Monday, March 29, 2004

Don't Touch Me -d Ma Hits and All Time Low

There are some musical acts that infuriate you more than they entertain you yet somehow you just can't manage to look away. Often times it's a matter of a gripping glimpse of initial promise followed by head-scratching mediocrity. Other times it's a flash of brilliance with a frustrating sudden unbearably insipid dreck filled follow up. For me the musical group Don't Touch Me -dMa fits somewhere in between.

When I first discovered the band a couple of years back playing at my local coffee shop I couldn't wait to see just how far they might go once they truly hit their stride. Their music was eclectic and their style uniquely their own. The lead singer -d's social awkwardness somehow seemed appealing and endearing more than it was intentionally anti-social. What the group lacked in pure musicianship they made up for in earnestness.

But after seeing Don't Touch Me -dMa's most recent show last Sunday at open mike night at the Coffee Grounds, one has to wonder if the group has given in to the simple minded cynicism that pervades too much of today's music (and society).

Granted the show was essentially a -d solo performance as the group was missing several key members including Anita the go-go tambourine playing girl, Amy Lou and her inspired concertina accompaniment, and the little red hair girl whose versions of "Crab Cakes" and "Milkshake" always are money in the bank crowd pleasers. Instead what we got was -d alone on his piano playing his version of Paul McCartney's 1992 CD Off the Ground in sequence from the first insipid title song to the closer, the schmaltzy "C'mon People" that urges us to let the future in. Deep stuff this was not. I swear things got so bad that all that was left to watch by the end of the show were a couple of creatures with an odd number of limbs between them.

One might think the performance was all some kind of joke yet -d played it all terribly matter-of-fact and proved in the process if anything that he's no Paul McCartney. Not even close.

As if things were not already insufferable enough, -d took the time in between songs to rant about his world view. He chided people for not being spiritually or intellectually curious enough, accusing the vast populace of being too wrapped up in their own day to day lives to give a hoot about what is going on around them. Maybe it would have sounded convincing if two minutes later he wasn't crooning (and crooning badly) "I saw a cat with a machine in his brain/The man who fed him said he didn't feel any pain/I'd like to see that man take out that machine/And stick it in his own brain/You know what I mean..." Um no -d, some of us really never know what you mean.

Throughout the evening -d's plucky piano playing (always one of his few redeeming qualities) seemed sloppy and unrehearsed. His usual stand up pound out the unexpected notes way of playing gave way to noodle doodling as if he wasn't sure what he was going to do next and he wasn't shy about sharing his apprehension as part of his performance. Where in the past his piano playing technique has always seemed as if it was coming from a frustrated writer-wannabe, his playing this night was as if he has been taking lessons from a big black cat who strolls up and down the keyboard with no real purpose in mind.

And to add to the insufferable performance was -d's singing. Not much to rave about to begin with for whatever reason he sang the entire night out of the side of his mouth as if he was suffering from some type of Brian Wilson numb side of the face malady.

The one redeeming performance of the night came during the encore, a version of McCartney's 1983 song "The Other Me" written 10 years before the rest of the set Don't Touch Me -dMa made us all struggle through. On this one song -d got it exactly right and sang his little heart out as if the organ was shrinking from sight. "The other me would rather be the glad one/The other me would rather play the fool/I want to be the kind of me/That doesn't let you down as a rule..." Suddenly the singer seemed engaged and false empty expression gave way to the offering of a seemingly true sentiment. As he left the stage -d removed the purple Survivor buff that he'd been wearing all show as if he really wanted to reveal even more.

Monday, March 22, 2004

A Few More Holes in the Head

The last thing Dr. Zhu-San Ye said as he turned down the lights in the room was, "Try to relax, take a nap." It seemed like a rather odd thing to say seeing I had five sharp needles stuck in various places on the right side of my face, another needle stuck in my neck, and still another needle stuck in the space between my thumb and forefinger of my right hand.

Not only was I lying there in the dark pierced but before he left Dr. Ye had attached electrodes to the needles and the zaps of electricity made my face twitch uncontrollably.

