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Category Archives: Music

The Lumineers for the New Year

As the new year approaches, it’s a time to pause and reflect on the past while simultaneously looking forward with some kind of hope and optimism. We all hope that in the next year we’ll get to all the things we’ve not managed to do in the past year, yet we also try to appreciate the good things that have befallen us and the difficulties we’ve gotten through. There’s a weird mix of looking back and looking ahead. Prime time for the complex mixture of joy and sorrow that this blog explores.

So, for my year-end, year-beginning musical offering, I give you The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love.”

The Lumineers have been playing together eight or so years, but have just had their first (rather large) commercial successes in the past year with the release of their first album and two Grammys. They have a lot to look forward to, but, as they expressed in this Rolling Stone interview, they’re aware of the dangers in that. To me, they are young and “new,” but they also have a bit of maturity and nostalgia in their tone. And there’s nothing like a touch of the strings to bring a bit of melancholy to the fore.

I picked “Stubborn Love” for a couple of reasons. The song notes that “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all,” certainly one of my themes, but also speaks to the need to “Keep your head up, keep your love.” This last is a mantra I can embrace.

And I don’t just mean romantically. We give way too little credence and attention to other kinds of love—family and friendship. I’ve been feeling very nostalgic lately about all the friends I seldom see, and in fact may never see again. Facebook is fun in that it keeps us all marginally connected, but sometimes I have to ponder that if there’s someone I haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years, will I ever again?

Here’s hoping we all get to see those people again sometime. And that 2013 is a very good year.

And here’s a terrific 30-minute live session with The Lumineers that also ends in “Stubborn Love” but contains a wider selection. If you have the time, of course, spend a little of it listening to this and remembering all the loves that stubbornly persist.

P.S. The Lumineers have their own website, but there seems to be some problem with it today. Check it out another time. Or connect via The Lumineers amazon page.

Thoughts About Roxanne

Last night on the way home through the dark after an evening errand, as Bruce and I sped along the 417, Cream’s “Crossroads” came on the radio. Instantly, I had a craving to listen to some John Mayall. This kinda surprised me, since I was vaguely aware that Mayall was not part of Cream, which consisted of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.

When I got home, though, and looked up all that past music history, I found that Eric Clapton and John Mayall had indeed spent plenty of time playing together in roughly that same time period. I should not have been the least bit surprised at the resonance between their styles.

It’s odd, though, how one musician becomes a classic icon, as Clapton has, and another plays on in relative obscurity. Of course, that obscurity is relative—as it turns out, Mayall is still touring in Europe and the U.S. and has put out 40 albums since The Turning Point (1969) that burst into my mind last night. In addition, he’s put out several limited-release recordings of live performances, the most recent in 2011. Certainly anyone following the blues will have heard of John Mayall.

Perhaps his most famous song, “Room to Move,” with his hallmark harmonica-playing, is also from The Turning Point, but the one that I always remember is the sexy, patient, subversive, pensive “Thoughts About Roxanne.” Also from The Turning Point is “The Laws Must Change,” which I include here, too, and which also features the harmonica. Mayall’s was a protest song about Civil Rights, but it’s interesting that this past week we had some shifts in laws, too—legalizing recreational marijuana use in two states (Colorado and Washington) and gay marriage in three more states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington).

You can listen to “Room to Move,” or a whole host of other samples on Mayall’s own listen page (scroll down; for some reason, the top of the page is just black).

Regina Spektor’s “Old Jacket”

“Stariy Pedjak” translated from the Russian as “Old Jacket”:

I’ve worn my jacket far too long,
It’s getting shabbier and frailer.
And so I take it to a tailor
To see if something can be done.

I tell him, “Now it’s up to you
To remedy the situation.
The magic art of alteration
Should make my life as good as new.”

It was a joke – but he takes on
The task with single-minded passion,
Bringing my jacket up to fashion
As best he can. The funny man.

He trims and sews without a word,
With such meticulous precision,
As if upon a sacred mission
To have my happiness restored.

He thinks I’ll try the jacket on,
And then – the clouds will part above me,
And I’ll believe that you still love me…
Well, think again. The funny man.

