Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Craigslist Ads and the New Wave Songs That Love Them #5

Number 5, from where the sound of bass reverberates.

Missed Connections

I watched you at Peet's, long hair messy and gorgeous, as you hunted through your purse for crumbled bills.

On my home planet, you'd be worshipped as a goddess. Cities would erect statues to you and poets would compose sonnets about your eyes and elbows. Eventually, you'd be voted too perfect to exist and would be hunted down and killed.

Maybe that's why I moved here.

PS: I had the double-shot with soy milk and you smiled at me as if you were thinking only someone from outer space would order that. And you were right.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Time Doesn't Exist When You're Paranoid

Gonna Drift into that Void...

So I did something stupid.

Feel free to rip me to shreds... as long as you've never done anything stupid.

I went to the grocery store -- not my usual grocery store, but the one painted to look like tinker toys. Usually when I go to the tinker-toy store, I park on street level. But it was crowded, so I had to go down into the garage. Where I parked next to a pillar.

When I came out with my groceries, my mind was going in a million directions. I had a thousand things to do. I wanted to get home and make dinner. I wondered if there was time to go to the gym.

So I backed out. And turned the wheel hard.

A second later, I heard a crunching sound.

Because of the pillar. In the place I never park below the store I rarely go to.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And I pulled forward, fearing the worst.

Got out to look at the car. There was a big, ugly dent in the front fender. And what looked like dozens of streaks of white paint.

It looked horrible.

I stood and stared at the bumper, which had been pristine (although dirty) five minutes before.

I wondered how bad it really was, trying to figure out if the bumper had become detached anywhere.

And how much it would cost to fix it.

And whether I needed to call my insurance company.

A guy came over and looked at it with me. He told me about how he'd backed into a pole himself a few months back. "Maybe you can just bang out the dent and repaint it," he said.

He walked away and I kept staring at the dent, feeling stupid.

And then...

I heard a "pop" sound. And the dent in the bumper reversed itself. So all that was left was the white paint. Dozens and dozens of stripes of white paint.

And I licked my finger and ran it across... and the white paint came right off.

So I drove home and got some paper towels and very gentle spray cleaner. And more than 95% of the paint came off.

I'm left with a few small scratches and a very small area where the paint from my car was peeled completely off.

The next day, I told the story to someone. At the end I shook my head, remembering how stupid and horrible I felt at the time... and how lucky I was that it turned out not to be so bad.

In a split second, I realized that this was an important metaphor -- a sign from the universe. Message received.

(Thanks to Peter's Power Pop blog for the song and the cool-ass video -- perfect for the waning days of summer. Wish I could claim the retro-cool points, but I'm one of the people who'd never heard this until yesterday.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Odds and Ends

Missing out on fragrance and taste...

A few things from the intertubez:

Via Swedesplease, it's Top Sound (with a video that pretty much looks exactly like what would have happened if MTV had made The Blair Witch Project):

From Cracked magazine (yes, apparently they're still around) with a h/t to Uncle E, it's William Rowntree's dissection of every album every made:

Stevie Ray Vaughn died 20 years ago. Here's a remembrance. And one more.

And finally, the Kickstarter campaign to fund Michael Gramaglia's Graham Parker doc Don't Ask Me Questions just ended -- they raised more than $50,000 (three grand over their goal). And if you missed my Graham Parker story, read part 1 here and part 2 here.

More late-summer dreaming tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ali Handal Rocks

Hey, Southern California -- I'm Talkin' to You

If Ali Handal didn't exist, I'd be tempted to make her up.

She writes cool songs. She shreds on lead guitar. She sings in a cool, sexy, sultry voice.

Yup, Ali Handal is a rocker chick in all the best senses of the phrase.

She's also smart and beautiful. (And her cat has his own section on her website.)

She might have been the female Billy Joel until she heard Led Zeppelin at an impressionable age and decided to become the female Jimmy Page.

In the past few years, she's made three albums, had songs placed on numerous TV shows and movies (Daryll Hannah strips to one of Ali's songs in the movie Dancing at the Blue Iguana). And if you've seen The Price is Right any time in the past few years when they've featured an electric guitar as a prize, Ali was the one shredding like a madwoman to demonstrate how great it is.

Performing Songwriter described her as the love child of Ani DiFranco and Jimmy Page, adding "Handal has the guitar chops and fierce voice to knock you on your butt."

And, as if that weren't enough, she does an epic cover of the Knack's "My Sharona," reimagined as a slice of Blue Cheer-esque heavy-metal blues-rock.

