Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Bridge

Dave Marsh writes:

People ask me why I remain devoted to rock/blues/rap/soul music. You can see it in their eyes, even if they don’t ask, that they wonder why an almost 60-year-old man would still be so wrapped up in things that are so flimsy and childish (to them). I have spent most of my career trying to articulate the reasons. This morning I read an email from a friend, who lays it all out with extreme clarity. Granted, this is in some respects a singular story and certainly an example of lousy shrink/great patient. (“Intact” must be jargon. Nobody who is at all informed about this issue could think that anyone who has been abused is “intact” psychologically. But professionals insulate themselves from their own emotions by pretending otherwise.) Abuse isn’t the only reason that I—or my friend—love the music. But it is a huge part of why we regard the music as something that has saved our lives in the truest sense.

I want to say this again, now, because I think there is a storm coming that will include more witch-hunts against hip-hop and maybe metal, especially with a Presidential administration run by someone associated with the Oprah Winfrey wing of punitive cultural criticism. I will join the fray again, on the side of free speech, and for as long as I am able. I hope people who read it will learn to think in the same terms. For every kid who needs what the email calls the “bridge,” we need to support this culture, no matter how off-track it may become in other ways. Somebody is surviving because of this and giving the worst parents an excuse to take it away (or for that matter, indulge in further abuse because of it) is unacceptable. Period.

This shrink that deals with the cardiology patients asked me what I do to alleviate my stress. I told him, "Get out on the road. I get away from all this, and just get out on Route 66, Arizona, New Mexico. Just get me out on that road. Everything else is secondary. I don't feel any stress out there." I added that I can only go so often, due to finances and time. But that is the thing that alleviates my stress more than anything else in the world.

Then he started asking me a lot of questions about my fucked-up childhood, and he asked me a lot of questions about how I could have survived all that.

He kept saying, "There must have been some significant person that cared about you as a child. Statistically, that is the only way abused kids come out of that intact."

I kept insisting to him that there was no such person. I never connected with any of my teachers as a kid. My grandmother on my dad's side cared about me, but she died of a heart attack when she was fairly young, when I was like 5 or 6 years old. And that was the end of anything with me and any grandparents.

The shrink kept saying, "There had to have been someone." He was looking for some significant bonding person with me who got me through it. I kept telling him there *was* no one.

I told him about when the cops came over, and how they did nothing.

No one ever did anything.

I said, "If I had grown up in the '90's or in this decade, I would have been removed from the home. Back then, no one did anything about this stuff."

When he finally accepted that I was a weird statistic, that despite what all the psychology books claim, I did *not* have a significant person in my life who cared about me, he was at a loss. (You are supposed to have at least one significant other that really cared about you for you to not end up as ultra-permanently damaged goods, beyond repair.)

I decided to just put it on the line at this point, because I had already told him enough examples of the horrendous abuse I suffered as a kid.

He seemed a bit dazed and stunned when I finally said, "Look. I didn't have a significant person. This is how I survived. It was my albums. It was my Rolling Stones albums, my Jimi Hendrix records, my Bob Dylan albums, Marvin Gaye, Zeppelin, Yardbirds, and whatever else I had. I listened to those albums over and over, and because of them, I knew there was some other world out there, other than the hell I was living in. I knew from listening to those albums there were people that existed out there, that did not have the warped values my parents had. And I was going to find those people one day. There was no doubt in my mind. Listening to those albums, I knew there was some better place, and one day I would be a part of it---away from all this. It wasn't like I was hoping, it was something I knew. There was no choice involved. One day, I would be out of that hell, and I would be in some other world, and that would be wherever that music came from. I listened to music constantly. Music was not my escape. It was my bridge."

I told him, "It got me out of there, mentally. It individuated me from my parents. That is what got me the fuck out of there, that is what made me not end up like my little brother, who became bonded to the violence, and who could never stand up to my parents, and who could never individuate from them."

I said, "Any guidance I ever got as far as coping came from those albums. That music was my significant person." I then quoted the lyrics from "Jumping Jack Flash" :

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag
I was schooled with a strap right across my back

But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!

But it's all right
I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash,
it's a gas!

I said, "If that is not about survival, I don't know what is."

