The Grouchy Uncle of Punk
There have been times when I thought of 2013 as one unending string of Friday the 13ths—too much drama, loss:our 17-year-old goldfish (of course, she was named Goldie (Goldie II to be exact, but that’s a whole other story); our miracle cat Sophie; and my cell phone. But there were also moments of great joy: standing on top of Slate Peak, with my 91-year-old father, my brothers, sister-in-law and dear friends, the sky washed clean by rain and all around us the hikes and climbs of our past; an absolutely wonderful Christmas with my two beautiful daughters and wife, two new cats (Maggie and Arthur, who make us equal parts happy and crazy), and books, and movies and music. So here is my alphabetic appreciation for 2013: discoveries, losses, reacquainting with old friends, surprises, but no disappointments (that’s a whole other list).
I have supplied links to many of the artists, rather than trying to create a play list or weigh down the post with YouTube videos.
Andy and David’s Wedding
Maybe the best wedding I ever attended, other than my own, were the April nuptials (I’ve always wanted to use that word) between my brother and David, his partner of over 35 years). A true celebration of love, love that lasts and love that can be joined at the altar.
2013 was a breakout year for great Country Western women. Serious and sad, but never self-pitying and in-your-face funny, the next-generation Loretta Lynns. Ashley Monroe is a member of the Pistol Annies, which includes Miranda Lambert, and I just loved her solo album. Stripped down country, the way it should always be played, few of the romantic notions that sometimes make CW too too sweet
They call the 1950s the Golden Age of TV drama. I’ll give them that, but the last 20 years have been the Golden Age of Cable TV drama, and Breaking Bad is right there at the top. Bryan Cranston was already a favorite of mine as Hapless Hal, Malcolm’s goofy dad. And I was expecting a variation on that role when I first watched Breaking Bad. When I was presented with the dark Walter White, I actually quit after two episodes and it would be a year before I would return and end up mainlining the series into my soul. Bryan Cranston can do anything.
This Portland duo won my heart several years ago. Goofy off-the-wall lyrics and frisky beats, minimalist music that is so damned catchy and surprising. Khaela Maricich is the guiding genius behind The Blow, although her new Blow partner Melissa Dyne plays a mean computer. http://www.theblow.org/
Chance the Rapper When it comes to rap, I am of two minds: I find even pedestrian rap to be lyrically inventive and at its best breathtaking—I can’t imagine rolling that much alliteration, near-rhyme, simile, allusion, et al, off my tongue and make any sense whatsoever. And when the rhythms are as inventive as the lyrics, watch out!; On the other hand—and hear I fear I will sound fuddy-duddy—while I appreciate the rawness of rap, and am not afraid of profanity—Shit, I embrace it!—I still have a hard time rapping my head around the racial epithets, the misogyny, and homophobia. Sometimes it is difficult to discern irony in those lyrics. I still wrestle with that about Rap.
That being said, Chance the Rapper is just about the best thing since sliced bread. His latest album, Acid Rain, is so lyrical and melodically rich, a feast of figurative language.
And he is disgustingly young. Damn youth! http://chanceraps.com/
I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses
And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus
Before, I believed in not believing in
Yeah, I inhaled, who believed in me not breathing in
Cigarette stained smile all covered in sin
My big homie died young, just turned older than him
I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always
He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways
I trip to make the fall shorter
I was introduced to Robert Christgau in the pages of Esquire, the big bulky version, in the summer of 1967, when he wrote about the Monterrey Pop Festival. Here was someone taking my music serious, an adult. I continued to follow him in Rolling Stone and Creem. His Consumer Guide contained monthly mini-reviews, sometimes so dense, no amount of rereading could unlock what the hell he was talking about. But he introduced me to more great music. And there was a Consumer Guide for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (Where is the new millennium?). With Creem’s demise, I turned to the Village Voice, and when they dumped Christgau (the outrage!), I followed him at MSN, where he renamed the column Expert Witness, and this past year they dumped him and I suppose he is still doing work for NPR, but I miss him. He is the best. http://www.robertchristgau.com/
One of my five favorite albums of the year, Just Move is dance music for existentialists. Here is a sample from “Global Concepts,” which may have even become a bit of a hit somewhere. As you read, imagine dancing like a maniac, because I do (just don’t try to imagine that, please).