So, if you're in L.A. (or want to be in L.A.) this weekend, Ali's playing at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills. She's opening for the Fab Four (possibly the best Beatles tribute band in the country).

Best of all, if you get your tickets direct from Ali, you get her set, the Fab Four and a copy of her new album. Go. Buy. And I'll see you there.

Here's a taste of what's in store:

Yeah, if Ali Handal didn't exist, I'd definitely have to invent her. Of course, I'd also give her the power to fly (but maybe that's just me).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

With Nothing Much At Stake

The Rest Can Go To Hell

I don't remember a lot about kindergarten. But I remember this.

The wave of political correctness hadn't washed over the school yet, so we were sitting "Indian style." In a circle. On the carpet.

And our teacher asked us to all say what we wanted to be when we grew up.

It was the usual stuff -- fireman, football player, astronaut, doctor.

And then the question came around to my friend Dan. "I want to grow up to be David Bowie," he proudly announced.

Our teacher seemed momentarily flustered. She turned bright red. She almost asked a question, then stopped.

As an adult, I imagine what her question might have been. Early or late period Bowie? Bisexual Bowie? Nine Inch Nails wannabe Bowie? Fashion Bowie?

Or maybe she'd ask if Dan wanted to be a musician. Or a singer. Or to marry Iman. Or if he really just wanted to tour with a mime or convince Mick Ronson to take arranging instead of songwriting credit.

And why had our teacher blushed? Was there some hidden desire connected with Bowie? Some wild backstage antics from long ago?

But instead, we moved on. The next kid wanted to train horses. For the Navy. (Oddly, that answer didn't faze our teacher.)

After school, I asked Dan why he wanted to be David Bowie when he grew up. He thought about it for a minute, then said "No, not David Bowie. Kareem Abdul-Jabar."

Because somehow, when you're five and you're new to this whole strange people-being-on-TV thing, it's very briefly possible to mix those two up.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Another Perfect Pop Song

Third in a Very Occasional Series

The second summer of my working life, it rained every weekend. Rain on Saturday. Rain on Sunday.

Then, during the work week it was mostly clear and sunny.

This was a source of ironic amusement for most of June and July.

But by the time August came around, people were pissed. And you haven't experienced pissed until you've spent a hot, humid August surrounded by pissed-off New Englanders.

People who could do so took vacations (and got out of town if they had the means). Others called in sick so they could enjoy one or two days enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. But most of us gritted it out, refusing to believe God could be so cruel as to ruin every single summer weekend.

But He did.

And so, on the Monday of the week before Labor Day, with bright sunshine warming the wet grass, I went down into the subway, waited for the train, then squeezed into a crowded car.

Someone in the corner had one of those absurdly large boomboxes (which ate D batteries like kids eat Halloween candy). After the doors shut, he pushed play on the cassette deck and played this song:

After the song was done, he pushed Stop, stood up, and said loudly "Fourteen. Fourteen fucking weekends in a row." At exactly that moment, we got to the next station, the doors opened, and he exited the train, leading a mass exodus out from underground and up into the sunlight.

As I recall, it rained all three days of Labor Day weekend that year, too.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I forget about this song for long periods of time, but everytime I hear it (like the other day in a supermarket), I stop to listen. Really, really listen.

And I'm amazed that it's not just a likable and forgettable piece of pop. So each time I hear it, I try to dissect all the wonderfully different things that make "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling" (by the Fortunes) a Perfect Pop Song.

Here are a few:
  • The melody will be stuck in your head for days.
  • The singer's voice is specific enough to stick in your brain but general enough to blend in (combining dozens of British Invasion singers with shadings of Franki Valli).
  • Strings that propel the song forward without drowning it in cheese. (Arguably, the strings bring you right to the cheese border.)
  • The goofy, percussive tinkling.
  • The "bop bop" backing vocals mixed way down but still enough of a presence to lodge themselves in your brain.
  • The surprising sophistication of the guitar and bass parts.
  • Those great piano chords in the last third that signify importance and hope.
  • The way the song fades out just before it gets to the happy ending. The song brings possibilities but it's always up to you to choose what you do with them.
  • The way I always remember a horn section in this song even though you can't hear any horns.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Leo the Lion

The Brave Hunter is Low to the Ground

12 pounds of lithe, sinewy grace.

Ears twitch from the other side of the house. He senses something, presses his body low to the ground and moves quickly and silently across the carpet.

A second later, he's in place.

In stalk posture. Whiskers forward. Poised before the window.

