Rock and Roll Stories (For Real)

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The Violence of Chuck Berry

(The following is an excerpt from a memoir I am writing about my career in public education. Music had a lot to do with it, believe me.)

I have taught many unusual lessons in my career. This one was not only successful (though even the best lessons are only partially so), but its history also incorporated a lot of the best and not a little of the worst of this profession.

I was teaching middle school at the time and was graced with a bunch of seventh graders who were game for anything interesting I proposed. They would go on to make me look great many, many times that year. In this case, their lesson grew out of a screw-up on my part.

Striving to realize our school’s challenging goal of integrating curriculum, our instructional team had tried to design an opening unit focusing on the idea of “culture.” For three weeks, each teacher—math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education—would design his or her instruction so that it addressed that common theme, with the unit output being a single assessment of learning, as opposed to five separate tests. Theoretically, it still sounds neat to me—in fact, it drew me away from my previous job just for the chance to try it. In reality, it’s a bitch to pull off. Just trying to talk about it caused my first teaching team to implode.

At this point in my middle school tenure, however, I was surrounded with comrades willing to give the idea a shot. We planned our culture unit very meticulously, and, of course, I, likely the most enthusiastic among us, zipped through my part of the unit quicker than necessary, quite possibly leaving a few students in the dust in the process. So, confronted with an additional three lessons to write before my fellow teachers were finished, I decided to give the young’uns a dose of Missouri culture and rock and roll, as well as an opportunity to be creative.

I have often said, only half-joking, that I teach to subsidize my record collection. But I have always reinvested what I’ve gained from music in the stock of U. S. public schools’ pop culture curriculum (even though that exists only in my mind), and, in this case, I thought it would be valuable for my students to study how one great rock and roll writer reflected his rich and complicated culture. I prepared, with one eye on Fair Use guidelines, a handout highlighting some of Mr. Chuck Berry’s most revealing lyrics (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Back in the U.S.A.” among them), prefaced the lyrics with a quick artist bio, then guided the class through some close-listening of his music. As we proceeded, I led the kids in discussing what we had learned about U. S. culture circa 1955-1964, and advised them in taking a few notes. Then, over the next two periods, we put our shoulders to the wheel of the task: either write a song of your own, reflecting current U. S. culture, in Chuck’s style, or write a song about Chuck’s version of U. S. culture in your own style.

We had a blast, and, I must say, their work was very perceptive, witty, and—what do you know?—indicative of their having learned some valuable things! A couple students even brought guitars and played their songs. What we’d done leaked outside of our classroom (not surprising, in that my classroom was open to the hallways!), and we soon learned that our homeschool communicator’s college roommate had been Chuck’s lawyer at one point—and had his phone number.

One of the kids excitedly blurted, “Hey! Let’s send Chuck some of our songs!” You don’t say no to such a proposition, and soon the ex-roomie lawyer was on the horn to Chuck, asking him if he’d be up for reading some 7th graders’ tribute-songs to his bad self. Almost immediately, we received word back from Berry: send them on! We did a quick read-around, whittled our stack of 150 songs down to the best 30—we didn’t want to swamp ol’ Johnnie B. Goode!—slid them into a “vanilla envelope,” and put ‘em in the post. I didn’t really expect to hear from Chuck again; one of my long-time philosophies regarding ambitious enterprises is to expect absolutely nothing, which intensifies the exultation if things work out.

The next thing that happened was not a working-out.

A week after the culture unit’s conclusion—it worked nicely, but we were never to replicate its success beyond squeezing a birds-and-the-bees discussion into a “plant life cycles” unit—came our school’s “Back to School Night,” a late summer public ed staple during which parents are invited to meet their students’ teachers. These evenings usually prove a bit of a dog-and-pony show on our parts, but they are seldom high intensity, and, though the parents who most need to come don’t (usually they can’t—they are working), we usually at least mildly enjoy the opportunity to communicate to the grown-ups what we’re up to.

I didn’t expect to be called to the principal’s office. Via intercom.

