Friday, December 28, 2018

My 2018: The End of Something and the Beginning of Something More

As a recovering cultural critic, one of the things I need to let go of is the sense that I have to write about some quota of things to see the Old Year out and the New Year in. I am a part of a core group of friends who have shared year-end mix-tapes (playlists) and annotated lists and reflective columns for close to three decades. Friends still send me their year-end playlists, and I am so thankful for that, but I also have this needling guilt that I should produce one.

But no one's really asked for one for years, AND I never liked making them, not much. For one thing, I'm a slow listener. Some of my friends have a Top Ten for each month. I tend to listen to the same new thing all month long, and, then, maybe move onto another new thing the next month. Same way with reading and viewing. I plunge headlong into some things on impulse and ignore the rest of the world. What I come up with at the end of the year is anything but an overview of the year that was.

But the thing that troubles me most about year-end lists is how the bulk of what I'm discovering in any given year didn't come from that year at all. This was a year full of anniversaries that sent many of us back to the music of ’68, while ’78 was an absolutely formative year for me. I also think of albums like Rage Against the Machine's debut, which took a year to catch on, or Soul Asylum's breakthrough Gravedancer's Union, an album that languished on the charts for twelve months before that moving video of "Runaway Train" made that band superstars (for a couple of years). Music, movies, literature and art take their sweet time reaching people. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh weren't making "year-end lists" during their lifetimes.

Still, I understand the need to assess the past year and mark progress of some sort on the calendar. I do know the two most important books for me this year were C.J. Janovy's No Place Like Home and Sarah Smarsh's Heartland because they drew such rich portraits of the environment in which I was raised (and where I still live). Janovy did it with her remarkable observational and listening skills coupled with her intuition about truth and story. Smarsh did it by simply raising her voice and keeping herself honest.

Both books refuse to shy away from the ugly truths of the texture of the world I grew up in, but they fight that with portraits of dignity and courage that for the most part go untold. Again and again, the embattled characters in Janovy’s book are embraced and encouraged by neighbors who love them and appreciate them as human beings. Stephanie Mott, a transgender woman who spent a significant portion of her life homeless, so places faith in this decency that she engages in a statewide tour to diners, truckstops, practically anywhere she can talk to everyday people in order to discuss who she is and what she's been through and what needs to happen "if she's going to be okay." The truly inspiring thing is how many people hear that statement in the universal sense, something we often associate with the Black church, "if we're going to be okay."

Smarsh describes what it took for her to tell the stories of those who didn’t get the chances she had. She doesn't romanticize a damn thing; if anything the romantic notions are her confessions of her own sense of self-importance in this quest. But she uses her family to check herself, to root her perspective, and in the process she draws a portrait of lower income Kansas that's, as it must be, a tribute with its textured depth, love and admiration. She helps me see my own friends and family from a slightly different perspective. She has a grandmother who helps me understand things about my own, particularly her sometime disapproval of my attitudes. 

Thom Zimny’s  Elvis: The Searcher documentary worked some territory close to these books. By focusing on Elvis’s artistic biography, this film shows the oft-stereotyped and simplified artist's core power, celebrating the dignity and vitality of all of us abused and neglected every day, all day, all our lives long. In this framework, Elvis seems more important than ever because it's that overwhelming sense of division and hopelessness that tears at everyone these days, perhaps no one more than our youth.

2018 was a year when my younger daughter made me a 50+ track playlist. Just the list of artists is a lot to wrap my head around--K. Flay, Anarbor, Broods, Ruth B., Kurt Vile, Bea Miller, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Bazzi, AJR, Alec Benjamin, Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear, The Killers, The Bleachers, Panic! At the Disco, Wild Bell, King Princess, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Matt Maeson, Lea Michelle, Ingrid Michaelson, Tegan and Sara, Troye Sivan, M.A.G.S., I Monster, Marina and the Diamonds, Kendrick Lamar, MELVV, Grace, G-Eazy, Bo Burnham, Janelle Monae, Imagine Dragons, Adam Lambert, Jon Bellion, The Maine, Lorde, The Cab, Kane Strang, XTC, Elohim, Molly Kate Kestner, Twenty One Pilots, Avril Lavigne, Gabbie Hanna, Linkin Park, NF, Quadeca, and an endearing young political rapper called “grandson.”

Plenty of familiar names here. I went to college with XTC. I took Trionna to the Electric Lady tour. I think I wrote one of the better early pieces on Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. I'm familiar with a slim fourth of the people she's listening to.....It's a reminder there's so much going on, always, and there's so much left to learn.

