There’s a party in my mind / And I hope it never stops

Party at Farm Boy! It’s my party, and I’ll write if I want to². (Behold: the second obscure pop-musical reference. Didja get the first¹ one?)

I don’t always write when I want to. I am not, and have never been, blessed with my bride’s Do It NOW! gene, at least when it comes to things requiring effort. TV, and fridge doors (see: opening of), and thinking about sports, and reading whatever falls under my eyes – these things come as naturally as does scrolling through a Twitter feed long after my original sharing-impulse or micro-news hunger has expired. Yes: a fresh entrant to this category of Indomitably Easy Activities.)

But I am writing now.

I sit upstairs at a high-end supermarket called Farm Boy. It’s across the street from Tom the Mechanic, where my wheels are getting readied for summer. Breakfast has merged into lunch. I like buying groceries and eating them at the store. There’s even a chance to be healthy. (-er)

(And yes, music historians, the title was a pop lyric, too. I now have Spotify³ on my phone. Most of my downloads are decades old, but surely “To Pimp a Butterfly” will join my invisible milk-crate library.)

It’s my mother’s birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. I don’t think I will, though. She’s been gone 10 years now, and I’m easy about it. I will admit, though: when I went by the asparagus downstairs in the produce department, I pronounced it “Ass-per-AG-us” in my head, because that’s what Enid just about unfailingly called it. She was never a teacher – heck, never went to university, why would she? She was female! – but reliably pronounced words in such a way as to make their spelling graspable. “Skizzers” for scissors, “fatty-goo” for fatigue, and so on and on. Whether this was with her five kids’ spelling tests in mind – we all aced ‘em, always – or just a mock-fashionable bit of extreme word-nerdery, I couldn’t say. Ennyhoo, as she also serially concluded: Hi, Mum. You had an effect.

Mum was a Christian, less nervous about death than about tidying up before Mrs. Adams, our housekeeper, got to our place for a weekly clean. She was ecumenical before it was cool, absolutely friendly with those Presbyterians and United Churchers, and dismissive of attempts by an earnest young Baptist pastor to condemn her weekly bridge games as the devil’s playground. When one of her sons was allegedly barred access to the gates of heaven because of consorting with Baha’is, she sniffed, “Well, it won’t be much of a heaven for me if my kids can’t go there.” She hated confrontation, but as I recall it, her comment snuffed that pseudo-theological debate right quick.

Maybe my mother would have liked Benjamin Sledge. I don’t know Mr. Sledge, but in the way of Internet Things I read a blog post of his on a stealth-Christian site called Heart Support. In the article, “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity is Actually Relevant, Okay?”, Sledge jumps from the Vans Warped Tour (a travelling rock music fest with faithful underpinnings) to 2nd-century Rome, and then back to a moral landscape – modern America – that obviously troubles him. What troubles him most? “Christians”, mainly, both the mainstream don’t give it a second thought kind, on one hand, and the minority have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and hated gays and abortionists enough? brand. It’s unclear which type is the supreme irritant, but he “welcomes”, actually seems to long for, the growing irrelevance of the Christian faith in modern America. He prefers the heroic, supremely loving and sacrificial expressions of the Gospel that he finds in early Roman history, the reason Christianity originally achieved a civilizing groundswell of popularity in the centuries following the life of Jesus. Ennyhoo: you can read the piece yourself. It’s quite refreshing, especially if you reflexively shudder at the excesses of faith-gone-political. It’s not that, not at all. It gives Christianity a good name, actually.

I’m writing in a Farm Boy supermarket, and yes, it’s been awhile since I got anything Out There. And Mr. Sledge has been pleasantly irritating me: a small snippet of the “Relevant” piece has been a brain-worm, burrowing about because of its significance and its craftiness. So thoughtful and cleverly written it was, in fact, that I Actually Wrote It Down in my sorely neglected paper’n’pen journal, as well as a handy just-in-case-I-get-the-typing-itch Word doc. Sledge refers to a simple, under-acknowledged bit of cultural oddness: people hitting other humans over the head with a book they consider Holy, the Bible. Who DOES that? he basically asks. And what in the world do they think they’re DOING?

