Monday, July 28, 1997

Cameroon Kid and His Calico Cat

"MR. MAX we got beans!" the little fella said excitedly as he entered the side door of the house. The cat greeted him with wide eyes, expectant because of the tone of the little fella's voice, of something wonderful to soon happen. He looked up at the little fella who was carefully cradling a bundle of beans in his arms that he had just picked out of the garden. Mr. Max sniffed at the beans out of curiosity, looked up, turned around and left the room.

He resumed lying down on the hardwood floors of the hallway in the stifling, steamy, sweltering heat of the stale air. The little fella quickly wandered from room to room, opening up windows to get some air circulating in the overly warm house. "It's not so much the heat it's the humidity!" the little fella said. "And it's not so much the humidity it's the seven feet of rain! It may be time we find those partners for the ark!" Mr. Max was at best ignoring his roommate, more likely he was in deliberate denial of his existence. "But we got beans buddy! Plenty of beans!"

The little fella rubbed Mr. Max's ample belly. The heat exchanged between the two only made things feel worse but the cat's purr encouraged further belly rubbing. The little fella quickly changed from his dress clothes to a T-shirt and a pair of soccer shorts. "When I was a kid Mr. Max," he began, "I used to grow a bean plant indoors at the beginning of spring. I used to nurture it, watering it just right, making sure it had plenty of sunlight." Mr. Max curled up as the belly rub continued.

"Well since I never planted it outside I would only get a couple of beans but my momma made sure to cook them up real special and serve them to me as my own little treat," the little fella continued. "Best meal I ever had." It was an elegant time through eyes he could no longer see. He wandered into the kitchen as Mr. Max, now at full attention followed along. The little fella opened the cabinet and pulled out a metal pot. He went to the sink and cleaned the beans. He carefully placed the beans in the pot, breaking the ones that were too long to fit in half. Mr. Max carefully watched each and every one of the steps.

The little fella brought the pot full of beans over to the stove. He placed it on the front burner and turned the heat up to high. "These are going to be the best beans ever Mr. Max," the little fella said as the water showed its first signs of boiling. Somehow the cat's eyes seemed to indicate that he believed, that he trusted the truth of the statement entirely.

The water began to bubble. The heat of the steam caused the already warm kitchen to feel even more uncomfortable. The little fella went to the refrigerator and pulled out some ice water. He took a swig and looked down at Mr. Max. Further words need not be spoken, they both knew what was ahead. The anticipation was as binding as all the moments already shared.

The beans were finished cooking. The little fella quickly drained the water into the sink and pulled out a bowl to hold the steamed vegetables. He brought the bowl over to the table as Mr. Max followed along. "We got BEANS! WE GOTS LOTSA BEANS!" the little fella said as he searched carefully and pulled out the perfect two for the cat. "Here you go Mr. Max. ENJOY!"

Mr. Max could no longer hide his own excitement. He meowed as the little fella placed the two beans into his dinner bowl. He sniffed at the root of all the hubbub and licked one of the two green beans. Soon he was munching away enjoying the taste of the fresh vegetables. For a moment the discomfort from the unforgiving heat was forgotten. Together they had beans and for the moment that was all they needed.

Monday, July 21, 1997

Phair Haired and Flowing Free

One of the aftermath side effects I get after attending a live concert is the realization that the personal creative impulses aren't exactly flowing or being utilized in my day to day life. After listening to a great artist perform it makes me want to return to the part of me that likes to be creative. Yet it isn't like there is an on and off switch that regulates the flow of creativity, you either are inspired, bothered, blessed, and talented enough to do something worthwhile, or you are not.

Hopefully this isn't a permanent condition. Hopefully those creative embers are lying low and rejuvenating themselves and soon the stream will flow freely again. I must admit that the most creatively satisfied I feel these days is after I mow my lawn. Not being the most conventional lawn mower it is a nice feeling to look at my lawn, a mixture of grass, crabgrass, mushrooms and dandelions, all freshly cut, with my unmistakable mark woven into the rich green.

One of the privileges of being the high ranking government official I am is that I have sources that can obtain for me items not available to just anybody. One such item I was lucky enough to recently get my little hands on was the demos and discarded first studio version of Liz Phair's upcoming CD, whitechocolatespaceegg.

