Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Erica, Steve and The Saints of Lost Causes

11 years. The days fell the same this weekend.
You reached out that Friday afternoon to tell me you were sorry about abandoning our friendship, and you wished my new family well.
I saw Steve Earle this Friday, what a strange, oddly perfect connection. He played songs from "Ghosts of West Virginia," about the 29 miners killed the spring before you died, the worst mine disaster in 40 years. He made the audience sing along to "Union, God and Country," warning us if we didn't sing people were liable to think we were scabs.

This would have made you laugh. I remember how you cheered him on when he shared his politics before "Devil's Right Hand," "Billy Austin," or even "The Revolution Starts Now."
Then he sang "Far Away In Another Town," "The Saint of Lost Causes" and "Harlem River Blues" from his "J.T." album. That brought everything home. "The Saint of Lost Causes" seemed to me the highlight of one of the best shows I've seen from him ever, a show that never let up to its closing cover of "Rag Mama Rag."

But the band sounded bigger than ever on "The Saint of Lost Causes," full and haunting and ominous. Steve never sounded better either. Nothing felt tossed off. He sang every note like he meant it.

And that thing about wolves and shepherds and who's killed more sheep. You and I would have talked about that, better now than in the past.
I guess we are now, the only way we can.
Sunday, Monday and today were all more tough anniversaries from that same terrible weekend. It felt like it was all falling this way for a reason, or at least I'm going to make reason of it. That's my job. In many ways, you taught me just how important that job is. Whether or not our conversation could have shifted to one with a little more hope now only matters in the way I deal better with others going forward.
Meanwhile, I continue to grieve, but I'm determined to do it differently. My dad and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico to hear a man named Stephen Jenkinson talk about death when my father knew he was in his last year. I went looking for a quote from Jenkinson that I carry with me often, one about grief being the love for that which has passed from view.
I found another one by accident, and it speaks to how I'm looking at this anniversary. “Grief is not a feeling; it is a capacity. It is not something that disables you. We are not on the receiving end of grief; we are on the practising end of grief.”
When I was facing disability twenty years ago, you helped me fight my way forward. Maybe I did something like this a time or two for you. I hope so. Either way, your memory shows me what you always showed me--possibility, a way to rise, a way to be more fully me, and a way to fight.
That was a fine band the other night. You should have heard fiddler Eleanor Whitmore sing "If I Could See Your Face Again." I can see yours--watching her, listening, loving music in a way very particular to you.
It was a concert made for you. And it was a concert made for me, BC and Ben, all the more grateful we still have one another after all these years . . . me all the more grateful for you.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Twelve Years Ago and Today, Knox Family's "In These Streets"

Knox Family's 2009 EP
Twelve years ago, I wrote this about a single as vital today as it was then.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74D_TC1tthk

Single-Minded, “In These Streets”  

                Maybe it’s because the percolating bass and percussive claps at the beginning of this record call to mind the funk that would prefigure hip hop, but it’s not a hip hop record I first think of when the Knox Family’s “In These Streets” comes on. It’s not a funk record either, although the band I’m thinking of was certainly influenced by both funk and early hip hop. The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered” wells up out of my subconscious the moment MC Jerm raps “Yo man, I don’t think they heard you” and a voice cries out in the dark, “a murder!”

                And that makes sense. A big part of the Clash’s appeal was a bracing honesty that confronted the walls that keep us apart. Seattle’s The Knox Family takes us from behind any four walls we might like to think protect us and out into the darkness to confront reality. Toni Hill’s beautiful vocal is key to the intimacy of that journey as she reminds us, “Somebody’s praying in these streets/somebody’s dying in these streets/somebody’s hustling in these streets” and then takes it all in her immediate embrace with, “Somebody’s singing for you and me.”  

Toni Hill's 2008 "Only Love"

                The rest of the record goes further into the muck and mire that’s the current human condition.  Most important?  The light it shines.

                In verse one, Julie C’s sassy and knowing rhymestyle catalogues a mind-numbing list of offensives in the “all out war against poor populations,” including intimidation tactics carried out by everyone from the FCC to the beat cop,  gang legislation, privatized prisons and deaths caused by “non-lethal” weapons.  This verse and the second are rapped against sirens that spiral between the left and right channels of the speakers and another voice in the night, making an unclear sound but plainly in distress….  Somebody hustling or somebody dying.

                And then Hill sings again, backed by a 5 note key progression that mines the same territory Timbaland’s been working lately but suggests a bigger, explicit dream— hope for every voice that currently goes unheard and faith in those voices to change the world.


Julie C's 2011 "Sliding Scale"
              Julie C’s second verse starts at the heights of Wall Street  and follows the “global economic collapse.”  She somehow hits on all of it, from the political stakes that lead to bank bailouts to the foreclosure of the homes of those small enough to fail. Before she’s finished, Julie C describes a globalized war between the rich and the poor.

