December 23, 2012

Recent Sunday ramblings

Brunch today at Rocket to Venus, a hipster dive off the strip, or rather, off The Avenue, as it's called in Hampden.  For the eyes, tiny white hexagonal tiles on the floor and old silent Popeye cartoons projected on a screen as prelude to the football game that fortunately wasn't on til after I left.  For the ears, a diverse in the extreme mix ranging from Kiss to Blind Willie Johnson.  For the tastebuds and belly, two sunny-side-up eggs with scrapple and sausage gravy over white rice, washed down with pineapple juice and a maraschino cherry.  And down the street, some of Hampden's famous Christmas decorations.  This is Baltimore.

A few weeks earlier, I cruised up Howard Street to get to the BMA and stopped on one particular block to snap some seriously eye-catching street art (or graffiti, if you prefer).

Drove by today and found that the skull and the serial killer posters have  been completely black-washed.  Can only hope that the gramophone & boombox guys across the street don't meet the same fate.

The Baltimore Museum of Art recently re-opened their contemporary wing after months of closure.  Supposedly there were extensive renovations, but the layout of the rooms seems the same to me.  There's some new art, but much of it was there before.  They have, though, changed all of the interpretive/informative signage that accompanies the artwork, disappointingly so in most cases. Information that was previously enlightening is now mostly just dry detail.  Some is interesting, but there doesn't seem to be as much insight into the artworks offered now.  Which certainly doesn't detract from the art itself, though it does leave some of it less accessible.  One exception is a piece by Mark Rothko, the plaque for which includes a very instructional quote from the artist--

"The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions... the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point."

I unfortunately missed the point.  Though damned if those colors didn't move me.  As did these below by another artist, Clyfford Still, who said that "[if a] spectator... finds in [my pictures] an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul".  --

But the piece that moves me most of all, the one I waited through the months of renovation to see again, is one that I've mentioned here before.  The Three Rings, by Henry Moore-- 

I took shot after shot of it this time, exploring it from as many angles as possible.

I am potentially a museum guard's worst nightmare.  It takes an immense amount of will-power to not only not touch this piece, but also to not crawl in and nestle inside it.

The first time I saw it, I was convinced that it was some highly polished, exotic, possibly petrified, wood. The texture and graining had to be wood. I was and am still amazed that the Rings are red soraya marble, found in Iran.

The exhibit in the yellow room beyond the Rings is titled Words Are Pictures Are Words. It's an interactive display intended to make viewers think about how the way that words are presented visually can affect how they're interpreted. A table with paper, stamps, and colored pencils provides the opportunity to add one's own word pictures on the wall. A few minutes of scribbling and I summed up the day thusly-- "Colors on the wall left me thoughtless. Words on the wall left me speechless". 


November 3, 2012

Random babblings: On corvids and connections

On a very November day, I wandered through a cemetery full of crows, thinking, thinking, thinking...

Greenmount Cemetery's located in one of the sketchier neighborhoods of Baltimore, but it's well worth venturing through the nearby streets for because it's one of the vastest, most gorgeous cemeteries I've ever visited.  I discovered it through the work of A. Aubrey Bodine, who photographed Baltimore and Maryland for 50 years for the Baltimore Sun.  Sounds completely trite to describe it this way, but really, the place is an oasis of rolling hills, lovely trees, and beautiful monuments in the middle of some serious urban decay.  Historically important, too, and not just for its notoriety as the final resting place of John Wilkes Booth.

