November 22, 2014

This is Baltimore: Puerh, pierogi, and plique-a-jour

Within the  past week or so, two different articles about the dark side of Baltimore have popped up in my news feed.  One about Leakin Park's notoriety as a dumping ground for corpses, the other about the difficulty of overcoming the negative image created by shows like The Wire and the new podcast, Serial.  I'd heard the reputation of Leakin Park before I ever rode my bike through it along the Gwynns Falls Trail and, yes, I'll admit to moments of paranoia in a few spots, especially opening the door of the public restroom in Leakin where a murder victim had been found just a year before my first ride there.  But on that ride and others since, I've not once experienced anything more alarming than having a homeless person yell at me as I blew past him in the tunnel near Carroll Park Golf Course.  I've not yet listened to Serial, but I have watched The Wire and have driven many times through neighborhoods that feature prominently in it. I've seen kids hanging out around those corner convenience stores who very well could have been dealing drugs just like the kids in The Wire. But mostly I've seen working class folks whose circumstances force them to live in down-trodden neighborhoods that are unfortunately subject to a high level of crime. Those are the same folks I've seen on the last Friday night of the  month when the Baltimore Bike Party rolls past their row-houses, sitting out on their front stoops and smiling while their children line the sidewalk to cheer and high-five us crazy, mostly white, cyclists as we ride by.  The more gentrified neighborhoods we pass through never give us that sort of greeting.

I've gotten to know a pretty large portion of this city, and yet I still feel like there's so much more to explore in its widely varied neighborhoods.  Today I stuck with some old standbys yet still managed to have new experiences.  Started the morning with brunch at Teavolve, a place I've watched evolve from a teeny little tea shop in Fells Point to a terrifically popular restaurant in Harbor East that serves from breakfast through dinner, tea through cocktails, and that has a vibrant connection to the local music and art scene.  Their staff hustles and the brunch maitre'd, Gary, always gets me quickly seated in a nice cozy spot. With a pot of Puerh tea and an Eden omelet (sorry, no food porn photos, I was too busy eating), accompanied by a good book, I have trouble imagining a better spot for breakfast anywhere in the city.

From there I headed over to Canton for some shopping.  It was on the way back towards downtown, passing alongside Patterson Park on Eastern Avenue, that I made an impulsive and fortuitous stop. I've been entranced for years by the golden onion domes of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church

Image source

For a few years now, I've thought of stopping to see if I could go inside. A place sitting in the middle of Baltimore with such fantastical architecture would have to have an interesting interior, right?  But I just never got around to it.  Until today, when a sign in front of the church reading "PyrohĂ˝ sale 10 - 2" forced me to grab the nearest parking space and bolt across the street.  The wooden doors at the front of the church were locked tight, but in a little annex down some steps next door, I found a small dining hall and kitchen where they were selling boiled potato, cheese, and sauerkraut pierogi from the kitchen service window.  After handing over $16 for a dozen potato and hearing from the woman manning the window about her recently broken tooth, I asked if the church was open.  She said no but asked if I wanted to see inside. When I said I'd love to, she turned around to a gentleman in a sweat suit and said, "Father, this lady would like to see inside the church".  Next thing I know, I'm following the casually-dressed priest back up the steps to a side door of the church, which he unlocked and then ushered me through into a small space so beautifully painted with icons that it literally made me gasp.

Image source
In a Ukrainian accent so thick I only understood about two-thirds of what he was telling me, the priest described scenes painted on the two side walls and the row of icons of saints martyred during the Stalinist era. I must've looked like a wide-eyed fool over it all, it was so gorgeous, but he was very obviously proud of showing it to me and invited me to come back for Sunday mass to hear the church choir-- "No music, only voices like angels", he said. I may very well go back some other weekend, but via the magic of the interwebs, I found a taste of them--


After that impromptu stop, it was back to the day's planned itinerary, which meant heading up Charles Street to the Walters Art Museum to check out the current exhibit on the history and breadth of the collection that William and Henry Walters gifted to the city.  That gift is an incredible treasure.  One of only two free museums in Baltimore (the other being the BMA), it's a labyrinthine building combining 19th century and modern architecture, full of surprises from ancient cultures, through the Baroque, and into the 18th and 19th centuries.  I've a handful of favorite rooms and items there, but today was struck by a piece I've never seen before.  In a dark blue side-room of the From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story exhibit, I found a deceptively simple little Japanese bowl made of silver and plique a jour.  I've seen plique a jour before, both in the Walters collection and in the vintage estate cases of the jewelry store where I work.  It's a form of enameling that allows light to shine through the enamel and create a luminous effect.  But I'd not seen any like this before. Usually it's in small pieces of jewelry, cigarette cases, small bowls or dishes, sometimes larger dishes on stands.  Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his stained glass, also worked in plique a jour, so you may've seen it, too. But this simple Japanese bowl was so very different. It looked to have been made of a single sheet of silver molded into the shape of the bowl, and then pierced with hundreds, I mean hundreds, of small scallop-shaped slivers interspersed with many-petaled chrysanthemums, some singly and some in small groups.  Into the scallops was inlaid pale grass-green enamel.  Into the chrysanthemums, tender gradations of pink and soft bright yellow.  The lighting in the gallery was almost criminally wrong for truly showing off the beauty of this bowl, as it shone straight down from a fixture in the ceiling so that much of it was blocked by the inward curve at the top of the bowl.  You could see the silver framework of the design and the prettiness of the colors, but in order to see the luminous glow of the enamel you had to crouch down next to the display case and look up at the bottom sides of the bowl. But that crouching was worth it, as the thing left me stunned.  Much plique a jour is created like stained glass, with bars or wires of metal laid down in a frame-work and soldered together.  If one piece gets messed up, it can be removed or fixed without disturbing the rest.  But the walls of this bowl were smooth, inside and out. There were no separate sections, no solder.  The artist who created it obviously took the initial solid silver bowl and pierced through the metal to create those hundreds of slivers and petals.  If he'd messed up one, he'd have had to scrap that bowl, melt down the metal, and start all over.  The craftsmanship of it was so exquisite and subtle that it made the Lalique and Tiffany pieces in the same room look ham-fisted and over-wrought in comparison.

