3/6/09

10 years ago today, a few of my heroes returned from what had once looked like a bleak, terminal split in 2004. It ended up being a reset button on four individuals’ lives (and many others’), a chance to cut corroded bonds and redefine the meaning of the story. We make these opportunities for ourselves each day. That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 10 years.

I like to think that the story is still being felt out incrementally and shared with anyone who happens to tune in and contribute to the great arc. “Set your soul free,” and all that. In this, the music, to me, is a lens for the good fundamentals of life. Humor; mindful irreverence; bone-deep education of your craft; swings and misses, home runs and strike-outs; the very impermanence of our station—not to mention the necessity of dance. It’s all there in the book.

10 years now! Think of everything that’s happened! Life chugging onward, replacing the future with the past, flipping backward through the doors and through the windows. And still the music never stopped, right?

Countless hours spent happily over those swirling years—my 20s, mostly—just listening, taking notes, obsessively charting the history of one song against another. It’s a language encoded onto each passing moment, each exchange with the world around me. And it’s not always the high-brow schlock I’m making it out to be: Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get extremely high and wander around Madison Square Garden, listening to the echoes of something that’s created again and again with great friends. That’s important too.

“I think that this exact thing happened to me—just last year!”

At the 3/6/09 show—note the tidy trimeter in that in fabled date—in Hampton, Va., they opened with Fluffhead. Brought us back to the root of the thing.

Take a moment to relish the sound of joy in the crowd—the ecstatic roar!—the waves of tear-stained hugs blooming into memories staged in a long and complicated relationship with perhaps the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band there ever was. Just the first two minutes in that video, even—listen to the exhalation. I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a mole hill here, but this is some real-deal historical magnitude for so many wonderful people I’ve been fortunate to meet along the way. People who have set to work on creating long-standing art and social networks. To cleave faithfully to something greater, something beyond the scope of our day-sized compartments—family, justice, history, a mindful resistance to dogma—this is the outward ripple of a human life lived. To have lived! Imagine! Music, surely, is a playful soundtrack to the hard work of finding ourselves in all that racket. I’m grateful for the whole trip.

There’s an old one-liner that maybe you’ve heard on lot before a show. It goes like this:

“My favorite version of Tweezer is the sound of my family laughing.”

HA HA HA

The music is just a reverberation of something else, some ancient energy buzzing in our hearts and spinning a soul from the thick fog of the past. When it hits, you feel no pain.

Happy Ass Handed Wednesday, folks.

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‘The Continuous Life’

“When was the last time an album completely blew your mind?”

What a knockout lede from this 2011 revisit of 311’s exceedingly spacey aperture explosion, the aptly titled “Transistor.” I set the record on our turntable at home and couldn’t help but dig around for some afternoon reading material while Forrest and I sunk into Side A.

Imagine stumbling upon this alien trip at the impressionable age of 10. “Galaxy” was playing on my buddy’s speakers in his upstairs bedroom in Rocky River, a pre-cannabis adolescent artistic wandering-experiment of music. 311 was ubiquitous in those years. For us. Our crew. What would that sort of thing do to a person? Before all the hormonal uncertainty even had a chance to take hold? What sort of tone does that set for a life? This album was an education.

When was the last time an album completely blew your mind?

Think about it. It’s a gift, if you’ve got an answer handy. I’ve been lucky enough to land many head-shattering listening experiences in my day. These are peak discoveries, rare signs of life along the road into the fog from which the present moment emerges. These treasures — the resulting rearrangement of brain cells — are the things that help guide a person through their story. To have your mind blown by an album!

Sitting there with my buddies, trying to figure out Tim Mahoney’s chords, his strange phrasing, the Lake Erie sunshine filtering in through hazy windows. Who plays guitar like that guy?

Then, 30 years old, dog by my side, the sturdy Terminal Tower standing guard outside the living room, clouds newly formed above the Cuyahoga River’s chilly water. “The continuous life, there is no end, moving through life, moving through death.”

