July 4, 2019

It's a recipe for blue, like it's 1862

I wrote a letter down to you,
Like I'm Sullivan Ballou...
It's a recipe for blue,
Like it's 1862

I've spent a lot of time on U.S. Civil War battlefields-- Gettysburg, Antietam, Monocacy, Manassas, Harper's Ferry, and many lesser-known sites are within an hour of my home in Maryland.  Richmond, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness, down in Virginia, are about a two or so hour drive.  Living in the D.C. area, you're surrounded by memorials to that war and, if you pay attention to the signs, it can get into your blood if you've grown up there.  It wasn't until I was an adult and out on my own and had the means to really explore that I began being fully conscious of it. So I dove in-- Devouring books and magazine articles, and driving, bicycling, and hiking the battlefield parks.  I've read the Shaara trilogy, and listened to Shelby Foote wax rhapsodic in the epic Ken Burns documentary

For a while, I idealized Stonewall Jackson, with his destroyed arm buried all by itself and the sweetness of his final deathbed words, Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”  And Lee, who put state before country and sat so regally on his white horse, Traveller.  Long-suffering Longstreet, who took all the blame for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg which should have been directed at Lee.  And Grant, so inept as a businessman but frighteningly effective as a general, who supposedly drank himself into a stupor over the horrific result of his decisions at Cold Harbor.

But then I began reading different sorts of books, focusing not on the battles and the presumably larger-than-life men who orchestrated them, but on the effects of the war.  In the bookstore at Antietam Battlefield Park, I found Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign and I learned of what the citizens of that town experienced both during and in the aftermath of the battle, of what they had to go through to put their homes and their lives back together. Then I came across This Republic of Suffering, which describes how our very religious nation had to come to grips with death on a scale it'd not experienced before, death without the salvation of confession or last rites, and loss that decimated families.  The song lyric at the top of this post references a letter from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, written a week before he was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run.  It's a very romantic letter, but only serves to highlight that this was not a romantic war, it was horrible and painful--

My very dear Sarah: The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again …

Reading things like this opened my eyes to the stark reality behind the gorgeous technicolor "suffering" depicted in films like Gone With the Wind.  And then I read the Declarations of Secession of some of the Confederate states-- Georgia's, in particular, is quite a peach--

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war. Our people, still attached to the Union from habit and national traditions, and averse to change, hoped that time, reason, and argument would bring, if not redress, at least exemption from further insults, injuries, and dangers. Recent events have fully dissipated all such hopes and demonstrated the necessity of separation. Our Northern confederates, after a full and calm hearing of all the facts, after a fair warning of our purpose not to submit to the rule of the authors of all these wrongs and injuries, have by a large majority committed the Government of the United States into their hands. The people of Georgia, after an equally full and fair and deliberate hearing of the case, have declared with equal firmness that they shall not rule over them. A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia. The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state. The question of slavery was the great difficulty in the way of the formation of the Constitution. While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen. The opposition to slavery was then, as now, general in those States and the Constitution was made with direct reference to that fact. But a distinct abolition party was not formed in the United States for more than half a century after the Government went into operation. The main reason was that the North, even if united, could not control both branches of the Legislature during any portion of that time.

That's just the first paragraph.  The word "slavery" is used 27 times throughout the full Declaration.  Twenty. Seven.  I began to understand the politics behind the Emancipation Proclamation, and just how deluded discussions of this having been a war for "state's rights" really are.  And when Confederate statues and memorials began being vandalized and removed in recent years, I decided that, to quote Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, it was "altogether fitting and proper that we should do this " at this time.  

Full transcript of Mayor Landrieu's speech can be read here.

I've seen defenses of the removal of these monuments that draw comparison to post-WW II Germany, making the point that you don't see memorials and statues to Hitler and the Third Reich because the German people understand that there's nothing romantic about those men or the cause they fought for and they certainly should not be idealized, revered, or memorialized.  Was Nathan Bedford Forrest as inhumane as Joseph Goebbels?  A lot of people don't seem to think so, and it's that sort of belief that contributes to the divides in this country.  

"There is a difference between remembrance of history, and the reverence of it".  How many more generations will it take for us to stop romanticizing this war and instead begin learning from it?

June 22, 2019

A little Help Us Stranger can cure what ails ya

Photo courtesy of Shane Devon

Bechet could not dream of having a public worthier of his genius than the dark-faced woman in the white apron who appears from time to time at a little door behind the platform. She's probably the cook, a stout woman in her 40s with a tired face but big, avid eyes. With her hands resting flat on her stomach, she leans toward the music with a religious ardor. Gradually, her worn face is transfigured, her body moves to a dance rhythm; she dances while standing still, and peace and joy have descended on her. 
She has cares, and she's had troubles, but she forgets... 
Without a past or future she is completely happy: the music justifies her difficult life, and the world is justified for her.

Those are the words of Simone de Beauvoir describing a performance by Jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as quoted by Joel Dinerstein in his book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America. I identify intensely with that woman and her response to Bechet's playing, and I hope that people reading this are able to understand it, too. Because that's what music can do, and has so often done for me.

I don't know about you, but life in Icky Trump-era America is wringing me out, leaving me exhausted and depressed and cynically demoralized.  Throw some family issues on top of that and I just find it so hard to summon up joy and excitement over anything anymore. Last fall's announcement of a new record from the Raconteurs should've, a few years ago would've, had me bouncing off the walls and posting countdowns on Facebook.  But it didn't and the fact that it didn't made me even more sad.  I know, first world problems...

But thank God or god or whatever's above, Help Us Stranger came out on Friday and it's exactly the medicine I needed.  I downloaded it from Amazon at 6:00am so I could listen in the car on the way to work and my commute was filled with tears, laughter, and much beating on the steering wheel in time with the drums.  First time I've ever wished for more traffic to slow down the drive. 

