“i am a tree” – guided by voices (1997)

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Despite the threat of rain over the weekend, there was an opportunity for me to get out into nature and enjoy the lingering joys of late summer. Late summer is a great time. Despite hints of fall’s arrival, it is still very much warm, and I get to still do all the summery things that I like to do.  While the beginning of summer gives me some anxiety about the best way to use my time after a long winter, I have a deep feeling of satisfaction at the end of summer because I feel like I have accomplished everything I wanted in the sunshine and then some. It is a time where I san still appreciate the gifts of summer, but I am ready to move on.

Though today is the fall equinox, it is still a bit on the warmer side for me to consider the weather autumnal.  So, in my mind, it is not quite fall. And since I do not consider it fall yet, I still seek opportunities to have summer fun.  And this past weekend was a great way for me to say goodbye to summer.

A friend picked me up in his car and we drove out to the Skokie lagoons to walk the trails there.  Though there was the satisfying crunch of leaves beneath our shoes and the hints of auburn in the trees, this was still an embrace and appreciation of summer.  We smelled the flowers, watched the wind rustling through the trees, and observed the deer and geese drink from the water.  Tranquil and wonderful.

After we walked several of the trails in the lagoon, we headed to the Chicago Botanical Garden and enjoyed the prairies lands by the water.  Sitting on a bench, we talked about life; goals, interests, hopes, and concerns. After some time talking about such things, we just watched the water in quiet reflection.

During the few hours we spent walking around the lagoons, we spent periods of time in reflection we referred to as “nature walks.” During this time, we would be quiet, walk, and try being more present; letting go of the things in the human world that bring us down.

On one of these nature walks, we both stopped by a tree.  For some reason, I wanted to touch it. When I rest my hand on the bark, there was a soft warmness that was soothing. After a few minutes, we left the tree.  Breaking the silence of the nature walk, I said to my friend “the tree was warm.”  In response, he told me to think about what that meant and then we walked together in silence until we got back to the car.

During that time, I did think about the tree’s warmth. Not just what the warmth may have represented, but what about brought the tree and me together.

I thought deeply about my intentions first.  Specifically, what motivated me to touch that tree.  It became clear that I wanted something from the tree.  I had to touch it, to feel it for whatever reason.  Breaking it down, I realized there was something I wanted from that tree. I cannot say for certain what exactly I wanted, but just thinking about the concept of approaching the tree was all that mattered. It was the act of me, a mobile organic consumer, approaching a deeply rooted being and insisting myself upon it.

As for the warmth, I had a few thoughts about the sensation I experienced when I pressed my palm against the bark. Thinking about the intent that initially had, where I encroached on the tree, I thought about the warmth representing a selfish desire; a symbol of me taking something from the tree or, by invading the space around it, asserting some sort of dominance over it in the natural hierarchy.

While that line of thought presented a significant amount of self-awareness, I do not believe it is the truth. That tree represents something much older, wiser, and stronger than me. How arrogant I must be for thinking that my selfish desire, represented by my need to touch, could somehow overpower something so majestic.

Instead, I think that warmth was a gift.  A message from the tree telling me that I do not need to insist. That I do not need to feel like I must take. That I do not need to exude a dominance or authority.  That warmth is a gift, a reminder of the benevolent side of nature.

Reflecting on this experience with the tree, I thought deeply about my interactions with other people whether they be friends, family, or lovers.  I thought a lot about my interactions with people and concluded that I needed to be less egocentric in my thinking.  That is not to say I am an egotistical person, but that I am the center of my own world.  And while it is okay to be the center of one’s own world and to embrace selfishness, I was thinking about that the best way to approach relationships with people is to not be so transactional.  In this competitive, patriarchal world, it is easily to fall into that trap.

In the car, I shared my thoughts with my friend.  We talked about self-awareness and the role nature can play in helping to achieve self-awareness. With all the distractions, the noise and endless notifications, it can easy to overlook the lessons that nature can offer. It can almost be an act of subversion to stop and smell the roses or, in my case, touch the trees. Especially in a society that demands more from you every day.

In 1997, Guided by Voices released their studio album Mag Earwig! Track three, “I Am a Tree,” written by the band’s guitar Doug Gillard, is about a tree and its relationship to a bird that has taken flight.  Fans of the band speculate that the song is about a relationship ending and perhaps it is.  However, the imagery is striking and reflects the experience I had this weekend. In the song, the tree is telling the bird they can build a nest and get the sap out of it.  Proclaiming it is fruitless and free, the tree urges the bird to touch it and see.