“It’s a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.”

Not bad, eh? One thing I’ve loved about the Baha’is is that they bend over frontwards and backwards to avoid using sacred writings as hammers. Another story.

It’s good to write. Sledge’s article did come my way via Twitter – not that there’s anything wrong with that — but reasoned faith and my mother’s ever-living example (for example), are far less momentary. And all these things — along with old tunes, and squeaky-cheese curds ‘n’ apples for lunch, and sunshine on a day of swapping out the snow tires — got stirred into a bloggy stew. I feel good! Like I knew that I would.₄

And if you’re a long-time reader here, thanks for sticking around. I know this could have gone in the He Said/ She Said section, but as I said:

It’s my party.

¹ “Memories Can’t Wait”, by Talking Heads, from their 1979 album Fear of Music. Spooky good. I like old music, but this doesn’t even feel dated.
² “It’s My Party”. It’s the 1963 Lesley Gore version that I hear, one of my big sisters’ 45s. Quincy Jones’s first big hit, the writer learned!
³ Spotify is tremendous, but I still haven’t given away my vinyl yet, even if it’s no longer in milk crates that I can hunch over as I read liner notes and enjoy album art. I miss the bigness and tangibility of LPs, not gonna lie.
₄ James Brown, of course! 1964. The horn break — da-dum da-dum da-dum DA — was included on the imaginary spoken-and-sung-word version of this post. First heard this on the 8-track player of my high school coach’s faux-wood-sided beat-up station wagon. That was a trip, Donny.

Bruce Springsteen (on being born a 99% American)

Springsteen is singing in my living room. The album art is very 1980s, and Bruce looks like a boy, but he was writing and shouting like a man. It’s a pop-cult quote o’ the day!

Five years in China was five years removed from my modest collection of vinyl records and my turntable. Even on summers home, which gave me access to Hewitt’s Dairy and good chocolate and real hamburgers, yes, and libraries and bookstores, too, there was no listening to the old records because our home was rented out. I don’t have much of the collection that I had as a kid and as a young man, and (mainly) thank goodness and improving taste for that. (Divorce helped, too.) No John Denver, no Grand Funk Railroad, no diminishing returns of obsessively buying every progressively more disappointing Chicago album and only belatedly accepting that they’d left their soul in the ’60s.

I play through what’s left, though, and I’m about three quarters of the way through listening to the whole cabinet. After bouts of Talking Heads and Steely Dan, and a week of playing The Atlantic Family Live at Montreux – the Average White Band and a host of other jazz players blowing their brains out, fine stuff that doesn’t age for me at all – I flipped this morning to what is probably one of my bride’s earliest LP purchases, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The title song slays me.

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ODY: Weeks 20/21. The Song is the Thing.

There was a part of me that hoped that by this time, nearly 150 days into this crusade, I would be obsessed. By and large, my habits are pretty well established when I’m at home, and it’s no great inconvenience for me to get my work done. But knowing how I can get utterly locked in to patterns of thinking and concentrated (if brainless) activity, I had thought vaguely about how to manage a raging addiction to guitar playing. How will I handle it when I stop coming to meals? What’ll I do when my writing day begins to suffer because the boy just wants to play?

Well, safe at home, I guess. No worries about dependency yet. I recently read a piece on Tom Morello, the rocker with a brain (and a social conscience, and a lifelong love for the Cubs, I believe) from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. He started on the guitar relatively late, as a Harvard freshman, but made his own fervent pact to play each day, no matter how many essays were due. Legend has it that those playing sessions could last as long as eight hours. (Show-off! Creep!) Mine have approached ONE hour, oh, maybe twice.

And unless I start heeding advice from the Sonshine Boys – Dad, you gotta play more SONGS! Find stuff you like on-line, or write your own! They can be as dumb as rocks, but they’ll get you pumped — that kind of momentum will never be able to sweep me along. DAMN, but I’m a slow learner!

