Kicking My Legs

The other day, I found myself in a disconsolate mood.

This is not usual. I am temperamentally optimistic, which I used to think was my Midwestern heritage but now realize is primarily a function of my white male privilege (why shouldn’t I be expecting the day to go well for me when I wake up every morning?) and secondarily the by-product of my obsession with art and learning (I can be reasonably assured that every conscious day I live will bring me at least one moment of aesthetic or gnostic thrill, and I can live on one for hours).

But on this day I was down. For one–though I can usually keep the relentless ugliness of these times at bay by reminding myself that they are nothing new, it’s just that the mask is all the way down (so why should I start moping now?)–the sordid litany of the Cohen hearings had so penetrated my defenses I had come to feel like Washizu Taketoki at the end of Throne of Blood. For another, I had just had a miserable experience with my Stephens class, and having a miserable experiences when I am teaching–it is an action I love, no matter how difficult it may be–is foreign to me. I happen to be teaching a second-semester composition class that is mostly made up of freshmen who failed composition first semester–several of them who failed my class. This in itself is no problem; with three decades of high school experience with struggling learners, I am probably the best person on campus for this job. Things is, with this particular group, simple attendance and work completion is a struggle (remember: we’re talking college here), and it’s an 8 a.m. class, so enthusiasm for the education process is occasionally wispy in nature. In this case, I had prepared a lesson that I felt was very high-interest, exceptionally stimulating, and inarguably relevant to my class’ concern–and, out of 16 students registered at that point, five showed up. Five. I know what you teachers out there are thinking: Perfect! Small group–a more intimate, direct, and collaborative experience!  Yeah, well, cool and all, but I prepared the lesson for sixteen, and there’s the matter of the role it was not going to play in the success of 69% of my students’ upcoming papers. Not to mention that I like larger classes; I thrive off the gathered energy, and the possibilities of accidental inspiration and enlightenment are far greater. Thus, I scrapped the lesson and held writing conferences for the hardy humans who showed up. Useful, yes, but nothing fresh, fun, challenging, and interactive. (I know you’re wanting the deets, but they are too painful to recall; suffice it to say that it involved Dusty Springfield.)

I’d dismissed the class and was pouting at the computer (recording attendance, as it happened). I was literally shaking my head and contemplating harikari, and decided, of course, to take one last look at Facebook (when the bombs start falling on the first day of World War III, we will all be recording our statuses). I’d almost forgotten that, as one of the two songs I share every morning and have shared every morning for close to a decade for no discernible reason, with the hearings immediately swirling in my head upon having awakened, I’d posted the above video clip from the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. “Even the President of the Yew-Nited States / One day must have to stand naked!”: really? That’s too easy, Phil.  Be that as it may, I absently clicked on the link, dimly aware that I still had the data projector on, its volume turned about halfway up.

As Uncle Bob’s screed rolled out–it’s damn near long as the Gettysburg Address!–I twisted out a grimace at the phrase “There is no sense in trying!” and reminded myself of my old-time idol’s cynicism. I am not really a cynic, but that line actually sounded pretty good to me and made me feel even worse. However, the song (I hope you do not need me to tell you this) is not only an astoundingly detailed catalogue of American failings imaginatively and skillfully written (though “propaganda all is phony” is a wince-inducing glitch), it’s not even completely cynical. “…[H]e not busy being born / is busy dying!”? “…[I]t is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to!”? “Although the masters make the rules / For the wise men and the fools / I got nothing, Ma, to live up to!”? And does he stick the landing!

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only!

Yep, those lines are anything but cynical. They’re motivating, liberating, life-affirming, and definitively sans bullshit. As I listened to them for the umpteenth time, my short hairs rose to attention, my heart leapt, my blood warmed, my grimace warped into a defiant smile. I was still shaking my head, but in amazement. And it was cool to hear it in the open air of the classroom…

Another teacher was holding court in my room after my class, and, in my hypnotic state, I hadn’t noticed that some of her students had rolled in, seated themselves, and were apparently remaining silent out of respect for my meditation. The vibration of those final words–“it’s life and life only”–deteriorated into our space, followed by about 15 seconds of silence, and one of the students said, “Did you like that?”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant; these days, you can’t be. But I blurted out instantly in response, “Oh yes. For me, that is the rock. If I’m barely treading water, that’s what I’m reaching for, and what I’m gonna stand on. It’s worked for me for years, since I was 17–still does 40 years later. So…did you like it?”

I inhaled sharply, awaiting potential injury.

She answered, “Yeah. That was amazing.”

“Truth,” I smiled–and bolted out of there, knowing that, if I lingered, the resulting conversation would overlap into my department head’s allotted time. But I’d crashed the cuffs off, and skipped out of the building full ready to be shown more.

