Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rolling South, Again

In about an hour, Monkey and I (and Ripken Ozark) will be loading up the Penguin and heading for CoMo. The annual True/False Film Festival is this weekend, and, fortuitously, my school is not holding classes today, due to the state girls' basketball turnament. So, I decided, reluctantly, as always, to take Friday off, and Monkey and I are making a long weekend of it.

We are slated to see about ten movies (maybe eleven--I don't quite recall), from Friday evening to late Sunday afternoon, then it's back home to Lincoln. I expect we will be mostly worn out on Monday, but, it will be worth it.

I expect I will be telling you all about it in March. Enjoy tomorrow's Leap Day!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Missed Opportunities

The snow and ice fell on Monday, followed by righteous prairie winds. Monkey and I had a report from a driver that the road to Omaha was relatively treacherous and the wind was fierce. We decided not to travel out for Drive By Truckers. Perhaps we missed a great show, but a two hour plus trip one way (estimated due to conditions) followed by the same to return was not a pleasant forecast. Nor was three hours of sleep. Call me lame, but, I think we made a wise choice. Granted, I don't get to tell a story like this, but, that will just have to be okay.

Saturday's housewarming party was nice. We had more than twenty people show up. This may not seem like much, but, for us, it was a mob! Unfortunately, the party was over by 10:30. Does that mean all of our new aquaintances a) are old, b) are lame, c) secretly don't like us, or d) all of the above? Or, is there another, more benign explanation?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Looking Forward and Forward and Forward

This weekend, Monkey and I are having a housewarming-type party (Finally! some might say).The guest list is around thirty, and Monkey and I are a bit nervous. We have never entertained so many people. Well, except at our wedding, but that was different. We've always lived in such small places before, that after you put a half dozen people inside, it was a full house. Not that we live in some palatial estate, now, but, it can fit a few more people. We are excited to have a party, of course.

We're also excited to be going back to Omaha on Monday night to see Drive By Truckers. They are playing at the same place that Daniel Johnston played a few weeks ago. Monday night shows are a bit of a hassle, especially when they are an hour away, but, I am looking forward to it.

But, what I am really looking forward to is the True/False Film Festival next weekend in CoMo. It will be somewhat strange being a visitor in a place I called home for many years, but I am looking forward to it with great eagerness. I look froward to seeing great films. I look forward to walking familiar streets that may not be quite as familiar anymore. I look forward to seeing some friends. It will be a good weekend. And, I am taking Friday off, so, it will be a long weekend. Hooray!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tacks, Man

It's that time of year, folks. I was watching the news the other night, when the anchor woman went to commercial with a teaser about the tacks man. I remember that it's tacks time, the time of year when we teachers have to watch out.

This time of year, tacks are being filed. That makes them very sharp. And students, always in the mood for a poorly thought through practical joke, are well-aware of the time honored, guffaw-inducing prank of putting tacks on a teacher's chair. That's bad enough at any time of year, but, when the tacks are filed, it hurts even worse.

It has gotten so bad, apparently, that the government is stepping in to help beleagured teachers. The president and congress seem to favor cutting the tacks. This, of course, in an effort to lessen the effect of filing them, I imagine. It sounds like a good idea to me.

And, even better news, the presidential candidates are all contemplating making the cuts permanent. This would really help. If we permanently kept tacks cut, teachers would never suffer the ignominy of having a filed (or unfiled) tack jabbed into their posterior. And, we could always use push pins for our bulletin boards.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Periodic Affirmation

Stopped a former student (from last semester) in the hall this afternoon to ask him where he got his awesome headphones. He said he had something for me, and reached in his bag to pull out a pair of burned CDs. Pinback. I said I'd heard of them, but never heard them. I thanked him for the music.

We had a conversation months ago about The Shins. The passing time soundtrack I had been laying down had roused him not at all. He'd not said a peep through Bessie Smith, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Will Johnson, Meat Puppets, Mazzy Star, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis. He perked up at The Decemberists one day, and became mega-animated the next at "One by One All Day." He was always a quiet kid. Sharp, sometimes had some good comments, but, he dozed off a lot. However, he had a good nature (almost all of them do), and, he was a drummer, so we connected over that, too. But, I never really felt like our connection went beyond music (which was a strong enough connection, at any rate).

