December 13, 2017

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

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

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

July 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Cornell's "I Am the Highway"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 7, 2017

A lifetime of blues


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

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

March 25, 2017

The cycle of life encapsulated in a day

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

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

The vulture goddess Nekhbet. Image borrowed from here.

March 16, 2017


I stand in my kitchen taking my vitamins on a dark March morning, angsting about someone I offended weeks ago and being alone and how very hard it is to turn monologue into dialogue, when a siren wails past outside the window and I think "Ah, there's someone who has a real problem".  

March 5, 2017

Another kind of gender confusion

It's an exciting and frightening time to be a woman these days. It feels like we're heading into both the dark ages and a brand new feminist movement simultaneously.  Only a few weeks after the astonishing turnout of the Women's March on Washington that was matched around the world, we're also dealing with things like the chiropractor in Kansas who's invented a vaginal glue to seal the labia during menstruation to prevent women from being "distracted".  If he were creative enough, he could maybe also market it as a rape prevention device.  Though it might be most effective as an easy means of denying sex to men as stupid as he is.  "Not tonight, dear, my labia are stuck tight."

Even worse, the Oklahoma state legislature is considering a bill that would require women to obtain written permission from the man who impregnated them in order to have an abortion.  The bill's author, state Rep. Justin Humphrey, said he just wants to add the father into the abortion process.

“My bill would stop an abortion if a father does not agree to the abortion,” Humphrey told the committee, which eventually voted 5-2 in favor of the legislation.

... “The thing that I wanted to spark in a debate is that fathers have a role. Exactly where that role is, I'm not sure,” [Humphrey] said. “We are starting the right debate by saying, do fathers have a place? Where should that be?”

He then took it even further by dehumanizing women entirely--

“I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all these types of decisions.” He continued, “I understand that [women] feel like that is their body. I feel like it is a separate—what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant.”

This is patriarchy in the extreme and I don't know any woman who would accept it.  I'm sure there are some out there, out in the Bible Belt, but those women do the rest of us no favors. Because women these days are standing up and asserting themselves in a way beyond even the feminist movement of the 1970s.  They have similar expectations of equal rights and an end to objectification, but they now have the platform of the internet and social media to spread the word and build momentum.  From the on-point news coverage of the feminist blogosphere, highlighted by Teen Vogue, to the letter written by the woman raped by Brock Turner, they're making their voices heard loud and clear, and some men are actually beginning to listen.

And, as always, artistic voices are also taking on these topics, which is necessary because art can make us think about things in a deeper way than hard fact can.  One in particular is relevant to the topic at hand-- Third Man Books recently posted a video, directed by designer and musician Poni Silver, of this piece from poet Kendra DeColo's new book, My Dinner With Ron Jeremy.

I look at that video and I see the gloriousness of the current generation of young women who are learning that they can exist separate from men's perceptions of them.  And yet my internal emotional response to it is very conflicted. Apparently a lot of other people had strongly unconflicted responses, to the point that Third Man closed down the comments section on their YouTube page because of the virulent misogyny of some of the replies.  When people feel that sort of hatred, the sort that's been directed towards women for centuries and that's boiled over at every moment in history that we've tried to stand up for ourselves, from the Suffragettes to the Feminist Movement to the Women's March, to women who deal with abuse and inferior treatment on a daily basis, you have to wonder what's behind it. Usually intense hatred is fueled by fear, isn't it? But when what you're attacking is not actually a threat, not really, where does the fear come from?  On his WTF podcast, Marc Maron recently talked to Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin's theory that so many of the things people are afraid of in the world, the things they project so much hatred towards, are constructed in their own minds.  This is a premise of Buddhism, as well, that most of our suffering comes from stories that we tell ourselves, based on amplified insecurities and things we ignorantly choose to believe.  I can't speak for what sort of insecurities might be behind other people's negative responses to the video for Kendra DeColo's poem, but I know exactly what's behind my own.

