Bon Pierres Roulez! (Mardi Gras Day, February 13, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Mardi Gras Day is always going to be alive in our house–wherever we happen to be, and whatever we happen to be doing.

For me, in the morning, I was teaching: expository modes in composition, to be exact. How did you jimmy Mardi Gras into that, I feel you asking? Easy. I had planned way ahead. Les Blank’s classic 1978 documentary Always for Pleasure is communicates a joy that expands exponentially with each viewing, and I make sure I view it plenty. I find it can fit into most any lesson an English teacher might teach, and I test that finding every February. This year, I prepped my students by explaining that, in order to continuing to practice thinking in expository modes, which we’d already done by reading some model essays, we’d be watching the work of a filmmaker who, in his best work, employed many. Their jobs were to spot precisely what Blank was trying to “expose,” or illuminate, for the viewer, what modes he was working in, and which of his examples were most effective. Then, after taking notes as they watched, students would post their observations on-line and respond to peers’ posts. Wow–so did I kill the film with all that? I don’t think so (sharing a King Cake helped). On the surface, Always for Pleasure seems like a ton of parade footage strung together, broken up on occasion by interviews (Irma Thomas on red beans and rice, Allen Toussaint on jazz funerals) and performances (Professor Longhair, The Wild Tchoupitoulas), but watched and heard leaning forward, the film renders up much enlightenment. The latter performance within that last set of parentheses is a film-capper that also glows brighter each time the viewer beholds it. Behold it now:

(Is that entire performance in someone’s vault? Two live songs are present in the film. Ye gods of the vault, issue forth the goods!)

Yes, but did the children learn in a manner that can be measured, Phil? Hell, I didn’t fall off the peach truck yesterday! I’ll let you know when their posts are up Tuesday morning. By the way, I did the unpardonable and offered extra credit to college students! “Listen to this Mardi Gras playlist I made, choose your five favorite songs, and use an expository mode in justifying your love (in making a case) for each.” I’m incorrigible.

Later, I had to clean house, but two loads of the CD changer made that deeply enjoyable!

Round One:

Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta (maybe the greatest NOLA piano record of all-time, and I have two copies)

Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns, Havin’ a Good Time (glorious, devilish rhythmic lunacy by a band that should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the atrocity’s first year)

The Wild Tchoupitoulas (if you clicked above, I need say nothing)

Round Two

On a Facebook music forum I happily participate in, I recently deliberately tried to stir the turd (I guess it’s called…trolling?) by claiming that, among the Rolling Stones’ late ’60s/early ’70s run of classic recordings (defined as the studio albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main Street), my favorite was the UK version of Between the Buttons–a bit outside that definition. I was just playing, but I do love that album for many reasons: killer drumming by Charlie, Wyman playing road-grader bass, Keith’s first vocal plus some nasty guitar as per usual, Brian’s last album as a serious contributor, Mick scornful as usual but also light-hearted (booga-booga-ness not yet a factor, and many wonderful songs seldom (if ever) to see the light of day again (“Miss Amanda Jones”). Since drawing a little return fire for my posting, I haven’t been able to get the lads out of my memory’s ear, so I went the whole hog:

Between the Buttons (UK version)

(This playlist is the US release.)

Aftermath (UK version)

(Again, the US version here:)

Beggars Banquet

I still love love love Between the Buttons!

(Don’t you know this one by heart?)

(Note: if you don’t already know, those UK versions include great songs held back from the domestic version in order for the ol’ corporation to squeeze out Flowers.)

I closed out the day with a very appropriate inappropriate indulgence, though I do not observe Lent. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be based on this album’s title song.

Expository Listening, Expository Thinking: A Lesson that Really Worked!

Today at Stephens College, where I teach freshman comp with a pop music focus, I executed one of those rare lessons that works on every level you hope it will. Feel free to steal and/or adapt it!

My students’ next essay assignment is to focus in on a music-related topic they’re interested in, then choose the appropriate expository mode for exploring it. On Tuesday, we reviewed some of the expository modes I’m encouraging them to try (comparison/contrast, problem-solution, description, definition, cause-effect, classification), but I sensed some anxiety and disconnect. As of last night, partially due to being hella busy this week, I still didn’t have a solution for that condition, so I just slept on it, then woke up with this (funny how that happens to teachers):

In class, we are going to listen to (and watch) four excellent singers–Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Jamilia Woods, and Dolly Parton–in action.

As you listen and watch, you are going to think about the following expository modes of analysis and writing, and jot down corresponding observations you make in your notebook or on your device:

Description (external) – What does the singer sound like and how does she present herself?

Definition (internal) – Who or what does the singer seem to be?

Classification – How would you classify the singer, according to official and unofficial terms of classification?

