“thirteen” – big star (1972)

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Since the fall of 2015, I’ve been taking classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Previously, I had been involved with Old Town as a volunteer starting earlier that year and had attended various concerts over the last few years.  It has been a wonderful place that has fostered my musical development on various levels.  As a volunteer in their impressive music archive, I’m constantly finding new things to listen to.  As a concert patron, the intimacy of the main hall makes this the best place to see a concert in Chicago.  And taking lessons has given me a deeper understanding on producing music by putting my interest to practical use.

The classes are conducted once a week over a two-month session.  I had taken the last section off because of some travel plans.  However, I have been looking into the class offerings for the next session and thinking about where I want to go to next.

While I am not a particularly great guitar player, I’m not that bad.  I have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else.  I great at varying strumming patterns, but Barre chords on an acoustic give me trouble.  Plus, I’m a busy guy.  I work full-time, volunteer for two different non-profits, and lead an active social life.  I cannot expect to be as amazing as the people who practice for hours every day.  For me, I don’t have any grand ambitions.  It is just a private hobby.

As I think about next steps and the challenges that await, I know I want to do something different.  Until now, I had taken group guitar classes where everyone practices and plays together.  These classes were part of their core guitar program, so the focus was advancing our knowledge of chords and strum patterns.  While I need improvement in some areas, I have exhausted my lessons there.  So, what is next?  Learning a specific style such as blue or finger picking?  Perhaps play in a band as part of a class ensemble?  There’s just so many options.  Until I make that decision, I’m reflecting on my progress since starting my classes nearly two years ago.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into picking my instructor. Old Town’s staff consists of really talented people who specialize in different areas.  For someone who just wanted to start with the basics anywhere, I just focused on what was convenient for my schedule.  Jane Hanna was my instructor for the better part of a year while I was taking the entire progression of core guitar classes (almost) every Thursday for a year.  She also taught the glam rock ensemble as well as some other classes.  Her specialty was more rock and punk-oriented which suited my tastes quite well.

Throughout the various classes I took with her, there were certain artists we would revisit in almost every class.  David Bowie was her all-time favorite so, naturally, he always made an appearance.  However, there were other artists that would pop up more frequently than others.

One of those artists was Big Star.  Like many people, my exposure to Big Star was limited.  I think I vaguely knew that their song “In the Street” was covered as the opening theme for That ‘70s Show and I recall a documentary about the band was released a few years ago, but I never saw it.  And I find that my unfamiliarity is not uncommon.  They only released three studio albums before disbanding within three years of forming and none of those releases sold very well.

However, despite poor sales, the band’s musical output was highly influential.  A lot of musicians were inspired by Big Star and their power pop aesthetic, melodic harmonies, and relatable existential themes.  And over the years, the became darlings of the critics with some of their work appearing on lists commemorating the best albums and songs of all time.  Their cult following consisting of people who just wanted to listen and play good music has earned them the recognition of being a “musician’s band.”

The lead singer, Alex Chilton, started his career as the lead singer of the Box Tops who released the hit “The Letter.”  Chilton wrote and performed much of Big Star’s songs.  Despite the poor commercial success of his most influential band, he remains a beloved musical figure.  I was recently reminded of Big Star, and especially Chilton, when I attended a storytelling series last weekend.  One of the speakers, Freda Love Smith, was sharing a story about the only time she met Chilton and how she embarrassed herself in front of her idol.  She had bummed a cigarette and had trouble starting the lighter because of low fluid.  She saw Chilton having trouble with his lighter and asked if he was out of fluid.  It was the only thing she said to him and she groaned that she never had opportunity to share her undying admiration.  It was a touching story.

This month marks the 45th anniversary of their first studio album.  #1 Record, released June 1972, remains to be the most popular and beloved of their discography.  While 1974’s Radio City would later contain “September Gurls,” another beloved Big Star classic, #1 Record contains one of their best song ever recorded.

“Thirteen,” the fourth song on the album, was never released as a single though it has become their most legendary song.  Covered by many great artists such as Garbage, Wilco, and Elliott Smith, “Thirteen” proves to be their most influential for it’s gorgeous guitar, melancholy vocals, and how relatable the lyrics are.  It is a story of adolescent frustration and love.  There’s rebellion, music, and a lust to live life to the fullest with no apologies.  That yearning comes through so powerfully yet so intimately.  It is a touching and soulful track.

Over the last few years, Big Star’s following has increased.  I’ve become a fan and learning how to break down their songs and appreciate the elements that make up the music certainly helped me appreciate them as a musician’s band.  While taking classes with Jane, we had covered both “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.”  Both are amazing, but “Thirteen” stands out just ahead as their quintessential track.

“good beat” – deee-lite (1990)

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Previously in this blog, I have talked about the album discussion group I help organize (for the unfamiliar, imagine a boog club but about music albums).  Though we meet every other Sunday, it seems to be something I can never get enough of.  I’m always looking forward to the next meetup.

I just really enjoy talking about music with friends.  That is the most exciting aspect of the group, but there is more I get from the experience.  It gives me an opportunity to try new things and be more open-minded about approaching music.  And that was kept in mind when the group was formed.  By only picking albums from the book 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and alternating decades with our albums selected at random based on attendee feedback, it guarantees that everyone has some say in what album is chosen.  This keeps things really fresh because everyone in the group has different levels of interest and experience with music.

