Thursday, August 14, 2014

Betrayal, Grudge, Envy, Gossip, Lies…Silence

Because I am an incurable Twitter addict, I have been getting eyefuls of Ferguson, Missouri coverage and reactions in my timeline and have been repeatedly shaking my head over mistake after sick, violent mistake that keeps getting made by authorities in the wake of yet another senseless death of a black teenager.

Because I am an addict of the printed word, I am getting around to reading some of my books whose spines I haven't yet cracked (incidentally, one absolute beauty of Nick Hornby's Believer magazine book columns is in the lists he maintains of books purchased and books read; all avid readers will nod at the very existence of both lists) and have picked up a few novels by Dara Horn, one of which contains the following passage on the "science" of some of the baser human actions, explored by a soon-to-be human in the time before birth:
One time, they had to plant microscopic cells of betrayal in petri dishes, inspecting their growth over the course of the class. Daniel stared at the dish and was astonished at how quickly the cells multiplied, by how a surface that was pristine moments before metamorphosed within minutes into a gangrenous plate of rot. A similar experiment was done involving a grudge, with identical results. Envy, on the other hand, proved itself not to be contagious at all; instead, it ate its carrier alive. Another lab result that intrigued Daniel was when the class measured the speed of gossip as it traveled through various media, determining how its speed was affected by whether it was transmitted through speech, writing, broadcast, or silence. To his surprise, the fastest means of travel was silence, which allowed the gossip to move faster simply by refusing to stop it, facilitated through listeners who should have created some kind of friction to slow it down but instead failed to rise to the subject's defense. Daniel was slightly repulsed by the lab involving the dissection of lies, a gory procedure in which he and a partner had to slice through layers of smooth skinlike surfaces and pin them back to reveal the innards, which mostly consisted of disgusting rotting guts of self-loathing and fear. (Some not-yets had asked for permission to sit out the dissections, claiming that it was against their religious beliefs. Permission was never granted.)
It heartens me that Twitter is not silent about Ferguson, because that is the last thing that is needed right now, but Twitter is, ultimately, a human engine, displaying just as many fears and instances of loathing as it does hopes and truths. Get past the shiny surfaces of bright lies and one thing does remain: we treat those who look different as lesser beings. Long after the civil rights movement and Great Society legislation supposedly made that wrong, it still happens with insidious regularity.

I'm tired of turning on the news and seeing a story of some unarmed black person gunned down or otherwise killed, and being horrified, but even more horrifically, not all that surprised.  I have never faced that sort of violent hostility in my life, and I would never intend to imply that anything I've ever experienced even comes close.  But I've faced enough ... racial skepticism, I guess you could call it, so that these stories sadly never surprise me. 
I'm tired of people telling me that "Karen, you just see these things because you live in the South.  It's not like that anywhere else."  I'm here to tell you, Ferguson isn't the south.  Nor is Dayton, Ohio.  Nor is Dearborn, Michigan.  Nor, nor, nor. 
I'm tired of worrying about my daughter and other black children of friends of mine, afraid that the world might be no different when they go out into it as teenagers and young adults -- because their teenage- and young-adult-years aren't that far away anymore.  I'm tired of worrying that America might view our children as expendable. 
I'm tired of every time my little girl doesn't try her best at school, my yelling at her invariably includes a lecture that people are looking for her to fail because she's black and she's a girl, and she's way too effing brilliant of a kid to let people write her off due to her blackness and her girlness.  That she needs to make them work really, really hard before they write her off in any way.  I'm just tired of the work-twice-as-hard-to-be-considered-half-as-good conversation that I believe is still a necessary concept for her to understand. 
I'm tired of walking through the world constantly aware of how my blackness is being perceived, how my interracial marriage is being perceived.  The fact is, whether it is being perceived positively or negatively, if I'm in the United States, I am always aware of it, and I'm tired.
"It's not like that anywhere else"? Yes, the South has had its Jenas, its Danziger Bridges, but New York City has had Amadou Diallo, Crown Heights, racial profiling out the wazoo. This is happening all over this country, exacerbated by the Section 1033 post-September 11 arsenals local police departments have been amassing.