But I trusted Dr. Ye, the founder of the Chinese Acupuncture Center in Roseville, partly because a friend had recommended him (and the treatment) to me, and partly because of his calm and confident demeanor. Besides, having lived a couple of weeks (and for my taste a couple of weeks too many) with a numb right side of my face, I figured I was willing to give just about anything a try. After all a fellow can only stand drooling so much soup down his chin, biting his lip while eating submarine sandwiches, and generally garbling his already mumbled speech before enough is enough.

So for the half an hour I lie there I listened to voices in the hallway. A young woman's voice was telling Dr. Ye how her first treatment had worked great, but now that she was smoking again she thought she'd come back. Dr. Ye laughed. A young child's playful voice screeched and screamed either out of delight or displeasure.

For some reason the picture that I couldn't quite get out of my mind as I closed my eyes was a photograph of George Harrison on the inner sleeve of his LP, Somewhere in England. The picture shows George with about 50 needles stuck in various places around his face. The photo appears right below the lyrics of the song "That Which I Have Lost" that has George opining about his journey. "He is fighting the forces of darkness limitation/Falsehood and mortality which bar him/The way back into the higher world/While his whole being is bewildered/He does not know, no law of action/Taking refuge inside himself and he's saying/I need someone to show me/Illumine my consciousness/Remove the dark from in me/And give me that which I have lost..."

I would clench my jaw, or try and scrunch up my face and it was then and then only when I could feel the needles penetrating my skin and sticking out from my face. There was no pain but the electronically generated twitching wasn't a bundle of fun.

Dr. Ye returned and turned on the lights. He slowly removed the needles. My face felt different. It wasn't exactly numb but it wasn't exactly like I could form a smile either. I followed him out of the room and back into the lobby where I paid my bills and he gave me some Chinese herbs to take. I drove on home and looked in the mirror. My right eye that had been partially closed making me look like an Asian Sylvester Stallone, now was wide open. The corresponding watering, the major symptom of Bell's Palsy that had been bothering me, was gone.

I considered calling Dr. Ye and immediately booking another appointment to deal with all the other places in my body that have grown numb over the past couple of years. But I didn't. In the year I turn 40 I have noticed that certain parts of my anatomy just don't work the same as they used to. Still for the most part I've lived a life of good physical health. And for the most part I've lived that life with equal parts help and hindrance from the western medicine that my employer paid insurance covers. So I was glad I listened to my friend's suggestion and tried something else. I think I surprised her when I was more than willing to take her advice. In that place where East meets West a feeling was recovered at the mere cost of a few more holes in the head.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The World's Worst Ticket Scalper

The year was 1992 and I was recovering from a crash. I was very very lost when Alex appeared in my life. We struck up a friendship and spent some time together the best of which were the evenings she would pick me up in front of my tiny little efficiency down the street from her apartment and just outside downtown St. Paul. She'd arrive in her sporty gray MR-2 and I'd get in and bring with me Mr. Max's hair and she'd scold me for messing up her otherwise spotless car interior.

We'd drive down to the downtown St. Paul library for a "library night." She'd read and study and I'd do a bit of writing. Afterward we'd grab a cup of coffee at the Bad Habit and do a crossword puzzle together. We didn't always come up with all the words but the ones we did agree upon seemed OK with me.

These days I sometimes think about what will be on my mind as I lie on my death bed and I gotta say those evenings with Alex are sure to make the short list.

Eventually the friendship crashed. And I was lost again. Alex got an internship at the White House (I'm serious) and on her last night in town she had to work a shift at the downtown Daytons. I came down with her and told her I would shop until she was done and give her a lift home. I was done shopping in about five minutes of course (I bought a blanket) so I meandered around the empty downtown "mall" aimlessly but I needed to spend another moment, perhaps the last, with Alex not for any particular reason but just because I had to.

