“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.

“charger” – gorillaz feat. grace jones (2017)

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Talking about music is one of my favorite hobbies.  Hell, that’s why I have this silly blog; to talk about music and whatever inane thoughts I have at the time.  The interest isn’t just insular either.  I make pursuing my hobby social as well.  Whether it is contributing to the social listening parties of “Classic Album Sundays,” going to concerts with friends, or leading a discussion for an album appreciation group over beers, I adapt my relationship to music to suit my moods whether it is listening on my own or sharing experiencing with friends.

For this entry, I was thinking more about the solo adventures I’ve had with music.  I’ve always had eclectic tastes since high school.  Part of my musical exploration stemmed from curiosity.  Pouring over books and magazines, I gravitated towards certain artists and trace the musical lineage leading up to them and what came after.  Music as a journey is important to me.  The story of where we come from, our current state, and the future possibilities are reflected through our art.  You can analyze a lot when you look at what a culture or society is listening to at that time.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of top 40 radio.  We all did.  It is the easily accessible bastion of commercialism that appeals to the masses.  However, at the turn of the millennium, I just kind of quit paying attention to what the hit songs were.  I wasn’t completely oblivious.  The big songs I would hear and most other things would get to me, but it would take time.

During this stage in my life, I was exploring other things.  In 1999 and 2000, I just listened to a lot of classic rock.  The loud, energetic riffs of dad rock just appealed to my rebellious pre-teen nature.  As I got older and heading into high school, my tastes shifted away.  I was listening to the Cure, the Clash, the Police, and other bands that would cement my love for post-punk and new wave during my formative years.  Not that any of those bands weren’t widely successful, commercial, or accessible to a general listener, they weren’t bands that impressionable youth listened to when everyone else in their peer group listened to Nelly or whatever.

Looking back, I’ve held firm to my belief that the aughts would be the worst decade in popular music.  Now, a lot of that comes from the fact I just wasn’t paying attention at that time and nostalgia doesn’t play a factor for me.  However, I’ve had a considerable amount to catch up.  And caught up I have.

The overall issue of music in the 2000s were a culmination of things.  First off, popular genres were terrible.  This is the decade that gave as emo, crunk rap, and the height of cock rock bands like Creed and Nickelback (easy targets, I know, but I’m trying to make a point).  Secondly, this is the dawn of the digital and the correlation the decrease of audio quality and the rise of overproduction.  Vinyl was out and iPods were in.  Music was produced to be loud cutting out the nuance of depth and compressed as low possible so you could fit in your pocket as many songs as possible.  And finally, the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle diversity in listening.  While illegal downloading sites like Napster and LimeWire offered us a seemingly unlimited catalog of poorly compressed and improperly labeled songs to fill our mp3 players, audio streaming platforms had yet make a big splash due to slow internet speeds and limited bandwidth that prevented independent artists from sharing or selling their music.  Take all of that and throw in terrorism and a couple of wars and it is no wonder that the 2000s sucked.

Now it should be no wonder why I missed some artists or just simply didn’t care until years later.  Gorillaz are a band, for example, that just didn’t hit me until years later.  I don’t remember the first time I heard them, but I remember the first time I heard of them.  It was 2001 and I was travelling to England with my mom and sister.  Waiting at the airport during layovers, you take time to look around at shops.  At 13, I would just walk up and down the CD aisles judging the covers.  And I distinctly remember seeing the cover of Gorillaz’s debut album.  It was that album where the animated band were riding in a camouflage dune buggy against a stark background.  Kind of a shitty album cover when you think about it, but hey, it was 2001.  Combine that awful cover with the fact that it had that parental advisory label (music with that label was forbidden to me) and it was something I knew I wouldn’t be interested in let alone be allowed to have interest in.

When Demon Days dropped in 2005, I became a little bit more aware of Gorillaz.  “Feel Good Inc.” was a massive song.  It was inescapable on the radio and in the malls.  Still, it wasn’t something I felt fully invested in.  I liked the songs I had heard on the radio from that album, but I was spending my money on Bob Dylan CDs at that time.  Priorities, you know.

Coincidentally, it wouldn’t be until after the aughts ended that I would care about Gorillaz when their third studio album dropped in 2010 (great timing and out with the shit and in the with the…you know).  Plastic Beach was stellar.  The college radio station I volunteered with put “Rhinestone Eyes” in rotation and it was a hot track.  The DJs loved it and the listeners always requested it.  It wasn’t my pick to be in rotation.  I would’ve preferred “Stylo” or “Melancholy Hill” to go in rotation instead, but you couldn’t go wrong.  It was a solid album and one of the first vinyl records I bought.

On Christmas Day 2010, Gorillaz released a surprise new album for their fan club.  The kitschy thing about The Fall was that it was all recorded on an iPad while the band was on tour.  In less than a decade, the band would release their debut album in a time where physical media was still dominant to recording an entire album on a device that could create and distribute your music while being small enough to fit in a backpack.  I bought the physical release when the album was released in limited quantities to the public on Record Store Day in 2011.  The possibilities a band could pursue with ingenuity, creativity, and technology was practically impossible to quantify and exemplified by Gorillaz.