Cause –> Effect – In listening closely to the singer, what effects do you feel as a result of her performance? What specific aspects of the performance cause those effects?

Comparison/Contrast – How are these singers similar? How do they differ?

By Sunday night, transfer your findings in coherent, expanded, and more specific form to the associated discussion board, and be prepared to respond meaningfully to one fellow students’ post.

We began with the above clip from “The Sound of Jazz”–the famous last hot flame from the doomed Billie Holiday. I prompted them by reviewing the above modes, then played the track for them. Afterwards, just for modelling’s sake, I asked students to share some of their observations:

Description: “soulful,” “relaxed,” “rhythmic.”

Definition: “A woman who knows pain.” “She has experienced a lot.” “She is a singer who connects with her band and the audience.”

Classification: “Blues singer.” “No! Jazz singer!”

Cause–>Effect: “She was glowing!” –> It mesmerized me.” “She was getting in tune, effortlessly…”–> “It left me in awe.”

I could not have responded more accurately myself. From the evidence, my idea seemed to be working. I’ll know for sure when I see the discussion board posts and the essay rough drafts.

The other tracks I played them (I need little reason to show the first to every class I teach, regardless of subject).

Jamila Woods’ scintillating and brand-new Tiny Desk concert, which I can’t figure out how to embed.

 

Ah: The Teacher Has Become the Student (January 30, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

 

As I reported earlier in this space, I teach a freshman composition / pop music class at Stephens College, and I’d assigned my students the task of not only highlighting every record they’d heard in this year’s Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll (so I could inventory their listening experiences and tailor my instruction to them), but also choosing an album or two they hadn’t heard, listening to it in full, then posting a reaction / assessment of it. This assignment has ended up being one of the best I’ve ever given. We’ve been taking about it avidly ever since they began working on it, and they took their explorations seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they began assigning me homework! One of my sharpest and most consistently surprising students chose to test-drive Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic, loved it, and insisted in her commentary that I check it out myself. I am not much of a metal fan, I’ll admit, but, especially on the above song, they have a punk power that pulled me in–and, hey, I could understand the lyrics (hmmm–a sign I am getting old)! I wrote the student about my reaction, and made a commitment to keep following the group; her typical interests are Latin music, EDM, and old school rhythm and blues!

Another student, who’d earlier this semester laughed at me because I had not heard of Cardi B, recommended not that I listen to something I’d asked her to explore from the list, but that I listen to something she’d picked out on her own: in this case, some “early” Cardi B, my objective being “hearing” the difference between her explosive current work and where she started. Specifically, she asked me to listen to (and watch, since I’d made a big deal about Cardi’s videos) “Foreva.” Actually, I had to admit that, while she hadn’t come into her own, really, that she started off a pretty effective MC. Here’s what I turned in, via email, on time:

Cardi B: “Foreva”
I hate to see women at each other’s throats, but they have to pay for that kind of back-stabbing! (Her teeth look fine!) All in all, her flow’s pretty good, but, you’re right, the lyrics are kind of standard. However, the chorus and music are pretty catchy, and I like the video. I swear, that woman looks different in every single video–facially different!  My grade: A-

The student also asked that, since I frequently belabor students with my current passions (lately, Princess Nokia, Amodou and Mariam, P-Funk), I be “forced” to deal with one of hers: the Chicago MC Lil’ Durk. Again, she assigned me a specific song:

Don’t get the impression I was interested in any apple-polishing:

Lil’ Durk & Tee Grizzley: “What Yo City Like?”
Now, see, this reminds me why I didn’t get all enthusiastic about Durk: he rushes too much, and I don’t hear that much character in his delivery. The song’s subject matter is sad, but that’s how it is, and I like reports from the front. The detail is pretty good, but it could be more specific. Tee Grizzley didn’t make much of an impression on me, either.(actually they sound a little too alike to be teaming up). My grade: B

We all had a blast–I got some smart and entertaining feedback on my reaction, and, most important, the students seemed very excited about future explorations and exchanges. It must certainly seem a no-brainer, but these kind of exchanges are among the most effective tricks in the teaching book. I was happy to realize I hadn’t forgotten them, though, honestly, their application wasn’t pre-planned. Spontaneity has its place in the classroom, too, and not one in the darkest cobwebbed corner.

Ian
While we’re on the subject of teaching, during my time as a high school British literature teacher, I used to teach mini-lessons under the heading “Brit Lit Songwriter Series,” during which we’d explore the stylistic and thematic traits of some of the U.K. and Irish greats: Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Shane MacGowan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Strummer-Jones, and even Lemmy! The sneaky purpose of such units was to loosen students up for literary analysis; they tended not to realize they were doing what I wanted them to when music is involved. To my great regret, I never got to fashion one of these side-trips around the great Ian Dury.
Yesterday, in The Lab, I listened to a recent Dury acquisition. Have you ever had the realization you’ve relied to heavily on a particular artist’s greatest hits or best-of package, to the neglect of great album tracks? It became clear that I’d done so with Dury, as I was repeatedly delighted by tracks from New Boots ‘n’ Panties, the CD in question, that I’d never heard before:
(A great Father’s Day track!)

