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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Name Game

While meeting with my Feature Writing class last week, I was trying to tell my students about the importance of developing story ideas.

They are everywhere, sometimes they're right in front of your face. Sometimes they happen even when you're discussing story ideas.

One of my favorite journalism students, a young woman named Victoria Holt, asked me a question in class last week and addressed me by my first name: "Chuck"

I was flummoxed. My softball teammates call me "Chuck." My friends and colleagues call me "Chuck." My siblings call me "Chuck" (except for one sister who insists on calling me "Charlie" because she never got the message I adopted "Chuck" while I was in college,  in need of a byline.

Can you tell me a single reporter named "Charlie"? I sure can't.

Students do not call me "Chuck". And I didn't quite know how to react to her.

Knowing ahead of time some of my students had ordered their text books online and wouldn't have them this early in the semester, I had photocopied the first two stories we would be discussing. Tori told me "I have my book, but I forgot to bring it to class."

As I was passing the stories around, I casually mentioned to Tori when I got to her area of the classroom, "I am ticked off at you, Tori. But not for forgetting your book."  This got the laugh I was hoping for from the rest of the class. One of her friends, a tall lad with wavy blonde hair named Dillon, told me and the rest of the class that "Tori calls him 'Chuck' outside of class, too, so she may as well call him that in class."

This was news to me. And I wasn't too sure how I felt about it.

It only occurred to me the next day: Tori had handed me a golden opportunity to show that even an off-handed aside in the middle of a class can provide fodder for a column. I decided I should use this classroom anecdote to show how you could spin a story out of almost anything if you had an angle.

So, I mentioned this to Tori in an email on Tuesday night and then I asked my class when we met today. Is there a story here? If so, what is it? What is the appropriate thing to call your teachers or your professors? Do most of us insist on being called by our professional titles? How many of you would like to call your professors by your first name?

I admitted to the class I didn't know how to respond to Tori when she called me "Chuck." She had taken two other journalism classes from me in recent semesters, and I personally admired her work ethic and thought she was a promising reporter. But she is still a student, one whose work I have to grade. I cannot pretend to be her friend. Nor would I want to. There has to be some professional boundaries between me and my students. And I explained this to the class, while addressing Tori.

Do you call any of your father's friends by their first names, I asked her? Yes, there was one, she said, someone her father was very close to and someone who had encouraged her to call him by his first name. Had she intentionally called me by my first name last week, just to test the boundaries? She admitted. "I wanted to see what you would do. I did it as a joke."

The findings of my impromptu and very unscientific survey revealed that most of my students felt more comfortable conferring a degree of respect on their professor by calling them by their professional name, Dr. So-and So, or, in my case, "Mr. Bauerlein," (because I do not have a PhD). One or two profs that my students have taken told them on the first day of classes to "call me by my first name". But even when they were given permission, it took a while for them to become used to it. It felt unnatural.

Several students in my feature writing class told me their art teachers in high school seemed more inclined to ask their students to "call me by my first name" because art was a "collaborative effort" and doing so made it seem as if they were "making art together."

My own feeling is that, because I am judging their work and putting grades on it, I cannot allow myself to become overly friendly and allow them to call me "Chuck." If you do "C" work for me, calling me "Chuck" will not make the C disappear, no matter how "friendly" it sounds.

"When you graduate from West Chester, and you are about to embark on your media career, at that point I will consider you a colleague. You may call me 'Chuck' then. In the meantime, let's stick with the standard protocol. Call me 'Mr. B.' or 'Mr. Bauerlein.' "

I have no doubt a few of them have more interesting words for me than "Chuck" when they are talking about me in private. I guess I should be thankful some of the best and the brightest of them call me by a name that I don't mind hearing when I am out of ear-shot.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two thoughtful responses to my Riley Cooper blog on race

I received a number of comments about my blog of Thursday in which I suggested the Eagles should have suspended wide-out receiver Riley Cooper after he was exposed on a YouTube video using a an insensitive racial slur.

While the media uproar surrounding Cooper's remark still rages, I thought I would post two very thought responses to my blog. The first one is from my sister, Judy, who teaches theater at a state university in California. She brings a fresh perspective to the controversy because she sees the world through the lens of her education in theatrical. The second respondent, whose remarks appear underneath my sister's, wished to remain anonymous.    

