Gonna sail away

How sad it is to watch people who I’ve never met–but who still enriched my life in some way–cross over into whatever comes next. In just the past week, Chuck Berry died (and I’ve had Johnny B. Goode stuck in my head ever since), followed by Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls, Chuck Barris of the Gong Show, Dallas Green of the Cubs (and several other baseball teams) and most recently, Sib Hashian from the rock band Boston.

I can still picture seeing Sib’s image on the back of my vinyl copy of Boston’s debut album. He had the giant afro and was standing in the middle of the group, which made him look totally badass. The album was released in 1976, which was just before I discovered rock music for the first time. I regret that I wasn’t cool enough for this at age 8, but I got there once I reached high school in the mid 1980s.

I listened to the first two Boston albums over and over again back in 1985 and 1986, as I was biding my time and waiting for life to begin. I couldn’t have the kind of life I wanted to have–and I wasn’t very clear on what that should be, either–so long as I was living under my parent’s roof. So I waited, and listened to Boston every chance I got.

Sib Hashian was not the musical mastermind behind the group’s music, nor was he the voice that people hear on songs like “More than a Feeling” or “Hitch a Ride.” But his drumming was always there with me, and it will be for as long as the music means something to me, and to everyone else who feels the same way. That’s quite a legacy to leave behind, isn’t it?

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It’s gotta be rock and roll music, if you wanna dance with me

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I’ve been writing this blog for almost six years now, and have put more than 1,500 posts up for the world to consider. I do it because I know that we’re all mortal, and when we leave this world there will be few traces of us left behind. Whether anyone alive today reads these things or not, I want future generations to have some insight into the life that I lived, in the early 21st century in the United States of America.

My main writing muses became pretty clear early on in the development of this blog. Baseball and the Chicago Cubs were one, and just behind that came a music genre known as rock and roll. I’m not a musician, so my interest in this music comes strictly from a consumer standpoint. I admire musicians a great deal, because they have a talent that I wish I had.

Rock and roll first entered my life back in late 1976 or early 1977, in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois. We had recently moved into the house, and their old turntable–along with a few LP albums–took up residence in the basement. When my siblings and I and our neighbor from across the street figured out how the thing worked, we immediately gravitated toward Side 1 of Beatles ’65. It was filled with two-minute songs that opened my world up like nothing ever had before. They were catchy, which was the essential part of the music, but they also told stories that went beyond “The Farmer in the Dell” and all the kiddie songs I had known before then. It was the first step in the transition away from childhood and into the world of adolescence. It truly did change my worldview in a way that nothing else had before.

My favorite song on Side 1 of Beatles ’65 was “Rock and Roll Music.” This song not only introduced me to the music I loved, but it gave it a name, too. “Just let me hear some of that Rock and Roll music…” was sung by John Lennon, but it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he didn’t write those lyrics. Chuck Berry first wrote and recorded the song in 1957, and it ushered in a musical wave that I caught on to some 20 years later.

The first record that I ever bought for myself was the Grease soundtrack in 1978, and even though it had no Chuck Berry songs on it, it was filled with the music that he had inspired. Disco was also on the airwaves back in 1978, and I heard plenty of it on the airwaves of the AM hit music station where I lived. But it was a fad, which fortunately passed away in a few years’ time. While other genres have met with a similar fate, rock and roll has endured for me. As AC/DC once proclaimed, “Rock and Roll will never die.” And that’s exactly what Chuck Berry’s legacy will be.

If you ever wanted any perspective on how important Chuck Berry was in rock and roll’s history, consider that he opened up the Rock Hall in Cleveland back in 1995. Without Chuck Berry, the music–and the building that honors it–would not exist.

From the time I began purchasing music for myself–when I started to view the world through something other than a child’s eyes–I’ve wanted to hear some of that rock and roll music. My gratitude to Chuck Berry for creating it–and for giving it its name–is beyond my ability to describe it here. But the effort is one that must be made, so let’s just turn up his music and appreciate it for as long as we can.

