“phantom of aleppoville” – benjamin clementine (2017)

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On Sunday, I saw David Byrne perform live at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.  The tour was to support his latest studio album American Utopia which was his first solo studio release since 2004’s Grown Backwards.  Being a Talking Heads fan, I was eager to see Byrne perform.  Though I wasn’t that familiar with his work outside of Talking Heads, I knew there would be enough of his old band’s material to justify me going.  Plus, he promised an innovative performance so that piqued my interest.

However, this week’s blog post isn’t about Byrne or his concert or his latest album.  As part of my structure for the blog, I don’t repeat an artist once I write an entry with them at the center.  Also, it varies how I approach these things.  It could be an event I saw, a general feeling I’m experiencing, profiling an artist I enjoy, or a commentary on what is happening in the news.  It all depends on how I feel.  Before going to the show, it would’ve been likely I would end up writing about Byrne.  However, I’ll save him for another day because I want to talk about his opening act.

When I bought the tickets, I had no idea Byrne would have a tour opener.  I generally forget about tickets for things several months away because I have other life things to focus on.  This also helps in keeping me away from spoilers.  I don’t like spoilers or knowing too much about a show or performance.  So, I’ll typically avoid setlists or reviews or anything that provides context and information on the show.  That’s why I didn’t know Benjamin Clementine was the opening act.

I was not familiar with Benjamin Clementine nor did I recognize his name.  I happened to walk into a store the day of the David Byrne concert and see his name.  He appeared on it wearing a dapper suit and stood against a solid gray background.  The text on the poster read that Clementine was touring for his new album with David Byrne.  What was funny was that the text read “Benjamin Clementine with David Byrne” and that Byrne’s name was smaller and popped less than Clementine’s name.  I found the humor in such boldness to position yourself as top-billed for a tour where you’re the supporting act.  I enjoyed it.

That poster still didn’t tell me anything about Clementine and I was too busy to look him up. I had things to do before meeting with my friend at the show.  Plus, I was more focused on Byrne anyway.  That was who I shelled out hard earned cash to see anyway.

I met my friend and we took our seats that were way up in the gallery of the Auditorium Theatre.  The balcony area below us was quite a drop and the makeshift railing held by pipes and vice grips didn’t seem too sturdy as patrons grabbed and shook it to keep steady until they found their seats.  Also, the ambient rain and thunder noises playing in the theatre (probably curated by Byrne for pre-show ambience) didn’t help with my awareness of our position in the theatre.

On the stage was a piano, some guitars with pedals, amps, and some child-sized mannequins laying at the feet of an adult-sized mannequin draped with an American flag.  Based on what I knew about Byrne’s album, I thought those props were for him.  It didn’t cross my mind that they were meant for the opener.

The lights dimmer and two spotlights shone down on the piano and amps.  Clementine appeared on stage wearing an open jacket and white cowboy hat.  He was barefoot.  He walked slowly around the stage.  As he passed the instruments and mannequins, he would ring a bell at varying intervals.  This went on for several minutes as droning music played in the background.  This was part of the show and I intended to concentrate all my attention on it.  However, my fellow peanuts in the gallery didn’t seem to care.  They were there for Byrne and there was a lot of a noise and talking as they made cynical comments about the opener walking around in circles.  It was funny for them, but I felt their behavior was disrespectful.  So, I tried to focus on the show.

I didn’t know Clementine or his music (any mention of his songs in this post come from post-show research).  He opened with a song called “Condolence” and I was immediately engaged by it.  He skillfully played his piano while his bandmate played a droning guitar and activated a control board that played electronic rhythms.

Prior to the show starting, my friend told me that Clementine won the Mercury Prize for his first studio album At Least for Now which was released in 2015.  Upon hearing that first song, I could hear why.  Already, I could tell that Clementine was a masterful piano player.  And I found that impressive.  However, what I found thrilling was his voice and the delivery of his lyrics.  Clementine has such a deep and soulful voice with a cadence and delivery that is reminiscent of Nina Simone.  In fact, I’ll take that back.  He sounded exactly what I would imagine Nina Simone would sound like if she were a tall, androgynous Englishman.

After performing “Condolence,” Clementine returned to waking circles around the set.  His pace changed and he rang his bell at quicker intervals.  When he returned to the piano, he played “Phantom of Aleppoville” from his 2017 studio album I Tell a Fly.  This song sold me on Clementine as an artist.  It opens quietly with Clementine scat singing.  He goes on and he increases the dynamics of the performance until he is pounding on the piano screaming “leave me alone” to the point where your can hear the distortion and know that the soundboard was working on overtime trying to handle the various changes Clementine would go through.

Clementine only performed six songs for his opening set and he did so masterfully.  I was amazed by how adventurous he was in his musicianship.  He has a solid gold voice and plays the piano beautifully.  He could churn out a typical pop album like Adele and become a commercial smash.  However, he throws his heart in experimentalism and avant garde pop devoid of melody and combining elements of free jazz and contemporary classical.  I haven’t been this impressed with an up-and-coming artist in a long time.

