“what will the new year bring?” – donna fargo (1975)

r-2259714-1308056021-jpeg

Everyone just seems so tired with 2016.  Between the seemingly endless celebrity deaths, the surprising election results, and personal strife, the past year has earned a disdainful spot in the hearts and minds of a lot of people who are just wanting to move on with their lives.  My social media feed is filled with posts demanding that 2017 be better or behave as if it is some sort of conscious entity that can be controlled.  However, that’s not the truth.  Time is indifferent.

People are exhausted and worried.  And I understand why.  While a new year holds uncertainty, we all want it to be better than the last year.  If you happen to believe all of the editorials and social media posts about what a terrible year was 2016 was, it is easy to become a part of the disillusionment.  And when that happens, people cling desperately to any hope they may have left.  So, something as symbolic as a calendar changing years overnight means so much.  Our society places so much importance in the concept of a fresh start that we seem to think we can relegate the abstract concept of time to fit within our rules.  However, that’s not possible.  I think it was some Irish prophet who said “nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”

I won’t say that people’s worries are unfounded.  The inauguration on January 20th seems to be the specter hanging over the beginning of 2017 and fueling a lot of the worry I am witnessing.  I’m no different.  I am concerned too.  But, that’s a real event with real world consequences.  I think what has become tiresome about the talk of 2016 being so bad concerns the endless posts and articles about celebrity deaths.  If that is your criteria of what makes a year so terrible, you need to redefine your priorities.   Surely, we lost a lot of great people.  And we will never forget them and the influence they have had on our lives.  But, they’re dead and they cannot do anything for us now.

Each year has it’s own ups and downs and 2016 is no exception.  Over the course of every year, there are moments where humanity shines through, moments where darkness settles, and moments where we just don’t know what will happen.  We cannot control what happens over the course of 365 days, but we can choose how we react to it.  If you want to think this year was terrible because of a few celebrity deaths, then do it.  However, that is one small aspect that makes up the complicated fabric of time that we confine to a certain length.  For all those bad things where we place that meaning, there are a lot of great things that happened as well.  As for me, I don’t want to walk into 2017 already afraid of what may or may not happen.  We’re stronger than that as a society.

Acknowledging that life can go in all sorts of directions is important to getting through rough periods.  Put any bad moments in the context that things will get better and you’ll appreciate the good moments more.  And, of course, there will be more dark times.  But you will get through them.  None of knows what will happen.

That is why I love the song “What Will the New Year Bring” by Donna Fargo.  A bit more optimistic than other New Year’s anthems like “New Year’s Day” by U2, Fargo’s sweet country western tune is about having faith that you can survive during times of uncertainty and darkness as long as you have hope to stick together.  There is something so simple to that and it gives me hope.  It is when you start to overthink about what could go wrong, you quit thinking about what is going right and how you can use that when times are bad.

In Fargo’s song, she knows that you must put things in perspective.  The past year was good for her, but the year before was a little rough.  But, that is old news.  What about this new year?  Will it bring us love and joy? Probably.  Will there be more growing pains to add to the ones already weathered? Likely.  That’s just what happens over the course of a year.  You must take the bad with good.

Fargo doesn’t know what the new year will bring, but she still seeks out the positive outcomes.  Though she is asking the question whether her or not her partner will continue to love her the way they do, they key is the way she is thinking.  Frame the uncertainty from a more positive perspective.  All things will end.  Whether it is a marriage, a friendship, or a life, all things must pass.  But why worry?  There’s no use.  Fargo asks if her partner will only love her for a year or two or perhaps even four or five or six hundred years or more.  None of them knows the answer, but they still celebrate the New Year and whatever is in store.

2017 will be no different than 2016.  2017 will be better in some ways, and worse in other ways.  That’s a fact.  But we can get through this.  Let’s not get distracted by celebrity deaths or what’s trending on social media.  Let’s continue to work together to make sure the next year was better than the last.  And if not, then let’s not lose hope and try again.  With love for our friends and neighbors, we can make the impossible possible and the world shine brighter.