He had this really stunned silence.

Then he said he was entirely appalled by what he was hearing from me about my parents, and that he found it to be very disturbing. He then told me that when he ran the monitor on me to measure my stress and how it effects my heart (I forget the name of the equipment or the name of the test), when I was talking about the abuse I endured from my parents, that I did not react very much physiologically, which he found really surprising.

I said, "Because it is just a matter of fact. Just like this wall here is white, or that the sky is blue, it is a matter of fact that I was abused to the point where someone should have removed me from that home."

He said that my stress level on the heart thing when I talked about my parents not having major variations in it means I am "coping" with what I had been through, and he said it is surprising given how bad the incidents I told him were.

He said most people would have had a far greater physiological reaction talking about things like that.

He then told me I am "extremely gifted and talented." I don't know where he got that from.

To my surprise, he told me I don't even need to come back to see him again. He said, "You have your survival skills as far as dealing with it. You know how to deal with what you have been through."

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We Insist!

Lew Rosenbaum writes:

This is a note I would have written to Strat a year ago, and copied to my sister Greta; or perhaps the other way around. The point on the triangle that was Greta is not available, except in my imagination or to communicate in some way with the ancestors as some are wont to say. My saying this to you in no way attempts to lessen the value of what I am saying, nor am I simply dwelling on a hole in my life, nor am I only saying how glad I am for the many years I had to do what I had to do and the years I have with you as well. Perhaps it's all of the above and more.

It's about a performance that Diana and I saw on the lucky Friday the 13th of February.

Last fall, as I sat contemplating the Symphony Center series ticket offerings and ticking off the many things I'd like to see and would never see in the coming year, and thought of the times Diana and I discussed going to concerts, and agreed that THIS YEAR we would, but that because of our hectic schedules we'd wait to the last minute so that we wouldn't be obliged to go out when we were too tired, and then of course when the time came we WERE too tired or forgot or had scheduled something else and so we COULDN't GO -- this year as I contemplated that multifaceted list of offerings, I told Diana it is time we made time for what we wanted to do rather than just let it go by, and the two of us scraped away the concerts we could do without and came down to five during this season: 3 classical programs and one dance program and the program we heard tonight.

We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite composed by Max Roach in 1960, a piece I had never heard before. I had no reference point to it except that it sounded interesting and I've heard Max Roach before and so we booked that.

First, the performers were superb. Julian Priester on trombone was one of the people who originally recorded the piece. Ron and Clark Bridgewater on Sax and Trumpet were great, Ira Colman on bass had a stunning solo to start one of the five pieces that make up the suite, and the three percussionists talked to each other throughout. Ray Mantilla (75 years old!) on the congas was on the original recording and, in the last section dueled back and forth across the stage with percussionist Nelson Clarke, and holding the whole thing together was drummer Lewis Nash, center back, where Roach would have been playing. He was phenomenal.

The most amazing phenomenon of the evening of phenomena was Dee Dee Bridgewater, who I thought wrung every ounce of emotion possible out of her not always verbal vocal performance -- at time shrieking what needed to be shrieked, and starting, in the first section called Driver Man, with a refrain that she hissed at the audience: "All I got in my mind, the driver man and quittin' time."

The unit played off each other so well, with Bridgewater opening most segments up and closing each segment with repeat refrain[ but always in between, as the musicians played to each other, melding a kind of dance and appreciation with the others that was emotionally exhausting. The lyrics, written by Oscar Brown Jr., were spare and demanding as the music.

The music howls, cajoles, screams in both birth pangs and the slash of the driver's lash, and wails as all good brass sections must. There is also something very sensual/sexual about the way a bass player makes love to his instrument, perhaps because the instrument is so life size that embrace, foreplay and orgasm seem to be happening on stage without any attempt to mask it. And in the long introduction to the one section of the suite Colman did make love to his instrument.

The suite ends with a section titled Tears for Johannesberg -- and as Bridgewater brought all the performers out at the end to receive applause, she closed by saying that there are no more tears necessary for Johannesberg, but we have tears in our own back yard that we have to deal with. If we stand together, we can deal with them. We Insist.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Danny Alexander writes:

One of my favorite Kansas City musicians, one of my favorite musicians period, is a woman named Kristie Stremel. When I first saw her, she was playing guitar with the band Frogpond, which had some notoriety in the late 90s after Art Alexakis produced its album, "Count to Ten."