I've written before about traits I don't like about myself, about the envy and anger I give in to all too easily.  In this case, insecurity is the fault rearing its ugly head along with those other two.  It peeks out when I'm out by myself and see couples all around me.  It's so very rare to see other people by themselves like I am.  It makes me wonder, why am I always alone? Yeah, I'm an introvert, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be in a relationship if I could be.  On the rare occasions when I am with friends, any time I see other women around me getting attention from men, I wonder again-- What's wrong with me that I don't attract that?  Is it this or that flaw in my face or body? Is it that I'm opinionated? Am I not feminine enough? Is my independence intimidating to men? Is it some unconscious "stay away" vibe that I send out unawares? What's wrong with me?

Watching the video for Kendra's poem gives me that same feeling. Seeing that series of beautiful young women expressing discomfiture at unwanted male attention makes me sad, because it makes me think of how little I've experienced any of the situations described.  I didn't get hit on when I was 15. I don't get hit on now.  Unless I've been totally oblivious to it, I think I could count on one hand the number of times I've been hit on in my entire life.  I didn't date in high school because no one asked me out.  I lost my virginity at 19 to a guy I met at a party, but he left two weeks later to backpack across Europe and then go off to college.  And that was it until near the end of my 20s, when I moved in with one of the few men who ever has hit on me.  Unfortunately, the 6 years we were together was 5 years and 11 months longer than we should have been. It came to an end when he slept with another woman because he wanted kids and I didn't, and then I found out he'd been sleeping with other women all along. After several more years alone, I had an 18 month fling with a much younger guy I met through a chat room, until he asked if we could go back to a platonic relationship because I made him feel oversexed.  Of the two men I've had relationships with, I was not enough for one and was too much for the other.  And no one's shown an interest in me since then.  What's wrong with me?

So I look at other women and see the attention they get, I see them all around me with boyfriends and husbands, and that question comes up over and over-- What's wrong with me?  A long time ago, the feeling that they had something I don't made me begin to view other women as competition, as an impediment to me having any chance with a worthwhile man.  They're cockblockers, both figuratively and literally.  It's so hard not to feel envious of the young women in that video who seem to have had so much experience of things I've barely had a taste of.  Watching it, listening to Kendra's words, that small, ugly, shadowy part of myself snidely thinks "Aw, you poor thing, you got hit on, how horrible".  And then I'm angry at the world and ashamed of myself at the same time.  And it's damned hard not to let self-pity project outward into hatred.  It's James Baldwin's construction theory at work.

Yet I'm not so caught up in my neurotic insecurities that I'm blind to the importance of Kendra's statement. I realize that it's about more than just attention from men, it's about the attitudes behind the attention and how women have to strengthen themselves to deal with those attitudes.  Whether a woman is hit on too much or not enough, she needs to know that she is not shaped by how men perceive her, that she has value as an individual, and that her body and emotions and needs are her own, not to be dictated by those close to her or society at large.  In those rare instances when I have been treated to an unwanted proposition, I've wondered just how those men saw me, and how surprised, and potentially turned off, they might be if they did get to know me.  As Kendra's poem suggests, would they be shocked at how my blood might ravage their veins?  What men have to understand is that they need to see us as we are before they can know whether they want to tap that thing.

And I wonder about my frustration over lack of attention from men that I would like to be with--  The frustration is born of a natural desire for companionship and intimacy, but when it reaches the point that I'm angry at other women and questioning what's wrong with myself, isn't it perpetuating the falsehood that our value is dependent on men's assessment of us?  My insecurities seem to have been shaped by the very cultural attitudes the current women's movement is trying to break down.  And this is why I realize the value of Kendra's poem at the same time that it can leave me wallowing in self-pity.

I was a child during the Women's Movement of the 70s.  I saw Ms. magazine on the newsstands, I heard Gloria Steinem's name, but I was too young to read any of her writing. So it wasn't until last year, when I read her book My Life On The Road that she was able to have an impact on me.  It took this long for that icon of the previous movement to wake me up to the realization that there cannot be civil rights for all without rights for women.  It will probably always be difficult for me to relate to other women without feeling twinges of that ugly competitiveness and jealousy, but I'm learning that I need to at least stand up with them.  At some point, we all need to do this-- We have to face our individual neuroses and look beyond them to see the bigger picture, to see how our fears and insecurities play out in the world around us. 

Is it too much to hope that all the recent idiocy is the last gasps of a graspingly desperate patriarchy?

