January 25, 2016

A White weekend: Six year anniversary

I have an anniversary coming up in two weeks, but circumstance caused me to celebrate early. Six years ago, I found myself stuck at home during a historic blizzard and spent the hours indoors developing a musical infatuation.  This weekend, the mid-Atlantic was hit by another blizzard of record-breaking proportion and I've been stuck at home for four days so far. I've spent these hours re-exploring that old infatuation and what it's come to mean to me.  

Anyone who's familiar with this blog surely knows that I'm talking about the music of Jack White.  I wrote about that weekend six years ago and he's been a predominant subject here ever since. On the surface it looks like an obsession but, really, it's grown into something else. Sure, I'm still infatuated with Jack. He's an endlessly fascinating personality and his music moves me in a way no other musician's ever has. But in following his work, I've begun to look at a bigger picture surrounding him and his music. He and the company he created, Third Man Records, have become symbols for me of a way to look at the world, primarily art and music, but also culture and society. 

For a while now, I've been wearing a silver ring on my lefthand ring finger, a set of three bands that look like bones. I've never told anyone why, but this anniversary seems like an apropos time to talk about it. The ring is a symbol for me, just like a wedding band is a symbol for anyone who's married. As in the film Elizabeth, when Cate Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth proclaims to Lord Burley, "I am married. To England.", I also feel married to something rather than someone, to an ideal rather than to a person. (Though I am actually kind of married to Jack, seeing as how I was at the San Francisco show in 2014 during which he decided to marry every woman in the audience in the middle of the song Blunderbuss. But it was the night after he'd sprained his ankle on stage and he was probably high on Vicodin and for all I know he had it annulled two days later without bothering to tell the couple thousand of us.)  That ideal I feel wed to may walk around wearing the form of Jack White, but I see so much more now when I look at him.  I've read and been told enough about him, and observed a bit myself, to know the man is way too human to ever qualify for sainthood or keep his balance on any pedestal. But I also see him continually striving to grow, and to make the world a better place in his own way, on his own and with the help of the people he's brought into his organization. Whether it's his New Year's Day advice in the Vault chat room, his inquisitiveness about history and art and science that he shares with his fans through all of the projects he's involved in and things he mentions in interviews, his constant urging to remember the romance and ingenuity of the past while admiring the innovation of the future, the efforts by Third Man Books partners Ben Swank and Chet Weise to spread culture and beauty through poetry, or the many charity drives organized (there are four links in that string of words, click on 'em all) by Third Man Records, that striving is what inspires me.  It's the one thing we can all do, regardless of our talent or ability or circumstance, we can always try to grow and be better-- Better at art, better at whatever it is we do, better human beings with a wider field of vision and curiosity and awareness.

Thank you to the unknown person on Tumblr who captured and posted this.

Bob Dylan said in Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie--

...You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

He wasn't talking about Woody in those last lines, or in any of the lines of that poem. He was talking about what Woody represented to him.  I'm no poet like Dylan, but I understand exactly what he meant about Woody because it's very much the way I've come to feel about Jack.  When someone creates something that moves us, or begins an organization or movement that inspires us, what that person represents can become something that's both incorporated within them and totally separate from them.  Look at Martin Luther King Jr or Abraham Lincoln. On a much smaller scale, look at Woody Guthrie and, more and more, look at Jack White.   

Of course, running underneath and through it all is the music.  And there's so very much of that to celebrate, not just this weekend but every single day...


January 17, 2016

Random babblings: Sunsets, snow, and bluebirds

Over a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' description of a Florida sunset:

The sun itself was trivial. It sank humble into a modest bed of subdued gold. But in the north, the east, the south, cloud piled on cloud, arrogant with color, luminous with lemon yellow, with saffron and with rose. Three bands of opal blue lifted suddenly from the sun. The west took over its own. The unseemly magnificence of north and east and south faded. The sun at the horizon came into its full glory and the west was copper, then blood-red blazing into an orgy of salmon and red and brass and a soft blush-yellow the color of ripe guavas. Northeast and south faded instantly to gray, timid at having usurped the flame of the sunset. Then suddenly the west dimmed, as though a bonfire charred and died. The was only a bar of  copper. All the sky, to every point of the compass, became a soft blue and the clouds were white powder, so that in the end it was tenderness that triumphed.

