February 3, 2021

White Weekend #11: Now my mind is filled with rubber tires and forest fires

Drove up to Shepherdstown today just to buy a bag of tea from the Lost Dog, on what would have been my sister's 50th birthday, 10 years and a day after the breakup of the White Stripes, and a few days before the 11th anniversary of my first White Weekend.  There was snow on the ground along the West Virginia roads and a blue sky between the clouds above just like there was 11 years ago when I fell down the Jack White rabbit hole, which feels like it was half a lifetime ago even though it's only been a fifth of my life.  Of course, I had to pull up the song that started it all, the final line of which still raises goosebumps on my arms.

Lotta reflection going on lately.  I'm more than half a century old and feel like I've been in a mid-life crisis for a good 15 years or so.  And now we're in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, at risk of hatred becoming mainstream, my sister died of Alzheimer's a few months ago, I've become distant from friends, and it's hard to not wonder just what's so dear about life. 

But through most of that "crisis" time, there's been Jack and everything he's brought into my life.  I've learned so much through him, either directly or from other musicians and artists that orbit around him (like Brendan Benson, above).  I wanted to write a whole series of posts about all of those things last year in honor of my 10th White Weekend anniversary, but when I got started it became too overwhelming. I couldn't find enough words to go into it all-- The breadth and depth of blues music; the African-American history and culture that birthed the blues and evolved all the way to hip-hop; country music and it's indebtedness to multiple cultures; an acceptance of women's voices, for both the sound of them and what they have to say; the meditative elegance of baseball; the symbolic vibrations of colors; Bob Dylan's sense of humor; my own need for attention and capacity for petty jealousy; and that an awareness of the world outside your own little bubble is necessary, though it can be both rewarding and frustrating

I've been lead to Son House, Charlie Patton, Elvis Presley, Pokey LaFarge, C.W. Stoneking, Margo Price, Hasil Adkins, Eddie Hazel & Funkadelic, Ma Rainey, James Booker, Mattiel, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Skip James, Beck, Dex Romweber, Captain Beefheart, Beyonce, Radkey, Alexis Zoumbas, Mick Collins, William Tyler, the Soul Surfers, the J.B.s, Shovels & Rope, Patsy Cline, Moondog, Little Willie John, Joshua Hedley, the Greenhornes, Courtney Barnett, Alison Mosshart, Danny Kroha, Chicano Batman, the, and so much more. 

For a long time all of this brought me great joy and excitement, but those've been commodities in short supply over the past year.  Blame it on Covid, that never-ending mid-life crisis, work, Icky Trump & the GOP, lack of travel and musical events, a dearth of exposure to Jack, whatever.  

I need a chance to set myself on fire.  But I'd probably just end up doing the same thing.

August 16, 2020

Wheelie good sounds for dwiving

Reading and listening to one of Third Man Records' latest offerings--  Car Ma & Sound Wheels, a book of prosetry & photart from Alison Mosshart (Kills, Dead Weather) and a "sound sculpture" record album of written parts of the book.  

 "...a book about



Parts are exactly what I was hoping for, parts are not at all what I expected. Parts resonate deeply and are strongly identifiable, parts are a way of living I can only dream of. It took a while for me to become a Mosshart fan, I was introduced to her through the Dead Weather when I fell down the Jack White rabbit-hole and I was initially dismissive.  She was just a chick doing the hard rock posture of Steven Tyler or Axl Rose and she kept getting in the way when I was trying to watch Jack on the drums.  Jack called her "Baby Ruthless".  She was obviously good at what she did, but what she did didn't appeal to me.  Fun fact:  A friend who was enamored of her once told me, before I left the house to drive to Baltimore for a Dead Weather show, "Blow a kiss to Baby Ruthless for me".  At one point during the show when I made eye contact with her, I blew that kiss.  She looked at me, turned and walked over towards the other side of the stage, turned back and looked at me again.  I stared back and she blinked first, then didn't come back to that side of the stage for the rest of the show, which pissed off the guy behind me who wanted to give her his trucker cap. In hindsight, her reaction, or at least my perception of it, surprises me.