I'm going to insert here the same disclaimer from an early post I wrote about Jack White's last album, Boarding House Reach:  "I am not a critic and this is not a review. I am a fan. As such, I can sometimes be critical, but I am not a critic. Because my attachment to the music I love springs from emotional, visceral responses, I don't write "reviews". I can make objective judgements, but for the most part my descriptions of new music are purely an expression of my impressions, feelings, and thoughts."  So let's press on with the impressions, shall we?

Right off the bat, I have to say that the Raconteurs did the same thing with this album that Jack did with Boarding House Reach-- They chose the least interesting songs on the record to release as singles.  Not one of those songs is bad, let me clarify that, they're all hook-laden ear-worms that I listened to on repeat for days. Sunday Driver has nifty guitar squawls and boisterous vocals from Jack White. Now That You're Gone is Brendan Benson's slow-burning, easy-to-sing-along-with exploration of romantic desertion.  Help Me Stranger opens with solo vocals from Jack Lawrence that've been equalizer-tweaked to sound like an old cowboy song, before launching into a bouncy duet between Jack and Brendan.  And their cover of Donovan's Hey Gyp is just plain fun, with Brendan's harmonica and Patrick Keeler's propulsive drums. 

And yet... Sunday Driver kept reverberating in my brain like a mash-up of Hold Up and Five On The Five from Consolers of the Lonely.  Help Me Stranger and Hey Gyp reminded me of the back and forth I love from Level, off of Broken Boy Soldiers. And Now That You're Gone could've slid right into Consolers as if it'd been written 11 years ago.  As I listened to these songs over and over, I began to wonder, even worry a bit, if the band was going to give us anything new, or just essentially re-hashes of what they'd done before.  That would've been enough for a lot of fans, I think, especially the ones that were aghast and turned off by Jack's experimentation with Boarding House Reach. I could easily imagine him going back to basics, as it were, in an attempt to appease and win back some of those fans. Though I hoped to hell he wouldn't. It didn't seem in his wheelhouse to do something so... expected. 

And that's one of the main things I love about him-- He does what's unexpected.  The stuff that's likely to appeal to the masses are generally not the songs that will end up on my list of favorites.  I want stuff that surprises me, that makes me scratch my head and wonder what the heck? at the same time that I'm grinning in amazement.  So I was thrilled when, just like BHR, the songs on Help Us Stranger that I had not yet heard were the ones that blew the top of my head off as I listened to the full album for the first time.

The only song on the record that gives me any sort of pause is the one that leads it off, Bored and Razed.  Brendan Benson himself nailed my issue with it in an interview with Zan Rowe of Double J when he said he was conflicted about his part because he felt his entrance into the song was weak.  Jack's lyrics are so biting and manic and full of word-play ("Rolling a juke joint box in the corner") that they emphasize that weakness, they completely overpower Brendan's fluffy lines about missing a girl. The Racs have made disparate lyrics work before, as in Consoler of the Lonely, but to my ears this song should be more Salute Your Solution than Consoler.  That aside, the rollicking musical pace sets a great tone for what's to come.

Lyrically, pseudo-title track Help Me Stranger is like a comforting, reassuring arm around the shoulder compared to some of the other tunes on the album. This record is full bitterness, agitation, loneliness, and bewilderment.  So that first line in Help Me, "If you call me I'll come running/And you can call me anytime", is the one to come back to when lines in other songs hit too close to home. 

Brendan and Jack each have a pair of subdued, pensive tracks on the album, starting with Brendan's Only Child.  "Only child, the prodigal son/Has come back home again to get his laundry done." It's a lovely and yearning, softly acoustic song... until a buzzing synthesizer slides into the bridge to give it a jarring electronic tone that you might think would be completely out of place but instead elevates the song into something... unexpected.  There we go!  And then it's back to loveliness with a short finishing interlude of drums and piano.

And then comes Don't Bother Me. I immediately sat up in the car and began grinning like a loon.  Now this was more like it!  It's angry and biting and rampaging and seems to speak directly to exactly that thing that's been a weight on all our lives for the last two years. 

The way you look in the mirror

You're your biggest admirer
All your clicking and swiping
All your groping and griping

In another time, it'd just be directed to annoying narcissistic assholes in general, but right now, it's a raging fuck you to snarl along and head-bang with in
cathartic glee.  The only problem with this song is that, even when turned up to full volume, it's not loud enough.

The opening Oooohs and piano of Shine The Light On Me sound more Queen than Raconteurs and coming on the tail of Don't Bother Me it made my head spin a little bit.  And then Jack comes in with his most plaintive voice, singing of trying to understand the frustrating mysteries of love and life.  "But we don't need to know why the flowers grow/Let's just be happy they can".  This was the moment when my eyes filled with tears while still grinning ear to ear.  By this point it was clear that this album was not going to be a repeat of anything, that it was going to be full of new and different.  And I got so excited.
In a time when it feels like there's a concerted effort being made to diminish the stigma of depression, Brendan's Somedays (I Don't Feel Like Trying) could easily become a rallying cry for those who suffer.  It's so tear-jerkingly relateable, and yet ends with such determined strength.  As a Raconteurs song, it's got a familiar feel, and yet has brand new guitar tones and, like Shine The Light, goes in a lyrical direction the band has not explored before. There's no metaphor or pop cleverness here, instead it's direct and candid and moving. 