It was very disappointing that people were talking throughout his set.  I know he wasn’t the artist they paid to see, but he was deserving of their attention because he is so talented.  They found the walking around stage funny as well as Clementine kicking around a baby mannequin on stage.  Granted, I didn’t know what all of it meant.  But, I was still focused on what was happening because I recognized I was seeing something truly special.

In my research today, I have seen that Benjamin Clementine is making his way through music.  He appeared on the Gorillaz’s 2017 album Humanz.  I never listened to the whole album, so I missed him entirely.  But, I’ve been listening to his second studio album I Tell a Fly non-stop.  I have yet to hear his first album, but I have read I Tell a Fly is a richer departure that focuses on Clementine’s growth and continuing experimentalism.  I’ll get to it eventually, but I want to be absorbed by what I heard in concert.

“Phantom of Aleppoville” was the highlight for me from his set.  I’ve listened to the studio cut dozens of times.  It is an amazing track for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the live performance.  That live performance was a treasure and I feel bad for the people around me who didn’t listen.

Narratively, “Phantom of Aleppoville” is about children being bullied which is a serious problem that lads to suicides and violence at home and in schools.  The United States has seen a rise in school shootings and some of the shooters who live cite bullying as one of their motivations.

The song also addresses the violence children face with war-torn countries at the hands of murderous dictators.  They know a unique kind of horror that isn’t known to many in our schools in America.  However, the song isn’t about the differences in those experiences.  It is about the similarities.  The trauma they experience have different causes, but the effect is still the same.

The message really speaks to me.  Whenever I am trying to get through a personal struggle or pain, one part of my healing process is to just dismiss it because other people around the world have it harder.  I think Why am I complaining about something so insignificant when people are starving or being murdered by their government?  It took me a long time to realize that I cannot think that way.  Sure, it is great to have that kind of perspective, so I don’t become an entitled dick.  However, I can’t live my life comparing myself to other people even if I am trying to focus on what is good in my life.  Everyone has problems that we must work through, but it is detrimental to one’s own mental health to compare themselves to other people.

I know I am going to listen to Benjamin Clementine nonstop all week.  And I am eager to see how his career evolves.  I would love to see him in concert where he is the highlight people paid to see.  Perhaps he’ll get the attention he deserves.

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“this must be the place (naive melody)” – talking heads (1983)

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I turn 30 next week and I’m flying to New York City on my birthday to spend a few days in the Big Apple.  I booked this trip randomly as a spur of the moment type of thing.  A friend had posted that flights to NYC were only $80 on United and the timing felt right.

Making a random purchase like that is big for me.  I don’t usually spend money on things like flights without putting a ton of thought into it.  Really thinking about it for weeks or even months.  The reason is that money really stresses me out.  I don’t like spending it.  I make enough at my job to enjoy myself and I’m really good at saving money, so I’m not hurting financially.  However, I still hate spending money.

A few years ago, after a nasty break-up, I was flat broke.  I lost my job the same week as that break-up and worked low-paying temp jobs for the last half of the year.  I was scared.  I didn’t know what my future looked like.  I craved stability.

I got the idea in my head that the military was the answer (it was my dad who made one off-handed comment as something to consider).  I spent late summer of 2014 through late winter of 2015 preparing to become an officer in the Air Force.  The only thing driving me was that I wanted financial security and not have a job that I could just lose again.  I was also nursing a broke heart, so I wasn’t feeling great or thinking straight at all.  It was pure survival mode.

I spent my free time reading and studying the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualifying Test).  The Chicago Public Library had one copy of a testing guide for the AFOQT and I spent every night with it.  I would read through the concepts, test expectations, and run through practice tests.  Imagine it like studying for the SATs or ACTs, but you have additional sections that test navigation and other skills important to the United States Air Force.

I took the test January 2015 at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Rosemont sitting with 18 and 19-year-old kids.  I got the results a few weeks later and I did fairly well.  The next step, while working through my recruiter, involved getting physicals and working on job placement.  This is where things fell apart.

My career background is in media production and development.  So, upon reviewing all the potential career options in the Air Force, I decided the only thing I wanted to do was work as a Public Affairs officer.  Public Affairs deal with the media and broadcasting arm of the military.  They produce programs for the armed forces radio and television networks as well as work on public relations.

The one issue with this role is that there isn’t a lot of demand for it.  Openings are rare.  So, recruiters don’t usually like working with candidates with such a limited scope.  They have information on quotas and what is needed immediately.  So, they will do what they can to fill those quotas.  My recruiter wanted me to become a radar technician.  I fought that and said I wasn’t going to do anything other than Public Affairs.  Our relationship fizzled soon after.

That outcome was for the best.  By the time that happened, I was permanently hired at the company I am currently employed at. I have the freedom to pursue hobbies, volunteer opportunities, and social engagements with friends.  I also have the freedom to do what I want when I want.  Last year, I went to Europe on a two-week vacation.  I don’t think that could have been done that easily if I was in the military.

That whole Air Force pursuit was an odd experience that came out of fear.  Fear of being alone and destitute.  I’m in a much different place now.

