Young Man Blues

November 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Temps in the 60s yesterday, with kids walking around in shorts and tees, while I carried a jacket and sweater I didn’t need everywhere I went. Drove home from a trip to Easton with the window open the entire way. My daughter was sleeping in the backseat, but was awoken by the sudden blast of Live at Leeds on the car stereo. She informed me, perfectly deadpan (during “Young Man Blues”) that “Dad, this is really not good music to sleep to…” and I could not argue with her. (When the Who opened their own Rampart Studios in London the playback speakers in the control room were so loud it’s said they caused “projectile bleeding” from the ears, and were once measured to be the same number of decibels as the engines of Concorde at full throttle.)

leedsIt was in that spirit that I was rolling down a dark and mostly deserted 380, so while her complaint was justified, it’s not like I didn’t have my reasons. You simply cannot listen to Live at Leeds at anything other than ear-bleeding volume without feeling like a complete fraud. But being the good Dad I am, I turned it off and drove the rest of the way to the sound the wind and the wheels and gentle snoring, watching the stars and dodging the orange pylons that seem to appear like rogue deer on Pennsylvania interstates.

Today we awoke to ice, snow, and a 2 hour delay. My car was suddenly encased in a sarcophagus of winter. Young Man Blues indeed.

I’ve stopped looking at the weather forecast. One too many times of going from the air-conditioner to the ice-scraper wore me down. I talked myself out of cutting the grass on Sunday, and now I’m sprinkling rock-salt on my porch steps and using half a tank of gas to un-tomb my car. I let my dog out and as soon as he realized what the world had turned into he was back inside curled up in his bed, which he had conveniently maneuvered to the front of the fireplace. I’d like to tell him that he’d better get used to it but we both may may wake up tomorrow to golfing weather. So he goes his way and I go mine.

Onward we go…marching towards the holidays. Lights and trees and coming up with yet another iron-clad excuse to skip the office Xmas party. A few awkward dinners to get through as Uncle MAGA gets bombed on Coors Light and monopolizes the conversation with Fox News talking points. But that kinda stuff is so easily deflected this time of year. Good cheer and all that…..pretend the red cap was chosen for its Christmas color scheme and not its racist connotations, and keep distracting your hate-twisted kin with football so he’ll stop blaming illegal immigrants for why his dentures don’t fit anymore.

Soon it’ll be January 2, which is when the depression really sets in. Holidays are over….nothing to look forward to except unrelenting cold, the Patriots winning the Super Bowl again, and dead-souls standing in line to secretly return everything. And perhaps the realization that the gym membership you talked yourself into after half a 12 pack of PBR is gonna get as much use as the fruit cake you keep getting every year from the same weirdo. (It calls to mind the creepy person wearing a mask who for 50 years straight years would leave 3 red roses and a bottle of cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on his birthday, a tradition he or she started 100 years after Poe was already dead. I feel like this person was probably a huge fruit cake fan.)

These upcoming days can be a pleasant diversion that brings us together, or the family-dynamic version of Black Friday shopping, in which everybody in the line ahead of you deserves to die. So choose carefully. Your best bet is to shop on-line, listen to Live at Leeds and Elvis and Charlie Brown Christmas music, and eggnog yourself into the spirit of the season. Eventually….you’ll be able to roll down that window again.

So enjoy it while you got it folks. Play it loud if you can, unless the one and only thing more important than the music is sleeping in the back seat.

In a bit.


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Historicizing anthracite….

November 7, 2019 Leave a comment

Had a wonderful lunch meeting today with Phil Mosley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English & Comparative Literature at Penn State University.

We had an agenda……what Phil calls “historicizing anthracite”. But our inner Gaelic shone through, and over a few beers we wandered off into many semi-related areas as well. Life is so frenetic these days that I’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of a grown-up conversation.

We started things off thusly….

How can one understand what he or she has become without extensive knowledge of where he or she has come from? There’s no such thing as a blank slate. We are who we are largely because of the environment we’re reared in. For better or worse. We inherit the inner workings of familial saints and sinners, and are largely left to our own devices in learning how to keep them apart so they don’t kill each other.

harry-e-breakerThis is history you don’t get in the classroom. Schools don’t teach your history. Theirs is more like the revolutionary war on Monday, civil war until mid-week, then by Friday the bomb is falling on Japan and we’re all living happily ever after. In school I learned absolutely nothing about the ground underneath my own feet.

