“i’m still standing” – elton john (1983)

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This past week has been a real emotional rollercoaster. Some highs, some lows.  So, this blog post may be all over the map today.  And that happens.  It is OK. Not ever entry will be strong or necessarily cohesive.  So, I’m treating this week as if it is a diary about my weekend.

Late Thursday night, on Valentine’s Day, a close friend from the community radio station I volunteer at passed away unexpectedly.  As of this writing, there is no known cause.  She was someone I admired because she was always full of joy and lived like in a way where she did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.  She did not give a damn.  I deal with anxiety more than I would like to admit, so I always saw her as an inspiration for the way one should feel about themselves and the life they live.  I was devastated when I got the news because it was not something anyone saw coming.  I’m still processing it.

All Sunday morning, I was feeling rather moody. It is February and that is the worst month.  I know January gets a lot of flak for being terrible, but it nowhere near as terrible as February.  February is colder, snowier, wetter, and just generally miserable.  The earliest signs of spring are just a few weeks away and February just exists to test one’s patience.  For being the shortest month, it feels like the longest.

Sunday was also a day where I had some social commitments.  I didn’t feel like going, but I felt compelled to do so. And I’m glad I did.

First stop was to meet friends from my book club for a social gathering at a German bar in Logan Square that is closing called the Radler, a place where beer comes in boots and you can hammer nails into stumps.  I started feeling better.  Maybe it was the beer, but I really enjoyed the warmth and positivity I was feeling around me.  The energy felt fantastic.

After that, I walked about a mile through the snow to get to a friend’s place.  He’s a guy who used to work with me at this terrible non-profit when I first moved to Chicago.  We made some vegan pasta and just chilled listening to music.  First was an EP of tropical disco tracks that were just amazing jams.  Then, we moved on to Led Zeppelin’s untitled record (typically Led Zeppelin IV) before moving onto Led Zeppelin III. It was a very primal and masculine experience. We rocked out and chatted and got our stuff to go out that evening, two warriors ready to conquer that night.

We went to a bar where a friend from the radio station was DJing, playing a mix of all women and women-identified artists.  It was a very different atmosphere and energy from the one I just left.  My buddy and I just chilled and listened to the music.  It was a rather feminine vibe, but the emotion behind the music was warm.  The energy was soothing.  I talked with my friend DJing about life and missing our friend we just lost a few days earlier.

After a while, my buddy got bored and said we should hit up a nearby arcade bar.  I said sure.  However, I was not feeling the energy when we got there.  Lots of noise, plus my buddy was just working the crowd to get laid.  It felt very weird being there as I just wanted to chill and didn’t want to play games or hit on women.  So, I split and went back to see my friend continue her DJ set.

I sat there listening to the music until a friend of the DJ came and talked to me.  He was an anxious guy who seemed troubled by something.  He was asking me very deep and personal questions about me such as how I find happiness and why do I drink alcohol.  I just kept telling him that happiness comes from within and that everything is fine and that we were all there to chill and relax.  I’ve got my problems too, but I was really feeling good where I was.

After some time, I left and ordered a Lyft.  On my way back home, I spoke to a beautiful woman who was sharing the car with me.  We talked about our evenings and her studying psychology.  It was such a lovely conversation.  When the car arrived at my apartment, I turned to her said “I hope you find joy wherever you’re going” and we shook hands.”

Monday, I spent time with myself.  Cleaned my apartment, made a healthy lunch, and walked around a few different neighborhoods killing time until I met with friends to play trivia.  The friend who passed away was also friends with one of my trivia partners.  We talked about that and what we appreciated about her.  I didn’t stay long.  The trivia was being held at a new venue and it was loud and disorganized.  So, I went back home to read and finish planning my vacation for next month.

On Friday, my dad came to town to visit.  I had tickets to see Elton John perform during his final tour, Farwell Yellow Brick Road. I went with two close friends.  The concert was fantastic! Elton performed well and I heard all the songs I wanted to hear.  My friend had just passed the night before, so a concert sounded like a nice way to distract myself.  Especially a concert that was a farewell tour where memories and lessons were talked about with wisdom and nostalgia.

The song I had to hear the most was “I’m Still Standing.” I wasn’t sure he would play it, but he did play it before the encore with the video screen playing clips from Elton John’s many performances and pop culture cameos.  Released as a single in 1983 from the album Too Low for Zero, the song is about Elton still maintaining relevancy as his career entered the 1980s.

When I was talking to my friend during her DJ set, we talked about how we felt about our friend passing.  I told her I was upset and that I was processing. She told me it hadn’t hit her yet but anticipated when it will.  I told her that we were still alive and the best thing to do was to continue living our lives the best way we can.  We were survivors, and we should find joy in that.  I find that joy in that.  I’m still standing.

