Thursday, October 04, 2018

October 5th, 1975: The Night Salem's Lot Gave Its Life

Dedicated to Sarah Smarsh's mom, Jeannie; Stephen King's mom, Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King; my dad, Roger Elton Alexander and my step mom and fellow King lover, Mary Nettie Alexander

"The town knew about darkness....The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business. The harrow turns up great chunks of the granite underlayer and breaks on them. In May you take out your truck as soon as the ground is dry enough to support it, and you and your boys fill it up with rocks perhaps a dozen times before harrowing and dump them in the great weed-choked pile where you have dumped them since 1955, when you first took this tiger by the balls. And when you have picked them until the dirt won't come out from under your nails when you wash and your fingers feel huge and numb and oddly large-pored, you hitch your harrow to your tractor and before you've broken two rows you bust one of the blades on a rock you missed. And putting on a new blade, getting your oldest boy to hold up the hitch so you can get at it, the first mosquito of the new season buzzes bloodthirstily past your ear with that eye-watering hum that always makes you think it's the sound loonies must hear before they kill all their kids or close their eyes on the interstate with the gas pedal to the floor or tighten their toe on the trigger of the .30-.30 they just jammed into their quackers; and then your boy's sweat-slicked fingers slip and one of the other round harrow blades scrapes skin from your arm and looking around in that kind of despairing, heartless flicker of time, when it seems you could just give it all over and take up drinking or go down to the bank that holds your mortgage and declare bankruptcy, at that moment of hating the land the soft suck of gravity that holds you to it, you also love it and understand how it knows darkness and has always known it. The land has got you....The bank has you, and the car dealership, and the Sears store in Lewiston, and John Deere in Brunswick....There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take." The Lot (III). 
“No one pronounced Jerusalem’s Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of previous days, it retained every semblance of life.” The Lot (IV)

I wrote a version of this originally as a Facebook status update for Stephen King's birthday, a notation to accompany a photo of the original paperback cover to the first book that changed everything for me, Salem's Lot. I read it the summer I was 12, picked it up at the bus station in McPherson, Kansas (my grandparents’ home) for the six hour ride back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It began with a man and a boy against the world, which was one way I saw that period in my life, living in a small apartment with my father, understanding my father in a way that it felt maybe no one else did, one reason he was no longer married.

The book’s boy protagonist, Mark Petrie, was a monster kid like myself; he collected the same Aurora models I collected and read Famous Monsters of Filmland. Perhaps the book's scariest night creature was named Danny, like me, and there but for the grace of something.... I didn't know this author yet, but I would go back and read his previous book, Carrie, and eagerly await the new one, The Shining, which I would buy as one of 6 with a penny through my book club. That book starred another Danny, and his struggle to hang onto his father was central to that book (a huge difference from the Kubrick movie, and one reason many of fans of the book, like myself, didn’t know what to make of the movie when we first saw it).  

My relationship with my father was the solid center to my universe, but he was struggling. My parents had split up, and he and I lived together in a tough neighborhood near downtown. Dad worried about his drinking, and (perhaps unfairly but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world at the time) I counseled him. Once, about a year before I discovered Stephen King, Dad wound up on the fourth floor (the mental ward) of our town’s old Memorial Hospital. I was in a sixth grade assembly when I got the news, and my future disappeared for a moment. All the safety nets were gone.

However, up on the fourth floor, I found a copy of Dracula (the book that inspired the soon to be born Salem’s Lot). No one seemed to care if I took it home, so I did, and I read it for the first time. Bram Stoker filled my head with dread and wonder while my father recovered. I do not remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of horror, starting with the old movie stills of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff I found in my mother’s movie books when I was a child and the stories my grandmother told me about seeing the silent Phantom of the Opera when she was 19 years old. In her early twenties, she would see Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. She told me about seeing these movies in Shreveport’s Strand Theater and I felt like I was not only there but watching the movies with her. Grandma, Nana as I called her, was an important constant in my life, and ghost stories were a huge part of the fabric of her childhood remembrances. And she always emphasized the pathos. I could tell how much pain she felt for Karloff’s monster whenever she recalled the story.

