“grazing in the grass” – hugh masekela (1968)


Today is the spring equinox, colloquially known as the first day of spring, in this part of the world.  Though our calendar officially recognizes the seasonal change, it sure doesn’t feel like it in Chicago.  Currently, it is hovering around freezing and expected to snow later in the week.  To call this spring, especially after such long winters in Chicago, it can be seen as some cruel joke for some, but I don’t mind it.  Spring will come.

March can be such a strange month for weather.  One day, it can be bright, sunny, and warm enough to leave the jacket at home.  The next day, you’re bundled up in your scarf, hat, and mittens.  I was standing on the train platform this morning during my morning commute thinking about the lovely weather we had this weekend.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago which, depending on the area, can be a chaotic mess.  A friend of mine and I chose to head out of the city to see Asian orchid flower displays at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  There were lovely displays of orchids and all their bright, shimmering glory with warm welcoming hues of purple and yellow and red.  The flowers were displayed along the walls with a quiet water fixture in the middle.  It was incredibly calming and peaceful.

It was also very sunny out and warmer than had been during the week.  Last St. Patrick’s Day, it was miserably cold.  I remember standing in a courtyard at the base of Trump Tower looking at the river and waiting for it to turn green.  It wasn’t the coldest day of winter, but it was sure one of the coldest days.  SO much trouble to stand amongst drunk suburbanites and college students waiting to see a dirty river change colors.  As festive as I can be, I wanted no part of it this year.

Not only were the orchid displays gorgeous, it was also a really lovely day.  The sun was out and the temperature has risen enough to where I could comfortably walk around without my jacket.  And it kept getting nicer as the day progressed.  Later that day, I was sitting on a Metra platform, reading a book and my bare arms were exposed.  I marveled at how warm and inviting everything felt.  It only got better the next day with more sun and even warmer temperatures.  One of my purest joys in life is the first day I can comfortably wear short sleeves all day.  I got to experience that on Sunday and that is when I’m officially over winter.  Just a little taste of spring and I have to have it all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.  I was reminded just how unpredictably March in Chicago can be as I was shivering on the train platform.  I may not have actually been that cold.  It may have been an unconscious reaction considering the delightful weather I just experienced over the weekend.  Like an addict going cold turkey, I was shaking all over.  I need another hit of that spring awakening.

As I wait for Chicago to make up its mind and fully commit to spring, I ease the transition by listening to music that, for me, evokes fun in the sun.  Not quite the fun you find when its time to hit the beach, but the kind of fun where you can walk through parks without splashing around in dirty slush or slipping on the sidewalks.  I’m talking about the fun in the sun where you can go for a run, practice for your upcoming softball league, or maybe even grab a delicious treat from any of the fro-yo shops that are beginning to bloom.

Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is the perfect song for such an occasion.  “Grazing in the Grass” was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by Masekela in 1968.  Most people are more familiar with the 1969 cover by the Friends of Distinction with the added lyrics, but Masekela’s original evokes a more calm and casual feeling.

The song was inspired by “Mr. Bull No. 5,” a novelty record that Masekela had heard in Zambia earlier.  In fact, “Grazing in the Grass” almost wasn’t released.  Masekela was working on his 1968 The Promise of a Future, but was short by three minutes.  At the record company’ suggestion, Masekela recorded the song along with Philemon Hou, also in the studio, who wrote a new melody.

Masekela’s signature trumpet sound on the track, just like spring, is gorgeous and not overbearing.  I just feel really good listening to it because it is simultaneously calming and motivating.  It makes me want to get out, move, and just enjoy the world around me.  This year, Masekela’s recordings was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sadly, Masekela passed away earlier this year.  As one of South Africa’s best musicians, he championed anti-apartheid sentiments in his compositions.  Much of his work closely reflected his experiences growing up in segregated townships.  During the 1950s and 1960s in South Africa, Masekela faced extreme racism and exploitation under apartheid.  He managed to channel this into his revolutionary music that protested government-mandated violence and slavery.

While “Grazing in the Grass” may not have the same political furor as “Bring Him Back Home” or “Soweto Blues,” the song is powerful in its own right.  The power the song has comes from it evoking happiness and peace.  Amidst all the suffering and violence black South Africans faced from their oppressors, there was still a desire and yearning for joy.  Walking peacefully through the grass may not seem a revolutionary act to most people, but the drive to live a life where you can do what you please is one.

I understand that bracing one’s self against Chicago winters and institutionalized slavery are not the same things. However, my experience with this track is different than the context with which it was composed and recorded.  Back then, it is a yearning and declaration for one’s own sense of peace from oppression.  For me, right now, it means happiness on a smaller scale.  In the end, its all happiness and, baby, I can dig it.


“ray of light” – madonna (1998)


A few weeks ago, I celebrated the seventh anniversary of my move to Chicago.  A lot has happened since I pulled up to my Rogers Park apartment in a U-Haul the week after the city experienced the legendary “Snowpacalypse” of 2011.  I met a lot of people and befriended a few.  I went in and out of relationships, friendships, and places of employment.  I started several new hobbies while even continuing some of them.  My experiences and encounters shaped my outlook and overall being.  Sometimes in major ways and other times with subtlety.  Still, my life today is not the same as it was several years ago or even last year.

The longer you live in one place, the more memories you build.  These memories become part of the scenery.  You walk by a particular spot and see a flash of a past life that seems so long ago, but was still instrumental in the development of your current state of being.  These memories can be good or bad, but they are yours.  You can allow them to haunt you or you can control them.

I’ve been told the best way to deal with unpleasant memories associated with a particular geographical spot is to create new memories there.  I get that and I believe it.  If some place made you uncomfortable before, go there and do something so significant that its meaning evolves and you no longer feel anxiety or doubt.  It sounds hard, but it is possible.

I mention this because I’ve gotten pretty good at reclaiming places in the city that were once associated with positive memories before I soured on them.  This process took time.  And that was ok because these uncomfortable reminders were fairly infrequent.  With geographical spaces, I can build paths or lives around them that satisfy me.  With places that were uncomfortable for me, I would only go there if it was absolutely necessary to fulfill or achieve something relevant to my current life.  Once that happened, things were fine and I reclaimed something that was temporarily lost.

The same hardly ever works when it comes to people because of the potential of chance encounters.  Chicago is a big city, but it can be small in a lot of ways.  You’re bound to run into someone you know walking these streets.  These can be friendly faces around your own neighborhood or faces of people that you haven’t seen in so long that is feels like it has been a lifetime since you’ve seen them.  Whether these chance encounter are pleasant or not entirely depends on your associated memories with them.  However, unlike buildings, reclaiming something lost with a person is a lot harder.

A week or so ago, I had a couple of days that really threw me off balance.  Specifically, I had three chance encounters with people from my past all within a span of a few days.  My memories associated with these people are quite negative with no chance of fixing what is broken between us.  They are individuals from my past I have no interest ever dealing with again let alone actually seeing.  It had been several years since I had seen any of them, so to come face to face with all three within one week was difficult to handle.  I felt my stride break for a few days and that was difficult to deal with being someone who is very focused on looking ahead.

I’m very open to advice and consultations from people I care about in my life.  Both a close friend and a family member have, in the past and recently, told me to stop, breathe, take in my surroundings, and consider what the universe is trying to tell me.  What they mean by this is that there could be a signal or a pattern of signals that is attempting to guide me in a particular direction.  Where that leads to, I don’t know.  But the advice is meant to suggest that I cut out all the distractions that keep me from where I need to be.

For a few days after those encounters, I spent time thinking about what the universe was telling me.  I was sure I was being tested.  At first, I was thinking that the universe was trying to rub my past failures and mistakes in my face.  Why else would I see the three people I have at the top of my list of my “Do Not Want” list all within one week?  It seemed like a cruel joke.  I could see myself stumbling upon them individually over a much longer span of time, but within a few days was ridiculous.

I consulted with a few friends on the matter.  One told me it was just a coincidence and that I shouldn’t think about it.  Another told me that they are just reminders that those people aren’t worth thinking about.  Someone else told me it could be a reminder of how far I’ve come along and how better my life is for it.  When you think about matters of existentialism, demanding a clear answer is an exhausting and useless gesture.  And that was what happened.  I was exhausted and I needed a do over for the next weekend.

