31 July 2009

Children's Book Edition

I’ve been searching for my wings some time now. I’m going to be born into the sky soon, because I’m a bird girl and bird girls go to heaven. There’s a rainbow in the sky all the time, don’t be blind.

But God did not intend me to fly, so I went to dance in an old grain silo. I hopped and bounced and moved to the beats of one hundred stupendous, ringing drums. My silo dreams echoed with laughs in the dark night. Everything else was only a beginning, I exclaimed, “The first fruits of the new age!”

But the next day my old life was calling. “I got to go to town; I need wheels, daddio.” "Nothin' doin'. You're father's hip and knows what cooks." So I went to the bus stop and that's where Jesus found me. Untoward Christian soldiers blew whistles and passed out pamphlets: "You too have fallen east of eden."

El Shaddai did not have the wings I’d wanted, but I learned that hell is a pot of hot oil.

And heaven a warm plate of bird leg adobo, cast out of the pot and into my stomach.

I did the cookin', pops did the cleanin'.

30 July 2009

Bruce Springsteen

I promised a friend I'd convince him that Bruce Springsteen deserves his reconsideration. I’ve been thinking about how to persuade him for a couple of months now and haven’t gotten much footing on the problem. In fact, my failure to come up with a strong argument on The Boss’s behalf seems to be part of a larger problem I have explaining my musical preferences. So let that serve as a bit of a disclaimer to this post and feel free to skip to the bottom where you can download my very own Springsteen “Best Of,” entitled Reason To Believe, which I compiled from my three favorite albums: Greetings From Asbury Park N.J., Darkness On the Edge of Town, and Nebraska.

Although far from exhaustive, the compilation of songs represents the originality of Springsteen’s work and demonstrates his proximity to several musical genres that I hold dear: Southern soul, mid-century pop, rockabilly, 70s glam, urban blues. By “proximity” I mean simply that he fits none of those genres and does not even produce a self-conscious hybridity of genres as does, say, Bob Dylan. Rather, Springsteen makes smart music that celebrates rock n' roll's un-intellectual roots. At certain points in his career that mission has led him astray, toward reductive representations of “middle America” and working class culture. At his best, however, Springsteen paints a sufficiently complex portrait of America's collective emotional life.

I do want to add one awkward caveat, though, and say that to me the portrait he paints specifically addresses the life of white America. That's not to say that racial politics are insignificant to his music. Obviously he sings loud and proud about his blue collar background and, as Jim Dickinson once explained about a distinctively black and generally political music: “You hear soul music explained in terms of oppression and poverty, and that's certainly part of it -- no soul musician was born rich -- but it's more than that. It's being proud of your own people, what you come from. That's soul.” That was the explanation he gave Stanley Booth anyway, who then glossed it with this quote from a Hayes-Porter song made famous by Sam & Dave’s performance of it:

I'm a Soul Man
Got what I got the hard way
And I'll make it better each and every day
I'm a Soul Man

Springsteen too sings about getting things the hard way, but he rarely puts that boastful touch on it, never really looks to the future for improvement. In fact, he tends to linger on the past that broke the present:

You're born into this life paying
For the sins of somebody else's past
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame

In that quote from “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen describes a father-son relationship as a problem of repetition and cyclical violence. The hard work is “for nothing” because it goes toward paying down debt. The workingman here exists in a diminished state of subsistence -- just below breaking even -- that makes progress impossible. Springsteen also hints, however, that assigning blame for inheriting problems becomes an arbitrary, useless and miserable vocation. And indeed, the son/narrator, refuses to blame his father for raising a monster. The relationship, although marked by violence and regret, is quite loving.

The Biblical reference points in “Adam Raised a Cain” are slightly unusual in Springsteen’s lyrics, but the touching and troubled depiction of family life is not. Throughout his work he creates sparse narratives driven by complex characters, complicated emotions. And he does so with complete sincerity. I think it is that sincerity that makes The Boss’s work so special, so unusual and, perhaps, so easily dismissed. He is not the distanced ironist, not a clever satirist, not even an engaged protestor. In fact, his most famous attempt at irony, satire and protest was so poor that it backfired and turned “Born In the U.S.A.” into a national anthem for proud social conservatives.

