“what will the new year bring?” – donna fargo (1975)

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Everyone just seems so tired with 2016.  Between the seemingly endless celebrity deaths, the surprising election results, and personal strife, the past year has earned a disdainful spot in the hearts and minds of a lot of people who are just wanting to move on with their lives.  My social media feed is filled with posts demanding that 2017 be better or behave as if it is some sort of conscious entity that can be controlled.  However, that’s not the truth.  Time is indifferent.

People are exhausted and worried.  And I understand why.  While a new year holds uncertainty, we all want it to be better than the last year.  If you happen to believe all of the editorials and social media posts about what a terrible year was 2016 was, it is easy to become a part of the disillusionment.  And when that happens, people cling desperately to any hope they may have left.  So, something as symbolic as a calendar changing years overnight means so much.  Our society places so much importance in the concept of a fresh start that we seem to think we can relegate the abstract concept of time to fit within our rules.  However, that’s not possible.  I think it was some Irish prophet who said “nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”

I won’t say that people’s worries are unfounded.  The inauguration on January 20th seems to be the specter hanging over the beginning of 2017 and fueling a lot of the worry I am witnessing.  I’m no different.  I am concerned too.  But, that’s a real event with real world consequences.  I think what has become tiresome about the talk of 2016 being so bad concerns the endless posts and articles about celebrity deaths.  If that is your criteria of what makes a year so terrible, you need to redefine your priorities.   Surely, we lost a lot of great people.  And we will never forget them and the influence they have had on our lives.  But, they’re dead and they cannot do anything for us now.

Each year has it’s own ups and downs and 2016 is no exception.  Over the course of every year, there are moments where humanity shines through, moments where darkness settles, and moments where we just don’t know what will happen.  We cannot control what happens over the course of 365 days, but we can choose how we react to it.  If you want to think this year was terrible because of a few celebrity deaths, then do it.  However, that is one small aspect that makes up the complicated fabric of time that we confine to a certain length.  For all those bad things where we place that meaning, there are a lot of great things that happened as well.  As for me, I don’t want to walk into 2017 already afraid of what may or may not happen.  We’re stronger than that as a society.

Acknowledging that life can go in all sorts of directions is important to getting through rough periods.  Put any bad moments in the context that things will get better and you’ll appreciate the good moments more.  And, of course, there will be more dark times.  But you will get through them.  None of knows what will happen.

That is why I love the song “What Will the New Year Bring” by Donna Fargo.  A bit more optimistic than other New Year’s anthems like “New Year’s Day” by U2, Fargo’s sweet country western tune is about having faith that you can survive during times of uncertainty and darkness as long as you have hope to stick together.  There is something so simple to that and it gives me hope.  It is when you start to overthink about what could go wrong, you quit thinking about what is going right and how you can use that when times are bad.

In Fargo’s song, she knows that you must put things in perspective.  The past year was good for her, but the year before was a little rough.  But, that is old news.  What about this new year?  Will it bring us love and joy? Probably.  Will there be more growing pains to add to the ones already weathered? Likely.  That’s just what happens over the course of a year.  You must take the bad with good.

Fargo doesn’t know what the new year will bring, but she still seeks out the positive outcomes.  Though she is asking the question whether her or not her partner will continue to love her the way they do, they key is the way she is thinking.  Frame the uncertainty from a more positive perspective.  All things will end.  Whether it is a marriage, a friendship, or a life, all things must pass.  But why worry?  There’s no use.  Fargo asks if her partner will only love her for a year or two or perhaps even four or five or six hundred years or more.  None of them knows the answer, but they still celebrate the New Year and whatever is in store.

2017 will be no different than 2016.  2017 will be better in some ways, and worse in other ways.  That’s a fact.  But we can get through this.  Let’s not get distracted by celebrity deaths or what’s trending on social media.  Let’s continue to work together to make sure the next year was better than the last.  And if not, then let’s not lose hope and try again.  With love for our friends and neighbors, we can make the impossible possible and the world shine brighter.

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“not gonna kill you” – angel olsen (2016)

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I am in my late 20s and still fairly hip to things.  However, that is going to end at some point.  It seems that the older I get, the harder it is to have the time, patience, and drive to seek new music.  The reason for this is a combination of several things.  For one, I am getting increasingly comfortable with what I already know.  That happens.  You get into a groove that gets deeper and it gets harder and harder to get out of it.  Secondly, time is a big issue.  I’m not in college anymore.  I have a job, volunteer commitments, and hobbies that don’t center around music.  My time is precious.  And finally, finding new and hip outlets that I can trust for great new music gets harder and more limited.

All of that makes me sound old and like a fuddy duddy.  Sometimes it may appear that way, but it really isn’t the truth.  The fact of the matter is that I love new music.  The problem being is that there is just so much coming out right now and I need time to sift through it.  Most of it will eventually make their way to my ears and then I can decide if I want to explore those sounds further or cast them aside.   I may hear a new indie band’s album the day or even week of release, but I will eventually.

