Monday, October 25, 2004

The Reilly Factor

I was on the Channel 4 news this week talking about how tired I am. No lie, it's not a good thing when you make the local news because you are so damn tired (OK the news story really was about how incredibly busy election officials are throughout the state).

There have been a lot of disappointments recently so maybe the most telling sign of how tired I feel is how dejected I felt when I asked a co-worker to bring me up a late night snack from the downstairs vending machine. I wanted Milk Duds. I had to have Milk Duds. I craved Milk Duds. I told my co-worker if the poorly stocked machine didn't have any Milk Duds left to get me something close. What was sent up was a Three Musketeers candy bar and I just about lost it. How is a Three Musketeers anything close to being a Milk Dud? You tell me.

Yup, I have spent so much time at work the past couple of months that I've unfortunately had to miss a lot of things I otherwise wouldn't have missed for the world (I think I remember what it used to be like to have a life). At the top of that long list was having to miss both Ike Reilly concerts last week. I got good reports about both shows, Friday night at the 7th Street Entry and Saturday night at my neighborhood Turf Club. The Ike Reilly Assassination apparently put on their usual stellar live show despite the frontman being a bit ill.

The shows celebrated the release of Reilly's long awaited brand new CD, Sparkle in the Finish. I got my copy in the mail after a long work day and though the routine has suddenly become hopping into bed immediately when I get home, this night I plopped on the CD to listen to as I lie in bed.

I must say it was great hearing new Ike Reilly songs. It's been two long years since his debut CD, Salesmen and Racists came out and the blue-eyed editor turned me on to the CD. It remains the all time crank it up in yer car and sing at the top of your lungs music that I've ever heard.

In between the two CDs was a terrific four song EP. All four of those songs appear on Sparkle in the Finish albeit in different arrangements (much less raucous).

Reilly's music is a combination of tough yet sensitive guy lyrics, catchy guitar based melodies that sear through you like a breath of crisp autumn air. Reilly's vocals top off the in your face rock- one of the best rock and roll singers since John Lennon.

My favorite of the brand new songs is "Holiday in New York" that contains the apt line, "Beautiful girl do the government hustle/Got your job in the fix with big city muscle..." The song seems to be about a trip through New York City but it comes off as a sardonic lament about people with lots of troubles. "It's starting to look to me like a con game now..."

Cohesively Sparkle in the Finish doesn't hold together as well as the songs on Salesmen and Racists nor does the energy of the songs sustain themselves throughout. Yet Reilly's skill as a singer and as a songwriter shine through without question. Typically the songs are impressively complex. The moody "It's All Right to Die" shifts tempos quicker than a leaf tumbling in front of a blistering wind. The refrain "It's all right to die everybody, it's all right to die..." is sung with so much conviction that it probably is all right to do just that.

This is the third really good disc released in the past three weeks joining Brian Wilson's Smile and Tom Waits' Real Gone as music that would make any and all personal music collections infinitely better. "Cars and girls and drinks and songs make this world spin around," Ike sings. And for once no one has to vote on it to know it's true. If nothing else with so much wondrous new music available to anyone who wants to listen, the long hours, the struggles with not having enough time in a day to get all that needs to be done, done, can actually make some sort of senseless sense because nothing can hold down a spirit uplifted by a great song or two.

Monday, October 18, 2004

My Last Fall

My Last Fall

U am bull

More of a stumble

Than a big bumble




I am truthful

At potlucks I usually

Bring paper dishes

Or chips

Because I can't

Make stuff up

We am weary

See what I love

And love what I see

But I can't touch

What I love

Loving isn't seeing

It's feeling

Tired now

Didn't see it coming

I said I am

And there's no choice

Fill in the oval

is the sole goal

Like Korean soup

to get to

the right answer

and it's all that's

on my mind

and it's all that

I've ever wanted

from you

They am

exercising a choice

thinking with their

heart rather than

their head

As if the difference

between the two

doesn't add up

to a jumble

a frickin rumble

An endless

partisan battle

What you said

hurt me so

because it was

meant to

Minneapolis looks

the same at 7 a.m.

as it does 1 a.m.

on the same day

and I've seen it all

today mumble mumble

Monday, October 11, 2004

Elderly West

In introducing singer/songerwriter Tom Russell's appearance on his show, David Letterman made an ever astute observation about Russell's new CD, Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs. "You'll listen to this CD once and you'll saddle up, and you'll ride up to Babb and knock off a liquor store. Honest to God that's what'll you'll do..."