Songs, songs, songs. So what are the great songs I’ve loved, the singable songs for the very middle-aged? Time for a list, in no particular order, and then I’ll see which ones are actually Playable By A Guy Like Me:

Lorelei (The Pogues): might be simple enough, and so much feeling.

Jungleland (Bruce Springsteen): wow, but maybe too complex? One of the greatest songwriterly things ever. And Blood on Blood, or almost anything from Nebraska.

Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles): is a cello required?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Jimmy LaFave): I love the LaFave version of this old Jimmy Webb song. On a Bus to St. Cloud is another melancholy, lovelorn ballad that Lafave delivers well, a song by Gretchen Peters.

So many from Bruce Cockburn, but let’s say “Tie Me at the Crossroads” and “Great Big Love”. Maybe I should learn one of his sensual ones, though; odd that this introverted, rather intellectual master guitarist has written some of the sexiest stuff ever. “Sahara Gold”, par exemple.

Boots or Hearts (The Tragically Hip): some alt-country type should record this, I’ve always thought. Locked in the Trunk of a Car knocks me sideways, but I don’t know how campfire friendly it is. Son One wants me to learn Wheat Kings, but it doesn’t get me. Not yet, anyway, but it is a three-chorder.

Naïve Melody (Talking Heads): I wonder if these are too funky for simple guitar playing. Byrne does a guitar-only rendition of Psycho Killer on Stop Making Sense, which may be manageable.

Road Trippin’ (RHCP): I don’t like earlier stuff much, but Californication is a terrific album. Real melodies and harmonies.

And this is so much fun, I could go on and on and never actually learn any of ‘em!! Ah, resistance. I’ve been reading a lot about you in The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and here you are, Resistance, you old seducer. There is one song that I’ve been working on, though, and the satisfactions are strong. It’s a chord progression to play behind a prayer I’ve learned to sing: Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain…where mention of God hath been made and His praise glorified… It’s a sweet and lovely invocation of the holiness of all places, when the spirit is given its due. And blessed is the spot where music is made, too, whether couch or bedside, but the chords are a bit tough for me: A, A7, E, E7, and D are more than manageable, but I still stumble over three bar chords. There’s a B minor, and A#7, and an F# minor.

But The Spot has begun to prove to me the wisdom of my young teachers. It’s nice to play something that sounds like a song. Keep at it, ol’ fella. 147 days down, and better days to come. Maybe even a little compulsion, for a change.

ODY: Weeks 16/17. Sick. Of this. Acoustic Guitar.

In my twenties, I came across the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. I knew nothing of the band then, and I was vaguely dismayed by its mainly black cover and that stark green title. There may have been a hint of stiff-necked Baptist disapproval in there, though I was years removed from those hard and judgemental pews. It certainly did jangle my mental Intruder Alarm. Here there be monsters. It was a few years before I actually listened to it. By then, I’d been fascinated by the Heads album that had preceded it, More Songs About Buildings and Food. Its artfully geeky title and funky cover photos got me in the door, and what a different musical world it was. I was entranced by the relentless rhythm, and the lyrical combination of frantic energy and oddball repose. And I realized that I already knew Fear of Music’s “Life During Wartime”, which even an unhipster like me had wrapped his mainly uncomprehending ears around. 

I gradually became a fan. Well, stereo needle, we’re not on Chicago any more! This is a long way from “Wishin’ You Were Here”…It took me awhile to work my way back to Fear and the first album, Talking Heads ’77, but I loved Little Creatures through the years when my own wee critters were being born. Son Three, who turned out to be the TVPI, danced madly in his Osh Kosh overalls to “Blind”, the first track on Naked (“Talking Heads With Horns”, you might say; it was the last vinyl album I ever bought). Along the way there were True Stories, the brilliant concert/film Stop Making Sense, and of course the dark and astounding Remain in Light. Still, Fear of Music didn’t get absorbed into my collection until music-loving, punk-revering, vinyl-buying teens were living in my house around Millennium time. (Being ancient has the occasional perk: I still had a good turntable, and so Heads and Clash and even good ska like The Planet Smashers have spiced up my vinyl collection, from which the most embarrassing 1970s albums – but not all – have been purged. I guess the vinyl is worth the furniture and other gear that the lads have stored in my garage.) 

