Kicking My Legs (Dylan Style)

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.

Tierra Whack / Sophie: Socratic Seminar College Girls Gone Critically Wild (October 11th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, MO)

The assignment:

Assignment

The on-site guidelines (with some context for the reader):

I’ve been leading these discussions and choosing the records, but a student asked if they could pick, and–why the hell not? The moderators in this case are the ones who chose the respective albums. A gender-bending anti-capitalist charter school advocate from St. Louis chose the Sophie album (which, in preparing myself for the activity, I’ve come to really like!) and a rural SW Missouri kid with a hearing disability who’s also the first college student in her family chose Ms. Whack. I will not participate verbally; I’m documenting the discussion, and their scores will be based on participation (they can gain some points simply by being attentive) and preparation (I’ve required annotated notes on their listening, reading, and viewing experience). This is a stepping stone to their writing reviews of their own, which Austin is also going to assist with.

Here’s the assignment:

Tips for Today’s Discussion of Tierra Whack’s Whack World

…and Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides:

Moderators (Emmalee and Emil):
Initiate, guide, and enhance the discussion—in other words, make your participation about inspiring conversation, involving as many folks as possible, and keeping it on track. You should mostly ask questions, not make statements.

General Participants:
• Have your notes out and mentally prepare for how you would like to enter the conversation, and use your notes to support your comments.
• Self-monitor: realize everyone needs to participate, so be specific and concise. Think twice about entering more than once.
• No hand-raising: wait for space and enter it with politeness.
• Do not interrupt speakers—but, again, speakers? Self-monitor.
• You are welcome to ask other speakers to clarify their opinions; moderators are expected to do this, but it is not exclusively their job. By the same token, you may invite students who seem to be struggling to get involved to enter.
This conversation is about exploring how best to review these albums, since that is your next task. Keep your commentary confined to what you’d write about these albums if you were required to.

My notes on the proceedings:

Re: Tierra Whack:

“…she’s pretty brave because she avoids rap stereotypes for women–she’s odd and that’s GOOD…”

“…if were white, this’d be more popular…”

“…the silliness provides a neat contrast, or subtlety, or something for her serious thoughts…”

“…how does the short format impact her hopes for sales…?

“I found the abruptness, or lack of transitions, to be hard to deal with first listen, but the videos smoothed those out…”

“there is a sadness undercurrent she doesn’t need a piano to communicate…”

“She’s so inventive musically and visually–you really need to watch the videos too–but she’s so fast it’s hard to process!”

“She’s a female Chance the Rapper…”

“Do you think she defies genre…?”

Re: Sophie:

The moderator surprised me and went around the room asking each fellow student to offer an adjective to describe Sophie, which she listed on the board as a menu for her Socratic. At first, I was annoyed with her asserting that much authority over the rest of the group (she is a strong personality, and I’d asked her to temper that a bit for this activity), but she then receded back to her seat and the menu worked great!

“Is discomfort in reacting to an art a band thing…?”

“I didn’t know she was trans…! (?)”

“I love this album but it disturbs me… the music doesn’t fit into a genre, but she doesn’t, either…!”

“How do you…or CAN you…evaluate the album separate from the times…”

“I was listening to this in the car by myself, and just had to turn it off and ask myself, ‘Is everything ok?’…”

“I was shook!”

“Now that I know she’s trans I LOVE THIS ALBUM!”

“She’s basically saying ‘Fuck you, I can change myself anyway I want to….”

“…it sounds like, with her music, she’s making the audience feel what it feels like to BE trans in public in this country…shook, yeah, but also beautiful and multi-dimensional.”

 

My last comment was, “Well, from now on I am just going to assign you material and have you teach each other–I do not appear all that necessary, and Socrates would agree!” Kind of joking—but kind of not.

Socratic Seminar: Wash My Face / In Ice-Cold Water (September 18-24, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Thursday was my freshman comp/pop music class’ second stab at a kind of data-based Socratic seminar. Last time, as documented here, the youth mostly took Mitski to task–if a tad unfairly, without the preferable amount of supporting evidence–but, in retrospect, I can understand their chagrin. On the pop music spectrum, from the vantage point of young fans, this seems more a time for authenticity and sincerity (for all the traps built into those terms) than ambition and pretension (and I’m not really using those terms pejoratively)–thus the majority of my class having raised their eyebrows at Mistki’s work. I still admire it, as do a handful of women on my roster.

Our discussion of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan seemed to bear this out. The minute I finished blabbing about intro shit (otherwise known as “set induction”), hands shot up in the air: “Can I talk first?” “I’ve got something to say about this one!” “Ooooooh, this is my album?” As I scanned the room, I could see that almost every one of them had taken voluminous notes, and as I called on folks to talk, it was obvious that both the album’s music and content had energized them. Music: “It’s a new kind of r&b for these times–music evolves in its society and this album seems to  show that!” “It’s new but it’s old–it’s funky, but it’s also chill, and it’s soul music but it has the r&b thing.” “It has a depressive vibe that I just love–it’s how I’m feeling!” (Think about that one.) “This album’s just got a great flow–” (most of them thought the opposite of Be the Cowboy, though I don’t think musical flow was its point) “–that I could really get into!” “The music made me feel so good I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics–”

On that last exaltation, I responded. “So, is the music so seductive that it obscures its content? And is that a mark of success or failure?”