That is why I was so surprised with our recent pick World Clique by Deee-Lite.  When that album was selected, I groaned a bit.  It was only because I was super skeptical.  I had only known two songs by them.  Of course, I knew “Groove Is in the Heart” which is catchy but a song I just never really enjoyed.  And the, within the last few years, I heard “Rubber Lover” from their second studio album after it was featured as a desert island pick on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions.  I had limited knowledge of this band and a bias based on that limited knowledge.

However, as key with this group, I had to give it a listen and keep an open mind.  I found the album on iTunes Music and pressed play.  Immediately, any preconceived notions about what I anticipated my listening experience to be faded away.

I was hooked with the opening “Deee-Lite Theme” for its sampling, cool beat, and funky saxophone.  The song originally wasn’t featured on the original LP release of the album, but was added as one of two bonus tracks for the CD.  Regardless, it perfectly set up the mood in such a perfect way.

As I listened through the album, I was surprised about the thematic content.  I didn’t realize how inclusive the album was.  The band itself is really inclusive from a gender and racial perspective, but the themes of the album present a message of love and acceptance that I just wasn’t anticipating.

One of my friends who joined the discussion talked about the impact this album had on her during her teenage years.  She picked up the album when it came out and, as a young girl, really identified with the feel-good energy of the group and the lead singer’s colorful clothes.

The group then discussed the origins of house music in Chicago.  I’m not from Chicago.  And prior to moving to Chicago, I was completely unaware of the city’s contributions to that music.  Someone in the group claimed that, along with jazz and the blues, house music was a true American musical invention.  And it came from the city we loved and shared.

House music just wasn’t on my radar.  I wasn’t old enough to understand it when it hit the mainstream by the end of the 1980s.  It was something that was already established by the time I would become aware of it.  Considering that, I also had no other emotional connection to it.  It was just a genre that I lumped together with electronic forms of music and miscategorized them all as “techno.”  I have since knowledgeable of house music’s key qualities and its impact on Chicago’s musical development and our culture at large.

When house music was invented, it was an underground movement.  Much like with Warhol’s Factory crowd or the early days of Grace Jones era disco, it was a subculture that celebrated life and love.  It was a venue where transgender, gay, lesbian, and mainstream social outcasts at that time could come together and be themselves, to not feel invisible, and to dance in a movement that celebrated love and the individual.  Inherent in that is a profound political inclination.  While house music typically doesn’t contain allusions to greater political themes such as war, the notion that people can live and love how they wish is a grand statement about acceptance and inclusion.

“Good Beat” was the LP’s original opener before the later addition of “Deee-Lite Theme.”  While I feel “Deee-Lite Theme” is a stronger opener with it’s funky instrumental and thematic declaration of “from the global village in an era of communication,” “Good Beat” is a solid track that propels the music and the message.

“Good Beat” is fun, but the lyrical content contains a surprising amount of a depth for a danceable house music tune.  The vocals challenge that depending on how you see a thing, your perception around you can change.  Your own outlook determines the openness of the world around you and what role you play in that world.  Whether it is dividing or closely binding, how you perceive things ultimately impacts your contributions.  And for those tired of the hatred, vitriol, and violence, they just wanna dance to a good beat.  And that is a powerful declaration.  To just let everything go and move to the rhythm with your fellow global citizens is something we should all strive for.

“a day in the life” – the beatles (1967)

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I have a lot of fun writing this weekly blog, but it can be a real challenge sometimes.  Part of what makes it challenging are the rules and guidelines I set for myself when I think of what to write next.  For one, I don’t repeat an artist if I have already written about them.  This really makes it harder to write about the artists I love most because when I publish that post, that’s it.  I wrote a post that felt timely or relevant based on recent cultural or personal events only to realize a few months later that I would’ve rather written about a different song because that one will become relevant at that time.  This is why there are artists I absolutely love that I’ve been hesitant to include such as the Police or the Clash.

The other challenge is to not feel forced when writing about a song that week.  I enjoy the discipline of keeping this up as a hobby on a weekly basis.  However, there are times when I don’t really have a song in mind to write about.  There are plenty of times when an artist or song sticks with me for the week and it results in a well-written and thought out post.  It is because that song made an impact on me that week because it related to some milestone or an event.  But, sometimes, I just have nothing going on and I churn out something just to do it.  I don’t like to do that, but I want to be consistent.

The Beatles are an example of a band that I adore that I hesitated for a long time to discuss.  I am a fan.  I enjoy their music and it had a significant influence on me during my adolescent years.  While I didn’t listen much during college or my subsequent adulthood years because I’ve been exploring and discovering other types of music, they had always been a part of me.

That is why planning this post for me was difficult.  I didn’t want to just write about any Beatles song because it would be a missed opportunity to write something meaningful.  So much of their catalogue is important to me and requires inspiration.  Then again, what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?  So much has been written that praises the Beatles as the greatest band ever.  So, what can I say that would be any different than pure adulation.