During our drive home I asked her the question that was there, that I almost didn't want to hear the answer to but needed to ask nonetheless. I asked Alex if she planned on staying in touch with me. She told me she really hadn't thought about it. I tried to tell her how sorry I felt for the way our friendship had fizzled due entirely to my issues and how much she had meant to me. But I knew she didn't want to hear any of that. She, true to form, was already was thinking about what lie ahead for her.

If there was one other thing getting through to me at that point and was consoling me for a loss of friendship it was Bob Dylan's music. In a world that increasingly (and frighteningly) seemed more and more black and white- with a bit of taupe mixed in- Bob's music definitely seemed multi-colored. This wasn't exactly fertile times in Bob's career- most of the media coverage of him seemed to portray him as a washed up has been that slurred his singing into unrecognizable gibberish. A mere shadow of the legend he created. But who cares what the popular opinion was? Certainly not Bob. And certainly not one who could see the wisdom in a line like "Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt." Sheer brilliance.

I admired the way Bob persevered and just kept doing what he had always been doing even if no one was paying much attention. His art wasn't so much to win over approval as it was to validate for himself what he thought someone needed to say.

That said, how can one not stop and pay attention to a song like "Blind Willie McTell"? Its melody won't let go and the lyrics paint a picture of our times that no one else even wants to jot down for whatever reason. "God is in his heaven/And we all want what's his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is..." And the way Bob sings a song about how no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell proves what an incessantly effective albeit idiosyncratic singer he has always been.

So here it is a dozen years after 1992 and I'm remembering how on the last ride home I was telling Alex about this new job I was about to start- editing the Cheapo Newsletter. She thought it was a great opportunity but questioned whether anyone would get much out of my writing. She told me my writing was so personal that anybody reading would have to know me to appreciate any of it. I didn't necessarily disagree but still felt a tad discouraged. I knew she was right but I was going to prove her wrong nonetheless.

Wednesday nights I'm taking a creative non-fiction writing class at the Loft. One of the reasons I'm taking the class is after twelve years of writing a weekly newsletter column I kinda feel like I've battered the principle rule of writing to death: write about what you know. To fill up this column I've written all I know and many things I don't know. And everything I'm writing now seems like I've written before. I hoped taking a class would breathe some fresh air into my writing.

In the class we all have to read a couple of pieces for the others to critique. My first reading was last week. What I wrote was essentially an elongated Cheapo Newsletter column. And what I discovered is that weekly I don't so much write creative non-fiction but more like non-creative fiction. For my reading I wrote about a meeting I was at and the thoughts that were going through my mind the entire time. I wasn't so much daydreaming as getting stuck in the mundane events of the past week that made up my life as it is. The only thread holding it all together was me, and I wasn't doing such a good job at it.

When I admitted to the class that I had no idea what the piece was about one of the women mentioned the narrator seemed to be in a place of despair. That didn't even occur to me. Re-reading the piece I think I copped Dylan's wonderful rambling song "Highlands" that has the singer meandering throughout some seemingly disjointed scenes only to emerge bemused that none of it makes any sense but the place he's headed to is bound to be different if only because of some form of blind hope.

The Loft is located just a few blocks from my current workplace/wonderland. Yet on this particular Wednesday it took me forever to move my car that few blocks because traffic was proceeding one car at time through the change of stop lights. I raced into class in the drizzling rain/snow knowing that I needed to leave on time in order to head on over to the other Twin City to see Dylan perform at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium.

It was to be the 26th time I've seen Dylan perform live and yet it was full of firsts. First of all I parked quite a ways a way and had to wander past the places Alex and I spent together. Also I had an extra ticket with me so for the first time in my life I had to play the part of ticket scalper. Let me say I don't think I'm ever gonna make a living at it. I took the first offer that was made to me only to have another guy quickly come up to me and ask how much I was asking for the ticket. The first guy had offered me less than face value and I was happy to get anything I could. That the second guy probably would have give me more couldn't sway me from sticking to some code of agreeing to terms with the original offer.

