Monday, July 25, 2005

Rock 'n' Ichiro

What does a guy do when he hears the news that his celluloid soulmate has married a bad ass biker? He hits the road and heads for Cleveland where baseball meets rock and roll. That's what.

Trying to console myself I remembered last year as I sped past the age of 40 it occurred to me that there have been two life long loves of my life, baseball and rock and roll (although truth be told I was around ten when I fell in love with baseball and it was about a year later when rock and roll rocked my world). The two have been there for me ever since in times of joys or troubles whether it be as a kid listening to the Beatles while watching ex-Twin John Verhoeven serve up another gopher ball or now days when I've been woken up most mornings for the past two years to Lou Reed singing "Stephanie Says" and the first thing I read every summer morning are the box scores to all the baseball games from the previous night.

Of course no one enjoys being psycho analyzed more than I do and perhaps there was some subconscious meaning in my decision last spring to buy a scooter shortly after I heard Sandra Bullock was dating a guy with an impossible to top name (Jesse James) who wears his tattoos like battle scars and who drives one hell of a hog. But even if had I wanted to make one last appeal to Ms. Congeniality's heart I would have been smart enough to know that I couldn't compete with James on his terms. If Sandra's movies have taught me nothing else, they've taught me I have to be myself in order for others to fully appreciate me. (See Hope Floats, Two if By Sea, Practical Magic, or any other Bullock movie)

So with the news of the shotgun wedding I got out of town. Quite frankly I'm not sure I could have married Sandra after I suffered through Ms. Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. But as if to remind me you really can never out run your troubles, on my flight to Cleveland I was seated in front of the most annoying child ever born. The kid made explosion sound effects nearly the entire flight, kept kicking my seat and asked his dad (who was mostly ignoring the kid's existence) "Does Cleveland have mountains?" "Why is it raining?" I couldn't wait to get off the plane and into a cab of a cabbie who seemed to have an involuntary twitch (or maybe he was just perpetually shrugging).

I settled into my motel room and was comforted a bit that the pink bathroom tile was an exact match with that which came with and remains in my house. Exact same hue. There was also a photograph on the bathroom wall that was beguiling. Could be a flower, could be a mutant plant, could be a butterfly it was hard to tell and my imaginary friend was just as perplexed and intrigued as I was. For breakfast I ordered corned beef hash and eggs. The gay waiter came back a little later and said they were out of hash but that the cook was chopping up potatoes and corned beef. The homemade mixture was quite tasty.

I headed for the ball park the first chance I got which was two nights after I arrived in town. Jacobs Field is designed the way every baseball stadium should be built. The atmosphere is festive, the sight lines flawless and the venue is a living testament to the notion that baseball is meant to be played outdoors on a warm summer night rather than in a sterile football studio. There were a few things that I wasn't used to in attending the hundred or so games I've gone to in the Metrodome over the years. First was I had ballpark sushi for dinner. It was tasty and it didn't kill me. The biggest challenge was getting the bland wasabi out of a ketchup packet. Next the first batter of the game, Kansas City's David DeJesus, lofted the second pitch of the game right toward my right field bleacher seat. The home run ball hit the back of the outfield wall, bounced up right to a horizontally large fellow two seats in front of me. That ball had my name written all over it. Finally, this strange water started falling from the sky and they had to call the game as the field crew got a tarp on the infield just before the skies really let loose.

The next morning I picked up a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and turned to the sports section. There it was, a photograph of the home run ball and if you looked really closely behind the large fellow who ended up with the ball you can see my arm and green T-shirt. A couple of days in town and I already was in the news.