(A guaranteed public school smash!)

(A quite timely skewering of a misogynist!)

(A riotous character study!)

Talk about some opportunities for analysis, thematic investigation, and literary term application (by the way, a dollop of naughtiness always helps, and, in such cases as these when they actually arose in class, I always kept in mind the old Raymond Chandler idea about Shakespeare, and I’m paraphrasing and tweaking out a gendered noun: “Without vulgarity, there is no complete human.”):

Good evening, I’m from Essex
In case you couldn’t tell
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
And I’m doing very well

Had a love affair with Nina
In the back of my cortina
A seasoned-up hyena
Could not have been more obscener
She took me to the cleaners
And other misdemeanours
But I got right up between her
Rum and her Ribena

Well, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If candy-floss is sticky
I’m not a blinking thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I bought a lot of Brandy
When I was courting Sandy
Took eight to make her randy
And all I had was shandy
Another thing with Sandy
What often came in handy
Was passing her a mandy
She didn’t half go bandy

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If I ever took the mickey
I’m not a flipping thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I’d rendez-vous with Janet
Quite near the Isle of Thanet
She looked more like a gannet
She wasn’t half a prannet
Her mother tried to ban it
Her father helped me plan it
And when I captured Janet
She bruised her pomegranate

Oh, you ask Joyce and Vicky
If I ever shaped up tricky
I’m not a blooming thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

You should never hold a candle
If you don’t know where it’s been
The jackpot is in the handle
On a normal fruit machine

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
Who’s their favourite brickie
I’m not a common thicky
I’m Billericay Dickie
And I’m doing very well

I know a lovely old toe-rag
Obliging and noblesse
Kindly, charming shag from Shoeburyness
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
I thought you’d never guess

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
A pair of squeaky chickies
I’m not a flaming thicky
I’m Billericay Dicky
And I’m doing very well

Oh golly, oh gosh
Come and lie on the couch
With a nice bit of posh
From Burnham-on-Crouch
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
And I ain’t a slouch

So, you ask Joyce and Vicky
About Billericay Dickie
I ain’t an effing thicky
You ask Joyce and Vicky
I’m doing very well

Flying Daggers Style (January 25th, Columbia, Missouri)

Today was one of those rare days where I didn’t have the room for much music. I did teach a very successful class to my freshman comp/pop music students at Stephens: I’d assigned them to read their choice of four (out of nine) professional “personal” essays about music, identify the writers’ arguments and stylistic traits, then establish their own positions. In addition, they had to select an album they enjoyed from The Village Voice‘s year-end music poll and briefly defend it. They spent the hour reporting their thoughts, and it went splendidly. I heard from them on essays about Loretta Lynn (“It doesn’t matter that she’s a Trump supporter), Chris Brown v. Rihanna (“Some women can kick a man’s ass!” v. “Domestic violence shouldn’t be normalized!”), Lana Del Rey v. Radiohead (“She put enough of her brand on it that the similarities are irrelevant!”), and one on Lady Gaga that they thought was most notable due to writer Mary Gaitskill’s esoteric approach. The makers of the albums from 2017 that they loved? Kendrick (no surprise), Harry Styles (no surprise), SZA (not really a surprise), Lee Ann Womack (cool!), Jason Isbell (hey!). Next class they have to listen to and post commentary on a record from the poll they’ve never heard before. That should be pretty exciting. I’ve assigned myself The War on Drugs–just kidding.

Otherwise, I had essays to grade, an injured dog to attend to (corneal ulcer, freshly removed cyst), and a spouse to nurse (bad stomach and headache) and chill watching Broadchurch with. Plus, I had to change out the straw in our outdoor cats’ huts. Worked up a sweat!

Aside from continuing to mourn Mark E. Smith (heavy dose of The Fall before work, no pints later as I am practicing “Dry January”–I can hear Mark laughing from beyond the grave), I was able to revisit Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx II. A worthy sequel? Yeah. I mean, there are multiple producers (including Dr. Dre and J Dilla) but it still sounds Wu-ish; the subject matter certainly conforms, including one very heinous oral sex scenario that I cannot unhear; and, though Raekwon is in fine form, Ghost and Meth pretty much steal the show. The one track the sticks with me is a Dilla-produced tribute to ODB, “Ason Jones,” which is genuinely moving. So, maybe no, if only one track is still sticking this morning. I am a sucker for Wu atmospherics, Ghost’s “crying” delivery, and the flying daggers of flow, accent, and vocab that result from a Clan collab.