Also, there is just so much music out there in general.  And the only constant truth in music is that there will always be more old music than new music.  One of my volunteer gigs is working the music library of a non-profit music school.  They have over 20,000 records, CDs, and books.  They have an impressive collection of rare material.  The selection of material within the last decade may be sparse, but there are hidden treasures waiting to be rediscovered.  And that is an exciting hunt that new releases can’t compete with.

Despite my active interest in exploring older music and lack of time, I still manage stay connected with the tastemakers and hipsters that are keen on every single new release.  I volunteer with a local non-profit radio station in Chicago.  They play an exciting blend of local and indie music that is fresh and exciting.  While I may not be as well-versed in those areas as my colleagues, I sample what I like.  Social media is also great as well.  Facebook posts from friends and my Twitter feed help keep me informed on latest trends.

However, my favorite way to discover new music is through podcasts.  And my favorite music podcast is WBEZ’s very own Sound OpinionsSound Opinions is hosted by rock critics Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune) and Jim DeRogatis (Chicago Sun-Times).  Now, these guys have several decades on me but they get paid to explore their passion.  However, that didn’t come from nowhere.  Getting there took years of hard work and dedication.  And after all these years, they really excel at tuning in to what is happening in music.  So, what’s my excuse?

Sound Opinions offers a great blend from classic album dissections, themed playlists that bring in the old and the new, and band interviews anywhere from hall of fame legends to the latest up-and-comer.  In most episodes, they review a new album towards the end of the show.  They introduce the album, play a song, and then rate it on a system encouraging listeners to buy it, try it, or trash it.  The rapport between the hosts is great and I like the eclectic nature of the program.  It perfectly suits my music sensibilities.

I listened to their most recent episode while unpacking my new apartment.  In this episode, they were discussing songs that, for them, signified the end of summer.  It felt like a great soundtrack to the transition I’ve been in on making my new living space a home.

At the end, they reviewed the fourth studio album by Angel Olsen.  Entitled My Woman, Jim and Greg outlined Olsen’s music history that included travelling across the country and trying out different styles that defied typical pop music.  For this latest record, Olsen teamed up with a producer more known for producing typical pop hits.  The track they featured was “Not Gonna Kill You,” and it was the jolt I needed.  I was absolutely floored when I heard this track.  It has everything.  Engaging and impassioned vocals.  Reverb gracefully and tactfully implemented.  A considerable range of styles and experimentation.  It is grunge, folk, indie, shoegaze, and pop wrapped together.  It is Mazzy Star with a punky energy.

New music is great, but not all new music.  As cynical as I can be about seeking it out and enjoying it, the truth is that it gets harder.  I can always try to be a little cooler than square adults around me in the officer, but I’ll never be as cool or in tune as I was when I was younger.  The best advice I can give is to try to make an effort and put your pulse on what is happening.  Maybe you’ll find a pleasing note amongst the static.

“sinnerman” – nina simone (1965)

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For the last few months, I’ve been going to a Meetup group focused on discussing classic albums.  There, the participants meet for an hour to discuss whatever album was selected that week; their thoughts on the music, artist, personal anecdotes, or whatever else they feel they want to contribute.  Think of it as like a book club but for music.

The structure for the group is simple.  We meet for an hour every other week or so at a coffee shop where we have a conference room reserved.  Usually, about half a dozen people show up.  Selections for the album discussion from a compendium entitled 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, or something to that effect.  In this book, 1001 different albums noted for their critical or cultural value are featured chronologically from 1956 through 2009.  Each album, depending on the inherent value of the album, has a write-up about the significance as well as a track break down with recommending signature songs and pertinent release information.  Most of the records have a half page write-up, while the more popular albums have a full page and perhaps even a picture of the artist.

With 1001 different albums to choose from, there is the potential that choosing a record can be an arduous process.  However, it is not.  In preparation, it was agreed that the first album would be from the 1950s which is the first decade listed in book.  An album would be picked, people would go listen to it during their own free time, and then come to the meeting to discuss.  After discussing the selected 1950s album, the meeting would adjourn by picking an album from the next decade.  Repeat the process again and the end of the meeting to discuss the 1960s album would result in an album from the 1970s being picked.  Then the 1980s, the 1990s, and finally the 2000s before circling back around to the 1950s.  Not only does this process make the meetings a little more structured and the selection process easier, it also encourages diverse listening and getting out of one’s own comfort zone.  Without that structure, the selections would be homogenized with little opportunities to listen to something new; previous selections have included afro-Cuban jazz as an example.  The album selection for the next meeting is made by having everyone write their choice from that decade onto a sheet of paper, and then an album is randomly pulled from a hat.

