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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Echo Bird's Sunset Strip Love Advice



Echo Bird’s drunk again and
Preaching at pitchfork hounds
Who frown at passing glass and
Matching shoes.

Kindness, Echo laments.
It’s missing from your outfits.
How will you draw them in 
All points and angles? 
A softened sternum
Of liquid sugar 
That shatters with
The mildest blink.

This is what they seek
Have you not seen 
In all that looking?
Kindness is the start of
Oscar worthy after dark, but
Innocence
Over coffee and peach.
Like the girl they never kissed
Unmarred by an end
Kindness.
Not barbs and nails
Draped in daring dresses
And strangled denim.
That ends.
In a guest house.
With a hot plate.
Near the good side of Van Nuys.    
Kindness.
Not cold cement. 
That’s my burning tip.

The glass frowns back at
Fingers combed black 
And the bird’s eyes dry
Down glowing cheeks of gold.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

I may not be Helen of Troy but
I am the best you'll get and I'll say that in
Print; so settle down sailor, make peace with your
Probabilities, and quit regarding me as the
Albatross. I've got culture to
Influence and life to narrate before I
Vacate to the (mis)fortune of resurrection.
So, strip off that calfskin and validate
Me with that crowing cock I'll soon cuckold
For I ain't no Helen of Troy and
Odysseus you are not.

The First Death

By the time the ambulance arrived
To cart you away
Rigor mortis had set in.
Cumulus clouds were floating
And Nixon announced Turkish invasion of Cyprus
A welcome distraction in his final month as
Commander in chief.
Alger, the house lynx snacked while
Your wife cried without resistance.
I mis-processed these tears,
Thinking you merely asleep
As I looked up to you lying
Motionless under quilt.
Your son arrived and ran me across the street
Into the care of the neighbor with the pool.
My brother was already submerged and
We traded kicks and turns.
Weeks later, I noticed dying vines strangled in
The espalier you built...just one of many small
Losses riding your sleepy coattails.

My Thing, You See

I have a thing you see,
For the insensible ones
That incinerate my heart
With averted glances and
Throwaway notes.
They are my addiction
My karma
For the casual disposal
Of kinder companions
Done away with
To facilitate
My sui generis status
Amongst friends and family.
I have lynched that life of
Ice cream socials and
Egg nog parties with
Big fish in small ponds
For a freedom foreshadowed
By that which it now contains.
Those averted glances
Thrown my way
And notes replaced with
Glowing pixels
Broken down and
Re-assembled into half words,
And passing thoughts that
Drift away with the lightest
Summer breeze
Leaving me
Aching.

Brave

You call this crazy,
Bravery
But I call it
Bullshit -
Bleeding money out
Gaping Wounds and
Wasting Days
Like a Fountain of Youth
That works the Wrong
Way to go
You say
Don't let them get you
Down I go
Again
This mountain of
My own
Making
One hundred mile
Pace
Maker in place
'Cause I never had what it takes
Like I did before I
Went and
Came
Again...
My
Bravery
Twisted
Outside In.

Devil Dancing

Like the tourmaline
Twisting my neck
Devil dancing
Has lost its lustre.
So I bundle my vanities
In carry-ons and fly east.
A grovelling ghost
Grieving dissatisfaction,
A lack of pension, and
Seeking propitiation in
The original noose
That hung like rain and
Unleashed the rage
That sent me fleeing
In the first place.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Other


Other you say
There is an other
And here I reap
The consequence of
Belief that I
As other was not
Pattern but matter
Combusting on impact
In something singularly
Other worldly.
Carl Sagan, I thought
Could not explain away
Our chaotic embrace
As mere atom on atom
text book case...I was
Something other than just
Another to you.
And now I

The fool
Replaced and
Erased
Like lines of blow
Up your nose
It was great
But it's getting late and
An other will satisfy
Where I failed to sate.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dancing in the Shadow of Walter White

Fabulous left her three legged dog
In a Burbank bomb shelter.
Full of  fleas
Infesting furniture and feeding on
Dying hustles.
The walls were hair metal poems
Of pussy paper
And sharpie bush.
Moth mauled linens,
Yellow with binges and
Incarceration,
Cradled unstrung guitars
That once sold millions.
The kitchen was decorated
In three for fifteen
Pepperoni and cheese and
People waited,
Hands wringing,
Teeth clenching,
For the chemistry
Cooking in the camper
Out back.

For a minute, I played in a band that rehearsed in a house where lots of unsavory things happened.  I only saw the aftermath...and was too naive to totally understand just how unsavory until about a year after I'd moved on to other projects.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Hunt: Innocent Lies and The Perversion of Hysteria

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!

Recently, I watched The Hunt, a shocking and thought provoking Danish movie that was a 2014 Academy Award submission for the best foreign language film.  The Hunt stars Mads Mikkelsen as kind-hearted but sad Lucas, a recently divorced father of a teenage son and a kindergarten teacher's aide who has been laid off from his own high school teaching job.