And then come Hey Gyp, Sunday Driver, and Now That You're Gone, all of which I'd come to know so well over the last handful of months. 
Of the original two singles, I initially preferred the music of Jack's Sunday Driver and the lyrics of Brendan's Now That You're Gone. That took me aback a bit, as Jack's lyrics were what got me into him in the first place, and the lyrics on Brendan's solo records have never grabbed me much at all. And this was a surprise through the whole album--  Jack's contributions to Help Us Stranger excite the hell out of me, the unusual sounds and instruments that seem to be carry-overs from the experimentation of Boarding House Reach, the variety of his vocal deliveries from soft to soaring to spitting, the wit and word-play I've always loved.  But Brendan steps out of from behind the glare of Jack's shadow and holds his own in a way that he did not on the first two Raconteurs albums.  That alone makes me listen to this album carefully, to hear him in a way that I haven't before.

Live A Lie is two minutes, twenty seconds of the sort of bouncy pop-punk I rocked out to in high school, and would be a perfect cover song for one of my favorite new bands, Radkey.  It's going to be a blast to hear live.  And What's Yours Is Mine almost sounds as if it's the Raconteurs covering the Dead Weather-- I can easily hear Alison Mosshart in my head, sparring with Jack on Brendan's parts.  This song could have come straight off the Dead Weather's Sea of Cowards, and the fact that the Racs did it instead is completely quirky and yet even more effective. 

This band knows how to end an album dramatically, first with Blue Veins on Broken Boy Soldiers and then Carolina Drama on Consolers of the Lonely.  They do it again with Thoughts and Prayers, which takes its wandering time, as if the painful ideas Jack sings so softly about are exploring an old house full of rooms of different kinds of music, trying to find bits and pieces to accompany them on their journey. There's duetting acoustic guitars, mandolin, fiddle, synthesizer and, most affecting, a B-bender guitar, Jack's latest musical toy.  It's a gorgeous mish-mash of a song that grabs my heart and mind in a velvet-gloved iron grip.

I used to look up at the sky
Up at the beautiful blue sky
But now the earth has turned to grey
There's got to be a better way
To contact God and hear her say
There are reasons why it is this way

And the theme of that song speaks to an overriding element of this album-- It reflects the maturity of a band 11 years older than when they last recorded together.  The music is more confident, but the lyrics are lonelier and more contemplative, even searching.  The members of the band are close to middle age and as a middle aged fan, it makes these songs speak to me in a way the last two albums didn't.  Not better, just different.  They're more reflective of where I'm at in my own life. 

In a few interviews leading up to the release, Jack confessed to feeling a Lennon-McCartney vibe in his and Brendan's song-writing together.  As is so often the case with him, this was a hint leading to a bit of hilarious humor and brilliant trickery-- Hidden behind its lenticular version of the regular album cover, the Vault subscription copy of Help Us Stranger contains an easter egg of a Beatles "Butcher Cover" parody (pictured at the top of the post).  Of course, Brendan is Lennon and Jack is McCartney.  When news of this popped up on social media within hours of people receiving the record on Friday, I began giggling at my desk at work and could not stop.  I was just so goddamned happy, and grateful to be happy.  I should've known that I can always count on Jack (and Brendan, LJ, and Patrick) to give me what I needed.

June 9, 2019

(Re)Discovering the Rocketman

Holy crap, why did no one clue me in about Elton John?  I was five when he began having hit songs, so of course I know his music. I grew up with it. But like so much of the music I grew up with, it was just a background soundtrack. There were songs I enjoyed hearing on the radio and sang along with, but none that made an impact in my musically uneducated brain, none that made me buy any of Elton's records, none that made me really listen.  The music that made an impression on me when I was old enough to follow my own direction was anything that could not be lumped in with my parents' music, music that would make them shake their heads.  Isn't that what so many kids choose, when they reach the age of choosing? I realize now that I just didn't know how to hear music back then.  

So I went to see Rocketman today more out of curiosity about how the film was constructed and a need for some spectacle, not because I was actually interested in learning anything about Elton's music. Boy, were my ears opened.  


Right off the bat, Taran Egerton was a brilliant casting choice. He's a bit prettier than Elton was in those years, which makes him quite engaging. What's really impressive, though, is that he sang all of the songs in the film himself. The Elton voice I remembered had the strident tone of Pinball Wizard, not the softness of Egerton's performance of Your Song. I'd heard Your Song hundreds of times growing up and just did not remember that voice.
Beyond that, the film is both an epic fantasy and a fairly factual telling of Elton's life, with colorful and surprisingly enjoyable choreographed musical numbers instead of straight stage performances.  And, of course, those costumes. 


It was all so very good that I walked out of the theater and drove straight to the nearest record store to pick up a 3-cd set of Elton's greatest hits, then drove a long route of backroads home so that I could get all the way through the 15 songs of the first of the three discs, totally gobsmacked.  I have memories of most of the songs from way back when, but feel absolutely no nostalgia listening to them. They're familiar, and yet the way I'm hearing them now makes them completely brand new.  And it's clear from hearing that compelling softness in Elton's early voice just how well Egerton nailed his performances in the film.  Between the things in Elton's life that I could relate to in the film and the experience of hearing these songs in such a way, I ended up crying my eyes out in the car over Elton's original version of Rocketman. 

You can spend your whole life peeking through doors but not stepping through, and then suddenly something comes along that just throws one of those doors open and shoves you through.  As Marc Maron says about any music that he suddenly "discovers" after it's been around for years, you're never late to the party.   You just have to get there sometime.

Go, see Rocketman.


February 13, 2019

Nine years of White weekends: A new chapter?

I'm late this year in acknowledging the ninth anniversary of my first White weekend.  I was in Florida visiting family, so it slipped my mind. I'd like to say it was because the visit was so much fun, but it wasn't.  My 48 year old sister, who has Down Syndrome, is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. She lives at home with my 76 year old parents, whose lives now revolve around caring for her.  Just before Christmas last year, my sister had a seizure in the middle of the night and apparently aspirated while she was lying unconscious, which led to pneumonia.  While in the hospital, she wasn't allowed out of bed for fear that she'd fall. She falls a lot, it began happening a few years ago and was one of the first signs of dementia.  The hospital staff didn't want to fill out all the paperwork that would be required if she fell, so they kept her in bed for almost two weeks. When my parents brought her home to continue recovering from the pneumonia, she got out of bed a couple of times, and fell a couple of times. Despite having a physical therapist come for a month of sessions to work on her strength, she's been in bed ever since.