I think it burns my sense of truth
To hear me shouting at my youth
I need a way to sort it out.
After I die, I’ll re-awake,
Redefine what was at stake
From the hindsight of a god.
I’ll see the people that I use,
See the substance I abuse,
The ugly places that I lived.
Did I make money? Was I proud?
Did I play my songs too loud?
Did I leave my life to chance
Or did I make you fucking dance?
http://www.robertdelong.com/ And I just found out he’s from Bothell, go figure!
Another rapper I enjoyed this past year, for the name alone.
Eastbound and Down
Danny McBride is an acting force of nature, his characters so self-centered, tin-eared, foul-mouthed, and thick-as-a-brick. Yet underlying all that is yearning to be loved, a vulnerability that makes you forgive almost every excess. And McBride is so damn funny. Carol and I fell in love with Eastbound and Down. That I loved it was no surprise. I am a connoisseur of juvenile humor, but Carol? As gross as the McBride character was, she found him lovable and we were sorry to say goodbye to Kenny Powers.
F. Bill Fay
Okay, so Fay’s albums were re-released in 2012. I didn’t discover him until last July. And, hell, his albums were released in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. So what’s one year. He’s this year’s Rodriguez, that musical gem, whose legend grows with every year, at least among a few people. Moody, a bit mystical, and for my third “M” melodic. I’m trying to compare his voice, a bit John Martynish, or Michael Chapman. His instrument is the piano. Check him out. http://www.billfay.co.uk/
I came to Saunders’ work on a whim at Half-Price Books. I liked the blurbs and I was not disappointed. He creates cracked characters who seem to live normal lives but can’t pull it off. Tenth of December,´ his latest collection of short stories is nothing short of brilliant and funny/sad. I also came across his commencement speech to the students at Syracuse University last year: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?_r=0 You can also find it on YouTube.
The Handsome Family
I have loved the Handsome Family, Brett Sparks is one of the finest lyricists going and his subjects meld the natural world with the metaphysical world, but as I listened to their latest album, Wilderness, I was nodding off to the soporific rhythms, and thinking, pick up the pace Handsome family, and suddenly in the middle of Octopus, they did. In retrospect, it was a subtle change, but at the time, I almost got up and danced. http://www.handsomefamily.com/
No friend of golden hand
Oiled with rose and smelly then
As your blood burned poppy red
Across your velvet coat
Your deep blue velvet coat
It’s there in Montana prairie grass
The suits shot Custer down
His red spot tired, his black boots shine
How beautiful you look to the flies
The happy kingdom of flies
Dear Custer there’s a Wal-Mart now
Where once the grizzlies roamed
Mountains of hair spray and cowboys shirts
And everyone has a gun
Everyone still has a gun
But high in the rafters above the lights
Red finches, they hide their nest
And when our cars drive out of sight
They sing symphonies across the night
In that forest of heating pipes
And out past the parking lot along the curb
In the wilds of weed and trash
Prayed on his love, the smallest ants
Fight battles for the glory of the queen
Such a tiny, glorious queen
But even the empress of the ants
For whom ten thousand fall
Makes not a sound beneath the blades
Of our great empire of lords
How quiet is the empire of lords
When KOL opened the FM airwaves to psychedelic/alternative music in 1967, with Lan Roberts at the helm, Richie Havens was on heavy rotations along with the likes of Ultimate Spinach, Clear Light and Fever Tree (Blecch, Blecch, Blecch), and while Havens was a folkie he was such a passionate, unique voice. His music aged well, even if he didn’t’ and died last year, only in his early 70s. http://www.richiehavens.com/official_site/home.html
Isbel shook off some might powerful demons and they loom large in this powerful album. He has a beautiful, plaintive voice, and, yes, there are a lot of those on the airwaves, but he also has heart and you can’t fake that. As deep down as he goes, this is a hopeful set of music. He did an engrossing interview with Terri Gross (Jayzus, I just realized what I did there: sorry) on Fresh Air. It was rerun a couple of weeks ago. http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_detail.php?siteId=7060034
How to describe Valerie June? She could front the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She has a reedy, soulful voice. Is there such a thing as Appalachian Soul? Totally original. Look at the cover photo on her album and you might think “Soul Diva” but her music is firmly rooted in, well, roots. You will love this album for all sorts of reasons. A couple of other folkie/soul/roots singers worth a listen: Willis Earl Beal and Martha Redbone. http://valeriejune.com/