Early in the movie, we see Lucas interacting with the students, who clearly love him.  Lucas's protective bond with Klara, one of his kindergarten students and his best friend, Theo's, daughter is particularly apparent.  Theo and his wife love Klara but she is not always prioritized and often seems lonely.  As a result, she connects with Lucas, who gives her the attention she's lacking at home.

One day, while playing during recess at school Klara kisses Lucas on the mouth.  Lucas scolds Klara saying specifically she shouldn't kiss people outside of her family like that.  Klara is clearly embarrassed and angered and later that evening tells her teacher that she doesn't like Lucas because he is mean.  When her teacher responds with confusion, Klara says Lucas showed her his penis "pointing up," the same term a friend of her teenaged brother used the previous day when showing her a picture of an erect penis.

Klara
 It is obvious that the accusations aren't true; and Klara later says it was just something "stupid" she made up - that Lucas didn't do anything. But, by that point, the police are involved and adults tell the girl she is only trying to forget something awful, a normal behavior after what happened.  To make matters worse, other parents begin questioning their own kids, who begin accusing Lucas of similar behaviors. Hysteria erupts and Lucas is arrested based on the accusations.

As details of the children's stories emerge it becomes clear that they are not telling the truth; and a judge dismisses the charges against Lucas. However, the townspeople remain convinced of Lucas's guilt.  He is beat up when he tries to buy groceries. His dog is murdered and left in front of his house. He is, for all intents and purposes, cast out of the town.

Lucas, a victim of hysteria

Eventually, Klara's parents come to believe that Lucas is innocent and slowly the townspeople seem to begin to treat Lucas with the dignity afforded him prior to the accusations.  However, the final scene, when Lucas and his friends take their sons hunting, demonstrates that doubt about his innocence still exists when a bullet so narrowly misses him that, for an instant, Lucas believes he has been hit. Whether the near miss is intentional or not is irrelevant because the fear it arouses in Lucas is symbolic of the lasting impact of the accusations and the hysteria that followed have had, and will continue to have, on Lucas's sense of safety. 

In some sense The Hunt is a re-telling of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Like The Crucible, The Hunt pits one of our greatest disgusts, the sexual abuse of an innocent (or in the case of The Crucible's Abigail, a seeming innocent) young person, against one of our greatest fears, the loss of a good reputation as a result of false accusations. Moreover, both pieces are concerned with illuminating the danger of hysteria.  However, The Hunt, with its modern setting and absence of obvious metaphor is far eerier. Quite simply, what happens to Lucas could happen to you or someone you know.

Culturally, we consider childhood sacred. We want to believe that children are perfectly unblemished and  incapable of making terrible things up. To a degree this is true. Such stories don't come from nowhere; in Klara's case she had just been exposed to the idea of an erect penis and knew there was something shocking about it.  But she didn't really understand what a penis "pointing up" would mean to an adult.

More frightening than Klara's accusations are the behaviors of the adults.  First, when Klara struggles to recount her accusation, adult investigators begin asking leading questions and respond positively when she offers information that seems to support her original story.  As mentioned earlier, when she tells her mom the accusations aren't true, her mom doesn't believe her, and tells her she is only trying to forget this horrible thing that happened. Klara tries to tell the truth, and when she is told her truth is wrong, she becomes confused and searches for the response the adults want. Considering the seriousness of the accusations, the adult reaction is understandable. And, on some level it would be more frightening to Klara's parents to acknowledge the accusations were false because it would not explain how Klara knew penises "point up." The lack of a known origin for Klara's knowledge makes it impossible to punish OR control.  In short, Klara will not be forever innocent - no child will; and the chipping away at that innocence happens in bits and pieces. A found sexual image. An overheard innuendo. A news story.

Even the most open and well-intentioned parents can't completely control exposure to these bits and pieces that impact their kids. That is the real horror for the parents and the real explanation for the hysteria we see in The Hunt. Had Lucas been guilty, the attacks might be warranted. But because Lucas is innocent, his abuse becomes symbolic of the community's shared grief over the inevitable loss of their children's innocence and their helplessness to stop it. However, as in The Crucible, it is the hysteria that is the true perversion. Hysteria leads to real violent abuse of an innocent and that abuse is every bit as perverted as the abuse Klara initially alleges.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Proust's Questionnaire: at 40

I just turned 40, a good age to assess where you stand on things.  I also just saw a mention of the recent Vanity Fair article that posed Proust's questionnaire to the gods of our culture. So here goes...