Phair's first CD, Exile in Guyville was a stunningly impressive debut, and still remains on my short list of CDs I would want with me if deserted on some desolate Pacific island. But the follow-up effort, Whip Smart was a bit of a let down. While still a consistently worthwhile listen and a cut above the majority of other music available, it nonetheless lacked the intensity, insight, and personal statement of Exile in Guyville. Like with so many artists on their sophomore efforts, Phair couldn't decide on Whip Smart whether to duplicate the mood and tone from the first CD and risk the charge of copying her success or create something all together different and risk losing contact with the fans. Thus she settled for something in the middle.

The songs on the new CD again don't come near the quality of the first rush of inspiration. Phair's lyrics are a mixture of the obscure, "When they do the double dutch that's them dancing..." to the painfully personal, "And when you said I wasn't worth talking to, I had to take your word on that." The new songs continue in a similar vein. From: "Hey there mister, what'cha gonna do? I'm your sex-o-matic sister running around on vacation. You can take me home but I'll never be your girl" on Headache. To: "I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious. I would have it all if I could only have this much" on Perfect World.

My favorite song among the fifteen tracks is Girls' Room which is an account of the conversation taking place inside the private walls of a place men are not allowed. "I heard Teri say that Trisha's OK. She oughta learn to shave her bikini line better..." Like the songs on her first CD, there is a feeling on many of these new tracks that the songs were written in the privacy of Liz's room where she has a tape recorder running as she is strumming along and singing whatever comes to mind. The songs on Whip Smart seemed less spontaneous and more worked out which made them seem more polished and less personal.

Unfortunately Scott Litt's (who previously worked with REM and Nirvana) production on this discarded version of whitechocolatespaceegg does not work. The intimacy of many tracks is lost under the thrash of guitar licks. Other quiet moments that could use some embellishment to make them stand out more effectively are made to rely on Phair's unremarkable voice. Thus it will be interesting to hear how the final mix turns out. Like the difference between the first and second CD, the growth from the second to the third is a bit lacking.

But the initial disappointment in listening to these tracks is knowing much has happened to the artist since her last CD. Phair was married and then had her first child last December. Those life changing events don't get a mention in any of the songs. Rather what seems to inspire most of the songs just comes in the process of creating and imagining and for somebody who had a lot to say, this somehow isn't enough.

Monday, July 14, 1997

The Amazing Mr. Snowjob and His Cryogenic Girl

Doctors have determined that no matter how much you diet, no matter how much you exercise, you cannot reduce the size of your head...

I don't know much about theology, and I'm not exactly sure what my religious beliefs are at this point but I do know that any God that could have blessed this world with both the delights of cherries and pistachios has satisfied my needs. Give me a bowl of each and this boy is one happy happening dude. Further proof of the work of a supreme being? There are now ten more John Hiatt songs for the world to enjoy on his latest CD, Little Head.

Most of Hiatt's followers seemed to have become fans during the mid-eighties with his trilogy of outstanding albums, Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments. Those three efforts were heartfelt odes to the values of a strong marriage, a family and home life. The songs while intensely personal also had a universal appeal with their moving lyrics and inspirational melodies.

With his last two studio CDs, Perfectly Good Guitar, and Walk On, Hiatt and his record companies tried to broaden his appeal. He was the best songwriter that many people had never heard of, and with more marketing and a keener attempt at writing songs that might be played on the radio or VH-1 more people heard Hiatt than ever before (he even got played on the opening montage of Melrose Place). Those two CDs still featured Hiatt's unmatchable skill of writing clever lyrics and memorable tunes. That they seemed a little less inspired and more craftsmanlike than some of his other work didn't lessen their quality much- he still proved he was among the top writers in the music industry.

Little Head thus will probably disappoint some of his fans a little. There are no catchy hooks or songs that immediately stick out like Cry Love or Perfectly Good Guitar. None of the songs dig as deep into Hiatt's psyche as Have a Little Faith In Me, or Sometime Other Than Now. Many of the tracks sound as if they would have fit nicely on Hiatt's collaborative effort a few years ago in the group Little Village with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. But this isn't to say that the new CD has any weak efforts; rather the songs are consistently rewarding without the peaks and valleys of some of his other work. The ten songs stack upon each other neatly like fine china, each a companion of what proceeded it as well as what follows.