When I stepped into her office, in front of Dr. Brown’s desk sat what I presumed to be a parent. On the parent’s lap lay her daughter’s English folder, open, with the Chuck Berry handout removed and unmistakably on display. I thought, “Oh shit—she’s a journalism professor and she’s got a copyright complaint. I knew I should have picked up those handouts after we finished writing!” I stood at attention, ready to be, perhaps justly, upbraided.

“This man does not have the moral fiber to be teaching my daughter!”

I take copyright seriously, but, well—wasn’t that a bit strong?

But this wasn’t about copyright. I could not have possibly guessed what it was about.

Remember that “quick artist bio”? I know what you’re thinking: no, I did not mention Chuck’s Mann Act scrape and accompanying prison stint, nor his naked photos with equally naked groupies, nor his tax evasion escapade, nor his exploits with video technology. Nor did this mother look those biographical tidbits up. (All idols have feet of clay, anyway.) Her concern was this: I was promoting violence in this unit.
She said that. Yes. And it was in the bio ‘graph I had written, branded into my memory since:“Berry’s machine-gun lyric delivery in songs such as ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (see below) influenced none other than Bob Dylan, one of this century’s greatest songwriters.” She read that aloud, from the handout, to my principal and me, with supreme confidence and righteous indignation, as if it were irrefutable proof I was a warlock.

Wait—what??

Actually, I think that is exactly what I said. I looked at Dr. Brown—an excellent administrator I had purposely followed over to this particular school, and a human whom I was desperately hoping valued loyalty at the highest level—and stared in disbelief. The mother stood, read the passage aloud again, and punctuated it with this outburst: “It says right here—‘machine-gun lyrics’!!!” (As you can see above, it didn’t quite say that.)

I confess to being a lifelong smartass, but my reply was simply self-defense: “Do you understand figurative language?”

“Don’t try to slither out of this!” At that moment, I was the closest I have ever been to deeply understanding Kafka. And “slither”? Really?

Keeping my far eye pleading with the principal and my near one defiantly on my judge, I patiently explained the point behind the lesson. No sale.

I looked directly at my boss and said, in quizzical defeat, “Well, you could move her daughter to another team.”

The parent exploded. “She’s not going anywhere!”

I was stunned. I reflected for about an eighth of a second and said, to them both, “This is ludicrous. I have sane parents to speak to. Do what you must. I cannot explain more clearly what my valid and very moral intentions were. Goodbye.” Turned on my heel, went back to my class, and pictured two die spinning through the air.

That absolutely wonderful administrator, Dr. Wanda Brown, refused to budge in giving me full support—that’s one of the reasons why she still hangs the moon for me. The parent pulled her daughter from regular classes for homeschooling (I am sure, much to the daughter’s embarrassment), though she continued to send her over to us in the afternoon for French classes (that’s bullshit, if you ask me—you teach her French, lady). In spite of the whackiest—and wackest—parental guidance episode I had ever witnessed in my career, I proceeded to have a better year than Frank Sinatra’s in the song. The story of the Chuck Berry unit, however, had not yet concluded.

Spring. That lovable homeschool communicator rolled into my classroom—he did, in fact, roll—and motioned me over.

“Chuck’s coming to play at a local high school next week. [He lives in Wentzville, Missouri, just down I-70 from Columbia.] He loved the packet of songs, and he’s authorized you to bring over the ten student writers you think would get the most out of hearing and meeting him. I’ll take care of the bus.”
As the generation of teachers prior to mine would have exclaimed, “My goodness!” (That is not what I said; I repeated the title of a well-known Funkadelic title exclamation, but my moral fiber is too strong to repeat it here.) Though selecting the ten students proved an exercise in pure agony, we were soon filing into the choir room of the local high school, where the kids were given a front-row seat—
a mere five feet from the man himself, at that moment swiveling on a stool, his guitar on his lap.
My natural high was so intense, I cannot remember much of Berry’s talk, other than that Chuck gave rap lyrics his seal of approval (good man, and my kids beamed). However, when the afternoon turned to Q&A, I received an electric charge greater than a cattle prod’s when one of my students, Sekou Gaidi (whom I must name for posterity’s sake), stood to ask a question. Sekou, who often underperformed for me despite frequently being the smartest person in the room (including me), had actually been inspired during the Chuck Berry unit and written a killer song. He was also a combination of a cannon packed a shade too loose and Sun Ra (a jazz genius who uttered many a head-scratcher in his day). I admit, as the charge passed through me, that I was holding my breath.

