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.



January 7, 2018

Icky Trump is not an Intimate Secretary

Image via Third Man Records

 I've been trying to write this post for months. I started it in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and Trump's comments about that event, and have re-started it a handful of times since then. There's almost too much to say, there's too much opportunity for digression and maybe the main point hasn't been firm enough in my mind. This introduction is a digression in itself. But after having a bit of an existential crisis this weekend that probably made some of my friends think I was going off the deep end, I'm giving it another go. 

This post is not about Donald Trump. If you want to read about him, you've got your choice of hundreds of articles in a multitude of media sources, not to mention his own shit-show of a Twitter feed. I'm not going to waste my words on him. No, this post is a reaction to Donald Trump and the effect he's had on many of our psyches.  Or at least on my own psyche. Because I don't know about you, but I've been so much angrier than usual for the last year and a half. A fair amount has been written about "Trump Fatigue Syndrome" (each of those three words links to a different article) and I believe the stress of it is real.


Image from the Augusta Chronicle, via the Denver Post

Added to the regular stresses of things like work, commuting, paying bills, dealing with our own health issues and those of family members, and, in my case, a hereditary irascibility, TFS ain't no joke. It's something to take seriously. Because it can turn you into someone you don't want to be, someone who is angry all of the time, and/or depressed all of the time, and/or who withdraws into avoidance.  It can lead to combativeness.  It can lead to cynicism.  

But the anger and frustration in response to what's happening these days is justified. And anger can be productive. Professional athletes talk about using anger to push themselves, to give them an edge over their competitors. But is that wise in day-to-day interactions, or in the realm of politics? When you have a bunch of people voicing their anger together, in a crowd or on social media, it begins to breed the sort of negativity that can so easily turn to exactly what we're seeing too much of in the world these days-- combativeness. We have so much to battle against these days-- Racism, classism, and other bigotries, a patriarchy that feels it's under threat, and all the effects of living in a kakistocracy that embraces willful ignorance.  But do we want to battle effectively, or do we want to live in a combat zone?  It's important to choose how anger is channeled, because there's a distinct difference between rage and outrage.

Rage is ugly, it's destructive, it breeds hatred and, when impotent, turns into cynicism.  But outrage says "No, this is wrong. This must change".  Rage accomplishes nothing. It amplifies and destroys and leaves a metaphorical scorched earth in its wake. Outrage, on the other hand, can be the impetus for productive action, for activism and the sort of destruction that leads to positive change.

In the week following Charlottesville, one of the most helpful things I came across were these words from Van Jones in an interview at NPR--


"People say, 'Oh Van, when you go out there and talk to those Trump people, does it change any of their minds?' That's not my job. I'm not trying to convince Trump people to be better people. I'm trying to prevent the Trump era from making me a worse person. I do not want to become somebody who is so hard-hearted that I can only see the worst in my opponent. Dr. King said you should never let a man drive you so low as to hate him."

That's it, right there. We can give vent to rage and hatred for the people we view as our opponents in this situation that more and more is coming to feel like a war. Or we can be outraged and battle for change without losing sight of our own moral compass.  For anyone feeling the way I've been feeling, I highly recommend learning more about Van Jones and the Love Army.

Another thing that helped me was a bit unexpected and I've been meaning to get back to it after the initial discovery.  Way back in May 2017, I joined the hosts of the Third Men podcast to talk about the use of Masonic references in the Raconteurs song, Intimate Secretary, which was released back in 2006.  I'd seen mention of those references at one of the Jack White message boards, but for the podcast discussion I did some actual research and what I found was both compelling and startlingly timely. Here are the lyrics, along with some of my notes about the words and possible meanings--

I've got a rabbit, it likes to hop 
I've got a girl and she likes to shop 
The other foot looks like it won't drop [things won’t be so bad after all]
I had an uncle and he got shot [oops, maybe they will]

Is this greeting the type that's meant for me? [Masonic ceremonial hand-shake &/or greeting]
Are you part of this kakistocracy? [government by the least qualified]

This ringing in my ears won't stop [stress and fatigue from shit show going on in the world today]
I've got a red Japanese tea-pot 
I've got a pen but I lost the top 
I've got so many things you haven't got [but do they really amount to anything?]

