“armagideon time” – willie williams (1979)

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This past weekend, I attended a Bernie Sanders rally in Chicago.  The crowd had met at Daley Plaza where several guest speakers were scheduled to address the crowd before marching down La Salle towards the Chicago Board of Trade.  This was my first official political rally in years.  The last ones I had attended were minor campus ones when I was still in college.  It was 2008, and Barack Obama was the front-runner to the Democratic nominee to run against John McCain.  I was only 19 and this was to be my first presidential election.  The feeling of engaging in the political process on a national level was electric.  After eight years of war, America was ready for a change “Yes we can” became the slogan for young people wanting to make a difference.  Promises were made and we held tightly to them like emotional life rafts.  Eight years later, the political landscape has change drastically becoming more extreme. Continued wars, new wars, the National Security Agency, bailouts, recession, political gridlock, and denied equal rights were to follow.  The tone had changed from “Yes we can” to “Maybe we could.”

I have personally changed a lot in the last eight years.  Finishing college, moving to Chicago, and getting my first real jobs were all experiences that shape your outlook.  On your own, you tend to be more practical and pragmatic.  When it was only Hillary Clinton who seemed like the only viable contender in the 2016 race, I wasn’t mad.  At this point, the liberals had seemingly no options, but one option was better than what the other side had to offer.  I was never really fond of Clinton, but I knew I needed to vote for her when the time came.

In recent months, I had changed my outlook on the race and have committed my vote in the primaries for Bernie Sanders.  However, I do so with some reservation.  Sanders has become increasingly popular in the last year and has transitioned from being a fringe candidate to a contender for the Democratic nomination.  His opponents view him as a socialist, but he s a Democratic socialist.  He is pushing for single-payer healthcare, free college education, immigration reform, equal rights for LGBT, reorganizing Wall Street, and other ideas that give power back to the people.  Clinton has voiced some support for these ideas, but in a more conservative way.  Perhaps it would be fair to say in a more practical way.  The game of politics can be very slow and promoting sweeping change on a grand scale can be very scary for people even if it will serve to benefit them.  Jumping on board with an idea is like jumping into a pool; some people need to warm their toes first.

Despite my support of Sanders, I am skeptical.  I am remembering my 19 year-old self when I voted for Obama the first time.  I would eventually vote for him again in 2012, but I have since become disappointed in him.  I don’t want that in my support for Sanders because I want to believe.

The Sanders rally was really emotional, but positive.  The speakers were diverse and passionate.  One woman made a strong stance for immigration reform because she had a husband who was deported.  A friend of Laquan McDonald provided youthful energy and vigor demanding racial justice and peace.  When we marched, there was no violence or destruction.  People were angry, but an anger that fueled positive change because this is what democracy looked like.

It seems with each new election, people talk more and more about the end of days.  That if the candidate they hate gets elected, then it will bring about the end of our country and the world as we know it.  Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this hyperbolic speech.  Each side is moving increasingly away from each other and becoming more extreme leaving no room for bipartisan support.

Perhaps we may be coming to the end of the human race.  I do not know.  No one does.  With climate change and our reliance on a technological infrastructure, it does seem we could be close to a complete meltdown.

This week, I was reminded of one of my favorite reggae tracks.  Willie Williams’ 1979 single “Armagideon Time” is a masterpiece.  The song is about injustice and rising up against oppressors in the final days; the perfect end times.  Williams sings about people not getting the justice they deserve, but praising Jehovah and fighting for what you want will bring you peace.

Reggae music at that time also had a habit of recycling backing tracks.  The backing track for “Armagideon Time” originated in a 1967 single by the Soul Vendors called “Real Rock.”  It can also be heard later in “Nice Up the Dance” by Papa Michigan and General Smiley.  I first heard the track as a cover by the Clash, but I’m partial to the original.  It sounds more authentic.