It’s all hands on deck

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On the first day of this new year, I met up with a cousin I hadn’t seen in a very long time. He was in Chicago with his family, and we met up to see a few sights and–in true Chicago fashion–have some deep dish pizza. It was a great day, and I was happy to begin 2017 by renewing an old acquaintance.

As we were talking over dinner, I mentioned that I write a blog. My cousin asked if it was political, and I replied “It can be.” I didn’t start writing this blog for that reason, and baseball and family and rock and roll–the things that really matter to me–are my principal writing muses. But here in 2017, politics  appears to have crowded out everything else. These times don’t allow for much else besides a discussion of our government system and how to protect it against a despot. For progressives like me, this is our moment of truth.

The fact remains, no matter what is said to the contrary, that Hillary Clinton received millions more votes than Donald Trump did. He entered the presidency with that hanging over everything else, and the tens of millions of people who saw Donald Trump’s name on the ballot and voted for somebody else have a right to feel betrayed by the electoral college. We all were.

The ties to Russia and the hacks directed by Putin and the Kremlin on Trump’s behalf further clouded the matter of Trump’s ascension. How many votes would Trump had lost if this information had come out before the election? We’ll never know for certain, but it’s fair to say at least a few Trump voters may be feeling some buyer’s remorse at their decision.

And then there’s the actions Trump has taken since that dark and desolate Friday, just ten days ago. The immigration ban is by far the worst one, striking at the heart of what America has always been for the rest of the world. Those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have been replaced, inside Trump’s warped mind, with a bunch of angry jihadists. The countries where the terrorists actually came from–Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and a couple more–are left alone, while seven countries that are far less of a threat statistically are left out. So what if those seven nations aren’t lucky enough to have a Trump golf course or high-rise within their borders? That’s just a happy coincidence, isn’t it?

Trump’s nominees, from Jeff Sessions on down, must now receive “extreme vetting” by the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. And what about the Supreme Court nominee, who is expected to be announced as early as tomorrow? That needs to be a war like none other that has ever been seen. Clarence Thomas should wince by the time that process is over, if it ever does come to an end.

I love the sight of protests in airports and peaceful marches through cities and towns of all sizes, and all around the world. Trump’s presidency has awakened something that I had always hoped was there: the defiant mood of a people who realize that America is worth fighting for. And fight we must. Resistance is the watchword of whatever number of days or weeks remain in Trump’s presidency. I’m not suggesting violence in the streets, because Trump and the strongman facade will spring into action if that happens. More restraint will be needed, instead. But the cause couldn’t be any more important.

The time for remaining silent probably ended before Trump’s inauguration address. As Thomas Paine once wrote, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.” A Mike Pence presidency doesn’t seem like too much of a triumph to me, but we have to get Donald Trump removed from office. Every day his presidency reaches new depths, the likes of which Jefferson and Franklin and the others in Philadelphia could scarcely imagine.

I long for the day when this blog goes back to trivial things like guitar solos and baseball games. But on January 31, 2017, we aren’t at that point. A hard struggle lies ahead, and I’m in for whatever happens along the way.  The continued viability of America is at stake.

An electrifying tribute to Prince

I write my blog for many reasons, but at the bottom of it all I like having a place to go with a story like this one. It will be gone in the morning unless I capture it now, so here goes.

Chicago, very early Sunday Morning

I had picked up my teenager from a visit to a friend’s house, and while she stayed awake long enough to marvel at Chicago’s skyline lit up for the evening, she soon conked out. At least I would be able to pick the music I wanted to listen to for the rest of the ride home.

Changing the stations on the satellite radio wasn’t easy, with her leaning against my right arm and the steering wheel in my left hand, but I found a way. When I turned to the Bruce Springsteen channel, and his tribute to Prince from earlier this year, I knew I had found my place to be.

I wrote about Prince’s death a few times here, because it was a sad an unexpected moment for anyone who loved his music. I never considered Prince as being mortal, as crazy as that sounds. Bruce is like that, too, and perhaps a few others also fit this description. They make music, and we expect that they’ll always be there to make more of it. And then we get a reminder that musicians are mortal like the rest of us.