The writing is sharp although Hiatt's well renowned acerbic wit doesn't surface as often as it did in some of his earlier work. It's hard to imagine that any other current songwriter could sum up his own personal plight more astutely than, "How far do we have to go, to hear that pirate radio? One song that can steal our hearts before they turn into silver and gold..." And with the double entendre joke of the title track, "I'm just so easily led when her little head does the thinkin..." it's as if Hiatt has resigned himself to the fate of being his generation's Randy Newman- a gifted and respected songwriter without mainstream appeal. (...let's just see them try to make this one a hit...)

My favorite moment on Little Head comes on the third track, My Sweet Girl, surprisingly not by anything written but by a moment of joyful singing- a simple love prayer that is enhanced by Hiatt's goofy "doot doot doo doodoodoos." His humor has always been one of his most endearing qualities and his confidence on this track suggests that in a way this one means as much to him as any of his previous work. The following track, Feelin' Again is another favorite with its inspired singing and lyric, "Morning comes like Catholic guilt..."

There are many pop culture references on Little Head. Everyone from Eddie Vedder to Otis Redding and Tammi Terrell, from Artie Garfunkel to Joseph Conrad gets a mention as a source of inspiration. And as the CD concludes with the quintessential crooner's ballad, After All This Time comes the realization that this is what John Hiatt does best: write songs through personal tales that speak to many, must be heard, are inspired and a cut above the competition. Although this is not the CD that will make him a big star, it's the type of CD few other artists are capable of making.

Riding with the King

John Hiatt opened his show at the Basilica Block Party by announcing it had been 37 years since his last confession. That's not exactly a true statement since many of his songs are rather confessional in nature. None of the crowd seemed to mind however, since for the next two hours Hiatt and his band, the Nashville Queens, ripped through a sixteen song sampling of one of our best songwriter's recent catalog.

For me it was a enjoyable show made more so since the album from which the most songs (4) came from was 1988's Slow Turning which was the soundtrack on the road trip that was the inspiration behind my feeble attempt at writing a novel almost ten years ago. It was as if Hiatt was helping me nostalgically celebrate the many leftover memories from that trip and by the end of the evening my traveling partner's presence was as close to me as the church building itself.

The band opened with two songs from that CD, the title track and Paper Thin, sticking close to the original arrangements with tight playing and Hiatt's familiar if unconventional vocal style. The third song, Real Fine Love was an early highlight since it is one of my all time favorite songs. "I've seen an angel or two before but I never asked one to be my wife..." The song featured some particularly inspired lead guitar from David Immergluck. Hiatt next turned to two songs from last year's Walk On, Ethylene and Native Son. It was a strange sight hearing him sing the lyrics, "Oh Ethylene, my love for you is so obscene..." in front of the pious majesty of the Basilica of St. Mary's but Hiatt seemed well aware of where he was at the moment.

He next played two songs from his recently released CD, Little Head, Sure Pinocchio, and the title track. Both songs held up very well with their live treatments. Hiatt showed that the inner demons that drive so many of his songs are conquered by the joyous expression of playing in front of people, using the crowd's energy to give the songs an even more redemptive quality than their studio versions. The solitary act of writing to express is realized by sharing the expression with a group of others.

Hiatt's vocals were in fine form for most of the evening particularly on the moving ballad, Icy Blue Heart, where his voice effectively cracked upon hitting the falsetto of the refrain. Of course the song just served to slow things down for those in the audience who wanted to dance, so Hiatt and the band next broke into jaunty versions of Memphis in the Meantime, Graduated, and Tennessee Plates- the latter a great on the road tale of a love gone wrong. "Across the Mississippi like a oil slick fire..."

The audience really got in the mood with the next two songs, probably Hiatt's most recognizable to most in the crowd, Perfectly Good Guitar, and Cry Love. The contrast between the two songs featured two of his biggest strengths, humor and insight. Perfectly Good Guitar, is a bit of a novelty song about a man who is upset with the big rock stars who can afford to smash up their guitars all in the name of putting on a show. Cry Love is a song about the redemption of love. Immergluck's mandolin playing gave the song its familiar riff and as the band kicked it in for the coda of the song, it was truly a delightful moment.