It’s not A-List Heads, but Fear of Music has some wonderful stuff, including a spooky meditation on the ultimate significance of six strings: This is the meaning of life / To tune this electric guitar … This is a crime against the state / Never listen to electric guitar … This is the verdict they reach / Someone controls electric guitar. It’s a weird and awkward song, and I’ve been playing the piss out of “Electric Guitar” and the compelling nonsense of “I Zimbra” and the rest of the album for days. It’s been the soundtrack to my own lingering fear of music this week, and it has some licks that I would probably be able to play. If. I had. An electric guitar. One of these days, I will. (One of these days, I may even allow myself to pick up the black axe and amp that the TVPI has left behind in my basement.) But the fear of music, the reluctance to stretch my boundaries or actually play with anybody – even somebody on CD or vinyl — still lingers.

Or maybe I’m just bored. It’s been a profoundly grungy cycle in the Old Dog Year. Sunday was the 119th consecutive day of playing. Occasionally, those practices have been pretty cursory fifteen-minute tours of the fretboard, but for the most part I have stumbled along the strings for at least half an hour each day. But this has been a lousy two weeks. I AM bored. Most days, when I allow myself to think of it, I have a tiny quiet dread of picking the thing up and doing the same stuff (badly) again. This is the anatomy of frustration. This is the melody of discouragement. This is the hour of lead.

Well, THAT’S a bit melodramatic, to be invoking the poetry of suffering. I’m just in a funk about my playing. I’ve been in a bit of a craphole about several things, and my guitar nook is not immune. This getting old is not for sissies, said some bard of the hair salon or barbershop. But I keep coming back to the hour of lead, and remembering the stunning Emily Dickinson poem that contains that line. (Lord, she was good!) (But hold on just a doggoned minute, guitar boy. You’re being ridiculous. The poem is known as “after great pain”, and that ain’t your story. You’re just doing things the hard way, as usual. Give your head a shake!) I know this is just a plateau in the learning curve. I know this is a rut in the road, no great suffering or mischief. But it still feels pretty shitty, and I hear Emily’s epic description of the dumps:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round–
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone–

This is the Hour of Lead–
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–
First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–

 “The letting go…” Is that to be avoided or embraced? Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? For now, I’m not letting go of the daily visit. Keep on keepin’ on. A year is not so long, but the half-hour sometimes seems endless. It may be a Wooden, a Leaden kind of progress, but I’ll assume for the moment that progress it is.

The Democratic Circus: It’s Election Season

And they’re off! The Canadian federal election has been called. Peptalks, my-party’s-better-than-your-party, the pundits punditizing before there’s much scope for punditocracy. Ah, well. Democracy’s not so bad, you know, although we still have lots to learn about how to do it rather than having it done for us (to us?). But I had a delicious little surge of irony when the first bit of tune-age I played over breakfast today was the Talking Heads album Naked. Awesome stuff, the last vinyl album I ever bought though my kids buy ‘em all the time. Track one on side two is “The Democratic Circus”…

 Found out this morning / There’s a circus coming to town
 They drive in Cadillacs / Using walkie-talkies and the Secret Service
 Their big top / Imitation of life
 And all the flags and microphones / We have to cover our eyes

 We play the sideshows / And we like the tunnel of love
 And when we ride the ferris wheel / We’re little children again
 And when they’re asking for volunteers / We’ll be the first ones aboard
 And when the ringmaster calls our names / We’ll be the first ones to go…
 To sleep

 Stealing all our dreams / Dreams for sale / They’ll sell ‘em back to you
 On with the show! / Start the parade! / We sang along! / Sweep us away!
 It’s political party time / Going down, going down
 And the celebrities all come out / Coming down, coming down…

 Well, I enjoyed myself.