What triggers the effort?

Is it literature? Art? Music? Historians? Or maybe a stray remark at dinner about a box of letters in the attic?


Often…the song travels fastest and furthest. Phil mentioned how Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” probably educated more people about the Ohio city’s role in our nation’s uneasy history than the collective works of 100 historians. My fascination with the history of wildfires began with the song “Cold Missouri Waters”, which told the devastating story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. For songwriters, the research triggers the song. For listeners, the song triggers the research. And so it goes….gloriously around and around.

My father told me stories…..of filling sacks with coal in the winter…..hanging around the sharp corners of the tracks, where sympathetic conductors would sometimes increase speed so that the coal would fall off the cars that were filled to the brim. I remember how a lone abandoned coal car sat atop a mountain of culm overlooking the road to his childhood home like a sentinel. I remember him telling me of covering the entrances to illegal mines with their family Christmas tree to keep the mine bosses off their scent.

All this put the hooks in me.

Do we embrace our own history? Or do we wish we could re-write it?

Ours is a place forged by immigrants fleeing unimaginable horrors, and thus willing to do the kinds of things we today might find….well…..unimaginable. To live half of their lives under the ground so that, just maybe, their kids might have it a little better. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great grandfathers had to fight for everything. Nothing was given to them. They fought, and sometimes died, attempting to blunt the cold edge of an industry that valued the mules they worked beside more than it valued them. It’s so easy to take for granted that little boys don’t have to work 60 hours anymore…..and that an 8 hour day is plenty, thank you very much.

They fought and died for these things. Right here. They powered the nation……they fought and won its wars. Local names. On local gravestones.

And for this….what?

Many are weary of the past…..more proud of “The Office” than being known as some backwards coal-cracker. More folks make jokes than give thanks.

But still…..there’s something about this place…..something about the coal region’s concept of home. It’s why so many travel great distances to and from work… stay. Why so many who strain at the leash to get out…..wind up coming back. And it’s why one of our largest tourist attractions is a place, Centralia, that literally is not there anymore.

Bitterness is easy. Sentiment is hard. We manage both.

I want to learn more. I want to read more books about this place. I want to hear more songs about this place. I want to sit over more beers and have these types of conversations again and again. I want to talk it out….and I want to pass on what I’ve learned to my kids so that they can pass it along to theirs.

For too long we’ve been holed up inside…..phones in our faces……screeching at each other with our thumbs. Our partisan outrage almost seems scripted by now. We’ve forgotten that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

In a bit..




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Writer’s block…

November 6, 2019 Leave a comment

snoopyWriter’s block is a strange thing.

It can creep up on you, or dive-bomb you like a bird from the Hitchcock movie.

In 1848 Niagara Falls stopped flowing because of ice. Residents accustomed to hearing the sound (the way Hershey residents are accustomed to smelling chocolate) were awoken by the sudden silence. The flow was there….and then it wasn’t.

Words are there….and then, they’re not.

It’s terrifying because even though intellectually you understand that such droughts are inevitable… never really know if the words will ever come back.

Even the scariest Hitchcock film can’t compare to a writer staring at a blank sheet of paper (or a white computer screen). Sweat forms…..we’re unable to stay seated…bouncing up and down…..looking for any type of diversion. Even a bug on the floor will do. Maybe I should check the mail? Did I check for it already? It’s only 8am. Well…maybe they’re gonna be early today. I should check the weather. The grass looks high….might be one of the last chances for me to cut it this year. Milk? Bread? Maybe a quick trip to the store will give me an IDEA. Yea….that might work.

No, it won’t. But I’ve tried it anyway, because it gets that blank white thing out of my face. The one thing that computers can’t give you is that great feeling of writing half a sentence by hand and then crinkling up the paper and throwing it away, like it’s covered in disease. It’s very therapeutic to sit in a room with a wastebasket overflowing with nearly empty sheets of paper. The blank computer screen is more insidious….because there’s no remnant of effort AT ALL. You just open and close the word document over and over…clicking “do not save” each time. It’s a brutally efficient beat-down, and one of the reasons I suspect so many old-timers have a hard time giving up the quill.

If you do have an idea…’ll come at the WORST time…..when you’re in the middle of nowhere without a pen, 10 minutes after your phone just died. You promise yourself that you’re gonna remember it, but of course that’s a lie. It’s gone with the wind. And it was probably the GREATEST IDEA EVER. But….well….tough shit Bubba.

