Thursday, June 07, 2018

Over a Scrap of Paper: King's Ka-Tet and the Fate of the World

Stephen King’s The Outsider ranks with the finest work of the 70-year-old author’s career. It's a sleek synthesis of all that's come before. It's also a book that uniquely tackles the contradictions of America in crisis mode, America 2018.

I say this as a kid who fell in love with the idea of writing after reading a paperback (“by the author of Carrie”) the summer of 76, when I was 12. I had seen Carrie and wasn’t much interested in it (the paperback, no, not the movie--that would come along a year or so later and change everything), but King grabbed me with this one. If I remember right, the Salem’s Lot I picked up at the bus stop in McPherson, Kansas, had no title on the cover. It was a solid black book featuring an embossed child’s face, one slightly red drop of blood at the corner of her mouth.

It was so sinister. The information about the author and Carrie was on the back and inside. As important as anything was the soft texture of the paper the story was printed on. It felt a little too good  just flipping the pages. I bought that book because it felt like I shouldn’t. When I finished it, I realized I’d read the best book I’d ever read (give or take Treasure Island and The Secret Garden). In some ways, like a first kiss, I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

The Outsider is a sequel from the other end of an author’s literary landscape—a landscape that started with familiar gothic archetypes transplanted to 1970’s Maine (and Colorado, and nationwide) and then, by the 1990s, evolved into an extended (three or four novel) contemplation of the terrors that face women in this “post-feminist” society, and ultimately, a wonderful decade of writing that is less gothic horror than magic realism. Recently, King finished a mystery series that culminates in a reconciliation of detective fiction science and the question of the unexplained. Actually, this book is a sequel to that series, too.

The Outsider collapses the bulk of King’s career into a single, sleek narrative. This story—seemingly inspired by Poe’s “William Wilson” but in some argument with it—focuses on a crime with two possible solutions, equally plausible. There is absolutely definitive evidence that a baseball coach has done something unimaginably horrific to a child, and there is absolutely definitive opposing evidence.

What do the characters do? First, they make terrible mistakes, mistakes that deepen the wrong in sickening and unforgettable ways. But key characters here don't give up, and they do what the heroes of King’s Dark Tower series do, which has been the tendency of every novel since Salem’s Lot. They form a "ka-tet." This is a community of souls united to pursue a collective goal. At the heart of all great horror, they are the community that forms around accepting the necessary reality in front of them, no matter how implausible. They often have to let go of the framework that has defined their lives and accept something new built on faith in each other. They're the ones who figure out a way to fight.

This issue has a special weight during the current political climate, when the concept of reality or objectivity gets erased for the sake of power. King has to ask himself, as the readers do, what is the point of celebrating the irrational in a world that seems to have lost its mind?  

And that’s just it.  While we’re trapped with our irrationality as a species, horror’s job is to accept what's in our path and find a way forward with our best selves intact.

So, in this novel, King takes a Salem’s Lot-level bogeyman and turns him into a modern day challenge to our faith in one another, invoking aspects of almost everything King has ever done, from The Dark Tower series to the gorgeous minor-epic Desperation. Desperation was a Southwestern hell-mouth story, and that’s significant to compare to King’s Oklahoman and Texan landscape here. For what it’s worth (and I love Desperation) the contrast between these two is like the difference in the best of the summer blockbusters and a straightforward little tale that left you shaking on the way out of the theater. 

With a grace that has exploded over the past two decades, King makes sure every word of The Outsider carries lethal weight while sounding like these are simply the only words that will do. The crimes are horrific but simple, the victims list is not a slasher movie affair. It is intimate but also contextual and atmospheric—the expanding portrait of the cost of despair around-the-edges of the central drama. The central drama being a question of how to define reality in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

Context is huge here. This is King’s second stand-alone horror novel in a row with a significant Oklahoma setting. (Please set aside Owen King and father’s extraordinary—and equally important—Sleeping Beauties for me to make this point.) The description of Tulsa and Bell’s Amusement Park, a world of my childhood, is spot on in King's last straight-horror novel, Revival. I don’t recognize, so easily, the Flint City and Cap City of this book, but, that said, the people feel like the people I’ve known all my life, and the terror of the book’s bottom-feeder of the heartland echoes the appeal King has always had in the landscape where I grew up. It works the oppressiveness of open spaces and the heart of the American gothic. If you live in a world where nothing seems to ever happen and no one seems to take notice, there's a special intimacy to malevolence that can consume the widest horizons..

