Stressed Out: Can’t get enough Hip Hop

I was hanging out and having a beer with an old friend who just moved back to Maine from Key West. We had on the music OnDemand old school hip hop channel and this funky little diddy came on.  It sounded very familiar but new. I love the organ flourishes and generally dig the old school production vibe. The Bulldogs did not sound familiar which is unfortunate. 

It’s been a stressful week and hip hop tunes have been helping me through it.  Last Tuesday, my 91-year-old paternal grandmother broke her leg while volunteering at an old folks home, the irony of which doesn’t escape any of us. I’m very close with my grandma and probably hyper-sensitive to most things since last Thursday was also the three-year anniversary of my father passing away which my brother mentioned in a post on that day. Seems like things happen in waves because just a few days later, one of my students ended up in a mental facility for some reasons I’m not going to share here and although she is physically ok, I’m not sure when she will be joining us again. Things are high stress right now and one thing that has been helping me is continuing my quest for new hip hop songs.

I think the big reason hip hop is a welcome distraction is I haven’t listened to it a lot again until recently and it’s like a three and half to four-minute respite from the current difficulties of life. I feel calm while listening to sick beats and I try to not think about any of the problems going on while it’s playing. This rarely works, but I get at least one minute of mental peace per roughly four minutes of music. 

Of course, some people have much bigger problems like extreme poverty, disease and violence. This fact doesn’t make me feel better.  My Grandma is already in a rehab center, I can’t do anything about my dad passing away except mourn him and continue trying to live well and I will support my student when/if she returns in every way I can. Of course, I can say these things until I’m blue in the face but it won’t erase the pain I feel or the regret from being able to take more action. So, I’ve been taking short mental vacations via hip hop and I try to just focus on the rhymes and beats, analyzing why one song works when another doesn’t. A pleasant surprise has been how much I’ve enjoyed listening to Kanye West, especially this epic jam.

I know he’s egotist and I know he’s a shameless self promoter, but I think I like him. His music is good and I suspect his whole act is a perfomance art type of thing not unlike Lady Gaga or any of these other pop stars doing weird shit to gain attention. The difference is that I like listening to Kanye’s music. I also kind of want to “run away” from some of these issues and I also think some people in my life who could help out more with stuff are douche bags. But of course, you can’t control anyone but your self and the best thing to do is lead by example. You can’t control what anyone does but yourself.

There are positive notes. My band was asked to do a benefit for four kids in high school whose father and his girlfriend just died in a car accident. I feel lucky to be able to help someone by organizing a show and playing bass.  I got my principal, a far more seasoned musician than myself, to come open for us and share in some jams. The whole community came out to support the cause, including many of our fellow teachers. The total money raised that day was something along the lines of $22,000 to help cover everyday bills for the kids and to do some repairs they needed on the house they just inherited. Like the irony of my Grandmother hurting herself while helping people younger than she is, I don’t lose the message that three years after my parent died traumatically, I got a chance to really help kids half my age deal with the abrupt loss of their parent.

Hopsin has some ill jams and I keep finding new ones I can vibe to. I do need help and I’m getting it to some extent, but hip hop helps me beau coup right now and I’m happy I’m able to find little things like listening to these jams that assist me when I am stressed

My grandmother has spent her life helping others around here, creating a center of calm in a sea of chaos. I have encountered no one else yet in my life who can be so solid in their help of others with no desire or expectation of anything back. It tears a fucking hole in me to see her in this position of weakness because she has been one constant, perhaps one of two consistent ones, in my life. When my brother was away or my parents were unable, she was there to tell me how to be a good person and how to solve whatever problems came my way.  I sat with her and the dietician yesterday and we gently hassled her for not eating much at all and how she can’t heal up right if she doesn’t eat. I assume she will come out of this as she has survived multiple wars, two dead husbands, a dead son and a dead step daughter. She’s the toughest person I know and I’ve been to a lot of dive bars.