It is during those struggles that I rely on cultural milestones.  And even then, I still hesitate because I just don’t want to be one of many yelling into the noise.  However, sometimes it is necessary to call out those milestones and contribute a perspective.  Even if it may be an unpopular one.  These were the things I had considered over the last few weeks when countless media outlets were buzzing about the 50th anniversary release of the Beatles’ 1967 studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I had to ask myself: do I jump on this bandwagon and what should I say?

So, let’s cut to the chase.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is just simply not a good album.

Ok.

I got that off my chest.

Are we all ok?

Alright, let’s move on.

In 1966, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece record Pet Sounds and the music world was turned upside down.  Everyone everywhere had to make their own Pet Sounds.  You couldn’t just do rock and roll anymore.  You had to have more personal and poetic songwriting, compose lush orchestrations, and include abstract noises to add depth, complexity, and mystery to a record.  You couldn’t just make music anymore.  You had to make art.

A year later, the Beatles released their own version of Pet Sounds.  The biggest credit that gets attributed to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it legitimized the album as a complete work of heart.  The music industry, prior to 1967, was a singles market.  You had to put out a hit if you were going to get anywhere.  And that had been the standard since the beginning.  Prior to the mid-1960s, rock and pop albums were just collections of previously released singles.  When the Beatles confirmed they would quit touring and just focus on studio music, this album was the result of that.

I have a lot of issues with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Until the remixed 50th anniversary release, I always felt this was a poorly mixed record.  Some of the songwriting is unimaginative.  There is needless nostalgia throughout though this record was released during one of the most culturally exciting and volatile times of the 20th century.  And the concept of the fake band isn’t enough for me to be convinced that this album wasn’t merely a record made by a band that was becoming increasingly out of touch.

However, the biggest flaw with the record is with the songs on the record.  Song for song, this is a terrible record.  And the Beatles were capable of releasing records full of great songs.  I maintain that Rubber Soul and Revolver continue to be the best Beatles records.  However, the faux band concept somehow earns Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the credit of being a better work of art because it is more complete and should be experienced as a whole.  Even then, to make that happen, you must have good songs.

I help organize an album discussion group and a few months ago, we discussed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It was our most well attended discussion to date and it was spirited.  A lot was said about this record.  Most of it praise, but there was some acknowledgement that the album is flawed.

One thing we did during that discussion that we hadn’t really done before was poll everyone regarding the songs they liked and disliked the most.  You only needed to pick one.  As we went around the table, the songs that people liked were fairly similar.  Most of the table said a “A Day in the Life” or “With A Little Help from My Friends” with one person chiming in with “Getting Better.”  And, frankly, those are not bad choices.  But what it does tell you is that there are really only two songs that are enjoyable on the record to both casual listeners are critics.

This became more apparent when discussing the songs we hated the most.  Almost every song was mentioned as we went around the table.  There was not a clear choice when it came to the weakest point on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  “Lovely Rita,” Good Morning,” and the other tracks closing side one and opening side two were all mentioned as being just filler or just simply not good songs.  And that begs the question: how can this album be celebrated to the point of being considered the greatest album of all time in many circles but still be filled with bad songs?

In the latest episode of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, the hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis revisited the album.  Both were very critical of the album and even suggested that people who say they love this album hadn’t listened to it in a long time.  I know I hadn’t.  Prior to that album discussion group, I hadn’t listened to the album in its entirety since my freshman year of college.  There was one quote that was the most striking from the conservation.  Kot stated “I don’t really have a reason to listen to this record other than this one song.”  And the song he was referring to was “A Day in the Life.”

“A Day in the Life” is the only really good song on the record.  Coming in at a distant second is “With a Little Help from My Friends,” but the Joe Cocker cover is much better.  However, the closing track is a near perfect song that does exemplify the genius of the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would’ve been a much better album if the other songs had tapped into what made “A Day in the Life” one of the Beatles’ masterpieces.  Incredibly complex and dynamic, the orchestral glissandos, the avant-garde production, and the poignant lyrics make a real statement that pop music can be considered high art.

1967 was a fantastic year for music.  A lot of great albums were released that year.  While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been dominating all of the music journalism sites and blogs, it doesn’t negate the quality of records that receive less than fair celebration.  The Beatles sell.  People love nostalgia.  It is as simple as that.  And if you are going to spend some time with the Beatles, explore their albums and not be sold by the hype of the most overrated album of all time.

“let down” – radiohead (1997)

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I have discussed many times in this blog that I strive to be very open-minded when approaching new music.  For the most part, this has typically only applied to genres, artists, and periods that I was unfamiliar with.  While it takes me some time to get to the new releases, I still enjoy the discovery of music that has been around a long time but is still new to me.  That’s the easy part about being curious to new things.

However, what about the things you were previously sure you didn’t like?  I mean, there must be a reason why you didn’t enjoy a specific artist or song?  It could be that there was absolutely nothing that appealed to you, or perhaps there was one singular glaring quality that betrayed the rest of the work as a whole.  Regardless, there’s something you just don’t like.  Does striving to be more open-minded mean revisiting things you didn’t already?  What’s the point even if you know you already don’t like something?  While wasting your time with something you know you don’t care for, you could be spending your time enjoying something you know you love.  So, why even bother?