Then, later, in the middle of a deer trail through the trees alongside an old field, I found the spot where something devoured the bluebird of happiness, leaving behind nothing but a litter of electric cobalt feathers.

I came out of the woods and into the first snowfall of the winter, a late January attempt at appropriate weather in a peculiarly warm season.  First one flake, then two, so sparse that you'd wonder if you actually saw them until, yep, there's enough of a multitude to properly be called snow.  Wandered through it up past two of the farms on the Three Farms trail, and as I was coming back the sun bullied its way briefly through the grey. In about the same amount of time it'd take to devour a bluebird, the snow had dissipated to crystalized rain. So much for winter.

January 2, 2016

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Coming back

Started the drive home with the Danger episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio, then set the flashdrive back to shuffle. Ended up with a great assortment of tunes along the way, so this road-trip tale is gonna be as much music as babbling...

And of course I found the historic Ocala cemetery when passing through to get from route 75 to 301. Of course I did. That’s what I do, I find cemeteries. Driving along, I glance down a side street and, boom, I see headstones a couple blocks away. This was an interesting one, too, decrepit and falling apart, but relatively well groomed. Wandered around it accompanied by songs blasting from an oldies radio station playing all the way across a field on the other side the road at what looked like a lumberyard. Since I’d not brought my camera on this trip, I had to take photos with my tablet, first time I’ve attempted that. The shots came out tolerably well, despite being barely able to see what I was shooting because of glare on the screen. Made them somewhat serendipitous.  Though I always feel that cemetery photos should be black and white, so after some internal debate I ended up editing them before uploading.

A little ways beyond the sprawling horse farms north of Ocala, I passed both The Orange Shop and a turnoff to the site of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Decided a few miles further on that those were stops I had to make, so I whipped a quick'n'vicious U-turn and headed back to check out both. 

What better souvenir of Florida than fresh-squeezed-on-site orange juice? And The Orange Shop itself looked to have been around way back when Hank Williams recorded what may've been his only political song-- 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead was definitely worth the prolonged stop. You have to squint a bit to block out the highway you’ve just turned off of, and the two-lane blacktop leading back to the park, and the park and boat ramp next to the homestead, in order to get a feel for the wilderness Rawlings moved to in 1928. Just inside the old gate at the entrance is a sign that helps. It reads “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood. Here is home.” And down the path is exactly what she describes, as you come around a slight curve into an opening that was once her orange grove. There are only a few more than a dozen trees now, but enough to give a feeling of what it was like, what with the old barn and big glossy chickens strutting around and roosting in the low branches of the orange trees. And Rawlings’ house beyond, maintained by staffers in period clothing. It wasn’t open this day, but I was able to walk around and peek in the windows, and wander the short trail through what’s left of the wilderness. I wondered as I walked what she meant by “here is home”. Literally, her home? Or a spiritual home that she felt all who entered the place would arrive at? The house appeared cozy enough, but the woods… not so much. They’re compelling, though, and certainly mysterious. The alien-ness of hanging mosses, strangling figs, palms that grow like ferns, and cypress knees creates a definite enchantment. But there’s also something forbidding in their mystery, in the way sandy soil gives way to springy marshiness, and then to swamp. What threats are hidden behind the fans of palm and in those clumps of Spanish moss? In my childhood, I saw the film of Rawlings’ book The Yearling, which makes the place seem innocent enough, despite the difficulty of life there. But I also saw Frogs and had nightmares about Spanish moss, so there you go. 

As I was coming back through the grove from the trail through the woods, the gentleman working there invited me to pick a few oranges to take with me. Take my word for it, the taste of historically significant oranges has a noticeable edge over anything you'll get in the grocery store. 

