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Saturday, December 31, 2016

My favorite things in an otherwise shit year: Music edition

This has been a shit year, there's no other way to put it. (Well, maybe there is a more artful way to put it, but I don't feel like it. Describing it as "shit" just seems more appropriate).

I don't think it's necessary to enumerate the many ways in which 2016 sucked. Any year in which David Bowie and Prince died, while Donald Trump was elected president, is automatically a horrible year. All of the other bad things that happened are just more poo clogging the toilet. (Sorry for the scatological metaphors, folks).

So why not take a look at the good stuff from 2016, at least from my perspective.

The year was a good one for music. It has been a long time since I've been as excited about new music as I was in '16.

It started in January when David Bowie released Blackstaran album that has to rank as one of the best of his career, and there is no hyperbole in that statement. It was as if Bowie knew that this was his final statement to the world, and he put as much care into it as he had any music he'd ever written and recorded.

A few months later, Bob Mould--enjoying a career renaissance--released Patch the Sky. For anyone unfamiliar with him, Bob Mould was essentially the leader and main songwriter in the 1980s post-punk band Husker Du, and then went on to front the power pop band Sugar, as well as recording a number of good solo records. By the early part of the 2000s, he seemed to have lost his way a bit with odd experimental records that didn't quite hit the mark, but in the last four years has returned to what his strength has always been: solid songwriting in a punky but melodic mode. Patch the Sky continued the winning streak begun with 2012's Silver Age and 2014's Beauty & Ruin.

The shittiness of 2016 got even shittier in late May when the Tragically Hip announced that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. About a month later, the band issued their first album in four years, Man Machine Poem. I covered this album extensively in a previous post. It is one of my favorites of the year.

While on the subject of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie was busy this year. He certainly hasn't allowed his cancer diagnosis get in his way. If anything, he seems even more driven than ever before. In October, he released Secret Path, a concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who in 1966 died of exposure in a desperate attempt to return home from a residential school for native children. The entire project is multimedia, with an album, a graphic novel, and a film that was broadcast by the CBC. Naturally, it was almost completely ignored in the United States, but I believe it was one of the most important artistic and cultural achievements of 2016.

One of the few good developments of 2016--for me personally--was reconnecting with the guys I lived with in Shaw Hall at Michigan State. One of those guys, my sophomore year roommate Paul, lives in Texas and has become deeply interested in Texas music. He turned me on to a singer-songwriter named Alejandro Escovedo who a few months ago released an outstanding album called Burn Something Beautiful. The album is a great combination of punk attitude, introspection, melodicism, and heartfelt emotion. It is definitely up there with Man Machine Poem as my favorite record of 2016.

I seem to be running out of time here, so allow me to just list a few more of my favorite records of 2016, and if I get more time I will describe them in more depth.

Drive-By Truckers--American Band (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are one of the best songwriting duos working in music today).

Childish Gambino--Awaken, My Love! (Childish Gambino is probably better known as Donald Glover, actor and writer of extraordinary talent. He's also a gifted musician, and this record is a must for anyone who likes George Clinton, Funkadelic, Prince, or '70s Philly soul).

A Tribe Called Quest--We Got It From Here...Thanks 4 Your Service (Released just after Trump was elected president--excuse we while I wretch--ATCQ return with a highly politicized salvo, and sound like they never left).

Rolling Stones--Blue & Lonesome (Just when it didn't seem possible, the Stones drop an outstanding album: loose and fun. It's probably because it's a collection of blues covers that it came out so freewheeling and joyous. The Stones didn't feel any pressure to create new material. If this is the last album these guys ever record, they will have gone out in a great way, and traveled full circle to their roots).

The Monkees--Good Times! (Another case in which it didn't seem possible for an old band to record a great album. But the Monkees pull off the seemingly impossible. Of course, it helps that they surrounded themselves with some of the best musicians and songwriters working in the business).

Radiohead--A Moon Shaped Pool (Maybe I'm just a troglodyte, but I've never been overly knocked out by anything these guys have done since OK Computer, but I continue to faithfully buy most of their output because they always push the envelope. This is perhaps the band's most subtle, gentle, and emotional music of their career).

Solange--A Seat at the Table (I actually did the incredibly modern action of DOWNLOADING this album electronically. Do miracles never cease? I did so because I heard all the positive buzz about it and it doesn't disappoint. Beyonce's sister Solange has created an album of atmospheric soul and jazz, with a little politics thrown in).


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Vacation post #3

We're on the road in Ohio, finally returning home from a 13-day trip outside of Michigan. We have driven through eight states (Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) as well as one day on a small island owned by Royal Caribbean (Cocoa Cay) and one day in Nassau, Bahamas. We also spent time just gently traveling in a cruise ship in the Atlantic to our ports of call.

Long vacations are strange because one loses all sense of time. Since ordinary routines are broken, our ways of measuring our days go completely out the window. So two weeks can feel like two months. It feels like we have been gone for way more than 13 days, at least to me.

I don't know if I'll be able to cover the whole vacation experience in one post, especially since I'm pecking away at a tiny keyboard on my phone--in the car. I can at least talk about the cruise.

So about the Royal Caribbean cruise: I had no idea what to expect, and had never envisioned myself on a cruise, nor did I care if I ever took one [With one caveat: I often see the Viking River Cruise commercials on TV and think they look fun]. I have to say, though, the cruise was a blast and I'd gladly do it again, though left to my own devices I'd spend more time relaxing in a folding lounge chair on the deck. I didn't have much chance to do that.

Here's the thing about cruises: they are whatever you want them to be. One could eat and drink through the whole cruise, or spend every waking moment in the pool, or never leave the casino, or simply read a book or sunbathe on the deck. Heck, a recluse could even spend most or all day in his or her cabin (though that sounds like a complete waste of time and money to me).

As for me, I never set foot in the casino, and did no shopping in the myriad stores on the ship. I drank multiple mixed drinks throughout the day, took a brief dip in the pool, went on all the excursions (the tour of Nassau was a major highlight) and greatly enjoyed the meals in the dining room. My only major egret is that I wasn't able to see more shows on the ship (since there is non-stop live entertainment).

I'll return for more vacation talk later.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Vacation post #2

We are currently driving near Savannah, Georgia.

Yesterday's drive was not without adventure. When we stopped in Cambridge, Ohio for a restroom and food break, we discovered that the electrical cord--that connects the trailer lights to the vehicle--had broken off and for God knows how long we had been driving without tail lights on the trailer. I tried calling U-Haul roadside assistance and was on hold for what seemed like an eternity. Meanwhile, the rest of the family had gone in McDonald's and found out there was a U-Haul location in Cambridge. After a little adventure finding the place, the people there were kind enough to fix it free of charge. Special shoutout to the young 20s-ish guy in a Chicago Bears cap who did a great job getting us back on the road.

12/19/2016
We survived many maniac drivers on I-95 in Florida, and a couple torrential rainstorms, but we made it to Cape Canaveral.

Florida is such a strange state. Rarely does a place combine beauty, sophistication with equal elements of ugliness and sheer redneckery in such close proximity. Florida is a continuous contradiction.

Next stop: cruise ship in two hours.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Vacation post #1

I'm not good with vacations involving travel and preparation. I'm not good getting out of my comfort zone, which would be at home in my daily routine. This is either due to a natural reticence or undiagnosed Asperger's, which I suspect I may have.

So I am writing to you south of Dundee, Michigan. We are heading towards our first day destination of North Carolina.

I spent a good deal of last night tossing and turning. Will we get everything ready and packed? Will I be able to back the van out of our long-ass driveway (with the attached U-Haul trailer) without backing into a snow bank? (Almost. My wife, who is better at such things, relieved me and had slightly more luck. She made it out with just enough clearance).

So now I try to maintain calm as much as possible. It can be difficult with six family members crammed in close quarters for so long. But I survived our 2013 Disney trip, so I should be able to do this.

Signing off for now.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A month or so after the election

It's been almost a full month since I last wrote in this blog, still reeling from the presidential election.
Though I am not experiencing the full-on depression of that time, I'm still extremely anxious. With every bizarre Donald Trump cabinet appointee, I find myself cursing and wincing. I find myself constantly bombarded with news stories involving our president-elect that make me feel like someone is constantly jabbing me with a knitting needle: Russians hacking the election, Trump not attending security briefings, Ben Carson as secretary of HUD, Betsy DeVoss--a person who would love to chuck the entire public school system, as secretary of education, a secretary of state appointee (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson) with business interests with Russia.

...and this is just scraping the surface.