A few weeks ago, the pick during the meeting designated for an album from the 1960s was Nina Simone’s 1966 classic Wild Is the Wind.  The album is significant and features “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most signature tracks that focuses on racial issues and stereotypes; issues Simone is known for in her career.  The album is great and worthy of listening to, but it is flawed.  Wild Is the Wind feels like a compilation as opposed to a cohesive listening experience.  That was pretty much the consensus during that discussion.

Thumbing through our reference book, I found Wild Is the Wind was the only Simone album featured in the book.  Many artists have multiple albums featured, but Simone didn’t.  And that’s a shame because Wild Is the Wind, while great, is not Simone’s best work.

Unjustifiably missing from the book is Simone’s 1965 album Pastel BluesPastel Blues is an innovative album that references a variety of different musical styles and arrangements.  Simone sings blues, jazz, and soul on this record with such intensity and passion that listening almost becomes a spiritual experience.  The record features complex arrangements including a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that almost overshadows Billie Holiday’s version.  However, the final track of the album is what truly defines Pastel Blues as a complex work of art and serves as being one of Simone’s finest recordings.

“Sinnerman,” closing out the record, is an African American spiritual song that chronicles the struggle of a sinner seeking refuge from Judgment Day.  The sinner runs to the rock to hide, but is turned away.  The sinner runs to the Lord for help, but the Lord sends him to the Devil.  The Devil is there waiting for the sinner takes him in.  Simone’s arrangement of the classic folk song is a 10 minute tour de force of jazz, soul, and gospel rhythms.  An urgent sounding piano opens of the track followed by some percussion shortly afterwards.  Simone’s signature deep voice comes in to the tell story.  As we follow the sinner on his journey, Simone’s voice becomes louder and more intense until it erupts in chanting “power” and “bring down” along with band behind her shouting in unison.  After a few minutes in, the backing band dies down and the track segues into syncopated clapping with the piano underneath driving the rhythm.  During the course of the song, the progression changes and features moments of raw fire vocalization and a culmination of music that I only describe as a jazz explosion.  It is a powerful and briskly paced track that is complex and offers a challenging listening experience.

I first heard this song in college, but it has always stuck with me.  In the discussion group, Nina Simone was a new discovery for some of the listeners.  I’m enjoying the group and have already learned so much from exciting records I had never heard before.  There is a lot of great stuff out there if you take the time to look.  I am eager to find the next big thing that will make an impact on me.  Always growing.  Always learning.  Always listening.

“i’maman” – jobriath (1973)

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June is Pride month.  During this time, cities and communities around the country hold festivals and parades to commemorate the struggles and achievements within the LGBT community.  It is an occasion to celebrate love and freedom.  In recent years, major events have positively impacted and progressed the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people including the elimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the dismantling of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage be recognized as constitutional.

The fight for these freedoms has not been easy, but the people still soldier on to fight for their way to express themselves.  Religious and political groups find legal loopholes to undermine their efforts.  Terrorists and crazed gunmen murder innocent people living their lives freely and normally.  All manner of hate and greed manifested into confused people who only feel joy by taking it away from other people.  It all is incredibly sad, but the feeling doesn’t last.  These people are on their way out and their influence is shrinking as the majority of those who support the rights and freedoms of our LGBT brothers and sisters continues to grow.

Pride in Chicago extends over two weekends.  The first weekend kicks off with a two-day street festival along Halsted Street in the Boystown neighborhood.  Food and shop vendors, music, and other festivities line the street.  It is sweaty, loud, and chaotic.  However, it is spirited and the feeling of joy and community is intoxicating.  The next weekend on Sunday is the parade.  My favorite parade of the year, it is a two hour plus force of movement and color.  It is almost impossible not to have a good time.  People are dancing and hugging and waving signs of support.  And you even have candy thrown at you!  It is so great to see people of all different backgrounds get together to support love and unity; causes that are bigger than any of our individual selves.  However, it wasn’t always like that.

Jobriath is a name very few people know.  However, his impact on LGBT in music in pioneering primarily because he was the first openly gay rock star.  Born Bruce Wayne Campbell, Jobriath was destined for greatness.  Early on his musical career, he worked on stage productions of Hair.  During that time through the early 1970s, he was also working on demo tapes and crafting his own musical persona.  In 1972, Jerry Brandt signed on his Jobriath’s manager and secured a $500,000 recording contract; one of the biggest ever up to that point.  Before the release of his eponymous debut album in 1973, Jobriath’s face was plastered everywhere; on buses, full-page ads in Rolling Stone, and even a massive billboard in the middle of Times Square.

