Monday, June 30, 2003

Fairly Obvious

"Well it's all right even when you're old and gray/Well it's all right, you still got something to say..."
-the Traveling Wilburys

If ever there was a more obvious example of forces conspiring together to lead one into an apparent(?) middle aged crisis(?), I would need elaborate damning detailed documentation to believe so.

It all began (as it sadly seldom does anymore) with a dream. It was one of those just before you wake up, half awake, half asleep, all groggy and all delirious dreams. I was back in grade school at the night of an actual play my classmates and I had put together to celebrate the nation's bicentennial. Since I was really one of three trumpet players (and one of two who could actually get a sound out of the instrument) I was selected to play the part of the unknown (and I presume) lost bugle boy who stands over and sees the already fought over battleground and plays as close of a rendition to "Taps" as he knows. My Mom had sewn me a 1776 like red, white, and blue patriotic uniform complete with knickers! Just as I was puckering up to re-perform in gruesome detail my dirge like version of the anthem to the dead, I woke up 27 years later in my bed with a three legged cat howling away for me to get up already.

The only thing unusual on my docket for the day was a visit the dentist to have a crown installed over a cracked tooth. The tooth had been cracked for about half a year due to a switch in jobs and corresponding switch in dental insurance. I also had made the request that my Dad, who has made crowns and bridges for nearly 50 years be allowed to make a crown for me. I already had two examples of his work in my mouth so I didn't think it would be that big a deal. But to get HealthPartners to sign off on this procedure was well, it was like pulling teeth.

One dentist outright said it wasn't allowed- that family members couldn't have anything to do with medical or dental procedures. But since I had it done in the past I called up the ladder until someone at the administrative offices had the legal people look at the contract and found nothing prohibiting this dental procedure.

Now in the mean time I tried to chew most of my meals and snacks on the other side of my mouth because occasionally when I would chomp down on the cracked tooth it would send a shooting pain up the side of my head that felt like I had been hit in the noggin by a Dontrelle Willis fastball.

The crown installation of course was a two part procedure. First they had to file back the existing tooth and take an impression of the remains for my Dad to make a gold crown that would fit snuggly over the tooth. Having the initial procedure performed a couple of weeks back I now was facing the day of reckoning the latter service of actually getting a new body part that will hopefully last me the rest of my life. I was particularly saint-like to the kitties and my co-workers that day figuring I shouldn't give anyone upstairs a reason for further retribution.

It didn't take long for Dr. Maland to pop the crown on my tooth. Before he arrived the hygienist had tried to fit it on and dropped it in the back of my mouth. Luckily I didn't swallow it.

Dinner that night was particularly enjoyed. I had nearly forgotten how nice it was to be able to chew on both sides of my mouth. As luck would have it the next night as I was getting ready for bed I was flossing my teeth and I was working on the upper opposite side from my new crown and as I was flossing around an old crown it popped off. I haven't always been blessed with the best of luck but this seemed a little cruel. Still I decided to look at it as a glass half full thing and thanked my lucky stars that it happened when it did. I figured if it had happened a couple of nights before I wouldn't have been able to eat on either side of my mouth.

The next morning my in-line skating fiend/friend/ boss was telling me that due to her breaking in of her new fancy Italian hand-made skates (cut below the ankle to allow maximum speed) she was losing a couple of her toenails. I told her it was probably better to lose toenails than teeth. Toenails may hurt more but when you start losing your teeth you can't help but feel a bit like you're getting up there in age. And thus a midlife crisis was born.

A little while later I was waiting outside the Dome waiting for the blue-eyed intern to arrive since I had an extra ticket for the Twins' game. The sky looked threatening and thunder boomed in the distance. I was sitting on some benches outside Gate F. On the bench next to mine a young woman too was waiting for someone and she was smart enough to bring along some reading material. In between the two benches stood two elderly women, apparently not together, who were also waiting for their prospective seatmates to arrive.

A few raindrops began to fall and the young woman and I were prepared as we opened up our umbrellas. The two elderly women had empty hands. Immediately the young woman offered to share her umbrella with the elderly woman closest to her. That left me in an awkward position. I didn't want to share. I wanted my space and I couldn't help but feel a bit smug and superior. The skies had looked pretty gray all evening and I had taken the steps to prepare myself even though it meant I would have to lug the umbrella into the game with me. Darn if I was about to share. So the elderly woman next to me was made to stand in the increasingly hard falling rain. And the cranky lil Japanese fellow on the bench next to her was content to realize he was indeed turning into a cranky old man, unwilling to bend to the world outside.

No one said I'd age gracefully.

The cover of Liz Phair's new CD, Liz Phair, shows a picture of Liz, hair swirled around her eyes, legs spread far apart, privates hidden behind her guitar. It could be argued that never has a CD cover better described the music pertained within. An artist that can be as brutally open as any teases but ultimately reveals very little in most of her new songs. When I got the CD and looked at it a question immediately came to mind: When exactly did Liz become Samantha Fox?