                With the stakes this high, Hill begins to tic off more of what “singing for you and me” means—“we gotta get together/’cause we need/ to heal the sick and hopeless/yes, indeed/to strive for peace and justice/equality/love for you and me.” With keys washing in behind her, Hill’s voice grows more reassuring and inspiring as she touches on each key to the future. 

    The third and final verse starts after the record’s turned the corner toward a fade out. Julie C raps a sign off and then, like James Brown throwing off his cape, she launches into, “Yo, violence is a symptom not the disease.” The dissonant sirens are gone now, replaced by flute-like keys and more percussion including high hat and snappy wood block beats. Something’s different about this last highly charged verse, though the signs stay grim, “Why is the city of Seattle dropping another 110 million to open a new jail we don’t need, while the district can’t even find a measly 3.6 to keep our schools from closing?”

                And this cape-dropping allows for a new intimacy. This last verse feels like an urgent whisper being passed on a streetcorner.  “Want to know what’s really going on?” Julie C asks.  “Just follow the paper trail to downtown Olympia, Wall Street, D.C./As long as poverty pimps keep profiting from our problems/We can’t wait for change/We gotta create our own solutions/Straight from the peoples’ movement.”

                And with that, the Knox Family’s debut Ep is out. It’s the end of a rich record, though only 7 full tracks long. From the opening “Make Love,” DJ B-Girl has produced a great party record with a laid back, minimalist style that always manages to use its playful, frenetic beats in fresh, surprising ways— part West Coast gangsta, part crunk and part old school hip hop.  But it’s also, consistently, a series of statements of strength, unity and solidarity. “In These Streets” is the perfect ending, justifying all the bold claims that come before.

                But it’s more than that.  It’s a singular piece of revolutionary art unlike anything else.  It’s the blues of “The Message” wedded to a concrete basis for political unity.  And it’s a spiritual, with Toni Hill’s refrains insisting that the human spirit was made to fulfill our dreams.  It’s a song to suggest a new genre—not protest music so much as revolution rock—good for dancing, crying, shouting and even (especially?) blueprinting our dreams into reality.

For more information:   http://bgirlmedia.com/   

The Poor People's Army, present in this video as the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, is currently suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), HUD secretary Marcia Fudge, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, HSBC Bank, Serrano Acquisitions LLC, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. The suit declares Housing as a Human Right and actively protects 30 families occupying abandoned HUD properties, publicly owned housing, with an aim to not only occupy but improve those properties.

Learn more about the effort here: https://poorpeoplesarmy.com/


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Remembering Prince: "I Want to Be in the New Breed--Stand Up, Organize!"

My Mary J. Blige book had just come out, and Prince died. I suppose that's why I never turned this into anything beyond a Facebook post. The third in a series of such "found eulogies," I feel it needs to go here alongside John Prine and Lou Reed. I don't know why I'm running across all of these reflections at this moment, but I'm finding it valuable. Rallying to move forward--

April 21st, 2016

One night in 1995, working on my book about Soul Asylum, I stood for hours, under-dressed and alone, in Prince's downtown Minneapolis club Glam Slam. Someone would come out on stage at midnight, and there was always a chance it would be him. It was a fine band (though I forget who), but it didn't matter much; I was in Prince's club. I was in Prince's world....as I had been when I first heard 1999 at my brother's place, when I saw Purple Rain debut in Tulsa, when I used to drive around listening to Dirty Mind grappling with the crazy pull of my not-quite-single years in early college, and as I was when I saw Sign of the Times with my buddy BC, both of us at some points standing, and even dancing, in the art-house theater seats.
Now that he's gone, it's easy to see that, in many ways, Prince was the artist of my generation. Just four years older than me, he synthesized everything that was happening to my people in our formative years--from the legacy of rock and soul to disco, punk and funk--and he built a home for us out of the braided textures.
From the punk-ish New Breed, to the Utopian Uptown to the Revolution and the New Power Generation, he built worlds for us to be our whole selves--where love and sex became sanctifying metaphors for how life might become an unending act of creation.
I know all kinds of people are going to say very smart things about Prince tonight and tomorrow and over the following days, and my first reaction was to say nothing. Hell, for the first couple of hours after I heard the news, I was too shook to even think about reading anyone else's thoughts or sharing my own. But I can't go to bed tonight, I can't sleep tonight, without saying a little something.
We'll never be able to plumb the depths of the music Prince created over 40 years of non-stop, frenetic, activity....and that's a good thing. But we will miss living in a world where there is a Prince, where there is that one human being who might emerge from behind the curtain at midnight and, without question, deliver us to some kind of promised land, one that we never envisioned. There was no finer singer, no finer guitarist (no finer multi-instrumentalist), no finer dancer and no finer performer. Someone may have had him somewhere on technique, but he did everything with such vision and such effortlessness.
The last time I saw him play live, I wondered, absolutely wondered, about this. How did someone combine so much craft into something that seemed so elementally natural? But that wasn't really the important part. The enormity of his talent was always secondary. What I never will get over are the many ways he found to reach out to my lonesome self and assure me....my soul could be set free....and my ass would follow. If that isn't the most fundamental lesson any artist could teach, I don't know what it might be.
Off to listen to "Sexuality," a manifesto for resistance and liberation if there ever was such a thing.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

Sensitive Boys, Turn Your Amps Up Loud

Yesterday, I had a dream my friend Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen and I were walking the halls of my high school (in truth, our high schools were 700 miles apart). Eric was singing the Lou Reed song "Stupid Man" from the 1979 album, The Bells. I said, "That's the best song," waking up with it in my head. This led me to a day spent, among other things, reconnecting with my intense relationship to Lou's music, particularly between the ages of 15 and, say, 23, really just before I started writing about music.