With that kind of marketing and publicity, Jobriath was to become the next big thing in music.  But the reason why he didn’t was because people could not accept him as feminine and openly gay.  The LGBT community during the late 1960s and early 1970s tried to find their footing after years of violence and threats to their community.  Many felt that the only way to not draw attention to themselves in the form of violence was to not contribute to the stereotypes they were associated with.  For men, the stereotype was that homosexuals were feminine, limp-wristed perverts who acted like woman instead of adhering to the masculine identity associated with men.  As a result, many gay men took on masculine features, dressed in masculine clothing, and projected a manly attitude and persona.  Jobriath was the antithesis to that identity and that didn’t sit well with the gay community.  They felt this person who looked feminine and vaguely human would continue to give their community a bad name.

This cultural backlash severely impacted Jobriath’s career.  Neither his debut album nor the 1974 follow-up Creatures on the Street sold well.  After the failure of those albums and problems from his manager, Jobriath went into seclusion.  After a few years, he changed his name to Cole Berlin and adopted a new look and performance persona.  As Berlin, he would play cabaret and piano music for local clubs.  He also tried to get back into acting which he hadn’t done since Hair.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful in either his music or acting.  He was often poor and would resort to prostituting himself.  Within a few years, Bruce Wayne Campbell died of AIDs in his apartment becoming one of the first famous musicians to have done so.  He was there for several days before he was discovered.

In recent years, Jobriath has become a cult musical icon.  A documentary released in 2014 has contributed to that and to tell his story.  What people find when they listen to him is glam rock in its early stages.  The track “I’maman” is one of Jobriath’s signature songs and pioneering glam rock track.  While his contemporaries like David Bowie or Marc Bolan were also making major strides in developing glam rock, Jobriath was crafting a unique voice.  His influence has grown over the years, sometimes in weird ways.  When Morrissey was touring to promote his 1992 album Your Arsenal, he wanted Jobriath to serve as the opening act unaware that he had been dead for a decade at that point.

I think it is a shame of how unknown Jobriath is today despite his contributions to the LGBT influence and identity in popular music.  Being the first openly gay rock artist in a time where being gay could get you killed is a heavy burden, but he did it.  Even though his cost him a lucrative career as a rock musician, he wasn’t going to hide his identity when others around him were doing so.  Now, we celebrate people and all the different identities that make up this great society of ours.  However, we mustn’t forget about the people who came before us and sacrificed so much just to be themselves.

“a to z blues” – blind willie mctell (1961)

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Early blues music, I believe, is the darkest genre of music in the 20th century.  Old bluesman busking on street corners, playing bars, or fingering on their front porches in stifling heat of the Deep South weave tales of deception, intrigue, and murder.  Often set against a jangly 12-string guitar, these balladeers and storytellers create elaborate narratives about the limits of human nature and the worst aspect of our own psyche; often drawing from personal experience.

I love old blues music, but it isn’t a genre I often find myself making the time to listen to.  Whenever it comes on, I enjoy it.  However, it isn’t something I seek out as an active listener.  I get really busy with my day to day routine that I don’t often have the time to really seek music that I isn’t readily available to me.

Every week, I volunteer for a prestigious music school in Chicago.  They offer classes and instructions on a variety of different instruments and dance styles.  They also have what I feel is the best concert venue in Chicago.  I have personally attended shows there by Marshall Crenshaw, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and John C. Reilly.  It is truly a great place and shining cultural beacon in the city.

The volunteer work I do is in their resource center; a media archive and library that houses over 20,000 records, CDs, and books.  Part of my role as a volunteer is data entry, media asset management, and helping people locate materials.  It is a really cool space and a very calm, welcoming atmosphere.  I arrive, grab a beer, and just enjoy my time.  I can play whatever I find there.  Oftentimes, I like finding records that I personally love.  The resource center has an amazing hi-fi system and I love playing albums that I already own because the fidelity is so rich that I’ll hear elements I have never heard before since I listen on my low end stereo or Apple earbuds; elements like certain instruments or backing vocals.  It feels like I’m discovering something new in something I had assume I knew everything about.

Lately, I’ve been trying to balance my listening habits.  I do like to spend some time listening to what I know and like, but also I try to find something random that is unknown or unfamiliar to me.  This is usually hit or miss. Sometimes I really love what I find, but most of them I find it just ok and doesn’t particularly move me.  So, it becomes background noise at that point.

This week, I came across an LP from blues musician Blind Willie McTell.  I had heard of McTell before.  Bob Dylan has a very brilliant track about him they he cut from Infidels and relegated to be released on rarities collection years later.  I couldn’t say for certain I had heard McTell before.  The album was entitled Last Session and was released in 1961 as McTell’s first collection of songs.  McTell had actually died two years prior in 1959.  This was fairly common for musicians like McTell.  He recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s onto 78s, and then recorded a bit in the ‘40s.  He barely made much money and would often perform on the street and under different aliases.  The bohemian movements in Greenwich Village during the 1960s shed light on these forgotten performers and offered them a new audience, though many were long gone which added to the ancient and ghostly appeal of their music.

