Friday, June 9, 2017

Nick the Revelator

I first heard Nick Cave in the summer of 1988, a little late given his career up to that point. Like a lot of the music I was discovering at that time it came from my roommate Steve’s record collection. I had left my grad school apartment in May but was going back frequently to visit my friends. While there Steve played Kicking Against the Pricks, a collection of cover songs. I remember liking the sound of it, but it was background music to the weekend and didn’t sink in. I left there with a cassette with Your Funeral, My Trial on one side and Tender Prey on the other. The Mercy Seat was the first Nick Cave song I really listened to. By the time Up Jumped the Devil, the second track on the album, was over I was a confirmed fan. Since that time Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have remained in the uppermost echelon of musicians I’m into.

I saw him on Thursday night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. While I admit that I’m riding high on the adrenaline I want to say that this was simply one of the single best concert experiences I have ever had... and I’ve been to a lot of shows. This is not the first time I’ve seen Nick, but the fifth, including his only other appearance in the Pittsburgh area with Lollapalooza in 1993. I want to talk a little bit about the specifics of this show, and then tie it in with a broader context of Nick and his work.

First just let me get my complete fanboy moment out of the way. I had paid what for me is a pretty high price for this ticket. I was down close to the stage, but off to one side. It would have been a great seat, except that speaker stacks blocked my view of about 80% of the stage.

I was feeling pretty pissy about the whole thing when the concert began. Nick came out and sat in a chair at the front of the stage and performed Anthrocene. His presence was great, but I really wanted to be able to see the Bad Seeds as well. At the beginning of the second song he stalked along the front of the stage, motioning for everyone to move closer. My seat was kind of crap, so along with a lot of other people I moved.

Much better.

There were crates of some sort along the floor in front of the stage, allowing Nick to come even closer by standing on them. During the second song he moved to a crate right in front of me and began singing to our segment of the crowd. Next thing I knew he had leaned onto my shoulder and stretched himself out over the crowd. I stood there, one hand on his chest directly over his heart, and the other bracing his side, supporting his weight while he sang. So, while I still can’t say I’ve met Nick Cave, I can say I’ve held him.

I was not alone. Nick spent a lot of time in the crowd. I mean really in the crowd. He walked into the seats, and over them, held in place with the hands of many of us who were down front. It was the most intimate show of his I’ve ever seen.

Nick is not a stranger to mingling with the audience. Early videos of him with his band The Birthday Party, show him completely engulfed by the small crowds, with seemingly no concern for his personal bodily boundaries or safety. This was very much in the spirit of Punk Rock confrontational theatrics. His performance style for much of his career has had the element of the confrontational to it. If not directly in people’s faces like in the early days, then certainly in terms of subject matter and intensity of performance.

This fit his image as a fire and brimstone preacher of Apocalyptic visions. His image, and this was a big part of what appealed to me way back when, was that of a larger than life, mythic wandering doomsayer. He was the offspring of a world created by Johnny Cash, William Faulkner, and Manly Wade Wellman. The world he created through his lyrics and music (and his poetry and novels), was one where God and the devil were engaged in daily warfare, one populated by angels and demons, both made manifest in the actions of people and their own virtues and vices. It was dark and thunderous and dangerous, yet redemption and salvation were both possible down in the mud of our dark desires. His concerts often had the ambiance of a tent revival or a faith healing. For his fans they were both.

The new show still is, but there is a difference. His interactions with the crowd were more of an embrace than an attack. He was calling people in instead of pushing them away. His approach was more confessional than confrontational. This change is not completely new. In a spoken word piece entitled The Flesh Made Word he described his own journey using the Bible as a metaphor. The early Nick was the Old Testament, frightening and judgmental wrath of God Nick, while he saw himself moving into the New Testament love and compassion of Christ Nick. Both sides are still definitely present, but the tent revival I saw this week was far more about building a community of love and support than it was about fear.

There are reasons for this. Nick has been wandering in a wilderness of loss and grief recently. In 2015 his fifteen year old son Arthur fell from a cliff and died. The documentary, One More Time With Feeling, deals overtly and honestly with the aftermath of this. Nick went back to work in the studio, and Skeleton Treethe new album, is now marinated with loss and sadness. We see Nick, his wife Susie, and Arthur’s twin brother Earl throughout, trying to move on with life in the midst of grief. I have seen and read a lot of interviews with Nick throughout the years. He has always been someone who was powerful and larger than life. He was self assured, and fiercely intelligent, and a master wordsmith. In the film he appears lost and broken, a man of words who simply can’t find any to express his new world. We see the process of recording, where Nick seems more vulnerable than ever before. His voice breaks with emotion many times, but these takes were kept for the final release. While it is a difficult film to watch it is ultimately uplifting. Nick and his family make a conscious decision to live their life, honoring Arthur and not forgetting him.