Russell went on to give a rousing performance of the CD's opening track, "Tonight We Ride." The song, an old western opus that is really new, sounds like it has been around forever and that it belongs on some scratchy 78 being discovered by a curious music lover somewhere in the vast Midwest.

The CD indeed is all Letterman said it is and much much more. The songs, both covers and Russell originals, spin yarns of a country long lost, songs about the foundation of what once was and has somehow seriously been jarred off its pillars as we all sit and watch, semi-innocent bystanders.

"Tonight We Ride" contains some great guitar licks as Russell sings about hunting down Pancho Villa and visiting whorehouses while dying the preferred cowboy death- drinking oneself to death.

Almost all that follows are old west ballad/song stories. Included are two great covers of two great Dylan songs- "Seven Curses," with its tale of woe of a young woman being abused by a lecherous judge, and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," where Russell has a rollicking good time trading the witty lines with Eliza Gilkyson and Joe Ely in such a way that the story of love lost, jealously, and murder unfold in a new way even to ears that have listened to the song many different times over the many years.

The CD that hits the ground running really hits its stride with a cheeky cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso." The song is perhaps one of the saddest tales ever written and in Robbins' version is made even spookier by the vocalist's choice of weirdly odd gleeful singing of stanzas like: "But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen/Though I am weary, I can't stop to rest/I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle/I feel the bullet go deep in my chest."

Russell's version is a bit more mournful but maintains the spirit of Robbins great song. What is revealed is that not only is something wrong about a love gone way wrong but that the time that has passed in the song has now passed in real time. This country isn't nearly in the same state as it was when "El Paso" was a hit long long ago in 1959. Then the story of a love gone wrong seemed to be about what it feels like to die for someone, either from a broken heart or from a bullet to that all too weak organ, when that someone loves someone else.

Given the wars that this country has since seen beginning in Vietnam and now in Iraq one can't help but hear something else through Old West nostalgic ears. There exists in this very place where one deals with one's perceived being wronged with a eye for eye, tooth for tooth revengeful justice. This seeps, this pours through the wounds and that is why so many in this country (at least half) want to believe so badly that we are justified to respond to a "homeland" attack by attacking someone else even though it was clear from the start that who we are attacking isn't even who attacked us in the first place. Go figure. And capture the leader of this tangential oil full land while killing those who had little to do with him and that's somehow OK because we all saw those towers tumble.

Russell's music covers all this and more maybe not explicitly but in a this is a disc that must be played over and over to truly appreciate its many charms and insights, way. The musicianship isn't perfect, isn't overly produced yet it gets its job done in its seemingly off the cuff spontaneity. Likewise Russell's vocals sell the stories with a heartfelt passion. Disintegrating country? Perhaps. Survivable series of events? Probably.

Monday, October 4, 2004

Smiley Smile

It was one of those times as a young lad in love where you rehearse what you're going to say and do many times over but the only difference between this time and any others would be that all the words and all the nervous nights lying awake thinking about what I had to do, what I couldn't do, I actually somehow found myself saying to her.

It was the last day of 9th grade band class and Mr. Kelley gave us the period to sign each other's yearbooks. I looked at the girl who meant everything, who taught me the difference between inspiration and love and where the two intertwine. She somehow (sadly) remains the only person who I ever found myself writing to, for, and about. And I remember vividly there she was sitting in her familiar but soon never to be sat in by her again, first chair clarinet seat, two rows down from my middle of the last row first chair trumpet seat.

We had spent many a day making music together, making eye contact at key moments in key passages of key songs (though listening to the tapes later we weren't always so in tune). My knees were shaking because it had only been in the last month or two when she reached out and had said anything to me. She liked me singing one night on a bus. She liked some of my writing. She seemed to want to get to know me better. I of course just stammered and stuttered whenever I had tried striking up an actual conversation. But somehow I knew she just knew.

It was with and without great effort that I somehow felt myself getting up, walking down, and thrusting my yearbook in front of her. "Will you sign this," I said though I had said it much more wittily in rehearsal. "Sure, if you sign mine," Susan said.

I don't remember what I ended up writing in her yearbook. Something not too revealing. I do remember exactly what she wrote in my yearbook. "You're kinda strange but a lot of fun to be around. Have a great summer. Keep smiling! Sue Weiss." I remember her words exactly because I spent many days in the following years reading and re-reading those words and wondering if there were any hidden meanings, something that wasn't all apparent in what she wrote. "She's a great writer," I thought to myself. How could I be in love with someone who was not?