This past weekend, I got the do over I was looking for.  I did fun things with people I enjoy.  I took some personal time to be alone and enjoy myself and the life I have built for myself.  This came in the form of cooking a fancy meal and seeing a midnight movie at my favorite theater.

On Saturday, I had a nice blend of new and familiar.  I participated in early primary voting before going to the gym.  That afternoon, I went to the library to participate in a feminist book club meeting where I met a whole group of new people and engaged in thought-provoking and engaging dialogue.  That evening, I met with close friends to participate in a breakout room game.  I had never done one before and while many are zombie-themed, this one was an 80s dance party.  It was campy and fun and I enjoyed running around interacting with relics from the Reagan era.

On Sunday, I participated in a charity stair climbing event.   It was my fourth year in a row where I’ve raised funds and committed myself to climb a lot of stairs to beat lung cancer.  I climbed 180 stories in under 34 minutes which was a personal best.  I was really proud of that.  A friend came to the event to support me and she even made a sign to encourage me.  The sign had references to U2 (a band I love) and The Simpsons (a show I love) and I was so happy that I collapsed onto the floor with laughter.  After the stair climb, we ate fried chicken, talked with friends at a music discussion group, and I closed the evening out with cooking and reading.

It was an exceptional weekend on its own, but it really made up for last week.  I forget that I am surrounded by people who love and care about me.  And when I have weekends like this, I always surprised to be reminder of this.  I shouldn’t have to be reminded.  I should just know this.  Knowing this would be helpful when I have experiences where I am face to face with negativity from past in the form of an old boss or ex-girlfriend.  They don’t matter now and, therefore, shouldn’t cause me to feel doubt or anxiety.  Whether the universe was testing me or trying to show me how far I’ve come, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I need to stay grounded and enjoy what is relevant around me that has my best interest in mind.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Madonna lately.  I don’t know why, but I just have.  During my charity stair climb, my playlist was a Madonna compilation.  As I’ve been listening to her, I have really gravitated towards her songs that promote positivity, empowerment, and individuality.  While she has a lot of songs that do that, the one that feels most relevant to me right now is “Ray of Light.”

“Ray of Light” was the second single from Madonna’s seventh studio album released under the same name.  Released in 1998, Madonna had gone through a lot of changes prior to recording.  She gave birth to her daughter Lourdes, started developing a religious identity studying Eastern mysticism and Kabbalah, and played the lead in the 1996 film Evita based on the musical.  The Material Girl of the 1980s was growing into something more individual and realized in the 1990s.

The song deals with Madonna’s changing identities over the years.  Deeply personal throughs and experiences, such as becoming a mother, were changing her outlook and music.  While she reigned supreme over the charts with anthemic dance-floor songs, she was now transitioning to a form of electronic music that emphasized freedom of self.

Madonna repeats that she feels like she just got home throughout the song.  Quicker than ray of light, she is a zephyr in the sky that has a little piece of Heaven until Earth becomes one.  That may sound like a lot of 90s new age hyperbole, but there is a lot of meaning in the significance.   Perhaps, in 1998, people didn’t expect much lyrical depth form Madonna, but the song signifies that Madonna had matured and attempting to find a balance in her life.  She knows the kind of person she is and wants to be.  This is a motivation to seek out what she wants and needs in a life full of distractions and dead ends.

I was ten when this song came out.  At that age, I thought the music video was incredibly cool and I found the song very danceable.  At that time, I didn’t have the ability or experience to relate with what Madonna was saying.  At 30, I am in the process of understanding.  I can’t say that I completely understand because I’m still trying to find my own balance in the universe.  Madonna found it and sings her answer in “Ray of Light.”  While there will be times of discomfort that are designed to keep me from where I need to go, I must balance that with knowing I’m more than what those things attempt to define me as.  I’m closer to feeling like I just got home now than I ever did back then.

“travelin’ thru'” – dolly parton (2005)


The 90th annual Academy Awards were held this past weekend.  Organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to celebrate “excellence in cinematic achievements,” the Academy Awards (affectionately and commonly referred to as the Oscars) is a star-studded spectacle.  It is where you can see Hollywood’s hottest stars shine bright, see montages and tributes that remind us why we love the movies, and be thoroughly entertained by the host and the character they bring to the ceremony.

This year’s Oscars ceremony had a message for the world.  2017 went down as a year where toxic men in Hollywood were exposed and town down from power after decades of abusing a system that preyed upon young actresses.  Brave women came forward and shared their personal stories of harassment and sexual assault.  Almost daily, it seemed that a recognized male figure faced allegations.  While men like Aziz Ansari were put on blast and added nuance to the dialogue on sexual assault (in this case, consent must be enthusiastic), the real victories were won against monstrous and vile men like Harvey Weinstein whose career rightfully ended and is currently facing possible arrest for his decades of abuse and crimes.

Women rising up and taking their rightful place in the seats of power also extended by Hollywood.  The #metoo movement spread like wildfire all over our social media feeds.  Everyday people, unaware of or blind to systemic sexual and gender issues, were finally seeing that the victims of sexual assault extend beyond those walking the red carpet.  These victims are also our mothers, sisters, neighbors, daughters, and friends.

Movies are a cultural institution that provide us a window into the lives of people we may not know.  We look to them for answers or understanding as they are often a lens into a life beyond our own.  They can elevate the voices of marginalized people.  There is power to movies.  Hollywood knows this and this theme was inherent in this year’s Oscars ceremony.  However, there was a good chance you were disappointed.

The Oscars have become increasingly contentious over the years.  And it depends on how you watch them.  For some, the Oscars, like other Hollywood awards shows, are just meant for pure entertainment.  These kinds of people understand that countless timeless classics and key cinematic figures were never awarded an Oscar and that the whole industry of award shows is superficial at best.  They know that the Academy tends to lean conservative and, with few exceptions, can be fairly predictable.

For others, winning an Oscar is a form of validation and that being awarded the iconic golden statuette is important in that it raises awareness and visibility for the winner.  And it makes it even more important that the Academy recognizes marginalized groups.  In recent years, the Oscars have been accused of ignoring cinematic contributions from people of color with #OscarsSoWhite trending across all the social media platforms. Since the rise of #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, the Academy, as well as other award governing bodies, have made comments that they will strive to be more inclusive.

While #OscarsSoWhite has driven the dialogue over the last few years, this year it was the #metoo movement that was the focus of the ceremony.  Regarding the presenters, the Oscars included more women and those women spoke passionately about the struggle of women in the movie industry and women all over the world.  Notably, Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence presented the award for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” after Casey Affleck dropped out following allegations of sexual misconduct (note that it is tradition for previous year’s winner from the opposite gender category to present).  Salma Hayek Pinault, Ashley Judd, and Annabella Sciorra presented a short presentation highlighting the #metoo and Time’s Up movement while celebrating the need for diversity in film.  Even Hollywood legends Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda, who both have witness many changes and controversies over the decades-long careers, stood up against toxic men in Hollywood during their presentations.  The message was clear and we were all behind them.

Like every previous Oscars ceremony, social media blows up with criticisms about the ceremony and how they failed to recognize enough women or people of color.  And expectations were for the Academy to deliver.  When Emma Stone presented the award for “Best Director,” she introduced the nominees as “these four men and Great Gerwig.”  Quite a powerful statement and aligned with the overall theme of the night.  However, I remember thinking, If Gerwig doesn’t win then Stone’s comment will really be awkward (Spoiler: Gerwig didn’t win).  It was moments like that that fueled the disappointment and criticisms many people had.  And rightfully so, but the Oscars have historically been disappointing on the front.

However, the Oscars weren’t completely dominated by white men.  This year, despite the lack of women and people of color winning overall, was a fairly diverse year compared to previous Oscar ceremonies.  Jordan Peele became the first African-American to win the award for “Best Original Screenplay,” Guillermo del Toro became the third Mexican to win “Best Director” (while nabbing his first Oscar), Daniela Vega became the first transgender actor to present that Oscars (her film A Fantastic Woman won for “Best Foreign Language Film”  which was also Chile’s first win and the film was incredibly fantastic), and Robert Lopez became the first person to earn an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) twice.

While the Oscars this year were predictable as they always have been, those are significant achievements.  Sure, it doesn’t completely fix the lack of diversity inherent in the Academy overall.  While diversity and inclusion are absolutely important things, I don’t think it should come to any surprise that the Oscars failed to deliver on people’s expectations in a year where women and people of color were declaring that “Time’s Up.”