For several weeks I'd wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning in a cold sweat with an overwhelming sense of despair.

The "bubble" concept: I may live in a bubble. I'm sure I live in a bubble, seeing as how I live in an upper middle-class (verging on upper class) suburb of Michigan's capital (and the largest public university in the state). It is a community largely populated by doctors, lawyers, and college professors, and though it does have an Asian population near 6 percent, Meridian Township is still by-and-large an enclave of liberal whites. As a whole, my county (Ingham) voted for Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin.

When we drove up to Tuscola County, seeing how the Trump signs outnumbered the Clinton signs by about 20-1 was the first inkling I had that Trump could win the election and it (almost) "burst my bubble." There was still a part of me that was in denial, but in the week leading up the election, punctuated by a desperate text message to my brother-in-law, I had a sense that Trump just might...gulp...win.

Well, on that note, I'm gonna wrap up this particular post. I hope to be back soon with a year-end wrap-up in which I discuss stuff like my favorite TV shows, music, and the few books I read.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A week after the election

I think Trump just might win this. Feeling panicky. I hope like hell I'm wrong. (Text message written to my brother-in-law on November 1, 2016--one week before the election)

It has now been over a week since the election. My mood continually shifts from despair, to resolve, to almost-normality, and back to despair.

How did this happen? Why did this happen? Is there any hope for this nation?

The United States electorate took a look at a race-baiting, hateful, negative, misogynistic, serial sexually abusing egomaniac with absolutely no public service or government experience and said, "Sure, why not?"

I don't know exactly what to add to this post right now, but I'm sure I will think of more to write later. Many thoughts and subjects, fears and concerns have been bouncing around in my brain every day since November 8, but at his moment I'm at a loss for words.

When it gets down to it, we who did not vote for Trump need to fight harder than ever before. We need to recognize and correct the mistakes that were made in this election. (Whether that actually happens or not, who knows). But most importantly, we need to work at the local level: if we see someone on the street who needs a dollar, give the person a dollar if you have the money to spare. Don't worry how or where they spend it. Donate to charity--Planned Parenthood or the Southern Poverty Law Center are two good places to start. Write letters to your congressmen, wear a safety pin (but be prepared to actually take on the responsibility and dangers that this entails). Whatever you do, TAKE ACTION! DO NOT BE COMPLACENT!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The World Champion Chicago Cubs (that still sounds strange) are a welcome diversion

I can't tell you how much of a welcome distraction from our current political train wreck it was to witness the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Game seven reaffirmed for me why baseball is such a great game. It had just about everything one could want from a deciding World Series game: ups, downs, twists, turns, a 17-minute rain delay, and lots of drama. I mean, who would have guessed that Rajai Davis, a guy who was 3 for 20 coming to bat in the eighth against fireballing but fatigued Aroldis Chapman, would battle for several pitches before blasting a game-tying homer over the left field wall? I'm watching the replay on MLB Network while I write this and after Davis crushed his homer, Chapman has a look on his face of utter disbelief and shell-shock.

I have complained in the past that FOX World Series telecasts overdo the fan reaction shots, but it seemed that this year they cut down on that a little. This was one year that the reaction shots were fascinating, particularly with the game tied 6-6 in the ninth. Both Chicago and Cleveland fans are in total anguish. After years of having their hearts broken, both fanbases expect the worst.

In the tenth, it was a relief to watch Kyle Schwarber's hard hit grounder just barely make it beyond the infield shift for a base hit. Kris Bryant tattooed a long drive to center, enabling pinch-runner Albert Almora to tag up and advance to second. Cubs and Indians fans are riveted to the game hanging on every pitch. Ben Zobrist simply goes with the pitche and rips an opposite field double down the third base line, scoring the go-ahead run. A shot of Chapman in the dugout has him flashing a smile for the first time probably all night.

Well, I don't know if I really need to do a play-by-play reconstruction of the game. After the Cubs went up 8-6, I ran into the kitchen to grab a beer. As I wrote on Facebook, it was more for self-medication than celebration. I guzzled the beer down and it did make the bottom of the 10th a little easier to handle. Oh sure, I got a little nervous when Rajai Davis (continuing his late game heroics) doubled to score Cleveland's seventh run. But then Kris Bryant made a great play on a slow rolling grounder to end the series and give the Cubbies their first world championship in 108 years.

I enjoyed having these two teams take my mind off what has been the most depressing presidential campaign I can remember. And I loved finally seeing a team I LIKE win something meaningful for the first time since the Michigan State basketball team won the Big Ten tournament.

Now I spend the next few days nervously awaiting the election.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A brief dispatch about my political anxiety (in which I also implore anyone reading to NOT vote for Donald Trump)

We are a week away from the election and I am practically twisted in knots with anxiety.

Hillary's poll number have gone down after the FBI quite bizarrely re-opened her never-ending email investigation. This time the emails seem completely amorphous. The timing of this revelation--if it really can be called a revelation--is baffling. It certainly comes off as FBI director James Comey purposely and blatantly tampering with the election.

Meanwhile, a large swath of the American public seem to have, in the space of one or two weeks, forgotten that Donald Trump is a race-baiting, misogynistic, know-nothing, arrogant demagogue. Apparently, this is the person that almost half the United States wants to lead the nation forward. I fear for this country, I am alarmed by this country. I don't feel like I have anything in common with 40-45 percent of my fellow citizens. I'll go as far as saying that never in my life have I felt so utterly depressed about the direction this nation is taking.

I wrote something on Facebook, in one of my periodic political broadsides in which I preach to the converted and (probably) simply annoy the other side. But whatever--it bears repeating. Here goes: if you don't like Hillary, okay. But take a moment to ask yourself, do you REALLY want a president who is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan? Yes, Donald Trump has recently been publicly endorsed by the most prominent hate group in the United States. So what is worse? A candidate in Hillary Clinton with some amorphous email "scandal." Even with the latest FBI revelation of emails found on Anthony Weiner's computer--we don't even know the nature of these emails. I don't even think the FBI knows at this point. Is this REALLY worse than the other candidate--Donald Trump--who has loudly and proudly boasted about sexually assaulting women? A man endorsed by the KKK, a demagogue, a man with no clear plan of how we will "make America great again."

If you don't like Hillary Clinton, then please do all rational people a favor and simply do not vote for president. Leave that part of your ballot blank, and vote for everything else. But please do not help elect a demagogue like Trump.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Cubs Win!

Here is a sentence I never thought I'd write:

The Chicago Cubs are going to the World Series.

In a stunning domination of Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the Cubbies rolled to a 5-0 victory in last night's sixth game of the National League Championship Series (NLCS).

Having watched the Cubs seize defeat from the jaws of victory far too often over the years, I refused to get excited until the ninth inning. With the Cubs holding a commanding 5-0 lead and Aroldis Chapman heaving fireballs over the plate, it was just a matter of anticipation. Sure, there was a little nervousness when Chapman walked a Dodger with one out, but when the next batter (I can't even remember who it was now) rapped a sharp grounder to Addison Russell at shortstop, I instintively uttered "double play!" and sure enough it was. For a team that once had the famous trio of "Tinker to Evers to Chance," it was appropriate that Russell to Baez to Rizzo ended the game and sent the Cubs to the World Series.

I don't want to pretend that I'm a "long-suffering Cubs fan" because I'm not. However, I have liked the Cubs since the early '80s when my family had that miraculous "cable TV" installed in our house. At some point, I discovered WGN and noticed that they broadcast Cubs games....LOTS of Cubs games. In fact, I want to say that WGN showed every Cubs home game and a good number of road games. But it was the games at Wrigley Field that sold me on the Cubs.

Now, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time or know me at all, you understand that the Detroit Tigers are not only my favorite baseball team, but my favorite professional sports franchise. But I do have room for other teams, and in the early '80s I decided that the Cubs had much more appeal than the other baseball teams broadcast on cable TV (the Tigers' AL rival White Sox, also on WGN; and the bland Atlanta Braves on WTBS).

What was there NOT to like about the Cubs for a young baseball fan who already loved the history and lore of the game? Okay, they didn't win very often--there was that. But otherwise, their home games were all during the day, they played in a historic, idiosyncratic ballpark with unique ivy-covered walls, and their broadcast crew featured old legends like Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau (and later, Harry Caray and Milo Hamilton).

Plus, the Cubs had direct parallels with the Tigers in my mind. Venerable Wrigley Field seemed similar to equally venerable Tiger Stadium, the local Chicagoland commercials on WGN reminded me of similar ads on WDIV's Tiger game broadcasts, and guys like Brickhouse, Boudreau, Hamilton, and Caray were contemporaries of the Tigers' crew of Harwell, Kell, Kaline, and Paul Carey.

