30s

O Mio Babbino Caro

Kiri Te Kanawa – O Mio Babbino Caro

This evening we went to my daughter’s chorus concert. The group she is in and the orchestra performed this song together and I am sure I was not the only one in the high school auditorium who had these scenes running through their mind.

A Room With a View is largely responsible for my fascination with British period films, Merchant Ivory productions, and a longing for Italy that five years of Latin classes never managed to spark. I actually went to graduate school with hopes of killing two birds with one stone; have the study abroad experience I didn’t have in college because I’d been too busy trying to transfer, and put myself on a path to working, somehow, with making film adaptations from books. This movie was going to be my thesis.

Ever since I first saw the film, and I can’t even remember now when that first was, I believed that all I needed to be able to start living the life I was meant to live, was to travel to somewhere as beautiful as the places so many movies I loved had been filmed. I was sure that if I could throw open my double window like Lucy Honeychurch and see the splendors of Florence all around me, my George Emerson would appear in a field of waist high wildflowers, just like that. And if that was too far-fetched, well, there was no shortage of other films to choose from as inspiration. Enchanted April, Howard’s End, all the Jane Austen film adaptations, everything Kenneth Branagh did, it’s a long list.

My first attempt at this was my first European trip in 1994. I’d quit my job and had this plan of settling in Prague and doing something to support myself. It didn’t matter what, I was just going to live in this beautiful city and things would click into place. I did have contacts and I’d done a lot of research, but after only two weeks I knew it wasn’t going to work out. I continued on to Austria, spending close to a week in Salzburg so I could see every inch of the place that had been burned into my brain from years of watching The Sound of Music. I returned to Washington D.C. from Vienna and figured I just needed to recalibrate this plan. Prague was beautiful but it was still shaking off the Cold War in a lot of ways and I was probably too young and uncertain about myself to have really made a go of things.

I wound up back in Maine by the summer of 1994. Always intending to leave before the snow flies, I was still there for winter, and the two after that. There’s nothing like a Maine winter to make you wish for sun-kissed foreign vistas. I spent a lot of money at the video store borrowing more and more films to transport myself to someplace else. Even soggy British countrysides were an improvement. That dream of the perfect place and the perfect life was still there. I felt like I needed a more realistic goal though, and that’s how the graduate school idea took hold.

“Oh, but dreams have a knack of just not coming true.” I finally made it to graduate school, in the middle of nowhere in mid-west Wales, and the professor who taught a course about film adaptations was on sabbatical for the year. Foiled again.

 

Old Old Fashioned

Frightened Rabbit – Old Old Fashioned

Two weeks ago at this time I was driving my daughter home from a show in New York. A couple of YouTubers from England that she follows were performing at the Beacon Theatre. I bought a single ticket for her to go and figured I could amuse myself for a couple of hours in Manhattan while she was at the show. She didn’t mind going alone and I didn’t see any harm in her sitting by herself. I’d let her go to a similar event closer to home last summer and it had worked out fine so I preferred to save the money and not have to sit through the show myself. She had a great time, I met up with my cousin for dinner and wandered around New York on a gorgeous evening, we were home by midnight – a success.

The next day at school she proudly wore the sweatshirt she’d bought at the show and told her friends all about it. One of them remarked, “I can’t believe your mom let you go to a show, in New York, on a school night!” She just laughed and said, “You don’t know my mom. She is always going down to New York for shows so it would be pretty hypocritical of her to say I couldn’t go.” She is only 14 and I’m her parent so when she asked about the show I could have easily found good reasons to say no, but it’s true that I have no qualms about driving down to New York, or several other places, to go to a show. Even on a school night. I place a lot of value on live performances and being there in person, to soak it all in. If I can make these memories happen for her, I’m happy to do it.

Later that week I took myself down to see Frightened Rabbit. I’d been looking forward to the show ever since tickets went on sale. Not only was it closer to home than the last two shows I’d been to (Boston and New York) but I’ve been wanting to check out this venue for a while. It’s been open for about a year and I’d heard only great things about it. I’ll definitely be back, which is what Scott Hutchison said at the end of the night too.