Then, there was nothing.  Gorillaz disbanded and Damon Albarn, one of the founders, pursued other projects.  Over the years, I still pulled out Plastic Beach on occasion.  I felt that with such a small discography, the band accomplished a lot and made a timeless record with their third release.  In fact, how long could you sustain a virtual band where cartoon apes were the face and voice of your art?  Perhaps that silence on their part signified that people didn’t care anymore.

Last year, news dropped that Gorillaz were getting back together and creating a new album.  And the first single dropped during the presidential inauguration.  “Hallelujah Money” featuring Benjamin Clementine was an apt release because the themes and music video were political in tone.  This was our first taste of new Gorillaz music in several years and it was exciting.

Over the next few months, more information on the upcoming album was released sparingly.  Announcements on the title (Humanz), release date (April 28th, 2017), and guest artists (so many) were released separately.  It was a classic example of withholding information to generate as much buzz as possible.  Even though a few songs were eventually released to give audiences a little taste, you couldn’t even sample the other tracks until the album’s release date.  I was jonesing to stream this album.  I even checked iTunes every day leading up to it’s release to see if I could just listen to a sample.  Nope.  Wasn’t going to happen.  I had to wait.

Humanz released last week and I’ve listened to it several times since then.  While Humanz may not live up to my love and appreciation of Plastic Beach, it is still a solid album complete with danceable tracks and apocalyptic themes.

One particular track I was looking forward to was “Charger” purely on the basis that it featured Grace Jones.  Jones has been someone I’ve grown to deeply appreciate over the last two years after reading her book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Jones is a severely underrated and underestimated musical icon whose fashion, vocal range, and pop innovation continues to reverberate in today’s styles.  I was eager to hear how this enigmatic legend worked with one of the defining bands of my generation.

In fact, Gorillaz have always been great at bridging generational divides I music. One of my favorite tracks from Plastic Beach is “Stylo” featuring the soul master Bobby Womack.  “Stylo” is a fun, power driven song that utilizes Womack’s talents well.  Albarn had worked with a lot of the big patriarchs of music on previous recordings.  However, with Humanz, he acknowledged a lack of representation of musically talented women icons in his music and sought out Jones that.  Albarn wanted Humanz to feature powerful musical matriarchs.  As a result, great artists like Jones and Mavis Staples appear on this album.

“Charger” is a fun track.  I enjoy it as one of my favorite from the album.  However, I am disappointed with how little Jones appears on the track.  While Womack on “Stylo” belted out whole lines crisply over the backing track, Jones feels lost in the background like a specter.  And perhaps that’s intentional, but I really wanted more Grace Jones.

I read about the recording process of the track.  Albarn had wanted to work with Jones and brought her in to listen to the song that would eventually become “Charger.”  In that state, the song already had another vocalist which Jones did not like.  When Albarn removed the other vocalist, Jones ad-libbed in the studio for four hours with a level of energy that Albarn described as “supernatural” and “not entirely of this world.”  So, maybe, the foggy guest appearance reminiscent of a ghost kinda makes sense in the grand scheme of Humanz as a whole.  Still, you cannot go wrong with a little more Grace Jones.

I’m really glad Gorillaz are back and Humanz doesn’t disappoint.  While it is easy to get distracted by the cartoon characters of 2-D, Murdoch, Russel, and Noodle, there is a lot more to this band that what meets the eye.  When their first album dropped, it was easy to dismiss the band as a fad.  However, 16 years later, they have really grown into something that is innovative while also connecting the now with what came before.  By bridging a generation gap in their musical style and the company they keep as guest artists, Gorillaz exemplifies a band that respects that journey of music.

 

“overkill” – men at work (1983)

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Spring has finally come to stay in Chicago and I couldn’t happier.  My big coats have been stowed away as the temperatures have been warm enough for just long-sleeve shirts or even plain t-shirts (be still my beating heart).  The sunshine has been generous and I’ve taken every chance to be outside.  Walking around the neighborhoods, reading on park benches, running the lake path, and even enjoying patio season are now filling my itineraries so fast that I need to hire an assistant to keep track of them all.

The crisp mornings and warm afternoons of spring really inspire something in me.  After spending several months cold and inside during winter, spring reinvigorates me and makes me feel more alive.  Though I am a fairly ambitious person, I have been a lot more motivated lately.  In last week’s entry, I talked about taking steps to jumpstart my career.  However, that hasn’t been the only thing I’ve been focused on.

There was a period in my life where I didn’t have the time, energy, or money to focus on hobbies, friendships, or anything else that would contribute to someone’s development as a well-rounded person.  I was working over 70 hours a week for an abusive person and with such a chaotic schedule that it was hard to focus on myself and my well-being.  My health was declining, my relationship at the time suffered, and it seemed as though no other options were available.