Much furrowing of brows. I had to ask it, because I’d experienced it myself. I even told ’em, “Someone [I think it was Zappa…or his boy Varese?] once said that pure pleasure was counterrevolutionary!” So then the boosters became more specific: “No, the spoken parts, the ones by Janet Mock, that’s the content, so it’s so much a big deal that you don’t notice the lyrics.” Most of the students in that camp also made it very clear that they identified with Mock’s commentary, especially when she addresses the idea of building a chosen family, finding a space among others to be yourself and cease performing, and doing as much stuff as you can (as opposed to doing little). I have to admit: I dug that stuff, too. Others pointed to the way the videos dramatized the songs, though they still didn’t quote many actual lyrics.

Finally, a student posited the following: “I found that the spoken stuff distracted me from the music, which I thought was the thing. It kept me from having some continuity thinking about the music, then, after I reflected, it occurred to me that without the spoken stuff, the music isn’t really all that powerful–it isn’t really that dynamic.” Woah. This idea was seized upon; we even came to the conclusion that inserting “spoken stuff” by important humans might well have become a trend (think Solange, Beyonce, SZA), and hit the end of the hour puzzling over if it were a trend, why was it one, and was it a good one?

This ritual is working. The point has been to get them used to talking about music specifically, force them to examine artistic problems, and start them thinking about transferring the discussion to their writing. They have an expository essay on deck (they have to choose from among 10 expository modes the one that best enables them to say what they want about a pet musical concern), with an actual record review in the hole. We’re already past where we were with these issues last year, and on top of that, the students seem less reluctant to criticize model writings I’ve given them: they’ve already pointed out music writing trends such as hive mind, precious little constructive criticism, and celebrity hypnosis.

Also, I’ve turned the artist choice over to students: Tierra Whack’s Whack World is next up, followed by Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides. I’m having fun–can you tell? (One thing is, they’re working harder than I am–an objective classroom teachers should always be shooting for.)

On fronts with lower stakes, I simply hunkered down and enjoyed some old records. One was Ray Charles’ Sweet and Sour Tears, an ABC label concept album of sorts (it’s songs about tears!) packed with all the devices that can make this Charles period a challenge for listeners with high aesthetic standards: soupy choral arrangements, blasting brass, and material of very erratic quality. When I was younger, I assumed that these “offenses” had been forced on Ray by the company, but once I learned the music was exactly as the man wanted it, I was forced to re-evaluate them. I’m not adding anything that new to the debate, but with surprising frequency Charles engages in soulful call-and-response with the choirs (who are decisively not the Raelettes), devises arrangements that push that brass to KICK, and invests crap songs with vocal guts, often of a rascally nature, and that resonant gospel-tinged piano, which is mixed up higher than one has come to expect with the ABC output. The reissue of Sweet and Sour Tears includes Atlantic “tear-songs” as bonus tracks, but honestly I don’t hear them sounding any better than the official album. If you’ve somehow skipped this one, give it a spin.

I also took an old standby out to the truck; it’s now on its third repetition, and I’ve probably played it 200 times since I saw the band live. It’s on the long-gone Joaquin Records (named after the great steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy), it’s by a bunch of crazy Canucks called Ray Condo and The Richochets, and it’s called Swing, Brother, Swing. The record just hits my sweet spot with serious juice: call it what you want–Western swing, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie, jazz, blues, rock and roll, hardcore honky tonk–the band just loves all that stuff and mixes it into a stunning elixir. If that isn’t enough to tempt you, they were crate-diggers at least as good as Lux and Ivy, and–as much as I love those two–without the schtick. Billie Holiday, Rudy Toombs, Lew Williams, Hank Penny, Carl Perkins, and–especially, on the above song–Glenn Barber come in for revved-up treatment here, and the next two records they released before Condo’s untimely death were almost as surprising. The band was hot, sharp, and tightly loose (if that makes sense), Condo’s goosed-up “regular guy” vocals, in the grand tradition of Western swing, are sly and engaged, and the man plays the kind of saxophone fans of Don Markham (of Hag’s Strangers) will appreciate. Just great stuff that I can yell myself hoarse to just driving around the block.

 

And what about the new Prince album?

Let me quote Nicole: “He’s doodling. That’s a genius doodling.” She’d just asked me if she’d heard him sing the word “omelets”–and yes, he does. But that quote is a compliment–you’re hearing a master musician and songwriter in the midst of his process, rolling out some stuff he’s been thinking about for awhile, some bits he thinks (rightly) might have some potential, some O.P.s that he digs the most that he plays around with. Latter case in point (listen for the omelet line):

Also, I should point out that he works a piano, he stomps a bit, and he didn’t just save those eye-popping vocal dynamics for official recording sessions. We’re happy we bought it.

 

 

 

Tweaking the Classroom, With The Dogg, and Between the Pages (September 3-10, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:

1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;

2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;

3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;

4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;

5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.

Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.

It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.

I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)

 

HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.

 

Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.

Playing Changes

More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.

 

An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:

“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”

Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:

 

I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:

Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.