I don't know exactly when my impression of her changed. I'm still not into the Kills, though I may be someday.  Maybe it was when I found out she was a stick-shift driver who writes while she drives (can't tell you how many of my blog posts have started that way). 

I'm not necessarily a gear head, I love the lines and purr of a good muscle car but don't learn models and years and horsepowers.  But I love to drive, it's the closest thing to a drug for me. My favorite vacations have been road-trips in rented Mustangs and Camaros.  And it's how I've been making it through Covid, by getting out of the house and into my own little quarantine in the car, driving the same backroads over and over and exploring new ones in other counties, just flying on the straightaways and swooping through the curves in my so-not-muscle Honda Fit that might be uncool but feels like a bullet to me. A properly driven Camaro could certainly blow it into the ditch, but the way that little car handles curves might surprise you. 

But anyway, Alison.  I think much of my early antipathy might've been due to jealousy.  She's a single woman taking care of herself and doing what she wants and being what she wants and being celebrated for it and I resent that.  How come I can't live a life like that?  I'm too much admin as fuck and too scared of not being able to pay the bills.  But at some point the light switch flipped and I really began to dig her. I love the way she talks, low and well modulated but enthusiastic about whatever subject is under discussion, I love her candor and lack of pretension, I love that she just says "I am an artist" and is one. I still envy her, but now I also enjoy her.

As for the words she put together for Car Ma & Sound Wheels, it's right where my head's at these days, wanting to get out, get on the road, go away from being admin and be something else for a while.  I ripped the record to mp3 and it's going on a flash drive full of Funkadelic, Captain Beefheart, Mattiel, Albert Ayler, Moondog, and Jack White's Boarding House Reach for listening in the car. It fits perfectly.

"And nothing was permanent because permanence wasn't important. Nor was it fast enough."






April 9, 2020

Random babblings: Coronavirus springtime

"Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring."
(Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Doestoevsky)

Devil's Backbone Park, Washington County, MD

Spring came early this year, before the coronavirus hit the U.S. in full force.  Temperatures were mild all winter and the mid-Atlantic didn't get more than a dusting or two of snow. And then at the end of February, the daffodils that we wouldn't normally see until close to the middle of March began budding, and the spring peepers began peeping in the creek across the street. It was wonderful, those two harbingers got me just as excited as usual. But there was an undercurrent to it, a feeling that it wasn't right. They were too early, which, combined with the mild winter, seemed to signify all too obviously that Greta Thunberg ain't kiddin' around, folks, and we need to begin listening to the scientists and our governments need to start getting regulatory.  And yet, instead we have Icky Trump rolling back every regulation he can to reverse the small amount of environmental good that's been done over the last half-century.  

But now it's April and there are still daffodils in bloom, and tulips and redbud trees are beginning to burst forth, and sticky little leaves are opening up on the trees.  And the coronavirus is ramping up its death toll and has forced business closures that are crippling the U.S. economy.  And while some folks are holed up at home in self-quarantine, others are getting out to take what socially-distant pleasure they can from the early-arriving, long-lasting spring.  I'm of the latter group (don't yell at me). Aside from work during the week and brunch and movies on the weekends, my life has been one of social distance on a regular basis for many years. But now I'm furloughed from work and waiting to find out when unemployment payments will kick in and, while I can't do brunch or movies, I can still get out and drive. It's either that or stay home binge-watching Father Brown and obsessing over where the hell to buy some toilet paper. 

A Facebook conversation this morning had me missing my favorite Waffle House, the one off of I-70 near Hagerstown, MD, where a couple of the ladies on the staff have memorized my usual order of steak and eggs, sunny-side up,  hashbrowns smothered, diced, and capped, and sweet tea. Waffle House, for those paying attention, has become a barometer for the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the "Waffle House Index" that FEMA uses to gauge disaster severity. The company has become a model of not only 24/7/365 service, but emergency response.  Between getting their restaurants up and running on generator power after hurricanes and tornadoes, and rolling out their Waffle House food trucks to provide food for affected communities, they've fed a lot of hungry people who might not have had much in the way of options after a disaster.  But the coronavirus pandemic is one disaster even Waffle House wasn't prepared for.  They've closed over 400 of their 2,000-something locations, which puts that FEMA index in the red.