“poor old rudolph” – the bellrays (2001)

r-7794269-1448905897-5806-jpeg

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who abhor holiday music and those who adore holiday music.  As for me, I’m jamming to Christmas music daily after Thanksgiving until the fat man takes flight in his sleigh.  Christmas is just a musical time.  Everyone is so cheerful and the cold means I’m staying inside more, so I need some hot tunes to get me in to the holiday spirit.

A lot of people don’t like Christmas music and it isn’t hard to understand why.  The soft rock stations that change their format for the season and the malls and supermarkets that pipe in holiday tunes all play the same old standards we hear year in and year out know by heart.  They stick to the classics and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Those songs have resonated for generations and that’s why they’re classics.  And though they only come out for a few weeks towards the end of the year, those universally beloved tunes do become stale.  Whether it is the traditional Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and Burl Ives, or even the more modern stylings of Paul McCartney, Wham, and Bruce Springsteen, their songs are always in heavy rotation with no room for newcomers.

It takes time for a Christmas classis to earn that distinction.  When Springsteen covered “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with the E Street Band for the first time, who knew it would be the definitive version?  And who would have ever guessed that McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” would sit in the pantheon of great Christmas songs?  You can’t really know.

To those who are tired of Christmas songs, I say to them they just are not adventurous enough to seek fresh and new Christmas songs. Their criticism is that what we hear on the radio is stale and there are modern songs that don’t get the same airplay.  Fair point.  But that stuff takes time.  Give it a few decades and the more stale and dust-covered classics will be retired and make room for the new class.

As for what we consider classics now, they’re the just the ones who got noticed.  For every Christmas classic we can name now, there are 100 that are lost in the cracks of music history.  That is where I like to look.  I get so excited at this time of year to dust off the more obscure Christmas songs or even discover ones that are new to me.  There are fun, fresh songs are there dying to be heard and help you get into the Christmas spirit.  Feeling like a Grinch because of the tacky songs you hear in line waiting for the mall Santa?  Well, do something about it.  Find the Christmas music that excites you.

I have a few trusted places I go to find obscure Christmas songs. There are whole blogs and radio programs that surface this time of year just to deliver you some new music to excite you and show off to guests at your Christmas bash.  Before I found those great sources, I had to take what I could get.  While in high school, Bob Dylan had a satellite radio show that ran for three seasons on XM.  Theme Time Radio Hour was a program where Dylan would play a curated playlist based on a theme for that episode.  Episodes includes songs about shoes, Tennessee, coffee, and weather.  It was during his Christmas/New Year’s show that I first heard “Poor Old Rudolph” by the Bellrays.

I had never heard of the Bellrays before.  And frankly, I haven’t heard anything of theirs since (but I should and will).  I just know this one Christmas song.  I eventually dug around to learn more, but there isn’t a lot.  The Bellrays, fronted by Lisa Kekaula, is a garage bands based of Riverside, California that incorporate punk and soul influences in their music.  And they’ve been doing it for over 25 years!  Impressive for a garage band with minimal exposure.

“Poor Old Rudolph” was one of several contributions by the Bellrays to a Christmas compilation album issued by Vital Gesture Records in 2001 called A Vital Gesture Xmas Vol. 1 (there has not been a second volume in following 15 years).   With other contributions such as “Fuck Christmas,” “Back Door Santa,” and “Rocket Ship Santa,” It’s a shame there was never a follow-up.

“Poor Old Rudolph” has become one of my favorite Christmas songs.  It’s a raw-recorded jazzy number about the classic red-nosed reindeer living his days as a playboy since becoming famous.  It’s a warning from Kekaula about how his wandering will only bring him blue Christmases when his playboy days are over and he has no one left.  Rudolph could’ve had a simple life with a family, but he had to go for all the girls and Kekaula cautions the listener that there ain’t no use in runnin’ if you’ve got nowhere to go.