Fortunately, that toxic situation ended over three years ago and I’m thoroughly grateful.  My transition after that job was tough, but I got through it.  In some respects, I’ve been living on borrowed time since then.  While, I think, most people would’ve taken some time off, I hit the ground running and started to focus on things that I enjoyed.  In the last few years, I started volunteering for CHIRP Radio, picked up reading as a hobby, volunteered for a few other media arts non-profits, and starting other hobbies that make me happy and diversify my outlets.  Since I knew what it was like to not have a life when someone exerted so much control over you, I wanted to live on my own terms and that involved doing everything I felt like I was missing out on.

I recently joined a gym.  I talked about hating gyms for years.  For the most part, gyms are smelly, overpriced, and you’re surrounded by people who make you more self-conscious.  Plus, I like to run outside and treadmills feel so unnatural to me.  Regardless, I have now become a gym rat.  I recently found a fitness center at a Chicago park near my apartment.  For $20, I can use their facilities to work out and improve my health and physique.  Having been wanting to make more room for exercise, I found this community park gym to be a nice compromise because of the price and the staff has been so nice.  Taking that step and committing to an exercise routine has now become another way for me to live for myself.

I’ve been feeling really good about the life I’ve bene making for myself.  No one can ever accuse me of being lazy.  I love life and I have a thirst for challenge and experience.  And that makes me unafraid to work towards bettering myself.  To do that, I’m engaging on multiple fronts.  I am giving back to the community when I volunteer regularly, I am looking for a new job that stimulates me more, I am working out to improve my health, and I continue to take music classes to stay creative.

For about a year and a half, I’ve been taking guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk music.  I had wanted to take classes prior, but just couldn’t swing it due to time.  Since starting, I have improved a lot.  I’m still not playing at the level of Jimmy Page or Frank, but I have fun with it.  There are still some aspects I have trouble with.  Barre chords, for example, are my biggest obstacles.  However, with enough time and practice, I’m sure I’ll get there.

This Sunday will be my class’ student show case.  At the end of an eight-week sessions, classes perform on stage in front of an audience to showcase what they have learned.  Classes from all skill levels perform one song.  For my student showcase, we will be performing “Overkill” by Men At Work.  What makes “Overkill” such a good showcase piece is that use of power chords and barre chords.  It is also a song people know so that helps when connecting with the audience.

What is really funny is how apt of a selection “Overkill” is when I think about my life and the changes I want to make.  Written by Colin Hay, “Overkill” is a worrier’s anthem.  In the song, Hay cannot get to sleep because he is up thinking too much about people and situations form his past.  Tossing and turning in his bed, he is driving himself crazy. It is only when he walks the streets and is distracted by the lights that he can momentarily forget about whatever is in the past that is bothering him.

I connect with this song because I am worrier.  Honestly, I try not to be.  In fact, I work very hard not to worry.  I’ve realized in the last few years that it takes a while to make meaningful change.  And any change worth making doesn’t come easy.  It takes time and a lot of work.  Stay committed long enough and you’ll see the results.

I felt like I wasn’t in control of my life for the first few years living in Chicago because of my job.  Things have improved since then and I am happier for those changes, but I don’t want to take things for granted.  We all have ghosts from the past that try to haunt us.  You can either let them get to you, or fight them off by focusing on the future.  And sometimes, despite all your best effort, they’ll still get you.  It will happen, but you cannot stop.  Don’t look back.

As much as I love “Overkill” as a song, it is not a way I want to live.  That’s why I find new professional, creative, or personal outlets for me to explore.  Change will happen and, when it does, I want to feel like I am strong enough to handle whatever comes my way.  So, I am making things happen for myself now.  I am loving this heightened sense of motivation I have recently acquired to be the best friend, lover, colleague, professional, etc. that I can be.  With warmer weather, spring also comes with opportunities.  Whether they be new jobs, new friends, new lovers, or new experiences, I feel fortunate that I have the freedom to work towards what I want in my life.

“makeout king” – showyousuck (2013)

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Ambition is something I never really lacked.  As far back as I can remember, I have always been motivated to do my best and achieve my goals.  It is easy to dream big when you’re younger.  That kind of optimism is something I really miss.  As it increasingly disappears over time, reality sets in.  You’re more aware of your own personal limitations as well as the obstacles put in front of you by your environment or by chance.  It becomes a game that requires an evolving strategy as the game board constantly changes.

I am still very much an ambitious person.  However, the only difference between myself now and myself back then is that I have to try harder as I get older.  I wish I had all the free time and energy I wasted so cavalierly a decade ago.  Now, I have jobs and responsibilities.  I don’t have kids, though.  Young parents who manage to still have some semblance of a personal life are super heroes to me.

My career is something I have been very focused on lately.  In fact, I’ve always been focused on my career.  When I first moved to Chicago, I got a non-profit video production job and did that steadily for three years.  Then, I moved on to some freelance consulting for a film non-profit.  When I finally got a full-time video production job again, things were looking up.  Then, the Chicago branch of this company closed and I was left figuring out what to do next.