And once again, via the magic of the interwebs...

Image source.  For a larger view, click here and then click again.

Don't ever, ever let anyone convince you that Baltimore is a scary place with nothing worth seeing. 


November 6, 2014

Contradictions of Paramount proportions

How to Make a Paramount Record (1930) from kellianderson on Vimeo.

I've written about Jack White (ad nauseum, some might feel), I've written about Third Man Records, I've written about blues music. But it occurred to me that I've not yet written about The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, which is an oddly glaring omission as it's the pinnacle of those three things which have become such a focus in my life, my three primary addictions of recent years.

 Addiction is a perverse and contrary thing.  There's almost a stereotype in the picture of an addict doing things that make absolutely no sense in order to fulfill their need, especially when the need itself makes questionable sense.  My own addiction recently compelled me yet again to travel hundreds of miles to see Jack White.  But this wasn't for a show by him, though there was music.  No, instead of being surrounded by a band, on this night at Battell Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Jack was surrounded by a panel consisting of a Yale professor of African-American studies, two music writers, a female blues singer, and a fellow record label owner.  This group was in New Haven for the follow-up to an event last year at the New York Public Library, which I also attended, discussing The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volumes One and Two, released by Revenant Records and Third Man Records.

But it wasn't only Jack that motivated me to make the drive from D.C. to Connecticut. There was also my covetousness of these Cabinets of Wonder and everything they represent.  When Volume One was released at the end of October of last year, I already had plans to be in Nashville that very week.  So the very first day it became available, I walked into Third Man Records, drooled over the components of the set for a while, debated about the physical mass of it and the gigantic carton it was packaged in and how the heck I was going to get it home, then said "Damn the torpedoes" and plunked down my credit card.  Two days later, I bought a 50 foot roll of bubble-wrap, a large roll of tape, and spent an evening of my vacation removing the two large books from the cabinet (they went into my suitcase) and then painstakingly wrapping it, with the records enclosed, in almost the entire roll of bubble so that I could carry it home with me on the airplane.  Heading home from Nashville, I thought my arms were going to stretch by a good couple of inches from the weight of the solid oak box as I hauled it through the airport.  Had two moments of panic, the first at the security gate when the screener asked what was inside all that bubble and warned that they might have to un-wrap it if they couldn't get a clear view in the x-ray machine. The second was when I got to the plane and was informed by the flight attendant that it would not fit into the overhead bins of the tiny three-seat-across plane.  She asked what was in it and then wondered why I hadn't just shipped it from Nashville. After insisting that it was very fragile and I had no faith in UPS or FedEx to safely transport it (the real reason was that I'd wanted to open it up and go through the contents, fondle the box, look through the books, and play the usb while I was there on vacation- I couldn't wait til I got home), she relented and let me slip it behind the last row of seats on the plane and then, since the plane wasn't full, let me change my seat to that row so I could sit in front of it.  

When I arrived home, before even unpacking my luggage, I delicately cut through the mass of bubble and spread the treasures of the cabinet out on my living room floor to glory in it all.

Full set of my photos of Volume 1 here

That ain't plywood, folks, it's solid oak

Volume two is just as physically gorgeous, updated to match the Art Deco period of its music, all aluminum, silver, midnight blue, and pink--

All Vol.2 photos from Third Man Records

Jack has described the physical aspects of the sets as "witchcraft to lure you down the path to get you to the story" and that's very apropos, but he would have been more accurate to say stories, as the physical, textual, and audible elements of the sets tell a variety of tales-- Multiple intertwined histories of American music, American culture, Paramount the company, the stories of the musicians, some of which are more complete than others, and the tales within the songs themselves. I've had trouble getting this post written because I kept wanting to dive into some of those stories and digress all over the place. And heaven forbid I start talking about the music because with all the musicians represented in these sets I could go on and on and on. But there have been many articles written about Paramount and these sets (some of which I've included links to below) and maybe one of these days I'll get around to writing about the music and its effects on me.  At the moment, I'm more interested in the perverse and contrary elements that abound in connection with these Cabinets of Wonder-- Contradictions having to do with Paramount, with Third Man and Revenant Records, and with myself.