 A fellow blogger, J., recently posted about a cemetery visit of her own.  I refer to her as a "fellow blogger", but is there more to it than that?  We first "met" through the blogosphere portion of the internet when she discovered my own blog and posted a comment asking me to get in touch with her via e-mail so that we could talk more in-depth.  I did and we began a correspondence about what the music we love means to us.  She shared very private details of her personal life with me and it felt like a bond was beginning to form.  Then we lost touch for a bit (my fault, through distraction and laziness).  Recently, we finally had the opportunity to meet "IRL", as the internet parlance goes.  It took place in a fair-sized group, though, and once we'd said hello and shared a hug, we each ended up talking to other people.  So what does that make us?  Fellow bloggers, acquaintances, friends...?  I'd like to be able to refer to her as the latter because I very much like what I know of her, but developing a deeper connection has eluded us.  But that doesn't mean the potential isn't there.  I think that, in this age of internet connection with folks who share interests but are strewn around the world, someone needs to come up with a new term for people who would likely be friends if only proximity allowed.  It's not like long-distance friendships with people one has barely, if ever, met are anything new.  Bookstores are full of collections of letters between literary and historical figures who shared ideas and emotional resonance through the written word because they were nations apart.  How is what happens all the time on Facebook and message boards any different?  Ok, yes, the communication you find on the internet these days is certainly probably much shallower than that of folks in those olden days (at least the ones whose letters made it into published books).  But are the relationships formed through such communication any less valid?

Posts like this in which I pose so many questions make me feel like that character from Sex and the City, the writer chick.  Someone please tell me it doesn't really come across that way...

Annoying that the crow photos didn't come out as well as I would've liked.  They were everywhere.  Couldn't get near them on foot, but was pleasantly surprised as I was leaving by the way that several of them perched on headstones right next to the lane seemed completely undisturbed when I brought the car to a stop and rolled down the window to capture some shots.  Huge buggers.  Hard not to think of Poe's raven, even though it's not likely that piece was inspired by Baltimore's birds.

In other news, I still cannot get this song out of my head. Not sure why, but it somehow seemed especially fitting today.


November 2, 2012

Shaken limbs

It's happened again. I cannot figure out how he does it, and I hope I never, ever will.  But the shaking up that Jack gave me earlier this year has come back around. I started to say it'd come full circle, but that implies closure and finality, and I don't see any end to this particular phenomenon.  The release of Blunderbuss back in April and the newly released b-side to the fourth single from the album (Jack's version of I'm Shakin', which was what got me out of bed at 2:00am all those months ago) are just two smacks in the head from debris circling madly in the crazy, ever-spiraling cyclone that is his continuously growing musical catalog.

I wrote back then of Blunderbuss that "My one overriding thought after one listen to this record is that there's nothing he can't do.  No instrument he couldn't work with, no genre or style he couldn't dabble in, no musical mood he'd leave untouched."  The new b-side, Blues on Two Trees, proves that that statement wasn't such hyperbole after all.  I'm at a loss to find appropriate adjectives for this song, or to figure out what genre it could possibly fit into.  Some reviews on the 'net have referred to it as "goth blues".  Others latched onto the idea that Jack "raps" the lyrics and extrapolated that into this tune being an extension of his work with hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z and Black Milk.  A friend from the Little Room message board probably came closest to the truth when she described it as "Beefheartian".  Jack's reverence for Captain Beefheart should be well-known to anyone who's spent any time exploring his music (that reverence was beautifully and obscurely expressed in the epitaph Jack wrote on the Captain's death, which was published in Mojo Magazine), and it was only a matter of time before he'd come out with a seemingly overt homage to the Captain.  Whether that's what this song really is or not, it's by far one of the most out-there things Jack's done yet.

This time, I managed to hold out from checking out previews of the song on the web, and was able to wait until I had the vinyl in my hand. After dropping the needle and cranking the volume, I laid back on the floor to take it in.  My first listen to Blunderbuss brought me to tears.  My first listen to Blues on Two Trees left me rolling on the floor giggling like a little kid.  By the third listen, I'd quieted down and laid still, staring up at the ceiling fan turning above me.  That's when the trippiness began--  I found that if I let my eyes go just a bit out of focus, the lights and shadows created by the rotating fan began to flash in synch with Carla Azar's tribal drumbeats... and it crossed my mind to wonder what Jack might've been on when he birthed this particular baby.