From my sister, Judy:
I read your blog. Nicely done. Chuck, it seems that your reaction is historically based and a bit more theoretical, while your friend's response is more experiential - both entirely valid perspectives. I completely agree that CONTEXT is key here, and both of you make good arguments for the uses of context in a cultural and historical framework.
Here's my take from a performance theory perspective:
What I see as the biggest issue in Cooper's threat (and it WAS a threat) is his lack of awareness of his own privileged position as: a) a white man, and b) a superstar athlete.  To me, he is performing a role: a hyper masculinized bully.  He is clearly using his power (physical, cultural, racial) to get his way. He uses the derogatory term "nigger" to re-claim his status as superior/white man, and in doing so he is harkening upon our own cultural understanding of the term nigger.  His comments awaken in us (his audience) a multitude of responses depending on our own experiences with race, and possibly our level of education. His choice of words had an intention behind them. I'm guessing he was trying to humiliate his opponent, and win over some like-minded by-standers.  He used a term that we all know - that we all have a position on - for a very good reason, even if that "reason" was made in a split second.

Could we say that he was unaware of the power of his performance? Could we say that he learned these things in a locker room? Sure. But the bottom line is that as a white man he possess invisible privileges that he should be aware of. He also possesses a substantive amount of economic and social capital - far beyond that of the security guard he's addressing.  One might say - and this is where compassion comes in -  that he doesn't KNOW himself very well. Why? Because he hasn't been taught that whiteness is privilege. Why hasn't he been taught this? Because it is a very, very uncomfortable thing for us to examine given the complexity of race, class and gender in our country. There's always an experience, a "truth", that will eclipse the larger historical and social framework.
I think that we, as a society, create these performances. I think that we cast characters and ask them to perform roles, like the hyper-masculinized athlete/hero. We ask people to be losers or winners, to stay uneducated, to sexualize their own bodies, etc. So when something like this happens it reminds us that we need to ask for something different.

And this is the second thoughtful response, from an acquaintance who works in city services for the city of Philadelphia:
I read your blog post, and to a certain extent, I agree. But I take issue with a few things, not within the post itself; rather with cultural aspects surrounding "the N word" and how it effects society at large.

First let me state: words have power. The pen is mightier than the sword. That said, words only have as much power over you as you allow: in my case, when I was in 1st to 8th grade, the other kids called me 'contaminated' due to a physical defect I was born with. That hurt me greatly, and I still cringe when I hear it. But I don't let it rule my life; I've overcome the low self esteem that hurt caused me. I understand that my struggle is comparatively weak versus what that of the average African American encounters, but as much as I will never understand their struggle, they cannot understand mine.

Second: I take issue with the blanket statement that any other person that is not African American can ever utter the N word. It largely depends on context. Yes, it can be a hateful word; that said, it can be a term of endearment: I have, since I was 19, black friends that call me 'niggah' and are OK with me calling them 'niggah'.  So, it depends on context.

While I found Cooper's words to be hateful, ignorant and inappropriate in their context (white guy talking to black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, where presumably 99% of the attendees were white) I also have to consider his locker room experiences, in which I can only presume that 'niggah' is tossed about with abandon. So, as an NFL player, I really can't blame him for having that word in his vocabulary, inasmuch as I wouldn't blame Eminem for having it in his vocabulary as a rapper. It comes with the territory.

Where I work, the employee base is 30% white, black and hispanic, the remaining percentage asian. If I got offended every time I heard the slightest 'slur', for example, when two hispanics, speaking in Spanish, toss out a 'blanco y negro' (whites and blacks) in the elevator, I'd never get along with anyone. We're all people at work; we understand we come from different backgrounds, and we all know that part of our job is to represent our various communities. So long as there is a balance, it works. In other words: we're not really racist, but each person has a neighborhood agenda to promote. It is what it is, and we accept that.

Finally, while I realize that the scars of 400 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow institutionalized oppression are not healed,  I cannot lay blame entirely on society for the failures of the individual.