Usually the Hagerstown location is bustling when I walk in. I'm usually able to snag a single empty seat at the high bar, while larger groups of people have to wait for a table.  Watching the staff behind the counter is like watching a raucous ballet, as the servers and expediters dance behind the cooks at the grill and waffle presses, pushing trays of dishes through the washer behind the high bar, slinging plates of hashbrowns to the tables with graceful efficiency while calling out hellos to every person who walks in the door.  Today the place was empty with a capital EMP-TY.  I called in my order from the parking lot and sat waiting until Miss Linda came out to give me my packed and bagged waffle and hashbrowns and take my credit card. She invited me to come inside to sign the receipt, and it was a sad, lonely sight-- Plastic covering over all the high bar stools, and only Miss Linda taking orders and one cook dishing them up. I asked her to tell all the other staff I would normally see there that I said "Hi" and she said she would, and that I'd see them all again soon, because this wasn't going to last forever and "We'll be back, better than ever!" 


Her optimism reminded me of an interview with musician William Tyler that I'd read this morning in which he was asked if he had any words of hope to share during these troubled times. He did, in the form of a quote from former POW, Admiral James Stockdale-- “Never lose faith in the end of the story.’”  

I agree with him that that's a powerful mantra to hold onto. If only I didn't drive past so many Trump signs on the lawns of folks out in the more rural areas of Maryland...




March 21, 2020

Five on the five: Escaping from coronachaos and other stresses

Once upon  a time there was a little girl who didn't know what she wanted to do in life. So she indulged in driving country roads, riding her bike, walking in the woods, drinking tea, and reading books.  Then one day she realized she was growing older and that maybe it was time to figure out her future. So she thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, until it gave her a headache. She just couldn't figure it out. So she went back to indulging in driving country roads, riding her bike, drinking tea, and...

It'll end someday.

When I moved out of my parents' house in Virginia into my first apartment, I ended up in new territory-- Maryland.  Being on my own for the first time in an area I wasn't the least familiar with, I started going out driving a lot, to explore and get to know my way around.  There was a lot less of the suburbs back then, much more farmland and forest.  Often in the evenings after work, I'd get in the car and pick some country road I'd driven past on another day, turning onto it at nightfall and cruising in the dark until I was ready to head back home and go to sleep.  Driving around on the weekends led to the discovery of a vast number of parks and recreational areas in my county and the one next to it, which led to exploration on foot and became an avid love of hiking.  I never went as far as getting into long-distance trekking or climbing mountains or even camping, but I spent hours in the woods of mid- and western Maryland, learning to watch for deer and foxes and other wildlife, bushwacking off-trail, picking up animal bones and turtle shells and feathers along the way.

And I never did figure out what to actually do with my life. High school was a miserable experience and my family was far from rich, so I skipped college and started working full time right out of high school.  Started as a sales clerk in a department store and made my way over the years into the back office side as a clerical, assistant manager, manager, to inventory processing (you see, I don't mind being responsible for things, but I can't stand being responsible for people), to where I am now, as an operations manager.  I've done ok for someone whose only college experience is a handful of part-time classes in their late-20s.  The industry I'm in is contrary in many ways to the principles I've developed over the years, but it's family-owned and they treat the staff like part of that family and pay us fairly well. And since I don't know what the hell else to do anyway, I've stuck around there for over 20 years. 