Understand what this means--  She can't get up and walk to the kitchen for meals, or to the bathroom. She can't even stand up to get into a wheelchair.  She has to be fed in bed, and as for the bathroom...  I spent my recent visit helping my parents, who have their own health issues, change my sister's diapers. My sister is not only sedentary, she's massively overweight. And yet, when it's time to roll her around to clean her up and change her disposable underwear (and often the sheets as well), she suddenly has the strength of three people and it's like she's auditioning for a role on G.L.O.W., Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.   

So this is how my parents live these days, an endless, exhausting round of feeding, cleaning up, washing up, working with a temporary nurse and occupational therapist to try to figure out how to get permanent help paid for by Medicaid because they don't want to put my sister into a care facility and they can't afford to pay for help.  Oh, and while I was visiting, my brother called and told us he'd been laid off (again) and he couldn't come visit because his car was broken down.  

I came home from Florida to my quiet, shabby, comfortable apartment in Maryland and have had trouble sleeping because I feel guilty that I have the luxury of getting into bed at night knowing that I can sleep without interruptions and then get up the next morning to drive to work at a job that pays me a decent living.  And that on the weekends, I can go out and do fun and interesting things without worrying too much about what it costs, or having to take care of anyone but myself and a pair of cats.  I shouldn't have much to complain about, should I?  And yet how can I go happily about my life knowing what my family is dealing with?  We're not a close family and expressions of affection are strained, but just because I don't feel close to them doesn't mean I can't recognize that they didn't ask for their lives to end up this way. So the sense of obligation is strong.  I feel guilt that I'm not doing more for them, but then the obligation smothers me and what more can I do, anyway?

All of that aside, it feels lately like a chapter in my life is ending and I've no idea how the next one might develop.  Going down the Jack White rabbit hole nine years ago was the beginning of this chapter that seems to be closing--  Nothing's changed as far as my addiction to Jack's music goes, but the peripheral stuff is definitely shifting.  I made a lot of friends through his music, and now, lately, it feels like I'm losing many of them.  A couple of them died, others became friends with other people, some are taking breaks from social media, and some maybe weren't really friends to begin with.  Considering how much of the fun of new records and tours from Jack revolved around making plans with and seeing all of these people, feeling that I don't have these friends to talk and plan with anymore has diminished my excitement about the recent announcement of a new Raconteurs album and a potential tour.  

I'm self-aware enough to realize that my own behavior is part of the problem--  Any hint of rejection makes me withdraw. It's been the pattern throughout my life, from elementary school on.  I make friends, something happens to bring those friendships to an end (changing schools, changing jobs, moving, disagreements, whatever), I end up alone until some other impetus brings some new people into my life to try to connect with.  I've never mastered the art of reaching out.  My hermit crab shell fits too tightly.  I keep feeling like I need to make more effort to maintain the connections with some of these friends that I feel slipping away, but some of the times when I've tried to do that... it hasn't worked.  So instead of reaching out, I step back, back to the familiarity of being on my own.

And I really thought all of this 17 yr old "woe is me" emo angst would've been done with by the time I reached middle age. 

January 1, 2019

We Are Going to Be Friends...?

The owner of a cafe I frequent for brunch recently asked me why I always eat there alone. I wasn't sure how to answer. He's a nice enough guy and I enjoy his restaurant, so I didn't want to be rude and just say "None of your business".  But his curiosity got me thinking yet again about something that was on my mind a lot throughout 2018.

I'm not sure I know anymore what the word "friend" means, or whether I actually have any friends.  Facebook has distorted the word with their whole "friend" list thing, whereby people collect "friends" like they collect stamps or records or butterflies and end up with whole lists of people that they can't possibly all even talk to.  If you don't talk, if all you ever do are occasionally  "like" each other's posts, how can you be friends? And even if you do talk through commenting and chatting, are you actually more than just acquaintances with most of those people?  Communication over the internet in general, really, makes the determination of friendship quite ambiguous. I've had people that I really didn't know at all pour their guts out to me in surprising detail in private chats and then tell me "You're a good friend" when, really, what they meant was just that I'm a good listener.  Is letting a relative stranger use you as a virtual shoulder to lean on actually friendship, or is it just a form of free, non-professional therapy?  There's definitely something about the sharing we do over the internet that can deceive us into thinking we've made a real connection and formed a bond of friendship after only a handful of "deep" conversations, but how many of those conversations do you need to have before you know each other well enough to really become friends? 

Even meeting people and spending time with them can be misleading. I've sometimes used the words "pal" and "buddy" to describe people that I would see repeatedly at events I traveled to because, even though we enjoyed so many mutual interests and seemed to really like spending time together, even though we shared an emotional response to the things we experienced, did that actually make us friends, or just acquaintances who'd had a helluva memorable time together?  I thought for a while that many of these people might be friends, but in a lot of cases I wasn't sure.  Even if I thought of them as more than just an acquaintance, how did they think of me?  After the way this past year went, I really have no idea. 

At what point do we transition from acquaintance to pal to friend?  What does it take to have an actual, real friend, or to be an actual, real friend?  Is it up to other people to say and do the things that establish that deeper connection, or is it up to me to reach out and say 'Hey, you, you're my friend!" and hope that person reciprocates? 

No. Idea.  And it doesn't help when so many of the people that I'd like to be friends with are far away on the other end of an internet connection, way too far to go to brunch with.  So I dine alone.  

And all this would probably be TMI for the guy who owns the cafe.    