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? 78 degrees, a cup of coffee, a quiet patio with a view, a cat on my lap, and a book in my hand.
  2. What is your greatest fear? Death by fire. Or plane crash.
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? My lack of sustained focus on anything professionally.
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Self-righteousness
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Hmmm...Let's go with Tina Turner.
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Food
  7. What is your current state of mind? Anxious but Determined
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Ambition - it's the start of perpetual disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  9. On what occasion do you lie? When someone has created something or performed something and I don't find it that great.
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? My newly acquired uneven skin tone.  Fuck you 40!
  11. Which living person do you most despise? All living people who attempt to manipulate me to say yes after I've said no.
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man? Sincerity
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? Sincerity
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? "Furthermore"
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?  My husband and our cats.
  16. When and where were you happiest? California, 2006
  17. Which talent would you most like to have? Self-Salesmanship
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would focus on a few things rather than allow the immensity of my curiosities to carry me in all directions.
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? Creating things...art, music, words, businesses.
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I would come back as a beloved family cat.  
  21. Where would you most like to live? On a tour bus - or Copenhagen, Denmark.
  22. What is your most treasured possession? My car. It means I'm never trapped.
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Indecision
  24. What is your favorite occupation? Ice Road Trucker!
  25. What is your most marked characteristic? Social Awkwardness
  26. What do you most value in your friends? Humor and Straightforwardness
  27. Who are your favorite writers? Crazy women from the 20th Century. Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Joan Didion. Edna St. Vincent Millay. And John Steinbeck. And Sherman Alexie.  And Dostoevsky. I could go on.  
  28. Who is your hero of fiction? Rhoda Morgenstern.
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Right now, all I can think is Frances Perkins.
  30. Who are your heroes in real life? Hero is a strong word.  But I like Cate Blanchett for her dignified reserve which belies the depth of her work. I like Shirley Manson for her badassery. I like Tina Turner for kicking all our asses. 
  31. What are your favorite names? What's in a name?
  32. What is it that you most dislike? Manipulation and greed.
  33. What is your greatest regret? Allowing self-doubt to matter.
  34. How would you like to die? Old and after falling asleep in my favorite chair while listening to good music.
  35. What is your motto? Not sure this is a motto...but I'm a longtime fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Second Fig: "Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!"

Things I Want: This Dresser


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pressure to be Passionate About Everything

My husband has a lifelong single minded passion for guitars.  He loves everything about them from the sound they make to the way they are constructed.  His endless curiosity about the instrument has lead to a depth of knowledge that is both vast in amount and specific in detail. For example, he can name the favored string brands and gauges of nearly every well-known guitar player and some not so well known players with Rainman like precision.  He also loves to experiment with our guitars and the equipment that goes with them. Not a week goes by when he doesn't change the pickups or rewire the internal components of one of our guitars or bring home a new effects pedal - all in a search for a richer tone or a new sound. It follows that his professional career has included successful stints as a touring and recording musician, a repair shop guitar tech, and an instrument salesman. Simply put, he is a guitar expert, whose combination of love, knowledge and expertise for the instrument has allowed him to succeed in a difficult and ever-changing industry.

I envy my husband because I have never experienced such a single minded love for any one thing.  Sure, I have things that I have a great deal of interest in.  Like my husband, I have a love for music and for the guitar.  But my love is far less all-consuming.  Days will go by when I feel no desire to pick up the instrument - days when I'm sitting on my ass investigating other things that capture my momentary attention and interest.  

Today, I investigated the possibility of learning Danish, which was inspired by my enjoyment of the Danish TV series Rita, currently available on Netflix.  This series interests me because for much of my professional career I have been a teacher with a rebellious streak, much like Rita, the lead character.  In short, my interests connect to each other and almost always swirl around art, music, literature, media, and culture.  But no single interest has ever reached the depth my husband has for guitar. Moreover, I have had many small short term interests that, like Millay's first fig - burned at both ends but didn't last the night.


Even my almost 20-year career in education is not a deep, intensely focused passion. To be sure, I enjoy interacting with my students and engaging them in discussions about literature, writing and thinking; and my varous evaluators have reported that I'm a "talented" and "good" teacher. But talent and competence are not the same as passion; and there is nothing less interesting to me than discussions about education - or theories about how best to deliver content to students. That kind of shit makes my brain bleed. In this sense, I have zero interest in my career and as a result, I will never be a true educational expert regardless of my talent for teaching.  My core lack of interest in the foundations of my current profession makes me feel like a fraud; and, as a result, I have resisted fully committing to the career. I am perpetually looking for something different that will arouse the mystical passion people speak of - or that won't expect such passion at all.

Perhaps none of this would bother me if there wasn't such a cultural premium placed on "passion." But, Americans are obsessed with finding their "one true" passion. Moreover those who ARE lucky enough to find a deep all-consuming passion do seem to succeed at higher levels because they have such a narrow plane of focus. This is perhaps what really bothers me. There is nothing - NOTHING that I love so much that I can imagine developing the intensity of focus or ambition needed for a successful long-term career. I am a jack of many trades and a master of none. In the end, I expect I'll have a lot of little things I did but no great capstone of professional achievement. Because I've been culturally programmed to believe that i should have a "passion" for something, and that my career should circle around that passion and should build toward something great and that only outlier success matters (thanks Malcolm Gladwell), I'm bothered by this.  

Is anyone else bothered by all this pressure to be passionate?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why I'm not a Riot Grrl

Laina Dawes, a music writer for Metal Edge, recently penned a piece for Bitch Magazine titled "Why I Was Never a Riot Grrl." A black woman, Dawes cites race as a key factor for her lack of affinity for the movement.  Her notes on the intrinsic whiteness of the movement were insightful. But for me, a white feminist in love with loud, angry music, her column inspired a different kind of consideration.  Why wasn't I a riot grrl?