Apples and Oranges (January 22, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

ErnestDawkins

As I do with my reading, I follow my nose when I explore music. I read, I chat with folks, I read some more; what I don’t tend to do is put myself in an algorithmic cage, which isn’t that different from radio other than the cage has broader dimensions. In the case of the most explosive and deeply felt music I listened to yesterday, neither YouTube nor Spotify nor Pandora (nor most certainly radio) would have helped me, as I only happened to learn about this particular recording through a perusal of jazz critics’ best-of-’17 lists in Jazz Iz (a publication I seldom see but happened to notice in the rack shadows in a local grocery store). You could say I sniffed it out. You might also carp about critics being gatekeepers, but, look–their job is to listen, and they have the time to do more of it than we do because of that. And lists are very important: right now I know I am not alone in hoping that the Village Voice eventually provides all voter ballots for the 2018 Pazz and Jop Poll, which are almost always a better resource than the list itself and its accompanying lists.

Cutting to the chase: the album I am speaking of is Transient Takes, Chicago saxophonist and AACM member Ernest Dawkins‘ 16th as a leader. Dawkins, 64, is in magisterial form on alto and tenor, shifting easefully between woolly blues, passionate ballads, and no-holds-barred free scrums that unsurprisingly landed the record on two Jazz Iz correspondents’ lists–and at the very top of one of those. Reinforcing Dawkins’ powerful, emotionally complex, and witty playing is Vijay Iyer, one of jazz’s most preeminent  pianists, but also one who is frequently accused of being too cerebral and cold (a stereotypical assessment, perhaps). Frankly, Dawkins (if not such observers) seems to inspire Iyer to some of the earthiest playing I’ve ever heard from him–and I’m a big fan. Isaiah Spencer on drums and Junius Paul also provide solid, rousing, and sensitive support, and the crisp live recording makes a very present group performance even more immediate. Transient Takes is one of the best American releases of any kind from 2017; it would have been on my year-end list had I known about it in time, but I’ll vote for it next year anyway!

The catch: Should you like a copy of Transient Takes–and if you are a fan of Dawkins, post-Trane jazz in general, the AACM, the Chicago tradition, saxophone, or Iyer, I believe you should like one–you’ll need to a) trust me re: the above take (or dig David Whiteis’ review in Jazz Times), because there’s not much commentary out there; b) write Mr. Dawkins directly at the following address for a copy ($20 if shipped in the U. S., I think)–because you’ll not find it streaming, or for sale anywhere but from him.

Ernest Dawkins, P. O. Box 7154, Chicago, Illinois, 60680

You might think it’s perverse for an artist not to “get his work out there,” but in this world of free and instant access, I found it refreshing. The process of obtaining Transient Takes took me back to the days when, hunkered down in my college dormitory, I mail-ordered punk albums from Trouser Press.

Note: According to his website, Dawkins is working on two very interesting commissioned projects that might be reason to stay informed.

OK, those were the apples. Now for the oranges….

I will freely admit to being slow to the dinner table when it comes to pop music. I don’t club, I don’t listen to the radio at all, I don’t follow the charts (my nose can’t smell them for some reason), I feel creepy listening to Taylor Swift, I’ve perhaps become too temperamentally and philosophically aligned with the world of underground, experimental, and otherwise marginal music, I don’t trust megasmashes–the list goes on and on. Though when I read Neil Postman many years ago he annoyed me, for some reason when I think of contemporary pop music, I detect him whispering in my ear, “This is what I was talking about.” However, I like to think that, particularly after friends and fellow writers wear me down and I make an effort, I do eventually bow at the feet of the Undeniable Pop Smash.

Cardi B is undeniable. Migos are undeniable. I am warming back up to Ms. Minaj. And–I am feeling my forehead here–I am even interested in Bruno Mars, thank to this:

My Stephens students laughed out loud at me this morning when I told them I had just listened to a Cardi B song for the first time yesterday (true statement). I had distributed to each of them the above Pazz & Jop poll results, and assigned them to highlight every album and song they’d heard, star each one of those they could defend in public, and otherwise notate records they hadn’t heard but were curious about, which filled them with immediate enthusiasm, but also some reticence, especially when I mentioned I’d voted in the poll. I could see on their faces a look that anticipated my stern judgment of their choices, but in response I said, “How smart can I be if I just listened to Cardi B yesterday?”

 

 

Neil Young (Almost) Ruined My Life, Part Two: Getting Blown Away

Despite my extreme shyness around girls, it took me until my junior year to pull a classic adolescent move: using a song to try to communicate tortured emotions. Looking back, remembering how much music meant to me and how frequently I’d had communications issues with girls up to that point, I can’t believe I hadn’t used that tactic in fifth grade! However, I was always about 10-12 steps behind the crowd romantically—too bad, because I was usually a few steps ahead when it came to tunes.