Recorded in 1956, but released in 1961, “A to Z Blues” is a wonderfully dark and comically violent song recorded for Last Session.  In some versions of the song recorded by other artists, the first half of the song is a duet involving a lover’s quarrel.  They can’t get along.  The man is tired of being fussed at and his lover’s infidelity, while the woman has had enough of her man’s drunk and violent ways.  The song comes to a standoff with the woman responding to a veiled threat from her man.  Then, the man threatens to take his razor blade to stab and carve the entire alphabet into his lover’s skull and face.  How macabre!

In McTell’s rendition of the song, there is no duet.  He is the only one singing and the song becomes less of a fight and more of an attack.  McTell is the dominating force and laying it all down on the table.  While the duet version appears to be the product of rage brought on by a fight, McTell’s version is one of cold, calculated murder; and he is loving every minute of it.  Going through the motions of reciting his ABCs, McTell outlines every step along the way.  From cutting her head by the letter D, cutting her face by G, slicing her arms by N, and gutting her chest at the very end with Z.  All the while, McTell is relishing every slash.

I was so happy to find this track.  The guitar sounds jovial at times and makes the whole scenario more dastardly.  Decades before the PMRC and other parents organizations designed to censor offensive music, there were artists telling stories of their lives and desires often reflecting the darker side of humanity.  It is all very uncomfortable, but cathartic as well.  It makes the whole hunt of finding great older music so much more thrilling.

“oxygène (part iv)” – jean michel jarre (1976)

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Spring is a really great musical season for me.  The weather is warmer and I’m getting outside more.  Walking along the lake or through neighborhoods, I make sure to have a great soundtrack.  During this time, the excitement I feel that comes with a spring awakening manifests in a form that motivates me to explore and discover new things.  New foods, new places, and even new music.

For several years, spring has held great events and opportunities for me to indulge in musical vices.  When I was in college, the premiere event was Record Store Day which is being held on April 16th this year.  The exclusive releases and reissues were exciting and I just had to have them all.  Or whatever I could afford at the time.  Now, Record Store Day doesn’t excite me as much.  As it approaches, I’m fairly apathetic towards the releases because it always ends up being the same artists with some tired gimmick.  I think this has happened because I live in Chicago where I have a lot of options for music vendors.  In my college town, we had one record store, and that record store was life. I just don’t need a single day to celebrate record stores.  I celebrate record stores all the time.  However, just because Record Store Day has lost it’s appeal for me, that doesn’t mean I don’t have something similar to take it’s place.

This past weekend, I volunteered for an annual record fair put together by the community radio station I am involved with.  For the last 14 years, the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) has held a record fair to raise funds for the station.  Record vendors from Chicago and other states come in to sell their wares while the public mingles and rummages through milk crates looking for anything cheap, recognizable, or collectible.  It is a great event and I love being a part of it.  I talk to the vendors and peruse their collections.  While doing this, I want everything I see.  I get excited just looking through them.  The artwork and how the sleeves feel are just mesmerizing.  However, budget and apartment space brings me back down to reality.  So, I limit myself to just a few purchases.  I never buy the first shiny thing I see.  I take my time to find the right record.  While I find a lot that would earn a special space on my shelf, I hold out for the right record at the right time.

This year, my prized purchase was Jean Michel Jarre’s 1976 masterpiece Oxygène.  This particular record has an abstract air of familiarity for me.  I remember seeing the CD in my parent’s collection.  It never got played and my parents never talked about Jarre, but I have vivid memories of it being there.  The artwork is just so striking.  It features the Earth peeled away like flesh to reveal a skull.  Meat is revealed underneath the mantle. The cover art is a little grotesque, but equally fascinating.  It is the kind of artwork that leaves an intimidating mark on the mind of a young child.

I wouldn’t hear Oxygène (Part IV) until I was in college years later.  It was a featured track on the new age radio station in the 2007 video game Grand Theft Auto IV.  Admittedly, I hate to admit that I have discovered some music through video games.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps it is because some may feel I could not appreciate the music outside of the context of something thematic and exciting as a video game or a movie.  Sometimes, this is that case.  I might not enjoy a song as much outside of the context of it’s use elsewhere.  However, this is not true for Oxygène.

While ambient and electronic music are not my regularly played in my sound system, the few records that have made it into my collection are prized by me.  They managed to break through my own listening bias and standalone as grand musical achievements unmatched by their more accessible and commercially successfully rock and pop contemporaries.  It makes the listening experience, for me, more special.  It is as if I stepped into an alien world.  I’m a musical tourist exploring an existence a few others have known for a long time.  Oxygène is my bridge and lifeline when I’m straying the deep waters of sound.