This terror over a wrongfully accepted mental construct of reality binds these characters together. It’s them (the ka-tet of the Dark Tower) against the world, against Heartland American decency, values King treats with more respect than we’d ever expect to see out of Hollywood. The book forces its characters (and its readers) to hold in mind absolutely contradictory truths. The only solution comes from grappling with that reality (right down to the smallest scrap of paper) and looking for—against society and everything they think is common sense—deeper truths and bigger realities than they may ever understand.

That’s the heart of horror as a heroic genre. It asks you to accept a new reality, and, almost always, it asks you to work with a diverse community who offer different pieces of the puzzle. The Van Helsings of these worlds need all the help they can get, and they’re likely to get the chair (or the gallows or a lethal injection) for their efforts. But they risk everything for the group, and the group risks everything for them. In this case, the hero every other core character eventually looks up to is a character the world might see as socially inept. This perceived ineptitude is exactly the quality that allows her to awaken the imaginations of the community she needs.

And that’s why we write, and that’s why we read. We’re looking for each other in one way we know can fire the vision and focus of each member of the group. The Outsider himself is the threat to the community. He exploits our assumptions and ratchets up our senses of isolation and confusion. He’s effective because he's not a national alien; he’s an enemy from within. He lives in those dark caverns where we lack any sense of hope or justice. In this book and so much of the best horror, those who salvage hope for the rest of us have faced the unimaginable. They have been written off in some way and are all outsiders in the working world. But  the quest of the horror novel is to find each other. Sometimes we best connect in our fear, but our humanity makes choices even there. This ka-tet (like the ones in real life calling us even as we read such a book) knows its only chance at salvation demands devotion to the community we all so desperately need. And this is why we write. And this is why we read.

Monday, May 28, 2018

To Live It Everyday: 40 Years of Darkness on the Edge of Town

“I think one reason it’s so many people’s favorite album is that they took what they feared, and they made a story out of it….so they could live through it.” –Dave Marsh on Darkness on the Edge of Town, E Street Radio, SiriusXM 20

            I’m guessing that quote is inaccurately remembered, but it’s how I hear it from about an hour and a half ago, driving the highway up from Oklahoma before I sat down to write this. It’s from an hour-and-a-half discussion between Jim Rotolo and Dave Marsh about the significance of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album, released 40 years ago this coming Saturday, and it will be playing repeatedly throughout the week. I have such a sense of urgency to write this right now because Sirius is offering a free week’s listening, and I want everyone interested to check it out. It was exactly what I needed to hear right now.
            My blog is living up to its title right now because I don’t think I’m making choices so much as grabbing wild pitches, and that feels like the right choice—take ‘em as they come. A few days ago it was the urgent need to write about Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul before their last American date. This week it’s about how and why my life changed because of the release of this album, one of the ties that binds me to my great friend and mentor Dave Marsh, whose life was also changed in substantial ways when his friend Jon Landau invited him over to his place to hear that new Springsteen album (a bit of a full circle for the moment, four years before, when Marsh got Landau out to a Springsteen show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a moment that would change the direction of Landau’s life).
            Hearing Marsh talk about what that album meant for him in those first couple of plays, sitting on Landau’s couch, and how its meaning has evolved and changed over the years, is fascinating. I could play this track-by-track commentary like its own album from now on because it doesn’t nail anything down so much as open the album up wider than perhaps it’s ever been opened before—and that’s saying a lot since this is, for many of us, the heart of Springsteen’s evolution.
            When Marsh and I were talking about this the other day, I told him, “It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, and he asked me, as he would, “Why?”
            I didn’t have an answer, really, but a cascade of thoughts, and the certainty that I’d be trying to get them down in some fashion very soon. That’s at the heart of what I want to write about because that is a moment I allude to all the time as the moment music changed for me, but it’s terribly hard to articulate why.
            I will try to be succinct (not exactly my strong suit), but I do have to give some backstory. I was going-on-15 when this record came out, and I was just turning into someone who had gone from a fan of various artists to someone whose identity was being shaped by music. I spent a lot of time visiting my brother James McGraw’s trailer and/or the little house he moved into soon after, and he mentioned he picked up this new Springsteen record and that it was something he was excited about. He was also figuring it out, out loud, telling me, “It’s like he’s moved from being this guy that wrote all about the streets of the city to living in the country.”
            I think that's almost literally correct (and any Springsteen fan will know there were a lot of other moving parts, most important probably Springsteen’s break with his original manager which led to years of legal trouble and the inability to release a new record). I didn’t know any of that, of course, but it provided some context for me. Though I’d heard the city Springsteen, I couldn’t have told you which of the many jazz and rock records my brother listened to were the ones he made. When I heard this one, I heard something new, and it got under my skin.
            As a kid growing up in a (not quite small but certainly not big) Oklahoma oil town, I need to provide a little more context to what music sounded like at that time, at least to me. Of course, I’d grown up on Top 40 radio, which mixed genres in a way we didn’t hear after the 80s, but my identity was being shaped by capital R rock. That was Album-Oriented Radio, and it had become a very sophisticated form of ambitious, often artsy and often pretentious, spectacle. The transition, for me, to my AOR listening had moved from the legacy of the Beatles to Elton John and Stevie Wonder and, most notably in my identity formation, the sexy sophistication of Fleetwood Mac. (I believe my puberty is marked by wearing the Rumours t-shirt under my flannels almost the entirety of my 9th grade year of school.) My first concert was Jackson Browne, and my second was Yes. I also was becoming a bit of a Deadhead, and I had a lot of nostalgia for the communal and psychedelic. I adored Jimi Hendrix (and still do, of course).
            But I was aware of this new thing happening that we tended to subdivide into punk (think Sex Pistols) and new wave (think Talking Heads)—not distinctions that would have been made at New York’s CBGB’s in quite the same way, where everyone from the New York Dolls to the Ramones to Blondie was understood to be a part of this new movement. Before Springsteen, I believe I was hooked by Lou Reed and Patti Smith into whatever this new thing was. I lived in a time when, give or take disco, it didn’t seem like there had been a counterculture since the 60s, so these rumblings were exciting and felt like a wave begging me to catch it.
            Darkness on the Edge of Town exemplified this “new thing” for me while walking a line that synthesized all of it and sounded like none of it. A song like the first side closer, “Racing in the Street” could almost be a Jackson Browne song. It had a smooth, country-rock sophistication. And “Factory,” on side two, had a piano part that I knew came out of country. “Streets of Fire,” and many others here, made me think of Hendrix’s guitar. As Marsh points out in the interview, though Springsteen had been a guitar slinger since way back, this album introduced him as a guitar hero. 

