January 27, 2018

Third portion: Corporation, or a White boy goes from blues to funk

The new album, Boarding House Reach, isn't even out yet and Jack White's fans are already dividing into factions over the first three songs. Corporation was released at midnight this past Thursday and by the time I listened to it over breakfast, opinions ranged from loving it, to calling it garbage, to genuine concern over what in the hell direction his music is headed in and has he forsaken everything he used to stand for?  Personally, it's the first of the three songs I can say I almost unequivocally enjoy.  The lyrics are a ways away from profound, but they've definitely got me wondering and that's a good thing. 

As for the music... It's funky fresh and makes me grin from ear to ear.


Yeah, it's damned different from anything he's done before.  We're waaaay far from both the Delta and the garage here, folks.  But is it really a surprise?  If you look at his progression over the course of his career and the music and musicians he's talked about over the last five years, this actually starts to feel like a fairly natural direction for him to turn.  His last two albums seemed to reflect his immersion in Nashville, with an abundance of fiddle and pedal steel creating a distinct country flavor.  But he was also playing with a hip-hop drummer (Daru Jones) and a keyboard player who had strong experimental, progressive, and psychedelic leanings (Ikey Owens, may he rest in peace).  The two of them had to have had an influence on him, even if it didn't come out noticeably on Blunderbuss or Lazaretto.  

And then there was Three Dollar Hat on the last Dead Weather album, Dodge and Burn, in 2015.


In 2016 came Don't Hurt Yourself, on Beyonce's album Lemonade...


...and the songs he co-wrote/contributed to on A Tribe Called Quest's final album, We Got It From Here--  Solid Wall of Sound and Ego (neither of which seem to be on YouTube, all I could find was a preview snippet of Ego).   

Not to mention his take on Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman in one of the hidden tracks on Lazaretto--


So to hear him go full-on funk in Corporation might be a surprise to many, but it should not be completely unexpected.  That's not to say everyone has to love it, of course.  Though I think I might.  Because it makes me really, really want to hear him cover this now--


Play that funky music, White boy. Play that funky music till you die.



January 11, 2018

The first serving of Boarding House Reach: Connected By Love, backed with Respect Commander

Disclaimer:  I am not a critic and this is not a review. I am a fan. As such, I can sometimes be critical, but I am not a critic. Because my attachment to the music I love springs from emotional, visceral responses, I don't write "reviews". I can make objective judgements, but for the most part my descriptions of new music are purely an expression of my impressions, feelings, and thoughts. And when it comes to writing about Jack White's solo music, my responses seem to have become more complicated with every album.  Because today Jack released a new song from his upcoming album, Boarding House Reach, and I should be bouncing off the walls, giddy with excitement.  Note the use of the word "should"...

These songs, Connected By Love and its b-side, Respect Commander, are different from pretty much anything Jack's done before. Quite different. In one sense, the difference doesn't bother me, in fact it's terrific, it's what I was hoping for on the new album, a new direction full of surprises. In another sense, the difference is... bothersome. Troubling, even. 

At first listen, Connected By Love seems like the flip-side of the White Stripes song, Apple Blossom.  Instead of putting the woman's problems in a little pile and sorting them out for her, he now wants her to take his and put them on a shelf.  Instead of not wanting to be interrupted and corrupted by love, as in Love Interruption on Blunderbuss, he's now intent on being connected by it.  To express this, his voice is plaintive and passionate and effectively affecting.  

The music is where all the good surprises are.  It's so layered and dynamic and interesting.  Just over half-way through, when you expect Jack to rip into a searing guitar solo, he blows expectation away with a solo on... Hammond organ.  Then comes the guitar, circling and rising to the heavens, and joining with the organ.  Topping it all off are the gospel-style backup vocals provided by one half of the Nashville quartet, the McCrary Sisters. Ever since hearing Ruby Amanfu's rich vocals during the Blunderbuss tour, I've been wanting to hear Jack with multiple similarly rich female voices behind him and the effect is exactly as I imagined it, creating a beautiful compliment to the way his voice has aged and deepened just a bit.  It leaves me completely delighted.

But here's where things get complicated. It was Jack's lyrics that initially grabbed me and pulled me into his music eight or nine years ago, and it's his words that've kept me enthralled from one album to the next, all the way through his catalog. They resonate with me in a way that no other songwriter I've heard has.  His wit, his sense of human nature and the absurd, his subtlety and obscurity, his vocabulary, his amazing ability to draw with words, to vividly describe with the simplest of details all sorts of everyday scenarios and emotions that we've all experienced or can easily imagine.  And yet, lyrically, this song is too simple.  Where is the metaphor that he usually wields with such craft?  After a handful of listens, two words popped into my head that I NEVER thought I would ever use to describe Jack White's song-writing. It pains me to write them now, but I have to be honest-- The lyrics to this song strike me as trite and clichéd.