Everything is not OK, but that's OK, right? If things go on, you know, if anyone is interested, the records go on and we still do what we do, um, and the work goes on. And in that respect, things continue. A belief in the good in things, in the world, in ourselves evaporated. But you know, after a while, after a time, Susie and I decided to be happy. As happiness seemed to be an act of revenge. An act of defiance. To care about each other. And everyone else. And be careful. To be careful with each other and the ones around us.”

The concert was this idea made flesh. He seemed happy on stage. He interacted with the crowd more than I have ever seen him do before. He bantered with people, touched them. He didn’t just come out into the crowd, he invited people into his space, allowing himself to be held by the audience, to be buoyed up by them and their love, and in return, gathered in the community he had created, he shouted his defiance to the heavens.

The show itself was a mix of the new and the old, with a noticeable gap of anything from the mid 90s until the last two albums. As a long time fan, if Nick had asked me personally which of the old songs I wanted to hear, he pretty much did everything that would have been on my list. He has always been able to transition seamlessly between the furious and the funereal and this was no exception. After four of his newer, more atmospheric, but no less powerful, songs he said ‟I wanna tell you about a girl,” and launched into From Her to Eternity, and this driving song about obsession and stalking and murder brought down the house. This was followed immediately by the sound of distant thunder from the stage and I knew that we were in Tupelo.

The decision to perform this song was one of the most surprising for me. It’s one of his classics and a regular feature of his concerts. But the recent details of his life has given it new context. While a lot of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death many of the lyrics seem prescient given what happened. It is impossible to listen to the album without this event infusing your interpretation of it. What is more fascinating to me is how this can now color our perceptions of his previous work as well. The lyrics of Tupelo play with the idea of how we mythologize real people, particularly modern rock stars. The song conflates Elvis with Christ, the King who will rise again. For years some people did not believe that Elvis was dead, and he was treated with a religious fervor. Elvis was a twin. His minutes-older sibling died in childbirth. The imagery of the dead twin runs throughout the song, now conveying the extra resonance of Cave’s own twin sons, one of whom is gone. In the raging elemental fury of the performance I found myself emotionally gut-punched by the new meanings of these lyrics, of which Nick has to be very aware.

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals,
And a child is born on his brothers heels,
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead,
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red.

The final repeated refrain, changed slightly from the recorded version, of, ‟Oh mama rock your lil’ one slow, Oh mama hold your baby,” was being sung with full, lived knowledge of how easy it is to lose that child.

He followed Tupelo with Jubilee Street, from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away. This song in particular felt like Nick shouting his defiance. Interspersed with the repeated refrain, ‟Look at me now,” he seemed to be addressing Death directly, speaking of his transformation, the alchemy of his loss producing gold.

I am alone now.
I am beyond recriminations.
The curtains are shut.
The furniture has gone.
I am transforming.
I am vibrating.
I am glowing.
I am flying.
Look at me now!”

The Weeping Song is a favorite of mine from his album The Good Son. It has always spoken to the idea of true sadness and grief in this world. Twenty-five years ago Nick knew that, ‟True weeping is yet to come.”

Former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld is the other man in this video.
He has not been with the band for many years.

Into My Arms is perhaps my favorite love song. It is a paean of romance sung by a skeptic, acknowledging the one thing he can truly believe in. It echoes a lot of what lives in my head and heart and has long held a special place for me and one other. You know who you are.

I can’t stress enough that although there was a lot of sad, grief-filled content to this show, it was not a dirge. It was a celebration, not just of Arthur, but of life, and love, and perhaps above all else, the idea of community and all of us taking care of each other and supporting our friends. I said earlier that it seemed that Nick was inviting us into his space, breaking the barrier of the stage and audience dichotomy by joining us on the floor. This was taken to it’s logical conclusion during the final number, Push the Sky Away. Once again Nick began to gesture for the crowd to come closer, even though we were already as close to the stage as we could be. When he took a woman’s hand and helped her onto the stage, then kept gesturing, his intentions became clear. He was inviting us to join him, physically onstage. About a hundred of us did so. I stood in this crowd with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an impromptu chorus, singing along with him as he closed the show with what became a hymn for everyone there.

And some people say its just rock and roll,
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul.
Youve gotta just keep on pushing and keep on pushing and
Push the sky away.”

