Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Year in Recorded Music

The Best of 2011The year provided so many great discs that caught my attention that I’ve expanded my list to twenty. If you’re reading this in a seasonal card and want a more fuller explanation of discs 11 through 20, shoot me an email and I will send you my blog link. Many of the bands on the top half of this list I saw live and most of them were outstanding, but especially Gillian Welch (see at the new Union Transfer venue in mid-October) and Dawes, seen at the TLA in Philly one week later.

1. The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch (Acony). A harrowing, haunting meditation that explores America’s darkest corners with heartbreaking observations and savvy commentary. Welch’s first studio recording in eight years is a masterpiece. The intricate, delicate, and ethereal interplay between Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, was breathtaking to witness first hand. Welch’s plaintive vocals, interlocked with Rawling’s subtle harmonies and guitar picking, belies the terror of their best tunes. Each song is a journey worth taking and savoring but “The Way It Is,” “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Six White Horses” seem timeless.

2. Nothing is Wrong. Dawes (ATO). The most joyous rock ‘n’ roll record of the year, performed by a band that exudes confidence and is primed to explode. Their show in October was unapologetically fun. The DNA for their music can be found in the music of Bob Dylan and the Band and Jackson Browne. A slow simmering brew of guitars, organ, piano and drums. Taylor Goldsmith’s tasty guitar licks are homages to Browne’s longtime guitarist David Lindley. His vocals performance skew a tad too close to Jackson’s plaintive yearnings for some listeners, but I find them compelling. “Fire Away” burns with passion. “Time Spent in Los Angeles” (despite a tortured rhyme) got more air play. Goldmith’s collaboration with John McCauley and Matt Vasquez (Middle Brother) will delight fans of this Dawes recording and is list-worthy.

3. Tassili. Tinariwen (Anti). An intoxicating brew of acoustic guitars, hand claps and percussion that shares the same simmering sonic palette of fellow African Ali Farka Toure. The musicians in Tinariwen hail from the southern Sahara region of the continent and perform live in nomadic gowns and headdresses. Tassili is named for the part of the Algerian desert where the musicians recorded the music. The band’s name means “empty places” and that serves as an apt similie for the relaxing vibe this music creates. “Tishoumaren” (music of the unemployed) addresses issues of political repression and awakening, and demands of sovereignty. Ibhahim Ag Alhabib, the band’s primary songwriter, sings with an earthy, soulful earnestness that adds an ageless bluesy feeling to the record.

4. Burst Apart. The Antlers (Frenchkiss). Ambient, trippy, blissful pop music. This Brooklyn band makes music that bears repeated listening and will take you to another place. If you like trip-hop music in mold of Portishead and Radiohead, you’ll find the Antlers equally appealing. Pete Silberman’s choir boy warble brings an epic, orchestral sensibility to the music of Burst Apart. Darby Cicci brings seamless support on synthesizers, electronic piano and trumpet. An irresistible truffle of an album, “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, the album’s opening and closing cuts, stand out as the best tracks on an album full of them.

5. I Am Very Far. Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar). Will Sheff was given a big budget for this effort and the money was well spent. He expanded the sonic palette of his previous folk-rock albums by adding cellos, violas, violins and a raft full of brass instruments you'd find in a middle school band room. His experiments don't always work, and the album feels slightly off kilter at times, but Sheff's lyrics are always worth hearing. His eye for details remains sharp and his vision unrelenting. His best songs have always plowed a bloodstained field to find their inspiration. This album is as dark as ever, a stark warning of the approaching Apocalyse. The violence is less personal this time around, but the social warning it evokes is no less powerful or thought-provoking. “Rider” was my favorite song of the year but it’s all worth hearing and thinking about.

6. Yuck. Yuck (Fat Possum). Big meaty hooks. Bouncy melodies mixed with searing feedback distortion amid crunchy guitar riffs. This is a princely mix of power pop and punk, served up in a concoction that recalls the halcyon days of Dinosaur Jr. It grabs you by the throat and won’t stop shaking it. Will make you wish you were young enough to head to your nearest mosh pit. Think Kinks in their head banging swinging London days and you’ll get the idea. (London is their hometown) Find “The Wall” or “Get Away” on YouTube and prepare to have your world rocked.

7. The King is Dead. The Decemberists (Capitol). Colin Meloy’s swansong with the Decemberists is his most radio-friendly collection of tunes and, not too surprisingly, it has sold more than any of his earlier, more acerbic, albums and made the band more popular than ever. I caught two of their shows this year, one in Philly at the Academy of Music and a second show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Both shows relied heavily on the string of hits here: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” Down By the Water” and “This Is Why We Fight” are among the catchiest tunes Meloy has ever penned. A great folk rock album in the tradition of Fairport Convention and Pentangle.

8. Whokill. Tuneyards. (4AD). Merrill Garbus has such an unforgettable, distinctive voice that this quirky debut stood out as one of the year’s most captivating records. Channeling the Afro-pop vibe of Fela Kuti, Garbus uses her voice more as an additional instrument than as a source of personal angst or political commentary, both of which find a way into her message. Garbus uses drum and vocal loops to create a mesmerizing mixture of wails and beats. When I caught her show this year at Philly’s new concert venue, the Union Transfer, the trickery wore thin on me after about an hour. But my son and youngest daughter (big fans of the band) were all in. “Bizness” is the song to hear if you want to sample this exotic dish.

9. Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop). It took a while to warm up to the Fleet Foxes sophomore effort. To my ears, there was no stand-out single that was appealing as “White Winter Hymnal” on their eponymous first album. But as the year went on, I kept returning to this record and each time I was rewarded with something that stuck with me and sounded fresh. The band’s harmonies, their hallmark, are as soaring and inspirational as ever. Writer and lead singer Robin Pecknold’s arrangements build from creeping, slow crescendos into sweeping orchestral moments of sheer sonic bliss. Besides, the Welch disc, this was the best folk CD I heard all year, in a year that was loaded with folk diamonds. The title track, "Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelei” stand out.

10. Bad As Me. Tom Waits (Anti). Tom’s first studio album since 2004 was worth the Wait. It’s his best collection of original material since 1992’s “Bone Machine,” but far less experimental and weirdly dissonant than that collection. Waits is channeling his inner blues muse on this album and the songs are far more focused (and shorter) than he tends to churn out. Never a great singer, his raspy voice still sounds as if he’s been smoking charcoal and drinking refrigerant. But this time the songs are jubilant and danceable and Waits is in full-tilt boogie party mode. “Get Lost” and the closer, “New Years Eve” are highlights.

The albums that came close to making my list, in alphabetical order:
Chief, Eric Church (EMI); Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever, Concord); Small Craft On a Milk Sea, Brian Eno (Opal) Speed of Darkness, Flogging Molly (Borstal Beat); Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance (4AD); Ancient & Modern, the Mekons, (Sin); Reverie, Joe Henry (Anti) Middle Brother, Middle Brother (Partisan); Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron & Wine (Warners). Soul Time, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (Daptone); Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem; Dakar-Kingston, Youssou Ndour (Decca); So Beautiful or So What, Paul Simon (Concord); Wild Flag, Wild Flag (Merge).

The top 20 songs of the year: 1) “Rider”, Okkervil River; 2) “Calamity Song,” The Decemberists; 3) “Bizness,” Tuneyards; 4) “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” Gary Clark Jr., 5) “Fire Away,” Dawes; 6) “Dark Turn of Mind,” Gillian Welch; 7) “The Wall,” Yuck; 8) “Portland” Middle Brother; 9) “Don’t Shut ‘em Down,” Flogging Molly; 10) “Space In Your Race”, the Mekons; 11) “Glass Jar,” Gang Gang Dance; 12) “Putting the Dog to Sleep,” the Antlers; 13) “Homeboy,” Eric Church; 14) “You Were Never There,” Diego Garcia; 15) “Get Lost,” Tom Waits; 16) “Barton Hollow,” The Civil Wars; 18) “The Afterlife,” Paul Simon; 19) “Bedouin Dress,” The Fleet Foxes; 20) “Change the Sheets”, Kathleen Edwards.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The complicity of silence: Why Paterno had to go

When giant sequoias fall, the sound drowns out everything in the forest for what seems like days. Whether anyone is there to hear it, the forest knows the sound and it collectively shudders in anticipation.

