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A Little Black Spot on the Sun Today

A few weeks back, a piece by a music blogger I follow about the album Synchronicity by The Police started me down an unexpected path of nostalgia, sadness, and finally, hope.  I haven’t owned the album since the late 1990s when I foolishly gave away all my cassettes in a crazed fit of downsizing, but its unique, fleeting place in a wonderfully clumsy moment of my life came crashing back in waves as I read the post.

The Police - Synchronicity

When Synchronicity came out in the summer of 1983, I was in the final months of apprehensive preparation to leave everything I knew behind to journey to a foreign land and save souls as a full-time Mormon missionary.  At the same time, I was enjoying a new and exciting teen romance with Kris, a non-Mormon girl I had met while “dragging the boulevard” that hot Utah summer.  Kris had actually first dated my best friend Scott and only traded down to me when that relationship failed to launch; all was good however given that I likewise had been dating her friend Lisa while she was with Scott.  Time spent with Kris was glorious.  For reasons lost to time, we declared Synchronicity “ours” and listened to it constantly when we were together.

Then came September and my withdrawal into God’s work. Kris sent me off with a beautifully hand-written card with the words from “Every Breath You Take.”  In contradiction to that song’s lyric however, distance and absence subsequently asserted themselves to prove it was us we could replace after all; every bond you break, every smile you fake.  I only ever saw Kris once after my return from missionary service in 1985 and knew little of her later life.

So, after reading the mentioned blog post on Synchronicity, I decided to, you know, what the hell, google Kris.  The very first hit was, sadly, an obituary: Kris passed away “unexpectedly” in early 2015 at age 49.  Damn…

I wrote to my friend Scott, with whom I’d allowed communication to lag over recent years, to share the sad news.  It turned out that he had already known.  Moreover, unlike Facebook-disabled me, he actually knew something of her life in the post-Synchronicity decades.  Scott told me:

…she posted a lot and then nothing for long time.  I looked up her account wondering if she dropped me because of my right wing posts (she was a huge lib, you would have gotten along well….smile) and read all the postings and was shocked.  Nobody mentioned what happened, I have no idea, she was so happy and doing things with her friends and positive and going on lots of trips.

A happy “huge lib” doing things with her friends, positive and going on lots of trips – Good for you, Kris!  I sincerely hope it’s even more of the same for you now, wherever your journey has taken you.

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What follows is the story of the brief intersection of Kris’s and my own paths as told in excerpts from the journal I kept as a missionary way back then.  As a set of discrete, one-sided snapshots, it is fair to neither of us, being inevitably weighed down by the over-wrought drama of teenage insecurity.  It is real though, and I offer it as a meager eulogy to someone who played a beautiful, if brief, part in my life:

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14 Sep 1983: I got a letter from Kris today.  It was really neat.  She is a neat girl and I miss seeing her … I got a little homesick when I read her letter but I got over it — or I will get over it, hopefully.  I can’t wait to write her back.

25 Sep 1983: I have decided to give Kris a Book of Mormon when I see (her) at the airport…I have really grown to love her and I just want to help her find some of the happiness that I have found.

5 Oct 1983: I got a letter from Kris today.  In it she said that she might love me but she really isn’t sure yet.  That made me feel pretty good.  I don’t think of her for very long periods of time because that would only make me homesick, but when I do think of her I realize that I am pretty lucky to know her.  She is an awesome “chica.”

13 Oct 1983: (Kris wrote) that she had found this old poem… and it reminded her of me.  She said that next time I was worrying about whether or not I should do what I feel, I should read the poem… (The poem says) that if you don’t take the risk, you’ll never realize the joy.

20 Oct 1983: Yesterday I received a pretty “important” letter from Kris.  She is starting to get nervous about being away from me for so long.  She is afraid that I could become “holier-than-thou.”  I wrote her a letter and tried to explain the change that I am going through… I really love her and would hate to lose her but I will roll with the punches.

21 Oct 1983: I received the best letter I have ever received from Kris today.  She said that she read (an article about Mormon missionaries) … and that it had really helped her to understand why I felt I needed to go on a mission and that she was happy for the changes I have been going through… Later today, we went to a pizzeria over by BYU.  They had tunes playing there and of course one of the songs they played was “King of Pain” — Kris and me’s song — by The Police.  It was tough but I came through ok.

26 Oct 1983: After scripture study I booked over to another building and called Kris.  It was great to talk to her!  We really didn’t talk about much but just to hear her voice made me feel great.  She was excited to hear from me too.  We talked about the fact that we are both kind of nervous about the airport but both of us are excited about it!  I told her that there would be a lot of my relatives there and that I just wanted her to be right next to me all the time.  She said she would.  After we were done talking we both told each other for the first time out loud that we loved each other!!

8 Nov 1983: I am on a plane somewhere between Miami and Lima, Peru. At the airport (in Utah), my family and Kris met me… I gave Kris the Book of Mormon; I don’t know what I have been worried about.  It went great… I love her more than I can believe.  She wrote me a long letter and gave me a present but … I haven’t been able to read (it) yet.

A sadly out of focus photo of Kris and my Grandpa seeing me off at the airport in November 1983; my only photo of Kris.

A sadly out of focus photo of Kris and my Grandpa seeing me off at the airport in November 1983; my only photo of Kris.

19 Nov 1983: The girls here in Peru are really friendly… While we were (downtown) we stopped in a record store.  I bought a “Police” tape because it was only like $3.00.  Neither (my missionary companion) nor I have a tape recorder so there is no listening to it.

24 Nov 1983: Today was Thanksgiving… after (turkey dinner) we went shopping.  I bought two tapes: The Police: Synchronicity and The B-52s: Whammy.  We haven’t got any way to listen to them though.