The chief contradiction of Paramount was summed up by Jack at Yale when he said "What’s beautiful about [the company] is … the accidental capturing of American culture for the sake of a dollar".  At both panel discussions, much was made of how Paramount didn't care who or what they recorded, didn't even care how the records were pressed-- Greil Marcus spoke of how they were so cheap that they mixed clay from the Milwaukee River that flowed below their factory into the shellac, making records literally from dirt.  And Jack mentioned that, at nearly the same time Paramount was combing the country for musicians to record, archivists such as John Lomax, working for the Library of Congress, were doing the same but with a much more methodical and discriminating intent. But where those archivists did much to define the genres they collected examples of, Paramount did not. Their focus was not on what they were recording, but on who was going to buy those recordings and, subsequently, the expensively housed record players that were the company's primary product.  The records and the music on them were almost an afterthought, created as an accessory to the record players, but an accessory that ended up selling in the hundreds of thousands of units, though never really making any money for the company.

But what happened to those records when Paramount closed in 1935?  Amongst other things, there's the tale of angry employees going up to the roof of the factory and sailing masters of the records into the Milwaukee River, not even realizing that they were, essentially, setting that music on a course towards extinction. Those records could never be re-pressed and when the existing copies became scratched or broke or were just thrown away as technology advanced beyond 78rpms, that was it. As the years went by, Paramount's bounty went the way of the dinosaurs.

Fortunately, enough collectors held onto enough scratchy old copies of enough songs that, when Revenant and Third Man came along, they had a few thousand tunes to go through, which they culled down to one-thousand and six-hundred. That's eight-hundred songs per set.  Seems like an overwhelming amount to sit down at your record player and listen to, doesn't it? And it's enough that, when people ask me about Volume 1, I'm hard-pressed to describe the diversity of the recordings included in it. And there are eight-hundred more coming on Volume 2.  And yet these sixteen-hundred songs are just a fraction, a small fossil representation of the thousands that Paramount released in their 20 year existence. As Greil Marcus put it in the discussion at Yale, what we still have "is so rich and so great and so varied that I think you don't even think about what might be lost [because] you can't imagine that anything is better than what is left."  

So along come Revenant and Third Man, pulling together what's left and giving us this glorious representation of what wasn't lost, and doing it with a mindset of "
how would Paramount have done this if they gave a shit... and had the money?". The crux is that these sets ended up being too expensive for the masses.  This music that was originally produced for a mass audience is now, despite the best of intentions, only available to those who have the money for it. Few people have been able to listen to the old 78s that existed over the years because the scarcity of those records has made them prohibitively expensive, up to tens of thousands of dollars for a single two-song record. And yet these Cabinets of Wonder, for all their value (fifty cents a song, if you do the math, plus the cabinets themselves and two chock-full books of information!), are still priced beyond the means of the average fan. 

I can understand why they did it this way. Just sticking these songs on a handful of records and selling them in a series, or even just selling the two 800-tune flash drives by themselves, would pique a bit of interest, certainly.  Third Man's project of reissuing the catalog of Document records, artist by artist, garnered some news and got fans talking. And I'm sure they've sold a fair number of the Document records. But to tell a story like Paramount's, to make the music and its history important, to make it desirable, you've got to present it in a special way. And yet, doing so ups the price and paradoxically limits the number of sets that will sell.  It makes this music that was once of the masses more accessible than it's been for many decades, and yet still keeps it rarefied.  This is frustrating to fans of Third Man Records, many of whom already scrimp just to afford $60 for a quarterly subscription to Jack White's Third Man Records Vault. Those fans just can't justify spending $400 for a bunch of old music, no matter how historic it is or how appealingly it's been presented.  Should it have been done this way?  Should Third Man and Revenant have created the gorgeous Cabinets of Wonder for people who want the full experience and then also sold the 800-song usb separately for those who want to experience the music but can't afford the whole shebang? Or would that just defeat the purpose of the full set?  They've made it clear that, in contrast to Paramount's quest to make a buck, they're not making any money off of these sets. Jack stressed when Volume 1 was released that they priced them as cheaply as was possible and that they would have to sell the entire 5,000 run of sets created in order to just break even.  Should they have done it differently and made the music more accessible and, in turn, made more money from it, the way Paramount did?  I don't know.  I do know, though, that I covet the hell out of my Volume 1 Cabinet of Wonder and all that it contains, and that I was practically drooling as I ogled the Volume 2 cabinet last week in Battell Chapel. If that sort of reaction was their intent then, yeah, they definitely did it right.

As for my own contradictions involving these sets and the panel discussion at Yale, there was a bit of a tussle between my inner fan-girl and my more rational side (they do that sometimes). The fan-girl, who unfailingly surges to the fore and tries to take over where Jack's concerned, wanted to sit there the whole evening and just stare at him, take in every detail of his face, his physique, the clothes he'd chosen to wear, how he listened to the songs played.  I can do that when he's whirling around a stage, I can glue my eyes to him and forget that there's anyone else up there with him. But in this situation, just as at last year's event at the NYPL, I couldn't.  My rational side won out for a change.  I couldn't just sit and stare at him while the other speakers were talking, I couldn't be that rude when what they were saying was so very interesting, from Adia Victoria telling of the body of a lynched black boy being thrown into the lobby of a theater where Ethel Waters was performing, to Greil Marcus describing a scene from the film Ghostworld in which the character Enid first hears Skip James' Devil Got My Woman...

And when the music began... forget it. My eyes traveled up to the gorgeous ceiling of the nave behind and above where the panelists were sitting and then closed as the voices took me over and my head began moving in time with the rhythm of the piano and acoustic guitar.  Something about the place made those sounds even more ghostly than they seem coming out of my record player at home, something about the way they floated around the rounded walls of the nave amplified their intensity.  The sound coupled with the ideas and images all of the panelists were talking about made it impossible to focus solely on Jack.  The fan-girl was perturbed by this, but I was in bliss.  Rocking back and forth and waving the paper fan they'd given us on the way in to the chapel, I felt like I'd been transported to an old-time revival meeting and was being moved to motion by the spirit of the music.