But, today, he made a few comments that made it clear to me that I had made an academic connection with him, also. He said I had covered texts "in depth," and it sounded like he was saying it as a compliment. I thanked him for that as he shuffled off to class.

I feel like a success any time I can connect to a kiddo. Over anything. But, when it becomes clear that I may have TAUGHT someone something--that's like hitting a grand slam in the World Series.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Slow Down/Devil Town

This should be revised further. It is missing so much, and it doesn’t sing like I want it to. But, I wanted to get it up while it was still fresh in my mind. A shout out to R and Comoprozac (two of the four hipster/oldsters)—thanks for visiting on a cold February weekend. See you at T/F!

It is painfully cold as four aging hipsters hustle up 14th Street to stand in line with the youngsters waiting to enter Slow Down to see Daniel Johnston on an Omaha Saturday night. Without saying so, each is aware of the existential state the others are in. Is this going to be a train wreck of a show? Is this legend of independent art and music going to appear to them simply as a caricature? Will the effects of drugs, mental illness, and general ill health have taken too much of a toll on this man, a man some have labeled “genius?” Do these kiddos even know who Daniel Johnston is?

A pretty, straight-haired blonde girl snaps her gum in a Crayola red wool coat and beige Uggs in front of them. She looks 16. Behind them, a short crazy-haired girl in a thick wool cap smokes noisily, her head obscured by her breath and fumes. It’s hard to tell how old she might be.

At the door, the ticket guy sees the skull cap on one of the over-thirty quartet. It reads “Obama 08.”

“Did you go to the caucus today?”
“We’re from Missouri.”
“Oh, did you vote on Tuesday?”
“How’d you do?”
“Did he win?”
“Oh. Yeah.”
“Cool. I heard he was up like 70-30, here.”

Hipsters for Obama.

Inside, the place has that new club smell—no smoke, no urine, no stale beer. It’s clean and dark and black. Black-tiled walls, black-painted ceiling. It is deep and thin, opening out a bit wider in front of the stage, with a sunken floor area surrounded by a few tables. Hanging from the ceiling, a glow-in-the-dark tube sculpture breaks up the monotony of vents and metal rafters. A small upstairs area seats a few at tables and chairs.

It’s 9:15. They find a place near the top of the steps, about thirty feet from the stage. They are near the merch table—a couple of T-shirts for one of the bands, a few CDs and prints, a “Hi How Are You?” Johnston T-shirt—manned by a skull-capped, mascara-wearing dude with a long, thin nose and a two-day growth, who resembles a grungier, younger, more attractive Perry Farrell. Queuers at the table jostle the oldsters occasionally as they get their bearings.

It is a mixed sense they get from the place. It is too clean, too suited-for-the-purpose to feel real, but, at the same time, it is a change of pace not having to see a show in a 100-year-old former bank with water damage, graffiti on the walls, crumbling ceilings, broken toilets, and two city condemnation notices on the peeling front door.

At about 9:30, the first performer comes on—Jake Bellows (yes, Comoprozac, of Neva Dinova). Liz Stinson, of the Lincoln Journal Star, finds Bellows “amazing” and “understated.” A wood-grain Gibson Les Paul around his neck, and the de rigeur skull cap, scraggly hair, and beard around his head, Bellows hesitantly launched into several songs that had wandering tempos, or that occasionally stopped so that Bellows might correct a chord change. The songs would trail off or end abruptly, and they seemed to have extemporaneous lyrics about “beer breath” and “hiding away” one’s love (that’s a new idea). At one point, Bellows stopped a song in order to announce that he had neglected to put anyone on his guest list and to ask someone in the back to put Kelsey, Amanda, Lisa, Isaac, and Tammy on the list. No word on whether they showed up.

His last song of the night started out as K. the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” However, halfway through the second verse, Bellows forgot the words, and no one in the audience could help him out. He made a sincere apology to Jim Henson for messing up his song, thusly: “Thank you, Jesus, for killing Jim Henson early.” Amazing? Yes. Understated? No.

