December 1, 2010

finding Freedom


I mentioned recently that I had devoured Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom over the Thanksgiving holiday week, staying up late into the night (until 2, 3am) reading what is one of the best books to come across my nightstand in several years. A reader challenged me to write more about what I thought of it, and I find it really daunting to do so.

This was a deeply piercing, near flawless book, and so hard to explain to others. Simply put, it’s a story about the inner lives of a handful of wounded folks over many years of struggle and conflicted motivations and messy decisions. I devoured all 500+ pages over a handful of days, disregarding sleep to pick through those tangles of the lives of the characters with Franzen. The people he created seemed so real that they stood right up off the page beyond fiction. Several times I had to just stop and roll a sentence he wrote over in my head a few times to grasp at the ache and the tiny deaths it summed up. There are some choice musical references woven in there for you folks who came looking here for a music reference (my favorite being where Jeff Tweedy was mythological friends with a main character here named Richard, a musician), along with smart political commentary and sharply incisive, eminently readable prose.

But through the intensity of Franzen’s words I found myself hit hard with deeper insights into the crags and stains in people I’ve loved or hurt or lost in real life. What if broken love is all we’ve got? Or, as the book says, “There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.”

This is a heavy, dense book, clotted with a rich sadness and offering a riveting glimpse into the lives of other people — all the things that are going on behind the faces that we see, and the observable circumstances that we think define or explain all of who a person is. That may sound like a depressing premise for a book, but it is actually obscenely fascinating. I was also surprised to find an unlikely redemption that hangs over the book and settles in once you get through it all. Let me explain with one simple allegory.

A few days after I finished Freedom, I was driving down a road that provides a direct vista towards Pikes Peak. It was sunset and I started musing about mountaintop removal, which figures heavily into the major plot of this book. One of the main characters, Walter, works for an organization that is trying to save a certain type of songbird by designating swaths of land on their migratory routes as sanctuaries. However, the way they accomplish being able to piece together the huge tracts of land necessary (and also co-desired by the mining companies) is to literally destroy it first – blow the tops off the mountains to get at the rich coal seams underneath, and let the mining companies have at it, voraciously, until it is gone. The land is then reconstituted and rehabilitated, and can grow back into a wilderness that will be forever untouched going forward. The songbirds get their home through destruction.

Maybe I was too close to the book to see it while I was reading it, but –in a moment that felt akin to lightning striking the top of my head– it suddenly became clear to me that mountaintop removal is an allegory for the entire book. It’s like looking at one of those 3D puzzles at the eye doctor where suddenly you can see the butterfly that wasn’t there before – I suddenly saw the allegory that is the whole damn point of the book. The total obliteration and violent blowing-up of everything that is beautiful and familiar, ancestral and home; the subsequent mining of the deep veins beneath the surface; with the end result of that new growth that we are desperate for — the creation of a sanctuary where one seemed thoroughly unlikely when looking only at the steaming wreckage in the recent past. What’s left looks completely different than what we started with. I wasn’t sure at the end of the book which was better, or if one had to be.

That’s the best I can do to describe this book, and the unpredictable way that I loved it. Let Amazon try to wrestle out the plot points enough to give you a summary; I’ll just say it is about having the tops blown off your mountains, and be okay with that simplicity.

There’s also a line repeated twice in the book, fanned out years apart in its occurrence, about how characters are “still figuring out how to live.” I guess if the allegory of mountaintop removal is a visual image of what this book is about, then that sentence kind of sums it up for you textual types. So many page corners in my copy are turned down, with razor-sharp words and phrases and twists of writing, noted and committed to memory. This is the first thing I have read by Franzen; it is absolutely superb, and painful. And worth it.

July 4, 2009

Juliet, naked and lovely


I’ve just walked in from stretching out on the lawn alongside my house, where I finished rapidly devouring of all 400 pages of Nick Hornby’s massively enjoyable new (forthcoming) book Juliet, Naked. My skin is warm from the beginnings of a sunburn, and my insides are glowing from the focused joy I understood in these pages.

One reason I quote Nick on this blog’s sidebar (and one reason I think he and I have something in common) is because I sense that he feels music the way that I do. This book is a pitch-perfect look at the lives of music obsessives (within the first thirty pages we have a British guy on the Berkeley-bound BART, scouting out the house of his favorite reclusive musician’s muse, “Juliet”) — and what that kind of fandom looks like as you get deep into the world of message boards, theories about the epic album versus the just-released demos that preceded them, and what we think that can tell us about the artist on the inside. It underscores emphatically how little we know about our musical idols, and how in dissecting them down to minute detail, on some level we’re truly just hashing out stuff about ourselves. Something in the unfinished narratives of our own lives finds solidification and beauty in the way our favorite musicians write about theirs.

The book follows the fictional story of Tucker Crowe, a lauded singer-songwriter from the Eighties (“Bruce plus Bob plus Leonard equals Tucker” was his press campaign line) who has vanished into deliberate obscurity after his masterpiece album Juliet (read an excerpt from the opening chapter). Duncan is a British man from the seaside town of Gooleness who is a self-proclaimed “Croweologist,” and has started a website to track every bit of news (or lack thereof) and host endless message board discussions about his music. Annie is Duncan’s museum-curator girlfriend who has been listening to Crowe’s music and following after Duncan for 15 years, and something in her is about to crack and shine through. It’s a beautiful thing.

I connected quite frankly with Annie, as she discovers she is capable of so much more than she ever thought through the music of Tucker Crowe — her own worthy opinions about the music so proprietarily beloved by Duncan but never her purview to discuss. It’s Annie who shines to hold this story together, grappling with a raw relationship deal and attempts at mathematical equations to calculate the true cost of fifteen years wasted in a soul-crushing relationship. As she strikes up an unlikely transatlantic email correspondence with Crowe, she gets closer to not holding her breath any more, but engaging life — and how music has changed both of them. She finds that she has more in common with Crowe than she would have thought when he first (shockingly) initiated contact with her.