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I keep looking for concerts that I think I could bring my daughter along to and that she might actually enjoy. There’s one at the end of the month that I have my eye on but I’m not sure she’s sold on the idea. The older she gets the broader her musical tastes have become but she’s still greatly influenced by her friends. Going to see a band she doesn’t know doesn’t sound hugely appealing and she’d prefer to spend her time listening to her own music than something I suggest.

I have friends who have taken a really active role in shaping what their kids listen to but I have had more of a hands-off attitude. Sure, I’d love it if she liked all of my bands but I think it’s important for her to find her own way and create her own path. After all, it was my siblings, much more so than my parents, who prepped me for all the music I would discover on my own and the very act of digging in and finding my music, is something that I have always felt, as the fifth of six kids, helped me forge my identity.

Which is how we found ourselves yesterday at a big chain store (after first checking out my local record store and another independent record store, at my insistence) so that my daughter could buy her first record.* It’s her own money and again, far be it from me to tell her she can’t or shouldn’t spend it on a record. Yes! Please! Buy a record! A double album, even! I wish it hadn’t been Twenty One Pilots and I feel bad that it came from a big corporation’s outlet rather than the guy down the street but I still felt it was a worthwhile purchase. For one thing, buy the music and support the musicians you love so they can keep making music! If I teach her nothing else in this whole musical journey, let it be that. Then the added bonus of having the lyrics sheet and the liner notes to pore over while you listen. New records these days usually come with a digital download too so you can still take your music with you wherever you go.

As she peeled off the shrinkwrap and took one of the records out I did intervene and tell her the proper way to handle the vinyl and to be especially careful when putting it back in the gatefold cover to make sure to have the open side of the inner sleeve at the top so that the record won’t roll out while you’re looking at the inside, and always keep your hands over the opening because otherwise it will crash to the floor and break and you will cry. Why yes, I was speaking from personal experience. Fittingly, my first record was also a double album. Embarrassingly, it was the Grease soundtrack. Give me a break, I was in sixth grade! As I stood in the living room where the stereo was, looking at all of the pictures from the movie, out rolled my brand new record and before I could react it had hit the wooden floor and snapped into several large, black, pointy pieces. Kind of like trying to remove snow from the roof or hood of your car with a shovel, you only make that mistake once.

Our house is very old and creaky and the turntable should only be used when no one is walking around. I had suggested she might just listen to the digital download yesterday and wait to give the record a spin until she got home from school today. I forgot to show her how it all worked though. She called me at my office, having already removed the record I’d left on it (though not following my strict instructions about putting it away properly, ack!) and had hers on but sound wasn’t coming through the speakers. I spent way more time than I thought it would take to walk her through this old fashioned technology. First push the button on the receiver (what’s that?) that says phono (huh?!?). Then find the switch on the turntable that says cue to raise the needle, move it above the edge of the record, close the lid, move the switch back the other way to lower the needle, ta-da! It’s a slow start, but I feel like she’ll get there. If I can do it, so can she.

* She has CDs and other stuff she’s bought on iTunes but this is her first LP.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Satanic Reverses

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy – Satanic Reverses

Holding my daughter on her first Election Day, 2001.

I hope you all got out and voted today. I tried to vote this morning but I had to drive my daughter to school again today and when we pulled into the parking lot of the school where I vote, it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get in and out quickly enough to get her to school on time. I’m glad to see everyone getting out and doing their civic duty but I wished we could have gone in together. I’ve been taking her to vote with me since she was two months old but in recent years I end up swinging by after work so it’s been a while. They’re studying forms of government in school and I thought it might make it all seem a little less abstract.

There were still people coming and going when I stopped to vote this evening but it was quiet. It’s not an especially upbeat election season. My state doesn’t have a senate race this year, my representative will be handily re-elected, it’s just the local seats and the race for the governor’s seat. Fingers crossed for that one. Nationally, I’m much less optimistic and down years make me nervous. Jittery even.

This song fit my mood today. It’s from 1992. Let’s repeat that. 1992. What the fuck, America.

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

Billy Bragg – Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

It’s May 1st, International Workers’ Day. I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a Billy Bragg song. Not his version of the Internationale, though I thought about it, but this song always brings a smile to my face even while it entices you to be active with the activists.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Billy Bragg but each time I’ve seen him perform this song he changes some of the lyrics to put it in context with events that are relevant to the current time. I looked at a bunch of live clips on YouTube but I’ll leave it to you to look some up if you’re interested. They’re like little historical snapshots. For myself, I’ll always remember the time he sang, “In a perfect world we’d all sing in tune but as we’re all Smiths fans give us some room!” That was the same show where he covered Deee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” with help from the opening band, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, on the pretext of proving that Billy Bragg fans could dance.