Short-shrift Division:

David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)

George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s

Robert Glasper: Black Radio

Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)

 

 

The Academy of Rock, David H. Hickman High School, Columbia, MO, February 4, 2004 – present (in case the Wikipedia page ever goes bye-bye…)

One day, I hope to produce an oral history of this after-school venture that ended up being, if not the accomplishment I’m most proud of in my public school career, the most fun I’ve ever had as a club sponsor (and I sponsored several). The first five years of the club’s existence seemed to produce something new and exciting each season–and not due to anything special I did other than seldom saying “No.”

A thumbnail history of the club, in need of some updating, currently appears on Hickman High School’s Wikipedia page. I am not confident it will last forever, so I am going to back it up right here.

Hickman High School boasts one of the most innovative music appreciation societies in United States public education. The Academy of Rock was founded in late January 2004 by students David Kemper, Dylan Raithel, James Saracini and teacher Phil Overeem. The general purpose of the club was initially to plan and execute a “Battle of the Bands” between Hickman and its Columbia rival, Rock Bridge, but soon grew to encompass several other enterprises.[citation needed]

Since its inception, the Academy of Rock has hosted nine Battles of the Bands, three at Hickman High School and two at a local rock-and-roll venue, The Blue Note.[20] These four events raised a total of nearly $7,000 to support what sponsor Overeem calls “demotic music” (in other words, music created by and for the masses). Each Battle has pitted four Hickman bands against four Rock Bridge bands, the winners being as follows: J Murda and the Musicians (Hickman, 2004), The Tipper Gores (Hickman, 2005), Wayfare (Rock Bridge, 2006), Graffiti Out Loud (Hickman, 2007), and Molly Trull and Anodyne (Hickman, 2008),[21] the Dorians (Hickman, 2010), the RPs[22] (Hickman, 2011),[23] Table for Five (Hickman/Rock Bridge, 2012), and The IRA (Hickman, 2013). The winning band not only has the privilege of hosting a summer benefit concert at the Blue Note but being staked to recording time in a local studio owned and operated by local Columbia musician Barry Hibdon, Red Boots. The four summer benefits have raised a total of over $3,000 for VH1‘s Save the Music Foundation,[24] Columbia’s community radio station KOPN,[25] the Muscular Dystrophy Association,[26] the Voluntary Action Center of Columbia,[27] the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders [1], and the effort to rebuild Joplin, Missouri, after the 2011 tornado. In addition, Academy of Rock-sponsored bands have also raised over $2,000 to assist in rebuilding after both the Sri Lanka and New Orleans disasters, and the group co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina survivors that netted nearly $27,000.[28] In 2013, The IRA, the winning band in that year’s Battle, opted to donate its recording proceeds to the Central Missouri Humane Society.

Besides the Battle of the Bands, the Academy of Rock also sponsors, mans, and programs KWPE 98.3 FM,[29] the school radio station (home to Rock Therapy[30]); curates the American Roots Music Listening Library in the school media center,[31] which has been funded largely by the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri;[32] partners with Columbia art theater Ragtag Cinemacafe[33] for “The Academy of Rock Showcase,” which gives high school bands the opportunity to hone their chops in front of audiences and make money; partners with University of Missouri radio station KCOU in a “Take-over Program”, during which eight pairs of Hickman DJs operate the college station for 12 to 16 hours in one- to two-hour shifts; sponsors a monthly music documentary series in the school’s Little Theatre; and coordinates a live performance series that has featured free unplugged concerts by artists ranging from nationally known acts like The Drive-By Truckers[34] (March 2005) and The Hold Steady (December 2006) to cult artists like former X co-lead singer-songwriter Exene Cervenka[35] (see video),[36] and Baby Gramps[37] to local Missouri musicians like Witch’s Hat, The F-Bombs, Bockman, and Cary Hudson.[38]

On February 19, 2009, the Academy staged an electrifying free performance by a contemporary of Muddy Waters and the inventor of folk-funk, Bobby Rush. The Academy of Rock has even made headlines in the national music press, thanks to a feature article by Lisa Groshong in the July/August 2005 issue (#68) of Punk Planet, and received a $500 “Music is Revolution” Foundation grant from Michael and Angela Davis, the former the original bass player for Detroit punk rock legends the MC5. Other recent developments in the club’s activities are to arrange performances for budding Hickman musicians at lunch on Fridays and coordinate after-school jam sessions, at which student musicians arrive, write their names on slips of paper, and drop them into buckets labeled according to their instruments. A supervisor then randomly draws a slip a piece from each bucket, and the four to five musicians whose names are on the slips must come to the stage and improvise a performance. In September 2007, in conjunction with Hickman’s student government, the Academy provided over 100 volunteers for the city’s first annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.[39] and in October 2008, served as an artist-relations crew for one of the three featured stages at the second festival.

In 2008, University of Missouri student Chad LaRoche shot a brief documentary about the club to help those who are interested understand the club more clearly: Part 1[40] and Part 2[41] of the documentary are available on YouTube. A further technological aspect of the club spawned during that year was the “Rock Therapy” podcast [2], which featured Battle of the Band recordings, raw tracks from the concert series showcases, and the sponsor’s eccentric, lo-fi forays into the world of pop music.[citation needed]

April 2009 brought further recognition for the club: the national-award-winning regional magazine Missouri Life [3] featured the club in an article by John Hendel [4]. As soon as the 2009–2010 school year was under way, the Academy of Rock brought Pacific Northwestern punk-garage legends The Pierced Arrows (formerly Dead Moon) to the Little Theater stage for an October 13 concert-and-Q&A. In the spring of the same school year, in collaboration with the Missouri Arts Council, Theater NXS, and MO Blues Society, the club presented northern Mississippi bluesman and Fat Possum recording artist Robert Belfour in two workshops involving over 100 students. Also, again aided by a grant from the Assistance League of Mid-America, the club augmented its existing media center CD collection with a selection of American classical music.