"Utah GOP chair's letter to editor published TODAY (not in the year 1624)".
From the Twitter of TawdryLorde

Maybe one way to change it would be to give a copy of My Dinner With Ron Jeremy and a subscription to Teen Vogue to every woman under 40.  And maybe every man , too.

February 15, 2017

Jackie Lee, son of Stagger Lee

 I recently guested on an episode of the Jack White-centric (what else?) Third Men Podcast, talking about blues music. When asked to name my favorite of Jack's blues covers, I qualified my answer by saying the song I was going to name wasn't a cover per se, though in a sense it is.  I went on to describe to the hosts, the Kaminski brothers, how excited I'd been to immediately recognize the source of the cover-that's-not-a-cover when I first heard it, as the song in question lifts sections almost word for word from the older version. I had so much more to say about this song and the unrecognized brilliance of it, but it would've been rude to hijack the podcast so here, in my own space, I can and will babble to my heart's content.  

Three Dollar Hat, from the 2015 Dead Weather album Dodge and Burn, lists all four members of the band as songwriters, but it's very obviously Jack's baby because it's very obviously based on Mississippi John Hurt's version of Stack O' Lee Blues.  Of all the members of the Dead Weather, Jack is the one who's likely to be most familiar with the Stack O'/Stagger Lee tradition that dates back some 120 years.  And Jack is the one who's been driven throughout his career to become a part of musical tradition. Or, as he says in a scene in It Might Get Loud, to "join the family" of song-writers of the early blues era. After almost 20 years of covering half the blues songwriters most people can readily name and many that the average fan could not, and writing blistering blues of his own, he apparently finally felt ready to take his place in this specific, hallowed tradition, to join the huge and highly respectable family of musicians who've sung versions of this song.  

"What I care about your two little babes and your darlin' lovely wife? You done stole my Stetson hat and I'm bound to take your life"  (As a sidenote, one of the things I will always love most about Mississippi John Hurt is how he sang about such violent subject matter in such a mild and delicate manner.  Like Grandpa telling a bedtime story... of murder.) 

The tradition of Stack O' Lee becomes more extensive the further you explore it. As described at

The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

That site's list of recorded versions of the song ends in 2008, leaving it wide open for Jack to come along. It's interesting to note that Jack's pal Beck covered it in 1996 (using it as inspiration for something different) and 2001, and his former antagonists The Black Keys did it in 2004.  Maybe that's part of why he waited so long. 

The initial reaction to Three Dollar Hat that I saw from fans in the Vault and at one of the message boards had people latching onto the Frankie and Johnny reference, or calling to mind Nick Cave's version of Stagger Lee.  There are legitimate connections to both of those songs.

That little snippet of Frankie and Johnny tagged on at the end is blatant.  But turning Stack O' Lee and Billy into Jackie Lee and Johnny does more than just make this a mash-up of two song references, it adds an interesting psychological twist--  Jack White is both a John (born John Gillis, the name on his Third Man Records business card is "John A. White") and a Jack, so just who are the sweethearts Jackie and Johnny? Did he push the Stack O' Lee myth into homoerotic territory, with his bad man Jackie Lee killing Johnny more out of jealousy toward that bad-ass wife than concern over a $3 hat? That idea brings to mind Omar of The Wire, a series busting at the seams with Staggerlees, of which Omar was one of the most intriguing.  Or are Jackie Lee and Johnny two manifestations of the songwriter/narrator, a la Fight Club, and is the whole violent story taking place inside his own head, one side of his psyche destroying the other and then being destroyed in turn?  Either or both, it skews the tale in a way that's gleefully perverse.

(I'm going to admit right now that I have no idea what Alison Mosshart's vocal part has to do with the rest of the story-line. If anyone out there has any ideas about that, please let me know.)

Three Dollar Hat has much of the punk grittiness of Cave's version.  And considering the fact that his son is apparently named after another of Cave's songs, Henry Lee, Jack's surely familiar with this one.  I think any similarity between Three Dollar Hat and Stagger Lee is coincidental, though, a reflection of a shared attitude in bringing the legend into the contemporary era.  Because where Cave went for a sludgy rock'n'roll edge, Jack uses Three Dollar Hat as an opportunity to make the connection between blues and hip-hop apparent to anyone who hasn't caught on yet.