Keep smiling was Sue's advice. She liked my smile. Or she didn't think I smiled enough.

Sue ended up (of course) breaking my heart. She holds the distinction of being the first of four. In fact a human heart has never been splintered into so many pieces. There wasn't anywhere to turn when I happened to hear the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds LP for the first time. And that music, perhaps the saddest ever recorded, spoke volumes to my heart. Most importantly it conveyed the message that as much as I thought no one had ever felt as heartbroken as I was feeling, the songs spoke to me and convinced me that at least one other person had felt the same depth of things at least once in human history.

When Brian sings about sometimes feeling SO SAD and guessing he just wasn't made for these times and how he just wants to go home, I knew exactly what he was singing about even if I had never ridden the Sloop John B or nor did I know Caroline.

I discovered and fell in love with the music nearly 20 years after it was written and performed, years after a lot of people had declared it the greatest LP of all time. I wasn't exactly a Beach Boys fan but this wasn't exactly Beach Boy-like music. And I didn't know anything of the legend of the LP that was to follow (and supposed to top the pristine effort of Pet Sounds) an album that Brian ultimately was going to simply name Smile.

Lots has been written about the greatest LP never released. It was to be Brian's effort to write a "teenage symphony to God." It was experimental, taking snippets of music, of sounds, of whatever it was that stuck in Brian's brain and soul and ear enough to inspire his heart, from church music to marching band blasts to everything between and far beyond. Yet the legend became too much. The more people that heard the new music the more that was written how astounding it was the higher the ante became on what Brian had to produce. And his already fragile psyche broke, never quite to be the same again.

Reading about the Smile sessions and hearing subsequent releases of songs recorded during that period I was curious but not enough to buy the many bootlegs out there. It was well known Brian was well under the influence of mood altering substances throughout the writing and recording of the Smile sessions contributing to his breakdown. And I've heard enough drug induced music/doodling to know that often what one thinks is significant under the influence (not that I'd ever know) often in retrospect is just pure unfiltered pap.

So in a year when a fellow could easily slide from "could have" to "has" been one discovers that things don't always work the way they used to and that's just a hard lesson of life one thinks about walking in the dark in the dusk to work. It was the morning I had waited for since it was announced Brian was working hard at completing the project. Thirty-seven long years after the project began Brian finally got around to releasing Smile. He isn't nearly the same person he was back then. His current seemingly delicate self is both sad and inspiring. And thus completing his masterpiece is not only a wondrous miracle but also a natural monument to the resiliency of the human spirit and an unmatched example of the healing power of music. Nothing more, nothing less.

Hearing the Smile song cycle for the first time is a magical experience (though I must admit after having bought it during lunch during a work break I couldn't stop playing it over and over). Like Pet Sounds there is so much to hear and repeated listenings just reveal more and more. Peel away the many different sounds and notes and crazy words and what you are left with is a spirit as large as the largest human heart that ever existed. Teenage symphony to God? This goes way beyond that.

Thus it seemed appropriate as exhausted as I feel these days both physically and emotionally to be listening to the music that finally cracked Brian's spirit and wiped that sideways smile right off his face. Burning candles at all ends and feeling certain flames flicker (or perhaps snuffed) out can give one a certain perspective on life and leave one peering perilously way too close to the edge. The most famous song on Smile is "Good Vibrations" and probably the best is the astounding "Surf's Up" and yet both those songs ultimately pale in comparison to all that surround them. And a lot of the tracks aren't really songs, more a collage of different musical fragments skillfully combined to convey something really lovely. This is more than a mishmash of pop and choral songs, it's beyond harmony and melody, it's something that really defies words and must be heard and experienced to truly appreciate.

And for those who hear (or is that more accurately listen to) "Good Vibrations" and think that is what the Beach Boys are, and think of a Sunkist commercial, or thoughtless Reagan flag-waving Americana without hearing how crazy the music is (and thus how crazy the music maker must have been) you don't know what you're missing. Listening to this music conjures up the same heart pounding sensation, good vibration, falling in love with the first chair clarinetist once did once upon a long ago. Elsewhere I love how Brian weaves in snippets of two standards "You Are My Sunshine" and "I Wanna Be Around" and makes them fit snuggly with all the rest of the brilliant and bright music.