We could indeed use far more scientific dissection of these matters and less pompously righteous religiosity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Texas: Remembered and Seen

My parents and I used to do the drive I took to my new home in reverse, going from southwest Houston to my grandparents' in Knoxville with the windows down, the Beach Boys, John Denver, or Fleetwood Mac blasting on the tape deck, and my dad venturing to chat with truckers on the CB radio late at night to keep him driving. New Orleans would be bypassed entirely for speed reasons and because Dad didn't like the city, anyway, having only seen Bourbon Street at night between seminars in the daytime at one long-ago convention he attended. It's only taken me 25 years - and another six hours of driving atop that - for me to end up a half-hour away from where I grew up.

I'm in a neighborhood with very little street lighting, nearly no sidewalks, and mostly strip malls within walking distance. We are so starved for a good bar in the 'hood, we are grasping at anything; a place only a month old that calls itself a "drinkery" and sports a snarky billboard on its sidewalk that wouldn't be out of place in front of Henry's or the Prytania Bar looks promising to Dan, but I'm skeptical.

Get in the car and worlds open, something that hasn't changed in a quarter century of being away from this city. A Twitter personage joked we were in an area with two Wal-Marts within a mile, which is not quite true. As we are at the edge of Swanky Haciendaland, it's more like three Starbucks within that mile. An Alamo Drafthouse is in the area, which has lifted my spirits considerably. I am pulled back to reality, however, by an old family restaurant reminiscent of Golden Corrals & Bob Evans' situated next door to the Critter Fixer Animal Hospital. If the critters aren't fixed, where do they end up?

As a kid, local TV ads constantly shilled for businesses on the Eastex Freeway, the Katy Freeway, or FM 1960, which seemed like faraway places to me, as did a Girl Scout camp I attended in New Caney a few times. Now we live near those areas, and they are hopping. Local ads now feature…Lyle Lovett. Shilling for KHOU-TV. It just makes me miss Marvin Zindler.

I know Nolan Ryan has always been an Alvin country boy at heart and in fact, but I balk at eating burgers made from "Nolan Ryan's all-natural beef." I'd tempt a giant armadillo with a trunk full of Lone Star beer first. Incidentally, there are craft breweries and brewpubs opening up in the greater Houston area every week, it seems. It makes Lone Star look like Natty Light at this point.

Dan is annoyed that Texans don't pronounce it "ya-SEEN-toh" in these parts, which brings out a touch of the dormant chauvinistic Texan in me.

*sigh* "It's just 'San Jacinto' here, honey, pronounced like it's spelled."

"This city is so cosmopolitan, it's devoid of any identity. Plunk a Houstonian anywhere else in the country and you cannot tell they're from Houston."

I point to myself. "Case in point?"



Robin Williams' passing has brought many concerns about depression and how society treats its depressed members to the forefront for a New York minute. It makes it worth posting this C-SPAN panel on depression issues that features Mike Wallace, Kay Redfield Jamison, Alma Powell, William Styron, and others. I saw it not long after I began taking SSRIs for my own depression. If more people understood that depression can be lifelong, and if it were treated like any other chronic physiological condition, we'd all be better off. Perhaps our best, brightest, and funniest might be able to stick around for far longer, too.

Friday, July 25, 2014

(Re)Move My Head

This is how my brain works:

I reserved a few CDs from the ones I've had to pack recently to play in the wheeled stereo system that is my car (and the boom box in my kitchen), among them the Old 97s' The Grand Theater Vol. 2, which I hadn't listened to in over a year. I threw on the album in the car and itched to listen to the song that first introduced me to the band, the legendary-in-the-now, "Mannish Boy" on alt-country-tinged "Won't Be Home" that was on heavy rotation on WFUV in New York City when I lived in Queens. It wasn't enough to hear it on the internet, because I haven't found a way to hook up my smartphone to my car stereo (it's an iPhone-biased system, it seems, and I have a Droid). I headed to a local shop to see if I could find Drag It Up, struck out, then came across an album while browsing that rang a bell visually for me…