His DNA infused with the knowledge and instinct of big cats 50 times his size. And, like most Leos, he believes at times that he is a big cat. King of the Jungle.

He's a rescue. Found on the street, a few inches long and less than half a pound.

Goofy from the first time we saw him, he tried to curl up in his food bowl at the shelter, mewing like something from the scene of a Fisher-Price car accident. But when he first settled into my palm and looked up at me, he instantly relaxed. Totally calm, totally content, totally sweet. (And totally melting my heart even though I've always been a dog person and never had much use for cats.)

He's grown in the past 8 years -- now 42 inches from paw to paw when he stretches out.

But he's still goofy.

He recognized his reflection in the mirror quickly, but never quite understood the difference between the inside of a glass (or a cardboard box) and the outside. And he still regularly jumps backwards up in the air, disturbed by something only cats can see.

To this day, he's doglike -- he loves baths (except for the rinse cycle), plays fetch, and comes when you call him. He doesn't exactly bark with glee at the thought of car rides, but he's relatively happy to ride in the car.

Last year, he developed a urinary infection that was misdiagnosed by his old vet. This made him lethargic and he started gaining weight, eventually topping out at 18 pounds. His new vet quickly figured out the problem, gave him a course of antibiotics, and within 2 weeks his old energy was back.

So we put him on special diet food and put a bird feeder on the porch outside the living room window. Within 4 months, he was down to his bird-taunting goal weight of 12 pounds. He's an indoor cat, so he doesn't actually hunt down and kill the birds. But he'll stalk them from inside. And he'll charge the glass (or the screen) and make them fly away.

And always with a look that says "if it weren't for the window and screen, I'd be catching birds every single day!"

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning the porch and found a small dead bird. When I came inside, his whiskers were all forward. He gave me a knowing "urp" and a look that seemed to say "yeah, I killed that bird with my mind. We cats can do that, you know."

Happy Birthday, Sitka!

Update: For frequent commenter asiangrrrl, here's Sitka as a kitty, recommending one of his favorite books. (Teaching him to read was easy, getting him not to gnaw on the books was a lot harder...)

As you can see, his face has always been head-explodingly cute!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Another Blast of New Music

As the week after Shark Week draws to a close

When the Beatles went to India to study meditation with the Maharishi, it was worldwide news. Maybe enlightenment required more than pop hits.

I'm sure that John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney wouldn't have been able to escape all the press and journey to neighboring Pakistan. I'm equally sure they didn't write a long-lost Beatle hit on a borrowed sitar there.

And I'm positive that the sweat from their hands did not fall on the sitar that day only to drip on the forehead of a young boy years later.

I'm sure none of that happened.

And yet...

There is no other way to explain the music of Tee-M, a Pakistani-born musician now living in Los Angeles. Tee-M's first album, the very tasty Earthiotic... songsfromaoneroompalace has the DNA of '65-'66 Beatles dripping from every track. Here's a taste:

Sure, Tee-M claims he spent his youth listening to rock radio on the short-wave (and to Pakistani street musicians. I like my story better -- even if there's not a chance in the world it's true. Go here to listen to the best song on the album, "And I Was Gone."

If you're a fan of pop music, you're going to want to get this album.

Speaking of Pakistan, floods there have affected more than 20 million people and killed more than 1,500. If you want to help, consider giving to the Red Cross's Pakistani relief effort (or to some other reputable charitable organization).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stuffed Animal Plots Revealed

It's the Dark Underbelly of Toy Story

With a little more new music for the week after shark week...

Kids (and some adults) are fascinated by stuffed animals. We give them personalities, hold conversations with them, perform musicals for them, lecture them about etiquette (and 18th century German literature), and love them until their stuffing falls out (and then a little longer).

But what are these stuffed animals really thinking? Are they trying to get on Craig Ferguson's show? Telling all your secrets to Mommy and Daddy? Or doing something even more nefarious?

With budget cuts in social services, there's just no money to fund a proper investigation. At least not in this country.

Thank God there are still countries that care about kids. And stuffed animals.

Countries like the United Kingdom, home to investigative journalists and musicians I Am Not Lefthanded... who clearly are not afraid to follow the clues and learn the truth.

So what's going on with the band? In their own words: “We don't play pop music, we don't write music for art's sake, we don't represent any movements, we're not hip, we're not cutting edge, we don't dress to be cool. We manage ourselves, we write our own songs, we do our own recordings, we shoot our own videos, we design our own covers, we run our own website. We're not generally negative people. Oh yes, and we're not lefthanded.”