It hears the rending of ancient roots from the ground; the tumultuous snapping of branches and limbs torn asunder; the swooshing of thousands of leaves in a death spiral that sucks the very soul out of the air itself. Finally comes the thunderous cacophony of the battered trunk, pummeling the Earth with one last vicious cry of anguish.

So to, does it seem, when human legends fall. Perhaps none have ever landed so ingloriously or so awfully as Joe Paterno. The last few days have been excruciating to witness. We knew the ground was weak and the roots decayed. But when the crash came, it was still hard to watch. We wanted to hold our ears.

I bleed blue. I am a Penn State alum who felt honored to have a degree from the university and who choose to go to graduate school because of the presence of Coach Paterno. My grades in high school were not good enough for me to consider applying to Penn State. But after I had secured my undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts university in New Orleans, and worked two years as a reporter in that city, I was accepted into the Masters of Arts program at Penn State.

I was privileged to experience first-hand those glorious fall afternoons in Happy Valley when Paterno would lead the Nittany Lions out onto the field at Beaver Stadium and the crowd would erupt in anticipation. Since I was old enough to take a rooting interest in football, Penn State was my team. They were the good guys. And even something so innocent as the simplicity of their unadorned blue and white uniforms seemed fraught with symbolic meaning.

It was a choice that seemed to speak volumes. Penn State didn't go for splashy uniforms or flashy displays of end zone jubilation. There were no stars or acorns on the helmet to signify individual accomplishments. That would detract from the fact the Lions were a team, first and last. They played nuts and bolts football. Blocking and tackling. No one did it better.

Joe Paterno was the architect of this aesthetic; a builder not just of a football program but of a state of mind that came to be known as "the Penn State way." He developed a reputation for doing things with factitious precision. He set a standard for honesty, integrity and clean living that was compelling to believe in, even if it was hard to live up to. He set the bar so high that it made him legions of enemies among other collegiate football coaches.

Paterno took his leadership position seriously and set a standard of excellence that was never surpassed. I am not talking about his two national championships. (It might have been four or five because some of his undefeated teams never had a chance to play for a ring). I'm talking about his graduation rate. The parents of young men who were recruited by Paterno knew he would push them to excel in the classroom as hard as he would push them on the practice field.

That was his unique selling proposition as a coach. And that is why his legend was deserved. He wasn't just a great coach. He really was a great educator. The fact that he gave millions of his earnings back to the university only confirmed the wholesome feelings alums like me had for him.

His firing last night was hard to watch for folks who idolized him. But, it was well deserved. "I should have done more" was one of the final things he said as he spoke to Penn State students from his front yard. That sentiment might have sounded sincere if he had expressed it eight or nine years ago, when he first heard about the allegations of child abuse concerning Jerry Sandusky, his defensive coordinator.

But after nearly a decade of sweeping Sandusky's reprehensible behavior under the rug, of letting Sandusky use the Penn State facilities and continue to bring young boys into the team's locker rooms, it sounds like a very hallow lament. Paterno told his bosses. But when they did nothing, he did nothing too. Other children lost their innocence and were needlessly molested because of Paterno's complicity in the shroud of silence and institutional conspiracy. Unfortunately for Paterno, and for all of the people he let down, that will be his legacy.

Graham Spanier, the university's beleaguered president, was also fired last night. Two Penn State administrators under Spanier will soon face criminal charges for not reporting Sandusky's offenses to the district attorney. It is a sad, terrible day to be a Penn State alum.

Those of us who still love the school, and who still hold Coach Paterno close to our hearts, can hope for three things to happen now. First, that the families of the young men who were scarred by Sandusky and by the university's complicity in his immoral actions will be able to help their children heal. Secondly, that justice will be served to men who tried to keep Sandusky's heinous crimes a secret.

Finally, that all of us can come to a clearer understanding of the nature of evil and the necessity to bring it to light as quickly as possible. Joe Paterno's silence helped Sandusky harm other children. That's the unfortunate bottom line in this terrible tragedy.

We now know that silence in the face of evil can never be tolerated. Complicity cannot be pardoned.

Paterno's fall will echo in the forest for decades.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The movement that won't go away

Eight days ago I went up to Washington Square Park in New York city, carrying the sign pictured here, to see for myself what all the Occupy Wall Street protests were about. It was beginning to garner some media attention with predictable results from the print pundits and AM radio shouters.

To the Fox News propagandists, the protesters were castigated as "unwashed hippies and anarchists." On the left-wing blogs and websites they were lauded as "radical revolutionaries." As usual, both takes on the protesters were naive, silly and too frequently based on the biases of the reporter. No one was able to articulate a clear understanding of who was leading the protests or what they wanted.

I have my own biases, of course, but I am growing confident the Occupy Wall Street protest is not going to go away any time soon. It's gaining traction by the day. A particularly harsh winter may slow it down (conservatives like New York's Mayor Bloomberg are crossing their fingers) but my gut tells me by the end of November it will be too big to ignore and it may help shape the public agenda for the 2012 Presidential elections.

And this will likely be bad news for the Republicans. (It was with no small amusement yesterday I read Eric Cantor's weekend remarks that endorsed one of the main sentiments of the OWS protesters: that too much of the nation's wealth was held by the top 1 percent of Americans. For a sycophant of the very wealthy like Cantor -- R. Va. -- to admit such a claim is ground-breaking news....and it suggests the GOP is watching Occupy Wall Street with a growing sense of alarm.)

The signs I saw last Saturday in Washington Square poked fun at both the left and the right. There were plenty of signs attacking Wall Street and lambasting the GOP as the "Party of Greed." But there were also plenty of signs reprimanding the Obama administration for wasting the nation's treasury on foreign wars, for bailing out the banks and for not prosecuting those most responsible for the economic meltdown and the mortgage fiasco.

The protesters I spoke to were upset with the whole political system, with politics as usual. In that sense, they ARE kin to the uber-conservative libertarians who comprise the Tea Party. And like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street protesters want transparency in government and an overhaul of the political structure of the nation. They want tangible changes....but not the changes the Tea Party wants: less taxes and smaller government.

What the Occupy Wall Street protesters want is a strengthening of the American middle class. They want the very wealthy to carry the burden of restoring America's economic strength. Most of all, they want jobs. The overwhelming majority of them are Americans who are educated but can't pay off their college loans because there is no work for them.

They blame the two wars that George Bush started and the Bush tax cuts on the very wealthy for the broken American economy. But they blame Bill Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement on the erosion of thousands of American jobs over the last 15 years. They see the nation's politicians catering to the interests of the monied elite, the same multi-millionaires who subsidize political campaigns and who help keep politicians in office.

They see both parties as corrupt, the entire system in need of a shakedown. And their message is resonating with other disaffected, disgruntled Americans and it is resonating far across the oceans. It is a people's movement and, so far, it has been following the blueprint Mahatma Gandhi used to gain independence for India: non-violent political resistance. Police antagonism only strengthens the will of the people; police brutality will only bring more people to the cause.

Because there are ordinances against the use of bullhorns in New York City, the organizers of Occupy Wall Street have developed a unique way of communicating with the masses at their protests. It's called "the people's mic." When someone wants to say something, he or she will stand on a park bench and shout out half a sentence or a phrase. Then the people in his immediate circle will shout the line back to the speaker. People who cannot hear the speaker can hear the chorus, so the message gets amplified. It is an encouraging template for Democracy in action.

There were all kinds of people in Washington Square last Saturday. The first people I spoke to were a married couple in their late 60s who had flown from the Netherlands to bear witness to the growing movement. The husband had gravitated to me because of my pro-union sign and he suggested the unions needed to throw their weight behind the movement to help give it some direction.

I didn't disagree with him. Mine was about the only pro-union sign in the square. But I am not sure the movement needs the help of organized labor. Labor should support it, but it seems to have a life of its own now that is impervious to parties and platforms. It is a movement about justice.