When the song came to the Nils Lofgren guitar solo, it found a level that I hadn’t known about before. The combination of the song and what it has meant to me through the only parts of my life that I care to remember, and the haunting way that Nils was playing the notes, and the fact that although I had watched the video a dozen times online but had never heard it on the radio before, and the realization that my daughter would be getting into it as much as I was if she had only stayed awake, and the understanding that Prince wasn’t around to play the song himself anymore, hit me in a way that I wasn’t ready for.

All the hairs on my left arm were standing straight up as the solo came to a conclusion. Music is the only thing that ever has (and probably ever could) give me goose bumps like that, and the music of one great musician, played as a loving and respectful tribute by another great musician, is the kind of moment that doesn’t come along often enough in life. When a moment like that happens it must be savored and–if possible–remembered or described in some way.

For anyone who loves Prince’s music and hasn’t yet seen the tribute, check out the link above and prepare to experience some goosebumps of your own.

No time for Trump

I am confident that Donald Trump understands the concept of property very well. When you own something, you can use it as you want, and the law prevents anyone else from doing the same.

Songs, books, drawings, or any other forms of creative work are also property, and they belong to the person or people who created them. There are no fences around them, and no paid security standing by to protect them, either. But their creators alone get to decide when they can be used, and when they cannot.

Brian May doesn’t want Donald Trump to use any of Queen’s music for his political purposes. Apparently that is a band policy, for all political candidates. But when  Donald Trump disregards the wishes of the music’s creators, he disrespects their right to decide how their music is to be used. I expect nothing less from him, of course, but the artists have to win in this case.

This isn’t about money, and maybe that’s why Trump is having such a hard time with it. Instead it’s about telling him no, which Trump simply can’t abide. Nobody can tell him no, at least in his mind, and that’s why he continues to use their music at his pleasure.

How could such a man ever be entrusted with the leadership of this nation? The obvious answer is that he can’t.

RIP, Freddie Mercury, and stay strong, Brian May and the other members of Queen. You are in the right on this.

Sign O’ the times, mess with your mind

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Learning that Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl makes his death harder to deal with than ever. I’ve forgotten by now what the original cause of death was reported to be, but people swore up and down that his religion and/or his healthy lifestyle meant that drugs could not have played a role. But that lie has now been exposed for what it is.

When I was in graduate school a quarter of a century ago, I was given an assignment to find artifacts from different periods of history. The artifacts I used were a metallic bell that purported to be made from the USS Maine as a relic from the 1890s, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter as a relic of the 1940s, and Prince’s song “Sign O’ the Times” as a relic of the 1980s. We were hardly even out of the 1980s at that point, and it already felt like Prince had encapsulated that decade as well as anybody could.

The lyrics to the song addressed everything from AIDS (“a big disease with a little name”) to crime (“being ‘ in a gang called the Disciples high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”) to the space shuttle disaster (“when the rocket ship explodes”). It was a snapshot of, well, the times we were living in back in the 1980s. I knew it then, and am even more aware of it now, all these years later.

But a line from it foreshadows Prince’s own death. Anyone familiar with the song knows what it is, but since many aren’t familiar with it, I’ll spell it out here as a public service. Think of it as my good deed for the day. Prince sings the following line:

In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time

Now he’s doin’ Horse, it’s June

“Horse” was a reference to heroin, and the idea Prince was getting at was marijuana was thought of as a gateway to harder, more serious drugs like heroin. It’s beyond ironic, then, that a man who sang about heroin addiction could one day become a victim of it, himself. But what’s even more telling is that a gateway to heroin does exist, but it’s not marijuana at all.

The gateway that led Prince to heroin and fentanyl was opioids, and Percocet in particular. It needs to be pointed out that these drugs are legal when prescribed by a doctor. They aren’t illegal street drugs, the way that marijuana and LSD are. They are what’s known as Schedule II drugs, meaning they are entrusted to the medical community for the purposes of treating and managing pain. But once they leave the medical community, havoc ensues. And the path from there to heroin–a Schedule I drug which is cheaper and easier to obtain than the prescription drugs–is all too well-traveled.