Oxygène is comprised of six tracks each referred to as a singular part of a larger whole.  Part IV is my favorite one.  Kicking off side two of the album, a few hushed waves of synthesizer gently crash on the shore.  A wind is gently rising as the track progresses.  Soon afterward, a drum machine track starts and the hook follows shortly.  This hook is repeated throughout and often changing in pitch and tempo while being played on several different synthesizers.  It gives the track a pop feel thus bringing in something familiar to an outside listener that beckons them to come closer.

Oxygène is a real trip and I’ve been listening to it constantly all week.  I knew as soon as I saw it at Chirp’s record fair, this was the find that would define my experience at this year’s record fair and would be one of the finest records in my collection.  I’m happy that music and the journey to find it can bring me such joy while being incredibly rewarding.  The more work I spend in finding something that stands out as being the right record at the right time, the more rich the experience.  It keeps me fresh by not being stagnant and forces me to step outside of my comfort zone once in a while.  For that, I am grateful.

“tales of taboo” – karen finley (1986)

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Art is such a subjective concept, but I wonder about the process and it’s effect. Artists create in order to share a part of themselves with the rest of the world. Their experiences, personal feelings, or what their eyes perceive motivate them to put paint to canvas, ink to paper, or life to celluloid. Creating art becomes a cathartic form of communication for someone who cannot speak their truth any other way.

Someone I went to college with has become quite an accomplished poet. He has been published in several collections, both online and in print. He has even self-published some collections. I’m not an expert on poetry. I have some poets I enjoy. I do not know enough to know if his work can be considered good, but I’m happy for what he has achieved.

This poet came under fire lately within the poetry community. He drew inspiration from a famous work by Allen Ginsberg and adapted it to fit his vision of social media. He had a lot to say about social media and how it influences our society; his own unique viewpoint on how humans engage and react with each other. I read it. The stark language and imagery the poem evoked certainly wasn’t what you call family friendly, but this poem wasn’t meant for that kind of audience. I cannot say the poem particularly moved me, but I like to take an interest in the goings on of the people in my social media feed sometimes. It makes me feel good to see people express themselves on their own terms.

However, the poetry did more than move a few people. It made them seething with rage and demand that this rogue poet be banned from any and all publications and if anyone did publish his work, they should be shamed and face retribution for doing so. The comments on social media and blogging sites were shocking to read. Such ferociousness. Such anger. Such malice. The reactions his work evoked certainly disturbed me more than any poem.

Many of these vehement critics declared this poet’s work did not qualify as art. The reasoning behind this involved their own subjective construct of what art is and should be. Specifically, the criticism suggested that any work that made marginalized minorities feel threatened or uncomfortable should be considered hate speech and not art. While I did not get that kind of message from his work, I am admittedly not a part of a marginalized demographic.

All of this had me thinking about the concept of art and what defines it. Personally, I generally think anything created that does not physically harm another person is art. I also do not believe art can motivate a sane person to behave psychotically. So, I wonder why people are motivated to silence artists. Whether it be the PMRC silencing Prince or Twitter users silencing an amateur poet, why do people use their own subjectivity to silence the subjectivity of others? Whenever I see something I don’t like on television, I change the channel.

I mentioned earlier that art is subjective. That is an absolute truth. However, I believe that the general public’s reaction to art be objective in the sense that we must not do anything to silence one another. That doesn’t mean we have to like it, but we should tolerate it. These critics of the aforementioned poet have their own viewpoints on life and that’s fine. They have their own moral code and a framework for them to make judgments. But those judgments shouldn’t infringe on the rights and expression of another artist. I doubt many of these critics would enjoy a fanatical religious zealot silencing them for their way of life that they deem acceptable.

Thinking about this made me remember Karen Finley. Finley was a shocking performance artist from the Chicago area who notoriously was one of four artists to have their National Endowment for the Arts grant funding taken away. Finley produced music and performed stage acts that involved a lot of pervasive sexual imagery and language. Much of her prose contained violent and sexual themes including rape and incest. All of which is set to driving synth-pop music that sounds darkly melodic and exudes sexual conquest. “Tales of Taboo” is a prime example of this.

It is fair to say that Finley is an acquired taste. I personally enjoy some of her work, but I’m not necessarily the biggest fan. Her work suffered as a result of someone else’s definition of art and believed Finley’s work violated their moral compass. Artists need monetary compensation to thrive and continue their work. In Finley’s case, the gatekeepers were those with the authority to pull her funding because that is where their power comes from. For an amateur poet looking to make a small noise in the inky blackness that is the internet, that compensation comes in the forms of shares and likes. The gatekeepers in his community wield their power in 144 characters or less and website blackouts.

Finley would go on to have modest success throughout her career as a fringe artist. I admire her attitude and ability to stay true to herself despite her opposition. I don’t consider myself an artist, but if I had any advice for those who are then it would be to stay true to form. With technology being so cheap and readily available, people are creating more and more. We all have a voice we want to share. With so much competition for so few rewards, it takes a lot of time and effort to get the attention an artist needs. So, why waste time bringing others down when you can bring yourself up? You have the power to control your own destiny. Don’t waste it on others.

