Friday, April 21, 2017

Storm the Castles

I’ve been thinking about Death recently. I’ll get back to that.

Don’t we all, eventually?

First I want to talk about a high school musical.

Last week I attended the Hampton High School performance of Big Fish, the musical adaptation of the Tim Burton movie. I’ve written about Hampton HS musicals before. I have no connection to the school other than my friendship with Dan Franklin, who teaches there and directs the plays they produce. Like my previous experiences Big Fish was a remarkable production. Dan and his students have forever changed my expectations of what high school plays can be. As always, the level of performance, choreography, music, and stagecraft was exceptional. While there were funny moments, as a story Big Fish deals with bigger and more serious issues than the straight-up comedies of the other shows I have seen. The students were more than up to the task. I must confess, by the end, my face was wet.

The basic story of Big Fish is that of a young man, Will Bloom, trying to understand his father, Edward. Edward is a storyteller, a raconteur of big fish stories, one who exaggerates the details of his life to such a degree that his son has no idea what is true and what isn’t. Edward’s life, as he tells it, is filled with big moments. He met a mermaid, had friendships with a werewolf and a giant, and when he was young he met a witch who revealed to him the way he would die. He tells his son that his approach to life is to ‟fight the dragons” and to ‟storm the castles.” He encourages Will to, ‟Be the hero of your story if you can.”

The problem is that Will believes he doesn’t know the ‟real” story of his father at all. As he prepares to become a father himself he wants to better understand his own. This desire, thwarted by Edward’s insistence that the stories he tells are true, becomes even more pronounced when Edward is diagnosed with an incurable disease. For his part, Edward isn’t overly worried. The witch told him how he was going to die, and this isn’t it. There will be a surprise ending.

The entire cast was very good, though the heavy lifting of the story fell on the shoulders of these two leads. A young man named Tyler played Will. Last year Tyler had the role of Patsy in Spamalot, and while he didn’t have a lot of lines his body language and facial expressions made it so I couldn’t take my eyes off him. This year he was able to explore a wider range of performance, displaying a strong voice, dance skills, and an emotional range beyond his years. After the show I learned he is a junior, so I look forward to what he does his senior year. Edward was played by a fifteen year old freshman named Joseph. It is impressive that he got the lead since this is his first role at Hampton. It was well-deserved. He ably conveyed the character at a variety of ages, capturing the age and infirmity of Ed in his later years without resorting to cliché ‟old man” tropes. In spite of his youth he embodied the concept of Old through the strength of his stage presence. A remarkable feat for any actor let alone one so young.

I think, speaking in general, our job as adolescents is to find our individual identity in part through rebelling against our parents. They have been the defining factor of our entire existence to that point and we need to figure out who we are outside of those parameters. This is normal. Then, once again speaking in general, we spend a lot of the rest of our lives trying to figure out how, in good ways and bad, we are actually like them.

In my 50s I can say that I was able to relate to both the main characters. I am much more like Edward. I’m a storyteller who likes the metaphors of dragons and castles and being the hero of your own story. I don’t really lie about my real life experiences, but as a writer I am fascinated by how the elements of the real world can be translated into fiction. I believe that sometimes the metaphor, the dragon if you will, speaks more plainly to bigger issues than the purely personal does. At the same time, like Will, I feel like I want to know my father better than I do.

Dad is almost 98 years old. I’ve written about him before. He is also a storyteller, but in a very different way than I am. There is no exaggeration to his tales. He relates stories in what feels to me at times as excruciatingly precise detail. Dad has a deep-seated aversion to lying, and I think he sees exaggeration for the sake of story to be too close to the same thing. He is also, unlike me, a very literal minded man. He has never been a reader of much more than the newspaper, nor is he interested in TV series or movies that revolve around story.

As a result of this I know more details about the deal he made on a pocketknife at the flea market last week, or about the results of a dog race he won thirty years ago, than I do about his experiences in Europe in World War II. I know broad strokes, of course, and he has talked about it more in the last two decades than ever before. But even when he does it still boils down to a lot of details as to where he was and when and what kind of Jeep he drove. I don’t know how he felt about the experience, his fears or triumphs or losses. I respect that these things can be hard to talk about, and there are things I have never asked. I don’t know if he just never thinks about those aspects, or if he has had to bury them deeply in order to move past them. Dad stormed a castle and fought actual dragons. I would love to hear about it... but not if it brings him pain to do so.

I know more about Dad’s life through my Mom, and more about her life overall. She’s not a storyteller in the same way as either my father or me. Her style is more conversational, less prone to either the mythologizing I do or the specifics of my Dad. Memories just come out while we talk, and while details may be sparse, the emotional content and human element are there. I am much more like my mother so it feels like my understanding of her as a person came much more intuitively. With Dad it has been more of a journey, one I am happy to have undertaken.

Dad was approximately my age when his mother died at the age of 91. I remember him then, though I have a tough time comparing the man he was then to the man I am now. My mother is the oldest of nine children, seven of whom she has outlived.

Going home to spend time with Mom and Dad is something I have done regularly all of my adult life. I have enjoyed a good relationship with both of them and genuinely enjoy their company. But going home has become more difficult emotionally. I see them aging and failing. I am so aware of their age. This is compounded by the destruction of my home area thanks to mining and fracking (which I’ve addressed before). I’m seeing the physical space of my youth, my history, being erased every time I go back. My emotional loss is being made literal in the real world. There is an old mythic idea of the king being tied to the land, and that when the king is unhealthy or dying then the land itself becomes barren. T.S. Elliot’s poem The Wasteland addresses this idea. My parents, the King and Queen of my youth, are beset by the dragons of age and the land around them suffers.