26 Nov 1983: I still haven’t heard anything from Kris.  Oh well, I’m tough.  I can handle it.

12 Dec 1983: Well, I bought myself a tape player today.

18 Dec 1983: I received some pretty good letters… finally got one from Kris.  It was a neat letter.  I am so flippin’ confused about her that I don’t know what to do.  I just don’t know how I feel anymore.  How can feelings change so fast?

7 Jan 1984: Today was a pretty good day… The only problem is that I’ve got to stop flirting with the girls.  I am just torturing myself!  I got a letter from Kris today.  It was a good letter… I am beyond confused about Kris and my feelings towards her… I kind of feel guilty because my feelings have changed so quickly.  From letters it sounds like Kris and my family are getting to be quite the good buds.  What am I going to do?!

2 Apr 1984: Spent the morning writing letters.  I also made a cassette for Kris, remember her?

7-8 Apr 1984: I only got four letters… one from Dad and one from Kris…

20 Jun 1984: …By the way, last Saturday I got a cassette from Kris but it was so boring that I forgot to write about it.

22 Jul 1984: I’m gonna “Dear Jane” Kris tonight.

17 Sep 1984: I got a letter from Kris today after two months without anything and man, is she pissed!  When I wrote Kris off I felt good because I thought she had really handed me a lot of crap, now somehow she has made me feel like a complete jerk.  I have already written an apologetic letter.  I should just leave it, but no!! I have to make sure everyone is happy…

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A sleep trance, a dream dance,
A shared romance,
Synchronicity

(from the song “Synchronicity I” by The Police)

Getting on the X

X

 

As much as I’d like to be able to claim that I was at the forefront of cultural change and rode the burgeoning underground wave of punk rock in the late 70s, the plain truth is that I did not.  In fact, not only was I not an early adopter, I actively and vociferously denounced the movement at the time as the crude effluence of petulant morons.  Those filthy, carping “punks” – in all the slurring, pejorative sense of the term – couldn’t hold a candle to my illustrious hard rock heroes.  Sure, I had been floored by the cantankerous performance by Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live in late ’77, but c’mon, he looked like Buddy Holly and besides, it was a one-off moment for me that failed to spur further exploration.

The closest I came at the time to opening my mind to the safety-pin-bedecked gobbers was via an embrace of Blondie circa ‘Parallel Lines’ and the first B-52’s album, both of which groups were then lumped in as part of the punk movement by mainstream media in my neck of the woods.  I however clearly knew the difference between these idiosyncratic but non-threatening bands and the system-hating, ne’er-do-well razor-blade fetishists in the Sex Pistols and the Dead Boys.

Wild GiftIt was 1981 before the internal prejudices began to weaken and I allowed myself to openly experiment with music that I understood to be categorically “punk rock” without any softening edges.  The band that finally opened my eyes and ears was X via their second LP ‘Wild Gift.’  Unfortunately and much to my dismay, I am unable to recall what led to my acquisition of the album.  I have vague impressions of either seeing X on the TV and being moved to make the purchase, or simply having received it unordered as an LP of the month through a record club membership, but neither notion successfully coalesces into an actual memory.  However I came into possession of ‘Wild Gift,’ I found it exhilarating from the first listen… and I still do!

‘Wild Gift’ is a relentless blast of short, fast songs featuring slam-poetry lyrics riding over the top of manic rockabilly guitar and nervous, jittery drumming, provided by Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake respectively.  The skittish energy of the music is both reinforced and weirdly mellowed by the shouty, discordant-but-still-somehow-harmonized vocals of Exene Cervenka and John Doe.  Their shared whiny, perpetually-complaining singing styles mesh to create a melodiousness that is unique to X.  Imagine if it were possible to concurrently pogo and gracefully sway all in one fluid motion; that’s the ‘Wild Gift’ experience.

X (on Bandstand)

Every song on the album causes a physical reaction, whether it be an enthusiastic head bob along to the bopping “The Once Over Twice” or involuntary toe-tapping to the off-kilter “Adult Books,” which sounds like what must happen when one mixes speed and quaaludes.  (Disclaimer: VotF does not endorse illicit drug taking.)  While it is the vocals that generally wear the engineer’s hat here, the hopped-up, almost surf rock guitar playing and snares-and-cymbals drumming are what propel the train down the tracks throughout, relentlessly chugging even in the (relatively) moodier songs like “White Girl” and “Universal Corner.”

Anyone who’s spent any time at all on this site knows that, for me, “guitar-driven” isn’t so much a description as itBilly Zoom is a personal theology.  So I’ll end by noting that Billy Zoom proves himself one hell of a guitar player on ‘Wild Gift,’ equally impressive providing unrelenting rhythms or blasting out rockabilly-tinged solos.  As an added bonus, his riffing and short breaks in “It’s Who You Know” are nearly Motörhead-esque in their old school rock and roll glory.

 

X: It’s Who You Know

 

Maybe Before You Were Happy: Tommy Bolin’s Teaser

Tommy Bolin - Teaser (1975)

 

The way it was told to me by my late 70s rock mentor Rick, Tommy Bolin replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple – after having previously replaced Joe Walsh in the James Gang – and found himself regularly booed by misguided audiences during Purple’s subsequent tour.  This led to Bolin’s falling into a deeply depressed, drug-addled state.  Tommy’s sad decline culminated in his selling a bunch of guitars to buy a homemade model volcano-size mountain of cocaine and trying to snort it all at once in an attempt at either self-medication or escape, resulting in his heartbreaking death at the height of his creative prime.  I’ve since learned that, while sorta kinda truthy in a very broad sense, Rick’s poignant tale was not especially factual on the specifics.

Brother, brother, help me please,

I’m as lonely as I can be.

All my friends are scaring me,

But if you forget me then I will leave.*

Precisely accurate or not however, Rick’s version of the Tommy Bolin story imprinted strongly on me at that impressionable age and continues to inform my sense of the ill-fated artist to this day.  My perception of the abstract “Tommy” is as a uniquely talented and sensitive young man, gifted beyond his years but too fragile to deal with the tensions, temptations, and fickle winds of stardom.  This trickles over into how I experience his music, although there may be something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum here.  I hear world-weary sensitivity and stoic acquiescence in Tommy’s solo output, but whether this flows from or independently reinforces my view of the man himself is unclear.