The people I saw at Washington Square were mostly young and well-educated. They are asking for a chance to make a difference in the world. That would start with jobs. But right now, they have a more important calling: they are seeking economic justice. Their message will not go away until justice happens.

They are not revolutionaries. They are our sons and daughters. They want the same things we all want. They want a chance to live the American dream; a dream that speaks to all humankind.

They are tomorrow's leaders. We should consider ourselves blessed they are finally starting to assert themselves.

To hear more about the people who form the rank and file of Occupy Wall Street, please cut and paste this link into your browser and listen to an ABC interview with Fordham University professor of history Mark Naison.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Eulogy to my father

Since I was about 15 years old, I knew this day would come. As his oldest son, I knew I would have to stand up in front of a church full of people and tell them about my father.

I had a dream last night about my father. And in it, he told me some things he wanted me to tell you. I'll get to that in just a few minutes.

The fact that so many people are here today and that so many of you have come so far to celebrate the life of my father is a far better testimony to his remarkable life than anything I could find in my heart to say. It is obvious by the size of this crowd how much my father meant to his friends and family. He embraced life with a passion that few people ever match. Your presence here today is not just a testimony to him but to a way of living that he espoused.

He set an example that resonated in your heart. You loved the fact that he made you enjoy life to the fullest because he lived life to the fullest and you did too when you were around him. He made life better. Isn’t that what we are all called to do? You are here because you want to make life better too, for your friends and family. You came to comfort us. We all thank you very much for coming. We all are people who wish to make a difference in the world, in some small way because of people like my father. He was one of the best. And we are all part of his legacy.

Many of you know my father as the life of the party, the man with the quip. He had a great laugh and a constant smile on his face. He made people feel comfortable. And as much as he loved life and enjoyed being the center of attention at any family gathering or social event he attended, he was a man of great probity and moderation when he was having fun. His was a life of wine, song and woman. He only had one and he was faithful to her for all of his days. Some of his older friends might have seen him tie one on some night a long, long time ago, but I never did. I never knew my father to have more than two drinks. I never saw him place a bet; he was not a gambler.

He used to delight his children by blowing smoke rings up at a lighted chandelier above the mahagony dining room table in Kidzaplenty Place, the 7-bedroom home they purchased in Ambler in 1963. He’d blow one big smoke ring and use it as a target to fire off six or seven smaller rings that would burst through the outer ring. It was like watching fireworks every night after dessert. My mother convinced him at some point he was setting a bad example by smoking in front of the children, so he immediately stopped.

He didn’t indulge in any vice at all, unless you think of fishing as a vice or a waste of time. If that’s the case, he lived a very decadent life indeed, because (after his family) fishing was his life’s great pleasure and pursuit. My father once told me that “God doesn’t count the days of your life when you are fishing.” So maybe we can take some stock in that today because he would have turned 85 next month. If he hadn’t spent so many glorious days of his life on Moose Pond in Maine or on lakes, ponds and streams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a rod in his hand, we’d have had this ceremony for him back in 1995.

Those who know him best – that would be his children and their spouses -- know my dad was one of the world’s biggest narcissists. Let’s face it, you can’t have 11 children and not have at least a little streak of narcissism in you. It worked out pretty well for him. Halloween provides a telling example. I, along with Paul, Lisa, Marianna and whoever else went traipsing through the neighborhood for treats, would come back after two hours of candy grabbing and be told by my father to display our goodies on the dining room table. Without a hint of remorse, telling us he was rescuing our health and saving hundreds of dollars on dental bills, my father would let us keep about half of our loot and take the rest, keeping the biggest chocolate bars for himself, the Snickers, Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. He’d place them in a large 2-gallon potato chip tin and hide them in his office. This private stash of candy bars would usually last him until the Easter candy arrived. Sometimes Paul could manage to suss out his hiding spot and – about a month after this discovery when he’d picked over the best stuff – he’d tell me where I could find it. I always found it somewhat amusing and ironic when my dad would suspect someone had their hands in the candy jar and would accuse us of pilfering his candy!

Here’s another one that my siblings all know and will appreciate. The day after I settled on my home….THE DAY AFTER! …… I got a letter from my dad in the mail. He sent it from Wisconsin and planned on me getting it the very day after I took possession of my home. He was kindly asking me if he could he please use my new, empty garage to store his stuff in. He’d already asked Lisa and Joe and Trudy and Scott and they’d (smartly!) turned him down. I knew my dad was spending about $250 a month renting a storage shed near their condo in East Falls, so I reluctantly agreed to this request, telling him I’d like to keep half of the garage for my own stuff…. The lawnmower, my bikes, golf clubs, etc.

A month later, my stuff was squeezed into a corner of my garage and all the rest of it was filled with a fishing museum full of rods, reels, creels, tackle boxes, beach umbrellas, spare tires for his boat trailer, fly-tying odds and ends, saws, hammers, shovels, rakes, pick-axes, dozens of boxes of nails, boxes of blankets and winter clothes, fishing magazines dating back to 1978, and boxes of bird feathers he’d picked up in city parks or off sidewalks. Bird feathers! I am not kidding you. Bird feathers. When I asked him about the feathers he told me he “wanted to learn” how to make a certain kind of fishing lure that would attract a certain species of trout and that bird feathers were required.

Whenever my brother-in-laws start to discuss the idea of starting a TV series based on the lives of our family, they always revert to a clever nickname for the proposed show: The Borderlines!

I am particularly happy we are holding his funeral service today in this church. Because my father became a much more loving and caring father in the second half of his child rearing days and a better Christian, too. I think his affiliation with people in the peace movement gave him a much better perspective on his Roman Catholicism. They made him see the underlying pacifistic philosophy of Jesus and helped him see how this represented a paradigm shift from the old standards of morality, an eye for an eye.

After they sold the house in Ambler in 1988, and moved to a wonderful home in Mt. Airy, they found St. Vincent’s and it became a wonderful experience for them to go to church here. This parish, and Sacred Heart in Camden, both supported their peace work. Both parishes made very strong efforts to reach out to their local communities and do the kind of service that Jesus himself had done, feeding the hungry and providing shelter to the homeless.

My mother’s acts of civil disobedience were hard initially for my father to comprehend and approve of. It meant he had to do all of the housework, in addition to being the breadwinner. He learned to cook and do wash. He learned to help with homework. He began to understand what it took for my mother to be a homemaker and he began to understand how hard the job was and how many sacrifices she had made for the family for the first 30 years of their marriage. He also had a clearer appreciation for my married sisters, who were starting their own families around this time.

In 1991, my father had come to support my mother’s acts of civil disobedience. And when she decided she wanted to join a group of 75 international peace activists and go to a small Bedouin camp in the middle of the Iraqi desert to provide a peaceful presence between the armies of Saddam Hussein and the armies of George Bush, Dad was her biggest supporter. He became something of a minor celebrity in the days leading up to the start of the war, explaining to local TV reporters on numerous occasions what Agnes was doing and why she was doing it. He was the point person for the local peace community and many of them always remembered my father for being such a strong advocate of such a very unpopular position.

At the time, even I was aghast at what mom was doing. I thought for sure I would never see her again alive and that, once she was there, she’d be taken captive and marched through the streets of Baghdad with a sack over her head.

Not dad. He believed in her.

And he softened my objections to her peace crusade by telling me: “if she dies over there, she will have sacrificed her life for a priniciple.” I never forgot that message and have long wished I had the strength to do the same. Few of us ever risk death to live by our principles. Mom did. And she could do it because Dad had her back. Some of her own siblings called her a traitor. Dad never lost patience with them because he believed in her mission and he had learned to take the peacemaker’s approach to conflict resolution, and even practiced it with his own family.

Mom was in the Baghdad Hotel with international reporters and the other activists the night the war started and the bombs fell. Their attempt to prevent the two sides from fighting went for naught and got very little publicity in the national media. Just like today, the media didn’t want to tell the story of pacifists and protestors who resist the government’s bloodletting. The most remarkable thing I heard from her about the entire affair was how happy the Iraqi people were to see her; how many of them thanked her for coming and trying to stop the war; how many hugs she received from complete strangers. Even Iraqi soldiers came up to the peacemakers and hugged them and thanked them for being there. She told me afterwards she never felt threatened while she was in Iraq, except when the American bombs were falling in the city all around the hotel.