The song begins with Native American-sounding drumming and humming that's abruptly interrupted with a squeal of theremin and Jack chanting about love and fallen trees--

Trees stand still they don't move you see
That's more commitment than you'll get from me
So quit pretending you got love for thee and leave me

Three trees lying on the side of the road

One tree barks "where the hell do we go?"
Another tree falls down dead in the snow
The third tree knocks the other two in a row and says

Leave! Leave! Leave! Leave! Leave!

Quit pretending that you got love for me
Why don't you leave your home and love a tree
There's plenty out there giving love away for free
So why don't you go and love a tree?

It's good for you

Three trees lying on the side of the road
One tree barks "where the hell do we go?"
Another tree falls

"Where the hell..."?  How about, "What the hell??"  When asked this afternoon in the Vault chatroom what inspired the song, Jack replied "inanimate objects that are also "alive" was the inspiration".  This is exactly the sort of thing I love most about him-- the things he does so often make me go "What the fuck??!!" and leave me with so much to wonder about.  What do his lyrics mean?  How does he create those incredible sounds?  How the hell does that gyroscope of a brain of his keep spitting out such far-ranging and far-fetched ideas?  

As I said, I have no adjectives for this song.  The ones I could throw out (beautiful, bizarre, jarring, astounding) just don't seem to sum it up.  From the use of theremin and mandolin in place of the more predictable guitar, to a vocal performance that changes in tone and style practically from one line to the next, it's a song that comes at you more as a rush of surprising moments than a complete and comprehensive stream. 

While I don't foresee ever considering Blues on Two Trees a favorite, the one thing I will definitively say about it is that it's a gem.  So many of Jack's b-sides and non-single releases are--  such as Hand Springs, Cash Grab Complications, Party of Special Things to Do (technically, this would be his overt homage to Beefheart), Baby Brother.  They're treasures tucked away for those of us who dig deeper than the more casual-listening public who think Jack's greatest accomplishment is the sports arena anthem, Seven Nation Army.  Some of us know better, though.  Songs like this one, when listened to in the context of his catalog as a whole, are the sparkly baubles of his genius.

Those of you who've bought and listened to it will obviously form your own conclusions.  For those of you who haven't, either search out a leak on the web or just fucking buy it. You have to hear it to believe it.  

October 21, 2012

Euphoric times in West Va and Oklahoma

Drove to Shaharazade's in Shepherdstown, West Va, for an early dinner with tea and a book.  Wandered through town, looking at the old houses and the way the autumn leaves glowed against the pale dusk sky. Scored big at the consignment shop.  Hit the dark, curvy backroads for the drive home with a bootleg of one of the best shows I've ever attended blaring from the stereo.  Stopped at Sheetz for a Pepsi-flavored Slurpee, then some more backroads before ending up lying on my back in the dark in the middle of the old cemetery at historic St. Mark's church, smoking a cigar under a third of the moon and a sprinkling of stars that were still unfortunately faint even so far away from the city.  

St. Mark's cemetery in the daytime

Do experiences like this balance the crap of work, bills, commuting?  In the moment, yes, they do.  It feels a shame, of course, that the moment is so brief and fades so fast.  But if they were more frequent and lasted longer, perhaps it'd be an even greater shame if we became jaded to them.

But then again, some of those experiences are worth trying to hold onto.  Which brings me back to that bootleg I was listening to as I drove along those dark roads, a euphoric moment of its own that contributed so much to tonight's euphoria.  It's from a show that I recently traveled half-way across the U.S. to attend (the most recent of a dozen times I've done that for the same performer over the course of this year), in an old oil boom-times city full of gorgeous Art Deco architecture and American music history.  I went there to see-- yes, you guessed it-- Jack White.  I'd heard that at his previous show there back in March, Jack had talked about how beautiful and mysterious Tulsa, Oklahoma is.  More recently, in a chat at the Vault website, he'd described the city as "a campfire in the desert of [his] brain".  I couldn't not go.  And in the weeks leading up to it, as work, bills, and commuting turned my own brain into a bleak desert, I built up tremendous expectations for this show, to the point that I worried about being disappointed.  But Jack was apparently looking forward to it as much as I was.  Not only did he not let me down, he went so far beyond my bloated expectations that I still can't get over it.