Chuck: “Young man, what would you like to ask?”

Sekou: “I don’t know who in the heck you are”—Unadulterated claptrap! He was laser-focused through the entire three-day lesson!—“but my mom wants you to autograph this book.”

This request was delivered dry as toast, with arm toward the stage, Chuck’s recent autobiography at its fingers’ end as if it were trash recently plucked off the ground. Sekou’s expression? Slot-mouthed.

Three beats of silence. Excuse me while I break to present tense.

Chuck—Chuck Berry—is staring (glaring? I couldn’t tell!) at Sekou, then a pudgy, bespectacled little seventh-grader wearing mauve sweats. I am covering my hands, shaking my head, fairly sure that this is one of Sekou’s jokes, stunned by his unholy audacity if I am correct, and dreading what might rush into the resulting vacuum of silence.

Into the void rush explosive guffaws, straight out of the gut of The King of Rock and Roll. Then out of the audience’s. Then out of mine. My team teacher is laughing so hard she’s tearing up, and my wife Nicole, who’d come along and would later get her own copy autographed, is staring at me in stunned, gaping delight. In fact, I am tearing up a little right now, staring at this screen, mouth agape as I recall it.

Thus properly ends one of the best lessons I ever taught, embedded in the history of which, as with all the best lessons, are other very important lessons. I can only be thankful that the lessons did not come at me with machine-gun-like rapidity.

Folk-Funk Comes to Hickman High School!

Bobby autographs

Bobby Rush signs student autographs after his show in Hickman High School’s Little Theater. (Photo by Notley Hawkins)

(This piece is part of a memoir-in-progress about my 30+-years of high school edumacating that may or may not appear some day in completed form.)

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

Bobby

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Bobby Rush and Us

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

See Columbia photographer Notley Hawkins’ classic shots from the show here, and do yourself a solid and grab Omnivore Records’ stellar four-CD career summation of Rush, Chicken Heads, here!

When The Pierced Arrows Brought It to The Kids

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“…they won’t wear your t-shirts now….”

Local H, “All the Kids Are Right”

Through a good friend, I had heard of Dead Moon in the mid-’90s: “They’re garage rockers, but their lead singer’s about 50 and has been playing since the ’60s.” I had checked out their album Trash and Burn, which was lean, mean, raw, and wiry, with vocals that reminded me of Bon Scott’s, but, at the time, I was being deluged by so much music and stuff-o’-life that the rekkid got lost in the shuffle, even though it spoke directly to things that matter most to me about rock and roll. When they played a club here around the same time, I knew about it–but it was on a weeknight and, being a good-boy teacher for the moment (I was erratic in that area, at best), I skipped it. To what will be, I am sure, my eternal regret.

Fast forward to the mid-‘Oughts. I am sure most owners of record collections numbering 5,000-plus will relate, but, one weekend, sniffing around for something to listen to, I fetched Trash and Burn from where it had been hiding for a decade, slid it into the player, and stood back as it lit our house aflame. Both my wife Nicole and I exclaimed, in spontaneous chorus as old marrieds often do, “Where has this band been all our lives?” With the Internet now at our fingertips, we delved deeper, and found out about a documentary about the group called Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, and immediately ordered a copy.

As will happen, I swear, to anyone who watches this film, we were stunned, then joined in lifetime loyalty to Fred and Toody, “The Coles,” as they are known to cognoscenti. Married for almost 50 years at this writing, successfully applying the DIY ethic yearsway before it was hip in the rock biz to everything from home improvement to instrument repair to music production and distribution to child-rearing, functioning as pretty-damned-equal partners in singing, playing and writing, these two dyed-in-the-wool rockers not only defined the rock and roll life in a way that didn’t get you looking at your shoes, but also served as a textbook case of true family values. I am not going to describe it; you just order the film, podnah. We have been pushing it on every vulnerable soul for seven years.