When she came home, my mother was regaled as a heroine of the peace movement in this very church and my father was never prouder of her. And he, too, was lauded for his support of her and his willingness to take care of things back home while she was risking her life and doing the hard work of peace. They grew rich love after that and their marriage became an enduring example to all of us of what a marriage could be.

On Wednesday, my sister Annie sent a narrative to her siblings describing my father’s last hours. She and my sisters Marianna, Lisa and Gretchen were at his side when he passed, stroking his head and offering him encouragement as he stepped into the profound light of God’s love and left this world behind.

I got to see him earlier in the day. I made my peace with him and asked him for his forgiveness for all the times I hurt him with unkind things I said. There were hundreds and some were fresh on my mind. I told him I forgave him for things he did to me and that I was sorry for holding on to those things for so long; things I should have forgotten and let go of years ago. I told him he was a great father, that he had carried a heavy load for decades raising 11 children and that his care for my mother these last five or six years was a remarkable effort that made him a hero in my eyes.

Now I come to the part about my dream. I saw Dad him sitting at a table in a heavenly tavern owned by the Archangel Gabriel. It was called The Seventh Trumpet Taps Room. That's right: Taps Room. He was having a Guinness with Uncle Tom and Uncle Jack. Louie Armstrong was blowing his horn over in the corner, making a glorious sound. But I could see a disturbance in the back of the room and I saw Dad and Uncle Jack go over and break up a fight.

I asked him what was going on. He said, "Oh, it's nothing. Joe DiMaggio and Robin Roberts were having some disagreement about the seventh game of the World Series. Some dramatic, controversial play is gonna happen in the ninth inning. Phils versus Yanks."

"Can you please tell me who won?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "The baseball god's don't tell us who wins."

"Doesn't Jesus know? Can't he tell you?"

"No. He doesn't want to know. He says the games are more fun when he doesn't know who wins them."

"You know, Dad. If you can find out who won and let me know, we could pay for the party after the service."

He said he really didn't know. Then he said he already formed a prayer group in heaven. They sit around telling stories and singing songs and praying for all of you down here. He said he calls them 'Charlie's Angels.' Aunt Biz is there and Aunt Delores and Aunt Natalie and Grandmom.

And then he told me what he wanted me to tell you. He said to tell you "Don't be sad. I am in a better place. REJOICE! I am in heaven! And I am here for you! You have an advocate in heaven now! Soon, I will see you all and you can be in Charlie's Angel's, too. When it is your turn to reach for the stars, to go to the light of eternal love, I will be there waiting for you. Rejoice! Welcome to the family of man!"

You are Dad's legacy. All of us here today: we are Dad's legacy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Inquirer's obit of my father

Sally Downey of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a wonderful obituary of my father in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. You can read it here:


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A sacred moment

At the moment of my father's passing, he was surrounded by my sisters, Annie, Lisa and Gretchen.

The picture above was taken just moments before my father, Charles Robert Bauerlein, Sr., passed on to another life shortly after 6 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 12th. He succumbed to a form of lymphoma, Burkett's disease, after a three-month battle.

This past Saturday morning he told my sister Gretchen he wanted to stop chemotherapy treatment and that he wanted his life to come to an end. His doctors were reluctant to allow my father to enter hospice care until they had seen him. They told my sister the pain he was in might be something easy to mend.

My father told her he didn't wish to go see any more doctors, that he wanted to die at home, in his own bed. My sister promised him she would not allow the doctors to keep him overnight, that she would bring him home afterwards.

When he arrived at the emergency room of Chester County Hospital, the doctor asked him why he was there. He pointed an accusing finger at my sister Gretchen and told him, "it's because of her!" He was dehydrated. It was an easy fix, but they wanted to keep him overnight for observations. My father had had enough. He wanted release from his suffering. We took him home to my sister Lisa's house in New Holland.

I was fortunate enough to be with him at the hospital on Saturday with Gretchen and a handful of other relatives, including my daughter Lili and my sister Trudy. My dad was lucid, though his voice was soft and hard to hear. He asked Lili how school was and he asked my nephew Karl how his recent move from Colorado had gone. He was fully in the moment.

By the early hours of Sunday morning, he was more than ready for the end to come. He asked my brother-in-law Joe (a physician) to give him enough pain relievers to end his life. He told him, "I'm sure if we sign the papers, the church and the state will be okay with that." He got angry at my brother in law when he didn't comply with this request.

I was going to visit him on Sunday but I called before I left home and Joe told me he didn't want to see anyone, he just wanted to be left alone to die. The hospice nurse told us he would only last a few more days, possible even hours and that if we came, we should not stay longer than 15 minutes and we should be ready to say five things to him.

"I love you, dad."
"I forgive you for any harm you did to me."
"Please forgive me for any harm I did to you."
"You were a good father."

I decided to let some of my other siblings go see him on Sunday because I live closer than the rest of them. I went yesterday morning to see him for about an hour and a half. I was glad I did.

By Monday morning, without any nourishment and with the cancer ravaging his body, he was emaciated and very weak. His eyes glazed over and his breathing was labored. I sat at his side and held his hand and squeezed his fingers, but I did not receive any sign from him that he knew I was there. The bed sheets and a thin red blanket that covered him moved perceptibly from the force of his lungs trying to draw breath.

A stack of unopened cards from relatives and friends were on a small table near the bed and one of my sisters suggested I read them to him and told me he could hear me, so I did. Nearly all of them told my father he was the object of their thoughts and prayers and suggested he could beat the disease that had brought him to death's door. They urged him to carry on the fight. Some friends told him they would "see him soon" and to "please get well." Some said they knew he would be better soon and would be able to join my mother, Agnes, at the retirement home in Wisconsin where she now resides as an Alzheimer's patient.

It was hard reading them to him, knowing how close he was to the end and that he would never see my mother and most of these well-wishers again.

I made my peace with him and asked him for his forgiveness for all the times I hurt him with unkind things I said. There were hundreds and some were fresh on my mind. I told him I forgave him for things he did to me and that I was sorry for holding on to those things for so long; things I should have forgotten and let go of years ago. I told him he was a great father, that he had carried a heavy load for decades raising 11 children and that his care for my mother these last five or six years was a remarkable effort that made him a hero in my eyes.

Nothing I said to him seemed to register. His life had been reduced to a short race to the other side and involuntary gasps of breath. He was unable to close his mouth and I used a small sponge on a short piece of plastic to swab his mouth and lips with cool water.

About 15 minutes before I had to leave to get to my Monday classes, my sister Annie came from her home in Bucks County. She carried her guitar with her and immediately opened it and started to sing hymns to him. She started with "Amazing Grace" and then searched for another song to sing to him from a church hymnal. I asked her to sing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," a song I first heard when I was 17, on a visit with my father to Preservation Hall in New Orleans when I was a senior in high school visiting the city to see Loyola University.

I hadn't heard the lyrics of the song in many decades, but I was familiar with the tune because I had heard it played many times at jazz funerals in New Orleans and on my Preservation Hall Jazz Band CDs. I glanced her over shoulder and sang the words with her and was struck by how much comfort they gave me. I hoped my father could hear them. I wondered if they comforted him as much as they did me.

I am weak, but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.


Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.


When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.


We followed that up with Paul Simon's song of inspiration, "Bridge Over Trouble Water." I kissed my father's head and said my goodbyes to my sisters. Then I went back to my father's bedside and kissed him again and told him I would "see you tomorrow." I was pretty sure that even if that were true, he would not see me.

About ten minutes after I got home from my classes, my sister Lisa called me in tears to mention my father had passed just five minutes ago. The scene of his passing, with my sisters at his side stroking his head and telling him it was okay to leave and that they loved him and singing "Amazing Grace" to him filled me with peace.

I was sad my mother could not be there too, to be with him as he passed to the other side. But it seemed to me to be a most perfect way to leave this world. We should all be so lucky. I immediately called my own children to tell them the news and then started calling friends.