Wish I could share the whole experience with everyone, but folks in the audience at Cain's Ballroom that night apparently complied for the most part with Jack's no-filming/no-recording edict.  Personally, I've got very mixed feelings about his prohibition--  His reasoning seems to be that he wants people to not be distracted from the experience by cameras, cel phones, or any other sort of black gadget with a little screen on it.  I understand and respect this.  You wouldn't catch me with any of those gadgets in my hand at a show because I very much want to be fully immersed in what my senses are taking in.  So I appreciate him laying down the law and nudging other people to immerse themselves in the same way, while also sparing those behind the first few rows from having to watch the show through a sea of other folks' gadgets being held up.  But, on the flipside, full immersion into such an overload of sight and sound and visceral feeling can cause these shows to become a massive blur.  I try my damnedest to cement individual moments in my brain, pulling out pen and paper as soon as the show's over to scribble down highlights.  But even with notes, my memory just ain't what it used to be.  So the recordings that the rule-breakers capture are invaluable to me.  I realize the contradiction here--  I would never diminish my experience by filming or recording anything myself, and I resent anyone who blocks my view by holding up a camera.  And yet, I'm thrilled by the photos and videos I find on the internet in the days after shows because they help to prevent the memories from dissipating. And I treasure any full-length audio recordings that I come across.  Being able to listen repeatedly
whenever I want to some of the many shows I've attended is priceless. 

Tonight was one of those times--  Hearing certain moments again made me smile and laugh and cry as I drove along, just the way I did that night a bit over a week ago when I was hugging the rail at the show, staring up at the stage while I sang along and grinned until my face ached.  Based on things I've read in interviews and been told, my impression is that Jack White feels there's a romance in having experiences such as I had at that show and then not being able to have them again.  He's said flat out that one of the things that makes him happy is "
creating and moving on from it, creating and pushing forward, creating and forgetting" (direct quote from an interview at the White Swirl message board).  So it's not a stretch to assume that he would feel similarly about euphoric experiences.  I can understand such a feeling, how he would see the romance in such letting go, in not trying to re-create or re-live.  But being able to understand does not mean that I agree. I do, to a degree.  But, at the same time, I don't.  Those moments don't come along often enough for me.  I'm too much of an addict, perhaps, too needy of them.   Whatever the reason, I want to be able to hold on and re-live.  It's one of the things that makes me happy.  I would like to think that Jack could understand and respect that, but, of course, I'll never know whether he can or not.  And I can live with that, as well as with my own contradictory views.

Here's all that can be shared with any shred of good conscience from that insanely magical show in Tulsa...




Steven Anthony Hammock

Reviews of the show at the Little Room message board--

April 17, 2012

Early in the morning time, late in the middle of the night...

So I woke up at 2:30a.m. this morning with the song above going through my head.  It's a fun little ditty by a guy I'd never heard of until recently, Little Willie John, that I've been listening to over and over for days.  The tune came to my attention via, you guessed it, Jack White.  News of Jack's first solo album hit the 'net back at the end of January and the fact that he'd chosen this song as the only cover for his debut was, along with the two singles so far released (Love Interruption and Sixteen Saltines), one of the few clues of what was in store on Blunderbuss.  The record itself, which I ordered as soon as was humanly possible, isn't due out until next week and I've been counting down the days in anticipation since the beginning of this month.  So I had it firmly in mind that I would listen for the first time when my order arrived and I had that vinyl platter in my hand, with the record sleeve and the liner notes and the lyrics.  Of course, this being the 21st century (Hah! You'll get that joke when you hear a certain song), the album leaked a week early and then was made available as an official webstream via iTunes.  Nope, said I, gonna wait for my record, I've been too well indoctrinated into Jack's culture of tangible vinyl to do otherwise.  Plus, there's that countdown of mine, like a kid waiting for Christmas and being too good to poke around in all the closets, preferring to wait for the big presentation and all the surprises.  But then I woke up with Little Willie in my head and the urge to find out just what Jack did with Willie's tune overwhelmed me.