Yet even then, when it occurred to me to maybe do a Say Anything (still a few years in the future), I wasn’t trying to seduce—I was trying to get revenge (did I mention I was an Elvis Costello fan then, too?). A very cute young lady had stood me up for a dance date, after I’d hammered enough emotional wedges under my fingernails to summon the courage to ask her out, then showed up at the dance anyway on an upperclassman’s arm.

The next Monday morning, I bribed her locker partner to let me tape something on the inside of their locker door: the lyrics to Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street”! Even though I am certain she understood the entirety of the lyrics just a little less than I did, the choruses rendered up the desired result. She cried! I saw her, right after she eyeballed the lines! Bob ‘65: “Master Prick” (at the time, though, I simply considered him “The Godhead”). She tore it down, wadded it up, threw it at me, and turned on her heel. Amidst confused fellow students, I picked up the wad from the floor, smoothed it back out, and re-read it. I didn’t have these words then, just the feeling: perhaps the gesture was a bit out of proportion to how badly I was wronged? You be the judge, but I ended up feeling guilty.

Later that year, a new student arrived from New York City. She was provocative to me for several reasons. She was the first South Asian person I’d ever met. She was smart, extremely outgoing, witty, and painfully attractive. She was extremely comfortable having boys for friends—so comfortable that, to me, it intensified her painful attractiveness. Her mom was cool and cooked amazing curry. And, most important (well, looking back across these reasons, maybe not), she really loved music, and, besides forcing anybody who came to her house to listen to Teddy Pendergrass, she’d brought a gen-u-wine “Rapper’s Delight” 12” with her from The Big Apple. By the time my junior year was over, I had Teddy and that Sugarhill Gang single memorized—a requirement if you showed up for one of her weekend dance parties.

She was also dating my immensely more sophisticated and assured best friend, of course, but being two years older than him and a year older than her, I felt that by magically transforming into a golden senior by the opening of the next school year, I might gain a level of prestige (cue up “Status Back”) commensurate enough for her to ever-so-easefully separate from my pal and—come to me. I wasn’t even worried that, should that fantasy materialize, I would have to deal with the permanent fact of her dark skin, and my parents’ discomfort with that—my mom had freaked the first time the young lady had swung by my house to hang out, begging me to consider what we would be putting our children through! My mom was already at home plate; I was just trying to get out of the damn dugout!

(It’s funny how melanin has a place in both sections of this story, testament, I think, to music’s power to guide you through superficial things. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The first semester of my senior year was already over. I’d had and discarded, without a shred of grace, a very nice girlfriend. Our Lady of The Magic Records was holding steady with my pal. She remained supernaturally charming in my presence; I suspect she knew she was torturing me, but had the good manners (and talent?) to keep me very gingerly at bay without resorting to cruelty. However, when Key Club, of which we were both members, had an overnight something-or-other to do something charitable for something-or-other, our proximity over extended time (sounds like a physics equation, and it might be, actually) was more than I could bear.

I had striven, virtually since I’d met her, to just maintain my dignity, with a 95% success rate. I had over-imbibed one night down at the creek—on, of all things, sloe gin (never sampled since, dear reader)—while watching her have a smashing time with her boyfriend, again, one my most prized pals. The party migrated to someone’s house, but, before I got there, driving, very very sadly, alone, I had to pull over at the local McDonald’s and yak into the parking lot. Otherwise, though, I had contained my mute aortal agony. I had but a few months before I would graduate and be jettisoned somewhere where I would not have to be bewitched, bothered, and beguiled by her on a daily basis—if I could just keep it together during a 16-hour sleepover/do-gooder/social Iron Maiden of a situation.

I ask you, how many of you have ever mounted a song in your brain that is someone you cared about? Note: that’s a metaphor, not a simile. The song becomes them, in more ways than one.

I know I am not alone. And I know this is not really a good thing. I’d very briefly been on the other side of the metaphor as a seventh grader, when this sparkly-braced cheerleader said that whenever she heard Paul Davis (why me, Lord?) sing “I Go Crazy” (couldn’t she have picked James Brown’s?), she thought of me. I was underwhelmed. But that memory did not come to the fore on this particular night. Since we’d been advised to, I’d arrived at the sleepover site armed with an eight-track. That’s right, one eight-track. I think I had about 20 at the time, and about 20 LPs (compared to a total of 8,900 at time of typing).

Would you like to guess what I brought?

Come on, you can do better than that! “Positively Fourth Street” was strictly last-year, baby.

That’s right! Neil Young’s Live Rust!

Already the serrated-edged musical instrument of my social destruction during basketball season! As well as a big nowhere on the cool-kid charts of early-1980 southwest Missouri!