The theme is about overcoming struggles and I feel it is very relevant today.  In the U.S., there are people systemically oppressed by racist overseers that serve in the interest of those who line their pockets instead of their constituents.  The American public has lost faith in their leaders, so is it any wonder why we cling to easy promises of massive change?  The anger and frustration is more palpable now than ever before.  We could be on the first steps towards a revolution.  It isn’t enough to say you support an idea, but you have to fight for it as well.  Williams said the battle would get hotter but with faith, we will win.

“lotion” – greenskeepers (2004)

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I struggle with modern popular culture sometimes. Whenever I walk into a record store or comic shop, I’m surrounded by a lack of originality. Posters with Dr. Who characters stylized as Peanuts characters, t-shirts with Walt and Jesse emblazoned on the logo from a 90s Batman cartoon series, coffee mugs with Marvel characters wearing Mickey Mouse ears. It all seems so esoteric to be ironic. I think, “Great! If I know someone who loves both Star Wars and Full House, I can get them this stupid mousepad.” It feels like a series of failed experiments where two atomic elements are being smashed together in the hopes of creating a new and exciting element. I don’t feel that way. It all just feels cheap and bastardizes pop art.

I understand that our art is inspired by our predecessors and what inspires us, but I cannot help but think my generation is failing at this. I recently read Elvis Costello’s memoir and he explored his early processes making music. Essentially, he would try to imitate what inspired him. He would fail at mirroring it exactly, but would create something new entirely. That makes a lot of sense to me and exemplifies art as an evolutionary process. However, I don’t see evidence of that when my social media feed consists half a dozen listicles featuring Disney princesses imagined as characters from Firefly, Star Trek, etc.

“Lotion” from Chicago very own Greenskeepers breaks through the cultural bullshit as an example pop culture appropriation done well. “Lotion” is a darkly witty tribute to the Buffalo Bill, the villain from the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. The lead singer assumes the role of the murderous villain as he commands and serenades his victim. In the film, Buffalo Bill has kidnapped a woman and keeps her in a hole built in his basement. In order to fulfill his perverse fantasies, he demands the woman rubs on the lotion on her skin or else she will be subjected to punishment. All of this is foreplay leading to Buffalo Bill’s desired climax; wearing the woman’s skin and using her skull as a bowl.

The film is incredibly dark, but the Greenskeepers manager to create a tinge of humor. Through the dry first-person delivery of the lead vocals, the clapping, and the indie guitar rhythms, the scene from the film is presented in a fresh way. It doesn’t feel labored or like the band was trying hard to appeal to a particular audience. It is a sinister sounding and really cool song all on it’s own. While it drew influences from a very famous film, it doesn’t cheapen the source of the reimagined final product. The whole listening experience feels tireless and serves as a testament to the creativity of the Chicago music.

Perhaps this is me getting older and complaining about kids these days. It is just too easy for someone to play armchair critic to people they don’t understand. And that is it. I don’t understand who finds these tchotchkes and (obvious) cash grabs interesting. I just don’t understand. Until the day that I do, I can just sit in my rocker and reminisce about things used to be while complaining about kids these days.

 

“bowie” – flight of the conchords (2008)

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I’ve heard a rumor from ground control.

Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

Ashes to ashes.

David Bowie passed away on Sunday, January 10th, 2016. He had released his last studio album ★ (Blackstar) just two days prior. Since then, the world has mourned the loss of one of the most iconic figures in not only music, but popular culture. Tributes in the form of thoughtful works of art, singing candlelight vigils, and retrospective blogs each provided their own take on the influence Bowie had on their lives. Everyone grieves in their own way.

In my blog last week, I had posted an entry for Bowie. I knew since starting the blog that I had to do Bowie. I keep a long list of potentials songs to write about. And since I have a self-imposed rule of never repeating an artist, a smaller list of potential tracks from their respective discography. In the end, it all really depends on my mood. I bounced between several Bowie tracks from recent catalogue entries to long-standing favorites. I ultimately settled on the title track from his last album and published the entry on the day of the album’s release.