Set List:
Jesus Alone
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
Jubilee Street
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl in Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Distant Sky
Skeleton Tree
The Weeping Song
Jack the Ripper
Stagger Lee

Push the Sky Away

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Girls Who Be Kings*

This past Friday I was pleasantly reminded of a lot of my listening habits of the 90s. It can be difficult to remember where your head was at any given moment in your life, or why the music that spoke to you did so. I came into the 90s riding a wave of alternative music, listening to The Pixies, and The Replacements, and Nick Cave, and bunch of other stuff I had discovered in the late 80s. For the most part I ignored the Grunge movement. I could hear their influences in the stuff I had already been listening to and while I didn’t exactly hate Grunge none it spoke to me very much either. I liked Nirvana, but didn’t own their albums until many years later, partly due to everyone I knew already having a copy. I didn’t have to work very hard to be able to hear it.

I did discover a lot of music though. I went through a brief Alt-Country phase, though my tastes there tended toward the weird extremes of the genre. Most of these have long fallen by the wayside for me since then. I continued to follow the careers of many of the 80s artists I was into. Lloyd Cole and the Jazz Butcher continued to release new material though it seemed less and less people cared (not that many did in the first place, I guess). I tried out a lot of bands that I first saw on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I went to a few big festivals and saw a lot of bands I would never have gone to see if they played solo.

One of these festivals I went to, twice, was Lilith Fair. There seemed to be an explosion of new female vocalists/singer-songwriters at the time and I was drawn to a lot of them. I saw Dar Williams live several times. I picked up albums by Tori Amos and Bjork. I did a phone interview with Jewel when she was eighteen years old, about six months before she broke huge. Listening to women rock stars was nothing completely new for me. I owned a lot of Fleetwood Mac, and Blondie, and The Runaways, and The Eurythmics, and Missing Persons, among others. But in the 90s, like what I said about Alt-Country, my tastes in women vocalists tended toward the weird end of things.

One of them was Christina Martinez and her band, Boss Hog. Christina is married to Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Jon plays guitar and shares vocals with Christina in Boss Hog, but it is definitely her band. I wrote about them twice for local newsweeklies in the 90s and saw them once at the now-defunct Grafitti (Cibo Mato was the opening act). They only released two very short full albums and a handful of EPs, so their output was pretty small. Whatever, I listened to them a lot.

This features Jon Spencer more than most of their songs.

After almost two decades of nothing, this spring Boss Hog released a new album and went on tour. I went to see them at Cattivo, a small local venue here in Pittsburgh last Friday. The lineup includes both Martinez and Spencer, as well as Hollis Queens and Jens Jurgenson, their original drummer and bassist. Mickey Finn, who was not with them originally, rounded out the band on keyboards. It was a much more intimate show than when I saw them before. Spencer himself was working the merchandise table and was very accessible. The other band members hung out in the crowd watching the opening acts (including my friends in The Homisides from down Charleroi way).

Their performance was remarkable. First of all, it was obvious that they were really having fun up there. The love and enthusiasm for what they were doing brought everyone into the show. Christina left the stage to sing from the midst of the crowd. At one point she leaned on my shoulder and sang directly into my face, about six inches away. Queens and Jurgenson were tight and powerful, a thundering rhythm section. I don’t play drums, and as much as I listen to music I admit it is the piece of bands I notice least, at least overtly. Drums underlie all of the parts I’m paying more attention to. I recognize this as a lack on my part, but other than a great drum solo I find myself not paying much attention to drummers. Hollis Queens was the exception. She was simply fierce on drums and it was difficult to take my eyes off of her. She also adds vocals to one of my favorite Boss Hog songs, Whiteout. The show ended with the song Texas, possibly my favorite Boss Hog track.

A little naughty...

Boss Hog never really completely fell out of my listening rotation, like a lot of artists have. But, since Friday I’ve listened to all of their albums (the new one is great!) and EPs, and watched a lot of YouTube videos, reclaiming my fandom. This has reminded me of a few other women vocalists/performers I was into at the same time, all but one of which are relatively unknown. While I can’t describe exactly what it is, I can hear some kind of similarity among them, a reason I got into all of them. In every case their vocals feel earthier to me, more grounded. Many of the women singers of that era tended toward the more ethereal in their vocalizations. It’s not that I don’t like that, but it seems I’m drawn to something more visceral. In every case the music veers away from mostly traditional rock songs or ballads as well, though there are exceptions. Slower, but driving, if that’s a thing. Spaces in the music for the ear to rest, but underpinned with heavy bass and drums. More than a little distortion. There is a sparseness, but lots of emotion.

In my novel This Creature Fair I write about a rock star named Morrigan Blue. She and the band I create for her are the archetype for this type of sound. I can hear it in my head even if I can never completely describe it.

I’m not summing it up very well. Let me give you my examples.