Sister, sister, what can I do?

I’m in love with tootsie too.

Please excuse me if I am low,

But me feelings just have to show.*

Tommy’s first solo album Teaser, released in 1975, was the first Tommy Bolin I heard.  I bought the LP in ’79 under the influence of Rick’s effusive praise for Tommy’s guitar skills.  I liked the album immediately, though true to my then form I was especially drawn to the meaty riffs in songs “The Grind,” and “Teaser.”  The funky six-string fireworks in instrumentals “Homeward Strut” and “Marching Powder” alsoTommy Bolin floated my teenage boat, as did what I would have described at the time as the “with feeling” soloing in “Wild Dogs” and “Lotus.”  Back then it was always all about the hard-rocking electric guitar for me and Teaser most definitely did not disappoint on that front even as it surreptitiously expanded the self-imposed boundaries of my musical tastes to insinuate a little jazzy funk fusion.  (I note here that among the many amazing players contributing their talents to this LP were Jan Hammer and David Sanborn on a pair of songs!)

In the intervening years, I have grown to appreciate the beauty of Teaser beyond the guitar brilliance it most certainly retains in its grooves.  I’ve become captivated by Tommy’s singing, which I’d describe as youthful and heartfelt, but with a superimposed stoicism.  This carries over into the songwriting, with Bolin credited on eight of the LP’s nine tunes.  These are certainly not happy songs, but neither are they maudlin or mournful.  The lyrics and vocals are awash with emotion, but it is a muted display.  Whether standing aside to let an unrequited soulmate depart guilt-free in “Dreamer,” conveying inner isolation in “Wild Dogs,” or voicing the lonely struggle to catch a break in “The Grind,” the overall tone seems to be one of accepting one’s own shitty fate while seeking to protect others from any corollary discomfort.  This perceived sense of a need to suck it up to ensure his own troubles engender no distress for others fits perfectly into my vision of Tommy the man as sensitive, tragic, and ultimately overwhelmed by silent suffering.

Mother, mother, so good to me,

Praying just so I can be.

My father, my father, my only one,

I hope you’re proud of this your son.*

My favorite song on the album is “Savannah Woman,” a Caribbean-tinged slow burner with multi-tracked guitar, a simple but spot-on tropical rhythm backing, and that quietly blue, restrained vocal style.  Whoever made the decision to fade out the song at 2’44” in the midst of an extended master class in sultry guitar however is doomed to suffer my eternal disdain; another five minutes at the end would still have been three minutes too little.

People, people, hold my hand.

Where in the hell is this promised land?

Float right past me, oh I like your style.

Seek it, seek it, seek it, seek it, you’re here for a while.*

Savannah Woman:

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My wife was recently able to come to Egypt to be with me for a few weeks.  It was wonderful.  She’s concerned about me, says situation and harbored frustration is causing me to give in too much to inner hermit tendencies and to become unhealthily isolated.  She hopes circumstances will evolve to allow her to come permanently next year.  She loves me, wants to take care of me.  For my part, I am where I am, doing what I’m doing.  I wish she wouldn’t worry so much.  I love her too.

My beloved walking up the ramp to the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut - Luxor, Egypt, November 2015

My beloved walking up the ramp to the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut – Luxor, Egypt, November 2015

 

* all quoted lyrics from the Bolin-penned song “People, People.”

The Beauty in Bleak (Exquisite Gloom Redux)

The Beauty in Bleak

I feel down today.  I woke up to a life that had missed its turn many miles back and was now so far off its intended path as to make reversing course to find the untaken fork impossible.  Feeling excruciatingly foreign, I play at countering reasonless, fanatic beheaders from behind a suit-and-tie bureaucrat’s desk at an age when my younger self fantasized I would be eloquently and convincingly extolling the merits of my liberal worldview over cold lemonade with William F. Buckley.  Far removed from the tiny clutch of family and friends who so charitably care about me, I am desperately lonely but nonetheless so fully given over to my hermit introversion that I stridently choose drawn-curtain solitude over a walk in the sun for fear of being forced into a passing exchange of greetings with a too-eager doorman upon exiting the elevator.  I can’t bring myself to answer welcome, wonderful overnight emails from daughter, uncle, and long-lost friend because I am unable to imagine words I could type that would successfully escape the deep hole from which they were sprung.

It is goddamn glorious!  Every inch of my skin tingles with the electricity of sweeping misery.  The daydream visions behind my closed eyelids flicker in extreme high definition; so palpable I sense I could step into and live inside them if I could only find the right footing.  I am a bundle of rapidly firing synapses, my jittery thoughts somehow transmitting both trillions of bytes and nil data sets concurrently.  I spent an hour and a half on the elliptical just now, and could have easily done double or triple that.  The usual day-to-day cloud of numbness is banished.  I feel alive in my despair, brutally and magnificently alive!

Musically, there is but one option, albeit one I find myself unable to properly set to paper in my present state.  Happily, back in March 2013, some long-forgotten and in-all-likelihood fictitious person claiming my name managed to put the story to words.  I’ll let him tell it again this time:

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As an accompaniment to pitch black or candlelit tread-milling, it is hard to imagine a more effective conveyance.  Within minutes your consciousness is transported into a land of perpetual night, foggy-marsh stone castles, and loam-covered knolls.  The castles host a maze of shadowy passageways lit by flickering torches, a few wrought iron adornments affixed to otherwise bare walls.  You instinctively make your way towards the faint glimpses of a ghostly maiden that tease your peripheral vision in the twilight.  Her flowing hair, flowing gown, and flowing desire tantalize you, but she is continually beyond reach, not in mocking but rather sharing despair at the futility of your attempts to join her.  With each failure, your need for her grows until you can think of nothing else.  Only she matters.  You sense an inexplicable yet timeless connection.  You can discern not where or when but you know that you were are soul mates.