Our recent travels up through the Midwest to Iowa for Dan's band performance had us stopping in Chicago for a few days and nights to visit with Dan's old college buddies and their families while taking in a bit of the town. An underground walk through the inner city's downtown had us cropping up near the Chicago River Museum and glimpsing the base of some unusual-looking towers by the water, cars poking out from the kernels of what Dan quickly yet reverently referred to as the "corncob towers" before steering us to the museum. Those same towers poked out of the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album of which the only thing I knew about up to last week was what Greg Kot wrote about it in Ripped, his book about how the digital revolution and the internets were changing the music industry: the account of how Wilco bought its masters of the album from Reprise Records after the company refused to release it as it was and streamed the album away for free via the band's website kicks off his book (understandable since Kot had written a biography of Wilco before Ripped, but Kot's takes on Napster, Radiohead's approach to their music distribution, and Prince leaving Warner Records are interesting and informative). I grabbed YHT and made for the register. I just removed the CD from my car's player, it having been in there all this week.

It only took me twelve-plus years to finally listen to it, but it's a powerful piece of work, even if a listener doesn't know a damned thing about Wilco. The timing of its release to the public - digitally, then by more traditional means when the band worked out a deal with Nonesuch Records - probably associates it in more knowledgeable people's minds with the political atmosphere in this country just after 9/11, but it's about far more than that, and I got caught up in it to the point where someone took a good, hard look at me this past Thursday and told me what, deep down, I already knew: I was in mourning. YHT taps into my current uncertainties, my fumbling for what in the hell I'm going to do when I fully join my husband in suburbia after all this moving prep, how I'll be able to negotiate in person the culture shock he's currently suffering that certainly lies in wait for me, the realities of a life we both grew up in and pretty successfully evaded up 'til now. This move, more than any other I've been through to date, is scaring me, and I stumbled upon the soundtrack.

This is not to say that we're not a resilient bunch. We will find some way through this, like we always have. I think I now have some inkling, however, of how tied to one place a person can get and of how such bonds bring a body to the edge of where an uprooting could easily lead to heartbreak. I'm not sure, personally, how much more of this I can take, but it is quite likely that this is what it is to live in the world at this time and I'll just have to get used to it, suck it up and carry on, with my sole anchors being those of love and compassion. That is what I responded to in Wilco's music.

I got some Old 97s albums yesterday, not the ones I wanted, but they'll tide me over for a while. Most Messed Up is currently the one blasting on my car stereo. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot makes two albums I've got to put away for at least a few weeks (here's the first one if you missed it). Just can't afford to wallow too much when my life is either being donated, tossed out, or boxed up.

Such is the nature of any move.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When It Hit…

I was determined. Dan was going to drive into Houston the next day, I'd slept all morning, successfully snoozing away the remains of a headache that had begun the night before, and I was primed to take the wheel and drive us from West Plains, Missouri, all the way back home if I had to be pried out of the car at the end of the trip…which I did, with the help of many music CDs I whipped in and out of my car's player while navigating highway 63's hairpin curves through the Ozarks and cruising down I-55's mostly newly paved lanes.

We've road tripped a lot, Dan and I, and I tend to treat the car as though it's a stereo on wheels. Occasionally, Dan will ask me about a particular band or musician whose album I play, and when he does, it's usually followed by a brief criticism. On this trip to and from his band concert in Iowa, The White Stripes' Icky Thump was "pretentious," we both recoiled at the dull lifelessness of Lucinda Williams' West, and Ray LaMontagne's Supernova got some queries about what exactly the man was singing. "Now he sounds like he's singing 'drive-in movies.'"

"That's exactly what he's singing."

"Oh, well then."

As I drove over the Mississippi border into Louisiana, I fumbled with the CD carrier in the dark, placing the Daptone Gold album back in and pulling out what I thought was Liz Phair. Instead of "Chopsticks" on Whip-Smart, however, I got "Door-Poppin'," the first song off John Boutté's Good Neighbor.

