Friday, May 29, 2009

LISTENING PARTY: Transverse City




I have never wanted an album like I wanted Warren Zevon’s “Transverse City”. I first became a Zevon fan the end of my sophomore year of high school when I picked up his then most recent album, “Mutineer.” In short order (well as short order as a 15 year with no money in the pre-internet days when people had to go to record stores and buy records with money instead of just stealing them off the web) I picked up “Mr. Bad Example”, “Sentimental Hygiene”, “Learning to Flinch”, and “A Quiet Normal Life” (the best-of collection of his 70s work.) I had read somewhere (and where did we learn things before the internet allowed us to just look up whatever we wanted? I think it was from one of the Rolling Stones Album Review Guides) that Zevon released an album between “Sentimental Hygiene” and “Mr. Bad Example.” I had never seen this CD at any of the record stores I frequented (although I feel like I made a lot of my CD purchases at places like “Circuit City” and “Lechmere’s” at the time) and when my friend Kris told me that she had tried to order the CD for my birthday and was told by our local record shop that the title was unavailable I learned a terrible, horrible phrase: Cut-out. I was never going to be able to find “Transverse City.”
It was about 10 months later (an eternity when you are 15-16) that I learned of a second phrase: Cut-out bin. And in this cardboard bin filled with cassette tapes with their spines sliced, I found a $2.99 copy of Warren Zevon’s “Transverse City.” It was at an old music store frequently found in malls called “The Wall” and I was with my friend Kris, who lent me the $3 I needed to pick up the tape, bringing the whole thing full circle. It is hardly the best Warren Zevon record, but it is my favorite. You can probably make an argument that it is not as warm sounding as the best of his 70s records, or that it lacks the punch of its predecessor, “Sentimental Hygiene.” And that it points the way towards the more simultaneously garish and cheap-sounding production of his 90s work. You may complain, like Zevon’s mother did, that there are no funny songs. But I rejoinder with three simple words:
CYBERPUNK. ROCK. OPERA.

“Transverse City”- I feel like Zevon has been listening to lots of Kraftwerk before recording this song. Or maybe that Taco guy. There’s something so German and Math-y about the way this song opens. Luckily he brought Jerry Garcia to play lead guitar on the track. That’s right, the leader of the Grateful Dead is playing on German Synth-Rock. Did they have to give Garcia a B-12 shot before he started playing? The lyrics sounds like they come from Blade Runner: The Opera. He keeps singing to some girl named Pollyanna, and if I were him I would’ve invited Haley Mills to appear in a music video where she dances around a bank of computer screens and slow dancing with robots. But maybe that’s why Virgin has never offered me a record contract.

“Run Straight Down”- I want to be a chemist so I can make what ever compound Zevon is naming under the music of this song. I bet whatever it is could eat through a safe door. Listen to the video clip. He sounds like he’s naming the ingredients in “Fruity Pebbles” after sugar and rice. Continuing the guest-guitarists-from big-bands theme he’s got going, Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd plays lead guitar on this track. At least Gilmour has experience playing guitar on inscrutable concept albums. I can totally see Gilmour just nodding as Zevon explained his idea. “It’s going to be a concept album about a dystopian future in which people are controlled by chemicals and consumerism.” Gilmour: “One of our albums had a pig singing through a vocoder.” Point: Pink Floyd.


“The Long Arm of The Law”- Zevon is great at dropping completely disarming details into his lyrics. The song just kind of details somebody who is a criminal, and most of the lyrics are pretty generic “When I was born, times were bad, when I got older, they got worse. First words I ever learned were ‘Nobody moves nobody gets hurt.’” But then he has one verse in the middle that talks about a war in Paraguay back in 1999. This album came out in 1989. He’s talking about the future! I love reading about futures that have already passed. Like how Logan’s Run took place in like 1992. “We’ll all be wearing shiny uniforms by then, and they’ll kill all the old people!” Guest star for this track: Jazz pianist Chick Corea, who doesn’t seem to do anything that worth bringing in a jazz great for. Maybe it’s part of Zevon’s theme: in the future, there will be jazz pianists, but they’ll only be able to play on MOR radio albums, way, way down in the mix.

“Turbulence”- This song is about a Russian secret agent. My favorite lines? “Well, I’ve been fighting the mujahaddin, Down in Afghanistan. Comrade Gorbachev, can I go back to Vladivostok, man?” I love that he refers to Gorbachev as “man.” If Zevon had had another verse where he had somebody say to Khrushchev “Bummer, dude” I think it would be the best song of all time. Also, I had to consult the lyric sheet for the spelling of Vladivostok, and there’s a verse that Zevon sings in Russian, and in the lyric book it says [there is Russian lettering here] [unable to re-type] [what should we do?] Guest star: JD Souther on harmony vocals. We’re a long way from the Hotel California, JD.

“They Moved the Moon”- I really like this song. It’s more of a mood piece. Jerry Garcia’s back on guitar for this one. I like to pretend that they just couldn’t get Garcia out of the studio. He just kept on hanging around. It sounds like he was just noodling around, and Zevon puts a bunch of post-processing on the guitar to make it sound like different things. Like outer-space machines. Or something. The song really is pretty awesome, although I like to pretend that the chorus is literal. Or like, if the guy in the song met up with a third grader. “They moved the moon, when I looked down. When I looked away, they moved the stars around.” “Yeah, mister. It’s called the Earth’s rotation.”

“Splendid Isolation”- This song doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the tracks. It’s also the only song that anybody who doesn’t own this album may have ever heard. It’s all about going off to live in the desert like Georgia O’Keefe. Or Michael Jackson in Disneyland. Best line ever: “Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand. And lead me to the world of self.” This song is really a classic. Bonus: harmony vocals by Neil Young, and a great harmonica solo by Warren Zevon. Although that may be a liner notes error, because I know how much Neil Young loves the harmonica. And because it doesn’t sound like the voice harmonizing with Zevon is that of a sick Canadian bobcat. God, how could I be so cruel to Neil Young? Now that I listen to it, the harmonica is most likely not Young, because it doesn’t do that thing that Neil Young harmonica solos do, where it sounds like he just thought that all you had to do to play the harmonica was breath in and out of it really hard. There are individual notes, Neil!


“Networking”-This song brings back the sound effects, where we open with the sounds of people eating lunch. This song utilizes a number of Heartbreakers, so it has a nice organ sound on it courtesy Benmont Tench. And apparently since Zevon had his own bass player, Howie Epstein gets to play the banjo. I think that’s buried way down in the mix. My fiancee loves this song, especially the chorus where Zevon tells you that you upload him and he’ll download you. She always sings along with that part. I love imagining that for many people back in 1989, those two words meant nothing. Oh, Warren, you were so ahead of your time. Open question: is upload/download supposed to be a sexual thing?

“Gridlock”- Alright, we’re never going to make it to the 1999 War in Paraguay if we can’t through this traffic! God, it sucks to think that in the future we’re still going to be sitting around , bumper-to-bumper. Where are our jetpacks and flying cars, Warren? I think Warren must’ve been kicking himself when he realized that by 1999 we eliminated the need to physically move ourselves around at all, able to teleport our minds and communicate telepathically. Man, Gorbachev, let’s just get out and walk. Neil Young on guitar, this time.

“Down at the Mall”- Wait. Americans are consumerist freaks? We like to buy stuff? Malls are really big? After you’re done recording this song, Warren, I have the broad side of a barn I need hit. Would you mind coming down? There are a few nice touches, like when he’s naming all the stores he’s going to go to, and there’s a second voice talking over the list, and it says that they’re going to stop to buy some oriental imports. I like that. Also, I like that he let Howie Epstein play bass, instead of giving him a banjo and telling him to sit in the corner and shut up. At this point I should probably point out that both Warren Zevon and Howie Epstein are dead, which makes me a very insensitive person.

“Nobody’s In Love This Year”- I love this song, and it’s one of the great Zevon love songs. I’m sorry, one of the great Zevon we’re-not-in-love songs. This might be my favorite song title of all time. Guest appearance by Mark Isham on flugelhorn. . Zevon was a great writer, if he wasn’t always a great performer of his own material. Case in point: the “orchestra-hit” keyboard line throughout the song. But the guy is all class, because he pronounces maturity as “ mah-tour-ity” as opposed to “match-err-ity.” He’s like Frasier.

(There is no live version of "Nobody's In Love This Year" I could find, so here is his great we're-not-in-love song from "Mr. Bad Example" instead. "Searching for A Heart")

This album was reissued on CD in 2002 to capitalize on…I’m sorry, commemorate Zevon’s passing. And as such they dug up probably the only bonus track they could find, a demo of “Networking” which frankly ruins my listening experience, because “NILTY” is such a great album closer, and they only include one bonus track? I’m listening to it, because I said I would, but it really cheeses me off.

The album cover is Zevon surrounded by a fractured background of cars and stores and other signs of the capitalistic black spot on the soul of America. I used to think his hair was deliberately styled to make him look like a mad scientist or like Renfield from Dracula, but looking at video performances from the time, this was apparently how Zevon wore his hair. Two years later he would show up with a beard, and I think I can say on behalf of people who look at faces everywhere, it couldn’t have come a moment too soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Asymptomatic Athlete

I played soccer for three years when I was in Elementary School. I played soccer for three years the same way someone could have hepatitis for three years and not know it. I was an asymptomatic athlete. I was only vaguely aware I was playing soccer, never understood the rules or the function of the sport, and spent the majority of the game standing at the 50-yard line completely still waiting for the ball to go out of bounds so I could throw it back in. My position was half-back, and I had no idea what that meant, and legitimately thought I was just supposed to stand in one spot for the entire time. During a soccer game. Standing still.