While “I Am a Tree” may be about a specific relationship, the song feels relatable enough to cover a wide arras of relationships. And when I think about this song, I find it a bit funny that I focused so much about relationships when I was thinking about the tree’s warmth.  Not the potential narrative of a romantic relationship as in the song, but the way I develop relationships with anyone.  We cannot be transactional in our interaction with other people.  We must touch eachother and see.  In our hearts and minds.

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“just what I needed” – the cars (1978)

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Music plays a big role in my life. With various aspect of my life, music is somehow involved. I’m an avid fan, always curious and exploring things that interest me or offer new perspectives. I play guitar for an ensemble at a folk music school.  At that very same school, I also volunteer in their library where I have access to thousands of records.  And, crossing over from the personal to professional realm, I volunteer for a community radio station, a bastion for new ideas and sounds.

Music also impacts my social life. I meet with friends and talk about music or even go see a concert. Over drinks after ensemble practice or a radio meeting, we talk about what we’ve been listening to, new and old. Music is a great force that connects people and allows us to open ourselves to others, discussing ideas, dreams, and philosophies.  Things that drive us and make us happy.

For over three years, I have been part of an ongoing album discussion group.  The core focus of the album group is a like a book club, but music albums are discussed instead of books. Using a book called 1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die, we have a general guide that offers a broad appeal for people of all types to participate.  And we have that in the group.  After discussing over 80 albums so far over the last three years, our group has grown with members representing different gender, generation, taste, and interest background.  We come to the discussion with our thoughts, fueled by our experience.

One of the consistent themes that comes up, especially with an album with mixed reactions, involves the concept of enjoying the music for what it is. The idea being that the context with which the music is known, perhaps how pervasive or controversial it is, is irrelevant since the we’re ideally supposed to judge the music itself.

I sometimes find that topic difficult to accept.  Whenever this topic comes up, in the group or elsewhere, it is usually associated with the concept of “separating the art from the artist.”  And within that context, it is usually a discussion involving artists with toxic and controversial histories, personal or professional. However, within this group, this topic tends to come up as a generational issue. For the younger members of the group, millennials like me, sometimes music is tainted by its pervasiveness. Music that is heard in car commercials, in grocery stores, or featured as a set piece in a period piece film to establish a sense of time, the latter being a context that cements the song’s reputation.

Music is a very emotional experience and the music that is closest to us has the strongest emotional appeal.  In most cases, this is music you grew up with.  However, given my age, not all the beloved music of yesteryear has resulted in an emotional connection.  That is not to say that there is no old music that I have an extreme fondness for.  Most of the music I hold dear was released before I was born, sometimes by multiple decades. However, there are artists who are beloved that, to me, seem overplayed and have not appealed to me because I cannot separate the art from the commercials, stores, and movies that I associate the music with and that is regardless of how influential they are.

On Sunday, Ric Ocasek, the lead singer and guitarist for the Cars, passed away from heart disease at 75.  My social media feed filled with friends talking about the role the Cars’ music played in their lives.  For the older generation, it was the sound of their youth.  For my contemporaries, the Cars paved the way for the power pop bands of their formative years.  Multiple generations coming together because of an emotional connection to this band. One that I, however, do not share.

The Cars’ eponymous debut from 1978 was one of the albums discussed in our album group a while back.  And I remember talking about the pervasiveness of their music from the perspective of a millennial.  They are what I had referred to as “grocery store music;” stuff that sounded good that I could not say I disliked, but I also could not say I loved it either.

Since Ocasek’s death, I read the outpouring of admiration from friends and the tributes from musicians and celebrities that were impact by the singer’s passing.  Even if I did not share the same emotional connection, I really enjoyed reading their thoughts.  They were from a genuine place of love and respect for something that had a deeply personal impact.  I know I have artists that represent that for me that others do not share, but I have respect for that.

What I did gain from reading these tributes was some perspective on how the Cars never really became a part of my life.  For Generation X, the Cars signified a new, explosive change in music.  New wave was an escape from the monotony of popular radio at the time, the era of disco and arena rock.  A powerful cultural shift is certainly a great reason to develop a strong bond. I actually kinda envy those who were there at the beginning with the Cars’ music offering a glimpse in the strange new future of music.  These types of seismic disruptions occur less frequently now (within my lifetime, grunge was probably the last one).

And for my generational contemporaries, I never really got into the bands that were directly influenced by the Cars.  Bands like Weezer and Interpol. When my friends and classmates were discussing the brilliance of albums like Pinkerton, I was exploring a different direction and never cemented an appeal during my formative years.  I have come to deeply love musical forms that I have discovered for myself later in life, so perhaps there is still hope for me when it comes to power pop.