I don't know if you are aware of this, but, culturally, in the African American urban community, "Acting White"--studying, attending school, having a job, being responsible--is culturally frowned upon.  Furthermore, dependence on the 'system', i.e. public housing, food stamps, welfare, utility allowances etc. is strongly encouraged. Not that I am against programs that help the poor, but I do have a hard time reconciling people that depend on the system on a lifetime basis versus those that need it for a few years in order to get through some hard times.

The "Acting White" phenomenon is what makes friends of mine, that will remain nameless, rise to Masters-level education, or their nephew, who can solve complicated mathematical equations in his head and has to hide the fact he is a leader in his schools debate team: they have/will overcome white societies racism, and the urban black societies culture of willful ignorance and dependence.

So, what has happened over the past half century +/- 20 years is a culture of entitlement has developed. People that are talented and intelligent have, largely by peer pressure, not developed to their full potential. That has nothing to do with me, you, or Riley Cooper: but, it allows that kind of racial stereotype to propagate. As a cook I worked with at B Rathbones when I was 15 answered me when I, both innocently and ignorantly asked him, "what is a nigger?" He said, "A nigger is a lazy person." That's a definition of a word that I can live with.

Finally: if what Riley Cooper uttered, drunkenly, at a concert, is so offensive, it begs the question: what about the actual names of our sports franchises? I find the term "Redskins" patently offensive; the mascots and/or logos of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians are, without a doubt, racially based cartoons of the proud peoples that once inhabited our continent. People that our forebears came close to exterminating from the face of the planet. Hell, Braves fans do "the chop" with an accompanying/mocking cheer. Is that not at least, if not more so, as offensive as one player on one team uttering a drunken slur?

So: in closing, I think you have overreacted a bit much in calling for the dismissal of Riley Cooper. After all, he's only human. Just like the rest of us.

On Thu, Aug 1, 201

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Riley Cooper should have been axed: why the Eagles didn't do enough

Race will never stop rearing its ugly head in this country.

It's 2013, and the nation has had a mixed-race President for five years now. So, yes, we seem to be making "progress" in this divisive issue. But, as the brouhaha over Riley Cooper's insensitive and racist remark suggests, Americans continue to be bound to a terrible national heritage:  our centuries long, disgraceful, immoral appeasement with slavery. 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we still deal with its fallout.

We are frequently reminded of this lesson must be taught. Slavery was a detestable part of our history. It  turned Americans into monsters. We need to collectively, finally, fess up to this unforgiveable sin and all its implications. Caucasian Americans can never use a word as  hateful and divisive as the N-word. And we need to make our children understand it is not a word they can ever utter.

I'm willing to give Cooper credit for telling the public how embarrassed he is for his insensitive remark. His public apology at the Eagles training camp today seemed sincere and I really want to believe he will learn from his mistake. The truest thing he said in his public apology yesterday was "my parents didn't raise me that way. I embarrassed them." I believed him. And I feel much worse for them than I do for him. If my child did something like this I would feel eternal shame. I bet Cooper's parents will be feeling shame for a long time and they did nothing wrong.

I was also glad to hear Cooper say that the fact he was drinking was "no excuse." But I would have preferred he didn't bring the drinking into the conversation. By mentioning it, the implication was too obvious. The alcohol "made me do it; this isn't the 'real' me." When you watch the video, and hear the vitriol with which he uses that spiteful word; when you hear the anger in his voice, it is hard to imagine alcohol was doing any of the talking. Riley doing all the talking and there is no way around this: he sounded like a racist.

Jeffrey Lurie, said to be one of the most politically liberal owners in the NFL, should have acted with a firmer hand. Liberals tend to believe in second chances, and it is possible Lurie had that thought in the back of his head when he laid only a $37,000 fine on Cooper. (This was the most he could fine a player, based on the NFL collective bargaining agreement. Cooper is only making around $680,000 this season, so his insensitive comment is bound to hurt his wallet).

But it's also possible Lurie and his new head coach, Chip Kelly, had a heart to heart talk before Lurie made his sentiments known to the media. The Eagles slotted Riley Cooper as their number one wide-out as soon as Jeremy Maclin sustained a season-ending injury. The Eagles need Cooper to play if they want to enjoy a successful season. Therein lies management's dilemma. Pro football is a billion dollar business. There's a lot at stake in showing improvement this year. Lurie wants to give local fans a reason to root.