May 19, 2018

Oh, those Orioles...

I've been having a casual fling with baseball the last couple years.  I had a fling with it a while back, after my ex- took me to a game at Camden Yard back in the 90s when Cal Ripken Jr. was still with the Orioles and the team was really strong. Granted, a few of the players from back then turned out to be questionable sorts, like Rafael Palmiero and Roberto Alomar. But they were good at the time and the team played well, and I started getting into the game and following other teams, as well. And then the Os traded off some of those strong players and Ripken retired, and I started watching bicycle racing instead (though that didn't last more than a few years, either, once the doping scandals began to explode that sport).

But I've started getting into baseball again over the last couple years. I don't have much of a head for stats, and can't often sit still long enough to watch a broadcast game. But I love the hell out of going to live games-- Picking a not-too-expensive seat that's shady but still has a good view, wolfing down a hot dog or Camden Yard crab cake, making a mess with peanut shells under my seat, and learning to tell a ball from a strike. I go by myself, because other people always want to talk and you end up missing stuff that way.  It can be very exciting, and even when it's not it's still a lot of fun. And I certainly always get a huge kick out of this--

But... the Os are pretty horrible this year. They've got some decent players, like Manny Machado (who they're apparently thinking of trading for some incomprehensible-to-me reason), Adam Jones, and Jonathan Schoop. Others, though, like Chris Davis, are just not having a good season.  The team is currently tied with Kansas City for the position of second worst team in both leagues, trailed only by the Chicago White Sox.  And yet I can't bring myself to switch allegiances, not now that I've begun to get to know the various players. 

So this morning, a very rainy morning that was definitely too wet for baseball, I was enjoying a spectacularly delicious breakfast at one of my new favorite Baltimore restaurants, Ida B's Table (the greens and the grits are the best I've ever eaten in. my. life.) and reading a collection of short stories and essays by G.K Chesterton.  In a story titled The Perfect Game, I came across a paragraph that humorously sums up what it's like watching the Orioles this year.  The characters in the story are playing croquet, but I shall substitute appropriate baseball terms--

“Oh, Parkinson, Parkinson!” I cried, patting him affectionately on the head with a [bat], “how far you really are from the pure love of the sport—you who can play. It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love [baseball]. You do not love [baseball] until you love being beaten at [baseball]. It is we the bunglers who adore the occupation in the abstract. It is we to whom it is art for art's sake. If we may see the face of [Baseball] herself (if I may so express myself) we are content to see her face turned upon us in anger. Our play is called amateurish; and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the French for Lovers. We accept all adventures from our Lady, the most disastrous or the most dreary. We wait outside her iron gates ..., vainly essaying to enter. Our devoted balls, impetuous and full of chivalry, will not be confined within the pedantic boundaries of the mere [bandbox]. Our balls seek honour in the ends of the earth; they turn up in the [stands behind home plate] and [behind the foul line]; they are [not] to be found [beyond the scoreboard or] the next street. No, Parkinson! The good painter has skill. It is the bad painter who loves his art. The good musician loves being a musician, the bad musician loves music. With such a pure and hopeless passion do I worship [baseball]. I love the game itself. I love the [diamond] of grass marked out with chalk or [dirt], as if its limits were the frontiers of my sacred Fatherland, the four seas of Britain. I love the mere swing of the [bat], and the [smack of the gloves] is music. ... You lose all this, my poor Parkinson. You have to solace yourself for the absence of this vision by the paltry consolation of being able to [swing] and to hit the [ball].” 

To paraphrase the old joke about pizza and sex, baseball is like pizza--  When it's good, it is sooooooooo good. And when it's bad... it's still pretty good.  Go, Os.

March 24, 2018

A late White weekend: Addicted to the Mind Shaft

Hello. My name is Tam and I am an addict.  It's been just over eight years since I first wrote about Jack White here in my little corner of the interwebs and he and his music have kind of taken over since then.   I should probably be embarrassed by this, but I'm not.  The high of being a fan-girl is too rewarding, being occasionally mocked for it only makes me laugh that those mocking have no idea what they're missing out on.  

It was eight years and a month and a half ago when I had the epiphany that opened up the rabbit-hole and allowed me to fall in, on a clear blue winter day driving the backroads of West Virginia, listening to the Raconteurs album Broken Boy Soldiers for the first time. And this weekend I had a similar experience-- On Friday, March 23rd, Jack released his third solo album, Boarding House Reach.  On Saturday, I went driving with the album on those same West Virginia roads under the same sort of clear blue winter sky. (Technically this was the first weekend of Spring, but the remnants of last week's snow were still on the ground.) And this album has hit me with the same sort of feeling I had that day eight years ago, that there's something to this music that I need and that I'm not going to get anywhere else. And so I celebrate my addiction.

As for this new record, I'm not one for rating systems so I have no idea how to give it a neat quantification.  It's not a perfect record, but it is an astonishing and, for me, delightful one.  It's also highly perverse, beginning with that strange title--  Boarding House Reach.  When it was first announced, a British friend of mine quickly identified the phrase as an English colloquialism referring to the way guests in boarding houses used to reach across the communal table to make a grab for food if they wanted to get a good meal.  It implies rudeness, but also the way we have to adapt and sometimes be tolerant in our dealings with others, while still making sure our own needs are met.  As the youngest of ten children, this is of course pertinent to understanding Jack's mind-set. As a metaphor, it also implies a broadness of reach, a pulling in and consuming of a variety of comestibles, whether they be food or music.  Again, this sums him up quintessentially.

