In the Open (Sunday, June 8th – Wednesday June 11th, 2018, Missouri to Oregon)

Starting about 5 in the morning Sunday, we’ve been on the road to Seattle to visit some fond friends. We’ve crossed Kansas, landed in Denver (they have candy!), cut up through Wyoming to Yellowstone, cut across a corner of Montana then down and over through Idaho (no easy way to Portland!), and finally, here at rest in the funky Jupiter Hotel on Burnside in Rip City. Just walked over the bridge to Voodoo Doughnuts (they’ve put out two live Dead Moon albums, at least), beheld the city’s grappling with the teeming homeless and mentally unsound population, and are prepping for a nature outing and a Powell’s visit. Yesterday was a 14.5-hour drive, we got in at 10 and hit the bar, now it is go time!

We have “read” two books thus far on the trip: Tommy Orange’s promising, scathing There There* and the late Anthony Bourdain’s wild and eye-opening Kitchen Confidential (it took his death to finally motivate us to read it, sadly). Thus, little music so far. But…some:

We kicked off the trip with the above Freddie King masterwork.

Later, I forgot how great this song was:

In a Denver hotel after enjoying candy apple suckers from Totally Heavenly Candy out on the streets–

–we grooved lazily to Lady:

Driving up through Tetons Park to Yellowstone–

–we were reminded again of the ever-rewarding joys of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ Tiffany Transcriptions (special attention to doomed guitarist Junior Bernard and magic fiddler Joe Holley):

Two old faithfuls confronted THE Old Faithful and felt joy of their own–

Then we struggled to escape Yellowstone–

–and get some momentum behind us, behind the music of a friend from Eng-uh-land (with help from his and our friend from Columbus, Ohio):

Couldn’t get these songs out of my head cutting across Oregon:

I may be back tomorry, or it may be awhile! If I’m livin’ right, it may be awhile, with Seattle and Victoria BC in the offing!

*One of the key characters in Orange’s book has a therapeutic relationship with MF Doom’s music. The page on which that’s captured is pretty insightful.

If You Were in The World’s Greatest Record Store, and You Had Enough Money for One Record, and You Didn’t Have ANY of the Records You Have Now, Which One Would You Buy? (June 29th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I apologize for that mouthful of a title, but what else was I going to call this? Today, I’m listening to the record I bought when I was virtually in the situation it describes.

I was 19 going on 20, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, and I’d scraped up enough money to road-trip with three friends to New Orleans to see the Rolling Stones at the Superdome. I had gas money, food money if somebody would only feed me ONE meal, beer money if the beer was very cheap, I had my ticket in hand already–and I had a ten spot to spare. For incidentals.

Up to that point, I’d shopped in my hometown record store (Ken’s Records, in Carthage, Missouri), an equally small store in Joplin, Missouri that really, really catered to Elvis Costello fans, a few mall outlets (cut-out heaven!), and two shops in Fayetteville, a kind of headshop-cum-bootleg emporium called Record Exchange and a decent-sized (I thought) store called White Dog. By the point of the New Orleans trip, I owned maybe 50 records, eight-tracks (yes–can you imagine listening to Van Morrison’s Into the Music on one of those), and cassettes, all of ’em housed in my dorm room. Imagine dealing with a record collection in college today! I’m sure a few folks do–but with much less reason, and with CDs dead, I wonder how many of today’s students can shell out $29.99 for a 180-gram vinyl copy of Dookie? Looking back, I’d call the gems of my collection–the ones I thought were gems–Public Image’s Second Edition, Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta, 1969 Velvet Underground Live (with grooves already worn and my name stamped on the label!) and Fenton Robinson’s Loan Me a Dime. Because I thought the artists were obscure, I assumed to records were hard to get, and that White Dog carried them because they were an untoppably cool store.

I knew little little about New Orleans at that point other than an unrealistic fantasy of the French Quarter, a sports nerd’s familiarity with the Saints and the Jazz, and Fess, whose above album had been listed in a year-end poll and which I’d bought strictly on the merits of his strange name and the provocative album title. There was no Internet, so I didn’t even know Mr. Roy Byrd was from New Orleans until I read the album credits. Getting my bills and coins together and doing my best to budget, I figured that, given all the other things we’d be doing, a ten-dollar bill, folded into a little square and hidden in a special crease of my wallet, would be all I’d need if we even found a record store that had good records.