            But I think the thing that made this album sound so punk to me—and I would become very much a punk fan soon after and always hear it in this context (the second most significant such moment when I heard my first Clash record)--was the way it subverted melody. A little while ago, I heard an early acoustic version of “Wings to Wheels,” the previous album Born to Run’s “Thunder Road,” while I was thinking about how that record seemed more the template for Darkness than perhaps anything anyone had done before. The early version of “Thunder Road” was extraordinarily melodic, and you could imagine it being a hit in the singer-songwriter era. The version that made Born to Run was something of this new quality.
            While a lot of what we would call punk simply had an amateurish or purposefully alienating quality, Darkness sounded at once precise and “off” in a way that was very difficult to define. Again, I think it had to do with the subordination of melody. The opening track, “Badlands,” exemplifies this for me. The melody seems somehow built around the bassline. The band sounds accomplished and big—it has piano serving as both a rhythm instrument and almost hidden decoration, ringing guitars, enormous drums, and, of course, sax. In some ways it sounded like the biggest rock record I had ever heard, but the band wasn’t being used the way I was used to hearing bands being used. It was like one great rhythmic instrument, and something of the totality of the sound suggested a horse being whipped to full gallop.
            In other words, as sophisticated as I know it is today, it sounded unrefined, raw and about to run out of control. Of course, Springsteen’s bellowing vocal set the tone. When I later heard his earlier records, I knew he could sing refined, soulful and slinky, but here he sounded just shy of overwrought, and I have to admit that was the hook that kept me listening (and soon after, singing at the top of my lungs to my car 8-tracks). By any conventional standard, I had to wonder how well this guy could sing or write a proper song, and every bit of that made it all the more exciting. After all, as many people have said in many different ways, from the garage rock of the 60s to the endless variations of punk launched in the 70s, a huge part of the appeal was a sense that “I can do this,” which led thousands of kids to pick up thousands of guitars and make the loudest noise they knew was possible. 
             However, the role of this expert guitar was crucial. It was raw, sometimes sounding like an accidental squeak or pop of feedback was the heart of the matter, but again, as Marsh pointed out in the interview, that guitar was clearly a weapon, and it was clearly a weapon that could get the job done.
            None of which, alone, explains the mysteries that kept me coming back for more, playing the record endlessly, sometimes leaving that 8-track playing through in the car for weeks and then going home and putting it on the turntable.
            The key there is that Springsteen made an utterly unique album that spoke as powerfully and directly as a (somehow benevolent) point blank gunshot to the head. The setting did feel rural. Springsteen could describe “driving down Kingsley,” cranking his radio, and it sounded like me driving the six mile length of my hometown over and over again. Though I didn’t exactly live in a factory town, the song about a dad losing his hearing and gaining his life (and looking to pick a fight) in the factory made me think of my own blue collar jobs and also of the beat-down look I’d seen for years in the white collar workers I sold papers to coming out of the oil company. The apocalyptic “Something in the Night” sounded like some nightmare I might have run into in Osage County or up north along the Kansas border. When Springsteen sang of the dogs on Main Street howling in response to his own fear, I could hear the dogs throughout my hometown.
            It’s the darkest record I can imagine that somehow insists on hope. The kids on the first side wind up “running burned and blind” before finding release in a darkened lover’s room. The sons of the workers on the second side walk tightropes, shouting out, “don’t look too long in my face” to avoid falling into fiery hell.  

