Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Song Of The Day - John Barleycorn Must Live

One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby and one of his brilliant pieces of work is a collection of essays called, "Songbook." Hornby picks favorite tracks and writes about them in a brilliant, funny and sometimes incredibly poignant way. The stories go off in various directions with the only rule seemingly being that at the beginning of his thought process is that particular song. Cool idea. So in the best tradition of mediocre non-writers stealing the ideas of far superior writers I thought it would be cool to do this sometimes. So with apologies to Nick Hornby...

On October 1st, 1994 my buddy Trevor stopped by the pizza place where we both worked - he was off - and asked me if I wanted to hit the Robyn Hitchcock show with him that night. I had moved to Seattle after college about four months earlier and Trevor was pretty much my first friend there. We had already bonded over a shared love of the indie music (though Trevor's knowledge far surpassed mine and he was a guitar player himself who knew the Seattle scene really well). He was one of the rare people I met that actually knew who Robyn Hitchcock was and he was also a big fan. He had an extra ticket to Robyn's show that night at the Backstage, which I would discover that night was the best music venue in Seattle (sadly, no longer there).

This would be the first of many shows that Trevor and I would see together while I lived in Seattle, he would turn out to be my favorite concert buddy.

When we got to the Backstage we went straight to the bar and got some beer. Trevor asked the bartender who was opening and the guy told him, "Scott McCoy". I asked who and Trevor said it was the guy from Young Fresh Fellows. I'm pretty sure I said something like, Oh, cool. Yeah" but in reality had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But being 24-years-old I did not want to expose my relative lack of indie rock knowledge.

I would learn later, of course, that his name was spelled Scott McCaughey and just sounds like McCoy. He was great that night in his short set he did with Ken Stringfellow from The Posies, but I mostly remember the awesome Robyn Hitchcock show. I had seen him before but it was with his band in bigger venues opening for REM. This was my first Robyn show in a small club with him on stage by himself, I didn't know then I would see him dozens of times over the next 20 years; by himself, with a band, with violinist Deni Bonet, with Peter Buck from REM, with Scott McCaughey, and many other combinations.

Over the next few years going to concerts in Seattle I would see McCaughey all the time playing with other musicians I had gone to see, including when he became REM's permanent sideman on the Monster tour.

One year I got a job at a law firm - one of those great 90s slacker jobs that were so abundant in Seattle where I didn't have to actually do that much work. My favorite co-worker at the firm was this great guy named Gary. Gary was around 40 while I was in my late 20s and he had a wife and kids. I would discover that Gary was Scott's best friend since high school and that they had once been in a band together. I believe they also followed Mott the Hoople on tour through Europe.

Gary would be something of a role model for me during my time there. First of all he loved music, and despite being over 30-years-old he still loved hearing new bands. He also took his kids to concerts, introduced them to cool stuff, but also didn't begrudge them for liking some pop stuff he couldn't stand listening to. Gary showed me you could actually grow up without becoming "old." He was the first parent I ever met that made me think that it was possible to breed without becoming an asshole or a boring shithead. He had a lot to do with my thinking that having a kid might not be so bad after all. He is exactly the kind of dad I'm trying to be today

Through these years I had actually become more familiar with Scott McCaughey's music and had become quite a fan, especially of his project The Minus 5. I didn't realize it at the time, but that first show I saw him play back in 1994 was pretty much an early version of The Minus 5 since Ken Stringfellow and Peter Buck were his main collaborators on it back when he put together the first version of the group, which has had a rotating cast of characters through the years (including all the members of Wilco and The Decemberists as well as Robyn Hitchcock at various times, among many others).

Seems to me that people love to work with Scott for several reasons. It looks like he can play just about any instrument well, which is a great guy to have in your band. He also seems to have an insane musical knowledge when it comes to the history of rock-and-roll. Having talked to him a few times after shows over the years, I also know he's a hell of a nice guy. (I'm sure the number of times I've dropped Gary's name to him over the years  - "Hey remember me, I used to work with Gary in Seattle..." - has gotten a little annoying but he is always very cool to me).

And most of all, the guy knows how to craft a song. Seriously, how he has not become a bigger star has always surprised me since he can craft a pop song like nobody's business. Listen to John Barleycorn Must Live (off the excellent record Let the War Against Music Begin) and you are listening to a pop gem as good as anything The Beatles put out. Catchy, with lots of cool instrumentation going on underneath, it is also both an homage to music history - John Barleycorn being a British folk tune famously recorded by Traffic in 1970 - and a kind of redemption for the poor Barleycorn, who in the original song, "...should die." Scott McCaughey just decided that somebody must finally stand up for poor John Barleycorn, so this catchy tune is the result.