The next organizational sport I played was football when I was in fourth grade. There were some photos of me in my football outfit, the one it took my mother something like seventeen hours to get me into, but they have thankfully been lost to time. I went to one practice and quit. The bastards wanted me to run! How ridiculous.

And that’s it. The rest of my athletic career consists of pick-up games with friends, where I volunteered to be the kicker, or the goalie, or the equipment manager. Anything that meant I didn’t have to focus all my mental energy on the game. Anything that meant I could play without having to enjoy it.

Part of it might be a certain kind of athletic blindness I have. In the years I worked at a high school, I coached a number of teams, and found that I found myself focusing on one player at a time. It might be a back, or a forward, or a midfielder, or the third baseman, or the outfielder, or the pitcher. But I wasn’t ever able to ever really see the entire field of players at once, at least not in any way that allowed me to effectively understand every aspect of the game while it was happening.

But a bigger, more important part of it is that I’m just not athletic. True, I’m terribly out of shape these days, and there were period of my life when I was younger when I was similarly out of shape, but there have been periods of my life where I have been in relatively good shape and I was just an in-athletic at those points as I am now. I’m just no good at sports.

(Two exceptions: I can play a pretty mean volleyball. It was the only faculty vs. student sporting event I would participate in, and I would play pretty damn well. I even played in flip flops. The other exception is four square. Dear god, if there was professional four square I might have made it my career. I’m really hard to beat once I get into the fourth square.)

When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I played intramural basketball after school. It was just kids from my school, and we’d throw on pinnies and scrimmage in the gym. Our gym teacher, Ms. Ladouceur served as our coach, and at some point during the season, she benched me, which was probably for both our benefits. I didn’t really want to play and she didn’t really want to have to make me. And since it was right after school, my parents rarely if ever were able to attend any of these scrimmages, which probably made it that much easier for Ladouceur to bench me for the majority of the season. So three afternoons a week I spent an hour after school wearing a red pinnie and sitting on the sideline, thinking about what comics I was going to buy or imagine various ways we all might get trapped in our underground gymnasium and the various MacGyver-esque plans I would use to free us all. I’m sure that she must’ve put me in a little bit each game, but my prevailing memory was thankfully not playing any basketball.

My mother would ask me how basketball was going, and I would make up stories to cover for the fact that I wasn’t playing. In these stories, I tried to invent plausible scenarios, and tried to keep them within the parameters of my athletic ability. Soon, though, I decided that I would score a basket in my imaginary game, and my mother seemed impressed by this, and I slowly started scoring more baskets per game. A few times I even was able to score the winning basket. I don’t think I ever liked sports more than I did in the forty-five second recaps I provided my mother each day.

On the final day of basketball for the year, I was sitting on the bench, wearing my red pinnie, thinking about whether or not I liked Hawk and Dove comics (I hadn’t ever read any, but it was something I wondered about) and whether or not Erin Toomey was going to ever marry me. The afternoon was winding down, and Ms. Ladouceur must’ve decided that it was time for me to get into the game, and she told me to take John’s place. The kids on John’s team were pretty upset and groaned, because John was taller than the rest of us and was pretty good at basketball, and I so very clearly wasn’t, and intramural scrimmage or not, nobody wants to lose. Which they most certainly would, now that I was taking the place of their forward.

I couldn’t dribble, couldn’t pass, couldn’t shoot. I hadn’t even brought a change of clothes, and so while all the other kids were playing in shorts and t-shirts, I went out onto the court wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. I’m sure Ms. Ladouceur thought she was helping me out, but in truth she was ruining the afternoon, and probably the whole season for everybody. THAT was how bad I was. Most of the second half of the game in which I played was spent with my team passing the ball around me. I don’t think I even touched it once.

You know how this movie ends. My team was down by one point, the clock was ticking down. Ms. Ladouceur, maybe realizing that she had deprived me of a fun experience, maybe feeling guilty that she had cultivated an atmosphere that made it okay for an intramural basketball team to not pass the ball to one of their own teammates, yelled out, “Somebody pass it to Ryan!” And somebody did.

I didn’t want to actually have the ball, or have to dribble it, or think about who to pass it to, so I sent it up to the basket. It was bounced right off the backboard back into my hands, like it knew that the last thing I ever wanted was to touch it again. So I sent it back up to the hoop, and this time it went in. I’d like to pretend that it was a swish, or that it was one of those balls that circled round the rim a dozen times before dropping in, but it just bounced off the backboard into the basket. And we won. I’d won the game.

I was so excited I couldn’t even believe it. It was a good feeling. It was a great feeling. This must be why people play sports, I thought. So they could feel like this. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom.

Of course, from my mother’s perspective, I had already scored the winning basket. She seemed happy for me, but she wasn’t as excited as I wanted her to be. This was an old story to her, one that I had told her in other afternoons, and because I had already accomplished the feat of the winning basket--because I had lied to her--it robbed the experience of any of its magic for me. I never played an organized sport again.

Fifteen years later, in my first year working as a teacher, I was invited to one of my students’ graduation parties. I spent most of the afternoon sitting with my students, drinking orange soda and eating hot dogs, telling them funny stories about my own high school years, when the girl’s father called over to me. “C’mon, Ryan. Old guys vs. young guys.” He waved me over with a wiffleball bat. That’s when I realized, I’m one of the old guys. In fairness, the “Old Guys” also drafted a 15-year old to their team. So I think I was being put on the old guys team specifically because I was a young guy. They thought I was their ringer, because I was only 24. If only they knew.

I spent a lot of time while the Old Guys were up at bat looking at the slimness of the yellow bat, the smallness of the white ball. I tried to estimate their respective widths relative to the length of my body. Tried to figure what percentage of my body that tiny ball represented. I tried to imagine ways that the explanation “The ball is 5.7% of my entire body” could in anyway sound manly.

But when I got my first at-bat during the second inning, I tried not to look at the small crowd that had gathered and just thought if I stand here and let the pitches go by, I can strike out without swinging. There was something about that that seemed dignified, somehow.

But as I saw the ball approach, in a way that I can’t even imagine now, I felt the bat lift off my shoulder, I felt my biceps and triceps move and stretch themselves, and I hit that wiffleball, first swing. I can still remember the sound it made as it whizzed by my students heads, out into the woods. I heard men my father’s age cheer, whistle, yell out homerun, and as I took my leisurely jog around the makeshift bases, and heard the mothers and fathers and the students that had gathers applaud and cheer and shout “Way to go, Mr. T!” I made a note to take my time and savor the victory. It was, like all victories, fleeting. I’d have two more at bats, and I would strike out one, and foul out another. But as I jogged my way around third after having hit the first homerun in a pick-up game of wiffleball that had no consequence to anybody or anything, I thought, This is it. Hang my number from the rafters.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

LISTENING PARTY: Under the Blood Red Sky

LISTENING PARTY: Under the Blood Red Sky

I was exposed to most of the music I listened to growing up through my parents’ record collections. (Well, primarily my father’s, as my mother wasn’t exactly a music buff.) And my father, I like to imagine, grew up in some kind of South Shore version of Quadrophenia, where there was a clear line of demarcation with regards to popular music. Hence, growing up, I really had little knowledge of the music of the Beatles (except a charming and I’m sure now worth a fortune if I could find it copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles) because my father was a Stones fan. And while I grew up with an appreciation for the high pitched strained singing of Neil Young, there was no Bob Dylan in my house. In fact, looking back on it now, the first time I probably heard any Dylan (except maybe “Rainy Day Women” on the FM radio) was his vocal contributions to “The Traveling Wilburys” Volume I, one of my and my father’s favorite records in the late 80s. Dylan teamed up with Tom Petty, Roy Orbinson, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne from ELO. He had obviously come a long way from Greenwich Village.



So, suffice to say, I think I made my Dylan journey from a different starting point than many others, and while I have an appreciation for his early records--I own Bringing it All Back Home through John Wesley Harding--I find a lot more enjoyment in his later, weirder works. The only “classic” Dylan album that I really really love--it’s my favorite Dylan album and one of my top ten favorite albums of all time--is Blood on the Tracks. But even that is tainted by my spotty pop culture history. I picked it up at the end of my senior year of high school because the film Jerry Maguire featured “Shelter from the Storm” over its closing credits. Show me the shame, Jerry.

And I was so enamored with that record, I went to Tower records--truly dating myself here-- and scoured the Dylan bin for another masterpiece. And what I came up with was Under the Blood Red Sky. I don’t know why I chose this particular record, instead of Highway 61 Revisited, or Down in the Groove (on either end of the quality spectrum) but instead ended somewhere right in the middle. And Under the Blood Red Sky is pretty much in the middle. It followed Dylan’s “comeback” album (his , like, 50th by that point) Oh Mercy and was so trashed at the time of release that the fact that Dylan did not release any new original material for seven years was not exactly something that caused mourning among music listeners. But I love this record. A lot of it is nostalgia, but that’s why we love any record. Also, I love how much fun Bob Dylan seems to be having pissing everybody off.

