Saturday, September 9, 2017

Talking Leaves, Open Book

As I mentioned in my previous post I believed that the main reason my memory of Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide was so strong was because of the art on the back cover. A free hand drawing I did of that when I was eight is my first very specific memory of realizing I had some artistic talent, that I could draw. I remembered very little of the actual story, other than Sequoyah created a phonetic alphabet that allowed the Cherokee language to be written down for the first time. I had never really paused to wonder if there was something in the story itself, rather than just the artwork, that made this stand out among all the other volumes of Childhoods of Famous Americans that I read at that time.

After reading it again for the first time in nearly fifty years, the answer is yes. Yes there was.

But, some disclaimers before I go any farther. This entire series of books were written as story-driven narratives and not as accurate historical documents. In my subsequent research I discovered that there are tremendous gaps in what is actually known about Sequoyah. I will say that the author, Dorothea J. Snow, did an admirable job of taking what information was available and creating a story that incorporated actual history. The book is also a product of its time with some of the attendant problems of racist attitudes and the white mans interpretation of what Native Americans were. While it firmly acknowledged the rapaciousness of the European expansion across America and the mistreatment of the Indians, it also seemed that most of Sequoyah’s best qualities were inherited from his absent white father.

But I read this when I was eight, so none of that was part of my prior experience, and I have no interest in tearing apart this artifact of another time in a scathing review. While these are certainly valid complaints, it’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The book begins with Sequoyah being teased by his peers because he has to help his mother with household chores and gardening, something they see as ‟women’s work.” Because he is lame in one leg he is also unable to hunt or to compete in their sports the way the other boys do. This also sets him apart.

I was not lame, and my father was a positive presence in my life, but reading this now, I can see echoes of eight-year-old me. I was, and let’s be honest here, I still am, a Momma’s boy. Mom has always been, in many ways, my best friend and I interacted with her in the house more than a lot of boys do with their mothers. Not so much with the cleaning and housework, but I liked to help her cook. Dad would want her to chase me out of the kitchen because he thought I was in her way. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind back then that we both enjoyed the experience and that I was earning a valuable life skill (I’m not a chef by any means, but I can whip up a mean pan gravy). I still do this when I’m home, and one of my favorite holiday traditions, both Christmas and Thanksgiving, is helping with the spread. I was much more interested in learning how to make homemade noodles than in changing the oil in my car. I resented some of the time Dad would engage me in car maintenance. I am now incredibly grateful for this time spent with him that younger me couldn’t appreciate. Interested in cars or not, the time with Dad was invaluable, and I learned enough about cars to save me a million times on the road. But, back then, I would rather have been reading than changing tires.

Okay, that’s still true.

I was also not very interested in hunting or sports. These are two of the most important manhood rituals where I’m from and I just didn’t care very much for either. Let me say, for all of my friends and family who do engage, I am not opposed to either of these, then or now. Just not my thing. When I was twelve I got my hunting license because I didn’t know how to say no back then. It was just expected. I loved being out in the woods, but I didn’t feel the need to kill anything. I did though: squirrels, and groundhogs, and rabbits in small game season. When I was eighteen I finally accomplished the ultimate cherry-breaking moment of being a hunter and shot my first buck. I was literally sick and haven’t been in the woods with a gun since.

With sports my lack of interest may be because I’ve simply never been any good at them. Or, perhaps the reverse is more likely. I never pushed to be better at sports. Just not competitive enough, I guess. I went to one practice for wrestling in fifth grade and after spending an hour on my back with my opponent’s knee in my nuts I never went back. I played Little League baseball for a year, but that was more to hang out with a friend than from any real interest in playing. I could hit pretty well, but couldn’t field for shit. I was a slow runner.

Which brings me to an anecdote. The boys in my school loved to race. Every recess had boys challenging each other to see who was the fastest. I wasn’t and as a result, got challenged to race a lot. It’s an easy win, right? One day the playground was covered with snow and ice. I was wearing boots with really good tread. Due to traction I won my first race ever, against the guy who always beat me. I won a second one as well. He didn’t want to race anymore and when I asked him why he said it was unfair because I knew I was going to beat him. You know... just like he knew that every other time he challenged me.