Part of my morning routine getting ready for work involves me listening to Apple Music’s new wave radio station.  Almost every morning, I hear the Cars.  I never skip tracks and their songs are always pleasant to listen to.  I can appreciate the band to some degree, but they are still the music I hear in commercials and at the store.  Or, more realistically, the soundtrack to me brushing my teeth.

The Cars’ first single “Just What I Needed” was released at the end of May in 1978, a week before the release of their debut album. I would have liked to have been around at that time to experience the thrill that Generation X friends felt when they first heard Ocasek’s voice and rhythm coming from the stereo, or more appropriately from a car radio.  Dismayed by a myopic cultural dystopia, I’m sure Ocasek delivered just what they needed.

“omar sharif” – katrina lenk (2017)

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I am typically not one for Broadway musicals.  I have seen a few and some I really enjoyed.  However, I still do not consider myself a fan of the Broadway style. I think some of the reason why is that I am just not that into the delivery style, and the songs can be really cheesy.  I have friends who adore Broadway musicals and I am glad that it is their thing, but I am just a bit picky.

In 2018, I watched the Tony awards with a friend.  I had never watched the Tony awards before.  I don’t really follow award shows now but when I did, it was usually the Oscars.  Watching the Tony awards, I either was not aware of or did not care about most of the productions.  I remember seeing a performance of a musical based on SpongeBob SquarePants and the overly obnoxious, saccharine acting and presentation and I was just not digging anything about it.  Still, I watched.

As I was watching, there were a lot of wins for a musical I had not heard about which is nothing new.  Though, my friend I was with who loves musicals, was not quite aware either.  Competing for 11 nominations, the production won 10 of them, including the Tony for “Best Musical.” It was a peculiar musical.  Understated, lacking in grandiosity.  It didn’t appear to have all the trappings of what I consider to be standard Broadway motif.  Though, with one performance, and having no other information, I was sold.  I really wanted to see The Band’s Visit.

The Band’s Visit, a musical adaptation of a 2017 Israeli film (that is not a musical), was the big winner of the 2018 Tony awards.  The story involves an Egyptian police orchestra band that is travelling to Israel to perform at an Arab Cultural Center.  While they are trying to get to the bustling city of Petah Tikvah, a translation error, a classic set up in a fish out of water story, has the band ending up in a small desert town called Bet Katikva.  While the band is stranded overnight having to wait for the next bus the following day, the members of the orchestra have a major impact on the listless denizens of this nowhere Israeli town.

Watching the Tony awards, the song performed was “Omar Sharif” performed by Katrina Lenk.  In the scene, Lenk, as Dina, goes out on something resembling a date with Tewfiq, the captain of the police orchestra portrayed by Tony Shalhoub. While they discuss the band sticking to traditional Arab music, Dina shares with Tewfiq that she used to listen to Egyptian radio stations as a child with signers like Umm Kulthum.  She also shares her love growing up with Omar Sharif films.  It is a tender song about the impact these legendary cultural figures had on her, able to sense the lemon and jasmine scents of their representation.  While Tewfiq is in the scene, Dina performs solo with him silently watching this woman express herself so freely when one imagines there is little opportunity to do in such a small town.

Despite garnering so much acclaim, I had never heard of it before.  And neither had anyone else I had spoken to about it.  Then, and even still, any conversation about Broadway is dominated by Hamilton, and rightfully so as it managed to expand the Broadway landscape with its diverse representation and catchy hip-hop tunes.  And if it isn’t Hamilton that people are talking about, it is a jukebox musical based on some popular singer’s career.

So, when tickets were announced for Chicago, I had to go.  I even managed to get a big discount by waiting for a special.  In the weeks leading up seeing the musical, I was incredibly excited.  I only knew that one song.  “Omar Sharif” sold me.  I refrained from listening to the rest of the musical or even watch the original movie because I wanted to go in as fresh as possible.

All the while, I am telling people about the musical.  And not a single person among my friends had heard of the musical. Some of them are not that into musicals, but even the ones that were just had no idea.  It was so bizarre.

The Band’s Visit was praised for being a “musical for grown-ups” and noted for its positive impact on the portrayal of Middle Eastern actors and performers.  Now, when representation is something that is heavily considered and discussed, a musical like The Band’s Visit going under the radar for so many people, despite all the Tony wins, just seems so bizarre.  I know that it has a lot of traditional Arab music and the songs are not filled with socially conscious, politically charged hip-hop elements like Hamilton, but it is a musical worthy of attention.

“oh loretta!” – sex on toast (2015)

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Irony really irks me.  Not really as a concept in and of itself, but the role irony plays in our culture.  Two things really stand out to me about irony. First it can be used flippantly as a cheap narrative or tonal effect by those are just are not that clever. If you’re bad at communicating your point, it becomes easy to just play off a misfire as being ironic.  No need to further delve into your lack of wit or tact.

