This video is in honor of Father’s Day, appropriate given that Jill and I are seeing Steve Earle tonight with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakum.
Life is good for us, not for the kids at Casa Padre, and that’s a shame/stain on our society.
This video is in honor of Father’s Day, appropriate given that Jill and I are seeing Steve Earle tonight with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakum.
Life is good for us, not for the kids at Casa Padre, and that’s a shame/stain on our society.
Last night, I was fortunate to see Ry and Joaquim Cooder in concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria. The elder Cooder has long been one of my favorite musicians, an incredible guitar-singer-songwriter who has worked with everyone in the music industry in a career that dates back to the late 1960s. Now 71, he is on his first tour in a decade behind “The Prodigal Son,” a tour-de-force return to his folk/blues/jazz roots that mixes original songs with reimagined gospel songs.
On the new album, Cooder, a self-described curmudgeon whose music has veered toward the stridently political over the past decade, focuses on empathy, understanding, and tolerance. It’s a welcome and beautiful piece of music, merging his best work with the sonic textures laid down by Joaquim.
Cooder’s son, who has played in his father’s band since he was a teenager, co-produced the album and played drums. He also opened the show with his own set, playing the ethereal and textured songs from his EP “Fucsia Machu Picchu” on an electric mbira (thumb piano). The Hamiltones, a Charlotte-based trio, provided beautiful backing vocals amid the swirls of sound that resonated throughout the venue. They are a group to watch.
All in all, it was a great night — life affirming in all the right ways. Get “The Prodigal Son.” Trust me.
(Because of photo restrictions placed by the venue, these pics are of Joaquim’s opening act, along with a couple of the Hamiltones. A special thanks to Mark Englund for the ticket.)
There's only so much you can do when forced to rely on an iPhone at a concert. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can get an interesting image. Here are two of Willie Nelson & The Family performing at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., last night.
Anyone who knows me — well or not — knows I'm a huge music fan. I love nothing more than discovering new artists, revisiting established ones, and learning what makes writers and creators of some of my favorite sounds tick. Here are two videos worth your time, with memories of my own attached.
This is one of my all-time favorite songs, part of a live album that came out a couple of months before my dad died. "For Jack Tymon" by Scott Miller is a song that tells the story of my love for Nick, Kate, Ben, and Emma in a mere 2:59. Definitely worth a listen.
Somewhere around the one hour, 13-minute mark in this recording, Paul Westerberg makes my all-time favorite live show a classic. At the end of "Love You in the Fall," a song from the animated movie Open Season, Tommy Stinson talks about the project and tries to give a nonessential piece of The Replacements canon a boost.
At which point Westerberg says, "This one's better," and launches into "Can't Hardly Wait." 15,000 fans roared and sang along. It was a moment I will never forget.
(BTW: The photo on this video is one I took, which makes it even better.)
For the third time in four months, Jill and I saw Jason Isbell perform with his wife, Amanda Shires. The first was at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville to kick off Isbell’s three-week artist in residence program. The second was last month in February with Nick, Conner, and Isbell’s full band, the 400 Unit.
Last night, however, was special. The performance was called “Masters of American Music,” a benefit for the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Held at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C., the event was in a room that seated less than 300 people.
In addition to Isbell, we also had the chance to see Jerry Douglas share the stage with younger musicians Jan Knutson and brother-sister duo Giri and Uma Peters, and special guests Steve Abshire and Phil Wiggins.
It was a great night at the end of a long week in which I shot two conferences, a show, an event on Capitol Hill and wrote a story. Busy, busy, busy.
But worth it.
A few more in the series of random thoughts:
• I miss the days when our president actually had a “strategery.”
• Re: The strange and blustery weather that brought 70-mph winds to the D.C. region, leaving hundreds of thousands without power: “Even Mother Nature is pissed at Trump. We are just caught in the crosshairs.”
• I’ve found playing the Live at Maxwell’s version of "Hayday" by The Replacements to be oddly soothing while shopping at Home Depot, aka the ninth circle of hell.
Three videos well worth your time, given our current political climate...
Remember when Ronald Reagan used "Born in the U.S.A." as an introduction for his speeches because, not listening to the lyrics, he thought it would be a rallying call? I wish our current president would do the same with this song.
Speaking of our (expletive deleted) leader and Jason Isbell songs, I'm waiting for Weird Al or "Saturday Night Live" to do a parody replacing "Anxiety" with "Insanity."
"Nothing there to corrupt you
Nothing there to live up to
There's no place further down
Turn it off or turn around"
Each Scott Miller release has a number of great songs on it. I've been a huge fan since the V-Roys days, and have everything he's done. Looking for a song to get stuck in your head? Check this one out...
Solo time — Arlington, Va., October 2017
Staples on a telephone pole — Carrboro, N.C., September 2017
Bathed in pink — Washington, D.C., September 2017
RIP, David Cassidy, aka Keith Partridge. My wife, Jill, and countless others are mourning your passing.
In honor of "The Partridge Family" star, here's one of my favorite covers by one of my favorite artists: Paul Westerberg's version of "I Think I Love You."
And here's another I found while looking for the Westerberg cover: Cassidy and his brother, Shaun, doing a duet from the Broadway show "Blood Brothers." Wish I'd seen this one.
With Jill on another adventure, seeing Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Isbell, one of my favorite performers, was selected as this year's Artist-in-Residence.
Since I was out of town yesterday, I didn't get a chance to pay homage to Fats Domino, one of the pioneers of rock and roll who died yesterday at age 89.
Like many people my age, I grew up on "Happy Days," and my first exposure to Fats' music was seeing Ron Howard do "I found my thrill..." on the show. Soon after, my dad played me the "real Fats" on one of his treasured, beaten up 45s that were stacked in the giant home stereo that could have doubled as a buffet stand.
Reading through various tributes this morning, a Facebook friend noted Fats' connection to Elvis Presley, which led to an interesting discussion on race and music. Presley was never a songwriter, but an interpreter of "all kinds" of music — white and black.
Because the music charts were segregated (like everything else in the 50s), white musicians such as Pat Boone, Fabian and Ricky Nelson (among others) covered songs that were moving up the R&B charts. A long list of black musicians who wrote these hits (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats) were often screwed out of royalties — and other things — that should have been given to a song's author.
Presley, however, was different. He was quick to point to his many influences, especially black artists, and Domino was at the top of the list. I picked up the following quotes in reading the tributes to Domino.
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In 1969, at a news conference to announce the resumption of Presley's live concerts in Las Vegas, Elvis interrupted a reporter who called him “the king.” He pointed to Mr. Domino, who was in the room, and said, “There’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll.”
I felt somewhat guilty about seeing Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer perform on Sunday night at The Birchmere. My wife and I had just returned from Chicago earlier that afternoon, and we’d seen Green Day just three nights earlier. I’ve been on the road for five of the past six weekends, and the work was piling up. Family members and lifelong friends were dealing with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey, and Texas was — still is — on my mind.
Little did I know that seeing — and photographing — this sister act would be such a salve for the soul.
On a short tour to promote “Not Dark Yet,” a stunning and mesmerizing collection that is their first album together, Moorer and Lynne talked about their heritage and the bond they share as sisters. It’s a bond that has been forever cemented despite horrific violence (their father killed their mother, then himself when they were teens), lives on opposite coasts (one in L.A.; the other in New York), and disparate personalities (Lynne, three years older, is the introvert; Moorer just completed a memoir).
Nashville musician Rick Brantley opened the show, and was joined by Lynne and Moorer for his song “Hurt People,” a beautiful moment that offered the promise of things to come. I spoke briefly with Brantley between the sets, and he said that watching the two sing together will “blow your mind. Their sound will put you in a trance.”
I’ve seen Moorer live several times, the first time at Joe’s Pub in New York when she was eight-plus months pregnant with her son, John Henry, and then as part of her then-husband Steve Earle’s band. I saw Lynne years ago and have most of her albums in heavy rotation.
Brantley was right. Together, they were better than I could have imagined. At points, they would glance at each other as only siblings can, wordlessly helping the audience understand their “Sissy” bond.
Performing all 10 tracks — nine covers and one original — from “Not Dark Yet,” plus songs from each of their catalogues, their voices blended seamlessly as the selections ranged from family staples (Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter) to the unlikely trio of Nick Cave, the Killers, and Nirvana.
But it was the title track, a Bob Dylan song from his Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind,” and the sole original, “Is It Too Much,” that resonated most strongly. Dylan’s song, one of his best, is both a sad reflection on mortality and a message of hope. “Is It Too Much,” a song about the sisters’ family history, reaches out to others in pain. Sample lyric: “No one else bears this heavy load/Bring it here to my side…Don’t you know you ain’t by yourself/I’m right here to help you lay it down.”
Appropriately, the sisters donated proceeds from the sales of their T-shirts to victims of Hurricane Harvey, a generous gesture that showed the compassion they have for others in need. The donations are small in the light of the scale of the destruction, but you start somewhere. After all, the message is about uniting in the face of tragedy.
Postscript: This morning, as the tour moves to Chicago, Moorer posted a childhood photo from a family trip to Texas. Today would have been her mother’s 73rd birthday.
“The loss of her feels deeper somehow this year — maybe because we're out here singing together and we both miss the third part she would've chomped at the bit to add. Maybe because she would've been so proud of us. Maybe because we know that she IS proud, looking on, and cheering for us,” Moorer writes.
Moorer then addresses her mother’s death, and her father’s horrifying decision.
“He and he alone took her beautiful spirit out of this world. He was able to because of two things — she didn't know how to fight back and he had a gun. The most harrowing and frustrating thing about domestic violence is that it wears down a person's spirit in such a way that most women forget they are in charge of their own lives. I wish someone had been able to tell our Mama that hers was worth more than she ended up believing it was.”
These sisters, now both older than their mother was at the time of her death, honor her memory every time they walk on stage. They certainly did Sunday night.
Live music — and most live performances, for that matter — is one of my favorite things to photograph. I’ve been fortunate to be close to some fantastic performers over the years, but it is difficult to get into that select group of freelancers who can score the elusive photo pass.
Without the pass, it’s impossible to bring a professional camera into a large show. So, like everyone else, I take photos with my iPhone and opt for the abstract rather than realistic look.
That’s what happened on the first of a two-show long weekend that saw my wife and I closing out August with a trip to Chicago, where we saw family and the band Green Day live at Wrigley Field.
It was the first time Jill and I have had the chance to go to Wrigley, and Green Day put on a terrific show. I also enjoyed pushing the phone to its limits to see what I could get. Sometimes it’s nothing but bad blur; at others, the phone can surprise you.