Each post is different. I could talk exclusively about the composition of the track from a technical standpoint, interpretations of the meaning behind the song, or a profile of the artist themselves from a historical or societal perspective. For my Bowie entry, I acted in rare form and opened myself up about my own personal experience with Bowie. He held a significant place in my heart and I felt that showing my vulnerability and personal feelings would be the best way. When I would normally analyze, I paid tribute instead. Little did I (or anyone) know he was near death. That made the experience of sharing my feelings all the more heartbreaking, but therapeutic.

I have a conflicting relationship with social media. For the most part, I feel it is the sound of people shouting into the darkness (I understand the irony/hypocrisy of my contributions to the noises within the void). When major events or sensationalist news stories appear, I typically avoid it. I would much rather see pictures of your kids, cats, and personal accomplishments. With Bowie’s passing, I refused to disconnect even for a moment. I wanted to share in the collective mourning and praise of a figure who possessed the power to unify people across generations and cultures. I loved reading people post stories about their discovery of Bowie, favorite albums, the privilege of witnessing him in concert, or touching artistic renderings they found online. I saw so many video clips and heard songs that were new or forgotten to me. It was like discovering Bowie all over again.

I contributed to the praise of Bowie and the first thing I posted was my refusal to accept he had passed away in the traditional sense. Bowie was always seen as an alien; something not completely human but still relatable in an indecipherable way. This image was cultivated over the decades by his unique facial features, iconic voice, complete secrecy of his private life, imagery within his songs, and a little dash of mischief. He lived up to his namesake so well that when I found out he died, I was stunned because I did not think I lived in a world where Bowie could die. I believed Bowie completed his mission on Earth and left us to continue his journey amongst the stars.

In 2008, the New Zealand folk duo Flight of the Conchords released their first studio album. Consisting of original tunes that parodied musical forms and satirized themes within our everyday lives, Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie proved to be quite adept at mastering a variety of styles. One of their signature tracks (which would later become an episode on their HBO show) is “Bowie,” a song about the enigmatic rock star chilling in deep space with Clement and McKenzie in awe. Busy with a schedule of jamming with the Mick Jaggernauts, orbiting Pluto, and being pulled by space’s Groovitational pull, Bowie effortlessly maintains his cool while Clement and McKenzie ask the Starman questions about life in space. Towards the end of the track, the signal starts to haywire a la the scene with Major Tom in “Space Oddity” as Bowie loses the transmission and is lost in space. Wherever he is now, I know it is not boring.

“Bowie” is a great track not only for it’s music video and witty lyrics, but Flight of the Conchords also manage to imitate different eras from Bowie’s discography. Stylistics moments reminiscing “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance,” and other classic Bowie tracks are experienced throughout the track. It is evident that Clement and McKenzie are true fans who excellently paid tribute to such an inspirational artist.

Bowie’s death and the news of his secret cancer diagnosis was shocking. As the world grieved, we still managed to share the love. I’ve been listening to his music all week while at work, home, and running errands. Last night, I even played vinyl copies of Hunky Dory and Let’s Dance at full volume while volunteering at the music school. There have been moments of pure elation, sadness, and introspection. It is all still foggy and confusing and hard to accept. But, there is one thing I do know. Now that Bowie has left us here on this floating ball lost within the vastness of space, I know his departure only signifies he truly belongs to the ages.

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

“blackstar” – david bowie (2015)

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Music is very important to me. Opening doors and teaching me lessons about humanity, music has been a gateway to new ideas and philosophies. It has comforted as well as challenged me. In moments where I can be completely centered, listening to music can be a transcendental experience.

Since I was a teenager, I set out to discover as much music as I could. Growing up on military bases, geographically isolated cities, and a rural farming community, I did not have a place where music was conveniently waiting for me. I had to find it. Through magazines and music shows, I had to read about the greats and the obscure. At the turn of the millennium before the digital revolution and the invention of the pocket oracle, whatever I could not find around me physically I had to bargain with friends to steal from primitive piracy sites. At the time, it was all very laborious. Especially when you consider how easy it is find anything now. Looking back, it all seems so quaint and perhaps a good outlet for my insatiable hunger for information and the arts. Better to be looking for music than looking for trouble.