She has been taken from you unjustly and your love, no that’s not strong enough, your longing for her is all-encompassing.  Eventually you realize that she is being kept from you by otherworldly powers against which you have neither recourse nor remedy.  They care not for your suffering.  Your desperate pleas for compassion fall on deaf ears.  Despite the bottomless depths of your anguish, to them you are naught but an insignificant midge, unworthy of even a moment’s thought.  You cast yourself to the stone floor in hopelessness, doomed to forever haunt these nocturnal halls and hills with your beloved just beyond your grasp.  You yearn for Death to take pity and end your torment, but it will never be.  Your sorrow is eternal.  You are crushingly alone, with no one to lament your circumstance nor even to take pleasure at your woe.  You are inconsequential, and yet your pain fills the universe.  Please. End. This.

My Dying Bride

Such is the awesome splendor of English doom metal band My Dying Bride.  Their music is the perfect soundtrack for solitude, albeit not the reassuring solitude of sunny forests filled with chirping birds and gleaming, dew-covered leaves.  This is music for dark, lonely rooms and extended solo road trips through desolate landscapes.  This is music through which to escape the misery of one’s own earthly isolation by subsiding into the deeper, blanketing gloom of the vast, empty cosmos.

Joy is to be found here; the joy of recognizing one’s own utter irrelevance, the joy of realizing that there is no greater scheme, the joy of seeing that one’s personal suffering, while wholly unavoidable, serves no larger purpose.  My Dying Bride represents liberation from the shackles of hope.  There is true, boundless beauty in the abyss.  Come. Join. Us.

The Light at the End of the World: 

More Than I Play For: Outing Myself as an REO Lover

I surprised myself the other day with an unconscious and completely rote action designed to protect my “cool” as if I were back in high school expecting to be judged on my every move.  I had ordered two CDs which, given my current overseas assignment, arrived via Motörhead - Bad Magicmail to my place of work vice my home.  I took the envelope to my office to open it, admired my newest acquisitions, and then placed the CDs on a corner of my desk, taking care to put Motörhead’s Bad Magic on top of REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish.  Almost immediately after doing so, I realized that I had placed the CDs in that way purposefully, albeit automatically, so that passersby would see the Motörhead andREO Speedwagon - You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish judge me edgy rather than glimpse the REO Speedwagon and deem me lame.  I laughed at the silliness of a 50-something ridiculously still motivated to hide parts of his true self in order to fit in with the cool kids.  Even so, I nonetheless absolutely left the Motörhead covering the Speedwagon throughout the remainder of the day.

REO Speedwagon became anathema to me and my rocker friends in 1980 following the release of their gazillion-selling LP High Infidelity with its more pop-oriented, power ballad-laden sound as compared to the band’s earlier offerings.  Having so many girls and parents singing along to the multiple hits from the album as they played on a REO Speedwagon - Hi Infidelityseemingly endless loop on Top 40 radio was too much for our earnest hard-rock sensibilities.  REO Speedwagon was dead to us.  You might as well have asked us to listen to Captain & Tennille or Barry Manilow as publicly show any love for the Speedwagon at that point.

(The truth, of course, is that I secretly sang along to those catchy new REO songs along with everyone else, although only when everyone else was looking the other way.)

In the days before the great REO excommunication from the True Church of Real Rock, they had made what is, in my opinion, one the greatest live hard rock albums of all time; 1977’s Live: You Get What You Play For.  I’d list it among the best live non-guitar-hero rock guitar records ever, filled to the brim with impeccable interplay between lead and rhythm guitar, unique electric fills, and mouthwatering solos all in service of an overall groove vice being crafted to steal attention.  It is also one of the best mixed live albums from the era, with the recording and separation of the individual instruments and vocals accomplished in a way that emphasizes each individually without overwhelming or flattening the others.  I have no idea whether any studio trickery was used to get the sound right or “fix” any performance flaws, and to be honest I don’t care.  All I know is that this is an album that, especially on headphones, resonates with in-the-moment band chemistry.

REO Speedwagon - Live: You Get What You Pay For

This is an optimistic album, with every song exuding happiness and hope, even in the face of difficulty.  The lessons of “Any Kind of Love,” “Being Kind (Can Hurt Sometimes),” “(Only a) Summer Love,” and “Son of a Poor Man,” all of which are love songs about imperfect or finished relationships, are about finding and focusing on the good in the midst of bad moments.  No regrets, laments, or depression here, rather the earned sadness is tinged with hope and gratitude for the silver linings.  “Keep Pushin’” and “Riding the Storm Out” state it outright in their titles and then reinforce it ferociously in their execution; this is music that looks toward a welcoming, if hard-earned, bright future.  Even the biting social commentary on our apathy toward the suffering of our human brethren in “Golden Country” is couched in an expectant message of faith in an ability to change for good.  REO Speedwagon knows we can do better and honestly and compassionately expects nothing less from us.

Another aspect of this album deserving praise is the excellent infusion of hard rock piano into many of the songs.  Keyboard player Neil Doughty is great throughout, but it is when he sticks with basic acoustic piano that I find myself most moved.  His tinkling of the keys on “Any Kind of Love” and “Keep Pushin’” demonstrate once and for all that thumping rock and roll piano didn’t stop with Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.

(A funny aside:  I apparently had gotten so used to seeing lead singer Kevin Cronin sitting at the piano for all those Hi Infidelity and beyond syrupy REO ballads that I thought he was playing the keyboards here.  It is only as I write this that I discover he was actually the kick-ass rhythm guitarist on this kick-ass rhythm guitar album.  Respect!)