Sure, “Transistor” blew the shit out of mind. Okay? Why deny it? Why deny that this thing, this music, set me on a course that I couldn’t shake, even if I’d wanted to? I grew up with the faith that music and creative expression and words — packages of ideas, books, Gary Larson frames — were the stuff of life, the primordial compound that each young cub with a Little League uniform was meant to harness. Ride the lightning, what it is to you and yours.

I still go to 311 shows just about every year.

First few shows were in high school. Smoking mids. SA’s robotic dance moves freaked me way out, and the roof of Tower City Amphitheater rippled in the north shore wind. Last saw them in Chicago, early July 2017. Chad’s developed a more electronic drum kit over the years, which has its positives and negatives; the band still doesn’t let their songs breathe the way I’d always wished. 311 relies heavily on song structure. It’s best to let it be.

People create what they want to create, what they can’t help but create. If if blows some kid from suburban Cleveland’s mind and sets his life ablaze with a new outlook on rhythm and the solar system, then so be it.

Clarence Thomas’s dissent

You can find attacks on the First Amendment baked into most conversations about social dynamics, politics, business and even the boring concept of celebrity these days, but rarely have they been as clear as Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence in McKee v. Cosby today. It’s an opinion that’s shared by the self-absorbed idiot in the Oval Office, and it’s part of a broader assault on the very fragile tradition of a free press — free speech! — enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking that we’d tossed the Bill of Rights in the recycling bin a long time ago.

Thankfully, there’s a rich public record of this struggle that we can bring to bear against any revisionist history on the bench.

Read Thomas’s dissent here.

This is a very nuanced and easily distorted debate, I think, and it’s subject to even more violent social whims of thin-skinned identity politics than the Second Amendment thrashing you see on Facebook most days. Freedom of speech is a necessary prerequisite for a functioning democracy. It’s not scaffolding for an equal-time rule, and it’s not a form of “whataboutism,” and it’s certainly not a shield against an angry Facebook mob. It’s a right, in the classic sense of the term.

What Thomas is attacking is an articulated interpretation of defamation in America. It’s part of a larger history, one that — surprise! — is still able to mete out hard truths involving the willful liars in public and private office. Thomas and Trump and anyone like those two rotten apple cores should certainly be afraid. How we fight back is on us.

Aes, Eyedea, P.O.S.

Three of my favorite hip-hop artists of all time are Aesop Rock, Eyedea and P.O.S. This is a trinity, to me. I’d put them against anyone. They may be the best in the game. Contenders for G.O.A.T. status, truly. I’ll defend them to the epistolary death, see? Their work means a great deal to me. Their work resonates on a deep level in the twisting, searing story of my life.

I remember sitting on a friend’s patio late at night in scorching Phoenix. I put “Daylight” on the speaker and explained briefly why I thought it was dope beyond belief. It’s a masterpiece of introspection and artistic self-awareness. It’s also got a beat that positively kills and makes for the exact kind of twilit head-bobbing that is necessary in the dark heat of the Arizona exurbs. Over the years, I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times in countless settings. Weirdness, madness, effervescence.

I was maybe 20 years old, almost permanently high and working as a line cook in Cleveland between 10-week stints as a lefty journalism student in Athens, when I stumbled headfirst into Aesop Rock’s stuff. That was 10 years ago, a protracted moment in time that brought me into the folds of all sorts of music. The arcade melody of “None Shall Pass” still reminds me of a hazier, almost undefined stage of life.

The point here is that somebody switched the music over to Kanye West. I can still feel the utter shock in my throat, just thinking about the jolting left turn into something as despicably empty as Kanye West’s music under a starry Southwest sky. This sort of thing was indicative of broader tends that gradually altered a relationship that was already fraying, and I said so in less colorful terms. Too many times. I couldn’t imagine slighting the musical tastes of a dear friend, for better or worse, and I couldn’t imagine slighting the very being of a friend like that. We’re all unfolding on our own terms.