If Prince– with all of his fame and notoriety–could not escape the clutches of these drugs, it highlights the challenges the rest of us face. We’re all just an injury or a surgical recovery away from having these things given to us. And it’s all legal, right there before us, with a doctor’s approval and an insurance company co-pay to soften the financial blow.

Congress and the individual states have at last grasped the seriousness of the heroin and opioid epidemic. May prevention and treatment be the leaders of the pack in this regard, instead of a “tough on crime” approach that our legal system isn’t ready to support. That was tried once already, and it simply hasn’t worked.

Maybe the best thing to come from Prince’s death, if anything positive is to be found, is a realization that “horse” and the drugs leading up to it are not a joke, and that those of us who have been lucky enough to escape their clutches must not judge those who are in their grip. We should instead help them in whatever way we can, which will help our society rise above the damage these drugs have wrought. If this should happen, we’ll all be much better off.

To close with another Prince lyric, in the outro part of “Sign o’ the Times” he sings

Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late.

It’s not too late to address the issue of heroin and its related drugs, but we do need to have some urgency as the death toll continues to rise.

Time….

 

Enough is enough

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Opioids are taking a terrible toll on this country, and yet they’re perfectly legal. The Pharma companies that manufacture them are profiting from addiction and death. I’m grateful I don’t know anyone who has had an addiction to these things, but not everyone has been so fortunate.

Can we now have an honest discussion of legalizing marijuana everywhere for medical use, at the very least? I’d rather have Prince–or anybody else–walking around with a bong in his hand, treating his pain in a way that wouldn’t get him addicted to anything.

I’m in favor of legalizing it for recreational use, too, because people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. Alcohol takes an enormous social toll, but experience has shown that regulating people’s vices is a fool’s errand.

Sacrificing our brothers, sisters, friends, family members and music idols to the opioid makers doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did in the first place.

Note: This is cross-posted from something I wrote on Facebook this morning, commenting on a Washington Post story about Prince’s scheduled meeting with an opioid specialist the day after he was found dead. 

UPDATE: Apparently this approach worked for Jim McMahon. Why not allow others to self-medicate like this? I can’t think of a good reason not to.

Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

Rockers are mortal, after all

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It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.

 

Life imitating Art

The death of David Bowie has continued to resonate with me this week. And an example of this came from an everyday incident that turned into a haunting encounter with his music in a Chicago cemetery.

I was driving south on Western Avenue yesterday, on my way to pick up my older daughter from play rehearsal. I had a bottle of sparkling water from our garage with me, to drink it along the way. As I pulled up to a red light, I twisted the cap on the bottle and things went dramatically wrong.

The bottle’s contents were in a semi-frozen state from being stored in the garage, and the act of releasing the pressure caused a spray all over the car’s interior. In an instant, I had drenched myself without intending to.

Fortunately, the light I was stopped at on Western Avenue  is the street that leads into Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve written about many times in this space. I decided to pull into the cemetery, get a blanket from the trunk to dry myself off, and use some wipes to clear off the car’s control panel. When the light turned green I signaled for a turn, just as David Bowie’s “Lazarus” came on my iPhone shuffle playlist.

Driving into the cemetery, the initial bars of the music spoke to me. The music is haunting and beautiful, and the wail of the horns reminded me that, like David Bowie, every one of the people who are buried here have already crossed over to the next world, whatever it is.

I remembered why I was there, but only just barely. I parked the car, and got out to witness a 360-degree panorama of death, in some ways similar to the one I had experienced on Halloween just a few month ago. But this time I had a musical accompaniment, and it made things that much more affecting.

Scanning the horizon, I saw graves with inscriptions for people I’ll never know. And I reminded myself, yet again, that my stay on this planet won’t be any more permanent than theirs were. Whether I will get 69 years and two days on Earth like David Bowie did still remains to be seen. But the time will come when I will have to return to the wardrobe, as Bowie does at the end of the Lazarus video.

