Scratching Post and the Art of Loss/Woodworking 101

The Fillmore East show version is better but it goes on for like 20 minutes and I want you to listen to this jam. It connects to this post and my own life because it’s been a rough winter and I built a scratching post for my cat last Saturday night.

Each year my brother posts about his gardens and our Dad is another time I can firmly say I will never get over the loss of my father. I also do the gardening thing and need to step it up because the winter was long but finally over. I have turned my beds over, taken apart the broken wooden frames that are rotting and dragged them into the garage. I briefly mentioned the garage a few posts back because I have finally cleaned it out and organized it, to some extent, for the first time in over three years. Actually, for the first time ever because I never worked out there with my Dad as I should have. Regret is not helpful though so I am using it as fuel for my own projects.

The old man loved this tune but I think he liked the Bobby Darin version. I also want to be a carpenter. Well, at least a competent handy man.

The wood shop was where my father hung out. He may have kept the house relatively clean, although the more we had our more own homes the more we found fault in our parents’ mode of cleanliness, but the wood shop was a temple of organization. Even after three years of basically nothing being out there and stuff slowly accruing on the benches and shelves, you can still find damn near anything within five minutes. It’s a sad and happy feeling to go searching for tools because everything is labeled by black Sharpie in my Father’s almost indecipherable handwriting. Happy because I can find anything I need and sad because the feeling of him is so strong that I almost think he’s gonna pop into the door wearing his filthy woodworking clothes and spouting some of the worst profanity you have ever heard before cracking jokes on your expense that you will make you laugh for days.

Both my Dad and Merle smoked marijuana and I know he took at least a few trips on LSD, but this song was never about bashing hippies anyway. Merle wrote it making fun of the conservative Midwesterners he knew and my old man loved this song endlessly. In fact, it just occurred to me that part of my love for honky tonk music may have come from listening to this song on repeat in my Dad’s dirt covered Saturn station wagon as a middle schooler.

I have stayed away from the wood shop for three plus years for the reasons I have stated, which can be summed up succinctly by saying I wasn’t ready to be so close to the spirit of my Father even if I sleep in his house every day. Sure, I have used tools for various home improvement projects, but I haven’t cleaned it up and the sawdust on the floor was likely from his final projects. With the loss of my best dog friend Remy a few months back, the loss of Dad loomed even larger. One of the ways I chose to combat this, I got a two-year old orange cat from the refugee league named Hunk. He’s a great cat, although he poops more than I do and he quickly began dismantling an antique chair in my living room. He needed a scratching post fast and I wasn’t about to go buy one when we could build one in the wood shop. But first, it had to be cleaned out so it could actually be used.

I don’t know if my Dad liked the Carpenters, but I bet he did. I want to be a carpenter in my free time and also the first project will hopefully be only the beginning. Lastly, this song is delightfully cheesy, like ELO’S “Telephone Line” but not as awesome. 

With the help of one of my best friends, we cleaned out the garage over the course of several afternoons, removing a trashcan full of dust, dirt and grime off of the floor. We then destroyed several old pieces of furniture, half-made projects that must have been my Dad’s, and did a dump run. We were finally ready to make the scratching post. We sat around the work bench to make a list of materials and as we wrote each item down, we would see it already in the shop. Plywood for the base? There it was, stuck under the bench and half covered in sawdust. A post for the main component of this project? Already cut to length and residing in the overhead racks he had built for scrap wood. A rope to wrap around the post to sustain multiple scratches? Coiled up perfectly on the wall. All the tools we needed were already there, almost eerily set up for our use.

The old man always loved this song too, probably because it had his name in the title and had easy lyrics that he could remember to sing along. Now I don’t believe that ghosts can come back and avenge themselves and I don’t believe that the old man somehow knew we’d lose Remy then get a new cat down the road and need to build a scratching post. I think he just acquired tools for nearly any job and it was just a happy coincidence that all of the materials were already in stock. It did feel nice to feel close to him. 

Once we had cleaned the space and found the materials, building the thing didn’t take long. We had to cut down the plywood slightly using the table saw and then wrapped the rope around the post, putting in sheet rock nails every few wraps to keep it super tight. Then, I sunk a three-inch screw from under the base into the post with three additional two-inch screws to make sure it didn’t move. Lastly, I sprinkled cat nip all over the thing to make it appealing to the cat. We brought that beast right in and Hunk quickly took it on.