For this blog, I went through all winners of “Best Original Song” from previous Oscar years.  There are a lot of great songs that have over the years.  Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ‘Shaft’” comes to mind.  And how can you forget “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland?  So many great songs rightfully awarded for their merit.  However, there are a lot of deserving songs that should’ve won but were overlooked.

When I was going through nominees that didn’t win, I saw a lot of great tunes.  However, I specifically wanted to find one that not only I enjoyed thoroughly and thought deserved to win, but something that was timely.  I couldn’t find a song that better fit that criteria than “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton.

“Travelin’ Thru” was recorded by Parton for the 2005 film Transamerica starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.  Directed by Duncan Tucker (his only feature-length film to date), Transamerica is the story of a preoperative transgender woman (Huffman) who learns that she fathered a son (Zegers) who is a teenage runaway living on the streets of New York City.  The film earned Huffman a nomination for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” and Parton a nomination for “Best Original Song.”

Transamerica¸ while a decent but not movie, was certainly ahead of its time.  While Oscar was buzzing about homosexuality in film that year (Brokeback Mountain and Capote being big contenders that year), Transamerica was an overlooked film.  While 2005 doesn’t seem like a long time ago, it was still a time where having men kiss on film was controversial.  So, it is no wonder why a film about a transgender person wouldn’t garner more attention.  In 2018, a film like Transamerica would get the support it deserves for the purpose of increasing visibility of transgender issues and elevating them in Hollywood.  When viewed through the lens of 2018, Transamerica isn’t a perfect example of mainstream transgender cinema though.  Huffman herself isn’t transgender.  However, in 2005, that movie was bold on its own merit in that time.  And despite that, it is a footnote of aughts cinema.

Though the movie itself has been relatively forgotten, Parton’s soundtrack contribution is legendary.  Not only did “Travelin’ Thru” deserve the Oscar that year and stands out as one of the best songs to be nominated but not win, but it is one of the best songs in Oscar history.  Even Parton’s performance for the ceremony is legendary.

“Travelin’ Thru” is a song about embracing the journey despite not knowing where it will take you.  In the song, Parton sings about being a puzzle and figuring out how all the pieces fit.  She isn’t sure of where she’s going or where’s she been, but she knows she has a purpose in life and she’ll do anything to answer the questions burning inside of her.  It is a remarkably powerful song with an optimistic message.

I fully support the advocates behind the #metoo and Time’s Up movements.  The Oscars have 90 years of history and tradition that has solidified into an institution that can, for the most part, lack inclusivity and ignore social issues around us.  The Academy’s mission is to recognize excellence in cinematic achievements.  The issue is that marginalized people need the opportunity to create excellence in the first place.  And piece by piece, they’ll get there and completely change the face of the Oscars.  Their work is not in vain and they’ll get there as they are stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as they’re travelin’ thru.

“hairspray” – rachel sweet (1988)


This week marked the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release for John Waters’ surprise cult classic Hairspray.  Prior to the film’s release in 1988, Waters had steadily accrued an infamous reputation for over two decades as being a subversive and vile auteur filmmaker.  Waters, for his films such as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble¸ earned labels proclaiming him as “The Prince of Puke” or “The Pope of Trash” which were leveled on him critically by conservative groups and affectionately by fans.  Surely, this man could not make a socially conscious musical about integration that would be family friendly.

Hairspray is about a “pleasantly plum” teenager named Tracy Turnblad (portrayed by Ricki Lake) who pursues local fame by becoming a featured dancer on a local teen dance TV show.  On The Corny Collings Show, Turnblad uses her newly acquired platform and popularity to rally against the show’s producers and make the show fully integrated.  Meanwhile, Turnblad’s snobby rich rival Amber Von Tussle aims to sabotage Turnblad’s chances of winning a local beauty pageant.  Turnblad is arrested for inciting a race riot, but ultimately is pardoned by the governor and successfully integrates The Corny Collins Show.

The film was a moderate commercial success upon its initial release.  After being released on home video, Hairspray started to gain status as a cult classic.  Tracy Turnblad and John Waters would become household names when the film was adapted as a Tony award-winning musical in 2002 and the musical adapted as a musical motion picture in 2007.  What started as a modest film that paid homage to Waters’ own childhood watching teeny-bopper dance shows became his biggest accomplishment and elevated him, in his words, as “The Patron Saint of Fat Girls.”

Waters, in interviews over the years, has said he was surprised by the making and success of Hairspray.  As mentioned, Waters’ previous films were the epitome of bad taste.  His films were only family friendly if you were the Manson Family.  Waters has commented that he didn’t set out to make such a broadly accessible film that was a beacon for integrationist championing.  He has even joked when the MPAA assigned Hairspray a PG rating that his career was over.  Hairspray was the best thing to happen to Waters’ career.

In recent years, in interviews and on stage during his comedic monologues, Waters has talked about his life was a subversive artist.  I’ve gone to his shows and heard him address questions about the future of “gross out” filmmakers or who working in film today is a spiritual successor to Waters’ earlier works.  And Waters has some very poignant things to say on the topic.

When Waters was making his films prior to Hairspray, he was innovative with his provocation.  Not only in content, but in the overall production.  Waters had to apply a very auteur approach to his film because no studio would provide funding.  So, he had help from his friends who became his go to team.  Design, acting, shooting, and everything else was a collaborative effort amongst a small group of iconoclastic friends.

Nowadays, Waters believe, it is too easy to make smut and filth on celluloid.  He doesn’t see the appeal to constantly strive to out gross everyone just for the sake of doing it.  While his filmmaking was a revolutionary act in those days. Now, it is standard and run of the mill.  So, according to Waters, the only way to shock people with subversion is to give them something completely unexpected.  And, for him, that was to go clean.

I see a lot of value in that outlook.  Constantly doing what people expect of you, especially if what you do increasingly becomes normative, reduces the power of the initial act.  You become a character whose scope is limited and defined by what people demand that you provide based on your earlier work.  And when an artist gets to that point, things become boring and uninspired.  This is why Bob Dylan went electric or why Michael Jordan played baseball.  You may or may not be successful with this change, but at least you’re doing what you want to do instead of what everyone else wants you to do.

In that sense, Hairspray has been Waters’ most subversive, and relevant, film to date.  His earlier works like Multiple Maniacs and Desperate Living may still make general audiences uncomfortable, but you can go on YouTube and see things that are much worse.  Even something that is still shocking such as the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos can pale in comparison to whatever some teenager pulls up on Reddit.  The act of subversion no longer stems from the radical nature of the content itself, but rather the radical nature of the content as it relates to the artist.

I admire John Waters because he does exactly what he wants to do.  He hasn’t made a film since 2004 (not without lack of trying), but he continues to find ways to broaden his scope as an artist and influence audiences in new ways.  He has become a prolific author and even a sought after public speaker.  In 2017, he published a commencement speech he gave at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015.  In the speech, he encourages the graduating class to stir shit and change things from the inside.  What that may entail specifically depends on your situation.  However, whatever the status quo happens to be, go against it regardless.

The Hairspray musical was a huge hit.  The original film, however, did not feature Broadway-style musical numbers.  Most of the soundtrack consists of fairly obscure R&B dance songs that Waters grew up with.  The dance numbers are fun and impressive and the soundtrack selections give the film extra life.

The original motion picture soundtrack only features one original tune which opens the film and scored against a montage of teenagers and crew putting together The Corny Collins Show.  Appropriately titled, “Hairspray” is a saccharine sweet 60s retro throwback done with a 1980s sheen.  Sweet sings about a can of hairspray and elevates it as a symbol of teenage rebellion in an age where integration was viewed as a force to threaten white social hierarchy.  Mama told Sweet not use it and its just the latest craze, but Sweet has the inspiration to the hairspray all over the nation.

Sweet had been recording music since the age of three and started recording country music in 1974.  In her career, she earned critical success but relatively few sales.  Interestingly enough, the single Hairspray was the last recording she ever issued.  Sweet eventually left music and pursued a career in television production instead.