Believe it or not, Granna has seen the band several times. She gets a standing ovation whenever I announce my 91 year old grandmother is in the crowd and the one song she always requests is this jam by Dick Curless. Even though she grew up in the mid-west, she loves this song about the woods up in Maine and all the truckers who perished on the wintry roads.

It is possible that Granna doesn’t want to eat and probably not even the hand of God will change that if that is the case. My brother brought this point up to me last night, much to my chagrin, but he is a voice of reason as usual. As tough as the woman is, if she’s done fighting, then that is how it is and no amount of my tears or fears will change that. I will be there for her regardless, just as I was there for my Dad, there for my student who is in the hospital and the way my band was there for those kids in need. Maybe I take too much on but when my time is up, I want to feel like I did everything I could to be a good person and attempted to leave the world a better place than I found it.

This is my favorite song ever, at least in the instrumental format. I think I wrote on it a little on my post on guitar solos because Duane Allman is probably my favorite guitarist ever. No this isn’t hip hop, but it is very soothing to me and definitely what I want at my funeral if I ever have one.

Northward: 10 Songs for Chicago

This weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind trip to a conference. Yes, for 36 hours I will be separated from wife and kids and surrounded only by the pasty-cold denizens of my field at one of those professional conferences where people nervously check your name tag to see if you’re someone to talk to or not.

I’ve only been to Chicago once before and then I was barely into first grade. My primary memory is that the trip involved my first ever visit to Toys R’ Us. And it blew my little mind. (Maine didn’t have the emporium for another three or four years).

So, in the spirit of my trip, here are 10 songs that have something to do with the Windy City.

“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is odd. His music is quirky. But he (and his music) are damn good. The fact that I haven’t mentioned him before only underscores what a hack music-writer I am.

 

“Chicago, We Can Change the World”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When we grew up we had a family friend who played old protest and folk songs on his piano and Ovation Celebrity (though, not simultaneously—that would have been too cool). Although we each individually had fall-outs with this man, his musical taste and passion certainly made a tremendous impact on our lives.

This song was one of his standards. I still cannot hear the word Chicago without thinking of this song. The song reacts to the highly political and counter-cultural events of the late 60s when all went to hell at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The raw emotion and timeliness of the song always struck me, even as our friend sucked down Gennessee Cream Ales and chain-smoked in-between renditions of this and favorites by John Prine, Billy Joel and James Taylor.

“Jesus Just Left Chicago,” ZZ Top

No, this isn’t about Kanye.

How could I resist a song by this band with this name?

I have to confess that I really do wish I could grow I beard. I am not saying I could or would grow one to match one of these guys but I suspect that it would protect me against the vicious cold I’ll face this weekend.

“Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago”, Soul Coughing

My strongest memory of this song—by one of my favorite bands—is of the percussionist in my college band discovering that the lyrics developed from some type of drug-fueled existentialist fugue during which Mike Doughty contemplated the nature of what was and was not Chicago.

(And don’t think it is silly. What exactly is a city?)

Fueled ourselves by gin and tonics, there may have been imitative pointing and declaring that, yes indeed, this was not Chicago.

“In the Ghetto”, Elvis Presley (written by Mac Davis)

Yes, this is about Chicago.

True story: I was just in a sandwich place called Dave’s Cosmic subs and in the bathroom there was a fantasy painting of Elvis Presley crooning as Michael Jackson listened reclining on the hood of a car. It was all very creepy.

This ballad is so tortured and corny that it is transcendent. Less transcendent, of course, is the fact that Chicago leads the nation in murders and helps to round out some of our worst income inequality.

“Southside,” Common ft. Kanye West

Like all major US cities, I am sure that the class segregation will keep my conference and all of its attendees comfortably safe from the ghetto and from the working class neighborhoods. It is safe to say that the conference is not on the Southside of the city.

(Have I dared to mentioned that my respect for Kanye grows with each crazy thing he does? He is a performance artist.)