A fellow's craft is just not for sharing 
He's not an intimate secretary! [he's not qualified to be one, doesn’t understand principles of reason, love, faith, duty, etc]

I've got a rabbit it likes to hop 
I've got a girl and she likes to shop 
The other foot looks like it won't drop 
I had an uncle but he got shot 

Venerable obscurist malarkey [general stereotypical perception of Masonry as hallowed mysterious bullshit?]
A doulocracy ecclesiarchy [government of slaves defining heresy?]
A fellow's craft is just not for sharing 
He's not an intimate secretary! 

The exarchy's inspector inquisitor 
I dare mock an illustrious master 
Are you part of this kakistocracy? 
Is this greeting the type that's meant for me? [do I have the qualities of an Intimate Secretary?]
 
What I knew:  Jack's apparently got a deep connection to the Masonic Temple in Detroit-- He attended Cass Technical High School right down the street, his mother worked there as an usher, and the Gold Dollar and Magic Stick venues are only a few blocks away.  He's performed in both theaters in the Temple, and paid off their back taxes a few years ago. Wouldn't surprise me at all if his father or other family members were/are Masons.  And so Intimate Secretary is laced with references to titles of various degrees of study in Masonry-- Fellowcraft ("a fellow's craft"), Intimate Secretary (obviously), Inspector Inquisitor, and Illustrious Master.


From Freemasonrywatch.org

What I learned:  The pages and pages I read the on the internet were like reliving my 20s and early 30s, when I was deep into philosophy and classic literature, devouring writings by and about Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Goethe, Kant, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoics. The beliefs of the Freemasons are built on the same sort of weird mix of transcendentalism, esoterica, and reason. But underneath the mystery and esoterica, under the stuff that's bred so many jokes and conspiracy theories, lie a framework of symbols and allegories with the specific purpose of developing a spiritual and moral compass.


Whether you take the mysteries surrounding the organization seriously or consider it a bunch of Illuminati hoo-ha, their message is one this world needs right now. The degree of Intimate Secretary, in particular, is strikingly relevant.  A few pertinent excerpts from the description of it at the Freemason Information website--

You are especially taught in this Degree to be zealous and faithful; to be disinterested [as in, minding your own business] and benevolent; and to act the peace-maker, in case of dissensions, disputes, and quarrels among the brethren...

The generous man cannot but regret to see dissensions and disputes among his brethren. Only the base and ungenerous delight in discord. It is the poorest occupation of humanity to labor to make men think worse of each other, as the press, and too commonly the pulpit, changing places with the hustings and the tribune, do. The duty of the Mason is to endeavor to make man think better of his neighbor; to quiet, instead of aggravating difficulties; to bring together those who are severed or estranged; to keep friends from becoming foes, and to persuade foes to become friends. To do this, he must needs control his own passions, and be not rash and hasty, nor swift to take offence, nor easy to be angered. 

For anger is a professed enemy to counsel. It is a direct storm, in which no man can be heard to speak or call from without; for if you counsel gently, you are disregarded; if you urge it and be vehement, you provoke it more. It is neither manly nor ingenuous. It makes marriage to be a necessary and unavoidable trouble; friendships and societies and familiarities, to be intolerable. It multiplies the evils of drunkenness, and makes the levities of wine to run into madness. It makes innocent jesting to be the beginning of tragedies. It terns friendship into hatred; it makes a man lose himself, and his reason and his argument, in disputation. It turns the desires of knowledge into an itch of wrangling. It adds insolency to power. It turns justice into cruelty, and judgment into oppression. It changes discipline into tediousness and hatred of liberal institution. It makes a prosperous man to be envied, and the unfortunate to be unpitied. 