But fear is also one of things that's kept me there.  Back in my early 20s, just a few years after I moved out on my own, the store I worked for at the time went bankrupt.  I was clueless and stuck around to the bitter end, even when paychecks got skimpy.  I ended up paying my rent in installments, and taking out cash advances on my credit card to do so.  Then came the day when my landlady called to say the property management company wouldn't allow her to take my rent in installments anymore, and that call was followed up by one from a collection agency on behalf of my credit card company.  I had no money to give either of them.  This was the job I'd gotten straight out of high school, seven years before.  I had no experience job hunting, no idea whether to go to another department store or try something else.  So I did what I always did. I got in the car and drove. Headed out to the mountains towards the Grotto of Lourdes near Emmitsburg MD, flying at 90mph with the stereo blasting Queensryche, crying scared tears as I went.  As I turned off the main road onto the side road leading to the grotto, I finally noticed the flashing lights behind me.  The cop walked toward my car with his hand on his gun, but I wasn't trying to get away from him, I was just freaked out and depressed and trying to escape from it all.  When I told him where I was headed, he calmed down a bit, but still gave me a ticket that ended up costing over $100, more money I didn't have. 

I've never forgotten that day. Every time I've considered exploring another line of work that might be more fulfilling but would pay way less than I make now, I've felt whispers of that choking fear again.  I ended up moving back in with my parents back then while I looked for another job and got my finances straightened out, but fear of ending up in that situation again turned me into one of those people who will spend years in an unfulfilling job that's stable rather than exploring other options. I save my exploring for the road, and the woods.

So here we are, roughly 30 years later, and the stable job I've had for the last 20 years is being impacted by the goddamned corona virus.  My boss notified the staff yesterday that while our store is closed and we're all at home social-distancing or out hunting for toilet paper, we will be paid out of short term disability.  When those hours run out, we'll be paid from regular sick time, then vacation time.  What his notice didn't mention was the word "layoff", but it was lurking between the lines.  We had to do some of those back during the 2008 recession and the current situation is horribly more unsettled and uncertain.  My position is considered essential to the store, but my stomach still dropped at the thought of reduced pay, possibly getting to the point of no pay, and knowing that my own staff (against my wishes, I've ended up responsible for people after all) will be the first to be cut if layoffs come.  And while I try to plan for my own situation, I think also of the many people out there whose finances are already being impacted, who have already been laid off, too many of them familiar to me from shops and restaurants and movie theaters that I frequent.  To deal with the fear and the twisted gut and racing mind, on behalf of myself and everyone else out there, I'm doing what I've always done-- Driving those back roads.  Wandering the woods is less of an option than it used to be, between the encroachment of the suburbs filling the trails with people who have no thought of walking quietly and watching for wildlife, and my own advancement into middle age and the joint issues that come with it. And, thanks to the steadily growing suburbs, it takes longer to get to the back roads than it used to. But I know all the ones tucked between developments, and am willing to drive farther out, beyond the spreading edges of the suburbs.

You'd think I'd be tired of these roads by now, I know them so damned well.  But I'm not.  The feel of engagement with the car as it coasts down a long hill and banks into a curve while my favorite music blares out of the speakers is still the cheapest, most stimulating, and easily obtainable high I know.  The spinning of my brain slows down to match the flow of the car and the knots in my stomach begin to ease loose. I don't usually come home with answers, but it lessens the fear for a while. As long as I can afford a tank of gas, I'll need those roads. 

And because I drive a stick shift, this has become a bit of a theme song for me...

February 9, 2020

A White Weekend 10 Year Anniversary: Everything I've Ever Learned, Part 1

It's been 10 years since my first White Weekend, but there's been no snow in the DC area this year. And this anniversary celebration is actually not about Jack and his music so much as it is a recognition of Everything I've Ever Learned from the entity called Jack White.  Because that's a lot, and it's going to take a couple of posts to cover it all.  Hopefully you'll follow along.

For the couple of decades pre-Jack, I was fairly musically monogamous. I would latch onto one, maybe two bands or musicians and listen to them pretty much exclusively. I'd dabble here and there in other stuff, but my primary focus would be that one or two that resonated with me on an emotional level. And my tastes ran in sequence from the cartoon rock of Kiss in my high school years, to the raunchy rock of Guns'n'Roses, to the operatic rock of Queensryche, to the esoteric rock of T00l,  the grungy rock of Soundgarden and Audioslave, and then whatever Incubus is considered.  T00l led me into things like the ideas of Carl Jung, but none of the other bands I listened to over the years really opened me up to anything else.