Part of the reason lies in geography.  I grew up in Indianapolis; and the riot grrl movement was based out of Olympia, WA.  Nowadays, the internet somewhat nullifies the role regional concerns play in cultural exposure.  But then, to know about things happening in cities other than yours, you had to be tapped in to the underground zine scene. I knew a guy who was; but his interest was death metal, not angry girl bands. As a result, I knew about bands like Brujeria and Xysma and Demilich.  But I knew nothing of Bratmobile.

Bratmobile
Because of my Midwestern nativity, I initially relied on my parent's menial record collection, my older brother, and mainstream media like MTV and Top 40/Classic Rock radio for musical exposure. I listened to hair metal, grunge, classic rock and funk, and pop music. During this time, I was also learning to play guitar and I had started writing songs. In the mid 90s, when women performers began enjoying that brief moment of musical popularity, I loved the Luscious Jacksons, Poe, Garbage, Alanis, L7, Hole, and The Cranberries.  Still, riot grrl bands remained off my radar.

Hole

And then I moved to LA. Somewhere around that time, I became aware of the term "riot grrl" and of bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile; and eventually, I heard Bikini Kill at a listening station at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, CA. I fucking hated it!  Now, to give context, I came from cock rock not punk rock; and I aspired to be a female Jimmy Page, not a female Steve Jones.  As such, my first response was to disdainfully assert "They can't play their fucking instruments!" to my comrade Kelly, a barely legal KISS fan, who was on a three year hiatus from college. "Yeah," she agreed. "They do suck!"  When I heard part of the riot grrl philosophy was to make music regardless of their relative mastery of their instrument, I grew even more incensed. I had worked hard to develop a decent level of guitar mastery; and I never really liked the idea of sucking on purpose. I was definitely not a riot girl, I thought. I am better than that.

Jimmy Page - My Lifelong Guitar Hero

Over the next few years, I learned some things I hadn't understood about the music business.  For one, I learned that female instrumentalists are evaluated as "sucking" by male musicians unless their mastery is so extreme it cannot be denied. I learned that I should actually consider "you're pretty good for a girl," a compliment. I learned that girls who were in known bands, and who didn't meet the criteria for musical savant, were judged as benefactors of their marketable physical image; and as Fay Funk notes in "What I Learned from D'arcy Wretzky," I learned that success scored with merely mediocre instrument mastery, leads to severe criticism, and easy dismissal of  said mediocre female musician's cultural importance while successful mediocre male musicians are spared such extreme vitriol.     

Darcy Wretzky - How dare she be mediocre AND successful!

By owning their awfulness as musicians, riot grrl bands were able to subvert the judgmental shit so many female musicians have faced for not being goddamned Mozarts. By shamelessly sucking at playing their instruments, riot grrl bands became acceptable. They found a niche. The guys that still ruled rock (and I'm talking performance as well as the means of production, distribution, promotion, booking etc. here) didn't feel musically threatened by the riot grrl. They thought, "they're girls and they suck, but they're not trying to not suck, so it's kind of cool and punk rock." Meanwhile, girls, or perhaps I should qualify based on Dawes's article, white girls, could see other white girls occupying the stage, representing an untethered white girl point of view where only the male point of view previously existed. Moreover, those girls were forwarding a feminist agenda to which other girls could relate; and it was done with the attitude that male approval was not required to take the stage and forward that message.

It took me a long time to fully understand the whole point of the riot grrl movement and appreciate its value and influence on a whole generation of female musicians and artists.  But I still don't consider myself a riot grrl.  Don't get me wrong - even at almost 40 I'm a pretty pissed off feminist; and I've made some loud, dark, and angry riotgrrl-esque music in my day too.  But I also felt incredible pride when Dave Immergluck, the guitarist from the Counting Crows complimented my playing after seeing me perform with singer songwriter Arrica Rose; and a few years later, when I auditioned and got the gig playing guitar with a band of boys who had no intention of hiring a female player, I felt more pride than I had felt playing with any of my previous "girl" bands. In my mind, getting that gig was proof that I wasn't kidding myself when I set out to give a music career a shot. I may not have been Mozart, but I didn't suck; I was good enough to play with the boys - good enough to take a shot at the same success male musicians who also aren't Mozart strive for.  But, a true riot grrl wouldn't have needed that validation I needed to prove that she deserved to be there. Riot grrls are better than that.
 




Saturday, April 26, 2014

JD Samson (Men and Le Tigre) Gets it So So Right

Men's JD Samson, better known for her work with feminist dance punk outfit Le Tigre, fielded a lot of pretentious artist accusations for "I Love My Job, But it Made Me Poorer," a blog post she wrote a couple years ago.  But, I knew what she meant.  To make a go of it as a professional artist, you sacrifice a lot of shit. Even if you find success in the form of notoriety, more often than not, it doesn't bring the financial stability that many people imagine; that lack of stability that feels romantic in your late teens and 20s isn't quite so endearing as you progress in age and maturity.
JD Samson
She talks more about this struggle and its impact on her recent work in this fairly recent podcast from the Bitch Media Popaganda Series too.   


