February 15, 2017

Jackie Lee, son of Stagger Lee

 I recently guested on an episode of the Jack White-centric (what else?) Third Men Podcast, talking about blues music. When asked to name my favorite of Jack's blues covers, I qualified my answer by saying the song I was going to name wasn't a cover per se, though in a sense it is.  I went on to describe to the hosts, the Kaminski brothers, how excited I'd been to immediately recognize the source of the cover-that's-not-a-cover when I first heard it, as the song in question lifts sections almost word for word from the older version. I had so much more to say about this song and the unrecognized brilliance of it, but it would've been rude to hijack the podcast so here, in my own space, I can and will babble to my heart's content.  

Three Dollar Hat, from the 2015 Dead Weather album Dodge and Burn, lists all four members of the band as songwriters, but it's very obviously Jack's baby because it's very obviously based on Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues.  Of all the members of the Dead Weather, Jack is the one who's likely to be most familiar with the Stack O'/Stagger Lee tradition that dates back some 120 years.  And Jack is the one who's been driven throughout his career to become a part of musical tradition. Or, as he says in a scene in It Might Get Loud, to "join the family" of song-writers of the early blues era. After almost 20 years of covering half the blues songwriters most people can readily name and many that the average fan could not, and writing blistering blues of his own, he apparently finally felt ready to take his place in this specific, hallowed tradition, to join the huge and highly respectable family of musicians who've sung versions of this song.  

"What I care about your two little babes and your darlin' lovely wife? You done stole my Stetson hat and I'm bound to take your life"  (As a sidenote, one of the things I will always love most about Mississippi John Hurt is how he sang about such violent subject matter in such a mild and delicate manner.  Like Grandpa telling a bedtime story... of murder.) 

The tradition of Stack O' Lee becomes more extensive the further you explore it. As described at staggerlee.com--

The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

That site's list of recorded versions of the song ends in 2008, leaving it wide open for Jack to come along. It's interesting to note that Jack's pal Beck covered it in 1996 (using it as inspiration for something different) and 2001, and his former antagonists The Black Keys did it in 2004.  Maybe that's part of why he waited so long. 

The initial reaction to Three Dollar Hat that I saw from fans in the Vault and at one of the message boards had people latching onto the Frankie and Johnny reference, or calling to mind Nick Cave's version of Stagger Lee.  There are legitimate connections to both of those songs.

That little snippet of Frankie and Johnny tagged on at the end is blatant.  But turning Stack O' Lee and Billy into Jackie Lee and Johnny does more than just make this a mash-up of two song references, it adds an interesting psychological twist--  Jack White is both a John (born John Gillis, the name on his Third Man Records business card is "John A. White") and a Jack, so just who are the sweethearts Jackie and Johnny? Did he push the Stack O' Lee myth into homoerotic territory, with his bad man Jackie Lee killing Johnny more out of jealousy toward that bad-ass wife than concern over a $3 hat? That idea brings to mind Omar of The Wire, a series busting at the seams with Staggerlees, of which Omar was one of the most intriguing.  Or are Jackie Lee and Johnny two manifestations of the songwriter/narrator, a la Fight Club, and is the whole violent story taking place inside his own head, one side of his psyche destroying the other and then being destroyed in turn?  Either or both, it skews the tale in a way that's gleefully perverse.

(I'm going to admit right now that I have no idea what Alison Mosshart's vocal part has to do with the rest of the story-line. If anyone out there has any ideas about that, please let me know.)

Three Dollar Hat has much of the punk grittiness of Cave's version.  And considering the fact that his son is apparently named after another of Cave's songs, Henry Lee, Jack's surely familiar with this one.  I think any similarity between Three Dollar Hat and Stagger Lee is coincidental, though, a reflection of a shared attitude in bringing the legend into the contemporary era.  Because where Cave went for a sludgy rock'n'roll edge, Jack uses Three Dollar Hat as an opportunity to make the connection between blues and hip-hop apparent to anyone who hasn't caught on yet.

Another man who named his son after a song is Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. In the book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus opens a chapter about Sly Stone and the myth of Staggerlee by quoting a 1970 jailhouse interview with Seale--

I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Right on, huh?  He's named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block. Staggerlee.

You'll find out. Huey [Newton] had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee's life, too, here and there. That's where it's at. You move yourself up from a lower level to a higher level...

...Staggerlee is all the shootouts that went on between gamblers, and cats fightin' over women--- the black community.

Something else, huh? That's life.  And all the little Staggerlees, a lot of 'em!  Millions of 'em, know what I mean?

