Thursday, July 10, 2014

Saying goodbye

By Chuck Bauerlein

Last January, my sister in Wisconsin wrote to the other siblings some news about my mother, Agnes. She is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s disease and her decline had taken an ominous turn. Mom’s physician had told my sister that my Mother was having trouble swallowing food.

Families who have witnessed their loved ones slowly dying know this is one of the final stages of this pernicious disease. When a person can’t remember to swallow his or her food, the body cannot sustain itself. Her doctor said she would likely have between six and 12 months to live.

I knew I might be pushing my luck if I waited to see her until this summer, but my work schedule was full and other siblings were going out to visit her, so I waited until this past weekend to go and say my farewells.

I arrived in Oshkosh on the evening of July 3rd, but didn’t go visit her until the morning to the 4th of July. She was sitting at her standard spot at a table with two other patients who could still talk. 

Her head was bent low and she was slowly taking food from one of the home assistants. I took over the feeding and spent an hour slowly helping my mom eat a small canister of peach yogurt and one scrambled egg, one small swallow at a time. She was able to wash the soft food down pulling cranberry juice out of a cup with a plastic straw.
Mom did not know who I was; she had no recognition of me. She ate with her eyes closed.

I talked to her and tried to engage her, or at least get her to open her eyes, but without any luck. I noticed several other patients in the room were not eating either. I don’t know if they were not hungry or if they, too, were in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and simply had forgotten how to feed themselves. There were nine patients total and very little conversation in the room – except for the nurse assistants encouraging them to eat.

Afterwards I took my mother in her wheelchair out to a small garden near her room. A pleasant Wisconsin summer morning unfolded before us, alive with birdsong and the scent of blooming flowers. Mom was oblivious. I reached out and took her hand in mine and was surprised when I felt her aged, translucent fingers squeezing mine. I talked to her, but her head remained permanently fixed in a bent position. She was there, but she wasn’t in the present.

Later in the day, a driver from her care facility brought her out to my sister’s farm in Neenah, about five or six miles away. My brother Mark, who lives about a mile from my mom, prepared a typical July 4th  feast of grilled corn on the cob, potato salad and hamburgers. Mark, my sister, her husband Michael and me and Mom sat under a huge shade tree and enjoyed the meal. Heidi spoon fed my Mother soft food that she managed to swallow.

The chitchat seemed to get through to my mother. An occasional smile would spread across her lips. Maybe she could recognize the voices of my Wisconsin siblings. Maybe they were familiar enough for my mother to recognize and remember the sound of their voices and evoke some distant memory. It was hard to know. But it was a wonderful moment to witness.

My sister took some pictures to commemorate my visit to Mother and our 4th of July. I reached around her shoulders and pulled her close and kissed her.

On Sunday morning, my brother came with me to visit Mom. It was after breakfast and we sat with her in the garden. His familiar voice cheered her. We talked about the Phillies’ sorry season or something as trivial. Her eyes opened wide for the first time in three days and she smiled. Mark noticed and talked to her and made a comment that made her chuckle. It was undeniable. For a minute or three, she was there with us. Alive again; fully in the moment. She couldn’t talk, but she could communicate with her eyes and her face was full of love and happiness.  It was a small miracle. I felt so blessed to witness it.

Later that evening, my sister Heidi came to help me serve Mom dinner at the care facility. The morose silence of the dining room was more than Heidi could bear and she suggested we take Mom outside to the garden. There we slowly fed Mom her meal and engaged in a lively discussion about Heidi’s work for a Wisconsin corporation.

In the middle of our conversation my mother started to laugh, a belly laugh from deep inside of herself. She was trying to with all her will to articulate a thought and utter a complete sentence. She was joining the conversation. Heidi and I looked at one another in complete astonishment. Then we both laughed. And Mom laughed with us.

Before I left Oshkosh on Monday, I went back to feed her one last meal. Peach yogurt and a scrambled egg again. It took 75 minutes for her to eat a meal I could have devoured in 90 seconds. But I was conscious of every bite; every swallow. And I reminded myself how there must have been hundreds of hours when my mother was patiently waiting for me to swallow my jarred apricots or baby formula when I was six or seven months old. And how many thousands of times my mother must have performed this same chore with my siblings over the years.

And the seconds of this feeding seemed to rush by like summer lightning and I knew I might never be able to perform this task again. Ever.

I took my mother out to the garden one last time. I took her withered, wrinkled  hand in mind and I told her I hoped I might come back to see her in November for Thanksgiving and she should try to hang on if she could. But I also told her Dad was anxious to see her and it was okay if she had to go.