I drove out to New Holland and spent the next three hours in my father's presence with my siblings and some of my nieces and nephews while we all laughed and cried and told stories and anecdotes about the man who raised us.

There will be hundreds more stories to tell and retell in the next few days. His viewing will be held at 9:30 a.m. St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Germantown, Pa. on Friday, Sept. 16th. The funeral service will start at 11 a.m. We expect the church to be filled to near capacity with his family and friends. He leaves one brother, 11 children, 27 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He was more than a patriarch of our family. He was the rock.

He lived a great life. We will honor it with a service that no one who goes to it will ever forget.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What has America learned since 9/11?

At the risk of subjecting myself to the ridicule of dozens of people who will say my post here is "anti-American" or suggest I am "using the hallowed anniversary of an attack on our soil for political purposes", I feel the need to say this upfront: I am very proud to be an American.

I am a dying breed of patriot, one who still believes in the power of democracy and who believes the American people are strong enough to rise from the stupor of this long national nightmare and reclaim the power that was vested in them by our Constitution. We are a hard working people with core values of honesty, goodness and decency that will sustain us.

I humbly suggest it is the responsibility of all citizens to question the authority of our leaders and of reporters to hold people in power accountable for the things they say and do. That's what I am trying to do here.

I love my country, in no small part because I am free to criticize it when I feel criticism is warranted. Criticism has been warranted for a very long time. The thoughts expressed here are not just mine, but they are thoughts rarely seen or heard by the public.

The media will not allow these kind of ideas to be heard on the airwaves or read on its pages because they're too "radical" or "liberal" to be granted airspace or ink. These opinions run contrary to the prevailing wisdom of our time. They might provoke some Americans to think for their own about the events of 9/11.

The mainstream media, which has morphed into an overbearing Ministry of Propaganda in the last 10 years, would never countenance the position I am advocating.

Without an ounce of cynicism, I believe we have not learned much in the 10 years since that fateful day. We remain as scared of terrorism as we ever were, despite spending untold, unaccountable billions of dollars chasing rumors and phantoms.

I believe a large majority of Americans are fed-up with fighting a never-ending war but that their voices are never acknowledged in the media because the media has become part of the national problem. The media no longer serves the public or the search for truth. It placates the masses with pablum and serves only the needs of its corporate masters, who care only about the bottom line.

The media are now linked, thanks to the decision by President Reagan to allow large corporations to own media outlets, to larger corporations that are part and parcel of the military industrial complex. The nation was warned about the increasing power of such corporations by a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, more than 50 years ago. But the mainstream media has done such an effective job of scaring the people about terrorists that Eisenhower's warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

I believe the war on terror was drummed up by the Bush administration because it knew such a war would be highly profitable to some of the administration's most important "clients", the same arms manufacturers, weapons developers and armed forces service companies who make meals and sew uniforms for men and women in the armed forces. They are the same corporate entities who contribute millions of dollars into Republican campaign coffers to keep them in office and who also work hard to manipulate the mainstream media to spin the war on terror in a way that keeps their profits rolling in.

Never-ending war is good for business, but bad for the people who have to fight it. When will Americans finally learn our corporate masters don't care about people? They care not about the people who are defending American economic interests overseas nor the tens of thousands of foreign peoples who are killed in our never ending wars. They care only about profit.

Americans still don't know the reasons behind 9/11. We have been told on numerous occasions by both the terrorists themselves and by some of our own policy makers who risked telling the truth after 9/11. Our military presence around the world is offensive to many foreign people, especially those who live in the Middle East. They don't trust us; they don't trust our desire for and our reliance on a non-renewable energy source that is becoming increasingly rare, oil.

But their voices were ignored. They were ignored because their opinions didn't serve the purposes of the corporate mainstream media or of the arms manufacturers and multi-national corporations that own the media. Their opinions were stilled, kept quiet, so as not to rock the boat or distract listeners from the drumbeat of war. George Orwell predicted this would happen in his classic novel of totalitarianism, 1984. We have ignominiously achieved his vision.

How many Americans know our defense budget is more than six times larger than what the Chinese spend defending their nation?

How many Americans know that the nation has more than 700 military bases around the world? That the bases located in Saudi Arabia were the primary reason why Osama bin Laden, who is a Saudi, planned the 9/11 attacks on America in the first place?

What percentage of Americans know that 15 of the 19 terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade center and the Pentagon were citizens of our closest allie, Saudi Arabia? Why are Americans unable to connect the dots and understand those Arabian youth were easily manipulated and drawn to the message of jihad hatred because of the oppressive American military presence on their homeland?

How many Americans know that many people around the world -- even many of our own allies -- regard the imperial power of the United States as a very dangerous threat to world peace or that they fear us because of the way we have acted since 9/11?

Why don't Americans know these things? When have you read anything even remotely "liberal" that raises these issues in a newspaper, or on television or heard them on a radio talk show? We are forced into a lockstep of patriotism by our media. We are not encouraged to question the prevaling wisdom espoused by our media.

It is time to ask ourselves why and to do something about it.

What have we learned in the 10 years since 9/11?

You tell me.

But before you answer that question ask yourself another one: How would you feel if the Arabs had military bases in America? What would you do to an imperial power who was occupying your homeland?

Answer that question and then tell me: what have we learned?

For more information on this subject, watch this George Pappas documentary, "Orwell Rolls In His Grave" here:

1984. .

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bittersweet Fathers Day

Happy Fathers Day to all of you readers who are dads. It's an old cliche, but one that still holds a ton of truth. Being a father is the most important job in the world.

Few of us ever read a book about parenting. That's a shame, because it is not a job that comes instinctively. I know this from experience (contact my children for confirmation) and if you are a father, I bet you do too. It's a job you learn from experience and the older you get, the more holes you find in your game.

Sometimes, the template we use is the one our own fathers used. Sometimes, the template we use is the very opposite one our fathers used. We learn from their mistakes.

Then we make our own mistakes; mistakes so egregious they make our fathers recoil in embarrassment at the psychological and emotional damage we caused their grandchildren. That's life. I mean, that's how it all works. They screwed us up and we screw our kids up. What a neat little package it all is! Everyone has someone to blame for their lives of woe and regrets: our dads.

Thank God for fathers! Without them we'd all have to look in the mirror and be accountable for our own actions. Who wants to do THAT??!! The blame game is easier.

My father is far from perfect. He commands a room as if he is the only person with a tongue in his mouth; the only one capable of an original thought. If you try to hold a two-way conversation with him, he ignores you and plows right past you. I like to think this has made me a better listener than my dad ever was, but I am fairly certain this genetic tic has been incorporated into my own DNA and my kids feel as I won't ever shut up in public either.

My Dad is the original Pigpen. His car looks like the bottom of a dumpster the day after the circus has left town. Tiny clouds of flotsam and debris seem to follow him around like fleas clinging to the back of a coon dog. When I get into my school office, or the small room at home where I do my writing, I see the blueprint of my father's chaos all around me. Piles of compact discs stacked on piles of books, stacked on compact disc containers. I could find you "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis in 15 seconds if you asked, but don't ask me how. My life is a mess.

This is a disease I inherited from my father. God damn him. God bless him. Which is it? I cannot say for sure. Am I blessed or cursed with a lifetime of his "ability" to be inherently disorganized and organized at the same time? I never asked for this twisted personality trait. Surely it is all his fault.

I envy friends whose homes are free of clutter. They seem to reside in a state of perpetual grace and godly neatness. Their residences are testimony to a higher realm of consciousness. Why can't my home look like their's? It must be my father's fault.

Dad was admitted to Chester County Hospital on Friday. He had been complaining to me for at least 10 days about stomach pains and loose stools. After a week of his complaining, and taking some over-the-counter medicine that didn't solve the issue, I told him to see a doctor. He finally made an appointment to see a doctor last week and was scheduled to get a CAT scan of his troublesome stomach tomorrow.

When the stomach pains persisted all day Friday and seemed to grow worse, my father thought he must be having an appendicitis. If only the prognosis were that simple. After waiting around the hospital for four or five hours, the CAT scan and a physical exam of his abdomen revealed a tumor the size of a baseball.