Was a bit jarring to have this come up immediately when I turned the key in the ignition, but the two that followed brought me back to a more appropriate mood.

The rest of the way up 301 to route 10 to the Jacksonville beltway and then onto 95 was swift despite construction squashing three lanes worth of traffic into two. The shuffling stereo got caught in a blue mood… 

But somewhere in the midst of Georgia, it brought up an appropriate tune (despite the fact that 95 runs by Savannah rather than Atlanta)- 

And then, as twilight ended, up came Blind Willie Johnson and some gospel… 

As I passed the exit for Effingham (which made me chuckle because I once passed another Effingham in another state and the same lame joke crossed my mind then), it was back to some roadtrip-appropriate hard stuff… 

Got off at an exit with three motels only to find that none of them had any available rooms. Decided to cross over the highway to see if there were more options on the other side, but what I thought was a road to somewhere suddenly turned into an exit that dumped me back onto 95 heading southbound, which was not what I wanted. When you’re hauling ass along a dark highway trying to get to the next exit to get back in the right direction, you could do a lot worse than My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult… 

That next exit back was for a town called Coosawhatchie. Instead of looping across the overpass to get back on the highway going north, I decided I had to see what Coosawhatchie looked like, even in the dark, so I headed in the direction the sign pointed. Either it wasn’t much of a town or I missed a turnoff to it, but I suddenly realized the dark road I was heading along was running parallel to the highway going north. Sure enough, it came back up to the previous exit where I’d had no luck getting a room. So I got back on 95 going in the right direction and high-tailed it some more to an exit with more hotel options, where it took three stops to finally get one of apparently the last five rooms around.

A room that, even after turning on the air conditioner, had a decidedly muggy, clammy feel to it. Floor, sheets, pillows, even my clothes the next morning felt ever so slightly damp. Plus, no wi-fi. Tossed all night, and did not sleep late the next morning. Got out of damp Dodge as quick as I could, with the Captain and Seu Jorge setting the tone for the morning. 

Stopped two exits down for breakfast at the Olde House CafĂ©, because “Country cookin’ makes you good lookin’”. We’ll see. 

Made serious time through the rest of S.C. and into N.C. thanks to another woman driving a red car. Can’t recall who initially caught up with whom, but we leap-frogged a few times, I ended up following her for a while, then got in front of her and maintained the lead for a long time. Then we got caught behind a slow pickup truck. When I was finally able to whip around and get ahead of him, I looked back and saw her roll down her window and throw a gesture of some sort at him as she passed. After that, it wasn’t so much fun having her follow me, so I put a little more pressure on the gas pedal and took it up to a speed she wasn’t as comfortable at. Though every now and again, when I’d get caught behind slower cars, I’d look back and see a red car coming around the side of the cars way back behind, as if she were trying to catch up. But once I was in the clear again, I’d step down and lose sight of her again. And then suddenly I didn’t see her no mo’.  Which was a bit of a relief, but also left me feeling a little bit lonely. Just a very little bit, though.

Along the way, just shy of Florence, I noticed that all the trees that weren’t pine were no longer covered with either Spanish moss or leaves. Though still down south, that made me suddenly feel like I was already back up north. 

Made a stop in Smithfield, NC to visit the Ava Gardner Museum. Don't  have much profound to say about her other than that what I learned at the museum put her right up there with Elizabeth Taylor in the list of women I admire.  Stunningly gorgeous, yet apparently a strong, down-to-earth broad through and through. Definitely need to see more of her films.

The skies began pouring down a monsoon rain as I pulled onto the highway from Smithfield. Obligingly, the stereo shuffled up an appropriate tune for what was ahead, again from Hank.

Because the rain just would not let up.  Other cars on the road became just pairs of barely visible red lights, until I came right up on them and got a glimpse of a vaguely car-shaped mass ahead or next to me.  I passed so many lakes alongside the highway that would have been fields on any other day, to the point that I was less concerned about having an accident with another car and more about coming upon a flood across the road. Especially when the stereo began shuffling up a string of damned fine driving tunes and I just could not speed up...