I was touched by this insightful book, through the lenses of characters that I felt I understood. Hornby writes confidently, crisply, with a distinctly British humor — all traits I find irresistible in my American girl longwindedness. He doesn’t lapse into sappy meanderings to plunge the depths of what music can mean to us, and why relationships fail, and how we open our eyes and decide for something more; rather he slips them cleanly into the engaging narrative out of the blue, with a paragraph that swoops in to punch you in the gut.

Take this passage about Annie, which packs a lot into it: “She was trying to say something else; she was trying to say that the inability to articulate what one feels in any satisfactory way is one of our enduring tragedies. It wouldn’t have been much, and it wouldn’t have been useful, but it would have said something that reflected the gravity and sadness inside her. Instead, she had snapped at him for being a loser. It was as if she were trying to find a handhold on the boulder of her feelings, and had merely ended up with grit under her nails.”

Or this acute observation from when Crowe goes to see a local bar band: “The trouble with going to see bands is that there wasn’t much else to do but think, if you weren’t being swept away on a wave of visceral or intellectual excitement; and Tucker could tell that The Chris Jones Band would never be able to make people forget who they were and how they’d ended up that way, despite their sweaty endeavors. Mediocre loud music penned you in to yourself, made you pace up and down your own mind until you were pretty sure you could see how you might end up going out of it.”

While not as laden with direct pop culture references as some of his previous books like High Fidelity (although to my delight this one does mention Billy Collins, a poet I’ve just fallen in love with these last few months), this book still delves into music as culture, music as lifeblood, music as the glue and then the wedge in a relationship. It’s never dry, even as the characters face heady business — the glue of music that gets all over everything.

My Back Pages (Dylan cover) – Steve Earle

Juliet, Naked is in stores in September (so preorder or add it to your library hold list now!), and when Mr. Hornby comes through on his presumed book tour, I purport to buy that man a drink.

April 13, 2008

The highest level of celestial heaven

If you’re following this story with some interest:

I can recommend the riveting book Under The Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer (Into The Wild, Into Thin Air):

It’s a well-researched, well-told, controversial look into the Mormon splinter groups that practice polygamy in remote areas of the American West, and their roots throughout history of that religion. I was drawn into this book and devoured it over one short weekend about two years ago; but hey even after reading it . . . why any man would want to deal with more than one wife still remains beyond me. Ha. In any case, it’s a fascinating exploration into a topic we may have never thought would intrigue us, as one can always expect from Krakauer.

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March 24, 2008

Monday Music Roundup

You might be surprised to hear it, but I am reading a really interesting book about zombies. Heck, I’m surprised that I’m reading a book about zombies. But it was an unexpected gift and I’m not one to look a gift book in the mouth, so I dove in.

World War Z is rivetingly creepy, an impeccably-constructed fictional history of our modern world seeing an unknown outbreak in rural China that causes people to become undead, their blood congealed into a black ooze, with a shuffling gait and a low moan. Oh, and a bloodthirsty need to bite the living (like, break into your house in suburbia and feast on your family). Sounds all Halloween, but it’s more like Outbreak. The book traces the procession of the outbreak, the coverups, the panic, the turning point in the war, and then the reconstruction of the entire planet — entirely through short, well-crafted first person accounts of those who “lived through it.” It’s very believable and globally creative. I like freaking myself out with well-written scares. I recommend this title and am glad I gave it a shot.

Music I am listening to this fine first week of Spring:


This starts like bubblegum with a fresh sweetness and pop, but quickly you get the fuzz and hear the punky influences of Boyracer. Originally from Britain and now in Arizona, this band has gone through over 40 members in the almost two decades they’ve been making music. Currently the lineup consists of original member Stewart Anderson and two rockin’ gals, one of whom he is married to. As my friend who recommended them said, “the killer melodies really come through after a few listens,” and I agree — the overtones are sweetly gratifying, but with enough distortion to balance it so well. They could be from any decade of the last 40 years.

The Satisfier
Eli Reed

Here’s another out-of-nowhere 24 year old who channels James Brown here with a red-hot yowl and big brass soul. I originally read about Eli “Paperboy” Reed & The True Loves over on the Bag of Songs blog and as soon as I started listening to the track, I had to go back and doublecheck who this kid was and from which era. Originally from Allston, MA, he honed his musical chops after he up & moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi at age 18 — in the North Mississippi Delta, and one of the birthplaces of the blues. Holy mackerel. Go stream some stuff on this kid’s MySpace; album Roll With You is out April 29th on Q Division.

I The Kite

If you were Texas musican Will Johnson and found yourself sometimes tugged in different directions with your music, you might –if you were especially prolific– form two bands. And in 2008, you might release a double album with both of your bands on it. Centro-matic often explores the loose and beautiful, but slightly more rockin’ side of Johnson’s persona, where South San Gabriel is a bit more twilight dusk than burnished afternoon. Hazy but stunning, like a landscape from a Cormac McCarthy novel. According to the guys themselves, “what is distinctive about the release of Dual Hawks is that we get the chance to hear side-by-side the various ways in which Centro-matic and South San Gabriel complement and play off of each other—sort of the full-length equivalent of a split single.” Very cool idea, with gorgeous interplay.

The Blakes

A friend has been urging me for months to write something about The Blakes after he saw them randomly on a Friday night in a small club and wrote that “they were awesome…like fuck yeah spirit of rock n roll awesome — they sort of rip off The Strokes but they do it in a good way, like it is still 2002 and garage rock will rock forever and it isn’t 2008.” So yeah, I’ll take a listen. This song was originally part of the Sound of Color ad campaign, and finds this Seattle trio taking a bit of a departure from the garage vibe found on excellent tracks like “Modern Man” or “Commit” (on their MySpace) crossing over to a sunnier Kinks/Beatles vibe that evokes nicely their assigned color of blue. Or maybe a cheery aquamarine.