When it came to the classic Country voices, I always leaned to Merle Haggard, but George Jones was right up there. He lived his songs, which is not necessarily a good thing if you want to live a long, healthy life. I think he did forlorn heartbreak better than either Willie or Merle. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R2F9f2Cl6Y
So many great, and I mean great, women Country singers, the anti-polished poppy schlock that seems to cross-over and get called country: Laura Cantrell, Brandy Clark, and Elizabeth Cook needs to release a new album. I chose Kacey over Brandy because I needed a “K.” It’s a flip of the coin. http://www.kaceymusgraves.com/splash
Lou Reed was a giant, pure and simple. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a nice man, but neither was George Jones. And genius brings with it its own particular ugliness. (I mean, would a nice person release Metal Machine Music?)I remember sitting around listening to the Velvet Underground and trying to make sense of it, freaking out to “Heroin” being enchanted with Nico. But it was Lou Reed who kick-started punk, years before the Pistols or Ramones. And He proved that punk could grow old without getting warm and fuzzy. And it is so sad, and yet so perfect, that his last album was the disastrous collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.” http://www.loureed.com/inmemoriam/
In the early days of Beatle Madness, when I began to listen to KJR, there were two names, Pat O’Day and Larry Lujack. And I think I liked Lujack better than O’Day (My favorite jock, though, was Tom Murphy and just now I googled him and found he is still working, in Portland, mind-blowing). When he went to Chicago I was sad, but I remember on car trips back to the Midwest, we would occasionally pick up WGN and there would be Lujack and I would be proud. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl_Q9dMHxjY
Over the decades I have probably seen almost 7,000 students walk in and out of my various classrooms, and I wonder where they will go, what they will achieve whether there’s will be lives of unrelieved heartbreak and loss or moments of joy and satisfaction. Will any of them be famous? Will they remember me? In this past year, I have rediscovered a couple of students who have followed their passions and made music, one with her words and another with his voice.
Marjorie was in my 8th grade journalism class many years ago, late ‘70s, a bright girl, earnest and creative. And then last year I rediscovered her as a poet who had published her first collection, Search for a Velvet-lined Cape. My oh my, what a treat. A playful voice speaking of magic, hope, longing, mysterious nature, the common every-day, the tabloid, Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. And I must add, she has a wicked good sense of humor. I had the chance to attend a reading, and I can’t wait to attend another. Here is a sample of her poetry:
Somewhere there’s a key, lost
in the rubble of a cobwebbed garage
or wedged in the corner of a moss-covered shed.
Who will find it, hold it in her hand,
rub away the rust and muck?
What you hope for—not treasure in a padlocked box
but another unlocking:
rush of strawberry air, hint of hay
that years ago kept you awake;
climbing down the fire ladder, over the gate,
meeting your best friend in moonlit pasture
to ride your father’s horses bareback—remember
how you’d turn toward home when you heard the horn
of the morning’s first ferry crossing the bay?
Hey Marseilles, Matt Bishop in the middle
Matt Bishop (Hey Marseille)
Matt Bishop was the happiest, most congenial, kindest 8th grade boys ever! He was a student in my Desktop Publishing class (I have worn many hats in the classroom). He laughed at my jokes, and, like Marjorie, did creative work. And then last year, a high school teacher mentions this group “Hey Marseilles” and that Matt was a member. Member, hell, he is the lead singer and I defy you to find a purer voice. The group manages to walk the tightrope between sweet melody and cloying. I hope to catch them in concert this year. http://heymarseilles.com/
I put Nebraska on this list even before I saw it, so sure I was going to love it, the way I had loved the Descendants and Sideways. And I was right. This black and white movie lets the Great Plains talk as much as the lead character, Woody Grant, played magnificently by Bruce Dern. Grant says very little, is crusty, but by the end of the movie, we understand this man, his life and desires and it is beautiful. The movie is also an elegy for the disappearing small towns of the plains. And June Squibb, who plays Dern’s wife, is hilariously grouchy, touching and real.