            But again and again, there is faith in the struggle. Each side works as its own album, and the album as a whole works, too, in order to establish some reason to fight. “Badlands” opens the record urging “don’t waste your time waiting” for a moment that will never just come your way. “Racing in the Street” walks a fine line of resignation but insists, “tonight my baby and me are going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.” Side Two begins by insisting part of being a man is believing in a promised land, and it ends by insisting the singer’s very salvation insists that he meet that thing waiting in the darkness on the edge of town.
            In many ways, through my passion for music and the politics that followed, I’ve spent my life embracing the struggle in that darkness. This album not only gave me permission to do that, it insisted my sense of what I had to do—what was right and just and defied the expectations that surrounded me—was precisely what I had to do. It’s all inextricably linked but summed up by the album’s would-be single, “Prove It All Night,” which both embraced the fact that we all “steal” and “cheat” and “lie,” but those sins don’t absolve us of our responsibility. We have to keep trying to do what’s right—in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls—and though we may fail to achieve our goals, there’s really no other way to live.
            The urgent call of this music urged me—and 40 years down the line continues to urge me—to live the best way I know how. It not only said I should do it; like the best of punk, it convinced me I could do it. And equally important, its dark knowledge of my failings has a helluva lot to do with why, when I fall short, I find a way to get up and try again.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Following the Soul Fire in Kansas City: Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul at the Uptown Theater

"Rock and roll was white kids trying to make black music and failing, gloriously!" --Steve Van Zandt, interview for Albany Times-Union, 2009           

To say the Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul show at KC’s Uptown Theater was a revelation would be reductionist, one of the great dangers of rock criticism. To say it threw down the gauntlet for me to try to articulate what I’ve been up to for the past thirty-plus years is closer to the mark. I’ve told the story, too many times to count, of the way Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town handed me a sense of my own identity and purpose in my own place and time—a shy, awkward, somewhat self-destructive kid living in Oklahoma. But the lifeline thrown by Steven Van Zandt—Springsteen’s compadre, his very own professor of rock and soul since adolescence—has everything to do with how I found my way to writing about music as a way to answer its call.

           To write about this show has something to do with writing about the context of the seats stage right where I was sitting with my very own band of brothers, disciples of soul ourselves. In 1982, after Springsteen had his first Top Ten hit and returned with a predominantly quiet, depressive, folk record called Nebraska, a significant faction of his fans took solace in two other records helmed by Van Zandt that summer—Gary U.S. Bonds’ On the Line (co-produced by Springsteen) and Steve’s new project, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul with its glorious debut, Men Without Women. Every bit as garage rock as the trashiest sounds of Springsteen’s The River, but like a glorious punk extension of the work Springsteen and Van Zandt had been doing for the better part of a decade with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes as well as Bonds. It was, perhaps, the perfect Disciples of Soul record, but, after Steve left the E Street Band, the two that followed—Voice of America (1984) and Freedom: No Compromise (1987) only deepened and broadened the sense of possibility—embodying a more Prince-like inclusiveness that reached for worldwide musical textures and made political statements about issues in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and South Africa. The Little Steven project, Artists United Against Apartheid, would turn this fan into a published writer and activist.  
           I was sitting with friends I met through that work thirty years ago when the houselights went down May 12th of this year, and this marvelous spectacle appeared on stage. It immediately exploded with the Stax-style horns that herald and punctuate Arthur Conley’s great 1967 ATCO single, “Sweet Soul Music.” How to describe this band, a visual statement in and of itself?!
          Directly in front and above us was Puerto Rican singer and percussionist Anthony Almonte with his beautiful array of timbales, congas, bongos and, alternately, claves and woodblock in hand. Behind him was a four piece horn section, featuring original Disciples Stan Harrison and Ed Manion (also of the Jukes) as well as legendary trumpeter Ron Tooley and NOLA trombonist Clark Gayton. Bassist Jack Daley (who’s played with everyone from Iggy Pop to James Brown to Beyonce) prowled the stage and bolstered the rhythm alongside Jersey Shore guitar slinger Marc Ribler (who traded lead duties with Van Zandt, while also holding down the rhythm) in front of drummer Rich Mercurio's propulsion. (Mercurio himself has played with everyone from Idina Minzel to Darlene Love.) His once brown curls now white, with a beard to match, the Youngbloods’ Lowell “Banana” Levinger sat at a piano stage left, smiling like he'd rather be nowhere else in the world. Above and behind him Andy Burton (who's played with everyone from John Mayer to Rufus Wainwright to Ian Hunter) provided the B3 and synth that gave snapping and crackling color to the garage fire throughout.
           And then there were the women—JaQuita May, Sara Devine and Tania Jones, back-up singers delightfully upstaging the rest of the show, dressed in psychedelic skintights both sexy and modest because of a wonderful array of feathers around their necklines and their hips. As if a partial answer to the problem at the heart of Twenty Feet from Stardom, these women were downstage on the right, dancing and singing like the stars of the show that they were.

