Tag Archives: music

Ode to Jon Langford (and Interdisciplinary Aesthetics) Part 1

(Terrible photo of) Jon Langford, Jean Cook, and Jim Elkington at Clay Street Press

My soul has been itching to post about seeing Jon Langford in Cincinnati.  Now, spring evaluations turned in and a writing deadline met (with almost 2 hours to spare) I can breathe in and out and recall that evening…

Jon Langford, artist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, troublemaker, anti-sellout punk rocker was putting on an art show at Clay Street Press and concert at MOTR Pub.  My husband and I went down to the edge of Ohio to see and meet him.  (Jon Langford of the Mekons, of the Waco Brothers, of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, of the Wee Hairy Beasties.  Jon Langford the generous, gregarious collaborator and instigator.  Jon Langford who does stuff like this despite the cold in Madison, making me feel like I’m not doing enough to help the cause of the worker and humankind, but somehow it’s still useful to live, and try.  Jon Langford of whom I am a newish fan, but I guess there’s still time to gush.)

I had a lovely conversation with Skull Orchard violinist Jean Cook, told her how my four-year-old daughter (beginning fiddler, who loves the music that swirls around Langford) is a big fan of hers.  Jean Cook was kind, and wonderful to watch play.  Langford is one of those people who surrounds himself with other great people, whose work fits into this fantasy I have about a group of creative humans converging to forge an exquisite tool that splits open the world, reconfiguring it into a place where people make instead of trash things, where the work people do brings honor, intrigue, and inspiration to the inside of the soul’s corners…

I just wanna be there.

Dream alert: This morning I had a dream.  I was in Seattle, working at the Annex Theatre with some of the people who were there in the 1990s.  (It’s notable that I worked there briefly in the real 1990s but never felt cool or connected to the core of the place, to its inner tribe.)  In the dream, it was 45 minutes to curtain, and I kinda knew my lines, but wasn’t confident.  I had a small role, and I decided I really didn’t care if I knew my lines–I’d wing it.  (This is progress.  Usually my theatre dreams center around having to go onstage in five minutes, having just gotten the script.  Classic, clichéd performance anxiety dreams.)  In this morning’s dream, as we were getting ready for the show, in the velvety backstage light, I put Langford’s Skull Orchard Revisited on the turntable and on came “Tom Jones’ Levitation.”  I asked one of the Annex guys what he thought of the music.  He dug it; everyone did.  It was one of those peak moments where art meets heart and you really can fly, like Tom Jones.  Someone gave me a bag of home-grown dried peppers.  I asked if they would help me stop sweating and feel less nervous, or if they were the kind to have with chocolate.  (Yeah, chocolate was the answer.)  The moment was one of ensemble.  Of generosity.  We were doing our work, and all was well in this badly broken world.

Taking me back to Jon Langford.  Watching, witnessing, meeting one of the remaining anti-sellouts fed my creative soul, swept out shadows, sweated out, through peppers and chocolate and dreams, the chaff, jettisoned all the gunk that stops me making stuff.  Lifted me from the daily overwhelm, through silence and apathy, allowing me to write anything.

I think people who do stuff like this give others license to create.

Eternal gratitude to all who are even considering what we do, and make, and how we live.

(Read Part 2…)

“Give me something to sing about” (RIP Whitney Houston)

Alas, this is not Whitney Houston.

“Give me something to sing about,” sang Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the excellent Joss Whedon musical, “Once More, With Feeling.”  (From which the title of this post was mis-appropriated.)  Buffy had died and gone, probably, to heaven, but her friends wanted her back home.  So they re-animated her.  Buffy was kinda bummed.

I just read that Whitney Houston died.  My first thought was, “Wait, Whitney Houston DIED?”  Shit.  My second thought was a song, an earworm from my 1990s, before the term earworm, before the song became an earworm for me.

(Rewind.)

FADE TO:  Somewhere in Los Angeles, a city where I did not live.  Sometime in the early 90s.  Just before Valentine’s Day.  Visiting a man.  (I am choosing vagueness.  Some people I know will be glad.)  I was fairly smitten with this guy, despite the miles that separated us, and many other differences.  He was sweet, and fun.  His life seemed big, glamorous.  I lived in Seattle.  (Same time zone, one thing in our favor.)  We’d gone to see a movie.  Memory is funny: I went down to LA several times while we were involved, and he came to Seattle several times–and our visits start to blur, but I’ll say that we saw a movie the night before Valentine’s Day; I’ll say the movie was “The Crying Game.”  Late that night, he said something that made me feel our time together was almost over, that he didn’t want to continue a long distance relationship.  Despite my own misgivings about how long it could last, I was young and romantic and sad when I heard him say whatever it was he said.  Though these years later I know it was best to let go, back then, I wasn’t ready.  There were things I thought ours might have been.

