The Reggae Road to Damascus: A Conversion Story

Everybody was crying, crying
Sighing, sighing
Dying to see the light
And when they see it, they see it’s not bright
Can this be right?
–Toots and the Maytals, “Pomp and Pride”

The Younger J has recently defended reggae as a genre (although perhaps not as much as about his love for pedal steel)—he will defend it against detractors and argue that it demands respect. I won’t debate this with him (because he’s right), instead I want to tell you another story. It is not a real story in that occurred in real time; it is the fabricated narrative of the mind—the tale of how I stopped worrying and learned to love reggae.

This is a story because it has a beginning middle and end; it is Aristotelian even in that the main character—me—undergoes a reversal and recognition. (There’s even a prophet in it, if we can call my brother that.) See, I used to hate reggae. I used to loathe it. It gave me psychic hives. Now I like reggae, I even love some of it. That’s the reversal. The trip to the recognition takes a bit longer.

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Christmas Songs

So, my brother gave a list of holiday party jams last year and prepared an even funkier list for this Christmas. While I heartily approve of not playing Christmas songs, I can’t let this blog stand without some nod to tradition. Some of this is a re-post. But I’ve added stuff. If Christmas songs can be recylced, can’t Christmas posts.

You’re all unstuck in time. So, here it goes.

In an earlier post, I seemed to have almost totally denigrated Christmas as a holiday and, in the same gesture, to have dismissed all Christmas music along with it. In the spirit of the season—even if it isn’t a season that I love as much as others do—I need to clarify and be honest about my relationship with Christmas music.

True Story: We grew up in a place called Hollis, Maine. For a time, we used to change the words from this song, predictably, to “It’s Christmas time in Hollis Maine”. Another true story: I actually lived in Queens and the wife worked in Hollis.

Part of the attraction and danger of Christmas music is that it creates bit of a time warp (which is at least part of the intention). Every year we hear the same music from the same artists in contexts which, if they are not identical, they are at least similar enough to give an inebriated man (or woman) what David Foster Wallace would call the fantods. Now, this is part of the attraction and the charm. The atmosphere uses all of our senses—the smells of food and trees, the feel of full stomachs and anticipation, and the sound of music—to collapse present and past into one eerie yet familiar moment.

Yes, I had this NKOTB Album. And their Christmas album

This feeling of current satisfaction plus nostalgia isn’t what I hate about Christmas. I hate the ruthless hoards of corporate operatives who try to capitalize upon our weakness. I hate the equation of affection with spending power; I hate holiday payday loans at 5.99% APR; I hate the outsized expectations that set almost everyone up for disappointment. I hate the frustrated build up to this most unholy of consumerist orgasms. It leaves me feeling, well, dirty and used.

But, the truth is, most things are what you make of them. For real.  And with Christmas, we defeat ourselves before we start with unrealistic expectations. See, holidays will never be the iconoclastic moment that we remember from some sliver of our youths (and they weren’t that great then either). And they will never match up to the airbrushed ideals of Macy’s advertisements.

Contrary to my earlier claims, though, I do not hate Christmas music. I hate contemporary attempts to cash in on the intersection of temporary fame and Christmas mania—every asshole with a Billboard hit seems compelled to release a Christmas album. But I do not hate the classics.

One of my favorite Christmas tunes (you can have the lyrics, or whatever) goes by the current name “What Child is This?” but has as its oldest name “Greensleeves”, a haunting memory, perhaps about a prostitute, which is one of the oldest tunes in the English tradition. I probably love this song because it is one of the first tunes I learned to play when I was taking classical guitar lessons.

I have a real weakness in general for the older arrangements of the more popular religious Christmas songs. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” have traditional four part harmonies in older hymnals that can be both festive and challenging to sing. Too often, rather than trying to sing the older tunes, people either pen new ones or jazz them up. In “Angels we have heard on High” I especially like the vocal alternations in the famous “Gloria” chorus.

My real weakness, though, is for Christmas music in other languages. I love Latin carols. I absolutely love the Latin version of “O Come All ye Faithful” (“Adeste Fideles”). It has a seriousness and raised register that too many contemporary carols (ok, all of them) lack. Truly, try singing “Natum videte” instead of the English lyrics and deny the attraction.

Speaking of foreign languages: for a time, the family J attended a Lutheran church during my youth. One of the odd things about this experience, for me, is that it seemed like almost as much Sunday School time was spent learning about Martin Luther as Jesus. (And, like some others I have talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille Nacht” and the night it was first performed. Later in life, I would sing the German version exclusively.