And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because... that's what his name is.

Farther on in the chapter, Marcus describes Staggerlee as a fearsome ideal--

...Nobody's fool, nobody's man, tougher than the devil and out of God's reach-- to those who followed his story and thus became a part of it, Stack-o-Lee was ultimately a stone-tough image of a free man.

From popular song, that ideal made its way onto the movie screen through the Blacksploitation films of the 70s.  Shaft and Superfly, Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman, these are manifestations of that bad black man standing up to The Man.  A few decades later, he veered back into music and emerged as rappers like Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dog.  

In the early days of the White Stripes, Jack White expressed disdain towards hip-hop. He was asked about it in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview--

And you're not a hip-hop fan.
Not particularly. I find Out Kast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you're left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you're just left with rhythm. I don't find much emotion in that.

But somewhere along the line, he began to hear things differently.  In an article just a couple years ago, which I can't find now to be able to link here, he mentioned that Jay-Z had told him that hip-hop is the blues. That idea gave me pause at first, but damned if he isn't right. Both genres are outlets for the trials and suffering of life, black life in particular.  And both frequently take on that braggadocio Jack mentioned, boasting of things like sexual conquests and material possessions, building up the singer/rapper's fearsome rep.  Following the trail of the Stack O' Lee myth shows how one genre followed from the other and Jack seems to have had that agenda in mind when writing his own entry into the tradition.

I've also seen complaints from fans over the past few years about the number of songs that Jack has begun rapping rather than singing, from I Cut Like a Buffalo to Freedom at 21 to Lazaretto. All of those songs, culminating in Three Dollar Hat (and his more recent contributions to A Tribe Called Quest's last album), must've been influenced by that conversation with Jay-Z.  What the fans bothered by this don't realize is that Jack's doing exactly the same thing he's always done-- He's singing the blues. He's just exploring new avenues, new ways of expressing them.  It's one of his typical subtle lessons in how music evolves. Which makes it a damned shame that this song ended up buried on a Dead Weather album that wasn't even toured.  But according to comments Jack made months ago in the Vault chatroom, the band did make some sort of video/movie-type thing for Three Dollar Hat.  He implied we fans are going to love it.  With any luck, one of these days he'll give it to us. Not doing so is just him being perverse again.

As an extra treat, here's one of the first recorded versions of Stack O'Lee--

Mea Culpa

I was annoyed at being made to feel like an asshole, and so I became that asshole.  And now I can't stop crying long enough to put on makeup for work.  Who wants to actually be the asshole they can sometimes turn into?  It's embarrassing and frustrating when we're confronted, as we rightly should be, and reminded of how easily we slip into that role and how hard it is to catch ourselves.  How do we deal with it when it happens?  Do we let the embarrassment inflame things further, or do we turn away and wallow in regret?  If the latter, at what point does regret turn into just plain self-pity?  Because self-pity is just another form of being an asshole.

How to regret without wallowing. Gotta figure that one out sometime.

January 30, 2017

Are we/Am I doing enough?

Like many other people, I've been to a few protests recently.  A Maryland Rally to Save Healthcare. The Women's March on Washington. An impromptu No DAPL rally near the White House one night last week after work. And yesterday, a No Muslim Ban/No Wall rally that turned into a march. It feels good to be doing something in the face of all the frightening changes that've so quickly taken place in this country.  But I keep wondering if it's enough.

There were two other events I considered going to yesterday, instead of or in addition to the No Ban/No Wall rally-- One was a rally earlier in the day to protest Betsy DeVos' nomination for Education Secretary, the other a protest of the Muslim Ban at BWI airport in the evening.  If I'd gotten myself out of the house early enough, I could've easily gone to the DeVos rally near the Capitol and then headed to the White House for the No Ban/No Wall protest. And I could've probably made it up to the airport near Baltimore afterward for that one. But I chose one of the three. Was it enough?

I keep thinking of a post I saw at the Facebook page for the Betsy DeVos protest.  Someone had said that they couldn't go because they had to take their kids to a soccer game, but they'd be there in spirit.  This is what I worry about--  The Tea Party faction brought us to this point because of the passionate intensity of their beliefs.  Yet we, the "liberal" opposition, pick and choose between protests, or support from afar because we have soccer games to go to.  I can easily imagine Tea Party moms skipping their kids' soccer games in a heartbeat and dragging those kids to anti-abortion protests instead.  Do we believe passionately enough to do the same? 