So I was a Cubs fan throughout most of the '80s. I watched Ryne Sandberg blossom into one of the game's best second basemen, Leon Durham punish baseballs with his big bat, Lee Smith mow down batters as the Cubs' closer, and rejoiced when both the Tigers and Cubbies rolled to division titles in 1984. If only the Cubs hadn't collapsed against San Diego in the NLCS, it would have been a great World Series. (The Padres with their atrocious taco-colored uniforms and cookie cutter stadium were a boring and anticlimactic foe for Detroit).

By the '90s, I lost touch with the Cubs, but did have one of my most memorable sports moments in 1996 when I went with my friend Jami to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Cardinals. The Cubs were obliterated by the Cards that warm sunny weekday afternoon, but it was the most energized and celebratory atmosphere I have ever experienced in and around a professional sports venue. If you are a baseball fan, but have never been to "the Friendly Confines," by all means find a way to go just once. You won't regret it.

So I've jumped back on the Cubs bandwagon the last couple years and am thrilled with their NL pennant win. I just feel bad for all the true die-hard Cubs fans who didn't live long enough to witness this.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Asshole dog (A fantasy stand-up routine)


(This is something I wrote quite some time ago. I sometimes have fantasies of being a stand-up comic, but the problem is a) I could never be consistently funny enough to pull it off and b) the second I got on stage, I'd probably completely freeze. Anyway, the following is a bit I thought might work in my fantasy stand-up routine).

This is for people who have dogs. 

I think we’ve all had that moment in the middle of the night when your dog wakes up out of a deep sleep, leaps out of your bed (or HIS bed, if you’re one of those owners who doesn’t want your dog in the human bed) and bolts for a window barking madly at something that you, as a human, didn’t notice and can’t identify.

Now, you’d been enjoying a pleasant sleep until the moment your dog started yapping. And you’re tired. And the last thing you want to do is get out of bed to see what the hell the dog is barking at, because you know it’s just a squirrel or a slammed car door or some such thing. 

But if you’re like me, there’s a little part of your brain that says, what if it’s actually something serious? What if my dog is warning me and I’m ignoring the warning. Suddenly, your warped brain imagines the entire family victims of some bizarre Manson family slaying—and it’s all because you ignored the warning of your loyal canine friend.

My dead bloody carcass on the bedroom floor with “pig” or “dumbass” carved in my stomach all because I was too tired to investigate what the source of my loyal furry servant’s manic vocalizations.

So with a healthy dose of neurosis, I scraped myself out of bed to investigate and possibly stave off an intruder.

Got to the hallway outside the bedroom, by which point the dog had stopped and was trotting in the opposite direction BACK to the bedroom.

Asshole dog.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on the Tragically Hip's last (?) concert




The Tragically Hip played what was likely their final concert ever last night. In front of a sold-out crowd at the K-Rock Centre in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and also witnessed by a national television audience watching a commercial-free broadcast on the CBC.

I gave up luxury box/corporate suite seats at the Lansing Lugnuts baseball game in order to stay home and watch the concert--alone in my living room with only two cats and a dog for company (my wife and my two sons went to the ballgame). There you have it, the life of an American Hip fan.

I know I've probably been driving my Facebook friends crazy over the last several days with all my Hip-related posts. But this has simply been "the Summer of the Hip" for me, ever since that terrible morning in late May when the world received the news about Gord Downie's cancer diagnosis.

A month after that, I bought the Hip's new album Man Machine Poem and have watched the band's tour unfold from afar. My attempt to obtain tickets for the London (Ont.) show were immediately obliterated, both in the pre-sale and when tickets went on sale to the general public. I underestimated demand, and the stealth of the "bots" that also scooped up tickets. I eventually resigned myself to sitting this tour out--and considered it as primarily an event for Canadians to celebrate their band. Meanwhile, I've followed the shows on Periscope and through first-hand reports on the Tragically Hip Facebook Fan Forum. Along with all other Hip fans, I've marveled at Gord's flamboyant stage attire and his utter defiance in the face of mortality.

So if January of 2016 brought on "the Winter of Bowie," and the shocking April death of His Purple Highness ushered in "the Spring of Prince," "the Summer of Gord" commenced on May 24. Of course, the major difference is that Gord Downie is still very much with us. He is beautifully, defiantly, gracefully still with us; wearing his shiny metallic leather suits, designed so brilliantly by Toronto's Izzy Camilleri. Gord is staring down cancer and has given every fiber of his being into his performances. Oh sure, he may not be as physical and free-wheeling as in the past, but considering what he is enduring, he has been a dynamo. It is truly remarkable that Gord has been able to perform so brilliantly on this tour.

Last night was no exception. Gord and the band brought it strong in a show that lasted almost three hours with three encores; including a raw display of emotion by Gord at the end of "Grace, Too" in which he unleashed several cathartic screams near the end of the song. And in what is a rarity for Gord Downie, he made a pointed political plea--directed towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance--demanding attention be paid and help given to the depressed First Nations people in northern Canada. (Thank you, Gord, for educating me on the troubles and struggles of the First Nations people).

I always knew that the Hip were big in Canada (duh), but even I have been overwhelmed by how much love and adoration has been showered on the Hip by Canadians. As some have already stated, the Hip are so adored by Canadians perhaps primarily because the band never broke big in the United States or elsewhere. Add to that the fact that the Hip pepper their songs with Canadian cultural references, and their countrymen have fully, completely embraced them and become protective of them.

When the concert ended just shy of 11:30 PM, I simply felt dumb. I didn't weep--though there were some misty moments throughout the concert--I just turned the TV off and sat on the couch for several minutes, blankly staring and attempting to absorb it...and I'm still trying to process it.

I can honestly say that I can't imagine my life without the Tragically Hip, much like I can't fathom life without my kids. (In fact, it's sometimes hard to imagine that I once had a life before my children entered the picture). Just as my kids have taught me such lessons as how not to be completely self-absorbed (just a little self-absorbed), along with the joys of grade school orchestra concerts,
chess club tournaments, Forza Horizon and GTA 5 on the Xbox; the Hip have taught me about Bobcaygeon, Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Attawapiskat, Algonquin Park, and Bill Barilko. For that, I will be forever grateful.


Monday, August 8, 2016

The Tragically Hip "Road Apples" (1991) review



(The third in my series of Tragically Hip album overviews, in which I investigate the discography of this criminally undervalued Canadian band).

I'm beginning this overview of the Tragically Hip's Road Apples with a warning that this ended up being a much deeper dive than even I anticipated, but the Hip deserve the full attention of my (dubious) analysis. So don't say I didn't warn you.

For the follow-up to their debut LP Up to Here, the Tragically Hip headed down south to record in New Orleans. Don Smith was once again behind the desk as producer. The resulting album, Road Apples, refines the barroom and heartland rock of the first album. But while the Hip perfect the sound that they'd developed on their first two records, they also close the chapter on this phase of their career. The Hip would change course on their next album, Fully Completely.

But back to Road Apples. In 1990, the band convened at Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Studio with the fore mentioned Don Smith. There is no doubt that the Crescent City influenced the raw and bluesy feel of the music, yet the lyrics are the most "Canadian" that Gord Downie had penned to that point. The album was such a reflection of the Hip's life on the road in Canada that the original title was Saskadelphia. MCA balked at the title, so in a fit of cheeky humor the band opted for Road Apples, slang for horse shit. One could view this as either classic Canadian modesty for the Hip pulling the wool over the record execs' eyes. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

On the opening track, "Little Bones," the Hip start off where they left off on Up to Here. It's a full-on rocker with lyrics inspired at least in part by the band's stay in New Orleans. ("It gets so sticky down here..."). An insistent guitar riff introduces the song, with Johnny Fay soon joining in on drums. Initially--for the first 32 seconds, in fact--the guitar and drums are both in slightly different tempos. When they finally lock in, it's like a jockey and racehorse trying to get in rhythm after the starting gates open. The Paul Langlois/Gord Sinclair/Johnny Fay rhythm section is one of the band's major strengths, and once they lock in, "Little Bones" is one of the most propulsive tunes in the Hip canon.

I read somewhere, can't remember where, that the Hip considered the album's second song, "Twist My Arm," to be their "Red Hot Chili Peppers song." Considering that around the time the Hip were recording Road Apples, the Chili Peppers were riding high on their Mother's Milk album, it's conceivable that was where the inspiration came from. "Twist My Arm" is the Hip's stab at funk. It is not one of my favorite songs by the band, as it goes on a bit too long and funk workouts aren't the Hip's forte. This is a song that is actually much more effective in a live setting.