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“any other way” – jackie shane (1963)

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This past Sunday, the Grammys aired much to the delight or dismay to millions of people.  Depending on who you were rooting for, the Grammys either validated your taste in the latest musical trends or served as a reminder that the famed musical institution is out of touch.  I do not remember the last time I watched the Grammys nor, considering all the relevancy jokes lobbed at the awards ceremony I’ve seen in various pop culture reference over the last three decades, should I feel any need to.  All award shows are always the same.  Sometimes deserving people win, and sometimes they don’t.  That being said, while I did not watch the ceremony, there was only one award I cared about this year.

Since discovering Numero Group for myself in a small college town in Kentucky, I have been amazed by the left of craft and detail they exhibit with every release.  When I was doing college radio from the mid- to late-2000s, I had an underwriting deal with the only record store in town.  In exchange for running a spot on the top of each hour of my two hour long show every Sunday from 10 PM to midnight, I got one free disc of my choice.  And I almost always chose a Numero Group release.

I played so much from the labels Eccentric Soul series.  The Eccentric Soul series were curated CDs, either one or two discs, that compiled rare or unheard material from soul musicians curated specifically centering on a specific artist, geographical area, or regional record label.   Not only was the music incredibly amazing, but the rarity of the music was really cool too.  No one I knew was playing this music.

Through the years I was in college radio, I amassed a whole collection of Numero Group releases (all but one of them is gone after a roommate with sticky fingers took advantage of me).  Since I left college, the label has expanded into other genres.  As much as I revered them for focusing on soul music, and felt they should stick with that, it made sense for them to expand and broaden their audience.  However, their soul music will always what I associate the label with.

So, back to the Grammys! This year, Numero Group had a compilation that was nominated.  In the category for “Best Historical Album,” Numero Group was competing for the famous gramophone statuette for what has become one of their best releases to date.  That compilation, Any Other Way, is a two-disc celebration of one of the great soul pioneers, Jackie Shane.

Who is Jackie Shane?  Prepare to be amazed and delighted.  In the 1960s, if you were in Toronto and wanted to see one of the bets nightclub acts in the city, you would for sure find you way to see Jackie Shane, a black transgender singer who disappeared in the early 1970s.  While many believed that she had die, the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced an audio documentary about the mysterious soul singer, and she started to earn revived following.  In recognition of her pioneering talent, she is even featured on a massive 20-story mural in Toronto depicting influential musicians.

In 2014, Numero Group was able to track down Shane who was now living in Nashville.  Through that outreach, she was able to collaborate with Numero Group for the 2017 compilation Any Other Way, which featured a collection of live and studio recordings from Shane. Prior to this compilation, Shane only released one album, Jackie Shane Live in 1967, and only a handful of singles during the mid-60s on labels such as Sue Records Inc., Stop, Star Shot, Caravan, and Modern Records.

In the notes for Any Other Way, Shane talks about her music career, working with Joe Tex, and reactions to her identity.  Dressed in feminine attire, Shane was just seen as a gay black man.  During performances, in between songs, Shane would play the role of a preacher with the audience as the congregation, with monologues about her identity and the state of sexual politics.  Not only did Shane make amazing music, but she championed her identity during a time when not only there really wasn’t a word for her identity but could also result in violence against her.

Ultimately, Shane left her music career behind in the early 1970s.  Her mother’s husband died, and she stopped pursuing music to take care of her.  However, there was more to it.  The whole push and pull of the industry ultimately left Shane exhausted.  SO, she resided to live a life of quiet until Numero Group came knocking, and she finally earned the recognition she absolutely deserved.

Unfortunately, Any Other Way did not win the Grammy for “Best Historical Album.”  Instead, the award went to Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris, an incredible set compiling sounds and images from people who worked forms in his community.  Voices of Mississippi is worthy of the award for its commitment to tell forgotten stories, although I believe the gender politics of the 1960s America exhibited in Any Other Way adds a significance that is less visible.  Oh well, a Grammy is just a statue, right?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Any Other Way.  Since this blog is focused on an album, I’ll spotlight the title track “Any Other Way,” a soulful, melancholy song initially released in 1963 about broken hearts and saying goodbye. Typical soul music tropes but consider the story behind it.  Sometimes, the person behind song can elevate the music.

“ted, just admit it…” – jane’s addiction (1988)

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During last week’s polar vortex, like the rest of Chicago, I stayed inside practically the entire time.  While my younger self loved snow days where I could do nothing but stay inside, play video games, and watch television, doing that now is a little more difficult for me.  While I had friends who stayed inside for up to 72 hours and got a little stir crazy as a result, I couldn’t even last a day (I went outside for five minutes to help push a car, but I would’ve gone out for another reason like going to the store). I think with living in a major city where I’m used to walking everywhere, plus the fact my I live in a small apartment, it is easier to get a touch of cabin fever than if I were living in the suburbs or a big house. Regardless, I tried to pass the time and got caught up on some Netflix.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you know that Netflix released a four-part documentary series called Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. In the series, the life and crimes of Ted Bundy are documented and analyzed through interviews, archive footage, and audio tape from the infamous serial killer himself. It seems that everyone was watching this series based on the number of social media posts and think pieces about the personality of Bundy I saw.  Combine that with the fact the series dropped the sane week as a trailer for a film about Bundy starring Zac Efron. For the first time since his death thirty years ago, people were buzzing about Bundy.