     In the 36 years since the first Disciples of Soul record came out, I’d never had the chance to see them. Kansas City has never quite gotten the Jersey Shore scene (I once attended a Southside amphitheater show with about 200 people in attendance), and they’ve barely ever attempted to play the lower Midwest. Even on this night—after Steve’s legendary role in the E Street Band, returning in 2000 for more shows than they’d ever done in their first decade, and after over a decade on TV as Silvio in The Sopranos and the star of Lillyhammer, the Uptown was only sold about three quarters of the way back on the first floor. That’s the Midwest and Southwest’s loss, but hard for fans who don’t have the dough to run all over the country to see their favorite artists. All that said, I’m not at all sorry that this was the first time I got to see the band. It’s hard to imagine they ever played better or perhaps even so well, and the array of talent on that stage was something perhaps unimaginable thirty years ago. Beyond that, Steve’s voice has always been a wonderfully idiosyncratic instrument—a soulful blend of Keith Richards and Bob Dylan—but I’m almost certain he’s never sung so well as he does now.
            Case in point—and I hate to mess with the narrative of the show, but a version is available for download now (, so maybe I shouldn’t be spoiling any secrets anyway—during Steven’s “The City Weeps Tonight,” a song he introduced with a brief history of doo wop, my own R&B teacher Billy Chin leaned over to me and said, “He sounds like Little Anthony.” I’m playing “Tears on My Pillow” as I write this and thinking about how good a call that was. Steve sang with a delicate but forceful texture--backed by May, Devine and Jones--that did its history proud.
            The show was promoting Steven’s Teach Rock campaign to aid teachers preserving the heritage of rock and soul in schools ( He made many testimonials to teachers throughout the program, a group he called, “the most underappreciated, overworked and underpaid people in America” at a time when teachers are under attack and can really use the support. As a teacher myself who was once married to an elementary school teacher who had it far worse—more kids than she could reasonably be expected to handle (though handle it she did), not enough bathrooms for the students’ needs and not enough time in her day to take a bathroom break when she might need it—I found such a statement beyond moving. Doubly so because so many of us hated school for good reason, and so many teachers get into teaching thinking they’ll be able to inspire young minds and finding the constraints of our educational bureaucracy make every bit of good they do a heroic act of going above and beyond.
            Anyway, the show was anything but a lecture, but it had all the hallmarks of the most inspiring history lesson imaginable. Steve slowed things down at various points to talk about Chicago blues before introducing Chess Records with Etta James’s, “Blues Is My Business,” a record made late in James’s career but which captures both the Chicago blues sound and makes a brilliant statement about the times we live in today—“The blues is my business, and business is good.” After three strong statements of purpose, this song opened the show up for the first extended jam session, Clark Gayton and Ron Tooley making equally compelling statements for trombone and trumpet as more than a match for any rock guitar solo. (That said, Steve’s rock guitar has been a key benchmark for me for decades, and he proved as electrifying as ever.)
            The history lessons kept coming. Steve pointing out the Detroit groove of his Southside record, “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” while running through a litany of gifts given to us by Motown Records. “And at the top of that list,” he said, “was the Temptations, a band with five lead singers, and no one was greater than David Ruffin. I only met him once, when we were working on the ‘Sun City’ record, but I wrote this song for him.” Illustrating the very DNA of the show, this beautiful testimonial in the face of loss. The guy in that song is never getting his baby back, but that doesn’t have a thing in the world to do with how much he loves her. “The door is always open,” he sings, and it’s a testament of faith in the power of love as profound as they get.
            And this long history of the secular gospel is what keeps us going. Steven stopped again to talk about the importance of Blaxploitation movies and the incredible music made by Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in that era before singing James Brown’s abject despair in “Down and Out in New York City.” Later in the show, the struggle of Latin American migrant farmworkers would explode into fireworks with the drive of Almonte’s percussion on the Freedom: No Compromise cut, “Bitter Fruit.” (I have to add, it was no small pleasure to be standing next to another of my brothers, Ben Bielski, a former drummer for a KC Latin music group, as his hand gestures mimicked the insane timbale fever playing out before us--that is when he wasn't mimicking Mercurio's parts.)  
            Perhaps the most succinct thing I can say about the show is that there’s way too much to talk about here. At one point, the Disciples of Soul turned a song of troubled commitment, “Standing in the Line of Fire,” co-written with Gary U.S. Bonds and his daughter Laurie Anderson, into an Ennio Morricone epic, the struggle of a love on the line as the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. At another point, Steve brought the Youngblood’s Banana upfront for mandolin and Burton up front for accordion, while Tania Jones took over keyboard duties, so that he could tell the story of a grandfather worrying over his granddaughter’s inability to break the family cycle, “Princess of Little Italy.” The Van Zandt penned song for the Norwegian women rockers, the Cocktail Slippers, “St. Valentine’s Day,” hit me as an answer record to Springsteen’s veiled love song to his former bandmate, “Bobby Jean"--which is to say it spoke to all of our most intimate relationships, inside and outside of traditional romance. The AC/DC-ish rocker “Salvation,” from Born Again Savage, a 1999 record most of us missed, emerged as a climactic statement of reality and need.
             In the end, that’s what the show was all about and what this music is all about—our hopes and desires, yes, but our hopes and desires as needs. The show ended with the great 1987 Little Steven hit, “Out of the Darkness,” a gorgeous testament of belief in community that once prompted my first ex to say, somewhat breathlessly, “he’s so good.” Several lines sum up the spirit of the show. When I wrote about this show in a social media post, I quoted the line from Southside’s “I’m Coming Back,” "I’m getting tired of living in a world that’s got no soul,” saying that those words, at once, never rang more true while being dispelled—the whole night a refutation. But I think the real key to the show may lie in the title track to Steven’s new album, the title of the tour, “Soulfire.”