Heron Blue
Sun Kil Moon
Mark Kozelak’s music gives up its melancholy layers slowly, over repeated late-night listens. Therefore I cannot claim to have plumbed the depths of the new Sun Kil Moon album after only having streaming access to it for a few short days via their MySpace. But this one we managed to capture is bewitching. Like one particularly incisive lyric here, “Her hair it twists ’round her necklace / constricts and chokes like ruthless vine,” this song is near-eight minutes of ominous impending beauty. The new album April comes out the first day of that month and features guest vocals from Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) and Ben Gibbard.

November 29, 2007

Fools rush in (where angels fear to tread)

During the hellishness of living in a war zone, what can music possibly bring to the equation? Through its primal power, can it be a hand to reach out and pull us away?

When the Bosnian War and the siege of the city of Sarajevo was unfolding in the early Nineties, I never could wrap my mind around the ethnic cleansing, the infighting, the murders of civilians under the auspices of war. It all seemed so very far removed from my world (despite my grandmother being full-blooded Yugoslavian).

After just finishing Bill Carter‘s book Fools Rush In, it still doesn’t make full sense to me what was causing the bombing and sniping and destruction between neighbors Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Bosnian-Serbs, Bosnian-Croats, Bosnian Muslims – like one of those spin-the-wheels color combination games — how many combos can we come up with that can kill each other? Then again I don’t know how much sense it made to anyone involved, inside the city or outside looking in (or outside ignoring it).

Bill Carter is a twenty-something from the West Coast who begins his journey into the Bosnia region as a man unmoored. From his earliest memories of abuse at the hands of a terrifying, nauseating, damaged father, he begins his book by telling of his lifelong gravitational pull to places half a world away. He remembers getting a map of the world in National Geographic magazine as a child growing up in California’s Central Valley:

I stuck the world, measuring three feet by five, on the wall next to my bed with a few strips of tape. At night, on the top bunk, I would secretly stretch out across the world. If I extended fully I could put my toes in the jungles of Sumatra, my navel at the tip of Argentina and my head in the Indian Ocean. Most nights I would place an ear against the the map, my hot flushed cheek touching the imaginary cool deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. I think I was listening for the sound of breaking waves. Instead most nights sounded the same.”

When he reaches his early twenties, he finds a temporary harbor of amazing intensity in Santa Cruz in the arms of a girl named Corrina who fills exactly one year of his life with fervor and heat, understanding and laughter. His writing about his relationship with her held my nerve endings up against a white-hot flame, reminiscent of how Rob Sheffield wrote about Renee in Love Is A Mix Tape only with more grit and sexual honesty.

After losing Corrina, Carter’s trajectory spins him to a war zone on a humanitarian mission. I felt like he was searching to numb the pain inside of him by immersing himself in even greater pain around him. Life in the seven-mile-by-one-mile oval of land in the heart of Sarajevo is under siege — a killing zone from snipers in the hills and in the tall buildings, shooting at anything that dares to move. But Carter finds that people do dare to move; they dare to play blues music and rock ‘n’ roll in clubs where you have to duck your head and run from the incoming shrapnel to get in the dusty side door. They dare to hold art gallery openings and go dancing. They share meals in their homes (away from the vulnerability of the glass windows), they laugh, they make love — and live in the moment because tomorrow may actually never come.

As Carter says in an interview on Dutch television, “When I got there, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that this place was … timeless. When you entered Sarajevo, in that war, you entered a time zone. There was no past, no future. The past is gone, it’s obliterated. The future is how much longer I have to sit here with you before a bomb comes in the window. So what we have is right now. I was living right in the moment, which was a huge relief for me.”

Carter fills his days with distributing food through a French group called The Serious Road Trip, lives in a bombed-out office tower in the center of Sarajevo, and they occupy many nights sitting around drinking cheap Eastern European vodka mixed with powdered lemonade, trying to make some sense of what is going on all around them. Carter’s journey in this book is honest, and reeling, and confessional. All the foreigners in this story seem, to some degree, to be trying to find a home and a purpose and a community on the other side of the world.

Carter’s hesitation mixes with the brashness that we are so prone to in our twenties; the hubris pressed hot against the earnestness, with the passions all bleeding red into our uncertainty. One other Serious Road Trip member remarks to Carter one night, “I am beginning to believe the worst part of being here is knowing this might be the best thing I ever do in my life. I mean I’m only twenty-six. What am I supposed to do for the rest of it?

Dealing with the death all around them, Carter appraises his own pale flesh in the mirror one night and writes, “Sometimes I think it is easy to forget we have blood in us until it starts to leak out.” He loses friends and acquaintances to the war, and in between his humanitarian work he photographs the people he meets and the horrors (and joys) that he sees each day.

Then one night he arrives upon a whim that can only be described as ludicrous, but that plays out into a surreal reality. Carter wants the world to know what is going on in this strip of land that seems to have been forgotten by the international community, rendered invisible by the political double-speak and the obscurity of another war, another country. Not my problem. For some reason he thinks of U2. He thinks that U2 might understand and sympathize with what is happening in Sarajevo because of the parallels between their own Irish history and their passion for social justice. And amazingly enough, Carter calls it right.

A big part of this story then also becomes the relationship he forms with U2 from the center of this bombed-out city, and the way he is ultimately able to connect the Sarajevans and their stories with hundreds of thousands of European concertgoers attending the ZooTV Tour in 1993 via live satellite. The Edge and then Bono relate with what Carter is experiencing and filming, and the result becomes the award-winning documentary Miss Sarajevo, for which U2 pens a song by the same name. The double-edged sword of pop celebrity here becomes an asset through which people begin to take notice of the slaughter, setting into motion a chain of awareness and events that seem to ultimately help quell the horror in Sarajevo through NATO action.