And yet, how is it possible for him to write something that makes me swoon even as I'm cringing over it?  How can it be that I'm disappointed at the same time that I'm so thrilled?

It makes me think of all the times he's talked in interviews about how "satisfaction is death".  And here he's writing about someone who is satisfied in love, who's had troubles in the past, but who is now content. And his usual sparkling wit and word-play are just not there.  When Jack interviewed BP Fallon for an early Green Series record, Fallon talked about the blues and shared pain. He mentioned how so many fans were upset with Bob Dylan for writing Lay, Lady Lay because "this was a man of contentment, and they preferred him stuck outside of Memphis with the thingie blues again... People actually very often like to have their idols crying".  Maybe that's the case here.  Or maybe it's just not in Jack's makeup to express satisfaction and contentment, at least not without some sort of dark twist to it.

The video for the song, though, is a beautiful expression. The images in it bring the depth that the lyrics lack.  With or without the end-of-the-world moon borrowed from the film Melancholia hanging over it all, the vignettes of a young woman nursing her grandmother, a mother and her twin sons, and a young man turning to his abuelita when his friends lead him astray convey some of the multitudes of ways that we can be, should be, connected to each other by love.  

Showing the statue of Mary as Jack sings the opening "Woman..." takes it to an even higher level, hinting at possibly more spiritual connections that are nowhere to be found in Jack's words. A preview of the video intro voice-overs and the image of the single sleeve, with Jack's hand breaking through the tiles of a wall, which were teased the day before the single release, had me wondering if this song would have a socio-political theme, a timely "love trumps hate", anti-Trump sort of message that would follow in the footsteps of Icky Thump. Something that would inspire listeners to connect with love on a large scale.  But no, it turned out to be a surprisingly pedestrian love song set to inspired and dramatic music.

The b-side, Respect Commander, succeeds and suffers in the exact same respects as Connected By Love. The music is fantastic, starting out with that crunchy guitar Jack's so well known for and that his fans love so much, before a re-start that switches to a faster, funkier sound accompanied by synth that's unexpected and totally exciting.  After two minutes of sonic chills and left turns, though, he begins singing and again... the words are total rock'n'roll, good lovin' cliché.  The saving grace of this song, despite the sultry urgency of Jack's voice, is that the verse is short and that he then lets loose on the guitar for a stuttering, heart-tripping solo that runs all the way to the end.  In a way, this one reminds me of Pearline, my favorite song by Son House, in which House sings only two lines, "Pearline, what's the matter with you?" and then later, "I love you, Pearline". His guitar tells all the rest of the story of their relationship.  I can't help but wish Jack had kept his words as succinct in Respect Commander.  

But again, disappointment in the lyrics is mixed with thrilled excitement over the music and vocal delivery.  I have no idea what to expect for the rest of Boarding House Reach and at this point I think it would be best to not even contemplate.  

Way to shake things up, Jack.

January 7, 2018

Icky Trump is not an Intimate Secretary

Image via Third Man Records

 I've been trying to write this post for months. I started it in the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville and Trump's comments about that event, and have re-started it a handful of times since then. There's almost too much to say, there's too much opportunity for digression and maybe the main point hasn't been firm enough in my mind. This introduction is a digression in itself. But after having a bit of an existential crisis this weekend that probably made some of my friends think I was going off the deep end, I'm giving it another go. 

This post is not about Donald Trump. If you want to read about him, you've got your choice of hundreds of articles in a multitude of media sources, not to mention his own shit-show of a Twitter feed. I'm not going to waste my words on him. No, this post is a reaction to Donald Trump and the effect he's had on many of our psyches.  Or at least on my own psyche. Because I don't know about you, but I've been so much angrier than usual for the last year and a half. A fair amount has been written about "Trump Fatigue Syndrome" (each of those three words links to a different article) and I believe the stress of it is real.

Image from the Augusta Chronicle, via the Denver Post

Added to the regular stresses of things like work, commuting, paying bills, dealing with our own health issues and those of family members, and, in my case, a hereditary irascibility, TFS ain't no joke. It's something to take seriously. Because it can turn you into someone you don't want to be, someone who is angry all of the time, and/or depressed all of the time, and/or who withdraws into avoidance.  It can lead to combativeness.  It can lead to cynicism.  

But the anger and frustration in response to what's happening these days is justified. And anger can be productive. Professional athletes talk about using anger to push themselves, to give them an edge over their competitors. But is that wise in day-to-day interactions, or in the realm of politics? When you have a bunch of people voicing their anger together, in a crowd or on social media, it begins to breed the sort of negativity that can so easily turn to exactly what we're seeing too much of in the world these days-- combativeness. We have so much to battle against these days-- Racism, classism, and other bigotries, a patriarchy that feels it's under threat, and all the effects of living in a kakistocracy that embraces willful ignorance.  But do we want to battle effectively, or do we want to live in a combat zone?  It's important to choose how anger is channeled, because there's a distinct difference between rage and outrage.