My dad has cancer of the large intestines and the CAT scan revealed it may have spread to other organs in his body.

Doctors will take the tumor tomorrow at noon. But in the meantime, this Fathers Day has been bittersweet to say the least. He's had a steady stream of family members and friends come visit him in Chester County Hospital most of the day. I saw flowers there from my sister and at least four or five Fathers Day cards on the serving tray next to his bed.

For someone having a lethal tumor removed from his belly at noon tomorrow, my father was in high spirits. He'd been given a pain killer that had taken away the abdominal stress. He was teasing the nurses and commanding the room as usual. But it was hard to think about the long-term prognosis or to imagine all the suffering his 84 year old body faces for the next month if he opts to fight the spreading cancer for the sake of seeing his wife and children and grandchildren for another six or nine months.

Thanks, Dad. You really know how to take the fun out of a day dedicated to celebrating all you did for us.

None of us would be here to enjoy it without you. And none of us are ready to admit this might be the last one we get to spend with you.

So we'll try to soak up every minute we can, feeling the knots in our stomachs that we might not get to have time with you next year on Fathers Day.

And so, dear reader, should you. If your fathers are still alive, be sure they know how much you appreciate all they did to screw you up.

That's what fathers do best. God bless 'em. Especially mine. Kick that tumor's ass, Dad. We'd all like to have something to complain about next year, too.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mid year pop music report

It's that time of the year again. Time to make some mid-year recommendations to friends and readers of music worth hearing. If you remain curious to know new music, these are some CDs that have been getting repeated play in my CD changer at home.

Some of these -- Okkervil River, the Decemberists, the Antlers and tUnE-yArD -- all are likely to be ranked somewhere on my "best of the year" list come mid-December. All of these discs are worth hearing if you love music as much as my geeky friends do.

I've listed them alphabetically, to avoid inducing prejudices. Seek them out and give them a spin! Summer is a great time of the year to hear live music and for listening to songs cranked up in the car.

Burst Apart, the Antlers. What are they putting in the drinking water in Brooklyn? This is the first of two bands who claim Brooklyn as home on the mid-year list. The Antlers drew critical raves for their thematically linked song-cycle Hospice back in 2009, a death bed narrative about an abravive cancer patient who falls in love with her nurse. Burst Apart, mercifully, is not as maudlin as that effort but still keeps the lo-fi home-made aesthetics in place. Songwriter Peter Silberman has a lighter touch this time around on songs like "I Don't Want Love" and "French Exit." Well worth finding.

Birds & Drums, the Bewitched Hands. This 6-piece band from Reims, France wowed audiences at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin back in March. Because they sing their lyrics in English, they seem intent on cracking the U.S. indie rock scene. They cover a gamut of styles on Birds & Drums, their initial full-length release on Sony, a sign that they haven't found a signature sound yet. Don't let that stop you from checking them out. The title track is a saccarine pop tune that seems to emulate the Cowsills. "Work" has elements of anthemic rock. "Hard to Cry", the first single, is a swirling pop tune with Feist-worthy vocals. Something for everyone!

The King is Dead, the Decemberists. Colin Meloy says he's hanging up his band director's shoes after this final CD with the Decemberists. I guess that remains to be seen. One can hope not, because this one might be their best effort yet. The band is playing the Academy of Music on June 15th and the show has been sold out for months. If they showcase this terrific collection of radio-friendly folk-rock tunes, they'll make lots of locals very happy. On the back of the new CD, the band is pictured with an array of acoustic mountain music instruments: accordian, banjo, autoharp and two guitars, one with just four strings. If this is a sly reference to The Band, it's appropriate. "Calamity Song" is one tune that will bring the house down all summer, a knowing apocalyptic smile at Harold Camping's End Timers.

Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes. I haven't warmed up to this one as much as my 25 year old son has. But I am confident it will grow on me as the year goes on. The critics have been kinder than kind to the Fleet Foxes. This latest effort seems, on first listen, to be plowing the same fertile ground as the band's eponymous first full-length album. It sounds like a mix of the lush orchestral pop of the Beach Boys with a dash of British folk like the Strawbs and Fairport Convention tossed in. I don't hear anything as arresting as "White Winter Hymnal" on this new CD, but the band's hallmark fingerprints -- those lush four-part vocal harmonies -- are all over this record too. Tracks to download include "Bedouin Dress" and "Lorelie."

Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance. Brooklyn's Gang Gang Dance specializes in experimental rock that takes its cues from Brian Eno. If you like electronica or Eno's ambient and atmospheric music, you'll dig this effort. Most of the tracts are jams that go on for six to eight minutes and create soundscapes that work as well on the dancefloor as they do on your headphones. "Glass Jar", the CD's 11 minute opening opus, and "Romance Layers" are tunes for the Ipod. Adventurous souls can catch their act at Johnny Brenda's on Wednesday, July 20th.

Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem. When I caught their gig at a WXPN Free At Noon show four or five weeks ago, it became immediately obvious the Low Anthem are not your average banjo-stumming folk band. They are drawn to instruments that give their sound an old time gospel flavor: a pump organ, hammer dulcimer, acoustic guitars and fiddles were all on stage. One of the musicians used a fiddle bow to elicit eerie sounds from both a wood saw and a banjo. They recorded Smart Flesh in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island and the album has a ambling openness that feels drawn from the building. The Low Anthem makes folk music feel fresh.

Middle Brother, Middle Brother. On paper, it sounds like an idea that's guaranteed to create problems. Take three guys who front their own indie rock bands and mash them together to form their own group. That's exactly what John McCauley (Deertick), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) were asked to consider. Middle Brother, an uproarious mash-up of alt-country and punk rock, is the end result. With sonic tips of the hat to Neil Young, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, this CD will appeal to your inner hippie. The best cuts include "Blue Eyes", "Portland" and a two rollicking back to back rave-ups "Me, Me, Me" and "Someday".

I Am Very Far, Okkervil River. Will Sheff's best songs plumb the depths of human loss and depravity. He is the Edgar Allen Poe of indie rock. No one makes more compelling modern American music. Sheff's songs, so full of the flinty flash of sharp knives dipping into ripped and torn flesh, can haunt you for days. The new record skirts beneath the surface into a dreamscape of revelations and nighmares. Mysterious, austere and powerful. Check out the YouTube performance of "The Rider" from David Letterman's May 13th show and you'll see a band primed to grab the audience by the throat and never let go. If you don't know them yet, you soon will. Okkervil River's The Stage Names was my favorite CD of the last decade. This new one may be as good.

So Beautiful, or So What, Paul Simon. Just as Bob Dylan made Time Out of Mind when he was contemplating the end, Simon has made this great album, So Beautiful. Heralded by the critics as his best since Graceland, this new album of songs has Graceland's gospel/world music vibe. Lyrically the songs investigate the fertile themes of religious faith, death and the afterlife, love gained and love lost. From the jaunty joyfulness of the opening tract, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day", to the shimmering afro-pop of the disc's finale, the title tune, this is a welcome return to form for Simon.

Whokill, tUnE-yArDs. How does something like tUnE-yArDs (yes, the misplaced uppercase letters are purposeful) happen? Merril Garbus is a name to remember. Garbus makes noise-pop with a worldbeat bent. She tosses jazz, hip-hop, R&B and folk into the mix in what the All-Music Guide calls "fascinating collisions that are as melodic as they are abrasive, and as globally minded as they are distinctly urban." Songs to here include “Gangsta”, a brassy tune topped of with sirens and “Bizness” a nod to the Afro-pop of Fela Kuti and Congotronics. Whokill is the soul record of the year so far, sung and written by an American white girl who sounds like she was raised on the streets of Kinshasha. Check out this live performance of the band's "Bizness" here, recording in the studios of FM station KEXP in Seattle.


Yuck, Yuck. Yuck is no joke. This one is pure pop for now people. Feel the power of the 3-chord guitar riff backed by distortion. Listen to that nasty snarl! Makes you glad AC/DC left their hard rock formula around for these young Londoners to emulate. The perfect graduation present to that whipsmart prepster who thinks his dad's taste in music got stuck in 1985. Crank up the second cut, "The Wall" and watch his graduation party turn into a suburban exodus. Isn't that what makes memories!? Garage rock for muscle cars.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pop culture alert: Okkervil River is about to conquer the world

I'll admit, the subject title of my blog today is far too subjective; entirely open to accusations of hyperbole. Unless you know the band. Then you just shrug your shoulders and say, "yeah, so what else is new?"

