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.

 

G’Bye to Mark E. (January 24th, Columbia, Missouri)

Mark E. Smith, who stepped on a rainbow yesterday, once said about his sui generis group that “if it’s me and your granny playin’ bongos, it’s The Fall.” That quote’s been endlessly repeated, if you read pop music media you’ll have it memorized by the end of this day if you didn’t have it already, and it is damned witty.

BUT–the thing is, it’s very true. For 40 years, and all the way up to the very end, Smith produced records with a wide variety of musicians, featuring a wide variety of augmentations and methods of attack, presented with production ranging from cruddy to crystalline, and, should you care, for example, to listen across a Fall compilation (like 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong or, especially, Castle Music’s two Fall box sets, one of five and of six discs), you will hear that, to tweak John Peel, the more different they sound, the more they sound the same.

And not just that. Across 40 years, they sound good. Consistently good. Funny, caustic, cranky, irritating, repetitive, baffling, rabble-rousing, poetic…but catchy. And catchy ain’t easy, especially when one is shooting for and hitting those other goals. Or maybe, paradoxically, not shooting for anything at all other expressing one’s unique self.

Mark E. Smith: He was a man. Take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again. Enough with the quotes and allusions; click on the above playlist and get hooked, or simply revisit some wonderful shots across the bow of pop music. I listened to him all afternoon yesterday, and I’ll be listening to him most of the day today.

Immortal Songs: Jeffrey Lewis’ “Scowling Crackhead Ian”

As a former kid who got the shit kicked out of him a few times,
As a friend and as a teacher of some pretty tough and some pretty puny kids,
As someone who’s feeling his age a little and has a high sensitivity to the passage of time,
As someone with an attachment to places,
As an admirer of writers with an eye for detail and a heart for compassion,
As a citizen who is fatigued by long-nurtured division and scorn–

This song just destroys me.

I return to it again and again, and can play it over and over at a sitting. I labored pretty intensively to correct the horrible “MetroLyrics” transcription and bring the text to you (I may have misheard a word or two, but not many), so, though it is a bit long, I ask you, if you share some of the states of being I’ve catalogued above, to read it, then listen to it. It might destroy you, too. To Mr. Lewis: thanks for writing such a great song–this one’s immortal.

“Scowling Crackhead Ian:

I can’t forget your face.
You were a foul human being
Way back on Saint Mark’s Place.
A white thug when we were both poor,
A life struggling for one quarter more.
In sixth grade, that’s what you’d mug me for,
A switchblade pressed up to my jugular.
So I feared for my neck,
Safe streets were few.
My nerves grew wrecked near to Second Avenue.
I soon learned how to steer clear of a crook or a crew,
And now I’m still here,
And, look! So are you.
Forever you’ve been Crackhead Ian.
It was your kid-nickname if we spoke it.
You were an insane human being,
Whether you ever did or didn’t really smoke it.

I know that tall, thin, bent-over stroll,
All sunburned and grim since ten or twelve years old.
I guess yesterday is gone,
Faces still indent our soul,
And I guess both our moms’ places still on rent control.
I was a twig-small, sad-sack, punier guy;
You were big, tall and bad back in junior high.
No sight of someone’s face has ever been scarier–
You’d come chase me from Streetfighter 1 or Space Harrier.
Hello again, Crackhead Ian:
I still can’t forget your foul face.
My fellow human being–
I know we’re both still planted on Saint Mark’s Place.
We’ve lived our poor lives in close parallel
Within these four or five blocks we both know so well.
You must have grew up near the former theater or the old gross hotel;
I’m sure you’re aware of me here
But, oh, I can’t tell.
It seems you never outgrew your little pre-teen rage.
I still see you look so mean, though now we are middle-aged.
I was eavesdropping last year at you laughing to tell
About bashing some dude with a chair till he fell.
I slipped fast by you talking, fearing our eyes would touch,
Drifting past, by new awnings that had all changed so much.
I’ve never known your life story, I’m sure it’s rotten and tough,
But how long before these roles for us have gotten old enough?
You must’ve had it so rough, kid.
Well, I wonder:
Forged by a tiny portion of love or fortune
Goes lightning or goes thunder.

You’re a bad one, Crackhead Ian:
A sad son and sunburned pink.
But, of all the best kids seen downtown in our pre-teens,
It’s just you and me left, I think.
How long till you notice?
How long until you shake my hand?
How long until we’re old-man neighbors,
Last tribesmen of the vanished land?
We never even did exchange names.
You were an evil kid from Hades.
When we played these arcade games,
That made life great in the ‘80s.
Me and Ian.
Me and Ian
Ride into the night of an East Village dream with these games in the street and the heat….”