About 11 hours later, the four of us were wandering on the south end of the Quarter, down by Jackson Square, and shuffled into an impressively two-storied record store called Tower Records (this is my memory at work with regard to the geography). I had damn-near memorized the old orange first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide–I may have known a few things about New Orleans from it–especially all the five-star record covers I knew to look for if I was lucky, and definitely the great albums that, at that difficult time in record fiend history, were out of print, among them most of the Velvet Underground’s, Stooges’, MC5’s, and Dolls’ studio releases. We talked about those all the time. I was so certain I wouldn’t see any of them that they were way off my radar–honestly, I can’t remember what I was looking for. I do remember being stunned, and paralyzed, bu the sheer volume of the store’s inventory.

Within ten minutes–and, by the way, we didn’t have all the time in the world–I’d already spotted both of the Dolls’ Mercury albums and Dr. John’s Gris Gris. I know I didn’t see any Velvets albums or I would have gotten one of those–maybe I didn’t have time to get to the “V”s–but I dimly recall staring into Ig’s mug on the cover of The Stooges. We had places to go and things to do–we’d soon see Keith and Ronnie duck into doorway on Royal, and we could drink legally, which we would, of course, at Pat O’Brien’s–and the dudes hollered at me to hurry up and make a decision. Also, I had to pee so badly I was in exquisite and excruciating pain. It all just figured.

Panicked, I flipped through a last random row of records, barely scoping the titles and tearing my cuticles, when I landed on this one:

The cover looked great, I was for damn sure a fan of the Killer already, I knew his history and “live in 1964” sounded like a good bet, and–I had to fucking go. Out of all the great records in the most amazing store I have even been in to this day, I impulsively scoped and grabbed that one without the barest calculation, fished out that tenner and hit the banquettes.

Perhaps I do not need to tell you that Jerry Lee Lewis Live at Star Club, Hamburg, Germany 1964 is only barely arguably the greatest live rock and roll album ever recorded. The Killer is in absolutely furious form, totally in command, so on fire he’s audibly amazed at his own mastery (now think about that for a second), roaring through his hits and other folks’ so as to put them in deep, dark relief–has anyone ever cut Little Richard, Elvis, and Hank Williams on one record?–and captured in phenomenally rich and clear fidelity for its vintage. It was so damn good to me I’d write a paper about its virtues the next semester (my only straight A out of a run of B-plusses and A-minuses–Dr. Bob Henigan was tough!), and here I am 36 years later, rocking out to it on about “8” and still in possession of my original copy, as well as two separate CD editions. It is that good.

If I were able to carry everything I know now–the memory of everything I’ve ever listened to as I’ve sat agog, and my mental files on the, oh, 5-6 things I’ve still not been able to find–back to the moment before I chose this record, and happened to find myself divested of the 10,000 or so I currently own, I would buy this one again. No hesitation.

Which brings me to the title question for the reader. Feel free to comment to this post with your answer, because I’d really like to know it and, especially, the story behind it. One thing I’m fairly sure of: it won’t feature the artist chanting his own name along with the crowd, then stopping to shout at them, “Alright–alright already!”

Fifteen from My Teens (May 15th, 2018; Columbia, MO)

 

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Music first deeply affected me when I was a young public pool rat. Certain jukebox sounds just made me feel good, and I played them over and over: Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me,” The Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” Paul Revere’s “Indian Reservation,” Cher’s “Half Breed”–I have no native ancestry, nor did I study it in class or on the side, so don’t ask me–Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” anything by Elton or Alice. But since I remember really thinking, I’ve spent quite a bit of time (too much, still) inside my own head. I think that was originally an outgrowth of eventing games and scenarios first for Captain Action, Johnny West, and GI Joe, then for doodling in my school notebooks, then for “TV shows” I acted out alone in our backyard when we moved out in the country. I never needed another person to have active, imaginative fun, and eventually my interest in music joined with my tendency to spend considerable time silently thinking, imagining, and inventing.