I told my mother she had been an incredible mother to me and my siblings and how lucky I was to have her in my life for so long. And then I said goodbye. Mom managed to open her eyes for me and I looked into her eyes. I can’t know of course if what I saw was what she saw. But it felt to me as if she seemed to sense this might be the last time we might see one another on this Earth.

Then she squeezed my finger one last time and the light in her eyes seemed to flicker and fade. After a few more minutes in the garden I wheeled her back into the facility and put her in front of the community TV, where two other patients dozed peacefully. 

I pulled her shoulders into my chest and I told her I loved her very much.

I had a plane to catch. It was time to leave.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

mid-year pop music report

Pop music continues to evolve and amaze. Here are some CDs I've been listening to. I have no idea how many of these will make my end of the year list, but for what it's worth, here are a dozen CDs in heavy rotation in my car CD player and at home in the disc changer. Seems a sure bet something here might catch your fancy, too!  

Antlers – “Familiars”. In an interview in Pitchfork,  The Antler’s primary songwriter Peter Silberman dropped Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void”  film as an inspiration for the band’s  2014 effort: “There are different ways to look at death and they don’t have to be depressing at all.” Like both “Hospice” and “Burst Apart”, “Familiars’’ is another trippy, introspective plunge into the netherworld of death and dying. But if you’ve heard this band before, you’ll know this also means another emotionally enthralling trip to a world of transcendence and beauty. “Intruders” and “Surrender” are two slowly developing songs that produce swirls of keyboard, horns and electric guitars  in ways that make the Antler’s music groundbreaking on a grand scale.

Arc Iris – Arc Iris.  Last year, Jocia Adams, a long standing member of the Low Anthem, Providence’s notable folk rock collective, left the band to form her own ensemble, called Arc Iris. I caught her set at the Boot & Saddle in April and it’s easy to see why the slow shuffle Americana music of the Low Anthem may have felt inhibiting to her. Her new collection of songs have an aural sweep that feels mostly like majestic prog rock from the mid-1970's.  Adams sounds liberated on this record, a fresh new voice worth finding.

Beck, “Morning Phase.”  After a six-year hiatus from recording, Beck came back this spring with one of his best recordings, “Morning Phase.” After several records that wallowed in reflective self-pity, Beck’s songwriting on this effort suggests the songwriter has finally come back around to smell the roses and enjoy the taste of honey again. The songs are more fully developed by his band and the music feels less stripped down that previous records. Sonicly, it’s his most ambitious and lush recording since “Sea Change.” A triumphant return to form for one of America’s most enigmatic recording artists.

Laura Cantrell,  “No Way There From Here". Cantrell’s girlish country warble  is in fine fettle on this new collection of well-crafted folk rock songs, her first release of original songs in nine years.   In Pop Matters, Josh Koch notes “the recording quality is stunning, there’s  a serious warmth to everything…. It’s an acoustic audiophile’s dream come true.” A pleasing mélange of instruments helps to elevate Cantrell’s recordings out of the realm of pedestrian country music into something that feels more organic and accomplished at the same time. Pedal steel, slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and electric guitars all blend into one distinctively wonderful album.

Anansy Cisse – “Mali Overdrive.”  Folks who know my musical tastes know already I’ve long been enamored by Mali musicians. Ali Farka Toure ,  Amadou and Mariam and Rokia Traore have all ended up on my end of the year list in the last five or six years. This year’s list is likely to include this beautiful collection of songs from Anansy Cisse, another great Mali artist whose legend is just beginning. The music is delicate and intricate, constructed on a foundation of traditional bass guitar and ngone and soku,  one and two stringed instruments in the guitar family indigenous to West Africa. The calabash, an instrument fashioned out of a gourd and strung with beads, provides percussive sounds. Cisse’s bluesy guitar and earthy, expressive vocals give this African music a distinctively American feel.  Worth finding and savoring.

“Invisible Hour,” Joe Henry.  Henry’s latest effort is a collection of powerful songs that investigates the inner-workings of marriage. The songs are reflective set pieces that delve into the subject matter with sensitivity and insight, full of observational moments and tiny telling details that have always been the songwriter’s forte. Without ever pointing the finger or placing blame with his characters, Henry brings both the joys and heartaches of marriage to this cycle of songs that make his listeners think and feel their way through the labyrinth of love. It may be the most remarkable exploration of the sacred institution since Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”  

Jon Langford – “Here Be Monsters”. The former front man for Britain’s Mekons has long brought a touch of Billy Bragg political populism to his craft.  Langford’s been living in the states long enough to know the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thankfully, we still have his critical eye and sense of sarcasm to carry us through the day. “Be Here Monsters”, played with his new musical collective Orchard Skulls, is worthy of his best, most chaotic work with the Mekons. A mature, seasoned songwriter, working at the top of his game.