What followed was me doing a series of administrative temp jobs. Ultimately, one became permanent with benefits, paid time off, and a 401k retirement plan.  I had never had those things before.  While this new job wasn’t in my field, it was stable and provided me with the ability to pay my bills without worry and have health insurance.  Since I just went through a period of unstable employment due to be being laid off and doing low-level temp jobs, I told myself that I would stay at my new job for two years before I pound the pavement looking for a break in my field.

During those two years, I did a volunteer of volunteer work for a few media non-profits.  In fact, I still volunteer because I love it and it builds my resume.  One is a community radio station where I develop partnerships with local businesses and organizations.  The other is a renowned folk music school where I organize and catalogue records in their archives.  As much fun as I have at these places and enjoy what I do, neither directly contributed to my set goal of working in video production.

My two-year anniversary at my current job arrived in January.  That would be my starting gun in the race for a new job.  Finding a new job takes a lot of work.  You send out a high volume of resumes, get met with a high volume of rejections, and the whole process is tedious, monotonous, and time consuming.  I envy people who have been at their place of employment for over a decade or have had a high enough of a position where their job hunting work is kept at a minimum.  Finding a job is a job itself.

The whole process for me is frustrating because I have a lot of great experience and talent.  However, I have hard time telling my story in a way that is attractive to recruiters or hiring managers.  The main issues are that I am just too honest and direct plus I really undersell my abilities due to lack of confidence.  I am working on these things.

Finding a new job requires more than just a standard approach.  You need flexibility to tackle problems with solutions that come in the form of a dynamic, engaged, and multi-faceted plan.  You have to give your all in every aspect of the process and not just one part, or you just may as well not be doing anything at all.  Contacting recruiters is great and all, but you gotta be hungrier than that.  Getting back out in the job market made me realize that while I did a lot of great volunteer work over the last few years, I wasn’t necessarily focusing in on opportunities that were more beneficial to my job hunt.  The solution to this problem?  Work even harder.

I’ve now started to find opportunities to get back into media production and to use those opportunities as networking opportunities.  My community radio station, CHIRP Radio, has an ongoing artist spotlight series called “CHIRP Factory Sessions.”  In an episode, an artist is highlighted by the station; usually a local or up-and-coming artist.  They perform a few songs during a professional video production session with interview clip interspersed between songs.  Even though I had been at CHIRP radio for three years, this was something I never volunteered to help with.  That was going to change.

The volunteer work for this program is fairly simple.  When the artist and video crew arrive, you just help get their stuff in the building, clear some stuff to make room, and then step back and let them do their thing.  Like all the video productions I worked on before, there is a lot of standing around.  That is just the nature of the industry.  However, you can choose how you use this time.  My goal is networking.  I hung around and talked with the crew.  Nothing too big or serious.  Just general bullshitting.  This was the first time I had met the crew, so I couldn’t lay it on so thick with the “help me get back into video production” shtick.  Gotta take it slow, let them remember you, and then make a move.  As I mentioned, finding new opportunities is a very slow process.

Even though I am committed to the long game and willing to wait, it still doesn’t mean I don’t get a little down and overwhelmed by how slow things can move.  With how my brain operates, I get a little bummed and then I start thinking about all the bad things.  So, that is when I putting my grounding exercises to use and distract myself with something I like.  This was starting to happen when the video crew was busy setting up and I didn’t have the chance to engage with them personally, so I talked to one of the artists who came in to perform.

The featured artist that night was Air Credits.  Air Credits is a hip-hop duo fronted by Clinton Sandifer who is more known in Chicago by his stage name Showyousuck.  Air Credits provides the soundtrack for the not too distant future where the environment is ravaged and the water supply is virtually non-existent.  There is a message to their music that is all too real given the environmentally damaging policies of the Trump administration.  It is political music for a political time.

I got an opportunity to chat with Sandifer for a bit.  The new Kendrick Lamar was a few days away from being released.  A lot of pressure was on Lamar considering his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly was a commercial hit and critical milestone.  With all the secrecy surrounding Lamar’s album, everyone was dying to know if Lamar could deliver a great work of art again.

One of the big mysteries surrounding the album involved the guests on the record.  Only two would be featured; Rihanna and U2.  Given that U2 had become kind of a joke with the kids these days because of recent mediocre albums, lack of chart-topping hits, Bono’s philanthropy, and, of course, the whole iTunes fiasco, people were freaking out.  How were U2 and Kendrick Lamar going to sound?  Was it going to be a sample? Would Bono rap?  No one knew and it was driving music fans and the Internet crazy.  It was unfathomable for both U2 and Kendrick Lamar fans to imagine such a collaboration.  Who had lost their minds between the two?

Sandifer and I talked about the upcoming U2 guest spot.  Sandifer was super skeptical, but open-minded.  U2 had collaborated with hip-hop and rap artists before, but all those tracks were mediocre at best.  Sandifer is a rap artist and aficionado, I am a die-hard U2 fan, and Lamar’s new track was what we shared.

