20s

Oh! You Pretty Things

David Bowie – Oh! You Pretty Things

When I picked up my phone this morning and casually opened Instagram to see if any of my friends had been at any great shows last night, I scrolled and thought, wait, what is going on here?! I frantically clicked over to Twitter to find some context, something confirming what seemed impossible. My brain couldn’t process what I was seeing. Days after his 69th birthday, after his latest album’s release and the video for the song Lazarus, without warning, David Bowie was dead.

A Monday morning doesn’t grant you the time to sit and absorb that kind of information. I jumped in the car to drive my daughter to school and fumbled for some kind of explanation to give her for who was David Bowie and how monumental his work and life were and god, how could he have possibly died!?

I got to work and settled into a non-stop Bowie marathon, starting with Hunky Dory. That’s the album that is my starting point for all things Bowie. As I’ve mentioned before, my older brother was a huge David Bowie fan and that’s the first one I remember being immersed in as a pre-teen while my brother ruled the turntable. Next up, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It wasn’t until college, probably, that I stopped to listen to what I was singing when “Suffragette City” would come on, and realized oh, hey, maybe now I get what my mom objected to about David Bowie. I was too young to really understand most of what she found offensive and she didn’t come right out and say it either, probably not wanting to acknowledge what had flown over our heads in case we hadn’t picked up on it the first time around. I just loved the songs and soaked them up like a sponge.

On through Diamond Dogs and Young Americans making my way into the Berlin trilogy, hitting Scary Monsters for the drive home. One of the great benefits of having been exposed to David Bowie before I could fully appreciate everything he was doing is that I just accepted it. Sure, I didn’t get what all the songs were really about but if my brother thought he was cool, then so did I. Having that kind of introduction to not just music but art, fashion, sexuality, film, theater, was truly a gift. If you had seen one of his more avant garde performances, even if you thought to yourself, what did I just watch?, it stretched you and your ideas of what was acceptable.

There will never be another person like David Bowie. Someone who never stopped creating and innovating, right to the end. Have you seen the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus“? And I loved this one for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) from The Next Day back in 2013. He was a genius, an artist, and an inspiration. We are lucky to have been alive during his lifetime.

My Generation

Patti Smith – My Generation (by The Who)

Tonight I’m going to see Patti Smith for the 40th anniversary of Horses show at the Beacon Theatre in New York. For years she’s been performing a run of concerts at the end of the year, including her birthday on December 30th and then New Year’s Eve, at the Bowery Ballroom or Webster Hall. Those shows always seemed to me to be for the insiders. Very intimate affairs that I’m sure were great shows, I’ve seen plenty of videos from those nights, but I felt like I should leave those to her hardcore fans. I didn’t feel like that was the right concert for a first-timer. So when I heard about this show at the Beacon, I felt the time was right. After all, it’s a bigger venue and while this is a special event, it feels more like an open invitation.

Patti Smith was a huge influence on so many of the musicians who influenced me. It’s well documented that Peter Buck and Michael Stipe met at the Wuxtry record store in Athens, GA, talking about Patti Smith. And if you listened to yesterday’s post and this one, you will hear that influence. That was enough of an endorsement for me. Yesterday marked an unbelievable 29 years since my first R.E.M. concert and I think it’s safe to say that I am who I am today because of that night and everything that followed. Even if it’s indirectly, I owe much to Patti Smith.

But it has taken this long for things to come together for me to finally see her live. I am excited and nervous. I am hopping the local trains and meeting up with my best friend, who was with me 29 years ago, and the symbolism is just about to do me in.

Flesh Without Blood

Grimes – Flesh Without Blood

New release Friday (still not used to that). Though this track was released about two weeks ahead of the album, Art Angels came out today. I have made peace with my streaming app for the car, after all it lets me listen to things like the newest releases on my way to work on a Friday morning and I’m paying $10 a month so I might as well use it.