Anyway, it led me through my email sends to find a eulogy I wrote upon his death in 2013, something I assumed had been lost. It was written the night after the news to the early hours of the next day.

h/t Alejandro

                Lou Reed’s death is a shock. It’s the loss of a very dear old friend, a close friend. Of course, I never met him, and the one time I wrote a short feature about him (for KC’s Pitchweekly, on the eve of his New York tour stop), his press packet convinced me the world didn’t need one more Lou Reed interview. I had a gut-deep sense of what motivated Lester Bangs to famously (and lovingly) antagonize him. With the press at least, Reed’s ego always seemed to get in the way.

On record, he was something else altogether. At fifteen, I was hooked by 1978’s Street Hassle, and got to know Reed’s solo work first, virtually all of the Velvet Underground records out of print until several crucial years later. Hassle drew this adolescent in, at first, because it sounded so cool, and it went to such dark places—from the unconscionable cover up of a drug overdose to the kind of racialized fantasies that got those kids shot at the beginning of Pulp Fiction. Of course, what held me was not only that droning palisade of sound that kept the record cutting forward but also that chin-out tough-talking voice, at once close to violence and close to tears.

Trying to describe the sound of that voice, I jump forward two years to one of Lou’s most emotionally naked songs, “My Old Man.” He has a quaver from the start as he recalls being lined up on the public school playground—“Regan, Reed and Russo, I still remember the names.” It’s a song about a boy who grows to hate his father for his abusiveness, and throughout the song, the singer sounds like the boy he once was, wiping tears from his eyes and bracing for a fight. That song is followed by “Growing Up in Public,” a meditation on manhood over a comic bass line. He calls himself “a Prince Hamlet caught in the middle between reason and instinct…with [his] pants down again.”  That tortured boy from the schoolyard is never far out of view.

When I think of the vulnerability Lou Reed laced through walls of fuzz guitar, the only fitting corollary that comes to mind is John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. You couldn’t be fooled by the distanced cool of “Walk on the Wild Side”—a primal scream side-winded and coiled just out of sight. If a hostile offense was his best defense, Reed’s gift to fans was music that allowed us both sources of refuge.  

But Reed didn’t build strongholds so much as vantage points, like that guy standing on the corner thinking about Jack and Jane, he most often contemplated what went unobserved—a little girl, an amputee (figuratively or literally) dancing to the A.M. radio in her room, a father wondering over the bed where his wife cut her wrists, and that junkie answering “the dead bodies piled up in mounds” with the only thing that makes him feel like a man. Along with the other Velvets, later guitarists Robert Hunter, Dick Wagner, Robert Quine and Mike Rathke, and longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, Reed found musical hooks that both reminded us of the artifice and pulled us in close to everyday hopes and everyday tragedy. And, sometimes, he took us to moments of peace, on the set of a night shoot for a cola commercial in “Tell It to Your Heart,” in a genial country restaurant on “New Sensations” or in his late night conversation with a beloved ghost on “My House.”

But I have to go back to the album Growing Up in Public for the moment that, for me, best illustrates how the vulnerable boy Lou Reed fights his way forward. It’s the album opener, “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” in its own way as weird (and somehow also plainspoken) a record as he ever made. Over Ellard “Moose” Boles’ bass glissandos and Michael Fonfara’s faux harpsichord keys, the singer describes a boy who has no clue how to talk to a girl he likes—a childhood commonplace delivered as a matter for serious consideration. By the second verse, he’s talking about an adult with the same concerns, and when he sings “how do ya/speak to a,” the bass doubles down, Michael Suchorsky’s drums rage at the problem, the keys escalate, Stuart Heinrich kicks in with metal guitar and everything builds to a break—“How do ya/Speak to a,” voice and handclaps, part opera, part gospel. This is no longer simply a serious matter; it’s THE serious matter.

The band roars forward with some punk metal version of a full tilt boogie, Reed continuing to ask the same question. Over the course of the song, his voice has moved from a kind of gentle lilt to, now, a bellowing, grunting, growling call to charge. He finally shouts, his voice a roar—“You say ‘hello, Baby!” It’s a Hail Mary.  

“Baby! Angel” he shouts as the band plays on, and as the backing vocals swell and the band rages, he says, “Aaaanggell, Aaaaanngggelll,” and the roar is primal. When I played this record on Sunday, that cry brought tears to my eyes. It still does now. I’m already missing this man who found that boy’s voice. They both helped me find mine.