My seat was quite a ways from the stage but the venue was small enough that it really didn't matter. I asked the guy that eventually sat in the seat next to mine what he paid for the ticket. Turns out he paid over twice as much as I sold it for. Oh well, he was an interesting guy. We talked about music- he was a jazz fan and I mentioned my admiration of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and he seemed OK with that and gave me a piece of gum.

The opening chords of the opening song "Tombstone Blues" rang inside my skull revealing another first. It was the first Bob concert I attended suffering the numbing affects of a bit of Bell's Palsy. My face drooped and my eye watered yet all the rest didn't much matter. Highlights of the show? A heart-wrenching "Love Sick" with Bob caressing the minimalist lyrics with so much care that it hurt. A new arrangement of "Girl From the North Country" with guitarist Larry Campbell strumming some lovely chords in an arrangement that made it sound like an Irish lullaby (which it probably was at one time). A great version of "Floater"- the song Bob apparently plagiarized lines from an obscure Japanese novel- even though there isn't anyone on the planet that could write or sing the song with so much precision and ingenuity.

The band sounded good although it probably still misses the impeccable virtuosity of Charlie Sexton's guitar playing. The newest addition is a second drummer, Richie Hayward who plays a mean tambourine- Mr. Tambourine finally clear and present. Freddy Koella's lead guitar led the way throughout although Bob managed to keep him in line with a few quirky keyboard moments.

The setlist also included two of my all time favorite Dylan songs- "Blind Willie McTell," and "Shooting Star." The latter always reminds me of my friend Alex. "Guess it's too late to say the things to you that you needed to hear me say/Seen a shooting star tonight pass away..." His voice was both gruff and understanding and the arrangement jolting and soothing. "Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you/You were trying to break into another world/A world I never knew./I always kind of wondered/If you ever made it through./Seen a shooting star tonight/And I thought of you."

Imaginary Accomplishments

"I can feel it in my bones/I'm gonna spend another year alone/Fuck and run, fuck and run/Even when I was 17/Fuck and run, fuck and run/Even when I was 12..."

In the beginning let me just state I love Liz Phair's music. It's cheeky, it's insightful, it's sexy, and it comes from a terribly unique yet somehow familiar voice.

And not much more matters after seeing Liz perform Thursday night at First Ave because it was one of those shows that you enjoy in spite of yourself, despite what your critical stoplights tell you is going to happen no matter what.

This trip began in the mid-90's when I was driving home late one evening with Nancy Jean from a concert in Rochester. The skies really let loose and the rain exploded with a mighty crash so we pulled off and grabbed a motel room for the night. It was one of those nights where the adrenaline was flowing much too fast and too freely and it ended with me uttering a line that Nancy Jean later told a group of people much to my horror was the most painful thing anyone had ever said to her (and she wore her battle scars quite nakedly). The line that spilled from my lips was this (as Nancy Jean was bouncing up and down on the motel bed), "I'll do anything you want if you'll only put your clothes back on..."

And I guess the only reason I now come clean to admitting to uttering this statement is that while eating dinner with my dear friend Lisa Anne Marie before we headed on over to First Ave to see Liz I told Lisa that I wished only one thing: that Liz didn't come on stage stark naked. After seeing her latest photo shoot, a pictorial that wouldn't seem out of place in Playboy, I gotta say that while Liz is certainly an attractive woman and the pictures are provocative- all her sexy media campaign is starting to detract from the music. Her music has always been rather naked and starkly brutal in what it reveals so we don't need to see Liz's boobs and butt flapping in the wind to listen to what she has to say.

The stage grew dark around 8:30 p.m. Two twin purple lights beamed upward as the band blasted into metallic cacophony that made the ears ring. Lisa Anne Marie speculated that Liz would rise up from the floor but unfortunately that didn't happen. Instead she strolled onto stage and sang out a heavy metal arrangement of "Flower." The band sounded much tighter than it had last September at the same venue. Liz's vocals were also more crisp as she sang from a Bud Grant-like headset (just those worn by Christina and Brittney!) yet more tinny and nasally. She sorta sounded just like a little girl (yet she broke just like a woman!).