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thoughts on Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon"

Slowly, I'm making my way through the Cheryl Strayed edited collection of the The Best American Essays of 2013.  Most recently, I completed Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon."  Originally published in The New Republic in 2012, the title had me expecting something lurid and provocative. However, this was not the case. Instead, Kirn's article inspires a consideration of community by reflecting on his experiences with Mormonism. In spite of my intrinsic agnosticism and my love of personal space, and with the caveat that I recognize this article is but one man's evaluation of his experience, I am intrigued by the way an ideology based on the notion of sharing rather than hoarding might impact overall satisfaction in life. 

Kirn's experience with the Mormon church begins when, deep in the midst of midlife confusion, his patent attorney father moves the family from Minnesota to Arizona in hopes of a new start. Instead, Kirn's father falls into even greater mental turmoil. Following a near breakdown, while boarding a flight, Kirn's father is seated next a couple, who sense his despair and begin talking about their church with such radiance that Kirn's father reaches out to the church a few nights later. Kirn was 13 at the time the two young missionaries visit; his family joins the church shortly thereafter. Kirn recalls feeling genuinely included in the Mormon church, a feeling he's not previously experienced at his Lutheran church or elsewhere for that matter. However, when the family moved back to Minnesota, he and his family eventually fall away from the church.

Walter Kirn

Mormons have a bit of an image problem to say the least. In fact, Kirn cites the criticism aimed at Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, and regarding his "magic underwear" as initial inspiration for the essay.  A long lapsed Mormon who had grown disgusted with the church's stance on issues such as gay marriage, Kirn was surprised by his anger at the attacks on Romney, and disappointed with Romney showed restraint in his response. He felt a need to defend Mormonism. But where had this loyalty come from? He had been a Mormon only a short time; and he left, without ever serving a mission over questions about key doctrines of the faith. 

30 years after Kirn's introduction to Mormonism, he unexpectedly had another encounter.  At 46, and in spite of finding success as a writer with his novel, Up in the Air, which was later made into a movie starring George Clooney, Kirn is unhappy. He is lonely, and using a number of drugs to deal with depression and anxiety when he meets a woman on the internet who lives in Los Angeles. They like each other and he decides to move to Los Angeles temporarily not only to be present for movie related meetings but also to see if this relationship has any potential.

Kirn finds a guest house rental on a private Beverly Hills property where several young Mormons live communally. Again, he experiences the feelings of inclusion he recalls from his youth.  There are almost endless opportunities to socialize within the group. Moreover, their willingness to help each other out without the insisting on returned favors, and their easy generosity with the fruits of their various successes is shocking but ultimately medicinal for Kirn. His depression subsides, and he breaks his dependence on drugs.

From their starchy white shirts and bicycle powered door to door mission work, to their spirit babies and magic underwear, Mormons are sometimes mistaken for a Cult; and maybe this is deserved.  Certainly some of the fundamentalist sects engage in extremely cult-like and even criminal activities. However, as Kirn relayed his story, I admit I felt drawn, just as he did, to their genuine commitment to supporting their community, to helping each other out, and to sharing their resources. It's all very un-American.

America has long romanticized  the feats of the individual; and a resistance to acknowledging community contributions to individual success, such as those discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's, The Outliers, is evident. In fact our entire economy is constructed to allow individuals to pursue and ultimately amass enormous wealth if they so choose and if they are so fortunate. The problem with the structure is that the distribution of the spoils rarely mirrors the community contributions to the individual's who are credited with the success. We believe "great" individuals deserve EXTREME financial reward.  However, Gladwell's work shows us that while be like believing the Bill Gates' of the world were bound to be Bill Gates' regardless of outside factors, that simply isn't the case. Sadly, this cultural mindset that values individual greatness over community greatness sets nearly all of us up for disappointment because greatness can't be distributed too generally or else it ceases to be meaningful. So, on some level, we average underlings are left to feel a sick sense of collective failure.


Individually, we turn to yoga and pharmaceuticals and fast cars and the biggest houses we can afford and special diets and therapists and self-help books.  We turn inward or take up running or vow to lose weight or read more books or work for an animal rescue or practice a faith all in the quest for the greater life satisfaction our averageness doesn't afford us. But these are all symptomatic cures - and to be sure - they are really all we have when significant systemic changes that would place greater value on community success will not occur anytime soon.

Perhaps this all makes me sound like a raging socialist; and maybe that's what I've become.  But once upon a time I bought in to America's rugged individualism. I moved west in pursuit of my own American dream and I had no doubt that I..I alone could actualize that dream. Some might call that idealistic narcissism.  But I think I was a pretty average young American.  It took me about a year to learn the truth of Maya Angelou's refrain: "nobody but nobody can make it out here alone." So, while I'll never be able to ascribe to God-centered community, the Mormons are on to something with their rugged communitarianism. We would all be wise to stop putting such heavy value on the successes of individuals.  They don't do it alone.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Men Don't Know What the Little Girls Understand

Jezebel.com recently printed an insightful piece about the struggles female music critics face. In Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing about Music as a Woman, former Nashville music critic Tracy Moore laments the abuse women critics, who approach their job with serious intention, receive.  Specifically, Moore reports taunts of whore-dom, from a peanut gallery of male critics, who claimed such nonsense as "you have fucked every member of every band you have ever covered."  Moore contrasts her experience with the rather positive response Sarah O'Holla's blog "My Husband's Stupid Record Collection" has received from male critics to suggest an underlying sexism that discourages women from serious critical engagement with music while simultaneously encouraging a passive damsel in distress "show me the way" like respect for the male point of view.     