Even more contrary and less rational was the financial aspect of this little road-trip.  I've been whining to anyone who'll listen that I can't afford to order Volume 2 right now because I spent so much money travelling to shows on Jack's Lazaretto tour this summer, and yet I didn't hesitate to spend the equivalent of a Vol.2 to drive up to Connecticut and stay two nights just to hear a discussion of it. Perverse, huh? Yeah. But I've no regrets. The Cabinet will be available for a while and I'll just have to pine away until I can justify shelling out the money for it. What I felt in that sacred place that night, listening to the songs played and the ideas discussed in such a beautiful atmosphere, couldn't be bought in any store.

For those folks wanting to understand more, learn the history, and hear some of the music, the magics of the interwebs come to your rescue-- Here are both panel discussions in their entirety:

And a couple of good articles about the historical aspects of Paramount Records:

- Paramount Records: The Label Inadvertently Crucial To The Blues

- The Story of Paramount Records – Black History Month in Wisconsin

- Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory

- Revisiting The Grandaddy Of Record Labels, Paramount Records

I hope you get sucked in like I did.

September 24, 2014

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 8: All good things must come to an end

So there I was, all by myself.  Stretched out in my camp chair, trying to snooze, waiting for Sharon and Sam.  Instead of driving to meet my buddies, I had flown into Miami Beach and was sitting there alone in front of the Fillmore staking out our spots while they drove down from Jacksonville, where they'd seen Jack White perform the night before.  

In Jacksonville with Helen but without me. Photo courtesy of Sharon Harrow.

Of course, I was unhappy about having missed that show due to poor planning on my part, especially when they finally arrived and began letting slip little details about it, but for a change I wasn't going so far as to eat my heart out over it.  We ended up having too much fun together for that.

In Miami with me. Photos courtesy of Sharon Harrow

I was also surprisingly not eating my heart out over the fact that these two shows in Miami would be my last for the foreseeable future. Writing this a few days after, I'm just waiting for delirium tremens to set in (especially since Sharon, Helen, and Sam were at the last show of this leg of the tour at the same time that I was typing), but so far, so good.  

The other thing that struck me as strange was that I didn't have the usual butterflies in my stomach leading up to these shows. It hit me the first night while leaning on the rail waiting for the show to begin that instead of excitement, I was feeling something that seemed strangely like relief. That's not to say I wasn't excited for the show, because I transformed into the usual bouncing banshee once Jack hit the stage.  In that moment, though, I was just... calm.  There had been no severe line angst that day and, being perfectly honest with myself, I had to admit to looking forward to getting a break from the emotional roller-coaster of the last couple months.  We would all be on hiatus after this week, as the only dates Jack had scheduled for the rest of the year were in Mexico, the U.K., and Europe and there have been no hints as to when anymore will be announced.

But before that hiatus, I had two more nights with him.

As usual, it started with this (the irony of someone watching Lalo's injunction to not watch the show through a 3 inch screen can't be missed)--

The first night was a little on the strange side, with three sets like at the Detroit Fox show. But the feeling of this one was completely different from that one.  The crowd at this show was rowdy, even slightly obnoxious in spots, with a bit of pushing and shoving going on around us (nowhere near as bad as Cleveland, though, at least where I was standing), but Jack seemed to be enjoying their response to him.  He made a lot of eye contact with people in the front, including us, much of it accompanied by that infectious smile.  So we were confused when the curtain closed after a relatively short set that included standouts like a nice long introductory High Ball Stepper, the rarely heard (though this was the third time for me) I Think I Smell a Rat, a more complete John the Revelator tucked into Cannon than I'd heard before on this tour, and a completely improvised, unnamed song. But then the curtain swept open again and the crowd went nuts to Fell In Love With a Girl.  This second set included a very sweet Same Boy You've Always Known, and then the curtain swept shut again after We're Going To Be Friends.  Very strange to end a show on such a mellow song, which left us confused all over again.  But the show didn't end then, because there was yet one more set of just three songs, all blazing ones-- Icky Thump, Freedom at 21, and Seven Nation Army. And unlike Fenway, this crowd knew how to do a fucking Seven Nation Army chant. (More irony, though, with this person filming everyone else filming the song. But, of course, I'm ironically grateful that they did.)

Show photos courtesy of David James Swanson

What usually happens when he hangs the guitar from the mic stand (this will make sense further on)

It was a damned good, high energy show, but something felt a little off and we had no good ideas of what it might have been.

But if the first night was a little strange, the second night was... well, I'm still not sure what adjectives to apply to it. In talking about the Fenway Park show, I mentioned Sharon and I finding each other afterward and wondering "What did we just see?"  This show yanked the same response from us, but expressed ecstatically instead of with bemusement.

Let me preface this by stating that I never in my life thought I would attend a Jack White show during which he performed sitting down. The man just has too much energy. He may not always spin around the stage like a tornado, but even standing still you have the feeling that he could begin whirling at any moment. But this show was proof that you just cannot ever have any kind of assumption or expectation where Jack is concerned.  

