“under the pressure” – the war on drugs (2014)

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I don’t watch a lot of television.  Between work, volunteer commitments, a social life, and other hobbies, I just don’t have the time.  I am supposedly living in a second Golden Age of Television, but I just haven’t paid attention to the shows that receive the most buzz.

However, there are a couple of shows that I follow and get really excited when they return with another season.  What I look for in a show is a blend of absurdist humor, wit, escapism, and starring protagonists with relatable issues overcoming real-world problems.  And with all that in mind, I stand behind Bojack Horseman as being the best television series currently running,

For those unfamiliar with Bojack Horseman, it is an animated show about a talking horse named Bojack who was the star of a family sitcom in the 1990s called Horsin’ Around where he played the adoptive father to three orphaned children.  Since the show’s cancellation, Bojack’s status as a celebrity faded and he has grown bitter, cynical, and developed substance abuse issues.  He is selfish, narrow-minded, and awful to people in his life.  As the series progresses, he experiences a resurgence in his career coupled with various emotional and professional setbacks.  During this, he faces is demons during a continuing existential crisis that hurts everyone who tries to help him.

Bojack Horseman premiered in August 2014.  It took me a few weeks before I caught in episode.  In August of that year, I was working through a devastating breakup and I spent that month packing out of my girlfriend’s apartment and finding a space for myself.  It was pretty world-shattering for me, so I didn’t focus on much else.

When I got to my new place, I took a few months for me to find my footing.  My whole life involved this person.  I had met them early on when I moved to Chicago, so we shared the same friends with many of them being her friends first.  On my own now, I only had two friends that I would still be able to see and spend time with post-breakup.

Not only that, I wasn’t making that much money and I worked all the time.  What little time I had outside of work was spent with my girlfriend, so I didn’t have hobbies of my own.  My biggest worry after I moved into my new apartment was “what am I going to do in my free time?”

It took months for me to make new friends and find new hobbies.  Eventually, reading would become a passion, I would take guitar lessons, and I would increase the amount of volunteering I would do.  However, I had to get through this rough transitional period.  So, I did something I would never do now.  I binged-watched.

The first few episodes of Bojack Horseman weren’t interesting to me at all.  If this was a show I discovered now or didn’t come to me during a rough patch where I had to rediscover myself, I would’ve just passed on it and never looked back.  A close friend of mine says that things come to you at the right moments.  And perhaps that’s why I started the show when I did.

Bojack Horseman deal with a lot of heavy subjects through a surrealist and absurdist lens.  And in many of these situations, Bojack has to face his past and confront difficulties that leave him guilt-ridden so many years later.  And, often, these are things he cannot change so matter how much he as changed.  The series covers topics such as the death of an abusive parent, infidelity, searching for an identity, substance abuse, and sexuality in ways that transcend the animals in the show and feel real and relatable to the viewer.

This show is heavy.  It makes me laugh, but also leaves me in a weird headspace that I find dark and uncomfortable.  I recently asked a friend who also watches the show if they experience the same thing and what they do about.  He laughed it off by saying the show leaves him in a negative space and drinks through it.  The themes and issues of the show are too real to me, so I try to practice mindfulness.  While the problems Bojack faces seem real and relatable, I don’t want the life Bojack has.

I finished the fifth season which recently made its way to Netflix.  Whenever I finish a season, it takes me a few days to process and work through the weird things that occupy my head.  Basically, I don’t feel that good and I have to tell myself that it is ok not to feel good sometimes.  I then evaluate the positive things in my life and what I can do t continue living well and be good to the people in my life.  After a few days, I get into a better mood and I’m left with a perspective that I’m a good person so matter what doubts may come to mind.

One great aspect of the show is the soundtrack.  Alternative and indie songs are used very effectively to convey a mood or elevate the scene.  In this latest season, “Under the Pressure” by The War on Drugs from their 2014 studio album Lost in The Dream is used beautifully and one of the best uses of soundtrack score in the series.