“Wiggle Wiggle” I don’t even think I need to comment on this. Look at this title! “Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a swarm of bees/ wiggle on your hands and knees” This album was produced by Don Was, who was pretty famous as a producer in the late eighties early nineties for producing modern AOR (album oriented rock--code words for albums dads think are cool.) So it sounds a little like a Bonnie Raitt album, but some part of Dylan must’ve enjoyed that. Maybe he was hoping he'd run into her during recording and then he could put the wiggle-wiggle on her. Or something.

“Under the Blood Red Sky” Dylan is clearly just ripping off nursery rhymes for this one. “There was a little old man who lived in the moon, one day he came passing by.” And there’s something about a little girl getting a diamond as big as her shoe, as long as she continues to live under a blood red sky. Although I don’t know who would want a diamond that big because I’m guessing wearing it as a ring would break your finger. But don’t worry, she’s not going to get that diamond after all, because Dylan informs us that she and the little boy are getting baked into a pie. Is that something that happened a lot? Did deviants kidnap children and bake them into pastries? Could you imagine Chris Hanson from Dateline stinging those guys? “Is that cinnamon in your pocket? Are you telling me you came to see an underage girl with cinnamon in your pocket and you weren’t planning on turning her into some kind of turnover?”

“Unbelievable” This is one of those almost rockabilly numbers that is probably more fun to play than to listen to. Somebody’s having fun playing a B3 organ, and there’s somebody playing a piano that plays like one note every fourteen bars, and he sounds like he’s having a good time. Like if you were a musician and Bob Dylan wanted you to play on his record, what would you do? Would you be jazzed, and then show up and he says “Wndwnafjw;ioe;qnfmd;afni’” which then the producer would translate for you as “We’re going to play a number called ‘Unbelievable’.” And you’d be psyched, imagining the organ part of “Like A Rolling Stone” and then Dylan played this number. It’s like having your parents tell you that Christmas has come early this year, except the whole family just converted to Judaism.




“Born in Time” This is a really pretty song, and one that I’ve read was left over from the Oh, Mercy sessions, which might be why it sounds like Dylan actually wrote a song instead of just making one up on the spot. I also like the phrase “born in time” and the way Dylan uses it differently throughout the song. The drums do sound like they were recorded in outer space, though, which is unfortunate. And somebody is singing harmony vocals with Dylan, which seems as challenging as trying to put a brassiere on a jellyfish.



“TV Talking Song” Well that was nice while it lasted. This is Dylan just trying to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” except way, way, way shittier. I have to admit I’ve never listened to what Dylan was talking about before, and now that I am I wished that I haven’t. It’s some kind of story about Dylan being in London, which he helpfully explains is a town, which is good, because that’s the only time he deals with anything specific. There’s some kind of riot and the TV cameramen jump over Bobby D and so he goes home and watches it on TV. So I guess it’s some kind of commentary on the way television detaches us from events, except that Dylan seems detached from this song the whole time. He sings it the same way I answer my girlfriend’s questions when I’m watching TV. We’re both trying to tell you something, but oh, what’s that shiny thing over there.


“10,000 Men” I’m a big title guy, so when I buy an album I look at all the song titles and try and guess which ones I will like the best based on those titles. I did not have high hopes for “10,000 Men” and my guess was right. He does say that he has “10,000 women in his bed” and he makes it sound like it’s right this second, which means he should probably finish this song up and get back to them, because if they’re anything like the 10,000 women Bret Michaels has in his bed during “Rock of Love” somebody’s going to end up dead soon if Bobby D doesn’t get on top of it.

“2 X 2” I’m sure someone might have fun analyzing this, but while I didn’t like the title 10,000 Men, I was excited about 2 X 2. It’s not bad.

I guess a note here about the album’s cover, and Dylan record covers in general. Has there ever been a major artist who has released so many albums without any of them having really great covers? His two most recent, “Modern Times” and “Together Through Life” feature some nice black and white photography, but for almost every other Dylan album it’s a picture of him, shot seemingly by an instamatic camera. Like the album artwork was due two days earlier and he hasn’t gotten around to it, so he hands some lady passing by his disposable camera and asks her to take a snapshot like he was a tourist. Which I guess he kind of is. A tourist of Earth. This cover is him crouching in the dirt, looking like he lost a quarter.

“God Knows” This is another song that was written for the Oh, Mercy sessions and sounds like he spent more than forty seconds thinking about it. I’d love to hear the Oh Mercy version, because that album was produced by Daniel Lanois, who while occasionally overbearing, at least knows how to provide proper atmosphere. The lead guitarist on this album sounds like the one who plays in your dad’s cover band. The one that plays family parties and on the town common on the Fourth of July. I don’t know why Dylan decided that this version of the song was the one he wanted to release, but maybe he just needed the money. He does have 10,000 women back home to feed. This song fades out in the middle of a lyric. Who does that? Dylan doesn’t even get to finish his sentence. It’s like when an old guy accepts his lifetime achievement award at the Oscars and he gets to thank his wife and his (cue music-we’ve got a Debi Allen dance number to get to). Unacceptable.


“Handy Dandy” I’m guessing this song excited the band when they heard it. It does kind of sound like “Like A Rolling Stone” complete with prominent B3 organ. And the lyrics are absurd. I don’t know who this Handy Dandy is he’s talking about, but I guess it might be somewhat autobiographical, because you probably need to be a dandy to score 10,000 women, and you certainly need to be handy if you’re going to bed them all at the same time. This might be the best song on the record.



“Cat’s in the Well” Man this guy has got his hands full. He’s got a harem the size of a small town and now his cat is down in the well, and apparently his horse is going bumpety-bump. That sounds severe. This song is a lot of fun, too. It reminds me a lot of Dylan’s last couple of record where it seems like he gives his band a light little song template (here’s a boogie number, let’s do a rockabilly one) and let’s them have fun with it. Then he just makes shit up on top of it. I think if I’d written the lyrics to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” I’d kind of put my feet up a bit, too. There are more words in that song than there are in most Tom Clancy novels.

I’m sure I haven’t done a good job of selling you folks on this record. Which isn’t really my intent, I suppose. It is a listening party, and this just happens to be one of those parties that doesn’t work out so well, a kind of “Costume party in July” listening party. Only half of the people dressed up and nobody’s dancing to the music. So we’re all just going to stand around, holding our empty glasses and stare at each other until the record’s over.

What does it say about me that while I know intrinsically that “Blonde on Blonde” is a vastly superior record, given the choice I’d probably rather listen to this one? The one that I spent a forty minutes listening to intently in the attempt to talk about why I liked it.

Is this new wallpaper?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

RJT Answers Readers' Questions!

I’d like for this to be a regular feature here on the blog with the mostest, but unfortunately, I either have no readers, or I have readers who have no questions. Or worse, I could have readers with questions but are too afraid to ask them. Because I am so intimidating, what with that picture over there where my shirt is unbuttoned to an unseemly level, showcasing the wild mane that is my chest hair.

But never despair, dear reader! Since I have no reader questions of my own to answer, I will instead answer the questions posed by the readers of Shade, the Changing Man vol. 1, no 7, published in July of 1978!



John Dwyer of Sydney, Nova Scotia asks: “If Shade proves his innocence, will his comic still be published?”
RJT: Well, John, since thirty-one years has passed, you should already know the answer to this one. Steve Ditko, creator of Shade (as well as the Amazing Spiderman) enigmatically quit the book after issue 8, thus ending the series. I’m not sure if Shade ever proved his innocence, even though I’ve read STCM no. 8, mainly because nothing in this series made any sense. I hope that the last thirty years have been kind to you, and thanks for writing in. Oh, and you should take some of the money you saved not being able to buy Steve Ditko’s Shade, The Changing Man for the past thirty-one years, and put it towards a copy of my new novel, “The While”, available now!

Robert Aldridge of Ft. Lauderdale, FL., writes: “Why did Mellu despise Shade at first?”
RJT: Hey, Robert. How’s Ft. Lauderdale these days? I don’t mean to do the whole “reading-between-the-lines” psychoanalytical thing on you, but are you have lady problems of your own? Because, let’s be honest, it shouldn’t be any mystery why Mellu despises Shade at first. It’s called playing hard to get. I’m going to guess that your problem is that there is a certain special someone who, despite your best efforts, thinks you suck. It happens to the best of us. And since it’s been thirty-one years, I’m going to guess that you’re no longer quite as dapper as you once were, and you’re probably worried what this certain lady who wouldn’t give you the time of day in 1978 won’t find you attractive three decades later. And you’re probably also worrying what your current wife will think, what with you pining after a girl who, I think has been pretty solidly established, thought you were a creep. The solution? Buy both ladies copies of my new book, “The While”, as it will show them both that you are a sensitive man who values great literature.



Rex Arnold of Huntsville, AL has this query: “What are the full powers of the M-vest?”
RJT: I’m guessing mainly keeping people’s chests warm. That’s what most vests do. But really, they don’t do very much to warm you on the inside, when your soul feels cold and alone. Why not invest in your very own “soul vest” i.e. my new book “The While”? It’s guaranteed to make you feel warm inside in a way that a regular (say, denim) vest cannot.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"The While" now available at Amazon.com!