Part 2 of this weekend is the Allison Moorer-Shelby Lynne show at The Birchmere, which does not have the same restrictions on professional cameras, thank goodness.
Forty years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of Scott White Hospital in Tyler when I heard the news: Elvis Presley was dead.
I’ve written about my family’s history with the King of Rock and Roll, but this Places entry is related to Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, where more than 100,000 visitors have descended to mark the annual Elvis Presley Week. I made the pilgrimage in September 2012 and took these (and countless more) images while basking in the city’s musical history.
Elvis-related tourism is worth an estimated $600 million annually to Memphis’ economy. Graceland is second only to the White House as the most visited home in the U.S. Sun Records, where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash (among others) made their first singles, draws 160,000 visitors a year.
Blast of confetti at Bruno Mars concert — Washington, D.C., September 2017
What a beautiful tribute to Tom Petty...
Random memories after hearing the news of Glen Campbell’s death: Small snippets of his variety show on my parents’ TV. Seeing his albums in my dad’s record collection. Hearing of his friendship with Elvis, who covered many of Campbell’s biggest tracks, and his association with the fabled Wrecking Crew.
Telling people that I wasn’t named after him, noting that my first name had two n’s and not one. Thinking it was a big deal that Galveston, just a few miles away from Texas City, was immortalized in a song. True Grit, Rhinestone Cowboy, Southern Nights. And of course, Wichita Lineman and Gentle on My Mind.
The demons and drugs that bedevil so many artists, leading to his four marriages, eight children, and DUI arrests. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis that, like ALS and other diseases, rot your mind and/or rob your body.
The poignancy of his final years. A biography that would make a great country song.
As many of you know, I’m a huge Paul Westerberg and The Replacements fan. Campbell’s last album — Ghost on the Canvas — is named after a Westerberg song that he covers. I’ve shared the video, in which Westerberg appears, at other times. But it’s appropriate to share again.
Steve Earle is one of three performers — Dave Alvin and John Hiatt are the others — I’ve seen live more than a dozen times in various configurations over the past 30 years. All three rarely disappoint because they are outstanding musicians and storytellers.
Last night’s show, featuring Earle and his band The Dukes at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., was no exception. It was, as usual, a goulash of various genres that ranged from pedal steel country to hard rock, all serving to promote Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” which was released last month. It also was the first time Earle, who is outspoken in his political views, has performed with his band in the D.C. area since the 2016 presidential election.
Politics were part of the equation — how could they not be? — but Earle’s canvas was broad, nostalgic and even melancholy at times. He spoke of being an a romantic in the widest possible sense, noting that he hasn’t done as well in the personal department (seven marriages, including a recent divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer). Now 62, he talked being an optimist, largely because of his 7-year-old son with Moorer, who has autism.
Earle’s mentors and mortality also were recurring themes. “Outlaw” is inspired by Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and its closing number, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” is dedicated to Guy Clark, who died last year. He spoke of performing at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year, having attended the first one as an 18-year-old and others since.
After more than two hours, Earle’s encore closed with “This Land is Your Land,” and “Christmas in Washington,” which namechecks Woody Guthrie and serves as a call for unity in a fractured world. It was a fitting end to a lovely night.
• The talent of the musicians in Earle’s band is outstanding, although there were some sound issues last night. Earle has worked with bass player Kelly Looney since 1988 and with guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore since 2010. Two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, also were terrific.
• Masterson and Whitmore, who are married and perform separately as “The Mastersons,” again are the openers for the tour. They showcased songs from their third album, the recently released (and excellent) “Transient Lullaby.” Having seen them now four times, the first time at a Joe’s Pub release party for Moorer’s 2010 album “Crows,” I’m a true fan.
• Both Earle and Whitmore astound me with their versatility. Earle played eight different instruments and Whitmore four last night.
• I love The Birchmere, my go-to club for music since we moved here in 2001. It’s nice to be in a venue where folks sit and listen to the music, and it’s great to be able to take photos without issues with something other than a phone. The $8 charge for a beer came as a shock though.
• I got lucky. Not sure whether I’d be able to go to the show until the last minute, I went to the box office and was told it was sold out. Fortunately, a man was sitting in the lobby trying to sell an extra ticket, which I got at face value. Then, getting into the general admission area late (some folks had been there since noon), I managed to score a seat with members of The U-Liners, a DC-area Americana and roots-rock band with many shared musical interests. They were great; I hope to see their next show in DC in August. Check them out at www.uliners.com.
• Interesting trivia only to me: Earle and I share the same birthday — January 17 — 10 years apart.
• Additional musicians I would like to add to my 10-plus list: Moorer, who will be at The Birchmere next month with her sister, Shelby Lynne, behind a new album; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who I saw for the second time last month at Merriweather Post Pavilion; and Chris Stapleton, who I’m seeing at Jiffy Lube Pavilion this weekend. Good summer for shows.
It's been a memorable Fourth of July weekend, in part because we've been home, a rarity given schedules, conferences, and summer travel. Nick and Conner joined us on Friday and we went to see Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion, then went to the Workhouse Arts Center for their annual Fourth fest and fireworks show.
Despite my long association with the Workhouse and the Arches Gallery Artists, we've never attended the celebration. To see more photos of the fireworks, go to my Facebook album here.
Hope you have a happy 4th!
An excerpt from Patti Smith's new book on the creative process:
“Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed."
I have Starbucks.
More on the creative process, courtesy of John Doe, another of my favorite musicians:
“One of the reasons I'm here is to make stuff. To make songs and to be an actor and do art and things like that, so that's what's important. You shouldn't worry about what your rewards are. Your reward should be having created that thing.
“I hardly ever wake up and think, ‘Oh, today I'm gonna write a song.’ It just happens. And I think it's the same as — again, to get philosophical — a lot of things, the more time you put into it, the more reward comes out of it. So if I'm writing and playing most every day, then more stuff will come out of it. If I put it away, then there's other stuff that's going on in your head. If you have a down period, try not to get frightened of it or don't get spooked by it. Just let it go. Let it go until you feel like playing again.”
Three thoughts on the current debate over the health care bill:
• The great irony of the current political debacle is those who protest “Obamacare” so fervently are the ones whose constituents benefit most from the Affordable Care Act. Think about that one for a minute.
• I can’t begin to tell you how much I dislike Mitch McConnell, who is locked up in his own power grid.
• Finally, Bloom County gets it right yet again…
Soggy conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of supporters who came to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to advocate for environmental causes and science research on Earth Day.
The set up for the March for Science was similar to the Women’s March on Washington, held just three months and one day earlier. I was hired by the Entomological Society of America, one of numerous science organizations that took part in the event, to shoot members getting ready for and participating in the rally.
Throughout the rally, a broad range of speakers were supported by entertainment and a series of short films and clips. Questlove, whose Grammy Award-winning group The Roots serves as the in-house band for The Tonight Show, was one of the co-hosts. Jon Batiste, music director and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, led the house band.
The steady drizzle turned into a downpour by late morning, and I left before seeing Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) speak or Thomas Dolby perform. These photos, however, capture some of the spirit of the day, which was mirrored in more than 600 cities on more than six continents.
To see more photos from the March, go to my Facebook page here.
Roger Ailes' legacy with Fox News will be both derided and celebrated in our polarized nation, but I hope the death of Chris Cornell is not overlooked in our discussions.
Yes, Cornell was a musician who met an early and tragic end. But he also was a husband and dad who suffered from a terrible inner turmoil. He was found after an acclaimed concert; police are investigating it as a death by suicide.
Depression sucks, folks. The collateral damage is awful, too. #RIP #AFSP #suicidepreventionhotline
Post surgery update, Day 5: Better today, but still uncomfortable. Found a way to sleep that worked for the most part, so that's a minor victory.
1) Growing up in the 1970s, I never understood the phrase "gas crisis." Until this week, that is.
2) Speaking of obscure '70s references, I keep having a recurring dream of Burgess Meredith shouting, "The body, Rock! The body!" and being on the receiving end.
3) The song that keeps running through my head is Alabama Shakes' "Hold On." Watch the video and you'll see what I mean.
Post surgery update, Day 5: Better today, but still uncomfortable. Found a way to sleep that worked for the most part, so that's a minor victory.
1) Growing up in the 1970s, I never understood the phrase "gas crisis." Until this week, that is.
2) Speaking of obscure '70s references, I keep having a recurring dream of Burgess Meredith shouting, "The body, Rock! The body!" and being on the receiving end.
3) The song that keeps running through my head is Alabama Shakes' "Hold On." Watch the video and you'll see what I mean.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Cleveland, December 2014
For some time, I’ve had this idea to do short visual stories on the places I visit across the U.S. I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the past few years, and find that I’m drawn to places that are a little off the beaten path. In most cases, unless you’re a local, you pass by them on the road without a glance.
This new series of stories starts with a visit last fall to Texas’ Gruene Hall, where I saw Charlie Robison play the second night of his annual weekend Labor Day bash. It had been some time since I had been to Gruene Hall, located near New Braunfels in the Hill Country, and I wanted to showcase this unique Central Texas institution.
Built in 1878, the 8,000-square-foot dance hall was designed to give tenant farmers a way to socialize on the weekends. George Strait got his start there, playing once a month while beginning his career, and the hall has hosted a who’s who of Texas artists, including Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Robison is a regular, as is his brother, Bruce, and they occasionally play as a trio with Jack Ingram.
Gruene Hall bills itself as the oldest dance hall still operating in Texas, a claim disputed by some, and it’s charm comes from how little about it has changed. It has a high-pitched tent roof with a bar in front and a small lighted stage in the back. Signs from the 1930s and ‘40s still surround the stage and hang in the hall, which has side flaps that are used for open air dancing.
This photos in this album were taken in real-time, so you can see how the evening started slowly and progressively got more full once Robison took the stage. If you ever get the chance to go to Gruene Hall, do so. It’s a piece of history you won’t soon forget.
Tribute to David Bowie at Amoeba Records — Hollywood, Calif., January 2016
I’ve always enjoyed the music of X, which straddled the world between punk and country and remains incredibly relevant. They were part of the great Sire Records roster in the 1980s that also included Lou Reed, Talking Heads, The Replacements, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, among others, and X’s first four albums are considered classics.
As much as I like those albums, which featured the original lineup, I’ve always had a soft spot for “See How We Are,” the 1987 album that includes Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” and the terrific title track. In the wake of the election, “See How We Are” has become my earworm.