And yes, I realize I’m becoming Edward in my metaphors. It’s one of my ways of dealing with what I have been calling anticipatory grieving, something I experience to some degree on a daily basis.

With both Mom and Dad being in their 90s I am very aware that our time is limited. Not trying to be morose, just a statement of fact. While it is technically true of everyone we know, with advancing age this issue becomes more prominent. It is a theme that has come up frequently of late. Lots of my friends are dealing with some version of this. It’s a function of our age bracket. Last Thanksgiving, through Facebook I learned of the deaths of the parents of three of my friends in the course of two days. The same thing happened last month. The mother of one of my dearest friends is in the last stages of cancer and the whole family is in a holding pattern, trying to appreciate the time they have left while dealing with the reality of how short that time is.

It’s not just the elderly. Three days after I saw Big Fish I woke up to the news that one of my college roommates had died unexpectedly. John was 51. He and I, and four other guys, shared an apartment in Edinboro for two years... two of the most important and life-changing years of my life. I hadn’t actually seen John since his wedding in 1989. He and his wife Holly moved to Maine and it wasn’t until Facebook a few years ago that I heard anything from either of them. They had split, but remained amicable. Holly died unexpectedly two years ago. Now John is gone. Our mutual friends and I spent some time telling our stories of them to each other all last week. I discovered that one of those room mates buried his father the same day.

This past Sunday, Easter, the day of Resurrection, I saw the Broadway musical adaptation of the graphic novel Fun Home. For those who aren’t familiar with it Fun Home, created by Alison Bechdel, is the story of a young woman discovering her identity as a lesbian and trying to understand her relationship with her father who had died (she believes committed suicide), while she was in college. Once again, by the end, I must confess, I cried. While it has a very different style than Big Fish it is also a story about artifice and identity and how we want to discover truth in the tales our parents tell us so that we may better understand both them and ourselves.

Part of the impact of Big Fish was in seeing these issues played out by people so young. Not that you have to be old to experience loss or death, but the dichotomy of the topic of aging and death being performed by these young, energetic kids (they have no idea how beautiful they all are in this moment of their lives), lent a weight and poignancy. In listening to my parents stories I try to imagine them at those times in their lives when they had decades ahead of them and no idea what life held. When my friends and I eulogized John we were remembering a time when were young and energetic and beautiful in ways we were completely unaware of then.

Like Edward, I believe we should be the heroes of our own stories. We should storm castles and slay dragons (and sometimes befriend them because we all need dragons as allies). We should also remember that we are all bit players and part of the chorus in the lives of others and their stories are the windows through which we may come to know them. Grief and celebration go hand in hand on a daily basis.

I want to end this with a brief story about John. When we all lived together in Edinboro music was a huge part of our daily existence. The songs and bands I was exposed to there changed my life. John played guitar, better than me, but he was not a virtuoso. He wanted to learn to play the song Jo the Waiter from the Gary Numan album Tubeway Army. Unlike most of Numan’s songs Jo the Waiter was a sweet tune played on an acoustic guitar. It is the last song on the album, and like life it ends abruptly and with no warning. I have no idea if John remembered this or had even thought of this song in thirty years. He played the record over and over in his room, strumming along with it, so much that we were all annoyed and really sick of Jo the Waiter. Of course it is now a song that contains so many of my memories of John in ways that are specific to me and my stories of him.

Long gone, I recall good times.
I must confess... I cried.”


Saturday, February 25, 2017

1001 Albums

This past week I finished a personal project that I have been working on since June, 2014. It has been a long but rewarding journey. I don’t have a finished product to share with the world, just a lot of thoughts and insights about the process.

In 2014 a friend told me about a book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Robert Dimery. As a fan of all kinds of music, that sounded like a challenge. I began the process with an online list available at For some reason, there are albums left off the chronological Discogs list. For some reason it also ends with #975. I ended up buying the 2010 edition of the book (it has been updated with new entries since then).

Many of the albums are ones I have heard many, many times. There were others that were completely new to me, some by artists I had never heard of. Most fell someplace in the middle, artists and albums I knew about but had never heard in their entirety. I listened to them through my own collection, via Spotify (and yes, I’m aware of some of the problems with Spotify and what artists make from it), and in a few rare instances, through YouTube. Even with all of this there were some, a very small percentage, that were simply not readily available that I have not heard (considering the ‟before you die caveat, maybe I’m better off not actually hearing all 1001).

So I embarked, starting with In The Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra in 1955 and ending with It’s Blitz by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. I listened in order and gave everything at least two listens (with a couple of exceptions for things that I really, really didn’t like... I’m looking at you, Cannibal Corpse). I didn’t stop listening to other albums, new stuff as it came out or as I discovered it outside the confines of the list, or old favorites as the whim occurred. But every week I would create a playlist of whatever the next few of the 1001 albums came next.