And the causes we're protesting represent real people who've been, or soon could be, making sacrifices and even suffering because of these issues.  Do we feel strongly enough for them to suffer ourselves?

I don't say this to shame anyone who's skipped a protest because of work or whatever. I'm struggling with it myself. This is all so new, it's been confusing and a bit overwhelming to figure out how best to respond, how to take action and feel that it'll be effective.  I keep telling myself I'm taking baby steps.  But I do wonder at what point we're all going to have to
begin making real sacrifices, giving up those soccer games or taking time off from work, putting in the hours and becoming tired and worn out, in order to protect what we feel is right.   



Images from the Women's March on Washingon here.

And the No Ban/No Wall rally-march here.

January 28, 2017

Spitting out these 300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues

I love the way Jack White talks about the music that's meaningful to him.  In a panel discussion about the Rise and Fall of Paramount Records back in 2013, surrounded by erudite, scholarly types and people who write about music for a living, his descriptions of the songs and the impact they had on him was down-to-earth and easily relateable.  In that snippet above, what he says about the song Mama's Angel Child especially resonated with me-- That part about "he's speaking for me", that's one of the things that definitely draws us to music. Those songs that speak for us, the ones that make us feel as if the song-writer pulled our own thoughts and feelings out of us and set them to a melody, are intensely powerful.

Jack's wish that we could all have the sort of moment he had with Mama's Angel Child was fulfilled for me with one of his own songs, one that's come up at this blog a couple times over the last few years-- 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues. It's the song that first grabbed me and shook me and told me I had to get into his music. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to name my favorite White Stripes song, this one would be it. To my ears, it represents everything about him as a song-writer-- The cleverness of the word-play, the deceptive simplicity of what he's expressing, the dramatic shifts in dynamic.  It's soft, it's tempestuous, it's acoustic, it's electric, it's acerbic and thoughtful, wry and regretful.  And it speaks for me in a way that is both reassuring and unsettling.

"I'm getting hard on myself, sitting in my easy chair..."

So many of us go through that dance with self-loathing angst--  "I'm not this enough, I'm not that enough, I'm not good enough, I'm not doing enough, why did I do that?, why did I say that?, why didn't I say that?, I really screwed up, I'm really screwed up...."  And yet our lives, to anyone looking in from the outside, are perfectly fine. We have food, shelter, family, friends.  Money may or may not be a little tight, but we can pay our bills, buy some records, and go see a movie once in a while. And yet we suffer.  We get hard on ourselves sitting in our easy chairs.  Why?

"Safe to say somebody out there's got a problem with almost everything you do..."

So much wisdom, and again so simple. But one of the hardest lessons for some of us to learn, something we get hung up on over and over again and that leads us right back to that easy chair, getting hard on ourselves. For what?

"Well, sooner or later, the ground's gonna be holdin' all of my ashes, too..."

And yet, there's a defiance of all those troubles at the end, the strength to stand up to those who have a problem with everything we do and, just as hard, to stand up to our own selves.  That final twist, that's the reassurance this song gives us--  

"One thing's for sure, in that graveyard... I'm gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes."

If that's not the blues, I don't know what the hell is.


December 19, 2016

What's shocking anymore?


I watched the movie Cabaret over the weekend, which I think may be the first time I've seen it since, oh, high school or so. Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies was as creepily fantastic as ever. I'm better able now to appreciate Liza's insane talent and quirky beauty.  And, well, I've never not appreciated a young Michael York. Fosse did a stupendous job and it's as effective a film as it ever was.

I found myself thinking about it this morning, though, as I pulled a towel out of the linen closet and glanced at my shelf full of bottles of nail polish-- Reds ranging from crimson to ruby to almost-black maroon, silver and gunmetal grey, baby blue, cobalt blue, midnight blue with sparkles, copper, and a deep green that echos Sally Bowles' signature shade. It was her signature because it was, in her mind and in that era, "shocking", a bit of "divine decadence".  The bisexuality of the film was also shocking, in that era and also still in the one when the film was released.  The scenes in the cabaret had a degree of shocking titillation to them. 

But none of those things are shocking anymore. Non-hetero sexualities are still controversial, but rarely hidden anymore. Burlesque and cabaret shows are hip entertainment these days. And, well, there's my shelf full of nail polish.

Is there anything from the film Cabaret that can still shock us?  That's a leading question, and I hope you get it.

August 13, 2016

Overheated crow

It was very hot today.