I don’t think I could ever be a music critic because I need more time with albums before I can deliver an opinion and even then I’m more inclined to think my views are just mine, extremely subjective, and I don’t feel I have the musical knowledge to deconstruct songs the way reviewers always seem to.

I do know that this song sounded great in the car driving home in the dark this evening. Really loud. It made me want to drive much faster than is both legal and safe. In lieu of that, after everyone else went upstairs, I had a dance party by myself in the dining room. Come on over.

Sometimes I marvel at how people who are young can be so self-assured. When I think about what I was doing and how I felt about myself and my place in the world when I was the age Claire Boucher is now … well, I’d rather not. There are plenty of days where I still feel like I’m going to get caught impersonating an adult. Not that I feel childish but wasn’t there supposed to be some watershed moment that marked my passage from youth to full-fledged grown-up? You’d think marriage or having kids would have flipped that switch but in fact I think having kids just exacerbated my feeling like an impostor. I’m somebody’s mom?! Shit! I know how it happened but, how did that happen?

Is the kind of vision and will that Grimes has innate or did her parents have some really incredible skills and traits that they passed down to her? Even if her music isn’t your thing, you have to acknowledge that she’s managed to carve out a chunk of the music world and put her stamp on it. What’s the secret?

Timing

Tono and the Finance Company (Anthonie Tonnon) – Timing

All the credit goes to my local college radio station for introducing me to Anthonie Tonnon. I heard two different tracks from his most recent album, Successor, on this one woman’s show on Thursday mornings. I Shazamed those two so I could look him up later on and I think you might say I’m smitten.

Take this song, for instance. That charmingly different New Zealand accent singing, “I used to go for girls with better music collections than I have, providing they weren’t musicians…” Anthonie! Where were you when I was in my early 20s (oh, probably not born yet, hmm). Then he goes on to ask,

“How long ago did you split up with your boyfriend?
Does your blood still rush when you think of him?
Do you still kind of think that one day you’ll be back with him?
Oh come on, be honest!”

Oh come on, be honest!?! Here’s where that little Twitter exploding heart might actually be appropriate. Switch the genders and you have the story of my romantic misadventures all throughout college and my 20s. And if his songs about ill-fated relationships* aren’t your thing, there’s Marion Bates Realty, or Railway Lines, or Water Underground. Or if you’re a year out of college, Twenty-Three is for you.

I lose myself in his stories, sung in a voice that’s a little swoony. If you happen to live in the Los Angeles area, he’s playing at some French restaurant on Friday (11/6) and I think it would be well worth your time to check him out.

*Although, I don’t know how you can listen to a song like Skinny Jeans and not be taken in.

Zooropa

U2 – Zooropa

The other day my daughter asked me what people wore in the 90s since it’s school spirit week and her class is supposed to dress in that style for one day. I looked at her in jeans, a plaid button down shirt over a t-shirt, and a pair of Chuck’s, and said, “like that only, baggy.” We sure didn’t go for skinny jeans back then. I tried to think of other looks that she might be able to scrounge together. There was the baby doll dress with the clunky black shoes but she turned up her nose at the couple of flowery short dresses I found in storage.

I pulled up some videos hoping for inspiration. We checked out a couple of Nirvana videos, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill (thinking she might fancy a riot grrrl look), L7. She wasn’t biting. I found a couple of Lush videos, maybe she would favor a more British take on things. The only thing she took away was a whole lot of black eye makeup.

The more I thought about it, the more I had a hard time putting my finger on a 90s look. Personally, I went from being an occasionally employed college grad who sported thrift store chic, to someone hoping to be hip while working at a museum in DC, then a cubicle farm at an insurance company up in Maine (ever the home of function over form), a year as a grad student overseas, and I closed it out working on the 30th floor at a publishing company in midtown Manhattan. Not a lot of crossover.

After looking at the videos, I hauled out some CDs to see if the cover art and liner notes might be of more help. My daughter lost interest and settled on her usual clothes; she’d just try to do something different with her hair. But once I started flipping through my music I got sucked in. I picked up a tape I’d made and was transported back to the early 90s.