The introduction to the book gives some of their rationale, but of course any list like this is open to debate and disagreement. Soundtracks with multiple artists were left off, so Saturday Night Fever, one of the best-selling albums of all time was not included. Purple Rain was allowed because it is essentially a Prince album. It was not just popular chart-toppers. The Velvet Underground and The Stooges are everyone’s top examples of bands that influenced everyone but sold no records when they were actually together, so they were rightfully on the list.

It was a list that included many genres, though Rock and it’s relatives were the most represented. There were a few Jazz classics included. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis was there, of course. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington are there, among a few others. Country seems to be underrepresented to me, with a couple of live Johnny Cash, two of Willie Nelson’s 70s records, a Merle Haggard and a Loretta Lynn and very little else. Hair Metal was huge in the 80s and most of it is completely ignored. Disco, considering how omnipresent it was in the 70s, felt fairly absent with only two albums by Chic really representing the genre. Nile Rogers went on to be a major force in many contexts, so Chic is understandable, but no Donna Summer? Maybe it’s because Disco was such a singles oriented movement that there simply weren’t any whole albums that met whatever criteria they used.

Rap and Hip Hop were pretty well-represented and my ears are much more ready for it now than at the time, so I’m glad for the opportunity to listen to it with a more open mind than I originally had (and some thanks for that goes to Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree graphic novel series for giving a social context I simply didn’t have before). Public Enemy speaks of an experience I will never have but they gave voice to that experience in ways that are important for me to hear. Ice T spoke truths about society that are still true. Tribe Called Quest and Missy Elliot made me want to groove. Ice Cube did nothing for me at all.

I was surprised at how many classic albums I had never heard in their entirety. Records and CDs are expensive and until the advent of streaming music services it just wasn’t possible. I’m familiar with the hits of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but until this project I had never listened to a full album. The same was true for Simon and Garfunkel, and The Band, and many, many others. I consider myself a huge music fan, but these are incredible gaps in my experience.

Listening to it in order was fascinating. I could hear the various eras of music and the sounds they encapsulated. I could also hear the slow changes as they came about. The Stooges are usually mentioned as an early influence on Punk, but I could hear how Glam led there as well. Then the first album by The Dictators showed up and there was an ear-opening moment of recognition of that being where a lot of the later sound came from. It was also interesting to realize the very different things that were happening at the same time and hearing them juxtaposed gave a much larger picture of any given moment in music history. One of the clearest examples of this for me was listening to Thriller by Michael Jackson followed immediately by Junkyard by the the Birthday Party (one of Nick Cave’s early bands), both released in 1982. I have both of these on my Ipod and am familiar with both, but I can’t think of too many more dissimilar examples to show up back-to-back on the list.

Some artists feel over-represented. The Beatles, obviously, though I am a fan and understand this. Both Elton John and Stevie Wonder have a raft of their 70s releases on the list, though it’s difficult to argue with any of them. David Bowie is also well-represented, which is no surprise.

I was happy to see some of my personal favorite but more obscure artists show up. Lloyd Cole and The Commotions Rattlesnakes is an all time top favorite of mine and it was there (no other Lloyd Cole made the list though he has released many, many albums). Japan has a single entry with Quiet Life (the one I would have chosen). It’s interesting to note that KISS, a much more successful and well known band, than Lloyd Cole and Japan (and my favorite band as a teen), also has only one album on the list with Destroyer (also the one I would have chosen).

Some choices seemed strange to me, based on personal taste and my own knowledge of music. Could a Nine Inch Nails fan explain to me why The Downward Spiral is here instead of Pretty Hate Machine? As a huge fan of PJ Harvey I was happy to see Dry, Rid of Me, and Stories From the City Stories From the Sea on the list. All great albums, but for me To Bring You My Love is the record where she branched out and really established herself as a creative force (like Rattlesnakes, this is a desert island disc for me, so maybe I can’t see it clearly). Nick Cave is on the list a couple of times, as he should be, but I can name at least five of his releases that aren’t represented that are better than the Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus​ double album. Alice Cooper only made the list in the context of the full lineup of the original Alice Cooper Group and his solo work was ignored. With the exception of Welcome to my Nightmare that’s probably how it should be.

Then, of course there are the artists who hold a special meaning to me that aren’t on the list, and as much as I might love them I understand why they’re not here. The Sweet had thirteen top ten hits in England and Europe, but other than Ballroom Blitz and Fox on the Run they’re fairly unknown in the States. They were mostly a singles band anyway, so even though Give Us a Wink was a seminal album in my youth, I can’t say I’m surprised they didn’t make the cut. Likewise bands like The Nails (who really should be known for more than their one 80s hit 88 Lines About 44 Women), and The Vapors (Turning Japanese), and The Jazz Butcher, and The Epoxies, all of whom I love, but even I can’t really make an argument for inclusion.

As may be expected, even though I listen to music from a lot of eras and styles, I did find my interest in the list waning in the 90s and 00s. While I am open to new things I recognize that very little is going to move me in the same way that my earliest experiences of becoming a fan did. The mid-70s up through the late 80s was my prime period of discovery and it is the sounds of that time that resonate with me most strongly. There are exceptions, of course. Both Nick Cave and PJ Harvey are primarily 90s phenomenons for me, and they are easily in my all time fave list. I really got into the White Stripes for about three albums. But, in general, I didn’t discover a lot of new stuff from the later era that moved me. This is not me saying that new music sucks. I’m sure someone fifteen to twenty years younger than me would have a very different experience with this list. Or fifteen to twenty years older.