You never know it at the time, but there are moments in life where you are changed completely. Someone or something is introduced to you and it feels as though you have shed an old skin; reborn naked into a screaming world of sound and vision. The moment I would start taking music seriously as something that can bring out the best (and worst) in one’s self is when I discovered David Bowie at the tender, and impressionable, age of 13.

Before 2000, I knew some music. I listened to pop radio for the ear candy and summer anthems. The late 90s brought the sounds of Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and one hit wonders like Fastball. Car trips and bus rides to school had these sounds coming over the radio. I know many millennials are nostalgic for 90s music for all their own reasons. The world always looks nicer through rose-colored glasses. While these songs satisfied our infant need for culture, it would soon be time to grow up.

Before the year 1 BB (Before Bowie), I listened to a lot of classic rock and pop bubblegum. I recall my first CD being the first entry of the Jock Jams compilation series and I loved listening to AC/DC and Van Halen on class rock radio. I liked hard-pounding R&B jams you could dance to and playing air guitar to songs like “Running with the Devil.” Music was fun. You didn’t need to think about it. There was no deep meaning. Just three-chord guitar riffs and loud drums.

Bowie was an awakening. Anything I had played in my room or CD Walkman before then didn’t matter anymore. So much so that I never listen to that music anymore. They don’t even carry over as remnants of a lost age or something to be nostalgic over. If anything like Van Halen were to come on the radio now, I would change it. The power of the Thin White Duke was that strong.

Bowie was almost like a secret treasure I wanted to hide. My mother had some albums, but this was before I would grow to appreciate the album as a work of art to be dissected or observe as a singular entity. It was all about the greatest hits compilations for me. I wanted my introduction to Bowie, or any other artist new to me at the time, to be a concise retrospective of their career. The appeal of cherry-picking between periods or styles was refreshing. She burned for me a two-disc compilation of singles that I played and played and played. For a brief period, I almost felt ashamed for enjoying this music. Were kids supposed to like this? I thought. Is this something people listen to? Does anyone know who David Bowie is?

At the time, music listening was a very personal experience. It was all so new and left me feeling very vulnerable to the cruel teasing and judgment of others. Bowie wasn’t on the new music or hip-hop charts; music that the cooler kids in my school were listening to. In the world of middle school cultural politics, you were defined by the culture you consumed. What you listened to had to be surface level and reflective of your own personal choices and style. It was all very superficial.

I loved going for long walks with my bulky CD Walkman. Listening to Bowie and walking down the street through the neighborhoods made me think I was on some great journey somewhere; not only was I progressing and moving forward mentally, but it reflected physically too.

Since Bowie, I have grown to adore certain artists and be a more discerning listener; to think critically about the meaning of the artist and the perceived meaning of the listener. While artists I have discovered since Bowie have resonated with me more, Bowie served as the source. The beginning. The Alpha to whatever will be my Omega should I grow tired of music or die.

With Bowie’s long and storied career, there are so many great tracks to choose from. “Life on Mars” with its beautiful melody was an education in songwriting and imagination. “Heroes” being an introduction to the avant-garde. “Rebel, Rebel” as the sexiest and most erotic thing a 13-year old boy could leave to his imagination.

When I discovered Bowie, Heathen and Reality were on their way but they would be under my radar until years later. Then, Bowie quit music for a decade. This seemed to further elevate him as something of a distant memory; a celestial being that is increasingly distancing himself from humanity. The world thought they had seen the end of a Bowie record until the 2013 release of The Next Day, an introspective and humbling record that still gets heavy rotation from me today.

Today is Bowie’s 69th birthday and also is the release date for his new studio album ★ (or Blackstar). In his most experimental album to date, Bowie brings together a fusion of jazz and alien rhythms that only he could master. I’m eagerly awaiting going to the record shop; a kind of shop that wasn’t available to me until my college days. I rarely buy new albums anymore. But when I do, I make it an event. And very few people are worthy of such things as Bowie.