"Cordelia" is named after a character in Shakespeare's King Lear, and this is the first indication that Gord Downie's songwriting had taken on weightier and more literary concerns. Cordelia is King Lear's third and youngest daughter. She refuses to profess her love for her father, in return for one-third of his land, and is thus banished. One analyzes Gord Downie's lyrics at one's own peril, and I won't pretend to know how Cordelia fits into the song, other than the protagonist comparing his own plight to that of Cordelia's ("I'm not Cordelia/I will not be there"). Whatever the lyrics mean--if they have any linear meaning whatsoever--the shifts from intense to subdued and back to intense are clear markers of the band's growth as songwriters and performers.

Gord Sinclair's bass leads the way on "The Luxury," a song with a jazzy feel and a story of sordid desperation--a former prisoner living in a seedy motel with a (presumed) prostitute--that would not be at all out of place on The Doors' L.A. Woman.

Canadian cultural history is revisited in "Born in the Water," which explores a Sault Ste. Marie city council declaration that attempted to make the city "English language only." The declaration was struck down in 1994. (For more information about the origins of this song and many others, I urge the reader to investigate the outstanding HipMuseum.com web site, which has incredible detail about the many geographical, historical, cultural, and literary references in The Tragically Hip's music).

"Long Time Running" is the Hip channeling Stax/Volt soul via Kingston, Ontario, and then with a Kingsway Studios/New Orleans additive. Rob Baker's arpeggios owe a lot to Steve Cropper, and Gord Downie does his best Otis Redding.

After the Stonesy "Bring It All Home," which sounds like a holdover from Up To Here, the Hip unleash the furious and stomping "Three Pistols." It's more Canadiana from Gord Downie's pen. Early 20th century Canadian artist Tom Thomson, who died of mysterious circumstances in Ontario's Algonquin Park, is seen "paddling past/I'm pretty sure it was him." Thomson is also described as "shaking all night long/but my hands are steady," perhaps alluding to Thomson's ability with a paint brush in the shivering cold of Algonquin Park, or his ability to use a gun (a pistol?) under duress. It might also refer to a theory that Thomson was murdered and did not drown, as is conventional thought. Thomson's "little, lonely love" Winnifred Trainor--the real-life paramour of Thomson--shows up in the song and, in a bit of impressionistic flight of fancy, takes the singer to an opera house (nearby Gravenhurst Opera House?). She is later described as sweeping trinkets off Thomson's grave on Remembrance Day.

So what is "Three Pistols" about? Like most Gord Downie songs, the lyrics are loaded with evocative imagery but without anything remotely resembling an easy interpretation. Having said that, here's a stab in the dark. Tom Thomson was a reclusive, revolutionary artist who died under a shroud of mystery, a subject that would have obvious appeal to a young, idiosyncratic artist like Gord Downie. Downie identifies with Tom Thomson and his quest for artistic purity. And with that, I could be completely wrong. In any case, when you get right down to it, when a song blows the roof off with the power of "Three Pistols," it almost doesn't matter what Downie is singing about. The fact that the lyrics are as fascinating and evocative as they are is just an added bonus.

After the fiery rock of "Three Pistols," the Hip slow down the tempo on the bluesy "Fight," which seems to be about a couple at their wits end with each other ("Do you think I bow out 'cause I think you're right/Or 'cause I don't want to fight?"). "Fight" has a solid groove, but is one of the weaker songs on the album. This is not to say it's a bad song, just that on an LP with so many outstanding tunes, "Fight" is near the bottom.

I remember seeing the Hip for the first time, at the State Theater in Detroit. In their encore, they played a tune that brought the house down. At the time, I still wasn't completely familiar with the band's discography, so I couldn't quite place the song that the crowd was going nuts for. I later discovered it was "On the Verge," a shit-kicking rocker that might get a little lost among better-known ravers like "Little Bones" and "Three Pistols." "On the Verge" seems to be about someone who finds himself--or herself--in a strange community of hucksters, con artists, and charlatans but begins to find the place exciting and is "on the verge" of fitting right in. ("We got horse-throated hucksters whispered gimmicks/Rubbernecking all the curious cynics...well, I don't know what came over me/I'm too dumb for words/Well, I didn't think I'd like it here at all/But I swear I'm on the verge"). It's yet another lyric in which Gord Downie sympathetically explores the underbelly of society with its oddballs and outcasts.

"Fiddler's Green" might be the Hip's most revered song. It's a country-folk meditation on the death of Gord's young nephew. The name "Fiddler's Green" has a dual meaning. It's both a road in Ancaster, Ontario and, in mythology, an afterlife where there is eternal happiness, a fiddler who never stops playing, and dancers who never tire. A wonderfully idyllic place for a child who has left this earth too  early. The song was so emotional for Downie that the band did not play it live until 2006.

A view into the band's future arrives with Road Apples' final track, "The Last of the Unplucked Gems." It is a brief bit of folk-rock impressionism, similar to Fables of the Reconstruction-era R.E.M. Gord's inscrutable lyrics are a harbinger of the next few Hip albums, Fully Completely and especially Day For Night.

Many of the elements that made Up to Here such an energized and promising debut are also on display with Road Apples, but the songwriting is better and the music has added depth. At the same time, this is still fundamentally a bar band/roots rock album, and the band's musical influences remain obvious. The band had yet to fully develop its own signature sound.

In retrospect, it's clear that the Hip must have concluded they'd taken the road as far as it could go, and it was time for a new direction on Fully Completely, the album that would prove to be their artistic and commercial breakthrough.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

More politics and the high school reunion I'm not going to attend

Consider this blog post a "place holder" until I finally get something more substantial on here. I'm currently working on the third in my continuing series of Tragically Hip album overviews. This one is about 1991's Road Apples. I hope to have it up here within the next few days.

So what else is new? I'm trying to survive through the constant stream of craziness in the world. Every week, it seems there is another mass shooting or terrorist attack somewhere on the globe. Meanwhile, the Republican National Convention was last week (watched a grand total of about three minutes of it when I stumbled upon Ben Carson speaking after turning the TV on. Three minutes was quite enough). Now, we are on to the Democratic National Convention. The Democratic Party is about as divided as the Republican, maybe even more. Will Bernie supporters get behind Hillary? Or will they disperse among the third party candidates?

I haven't decided who I'm voting for in November. I know I went over this in a previous post. My fear of a Donald Trump presidency might have me bite the bullet and vote for Hillary Clinton. I still haven't ruled out the possibility of Jill Stein, but I'm leaning towards Clinton. (I will say that, last night, Bill Clinton--ever the charming raconteur--provided a compiling argument in favor of his wife as president--or as compelling as possible given all the controversy that continually swirls over her head).

I'm tired of my friends on the left getting in virtual screaming matches over the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein divides. The Hillary haters make their feelings known constantly. It's getting to be a real emotional drain being on Facebook and seeing people who are all similar in their world views constantly bickering about Hillary, Bernie, and to a lesser extent, Jill Stein.

In other news, my (gulp) 30th high school reunion is this Saturday, but I'm not going. I thought about it, and went back and forth a few times (at one point actually being rather excited about it), but have finally decided that I just don't care. My memories of high school range from completely lukewarm to decidedly negative. I really had few friends in high school anyway. What would be the point of me going anyway? ("Hey look, you guys didn't kill me! Hey look, thirty years later and I'm not a bloated fat ass!").  Plus, the reunion isn't even anywhere cool. It's at a bowling alley/restaurant in my old hometown, or the town that was my home between 1979 and the late 1980s. I have a hard time considering this particular place my "hometown" since it was the fourth place I lived in by the age of eleven and it just never felt like home. I always felt like an outsider there, and feel even more like an alien when I visit there now.

So that's the story of that. No high school reunion. I've never been to any of my high school reunions and don't think I ever will. It's not even that I feel any negativity towards the people with whom I went to school. I really do not--at least not anymore. I just...don't care.

Friday, June 24, 2016

My love of the Tragically Hip, and my review of the new album Man Machine Poem


This has been a Tragically Hip-centric blog for the last few weeks, and will remain so for at least one more post--because on June 17 the Hip released their 13th album, Man Machine Poem. Naturally, I feel compelled to write about it.

I don't know if I've ever adequately explained how much I love this band, or how baffled I am that they never made a dent outside of Canada. It's a subject for another blog post to theorize as to why the Hip have never penetrated the States or the rest of the world--but frankly it's a subject that most fans of the band, and the band themselves, are tired of discussing.