Ought. “More Than Any Other Day.”  This one came as a recommendation from my 30-year old son. The kid’s got great taste! (Great singing chops, too!) Ought is a Canadian band that got together during the student protests in 2012 when the provincial government in Quebec tried to raise tuition by 75 percent, provoking school boycotts. Although none of the eight songs on “More Than Any Other Day” deal specifically with this political movement, they seem to channel the anger of those supercharged “Maple Spring” days. If these guys sound like anarchists, you know why. Played with the finger-pointing fury and fervor of American bands like Social Distortion and Flogging Molly.

Parquet Courts, “Sunbathing Animal.”  Parquet Courts manages to sound resoundingly fresh and relevant, despite wearing their musical influences proudly on their sleeves. “Sunbathing Animal” sounds alternately like Pavement, the Velvet Underground, Ween, Wire and Television, sometimes all at the same time. This post-modern mash-up of some of punk rock’s greatest bands  does more than honor the genre. Like most great bands, they seem to reinvent it and call it their own. “Black and White” has a propulsive pace that is downright addictive. “Sunbathing Animal” takes the perspective of a house cat trapped in an apartment. Primal punk: don’t punt! Purchase promptly!

Cookie Rabinowitz – “Four Eyed Soul.” My local public radio station has been playing this local neo-soul singer with the improbable name of Cookie Rabinowitz for about a month now. I caught his show at the “Make Music Philly” festival in a public  park in  Roxborough on Saturday evening. It was a dance fest of the first order. Rabinowitz sounds like he’s taken Sly Stone’s template and run it through a meat grinder with his Kanye CDs. Lyrically whimsical and unabashedly soulful, Cookie’s got a good thang going on with “Four Eyed Soul.” Don’t let those sports goggles fool you, folks! This cat ain’t no freakin’ geek. “I Want to Text You With My Mouth” and the CD's first single, "Self-Loathing". are as infectious as pop music today gets. Cookie cooks!

Temples - "Sun Structures" -- Temples – “Sun Structures”.  Noel Gallagher proclaimed  Temples, the hottest new band in Britain. But try not to hold that against them!  The Temples, following Tame Impala’s template, showcase a wide variety of 60s psychedelic sounds that owe as much to California acid-tripping bands like the Doors, the Electric Prunes and the Jefferson Airplane as much as the pop sensibilities of England’s T-Rex and the Zombies. Lead singer James Bagshaw carries a charming confidence through his performances on these songs. If “Rubber Soul” or the Monkee’s foray into psychedelic music, “Head” float your boat, you’ll probably have lots of fun listening to this updated version of music inspired by Haight-Ashbury. 

War on Drugs, “Lost In a Dream.”  You might have thought losing a talent like Kurt Vile would leave the gas tank empty for this local band. But War On Drugs, fronted by songwriter Adam Granduciel, seems to have lots of mileage left to go. While Vile has gone on to make his own terrific solo records, Granduciel has made his most relevant, ear-pleasing album to date. His trademark tasty guitar work is in evidence on the CD’s first song, the sprawling “Under the Pressure.” The rest of the record seems locked under the opener’s mesmerizing spell.  If you love guitar rock, you’ll love this.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The best Father's Day present ever: the accomplishment of a lifetime

Tomorrow morning, a new  community English center will open in the small town of Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua.

The moment it opens, it will be the largest foreign-language library in the entire country. It will change the culture of the entire town. It may help enable hundreds of lower and middle class Nicaraguan children and students in the region learn a new language, one that will increase their chances of rising out of the Third World and starting a better life.

Countless of volunteers worked on the building; washing and painting walls; scrubbing and waxing floors; building desks and book cases. Nearly $7,000 in various projects was raised to get the building refurbished. Hundreds of people in the United States donated a wide range of books to this project, from children's picture books to hardback, cloth-bound literary classics.

No one worked harder than my daughter, Isabel. It was her vision for the library that started the ball rolling. It was her personal project for the Peace Corps. It was her never-ending cajoling of needed supplies and donations that made this community center a reality. It was her baby from day one. Tomorrow morning, the baby is birthed and Nueva Guinea has a proud new library.

That this should come on the day before Father's Day is one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. Sheer coincidence, for sure. I don't care much.

I am one very proud dad.

Isabel, you are one amazing person!!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Purpose of West Chester University

My friend and colleague at West Chester University, John Elmore of the School of Education, sent this letter out to university professors this morning. This concerns legislation that is being introduced to the Pennsylvania State Senate this afternoon by Andrew Dinniman (D-19th district) and Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R-6th district) which would allow West Chester to leave the state system of higher education and join the ranks of "state-related" schools like Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh. The Dinniman/Tomlinson proposal would have enormous ramifications on APSCUF, the state union of college professors. This educational initiative seems to be politically motivated by West Chester's university president Greg Weisenstein and the PASSHE Board of Governors. Elmore's letter was co-signed by two of his colleagues,  Curry Malott and Rob Haworth. Their argument lays out why this legislation is an attack on the principles of democracy. 