The catalyst was Ken’s Record Shop, just down from the high school. There, I bought my first albums; to me, their design implied extended mental engagement, though I still evaluated them as a whole, like I did the pool jukebox 45s, and like I still do. For the first time, I started thinking about lyrics and archetypes (I didn’t have that word, but I had Edith Hamilton and Bergen Evans) and seeing if they applied to what I was living and seeing, or what I could live or might see. To a great extent, those first albums were an escape: from the exquisite torture of adolescent yearning to belong and be loved, from the grind of most of my classrooms, from the considerable lack of constructive non-sports outlets in my community (I was an athlete, but sports were not an escape for me; they were where I physically released my frustration, anger, and confusion). Church couldn’t compare to those first records, and I wasn’t being asked to read many books in school, so they were my first scriptures, for better or worse.

Here are the first ten albums that I contemplated and tried to unravel, interpret, and apply–whether they really bear up under that weight or not.

1. Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (seemed literary and I was starved for such, though I thought I was stoopid because I didn’t “get it”; the title seems to me today a bit more of a clue)

2. Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies (I mos def got the entertainment aspect of this, but I labored to dig it what money and decadence really meant to him–um, Phil, you knew the reflexive property from math, dude!)

3. Bob Dylan: Street Legal (yeah I know–this Dylan album?–but I was miserable and confused by girls just like he was)

4. Neil Young: Decade (his Cortez v. my teachers’ Cortez + his guitar + he was confused by girls = love!

5. Rush: All the World’s A Stage (when I heard the album on KSYN outta Joplin–in its entirety–it sounded profound)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (a whole new strange world to me–I knew no Bruces but I did see the cars–but “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” became a credo)

7. Ted Nugent: Double Live Gonzo (proof I wouldn’t lie to you if I’d actually list this–remember, I said archetypes as well as lyrics)

8. Elvis Costello: My Aim is True (I seldom listen to him or it today, but he put words to my (so often self-inflicted) agonized romantic and sexual desires, and he was confused by girls)

9. Boston: Don’t Look Back (soaring guitars, smooth harmonies, and strangely transcendental lyrics were Midwestern boy-balm–balm enough that I had to write my first-ever record review about it)

10. Bob Seger: Night Moves (the whole album’s still good to me, but the title song was dictated from my fantasies, the only place I got to cluelessly “work on” The Mysteries)

Scary, ain’t they? For scriptures? Exclusively white and male, het’ro (far as I knew), foursquare (even Alice, really–I never took him seriously even then), a tad humorless (no?). On the plus side, there’s some “poetry” in there, a dollop of politics (historical and emotional), a touch of class-consciousness, spacey futurism, wang dang sweet poontang (really, though…), wordsmithery–stuff for my addled but determined mind to work with.

Maybe the next five I explored before heading to college were more important.

1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (the kind of food my teachers should have been serving me daily–still nutritious after all these years!)

2. The Clash: London Calling (a cultural dictionary I didn’t have the background for, but I wasted no time trying to translate “Spanish Bombs” and figure out who Ivan and Montgomery Clift were)

3. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (“I’m looking over the wall / Oh no it cannot be!” was the most exciting line I’d ever heard, delivered by the most frightening singer I’d ever heard, and I didn’t even have a clue about the Berlin Wall at fucking 18–but I did know he meant it, man…and that meant a lot in the days of “Disco Duck”)

4. Teddy Pendergrass: Teddy (yes, I studied that–to no avail, and no hot oil rubdowns for me)

5. Neil Young: Live Rust (I would read a book about the sound engineering for these shows, because they sounded transmitted from outer space–or the Palace of Experience)

Still no codexes from women, but I am thankful for the intercession of those five platters in this southwest Missouri boy’s life before I was cut loose into the wider world. I guess I linger over them because I’m fascinated that I got here from there, and wonder if, oh, “Desolation Row” had anything to do with it in a dance with chance. Believe me, if you’d told me then where, what, and who I’d be now, I’d have fainted from surprise–and relief. I’m still an old chunk of coal, though, and I wonder, too, like most, how much of the teenage me is still operating in my core. At least I’m much less confused about girls.

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!