I must acknowledge that mega-classic “Riding the Storm Out” deserves its own paragraph here.  Like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Danzig’s “Mother,” or Procol Harum’s “Conquistador,” this is a song for which the better-known live version so thoroughly crushes the studio counterpart that it might as well be considered a completely separate piece of art.  From the air raid siren opening to the ending cacophony, “Riding the Storm Out” is a master class in “Rock.”  The simple, bombastic riff, sing-along chorus, uplifting lyrics, and the melodic-as-hell sizzling extended guitar soloing by Gary Richrath combine to make it the cultural touchstone I believe it has become for my generation.

Gary Richrath - PHOTO: Ross Marino 1980 (from http://www.guitarplayer.com)

Gary Richrath – PHOTO: Ross Marino 1980 (from http://www.guitarplayer.com)

REO Speedwagon lead guitarist Gary Richrath passed away on 13 September 2015 at the age of 65.  Among the obituaries, eulogies, and news reports, I’ve seen photos of him from recent years in which he looked severely unhealthy.  I choose to remember him young and vibrant.  I imagine only a minority of people would have known his name now, or even back in REO Speedwagon’s glory days.  REO Speedwagon was always more about being a band than a group of individuals to me, and while I knew “Gary” to be a monster guitar player mainly from the album reviewed here, I personally never thought of him individually in guitar-hero terms.  To me, he was a talented player, composer, sometime-singer and awesome band member.  That said, as I’ve listened to Live: You Get What You Play For on the headphones today, I’m realizing ever more what a force he was personally in this great, hard-rocking band.  Besides being a creator of highly melodic electric guitar solos full of “feeling,” he was a master of what I’d describe as the “wicka-wicka” fills, those crunchy half-note, staccato strums that purposefully avoid sustain and give the music a wonderful bounce.  In honor of Gary and as thanks for the moments of joy he has brought and will continue to bring me, here’s the live “Lay Me Down”:

She Smiled Because I Did Not Understand

I’m sure there is science to explain how and why some songs manage to insert themselves so deeply into my being that I can hardly remember a time when they were not part of my life.  I imagine the explanations might reference the lasting impact of early assertions of adolescent independence and discovery in personal development, similar to how the first steps in a long journey take on greater historical importance after the destination is reached.  In cases where they are discernible in retrospect, it is natural to look back with a little awe and reverence at those tentative initial strides that set one on the path to now.  It all makes utter sense; I get it.  The happy firing of synapses in my brain whenever I hear the three songs below almost certainly reflects the deep tracks they carved into my evolving brain at a time when titillation moved my mountains.  “Sex, drugs and violence, Mr. Clark, and er, a great beat to dance to.”

Does it truly matter however why certain songs float my emotional boat, or is it enough merely that they do?  Sure, being able to cite environmental/developmental factors can provide a salve for the misguided shame I can still feel despite myself when admitting to my unabashed love for what might otherwise be considered insubstantial dreck by some.  On the other hand, maybe science should go jump in the lake.  What say instead we all simply agree that the following three songs objectively represent some of mankind’s greatest achievements and move forward from there?

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Dark Lady – Cher

Cher - Dark Lady (1974)

Right from the mournful opening violin/clarinet lines, this tune pulls me in.  Cher’s lower register voice with that dramatic vibrato really connects, especially when coupled with the unique combined bass and piano pulling the verses forward toward the strident strings that proclaim the chorus.  Add in a lyric that rates for me as one of the best short-form story songs of all time, and I view this as a true pop masterpiece.  The song’s ability to successfully carry the listener through shifting feelings of dread, menace, discovery, and cathartic vengeance all in the course of an oh-so-brief three and a half minutes is striking.

Cher released this one in my tenth year and I’m unsure where I first heard it.  It could have very well been via the performance broadcast on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in late 1973 that is embedded below, or it may have been on the radio in early ’74 as it made its way to the Billboard number one spot it attained in March of that year.  However I became aware of it, I was enthralled.  My parents bought me the 45 rpm single, which my 2-years-younger sister and I played incessantly on my portable record player, learning all the words and singing along blissfully to its tale of passion, infidelity, and murder.  To this day, I think Cher’s inflection on the word “dead” as she sings the line “next thing I knew they were dead on the floor” is super sexy cool.

While the Dark Lady-era allure of Cher to my 10-year-old self was pretty innocent, I unashamedly acknowledge that subsequent years saw me captivated much less virtuously.  Cher was my first celebrity infatuation, causing pubescent tremors that preceded and surpassed even the great Farah Fawcett palpitations of ’76-’77.  While I’m not sure I’d want to delve into the psychology of it too deeply, it is the case that I eventually ended up marrying my own tall, thin exotic dark lady with long flowing black hair a decade and a half later.

Dark Lady:

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The No-No Song – Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr - The No No Song (1974)

A former Beatle singing a catchy tune about booze and drugs, with appended guest shout-outs from another former Beatle; how could it not be awesome? (That is John Lennon inserting brief yelps into the second and third verses, right?) This was another 45 rpm single I convinced my folks to purchase for me in 1974, the year the song was released.  There’s nothing deep about this one.  It’s easy to sing along to and its marijuana, cocaine, and moonshine references felt excitingly naughty to a pre-teen Victim of the Fury.

The No-No Song:

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Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder

Nick Gilder - Hot Child in the City (1978)

By the time this one came out, I was a full-on hard rocker, dues-paying member of the KISS army, and missionary crusader calling all who had ears to hear to worship at the altar of guitar heroes Ronnie Montrose and Robin Trower.  Back then I would have normally slagged off the catchy pop stylings and pretty-boy promotion of such Top 40 singles but there was something different about this one.  The mix of the bass-driven first stanza in the verse, followed by the simple-but-effective electric guitar in the second stanza sounding as if it was coming out of the most basic beginner’s practice amplifier, was unique.  Add to it the suggestive lyrics about a “loose” hottie attracting the attention of all the boys and who apparently could be invited to one’s place to “make love” and it’s not such a mystery why this song and its gritty, neon-lit atmosphere appealed to me.