That changed immediately in 2010 because getting into Jack meant also getting into the blues.  It was impossible to not be curious about all of the music and other elements that he talked about-- It Might Get Loud had just come out the year before and he went on and on about the blues in that film and in pretty much every old White Stripes interview I was digging up. Right away, I was buying music by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and Son House right alongside all of the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather albums.  I went as deep down that rabbit hole as I did down the Jack hole.  I've never read any of the books written about the White Stripes, but I've read a dozen or more about blues music and countless essays and articles.  And it blows my mind that I made it all the way to my mid-40s, having grown up hearing Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and the rest of those blues revival bands, without ever hearing any of the original artists who inspired the revivalists.  If I hadn't been exposed to it all by Jack, it's possible I might've lived my entire life without ever consciously listening to Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters or Skip James or Fred McDowell or Geechie Wiley. And there's still so much that I haven't gotten to, so many people like Tampa Red, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and both Sonny Boy Williamsons whose music I've yet to dig into, and who knows how many I've not even heard of yet.

Actually, thinking back, I remember at some point when I was younger, George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone was a big hit and I heard it all the time, and someone said that was "blues music".  And then other guys like Stevie Ray Vaughen came along and, again, were described as "the blues".  But back then I just listened to music, I didn't bother to explore it, and those guys didn't grab me that strongly anyway.  So I accepted what I heard and my early, very vague conception of "the blues" became something created by white people.  Now that the circle of people I share and discuss music with has broadened, it feels like everyone I know knows where blues music came from, but what about outside of that circle?  Are we still just a bunch of Seymours in a world of Blues Hammer fans?

When Third Man Records released their two Paramount Records sets and Documents Records reissue series in 2013/2014, my world really exploded. It wasn't just that they'd opened a doorway to old music and genres that I'd never considered before. That in itself was tremendous, but I soon realized that along with the music, I was developing a totally different awareness of United States history and culture.  It's difficult to read extensively about blues music without also learning about the post-Civil War reconstruction era and the beginnings of the Civil Rights era, about the history of African-American people. The history of not only blues but also jazz, soul, R&B, rap, and hip-hop music is obviously enmeshed in the African-American experience. But is it that obvious?  How many people, even those educated in the history of the music, really stop to think about it at that level?  White versions of all of those genres can be deeply enjoyable, but to listen to the white versions and not acknowledge that their basis lies in the black experience is to naively believe that the tip of the iceberg is the whole thing. Even listening to Charley Patton and Robert Johnson can be just peeking below the surface if you don't take the time to learn about the experiences of those musicians. When Black Lives Matter became prominent in the news in 2015, I found myself able to understand why specifically because I'd read Alan Lomax's description of having been hauled to the police station for being caught recording music with Son House, and because I knew that Blind Willie McTell's Southern Can Is Mine wasn't necessarily written about beating a woman.  I can say with no pretension or irony that this music woke me up to a whole new form of empathy.

Touching on another currently prominent social issue and at the risk of being accused of misogyny, I have to admit that, up until 2010, I didn't have much appreciation for female singers and vocalists. There's something about soprano voices that is frequently like nails on a chalkboard for me.  Even Jack's high-pitched tenor kept me from diving into the White Stripes for a year or so.  Up until that time, there was only a small handful of female singers I could stand to hear, which included Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Janis Joplin, and sometimes Alanis Morissette. So my musical world was shaped by an almost completely male-centric perspective.  But Jack is recognized for his associations with female musicians so his fans can't help but be exposed to female voices. The first on the list for me was, of course, Alison Mosshart of the Dead Weather.  Can't say I've become a full-on fan, but she does have a good rough'n'ready rock'n'roll voice. Next was Loretta Lynn, through the album Jack produced, Van Lear Rose, and I found myself wanting to hear more of Loretta's straightforward, conversational style. Then Cary Ann Hearst's scratchy tone grabbed me, when I saw Shovels and Rope open for Jack in 2012. Then came the old blues queens  included on the Paramount Records sets-- Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Ida Cox-- and the women who played harder blues as well as any man-- Louise Johnson, Geechie Wiley, and Elvie Thomas.  