Addendum: I love the sound effects that give the song context, too.

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

 

Midwest Lo-Fi Psycho-delic Attack: A review of Woody Records’ artist sampler CD by Mackenzie Thomas

It’s always tempting for the cooler-than-thou to think that the kids are out of touch with what’s really cool, but I would refer those misguided individuals to Local H’s “All the Kids Are Right,” and its warning line: “They won’t wear your t-shirts now.” Recently, the best thing about Kansas in this day and age, Woody Records, sent a package to Hickman High School’s Academy of Rock, hoping–daring–that some kids would sample the musical merch and find it…good. In fact, it happened. What follows is Hickman 10th grader Mackenzie Thomas’ take on Woody’s CD sampler–she makes the most of an opportunity I dreamed of at her age but had no way of making real (it was ’78–and neither the underground or technology had erupted)–and I think you’ll see a DECENT and fair music writer at work. Enjoy. And visit Woody Records. (The Editor.)

I am quite new to the lo-fi media scene, but the more I keep listening to the Woody Records Compilation disk, the more I begin to like it and understand the hard work put into it. This compilation contains fifteen tracks by various artists from the midwest area who are all a part of Woody Records, a small label out of Kansas. (Check out Woody Records’ Soundcloud page here to sample these artists yourself. – Ed.)

“If A Man Made A Machine” and “Mild Violence” by Fake Fancy, the first two tracks on the album, immediately caught my attention. “If A Man Made A Machine” has a sweet sound to it, and the rhythm moves to the same rate as my heartbeat. The song makes me feel alive. “Mild Violence” is a little heavier, with grooving bass and lyrics that are quick to the point, the singer stating that he has nothing, and no time for anything: “I’ve got nothing, I’ve got nothing, got nothing, but sunshine to keep me wide awake…” After hearing these two tracks, and assuming that a label would put the best of best on a compilation disk, I wouldn’t mind listening to more by Fake Fancy. Their songs seem to be short and sweet, and with fairly understandable lyrics.

It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around why a band would record and release a song where the vocals are so distorted that it’s impossible to understand what the singer is saying. For example, in “Salsa That One,” by Cucumber and the Suntans, the instrumental intro to the song started off nicely, but as soon as the vocals were added in, it became unenjoyable. All I could hear was “Wa, wa, wa ,wa…”– but that could possibly be the actual words to the song. Cucumber and the Suntans, however, redeem themselves with “Lifes,” a short, folksy tune that would be appealing to those listeners who spend their Sundays down at Cooper’s Landing south of Columbia, watching the muddy river flow by, a cold beer in hand and ears tuned into that weekend’s entertainment, usually something along the lines of country/folk/bluegrass/acoustic.

A doom rock/metal band by the name of Merlin takes their music a whole different direction than that of Cucumber and the Suntans. Their 11-minute instrumental track, “Christ Killer,” starts off with acoustic guitar for the first six minutes, then fades into eerie psychedelic rock. After listening to “Christ Killer,” I went on to listen to Merlin’s self-titled album , which consisted of “heavy hours of drinking, smoking, and worshiping the Dark Lord in a beer soaked, incense filled basement to produce our finest release to date. Implementing all the mystical, doomy, psychedelic, evil vibes from everything we’ve put out thus far, we have created a witches’ brew of all the Elements of MERLIN,” according to their Bandcamp page. Throughout their years of playing and making music together, they’ve seemed to maintain the same overall sound in their songs, while still creating new masterpieces each time.

I believe that Woody Records releases this lo-fi material because it’s cheaper on both the artist and the label, but it also sends out a creative vibe that is hard to find in albums by modern rock/pop artists. This album feels more natural because it hasn’t been auto-tuned and doesn’t consist of electronic beats and bass drops. There is definitely something special about lo-fi music–and this album. The Woody Records Compilation would be appealing to anyone who’s really open-minded about music and loves to support local musicians. This disk ranges from punk to electro-indie to psychedelic rock. It has something for everyone!

Mackenzie Thomas review picture

Mackenzie Thomas is a sophomore at David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, the bass player in Graveyard Youth, and a member of that school’s Academy of Rock. This is her first professional review, and it’s five times better than my first one. 