Buy The While from Amazon.com

My new novel, "The While" is now available from amazon.com. More so than holding the finished book in my hand, seeing my name on Amazon.com made the whole process of publishing The While seem that much more real. (Unless that other Ryan Tressel who is the Athletic Director of High Point University writes one of those coaches' books...)

For those of you who have been waiting to purchase the book from Amazon, now's your chance. And since my book is eligible for Super Saving Free Shipping (on orders over $25) here are a few books that I would recommend purchasing along with my book if you would rather spend your money on two new books instead of one new book and shipping costs.

"Where I'm Calling From"- Raymond Carver. Carver is the master of the short story, and this collection, which assembles some of his best in one place, is the best place to start reading the work on this man, who taught me the benefit of writing sentences that are less than 400 words long.

"The New Kings of Non-Fiction"
- Ira Glass. I'm a huge fan of Glass's radio program This American Life, and this Glass-selected collection of non-fiction articles captures the strange beauty of people sharing their stories just as well as the radio program does.

"The Giant's House" Elizabeth McCracken. It's been a decade since I read this book, but I can still remember how moved I was by this quiet tale of the giant and the woman who loved him.

"We3" Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.
I love comic books as much as anybody, and there is probably no better example of the power of the medium than this heartbreaking tale of Pirate, Tinker and Bandit's attempt to go home. For those of you who scoff at the phrase "graphic novel" I suggest you give this a chance.

"Easy to Keep, Hard to Keep In"- David R. Surette. Dave is a friend of mine, so I hope he'll appreciate the plug here. But besides being one of the best book titles of all time, "Easy to Keep..." contains some truly great poetry, each more surprising and powerful than the last.

"God Bless You Eliot Rosewater"- Kurt Vonnegut. I think it is nearly impossible to underestimate the importance of Vonnegut on American fiction in the 20th century, but it sadly seems possible to underestimate this beautiful novel, one of his more straight forward. The eponymous hero's advice to the newborn babies in the local maternity ward-- "There's only one rule: goddamn it, you've got to be kind"--should be the motto on our currency. This is a terrific and underrated book.



You may decide to only purchase my novel or you might have another book you've been eying that you want to pair up with "The While" (or you may not want to order any books at all) but if you're looking for something to bump your Amazon tally up to that magic $25-free-shipping, give any one of these a try.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

LISTENING PARTY: Play




Every band has that album, the one that usually comes in the middle of their career. The one that unless you were a huge fan of that band you’ve never heard, the one that gets none of its songs onto the two disc Ultimate Best Of Collection. I love those albums. And I love Squeeze. I love Squeeze as a band probably more than I love any other band, because while there are bands that I like more, that have done better work, there’s just something about Squeeze that makes me love them so much more. Maybe it’s the insanely gifted lyrics of Chris Difford, and the way singer/guitarist Glen Tilbrook marries them to some of the most perfectly constructed pop rock of all time. Maybe it’s because of their best song, “Up the Junction” and the way it tells a complete and compact story about a boy and girl falling in love, having a baby, then splitting up in about 2 and a half minutes, and how it doesn’t have a chorus. And when the record company told the band that the song was insanely catchy and would be a number one smash if they would only add a chorus, SQUEEZE STILL RELEASED THE SONG WITHOUT A CHORUS. There’s something about that that just gets to me.

And I love Squeeze albums, especially Play. They had already broken up and gotten back together at this point, and were coming off of their biggest American albums Babylon and On (with its huge hit “Hourglass”) and Frank, and moved from the smaller label A&M to Warner Brothers. They recorded Play, and were dropped by Warner Brothers like thirty-five minutes after it was released. So it just kind of exists in the cut-out bin vaccuum. It gets no love on compilations (which Squeeze has an inordinate amount of) and if generally forgotten about. Three years later they would resign with A&M and release Some Fantastic Place, another great record that was considered their “come-back.” Oh, world. Squeeze hadn’t gone away. You fools just weren’t listening.

“Satisfied”- Chris Difford writes lyrics about the strangest things. This song is about laying around after having sex. The best part of the song is that for a song called “Satisfied” the song is so unsatisfying. The verses chug along, building towards a chorus that, tonally, goes down when you think it would go up. I’m sure someone with more music theory understanding than myself could explain it better, but the song builds you up for an exciting chorus, and then lets you down. And I’m 100% Squeeze does this on purpose. Because the lyrics are ironic. “They looked at each other, they looked at the night. Under the covers they were satisfied.” Doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for sexual fulfillment, does it? This song also goes on much longer than most Squeeze songs usually do. I think that’s intentional, too.

“Crying in My Sleep”- This album was produced by Tony Berg, and it certainly makes it sound unlike any other Squeeze album, but dear God Jesus does he put the bass way up into the mix. It feels like it’s punching you in the throat. Squeeze has had like 400 different bass players, and Keith Wilkinson, who plays on this album (and all the great later Squeeze records) is definitely the best. But I’m now halfway through “Crying in my Sleep” and all I can talk about is the bass playing. Difford writes about weak men better than almost anybody, and not in the desperate loser way that a lot of great songwriters do (Randy Newman, Freedy Johnston, Joe Henry) but in a really kind of pathetic way, like a song about crying in your sleep. I imagine the guy singing the song to be sitting in those pajamas that older men wear, where it looks like they just came from some kind of flannel prom.

“Letting Go”- The album starts to drift away from what a regular Squeeze album sounds like here. There’s some great organ and chamberlain work on this track, which is I think by Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello’s regular keyboard player. Squeeze was without a keyboard player because Jules Holland got a job hosting a late night talk show on the BBC. That would never happen in America. That would be like hiring the rhythm guitarist of Creed to take over the Tonight Show.

“The Day I Get Home”- Squeeze is basically two guys: Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook. Difford writes all the lyrics, drops them in Tilbrook’s mailslot, and then Tilbrook writes the song. Glen is also the lead singer and the lead guitar player. Difford actually didn’t really do much musically, occasionally adding low harmonies, and strumming an acoustic rhythm guitar that when I saw them play was so low in the mix that I wondered if it was even plugged in. So it should come as no surprise that Difford hates touring, since his real role in the band is as a songwriter instead of a touring musician, and it should comes as no surprise that he would write a song about it. My favorite thing about this track? The backing vocals are by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, otherwise known as Spinal Tap. See? This is why I love Squeeze. They get their first big recording contract with a big budget and they hire g-d Spinal Tap to sing background vocals. If I ever get a big recording contract I’m going to hire Sarah Michelle Gellar to play spoons on one track, just because I can.


“The Truth”- This is the first truly brilliant song on this record. The chorus of this song is “The truth has to be told, my blood runs hot and cold. The truth is not my middle name.” It’s hard not to just quote the lyrics to all these songs because so many of them are so odd and unexpected. Difford should be the poet laureate of rock music. You know how a lot of songs you like do the thing where the lyrics don’t make sense, or the singer has to rush through a bunch of syllables so that he can get to the end of the rhyme, or there’s just one line that completely inverts conventional English grammar so they can make the lines rhyme, even if the singer sounds like Yoda when he’s doing it? Tilbrook never has to do any of those things because Difford’s lyrics scan perfectly.

“House of Love”-The lyrics to this song are even better than the last one. “her eyes were stale and spun, like marbles left in the sun.” This song does suffer a little bit as some Squeeze songs do, with Tilbrook deciding that he needs to play a guitar solo. I’ve never met Squeeze, but I imagine always that there’s a really cute girl around all the time, and whenever Difford writes a really brilliant lyric, the girl kind of winks at him, and then Tilbrook hits his pedal and starts playing an incredible solo. Just to show him up. Other than that, this song is pretty amazing.

“Cupid’s Toy”- This was the first song I loved off this album. It’s about a slick guy in a club trying to score. The chorus is “This boy doesn’t get love, this boy doesn’t get love” and the reason it’s repeated twice is because it has a double meaning. He doesn’t get (doesn’t understand) love, so he doesn’t get (striking out with the ladies) love. Brilliant. If I were single, I would memorize all the disses in this song and go to a club and use them on all the lame guys there and the ladies would think I was so clever and suave, I’d have to send Chris Difford a check to pay him back for all the ass I’d get. Maybe. I think I’d probably still have to be more attractive to pull it off. But damn if they don’t tear this guy apart in this song.

“Gone to the Dogs”- a song about a guy at the dog track. It’s a great little story, but I wish I knew whose idea it was to put effects on the guitars to make them sound like dog barks, because I need to know where to send my letter of complaint. Especially since they sound more like elephants in heat. Tilbrook just sang about trying to ply someone with German wine. I’m no wine connoisseur, but does Germany even make good wine? It doesn’t strike me as their specialty, so it’s one of those little details that tells so much. What kind of guy drinks German wine? Nobody I’d like to know, that’s for sure. And sure enough, right after Difford brilliant line about the German wine, Tilbrook comes in with a guitar solo. I might be reading too much into this rivalry, but oh dear god, he’s making his guitar solo sound like a dog on the fade! Why can’t you two guys just get along??!!

“Walk A Straight Line”- That last song was a bit rough, and it feels like the boys know it and grace us with this beautiful little number. Some nice acoustic guitars and accordions. I’d like to take a second to highlight the great drumming on this record. This song consists of the drummer hitting the bass drum on quarter notes and every so often hitting a tambourine. I love restraint like that. Especially since restraint has rarely been Squeeze’s calling card. This song is just lovely all around. I think it’s about getting pulled over while drunk driving. Seriously. That’s the way these guys roll.