The album was first introduced with a collection of soundbites in a video called  Servings and Portions, then with a handful of songs released as digital "singles", and then a day of listening parties at selected record stores around the world.  After attending one of those listening parties two weeks before the release date, I found myself juggling a contradictory set of reactions. I was excited and delighted and disappointed and apprehensive all at once. But as a fan of Keats' concept of negative capability, this didn't disturb me.  Rather, it was stimulating and upped my anticipation.  As Jack sings in Everything You've Ever Learned, 'the one who is prepared is never surprised'.  When it comes to him, I am always prepared to BE surprised.  Are you?

As always, this is not a review. I can be as critical as any critic, but I'm just a junkie-fan describing my own experience of the music. Your mileage may and probably will vary. So, on to the songs...

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Connected By Love, the first single and first song on the album, disappointed me. Hearing it in the context of the album hasn’t changed that. In fact, when I heard the full album at the listening party I went to, I was convinced that Jack had for some perverse (that word again) reason chosen to release the weakest songs on the album to preview it, because everything that I had not previously heard was so much more interesting to me than this song. It doesn’t disappoint me because it’s a bad song, though, but rather because it’s an extremely beautiful song that doesn’t live up to its potential. The music is gorgeous and the vocal performance is earnest and moving, but he tripped himself up with the word-play. I completely understand what he was going for, it’s a trick he’s done before—The repeated V sounds of Forever For Her (Is Over For Me) and the “Who is the who?” of Want and Able. But in this song, the repeated –ecteds of connected, rejected, protected, infected, etc, are too unlovely a sound to come across as clever, they instead add a clumsiness to lyrics already verging on corny and diminish the power of the song.

Why Walk a Dog impressed me at the listening party, but that may have been due to its novelty at the time.  Jack’s singing and the music are fantastic, especially that scuzzy guitar solo. But hearing it again left me perplexed—What the hell is it about? Is it the literal condemnation of puppy mills that it sounds like? Or are the dogs the sort of obscure metaphor he’s loved to employ in the past? Maybe it’s the mention of birds, but it reminds me of I Think I Found the Culprit from Lazaretto, they're both perfectly enjoyable songs that would’ve made better b-sides than album tracks.

My immediate impression of Corporation when it was released as a digital single was that it was lyrically lightweight but would be a blast to dance to at shows. When I flew to Nashville for one of the three pre-release shows at Third Man Records last weekend, I found that was absolutely correct. It’s not a head-banging pogoing tune, it’s a hip-swiveler like Trash Tongue Talker from Blunderbuss, and I love it for that reason.

Initial reactions from friends and early reviews pretty much unanimously singled out Abulia and Akrasia as a track to skip over, but I am the anomalous weirdo who will not only not skip over that song, but put it on repeat for multiple listenings in a row. This song reflects Jack’s reputed standing as a Scrabble pro, with its tongue-twisting, twist-of-an-ending exhortation, read by gravelly-voiced Aussie bluesman C.W. Stoneking against a lovely gypsy-flavored tune on violin, piano, horns, and tambourine. Surprisingly, Jack doesn't perform on the song at all, neither vocals nor instrument. It's just his words performed by other musicians and this is one more reason why it makes me smile every single time I hear it.

Hypermisophoniac is another one that both delights and perplexes. Both musically and lyrically, it’s a depiction of the condition of misophonia, intentionally meant to aggravate at the same time that it fascinates.  I really look forward to hearing it live.  But what the hell does robbing a bank have to do with the rest of it?

Ice Station Zebra is, simply put, Jack’s manifesto. Where the White Stripes song Little Room summed up an aspect of his work ethic, this one sums up so many of the beliefs and philosophies he’s expressed in interviews over the years—Choosing the box he puts himself in rather than letting others box him in; being part of the tradition, the family, of songwriters he respects and “letting God in the room” when he writes; his bemusement with people who expect him to remain one thing so that he can live up to their expectations. To take the edge off some of these potentially pedantic statements, he sets his highly clever, rapped lyrics to an almost impossibly catchy, beat-changing break-down that reflects where his head is at musically these days. It’s bound to become a live show staple, and deservedly so.

Over and Over and Over is the first pre-release song that I saw other people really get excited about. With minor modifications, it could have come from any of Jack’s other bands, but though he tried with all of them, he couldn’t get the riff he’d been carrying in his head since 2005 to cohere until now. It’s a killer of a riff and the spat lyrics are an easy live show chant. But to me, as enjoyable as it is, it’s exactly what he rails against in Ice Station Zebra—A song that lives up to what the majority of fans seem to expect from him. So I like it very much, especially the existential Descartes reference in “I think therefore I die, anxiety and I rollin’ down a mountain”, but it’s not likely to end up on any of my “Top whatever” lists of Jack’s songs. But his pronunciation of “perfidy” to rhyme with belly and Isotta Fraschini makes me giggle every time.


When Servings and Portions was posted, I ripped the audio and put it on a cd so that I could put the cd into my alarm clock/cd player and wake up every morning to the purred “Helllooooo” at the beginning. I was eager to hear how that fit into a song and I was not disappointed in any way when I heard it pop up in Everything You’ve Ever Learned. One of my favorites on the album, it’s another philosophical manifesto, one that I can wholeheartedly get behind, with that digitally enhanced purring speech at the beginning that erupts into a propulsive, thrashing, snarling, shrieking thought-provoker. I want to hear it live so, so badly. But I also learned today that I need to be careful of listening to it while driving.

Respect Commander is the other song that disturbed and disappointed me when it was released as the b-side to Connected By Love. It begins compellingly, with more of that hip-swiveling funk, descending into a sultry interlude leading to… lyrics that unfortunately fill my mind with images from the music video for the Warrant song, Cherry Pie. The line "Every time she gets the satisfaction/I want her to control me all night long" just sounds so hair metal.  And again he's piling up the –ecteds. I compared this song to my favorite song by Son House, Pearline, which is the story of a love affair told by guitar with only two sung lines. I will always wish Jack had let the music do the talking in this song and not sung the words he wrote, because the music is fucking fabulous and says all that needs to be said.