 See, therefore, that first controlling your own temper, and governing your own passions, you fit yourself to keep peace and harmony among other men, and especially the brethren. Above all remember that Masonry is the realm of peace, and that “among Masons there must be no dissension, but only that noble emulation, which can best work and best agree.” Wherever there is strife and hatred among the brethren, there is no Masonry; for Masonry is Peace, and Brotherly Love, and Concord. 


Icky Trump is definitely not an Intimate Secretary. (If you agree, maybe go buy a t-shirt to show your feelings?) 

Finally, a Facebook friend posted this quote a while back that really resonated with me--


Found via Pinterest, I'd credit the image creator if I could.
I think I'm going to print that and tape it to my bathroom mirror. And I'm also going to bookmark a few pages of Masonic texts and refer to them frequently, when I need to bolster my own character and get back on track.  Like Van Jones, I don't want feelings of rage over what's happening to bring me down to the level of Trump and his ilk.  

I want to be an outraged Intimate Secretary.


 





January 2, 2018

I GOT A FEELIN MY MIND'S IN THE PIE

I got the news this afternoon that my friend Steven died unexpectedly yesterday morning. Stevie-O, as he allowed me to call him, was what's generally considered a "character", so I feel like I need to write about him. I'm sure other friends of his knew a lot of other sides of him, but these are the experiences and characteristics that I know and feel the need to put out there as a memorial--

Steven was piratical and bombastical and a great big teddy bear of a guy (and I don't mean the gay version of "teddy bear", though that might apply, too).  I first knew him through his fairly out-there, snake-chasing posts on the Third Man Records Vault and one of the Jack White message boards, where he used the screen-name Avard, which I later learned was his father's name (Or maybe his grandfather's, I can't exactly remember now). His avatar looked like a young African-American guy in a red wig...



...so imagine my surprise when I met Steve in person, in line
in Chattanooga in 2012 for Jack White's first public solo show for Blunderbuss, and found myself confronted by this large and loud and boisterous, bald and goateed guy who looked like he could be either a biker or a sailor.  Not what I was expecting.  When I got home from that show and received in the mail a poster from Jack's first private solo show, prior to the one in Chattanooga, a poster featuring a huge black vulture, which Steve bought the day after the Chattanooga show on his way home through Nashville and sent to me just because he'd decided we were going to be pals, I was so touched and it was the beginning of an exchange of gifts, both large and small, back and forth, that culminated less than two months ago when I sent him a copy of Kid Congo Powers' Live at Third Man Records single that I'd asked Kid to sign for Steve when I was in Detroit for Devil's Night in October.   

After Chattanooga was Jack's show at Webster Hall in New York, after which Steven told me that if he weren't gay I was exactly the sort of woman he'd want to marry, after he watched me coming around the corner up the street from the venue, sprinting as fast as my legs could go, hauling ass to make it by door-time because I had tickets for both of us and two more friends and I hadn't been able to get the day off from work and had to take the train up from DC mid-day and then catch two subway trains and then run four blocks from the subway and he was waiting for me so that he could grab me and drag me inside to the front of the line.  This was the show broadcast live for AmEx Unstaged, directed by Gary Oldman.  We'd gotten a teaser for this show in the form of a video of Jack and Gary that included a few moments of the two of them rolling around on the floor wrestling.  Day of the show, Steve and our two other friends had camped out in line all day to ensure we'd be on the rail when I got there with the tickets and, according to Steve, when Gary Oldman walked by that morning, Steve asked him what it was like to wrestle with Jack, to which Gary apparently replied "I bet you'd like to wrestle him". Same show at which Steve swears he caught a drop of Jack's sweat in his mouth.  You can see him, bald-headed and goateed, throughout the show, right smack in front of Jack (as well as the wrestling match that begins the video)--



Steve loved the raisin pie at Yoder's Amish Restaurant down in Sarasota, Florida, and one day when he was waxing rhapsodic about it to me, he altered a line in one of his favorite Jack White songs, Take Me With You When You Go, to "I got a feelin' my mind's in the pie", which became a repeated refrain when he wanted pie or Jack or just fucking felt like saying it.