Saw something I've never seen before. Walking across the parking lot, I saw a crow sitting on a signpost a handful of feet in front of my car.  Shoulders  drooped and wings hanging down, with its beak wide open. Not cawing or calling, just open like a prolonged gasp for air. I stood next to the car and watched it sitting there. Another car pulled into the space in front of mine, right next to it. A group of young women got out, then stood there chattering at each other and gathering their belongings out of the car.  The crow was too overheated to even take fright and fly off, it just sat there next to them, droop-winged and slack-beaked, while the girls chattered and walked away.  I had the empty plastic tray from a Starbucks snack combo in the car, so I tore the lid off of it and filled the bottom half with what was left of the water in my bottle. When I took a few steps toward the signpost to set the tray on the ground, the crow heaved itself off the sign and swooped up onto the limb of a tree next to the car (I always park in the shade if I can).  It sat up there looking down at me with its beak still in that open gasp. As I got into my car and drove away with the air conditioner cranked full blast, I hoped it understood what I'd left for it.

August 12, 2016

Icarus and ecstatic inspiration

How do you place a value on inspiration? 

On July 30th, Jack White had a party at the two locations of Third Man Records, in Nashville and Detroit, to celebrate the realization of... what?  An inspired dream?  A crazy idea? A frivolous lark?  What you call it depends upon your perspective, but a little over five years ago, the man got the idea in his head to play a record in space, and then he made it happen. That's not as easy as it sounds, what with the delicacy of turntable tonearm weight, turbulence, temperature fluctuations, the fragility of vinyl, and reduced gravity.  I'm not going to go into detail here as to how they made it work since it was described in great depth by Third Man Records and many news sources. And not just the usual music blog suspects-- My personal favorite was seeing it at Smithsonian, but it was also at CNN (with a great little video re-cap), Popular Mechanics, and Discover, along with a handful of techy sites like Space, ZME Science, techly, and this highly detailed one from Outside

No, what inspired me to write about the whole endeavor was the lone comment on the coverage at Vulture:  "There are children starving in this world. But hey. 162 retweets."  I started to respond defensively to that, thinking "Since when is it up to rock stars to feed all the starving children? In an ideal world, wouldn't our local, state, and national governments help to ensure there's food for all?", but then I thought about how I've leveled the same criticism at NASA and its space exploration program.  What is the point of space exploration? How can we think of colonizing Mars when we can't even feed all of the people on this planet? Shouldn't that be our first priority, and space exploration come after that?  

I don't know the answer to that. But it's obvious that humanity is compelled to explore. That's how we ended up spread all over this world. That's how we've mapped almost every centimeter of even the areas we don't inhabit. That's how we've discovered, and continue to discover, all of the species we share it with. So it's to be expected that we'd turn our curious minds to what's out there beyond this planet. And there are (or have been) those among us, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, who are able to blend their curiosity and compulsion to explore space with a deep concern for the welfare of people here on Earth.  


Presumably it was that video of excerpts from Carl Sagan's show Cosmos that sparked this idea of Jack's. In 2009, he not only released the audio of that video as a vinyl record on Third Man Records, he also joined the Planetary Society (note the pertinent quote at that link: "He said he's highly motivated to keep in touch, so we're very excited."). Jack's said many times that A Glorious Dawn is one of the releases he's most proud of, so of course it would be a continuous source of motivation to him, to spur the idea of having that exact record be the first actually played in space. He mentioned the project publicly once, in an interview with Buzz Aldrin in 2012, but then was quiet about it and seemingly busy with other things since then.  

But Jack is someone who makes things happen. In talking with Marc Maron, he described his younger self as "very go-getter..., always truckin' really fast" and that's obviously not changed. With Conan O'Brien, he talked about working hard, pushing yourself, cookin' and getting somewhere. Eddie Vedder put it very well when Pearl Jam recently played in the Blue Room of Third Man in Nashville, saying, “We all have ideas... But not only does he have ideas, he sees them through.” Having money obviously helps him to achieve things like playing a record in space but, really, it's more the people he surrounds himself with, people who are, to use his phrase, "cookin'". It seems he seeks out the right people and then creates an atmosphere of inspiration and curiosity in which everyone can work together to accomplish apparently pretty much any idea. It makes me intensely curious to know what sort of things he's dreamed up that he hasn't been able to achieve. In the case of this project, he drew in people from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Buzz Aldrin to Kevin Carrico, an old pal from Jack's early days on the music scene in Detroit who seems like a fascinating and inspiring person himself. There's a lesson in that.