Waters is currently 71, but he is going strong a cultural iconoclast.  He is still provocative at his age, but has a taken a step back to let the kids be the truly innovative rebels.  Waters still tours to do comedic monologues and is working on two more books.  He has been a later-in-life hero for me and I’m thankful for Hairspray launching him to the popular consciousness where he deserves to be.

“love your neighbor” – ladysmith black mambazo (1990)


I have been volunteering at the Old Town School of Folk Music for nearly three years.  Volunteering there was a great outlet for a few different reasons.  For one, it was a way to give back to my community.  Secondly, the added experience looks great on a resume.  Finally, and perhaps best of all, I get points that I can apply towards discounted music classes or free concert tickets.  Being an active volunteer has helped with my guitar playing hobby and seeing some great acts.

On Saturday, I took a friend to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  I had originally seen the famous South African a capella group back in 2012 also at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I was really excited for that show.  I had recently watched a screening of a documentary at the Music Box Theatre called Under African Skies.  That documentary was about Paul Simon revisiting South Africa to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his album Graceland which prominently featured members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and would subsequently launch them on the world stage.  That show in 2012 was remarkable and a real treat.

The funny thing is that when I posted about seeing the group in 2012, I got a lot of comments from people saying they didn’t know they were a real group.  The group is a memorable punchline in the 2004 film Mean Girls.  That seemed so strange to me.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and has seen numerous iterations over the years. The current iteration features four of the founders’ sons. Granted they weren’t world-renowned figures until Paul Simon came along, but they always seemed ubiquitous to me.  One of those entities you had heard of even if you may not know a single thing about them or their work.  However, for millennials, that cultural reference point is a film comedy which led them to believe it was just a made-up name.  It is funny how things work out like that.

Anyway, back to 2018.  My friend was also one of those people who only knew the name through the association in Mean Girls and that they were involved with Paul Simon.  She didn’t know what the show and experience of watching the group would consist of.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a real treat.  First and foremost, they are an a capella group.  That is the heart of their talent and they excel at that.  Shabalala started the group after hearing certain isicathamiya (traditional music of the Zulu people) harmonies in his dreams.  This vocal presentation is highly rhythmic which each member devoted to a specific part often with a lead driving the group with their own chant.

The singing is amazing, but only scope of the group’s appeal with a live setting.  Their performance is also very visual and physically active.  Members of the group will make hand gestures or perform chorus line type kicks that add to the spectacle.  Towards the end of the performance, various members will perform highly rhythmic dances that incorporate their own traditional ethnic influences as well as some humor in the form of physical comedy.  It is completely unexpected and keeps you engaged.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is great because of their vocal talents coupled with the lively dancing.  I knew that when I saw them in 2012 and I knew I would love it again in 2018.  However, there was one aspect of this particular performance that stood out.

Part of the audience was really vocal during the performance.  They chanted and sang along and communicated with the performers.  At first, I really couldn’t make out what exactly was going on.  Midway through the show, when one of the performers was talking about being homesick, the people in the audience who were making noises earlier yelled out “you’re making all of us homesick.”  Then it struck me and everything started to make sense. They were Afrikaners.

This past week, I have been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In the book, he breaks down how music fits in our world, specifically the physical aspect, and affects our culture.  His book covers industry-specific issues such as how to market music that is made, but he primarily talks about the process of making music and how the music that is made is indicative of our surroundings.  There’s a lot he covers in the book, but one aspect he touches upon is relevant here.  He talks about the role of the audience in Western society.  In the early 1900s, in large concert halls where classical music was performed, audiences weren’t quiet and focused on the performances with rapt attention.  They mingled and chatted and the music served as part of the background.  Over the last century, that has completely changed.  Especially when it comes to specific types of music and venues.  We are now expected to be quiet and not be distracting.

That’s with regards to Western audiences.  Byrne also provides examples where the exact opposite happens now.  Byrne talks about his experiences seeing local music in places like Africa and Bali where music and the performance of music is a more communal thing.  In places like that, music is more of something one does as opposed to being someone one sees.  It is also interactive and inclusive and people participate as they see fit.

Given that context, I understood the need for these Afrikaners to interact with the performers.  Even without reading Byrne’s analysis, I wouldn’t have minded their excitement.  The music was moving them that much and it is ridiculous that the non-Afrikaners were expecting them to be quiet and not enjoy their native land’s music as they saw fit.  Seeing that during the week I’m reading a book on the topic is just serendipitous and reinforces that there is a vast array of ways to enjoy music.

One thing I love about Ladysmith Black Mambazo is their positivity and humanism.  Most of the songs introduced at the concert were prefaced with short stories or proclamations about loving everyone regardless of their race.  One song that stuck out for me from the concert was “Love Your Neighbor.”  The track was originally released and recorded on their 1990 studio album Two Worlds, One Heart.  It was later re-recorded for their 2017 compilation Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World.

In the re-recorded version, there is an introduction.  The speaker says “We all have friends and neighbors. People who live close to us. We call this our community. It is important to love everyone in our community and to show love and respect to your neighbors. If you can do this, then they will show love and respect to you.  This is how we all can help to make the world a better place.”  This sentiment was also shared with audience at Saturday’s performance.

The news in recent weeks has been terrible.  The school shooting in Florida has been devastating and has driven the same dialogue and inaction we have seen time and time again over the years.  It is numbing and I feel certain that nothing will change, but then I see the children from that school speak to crowds and march in the streets and it gives me hope.

One of the performance form Ladysmith Black Mambazo, when introducing another song, said that there will always be tough times.  However, tough times don’t last but strong people do.  Keeping that in mind along with taking the time to understand, respect, and love our neighbors is what is going strengthen our world.  And it is amazing to have those feelings reaffirmed and made prescient through music.  Music that can inspire us whether we watch it with all the attention we can muster or whether we participate in whatever way that moves us.

“midnight, the stars and you” – ray noble and his orchestra (1934)


Pop-up bars have become the latest craze in nightlife entertainment over recent years.  The idea of a pop-up is that a restaurant or bar will provide an experience that is not typical of their normal fare.  Décor and menu items will be updated to reflect the theme of the pop-up while attending patron interact with any additional elements that supplement the pop-up experience.

Pop-ups are nothing new, but there has been an uptick in the quantity and quality of pop-ups around.  Especially in Chicago where most of the pop-ups are modeled after television shows and movies that are either popular or provoke a deep sense of nostalgia.  In the last year, Chicago has seen pop-up bars for pop culture icons such as Saved by the Bell, Stranger Things, and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

The whole point of the pop-up is to generate novelty appeal.  People enjoy, or have enjoyed, these elements of pop culture and desire to spend money in an establishment that puts the patron through an immersive experience while creating an atmosphere that generates fanfare easily uploaded to Facebook or Instagram.

The business model of these pop-ups is driven by two things: novelty and scarcity.  The novelty stems from the overall theme or content of the pop-up.  The scarcity comes from the limited runs of these pop-ups.  While a show like Stranger Things is currently very popular, a permanent establishment may not last long and could lose its luster over time.  So, by creating a temporary experience in a permanent space and limiting the hours, you’re bound to generate a lot of buzz that leads to a high demand.  It is something that won’t be around long and not everyone gets to experience, so patrons will make the time to visit and spend money.

On the flip side, there is a lot of legitimate criticism around the very idea of pop-ups.  Pop-ups are sometimes seen as lazy and unoriginal.  By relying on the appeal of a pop-up, some skeptics see that venues are unconcerned with repeat business; when the pop-up ends then there is no need to visit that establishment again.  While those are valid criticisms, they are a bit cynical.  Restaurants and bars have to drum up business anyway they can.  And in a major food city like Chicago, that is especially true.  So, pop-ups help.

The legality of pop-ups can also be an issue as well.  Some pop-ups based on intellectual property and not officially sanctioned by the license holder can be issued a cease-and-desist letter.  This happened to the Stranger Things pop-up when Netflix felt the restaurant was violating intellectual property, fair use, and copyright laws.  However, surprisingly, I’ve seen several pop-ups last for their intended length without threat of lawsuit.

I have visited three pop-ups since this craze hit Chicago.  Only three because I haven’t really cared about the theme of most of the pop-ups.  I didn’t feel the need to go to something representing a movie or a television that meant nothing to me, where I wouldn’t get the references, and be served overpriced drinks.

