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).

Requiem for Grantland’s Quarter-Finals: Ni**as in Paris

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

This is probably violating some type of copyright. But, hey, free advertising for Grantland.com.

Note: I wrote this post before the competition closed and quite erroneously predicted Adele’s victory. OutKast is victorious! This may undermine my claims about ‘recency effect’ or racism (although nostalgia and ‘safe’ hip-hop could be offered as explanations). For the wider public, I actually think that “Hey Ya” is more attractive than the subject of this post…

This is my third and final post about Grantland’s competition for the Best Song of the Millennium. My predictions have failed and the final competition is between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya”. I feel fairly confident that Adele will win the competition for a few reasons. For one, pop culture seems to have its own type of ‘recency effect’ whereby contemporary or rather recent phenomena are judged as better than those more distant in memory. “Hey Ya” defeated some stiff competition along the way (“Hot in Herre” and “Ignition Remix”) but those songs were also outside the memory of the younger generation.

The bigger issue that I think helps to explain Adele’s success apart from the fact that her presence on the radio is concurrent with the competition (recency effect) and her overwhelming difference from other artists, is her relative ‘safe-ness’, by which I mean , her music is non-edgy but ‘soulful’ R&B derivative, she is not over-sexualized, and, she is white.

I don’t want to make too much of possible racial patterns in pop-culture voting, but from Elvis to Eminem and Macklemore, white artists who channel black music often enjoy more success than their counterparts. (And, I suspect that former American Idol contestants are correct that racism is operative in that competition as well, the difference is that they blame the contest and not the voters.)

This is not to detract from the beauty of “Rolling in the Deep” or the power of Adele as an artist but to attest, instead, that the voting is influenced unduly by prejudices basic to our culture and by the bizarre circumstances of the Best Song of the Millennium bracket to begin with. And, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that “Ni**as in Paris” is an abrasive and, for many people, alienating song. That said, it is better than Adele’s song and I thought this a long time back. So here’s a re-posting of why love this song.

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

(Off and) On the Radio: Podcasts and Jaimeo Brown

I haven’t been listening to the radio as much lately because I have gone on a typical binge of audiobooks and podcasts. Even when running, I have forsaken some of the usual playlists (and, not because I have been using my wife’s iPod) for the spoken word. What, you might ask, do I listen to when I don’t listen to music?

I have a few go-to podcasts that I like to store up. I also periodically select audiobooks (especially long ones) to distract me. Here’s a quick list before I get to the musician of the day (Jaimeo Brown).

 

1. This American Life: I have to be completely honest about this one: I have downloaded all of the back episodes. I have donated money through my cell phone. I have dragged my poor, pregnant life to a live simulcast of this show. I regularly cry

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

Ira, you cruel, cruel bastard.

while listening to it.

Now, I thought this attachment made me special. I thought my love for what I think of as the emancipatory power of narrative made me different. I even imagined that my ability to weep (while running, nonetheless) to Ira Glass’ nasally voice in some way indicated an emotional apparatus even my brother denied to me. When I mentioned this once at a party, I was quickly disabused of my fantasy: a woman around my age quipped “Everybody cries at This American Life.”

I am just shocked that the show doesn’t get its own entry on Stuff White People Like.

2. The Moth: If you don’t know the Moth–a series of events where people tell stories without notes live (often in a competition)–and This American Life is a little too structured for you, check out this podcast. The stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking. The common denominator? Narrative. Hearing these stories makes me feel more alive in a strange way because of the vicarious sharing of emotion and experience. Try out a few.

200px-Underworld3. Radiolab: This podcast is like This American Life for science. The episodes are always fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining. The problem? They don’t come out frequently enough.

4. Audiobooks: Recently, I finished listening to Delillo’s Underworld, a fascinating novel that uses as one of its conceits the story of the life of baseball hit by Bobby Thompson in 1951 to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers with a walk-off homerun after that game. The story is far more complex and finely written than that summary implies and it is one of the finer novels I have ‘read’ in a while. Of course, maybe this is because before I was obsessed with the Game of Thrones books…. 

Ok, ok. This was supposed to be a short post about something I heard on the radio and I digressed. After I finished underworld and before I downloaded a few books by William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon, I was listening to the Jazz station (the same one that metamorphoses into an Indie Rock station at night) and a breathy (probably adolescent or just a bit older) DJ introduced a track from the album Transcendence by Jaimeo Brown.

The lead single “This World is Not My Home”

Now, what first got me about this track is the phenomenal blend between blues sensibility and jazz instrumentation. After downloading the album and watching the performance, I realized that there was also a finely-tuned hip-hop aesthetic at the center of the choice to sample instead of performing some of the under-tracks. The sense of the performance is one of music history and present at the same time.

Jaimeo, the drummer, has a fantastic sense of rhythm and the composition blends parts blues, free-jazz and fusion (and hip-hop, the guitarist Sholar has worked as a producer with Jay-z and Kanye). But, what kind of shocked me about the music was the narrative frame provided by the DJ. He claimed that this album would prove to be “controversial”.  Why? The LA Times music reviewer Chris Barton alleges that  this album “should not work” but does because it is “a conversation between generations”.

Brown has real chops as a jazz drummer and an expansive mind for music, as well as  a great sense of its history. The album is eminently listenable–the tracks tend to be short (like blues instead of jazz) and each one offers something different. At times, the sound is more conventional, at times bluesy, at times I think I am listening to The Dirty Three.

If you have time, my brother, check out the track. I’d love to know what you think.

 

Songs of (My!) Year

So, we’re just about at the point where this blog has existed for a year. While there is something essentially arbitrary about this 365 day boundary—I mean, it isn’t like we really govern our years by the seasons any more…or something like that—but any boundary is at some point artificial (with the exception of death, I guess; there really isn’t denying that one).

There is definitely something to be said, however, for pausing a moment and reconsidering the way one has spent his or her time. As I have mentioned before, the younger Seneca, better known now for his tragedies and letters than his philosophical treatises, once remarked in De Brevitate Vitae that, contrary to popular opinion, life isn’t too short, most people just waste the time they have on this earth as to make it seem that way.

Continue reading

On the Radio: Ni**as in Paris

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

Continue reading