You gotta admire a band that can stay positive even in the light of boorishly bad behavior on the part of a stuffed animal I will not name (but that they knew and loved).

If you like what you hear, you can contribute to helping the band record their first full-length album and get cool incentives (for 250 pounds, they'll come to your house and bake you 3 different types of cake!). For more info, click here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bonus Friday Cake-Fighting Words

New Music Overflows for the Week After Shark Week

What? Two posts on a Friday? How can that be?

Brandon Schott, a fantastic musician, songwriter, and performer, recently took to the rooftops of Facebook to proclaim the cake-frosting-goodness of the pride of Omaha, The Mynabirds.

To completely steal Brandon's line, they're "Dusty in Memphis meets Shelby Lynne meets Carol King." This is from their cool album What We Lost in the Fire, We Gained in the Flood. Enjoy.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Kittens to the Right

Following the Breadcrumbs of Hipsters

If you've been into this band for the past 18 months, you are much hipper than me (and you've probably moved on to 6 other bands you like better, none of which I'll ever hear of).

But for the rest of us, it's August. And the back-to-school sales make us cringe even when we no longer have a summer vacation (or a school to return to in September).

So, as the world continues to lose its collective mind and the bozos keep trying to throw us all under the bus, it's important to sometimes remember that the world can still be a pretty great place. Maybe all we need is important is the warmth of the sun. And a devoted friend (who doesn't seem like a clown to you). And a good song.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hey Ludwig

It's Enough to Drive You to Drinking

New Music Week After Shark Week rolls on...

Regular readers probably know that I don't like a lot of traditional country music (alt-country is another story). But there are exceptions to every rule... and this is one of them.

Lainie Marsh went to Berklee College of Music, but her sound is pure Appalachian Mountain Country. Her The Hills Will Cradle Thee is a wonderfully old-fashioned country album with layered, poetic songs about the simpler things in life.

Most of the songs are amazing, but "Hey Ludwig" stands out. And, like most songs I love, it's got a story associated with it (but this time not one of my stories). Marsh said she was in a bar and overheard a bartender cutting off a drunken customer by saying "Okay Beethoven, that's your fifth."

Now I admit I don't spend enough time in bars to know if that's a common expression. But wouldn't it be cool to live in a world where people say things like that on a regular basis?

I couldn't find an embeddable link to the song, but you can go here and listen to (and buy) the entire song... which is highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Eggs, Pancakes, Bacon, Sausage, Hash Browns and Coffee

Still More New Music

There was this place. It's gone now, so don't bother looking for it. All you'll find is chic clothing boutiques. But once, long ago... it was something.

In Cambridge, across the street from Somerville and a few blocks down from Arlington, there used to be a place called "Vic's, the Breakfast King." Like many breakfast joints, Vic's had specials. And regulars. And ill-tempered cooks who chain-smoked.

But unlike most breakfast places, Vic's was only open from 2am until 8am. They knew their target audience: kids who'd been to clubs and weren't ready to go home. Drifters who had nowhere else to go. The occasional trucker fresh off a haul from points west.

When it opened, there weren't many places to eat in the middle of the night in Boston. Naturally, the hipster crowd flocked there. And the larger wannabe hipster crowd. And then the so-unhip-they-may-actually-be-hip crowd, led by Tip O'Neal, longtime Congressman and Speaker of the House. Whenever he was in town, Tip would show up 15 minutes before closing and buy everyone coffee. (I never saw this happen, but it was in the Boston Phoenix, so it had to be true.)

For months, I wandered by during the day. I peered in the windows at the old banquettes and the wallpaper left over from the Eisenhower administration. And I dreamed of the fascinating conversations that must take place there every night. Surely Vic's was some kind of magical place.

If I could only hang around until 2am (or get up really early), I could experience the magic.

It took months, but I finally made it in. So at 2:30 one morning, a friend and I straggled up the street, drawn by the yellow neon sign with the giant cracked egg on it.

From the street, you couldn't tell anything was happening. But when we walked in, the place was packed. We got the only open booth and tried to drink in the atmosphere. But no one wanted to talk to us. Maybe the magic started later.

So we ordered. Some cholesterol-laden stack of greasy food and syrup. Not gourmet, but great bang for your buck.

And the jukebox was playing something vaguely familiar, but hauntingly hard to identify. Looking around, I realized it could be any time in the past 40 years. The crowds would look the same, the food would be the same, and the decor at Vic's would be the same.

I half expected to step out into the street and find it was 1958. But it wasn't.