It is a fun take on a classic Christmas character that is fun, exciting, and not obnoxious like most parodies about the character.  Not only that, but it gives people who are tired of the original Christmas song a chance to appreciate the character again through this new song.  There is a lot of great Christmas music out there.  A lot of good music.  So when people tell me hate Christmas music, I don’t really listen because I know they haven’t explored the genre much.  Plus, don’t be a Grinch.  Let people enjoy the holidays with the jingle jangle Christmas tunes they do like.

“metamorphosis two” – philip glass (1989)

r-553039-1194017969-jpeg

Music is something I love very much, but there also times where I can become utterly bored by it.  In the Internet age, there is so much music available to us.  We have the ability to access anything at anytime and anywhere.  It is quite remarkable really.  With all of the world’s resources and information a few keystrokes away, you would think there could be no conception of boredom again.  In reality, not so much.

Our society suffers from the freedom of too much choice.  In Ben Ratliff’s book (which I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog), Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, he addresses this dilemma.  You would think that unlimited choice would motivate a listen to explore more, but it actually does the opposite.  It only reinforces the listener’s habitual music listening trends.  They become less susceptible to discovering new music.  They know what they like and they can instantly access it whenever they want.

Summer 2014, I was getting bored by the music I was listening to.  I am pretty adventurous when it comes to the music I consume, but I do have my preferences.  I listen to a lot of soul, punk, post-punk, new wave, alternative rock, and other subgenres stemming from western pop/rock/soul music.  I love this music.  This bothered me.  Dismayed, confused, and seeking answers, I vocalized my increasing boredom on social media.  A close friend joked that I should listen to Gregorian chants and others felt I was being pretentious; a typical recyclable comment completely devoid of substance that contributes nothing. I didn’t get much support in terms of recommending music outside of my immediate comfort zone and I started to think about our culture’s music consumption.

Music lovers take pride in the music the consume.  We all do.  However, there seems to be this myopic viewpoint that the pinnacle of musical achievement is inherently Western (specifically American and English) and blues/country in origin (most derivatives of modern popular music stem from those).  Look at any music publication listing their picks of the best albums of all time.  You’ll find that the overwhelmingly majority fit within those categories.  And if you listened to anything other like jazz, you’re regarded as kind of a freak and an outcast whose fringe tastes are out of touch with society.  Even think about the term “world music.”  I cannot think of a more unrepresentative and unimaginative name than that.  We have dozes of names for every facet of popular music, but the rest gets denigrated to “world music” as if music fans view it as a clear-cut case of “us and them.”  It fascinates me to hear music fans talk about how much they love music and then recite a few subgenres that are not really that different from each other barring minor aesthetic differences.

I’ve come to terms with my music boredom.  It comes in waves.  When I find myself tired of my favorite artists, I make an effort to expand and cleanse the palate.  Artists like Sun Ra, Ray Lynch, Miles Davis, and Jocelyn Pook have all helped me to break away from the monotony and I’m thankful for them.  It is my goal to hear as much as I can and to learn about them as much as I can, but it takes time.  They have whole groups of fans who have been listening for years.  I am merely an outside looking in.  However, above all of them, the artist that I return to the most during these times is the inimitable Philip Glass.

My first exposure to Glass was through my university’s library.  They had a pretty small CD collection.  Even my regional library in Chicago surpassed theirs.  So, I got through albums fairly quickly.  In 2008, my junior year, I came across Music in Twelve Parts, a three-disc collection featuring twelve parts of a larger composition.  I loved this album.  It was dynamic and complex.  I would listen while walking, studying, or just to listen to.

Glass has composed and records hundreds of compositions.  His natural gift is astounding and he has played music all his life.  It was incredibly fascinating to think that he could pursue and succeed at his craft because he was essentially born to do it.  You would have better luck winning the lottery.