“lotion” – greenskeepers (2004)

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I struggle with modern popular culture sometimes. Whenever I walk into a record store or comic shop, I’m surrounded by a lack of originality. Posters with Dr. Who characters stylized as Peanuts characters, t-shirts with Walt and Jesse emblazoned on the logo from a 90s Batman cartoon series, coffee mugs with Marvel characters wearing Mickey Mouse ears. It all seems so esoteric to be ironic. I think, “Great! If I know someone who loves both Star Wars and Full House, I can get them this stupid mousepad.” It feels like a series of failed experiments where two atomic elements are being smashed together in the hopes of creating a new and exciting element. I don’t feel that way. It all just feels cheap and bastardizes pop art.

I understand that our art is inspired by our predecessors and what inspires us, but I cannot help but think my generation is failing at this. I recently read Elvis Costello’s memoir and he explored his early processes making music. Essentially, he would try to imitate what inspired him. He would fail at mirroring it exactly, but would create something new entirely. That makes a lot of sense to me and exemplifies art as an evolutionary process. However, I don’t see evidence of that when my social media feed consists half a dozen listicles featuring Disney princesses imagined as characters from Firefly, Star Trek, etc.

“Lotion” from Chicago very own Greenskeepers breaks through the cultural bullshit as an example pop culture appropriation done well. “Lotion” is a darkly witty tribute to the Buffalo Bill, the villain from the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. The lead singer assumes the role of the murderous villain as he commands and serenades his victim. In the film, Buffalo Bill has kidnapped a woman and keeps her in a hole built in his basement. In order to fulfill his perverse fantasies, he demands the woman rubs on the lotion on her skin or else she will be subjected to punishment. All of this is foreplay leading to Buffalo Bill’s desired climax; wearing the woman’s skin and using her skull as a bowl.

The film is incredibly dark, but the Greenskeepers manager to create a tinge of humor. Through the dry first-person delivery of the lead vocals, the clapping, and the indie guitar rhythms, the scene from the film is presented in a fresh way. It doesn’t feel labored or like the band was trying hard to appeal to a particular audience. It is a sinister sounding and really cool song all on it’s own. While it drew influences from a very famous film, it doesn’t cheapen the source of the reimagined final product. The whole listening experience feels tireless and serves as a testament to the creativity of the Chicago music.

Perhaps this is me getting older and complaining about kids these days. It is just too easy for someone to play armchair critic to people they don’t understand. And that is it. I don’t understand who finds these tchotchkes and (obvious) cash grabs interesting. I just don’t understand. Until the day that I do, I can just sit in my rocker and reminisce about things used to be while complaining about kids these days.

 

“blackstar” – david bowie (2015)

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Music is very important to me. Opening doors and teaching me lessons about humanity, music has been a gateway to new ideas and philosophies. It has comforted as well as challenged me. In moments where I can be completely centered, listening to music can be a transcendental experience.

Since I was a teenager, I set out to discover as much music as I could. Growing up on military bases, geographically isolated cities, and a rural farming community, I did not have a place where music was conveniently waiting for me. I had to find it. Through magazines and music shows, I had to read about the greats and the obscure. At the turn of the millennium before the digital revolution and the invention of the pocket oracle, whatever I could not find around me physically I had to bargain with friends to steal from primitive piracy sites. At the time, it was all very laborious. Especially when you consider how easy it is find anything now. Looking back, it all seems so quaint and perhaps a good outlet for my insatiable hunger for information and the arts. Better to be looking for music than looking for trouble.

You never know it at the time, but there are moments in life where you are changed completely. Someone or something is introduced to you and it feels as though you have shed an old skin; reborn naked into a screaming world of sound and vision. The moment I would start taking music seriously as something that can bring out the best (and worst) in one’s self is when I discovered David Bowie at the tender, and impressionable, age of 13.

Before 2000, I knew some music. I listened to pop radio for the ear candy and summer anthems. The late 90s brought the sounds of Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and one hit wonders like Fastball. Car trips and bus rides to school had these sounds coming over the radio. I know many millennials are nostalgic for 90s music for all their own reasons. The world always looks nicer through rose-colored glasses. While these songs satisfied our infant need for culture, it would soon be time to grow up.

Before the year 1 BB (Before Bowie), I listened to a lot of classic rock and pop bubblegum. I recall my first CD being the first entry of the Jock Jams compilation series and I loved listening to AC/DC and Van Halen on class rock radio. I liked hard-pounding R&B jams you could dance to and playing air guitar to songs like “Running with the Devil.” Music was fun. You didn’t need to think about it. There was no deep meaning. Just three-chord guitar riffs and loud drums.