Early the next morning, and I mean really early, something like 7am on a Sunday morning LA time, Valentine’s Day, someone in his apartment complex decided to turn up the radio really loud.  The radio was blaring a song.

You know the song.

First, in the origami that was folding in my heart (expect and hope for something, then have it change too many times until it can never be the shape you thought you wanted) the song’s refrain was an irony at my expense.  Later, every time I heard that song, it was a reminder of that salty moment, that sadness which felt like emptiness.  (I didn’t learn until years later that Dolly Parton wrote the song, a fact which now makes the song more okay, especially when it’s Dolly and not Whitney singing.  More personal origami, this just in: As research for two novels, I’m reading a book about the April 1974 tornados that scoured the middle U.S., and according to King Wikipedia, that’s the exact month when Dolly Parton released that song.)

“AND I-I-I-” (HOW LONG CAN SHE HOLD THAT “I”???) “WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOUUUUUUUU-U-U-U” Whitney Houston sang on that early Valentine’s morning, from a stereo I would never see, volume cranked past 10 to 11 by someone I would never meet, some random person living near a man I had hoped to spend a lot more time with.  (Maybe that person played the song that morning extra loud for a valentine.  Maybe that person still loves that valentine.  Maybe there is an “always” somewhere.  For: I am happily married and have a wonderful child.  The man who lived in LA is married and has children, too, and I hope he’s happy.)  At that moment, though, even Whitney sounded sad, her sadness spilled out, sad for the sad little me, lost in that anonymous LA apartment complex, so early on Valentine’s morning.

So now you, too, know what I heard, actually, when I “heard” the news tonight about Whitney Houston.

It’s awful that another talented and tortured soul died early.  I wish people going through her kind of pain could get better, could live to be happy and really old and then die of natural causes.  I have other things I could write about Whitney Houston, but this memory, this earworm, floated to the top.

(“Don’t give me songs…don’t give me songs…give me something to sing about,” Buffy said.)

Three winter songs

These people know how to deal with winter...

The other day when the sun didn’t shine, and didn’t shine, and didn’t shine, and all my clothes that are not in the attic weren’t warm enough, I got jittery, wondering how I would make it through winter this year.  People say as you age, cold weather becomes harder to endure.  But the grey is too soon this year.  The rain.  Drear, she came early this year.

So as I do when I prepare for winter, today I listened to Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within.  The live album includes perhaps the saddest song ever, Lisa Girard’s transcendent “Sanvean.”  You can see a long, beautiful version here.  (Her gown is worth a look, too!)  Lisa Girard just breaks my heart, and then fills up the broken pieces.  This week of grey skies needed true keening like hers.  It’s been a hard year.

Another cathartic winter song on the same album is the traditional, “I Am Stretched at Your Grave,” sung here by Brendan Perry.  (For a version with a funky backbeat that you might have heard, try this one.)

And now for something completely different.  This might be obvious to you raindogs, but “November” by Tom Waits is a worthy winter anthem.  Who else but himself could sing, “Go away, you rainsnout, go away, blow your brains out…”

Here’s hoping the sun shines soon.  But if not, you know what I will be listening to.

What will get you through the chill this year?

Our children

They have their own thoughts, they have their own thoughts

Hardly an original thought, but I am starting to understand how much “our” (=all) children need nature.  Even the grownup children.  In my mind, this thought, which is so simple, connects to this song.

Lyrics by Khalil Gibran, Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you
They belong not to you
You can give them your love but not your thoughts
They have their own thoughts
You can house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit not even in your dreams
You can strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you
Strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you

It is impossible to overstate how bittersweet it is to watch a child grow up.  The process is so slow that it becomes invisible, and then one day, the infant is walking, the toddler is speaking, the child is telling stories.  She runs and stumbles and gets up and isn’t scared and she climbs to the top of the blue jungle gym.  When she stands there, realizing where she is, she says, “Mama, help me,” and while I calmly coach her to find a place to put her feet, I am not breathing, I am “please don’t fall!”ing, and I am trying to know with my own body that she is balanced and strong and wise and that even if she falls, this is the work she needs to do on this day, at this moment.  It is exactly right.

(I can house her body but not her soul…For her soul dwells in a place of tomorrow which I cannot visit not even in my dreams, and this fact is what is so beautiful and this fact is what breaks my entire heart.)

She finds her feet, she climbs down, she smiles with exhilaration and now she has done her work of this day and I have not done it for her, I have resisted even trying, and this means that she knows she can do it herself.  She can do it herself.

And you know what?  I do not want the children to be just like us.  Please no!  I want them to find a better way to live here on this earth.  Meanwhile, let’s help them learn by stepping aside and letting them put their bare feet on the earth, letting them feel the mud and water and prickly grass, and letting them pay attention and do all those beauteous things that surround us every day, those things we forget have such significance in the constant rush of rush rush rush.