Recently, on Facebook, I decided to ask my friends which hit song best describes the Cold War flashbacks we’ve been having since January 20. My suggestions were R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but they came up with a fascinating playlist that includes:
• Sting: “Russians”
• Billy Joel: “You May Be Right” and “Big Shot”
• Gary Jules: “Mad World”
• Gus Black: “Today is Not the Day to F--- With Me”
• Eurythmics: “Sex Crime”
• The Clash: “Rock the Casbah”
• Nena: “99 Red Balloons”
• Tears for Fears: “Everbody Wants to Rule the World”
• David Bowie: “This is Not America”
• Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime”
The more I thought about it, I realized X had another appropriately titled song — “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
Watch this. One of the most intense performances I've ever seen on SNL. Damn...
Best timing of the year: "Humble and Kind" wins a Grammy for Lori McKenna! #lorimckenna
Elevator at Ameoba Records — Hollywood, Calif., September 2016
Waiting with the King — Las Vegas, November 2016
Metropolitan Youth Theatre concluded its second year with a sold-out winter concert, “Let the Sunshine In: The Music of Hair,” Friday at MSA’s Alexandria studio. The show, directed by MYT co-founder Chad Vann, featured the work of 12 area high school and college students and a three-piece band led by MYT co-founder James Woods.
MYT was founded in 2015 by high school students Vann, Woods and Sam Cornbrooks (now in college in Manhattan) to give area youth the opportunity to create and perform in shows while learning all aspects of theater. The group, which has drawn student performers from both Northern Virginia and Maryland, has already done “The Last 5 Years,” “Rent,” “Songs for a New World,” and “Spring Awakening” in its brief existence.
Two more shows, including a production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Chicago,” are planned in 2017. For more information, visit www.metroyoutharts.org or follow the group on Twitter @metroyoutharts.
For more photos from the concert, visit my Facebook page here.
I've written about my love for Lori McKenna's music, most recently about her concert here and specifically about this song. So imagine my surprise when, in the middle of game 7 of the World Series, I logged on and discovered McKenna won the CMA Song of the Year for "Humble & Kind."
In a just world, this would be the news of the day. Either way, I'm happy to share it again. #CMA50
P.S. Congrats to the Cubs, too! Great to see their comeback and for the curse to finally be broken.
I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”
One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.
“The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.
Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.
Until it’s too late.
I’m a lucky man.
I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.
Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues.
Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.
Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.
The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.
When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.
Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.
“I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”
The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.
Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”
At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”
After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”
And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.
The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.
On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.
Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.
In a post earlier this week, I mentioned our crazy travel schedule and how thankful I am to have so many friends and family (biological and extended) willing to spend a little time with us on this journey.
So here's a small photo summary of the last five weeks. (Roadmap not included.)
Two legends who have passed away. I resisted the "Willy Wonka" and "Blazing Saddles" shares in honor of this...
Last week, while in Salt Lake City, I had an opportunity to see Ryan Adams & The Shining with opener Amanda Shires on tour at the Red Butte Canyon outdoor amphitheatre. The setting just outside the University of Utah campus was beautiful, complete with an almost full moon.
Adams, one of the most prolific and diverse musicians of the past two decades, has been dipping into his extensive catalogue for the past couple of years. A lovely highlight from the show was his duet with Shires on "Oh My Sweet Carolina."
Shires, the wife of Jason Isbell (another favorite), has a new CD scheduled for release in mid-September. Nothing has been forthcoming — yet — on Adams' next project.
Dollar CDs — Hollywood, Calif., January 2016
Performing under a full moon — Salt Lake City, August 2016
Continuing what has suddenly become a music thread….
Billy Joel became the first performer to play three times at Nationals Stadium on Saturday, and he did so despite a torrential downpour that delayed the start of the concert by more than an hour.
You can't carry a "professional camera" into events like this without a press pass. (I would not have brought my camera in anyway, given the rain.) However, this is one of those times when iPhone photos usually come nowhere close to the images you can get with a regular camera.
Still, if you're lucky and recognize the shutter delays, you can occasionally get a decent image.
Let me know what you think of these and the ones on my Facebook page here.
Joel, as usual, was terrific in concert. He hasn’t written new music since the early 1990s, but embraces one of the best and most popular catalogues with enthusiasm. In turn, the rain-soaked crowd embraced him.
“What’s it like sitting there with a wet ass?” Joel asked the cheering crowd.
Fortunately, after seeing the Piano Man multiple times in multiple places (North Carolina, Madison Square Garden), we splurged and bought tickets on the stadium turf. No wet butts for us.
Unfortunately, we were among the large contingent of the 40,000-plus fans who came to the concert via Metro and were left stranded due to the storms, which delayed the show by more than an hour. Thanks (or not) to “SafeTrack” maintenance, the subway system closed at midnight, and there was no way we could see the encore and make it to the last train.
Joel even made a joke about the troubled transit system — “Is the Metro running tonight? … So basically, you’re (expletive).”
With no warnings in advance from stadium officials or Metro — a transit worker at the Navy Yard said they had not even been told about the heavily promoted concert (cough) — we were stuck with a long wait and a very expensive Uber ride.
The show was still worth it, though.
As you probably know by now, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements. Turns out that Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, is too.
According to the music blog Pitchfork, Replacements biographer Bob Mehr said that if elected, Kaine would be the first fan of the group to serve as vice president. Kaine, who was born in Minnesota, has noted in past interviews that his favorite album is “Let It Be,” the 1984 effort that brought the Minneapolis group major label attention.
Now if we can just hear “Gary’s Got a Boner” at the inaugural gala.
Lori McKenna started her “Wreck You” tour to promote her new CD a week before it was released, and was surprised to learn she could sell copies of “The Bird & The Rifle” before it becomes available to the general public.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” she said during her show at Jammin’ Java just outside Washington, D.C.
Such is the state of the music business, where release dates have been moved from Tuesdays to Fridays and smaller labels (such as McKenna’s) operate much differently than the now shrunken behemoths. Today, however, you and anyone else with an iTunes account can purchase “The Bird & The Rifle,” the latest in a series of gems from this mother of five who lives with her husband of 28 years outside Boston.
In a just world, McKenna’s music would get the same level of promotion — and subsequent sales — as the increasing number of artists who cover her richly detailed songs. One of those songs, “Humble and Kind,” topped the charts when Tim McGraw — whose wife, Faith Hill, helped McKenna get her big break as a songwriter in 2005 — released it last year.
McGraw’s mainstream sincerity (and video with connections to Oprah Winfrey) made the song a hit, but McKenna reclaims it on her new album. At the Jammin’ Java concert, she talked about writing the song at her dining room table between dropping off and picking up her kids from school. When you hear it on the CD, you can almost see her writing in longhand.
Hold the door say please say thank you
Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie
I know you got mountains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you're dreamin' come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind
Don’t expect a free ride from no one
Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why
Bitterness keeps you from flyin’
Always stay humble and kind
As a longtime fan — I have all 10 of McKenna’s albums — I’ve always appreciated her eye for life’s little details and ability to capture with grace and empathy the struggles of people just trying to get by. In concert, she almost apologizes for writing so many sad songs — the first single on the new CD is titled “Wreck You” — and while it’s true that none of her work qualifies as summer beach music, what she manages to capture is much more real instead.
“The Bird & The Rifle,” however, has a new wrinkle: Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, who has worked wonders for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Cobb and a host of Nashville’s top musicians compliment McKenna’s words in a way I haven’t heard before. It is, without question, the best sounding record she has made.
So, if you can, try to catch McKenna live sometime this summer. And stick around for the encore, where she performs “Girl Crush,” a song co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and recorded by Little Big Town. That one won McKenna a Grammy, and long overdue recognition that her words speak volumes.
The Metropolitan Youth Theatre, a company run completely by high school and college students, will present the Tony Award-winning musical "Spring Awakening" this weekend at 1st Stage Tysons in McLean, Va. The musical is the fourth presented by the company since it was founded by three then-high school students (Sam Cornbrooks, Chad Vann, and James Woods).
All of these photos were shot live during the final dress rehearsal on Thursday. No set ups and no retakes.
It has been a pleasure to serve as the company's photographer for all four shows, all of which have been interesting, contemporary, and challenging fare. "Spring Awakening" is suitable for mature audiences only.
The cast of Metropolitan Youth Theatre's upcoming production of "Spring Awakening" performed in a fundraising cabaret and pot luck dinner Saturday in Alexandria. The cast showcased several group numbers from the Tony Award-winning show and several performed solo pop numbers.
The event, held at Metropolitan School of the Arts' studio in Alexandria, was a showcase for an incredibly talented ensemble of high school and college students ranging in age from 15 to 20.
"Spring Awakening" is the fourth MYT production since the student-run company was founded in 2014. Performances will be July 29-31 at 1st Stage Tysons in McLean, Va. (Note: The show has mature language and themes that are not suited for young audiences.)
This song is best known because of Tim McGraw's version, but it was written by one of my favorite musicians — Lori McKenna (check out her stuff now!) — and will be on her new album that comes out in a couple of weeks.
If you have 4 minutes and 18 seconds, please give this a listen. It's something Jill and I have tried to teach our kids, and given all of the unrest in our country and in the world right now, it's a lesson well worth sharing to any and all.
"Elvis Presley wouldn't have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore."
Of all the musicians who've died this year, this may be the toughest one yet. Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on all of Presley’s biggest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, died yesterday In Nashville at age 84.
Moore and bassist Bill Black were part of Presley’s original band that started on Sun Records and moved over to RCA in 1956 after cutting a string of singles that are now considered the foundation of rock and roll. Even though the two left in a money dispute in 1958, Moore returned after Presley’s Army stint ended in 1960 and continued to play for him all the way through to Elvis’ comeback special in 1968.
The following year, Presley (without Moore) recorded “From Elvis in Memphis” and started touring again regularly for the first time in almost a decade. Ironically, his “From Elvis in Memphis” producer, Chips Moman, also died earlier this year.
The list of musicians that Moore influenced and the genre he helped develop is staggering. Among the guitarists who cite him as a direct influence: Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes’ Jack White.
Take a moment and watch Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” with Moore in this clip from the 68 Comeback Special. Presley started off acoustic, then traded guitars with Moore and lit the place on fire.
Icons and portraits — New York City, April 2016
Beth Howland's death was announced today and, due to her wishes, it was almost six months after it happened. That's a remarkable feat in today's 24/7 news world, but nothing compared to the prospect of performing this song eight times a week on a Broadway stage. You might remember Howland as the ditzy waitress on the long-running show "Alice," but she also was an original cast member of "Company."
Guy Clark leads an all-star cast in a performance of his "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" on the Letterman show. Clark, the de facto songwriting leader of so many people I like, died Tuesday following a long illness.
And the world just got a little smaller ... again.
The Continental Club — Austin, May 2015
Post-New York randoms a week after Tuck Everlasting opened on Broadway:
• Master of the Obvious: Well, that was a trip I won’t soon forget.