But I think he may have misread his fan base. Many of us would have been a lot prouder if the team simply cut Cooper, just to send a message: this is Philly, the Eagles don't tolerate racism. Anyone insensitive enough to use such a spiteful word cannot play in Philadelphia.

THAT would have shown leadership. It would have told the world something important: we who live in Philadelphia care more about promoting diversity, securing civility, than we do about corporate profits. Some things are more important that winning. Like loving you're brother, no matter what his skin color is. That's what "Philadelphia", in it's original Greek term, is supposed to mean.

As an educator, I plan on using Cooper's mistake as a lesson in semantics and in history. We must remind students in our classes why the N-word is so offensive. I watched "Roots" several months ago for the first time and I was appalled at how many times I had to hear that awful word during the show. When the TV series (based on the Alex Haley novel) first came out, Americans were not as sensitive to the nuances of the word as they now are. And the series provided a necessary service to white Americans who needed to understand the context of the word and why it is so vile to black Americans. "Roots" was a graphic display of exactly what the word meant. It means a lot more than just the enslavement of dark skinned people.

A person born into slavery had no freedom. You were a thing to be owned. You were not your own person. Your master was entitled, in the legal meaning of the word, to use you however he wanted. Your children were his, too. He could punish you with impunity. He could ask you to perform any demeaning thing he wanted you to do, including having sex with him. Rape was legal and common. If you disobeyed him or objected to being raped, he could beat you. If you died from his whippings and beatings, there was no public outcry and no legal recourse to his murder. When a slaver owned you, your body was his to use. The most common word slavers used to describe the slaves they owned was the N-word. It was universally used with contempt and degradation.

We, as educators, must make students understand that any Caucasian who calls a person of color the N-word is crossing a line that is egregious and hurtful because of the original historic meaning in which the word was used. I have no problem with blacks who use the word as a term of endearment. I wish they didn't because too many uneducated people believe the word has become "acceptable" when they do. But if their use of it can somehow ease some of the hateful implications of the word, if their use of the word helps to remind the rest of us it's off limits, that's a good thing.

This is what the N-word implies: hundreds of years of bondage. Murder. Lynchings. Whippings. Rapes. The total degradation of an entire race of people. There is nothing good in it.

Riley Cooper didn't invent the word. It's been around for centuries, just like hatred itself. But if the Eagles dismissed him for the season for his insensitive remark, I can almost guarantee you this: no white player would ever risk using it again.

We would all have something to thank Cooper for then. And most of us might even be ready to forgive him. Even his black teammates.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"It's Too Late to Stop Now!" -- Van Morrison's performance at the Rainbow Theater happened 40 years ago

It's Too Late to Stop Now

Every life has some days that seem to bend time. Days that not only linger in our memories long after the sun as set but that take on a life of its own. They defy logic or expectations. They are so good they must have happened to someone else.
Only they didn’t. They happened to you. Really.

You have to remember it, don’t you? How could you not? The memory of it has carved a deep gash in your soul. It’s as much a part of you as your right hand.
Stealing into game 6 of the World Series in 1980 with my brother Paul was one such day. And playing softball against Bruce Springsteen in the summer of 1975, well before he became an American megastar, was another. I’ve told those stories many times to many people. They always bring a smile.

This is another such day and it’s a story I mention less frequently. But in its own way, it’s just as iconic as seeing your childhood team win the World Series in person or meeting your favorite rock star on the field of competition in a friendly ball game.
After graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans, I flew to London in the summer of 1973 to take a six-week graduate course in “Modern British Fiction” in early July. When I landed at Heathrow, grabbed a glossy weekly called “Timeout,” devoted to pop culture and critical commentary.

I casually flipped through the magazine and came to an ad that immediately caught my eye. “Van Morrison, live at the Rainbow Theatre! July 23rd and 24th!” was the headline. But in thick, 60 point block letters, stamped over the headline were these soul-wounding words: “SOLD OUT!”  My heart sank.
Van Morrison was coming to London!!!!  Besides the Beatles or the Stones, there was no one I wanted to see perform more than Van the Man. He’d released a series of astonishing recordings around this time, including “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance” and “Tupelo Honey”. The three of them constituted part of the soundtrack of my college years and they’d become deeply imbedded in the fabric of my teenage psyche. I had to try to see him. I stored the dates away in my mind and waited for the concert dates to arrive.