O'Holla's blog has been embraced and shared and shared again by male critics.  While initially drawn to O'Holla's blog for its "charm," Moore, and other female critics, have become suspicious of a sexist subtext to the adulation.  In short, Moore argues the reaction to O'Holla's blog highlights the acceptance of female points of view only when they are couched in a frame of novice understanding.  By contrast, a woman who enters the room, claiming expert understanding and eager to engage in a serious discussion about music, is shunned and insulted with "get on the tour bus and suck a dick" sorts of minimization. 

Obviously, male claims of supreme understanding of popular music, its performers, and its cultural significance are nothing new. And the notion that women who want to write about music or, for that matter, play music or work in wardrobe for musicians are whores with glorified titles on their laminates is also nothing new. However, there are certain types of understanding available to female spectators of music that are not available to men; and while the ying and yang of sexual seduction and desire are a component to that understanding, there is more than that.  In fact, part of that understanding connects to one of the foundational cultural purposes of popular music culture - the break down of gender constructs - a component that women experience in a much more intimate fashion than men do. 

Before we explore this in greater depth, let's first examine establish the value for a type of criticism for which female critics are often minimized and that is the mention of "details that were about something other than the literal sound of the music, like how the performers acted, dressed, or looked, and how the music was received" (Moore). This attack on attention to elements outside the structural forms of music was echoed in a recent Daily Beast article titled "Music Criticism has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting, which points to a recent episode of American Idol where Jennifer Lopez made fun of Harry Connick Jr. for using the word "pentatonic" in his response to a contestant's performance. While I would agree both that music criticism should not rely solely on "lifestyle reporting"  and that it is comical and sad that Jennifer Lopez, a best selling musical artist, is unfamiliar with one of the most basic musical terms, I would argue it's equally comical to suggest that criticism of popular music should ONLY be about melody and harmony and song structure and dynamic and lyric.  That's only the half of it.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for male writers to address external details in their criticism.  Read anything by Chuck Klosterman or Greil Marcus for evidence of this kind of reporting from the male point of view.  As such, I reject the notion that music criticism should exist in a form only bubble. Form is absolutely valuable.  But it is not all that is valuable. 

Now that that is out of the way...let's use a well - known classic song to explore the difference and potential value of the female point of view in rock criticism. In the iconic Doors tune "Back Door Man," Jim Morrison crooned "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  While the song is regularly assumed to be a testimonial of male posturing and braggadocio, it can just as easily be read as a testimony about the experience of male performance and its distinctness from the experience of the male spectator. Morrison asserts this difference when he says:

"You men eat your dinner
Eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen."

While this is most certainly a bit of male sexual posturing it can be read for greater meaning as well. The use of "you men" speaks to the barrier that exists between Morrison and his male audience. He is not like them. He is a different kind of man. A back door man. The male read of braggadocio is further complicated by "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  Men understand braggadocio and posturing just fine. So what is it they don't understand?

Jim Morrison, the Object and the Ladies Gazing

I contend this understanding relates as much to power and it's relationship to objectification as it does to sex.  In western society, women universally experience the objectification of the male gaze.  Whether it's a man sitting an extra 30 seconds at a stop sign to watch her cross, or a catcall from a car, or an unwanted facebook comment, every woman has endured some kind of objectification; and while women work to subvert its effects and control that objectification, it's never completely divorced from its negative subtext. However, male performers allow female spectators to take on the power position of active gazer.  They become the catcallers, the lingerers, the objectifiers. The male performer, in turn, becomes the object of that gaze, an experience all women can relate to. Moreover, watching the male performer take that position of object and turn it in to a position of power over both men and women, can allow women to imagine their own objectification in a way that feels a little less negative. Additionally, the male performer's experience of objectification becomes wrought with the same difficulty of the female experience when he is subjected to expectations that he maintain the performance when he is off the stage.  This role switch creates a connection, a shared pleasure and a shared frustration not afforded to male spectators, who'll never really understand the difficulty of objectification in the same way. In fact, men fantasize about being objectified because from their point of view, gazing upon someone is only so satisfying. The power to progress beyond the gaze is the fantasy; and that power is transferred to the object. In essence, male spectators perceive the male rock star the same way he perceives women: they both have access to sex anytime they want. Because the average man doesn't have the negative experience of this objectification, his understanding of the experience is incomplete...as are all fantasies.