• The best part of the trip was getting to spend some quality alone time with my boys. I don’t get to do that enough.
• The second best part was seeing my son do what he loves, and seeing his siblings happy to be part of the experience. We missed Kate not being there, though.
• Watching a friend tap dance while Jon Dee Graham played an instrumental in the basement of the Hill Country BBQ was NOT the most surreal part of the trip. Close, but not quite.
• When people are obviously trying to listen to acoustic music in a small venue, I don’t know why some feel an uncontrollable urge to turn up their inner frat-boy volume to 11.
• I've was in way too many photos last week and not behind the camera enough. There is something wrong with this picture...
• Things I thought I'd never say: I agree with John Boener on something. But then he had to bring up Ted Cruz.
• Riding a bus home is OK until you get stuck in traffic and someone decides to leave the spicy burrito they ate in the bathroom 3 rows back.
• People are bipolar. Mother Nature is not. Not sure what she is exactly, but that's a different story.
• NYC tourist tango: 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK! 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK!
Two more observations, all with accompanying art…
• If our cats could speak English, they'd say, "See? We told you, this stuff is real..."
• Kids, this is appropriate... (And yes, my mom did send it to me.)
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble writing about the death of Prince. So many words have been said and so much purple ink spilled that there really isn’t much more that I can contribute.
But damn, that dude was talented. All you have to do is watch his Super Bowl halftime show.
No matter what you thought about Prince, he was a visionary in the music world. Like David Bowie, he mixed fashion, androgyny, funk, and throwback rock and roll into an always fascinating stew.
The results pushed the entire music industry in directions it did not anticipate; who would have thought he could almost turn Tipper Gore into a Republican? (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)
I wish 2016 would just let up when it comes to the deaths of people I’ve admired and appreciated as a fan of music and the performing arts. If I was a popular performer in the 1970s and '80s, I'd be more than a little scared. (Unless my name was Keith Richards, of course.)
Here are some excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview with Paul Westerberg after Prince’s death. The two were acquaintances who played the same clubs in Minneapolis; Westerberg also recorded at Prince’s studio, Paisley Park, after The Replacements broke up.
• He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn't used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, "Stop fighting, you'll mess up your clothes."
• People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I'm gonna cry.
• I've spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I've got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can't think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn't quite be there.
• When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
My favorite post on this topic:
If you give us back Prince, Merle Haggard, David Bowie and Alan Rickman we will gladly give you the top 4 presidential candidates in return.
An appropriate song, given the type of year we’ve been having.
Notebooks full of 78's at Amoeba Records — Hollywood, Calif., January 2016
Willie Nelson joke: "You know what they call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless."
Fortunately, this is not (NOT) a RIP message for Willie, just something I picked up while waiting for my daughter's brakes to be fixed on a Saturday afternoon of never-ending errands. I'm thankful that I'm not writing another tribute to someone who has died because there have been way too many instances of that already this year.
I'm also thankful that I have someone I can call my spouse/girlfriend/best friend (all the same person, in case you want to make a snarky remark). 20 years into this, she overlooks those moments when I'm tone deaf and encourages me to pursue my quirky dreams.
Thanks my dear Jill for all of the above, and doing everything you do to keep a roof over our heads. I love you.
My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.
Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.
I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.
Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.
"To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."
Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.
“I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”
I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…
The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)
Seven random thoughts from the past 12 days…
• About President Obama's selection of Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court: The president went with a centrist white male whose background is in constitutional law. If a Democrat is elected to the White House and no confirmation hearings have been held, the GOP will trip over themselves trying to confirm said centrist white male. So why not do it now, or at least allow the process to take place?#doyourdamnjob
• Next thing for the parties to argue over: Which side can legitimately claim their theme song is "All about that base. 'Bout that base. No trouble..."
• Saw this headline and realized that even Trump could not make this one up: Stryper Frontman Denies He Is Ted Cruz.
• It’s Girl Scout cookie season, that period of life in which smiling, pre-adolescent crack dealers stand outside suburban grocery stores on weekends. I’ll take the Tagalongs and the Thin Mints, and…
• This week’s #HappyMonday moment: Just two hours into the work week, I was reminded that — for some people — a guillotine would be a waste of a sharp blade.
• Simon Wright, in his “Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” blog, has summed up my musical tastes perfectly: “The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock ’n’ roll along the way.”
• Speaking of music and being in a general bear of a mood, Jon Dee Graham made me take note once again. All I can say is, “Yep.”
Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.
Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.
Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.
What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.
This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.
In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.
In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.
The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.
One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.
I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.
There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.
Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.
He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.
Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”
Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”
May he — and the others — rest in peace.
Five random thoughts from a music fan about last night’s Grammy Awards:
• Congratulations to all of the winners, but especially to Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton; both were very deserving. Their CDs have been on heavy rotation since their release, although it was reviews that pushed me toward Stapleton’s “Traveller.”
• It was a pleasure to see Stapleton perform with Bonnie Raitt, and the performance by Alabama Shakes was stunning. They also won big this year, further validation for a long-time fan.
• After Lady Gaga’s performance at the Super Bowl, I was anxious to see what she would do in her tribute to David Bowie, but found myself somewhat underwhelmed. The first half seemed like karaoke, as if she was auditioning for a “Mamma Mia” revival. She did rebound at the end with Fame, Let’s Dance, and Heroes, though.
• Jack Sparrow got eaten by Hollywood Vampires. At least Johnny Depp’s bands are better than most of his recent movies (“Black Mass” being the lone exception).
• The “In Memorium” section made me think, “Damn, we’ve lost way too many this year. And it’s only February.”
Sharing the morning ear worm: For some reason "Take It Easy" has gotten stuck in my head on repeat. I like the song enough — early Eagles is much better than late Eagles, IMO — but the novelty wore off many years ago. Please retire this song, or better yet, help get it out of my brain.
Sadly, in shuffling through my mental database in an attempt to get rid of said ear worm, I happened on two of the worst songs in history — "Afternoon Delight" and "Ebony and Ivory." Not sure why the former is there; the latter may have come after reading that Paul McCartney was denied entrance to Tyga's Grammy after party.
And I'm sure it was because of "Ebony and Ivory." Or perhaps "My Love." But that's a debate for another time.
A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.
I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.
Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.
Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.
It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.
Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.
The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”
After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.
Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.
On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.
Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.
We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.
After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.
The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.
We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.
It was that scary.
While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.
We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.
The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.
At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.
Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.
Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.
That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.
Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.
Last Christmas Eve, Jill and I were fortunate to see the “David Bowie is Now” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with our photography buddy and extended family member, Bernadette. The Windy City was the only U.S. venue to host the exhibit, and we were there with the kids to see Ben and the “Newsies” folks. It felt like serendipity, and proved to be a fascinating history lesson.
Just over a year later, Bowie has died following an 18-month battle with cancer, just two days after turning 69. He released his most recent CD, “Blackstar,” on his birthday. “Lazarus,” an Off-Broadway continuation of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" featuring old and new music from Bowie, has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it opened in December. In terms of buzz, it is almost as hot as “Hamilton,” another genre-bending musical,
Like him or not, you have to admire Bowie for constantly pushing the boundaries in music, theatre and film in a career that spanned more than four decades, all of which were on display in the Chicago exhibit and are found in his recent work. I saw him live in the mid 1980s in Houston, on the tour that followed “Let’s Dance,” and remember being as captivated by the visuals as the music. And much of the music was excellent in its own way.
In showcasing his artistry and chameleon-like nature, “David Bowie is Now” provided excellent, thought-provoking insight into his career. If anyone deserved a museum exhibition devoted to his style alone, it was Bowie, but this was much more, proving to be a multimedia feast for the eyes and ears.
I wish I could have taken pictures, but they were strictly verboten, and security was tight. I understand why, and wondered at the time if I could have done it justice, given how difficult it is at times to get good images in museums
At the same time, I’m sure copyright and intellectual property were not the only reasons Bowie refused to allow photography. If anything, he was always the one in control of his ever-shifting image.
Another icon gone too soon.
Note: After writing this tribute just hours after the announcement of Bowie's death, I updated it with more observations for NoDepression.com. Check out the updated version here.
Happy birthday, Elvis — Memphis, Tenn., September 2012
In honor of Presley's birthday, take a moment to revisit one of my favorite family essays — http://glenncook.virb.com/our-reality-show/13938822
Six years ago tonight, the boy made his Broadway debut. Amazing how time flies, how much our lives have changed over that time, and how much all of my children have grown up.
Congrats to Nick and the fellow members of his Vital Signs group on the release of their second EP. Especially check out my oldest singing "In Your Arms" with Marty Lucero. You can get the EP on iTunes by clicking here.
Yep, I know I'm saying it again, but I'm a proud dad...
Given the craziness that surrounds the month of December in our family, it should come as no surprise that I’m not the most sentimental person when it comes to Christmas. Between the political rhetoric we are seeing on the election trail, the warm weather and the release of the new “Star Wars” movie, it feels a lot more like summer than winter.
Except for the birthdays, that is.
Still, that hasn’t stopped me from a new edition of “Random Thoughts: Holiday Edition.” This one collects my favorite randoms from Facebook and Twitter and includes a couple of NSFW photos that you might enjoy.
Let’s start with the photos… Each illustrates a thought or two below.
• Donald Trump on the eve of Christmas Eve: "Peace on Earth and goodwill toward ... HA! Who am I fooling?!?"
• I'm starting to think Mother Nature's timeline was thrown off by the fact that the Hallmark Channel starts showing Christmas movies in July. If Hallmark starts showing college football bowl games, I’m cutting the chord completely on cable.
• This “Saturday Night Live” skit reminds me of my father. Sad thing is, Dad couldn't decide whether to stare at his action figures or play with them, making him the eternal tweener when it came to toys. (BTW: The teen in the blue sweater in the commercial is Jeremy Zorek, who was small boy on the “Billy Elliot” tour. Time flies.)
• Which is the fantasy here: Santa or better presidential candidates? I think it's the latter.
• Pre-Christmas Saturday: When running a few errands takes on a whole new meaning.
• Note to the guy mulling a Home Depot gift card purchase for his spouse: Don't do it.
• What's the difference between Stump and Trump? One has been chopped down, while the other needs to be...
• If parenting is survival of the fittest, then I really should go to the gym more...
• Not a Christmas song. Just one I can’t get out of my head — “Still Trying” by Nathaniel Rateliff.
• Want to see some cool pics? Check out my FB page at www.facebook.com/ourrealityshow. (Yes, kids, some of us old people still use Facebook.)
• All fall, something was missing. Turns out it was the master's degree I need to help my kid survive the college app/audition process. (She's doing fine, BTW.)
• These posts brought to you by Procrastination (aka a writer stalling while trying to figure out the lead for a freelance story). Grr.