There is so much more to this experience... Artists and genres I haven’t mentioned. New-to-me things I loved, things I didn’t like at all. Being reminded of stuff I used to like and had forgotten about. Putting together the pieces and following the influences and drawing the connections between. Finding new musical trails to follow. Delving deeper into an artist’s catalog than just the one or two albums represented here. Insights I had about the world and myself in relation to the music.

The biggest problem is now that I’m done I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to listen to next. I’ve grown used to having my weekly listening chosen for me.

Music is so personal that there is no right or wrong or definitive ‟Best Of” list. Certain sounds move you, or they don’t. They speak your language, or they don’t. Part of my reason for working my way through this was to expose myself to new languages and see what I could learn. A lot of it moved me. A lot of it didn’t. But I am richer for the experience. I have more music in my soul.

And that is never a bad thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


James Randolph was a fixture on the Waynesburg College Campus. No one called him Professor Randolph. To everyone he was simply Fuzzy.

Fuzzy died this week at the age of 88. To say he was one of the most loved people I have ever known is an understatement. Everyone who ever knew him loved him. The reasons for that are very simple; Fuzzy loved life and everyone in it. This way of being was returned to him a thousandfold.

I met Fuzzy when I started Waynesburg College in the fall of 1979. He was a professor of music and I only ever had one class from him. But on a small campus he was a daily presence in the lives of everyone there. He was one of the most wonderfully eccentric people I have ever known. Fully at home with who he was. Brilliant. Humble. He wrapped warm strong arms around his whole community and you knew you were loved and safe.

I realized, while thinking of this for the last day, that my specific memories of him are few. The day he walked into the student union, unannounced, and serenaded us with his bagpipes. His hands in the fall, stained with the henna-like secretions of the wild walnuts he had shelled, because using gloves would take away from the experience. Touring the college museum that he curated and hearing the stories of decades of Waynesburg history. Seeing him around town and campus regularly in the thirty-plus years since I graduated and always being happy for the experience.

There is an overall sense of his presence that overwhelms the day-to-day. His love of learning and the childlike wonder and curiosity he shared. The many times he would just break out into song. The kind words he always had for everyone. The joy he wore for everyone to see.

For years he conducted the campus choral group, The Lamplighters. I was never a member because even though I love music you probably shouldn’t have to hear me sing. Generations of students under his care produced joyful noise.

Fuzzy was a Lamplighter, in the truest sense. In his presence there was always light and warmth. He lit a fire of curiosity and a love of learning in those around him. Whatever darkness there may be in the world can be pushed away by his example.

Rest in Peace, Fuzzy. The world is poorer for your absence, but so much richer for your journey.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Can You Hear Yourself?

When I was little I spoke Dutch. I don’t anymore.

Let me explain. I didn’t actually speak another language. Speaking Dutch was a phrase, possibly a colloquialism of southwest Pennsylvania, to describe someone with a speech impediment of some sort. My guess is that it was a reference to the accents of the Pennsylvania Dutch (who were mostly German, but whatever).

And in my experience, was meant as an insult. Probably to me and the Pennsylvania Dutch.

I really have no memory of what I sounded like. It wasn’t a stutter. I don’t think it was a lisp. I remember not really understanding what people meant when it was brought to my attention, which happened mainly in the form of being teased by my peers.

There’s a genetic history of speech problems in my family (though I recognize that it’s probably not truly genetic and could have been corrected with speech therapy). My great uncle Frank was, to use another negative and inaccurate description, ‟tongue-tied.” Apparently my Uncle Donny, who died nearly two decades before I was born was the same. I still have cousins who have some minor variations on this.

From first to fourth grade I saw a speech therapist named Mr. Rice. The content of these sessions are lost to my memory. I don’t know if it was every week, or once a month. My main memory is the day when he shook my hand, told me congratulations, and said I didn’t have to come back anymore. This is probably the first time someone shook my hand and congratulated me for achieving something, even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I don’t remember progress, or anything changing. I still heard myself the same way I always did. But apparently I didn’t talk Dutch any more.

I was teased about this, but I was also teased about a lot of other things, so even though I’m talking about it here specific incidents don’t really stand out. I don’t think I was ever sensitive about this issue specifically, probably because I was never really able to hear myself through other ears. It certainly didn’t stop me from talking, to individuals or large groups. I talk in front of people all of the time these days and it never crosses my mind. It’s a pretty vague memory of my childhood. I’m not even sure what made me think of it recently. But it has made me think about some stuff.

I know I consciously made an effort to lose my Greene County accent. I’m not even sure that’s a thing. Being south of Pittsburgh it’s a derivation of the classic Yinzer, I’m sure, though most people I know back home tend to pronounce it more like ‟Younz” than ‟Yinz.” My Mom and her parents were from West Virgina so I leaned more toward ‟Y’all” anyway. I didn’t want to say either. At some point in my late teens I ran into someone who asked me what part of the South I was from. Really?

I grew up in a world where people said things like Chimley, and ‟I need to brasch my teeth,” (long vowel sound in that, pronounced kind of like brace but with a shh on the end). We warshed our clothes and sometimes on the weekends went shopping in Warshington. Once I became aware of these things I made an effort to correct myself. I was so appalled by Yinz that to this day, after living in Pittsburgh for twenty-six years, I can’t do a credible imitation of the accent (which may speak more to my abilities as a mimic than anything else). Some things still slip out. I’ll let out an ain’t once in awhile because the English language still doesn’t have a good contraction for Am Not. We don’t have a good inclusive word for a group of people either, so I think I just avoid referring to y’all at all. I’m also pretty sure that redding up my room describes a completely different process than cleaning it.