The Boss is at his best when he’s telling private stories in the first-person. Songs like “Used Cars,” “Highway Patrolmen,” “Racing In the Streets,” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas” all create fictions close to Springsteen’s heart while “Nebraska” demands identification with, if not also sympathy for, a serial killer. That he has successfully and consistently employed sincerity speaks to The Boss’s disciplined power as an artist. Bald sincerity easily turns toward melodrama or, with a wink, camp. But in Bruce Springsteen's hands, sincerity maintains a level of seriousness that really does demand reconsideration from non-believers.

Of course, if the sincerity thing doesn’t grab ya, note that The Boss also has punk credits to cash in. He wrote Patti Smith’s biggest hit, “Because the Night,” which he’s performing here with the original lyrics. (Be sure to check out the lead guitarist, Nils Lofgren, really feelin’ it.)

And here’s recent footage of The Boss transforming the artistic intent motivating Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”

Get the best of The Boss here.

Reason To Believe

1. Blinded By the Light
2. Growin’ Up
3. Mary Queen of Arkansas
4. Lost In the Flood
5. For You
6. Adam Raised a Cain
7. Candy’s Room
8. Racing In the Street
9. The Promised Land
10. Factory
11. Prove It All Night
12. Darkness On the Edge of Town
13. Nebraska
14. Atlantic City
15. Johnny 99
16. Highway Patrolman
17. Used Cars
18. Reason To Believe

24 July 2009

Terry Allen

Terry Allen is playing in Austin tonight, at the Cactus Cafe, a little place on campus that sells beer. It's going to be a great show. I was supposed to go with a friend who owns a sticky note artwork that Allen did based on his song "The Beautiful Waitress." The end includes a recitation that goes like this:

A waitress asked me what I did
I told her I tried (to make art).
She asked me if I made any money.
I said no...I have to "teach" to do that.
She asked me what I taught and where.
I told her.
She told me that she liked art, but that she
couldn't draw a straight line.
I told her if she could reach for something
and pick it up, she could draw a line that
was straight enough.
She said she wasn't interested in that kind
of drawing... but had always liked horses.
I said I did too, but they were hard to draw.
She said yes that was very true... said she
could do the body okay, but never got the
head, tail, or legs.

I told her she was drawing sausages... not horses.
She said no... they were horses.

I've tried to recreate the sticky note below, but the original is a lot better. Sorry.

Anyway, I can't go to the show because I don't have enough money to pay for the gas back to Buffalo and I need to start saving. I'm too down about it to write more, but there's an excellent entry at Pole Hill Sanitarium if you want to know more. They also have a link to a torrent for his 1979 masterpiece Lubbock (On Everything), but if like me you don't know your ass from a peer-to-peer protocol, you can just download it here instead.

Lubbock (On Everything)
  1. "Amarillo Highway (for Dave Hickey)"
  2. "Highplains Jamboree"
  3. "The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy)"
  4. "The Wolfman Of Del Rio"
  5. "Lubbock Woman"
  6. "The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma"
  7. "Truckload Of Art"
  8. "The Collector (and the Art Mob)"
  9. "Oui (a French Song)"
  10. "Rendezvous USA"
  11. "Cocktails for Three"
  12. "The Beautiful Waitress"
  13. "Blue Asian Reds (for Roadrunner)"
  14. "New Delhi Freight Train"
  15. "FFA"
  16. "Flatland Farmer"
  17. "My Amigo"
  18. "The Pink And Black Song"
  19. "The Thirty Years Waltz (for Jo Harvey)"
  20. "I Just Left Myself"

19 July 2009

The Dixie Cups

Today The Dixie Cups are playing a tribute show for Wardell Quezergue, put on by the Ponderosa Stomp at the Lincoln Center in New York City. The Ponderosa Stomp is based in New Orleans and is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the music of its home city. The mission statement casts a broader net, explaining that the Stomp exists "to celebrate, pay tribute to, and teach the cultural significance of the unsung heroes and heroines of rock-n-roll, rhythm & blues and other forms of American roots music while they are still alive." And they do not limit their shows to New Orleans musicians, but of course, those specific musics came out of New Orleans and almost all American "roots" music can be traced back to traditions that grew from North America's fertile crescent of culture. Quezergue has played an important role in that musical legacy as one of the city's preeminent arrangers, transposing the intricacies and energy of second line rhythm into popular tunes.