Do yourself a favor and watch this, if you haven’t already. With 22 million views and counting on You Tube, it’s having quite an impact.

After the song was ended, I cleaned up the mess in the car and on myself that had led me to the cemetery in the first place. I then drove away with a new appreciation for the fleeting nature of life, and the astounding work of art that David Bowie created in his final days. And an understanding of gas trapped inside frozen bottles, as well.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

A Farewell to David Bowie

 

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I’d be lying if I said I was a huge David Bowie fan prior to January, 2016. But the circumstances around his shocking death, two days after his 69th birthday, have forced me to re-evaluate things. The loss of Bowie is a reminder of his enormous influence on the world of music, fashion, cinema, and personal identity. There won’t be another one like him.

Today I downloaded Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar, from iTunes, because I wanted to know what music a man puts together while staring his own mortality in the face. As I listened to it for the first time on my drive home, through a gentle snowfall in suburban Chicago, I was anything but disappointed. In fact, during a sax solo near the end of I Can’t Give Everything Away, I felt very privileged to experience such an extraordinary work of art. If I’ve ever felt that way before, I don’t know when it was.

Music is as old an art form as humanity has, but growing up I thought that art was limited to painting and drawing and perhaps sculpture. Things like music and dance and writing and photography didn’t fall into this realm. But Bowie presented us the whole package. To call his music and all his various personas art was exactly the point. He created his sound, and his look, and his words, and you either got them or you didn’t. That’s what art is, in whatever form it might take.

More than anyone else I can think of in my lifetime, David Bowie personified art itself. And until he died–and I considered all the ways that he had offered himself to us–I never understood this. But I get it now, and I’ll carry this new appreciation with me for as long as my body and my mind will allow.

May we all go out with such a flourish.

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly

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Seeing a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album on vinyl this evening made me happy. It took me back to when I was a teenager living in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois.

I don’t have too many memories of that time in my life, other than wanting to move away and live somewhere else. Anywhere else. And I knew that starting college was the only chance I was going to have for making that happen.

So I did what I could to bide my time. I kept my grades up, but I would be a liar if I said I worked very hard at it. And I found escape in the music of the day. Def Leppard came along at the end of my freshman year of high school, and from then on it was a procession of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and what are known today as “hair metal” bands. There was some Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and some Led Zeppelin–lots of Led Zeppelin, really–and others like Night Ranger and Loverboy and even some Ratt. I owned at least two Ratt albums on vinyl, back in the days of my high school angst.

I never owned Def Leppard on vinyl, though. I had a copy of Pyromania on cassette, and even a copy of their first album On Through the Night on cassette. And I was in college by the time Hysteria came out, so I never owned that one at all. Loved the music, but never got around to buying it.

I took the copy of Pyromania out of its inner sleeve and looked at the grooves of the vinyl. I was reminded of what a tactile experience it was to hold an LP in your hands, so you could put it on the turntable and drop the needle onto it. CDs are smaller, and the feeling is less pronounced. And a cassette hardly felt that way at all. Maybe it was the plastic involved, or the portability of a tape that allowed it to be carried around in a car. Vinyl LPs never had any of that. You kept them in your room, or wherever the turntable happened to be.

As I was looking at the grooves of the record, my eyes wandered into the middle, where the needle would have gone to after the last song of a side was through playing. There were always a series of little scribbles or numbers in there, but nothing worth looking at too much. But Pyromania–at least the UK pressing of it that I was holding in my hands–contained a special little treat that I, as a cassette owner of the album, knew nothing about.

On side 1, in small but still legible capital letters, the words “IF YOU’RE GONNA BE A BEAR” appeared. I got a good laugh when I saw it, because it seemed like a weird thing to have on a record album. But then I started thinking about it: If your’re gonna be a bear, then what? The obvious thing to do was flip it over and see if there was anything else. And it turns out, there was. “BE A GRIZZLY” appeared in a similar place on side two.