The only other time I know of anything similar to this happening was at a private party at end of the 2010 Dead Weather tour, late at night after the band performed on the David Letterman show. Jack apparently got into a mood and exploded at the crowd and when video surfaced a few days later, fans at one of the message boards exploded over the things he said.  Considering my own issues with temper and snark, none of that bothered me.  If anything, hearing of incidents like that makes me identify with him more strongly because I understand where that sort of shadow stuff comes from.  No, what bothered me  about the videos that popped up from that night was seeing the state he was in when he came out from behind the drum-kit to play guitar on Will There Be Enough Water.  He started out by sitting heavily down on the front of the drum riser with his guitar and then ended up propped up against the speaker cabinet at the side of the stage for support when he wasn't at the mic singing or at his pedal board for a solo. I found it very disturbing to watch, much more so than his displays of temper.  His playing wasn't affected, the solos he wrenched out were as searing as ever.  But was it exhaustion, illness, drunkenness, all of the above, or something else that made him unable to stand without support? I don't know and never will.  But I know it wasn't the Jack that usually takes the stage in front of a crowd. 

But this night was not like that.  

It started out as tempestuously as any other show, with Dead Leaves leading into High Ball Stepper leading into Astro leading into Sixteen Saltines. The first slow moment was a lovely You've Got Her In Your Pocket, but then two songs later the energy ratcheted back up again with Lazaretto, Just One Drink, and Black Bat Licorice.  And then things took an entirely different direction.

Fixing the pompadour, something he did several times throughout the show

After Alone In My Home, Jack decided he wanted to talk to his friends, meaning us, the audience. He's done that a lot this tour and the media has made a big deal of his "rants".  In return, he's made a big deal at recent shows of the media's big deal of what he considers "just talking to his friends", which is how he described it at Cleveland.  He also talked at Cleveland about how he feels he should end everything he says (even phone conversations with his mother) with "But you know I'm just joking".  This night in Miami was a perfect example of how subtle his humor can be when he gets going.  He began by asking his guitar tech, Abraham, who had already been dealing with multiple instrument issues, to find him a stool, one like stand-up comics use with the rungs at different heights so you can prop your feet in different spots (yes, he was that specific).  While Abraham went off to search, Jack began pacing around the stage with mic in hand, introducing the band.  I can't remember all of the intros, but by the time he got to Fats Kaplin and began telling us how he'd mowed Fats' lawn in the 80s, I was laughing out loud.  Abraham came back with a drum stool and set it by the mic stand, only to be told by Jack that it was too short for someone as tall as he is.  Off went Abraham again, and Jack took the opportunity to tell us about the public school tube amps he's been using this tour, explaining how they were once used for the sort of announcements principals make in school and that he bought all three for $150 and then checked on eBay the next day to make sure that was a good deal because that's what you do these days (I've actually heard elsewhere that they cost closer to $18,000 apiece) and that the other thing they're really good for is as guitar amps. 

Edited a couple weeks later: And God or whatever's above, please bless the young girl who broke the rules and recorded those band introductions. Obviously I mis-remembered the order of some things, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is this--

Here's the same from another, closer angle--

At some point, back comes Abraham with a taller drum stool and down sits Jack at the mic with his Gibson Army-Navy acoustic guitar (Or was it the Gibson L-1 acoustic? He asked for that to be brought out at one point). He was like Goldilocks, though, because this stool wasn't quite right either. After asking the audience if it was alright if he crossed his legs, he went ahead and did a song and then got Abraham back out so that he could very earnestly and lengthily clarify what he wanted.  I couldn't hear what he was saying but Sharon did and told me later that the drum stool apparently "was not representative of the proper form".  Off goes Abraham yet again and this time he scored with just the right form of stool.  At this point Jack was able to prop his feet the way he'd wanted to all along and he launched into a conversation of how sugar is bad for you, but so are artificial sweeteners and Stevia is supposed to be good for you but now the latest thing is Sorbitol and could "you fucking hipsters make up your minds" and get back to him and by this time we were laughing our asses off as he launched into Sugar Never Tasted So Good.

None of this slowed the show down a jot, just made it very, very different. His body might not have been moving around while he sat at the mic for that handful of songs, but the gyroscope in his brain was spinning full blast and he had us fully engaged with the dryness of his humor and wondering what the hell was going on.

In contrast to the previous night, Jack sang most of the songs of this show with his eyes closed.  But there was one moment, when he stood up from his stool to take a bow at the end of Blunderbuss, when he looked down at the people in the front and his eyes traveled from center-stage across the row outwards and I swear they stopped on Sharon, Sam, and me as the stagehands gradually pulled the curtain closed in front of him.    

He was back to electric guitar and on his feet for the second set, though definitely not as active as usual. But while his energy may have been a bit lower, his intensity wasn't. And there were other moments when the gyroscope went off in whimsical directions, like the minute or so he spent adjusting the guitar mic at his stand, twisting it one way and then another until it became clear he was just playing around with the thing and not at all concerned with getting it into the right spot, and at the end of the show, when he draped his guitar strap from the mics and then began wrapping the guitar and strap around the booms with a little grin on his face, leaving the guitar balanced atop this construction, watching it sink a little without dropping while feeding back crazily as he and the band lined up for their final bow.  All of these moments made for the most strange and wonderful show.