The second band, while having no possibility to be anything but better, really turned things in a positive direction. Flowers Forever had an excellent sound, classic instruments, a bruising drummer, and the gyrating, singing, arm-waving front man, Derek Pressnall of Tilly and the Wall, who turned out to be the merch-table dude. A highlight of the set—a song with a chorus along the lines of, “We’re waiting for some change. / We’re not fucking around anymore.” Why this isn’t Obama’s campaign song, I don’t know. Another highlight—a cover of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a song made popular by Billie Holiday. A lowlight of the set—a poorly arranged final song that employed saxophone. Kinda ska, kinda jazz, kinda crap.

At about 11, Daniel Johnston took the stage. Dressed in his standard gray sweat pants and a rugby shirt, his hair gray, he flipped his notebooks open beside a table full of water bottles. A few strums on his headless guitar, and he was ready to go. But, the mic was dead. A few snaps and clicks in the PA, and the mic was on. But, the guitar was not. Johnston handled it with aplomb, telling a joke in the first minute or two of the electrical problems. As the minutes dragged on, he admitted that that was the only joke he knew. Eventually, and without further issue, the technical difficulties were resolved.

Johnston played a few of his songs unaccompanied. It was sometimes hard to watch—he has pretty bad tremors—but he trooped on. His voice, while never his finest attribute, is certainly showing its age (prematurely, like the rest of him), but the spirit, the fire, is still there.

Joined by a guitar player, Johnston worked through a few more songs, including one of my personal favorites, “Grievances,” and a cover of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” (Did Bellows know this?) I was put in mind of later Johnny Cash—the “American” recordings—when a near-70-year-old Cash with a certainly limited technical vocal ability filled in the gaps with nuance and emotion. Johnston was trying that, and succeeding, mostly, but the Man in Sweats’ instrument has never been in the same category as the Man in Black’s.

When he returned for his final set, accompanied by a full band that looked like it was just going through the motions, Johnston’s voice was ragged. He valiantly plugged on, croaking through a half-dozen numbers, but, by then, for some, the thrill was gone. Many in the crowd exhorted Johnston to carry on, but the oldsters seemed to be hoping he would go have a cup of tea. He had done enough. He had shown that he still wore his heart on his sleeve, and, oddly enough, that his songs were more powerful when he was performing them, and he alone, than when he had a whole band to flesh the songs out. It’s just the nature of his songs and his persona.

Johnston eventually called it a night, taking his notebooks, and leaving the stage after thanking us all. He did not return for an encore.

The quartet of hipster/oldsters had split into two pairs, and the two up front moved to meet the two in the back as the band came out and invited the crowd to serenade Johnston with his own “Devil Town” as a show of thanks in lieu of an encore. Many of them did as our group bundled up and slinked back out into the cold to contemplate their own vampires and devils in the existential musings that the night had put murmuring in their private thoughts.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Power of Music

I had this dream about these angels
I had this dream the other night
it was really weird
they were playing guitars
and getting loud
and they spilt beer on Jesus
--Daniel Johnston, "I Save Cigarette Butts"

We are reading James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues"--a masterful short story, with multiple strong themes dealing with race, brothers, religion, loss, drug use, music, heritage, expression, repression, understanding, and communication (just to name a few)--in American Lit this week. Earlier this week, in connection with the story, I asked students to ponder the question, "What is the power of music?" Responses ranged from, "It keeps me awake when I am driving," to, "It mirrors emotions, or, "It expresses emotions (the artist's and the listener's)." The discussion was a pretty good one for a Monday.

Yesterday, enjoying a snow day after we were dumped on all day Tuesday, I sat in the living room warmed by a crackling fire and listening to the iPod on shuffle. What could be better? I'd just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road (more on that in a later post), and I was feeling quite contemplative (a post-apocalyptic novel will do that), when Daniel Johnston's "I Save Cigarette Butts" came on. Recorded on a cassette recorder in his parent's basement in the early 80s, it is rough, stark, and awesome--just a songwriter, his song, and his piano. With lyrics that seem odd, but are truly kind of honest, powerful, and masterful in their own right, this stripped down piece of expression is followed by the strings, backing chorus, rousing crescendo, and other production values of Elvis Presley's live recording of "The Wonder of You." The pairing could not have been more perfect in revealing the true power of music to my ears.