As for myself, as a fan of not just Jack's music but his non-stop curiosity and compulsion to create, I've struggled with feelings that I'm not creative enough. How can I say I'm inspired by him if there's no result to show for that inspiration? I'm a tolerably decent writer and a somewhat good photographer, but that's where I feel my creativity ends. But one of the things I've learned about myself in the time I've been following Jack is that what turns me on isn't creating. It's exploring. Part of the excitement of all those shows of his I've been to has been going to new places. In some cities I haven't seen much more than a sidewalk in front of a theater, but I've still seen things (Did you know Omaha is full of animal sculptures?) and experienced things (sleeping with the homeless in San Francisco) that I wouldn't have if I'd not gone there. I've explored much of Nashville and its surrounding areas, and have now embarked with the same determination to thoroughly get to know Detroit. Beyond physical places, I've explored blues music and the history of this country that it's steeped in. A more recent and completely unexpected Third Man Records release exposed me to Greek folk music and taught me about the history of that culture. Hell, this musician even had me exploring science before this big event-- I'd read the works of Sagan and Hawking before, but I'd not heard of Nikola Tesla until Jack introduced me to him.

It's been impossible for me to be a fan of Jack's music and Third Man Records without being set on continuous multiple courses of physical and intellectual exploration. And if he has that effect on me, what effect might crazy/beautiful things like the Icarus launch have on other fans or, even more compellingly, on the children of his fans, kids who are young and impressionable and, hopefully, easily awed and motivated by seeing someone with Jack's cool factor geeking out over combining art and science? What ideas could they get from that? How might they be inspired to "cook"?  

Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers. Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn't been done before and to work towards its completion. And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.

What value do you place on that? Is the price of building a craft to play a record in the stratosphere too much, or just enough? Again, I don't know the answer to that. All I know is that it excites the hell out of me and makes me hope that Jack keeps on cookin' for a long time to come. 

At the beginning of this, I mentioned parties at Third Man to celebrate the playing of A Glorious Dawn in space. I went to the Detroit branch for the event, specifically so I could see the Icarus craft up close and to share the excitement of Jack's and his team's accomplishment with friends and fellow fans. Here's a taste (full album here)--  

Video courtesy of Yvette Wilkins

And, if you want the full experience, here's the complete stream of the Icarus launch and landing. If you've the time for it, it's beautifully meditative-- 

July 2, 2016

Trains & Vultures (This is not Baltimore)

I wished several times today I'd had my camera with me, but oh well. Word pictures will have to suffice. 

Rode a stretch of the C and O Canal between two  historic train depots. Had a delayed start thanks to the fact that they're still active depots-- At the one where I chose to begin, the barriers were down at the crossing of the one road leading down from the parking lot to the towpath (and a boat ramp and campground), and there sat a train that seemed to stretch from one end of the town to the other.  Every now and then it'd shudder, the couplings between the cars would clank, it'd move forward a few feet, then go still and just sit there again.  Got tired of waiting after a while and rode to the end of the parking lot and then onto a gravel road that led up past a lumber yard and into the woods.  Doubled back after a bit to find the train gone and the tracks crossable.

Few other stretches of the C and O towpath illustrate as well as this one the building race that took place between the canal and railroad companies.  For a handful of miles, there are only a couple hundred feet between the tracks and the canal. Taking a break at one of the old lockhouses, I marveled at the creativity of railroad graffittos as another long freighter oozed by. Those graffiti guys really should be graphic artists. Despite much of it being illegible, the fonts they come up with are often pretty spectacular.  

If you wanted to learn about the variety of rails and rail-tie fasteners, the maintenance yard behind the station at the far end of my ride would be a good place to start, with weed-grown but neatly labeled sections piled with rusted iron pieces.  I was especially curious about the sections of rail lying under the sign that read "FROGS".   Stood for a long time in front of a partly boarded-up and condemned maintenance building with some terrific brickwork, watching a grey-headed black vulture preen and stretch its wings on the sill of a glass-less second-story window. Another was perched at the edge of a hole in the roof.  I expected them to become alarmed and fly off, but they didn't.  The one in the window just sat there and looked at me while I looked at it, then it preened and stretched, and stretched and preened, occasionally turning to look into the room behind it.  It looked back into the room often enough that I began to wonder if they were a mated pair with a nest in that room.  The one on the roof periodically shrugged its shoulders and half-lifted its wings behind it.  Like all vultures, they were butt-ugly and absolutely gorgeous at the same time and I wonder how many people would understand what a huge kick I got out of standing there watching these two that were so relaxed despite my presence.