Hey, it's Louisiana already, what the hell, I thought, settling in with songs I realized I hadn't listened to in possibly a year or two. At one time, Good Neighbor had been a constant listen for me, but it sat in the carrier for quite a while before unfolding for me on the road over Manchac Pass.

I took in song after song, the ones made famous by HBO's Treme, the plaintive strength of Boutté's take on "Southern Man," the heartbreak of "Showing Up For The Party" that makes "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" sound cheery in comparison, Boutté singing about his sisters, his experiences as a barber and a soldier…but we were over the Bonnet Carré Spillway when these particular lyrics from his sweet, soulful version of Iris DeMent's "My Life" hit me:

But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting.
And I can make it seem better for a while.

We're moving away once we get back to New Orleans. It's really happening.

The thought nearly floored me.

Eight years on this go-round in a place I loved and how had I spent my time? Did I do all I could do, all I wanted to do, all that I should have done? Would we ever return for more than occasional visits? The strains of Boutté's duet with Paul Sanchez answered back, a laid-back, swinging "Accentuate The Positive" that closed out the album and what had become an emotional experience for me. Never had passing through Metairie made me so farklempt. There was no more music that could be played after that.

The homestretch of packing begins tomorrow. My final drive out of New Orleans is in two weeks. I'm thinking of going to take in John Boutté at d.b.a. on his regular night if he's there…

…but I'll give Good Neighbor a rest. Save it for a time when I'm not driving.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hello, Houston: A Hate-Love Story

Allow me to re-introduce myself. I've been running for a long while, much of it in place, but fate has conspired to drag me back in close proximity to one of the greater sources of anxiety I've ever known.

All this time, I've treated Houston, where I lived for twelve years, as a slice of autobiography, a sliver of the past best left in the past. Which isn't to say it was all bad; in fact, the final two years of my time in the city were great, for the most part. Fact is, I was a child, under my parents' care, and they made the big decisions at the time. The one that had the biggest effect on me was where to send me to school. I understand now they were stuck between a rock and a hard place: Houston public schools weren't the greatest, and my family wanted me to get a Jewish education, so I was sent to fertile ground for some of the nastiest grade school cliques and bullies I've ever known.

I met with a friend of mine recently, one of the few friends I had from those days, and she asked me who I thought was the worst. "Boys or girls?" I asked. It didn't matter who. Whether they were guys or gals, they were both pretty damned bad.

It didn't help that I was a sensitive kid who got upset with the slightest teasing, then lashed out in anger at whomever was doing the insulting. Most of the time, the punishments came down on me. Honor roll was based on behavior, not grades, so in seven years at this school, I only made it twice.

In fifth grade, I walked out of school intending to run away and never come back to the hell I was living. I got as far as the railroad tracks a block or two down the main road. I then turned around and went back to school, walked into the offices, and complained that I was being abused by nearly everyone. I was sent to a psychologist. The other kids found out and made fun of me for it. I went to an appointment with the psychologist after a particularly bad day of being teased and bullied about it and said some things that ensured I never went back to the psych again, ensuring that I have a conflicted relationship with therapy to this day.

So, Houston was hellish that way.

I found an escape route, though, an unexpected one. And I'm looking forward to indulging it again once we move, actually.

A neighbor girl lived on her ten-speed bicycle and encouraged me to ditch the training wheels on the Schwinn I was on (peer pressure, terrible in some ways, can be beneficial in other ways). Once I was on a ten-speed of my own, I flew. I biked all over. Mom thought I was six years too late in learning (she taught herself how to do it at five), but she and Dad let me go wherever I liked. I fished out enough spare change from the powdered chocolate tin on the kitchen counter, biked to a stereo shop a ways down one of the main roads, and fished through their bargain tape bins for albums. I biked to libraries and bookstores and movie theaters. I biked through my middle school years, pretty much.