Carter’s book is about a quest for redemption; for a people, for a city, for himself. It’s a riveting read on so many levels, saturated with feelings and uncertainties that I could absolutely relate to even though I’ve never lived in something like he describes. I was encouraged how one confused, passionate, grieving, flawed twenty-something started a rumble about an injustice in this world, even as he struggled with so many things. He captures a rare joy in this story. And plus, the book mentions Pearl Jam two times, so you know, it’s clearly worth it for that alone. Pick it up here and read a U2-related excerpt here.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (live in Sarajevo) – U2
The Sarajevans invite U2 to play Sarajevo and Bono seems ready to go in immediately, but is reined in through the obvious security concerns. It takes four years, but they eventually come to Sarajevo in 1997 on the PopMart tour

Miss Sarajevo (live in Milano) – U2
Bono sings the Italian lyrics here instead of Pavarotti; a gorgeous song with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights read over the ending

Angel – Pearl Jam
This is just a Heather-addition, a song not mentioned anywhere in the book but one that fits this story as perfectly as if it were part of the official soundtrack, on so many levels. Listen to it as accompaniment to reading, and tell me I’m not crazy

[all photos credit Bill Carter]

October 23, 2007

I now walk into the wild

This past weekend, Into The Wild finally trickled down to those of us not located in big glamorous cities. I promise not to wreck it for you if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, these are just a few of my thoughts after having done both this past week.

Components of McCandless’ grand Alaskan adventure tug relentlessly and almost perniciously at some loose threads inside me. I suspect that elements of following your passion with such unbridled drive and joy touch many of us on some level, which is why the book sold so well, and why the movie was made. I was glad I had read the book first, shading the characters, the motivations, filling in the missing chunks, but the movie was very faithful to the book.

The movie review in our local paper said that McCandless was “sanctimonious and arrogant,” and that sat so wrong with me. I surely didn’t know McCandless, and it’s easy to forget after the book and the film and a big-name soundtrack that he was actually a real person. But more than anything to me, he seemed sincere, even if the misguided optimism about his odds of success in the wild ended up fatal.

As one interviewee in the book named Sleight said, while relating Chris with another wilderness wanderer who was profiled named Everett Ruess: “Everett was strange, kind of different. But him and and McCandless, at least they tried to follow their dream. That was what was great about them. They tried. Not many do.” That, for me, was the core of the story.

I noticed that McCandless seemed to deeply affect everyone whose lives he came into, like a bolt of lightning. Everyone interviewed for the book remembered him well, much better than your standard vagrant who enters your life for a few hours or days, for a meal or a ride. But you know, I found myself empathizing with the people that McCandless left behind at every stop along the way, after he took what he needed from them — be it conversation, a father figure, travel advice, a laugh, a discussion of literature, the bouncing off of ideas and philosophical concepts. Like a blue-green bolt of ephemeral electricity he lit up their skies for a moment. But very soon, the wanderlust inside him compelled him to travel on. Everyone seemed to feel a gaping void there after Chris left, something you see especially vividly in the movie. Maybe he’s one of those shooting stars that you almost wish you’d never crossed paths with at all because everything seems dimmer in their absence, the afterglow they leave behind radiating off the otherwise dull grey walls around you.

How does the music complement the film? Very well, as I suspected. Vedder’s scoring is bittersweet and powerful, especially a memorable scene with “The Wolf,” where Vedder sounds his barbaric yawp over the roofs of this world (or actually the treeline of the Alaskan wilderness) as McCandless stands with arms outstretched on top of his bus-home, feeling the pull and glory of the wilderness. Vedder’s unselfconscious animal cries made the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

One specific lyric on the soundtrack that I keep rolling around in my mind is found in the song “Guaranteed.” Vedder sings “Circles they grow and they swallow people whole…” I keep thinking of what he may have meant by this line. I come up with more than one circle. Anyone who has ever found a certain idea hard to leave behind knows the exhaustion that comes with continuing to revisit it, as it soaks up the attention and the circle gets stronger in our minds. I wonder if McCandless escaped the beige circles of mediocre daily living, only to find himself pursuing a more savage circle of Alaskan wilderness. Both will swallow you whole.

Which one is worse?

Guaranteed – Eddie Vedder

Now that I am done reading Into the Wild, I have moved on to Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road and it is currently scaring the absolute bejesus out of me with its incinerated post-apocalyptic vision. More on that later but sheesh.

July 31, 2007

Summer reading: Best Music Writing series (Da Capo Press)

I have an admittedly short attention span on planes. Usually I zone out with music, taking advantage of the silent hours to explore the inevitable backlog of new tunes on my iPod. If I do read, it’s often the guilty indulgence of People magazine that I only buy in airport bookshops or –even better– Reader’s Digest. On this latest trip, I found something much better.

Da Capo Music Press is one of the finest purveyors of music books out there. They asked me if there was anything in their (superb) current catalog that I’d be interested in checking out, and the first book I’ve cracked of the box they sent is the anthology Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006. The seventh year in the series, I found a lot to love here from a variety of sources last year ranging from traditional print media, online journals, and even (yay!) music blogs. The commentary varies from straight up album/song reviews to artist profiles and in-depth theoretical pieces on serious topics loosely related to music as a foundation.

The introduction by editor Mary Gaitskill explains the vibe of the anthology: “I put these pieces together like a mix tape of sounds a person might hear in life — get up in the morning, put on an old T. Rex song, go outside, hear “Gold Digger” coming out of somebody’s car, nameless electronica coming out of someone else’s. A guy walks through the parking lot whistling an aria from Bizet’s Carmen; something high and haunting leaks out of a passing boy’s iPod. Go into a store and there’s a faux cowgirl on the sound system singing some artifically sweetened blues. All day songs fly past; some get lost in traffic noise, some enter your imagination and take strange dream-shapes that get inside your thoughts and feelings and make them different.”