Scott's sense of humor as resulted in other beautiful pop numbers like With a Gun and also serious rockers like Aw, Shit Man. The man can make a song that makes you think of The Monkees and then turn right around and rock out with his cock out.

People who know how much I go see live music will ask me who I've seen the most and my answer is always, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, and Jeff Tweedy/Wilco; all of whom I've seen between 40-60 each, with Robyn being the most for sure. But it dawned on me a couple years ago that I've probably seen Scott McCaughey almost as much as any of them, maybe even more than Billy Bragg or Tweedy. I've seen him play with Tweedy. I've seen him many times with Robyn Hitchcock - especially after he was a part of Robyn's backing band for a few years. I've seen The Minus 5. I've seen him in Tuatara, a kind of Seattle indie super group. I've seen him play with Peter Buck and Alejandro Escovedo. And for the past few years I've been loving seeing Scott play in The Baseball Project, a band composed of him with Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate) as the songwriters and guitarists along with Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM, and excellent drummer Linda Pitmon. And as the name suggest, all the songs are about baseball.

Scott McCaughey has very stealthily become a major part of the soundtrack of my life. There are many artist/albums/songs that I think of when looking back on parts of my history and without my noticing Scott McCaughey became one of the dominant artists on that list. I really didn't even realize it until recently. On Record Store Day this year my number one target was The Minus 5 record called Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror, a sprawling, ambitious 5-LP boxed set of all new music with each disc playing on a theme (one of them being all songs about the band The Monkees, including a 9-minute track called Michael Nesmith, which just may be Scott McCaughey's American Pie and it is just as good if not better).

One of my favorite musicians, even though I didn't know that for years. Makes me think of seeing shows with Trevor, hanging out with the coolest dad I've ever known - which in turn reminds me that I'm happy I married my wife and had our daughter, and how much I love a well-crafted song and a great night out in a club watching great musicians.

Scott also reminds me that life is good.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Song Of The Day - Jeremy

One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby and one of his brilliant pieces of work is a collection of essays called, "Songbook." Hornby picks favorite tracks and writes about them in a brilliant, funny and sometimes incredibly poignant way. The stories go off in various directions with the only rule seemingly being that at the beginning of his thought process is that particular song. Cool idea. So in the best tradition of mediocre non-writers stealing the ideas of far superior writers I thought it would be cool to do this sometimes. So with apologies to Nick Hornby...

It would seem to totally destroy any indie cred that I think I have by starting this idea with the biggest hit from one of the most popular bands of the last 25 years. Or at the very least just fall in to the stereotype of the white Gen-Xer that I am. So be it.

Pearl Jam's Ten was released the month I turned 21. I think I first became aware of them from the video for "Evenflow" which was a song that blew my mind away and I was an instant fan. But hearing "Jeremy" the first time, well, that was a revelation. Still roiling with teen angst at 21 it was a song that seemed written for me, not that I'm unique in feeling that way about that song.

What was scary was how much I related to Jeremy. I really do believe that if not for just a few minor deviations in my life I could have found myself splattering my brains all over the wall in front of a classroom full of my fellow high school students. I think what maybe stopped me the most was not wanting to give those fuckwads the satisfaction.

My most vivid memory of the song, the thing I think about the most whenever I hear it today, comes from a few years later - in 1994, during my last semester of college.

I was a theatre major approaching graduation. My degree would be in directing but I was also an actor. A mediocre actor to be sure, but I sometimes nailed it and was actually really good with the exact right role, such as Lee Harvey Oswald in Sondheim's Assassins. My final role in college would be that of the troubled teen Hank in Marvin's Room, a part scarily tailor made for me, at least in my mind.

When you study theatre in college you end up being encouraged to explore your craft in various ways. You inevitably will have a stage movement teacher who tells you to find your "animal essence." As in, "If Hank were an animal, what animal would he be?" You get the idea.

I could never get in to the whole animal character thing, though I don't dismiss it - I knew some great actors who swore by it. But what I almost always did have - music geek that I was even then - was a song for my character. And Hank's song was "Jeremy."

I had been struggling with the character during rehearsals, as one will do when taking on such a meaty role. One beautiful spring day I took off from my off-campus apartment and walked by myself with my CD Walkman. I set out that day to walk around as a 17-year-old (I was 23 by this time) and just get in the mind of Hank.

I was listening to Ten that day, of course. Over and over. This was before the days of being able to make mix CDs on your computer (and before I even had a computer or even knew what email was) so what you had in your CD Walkman was going to be an album.

As I walked around Macomb, IL trying to find my inner teenager I came across a pink golf ball on the grass somewhere. No shit, a pink golf ball. Who uses pink golf balls? It made me think about my late friend Lori and I was finding myself heading in the direction of the cemetery where she was buried.