These were all questions I wrestled with when I went to Chicago’s Saturday Audio Exchange a few weeks ago for the June edition of Classic Album Sundays.  While the Classic Album Sundays is based in the United Kingdom and has been running for about a decade, the Chicago branch has been going strong for just over a year.  Having been to several events in a row, I have seen the growth and popularity of these listening parties.  While the crowd changes depending on the album, there has been a steady increase in the number of attendees.  What exactly is drawing specific people to a specific event centered on a specific album.  I considered these things as I observed and listen to fans discuss Radiohead’s 1997 masterpiece OK Computer.

I can tell you why I went this last time.  It was to experience what I’ve been missing, if anything at all, when it comes to Radiohead.  Radiohead has been a band I have struggled with for a long time.  I had heard a handful of songs prior.  Some were enjoyable while others not so much.  Though, I had never listened to one of their album’s in their entirety.  Something about Radiohead just didn’t strike a chord with me even though all the components within their music are qualities I enjoy individually; Britpop influence, musical experimentation, thoughtful tongue-in-cheek lyrics, themes analyzing our culture and political climate, etc.  I listen to dozens of artists that combine those qualities, but Radiohead had always been a band that I just never connected with.

For a few months, I knew OK Computer was going to be the May selection for Classic Album Sundays.  The reason being is that the album had it’s 20th anniversary that month.  I really enjoy Classic Album Sundays for a lot of reasons.  The social element is really great because I can talk to friends or mingle with new acquaintances, amazing cookies and lemonade is provided, there’s a dog running around the store that is amazingly cute, and the sound system set-up at Saturday Audio Exchange is perhaps the best way to hear any record.  Despite all those great reasons to go to one of these events, I was waffling on going.  Why?  Because Radiohead.

I debated going until the day of when I made my decision to attend.  I already had a social group meeting that day to talk about a Grandmaster Flash album and everyone wanted to go to Classic Album Sundays right afterwards.  I couldn’t be the odd man out.  Besides that, I had decided that I needed to give Radiohead a proper chance.  As discussed, I had never actually sat down and listened to one of their albums in full during one sitting.  If I’m going to someone who actively takes measures to try new things, then I had to give one album one chance to make an impression.  I owed Radiohead at least that before judging them.

At the event, I was surrounded by friends and strangers who absolutely loved that album.  I’m fairly sure I was the only person who actually hadn’t heard OK Computer in it’s entirety as a complete work of art.  Even one of my friends from the community radio station was asking me how I had never been subjected to listening to that album when most of my friends are music nerds and OK Computer is one of the most sacred releases ever to them.  I just said that I never had the opportunity.  And I was fine with that.  I considered my role at this event a little differently than before.  At previous listenings, I was more familiar with the album, was a fan of the artist, and actively engaged in the post-listening discussion.  This time, I was going to take a step back and discuss.

Sam, the organizer of the Chicago branch of Classic Album Sundays, gave a rousing and passionate speech prior to putting the record on.  Radiohead and OK Computer were very important to him and that certainly showed with his enthusiasm.  Sam doesn’t pick the record selections.  That is done by the main organization, but it is great to see Sam’s love for music every time he presents.

When the needle dropped, the lights were dimmed and we all sat in silence and listened.  At times, I would sit with my eyes clothes.  Other times, I would look around the room and observe others listening to the album; mouthing lyrics or bobbing heads to the rhythm.  I would also periodically look through the lyrics provided to us in book form if I got lost.

The tracks I heard before and knew were “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police.”  When those played, people got excited.  I wasn’t particularly interested in the songs I knew.  While this special listening might make me connect to the songs differently than before, I was more eager to hear the songs I didn’t know.  Of all the songs that played, the one I actually really enjoyed was “Let Down.”  It was melodic and catchy in a way I didn’t associate with Radiohead.  It was a pleasant surprise how much I really enjoyed that song.  It was new and unheard of for me and that’s what I enjoyed most about that experience.

But what about the part of the listening experience?  What about the songs you knew?  Granted, I came into the event wanting to experience something new.  In one way, that might mean songs that I had never heard before.  In another way, that could be discovering something new within a song I thought I was familiar with already.  And I did get that experience.  Primarily for two reasons.  The first being that the sounds equipment is utterly amazing and brings out richness and detail that is lost with poorer sound systems.  The other being that this was my first time sitting down with no distractions and truly listening to this album.  With albums I’ve heard dozens of times before, I’m alright hearing it as background music to whatever I’m doing.  But if I was going to really give Radiohead a chance, I had to do it right.

As with tradition during any Classic Album Sundays event, there is a discussion.  Sam leads the discussion and gets the audience to talk about their experience with the album and to ask any discussion questions.  While I cannot remember any specific details from this discussion, I did pick up on a theme.  Every person who contributed to the discussion shared that they discovered and became enamored with the album or Radiohead as a band when they were teenagers.  Whether this discovery happened when OK Computer was initially released or years later, this album and band became important to them during their formative, acne-ridden teenage years.  Based on that, as expected, I would gather that everyone else was there for some nostalgic purpose.  For me, nostalgia didn’t play a factor.