Rage is ugly, it's destructive, it breeds hatred and, when impotent, turns into cynicism.  But outrage says "No, this is wrong. This must change".  Rage accomplishes nothing. It amplifies and destroys and leaves a metaphorical scorched earth in its wake. Outrage, on the other hand, can be the impetus for productive action, for activism and the sort of destruction that leads to positive change.

In the week following Charlottesville, one of the most helpful things I came across were these words from Van Jones in an interview at NPR--

"People say, 'Oh Van, when you go out there and talk to those Trump people, does it change any of their minds?' That's not my job. I'm not trying to convince Trump people to be better people. I'm trying to prevent the Trump era from making me a worse person. I do not want to become somebody who is so hard-hearted that I can only see the worst in my opponent. Dr. King said you should never let a man drive you so low as to hate him."

That's it, right there. We can give vent to rage and hatred for the people we view as our opponents in this situation that more and more is coming to feel like a war. Or we can be outraged and battle for change without losing sight of our own moral compass.  For anyone feeling the way I've been feeling, I highly recommend learning more about Van Jones and the Love Army.

Another thing that helped me was a bit unexpected and I've been meaning to get back to it after the initial discovery.  Way back in May 2017, I joined the hosts of the Third Men podcast to talk about the use of Masonic references in the Raconteurs song, Intimate Secretary, which was released back in 2006.  I'd seen mention of those references at one of the Jack White message boards, but for the podcast discussion I did some actual research and what I found was both compelling and startlingly timely. Here are the lyrics, along with some of my notes about the words and possible meanings--

I've got a rabbit, it likes to hop 
I've got a girl and she likes to shop 
The other foot looks like it won't drop [things won’t be so bad after all]
I had an uncle and he got shot [oops, maybe they will]

Is this greeting the type that's meant for me? [Masonic ceremonial hand-shake &/or greeting]
Are you part of this kakistocracy? [government by the least qualified]

This ringing in my ears won't stop [stress and fatigue from shit show going on in the world today]
I've got a red Japanese tea-pot 
I've got a pen but I lost the top 
I've got so many things you haven't got [but do they really amount to anything?]

A fellow's craft is just not for sharing 
He's not an intimate secretary! [he's not qualified to be one, doesn’t understand principles of reason, love, faith, duty, etc]

I've got a rabbit it likes to hop 
I've got a girl and she likes to shop 
The other foot looks like it won't drop 
I had an uncle but he got shot 

Venerable obscurist malarkey [general stereotypical perception of Masonry as hallowed mysterious bullshit?]
A doulocracy ecclesiarchy [government of slaves defining heresy?]
A fellow's craft is just not for sharing 
He's not an intimate secretary! 

The exarchy's inspector inquisitor 
I dare mock an illustrious master 
Are you part of this kakistocracy? 
Is this greeting the type that's meant for me? [do I have the qualities of an Intimate Secretary?]
What I knew:  Jack's apparently got a deep connection to the Masonic Temple in Detroit-- He attended Cass Technical High School right down the street, his mother worked there as an usher, and the Gold Dollar and Magic Stick venues are only a few blocks away.  He's performed in both theaters in the Temple, and paid off their back taxes a few years ago. Wouldn't surprise me at all if his father or other family members were/are Masons.  And so Intimate Secretary is laced with references to titles of various degrees of study in Masonry-- Fellowcraft ("a fellow's craft"), Intimate Secretary (obviously), Inspector Inquisitor, and Illustrious Master.

From Freemasonrywatch.org

What I learned:  The pages and pages I read the on the internet were like reliving my 20s and early 30s, when I was deep into philosophy and classic literature, devouring writings by and about Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Goethe, Kant, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoics. The beliefs of the Freemasons are built on the same sort of weird mix of transcendentalism, esoterica, and reason. But underneath the mystery and esoterica, under the stuff that's bred so many jokes and conspiracy theories, lie a framework of symbols and allegories with the specific purpose of developing a spiritual and moral compass.

Whether you take the mysteries surrounding the organization seriously or consider it a bunch of Illuminati hoo-ha, their message is one this world needs right now. The degree of Intimate Secretary, in particular, is strikingly relevant.  A few pertinent excerpts from the description of it at the Freemason Information website--

You are especially taught in this Degree to be zealous and faithful; to be disinterested [as in, minding your own business] and benevolent; and to act the peace-maker, in case of dissensions, disputes, and quarrels among the brethren...