The Academy of Rock initiated a new program during the 2011-2012 school year: the “Local Music Showcase”. This program was designed to expose Hickman students to musicians in their own community and facilitate conversations through performances and question-and-answer sessions that could serve to inspire students to pursue their own futures in music. The opening performance in the series, on November 10, 2011, featured Moonrunner [5]; on February 9, 2012, Columbia “indyground” rapper Dallas held court [6]. 2012-2013 was a very quiet year for the Academy of Rock, though, true to its mission, it initiated some new programs: a Sunday Night Showcase series at Columbia’s The Bridge [7], which featured concerts by Volatile, Space, Time, and Beauty, Ross Menefee, and The Pound Game, and a music-lesson scholarship [8], in partnership with The Columbia Academy of Music [9]. The scholarship offers $250 worth of lessons to one underclassman boy and one underclassman girl per year. The club also procured two grants, one each from the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri and the Hickman PTSA, to expand the school’s CD library [10]. Co-founder Phil Overeem retired from teaching at the end of the school year, turning the club reins over to Mr. Brock Boland.

Currently, Mr. Boland and his fellow English teacher Mr. Jonathan McFarland sponsor the Academy at Hickman; another English teacher, Mr. Jordan Smith (a former Academy of Rock member beginning in his ninth grade year) has overseen the establishing a branch at Columbia’s Battle High School. Yay, English teachers!

Progress Report (March 26th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)p

This was a slow music day–music isn’t the end-all be-all (he sez to himself)–but in honor of the piquant writer Luc Sante’s great essay on the subject for Pitchfork, I thought a lot about Something Else by The Kinks. That album was the centerpiece for a mini-unit series that was a regular part of my practice as a teacher of British literature at Hickman High School. As a way to ease reluctant students into the process of literary analysis, I would guide them through a quick study of the work of notable songwriters from or associated with the British Isles. I’d give them some brief background and guiding questions, provide them a packet with selected lyrics, play each song, then solicit their observations, gradually pulling my own back. The Kinks’ Ray Davies couldn’t have been a more perfect writer for such a lesson: his command of voice, tone, characterization, ambiguity, irony, and droll humor ensured students would walk out knowing more than they did coming in, and that many would leave big fans–especially after “Waterloo Sunset,” which closed the class. That’s a classic example of a song that means far more than its author and most critics have claimed for it–or so my students would annually prove to me.

Please sample the album, linked above, and check out Mr. Sante’s reconsideration of its quality import.

As far as the post title’s concerned, since things are slow, it’s a good time to reflect on how this blog, which I resolved to rejuvenate on New Year’s Day, is faring.

A) I was largely trying to break out of writer’s lethargy, and I’ve posted 86 straight days. Check.

B) My concept was to simply keep a diary of my listening, which I mostly have unless I’ve repeat-played something over several days, which I occasionally do. This was a way to triumph over a fear of having nothing of worth to say, which is largely true, but I’ve surprised myself at least four times, mostly because the unpredictability of daily circumstances has interceded. Still, though, most of the entries are just gussied-up shares of links. Check-minus.

C) It’s become clear to me that embarking upon this undertaking is a way to replace something that’s been missing in my life. I am honestly pissed and sad that the evolution of technology has rendered my making mixtapes pretty superfluous. For probably 25 years, I was often the only person many folks knew who had access to a ton, and a wide range, of music. From party-people pals to students, enough humans sought me out for musical grab bags and commissioned projects that I started taking great pride in fulfilling their needs. I invested many hours and much cogitation, crate-diggin’, taping and erasing, and creative labeling during that quarter-century–then poof! All gone. Should have seen it coming! I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t occasionally find a way to spend a couple hours in my old favorite way–like, recently, providing filmgoers a specially selected Rahsaan Roland Kirk CD to accompany their viewing of the great Adam Kahan Kirk doc The Case of the Three-Sided Dream–but even then, hell, they could’ve Spotified it for themselves. And now I only have 15-25 students a year, as opposed to 125, to whom to preach the gospel. SO–writing these posts at the very least creates the delusion that I’m still playing that old role, which I deeply savored. Check-minus?

D) It’s nothing profound, but as I approach 60, I think about being gone more frequently than I ever have, and, well…these posts proved I walked the turf, and a cornucopia of sounds lightened my step. Check-plus.

E) I was in New Orleans at the beginning of the year, and thus was frequently annoyed at having to knock the early entries out on my smartphone. Would it be easier on my ol’ desktop! Surprise surprise, but I’ve gotten so used to single-finger tapping, I prefer writing them on my phone, though my editing isn’t as careful. Check? Hmmm…

F) I did hope a few friends and other humans might read it. And I am thankful they have. Big check.