Mr. and The Mrs.: Raging Punk from Paola, Kansas–The Interview

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Rock and roll–or punk rock, if you prefer–is wonderful in its inclusiveness. For all of its wild reputation, it’s made room for plenty of couples, husbands and wives, even, to make their marks, from X to The Pierced Arrows (the married couple involved in the latter moving up on its 50th anniversary). Speaking of couples, my wife and I made a sojourn to Lawrence, Kansas, a few years ago to see one of our favorite bands, Natural Child, play at the Replay Lounge. We were immediately blown away by the opener, a two-piece band called Mr. and The Mrs. (Ben Hughes, guitar and vocals; Michele Choate, drums) hailing from Paola, Kansas, that defied the current two-piece band convention: no blues or gimmickry, just head-on, raving, bashing rhythm that kept our eyebrows raised. Last year, they dropped the excellent Radiation Beach Blues, and they’ve started a label, Woody Records, which features a fascinating line-up of (what? THAT’S RIGHT!!!) Midwestern rock and roll–if you doubt my enthusiasm, check out their Swamp Comp mixtape from the cream of the label.

As the retired but still semi-aggressive sponsor of Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School Academy of Rock, I took up Mr.’s (Ben Hughes’) challenge to encourage our student members to review Woody Records’ output. To kick off that experiment, I offer you here an inspiring interview I recently conducted with the band–the inspiration comes from the answers, not the questions. Also, if you are a Kansan or Missourian and see them billed, GO! If you’re not seeing them billed, petition your local venue operator to GET WITH THE REGIONAL TALENT and help you and your homefolks shake their asses!

Phil Overeem: First, are you really Mr. and The Mrs.? Two-person bands can’t always be trusted, you know!

Mr. and the Mrs: Yes, we are actually married. We were married about two years before we decided to be a band. We couldn’t really think of a band name, so Mr. and the Mrs. it is.

PO: That out of the way, what is the origin of the band?

MM: I went to the Replay Lounge to get a Paperhead 7-inch signed. They’re a band off the label Nashville’s Dead. Anyways, it was such an awesome show that I came home and told Michele. We went to shows for about a year, then decided this is something we should be doing.

PO: What are your favorite bands and influences—I know they can be two separate things? Also, in the MO-KS Matrix of Semi-to-Totally Unknown Punk Bands, what is one band (besides yourselves) you think everyone should see?

MM:

(Michele) Well, my favorite band growing up was Tupac, for sure. I don’t really have a favorite now (too many good bands). As for influences, I’ve been told I have a Ramones sound, but I never really paid close attention to how someone else played. It’s probably a mix of everything I’ve ever heard subconsciously influencing how I play.

(Ben) I have many, many influences from many genres. My favorite bands at the moment that someone might know are Nobunny, and Thee Oh Sees. I’d say if you want to see an awesome punk band, then Nobunny’s the show to see. He has tons of energy, the crowd is going nuts, plus he’s a weirdo and plays in his whities and a raggedy bunny mask.

PO: My people are all from the center of Kansas (Hutchinson area), and I know from observation that the landscape can drive a young person to drugs—seriously. Did living in Kansas play a role in you “turning to” punk rock music? And are there other outposts than Lawrence, Kansas City, or (I’m assuming) Manhattan that we Show-Me Staters don’t know about?

MM: We can’t say for sure that living in Kansas led us to punk music, but it definitely led us to music, for sure. As you know, there’s not much to do most the time and music is the best way to express your boredom, anger, happiness, or however you feel. Wichita would be another place—they have all kinds of stuff going on. There’s This Ain’t Heaven Recordings, and Red Cat Recording. That’s just two we know of. They have all sorts of cool bands like Slime Flower (a band of high schoolers that rock), and Iron Octomoms. One of the guys from Iron Octomoms also does all sorts of crazy photography. Wichita also has ICT/Noise, and Psychfest that have become pretty popular over the past few years.

This is not in Kansas or Missouri, but Oklahoma has a pretty decent scene going on too. We have played with with the bands The Daddyos, Cucumber and the Suntans, and Who and the Fu**s. All awesome bands, and people, the place is producing all kinds of cool bands lately. The last time we played there we played a place called The Fur Trap and it was packed! It has a place downstairs that’s for normal bar attendees, and upstairs the bands play and work on drawing the other crowd upstairs. Oh, plus the band Broncho is from there—check them out!

PO: This is a little different question, but what are the special challenges of being a band from Kansas? Of being a two-piece? Of not having a beard when it’s mandatory? Of being in a band with someone you love?