North Mississippi All-stars
The sons of Jim Dickinson—okay, you probably don’t know him, but he was a member of the Dixie Flyers who backed almost every band and artist who passed through the South, played piano on the Stones “Wild Horses,” that alone qualifies him for Rock and Roll heaven. He produced Big Star and the Replacements, okay back to the NMAS—these guys are as earthy and dirty as bluesy rock and blues get. And I love them. The fact that they have been around since 1996 and I am just now enjoying them, well no excuses. http://www.nmallstars.com/about/
Just another pretty voice, I guess, if you are a cynical bastard, but Night Beds play perfect music for rainy days when you feeling particularly nostalgic, which for me is about half the time. http://www.nightbeds.org/
Just about my favorite actor ever. I guess my pantheon includes SpencerTracy, Jimmy Stewart, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Zac Efron (Okay, I was going to leave this last name alone, figuring everyone would assume I was joking. I WAS JOKING!). I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia or Becket or Lion in Winter or Lord Jim, O’Toole’s dashing leading man/Shakespearean hotshot era movies. I came to him in the second half of his career, The Stuntman, My Favorite Year, where he played off his larger-than-life persona. Looking at his IMBD filmography, he starred in a lot of shit, but the gems were unforgettable. Now, I am going to go back and catch the early O’Toole. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTbLkYmWZJo
This is the Facebook post I wrote after seeing Bernadette Peters play with the Seattle Symphony. Pure Joy!
While on our honeymoon, Carol and I saw Bernadette Peters on Broadway in “Sunday in the Park” and we never quite got her out of our head. She is the quintessential Broadway voices–arguably the greatest interpreter of Sondheim ever. When we found out she would be singing with the Seattle Symphony, we had to get tickets. Unfortunately, Carol was in Atlanta last night. Fortunately for niece Sara, she was around and the two of settled in our row two seats. And when she glided onto the stage, she was less than ten freakin’ feet away. I started to hyperventilate, but hung in there. Her first song was No One Alone. And she was wearing the dress that she wore in London (see video, and you must). Oh My Goodness. She breathed life in to a song I couldn’t bear to hear anymore (Send in the Clowns), didn’t try to out Elaine Stritch in The Ladies Who Lunch, waltzed out into the crowd for There is Nothing Like a Dame, stretched out on the piano to sing a blistering Fever. After that she did two Sondheim songs and tears starting running down her face, and her nose got red and I wondered what the hell had triggered that. Afterwards, I asked Sarah, “Real or acting.” She said, “acting” and I said, “damn, she had me from tear one.” She only did one from Sunday in the Park but that was okay because there isn’t a song that she can’t sing (I suspect she could do a dandy “Beat on the Brat”). For her encore she sang a lullaby she wrote for a children’s book she also wrote. She sings it to her dog. She stepped into the audience and at one point she stopped in front of me, looked me in the eyes and sang just to me, and I got the goofiest, stupidest, ridiculousest, gooniest look on my face and I just stared moonstruck, and then she moved down the row behind us and as she passed she gently touched my back with her hand. Oh Christ, be still my beating heart…Needless to say, an all-timer. And that dress, ooh-la-la!
Seth Rogan/James Franco Bound Video
So, I want to love Kanye West with all my musical heart—he is a genius—but he just does shit…Kim Kardashian is one of those things and the video “Bound” which he premiered on “Ellen,” and the Bates/Roorbachs just love “Ellen,” left me completely flummoxed. As stupid a piece of musical film-making as I have ever seen. Even Ellen looked stunned. If you haven’t watched it, check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBAtAM7vtgc Then check out the parody that James Franco and Seth Rogan did days afterwards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRckgn36lzY
Pure effin’ genius!