I had barely turned a year old when Bundy was put to death by electric chair in a Florida prison.  Later, I would learn who he was and that he was such a bad guy.  However, it wasn’t until I watched this series that I learned about the media spectacle that surrounded Bundy that turned into a fully-fledged phenomenon, one that was a reflection of the American psyche during dismal period of the 1970s followed by the excess of the 1980s.  Here was a guy that brought the term “serial killer” into the American lexicon, and during a time where the visual medium of television could sensationalize events on a scale that were very uncommon for media prior.

Watching this series, I could not believe the buzz that surrounded Bundy. Living through society in a post-Bundy world, it was so difficult to imagine for a convicted serial murderer could be his own defense lawyer, have women lusting after him, escape prison twice, garner more attention on his looks and education than his crimes, and still generate a media circus years after being convicted. It was absolutely mind boggling. Have this case happened now, any commentary about how handsome Bundy was would be drowned out by condemning editorials that would ignore due process and utilize social media to damn Bundy in the court of public opinion. It was a clear sign of the times that I would never have believed because it seemed so unfathomable.

And in some way, that buzz still is not over. Netflix issues statements that they were just generally weirded out by people posting comments admiring Bundy after they had watched the documentary. At least people in the 1970s had some excuse being that Bundy was not convicted or even admitted to the crimes yet. Thirty years after his conviction, confession, and execution, Bundy’s unibrow still manages to appeal to some dark aspect of the human psyche finds the power of murder quite attractive.  That’s a whole level of psychological analysis that I have no credibility to analyze of discuss other than to think that is just generally weird.  I cannot even begin to understand how the Bundy media circus reflected American society a generation ago, let alone rationalize it in modern times.

A year prior to Bundy’s execution, Jane’s Addiction released their first major-label studio album Nothing’s Shocking in 1988.  Featuring some archival audio from Bundy himself, “Ted, Just Admit It…” is less a call to action for Bundy and more of a scathing critique on sensationalist media.  Running nearly seven and a half minutes, this slow bass heavy song, Perry Farrell sings how the media frequently captures and broadcasts violent and sexual imagery to the point where society is desensitized to.  So much so that sex and violence converge to encompass a single act, a reflection of the lust people can have for power and serves as a reflection that we, as a society, are no longer affected by shocking violence.  Farrell sings that the news is just another show with sex and violence.

Beyond the points the song makes, I need to make clear about the type of sex that the song profiles. Very few cultural experts would argue that Americans would prefer violence over sex in their media consumption. America is frankly a puritanical country where sex is debated constantly.  From discussions about sex education in school, the sale and distribution of pornography, and sexual consent between adults of different genders and orientations, it can seem like sex is a serious taboo in American culture.  Not entirely true as there is a distinction in the type of sex.  Purely erotic, joyful, and consensual sex is challenged in all levels of our society while sex of a violent nature is pervasive.  If you don’t believe me, flip through your television channels or skim the titles on any streaming service.  You’ll find more examples of creative content that center on violent sex, specifically violent sex against women, than you will find where women, or other marginalized groups, engage in positive and joyous sex.

While the Netflix series of Bundy was entertaining and educational, I left the experience a bit disturbed about the pervasiveness of violent sex in our culture based on the sexual admiration many people had for Bundy.  Frankly, it reflects our culture’s values where we’re generally oaky with violence, really in any form. It is indicative of a misalignment of our values. I know that most people will see content like this Bundy series and see it for what it is, but too much time and bandwidth is spent sensationalizing the negative and violent reactions that it skews reality. And that is how our news, and media coverage, can be as violent as any narrative programming.

“earth song” – michael jackson (1995)

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I am sitting in my warm, cozy studio apartment in Chicago while the temperature outside continues to drop.  This week, Chicago is experiencing a string of days with below zero temperatures to the point of creating safety concerns for its residents and millions of other people outside of the city limits.  On one of those days, there is the possibility that the extreme cold will shatter several records including the coldest high temperature on record in Chicago.  Many businesses are closing, and warming centers are doing their best to promote their services to minimize that devastation such cold can bring.  I even temporarily disrupted my mail service and bought groceries in advance, so I didn’t have to subject some delivery driver to the brutal chill for the sake of my own convenience.

The extreme cold is forcing me to stay inside for several days without the need to leave my apartment.  That is situation I am not really accustomed to as I do enjoy getting out and walking around, if only for a few minutes.  However, as my weekly commitments such as my music class and volunteer shift get cancelled, I take it as a sign to just tough it out and enjoy the solitude and hiss of my radiator heat.

Though, getting cabin fever is not the only thing I have thought about concerning the weather.  Extreme cold like this comes around ever few years.  I remember the last polar vortices in 2013 and 2014 when a half inch of ice formed on the side of my window because the temperature differences between outside and inside were so vast.  These kinds of cold spells are an inconvenience, but they were the type of problem that only came about every few years.  Now, they happen with more frequency and intensity.