I still like this song but admit to feeling a little queasy listening nowadays as Nick croons about the “so young … hot child” protagonist.  Wikipedia tells me Gilder wrote it about his experience witnessing child prostitution in Hollywood.  Says Nick in a Rolling Stone interview from the era, “I’ve seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their home environment drove them to distraction so they ran away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurts to see that so I tried writing from the perspective of a lecher – in the guise of an innocent pop song.”  All of that was completely lost on me at age 14 however; the song simply sounded sexy, cool and provocative, and it was that more innocent reading that was ingrained in me.  I experience it still today as one of the “young boys (who) all want to take her home,” although I do harbor grown-up discomfort with the alternate, albeit unheard, evil depraved bastard perspective.

Hot Child in the City:

Procol Harum and the Older Woman

More than just hot, Cindy had a bad girl vibe that made her particularly alluring to a rutting teen.  She was concurrently the meanest and the coolest waitress at Ye Lion’s Den restaurant in Ogden, Utah, where I worked as a dishwasher and later a pantry cook during my junior and senior years of high school.  You didn’t mess with Cindy.  Despite her relatively small stature, she was honest-to-God scary.  I had no doubt that she was capable and would have enjoyed beating the crap out of any of us male coworkers if it were not for our universal recognition of that fact and resulting immediate deference to her anytime she felt crossed.

Cindy drove one of those big 70s boat cars, like a Galaxie 500 or a Plymouth Fury, which seemed out of whack with her petite figure but fit her imposing personality exactly.  She came across as a hard-partying type, but upon revisiting my memories now, I realize I only ever saw her drink a few beers.  While intimidating, she was good to me at work, regularly sharing a small portion of her tips at the end of shared shifts.

In her mid-20s, Cindy lived alone in an old house in a declining neighborhood somewhere around Ogden’s 35th Street.  One Friday night at work, she asked if I’d be willing to come over the next day to clean up her yard, mowing and edging the grass and weeding the small flower bed.  She said she’d pay me for the work.  I accepted immediately, first because she was foxy and second because Cindy was “worldly” and I’d seen the movie, man… Summer of ’42 or Summer of ’81, it didn’t matter, I knew how the story ended.  Saturday afternoon couldn’t come fast enough.

After carefully choosing my board shorts and faded Keep on Truckin’ t-shirt, I arrived at Cindy’s house shortly after noon in my stepdad’s silver 1963 Willys Jeep pick-up with our lawn mower and manual edger in the bed.  As I unloaded, Cindy came out to the porch in a terrycloth robe, with her blonde hair pulled up and looking like she’d just woken up.  We exchanged greetings and I said I’d get right to work.  Cindy told me to let her know if I needed anything and headed inside as I began to mow.  I imagined she was occasionally watching from the window while I muscled the mower through the overgrown grass, but I never looked to see if I was right (mainly out of fear that I might actually see her).

As I finished mowing and began to edge, Cindy came outside to bring me a cold drink.  She had showered and was barefoot, wearing cut-off shorts and a light, loose blouse.  Having usually only seen her in her Ye Lion’s Den waitress uniform, I remember thinking she was goddess-level sexy.  With my thoughts migrating “elsewhere” as I watched Cindy climb the porch steps and reenter the house, the subsequent edging and weeding passed in a blur.

Sweaty and sunburned (but fancying myself glistening and tanned), I piled my tools back into the truck and knocked on Cindy’s door to tell her I had finished and see about getting paid – sweet, glorious, long-awaited “paid.”  Cindy said the yard looked wonderful and that I had done a great job.  She invited me in and led me to the living room, indicating I should sit on the couch while she went to the kitchen to bring me another cold beverage.  She was still wearing the shorts and loose blouse, with enough buttons undone that, as she bent over to hand me my glass, I could tell that she wasn’t wearing a bra.  Dear Penthouse Forum …

Cindy sat down across from me and, as I drank, I tried to think of things to say that would make me seem cool to this hot, experienced older woman.  Noticing some records spread on the floor near the stereo, I pointed out Procol Harum’s Broken Barricades LP, commenting that I had never heard it but was a huge fan of the solo work of the band’s guitarist, Robin Trower, after he left the group.  She said it was an excellent album, one of her favorites, and bent down again – holy heart-pounding glory be to God – to grab the album and pass it over to me.

As I fondled the cover and mumbled something asinine about the awesome artwork, Cindy reached into her purse and pulled out a ten-dollar bill.  She handed me the bill and asked if that was enough.  I said it was more than enough and that, as a friend, I’d help her out anytime whether she paid me or not.  She smiled broadly, in a way that instantly banished all the tense sexy from her face and replaced it with unburdened beautiful.  She came over and gave me a sincere, friendly kiss on the cheek, simultaneously making me feel like the underage doofus that I certainly was while also letting me know that she genuinely liked me.

Cindy said she had to get ready as she had the early shift at the restaurant, and mentioned that I was welcome to take the LP with me if I wanted to borrow it.  Recognizing dream was not to become reality that day, I accepted the offer.  As I walked “unpaid” to the truck with the sawbuck in my pocket and the record under my arm, along with the disappointment of the unconsummated fantasy, I felt the self-satisfaction of having done something nice for a deserving and grateful friend.

I worked at Ye Lion’s Den for another year and Cindy continued to make me feel like a friend, while still terrorizing all of us at the same time.  For whatever reason, I don’t think I ever went to her house again, and my Summer of ’42 daydream was certainly never realized.

On the other hand, one of the easy highpoints of my seventeenth year was the night when Cindy, probably tipsy, came into the restaurant’s back room where I was washing pots and pans to share tips with me after the final patrons had departed.  As she snuck up behind me and reached around to slowly ease her hand deep into the front pocket of my jeans to donate a few dollars, I must have looked like a terrified deer in the headlights as my whole body tensed and I nervously mumbled a feeble “thanks.”  (I must admit I’ve reimagined that moment repeatedly over the years, envisioning a significantly altered personal response and dénouement.)