He has largely stopped abusing the old chair and spends most of his destructive time on the post, sometimes even sitting on top of it for a better vantage point from which to observe the living room. I’m sure my Dad is proud and I’m proud I got the garage cleaned up and my first project done. The best way to get through any hard time is to stay busy and this proven itself to me time and again. I can only hope to learn some more things so I can show my nephews and nieces some holiday and God willing, my own kids some day. I can’t go back in time but I can design my future.

This song is about nuclear war, but I’m taking it in the literal sense. I’m hopeful for my developing wood working skills, this growing season, and hopefully building some stuff with my family/friends. It’s one of the best ways to remember my Dad and utilizing this space and tools attached to my house.

Radio on the Internet: Pandora’s ‘Newstalgia’

So, I was listening to Pandora again at the gym and enjoying a station a created based off of the Pixies when I heard an

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

You know what clung to the box? Hope.

advertisement for the genre channel called “Cover Songs Radio. There were two things that made me continue to think about this channel over the next day.

First, as some might remember, I have sort of an embarrassing obsession with cover songs. I have theorized about them (twice), I have gone through an intense period of watching amateurs perform them on youtube, I have fantasized about impossible cover songs and I have objected to particularly bad ones.

But what really go me going was the advertisement selling “Newstalgia”, claiming that this is the feeling that a cover song inspires you with because it is both something new and something old. This neologism freaks me the hell out because (1) the Greek compound nost-algia is one of my favorite words and this new word reveals absolute ignorance about the root words “homecoming-grief”) and, more pedantically, new is not a Greek root. The Greek word for ‘new’ would create a perfectly acceptable word “Nealgia”.

(I know. I know. A silly thing to get angry about. And just do a google search for “newstalgia” and see how many others have committed the same unforgivable barbarism.)

So, the idea of a station dedicated to pop songs stayed in my head for a day and a night. The next day I returned to my office and committed myself to listening to the first five songs on the station and writing them down. Here’s what happened: I got excited, I got sad and then I got angry.

Here we go:

1. Van Halen, “You really Got me” (Cover of The Kink’s 1964 hit)

In classic and typical Van Halen stlye, the vocals are sufficient but forgettable and there is way too much guitar soloing. The simplicity and the masculine directness that make the original so powerful are lost on this one. I am sure that the different style was really fascinating in the hoary year of 1978, but years later, it just seems obnoxious

2. Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” (Cover of David Bowie’s 1972 release)

I was surprised when this song came on because I still think of it as a such a revelatory moment for Nirvana. For one, I actually heard this song for the first time when Nirvana covered it in the unplugged show. In this version, the bass is so beautifully and simply played, the guitar-line is like some type of call-to-arms, and Cobain’s voice works well with its under-played presentation of the song. By contrast, when I listen to Bowie’s version, it seems almost cheesy. This cover, then, shows the power of a song translated from one style and time to another with the potential to characterize artist and song alike.

3. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Over the Rainbow” (do you need to ask?)

I wasn’t at all upset to have this song show up. For one, I have heard it about a thousand times but I didn’t know who sang it or really helped to redefine (for me and for a generation at least) what can happen when you transform a song from one genre to another. The ukulele is simple and his voice is a little thread-bare, but every time I have ever heard this song I have gotten a little sad.

Maybe it is the memory of this song and my youth. When I was a small child CBS or one of the networks used to play the Wizard of Oz one night a year. My mom and dad made popcorn, opened the sleeper sofa, and let me stay up late to watch it. I don’t know what inspired that, but I can’t think of or hear of Wizard of Oz without that thought. Even as I type this out, I am blinking away tears–the song is just too sad, to filled with that sense of the ephemeral nature of life.

And this is even more messed up. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole died at the young age of 38 in 1997 after fighting obesity his entire life. Is there a foreboding tone in this song? What is the song about but the desire for transformative change, for the release from this life to a better one.

Shit, I am getting weepy again.