And this one, highly apropos to Ava Gardner's love of bullfighting and bullfighters...

Finally stopped for dinner somewhere in Virginia and came across this great quote in the most recent music issue of Oxford American, about why so much great music is made in Georgia: "Because of the humidity that surrounds us.  You lose your stinking mind and have to go crazy to remain sane!  Things are so backwards here. Frontwords is backwards. You know? One and one is two, but what's one?  Southern people are fucking crazy. And if you're not crazy, you're driven crazy. And if you don't have that crazy in you, you're not any good.

It ain't the humidity, it's all that scratchy pine and swampy water, I know it is.

And the second truism of the road is... a rainy highway is a rainy highway is a rainy highway.  Fortunately, the car stereo was yet again in tune with the drive and shuffled up a couple different versions of this one over the last hundred or so miles home...

Because if you're not in tune with your car, you just can't have a good road trip.

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Going

Drove from Maryland to Florida for a belated Christmas this year. Left Christmas eve morning, well, actually more like noon, and hit the dreaded I-95 Corridor through northern VA.  I've driven 95 from Connecticut to the Carolinas (before this trip) and the stretch through Virginia is consistently the absolute worst in terms of traffic slowdowns for no discernible reason.  Fortunately, there was a flashdrive full of music plugged into the car dash and it more than once set both the mood and the pace of the trip, both going and coming back.  Though I learned something important on this drive-- Setting music on shuffle makes time go more slowly than listening to something with a discrete time-frame, like a podcast or album. 

Hit the border of VA and SC a little after 8pm with the intention of stopping at that famous (notorious?) spot that is the entrance to SC. But South of the Border just does not live up to its kitschy potential. Very sad. Obviously there was a time when it was a fun spot, but those days seem to be over. I thought of staying at Pedro's motor inn just for the fun of it, but lost the taste for it after taking a quick spin down the road beyond and passing a gentleman's club and "Asian spa", where I would swear a drug deal was taking place as I pulled a u-turn in the lot. Went back and wandered the deserted aisles of Pedro's gift shop looking for a fun memento or silly gift for a co-worker, even just a bumper sticker or post card, but came up empty-handed. Just a lot of nothing clever there.

Woke up Christmas morning a little farther south than South of the Border and got back on the highway. Spent half of Jack White's album Blunderbuss tucked into a line of four cars doing a consistent 90-100mph. No one was being competitive, there was no tailgating, no passing. Just smoothly pacing each other at high speed. It was great. Then in the middle of Trash Tongue Talker we came up behind a clump of slower cars that couldn’t be easily passed and it all fell apart. 


When we finally got by, the two in front got slow, the guy from New York who’d been bringing up the rear got aggressive and that was it. All good things must come to an end. A few songs later, after one had gotten off at an exit and I’d passed the two who’d been leading, I put on the brakes myself to let New York get in front of me, and then watched him proceed to tailgate and pass cars up ahead, to the point of using an on-ramp to pass a truck on the right. 

On my own again and with 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues set on repeat, I started taking a closer look at the scenery, sizing it up and drawing conclusions about it. I think I wrote once years ago about driving through the desert of Utah and feeling that the landscape there, so wide open and lacking in coverage or shade, so much hot sun relentlessly pounding down on your head, could drive a person mad. But I got the same feeling looking at the landscape passing alongside the road in S.C. Instead of wide open, it’s dense with thick, seemingly impermeable stands of tall, dark pines and scrubby undergrowth, here and there immersed in stands of swampy water. Having to make your way through that back in the day before there were highways or even many roads would be a tricky thing for the sane, though a convenient thing for the insane or merely surreptitious looking for places to hide. And if you weren’t mad already, I could easily imagine it making you mad, all rough bark and sharp needles scratching at your brain. So easy to picture those convoluted woods filled with moonshine stills and guys like Ernest T. Bass

 Hopped off the highway for a moment for a break and bought a pack of Raisinets and a black-and-white, Harlequin-painted resin skull at the truck stop. Made sure to say “Merry Christmas” to the woman at the cash register as I paid for it. It was very tempting to follow the narrow road down through the pines on the other side of the overpass, but instead I hopped back on the highway and took off to the tune of Bear Cat. 


