Wednesday, December 16, 2015

All Hands on Deck

I received more response to this Facebook status than most things I've written in the past year. Perhaps a blog is a place to put such things.

I was born into a boom economy that is not coming back. There are objective, tangible reasons why that moment in history is behind us, and even mainstream economists have been talking about this for over three decades. We live in a new world that calls us to think in new ways. The voices on my morning news, so intent on killing our way out of each crisis, are all united by the desire to return to a world that doesn't exist. The hope I see is in the great many they don't represent--the majority of my students, co-workers, my friends and neighbors. Everywhere around me, when I look at real people rather than their framed corporate media interpretations, I see love and compassion. I see people who would be happy to move forward into a brave new world of possibility. All of this unthinking reaction is an addiction we have to give up if we are going to find our way out of the middle ages and into the promise of the 21st Century. 

What I hate most about election years is that I know, no matter the nominees, this will be a year sowing division and hate, and it will be driving deep divisions between people who would otherwise get along--worst of all, it will be dividing and conquering people who have more reason than ever before to find unity. That old world's gone, and we need all hands on deck (all races, spiritual beliefs, genders and cultures) if we have any hope of building the new one.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Named after a Christmas Elf,
Assumed tribute to a hair band from Jersey,
You were our Edward Scissorhands,
Krueger nails clipped,
Became razorblades.

You sat,
Doing that stretch we called your yoga,
And waited,
For attention,
For any privilege at all,
For permission to be present.

You were, after all, a refugee,
From the tyranny of some eugenics experiment
Centuries old;
That long back
And those deer legs
Worked against you,
Gave you relentless pain
And an early death.

Still, thankfulness eases my anger and hurt.

After all,
Without your genetic roulette,
You don't exist--
To be abandoned,
To be adopted,
To be taken for granted,
To be,
Just another dog.

(In fact,
The doggiest dog
We could ever imagine.)

I found myself playing
Eat Your Face
With your sister.
I wasn't very good,
But I tried.
And trying,
I found some better part
Of myself.

You taught me much about love,
About compassion,
About presence,
About persistence.

In the end,
You cheese mooching,
Bombast barking,
Dog hair dust-storm,...

You whale talking,
Hard kissing,
Always game friend,
I miss you.

There's no way to overstate how much,
I'm better
For you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Message in Her Music (or What Might Make a Book Tour More than Just Another Book Tour)

In less than five months, University of Texas Press will be publishing my first book in twenty years. While I've spent the better part of three years focused on the art of Mary J. Blige, this book is also the logical culmination of my three decades writing about music.

My first published piece for Rock & Rap Confidential drew connections between the segregation of radio formats where I lived in Oklahoma and the open racism at my school. The Klan was leafletting campus, fraternity brothers were donning blackface and serenading their sisters for Plantation Week, and Oklahoma State University's Black Student Union was organizing marches in response. This all happened at the same moment Artists United Against Apartheid made a record, "Sun City," that supported an arts boycott against South Africa. Not only did that record clue me into the reasons Nelson Mandela had been sitting in jail close to three decades, its mix of musicians--from Darlene Love and Nona Hendryx to DJ Kool Herc and Melle Mel to Ray Baretto and Ruben Blades to Lotti Golden and L. Shankar--alerted me to how much truly great music didn't reach my ears because of systemic presumptions about the demographics of artists and the prejudices of their audiences.

Mary J. Blige arrived at a time when hip hop and R&B were challenging countless such assumptions. She also arrived about the time my first child, my eldest daughter, was born, when I was listening to more women artists than men (and more Black women artists than any other group) because they spoke to both my everyday concerns and my social consciousness in a way much contemporary music didn't. Since that time, Mary J. Blige's music has been a good friend, reassuring me and pushing me forward as I try to reconcile my failings with my dreams in a world of economic insecurity and fearful uncertainty.

Writing about Mary J. Blige means writing about art that confronts and overturns assumptions about the significance of popular music and how that music is made. It's art that renders academic any divisions between the personal and the political. It's art that fights the distance between artist and audience. It's popular art that unites around a concept of class consciousness obscured and denied by the main currents of popular culture.

For that reason, when we start selling this book, I'd like to use opportunities to sign the book and speak about the book as ways of talking about, as Mary puts it, the message in the music--the beats, the samples, the most soothing of the vocals and the roughest ones, too. While I worked on it, I met countless people who told me how much Mary meant to them. There was almost always a story behind that--a particular long, dark night, a night Mary helped them to get through. So, I hope we'll get together and talk about these things. My 30 years of teaching writing and writing about what music teaches me have repeatedly shown me it's all really one big story. Just as Mary says every single show that she's thankful for every single fan for allowing her to do what she does best, I think the story I'm trying to tell is really the story of all those fans (myself included) and the artist that binds them together.