The most soulful woman’s voice you will hear this year is a man’s. Rhye, two guys, but it is difficult to know by going to their official website. I think they enjoy the androgynous musical mystery. But whatever, easy on the ears. Sort of Sade-like.
Sophie the Cat
2013 we lost our goldfish of 17 years—the best dime I ever spent—who grew to mammoth size and watch TV with us for years and years. She is buried underneath the Japanese Cherry in our front lawn. And then in the late Fall we said goodbye to Sophie, the most lovely cat in the world, who brightened our every day. The cat who put up with so much loving abuse from my daughters, who loved her to death, and always wanted to know about her first, whenever we talked on the phone when they went off to college. Who broke our hearts when she disappeared for almost two days, and then by chance we found her locked in our neighbor Becky’s garage. She was our north star when we lost our way. And we miss her dearly. She is buried beneath the big picture window in Isabella’s room where she spent so many hours watching the world go by.
Okay, this is the year, yes it is. I’ve been wrong for 37 years, but this is the year. You can take it to the bank!
Join the drummer from Vivian Girls and Best Coast along with the drummer from Hole and you have a perfect melding of the three. Powerpeppypunky, yeah that’s the ticket. This is a fun group. https://www.facebook.com/weareUPSET
Robert Christgau gave “Modern Vampires of the City” an A+ and compared it to “Sergeant Pepper.” Well, I had to take notice. And I get it. This is probably my favorite album of the year, certainly the one I have returned to more than any other. It has a sense of bigness to it without being bloated, without seeming to try too hard. Each cut is a treat, something different, and yet it holds together as a piece. Remarkable, I say! http://www.vampireweekend.com/
When I was in my early teens, I got hooked on the Jack Paar Show, 10 p.m. on NBC every Friday. Paar was unlike any other talk show host I had ever seen (Okay, I hadn’t seen all that many, but we’re talking Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas) and he had the most interesting guests, from Groucho Marx, Oscar Levant and most importantly, Jonathan Winters. Winters was a crazy funny genius and you just let him go and create. Give him a stick and he would create ten different hilarious scenarios in ten seconds. Paar was the perfect venue for him. Movies and TV were too constricting. Given the room that Robin Williams and Jim Carey were given, I wonder what Winters might have done. I was so sad when he died. I have linked to a 60 Minutes segment on Winters and includes Robin Williams. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDJjq0Pd0RM And here he is on the Jack Paar Show in 1964 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUTlGLnN8pI
Jess Walter is this generation’s Raymond Carver, although he seems to laugh more than Carver. I loved his short story collection, We Live In Water. I love everything he writes, well not everything, but at the very least like a lot. I also enjoyed John Banville’s Long Lankin, a short story collection he wrote when he was a lad in 1970. I can spend an hour appreciating one page for the sheer genius of the writing. I must get back to his novel The Sea. I bogged down on that one. And I just found out he wrote the screenplay for Albert Nobbs.
Young Adult Fiction
As I was writing this, one of our new cats raced in crawled up my back and dug his/her claws into my back. WTF? I am not a scratching post. And, now I’m bleeding. I will be back…I’m back. Oh yeah, Young Adult Fiction: I think kids today have so much more to choose from. Lots of great authors like Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, Sherman Alexie, Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, Reynolds Price, Carl Hiasson, Salman Rushdie, are writing for young adults. And so many writers I had never heard of: Kimberly Willis Holt, David Almond, Tom McNeal, Kathy Appelt, Sally Gardner, Janet Taylor Lisle, Patricia MacLachlan…
Here is a short list of great young adult fiction I have read this past year:
Black Duck & The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle
I Coriander & The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner
The Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
The Underneath by Kathy Appelt
My Name is Mina & Jackdaw Summer by David Almond
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Luka and Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Grandfather’s Dance by Patricia MacLachlan
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
The Storm Catchers by Tim Bowler
Her directed by Spike JonZe and starring JoaQuin PhoeniX is the most improbable love story but one of the best. That Joaquin Phoenix convinces us that he has fallen in love with an operating system is nothing short of miraculous. He has become one of the most interesting actors of the new millennium. Spike Jonze’s movies are so oddly lovable: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, and so totally original.