My time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was only cut short by my own time constraints. I ended up spending over four hours there and I could have spent many more. The outside of the building is impressive, steel and glass and shaped like a pyramid. The inside though is even more impressive. I entered thinking I'd get a standard version of rock history interspersed with famous mementos. That's what I got but by the time I saw the purple jacket Prince wore in Purple Rain, the smashed bass guitar of the Clash's Paul Simonen, Madonna's bustier, Roy Orbison's little red Corvette, John Lennon's childhood newsletter (with his wickedly funny prose), a series of Bob Dylan concert posters (a concert in 1965 cost $2.50), a full Devo uniform, a Breeders' setlist scrawled in Kim Deal's handwriting, an outfit worn by Rick Allen, Def Leppard's one armed drummer (made me miss my three legged cat Thompson), the recording console used by both Jimi Hendrix and Barry Manilow, Neil Young's handwritten lyrics for "Heart of Gold," and oh so much more I couldn't remove the goofy grin that was plastered on my face. There are a lot of things in life you figure you'll never have the chance to see. I saw many that are on my own personal list at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All of it was a fine reminder that the closest I'll ever get to being an authentic rocker is imitating the constantly back and forth moving of Atlanta Braves pitching coach, Leo Mazzone.

After wandering around the exhibits (with this seldom seen goofy grin mind you) I must say I was parched. Thus on my way back to the motel I stopped for a beverage. I stopped in the House of Blues. Looking at some literature at the bar I noticed that Shelby Lynne was playing there that evening. The bartender was asked how much tickets for the show were. She said she might have a free ticket, wandered down to the end of the bar and re-emerged with that ticket in hand. Turned out she had been given comps and couldn't make the show. Cool.

The venue itself was great- sorta First Ave like with its elevated stage hidden by a big movie screen and the majority of the watching spots being of the standing variety in between the stage and the soundboard. There were a bar stools and tables off to either side.

I had bought the opening act, Raul Midon's CD just before I had left town. The New Mexican singer/songwriter is nothing if not dexterous and creative on his guitar. He's a virtual one man band using the instrument both melodically and rhythmically. His fingers are lightening quick and he even does this thing with his voice that sounds like he's being accompanied by a trumpet. When I first heard him I was reminded of Stevie Wonder and it was only later I found out Midon too is blind.

Shelby Lynne hit the stage around 9:45. She's a petite thing with a flock of blonde hair that kept falling over her eyes. Her band provided a simple, sometimes sparse backing with a slide guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. Yet they kept up with Lynne who mixed several different genres, from country to blues, from jazz to harder rock, from gospel to swing, seamlessly.

An early highlight of the night was the third song, "Where Am I Now?" from her new CD Suit Yourself. The song happens to be the best new song I've heard this year, a quiet, contemplative lament that Lynne sang with eyes closed and so much conviction that it was a transcendent moment despite the piercing yammering of a woman at the bar fifty feet away. "I'm looking for a house where the door is open/My body's moving fast but my spirit's broken/Where am I now?"

Another early highlight was the jazzy "Telephone" perhaps my favorite Shelby Lynne song although she kinda ruined it for me by saying she wrote it when she was very drunk and just needed to call someone. One gets the impression that Lynne, who if you haven't heard witnessed her father kill her mother and then himself right in front of her eyes, can party hard. Her hardened looks and husky voice suggest that she's just getting started when the rest of us are finishing up our last whiskey.

There was a great cover of the Rolling Stones "Dead Flowers" and the ol' time boogie woogie sing along "10 Rocks" was quite fun as Lynne belted out the dark lyrics that were cheerfully answered by her band. "When sleep won't come and eyes won't shut out the light (oh the darkness, oh the darkness)/When you ache for slumber and your eyes won't close out the light (oh you're lost your way)." Likewise she sang the chorus of "If I Were Smart" "If I were smart/I wouldn't have a heart" with such intensity it was heartbreaking. After a swig on the Pabst Blue Ribbon she had grabbed from a fan in the front row Shelby and her band closed the show with a blow the roof off the joint version of "Gotta Be Better." By the end of the night I was in love again. I love those artists who have the ability (and courage) to shred their soul, offer it up in their work and on lay it bare right there on stage. I left the House of Blues reinvigorated and quite over my loss of Ms. Bullock. I bet Shelby Lynne can ride a motorcycle better anyway. She ain't no actress. She's the real deal.

Thursday night was one of splurging after the frugality of much of the rest of the week. Found myself at one of them fancy restaurants with a sign on the door about wearing the "proper attire" which I guess in my case was a baseball cap, T-shirt, and dress slacks. I had the best walleye of my life, tempura style with a light wasabi oil added. It looked like something Iron Chef Sakai might have come up with. I had lavender ice cream that tasted just like lavender should taste if lavender should taste like anything at all.