The CD has been the recipient of some of the most vitriolic reviews I've ever read (including one from the New York Times and so it must be true!). I even read one review that said it is one of the worst CDs ever released. While it's clear upon initial listening that it isn't exactly vintage Liz Phair it also isn't the worst thing that has ever been created. I think a lot of the negative reviews are based on such high expectations for the artist; she is definitely one of my favorite songwriters- in my pantheon of rock writers- one who I anxiously await each and every new release.

It's likely she'll never top her debut effort Exile in Guyville but then again it's likely few artists ever will. That CD is a desert island pick for many people- a document of incredible wit and insight. If you've ever been in a confusing relationship (and how many of us have?) it's music that is required listening. Beyond her brash take on her own sexuality (she makes Madonna look like a rank amateur or at least like the brash commercialist she has always wanted to be) Phair produced song after song of needed acumen and discord about the state of love. If "Divorce Song" isn't one of the greatest songs about the whole man/woman thing I don't know what is. "And it's harder to be friends than lovers/And you shouldn't try to mix the two/Because if you do and you're still unhappy/ Then you'll know the problem is you..."

And her seminal song from that disc, "Fuck and Run" is even more transcendent with its terrific telling refrain, "Whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who makes love because he's in it?" meant that this was an artist who can never quite be dismissed no matter what was to follow. And this isn't even to mention the blush inducing wholly original erotic "Flower" that ends all that ends all in the sex song genre.

So that Phair chose to go the slick commercial route on her new disc, allowing Avril Lavigne's producers' the Matrix(?) to produce much of the disc was a career move bound to raise an eyebrow or two. And ironically it probably is the two most Phair-like songs "Favorite" (where the songwriter writes about her favorite pair of underwear) and "H.W.C." (where the songwriter writes about her own fountain of youth- a certain white hot white sexual fluid) that sound absurdly ridiculous with the overly produced and radio friendly sheen found on all the tracks.

Still to dismiss the disc all together because it is a blatant attempt at getting some radio attention for yet another inexplicably overlooked artist (with a capital "A") and to dismiss it because some see it as an attempt from Phair to reach out to the teenage Avril crowd- doesn't seem quite fair. While not quite up to the standards of her previous work (a mere three discs in ten years) it still is heads (and other body parts) above the work of other contemporaries like say Sheryl Crow or Jewel or Alanis or... The opening track "Extraordinary" has the smile inducing refrain, "I am just your ordinary, average, everyday sane psycho super-goddess" that kind of sets the tone for some of the obvious tongue in cheek that seeps throughout all of what is to follow.

In an unintentional symmetry in recent weeks I watched two pretty good, but ultimately unfufilling cinema biographies, Clint Eastwood's Bird, a somewhat flattering portrait of the jazz great Charlie Parker and Salma Hayek's Freda, a similar unquestioning yet in some ways unflinching look at Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (who someone coincidentally named my black cat after).

The trait the two films share in common is a somewhat surface look at two troubled geniuses that lived very different but somewhat similar lives. Parker, a heroin addict from the time he was a teenager used his ability to play saxophone in a way no one had ever before played the saxophone to escape, if only for a moment or two from the pain the reality of his life caused. Kahlo too was reliant on chemical and artistic escapes from her own physical pain caused (as the movie explains) from a childhood bus accident. The effort and integrity of both movies, both wanting trying earnestly hard to strive to reflect the beauty of two great artists, is worth watching but ultimately both seem a tad superficial. The darkness is there but in a bit too accessible way. What each is able to convey is how art and life must intertwine for those who cannot connect but for their art.

So it inherently continues to go for artists here and there and everywhere... As for Liz Phair yes the first single, the overly radio friendly "Why Can't I" is the type of song that anyone from Avril to Celine to Meatloaf could sing- with its disappointing generic syrupy refrain, "Why can't I breath whenever I think about you?/Why can't I speak whenever I talk about you?" it is catchy and not that far removed from two of my favorite Phair songs, "Whip Smart" and "Polyester Bride." If her last disc Whitechocolatespaceegg was her marriage disc (released around the time of her wedding and the subsequent birth of her son) than this being the follow-up has to be viewed as her divorce disc. And if that is the case than "Little Digger" a song to her son is achingly Lennonesque in its frankness and revelation of personal affairs. How can anyone dismiss a song where the songwriter confesses, "I've done the damage, the damage is done/I pray to God that I'm the damaged one/And all these grown up complications that you don't understand/I hope you can someday..." ?- it's Phair at her best and her best is always worth listening to. Even if this may or may not be a 36-year-old woman trying to be 19 all over again, and in some sort of professional crisis, this isn't music to be blithely dismissed. In press interviews Phair said she wanted to make something to blast out the car during the summer and if that is what it merely is, then it rocks and rocks with more than your average CD as far as having an insight or two. Hers is a voice that will resonate throughout the years even as it echoes from what it can and cannot be. Hearing that unique voice once again is most definitely better to have than have not.

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