Like Neil (you ever paid attention to his love songs?), I was not only a slow learner but also a bit (a bit?) of a romantic—in the worst sense, the sense that a romantic doesn’t really try to even learn a lesson.

But. But. No “Sugar Mountain” this time. No barkers and colored balloons. I was pushing all of my chips out, ahead of a tailwind that Keats might have respected, on the strength of one song that, from its opening, isolated guitar-bolt, wastes no time making its pledge:

Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar,
Dancing on the light from star to star.
Far across the moonbeam I know that’s who you are,
I saw your brown eyes turning once to fire.

You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye.
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.

I am just a dreamer, but you are just a dream,
You could have been anyone to me.
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us on our foggy trip

You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream.
You could have been anyone to me.
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us on our foggy trip. 

Bars? Only across the state line in Kansas for us, with 3.2 pisswater and not a lot of haze—plus she didn’t go with us that often. I always thought it was “Far across the movie”—obviously because my desire was ushered several rows away, at a safe distance. She did have brown eyes—they weren’t fiery, but they danced like licks of fire. The chorus is the meat ‘n’ taters: calm as hell, she was blowing me away without trying. That “somewhere safer where the feeling stays”? Couldn’t have been more true. That’s where I was keeping them—until I forced her, at about one in the morning at the sleepover (with an attentive audience; unfortunately, I had had more than a few moments like these, and I swear I never even saw the audience), to…well, here’s how it started:

“Hey, I got one, listen to this—this is how I feel about you, I’ve been wanting to tell you, but this is better!”

Pushed play.

I felt triumphant within the first couple of minutes, though her face was frozen, incomplete for all time (in my memory, at least) like the Crazy Horse Monument. But she was attentive.

Then I realized: this fucking song is seven minutes long! At the three-minute mark, she started to laugh. Not charitably, either. At the five-minute mark, she was joined by the audience. At the seven-minute mark, they were in the kitchen looking for snacks. I, in grave contrast, was staring straight ahead into the abyss of the far wall, not hearing the song anymore, but the clatter of a gibbet being carefully erected. I also had another seven fucking hours of the goddam do-gooding overnighter to endure, since I’d been dropped off.

 

I’d like to be able to say that, in those following excruciating hours, I’d had my romanticism burned down to ash, but it would take a few more acts of self-destructive and deluded emotional arsons (and a more than a few years in a solitary wilderness without a match, or even rocks to spark) before I got it.

I did, finally, get it. At least. And, every time I put on Live Rust, I’m reminded that, inasmuch as certain blindnesses force you to construct vivid but deeply flawed worlds inside your own skull, only by pushing the worlds of your imagination into contact with the real one are you ever going to make any kind of meaningful progress. Neil, I know you weren’t really trying to communicate that, but hey.

Postscript: Last week, my wife was listening to Live Rust in her car. As we headed out to grab a bite, I’d brought Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, a signpost record for us, with me to celebrate our 26 years of being together. I started to eject Live Rust and replace it, but she, brown eyes shining, shooed me off, saying, “I love this song.” Wanna guess the song?

Neil Young (Almost) Ruined My Life: High School Encounters with a Callow White Bard, Part One  

 

I first learned about Neil Young in a friend’s basement in 1978, when I was a junior in high school. My pal had reckoned that, since I loved Rush’s 2112 (ahhhh—‘70s FM radio and its tendency to showcase entire albums upon release), I would also love Neil. Neither of us were Canucks, nor did we have any special interest in or knowledge about the land geographically above us, but he insisted I come over for a listening session.

He got royally high; I abstained, having recently been gotten high, and had a couple plug wires detached from my car by my “benefactors.” It took me an hour that night to drive the five miles between the party locale and my house—but that hour allowed me to get deeply acquainted with Journey’s Infinity album, which clicked relentlessly through my eight-track player. I mention this only to assure the reader that I wasn’t in an altered state when I got gobsmacked by Decade, a perfect choice for a benighted soul such as I was. Already a Dylan fan, I’d become inured to “bad” voices, but Young? Who else has wielded such an untutored, seemingly technically deficient, yet so yearning a voice? I suppose that yearning was the first thing about him that appealed to me: I yearned to get laid, to express my difference, to connect with people, but I had no vocal, mental, or sexually social tools. Thus, he seemed not only miraculous to me, but a brother in arms as well. Also, he had a nose for injustice. My jones was (and still is) racial injustice; his seemed mostly ecological, romantic, cultural—but then there was “Southern Man”! On top of those things, dude could write a melody: “Sugar Mountain,” “Love is a Rose” and “Heart of Gold” infected my ear, but so did the equally hummable but amped-up “Like a Hurricane” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Yep, amped-up. His GUITAR! Acoustic, but especially electric, it resonated with, I dunno, my sense of my own dissonance against the harmony of the crowd.