To me, The Dixie Cups represent the popular side of Quezergue's work best. The group was originally comprised of two sisters, Barbara and Rosa Hawkins, and their cousin, Joan Johnson, all of whom grew up in New Orleans. More specifically, they grew up in the Calliope Projects, where the Neville Brothers also grew up. Still teenagers, Barbara, Rosa and Joan began singing around New Orleans as The Meltones, and later, Little Miss and The Muffets, which is a great name but probably would not have stuck to the charts quite the way The Dixie Cups did. Still under the name The Meltones, however, they already had a sound that caught the attention Joe Jones, another New Orleans performer. After working with the three women for a short time, he took them to the Brill Building in New York, where he introduced them to the already well-known song-writing team Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Lieber and Stoller were in the process of starting a small record label, Red Bird Records, and The Dixie Cups were their first group.

"Chapel of Love," written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwhich and Phil Spector, was their first hit. It quickly hit number one on the pop charts in spring of 1964, thankfully knocking the Beatles out of that spot. They had several follow-up hits as well, including "People Say," but "Chapel of Love" remains their strongest claim to 1960s pop stardom. Their last hit, however, registers as their most iconic and the most rooted in their home town. "Iko Iko," released on two different singles in 1965 (b/w "Gee, Baby Gee" and "I'm Gonna Get You Yet"), never hit number one; nonetheless it became their signature song. It seems impossible to even mention their success with "Iko Iko," however, without also mentioning Sugar Boy Crawford's 1954 hit "J0ck-a-mo," which sounds remarkably similar.

As the story goes, The Dixie Cups were in the studio with Greenwhich and Barry and between takes began messing around, banging out a polyrhythm on ashtrays. They didn't realize that the tapes were rolling and, supposedly, Greenwhich and Barry simply dubbed in brass and drums before releasing it. Part of this myth also suggests that Barbara, Rosa and Joan learned the song from their grandmother, as Barbara seems to have claimed publicly, and that it must have therefore been an old Mardi Gras Indian folk song. Crawford's "Jock-a-mo" complicates the myth a bit, but has also led people to assume, on the other hand, that The Dixie Cups and Red Bird ripped it off from Crawford, who never achieved the sort of fame The Dixie Cups achieved. So, there are a number of confusing points to unravel.

First of all, they may very well have learned the song from their grandmother. Each of The Dixie Cups women were quite young when Crawford's version became a regional hit. It's likely, however, that they heard versions of it around town as they became teenagers and started getting interested in performing popular music. In any case, The Dixie Cups certainly didn't record the song on accident. There's an accapella version available on CD (or for download here) where they can be heard starting the song over, with direction from the control room, indicating that they recorded at least a second take. Furthermore, Barry and Greenwhich didn't just make an accidental recording and, on good intuition, turn it into a hit. In fact, that messing around on ashtrays was arranged percussion by Wardell Quezergue. Quezergue would have known Crawford's "Jock-a-mo" well, as he was already playing music in New Orleans when it was released.

Of course, he also would have known the Mardi Gras Indian chants that Crawford cribbed from to compose his song. Unfortunately for Crawford, and many, many other disenfranchised 20th century musicians, music copyright is a prickly affair that usually benefits the industry, rather than the creative and cultural forces that produce anything worth copyrighting. The important point for this post, however, is that The Dixie Cups and Quezergue held their culture and its history in high enough esteem to reformulate the New Orleans tradition in a New York City recording studio without flattening it out into the generic sort of dribble that many yankee businessmen thought appropriate for mass production.

I love "Iko Iko" for its simple presentation of complicated rhythmic patterns and its spontaneous (which is not to say accidental) energy. The arrangement retains the second line ebullience while also being spare enough to appeal to a radio audience. And, unlike "Chapel of Love," which seems quite dated, perhaps because its extraordinary fame helped define a certain 60s aesthetic, "Iko Iko" continues to sound like a breakthrough in popular recording. In 1964, Red Bird released a compilation of The Dixie Cups's singles under the title of their number one hit. I picked it up at Harvest Records in Asheville, NC on my way through town, where I stopped to have dinner with friends before moving on toward Texas. It was a steal at $4 and has filled my summer with much pleasure.