And then there was the time I got up at midnight and drove all the way from Maryland to his house in Connecticut to pick him up so that we could drive to Boston for one of Jack's shows, at which we both fell in love with Cary Ann Hearst, of the opening act Shovels and Rope, when she belted out a song so intensely that she ended up with two long streaks of runny mascara all the way down her cheek.  Oh, and some girl threw a bra at Jack on stage, to which he replied "Thanks, Ma!" and Steve and I joked about that again just a few months ago.  I was so exhausted on the drive back to his place that night that he talked non-stop to try to keep me awake, telling me stories about things like the time Patti Smith did a reading (or something) at the Wadsworth Museum (where Steve was chief preparator right up until his death, dammit did I really just type that?) and he'd ended up out on the loading dock eating sandwiches with her. 

And then we got up the next day and drove to New York for both of Jack's soon-to-be-infamous shows at Radio City Music Hall.  Breakfast that morning before heading to New York was fabulous, as Stevie-O took me to the local Polish market where we stocked up on chicken meatballs with dill sauce, sauerkraut, sausages, rye bread, and other treats, and went back for a feast sitting at his 50s-era formica kitchen table with the Raconteurs Live in Glasgow blasting from the stereo in his living room.  I was miserable at the show in New York that night, though, not because it was the show that Jack cut short after only an hour, but because our seats were halfway back and there were so many tall people in front of me, and so many people running back and forth along the row and up and down the aisle next to us that I couldn't see the goddamned stage. Steven's seat was right behind mine and he could tell how distraught I was because I wasn't dancing or clapping or singing along the way he knew I normally did, and at one point during the show he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a big hug.  I almost started crying right then and there in the aisle at Radio City Music Hall, but I didn't. I am crying now, remembering it.  It was sometimes hard to know what to make of Steve, with his bombast and ALL CAPS written communications and the constant stream of Radio City Music Hall Rockettes show e-mail announcements he would forward to me and how he'd rant about the things he couldn't buy or do because of the limitations of his health and his finances, but that hug at that particular show really kind of told me all I needed to know about him. 



Me, Steve, and our friend Monya just before that infamous Radio City show. 
I have another photo of just Steve and me from that night, but I can't find it and am going to be fucking pissed off if it's not on my computer somewhere.

And, yeah, it seems like pretty much all of my memories of Steve revolve around Jack White and, well, they do.  He loved Jack the way I do.  He was into all sorts of kinds of music and was constantly telling stories of shows he'd been to and musicians he'd met (I once asked him to list all of the bands he'd never seen live because that would be easier than listing the ones he had seen), but it was our shared addiction to Jack's music (during the Blunderbuss tour, it was Steve who coined the term "getting JACKED UP" for going to one of Jack's shows) that brought us together.  Unfortunately, the last time I saw him in person and got one of his big hugs was just over three years ago, because, as mentioned above, his multiple health issues and financial difficulties made him unable to just up and follow Jack around like so many of us do.  But Steve is... was one of the few friends I've made within the Jack White community that I talk to.. talked to continually on a regular basis, one of the few with whom I found other interests we could share, one of the few that made a point to keep in touch with me, even if it was just to tell me what was going on with him.   

My heart breaks for his husband, John, and their cats Rosie and Taffy (and the dearly departed Conchetta), and for his family.  I think of his massively abundant tomato harvest last year that he posted fifty million photos of on Facebook.  I think of all the mouth-watering meals he told me all the time that he was preparing, and all the art we talked about (he was my go-to when I came across a piece of art I needed help understanding).  And it kills me that he died before Jack's new album could come out this year, that he couldn't get JACKED UP, couldn't see his JACK ON FIRE, even just one more time.  


 

He was at that  ^  goddamned show in 2005 when Jack screamed "And I will FUCK YOU until you die!!!" and he never, ever got tired of telling me about it. 

I don't believe in Heaven, but that's not going to stop me from imagining Steven up there in the clouds with Conchetta, engaging in human bowling with the angels and telling them all those stories of all of those incredible shows he went to in his lifetime, bellowing "I GOT A FEELING MY MIND'S IN THE PIE!!!"