As were all three encore songs, the first featuring Hiatt alone on the piano, a moving rendition of Have a Little Faith in Me. Thing Called Love was next smashing Bonnie Raitt's version in the teeth with it's loopy Hiatt vocals. He closed the show with one of his finest songs, Buffalo River Home, dedicating it to all the flood victims of the northwest. By this time the man clearly was having a great time, decked in his smart looking business suit. It is obvious he loves singing his songs to both the fans and the unfamiliar, wanting to share his message to all that will listen. In the middle of the song one of his guitar strings broke and as a stagehand brought him a new guitar, he leaned into the vocals even more. "Mixing up drinks with mixed feelings. All along the paint is peeling, down to an Indian blanket on a pony with no rider in the flesh and bone. Lookin' for his buffalo river home." The sweltering humidity of the evening gave way to a cool summer's breeze and the moment was one of the stolen one's Hiatt once wrote about in another song. For the uninitiated it was a fine opportunity to hear some of the man's finest and for the devoted it capped a special evening.

Monday, July 7, 1997

Mr. Smith Goes to Heaven

Last year we had a guy who spit at an umpire during a heated athletic event. This past winter we had guy kick a cameraman in a rather sensitive area of his anatomy. Now this past week we had a guy bite off the ear of his opponent. Seems like things are escalating and we need to get back under control a bit. So here is my proposal: during the next heated moment of my next softball game, just when things are the most tense I will go over to the opponent and plant a little wet love kiss upon their cheek. It's the least I can do... And with my new found sensitivity comes more of a willingness, a need to open up and express myself. So with that in mind here are a few pages from my diary:

Sunday, June 29: One eye opens to what appears to be early morning, what with the darkness from the gray cloudy skies but I can tell by my grogginess it has to be closer to sometime around mid-morn. I decide to sleep for a bit more and when both eyes finally open and I get up to take a glance at the alarm clock, it is now 11:30. I quickly scramble out of bed, cursing myself for sleeping the day away. I glance through the newspaper to read about the big fight the night before. I am stunned to see that biting had been involved. I arrive at Landfill to make copies of the newsletter. There is no paper to be found other than colored paper and three hole punched paper. I throw in a ream of the three hole punched stuff which along with the humidity causes the machine to jam every few copies. Soon I get the error message to call the serviceperson. Cursing my decision and the result of that decision I head to Kinkos to finish up.

Monday, June 30: To celebrate the Hong Kong exchange from the British to the Chinese, I decide to mow my lawn in what feels like weather straight from Manila. Knowing that it was supposed to rain tomorrow night, and that I had a softball game Wednesday, I decide to do the chore before it got too long. Besides I like the look and smell of fresh cut grass. Hot and humid, by the time I finish up I'm tired and drenched. I get back inside in time to watch the final few innings of the Twins-St. Louis game. Eck strikes out Knobby. Only in America.

Tuesday, July 1: I have dinner at Ma and Pa's, and settle back to watch the second Twins-St. Louis battle. I end up instead watching the constant weather update interruptions. The sky gets ominously darker and the wind whips up and with what the radar is telling the news people, the whole city is in danger of blowing away. As the color intensity of the blobs on the radar screen are closing in on St. Paul, things start to get a bit eerie. Then the rain exploded with a mighty crash. My thoughts go out to little kitty back home all alone. He tends to get a little worked up when storms arrive. The clouds finally pass over and as I head home I try to gauge the severity of the aftermath as I get closer to my house. I see some trees down, and there is a powerline down at the entry of the alley to my garage. I maneuver my way past that only to see a massive puddle in the middle of the alley before my garage. I gun my car through that just as another downpour lets go. I hustle from my detached garage to my house, greeted by the frightened bellow from Max. I survey the kitchen, living room and bedroom of the stuffy interior notice no damage and head toward the basement. I see a small stream of water spiraling down toward the drainage area. Along the walls are puddles of water. I begin the mop up process while Max investigates further. I finally tell him to go upstairs as he is making the cleanup more difficult. When I finish up with the mopping, I walk up the stairs and step in a nice little pile of fresh cat vomit. Tired, cranky, and concerned that my house will float away by the end of the night, I go to bed.

Wednesday, July 2: My performance review at work. No Kleenex are necessary as my boss seems to think I'm doing fine. Then I come back to my desk to find out I am responsible for Jimmy Stewart's death. Last week when Brian Keith died I said to my mom, "I wonder how Jimmy Stewart is doing. (He was one of mom's favorite actors). You never hear about him anymore..." The Roundheads lose another softball game, I play poorly and pull a groin muscle. I only wish it had been my own... I get home and notice my lawn what with its massive soaking, could probably use another mowing as I open the door to a familiar meowing. Yet another week gone by...