Almost lost my bike at the end of the ride, thanks to another train across the crossing in the same place as the one at the beginning of the ride.  It'd apparently been there for a while, judging by the number of cars and fellow bike riders waiting on the road up from the canal and boat ramp.  I struck up conversation with an older gent who'd ridden down from his house in town, just a block or so up from the train station.  He said it was the first time in all his years living there that he'd gotten stuck by a train like that.  We watched a couple of kids climb up the ladder at the back of a freight car at the road crossing, scurry across and down the ladder on the other side.  

After chatting a few more minutes, the old guy said he was tempted to do what the kids had done, if only he didn't have his bike with him.  I suggested we team up, one climb the ladder onto the platform at the end of the freight car, the other lift up our two bikes, then one climb down and the other hand the bikes down.  Well, he didn't quite get the plan.  We walked over and he immediately lifted his bike up onto the platform, then climbed up after it and began lowering it down the other side, saying he just wanted to see if it'd work.  Teamwork would've been more efficient, but he obviously didn't see it that way so instead of waiting for him, I said "Hell with it" and lifted my own bike up as he was climbing down the other side.  Got it up onto the platform and was trying to get it balanced enough to let go and climb up when the train gave a bit of a sigh and began to move. So I grabbed the bike and began to pull it back down, only to have the front wheel turn sideways and become lodged against the handrails of the ladder. The train was only up to walking speed but gradually quickening and I only had so much pavement left before it moved beyond the road crossing.  Visions of my bike hobo'ing its way to who-knows-where flashed through my head as I stretched and struggled to reach up and straighten the handlebars, while the older gent stood in the road on the other side of the train and called over "Sorry 'bout that, darlin'!"  Then desperation won out and I got the wheel straightened and yanked the bike down and as the train picked up speed behind me I turned around and grinned a grin of crazy relief to the folks in the pickup truck who'd watched the whole pecadillo and said "Oh well, that's the chance you take when you try to cross a train!"  Then I stood and leaned on my bike in giddy patience as a seemingly interminable number of freight cars went by.

Sitting in the car scribbling all this down so it could be typed later, I watched yet another train go by in the opposite direction.  On one of the cars was a simple graffiti in clear black lines:  "I SEEN A MAN DIE 2 DAY".  

Had a laugh when I stopped for Chinese food on the way home--  The fortune in my cookie read "Fortune truly helps those who are of good judgement."

This is Baltimore, vol.582 (A pictorial)

In and around this part of town--

February 14, 2016

A tale of two pilgimages: From Elvis' house to Jack's

Recently got back from a weekend in Nashville full of cool stuff, starting out the night I arrived by wandering through the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood Art Crawl in order to see Th3 Anomaly, a hallway-spanning, floor-to-ceiling, wall-covering, sci-fi graphic novel featuring Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, and Sarah Bernhardt (who knew Sarah was a science geek?). Very compelling, entertaining stuff, the scope of which was incredible both in size and the amount of imagination and effort required to create it.

The next day was spent visiting a pair of old cemeteries in Franklin, hiking through Stones River, one of the few preserved Civil War battlefields in the Nashville area, and hopping off of route 840 to find the road leading to a castle overlooking the highway.  But the first of the dual purposes of this trip began on Monday, with a smooth three-hour cruise along route 40 from Nashville to Memphis to visit Graceland.

As they say on the website, "For fans of Elvis Presley, Graceland is the ultimate pilgrimage", and I'm a big fan of both Elvis and pilgrimages. And, seeing as how it's
 been just over two years since I plunged purposefully down the Elvis rabbit hole, the timing of this visit also made it a late anniversary celebration.

Coming down route 51, I had expected to turn off the highway onto a side street or two to get to the house, but there it was, right smack on the side of the four-lane road. Should've realized, considering 51's been christened Elvis Presley Boulevard but, no, it was a disorienting surprise.  It might have been a smaller neighborhood road back in the day, but not anymore, not with all the traffic and gas stations and fried chicken joints and the Graceland visitor's complex across the street. So I girded myself for a schlock attack and headed in to buy my ticket for the Platinum level "Elvis Experience", plus airplanes.  

You apparently can't walk up to Graceland anymore, unless you go early in the morning when the grounds are open for free walk-ins to the meditation garden where Elvis and his parent are buried. At any other time, you have to grab an iPad and headphones and hop a shuttle for a ride across 51 and up the long driveway to the front door.