And I went home and slept a heavy, carb-laden sleep.

Freddy and Francine, a duo consisting of two people not named Freddy or Francine, makes the type of sweet music that seems to have come unstuck at some point in the past and gently floated down the years until you noticed it.

Bianca Caruso and Lee Ferris began writing and performing together a few years ago, but you could close your eyes and swear these songs date from 1968. Or 1973. Or 1989.

Maybe it was their song playing at Vic's that late night years ago.

But I'll never know. Because a few months after my only visit, Vic's closed for good. The neon sign with the cracked egg came down. Some Yuppie in Lexington bought it and put it in his basement above the original bar the Yuppie had bought when his favorite punk club closed in 1982.

Last year, I was visiting Boston. And I found myself walking down the block, trying to figure out exactly which boutique clothing store had once been Vic's. But I'd waited too long. The memory had faded and the magic was long gone.

I was about to give up when I looked down on the sidewalk and saw a single tile among the concrete. It had a cracked egg on it. I looked around for someone, anyone to tell, but no one was interested.

Maybe, just maybe, I thought, I should wait on that spot. Surely Vic's would reappear at 2am and I could walk through the door, wade into the crowd, and hear that song again on the jukebox.


I had a plane to catch. I had things to do and places to go.

And sometimes maybe it's better to let magical places live on in memory instead of trying to force them into a world where they no longer fit in.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finest Worksong

Proof that I like Music that's less than 20 Years Old

New Music for the Week After Shark Week continues:

Some bands are just bands. They make music. They tour. They make what used to be called "records" (which used to exist) and now make something else (which exists mostly in cyberspace and on hard drives).

Other bands function more as movements, rallying their troops.

I know little that's true about Evangenitals (aside from the fact that their name is simultaneously the best and worst band name ever). Sure, there's stuff on their website about vegans, preachers, drunks, hillbillies, Johnny Cash, and the fine madness of late-night bowling. But is any of it true? Maybe.

Still, they can spin a fine yarn, and that counts for a lot these days.

In my mind, Evangenitals (apparently the "the" was removed when they were ten days old in some kind of musical circumcision) gather at sunset on the holiest of holy days, climb to the highest point in whatever city they find themselves in, and shout to all who'll listen of the agony and ecstasy of modern life. The result is sacred, profane, funny, insightful, serious, and shallow. All at once.

And if I had the power to do so*, I'd pass a law that every indie film made in North America about twentysomethings (and half the indie films made in Europe about twentysomethings and thirtysomethings) would have to include this song:

Locals in L.A. can catch Evangenitals next Saturday at Kulak's Woodshed, an amazing place to hang and hear live music. Non-locals will have to settle for watching the live webcast, which is still pretty cool.

* And let's all take a moment and think how much better the world would be if I did have that power.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Music for the Week After Shark Week

Now that Shark Week is over...

A reader emailed me to ask if I like any music recorded and released in this century.

I said I definitely do.

And he challenged me to spend an entire week writing about music from the last ten years.

That week starts now.

The Mighty Regis
is a band with a name that can probably beat the shit out of any other band names around. They're currently kicking ass and taking names on the Warped Tour, but I like to think they emerged fully formed from a dreamscape world where the Pogues are superstars and Sting realized that lute albums were pretentious (and instead released a record of stripped-down Johnny Cash covers).

This band can stomp, drink, ruckus, and raise hell (all in under two minutes). Cross them at your own peril.

"Get Drunk and Go Home" is a great lament about lost love filled with passion and energy (and several well-placed uses of the word "fuck"). You may want to play this 12 or 13 times in a row after hearing it -- I know I did. So raise a pint, talk too loud, and then get out of here already.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Using Graham Parker For Evil, Part 2

Here's Where It Gets Bad

Read Part 1 first, I'm not gonna recap it...

So I'd just finished a semester of reading Kierkegaard, which is a mind-f*ck even under the best of conditions.

And then I started listening to Another Grey Area. And repeating over and over again the title of one of Kierkegaard's books. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

I needed a plan.

And then it hit me. I had to really want to get her back. Then, by sheer force of will, I could make it happen.

No room for doubts. No room for questions. Just want it bad enough.

But how?

I had no clue. But I know that Another Grey Area got me in the right mood. (And there's really no harm in that. It's like when actors or athletes listening to one piece of music over and over again to get them psyched, right? Right?)

So I started to listen to this record. Over and over again.

Often three or four times a day. (And a long-overdue apology to my roommates Eric & Dave -- the repeated listenings probably drove you crazy.)

