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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Gord Downie

The moment that all Tragically Hip/Gord Downie fans have been dreading since May 2016 happened today: we learned of Gord Downie's death.
After battling terminal brain cancer for almost two years, Gord passed away last night at home, surrounded by family and friends.
I learned the news this morning from the official Tragically Hip Facebook page's post. Even though I knew that this was inevitable, it still came as a shock. A bit like getting the glaucoma "puff of air in the eye" test at the optometrist: even though you know that puff is coming, you still flinch when you get the blast of air in your eyeball. I don't mean to be too flippant with the comparison--clearly death is much more profound than a little test at the optometrist's office--but that's the best I can come up with.
So, if you will, this was a "puff of bad news" and I flinched. Even though I was expecting it, it still was stunning.
The entire day has been watching the remembrances and salutes coming in, some from unexpected sources (the New York Times ran a fairly long piece about Gord's upcoming--now posthumous--album Introduce Yerself; the uber-hipster Pitchfork and Stereogum published pieces about Gord, and the mainstream Rolling Stone had a remembrance--though in their Facebook post they referred to Gord Downie as "Berry Gordy." Wtf?).
I have also been commiserating with fellow Hip fans on the Tragically Hip Fan Forum. So the mourning has been very much social media-based.
It is late and I'm tired, so I haven't much more to add. I suppose that among all of the recent musical deaths, this is the one I feel most personally. I connected to Gord, his persona, musicianship, and lyrics in a way far beyond anyone else (with the possible exception of Ray Davies and John Lennon). But Gord was only four years older than me. He felt like an older brother, in a way. He seemed more human than any other rock star/celebrity I can think of--and this may be due to the Hip not having international fame. They were "my little band," and Gord came across as someone I could imagine drinking a beer with and shooting the breeze about music or hockey.
Without Gord Downie, this American would probably have never heard of Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Tom Thomson, Algonquin Park, "the Paris of the Prairie," Attawapiskat, and Churchill (Manitoba), just to name a few figures and places of the Canadian historical landscape. Gord gave me a deeper appreciation of Canada's natural landscape and social history.
I saw the Hip in concert twice, and both times I came away amazed at the energy Gord brought to the stage. Here was a guy only a few years older than myself. He seemed like a model of how to age gracefully. To some degree, I saw him as a role model. He seemed like someone that was impervious to illness, but even Gord is human. Gord's illness and death is further proof--as if I needed any--that nobody gets out of here alive. That it happened to him at age 53 just seems completely unfair, though.
At least Gord stared down mortality with bravery and resilience. 2016 and 2017 were probably his most productive years on earth. Rather than slow down, his band released an album and embarked on a cross-Canada tour met by adoring crowds. Then Gord released the Secret Path album and film; devoting his final year to reconciliation between First Nations and the government of Canada. His final act is a 23-track solo album, Introduce Yerself, that will be released posthumously.
When the Hip toured in summer 2016, Gord decided to go all out. He changed his stage apparel from his usual dark pants/jeans, white button-down shirt, and vest to sparkly, shiny, bright leather suits topped off with a feathered hat. Gord new this was his last waltz with the Hip and he was going out in style, and he was not going to let cancer bring him down without a fight.  (As an aside, the outfit became a popular Canadian Halloween costume last year). Gord showed all of us how to face death with defiance, and I hope that if I am ever faced with the same situation, I will somehow summon the strength to follow Gord's lead. I don't honestly know if I could ever be so brave.

When the Man Machine Poem tour ended and he transitioned to the Secret Path concerts and album/film release, Gord appeared in public in a "Canadian tuxedo" of jean jacket and jean pants. The seriousness and solemnity of the Chanie Wenjack story and the struggles of the First Nations was not a time for flashy sartorial style, and with what Gord was going through personally, I doubt that he cared.

I am writing this while also trying to work, so I am feeling distracted. I'm not quite sure how to finish this post. I will conclude by simply stating that Gord will be missed, but he left a body of work--musical and social--that will continue to live on for years and decades to come. He made a profound impact on my life, and I am so happy that I discovered his brilliance.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A post for late September

It's been awhile since I have written in here, but what else is new?

