Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fountain of Light

I've been hanging out with members of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network for the past 48 hours, so I want to say I'm perseverating over Jackson Browne. One of their great lines: "Where you are persistent, we perseverate...."

Anyway, I missed the Fred Martin & Levite Camp CD when it came around, and maybe that's why this new record is such a revelation to me. But my wife, Lauren, and I went to Browne’s band show in KC last night, and I feel what I've been hearing in this record was born out live. Lauren said, in fact, that she could see what I meant live (the jury's out from her on whether I'm crazy in my love of the record). But she did love the show.

The key thing really is the band, particularly its new members, Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills. They play much more than the role of back up singers. They take verses, including the closing lines of "Culver Moon," significant pieces of songs recast by Fred Martin like "About My Imagination," the "sister's" response on "I Am A Patriot," and that brand new verse about 9/11 that Fred Martin's band wrote for "Lives In the Balance."

Browne firmly anchors that stage, but it's hard to say he's the star of the show. He's not even star as director because the band feels like everyone in it is vibing off one another as a band. "I Am A Patriot" was one song that was more or less redefined for me by that kind of interplay, which segued into a version of "It's Your Thing," focused on the elections. "Drums of War" is particularly explosive live, with that great simple thing Jeff Young is doing over there on the keyboards (what, two notes?) adding just the dissonance to turn all the questions as they get asked.

They played most of the new album, which surprised the hell out of me, to an enthusiastic seemingly-packed house in Kansas City, Missouri. And after the absolutely gorgeous "Far from the Arms of Hunger," which became a powerful visual prayer with all of the musicians bathed in these moving rays of golden light that came and went throughout the evening, it was amazing to me to hear "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty" reborn as songs about the contradictions at the heart of rock and roll, conceding the glass half empty, rejoicing in the glass half full.

But the most powerful sounds and images of the night, again, I will associate with Morris and Mills. You couldn't take your eyes off of them for long, and that wasn't a bad thing; that seemed like the balance the show was striving for, the emphasis on listening more than anything, the sense that this was about musicians doing what they do, not an aging rock star.

And the central image of it all was, for me, Chavonne Morris holding those hands up in those rays of light at crucial moments throughout the night, moments of testifying and moments physically expressing some rapture in the music, and she would do this thing where her arms would spread wide, like she could gather all those rays of light between them, and then she would bring her hands together in a clap of joy or rage or frustration, and the shadows made a sort of visual thunderclap that punctuated some climax in the music. It wasn't just one move she did, but it is that image I have to hold onto to try to suggest the kinds of things she and Alethea did time and time again. Those moments were key pieces of music as powerful as any I've experienced. The whole show was a reminder of what music is at its best--healing, soothing and bracing and invigorating all at once.

Jackson Browne apparently just turned 60 (he responded to the crowd's "Happy Birthdays" by acknowledging his age, with a proud smile--"I wasn't sure I'd make it"). I'd be proud too if I were him still making space for this kind of music. Running into the sun indeed.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Beautiful Day

Last Friday, Barack Obama spoke at a rally in downtown Columbus, on the waterfront, at Genoa Park which is between the Center of Science and Industry and the banks of the Scioto River. I decided to go. The gates opened at 11; I made it downtown around 11:30, and imediately saw that I would have difficulty finding a place to park. Eventually I parked about a mile away and walked, part of the throng that seemd to be arriving from all directions and converging on the park. It took a good 35-40 minutes to get past the security gates and enter the park, which was crowded. As I got to the park’s entrance, U2's "Beautiful Day" – one of my favorite U2 songs -- was playing over the loudspeakers, and it was oh so appropriate, because in every respect it was a beautiful day. Sunny, not a cloud in the gorgeous blue sky, and all around me a diverse sea of humanity, a big smile on every face.

It was easily the most diverse crowd I have ever been a part of. Old and young, black and white, and asian and latino, gay and straight, poor, working class, middle class, upper middle class, school kids of all ages, union members, office workers from downtown. Obama volunteers passed out free water bottles to the crowd – standing in the sun for so long was beginning to bake people. At some point, I left the paved area to go stand in the grass under a tree.

There I saw what appeared (based on clothing) to be a poor black mother with a beautiful little boy in a stroller who took refuge in the shade offered by the tree. A few moments later, a fashionably dressed (upper middle-class?) white woman, pushing a stroller with a beautiful little girl, also parked under the tree. As the music played over the loudspeakers, the little boy and the little girl started playing together, and then the two mothers started dancing to each other, and it was such a beautiful sight. I saw old white people, older than McCain, applauding this black man running for president, in the midst of a bunch of young black men, dressed "gangsta" style, who moments before had been wildly cheering the white governor. All around me their were happy, joyous faces.