FLASHBACK: Boring Stories, Indeed–Springsteen and E-Street Bland, Live at Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, 1999

Bruce & E Street

I used to commandeer a website called The First Church of Rock and Roll (b. 1999ish, d. 2005ish). While doing so, I assumed the persona of The Reverend Wayne Coomers, a Pentecostally influenced rock and roll ranter who held all music he encountered up to a single important question: did this move me? As I do on this blog, I seldom wrote about things that didn’t move me, but, on this occasion, I couldn’t stop myself. Nicole and I, for less than a ten-spot, had watched the much-missed Illinois band Local H just blow the doors off The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri–two folks in the band, multiple chips on those four shoulders, and ENERGY! Plus: 45 minutes, and they were out. The next night–and we were most excited–we went to see Springsteen live for the first time. He’d hung the moon for me from ’75-’88…then I read some things…then he stumbled a bit…then he kind of rounded into a staid institution…but we had no reason he wouldn’t raise the short hairs on our necks live, especially reunited with his musical family. Here’s the story, without adjustments; I’d send you to the original site, but even The Wayback Machine can’t help there. I thought nothing dies here (that’s a fact)–that everything that dies will always come back. Guess I was wrong.

Sitting at a booth in a Bob Evans, the tension was ping-ponging between the four of us. Morning-after concert discussion–somebody finally asked the question I was fearing: “So what did you think of the show?” One might well wonder why it had taken nearly twelve post-show hours for someone to bring it up.

It had all started when, during a drunken evening, one of us had suggested a road trip to St. Lou to take in a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band extravaganza. Nicole and I, long-time fans (perhaps an understatement in my case: Bruce was one of the reasons this music is my life), had never witnessed one of the great Rawk spectacles, and our two friends were among the benighted, but ready to dive in, in part as a birthday present for one of ’em.

I labored hours over a 3-cassette comp to prepare them, and, in the making, I found myself pretty damn re-amazed at the Mighty Greaser’s hard-fought hacking through lots of dark forests to keep his audience honest and his own bad self lean, mean and relevant. Not for him the fate of the protagonist of “Glory Days”; he’s long displayed a gift for getting inside beautiful losers to show us how to keep winning, or at least hold life to a draw. So I was primed to finally be there, and had every reason, given what his work had to say, to expect, well, more progress. Progress: a tangly concept any serious Rawk-lifer has to grapple with daily. Either it’s the end-all be-all in the face of rot, anathema to the Rawk ethic, or it’s the fucking hemlock that kills the basic feels-so-right urges that legions of garage rockers and die-hard rockabillies strive to strangle out of their axes. Where was Springsteen?

Motorheads don’t generally have ten guitars waiting in the wings, each on labelled stands with different tunings for different songs. On the other hand, Springsteen’s musical set-up–“big” horn, a willingness to use synthesizers and Spector-operatic piano, an odd aversion to expressing himself consistently, particularly through riffs, on guitar–doesn’t exactly lend itself to primitive noise (Wouldn’t it be fascinating, though, to hear him really strip his shit down, not like a Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, which were “folk” albums, but like, say, Pink Flag, or Ramones, or even New York? It’d certainly cut down on the pomp ‘n’ corn–if he’s reflective enough to notice, it’s, uh, shtick). That leaves writing. Surely he’d been writing. And there’s been no shortage of raw material for a working class hero to mold into an epater le bourgeousie for his increasingly comfortable, always snow-white audience, not in these here times.

So what’d we get? Sitting in the mezzanine, lined up straight-away center stage (a $45 ticket that would have been more than a third of his typical protagonist’s weekly salary–a very optimistic estimate, at that), we got:

1) Muddy sound: 4 guitars (it’s nice to get the gang together, but come on: platoon some o’ the bastards!) doing nothing much but strumming and grinding those plodding, unfunky-white-guy rhythms. Even Bruce’s and Miami Steve’s occasional solos were either arena-rocky or out-of-tune.

2) Umpteen VERY marginally-differentiated “Big Man” solos–the show/tour may be about loyalty and friendship, but my god, hasn’t the motherfucker grown a few chops? Maybe jazz and ’50s r&b has spoiled me (not to mention Randy Newman’s devastating parody on Trouble In Paradise’s “Life is Good”), maybe they are a bar band, but millionaires get paid to make some hard decisions.