I rediscovered that on a few interesting nights, two with my friend CJ seeing Kamasi Washington (opening with a beautiful set by Victory Boyd) and Logan Richardson, rethinking jazz's role in an era that's largely post-rock (and almost post-hip hop) in the story it tells itself. When Richardson declares from stage that it's Charlie Parker behind all of pop music--way shy of the Louis Armstrong I might have picked or the logical choice of, say, Louis Jordan or Elvis for the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution--well, it's a reframing worth noting. Since the late 1940s, the self-consciousness of be-bop has never left us--whether it took the form of Dylan's beat poetry or Marvin Gaye's sexual and political visions or those two generations later from Janelle Monae. There are new frames to the story, and they're there to help us see it from more objective perspectives than our old windows (not that we should throw those out).
2018, for me, was a year of letting go of my fixed perspectives of everything and allowing myself to hear fresh again. It made me think of a comment a friend of mine made, another music writer equally involved in politics, at least 25 years ago. We both agreed the erosion of the basis of our economy (money=labor) would mean a revolution in our society. Something I would say we are experiencing quite painfully today, fraught with confusion about what it means and where we are going. Anyway, my friend said, you know, when this new class of people thrown out of the system try to unify around culture, it won't look anything like what it's looked like in the past.

2018 was a year where I saw that prophecy come true. Nothing means quite what it once did. Everything we thought was dead and gone may have fresh life, and things we thought were eternal may seem illusory. But it's a time of great possibility. I just have to look at my daughter's playlist. Over 50 songs by 48 artists that bear little resemblance to each other much less the fairly narrow canons I thought were revolutionary when I was 16.

To learn what we need to know about one another, where we are going and what we might accomplish, we have to listen closer than ever before. To learn what we need to know, we have to be open to things we wouldn't have considered worthy of openness in the past. To learn what we need to know, we need to recognize the table's been hit, the chess pieces are flying through the air and so are we.

But we can and must land on our feet, and we can only do that if we keep our eyes out for each other, if we offer a helping hand. 2018 showed me that necessity to be open and aware in new and unique ways. I'm not sure it had anything to do with what was released this year. It had everything to do with what was in play.

Love to you all. We're going to find each other and hold on, and we're going to make it through this storm. It all depends on recognizing our unity in the struggle. The struggle can and should and must bring us together. Happy New Year to all my fellow fighters.

To quote one of my dearest friends, "Love, love, love!" Love is just about all we need, but it takes some work, and a little science, to figure out the rest.  

Top of Form

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Working My Way Back to You: The Heart of Rock & Soul and the Ties That Bind