G) I have enjoyed this. At least five times, I almost decided to take a day off, usually for a seeming lack of real subject matter; each time, an idea formed that I had to seize upon. Whether it’s teaching, being married, sitting in solitude, or writing into a yawning digital chasm, I have always been driven to embue my activities with…FUN. For me, at the very least. So, a final check.

See you tomorrow, and thanks to Scott Woods, Rex Harris, Kevin Bozelka, Alfred Soto, and Hardin Smith, Expert Witnesses who each gave me a spark to get this going, and to my wife Nicole, who has been living with me and listening for 28 years. It’s not like I won a damned award, but it feels like it, just writing every day.

Classroom Clatter, Part 2 (March 22nd, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

Today was the second and final day of my pop music / comp students’ informal research presentations. From what I already knew about the subjects of the research, I was uncertain if my personal enjoyment level would match Tuesday’s class, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Kathleen Hanna

I assigned Ms. Hanna to one of my very best writers, who’d asked for one rather than chosen her own. Kathleen “does a lot of yelling and uses vulgar language,” she told us, “but after you let it sink in, it’s very interesting.” The kid’s a Joan Jett fan, and she chose a perfect song for us to think upon:

Guiding Question: Where do you think feminism has gone since this song was released in the early Nineties?

Answer: It didn’t really get answered, but some of the other students were able to connect it to personal styles that “are more accepted today.” Yeah–I think so. Plus the presenter enlightened us a bit on fourth-wave feminism!

Whitney Houston

I will admit freely I have never been a fan of the late Ms. Houston, but the student who’d chosen to research her (who earlier in the semester had turned me on to a great metal band) did an amazingly thorough and passionate job of arguing for her. She chose to have us consider two performances, and damned if I didn’t actively enjoy both:

The sweat, soul, grit, and green outfit caused me to yell “Uncle!”

Guiding Question: Actually, the presenter, who will be a great teacher one day if she chooses to try it, asked us a pretty full stylistic analysis that I can’t express as a simple question.

Answer: Well, she answered for us, quite accurately–in general, arguing that her vocal power and dynamics, as well as her facial expressions and gestures, sold the songs. Yep!

Aaliyah

Guiding Question: How would you describe her vocal style?

Answer: “Mellow.” Alluding to a comment made by a student during Tuesday’s class, I added, “That song isn’t about a boat, is it?” I hadn’t heard it since it was forced on me by my middle school students back at the time of its release, and I’d not ever paid attention to the lyrics. The more you know. Please tell me R. Kelly didn’t produce and direct the video…

Pat Benatar

Here is one research subject I was hesitant to approve, because I wasn’t sure how far the student could get, but she was sure she could make a feminist / personal fulfillment argument so I surrendered. The following was difficult to watch stoically after the passage of three decades:

Guiding Question (not my favorite): So how is love a battlefield?

Answer: It’s hard. Well, yes. I wanted to offer that it’s hard to tell if the love referred to is parental or romantic or both, but I chose to remain mute.

Stevie Nicks

The student who’s researching La Nicks can take her study several different interesting directions, and I can’t wait to see which way she decides to go. The young lady presented sans PowerPoint, which won her some minor brownie points with me as she delivered the goods. Her song choice?

Guiding Question: How does “landslide” function as a metaphor?

Answer: like an avalanche, love can overwhelm you. As can research…

Classroom Clatter, Part 1 (March 20th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

The students of my freshman comp / pop music class formally opened up their final unit with informal presentations on their research subjects. Not that this will thrill any readers, but here’s the research project they’re undertaking:

English 107 Pop Music Research Project: Specification

Objectives:

  1. Form a clear and specific argument about a performer’s or group’s musical work after sampling it broadly and deeply.
  2. Support the argument with both specific evidence (lyrics, descriptions of musical passages, etc.) and expert commentary gathered through research.
  3. Reflect on the connections you made with the performer’s or group’s work, referring specifically to your past thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
  4. Execute a cleanly-formatted MLA research paper that elaborates your argument, presents your evidence in organized fashion, and shares your reflections.
  5. For your final exam, present (through audio only) two of your performer’s songs that demonstrate your research and reflections, setting up each song with guided questions for the class, commenting knowledgeably after each song, and taking two questions (15 minutes minimum).

Restrictions

  1. The performer must identify / have identified as a woman; if a group is chosen, it must be led (or artistically dominated) by a performer who identifies (or performers who identify) as a woman. The performer needs not be currently living, nor does the group need to be active.
  2. The bulk of the performer’s or group’s work must have been produced prior to January 2001.
  3. All genres of work are allowed, as well as any nationality from which the performer or group might have sprung. It is suggested that you select a performer or group from a genre of which you have some working knowledge.
  4. Your argument must be about the work, not about the performer or group as human beings.
  5. You are required to use your preferred streaming/listening methods to listen to at least three non-compilation albums, and at least one compilation. Each album must contribute a work that is MLA-cited in the text of your paper; each album should be listed among your paper’s Works Cited.
  6. Sources must qualify as expert commentary. You will have to research the writers who provide it to determine that. Also, this project requires that you look into at least one book—and you may need to look into more than one.