Bojack Horseman, considering the difficulty of the subject matter, is an absurd and very funny show.  The can be extremely dark, but there is a light-hearted honesty that makes the characters and their struggle somewhat endearing.  You want them to succeed in overcoming their demons.  And despite that I don’t watch much TV, I still stand by my declaration this is the best show currently running.

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“lincoln park pirates” – steve goodman (1972)

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Last week, the Illinois Commerce Commission voted to revoke the relocation towing license for Lincoln Towing Service.  To people outside of Chicago, that doesn’t sound like interesting news.  However, it really is.  Lincoln Towing, since its founding, has been a scourge on the city of Chicago for decades. Through questionable operational practices and even direct violence, the towing service has a nasty reputation.  Everyone has a story with Lincoln Towing.

Actions spearheaded by lawyers, alderman, and other city officials have been conducted to reign in the unruly towing service.  Chicago Daily News writer Mike Royko, since 1967, had written several articles about the founder of Lincoln Towing, Ross Cascio, claiming that “to intimidate those who objected, Cascio hung bats, blackjacks, chains and other pacifiers on his office wall. If a person tried to escape with his own car, Cascio’s men would dance on his chest.”

James Kargman, in his race for alderman in 1971, campaigned to “hit Cascio in the pocketbook—where it hurts.”  Kargman encouraged many businesses to cancel contracts with Lincoln Towing.  He inspired such ire against the towing service that after the campaign, 300 people attacked a Lincoln Towing employee who was removing a car from a lot.  That is how much they are hated.

As mentioned, everyone has a story about Lincoln Towing.  I even have one though I don’t own a car.  During the summer of 2015, I left my apartment to get some food.  At that time, I was living in Buena Park and I walked a half mile or so to Wrigleyville to get some pizza.  It was quiet because there weren’t any concerts or a Cubs game.  Either of which make the area hell.  So, I had planned to enjoy a quiet walk at night.

On my way back, I passed by an apartment building with a lot.  I saw that a tow truck had a car hitched to it.  And, sure enough, it was a Lincoln Towing truck. The driver was outside of his vehicle arguing with two women.  The driver’s partner was still inside the truck.

The tow driver was a big guy; tall and round.  He looked rather intimidating and someone who had a short fuse.  The car he was towing belonged to one of the women arguing with him.  Now, I’m sure that being a tow truck driver is not an easy profession and I’m sure drivers are met with lots of anger and aggression.  However, the women were considerably smaller than the driver and he threatened to beat the shit out the women (his words).

I was startled by that and knew that Lincoln Towing was a nasty business even though I didn’t have a car let alone a car towed by them.  I decided to take some video of the altercation because this was an example where an employee of Lincoln Towing was threatening physical violence against someone.  Granted, the woman was angry but she didn’t threaten the man.   I kept my distance at about 50 feet from the incident and just recorded without saying anything.

I recorded video for about thirty seconds before the driver’s partner in the truck noticed me and yelled for the driver.  The driver stopped arguing with the women and walked towards me.  As he walked towards me, he was yelling at me to mind my own fucking business.  I stopped the video and put my phone away.  After I did, he pushed me into the street.  There was a car heading my way and, fortunately, it swerved away from me just in time.

The driver got into his car as I was getting up and dialing the police.  HE blared his horn driving past me while I was on the phone.  I gave the police some details of the incident and was told someone would be by shortly.

After the call, I stayed with the women until the police came.  They were upset because they had some personal belongings in the back of the car that the driver refused to let them have.  They were sure that the items would be stolen or thrown away.

It took almost an hour for the police to come.  In the meantime, the guys from Lincoln Towing drove by us a few times and glaring.  They were trying to frighten us, but I was having none of that.  I started right back at them.

When the police came, they said there was nothing much they can do.  I did explain that I was pushed into the street and almost hit by a car.  However, they just shrugged it off since I had no injuries.