 At the end of my semester, I had my second level composition students write a little journal about a record or song that they would call a favorite. This activity was literally inspired by a dream that woke me 5:30 that morning. I was trying to herd a bunch of students in a public place and find us all somewhere to sit. It wasn’t working, so I just started saying, “Write about your favorite song!” It fit with what they needed to do that day (an analysis exercise), so I brought along my lifelong mentor Dave Marsh’s book The Heart of Rock & Soul, read snippets from a few entries and had them write their own.
Perhaps because I’ve devoted most of my life to music and I’ve been a little estranged from that work lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about these journal entries, especially what they had in common. My students are a pretty diverse group. Though the largest fraction are young women and a few men (white, Black and Hispanic) from my area, in these classes I also have students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Pakistan, China, Japan, Iraq and Iran. I played with the demographics all kinds of ways, but the most interesting aspects of the journals are the ties that bind them together. Though most students wrote about being attracted by the sound of a record or a song, that isn’t what yielded the most interesting connections. I am taken with all the ways my students use their music.
The most common single tie that binds responses together is a sense of belonging. Sometimes that feeling is microcosmic, like a student writing about her boyfriend buying her fries when she had too much to drink. But often it is on a larger scale—how a whole family chimes in repeating “Oh, Christmas Tree” for the entirety of the song’s lyric or how an entire family associates Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the student as a little girl or Katy Perry’s “Firework” with another, singing it to her uncle each year when she went to visit him.
Sometimes, it is about the George Strait or Joan Sebastian, Dad or Mom used to play in the car, or the Lebanese singer Fairuz who reminds my Iraqi student of her once-normal life back home, from the breakfast table to getting dropped off at school. 
Sometimes it is about a family with a musician, like the memory of being a little girl and thinking her aunt was Joan Jett (or the other way around) because she had seen her aunt’s cover band play “I Love Rock & Roll” long before she knew anyone else sang it. Then there’s the grandfather who made up his own words to Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” when he sang it to his granddaughter, and the memory of playing Elvis for him when he was recovering from heart surgery. I believe that student plays the guitar herself.
Those who aren’t motivated to play music still use it for motivation. One student has drawn on Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” to navigate her way through difficult situations; another has used Logic’s “Everyday” to put up with juggling too much school and too much work. Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” encourages another student to honestly express her emotions and keep moving forward. One uses music to “make my mood better and make me think deeply.”
These private uses often relate to pain. A number of the journals above dealt with the loss of a loved one, the song lending the writer a way to carry that pain. One student’s father always talked about when they’d share a beer on her 21st birthday but he died when she was 19, so she associates life after him with Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here.” Another student uses Son Lux’s “All Directions” as a way to appreciate the moment and life’s constant state of change. Another talks about how Twenty-One Pilots’ “Migraine” speaks to the battles in his head.
Some of these battles are literally to keep getting out of bed in the morning. One young woman loves The Black-Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love” because it helps her deal with “all the hate in the world.” Another young woman writes about how Sufjan Stevens “Mystery of Love” helped her through her first heartbreak and “come to terms with what had happened.” Another tells how Breaking Benjamin’s “Until the End” gives her the upper hand in ongoing battles “with severe anxiety and depression.” Her journal is echoed by yet another young woman’s journal about J. Cole’s “Once an Addict,” relating “to every line” and using it to “overcome and better think about my situation.”  
J. Cole, "Once an Addict" art
If anything is a sign of the times, it has to be the amount of anxiety and depression that surrounds us. The world is changing, rapidly, and the future is obviously uncertain and more than a little bit terrifying. Taken as a whole, these journals show how people engage with music to find ways to keep going and to find each other. I didn’t categorize these, but the range of emotions my students used to describe their music says a great deal.
According to these students, their songs express relatable pain, yes, but that’s never the whole thing. They also make “my heart [feel] full” and help us “have fun.” They are reminders of “the best days of my life,” and they are “uplifting.” They are “smooth and catchy” and “romantic and playful.” My students’ songs calm and comfort as well as excite, and their songs counter worry and hopelessness with feelings of individual strength, strength in numbers and joy and love and peace.
It’s a wonderful reminder why I have been either writing music or writing about music since I was 15, and also a reminder that neither myself nor my students have to feel as alone as the world tends to make us feel. I hear all of these songs calling us to come together, and though we don’t yet quite know how, all of these students and their songs say the answer’s all around us.  

Friday, December 21, 2018

No Place Left To Hide: Springsteen on Broadway, Hard-Fought Reminders and Fresh Keys to the Universe