I love Elvis. Hell, I put him on the iPod--he's not there by accident. "The Wonder of You" is a good song--not great, by any means, but a good 60s-style ballad--but snuggled up against Johnston's emotionally raw, frill-free gem, Elvis sounds schlockier than ever--crappy and stupid.

The power of music. It doesn't lie in what sounds good or clear. It doesn't lie in the packaging or the production. It doesn't lie in rhinestones, or leather, or denim, or hair. It lies in the fingers of the musician, the soul of the singer, the heart of the songwriter, and the ears of the listener. It stirs us. It lifts us. It brings tears to our eyes. Pain to our hearts. Smiles to our faces. Glimmers to our eyes. It moves us to feeling. It moves us to move. It tells us a story. It makes us think. It makes us mad. It makes us content. It makes us.

In Baldwin's story, one brother lives the power of music (sometimes to his detriment), while the other must come to understand it. Eventually (another of music's many abilities), it brings the two together. Without a doubt, the brother's are NOT listening to Elvis. More like Bird.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Life-Long Learning

Monkey got me guitar lessons for Christmas this year. Did I tell you that? I know I haven't mentioned the guitar for a long time, but I have been playing pretty regularly. I told Monkey I felt like I was at that point where I needed a teacher. This learning on my own thing was getting kind of stale. Plus, I feel like I may be learning some bad habits.

So, she gave me a certificate that announced that she had pre-paid five lessons with this fellow who had been recommended to her by some friends of ours. I hadn't gotten around to calling him, what with everything that has been going on, but, during my sick week last week, I wrote his numbers on the certificate, fully intending to call him this past weekend.

Friday night found Monkey and I at the Lied Center with our previously mentioned acquaintances, watching a Celtic fiddler and her band (don't ask). Who should be sitting next to us, we found out, but my future teacher and his wife! What a coincidence. We introduced ourselves and I told him I would call on Saturday morning. Which I did. And we set up a lesson time. That evening, Monkey and I went to see The Savages (very good), and guess who we ran into? Yes, the same couple--my teacher and his wife. How strange.

But, strange or not, I have my first lesson on Wednesday. I'd better start practicing so I sound good for it!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Ballad of Unadilla Bill

This is a wholly imagined story based on a real taxidermical wonder.

A cold and frosty morn' they stood,
Dekalb brims projected.
Plumed breath billows from underhood.
From the chill protected

By Carhart bibs in rust and green
And johnnies long beneath,
As on the cottonwood they lean
A small evergreen wreath.

"In memoriam" does it read,
But it is not enough
To pay the forfeit on a deed
That took him down so rough.

This wreath is for a whistle pig
Of legendary ilk,
Who laid to waste field and fig,
Who had a taste for silk.

Unadilla Bill was his name,
Scourge of seven counties.
From Idaho to Maine his fame.
Heavy were the bounties

They set upon his head to stop
The pillaging he did.
To whet his teeth--a leather strop,
And then he'd pry the lid

From cans of food or tanks of drink,
And he would drink his fill.
All would shudder whene'er they'd think
Of Unadilla Bill.

But one fine day he met his end,
And met it far too soon,
When he was gunned down by a friend,
The dread Rocky Raccoon.

The Racoon, he had been hired out
By all the town's elite;
They said the deed would give him clout;
They threw gold at his feet.

Ol' Rocky thought, "With all that cash
I'll win back my gal Lil--
McGill--Nancy." Then, with a crash,
He rushed out for the kill

And finished the job by that night.
The town was quite relieved,
But they soon became doubly grieved,
When the black sky turned white.

That night rose a spirit marmot,
A voice big as the sea,
It said, "You shouldn't have harmed it.
Now harken unto me.

"You all shall never forget it,
This day you all reckoned,
So set a day to regret it,
February second."

And so they do, these simple men,
Heavy hearts a-wormied
With guilt, for they have brought this end:
Bill is taxidermied.

They trot him out on his one day
and lay the wreath upon
the spot where he did pass away,
the place where Bill was gone.

Some years he casts a shadow down.
Some years, no shadow be.
But Bill can never look around:
Glass eyes can never see.

And even while the elders weep,
These men are still the victor,
For while Bill's soul lies fast asleep,
He's their spring predictor.