That’s my story with Lincoln Towing.  I know some people have had much worse experiences with them.  But, everyone has a story.

For his 1972 studio album Somebody Else’s Troubles, folk singer Steve Goodman wrote “Lincoln Park Pirates” lambasting Lincoln Towing.  Though the song was about a Chicago business, the themes were relevant elsewhere as well.  It is reported that that Chicago stations initially would not play the song for fear that Ross Cascio would sue them since Goodman named him in the song.

Good riddance to Lincoln Towing.  Though their license was revoked, a judge has recently said they can still operate pending further litigation.  Though, I hope this move from the ICC was the death knell for a shitty business.

“alaska & me” – john denver (1988)

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Alaska is home to countless wilderness trails of varying difficulties.  Regardless of your physical ability, there are a number of trails available to you if you’re looking to engage with nature in a respectful way.  If you’re looking to just stroll through a forest or brush, there are easy walking trails that are safe and well-groomed.  If you’re more adventurous, you can try to something rockier and with a higher elevation.  Or, if you’re an expert or stupidly brave, you can travel in unmarked areas and test your will against whatever Mother Nature can throw at you.  While I have no desire to blaze my own trails as a relative novice in such dangerous areas, I always look for a challenge.

Of the several trails and hikes I went on last week, one stood out over the rest.  Just outside of Anchorage is the Chugach State Park; a mountainous area with lots of trails for people looking to get out into the wilderness but not travel a long way to do so.  The drive from the city is only about 15 t0 20 minutes, but the change in terrain and scenery is quite significant.

I went to this area twice during my trip.  The first time was to climb Flattop Mountain.  Flattop is the most climbed mountain in the area and is one I’ve climbed several times.  The last time I did so was in 2010, so I felt a need to go back.  Flattop was my first hike of the trip and it is a great hike.  The path is groomed and some of the steeper parts have wooden beams to help with the climb and stabilization.  Also, there is always someone close by on the trail.  It is not a difficult climb, but it isn’t easy either.

The day after climbing Flattop, I spent some time in a flatter and more forested area outside Anchorage in a town called Girdwood.  Those kinds of hikes through the woods offer a different kind of experience.  While both hiking on a mountain and through a forest can offer meditative experiences, you have a different frame of mind.  Walking through this area was a nice refresher after climbing Flattop; my first mountain in eight years.  However, the next day, I wanted to really test my limits.

I went back to the Glen Alps Trailhead of the Chugach State Park.  Instead of the path taking me to Flattop, I took a different path that took me down into the valley.  My goal was to reach the summit of O’Malley Peak.   O’Malley Peak is the tallest mountain in the area and just across the valley from Flattop.  To get there, you must walk through a brushy area, scale the slope of the first ridge, walk across a relatively flat but rocky bowl, and then start ascending the base of the peak to the summit.

I was travelling at a time where I wouldn’t see many people.  Since it was off season for tourists and during work week, I was guaranteed to be one of the few people out hiking.  Also, O’Malley Peak is harder than Flattop and, therefore, not climbed as much.  It was a guarantee that I would only see a handful of people the entire time I was out there.

The brushy area is the first part and is bear country.  Signs at the beginning of the trail warn you of this and offer guidance on what to do if you encounter a bear.  Again, I’m not an expert.  I should’ve been equipped with bear mace or a gun.  I had neither.  It was just me and some snacks (I guess you could count me as a snack too).  If I couldn’t defend myself from a bear attack, the best I could do was prevent one.

In order to prevent an attack, you warn the bears that you’re coming through.  Bears don’t like surprises, so warning them early with noise is essential.  Some people hike with dogs with jingle belles strapped to their collar.  If you’re like me and don’t have a dog, you make noises by clapping and talking loudly.  In this part of the trail, you’re walking through brush with very little visibility so bears and moose can easily blend in.  However, this part of the trail is beautiful.  It is very green with a beautiful creek running through it.