Opening night on TV, December 16th, a Sunday, I watched Springsteen on Broadway with my dear friends Billy "Chin" Heaster and Ben Bielski. Bruce has compelled me to write in response since I was 15. That night was no different, and what follows is what came pouring out, with some much needed edits....
All I can say is I knew it would be good because it’s Bruce. Well past the point where he has to, Bruce continuously fights to raise the stakes each time out, at least for his core audience. I’d read a few reviews of the Broadway show, some of the best written by people I knew. But nothing I read really prepared me for what I experienced.
There are a couple of reasons for that, and they’re understandable. One is that Bruce designs what he does so much focused on his ideas that it’s hard to miss them (although many have), and that’s what writers want to write about, ideas, I think. At least the story.
Briefly, we start with the portraits of a hometown he loved and hated and move to polar portraits of his mother and father. Then we follow him as he goes for his own version of Elvis, discovers America and realizes how easily his life could have been lost, at home or in Vietnam. He forms a band that is, magically, a formula of “1 + 1 =3” and he finds a wife who can look him in his eye and call him on his bullshit. His father gifts him with an attempt at apology that helps him not make the same mistakes he made with his own kids. And then he turns overtly outward with a suite of songs about our better selves—the vision of Tom Joad, the conviction of the first responders during 911, folks like me (and almost everyone today) struggling to restart again “worrying about your little world falling apart” and, ultimately, that core theme of Rock & Soul, that “People Get Ready” train to the Promised Land. In summation, he shows every one of those themes’s DNA in the closing song, his signature “Born to Run.” It’s a compelling story, vital and beautiful.
But that’s not what makes the show work, not the story alone. It’s, as he calls it, the “magic trick.” It’s what he’s been after for some time. How can you tell the story as honestly as possible in a way that may truly be liberating? He’s been after it for years. I remember thinking of the analogy of Bruce night-after-night picking a lock over two decades ago. How do you use this thing in a way that doesn’t simply reinforce the illusion?
Well, he boils things down, for the most part, to their essence. He gushes over Elvis (tellingly without saying his name because he's talking about a promise more than a man) and he explains that his first step in learning his craft involved posing with a guitar not playing it. He is, at once, at his most theatrical and most scripted, and he is also at his most precise.
Director/Secret Weapon of E Street Band, Thom Zimny
 Springsteen on Broadway is bare bones in a way that reveals each song in a new light. I think it’s a profoundly musical experience. Even the monologues, which take up the majority of the performance, serve as verbal tone poems that connect the songs. The words are great—natural and poetic and honest, nakedly as close to that goal as you can get without embarrassing yourself and the audience. But what I think about in the monologues, and which director Thom Zimny captures so well with this film, are the facial expressions, the inarticulate moments, the balks, the agonized flailing, the shouts and the prayers.
This translates into a different way to hear the songs, as something familiar but new, enhanced. When Bruce sings “Brilliant Disguise” with Patti, they are eyeball-to-eyeball, telling each other they are watching for any sleight of hand, and, and, especially Patti lets you know that she’s going to catch some. I’ve never heard the pledge of “Tougher than the Rest” articulated more vividly. And this goes for much of the show. The way he manages to bridge the gap between a new sprightly rhythm for “The Promised Land” and the dark, desert storm vision that he articulated acapella on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour….Well, to me, it’s mind-blowing.
Pretty much everything in this show is about everything but, first, the music of voice and the music of music. “My Hometown’s” never been more beautiful than set in this context on solo piano. “My Father’s House” never more haunting than after a tale of the old man’s bar (and his ruddy, misshapen, post-bar face). “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the E Street Band declaration of purpose, never more infectious. I asked my friend Billy, who was the only one who saw this on Broadway, “How did you not break out into song on that?” The restraint is part of the power of the show, too.
One of the great mistakes I make when writing about Bruce, or anyone, is my tendency to go on too long. As one of my great friends and mentors has put it, what you are doing is always in service of the music. Yes, the music takes care of itself. No commentary on the show could or should try to “cover” what the show has to offer, what the music is trying to do. That’s a fool’s errand to no purpose.
My main concern here is to say, if you watch Springsteen on Broadway, watch it as a piece of musical theater and be ready for it to be one of the most challenging pieces of musical theater you are likely to encounter. If you go in determined to disprove that notion, then you probably won’t have the experience. If you go in openly, the rest will take care of itself.
Beyond that, I want to declare the honor and privilege of watching it with my dear friends of the past three decades. When Bruce talked about losing his father, I felt the bond with my brothers, all of us now fatherless, with various levels of father-son issues unresolved (although all of ours in better shape than Bruce’s, he seems to have found some peace). When Bruce talked about his mother’s dementia and sang one of his greatest all-but-unknown songs “The Wish,” a song about her and dedicated to her, he spoke in varied ways to all three of us who still struggle to be there for our aging mothers. None of us missed the visceral way his reading of the thirty-year-old song speaks to his mother’s dementia, to our own concerns and fears.
And, finally, I felt blessed by the way the show spoke to the hope that binds my friends and I together. It’s not an idealistic hope. It’s a hope that’s there when you’ve got nothing left to lose. “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart” never sounded more revolutionary. It’s tactical. It’s about how you do things rather than simply what you’re trying to do.
And that’s the beauty of Springsteen on Broadway. We all want to be reminded of our better selves and live up to that measure. The question is, “how in hell do we do that?” Bruce doesn’t have the answers, but he has many clues, musical and theatrical and philosophical clues he’s puzzling over himself. But he’s figured out a new way to present them that sheds more light on what he’s spent his life doing. It’s crucial, at least to us fans, because it helps us shine a new light on ourselves….
And I, for one, damn sure needed that.

Blood Brothers "Big D" Alexander, Benny "GTO" Bielski and Billy "Drive All Night" Chin

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Doe Paoro's Soft Power Tackles the Endlessly Unexpected Everything

Pictured lifted from @theknockturnal
 After a two month hiatus, sitting on half a dozen blogs that I need to publish before the new year. Let me start here. Doe Paoro plays her last tour gig at the Larimer Lounge in Denver tonight. Having been introduced to her by the previous show in Kansas City, I feel the urgent need to get this out there.