The neighbor girl and I once biked to downtown Houston and back on the bayou trails, a round trip distance of at least twenty-plus miles. We thought our parents would freak out when we got home, because we were racing against the setting sun and losing, but I arrived home, in the dark, to my mother's great news that I got into the arts high school I really wanted to attend. It kicked off my deep love for the visual arts that lingers to this day. My dad still thinks I went into glassworking in part because of the times he and my mom would take me to the Houston Festival, but I always loved visiting the art museums, especially the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, and the Contemporary Arts Museum. One of my favorite art tales concerns a Mel Chin sculpture that was in front of the CAM. My high school years proved that things could get better if one kept going through hell.

And then we moved. To small-town central Pennsylvania, my first instance of culture shock, and the first inkling that not all moves are good moves.

Jury's out on whether this move to just outside northwest Houston will be a good one or not. But we've got a house out there now and we're coming. Physical and mental baggage and all.

P.S.: No, my son will NOT be going to the same school I went to, but I will be worrying for him just the same. I'm a mom. It's in my job description.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


We'd sing the rhyme, among many others, when we were being bused to and from day camp, all of us settled into our seats (some of us in the best ones at the back, anticipating the bumps in the road that could send them towards the bus roof at just the right moment) and watching the suburbs become the country in the morning, only to view the reverse in the afternoons. It was probably one of the top five bus songs, along with "99 Bottles Of Beer" and "Cheers To The Bus Driver," and it could occupy us for a while if we sang every verse…

Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peeeeanut just now, I just now found a peanut, found a peanut juuuust now.

I find this song is going through my head a lot right now partly because it's summertime, but also because we're going to do something big and, for me personally, kind of scary. I didn't like where I grew up very much. I didn't like the grade school and middle school I attended. Camp was a source of many of my happiest memories, but the summers were brief and I eventually outgrew camp.

It was rotten, it was rotten, it was roooootten just now, it just now was rotten, it was rotten juuuuust now. Ate it anyway, ate it anyway, ate it aaaaanyway just now, I just now ate it anyway, ate it anyway juuuuust now. Got sick, got sick, gooot siiiick juuuust now, I just now gooot siiiick, goooot siiiick juuuust now.

Dan's job hasn't been treating him well for a while now. It hurt my heart to see him frustrated with being overworked & denied chances for advancement, so I let him know if he wanted to look at opportunities that would take us away from New Orleans, he could do that. We can still rent out our house here, like we did when we were in Queens for four years. I don't have an occupation comparable to Dan's income-wise that could keep us here. It made sense for him to look elsewhere. I didn't think the search would lead back to my childhood home, though.

Just died, just died, juuuust diiied juuust now, I just now just died, just died, juuuust now. Went to heaven, went to heaven, went to heaaaven juuust now, I just now went to heaven, went to heaven juuust now. Kicked out, kicked out, kicked oooout just now, I was just now kicked out, kicked ooooout juuust now.

Dan signed the written offer, which is far better than what he was getting here. He gave his boss notice today. He starts the new job in mid-July. We're looking for homes in an area with better public schools so that we don't have to pay out the nose for them. I worry some about how the little guy will handle the actual move, though he seems just fine with it right now. I worry a little bit more about my reactions to it. For 25 years, I left it behind and was pretty happy to do so. Come mid-July, it comes roaring back.

Back to Houston, back to Houston, back to Hoooouston juuust now, I just now went back to Houston, back to Houston juuuust now.

"You shoulda stayed in New York, kiddo," my grandma said half-jokingly when she heard the news. "Full circle, huh?"

My mom says to treat it like another great adventure. Which it will be, I'm sure, once I calm down some.

My dad's happy because he can check out Spec's when he comes to visit his grandson, and possibly head down to Galveston in the summers like we did when I was a kid.

I won't be completely alone. One of the few good friends I actually made in grade school, and reconnected with via Facebook, is still there. Maitri is making room in the New Orleans expats for me, she says. Probably the best part is that we won't be moving into my old neighborhood. That would be too, too much.

I think back on it now, though, and some good things come to mind. I learned to ride a bike there and biked everywhere once I got the chance. I attended summer musical theater programs, volleyball camps, the rodeo each year, Astros and Oilers games (something in me can't believe a stadium now exists that dwarfs the Astrodome)…and then I hit my first two years of an arts high school I got into, a school I loved…'til my parents had to move us all up to a teensy central Pennsylvania town. So there are some positive things to build on. Yeah.