Obama gave a good speech, but I don't really remember what he said, I was too busy taking in the sight. The elderly black couple next to me made eye contact with me several times, and we just grinned at each other. A really old white guy who was there with a sweet little blond-haired 3 year old girl at one point looked at me and said, "there's no way McCain is beating *this* guy!" and laughed. Earlier in the line, as we snaked our way up to the security check point, a 9- or 10-year old black girl with her mother was visibly excited to see Obama, she kept going on and on about how excited she was and how there was no way she was gonna miss this rally. I saw white "trailer park"/typical Ohio redneck folk who brought their whole brood to the rally, and thought, as I saw them enthusiastically cheering Obama as he spoke, that this is truly a miracle.

I know in my head that Obama's election is not likely to change lots of things, and certainly not the fundamentals of this system, but in my heart it felt like his candidacy has already changed much.

After the rally, I, with several thousand others, marched across the street to Veterans Memorial, the early voting polling place for Franklin County, and cast my ballot for Obama. Intellectually I may have had some doubts and reservations, but in my heart it felt perfectly right. Afterwards, I walked around downtown for awhile before making my way to the parking garage where I’d left my car. I am not used to walking downtown and having black faces (or even white ones) smiling at me -- usually, folks downtown walk with their face to the ground, or staring ahead absent-mindedly. But not last Friday. Everyone walked with their heads held high, and everyone was looking at and smiling at everyone else. What a beautiful day it was!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Getting Light From Darkness

Ron Brown writes:

For some reason that I don't fully understand, I still have about a hundred or so aging music newspapers in slowly eroding cardboard boxes that I've now been hauling around with me for the past 30 years. I don't know and can't explain how they've survived. They've surely been somewhat mistreated. Other than a cardboard box, I can't say that I've protected them much, so they've seen extremes. Despite my lax attention to preservation, they managed to withstand lengthy stays in an open garage during brutally cold South Dakota winters, suffocating heat in a Mississippi storage shed during summer, assorted damp basements and dingy closets in tiny apartments. Everywhere I've been, they've been. Because I inexplicably refuse to throw them out.

I have a few Melody Makers, some now obscure publications like one called Gig, but the bulk of the collection of course are old Rolling Stones. That was essential reading, when I could afford to buy one at the newsstand. At some point in time, I don't recall when, I did think of putting those in protective plastic sleeves. I don't know why. It's not as if they're particularly valuable. If you want, you can get any single one of 'em on eBay these days for about 5 bucks on average. Based upon who's on the cover, I might be able to sell five or six in about six months time. But even if I sold a hundred of them, that works out to a profit of about 16 cents per paper, per year. So, obviously, money's not a reason that keeps me hanging on.

And it's not as if I really read them on any regular basis. I've found that I never take them out of the cardboard box except when I move. Recently we moved from an apartment to a house in Ridgeland, just north of Jackson, Mississippi. They've been sitting in the garage for three months.

I spent this past weekend moving boxes around, deciding once again what to keep and what to discard. The plastic encased Rolling Stones, they went into the house. But last night I discovered another old box in the garage and at the bottom of that raggedy box were some old Chicago music publications, including a free monthly newspaper called the Illinois Entertainer. Not much on content, it was mostly filled with ads for live music shows at Haymaker's and Mother's, The Wise Fool's Pub and Huey's.

But when I opened one of the papers from September 1978, there staring back at me was this beautiful full page ad:

What makes this page extremely relevant to me is that it's an advance ad for one of the greatest rock and roll shows of my life: "APPEARING AT UPTOWN THEATRE SEPT. 6" I'd seen Bruce twice before, once in Chicago at the Auditorium in '77 during the chicken scratch tour, and again in Wisconsin earlier in this tour. But this was a show that still lives with me. I was 19 years old working in the packaging department at Bodine Electric, the same factory where my mom worked in the winding department. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew damn well that I didn't want to do that, if I had any choice in the matter. I had never felt more alive than those first few Springsteen shows. I guess I didn't know it then, but what I saw in those shows was a glimpse of my future. I didn't want to become a musician. I can't keep steady time on a three-chord country song. It's not that I dreamt of becoming a song writer or performer. Seeing Springsteen sing Adam Raised a Cain made me realize that I wanted take risks. That I needed to take risks.

It literally changed my life.

How many times over the past 30 years had I opened this paper and seen this very same ad before? I don't know, maybe six, seven or eight times. Maybe not even once. But I know that last night it finally hit me right between the eyes.

What's it worth to me now? You can probably guess. And there isn't a single dollar sign involved.

It won't be another ten, twenty or thirty years before I see this ad again. I'm framing the sucker. And you know what I'll see? "APPEARING AT UPTOWN THEATRE SEPT. 6: THE BIG BANG."

It only took me 30 years to realize it. That, and a couple of old cardboard boxes that I probably should have thrown away years ago, but for some reason, just couldn't.