When I left off, our president had issued a wishy-washy response to racism in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the month since, we have seen a hurricane ravage Texas, another one punish Florida, and yet another hurricane decimate Puerto Rico. An earthquake has done significant damage in Mexico. North Korea and the U.S. continue to escalate the smack talk and posturing, and our Middle Schooler-In-Chief doesn't help himself much with his juvenile name calling and boasting, though his loyal fanbase eats up his hollow tough guy talk.  Meanwhile, the rest of us wake up each morning in a perpetual state of unease.

It's such a crazy world we live in that John McCain, with his resistance to the replace and repeal of the ACA ("Obamacare") has emerged as a voice of reason. Who saw that coming?

When I'm not looking at my phone and dreading what I'll see, ("Have the missiles been launched yet?", etc.), I'm trying to keep myself sane by doing what I always do: I'm running, walking, listening to music, trying to watch some decent television here and there, and at least attempting to read honest-to-goodness BOOKS.

I'm still plugging away with the running and trying to stay reasonably fit physically and mentally. I suppose the hip new terminology is "mindfulness" and running helps with this. When I am out running, it's just me vs. the distance. Nothing else matters. It may just be the most basic and primal sort of exercise there is. When I run, my thoughts and worries disappear and it becomes simply me, nature, the road, and getting my body and mind to make it five kilometers. It's not necessarily enjoyable while the run is taking place--some are better and more pleasurable than others--but that is the point. By engaging in a primal and basic activity, I free myself from the baggage of the material world. There is something a bit Zen-like about running. So it is an activity that I continue to engage in. I can see and feel the positive impact it has on me.

As far as music goes, I've been on a Husker Du kick of late, after the unfortunate death of drummer/singer/songwriter Grant Hart. I got into them a little bit in college, when a guy I worked with in the cafeteria did the whole, "Say man, you gotta listen to these guys" thing as he loaned me his cassette copy of the Du's 1986 album Candy Apple Grey. Though The Replacements were my Twin Cities band of choice, I enjoyed Candy Apple Grey quite a bit. But for some time it was the only Husker Du I really knew well. Eventually I would devour their entire discography. I fell in love with their two 1985 albums, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. (Although their masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be 1984's Zen Arcade, I have never entirely warmed to that album, though it has some classic tracks on it). Grant Hart was a songwriter certainly on a par with Bob Mould. Grant was sort of a "punk rock McCartney" to "Bob's punk rock Lennon". Grant had a sweeter voice than Bob, and his songs were a bit more melodic and hookier than Bob's. To hear what I'm talking about, give a listen to "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," "Green Eyes," "Flexible Flyer," "Books About UFOs," or "Dead Set on Destruction." It is distorted punky power pop bliss at its finest, with clever lyrics to boot. Grant could be equal parts optimistic, nostalgic and vulnerable. Kurt Cobain and Black Francis, to name a few, owe him a lot.

It is getting late and I want to get this blog post in the can before it gets too late, or I fall asleep, or I accidentally delete it. 'Til we meet again...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

...I take that back, Trump is okay with racists

In a news conference (of sorts) yesterday, Trump reverted back to the nonsense he blurted on Saturday, blaming "both sides" and essentially apologizing for the alt-right (i.e. racists). He even compared famous traitor Robert E. Lee to non-traitor George Washington. (Sorry Confederate apologists, I don't give a damn that he was fighting for old Virginia. I don't care that "life was different" in the 1860s. He took an oath to protect the United States of American and he betrayed that oath).

I can't keep up with the lunacy coming out of the Trump White House on a daily basis. The narrative seems to constantly change.

Is Trump truly a racist or just that stupid? I don't know, maybe a bit of both. (Actually, there is no doubt in my mind that Trump is a racist).  How the hell does the president of the United States excuse the behavior of white supremacists? If you're Donald Trump, that's what you do. At least Trump has made it perfectly clear where he if there was ever any doubt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump kinda sorta condemns racists

So Trump finally came out and "condemned" the Charlottesville racists. I am not congratulating him.

He only did it due to pressure.

He did nothing all day Sunday.

It took Trump two full days to kind of, sort of "do the right thing" and, let's face it, he only did it because of the justifiably terrible fallout he experienced on Saturday and Sunday. I do not believe there is an ounce of sincerity in his words.

If ever there was a litmus test for Trump's true feelings about racism, and how he would respond to overt expressions of racist violence, it was on Saturday in Charlottesville. Trump failed miserably.

To make matters worse, after he finished with his statements yesterday, he blew up at a reporter and reverted to his usual petulant child mentality. This guy absolutely cannot make it through a single day without making an ass of himself.