I'M GOING TO MISS YOU, STEVIE-O !!!



December 13, 2017

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, volume 2: A taste of servings and portions




It's hard, it's soft, it's crunchy, it's smooth, it's stuttering, it's melodic.  He raps, he croons, he shouts, he squeals. It's got new words (abulia, akrasia, abjurement... Jack must've been doing some casual reading through the A section of the dictionary when writing this one), and some familiar themes (weight of the world on his shoulder, suffering for/because of women, starting fires).  There's a new cast of characters among both musicians and  instruments.  In just four minutes, he's given us a lot to digest and a lot to think about. 

And the fan-girl/addict has eagerly taken her place in the front car of the roller-coaster, waiting for things to get rolling. 




July 9, 2017

The drums of Gone beat the Battle Cry guitar, and other Blue Series surprises

A week or so ago, Third Man Records released a new Blue Series single from a Scandinavian duo named My Bubba (the group name is their names-- My Larsdotter and Guðbjörg "Bubba" Tómasdóttir).  I assume most people who read this blog know what the Blue Series is, but for those who don't the in-a-nutshell description is that it's a series of singles produced by Jack White, by bands and musicians that strike his fancy and who are able record a couple of songs in a single day in his studio.  They're of diverse genres and  are nearly always bands and musicians I've never heard of before.  There was a time when a single like this one would've barely registered on my radar, I would've acknowledged the news and sat back to wait for the next thing to come down the pike. But, as I've talked about before, I'm more adventurous musically than I used to be, and the announcement said the b-side of this Blue Series was a cover of Bob Dylan's You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which is one of my favorites from Blood On The Tracks. So, yadda yadda yadda, I ordered it and when it arrived I ripped both sides for the car, putting them in a folder on my flash drive that included another song released earlier this year by Third Man that you may've heard of, called Battle Cry.


 
Backing up a bit-- I felt like I should have been excited when Battle Cry came out in April. It was a brand-spanking new song from Jack, not a collaboration with anyone else, the first new music since Lazaretto was released in 2014!  Granted, it was for a short film advertisement for the Warstic baseball bat company (of which he's co-owner) and walk-up music for Detroit Tigers player, Ian Kinsler. But still... new music!  So many people I know were excited.  But I wasn't.  It's a good song, I do like it. It's the first song on my flash drive playlist, which means it plays when I turn the car on in the morning and hit the road for the commute to work. It's certainly appropriate for that.  But it's a standard "Jack White" song. It fits the context for which it was written and has a great driving rhythm and a terrific guitar solo.  But there are no surprises in it, nothing that hits you from left-field, to borrow a term from baseball.

On the other hand, this subtle and subdued new song from My Bubba, called Gone...  It's surprised the hell out of me.  After listening to it once at NPR's All Songs Considered, I thought it was pretty and pretty lethargic, but bought the single anyway, purely out of curiosity to hear the b-side.  I figured it'd get filed away after a listen or two. But then today, when it came up in the car, it grabbed me so much I hit repeat and ended up listening to it for the majority of the 150 or so miles I drove.



 
It's the drums, the ones that made NPR's Bob Boilen describe the song as "rumbling". Played by Jack himself under one of his Blue Series pseudonyms, they're the sound that's missing from Battle Cry-- Not a single cymbal crash to be heard anywhere, just tribal rolls and thumps punctuating and giving shape to the hypnotic chant of My Bubba's vocals. Those drums are like the riffles and rapids that break up the inexorable, steady flow of a river, that keep it from carrying you away.  They ground the song and transform it from a trance to a meditation.  And they're unlike anything I've heard Jack play before.  That makes them a surprise and a treat, not just for his playing of them, but also for his choice as a producer to include them.  He could've made a similar choice for Battle Cry and directed drummer Daru Jones to play something like this on that song, but he didn't. He saved that sound for this song, one that many fans may, unfortunately for them, never hear.  He seems to like doing perverse things like that.