And when you’re blocked, the more you read your peers the more pissed off you get. Because NOBODY ELSE SEEMS TO BE BLOCKED. They’re writing just fine and dandy…..with all sorts of ideas that probably are shit compared to the one that you FORGOT….but still. They seem all happy and content and smug in their little creative corner… you smirky side-eye for being such a word-drained loser.

Ok, maybe that last bit isn’t true…..but I DON’T KNOW FOR SURE….

I’m sure you’ve already gathered this, but any writer writing about writer’s block HAS writer’s block so…..there.

I felt like writing something and could think of absolutely nothing to say, so I decided to write 500 words about having nothing to say…..which is what writers do because admitting defeat is fake news.

Here endeth the lesson…

In a bit..


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Fading light….

November 4, 2019 1 comment

I like when the darkness comes early….so daylight savings time is just fine with me. My problem is hating the mornings….when the light comes streaming in an hour earlier. That messes me up way more than navigating a dark parking lot at the end of the working day.

As a kid I was terrifyingly shy, so I’d invent reasons why I didn’t have to interact with anybody who didn’t live inside my own head. This included pesky neighborhood kids and classmates and siblings and the like. Darkness was a built-in excuse to stay in my room and listen to records and play the tennis racket in front of the mirror, pretending to be Townshend or Jimmy Page.

When it was dark outside I didn’t have to pretend that I loved playing sports that I was terrible at, or that I was a willing participant in the types of shenanigans that I only became willing to participate in (and sometimes lead) once I discovered the persuasive properties of hops, barley, water, and yeast. The good part about the darkness was that I never worried about what might be there that I could not see. Instead, I was always grateful for the cover it provided.

I’m still the type that walks into a room and immediately closes the shades…..trying to make the room as time-neutral as possible. If lights can’t be turned off, they’re turned down. Any room I wander into, I immediately turn off all the lights. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s instinctive.

Watching TV with a blaring light on is impossible. If I’m alone in a hotel room, forget it. Keith Richards and a suitcase full of scarves couldn’t make the place any darker. One time the hotel hall light was bothering me, so I jammed a bathroom towel under the door to keep that out. There’s a part of me that would adore living in Tromsø, Norway between November and January (google it Bubba….)….as long as I had guitars, books,  a lap-top, and Netflix.

(I’m also the type that doesn’t rake leaves until the spring, always being able to convince myself that once they disappear under the snow, they’re gone for good. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. Not sure why, but I feel like the 2 things are related somehow)

fadingWith the fading light comes more indoor exercise. While the darkness can fire up my creative synapses, it does make the couch much more inviting. So my daily 5 mile walks on the heritage trail will be relegated to Saturday and Sunday mornings. This week my soundtrack was an hour of The Jam…..Paul Weller’s outstanding early 80s mod band. This re-invigorated my search for the perfect Mod bulls-eye t shirt, which I promise to buy myself right after I talk myself out of needing a mod parka jacket (it’s getting cold you know…) and a vespa scooter (think of the savings on gas!). The struggle is real people…’s doggone real.

So to the treadmill I go (of course it’s in the dark). I’ve re-arranged the world in the basement so the TV is sitting 3 feet from me…..and I can time myself with a Netflix episode instead of staring at the treadmill timer itself, which I swear moves in reverse. So far my record in one session is bingeing (and yes, that’s how you spell it….spell-checker be-damned) half of season 5 of “Peaky Blinders”…..somewhere around 7 miles. All it cost me was a stress fracture that I’m trying like hell to ignore.

So I’ll finish this session by looking out the window here on top of this mountain, watching what’s left of the sunlight burn its way out over the valley. On Friday when I was here…..I needed sunglasses to navigate my way out of the parking lot. Today…I’ll hit the headlights and make my way down into the darkened bowl, trying to convince myself that I’m ready for what comes next. Because this time of year is never satisfied with the status quo. It practically demands that you take stock, and make the kinds of decisions that the lazy haze of summer allows you to put off. It’s exciting. And it’s a bit scary too. Because honestly, it’s the stuff that you can’t see that fires up our nightmares.

In a bit..



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Running On Empty

October 29, 2019 Leave a comment

Songwriting is a solitary pursuit. You need to get inside your own head…..and try to treat what’s in there like you would a holiday snow globe. As the late great Ric Ocasek once said…”Shake it Up”.