I left the experience enjoying the album more than I assumed.  While my prior beliefs on Radiohead are still with me, I didn’t leave the experience with a hardened affirmation that I do not like this band.  Instead, I am now more neutral to them when before I would say flat out that I didn’t much care for the band.  What this means is that I am not immediately dismissing them.  My neutrality to them keeps me open to them should I feel an urge.  My first full-length listen of OK Computer was not unenjoyable, but it wasn’t anything groundbreaking for me.  The connection the others around me had with this album had not made itself clear to me.  That being said, I am open to sitting down with it again in the future.  And perhaps maybe a different Radiohead album altogether.  What this listening experience has taught me is that, despite earlier claims, I don’t hate Radiohead.  They haven’t let me down.  I’m just passively waiting for a connection.

“art groupie” – grace jones (1981)

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Last week, Grace Jones turned 69 years old.  Jones has been an icon I have come to love only within the last few years.  While there are still bands and musicians I nostalgically hold onto from my high school and college days, I still make active attempts to include room for new inspirations and influences in my life.  I began to really appreciate Jones when I read her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Prior to that, I knew a few songs from her but not much else.  Really only a handful of her disco tracks from compilations I owned as well as the single “Pull Up to the Bumper” which was one of her biggest hits.  I had some time to read the book over the Christmas holiday that year and she intrigued me enough as a cultural figure for to invest my time.  Though I wasn’t completely unaware and blind to her as a person as well as the pop culture cliff notes surrounding her, I was still very much a novice when it came to what I knew about Jones and her music.

Born in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica in 1948, Jones was a daughter born to a local politician and Apostolic clergyman.   At the age of 13, Jones and her family relocated to the United States and lived near Syracuse.  As a teenager, Jones rebelled against her family and religious upbringing by wearing makeup and going to gay clubs.  When her mother remarried, Jones’ stepfather would beat the children and treaty young Grace the worst of them all.  This religiously motivated violence from her stepfather would be forever cemented in Jones’ mind and influence her career.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jones pursued a modeling career.  While some photographers sought Jones out for her unique look, many felt she was too strange to have a career.  Eventually, she would move to Paris where her fashion career would really take off.  During that time, she would go to the underground disco clubs with her modeling roommates Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall (can you imagine what that apartment must’ve been like?).  During the early to mid-1970s, disco music was still an underground phenomenon and an out for gay musicians and artists who wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else that would be mainstream.  This niche culture appealed to Jones and she started cutting her earliest disco tracks such as “I Need a Man.”

Towards the end of the decade, disco became a mainstream musical culture.  With that exposure came novelty acts that watered down and delegitimized the genre.  Disco was increasingly becoming a joke to after being coopted and appropriated who didn’t respect the origins of the art form established by the early pioneers.  Wanting no part of this, Jones moved away from disco.  Instead, she wanted to approach pop and dance music in unique ways she felt weren’t being done as the industry churned out disco clone hit after disco clone hit.

In 1980, Jones released Warm Leatherette.  While that album really starts to signify a change in artistic direction for Jones, it wasn’t until the release of Nightclubbing the following year that Jones truly came into her own.  So much about Jones’ 1981 masterpiece speaks volumes about the essence of her work, life, and character.  Immediately, you’re drawn to the cover.  While Jones identifies as feminine and a woman, she experimented with gender identities when it came to her work.  She has stated that her forays into masculinity have been influenced by both her grandfather and stepfather; she resembles her grandfather while her stepfather’s authoritative and violence behavior influenced the ferocity of her persona and work.  The cover features Jones wearing nothing but a blazer while the lines, angles, and shadow of her face evoke a masculine visage.  Even her breasts appear like muscular pectorals as they creep out of the blazer.

While the cover is truly striking, the heart of the album lies within the music.  As Jones shifted away from disco, she started settling into synthpop and post-punk with hints of reggae influence.  The big single off the album was “Pull Up to the Bumper” and featured a cool, rocking rhythm produced by Sly & Robbie.  What is interesting is that most of the albums is comprised of covers.  Jones manages to take tracks by the Police, Bill Withers, and Iggy Pop and reinvents them.  The narratives change to accommodate this image and sound that represents Jones as an icon to the point that they lose connection to their originators.  In essence, that makes an amazing cover.  It isn’t enough to merely copy the original.  You must make it your own and Jones does that impeccably.

Though not my favorite song from the record, one that deserves attention is the opening track on side two.  “Art Groupie” is only one of three songs from this nine song record that feature Jones as a writer.  It is a mellow song with a catchy hook.  She opens with this great declaration that she’ll never write her memoirs, that there is nothing in her book, and that her personal life is a bore.  That first line inspired the title of her actual memoir released 24 years later (and she kept her word because she dictated the book to Paul Morley and did not write it herself).