The last night in town was spent back at Jacobs Field. I met a young couple from Columbus, Chris and Nikki. They told me all they knew about Minnesota was Jesse Ventura used to be the governor, and that it is where Prince is from. They complimented me that I didn't have a Minnesota accent. The game was good. The Indians led most of the way until the eighth when Ichiro Suzuki hit a two run home run giving his Mariners the lead. Seattle brought in its closer, Eddie Guardado, and just like he used to do here Eddie made things exciting just before he got out of trouble. Could be I was the only one in the stadium chanting (underneath my breath), "Eddie, Eddie..."

Monday, July 18, 2005

Halfway to London

So I was sitting in the twilight in Midway Stadium Tuesday night with a belly full of Vietnamese soup listening to Willie Nelson close down his down to earth set with a wistful "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." I didn't know what time it was and the scoreboard clock had been stuck at 5 o'clock during Willie's entire time on stage. Sitting along the first base line where the Saints' play their home games, it suddenly occurred to me that the Major League All Star game was likely beginning and this was the first All Star game I had missed since I had become a baseball fan back in my youth (which means back to the late 50's or early 70's depending if you count in all the Chinese New Years).

The All Star game has always marked a highlight of summer for me no matter how many times the American League got beat or how few Twins make the team or make any difference in any of the games. I grew up watching Rod Carew struggle to get a hit and Bert Blyleven be uncharacteristically wild and the games were seldom close but I loved the whole thing from watching the players introduction and the fans reaction to various players to the usually awful rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner."

Sitting in this very minor league park on this particular night none of that mattered much. It was a beautiful night out, a little warm and sunny, but with a nice breeze to cool things down a bit. I was with one of my best friends, the blue-eyed editor, and we were waiting for Bob Dylan to hit the stage.

The blue-eyed editor asked me what song I wanted to hear and it took me a minute or two to answer. I've attended enough Dylan shows over the years where he doesn't surprise me much anymore. It's not like the late 1980's when he would do a great off the cuff cover of John Hiatt's "Across the Borderline," or the mid-90's when he would make my soul hurt with a scorching "In the Garden," or the late 90's when he pulled out "Blind Willie McTell" arguably one of the greatest songs from arguably our greatest song writer, or the early 2000's when he started doing the silly jazz sendup "If Dogs Run Free" or country romp of "Country Pie." Nope the setlists these days tend to rely on the same predictable songs night after night.

Ultimately my answer to the blue-eyed editor was I wanted to hear "Shooting Star." That's because in less than a month I'm going to see someone I haven't seen in ten years and that particular song has come to represent the arch of all my feelings for her from beginning to now. When Alex left town in 1992 "Shooting Star" had been around for three years. It was around then however when I got the sheet music for the song and started singing my own version. The last verse whether it be listening to Bob on CD or screeching at the top of my lungs banging on my keyboard almost always brought a tear to my eye. "Seen a shooting star tonight, slip away/Tomorrow's gonna be another day/Guess it's too late to say to you the things that you needed me to say/Seen a shooting star tonight, slip away..."

I didn't quite recognize the first chords, the first few strums of the guitars on the fourth song of this Midway Stadium show but when Bob started to croon "Shooting Star" my heart stopped.

See I was sorta in the second or third wave of Bob fanatics. My first Bob show was in the echo chamber of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in 1986 and even though it was hard to decipher exactly what song was bouncing around I was hooked right there and then. I loved how Bob somehow was able to reinvent each and every song on the spot, how he was able to cast something he wrote years ago to fit into the current moment somehow managing the illusion of stopping time. By this time there were Bob fans from the early 60's already quite hooked on what I was only then discovering. And here I was nearly 20 years later listening to a song I had just told my friend I wanted to hear and I wanted to hear because I'm about to do some time traveling and I guess maybe you had to be there with me to feel the weight of the moment and the joy in Bob delivering a stellar version of the song.