The Purpose of West Chester University

Over the past forty years, public universities – and the students and faculty who define them – have been poked, prodded, threatened, starved, and coerced into capitulating to the redefining of the purpose of public higher education. Here at West Chester University we have all witnessed the
incessant commodification of our campus, our curricula, and our students. We have all sat in
meetings where we are told that our students are now ‘customers’, our classrooms are now ‘delivery mechanisms’, our teaching is now a ‘product’, and even our public university itself is now a ‘brand’. We are told that these transformations are inevitable and that this is all necessitated by a never-ending economic crisis – “the new normal” – in a country, paradoxically, overflowing with so much capital investors struggle to find new investment opportunities. American workers, including professors, are therefore constantly reminded that we shouldn’t let our idealistic and antiquated perspectives on the value of public education, and the necessity of an educated citizenry within a democracy, stand in the way of ‘progress’. The latest version of that ‘progress’ is the proposed ‘opportunity’ for West Chester University to become a ‘state-related’ brand so that we might realize the real opportunity of selling a more expensive, and therefore more profitable, ‘product’.

We are certain that over the coming weeks and months we will engage in many debates over this
grand opportunity. We will undoubtedly argue over the potential effects such a change might have on faculty rights, collective bargaining, our union, our students, our sister campuses and our campus. These are all valid and critical concerns – even a casual evaluation of tuition and fee rates at the current state-related institutions offers clear evidence of what such a change would mean for our students, and thus a betrayal of PASSHE’s historic purpose, that is, “to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost.” However, what we would like to make clear is that what is being proposed here at WCU is not merely a different path to the same destination. This agenda emanates from a very specific valuation of what we do here and the very purposes of public education in general. In short, the efforts to privatize West Chester University are not value-neutral, nor are they unique to West Chester. This movement towards the privatization of public spaces can be seen in every aspect of contemporary society. Such trends are typically captured within the term “neoliberalism.”

Neoliberal theory is manifested in both economic policy and political ideology, which in concert
disperse formidable effects and transformations of the socio-cultural realities of society. This
neoliberal culture praises entrepreneurialism, self-reliance, and rugged individualism; equates
unimpeded materialism and the pursuit of self-interest with human freedom and social justice;
venerates the stockpiling of personal wealth; degrades collective and public responsibility; and equates any government intervention on behalf of a collective social welfare as counterproductive to human progress. David Harvey (2005) describes it well:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political-economic practices that proposes
that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms
and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free
markets, and free trade… there has everywhere been an emphatic turn towards neoliberalism
in political-economic practices and thinking since the 1970s (pp.18-19).

Arguing that self-interest and an unfettered free-market are the best, if not only, path to progress,
equality and a supposedly merit-based version of social justice, public institutions are viewed through the lens of neoliberalism as, at best, social distractions and, at worst, antiquated seeds of Bolshevism. For the advocate of neoliberalism, therefore, anything that operates outside the for-profit model, whether it is a public school, a library, or a post office, is actually counterproductive to human progress. For a participatory democracy, such a retreat from all things public means, in effect, a retreat from democracy itself. As Noam Chomsky (2010) declared, “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy” (p.75).

History clearly evinces that making visible the circumstances and power relations undergirding any form of hegemony, by way of the development of a critical and dialectic lens within the people, has always bee the most fundamental ingredient for counter-hegemonic struggle. Neoliberal advocates recognize this threat inherent to popular education and, in maintenance of its agenda, seek to nullify and obliterate any such form of democratic resistance to the expansion of private power and free market religiosity. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the destruction of public education has been a goal of neoliberal advocates wherever and whenever they have found opportunity to unfurl their flag. When taking such goals into account, the decades long effort to destroy public education, and offer private, for-profit alternatives - designed by neoliberal think tanks, funded by right wing political action committees, and championed by conservative politicians – should come as no surprise. We have witnessed the anti-democratic results of the neoliberal program for public universities in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and multiple other public universities across the country and around the globe.

We recognize that the positions we take here will be labeled by some as idealistic, antiquated, and out of touch - we can live with such scrutiny. We also recognize that not every faculty member on this campus made a conscious and political decision to be a part of public education and, therefore, may not have made our same connections between the existence of public education and the health of participatory democracy. However, we sincerely hope that our colleagues, regardless of their political orientation, will come to realize that we did not arrive at this crossroads of our own volition; we were systematically delivered here. The continuous budget cuts, draconian systems of oversight, marginalization of students and faculty, have all served as a cattle prod driving us to the point where we might be willing to abandon the promise of public education and the promise of West Chester University as a public good.