It was one of those rare nights when I had to come home and write immediately. This is what came out:

Doe Paoro, 12/18/18, The Riot Room, KC
I greatly appreciate the opening act at tonight's Riot Room Show, Denver's Sarah Slaton (of Edison) with vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Joelle. They did a gem of a set, but the thing that Slaton said that I don't hear often enough was the reminder that mattered. Slaton called out, "Buy their merch (referring to headliner Doe Paoro)! Support touring bands!"
Support touring bands! If we could reconcile "Support Local Music" with "Support Touring Bands" nationwide, we'd be on our way to a level of political unity this country's never yet seen. (Akin in my other line of work to support students first and teachers also--adjunct, full-time, K-12, community college, vo-tech and university.)
They were great, but I came for Doe Paoro (aka Sonia Kreitzer), who I only knew out of curiosity and watching a few videos, most notably "Over," which you should check out (, but you might start with the video for "Cage of Habits" because of its tight focus on this remarkable singer
Picture lifted from @theknockturnal
It's in many ways useless to compare artists to other artists, but sometimes it's useful to suggest a spectrum. If you watch the "Cage of Habits" video, Fiona Apple might come to mind. She didn't, really, during the show. Watching and listening to Doe Paoro live, I felt like I was traveling a spectrum that ranged from Carole King (very present in Paoro's presence and eclecticism) to Rickie Lee Jones back to Eddie Cochran and through Amy Winehouse and Adele to whatever comes next. I found myself thinking about Carole King's supremely talented daughter, Louise Goffin, and burgeoning artists like Charlie Faye and Alysha Brilla, Brilla a young woman who captures the world of music in what seems a simple pop song (the way Paoro does again and again, overtly on the Indian-influenced "Born Whole" Free of past prejudices, there's a brand new territory for all young pop singers.
Paoro owns it. In her first show in Kansas City (she's from Syracuse via LA, and this was her 20th night on a cross-country tour), she didn't say this but approached the set like "you wanna real show, right, not a style or a pose or a fragment of what rock and soul have to offer"? She made her case. Her songs dealt, precisely and eloquently with the vagaries of struggling through and overcoming relationships. Her songs tackled how we live and how we grow.
That's key, because the music went deep. I wish everyone I know experienced the power of this performance. As is true of most touring bands (like local bands) night after night after night, the crowd was not big enough, period. Not big enough to support a local band, not big enough to quite justify the drive to, in this case, KC.
But what all but a couple of dozen of us missed in KC tonight was a powerful band working uncharted territory. The show rocked hard and...I wanna say, graciously, but also kept finding its way back to a meditative hard focus that threw everything else into relief.
L-R, Aeb Byrne, Doe Paoro, Leanne Bowes, Sheldon Reed
 Brief description of this band, a touring band of LA musicians, but such a great fit you hope they're not done working together anytime soon. Sheldon Reed anchored everything with his sharp and splashy drums. Then there were these two tall, formidable women, dressed in black like Paoro but sentries to her vulnerable dancing centerpiece, flanking her, framing her--a dramatic tableau that sends me scrambling through rock history for comparisons. Bassist Leanne Bowes, classically stoic (like almost all the great bassists) made sure the rhythm was not only popping but surprisingly provocative. Then there was keyboard player (and secret weapon) Aeb Byrne, who kept everything multicolored and three-dimensional....before, before, she stepped out and delivered a transcendental (think Traffic or War) flute solo that, well, exploded the boundaries of "Cruelty of Nature."
I just bought the albums at the merch table, so I'm sure I'll have more to say over time, but tonight, I want to say I saw three heroic women and one heroic man transform the local rock stage into something truly liberating, delivering nothing short of grace.
Watch for Doe Paoro, and don't forget the names Sheldon Reed, Leanne Bowes and Aeb Byrne. They're all the future and very, very present. This is the place where we find our way forward, as Paoro sings, we "Walk Through the Fire," and we arrive at musical and social and political horizons inconceivable in music before this moment.
At one point Paoro commented, "I need to get over this 'growth is hard thing' I keep writing about because I should have learned that by now." My thought was, no, not really, because growth is everything, and you never quite learn that. Growth is the endlessly unexpected everything.
As was tonight's set. 
Loose Plans (from Soft Power)         
Cage of Habit (from Soft Power)
Born Whole (from Slow to Love)
Over (from Soft Power)
Cruelty of Nature (from Soft Power)
Silver Springs (Fleetwood Mac) 
Second Door (from Soft Power
Together Apart (from Soft Power)
Walk Through the Fire (from Soft Power)
Fading Into Black (from Soft Power)

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.