Suggestions for Arguments

  1. Arguments may focus on themes or preoccupations that are explored by the artist or group in their songs.
  2. Arguments may focus on the artist’s or performer’s style, as it is represented through writing, singing, playing, or arranging. Be conscious of the fact that writing about singing, playing, or arranging may well require specific musical vocabulary and a heightened attempt at description.
  3. Arguments may focus on artists’ or performers’ achievements in the context of their field. Be conscious of the fact that, to make such an argument, one must know the context.
  4. Arguments may focus on constructed personae that artists or groups create through their work.
  5. Arguments may focus on the artistic growth of an artist or group over time.
  6. Arguments may focus on a combination of any of the above, though it is essential that there be a common thread that runs through the entirety of the combination.
  7. No argument may focus on anything not represented by Numbers 1-6.

Additional Specifications for Essays and Final Exam Presentations

  1. Minimum 1,700 words / maximum 2,500 words.
  2. Suggested structure: intro + argument –> background (only essentials) –> presentation of evidence (multiple paragraphs) –> personal reflection –> conclusion (reiteration of argument + statement of performer’s / group’s importance) –> works cited.
  3. Sources: four articles (via databases, trustworthy Internet sources, and periodicals), one book, three regular-issue albums, one compilation album (MINIMUM). Each source should be cited in the text and listed appropriately among the works cited.
  4. Point distribution for essays (detailed scoring guide to follow): grammar and mechanics (10 points); structure (10); argument and evidence (25); personal reflection (20); formatting (10) = 75 total points.
  5. Point distribution for final exam presentation (must be accompanied by a PowerPoint or visual aide): clarity (argument, pre-song guided questions, post-song debrief, evidence) (25 points); speaking attributes (volume, modulation, diction) (12 points); Q & A (3 points).

Scored Components for Entire Project:

  1. Proposal (subject + working thesis)                                                   10
  2. Introductory presentation                                                                    25
  3. Sentence-form outline                                                                            15
  4. Essay rough draft (must be submitted through Canvas)             20
  5. Essay final draft (must be submitted through Canvas)                75
  6. Presentation (final exam)                                                                      40

Total                                                                                                                      185

NOTE: The instructor reserves the right to refuse any request to explore certain performers or groups, but will provide a reason for such refusals. The instructor will also happily provide suggestions regarding performers or groups, or simply assign one to a student upon request (the advantage of the latter option is that you will be assigned a subject that provides a bounty of writing and thinking opportunities).

Now even you hate me, right? Seriously, though, I have been striving to find the right research project to both fit my course design and more easefully transition them into higher-level research demands they’re sure to encounter during their remaining years at Stephens. If I can admit to being excited about a research project, I have high hopes for the reflective aspect of the essay. My aim is that the integration of a section composed of personal insights and a slightly less formal voice with cause the construction and grading of the projects to be less grueling. We shall see. I need to, but don’t want to, write a model.

So: to the presentations. The purposes of these were to introduce the class to the range of subjects under review and give me an idea of not only how much preliminary research students had already done but also how committed and enthusiastic they were about the work. In ten minutes or less, students were required to introduce us to their artists through three important facts and their own initial responses to the artists’ work, focus us with a guiding question about, then play an official video (if available) of, one of the artist’s best works, then lead us in a quick discussion of possible answers to the guiding questions. As usual, I started with a model presentation on Yugen Blackrok (big surprise if you’ve been keeping score) that fell a bit flat (“She doesn’t have beats!”), but at least I snuck in some learning on apartheid and Afro-Futurism. Half the class then presented, as follows:

Guiding Question: “Can you figure out the metaphors used in this song?”

Answer: “That verse isn’t really about deep-sea diving, is it?”

Guiding Question (not a good one): “So, what’s good about the song and what’s not?”

Answer: “Ewwwwwwwwwww. I can’t stand the way she sings. I had to plug my ears.” Another student rushing to the rescue: “I LOVE HER SINGING! She’s so exciting and rebellious!” (Yay.)

Guiding Question (a stellar one): Does Ms. Blige sing with a chest voice or a head voice?

Answer: A little of both–mostly chest, but her head’s in there, too.

Guiding Question (again, good!): Pay close attention to the childhood images in the video, contrasted with Dolly’s adult self, and be ready to talk about that.

Answer: None given to that question, but several new questions posed (“Is she dead?”)

Guiding Question: How would you describe her singing style?

Answer: “Her voice sounds messed up!” Teacher counters with: I hear a core of yearning and loneliness to her singing that fits nicely with the video content.”

We’ll see how Thursday goes, but I must admit, their choice of research topics should make for interesting research and enjoyable reading. Should

Anyone know when Yugen Blakrok was born?

 

K-Pop Skype-Strike (March 6-7, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

Jonghyun

Since I began integrating pop music discussions and writing assignments into the freshman comp class I teach at Stephens College, a private women’s liberal arts school here in Columbia, I have tried to convince working music critics to visit the classroom, dollop out their wisdom, and talk about their philosophy, process, struggles, victories, and obsessions. Wednesday, Hyperallergic and SPIN reviewer Lucas Fagen valiantly Skyped into class (it was 6 a.m. his time) and, after some annoying technical delays, engaged us in a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion.

Only seven of my already small class of 11 appeared (it’s midterm week), of those who did, only two had read any of the selected Fagen essays I’d assigned–and only one of those read all the essays I’d assigned. In addition, I was flustered from the tech delays and slightly off-balance when Lucas wasn’t sure what I wanted him to tell them about his life. I switched quickly into moderator mode, and posed the first couple of questions while prompting the class to think of some of their own (we’d spent 20 class minutes last week brainstorming a long list of those, which were apparently bound away in the ether). They owe me a record review rough draft Tuesday, and the whole point of Lucas’ visit was for him to share tips.

