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!

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!

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.