Writing about music over the years has brought me into ongoing dialogue with men and women fighting for a better future than the one on the horizon. They're fighting to make their voices heard and to ensure the free speech rights that allow it. They're fighting for healthy food, safe housing, a living wage, accessible health care, environmental justice, compassionate immigration policy, good public schools and clean drinking water. They're fighting for an understanding that Black Lives Matter and that 100,000 Poets, Writers, Musicians and Artists want Change. Mary J. Blige's music speaks to and for millions of people on every front of such struggle.

So, when I'm peddling this book, I would hope we might use that conversation to have more of these conversations. Mary J. Blige's career has been based on tying her struggle to the struggle of her fans, and that call pleads for us to respond in kind. Toward that end, I would greatly appreciate it if anyone who reads my blog might consider ways to invite discussions of this book into the discussions going on in your community. Please let me know what thoughts you have. You can write me here or email me at

As my old friend Ron Casanova used to say,

Through Peace, Love and Understanding...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

X, City Winery NYC 8/2, Beyond and Back

The impact of re-encountering X after 25 years has been profound. And that's not just because I have spent way too much time digging around for my laundry-markered Los Angeles and Wild Gift t-shirt. It was my senior year of high school, and that was the most D.I.Y. piece of clothing I'd ever wear...

The important thing is that I'm now beginning to wonder about systems of assumptions that led me away from a whole roots-punk culture I once recognized as my own.

By 1987's See How We Are, I was immersed in the moment's R&B and hip hop. Eric B and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy and N.W.A. were changing everything I thought I knew about music. Seven years into a relationship with my first wife, I was listening to more R&B than punk, particularly that R&B made by women (Janet Jackson, Pebbles, Miki Howard, and Karyn White), because it dealt with the hardest struggles in my life--my most intimate relationships.

Anyway, my shift in taste corresponded with a series of assumptions. One of those assumptions was that the children of punk, the alternative rockers, didn't deal with the kinds of themes I cared much about anymore. In a series of lazy choices that characterize my listening habits, I let go of X after Ain't Love Grand. And I forgot....

That night at City Winery, recounting everyday storms that test and potentially tighten any marriage (in the form of a band or otherwise), John Doe launched his hand toward the ceiling and spat, "Shut up and smoke!" Exene shouted the same thing at the same time. That ongoing fight from Wild Gift's "Beyond and Back" reminded me why I got into X in the first place. That couple in that song, and "In This House that I Call Home" and "White Girl" and "When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch"--that was a couple that was well beyond the romance. X was a band about struggling with self acceptance in the face of the harshest mirrors we'll ever know. Those held by the ones who know us best.

And they took this relationship intimacy and went to even lonelier places, tears shed in secrecy. For three decades now, if you'd asked me to single out my desert island X, I would have certainly included "Riding with Mary" and "Come Back to Me," Exene's two seemingly autobiographical portraits of life surrounding her sister's death. Something about the depth of pain and vulnerability, Exene's vocals written flat yet very much alive and aching, has kept that music close to my heart.

Without doing those favorites at the City Winery, the high-powered show--they did their "Breathless" and "Soul Kitchen" covers as well as other necessities--still insisted this band has always been about the need (the tenderness) and the yearning for community behind punk. When LA punk became a national scene, the whiteness of the scene, and all kinds of adolescent provocation, suggested that this was the racist version of the explosion from Great Britain. But just as The Clash's "Safe European Home" took a unique stand by confessing white privilege, an X song like "White Girl," admitted race as a factor that shouldn't matter....but somehow--to family, to friends-still did. X talked about things others would rather ignore. They always seemed a band of outsiders who couldn't be otherwise.  They knew that they needed each other and needed their fans.

And then there's that thing that they hit me with early Sunday night, "The Have Nots" from Under the Big Black Sun. In this posh Village wine restaurant, the band sang of all the clubs working class folks used to be able to depend on--"The Beehive Bar and the Zircon Lounge"--introducing the song by noting that most such places couldn't survive anymore. It was a commentary on the absurdity of the moment's reality, and something more.

"Dawn comes soon enough for the working class;
It keeps getting sooner or later;
This is the game that moves as you play..."

I was working thirteen hour days in a hospital cafeteria the summer that album came out. Going to college was separating me from my best friends at home, and a new kind of loneliness hurt more than I can say. All I knew was that I was in a game that was moving, too....and X was the band that addressed it, whether it was the game's movement in the workplace, or in the more distant rumblings of the economy or in the thunderstorm back home in the bedroom.

The night I saw them play again....after so many years of neglect, they sounded incredible. DJ Bonebrake punched back at each push from John Doe's bass--the rhythm their trademark mix of ramshackle and tight-as-hell. Jessie Dayton played terrific leads in tribute to the missing Billy Zoom. The band made several references to Billy and wished him well. They were raising money for his battle with cancer (which you can learn more about here-- And they gave a shout out to late producer Ray Manzarek (on "Blue Spark"), drawing connections between the family in the room and the larger family tied together by this music.

That Sunday night--the second night of a three night stand in New York--was a fine reminder X has always been a band that complicates the easy equations. It's a band that defines honesty and abandon in a culture (and a counterculture) that tries quick to kill both. As such, thirty five years down the line, I may need them more than ever.