The first I attended was Moe’s Tavern in October.  Modeled after the Homer’s favorite bar in The Simpsons, it was a pop-up dedicated to everyone’s favorite yellow family.  The pop-up was hosted at Replay in Lakeview (formerly Headquarters) and was open during the normal business hours.  I went early one afternoon by myself and checked it out.  There were cardboard standouts, character decals on the walls, some framed art, and stuff hanging from the ceiling.  The drink specials were cocktails referencing things form the show.  However, the signature drink was “The Flaming Moe.”  Named after a drink in one of the episodes, it was a shot of liquor mixed with something to mimic the children’s cough syrup flavor and then lit on fire.  Needless to say, the drink was awful but the pop-up bar was amusing.  That was my reference point for pop-ups.

A few weeks ago, I went to my second pop-up.  Again, it was at Reply.  However, this time, the theme revolved around [adult swim]’s Rick & Morty.  Turner Broadcasting, owner of [adult swim], had contacted Replay but gave the bar permission to run the pop-up through February 11th in an unofficial capacity.  I went with some friends this time and it was fun.  Same deal as The Simpsons pop-up a few months earlier.  With this being my second pop-up, I was already forming an impression of what they should be.

A few weeks ago, it was announced a pop-up commemorating Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was going to open in Ukrainian Village at a bar called The Rookery (not to be confused with the famous building in the Loop).  Named “Room 237,” after a legendary documentary detailing conspiracy theories form fans of Kubrick’s films, this pop-up was set to create the experience of visiting the Overlook Hotel.

One afternoon, a friend of mine and I decide to go check it out.  I looked on Yelp what the business hours were and we set out on a 30-minute bus ride from my apartment.  We got to the bar and were pleased it was lightly attended.  This meant the pop-up wouldn’t be too crowded.  We asked where the pop-up was and were told that it was closed.  We learned that the pop-up was only open one night a week.  And the host gave use details about the first weekend it was opened.  He said the pop-up didn’t open until 9 PM, but people were arriving as early as 7 PM.  And so many people came that a line formed that led out of the bar and down the street for over a quarter-mile.   These were people waiting in freezing temperatures for several hours to have a drink in a place that had stuff from The Shining on the walls.  We left.

Based on my experience with The Simpsons and Rick & Morty pop-ups, I had developed assumptions about the “Room 237” experience.  I told my friend how lame it was to generate scarcity on such a level that people would have to wait several hours in the cold.  We learned that the Rookery was going to open on Friday to break up the demand.  My friend suggested we go then and I begrudgingly agreed.  I had already made up my mind that “Room 237” was lame.

Friday finally came and I met my friend at the Rookery.  He got there a little after 7 PM, but was the first person there to put his name on the list.  Chicago had experienced a snowstorm with a high accumulation of snow that started falling the previous night.  Plus, the Winter Olympics opening ceremony was airing.  I hoped both those things would keep people at home and make the experience of the pop-up less crowded.

Despite being told the pop-up would open at 8 PM, our names were called first at around 9:15 PM.  The bouncer let us go up the stairs into a small room.  Immediately, I could tell this was a little more classy and planned than my previous two pop-up experiences.  The furniture and décor accurately matched the film.  There was a rug and throw pillow with the same design as the Overlook’s carpet in the film.  The bar had the same golden glow as the bar in the film’s Gold Room.  There were curtains that opened to reveal painted mountain landscapes.  A projector was displaying shots and scenes from the film.  And, best of all, there was a table with a typewriter and surrounded by paper with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written all over it.  I could see this pop-up was on a whole different level than what I experienced before and I started to lighten up.

The best part of the experience were the staged actors.  The bartender was dressed like the ghostly bartender in the film.  He also interacted with an actor dressed up like Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s classic character.  And, occasionally, two women dressed as the Grady Twins would show up, stand motionless and quiet at the end of the hall, and disappear without you knowing.

I had drinks with my friend and we took in the décor.  Everything was cleverly designed.  You could even find “REDRUM” scrawled on the interior of the bathroom door where initially unnoticed until you looked into the mirror to wash your hands.  It was a very fun experience.

Music also played in “Room 237” was well.  The film’s score was featured, but you would also hear the most famous song from the film played every so often.  At the end, as the camera dollies towards a framed photo revealing Jack Torrance at a New Year’s Eve party in 1929, the song playing is Ray Noble’s version of Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You.”  Noble recorded the song with his orchestra on the Victor label in 1934.  The inclusion of that song added an extra level of sinister familiarity to the pop-ups décor.  Also on the wall was an enlarged version of that photograph seen at the end of The Shining.

This pop-up really stood out for me.  I was expecting just tacky art on the wall, but the music, furniture, and characters really gave this pop-up life and credibility.  I wouldn’t have waited hours in the freezing Chicago weather to get in.  However, the time we put in and chilled at the bar downstairs prior was worth the trouble and “Room 237” really did set a standard.  After such an incredible Chicago snowstorm, it was the best place to be.

“tuesday afternoon (forever afternoon)” – the moody blues (1967)


The Music Box Theatre in Chicago is my favorite movie theater in the world.  The theater and building itself has a storied history.  The architecture and facades are stunning complete with aesthetic imperfections that give the theater life and character.  The seats are notoriously uncomfortable, but the screenings they hold are so captivating that you hardly notice your discomfort.  Best of all, it is within walking distance of my apartment.  It made not be perfect, but it means a lot to me.

The Music Box Theatre first opened on August 22, 1929 and only contained 800 theatres.  Keeping with the tradition of sheer opulence of that time, the theater was designed with a dark blue ceiling, twinkling stars, and clouds to simulate a night sky.  And Italian courtyard façade surrounds you and puts the film patron that they are watching a work of art in an open-air Tuscan palazzo.

Unlike other film theaters at the time which included stages and orchestra pits so the facility can be used for various types of performances, the Music Box Theatre was strictly a movie house.  When the Music Box Theatre came along, films weren’t exactly new but they a developing art form.  Talkies were becoming more common and the equipment to not only make, but project film, rapidly changed.  Nevertheless, despite the advancements in film technology and technique, the Music Box Theatre continued to maintain its Italianesque charm.

From 1977 through 1983, the theatre underwent a restoration and played sporadic foreign language in porno films.  It was in 1983, however, that the theater started becoming the Chicago cultural icon it is today.  The Music Box Theatre, that year, became a repertory film house that revived the double feature format.  Over the years, foreign films were reintroduced and cult films were added soon after.  A second theater was added in 1991.  And other than the IMAX at Navy Pier, it is the only theater to screen actual 70 mm film.  Playing over 300 films a year, the Music Box Theatre has continued being a haven for independent and foreign films since 1983.  Having continued that tradition, the Music Box Theatre remains for me not only the best theater in Chicago, but the best theater in the world.

I have seen countless films and events at the Music Box Theatre.  Not only do they get exclusive screenings to various foreign and independent films, but they hold a variety of special events all year round.  They do annual sing-a-long events (The Sound of Music for Thanksgiving and Casablanca for Valentine’s Day), an annual 70 mm film festival (the best way to see 2001: A Space Odyssey), silent film matinees with a live organist (seeing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! In that setting was breathtaking), and their annual Music Box of Horrors (24 hours of gore and mayhem). However, above all the different events the Music Box Theatre does, nothing gets me more excited than their weekend midnight movie series.

Their midnight movie series is a treasured tradition for me.  Every weekend, on Friday and Saturday, the theater screens one movie in each of their theaters.  Sometimes I’m in the smaller room, but the main attraction for me is usually in the larger theater.  In their midnight movie series, they play the most esoteric, twisted, and obscure films of their repertoire.  I love this tradition so much and I have seen dozens of midnight movies.  From X-rated animated cartoons such as Fritz the Cat to bloody Italian animal films such as Wild Beasts and from 1990s techno-dystopia sci-fi like Hardware to an actual 1970s pornographic film such as 3 AM, the cult movies that make up the theater’s midnight movie tradition are a unique experience.

This past weekend, I went to a midnight movie screening with some friends to see a rare screening of a film that was described as a self-absorbed passion project a la Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.  The film was from 1976 and called The Astrologer.  I didn’t know anything about this movie other than it was really obscure.  It played a couple of times at some drive-in theaters and aired once on television in 1980 as the CBS late movie.  It is only through these midnight screenings that the film has lived for as long as it has.