I am going to miss New Orleans.

Big time

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rest in peace, Morwen

It seems I only fire up the ol' blog these days when the news isn't so great. Perhaps when things get better…and my Twitter addiction lessens…

'Til then, I go back to the days when I first discovered I wasn't the only one in New Orleans doing this blogging thing. It was early 2007 and New Orleanians were marching on City Hall to demand that, after the murders of Hot 8 Brass Band snare drummer Dinerral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill, all of law enforcement put greater efforts into fighting the violent crime that had once again settled on this city like a waking nightmare. I couldn't attend the march, but I could experience it through the posts and pictures of the many people blogging about it. It wasn't until a few months later that I got to meet some of those same people through a Geek Dinner event, among them a certain Gentilly resident (and her significant other Betts) who had been through a lot and who had passionately blogged about it.

Morwen at Rising Tide II, photo by Maitri
Morwen Madrigal - a bright lady who was inspired to take part of the fictional Anna Madrigal's name as her own when she became, on the outside, the woman she felt she'd always been inside - was interested in the health, happiness, and prosperity of all of New Orleans, which was what led her to become an early organizer of Rising Tide. She didn't want what had happened to her home (and what she was going through to recover from it) to happen to anyone else, and she threw in much of her lot with a fairly motley crew of us blogging folk to raise awareness of these things and put the social in social media in the process.

Morwen didn't come to many Rising Tide events after the 2007 conference, though I would still see her on occasion. She and Betts were busy getting their home and their lives together. It was looking like one of the better recovery stories in a place that needed them badly, until Betts took ill and passed away in late December 2010. A group of us went to the house to help Morwen out after Betts' death and saw how much Betts' passing had thrown Morwen for a loop. Doing basic things like cleaning up after her many cats seemed beyond her at the time. A kindly neighbor and NOLA Slate took over looking in on Morwen and alerting the family she had left to her condition. The last time I myself saw her was in early 2011, when I dropped her off at the VA hospital for an appointment. Her final blog post, though it doesn't seem to be appearing now, was in December 2012, expressing her wish that the house she and Betts once shared become a trans compound.

Today, Adrastos at First Draft posted on Twitter the news that Morwen is gone. There are no further details yet. Zichron l'vrachah, they say in Judaism when someone has died. May her memory be for a blessing.

Her memory is a blessing. But dammit, I wish she were still here.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Truly Suspect No More

Head here to view an enlarged version of the comic above. 

I first posted it in 2009 shortly after it came out. It's well worth reading, as it speaks of the health care dilemmas we all still suffer. It certainly had a great deal of relevance to the cartoonist, Greg Peters, who passed away this morning.

Greg cartooned for Louisiana weeklies for a long time. His Suspect Device comics were wickedly on point about life and politics in this state, especially in the aftermath of 8/29/2005, and it was a disappointment to see them vanish from Gambit's pages in 2010. It was also sad to see his blog of the same name vanish into the virtual ether - in the heady times that were the New Orleans blogging heydays of 2006-2009, Suspect Device the blog was far more than a showcase for Greg's work; it could at times be an angry voice of reason rivaling that of Ashley Morris'. It is only fitting that Greg's graphic work for the Rising Tide II conference on New Orleans' future also adorns the award given in Ashley's name to outstanding local bloggers.

Though I was merely an acquaintance of Greg's, I can say that a man of great intellect and rapier wit was silenced far too soon today. His memory will be a blessing...but I'd much prefer to have had him around a while longer.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It Turned Me 'Round

I'd read a few reviews about the flick, and since it's about one of my favorite bands, I saw Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me last night.