Another man who named his son after a song is Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers. In the book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus opens a chapter about Sly Stone and the myth of Staggerlee by quoting a 1970 jailhouse interview with Seale--

I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Right on, huh?  He's named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block. Staggerlee.

You'll find out. Huey [Newton] had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee's life, too, here and there. That's where it's at. You move yourself up from a lower level to a higher level...

...Staggerlee is all the shootouts that went on between gamblers, and cats fightin' over women--- the black community.

Something else, huh? That's life.  And all the little Staggerlees, a lot of 'em!  Millions of 'em, know what I mean?

And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because... that's what his name is.

Farther on in the chapter, Marcus describes Staggerlee as a fearsome ideal--

...Nobody's fool, nobody's man, tougher than the devil and out of God's reach-- to those who followed his story and thus became a part of it, Stack-o-Lee was ultimately a stone-tough image of a free man.

From popular song, that ideal made its way onto the movie screen through the Blacksploitation films of the 70s.  Shaft and Superfly, Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman, these are manifestations of that bad black man standing up to The Man.  A few decades later, he veered back into music and emerged as rappers like Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dog.  

In the early days of the White Stripes, Jack White expressed disdain towards hip-hop. He was asked about it in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview--

And you're not a hip-hop fan.
Not particularly. I find Out Kast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you're left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you're just left with rhythm. I don't find much emotion in that.

But somewhere along the line, he began to hear things differently.  In an article just a couple years ago, which I can't find now to be able to link here, he mentioned that Jay-Z had told him that hip-hop is the blues. That idea gave me pause at first, but damned if he isn't right. Both genres are outlets for the trials and suffering of life, black life in particular.  And both frequently take on that braggadocio Jack mentioned, boasting of things like sexual conquests and material possessions, building up the singer/rapper's fearsome rep.  Following the trail of the Stack O' Lee myth shows how one genre followed from the other and Jack seems to have had that agenda in mind when writing his own entry into the tradition.

I've also seen complaints from fans over the past few years about the number of songs that Jack has begun rapping rather than singing, from I Cut Like a Buffalo to Freedom at 21 to Lazaretto. All of those songs, culminating in Three Dollar Hat (and his more recent contributions to A Tribe Called Quest's last album), must've been influenced by that conversation with Jay-Z.  What the fans bothered by this don't realize is that Jack's doing exactly the same thing he's always done-- He's singing the blues. He's just exploring new avenues, new ways of expressing them.  It's one of his typical subtle lessons in how music evolves. Which makes it a damned shame that this song ended up buried on a Dead Weather album that wasn't even toured.  But according to comments Jack made months ago in the Vault chatroom, the band did make some sort of video/movie-type thing for Three Dollar Hat.  He implied we fans are going to love it.  With any luck, one of these days he'll give it to us. Not doing so is just him being perverse again.

As an extra treat, here's one of the first recorded versions of Stack O'Lee--

Mea Culpa

I was annoyed at being made to feel like an asshole, and so I became that asshole.  And now I can't stop crying long enough to put on makeup for work.  Who wants to actually be the asshole they can sometimes turn into?  It's embarrassing and frustrating when we're confronted, as we rightly should be, and reminded of how easily we slip into that role and how hard it is to catch ourselves.  How do we deal with it when it happens?  Do we let the embarrassment inflame things further, or do we turn away and wallow in regret?  If the latter, at what point does regret turn into just plain self-pity?  Because self-pity is just another form of being an asshole.

How to regret without wallowing. Gotta figure that one out sometime.

January 30, 2017

Are we/Am I doing enough?

Like many other people, I've been to a few protests recently.  A Maryland Rally to Save Healthcare. The Women's March on Washington. An impromptu No DAPL rally near the White House one night last week after work. And yesterday, a No Muslim Ban/No Wall rally that turned into a march. It feels good to be doing something in the face of all the frightening changes that've so quickly taken place in this country.  But I keep wondering if it's enough.