So I made a conscious effort to red-up the way I spoke, trying to become aware of tics and accents and colloquialisms as much as one can. I don’t know if any of us are ever entirely aware of how we sound to others. I increased my vocabulary through reading and found new ways to express my ideas. Words became my life. I’m a writer. I speak in public frequently. Sometimes I speak in public about things I’ve written. Being good with language became a goal for me, and part of that goal was not to be judged for the way I spoke.

And I’m aware of how this ties in with ideas of class and education.

I once worked with a local politician from my home district. He too had worked to change the way he spoke. One of his goals, stated to me overtly many times, was to be a good orator. He used Cicero as an example. The fact that he used the word orator and referenced Cicero says something. He used a lot of big words, usually to good effect. He took a lot of good-natured ribbing about his erudition from his compatriots in government. But when he was speaking to many of his constituents, comprised of many lower income and poorly educated families, he often sounded not only pretentious, but part of a world they simply could not understand. He didn’t seem to understand that the word ‟colorful” worked much better than ‟polychromatic” with most of his audiences.

Knowing big words does not mean you are actually communicating when you use them.

There are a lot of people who feel left out of the conversation. Because of their level of education. Because of their vocabulary. Because of their lack of exposure to many issues and topics that effect them. There is a genuine lack of comprehension because of these things. It is difficult to bridge that communication gap.

And this is definitely a function of class. Funding to our public schools continues to be cut, limiting the educational opportunities of millions of people. School districts in poor neighborhoods simply don’t have the money to teach these skills adequately. Brilliant teachers are hampered every day by the fiscal realities of their district. Higher education now comes with crippling debt. More and more people have the tools of language and communication less and less.

No one likes to feel stupid. Without these tools to communicate ideas more fully they are left frustrated and angry, both misunderstood and misunderstanding.

Even attempting to address this is difficult. Finding the words to discuss this issue without sounding like the cliché of ‟Intellectual Liberal” does not come easy. I’m afraid that I sound like one of my old tormentors, making fun of someone for ‟talking Dutch” when they have no idea what I’m referring to. But it feels as though any attempt to bridge this gap comes across as ‟talking down” or ‟dumbing down” or ‟aiming at the lowest common denominator.”

I think the problem with these phrases is self-evident.


So this whole post started out as one thing and then the topic highjacked me and became something else. But not really. I began this as a little personal anecdote and it became a metaphor for bigger issues. I got to the point right before the break and realized I had no idea what to say next. For all of my talk of communication I stumbled because I was having difficulty talking about these ideas without expressing, intentional or not, some kind of condescension. This illustrates the core of the problem.

Even though my memories are vague I’m pretty sure one of the things Mr. Rice taught me was to listen more closely. I wasn’t pronouncing words correctly because I wasn’t hearing them accurately. I was unable to form sounds until I processed them.

There’s a pretty clear lesson here, one I and most other people need to pay attention to; Listen. Even when the ideas being expressed seem foreign to you. Especially when you know those who are speaking may not have the same words or experiences or entire frame of reference that you do. Try to understand what is being communicated and remember that a lot of it has nothing to do with words. When you are speaking or writing, remember your audience. Be aware of what you are communicating and how it may be perceived. Not everyone can hear or understand the language you use.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wanna live better days

‟When did music become so important?” Don Draper asked in the first episode of Season 5 of Mad Men (“A Little Kiss”). His young wife Megan responds, ‟It’s always been important.”

By this episode the show was set in the mid 1960s, so this spoke to an obvious generation gap. Both characters are right, in their context. Music has always been important. It just wasn’t until the 50s and 60s that it became a dominant cultural force that informed and influenced millions of people. Radio and records and other advancements of technology, as well as the vast expansion of youth culture, made this possible in ways that people of Don Draper’s generation just couldn’t quite comprehend.

This has been true for fiftyish years, with The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan as the hundredth monkey tipping point that changed the world in this regard. I’m sure a quick Google perusal of the internet will turn up thousands of articles about the larger cultural ramifications of this. The point has also been made that this is something that is specific to this moment in time and that in many ways we have already moved past it.

That isn’t meant as a ‟Rock is Dead!” declaration. It’s an acknowledgement that the world has kept on moving and that the cultural forces that led to this are no longer present. The internet has changed the way we consume music and interact with those who make it. For all the success of a Lady Gaga or a Justin Bieber it just doesn’t seem like any of the current batch of stars have the social relevance or staying power of the artists who preceded them. I know how much that sounds like an old guy decrying ‟Back in my day!!!” but that’s truly not my intention. I want new artists to succeed. More importantly I want young people to have the same kinds of joyous experiences with music, live and otherwise, that I have had. I don’t know if that’s possible anymore, for much larger reasons than the cliched and wrong-headed opinion that they ‟just don’t make good music anymore.” I just don’t think there is the same kind of infrastructure that will allow for a David Bowie, or a Madonna, or a U2 or an REM to emerge, let alone enjoy the longevity and social relevence of these and many other artists. I hope I’m wrong.