3) 90% 1985-and-earlier catalog, arranged exactly the way they were played 1985-and-earlier. Even a bottlenecked “Born in the USA” was a by-the-numbers recreation of the demo version on Tracks. The only faintly new song was a Weavers-esque Guthrie-rewrite called “This Train,” which might be described as Springsteen’s “Forever Young,” one of the worst things in Dylan’s ouevre. And since I’ve mentioned the grouchy old fart, who spent years in limbo squeezing dollars from his back catalogue only to come roaring back again–heard “Things Have Changed,” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack yet, or Time Out of Mind? Nicole and I took a smoke break with a suspiciously large segment of the upstairs concertgoers and came to a mutual appeciation of Uncle Bawb, who, with the previously mentioned exception, hasn’t really ever given a shit about giving the public what it wants. OK, he’s disgusted, but, hey, who isn’t? And with about 10 years on Bruce, he sure isn’t showing signs of taking a fall-back position.

4) A dearth of spontanaeity. The only two moments that raised my short hairs to half-mast were the only radical rearrangement, of Tunnel of Love’s “If I Should Fall Behind,” where 3 E-Streeters got a verse, including Mrs. Bruce, who sounded a lot like Ronnie Spector–the chick should definitely sing more–and a weird Springsteen somersault in the middle of the third encore, as if to say, “OK, can I go now?” Actually, the old man didn’t really move too much throughout the 3-hour show–yep, he still does ’em, and he did sing pretty well, I admit. But a rock and roll show must be alive. Working hard ain’t enough. I’m sure Phil Collins sweats.

So, to crystallize it, he had nothing to say, other than, “These are my boys” (and they definitely got more props than the woman) and “I’m still here, but the Muse is all gone.” Where can he go from here? Hell, lots of places. How about a four-piece, or even a trio? How about taking on the WTO? How about collaborating with Patti, his wife (ala Double Fantasy)? Can his kids play yet (remember Old Skull)? He could get back to his roots–amazingly, he’s never done that before (perhaps to his credit, but it sure worked for McCartney). Or duet with Ed Hamell. The possibilities are much more open than he may think.

Back to Bob Evans. I said my piece (see above). One of our guests turned to the other and said, “I don’t feel like sharing right now…we’ll talk when we get home.” Pissed my ass off–nobody can disagree anymore, and they don’t know what they’re missing. True argument is the road to enlightenment. Perhaps Bruce won a new fan–albiet a 25-year-old that wasn’t familiar with him in 2000. Where’s she been? Is it unfair to expect the former “future of rock and roll” to at least function in the present, even if he is still donating major proceeds to our country’s food banks? Doesn’t he look in the mirror and sometimes realize that he’s fallen victim to Blue Oyster Cult Syndrome–becoming what he used to shake by the lapels? He used to hope he wouldn’t sit around thinking about ’em, but all he seemed to be beseiging his audience with at this show was boring stories from his glory days.

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

The Violence of Chuck Berry

ChuckBerry2

(The following is an excerpt from a memoir I am writing about my career in public education. Music had a lot to do with it, believe me.)

I have taught many unusual lessons in my career. This one was not only successful (though even the best lessons are only partially so), but its history also incorporated a lot of the best and not a little of the worst of this profession.

I was teaching middle school at the time and was graced with a bunch of seventh graders who were game for anything interesting I proposed. They would go on to make me look great many, many times that year. In this case, their lesson grew out of a screw-up on my part.

Striving to realize our school’s challenging goal of integrating curriculum, our instructional team had tried to design an opening unit focusing on the idea of “culture.” For three weeks, each teacher—math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education—would design his or her instruction so that it addressed that common theme, with the unit output being a single assessment of learning, as opposed to five separate tests. Theoretically, it still sounds neat to me—in fact, it drew me away from my previous job just for the chance to try it. In reality, it’s a bitch to pull off. Just trying to talk about it caused my first teaching team to implode.

At this point in my middle school tenure, however, I was surrounded with comrades willing to give the idea a shot. We planned our culture unit very meticulously, and, of course, I, likely the most enthusiastic among us, zipped through my part of the unit quicker than necessary, quite possibly leaving a few students in the dust in the process. So, confronted with an additional three lessons to write before my fellow teachers were finished, I decided to give the young’uns a dose of Missouri culture and rock and roll, as well as an opportunity to be creative.