Of course, this contention of a role reversal is not perfect. Male rock stars are still men and thus have opportunities to exploit and control their own objectification in ways that women can't.  Still, that doesn't obscure the fact that culturally, one of rock music's main functions is to play with the laws of gender; both performers and fans are actors in this play. Elvis's hip sway was controversial in part because dancing was a "feminine" activity.  To dance while people watched was an outright assault on 1950s gender codes.  Hordes of female Beatles fans, out of control and climbing fences in an effort to touch their heroes, was not behavior becoming a young girl.  Boys were allowed to be  unruly, not girls. The way this push and pull is understood by women IS fundamental in understanding music and its cultural role. Discouraging women from sharing their experiences, in ultimately serving to slowly bleed rock music of its real cultural value. Even Kurt Cobain understood the future of rock lied with women. We've already heard the male narrative. Now let us speak.  Let us tell you what we understand. And quit telling us we don't get it...or that the way we get it makes us whores. Even if a woman has slept with every member of every band she's ever written about, that's a story worth hearing. After all sweet sweet Connie Hamzy most certainly understands a few things about those iconic artists that male spectators could NEVER understand.   

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music and Politics: A Freshman Year Seminar Event at Butler University In Which I Will Be Participating


If you live in the Indianapolis area, I will be participating in this Roundtable presentation on Music and Politics and Butler University - Friday, February 21 at 3:00 PM at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing on the Butler University Campus in Indianapolis, IN.  Feel free to come and check it out.  It should be a lot of fun!


Friday, September 7, 2012

BB King, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Hollywood Bowl, 9/5/12: A Review

Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Derek Trucks play guitar knows that he is something special.  Even as a teen prodigy, Trucks opened for The Allman Brothers, and left much older musicians and audiences flabbergasted by his already impressive playing.  Now, 20 years later, Trucks is, quite simply, one of the greatest players that will ever be.  He plays without a pick, like Jeff Beck; but his liquid slide technique, that borrows as much from middle eastern quarter tone melodies as it does from Blues greats, is uniquely his own.

Until Wednesday's Blues Night at the Hollywood Bowl, a show that featured Tedeschi Trucks Band opening for BB King, I had not seen Derek Trucks perform live.  Sure, I'd torn through YouTube archives of performances and interviews, and I thoroughly enjoyed recordings featuring his playing.  But these hardly prepared me for my emotional response to seeing The Tedeschi Trucks Band live.  Fronted by Trucks' bullet-throated, uber-talented wife Susan Tedeschi, who deserves additional mention for her own Freddie King/Muddy Waters styled six-string prowess, TTB ripped through a tight and flawless set that featured not only the talents of the band's namesakes, but also those of their 9-piece backing band.  Bassist Oteil Burbridge deserves special mention for his greasy bottom end bump that, along with dual drummer/percussionists Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, provided a deep pocket for the rest of the band to sink into.  A talented group of backing vocalists and horn players further elevated the overall emotive strength of TTB's performance, which won over a crowd largely gathered to see the great BB King.

King turned in a memorable if uneven performance.  His set, which began with a funky five minute jam featuring solos by each member of his 8-piece backing band, showcased BB's skill as an entertainer.  His happy, generous spirit created rapport with the audience that made the nearly sold-out Hollywood Bowl feel as intimate as a neighborhood dive bar.  And while King's guitar playing is not what it once was (he is 86 after all), when he sang, it sounded and felt just like it must have in 1970, when he was at the top of his game.

After truncated versions of hits including my favorite The Thrill is Gone, BB invited Susan Tedeschi and "Trucks" to join him on stage.  John Mayer also joined and after a bit of unscripted chaos, the four sat center stage and embarked on an amusing if disconnected bit of banter and light guitar playing.  After poking fun at John Mayer for not being able to talk and for "staying out late last night kissing," BB turned to Trucks and said, "Trucks, it's a good thing I'm a boy, cause if I was a girl and I heard you play like that..." He then turned to Tedeschi and added "I see why you married him," before commenting again to Trucks "that's just about the best I ever heard."

At times, this end of the set banter felt awkward and uncomfortable.  But it also felt a bit like a passing of the torch.  Once upon a time, BB King could make a statue cry with the mere bend of Lucille's g-string.  And while, his voice could still bring life to a dead woman's eyes, age has diminished his skills as a guitarist.  King's body of work has cemented his reputation as one of the best guitarists there will ever be and he seemed to take pleasure in shining a little light on Trucks, a new inductee to that small club.  Derek Trucks is nothing if not an example of the lasting influence of BB King and his contemporaries.  I'm quite sure that seeing Trucks take the torch is a thrill and a comfort to the 86 year-old King, who can rest knowing that his influence will live on even when he is gone.           


BB King Live, In His Prime            

Monday, July 9, 2012

Playing is More Fun than Listening: Rush's "Circumstances"

I have been playing guitar in bands for awhile now.  In spite of the generous financial and career sacrifice that has accompanied these musical pursuits, performing and recording music with like minded folks has been one of my life's greatest joys and triumphs.  However, there have been moments during the journey that were less than great.  I blame at least a few of these on the rock band RUSH.