Concurrent to this discovery, at the Columbia, Missouri, teaching gig that was subsidizing my record collection, I was experiencing some surprising turns of event with an extracurricular club called The Academy of Rock, which a student of mine and I had founded in 2004. A couple of enterprising students had suggested that we try to convince bands who came through Columbia for shows to stop by our meetings and chat about songwriting, the rock life, and anything else fun. The worst that could happen was being told “No,” so onward we went, and, literally before we knew it, Amsterband (the future Ha Ha Tonka), Cary Hudson (former Blue Mountain and Neckbones), The F-Bombs (a local punk band), and–I had marks all over from pinching myself–eventually, The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady had played–played, not stopped by to chat–in our school’s Little Theater, for free, with deep-ass Q&A, friendly autographing sessions, and invitations to come to their shows with guest-list privileges. So, when Nicole and I discovered that The Pierced Arrows, the Cole project that rose from the ashes of Dead Moon, were playing The Record Bar in Kansas City, we decided to go and maybe strike up enough of an acquaintance to ask them to swing by Hickman.

True to everything we had heard about them, Fred and Toody sat with the rabble through both of their opening bands’ sets, drinking beer, smoking, and obviously engaging with the groups’ music. Between sets, I tip-toed over to Toody, and begin shooting the shit. When I told her about our club and our (by now) tradition of bringing in bands, she enthused, but said, “Well, we’re heading for Europe next week, and we’ll be there for a few months, but, if you give me your phone number, I’ll get in touch with you when we’re back in the States.” Returning to terra firma after a shattering Pierced Arrows set (for the uninitiated, the only real difference between Dead Moon and The Pierced Arrows is slightly heavier guitar and slightly steadier drums) and hitting the prairie pavement back to Columbia, I turned to Nicole and said, “Well, we did get to meet them, we do have Toody’s phone number, and the show kicked ass–but surely after two-three months they’ll forget about us.”

Wrongo. Almost three months to the day of that show, Toody called me out of the clear blue sky and asked, “Hey, we have a day off coming up between Columbus and Kansas City, could we [YES–“could we?”–I shit you not] play at your school then?” I was so gobsmacked that about 10 seconds of silence followed before I Marv-Alberted a “YES!” into the receiver. We quickly agreed on details–we’d pay for their hotel room and food after the appearance, since they’d have to hit the road immediately following for the Kansas City gig–and I proceeded to pinch another red mark onto my arm.

The day before the band was due to play, I was moderating a Socratic seminar for my British literature students in our school’s office conference room when my cellphone began buzzing. I don’t get phone calls much, especially during the day, so I sneaked a look, and saw it was Toody. I put the temporary kibosh on the seminar–do you blame me?–stepped outside, and took the call.

“Phil, we are so, so, so sorry we are late! I think we can set up in ten minutes once we get there [they were 30 minutes outside of town] if you can still make it happen!”

“Toody–it’s not until tomorrow.”

“You’re shitting me! [Turns away from phone, shouts “It’s not ’til tomorrow,” is met by jubilant screams from the rest of the van’s occupants….] Fantastic! We are tired and hungry and need to decompress…but, hey, come by the hotel room and say hi!”

I am not making this up.

Nicole and I swung by to see them, but they were obviously beat, so we just gave ’em some dining recommendations and double-checked the details. We were particularly careful about the latter; when The Hold Steady visited, they arrived an hour after they were supposed to, and at the very moment that, in front of a packed theater, I was running out of steam stalling the crowd with their biographical details–sanssoundcheck and sans anxiety, since they drifted in on a cloud of cannabis cologne. Fred assured us they’d be on time for a soundcheck, so we left them to get their rest.

I had arranged to have a substitute take my afternoon classes the next day, and, late that morning, as some Academy of Rock club members and I were setting up the PA in the theater, my phone began buzzing again.

“Hey, Phil, we’re here.”

“But Toody, you didn’t need to be here for another hour-and-a-half!”

“Oh, that’s OK! We want to meet some of the kids and hang out if it’s OK […if it’s OK????].”

“Well, hell, I’ll send a couple of ’em to come get you.”