In spite of their fear mongering concerning an inevitable economic crisis, the values of those who
promote the neoliberal agenda are clear, and we do not share these destructive values. We believe the question for us as faculty members of West Chester University is this: Do we believe in the concept of a public good and its critical role within democratic society - and, if so, what responsibility do we have in defending the public good in which we have been entrusted? Will we defend public education or will we submit and become the latest example of its demise?

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from this core question.

In Solidarity,

John Elmore, Curry Malott, & Rob Haworth

Professional & Secondary Education

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Best Pop Music CDs of 2013.....

The Best CDs of 2013: Red Baraat reigns at the top of the pops!

1) Red Baraat –Shruggy Ji . Before he became a famous producer of best-selling albums, Boston rock critic Jon Landau once famously scripted a critical review proclaiming “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” With apologies to both the Boss and Landau, I think the same claim could be made for Red Baraat. As America increasingly becomes a nation of Third World immigrants, this Brooklyn collective of mostly Muslim brass and percussion players seems to suggest our new musical landscape will incorporate a plethora of exotic, wild new sounds that seem very foreign to our ears.  We can only hope more of the same glorious stuff is in store. Without making any religious or political statements, the band shows us a glimpse of what the new American world music may be: an inspirational, in-your face blast of brassy fun. Red Baraat takes its name from the Indian wedding ceremony in which the groom, joined by friends and family, walk to the bride's family's dwelling to pick her up – accompanied by a rollicking brass band on this joyous trek through the neighborhood.  If this sounds like a rejiggered New Orleans street tradition, well so does Red Baraat. Led by Sonny Jain on dhol (a large drum that Jain wears on a strap over his shoulder), the Brooklyn band is a savvy fusion of brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, bhangra funk and Indian wedding music. If there is any “fault” it’s that the studio album does not quite measure up to the band’s live performance. Don’t miss them if they’re playing within a 50 mile radius. You’re smile for days afterwards. This is irresistible and imminently danceable party music.

2) Patty Griffin – American Kid  and Silver Bell.   One could make a case that no American recording artist had a better year than Patty Griffin. I’ve been a sucker for this Maine singer-songwriter since first hearing Living With Ghosts a stripped down 1996 acoustic set of poignant vignettes that plumb the depths of love, loss of love and family life. Her latest collection, American Kid,  is reminiscent of that initial effort, songs that detail her relationship with her father. They were written shortly after learning of her father’s impending death and explore his absence in her life. Her new husband, Robert Plant, sings background on several of the songs, most notably “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” This is Americana’s finest recorded moments of 2013.  Later in the year, she released Silver Bell, an album of kick-ass rock and roll songs that were never released by her record company when they were recorded in 2000. Stand out tracks include “Boston”, “Little God” and “Silver Bell.” Both albums are worth owning. That they both came out in the same calendar year makes 2013 a very special time for one of America’s best female rock/pop musicians.

3) Okkervil River – The Silver Gymnasium.  I put Okkervil River at the top of my end of the year list twice in the last seven years, so my affection for this band is well documented. I adore this record. I listened to it more than anything else in 2013. It’s easily their most accessible effort, showcasing Will Sheff’s most intimate songwriting. “Down Down the Deep River”, the year’s best pop song, is a roller coaster remembrance of the fears of growing up in a small New England town. The rest of the collection of a cycle of songs celebrating the joys and despairs evident in small town American life. It’s chock full of Sheff’s poignant obser/reservations. If there is any justice, this CD some day will be parsed and studied in high school English classes the way Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio still is. Don’t overlook “On a Balcony” and “Walking Without Frankie”. Another artistic achievement from the best rock band in America.  

4) Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa. If you allow me the concession that Red Baraat is really an American band (after all, they reside in Brooklyn!), then I would say this CD is my favorite World Music disc of the year. Traore’s aching vocals are a revelation. She’s made a savvy decision to allow John Parish, PJ Harvey’s producer and sideman, to turn the sound knobs for this record. He’s moved her away from the acoustic blues influences of her other CDs into something that sounds a lot more visceral. Yet Traore’s reliance on the n’goni (her stringed instrument) makes this a distinctively African album, partly sung in her native language, Bambara. It succeeds because of her shimmering, intensely soulful singing. Highlights include the furious “Kouma” and the thoughtful “Mélancholie”, a highly personal reflection on solitude.