Though I'd heard of the Hip going as far back as the late '80s/early '90s, and was completely enraptured by Sarah Polley's gorgeous cover of "Courage" on the Sweet Hereafter soundtrack in 1997. (I liked it so much, in fact, that I bought the CD). It wasn't until early 2006, when I borrowed their hits collection Yer Favourites from the library, that I was irrevocably hooked to the band. (I checked out Wilco's A Ghost is Born at the same time and was fully prepared to love that album and not be moved by the Hip. The complete opposite happened).

I distinctly remember the moment when the Hip clicked with me. I was driving from my (then) house in Portland, Michigan to my job at the Mason library. I had Yer Favourites playing on the car CD player--I think at this point I was on day two of my item checkout period--and the song "At the Hundredth Meridian" came on. "Hundredth Meridian" is a pile-driving rocker wherein Gord Downie paints a picture of the raw, untamed, sometimes bleak landscape of the Canadian prairie. After describing "the hundredth meridian/where the Great Plains begin," Downie pleads to an unnamed person or figure, "If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me/If they bury me someplace I don't want to be/You'll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously/Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees/Whispers of disease and acts of enormity/And lower me slowly and sadly and properly/Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy." Where do I start with this lyric? I envision the narrator as an urban dweller who has a love and respect for the wide open grandeur of the Great Plains, and simply wants to be returned to nature when he dies, not trapped in polluted, confined artificiality of the city with its "garbage bag trees." Of course, the real kicker for me is Ry Cooder as eulogist.

It wasn't just the lyrics that grabbed me, it was "Hundredth Meridian"'s raw and aggressive music that perfectly matched the words that Gord Downie was singing/shouting/pleading/intoning. So maybe it was a matter of being the right song at the right moment in time that convinced me then and there that I'd just heard what might be one of the greatest rock bands in the world--and why the hell did it take me so long to discover these guys, and why the hell didn't everybody else in the world understand this fundamental truth?

Fast forward ten years. I own essentially every recorded product the Tragically Hip have commercially released, have seen them live twice, and regard them with even more esteem now than I did in 2006.

And now on to the new album Man Machine Poem:

First impressions are always pretty much worthless when it comes to Tragically Hip albums. But with the knowledge that, due to Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer diagnosis, this is likely the Hip's swan song, the album has built-in poignancy that may immediately color impressions.

Still, as any Hip fan will tell you, one's relationship with any of the band's records evolves over time. One of the reasons the Hip have never reached a wider audience is that, generally speaking, their music isn't always immediately accessible.

Man Machine Poem takes its name from a song by the same name from the Hip's previous album, Now For Plan A. I'm still trying to understand the significance of this, and I'm not sure if I ever will.

In any case, the album is book ended by the songs "Man" and "Machine." Both songs are companion pieces with similar, equally impenetrable lyrics. "Man" opens with a garbled, squiggly blast of sound that could be the haywire voice of a "machine" more than a "man." Or is it an interstellar transmission? Perhaps Gord Downie is commenting on how "the singularity is near" and it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the difference between man and machine? Who knows?

On the first few listens, Man Machine Poem strikes me as both the most subdued record of the Hip's career and their most musically adventurous since at least 2000's Music @ Work. "Man" in particular would not be out of place on a Radiohead album. For a band like the Hip, which has never been excessively experimental in the past, this is saying something.

"In a World Possessed By the Human Mind," the first single off the album, is the closest to "classic Hip" with its alternatingly jangly, melodic, and slashing guitar work along with Downie's uniquely off-kilter vocal phrasing.

By and large, Man Machine Poem is meditative, exemplified by songs such as "In Sarnia," "What Blue," and the dark, moody Day For Night-ish "Hot Mic."

As a mid-Michiganian, the gateway to Canada for me is Sarnia. Whenever we drive to Canada, we cross the Blue Water Bridge and enter this city across the St. Clair River from Port Huron. Naturally, when I saw the Hip had a song with Sarnia in the title, I was intrigued. Like almost every song Gord Downie has ever written, the lyrics defy easy interpretation. But the key line of "In Sarnia" is "Sarnia, you're on my mind." I choose to view the song as a tribute to the city...or is it? But with a mercurial lyricist like Gord Downie, it's impossible to tell for sure. Sarnia could easily be a metaphor for a woman or some other elusive love interest.

Drummer Johnny Fay's playing on this album is as inventive and intricate as I've ever heard, and shines on the rollicking "Here in the Dark" and the album closer "Machine."

If I have one major criticism of the album thus far, it's that Gord Downie's vocals are buried in the mix. This is disappointing because Man Machine Poem is most likely his final musical testament. I'd like to more clearly hear what he has to say.

Besides the idiosyncratic vocals of Downie, the Hip's most distinguishable feature is the duo of rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois and lead guitarist Rob Baker. Befitting the quieter nature of the record, there are no guitar pyrotechnics here. Instead, Langlois and Baker color the songs with more subtlety, from the finger-picking and gentle strumming on the elegiac "Ocean Next" to the fore mentioned melodic licks of "In a World Possessed By the Human Mind."

Those are my initial impressions of the album. I'm certainly not the most unbiased reviewer, so read my commentary with that in mind. I like Man Machine Poem, and I'm sure my feelings for the album will evolve over time. The days of fiery rockers like "Blow at High Dough" and "Little Bones" are long gone. This is the work of a veteran band reaching the finish line with a little extra spring in its step and its head held high.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My two-bit presidential opinions

It looks like Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic Party's candidacy for president.
I've been a Bernie Sanders supporter essentially since he entered the race, and I will keep my Bernie car magnet on the back of my minivan until he officially concedes. However, I am not one of those "Bernie bros" who we continually hear about in the media. (I have yet to actually encounter one of these alleged "Bernie bros," but that's another story). I've been mulling over my options for some time now, and my feeling is that it is in my and everyone's best interests to vote for Clinton in November.

Now, I know that Clinton is not a perfect candidate. She is, at best, a moderate Democrat and has plenty of baggage. I hope that if Sanders remains in the race until the Democratic convention, he can at least influence the party platform and get more progressive policies instituted.
And then there's Trump.

The Donald is quite possibly the worst (allegedly) mainstream presidential candidate of my lifetime. I probably don't need to go into detail about why he is so despicable. Just watch or read the news any day of he week to learn about Trump's latest insulting, racist comment or sexist remark. I cannot fathom this man as President of the United States and leader of the free world.

I'd love for once to be able to vote for a person I believed in for president; someone I actually liked. (I actually DID do this when I voted for Obama, but it seems that more often than not I am voting against someone rather than for someone).

I'd love to vote for Bernie Sanders as a write-in, or for Jill Stein of the Green Party. It's not that I hate Hillary Clinton, it's just that she is far too mainstream and corporate for my tastes. But the stakes are too high in this election to waste my vote on a third party candidate who has no prayer of winning.
So, for now, I am biting the bullet and backing Hillary Clinton in November.

But, I just may change my mind again between now and November, so stay tuned if you care.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Tragically Hip "Up to Here" (1989) review


(The second in my series of Tragically Hip album overviews, in which I investigate the discography of this criminally undervalued Canadian band).


The Tragically Hip's debut long player, Up to Here, is a considerable improvement over their tentative eponymous EP. The band was paired with experienced and respected studio vet Don Smith, fresh off of engineering U2's blockbuster Rattle and Hum, the Traveling Wilbury's successful first album, and Keith Richards' debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. With Smith in the producer's chair, and the recording sessions at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios, the Hip's sound is punchier and more assertive than on their 1987 EP.

But it wasn't just Don Smith or the recording studio that made a difference in the Tragically Hip's sound, Gord Downie and company's songwriting had improved exponentially in the intervening two years. Anthemic tunes like "Blow at High Dough" and "New Orleans is Sinking" were immediately embraced by fans and became consistent concert staples for the rest of the band's career.

Besides Gord Downie's distinctive vocals and lyrics, a major key to the Hip's sound is the interweaving guitar work of Rob Baker and Paul Langlois. The Baker/Langlois attack is unleashed immediately on the swaggering "Blow at High Dough." "They shot a movie once/In my hometown/everybody was in it/from miles around," so begins Downie's narrative, which after that fairly straight-forward opening, ventures into more impressionistic territory. Is the song about a porn film? Or is it about something else? The only one who really knows is Gord Downie. Whatever the song is about, it rocks hard, dude!

The next two songs on Up to Here, "I Believe in You" and "New Orleans is Sinking," are rock and blooze workouts. The kind that the Hip spent years tearing through at the sweaty Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and numerous other bars across the Canadian provinces.