The quote appeared in the movie Cannonball Run, which came out before Def Leppard’s album did, and so it’s possible–although not terribly likely–that someone was making a reference to that movie. The quote was originally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, so perhaps whoever did this had that as their source of inspiration. But whatever it was, it felt like an old secret was revealed to me tonight, and I’m happy to spend a few moments writing about it here.

Unta Glieben Glauten Glomen….

What else can we do now?

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An old song on the radio can recall memories of an earlier time in life. I was a far different person in the 80s than I am today, but I always like to hear music from that period. Makes me realize how different things can become, I suppose.

But this is not about a piece of music from the 80s. When Bruce Springsteen–one of the more frequent muses found on this site–released the album containing “Thunder Road,” I was too young to understand anything about the song. The old tourist t-shirt slogan “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quick as I could” certainly applies to me and the music of the Boss. Most of us are probably that way, I imagine.

Today I heard a live performance of “Thunder Road” from a concert in 1978. Having satellite radio in the car is the only way that could happen, and it makes it worth the subscription fee for precisely that reason.

When the song came on, I hearkened back to the fall of 2002, and a time when I was out in Seattle, driving a rental car with a guy named Karl. Last names and where he was from aren’t that important. He’s either running the town by now or he’s moved on to someplace else. Neither possibility would surprise me very much.

I was working with Karl, and a dozen or so other Washington teachers, to build their state testing program assessments. The school kids who had to wrestle with our work product back then are all out living their adult lives now, or at the very least they’re nearing the end of their college careers. Time marches on, as always.

Me and Karl–that’s grammatically incorrect, but it feels right to put it that way–both appreciated Springsteen’s music, and so we sang Thunder Road together, as loudly as we could, thanks to a bunch of CDs I used to take with me when I traveled.

Today I sang the song again, as loudly as any middle-aged man should ever do, and I thought about Karl, and music, and the power it has to alter the passage of time, at least temporarily. May everyone have a song or experience that can take them back to another place or another time. And may they also have a few minutes to reflect on it, as I’m doing on a Chicago subway train right now. Because if it doesn’t make it onto the Internet anymore, did it ever really happen?

Well the night’s busted open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.

On Dreams We Will Depend

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Nothing says “summer” to me musically like Van Halen’s 5150 album. I turned 18 in the summer of 1986, and was determined to enjoy one last summer before going away to college. I bagged groceries by day, drank whatever I could get my hands on by night, and listened to the fusion of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen whenever I could. Life was as good as I had ever known it to be.

Many years have gone by since then, but hearing the songs on that album–my copy at the time was a tape I had recorded from the radio station that played it all the way through on air–takes me back to that time in my life. So when I received an iTunes gift card for my birthday this summer, I first used it to address a hole in my digital music collection by downloading a copy of 5150.

The technology that now allows for cars and phones to sync with each other is far beyond what was available back in 1986. So I discovered, while driving a rental car around on Cape Cod this summer, that I could put on “Summer Nights” or “Good Enough” or any other track from the album on whenever I wanted to. Driving around the Cape is fun enough to begin with, but also being able to time warp back to the summer when life was stretching out before me was an added treat.

On June 26–the day the Supreme Court ruled that everyone had a right to get married to the person they love, regardless of their gender–I was working on a laptop computer in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I received a text indicating that my family had made their way to a beach in nearby Truro, and inviting me to come and join them. It was nearing lunchtime, so I hopped in the car, headed toward Route 6, and turned on my music of choice. The first song to come on was “Dreams,” which happens to be my favorite song on the album.

As I drove along the highway on that beautiful summer’s day, I thought of all the dreams that had been granted on that day. For far too long, people had been wrongly denied the right to enter into a legal and (if you want) religious agreement with the person they love the most. Is it any of our business what gender that person happens to be? I don’t think so, and neither did a majority of the Supreme Court.

Growing up in the 80s as I did, many of my associations with the songs of that era are from the videos that were made for MTV. The “Dreams” video I linked to above makes it all but impossible for me to hear the song and not think of the Blue Angels. But on a sunny Friday afternoon, driving down the highway from Wellfleet to Truro with this song on the car radio and a new and improved America on the horizon, I think I may have found a competing image for this song.