5) Parquet Courts – Light Up GoldFifteen head-banging songs in just 33 minutes. Not one of them feels like filler. This Brooklyn rock quartet (they originally hail from Texas) take the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement, the Feelies and Guided By Voices to new heights and turn that 1990s template into something that sounds fresh and original. And when you listen closely, you can hear the ghost of Lou Reed in their performances. Like Reed, none of these guys can sing a note. Like Reed, they put their songs over with passion and confidence. Songwriter Andrew Savage’s wry observational takes on politics, pop culture and personal relationships suggest he spent more than a few months of his teenage years listening to both Reed and Jonathon Richman.  Start with “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time.” Let the slacker angst wash over you. Revel in the innocent glory of a garage rock band finding their voice. Pure punk bliss.

6) Iron & Wine – Ghost On Ghost.   I usually find it difficult to appreciate the earnest yearning of Sam Beam’s  warm as oatmeal vocals. He tends to put me to sleep. (Which, for a guy with old man sleep issues, is something I should enjoy more). But this year’s Iron & Wine effort sounds like a nod to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks/Moondance” era. Beam’s baritone is backed by a blend of soulful horns and gloriously augmented by the thrum of acoustic bass, violins and tasty female background vocalists. His singing feels lighter and more carefree than ever before. He seems confident in his role as front man of a revved up rock band. Van would be proud! Standout cuts include “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.”

7) Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady.  If you haven’t caught Janelle Monae’s act yet, check out her Letterman performance of “Dance Apocalyptic” on YouTube. Watch it until the end, when she’s dancing a jig in black leather boots on top of Dave’s desk. In a nutshell, that’s why she has staked a claim to Michael Jackson’s throne . When I caught her show at the Electric Factory in Philly in October, I thought I was seeing James Brown in his prime. They cart her out in a white straight jacket and when they peel it off her, watch out!  Ninety minutes of non-stop dance moves that take your breath away. Like her last record, this one has some annoying sci-fi patter that suggests it’s a “high concept” album. None is needed. She really is the Queen of Soul. Some day you, too, will kneel and bow before her immense talent and ambition.

8) Frank Turner – Tape Deck HeartFormer front man for the British punk band Million Dead, Turner turned to a more traditional brand of Brit folk rock later in his career and has released a string of great CDs that mine the same territory as Billy Bragg, whose liberal politics provide a nifty template for Turner’s own voice on Tape Deck Heart. “Four Little Words” stakes a riotous claim for dancing in the mosh pit and the celebratory “Recovery” makes addiction to a woman sound like a necessary part of living a full life. This underrated artist deserves attention and this CD is one of the hidden gems of the year. It you pick this up, pay special attention to Nigel Powell’s drumming. Turner may craft the lyrics, but Powell is the pistons of Turner’s V6 engine.  

9) Sallie Ford & the Sound OutsideUntamed Beast. This Portland band sounds like punk rockers who grew up listening to rockabilly and Charles Mingus. And Sallie sings with a swagger that’s sexy, sultry and natural. The All Music Guide described her vocal performances like this: “With a voice that can belt, soothe, caress, and flat-out spit sass, attitude and raw street emotion, she sounds like a dream cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin.” Songs to download: “They Told Me”, “Bad Boys” and “Do Me Right”. But be sure the house doesn’t burn down while you’re listening.

10) The Will Callers – What Else Is Left?If you like your alt-country ballsy, loud and with a slathered side of greasy greatness, you’ll dig the Will Callers, Fort Worth’s finest. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard (the bespectacled Texas hippy whose “Grifter’s Hymnal” topped my best of the year list last December), this 2013 CD is shot through with gunslinger attitude.  The band earned a statewide Texas rep by winning the Shiner’s Rising Star contest in 2010. This is their first full length studio CD and marks them as a band to watch carefully in the near future. “One Single Tear”, “Weight of the World”, “Heart Like Mine” and “87 Miles” will rock the house.

In alphabetical order, my next 10 favorite CDs of the year were: Arcade Fire, Reflektor; Daft Punk, Random Access Memories; Jason Isbell, Southeastern; King Khan & the Shrines, Idle No More; Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle; Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park; The National, Trouble Will Find Me;  Satellite Hearts, Imperial Green. Allen Toussaint, Songbook; Kurt Vile, Walking On a Pretty Daze. 
The ten best songs of 2013: 1) “Down Down the Deep River,” Okkervil River; 2) “Shruggy Ji,” Red Baraat; 3) “Recovery,” Frank Turner; 4) “Dance Apocalyptic”, Janelle Monae; 5) “Light Up Gold,” Parquet Courts; 6) “Bite My Tongue,” King Khan & the Shrines; 7) “Ohio,” Patty Griffin; 8) “Bad Boys”, Sally Ford & The Sound Outside; I9) Iron & Wine, “Grace for Saints and Rambles”; 10) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky".