Life lessons.

I hated the military posturings of my gym teacher and was actually kind of happy on those occasions when I sprained my ankle or broke my arm and had an excuse not to participate. I got to go to the library and read instead.

And of course, I was teased about all of this. I was teased a lot. Before I get too far into this I do want to say my childhood wasn’t Hell. I was picked on, because of my interests and my red hair, and because I was sensitive and cried easily which made me an easy target. But I was never beat up. I didn’t live in fear. I had friends. My teachers mostly liked me (probably not the gym teacher). I recognize how much of a golden child I was. But I had my tormentors.

And I see little Wayne in these aspects of Sequoyah.

My interest in reading and in books is what prompted this blog and the last one, so it’s no surprise that I share that with Sequoyah as well. The Cherokee did not have a written language. The white man came bearing sheets of paper with strange markings on them. These ‟talking leaves” were treaties and orders from the government that gave them great power. The Cherokee, according to this book, believed they were magic, allowing the white man to communicate over long distances. Sequoyah became fascinated by the talking leaves and became determined to unlock their magic. He spent many years working on this, becoming an outsider to his people. They thought he was queer (in the old sense of the word), and strange, and maybe dangerous. He would become obsessed with his project to the detriment of his other work, his friends and family.

As I pointed out in my last blog, I too became fascinated by the talking leaves when I was very young and learned their magic very early. In my world of sports and hunting and those who simply don’t appreciate books in the same way I do, I too have been considered strange and queer (in both definitions of that word).

These things are not mutually exclusive of course. I have friends who hunt and read. I have friends who are way into sports and read. After living in Pittsburgh for nearly three decades I have learned an appreciation for the Steelers I didn’t believe I would ever have.

But I’m still more interested in books. I still believe that they are magic. Entire worlds are held between their covers. The wisdom of the ages is there for anyone to access. They are time machines, allowing us to hear the thoughts and voices of people long gone. They are portals to imagination and empathy. The story of Sequoyah that so spoke to me when I was eight continued to live as strange lines on aging paper until my now 56-year-old eyes could rediscover it. The words were unchanged in all those decades, but I am a different person so it is now a different book.

But, as this experience teaches me, in many ways I’m still the same book too.

Sunday, September 3, 2017


I have always loved books. My mother says she read to me constantly as a baby, long before I was conscious of what books were. As I grew older she says I was always asking her to read to me. Books, children’s books, comic strips and comic books... everything that had words on a page. She smiles as she talks about how she would set the words to song to put me to sleep at night. She winks when she tells me how I would correct her if she skipped the words to well-known stories.

For me books have always been magic. They are portals to other worlds, the most important of which has been my own imagination.

As you might guess, I learned to read early. The mystery of what was contained on these strange marks on paper we call the alphabet was one I needed to solve. Apparently, for all of her indulgence, I needed more time with books than Mom could give me. By the time I started first grade I was already living between the pages. One of my most-repeated anecdotes of that time was when the teacher, Mrs. Baldwin, yelled at me for not paying attention. She was teaching the alphabet to the class and I was bored, so of course I grabbed a book from the shelf in the back to keep myself occupied while the rest of the class got caught up. Yeah, I was an arrogant little snot, but I was bored. I still reach for a book when other people are boring me.

I grew up in the country so there wasn’t a local library. My small school was serviced by a library bookmobile and I couldn’t wait for the weekly visit. Luckily it continued to make rounds during the summer months as well. The librarian, Mrs. Berryman (who I have alreadywritten about), loved me because of my love of books. By fourth grade a new grade school had been built, consolidating several smaller schools and gave Mrs. Berryman a permanent home and large new library. I practically lived there.

I graduated to chapter books pretty quickly. The earliest full books I remember reading were the Howard Pyle version of Robin Hood (I spent a summer writing a play based on it and trying to recruit my friends to be in it. It was, sadly, never produced. Luckily, in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a school musical production). I also read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 4th grade my classmate Charlie Brown (yes, that was actually his name), reenacted the scene from Tom Sawyer where the boys first encounter Injun Joe.