Bowie was an awakening. Anything I had played in my room or CD Walkman before then didn’t matter anymore. So much so that I never listen to that music anymore. They don’t even carry over as remnants of a lost age or something to be nostalgic over. If anything like Van Halen were to come on the radio now, I would change it. The power of the Thin White Duke was that strong.

Bowie was almost like a secret treasure I wanted to hide. My mother had some albums, but this was before I would grow to appreciate the album as a work of art to be dissected or observe as a singular entity. It was all about the greatest hits compilations for me. I wanted my introduction to Bowie, or any other artist new to me at the time, to be a concise retrospective of their career. The appeal of cherry-picking between periods or styles was refreshing. She burned for me a two-disc compilation of singles that I played and played and played. For a brief period, I almost felt ashamed for enjoying this music. Were kids supposed to like this? I thought. Is this something people listen to? Does anyone know who David Bowie is?

At the time, music listening was a very personal experience. It was all so new and left me feeling very vulnerable to the cruel teasing and judgment of others. Bowie wasn’t on the new music or hip-hop charts; music that the cooler kids in my school were listening to. In the world of middle school cultural politics, you were defined by the culture you consumed. What you listened to had to be surface level and reflective of your own personal choices and style. It was all very superficial.

I loved going for long walks with my bulky CD Walkman. Listening to Bowie and walking down the street through the neighborhoods made me think I was on some great journey somewhere; not only was I progressing and moving forward mentally, but it reflected physically too.

Since Bowie, I have grown to adore certain artists and be a more discerning listener; to think critically about the meaning of the artist and the perceived meaning of the listener. While artists I have discovered since Bowie have resonated with me more, Bowie served as the source. The beginning. The Alpha to whatever will be my Omega should I grow tired of music or die.

With Bowie’s long and storied career, there are so many great tracks to choose from. “Life on Mars” with its beautiful melody was an education in songwriting and imagination. “Heroes” being an introduction to the avant-garde. “Rebel, Rebel” as the sexiest and most erotic thing a 13-year old boy could leave to his imagination.

When I discovered Bowie, Heathen and Reality were on their way but they would be under my radar until years later. Then, Bowie quit music for a decade. This seemed to further elevate him as something of a distant memory; a celestial being that is increasingly distancing himself from humanity. The world thought they had seen the end of a Bowie record until the 2013 release of The Next Day, an introspective and humbling record that still gets heavy rotation from me today.

Today is Bowie’s 69th birthday and also is the release date for his new studio album ★ (or Blackstar). In his most experimental album to date, Bowie brings together a fusion of jazz and alien rhythms that only he could master. I’m eagerly awaiting going to the record shop; a kind of shop that wasn’t available to me until my college days. I rarely buy new albums anymore. But when I do, I make it an event. And very few people are worthy of such things as Bowie.

“jungle drum” – emilíana torrini (2008)

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Musical earworms can be touchy subject for those who appreciate music. For some people, it is the worst songs that get stuck in their head. They could just be going through their day running errands and then BAM! That song from that commercial they saw last week or, worse, LMFAO is stuck in their head. The problem is that there is no way to get it out. Each irritating note just has to run its course as the song turns your brain into Swiss cheese.

Earworms don’t bother me much. I like a lot of really good music, so I’m comfortable with myself when something terrible takes up residence in my mind for a few hours (or days). Though these types of things don’t irk me the way they do others, I do relish in the moments when said earworm is actually really enjoyable.

For some strange reason, Emilíana Torrini’s 2008 album Me and Armini was below my radar upon it’s release. When the album was released, I was at the tail end of my sophomore year of college and incredibly active in college radio. I have no memory of this album being put into rotation. It certainly may have but if it was, it was probably in light rotation as opposed to heavy where it certainly belonged. I hope the music director at the time had a good explanation for why they didn’t push this album harder.

I heard the single “Jungle Drum” after graduating college in 2010. I cannot remember in what context I first heard the song, but it has stuck with me ever since randomly entering into my consciousness throughout the years. How fitting is that? With most of my musical earworms, I never really remember where I first encounter them. They just sort of appear out of nowhere. They’re so sneaky!

“Jungle Drum” makes for an excellent earworm because it is irresistibly catchy. A briskly-paced backing track featuring a bouncy bass and subtle snare drum set the tone for the song. It makes the feet start tapping and before you know it, you’re in full room dancing mode by the first chorus driven by Torrini’s percussive vocals. “Jungle Drum” wastes no time once the track starts. Torrini is on a mission with this song.

Musical earworms can certainly create a mood within the mind of the listener. Earworms are typically characterized as being really annoying and drive people to complain. I get that, but I don’t find much use in complaining about it. Then again, if we had more songs like “Jungle Drum,” I doubt I would be annoyed when a musical earworm roots itself in my head. I would rather dance through my day then bash my skull in any time.