I loved that because she expresses exactly how the world sounds to me. People will ask me “where do you get all your ideas for posting?” And my answer is this: Once you start paying attention to the music around you, you hear it everywhere. There’s no shortage of things to listen to, experience, and write about. It’s why I love writing this blog, and it’s why I enjoy reading collections like this one.

Here are three snippets from the book to give you an idea of why you should pick it up for some good summer readin’. Guaranteed to enrich your brain 437% more than People.

by Ann Powers

What I’ve noticed about “crazy” rock musicians is that ones whose music offers the most insight into the turmoil of emotion tend to be women, and that these crazies tend to receive less hero worship than their male counterparts. . . [t]heir inner demons are in constant dialogue with a world that already demonizes anything less than neat that emanates from the feminine realm. A male artist getting crazy can come off as threatening, but he’s also often greeted as a prophet or, conversely, an endearing holy fool. A woman artist getting crazy is a different kind of mess–one that raises the general discomfort level by raising the specter of uncontrolled sexuality, irresponsible motherhood, violence done to or by the secred “gentler sex” — all elements of our common consciousness that have haunted us since Medea’s time and have never been resolved.

Your Ghost – Kristin Hersh (featuring Michael Stipe)
The rest of this interesting piece looks at those who have struggled with demons, like Hersh, Daniel Johnston, Lisa Germano, Nick Drake, or Mary Margaret O’Hara.

THE BEATLES–”Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine”
(Reached No. 1 on 20th August 1966)
by Tom Ewing
Part of a series to write on all UK #1 hit singles
The brisk orchestral arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” is tense and fussy, with something of Eleanor’s spinsterish neatness: the strings bring to mind sewing, or sweeping the steps, one of those little daily things you do unthinkingly, or instead of thinking. They also sound a little like a horror film soundtrack, and Eleanor Rigby is cinematic, and it is about horror. It’s Paul McCartney taking one of pop’s smooth-rubbed words –”lonely”– thinking it through and recoiling.

“Eleanor Rigby” remains neat to its end, so neat you might forget that this question of the lonely people hasn’t remotely been answered. For that you need the other side of the single, “Yellow Submarine.”

Intentionally or not, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” make a perfect pair. Crushing isolation as the flip of a song that values limitless community — “And my friends are all aboard / Many more of them live next door.” The one set in a drably recognizable town, the other in a fantasy utopia. Recital and singalong.

Eleanor Rigby – The Beatles
Yellow Submarine – The Beatles

The Enduring Bond Between Huey Lewis and the Developmentally Disabled
by Katy St. Clair
. . . The band recently celebrated its 25th anniversary by performing at this year’s Marin County Fair on a cool summer night a few weeks back. This was Huey Lewis & the News’ stomping ground, where they began two decades earlier, playing around San Rafael and Mill Valley. Suffice it to say, this show was something all my clients were looking forward to.

There are a lot of stereotypes about retarded people and most of them are false . . . [t]here is however one stereotype about retarded people that is true, one broad brushstroke that one can make about them all: Good gosh a’mighty, retarded people love them some Huey Lewis. Part of the reason is that Huey is apparently a sweetheart who does a lot of volunteer work with people who have developmental disabilities. But another big part is the music.

A bunch of people from a group home had set up camp on the opposite side of the stage, laying out blankets and picnic food. Bobbi recognized some of her friends and waved. “Huuuuueyyyy!” they all yelled back. It was just like people who yell “Bruuuce!” at a Springsteen concert, only more retarded. In fact, Huey Lewis is a retarded version of Bruce Springsteen. Think about it.

[Please read the full and wonderful article here]
Back In Time – Huey Lewis

June 11, 2007

Monday Music Roundup

I had a hard weekend. But notably, there were some new releases and musical gems that made me happy, and I also (frickin finally) finished Bill Bryson’s dry and uproarious book about Britain, Notes From A Small Island. I enjoyed it so much that it almost feels wrong. I’m talking ’bout laughing (really, kinda chortling) out loud on every other page, plus really enjoying reading about places I’d visited in the UK that I hadn’t thought about in 5 years; places like this little gem, or here. I wrote a few thoughts about the book for Bruce’s Some Velvet Blog, part of a series on summer reads, and that’s up now.

Hollywood Bass Player
Josh Rouse

After releasing a charmingly laid-back EP with his Spanish novia, She’s Spanish, I’m American, Josh Rouse will be back in solo long form with a new album called Country Mouse City House (out July 31 on his own imprint Bedroom Classics). This track is toe-tappingly catchy with a fittingly strutty bass line — and for some reason it made me want to sing “My Life” by Billy Joel (aka the Bosom Buddies theme song) all weekend. If you preorder the new disc now, you also get a bonus CD with some cool demos and unreleased songs.

A Long Time Away
Howie Payne
Lead singer of the now-defunct Liverpool band The Stands, Howie Payne is set to release his first solo LP this year, and has posted 4 new tracks on his MySpace page for your streaming pleasure. What I’ve heard of The Stands has quite a bit more rollicking sound, hailing from the same scene as neighbors The Coral and The Zutons, but these new songs are precisely some of the aforementioned things that made me happy this weekend. They are a bit more wistful and shaded, with a bit of blowing-through-the-jasmine-in-my-mind reminiscence for me.

The National Side
This next tune from Minneapolis band Romantica is different but I like it a lot. A fellow Ryan Adams fan recommended this to me, saying it was a tune that “you absolutely must check out” and guaranteed that it would be one of my favorite songs of the summer. All I can liken it to would be — okay, so Evan Dando moves to North Carolina and finds a backing band of mariachi dudes to play with. Then there’s also some great “buh-bah-buh-dah-dah-dah…”s which you really just can’t go wrong with in most circumstances. I like it. It’s from their forthcoming album America, out on 2024 Records.