That's where we are right now. I'm sure by tomorrow we will have moved on to some new inanity with this ridiculous administration.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Another dispatch from Trump's America: Fascism in Charlottesville edition

First of all, it seems that something crazy happens almost every day under the Trump regime, so it's hard to keep it straight. Whether it's James Comey getting fired as FBI director, Sean Spicer getting fired as press secretary, Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci--the most cartoonish character in an already cartoonish administration--getting fired within about a week as White House Communications director, Trump inciting North Korea to the brink of a nuclear conflict, or Sunday's tacit approval (or, at best, non-scolding) of neo-Nazis and other racists in Charlottesville, literally something nutty, frightening, and/or infuriating happens essentially every single day under this reign of terror/reign of error.

Trump had an opportunity to condemn racist violence in Charlottesville, and he failed miserably.

We have a president who will not condemn Nazis. Stew over that for awhile.

As the events in Charlottesville unfolded on Saturday morning, and it was clear that terrible violence was taking place between racists and counter protesters, our president was conspicuous in his silence. When he finally tweeted, "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!" I was foolishly willing to at least temporarily give him the benefit of a doubt. Sure, it was a bland tweet and he didn't specify the "hate(rs)" in question, but I was satisfied that he at least finally made a public statement. (Yes, that is how far the bar has been lowered with this guy).

My temporary goodwill towards 45 was shot to hell when he spoke a few hours after his tweet. In typically inarticulate comments, Trump refused to condemn the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the other right wing hate groups who went to Charlottesville specifically to incite violence. And make no mistake, those folks weren't there just to listen to speeches. Many (perhaps not all) were dressed in helmets and carrying shields and weapons.

Many of us also learned that day that some hate groups have taken to carrying a modified version of the Detroit Red Wings' "winged wheel" logo. To their credit, the Detroit Red Wings hockey club issued a strongly worded statement condemning the use of the logo. In part, the Wings organization wrote, "The Red Wings believe that Hockey is for Everyone and we celebrate the great diversity of our fan base and our nation." It is a sad state of affairs when a pro hockey team makes a stronger statement against hate than the president of the United States.

So that's where we are right now. We are still a nation divided with a president that refuses to take a stand against hate. I suppose he doesn't want to alienate a large part of his voting bloc. I hope that this country has enough reasonable people out there who are disgusted with what is happening in the United States and are equally appalled by the way Trump is handling it...but I will not be holding my breath.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seratones and Drive-By Truckers at Bell's Eccentric Cafe, Kalamazoo (July 21, 2017)

It was another long drive to a concert destination, this time one hour and 24 minutes to Kalamazoo. At least Bell's is an easier place to find. It was simply I-69 to I-94, then up Business 94 to Michigan Avenue in downtown K'zoo.

So we arrived, and the place was already packed, probably because it was a Friday night. We found a parking spot right near the railroad track behind Bell's, and were able to shoehorn our tiny Kia Soul into this improbable spot.

We heard the opening band Seratones warming up as we approached Bell's. This was our first time at Bell's, though I have loved their beer for a long time. They are located in an old brick former factory or warehouse--I'm not sure which. We ordered Oberon inside and a pita bread/hummus appetizer to munch on. The doors to the beer garden opened at 7:00. Outdoor concert. I somehow was hoping/thinking that it was an indoor show. The night was warm, humid and threatening rain.

Once we got inside the beer garden, we planted ourselves about ten feet from the stage and shared an Oberon. (The close proximity to the stage, though a good idea at the time, would later prove to practically blow out my ear drums). The crowd was extremely white and tended towards middle-age (what a shock, eh?!?).

Seratones delivered a blistering set. AJ Haynes, the front woman, has a phenomenal voice and is destined for big things. Mark my words.

DBT came on at about 8:00 or so and played at least 2 1/2 hours. This was the first time I'd seen them live. Patterson Hood seems to enjoy himself on stage and basks in the crowd and feeds off the crowd. I liked that his primary guitar is a Gibson SG, just like Angus Young. The other member of the "Dimmer Twins," Mike Cooley, is a bit more reserved, but it's a partnership that works. If it was two guys bouncing around the stage, it'd be ridiculous. Any band has to have one energetic excitable member and one who is the "straight man" (or "straight person"). Cooley is a nose to the grindstone kind of fellow. A wiry cat with longish black hair covering his face. He has a multitude of guitars that he plays throughout the show.