I’m currently reading a book of essays by Chuck Klosterman called ‟But What if We’re Wrong?” that addresses the idea that in the future everything we think we know about the present will be wrong. The things we think are important now will be seen through the eyes of history and retrospect with a much wider perspective than we are currently capable of. As proof of this he reminds us of the way we interpret history now. Van Gogh and Kafka were failures in their lives but now one is the most famous artist ever and the other has joined the very framework of our language as an adjective. Custer was once seen as an American hero. Now he’s thought of as a genocidal maniac. Try convincing a farmer in the Dark Ages that we live in a heliocentric universe. The world keeps turning and our reality keeps changing around us and for the most part, in our limited time here and limited sense of perspective, we just don’t notice. We assume things will always be the way they are until they aren’t. I can’t imagine a world without pop music and the music industry in it, but then one hundred years ago people couldn’t imagine a world with instantaneous global communication. Or one without polio.

So Rock and Roll, and all of the variations of popular music associated with it, for all of its importance to those of us who care, may be a minor blip in the course of history, generating little more than a footnote in whatever passes for a college textbook in the year 2112.

To quote Jeff Albertson, the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, ‟Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”

The thing is, this is true for pretty much everything we currently engage in. No matter how much we love something, no matter how much we think it is an essential part of our culture, no matter how much it defines our lives (I’m looking at you, sports fans), history says it not only won’t last but will probably be marginalized and misunderstood by future scholars.

So, if we accept this nihilistic point of view, why get really into anything other than the mechanics of survival? I’ll get back to that.

I am certainly part of the generation that was born into a world where music has always been a defining cultural artifact, and I’m very aware of how this has shaped and influenced my way of interacting with the world. For me, like Megan said, music has always been important. And by important I mean in ways that go well beyond simply liking a song. I am admittedly a music hobbyist who engages with it in a less-than-casual fashion. I continually look for new music. I get obsessive over musicians and want to know about them as personalities, looking into their lives and biographies much deeper than most people do. Music has always been a soundtrack to my day-to-day that went beyond just being in the background.

I grew up in an incredibly rural area. My parents were in their early 40s when I was born. My paternal grandmother, who lived with us, was born in 1884. I was surrounded by adults who had grown to adulthood in a very different world than the one I would come to inhabit. Until I was twelve I lived in a small two-story six-room house of bare, unpainted wood with a tin roof. We did not have running water. There was a hand-dug water well with a hand pump in the front yard and an outhouse in the back yard. I’m not complaining here. I actually have very good memories of growing up there and I believe those circumstances taught me valuable life lessons. But something in me yearned for more.

Comic books and music were the twin explosions of color in my sepia-toned Appalachian youth, and they have always had a natural association in my mind. Comics took me to cities and other countries and other planets and other dimensions. The colorfully costumed heroes taught me to dream bigger dreams and to imagine a world beyond the confines of the hollow I grew up in.

Music was always present in my home. Dad had played guitar and mandolin in a Hillbilly band with his uncle and cousins when he was young. His mother played piano and the accordion. That whole side of the family had musical talent, but because of age I never really had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. But there was always a radio in the house, usually tuned to WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia, home of country music. I remember latching onto songs like Tiger by the Tail by Buck Owens, and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, and Counting Flowers on the Wall by the Statler Brothers (probably because they name-checked Captain Kangaroo, who I was big fan of when I was four). These are overt memories for me. I was into songs.

The British Invasion and the Beatles and the whole eruption of the music industry in the 60s began to be woven into the fabric of everything aimed at youth. I saw ads for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in comic books. The image of the T.Rex album The Slider stands out as an image that stared at me from the double page ads for record clubs I saw in every comic.

The Beatles had a Saturday morning cartoon. So did the Jackson 5. The Monkees were a weekly live action pastiche of Beatles inspired frenzy. The Banana Splits, Josie and the Pussycats and the Groovie Ghoulies had weekly music videos interspersed with every episode. The cartoon version of the Archies had the #1 hit song in 1969 with Sugar Sugar. This hit launched Bubblegum Pop which led directly to a lot of what became the Glam Rock movement in Great Britain. David Bowie and Elton John were singing about Spacemen. Alice Cooper was a horror comic come to life and KISS were simply superheroes from the first time I saw them.

I engaged in fannish activities well before I could afford to seriously begin collecting albums. On our trips into town I not only bought comics (always), but I also started to pick up copies of teenybopper music mags like Tiger Beat and 16. I read the articles and hung the posters that came with the mags on my bedroom wall. The Osmonds and the Jackson 5 and David Cassidy and probably many others (hands up... who remembers Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family and their ‟big” hit, Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat?). I think I was trying to identify with the larger than life qualities of these performers more than having crushes on them. I never entered a ‟Win a Date With...” contest. I would run around outside pretending I was a superhero from the comics, and lip sync in front of mirror pretending I was a young pop star.

I started buying the singles I heard on the AM radio stations. Over time I moved on to FM radio and much better music. Without the guidance of an older sibling I missed the glory days of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and many others of that period. The truth is I think Sabbath would have simply weirded me out back then. I’m also very aware of how the bands I ended up really getting into had that extra element of the visual. Superheroes and Rock and Roll. Deep Purple was an awesome band, but they were a bunch of dudes with long hair and blue jeans. I could see that anywhere. Did you see what Elton John was wearing?