I knew every strum and downbeat, every intake of breath, every backing vocal part, and every keyboard riff (and each and every click and pop on the deteriorating vinyl).

And although I was going to classes and doing some normal things, every spare ounce of energy and far too much thought went into willing myself to get her back.

Not by doing anything, just by wanting it.

My friends and roommates all told me it was impossible and I cheerfully agreed. I'd never get her back. I knew this.

Days blurred into weeks and into months. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Graham Parker's Another Grey Area.

Ironies were lost on me -- including the irony that Kierkegaard's title meant something very, very different. (Plus, in all likelihood, Graham Parker would have been appalled that I was using his record as the musical and romantic equivalent of weight training.)

Like I said before, I'm not proud of this.

And then the impossible happened.


Things thawed between us. We started spending time together.

I remembered all the many little things I liked about her. (Presumably she remembered what she liked about me too.)

I ignored my still-strong desire to label the relationship. And I still listened to Another Grey Area several times a day and repeated the Kierkegaard title like a mantra.

Song titles and lyrics echoed through my brain. "No More Excuses," "You Hit the Spot," "It's All Worth Nothing Alone," "Can't Waste a Minute," "Crying for Attention," and especially "Fear Not." Clearly (at least to my 21-year-old lovesick brain), the record was a call to action.

I didn't eat much during this time. I certainly wasn't sleeping. I was concentrating. Every ounce of energy.

And then one night it happened.

If this had been a normal relationship or I hadn't been so obsessed, we would have been more responsible. Or at least I would have been. But I knew instinctively that having that talk would pull us back. And then it would never happen.

And purity of heart is to will one thing, right?

So, knowing I was being irresponsible, I plunged ahead. (It's not something I did before or have done since... and, like I said, I'm not proud of this.)

You can probably guess where this is going.

She got pregnant. And had no desire to be pregnant.

I certainly didn't want her to be pregnant (or at least not until years in the future), but was confused about what I was supposed to do. And I felt guilty because I had the chance to stop and be responsible... but chose not to. (And before anyone says she could have been responsible too -- I knew she never would be. I knew it was up to me.)

In the weeks that followed, I tried to get her to talk about it. She never wanted to. (In the years that followed, I didn't realize how big this event was, so I never told anyone until years later.)

And then it was over.

She wouldn't let me go with her. And after she just associated the entire event with me. She wanted to put it behind her and pretend it didn't happen. And if that meant having nothing to do with me, that was fine with her.

I had a million questions I never got to ask, but I was feeling so guilty that I just sucked it up. I put Kierkegaard and Another Grey Area away. I kept going to classes, started eating more regularly. Eventually I graduated.

She moved to another state to go to grad school. (And we wouldn't speak again for many years.)

Months after all this happened, I had another dream.

Graham Parker was strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffeeshop when I walked in. He nodded to me, then said "See? I told you you could get her back."

And I shook my head angrily. "You never told me what the cost would be."

Dream Graham Parker nodded, staring at me, weighing his words carefully. "There's always a cost," he said eventually. "The more impossible the task, the greater the cost. Hell, I'm just a songwriter -- not even that, I'm your dream of a songwriter -- but even I know that."

And then he started playing songs from Another Grey Area. Each one was slowed down and rearranged, the energetic calls to action now slow dirges. The hunger and yearning reduced to melancholy and loss.

Every step is another chance
Every moment slips through our hands
Every kiss is another flame
I don't want to put out
Every night when I fall asleep
I know I never want to wake up
Into a world where you're not around...

Smart guy, that Dream Graham Parker.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Recently, I listened to Another Grey Area. From start to finish. For the first time in 15 years.

From the very first note, I was 21 again. Determination and hope swelled up inside me. Purity of heart is to will one thing.

Fuck yeah.

I could do it. Even now after all these years, I could get her back. Hell, I could get anyone back. As long as I really, really, really wanted to. Purity of heart, baby.

All I had to do was listen to the record again. And again and again and again.

When the album ended, I turned it over. Picked up the tone arm. Then I asked a question my younger self never would have considered: What's the cost?

And I turned off the stereo. Sat in a silence made noisy by too many memories.

I know now I was selfish, blinded by determination. I'd harnessed energy in a way it wasn't supposed to be harnessed. Convinced I could do the impossible if only I wanted it badly enough, if only I ignored the costs. I'd sinned against the music gods and used Graham Parker for evil, not for good.

And I paid the price for it.

So now, after all this time, after everything... you still want me to tell you if the album's any good?