To be good at it you need to embrace loneliness, and then flip the switch and become desperate for community, because once the song is born it’s gonna end up in a better place if it’s raised by a village.

There’s just something about making music with friends. So much of it is non-verbal. A nod. A smile. What my friend (and probably yours) Fud calls the “perfect stew”, when the song is barreling down the runway and finally lifts off right before the pavement ends. It’s communication on a level that was never invented before bands were formed. True bands talk endlessly about why things aren’t working. But once you find the pocket, words are no longer necessary. Just try to land safely when it’s time to go home.

(And by “true”…..I don’t mean a random gathering of musicians. I mean guys who live in each others pockets….24/7……no secrets, ’cause there’s nowhere to run to, baby…nowhere to hide. Put simply, if you don’t have your own code-words for pretty girls in the audience, you’re not a real band.)

jbI’ve become an inveterate walker. If I can’t run away from getting old, I can at least try to not look back and see age gaining on me. For each walk…..I require a soundtrack. And I was thinking about all of this… shared…..when I chose Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty for Saturday’s 5 miles.

It just seemed right. A “road” album recorded everywhere. On the bus. In hotel rooms. Backstage. Browne and his band huddled in circles, not letting anybody else in until they captured what it must have been like for a group of wild 20 somethings, topped off with powder and pills and jugs of wine, to pretend that living this way was normal. So they not only sang the Reverend Gary Davis’s cautionary tale “Cocaine”….they sang it in between audible snorts….adding their own lines..

I was talking to my doctor down at the hospital
He said, “Son, it says here you’re twenty-seven,
But that’s impossible
Cocaine…you look like you could be forty-five

Running on empty indeed. I’ve owned this record for years….but this might have been the first time I really understood that Browne could never have made this music by himself. It needed his friends. It needed the bus and the hotel rooms and the backstage areas. The decadence was force-fed by exhaustion and boredom, and all three found their way into the grooves. Browne sounds like lots of things in these songs. Weary. Resigned. Stoned. Older than his years. But never lonely. I can’t say that about anything he has subsequently released.

(As you can probably tell….I take these walks very seriously, so if you see me out there and I bury my head in my chest as a hustle past you without making eye contact, this is why. Who knows what’s next. Maybe I’ll reach for “Late For the Sky”….although I’ve a feeling my time might suffer.)

If you want to learn how to write, you need to read. If you want to learn how to write songs, you need to listen. The best prose writers I know read incessantly. The best songwriters I know wake up and fall asleep with music in their ears. But through it all, find some fellow lunatics that know how to properly wrap cables and don’t mind loud noises and messy rooms and don’t disappear when it’s their round. Form a circle and don’t let anybody else in until you find the sound that’s in your head. And then get on that bus.

In a bit..



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James Barrett and The Price of Comfort

October 14, 2019 Leave a comment

Most of my friends are friends through music.

Guys and girls who sing and play and write and support each other. The kind of people you can count on when the chips are down. You meet one….and through them meet another….and on and on it goes until the entire community is intertwined and cheering each other on. Maybe it’s not like this in other places. But here it is. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

jamesMy friend James Barrett just released a stunning record called “The Price of Comfort“. It’s his first full length record after putting out a series of EPs.

I’ve known James since he was a teen. I know his wonderful family. He’s always been mature beyond his years (he’s all of 22 now), and uncommonly driven. He’s got a sound in his head, and he refuses to compromise until he can find it. His earlier releases came close, but there was always something missing….life experiences maybe. Or maybe just more wood-shedding sessions in the basement. It’s this record that he’s been searching for all these years. There’s nothing half-assed here. Nothing that sounds casually tossed-off. You can tell that even though we call these things labors of love…’s easy to forget that the labor comes first. The love you gotta work for.

This isn’t a record review. Music is in the ear of the beholder…..and just because I think a song like “The First Days of July” is a stunning piece of work doesn’t mean you’re gonna think so too. But maybe it’ll intrigue you enough to check it out….which is all I’d hope for. Because I was writing songs when I was 22, and I can assure you they didn’t sound like these songs…..and that I wasn’t writing and singing world-weary lyrics like this…

I think you’re scared and coming of age 
petrified of debts we’ll pay
the cost of living accelerates 
but believe in me I’m not afraid 

I’m not sure this kid is ever gonna stop. I know the type….from looking in the mirror. This is his stake in the ground. It’s not the end of the journey, but merely the beginning. It’s the type of record he’ll look back on when he’s my age and say, “yea….I’m not sure I can still do that….”