 

Quiet Dog

I’m still struggling with what to do with this blog. I flit from idea to idea; I get discouraged because I feel I’m just doing it as an exercise (what’s wrong with that?), and get frustrated because I not only get bored with formats too easily, but also frequently feel my spigot twist violently shut and hear voices telling me I’ve got nothing to say: “You’re just a kind of aggregator!” (What’s wrong with that?)

Anyhow, well, here’s some things I can report from recently.

I had a headphone experience with the New York Dolls’ debut. I’ve listened to that disc a million times, but it really popped out the chicken skin this time ’round. I’m usually the first to roll my eyes when I hear someone (usually around my age) says there isn’t good music anymore, but it’s this shit that makes me wonder (for a few minutes). If anyone or any band is saying this much right now, it’s not being said with so much thrilling musical hell breaking loose all around it. If anyone or any band is loosing this thick a slab of musical hell right now, they ain’t saying near as much. “I’m talkin’ ’bout your overview,” indeed–David’s words must resonate with any conscious adult walking around in this world, and the noise Johnny wrenches from his axe testifies to his resulting dislocation.

I bitched about the mildness of 2019’s best records and got my comeuppance. It’s all coincidence, but March’s music came in like a lioness, and delivered quite a litter. I was really craving a undeniable, catchy, beatwise classic, and I got at least one of those, though its classic status will depend on how many other people feel the same way. To wit:

Little Simz: Grey Area (“Lady Don’t Tek No” division–this is my “undeniable, catchy, beatwise classic, although it tails off a bit on the back end)

Royal Trux: White Stuff (“Rock and Roll Never Gives Up” division)

James Brandon Lewis: An Unruly Manifesto (“Call & Response” division)

2 Chainz: Rap or Go to the League (“Ball is Life” division)

Rosie Flores: A Simple Case of the Blues (“Doing the Work” division)

Dave: PSYCHODRAMA (“Rap Opera” division)

Robert Forster: Inferno (“Old Friends” division)

…and I haven’t even absorbed the new Solange yet.

My life was enriched by a couple Toms. Specifically, Tom Moon, the admirable and indefatigable author of 1000 Records to Hear Before You Die (published in 2008), and Tom Hull, a fellow Midwesterner who quietly, reliably, intelligently and astonishingly keeps record nerds country-wide abreast of a truckload of new records each month that they might want to familiarize themselves with. They are men after my own heart because they strive to listen to the most promising example of damn near everything, the music lovers’ equivalent to diners who’d never order the same thing from the same menu twice if they could help it. Aren’t you suspicious of anyone who just likes one thing? For some reason looking for more reading to add to my already mountainous pile, I realized I hadn’t really looked carefully at the last half of Moon’s book. Many hours later, I had a bulging-at-the-seams Apple Music playlist of mostly international releases like this gem from the Andes:

Mr. Hull was so kind to reference this blog in his monthly Streamnotes report–to my delight (mainly because I was able to pay him back for his many hot and accurate tips) I’d encouraged him to listen to a few items he liked. Here’s a neat thing he pushed me towards:

I suggest that my readers make themselves familiar with both these Tom cats and you’ll seldom lack for anything substantial to feed your ears. And here is a Spotify playlist derived from Moon’s book to back me up.

My wife and I had a Hank Williams jam on a Saturday night. On the way to and back from a dinner at one of our favorite restaurants–one hour round-trip–Nicole and I indulged in a Hillbilly Shakespeare yell-along. Hank’s the country version of Sam Phillips’ comment about Howlin’ Wolf: his music is where the soul of man never dies. Nicole: “Somehow I know the lyrics to all of these songs.” Indeed. It is near mystical. The next day, she beckoned her Facebook friends to share their favorite Hank songs, and we were surprised to find that he is not as well-known and thoroughly absorbed by our population as we thought, another sign of the apocalypse. One of my very favorites (Hiram liked to talk to his heart):

I found out 504 Records is still releasing music. 504 Records is an itsy-bitsy New Orleans label that, in my experience, has never released an uninteresting record. Its focus is local–and why not? New Orleans music is inexhaustible. Whenever I’m in the Crescent City, I head to the French Market, where there is one-count ’em-one music kiosk that always offers 504 stock. The “new” release contains very rare and fascinating recordings by local hero Cousin Joe, James Booker (“The Bayou Maharajah”), and jack-of-all-pickin’ guitar ace Snooks Eaglin. It is nicely titled Rhapsody in Bronze, if you can’t access the French Market you can order it pretty much JUST from Louisiana Music Factory, and…here’s a sample:

Annnnnnnd–guess who’s back? That’s right! The Meat Puppets (on record)…

…and Ian Hunter (on the page–his 1972 tour diary’s seen a new edition published).

Ian