My favorite photo from one of the visitor center exhibits, snagged from here

The thing most people seem taken aback by right away is how small Graceland is. It's probably half the size of today's average McMansion, and even cozier considering the number of people who inhabited it and just plain hung out there when E was still alive. 

Borrowed from here. Follow the link and click on the image there to be taken to the
360-view images used in the Graceland iPad tour.
Only the ground floor and a couple of basement rooms are open to the public. Visitors are told before entering that the upstairs area, and Elvis' bedroom specifically, are kept private and closed. His bedroom and the bathroom in which he died have apparently been completely untouched since his death (though, of course, someone scrounged up before-death and after-death photos for the morbidly curious amongst us). The closest you can get is the bottom of the stairs.

Borrowed from here, where there are a lot more great shots

But his parents' ground-floor bedroom is viewable, complete with a few of his mother Gladys' dresses hanging in her closet. What was it about those modest dresses hanging there that brought tears to my eyes?
From here
And I began sniffling again when the tour got to the kitchen and I imagined his grandmother, Minnie Mae (or, as Elvis called her, "Dodger"), holding court and cooking for the family.
Another shot from here
The basement, with its mirrored-ceiling tv room and tucked-fabric walls and ceiling pool room, is where things began to get noticeably ostentatious.
From here. That creepy-eyed little white monkey had brothers on display elsewhere in the house. 
From here
And then, of course, you come back upstairs next to the jungle room. Doesn't everyone have a jungle room with a built-in waterfall wall?

From here
Then you're suddenly stepping out the back door, following the walk-way to the carport and E's father Vernon's office, then to the trophy building, which is a series of rooms displaying gold and platinum records, movie posters and memorabilia, and awards for everything from music to philanthropy. Then into the racquetball house, which has been filled with displays of those famous/infamous jumpsuits.  And then you're back outside and the walkway wraps around to the side of the house to Elvis' meditation garden. One of the things that I was most surprised to learn about Elvis was the breadth of his spirituality. I'd assumed he was raised deeply Christian, being from the deep south and all. He was, of course, but he apparently explored a vast variety of faiths, reading everything from Kahlil Gibran to very New Age-y sounding stuff.  The meditation garden was built during his lifetime for exactly the purpose its name indicates, and it's perfectly fitting that it would become Elvis' final resting place, along with his parents and grandmother.

From here.
And, yeah, I felt no shame in pulling a Kleenex out of my pocket and wiping my eyes repeatedly while I stood there reading the inscriptions on their graves.

From here
Then it's back onto the shuttle bus and back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the visitor's complex, where there are a variety of exhibits of his cars, his clothes, his two private planes, and where every single exhibit space dumps you out into another gift shop. Hell, at one point, one gift shop led into another.  The gift shops are totally schlocky, but some of the exhibits are great. And it's all part of the Elvis mythos, all of it, the schlock and the grandeur, the tv sets in every room and the gaudy jumpsuits and the love he felt for his parents and grandmother and whatever his conception of God was. How many people in the history of this world have inspired the kind of joy and rapture that Elvis has? Certainly not many in recent decades. So many people seem to know of his legend as something cheesy, but what he accomplished, not just for himself but for popular music as we know it, was extremely powerful.  The tour of Graceland is definitely a must for anyone even slightly curious about Elvis, but it does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot about the man and the myth, but you need to go elsewhere to really learn about the music.  If the folks running Graceland were smart, they'd add another exhibit space focusing on that aspect of the man's deep and more-complex-than-you'd-expect legacy.

Back in Nashville the next day, I had my second pilgrimage, and a second anniversary celebration. Anyone who's followed my babbling knows I've been to Third Man Records in Nashville many, many times. But on this occasion, just a few days beyond the sixth anniversary of my original White weekend, I was allowed the opportunity to step "behind the curtain", as it were. Third Man has begun offering behind-the-scenes tours as an incentive for things like their annual holiday blood drives. Well, a pal of mine gave of his blood for the second year in a row and was rewarded with pulling a certificate for a tour for 6 people from TMR's pile of mystery gifts. And then he surprised the hell out of a few people, myself included, by inviting us to join him. And then... he got horribly sick and wasn't able to come for the tour himself.  But Third Man honcho Ben Blackwell graciously gave the rest of us well over two hours of his time and has promised a make-up tour for our incredibly generous friend once he recuperates.

