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.

Friday, April 09, 2021

No Ordinary Blue--Thoughts on John Prine Revisited

April 9, 2020

These are just some late night thoughts as I get my first moment to think in the past 30.
Stephen King once described finding stories like digging up gems, excavating, finding the solid center underneath. Funny thing (though I love him for reasons that overlap with Prine), I don't really think of his sprawling stories the way I think of Prine's songs, those gems, that rock underneath.
I think it's because, when you hear the epic sounds of something like "Lake Marie," you hear the little moment that makes a connection to a tale, an epiphany at its heart. As my friend Steve Messick stuck in my head without even saying it, in "Hello in There," you hear an epic sweep in that refrain about rivers growing wilder every day. "Hello in There" is a song that seems so sentimental and small you can hold it in your hand, but you hit that refrain, and you realize this song's about all of life, but particularly the whole of a certain couple's lonely life, and how that life is shoved aside in our society, where we put people away when they no longer turn a dollar, when they may be fading (or, let's be frank, when we're hit by something like Katrina or COVID-19) and if so, they need to go--"23 skidoo," "skedaadle," "beat it, old man."
It's what it's like to feel less powerful, and since that's the trajectory of life, it's as big as Lake Marie. And I mean musically; it's just, in this case, the infinity between two plucked notes and a little steel instead of "Lake Marie's" blasting outward.
And then there's that "Jesus, The Missing Years," a song about storytelling that so hilariously and precisely begins with the bar talk about "no one knew where he was?....Nobody!"
Since "Bethlehem's no place for a 12-year-old," the protagonist of this movie strikes out on his own only to find himself in a series of Chaplin-esque traps. Then he finds his way to fortune and fame and Beatles and Stones and even George Jones.
But like all such tales, it takes its dark turn, when the kid's vision gets the best of him, maybe he begins to talk about who's left out, and society shuts him down. This is what happens when the yarn hits reality, and Jesus went to heaven "awful quick."
It's a big old goofy world we live in for sure, but that fascination for the song and the story and how it gets across gave John Prine a way of snatching it up and collecting it in a ball of wonder--right down to the plucks of guitar, the playfulness of a note, the humor or pain at the edge of his voice. He found this zen that made you listen and think about whatever he was talking about, even if you didn't know what he was talking about, in a way you never thought about it before.
Of course, generally, his main ideas were clear enough, if especially in tone and timbre behind the words. He was such an easy friend to keep. I don't think any of us ever thought about what it would mean to lose him. Friends like that don't come around every day.
Never mind anyone who would start his recorded career with a goof as the best ending to a song ever--"I'm just trying to have me some fun!
Well done!
Hot dog bun!
[Bump bump]
My sister's a nun!"
Thank you for that fun, and a lifetime of gems that continue to do their work, giving us light in the darkness, illuminating our way forward.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Sarah Langan's Good Neighbors: My Novel on Replay

Almost at its dead center, not for the first or last time but decidedly, Good Neighbors grabs me by the throat.

A terrible thing has happened, and the easy scapegoat is the family that doesn't quite fit into the society of the Maple Street cul-de-sac, the main stage of the story.

The words come out of a nice enough woman, a progressive even, but in this moment she couldn't be more reactionary. She's explaining why she knows something is dangerous about the new family--the musician in the family has shown his hand. 

"Look at what they come from," she explains to her child. "That song about heroin and cartoons. That's a true story Julia's dad sang, about his own life. That kind of history leaves scars, Charlie. It damages a person. Victims turn into predators . . . I know this from experience . . ."

Near the end of the book, another character has a revelation: "It felt so wonderful, for the briefest of moments, to be known. To be seen for the monster she was, and nonetheless accepted. It was the truest moment of her life."

That moment sustains a feeling that's built over one of the best chapters I've ever read, a chapter filled with physical and emotional risk, physical and emotional pain. Horror and dark beauty builds something like real community out of division and betrayal.

I cannot write about this objectively, yet the book begins and ends with the objective truths that ask us to think about one another and our relationship to each other. The book deals with climate change, a yawning sinkhole threatening to rob all of its characters of everything they have, and it's a book about economic decline, that sinkhole merely the physical manifestation of the block-busting threat when the Wilde family moves in. 

I'm not objective because I grew up as a "victim" who knew, if the world knew my secret, I might be feared as a "predator." This is the part of abuse no one talks about much--the fear of the stigma of being abused. I don't regret it; it's made me who I am, but it's also shaped every relationship in my life and every contribution I make in this life as well.