What concerns me most about this weather is that it is indicative of our environmental crisis.  What is proving to be the largest humanitarian issue in recent history, that has contributed to horrendous situations like the Syrian refugee crisis and more devastating hurricanes, climate change is an undeniable threat.

By nature, I am not a doomsday kind of person.  However, I don’t carry the same level of confidence I typically have when it comes to the matter of climate change. I feel this way because I think we have missed multiple opportunities to save this planet but are now left with the increasingly abysmal effects of climate change.  Through humanity’s greed and inability to come up with a solution that is not centered around profit, we have failed future generations who will inherit this planet.

I cannot stand the opinion that the extreme weather conditions currently moving across the U.S. are not a reflection of poor environmental policy.  It is a level of ignorance, and perhaps maliciousness in some cases, that I do not care to hear or entertain.  With all the evidence that exists about the serious threat climate change poses, I cannot help but think that actively dismissing it signifies one’s complicit attitude towards the deaths attributed to natural and environmental disasters. I am feeling so angry as I type this.

As I look out the window, I know that people will die.  Major cold fronts have occurred and will continue to do so, but there is a larger systemic issue at hand; one that will result in stronger and more frequent weather phenomenon and which also ignores how the most vulnerable and marginalized of society will be affected.  Libraries are a wonderful institution because they serve as a shelter to those who need it.  However, they do close.  The people who rely on them will have to leave, and a few may never return.

Released on the studio album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I in 1995, “Earth Song” is Michael Jackson’s first song to specifically address the issues facing our environment.  After a string of social conscious singles, the lyrics and music video for “Earth Song” paints a stunning portrait of the devastation our planet has and will continue to face unless major environmental policies are enacted.  What I like about this song is that it specifically calls out the effects of humanity’s greed.  It is a song that requires you to look into the mirror and understand that silence on the matter is death.

The U.S. government opened this week after the financial shutdown ended on Friday.  For over a month, various regulatory commissions and institutions were unable to carry out their duties.  We are expected to see an increase in foodborne illnesses.  Intruders trashed and wreaked havoc across multiple state parks.  The president joked about the cold asking for global warming to come back. If our government cannot run effectively, then it fails as an institution and government interference and cooperation is the only way to enact environmental policies with actual results.  However, with bullshit issues like border security, our leaders put people at risk when it comes to issues that really matter.  Issues that are proving to be deadly, costly, and irreversible.

“new song” – howard jones (1983)

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I want to preface this blog entry by stating that this will not address, comment, or analyze any one specific event that has happened in the recent days, weeks, or months.  Rather, the point behind this blog entry is to appeal, on a more general level, to a sense of rationality that has increasingly been missing in our cultural dialogue in recent years.  This is primarily due to foreign active measures that have, in the last few years, aimed to divide people within this country through misinformation and deception.  As we currently face an existential crisis in this country, I have actively worked to maintain beliefs that do not further that divide.  Criticism of this may call me a centrist or someone committed to establishment principles, but that viewpoint is narrow-minded.  As much as I want radical change that challenges our deeply rooted intrinsic and extrinsic systemic principles, I also firmly believe that now is not the time for such radical principles as they will further create a rift within this country.  One that may be impossible to bridge if it becomes too wide.  Instead, we must hit reset to return things to a sense of normalcy, where rules and traditions are valued, and then work to change the systemic problems within the establishment this country has historically know.  And the first step to doing that is through nuance.

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a friend and colleague from the community radio station I volunteered with challenged the notion of misinformation as it relates to “call out culture,” a set of patterns and behaviors using social media to shed light on and amplify a specific person or group.  While social media, and the internet as a whole, has been a wonderful tool in uniting people, bringing power to the marginalized, and spreads useful information faster than mediums before it, it has also been utilized as a weapon to spread misinformation and foster distrust.

This friend published a book in 2017, a collection of feminist mantras that over the course of a year allow readers to embrace feminist principles in deeply meaningful and personal ways.  That book has expanded into a larger project involving podcasts, road trips to meet with feminist leaders, and so much more.

One of the negative aspects of out call ouR culture is that online digital mobs react to information on social media that violates their principles and, as a result, their response is more amplified and vitriolic than if they were to address the same issue in-person or within their own communities.  Calling out, addressing, and stopping problematic behavior online is essential to achieve progress for all people, but we must remember that social media is not altruistic.  It is not a moralistic entity.  It is amoral.  Whatever you put in, you get out.

That is how misinformation can be spread so effectively through all the different channels by agents whose goals are to further divides within their targets.  Quite simply, millions of people will cause damage as a result of baseless rumors, lies, and accusations with only minimum evidence, or the appearance of evidence, that validates their prejudices, belief systems, and biases.

Since America is currently facing an existential crisis, it is important to understand that you cannot believe everything you see online.  Instead of acting on impulse, you must, as my friend put it, find the nuance.  Sure, we live in reality, and some people do awful things.  However, people will also do normal things that, through the lens of social media, can be manipulated to reflect a consequence not originally intended.