Damned if I know.

Most likely, I'll ever know.

But I'll tell you this: the record is burned forever into my soul. For better or worse.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Using Graham Parker for Evil, Not For Good

Sometimes, it's impossible to look at a record objectively.

It's only now that people are starting to be able to evaluate John Lennon's Double Fantasy without the enormous sadness they felt at his death.

If you associate a certain album (or even a certain song) with a strong enough event than you might never be able to hear it without thinking of that event.

And so I confess (looking back after many years), that I used Graham Parker (or more specifically the album Another Grey Area) for evil, not good. I'm not particularly proud of this fact... but it is what it is.

So although Parker has made better albums, this one will always hold a special place in my heart.

To add a bit of context, Another Grey Area appeared long after Parker established himself as a legendary pub rocker (albeit with twitchy punk/new wave leanings), released an absolute masterpiece, jumped labels (with the nastiest kiss-off ever to a record company), and pumped out a slick attempt at superstardom.

Eventually, Parker would pass through all the major record labels, none of whom could make him a superstar. Eventually people would realize superstardom wasn't in the cards for Parker (which alone should prove to you we live in an unjust world). But back in 1982, Arista still believed they could do what Mercury couldn't (or wouldn't) -- and it seemed like Parker was mere months (or maybe even weeks) away from being a household name. So Parker jettisoned the Rumour (his longtime backing band) and enlisted the help of producer Jack Douglas (Double Fantasy) and studio vets including Nicky Hopkins and Hugh McCracken.

And the songs? You tell me.

To this day, I still can't listen objectively... and I'll tell you why after this video where ice sculptures get decimated.

It ended badly. I won't give you details, but it ended badly.

She was working as a waitress and I'd think of the opening of Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" whenever I'd go see her. I'd overtip her on small checks, thinking to myself "I went home with the waitress, the way I always do." And how was I to know she was with the Russians too?

Anyway, she was sneaking around with her ex-boyfriend while she was stringing me along. I found out. And was heartbroken.

Because I somehow got it in my head that we were meant to be together.

And she moved on. Quickly. Because that's what she did.

And I moped around. For months. Because that's what I did.

I could tell you we were both very young. I could give you all sorts of proof why we were a bad match, citing psychological factors from our childhoods. But I won't. I'll just say it ended badly.

And that should have been it.

Except for the dream.

I was at a Graham Parker concert. Just in front of the stage. The show was amazing. Rock and roll that scorched your heart. And then, mid-song, he waved off the band, stopped the music, stepped forward, tipped his ever-present sunglasses down on his nose.

And looking right at me, the Dream Graham Parker said: "Stop moping about. If you want her back, get her back."

Smart man, that Dream Graham Parker.

The next day, I was in a used record store. And there between the Dolly Parton and a Ray Parker, Jr. albums was a Graham Parker record I'd never heard before called Another Grey Area. Remembering the dream, I bought the album. Took it back to my dorm room and forgot about it for a week.

When I finally listened to it, I was hooked. Every song reminded me of her. "Temporary Beauty" made me think of a conversation we had where I argued that she didn't need to wear a lot of makeup or look like everyone else and she got mad and said she did because she didn't think she was beautiful.

"Another Grey Area" reminded me of how stubbornly she refused to label relationships (and how desperately I wanted our relationship labeled).

And on and on. The entire record just spoke to me.

I need to tell you that I never thought the songs were about her. Or that they were written for me.

I knew that wasn't the case. That would have been crazy.

But every song spoke to me. That was just obsessive. (Yeah, it's a fine line, but one I insist on drawing.)

And I overlayed my emotions onto the songs. And gradually, I developed a plan.

Remembering the album, I bought the dream.

And Dream Graham Parker was right. I was going to stop moping around. And get her back. And I'll tell you how that went tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On the Sinking Sea We Won't Drown

Kickstart This.

I have a friend who moved into an old house in New England.

Built from hand-carved rock (carefully masoned to exact specifications) and rough logs (hewn smooth and placed exactly together), the house reportedly dated back to the early 1800s.

But one day a docent from the local historical society came by with a folder. Inside the folder were copies of old newspaper articles. The rock wall may have dated from 1806, but the original house was built in 1746. It burned at least once. And was rebuilt in four consecutive decades.

My friend kept the folder lying around for months. He never looked at it. He wasn't interested. "It's a house," he said. "It's old and drafty. What more do you need to know?"

One day, while trying in vain to fix on old boiler in the celler of the house, my friend leaned against a wall and it started to give.