“Sunday Street”- There is no reason on Earth this song wasn’t a monster hit back in 1990. It’s definitely their catchiest number since “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” which most of you would recognize if you heard it even if the title doesn’t sound familiar. It’s such a great rocking number you might think they’d skimp on the lyrics but it contains the lines ‘a sarsaparilla drink turns white teeth shades of pink.’ That’s one of those details that you’d think was well-spotted if you read it in a novel, and it’s in a pop song that’s about four minutes long. The chorus mines the same territory that the Cure would later use in “Friday I’m in Love”, going through the days of the week, but the great bit is how it talks about how each of the days of the week kind of suck, but when it gets to the weekend, it’s “and then Friday and Saturday night, we get happy till Sunday’s through!” Do you see how he runs Friday and Saturday together that way? Have I mentioned that Difford was battling alcoholism all throughout the nineties? Do you get it know? I wouldn’t be surprised if the original lyrics were “we get shitted till Sunday’s through.” It’s a great pop song about going on benders. It also talks about playing on a trivia team. “How long is the river Thames? It’s where the evening ends.” I love that detail because it indicates to me that a) they play on the trivia team but aren’t any good and b) there’s a lot of liquid in the River Thames. It’s a crime that this song never became very popular. I imagine that this is what a lot of people’s weekends are like. Mine? I sit around and listen to Squeeze albums. It’s called living vicariously.

“Wicked and Cruel”- The bass part of this sound is way up in the mix, like the sound engineer accidentally feel asleep and his forehead pushed the mixer on the bass part all the way up. This song is another great acoustic number and has the best lyrics on the album. It’s about wanting to die and come back as a variety of different insects so you can watch what your girlfriend does after you die. “When I die I’ll return as a housefly, and parade upon her wall. So I can see who she’ll end up with, if that’s anyone at all. Did I say that? How could anyone be so wicked and cruel?” I love that the chorus “how could anyone be so wicked and cruel?” he’s talking about himself. If you’re so concerned about it, you could stop, right? No. “When I come back I’ll return as a spider, because she hates them so much.” What a dick. Although now he’s worried that she’ll wash him down the sink plug hole. You should be. You’re being a jerk. Better make it up to her. “She likes to kick like a mule.” No good, Difford. “If I came back as her, would I love me?” Probably not. “She likes to think I’m a fool, two fools in love.” Better, but you should’ve quit when you admitted you were a fool. No need to rope her in with you. This song is nearly perfect. Except for the drum part at the end.

“There is a Voice”- Another really nice acoustic number. “There is a voice inside us all that says destruct.”
Reading the book these two guys wrote, it’s pretty clear now that Difford was having a pretty terrible time in his life, and the lyric to this song reflects that. The chorus is “each day is a night” repeated over and over again. Talk about a nihilistic attitude. But I love how brilliant minimalist that phrase is, and how powerful it is, especially when you hear Difford’s voice finally repeating it over and over again, while Tilbrook does that wailing thing. It’s a pretty downer ending for the album, but looking back over the whole thing, that seems to fit. That’s what makes the album so great, is how the upbeat music is paired up with really dark lyrics. They’re hardly the first people to do that, but they’re among the best at it.

This album is pretty stellar, but ridiculously rare. In fact, while talking to you about it, I felt like those guys who claim they see a yeti, and they can’t prove it because nobody else has seen it. You’ve all heard “Tempted” and some of you might have heard “Black Coffee in Bed” or “Cool for Cats” but those songs are like squirrels, and this album is like the Loch Ness Monster. Most of you will never hear it or see it, and that’s a shame. But it seems like the guys from Squeeze almost expected it. Do you know how I can tell? Because they’re all sitting in a giant flowerpot.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Curious Case of Daryl Springsteen

Whenever you’re writing a story about your life, it’s difficult to start in media res. It’s difficult to drop down in the middle of events-you want to say, well, first, I was here, and this is why I was doing this, and oh, yeah, did I mention this?, until you realize that the only place to really start a story is at the very beginning, or even before that, so I will admit that this story might not be as resonant to you as it is to me, and I will just begin by saying, I got on a bus in Olympia, Washington, and I hadn’t eaten or slept properly for the previous two weeks at least. I had ten dollars left to my name, a bag of white Wonder bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a gallon of spring water. I was going home.

My first traveling companion the bus picked up in Eugene, Oregon, perhaps one of the worst named cities in the US. His name was Brian, he was a software engineer, and he smelled like clove cigarettes, leather jacket, and some kind of soft cheese. He was nice enough, and we even split a cheese pizza the first night of the trip, effectively halving my trip funds. But I wasn’t worried, because I had planned on spending the six days living off of bread and peanut butter. Unfortunately the following morning, while the bus was making a breakfast stop at Denny’s and I was making a restroom stop after my ill-advised decision to follow two weeks of meager eating with half a roadside stop cheese pizza, someone went on the bus and stole all my reserves. I would have to make the rest of the trip relying on the kindness of strangers.

Brian and I had stayed up the entire night before just shooting the shit, because sleeping on the bus was impossible. We made an agreement that once an open seat became available we would split up, with the hope that being able to lie down across two seats would allow each of us to maybe get some sleep. I’m not really sure what we talked about, because as nice and inoffensive person as Brian was, he was also terminally uninteresting.

Our big break came at a stop in Salt Lake City, where most of the bus passengers departed, because really, 800 miles or 12 hours on a bus is really what most people can reasonably tolerate before going insane. Brian grabbed his backpack and jumped into the seat behind me, and now we both had two seats each to ourselves in order to lay down and try and sleep away as much of the miserable trip as our bodies would let us.

We were maybe two minutes out of the Salt Lake City bus terminal when the driver got a call and we made a U-turn. One of the other buses had broken down and we were going to take on as many of their passengers as would fit. I was laying down across my two seats, feigning sleep, hoping that I looked unfriendly enough that nobody would wake me to try and take my extra seat. And then I heard his voice.

“Mind if I sit here?” The voice was like a cross between early Elvis and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive.” I doubt I would’ve been able to ignore anybody, but there was no way I could ignore someone with a voice as Southern Gentlemanly as that. So I sat up and opened my eyes, and as I began to slide over to the window seat, I looked up and saw that I was going to need to slide myself as far over as I possibly could. The kindly sounding Southern gentleman who was inquiring about the availability of the seat adjacent to mine was 400 lbs if he was an ounce. This is how I met Daryl Springsteen.

I tried my best to sleep with my head resting against the glass, but all Daryl would have to do was shift slightly in his seat and it would jostle me awake. And Daryl loved to talk. Here was a man who enjoyed the company of new people, and who loved listening to their stories, and probably loved listening to himself talk more than anything else. And he told me his life story. You see Daryl Springsteen was a millionaire, the former CFO of a company whose name I think he assumed I’d recognize but I didn’t. And a few years prior, after a life of working 60-70 hour weeks, of allowing himself to become hundreds of pounds overweight, the stress of all that made Daryl Springsteen’s heart just quit on him. And laying in the hospital bed, recovering from a massive heart attack and quadruple bypass operation, Daryl Springsteen made a decision: man was not meant to live this way. So, according to his story, he quit his CFO job, took his not inconsiderable savings, and bought himself a little house on a pond in Tennessee, which allowed him to spend the rest his life just fishing off his back porch. He also decided that he wanted to increase the power of his brain, and read books on how to do exactly that, although it seemed that the only thing he really learned how to do was to improve the power of his short term memory, as he would demonstrate his new found brain powers by having me list seven random things and then he would recite them back to me. So his life consisted of relaxing, catching different fish, and then being able to remember every detail about them.

Eventually, the story continued, he found himself kind of bored with this life of leisure and came to another decision and decided to follow one of his childhood dreams and become the driver of a big rig. He got a job as a truck driver, pretty happy knowing that he could only take the jobs he wanted to, only drive routes that took him to places he thought it would be fun to travel to. He didn’t need the money. So when, somewhere in Salt Lake City, his big rig broke down, the company shipped the truck back for repairs and gave Daryl money to take a bus back home. And that’s how he came to sit down next to me.

There are a dozen stories about those three days with Daryl. The bus driver we had between Cheyenne and Lincoln stopping the bus in the middle of nowhere for a cigarette break and disappearing for over an hour. (Daryl was close to taking the bus; he could drive a big rig, he could drive a bus, he figured.) Daryl waking up from a dream in which he came up with a fool-proof business proposal that he claimed I had somehow inspired: a website where men could send in photos of their wives/girlfriends that would then superimpose their wives’ faces onto the bodies of porn stars. (I am horrified that I could have in anyway inspired an idea like that, and when Daryl offered to send my 10% of his profit from the site, I tried to think of what kind of charity I could donate that money to in order to offset the evil I inadvertently unleashed.) Almost getting thrown off the bus together for discussing whether the moon landing was faked or not. (That bus driver was a veteran, and felt that such speculation was unpatriotic and he threatened to leave us along the side of the road somewhere in the middle of Kansas.)