The best music I heard all year didn’t come out on a CD.  Soon, though, I have a feeling my friends will be able to hear the Late Greats, my favorite new band, on their own compact disc. At Thanksgiving a year ago, my son Luke started writing songs with some friends he knew from the creative writing program at West Chester. The music had a rough, folk/rock edge to it and most of the songs had a humorous twist to them. Some were more clever than most. A few were kind of impressive. Luke and some of his writing friends played a benefit concert in Upper Darby for a work colleague who had some medical bills to pay. Before they played a single song, he mentioned the band was looking for a drummer. Once they secured one, just a few weeks later, their songs were beginning to round into form. By mid-summer, they were playing in my basement in Downingtown once every two weeks. Their transition into a real band of rock musicians was fast and exhilarating to witness. The Late Greats had potential. That was obvious on the basement performance footage I shot on a Flipcam.

In July and early August, they played several gigs in club venues in Philadelphia. You could see them gain confidence and proficiency with each passing performance.   Then, just two weeks ago, they headlined a benefit concert Luke organized for his sister’s library project for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. I introduced the band before they performed. Standing on the stage with them felt like being in presence of caged lions. They were ready to pounce. And once Luke started singing, they owned the room. Music savvy friends who had never heard them before were suitably impressed.  The Late Greats made my favorite music of 2013. I wish they had something out on CD, they’d be on the list for sure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night (my interview with Lou Reed the night Jimmy Carter was elected president in November, 1976)

Deciphering Lou Reed on Election Night
(From the States-Item, November 6, 1976)
The passing of Lou Reed on Sunday made me remember a night in November of 1976 when I was one of a handful of reporters who "interviewed" Reed in New Orleans. It was election night and I remember the evening had a surreal feel to it, as if Reed were above politics somehow, unconcerned with the ebb and flow of Capital power. Jimmy Carter won a close election against then-president Gerald Ford and the election results were trickling in on a black and white TV in a hotel lobby as Reed sat down to be interviewed. His girlfriend of the time, a wispy thin transsexual named Rachel, sat next to him smoking a cigarette, looking bored.

I was a big fan of Reed's, but it was hard to know exactly what was going on with the rock 'n roll singer that evening. He seemed barely lucid at times. At other times, some of our questions seemed to engage his interest. He may have been high, but I couldn't know for sure. I suspected the interview was mostly a performance, Reed acting  the part of a jaded rock artist, but I couldn't be sure of that either.  Getting a straight answer out of him was dicey at best. I didn't feel as if I had enough material to write a coherent article about the evening. What I ended up publishing was a list of his most lucid quotations. The  column that appears below was published on Nov. 6th, 1976 in Lagniappe, the weekend entertainment tab for the States-Item. It came out three days after the presidential election. I was a general assignment reporter for the paper at the time but my real interest was in writing rock criticism for the newspaper. 
                    *            *           *           *

With the release of Rock and Roll Heart, Lou Reed becomes a prime candidate for Comeback of the Year in rock mag circles. Combined with Reed’s earlier 1976 album, Coney Island Baby, the new LP makes Reed one of the most prolific rockers of the year.

On election night ’76, Lou Reed was in New Orleans. Squirrelish, sullen Reed, trying hard to keep his rock and roll mystique together while a tableful of reporters picked his brain. As the “interview” wore on, it became increasingly hard for me to separate Lou Reed the performer from Lou Reed the person. The interview was a performance, too.

What did Lou Reed the person have to say that could be of any interest to New Orleanians? Not a great deal, and certainly nothing that could fit into a cohesive article. He was bitchy at times and droll at times. Mostly he was arcane.

He said he was teed off at RCA records, his former label, but refused to say why. He preferred to call himself “product” rather than “artist.”

“Product can talk about product and artist can talk about art, but product cannot talk about art,” he said. “That’s like margarine trying to talk about butter.”

Here are some other gems from our conversation:

“Robert Christgau (rock critic for the Village Voice)should be shot. Anybody that has the audacity to put a grade on Stevie Wonder’s work should be shot between the eyes."  (Christgau gives letter grades to new album releases, a process Reed finds degrading.)

“I don’t know what decadence is. A lot of business men are decadent, too.”

Lou Reed’s influences, both before the Velvet Underground and since then? “Everybody.”

His work?

Berlin.  “Should have been promoted more by RCA. My best album.”

Metal Machine Music. “Was misunderstood by RCA. They took it around to AM stations. Of course it didn’t go over. I like it a lot, play it all the time at home.”

Transformer. “We really didn’t know what we were doing in the recording studio. We didn’t realize what making a record was.”

 Coney Island Baby. “The other side of Metal Machine Music.”