He slowly pushed against the wood, locating a well-disguised seam. And as he prodded and pushed on the seam, the wood began to move. He pressed and pressed, but couldn't get it to move very far.

So he went upstairs. And opened the folder. Read through the papers.

The house had been home to the leader of a ring of spies whose failed coup attempt was front-page news for months in the 1850s. When the scandal first broke, the heads of six disgraced families took their lives on a single August night beneath what now is a mighty oak tree at the edge of the property.

After that, the house was a brothel for ten years. Then it was home to a brilliant but crazy poetess who took her own life in a satanic ritual (and whose body was not discovered for the next four years while eight satanists camped out in her living room). A minor treaty was signed there, ending a war few remember (because it vanished from history books when the new owner of the house took over the school board and had the war eliminated from the curriculum).

It was a house with many stories. And many secrets.

So my friend got some tools.

The wall became his weekend project.

He even hired a structural engineer. Spent two grand on seismic mapping. Found there was a small crawl space. Behind the wall.

Then he bought a sledge hammer. With one wall-placed blow, he smashed the wood, destroying decades of memories.

He could reach one hand in, up to the elbow, then the real wall jutted out. And he reached behind, grazing something.

Hours of stretching, reaching, almost grabbing.

And then, weeks later, combining a discarded crutch and an unused fireplace poker, he was able to grab. And pull. And reveal what had long been hidden.

The first three albums by Graham Parker and the Rumour. In mint condition. On vinyl.

Six months had passed since the wall first started to give way. He'd spent thousands of dollars. And hundreds of hours.

To get Howlin' Wind, Heat Treatment, and Stick to Me.
"And," he told me, "it was completely worth it."

Holly Hughes, who writes the great The Song in My Head Today blog, wrote recently about a Kickstarter project to raise money for Don't Ask Me Questions, a documentary Michael Gramaglia (who made the great Ramones doc End of the Century) is making about Graham Parker. Kick in some money, get some swag, and help him finish the movie.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wearing my Foghat, Dreaming of Clouds

I like the whirling of the dervishes

The air is thinner here.

And colder.

The car sputters, climbing slowly up the long, steep hill.

There's no fog in the valley, the valley is clear.

But it lingers in the mountains.

And the little car, underpowered, struggles in the climbing lane. Bigger cars whiz be. Trucks strain to pass, pushing 30 mph, faster than us.

"When we get into the fog," I say, "it'll be all right."

She nods. Uncertain. Afraid of the little car. And the big load. And the fog.

Still we climb.

Kate Bush seemed to arrive fully formed. She was discovered by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour (who'd produce her first album, the hauntingly beautiful The Kick Inside) when she was 16. Her first single "Wuthering Heights" was written in a single evening. And her style, vocal abilities, and sensibilities were nothing like any singer or songwriter who'd come before.

Bush would go on to rack up massive chart success and inspire a devoted following that worshipped her every move and obsessed over the Meaning of It All. She drew inspiration from novels, movies, and the fine arts.

She seemed like she was from another planet. But she'd brought an important message with her to Earth. All we had to do was listen. And understand.

The fog closes around the car, bringing with it an eerie near-silence. Broken only by the cars that pass, unseen but heard.

The car slows from 25 to 20.

I glance in the rear-view, looking at the backseat for ballast we can throw overboard.

Instead, we start singing songs about the sea. Songs to guide sailors home in the harshest storms.

And the car sputters again. The gas gauge seems to drop second by second.

I wonder what will stop us first -- running out of steam or running out of gas.

The car slows to 15.

And I look up at the mountain.

There's sunlight. And snow.

For a few seconds we break through the fog.

The car seems energized, speeding back up to 20.

On the side of the road, a pair of eyes emerges through the fog. A wolf, watching us slowly move forward. Wondering what we're doing in his house.

Water crystals. Suspended in air. That's all it is.

"There's a magic in the fog," she says.

A magic.

In the fog.

And the car speeds up to 25 again.

Then coughs, sputters, and catches itself.

"We're in the fog now," I say. "Deep in the fog."

"So it will be all right."

And we say nothing for a moment. Until the little car pulls us up to the summit. Far above the valley.

The bigger mountains seem to smile at us from on high.

She smiles at me from the passenger seat. "And it will be all right."

The little car, overloaded, overpacked, crammed full, starts the long, slow, slide downhill.

And we know that we, like the raindrops suspended in the air, have crossed an important dividing line. And we will flow out to the ocean.

And every mile of the way there, we'll bring our own magic. And we'll bring our own fog.