Perhaps surprisingly, I went through a small U2 phase back then. Let’s call it their Berlin period. It’s a little strange that the height of their fame would be the moment when I would sit up and take notice, especially since I’d had friends that were on board from day one who had tried repeatedly to get me to fall for them and I had always remained more of a casual observer. It wasn’t that I disliked them, I just felt like they didn’t need me as a fan.

They certainly didn’t need me in the early 90s either as Achtung Baby took over the world. Blame it on Berlin. I’d been so swept up in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the huge and swift changes that took place all over eastern Europe in its wake. I also had it bad for the Wim Wenders film, Until the End of the World. I saw it in the movie theater four or five times and had the soundtrack on regular rotation. In that context, the U2 song became a favorite and I wanted more. I bought Achtung Baby and listened to it almost in secret. Of course I was going to love “Zoo Station.” Berlin. Trains. What’s not to love? But I found myself liking most of the album, in spite of the radio saturation.

We had an intern at work who came from Berlin. I rented old Wim Wenders films and peppered him with questions. 1993 brought Zooropa from U2 and Faraway, So Close! from Wim Wenders. By that time, living in DC and my job were starting to get to me. I wanted a big change. I decided I was going to quit my job and go to Europe. Though my plan was to make it to Prague and try to find a job (something that didn’t seem that far-fetched at the time), I was going to start my trip in Berlin. Before I could do it though, I needed to save up money so I got a second job working part-time at a bakery and I tried to cut down on costs wherever I could.

Riding my bike to work was something I did a fair amount but once it got dark and cold, I generally took the Metro. I decided I could at least walk home from the museum job if I didn’t have to be at the bakery right after and not spend as much on fare cards. I needed music for the walk though so I made a U2 tape with what I had available; Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and I borrowed The Joshua Tree from one of my housemates. I wanted the songs that made that Berlin connection but I also wanted it to be a companion once I was over there. If my plan worked and I’d stayed over there, I was going to just have the handful of tapes I’d managed to bring with me for who knew how long. I brought it along in the car today with my Walkman/FM transmitter combo for a rare Tape Deck Tuesday appearance.

Side A:
Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
In God’s Country
Some Days Are Better Than Others
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Mysterious Ways
Lemon
Running to Stand Still

Side B:
Zooropa
Zoo Station
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Until the End of the World
Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
So Cruel
Re Hill Mining Town
One
With or Without You
One Tree Hill

I took the tape with me when I finally made it to Berlin in February of 1994. Listening to it is a little bit of time travel for me.

Life and How to Live It

R.E.M. – Life and How to Live It

My favorite album, Fables of the Reconstruction, is thirty years old today (according to Wikipedia). I decided to write an essay about how important this album has been in my life and give Medium a try at the same time. You can read the whole story here: Thirty Years of Fables.

When R.E.M. disbanded, after my initial shock subsided, the first thought that came to me was, “there wasn’t even time to say, Goodbye to Wendell Gee.” I’d been gearing myself up to go see them live for a tour behind the new album (Collapse Into Now). I hadn’t been to an R.E.M. concert since the Green tour, in part because there weren’t any tours for the first two albums in the 90s. By the time they toured again for Monster, I couldn’t handle the crowds of people that would have been in attendance. R.E.M. had been such an incredibly personal and powerful influence in my life and I didn’t like sharing them with people who only knew the hits from the more recent albums.

By 2011 though, I felt the other people who would come out to see them were probably long-time fans like me. Instead I would have to be content with the concerts I’d been to in the 80s. And I am. My memories of those shows are perfect and I’m lucky to have seen them so many times back then.