This is not a track-by-track review, I've nothing yet but middle-of-the-night, first-listen impressions, and vague, half-formed, need-the-damned-lyrics ones at that.  The one thing I'll say for sure is that when the last song ended, there were tears running down my face.  One of the reviews of Blunderbuss that I've read over the last few days said it best--  Something along the lines of "It's not that Jack White couldn't write complex songs, he just didn't, and now that he is the whole world's open before him."  My one overriding thought after one listen to this record is that there's nothing he can't do.  No instrument he couldn't work with, no genre or style he couldn't dabble in, no musical mood he'd leave untouched.  Sure, upon reflection that's probably hyperbole but, like I said, this is just first impressions in the middle of the night.  There's so much to digest on this record, it's so completely unexpected despite what I know of his catalog and all of the detailed reviews I've read over the past weeks, that I can't even decide yet if I like it or which songs stand out for me.  But one thing I'm damned certain of is that once I do have that record in my hand, I won't be listening to anything else for a long, long while.  

March 4, 2012

Lightning from the gyroscope

From a fellow Jack White fan whose way with words I admire mightily (and whom I've quoted before)--

jack is so slick and hip. he is totally arrived rock royalty now with the responsibilities of pushing the art to new heights. he has money now so the scuffed black shoes and k-mart white tee and salvation army red golf pants have shifted the mighty bulge into the emperor's new clothes. the moire stripes. he still has the old woody tesla eleck-ah-tris-ah-tee though. it was good to see him free from the constraints of all the recent corporate music he has been marching to since the stripes. i always think of him as a one man band with a great drum partner and the closer he can get to that primal sweep the better. his energy cannot be contained in a bottle. it is lightning and needs to be free. welcome home jack.

I have nothing to add to that, except the performances on Saturday Night Live the night of March 3rd, 2012, that inspired it--

And the exhortation that if you have the opportunity to see this man on tour in support of his upcoming solo album, Blunderbuss, then fucking do it.

February 5, 2012

"Who doesn't want violence from love?"

On Monday, January 30th, one of the top-trending search terms on the web was "Love Interruption", which is the title of the first single from Jack White's upcoming debut solo album.  The song was released to the internet that morning via a brand new site,, with no previous announcement, though there had been whispers of hints of rumors for a few weeks of something maybe, just possibly, coming up.  Of course, the reaction in the fan community was pretty explosive, especially when the song was followed with the announcement of the new album and an accompanying world tour. For anyone who's into his music, that's a helluva lot of excitement to absorb at once, so it took a day or two for the single itself to sink into my head.  After some extended listening, though, I quickly realized that it's quintessential Jack-- Deceptive in its simplicity, leaving one caught up in comparisons, contrasts, and contradictions.   

The first contradiction is between the music and the lyrics.  Musically, Love Interruption is hauntingly sweet, reminiscent of the White Stripes tune I'm Bound To Pack It Up, from the album De Stijl, released back in 2000.  The two songs share a fairly simple arrangement of acoustic guitar which is layered with electric violin in the earlier song, clarinet and Wurlitzer organ in the more recent.  The themes of both are expressed through plaintive vocals, with Love Interruption enriched by backup from the gorgeous voice of Ruby Amanfu (who Jack had previously enlisted for two other Third Man Records projects-- As a live backup singer for Wanda Jackson and again on the Blue Series single from Seasick Steve).   

But the comparison of those two songs ends there and the next that sprang into my mind was Jack's recent cover of U2's Love Is Blindness, as much for the contrast as for the similarity.  Both depict love as an overwhelming force, but the dramatically passionate vocal delivery of Love Is Blindness is an antithesis to the gentleness of Love Interruption.  