I loved hearing Southern Rock Opera's "Days of Graduation" (in the grand dark tradition of the "teenage car wreck" song) and "Ronnie and Neil" (where Hood first directly presents "the duality of the Southern thing" which is the overarching theme of that brilliant album. Oh, and the songs rock like motherfuckers). It was my happiest, most joyous 10+ minutes of his "July of concerts."
There is no doubt about it.

They closed with "Grand Canyon" from English Oceans. Not until later did I realize that they leave the stage one by one. The last band member remaining is drummer Brad "EZB" Morgan, who plays alone for a few minutes while Hood and Cooley's abandoned electric guitars deliver blistering feedback. It makes for a dramatic conclusion.

The rain held out until about 10:30, when Hood led the crowd into a chant of "Fuck this rain! Fuck this rain! Fuck this rain!" Maybe the band would have played longer if a rain storm was not headed directly to Kalamazoo. (We got hit by the rainstorm as we drove out of Kalamazoo).

Naturally, I hit the merch table after the concert--since I find it nearly impossible to avoid merch tables--and bought one of the "Dance Band of the Resistance" shirts and the Go-Go Boots CD. I could have easily blown more money, but was trying hard to be good. Then we began our long journey home in the pouring rain.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen at Meadow Brook Amphitheater

When I was a freshman at MSU, there were a couple of seniors who lived together in a room a few doors down from me at Shaw Hall. Now, there were plenty of upperclassmen on my dorm room floor, but Ken and Steve were the self-appointed corrupters of the freshmen, and relished the role.

One particular evening, I was in their room drinking their booze. (I can't remember what circumstances brought me to their den on iniquity that night). Also in the room was a girl about my age whom I did not know, and I was unsure as to why she was there or where she was from, but the two of us were in this dark dorm room drinking and listening to their music. (It must be said that in 1980s college life, it was not uncommon to come across people that seemed to wander into the picture like extras on a movie set, only to disappear as soon as they had arrived).

At some point, Violent Femmes' self-titled debut album was the music of choice. The girl's face immediately lit up. She got excited in that uninhibited way one does after they've encountered something they really love--after having consumed a few alcoholic drinks. She had that entire album memorized and sang it front-to-back. She felt every one of those words to the marrow of her bones, to the depth of her soul. I will never forget how amazed I was at how moved she was by that music.

As much as people talk about R.E.M.'s Murmur, the Replacements' Let It Be, the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead,or U2's The Joshua Tree as the '80s college rock touchstones--and a great case can be made for any one of those and others I'm surely forgetting--Violent Femmes' debut album just might be the most beloved "college rock" album of that decade. There is just something about the suburban teen angst and frustration of those songs that appeals to a broad swath of Generation Xers.

I got a feel for that album's impact last night when I wnet to see Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen at Meadow Brook Amphitheater in Rochester Hills. There were people at this show who were all at least a little north or south of my age of 49. Many of them, primarily women from my observation, who had memorized every single lyric from ever single Femmes song. The Femmes, in turn, delivered a lively and appreciative set. They genuinely appeared to be having a blast on stage, and almost every song was met with explosive cheering, singing, and dancing from the middle-aged fans. These were folks who, for one night, forgot about mortgages, kids, politics, aging, etc. and briefly returned to their teen years.

Echo & the Bunnymen were the co-headliners, and frankly I was more excited to see them than Violent Femmes (who I like but don't love). It was a bit more difficult to tell if Ian McCulloch and company were enjoying themselves. McCulloch has the outward appearance of someone who has resigned himself to the acknowledgement that this is what he has to do to pay the bills. Though he bantered a bit with the crowd in his Scouse mumble, he was difficult for these Midwestern ears to understand. in any case, his singing voice sounds strong and the band, consisting of his longtime partner Will Sergeant and assorted hired guns, were tight and powerful.

Ian McCulloch is, as I wrote on Facebook, "the original Liam Gallagher." He casually sauntered back and forth between the mic stand and the drum riser--he had a lit cigarette by the drums that he took puffs from, plumes of backlit ciggie smoke billowing over his head.

I had the impression that the majority of the crowd was more enthused by Violent Femmes, but then again Echo & the Bunnymen's psychedelia-tinged, dark, impressionistic, sometimes gothy songs aren't exactly singalongs.

Overall, I enjoyed finally seeing these two bands from my misspent youth. Not quite in their heyday, but better late than never.