On the evening of July 23rd, I walked through the university cafeteria seeking someone to take a tube ride with me down to the south side of the city to try to see Van. To my astonishment, none of the London U. students I knew were eager to queue up in a standing room only line for two hours before the show. A few of my summer acquaintances knew the performer’s music, but none were as infatuated with his brand of Irish soul music as I was. 

One fellow, a Nigerian student named Alfa, overheard me asking the others about Morrison tickets and he said he would go with me if I would wait until tomorrow. He had some studying to do that night….but he invited me to come to his dorm room after 10 and promised we could listen to “Astral Weeks” and play chess. So that’s what we did. He dropped the spindle over the record and “Moondance” never sounded so good. Van was in London! He might be playing this very song even as we listened to it in Afra’s dorm room!
I don’t recall who won the chess match. It required listening to two of Van’s albums to get through our game. But by the end of the evening, Afra’s record collection had worked its magic on me. There was no way I was going to miss Van Morrison the next night.

When I grabbed a copy of the London Times at breakfast, the paper’s rock critic had written a glowing review of the first night’s show. The Times’ critic compared Morrison’s performance to the kind of funky spontaneity of the Band’s best live performances. That comparison and reference hooked me. I had to go.
Afra and I took the tube down to south London, where the Rainbow was located. The train was packed with long-haired flower people who had the same intention as we did. We asked everyone we saw if they had extra tickets for sale. One wag said he had one but his asking price was seven pounds, a price that seems exorbitant to me at the time (equivalent to $18 U.S. dollars when $5 was a standard rock concert price.) It would have been a bargain had I paid it. I didn’t know that at the time.

When we stepped off the underground, the exterior of the Rainbow Theatre was a carnival scene. The smell of marijuana wafted through the dank summer air and “brown-eyed girls” tossed Frisbees in the middle of the street, long tangles of shaggy hair cascading down their backs; their necklace bells chiming brightly as they ran after errant tosses.
Afra and I headed for the front of the concert venue looking for the standing room only line but we suddenly stopped cold. The queue was a mad scramble of pushing and shoving fans, fighting to get near the front of a small door on the side of the theatre. The price of admission was only two pounds, but already more than 200 people were in line. Afra shrugged his shoulders and started walking down the long line shouting out “Who has tickets!??!”

Despairing, I headed in the opposite direction and found myself under the Rainbow’s awning, staring through the glass doors of the auditorium at the lucky few who were already mingling inside. This dark haired kid about my age chose that very moment to come out of the theatre. We stood there looking at one another, confused by the circumstances of the moment. I knew him. He knew me. But how? Where had I seen his face? Who was he?
Then it came to me. His name drifted out of the subconscious depths of my head. Dyer O’Connor. But how did I know him?

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you go to Loyola? Weren’t you in American History with me?”
Yes. I was. I must have been. That’s how I knew him. “What are you doing here in London?” he wanted to know. I explained I was taking a summer class at the University of London. That I was a big fan of Van Morrison but the tickets to the concert had been sold out before I landed in London. I was hoping to snag a scalped ticket.

“I have one for you!” he said. “My date canceled on me.”
I looked over my shoulder for Alfa. He had disappeared into the anxious throng at the standing room only line. Meanwhile, I had joined the lucky few. I passed through the doors of the Rainbow Theatre with Dyer O’Conner, a guy I barely knew. He held an extra ticket in his hand and passed it over to a tuxedoed teenage ticket taker with bad teeth.

I reached for my wallet to pay for it. “No.  No worries,” Dyer said. “My treat. Glad for the company. Glad to give it to a Van fan.”
Our seats were in the balcony, not more than eight or nine rows from the rail. The Rainbow had been designed as a gilded palace of Hollywood films in the early 1930s and was called the Astoria Cinema. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, if memory serves, and replicas of Greek statues were situated in nooks on the interior walls of the theater. It looked a bit like the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. Our seats were comfortable but covered by faded red velvet, worn down over time by the fannies of thousands of moviegoers.