The generous man cannot but regret to see dissensions and disputes among his brethren. Only the base and ungenerous delight in discord. It is the poorest occupation of humanity to labor to make men think worse of each other, as the press, and too commonly the pulpit, changing places with the hustings and the tribune, do. The duty of the Mason is to endeavor to make man think better of his neighbor; to quiet, instead of aggravating difficulties; to bring together those who are severed or estranged; to keep friends from becoming foes, and to persuade foes to become friends. To do this, he must needs control his own passions, and be not rash and hasty, nor swift to take offence, nor easy to be angered. 

For anger is a professed enemy to counsel. It is a direct storm, in which no man can be heard to speak or call from without; for if you counsel gently, you are disregarded; if you urge it and be vehement, you provoke it more. It is neither manly nor ingenuous. It makes marriage to be a necessary and unavoidable trouble; friendships and societies and familiarities, to be intolerable. It multiplies the evils of drunkenness, and makes the levities of wine to run into madness. It makes innocent jesting to be the beginning of tragedies. It terns friendship into hatred; it makes a man lose himself, and his reason and his argument, in disputation. It turns the desires of knowledge into an itch of wrangling. It adds insolency to power. It turns justice into cruelty, and judgment into oppression. It changes discipline into tediousness and hatred of liberal institution. It makes a prosperous man to be envied, and the unfortunate to be unpitied. 

 See, therefore, that first controlling your own temper, and governing your own passions, you fit yourself to keep peace and harmony among other men, and especially the brethren. Above all remember that Masonry is the realm of peace, and that “among Masons there must be no dissension, but only that noble emulation, which can best work and best agree.” Wherever there is strife and hatred among the brethren, there is no Masonry; for Masonry is Peace, and Brotherly Love, and Concord. 

Icky Trump is definitely not an Intimate Secretary. (If you agree, maybe go buy a t-shirt to show your feelings?) 

Finally, a Facebook friend posted this quote a while back that really resonated with me--

Found via Pinterest, I'd credit the image creator if I could.
I think I'm going to print that and tape it to my bathroom mirror. And I'm also going to bookmark a few pages of Masonic texts and refer to them frequently, when I need to bolster my own character and get back on track.  Like Van Jones, I don't want feelings of rage over what's happening to bring me down to the level of Trump and his ilk.  

I want to be an outraged Intimate Secretary.


January 2, 2018


I got the news this afternoon that my friend Steven died unexpectedly yesterday morning. Stevie-O, as he allowed me to call him, was what's generally considered a "character", so I feel like I need to write about him. I'm sure other friends of his knew a lot of other sides of him, but these are the experiences and characteristics that I know and feel the need to put out there as a memorial--

Steven was piratical and bombastical and a great big teddy bear of a guy (and I don't mean the gay version of "teddy bear", though that might apply, too).  I first knew him through his fairly out-there, snake-chasing posts on the Third Man Records Vault and one of the Jack White message boards, where he used the screen-name Avard, which I later learned was his father's name (Or maybe his grandfather's, I can't exactly remember now). His avatar looked like a young African-American guy in a red wig...

...so imagine my surprise when I met Steve in person, in line
in Chattanooga in 2012 for Jack White's first public solo show for Blunderbuss, and found myself confronted by this large and loud and boisterous, bald and goateed guy who looked like he could be either a biker or a sailor.  Not what I was expecting.  When I got home from that show and received in the mail a poster from Jack's first private solo show, prior to the one in Chattanooga, a poster featuring a huge black vulture, which Steve bought the day after the Chattanooga show on his way home through Nashville and sent to me just because he'd decided we were going to be pals, I was so touched and it was the beginning of an exchange of gifts, both large and small, back and forth, that culminated less than two months ago when I sent him a copy of Kid Congo Powers' Live at Third Man Records single that I'd asked Kid to sign for Steve when I was in Detroit for Devil's Night in October.   

After Chattanooga was Jack's show at Webster Hall in New York, after which Steven told me that if he weren't gay I was exactly the sort of woman he'd want to marry, after he watched me coming around the corner up the street from the venue, sprinting as fast as my legs could go, hauling ass to make it by door-time because I had tickets for both of us and two more friends and I hadn't been able to get the day off from work and had to take the train up from DC mid-day and then catch two subway trains and then run four blocks from the subway and he was waiting for me so that he could grab me and drag me inside to the front of the line.  This was the show broadcast live for AmEx Unstaged, directed by Gary Oldman.  We'd gotten a teaser for this show in the form of a video of Jack and Gary that included a few moments of the two of them rolling around on the floor wrestling.  Day of the show, Steve and our two other friends had camped out in line all day to ensure we'd be on the rail when I got there with the tickets and, according to Steve, when Gary Oldman walked by that morning, Steve asked him what it was like to wrestle with Jack, to which Gary apparently replied "I bet you'd like to wrestle him". Same show at which Steve swears he caught a drop of Jack's sweat in his mouth.  You can see him, bald-headed and goateed, throughout the show, right smack in front of Jack (as well as the wrestling match that begins the video)--

Steve loved the raisin pie at Yoder's Amish Restaurant down in Sarasota, Florida, and one day when he was waxing rhapsodic about it to me, he altered a line in one of his favorite Jack White songs, Take Me With You When You Go, to "I got a feelin' my mind's in the pie", which became a repeated refrain when he wanted pie or Jack or just fucking felt like saying it.