Lori was a freshman theatre major the previous year but she was not like any other freshman. Lori grew up in town and had been involved in the theatre program from a young age, when I met her several years earlier she worked part time in the costume shop. About a year before this walkabout she was killed when she swerved in front of an oncoming semi on a road outside of town.

Lori's favorite color was pink. Finding the golf ball made me think about going to her grave. I had been at her funeral the year before and was not able to hold it together. My grief was too much and I was a basket case, so I didn't go to the burial afterwards.

I found her spot at the cemetery and sat at her gravestone. There was a metal frame on her headstone with a hinge at the top. I lifted it to find a picture of a smiling, happy Lori looking at me. I lost my shit once again, with Jeremy playing in my ear.

I left the pink golf ball at her grave that day. A gift for the sunniest, happy person I ever knew. Cruelly taken from us well before her time.

Pearl Jam wailing in my ear, I walked back to my off-campus apartment knowing I was ready to play what would be the greatest role of my life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What The West Is Good At Exporting

I have been lucky enough to travel to a decent number of places in my life, especially in recent years. I love to travel. There is nothing else I love as much as traveling and travel planning, save for maybe going to concerts. Like a lot of Americans I love to travel to Europe because, let's face it, Europe is by and large so much cooler than America. But I also love to travel to countries outside the "Western" world.

My wife and I have traveled to SE Asia twice now, most recently this last autumn when we took our 5-year-old daughter with us. It is an amazing part of the world to see, beautiful with a rich history and very lovely people. It is not like we are the only travelers who know this secret. This part of the world sees an amazing amount of tourism now. You walk down the streets of Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, among other cities, and you will be surrounded by a lot of other white people. Generally this is really god for the local economies as we bring a lot of money with us to spend in restaurants, on hotels, museums, and gift shops.

But a lot of Westerners bring something else with them besides their money: Asshole-ish behavior. Ass-hattery may be our biggest export from america and Europe.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the most special places on Earth. It is the closest town to the wonders of Angkor Wat and a nice little city to hang out at night. It is also overrun with tourists. It really was amazing to see the difference in the six years between our trips there. The number of hotels they have there now was shocking. So was the number of tourists walking the streets and partying in the bars at night. Not just the numbers are what's shocking, but the number of hipsters. It appears Siem Reap has become an "it" location for the young hip people from The U.S. and Europe. This wouldn't really be a problem if they didn't bring their asshole behavior with them.

An example: We were in an ice cream and coffee shop in downtown Siem Reap around an area called Pub Street and "The Passage" where a ton of restaurants are located. These are all places that are generally cheap for us but your average Cambodian cannot afford to eat or drink at them. All of central Siem Reap caters to tourists. There were a couple of very Eurotrash-looking Italians who ordered espressos. When they got thir drinks they were not exactly what the guys wanted and they got very angry with the young girl serving them. They basically yelled at her that this was "not what I wanted" and to "take it away."

They acted like a real couple of dicks. Both parties are speaking a second language to their own, English. The fact that you can travel to a place like this and not have to try to converse in Khmer is really convenient and things will be misunderstood now and then. Is it really necessary to act like an ass about it? This is vacation after all.

I think travelers need to show a little more deference and patience when in a country where the main language is one you don't know. I'm a guest places like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam yet somehow I am able to do all my business with hotels and restaurants in English, my language not theirs. I should appreciate the generosity of that. We had a mistake happen in a restaurant in Luang Prabang. My daughter wanted basil on her pizza and it took a while to get the waiter to understand it. When the pizza came it had black olives on it instead. We didn't send it back and my daughter ate it, though we picked off the olives. It just is not a big deal. I'm in a country where I don't speak their language which means the language barrier is my problem and not theirs. I'm really happy about my kid learning that lesson that day. She's already a more mature and respectful traveler than some of the people we came across.

Like this middle-aged English woman in Hoi An, Vietnam.She ordered a caffe macchiato at a nice restaurant we were having lunch. she got all pissy with the waiter when her drink came because it was a shot of espresso with just a dollop of foamed milk. You know, a caffe macchiato. She then lectures the waiter on what a macchiato is, telling him there should be a lot of milk in it, that it is a big drink. She makes him take it back to fix it. And the very stupidest thing about this is that she was wrong! She learned her coffee lingo from Starbucks back at home, she is the one who didn't know what she was ordering.

After the waiter left to "fix" the "mistake" the tone in her voice to her travel companions was one that said, "stupid foreigner," not realizing she was the stupid foreigner, not the waiter who brought her the right drink in his home country.

The rudeness you can see sometimes toward people whose country in which we are guests is stupefying. So is the inappropriate behavior.