There was a time, too, when I listened to “Smile” by Eyedea & Abilities. The song is on their last album, released just one year before Eyedea’s death. He was 28. A creative genius, and I try not to toss that word around lightly. A true original.

“Smile” is a bright cynicism obscured almost entirely by blackout curtains and pot smoke. It’s a beautiful song.

I relate deeply to the despairing, the bereft, the crestfallen, the countercultural denizens of streets. I grew up a happy child, surrounded by loved ones and the encouragement of a vivid imagination. But — maybe because of time spent on my own in the front yard, circling the big oak tree and spinning stories in my head, feeling out the grooves of strange narratives — I find it easier to connect with the authentic , however down and out they might be. I disdain displays of wealth and poor taste, the two often running hand in hand.

A few years back, I got to see Abilities DJing on tour with Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic. If you were there at the Grog Shop, you know how unreal it was. I can still feel the absolute dizzy joy in my head, just thinking about that show.

Time taught me how to see every second as Heaven / Even though they’re perfectly disguised as Hell

We can only build if we tear the walls down, after all, and that means not only the walls separating “you” from “I” but also the walls between the past and the present moment. Agony connects us to the living. “The fundamental delusion of humanity,” said Yasutani Roshi, “is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.”

These are all “hits,” one could say, of guys like Aes and Eyedea. They didn’t have “hits,” though, and thank god.

On P.O.S.’s excellent second album, he cut “De La Souls” and countered his debut’s acid with some gentle sassafras. (“Recording with no shoes on,” Stef says low in the mix as the song opens. “It’s wonderful.”)

I got home from work today, mentally brimming. My fiancee is out of town. My dog was exhausted, sleeping. When I turned 30, my parents gave me a slick bluetooth speaker (a step into modern home technology taken only after I felt that it would improve my lot in life). There’s a small adobe house on the deep windowsill in our living room, and, underneath, I can tuck a small cone of vanilla or patchouli incense from Daystar Boutique. This is how things begin when I get home.

“De La Souls,” loud as shit, on the speaker.

Outside, Terminal Tower is red, white, blue. Down below, the streets of downtown bleed and flow, in, out.

What I like about this song is the groove-anthemic chorus vocals from Greg Attonito. (“No one will ever be like me!”) The whole thing is the sort of message that I’d paste on a billboard, red paint, hung low and broad across I-90, meant for every passing driver and hitchhiker to take into his or her soul. I’d splash sonic insouciance across the asphalt of a city trying to move too fast for its sense of self. But who am I to say? What of it?

And lookin’ back it seems I’ve always been a step behind
Little off-track and feelin’ no one shared the frame of mind
Listenin’ to records in my room to escape
Found some things I could relate with, I wore out the tape
We said

“When I lose, every time I win, ’cause
No one will ever be
Messin’ up stuff or doin’ things wrong
Quite like me”

“To thine own self be true,” and all that racket.

Funk

I went to see Lettuce last week. Great show. I brought my friend Doober, who hadn’t been to a funk show in a long time. We needed good funk music on this cold night in January, and Lettuce delivered.

It’s one of the great American pastimes, yeah? Dancing to funk music. It’s a phrase that feels pleasing as it rolls off the tongue: Dancing to funk music. “We’re going to go dance to some funk music tonight. Come on, won’t you join?” I don’t know. Maybe not everybody talks like that anymore.

The Cleveland show isn’t up on nugs.net yet, so I’m making do with the Covington, Ky., show from the following night as I’m writing this. The lights of Cleveland’s small collection of towers is filtering into the living room.

Earlier, I was reading Ted Gioia’s How to Listen to Jazz. He mentions Buddy Bolden in the “Origins of Jazz” chapter, and I recalled a brilliant essay written by Luc Sante that I read last year. “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” is a fantastic piece on the cosmic weirdness that led to the early stirrings of funk. Everything fell into place on one steamy night in New Orleans a long time ago. Small moments in a small corner of the planet. Sante describes the birth of an idea, while Gioia describes the cultural melting pot of fringe characters and daring musicians that allowed for the birth of an idea as hot and freaky as “funk.”