And then there was the time I got up at midnight and drove all the way from Maryland to his house in Connecticut to pick him up so that we could drive to Boston for one of Jack's shows, at which we both fell in love with Cary Ann Hearst, of the opening act Shovels and Rope, when she belted out a song so intensely that she ended up with two long streaks of runny mascara all the way down her cheek.  Oh, and some girl threw a bra at Jack on stage, to which he replied "Thanks, Ma!" and Steve and I joked about that again just a few months ago.  I was so exhausted on the drive back to his place that night that he talked non-stop to try to keep me awake, telling me stories about things like the time Patti Smith did a reading (or something) at the Wadsworth Museum (where Steve was chief preparator right up until his death, dammit did I really just type that?) and he'd ended up out on the loading dock eating sandwiches with her. 

And then we got up the next day and drove to New York for both of Jack's soon-to-be-infamous shows at Radio City Music Hall.  Breakfast that morning before heading to New York was fabulous, as Stevie-O took me to the local Polish market where we stocked up on chicken meatballs with dill sauce, sauerkraut, sausages, rye bread, and other treats, and went back for a feast sitting at his 50s-era formica kitchen table with the Raconteurs Live in Glasgow blasting from the stereo in his living room.  I was miserable at the show in New York that night, though, not because it was the show that Jack cut short after only an hour, but because our seats were halfway back and there were so many tall people in front of me, and so many people running back and forth along the row and up and down the aisle next to us that I couldn't see the goddamned stage. Steven's seat was right behind mine and he could tell how distraught I was because I wasn't dancing or clapping or singing along the way he knew I normally did, and at one point during the show he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a big hug.  I almost started crying right then and there in the aisle at Radio City Music Hall, but I didn't. I am crying now, remembering it.  It was sometimes hard to know what to make of Steve, with his bombast and ALL CAPS written communications and the constant stream of Radio City Music Hall Rockettes show e-mail announcements he would forward to me and how he'd rant about the things he couldn't buy or do because of the limitations of his health and his finances, but that hug at that particular show really kind of told me all I needed to know about him. 

Me, Steve, and our friend Monya just before that infamous Radio City show. 
I have another photo of just Steve and me from that night, but I can't find it and am going to be fucking pissed off if it's not on my computer somewhere.

And, yeah, it seems like pretty much all of my memories of Steve revolve around Jack White and, well, they do.  He loved Jack the way I do.  He was into all sorts of kinds of music and was constantly telling stories of shows he'd been to and musicians he'd met (I once asked him to list all of the bands he'd never seen live because that would be easier than listing the ones he had seen), but it was our shared addiction to Jack's music (during the Blunderbuss tour, it was Steve who coined the term "getting JACKED UP" for going to one of Jack's shows) that brought us together.  Unfortunately, the last time I saw him in person and got one of his big hugs was just over three years ago, because, as mentioned above, his multiple health issues and financial difficulties made him unable to just up and follow Jack around like so many of us do.  But Steve is... was one of the few friends I've made within the Jack White community that I talk to.. talked to continually on a regular basis, one of the few with whom I found other interests we could share, one of the few that made a point to keep in touch with me, even if it was just to tell me what was going on with him.   

My heart breaks for his husband, John, and their cats Rosie and Taffy (and the dearly departed Conchetta), and for his family.  I think of his massively abundant tomato harvest last year that he posted fifty million photos of on Facebook.  I think of all the mouth-watering meals he told me all the time that he was preparing, and all the art we talked about (he was my go-to when I came across a piece of art I needed help understanding).  And it kills me that he died before Jack's new album could come out this year, that he couldn't get JACKED UP, couldn't see his JACK ON FIRE, even just one more time.  


He was at that  ^  goddamned show in 2005 when Jack screamed "And I will FUCK YOU until you die!!!" and he never, ever got tired of telling me about it. 

I don't believe in Heaven, but that's not going to stop me from imagining Steven up there in the clouds with Conchetta, engaging in human bowling with the angels and telling them all those stories of all of those incredible shows he went to in his lifetime, bellowing "I GOT A FEELING MY MIND'S IN THE PIE!!!"


