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.