My attitude towards this documentary, having read a lot about the band and listened to their three 1970's releases - especially Third - was anticipatory in an arrogant manner born out of possessing just enough knowledge to be dangerous. What can this film tell me that's new about the band, I thought, and how will it re-present what I already know? It's an attitude that can make or break the success of band documentaries meant for the big screen, and a common consideration for anybody undertaking a history of any beloved musician(s). Big Star's story presents some unique challenges, too, as it is probably one of the most lauded bands on the planet this side of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Nothing Can Hurt Me drove a few things home that will be revelatory to all but hardcore fans, folks like Robert Gordon and Rob Jovanovic, and the people directly involved in Big Star's story, a lot of whom participated in the documentary. Until this film, with the exception of an Oxford American article about Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, the focus has largely been on Alex Chilton's role in the band and his life after it, which is only logical: due to his pre-Big Star Box Tops experience and his fairly public de- and re-construction of musical genres, personas, and roles on his own, he likely figured his part in it spoke for itself without further participation in this documentary. There is a more balanced approach that (hopefully) would have been there even with Chilton's cooperation: interviews with band members, art directors, PR people, Ardent Studios engineers and producers, surviving family members, critics, and members of Memphis' early '70's music and art scene abound. The distribution of Big Star's music fell through some huge cracks in the industry's operations as they were then, and the fallout from that makes for some sad, sad moments.

Perhaps it was simply hearing people like the late Andy Hummel, last Big Star man standing Jody Stephens, engineer and Ardent Studios founder John Fry, and Tav Falco speak, but Nothing Can Hurt Me also hit me between the eyes with how southern Big Star and many of the people who tried hard to get their sound beyond Memphis are.* There was something comforting and amazing about that to me that I'm still trying to figure out. For whatever reason, a bizarre mélange of entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and good dose of individuality made something incredible in Big Star's sound that shouts, screams, whimpers, and wails across the decades still - a good chunk of which could well be a last gasp of what had been a southern way of life that was ending fairly violently. It puts the tragedy that was Chris Bell's life and posthumously-celebrated musical genius into even greater relief, in a way.

Director Drew DeNicola addressed an observation after the film was shown, agreeing that the people who seem to appreciate Memphis the most, culturally speaking, are outsiders. Perhaps another four decades will pass and then the role early-mid '70's Memphis played in rock and soul will have its own clubs and museums. 'Til then, we've got Nothing Can Hurt Me...which ain't half bad.

Update, 8/1: Seems there are a number of music documentaries out right now that are studies of the triumph of the music industry's mighty boot extinguishing some small yet bright creative flames. DeNicola did mention Memphis being a "downer" town drug-wise (quaaludes out the wazoo), but 'ludes sometimes can't hold a candle to the combination of corporations and creative efforts.


*I heard some of my late Knoxville, TN, granddaddy in John Fry - that courtliness combined with an engineer's precision. Though my granddaddy was an electrical engineer & Fry is largely concerned with sound, there are some common traits. Also, seems Chris Bell was at UT in Knoxville around the same time my mother attended the school. Knowing how Knoxville was in the early '70's, it's no wonder he dropped out and went back to Memphis.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Oscar Brown Jr. On Citizenship

"What you mean we, white man?"

There's no point in (black people) trying to ingratiate ourselves with these people because we're not...we didn't come here right. We're not in the situation in the right way. We came as a degraded race and were held that way. Even when we were told we were citizens it was not with the freedom that everybody else became citizens. Everybody else who wanted to be a citizen, came, and was naturalized and bought into it. We were just declared citizens by edict, which meant that the slaves had to cast their political lot with the masters!

...My grandfather was born in 1860 in Hines County, Mississippi; he was not considered a person. In 1865, they decided he was a person, and that person was a member of this political organization and all his descendants would then be likewise, if they remained here. Well...that's crap. We're kidnap victims. We were brought here; the country acts like it didn't affront us at all. They act like they owe us no apology and that they bear no blame - that we actually benefited from having been dragged here in chains and having the shit beat out of us. We have been bred to go along with it - we have been bred to be afraid.

-James Porter interview with Oscar Brown Jr., Roctober 1996.

Sadly, with verdicts like the one in the Trayvon Martin case tonight, this looks to be as true now as it was then.

We've still got a long way to go to change this. All of us.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Carrying On Through It All

At 16, I'd hit a strange crisis. Nearly always the too-sensitive misfit all through grade school, I'd managed to make it to high school and reinvent things for myself - new friends, an eye on an actual career in the arts, happiness through music - and then my parents dropped the m-bomb.