In the song, Jones assumes the role of someone who only embodies the role people push on her.  As an Art Groupie, she conveys that she is all style and substance.  All she needs is love adorned on her picture and for her audiences to admire her in glory.  What is fascinating about this is how this character differs from the real Grace Jones.  Jones, according to her memoir, has led an incredibly interesting life complete with creating art that challenges the foundations of pop music and gender constructs.  That hardly sounds like someone who is a bore.  However, there is a kernel of truth in her claim.  The Jones people hear on records and see in the movies is a carefully crafted image.  Jones even admits as much in her book.  While memoirs and autobiographies are meant to be very personal in that the author opens up their whole life, Jones isn’t going to divulge everything.  She has her secrets.  And there are legends and myths associated with her that she is in no hurry to disprove.  That is part of her mystique and charm.  As someone pours over a picture of Jones and tries to make sense of what they are seeing, Jones doesn’t help and only adds to the confusion.

Jones is still someone that I need to explore more.  Though I have read her book and listened to several of her albums, I haven’t had that much time with her.  It takes years to fully know an artist.  While I am glad I eventually found Grace, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to when I was younger.  Artists mean different things to you at different times.  As I get older, it gets harder to discover new things.  People start getting set in their ways and what they like and what makes them comfortable.  Plus, some much is happening that it is harder and harder to stay hip.  The only solution is to just at least try to make an effort.  You may not come across the most new and exciting thing, but you may find something deeply rooted in our culture already but without the visibility it deserves.  Jones’ impact on music and pop culture and so significant, but she has never garnered the respect and accolades she deserves.  As society becomes more open to LGBT and transgender issues, figures like Jones should resurface as icons because they’ve been committed to these ideas before it was fashionable.  I remember when Paper published that photo of Kim Kardashian wear she exposed her ass in an effort to “break the Internet.” That photo was ripped from Jones who did that two decades prior and completely nude.  Since Kim is what is hot right now, people are going to forget or ignore the pioneers that came before.  So, I stand by my love of Grace Jones and champion her every chance I get because she deserves all the attention from big gestures like a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction to the smallest nods such as when a current pop star claims to be an original.  Pop owes so much to this slave to the rhythm.

“five string serenade” – mazzy star (1993)

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Yesterday, the music world lost Keith Mitchell.  Mitchell was the drummer and one of the founding members of Mazzy Star.  Mazzy Star is a severely underrated dream pop band that explored alternative psychedelic forms in their music.  Painting lush and hypnotic landscapes with their sounds, the band’s small discography is still a treasure and worthy of considerable praise and admiration.

I remember the first time I became aware of Mazzy Star.  During the summer of 2007, I had just finished my first year of college.  That was an odd point because I wasn’t exactly aware of what to do when finals were over and the student population left. I had just gotten accustomed to the freedom of scheduling classes and finding things to do in between like volunteer for college radio and party.  The latter two activities would continue to happen throughout the summer, but I still had to figure out what to do with the rest of my time.

I managed to get a summer job at our local Wal-Mart working in the electronics department.  In the role, I would sell video games, watch out for people stealing CDs, carry big televisions, and provide uneducated and half-assed recommendations on computer software.  For anyone who has ever worked in a Wal-Mart, let alone any retailer, then you know how awful it can be.  If you don’t have professional experience at a place like that, then the rumors are true.  However, it was just for a summer.  I just had to stick it out for only a couple of months.

Not only did I have to find something to do with all this extra time when I wasn’t taking classes, I also had to find a place to live.  Being that I went to a state university school, most of the student population lived within the city or could drive home in just a few hours.  I didn’t own a car at that time and going back home wasn’t an option because my dad lived in a small rural farming community where there would be nothing but boredom waiting for this college student.  No, the best thing for me was to stay in town with my friends, crash on their couch, and drink beer when I wasn’t working.  And that’s what I did.

Since I didn’t have a car at the time, I had to walk to work from my friend’s apartment whose couch I was sleeping on.  Kentucky in the summer can be stifling.  Temperatures can push over 100 on the hottest days which make wearing the choice uniform of khakis and a blue shirt very uncomfortable (I didn’t change at work because you really couldn’t because the loss prevention guys were paranoid about you taking clothes into the bathroom).  And if the hot temperatures weren’t enough, a lot of small southern towns aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly.  I have vivid memories of going on sweltering death marches hiking on the side of small town highways just hoping I wouldn’t get honked at, accidentally swerved into, or have beer bottles thrown at me.  And all those things happened.  Just another day in the life of a tender-footed college kid just trying to scrape some money together.

The only thing that made those hikes bearable was my iPod.  Apple’s iPhone was just about to hit the market, but it wasn’t as cool as my iPod.  The first iPhone couldn’t hold 10,000 songs.  That is what mattered to me at that time.  To endure all this bullshit, I needed some great tunes to distract me.  Being in college radio, I was getting exposed all kinds of cool new music that was new to me.  It was a seemingly endless supply.  However, it wasn’t enough.  I needed some expert opinions on building the perfect iPod library.

My one-stop shop for all music was a local record store in town called The Great Escape.  It was a small place that franchised maybe two or three stores under that name, but it was the only option in this college town that wasn’t a Best Buy or a FYE.  Even if I wasn’t going to buy anything, it was still a cool place to browse, hang out, or to talk music with the employees.  Matt, the manager of The Great Escape, was always very good to me.  He sponsored my radio show where I got free soul music CDs in exchange for some underwriting spots which was great for me because I didn’t have much cash.