The Sante piece is an excellent read.

Many things have happened since Buddy Bolden’s band first got the city all in a tizzy over their scandalous song, “Funky Butt,” but I think it’s worth looking around and relishing the current generation of improv-friendly funk bands on tour these days. It’s a bounty of riches in many cases. Lettuce, Snarky Puppy, Turkuaz, Galactic, Dumpstaphunk, Orgone, The Motet, The New Mastersounds and so on. It’s a beautiful time to catch road warrior bands that are still working small clubs and still hitting rooms in the Midwest with a healthy frequency. This is deep music, and it’s right outside your door!

Funk is a universal language with infinite dialects. It’s a highly personalized experience for both musician and listener. It’s an outsider art form that requires patience, diligence, passion. You’re made to do something when you confront it, whatever it is. You can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.

To move is a human need. We tame the mind and body with meditation, but we revel in our unique, fungal forms by dancing, by running, by loving in slow, timeless motion.

“Buddy Bolden is the first man who played blues for dancing,” said bassist Papa John Joseph, who later died at Preservation Hall in 1965 immediately after performing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and turning around and telling his bandmates, “That about took everything out of me.” Buddy did it, and now we’ve got a century of rhythms and syncopated joy to spin on a wintry Monday evening in Cleveland. It took a few decades for the meaning to coalesce around the signifier, for funk music to become itself, but here we are. If you’re looking, there’s plenty to go around.

And musicians are stashing more of this fine gumbo with each passing show. That’s the point of the tour, to spin new stories in new places.

Funk music is best served live. Don’t miss it!

On burnout, or another interpretation of something you’ve read this week

I’m not totally convinced that “burnout” in this latest BuzzFeed feature isn’t just carrying water for something larger and more mysterious. Everyone’s all caught up on this one, right? It’s worth reading, but I wanted to add a few thoughts. Stuff I’ve been kicking around lately.

“Burnout” is something I equate more specifically with the trials of juggling freelance assignments, constantly revising projects with no real goal in mind, long stretches of work without a vacation, whatever. There’s no exhalation there. It’s a real problem in American’s capitalist landscape! It’s a legitimate health concern. And we deal with it in our own ways. I usually split town with my fiancee for a few days, or, short of that, I smoke some pot and listen to old jazz records. Whatever. I’ve cultivated my own contentment.

But this feature is diagnosing a generational ill, which is a favorite chore of writers these days. I don’t think it’s helping much.

The piece begins by teeing up some weird organizational roadblock, where people my age can’t seem to get to the post office to mail in their voter registration forms or somehow can’t take three minutes to drop off their slacks at the dry cleaners around the corner. “My shame about these errands expands with each day,” Anne Helen Petersen writes, launching into the nut of the thing: “But the more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves. Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

It’s the way things are.

The problem, I think, and I’m probably as full of it as the next guy, is that a lot of people of all ages are looking outside themselves for a sense of reality, for faith, for the meaning of life. They look and look and look, on TV, on Instagram, toward past generations’ relative comfort and lack of student debt, to the 2008 financial recession, to the president’s rantings and ravings, to market forces and “the gig economy,” to stories that we tell ourselves. Shadows on the wall of the cave. It’s the way things are, right?

This perception is not endemic to millennials, but it seems more pronounced and more prescriptive because our generation has, no doubt, grown up saddled with the vastly crushing weight of compounding alternate realities, layers of digital existence and late-capitalism sales pitches, all riddled brilliantly with manipulative interpretations of what it means to be human. Sprawling mass media. Stories. This problem, this weight, is certainly something that sets us apart from past generations, simply on face value. The internet and its spidery webs didn’t exist “back then.” Neither did The Bachelor. But so what?