Fortunately, by the time Lucas had clicked away back to Portland, we’d discussed preparation, record review non-negotiables, writer’s block, negative reviews, ideal writing environments, audience relations, striving to suggest (rather than state) judgments, the relevance of private lives, a bad Randy Newman record (I’d wanted to discuss Lucas’ Lil’ Uzi Vert review, but my students’ abstention from homework rendered that direction null and void), cultural context, other young writers we should read, and the impossibility of objectivity (on the part of the reviewer, but also where songwriters are concerned). I judged that be evidence of fair success, and students affirmed to me they had gained some confidence in their upcoming task. I really wish, though, that one of them hadn’t asked if Lucas were single.

Once question I was hoping some student would ask was, “Hey, what reviews are you currently working on?” As time was winding down, I wedged it in myself, and Lucas responded quickly, in a burst of enthusiasm: “I’m reviewing Jonghyun’s new album! The title isn’t great–Poet / Artist–but it’s my album of the year so far for 2018.” I expected to see uncontrollable twitching overcome the class, as K-Pop has been a frequent topic of very animated student discussion since 2015, but apparently this lot is immune to its charms.

As had I been; students having subjected me to several K-Pop videos in past classes, the genre seemed a frenetic blur of hyper-ramped, blindingly colorful, rap-n-r&b-influenced tween-tunes…ummm, do you remember that scene in High Anxiety?

That has been K-Pop’s effect on me. However, Mr. Fagen’s impassioned defense of the artist’s and the record’s merits, plus my ever-creeping suspicion that I have become a calcified old fart, forced me to promise him I would listen to the album carefully once I could cloister myself properly. I must admit, too, that the artist’s suicide late last year, apparently simultaneous with his having reached a creative pinnacle, saddened and intrigued me.

 

If you’d like to take some time, you can simulate listening to the album with me:

 

Now. If this is where K-Pop might be going, I’ll hitch a ride there. I found the young man’s singing marvelously flexible; he shifts effortlessly in and out of a wide range of moods: jubilant (“Shinin'”),  desperate (“Only One You Need”), chilled-out (“#Hashtag,” tinged with Steely Dan cool),  seductive (“Take the Dive”), and desolated (“Before Our Spring,” the deeply poignant closer). Admittedly, I’m guessing at some of these since I hear in English only, but it’s further proof of the young man’s skill that his singing’s consistently affecting beyond vocabulary’s reach. Also commendable is that the young man doesn’t over-sing. He’s in full control, floating, dropping in and out, modulating, easefully riding the album’s varied tempos and rhythms.

Poet / Artist‘s musical settings, pop/r&b-flavored, are clean, percolating, and unobtrusive, staying out of Jonghyun’s way and providing him just the right walls off of which to bounce. I’m a bit of a gestaltist–as much as I love classic singles, I’m rather helplessly an album guy, a listener after a vaster artistic whole–and, by those lights, Poet / Artist is stellar. Only what I hear as a holding-pattern filler cut (“Rewind”) would keep it from my own early-2018 Top Three; it’s certainly a Top Five for me now. At 27–not again! have they started up yet?–Jonghyun left us far too soon, but nonetheless I’m eager to explore his back catalogue, and maybe hunt down some translations (YouTube seems a good resource).

Now…if each of my seven students who were present had at least one similar breakthrough moment as a result of Mr. Fagen’s talk, I’ll forgive them that unprofessional proposition (after all, what if the parties’ genders had been reversed?).

There will, of course, be a quiz over it.

 

Teachers: Write Your Own Model Essays! (A Sample Review of Jinx Lennon’s PAST PUPIL STAY SANE)

One of the most effective strategies I’ve used in teaching across four decades is writing models of the kind of essays I’m assigning students to do. This practice has so many advantages, and demonstrates so many essential ideas:

  1. That you are not above the task you’ve asked them to do.
  2. That you can actually complete the task you’ve asked them to complete.
  3. That the work can be fun.
  4. That you’re not afraid to open yourself up to critique.
  5. That, being a teacher, you can do and do do.
  6. That there is a way to do the task correctly.
  7. That thievery is an essential action in creation (“Take from me, my child!”)
  8. That communication between writers about writing is hugely advantageous.
  9. That teaching, in case you or your students have any doubt, is about leadership.
  10. That, being a teacher, you are not above Trojan-horsing into the classroom material you’re enthusiastic about!

Why am I going on about this? Well, my freshman comp/pop music students are taking their first steps toward writing their first record reviews, and of course I am preparing a model for them to look at and possibly follow. I will lead them to believe I just wrote it, when, in actuality, I’ve been tinkering with it for almost exactly a year. Of the many I’ve written, this one is the best. It’s clean, focused, true to my actual voice, specific, and–here’s the tough part–as well-angled to my 18-and-19-year-old audience as I can get it. That last is what I’ve mostly been tinkering with. If you’re curious, take a look!