I was hesitant to mention anything about my plight to Daryl, because even though I was almost completely broke (I was holding onto my final $5 in order to take the commuter rail from Boston back home) I didn’t want him to feel like I had believed his tale of being a millionaire and was trying to grift him. And to be honest, I don’t know how much of his story I believed, but as the trip carried on, however much I believed in his story, I increasingly was believing in Daryl Springsteen. And so, one snowy morning somewhere in Kansas, when the entire bus disembarked at a local breakfast joint, I told him I was going to stay on the bus and try and get some sleep. A few minutes later, he knocked on the window, waved me off the bus, and told me he had bought me a plate at the breakfast buffet. “You can have as much as you want,” he told me. The joke of the story is always my response: “I know how a buffet works, Daryl,” but that belies just how much that breakfast buffet plate meant to me.

I’d like to pretend that I spent three days sitting next to an eccentric millionaire who gave up a life of opulence and greed so he could fish and increase his brain power, instead of a lonely trucker who decided to lie to people about his life in order to entertain himself. I’d like to pretend that late one night between Wyoming and Nebraska, when I was telling Daryl about my plans to become a teacher, and about the kids I’d worked with as a substitute back home, and he told me that he thought those kids were lucky to have someone like me in their lives--that that was Daryl believing in me, instead of just playing the role of Southern gentleman. I’d like to pretend that a man who looked to be one prime rib away from certain death is living a long and happy life of leisure somewhere in the backwoods of Tennessee, instead of thinking about him on some long overnight drive behind an 18-wheeler trying to make ends meet.

But maybe part of the fun of long bus rides is that you can pretend to be whoever you want to be. And maybe my mistake was sitting on that bus for six days and not pretending to be anything other than what I was. But when I got off the bus back home in Boston, and I thought about the man Daryl Springsteen told me he was, and I thought about the Daryl Springsteen that I sat next to for three days, well, it makes my world richer to think they were one and the same.

He got off my bus somewhere around Indianapolis to catch the next leg of his trip back home to Tennessee. We shook hands like men, and went about our lives as people in the world, and sometimes when I think about that world, and my place in it, I think about what I would tell someone if I were sitting next to them on a bus right now. And I think about where I would be going.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Novel "The While" Available Today!



BUY THE WHILE NOW

I am proud to announce the publication of my novel, "The While." Here is the book's back copy:

So he started with a blank piece of paper. "There are lots of things you should know about me," he wrote. "My name is Matthew Giarrano. I am eight years old. My birthday is in six days. I will be nine."

This is the story of those six days, the last six days of Matthew's brief life. It is the story of a boy and his family and the secret that binds them together. It is the story of the walks we take, the things we love, the people we know, and the mysteries that shapes us during the while we are here.


***************************

Working on this book has been a labor of love for me, from conception and writing and rewriting, to putting together the cover with my dear friends Katie Rosenberg and Sarah Santos. Holding my personal copy in my hot little hands, I can guarantee you that a better looking book you won't see, thanks to these two ladies. The book is currently available for sale from the publisher's E-store, and should be up on Amazon.com within the next week or so. I should have some copies early next week for people who are interested in purchasing the book but find online transactions icky.

For those of you have read my writing before, I can say without reservation that "The While" is the best work I've ever done. And for those of you that haven't, I hope you'll consider taking a chance on what I think is a powerful and transformative read. Also, make sure to continue to check out www.ryantressel.com for more of my writing, my music, and for more news on "The While." Thanks for stopping by.

BUY THE WHILE NOW

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

LISTENING PARTY: Never Home


Freedy Johnston wrote what is among the greatest songs ever, “Bad Reputation.” It’s from his third record, “This Perfect World” and it is about as perfect a song as has ever been written. I like Freedy a lot, and I especially like his fourth record, “Never Home” which has to be one of my favorite album title/album cover art combinations ever. I first picked this record up in May of my senior year of high school and was disappointed it wasn’t as poppy and polished as his previous record, but with time I realize that this lack of polish is what makes it the best of his (admittedly great) catalog.

“On The Way Out”- This is a song about shoplifting. The first couple of times I listened to it, I tried to figure out what Freedy was singing about metaphorically because there is no way that anybody would write a song about shoplifting. But Freedy does. I’ve never personally shoplifted, but I imagine it’s a lot like what this song describes. I love that the narrator is really only stealing because they’re bored, which is the only way I can justify in my head the choices Winona Ryder has made with her life. Why else would you attempt to shoplift panties when you’re a millionaire? For the same reason you date anybody, so long as they play guitar and have had their photo printed in Spin. Because you’re bored. God this song is fantastic.



“I’m Not Hypnotized”- Another song that is deceptively about exactly what it says it is about. Again, I thought this song was metaphorical, but upon closer examination, this song is about someone attempting to hypnotize someone else. And it answers what I’ve long suspected about stage hypnotists: they rely on the inherent showmanship in their “victims” for their trick to work. Next time you go see a hypnotism show, just imagine the person being hypnotized just reciting the chorus to this song. Hypnotist: “You are now a chicken.” Freedy: “Whatever, I’ll say anything, but I’m not hypnotized.”

“Western Sky”- Each of these songs is like a tiny short story. This is a song about a couple moving out west, except the husband is too afraid to fly, so he drives while she flies. That’s what the song is about. How frickin’ awesome is that? It also contains one of my favorite verses in music ever: “An exit in the rain/ she answers before it rang/ he could only say her name.” Johnston is fantastic. Maybe Winona should’ve dated him. Maybe he’d have straightened out her life.



“One More Thing to Break”- This is a terrific name for a song. Maybe he’s talking about Winona Ryder. I have to admit that I’ve never done any research into this, but I don’t think Freedy is her type. He does have quite the receding hairline, and we all know how much she loves men with long, greasy, unwashed hair. I’m more convinced than ever that these two need each other. It would allow Winona to show she has grown as a person that she is able to date a bald man who writes terrific songs about unexpected things, instead of a greasy haired heroin addict who writes songs named after vaguely narcotic sounding carbohydrate chains. And Freedy would get what I’ve long called the “Lyle Lovett bump,” when a great unappreciated singer-songwriter dates/marries a much more famous Hollywood actress.

“He Wasn’t Murdered”- I wonder if Randy Newman invented the concept of writing songs about losers who don’t redeem themselves in anyway, but if he did, Freedy Johnston should send him a card every Father’s Day. This song, like each on this album, tells a little story. How does this work as a one-line description of a sketchy character: “Looking both ways down a one way street”? That’s right. Amazingly.

“You Get Me Lost”- I’m now going to pretend this song is told from the point of view of Winona Ryder. That aside, it’s a really beautiful love song, and a pretty accurate description of how men fall for women. Maybe he’s writing this ABOUT Winona, and maybe when he says “I don’t care where we’re going” it’s because she’s about to take him on a crime-spree?


(Oh, Freedy... you never stood a chance with Winona, did you?)


“Hotel Seventeen”- Freedy released two more albums after this, “Blue Day, Black Nights” which contains a song about a deep-sea diver and one told from the point of view of a newborn baby. His last record, “Right Between the Promises” was released in 2001. Eight years ago. I’ve heard that he’s recorded a new one, and that it’ll be out soon, but I’ve been hearing that since 2004 at least. This guy is one of those guys who needs to put a record out every eighteen months. This song is probably the weakest on the record, which is why I haven’t really said anything about it.

“Gone to See the Fire”- Thank god. A song about an arsonist. It had been a while, like two whole songs, since Freedy wrote about anything seedy. Again, I spent a fair amount of time when this album first came out trying to figure out the deep symbolic meaning of this song. But it’s just a song about a guy who sets buildings on fire because he likes to watch things burn. The girl in this song does better detective work over the course of the three minutes of this song than the entire cast of CSI: Miami does over the course of an entire season.

“Seventies Girl”- This is a song about a guy whose new girlfriend discovers his old girlfriend’s left behind clothes and starts dressing up like her. The chorus? “Seventies Girl, don’t come any closer.” This song is pure brilliance. I bet you’re wondering why this guy still has his old girlfriend’s clothes? Well, he explains it. Because these clothes were in the suitcase that she threw at him when she walked out. I mean, if you get so angry at your boyfriend that you throw a suitcase full of your clothes at him when you’re walking out, how do you go about getting those clothes back? If you’re smart, like this lady seems to have been, you just write those clothes off. That’s what you get for throwing a suitcase at a guy. That his new girlfriend is dressing up in your twenty-year old clothes that I’ve got to imagine you would’ve given away or thrown out yourself? Better to just let these things go. Oh, wait, you’re not real. Never mind.

“If It’s True”- This song seems to be about a young couple that discovers that it may be pregnant. I love the chorus, “if it’s true” because that strikes me as exactly the way a young dope like this narrator would have this argument. We can’t afford this baby, we don’t really know each other that well, if it’s even true. The lyric writing in the bridge is phenomenal. “In a land-locked town with a backwards name selling paintings of the sea. If I won’t believe my own advice I won’t ever fool a child and they won’t forgive you once they seen you’ve tried.”

“Something’s Out There”- This song is about alien abduction. Or about someone who thinks he’s been abducted by aliens. I love that he tells people that you need to talk to him during the day because he’s somewhere else at night, i.e. getting anally probed aboard a spaceship. I know I’m probably making this album seem like a joke, but if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, it sounds like a really well-written and produced singer-songwriter album,and you can just pretend these are all songs about love. But you’ll be missing something wonderful--it’s a well-written and produced singer-songwriter album about people getting abducted by aliens. And arsonists. And shoplifters. And that kid who you watched get hypnotized on stage at summer camp that you knew, deep down in your heart was only faking for the attention.