There were two other events I considered going to yesterday, instead of or in addition to the No Ban/No Wall rally-- One was a rally earlier in the day to protest Betsy DeVos' nomination for Education Secretary, the other a protest of the Muslim Ban at BWI airport in the evening.  If I'd gotten myself out of the house early enough, I could've easily gone to the DeVos rally near the Capitol and then headed to the White House for the No Ban/No Wall protest. And I could've probably made it up to the airport near Baltimore afterward for that one. But I chose one of the three. Was it enough?

I keep thinking of a post I saw at the Facebook page for the Betsy DeVos protest.  Someone had said that they couldn't go because they had to take their kids to a soccer game, but they'd be there in spirit.  This is what I worry about--  The Tea Party faction brought us to this point because of the passionate intensity of their beliefs.  Yet we, the "liberal" opposition, pick and choose between protests, or support from afar because we have soccer games to go to.  I can easily imagine Tea Party moms skipping their kids' soccer games in a heartbeat and dragging those kids to anti-abortion protests instead.  Do we believe passionately enough to do the same? 

And the causes we're protesting represent real people who've been, or soon could be, making sacrifices and even suffering because of these issues.  Do we feel strongly enough for them to suffer ourselves?

I don't say this to shame anyone who's skipped a protest because of work or whatever. I'm struggling with it myself. This is all so new, it's been confusing and a bit overwhelming to figure out how best to respond, how to take action and feel that it'll be effective.  I keep telling myself I'm taking baby steps.  But I do wonder at what point we're all going to have to
begin making real sacrifices, giving up those soccer games or taking time off from work, putting in the hours and becoming tired and worn out, in order to protect what we feel is right.   



Images from the Women's March on Washingon here.

And the No Ban/No Wall rally-march here.

January 28, 2017

Spitting out these 300 M.P.H. Outpour Blues

I love the way Jack White talks about the music that's meaningful to him.  In a panel discussion about the Rise and Fall of Paramount Records back in 2013, surrounded by erudite, scholarly types and people who write about music for a living, his descriptions of the songs and the impact they had on him was down-to-earth and easily relateable.  In that snippet above, what he says about the song Mama's Angel Child especially resonated with me-- That part about "he's speaking for me", that's one of the things that definitely draws us to music. Those songs that speak for us, the ones that make us feel as if the song-writer pulled our own thoughts and feelings out of us and set them to a melody, are intensely powerful.

Jack's wish that we could all have the sort of moment he had with Mama's Angel Child was fulfilled for me with one of his own songs, one that's come up at this blog a couple times over the last few years-- 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues. It's the song that first grabbed me and shook me and told me I had to get into his music. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to name my favorite White Stripes song, this one would be it. To my ears, it represents everything about him as a song-writer-- The cleverness of the word-play, the deceptive simplicity of what he's expressing, the dramatic shifts in dynamic.  It's soft, it's tempestuous, it's acoustic, it's electric, it's acerbic and thoughtful, wry and regretful.  And it speaks for me in a way that is both reassuring and unsettling.

"I'm getting hard on myself, sitting in my easy chair..."

So many of us go through that dance with self-loathing angst--  "I'm not this enough, I'm not that enough, I'm not good enough, I'm not doing enough, why did I do that?, why did I say that?, why didn't I say that?, I really screwed up, I'm really screwed up...."  And yet our lives, to anyone looking in from the outside, are perfectly fine. We have food, shelter, family, friends.  Money may or may not be a little tight, but we can pay our bills, buy some records, and go see a movie once in a while. And yet we suffer.  We get hard on ourselves sitting in our easy chairs.  Why?

"Safe to say somebody out there's got a problem with almost everything you do..."

So much wisdom, and again so simple. But one of the hardest lessons for some of us to learn, something we get hung up on over and over again and that leads us right back to that easy chair, getting hard on ourselves. For what?

"Well, sooner or later, the ground's gonna be holdin' all of my ashes, too..."

And yet, there's a defiance of all those troubles at the end, the strength to stand up to those who have a problem with everything we do and, just as hard, to stand up to our own selves.  That final twist, that's the reassurance this song gives us--  

"One thing's for sure, in that graveyard... I'm gonna have the shiniest pair of shoes."

If that's not the blues, I don't know what the hell is.