When you get to the base of the ridge, things become a little harder.  You’re official out of the brush, though there might be some patches here or there.  However, you have a lot more visibility.  The challenge now is to climb a slop that is more than a 45-degree angle and slick with mud and loose rub (known as scree).  Due to the elevation rate, it is already a strenuous activity.  But footing is really important if you don’t want to fall. One unlucky or not well-thought out step and you could fall and injure yourself.  And while there is a discernible trail from hikers before you, there aren’t any installed wooden beams to flatten the terrain or stabilize it.  It is all natural.

Once you successfully have climbed the slop over the ridge line, you have made it to the part of the trail known as the Ballfield.  The Ballfield is a relatively flat (not really flat but is compared to what you just hiked) bowl with rocks and tundra soil.  While the terrain is rocky, it is a nice break.  Also, there are no trees or brush, so your visibility is much greater.  It is also very quiet.

After hiking for about 45 minutes across the Ballfield, you make it to the base of O’Malley Peak.  This is where the rocks start rising from the land.  This is where you quit hiking and start scrambling; hiking involving a lot of use of your hands for stabilization.  This is also the most dangerous part of the hike since the peak is ridged.  Two steps in either direction and you fall to your death.  Footing, hand placement, and concentration are absolutely important.

I ascended the peak for about 30 minutes before I stopped and took a break.  I sat and leaned against a rock and just looked at the valley below me.  The expansiveness is beyond words and no pictures do it justice.  I don’t know how long I sat there, but I looked at the next mountain ridge and valley lakes for a long time.

To be clear, I was alone during these hikes.  And, as mentioned, I didn’t see many people.  In fact, I had been hiking for over two hours at this point and had only seen two people so far.  I didn’t have noise from other humans to distract me, so I was truly alone with my thoughts.

Hiking alone is not for everyone.  For starters, it isn’t the safest thing to do.  The “buddy system” saves lives.  However, hiking with friends can be distracting and I wanted to avoid distractions.  I wanted to be alone with my thoughts and focus as intently as possible at the environment around me and allow myself to be overwhelmed by the experience.  Many people are uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts.  I know I used to be.  However, I worked through those things and now I can be alone with my thoughts be OK.

Exercising your ability to be alone with your thoughts is absolutely important to personal development.  And I know it isn’t easy.  The reason why people don’t work towards that ability is that are afraid of what they will think of and I can understand the hesitation.  Bad thoughts have happened, do happen, and will continue to happen.  No matter how skilled you are in mindfulness and living in the present, bad thoughts happen.  It is an important part of self-thought and self-reflection.  The key is to develop and carry the right tools with you to handle those thoughts.  If you’re reflecting on life and something bad pops up, you can strengthen your ability to swat that bad thought away like a fly.

I won’t share everything I think about, but I will share the most important thing.  While I was sitting on that ridge, I felt insignificant and small.  And I don’t consider that bad all.  I hate it when I hear Mother Nature described as cruel or any other descriptor that suggests the concept of nature has an investment in your well-being.  Guess what.  It doesn’t.  Mother Nature is indifferent to your success, failures, happiness, and problems.  No matter what you say, think, or do, Mother Nature will continue.  They key to surviving it is to respect it.  If you walk into a situation thinking you’re better than Mother Nature and can overcome it, you will die.  You will die, be forgotten, and decay back into the Earth like every living being that came before you and will arrive after you.

I was not troubled by these thoughts.  In the grand scheme of things, I am insignificant.  That is not to say I am void of meaning.  I have meaning to myself and to the people who love and care about me.  But those worlds are much smaller than the one I was sitting in at that moment.  Where I was at that time sitting in the shadow of a mountain over a steep valley, I had no value there.  I was a visitor; neither welcomed or unwelcomed.  I was allowed to be there on the condition I respect the land.  If I didn’t, I would die.