Slowly I realized that there were more female voices that my ears could tolerate than I'd thought, and that I actually enjoyed. Yet I was still shocked at myself in 2016, when Third Man Records signed Margo Price, who sings country songs in a powerful-yet-soft soprano that's exactly the sort that used to make me cringe.  There's something about Margo's delivery of her smart and raw lyrics, though, that connected with me and made me end up not just enjoying her sound, but loving to sing along with her.  And then Jack collaborated on a song on Beyonce's album Lemonade and I gave the whole record a listen and, holy hell, it blew me away.  If you'd told me in 2010 that I would one day buy a record by someone like Beyonce, I probably would've laughed in your face. As with Alison Mosshart, I can't say I've become a Beyonce fan, but Lemonade resonates with me deeply.  Others I've come to love are Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras, and Mattiel, who's got a clarion voice and writes songs that sound like a cross between Nancy Sinatra and avant-garde garage band The Monks.  Most recently, Third Man released a 3-record compilation of Patsy Cline's Decca Records singles, and I can't stop singing along with her in the car. Why was I never exposed to her music before???  Though if I had been, would my ears have been prepared to appreciate it the way I can now?  That's the thing.  I think it took having my mind opened by all the myriad things Jack has exposed me to in order to make this shift.  There are still a lot of female voices out there that grate on my ears, but I've learned to at least listen before dismissing most of them outright and that's significant, because it's been necessary for me (and anyone else who might not realize this yet) to recognize that these women have important stories to tell.

Along with Loretta Lynn's country stylings, Jack introduced me to Hank Williams when he joined Bob Dylan's project of writing music to unfinished Hank lyrics, released as The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams in 2011.  Throughout my childhood, Johnny Cash was the definition of country music, but Loretta and Hank and, again, the two massive Paramount Records sets and then Jack's American Epic project have put me on the path of Cash's predecessors. As with blues music, it's opened up a whole 'nother world for me.  

For the sake of brevity, though, that world and more are gonna be explored in Part 2 of this anniversary celebration.

February 2, 2020

The Nine Year Anniversary of the White Stripes breakup is a palindrome

Nine years later, it's 02/02/2020 and the day is a palindrome.  

The White Stripes were a bit of a paradox, so it's fitting that this would happen on one of their anniversaries.  Here's one of the best songs that Jack White will ever write, recorded by the Stripes back in 2000.  Listen carefully to catch the cleverly off-beat rhyme scheme in this tale of young love, bowling, and jealousy. I'd credit one of Jack's favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan, for the story song influence, but my pal Peromyscus once said this song was like "Chuck Berry for the current generation", which is probably more accurate.

I took my girl to go bowling 
Downtown at the Red Door 
After an argument I started 
'Cause I thought she didn't like me anymore 
I can't help it sometimes I feel pitiful 
And of course she's so young and beautiful 
I bought us two glasses of Coke 
That's her favorite 
And I wanted to make up for earlier 
But I dropped her glass and it broke 
So I just gave my glass to her 
She laughed and so did I in our lane 
And then she went to the vending machine 
To buy a candy cane 
But right next to that was a boy I knew 
With a spring in his hand 
Playing a country pinball machine 
Called "Stand By Your Man
I saw him talk to her 
But I stayed in my lane 
And played my game steady 
And was thinking of a day 
When I'd be too old to throw a ball this heavy 
But I guess I'm young now 
So it's easier to knock 'em all down 
Then I looked and saw her say to him 
"You're really hittin' that ball around
And so he's lookin' at her the way I did 
When I first met her 
I could see in his face 
White flowers 
And cups of coffee 
And love letters 
I was sorry to interrupt their game 
But I went and did it anyway 
I dropped my red bowling ball 
Through the glass of his machine 
And said "Are you quick enough to hit 
This ball, Mr. Clean?" 
I was scared to lose her 
So I couldn't help bein' mean 
And that ended both of our games 
I said I was sorry 
But my girl left with him just the same 
I thought how much I hate 
When love makes me act this way 
I was bent over a broken pinball machine 
In a bowling alley and I threw it all away 
Well isn’t it all just a big game? 


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.