That’s what love is made of……

NOTE: This is the second in my series of attempts to clear out my WordPress Drafts folder. I started this post in late June of 2015, and am completing it on August 16, roughly seven weeks later. I still have a backlog of fifty or so unfinished thoughts in the Drafts folder, and will bring as many of them as I can to fruition in the days and weeks ahead.

Return of the Red Rocker

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Probably the best concert I ever saw in my life–and this varies with whatever mood I happen to be in– was Sammy Hagar at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, way back in October of 1984. Any concert when you’re 16, and newly able to get around without needing a ride from somebody’s parent, is a good thing. But at that point in life, Sammy Hagar was the Man.

I was a big fan of his work as a solo artist, and as the lead singer for Montrose. When he joined up with Van Halen a year or so later, I was about the happiest I could be at that point in my life. But all that was still in the future back in 1984.

Music videos had exploded as the artform of choice for teenagers like me, and Sammy’s “I Can’t Drive 55” was one of the more amusing ones at the time. It’s worth pointing out that 55 was the speed limit on the interstates back then, and it wasn’t raised to 65 (or even higher, depending on where you are) until 1995. But that’s just an example of how much has changed since those days.

I held onto the ticket stub because that was one of the ways to remember a show. There was also the tour T-Shirt, of course, and here’s me wearing mine, probably in the summer of 1986.998073_10202078525579178_1108930424_nThe shirt’s long gone by now, but the little scrap of purple paper they gave me got buried in a box and somehow came back to me, all these years later.

Ticketmaster fees? No way, at least in those days. These were physical tickets, and the only way to get them was to go to the box office, preferably on the day they want on sale. I didn’t get these tickets, and I’m not exactly sure which of my friends did, but to get anything in the second row took some waiting in line. That’s how it was back then.

Section AA was in front of one very large pile of amplifiers, and Section CC was in front of another large pile. Section BB was in the middle, and perhaps those people were spared some of the sonic assault that I endured for two hours and more. But sonic assault was exactly what I was there for. My ears rang for three days after the concert, and I loved it. And any hearing loss hasn’t caught up to me yet, either.

When the lights when down and the music started up, the stage was flooded with homemade banners proclaiming “Sammy’s the best, Fuck the rest.” There were literally dozens of them, and they were displayed for the approval of those in attendance. Great minds all think alike, apparently.

At the end of the show, after taking several requests from the audience, Sammy promised the crowd that he was going to come back to Springfield again. And so far as I know that hasn’t happened, an least until this upcoming weekend. Hagar will be playing with his band at the Illinois State Fair, and it should be a Rock and Roll Weekend for those who can make it. Sadly, though, that won’t include me.

Part of me realizes that concerts are a commitment of both time and resources, and part of me doesn’t want to disrupt the memories of the VOA tour back in 1984. To mix old rocker metaphors for a moment, Eddie Money once put it pretty well:

I wanna go back, and do it all over

but I can’t go back, I know

I wanna go back, cause I’m feeling so much older 

But I can’t go back, I know

So I’ll just heed Eddie’s advice and take a pass on seeing Sammy this weekend. Reminiscing about it here is good enough for me.

Well I’m takin’ my time

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This morning Boston’s Foreplay/Long Time came on the radio, and I listened to it for the I’ll-never-know-how-manyth-time.

Twenty-nine years ago, I used the opening lyric (It’s been such a long time, I think I should be going) as my parting words to my graduating high school class of 1986. Griffin High, the school I graduated from, went kaput a few years later, but I still keep in touch with some of my classmates, mostly on Facebook.

Four years in the same place does seem like a long time, when you’re 17 and itching to get out and see the world. Now, almost three decades later, I realize that four years can pass in the blink of an eye. It’s all about perspective, I suppose.

Another line from the song that I like is “There’s a long road I’ve gotta stay in time with.” That long road has led me out of Springfield Illinois to Chicago, with assorted side trips along the way. Where it leads from here, I have no idea. But I’ll be sure to stay in time with it, all the same.