December 13, 2017

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, volume 2: A taste of servings and portions

It's hard, it's soft, it's crunchy, it's smooth, it's stuttering, it's melodic.  He raps, he croons, he shouts, he squeals. It's got new words (abulia, akrasia, abjurement... Jack must've been doing some casual reading through the A section of the dictionary when writing this one), and some familiar themes (weight of the world on his shoulder, suffering for/because of women, starting fires).  There's a new cast of characters among both musicians and  instruments.  In just four minutes, he's given us a lot to digest and a lot to think about. 

And the fan-girl/addict has eagerly taken her place in the front car of the roller-coaster, waiting for things to get rolling. 

July 9, 2017

The drums of Gone beat the Battle Cry guitar, and other Blue Series surprises

A week or so ago, Third Man Records released a new Blue Series single from a Scandinavian duo named My Bubba (the group name is their names-- My Larsdotter and Guðbjörg "Bubba" Tómasdóttir).  I assume most people who read this blog know what the Blue Series is, but for those who don't the in-a-nutshell description is that it's a series of singles produced by Jack White, by bands and musicians that strike his fancy and who are able record a couple of songs in a single day in his studio.  They're of diverse genres and  are nearly always bands and musicians I've never heard of before.  There was a time when a single like this one would've barely registered on my radar, I would've acknowledged the news and sat back to wait for the next thing to come down the pike. But, as I've talked about before, I'm more adventurous musically than I used to be, and the announcement said the b-side of this Blue Series was a cover of Bob Dylan's You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, which is one of my favorites from Blood On The Tracks. So, yadda yadda yadda, I ordered it and when it arrived I ripped both sides for the car, putting them in a folder on my flash drive that included another song released earlier this year by Third Man that you may've heard of, called Battle Cry.

Backing up a bit-- I felt like I should have been excited when Battle Cry came out in April. It was a brand-spanking new song from Jack, not a collaboration with anyone else, the first new music since Lazaretto was released in 2014!  Granted, it was for a short film advertisement for the Warstic baseball bat company (of which he's co-owner) and walk-up music for Detroit Tigers player, Ian Kinsler. But still... new music!  So many people I know were excited.  But I wasn't.  It's a good song, I do like it. It's the first song on my flash drive playlist, which means it plays when I turn the car on in the morning and hit the road for the commute to work. It's certainly appropriate for that.  But it's a standard "Jack White" song. It fits the context for which it was written and has a great driving rhythm and a terrific guitar solo.  But there are no surprises in it, nothing that hits you from left-field, to borrow a term from baseball.

On the other hand, this subtle and subdued new song from My Bubba, called Gone...  It's surprised the hell out of me.  After listening to it once at NPR's All Songs Considered, I thought it was pretty and pretty lethargic, but bought the single anyway, purely out of curiosity to hear the b-side.  I figured it'd get filed away after a listen or two. But then today, when it came up in the car, it grabbed me so much I hit repeat and ended up listening to it for the majority of the 150 or so miles I drove.

It's the drums, the ones that made NPR's Bob Boilen describe the song as "rumbling". Played by Jack himself under one of his Blue Series pseudonyms, they're the sound that's missing from Battle Cry-- Not a single cymbal crash to be heard anywhere, just tribal rolls and thumps punctuating and giving shape to the hypnotic chant of My Bubba's vocals. Those drums are like the riffles and rapids that break up the inexorable, steady flow of a river, that keep it from carrying you away.  They ground the song and transform it from a trance to a meditation.  And they're unlike anything I've heard Jack play before.  That makes them a surprise and a treat, not just for his playing of them, but also for his choice as a producer to include them.  He could've made a similar choice for Battle Cry and directed drummer Daru Jones to play something like this on that song, but he didn't. He saved that sound for this song, one that many fans may, unfortunately for them, never hear.  He seems to like doing perverse things like that.

The other thing that turns me on is that these little Blue Series production tricks of his make me want to listen to more music by artists like My Bubba, so that I can compare to hear how he's made their music different.  And that has led me so many times to getting into a new musician or group that I probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. It's what's made me, as I mentioned above, more musically adventurous, because I've found that the feeling of discovery and exploration is what stimulates me more than anything else.

As for their cover of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome, I barely recognized it on first listen. My Bubba slow it down to the point that it only just holds on to Dylan's original melody.  Both on the album and live, Dylan keeps the song uptempo, almost jaunty, so that it's more playful than lonesome.

But there's an ache in My Bubba's harmonies that turns it into a truly regretful lament.

It's kind of what I expected from that first listen to Gone on NPR, but at the same time... it's not. There's a depth there that I completely did not expect. And even though these songs aren't Jack's own music, they're an example of the sort of thing I will always want more of from him-- To be surprised. 

