them and the undying support in whatever musical journeys we chose to take.

Music is an integral part of all of our lives as each one of us plays instruments and sings to our students/children every day. Music is the number one best thing in my life, the one thing that is always there for me and never lets you down. My bass playing isn’t anything to write home about, but it makes me happy and it allows me to make other people happy and even to teach what I know to both my students and any friend who wants to sit down long enough to pick something up. Life would not be fun for me without music so besides the decades of money, time and patience you have given me Mom, I thank you most for the gift of music. All three of us would be completely different people without it and I hope I can continue to try to repay you.

Spoiler Alert: My Mom’s name is Mary. My Dad was  “Hey Jude” guy but I will forever associate “Let it Be” with my mom. Thanks Mom, I couldn’t ask for a better parent.

Crimes against Humanity: Clear Channel

During an exchange with the good Historian over Twitter a few years back, 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.) remained 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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Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

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Big Star: A revelation or This is an Elder J band for sure.

This was the song that really got me into the band, even if “In The Streets” is the most well-known. Also, when I was writing out the title I wanted to share how listening to the band was a revelation to me but also how I thought it was a band the Elder J would love right from the start while thinking of the long convoluted title of Dr. Strangelove. I got out of breath just writing that sentence. I always thought the singer said after saying he didn’t have a license that “it didn’t matter because I’m a big star” but actually, he says “if I’m a big star” which really plays into the band’s story. Spoiler Alert: Their name comes from the supermarket chain around Memphis, Tennessee.

Between new reggae, sunny pop music and more hip hop, it’s been a good year for me discovering new music and old gems. One band I’ve been into a lot lately is Big Star out of Memphis, Tennessee (from the semi-famous record label Ardent). Basically, their studio was pretty state of the art for the time and was bought by the epic Stax record label with the hopes of releasing some rock and roll because Stax was known for funk/R &B. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I think the Elder will like this band because they have cool vocals/harmonies, limited but tasty instrumentation and very tight song structure. They are definitely not prog rock, are pretty obscure in general and were often covered by Elliot Smith.

Many will recognize this as the theme to That 70’s Show as covered by Cheap Trick. It’s a sweet song and my band actually covers it. It does surprisingly well in the dive bar scene.  Lastly, I have liked this band for a while and recently found a movie about them on Netflix entitled Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. It’s a great flick and if you like this band at all from this post then you should check it out.

The major point of the movie is that although the band was incredibly talented both in musicianship and songwriting, they never attained large commercial appeal. It was a combination of poor distribution by the record company, changing band membership and no serious touring to drum up support for the group. The main songwriters of the group are Alex Chilton and Chris Bell who also both play guitar as well as other instruments. Chilton was the lead singer in a band called The Box Tops who had a pretty big hit in the late 60’s with a song called “The Letter” which you may recognize. I instantly knew it from the same source as some of the tunes from the other day which I heard often and loudly in various vehicles of my Father.

Chilton has a deep rasp in this song that you almost never hear on any Big Star Records. It seems like he just did it for that song and maybe he even chose to use his range in Big Star so no one thought he was trying to ride the coat tails of The Box Tops who were pretty popular for a short period of time. It’s also cool to learn that Chilton was in his teens when he gained this fame and it’s a surprise he kept producing music until his death in 2010.

After the break-up of the Box Tops, Chilton hooked up with Chris Bell who was a local studio musician of some renown, as well as Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. They spent endless hours in the studio and produced #1 Record which was most likely a hopeful joke but ended up being ironic because even though it was adored by critics and fans who could actually find it alike, the record company did not market it or have any type of widespread distribution. This was pretty hard on the band dynamic and although one more album was produced, that is all the classic line-up did as a cohesive group. Chris Bell did his own thing for a while and also got into some issues with drugs/alcohol.

This is a song I think my brother will like for sure. It’s got simple and well constructed lyrics with limited instrumentation.  The vocals are nice too. That basically sums up why I think he will like them and I hope he does.

After that, they released one more album which was largely the work of Alex Chilton and the semi-famous producer Jim Dickinson who is the father of Luther Dickinson of Black Crowes and North Mississippi All Stars fame. It was pretty weird. Even the studio shots from the aforementioned movie were strange. Some people say it was due to Chilton’s declining mental state, others say it was drug use, and more than likely it was a combination of  both as well as other factors we don’t know about. It does have some pretty interesting production techniques and some cool songs like this one.

This song is great but very off center. I still really have little idea what it has to do with a kangaroo except that the lyric at the end is “I want you like a kanga roo”

After this album, Chris Bell was around for a few more years doing music and died way too young. Chilton had some wild years and got into punk rock, veering far from the heavily produced sound of Big Star. He had some success with it, but more importantly for this post, Big Star started to become a major influence on alternative bands from R.E.M. to The Replacements who actually recorded a song with Chilton’s name in the title. Even the use of the Cheap Trick cover of “In the Streets” for the That 70’s Show shows how wide the influence was of a band who never had mainstream success. The band modeled themselves after The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and they never will attain the popularity that those boys did. But when it comes to tight pop songs with a hint of weird towards the end, there’s nobody who beats Big Star, the ultimate hip obscure band. Give them a try.

 

 

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.

Songs of the Year—2000 How I learned to stop worrying and love Hip-Hop

Songs of the Year: “Yellow” Coldplay; “The Next Episode” Dr. Dre

Runners-Up: “Get Off”, The Dandy Warhols; “The Real Slim Shady” Eminem

Honorable Mentions: “Boyz N’ the Hood”, Dynamite Hack

The year with big releases by Radiohead and Greenday as well as by tertiary punk bands like Blink-182,  Sum 41 and Good Charlotte saw the charts dominated by acts from the 1980s (U2, Bon Jovi and Madonna) even as other bands released exciting albums ( Bright Eyes’ Fever and Mirrors, The White Stripes’ De Stijl, Coldplay’s Parachute, The Weakerthans’ Left and Leaving, WyClef’s mediocre Ecleftic, The Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia and Outkast’s Stankonia).