Surprise! I have no grand revelations to reveal. Most serious fans know what's contained behind those black, yellow, red, and blue walls, beyond the store-front: Foremost is the Blue Room, a 150-or-so-person live venue for music performances, film showings, and art events; facilities for recording shows in the Blue Room to both tape and acetate; a warehouse/distribution center for the in-house and on-line stores; a photography dark room; the offices from which the entire company is run; and, last but not least, a temperature-controlled, fire-, smoke-, and bomb-proof vault for the master tapes of all of Jack White's music and Third Man recordings.

So for me, the revelation was not so much in seeing what was contained back there, but in how it's all contained, how it all fits within that really not very large complex, how the two buildings are connected (one tall hallway leading from front to back between the two, a second hallway crossing through the first from one building to the other with windows on each side looking out into the larger hallway), how the various design elements flow from one space into the next (matching desks on the loading dock-turned-office space, very graphic wall decor in the graphics dept, gorgeous over-stuffed sofas in the shipping dept...).  I had always imagined trick walls and subterranean chambers, but there were none (at least none that we were shown). There was just a shrewd use of every nook and cranny of space, an eye-boggling mix of seemingly jumbled clutter and and neat, sleek design. And incredible furniture. My eyes kept being drawn to the vintage furniture and light fixtures in every. single. room. Except the graphics department, but they had nifty wall installations instead. But it was everywhere else. The place is a vintage decor lover's wet dream. From Deco to Retro to Diner, it had me salivating. 

However, the fact that there was nothing really unexpected does not mean that there were no thrills.  The first was walking into the lathe room tucked behind the stage of the Blue Room.  That room is definitely no secret, TMR highlighted it in their video of the recording of the World's Fastest Record-- 

(Had to kick myself afterward that I forgot to ask for a peek inside the furnace elevator to see that incredible wallpaper. In an elevator, for crying out loud!) 

And you can see the lathe machine itself through a large glass window at the side of the stage.  But to walk into that room, to stand in it and have Blackwell describe exactly what they do there-- capturing live music as it happens, no second takes, no overdubs... I'll admit to bouncing a bit in excitement as we entered.  Because listening to live records cut there really is the next best thing to being at the show. You can watch YouTube video footage of all sorts of concerts, professionally or amateurly filmed, but as close as that seems, it's still two-dimensional.  The acoustics of the Third Man Blue Room are so crisply pristine and the recordings so immediate, that you can close your eyes while listening and really, truly get a feel for what it was like to be there.  It's a room in which technology and magic come together. 

The next big thrill came when Ben led us into the master tape vault (after leaving us waiting momentarily in the Blue Room while he unlocked the door  with its state-of-the-art keypad lock).  You can see this room in Dan Rather's interview with Jack, at 24 minutes in--


Let me say it again: The master tape vault. To actually be in that tiny room, to scan the jampacked shelves and read the names of much-loved records and performances on the spines of the boxes, to know that these were the original tapes from which all of every fan's records were created and could be re-created if necessary, all housed in Jack's "house" under his control... it was the mother lode, pure and simple, and my eyes were probably as big as dinner plates the whole time I was in there. And that's what meant so much to me about this tour-- It wasn't that any secrets might be revealed, it was the thrill of proximity, of being close to the literal sources of the music. Where Graceland focused on the man behind the music, this tour of Third Man focused on the music and how it's created and made available to us all.

Throughout the tour, it was nifty peeking into people's offices and meeting members of the staff. But, really, the biggest treat of all was hearing the stories told by Ben. Those are what made the tour 
unique and special.  In hindsight, there are so many things I would've liked to ask about if I'd remembered while I was there, but we could have ended up there all day, and having him answer questions might've meant he wouldn't have talked about other things (like the story behind the exceedingly rare White Stripes/Virgin Airlines poster on his office wall, which I found especially funny seeing as how my antiquated cell phone is a Virgin phone). And like every other Third Man experience I've had, the people I was fortunate to share it with added a camaraderie that warmed up that very cold day, especially after the tour was through and we huddled around the TMR Record Booth to record an appropriate tune for our missing benefactor.

But of course, tucked into a corner of the sitting area in the midst of the main building, between the store-front and the Blue Room, was one door that we were not allowed behind-- the door to Jack's office. Ben didn't even point it out to us as he ushered us past it on the way to his own office, or when we came back out and stood chatting for a bit longer before the tour came to an end
.  But it was there, with "JOHN A. WHITE III, D.D.S., FAMILY DENTISTRY" emblazoned on dark glass. I can't help but think of it now as being like Elvis' bedroom, kept private and inviolate from the prying public.  

Though, thanks to J.D. Wilkes of the Dirt Daubers, I'll always envision Jack's mysterious room as looking something like this---

Full image borrowed from here.