“If You Leave Me Now”, Chicago

One cannot have a list of songs about Chicago without including one by the band Chicago. Seriously, I am sure there is a law about this somewhere.

Chicago is one of those big-sounding, schmaltzy bands that I could care less about—the very over-produced and maudlin character that makes me avoid many bands from the time period. I hope I don’t feel the same way about the city.

“Chicago at Night,” Spoon

I haven’t talked much about Spoon on this blog, but it is a band that has great rhythms and writes some great songs. This album (poorly named Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) wasn’t great, but it was still pretty damn good. I don’t remember spending any time in Chicago at night…but then again, I was barely reading the last time I was there.

 

“Tonight, Tonight,” Smashing Pumpkins

This song was written in Chicago and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had the double album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) but it was not oft used and I think my brother took it from me. Smashing Pumpkins are one of those alt-Chameleon bands that could have done almost anything.

At night in Chicago, I will probably be drinking too much. But I won’t be melancholy (or hanging out with dogs). This video, by the way, is fucked up.

 

“Train to Chicago,” Mike Doughty Cover

My brother has written about how much he loves this song. It is a beautiful song and a great cover by Doughty. If I had endless stretches of time, I might take the train North to Chicago. There is something old-world and peaceful about a good train ride. If anything, it doesn’t have the frantic pace and madness of air travel.

So, my brother, while I fly north and endure the actual and metaphorical cold, perhaps you can let me know which songs I have missed.

(Oh, and wish our sister a Happy Birthday).

Grantland’s Battle for the Best Song of the Millennium, the Elite 8

So, over the weekend while I was escaping my 35th birthday Grantland’s contest to find the best song of the century continued without me and without my very valuable commentary on the matter. For the time being, or all time let’s say, I’ll pass over the absurdity of the contest, the fact that it is just a bald attempt to garner some page hits, and the obscenity of the music that has been left out and just focus on celebrating the fact that Beyonce has been swept from the bracket.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

There is no way this is a fair fight.

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Grammys and Grammy Watching

450px-GrammySo, the Grammys are coming up soon and they promise to offer the typical menu of pageantry, performers, promotion and implicit prior authorization of music purchases. (Like that? Cynicism and alliteration at once?)

I mentioned not liking awards shows earlier this week, but I didn’t really state my objections rather clearly. For sake of clarity, then, here are my issues (and, yes, my brother, I am saying ‘issues’ the way our father would).

  1. The Grammys are about making money: The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (which gives out the award) was created by Recording executives. The process of nomination and the doling out of awards is really just one orgy of promotion for the recordings peddled by the sponsoring companies.
  2. The awards in every category are really about selling the most or being the best-known: It is obvious that to win an award, people need to know about you, but it isn’t true that just because something is well-known it is necessarily good or that it is better than something that isn’t as well-known. Further, just because a larger number of people buy something doesn’t mean that it is aesthetically superior. If anything, ‘products’ in wide circulation are often rather non-descript and mediocre.
  3. Awards shows are solipsistic and self-congratulatory parties thrown by rich people for other rich people. I think that says enough.
  4. The Grammys are historically bad at gauging important contributions to music: Pearl Jam won a grammy in 1996 for “Hard Rock Performance”, four years after Jeremy. Grammy voters are older and part of the record industry or institutionalized enough that they are universally conservative. Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991; Nirvana) is often cited as one of the most important albums of the 1990s. The year it was eligible for a Grammy The album of the year was Unforgettable …With Love (Natalie Cole). The Alternative album of the year was Out of Time (R.E.M). The next year? Album of the Year was Eric Clapton’s Unplugged. Alternative Album? Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. (Nine Inch Nails and Red Hot Chili Peppers got some love in the Rock Category but SIR MIX -A-LOT won the best Rap Solo Performance Grammy!).

The Academy authorized THIS? Perhaps I should rethink my criticisms….

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