            Steve doesn’t bury the lede, this is generally the opening song of the tour, and the opening original of the show I saw. It begins with this ringing two or three string guitar chord, like morse code, those synths pressing behind, announcing important news to follow. It’s a song about two strangers meeting, one recognizing the grief and terror in the other as mirroring his own. He knows there’s a way out, and he knows it’s together. They take hands and follow the soul fire toward salvation. The best band imaginable playing hard, tight and passionate all night, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul made it easy to see the light.

Thank you to William Heaster for the great tickets. Thank you to Shawn Poole for the quote.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Remembering Shelby Starner: Music Criticism, Spoken Word and What We See When We Look in the Mirror

Last night, I participated in a wonderful spoken word fundraiser for a play called Mirrors by a sharp, thoughtful young actress and playwright named Kaitlin Gould. Listening to her talk last night, it was evident she knows more about the dangerous myths and misconceptions surrounding body image disorders than I could ever hope to know. That, in and of itself, made the event important. 
But this event was produced and emceed by another wonderful young artist (also producing the play) named Athena Louise Hyacinth, and it featured stirring poetry from Cecilia Belser-Patton, Jen Harris, Samantha Slupski, Asia Raine, and Nkenge Burkhead (all of them accessible, funny and moving, connecting me most deeply around how we learn to love ourselves despite the world’s—and often our loved one’s—discouragement). I want to write about all of these women more in the future. But I was distracted last night by my own job as a reader, so I can't say much more specifically. I thought I’d share, instead, what I wrote because it feels important to do so, even more so today than before I met all of these fine folk building unity and understanding around these issues.
When I agreed to do the event, I talked with Ms. Hyacinth about a musician I’ve been thinking about for 19 years, a musician who only lived 19 years. Her name was Shelby Starner. Instead of dusting off my poems, or even trying to write a new one, I decided I should do some of what I do best, music journalism, and write about Starner, not just in terms of our interview 19 years ago, but in terms of what she and her music still mean to me today.  