While speculating on the quality of the track, I was talking to Sandifer about some of the comments I had seen online.  A lot of jokes were being made, but that was to be expected because no one knew.  I frequent a message board run by the U2 fan site atu2.com.  Earlier in the day, I was reading through a thread about the Lamar album.  One user had posted the text from a tweet they had read.  Without crediting who wrote the tweet, it said “DOES KENDRICK EVEN KNOW THAT U2 IS ON HIS ALBUM, BECAUSE THEIR ALBUM IS STILL ON MY PHONE AND I NEVER ASKED FOR THAT.”  Three years later and the iTunes jokes are still coming in.

I told Sandifer about that and he looked at me and said “I wrote that.”  Immediately, I busted out laughing.  Not only was it a really great pop culture joke, but I was unknowingly talking the author of that solid joke.  I marveled at the serendipity of the situation and how small our world can be.  I told Sandifer his joke had been circulating on message boards and he flipped out in hysterics over that.  He event wanted a picture of the post so he could share it on Twitter.  It was great and hilarious moment.

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Of course, I didn’t know any of that was going to happen.  I was going into the evening a little tired, but ready to start working so I can meet the right people and get the right job and so on and so forth.  As a really focused and intense person, it can be hard for me to stop and take in my surroundings.  Just pausing and enjoying the simpler and little things can be hard for someone on a mission fueled by their own hunger and ambition.  My goal was to network and get things done.  If I didn’t talk to Sandifer, I would’ve gone home even more tired and a little stressed.  But my conversation with him and that revelation over our shared interests really made my night.

As mentioned earlier, Sandifer is more known by his rap persona Showyousuck.  He’s always been a great friend to CHIRP Radio and always a delight to listen to and see perform.  One of my favorite tracks of his comes from his 2013 EP Dude Bro.  “Makeout King” is a fun party song with a killer synth and laid back lyrics.  Sandifer raps about coming to pick you up in a hurry while making out in the backseat listening to Journey.  Though Air Credits has a more focused and socially conscious message, Sandifer’s music as Showyousuck is just pure fun.  As with “Makeout King,” his other tracks like “80’s Boobs” showcase his penchant for throwback musical stylings and lyrical pop culture references that are fun and great to dance to.

Still very much an independent local artist, Sandifer still makes his mark as a triumphantly creative force in the Chicago music scene.  Any and all success he gets is greatly deserved.  With a catalogue that continues to get bigger and more prolific, Sandifer’s music has the potential for mass appeal with his catchy tracks and meaningful commentary.  Working and talking with him was a perfectly good reminder that I can work hard for what I want, but that I should still take time to slow down and enjoy the things that I would otherwise miss.  That if I’m not going to drive myself crazy looking for work, I need to remember that I have a life to live to stay grounded, balanced, and happy.  And that includes getting the most laughter and fun out of things that I can.

 

“fight the power” – public enemy (1989)

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Growing up, I was enamored by film.  So much so that I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I was in high school when I made that decision for myself because, as we all know, what you decide for yourself as a teenager stays with you forever and you can’t change or else you’ll live the rest of your days as a miserable failure.  But, I digress.

As a plucky teenager in high school, I figured that the first step to becoming a legitimate filmmaker was to study the classics.  To see how people did things before, find aesthetics that appealed to me, and replicate them while making some mistakes that would lead to artistic, personal, and professional innovation.  In other words, I spent a lot of time in my room watching movies and not playing outside.

I tried to watch as many classics as I could growing up.  Any movie that appeared on any curated “best of” list was fair game as I critiques, analyzed, and studied each film to any degree a kid can intellectually dissect cinema.  I was paying attention to framing, composition, blocking, tracking, and any other film trick that was used to project a certain idea.  It was a very academic way to approach a movie and my introduction to film theory.

In college, I watched a lot of films as well.  Before college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads on television tell me why a particular movie was so important.  In college, I watched movies and listened to talking heads at the front of the class tell why a particular movie was so important.  This was the next logical step in my education.  I had the drive and motivation to learn, but now had more tools in my repertoire to really get at the heart of the art form.  Combine that with me studying the technical side in my video production classes and you had all the makings of the next cinematic auteur.

However, things change.  You learn new things, reevaluate your priorities based on what is happening around you, and then explore new facets of yourself you weren’t aware of before.  After college, I lost a lot of interest in studying cinema or even working in film.  I had just worked on a movie in Alaska and I was left wondering if there was more.  I left the experience a little disillusioned which was an extension of inklings of thought I had while pursuing an internship at a major media conglomerate.  I had seen how the industry cultivates a toxic level of egotism and selfishness that just didn’t sit right with me.

My outlook on film changed.  Instead, I applied my video production background in different areas including non-profits where I worked on education initiatives.  I really enjoyed the proactive and socially engaging ways that video could be used to reach people and communicate certain ideas that motivate them.  Plus, I realized that traditional video production was boring.  This is the 21st century goddammit.  Terrestrial media is dying and I can access everything I need on my little pocket oracle.  That attitude my upset purists who enjoy big theaters, but it is truth.  Plus, there is a time and place.  As much as I love sitting in a dark theater watching images on a big screen, video and film have more power than that and how we engage with it is changing.