In her mantra of finding the nuance, she says

a challenge to all of us to take time to seek and understand the details of reality before succumbing to Twitter’s endless hot takes. This work isn’t easy, but I see it as so politically important and necessarily feminist in the way it promotes transparency, honesty, and empathy. What’s one thing you can pause and look a little closer at this week? Maybe it’s a current event or maybe it’s just a way you’re thinking about your own life/self that needs reexamining. Find the nuance, take a breath in those contradictions, we’re better for recognizing them.

I know this isn’t easy.  We live in an age where we want everything, and we want it now.  However, until we get the Russian agents out of the White House, we do need a return to the status quo until we can work on real radical change that challenges the systemic issues within the establishment.  And the first step is to maintain healthy skepticism and finding the nuance.

“New Song” was the debut single from Howard Jones.  Released in 1983 off his 1984 debut studio album Human’s Lib, “New Song” is about having the patience to understand the nuance of our social issues.  Jones sings about not being fooled by what you see and hear and calls for people to challenge their preconceived ideas and longstanding fears.  By seeing both sides and throwing off your mental chains, Jones sings that you can breakaway from the cynical people who try to doom your path to progress.

“New Song” is about not accepting things at face value.  In the age of misinformation, this principle is incredibly important.  It is practically an ideal we need to hold sacred.  Sure, you cannot stop from reacting at something at face value.  That’s only natural. However, keep yourself open to the idea there may be more than meets the eye.  Especially during a time where our institutions are being challenged for their authenticity.

“mo ti mo” – king sunny adé and his african beats (1983)

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While everyone is out seeing the big blockbusters and films from the Oscars’ shortlist, it seems these days the only movies I go see are obscure and generally confusing to most people.  I’m not sure exactly why I go see these movies.  Maybe it is for the camp factor.  Or even just for the curiosity.  Or perhaps even the scarcity of the screening itself.  Does it really matter?  All I am saying is that I seem to spend money for the experience of seeing some esoteric bullshit.

Monday was no exception when I went to the Music Box Theatre to see the lost Robert Altman teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs.  Altman is a major name in the world of New Hollywood cinema having directed such great titles such as MASH, Nashville, and Short Cuts.  In addition to his making films with an aesthetic that highly stylized and satirical, he was also a maverick as a director in the sense that he was difficult to work with in the sense that he became anti-Hollywood during the 1980s.  It was during this era that he directed O.C. and Stiggs.

O.C. and Stiggs is a teen comedy about two trouble-making high schoolers who plot to prank an upper-middle class suburban family they despise in their hometown of Phoenix. Though it was shot in 1983 and finished production in 1984, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1987. The initial concept of O.C. and Stiggs was developed by the National Lampoon and meant to capitalize on the trend of teen comedies that had seen a boost of popularity a few years earlier with titles such as Animal House.

Not much is known about the film since it was a critical bomb and Altman’s least commercially successful movie having only earned $29,000+ at the box office.  Though somehow, in the film’s development, Altman was attached to direct and that is when the initial concept changed during the course of production.

While the film was intended to be a true teen comedy, Altman had the plan to derail the original vision and turn it into a parody of the teen comedy genre.  With appearances from notable talent such as Dennis Hopper and Melvin Van Peebles, plus early appearances of talent like Cynthia Nixon, O.C. and Stiggs is a bizarre examination of teenage mischief through the lens of Altman’s satirical take on the American culture of guns, capitalism, and freedom.

The Music Box Theatre was almost packed to see this obscure title. It was quite a strange experience.  The film does not age well with numerous sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic jokes and a style that obviously comes off as parody, even if that wasn’t evident to the studio and distributors at the time.  While I have seen movies of a worse quality than O.C. and Stiggs, it still stands out as one of my strangest viewing experiences.  I think with other bad movies, I sense an earnestness from the director and their thinking they were making something truly wonderful (i.e. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room).  With Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs, this was parody without irony which is something you don’t see much of.

The only thing that has stuck with me from the experience of seeing the film was the music.  In the film, the two leads are obsessed with King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, a Nigerian jùjú band.  Only two tracks were contributed to the film.  One was an original composition called “O.C. and Stiggs” which had an instrumental that appears frequently throughout the film and plays in its entirety over the ending credits.  Unfortunately, that track has never been released.  While it does appear on YouTube, I cannot include it in my blog as the focus track since it has never been officially released outside of the film.  So, for this purpose, I’ll focus on the other track that appeared in the film.

During one of the big pranks O.C. and Stiggs play on the town, they interrupt a local play production so King Sunny Adé’ & His African Beats can play a concert after being swindled by a promoter in Mexico.  They perform “Mo Ti Mo,” from their 1983 studio album Syncro System, in its entirety with everyone in the place dancing and jumping around and forgetting that they were supposed to see a play.  In an otherwise odd scene, the performance was fantastic (studio and film versions below).