I have often said, only half-joking, that I teach to subsidize my record collection. But I have always reinvested what I’ve gained from music in the stock of U. S. public schools’ pop culture curriculum (even though that exists only in my mind), and, in this case, I thought it would be valuable for my students to study how one great rock and roll writer reflected his rich and complicated culture. I prepared, with one eye on Fair Use guidelines, a handout highlighting some of Mr. Chuck Berry’s most revealing lyrics (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Back in the U.S.A.” among them), prefaced the lyrics with a quick artist bio, then guided the class through some close-listening of his music. As we proceeded, I led the kids in discussing what we had learned about U. S. culture circa 1955-1964, and advised them in taking a few notes. Then, over the next two periods, we put our shoulders to the wheel of the task: either write a song of your own, reflecting current U. S. culture, in Chuck’s style, or write a song about Chuck’s version of U. S. culture in your own style.

We had a blast, and, I must say, their work was very perceptive, witty, and—what do you know?—indicative of their having learned some valuable things! A couple students even brought guitars and played their songs. What we’d done leaked outside of our classroom (not surprising, in that my classroom was open to the hallways!), and we soon learned that our homeschool communicator’s college roommate had been Chuck’s lawyer at one point—and had his phone number.

One of the kids excitedly blurted, “Hey! Let’s send Chuck some of our songs!” You don’t say no to such a proposition, and soon the ex-roomie lawyer was on the horn to Chuck, asking him if he’d be up for reading some 7th graders’ tribute-songs to his bad self. Almost immediately, we received word back from Berry: send them on! We did a quick read-around, whittled our stack of 150 songs down to the best 30—we didn’t want to swamp ol’ Johnnie B. Goode!—slid them into a “vanilla envelope,” and put ‘em in the post. I didn’t really expect to hear from Chuck again; one of my long-time philosophies regarding ambitious enterprises is to expect absolutely nothing, which intensifies the exultation if things work out.

The next thing that happened was not a working-out.

A week after the culture unit’s conclusion—it worked nicely, but we were never to replicate its success beyond squeezing a birds-and-the-bees discussion into a “plant life cycles” unit—came our school’s “Back to School Night,” a late summer public ed staple during which parents are invited to meet their students’ teachers. These evenings usually prove a bit of a dog-and-pony show on our parts, but they are seldom high intensity, and, though the parents who most need to come don’t (usually they can’t—they are working), we usually at least mildly enjoy the opportunity to communicate to the grown-ups what we’re up to.

I didn’t expect to be called to the principal’s office. Via intercom.

When I stepped into her office, in front of Dr. Brown’s desk sat what I presumed to be a parent. On the parent’s lap lay her daughter’s English folder, open, with the Chuck Berry handout removed and unmistakably on display. I thought, “Oh shit—she’s a journalism professor and she’s got a copyright complaint. I knew I should have picked up those handouts after we finished writing!” I stood at attention, ready to be, perhaps justly, upbraided.

“This man does not have the moral fiber to be teaching my daughter!”

I take copyright seriously, but, well—wasn’t that a bit strong?

But this wasn’t about copyright. I could not have possibly guessed what it was about.

Remember that “quick artist bio”? I know what you’re thinking: no, I did not mention Chuck’s Mann Act scrape and accompanying prison stint, nor his naked photos with equally naked groupies, nor his tax evasion escapade, nor his exploits with video technology. Nor did this mother look those biographical tidbits up. (All idols have feet of clay, anyway.) Her concern was this: I was promoting violence in this unit.
She said that. Yes. And it was in the bio ‘graph I had written, branded into my memory since:“Berry’s machine-gun lyric delivery in songs such as ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (see below) influenced none other than Bob Dylan, one of this century’s greatest songwriters.” She read that aloud, from the handout, to my principal and me, with supreme confidence and righteous indignation, as if it were irrefutable proof I was a warlock.

Wait—what??

Actually, I think that is exactly what I said. I looked at Dr. Brown—an excellent administrator I had purposely followed over to this particular school, and a human whom I was desperately hoping valued loyalty at the highest level—and stared in disbelief. The mother stood, read the passage aloud again, and punctuated it with this outburst: “It says right here—‘machine-gun lyrics’!!!” (As you can see above, it didn’t quite say that.)