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Smooth Sailing into Springtime

Queens of the Stone Age’s new album is awesome and apparently it’s their first number one album. This song actually popped up as a commercial and I was incredibly stoked because this band has not always been so popular. This song has a sweet groove to it and the video itself  has a story of a night of debauchery with the lead singer Josh Homme (pronounced like mommy) and some Asian businessmen. I didn’t even know people still made music videos for their songs

 The long winter is finally ending and I couldn’t be happier. It’s been a terrible one and I hope to soon forget it. Like every other season in Maine, we appreciate the nice ones because the bad ones are so extreme. Come to think of it, just winter sucks because some of the best weather I’ve experienced anywhere is during spring, summer or fall. Like the Bob Dylan song says, “they say the darkest hour is right before the dawn”, which aptly describes everyone about two weeks ago as winter seemed to stagger into April.

Now we’ve had a solid week run of good weather and everyone’s faces seem to have lightened up from the permanent frozen scowl so recently prevalent. I took the initiative  and started listening to a lot of reggae and other happy music towards the end of the coldest/snowiest winter in a hundred years in hopes that it would lift my spirits after losing my best friend, human or non.

My good friend Scott has been back in Maine for a few months after being down in Key West for most of the last few years working on various types of boats. Many moons ago, say circa 2002, I got him into Bob Marley and maybe a little Toots Hibbert.  Since then, he has spent considerable time getting into reggae and I now get to reap the rewards of exposing him to it so many years ago. I love this song and have listened to it at least thrice daily for the last few weeks. Also, when one of my students gets angry and almost to the point of throwing a chair at someone, I have her go to another room and take deep breaths. After about five minutes, I go in and play reggae from my computer while reading emails and it continually calms her down. 

In a blog where we have covered Elliott Smith and talked of the therapeutic powers of blues at length, it has taken me a long time to fully embrace the idea of listening to music that is antithetical to what I am feeling as a means to improve my mental state. It’s clear to anyone who has read this blog that we really try to share the ups and downs of existence and how music consumption is inextricably intertwined so it sort of seems like “duh” to write that it took me almost 29 years to realize it’s better to listen to happy music when you are sad because it may improve that situation. A case in point is the continual mourning process for my dog, which is clearly linked to the same process of mourning for our Father, which I have assisted as of late with lots of bouncy reggae and sunshine laced pop hits of the 1960’s.

Easter morning this year was fairly arduous as I had a show an hour south that ended at one so I didn’t get home until almost three with an added stop for a haddock burger at an all night fry spot on the ride home. That, coupled with one more beer than I should have had, made waking up at 9 to go to church a real treat. I know basically everything I know about pop music of this era from riding around as a kid in whatever shit-box vehicle my Dad had running with the golden oldie’s radio station blaring. It amazes me how I knew most of the lyrics to this song after not hearing it for a solid ten years, clearly do to dozens of listens as a youngster.

It does seem obvious to not continuing your misery by listening to sad songs when you are sad, but it is some weird tenant of our Northern upbringing and Scandinavian blood lines where what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or has the Maine vernacular goes, ” the more times you hit a pig’s snout, the tougher it gets”. Although these philosophies are both useful for overcoming adversity,  sometimes it helps to foster your own happiness and one way I can do this is flooding my ears with happy tunes.

My aforementioned old friend Scott has kept me swimming in new roots reggae while also motivating me to clean out my garage where my Father’s abundant wood working tools have collected dust for the last three years. I never actively made the choice to stay out of that building, I just did it without thinking and two months turned into three years. In the same vein, Scott says he wants to use the tools for his own projects and to help me with some of our own, but he let slip that this place was my Father’s favorite to be and we ought to honor his memory by utilizing these tools.

I love the dance hall vibes here, I totally am getting back into this music that I have stayed away from for some time. Bring on the reggae.

Mainers are not ones to talk about feelings and the like, instead letting their actions make these statements for them. Scott comes from a family that  has been in the area for damn near 300 years, a very old school clan whose Fourth of July party is the only one I know of that doesn’t serve alcohol due to old school Quaker values. They are not touchy feely and work through difficult times by hard work and determination which brings me to my next point, of the power of staying busy to overcome whatever problem comes your way. Besides positive music, the best way to get through any type of adversity is this method and I’ve been pretty steadfast in this, except for writing this blog the last few weeks which I won’t make any excuses for and will just put up more posts. Actions speak louder than words.

I can actually hit these notes now after a month of bronchitis-like symptoms and years of singing poorly. I have posted this song before but it’s been a boon to my psyche as of late and another song that I often heard in the car with my old man. I love childhood memories that keep coming back and are enriching to the life I live now. Lastly, we are playing a retirement party for an old school teacher and we just may try to pull this one off.

Spring time sure helps kick the blues too, probably above all else, because those months lacking sunlight sure are a bitch. My band is getting pretty busy again, school is winding up as we come closer to the end of the year, the time of gardening is near, I need to write more for this blog as we may expand into a new venture next summer and there’s almost never a reason not to be outside. I am continuing to pump happy jams whenever need be and it’s really looking like smooth sailing into spring time.

Obviously, a sweet Toots Hibbert song covered by my favorite slide guitarist Derek Trucks. This version of this song pulled me out of a 102 degree fever in Paris, France once.