RUSH
I'm not a RUSH fan.  It's not that I dislike their music entirely.  I'm sure there have been many times when I've stopped my radio dial on a RUSH song because it was the least offensive choice available.  But I own no RUSH recordings, I've never seen them live, and I've never joined in when the guys in my bands have broken in to RUSH songs during rehearsals.  These spontaneous musical tangents occur at 85% of rehearsals.   

Every time this happens, I seethe internally.  This is partly because I have no idea how long the foray into the prog rock cock forest is going to last; and when you have to wake up early to go to a job, those minutes of lost sleep start to add up.  But, it's also because I can't play along. I hate sitting on the sidelines and watching anything.  And every time I watch the guys rip into the opening riff of "Circumstances," impish grins curling across their faces, I've felt left out.  

The answer of course seems simple.  Learn a RUSH song.  But the complexity of RUSH's music seemed to far exceed my ability as a guitar player and I assumed attempts to learn would prove futile.  As such, I never tried.  However, I've decided that needs to change.  After years of merely observing my band mates engage in a musical circle jerk of joy over Canada's most loved export, I've begun to learn "Circumstances" so that I can join the party. 

I'm about half way through the song now.  The intricate arpeggios of the middle section lie ahead.  This is the hardest part of the song.  But I've got it.  And, while I can't say I'm becoming a rabid RUSH fan, I can say that RUSH is like golf - far more fun to play than to watch or listen to.           


Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Time I Ruined My Brother's Mixtape


Back in the early 1980s, long before IPODS and file sharing and 99 cent downloads - back when Michael Jackson's single white glove and moonwalk were all the rage amongst the posses of small town elementary school kids circling recess playgrounds and singing "Billie Jean is NOT my lovebird"...back then we made radio mix tapes.  For those of you younger than 35, a radio mix tape was a collection of favorite songs carefully recorded during marathon radio listening sessions.  Creating these mix tapes was a practice in patience as it often required enduring hours annoying DJ banter and uninspiring tunage for the moment when a favorite song was finally cued...which almost always coincided with the moment you'd walked across the room for some unknown reason.  With the quick awkward grace of childhood, you'd leap across the room to hit record and hopefully catch most of the song's beginning.  Sometimes, an unfortunately timed trip to the bathroom would cause you to miss a favorite song and you would be forced to repeat the process over.  Because of the great effort required, when a favorite song was finally captured, you felt a sense of real accomplishment and joy.  FINALLY!!!! You had it!  99 Luft Ballons! Or whatever.


Around this time, The Police's "Roxanne" was a big hit.  My brother loved this song.  I hated it. I thought Sting's voice sounded like a yelping primate's.  Moreover my ears were not yet sophisticated enough to appreciate the then unfamiliar reggae/tango rhythms.

"Roxanne" was one of those songs my brother worked hard to capture on his mix tape; once he had, he played it CONSTANTLY.  Every time I heard it booming from his room, the hair on the back of my neck would pucker with anxiety and the muscles of my face would tense as if chalk was screeching across a chalkboard.   And I wanted to kill Sting.

One afternoon when my brother was gone, I trotted into his room to borrow his ghettoblaster so I could listen to tapes.  I had no pre-meditated plan or ill intention.  But when I pushed play, there it was - "Roxanne."  AHHHH!!!  The hair on the back of my neck!  The autonomic facial reaction.  My hatred was primal.  And I cannot be held responsible for my actions that followed.

A convenience of cassette tapes was that they could be recorded over multiple times as long as the tabs on the end hadn't been removed.  If after a period of time you decided you hated a song you once loved, you simply recorded a new song over the previous song - and erased all record of ever having liked the first song.  Also, if you had a microphone, you could record yourself onto a cassette.  I was quite familiar with how this worked because my friends and I were in the habit of making pretend radio interview cassettes.

Before my raging hatred for "Roxanne" could send me into convulsions, I plugged a microphone it to my brother's ghettoblaster, found a spot right in the middle of the song, hit record, and proceeded to sing "Raaahhhhhhhxanne" in my own horrific nails on a chalkboard child-voice.  Afterwards, I listened back.  Finally.  The song was listenable.  I snickered at my comic genius and then left it for my unsuspecting brother to find.

Later that afternoon, I was in my room reading, when I heard the beginning of "Roxanne."  I felt a tinge of fear.  Right in the middle of the chorus, there it was - my improvisation.  The stop button was aggressively pushed, his bedroom door was thrown open and an angry "MOOOOOMMMMMM!" echoed down the hallway. Quickly, I locked my bedroom door to protect myself from my brother's early adolescent fury.

My mom didn't hear my brother's shout.  She may have been outside in the garden or at the market.  Unable to elicit the help of a parent to resolve this matter, my brother came for my door.  When he found it locked, he took his anger out on the only thing of mine that was within reach - a Garfield door tag that said "Do Not Disturb."  He ripped it off my door and tore it into tiny bits.  I loved that doortag.  What a bummer!



Today is my brother's 42nd birthday; and this morning I was teaching myself to play "Synchronicity II" by The Police.  My aural palate has grown more sophisticated and I can now appreciate Sting for the musical genius he is.  But I still hate "Roxanne."

Happy Birthday Matt.

Love,
You're Bratty Sister