4. Johnny Cash, “Hurt” (cover of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 release)

When this song came on after the first one, I decided that I should just stop doing anything for the rest of the day. “Hurt” is a powerfully harrowing song in its original high goth form. When Cash sings this song at the end of his life and after the passing of his wife, it is just way too much to process emotionally. Poignant doesn’t even begin to describe this shit.

I didn’t skip the song, though. I don’t pay for Pandora!

5. Aerosmith, “Come Together” (Cover of The Beatles’ 1969 release)

I did not know that Aerosmith covered this song. I can be quite honest about this. It is terrible. Tyler has such a unique voice that it does not meld well into other peoples’ songs–and this range is quite wrong for it. The over all tone of the song is really ill-fit for Aerosmith and the time period. I really don’t care that much for The Beatles, but after hearing this abomination I listened to the original as a type of soul cleansing. This is the worst type of a cover song: it reveals the weaknesses of the the band performing and makes you want to hear something else.

So that ended my day with Pandora’s cover songs. Anything new to you hear my brother?

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Note: This entry was originally written in October of 2011 but I’d like to share it again. My life has changed considerably since then but I still often feel like this Sunday mornings.


There’s something about Sunday morning. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s a certain feeling of the weekend being about over while still having a whole day to get done what you need getting done and/or to do absolutely nothing. And I always feel like I need to get something done before I  waste the rest of the day.

I’m in an odd position as of late because I basically work six days a week so Sunday is truly my only day off most weeks. I often have to do things like go to the bank and mow the lawn, two necessary evils but not the top of my leisure time list. This is life.

Let’s look at this particular Sunday morning in early fall: I worked until one last night and am not impressed with the fact that I am now awake at 9:30. My roommate, who doesn’t do shit, is still in bed while her dog pesters me for love and attention, which I of course give because I cannot refuse needy animals or women. I am thinking of multiple reasons to procrastinate on going grocery shopping and to the bank.

So, what am I listening to?

1.“Sunday Morning Coming Down”- written by Kris Kristofferson, performed by Johnny Cash:

This is kind of a no brainer really and the first song I thought of for two reasons. The first the very obvious reference to the day in question and how I feel this particular morning after working a nine hour shift last night.

The song depicts a junkie waking up “without a way to hold his head that doesn’t hurt”. My fucking feet hurt after bartending at a wedding where the attendees drank literally over a thousand Bud Lights and a solid dozen bottles of Captain Morgan’s, among many other things like Jack and Malibu mixed with Diet Coke. They were country people, my people, and, generally, I had zero issues except for the massive clean-up because they were all so shit faced. Hence the hurt feet and aching back.

The second reason is I took a trip up the coast last Sunday and got to spend some time with an authentic Maine country legend by the name of Everard. He played in Nashville and toured for much of his adult life so when I got the chance to sit down in his living room while telling stories and picking tunes, I was pretty stoked. It being Sunday and he being on the wagon for at least two decades, he very naturally played this song while quizzing me on my old country knowledge. I guess I passed and I cherish the experience. I also saw Sheryl Crow walking around that night, but barely noticed as I was still singing those old country songs in my head. “Everyday is a winding road” doesn’t have shit on “Sunday Morning Coming down”.

Continue reading

Macklemore: Same love of the Thrift Shop

Beyond all the deep stuff my brother got into with his post about Macklemore, the one thing I find coolest about this song is how catchy it is without being annoying. The beats are fantastic and I think Ryan Lewis will do big things in that department.  Due to this phenomenon, I have seen everyone from four year-olds to middle-schoolers  and adults of all ages to my ninety year old mother react positively to this song. When I chaperoned an overnight trip to an ecology school on the coast in Maine last spring, I got up at 4:30 am to see the sunrise with a bunch of enthusiastic 8th graders. This one girl was wearing pajamas with footies and I wondered out loud where a grown man could find nightwear of this nature. She quickly replied, “I dunno, try the thrift shop.”

My brother wrote a very thorough and heartfelt review of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist that impressed me as most of his posts do. I will definitely cover some of the same ground, however, I think one of the good things about our blog is the different ways we write and approach what we write about. At least that’s what people tell me who read our blog regularly, so I will try and keep it up.

Continue reading

Sunshine On the Radio: Variations on a Theme with Ron Carter

I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.

Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.

Continue reading

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading