Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Just Another Kitty Tale: Life's Ying Yang

"I have seen the future and it licks itself clean..."
-Bucky Katt

The other evening as I was driving home I noticed the perfect metaphor for this year's Presidential campaign.

On a side street in sunny Roseville were two immaculately maintained neighboring yards, one displaying a "Bush/Cheney" sign the other exhibiting a "Kerry/Edwards" sign. The only observable difference between the two yards was that in the driveway of the latter was a sign that read, "Free Gravel." When you get down to the nitty gritty isn't that really the difference between Democrats and Republicans? They're pretty much the same only one is into offering its constituents something for nothing even if that something is pretty much worthless. It seemed too poetic to ignore, just another sign of life's ying yang I thought to myself.

That evening I was sitting in the new upper wing of my house watching Thompson lick Diego-san clean (as his tongue stroked the top of Diego's head, Diego's left eye rhythmically opened and shut). This is what passes for entertainment during these days when I consider myself fortunate for being able to sleep in on a Saturday until 6 a.m.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about (which is quite the norm believe you me) I'm a quiet little hard working Asian fellow living with two cats (seven limbs between them) who recently used his extra hours work pay to upgrade his humble little house to have a master bedroom and bathroom in what used to be the unfinished attic to his house.

The other day my sister was over to see the new addition and I was telling her that my roommates now act as if the sunny upstairs has always been there. I told her one of Diego-san's favorite things to do is leap up on the ledge that frames the steep stairway up into the upper wing. The ledge is about five inches wide and Diego sits perched up taunting the three-legged Thompson who doesn't have the balance to make the leap (where an ill fated attempt would mean quite the long fall). Yet another example of life's ying yang equal parts funny and sad looking at the smug look on Diego's face and the mournful look in Thompson's ever sad eyes.

There isn't much that Thompson can't do with a little adjustment to his unfortunate handicap, yet this is one thing Diego-san found (and believe me he does search) as an advantage he has over his wrestling buddy.

So I was getting out of the shower a few days later and by instinct I opened the bathroom door and looked for Thompson who likes to greet me after my morning shower to roll around my feet and further clean them by licking me. This particular morning Thompson was nowhere in sight. I turned to my left and there I saw not one, but two kitties lying observantly on the ledge above the stairway.

As the three of us enjoy and adjust to this change to our environment and home I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness remembering the late great Mr. Max, a former occupant of this house. When we moved from our last apartment into this house Max lost all the sunny spots he used to lie in. I know he would have loved the beams of sunlight that pour in from the skylights in the early afternoon. I know he would have loved the high view of the neighborhood that one can observe from the two far ends of the upper wing.

He might be a tad uptight about others of his species existing in the same place but somehow I still feel his presence and know that he is telling me that all can be all right if only I can take a moment or two to see what is in front of me. And believe me that is a hard thing to do with an exhausted mind even if I still have all my limbs intact.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


"If you buy me a strong drink of whiskey/I will tell you the tale of my life/It's long and it's sad but it fits me/And it may bring a tear to your eye"
-Steve Earle

I once learned a valuable lesson from one of my all time favorite cheapo employees, Mike Nordgaard. Mike and I worked many shifts, both early morning and late night, together. Back in those days this company seemed to have a shortage of working writing utensils. So both Mike and I were careful keeping the valuable scarce commodity on our person. Mike used to wear his pen behind his ear like an erstwhile carpenter, and I soon picked up on the habit.

The other day I was thoughtlessly doing the habitual when I noticed the ball-point pen I carry around doesn't fit so snugly behind my ear anymore. Since it's unlikely they are making pens sleeker these days it dawned on me that with the passing years another sign of aging is that my ears are getting looser.

Yup, when you get to be my age certain things don't work like they used to. Now days I have to get to bed by a certain time or else the pumpkin bursts and the slippers don't fit so comfortably the next day. Thus there have been some recent concerts that I would have dropped my last buck on in the past but now that I can afford to go monetarily, I find I can't afford to go physically. One was the recent Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson concert in Rochester. The other was at the Minnesota Zoo- an equally intriguing double billing featuring John Hiatt and Steve Earle.

I was a Steve Earle fan before he went to jail. Earle was my last non-feline full time roommate, Pistol Pete's, the pharmacist (who is the one person who could literally claim to have saved my life), favorite artist. We'd take turns playing CDs during the evenings when he was studying and I was writing and after my Dylan CD was done playing Pete would inevitably put on an Earle CD (usually Guitar Town or Copperhead Road) and I gotta admit I didn't complain one bit when he did.

Earle's post jail CDs (he was busted for possessing heroin in the 1990's) like I Feel Alright and El Corazon prove that as an artist he continues to grow and continues to have much to say.

His latest effort The Revolution Starts Now is the best CD I've heard this year. As the liner notes tell us, Earle recorded the CD quickly to capture the immediacy of the politically inspired songs. Most of the songs were written after the prisoner abuse scandal had broken and the 9/11 commission hearings were demonstrating that a lot of someone's, particularly those in the current administration dropped the ball in protecting this country.

For such a quickly produced CD, the whole thing really holds together and has several sparkling moments including the sweet duet with Emmylou Harris on "Comin Around" that concludes with a most convincing statement, "Finally layin' my burden down." The title track opens and closes the CD and the Beatleish melody and arrangement effectively embellishes the call to take back the country and get us off this path we seem to be numbly stumbling down.

The diatribe of "F the CC" is the most effective use of the "F" word ever put to song. "It just gets tougher every day/to sit around and watch it while it slips away..." It's a singalong, scream at the top of your lungs while you're stuck in rush hour traffic type of ditty.

Of course the most indispensable song of the set is "Condi Condi" a most amusing cum on song directed at our beloved National Security Council advisor. My friend, the Student, says it sounds as if Earle is propositioning a hooker, and tho I don't know nothing about that I must admit I can't get the catchy banana boat-like song out of my head. The singer is somehow sincerely yet sarcastically telling Ms. Rice that she has to give him a chance and come out and have just a little fun. "Dance around me spinnin like a top/Oh Condi Condi Condi don't ever stop." Listening to the song one can't help but realize that if those in charge had even a smidgen of Earle's sensibilities we'd be in a far different but no doubt better place. Not that is even a remote possibility in the next four years.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Hot Corner

There I was outstretched on a Tuesday night under the lights diving for a ground ball down the line, a hard hit ball, not doing much thinking but the thinking I was doing was that fast approaching 40 my reflexes not only are not what they used to be, they aren't even what I once spent summer day after summer day preparing them to be.

It was the top of the seventh and we were ahead by four and they had runners on first and second with one out.

One of the things I miss about living with my older brother are the many summer days we spent practicing to become Major League Baseball players. For hitting practice we would use a wiffle ball and a wiffle bat and play a full scale game. It was equally fun playing the part of pitcher trying to make that plastic ball with air vents circling the top, try to dart and dip like a curve or a knucklechange and playing batter trying to launch that ball across our yard and far away into the neighbor's.

For fielding practice we used a tennis racket and a tennis ball that allowed the batter to hit mile high pop ups or smash grounders seemingly just out of the reach of the wannabe shortstop. My brother and I did this every day of every summer so much so that we wore out our parents' backyard and the little girls next door must have watched us intently because my Mom later told me that when she saw that they had begun playing baseball, they did so with a tennis racket and ball.

The fruits of those days of summer came in handy this particular fall night on this particular play on the dusty St. Paul Central High School softball fields. The feeling of being suddenly alive, stabbing a hot shot grounder that hugs the line, relying on instincts to be your guide was a spirit raiser. There was no thinking involved. I reacted the instant the ball hit the bat and everything that came after was like second nature but was probably more attributable to all those plays from the past. I got up and the runner on second hadn't even moved. I don't think he or anyone else was expecting me to field the should have been double down the line. I tagged third base and any feeling that they were going to come from behind and win the game seemed sucked right out of the place. The other team praised me. We got the next out and Cap'n Joe told me, and later repeated to my Dad who was as always faithfully watching in the metal bleachers, "That was the play of the season."

What made it an even more memorable and meaningful play for me was that I probably would have taken for granted being able to do that twenty years ago. I practiced it, I sometimes was able to do it, but it wasn't like it was an ability I'd ever thought would either go away or ever come in handy any day. Yet these days the reflexes are a bit less reliable and timing a little less confident. Things that used to come naturally now come with a moment or two of hesitation. The best example of this strange new sensation comes daily with escalator riding. When I was a kid I used to shake my head at the old people who took their time stepping on to the moving steps. You can't possible miss I thought. Now days I find myself a little less sure and I do on occasion take that stutter step on to an escalator, half expecting myself to fall and make an unintentional spectacle of myself.

Or maybe it all just comes from working far too many hours and sleeping far less seconds than even a chronic lifelong insomniac has come to expect. So on that memorable softball night as I got to bed far too late and never quite ever drifted away I was too tired to get up and find the CD that contained the song that I just couldn't get out of my head even though I hadn't heard it for years.

It then occurred to me that music can be rather strange- the first time you hear a song is different from repeated listenings and where you are at a particular time in life can make the same song mean much different things to you. I was lying there underneath the night sky that blazed down blackly from my skylight thinking of John Lennon's "I'm Steppin' Out" that was released posthumously and was written when Lennon was just the age I'm about to turn. The song came out my freshman year of college and the cocky yet trying to self assure one's self lyrics inspired me during a by where I was, necessary self doubting time of my life. "If it don't feel right, you don't have to do it/Just leave a message on the phone and tell them to screw it/After all is said and done, you can't go pleasing everyone/So screwwwwww oooh oooh oooh eewwww eewww it..."

I'm at a very different place these days professionally and privately. Everything back then seemed to be to prepare for things to come and now as things unfold they are for real yet they don't seem to mean as much as they did back when they weren't supposed to mean anything at all. Listening to John's song all these years later was a lesson in the arc of life and how where we are and who we are today may not be the same the next time the song plays again or the grounder goes right on by.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Idle Melancholy

Ike asks the musical question, if they are "angels or if they are whores?..." Yikes Ike!

The far from endless summer of 1986 was the last summer before the end of the academic sector of my career. I was feeling a bit adrift and it was the first time in my life not even music seemed to lessen the feeling of a fog like blues I couldn't quite shake. (And as regular readers of the newsletter can attest I'm usually such an upbeat chipper little bird. Some even have come to refer to me as Cap'n Happy.)

That summer three of the then artists who achieved the status of I buy everything new that they release, released new LP's within a month or two of each other. Yet the news of new releases from Paul McCartney and Paul Simon couldn't even get me off my rump and down to the neighborhood Cheapo. It took the release of the first new Bob Dylan LP since I had become a big time fan, Knocked Out Loaded, to convince me I needed some new music in my life.

Bringing my bag o' new music home I must admit my mood took a decidedly noticeable upswing. On my drive home I tried to decide which of the three new LPs I would listen to first. Since I had the highest anticipation for Dylan's I decided I would save his for last. Since I had the least anticipation for Simon's I decided that I would first listen to McCartney's Press to Play first.

I carefully placed the vinyl on my stereo (a Miida one piece component complete with radio, 8-track player, and turntable) and the first song, "Stranglehold" sounded promising enough. But as I made my way through the song cycle on side one it became quite apparent that the music in a word, sucked. Macca gets in trouble when he decides he has to be an artist with a capital "A" and produce what he considers avant garde art. Songs like "Pretty Little Head" and "Talk More Talk" are not only dreadful, but they drain the soul right out of you mighty quick. The whole thing was overproduced and overwrought with wannabe significance.

Strike one.

One look at him and she seemed to somehow see his soul was broken. They hadn't seen each other in a couple of years and she shows up looking elegant, tan, and rested. He shows up with a there to see for anyone who looked too closely, transparent spiritual state of being.

The night before he had come home and gotten drunk after having spent a hell of a lotta energy making love with the Brazilian beauty from the mountains with the perfect peaks. Their time together was electrically charged and yet he knew things seemed like they were just going through the motions.

Good lawd oll mayte!

Feeling even more sad than ever before I bumped up Dylan in the order of things. I gotta say the LP that made me a lifetime Dylan fan was his previous LP, 1985's Empire Burlesque, much maligned by just about everyone under the sun. Compared to that carefully produced effort, Knocked Out Loaded sounded like a complete throwaway- something that could have been made in a drunken stupor and in a day. The songs don't connect and the 11 minute epic "Brownsville Girl" sounds like a car wreck waiting to happen. At the time it sorta depressed me but since whenever I play that CD in my bluer moments it never fails to produce a smile. "Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt," Bob sez/sings seemingly without a smirk on his weathered face.

Strike two looking.

Simon's Graceland was a whole other story. The foreign sounding music caught me completely off guard. And the juxtaposition of the overly thoughtful (and ever thought provoking) lyrics with the joyful music was pure musical enchantment. As I sat laying on the furry heat absorbing lime green shag carpet of my bedroom, back up in a beam of sunlight, the music thankfully took me to a far away, cooler, and getaway place.

A tape measure home run that one.

Fast forward 18(!) years later to the summer of 2004. There's been far too little softball playing, and I'm far too busy to appreciate a Minnesota Twins season that will culminate in their fourth World Series appearance (you heard it here first) and music? Who has time to listen?

Thus the list of CDs on my must hear list has been growing rather rapidly. Last Sunday in a far too late return trip to my neighborhood Cheapo I finally added four discs that I knew would eventually make their place into my collection, but hadn't yet for one reason or another. Each of the discs come from an artist whose work I've come to respect and admire for somewhat different reasons.

Just like a decade and a half(!) before, I found myself driving home trying to figure out the listening order because I desperately needed something/anything to lift my soul and spirits if only for a fleeting moment. Upon racing my this is now cat Diego-san up the flight of stairs to the recently completed Upper Wing of my house I decided the first disc to be played was Brian Wilson's Gettin' In Over My Head simply because the day before I made the pricy decision that I would buy a ticket to Wilson's Orpheum show where he is giving a live performance of the phantom greatest LP of all time (the one that's never quite been finished) the Beach Boys' long lost, and much written about Smile.

As sunny and surfin' as most of the most famous Beach Boy catalog is, Wilson has always endeared himself personally to me due mostly to his sad songs. Brian Wilson's sad songs are the saddest songs ever written. They are heart and gut wrenching personified, and thankfully forever inspiring in demonstrating how a wounded soul still has a remarkable capacity of self healing.

And that is why upon first listen the new CD revealed the no need to peel back the absolute, undiluted drivel. If this was music written by a teenager it would still sound juvenile. Coming from a sixty-year-old mentally abused, drug zonked out, and psychologically damaged survivor (and who would have ever thought that was possible?) the more stupid than stupefying songs aren't the least bit intriguing like I expected them to be. Wilson's has pulled off the trick of sounding like a crazed "does this guy really have functioning brain- I gotta listen to find out" before with his contributions to the Beach Boys' great 1974 LP The Beach Boys Love You where the songs are full of such childlike and childish lyrics that one can't help but think it's all a wonderful little joke and his first solo effort, 1988's Brian Wilson where Brian was (it was later revealed) under the cult like influence of his psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, cutoff from family and friends.

But the new CD isn't merely an effort to sound childlike and stupid. It is stupid. And insipid. And the effort put in goes far beyond the end result. Ick.

After they were done they lie together in bed, naked and she told him of the house she bought in Brazil and how she wanted to sell it but that any potential buyer was likely too poor to afford it. She came to the United States to help her ailing grandmother who broke her arm and thus couldn't keep her job as a cleaning woman. Her grandmother believed in the ethic of hard work and getting to where you want to get by your own efforts so to be out of work was killing her and depressing her at the same time.

He looked deeply into the overwhelming beauty of the nude young woman's eyes. It was a moment of true connection though he somehow sensed they were never going to see each other ever again.

Going to the wedding as a couple on a "date" was all her idea but he was thrilled that she had asked. He told his co-workers of his weekend plans and asked if dancing was to be expected and how she might feel if he declined. (He wanted his hands nowhere near her). They told him he better dance even if she held a blue belt in kickboxing.

So I adjusted the order of the discs I was going to listen to. Originally I thought I would play Los Lobos' The Ride next because of how the band over the years has been so dependable, workmanlike, and how their music never fails to be worth listening to. Instead I decided I would play the CD I most wanted to hear from the stack I bought, Wilco's A Ghost is Born.

Now I must admit I've never been an adoring Wilco fan like others I know. Yes, my copy of Being There has been worn out and I'd put it on my short list of greatest double discs ever released. But the follow-up, way too arty for its own good Summerteeth hardly ever finds its way in my CD player and their last major label won't release it because it's not commercial enough, so we'll do the admirable thing and do it all ourselves and make a great story out of it all, it's so great it will make a movie, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, took many listens before I finally warmed up to it. (What is with all the production tricks when the songs could have spoke for themselves?)

And my first listen to A Ghost is Born made me fall asleep in the long lost sunny light beaming in from the skylight of the new addition to the place I call home these days yet I haven't been home enough to truly enjoy it, in blissful sadness if such a thing exists (and doesn't exist every night, night after night). The third song, a ten minute opus called "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" lives up to its title with its sinewy web like and hypnotic if not way too precious we know we are artists groove. The eight song later fifteen minute opus "Less Than You Think" doesn't fare as well. Not even close (not a cigar for the lads here). The electronic drone that makes up for most of the time occupied by the "song" is beyond annoying. It's Tweedy and gang thumbing their upturned noses in an effort to let us know they are a step or two ahead of us (and quite willing to remind us of that). But noise made isn't art just because the noise producer tells us it is (just go ask Lou Reed if he still thinks Metal Machine Music is his shining misunderstood moment of if it is just someone under the influence of something thinking he/she knows something we others can't possibly know and thus must prove it by doing something far too easy but in its easiness it creates an inherent uneasiness that by being what it is, it is art).

There's a word for the music on A Ghost is Born and it isn't art, it's crap. Yes the title insinuates something haunting and the group tries hard to produce. But Wilco needs a serious shot of humor somewhere and sometime. Seriously. What, after all, is musically asked, would we be without wishful thinking?

He arrived at the fort's chapel way too early and feeling way too hungover from many a thing from the previous night. He saw her in the distance as he was talking to someone else he really wanted to talk to. Entering the chapel together, he strolled behind her, as she was escorted to an empty pew by an usher. They caught up. She'd been through a hurricane. He'd been through some troubling winds of his own (making).

The wedding ceremony was touching and brief. At the reception that followed the two truly caught up and she asked him where his faith now was at these days.

The not expected downward spiral continued with the new Los Lobos disc. The Ride features guest appearances by notable musicians like Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, and Bobby Womack but I don't need to hear collaborations with the group. They are good enough themselves. It's all very professional, it's all very well produced, but nothing changed nothing inside. As I tried my best to understand I simply couldn't stop asking why Cesar or David couldn't sing the songs contained on the pressed disc?

This wasn't exactly what I expected (or needed). Thus I moved to the disc I knew couldn't disappoint because despite his inherent quirkiness, he doesn't seem to be doing it to impress, it's just the way he is, Devandra Banhart.

Why does the nonsensical deliberate stream of consciousness work for Banhart but not Wilco? Self consciousness I suppose. One tries the other just does.

This is as close to polished as I suspect Banhart will ever get. It's all recorded in a studio (rather than at home like his other CDs) and there is even an orchestral backing on a couple of the tracks.

The lyrics seem impenetrable yet that's their charm. I love the Elvis references sprinkled throughout something called "Poughkeepsie." My favorite track, "The Body Breaks" describes the aging process (something I'm keenly aware of these days) with such surgical precision that it cuts to the bone. My second favorite track, "This Beard is for Siobhan" with it's refrain of having a "real good time" is sung with such strength and conviction that one absolutely believes it can be true even if one is lying in the stifling summer air not believing a word of it.

The false start and giggling stop of "Todo Los Dolores" is made up for the seemingly perfect Spanish annunciation that follows I don't know a word of it but I believe everything Banhart sings.

He tried to explain how lost he felt, how his religion had so weirdly (and probably inappropriately been summed up by season six of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy comes back from the dead, brought back by well meaning friends, but torn from a heavenly peace, only to feel completely dead inside). She asked if his lost of faith (just kinda like Buffy's) was related to the death of his mother.

Yes, he said, that might have been part of it. He just didn't know how to feel anymore and didn't know if he really wanted to. She told him to read the Bible and promised to email significant passages to him. He ate a shrimp or two (you are what you eat), tried to act like it could make a difference and then on his drive home paid particular attention to how he felt when he shifted into a new gear in his breaking down car.

Is it somehow wrong to want, no expect music to save my dying soul? When I'm sitting in a throng of people listening intently to one of my favorite artists (Lucinda Williams or Liz Phair say) is it too much to expect it to be a life defining moment? Did I not once have those at least a couple of times a year?

Buying CDs these days isn't on the list of top priorities yet every time I do I want to be changed at the very least, elevated to another place in a perfect world. I just have to keep reminding myself that has always been a lifelong expectation whether the carpet is green and shaggy, or looped and fully of cat hair.