This gothic art helped me face my fears and hang on to my loved ones. When I stumbled across Salem’s Lot, I had gone through this drastic move from a semi-suburban existence to something closer to The Outsiders. Where I lived, I had to be a little harder just to walk down the street. I was also entering junior high, the preying ground for bullies, cliques and petty school administrators. My mother had remarried and divorced again. My brother was off living on his own in an apartment building where one of his roommates would wind up murdering a friend. Within a few years, seemingly half of my friends’ parents would wind up losing their jobs because of downsizing by the town’s oil companies. But though that change reached its peak after I’d gone away to school, I read Salem’s Lot at a time when the death of everything that always seemed it would never change was well on its way. King’s book connected the ghost stories of my childhood to the dreadful changes in my present. And most importantly, it did so in a way that conceded the change was indeed permanent while clinging to a sense of hope, at least for those left behind. That boy and that man, they stood a chance, in large part because they had each other.

As it turned out, honestly, those three years Dad and I struggled together in that apartment turned out to be some of my fondest memories. And, in the long run, Dad never let me down; in fact, he was always there for me. But King knew about the ways love and pain and danger intertwined in the best of relationships. And he kept writing books, and I've eagerly awaited each next one for the 42 years after that bus ride from Kansas to Oklahoma. He never quit talking with me--about where I was, when I was, where I was going and how I was going to get there. He never quit insisting we were okay if we could simply find each other, hold onto each other and face our fears together. King’s relationship with this Oklahoma kid was just such a lifeline. 

Near the end of the book, which I’ve just reread for the third or fourth time and found to be astonishingly rich and terrifying on entirely new levels, there’s a moment when the man turns to the boy and says, “I want you with me. I need you.” He’s speaking for my father, and he’s speaking for me, and of course he’s summing up how I feel about the storyteller and our four decade long relationship. In my heart and soul and mind, when the world’s falling apart all around (which it generally is), I really believe that wanting and needing is what it’s all about.

Other conversations with King—

On The Outsider (2018)—
On The Wind Through the Keyhole (2013)—…/weathering-starkblas…

Pictures--The original paperback of Salem's Lot, The Forgotten Prisoner Aurora Model, my undead friend William, a werewolf and maybe Tor Johnson fighting on the abandoned house down our street (one of those would be my friend Scot), and this blogger looking a bit undead himself.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Live to Tell: Stories of Power, Abuse and Silence

"A man can tell a thousand lies/I've learned my lesson well," Madonna, "Live to Tell"

"Try to forget this/Try to erase this," Pearl Jam, "Jeremy"

"I walked into the door again/If you ask that's what I'll say," Suzanne Vega, "Luka"

"It took a whole damn year to repair my body/It's been about five years," Mary J. Blige, "Whole Damn Year"

"Don't you push me, push me, push me/Don't you push me down," Woody Guthrie, "Don't You Push Me Down"