Rock and Roll Heart. “I wanted to put a pacemaker on the cover, but I didn’t know what one looked like.”

Loaded.  “That was loaded with singles, that’s why we called it that. That album could have kept a lot of people working for a long time, but I left the band at that time and there was no one to play the music any more so they didn’t promote it.”

Does he still go to movies? “Naw. I get bored I can’t sit still in one place very long.”

Favorite magazines: “I think Ladies Home Journal is the funniest magazine in America. It’s like National Lampoon except it’s real. I also read Psychology Today and Scientific American. Last month Scientific American had a blown up picture of a cancer cell. It was just beautiful. You don’t have to read it, you can enjoy it just looking at the pictures.”

Politics: “I was for Carter but I was afraid that if people found out, they’d use it against Carter. I don’t think people in the arts should use their position to influence people. (Like Pearl Bailey did election eve, endorsing Gerald Ford). If the bad guys are coming over the hill I sure wouldn’t want Pearl Bailey to be Secretary of State.”

His favorite company: “Sony. I wish they would let me endorse something for them, I think they’re fantastic. Once they built their own pocket radios but they designed them too large to fit into regular-sized pockets. They just went out and manufactured their own shirts to fit the radios.”

His watch: (The interview was degenerating at this point). “I got this gem from Texas Instruments for $19.95. Why pay $400 for something that you can get for much cheaper? They are the best American company, almost in Sony’s league.”

New Orleans: “I love New Orleans. Last time I was here I stayed four days, but I could never live here. There aren’t enough cabs.”

New York: “Twenty minutes outside of New York I start to get scared. I can’t order out for pizza. Not that I do that all the time, but it’s nice to know you can. I don’t own a car. What would I do with it in the city? Besides, my license expired and I could never pass that test again. Parallel parking? Between those red and green pylons?”

Lou Reed’s worldview: “The way I look at the world, everything is black and white.”

Reed said some other profound things that I either didn’t write down or didn’t’ comprehend. His purpose for visiting the city was, of course, to promote the new album. But he plans to play New Orleans soon, possibly in the spring. He is currently touring with the same band that he’s worked with on his latest two albums.

Both Coney Island Baby and Rock and Roll Heart are vintage Reed, solid rock and roll from the pulse of New York City, two of the best albums of the year. He may be a little hard to understand across a table, but Lou Reed comes across loud and clear on vinyl.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It was 30 years ago today....

The picture leaves a little bit to be desired. I shot it last night with a digital camera under the glaring overhead lights of my dining room bulbs. It was encased in a frame, covered in glass. The bulbs give the picture a yellowish cast that makes it resemble a lithograph.

This photograph was taken on the day I was married, October 8th, 1983, thirty years ago today to Annette Clare Klinger.

The marriage only lasted 15 years. The divorce is now as old as the marriage itself. But I will remember that day for a long time. Most people who attended the wedding remember it, too.

The picture was snapped on an afternoon as glorious as the weather today. The temperature never rose about 75 degrees. There wasn't a single cloud to be found anywhere in the heavens above.  I was married to my bride under "Crystal Blue Persuasion" skies. 

We wrote our own vows to one another. I carried mine on a torn and tattered piece of paper in my wallet for many years afterwards. Just seconds after saying our vows, a flock of Canadian geese flew overhead on their way to greener pastures down South. Their collective honks and calls seemed like a blessing at the time.

The pastor's name was John Sweet. He was a minister from a Presbyterian church around the corner from the humble brick row home where the Klingers lived, in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. His wife was named Sharon. Many wonderful moments happened that day, but the most memorable moment and the highlight of the entire day was her rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" at the end of the ceremony.

The song gave everyone who heard her sing chills. I still get them when I remember. Her voice was  a soaring soprano that seemed to lift as high as the tall, stately maples that basked Curtis Arboretum in a glorious canopy of gold, green, red and orange and yellow. Summer was ending with a bang.

And then she sang.

Even the heavenly trumpets of the geese seemed pedestrian in comparison.

I had heard that some members of the choir in John's Presbyterian church did not want her to to sing with them in the choir. When she opened her mouth, and I heard her voice for the first time, the truth of the matter was revealed. None of them would ever match her talent, the sheer power of her vocal range. She would drown them all out. She was too good for them, by a long shot.

I am not certain, but that may have been her first public "performance." Three years later, she debuted at the Berlin Opera House. You can see her singing professionally with Placido Domingo here in this link:

The marriage was blessed in a variety of ways, especially on the day of the wedding. Its ending was hard and those of us in the middle of it all suffered greatly from its demise. But Annette and I have both said many times we would endure all its tears and hardships for the children we brought into the world.

I can live with the pain. The anniversary still brings many, many wonderful memories.