Thanks to all who've followed my stream of nothingness. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. #stoptheholidaymadness.
A few thoughts on music from a 50-year-old white guy… (Photos are mine, too.)
I’ve spent my life trying to explain to people why I enjoy the music I like, and (usually unsuccessfully) why they should, too.
Leave it to Jason Isbell to explain it better than I could: “It’s punk, but it doesn’t sound like punk. It’s punk with different instruments and different songs.”
Isbell then goes on to explain, “It’s people who are trying to do the right thing. When it’s at it’s best, it’s people trying to make music because they love music, and they’re not trying to swindle anybody, they’re not trying to get rich and famous immediately, they’re trying to make music that goes back to their roots, they’re trying to have some credibility, they’re trying to be authentic.”
I recently saw Isbell at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C., where he was on the bill with Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, the Goo-Goo Dolls, and The Fray, among others. As a freelancer, I received a press pass to take pictures at the event, but my primary interest was seeing Isbell live for the first time.
All afternoon, I found myself telling people about Isbell’s music. Despite critical acclaim, especially for his last two albums, and growing awareness, many in the crowd didn’t know who he was.
“Just listen,” I said. “Then you’ll know.”
I turned around to look at the crowd during “Cover Me Up.”
I wish I could be a music critic or a concert photographer. I love capturing live events and think I’m pretty decent at it, but I don’t think I’d make a good critic. I know what I like, what I don’t, and even though I’m open to anything that catches my ear, I’m reasonably sure my opinions wouldn’t gibe with much of what passes for criticism these days.
That said, here are some things I’ve heard recently that I’ve enjoyed and put into heavy rotation:
• Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “SOB”
The best, most unrepentant song I’ve heard since “Rehab.” It brings a smile to my face everytime I hear it, and the video is terrific. Their self-titled album gives me the same warm feeling that “St. Paul and the Broken Bones” did last year.
• Tommy Stinson: “Can’t Be Bothered”
I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, but only recently have gotten into Stinson’s solo work. This is his latest, a single from a yet-to-be-delivered album, and it’s really good. It made me go back and revisit Bash & Pop’s “Friday Night is Killing Me,” the first Stinson solo effort and best album that came from The Replacements ashes. That is, until Paul Westerberg delivered “Mono.”
• Keith Richards: “Crosseyed Heart”
“Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an out-of-print live album from 1988, remains in my rotation because it represents the best of what made the Stones great. And that, at least for me, is Richards. His new album is more of the same, which is plenty good.
• Dave and Phil Alvin: “Lost Time”
The follow up to the brothers' “Common Ground” is better, more lived in, and always welcome, although I find myself yearning for an album by Dave and his Guilty Men lineup.
• Amy Helm: “Didn’t It Rain”
On what is an admittedly male-centric list, the solo debut by Levon’s daughter more than holds its own. Terrific harmony, nice songwriting, and a couple of cuts that feature Helm’s late father on drums.
• Ryan Adams: “1989”
Everyone it seems has an opinion on Adams’ track-by-track cover/reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum album. No matter what you think about Swift, and I’m an admirer of her talent (although I could do without the rest), Adams’ effort ranks up there with his best and ballsiest work.
• William Harries Graham and the Painted Redstarts: “Foreign Fields”
Damn, this is good, and Graham is at least 20 years younger than anyone on my current list. Jon Dee Graham’s son contributes an album that is nothing like his father’s work musically. And when it’s this good, who cares?
An EP not on my earlier list but also worth mentioning is Glen Hansard’s tribute to Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia and Magnetic Electric Co. singer/songwriter who died two years ago from alcohol-related complications at the age of 39.
“It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina” is Hansard’s five-song tribute. It includes loyal covers of two of Molina’s best-received compositions, “Hold On Magnolia” and “Farewell Transmission,” either of which makes the entire EP worth owning. “Farewell Transmission” is especially melancholy and beautiful, and a reminder of how too many musicians leave us too soon.
To see Molina perform “Farewell Transmission,” just click on the video below. (Song starts at the 1:20 mark)
Great quote: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.” — Lady Gaga
Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, and saw them twice on their all-too-brief (though highly entertaining) reunion. Still I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this comment recently: The Replacements and REM were the Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the fucked up.
Great quote finale: From Jason Isbell, pretty much summing up my attitude toward writing about music in this or any other space — “I’m happy [for] anything that’s given me more of a home to do what I like to do.”
The famous Apollo Theatre — New York City, September 2014.
My wife’s words rang through my head, at times louder than the music: “Damn those stigmas.”
As parents of a child who has mental health issues, one of our largest fears is that she will use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Mental health and substance abuse are linked in another way, through the stigmas that prevent many people from talking about them openly and publicly — as the illnesses they are, not just the poor choices we make.
A new organization, Facing Addiction, is working to change that perception. And they took a huge step Sunday with UNITE to Face Addiction, a five-hour rally and concert that drew thousands from across the U.S. to the National Mall Sunday in Washington, D.C.
Described as the first of its kind, the rally featured a terrific lineup of performers who cut across genres and generations. Featured were Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh, Jason Isbell, The Fray, John Rzeznik of The Goo Goo Dolls, Jonathan Butler and Tommy Sims, who wrote “Change the World.” All have faced substance abuse issues or been affected by someone close who faced addiction.
The audience, a vast majority of them recovering addicts or people who had lost a loved one, slowly grew throughout the damp and dreary day. Many carried signs with pictures of loved ones who had been lost to addiction; others were there because they are in long-term recovery. They cheered each of the artists, but individual songs or performers brought many to tears, especially when The Fray — a personal highlight, along with Isbell — performed “How to Save a Life.”
Facing Addiction, a recently formed organization that has been working to focus attention on the cause, organized the rally. Officials with the organization say addiction affects one in three households and 85 million people in the U.S. It also cuts across all class, socioeconomic, and racial lines.
Among the speakers: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; Michael Botticelli, a recovering addict who now is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and syndicated talk-show host and surgeon Mehmet Oz. Others included Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney, whose role in the sitcom “Mom” drew loud cheers; and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is battling a family legacy of substance abuse and mental illness.
The biggest piece of news at the event was when Murthy, surrounded by three of his top staff, announced that his office has commissioned the first-ever Surgeon General’s report on alcoholism and addiction.
And the numbers are there to justify it: Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in people under 50. Stigma or not, that is a sobering fact.
Damn those stigmas.
Street sweeping — New York City, June 2015
The student-run Metropolitan Youth Theatre presents its second production this weekend — the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical "Rent."
Tickets are available at www.metroyoutharts.com for the show, which opened tonight and has three more performances — 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday — at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Suite LL, in McLean.
Jonathan Larson’s rock opera, which ran for 12 years on Broadway, is an ambitious undertaking for the student-run company, which was founded in 2014 by two Northern Virginia high school students. Its mission is to educate young actors and technicians about the challenges they will soon face in the professional world of theatre.
Students, most in high school, run all aspects of the company’s productions. Hayfield student Chad Vann is the artistic director and Lee student Sam Cornbrooks is the company’s producer. James Woods, who attends Metropolitan School of the Arts, is the musical director.
MYT is supported by Metropolitan School of the Arts and DC Metro Theater Arts. “Rent” is the second show produced by the group, which presented “The Last Five Years” in a sold-out run in late January.
You also can follow the company on Twitter (@MetroArtsYouth).
For more photos, see my album on Facebook.
Few things are sadder than seeing a stage, full of such life and vibrancy just a few days ago, empty except for the crew loading out.
But that’s what happens when a show closes. For those not familiar with the lingo, it’s called the “strike.” (Ironically appropriate, in this case…)
This morning, after dropping Ben off for school, I walked past the Neil Simon for the first time since Sunday’s closing performance, seeing the crates and the crew working in what seemed like organized chaos to me. It’s yet another difference between community and professional theatre; in this case, you have a lot of people who are paid good money to clean up afterward.
It’s still sad, however. And it made me do my own version of a circle back.
I circled back to last week, when suddenly people who thought the show would run for a lot longer raced to the theatre to see “Ragtime.” Several times, waiting after the show, I looked at the crowd standing outside in the frigid cold to get autographs and wondered: WHY?
In the short, three-plus block walk from the theatre to our apartment, I also thought of Alejando Escovedo’s song “The End,” written about the dissolution of a relationship. As the guitars build, Escovedo almost shouts, “Is this really the end?” repeatedly during the chorus.
I use music (along with writing) to process my thoughts and this was the song I played walking around the hospital in the final night before my father passed away. Sadly, the feelings were the same.
This show is not coming back; it really is the end.
If you have the time, take a look at this video of “Gene” the puppet, a creation by cast member Benjamin Schrader, talking to cast members about the show’s closing. It will make you smile.
2012 got off to a great start as we celebrated New Year's Eve at the Kennedy Center following a Billy Elliot performance.
Then, between shows on New Year's Day, the cast held a "Hootenanny." The event, held every four to six weeks, gives cast members a chance to showcase their amazing collection of talents, usually between shows on a weekend.
According to Wikipedia, the phrase is an Appalachian colloquialism that was used in early 20th century America to refer to things whose names were forgotten or unknown. In this usage it was synonymous with thingamajig and whatchamacallit, as in "hand me that hootenanny." Hootenanny was also an old country word for "party". Now, most commonly, it refers to a folk-music party.
Nicholas performed a solo at his spring Vital Signs concert at Elon University last night, covering "The Cave" by Mumford & Sons. Video is below.
If you know me, you know how much I love music. All kinds, live or studio. Ones that play to the masses — there’s nothing better than a good pop song — and ones that draw a handful to each show.
My primary requirement is that the majority of the instruments be played by humans, not machines. Also, as a writer, I greatly appreciate anyone who can tell a story through words and/or emotions. The best performers can do both.
Here are a few other thoughts I’ve had recently…
• I'm an Elvis fan. Not a member of the cult, but one who recognizes his appeal, talent, and ability to cut across generations. (I'm also a big fan of the TCB band. Damn, they were good.)
• Have you ever listened to an album and wondered, "What were they thinking when they chose THAT as the first single?"
• Jon Dee Graham has long been one of my favorite artists, in part because he’s so freaking smart about the small things in life. Here is a quote in which he paraphrases Bruce Springsteen, another favorite:
"Springsteen was here for South By Southwest and, the one thing that he said that really just killed me, because once again, it proves to me that artists are all the same…he said you must have absolute confidence and you must doubt completely, and you must be as brave as possible but you need to worry all the time, and you need to know that you're the best act in town and yet at the same time know in your heart you suck. And that's it, right there, that's it."
• Milkduds and Merlot: Sounds like the end of a long day, the name of a country song ... or both.