It’s a neat feeling being there from the beginning. Or so it seems. Watching this kid searching……being influenced by this or that band for sure, but knowing deep down that while he could borrow, he wasn’t gonna steal. It was all gonna get tossed into that pot of stew, and once the stirring was done, what was left was gonna be original. It was gonna be, unmistakably, his own vision. His own sound. And that’s thrilling sure, but also dangerous. Like being told you have to drive without be allowed to use the brakes.

If he can put together a band that can duplicate this sound, (James plays everything here but the drums) I may be seeing less and less of him around NEPA.

This is an intensely personal record that sounds universal…..a record that doesn’t divulge itself after one or two listens. It’s music you can run with.

I’ve watched this kid grow up….and I really didn’t have to. All I needed to do was listen….from then until now.

Nice work kid. Now what’s next?

In a bit..


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Warm blankets…

October 4, 2019 Leave a comment

fall_leavesI’ve always loved this time of year. The explosion of colors. The fresh snap in the air. Football on the weekends. Playoff baseball. Stegmaier Oktoberfest and pumpkin ice cream, preferably together as a meal. The heat gone back to hell where it belongs. The days are shorter and the nights spread out like a warm blanket. You can open windows. Turn off air. Sweatshirts. Hoodies. No more sticking to car seats. A little bit for everybody. Frosty mornings. Slowly warming days. And the evening just enough to invigorate bones worn down by the heat-induced torpor of July and August. Yea winter is coming, but it can wait. We’re gonna watch the trees catch fire first. And as an added bonus I can take my out of shape dog for a walk without him stopping from heat exhaustion after 50 yards.

Summer is too busy. There’s no time for reflection. Everybody’s afraid of missing out on something….so they’re off and running…..mostly doing nothing but bumping into one another. The days are impossibly long. You want to feel like a sloth? Wake up to bright sunshine, and hear your bed calling out to you 15 hours later…..when it’s still light enough to read a book on your front porch. Summer shames you into doing what you don’t want to do. That is…remain conscious. Plus, I wear glasses. When I summer-sweat they slip down the bridge of my nose at the same rate Eric Clapton was losing his specs during his “Unplgged” show on MTV (look it up… was so distracting I was hoping somebody would tape them to his forehead). How am I supposed to embrace days that treat me in such ways?

But, alas. Winter. There’s no escaping it.

I’m always been here….so I’ve never not known the 4 seasons. My brother moved to Houston and became demented…. bragging about cutting his grass while wearing a cowboy hat and shorts….on Christmas Day. My NEPA brain isn’t wired to even comprehend such things. So roughly anytime between Halloween and the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, we live with the threat of being carpet bombed by ridiculous snow storms….with the monotony broken by deep dives into below zero wind chills followed by out-of-the-blue spring-like thaws that engorge our rivers and streams. I don’t know about you but I find this all perfectly acceptable. Imagine living in Southern California and having nothing to look forward to except warm, sunny days and hoping a rogue earthquake doesn’t swallow you whole? How boring is that?

(I don’t even want to mention spring….because as nice as it can be it just reminds me that summer is around the bend, and thus pisses me off. Football and college basketball are over, and as I don’t get interested in baseball until October….I have absolutely nothing to look forward to sports-wise except the Masters, which lost some of its luster when I learned that they spray-paint the brown patches of grass an emerald green, put blue food dye in the water, and pipe in fake bird noises for TV. A place unlike any other indeed.)

I’d be remiss in my reflections on fall to not mention one of life’s greatest pleasures.

A warm fire.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fire-place, it was made for these nights. To nap in front of one and wake without your bearings…..for a few seconds not knowing if it’s AM or PM…and then realizing that it doesn’t matter….because it’s the weekend. Living doesn’t get much better than that.

We’re bombarded with so much stupidity and hatred and dishonestly these days it’s easy to forget the simple beauty that surrounds us. We live through gritted-teeth….with the highlight of some days the snapping shut of the garage door behind us…leaving the rest of the nonsense behind….at least for a few hours. The soul needs the changing colors. The soul needs that fresh air snap. The soul needs for you to see your own breath again. The soul needs that old sweatshirt…..and that old walking path you are your dog trod with the leaves covering you like a canvas. The soul needs to be reminded that the ugly and the beautiful go to war every day, but sometimes the latter wins.

In a bit..



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