Last month, I had the privilege to see Glass perform some solo piano compositions at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.  He played four complete compositions for just a little over an hour.  One of the pieces he played was “Metamorphosis,” a composition released in 1989 on Solo Piano and inspired by Franz Kafka’s 1915 short story.  “Metamorphosis” is a hauntingly beautiful piece with five parts.  Glass is known for her calculated repetition and there is plenty of that in this composition as well as moments of complex dynamic changes that almost seem inhuman to play.

While “Metamorphosis” is meant to be enjoyed in it’s entirety, each of the five parts have their own distinctive qualities that are okay to enjoy as singular entities.  It is the second part I find the most fascinating.  The way Glass’ fingers flutter across the keys at such a concentrated and controlled speed is breathtaking.  You’re listening closely to hear his patterns until these moments of bliss break through and startle you with an excitement and fervor that makes you glad to be alive.

Admittedly, there is no way I am doing Glass justice at all.  I simply cannot.  I’ve only been listening for a few years and I am not knowledgeable in music composition where I can adequately break the piece down.  I do not know how it is made.  And there is beauty in that.  I don’t have to think.  I am a stranger in this land.  I have no knowledge of the customs or traditions.  All I know is the energy and life I am sensing around me.  We may not be able to speak the same language, but we can at least feel the same.

Glass is someone I need to listen to more.  To distinguish him as something as insulting as a “palate cleanser” is just wrong.  He is so much more than that.  But, I am a man of varied tastes.  I want to hear and experience as much as I can.  I also want to enjoy the things that I love.  I know what I like and I want to hear more of it.  Everyone is like that.  That is where we get our joy, but you can still respect and find joy in a form you cannot understand.  I want my musical world to be bigger and I want that for everyone else as well.  Let’s get people to understand that there is more out there than what we hear on the radio, in television commercials, or in movies.  Let’s quit thinking that the best our culture must offer comes from what is immediately around and instantly familiar.  The world is much bigger than that.

“you’ll be back” – jonathan groff (2015)

r-7640983-1445734288-9020-jpegFor a couple of years, I didn’t really celebrate my birthday.  At random points, I would go out with a girlfriend or a friend to dinner. Not every year.  Though, when I did, it was typically a quiet affair.  I decided to change that last year.  I invited close to a dozen friends to eat at Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago.  Not only that, I carried out a little letter writing campaign where I asked them to send me a letter and I would reply.  I got quite a few letters which was nice and it was fun to engage in a hobby that is hardly practiced anymore.  It made me feel more connected because it takes time, energy, and thought to write a letter.

This year, I wanted to do something different.  I still went to dinner with a few friends.  The Sunday before my birthday, we went to Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then had amazing burgers at Kuma’s Too.  It was a great night.  But, that was a precursor to a much more exclusive plan for how I was spending my actual birthday.  I was going to go to the biggest event on the planet; Hamilton.

Hamilton became a monumental success that I don’t think anyone anticipated.  First, it was the story of one of America’s founding fathers that history has largely ignored though we benefit from his tireless contributions to our country.  Second, the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, only had only created one show prior.  Third, Miranda took historical figures who were white and cast Hispanic and black actors instead.  Fourth, most of the music contained hip-hop influence and even a couple of rap battles. And finally, the musical has plays on the fact Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies and feature strong themes about the contributions immigrants have made to America.  Given the current political climate including the rise of racial problems, white supremacy, and right-wing nationalism, those are all very bold directions.  But given that this show was about a founding father many were not very knowledgeable about, that’s the in.  Miranda couldn’t have done this show about someone more historically precious like Abraham Lincoln.

Tickets went on sale in June and I got a pair with relative ease.  Friends and coworkers were either complaining that they couldn’t get tickets or had to wait hours. I considered myself lucky that I was able to get two to such a hot show. And it was nice that I got them for my birthday which was completely my goal. I had told a friend prior that if I were to get tickets, then I would take her.  She didn’t think I would get them, so imagine her surprise when she found out.

For the most part, I had actually forgotten about the show.  When you buy tickets to a show six months in advance, you don’t think about it.  It just seems so far away and as if it will always be that way.  Of course, I went through the rush when I actually confirmed the tickets.  But, that went away shortly and I didn’t get excited again until the day of the show.