On one of my routine visits to The Great Escape with friends, it was a particularly hot day in July.  Walking into the store, you were met with an immediate blast of air conditioned relief that almost made you feel like you were in heaven.  As I was looking for the latest selection of recently received CDs, I became aware of what was playing over the speakers.  It was dreamy, cool, and I really liked the soft female vocals.  When I asked the counter what was playing, they told me.  All I needed was to hear that one minute before I knew I had to buy that album.  Between feeling great getting out of the hot sun and just enjoying the musical space I was in, it was the perfect moment for me to discover Mazzy Star.

The album I bought that was playing was their 1993 sophomore release So Tonight That I Might See.  The song that so entranced me was “Five String Serenade.”  I was in love with that song and it kicked off my summer.  So Tonight That I Might See became my personal soundtrack to summer 2007 as I listened to it every night.  Kentucky nights in the summer can be magical.  Things become quiet and serene.  It may still be a little muggy out, but it is still a relief from the day’s heat.  I walked around the empty campus at night listening to that album.  I fell asleep every night listening to that album.  I made out with girls to that album.  It was the soundtrack to a strange, new time in my life where you spend so much time trying to figure things out, but the music keeps you grounded and you try to enjoy the moment.

What is interesting about “Five String Serenade” is that it is the only song on the album that was a cover.  The song was originally penned by Arthur Lee of Love.  While my introduction to Love via Forever Changes would be a year away or so, this cover was everything to me at that time.  I didn’t really explore music until my college days and that was during a time when I was being amazed a lot by what I was hearing.  Now I know a lot more and have experienced a lot more music, so those moments when you’re wowed by a discovery become increasingly rarer.  Still, I enjoy that record now not just for it’s own artistic merits but also what it meant to me in a simpler time in my life.  Keith Mitchell was a part of that and I appreciate his work for that reason.

“tom joad” – country joe mcdonald (1969)

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Recently, I was catching up with a friend of mine who moved from Chicago last year.  Every couple of months or so, we FaceTime and just talk about what’s been going in our lives, families, and anything else that comes to mind.  I’m recommended new podcasts or television shows to binge and I really enjoy these talks

The news and current events come up in our conversations a lot.  Since the election last year, that’s really the only thing people talk about.  And rightfully so.  The last two years have been a strange time for the American politics and the citizens of this country.  News coverage leading up to the election in 2016 covered some of the strangest topics ever covered such as a dick measuring contest during one of the Republican primary debates.

Unfortunately, the chaos hasn’t stopped.  As soon as the current administration took control of the office, the sequence of events that has since followed is so fantastic that life right now seems like it was pulled from the plot of a movie.  There is so much happening right now that it is hard to keep up let alone take the time to discern the information overflow from news media outlets.

Whether it is the enforcement of a travel ban, the repeal of a healthcare law, the use of the largest non-nuclear weapon, or an unprecedented firing, the American people have a lot to be mad about.  In the last six months, millions of people have collectively taken to the streets protesting their anger against an administration built on a foundation of hatred and fear.  Watching these protests, and having been in some myself, I find myself bouncing between inspiration and disgust.  I see the people in the streets and I have hope for what people can accomplish together when united against a threat, but I am also dismayed by the institutional powerlessness felt when standing up the man.  Riding that spectrum takes a lot of work and patience, but people stick with it for no other reason than they should.

During my latest talk with my friend, we talked about our involvement in resistance movements against the current administration.  While there are people out there much more involved and devoted, we try to do the best we can.  Though I have always been a politically-minded person, I wasn’t always a politically active person.  However, surrounding the issues inherent in the 2016 election, I’ve become more active and involved than I have ever been.  Marching in the streets, reading reports, engaging in dialogue.  These are the things I had done before, but have since amped up in recent months.  We are in the midst of a perilous time right now and it is likely to get worse than it gets better.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. I have recently been engaged with books more focused on our current political state.  One of the latest books I read was The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election written by counterintelligence expert Malcolm Nance.  Published prior to the election in October, Nance lays down evidence and his analysis on how the Russian government was applying advanced tools and resources to direct the outcome of the 2016 election.  Now that Donald J. Trump has become president, these allegations have come to light in the form of a full-fledged investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia and any possible collusion.

While I read books that are more explicitly focused on a modern and developing issue, I do take time to enjoy books that, on the surface, appear to be unrelated.  Last week, I reread The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  I last read that book 12 years ago as a high school assignment.  I remember the novel having such an incredible impact on me.  As a 17 year old student, I was still developing my ideas of the world but I connected with the raw emotion of the book. Living in a rural farming community in Kentucky at that time, I felt like I could see some qualities of the farmers in the book within some of my neighbors.  Plus, the plot of the book was quite tragic and resulted in one of the most shocking endings I had ever read in a book.  The raw emotional journey of these characters was what I was drawn to because that was what I understood.  The underlying political themes of the book were something I was aware of, but wouldn’t quite fully grasp in a way they required.