Had to chuckle a bit at the GA border over the fluttering U.S. and S.C. state flags, landscaped palm trees, and graciously worded signage (“Thank you for visiting South Carolina"). What is it about S.C.’s relationship with Georgia that made them put this up, in contrast to the sketchy neon kitsch of South of the Border up north by N.C.? 

 95 through Georgia spread immediately from S.C.'s 4 lanes split by a swampy pine divider into 6 wide open lanes with a Jersey wall divider. It also immediately became quite dull, aside from frequently having to pass folks with their brains stuck on cruise-control in the left and middle lanes. The monotony was broken here and there by marshy rivers like the Jerico and Cat Creek, which reminded me of Jug Bay and Blackwater back home in eastern MD. 

Perfect road-trip song, huh? Though I may live a predominantly static lifestyle, afraid to let go of the stability of a steady, well-paying-though-usually-unstimulating job, trips like this and the rest of the travelling I’ve done the last few years are necessary to keep me sane. Certain family members might consider some of the travelling I’ve done to be irresponsible and selfish, but my feeling is that I have to do it now while I can. I couldn’t afford to do it when I was younger, and in a handful of years I may have to take on the sort of responsibility for others that I’ve always shied away from. I don’t know what to expect, but the possibility of it is what drives me now to drive and fly and follow my addictions to road and music. Now is when I can do it and I have to take advantage of that. 

 After all the billboards along the highway had left visions of peach salsa and peach cider and peach ice cream and peach bread dancing in my head, I was very disappointed that Peach World was closed for Christmas Day. 

Spent several miles debating who recorded the better version of Solid Sender- Chico Leverette or John Lee Hooker.

Totally different songs, not variations of the same. Both have strong selling points, but I'm inclined to lean towards John Lee. 


Crossed over into Florida to the tune of Son House’s Death Letter. I don’t have much to say about Florida. It’s not my favorite state. The natural flora is exotic and mysterious and sometimes beautiful, but the human development (I almost said “encroachment”) seems mostly haphazard and ill-conceived, and frequently shabby. I’ve seen some interesting and even wonderful things in Florida (culture in Sarasota, the Edison-Ford Winter Estates, incredible cloud formations), but overall the state just leaves me on edge. It’s a hard place for me to relax in. Though I’ve always experienced it through the prism of family or work, so maybe this trip, driving through so much of it on my own, will let me form a different connection with it. 

Connections might be tough to form, though, as there seem to be damned few places to stop.  Went all the way from Jacksonville to Ocala via routes 10 and 301 with nary a rest area or hotel/restaurant haven, and thought I was going to be out of luck dinner-wise in Ocala. Cruising the outskirts of town, the Family Dollar store was open, but Burger King was not. That says something. Thank goodness for Aunt Fannie’s Restaurant, which, as the servers kept answering the phone near me at the counter, was “open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year!” The counter was so high that I felt like a little kid sitting there, especially as the stool was also so high that my toes didn’t touch the floor and the glass they served my sweet tea in was so big it took two hands to grab and lift it to my mouth. A bit Alice In Wonderland-ish, but the ham steak was damned good. Three hours to go, headed back to the highway accompanied by Hank Williams’ 6 More Miles To Go.

Looked over my left shoulder a while later to see the Full Cold Moon rising.  Listened to Son House singing Pearline and tried to imagine him at 60-something in a recording studio with “Blind Owl” Alan Wilson helping him to remember his old songs. Was Pearline one he originally did way back when, or was it made up during those studio sessions? I should look that up some day, see if I can find out. It’s my favorite of his songs, with lyrics that consist of pretty much nothing but “Pearline, what’s the matter with you?” and “Pearline, I love you”. His slide guitar sums up everything else about their relationship in between those two sentiments. 

One of the truisms of the road—No matter what state you’re in, a dark highway is a dark highway is a dark highway.