Actual copy from my childhood
My really beat up copy of Tom Sawyer. The copy
of Huck Finn is long gone. Mom says these
were my brother's copies from when he was

There were a series of books on the library shelves that I plowed through. They were a series of biographies of figures from American history, written for children. I specifically remember a few: George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Kit Carson, Brigham Young, Betsy Ross, and many others. I read them all, some many times over. I credit these with my interest in history which eventually led to one of my undergraduate degrees.

One in particular stands out in my memory, but not because of history, but because of art. The book was a biography of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah, inventor of a written alphabet for the Cherokee language. The cover of this book, like all of the covers in this series, was covered with drawings, done in the inked style of the comic books I was so familiar with.

In third grade all of the boys were obsessed with cars, based on the Hot Wheels and Matchbox toy cars. I had a bunch of these, but I didn’t have the same obsession. Trapped indoors for recess in the winter everyone was drawing their favorite cars. I tried, but just couldn’t get the hang of it. One of my regular tormentors made fun of my inability to draw. One day, while the others worked at their cars, I did a freehand drawing based on the art on the book. It was, in my memory at least, really good. Okay, really good for a third-grader. My teacher praised it. So did other kids in my class.

My tormentor said, ‟Yeah, but you still can’t draw cars.”

This whole experience stands out plainly in my memory. I pinpoint this drawing of Sequoyah, unfortunately long lost to the ravages of time, as THE drawing that made me aware that I had some talent. The one that eventually led to the art I still do today.

The problem with memory is that it is incomplete. I have spent many years of my life trying to track down this series of books. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the titles were, or what the series was called. I tried my Google-Fu with every variation of ‟American biographies written for children in the 1960s” you can imagine. Nothing that ever came up seemed to match. My visual memory for these, especially for Sequoyah, is strong. I would know it when I saw it. But many image searches later and I was still unsuccessful. Every trip to a used bookstore for the last twenty years included a perusal of the children’s section. Still, no luck.

But books are magic.

A month or so ago I was in the main branch of the Carnegie Library. This is not an unusual occurrence. I typically do two things when I’m there; I look for very specific books that are next on my reading list, and I browse the shelves to see what catches my eye. I frequently discover books and authors I have never heard of before. That day a book on a display caught my eye due the title. Morningstar: Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood is not something I would have ever been aware of except by the synchronicity of it being there right when I have been researching the concept of Lucifer Morningstar for another project I’m working on (not a Satanic one, I swear). It’s also the name of the character I am currently playing in a superhero roleplaying game. I picked up the book, discovered it had nothing to do with my research, but saw that it was a memoir about a woman my age and the significant books she had grown up with. Good enough for me, so I took it home.

On page seven of her introduction she mentions a series of of books in her childhood library called Childhoods of Famous Americans.


Two minutes on Google and I had it. Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide by Dorothea J. Snow. I saw the picture of the front cover and I knew my search had ended.

But it hadn’t. The thing is, there are multiple printings. I now realize that I had actually found the book in my searches years ago and didn’t recognize it because it had a different cover. I looked around Amazon and Ebay and found copies but none of them showed the back cover. I finally ordered one with the front cover I recognized. It arrived a couple of days later and I excitedly tore open the package only to disscover the back cover was blank. I had the book, but what I really wanted was the drawing.

So, more research. I discovered that the cover artist, who also did illustrations for the interior (all of which lit up memory switchboards in my brain), was Frank Giacoia, a name I knew from the hundreds of comic books he pencilled and inked in the 1960s and 70s. I found another copy for sale with a different cover, but by the same artist. I ordered it. I was once again disappointed.

Third time’s the charm. Through Alibris I found a store in Florida that listed four copies in stock. None of them had pictures. By this time I had found a photo of the back cover with the drawing I wanted, so I wrote to the bookseller with the photo. A woman named Virginia wrote back immediately that she would go their basement and check the overstock. Four days and eight dollars later and I held the book in my hands.

I read it last night. My eyes scanned words I haven’t seen in nearly fifty years. I stared at the artwork and remembered doing that one specific drawing, and some of the others I had forgotten about as well. In reading it now, with a lot more self-awareness, I can see why this book, more than any of the others in the series stuck with me. The drawing I did cemented the image in my mind, but the story says a lot about who I am, and who I was.

But that’s a separate blog.

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.”