To say this was the most ridiculous movie I’ve ever seen is an understatement.  Craig Denney directed and starred in his passion project about a circus psychic conman who learns that his abilities are real and uses them to fulfill his own wants and desires.  For 96 minutes, the viewers are subjected to ridiculous acting, nonsensical sequences, and loads of questionable decisions that are void of cohesive storytelling and narrative technique.

This is a film where the whole theater is laughing throughout because it takes itself so seriously but is executed in ridiculous fashions. Some scenes last only a few seconds.  Characters are introduced and appear integral to the story with no context of they are.  Dialogue is strange and confusing.  The acting is just terrible.  And, the cherry on this self-absorbed cinematic sundae, the film ends with a Shakespeare quote from King Lear that screams pompous and contrived on a level one only really sees in student films.  Quite simply, this is a remarkable work of art that deserves to be seen.  Tommy Wiseau’s The Room¸ which is popularly considered the worst film of tall time (undeservedly so), makes more sense and is more structured than Craig Denney’s The Astrologer.

Besides the absolute ridiculousness of the film, that isn’t the only reason why The Astrologer isn’t as widely known.  Denney had used music from the Moody Blues that wasn’t clears for the rights of usage.  In one scene, the entirety of “Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon)” is used.  In the scene, Denney’s character is sailing from Africa back to the United States on a chartered vessel.  Pages from a calendar are superimposed over footage of Denney’s character walking around the boat and drinking beer with pages falling from the calendar to signify the passage of time.  According to the film, he was sailing for three months from October through December and entirely shirtless sitting on the bow of the ship with the setting sun casting his image in silhouette as Justin Hayward sings.  Pure fucking poetry.

“Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon)” was released nine years prior to the film’s production, in 1967, on the Moody Blues’ studio release Days of Future Passed.  According to Justin Hayward, the song chronicles the passing of a typical day and was written in a field near his home on a beautiful spring afternoon.  The track ends with an orchestral rendition of the chorus performed by the London Festival Orchestra and bridges parts one and two on the album version of the song.  As ridiculous as The Astrologer is, the song fit perfectly well with that montage sequence and did have some amazing shots considering the film’s modest budget.

As I mentioned, midnight movies are a ballgame all its own.  So, to cap this week’s blog entry, here’s a story.  Most of the films I see there at midnight are ridiculous in their own right, but not on the same level as The Astrologer.  For the most part, you’re watching the movie.  Sure, you may laugh and make a quick joke to your buddy.  Otherwise, its typical movie theater silence.

My buddies and I were unprepared for how terrible and laughable this movie was.  We laughed like everyone else was, but we also provided our own running commentary quietly amongst ourselves.  Imagine something like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but limited to us.  And this isn’t uncommon depending on the film. Go see Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in a theater and you can’t hear a damn thing.

Well, I guess some people take movies so seriously that they had every intention to view The Astrologer as focused as possible.  Granted, this was a rare screening of an even rarer film.  But still, film is stupid and ridiculous.  After the movie, some guy two or three rows ahead got up and asked us “Did you even SEE the movie?”  We told we did, but we were making jokes quietly to ourselves.  He said, “You guys aren’t funny enough for that.”  We laughed and walked away kidding around suggesting that was probably someone related the director or whatever.  This movie was made with such serious intensity, but is hilarious.  And it is even more hilarious that someone came into this screening to watch with the same serious intensity as the director.

Midnight movies aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  That’s why they are midnight movies.  They are hand-picked for this cult status which is attained through a combination of aesthetic and technical attributes that is so fringe its funny.  It is my favorite Music Box Theatre tradition and will remain so no matter what some pompous killjoy thinks.

“2 minutes to midnight” – iron maiden (1984)


Last week, the Doomsday Clock was set at two minutes to midnight.  Since 1947, developed by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, the Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the probability of a man-made global catastrophe.  Over the years, the distance between the minute hand and midnight has fluctuated greatly.  In 1991, the clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight, the furthest from midnight since 1947, because the United States and Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Since then, things have only gotten worse.

Over the 27 years since our allegedly most peaceful time of the 20th century, the minute hand has crept steadily closer to midnight.  While the threat of nuclear war has been the most prominent criteria for the Doomsday Clock since its inception, the effects of global climate change has contributed to the minute hand’s position since 2007.

The Doomsday Clock was set at two minutes to midnight has week.  This is the closest we’ve come to midnight since 1953 when the United states tested its first thermonuclear device in 1952 in an effort known as Operation Ivy to accomplish such a task before the Soviet Union had a chance.  That designation in 1953 represented an active endeavor to advance nuclear capability.  In 2018, the significance of these two minutes stems from the failure of the United States and other world leaders to address looming threats of nuclear war with some leaders even making comments or taking actions that seem to suggest the desire such an outcome.

Speaking strictly about the United States, the use of nuclear weapons has been a desire expressed by Donald Trump.  During election, he asked several times why we even have nuclear arms if we don’t intend to use them.  Since taking officer, he has made threatening remarks against North Korea and even made disrespectful comments against their leader Kim Jong-un, a murderous despot who is starving his own people to advance his country’s nuclear capabilities.

Over the last few years and prior to the Trump administration, the North Korean government has actively worked towards developing their nuclear arms.  With every failed test, they have shown considerable improvement.  In September, North Korea claimed a successful hydrogen bomb test.  On November 29th, the Hwasong-15, the country’s furthest-reaching intercontinental ballistic missile, flew for 53 minutes before crashing into the ocean.  That ICBM has a theoretical range that puts the whole world at risk apart from Latin America and Antarctica.  While a lot of the Kim Jong-un says could be just empty threats and saber-rattling, there is truth to the improvement of his nuclear capabilities.  It was reported today that Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency chief, believes that North Korea could be able to nuke the United States within a “handful of months.”

What makes the shadow of nuclear war longer is Donald Trump’s mishandling of the issue.  Beyond the name calling and threats of “fire and fury,” there exists something deeper in Trump that adds credibility to our worries of nuclear war.

I recently read The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.  Compiled by Dr. Brandy X. Lee, the organizer of Yale University’s “Duty to Warn” Conference, this is a collection of essays and reports from over two dozen psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals who are executing their professional duty to warn people that their assessments of Donald Trump’s poor mental stability and how he puts the world at risk.

While each professional goes into their own narrative or theory on Trump’s mental health, there is a common thread that suggests they all believe that Trump is unfit to be president and can react in a volatile and unpredictable way.  Trump’s narcissism and need for pure adulation and control could lead to the president making an ill-informed, or even dangerous, decision.  Whether its pure impulse to destroy an enemy or distract the public from the Russian collusion investigation, Trump’s access to the United States’ nuclear arsenal is cause for concern.

The United States is feeling this nuclear threat on a level that hasn’t been seen since the Cold War.  The United States Centers for Disease Control originally planned a session on discussing nuclear disaster preparedness for January 16th.  That session has been postponed for a currently unknown date.  Though the CDC cancelled the session with the promise of a future session scheduled, the fact a federal agency is recognizing an imposing threat validates the general public’s concerns which should motivate our leaders to take action to curb such threats.

On January 13th, an emergency alert was mistakenly sent out to people in Hawaii warning that a missile was incoming, that they should seek shelter, and that the alert wasn’t a drill.  This error was made and the Hawaii government is taking steps to prevent the error being made again.  However, the alert represented a sign of the times; misinformation about a possible threat.  And that is problematic because it reduces the public’s ability to take the government seriously.  Considering the man currently in the Oval Office cannot be trusted and has a questionable mental health status that makes him dangerous, trust is dwindling.

Since the middle of the 20th century, nuclear annihilation has been a reoccurring theme in our popular culture.  Whether such an apocalypse is depicted in films, television, or video games, people ae fascinated by a world impacted by nuclear fallout and the question of man’s ability to survive it.  It is a narrative setting that never fails to create such dynamic stories from a reality that none of us want at all.

The theme of nuclear war is also present in our popular music.  While there are hundreds of songs that cover the subject, none feel more relevant now than “2 Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden.  The heavy metal legends release this protest song about nuclear war on their 1984 album Powerslave.  “2 Minutes to Midnight” is a hard-hitting critical track that condemns the hands of doom that wreak nuclear havoc on people for glamour and greed.  It is the madman’s love of death that threatens our lives.