Procol Harum:  Broken Barricades (1971)

While my fantasy deflowering by Cindy never played out, she forever gets credit for introducing me to an exceptional album.  The last Procol Harum record on which guitarist Robin Trower played before going solo, Broken Barricades is the relatively least progressive and most traditionally hard rock outing by the band to that point in their history.  Nothing like “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the only Procol Harum song most folks know nowadays, the tracks on Broken Barricades go easy on the organ, emphasizing instead the pairing of Trower’s searing guitar with Gary Brooker’s evocative piano.

While everything on the album emphasizes the melodic over the bombastic, the harder rocking songs tend to be underpinned by a strong, tight groove over which Trower plays some of the raunchiest guitar of his career.  Of these, the guitar-soaked “Playmate of the Mouth” and the strings-laden “Simple Sister” are standouts.  Among the few slower and more orchestral songs, the moving “Luskus Delph,” on which Brooker’s beautiful piano and immediately recognizable vocals carry the weight, harkens back to the sea-faring feeling often found on Procol Harum’s preceding LPs.  The album also boasts the unique “Song for a Dreamer,” which Trower composed in tribute to the then recently passed Jimi Hendrix, and on which Trower provides a rare lead vocal.  The atmospheric “Song for a Dreamer” calls to mind the more melodic portions of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” off of Hendrix’s own Electric Ladyland.

In no way dismissing the contributions by Brooker and the rest of the band, Broken Barricades is very much Trower’s shining moment within the Procol Harum catalogue.  One can almost sense him chomping at the bit to move beyond the confines of the band.  Indeed, the Trower-composed “Memorial Drive” would fit seamlessly on just about any of the Trower solo albums that would follow as the 70s went on.  As for Keith Reid’s lyrics, which adorn all eight tracks, they are as dense and impenetrable as ever, while somehow managing to “fit” perfectly nonetheless.

Broken Barricades is an outstanding album that has not suffered from the passage of time in the four decades since its release.  It still sounds as vibrant and fresh now as it must have in 1971.

Playmate of the Mouth:

Simple Sister:

Luskus Delph:

Song for a Dreamer:

Memorial Drive:

They Were Soldiers… and Young

It started when our daughter – born an incomprehensible 20 years after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam – came home from school anxious for us to watch a documentary she had seen in her U.S. history class.  The film, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, had moved her greatly and she had all kinds of questions about the Vietnam War: Had anyone from our family been in the war?  Why were our soldiers there? Were the soldiers really that young?  We watched the documentary online via YouTube and addressed her questions as best we could. Over the course of a few subsequent weekends, she brought home the movies Platoon and Apocalypse Now and continued to ask the occasional question, most of which began with “Why?”.  Being a normal, busy teenager however, her temporary fixation on Vietnam eventually waned as Hamlet, precalculus, volleyball, and Law and Order:SVU laid claim on her limited available attention.  My thoughts, on the other hand, were not so fast to move on:

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Watching the U.S. military machine transform over a matter of a few months the vast sandscape into a massive complex of hangars, tarmacs, roads, tents, and mess halls, all filled to overflowing with people and materiel, was awe-inspiring.  Once the barber shop, convenience store, and other amenities were set up in tents and cargo containers, I became a regular customer.

One day while waiting in line to get my half-hour online at the internet tent, I struck up a conversation with an 18-year-old cue companion.  He was going to send his grandmother an email to thank her for the $100 bill she’d just sent him in the mail.  Grandma was apparently super cool and the youngster already had his eye on the video game he was going to buy with the birthday cash.  He knew his tent-mates were going to be pumped too and he foresaw some epic competitions as they all waited between the sand berms to be told what would happen next.  He’d also heard a rumor that there could be some elite troops waiting for them when they eventually crossed the border; had I heard anything about that?  As I left him to take my turn at the computer terminal, I couldn’t help but think how much he had reminded me of my own school-age son back home.  I hadn’t been around soldiers much in my life to that point and I found myself wondering about boys that young being chosen to fight my country’s battles.

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The 20-something lieutenant had been placed in charge of a Force Protection unit.  When he learned I was from Utah, he started seeking me out, first just to chat and later to seek advice.  He was from a tiny Utah town and this was his first combat tour.  He spoke often to his mom and sister back home often via Skype and to give them a veritable blow-by-blow of everything he experienced. The lieutenant was having a hard time with a 30-something sergeant who kept disrespecting his authority in front of the unit and wondered what he should do.  I shared personal stories and tried to build his confidence in his leadership role.  Privately, I asked some folk to make an active show of respect for the lieutenant’s leadership and rank in front of the sergeant.  Things seemed to get better.

Some time later, the lieutenant sought me out after returning from a mission.  As was all too routine, the convoy had been attacked while returning from a village they had visited.  This occasion was different in that they’d taken fire over the course of a few kilometers vice just at one ambush site, had taken a couple of non-life-threatening casualties, and had returned fire for an extended period.  The lieutenant wanted to share with me that he had gotten his first confirmed kill of an enemy fighter that day.  He had already Skyped with his mom and told her all about it; she was proud of him and was going to tell the rest of the family.  He described the event with a youthful enthusiasm and pride reminiscent of players on my son’s high school basketball team describing last-minute heroics to beat crosstown rivals.  He felt vindicated as a “real soldier.” I later learned from the colonel that the lieutenant had demonstrated true leadership under pressure as he calmly and maturely took charge of the situation, deftly commanding his troops and getting every member of the convoy back to the base alive.