One benefit of the band calling it a day is that they’ve gone on to other projects that don’t command such a draw. Last summer The Baseball Project played at an outdoor art park not far from where I live. For $15. The last time I’d paid $15 to see Mike Mills play was 1986. I’m not a big baseball person but you don’t pass up an opportunity like that. There were maybe 200 people there. I loved it.

wpid-img_20150610_115901.jpgAfter the show the band stepped off the stage and people gathered to have them sign baseballs and the like. I ran to my car and got my Fables journal. A year or so earlier, I’d won a free Vintage Vinyl Journal and I’d sent in a scratched up copy of Fables that I’d bought from my local record store for $3. I waited my turn and then went up to Mike Mills to get him to sign my journal. I’ve never been an autograph seeker but I felt like I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. We had a short conversation and I got the chance to thank him for making my favorite album and he shook my hand. It’s so fantastic when your musical heroes live up to the impression you’ve built up about them over the years.

I no longer feel like I missed out on a chance to say goodbye on some final tour. Instead other lines from songs on Fables seem appropriate. “Ok, we won’t say goodbye, so long is so much more,” and “time and distance are out of place here.” Here’s to 30 years of Fables.

Opportunity

The Charlatans (UK) – Opportunity

I forget what took us to one of those dollar store places a week or so ago but while the kids were looking around for whatever it was, I found myself looking at the cheap phone chargers and other iPod accessories. I decided to pick up a different fm transmitter adapter thingy, not Bluetooth, just plugs into your headphone jack. My daughter warned me that it would break, and soon, the way cheap plastic crap always does. It’s true, I don’t expect it to last long, on the other hand, if I can use my iPod in the car for a couple of months, the $5 will probably be worth it.

It works with my iPod decently. I hung the cord around the hands-free holder where I put my phone, both the iPod and the transmitter dangling down near the radio for the best results. Then it dawned on me that this might work with my old Walkman. I needed to find some working AA batteries first and hanging it off the phone holder wasn’t an option but I set in the passenger seat and fired it up.

And that’s how we have a new installment of Tape Deck Tuesday. Today’s tape was The Charlatans Some Friendly. I’m still not confident about putting my better tapes through the ringer here so I took one I wasn’t especially worried about losing if something went wrong. I kind of think I have this on CD too, though maybe that’s their second album I’m thinking of. I know I have the tape and CD for one of their early releases because I found the tape super cheap at the Goodwill or someplace like that.

This album makes me think of commuting on the Metro in DC back in the early 90s. When I first arrived there I was staying with my uncle in Georgetown and I would get off at Dupont Circle and go into Olsson’s or Kramerbooks to check out the latest NME and Melody Maker before making my way over to his house. Later I had a sublet up in Adams Morgan so I had every excuse to saunter slowly up Connecticut Avenue stopping into stores to get a blast of air conditioning. When I found a place up in Mt. Pleasant, if I was taking the Metro home from work by myself, I still kept my habit of walking up from Dupont Circle, through Adams Morgan and up to the house I shared with three other people. I always wished I lived in those cooler (and more expensive) neighborhoods but walking through them at least kept me from feeling like I was totally out of it.

There were lots of things I loved about living in DC but in the end there were slightly more things I hated about living there or I wouldn’t have left. I mostly think about the good parts and skim over the bad, now that 21 years have passed since I moved away. It’s all the cool shops, museums, and great bands at clubs I loved, that have stuck with me. I’m sure it’s best that way.

Fake Plastic Trees

Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees

The Bends was released 20 years ago today, so the music press tells me. I was pretty busy at work today and didn’t really pay any attention to the mentions about it that I saw go by, but as I was flipping through Twitter I saw an article where 33 musicians listed their favorite Radiohead songs. The part of the article that made the biggest impression on me was how all of these people talked about remembering this or that song from high school. Ooph. That made me feel old.