MM: Until recently, I don’t think many people took the Midwest seriously, we had no viable scene, and not a whole lot of bands had ever made it out of this area. Not that a lot of bands have “made it” recently, but there are enough cool bands from here touring and spreading the word, or bands coming here on tour and getting a good crowd response. Or even quite a few local bands being picked up on mid-class record labels to make people notice. It’s sort of been a group effort.
As a two-piece we catch a lot of grief for lacking a bass player. We also get a lot of White Stripes nods as a two-piece with a girl drummer. Not that it’s a bad nod, but our music sounds nothing like the White Stripes.

PO: Agreed! And not really like any two-piece band I’ve ever seen!

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MM: (Michele) As for the beard, Ben always has a beard. It may not always be long and outta control, but it’s always there.
(Ben) Also I’m not a hipster and don’t have my beard as a fad, I’m just a dude with a beard who likes my beard. Well, being in a band with my lover doesn’t really have any drawbacks. Maybe the biggest drawback not music related would be, we often need a babysitter for our three kids. We play a lot of shows, and it’s not always easy. Actually, good to be in a band with your lover, because we push each other to keep going, we can’t miss practice because of some made up excuse, plus we’re a couple that has something besides family we build together. We’re not a guy who hangs in the garage or golf course, while the chick drinks wine & cleans house. Sorry, but there just aren’t many drawbacks for us.

PO: WOW! That’s nothing to apologize for!!! While we are talking challenges, and since we’re a high school rock and roll club that is entering the world of Woody Records and that features bands that play live here in town, what are your 5 keys to being able to sustain a band in today’s economy and entertainment world?

MM:

1) Don’t quit your day job.

2) You get paid in coolness more than in cash.

3) Shut your mouth. This means people WILL be or act messed up; however, if you open your mouth even if it’s for the benefit of the scene, someone will find a way to twist it around and make you seem like the bad guy. It’s a mix between politics & high school.

4) Do it because you love it. This stands for whatever you choose to do in life. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has been said a million times; it has also broken up a million bands. The rock ‘n’ roll part is what it’s about—it may not seem that way as a high schooler, but save yourself the trouble and do the first two sparingly.

5) Do your own thing. Don’t make music a certain way because that’s how everyone else is doing it. Music is about self-expression, not trying to be like someone else.

PO: What was the inspiration behind Woody Records? I am assuming you are the founder, but, if not, tell us what your role is, and maybe what the label’s philosophy is?

MM:

(Michele) Woody Records started as a character me and a friend drew in school. He has a whole life story that spans the beginning to reincarnation. I used to write raps when I was younger & decided that I would make my own label, produce, & put out rap that I liked. Instead, I quit writing raps, started playing drums, and, when it came time to put out music, it just seemed right to use Woody Records. Our philosophy is put out good music, put it out in physical formats, and spread it to as many people as possible.

PO: What is your songwriting process? Words or music first, or do they kind of come out together?

MM:

(Michele) Our song writing happens during practice. One of us, usually Ben, will randomly come up with a riff and we’ll just build on it and mess around a bit. Sometimes it will turn into a song, sometimes not. Music always comes before lyrics. It’s easier to have a base to work from when writing lyrics.

PO: Several of my favorite bands (Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows, X, you two) feature or featured a husband and a wife. When it comes to writing lyrics, or choosing subjects for songs, do they come from your own life experiences, or from just an idea for a rock and roll song, or…where?

MM: Our lyrics are generally based on life, ours or the people around us, even just a read on society as a whole. We just add a little twisted humor to the situation. However we have a few songs that are just BS like “Dead Pets,” for an example.

PO: What’s the best band you’ve ever played with? And a slightly different question: who are the best human beings who’ve been in a band you’ve played with?

MM: Best band? We’ve played with some awesome bands. Natural Child, which is the show we met you at, Phil, The Conquerors, a band from KC. The Night Beats–I dunno, there isn’t just one best band. [As for the second question], [e]ach other. I know it comes off as corny, but when it’s crunch time, we can count on each other to get what needs done, done. Everyone else seems flaky when it comes to practice, or being sober. Sometimes stuff needs to get done and you have to focus—not many people accept music isn’t always just a party.

PO: Describe the best show you two have ever played.

MM: We got to open up for Natural Child and the Night Beats. Two bands we really love. When you’re just starting out as the little guy in the scene and you get a chance like this, it’s almost indescribable. It’s awesome, for lack of a better word.

PO: Thanks for your time, and for rocking out, and for being a great and unique model for a rock and roll band. We hope to bring you to the school, or at least to Columbia, for a show.

Mr. and and The Mrs. next play at Harling’s in Kansas City on March 27!