Kingston Advice (Clash cover)
Camper Van Beethoven
Since we’ve already established an abiding fondness on my part for the output of David Lowery, it should come as no surprise that this track is one of my favorites off the new Clash tribute album The Sandinista! Project (out last month on the Megaforce label). As with all tribute albums, there are some questionable stylistic choices amisdt the 36 tracks, but this band is one with the cred to believably cover The Clash in a trippy, inventive way. Maybe I could have done without the fife, but otherwise I dig this.

Pacific Gas & Electric
I am in love with the quirky weirdness of the new soundtrack from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, full of hidden gems mostly from the ’60s and ’70s. I just got the soundtrack this weekend, and no surprises – we all know Quentin is a genius at this stuff. I’d love to hang out with Quentin and talk music someday. The man strikes me as borderline crazy, but he’s one of the best soundtrackers out there. This cut is a swampy electric blues harp romp, but the other songs on the album range from campy girl groups, atmospheric Italian film scores, the swagger of T. Rex, and the British Invasion sound of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Fantastic off-kilter kitsch.

May 18, 2007

“Love Is A Mix Tape” mix tape

Love Is A Mix Tape just absolutely knocked my socks off. I devoured this book in one long weekend in San Diego and enjoyed every single page, heartily. On the surface this is a true story about mix tapes, digging out the shoeboxes full of them and looking back at a life spent seeing the world in a series of 45-minute vignettes (then, of course, you flip the tape over). Rob Sheffield has penned an honest yet wildly entertaining book, one that also managed to affect me more deeply than any book I’ve read in recent memory, all woven throughout with a genuine and bleeding love for music. It’s electric.

The meta-theme of the book is simple, and has been told a thousand times in all our great epic tales and poems: great, rich love and deep, hard loss. But this one comes with a soundtrack all around and sewn into his relationship and marriage to Renee, a girl who he says was “in the middle of everything, living her big, messy, epic life, and none of us who loved her will ever catch up with her.” Rob loved Renee, and chronicles that here beautifully from their first meeting to her sudden death at 31.

Parts of the book are evisceratingly intimate. I felt almost too close to his darkest and most intense moments, and because I knew so much of the music that he ties in so effortlessly with all of his memories I almost felt like I had a personal stake that kept stabbing at me. I thought I was just getting into this because, duh, it’s about mix tapes, but I ended up thinking about what kind of areas of us need to be loved in order for us to be fully happy, fully whole.

Even if you don’t like reading about other people’s love stories, you should still 100% read this book. If you are a music nerd (I mean, you’re here) then theirs is the kind of relationship that maybe someday, somewhere, we all dream about finding. Renee was his muse, but his passion (and hers) is thoroughly and unabashedly music. He writes of their relationship, “We had nothing in common, except we both loved music. It was the first connection we had, and we depended on it to keep us together. We did a lot of work to meet in the middle. Music brought us together.” Can that work? They were both music writers and radio DJs, they fell in love hard and married young. They made lots and lots of fabulous mix tapes, and each chapter begins with a reprinted tracklist from one cassette from that era in their lives.

And please, tell me this. How could I do anything but love a man who starts chapter 14 with: “Every time I have a crush on a woman, I have the same fantasy: I imagine the two of us as a synth-pop duo.” He goes on to elaborate on how she is in the front (“tossing her hair, a saucy little firecracker”), stealing the show and he is hidden in the back behind his Roland JP8000 keyboard, “lavishing all my computer blue love on her.” He even lists all the best band names he’s come up with for their synth-pop duo: Metropolitan Floors, Indulgence, Angela Dust.

And you should hear him wax poetic about mix tapes: be still my heart. Rob writes, “There are all kinds of mix tapes. There is always a reason to make one.” (Yes. There is.)

He gives his examples:
The Party Tape
I Want You
We’re Doing It? Awesome!
You Like Music, I Like Music, I Can Tell We’re Going To Be Friends
You Broke My Heart And Made Me Cry and Here Are Twenty or Thirty Songs About It
The Road Trip
Good Songs From Bad Albums I Never Want To Play Again

. . . and many more. “There are millions of songs in the world,” he writes, “and millions of ways to connect them into mixes. Making the connections is part of the fun of being a fan.” The book starts with Sheffield pulling out a box of old tapes and all throughout the book –from his childhood school dance recollections, to the first mixes he can remember making for Renee, to the ones that accompanied him in the dark days and months following her death– the mix tapes and the songs are as much characters in this story as the actual people are.

I like that because that is how I see music, and exactly precisely how important it is to me. I’d never heard anyone articulate it as well as he does, with such gentle grace and razor-sharp humor. It made me feel a little less oddball and a little more deeply appreciative for the gift of the music that’s gotten me through it all.

Since each of us have our own completely sovereign and self-focused memories surrounding our favorite bands and favorite songs (the unique feelings, smells, companions, activities associated with them), there is something that I just find so ebullient about “seeing” all these bands and songs through the unique rubric of their lives.

Take this amazing passage about their first Pavement concert (summer 1991):

The night of the show, the floor was abuzz with anticipation. None of us in the crowd knew what Pavement looked like, or even who was in the band. They put out mysterious seven-inch singles without any band info or photos, just credits for instruments like “guitar slug,” “psued-piano gritt-gitt,” “keybored,” “chime scheme,” and “last crash simbiosis.” We assumed that they were manly and jaded, that they would stare at the floor and make abstract boy noise. That would be a good night out.