The signal-to-noise ratio in white millennial American society is tremendously out of whack, which can very intentionally produce symptoms of burnout (Gah! Trump again!), but more importantly this horrible ratio confuses individuals and encourages them to ape the cultures and languages they see spinning in technicolor all around them. Advertisements and social media slang take the place of real human interaction, so people end up using marketing catchphrases in their actual speech. “Hold my beer.” “Not all heroes wear capes.” “You had one job.” “Crushing it!” It’s memetic (which is where we get the modern use of “meme”), and it robs us of creativity and humor. Doing something like that over a long period of time begins to erode any grip on a sense of self. And so we busy ourselves trying to find ourselves again.

Before long, you’re so busy looking for yourself that, of course, you don’t have time to check off minor errands from your to-do list. Couldn’t possibly! The post office begins to morph into Mount Doom, impossibly distant from your little corner of the world, and who cares anyway if you’re registered to vote? The president is just a TV character. You can change the channel. You can cut the cord!

Reality becomes transposed with something outside of you. A sense of self becomes, then, removed from the actual stuff of living a life. You may have heard of this? It’s called “adulting” now, which is another thing they sold to you. It’s not separate from life in the way that a television show is separate from life, it is life. The small moments that flutter into and out of the fog, always drifting into the past and, stunningly, emerging anew from the empty future.

It’s just easier to call it burnout, maybe because it’s kind of hard. And boring. A lot of life is a slog, but it doesn’t have to be seen that way. A “slog” is an idea, a story. A life disappears the moment you try to grasp it and identify it. A generational ill is a story, too.

It’s hard being 30 years old and working in this sort of bend-you-over economy. It’s hard scrounging money for bills each month. Going to the store to pick up cough medicine kind of sucksand the president is an asshole. But that’s got nothing to do with how individual lives ebb, flow, ebb again. “The steadier our lives, the more likely we are to make decisions that will make them even steadier,” Petersen writes, which, sure, but she’s forgetting a cosmic truth: Ain’t no such thing as a steady life. It’s all wriggly and wobbly, far as I can tell.

At the end, though, after the whole “burnout” detour, Petersen sticks a great landing, which, to bring it all back around, makes this piece worth reading.

“I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good. This isn’t a task to complete or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution,” she writes. “It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.”

Bon voyage!

‘How We Breathe’

I watched the College Football Championship game last night, sort of, doing the thing where I mute the teevee and smoke a little bit of cannabis and play music in my living room. Clemson played a hell of a game.

Last night, it was Pinback’s seminal and attention-grabbing Autumn of the Seraphs, which I picked up on vinyl at My Mind’s Eye Records over the weekend (along with some Coltrane, Mingus and DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, which I’m setting aside for a brilliant, gray, rainy spring morning). I love this album.

I discovered Autumn of the Seraphs probably in 2008, shortly after it was release, while working on a journalism assignment in the Mac Lab in the basement of Alden Library at Ohio University. No one ever seemed to know about the Mac Lab; it was one of my top-three hang spots at the library back in those days. You could also go to the seventh-floor stacks and wheel a chair over to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Ellis Hall and the pedestrian traffic flow across Park Place. Everyone running from class to class, social blips buzzing always. It was a great spot, and, again, no one ever seemed to know about it. I could crush books, slam stories, listen to countless hours of new music up there.

What I like about Pinback is just how thoughtful and totally chilled-out their music is. I admit: I could take or leave the first album, but everything from Blue Screen Life through Information Retrieved is stunning, polyglot string rhythms and esoteric, airy lyrical depth. (I saw the band once before they broke up, probably around 2011 or so, and I wasn’t feeling it at all. They played everything way too fast. That, to me, is the sign of some miscommunication between band and audience in any live setting. Why speed through your art like that? I’d also interviewed Rob Crow before the gig, and, despite being a fan, I just couldn’t get into our conversation. He was reticent, and I appreciate that, but it was a very difficult interview.)

But the music, more than a decade on now, remains a hallmark of my calmer hours.

The song that I stumbled upon in the Mac Lab so many years ago? “How We Breathe.”