(There are a shocking lack of FJ videos on Youtube, so I'll include here the aforementioned "Bad Reputation" for your listening pleasure.)

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Dear Young People: Stop Behaving Like Old Men

Once upon a time, there was a band called the Beatles. I’ve heard they were pretty good. They recorded a number of terrific albums, many of which are resting in my CD rack right now, as we speak. And they basically invented the standard operating procedure for any band who wants to be taken seriously: growing ridiculously ornate facial hair. Seriously, do you want to know when a band is preparing to make their “difficult, adult” record? When they start looking like MLB pitchers.

But they released their last album 40 years ago. When Nixon was president.

So, I bring this up because recently I’ve been hearing a lot of people under the age of 40 talking about the Beatles. And not in a “Hey, man, they were pretty cool” way. In a “no good music has been produced in my lifetime" way. In a “I’d rather listen to one track off of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack on repeat for the rest of my life than listen to any of that modern crap on the radio” way. And I thought I would address this.

The Beatles recorded their last piece of music together in the spring of 1969. (It would be released as their penultimate album Abbey Road.) On July 20, 1969 was the first ever manned moon landing. The first test tube baby was born in 1984. On July 5, 1996, Dolly the Sheep, the first successful cloned mammal was born. So to sum up: since the Beatles wrapped the Abbey Road sessions, mankind has walked on the moon, developed in vitro fertilization, and made cloning a reality, but has not been able to record any more decent music.

I think depending on the age of the young person you are talking to, this cut-off date, this “good music ends here” moment, might be further along the timeline. Some young people make an exception for Led Zeppelin. They may have invented hard rock, but you can’t tell me that if you read the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” in isolation you wouldn’t be convinced it was written by a sheltered 14-year old who refers to his parents’ basement as “The Shire” and battles imaginary Orcs with a multi-faceted die and a blanket over his head. I’ll admit that I own many Led Zeppelin records as well, and I won’t pretend I don’t crank up the “Immigrant Song” on the old car stereo and try and mimic that cat in heat impression that only Robert Plant can manage, but I wouldn’t make them the cut-off point.

You have to really young, like 14 or 15 year-olds, to get anything approaching modernity. I’ve had my high school freshmen asking me if I remember when Kurt Cobain was still alive with the same awed hush as if I were a survivor of the Titanic. “What was that like?” they’ll ask and I’ll tell them to just listen to any modern rock radio station, because modern rock radio apparently sealed their bio-domes approximately 1995.

I expect this from teenagers. There has always been a tendency to fetishize the past. But then your balls drop and you move beyond it. Or one should hope. That’s not to say you can’t like the Beatles. That’s not even saying that the Beatles can’t be your favorite band (although the idea that half of your favorite band is dead has the same kind of melancholy sadness as saying you’ll never love a lady as much as you love your mom.) But I think we’re running the risk of developing into a society of Harold Blooms, little Hobbit like creatures who believe the best art is already behind us, if you believe popular music can be art, which I do.

And this isn’t limited to music, although I mention it because it’s an art form that is common to most of us, but there are people who insist that we will never makes movies like Coppola and Scorcese did in the 70s, that comics will never be as good as when Jack Kirby drew them, and that American journalism died with Walter Cronkite (who didn’t die, but don’t tell them that.) And I can’t believe that.

Or look at it this way. When we’re all old men, sitting around complaining about how crappy everything is nowadays, no one will want to listen to us, because we’ll have been saying it for a half century by then. So, ladies and gentlemen of Generation Whatever This Is: pull your waistband below your nipples. Let the kids walk across your yard. We’ve gone from whiny teenagers to whiny old men. Let us act our age for once.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

LISTENING PARTY: The Soul Cages

(Once a week, I will listen to an album that has meant a lot to me and comment on whatever strikes me while I am listening.)



I’m probably taking down what little cool rating I may have by saying this, but I like Sting. Everybody likes the Police stuff, and I bet a fair amount of you might cop to enjoying “Fields of Gold”, but who among you is brave enough to admit that you like Sting’s early jazz-lite solo records? And did you ever think you’d hear someone extolling the virtues of “The Soul Cages”, perhaps the most pretentious of albums from one of rock’s most singularly pretentious artists?

“Island of Souls”- Any album that starts out with an oboe solo has pure gold written all over it. This is probably the time to mention for the uninitiated that this is Sting’s concept album about the death of his father. So this opening song is a dirge-like affair about his father’s life working at the Newcastle shipyards. See that, Decemberist fans? Sting was doing sea-chanteys before you hipsters decided it would be cool! It takes two and a half minutes for any drums to appear on this track, which is evidence that Sting means business. This album was released fifteen years before Sting picked up the lute and recorded a mess of Elizabethean songs, but the melody of this song (despite its more modern arrangement) is reminiscent of older folk music, and it is clear that Sting is more concerned with creating mood and telling a story than providing an kind of hooks. Which is fine. Here comes that oboe again.



“All This Time”- The single off the record, and probably the only one you’ve ever heard. I’m not sure, but this might have beat “Losing My Religion” to the punch with the “hit single with mandolin as lead instrument” thing. The lyrics to this song are amazing. Seriously. I’ve actually had my creative writing classes analyze them, as I think they tell a pretty remarkable story and contain some great images, which were then almost satirized in the music video for the song. Most kids today have never heard this song, so after we look over the lyrics, I ask them to describe what kind of song they think it is, and they all uniformly agree that it must be a moribund ballad, and then are surprised when this crazy, up-tempo pop song asks them that “if Jesus exists, how come he never lived here.” I’ve been frightened to actually google the phrase “men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one” for fear that Sting didn’t actually write it. Although I will admit that even if it is a rip-off, it is still pretty damn pisser for Sting to include it as the closing lines of a pop song.

“Mad About You”- Nothing at all about Paul Reiser, unfortunately. I’m going to take a moment to set the scene for when I first fell in love with this record. When I was in eighth grade, the music channel VH1, which now shows primarily shows about mentally disturbed meth addicts in their quest for love, was primarily a channel showing the Rosie O’Donnell-hosted show Stand-Up Spotlight. But in the spring of 1993, VH1 executives opted to pre-empt this already five year old show from its round-the-clock airings to broadcast every music video A-Z by artist. In this pre-you tube era, this was the only way I was going to be able to see all the Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads videos that I’d only heard tale of. Squeeze through Talking Heads was broadcast while I was in school, so I devoted an entire 6 hour VHS tape to capture what amounted to 14 minutes of music videos that I actually wanted to watch. The video for “All This Time” was featured between Squeeze and Talking Heads, and to be more specific, right after Lisa Stan field’s “Been Around the World.” to be continued.

Jeremiah Blues (Part 1) I love songs that have titles followed by parentheses. Somewhere in the vast castle Sting lives in is a track called Jeremiah Blues (Part 2) and maybe, I live in hope, Jeremiah Blues (Part 3). Actually paying attention to this song is kind of unpleasant. It sounds a lot like all the non-single songs from his follow-up album “Ten Summoner’s Tales” and only works on the album as a brief reprieve from the slower more melancholy songs. Did I mention this is an album about Newcastle shipyards and the death of the singer’s father? This song doesn’t really belong here.


(I know it was 1991, but where other than the 18th century British Navy is this haircut acceptable?)

“Why Should I Cry for You?” - I think if I were stopped at a traffic light and my windows were down I’d be embarrassed and change the song right away, but it would be betraying the 13-year old RJT who still lives inside me to claim that I didn’t sincerely love this song. There is some great B3 organ played by either the late, great Kenny Kirkland or the great but still not late David Sancious, more famous for being the guy who quit the E-Street Band right after they cut “Born to Run.” I love the way that Sting changes up the chorus near the end, so that when you’re singing along (and you would be if you here were listening with me) you inevitably get mixed up. Again, I think this is an album that plays very well while you’re listening to it, but certain parts of it seem weird when listened to in isolation. Example: the longest insrumental fade-out in history.

“Saint Agnes and the Burning Nun”- No concept album would be complete without the instrumental song with the intriguing title. What is this song about? Who set this nun on fire? This sounds like it is an Elizabethan ballad. I imagine in the vinyl days when this record was released, this opened side two and served as some kind of interlude piece.


(I don't know what song from this record he could be playing that require that high of a jump. Either that or Sting gets really into funereally paced songs about shipping docks.)

“The Wild Wild Sea”- Getting back to my personal history with this album, while I let Sting’s band do the weird opening vamp to this song: having been intrigued and captivated by the video for “All This Time” I order this CD from BMG music club, which is the equivalent of having a craving for steak some night in July and telling your mother you think they should have it for Christmas dinner. You wait a long time, especially when you’re 13, for BMG to actually send you these CDs and so it was several months before I found myself in the mood to sit down and really listen to this album once it arrived. The mood? It was a rainy and dark summer morning, and I was sitting in the basement of my father’s house being age-appropriately miserable. This song follows the model of “Island of Souls” in that it’s kind of shapeless. It must be hard for a band to play a song like this, that doesn’t seem to follow any kind of pattern and just seems to be a musical bed for Sting to continue his story of a man aboard a ship who sees the ghost of his father. Someone (I’m going to guess Sting) thought it was a good idea to include sound effects to simulate a storm at sea. The band gets a chance to jam out a bit near the end, which you have to imagine they’ve been waiting for since they started playing this song.