"We're moving," my mom said. And it wasn't an across-Houston move like it had been when I was in second grade. It was an epic move, a culture shock move, a move that couldn't have come at a worse time for me. From huge Texas metropolis to...a tiny central Pennsylvania town. Just before my junior year of high school.

The cons: being ripped out of a circle of friends I'd amassed, a school I actually liked, and a city I was getting to know. The pros were difficult to get a handle on at first, but one of them came via that new-to-us portal to the world: pay TV. Though I'd gotten doses of MTV and other channels via my friends' access to cable in Houston (and I was getting earfuls of my mom jumping up and down about "full frontal nudity of men AND women!" on late-night Cinemax among our new bonanza of channels), the true revelations were through MTV I'd watch late into the night the summer before my first day of high school in a new town. Monty Python episodes. Old Monkees episodes. Comedy hosted by Mario Joyner. 120 Minutes. MTV News. That was 1989.

The real music explosion didn't happen for me until I went to a pre-college art program in Providence, Rhode Island, the following summer. Making up for lost time and a lack of diploma-worthy credits made for a year without any art classes that left me antsy and anguished, so my family sprung for six weeks on the side of College Hill. Along with the 2D, 3D, and drawing classes came proximity to music clubs (which were off-limits to us, as we were underage - not that I didn't try to go), and easier access to recorded music. Even the college bookstore sold tapes. I was in heaven.

Trying to pinpoint exactly when I'd heard of The Stone Roses is tricky. Chances are I'd read a blurb about them in Rolling Stone (or maybe it was this one), saw The Stone Roses cassette for sale in the school store, and picked it up as part of my continuing musical self-education. They were being touted as the band of the rave scene coming out of England at the time, but their sound was bigger than that - especially this classic on the album:

The album was amazing, and I kept coming back to it, all through the Happy Mondays twisting melons, Stereo MC's elevating minds, and Jesus Jones being right there right then...but waiting for the Roses to play in America, or to release new material, proved to be a real-life exercise in waiting for Godot. I resigned myself to listening to the album on my Walkman whenever I could, playing the tape some (but not too much) on the stereo in the glass shop at college as I gathered and worked hot glass, and assuming their edgy glory had dissolved into drug-addled obscurity, their talents having burned so hot they were consumed in the flames.

It's taken one weekend for me to get back to high school and the Roses. One book at a different college bookstore has brought it all back and changed how I think about the band. That debut album The Stone Roses, a rock shot in the dark for a teenager like me, was actually a major bridge between The Smiths' melancholy and the explosion of Britpop as embodied by Oasis and Blur, yet it more than stands on its own. What I've learned so far from Simon Spence's The Stone Roses: War And Peace, however, is that it's incredible how much damage the wrong manager can do to a band...but there's a degree to which the band did it to themselves. The book gets so lost in the court cases the band was involved in concerning one of the worst recording contracts in history, one considers it a miracle any of the Roses lived to tell the tale and to reunite in 2011. Spence's book also assumes its primary readers will be British - for instance, one not in the know is left to fill in the holes about how momentous the Roses' Spike Island performance really was.

What the book has readers like me doing is going back to the music that started it all. Though Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani, and Reni are likely taking their reunion one gig at a time, they seem to be doing pretty well with it thus far, even exhibiting some feistiness to the press. Hopefully, we here on this side of the pond will finally welcome them sometime in the next year. 'Til then, I'll be giving the songs a bunch more listens online - I can't trust my cassette-eating tape deck with the old tape.

Update, 7/13: Seems they did actually come to America around the time they were imploding (check the dates in May '95). Unfortunately, their disintegration came through in the shows, which culminated in what was arguably one of the worst gigs of all time back in England. Ouch.

They also DID make it to the U.S. this year, apparently playing to a much smaller crowd than they'd get in the UK, Australia, or Japan. My apologies for not looking into this further; having to maneuver around family outings is a little tough right now. By the time some more American dates are added, there should be more people who know who they are.