This also affected my viewing habits.  I stopped watching television and film as much as I used to.  There were other interests and hobbies I pursued.  If I watched anything at all, it was something I hadn’t seen before or was just really goofy entertainment like a John Waters movie.  The classics were no longer a part of my life.  I had seen, reviewed, and analyzed them all. What could I gain from going through them again?

That all changed recently.  After listening to a variety of different Fresh Air episodes and books on film, I started to get the itch to revisit all my beloved classic cinema that I hadn’t seen in well over a decade.  It started with The Godfather when I picked up a copy from the library after hearing Coppola talk to Terry Gross about a new book containing the diary he kept while making that film.  Rewatching it was a great experience.  I remember it was a great film and that it was important in popular culture.  It is so ingrained in our society that whenever that title is mentioned, you know it is considered the pinnacle of great American cinema.  However, watching it over a decade later, I picked up a lot more than when I last saw it in high school.  As an adult pushing 30, I understood a deeper level of complexity and subtlety that I never did before.  I gravitated to different things as an adult.  It was like watching the film for the first time.

That experience led me to think about what I am missing when it comes to all my other favorite classics.  Can I go back and gain a fresh outlook on something I watched so many times already?  I had to find out, so I went to the library and stocked up on a dozen or so classic films that I cherished and challenged me as an adolescence.  Title likes All About Eve, It Happened One Night, 12 Angry Men, and others were calling to me.  So, I’ve begun a journey of rediscovery and becoming reacquainted with the art that inspired me.

One of the films I recently rewatched was Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing which I hadn’t seen since my senior year of high school.  Lee plays the lead role, Mookie, in the film who is employed to deliver pizza for a local pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn run by an Italian-American named Sal and his two sons.  The film takes places over the course of one day and it is one of the hottest days of the year.  As Mookie delivers pizzas to various members of the community, we get little glimpses into the lives and struggles of Mookie’s neighbors.  Da Mayor, a local old drunk played by Ossie Davis, attempts to sweet talk Mother Sister, a kind of matriarch of the neighborhood portrayed by Ossie’s wife Ruby Dee.  A group of three black men, including a Caribbean immigrant, sit on the sidewalk and complain all day about the Korean shop owners being so successful after just coming off the boat.  Radio Raheem strolls through the area blasting his boom box while other people yell at him to turn it down.  Mookie’s girlfriend, played by Rosie Perez, raises their kid and argue about how Mookie is away for so long.  And Buggin’ Out, Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, is leading his own version of a revolutionary civil right movement.  Amidst all these interconnecting stories, tensions between races and classes rise along with the mercury until everything break loose.

While Mookie serves as the voice of reason in the film, it is Buggin’ Out who drives the narrative.  Sal’s pizzeria contains a “Wall of Fame” of famous Italian-Americans which serves as a point of cultural and ethnic pride for the owner.  Since the neighborhood is predominantly black, Buggin’ Out demands that Sal puts pictures of “brothers” on the wall.  Sal refuses because it is his place and Buggin’ Out rallies people to boycott Sal’s pizzeria.  During the climax of the film, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem storm the restaurant.  Radio Raheem’s boom box gets broken for playing his music too loud and a huge fight breaks out.  The police soon arrive but things continue to get out of hand.  The pizzeria is burned down and Radio Raheem is choked to death by police.

Upon rewatching this film after a decade, it had dawned on me how this movie from 1989 still manages to be one of the most relevant films out there today.  Do the Right Thing is a complex analysis on race relations between multiple races and the systemic oppression that all face by people in power.  In the last few years, there has been a rise in the reporting of the deaths of unarmed black men by the hands of police; a theme explored in such a real way nearly 30 years ago by Lee.  There are even moments that deal with race issues that are not even as extreme as the death of Radio Raheem.  When Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans get scuffed by a white resident’s bike, Buggin’ Out is shocked and offended that this white man was born and raised in the same neighborhood and blames gentrification for the decline of his role in the social order of the neighborhood.  His shoes, a point of pride for him, represented his self-worth and were disrespected by this figure he identified as an outsider.  As neighborhoods in cities continue to raise rents and seen an increase in the number of white, middle-class residents, people of color are no longer in control of their own neighborhood until they are eventually priced Out.  Again, another issue that is urgent today that was explored so elegantly nearly 30 years prior.

Do the Right Thing also contains one of the most engaging and shocking scenes involving racial issues I’ve ever seen on film.  Mookie tries to connect with one of Sal’s sons, played by John Turturro, and find out why he has issues with black people.  Mookie asks him who is favorite basketball players is, who his favorite rock star is, and so on.  And Turturro keeps responding with historical or popular black figures and then suggests that he can like them because they are black, but not really black.  That they are beyond black in a way to suggest that they are closer to white and, therefore, more respectable.  This dialog between the two characters then jumps to a montage of different characters saying racial epithets and slurs straight to the camera as it tracks swiftly to a close-up.  Mookie looks straight into the lens and launches into a tirade about Italians, Turturro insults black people, a Puerto Rican neighbor spews hate speech about Koreans, a white police office speaks on Latino stereotypes, and a Korean man goes on an Anti-Semitic rant.  This montage ends with Samuel L. Jackson, playing the DJ of a local radio station, yelling that we all need to chill.   This airing of grievances from a variety of different ethnic groups about other ethnic groups makes such an incredible statement about race relations and the environmental and social factors that influence animosity.