We spent the next 90 minutes not just sound-checking but actually hanging out and talking about everything under the sun, with Fred giving some of the school’s theater tech kids, who were helping us, tips about rock and roll sound. For example, since he had lost 70% of his hearing by that point [no big deal!], he preferred to have two monitors on each side of him, facing each of his ears. That was just one of the many things the kids learned from him in that very information-rich hour-and-a-half.

The performance? Titanic. Also, easily the loudest in Hickman’s history (the DBTs and Hold Steady had played unplugged–but you don’t unplug Fred Cole). We recorded it, but, unfortunately, we screwed up Fred’s vocal levels; it’s still power-packed and worth a listen, though (see below). The band played all of their then-new album Descending Shadows, plus the best of their previous record, Straight to the Heart.

After the sixty-minute show, they then took student questions, which–if they weren’t already excellent, which most were–they would cannily reconfigure for the best possible responses. I would recap it, but, here, read this Columbia Tribune story about it. The amount of wisdom shared in the nearly three hours they were in the theater was mind-boggling, and, even when the bell rang to dismiss students for the day, they were not yet done.

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I sidled over to Fred, Toody, and their awesome drummer Kelly Halliburton, who matched them word for word, note for note, gesture for gesture in sheer rock-band fan-care, and said, “Well, district rules forbid us from getting gift certificates for visiting ‘educators,’ but here’s $40 to go eat some pizza and drink some beer at the local-favorite pizza joint. Let me draw you up some direct—-“

Fred: “Hey, just bring some of the real big fans and come eat with us.”

“You’re serious?”

“As a heartattack! Just let us have one of the kids to navigate!”

As it happened, one of the kids was already thoroughly inured to the ways of The Coles through our having forced Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on him and his having avidly explored their discography. (Oh yeah: we also took him to the aforementioned Pierced Arrows shows in the guise of our nephew, since it wasn’t all ages and the manager had given us permission–don’t try that one at home, fellow teachers!)  So we sent him along, and, people, I have never seen a student happier. He even got to bum a cig off of Fred!

At the pizza joint, we bought several pizzas, the band knocked back a few pitchers, and we had a total blast. To the end, though, the Coles and Mr. Halliburton were fan-centered. I had expected dinner to be a barrage of questions from the kids about rock and roll history (Fred goes back to the mid-Sixties through his involvement in The Weeds and The Lollipop Shoppe, and knew Janis Joplin well), but, instead, the trio queried the kids about their lives, their tastes in music, their experiences in bands, and…just life.

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That kid on my right was a ninth-grader. As I drove him out to his folks’ house, neither of us could keep from shaking our heads in amazement that, along with rocking our asses off, they lived up to their advance notice and more. And as he told me,”I can’t believe they came to my school!”–it wasn’t his yet, but it would be the following year–I realized that it was probably the finest moment I’d ever experienced (could probably hope to experience–and, no, it ain’t been topped yet) as a public school educator. Beyond the educational impact, the encouragement the Coles’ chemistry and commitment gave Nicole and me, who have approached marriage unconventionally in more than a few ways, continues to resonate.

Fred had successful heart surgery earlier this year, and just turned 66 last week. I am sure, however, that he will be back on the road with The Pierced Arrows soon, and, if they come to your town–go. They are about rock and roll, but so much more. Be sure to bring t-shirt money, whether you are a kid or not.

Mr. and The Mrs.: Raging Punk from Paola, Kansas–The Interview

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Rock and roll–or punk rock, if you prefer–is wonderful in its inclusiveness. For all of its wild reputation, it’s made room for plenty of couples, husbands and wives, even, to make their marks, from X to The Pierced Arrows (the married couple involved in the latter moving up on its 50th anniversary). Speaking of couples, my wife and I made a sojourn to Lawrence, Kansas, a few years ago to see one of our favorite bands, Natural Child, play at the Replay Lounge. We were immediately blown away by the opener, a two-piece band called Mr. and The Mrs. (Ben Hughes, guitar and vocals; Michele Choate, drums) hailing from Paola, Kansas, that defied the current two-piece band convention: no blues or gimmickry, just head-on, raving, bashing rhythm that kept our eyebrows raised. Last year, they dropped the excellent Radiation Beach Blues, and they’ve started a label, Woody Records, which features a fascinating line-up of (what? THAT’S RIGHT!!!) Midwestern rock and roll–if you doubt my enthusiasm, check out their Swamp Comp mixtape from the cream of the label.