The people around us were some of the other kind of Bob fans- the kind that have heard a particular song or a particular line and have adopted it as part of the soundtrack to their lives (can I mention here that the hippie generation hasn't exactly aged particularly well?). "How does it feel?" "You make love, just like a woman... but you break like a little girl..." "Even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked..."

So when Bob sang "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Just Like a Woman" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" these people stood up and cheered what they recognized even if they spent most of the rest of show jabbering amongst themselves. They seemed to pay attention to killer versions of Bob's most anti-war song, "John Brown" and his most anti-war perpetrator song, "Masters of War" and probably made a connection between the drama of the performances of both songs with our current national situation and that probably was enough.

Which if true, is too bad. Because they missed a menacing version of "Lonesome Day Blues" that showed off the tightness of the current band, and lead guitarist Stu Kimble's subtle yet effective playing. I loved the performance even though Bob messed up my personal favorite, or personal "I relate to those" lines, "I'm forty miles from the mill/I'm droppin' it into overdrive/Settin' my dial on the radio/I wish my mother was still alive..." The omission can be forgiven however because Bob sang the lines, "Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months/Don't know how it looked to other people/I never slept with her even once..." with if not passion, with such eccentricity that he seemed to truly enjoy the sentiment once again as if it was brand new.

The opening notes of "Under a Red Sky" were crisp and clear and I was delighted that I got to hear the song. I made sure I glanced over at the blue-eyed editor when Bob nailed the line, "Someday little girl, everything for you is gonna be new..."

There was also a nice little moment at the beginning of "Bye and Bye" where Bob's keyboard wasn't working so a technician was frantically trying to plug in a new one. Bob grabbed his harmonica as the band played the intro and he improvised a melodic little solo. The song ultimately fell apart as Bob sat down at his keyboard and seemed to stumble on some of the words but in many ways this is why he is such a charismatic performer. After all these years he isn't (most likely by choice) polished in his singing or his playing or his delivery (this band seems particularly adept at stretching the meter of the songs to accommodate Bob's somewhat erratic phrasing) and he seems to strive as a live performer on chaos and this keeps his remarkable songs living and breathing and makes each show somehow exist in the moment. I don't know of any other live performer so skilled in this ability.

So I walked with the blue-eyed editor, who was seemingly impressed by the show, back to her car parked in the lot of a strip mall that strangely houses a nice little authentic Vietnamese restaurant. It was a long walk back but it's not like we weren't used to that. We once walked from the State Capitol to a McDonalds down the road so I could get some mini bobble heads. We also once walked over to the Historical Center where we saw a Mariachi band playing. And on another nice summer evening we walked from her parent's house to the Minnesota Zoo to see Lucinda Williams.

I somewhat doubt that in asking her to see her first Bob Dylan show with me that I have started her down the same path I began all those years when I was about her age when I saw my first Bob Dylan show at a pseudo-baseball stadium, but I'm sure that over the next few years she will listen to Bob a little more closely. And I'm quite sure that in doing so her life will be enriched, just as mine has been, and she will discover a song or two that will change her life, her way of thinking, just a little bit. Bob's quite good at that. His music is like an element- water, air, blood- that once you hear it, and really listen to it, it just won't let go. It grabs you by the soul and by the heart, and fills you up just as it leaves you wanting more. And that's quite the idiosyncratic trick.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Keep Smilin'

This world can be a profoundly sad place. It is so sad because:

There are people out there who have never listened to a Lucinda Williams song.

There are people out there who think it is somehow righteous to explode a bomb in a crowd of people in the name of God.

There are people out there whose first reaction to the terrorist attack on London was that we had to kill thousands of people in retaliation/retribution.

There are people out there who when told they need to provide some proof of citizenship in order to get a job say, "I don't know why. It's not like I look Mexican or have slanted eyes."

There are people out there who when you introduce yourself as "David" will immediately call you "Dave."

There are a lot of people out there who view the media as a biased enemy not as its true purpose, a watchdog.

There is an increasing blurring of the line in the media between entertainment and political reporting.

There are a lot of people out there who in everyday interactions seem completely oblivious to the people around them.

There are people out there who have never seen Lindsay Whalen play basketball.