• And finally, a belated RIP to Etta James, who died in mid January. This song is not one of her best known, or even one of her best, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
What a night. The 2nd Annual Born for Broadway benefit also served as a mini-Ragtime reunion, with performances by Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, and Leigh Ann Larkin (from the D.C. cast), plus Ben and the other kids from the show.
The kids performed “Alone in the Universe” from “Seussical.” The video combines footage from the rehearsal and performance.
Directed by Ragtime's Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the evening of pop songs, showtunes, and standards also featured Lesley Gore, Glee's Jenna Ushkowitz, Memphis' Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, Jim Brochu and many, many more. Thanks to Marcia and organizer/event founder Sarah Galli for allowing me to take pictures.
Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.
An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ.
Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.
Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.
Go to “Fathers, Family, & Austin” to read my blog entry on last month's trip.
John Lennon's acoustic guitar at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — Cleveland, December 2014
Realizing I've been on a Jon Dee Graham kick recently, this song has been been stuck in my head for days. Any father/son (or parent, for that matter) should be able to identify... Just great.
BTW, Graham will perform — solo, I think — at Hill Country BBQ in DC on June 16 and in NYC the following evening. Jill has agreed to go again with me to the DC show; would love it if friends would join us. And NYC peeps, you'll be hearing some great stuff...
Meanwhile, Graham and his son, William, have donated a song to the Hallman Flood Relief mixtape, now available here on Bandcamp for a minimum donation of $15. It’s great music — 36 songs in all — for a great cause: Austin musicians helping one of their own faced with terrible damage from last month’s flooding.
Mark Hallman is a “renowned and loved” producer/musician/mastering engineer/studio owner whose home suffered severe flooding when storms struck Texas and Oklahoma in May. About 90 percent of the songs on the mixtape were produced, recorded, mixed and/or mastered by Hallman and Andre Moran at Hallman’s Congress House studio.
Artists on the mixtape include The Painted Redstarts, the band led by Graham’s son, William; Eliza Gilkyson, Betty Soo, Danny Schmidt, Charlie Faye, Randy Weeks, Sara Hickman, Will Sexton, and The Belle Sounds. Unlike most of these compilations, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch, and it’s a terrific primer for anyone interested in the music being made in the Live Music Capital of the World.
So very freaking proud of this young man, covering Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." Part of a weekly series of videos that Elon University's Vital Signs group is posting to promote its Member Highlight Monday series.
The group has worked on the project since January to highlight the individual talents of current members and alumni. Each group member covered a song of his/her choice and filmed a video to go with it. The videos will be released each Monday for the next 15 weeks.
To check out more videos, go to Vital Signs' Facebook page here and give them a like!
I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.
Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.
Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.
Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave Alvin, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.
Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.
This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.
And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.
These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.
The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.
After missing them repeatedly for years, I saw The Replacements live for the second time in nine months on Friday night. A crowd of around 3,000 stood in the jammed Echostage in Washington, D.C., to catch a glimpse of a band that shapes my life as much today as it did during its 1980s heyday.
Jill went with me to the concert, which was loud, fun, and slightly frustrating because it was tough to see the band tear through its catalogue during the two-hour show. However, I have to agree with Mike Snider’s assessment in USAToday, especially this part:
“The Replacements rekindled the mixture of punk ferocity and melodic musicianship that, two decades ago, brought them a die-hard following and, eventually, major-label acceptance. Noticeably absent was the messiness of the past when the band would sabotage live performances, especially important gigs…”
I didn’t take photos this go-round, but you can see my pictures from the band’s Forest Hills, N.Y., show in the Performances section and read an earlier essay on why the band means so much to me here.
In 1991, I was fortunate to have an hour-long, one-on-one interview with BB King at a hotel in Houston. The interview covered much of the terrain you'll see in the various tributes to the blues legend, but I have three random — though distinct — memories from that day.
First, King had the biggest hands of anyone I've ever met, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali (that's another story). Just huge, with a diamond on his left hand that could have paid for my college education.
Speaking of college, I asked King about Charles Brown, a blues pianist from Texas City who started around the same time and was then enjoying a revitalized career thanks to Bonnie Raitt. King said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician. "We were all jealous of him because he went to college," King said. "He had so many more options than the rest of us."
Finally, King said his only option was to work harder and longer than everyone else. "This is what I do," he said in a matter of fact manner. "I don't play golf. I can't imagine playing golf."
This is pretty freaking cool. Check out the boy tapping in this cover of "Shut Up & Dance," performed by members of the "Newsies" tour cast as part of the Disney Playlist Sessions. The session was taped during the tour's stop at the Smith Center in Las Vegas last week.
Lesley Gore performs "Out Here on My Own" at Born for Broadway — New York City, May 2010. The singer known for the mid 1960s hit "It's My Party" died this week at age 68.
One of my favorite songs. Seems appropriate as the big 5-0 arrives.
Life with Jeremiah:
Jeremiah marks his one-year anniversary of living with us this month. No question, the last year has been an adventure for him and for us, but we are extremely proud of the progress he has made in a bunch of areas — academically, socially, and in his dance/performing arts training. He’s a sweet kid.
Still, some things continue to need work, such as his understanding of Rock & Roll 101, for which he is currently in remediation. Examples last night at the dinner table include:
• “Little Richard — is that the guy who sang ‘Hello’?” (Lionel Ritchie — same initials, slightly different approach.)
• “Liberace — was he a member of Queen?” (No, that would be Freddie Mercury. Let’s just leave it at that.)
If the Google translator app worked on teen speech:
• "But I don't have time" = "It's not something I want to do, and I only make time for the things I want to do."
• "I'm (fill in the blank) years old. You don't have to watch over me so closely" = "Give me freedom. Give me liberty. Just don't make me pay for my car, insurance or cell phone."
• "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you were saying" = "I was too busy ignoring you to hear what you said."
• "Of course I have proper table manners." = "I know how to text surreptitiously with one hand."
Age is not the only reason parents have gray hair.
The Replacements reunion show that I shot and later blogged about in September made the New York Times list of top 10 concerts for 2014. Critic Jon Pareles, writing about the September 19 show at Forest Hills Stadium, said: "Paul Westerberg has been touring with the reconstituted Replacements (original bassist, two sidemen) since 2012. By the time the band reached New York City, it could have been some routine oldies act exploiting its tuneful, self-sabotaging 1980s glory. It wasn’t; it was erratic, raucous, yearning, funny and triumphantly heartfelt by the end, buoyed by a wildly supportive crowd."
The national tour casts of “Newsies” and “Cinderella” came together Monday night in Chicago for “Seize the Slipper,” a benefit for Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. The event at the club Sidetracks raised more than $8,500 for the organization as the two casts, which are in Chicago until Jan. 4, performed almost 20 numbers during their regular Monday night off from the tours.
The best part of the evening was getting to see all four kids dressed up and together to support a worthy cause. And Kate even had a chance to meet and get her picture taken with a man dressed in drag — Mrs. Claus in fact. I didn't realize until recently that this was a lifelong goal of hers...
Postscript: This is by far the most popular album that I have posted to Facebook, with more than 550 "likes" in just a few days. Thanks to everyone for your support; if you'd like to see the rest of the pictures, go here.
Paying homage to Elvis on what would have been his 80th birthday — Memphis, Tenn.
The first time I tried to see The Replacements, my grandfather died. The second time I tried to see them, almost three years later, my grandmother followed suit. Two years after that, the band broke up.
Given the seeming effect on my family’s mortality, I chalked it up to a curse, a weird piece of karma that seemed on the fringes of a fate that seemed to have befallen one of the most influential groups of my generation.
Of all the bands I listen to, and I listen to a lot, The Replacements are the ones that should have made it. They should have been playing to stadiums of 15,000 instead of clubs of 150 and small venues of 1,500.
On Sept. 19, they played in a stadium — one that held the U.S. Open for more than 50 years and, like the band, is making a comeback of its own as a neighborhood concert venue. Unlike the other times, I was there, despite some hurdles.
But no one in my family died — thank God. And the show was even better than I imagined.
Explaining my lifelong affair with music is difficult. As a writer and photographer, I love songwriters who capture life’s little moments and tell complete, visual stories with smart and clever turns of phrase in 2½ to 4 minutes. I greatly admire musicians — especially guitarists, piano players, and a good horn section — whose passion seeps through every chord change, whether you hear them live or in the studio. And, even though I can’t carry a tune, I appreciate singers who can push the limits of their instrument to bring intense feelings of emotion and release to the songs.
My grandmother, who loved music of all kinds well into her 80s, believed very strongly that the best songs are reflections of their time in a way that's somehow timeless. It’s through this lens that I hear music. How does it relate to a specific era? Does it sound dated, or is does it mean as much today as it did when it was first released?
I’m not nostalgic for my childhood or, even worse, my teenage years or my early to mid 20s when I hear music. I’m looking for timeless, and for the most part, Paul Westerberg’s songs are just that, just like the cover songs the band plays (some successfully; others not so much).
I did not become a Replacements fan until "Let it Be," then became obsessed when “Tim,” their major label debut, was released in 1985. At the time I was just really starting to get into contemporary music, having grown up on a steady diet of Elvis and the 50s groups and singers that my father and grandmother loved.
“Tim” was unpredictable, a mashup of different genres and styles that combined yearning and attitude, disenchantment and hope, anger and heartache, with a sound that ranged from acoustic to punk. You could never tell where the band was going next, but their diversity of styles shaped my tastes in a way that no group has done before or since.
Like too many of the great ones, The Replacements’ influence was much greater than their reach, with only one song approaching the Billboard Top 50 while they were active. They alternated brilliance with self-destruction, always coming this close to success before imploding on themselves in some way.
When they broke up in 1991, it felt right at the time, but wrong nonetheless.
“God, what a mess, on the ladder of success. Took one step and missed the whole first rung.”
I followed Westerberg’s career — in part because he was the chief songwriter and lead singer — the closest after the band drifted apart. I read the stories about the demise of Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist who was fired from the band for erratic behavior and a Keith Richards-like habit (though, sadly, not professional constitution) of ingesting various legal and illegal substances.
Westerberg stopped touring in 2005 and, despite the reissue of The Replacements’ catalog three years later, stubbornly refused to get the band back together. Chris Mars, the original drummer, became a painter. Tommy Stinson, the teenage bass player, started lucrative gigs with Guns ‘n Roses, among other bands.
It wasn’t until Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob Stinson as the lead guitarist, suffered a massive stroke a couple of years ago that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson decided to resurrect the band’s name. They recorded a five-track EP to launch the Songs for Slim project, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for Dunlap's medical care, and — just as important — enjoyed it so much that they decided to play together again.
