Rock in Real Life: Vignettes Proving Why It Matters

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June 21, 2014: Wussy Night

My wife and I have had a difficult last year and a half. Her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer in February of 2013, and the two of us, with some hospice and much colleague support, were in charge of her care until she passed away December 8, 2013, and lived with her in her duplex for the final three months, plus one in the aftermath. Though we have had about seven months to “recover,” grief takes its time, the intensity of our situation was unusual, and Nicole was an only child, her mother’s only sibling having passed in October, and her maternal grandparents had died long ago. We try a lot to loosen the grip of memory and pain: meditating, communing with nature, reading, cranking the stereo, drinking, going on trips, socializing, just heading out the front door and improvising. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Weekends are often the hardest.

Tonight, after having a strong margarita apiece at our favorite Mexican restaurant, we headed into town for food and who-knew-what, storm clouds threatening, and the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy blasting from the car stereo. I had delayed playing the band for her; honestly, their name is not the greatest, and Nicole, as she should be, is a tough critic, especially when it comes to modern rock. But this band is special. Their noise–rough, passionate, often wild–matches their lyrics–searching, exclaiming, questioning, battling, reflecting–matches their singing–human, disharmonic, desperate, urgent–and I knew if the moment was right, she would fall under their spell. As we drove under alternating sunshine and dark-blue billows, she was able to take in some of their best songs (I’d carefully assembled the car iPod playlist): “Teenage Wasteland,” “Airborne,” “To the Lightning,” “Beautiful,” “North Sea Girls.” Though I have been thoroughly indoctrinated into this band’s method of expression, I even found myself caught off guard, getting a surprise “erection of the heart” (Lester Bang’s phrase about Elvis) while being swept away by the perfect chaos of “To the Lightning”‘s guitar and lyrical attack. This band is for real, in their prime, and should not be missed, whether you cloister yourself and just listen to tracks, hit the clubs, or just go out driving with the windows down and the stereo blasting.

Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver are one of the most believable couples in pop music history, at least from the point of view of the average listener. George and Tammy? too contrived (I mean the songs, but, I could almost mean their relationship), though their vocals made their tunes work. Exene and John: too arty, too boho, too sensationalistic. Fred and Toody: maybe not enough balance or specificity–they hang my moon, so I must tip light. But these two sell the idea that their songs are about working through the difficult dilemmas in life, with no loss of the god/devil in the details. After we listened to most of the playlist–and after stopping for food and hitting a couple bars–Nicole turned to me and said, “I like ’em.” If you’re still on the outside, and you use Spotify, try this replica of our evening’s soundtrack:

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June 22, 2014: Hangover Cure/Singing and Picking Spell Cast by Sinatra and Jobim

After the pure rush of Wussy’s music, beautiful weather (it never did rain–but the clouds vying with the sun were magnificent), great conversations on the streets (former school secretary and hubby, former student musician with new country aspirations) and in the pubs (jazz rap with bartender: Monk, Ella, Louis) of Columbia, we closed out at a new Logboat brewery that’s opened up in town, and spent a quiet, cool, beautiful evening huddling, talking, and plotting our next adventure. Grief must be aggressively confronted, almost daily. We came home full of great beer and a underlayer of tequila, walked the dog about a mile, watched a little of the original British Shameless, and went off to meet Morpheus. Unsurprisingly, when we awoke, we were groggy, and midmorning, trying to match some music with my state, I put on the complete Reprise sessions of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. Weird project: bossa nova was pretty much over by the time Ol’ Blues Eyes got the idea; also, the prospect of our greatest male singer of saloon songs and Tin Pan Alley gems taking on the sexy weirdness of Brazilian harmonies and rhythm, especially given that Sinatra’s magnificent voice was beginning to abrade a shade, seemed dubious. However, I’d already heard one track, “Insensatez,” that sort of knocked me out, so as I collapsed onto the couch, put the earbuds in, and scrolled to that playlist, I thought that the ease of the style and Frank’s crooning would be perfect for an hour’s catnap. Well, they were perfect–so perfect I could not sleep. Three things: obviously–and as was his habit–Sinatra had studied Jobim’s tunes, and thought deeply about them. Second, he’d consciously toggled from his very masculine and authoritative approach to a lyric over to, certainly, a more submissive and possibly more effeminate rendering (I don’t use that term pejoratively–I think it’s a striking trademark of bossa nova and samba singing). Third, the engineering is such that, along with hearing all the nuances of Jobim’s guitar-playing, you can hear Sinatra thinking, breathing, playing with sibilance–even (horrors!) giving in. It’s truly a masterpiece of risk-taking from a guy who’d already conquered the pop world several different times and still was thinking in terms of gambits, and the desire to be an even greater master. Honestly, this may be the great man’s last great album.

Once the rekkid was over–so was my torpor; in fact, I am sitting up, writing this, aren’t I? Pour a drink this evening, and if you have some contemplative time, activate this playlist–and adjust the volume so you can truly savor the aural details.

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