May 18, 2017

In dreams until my death, I will wander on. Rest in peace, Chris Cornell

The words you say, never live up to the ones inside your head.  The lives we make, never seem to get us anywhere but dead.

Within a half hour of reading of Chris Cornell's death, the lyrics started flooding my head. All those lines that touched me through the years, from my late 20s when Badmotorfinger was released and I discovered Soundgarden, all the way through my 30s and Euphoria Morning and the end of the one lasting relationship I've had, into my 40s and Audioslave, and then Chris's music changed with his second solo album and I couldn't relate anymore and I discovered Jack White. But even though the new music he was making had changed, the old music was still there.  There was no way any of those old Soundgarden albums or Euphoria Morning or the first Audioslave album could be put aside entirely.  They had meant too much and still did. Still do. Chris's imagery and metaphors could be obscure, but then he'd cut through the obscurity with a line as sharply meaningful as a razor. Or a diamond.  

Dreaming only of the ones who never dream of you... never dream of you.

Prince's death last year was a horrible shock, but this is worse.  I loved Prince's music, but I felt Chris's music.  I've written about a few of his songs in the past-- Like Suicide and I Am The Highway, especially, moved me to words.  

Sitting here like uninvited company, wallowing in my own obscenities...


I've experienced depression and self-hate and Soundgarden was the first band I discovered that reflected what I felt.  It was always so obvious that Chris had also been there and understood and was able to express those feelings in a poetic way that buoyed me up rather than bringing me down. Fell On Black Days was like an anthem for me for years.

There are so, so many others. I could make this post an hour-long read/listen if I, and you, had the time.  But I'll leave it brief.  We've all got our own favorites, our own personal lines and words that touched us and left a mark, helped to define us or to uplift us.  So I felt it was important to take the time to remember just a few of my own, the ones that most immediately came to mind. More will continue to come over the next few days and I'll wish I had included them here.  But I have to go to work. As the title of Chris's second solo album states, we all have to carry on.

On reading of his death this morning, Like a Stone was one of the first that rushed into my head and it's the one that I'm going to end with.  I once read an Audioslave interview in which the other guys in the band talked about how this song came together. They described how Chris just sat in a chair with his eyes closed while they played the music for him and they thought he had checked out, that he wasn't paying any attention. Then he opened his mouth and began to sing the words that'd come to him while he was sitting there with closed eyes.  I hope he's in that house now.

On a cobweb afternoon 
In a room full of emptiness 
By a freeway I confess 
I was lost in the pages 
Of a book full of death 
Reading how we'll die alone 
And if we're good, we'll lay to rest 
Anywhere we want to go 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 

On my deathbed I will pray 
To the gods and the angels 
Like a pagan to anyone 
Who will take me to heaven 
To a place I recall 
I was there so long ago 
The sky was bruised 
The wine was bled 
And there you led me on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone I'll wait for you there 

And on I read 
Until the day was gone 
And I sat in regret 
Of all the things I've done 
For all that I've blessed 
And all that I've wronged 
In dreams until my death 
I will wander on 

In your house I long to be 
Room by room patiently 
I'll wait for you there 
Like a stone 
I'll wait for you there 

Chris Cornell's "I Am the Highway"

Edit 5/18/2017, upon the sudden and shocking new of Chris Cornell's death:  I'm re-posting this old blog from 2007.  Here is the Civilian/Audioslave demo of this song--

Ok, I have to admit that the first few times I listened to this song (from Audioslave's eponymous debut album), I found it very cheesy. I mean, the dude is singing about not being a flying carpet. Then in May of 2005, I took two weeks off from work and drove the length of Route 50, a mostly 2-lane highway that cuts through the middle of the US from Maryland's eastern shore all the way to San Francisco. Because of the highway and traveling references, I decided that this would be my theme song for the trip. After a few days of listening and thinking about the song as I drove, the words began to mean something to me. I have no idea if my interpretation matches Chris Cornell's intended meaning, but I'd like to think that it might.

Pearls and swine, bereft of me.
Long and weary my road has been.
I was lost in the cities,
Alone in the hills.
No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky

Friends and liars, don't wait for me,
I'll get on all by myself.
I put millions of miles
Under my heels,
And still too close to you I feel.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night

Things are about to get deep here, and I may ramble a bit, so bear with me. You know how sometimes it's possible to "lose yourself" in a relationship (or at least it is for some people)? To me, this song is about fighting to not lose yourself in that way. Relationships can be damned hard, and one of the things that screws them up the most is the issue of perception. I'm not talking just about romantic relationships here, either. Whether it's with a mother, a friend, a lover, a brother, a colleague at work... in any relationship, we are to the other person what they perceive us to be. They see something in us that fulfills some want or need that they probably don't even realize they have (and vice versa, of course). That's why the first six months of a romantic relationship are so magical: We're busy forming those perceptions, feeling that need satisfied, and haven't gotten to the point at which we begin to feel that maybe that person isn't what we thought they were after all. On the flipside, some people go out of their way to make themselves fit the other person's perceptions, to be what that person wants, just to hold the relationship together. I think that in most cases, all of this happens at an unconscious level, but it really seems to explain that "We just grew apart" thing, as well as the "I lost myself in the relationship" thing.