Seriously, German is not always the prettiest language. But the German of this song is so much better than the English. By comparison, our consonants seem harsh and abrupt.

Now why do I have all these songs in my head? For another period of time in my life, I often sang on Christmas eve either alone or with groups. I never had the strongest or most remarkable voice, but I had a little training and was the only one around my age who could pull it off. The hardest song I ever tried to sing was “O Holy Night”—which is like Christmas’ “Star-Spangled Banner”.

She has the voice to pull this off. I never did.

The year I pulled this song off I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. My wounds were infected and smelled terribly. I was on opiates and was probably sneaking bourbon on the side. I remember the red and white of Christmas vestments; the gleam of candle on the gold of the altar and the hush of nothing else but my voice.

And the fear of the death smell coming out of my mouth.

As an adult, I carry these songs around with me and the memories they evoke are almost always a blend of the embarrassing, the chilling, and the lost charm of youth. I don’t regret the passage of time as a loss most days of the year, but I can’t escape Christmas without a little bit of remorse and a few moments spent contemplating my own mortality. It only gets harder as we get older and sense the empty chairs around us.

Yeah, Merry Christmas. Seriously, let’s lighten it up with some Toots:

And you, my brother? Merry Christmas. I am sorry that there are so many miles between us.

Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

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Biggest Show Ever…So far Part Two

This is not a complete re-post! The show happened again this year and if you read through this quickly, you will be prepped for the breakdown of this year’s Redneck Extravaganza.

My band had our biggest show ever last Saturday night, playing to well over two hundred people at the local dive bar. We spent a bunch of time promoting this event called the Redneck Ball which  required everyone to wear either flannel or hunting apparel like a camouflaged vest. We put up posters everywhere in the past few months, hit the Facebook hard, and spent as much time in area bars chatting it up with the locals as we could while still practicing with the band regularly. This is the song we used to open the show.

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The Table: Moving Out and (Not Quite) Moving On

“Circle of Life”, The Lion King. My daughter doesn’t really like to eat. In order to entice her, I show her videos on youtube. She loves this song. It takes me back to my freshman year of high school when my girlfriend at the time was obsessed with Disney. We went to see this movie on opening weekend and I secretly loathed her for it. But now, every time I see Simba raised up in front of his father, I come near to tears. That I start this post with this song and memory will make sense, I promise

As my brother may have mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been posting as much for a few reasons. One is that I have gotten steadily busier with work; the other is that, after living in an apartment for a year (only after giving up a house we lived in for four years to move downtown in our adopted home city), we realized that even the spacious 1500 square feet was too little room for two toddlers and two organizationally challenged adults.

So, we house-shopped, made some offers, lost some houses and finally closed a few weeks ago. After some horrors, we moved last Friday. I took the kids to daycare, cleaned out the old apartment and took them home to our new house.

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Call and Response: Religious Songs

In a recent, honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

Continue reading

Christmas Songs

So, my brother gave a list of holiday party jams the other day. While I heartily approve of not playing Christmas songs, I can’t let this blog stand without some nod to tradition. So, here it goes.

In an earlier post, I seemed to have almost totally denigrated Christmas as a holiday and, in the same gesture, to have dismissed all Christmas music along with it. In the spirit of the season—even if it isn’t a season that I love as much as others do—I need to clarify and be honest about my relationship with Christmas music.

True Story: We grew up in a place called Hollis, Maine. For a time, we used to change the words from this song, predictably, to “It’s Christmas time in Hollis Maine”. Another true story: I actually lived in Queens and the wife worked in Hollis.

Part of the attraction and danger of Christmas music is that it creates bit of a time warp (which is at least part of the intention). Every year we hear the same music from the same artists in contexts which, if they are not identical, they are at least similar enough to give an inebriated man (or woman) what David Foster Wallace would call the fantods. Now, this is part of the attraction and the charm. The atmosphere uses all of our senses—the smells of food and trees, the feel of full stomachs and anticipation, and the sound of music—to collapse present and past into one eerie yet familiar moment.

Yes, I had this NKOTB Album. And their Christmas album

This feeling of current satisfaction plus nostalgia isn’t what I hate about Christmas. I hate the ruthless hoards of corporate operatives who try to capitalize upon our weakness. I hate the equation of affection with spending power; I hate holiday payday loans at 5.99% APR; I hate the outsized expectations that set almost everyone up for disappointment. See, holidays will never be the iconoclastic moment that we remember from some sliver of our youths (and they weren’t that great then either). And they will never match up to the airbrushed ideals of Macy’s advertisements.