Raising a Raindog

This morning, my daughter was pushing the play button over and over again to hear the beginning of a song on a mixed CD that my husband made for her.  On the CD are various of her favorite songs, but all are real “grown up” music that this child’s parents like to listen to.  (There are a few kids CDs in the house, and  some aren’t bad, but we like her to listen to music that won’t sound icky-sticky to our ears.)

The song she kept replaying was “Filipino Box Spring Hog” by Tom Waits.  She likes Tom Waits.  She’s enjoyed this song for a while, even sang it spontaneously one day awhile ago, but today, she was studying on it.  Asking me what instruments were in that musical stew.  I tried to identify each bang and clang as I could (it’s hard–you try it!).  I explained that sometimes Tom Waits just bangs on things, like cans and other things–his percussion is not only drums and the usual stuff.  And as I reveled in the idea of Tom Wait and Marc Ribot et al making that song, I realized my daughter was trying to find the guitar in the song and play along on her beat-up dulcimer, which she calls her banjo.

Later when I asked her what she was up to, she said she was trying to find out why he said, “Kathleen” (as in “Kathleen was sitting down in Little Red’s Recovery Room, in her criminal underwear bra…”)

“T’ain’t the mince meat filagree
T’ain’t the turkey neck stew
T’aint them bruleed okra seeds
though she made them especially for you…”

I’m fighting the urge to expect her to like everything I like, but I’m hoping that putting her around really interesting music will at least be good for her curiosity which will be good for her soul.

Optimist and Pessimist: A Light Operetta

Is it my imagination, or does this guy look like Tom Waits?

OPTIMIST: Sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain“:

I’m mowing in the rain, just mowing in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I’m mowing again!

PESSIMIST: Sung to the tune of “Misery’s the River of the World

If there’s one thing you can say
About Mankind
There’s nothing kind about man
You can drive out nature with a Mower
But it always comes roaring back again

OPTIMIST:

Splashy and head up 

With rain in my ‘do
Why is each new task
A trifle to do?
Because I am living
A life full of dew.

(And I’ll get a blog post out of this yet!)

PESSIMIST:

Misery’s the River of the World
Misery’s the River of the World
Everybody Mow! Everybody Mow!
(Bandana’s soaked, Bandana’s soaked)
Misery’s the River of the World
Everybody Mow! Everybody Mow!

“heirlooms / a loon”

"I can't drink this coffee til I put you in my closet..." Kirstin Hersh

Music to shed by.

Like a time machine, Kirstin Hersh’s song, “A Loon,” spins me back to the agitation and healing of the 1990s, perfect soundtrack for peeling off layers of emotional scar tissue.

Anger, barely contained within the sing-song, Hersh’s album, “Hips and Makers,” was a favorite for a certain slice of my therapy.  When her song, “Your Ghost” reappeared and began to haunt me recently, I ordered a copy of the CD, which arrived today.

Listening to these songs is like listening to the echo of a loon calling back through the years.  I love how opaque and personal some of her lyrics are; we’re invited into her head (I’m butchering the line breaks  here, adding breaks to denote pauses in the sung song in “A Loon”):

Some store

I’m not going back there any more
wandered in

don’t think I’ll do that again
no I

don’t think I’ll do that again.

I swear you

look at me cross-eyed and I

don’t know what to do
no I

don’t know what to do

crazy loon.

(Then there’s this mad catharsis in the music, then this quiet little afterthought:)

There’s a room in his pallet
there’s a pillow for his head
sees an offshoot in his bottle
when he wants to see me dead
heirlooms

a loon.
Never thought I’d see that silly grin
never thought I’d see that fool again
never thought I’d like that lunatic.

Nothing left to dance around
what a hero
what a black and blue bird
what a loon a loon
what a loon a loon.

Loons nested on the pond by Med-O-Lark, where I worked as a camp counselor back in those days.  Loons only nest on very clean water.  Surrounded by teen angst, this loon pond was where I first heard of the Indigo Girls, where “Closer to Fine” and their other anthems blazed across me and rooted into my synapses.

Indigo Girls was for the surface; others helped peel off underlayers.  Kirstin Hersh helped.  Tori Amos, in “Little Earthquakes,” provided more obvious pumice.  Still does, when needed.

“I’ll dance tonight, wear holes in my shoes…”

In the car this morning, listening to my daughter’s “mixed tape” (a CD, actually) that includes Jack Hardy’s song, “Blackberry Pie,” I got sad again about Jack’s passing.  Since he died, I haven’t not been sad about it, but there are moments when there’s an upwelling I can’t ignore or fake my way out of.  I told my daughter that it makes me happy and sad to hear Jack’s songs.  After she informed me that I should not sing the song because, “I’m Jack Hardy and I get to decide who sings my songs,” we had an interesting conversation about how he wrote those songs, and how they are his, but he also gave them to us, so they are also ours.  She agreed.