I never have to see O.C. and Stiggs again.  I’m glad I saw it, but now it enters my long list of films I saw because of curiosity and scarcity.  You don’t need to see it as well.  But do check out King Sunny Adé & His African Beats.

“i don’t want to set the world on fire” – the ink spots (1941)

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It is said that January is the hardest month for people.  It follows the holidays, is typically the coldest, and is way too long.  In Chicago, January is when winter really kicks in with unbelievably cold temperatures.  January, with February coming in at a close second, makes Chicago a little unbearable.  So, I find ways to relax.

I’m a busy guy and I don’t relax much over the holidays.  I don’t believe that many people actually do feel rested up during the holidays.  There sometimes is a lot of travel involved and family can be a bit much to handle sometimes.  I always feel like I need a holiday from the holidays.  So, I try to make my January as relaxing as possible.  Both with regards to dealing with the weather and to get some me time.

When I was younger, I used to watch a lot of television and play a ton of video games.  They were just my hobbies.  However, I have new hobbies now.  I still watch some television, but I play video games very rarely.

The last few years, I have used January as a time to rewatch beloved shows that have since ended.  Last year, I marathoned Breaking Bad for its 10th anniversary.  I could not think of any shows I felt compelled to repeat, so I turned to my other former love.  I turned on my Xbox 360.

I remember purchasing Fallout 3 in 2010 after a friend’s recommendation.  I was never really into RPGs because I didn’t care for the turn-based gameplay that most of those types of games adhere to.  When I was told there was a real-time combat system, one that involved more than just pressing a button or two, I decided I would go for it.  And I loved it!

The open world, the scary creatures and environments, and the futuristic retro aesthetic really appealed to me.  Fallout 3 quickly became one of my favorite video games.  Since I was a recent college graduate and only working part-time, I had lots of free time over the summer to explore the Capital Wasteland! It was fantastic.

Fallout 3 is a massive video game with potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay.  Given the scope of the game, plus having recently moved to Chicago and focusing on finding work, I knew it wouldn’t be a game I would return to frequently.  I was also transitioning to a point a of my life, due to finances and apartment size, where video games were becomingly less and less of a priority.  It would be awhile before returned to the post-apocalyptic hellscape.

It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2014 when I returned to Fallout 3 and replayed it in its entirety.  I was nursing a breakup and didn’t have much going on, so Fallout 3 was a great escape.  It was amazing how I still remembered so much from the game, but was still left surprised by things I had forgotten or had not discovered before.  The second time through, it was still one of my favorites.

Now, in January 2019, I have returned to the ruins of Washington, D.C. for a third time.  Instead of catching up on a show, I have been revisiting Fallout 3 for the third time.  As I am playing through it, I have been taking a different strategy.  I’m exploring more than I had previously and am dedicating myself to more side missions.  I really want to get as much of an experience as I can because I don’t know when I’ll play it again.  Could be five years.  Could be ten.  Could be never.

Part of the reason why I’m getting more in-depth with it is because I’m missing out on the recent activity of the Fallout franchise.  I don’t really buy video games anymore, so I don’t have the latest system.  While everyone else has been exploring the reaches of Fallout 4 and Fallout ’76, I am being considerably more retro with my decade old game. And I am fine with that.  Maybe one day, when the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One is several generations old, I’ll purchase one used for $50, along with a used copy of Fallout 4 for $10, and see what I missed out on.  Maybe.

One of the signature qualities of the game is the music.  There are built in radio frequencies that you can tune into that each have their own characteristics.  And the music is featured in the game, and in the advertising, almost like a character itself.

While John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been the new featured tune because of the recent release of Fallout ’76, it doesn’t hold a candle to the legacy of its most iconic soundtrack choice.  Written in 1938 by Bennie Benjamin, Eddie Durham, Sol Marcus, and Eddie Seiler, the 1941 rendition of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots has become that song’s official anthem.  I remember seeing the first trailer for Fallout 3 when a radio turns on playing the song as the camera backs out of rusted out bus to reveal a nuclear devastated landscape and a Brotherhood of Steel paladin looking towards the camera saying “War…war never changes.”  Cue hairs on neck standing.

I have heard that the song has been included in Fallout 4, but it will forever bring about images of a ruined Washington, D.C. with mutants, raiders, and a shadow government running amok.  And I’ll be there, as the lone survivor, to bring peace.

“happy new year” – abba (1980)

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New Years is such an interesting holiday.  People put so much stock into it with the belief that this arbitrary date within our concept of time will bring about some significance in their lives.  I know that is a cynical assessment, and I try not to be cynical because cynicism is just a symptom of fear, but it takes a lot of work to be optimistic.

I do think positively about New Year’s because the idea of marking our milestones, and the inherent sense of a new beginning, makes the difficulty aspects of our lives easier to bear because such a holiday gives us hope.  And hope is such an important thing to have.  Especially during these times.

Since I’ve started this blog, my posts about New Years have always been this idea that this next year will be when things truly amazing will happen. And, frankly, that just is not realistic.  Good things have happened, do happen, and will continue to happen.  But, so will bad things.  You must take them both to truly appreciate what you have in life.