A lot of people do big extravagant things for their milestone birthdays.  I always thought that was a silly thing to do.  My thinking was why wait for a milestone to do something big?  Why not do it whenever?  Before booking the flight, I used vacation time for my birthday and the day after.  So, I was already free.  And then, I saw that Facebook post about flights to NYC.  A good friend of mine named Jean always tells me to live in the moment and listen to the signs the universe is giving you.  I took her advice.

I don’t know exactly what I’m doing and the trip is next week.  And I’m doing my best to not worry about money.  I know I can afford this trip and I tell myself that.  I’ve gotten better at this.  I work very hard at trying not to let the past dictate my future.  I was broke a few years ago.  I’m not anymore.  I could be broke again someday.  Who knows?  But, I can’t let myself be afraid of hypothetical scenarios and my good friend Carolyn says I can’t live my life as a miser.  So, I’m doing this and it will be fun.

While I figure out what I’ll be doing, I’ve been in a New York mood regarding my reading material.  I have already decided that I’m taking Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids with me.  In the meantime, I’ve been reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes.  Hermes was a teenager in New York during the 70s.  In the book, he chronicles all the major players and musical movements that originated or occurred from 1973 through 1977 including the rise of punk, the formation of disco, the salsa explosion, and heady origins of minimalist music.

Reading through this book, you get a strong feeling like you missed out on something.  These legendary artists like Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Grandmaster Flash, Willie Colon, and Steve Reich were doing big things and often with each other.  The book makes it seem like you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a rising star.  New York City, despite the crippling economy and rising crime, was the hip place to be if you were young and loved music.  Sigh.

This book has really put me in the mood to explore the city as much as I can over the five days that I’m there.  I am someone who gets out there and walks all over the place seeing and doing and living as much as I can.  Reading this book prior to my trip has really taken my mind off the things the typically stress me out.  This book puts me in the mindset that I will go and have a great time.  And, you know what?  I know deep down that is true.  Sometimes I just need some help remembering that.

I love and adore many of the artists profiled in the book.  I own a few dozen Dylan album and almost all of Patti Smith’s studio releases.  Bruce Springsteen is someone I really appreciate having read his memoir.  I spent my high school days wearing Clash shirts declaring them “The Only Band That Matters.”  Television and the Stooges furthered my musical exploration during my college years.  And Grace Jones and Steve Reich have entered my life fairly recently, but have made significant impacts.

However, it is Talking Heads that stand out to me in this book.  I own one record of theirs (Fear of Music) and I don’t listen to them as much as the other artists I previously mentioned.  However, I feel a connection with them that I don’t quite understand.  They affect me on a different level that is primal and emotional.

When I listen to Fear of Music or Remain in Light, I’m enamored by their rhythms and New Wave world beat styles.  I want to dance.  I want to shed all the technological shackles of modern man and regress to being driven by a primitive musical desire.  When I listen to Talking Heads, I don’t think a lot.  I just feel.

There’s one song in their catalogue that just absolutely wrecks me.  “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” was released as a single for their 1983 studio album Speaking in Tongues.  According to David Byrne, the lyrics contain non-sequiturs that “may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities.”  Listening to these lyrics, I certainly experience that strong emotional resonance.  The lines are simple to understand and very relatable.  It evokes in me strong feelings of need, fear, lust, and confusion.  The song sounds both hopeful and devastating.  It represents a past self and future desire.  It appeals to a human side of me that has existed for thousands of years and free of our modern burdens.

When I listen to this song, a lot of images come to mind. I see my past and future selves.  I see moments that I lived, experience I could have had, imaginary settings with me in another time and another place, where I see my current self going, where I realistically expect my future self to be, and what my future self could have experienced if variations of my past self if they were allowed to blossom and continue.  Basically, a lot of what ifs that I shouldn’t be concerned with that come out when this song plays.  This song is very bad for someone who actively works to live more in the moment.

A few months ago, a friend and colleague at the community radio station I volunteer with, published his own account of this song.  His name is Tony Breed and he’s a well-known local comics illustrator who lost his partner Eric a few years ago after being together for 20 years.  He has published a few different web comics described as a “queer slice of life.”  However, this recently published work is his first autobiographical comic.

The comic, titled That Night: This Must Be the Place (Link), is a work that serves as an important part of his healing process.  In the comic, Breed goes out to a bar to have a few drinks and then quietly walks home. On his way home, he is listening to a cover of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Kishi Bashi.  While listening to the song, Breed remembers the time they attended a wedding together and, a decade later, when he lost Eric.  Breed walks down the streets with the song’s lyrics appearing in the panel and Breed shedding a silent tear.  I haven’t experienced that particular pain Breed has gone through, but I have expressed my listening the same way.

I’m going on this trip next week.  I’m going to have a great time.  I will spend my time walking all over the place and seeing interesting things.  I will do so while living in the moment.  I will plan an itinerary, but allow myself some freedom to allow at least a little spontaneity.  I will think about my life and the good things that have happened along the way.  I will feel grateful to be alive.  I will appreciate this.  I will live in the moment the best way that I can.  I deserve this.  I deserve love and happiness.