A more apt comparison, though, one that gets to the heart of Love Interruption, might actually be with the old bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, who played and sang with a delicacy that belied the violent lyrics of some of the songs he performed.

That's the crux, the element that makes Love Interruption something insidious-- This simple and tender sounding song contains some of the most starkly dark imagery Jack's written yet.  The very first two lines reflect this intense contradiction of tenderness and violence:

I want love to roll me over slowly 
Stick a knife inside me and twist it all around 
I want love to grab my fingers gently 
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground

The lyrics go on to list metaphorical ways in which he wants love to destroy him and overwhelm other relationships.  In seeming contrast to this, though, the chorus repeats an unconditional refrain of "I won't let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me anymore".  To me, this was the primary contradiction of the song and it left me baffled. 

The next evening, though, I had the chance to ask Jack about this when he unexpectedly popped into the chatroom of the Third Man Records Vault while I was there.  My comment apparently left him baffled in return, as he countered with "what contradiction?".  I pointed out the seeming inconsistency between wanting such violence from love, but not allowing it to disrupt or corrupt.  He again came back at me with a question-- "who doesn't want violence from love?" (Which prompted someone else to ask "so you like it rough?", to which he replied "no, I like it real".  Again, quintessential Jack.)  I would have gone on to ask how he feels it's possible to prevent something so powerful and intense from being an interruption, but the chatroom was filling up and he's usually there with an agenda, so I let it drop.  But his reply made me re-think the relationship between the verses and chorus.  I began to consider that perhaps the song was about how he (or the character he'd created) wants love to be hard and challenging, to push him to a breaking point, while at the same time learning to rise above that difficulty and not succumb to it.  At one of the two Jack-related message boards, I found someone who felt similarly, but who expressed it with a thoroughness I hadn't considered--

I think I would have to agree on Jack's point of "who doesn't want violence in love" and flattop and Kali's interpretation of finding a way to have intensity without being thrown off track. Love (and relationships) is something that is, and should be, forceful, extreme, intense, and (sometimes) painful. there are definitely highs and lows and extremes on both ends of the spectrum, otherwise it's just kind of bland and uninvolving. It's not like you're always going to agree with someone you love, and I personally don't buy that "we never fight or disagree", lovey-dovey crap that you see in some relationships. who wants to be completely subservient and complacent in a relationship?

I think people are going to get hung up on the imagery of the song and stuck in the typical idea of violence because of the imagery, while forgetting that some words have more than one definition. something that is violent isn't necessarily hurtful as the song's imagery conjures, but love is something violent (even if it doesn't come with the usual idea of what violence is)... forgive the dictionary post, but:

3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force
(the violence of the storm)
   b : vehement feeling or expression : fervor; also : an instance of such action or feeling
   c : a clashing or jarring quality : discordance

1 : marked by extreme force or sudden intense activity (a violent attack)

2 a : notably furious or vehement (a violent denunciation)
   b : extreme, intense (violent pain) (violent colors)
3 : caused by force : not natural (a violent death)

4 a : emotionally agitated to the point of loss of self-control (became violent after an insult)

Of course, though, not everyone will draw the same conclusions that I and a few others have.  That's the magic of truly effective lyrics, when metaphors are obscure enough that the words can inspire a personal meaning for the listener that might be quite different from what the songwriter had in mind.  Jack's a master of that sort of poetic ambiguity and it continuously puzzles me that his talent as a lyricist is still so often overlooked in favor of the frontman charisma and insane guitar skill he's universally known for.  It seems he might feel this way himself, as he mentioned in an interview the day after the single's release that he wanted the first single to be "a lyrical taste", that he "wanted the words to resonate", before getting to the sort of songs that people expect from him.  Personally, I think that's a mistake that people too often make with Jack--  having expectations.  The only thing I've come to expect from him is to always be surprised.  This song most definitely accomplished that, though I would have been equally astonished if it hadn't.  And knowing that there are more surprises coming up has got me violently excited.