After that basement session, Neil was soldered to my soul. That could only bode well, right? Well, you might not remember the Seventies well. In fact, Young’s music was an agent in two of the most humiliating experiences of my youth—but, friends, humiliation is the pathway to enlightenment, or should be, depending on your willingness to reflect, analyze, and adjust.

Music fans know that there are private passions and public passions. We love certain recordings (for me, one is Roland Kirk’s quiet but virtuosic and weird I Talk to The Spirits) that are so eccentric we keep them to ourselves or a very tight circle, because we don’t want them (or us) to be assaulted by the tin-eared. Others seem to communicate so directly and broadly we don’t hesitate to share—in my life I’ve found Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta (or NOLA r&b in general) to be so life-affirming as to entail no risk of rejection. In early ’79, I heard Neil’s Live Rust in its entirety on Joplin, Missouri’s KSYN, and categorized it as public—a) it was a perfect summation of Young’s best work, which had made him famous; b) it sounded like it was being transmitted from the cosmos—which I considered unweird because spacey was lingua franca in the late ‘70s; and c) it was sensitive and balls-out rockin’—how do you remember the 1970s? To my mind, Young’s top-shelf creations were ready to share in situations which demanded it. Situations, though, in which the potential for humiliation lurked.

I grew up in southwest Missouri. My elementary school (’68-’74) was racially segregated—whether on purpose or by location, I know not. My father worked with a black man who came over occasionally for a beer—I don’t think his melanin content registered with me then. My 6th grade teacher introduced me to the concept of race during a civil rights lesson. After we had read (in a precious few pages—maybe even one) about Dr. King’s accomplishments, Mr. Lawhon, a Baptist minister on the side, passed around a postcard showing Dr. King at a Communist party meeting—and labeled him an enemy of America. That was the first time I’d heard a teacher teach against the textbook; I was a natural B+ student who overachieved and competed into As, but the whole moment smelled rotten. A session with my favorite sitter (the town library) confirmed that either it was an outpost of Bible Belt Communism, or my teacher was full of shit. I put my money on the latter.

The next year fed all of the elementaries into one junior high. Along with the one ultra-hot girl who didn’t go to Columbian Elementary, black citizens were now my classmates. Unsurprisingly, that was also the first year I heard my pals toss the verbal Molotov cocktail “nigger” around—casually. My thinking was conflicted by several things. One, a 15-year-old seventh-grader named Barry Clark, Black Power Afro-pick sticking out of his puff and shit-eating grin ever-gleaming, was the reason to never miss science class, which otherwise was an endless procession of transparencies (only the notes were transparent). He was funnier than a motherfucker, and the first example I’d ever seen seen of cool. He made nothing but Fs—but he was obviously smart. His side-eyes during lecture indicated a 36-on-the-ACT social IQ. Beyond that, he provided my personal highlight of that year: we could play pick-up basketball during lunch, and he chose me as part of his three-on-three team. He was already 6’ 3” and pretty skilled; I was 5’ 10” and a basketball Pete Rose—that was probably why he chose me, but I didn’t get it then. During one of our first games, a white upperclassman on the other team took offense to my pestering defense and kamikaze drives to the basket, and clocked me, out of nowhere. Tears welling up, feeling my prestige drain away, I pushed myself up off the court only to see Barry nail the guy with a haymaker and send him down like a sack of potatoes. A principal hustled him off—he had no interest in the guy that punched me–but I was blown away: he had my back. I don’t mean to paint Barry as a saint. That year, he also lit a girl’s hair on fire with a Zippo, and he often referred to me as “Buddha-rini,” which I thought referred to my wisdom but in fact implied that I was ripe for buggering. Still, it made a difference that he was black and he kicked a white kid’s ass ‘cause that kid kicked mine.

Another thing that conflicted my thinking was a black girl a grade above me called me incessantly for a date. And she was cute! I didn’t take her up on it, but it had nothing to do with race. I was scared out of my mind about “going steady” under normal circumstances, I believed that women had no sex drive and only tolerated men’s existence, and I couldn’t process the idea of a girl aggressively pursuing me. My loss. I saw her several years later working concessions at a Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball game, and one locked-in glance brought it all back.

Two of the most important disruptors to my view of race—and to many of my peers’, who were otherwise outwardly racist—were Richard Pryor and Julius Erving. No one was funnier than Rich, no one was smarter, he was black, and you couldn’t deny it. He made Cheech and Chong seem minor leaguers, George Carlin a mere intern. He skewered white folks—and we laughed just as hard as black folks (though maybe we didn’t learn enough). The Doctor? Words do not suffice; spend a few hours on YouTube. In terms of gravity and basketball, he was as Louis Armstrong was to jazz.