(I hasten to add that I wasn't abused by my parents....They didn't know. Way more often than not, parents don't know. If you don't think being a parent is terrifying, try doing the job with that perspective.)

It's certainly why I write about the kind of music Arlo Wilde makes, songs of heroin and cartoons and secrets cried out loud. My shorthand for that is "rock," but every music of the cultural explosion that's taken place in America has some element of what I call "rock" in it.

That's also why I write, and have written about, something I call "horror," a form ill-defined and even worse understood.

Monsters and music have long been my beat, and Good Neighbors gets at the why and the how of both of those things. The truest moments of our life come from our darkest secrets, and the acceptance of those dark truths in one another is the only way we find and build anything like real community, the sort of community that might survive a collapsing world. 

For that reason and many more, I love this book. I believe in these people, and I like spending time with them, especially the children, and that only happens when a story gets kids right and knows what it takes for the kids to be all right. Like all my favorite art, this book roots itself in an unflinching observation of truths that haunt us but also offers us a means to an open heart, a way forward. 

When I finish books, I often use that afterglow to pick up another, hoping the new book will sustain the thrill of the community and discovery I just left. This time, I simply went back to page one. It feels like a record I just want to play over and over and over, for all the reasons above.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Place of No Words: Love in the Face of Death


Midway through The Place of No Words, the movie's 5-year-old protagonist, Bodhi asks his dying father why people have to die.

His father responds, "It's part of life."

Bodhi replies, "Then I don't like life. I don't like life."

It's a perfectly logical response. 

At almost the same age, I stared at my bedspread and contemplated the implications of all I knew about death. Everyone I knew was going to die, and I was too. I remember that moment like I'd been let in on a cruel joke. In Bodhi, I can feel the hurt I felt that first time. It wasn't the last time I felt that way, and I assume I'm not alone in having such thoughts. That's one reason this movie is so important.

Very little culture and very few movies focus on that part of life we call dying, the actual process, and The Place of No Words would be remarkable if only for keeping that process in focus over the entirety of its 94 minutes. 

It's a movie about quiet moments, a movie about being, and that's the perfect fit for Webber's lingering mise-en-scene direction. We have quiet moments with Bodhi and his parents, when he breaks into tears over their laughter at something he said; when they struggle to make him feel better, explaining why they laughed. 

In such moments, in virtually every scene, the film captures love. The particulars may change. The father grows sad while cherishing the final moments he has with his son. The mother grieves silently and stoically, admitting to a friend that she is only pretending to accept what's going on. Both parents engage with the child's imagination, following angelic guides through otherworldly adventures and fighting robots from outer space. The movie commits to that child's-eye-view, unconcerned with the difference in the fantastic and the realistic bits. These are the things that Bodhi sees, and Bodhi's vision is why life matters.

He may not like life at times, but that's only because he loves it enough to engage in it with every aspect of his being. His parents, loving him, play along. Life would be dreadful if it were only defined by death, and this movie repeatedly illustrates just how enormously the fact of death is counterbalanced with rich possibility, an infinity in each moment.

40-year-old Webber has acted in about 50 movies, including The Laramie Project, Broken Flowers and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, but the 5 films he's directed deserve distinct recognition. His previous movies (Explicit Ills, The End of Love, The Ever After and Flesh and Blood) blend pieces of memoir with fictional storytelling in ways that defy separation. The magic realism of Bodhi's perspective--making up adventures with his family even as they gather around his father's death bed--perfectly suits Webber's approach. It allows the magic of life to bounce up against its finality, and it lets the little eternities every child knows (and parents glimpse in their best moments) fill and hold the screen. 

For all of these reasons, including the quiet pain in the performance by Teresa (Palmer, star of Warm Bodies and A Discovery of Witches), The Place of No Worlds is an inspiring film about why (despite it's cruelty) life is worth living. Little Bodhi gives and receives love, growing through the process. 

In the final scenes, Paul Kelly's "I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore" speaks for the light just ahead of little Bodhi and everyone else watching the movie, the process of dying teaching us all how to better live. Paul Kelly, "I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore" 

Teresa Palmer and Mark Webber 

Note: Mark Webber's clear-eyed vision comes in some large part from his childhood growing up battling homelessness with his mother Cheri Honkala. A wonderful way to honor this movie is to give to her organization, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. Donate here to the Poor People's Army