I began by playing the opening track from her debut, From in the Shadows, a song called, “Fall.”
Then, I read her 2003 obituary that ran in the newspaper of the coal-mining town where she grew up. Here’s some of what it said:
Shelby E. Starner, 19, of Bartonsville, died suddenly from natural causes on Saturday evening, June 22. Born on January 3, 1984 in East Stroudsburg (PA), she was a daughter of Ray J. and his wife, Susan (LaRose) Starner, of Stroudsburg and Katherine (Haas) Benn and her husband, Allen of Bartonsville and had lived in Monroe County all of her life.
She was an independent study student planning to attend the University of Pittsburgh in August 2003. She was a writer and musician and her music has touched many people. Shelby was a creative, intelligent and loving person.
She is survived by a sister, a step-brother, maternal grandparents, and a paternal grandfather. She was preceded in death by her paternal grandmother, who died in 1999. [The year her album was released.]
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial contributions may be made to Doctors without Borders ( or to the Shelby Starner Memorial Scholarship for Excellence in English.
                Then I read her a letter.
Dear Shelby….
When your father called me and told me you died, four years and four months after our interview, I didn’t know what to say, of one ever does. The piece I wrote about you obviously meant something to him, and probably you, because he tracked down my number and called me in my little Kansas City, Kansas apartment. This was in the days before I had a cellphone—no Facebook, no social media at all to speak of…It took some work.
I said I’m so sorry. I said how much I enjoyed talking to you, how much I loved your music. It was all true.
I may not remember all the details, but I remember a bubbly 15 year old girl on the other end of the line, a girl who’d met her idol Stevie Nicks and wanted to be Steven Tyler too. A girl when asked about Ani DiFranco not only described how much she admired her as a “musical crusader” but also as “a tough cookie.” I remembered a bright and shining light (not anything like the many flickering flames I’ve worried about over the years).
It was baffling that you didn’t live to see 20. You’d been spotted by Liz Rosenberg, the top ranking woman at Warner Bros who put all her money on Madonna, and you’d been signed to the same label. Your second record was to be a collaboration with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You’d taken time off because your mother was sick. You’d taken time off to go to school. You were smart and talented and lucky and cautious and….
Now you were gone.
Somewhere there’s a tape of the two of us talking. I’ve saved it and tossed it from box to box over the years, but I don’t know where it is right now. What I know of your speaking voice is what I said at the time….
I describe our conversation as “refreshing,” and I call you “candid” and describe you as “every bit as unaffected and unflinching as [you seem] on record.”
I say you “enthuse”
I talk about your laughter, open and often…
I say “Starner’s spontaneous answers speak so naturally of universal life passages that it is easy to forget that the stages she is talking about may be a grade or two in school half-forgotten by adults.” But, I add, “it becomes clear that not only was she a precocious child, she also learned a great deal about life very early.”
You talked all about that in ways I could easily relate to. We were both children whose parents divorced in our childhood, so I got it when you said, “When I was really little, ever since I was two, I always wanted to hang out with the adults, and I always wanted to be like an adult, so I tried my best. And then I got to a certain age and I realized, ‘Wait, these people don’t try their best!’”
But immediately after, you began to tell me things that I understood in a certain way then…and understand in a different way now. 
You said, “I always wanted to be older when I was little, and some of it was because I was really, really, self-loathing in a physical way. People meet me and I’m so hyper and out-of-my-mind all of the time, they don’t assume that I had insecurities and I was completely out of my mind for a couple of years when I was little.
“In about third and fourth grade, I developed a body. I was already 5’ 2”, and I had curves, and everyone around me was little, and I was terrified. I thought I was deformed. So I would dress like a boy. I wore huge clothes to hide myself, not let anyone know that I was a big girl.
“I’ve always been shaped, you know, physically shaped, and I wanted to be with the adults because I felt comfortable with who I was and what I looked like.
You went on…
“I was a dancer. That’s what I always wanted to do. I took dance lessons from the time I was two and a half until last year. And I would come home after dance classes and cry, because I was not five feet tall, and I did not weigh 85 pounds. Every time I got a costume to do a show, I looked like the 10 cent hooker, and everybody else was like these pretty little ballerinas.  
“When I was in about 4th grade, I really got into the whole Aerosmith thing. I saw Aerosmith live on MTV, and I was just watching Steve Tyler fling himself upside down and backwards and swing around on stage, and I went ‘Oh my God, I want to do that!’ and everything just kind of snowballed from there. I don’t know how Mom felt about me running around the house singing “Backstroke Lover,” having no idea what I was talking about but singing my little heart out. [I’d quit piano before] but I guess I decided around that time, if I sat down and played the piano, I’m going to play Aerosmith, and I’m going to play Led Zeppelin, and I’m going to play the piano like nobody’s ever played it before.