Fronted by one of the best songwriters working today, Will Sheff, Okkervil River is playing two gigs in Philadelphia tomorrow, June 3rd. They will be performing at WXPN's weekly "Free at Noon" show on at the station's World Cafe studios down on Walnut Street. Later that evening they'll perform at the Trocodero on Arch Street with Titus Andronicus, an up and coming rock band from Glen Rock, N.J. whose album, "The Moniter" made a lot of critics' best of the year lists in 2010.

Sheff's vocal style of singing puts some listeners off. Some folks don't like his over-the-top delivery or the way his most emotional songs seem to climb into the mind of homicidal psychopaths, intent on getting blood on their hands. Too creepy. Others don't like the way he seems to imitate the worst traits of 1950s crooners like Perry Como and Bobby Darin. Too lame, too retro.

I can't help myself. The guy fronts one of the best bands in the country and he commits himself to his performances like very few other front men will. His on-stage persona is enthralling: a tall, a loose-limbed imitation of Ray Davies in his heyday with the Kinks. Ray Davies is a great songwriter. Will Sheff may be regarded as his equal before his career is done.

If you don't know Okkervil River, this is an opportunity to discover one of the nation's best indy rock bands. Tickets are still available. The link below will give you a taste, his performace of his latest single, "Rider" that closed David Letterman's show on Friday, May 13th.

I Am Very Far, the band's new CD, is getting critical raves and is sure to be near the top of a lot of critics "best of the year" lists, including my own. The new single from the CD, "Rider" is my favorite song of the year so far. You can catch a glimpse of Sheff performing the song on Letterman's show from Friday the 13th at the link below.

If this doesn't impress you, you've probably been listening to Lady Gago too much this month.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Celebrating Bob Dylan: happy 70th birthday, Bob!

Bob Dylan turns 70 tomorrow, May 24th.

It's impossible to accurately measure Dylan's artistic achievements of the last 50 years or to overestimate his place in America's history. One could make an argument that he is the nation's preeminent artist, living or dead.

I won't try to do that here, but when he finally passes, you can be sure a lot of newspaper pundits will make that claim with confidence and no small justification. His artistic achievements go far beyond most of the great American writers you can think of off the top of your head: Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner and Frost. Maybe even Mark Twain.

In some ways he is more like a Russian novelist than an American pop star. Along with the Beatles, Muhammad Ali and Mahatma Gandhi, he may be one of the most widely recognized icons of the 20th century.

He certainly belongs on any Mount Rushmore of American musicians. The debate would be who to put next to his visage on the side of the mountain. Armstrong? Guthrie? Sinatra? Presley? Springsteen? You get the point. He belongs among the greatest of the great. His influence on popular culture is inestimable.

Considering that Dylan has never been known as a very fine singer, this is not just a major achievement, it's an incredible achievement. We tend to value the singer more than the song. But Dylan's production as a songwriter is so outstanding, and his artistic vision so expansive, he seems likely to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature before too long.

He writes with keen passion and worldly, hard-won wisdom about life's big topics: religion and politics; love and war; race and finance. His best songs paint vivid pictures of smalltown snapshot moments but he can offer biting commentary on the most significant, historic movements and disasters, too.

Philadelphia's WXPN will be playing a list of 70 Dylan songs tomorrow to celebrate his birthday. I have no idea how many of my favorites, listed below, will be on the WXPN playlist. I feel sure I will hear this from more than a few friends: "how could you forget THAT one!?!"

A couple of years ago I was gathered with my son, Luke, and several of his friends and we all decided to jot down our favorite ten Dylan songs. There were five of us and out of the 50 total songs we compiled, only four or five songs were on someone else's list. We spent the rest of the evening marveling at one another's choices and wondering how we could have been so clueless and forgetful.

It's a daunting task. Try for yourself! Good luck! I had to get my collection of Dylan CDs out to help me put the list together.

1. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited), 1965
2. Masters of War (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), 1963
3. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks), 1975
4. Desolation Row, (Highway 61 Revisited)
5. Just Like a Woman, (Blonde on Blonde), 1966
6. Maggie's Farm, (Bringing It All Back Home), 1965
7. Ballad of a Thin Man, (Highway 61 Revisited)
8. Mississippi, (Love and Theft), 2001
9. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are a-Changin'), 1964
10. It Ain't Me Babe, (Another Side of Bob Dylan), 1964

11. All Along the Watchtower, (John Wesley Harding), 1967
12. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, (Blonde on Blonde)
13. This Wheel's on Fire, (The Basement Tapes), 1975
14. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)
15. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, (Blood on the Tracks)
16. My Back Pages, (Another Side of Bob Dylan), 1964
17. Hurricane, (Desire), 1976
18. Lay Lady Lay, (Nashville Skyline), 1969
19. A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall, (Freewheelin')
20. All I Really Want to Do, (Another Side of Bob Dylan)

21. Every Grain of Sand, (Shot of Love), 1981
22. Chimes of Freedom, (Another Side of Bob Dylan)
23. It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleedin', (Bringing It All Back Home)
24. Queen Jane Approximately, (Highway 61 Revisted), 1966
25. Knocking on Heaven's Door, (The Ballad of Billy the Kid), 1976
26. Positively 4th Street, (Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits), 1967
27. To Be Alone With You, (Nashville Skyline)
28. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,(Blonde on Blonde)
29. Blowin' in the Wind, (Freewheelin')
30. Visions of Johanna, (Blonde on Blonde)

31. High Water (for Charlie Patton), (Love and Theft)
32. Quinn the Eskimo, (Self-Portrait), 1972
33. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, (Nashville Skyline)
34. Red River Shore, (Telltale Signs), 2008
35. Mr. Tambourine Man, (Bringing It All Back Home)
36. Idiot Wind, (Blood On the Tracks)
37. Clothes Line Saga, (The Basement Tapes)
38. Absolutely Sweet Marie, (Blonde on Blonde)
39. I Threw It All Away, (Nashville Skyline)
40. It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (Highway 61 Revisited)

41. Dear Landlord, (John Wesley Harding)
42. Love Minus Zero/No Limit, (Bringing It All Back Home)
43. The Times They Are a Changing', (The Times They Are a Changing')
44. Most of the Time, (Oh Mercy), 1989
45. If Not For You, (New Morning), 1970
46. Shelter From the Storm, (Blood On the Tracks)
47. Subterranean Homesick Blues, (Bringing It All Back Home)
48. I Shall Be Released, (The Bootleg Series, vol. 2), 1991
49. Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, (Blonde on Blonde)
50. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, (Bringing It All Back Home)

51. Romance In Durango, (Desire)
52. Po' boy, (Love and Theft)
53. Jokerman, (Infidels), 1983
54. With God On Our Side (The Times They are a Changin')
55. Tryin' to Get to Heaven, (Times Out of Mind)
56. Mozambique, (Desire)
57. Catfish, (The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3), 1991
58. Please Mrs. Henry, (The Basement Tapes)
59. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, (Highway 61 Revisited)
60. I Pity the Poor Immigrant, (John Wesley Harding)

61. She Belongs to Me, (Bringing It All Back Home)
62. Ain't Talkin', (Modern Times)
63. Everything Is Broken, (Oh Mercy)
64. From A Buick Six, ( (Highway 61 Revisited)
65. I Want You, (Blonde On Blonde)
66. Girl From the North Country, (Nashville Skyline)
67. 'Til I Fell in Love With You, (Time Out of Mind)
68. If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Bootleg Series, Vol. 2)
69. Million dollar Bash (The Basement Tapes)
70. Not Dark Yet, (Time Out of Mind)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thank you Harold Camping, for reminding us

I was awakened this morning by some small brown finches singing a delicate and delightful song outside my bedroom window around 5:30 a.m.