After their initial success Joe Jones decided to move The Dixie Cups over to the larger label ABC-Paramount. While they had other hits, they never were quite as successful and, under pressure to tour constantly, Joan left the group. Shortly thereafter legal troubles convinced the Hawkins sisters to do the same. They've been back at it for several years now, peforming with their old neighbor Athelgra Neville. It's nice to see them making a living from their music and nice to see them carrying the torch with the Ponderosa Stomp, despite having to relocate after Katrina. Since I can't be at the Lincoln Center tonight, I thought I'd share the music with y'all here. Enjoy!

Chapel of Love

1. Chapel of Love
2. Gee the Moon Is Shining Bright
3. I'm Gonna Get You Yet
4. Ain't That Nice
5. Thank You Mama, Thank You Papa
6. Another Boy Like Mine
7. Gee Baby Gee
8. Iko Iko
9. Girls Can Tell
10. All Grown Up
11. People Say

17 July 2009

Northwest Miscellany / Too Long a Post Script

I got back to Austin late last Sunday after ten days in Seattle. I already blogged about the first part of my trip: A friend's wedding, fourth of July feast, leftovers, Ballard blues. The second half of the trip I spent across the Puget Sound from Seattle on "The Peninsula," as they say. Namely, I was in Port Angeles visiting a friend of the family with my folks. We covered a lot of ground, which I'll recap by sharing some grainy images.

We arrived late on the Thursday after July 4th and the short trip from Port Angeles to Port Townsend on Friday. Port Townsend is definitely the more touristy spot, despite Port Angeles's recent Twilight-related notoriety, and has a number of storefronts worth visiting. First, we stopped by Mt. Townsend Creamery to try their cheeses, see the creamery churning its curds and pick up a couple of lunches. For ten bucks each brown bag comes with bread, salami, figs and, of course, cheese. That may seem a bit steep, but one bag is plenty to feed two people. We ate those at a State park on the waterfront, where my mother spilled strawberry soda down my front-side and my father declared his hatred for pork fat. Luckily, the cheese was really good. Also in Port Townsend I had the best little espresso of my life. It's pictured here with the Friday, July 10th edition of Port Townsend's The Leader, which featured an entire section of lawnmower racing (Yeah, no shit. Click here to see how we do it in Texas).

After eating in Port Townsend we headed back to Port Angeles, where our friend, Minister of Music at Holy Trinity Lutheran, showed us the recently refurbished pipe organ. In fact, we got a bit of a preview, as she won't christen it until next Sunday. With thirty ranks and more stops than I could possibly explain, it sounded wonderful. She was a little worried that it might be too loud and so compete with the congregation during hymns. So long as attendance isn't too low, it'll probably be fine. But it was louder and clearer than most church organs I grew up with, which may have to do with the fact that I didn't grow up with real pipes. It makes a difference, not only for the enhanced sound, but also for the added visual pleasure, which you can see for yourself. The pipes are like perfect little modernist designs -- functional in their ability to produce a large variety of sounds and beautiful in their austere simplicity. Follow the link for a short recording of the Minister of Music practicing the hymn, "From Whom All Blessings Flow." It was especially neat to walk around behind the display ranks to see the many smaller ranks that normally stay hidden. Later that evening my mother made pasta arrabiata, after which we all drank too much wine and argued about the existence of God. We decided that question was predicated on a marketing problem, which non-denominational and born-again churches seem to have solved with praise services. Get rid of the organ, gather a garage band and then, there, you can see with rude certainty God operate all his horrors upon this world. Americans really do love atrocity.

Okay, enough preaching. On Saturday we ate waffles, which are my father's special culinary venture. Following his lead, we as a family have made a tradition out of sugar-and-dairy-fat-adorned batter. It's better than your average Eggo, and here I'll say no more for fear of preaching again. The image to the right is of my father's work, probably the only masterpiece he'll ever love.