The music left my mouth agape. Yet somehow my vanishing voice rediscovered itself.

In the end, my dear sweet friend, My Dear Dear Susan I'm compelled to call out to you all these years later and reveal once more that I have indeed kept Smiling after all these years...

Grinning Year to Year

Bob's Quote of the Week: "Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn't work."

After the Show

Ever live through a period where the phrase, "if this is the last thing I ever do," feels like a question more appropriately pondered as, "since this is the last thing I'll ever do I better get it right just in case somebody's paying attention?"

In my post college swoon all those years ago, the creativity I had once felt seemed all but cracked and evaporated. I was consciously trying to feel and spark something that used to just bubble up naturally or mystically through the self-conscious. I just wasn't the same and no one seemed to pay any notice. My life's goal had always been to write a novel so what better time to try then when you are at a complete and utter loss for words? My roommate, Pistol Pete, had just bought an Apple Computer so what I did was I started collecting all the pieces I had written over the years that I considered representative of my best writing. There were childhood stories, essays from junior and senior high, newspaper stories and columns I wrote for my college newspaper and the newspaper I wrote for during an internship in college. There were poems and a few short stories. There were copies of letters I had written to people and snippets from the journal I had kept since the 9th grade.

As I was struggling with a new narrative to tie all the work together so I could give the collection to friends and family (as if it was the last thing I'd ever do) it occurred to me that I could write a piece about a struggling writer who was beginning to feel like he could write no more, like he had nothing left to say even though he hardly had said anything at all.

At this point I was out of work so I stayed up day and night just writing and re-writing. One bleary eyed night I decided I'd turn it all into a novel but not a straightforward novel. Nope I was going to tell a story through multiple narrator's eyes, weaving bits a pieces from the past present and future so you never quite knew who was telling the story and what point in time the story was being told. The idea was to write a piece like a painting where you had to look at the small corner just as thoughtfully as you did the larger picture to understand and appreciate it all (and at all).

OK so in retrospect it wasn't the brightest idea on the planet in an attempt to write one's first novel to take on such a complex concept. But I was in a put my head down and plow ahead mode so I just kept typing away- cutting and pasting, writing and re-writing and re-writing some more because I was racing against demons both visible and invisible, both felt and sensed- and I knew the personal importance of what I was doing even though I knew at the same time I had lost perhaps my one redeeming quality along the way- my sense of humor.

And the irony of feeling like I had lost control of the project somehow- a project that started as trying to come up with something to collect all my best writing in one place was now a flowing example of how I couldn't write much at all. By turning inwards so deeply (inside out, outside looking in I liked to say at the time) I was feeling things more deeply than ever before but feeling hardly anything at all. And the scary thought was that it would never change and even if I did, this wasn't necessarily a place I would never again return to because now that I found it I had confirmed its existence.

My relationships with my friends were splintering and that's why it was in an extreme act of kindness when former Cheapo employee Johnny Baynes came home one night and gave me a copy of Brian Wilson's newly released first solo LP. For those who had long written off Brian as being a basket case (and that was most everyone) it was of great interest that he was now releasing new music for the first time in over a decade. And though the music wasn't entirely satisfactory, simple songs with far too many hands involved, far too overproduced- one could overlook that because here was new heartfelt music from one of the few who can be accurately called a musical genius (no matter how far his state of mind had fallen).

I was touched by Johnny's gesture. And I was inspired by Brian's new music. The opening track, "Love and Mercy" is as honest as an astoundingly honest artist has ever been. "I was lying in my room when the news came on TV/A lot of people out there hurting and it really scares me/Love and mercy that's what you need tonight..." And pardon me if my self inflicted wounds allowed me to relate to this music far beyond your average moping wannabe somebody's friend.

One of the songs on Brian Wilson with great intuition foreshadowed the love of my life, my all too brief time with my soul survivor and novel inspiration and also the only person who made me laugh during this life defining time when laughing was a rather rare commodity and thus so much more appreciated (and dare I say loved?). "Melt Away" remains in my upper echelon of favorite songs. "The world's not just waiting just for me/The world don't care what I can be/I feel just like an island/Until I see you smiling..."

So in a much later year when a fellow could easily find himself sliding from "could have" to "has" been one discovers that things don't always work the way they used to and that's just a hard lesson of life one thinks about walking in the dark in the dusk to work on the morning when one is tightly gripping tickets to see Brian Wilson's show at the Orpheum that very night.