In Siem Reap we would see a lot of girls and guys walking around in short-shorts and tank top shirts Now, if you've done even the most minimal bit of research on Cambodia - like 3 minutes worth - you know that they are culturally a very conservative people who dress modestly and that revealing clothing is a big no-no. But apparently hipsters can't be bothered with learning anything about where they are going. Even worse, they would go to Angkor Wat that way. Sacred holy ground. Signs that actually tell you that kind of dress is inappropriate.

I'm not one to hold a lot of respect for religion, certainly. But a traveler must have respect for the people whose country they are visiting. Their culture is still theirs no matter how much money we spend there. The problem with some of these Western travelers is they treat these countries as if they are in the SE Asia section of Epcot Center at Disney World and not in a country where people live, work, pray, raise families, and try to live a life. If your only goal is to party and get drunk in bars with a bunch of other white people then what the hell is the point? I can get drunk with fellow American at home.

They not only embarrass themselves, they also embarrass those of us that try to travel in a way that honors and respects the place we are visiting.

This is not to say I don't think people should go to places like this or that they are ruined for travel. Despite its crazy crowds, the asshole-ish behavior of some, and the inevitable scams that go along with crowds of richer people being in a poor country, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the rest of the countries in SE Asia are truly wonderful places and I'm that much richer for having visited. I would encourage everyone to go there some time in your life.

But don't bring your asshole behavior with you.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My How Things Change

When I was living in Seattle in the 90s for a while I resided at the vintage but rundown Jensonia Apartments on First Hill right next to Freeway Park and the backside of the structure that created the Freeway Park parking garage. On a block forgotten about, blocked in by an overpass, almost butted up against the back wall of the convention center and left for dead in the urban planning of the 60s and early 70s that all started with carving a freeway through downtown Seattle.

By the time I lived there in the 90s you can imagine what it was likely to had become. A jewel of the 20s (I think) was a shell of its former self, sitting at the bottom of a dead end hill and next to the dark alley created by the wall of the parking garage.

The tenants living there were an odd mix of, well, odd. Druggies, working-class stiffs who sat out on the stoop every day drinking beer or whiskey, transients who hadn't really figured out what there life was supposed to be about at that point. I suppose thinking in retrospect I was one of the latter. Though at the time I likely saw myself as the starving undiscovered artist. I mean hey, I was working in the theatre. For no money, so I also had a day job. I needed cheap rent and the Jensonia - with its stained hallways, ripped and stained carpets, odd smells in the hall, temperamental ancient elevator, cobweb-filled laundry basement - was perfect for me. $425/month to live, by myself with about 600 square feet, a short walk through Freeway Park to my downtown office job. I could actually light a cigarette as I was walking out of the building and be at the entrance to my office building before I finished the smoke. And I had a Murphy bed in the place. I was on top of the world.

It's odd how you measure your life at 27.

A while back I wrote a long four-part story about my time at the Jensonia Apartments (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) - which before I left would become the Jensonia Hotel, officially a transient building with weekly rates and the eventual drug raids and at least one O.D. death and one murder.

Yes, a murder. Right in the lobby of the building. And we knew the guy. Drunk Bob. Sat on the stoop and drank cheap beer and got surly under his middle-aged beard.. Had a shit blue car - from I think the 70s - full of tools. And now he's dead on the lobby floor apparently from a single punch to the face.

Thing is, even as creepy as it was becoming at the Jensonia I loved living there (I think that four-part story linked above represents some of my better writing, certainly some of my least cynical).

Fast forward from 1997/98 to 2014 and this is my wife and I when we look for a place today:

"No, they don't have in-unit washer/dryer, just a laundry room three feet away"
"Off the list"
"The second bathroom is only a half bathroom"
"Nix that garbage"
"This one has three bed/two bath but is only about 1400 square feet"
"Scratch that one off"
"No bike storage in this one"
"Those monsters!"

I'm not saying life was easier when I was poor. Looking back I think my life may have been in danger while I was still in the Jensonia during my final months there. So it was good I got out. Especially good since a few years later it burned down.

But decisions were certainly easier. I have x amount of money I can pay for rent. This is a list of places I can afford. Take first one that doesn't suck too bad. Move in after having bribed friends with pizza and Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve. Done.

And I may have had to deal with drug dealers, winos, guys strung out on smack, Schizophrenics, and all around weird people. But I never once had to have a conversation with a passive-aggressive asshole condo association president with overdeveloped sense of self-importance and pretend power.

Boy, do things change.

Some pictures of the Jensonia:

From the 1920s

 From the late 1990s, around when I lived there. Taken from the 8th Ave viaduct, not the 8th Ave that goes under the viaduct to get to the building

 And a Google street view, however recent this might be. Gone. I heard Virginia Mason will be expanding onto the site.

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