Ezmerelda Steals the Show is another that many fans and reviewers are planning to skip over on this album, but it enchants me. Jack’s a whimsical poet, a master of imagery, and lectures with a wink.   This song expresses all of that. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a story he made up to tell his kids.  And I want to scream that final line everywhere I go in public.

Get In the Mind Shaft.  Not only is this my favorite song on this record, it may very well become one of my favorite Jack White songs.  It’s highly unique, and not only because there are multiple versions of it— depending on which album pressing you ended up with, you can hear it begin with one of apparently more than half a dozen different stories that Jack recorded.  They’re all little pieces of #JackWhiteWisdom, ranging from him learning to pick out chords on a piano in an abandoned house, to the sound of frequencies in nature, to the mental battle of baseball pitching, to likening himself to a fisherman selling his catch at a dollar a head.  Regardless of which you hear, the background music of dramatically swelling strings gives weight to the words, making them profound. The story fades into an electronic break-down of synthesizer and digitalized voices singing “It’s strange, let’s try it. Can you hear me now? Am I invisible to you?” The voices are all Jack’s, apparently sung through a vocoder, but the effect makes them sound like alien children, like an eerie memory of how he made Meg White’s voice sound more child-like on St.Andrew/This Battle Is In the Air by speeding up the tape. It brings a touchingly innocent gravity to the second half of the song, turning it into a plea for connection. At the moment when the repeated refrain of “Can it be? Can it be? Can it be? Can it be?” erupts into soaring “Aaaaaaahhh”s, my face splits into an ear-to-ear smile even as a lump forms in my chest and my eyes fill with tears. For me, it’s a powerful song that hits me just as hard as my most favorite of his songs, 300MPH Torrential Outpour Blues. That song struck me immediately as an expression of the sardonic angst I’ve lived with almost every day of my life.  This one reminds me to not let that angst close me off, to always remain open to curiosity, beauty, and wonder, which is one of the most profound rewards of this addiction of mine, one that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life, no matter what kind of music Jack decides to make in the future.

What’s Done Is Done keeps being described as the only country song on the album but, to my ears, the only thing country about it is the twang in Jack’s vocal delivery. The music, on the other hand, is hard to categorize. It’s got the sort of intensely deep kick-drum as in Love Drought from Beyonce’s Lemonade, simple acoustic piano and brush drums, accented with Hammond organ and synth, then ending with a touch of softly strummed acoustic guitar. None of that is overtly country, at least not to me. But it is definitely beautiful. It’s also a fun performance from Jack, with that little whistle/hiccup at the beginning of “what’s”, and Esther Rose’s soft folk-infused voice is a beautiful accompaniment to his. I’ve heard her sing before, back when she performed with Luke Winslow-King, and I didn’t love her voice so much then, but I think I prefer her with Jack over either Ruby Amanfou or Lillie Mae Rische. And that whispered exchange at the end is the niftiest of touches.

Jack has always known how to end an album and Humoresque proves his skill yet again. After the cacophony of the rest of the album, it follows the relative quiet of WDID for the softest and gentlest of send-offs. The only cover song on the album, with lyrics by Howard Johnson (an early 1900s songwriter, not the guy who opened the hotel chain) over a classical interlude by Antonin
Dvořák, Jack keeps it simple with an almost heart-breakingly husky vocal over piano and drums. Its reminiscence of early White Stripes covers like Look Me Over Closely and Mr. Cellophane proves that, no matter how far his boarding house reach into different genres and styles, underneath it all, Jack really is that “same boy” we’ve always known.

There’ve been a lot of hyperbolic reviews of this album, both reviling and acclaiming it. I’m not going to define it either way. To me, it’s just a perverse thing of beauty that confirms me more than ever as a fan of this musician who has opened so. Many. Fucking. Doors for me. I’ve climbed inside the mind shaft  and I don’t plan to climb out any time soon. 

January 27, 2018

Third portion: Corporation, or a White boy goes from blues to funk

The new album, Boarding House Reach, isn't even out yet and Jack White's fans are already dividing into factions over the first three songs. Corporation was released at midnight this past Thursday and by the time I listened to it over breakfast, opinions ranged from loving it, to calling it garbage, to genuine concern over what in the hell direction his music is headed in and has he forsaken everything he used to stand for?  Personally, it's the first of the three songs I can say I almost unequivocally enjoy.  The lyrics are a ways away from profound, but they've definitely got me wondering and that's a good thing. 

As for the music... It's funky fresh and makes me grin from ear to ear.


Yeah, it's damned different from anything he's done before.  We're waaaay far from both the Delta and the garage here, folks.  But is it really a surprise?  If you look at his progression over the course of his career and the music and musicians he's talked about over the last five years, this actually starts to feel like a fairly natural direction for him to turn.  His last two albums seemed to reflect his immersion in Nashville, with an abundance of fiddle and pedal steel creating a distinct country flavor.  But he was also playing with a hip-hop drummer (Daru Jones) and a keyboard player who had strong experimental, progressive, and psychedelic leanings (Ikey Owens, may he rest in peace).  The two of them had to have had an influence on him, even if it didn't come out noticeably on Blunderbuss or Lazaretto.  

And then there was Three Dollar Hat on the last Dead Weather album, Dodge and Burn, in 2015.


In 2016 came Don't Hurt Yourself, on Beyonce's album Lemonade...


...and the songs he co-wrote/contributed to on A Tribe Called Quest's final album, We Got It From Here--  Solid Wall of Sound and Ego (neither of which seem to be on YouTube, all I could find was a preview snippet of Ego).   

Not to mention his take on Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman in one of the hidden tracks on Lazaretto--


So to hear him go full-on funk in Corporation might be a surprise to many, but it should not be completely unexpected.  That's not to say everyone has to love it, of course.  Though I think I might.  Because it makes me really, really want to hear him cover this now--


Play that funky music, White boy. Play that funky music till you die.