I'm glad to see these discussions of past abuse moving in a unifying direction. This is really about people with power and how they take advantage of people without power. Famously, my hometown witnessed years of abuse by a powerful, connected pediatrician, Dr. William H. Dougherty, who went unchecked for years. It is crucially (I might say for me in some ways life-savingly) documented in Patrick V Brown's film In A Town This Size. A friend of mine watched it last week and said that she could see and hear me repeatedly in the many stories told there.  
My abuse began around the age of six. I believe I asked some questions pretty early on, generally only of my friends, and we managed to rationalize it together. Pretty soon, I grew shy about what was happening and didn't talk much again until I was close to 10. I believe I felt complicit. I even felt somewhat protective of my abuser. At 10, I said something to my mother, and things began to change, starting with what doctor I was seeing. I don't know what other action she took, and I don't think she would know now.
Brown's film documents the fumbling ways people moved toward action. I remember a time when, among kids, it was sort of an awful secret that, if talked about at all, was talked about in quiet, half-joking ways. By the time I was in high school, hundreds of cases were coming to light, but my doctor still had a practice. At some point, he was pressured to move into an office with several other doctors.
The first time any state investigator talked with me I was in college. This would be at least 8 or 10 years after my 4 years of abuse. Dr. Dougherty would eventually lose his private practice, but he would die this past year with his beautiful contemporary home in Bartlesville and a new family (including children) and life he had created in Tulsa.
That's a big story, but it certainly wasn't my only experience with abuse growing up a male in our culture. I remember a 40- something junior high gym teacher who would hold the smallest member of my gym class up against the top of the lockers and laugh at the way he kicked his legs to get down. The point was for the entirety of the locker room to laugh along with him. I remember that same gym teacher popping a ninth grade girl's bra in the hallway between the cafeteria and the main building. The girls laughed it off. He laughed it off. I never forgot it and only ever told people in casual conversation. I certainly didn't think about reporting it. That was just the fabric of the power relationships in my junior high.
And I remember a friend (an acquaintance really, though I'd done many things side by side with him for years) in my high school gym class whom I'd known since I was a cub scout. RV was tall and awkward and shy. He couldn't speak up for himself, and he wasn't a fighter. And he got towel whipped, red-bellied and humiliated every week in gym class. His bully, a handsome teenager who most people saw as the definition of cool, was merciless. He wouldn't stop until my friend was begging and crying. I don't remember any of us saying or doing anything to stop this. I certainly don't remember us reporting the behavior to anyone else. It was something that we all treated as normal, though it haunted me.
It still haunts me. RV was not a communicative kid, and he was no doubt troubled. His awkwardness was part of why everyone stood aside and let it happen. The truth in that behavior is what made Stephen King a successful writer with the publication of Carrie. When RV's car was hit by a train and his brother killed, I think there were others like me haunted by our role in the fact that it was said he simply didn't move the car off the tracks. When he later died in an industrial accident, alone in a part of a construction site no one was supervising, I think there were others like me who felt we were in some way to blame.
This is the tip of the iceberg. To grow up in the world I grew up in, I suspect the world we all grew up in, we accepted and rationalized abuse inside and outside of our homes, in our neighbor's houses in our schools and at parties, over and over again.
Depending on where you are in the social strata in any given dynamic, it's worse. In my experience, we were trained to accept many forms of abuse of power from a very early age, and only a very few brave, bold individuals ever stood up and called it out. I had my moments. I got my collar bone broken when I thought a couple of my friends were being picked on, and I stood by friends who were suffering abuse from time to time, gave them support, stood up for them.
But most of the time, I stood by and said nothing. I think that's how we learn to get by. And it's a damn good thing we're living in a world where that group think is being challenged on a regular basis. It's a rough birthing process, to be sure, but I'm looking forward to a world where we don't allow anyone to treat another person as anything less than equal, deserving dignity and respect.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Aren't You A Little Old For This, Overdue Downloading Part 1--Terry Ware, J. Cole, Kamasi Washington, Janelle Monae and Nalani & Sarina

Aren’t You a Little Old For This?, Terry “Buffalo” Ware (OkieMotion Records) As with his instrumental records, Ware's latest may be counted on to provide surprising hooks and clean lines that compel one play after another. Maybe it’s the carefree attitude, bright chords and bouncing beat of opener “Fine, Fine Day” that makes the darkness that follows so surprising. It deepens with each listen. Even that song hints at the wind and rain that will pour throughout. Featuring the gorgeously upbeat but haunted, “Over My Shoulder,” the album’s first “side” struggles with hard-won wisdom filled with contradictions, finally descending to the global warming simmer of the downright apocalyptic “Late December.” “Side Two” feels considerably more hopeful, but it’s the kind of everyday, small hope that comes with each dawn—the satisfied yearnings of the guitar on “Laura" and the promise of reward that lies just past the battles in “Going Down the Other Side” and “Coming Out of Nowhere.” With its menacing garage spiral of sound, “Price to Pay,” states the struggle behind everything here—“A hole in your heart, it never goes away/A pocket full of nothing, but still you got a price to pay.” The storms never let up, but the music provides more than a little shelter.

KOD, J. Cole (Dreamville/ROC Nation) For a long time, the concept of a “conscious rapper” was problematic, implicitly setting itself close to a bourgeois sensibility rejecting the music most people loved. Often the music itself seemed pleasant and non-committal, too, unlike the visceral compulsions of gangsta and trap. Like the Southern complement to Kendrick Lamar that he is, J. Cole uses his fifth album to embrace a lean, trap sensibility that’s fighting hand to hand with the desire to give up, in other words, true to the form. After all, this is a late-night, hard hitting conversation. Cole counsels all kinds of dangers—delusions and poisons and dead-end reasoning, but he doesn’t do it from one-up, not from on high. He’s pleading with his brother and his sister and, ultimately, himself. Oh, to keep the conversation going, these beats and keys and the lyrical refrains all hook and catch and pull you straight through, over and over again.