To be in a situation like that and feel so very small, it is a humbling feeling.  It puts your life into perspective.  Every problem or issue you think you have suddenly doesn’t matter.  It is a strong mental refresh that reframes your thinking.  The key is to remember that lesson.  You may not always consciously act on it or apply its value, but that is fine.  Things do happen and you cannot help how you feel.  However, you can help how you react.  This is what I mean about having the right tools to deal with unfortunate situations.

Being in that frame of mind is not easy.  It takes hard work, but the effort is worth it.  If you’re the kind of person who always needs people or other things to distract you from diving into your own mind and confronting your thoughts, this is something you need to do develop if you want to become a stronger and more well-rounded person.  Though I’ve made a lot of progress over the years, I still have work to do.  Even the most mindful and enlightened of us still have work to do.  It is a journey that doesn’t end until death.  You will never stop facing problems in your life, but you can stop being overpowered by them.

While I scaled Flattop, I didn’t reach the summit of O’Malley Peak.  I had probably another 30 to 45 minutes of scrambling and I had the physical ability to do it.  However, reality set it.  I was hiking alone and I hadn’t seen anyone for almost two hours.  While I’m confident that I could’ve scaled O’Malley, I still had to respect Mother Nature.  It didn’t feel right to continue, so I turned backed.  I have no issue with not reaching the summit.  I made it further than most people could’ve on what was a rather difficult hike.  However, the trip wasn’t without purpose.  I was shown something I was meant to see; both with my eyes and with my mind.  And that something extremely valuable.

Thirty years ago this month, John Denver released his 20th studio album Higher Ground.  Closing the album is the song “Alaska & Me.”  In the song, Denver dreams of Alaska and flying over mountains and glaciers.  He toasts the people who are wild and free and wishes that his children can gaze at the northern lights.  It is his chosen country.

I struggled to find the right song to fit this narrative.  I thought of perhaps two dozen songs to highlight, but none seemed to fit the way I want them to.  Perhaps I could’ve gone with a different narrative.  However, I didn’t want to.   I wanted to talk about this experience I had hiking a mountain.  And with this being a weekly blog, not every post is going to be a winner.  Just like how I cannot climb every mountain, not every song will be perfect.  And that is fine.

“(i can’t get no) satisfaction [booji boy version]” – devo (1977)

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Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Devo’s debut studio album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!  Produced over the fall of 1977 through early 1978 by Brian Eno, the album was initially met with mixed reviews.  Famously, Tom Carson of Rolling Stone wrote about the album “there’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere, and the only commitment is the distancing aesthetic of the put-on.”  Over the years, the album would eventually receive the acclaim and recognition it deserved and is considered not only Devo’s best album, but one of the greatest albums of all time.

While there are a lot of great tracks from the album, I want to specifically highlight their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for the purpose of this blog.  This oddball cover that abandoned the original’s signature guitar riff and melody represents the right way to approach a cover and served as the gateway for audiences to discover the surrealist and satirical art collective from Akron.

Prior to the release of their debut studio album, Devo released a self-produced version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on their own label Booji Boy Records.  In 1977, a tape of Devo demo songs was sent to David Bowie and Iggy Pop.  Both rockers expressed interest in producing Devo’s first album, but it was ultimately Brian Eno that landed the role and the band flew to Cologne to record.

The recording sessions were contentious for both Eno and Devo.  Devo were very resistant to Eno’s ideas which led to Eno being frustrated with their unwillingness to deviate from the style of their demos.  Very little of the added synths and sound effects were used for the final release.

The album nearly contained completely original material written chiefly by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale with additional support from Gary Jackett and Bob Mothersbaugh, but the only exception was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.  For whatever purpose they deemed necessary, that song had to make the cut.