In talking about it afterward, we came to the conclusion that the ankle he sprained in San Francisco had not healed as well as it appeared at the first few shows on this leg of the tour. This could also explain why he was less active at Fenway Park the previous week, when I thought the issue was a lack of connection with the crowd. Whatever the case, there was no lack of connection this night and we saw him perform in a completely unexpected way.  It left me giddily high in just the way I love so much and when we walked out of the theater into the beginning of a drenching rainstorm, the last thing I wanted was the protection of an umbrella.  I wanted to feel everything-- euphoria, whimsy, electricity, rain, everything.  This is why I do this.  This is why I'll be damned if I'll give up on the addiction. 

When the roller-coaster ride will continue is up to Jack.  

(But here's where it began: Introduction)

September 19, 2014

Confessions of a Jack White junkie, part 7: Strike three, Boston, yer outta there!!

The roller-coaster hit a trough this morning as I headed north on 95 past Baltimore on the way to Boston.  I'd been cranky and argumentative in internet conversations the previous evening, but became truly ugly as soon as the car got into rush hour traffic.  Things came out of my mouth directed at other drivers that could've made a sailor not just blush but cower.  I know how easily I become ugly like this, it's a trait that runs through both sides of my family and it used to be much more constant in me.  Discovering both Buddhism and Stoic philosophy several years ago helped me to learn to watch for it, but ten hours of sleep in four days could lower anyone's resistance to irritation and I'd also woken up this morning with the early symptoms of a cold.  So while that couldn't excuse the stuff that kept going through my head, it at least explained why it was happening.  Seeing myself become this way reminded me all over again why I identify so strongly with the song I'd requested from Jack that first night in San Francisco.  While the song is not specifically about these things, the title alone always reminds me of the pettiness, selfishness, rage, jealousy, and condescension I struggle with so frequently, much of it driven by a shadow need for recognition and attention that I've only recently truly acknowledged.   I queued up the White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan and set I'm As Ugly As I Seem on repeat from the Delaware border all the way into New Jersey, letting the softness of that voice and guitar soothe me as much as possible (live version from the Stripes' appearance on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, since the album version doesn't seem to have been slapped up on YouTube)-

"I'm as ugly as I seem, worse than all your dreams could make me out to be..." While listening to that song and the rest of that album did calm my road rage, it also caused me to begin wallowing in self-loathing as a response to the anger.  When I look at myself in that state, all I can see is a bitter, vicious hag and who could love themself in such a form?  But it was too early in the day for wallowing and tears, my makeup had to last all the way through that night, so Satan and Ugly were replaced with Lazaretto and Black Bat Licorice in an attempt to perk up both my mood and energy.

One of the main things I've learned from Buddhism is the concept of right thought, part of the Eightfold Path, which is not about controlling emotions and thoughts but about catching ourselves before we react habitually in unconstructive ways, taking the time to look at the situation we're in to see if it warrants such a reaction or if the reaction is really being driven by other things going on in our own mind.  Stoic philosophy takes a similar tack.  I think most people think of stoicism as being a grit your teeth, grin'n'bear it sort of attitude, but the philosophy is similar to Buddhism in that it requires you to look at your actions and reactions and think about them.  One of my favorite quotes from Marcus Aurelius is one I should have tattooed inside my eyelids, so that all I'd have to do when I needed to be reminded of it would be to close my eyes-- 

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?' You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.

I have no problem with being angry, anger can be constructive.  But the sort of irrational rage I let loose in the car this morning is not.  I can accept it in myself to a small degree, but I have to constantly watch and be ready to reel it in when it goes too far.

Self-loathing is just another habitual negative response that's no more constructive than those directed outwardly.  Another tenet of Buddhism is compassion, not just for others but for ourselves.  We have to be just as understanding and patient of our own weaknesses as we should be of those of other people. Such weaknesses are something to work on, not something to condemn.  We need to work on them because these emotions are all very productive, they breed tremendous amounts of negativity. But they're not constructive, you can't learn anything from them.  Unless you can catch yourself, step back from them, and observe them.

Whoa, wait a minute... What's going on here?  For a moment there I almost forgot that I'm supposed to be an obsessed Jack White fan-girl, er, I mean junkie.  Who do I think I am getting all verbose about philosophies and stuff?  Gotta get back to the program! 

And snideness is yet one more unconstructive reflex.  Oops.  So anyway, I was heading north on 95 to Boston today to meet up with Sharon and see Jack fucking White perform at the Bleacher Theater at Fenway Park.  Made it through the morass of interchanges that are the NJ/NYC area to find myself admiring one beautiful Art Deco bridge after another along Connecticut route 15 and then the hints of color in early-changing leaves along I-90 in Massachusetts.  And there was a whole 'nother cast of characters joining Sharon and I today, people we'd not seen since Jack's Blunderbuss tour two years ago. So I had much to look forward to.

One of the coolest things about the Lazaretto tour is how Jack's mapped it out to coincide with his recent dive into baseball.  From attending games to taking batting practice to visiting museums of the sport, to throwing out the first pitch at a Tigers game in Detroit, it's obvious that he's gone deep into the history and minutiae of baseball the way he seems to with everything that interests him.  So it had to be a huge deal to him to perform at Fenway Park in Boston, one of the few historic ballparks left.  When I scored my ticket, I half jokingly said to anyone who would listen that, at the end of Seven Nation Army, I wanted Jack to jump off the stage of Bleacher Theater, lob a left-handed homer with the Kay (he didn't have to make it over Fenway's scoreboard, dubbed the Green Monster, though it'd be an extra thrill if he did), then run the bases.  I would scream my throat raw if he did something like that. But it was not to be.  I should have been tipped off early that the night would not be at all what I anticipated when Sharon and I grabbed a pair of hot dogs on the concourse.  Most bland dog I've ever eaten.  The minor league ballpark in Frederick, Maryland has better hot dogs than Fenway.  