With Black Lives Matter, the racist ramblings of our president, and other problems facing people of color that continue to be ignored, Do the Right Thing continues to be the most relevant film out there.  The only way it could be any more relevant to current times is if it included Muslim characters.  It handles the topic and presents ideas in such a subtle and humanistic way.  Even during the finale when the raging mob targets the Korean shop owner, the Korean man is able to diffuse the situation by telling them the black crowd that they are the same.  He doesn’t mean it literally that his skin tone is the same as theirs, but he means it from the perspective that they face the same issues as non-white Americans. Incredibly powerful, the film is certainly one of the most important films out there.

Strewn throughout the film and featured so prominently as to be a character itself, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” plays throughout the film.  The song famously opens the film as the credits play and Rosie Perez dances against a stage backdrop of colorful New York brownstones.  It is the song that Radio Raheem plays on his boom box and the track that sparks the fight in the pizzeria.  It is an incredibly thunderous song with a lot of anger and poetic rhythm.  In the song, Chuck D is urging listeners to fight the powers that be.  Confrontational and revolutionary, “Fight the Power” is anthemic and a call to action to start a revolution and engage in intelligent activism.  Famously, Chuck D states that Elvis Presley doesn’t mean shit to him signaling the toppling of a white music legend who stole from black artists only to make room for the next wave of music; music of revolution by black artists for black artists.

If you haven’t seen Do the Right Thing¸ take some time to do so.  It is a cultural tour de force with a message that still permeates our culture nearly 30 years later.  You’ll engage, learn, and fight the powers that be once you see it.

“y.a.l.a.” – m.i.a. (2013)

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In the last two or three years, reading has become one of my favorite hobbies.  I’m practically on a new book every week.  Everything is tracked on a spreadsheet including what I have read, when I read it, and what I’m going to read next.  My list of books to read always changes based on library availability, date of release, and general interest at that time.  And I like to keep things diverse, too.  I mostly read non-fiction, but I do enjoy a good novel or graphic novel once in a while.  To help keep things diverse, I compile my reading list based on my interest, recommendation from friends, and author interviews on shows like Fresh Air or Real Time with Bill Maher.

Reading wasn’t something I really did.  Of course, I read books while in school.  However, unless I really cared about a subject or author, I really didn’t read for leisure.  When I started becoming an active reader, I picked up my first book November 2014; my first book in four years.  There’s a story as to how I became a voracious reader, but I’ll save that for another entry.

One activity I engage in to keep me a healthy and well-rounded reader is participating in a book club.  Though, you can’t just join any book club.  There’s so much to consider when participating in a book club.  You have to be interested in the book selections, enjoy the company of people around you, and find the time to actually do it.  Finding the right book club for you is like trying shoes.  You have to go through all sorts of styles before finding the right fit.

I like the idea of book clubs on the surface level, but it is different when you actually go.  My first book club I went to was last year.  I went once.  The people were fine and the book selection was fine (Bonk by Mary Roach), but I just didn’t feel like I really belonged.  Prior to that, the only club I went to was one organized by a colleague from CHIRP, the community radio station I volunteer with.  I only went to one meeting.  Not because I didn’t have any fun or enjoyed the book, but because CHIRP’s book club wouldn’t meet again for another year.  The organizer had just been really busy.

Since October, the CHIRP Radio book club has picked back up and meeting every other month.  And I really like it.  Most of the attendees are friends and colleagues, plus we read books on music.  Consistent themes in a book club are an underrated aspect of the experience.

Last week, the book club was meeting to discuss the latest selection Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.  In short, this book was a history of the Riot Grrrl movement that elevated girls’ and women’s role in the music scene, blended punk rock and fashion, and is attributed to the creation and development of third-wave feminism.  Unfortunately, the Riot Grrrl movement only last for a few years in the early 1990s.

Due to a number of factors such as rainy weather and busy schedules, most of the regulars didn’t show up.  It looked like it was just going to by one of my colleagues and me.  We were even debating on adjusting the normal book club schedule to accommodate such a low turnout.  However, right on time, two women who I didn’t know and were not a part of CHIRP Radio came to attend the book club.

I had volunteered prior to the meeting to lead the book discussion.  Not because I consider myself an authority on feminism or Riot Grrrl specifically, but I just really enjoy talking about books.  My colleague, an educated and fun woman, had me start off the discussion.  I introduced the book and started to summarize the key points when I had a sudden realization.  I was the only man there.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement to a group of women.  The irony was slowly sinking in.  I nervously laughed it off, addressed the male elephant in the room, and passed off the role of discussion leader to my colleague who had also wondered why I wanted to lead this discussion (Again, I just like talking about books).