There are people in a coed "D" softball league who don't understand the concept of "just being out there for fun" and have to act in such a boorish manner that it is impossible for anyone playing to enjoy themselves.

There are people out there who will wait until the very last moment in a line of cars to get over in a lane that's closed just so they can get to their location a minute or two earlier than the rest of us.

There are people out there who will park their car in front of your house every day even though there is plenty of space to park in front of their own house.

There are people out there who have never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thus haven't been able to enjoy the poetry of television at its best.

There are people out there who will go along with their major party line on every political issue thus see the world in a very uncompromising black and white.

There are people out there who think that the fabric of our country is unraveling because of issues like gay marriage and flag burning somehow rather than holding our leaders accountable and expecting some honesty and the absolute necessity for being straightforward in their words and actions.

There are people out there who are intellectually lazy and who don't see any need to be spiritually curious.

There are people out there, with children mind you, who don't seem to care about using up this planet's limited resources or the implications of wasting what doesn't need to be wasted with just a little effort.

There are those people out there who don't think Bob Dylan can sing.

There are those people out there who let their gardens grow and go, who once started out with a noble goal of making this place, their designated place, just a little bit more beautiful but who somewhere along the line gave up and let the weeds prevail.

There are drivers out there who see the need to tailgate a guy on a scooter and not bother to signal their turns at the less than Herculean effort of hitting a switch.

There are those who may believe that piano playing kitties and playful once abused doggies are mere distractions from actual human interaction. But one look in these pet souls' eyes says something much different.

Monday, July 4, 2005

Exchangeable Fluids

"Time is a jet plane, it moves to fast/Ah but what a shame, what we shared can't last/I can change I swear, see what you can do/I can make it through, you can make it too..."
-Bob Dylan

Life can be wacky. For example, have you ever thought how yours might be the only thing connecting seemingly otherwise disconnected events? This thought weighed heavy on my mind last Tuesday night as the blue-eyed editor and I went to the Guthrie Theater production of A Body of Water.

Ostensibly the play is about two elderly people who awake one day to find themselves in a home surrounded by a large body of water. They are not sure who they are or how they got there. They don't know if they know each other and they don't quite know what to do to figure out the puzzle that is suddenly their lives.

The play stars veteran actors Edward Herrmann and Michael Learned. Both play their roles superbly. Learned of course is best known for playing the role of Mrs. Walton in the long running Depression era series The Waltons. Seeing her in person in a play all about memory cast my mind back to remembering my Mom's favorite episode of The Waltons. The particular episode centered around the townsfolk of Walton's Mountain succumbing to their fear surrounding the happenings overseas in Germany. They decide they can't trust those in the community with German ancestry even though that yesterday these people were perfectly respectable members of the community. The persecution leads to a destruction and purging of all things deemed German. John Boy becomes enraged by this behavior particularly when the town's priest leads a book burning. Turns out one of the books being burned is a German version of the Bible. That's when the town's folk come to their senses and realize how their paranoia has gotten the better of them.

Mom was very fond of this episode and I think a lot of her fondness came from John Boy's passion in standing up to a mob and standing for what is right even though it takes tremendous independence to not give into the group think mentality. If there is one thing my Mom tried to teach me it was to think for myself no matter what the outside pressure may be.

The other thing that somehow came to my mind as the story of Body of Water unfolded is something our current governor, Tim Pawlenty, used to say all the time as I watched him when he was the House of Representatives Majority Leader. As the Legislature was coming to one of its many showdowns and looming disintegration, someone from the other side of the aisle would invariably ask Pawlenty what the upcoming schedule would be. The majority leader would predictably say that late in the session things were "fluid" meaning that members should remain flexible because schedules and events could change in a moments notice.

What do my Mom's favorite episode of The Waltons and Tim Pawlenty's cliché have in common? Probably nothing except the electricity in my own feeble mind. But as I was sitting there in the dark with the blue eyed editor, who has had a rough couple of weeks of the variety I'm sure that she wishes she could somehow erase her short term memory, I couldn't help but be quite affected by the play's themes. As the two elderly characters try to come to grips with their predicament they are joined by a young woman (Michelle O'Neill) who could be their daughter, could be their attorney, could be someone who has kidnapped them for some mysterious nefarious purpose or could be all of the above.