Heaven and Earth, Kamasi Washington (Young Turks) This album pretends to be shorter than 2015's three hour The Epic by concealing another 40 minutes in a third disc, which includes welcome covers of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Ooh Child." That said, the Earth first then Heaven sides do stand as a mind-blowing whole. The album opener and closer tell the story broadly, a cover of the theme music to Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury promising a fight for justice ahead and the last cut asking if I fight for you, will you sing? That's the mission here, not just any struggle, but a vision of humanity unleashed. It takes countless forms (because any way you might add it up, you can listen from another angle and list the changes differently). While sax solos abound, this album is really about the orchestration of one musical universe after another. A shimmering example of the infinity in an idea, "One of One," takes a two-dozen-note bass figure, a salsa line, and bats it around for ten minutes' worth of possibilities, giving the sense it could go on forever. Solo sax dances ecstatically over that bass, driving the piece to what could be a closing crescendo before breaking down and stoking it from another direction. Trumpet, as only trumpet can, heralds another crescendo before trumpet and sax rejoin, the whole band bouncing hard on those bass notes until they find a resolution.

Another wonderful cut, the only video yet, "Street Fighter Mas"--

The Circle, Nalani & Sarina (Telepathy) These young singer/songwriters share a belief in music that sometimes feels like a thing of the past. Of course, in one sense, it is... firmly rooted there at least. Something like 50,000 years of prehistory documents musical instruments. Of course, those instruments brought us together and helped build the best of what we have today. Nalani & Sarina aren't done building. Sure, the rock and roll generation and the hip hop generation look backwards at a moment when they thought they'd discovered the keys to the universe, but that doesn't mean those keys are gone. When the music industry dies and desperate entrepreneurs completely take over the radio turning YouTube talent into the latest soda pop, artists like Nalani & Sarina will insist the essence of music radiates from the depths of the human spirit and offers visions of community and possibility far beyond the blinkered world that tries to hem it in.

Four albums deep, this New Jersey duo shows that commitment every time out. This latest album paints a portrait of a generation that's been sold a very limited idea of what's possible and rails against it with superb songs like "Young and Inexperienced," "Welcome to the Rest of Your Life" and "Coming for You." The final song, "Tomorrow and Yesterday" is a heartbreaking illustration of the eternity carried by a song, but "Pretty Lies" sets up the central challenge, to live for real whatever the cost.

I find the video the duo made for the song especially poignant, two girls against the world, a big old world snarling in reaction. What better testimony to the power of the music than the strength they radiate against all odds?

Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae (Bad Boy) Four months out, it’s clear that this Quindaro, Kansas revolutionary has transcended the world of her debut EP and two increasingly-ambitious sci-fi concept albums with a lightness of touch both improbable and devastating. For starters, these 14 tracks are seamless and effervescent, the endless hooks growing more seductive, soothing and exciting with each listen. Grief over Prince’s death underpins everything, but he’s utterly alive here, too, and the alchemy Monae gathers from his mentorship as well as that of Stevie Wonder creates a focused, coherent and vital call for liberation that’s absolutely singular. Crucial are the links she keeps reinforcing between her working class roots and the wonderland (or Wondaland) promised by her art. On “Americans,” Reverend Sean McMillan explicitly draws on Dr. King and Langston Hughes to speak to the promise of an America where poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, women and “same-gender loving people,” where everyone, may not just survive but thrive.

Core to how this album works is its relentless sexiness, and the refrain “Everything is sex/Except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you” gets at the reason rock and roll still poses an essential threat to the powers that be. In her tearjerker liner notes, she apologizes to Prince for cussing so much here, but the frankness of her words, her ability to make listeners both blush and sing along is nothing less than crucial.

For those not easily offended, take a listen to the mix of despair and defiance that fuels “Screwed,” a song that takes on sexism, the military industrial machine and commercialization as varied features of the same beast. Hope against hope demands we take the future in hand.

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 trumpeter Ravi Best (who's played with everyone from Kool & the Gang to Ani DiFranco to Lester Bowie) 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.