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Music frames everything

Writing about music is tricky because, honestly,  you shouldn’t be reading about rock and roll, you should be listening to rock and roll.

Music criticism is largely irrelevant, because we like what we like and that’s pretty much that. We may not want to admit that we like something, for fear of being ostracized by the cool kids, but c’mon, you think Barry Gibb is badass too.

walkMusic frames everything. All our memorable moments are defined by these songs. Our loves and losses, new roads taken and old ones abandoned…..all are accompanied by a soundtrack…..a transistor radio glued to the ear, or a boom box perched on a shoulder….AM and FM. Eight-track and mixed-tape cassettes. The at-the-time-glorious Walkman (I got paint splatter on mine…dropped it 100 times, still works). Our sister’s vinyl, and somehow being snookered into re-buying the lot of it on strange little discs that cost too much and sorta sounded worse. And now, entire collections in the palm of your hand. Or on some far-away cloud somewhere….hiding behind the sun for fear of having to pay songwriter royalties. But…well…never mind that for now.

Hearing those strange voices for the first time. Dylan….Neil Young. They sounded like they were from another fucking galaxy. But you’d cradle that cheap guitar in your hands, bleed your fingertips until they became manly, and, eventually, you realized that while what they were doing was magic, it wasn’t technically hard. I mean, anybody could play these songs. Even a rube like me could knock out the “Cinnamon Girl” solo. The trick of course was writing them. I later learned that Young wrote “Cinnamon Girl” while suffering from a very high fever….which somehow made it all sound even more exotic. And sorta explained the solo too.

My parents. Bless their gentle hearts. I asked my Dad to pick me up a Beatles record at Ralph’s Record City downtown on his way home from work, and he came home with some record by the “Beetles”, not understanding my pre-teen rage at all. “What’s the difference?” he said.

My Mom giving me spending money for a basketball trip we took in 8th grade, some tournament outside Philly, and me blowing it all on the first night buying Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” and Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” at a local mall. She knew but pretended she didn’t.

Towards the end of his life one of my Dad’s favorite records was Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. The old bugger eventually learned the difference!

I miss them both dearly.

And speaking of the Brother’s Gibb…..I would sneak into my oldest sister’s room and listen to “New York Mining Disaster 1941” from the “Here at Last….Bee Gees Live” album and feel really bad about it. Then I’d do it again. Forbidden fruit. Strange days.

And the British of course. Speaking of high fevers, I first fell in love with the Beatles while lying on my couch down with one, listening to the “Red” album. I was probably 10 years old. A penny was taped to the arm of the needle in an attempt to alleviate the skips that I got so used to I just assumed George Martin placed them there. I must have dragged that needle across “Paperback Writer” 1000 times, no earthly idea what it was about but in love with that loopy guitar riff. One of the great songs to sing along to alone in the car, because you know you try to nail all 3 harmonies at the same time. Don’t lie to me.

The Stones. Even in the 1970s you were convinced Keith Richards was either going to die very soon….or that he would live forever. They were gone, and then “Some Girls” showed up and Mick sang that line about black girls that pissed Jesse Jackson off and it sorta warmed your rock and roll heart a bit. Maybe you could grow old and nasty doing this. Back then 30 was old…..Jagger famously saying that he wouldn’t be caught dead singing “Satisfaction” onstage at that horribly advanced age. Keith taught me the 5 string (remove the low E, critical) open G tuning and suddenly I was band-worthy. Sorta like not knowing how to drive but having keys.

It was Pete Townshend who showed me that the best way to get around walls was to knock them down……and so I’d lay on the floor in the middle of a circle of beer bottles and listen to “Quadrophenia” and feel like Jimmy on the rock in the middle of the sea….the desperate seeker. And then “Empty Glass”, sort of a loud nervous breakdown, showing what happens to real artists who lay themselves bare in front of their audience, haunted by the human wreckage they’ve managed to leave behind (like 11 dead kids in Cincinnati). It ain’t always pretty, but if it’s loud enough, it can be cathartic as hell. I was 16 years old when I caught Townshend-itis, and this many years later I’m still manically, happily ill. I trust it will kill me in the end.

And from Pete to Saint Joe Strummer….as obvious a connection as Dylan to Woody Guthrie. Incidentally, Strummer was born “John Mellor”, but before he became Joe Strummer, he insisted on being called “Woody” (So you see how all this fits together, right? ). I could smell London burning, and rarely left Dunmore. No mean feat, that. And to this day I’ll say that the one of the greatest 3 minutes of my life was hearing “Train in Vain” when I expected I had come to the end of “London Calling”.

Then I took a year off and immersed myself in all things Woody Guthrie…..and wrote a play about him. Because this is what he taught me….and Strummer and Dylan…

“A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be who’s hungry and where their mouth is or who’s out of work and where the job is or who’s broke and where the money is or who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.”

–Woody Guthrie

….and for years after I wrote songs almost daily….learning, spewing, falling and getting back up, laughing and crying and preaching the gospel that if you ain’t in the arena you got no right to pass judgement on the bleeding.

And oh so many more random moments after and in-between. In college I’d thrust my Walkman blaring REM’s “Murmur” and “Reckoning” into unsuspecting ears…..not wanting to hog the divinity all to myself. I had no idea what Stipe was singing, but still it was like listening to Pavarotti sing some foreign libretto…..you just let the it wash all over you and bragged about being there. I’d drive for 2 hours and listen to nothing but “Sarah Smile” and “She’s Gone” from Hall & Oates on repeat….over and over again…..and be thrilled like it was some Groundhog Day. We’d moodily drink Rolling Rock in front of roaring fire with Springsteen’s “Nebraska” droning from the bed of a pick-up, waiting for the girls to come. When they did we’d switch to “The River”. I mean….we weren’t idiots.

I tracked down every Bodeans record there was, wondering why they weren’t as famous as the Everly Brothers, and never telling anyone that Kurt Neumann’s solo on “Fadeaway” from “Homebrewed: Live at the Pabst” is my second favorite in the world after Dave Davies on “All Day and All of the Night”. Until now. Thank you Kurt.

I could go on….forever. Jason Isbell and the Drive-by Truckers and Glen Hansard and James McMurtry and the Hold Steady and Slobberbone and the Smithereens and the Replacements and crying when Cobain died and finally learning that Bret Alexander wrote “…but I hate hitting the ground…” in “Fear of Falling” and not “….but I hate it on the ground…”

It’s the little things, Bubba.

Today I try to emulate a little bit of ALL those folks….and 100 more I haven’t mentioned…..with words and music and action and the 3 chords that I know….from a whisper to a scream…and back again….in an infinite loop…until death do us part.

In a bit..


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