That’s a trend that has never really gone away for me, not completely. F-f-f-Fashion! My musical tastes now span a pretty wide cross-section of genres and styles, but I always come back to the performance and glamour. The Sweet, Queen, and Cheap Trick all fell into this category for me as the 70s roared on. Adam Ant, wearing Indian warpaint, a colonial greatcloak and a tri-corner hat caught my eye on Solid Gold and I was hooked. I wasn’t aware of Bauhaus until years later but if I had seen the videos of their live performances in 1979 I would have been all over that.

Strangely the Hair Metal of the 80s didn’t grab me at the time, in spite of the over-the-top costuming and makeup. I think once KISS took the makeup off I just felt done with that style. This coincided with a general malaise I was feeling at the time for the styles of music I had been listening to. It’s no surprise to me now that this is when I first discovered Bowie’s Berlin period through Heroes and started down a path of Punk and New Wave and College Rock.

I discovered lots of new bands I loved; The Replacements, The Pixies, Love and Rockets, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Jazz Butcher, PJ Harvey, and many, many more over the next thirty years. I bought a lot of vinyl and then replaced most of it on CD. I went on obscure tangents to the extent that an awful lot of the popular music of the 90s remains pretty peripheral to my life. I go back and reclaim things I lost and go back and discover things I missed.

But it seems I’m always looking for that new, favorite band. Something new I can get into with the same enthusiasm I used to, though that seems increasingly difficult. Age and jaded tastes and feeling like I’ve heard it all before gets in the way. I have moments of this, still. I was crazy into the White Stripes, but then lost interest pretty quickly. I was pretty obsessed with PJ Harvey but I now admit that her last few projects just haven’t resonated with me. Call me fickle, but she’s an old love now, one I can go back to for comfort and familiarity. But I crave the excitement of the new.

I have a new favorite band that, at least right now, are hitting all of the marks.

TheStruts are a modern Glam Power Pop band from Derby. The band features Adam Slack on guitar, Jed Elliot on bass, Gethin Davies on drums and Luke Spiller on vocals. Now I want to say upfront that they’re probably not doing anything very new, but they are doing it very, very well. The songs are fun, hook-laden, and anthemic. Pretty much every song on their recent debut album, Everybody Wants, is a catchy, earworm singalong. That’s not a complaint. The album simply fills me with energy and makes me happy. Their image, specifically as embodied by Spiller, is full-on Glam Rock. I saw them on The Late Show with Steven Colbert and then watched a couple of videos and knew immediately that I was hooked.

As luck would have it I turned on to them about a week after they played a show in Pittsburgh. I figured it would be ages before I had an opportunity to see them. A few weeks after that they announced a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. That’s two-hour drive from here, and believe it or not I had never been to the Hall of Fame. So I decided to make a day of it. On their website, when they announced the show, they also announced a contest for a VIP Meet and Greet as well as tickets to the show. I never enter online contests but I thought, why not?

And I won.

The trip to Cleveland was amazing, a pilgrimage to both of my primary hobbies; The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original homes of the two creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (though that’s mostly a separate story from the one I’m telling). The Hall of Fame was enormous, full of artifacts to a cultural phenomenon that, if Chuck Klosterman is right, won’t matter in a couple of hundred years. But for right now, for those of us who have been formed by this phenomenon, it was a building filled with objects of history and power. John Lennon’s glasses and Ringo’s drum kit. Elvis Presley’s gold lame’ suit. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. Michael Jackson’s glove. The guitar played by Odetta Holmes on the day Mahalia Jackson encouraged Martin Luther King to, ‟Tell ‛em about the Dream, Martin!”

History. Power.

Seeing the Struts in this venue, surrounded by this history, felt right to me. It’s difficult for me to say this without sounding like I am exaggerating, but I kind of feel like I had waited my whole life to see this show. The energy, the songs, the costumes and spectacle. It was simply one of the best concerts I have ever seen, and Luke spiller is genuinely one of the best and most engaging front men I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen a lot of concerts.

I’ll try to put it in perspective. What I want and expect out of a concert depends a lot on my expectations. I’ve seen Lloyd Cole perform, just him and a guitar, several times. I love his songs, I love his voice, and what I want out of his show is very different than what I want from a different kind of band, and I’ve never been disappointed in him. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of bands I really like in very small, intimate venues and have been privileged to meet many of them.

But deep down, where the kid who discovered Rock through School’s Out and Rebel, Rebel, and Rock and Roll All Night still lives, when I see one of these bands, I want to see a show. I’ve seen Alice Cooper... a lot. I’ve seen KISS a number of times. I saw David Bowie. I saw Queen in 1979. They were all amazing shows, including all of the music and spectacle I love. In every one of those cases though, I only saw them after they had become huge, in giant venues. For a few of them I was close to the stage, but for the most part they were always at a remove from the audience. For The Struts I felt like I was getting to see them early in their career. Early enough for it to be a much more intimate experience than I’ve ever had with these other bands I mentioned. It felt like I imagine it would have felt to see Queen in 1974, or Bowie right before Ziggy Stardust blew up, or Alice Cooper at the Whiskey in Los Angeles.