The tour — actually a series of one-off concerts at major summer festivals — coincided with my layoff last May. The timing, along with the easy availability of concert tapes that surfaced as mp3s within days after each show, gave me a chance to listen to the group in a way I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. And ironically, as I approach 50, the lyrics resonated in a way they hadn’t when I was in my 20’s.
I hoped Westerberg, Stinson, and the replacement Replacements would come our way at some point. When they announced the Forest Hills concert, I had my chance. And, short of family members passing away, I was determined to take it.
Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential section of Queens. It hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 and, despite some renovations and the addition of some seating and a permanent stage, remains the same horseshoe-shaped concrete landmark befitting of the quiet neighborhood.
Concerts were held during the stadium’s heyday, with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Steisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix and others performing there. The venue was reopened to live music last year, with a strict curfew of 10 p.m. to keep the residential peace, and was a perfect place for an outdoor show just before the official start of fall dawned.
Since taking up photography professionally, I’ve tried to shoot concerts on the now-rare times that I go, partly because of the challenge of live events and in part because I want to capture the groups that I enjoy. The ubiquity of camera phones has made it impossible to police the taking of stills and video, but Forest Hills had a strict policy of no professional cameras.
I tried to contact the promoter, the band, and the stadium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, I just decided to say to heck with it, take my camera and see what happened. Because Jill couldn’t come due to circumstances at home, I was meeting our friend Bernadette at the venue, so I had some extra time.
Arriving an hour before the two openers — Deer Tick and The Hold Steady — began, I was promptly stopped by security and told I couldn’t take the camera in. Rather than take the train back to Manhattan where I was staying — there was no parking at the stadium — I managed to convince security to let me in with the camera, but no battery.
The security guard, a nice guy that I chatted with for a half hour, told me as I left that I could get the battery back if I could somehow manage to swing a press pass. He too had been a photographer and sympathized with my situation.
Walking in, I looked around the stadium and thought back to all of the events and history that had occurred there. Readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by history, an interest that dates back to my grandmother and dad. I walked over to Guest Promotions and talked to the two women sitting at the table as the sun set, talking to them about the stadium, the musicians that performed there, and my desire to photograph my favorite band. They too were sympathetic, but said they could not give me a press pass.
Instead, they did me one better, giving me a sticker that allowed me to go to the VIP tent and score free beer and food. I showed it to the security guard, noted my dumb fortune, and he fished the battery out of his pocket.
“I guess it’s your lucky day.”
Lucky, indeed. The pass allowed me to walk through the floor area and snap away, although I also wanted to experience the band from my vantage point in the lower bowl (which happened to be close to the VIP tent). When I returned to my bleacher seat off stage left, I had a stack of photos on my SD card and the feeling of finally being close to the band I could have seen almost 30 years before.
That allowed me to sit back (and stand from time to time) and listen to The Replacements perform their catalogue of should-have-been hits. This time, however, it felt like a valedictory lap as the crowd sang along to a band firing on all cylinders. Song after song, anthem after anthem, I found myself moved during each verse chorus verse.
I could never be a music critic. I love what I love too much to pick things apart and I dismiss the stuff I don’t like with barely a passing glance. A flubbed lyric here, a missed chord there — it means little to me if emotion and passion are in its place. Watching The Replacements become the rock stars they once ached to be, seeing the faces and hearing sing-along shouting of fans old and new, was more than worth it.
You could not help but join in, too.
Dave Alvin at the Birchmere — Alexandria, Va., July 2014
Sheryl Crow performing — Phoenix, Ariz., November 2009
The photo above is one of my favorites of my oldest son, Nicholas, performing with Vital Signs in concert at Elon University. Nicholas just was re-elected to a second term as president of the growing a cappella group, which is hosting its first benefit for children with Down's Syndrome in February 2014.
Below is a video of Nicholas' beautiful solo at his fall concert. Here, he performs "Pompeii" by the group Bastille.
The story goes something like this…
In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.
It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.
My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.
“Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”
The “guy” was Elvis Presley.
Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.
I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.
I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.
Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.
In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.
For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.
Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.
Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.
The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.
Still, Elvis seemed to top them all.
The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.
The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)
Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)
Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.
To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.
1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.
By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.
The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.
My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.
We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her.
Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.
“Elvis is dead.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.
Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.
There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.
The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.
The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.
And that means more than you know.
About the Photos:
Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."
I can’t put a finger exactly on when I became a Lou Reed admirer — fan is a word he alternately would have loathed and loved. But I'm sure he would have appreciated that I came to admire his music — or at least a great deal of it — in backward fashion.
My appreciation started, I guess, when a neighbor passed me “New Sensations” in the mid 1980s, roughly 20 years after Reed founded the Velvet Underground and more than a decade after his only hit ("Walk on the Wild Side").
At the time, I was living in Houston’s museum district, an area that opened my eyes in ways my parents had always feared. But in the grand scheme, it was a quiet rebellion; I sat on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle while working nights and going to school during the day, unsure of what the next chapter would bring.
Lou Reed’s music — along with that of X, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and, somewhat belatedly, The Replacements and The Clash — pointed me in directions that clashed with the grounded emotional reality I experienced growing up. I still find those directions intriguing and exciting, especially from a distance. To this day, I can quote Reed’s 1989 album “New York” verbatim, and find myself looking for the very characters he describes when I walk the city’s streets.
My last trip to New York was in late October, the day after Reed died of liver failure at age 71. In the brief time I was there, I made sure to find a minute to walk to the Chelsea Hotel, where a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and notes had been placed at the entrance. Someone also put a small plastic Ziploc with a powdery substance among the memorial items.
While I stood there, a woman bent over and moved it out of sight. Another woman said, “He wouldn’t have cared.”
Two doors from the Chelsea, painters were finishing work on the bright orange and green sign for a new 7-11 that's opening on West 24th Street. On that note, I get the feeling Reed — always the social critic of cool — would have had something caustic to say.
Or maybe not. I’m not sure.
Moving backwards: My first exposure to Reed's music and the Velvet Underground came the summer before my freshman year in college, when I picked up and consumed Edie, the biography of socialite and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. Masterfully presented in an oral history format by Jean Stein and editor George Plimpton, Sedgwick’s story is part of the bigger tale that was New York in the mid to late 1960s, a tale that also included the Velvet Underground.
For a brief period, Sedgwick was the brightest star of Warhol’s voyeuristic faux reality show, so captivating that she inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like A Woman.” But within five years, she was dead of a drug overdose at age 28.
Edie never stood a chance, given the Warhol-level indulgences and the Sedgwick family tree — a generationally unstable lineage with a history of great wealth, mental illness, breakdowns, and suicide.
At the time, I did not understand why someone with so much would piss everything away in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Thirty years after reading the book, I still have trouble reconciling her path toward self-destruction, although I’m more understanding than ever of the causes and of how fragile life can prove to be.
Just after finishing Edie, I met and quickly became good friends with Brian, a fellow student at the University of Houston. I didn’t have many male friends growing up — it’s always been easier for me to talk to women — but we formed a bond that lasted for more than 20 years. He was like the older brother I never had.
When we met during my freshman year, Brian was a sportswriter at the university newspaper, an erstwhile English major on the slowest possible path to graduation. He was putting his life on the right path, he said, in the same sentence claiming he had been so stoned that he could not remember his last three years of high school. Going back to school at 23, he said, was his chance to make something of his life.
Brian, who was five years older, and I bonded over sports, music, movies, and journalism. We talked about New York and he handed me my first copy of the Village Voice. For a naive kid from Texas, this seemed like a big deal.
Over time, I learned of the struggles he had growing up. He was the oldest child of alcoholic parents involved in a toxic, codependent relationship. Brian had identified his parents’ issues and tried to work his way through them, but life proved to be a constant struggle to get over his self-created humps.
For a time, our lives paralleled. We participated in each other’s weddings. He had children. I had a child. Then I moved from Texas to North Carolina, and naturally the time between our conversations lengthened, buoyed when I returned and we managed to connect in person.
He did not understand why I left my first marriage, at least in the beginning. I did not understand why, if he was as miserable as he claimed in his relationship, he did not do the same. Brian insisted that he could not leave his children, no matter how many times he wished his parents had divorced when he was growing up.
A few nights ago, I found a Fresh Air segment devoted to Lou Reed’s life and legacy. The primary interview subject was Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — no easy task given the songwriter’s notoriously prickly nature.
The program, which featured clips of interviews with former band members and others close to Reed, was an intriguing listen. But one quote in particular stuck with me:
"Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song,” Bentley said. “He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be.”
And he did, writing honest pieces about life on the fringes, with New York as his backdrop and muse. To the listener with a pop ear, much of his music can be tough sledding, although he wrote some cool pop songs. (I’m not a huge fan of feedback and extended drone, and “Metal Machine Music” is almost as bad to me as “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage,” for many of the same reasons.)
The riches for the reader, and occasionally the beauty, are found in the lyrics. The best are three- to 10-minute short stories and poems bursting with vivid characters and the spectre of tragedy lurking nearby.
Like his parents, Brian had a love-hate relationship with alcohol and the blues. He fought his demons, but the demons fought back. Eventually, in 2005, he and his wife separated — apparently for good this time. He also took a leave of absence from his job.
No matter how many times I asked him to call if he needed help, I had to initiate the conversation, and for a dozen years we spoke every four to six weeks. In 2005, however, we talked only three times — once when I went back to Texas, and at two other points on the phone.
The last conversation, in June one weekend evening when I was working late, seemed like old times. We didn't talk much about families, but had a passionate discussion about sports and music. The Houston Astros were making a run that eventually would land them in their first World Series, and now that I lived near Washington, D.C., we trash talked about the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. We finished the call saying we needed to have more talks like that one.
In early September, two weeks before the Redskins/Cowboys game on Monday night football, I called his office and was told he wasn’t there. I also called his apartment, but got no answer.
On Sept. 19, the Redskins won 14-13 on two huge plays. I thought about calling again, but was leaving for a meeting in Las Vegas that week and decided to wait. While in Vegas, I received a call from a mutual friend who told me the news.
Brian hadn’t seen the game. In fact, when had I called his office earlier in the month, he already had been dead for two weeks. He had taken his own life, apparently so miserable, tortured, and hopeless that he decided to leave his sons behind after all. His soon-to-be-ex had buried him with no obituary notice and no calls to his friends.
Apparently no one at his office knew what to say either.
I’ve thought many times about Brian, but standing outside the Chelsea Hotel and its many ghosts last month, I felt his spirit more strongly than I have in years. Listening to the Fresh Air program, I felt it again. And I feel it every time I think of Reed's song “Perfect Day,” one thing that prompted me to write this sort-of eulogy eight years too late.