The movie palace had been converted to a musical theater only a few years before. The Who played the first rock show there in December of 1971.  Eric Clapton, Queen, the Sweet, Little Feat and Bob Marley and the Wailers all recorded live album there in the mid-‘70s. The venue is also believed to be the first place Jimi Hendrix burned a guitar on stage.

Dyer and I spent a few moments getting to know one another, trading tales about our Loyola experiences. His dad worked for Exxon in London so London was his home when he wasn’t in New Orleans. We were both chagrined to have spent four years in the same class at a school without ever having a conversation until that serendipitous meeting at the Rainbow. He’d majored in history. I majored in journalism, so our paths didn’t cross much. But we recognized one another immediately when he stepped through the doors of the theater.
A journal I kept of my trip to Britain that summer has this entry for July 24th: “I can’t really remember what songs he did. Some from the new LP, Hard Nose the Highway. Also, “I Just Want to Make Love To You” – “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Gloria” – “Moondance” – “Caravan” – “Everything” -- “Wild Night” – “Moonshine Whiskey” – “Domino” – “Gypsy” and three encores. He finished with “Listen to the Lion” ….It was his first London appearance in eight years and I got to go! I still hardly believe it!”

The band Van brought during his summer of ’73 tour was called the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. It was not a standard rock quartet. The bass, lead guitar, piano and drums were complimented by horns and strings: a sax and trumpet player; a trio of violins, a viola player and a cello player.  The ensemble played Morrison’s own compositions with delicate finesse. But they wailed on a series of blues tributes Morrison sung to the American R&B heroes of his youth: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson.
The Rainbow concert seemed to teeter between two contrasting styles of music: the airy, light touches of “Warm Love” and “These Dreams of You” (which highlighted the delicate playing of the strings) and the brassy bombast of “Gloria”, “Wild Night” and the blues tributes. I had seen Morrison perform 18 months earlier at the Villanova Field House with a much different band. He was nervous that night, unsure of himself. There were times he seemed afraid to even grab the microphone. This may have been just part of his “act” but Morrison has a reputation for being temperamental in his live performances and the uncertainty of his show at Villanova seemed to be part of the man, not part of an act.

His bearing at the Rainbow was much, much different. He was confident, not just a performer but a conductor. The performers backing him were in close orbit with him and he directed them with a casual nod of his head or a sharp glance. I had never witnessed any concert, any performance, quite like it. He held the audience in thrall and, during some quiet moments in the performance, the performance felt like a church service. The  audience began to engage the performer in call and response and small talk.
Late into the show, with the smell of marijuana hovering thick around us, Dyer pulled out a joint, lit it and passed it over to me. “Here,” he said, “try this. It’s from Kenya.” I drew a long hit and passed it back. We took turns until it became a tiny glowing ember that Dyer crushed under his boot heel. I knew instantly I had never smoked anything nearly so potent before. I had been given a very smooth and potent form of herb. I wouldn’t share this recognition of something so great, so potent, until I tried a 12-year old single malt scotch, aged in an oaken cask, when I was in my mid-40s. Dyer’s weed was better.

If the music hadn’t already transported us into the mystic, the potent weed surely did. Suddenly we were not just listening to music, we were into the music. It wasn’t that I was suddenly stoned. Really. But a revelation struck me. We -- me, Dyer and the entire audience – had become part of the performance. Van wasn’t just in tune with his backing performers. He was tuned into us, too.
There were some moments, during his final tune, “Cypress Avenue” when the silence became too much for the audience to bear; when Morrison seemed to be waiting for someone to give him a signal to perform. This happened on several occasions during the journey of this amazing song. The effect felt magical…. And you can hear it if you listen to the song on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”,  a recording of this concert that was released in February of 1974.  

About halfway through this epic version of “Cypress Avenue”, which goes on a mind-bending journey for 10 minutes, Morrison sings a phrase that I still hear as “And they say in France!” Then he pauses. I am uncertain if this is precisely what he is singing or not. Some wags in the balcony call out to him “France!” I was stoned, I know, and I have no proof of this except what I hear on the record, but I swear it was me and Dyer, feeling the effects of his Kenyan stick, shouting down to the stage from our balcony seats. He repeats the verse: “And they say in France!” We, now joined by half a dozen other emboldened (possibly stoned?) members of the audience, shout back the invocation: “France!” Morrison does his lyric a third time. One more time “France!” comes back to him.
About two minutes later someone shouts down from the balcony, “Cook, Van, cook!”  And about a minute after that someone else calls out to him: “Turn it on!”  Van hesitates ever so slightly after hearing this and makes the crowd wait impatiently for him to continue the song. He bends low, gripping the microphone and savoring the moment, milking it for all its worth, before he finally chuckles: “It’s already turned on”. The concert stops while a roar of appreciative hilarity commences to endorse his quip.