“Eventually I just started playing things all on my own. You can teach anybody how to play Beethoven. Even if they don’t want to do it, you can tie them down and make them learn how to do it. But creativity, and really good records, the passion that is on records and in a live show, nobody can make somebody do that.”
So you made demos of 26 songs, and k.d. lang producer Craig Street helped you narrow that to 13. You made a beautiful record, ridiculously ambitious and, at-its-most-focused, absolutely devastating.
No, it wasn’t a hit. Most of the best don’t make a hit the first time out or ever, but you had international press, and you were working on a comeback....
And you and your body were at war with each other.
A 35 year old man talking to a 15 year old young woman, we probably had no chance of talking about our bodies, but some of what you told me I certainly see where I should have understood.  
We can start with my war with my own body. My childhood asthma put me in the hands of a pedophile savior. The doctor who molested me had to protect me from my body. I eventually combated that shit by getting all kinds of high and eventually even taking up my most banal enemy, cigarettes--strikes one through 87 in the war with myself.
I was also always the big kid among my friends. I was also more comfortable with adults. I also felt deformed. In a 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association Study, one in five young men were found to have serious concerns about their weight. I notice the bodies changing on the young men in my classrooms, and I wasn’t surprised when a student of mine wrote a paper, just a few years back, about how she wished she could find someone her own size to date. We don’t talk about it, and it grows when no one talks about it, but everyone suffers in a world where even the concept of what we should like can be commercialized. There are profits to be made from starvation and steroids; very few in positive self image.
I don’t want to go off on the politics of body image, although thinking about you this week has had me thinking a lot about them. My music writing started out political because music gave me a sense of my own power and a way to take on power issues in our society—big ones like apartheid and racism and free speech. But, eventually, my writing would start navigating the more subtle issues, the politics of the bedroom and our most intimate relationships.
I’m not sure I ever worked my way down, enough, to the politics of the dinner table, the bathroom and the bathroom mirror. Shelby (and everyone here tonight), you’ve got me thinking about that now—how the economy reaches down and robs us of our sense of control even over our own bodies, the one thing you would think we could call our own. Yes, indeed, “our bodies ourselves” is a revolutionary statement.
But let me end this by talking about why I wrote about you in the first place, Shelby, and why I’m writing about you today. In our celebrity-crazed culture, it’s easy to imagine most people have no idea what it meant for me to become a music writer, but it’s not that different than what it meant for you to become a musician. Music showed me a place where I could be myself, where I could be redeemed and proud and let my dim light shine brighter than I might ever have thought possible.
Since I couldn’t play piano like you or write songs like you or sing like you, I found my way to this culture of people who write about music as a way of making our own kind of music. That’s how we used to think of music criticism back in the day, sitting on our beds reading magazines—people like me were reading other people like me fashioning a verbal response to the call we heard in the sound of the music. There was a time it felt like another front in a counterculture. As deejays were to emcees were to break dancers were to graffiti artists in hip hop, the journalist was another voice in the heart of the culture. I hope, on some scale, it can feel like that in moments like this.
Anyway, contrary to the snotty image of the music journalist, I think most of us do it because music turned us on and told us to do something, and these were the tools we chose. I’ve written about music for thirty two years because I love music and because I love musicians. Because people like you, Shelby, taught me how to feel free and to live as my best self. Time and time again, you have all helped me find redemption, if even for a moment.  
Your would-be hit single sang about “being a woman and not a girl in this man’s world,” and that record reached across age and gender lines and helped redeem me. 
It hadn’t been easy to be a boy or find a  way to be a man in this world either. Music, and your work, showed me a way. My opportunity to promote your work, to tell your story, helped me find a way to respond to the power of the call I heard in your music. It’s a very human thing we’re engaged in, and it’s in service to the music. But it’s certainly imperfect. (There’s a reason musicians and artists often hate critics, and most of them are justifiable.)
But what we need to remember is what set us on our path—the humanity that ties us together. We need to remember what bridged the gap between us is in the yearning of the human voice. It wasn’t Aerosmith for me; in truth, it was more Shelby Starner, a whole string of musicians that brought me to you.
And the fact that I couldn’t do more, the fact that I didn’t know….Nothing about that is okay.
And it’s no comfort to say it simply shows how far we have yet to go.
At least we have your music I could say. 
I know some of why you made it, and it does live on...
But I’ll be damned if I say that’s enough.

(Thank you to CJ Janovy and Sam Bell for your advice and support.)