It’s easy to be lulled into the lyrics at the start of the song, “Just a perfect day/drink Sangria in the park/And then later/when it gets dark, we go home … Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.”
But then the song turns dark: “Just a perfect day/you made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good.” And even darker still with the refrain at the end: “You're going to reap just what you sow/You're going to reap just what you sow.”
I miss you, my brother. RIP, Brian.
And the same to Lou, too.
Ron Bohmer, Born for Broadway — New York City, May 2012
This photo means a lot to me for a host of reasons.
I have served as a photographer for “Born for Broadway” for the past two years, and in the process learned a great deal about the need to raise money for paralysis-based organizations such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. It gave me a chance to meet some wonderful people, among them Sarah Galli, who created the show as a student-sponsored cabaret at Marymount Manhattan College. She started the program after her brother sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1998 diving accident.
The gala, performed in New York, also has served as a mini-reunion for my son, Ben. He has performed in the show under the direction of his “Ragtime” director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and reunited — albeit briefly — with a number of his fellow cast members from the production.
The first time, in 2010, was emotional because “Ragtime” had closed prematurely in January of that year. “Born for Broadway” served as an opportunity to reunite the four kids — Little Boy and Little Girl and their understudies (one of whom was Ben) — who had performed in the show. It also gave audience members a chance to hear Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform “Our Children” — a song that still brings a tear to my eye.
The second show came as Ben was rehearsing in New York, five weeks before he finally became “Billy Elliot.” He was the youngest entertainer to solo in the event, and performed “I Can Do That” from “A Chorus Line,” bringing his career at that point full circle.
I distinctly remember him auditioning for his manager with a dance to “I Can Do That” when he was 9. Seeing him perform it for an audience that had come to see Broadway and TV stars donating their time and talent, with absolute self confidence after a long day of rehearsals on a rainy New York evening, was both gratifying and fulfilling.
That I managed to get this picture of Ron Bohmer, who starred as Father in “Ragtime,” performing the show’s “Journey On” at the conclusion of the event is just a bonus.
I picked this photo today because the fourth annual cabaret was announced this week. It will be performed at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 at 54 Below, less than a block from our old apartment on West 54th Street. And I’m planning to take pictures again.
Each summer, which is when we see Nicholas for the most sustained period of time, the kids find a new musical to obsess over. Usually this starts with Nicholas and spreads to the rest of the troupe like swine flu, eventually taking over all of our lives and not letting go until the next one comes along.
A quick rundown of just the last five years:
This does not include shows the kids perform in with Metropolitan Fine Arts Center. Think about the entire Disney canon there, plus "Annie" and "The Wizard of Oz," and you can see why I made the "obsession" reference.
What do I mean by circle backs?
Considering that Jill was pregnant with Ben and Emma when she did "Annie Get Your Gun" — they made their stage debuts in utero — I can't wait to see what happens when that one gets revived. Of course, that show also has a circle back of its' own: It was the first Broadway show Jill and I saw together as a couple.
It won't be the last.
Remember how I said that irony is not dead? Let me prove it to you.
Today, I should sing “Happy Birthday” to my oldest son, except that the best present I could give him is not singing at all.
“Dad, please… I mean, really, I’m not being rude … but I’d rather hear the cats.”
Yep, I have a voice that stands out in a crowd — for all the wrong reasons. My solution is to be the Milli Vanilli/Britney Spears/Janet Jackson of the “Happy Birthday” set. (Except that you wouldn’t want to see me dance, either.)
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s December (although retailers would have you believe that the month started just before Halloween). It’s a month built for music, from carols to hymns to show tunes to “Happy Birthdays” and everything in between. And over the next 18 days, the height of the singing season, all four of my kids have birthdays.
Now there is irony, topped only by the fact that for 16 days, from this Friday through Dec. 27, I will have three 12-year-olds.
So as we kick off birthday month and continue through the holiday season, the best gift I can give to my children it to remain vocally silent. As the DJ says, this one goes out to Nicholas, Emma, Ben, and Katharine — by request.
“Overture. Purple lights. This is it. The height of heights. And oh what heights we’ll hit… On with the show this is it.”
I come to you with empty hands
I guess I just forgot again
I only got my love to send
On Valentine's Day
I suck at Hallmark moments.
It’s not that I don’t try. Truly I do. I’ve bought cards, sent flowers (live and nearly dead ones), delivered champagne, searched out romantic restaurants. But mostly my inner barking seal seems to come out and, well, bark.
Somehow, in those connect-the-dots moments between Christmas, Groundhog Day, and the most romantic day of the year, I see my shadow, declare six more weeks of winter, and hibernate until it’s too late.
There's so much I want to say
But all the words just slip away
The way you love me every day
Is Valentine's Day
Unfortunately, my sense of bad timing also can be applied to birthdays, and odd-numbered years that coincide with my wedding anniversary. (Of course, the dysentery on Mother’s Day that year wasn’t a great choice either; I prefer to think of it as an extraordinary case of bad timing. It certainly was the last time I’ll opt for an all-you-can-eat buffet on a major holiday.)
If there is anything that convinces me that my inner nerd — complete with pocket protector — is capable of overwhelming my inner romantic, or that I should do everything in my power to eliminate the 11 federal holidays and 47 pre-programmed greeting card days from my life, it’s times like this.
For some reason, my situational Tourette’s kicks in, and I say or do something to screw it up. It feels like Butch and Sundance jumping off the cliff into the rapids below. The fall may not kill me, but I definitely cuss on the way down.
If I could I would deliver to you
Diamonds and gold; it's the least I can do
So if you'll take my IOU
I could make it up to you
Until then I hope my heart will do
For Valentine's Day
Thanks to Steve Earle, I can pass along what you have just read in the italic passages. I can pledge to try again, no matter what the fates may choose to say about it. And I can thank God for the 350 or so non-holiday opportunities that I have each and every year to say how much I love and cherish the wife and family I have.
I don’t need a Hallmark moment to tell me that. Fortunately for me, they don’t either.
I periodically take breaks from writing to concentrate on other things in life — job, spouse, children, the usual stuff. Ideas are constantly coming and going like cars on the autobahn, but something prevents me from turning them into something that’s at least somewhat entertaining.
Recently, when I’ve had the time to work on a blog entry or something for work, my brain/fingers don’t cooperate. When the brain is working – shower, in the car -- the time is never right. And then everything else gets in the way.
I realized earlier this week that I had not filed a blog entry since early July. Wondering why, I decided to check my version of a diary — status updates on Facebook. (Remember, all status updates start with your name. I try to finish the phrase by starting with a verb, but that’s not always successful.)
See if you notice a trend...
End of June:
• I've spent the days of summer (3 thus far) in a darkened auditorium taking pictures of my girls (and anyone else I could shoot) doing 5-hour rehearsals of "Grease" (w/dance recital material thrown in for good measure). It is almost July, and I still look like someone who has not had sun since 1998.
• It's been a good day ... on many levels. Wish Jill was here to celebrate the many things we all have to be thankful for. (To my editor friends, sorry for ending that last sentence in a preposition, but it's late.)
• Has had a wonderful day with Emma. Toured the Harry Potter Exhibition at Discovery Times Square (her version of nerdvana), ate treats at the Cake Boss cafe (see 13th b'day pics if you want to know why that's important), and had a good time with Ben, Neil and Ginno during the dinner break. It's been a lot of fun.
• Made the pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial with the kids tonight, something we do every time Nicholas is in town. I'm truly amazed by how much they have grown up over the past year.
• Congratulates Ben on his one-year anniversary in Billy Elliot! He has performed in 416 consecutive shows without missing a beat — a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old who also went to school full-time. We are very proud of you, son!!!
• Has another one of those weekends lined up. Jill is in Boone today and tomorrow moving her dad. Kate is at a camp. Emma is meeting me in NY tonight and we'll get Ben. Nick is in North Carolina and going out of town. Yes, it is summer...
• Survived the midnight premiere of the last "Harry Potter" and is at work while the kids sleep in...
• Has taken Ben and Neil McCaffrey (happy 13th birthday, Neil!) to the train station, is schlepping Kate to camp, and has seen Jill off to her meeting in Georgia. And it's not even 9 a.m...
• Took Katharine to a two-week wilderness camp today, a 520-mile roundtrip that featured three vicious storms, a 12-mile stretch of interstate that took an hour and a half to slog through, a few photos of rural Virginia, and a very happy 14-year-old. So I guess it was worth it...
• Is getting ready to leave NY with Ben, who after 451 straight performances in Billy Elliot is doing something he's never done in his professional life — taking a vacation.
• Had a great time with Jill and the kids. Of course, we had dinner and a show. Ben sang, Emma danced, Kate laughed (at herself, not her siblings), and Nick created food art in the middle of his plate. A typical family evening!
• Has put Ben on a NY bound train. Nicholas is heading back to NC with the McFarlands this afternoon, while Jill and the girls are returning from Wintergreen. As for me, I'm going home to take a nap, and it not even 7:30 yet...
• Had an amazing evening at Steve Earle's show (thanks again, Jill and kids), which reminded me of the power of music and how it can rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. As part of it, saw/heard a new favorite band called The Mastersons. Check them out on FB; some of the best new music I've heard in some time.
• Blew two tires just before 1 p.m. and thought that would be my news of the day. Just before 2, at a gas station next to a very pregnant woman, the earthquake hit. 45 seconds later, we stood there wondering what happened. She said, "I thought my water just broke." I told her, "I'm sure a lot of people felt the same."
• Presents the week in headlines: Ben as Michael; 4 tires and an earthquake; Kate in field hockey scrimmages; Nicholas off to college; finding a way home to VA in a hurricane watch with Emma. Next week's prediction: Frogs falling from the sky.
• Amid unprecedented plans to shut down NYC, Emma is on a roll. We're scheduled to be on — literally — the last train out of the city, and she wants to stop at American Eagle one last time. My response: I've been shopping with you more this summer than at any time in your life, so why now? Fluttering her eyes (I swear), she said: You've raised my expectations.
• Is back in Virginia with Emma, exhausted and thankful that the train ride was smooth. Full, but smooth...
Given our lives for the past two years, it was an unusual summer. Nothing earth shattering, just a lot of back and forth, and — fortunately — some quality time spent with all of the kids. I guess you could say there hasn’t been much to blog at home about, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But now that it’s September, and things are picking up steam, I’m sure I’ll be back in this space soon.
“The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”
When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.
I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.
Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.
“I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.
She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.
“You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”
My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.
The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.
Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.
Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.
Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.
Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.
His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.
Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.
If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.
Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.
And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).
Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.
Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.
One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.
Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.
But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”
She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.
“In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”
“The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”
She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”
Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.
“ … I AM NOT FAITHLESS.”