As the retired but still semi-aggressive sponsor of Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School Academy of Rock, I took up Mr.’s (Ben Hughes’) challenge to encourage our student members to review Woody Records’ output. To kick off that experiment, I offer you here an inspiring interview I recently conducted with the band–the inspiration comes from the answers, not the questions. Also, if you are a Kansan or Missourian and see them billed, GO! If you’re not seeing them billed, petition your local venue operator to GET WITH THE REGIONAL TALENT and help you and your homefolks shake their asses!

Phil Overeem: First, are you really Mr. and The Mrs.? Two-person bands can’t always be trusted, you know!

Mr. and the Mrs: Yes, we are actually married. We were married about two years before we decided to be a band. We couldn’t really think of a band name, so Mr. and the Mrs. it is.

PO: That out of the way, what is the origin of the band?

MM: I went to the Replay Lounge to get a Paperhead 7-inch signed. They’re a band off the label Nashville’s Dead. Anyways, it was such an awesome show that I came home and told Michele. We went to shows for about a year, then decided this is something we should be doing.

PO: What are your favorite bands and influences—I know they can be two separate things? Also, in the MO-KS Matrix of Semi-to-Totally Unknown Punk Bands, what is one band (besides yourselves) you think everyone should see?

MM:

(Michele) Well, my favorite band growing up was Tupac, for sure. I don’t really have a favorite now (too many good bands). As for influences, I’ve been told I have a Ramones sound, but I never really paid close attention to how someone else played. It’s probably a mix of everything I’ve ever heard subconsciously influencing how I play.

(Ben) I have many, many influences from many genres. My favorite bands at the moment that someone might know are Nobunny, and Thee Oh Sees. I’d say if you want to see an awesome punk band, then Nobunny’s the show to see. He has tons of energy, the crowd is going nuts, plus he’s a weirdo and plays in his whities and a raggedy bunny mask.

PO: My people are all from the center of Kansas (Hutchinson area), and I know from observation that the landscape can drive a young person to drugs—seriously. Did living in Kansas play a role in you “turning to” punk rock music? And are there other outposts than Lawrence, Kansas City, or (I’m assuming) Manhattan that we Show-Me Staters don’t know about?

MM: We can’t say for sure that living in Kansas led us to punk music, but it definitely led us to music, for sure. As you know, there’s not much to do most the time and music is the best way to express your boredom, anger, happiness, or however you feel. Wichita would be another place—they have all kinds of stuff going on. There’s This Ain’t Heaven Recordings, and Red Cat Recording. That’s just two we know of. They have all sorts of cool bands like Slime Flower (a band of high schoolers that rock), andIron Octomoms. One of the guys from Iron Octomoms also does all sorts of crazy photography. Wichita also has ICT/Noise, and Psychfest that have become pretty popular over the past few years.

This is not in Kansas or Missouri, but Oklahoma has a pretty decent scene going on too. We have played with with the bands The Daddyos, Cucumber and the Suntans, and Who and the Fu**s. All awesome bands, and people, the place is producing all kinds of cool bands lately. The last time we played there we played a place called The Fur Trap and it was packed! It has a place downstairs that’s for normal bar attendees, and upstairs the bands play and work on drawing the other crowd upstairs. Oh, plus the band Broncho is from there—check them out!

PO: This is a little different question, but what are the special challenges of being a band from Kansas? Of being a two-piece? Of not having a beard when it’s mandatory? Of being in a band with someone you love?

MM: Until recently, I don’t think many people took the Midwest seriously, we had no viable scene, and not a whole lot of bands had ever made it out of this area. Not that a lot of bands have “made it” recently, but there are enough cool bands from here touring and spreading the word, or bands coming here on tour and getting a good crowd response. Or even quite a few local bands being picked up on mid-class record labels to make people notice. It’s sort of been a group effort.
As a two-piece we catch a lot of grief for lacking a bass player. We also get a lot of White Stripes nods as a two-piece with a girl drummer. Not that it’s a bad nod, but our music sounds nothing like the White Stripes.