The other thing that turns me on is that these little Blue Series production tricks of his make me want to listen to more music by artists like My Bubba, so that I can compare to hear how he's made their music different.  And that has led me so many times to getting into a new musician or group that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. It's what's made me, as I mentioned above, more musically adventurous, because I've found that the feeling of discovery and exploration is what stimulates me more than anything else.

As for their cover of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome, I barely recognized it on first listen. My Bubba slow it down to the point that it only just holds on to Dylan's original melody.  Both on the album and live, Dylan keeps the song uptempo, almost jaunty, so that it's more playful than lonesome.



But there's an ache in My Bubba's harmonies that turns it into a truly regretful lament.


 
It's kind of what I expected from that first listen to Gone on NPR, but at the same time... it's not. There's a depth there that I completely did not expect. And even though these songs aren't Jack's own music, they're an example of the sort of thing I will always want more of from him-- To be surprised. 







May 18, 2017

In dreams until my death, I will wander on. Rest in peace, Chris Cornell

The words you say, never live up to the ones inside your head.  The lives we make, never seem to get us anywhere but dead.


 
Within a half hour of reading of Chris Cornell's death, the lyrics started flooding my head. All those lines that touched me through the years, from my late 20s when Badmotorfinger was released and I discovered Soundgarden, all the way through my 30s and Euphoria Morning and the end of the one lasting relationship I've had, into my 40s and Audioslave, and then Chris's music changed with his second solo album and I couldn't relate anymore and I discovered Jack White. But even though the new music he was making had changed, the old music was still there.  There was no way any of those old Soundgarden albums or Euphoria Morning or the first Audioslave album could be put aside entirely.  They had meant too much and still did. Still do. Chris's imagery and metaphors could be obscure, but then he'd cut through the obscurity with a line as sharply meaningful as a razor. Or a diamond.  

Dreaming only of the ones who never dream of you... never dream of you.


 
Prince's death last year was a horrible shock, but this is worse.  I loved Prince's music, but I felt Chris's music.  I've written about a few of his songs in the past-- Like Suicide and I Am The Highway, especially, moved me to words.  

Sitting here like uninvited company, wallowing in my own obscenities...

 

I've experienced depression and self-hate and Soundgarden was the first band I discovered that reflected what I felt.  It was always so obvious that Chris had also been there and understood and was able to express those feelings in a poetic way that buoyed me up rather than bringing me down. Fell On Black Days was like an anthem for me for years.



There are so, so many others. I could make this post an hour-long read/listen if I, and you, had the time.  But I'll leave it brief.  We've all got our own favorites, our own personal lines and words that touched us and left a mark, helped to define us or to uplift us.  So I felt it was important to take the time to remember just a few of my own, the ones that most immediately came to mind. More will continue to come over the next few days and I'll wish I had included them here.  But I have to go to work. As the title of Chris's second solo album states, we all have to carry on.

On reading of his death this morning, Like a Stone was one of the first that rushed into my head and it's the one that I'm going to end with.  I once read an Audioslave interview in which the other guys in the band talked about how this song came together. They described how Chris just sat in a chair with his eyes closed while they played the music for him and they thought he had checked out, that he wasn't paying any attention. Then he opened his mouth and began to sing the words that'd come to him while he was sitting there with closed eyes.  I hope he's in that house now.




On a cobweb afternoon 
In a room full of emptiness 
By a freeway I confess 
I was lost in the pages 
Of a book full of death 
Reading how we'll die alone 
And if we're good, we'll lay to rest 
Anywhere we want to go 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 
Alone 

On my deathbed I will pray 
To the gods and the angels 
Like a pagan to anyone 
Who will take me to heaven 
To a place I recall 
I was there so long ago 
The sky was bruised 
The wine was bled 
And there you led me on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone I'll wait for you there 
Alone 
Alone 

And on I read 
Until the day was gone 
And I sat in regret 
Of all the things I've done 
For all that I've blessed 
And all that I've wronged 
In dreams until my death 
I will wander on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 
Alone 
Alone