“The Soul Cages”- I really really loved this song when I was 13. It’s a pretty rocking song in the context of everything else. The guitars have a certain crunch to them that would’ve appealed to me the summer of 93, when distortion pedal sales must’ve been at an all time high. This song also has the strongest melody since “All This Time” while continuing the lyrical theme of death and the sea. There’s one unfortunate bit in the song where Sting tries to sing “tortured human soul” but doesn’t have the beats to fit it in, and with his faux Jamaican accent he sometimes uses, it sounds like he says the word “Jew” instead of human, and I had to consult the lyric sheet back then to make sure that’s not what he sang.



“When the Angels Fall”- I’ve been having a lot of fun poking fun at some of the more ridiculous pretentious flourishes of this album, but it would be unfair of me to give anybody the impression that I don’t still love this album. I’m not sure that if I heard it for the first time when I was 30, instead of when I was 13, I would feel the same, but I still put this album on each summer, and I certainly appreciate the lyric writing above all else, plus the bravery/arrogance of being at the time among the biggest pop stars in the world, and making as difficult and obtuse an album as The Soul Cages is. This last track is in the vein of “Island of Souls” and “The Wild Wild Sea.” It’s relatively shapeless, and needlessly long. The melody is a little bit stronger than those two, and it does build up to an appropriate crescendo for an album like this, and the final part of this song, where the band and Sting alike seem to pick up in intensity are really powerful. As “When the Angels Falls” builds to a crescendo, Manu Katche hits the snare one last time and as it reverberations echo out, Sting says plaintively “Good night.” And the record ends. If only he could come tuck me in as well.

The album may be overly earnest overall, but it’s the kind of thing that really speaks to an overly-serious 13-year old kid, and while maybe most of my peers were finding Pearl Jam’s 10 providing them with the same level of heavy and serious music, I’m really glad that I had Sting’s opus to his father. My room in my father’s basement was dark and poorly lit, but had surround speakers, which allowed me to get completely immersed in a record in a way I don’t think I could now. Even if that record is basically built around three dirge-like pieces interspersed with three pretty great pop tunes, two utterly forgettable ones, and one instrumental with a name like an obscure Swedish film

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Monday, May 4, 2009

PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR AS A YOUNG MAN

I write my first book in 1987, when I am seven years old. It is the life story of a fox actor named (wait for it) Michael J. Fox. It is written on that brown, grade-school writing paper, which is wider than it is tall, with guide lines to show the young writer where the tops of capital letters go, and dotted lines to show where the tops of lowercase letters end. “The Secret Life of Michael J. Fox” is an expose-style, mockumentary article about this fictitious vulpes vulpes and the ups and downs of his acting career. That is the whole joke, that it is an actor named Michael J. Fox and he is actually a fox, so I stop halfway through, and start work on my second book, also written on that high quality writing paper, about gangster fish. This story is lacking even a simple pun to explain its impetus, although if I knew the phrase “sleeps with the fishes” then, I’m sure I would use it. The good news is that I got all my anthropomorphic animal stories out of the way early.

It is 1988 where I make my first attempt at professional writing. I write a stirring Spiderman story again on that same brown composition paper. I don’t remember too much about the details, other than the whole thing is a dream Peter Parker was having been chased by a giant black shadow spider. I mail the story off to Stan Lee, co-creator of Spiderman and president emeritus of Marvel Comics. A few months later I receive my first ever rejection letter, from Stan Lee, telling me that he enjoyed my story but that he no longer oversees the day to day publishing operations of Marvel comics and directs me to send the story to the then newly appointed editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, and to talk to my school’s guidance counselors about further developing my talent. This is the first chink in the mythical armor of the great Stan Lee: he thinks talking to my guidance counselors is a GOOD idea.

Despite these early forays into writing, I still imagine myself an artist, even winning the coveted (by me) spot of 5th grade yearbook cover artist. My friend Wyatt and I spend numerous afternoons writing and drawing our own Batman comics. Somewhere in the vast caverns of my parents’ house lies dozens and dozens of these 8.5 X 11” (I had graduated up to typing paper by this point) hand-stapled Batman comics. Wyatt is a technically more proficient artist than I am, and he spends hours on each page, and completes maybe two entire 10 pages comics in the entire two years we work on these projects, while I develop a faster drawing style (and even credit it to a pseudonym, Robert LesSert) in order to complete as many Batman comics as I can, even two in a single afternoon. I just have too many story ideas.

1990 I ask my parents for a file cabinet for my birthday to file away all my stories and artwork. In 1991 I ask for an electric typewriter, and keep the house awake on summer nights as I type up script after script, creating my own comic book universe. Some of these I plan to illustrate, others I hand off to my friends Jesse and Darrell to draw. We actually succeed in creating a fairly coherent and interconnected universe of superheroes, and even photocopy some issues and sell them for $0.50 to kids in our junior high, completely unaware how dangerous that could be later in life if any of those kids keep the fool things. We end our universe with the heroes discovering that the evil mastermind who had been manipulating their lives from behind the scenes was a 12-year old boy named R.James Tressel, my nom de plume as writer and editor of T’N’T comics. It is a little early, perhaps, for post-modernism and meta-fiction. But I am almost 13 years old.
After closing up shop of our comics company, we all start a band, where I serve as barely-competent vocalist and lyric writer. We might be the only eighth grade band in history to write and record not one, but two, different concept albums. Ironically, this is also the time when I discover the word “pretentious,” although I never use it following this phrase “Hey guys, what we’re doing now is so.” Freshmen year I write my first complete novel on my Smith Corona electric typewriter, entitled Boys and Girls in which a high school not unlike my own has each of the plagues of Egypt visited upon it, concluding with the death of the valedictorian. I lend the only copy of the manuscript to Jesse, and it now rests in the same place my old Silvertone guitar. He’s gotten better about returning my things now, but then again, I’ve never let him borrow anything as one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable as the sole copy of a novel manuscript. Comforting news: if I die a successful novelist, my third wife won’t be able to publish this awful turd of a novel to make more money and ruin my reputation.


My sophomore and junior years of high school I write a three-part novel, eventually entitled Canadian Nickels for no good reason. The first part, written the beginning of my sophomore year after experiencing the first flushes of love at summer camp, is an overly idealized paean to the transformative powers of love. The third is written in a single day my junior year after discovering my girlfriend cheated on me, in which I portray love as an insidious and deceitful disease of the soul. The second, and best part, is written in between those two relationships in the summer of 1995. I discover the importance of writing from a place of emotional distance. Also: girls will drive you crazy.


Fall of 1996: brief foray into playwriting. “Existence Explained” is a two act play explaining that men and women were put on Earth by two warring alien races and watching our fumbling interactions has become the aliens’ primary source of entertainment. Decide that I haven’t really learned the lesson from earlier. Announce my retirement as a writer at the age of 17.

Fall of 1998: have a dream about a girl I had loved before I had body hair, then I run into her a day or two later. Write the sprawling novel Saturn’s Novel about young love, Japanese autmobiles, masturbation, urination, and a blatant steal from Ethan Frome. Completed in August of 1999, it is well received by my friends and well-wishers. Having my friend Stephanie’s beautiful roommate tell me about all the things she likes about “Saturn’s Wreath” at 1:30 in the morning while sitting in her underwear and tank top is still one of the highlights of my life as an American male.

Fall of 1999: Begin work on Australia, a novel of shifting perspectives, focusing on two twins and their mysterious absent father named Tom Jones, their teacher, and the young girl who they each love. As a writer, extraordinarily proud of the way each of the diverging narratives illuminates the truth, “Rashomon” style. Most of my friends never finish reading it upon its completion in the spring of 2001. Best review: “Um, yeah. I don’t know.”

Spring of 2003: Complete follow-up novel, XOXO, which revisits the themes of love and the nature of reality. Describe the novel to my college writing professor as “a meta-fictional Sex and the City;” my ability to distill a heartfelt piece of creation into a rather dodgy tagline means I missed my calling as a Hollywood movie executive. My interests in alchemy and meta-fictional wonkery obscure a sweet story of three sisters and their awkward and culturally misplaced father. Also obscuring said sweet story? The most offensive and off-putting open paragraphs of all time.

Finish the novel and begin work teaching at local high school. The next five years is spent teaching young men and women to be upstanding citizens, while covertly spreading my feminist-Marxist dogma. The extent of my writing during this period consists of hilarious comments in the “To:” section of hallway passes for my yearbook staff that are never read by the teachers they are given to and only rarely by the students themselves.

After leaving the rigors of public education, I enter a life of semi-retirement working as a private tutor and write The While. I still teach creative writing over the summer to gifted ninth and tenth graders. While sitting in a story conference with one of my students, she tells me that she doesn’t have any ideas for any stories. I try and assuage her doubts. We all have stories. She confesses she does have one idea, but that it’s stupid. It involves an ant, having to cross a large picnic in the park to return home to his anthill. She wishes she could come up with something different. A story about talking animals is stupid, she assures me.

It’s a place to start, I tell her.