As a kinda-sorta student of Buddhism, I realized that what it comes down to is seeing things as they really are. In Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on seeing the reality of things, on learning to realize when we're projecting our own "story", our own attachments and aversions, onto an event or person we're dealing with. If you do that in a relationship, then you're just setting yourself up to get miffed when that person doesn't behave as you've come to expect them to, or when they have unrealistic expectations for you. I've dealt with plenty of this myself, from both sides of the coin. From my father and mother, to my sister-in-law, to the last guy I dated, to people at work who just rub me the damned wrong way... After coming to this realization, I now try to stop myself and ask "Am I looking at the reality of this person, or are my own expectations and assumptions getting in the way and creating this issue?" Even harder when you're dealing with someone you care for is to ask "Is this person seeing me as I am, or are they wanting me to be something for them that I'm really not?" Before I begin to sound totally sanctimonious here, let me assure you that I don't always succeed in asking or answering these questions. In any case, even if you can see the reality of the situation, it does no good if the other person can't.

To me, it seems as if the character in Cornell's song is someone at that point in a relationship, someone who's maybe experienced it before and is determined not to again. It's the ultimate anthem to self-realization and independence. This person would rather be on his own than to lose himself to another person in such a way. He'd prefer to be "lost in the cities, alone in the hills" than to be under someone else's thumb just for the sake of being in a relationship.

To take it a step further, he even tells the person on the other side of the relationship what's going on. When he sings "I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky", he's saying "Not only am I not just what you see me as being, I'm more than you can even comprehend of me as. I am greater than your conception of me and I will not be boxed in by your expectations." "No sorrow or pity for leaving I feel." A bit harsh, perhaps, but sometimes that's what it takes to get through to that other person.

Again, I have no idea if this is really what the song is about, it's just what it means to me. For all I know, Cornell was stretching his metaphoric muscles in another direction and I'm totally off-base. Either way, it's become a personal anthem of sorts. "I am the highway...", indeed.

If you can, try to get ahold of the demo version of the song that was leaked to the internet back when Audioslave was still just a rumour. Cornell's vocals on the chorus are much more dramatic. And, yeah, I realize that it's really Audioslave's song, but the words are Chris' so as far as I'm concerned it's his song (No offense to Tom, Tim and Brad. Sorry, guys.).

May 7, 2017

A lifetime of blues


Of all the old blues guys who were rediscovered in the 1960s, none changed as obviously and profoundly over the intervening years as Son House.  In that Paramount Records recording up there, from way back in 1930, it's obvious he's a young man in the prime of his life. His voice is rich with vitality, his singing is strong and effortless.  In 1965, when Alan Wilson was asked to help him remember how to play his own songs for the Father of the Delta Blues record, his voice was still resonant, but it wasn't youthful vitality that gave it its hypnotic power-- It was the sound of weariness coming out of that aged throat, as if the weight of the world was pressing on his shoulders as he sat in front of the mic.

Try playing these two songs together at the same time.  You won't hear this dramatic a difference in the singing of Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin' Wolf, or any of House's contemporaries who were still performing in the 60s.  As extraordinary as all of those other musicians were, this is what makes him the superlative representative of blues music.  You don't even have to know anything about him to know that he lived what he sang.  It's in his voice, or rather, what his voice became.

March 25, 2017

The cycle of life encapsulated in a day

On this very warm late-March day, I stood in the woods and listened to the snap, crackle'n'pop of growing things under the dry leaves leftover from last fall.  It's eerie, that sound.  A continuous crackling that you'd think must be something moving under those dry leaves, but there's no motion to be seen. It's new life, and one of the most definite, and the most subtle, signs of Spring I know.

On the way home, I drove past a committee of about two dozen Black Vultures congregated on and around a mound of gravel in a field next to a creek, up the road from the old train station at Point of Rocks. I've written about vultures before, they're one of my favorite creatures-- creepy, ugly, with some seriously disgusting habits. But they help to keep the world a cleaner place, removing the detritus of death. And that bunch I saw today, some sitting there glossy and black and hunched while others were stretching their wings so wide the individual feathers at the ends were splayed like fingers, were like something out of an ancient Egyptian frieze.  Beautiful and majestic and symbolic of more than just death.

The vulture goddess Nekhbet. Image borrowed from here.