The young woman tells the two lost souls differing stories about who they are. They are not sure if they should believe some of her accounts. Did they really commit a heinous crime? Are they suffering from some type of cruel age related disease that robs them of everything except brief moments of coherency? What can you believe when you can't remember anything that has happened in the past? The play makes clear how our memories not only shape who we think we are, but what we think the purpose of our lives might be. If we were to wake up every day with no memory of where we had been or where we came from or where we are to go next it can be a frightening thing. How does one learn to exist in the moment if one doesn't know what has happened before?

The play's plot could be sabotaged by its gimmicky premise yet Learned and Herrmann give such convincing performances one can't help but sympathize mightily with their predicament. What a delightful play.

What If

This past week I spent a couple of days engaged in public speaking. First there were a couple of mandatory training sessions I conducted for some city and school district clerks. Then on Wednesday night I was invited to be on a panel at an event sponsored by the Minnesota Disability Law Center. Anyone that knows me knows that any moment that I can keep my trap shut is a moment I may have a better chance than normal of living with. Of course I didn't have much of a choice. I had to speak. It's all part of my job and I may be a rebel but I'm not one who turns his back on his assignments.

Thus I was glad when I came home one night and David Letterman shared some of the truisms he has learned in life. One of these said that if you know how to fold a shirt and you are a guy, chances are you are gay. Another that Dave shared was that whenever you pull a nose hair you will sneeze. Guaranteed.

If I could add one of my own life lessons to Dave's truisms it would be if you are hurtin from a relationship busting up there isn't a wiser thing you can do than listen to Lucinda Williams. Within the past year two of my female friends have broken up with their boyfriends and as I've gotten together with them I wish I could take away the hurt and offer some wisdom. But of course that would require speaking. Thankfully one of the two told me that after her breakup she couldn't stop listening to Lucinda. I knew she was a bright gal the first time I saw her...

The best thing about Lucinda Williams show at the Minnesota Zoo Saturday night was that she sang a great mixture of older and newer songs like scorching versions of "Pineola" and "Out of Touch" as well as sultry versions of "Right in Time" and "Righteously" and none of them were the highlights as good as they were. Nope the best thing about the show was that Lucinda shared six brand new songs with us and all six sparkled. Whenever a new CD comes out it's guaranteed to be one of her best and that means it will be one heckava CD.

All the new songs have simple titles and cover a spectrum of different musical styles but the transcendental thing about them is they leave behind the blues and depression of the last two studio CDs (Essence and World Without Tears) for a thankful return of humor and biting wit. The first of the new songs Lucinda unveiled was the contemporary countryish "Life is" that contemplates learning about life after a breakup. It contained the standard Lucinda line, "They say the best is yet to come/But I can still taste the taste of your tongue..." "What If?" my favorite of the new songs asks several nonsensical questions like what if buildings laughed and windows cried and cats could walk across water leading to the more searing questions about what if families didn't exist and we all lived alone. The song whimsically builds to the last question, an appropriate one about what if we all loved each other equally.

The burning metallic "C'mon" was in stark contrast to the Hank Williamseque "Jailhouse Tears" a good old foot stompin country tune where Lucinda was joined in a playful duet with her opening act, John Doe. The latter song may sound like a Hank song but it gets its point across with Lucinda's acerbic and at times, vulgar humor.

Another new poppy song called "Real Love" featured some playful lyrics about "squeezing my peaches" and "sending me your postcards from beaches." The last of the new songs "West" a prayer/lullabye closed the show in a quiet but hopeful manner.

Before Lucinda stepped out the guy next to me told me that he and his wife owned a bunch of chickens despite a Shoreview city code that prohibited such practice. During her second song "Fruits of My Labor" Lucinda's voice cracked as she sang about how it's better to take the glory over the fame. Work for work's sake may be a means to an end but there remains something to say for seeking and finding a voice that not only helps all of this makes some kind of sense but whose very unmistakable ache makes it all seem just a little bit more bearable as well.