From there it was "Polyester Bride," and "Rock Me," and a really terrific "Uncle Alvarez." Liz and the band rocked hard on songs like "My Bionic Eyes," "Fuck and Run," Mesmerizing," and "Super Nova," yet for me it was two quiet little moments that really made the show stick out in my mind. She played keyboard for the only time all night on "Chopsticks," remembering writing the song with it's barefaced simplicity and that it was an effort to fool her mother into thinking she was practicing something else while taking piano lessons. Liz also did a great, seemingly off the cuff, "Explain it to Me," that was full of chatter and encouraging the guitarist to keep playing even if he wasn't sure of his part.

She sang throughout the night with a big grin on her face as if she was really enjoying herself but it conveyed something beyond that. Lisa Anne Marie identified the smirk behind the smile as suggesting that Liz knows her songs convey a deeper meaning beyond sexual frankness and titillating an audience with something even more perverse- that she knows her songs delve more deeply and honestly into what gives us all pleasure and pain and the mixture and the mixing up of the two somehow trips us all up. Lisa Anne Marie quite accurately said that Liz's music intertwines anger and being horny and the combination of the two probably answer why Liz is a divorced mother and one who apparently has some man troubles in her life. Naked is what it is.

Monday, March 8, 2004

I'll Never Smile Again

Wednesday I was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy, a disorder caused by damage to cranial nerve VII in the brain. Bell's Palsy causes sudden facial drooping and decreased ability to move the face.

All day Tuesday my right eye was watering. Now I'm used to my share of crying but this seemed more an irritation than an emotion manifesting itself. Tuesday night as I was brushing my teeth I noticed that the right side of my face felt like it feels when I'm shot up with Novocain after visiting the dentist. Now I'm not exactly the brightest bulb on the planet but I kind of figured that something was probably wrong.

Sure enough the next morning Dr. Joyce told me what I had. She said the affliction is sometimes caused as an aftermath to a virus. A couple of weeks back I came home one night to the worst stomach cramp imaginable. I spent all that night moaning in bed (not in a good way) frightening the kitties. My feet started to cramp up and I felt dehydrated so I got up and tried to drink some water only that made my stomach hurt worse. So I lie curled up and moaned some more knowing that the kitties likely weren't to get up and make me some soup and get me some Ginger Ale like my Mom used to when I was a kid.

There are several annoying things about having a numb side of my face. I have in the past been accused of rolling my eyes and making faces even when I'm not doing so intentionally so facial control has never exactly been a specialty of mine. Public drooling though I've generally had under control.

I can't whistle (which I like to mindlessly do in my car) and I don't think I'll be playing a trumpet in the near future. I'm having a hard time firming up my lips enough to apply lip balm and thus my lips feel constantly chapped. Brushing my teeth is a chore and eating is no picnic. And I can't suck (which I guess may or may not be a good thing).

In a search for some comfort and sympathy I dug out my Brian Wilson CDs. Brian of course sings out of one side of his mouth since the left side of his face suffers from some form of paralysis. My voice will never have the range of Brian's even as his diminishes, yet it seemed strangely appropriate to be singing my lil' heart out along with Brian both out of one side of our numb faces. It also made me realize that Muscular Dystrophy has Jerry Lewis and after reading that one in 10,000 suffer from Bell's Palsy (though some say the number is closer to one in 500 or one in 1,000) I think it's time some comedian (my pick would be Jake Johanson) would lead the way to greater awareness and an eventual cure of Bell's Palsy.

Dr. Joyce told me that usually the numbness lasts from two to six weeks and usually it isn't permanent. But I've talked to a couple of people who told me their friends had Bell's Palsy and for them it lasted from a couple of months to a couple of years. I was given some steroids (there goes my shot at the Big Leagues) that Dr. Joyce told me the medical community was split on- they may or may not do any good.

After just a few days the lack of facial strength is already is getting old. I had to speak at a public meeting and it was hard enough getting my thoughts to coincide with my words without having to dribble everything out of the left side of my mouth all the while hoping no one noticed.