I saw the video for Dragon Lady by the Geraldine Fibbers on 120 Minutes and was immediately a fan. I bought the album without having heard another song and it was a desert island album for me for years (it might still be). They fell into the weirder end of the Alt-Country thing I mentioned. In the first article I wrote about them for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly I described them as the offspring of Hank Williams and Sonic Youth. I still think that’s a pretty good descriptor. Carla Bozelich has a deep, raspy voice that just oozes emotion for me. I did a phone interview with her that formed the basis of a major article I had published in No Depression Magazine, the national music mag for Alt-Country (there was some editing of what I wrote that Carla wasn’t happy about, but we talked it through). I saw them once in Pittsburgh and twice in Washington DC. By that time guitarist Nels Cline, who is currently in Wilco, had joined the band.

As much as I love this I understand how they're an acquired taste. My friend Lee nearly jumped out of our car into the desert at 90 miles an hour when I put this on.

Before the Geraldine Fibbers, Carla had been with Ethyl Meatplow, who you might know about from the song Devil’s Johnson which was featured in an episode of Beavis and Butthead. Since then she has been involved in a number of projects, both solo and as part of other bands, including a song-for-song cover of Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger album, which Willie gave his blessing to by joining her on a couple of tracks. While I still love her voice she has moved into realms of experimental music that has left me behind.

At that same time I discovered Congo Norvell. Kid Congo Powers is a guitarist who has one of the best alternative resumes in music, having played with the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Kid is a very idiosyncratic guitarist who, by his own admission, never really learned to play guitar the ‟right” way. He uses lots of alternative tunings and is much more interested in finding interesting sounds to make with his guitar than in traditional playing. To my ears his instincts are good. Vocalist Sally Norvell has a voice that simply makes me melt. I called it a ‟mix of honey and sand” when I wrote about them.

I had been given the go-ahead to write an article or do an interview by my editor at Kulture Deluxe magazine, a short-lived and long defunct national music mag I wrote for a long time ago. I had tracked down their agent to ask for an interview, but in the meantime I went to see them in DC and was lucky enough to meet them after the show. When I inquired about setting something up Sally wrote her home number on a napkin and told me to call anytime. I did and they were fantastic. They sent me an advance copy of their new album, The Dope, The Lies, The Vaseline, which was never officially released. I’m among a very small population of people who own a copy of this. This ended up being the biggest feature article I ever had published.

I can’t really say that Sally and I are friends in any way other than the Facebook kind, but we stayed in touch over the years. When she released her solo album Choking Victim I was probably one of the few music journalists lining up to review it.

The last of these 90s female performers I want to talk about is the most well-known. PJ Harvey is well into her third decade as a respected musician. 120 Minutes was my first introduction to her through the video for Dry. I heard her first three albums through a friend of mine who was much more into her at the time than I was. But then she released To Bring You My Love and I fell in love. This still ranks as one of my all time favorite albums, just hitting me in the sweet spot of right time, right place in my life. After that I become a completist for her music, tracking down obscure b-sides and unreleased tracks and bootleg live shows... there are a lot of them. Part of what I have loved about PJ is that she has continued to grow and change as an artist, every album moving in a new direction. I fully admit that I have not been as into her recent work as I once was. I think she’s still doing important work and following her specific muse, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. Still, she is an artist that I will always be interested to see where she goes next.

Unlike the others, I’ve never met PJ, though I have seen her live many times. Two of those shows stand out. In December of 2000 she was breaking in a new band in anticipation of being the opening act for U2. She played a small number of unannounced secret shows that I was lucky enough to hear about and get tickets to. I saw her at the Black Cat in DC, the same venue where I had seen the Geraldine Fibbers and Congo Norvell. The Black Cat is essentially a small bar and I stood about three feet from her during the performance. Even then she was a big enough star that this kind of intimate show was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The next fall, after the U2 tour, I saw her headlining again with the same band at the 9:30 Club. This show stands out because of the date. It was 9/10/2001. The next morning, while I was driving out of DC, the World Trade Centers fell and the Pentagon was hit by a plane.

Unfortunately I didn't see the To Bring You My Love tour in 1995.
This is what passed for PJ's Glam period.

I can hear the similarities in these performers, at least in my world of aural pleasure. I can understand why they all appealed to me in some of the same ways. I’m sure there are others who fall in this category but I haven’t discovered a lot of them that speak to me in the same way. I’m sure some of that is simply where I am in life as well. Not too many years ago I got into The Kills, fully aware that they were hitting me in the same place as the bands I’ve just talked about. There is an overall sound to the band I like and vocalist Alison Mossheart fits squarely in the realm I’ve been discussing. I really like the work she has done with Jack White in The Dead Weather as well.

I’m not sure of the purpose of this, other than finally gathering all of these together in one place. Hopefully some of you will explore these artists and discover something you love. In the meantime, I’m enjoying a nostalgic indulgence.

*The title is taken from a Congo Norvell song.

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.