I feel the need to point out that the Radiohead band members are basically about my age, and they weren’t even called Radiohead until 1991, by which time I was living in DC and working at the Smithsonian. Not in high school. By the time their first album was out and “Creep” was big, I was not interested. For one thing, just as a matter of principle, I was wary of bands that got a lot of attention. I had just been through what one might characterize as a messy break up with a band because of my inability to handle just that. I was not going to let it happen so soon again. If Radiohead were that great, I was not going to fall for them. In fact, I was going to avoid them at all costs and I would maintain a willful ignorance about them for nearly 15 years. And for another thing, I was trying to carefully step away from the musical edge that I often found myself staring down; dark, introspective, angry, hurting or hurtful songs were dangerous for me. Where I’d been drawn to them for years, lived through them, took refuge in knowing I wasn’t alone because of them, I suddenly couldn’t handle it anymore. I didn’t listen to those kind of songs and feel comforted anymore, I felt like my bones were exposed. Everything hurt. What I did know about Radiohead was enough to tell me that I should not go near there.

Fast forward to 2007. I had just turned 40, I had two little kids and a job that was getting worse by the day. I was in a very static place and I’d packed away so much of what I had previously felt made me, me. I hadn’t even allowed myself to think about things like that because it seemed too risky to open all of that up. But then In Rainbows was released and I heard a song or two in my travels. Something clicked. “Bodysnatchers” felt like it was written for me. I downloaded it and would practically blow out my car’s speakers I played it so loud. I needed to feel it physically. And “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” made me dizzy with its perfection.  I adore everything about that song. I love that you can hear their fingers sliding across the guitar strings, I love that you can hear Thom Yorke’s frantic intake of breath, I love the quiet beginning and the roaring end. And the lyrics, whatever may have been the intention, made me think of an earlier me. The heady, swirling, sweaty, anonymity of a dark, packed club, yet the lights picking up something here, something there, possibilities and impossibilities colliding, getting lost between the notes, dancing. Those two songs convinced me to buy the whole album and from there I was hooked.

Over the next couple of years I acquired the rest of their back catalog and confirmed for myself that I was probably right to have kept them at arm’s length earlier because they had a powerful pull. By the time I got to Radiohead I had learned how to step back if I felt like I might get pulled under. I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I owe them a lot for showing me it could be ok, better than just ok, to open the door to those murky waters again.

Daffodils

Mark Ronson – Daffodils (featuring Kevin Parker of Tame Impala)

Happy Daylight Saving Time! Do you realize that it was still light out at 7 p.m. this evening?! There may still be feet of snow all around but I will now be able to arrive home after work in daylight which is huge. Such a difference!

But about those feet of snow, even if we had sun and warm temperatures for the rest of March, it will still be quite some time before it will look anything like spring. Before the blizzard back at the end of January, I had spied snowdrops (those little white flowers) in my neighbors yard. Now you have to look up for the faintest hint of life.

I have to credit my mother with pointing out that in these northern latitudes, when snow is covering the ground sometimes well into April, your best bet is to look for the “fat buds” on the trees. It’s easier to notice if you’re on the highway and can see a large expanse of tree tops. Starting about now, you can begin to notice a faint pink haze around the bare branches. You don’t really see it so much one tree at a time. When she first mentioned this to me I couldn’t see it and just complained that a faint pink haze didn’t hold a candle to the soft green fuzz of baby leaves that I was used to in the mid-Atlantic states. Now I can see it. Also, I don’t think my mom realized that most people are talking about something else when they talk about fat buds but I’m not going to spoil it for her.

I’d still rather have the bare ground and little flower shoots poking up through the ground, but I am thrilled with the extra hour of sunlight and I just bought some daffodils at the grocery store to tide me over for a little while.

I heard this song for the first time last week and thought the timing was great. The video quality isn’t great and the aspect ratio is off but I’m using this one anyway because, Soul Train.

Natural Thing

Poi Dog Pondering – Natural Thing

This past weekend I was down in New York for a pair of Poi Dog Pondering shows at the City Winery. I’d never been there before but I knew that the floor plan is pretty tightly packed tables and chairs. This sounds great for quiet, intimate performers, less of an ideal fit for a band that can swell up to a dozen musicians and usually has everyone dancing.