Our discussion on the book was fascinating and enlightening.  It was a comfortable space where we shared out opinions and analyses involving the Riot Grrrl movement including what the flaws were, why was the movement so short, or what they could have done to keep it going.  Naturally, since the movement is so heavily associated with feminism, we talked a lot about feminism.  Specifically, what feminism meant to the girls and women in this movement and comparing it the previous feminist waves.

While I am certainly no authority of feminism, I do consider myself a feminist.  And despite my nervousness earlier when introducing the book, I was able to engage actively and navigate very difficult topics.  My colleague had teased me by saying this was a safe space and that it was okay to discuss these things.  That certainly helped and was funny.  I am a straight cisgender white male and my experiences in that world means I don’t always have the most progressive and inclusive views at all times, but my humanist outlook has value and I actively try to be thoughtful and considerate of all people involved in a neutral and respectful way.  For example, my colleague had asked the group if we thought the women in the book hated men and, if so, was that ok.  The other two women in the group stated their points that the women in the book hated men and that it wasn’t ok.  I disagreed and firmly believed the women didn’t hate men and, if they did, that’s ok.  I was asked to explain my answer and I stated that was ok for groups of people with shared physical traits or ideologies to congregate on their own terms.  The girls and women in this book wanted to hang out with other girls and women.  That meant that had to exclude boys to do that.  And I fully support that.  They should have the freedom and ability to do that without question or interference.  This led to a discussion about discrimination and I held onto that belief altruistically.  If a nasty racist group wanted to meet and exclude whoever they wanted to exclude that, that’s tolerable.  It’s not ok in the sense that it is fine or acceptable to let that happen, but it has to be tolerated.  Plus, there are creative ways you can banish those groups to the corner without affecting their rights such as removing their racist posts on social media.  As long as the government doesn’t interfere with their free speech, they can be culturally excluded.  As long as no group isn’t being violent or inciting violence, it’s their right to meet, demonstrate, and be as exclusive or inclusive as they want.  I don’t think the women in the book club necessarily agreed with that point, but I communicated it rationally.  It may not be the most “woke” thing to believe, but I try to learn, be more thoughtful and considerate, and not be a complete shitbag.

The most interesting discussion revolved around third-wave feminism’s relationship to the second-wave and what will the fourth-wave look like.  We discussed why well-established feminist organizations didn’t step in to help support the Riot Grrrl movement.  There may be a lot of answers to that question ranging from those organizations didn’t know to that they didn’t care.  I personally believe it was the latter.  We discussed how the values of third-wave feminists weren’t respected by second-wave feminists who had more limited views on the definitions of femininity and what it means to be a woman. That generational divide applied to both age and ideals and is a logical answer to the question of why Riot Grrrl wasn’t supported by the likes of Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin.

Third-wave feminism is, currently, the last wave that is agreed upon en masse.  The fourth-wave, in terms of what it means as well as the people and ideas that embody it, have yet to be agreed upon.  There are a lot of ideas floating around that fourth-wave feminism means including social media’s impact on feminism, transgender support, reproductive justice, and increased presence of women in senior leadership roles.  All of those are great things.  It is just that there is not solid outline as of yet.

I had raised the question to the group as to what they think fourth-wave feminism will look like and their goals from that movement.  My colleague, a woman of Indian ethnicity, stated she wants the fourth-wave of feminism to be led by woman of color.  We talked about how feminist movements had been led by educated western white women and there had always been issues with inclusivity when it came to woman of color (the Riot Grrrl movement experienced the same criticism in the book).  While a lot of progressive liberals are focused on ivory tower feminist issues such as why Mayim Bialik thinks women shouldn’t be referred to as girls, women of color abroad face issues and unspeakable horrors that simply don’t enter into the lives of white women in this country.

The rapper M.I.A. was brought up as someone who has been valuable at raising awareness over issues facing women of color.  Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A. has been an activist focusing on issues facing Sri Lankan Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans.  She cites her voicelessness as a child as being the motivation for her role as a refugee advocate.  While M.I.A.’s activism has drawn a considerable blend of criticism and praise, she has undoubtedly been influential in elevating the role of women of color in not only music but also their place in the world.

I wasn’t really aware of M.I.A. when she released Arular in 2005.  Like most people, my introduction to her music was the 2007 album Kala because “Paper Planes” was a huge hit.  It was all over the radio and featured in commercials and movies.  It was a popular and inescapable song.  And rightfully so.  It is a great song.

I’ve paid attention to M.I.A.’s career since then.  In 2013, she released Matangi.  The fourth single released from that record was “Y.A.L.A.” and instantly became my favorite M.I.A. song.  With its heavy beat and hypnotic rhyming, it is a catchy song that is also poignant and clever.  “Y.A.L.A” stands for “You Always Live Again” and is a direct reference to Drake’s song and the popularization of his term “Y.O.L.O.” (“You Only Live Once”).  M.I.A. uses Hindu themes to lampoon a ridiculous pop culture statement that invites recklessness and thoughtlessness.  She poses the question of why, if we only live once, then why do we keep doing the same shit.  Culturally aware, M.I.A.’s critique of such selfish disregard is enlightening and indicative of her work blending social justice and music.