Morrison, in complete command of both the audience and the moment, improvises a short series of vamps and tossed-off asides to the audience before his locomotive of a band crescendos in a heightened, audacious wall of noise that ends with Morrison shouting out his signature phrase at the climax of the song, giving his album its name: “It’s too late to stop now!” Then he exits stage right, striding like a lion.
It was a moment – a concert – I can never forget. Of course, having a record of the concert makes the details easier to assimilate and provides me with other half-remembered details of that eventful evening. When the record came out seven months later, I was back in New Orleans. I had long forgotten how buzzed I was when Morrison began playing “Cypress Avenue”.  But when the needle hit that part of the record where Dyer and I shout out “France!” I realized I had become a tiny thread in a magnificent quilt. I could hear myself on “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”. 

In the years since July 24th, 1973, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” has become regaled by critics as one of the greatest live performances of the rock era. Half of the songs on the two-discs are not songs I can remember hearing and were likely recorded in Los Angeles in June of that year. Because of the breadth of the material on the record – it covered songs from his most creative artistic period in the late 1960s and early 1970s; those five nods to African American R&B singers and hits from his days with Them -- it was considered a vital overview of his career up to that point. But it also showcased Morrison at the peak of his powers as a singer and the defining document of what Morrison himself called “Celtic soul”.

I knew I had heard something remarkable that night. My intuition was confirmed when I picked up a 1979 book called “Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island” edited by Greil Marcus. Its central conceit was this: if you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one album with you, which one would you bring?  The book’s second essay was by the arts editor of the Village Voice, a woman named M. Mark, who chose “Too Late to Stop Now” as her desert island disc.
It’s not the disc I would bring to an island if I could only bring one….but only because I don’t need to hear it again. I’ve committed it to all to memory.

Dyer and I took the tube back to northern London, chatting about our recollections of what we had just witnessed. I have little doubt the underground was filled with other Van fans, nodding their heads in stoned inebriation, just as blown away by what they had witnessed as we were. We got off at different stops and I was sure I would see him again before I left London. I didn’t. And when I got back to New Orleans, I lost his address, scribbled on the back of the July 24th Rainbow Theater concert ticket.  
But his act of kindness and generosity was something I never forgot. And every time I played the album, in my home or on my car CD player, I remembered sharing both that concert with him and the most magnificent weed I have ever experienced.

I wanted to talk to him before I published this story. I hoped he was still alive to thank him. I looked for him on Facebook without any luck. I Googled his name. Nothing turned up. Finally, about a week ago, I contacted the alumni office of our alma mater. A helpful woman named Monique tracked him down and sent him word that I wanted to talk to him. But due to what she called “privacy issues” she couldn’t give me his phone number or email address. She said she had tried to call him but noted “he didn’t pick up. He probably thought we were asking him for money.” She wanted to know why I wanted to talk to him, so I gave her a short email version of this story, which she loved reading.
About two days later, my cell phone rang. It was Dyer. He is retired from the oil business (his dad helped him land a job in the industry) and lives in Colorado now with his wife, Boo, who he met during his first week at Loyola.  She, he told me, was the “canceled date” that allowed me to have a seat at rock history’s table.

When I asked what he remembered about the show, he told me we were sitting in the balcony, stage right. He sounded good…although he did not remember yelling out “France” during the show. He said he still goes to a ton of concerts, many of them at nearby Red Rocks, a stunning Colorado concert venue.
And yes, he still smokes weed.

“Colorado was the first state in the union to legalize it,” he proudly noted.
I haven’t imbibed marijuana in many years, but when I next get out to Colorado, I know a guy who will gladly share a stick with me. And I bet I know what album he’ll put on the turn table.