The song title is a reference to the Doomsday Clock.  The track was released 31 years after the first time the clock was two minutes to midnight and we were closer to nuclear annihilation than ever before.  Now, 65 years after the clock hit two minutes for the first time and 34 years since Iron Maiden released this single, we are now closing in on the brink of nuclear annihilation again.  While that threat was curbed by some of our country’s greatest leaders, we have no one currently in the White House who can fill those shoes.  It is a frightening time being this close to midnight and the only thing we can do is wait it out.

“crystal blue persuasion” – tommy james & the shondells (1969)


In recent years, I don’t watch a lot of television anymore.  I watched way too much television growing up.  There just wasn’t much to do.  In Alaska, it got dark early in the winter and, as a kid, you have to go back home during then.  In high school, I was living in a small, rural farming community where having a car (which I didn’t have) was essential to life.  There just wasn’t much happening where I was, so television, video games, and movies were my life.

That started to change when I got to college.  My priorities were shifting.  I became less interested in watching television.  I was living a standard campus life and was busy going to class, working my part-time radio jobs, volunteering at the campus radio station, making out with girls, and, of course, partying.  When I wasn’t doing any of those things, I was playing video games.

Lifestyle changes continued when I graduated, moved to Chicago, and got a full-time job.  I was now working over 60 hours a week while trying to find time to explore a new city and make friends.  I couldn’t waste time watching television or playing video games when I had people to meet and things to do in the Midwest’s cultural epicenter.  Plus, I wasn’t making much money when I first arrived in Chicago.  I needed that money for rent and beer.  And beer is considerably cheaper than new video games.

As I’ve settled into my Chicago life over the years, my interests and priorities have continued to evolve.  That’s an absolutely normal progression people go through in life.  I find it a little amusing to think about the habits and traits I currently embody and compare them to my past self.  I’ve changed a lot and that’s great.  But for the intended purpose of this blog post, I wanted to focus on my media consumption habits and how those have changed.

When I say I don’t really watch television much anymore, I’m not coming at it from the perspective of pompousness and arrogance.  I frankly don’t give a shit what people do with their time.  They can watch all the shows and movies they want.  Someone has to.  Those industries need viewers and funding to thrive and I fully support that engagement.  It just means that I don’t have to participate the same way.  I just find it interesting for me anymore.

In place of all the television watching and video game playing, I’ve filled that time with hobbies and activities that I currently find beneficial to me.  I read a lot.  Probably more than most people.  If you knew me in college, I wasn’t a reader.  I found it incredibly boring and went years without reading a book for leisure.  I go to the gym several times a week.  I volunteer for two different Chicago-area non-profits.  I have an active social life where I do fun things around the city.  I also go for really long walks.   These are the things that bring me peace and where I find relaxation.

My media-engagement habits have changed considerably over the years.  I struggle to even make it through an hour-long show.  I have no issue reading for three hours straight, but I can no longer sit and stare at a screen for that long.  There’s been a few recent shows that have come out that sparked some interest for me, but I opt out when I look at the pilot running time and it says 90 minutes.  No television pilot should be 90 minutes.

As a result of these changing media habits, there are tons of big shows that I have missed over the last decade.  I’m sure they are all fine shows, but I just never had the energy to start any of them.  There were times I made an exception and tried something, but I would soon quit after an episode or two.  That wasn’t for the case of Breaking Bad.

I was really late to the game when it came to Breaking Bad.  The finale for the fourth season had recently aired when I started.  I was very sick for a few days, so I stayed home from work.  Plus, the weather in Chicago was nasty at the time, so I didn’t feel bad about not going outside.  People were telling me for the last year or show to check out Breaking Bad.  And whenever someone makes any kind of recommendation to me, if it doesn’t immediately grab my attention, I just tell them I’ll get to it eventually.  I usually don’t.

Fans of television shows can be kind of funny in the intensity of their devotion.  A common thing I’ll hear about a television series is that you must keep watching because it gets really good.  And I’m always left thinking why should I sit through several hours of bad episodes before I get to the parts.  If a show doesn’t work out the kinks and get good within the first few episodes, it likely won’t ever get good.

Needless to say, I was skeptical about Breaking Bad.  It also, for me, suffered the sin of being a few years old by the time I started.  That’s another thing that keeps me from picking up certain series.  The days of television programs featuring a series of one-off episodes are long gone.  Now, everything is connected and every episode feeds into the next.  It is almost intimidating to start a series that has been around for a few seasons.  I can’t just cherry-pick a few episodes and get the gist of it.  I have to start from the beginning, try to become invested in the characters, and stick with it.  That’s too much work and why I always enjoyed the “Monster of the Week” episodes of The X-Files.

Whatever it was that made me choose Breaking Bad over any other show to watch while sick, I don’t remember.  However, I’m glad I started it albeit a little late.  I was immediately sucked in and convinced that this was something special by the third episode.  For someone who was increasingly becoming less interested in television, I binged-watched all four seasons of the show in such a short span of time.  I was thinking that this show could be one of the greatest television dramas of all time.  There was still the final season on the horizon with one half airing next year and the second half airing the following year.  Something could easily come along and sink the show’s greatness, but I had faith that show could maintain its brilliant trajectory.

When the final episode aired on September 29, 2013, I was absolutely stunned that this journey came to an end.  I became so mentally and emotionally invested in Walter White and the lives he ruined because of his pride and ego.  Breaking Bad had affected me on a level that no other show could mirror.  Everything about it was pure artistry.  From the incredibly acting to the chilling sets, the clever dialog to the shocking twists, and from humanity to the soundtrack, everything worked together so perfectly.

A couple of months ago, I saw some post on social media that the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Breaking Bad was coming up in January.  I couldn’t believe it.  Ten years!  It didn’t seem that long, but I had jumped on board the meth train rather late.  When I saw these posts, I was busy planning my holiday vacation from work.  I was going to have a lot of down time due to my office closing for two weeks at the end of the year.  They had never done that before, so I was going to have a lot of company-mandated free time.

Being such a busy guy, I didn’t know what to do with all that free time.  Breaking Bad has been on my mind since seeing more and more posts about the 10th anniversary.  So, I decided to rewatch the series.  For someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television and never binge-watches anything, you would think rewatching 62 hours of a show where I know everything will happen would be tough.  Just the opposite.  It was amazing.

Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was a unique experience.  With all the surprises and plot twists, experiencing it all fresh was an incredible experience.  I didn’t expect to feel those feelings again.  Knowing the fates of characters and how problems were resolved took out the element of surprise.  However, it didn’t take away the fact that I stilled cared and was emotionally invested.

During my second viewing, I was entranced and shocked and surprised as ever.  I knew on a general level how things would turn out.  But rewatching gives you a different, but not lesser, perspective.  I could pick up on things I missed the first time, remember the details I had forgotten, and truly appreciate just how well everything perfectly fit together.  I didn’t have that sense the first time because you’re so caught up with each new episode.  Knowing how things will turn out, your second viewing feels like you’re watching a few steps back.  You see a larger picture.  And that is when you appreciate how perfectly everything comes together to form one image.  It was a show that didn’t run too long or leave too many things forgotten.  Everything works cohesively and results in a complete work of art.

From my first viewing, I realized early on Breaking Bad had an amazing soundtrack and cleverly used music as a narrative device.  With a second viewing, I realized even more how important and effective music was as a tool.  Whether it was to add depth to a scene, dimension to a character, or contribute to the mise en scène, the soundtrack effectively acts as a character all its own.

When I wanted to write about celebrating ten years of Breaking Bad, despite all the amazing song choices, one stood out above all the rest.  Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” worked well to wrap up the series.  Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” added some tongue-in-cheek humor that made the series so human.  Los Cuates De Sinaloa’s “Negro Y Azul” proved an effective narrative driver.  However, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & the Shondells stands above all the other soundtrack selections.

If I were to consider all the songs featured in the series on their own merit, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” would not be among the top song picks.  However, the track is enhanced through its use as a mood and story enhancer in the context of driving the series.  And no other song does it as well.

“Crystal Blue Persuasion” was featured in the fifth season’s mid-season finale “Gliding All Over.”  The track played over a montage of Walter cooking his blue crystal meth for distribution internationally.  There’s no other audio and the song is almost played in its entirety.  With the single version running at 3:45, that is a lot of time.  However, the decision to almost play the entire song over such an important montage speaks to how expansive Walter White’s influence really is.  The song sings of a new day coming and people changing.  You better get ready to see the light because love is the answer with crystal blue persuasion.