January 11, 2018

The first serving of Boarding House Reach: Connected By Love, backed with Respect Commander

Disclaimer:  I am not a critic and this is not a review. I am a fan. As such, I can sometimes be critical, but I am not a critic. Because my attachment to the music I love springs from emotional, visceral responses, I don't write "reviews". I can make objective judgements, but for the most part my descriptions of new music are purely an expression of my impressions, feelings, and thoughts. And when it comes to writing about Jack White's solo music, my responses seem to have become more complicated with every album.  Because today Jack released a new song from his upcoming album, Boarding House Reach, and I should be bouncing off the walls, giddy with excitement.  Note the use of the word "should"...

These songs, Connected By Love and its b-side, Respect Commander, are different from pretty much anything Jack's done before. Quite different. In one sense, the difference doesn't bother me, in fact it's terrific, it's what I was hoping for on the new album, a new direction full of surprises. In another sense, the difference is... bothersome. Troubling, even. 

At first listen, Connected By Love seems like the flip-side of the White Stripes song, Apple Blossom.  Instead of putting the woman's problems in a little pile and sorting them out for her, he now wants her to take his and put them on a shelf.  Instead of not wanting to be interrupted and corrupted by love, as in Love Interruption on Blunderbuss, he's now intent on being connected by it.  To express this, his voice is plaintive and passionate and effectively affecting.  

The music is where all the good surprises are.  It's so layered and dynamic and interesting.  Just over half-way through, when you expect Jack to rip into a searing guitar solo, he blows expectation away with a solo on... Hammond organ.  Then comes the guitar, circling and rising to the heavens, and joining with the organ.  Topping it all off are the gospel-style backup vocals provided by one half of the Nashville quartet, the McCrary Sisters. Ever since hearing Ruby Amanfu's rich vocals during the Blunderbuss tour, I've been wanting to hear Jack with multiple similarly rich female voices behind him and the effect is exactly as I imagined it, creating a beautiful compliment to the way his voice has aged and deepened just a bit.  It leaves me completely delighted.

But here's where things get complicated. It was Jack's lyrics that initially grabbed me and pulled me into his music eight or nine years ago, and it's his words that've kept me enthralled from one album to the next, all the way through his catalog. They resonate with me in a way that no other songwriter I've heard has.  His wit, his sense of human nature and the absurd, his subtlety and obscurity, his vocabulary, his amazing ability to draw with words, to vividly describe with the simplest of details all sorts of everyday scenarios and emotions that we've all experienced or can easily imagine.  And yet, lyrically, this song is too simple.  Where is the metaphor that he usually wields with such craft?  After a handful of listens, two words popped into my head that I NEVER thought I would ever use to describe Jack White's song-writing. It pains me to write them now, but I have to be honest-- The lyrics to this song strike me as trite and clichéd.

And yet, how is it possible for him to write something that makes me swoon even as I'm cringing over it?  How can it be that I'm disappointed at the same time that I'm so thrilled?

It makes me think of all the times he's talked in interviews about how "satisfaction is death".  And here he's writing about someone who is satisfied in love, who's had troubles in the past, but who is now content. And his usual sparkling wit and word-play are just not there.  When Jack interviewed BP Fallon for an early Green Series record, Fallon talked about the blues and shared pain. He mentioned how so many fans were upset with Bob Dylan for writing Lay, Lady Lay because "this was a man of contentment, and they preferred him stuck outside of Memphis with the thingie blues again... People actually very often like to have their idols crying".  Maybe that's the case here.  Or maybe it's just not in Jack's makeup to express satisfaction and contentment, at least not without some sort of dark twist to it.

The video for the song, though, is a beautiful expression. The images in it bring the depth that the lyrics lack.  With or without the end-of-the-world moon borrowed from the film Melancholia hanging over it all, the vignettes of a young woman nursing her grandmother, a mother and her twin sons, and a young man turning to his abuelita when his friends lead him astray convey some of the multitudes of ways that we can be, should be, connected to each other by love.  

Showing the statue of Mary as Jack sings the opening "Woman..." takes it to an even higher level, hinting at possibly more spiritual connections that are nowhere to be found in Jack's words. A preview of the video intro voice-overs and the image of the single sleeve, with Jack's hand breaking through the tiles of a wall, which were teased the day before the single release, had me wondering if this song would have a socio-political theme, a timely "love trumps hate", anti-Trump sort of message that would follow in the footsteps of Icky Thump. Something that would inspire listeners to connect with love on a large scale.  But no, it turned out to be a surprisingly pedestrian love song set to inspired and dramatic music.

The b-side, Respect Commander, succeeds and suffers in the exact same respects as Connected By Love. The music is fantastic, starting out with that crunchy guitar Jack's so well known for and that his fans love so much, before a re-start that switches to a faster, funkier sound accompanied by synth that's unexpected and totally exciting.  After two minutes of sonic chills and left turns, though, he begins singing and again... the words are total rock'n'roll, good lovin' cliché.  The saving grace of this song, despite the sultry urgency of Jack's voice, is that the verse is short and that he then lets loose on the guitar for a stuttering, heart-tripping solo that runs all the way to the end.  In a way, this one reminds me of Pearline, my favorite song by Son House, in which House sings only two lines, "Pearline, what's the matter with you?" and then later, "I love you, Pearline". His guitar tells all the rest of the story of their relationship.  I can't help but wish Jack had kept his words as succinct in Respect Commander.  

But again, disappointment in the lyrics is mixed with thrilled excitement over the music and vocal delivery.  I have no idea what to expect for the rest of Boarding House Reach and at this point I think it would be best to not even contemplate.  

Way to shake things up, Jack.