I confess to being a lifelong smartass, but my reply was simply self-defense: “Do you understand figurative language?”

“Don’t try to slither out of this!” At that moment, I was the closest I have ever been to deeply understanding Kafka. And “slither”? Really?

Keeping my far eye pleading with the principal and my near one defiantly on my judge, I patiently explained the point behind the lesson. No sale.

I looked directly at my boss and said, in quizzical defeat, “Well, you could move her daughter to another team.”

The parent exploded. “She’s not going anywhere!”

I was stunned. I reflected for about an eighth of a second and said, to them both, “This is ludicrous. I have sane parents to speak to. Do what you must. I cannot explain more clearly what my valid and very moral intentions were. Goodbye.” Turned on my heel, went back to my class, and pictured two die spinning through the air.

That absolutely wonderful administrator, Dr. Wanda Brown, refused to budge in giving me full support—that’s one of the reasons why she still hangs the moon for me. The parent pulled her daughter from regular classes for homeschooling (I am sure, much to the daughter’s embarrassment), though she continued to send her over to us in the afternoon for French classes (that’s bullshit, if you ask me—you teach her French, lady). In spite of the whackiest—and wackest—parental guidance episode I had ever witnessed in my career, I proceeded to have a better year than Frank Sinatra’s in the song. The story of the Chuck Berry unit, however, had not yet concluded.

Spring. That lovable homeschool communicator rolled into my classroom—he did, in fact, roll—and motioned me over.

“Chuck’s coming to play at a local high school next week. [He lives in Wentzville, Missouri, just down I-70 from Columbia.] He loved the packet of songs, and he’s authorized you to bring over the ten student writers you think would get the most out of hearing and meeting him. I’ll take care of the bus.”
As the generation of teachers prior to mine would have exclaimed, “My goodness!” (That is not what I said; I repeated the title of a well-known Funkadelic title exclamation, but my moral fiber is too strong to repeat it here.) Though selecting the ten students proved an exercise in pure agony, we were soon filing into the choir room of the local high school, where the kids were given a front-row seat—
a mere five feet from the man himself, at that moment swiveling on a stool, his guitar on his lap.
My natural high was so intense, I cannot remember much of Berry’s talk, other than that Chuck gave rap lyrics his seal of approval (good man, and my kids beamed). However, when the afternoon turned to Q&A, I received an electric charge greater than a cattle prod’s when one of my students, Sekou Gaidi (whom I must name for posterity’s sake), stood to ask a question. Sekou, who often underperformed for me despite frequently being the smartest person in the room (including me), had actually been inspired during the Chuck Berry unit and written a killer song. He was also a combination of a cannon packed a shade too loose and Sun Ra (a jazz genius who uttered many a head-scratcher in his day). I admit, as the charge passed through me, that I was holding my breath.

Chuck: “Young man, what would you like to ask?”

Sekou: “I don’t know who in the heck you are”—Unadulterated claptrap! He was laser-focused through the entire three-day lesson!—“but my mom wants you to autograph this book.”

This request was delivered dry as toast, with arm toward the stage, Chuck’s recent autobiography at its fingers’ end as if it were trash recently plucked off the ground. Sekou’s expression? Slot-mouthed.

Three beats of silence. Excuse me while I break to present tense.

Chuck—Chuck Berry—is staring (glaring? I couldn’t tell!) at Sekou, then a pudgy, bespectacled little seventh-grader wearing mauve sweats. I am covering my hands, shaking my head, fairly sure that this is one of Sekou’s jokes, stunned by his unholy audacity if I am correct, and dreading what might rush into the resulting vacuum of silence.

Into the void rush explosive guffaws, straight out of the gut of The King of Rock and Roll. Then out of the audience’s. Then out of mine. My team teacher is laughing so hard she’s tearing up, and my wife Nicole, who’d come along and would later get her own copy autographed, is staring at me in stunned, gaping delight. In fact, I am tearing up a little right now, staring at this screen, mouth agape as I recall it.

Thus properly ends one of the best lessons I ever taught, embedded in the history of which, as with all the best lessons, are other very important lessons. I can only be thankful that the lessons did not come at me with machine-gun-like rapidity.