After breakfast we met up with my sister -- and the family was whole -- at Camaraderie Cellars, a little winery in Port Angeles owned by some friends of the friend we were visiting. In fact, our friend works there part time in cooperation with a bartering system, for which she receives, well, I don't know what. A little wine, certainly, but mostly camaraderie I imagine. In any case, it was my first trip to a winery and it was fun to learn a little about what goes into producing the blood of Christ in bulk. For one thing, oak barrels cost a lot of fucking money. About $800 each, to be exact. And they have a lot of them even at a small business. No wonder it costs so much per bottle. Furthermore, they can only use each for about four years before they lose that barrel flavor. After that Camaraderie turns them into expensive furniture, which is, quite frankly, more palatable than tossing them on the trash heap. Nonetheless, it boggles the mind why anyone would pay so much for such an ugly chair, even if it is made of very nice oak. On the other hand, I was very glad to find that the tasting is quite reasonable. At five dollars a head we tasted five good wines. For everyone else that amounted to more than a glass of wine, as the pours were generous. For me, however, the pours seemed half-sized. Probably because the lady pouring thought I was underage but felt too embarrassed to ask for an ID since I was with friends and acquaintances. Oh well. I ate more than my fair share of the Ranier cherries that they had out for a snack.

That afternoon we went on a short walk through the Northwest's rain forest and then had dinner at a faux-fancy restaurant that played really awful music and served really good food. They have a wood-fired oven that cooks most of their dishes, making everything delicious. I had blackened salmon topped with a fruit relish, accompanied by a side of champagne and lemon risotto. While that was really good, the crab that my sister ordered looked far more impressive. In fact, it was far impressive in that it was plucked from the ocean only about a mile away. The salmon probably came from ten miles away.

That's all for now. I promise the next post will be shorter and more rewarding. Thanks for hanging in there thus far.

09 July 2009


I'm in Seattle right now. Visiting this city sometimes gets me down because it seems like each and everyone of its 563,374 inhabitants (see 2000 Census) has more money than I do. Of course, that's ridiculous. About 8,000 of those folks are homeless and probably don't do so well in the way of worldly possessions. About another 50,000 are under the age of ten and although those kids probably do fairly well accumulating material objects, I'd bet that few if any have an income worth counting. So that's at least one-tenth of the population that feels the pain of living relatively penniless in a rich-folks haven. Normally when I'm here I mope around Ballard and Fremont looking at records I can't afford and lady's shoes so expensive they put me in a bad mood, which drives me to seek out premium micro-brews that'll easily set a person back $6-7 a pint.

I did, in fact, spend too much on food and booze in Ballard last night, but I had splendid company while doing it. And I finished the evening with a bourbon-ginger-thing at Hazelwood that tasted like the grace of God. Really, this trip has been a good-bit less depressing than most my visits over the past few years. After seeing a dear friend get married last Friday, I spent July 4th with my folks, my sister, and G-D. My mother cooked up a feast and we sat in the rare Northwestern sun, just eating and drinking and laughing at whatever passed our lips. Since then, I've stayed busy and kept my mind off the cost of living by figuring out what to do with all the leftovers.

Monday morning G-D and I decided to heat up some of the pulled pork butt my mom grilled. Unfortunately, we were out of coleslaw, so we couldn't make a proper pulled pork sandwhich. Instead, we added a fried egg and called it breakfast.

Moms cooked the collards several days before we arrived and they made a perfect side. She does them like most folks do (with ham hocks, salt, pepper, sometimes a little onion), but adds a small spoonful of brown sugar. I guess that's not such a secret. Plenty of people use brown sugar, or even molasses, but these tasted better than most greens I've known. Maybe they just grow sweeter up here in the cool weather.

For lunch on Tuesday, G-D and I reheated the grilled salmon and topped it with roasted corn, sautéed in butter with fresh dill. On the side we had steamed green beans.

That corn concoction turned out so well that I decided to do something similar tonight for my parents. Instead of using it to dress salmon fillets, though, I pulled the salmon apart, took out the bones, mixed it with the corn and fresh dill, pan-heated it with some butter and then served that on top of toasted bread. I called them crostini and my folks were sufficiently impressed. I also made a few chévre crostini with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and basil from the back porch. Then, to round it out, I made a salad with greens, homegrown snap peas, and carrots--tossed in a smoked paprika dressing to balance out the sweet corn.

In that last photo you can see one of those fancy beers I mentioned. I was drinking wine, but my dad said the crisp IPA paired well with the rich combination of salmon, butter and corn. No wonder I've been feeling so good -- for someone who can't make rent, I've been enjoying a lot of fine food. Not to mention the generous company I've been keeping. Thanks mom & dad!