The Hip slow it down for the dark, harrowing storytelling of "38 Years Old." With barely more than acoustic guitar accompaniment, Downie relates the story of "Michael", one of twelve men who escape from the Millhaven Institution--referred to as "Millhaven Maximum Security" in the song--in Bath, Ontario. (The song is loosely based on real events). After his escape, Michael returns to his childhood home and has a brief reunion with his family before the house is surrounded by police and he is taken back to prison. This capsule description is selling the song short. It's among the most linear and direct songs that Downie has ever written, and is superb in its poignancy and its small details ("same pattern on the table/same clock on the wall/Been one seat empty eighteen years in all" and the pointed description of Michael's life: "He's 38 years old/Never kissed a girl") What makes Michael's story even more moving is that, as told in the song, he has been imprisoned for a crime that seems a justifiable action.

"She Didn't Know" is heartland rock with more dark subject matter, and "Boots or Hearts" is the Hip doing their best Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Women" impression. (“She Didn’t Know” ia about a woman at her wit’s end in an abusive relationship, while "Boots or Hearts" is a more lighthearted and amusing look at a relationship going down the drain).  On this album and to a lesser extent on its follow-up, 1991's Road Apples, the band wears its love for the Stones brightly and boldly on its collective shoulder. There's nothing wrong with loving the Stones. If you're gonna emulate anyone, you could  do worse than the Stones. With the sympatico guitar interplay of Baker and Langlois, the Tragically Hip are more than equipped for it.

At this point in their career, the Hip were still trying to find their sound, and were not quite capable of filling an album with great material. Up to Here is frontloaded, with the best songs in the LP's first half. Though songs like the rollicking "Everytime You Go" and "When the Weight Comes Down" are pleasant enough, they are filler. To the band's credit, just when it appears that the album is about to blandly stagger to a dull ending, Downie and company pull out the elegiac, R.E.M.-ish jangle folk pop of "Another Midnight" before concluding with the low-key and dark "Opiated."

Up to Here is a significant step up from the Tragically Hip's debut EP, but is still somewhat inconsistent and often derivative. Still, the songwriting and musicianship are strong, but would become even better on the next album, Road Apples.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Up To Here...and an old violin

I am currently slavishly laboring on a review of the Tragically Hip's debut full-length Up To Here, because I know my dear readers are dying to immerse themselves in my high-minded opinion of this obscure album by this "only known in Canada" band.

So anyway, keep your eyes peeled for that. I hope to have it up sometime this week.

In other news, our kids are wrapping up their school years, which means spring orchestra concerts.
I've always been a fairly emotional sort, but these concerts really turn on my tear faucet. I do my best to cover it up, but it's hard. These kids (not just my kids but all of the kids) are so damned good and they work so hard at perfecting their musical skills.

I'm doubly stirred by the fact my older son is playing my grandfather's old violin. After my grandpa died in 1963, the violin was silenced. I inherited it in the mid-1990s. Though I had it reconditioned to make it playable again, I never did pick it up myself. At best, I bought some time for the violin. With a minimum of tweaking, the violin was ready for my son to play it after he'd outgrown his smaller rental violin. He's been playing his great granddad's [provenance unknown] violin for about four years now. After four decades of silence, this violin is making music again.

Maybe you can understand why I get misty during these concerts.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Trouble Boys


Last night, I finally finished Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys, his excellent and incredibly detailed biography of the Replacements.

First of all, I always knew the Replacements were NOT saints, but I had no idea the extent of their bad boy mayhem. Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, Paul Westerberg, and Chris Mars all drank like fish. In fact, it seems that for about a decade, they subsisted almost exclusively on alcohol. It's a goddamned miracle that they--with the exception of Bob Stinson--are still alive, based on the abuse their bodies--specifically their livers--have taken over the years.

In addition to their prolific booze consumption, they routinely trashed tour buses, hotel rooms, and had little respect for any kind of authority figure. The book is littered with examples of self-destructive behavior. I'm not complaining, though. The book is highly entertaining, and the band's hijinks left me either laughing or simply thinking, "What the fuck?! They actually DID that?!"

Mixed among the laughs are stories of sadness. And this leads me to Bob Stinson. The man had about the most horrific childhood imaginable. He was shuttled from home to home, and badly mistreated by his biological father and stepfather. The miracle is that he found the guitar, and music provided salvation for him. Mehr relates a story of an insightful social worker--Stinson was in almost constant trouble with substance abuse and bad behavior leading him to spend lots of time in juvenile facilities--who recognized that music was the one creative outlet that young Bob had. The social worker recommended that Bob's musical interest be encouraged. Though he never was able to shake substance abuse, and in fact may have suffered from bipolar disorder, it's not melodramatic to say that music saved his life. Despite the fact he died at the young age of 35, if Stinson hadn't had music, his life could have been cut short much earlier than that.

Bob didn't just find salvation in music, but he provided a livelihood (and a career) for his half-brother Tommy by making the kid take up the bass.


The book isn't simply about bad behavior and wild escapades. Mehr delves deeply into the Replacements' music and Paul Westerberg's songwriting. Though I've been a fan of the band since the mid-1980s, I didn't know much about the creation of their songs and albums. Thanks to Mehr's great research and experience as a music critic, we get wonderful behind-the-scenes views of all the band's LPs.

As any Replacements fan knows, the band's live shows were notorious. Depending on the night, their shows could either be the greatest performances anyone had ever seen, or colossal train wrecks. (Though the train wrecks became less frequent after Bob Stinson was replaced by Slim Dunlap and the band became a tad more dependable). Mehr provides insight into exactly what went into whether the Replacements were dialed in, or headed to disaster.

I need to cut this little review short, so I'll just close by saying if you're a fan of the Replacements, you need to read this book. And if I'm up to it, I'll add more to this review later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sad news about the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie



First it was Bowie, then Lemmy, then Merle, and finally on to Prince. Now we have received word that Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

2016 officially sucks.

Now, I know that Gord Downie isn't nearly as famous as aforementioned quartet of iconic musicians, and thankfully Gord is still living, but the news--for the Tragically Hip's biggest fans--is equally as terrible and unthinkable.

I've decided that I need to finally follow through on my little essays about all of the Hip's albums, a project I started several years ago on this blog but only made it through the band's first self-titled EP. I've taken some notes on the Hip's debut full-length album Up To Here and hope to post it soon.


"Courage, it couldn't come at a worse time"

Random stuff written back on May 25th and now seeing the light of day

"I write to my mortality."--Sherman Alexie, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment podcast episode 25. Although I'd never compare myself to an accomplished author like Sherman Alexie, or most accomplished authors out there for that matter, I'd say at least half of my compulsion to write is based on what Alexie says. Maybe it's egotistical on my part, but I'd like my ramblings to possibly outlive me, so I guess I write for some sense of "immortality."


Alexie and co-host Jess Walter also talk about Go Set a Watchman and how they weren't bothered that Atticus Finch is not the paragon of virtuousness from To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree. I wasn't bothered by this characterization of Atticus. It seemed fitting for the time period and setting portrayed in the book.


I'm a little saddened and disturbed by the fact that I sometimes dream that I'm on Facebook.


The Michigan State Senate is terrible and Governor Snyder is a crook. Just sayin'.


Isn't "Just sayin'" the most passively aggressive and irritating phrase currently in popular usage? Just sayin'.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Some shit I wrote about Michael Jackson and Prince seven years ago


As anyone who wastes too much time on Facebook knows, every day something called "Your Memories" pops up. Facebook reminded me that seven years ago, a fellow FB friend posted an "album face-off" between Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Prince's Dirty Mind. Here are a few comments I made. I don't know that there's anything earth-shattering in these comments, but I still hold true to what I wrote in 2009. By the way, keep in mind that both Michael Jackson and Prince were still living at this point.
Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall vs. Prince’s Dirty Mind (May 12, 2009)

Both of these albums are near and dear to my heart, as I still have both of them on vinyl. My mom gave me "Off the Wall" for my birthday in March '80. It's hard to conceive of a time when MJ was the coolest person on the planet, but he was at the peak of his powers in '79''80 (and up through "Thriller"). He'd just turned 21, had left Motown for Epic, and was free to do his own thing. "Off the Wall" was great then and still funky as hell 30 years later.

Having said that, I'm going to give a slight nod to "Dirty Mind." When that album came out, it was as if it had landed from another planet. I still remember being mesmerized by the utter strangeness of the "Dirty Mind" video. Odd to think now, but back then Michael Jackson was the nice guy with the pop-friendly tunes your mom might even like, while Prince was the X-rated bad boy whose records you had to sneak through the door. --Ultimately, I think "DM" is slightly better than "OTW."
 