An incident with the tour photographer on the concourse after we'd finished our dogs left me again feeling embarrassed that I'd barged in on Sharon's thing. She's been to twice as many shows on this tour as I have, in part because she has a job that allows her to coordinate business travel with show dates.  Not everyone has such a convenient situation. But she's also admitted to putting herself into debt with all this travel and is incredibly single-minded about doing what it takes to get up there on the rail, so while I'm ridiculously envious of her I also admire her dedication.  We've been great partners at the shows we've been to together, accomplices with a common goal.  We've had tons of fun in line and very emotional experiences together in front of (and on) the stage.  But as I see her being acknowledged by Jack's crew, demon jealously keeps rearing up and making me make comments I shouldn't to try to feel that my dedication lives up to hers.  It's that need for recognition and attention that I mentioned above. But where anger-driven feelings make me picture myself as a vicious hag, these feelings of jealousy cause me to see myself as a petulant little child. I can't deny that the silly little fan-girl in me is pining for Jack to to see and acknowledge my devotion.  The rational side of me understands that's never going to happen. Not only is it never going to happen, it doesn't need to happen.  Life will go on and be just as fulfilling without it.  I've been in one-sided relationships before, in which the other person expected me to share their interests but didn't share mine and in which it felt I was loved for how I made that person feel rather than for myself.  I swore I'd never be in a relationship like that again and, in fact, that's part of what led to my recent Facebook friend list clean-up--  I don't even want "friend"ships in which I comment on other people's posts and they never comment on mine.  And yet here I am with Jack, in the most one-sided sort of relationship anyone could ever hope to have. Incidents like the one this evening, the ones that have left me feeling embarrassed for my attempts to connect, make me wonder why I bother.  But who am I fooling?  I know exactly why I keep reaching out, babbling incessantly in the Third Man Vault, on message boards, here in a public blog, needing to be right in front of him at shows to be seen as well as to see--  Because the fan-girl addict will never give up wanting to be acknowledged.  She and the rational side battle over this, but the rational side often ends up indulging her because it realizes that we've rarely in our life been so swept up and moved by anything as powerfully as by Jack's music. When a tour's going on... forget about it. The rational side may as well go take a nap. 

And I know that I'm not alone in this craving. The majority of fellow fans I've spoken to want to meet him, even if it's just for an autograph or hand-shake.  There are always people at shows hovering by the tour bus, waiting for an opportunity.  What's behind this craving?  I tend to shy away from hanging by the tour bus, I've had that experience before with rock stars I admired and it was anti-climactic, so I have trouble understanding why such brief and often hectic encounters are so important to people. And I'm honestly not even sure that I want to actually meet Jack. As I said, I've had that opportunity with other people like him and it's never once turned out the way I imagined it might.  A couple of the experiences have been decidedly negative.  I got to know one of my dearest friends when she stumbled across my blog and contacted me with a story of how she and her grandson had written to Jack and received a letter from him in reply.  She's shown me this letter and it's a beautiful thing.  It's brief, but he made the effort to touch on every subject they'd written to him about.  While I'd be amazed if he would remember writing that letter, to me something like that is a much more meaningful connection than the five-second hand-shake, "Your music means so much to me", "Thank you very much" encounter by the tour bus.  For some people, though, that five seconds is all they need to be thrilled right down to their socks.  

And what I'm talking about here really applies to any musician, actor, athlete, or celebrity that people revere.  Why do we all need this so much?  Is it an altruistic impulse, do we want to be able to give these people the gratification of knowing that what they do is meaningful (might have to question that in the case of some celebrities) and touches people ?  Or is it a more selfish desire to have our own existence elevated by their acknowledgement? I've seen people in the Third Man Vault chatroom who've gotten a response from Jack in chat gush after he'd left that, verbatim, "I'm so excited, Jack White knows I exist!"  Is the motivation for this need some combination of the altruistic and selfish?  Is it an individual thing, varying from person to person?  Interesting stuff to think about.