When my birthday came, my social media feed was blowing up with people wishing me a happy birthday.  I got calls and texts. It was all very nice.  Work had ended early for me because I went to a holiday party.  After, I grabbed a cab to meet my friend at a famous Chicago restaurant.  There were some issues with seating us, so we just left and toured the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza.  I was treated to a bratwurst and we walked around and looked at chocolates and ornaments.  Frankly, it was more my style than the restaurant.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.  After, we walked to the theatre and anxiously waited for the show.

I purposefully remained a little distant from Hamilton in the months leading up to when I could see the show.  I heard one or two songs, but I avoided listening to the soundtrack.  I didn’t watch any of the specials or documentaries.  And I didn’t ‘t read about the performances.  I did talk with people who saw the show.  While they shared some highlights with me, they were sure not to spoil anything major.

In short, the show was the best musical I had ever seen.  I even cried a little which I had never done at a musical before.  The reaction I had was incredibly strong.  I was a little concerned about the hype.  I was thinking, there’s no way this show is THAT good.  It can be that good and it was.

I won’t go into too much detail about the show.  I don’t want to spoil anything for people.  All the songs were great and many of them are still stuck in my head.  However, one song keeps coming up more than the others.  King George III, portrayed by Jonathan Groff, performed three songs with just himself on the stage.  However, it was his first performance, ”You’ll Be Back,” that I’ve been listening to more than the other songs.  Frankly, it isn’t even the best song on the soundtrack.  But the song and his performance has a lot of symbolism that is clever and poignant.

The representation of King George III was quite interesting.  We all know the story of the American Revolution.  George III, in the musical, treats it as a spat with a former lover.  He tells the colonies that they’ll be crawling back to him.  That it is hard to run a country.  That he loves them so much.   It is all playfully done and quite clever because it isn’t so much as a song about ex-lovers as a delusion of grandeur on George’s part with not so thinly veiled threats behind his declarations of love.  He is the abusive partner in the relationship.  You will come back because if you don’t, he’ll send a heavily armed battalion to murder your loved ones.  That is how he shows he cares and is worthy of your praise.

Beyond how the character of George III is portrayed, there is deeper symbolism present. Groff, a member of the original Broadway cast, is the only white performer who sings.  That might not seem like it means much at first, but take a closer look.  Broadway and musical theatre has typically been a white person’s game.  Groff’s role represents the old way of doing Broadway; the traditional way.  Miranda’s stylistic choice to cast Hispanic and black actors for the other roles symbolizes the new way; the changing of the guard.  Miranda is saying the face of Broadway is changing.  George III represented an urge to resist change; an urge that many theater goers feel as they become accustomed to the how Broadway is evolving.

Musically, Groff’s songs as King George III also represent the old Broadway traditions.  It is completely obvious how stylistically different his numbers are compared to the rest of the show.  While the rest of the show features hip-hop performances, soul solos, and rap battles, Groff’s performances recall the old days of show tunes.  It has a 60s British pop flare with an arrangement that is reminiscent of bands from that era like Herman’s Hermits or Gerry & the Pacemakers.  This character, in the portrayal and the performance, has deep roots that serve as the perfect antithesis to the new wave that Miranda is unveiling with Hamilton and the rest of the American Revolution heroes.

What makes this so incredibly intriguing is that all of this is done considering how little stage time Groff has.  Three songs.  Less than nine minutes.  No interactions with other singers.  His physical presence is as minimal as a supporting character can be, but his contributions are immense.

As I said earlier, Hamilton is full of amazing songs.  There is hardly a weak point in the entire soundtrack. Certain songs may call to you at certain times.  I definitely have my favorites because of the ideas and messages they represent.  Plus, they’re catchy as hell.  However, “You’ll Be Back” serves as a palate cleanser that is well-thought out in it’s execution, delivery, and underlying meaning.  As soon as you get an opportunity to see Hamilton, take it.