So, instead of yammering on about the abstract concept of New Years and what is plays in our lives, I instead want to share a moment of tranquility I experienced a few days prior.

I was on a plane from Cincinnati to Chicago after spending the Christmas holiday with family.  I did not sleep much the night before and the flight was in the morning.  So, naturally, I knew I would fall asleep.  I boarded the plane, put on my headphones, tuned to Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, and was out before takeoff.  The flight is only about an hour, but I woke up a few minutes before the descent.  I was sitting in the window seat and it was open.  I have flown many times before, so I am fully aware of what being above the clouds looks like. However, this time felt different.  I was confused because what I saw did not resemble clouds.  The texture and coloring looked like a wintry snowscape of a mountain valley.  For a few brief seconds, I thought I was a flight to Alaska since the flight path takes you over such terrain.  Then, I realized that I was actually looking at clouds and I was mesmerized by them.  I experienced a few minutes where I was living in the present, tuned out from the problems of the world and my life, and focused on the curves, crests, and stillness of these clouds.  For a brief moment, I felt transported.  It was a beautifully tranquil experience that I will not forget.

After a few minutes, the plane began descending.  I was immersed in solid white as we crashed into the clouds.  Then, in subtle shifts, grey tones started to bleed through as the plane, as well as I, transitioned from such a magical moment to the dullness of a grey Chicago day.  I enjoyed the magic of what I had just seen, but returning to my normal life really cemented in my mind how special such a moment was.  That duality is necessary in life to appreciate such moments.

A lot of songs about New Years are celebratory or about the hope of all the good things that could come with it.  I’ve written about those songs in the past.  However, for this year, I wanted to find a song that reflected the duality of New Years as a concept.

I could not find a better song than “Happy New Year” by Abba.  A single from their 1980 studio album Super Trouper, though it would not be released as a single until 1999, it is a song about what one feels when the party dies down.  We all celebrated a milestone and reveled in the moments with good cheer, good drinks, and good friends, but it is never enough to solve all life’s problems.  They still exist.  New Years, in the song, gives us a vision now and then of a world where every neighbor is a friend, but some dreams die.  However, things are not as bleak as they can be as long as we have the hope and will to try to make our lives, and the lives of those around us, better.  Otherwise, what is the point?  We might as well lay down and lie, as sung in the song.

There is a truthful duality recognized in that song that captures New Years in ways that many ignore or choose not to see.  Don’t get me wrong.  It should be a time to celebrate accomplishments, loves milestones, and other happy things while surrounded by people you love and who love you back, but it is more than that.  To quote a different band, nothing changes on New Year’s Day.

“the peppermint engineer” – joanie sommers (1977)

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Christmas is here! And that means that holiday music is playing everywhere, and people are complaining about it.  Bah humbug!  Holiday music is great and as far as I’m concerned, the cornier the better.  I think the reason why people say they hate Christmas music is because they hear the same songs over and over and over again, and they take the music too seriously.  Holiday music is meant to be ridiculous and campy.   So what if you’ve heard that only John Lennon Christmas song or various a cappella version of “Last Christmas.”  Instead of just complaining, try exploring what else is out there.  And don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.

The holiday season is all about traditions.  Most of the people who celebrate during the holiday season have their own traditions, often with family.  I know I do.  But, I’ve got my own traditions that I like to participate in on my own.  Topping the list is seeing John Waters do his Christmas monologue, but I always look forward to Andy Cirzan’s annual holiday playlist.

Andy Cirzan is the VP of Jam Productions and, every year, compiles a curated compilation of campy Christmas classics.  For several decades, Cirzan has searched through record stores, flea markets, estate sales, and all kinds of places to bring you the weirdest and most obscure Christmas music out there.

In recent years, Cirzan debuts his compilation on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions and tells stories about that record, what litter information there may be, and how he came across it.  The compilation is then made free to download for the remainder of the year.

To listen to Cirzan’s compilations, you must have an open mind and not take the content too seriously.  It is all ridiculous but that is the fun of it.  Amidst all the oddities, Cirzan does find some interesting stuff that is legitimately great or becomes an ear worm.  Regardless on how ridiculous the compilation is, it has become one of my favorite holiday traditions.

This year, Cirzan unveiled his 30th annual compilation.  Called Rudolph Pouts…and Pouts Again, The Hits Vol. 1, it is a collection of some of Cirzan’s favorite songs from previous compilations spanning three decades.  I always enjoy listening to Cirzan talk about the music and each song brings me joy.  He does a really great job compiling these compilations and his passion shines through.

I have my personal favorites that I have heard over the years.  And while many of them are good or laughably entertaining, one that I think about more than any other is “The Peppermint Engineer” by Joanie Sommers.  Released in 1977, “The Peppermint Engineer” is a saccharine tune about an engineer driving a peppermint choo choo and the spirit of Christmas love.  With vocals that sound whimsical and childlike, the song is as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

So, quit being a holiday music Scrooge and try exploring the wonderful world of holiday music.  You mind something you might enjoy!