Getting back to the show...  I was initially very upset about my seat in Bleacher Theater, all the way over at the end of the first row far from the side of the stage, and concerned about being on a step with nothing in front of me to hold onto for balance as I danced and jumped about.  Not to mention being all alone and far from my friends, who were all one section over and spread around.  Ended up rocking my ass off anyway, despite only being able to see drummer Daru Jones from the back and bass player Dominic Davis barely at all.  And I watched Jack all night trying to engage the group of people directly in front of him, a bunch who sat for much of the show, who kept leaving to get beers, and some of whom several times stood up and turned their backs to him while talking to their friends.  I kept wanting to run down the row and shake those people, to make them turn around and realize what they were missing. I don't know what else he was seeing in the crowd, but that group definitely caught his attention.  At least once, he stepped to the front of the stage and stared fixedly at them, much like he stared down the camera man at Merriweather Post Pavilion two nights before. And I know from Cleveland just how penetrating yet impenetrable that stare is, but it seemed lost on that group (I later found out they were apparently some of the owners of the Red Sox and their wives).  And it seemed that they weren't the only part of the audience with better things to do, because he didn't even bother to invite the crowd to sing on any of the songs that are perpetual crowd sing-alongs-- Not on Hotel Yorba, not on Hello Operator or Steady As She Goes, not even the line in Seven Nation Army about the Queen of England and all the hounds of Hell. But the most unbelievable thing, for me at least, was when it came time for the Seven Nation Army chant.  This is the chant that can be sung even by people who have no clue who Jack White is because they've heard it in stadiums and via television broadcasts of sporting events for the last several years.  But could Boston pull it off in their own venerated sports stadium with Jack and his Kay guitar there on the stage right in front of them?  Fuck no.  I heard two repetitions of it and then it died away.  Jack stood in front of his amps with his guitar, waiting for the response that most audiences wait all through the show to be able give to him, and Boston couldn't muster it.  He didn't even bother to clap and gesture for the crowd to join him as he usually does, didn't bother to spur them on, just finished the song, then thanked the crowd, stressing over and over that through the night it had been "Just you and me!  Just you and me!!" I couldn't tell whether there was sarcasm in his tone or if he was trying more obliquely to let them know that they'd not held up their end of the arrangement or if, bizarrely, he'd felt a connection despite the lack of one that I'd observed.

Through it all, even though I'm not sure he or the band saw me at all, I danced and sang and jumped and cheered as usual (and only fell off of my precarious spot on the ledge a few times), feeling like a wallflower at the prom, dancing by herself and watching the Prom King have a lousy experience with the cool kids, just knowing I could show him a great time if only he'd come over and ask me to dance.  But alas, it wasn't to be.  I continued dancing by myself and he continued to be stuck with the kids who were too cool to clap.  During the break between sets, I suddenly heard a voice over my shoulder say "We've been watching you and you know how to enjoy a show!  We want to dance with you!!"  I turned around to find two young girls whose seats were two rows up and across the aisle who'd hopped down and squeezed in next to me.  I said that if security would let them stay, it was cool with me. One of them was convinced that we'd be able to get down into the empty VIP section in front of the stage when the show continued, and I didn't bother to tell her I doubted it highly. Sure enough and sadly, security chased them back to their seats when Jack and the band came back for the second set.  I would have enjoyed their company.

This is the most subdued performance of Hardest Button that I've experienced yet, fourth song to the end of the show.  Fiddle player Lillie Mae Rische is more animated than Jack is.

Compare that to this bit of the ending of Lazaretto, four songs from the beginning of the show--

The difference in his energy is notable and, again, weird to me.  Jack's typically the opposite, amping up himself and the crowd more in the second half of the show than the first. And yet despite the weirdness of the crowd response and its seeming effect on his energy, this was not a bad show. And I certainly hope that the musicians on stage got something out of it. Just like at Cleveland, the negative aspects were balanced by many high moments--

Each of the band members emerged one at a time from a door in the Green Monster and headed from there to the stage, with Jack making his entrance last.  It was a brilliant idea. Wish this person had caught his entire jog across the field, with the pouring of about half his bottle of champagne onto the grass.

One of my favorite moments was a version of Black Bat Licorice that could've been re-titled Black Bat Gibberish, and I do not mean the word gibberish in any derogatory way.  Jack started inserting mostly unintelligible verses in between the regular ones, causing me to throw up my hands as I tried to sing along and yet giggle at the same time. It reminded me very much of the second show at Roseland Ballroom back on the Blunderbuss tour, at which he pretty much completely lost the lyrics of the first song and flubbed another one shortly into the set, but then later in the evening made up an astoundingly beautiful song on the spot.  And, dammit, I love this song in any form, it's one that just speaks to me.  Loved the slight twist to the final line-- "Whatever you feed me, I'll feed you right back. But it will do me no good."

Did I say something about snideness being unconstructive...?  Just never you mind, I hope Jack never removes his King of Snark crown. He uses it so delightfully to make a point.

But despite these moments, there was still that seeming lack of connection with the crowd. My buddy Steve, seeing him for the second time this tour, said he thought Jack was just tired.  But Sharon and I have seen him at so many shows and this felt different. I mean, the man played on a sprained ankle with more energy than he displayed at some points in this show.  Was he, like me, just exhausted?  Or was he getting a vibe from the crowd similar to the one I picked up?  Hell, for all I know, he had the flu that night. But when Sharon and I found each other after the show, we looked at each other and said "What just happened?"  One of us said almost immediately that it was like Radio City Music Hall and the Detroit Fox all over again.  After the backlash from Radio City, it's possibly not likely that Jack would ever cut a show short again (though he's ballsy enough that you never know). And his tour manager mentioned in the pre-show announcement that this show at Fenway was being recorded, so we wondered if that was why he pushed through, only giving up at the very end when he didn't bother to encourage the audience to participate in Seven Nation Army. It was an experience I never would have thought I'd have at one of his shows.

All show photos by David James Swanson

Yes, there were moments when this show felt more like other recent ones, with that infectious smile.

And there I am, next to Lillie Mae Rische's right shoulder
Interestingly, there's this video of Seven Nation Army that makes it sound as if the upper reaches of the audience were much more responsive than the folks down front. There's the chant, however faint. Like Radio City and the Detroit Fox show, perspective on this one might depend on where you were in the crowd and what you have to compare the experience to.  So now I really don't know what to make of the night.

To be continued in Miami.  And this is where it began- Introduction.