More thoughts on Prince:

"Darling Nikki," --oh my!! I recall going to a summer camp at MSU in August '84 and all the kids were a buzz not only about "Purple Rain" but about this song called "Darling Nikki" and its famous line about what she does with the magazine. I had not yet heard the song (or the album) but could hardly wait to get my hands on it (correction: I actually DID own the album, as I'd purchased in in Minneapolis the month before, but hadn't yet had a chance to hear it). The kids spoke of "Darling Nikki" in hushed tones, it was so scandalous! Anytime I even think about what I was into during summer '84, it's Detroit Tigers, Ghostbusters, and Purple Rain! (Wish I could also say that I was digging "Double Nickels on the Dime" and "Zen Arcade" in '84, but I was a nerd from the Thumb and didn't know about those yet!).

Monday, May 9, 2016

Alejandro Escovedo/Lucette at the Ark, Ann Arbor


The following is an slightly edited version of an email I recently sent to a music podcast about an Alejandro Escovedo concert I attended on Wednesday, May 4:

I wanted to tell you about a recent "Dad Rock experience" I had, but first some back story. (Please bear with me--I'll try and not get too long winded):

About a year ago, I reconnected with one of my old college roommates, Paul. We hadn't talked to each other in well over 20 years, but it was as if we'd never lost contact--and one interest we continue to share all these years later is a love of music.

Paul now lives in Lubbock, Texas and is deeply into music from the Lone Star State. In the last few months, he's turned me on to Dallas, Texas-based Alejandro Escovedo. As you guys may already know, Escovedo has a music career dating all the way back to the punk scene of the 1970s when he was a member of the Nuns, then on to Rank and File in the '80s, finally starting his solo career in the early '90s. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I was completely unfamiliar with Escovedo's body of work until just the last few months. To say I have some catching up to do is an understatement, but it's always fun to discover great music you didn't know existed.

Okay, on to the main reason I'm writing to you. This past Wednesday (May 4), Paul was up in Michigan from Texas and invited me to see Alejandro Escovedo (and opening act Lucette) at a small venue in Ann Arbor called the Ark.

Lucette is a young female singer/songwriter from Edmonton, Alberta. Accompanying her lovely singing with only a portable piano (the electric kind that actually sounds like a real piano) she impressed me a great deal. She has one album called "Black is the Color" and if you haven't already heard it, you should check it out. I don't know who to compare her to, but her music has a high lonesome dark quality. It conjures images of a windswept cold day on the Canadian prairie. 

After her opening set, Lucette hung out at the merch table and I was able to get a signed copy of her CD (yes, I still buy CDs!). She's a friendly and gracious young woman, and a talent to watch.

If you guys are already familiar with Alejandro Escovedo, I don't want to bore you with excessive details, but to be succinct about the matter, he is a terrific live performer. He entertained the audience with touching and often hilarious stories, delivered beautiflul tributes to David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Prince. (His niece, Sheila E., was once engaged to Prince, in addition to being a musical collaborator with the Purple One). Escovedo's music is unclassifiable, running the gamut from gentle folk to fiery electric guitar freakouts. It's as if one took Elvis Costello, David Hidalgo/Cesar Rosas, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Mott the Hoople, Ronnie Lane, Neil Young, added a pinch of the Stooges and the MC5 and make a musical soup--you'd come up with Alejandro Escovedo. And the guy is just a hell of a songwriter. His songs are loving and detailed stories of the human experience. In short,  Alejandro Escovedo is a musical polymath.

To top it off, Mr. Escovedo had a meet-and-greet after the show and couldn't have been a sweeter guy.

I see that he will be in your neck of the woods (Alexandria, VA, the Birchmere) on May 27. I highly recommend you two gentlemen go check him out. Maybe bring Mary with you, too. If you're lucky, Lucette will be opening. And if I may be so bold, have Alejandro and/or Lucette on the podcast (if possible). Alejandro Escovedo is one of America's best kept musical secrets, and Lucette is a talent that deserves more exposure.

If you've made it this far into the email, thanks for reading.

Take care and keep up the good work!

Mark Neese

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Minneapolis 1985 (and a few other years)

Thinking quite a bit about Prince's death. Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Trouble Boys, the recent biography of those other Twin Cities icons, The Replacements. I have Minneapolis on my mind.

Just a warning: This is not the story of a cool kid who was hip to the 1980s music scene in Minneapolis, but a somewhat dorky teen who had little idea of what was happening but could definitely feel the vibe of a hip city. Though I didn't know about the Replacements and Husker Du until 1986, I had the sense that Minneapolis had it going on like few other places I'd ever been to before.

Now a little backstory...

I may have mentioned this before, but I took trips to Minneapolis in the summers of 1981, '82, '84, and '85. My uncle Jim worked for the chief of the Baraga (MI) Ojibwa Tribal Community and made business trips to Minneapolis. I don't know if this was coincidence, but almost every time I went up north to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins it coincided with one of their trips to the Twin Cities. I suppose it's possible that they purposely planned my visits for these trips, knowing that it would be fun for me.


When we went, my aunt and uncle preferred to stay at the Normandy Inn at 405 S. 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis. I have fond memories of the place, and am happy to see that it's still in business (now under the Best Western umbrella). The Normandy had (and perhaps still has) a good restaurant, and one of my fondest memories of my uncle is him becoming particularly ebullient and playful after a bottle of wine (or two) when we all dined in the restaurant on one particular evening (I don't remember the year).

The Normandy is where I played foosball with a friendly kid about my own age from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I also remember watching, with my cousins in our hotel room, the cheesy Sylvester Stallone/Michael Caine soccer flick Victory and equally corny Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive. I'm not really sure why I remember those movies, but it might be because I had so much fun laughing with my older cousins and hooting on the movies while we watched them. I think it also felt very "adult" for the three of us to have our very own hotel room away from the adults.

Minneapolis is where I saw Brian DePalma's Blow Out in the summer of 1981. I'm pretty sure my aunt, uncle, and cousins wanted to see it because it was the latest John Travolta flick, not quite realizing the graphic subject matter. However, I don't think I was scarred from the experience.

I'm straying a bit from what the focus of this post is supposed to be, which is the first year I went to Minneapolis alone, 1985. As it turns out, that's the last time I've been to the Twin Cities, even though one of my cousins currently lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

If 1984 was the pinnacle of the Minneapolis music scene--which with the exception of Purple Rain, I was completely oblivious--1985 was the victory lap. Unfortunately, I was still pretty clueless about Minneapolis music in '85. One thing that was clear to me though was that Minneapolis was the most cosmopolitan city I'd ever seen. It was clear that the people, buildings, streets, restaurants, and retail establishments were much more happening than anything I'd experienced in Michigan. If only I'd been aware of The Replacements, Husker Du, Suicide Commandos (who I believe were defunct by 1985), and to a lesser extent The Suburbs were, my mind would've been completely split open. (I actually kinda knew who The Suburbs were, and will explain later).

So how did I end up in Minneapolis in 1985, you might ask? (if you haven't already bailed on this long-winded blog post). By 1985, my two eldest cousins were out of college and both living in Minneapolis. (Coincidentally, my cousin Joe worked at the Normandy Inn). After visiting me and my parents in Michigan, the plan was for me to drive with my cousin Joe back to Minneapolis where I'd stay for about a week and then take the bus to Baraga. My aunt and uncle would then drive me to Mackinaw City and hand me off to my parents, and we'd head home from there.

After failing miserably in my attempts to master driving his automatic transmission Subaru, Joe ended up driving the two of us all the way back to the Twin Cities. If I remember correctly, Joe lived with two roommates in a St. Paul apartment. It was here that I got my first taste of fresh-out-of-college bachelor life. Actually, both of Joe's roommates were still students, though I believe one was a grad student at the University of Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities, I quickly learned the...er, excitement...of public transportation. I witnessed a guy on the bus have a seizure and flop around like a fish on the floor. When it was over, he sat back in his seat as if nothing had happened. Quite an eye-opener for a 17-year-old kid.

After that initial bus trip that took us from St. Paul to the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis (home of the University of Minnesota), I saw two men affectionately holding hands. It was the first time I'd ever witnessed two gay people openly expressing themselves. At the time, it was akin to seeing an exotic animal in the wild for the first time. I hope that comparison doesn't sound flippant, it's not meant that way. It's just at the time, I'd only heard of gay people and had never "seen" a gay person, at least not to my meager adolescent knowledge. It was all a part of my education. I wasn't shocked by what I saw, but certainly intrigued.