A few months ago, I saw on Twitter that a friend of mine recently read Steinbeck’s classic and commented how surprised how heavily feminist the book was.  I tried to figure out what she had meant by that.  I remembered the larger plot details and general theme of the book, but the subtle aspects had been lost over the last decade.  Since my friend is an ardent and respected feminist voice within our peer group, I wanted to reread the novel to understand her claim.  Plus, I had always considered The Grapes of Wrath as my favorite novel despite having only read it once over a decade prior.  It was time to revisit.

As I read Tom Joad’s journey with his family from Kansas to California, I was emotionally invested in the story again.  All the heart-wrenching moments came back in a way that I had remembered, but also in ways that I couldn’t appreciate fully before. Now that I am approaching 30, I gravitated towards different elements and picked up the subtlety more.

While rereading this book, I was struck by just how relevant a lot of themes were today.  In the novel, tenement farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl combined with the acquisition of their land by banks move out west to California where plenty of work with high wages are promised.  Packing everything they have, these migrant farmers risk their well-being for the chance at a better life.  It becomes more clear they were sold a lie the closer they get to California.  Orchards and land companies distributed thousands of handbills in the hopes of attracting more workers than they needed so they could drive the cost down.  If fifty cents an hour was promised, then the work would be given at 25 cents an hour because there will always be someone more hungry and desperate than you who is willing to take it.  This toxic relationship kept landowners and the banks rich while the migrants were starving and working themselves to death.

The issue of wages was the first thing that struck me.  Right now, millions of Americans are employed but underpaid for the work they do.  While Americans could survive forty hours per week at minimum wage a generation or two ago, it is an impossibility now.  Rising cost of living and the wage gaps require workers in minimum wage roles to work multiple jobs at nearly 80 hours a week to maintain a minimum standard of living. Much of what drives this dynamic mirrors the wage issue in The Grapes of Wrath.  Multinational conglomerates whose workforce is predominantly comprised of workers making minimum wage justify refusing to pay their employees more so they executives at the top can reward themselves with lucrative bonuses.  And while the migrant farmers in the book who protested a drop in wages were met with loss of work, so are the workers of today who protest to earn higher wages but are displaced by an automated workforce in the form of computers and touchscreens.

The other shocking revelation I experienced while rereading the book concerned the misplaced aggression in the form of nationalism and the outspoken prejudice against the migrant farmers.  As migrants moved west, they encountered a level of vitriol and hatred they were unaccustomed to.  The migrant farmers were called “Okies,” a pejorative for people from Oklahoma, despite coming from various other places.  This term was violently used against people who had little to no money, traveled in trucks overloaded with their personal belongings, and did not have adequate resources to maintain personal hygiene.  Okies were viewed as dirty people who steal and compared to dogs or vermin.  The locals in California protested these people coming into their state and enjoying their great weather and bountiful resources because they were dirty, poor, and uneducated.  And when Okies couldn’t find work, they lived in jungle camps; settlements with inadequate housing and plumbing.  Even though these migrant farmers were fellow Americans, they were treated an invasive alien force by Californians.

It is not difficult to see the modern parallel between their struggle and the struggle immigrants face today.  While the farmers in Steinbeck’s book were Americans born and raised in the country, crossing the state line was akin to crossing the border to another country.  Today, immigrants from Mexico, Europe, Syria, and many other places risk their lives to find opportunities in America.  Despite this country’s history of open immigration being a symbol of liberty and freedom, there has been a rise in fascist nationalism that has been legitimized by the current presidential administration.  Travel bans have emboldened racists and nationalists to commit violence against immigrants who are just looking for work and shelter.  These fascists claim that they are natural Americans who deserve more of the country’s inherent freedom and wealth while proclaiming that immigrants do not belong and should go somewhere else.  These fascists forget that America is a nation of immigrants, but it does nothing to dissuade their fear and anger.

In 1940, a year after Steinbeck published his novel, Woody Guthrie released his album Dust Bowl Ballads.  Included was a two-part song called “Tom Joad” detailing the character’s life after being paroled from prison.  Guthrie’s’ song summarizes key plots from the book while driving home the spiritual and political narrative of the book.  As much as I love Guthrie and his music, it is Country Joe McDonald’s cover of “Tom Joad” that I enjoy listening to more.  Running at just over seven minutes, McDonald’s version is a full-band tribute to Guthrie and a great American literary protagonist.  McDonald’s version was released in 1969 on his album Thinking of Woody Guthrie; a tribute to the American folk pioneer.  McDonald’s version features a rich folk rock production and adds a livelier interpretation of Guthrie’s lyrics.

The last time I read this book, I was a smart but inexperienced young man.  At that time, I couldn’t event vote.  Though I paid attention to politics on a surface level, I couldn’t engage on such an intimate level quite yet.   Now that I am older, I am more engaged and continuously learning and develop my outlook on important social and political issues of today.  One thing that I see is history repeating itself.  It amazes me just how relevant a book published nearly eight decades ago can be today.  It is alarming because I feel it reinforces this idea that people, as a society, have short-term memory and tend to forget important lessons because they are constantly bombarded with distractions.  I don’t know what will happen over the next few years.  Things will get harder, but I believe that the people fighting against tyranny and oppression will come out stronger for it.  While the migrant farmers did not break and their anger turned to wrath, so will the anger of the American public in the next election.