I can’t really say anything about Luke Spiller that hasn’t been said in the rock press. He looks the part of Glam Rock star, a visual cross between Freddie Mercury and a young Tim Curry. His voice has amazing power and range. You can hear elements of Mercury, as well as a touch of Noddy Holder from Slade (to my ears, anyway). He went through several costume changes over the course of the show, clothes, I discovered later, that were designed for him by Zandra Rhodes, who designed costumes for both Freddy Mercury and Brian May. He commanded the crowd, leading sing-alongs and cheers, making it impossible not to have a good time. For one of the encore songs, a nice ballad, he left the stage, waded into the audience, and convinced everyone to sit on the floor around him as he sang. He was the focal point, but the whole audience was the show.

Photo by Amy Lombard. New York Times.

Not that the rest of the band was forgotten. They were tight and on cue and every member got his moment in the spotlight. Not an easy task given their leader’s glowing charisma, but you walked away knowing that you had seen a band and not a solo performer and some backup musicians.

They've opened for The Rolling Stones and as I'm writing they're scheduled to open for Guns 'n' Roses, so they're getting the opportunity to find a huge audience. Will they last? Will they ever be as big as Queen or Madonna? Probably not. That’s a long shot under the best of circumstances, and as I’ve said I don’t think our current paradigm allows for that to happen anymore. Will they be remembered in the year 2112? Does it really matter?

I haven’t been this excited for a new band in many, many years. I want to hang posters of Luke and the rest of The Struts all over my walls. I want to smear gold makeup on my cheeks and lip sync in front of my mirror. It’s not just about recapturing my youth (though some of it undoubtedly is). It’s about living in the moment. Enjoying our time before it is lost to history. Engaging with the things that bring you joy (yes, even sports), because life is hard and the best thing we can leave the future is a life well lived. We have this moment and nothing more. The past is only nostalgia if you aren’t living now. The future will come and wipe it all away, but live and love and laugh because in this moment we are alive. Do you love it, right now? Then it matters, right now.

I wanna taste love and pain/Wanna feel pride and shame
I don’t wanna take my time/Don't wanna waste one line

I wanna live better days/Never look back and say
Could have been me/It could have been me

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Find Your Grail

There are reasons I believe in Magic.

Most of my friends and the more regular readers on my blog know I’m a big fan of the stories of King Arthur and the whole Camelot myth cycle. I consider myself a pretty well-read amateur scholar of the topic. I’ve read some of the medieval manuscripts and looked into the historical evidence (and lack thereof). I’ve read a bunch of analysis of the symbolism and mythic themes running through the literature. I’ve read a ton of contemporary Arthurian fiction. My first novel, King of Summer, is loaded with the symbols and my last novel, Bedivere: The King’s Right Hand is my version of the tale.

This weekend, my friend Marcel and I went to see Hampton High School’s production of Spamalot, the Broadway musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have no real connection to Hampton High School, but my friend Dan Franklin teaches there. He is the director and producer of their spring plays. Dan is passionate about these projects and works his butt off with the kids. His love of what he does is obvious and his students are lucky to have him in their lives.

Two years ago we went to see their production of Young Frankenstein. Dan has always been very supportive of my art and writing, so I went primarily to be supportive of him. I’m now embarrassed to say that my expectations weren’t high. ‟It’s a high school play,” I thought. No disrespect to Dan, but the high school plays I had seen previously were pretty amateur. Young Frankenstein was remarkable! It completely changed my expectations of what a high school play could be. The level of production was one of the most professional things I’ve ever seen on stage. The talent of these kids was outstanding. To say I was blown away is an understatement. Last year they staged The Addams Family, but I had a conflict of schedule, so I had to miss it. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

The day Dan announced that tickets were on sale I went on line and purchased. I didn’t pick specific seats, just signed up for ‟Best Available.”

That’s important.

When we arrived tonight we were in the first two seats in the front row, center section. Marcel asked if I had a preference, so I took the aisle seat. Seat #A101. While we waited for the show to start I randomly quipped, ‟So, I’m used to seeing improv shows. I can just yell ‛Freeze' and then go up on stage and join in, right?” Marcel said, ‟Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how that works.”

So, the play began. It was once again, an amazing production. The sets, the performances, the staging, the music, singing and dancing... the talent of these kids is just off the charts. Everyone on stage was good, but a couple of performances really stood out. Alex Wood played the duel roles of Dennis Galahad and Prince Herbert. Two years ago he played the monster in Young Frankenstein. He has remarkable stage presence, comedic timing, and physicality. A young man named Tyler Anderson played Patsy and I simply could not take my eyes off him. His facial expressions and body language sold his performance. His enthusiasm and joy just radiated in every line. So good!

The climax of the play approached. King Arthur, Patsy, and the rest of the Knights of the very round table found the final clue to the location of the Holy Grail. Someone had carved A101 into a rock. They weren’t able to figure it out until the Hand of God (an actual giant hand protruding from the top of castle battlement), pointed out to the audience.

The Holy Grail was under my seat.

I want to stress that I had no idea that this was going to happen and that I ended up in that seat through the magic of ‟Best Available” on the internet.

Patsy came off the stage, reached under my seat, and pulled out the Grail. He took my hand and led me onto the stage. They asked me my name, congratulated me, and asked me to strike a pose.

If you know me you know that I am not particularly shy or prone to stage fright.

They handed me the Grail and I struck a pose.

Patsy led me back to my seat and the play ended with their final number. The sheer unlikelihood of all of this, the synchronicity of it...

There are reasons I believe in magic.

Marcel and I backstage with the Director, Dan Franklin

And they let me keep it!!!