My cousin Joe and his friends like to blow off a little steam after work and school, so I remember tagging along with them. One time they had drinks at Nicollet Mall while I poked around the stores and bought (gulp) Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger. (Did I mention that I wasn't that cool when I was 17? Though I did also buy two other albums on that particular trip to Minneapolis: Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends and The Best of the Doors. Slightly less dorky, perhaps).

On another evening, Joe and his two roommates took me to the restaurant on the top floor of the IDS Center, the tallest building in Minneapolis. They drank Grolsch beers and I was so intrigued by the fancy bottles that I took them home with me. Stowed them in my suitcase. I had those empty bottles for several years.

On my last day in Minneapolis, I had some time to kill downtown before my bus left town. I wandered around and stumbled into the First Avenue/7th Street Entry. I remember thinking that it looked shabbier and seedier than I expected. (For some reason, Purple Rain gave me the impression that it was a gleaming club. Watching the movie again now, I don't know why I thought that way). I also saw a flyer posted on a street advertising a show by local music heroes The Suburbs. "Who are The Suburbs?" I thought. Now I wish I'd had the forethought to rip down all the music flyers I could find and save them for posterity. If only I had a WABAC Machine.

Regrettably, that's the last time I've been to Minneapolis. A flurry of visits from 1981 to 1985, but none in the last 31 years. I think it's about time I went back and took MY family.

In the autumn of 1986, as a college freshman, I learned about two Minneapolis bands called The Replacements and Husker Du. I liked those bands when I heard them, and I still like them to this day. Between the two of them, I own almost everything they ever recorded.

And them there is the late, great Prince. As I have been dusting off the Prince albums I have in my collection (almost everything from Dirty Mind to Diamonds and Pearls--I've never pulled the trigger on Prince's first two albums) I am struck more than ever before at what a genius he was. How is it that I never truly appreciated how amazing he was until after he is gone?

So there is my Minneapolis story. I hope I didn't lose your interest too badly. A dorky teenager who received at least a little education from that fine Midwestern city.


My remaining souvenirs from Minneapolis (1981-1985)


I recently unearthed these postcards I brought home from my various trips to Minneapolis. There is the City Center, where I purchased my copy of Purple Rain in July 1984, the Minnesota Zoo (that I visited in 1985) and a few others that I probably took from the lobby of the Normandy Inn. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince

Alright, this has to stop. Enough with every great musician dying recently. It's getting ridiculous.

I don't even know where to start with this one. It blindsided me. I knew that Prince had a health scare last week, but I never expected him to frickin' DIE a week later.

Do you remember how, after Bowie died, I wrote about how his Let's Dance album penetrated the hinterlands of rural Michigan? It was exactly the same deal with Prince when 1999 was released, and then the doors blew off their hinges two years later when Purple Rain exploded.

Prince introduced R&B and funk to quite a few small town, Midwestern white kids. And it's safe to say that if you came of age in the 1980s, Prince was a major part of your life's soundtrack.

It was in a van heading home from a high school golf tournament when I first remember hearing about Prince. The year was 1982. I remember that the Brewers were playing the Cardinals in the World Series. Conversation went from the Fall Classic to this weird guy with equally odd name of Prince who sang songs that were, on the whole, decidedly R-rated. I was intrigued...

But it wasn't until I first saw the video for "When Doves Cry" in 1984 that I was completely blown away. "When Doves Cry," with its hypnotic electro-beat, shredding introductory guitar riff, and the Purple One's enigmatic vocals and lyrics, was (and still is) a mesmerizing song. It has to rank as the one of the most daring singles ever released.

It was a full month and change between the release of this incredible single and when Purple Rain was unleashed. If memory serves me, the build-up for this album was intense. By the time it was released and I finally had an opportunity to buy it, I happened to be on a trip to the Twin Cities with my aunt, uncle and cousins. With Prince's international explosion that summer, the excitement in Minneapolis was palpable. You could just feel it in the air. Thrilled beyond belief in a way seldom approached since, I bought my vinyl copy of Purple Rain at a record story in the City Center shopping mall in downtown Minneapolis.

That August of 1984, I went to a two-week summer camp for high school science and art geeks that was held at Michigan State University. One of my best memories are the dances that we had in the McDonel Hall kiva, absolutely losing our minds to the music from Purple Rain in particular. The slow build and anticipation of "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life..." and slow dancing to "Purple Rain" (the title track). Teenage hormones and unbridled lust for life. I can't hear Purple Rain without thinking of that summer camp and and all the joyous experience meeting so many kids of like mind for the first time in my life.

Prince was by my side for the rest of high school. Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade were in heavy rotation throughout those years. In 1985, I took another trip to Minneapolis to visit my two older cousins Joe and Sue, who were living there. I'll never forget walking around downtown and stumbling in the First Avenue/7th Street Entry, made famous in the movie Purple Rain. My impression was that it was quite a bit shabbier looking in person than it appeared in the movie. (I haven't seen it since '85, so I'm not sure if this is still the case).

By the time I got to university, Prince didn't seem quite as cool anymore--as I got into the "college rock" of R.E.M., Husker Du, The Replacements, U2, etc. Though I liked "Sign O the Times" (1987) and "Alphabet Street" (1988), I didn't bother to buy the records. In the skewed, self-righteous logic of a college kid, I deemed the music of Prince to be "high school music" and blew it off.

It wasn't until the mid to late '90s that I backtracked and rediscovered the music that I missed.

There's no doubt that Prince lost his way a bit musically in the last two decades of his career, and Diamonds and Pearls is about where I stopped with Prince. There's no denying the man was a musical genius, and for many of us his albums and singles constitute a major part of our life's soundtrack.

R.I.P., Prince Rogers Nelson.

Me, John, and Pete: 1986 or 1987



A college friend of mine just recently--today, in fact--posted on Facebook this old picture of me and some friends. It really blew me away because I'd never seen it before.

I'm pretty sure this is either freshman or sophomore year at Michigan State, which would make it circa 1986/1987. (In case you're wondering, I'm the guy in the red shirt).

I can't quite put into words how gleeful I am to see this photo. The guy standing next to me is Pete, who introduced me to The Smiths, The Feelies, and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks. Yes, he was "that guy": the guy you always hope to meet in college. The guy who says, "If you're into so-and-so, you might like such-and-such." He was the cooler guy who leads you down unknown paths.

The first time I met Pete was my second or third day on the MSU campus in September 1986. I was dragged out of my room by a few other freshmen to take on the daring odyssey of visiting each and every dorm room on our floor, just to meet these other kids and see what was going on. It beat sitting meekly in our rooms twiddling our thumbs. G-69 was the last room on our floor before one hit the stairwell: the room of Paul, Pete, and their third roommate whose name escapes me. Their room was already pretty well appointed, and music was playing. Pete lounged on the top bunk and the moment he saw me, he said something like, "Hey, you look like this guy!" as he pointed to a magazine picture of (who I later learned was) the Smiths' lead singer Morrissey that was taped on the wall behind him. I must admit at the time that I had no idea who Morrissey was and, in fact, thought it was Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys. (Embarrassing admission--but I think I've finally reached the age where I just don't care about "embarrassing admissions" anymore).

Anyway, my nickname was firmly and irrevocably in place, created by Pete. I would henceforth be referred to as "Morrissey." As a result, I had to know more about who this Morrissey guy was, and I quickly became a Smiths fan--aided by Pete who let me borrow his copy of The Queen is Dead. I learned that the Smiths' music spoke to me, as it did many angst-ridden young people. (By the end of the 1986 calendar year, I believe I owned all the albums the Smiths had released up to that point).

This photo is wonderful in so many ways. My roommate John is in the foreground, covering his face. He's either laughing or in pain--I'm not sure which. All of your 1980s college dorm room signifiers are there: my life-size Jim Morrison poster, my proudly framed "Walked, Swam, Hunted, Danced, Sang" Lifes Rich Pageant-era R.E.M. poster, and the Sports Illustrated Cheryl Tiegs. We had to have some cheese cake on the walls, that was a must back in the '80s. (I have no idea if, in these somewhat less misogynistic times in which the objectification of women is frowned upon, guys have pictures of scantily clad women on their dorm room walls anymore. In fact, I have no idea how college kids decorate their rooms these days).


This old photo probably means nothing to anyone outside of myself and maybe a few people who lived on Ground Floor East Shaw Hall in 1986-1987, but it gives me a tremendous amount of joy to see it again after all these years.