Normally, covering songs typically results in the band covering the song to pay royalties to the original performers or writers.  Ray Padgett succinctly explains the process of how bands cover songs in the opening chapter of his book Cover Me; The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time.  If the song is a straight cover, then the solution is simple if the band can afford to pay the royalties.  Things become more complex if words and music are changed.  However, Devo didn’t change too much of the song to not be considered a proper cover (unlike their cover of “Secret Agent Man” which changes the verses to reflect new lyrics).  Warner Brothers felt the song was just too odd and they deemed it necessary to receive Mick Jagger’s blessing before including it on the album.

In 1978, Mark and Gerald met with Peter Rudge, the manager of the Rolling Stones, in his Manhattan office.  Jagger was present and looked disinterested in the meeting and like he had just woken up.  The tape of the song was played and all eyes were on Jagger.  For roughly thirty seconds, Jagger sat stone-faced and didn’t seem to be responding to the song.  Then, suddenly, he gets up and starts dancing on the rug doing his typical rooster strut.

The story behind their cover is quite fascinating.  Mark and Gerald were fans of the Rolling Stones and tinkered with several songs during the early stages of Devo prior to the release of their first album.  The band couldn’t quite sync other Rolling Stones songs with their jerky rhythms, but they eventually started working with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and found it to be the song that best fit with what they were trying to accomplish which was not to cover it but, in their words, correct it.

Despite all the work it took to develop the song to meet Devo’s standards, they still had to get through that major hoop of getting Jagger’s approval.  Again, cover songs don’t need anyone’s approval as long as you pay the proper royalties and don’t change the words.  However, for whatever reason, Warner deemed it necessary to get approval which created the possibility that the song could’ve been refused by Jagger and dropped from the album.

Good thing it didn’t because it became a boon for the band.  They performed the song live on Saturday Night Live in 1978 in a performance that would be many people’s first introduction to the band.  I have friends who were old enough to see the performance when it ran live.  They often describe seeing that performance and knowing that music and their lives would never be the same.

Three years later, MTV would launch the music video would garner new interest in the band due to the increasing visibility with audiences.  Being an art collective, they understood the creative potential blending music and visuals to create a unique spectacle that made an impactful statement.  It can be considered that their early music videos helped MTV thrive.  While their television breakthrough had already happened, they managed to utilize MTV to keep people interested and watching.

The history of the song and the band’s exposure on Saturday Night Live and MTV with their respective gateways to home audiences was important, but it cannot be forgotten that the band made really great music.  However, the music was weird by the standards of most people at that time.  I have difficulty believing that Devo would’ve connected with the television audience if they played “Jocko Homo” over “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”  Creating a spin on a well-known hit was, in my opinion, the key to connecting with the audience.  Plant the seed with something recognizable, though different, and go from there.

Devo’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” does what cover song should do.   Cover songs should not be faithful renditions of the original.  You must add your own style and flare.  An example of a song that is the opposite of what a good cover song should be would be Roxy Music’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.”  The song is such a straight carbon copy of the original that Bryan Ferry even included the whistle that Lennon improvised during the recording.  As a result, Roxy Music delivers a cover that is boring, unimaginative, and creates no motivation for casual listeners who are not hardcore Roxy Music fans to listen.  They can just listen to Lennon’s original.

Think of the truly great cover songs that everyone knows.  These would include Jim Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” or the Beatles’ version of the Top Notes’ “Twist and Shout.”  All those songs add personal creative touches that elevate them.  So much so that they no longer belong to the original performer in the popular consciousness.  They were taken, improved, and given new life.  That isn’t to say that Devo’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is superior to the Rolling Stones’ original.  IT is not because the original is a masterpiece on its own, but not every cover has to have the responsibility of elevating the original.  All a good cover must do is serve as a reinvention and reflection of the performer covering the song thus giving it new direction and creating something that newer and younger audiences can grasp onto and explore the source material that would otherwise be forgotten.

I’m featuring the original version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for this blog.  Though it was released a year prior to the album version, they sound very similar.  Devo had a complete and consistent vision with where they wanted to go with their music and they stuck to their principles.  And by doing that, they would eventually get some satisfaction.