“read, eat, sleep” – the books (2002)

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About this time four years ago, I picked up reading as a hobby.  I was not much of a reader growing up.  I read a few books here or there that looked interesting, but it was never something that would be referred to as a hobby.  Until I graduated college, I was pretty much about video and music.  Music is still great, but video games bore me now.

Anyway, back to the reading.  MY hobby of reading a ton of books is no secret to those who even remotely know me as an acquaintance. Having a book on me has become ubiquitous that reading has become more of an identity than a hobby.  I’m not even talking about one particular genre, series, or author.  I read all kinds of book on all kinds of subjects by all kinds of people.

I hit a major milestone last weekend.  I dropped a nearly vomit-inducing amount of money to be done with my student loans.  I had a spreadsheet tracking spending, student loan payouts, and estimates of when I would pay everything off based on a variety of different income levels and factors.  That shit was ridiculous and became an obsession.  I was tooling with its last week and then I paused.  I just stared into the distance for a few seconds thinking about life.  I decided this shit was dumb and I went for the nuclear option.  It took a few days, but I did eventually feel good about that decision.

After paying that off and becoming debt free, I started thinking about my life now versus my life four years ago.  Four years ago, I was flat broke, trying to get over a devastating breakup, and not regularly employed.  I didn’t really have any hobbies or friends as most of what I was used to was part of my old life with my ex-girlfriend.  All those things left with her, so I had to reassemble my life by finding new friends, hobbies, and interests that were interesting to me and allowed me to craft my own identity.

Despite a massive payment that made me want to collapse, my life is so much better than it was before.  Even t my lowest, four years ago, I was determined to do things my way.  I didn’t take money from parents and I set out to find ways to enrich my life.  I wanted to take guitar classes, but I couldn’t afford them.  So, I volunteered at a music school and got classes through that.  I only had about or two friends, so I went and did stuff to meet more people and grow connections with them.  It was a lot of work.  Sometimes it felt forced, but I think that was more due to my intensity and tenacity. But, it was truly organic.

My hobby for reading developed during this time.  A polar vortex hit Chicago, so it was too cold to wander around outside.  I didn’t have a TV because I got rid of it prior to moving in my girlfriend at the time, but I had a laptop with Netflix. Though, even that was not interesting.  Watching Netflix, alone in the dark or with bright lights, just depressed.  I have a lot of difficulty turning off my brain, so I cannot really zone out while watching shows.  Watching television is such a passive experience anyway, so all it allowed me to do was sit and stew.  I did not know how to be alone with my thoughts in a healthy manner yet.

From recent interviews, I had seen that John Waters had a book about him hitch-hiking across the United States.  That sounded interesting, so I got my library card for the first time, which was nearly 5 years after moving here.  I am a little embarrassed by that.

Anyway, that book led to another one.  I was unemployed, and everything was cold and Netflix was boring.  Reading became a way to actively engage my brain and distract myself from my problems.  It didn’t solve things, but it really helped.

Since I was unemployed, I could read all day. I ended up making a game of it.  That is when I put together my first reading challenge.  The goal was to read one book a week every week for a whole year.  Fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks.  And I had some rules.  First, it had to be a book I had never read before.  I recognized early on there was a lot I was missing out on, so I wanted to challenge myself and try new things.  And last, once I read a book by an author, I couldn’t read another book by that author until the end of the challenge.  Again, to keep my reading fresh and new.

That first year, I ended reading 90 books over 52 weeks.  I read a few hours a week at home, daily during my work commute, and during lunch at work.  I used to be really bored by reading, but I was loving it now.  I even started a spreadsheet tracking new releases, when I expect to start a new book, which book is next, and how many books I had read during the year to date.  Nerdy, I know, but it became fun and I liked the structure, though I did have surprise books I would drop in spontaneously as a palette cleanser.

Brining this up today because I am putting together my year-end reading stats for 2018.  This is where I figure out how many books I read, total number of pages, and pick my superlatives such as my favorite book of the year.  I still have two weeks before the end of year, but I already have my year-end choices down and I know I’ll finish them before the ball drops in Times Square.

I’ve also been winding down the last two weeks after finishing a really busy period.  Another busy period is happening right after the new year.  So, I’m gonna take some time to rest and think about the things I accomplished over the last few years through my own tenacity, plus the support of friends and family.

The Books dropped their first studio album Thought For Food in 2002.  The second track, “Read, Eat, and Sleep” is basically my plan for the rest of the year.  It is a slow-tempo folk, electronica song that is almost entirely instrumental expect for a vocalist spelling out the song title.  Nothing too complex.  Just straight chill, which is exactly what I need.

This holiday season, take some time and relax.  DO what you love and with the people you love.  Think about what you have and if there is anything you can learn from your past or appreciate from your present.  I’m in a better place now, which I’m sure seemed hard to believe back then.  I have three more days of work and then I’m checking out.  Gonna read, eat, and sleep.