The Sun Is Shining

Tomorrow is 9/11—day of destruction, day of my friend’s birthday. Today as I drove home from the vet’s after Jupiter’s cancer check-up and my own entanglements with the human medical system, raindrops started pelting the car—big, enthusiastic raindrops out of nowhere. The sky was not exactly cloudless—it seldom is during Florida summers (and, yes, it’s still thoroughly summer here)—but I could see only a few fluffy white cumulonimbus ones floating in a blue sky.

For some reason, the kitschy Giles, Giles, and Fripp version of “The Sun Is Shining” popped into my head. The blue sky contrasting with the rain perhaps made me think of the cognitive dissonance of this song. And I was also reminded of September 11, 2001, when I had just started my teaching job at Bucknell University—how beautiful the weather was that day and what shared sorrow visited us at the same time. We could hardly believe that the weather continued to be so beautiful.

Perhaps “The Sun Is Shining” also came to me because last week I was revisiting The Prisoner and my college days, where I also had the pleasure to meet all kinds of new-to-me music such as that of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, as well as the better known King Crimson, and in metonymic rock ‘n’ roll fashion Fripp & Eno, 801, and Roxy Music. I had been so sheltered in my Tennessee country-rock-blues-pop universe that I had never heard of any of these. And I loved them. They were my ticket to a cool I had never experienced before. They exploded in my brain.

For one thing, I loved the fact that they could sustain both high drama and silliness. And “The Sun Is Shining” in all its smarmy truth suited my mood this afternoon. I hadn’t listened to the song in maybe decades, but it appeared in my mind full and funny, and I sang it through the pouring rain and sunshine all the way home.

Once in a Lifetime

Yesterday, a friend asked me about our cable/phone/TV services. He’s in the process of moving and making all these “choices.” My answer ran to four paragraphs and described the complex array of factors that forces us to choose three different purveyors of such services—our cell service was determined by a requirement for iPhones; that same provider was unable to guarantee us high-speed internet at home, which we feel we have to have to make our work (which we often do at home) more efficient; we chose yet another provider for TV because of supposed more variety and higher quality signal, though the damn thing goes off every time it rains. And it rains a lot in Central Florida.

I told my friend that I consider these overwhelmingly complicated “choices” a symptom of a right-wing, ultra-capitalist conspiracy to keep us all from doing things like writing poetry and thinking about the deeper meaning of life. We are so trapped in all these material goods and services that there’s really little time for anything else.

Today, I participated in yet another part of this—the phenomenon of the big box store. We recently had our guest bathroom repainted, and so we are decorating. We went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as well as Macy’s and Dillard’s. Such outings exhaust me and make me wonder what my priorities are. Most of these stores seem to me filled with so much garbage, ready to be consumed in its trendy moment and then discarded.

Yet, I do want to make my world beautiful. I need to start making more things beyond words again, or at least thinking about more ways to incorporate beauty than just by buying stuff. I think frequently about societies in which people work less and spend more time on their families and friends and the day-to-day arts that bring beauty into our lives—gardening, cooking, singing, playing music, drawing, arranging our homes, grooming ourselves, even the art of lovely kisses.

At any rate, in the car driving to the mall, we also heard the Talking Heads, performing their wonderful classic 1980 song, “Once in a Lifetime.” Since the song speaks to our tendency to go through life without paying full attention to where we are and the choices we are making, I thought I would share it today. It helps, David Byrne seems to know all too well, to have a sense of humor and an understanding that all humans struggle with the swift passage of time and occasional confusion about our lives. David Byrne is certainly an individualist, someone not packaged beyond recognition of his individuality, and I wish that more of us managed to remain unpackaged that way. So many forces in the work world tend to turn us into conformists. So, on Labor Day, it’s good to remember that our money, our house, our car, our trophy wife, our career—none of these things define who we are. It’s much more ineffable than all that.

Jolie Holland

The other day I posted about photographer Laurel Nakadate and her project where she cried every day for a year. She noted in an interview that Jolie Holland’s song “Mexican Blue” could be counted on as a good song to cry to. So here it is, though I didn’t find it all that sad myself—a clear sign that often we cry in association with certain memories or personal meanings.

At any rate, I listened to quite a few Jolie Holland songs over the past few days, and I found that her more recent “Rex’s Blues,” a cover of an old Townes Van Zandt song, was more moving to me. I also like the fact that Van Zandt was one of Holland’s Texas predecessors. So I give you that, too, on this rainy day when evil weather of all sorts has skirted Orlando but made its temporary home in Tampa. And just for the record, here’s the Van Zandt version.

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

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