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While getting a tour of the base shortly after my arrival, I was escorted into the wooden shack that housed the two-person Counter Remote Control Improvised Explosive Device (RCIED) Electronic Warfare (CREW) team.  Being computer/electronics geeks, the guys had wired their small space to host four networked terminals on which they could play multiplayer video games.  I learned that they would regularly invite small combat units that briefly paused at the base to utilize the gaming set-up and this day was no exception. Four young Marines from an Embedded Training Team (ETT) were sitting at the terminals enjoying a raucous game of Counter-Strike, calling each other names and loudly bragging about their skills.  I sat there with the CREW guys and the Marines laughing and listening to their trash talk for about a half-hour before some bonehead came into the building and referred to me in some deferential way that seemed to make the Marines feel uncomfortable about the casual manner they had taken with me.  Bummed, but understanding, I left the CREW shack and continued my tour.

A few weeks later, five members of that same ETT were killed in an ambush along with several of the indigenous troops they were accompanying after having accepted an invitation to come into a village and meet with tribal elders.  While I was told some of the fallen had been in the CREW shack during my visit, I had no way to confirm names.  The team’s actions in that battle resulted in several citations for valor.  I cried in my room on the night I heard of the Marines’ deaths.  I found it heartbreaking that those men who died, so much braver than me, were also the kids who had been so embarrassed for having let me share their youthful boasts of girls and games, and who seemed to have their whole lives ahead of them when our paths first crossed.

soldiers

(edited and reposted from September 2012)

Is That Jazz?

Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections

Something just doesn’t feel right.  I have a vague sense that there is something pending; a problem to resolve or otherwise deal with to avoid some potential future disaster.  But there’s no substance to the sensation.  I worry I am forgetting something, though I know I’m not.  This happens to me on occasion, more often than I’d like.  It likely results from a recent conflux of minor inconveniences; a letter warning of a late fee if my daughter’s first month’s dorm rent is not paid on time even though the payment has been made and the letter itself cites an owed balance of $0, a response to an online inquiry about a factory-defective ice tea brewer that gives only a rote instruction to “return it to your retailer” even though my message clearly stated the defect was only discovered after the seller’s allowable return period due to my recent move, a missive indicating the mailbox at the rented house back home where my family resides without me is out of compliance with neighborhood regulations regarding lean angle and must be straightened within ten days or the landlord will be fined.  None of these things can be fixed with my 3,000-mile screwdriver.  In the end, all will be solved or fade away of their own or someone else’s volition.  There is no imminent doom, and yet my mind is heavy, weighed down by nebulous worry.

“And you don’t need to check on how you feel, just keep repeating that none of this is real.”

I first heard the album Reflections by Gil Scott-Heron in mid-1985.  My buddy Brett and I had driven my ’74 Volkswagen Super Beetle from Utah to Chicago to welcome Bill-o back from his Mormon missionary service in Peru, service the two of us had also completed just a few months before.  I considered Bill my best friend and confidante at the time and thus was prone to his influence.   A “smooth soul” enthusiast, Bill had filled my head with talk of Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, and Al Green during our shared time in the land of the Incas, but none of it really took for me.  Reflections stuck hard however when Bill played it as background music during an impromptu gathering of friends there in his suburban home.

“I take pride in what’s mine – is that really a crime – when you know I ain’t got nothing else?”

Unlike my current unjustified anxiety, Reflections soundtracks actual impending doom in the face of apparent happy reality.  The music is funky smooth, with bright horns riding on grooving bass, jazzy snares, and punctuated piano.  Whether singing or speaking his poetry, Gil’s voice is silky suave and welcoming.  But listen to his words and sense the looming upheaval behind the sheen.  The shit is about to go down and it is going to take your ignorant ass by surprise.

“The storm is coming, it rolls on the waves.”

It’s hard to imagine now the effect that the foreboding, angry messages of the song/poems “Inner City Blues (Poem: The Siege of New Orleans)” and “’B’ Movie” had on this obliviously sheltered small town boy when I first heard them.  I had grown up deep within what would become Reagan country in the 1980s.  My earliest political memory is being ardently teased at the age of 8 with chants of “Nixon Nixon he’s our man, McGovern belongs in the garbage can” by older neighborhood kids who I’d told of my outlier parents’ expressed preference in the 1972 U.S. presidential election.  The number of black students in my high school graduating class of over 300 was easily in the single digits.  By the time of my 1985 road trip to Chicago however, I’d spent 18 months preaching door-to-door in the urban plight and underdeveloped mountain villages of Peru.  I thought of myself as worldly and informed.  Gil Scott-Heron showed me otherwise.

“Yea, it makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”

Gil’s stinging takedown of the Reagan mandate in “’B’ Movie” and distressingly intimate chronicle of inner city struggle in “The Siege of New Orleans” invigorate and shame in equal measure.  I outwardly act as a fellow traveler with the narrator; anti-establishment and pledged to the ranks of the oppressed.  But in the back of my mind I uncomfortably recognize myself entrenched in the system being railed against vice marching in the vanguard of the coming revolution.  Even in the beautiful, touching messages of love found in “Grandma’s Hands” and “Morning Thoughts,” I’m a stranger against my will.  Gil’s not making this music for me; he’s making this music in spite of me.  I only hope my willingness to listen and learn partially mitigates my innate guilt.

“This ain’t really your life, ain’t really your life, ain’t really nothing but a movie.”

This is gorgeous music, articulate music, genius music.  I think everyone can be moved by its glorious groove, regardless of age or background.  That said, I’d suggest listening to it is a must for anyone over 45 years old.  With an understanding of its context and references, you’ll be both amazed and disturbed at how much Gil’s concurrently angry and hopeful message from 1981 resonates in 2015.  Yes, this is jazz, and yes, it is smooth, but it most definitely ain’t no smooth jazz.

Gil Scott-Heron – ‘B’ Movie: (Listen now!)

 

B, B, and Me (far right) - Chicago 1985

B, B, and Me (far right) – Chicago 1985; “So, you’re saying we can’t join the revolution?”