Royal Trux went on a few hours late, which I’m sure had nothing to do with buying drugs in Richmond. They were great, like a scuzz-rock Katrina and the Waves. The peroxide girl in the football jersey jumped around and screamed while the boy with the scary home-cut bangs played his guitar and tried to stay out of her way. She threw a cymbal at him. We wanted to take them home for a bath, a hot meal, and a blood change.

But Pavement was nothing at all like we pictured them. They were a bunch of foxy dudes, and they were into it. As soon as they hit the stage, you could hear all the girls in the crowd ovulate in unison. There were five or six of them up there, some banging on guitars, some just clapping their hands or singing along. They did not stare at the floor. They were there to make some noise and have some fun. They had fuzz and feedback and unironically beautiful sha-la-la melodies. The bassist looked just like Renee’s high school boyfriend. Stephen Malkmus leaned into the mike, furrowed his brows, and sang lyrics like, “I only really want you for your rock and roll” or “When I fuck you once it’s never enough / When I fuck you two times it’s always too much.” The songs were all either fast or sad, because all songs should either be fast or sad. Some of the fast ones were sad, too.

Afterward, we staggered to the parking lot in total silence. When we got to the car, Renee spoke up in a mournful voice: “I don’t think The Feelies are ever gonna be good enough again.”

Our friend Joe in New York sent us a tape, a third-generation dub of the Pavement album Slanted and Enchanted. Renee and I decided this was our favorite tape of all time. The guitars were all boyish ache and shiver. The vocals were funny bad poetry sung through a Burger World drive-through mike. The melodies were full of surfer-boy serenity, dreaming through a haze of tape hiss and mysterious amp noise. This was the greatest band ever, obviously. And they didn’t live twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even five years ago. They were right now. They were ours.

I think about those days, and I think about a motto etched onto the sleeve of one of those Pavement singles: I AM MADE OF BLUE SKY AND HARD ROCK AND I WILL LIVE THIS WAY FOREVER.

I know this is getting long (who cares) but that part made me seriously consider getting that tattooed down my side in tiny script, I am made of blue sky and hard rock. Then this next part, well, it made me believe. Again. In things I stopped believing in.

Renee and I spent a lot of time that fall driving in her Chrysler, the kind of mile wide ride southern daddies like their girls to drive around in. She would look out the window and say, “It’s sunny, let’s go driving” — and then we’d actually do it. She loved to hit the highway and would say things like, “Let’s open ‘er up.” Or we would just drive aimlessly in the Blue Ridge mountains. She loved to take sharp corners, something her grandpa had taught her back in West Virginia. He could steer with just one index finger on the wheel. I would start to feel a little dizzy as the roads started to twist at funny angles, but Renee would just accelerate and cackle, “We’re shittin’ in tall cotton now!”

We would always sing along to the radio. I was eager to be her full-time Pip, but I had a lot to learn about harmony. Whenever we tried “California Dreamin’,” I could never remember whether I was the Mamas or the Papas. I had never sung duets before. She did her best to whip me into shape.

“They could never be!”
“What she was!”
“No, no, damn it! I’m Oates!”
“I thought I was Oates.”
“You started as Hall. You have to stay Hall.”

We never resolved that dispute. We both always wanted to be Oates. Believe me, you don’t want to hear the fights we had over England Dan and John Ford Coley.

Have you ever been in a car with a southern girl blasting through South Carolina when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me The Breeze” comes on the radio? Sunday afternoon, sun out, windows down, nowhere to hurry back to? I never had. I was twenty-three. Renee turned up the radio and began screaming along. Renee was driving. She always preferred driving, since she said I drove like an old Irish lady. I thought to myself, Well, I have wasted my whole life up to this moment. Any other car I’ve ever been in was just to get me here, any road I’ve ever been on was just to get me here. Any other passenger seat I’ve ever sat on, I was just riding here. I barely recognized this girl sitting next to me, screaming along to the piano solo.

I thought, There is nowhere else in the universe I would rather be at this moment. I could count the places I would not rather be. I’ve always wanted to see New Zealand, but I’d still rather be here. The majestic ruins of Machu Picchu? I’d rather be here. A hillside in Cuenca, Spain, sipping coffee and watching leaves fall? Not even close. There is nowhere else I could imagine wanting to be besides here in this car, with this girl, on this road, listening to this song. If she breaks my heart, no matter what hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now. Out the window is a blur and all I can really hear is this girl’s hair flapping in the wind, and maybe if we drive fast enough the universe will lose track of us and forget to stick us somewhere else.

I am heading home from San Diego this weekend so I’ll leave you guys with this, and I’ll be listening to it too. New stuff, some old friends — all these songs are assembled from the mixtape liner notes that pepper the book. Thanks to Rob for opening the vaults.

Call Me The Breeze – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Coax Me – Sloan
Slow Dog – Belly
Thirteen – Big Star
What You’re Doing – The Beatles
Your Favorite Thing – Sugar
Fall On Me – R.E.M.
Debris Slide – Pavement
Supernova – Liz Phair

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
Sister Havana – Urge Overkill
God Knows It’s True – Teenage Fanclub
Rougher – Lois (with Elliott Smith)
Houses In Motion – Talking Heads

Midnight Train To Georgia – Gladys Knight and The Pips
You Don’t Love Me Yet – Roky Erickson
Gold Star For Robot Boy – Guided By Voices

Freezing Point – Archers of Loaf
Bang A Gong (Get It On) – T Rex
Questioningly – The Ramones

Waiting On A Friend – Rolling Stones


March 8, 2007

33 1/3 Series: The Stone Roses

I am in love with a pocket-sized novella. We don’t know yet where we’ll live but we are sure that we will be very happy together.