I love the rousing end of this song. I don’t know how you can not feel fired up. When I start feeling pretty discouraged about the state of the world, and lately that’s really easy to do, I need to remember to play this song. One of the live clips I watched was from the City Winery in Chicago about a year ago and I really love how he talked about fighting cynicism, more than anything else. I’m pretty jaded but he’s right.

“So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a t-shirt away!”

My Billy Bragg t-shirt from the Internationale tour.

My Billy Bragg t-shirt from the Internationale tour.

The back! Were you at one of these shows?

The back! Were you at one of these shows?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little t-shirt #tbt with your musical interlude.

Ages of You

R.E.M. – Ages of You

Today I found out about the Amtrak Residencies for writers. I can’t tell you how perfect that is. I might cry. Right now I am listening to the train tape I made in college (the digital edition on my iPod) and I can see the backyards of America in my head, obscured now and then by the blur of greenery; interrupted by the occasional overpass. I always thought that would make an excellent anthropology thesis, America’s Backyards as Seen from the Train. That’s where the truth hangs out. The discarded bicycles, rusted red wagons, trampolines, and clotheslines.

Close by the cities, the scenery is much more industrial. Warehouses. Graffiti covered brick buildings and cement walls. Trenton Makes The World Takes. The cities give way to the suburbs, where the backyards and cemeteries make up the scenery. Depending on what train you’re taking, you might get far enough away from the built up areas to see more traditionally scenic views. I always try to sit on the right side of the train in a window seat. If you always sit on the right, you’ll see what’s on the left on your way back.

I love everything about train travel. I love the big, beautiful, historic stations. I love the smells of the engine, some kind of weird mix of diesel and electric, hot and metallic. I love the rhythm of the train swaying gently as it clatters along the tracks. I love the tracks! I have two rusted and discarded old railroad spikes saved in a bin. I have several Amtrak train ticket stubs saved alongside concert tickets. I love leaning my head against the window and trying to find a spot to put your feet that gives you just the right amount of ‘please don’t talk to me’ body language or trying to sit in such a way as to invite a little conversation. I love watching my fellow passengers, listening to them chat with their seatmate or talk with their children about what’s passing by the window. I like to sneak a peak at the book they’re reading. Watching as people meet them when they get off the train, and others saying goodbye as someone gets on.

I have taken the train as far north as Montreal, as far south as Georgia. The Adirondack. Southern Crescent. Overnight trains. Commuter trains. Sightseeing trains. Subways. I’ve been to Zoo Station. Paddington Station. Two of my proudest foreign language moments were giving directions to Salzburg’s train station in German and confirming in Czech that someone was waiting for the correct subway train in Prague. The only Czech words I can still remember are the words for beer and ‘next stop’ which is what they would announce as the subway pulled into every station.

It is hands down my favorite mode of travel. It’s not the fastest, there are usually delays on the line somewhere, but when I take the train, at least half the reason is just being on the train. It’s not the most convenient, being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. A few years ago, Amtrak started running a train up to Maine, the Downeaster. I am dying to take that train. In order to get the train from my house to my mother’s house up in Maine would involve me getting on a train when it’s still dark in the morning and switching stations in Boston. It would take more time than driving but I’m actually contemplating buying a used car up near my mother just so I have an excuse to make that trip.

There is just something about the train that brings up all kinds of emotions for me. It’s like I feel a tiny shred of what everyone else in my car is feeling. Some people are excited, some are sad, some are hopeful, some are worried, some are exhausted, some can’t sit still. I know all those feelings and have, at different times in my life, been one of those people sitting there. So now I look around and see me on my first solo train trip, me going to visit a sister or a friend, me with my best friend on an adventure, me trying to hold it together when things aren’t working out, me on my way to a job interview, me seeing new places and remembering all my old favorite haunts. I don’t get that from any other form of travel.

This is the fourth song on the train tape. My vinyl copy of this song has a longer finger-snapping intro. I really wanted to use this version but I couldn’t get it to only play the first part.