Stremel was the perfect foil for the somewhat reserved lead singer of that band, Heidi Phillips. While Heidi diffidently addressed the mic like Kurt Cobain's lost sister, Stremel would work the crowd, fist pumping, bounding around the stage, and eventually, climbing the rafters. It was a wonderful contrast live, but it never felt like it would last.

After Stremel left and formed her own band, Exit 159, I understood why. She'd woodshedded with her two new bandmates all summer and emerged early in the fall with a full set of poignant, catchy and hard-rocking material. I still have the newspaper I was holding in my hand during that first show, its margins full of notes on songs I had never heard before. I knew I'd be writing about them. And I did, early and often, as they toured across the country twice and found their way into regular rotation on local alternative radio playlists.

After the first year, the bassist left, and the band took on more of a punk style reflecting the sensibility of its newest member. They had a strong second year together, taking on yet another player, three of them having fronted their own bands before. They played the Viper Room in Los Angeles where, word had it, 26 labels were in the house. Nothing happened. And then the inevitable tensions tore them apart.

Stremel went on to record as a solo artist, and her songwriting grew increasingly sophisticated both musically and lyrically, but, unfortunately, without a consistent band to back her up, she never regained the kind of audience she'd had with Exit 159.

Friday night, Exit 159 reunited, and the show was fantastic. The band played to an attentive packed house, as hard as it ever did but with a more supple touch. The band members have all gotten better in the 10 years since they broke up.

The drummer was always good, but he used to play on the stiff side of Max Weinberg, with perfect posture. The perfect posture's still there, but what's unusual about Rob VanBiber's style is also key to his strength--he's precise as hell, and Friday night he played more dynamically, with a deeper pocket and a ton of surprising fills, all the while hitting hard as ever.

The bass player, Jamey Wheeler, was always a strong second vocalist for Stremel, kind of a warm, almost sweetening, complement. His vocals seem even stronger today, more self-assured. He takes a verse in one song, and it's a great moment, but the best thing about the two of them is a certain call and response between their vocals. I'd also forgotten how much his bass style, rooted in jam band fluidity, provided a unique counterpoint to everything else going on and helped define Exit's sound.

My wife Lauren had never seen Exit before, except that she had gone with me last weekend to watch them rehearse in the studio. That day, they ended with this new cover of "Simply the Best," the Tina Turner song, that got Lauren beaming.

Later, in the car, she said, "They need to play their own stuff the way they played that song."

I reassured her that, with the sound coming through a soundboard and with a crowd in front of them (rather than the two of us and the drummer's wife), it would all be at that level. I was hoping....betting...

And, fortunately, I was right. They came out with every bit the intensity of that cover. Stremel and the crowd were ringing sweat midway through the set, and it only built from there.

They played something like 90 minutes ending with covers of "Something So Strong" and "Little Red Corvette," an old rave-up of their own called "Cigarette Kiss" (the traditional set closer) and then "Simply the Best."

One of the great things about Stremel with a 3 piece is that she takes lead on guitar. And it's not that she's some great guitarist, but she knows how to make you feel a solo, even if she fucks it up she salvages it (which happened at some point Friday night).

That was always a highlight of the "Little Red Corvette" cover in the old days.... In that quiet bridge at the center of the song, she'd bend over and seemingly search for the notes on her lead--and it was always this moving moment, very hard and on the edge of atonality, but somehow perfect.

She had several moments like that Friday, but one of the wonders of the Tina Turner song (which has never before been a favorite of mine) was not only how she made it her own but also how she managed to make it a vehicle for one hell of an exciting guitar solo after the bridge. Everything exploded into the final chorus, and it was a perfect finale to the night.

Lauren, who never does this, went over to Lawrence to watch her play again Saturday. I'd already committed to reviewing the Pretenders show for our alternative weekly, the Pitch. I have an almost three decade old soft spot for Chrissie, but I wanted to be at Kristie's show again, watching the exact same set all over. Frustrated as I was, that's a good feeling to have.

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