By far the most important contributor to my developing view of—I’m sorry, I can’t acknowledge the word race—melanin difference was school-sponsored sports, basketball in particular. Little do I need to explain. The first adult I knew who talked to me as if I were an adult was Lee Stevens, my junior high basketball coach, and a black man. He respected my intelligence, my desire, my eagerness to be down for a program that worked. The night he coached us to a victory in Cassville, Missouri, as fans screamed racial slurs at him and our black players, changed my life. Plus, two black families, the Stricklands and the Wrights, placed their scions on those junior and high school teams, and through myriad conditioning drills and scrimmages and more wins than losses, they came to seem my own brothers. I didn’t have any reason to feel differently, though in school, for some reason (whatever it was, I felt even at the time, it was indefensible), they were never in my classes, which further underlines the significance of their being on our team.

So what does Neil Young have to do with all that? A lot. I’d come to feel very comfortable with my black peers. I thought that was great. That’s about as much as I thought. Before my ’79 senior year, a new basketball coach arrived on the scene, with new ideas. One of the coolest was that, for away games, we could take turns bringing jam boxes on the bus and playing music to get us psyched up. Long before deeply hypnotized by music’s power, I vibrated restlessly, waiting for my turn—we were chosen randomly, or I would have leapt to the front of the line. My turn came shortly after a hip KSYN programmer ran Live Rust in its entirety across the airwaves—I happened to be listening in, and I was mesmerized. I couldn’t wait to share Young’s insights, melodies, and wailings; again, the record (liked its studio companion Rust Never Sleeps) seemed, again, beamed in from some galactic room—someone could write a great article if not book on their ambiance, which flowed into Hawks and Doves and disappeared. In particular, the song “Sugar Mountain”—more so than its earlier incarnation (Young wrote it in ’64, at 19)—pierced right through my 12th grade male athlete armor to what I thought was my core:

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

It’s so noisy at the fair
But all your friends are there
And the candy floss you had
And your mother and your dad.

There’s a girl just down the aisle,
Oh, to turn and see her smile.
You can hear the words she wrote
As you read the hidden note.

Now you’re underneath the stairs
And you’re givin’ back some glares
To the people who you met
And it’s your first cigarette.

Now you say you’re leavin’ home
‘Cause you want to be alone.
Ain’t it funny how you feel
When you’re findin’ out it’s real?

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

I couldn’t wait to share it. I thought it had to speak to where everyone was. My consideration didn’t flow to lives that didn’t fully intersect with mine (beyond school—with its mean, mean compartmentalizations—and sports). I knew (in a lazy, knowing way) that some folks’ residences were red-lined into a far corner of the town map; that some folks never seemed to be at the big town pool; that some folks were never represented at my church or the churches at which I occasionally slummed. But that knowledge is of the floating sort, that doesn’t take hold—a very American sort.

We boarded the bus. I found a seat up front, so I could aim my jam box back through space. My expectations? That all my teammates would be elevated by Neil’s flat-out nailing of their personal moment in time and execute a, yes, balletic victory on the hardwood. The Strickland and Wrights, as per usual, were sitting in my vicinity. I had speculated that, yes, they, too, probably had had their first cigarette, and had begun finding out that, yes, in fact, it was real. The bus lurched onto the highway—maybe it was on its way to Seneca, Missouri (that town’s name’s genesis then dim to me)—and, as the vehicle began to sail, I balanced my jam box on the back of my seat and pushed “Play.”

As that fragile, yearning, oddly beautiful voice occupied the bus’ temporarily quiet space, I saw particular bodies stiffen.

The Stricklands, Nathan and Jerome, looked at each other, looked at me, and were stricken with convulsive laughter. They composed themselves, kept listening, then exploded into very physical guffaws. They loudly but politely demanded I push the “Stop” button. I obliged.

Together, they launched into a witheringly sarcastic chorale. Which they repeated, ad nauseum, in wickedly wavering falsettos, for most of the rest of the trip. They may, in fact, have surpassed even Richard Pryor in their spot-on nailing of white liberal obliviousness.

I myself was not experientially or academically equipped (I use both of those adverbs gingerly) to perfectly parse Nathan’s and Jerome’s most excellent satire; I wouldn’t find out until later that the concept of “Sugar Mountain” was, for the Stricklands and Wrights—people of greater melanin content—even deeper bullshit than Neil was suggesting. I was staggered by their ridicule of my passionately and sincerely offered paean, but, really, it was the first notice I’d been given of my white privilege, long before that was a buzz word. Fuck “Sugar Mountain”–they hadn’t even had access to the fair, period. Take that how you wish.

Neil’s music’s fix on me could have ended there—but I was dogged enough to carry it into my romantic life, too.

To Be Continued