Here are the lyrics:

Blackberry Pie

i stopped all day to pick wildflowers
down by the banks where the blackberry grows
all in the shadows of the late autumn hours
all in the brambles and the late blooming rose
i picked all of the white ones and picked all the blues
for those are the ones that would go with her dress
and i'll dance tonight, wear holes in my shoes
'til i am the one that she loves the best

(chorus:)
so dally down where the river runs
where the forest bathes the senses clean
dally down where the fiery sun
and the rhythm moon makes a faery dream
and you might think that my heart would lie
that many a girl had caught my eye
but my heart all along belongs to the girl
who baked me a blackberry pie

though i've stayed single all of these years
'tween the twisting rope and the wounding wind
never staying long enough to see the spring
where i had seen the harvest in
and i don't give a tinker's damn for the road
though many they say i'm bound to roam
and i just might be the last one in
though i will be coming home

(repeat chorus)

and many a glass i'll drink tonight
where the wine-red hand is from work or fight
there is no judge more fair than time
for there is no one to change his mind
each time i look in the parting glass
those years that look both ways to know
i'll sing the last song of my youth
but i'll sing it again tomorrow

(repeat chorus)

Today the line, “I’ll dance tonight, wear holes in my shoes/till I am the one that she loves the best,” made me think about writing.  About what I’m willing to do, what I even want to do when I write.  I am willing, I want to wear holes in my shoes so the thing (the novel, the essay, the story) is good, is good enough.  To extend the metaphor, I was thinking an editor might be the “she” in that phrase, but more than that, the “she” is also me.  So I’m the dancer, and I’m also the “she” who the dancer wants to impress, from whom the dancer want to earn love.  Crazy geometry.  An illustration of how Jack’s songs are about so many more things than what appears on the surface.  And how they belong to him, but they also belong to us.

And the sadness comes from my pushing against this: I know that no one lives forever, but I always thought he would “sing it again tomorrow.”

W-O-M-A-N (Turn that frown upside down!)

Peggy Lee. That lady must have had some darn fine warshing gloves.

One excellent reason to have Peggy Lee’s “Fever & Other Hits” lying around:

Say one morning you find cat barf in your kid’s bin of wooden food (each piece with velcro dots to let the child mimic chopping) because it was left on the floor (lesson: if you leave your toys on the floor, Dante, aka “Big Tiny” the cat might barf on them), you can turn a frown upside down!

Here’s how:

1) Assess which turnips, carrots, and tomatoes need warshed. Remove the big chunks first.  Get a clean bag and stash the unsullied food.

2) Get a used toothbrush (that you won’t reuse for your mouth), some good soap, and the sullied wooden food.

3) Start scrubbing.

4) Realize, through your disgust and crankiness, that this is an opportunity to teach your toddler the word “REPULSIVE.”

5) Realize still further, through this repulsive task, which song has popped into your head.  And laugh.

6) Put down the half-clean wooden carrot top.  Wash and dry your hands.

7) Put on Peggy Lee, risk blasphemy by skipping over the song “Fever,” which always reminds you of the good old college days, and watching Pee Wee Herman lip synching in platform shoes; pine momentarily for the careless 1980s.  (Anyone remember that?)  Skip directly to song number two.

8) Sing along, “‘Cause I’m a woman,” and make sure your daughter hears you spelling that glorious word.

(To the gentlemen: Before you get your boxers in a twist, yes, I know you can clean cat barf too.  Sure can!  And plenty else.  But you’ll need to find your own song, darlings.  This one is ours.)

Shut up and sing the song

Jack Hardy’s (magic) green velvet coat

When a songwriter at Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriters group would explain what he or she was about to sing, Jack Hardy would say, “Shut up and sing the song.”  Abrupt, and to some, rude, but a valid procedural point for a workshop, even more notable in its good advice to the writer.

Let the work speak for itself.  If something is  important enough, yet is not on the page, or in the lyrics, put it in there.  Rework or revise it later if you need to, if what you mean is not conveyed through your magic lattice of words, sounds, syllables.

I’ve stolen Jack’s  line when approaching fiction workshops: it applies.  I feel very rude ever telling someone to “shut up,” and usually preface it with context.  As an imperative to action, “Shut up and sing the song” is simple and worth doing.  (I’m talking to myself, too.  For years, I whined about how I wanted to write and yet was not doing it.)  Shut up about what you want to do, wish you could do, mean to do, intend to do.

Shut up and sing the song.