It had been so long since they’d had a concert near us that I was a little worried the first night. What if it wasn’t as great as it used to be? If this was my last chance, would it be the kind of show I’d be happy to have as my last memory of them live? I mean, we’re all getting older, you know? The last time they were on the east coast (six years ago) they did an acoustic five-piece show and played in some unlikely places so I figured that was probably more the model we would get. I am happy to report that they were seven people strong, just about all of my favorite band members were there, and they brought along all the necessary instruments to rock the house.

We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the setlist since they’re working on a new album but it’s not out yet. They started out with some of their oldest songs which are more conducive to that seated environment. We were right up front, as is our preference whenever possible (when you’re short, this is pretty important), and you really couldn’t move your chair at all. The pace picked up with each song and I was dying to get up and dance . But when the band got to this song, and the line, “everybody stand up!” I felt like they were issuing a call to action. I couldn’t sit still any longer. I freed my chair from the next person’s chair leg and joined the growing crowd of people dancing in the aisle. Ah, much better.

The second night we were packed in tight again but this time I had my dance spot staked out ahead of time. I found out later that after Friday’s show, the wait staff were told on Saturday to make sure not to get in the way of people who were dancing. Pretty cool stance for the venue to take, considering we were dancing in the only area where they could move around carrying bottles and glasses of wine.

On Saturday I brought my sister along with me. The woman sitting to my sister’s left introduced herself and said she came from an extended family of Poi fans and they’d all flown in from across the country for this show. She proceeded to tell us that her brother had passed away about two years ago and they had hired Frank (Orrall, leader of the band) to come and play on their deck as a kind of memorial service. She introduced us to her husband, then her brother who’d come from Los Angeles, a sister up from Georgia, another sister from I don’t remember where, her parents were a few tables over and her brother’s widow was with them. She’d come down from upstate New York. Aside from Frank playing on their deck, this was her first real Poi show.

I have to say, I got choked up about this whole scene before the show even began. There are several songs that Frank has written that address death and dying, but always in a positive light somehow. It didn’t surprise me that they had asked Frank to come and play for them; my funeral playlist starts with a Poi song too. But it’s more than that. He has this magnetic quality, this positive energy that creates the kind of devotion that brings people in from all over for a Poi show. That keeps us coming back two or three nights in a row, even after six or seven year absences. It’s not readily captured in video or audio because it’s missing the interaction with the other band members and the audience. In real life however, on several occasions, I’ve watched people at their first Poi show just fall under the spell that’s been cast in the room. It isn’t like you’re blown away, it’s more like you’re lifted up. You feel lighter.

wpid-wp-1425401204988.jpeg

L-R, Ron Hall, Frank Orrall, John Nelson, Susan Voelz.

One of the woman’s party said Frank knew they were all there. Shortly after that the band came on stage and Frank said, “This is for our brother, Jamie,” the woman’s brother, and they played that same song that leads off my funeral playlist. It’s a lovely, quiet instrumental song and, this family, I really couldn’t look at them or I was going to lose it.

The setlist varied, though they started off in a similar older to newer, slower to faster song progression. This time I didn’t wait as long to move to my dance spot. More people were already up dancing than the previous night. The woman we’d been talking to came over and joined me. Then my sister and her sisters. At one point my sister asked to borrow my phone to take a picture, not of the band but of the audience up dancing. She said she’d been to the City Winery a dozen times before and had never seen that many people up dancing. By the end of the night the whole place was up dancing. It was a first for the City Winery.

I couldn’t have been happier. I was happy for them that the shows were such a success. I was happy for the woman and her family who so clearly enjoyed the show and I know just the kind of cathartic release this was for them. I was happy that I’d been able to see one of my favorite live bands and dance and bask in that glow after so many years.

Last week I remembered that the Amazon music app on my phone has any CD I ever purchased through the site available to stream for free. I’d bought their album “7” when it came out in 2008 through Amazon so I fired up my phone-Bluetooth-radio set up in the car and hit play. As I drove home it started to snow, and I didn’t even care. Nothing was going to wipe that smile off my face.