Normally, I might shut my bedroom window and complain about the racket, but this morning I lay in bed listening closely to the birds chattering about their day. It was nice to hear their indifference to the End Times countdown that Harold Camping, a radio preacher from California, foisted on humanity for the last six months.

I knew, when birdsong woke me, that the day was as routine as any other spring day; that the world had not ended, and that we had a lot to be thankful for. The long-awaited Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the End of the World would not be happening today.

There would be great disappointment among Camping's followers. For sure, they could feel let down and deceived; again. They will be embarrassed and subjected to ridicule and finger-pointing. I hope they can take the ribbing in stride. I find their faith in Camping stirring and, although misguided, their belief in the immanent return of the Christ inspirational.

It is good for the rest of us to remember that End Timers are not wishing damnation on the rest of humanity (although that is a subtext of their message that we all need be wary of). They are awaiting the salvation of humankind and a glorious reign of the king's peace on Earth for 1,000 years.

In this era of our endless wars, their fervor for the end of the world should be seen as both hopelessly naive and wonderfully optimistic. You can understand, living in a broken world such as ours, that such a simple solution to our global problems and worries as the return of Jesus Christ has appeal.

Camping's track record was suspect from the very beginning. He made the same claim in 1994, thus matching William Miller's ineptitude at deciphering the mysteries of St. John's Revelation and prognosticating Christ's return. But we all have a lot to thank him for. If he didn't fill us with trepidation, at least he made us appreciate all that life has to offer, especially the small things like the birdsong of finches.

His misguided mistake and failure as a prophet should remind all of us of lessons we constantly forget and of daily pleasures we frequently take for granted. The world has not ended. Let us rejoice! And let us commit ourselves to its preservation and recognize God has asked us to be stewards of the Earth, that it is our only home, and that we have a responsibility to our children and their children to keep it clean and habitable.

This day, in which the world did not end, should renew our sense of obligation to be better stewards and to find ways to negiotate our most fervant religious convictions with others who do not share them. No one knows how or when or even if the end will come. We should do everything in our power to make sure the end never comes. I believe with my whole heart that is what Christ himself would ask of us.

I say that as a Christian, one who believes the Apocalypse should never happen and who who yearns to know the mind of Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus in their understanding and appreciation of God and the world God has given us.

So today, of all days, be glad and give praise. Listen carefully to what the finches have to say. Smell the flowers. See the majesty of the mountains or take a walk on the beach. Hug your children. Cut the grass or wash your car. Be glad and soak up all of it.

Rejoice! The world has not ended!

And say a small prayer of thanks to Harold Camping for reminding us of all we might have lost.

Friday, May 20, 2011

End of the World mix tape

In the spirit of tomorrow, and Harold Camping's prediction that the world will end on May 21,2011, let's see if we can come up with a definitive list of End of the World songs. I humbly suggest you pull these out and play them in your CD player while you're driving to your "final resting place" destination!

Here are some for your consideration:

1) "The End," the Doors, the Beatles, your choice!

2) "All Along the Watchtower" Dylan/Hendrix, take your pic

3) "Until the End of the World," U2

4) "The Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash

5) "Earth Dies Screaming," Tom Waits

6) "Revelator" Gillian Welch

7) "Resolution" or "Ascent", John Coltrane, pic 'em!

8) "Waiting For the End of the World," Elvis Costello

9) "Wheels on Fire," The Band

10) "1999," Prince.

Nearly made the cut: "The Beast In Me" or "The Hurt", Johnny Cash; "Rapture", Blondie; "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)", R.E.M.; "Man of Peace," Bob Dylan; "Four Horsemen" or "London Calling", the Clash; "Jesus Is Just All Right," The Byrds; "Peace In the Valley," Elvis Presley; "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," Blind Willie Johnson; "The Future," Leonard Cohen.

Put your thinking caps on!!


Monday, May 16, 2011

Less than one week to make amends!

Allison Warden poses with her car showing a message about the Rapture. Warden, 29, has been helping organize a campaign using billboards, postcards and other media in cities across the U.S.

Are you enjoying life these days?

Hope so!

Because you don't have much time to dig in and grab life by the proverbial horns!

If you are a Bible thumping True Believer who listens to California radio preacher, Harold Camping, this is old hat to you. You've already cashed in your stock portfolio, purchased your ring side seat to the Battle of Armageddon and booked your flight to Jerusalem.

By Camping's careful calculations, the long awaited return of Jesus Christ will take place on Saturday, May 21st.

I am not sure if all Hell will break loose, as St. John's Revelation advises, or if those closest to God will be raptured out of their beds, cars or airline seats and miss the final dust-up between the Forces of Good and Satan's minions on a dusty, desert floor outside Jerusalem.

But it's worth noting, and raising an irreverent Victory HopDevil, that this is just the latest prediction in a long line of (failed) predictions that the End of the World is at hand.

Why make a fuss? Good question. Especially since this same End Times prognosticator published a book with the very same prediction 17 years ago called 1994?

He was wrong then.

He'll be wrong again on Saturday.

And if you think me impertinent or imprudent for saying so, please send me $1 immediately. I'd be willing to give you 1000 to one odds Camping is wrong again!

(....although if he happens to kick off on Saturday, I will gladly return your $1 to you, because that would be a pretty remarkable coincidence!).

I have no doubt if Camping is correct, and I lose my bets to the True Believers, they'll come hunting me on Sunday morning in the sixth circle of Hades, demanding I pay up. (If you read Dante's Inferno, you'll find that the sixth circle of hell is reserved for skeptics such as myself. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Karl Rove will be the quartet playing AC/DC heavy metal riffs down in in the basement).

Why make fun of all of this? The End of the World ought to be serious business, should it not??

I couldn't agree with you more. But hear me out please. I'll tell you why.

Logic resists the idea that the world will end for numerous reasons. One would think the Good Lord would like us to use the brains (S)he gave us.

Here are a few of the most obvious reasons that bear some meditation.

1) Jesus will not return as an Avenging Warrior because that's not who he was, who he said he was, or what he stood for. Jesus was a pacifist. He ministered to the poor and befriended prostitutes. He healed lepers. He had no interest in winning a military victory for Israel because he knew his reward would not come on Earth.

2) Jesus told his disciples to "love your enemies" and to "turn the other cheek" when they were struck. When his disciples heard this message, in the Sermon on the Mount, they asked him, with no small wonderment, how many times they were supposed to allow themselves to be struck by their enemies: seven times? Jesus told them "No. 70 times 7 times." This is not humanly possible. When we are attacked, every fiber in our body demands retribution. We fight back. It's what people do. Our survival instinct kicks in. Darwin called it "survival of the fittest." (This incredible utterance by Jesus, the greatest paradigm shift in the history of the world, strikes me as a rational argument for his divinity. No mere human would promulgate such a notion and try to pass it off as morality.)

3) The world is in a very sorry state, to be sure, but the Chinese are too smart to take the Pakistanis at their word that America really is
the Great Satan or that President Obama is the Anti-Christ. They have no intention to lead the charge to Jerusalem with their standing army of 200 million. (I have to admit that that 200 million figure, first noted by Hal Lindsay in his apocalyptic bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth is pretty frightening, but I stand by my skepticism and by the inherent intelligence of the Chinese. They won't attack Israel on Saturday).

4) The Bible itself warns readers not to make predictions about the End of Time because no man can possess such knowledge and Jesus's own followers believed he could come back within their lifetimes. If he did (this is open to debate) he didn't return the way John predicted he would.

5) Camping's 1994? prediction was wrong 17 years ago. What the heck!!! We should believe him now? William Miller tried this in 1843 and it turned him into the biggest practical joker of the 19th century. Why Camping would risk another such Great Disappointment and the attendant ridicule that will surely follow him to the grave is beyond me.

Locusts lie buried in the Earth for that long and then take shed their horrid skins, take flight and chew down acres and acres of healthy crops. That's a working definition of apocalyptic.

Some radio preacher merely telling us to believe him again is not.

So, enjoy your Saturday. Take a nap. Watch the Phillies.

Wash your car. It probably needs it and you may want to resell it some day.

Whatever you do, DON'T donate it just yet to the Salvation Army.