Several months back I received a copy of Alex Green’s contribution to The 33 1/3 Series, The Stone Roses. For those uninitiated into this fantastic little series, it is essentially the zenith of musical dorkitude: entire books that look song-by-song at a seminal album. I had not yet found spare time to crack open Green’s mini-tome on the messiahs from Manchester, but finally when I settled into my seat on the airplane to go to San Francisco (very close to a large neighbor in 12E who was seat-dancing to Arabic music, complete with hand motions) I pulled it out of my bag and settled in.

By the third paragraph, I was hooked — already laughing out loud at the flawless way that Green captures the everyday and crystallizes it into something fabulous. His ardor and undying passion for The Stone Roses and their 1989 self-titled debut album is evident in each chapter, on every page.

With his permission, here is the first few pages of introduction. And it only gets better from here, folks. This is an absolute must-read (even if you have no idea who The Stone Roses were or why they were important):

The Stone Roses, by Alex Green

“Sometimes I fantasize…”

When I was in seventh grade, my favorite conversations came at the bus stop. While my friends and I waited for the bus, which was driven by a drowsy-looking guy named Lenny who would only play Styx’s Paradise Theatre, we would energetically cover a range of topics: which girls were hot, what the best song was on Def Leppard’s Pyromania, or how Han Solo could still be alive after being submerged in such a deep and heartbreaking freeze for all that time.

But what we were best at were pop culture hypotheticals, wildly imagined scenarios whose possibilities were so intriguing that the next day we’d continue the conversation right where we left off without missing a beat, without even first saying hello. We’d wonder who would win if Bruce Lee fought Heavyweight champ Larry Holmes; what would happen if the shark from Jaws somehow got in the community swimming pool through the metal drain at the bottom of the deep end; how awesome it would be if Christie Brinkley was our babysitter; or if the rumor was true that Bon Scott was not dead at all, but bearded and sad and rotting away in a Mexican prison, and if it was, maybe we should head down there and do something about it.

The bus stop was like a bar but without any of the drinks, though conversations we had did prefigure the kind of drunken musings we would have years later as college students. Of course we knew our endless combinations of preposterous pop culture pairings and bizarre, almost supernatural wishes (“And then Jim Morrison would jump down from the sky right on stage with wings made of snakes and be like, ‘I was never dead’”) were never going to come true, but they were so inspired, so sublimely hallucinogenic, they made us glow with excitement because they felt like the newest and best ideas on the planet. And as outrageous and illogical as they were, they felt real enough to happen and that’s what made them so seductive.

But the fact was, Bruce Lee was dead, and even if he wasn’t, it was doubtful he’d come out of retirement and jump both sports and weight classes to fight Larry Holmes; the metal drain at the bottom of the pool was too small for even a baby barracuda to get in; my babysitter was Lisa Gates, a girl who didn’t even look to be in the same species as Christie Brinkley; and if Bon Scott really was in a Mexican prison, and five seventh graders from California somehow slipped under the parental radar and made their way down to Tijuana on a school day, what could they really do once they got there?

Reality, however, has not dampened my desire, even into my thirties, to think of the world in the same terms I did when I was a kid at the bus stop. But instead of dreaming up things that fancifully mutate reality, I have now become obsessed with reality itself, and what might have happened if it hadn’t gotten in the way. For example, if River Phoenix hadn’t died of a drug overdose; if the Smiths hadn’t broken up; or if Björn Berg hadn’t retired from tennis at twenty-six. Of course these are all great artists and athletes who left their marks with deep indentations on popular culture, but the mind just takes off when it thinks about what more they could have done: Phoenix was deepening as an actor and his body of work seemed to only scratch the surface of what he was really capable of; the Smiths’ last studio album Strangeways Here We Come was their most accessible yet; and Borg had eleven Grand Slam titles when he walked away from the sport, which at the time was only two shy of Roy Emerson’s record.

As for me, an ardent music addict with far too many arcane facts easily accessed by the right question and with a music collection so absurdly sizable I can listen to a different album every day for the next fifty-five years, for me what hurts most is the story of the Stone Roses [footnote 1: I’m still waiting for a party where the beautiful girl asks me the name of the drummer on Jazz Butcher Conspiracy’s Distressed Gentlefolk. I’ve rehearsed this so much that if I’m sure if it ever happens I’ll blow it and instead of saying, “Kevin Haskins,” I’ll say the name of the guy who played keyboards in Curiosity Killed The Cat.]

On the strength of their self-titled debut album, the Stone Roses should not only have ruled the world, they should still be ruling it. Shrugging off time and history and the constantly evolving musical curves of the pop universe, the Stone Roses’ harmonious blend of melodic six-string pop and psychedelic rock and roll still remains, after all these years, both fresh and vital. Whether it’s the slithering, narcissistic arrogance of “I Wanna Be Adored,” the soaring chorus of “She Bangs The Drums,” or the funky workout of “Elephant Stone,” The Stone Roses has more highlights than a David Beckham career retrospective. But more than that, it’s a cohesive album, an album not Frankensteined together with one hit single and an array of scraps disguised as songs, but an album whose seamlessly sequenced song cycle begins by devilishly taunting, “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me,” and then nervily ends with the self-obsessed and deliciously arrogant declaration, “I am the Resurrection and I am the Light.” True to the words of its bookends, the entire album is pompous and defiant, each song crackling with ambition and hunger.

The Stone Roses’ debut finds that lone, peerless groove occupied in temporary installments by precious few superstars, that groove where everything clicks and hums and snaps into place, and even the mistakes look good. In other words, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it big and it was here that the Stone Roses had it.


The entire chapter on “Elizabeth My Dear” is available in pdf here and Amazon has several pages from the first chapter (on “I Wanna Be Adored”) as well.

Elizabeth My Dear – The Stone Roses
I Wanna Be Adored – The Stone Roses

As usual, Largehearted Boy already has a fantastic playlist from the author here. For the love of all things holy and pure, BUY THIS BOOK. It’s heartening to see a love for music in such unadulterated form.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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