Phillip M. Overeem

English 107

February 28, 2018

Every Day Above Ground: Jinx Lennon’s Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger Records)

            Though the 21st century’s first seventeen years have not exactly been an easy ride, 2017 proved so turbulent in its first two months that the name “Woody Guthrie” crossed many a music fan’s mind. Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born songwriter, poet, and memoirist, though an intricately flawed human being, was a master of speaking truth to power during the first half of the last century, in songs like “This Land is Your Land” (the uncensored version, of course), “Deportee,” and “Jesus Christ.” He even wrote a distinctly unflattering song about our president’s dad. Where is our Guthrie now, you can hear crusty old musical and political history buffs (like me) asking.

            Only I am not asking it, because we have a Guthrie. Sort of. He isn’t an American; he’s from Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. He isn’t a star; in fact, he’s only played across the pond on scant occasions, and he isn’t even well-known in his home country. However, the ideas he sings about, and how he sings about them, are what we desperately need right now, and that his songs are about the struggles of the people of Dundalk (“I Know My Town,” he titles one of the songs here—and he does) should be no barrier for us. We have the same struggles.

            Mr. Lennon’s musical attack is basic. Though he is sometimes described as a rapper, he is more accurately a yeller, a concept familiar to any rock and roll fan, except Jinx sings like he’s yelling over Saturday night pub noise, sometimes inserting a “YEAH!” to make sure we’re paying attention and getting his point. His accompaniment is spare: a guitar (usually acoustic, but sometimes amplified), a drum machine, occasional alien instruments (like a trumpet), and back-up singing (from his wife Sophie). This basic attack adds up to something important: a sound anyone can make, uncluttered but unpolished, that is direct. That is a compliment one cannot extend to so many of the sounds we’re hearing stateside right now.

            The album title also communicates something important. Mr. Lennon’s songs are indeed about staying sane amidst the welter of bellicose social and political messages that sting our ears and unsettle our guts on a daily basis. One reason to buy this album is that we can feel less alone in the knowledge that U. S. citizens aren’t the only ones grappling with their mental stability in times of upheaval. From health care crises (“Bed Blocka,”in which Jinx sides with ailing working-class patients against fast-processing hospitals: “Why you shoutin’ at them like that?/Who do you t’ink you are?/These people built the country around ya!”) to amped-up consumerism (“Shop Thy Neighbor”) to money worries (“70,000 New Jobs”—in this song, not a number over which to rejoice) to immigration (“Not Bad People”), the subjects of Lennon’s songs about post-Celtic Tiger Ireland suggest he might as well be American.

However, the beauty of the man’s art is that he doesn’t leave you wallowing in despair over these ills; countering every song that gives one a reason to be anxious is another illuminating a reason to be cheerful. In “Chinaman in Dundalk Town,” the song’s persona rejoices in a simple moment experienced with an immigrant: “He spoke to me!” He reminds us that “Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day.” He commiserates with us in “Don’t Let the Phone Calls Annoy You.” He proves quite gallant and empathizes with women (worthy of lauding always, but especially lately) as he chides a fellow pubgoer to “Learn How to Talk to Girls.” He recommends the liberating quality of playing music in “God is In My Guitar.” He even lionizes the humble “Water Meter Man.” Perhaps most striking, though, in Lennon’s efforts are his urgings—the first step toward our recovery—that we not retreat to a state of denial:

            Yeah, there’s good t’ings, and there’s bad t’ings ‘ere.

            Yes! WE CAN LOOK AT IT!

            We can do it! Let’s do it—YEAH!

            I will walk the railway line out the countryside

            Where my grandparents used to live:

            They built a big motorway right t’rough the center of it. (“I Know My Town”)

It isn’t easy to deny denial—but it’s necessary. Lest you think Jinx’s relentless focus on the travails of real life might be hard to take over the course of a 24-song album, the man is also very (and very frequently) funny: Future and Lil’ Wayne might get a laugh themselves from Lennon’s song “Cough Medicine,” and, as for “Fireman Meets Samurai Sword” and “45 Degree Angle Phone Face”? Let those be a comic Siren call to the uninitiated!

            What’s not to like about this record? First-time samplers may require time to get used to Lennon’s in-your-face delivery, as well as his reliance on repetition in order to make sure his messages stay gotten. No doubt the hour-long-plus running time and 24-song playlist could stand some pruning; with an artist as ebullient, energized, and boisterous as Lennon, the listener must be game if she does not want to be worn down.

            On the other hand, though, the same listener might just enjoy a good, long drink of something clean, clear, powerful, and empowering after many months of having to force-guzzle dirty water. During the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie inspired many citizens to endure—to not give up on their fellow men and women. Jinx Lennon is capable of the same, if we can reach across the water (via Bandcamp) and pull him across. As critic Robert Christgau pungently writes: “All he wants is to keep us out of the circle of shit and help make a better world….”

Works Cited

Christgau, Robert. “Jinx Lennon: Know Your Station Gouger Nation!!!” Robert

Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. http://www.robertchristgau.com

          /get_artist.php?name=Jinx+Lennon. 2015. Accessed 8 March 2017.

Lennon, Jinx. Past Pupil Stay Sane. Septic Tiger Records, 2016.

          https://jinxlennon1.bandcamp.com/album/past-pupil-stay-sane        

 

Psst! If you’re intrigued? BUY THE RECORD!

This post is dedicated to Liam Smith, my Irish friend who is directly responsible for me knowing about Jinx!