Contrary to my earlier claims, though, I do not hate Christmas music. I hate contemporary attempts to cash in on the intersection of temporary fame and Christmas mania—every asshole with a Billboard hit seems compelled to release a Christmas album. But I do not hate the classics.

One of my favorite Christmas tunes (you can have the lyrics, or whatever) goes by the current name “What Child is This?” but has as its oldest name “Greensleeves”, a haunting memory, perhaps about a prostitute, which is one of the oldest tunes in the English tradition. I probably love this song because it is one of the first tunes I learned to play when I was taking classical guitar lessons.

I have a real weakness in general for the older arrangements of the more popular religious Christmas songs. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” have traditional four part harmonies in older hymnals that can be both festive and challenging to sing. Too often, rather than trying to sing the older tunes, people either pen new ones or jazz them up. In “Angels we have heard on High” I especially like the vocal alternations in the famous “Gloria” chorus.

My real weakness, though, is for Christmas music in other languages. I love Latin carols. I absolutely love the Latin version of “O Come All ye Faithful” (“Adeste FIdeles”). It has a seriousness and raised register that too many contemporary carols (ok, all of them) lack. Truly, try singing “Natum videte” instead of the English lyrics and deny the attraction.

Speaking of foreign languages: for a time, the family J attended a Lutheran church during my youth. One of the odd things about this experience, for me, is that it seemed like almost as much Sunday School time was spent learning about Martin Luther as Jesus. (And, like some others I have talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille Nacht” and the night it was first performed. Later in life, I would sing the German version exclusively.

Seriously, German is not always the prettiest language. But the German of this song is so much better than the English. By comparison, our consonants seem harsh and abrupt.

Now why do I have all these songs in my head? For another period of time in my life, I often sang on Christmas eve either alone or with groups. I never had the strongest or most remarkable voice, but I had a little training and was the only one around my age who could pull it off. The hardest song I ever tried to sing was “O Holy Night”—which is like Christmas’ “Star-Spangled Banner”.

She has the voice to pull this off. I never did.

The year I pulled this song off I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. My wounds were infected and smelled terribly. I was on vicodan and was probably sneaking bourbon on the side. I remember the red and white of Christmas vestments; the gleam of candle on the gold of the altar and the hush of nothing else but my voice.

And the fear of the death smell coming out of my mouth.

As an adult, I carry these songs around with me and the memories they evoke are almost always a blend of the embarrassing, the chilling, and the lost charm of youth. I don’t regret the passage of time as a loss most days of the year, but I can’t escape Christmas without a little bit of remorse and a few moments spent contemplating my own mortality. It only gets harder as we get older and sense the empty chairs around us.

Yeah, Merry Christmas. Seriously, let’s lighten it up with some Toots:

And you, my brother? Merry Christmas. I am sorry that there are so many miles between us.

Fender Studio Bass Amp

I wrote a while back about my first guitar, a’58 Reissue Fender Precision Bass. I love this thing more at this point, mostly because I have been learning more how to tweak the tone and get different stuff out of it and have been lucky in getting opportunities to play it out in front of people.  At our big show last week, two different bass players came up to me to say my bass was sick and what the hell was I using for an amp. I was incredibly lucky to find an amazing amp for an excellent price right before our first show as a whole band last year and right in my back yard basically.

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Another sort of birthday list

My earlier take on birthday songs was a bit morose. Here’s a different one.

Recently my wife and I decided that we weren’t playing enough music for our children—we’re worried about both the frequency and the variety of the music they hear. So, in addition to our frequent radio games in the car, we’ve added sessions with the pre-fab music channels on TV, alternating channels and genres by day.

I also got some new speakers for my computer or iPod—when the wife isn’t around and I am in control, I try out new albums or old ones on the kids (much to what I can imagine will be my brother’s horror I think they really enjoyed Mumford and Sons and thus allowed me to think about the band in a different way—a subject for a future post).

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Procrastination Station

Recently my brother posted about his battle with procrastination. Although I like to hassle him about it (as he makes clear in his post!), I must protest that this is not something I particularly find fault with in him. See, there are good reasons to put things off. The modern world, moreover, makes distraction and procrastination into preexisting conditions for all of us.

This has more import for this blog than I think my brother knows. This blog is both a product and cause of procrastination. And, there is also some important connection between music and time. I want to explore both of these things and, along the way, give you some songs about time.

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