On the night when much of America was listening to the latest Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum dance their version of a debate (although doesn't the definition of the word necessarily include some give and take between the participants?) half tired, half weary, I wasn't sure what to expect from the show. The curtains lifted to a loud ovation and there was Brian seated casually on a chair surrounded by his 18 member band as they did a we're here in your living room version of "Surfer Girl." The harmonies were crisp and Brian's stiffness was countered by the sheepish grin on his face. The first half of the show was comprised of music both new and old, familiar and as much as they can be, obscure, with great arrangements and performances of the Beach Boys' "Sail on Sailor," "God Only Knows," and a raucous "Marcella." Three new songs from the new CD Gettin in Over My Head held up well, particularly the title track that Brian dedicated to his wife Melinda who he painstakingly made the crew at the Orpheum turn up the house lights for so he could find her in the audience.

Brian also led an impromptu round of "Row Row Row Your Boat" that demonstrated if nothing else that people will do whatever they are commanded by a celebrity and also that one of his forever greatest personality traits is his ever prevailing wicked sense of humor.

As much as the first half was tightly arranged (most of the songs were performed acoustically as the band surrounded Brian in a group-singalong) the second half was what some of thus were really there for- a live performance of the Smile song cycle- song for wonderful song.

The apparent purpose of the music of Smile seems to be to live up to its title and Brian and company did just that.

Throughout the show Brian didn't move much from beyond the comfort of his electric piano. He barely played the instrument instead mostly waiting for his vocal parts in the swirling and tightly arranged harmonies and spending most of the evening wildly gesturing his arms just like a short-haired lunatic Asian election official seen in public but far beyond sleep deprived to the land of the lost just like, for the first time, those icky novel inducing experiences that coincidentally mirrored the release of Brian's new music. It once seemed evident that wasn't something that would ever spill out of his guts again.

The live music of Smile went far beyond smile-inducing to something gratefully hypnotic. Brian labeled it a "teenage symphony to God" and during this live performance one really began to understand exactly what he meant in the first place.

Smile opens with an inspired liturgical like prayer and quickly segues into the very old western (complete with player piano embellishments) "Heroes and Villains." Whenever this music is called symphonic one begins to understand a little better what exactly is meant by that. Reoccurring melodic and lyrical motifs keep running throughout, tying together 17 songs. Throughout the songs (and the live performances of the tracks were intricately connected to that which has been recently recorded) one can't help but wonder about the purpose of it all. One man's guess is that it all is supposed by be at symbolic tribute to the history of American music- from the church based foundations, to the wild wild west, to Jazz and all things that gurgled up in our country's history taking us from Plymouth Rock to the Grand Coulee Dam and back again.

The lyrics can be nonsensical yet the overall music makes more sense than can be known. While the lyrics on Brian's other complete masterpiece Pet Sounds all contain hints of inner torment and melancholy, the lyrics of Smile are hard to decipher. They seem to make the effective point that it isn't always what the words mean but sometimes it's about certain words' sounds as if by repeating specific yet nonsensical strings of words together that a feeling can be conveyed by the mere sound of the syllables. I sat there transfixed by the music coming from the stage down two levels from my upper balcony seat and let it all just wash over me and overwhelm me in its path.

If a current and artistically acceptable artist (like say Wilco) were to release music like Smile for the first time ever, we'd all be sitting around pouring in the accolades. As it is many will dismiss this as music from a failed never tried yet still wrote about it surfer and fans might dismiss it as not being like the many other songs that the same artist has created that can actually get one off and on to one's feet to wiggle and waggle and remember how it all once felt.

The absolute, no doubt highlight of the evening came before the profoundly goofy "Vega-Tables" where Brian pulled out an electric toothbrush for sound effect purposes and simultaneously broke into a grin wider than the Grand Canyon. He knew that this was all such wonderful stuff, and he knew where it came from and he was allowing himself to enjoy it all despite the place that may or may not exist reminding him that completing his lifelong dream may be nothing more than an afterthought, a footnote, at this point though it will undoubtedly be noted as something historic by someone somewhere down the road.

The show closed with quick and punchy run throughs of many of the Beach Boys' best known songs like "Surfin USA," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Barbara Ann." Brian strapped on an electric guitar for "Fun Fun Fun" and actually did some deft Chuck Berry like duck steps that were as delightful and joyful as they were goofy.