Still I realize it could be worse. A friend recently told me she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and thus has to take medication for the rest of her life. Already one with low blood pressure the medicine's side effect is to lower her blood pressure even more and thus she is afraid that she'll pass out on occasion. When she told me about her condition about a month ago I felt horrible for her. When I had lunch with her the other day and I was struggling to eat my Jimmy John's BLT sandwich I didn't know whether or not I should let her know the tears on my face may be from a variety of different things- both voluntary and involuntary.

Monday, March 1, 2004

Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground

The boys like to wrestle. And on the surface it might look like a bit of a mismatch. Diego-san is one of larger cats I've ever seen. His tail alone is big enough to strangle a goat, and with his impressive black coat and massive paws he's just this side of qualifying for a bear status. Thompson is more typical tabby cat size and with his missing front left leg his balance is just a bit tilted toward his right side. But he's solid through and through while Diego is a lot puff and hair. And Thompson has the neck of a football player (perhaps to compensate for all the weight that's placed on his front leg). Picking them up I'd almost have to guess that they're about equal weight despite their disparate appearances.

Watching them play fight is endlessly entertaining. They'll recklessly tear around the house and things like furniture and stairs are mere inconveniences rather than obstacles. When one catches the other they'll roll around in a ball and paws will be swatting as ears are being bit. The other night I was being an interested spectator to the spectacle when I saw Diego-san use a heretofore unseen tactical maneuver. While in the middle of a lengthy stare-down Diego suddenly took his right front paw and swatted Thompson's left front paw from underneath him causing Thompson to tumble over like a house of cards. It was brilliant if not a tad unfair- taking advantage of the opponent's weakness.

Making the adjustment from the usually sedate existence Mr. Max and I settled into the last few years to having two energetic playmates who seem to think everything that exists in the house exists for their entertainment purposes (shoelaces are to be chewed, running and sitting water is to be swatted, bags and boxes are either to crawl into or to chewed to bits) has been at times trying. They say that change is hard but it's not so much that as adjusting to different personalities and missing not quite getting the same blank and ornery look Mr. Max would give me whenever I did or said something he knew was more for my sake than his.

Yup, being a follow up to a one in a kind original is no easy task. And this is what life has been like for TV's Angel during its entire five year existence. Being a spin-off of the most creative and imaginative TV series ever, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel has at times had a difficult time finding its own place in this world straddling the line between enhancing the forever non predictable Buffy storyline while at the same time trying to assert the show's own identity.

I've been making my way through the first three Angel seasons on DVD. Much of the first season I didn't watch for the very reason that I felt it could never live up to the standard already established by Buffy. And indeed the first season is wildly uneven as the show tries to balance Angel's brooding nature (he's a vampire with a soul for Chrissakes meaning he's eternally tormented by all the damage he has wreaked) with Cordelia's bubbleheaded enthusiasm and Doyle's geeky exterior that hides something much greater underneath.

Doyle's sudden death helped focus the show even though the character played by the late great Glenn Quinn is one of the most fascinating (and believe me that's saying a lot) ever in the Buffy universe. By season two as we learn even more about Angel's shadowy past it's easier to appreciate the artful storytelling of the man behind all this Buffy stuff- Joss Whedon.

This season Angel has really hit its stride with some truly memorable episodes- including the heartbreaking death of Cordelia, the revelation of the role Angel and Spike played in World War II (Spike was a Nazi!), and the episode where due to an evil spell Angel is turned into a Muppet. I can't imagine any other episodic television series expanding and playing with the medium as wonderfully as these three episodes (and all season really) of Angel have done. So the news that the WB has canceled the series is as maddening as it is sad. This is a series where we want to find out what is going to happen next to the characters because the show's greatest strength is that we never quite know- and thus the journey itself is exhilarating. Losing the last vestiges of the Buffy world is difficult at best- sort of as balance jarring as the loss of a limb- and it feels like losing a great love, being able to find something else to help you move on, only now to lose that as well. In other words it would make a good story for Angel.