Second, the idea that people enjoy or do things ironically directly contributes to cultural supremacy. Suggesting you enjoy something, whether it be a film or a song, out of irony establishes the presence of a hierarchy.  Whatever piece of work you’re enjoying through your own sense of maligned irony now inherently has a value placed on it that suggests you believe it is somehow lesser than you or your taste. It implies that you think you are somehow better, as in more refined or cultured. When you enjoy something ironically, you are placing a value judgment on something that really does not need your validation. It undermines the creative efforts behind it and being ironic about it is just shitty.

I enjoy camp, which is objectively sillier than artistic expressions that are culturally determined to be more serious. And camp is an area that largely suffers from the misfortune of being enjoyed ironically.  Things that are camp are often made on a lower budget, contain fringe elements, and appeal to tastes beyond the mainstream.  Things that are camp, no matter how silly, are made with sincerity.  It just comes off as pretentious when you enjoy something camp without sincerity.  So, if you are going to create or enjoy something campy, do it with respect and sincerity. Whatever it is may be out of the norm, but don’t force it to exist within a structured cl hierarchy thus diminishing the artistic intent and cultural value.

Earlier this year, a friend introduced me to an absurdist revival band called Sex on Toast. Formed in Melbourne, Australia, Sex on Toast is a revivalist boy band creating their own spin on synthesized R&B and new jack swing of the 1980s and 90s.  So, I know what you’re thinking.  A whole bunch of white guys playing black pop music from three decades ago? How is this not ironic and how can we take this seriously? The answer is quite simple: they have respect for their music inspirations, and they are very skilled at what they do.

I often find that most revivalist acts are just novelty acts driven by irony, but that is not Sex on Toast.  With their songs drip with stylistic clichés like partying, bubble baths, and sex, all sung over sweat inducing funk and disco beats accented with killer synth riffs and full horn sections, the members of Sex on Toast pay tribute to these dated pop motifs with their skilled and expert musicianship.

Sex on Toast relies heavily on humor to convey their style and this is obvious in their lyrics and music videos. This by no means undermines the sincerity of the band’s sound. On this band’s style, lead singer Angus Leslie said “We’re not really a parody act. We mess with musical archetypes, but we genuinely love the styles of music that we play, and the band’s full of seriously gifted players.”

While the lyrics are ridiculous and funny, the band really shines through musically as being precise and tight. While songs that inspired Sex on Toast’s sound are musically tight as well, those songs featured lyrics just as sugary.  “There’s that influence but I try to infuse any sort of insanity that I believe to be our own as a band,” Leslie said. “As a band of absolute weirdos, that we are, it makes sense to infuse those influences with our own bacteria.”

Sex on Toast’s unbelievable musicianship is on full effect with their 2015 single “Oh Loretta!” Filled with sweaty groove, disco rhythms, and supreme horn solos, “Oh Loretta!” is a triumph in revivalism that features so much humor but as an homage to a bygone era.  Sex on Toast’s take on forgotten, esoteric R&B pop stylings pays respect in all the right ways, musically, while having fun with the indulgent lyrics of the form.  “I wrote it in my underpants in a room above a pub in North Australia, with a little toy piano. I filled it up with the sort of dodgy rhymes you often find in those sorts of love songs, and just boosted the foolishness, I guess. Those songs are often about a guy pledging his undying love to someone he wants to sleep with, and you know it’s really insincere, so for the second half of the song, it switches to a different girl called Rebecca…”

Even the video for “Oh Loretta” majestically serves the homage driven appeal of the band.  Adorned in tacky outfits, Sex on Toast perform “Oh Loretta” to a dancing throng a la musical variety shows from the 70s and 80s.  With a polished energy, everything starts off like a standard music video tribute.  However, as time goes on and the sweat pours and the dancers look more pallid, heads explode (literally) as Sex on Toast reaches a musical climax delighting in the bloody devastation they have caused with their sounds.  It is shocking and mesmerizing, but the music, the most important factor for a band, stands on its own.

Sex on Toast is a rare occurrence where revivalism isn’t based on tired irony.  They serve as a band that is genuinely respecting and having fun with the music that inspired them. “I think people love Sex on Toast because we’re funky and fun,” said Leslie. “We refuse to be earnest, partly because we’re genuinely strange people, but also because the music we love often had a strong sense of humour. People like Prince, George Clinton, Zapp, Rick James, even Michael Jackson. These dudes were wacky, man, and we love that.”

While Leslie’s comment can seem like Sex on Toast is a band that relies heavily on irony, they are much cleverer than that. They contribute to the form while standing on their own musically beyond what one may typically expect from a parody or novelty act.