The song was released in June of 1969 for the album Crimson & Clover.   Even since its release and association with Breaking Bad, the song was notoriously connected to crystal meth.  Tommy James’ manager claims that James was inspired to write the song after reading the Biblical Book of Revelation.  However, for music writer Dave Marsh and fans of Tommy James & the Shondells, the song was the blue LSD tablets that were popular at the time as well as James’s affinity for amphetamines.

Without the historical context, the use of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in the show is cheeky.  With it, it adds a level of subtle humor and irony that elevates its role above every other song featured in the series.

I finished rewatching the series the day before the tenth anniversary of the show’s premiere.  And the show holds up.  It also continues to occupy a special place in me.  I may not be interested in much television anymore, but I very grateful that I took a chance of Breaking Bad.  Perhaps I’m missing out on another show that offers the same experience, but I’m too impatient to even try.  Perhaps someday.

“why? (am i treated so bad)” – the staples singers (1965)


Last week, members of the Trump administration and various lawmakers met to strike a deal concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy.  DACA allows those who had entered the United States as minors to apply for a two-year deferred action period exempt from deportation and be permitted to get a work permit.  DACA had been put into effect in 2012 during his administration, but was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017.  However, a grace period of six months was granted in order to figure out how to deal with the 800,000 individuals affected by the policy change.  The meetings last week align with that grace period

Social media and major media news outlets went into a firestorm when it was reported that Trump referred to immigrants from Haiti and Africa as being from “shithole countries.”  A spokesman for the Trump administration did not deny Trump’s comments, but were later confirmed by the U.S. Senator from Illinois Dick Durbin.  Trump has since denied this comment was made has claimed he is both not a racist person or the least racist person anyone can know.

Paying attention to the news reports and social media feedback on Trump’s latest blunder in a long line of national embarrassments leaves me astounded and wondering if things could any worse.  In short, they can, and I don’t know why I even asked the question.  This new low in presidential decorum has steered this country into a strange and peculiar direction.  I never thought I would ever see national news reports using the word “shithole” so forwardly.

Causal swearing made common on television is not the worst aspect of this latest Trump scandal.  It is the fact that it has now become so apparent that American policy is being driven by a racist agenda.  Prior to this, it was no secret that Trump was a racist.  Even before stepping into the public and political arenas, the specter of racism has followed him throughout his career.  When renting or selling properties through Trump, people of color received a special code on their application that indicated their non-white status which impacted their ability to acquire property or reside in a Trump owned property.  That detail has stood the test of time in illustrating that Trump’s racial prejudices has been long-term.  I could keep going and elaborate on dozens of racist quips or anecdotes Trump has made over topics like the Central Park Five, David Duke, or Colin Kaepernick, but I just don’t have the time.   Plus, the fallout from the “shithole countries” controversy potentially has the biggest impact.

The news media, when reporting on Trump over the years, has always skirted the issue on his racism.  Historically, they suggest that Trump “made racist remarks” or “bigoted statements.”  The issue isn’t that those claims are not true, but they miss the bigger picture.  They are passive statements that don’t say directly that Trump is a racist person.  On the campaign trail when he called Mexicans rapists, those comments were racist as opposed to the candidate being racist.  Whether it was some professional courtesy or ethics issues I am not fully aware of or understand, the journalists driving the national dialogue in our media wouldn’t just call the situation out for what it was.

Since the “shithole comments” were made, journalists and reporters are now making the distinction.  Instead of suggesting that Trump made “racist comments,” they are now truthfully asserting that Trump is racist.  That’s great we’re now crossing that line in honest report, but it also seems a bit too little and a lot too late.  Trump is almost done with his first year as president and he has, on several occasions, shown his true colors as a racist.  He has had one full year to use racism to influence his global and international policies.  If we got to “shithole countries” before the first anniversary, imagine what is going to happen in years two, three, and four (hopefully not more beyond that).

All this happened the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day where we celebrate the life and legacy of one of the greatest civil rights leaders.  Dr. King was shot 50 years ago this April.  He preached a form of non-violent protest.  He was the voice of a generation and a movement that sought equality for a marginalized people.  So much can be said about this man that I know I couldn’t do him justice.  However, he is a hero and a symbol for hope.

Over the weekend prior to the national holiday celebrating Dr. King, Trump made statements that he wasn’t a racist and attacked Durbin how confirming his racist remarks in the DACA meeting.  Trump suggests he isn’t racist and that he is the least racist person you’ll ever interview or meet.  Funny thing, Don.  Racist people don’t have to go out of their way to prove they are not racist.

It was troubling to see all this just days away from Dr. King’s holiday and then see his message and image coopted by those who actively oppress people of color, women, and LGBT with their policies.  Vice President held a ceremony at the Dr. King monument in Washington, D.C.  Speaker Ryan posted a photo of him staring in awe of a bust of Dr. King.  I don’t know what Trump did, if anything, and I don’t care.  They are all racist men who take active measures to apply their racism in official policy.  The audacity of Pence to praise Dr. King’s message at the foot of his monument when he left a football game just months before when players took a knew during the national anthem is unfathomable.  Hypocrisy at its most blatant.

In the media yesterday, I kept seeing articles and editorials where white supremacists and nationalists were coopting Dr. King’s image and message to prove their racist points against activists like Colin Kaepernick.  Admittedly, I didn’t read any of them.  I just couldn’t bring myself to delve into that bullshit.  The country is still scrambling to resolve the “shithole countries” issue.  I didn’t have the energy to read some bullshit point from bullshit people for bullshit reasons.

Over the summer, I visited Washington, D.C.  While I was there, I made sure to visit Dr. King’s memorial.  I was in awe of the size and power of the display.  King’s sturdy and resilient image coming out of the rock sent shivers down my spine.  I know that I am a white man who has benefitted from our racist society, but I am still moved and emboldened by Dr. King’s message.  Especially during a time with such a racist administration.  I know that I am not the one affected by their racist policies, but I can stand up against them.  Motivated by Dr. King, I can choose to not remain silent.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples wrote “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” in response to the Little Rock Nine protests.  In 1957, nine black students attempted attend the segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.  Three years prior, the United States Supreme Court declared that school segregation was unconstitutional.  Angry protestors and armed members of the Arkansas National Guard stood in the way of their students trying to enter the school.  President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort the students into the high school three weeks later.

The Staples Singers recorded “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” in 1965.  According to Greg Kot’s book “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era,” the song became a personal favorite of Dr. King’s.  Dr. King would always request Pops to have the song performed when the Staples Singers were singing at any of the civil rights rallies organized by Dr. King.  The song asks why the singer is treated so bad despite having done nothing wrong.  The message is clear, concise, and simple and it served as an effective anthem for the civil rights movements.

I read Kot’s book on the Staples Singers a few months ago.  In December, I got to see Kot interview Mavis Staples, one of Pops’ daughters, about her life and career.  She talked about Dr. King and providing a soundtrack for the civil rights moment which was a big part of Kot’s book.  However, Mavis drew the experience and lessons from the 60s to the contemporary issues we are facing today with the recent rise in white supremacy.  She said she may not be the one to provide a musical outlet to express rage, frustration, and determination in these times, but she championed the artists of today like Chance the Rapper who continue the legacy of fighting for civil rights.

As the blowback from Trump’s “shithole countries” comment continues, it is hard to see where his racism will go from here.  His supporters have been emboldened by his statements and determined to push a white supremacist agenda.  Not only that, but the behavior continues to be normalized.  This wasn’t just one mistake.  It’s another racist comment in a long line of racist comments, but it won’t be the last.  Trump is changing the game on what the nation can claim is presidential.  And his supporters love it.  It makes them energized and they thrive on the chaos and madness.  Saying that people from Africa come from “shithole countries” may be shocking now, but it might become the norm when Trump has the potential to say and do even worse things using the platform the presidency provides.

I am glad that people are angry.  However, I am trying not believe that the anger expressed will only exist in the short-term and be forgotten when something even worse comes along thus normalizing the previous offense.  This weekend will mark one year of Trump.  We’ve got three more.  And until that man is removed from the office, we must fight for this country and for those treated so bad.