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.

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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.”

Untitled excerpt from the old neighborhood

The bells rang hourly and sometimes in sudden moments of celebration. A baby was born or baptized. An elderly congregant’s hip replacement had taken. The nuns’ little Westie, Henry, a neighborhood icon and for one heady summer the ward’s “honorary” Democratic committee representative, had been returned to the church after accidentally (or boldly) boarding the Norfolk-Southern and falling asleep in a pile of mail bags. I tended to think that the dog had done it on his own. Up and left for a long weekend on the road. He was that sort of guy.

This morning, the bells rang brightly in an elegant version of “God Bless America.” The sunrise hung mutedly in the air, and I breathed slowly on the front porch. I waved to Henry when he walked by.

ITMFA

“And when your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama look, you won. Bullies don’t win,’ and I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

Now we got a ballgame, folks.

That’s U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib from Dee-troit talking to you. To us, all of us.

One of the great counter-narratives to what’s happening in the U.S. right now — to the story we tell ourselves — is that, actually, there are ways of prevailing against oppressive bad guys, even when they hold the most powerful seat in the land. They can be toppled, much like the sweetest wind can extinguish a runaway flame. It takes intent and vision and kindness and a lot of creativity. We’ll see it through.

2018 in books

IMG_3864I read 30 books in 2018, which is the most sustained stretch of reading I’ve done since maybe college. It was great to get back into the rhythm and discover some amazing works that I’d missed in the past. I’ve got a clear sense of what I want to read in 2019 — the types of books and the writers — and I’m thrilled to set off on those goals.

My favorite book in 2018 was Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. It was an extraordinary, immersive experience. I then reread The Crying of Lot 49, and now I’m halfway through Vineland, which will be the first book I finish in 2019. Gravity’s Rainbow is on my list for sometime next year.

There was also a three-book run of Philip Roths in the fall. I read American Pastoral and was absolutely spellbound. As soon as I finished it, I walked down State Street in downtown Chicago to buy The Human Stain. I picked up The Plot Against America back in Northeast Ohio, and had to briefly explain to the cashier why I was buying a book with a swastika on the cover.

Brave New Weed by Joe Dolce.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.
Influence by Robert Cialdini.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.
Kill All Your Darlings by Luc Sante.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie.
Leisure, The Basis Of Culture by Josef Pieper.
Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.
Dear God, What’s on the Second Floor? by Walter Holland.
How Music Works by David Byrne.
A Massacre in Mexico by Anabel Hernandez. (My review for the Cleveland Review of Books here)
American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (reread).
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian.
Demand the Impossible! by Bill Ayers.
The Siege Of Harlem by Warren Miller.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (not pictured).
The Crying Of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (reread).