PO: Agreed! And not really like any two-piece band I’ve ever seen!

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MM: (Michele) As for the beard, Ben always has a beard. It may not always be long and outta control, but it’s always there.
(Ben) Also I’m not a hipster and don’t have my beard as a fad, I’m just a dude with a beard who likes my beard. Well, being in a band with my lover doesn’t really have any drawbacks. Maybe the biggest drawback not music related would be, we often need a babysitter for our three kids. We play a lot of shows, and it’s not always easy. Actually, good to be in a band with your lover, because we push each other to keep going, we can’t miss practice because of some made up excuse, plus we’re a couple that has something besides family we build together. We’re not a guy who hangs in the garage or golf course, while the chick drinks wine & cleans house. Sorry, but there just aren’t many drawbacks for us.

PO: WOW! That’s nothing to apologize for!!! While we are talking challenges, and since we’re a high school rock and roll club that is entering the world of Woody Records and that features bands that play live here in town, what are your 5 keys to being able to sustain a band in today’s economy and entertainment world?

MM:

1) Don’t quit your day job.

2) You get paid in coolness more than in cash.

3) Shut your mouth. This means people WILL be or act messed up; however, if you open your mouth even if it’s for the benefit of the scene, someone will find a way to twist it around and make you seem like the bad guy. It’s a mix between politics & high school.

4) Do it because you love it. This stands for whatever you choose to do in life. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has been said a million times; it has also broken up a million bands. The rock ‘n’ roll part is what it’s about—it may not seem that way as a high schooler, but save yourself the trouble and do the first two sparingly.

5) Do your own thing. Don’t make music a certain way because that’s how everyone else is doing it. Music is about self-expression, not trying to be like someone else.

PO: What was the inspiration behind Woody Records? I am assuming you are the founder, but, if not, tell us what your role is, and maybe what the label’s philosophy is?

MM:

(Michele) Woody Records started as a character me and a friend drew in school. He has a whole life story that spans the beginning to reincarnation. I used to write raps when I was younger & decided that I would make my own label, produce, & put out rap that I liked. Instead, I quit writing raps, started playing drums, and, when it came time to put out music, it just seemed right to use Woody Records. Our philosophy is put out good music, put it out in physical formats, and spread it to as many people as possible.

PO: What is your songwriting process? Words or music first, or do they kind of come out together?

MM:

(Michele) Our song writing happens during practice. One of us, usually Ben, will randomly come up with a riff and we’ll just build on it and mess around a bit. Sometimes it will turn into a song, sometimes not. Music always comes before lyrics. It’s easier to have a base to work from when writing lyrics.

PO: Several of my favorite bands (Dead Moon/Pierced Arrows, X, you two) feature or featured a husband and a wife. When it comes to writing lyrics, or choosing subjects for songs, do they come from your own life experiences, or from just an idea for a rock and roll song, or…where?

MM: Our lyrics are generally based on life, ours or the people around us, even just a read on society as a whole. We just add a little twisted humor to the situation. However we have a few songs that are just BS like “Dead Pets,” for an example.

PO: What’s the best band you’ve ever played with? And a slightly different question: who are the best human beings who’ve been in a band you’ve played with?

MM: Best band? We’ve played with some awesome bands. Natural Child, which is the show we met you at, Phil, The Conquerors, a band from KC. The Night Beats–I dunno, there isn’t just one best band. [As for the second question], [e]ach other. I know it comes off as corny, but when it’s crunch time, we can count on each other to get what needs done, done. Everyone else seems flaky when it comes to practice, or being sober. Sometimes stuff needs to get done and you have to focus—not many people accept music isn’t always just a party.

PO: Describe the best show you two have ever played.

MM: We got to open up for Natural Child and the Night Beats. Two bands we really love. When you’re just starting out as the little guy in the scene and you get a chance like this, it’s almost indescribable. It’s awesome, for lack of a better word.

PO: Thanks for your time, and for rocking out, and for being a great and unique model for a rock and roll band. We hope to bring you to the school, or at least to Columbia, for a show.

Mr. and and The Mrs. next play at Harling’s in Kansas City on March 27!

Rock In Real Life: Hot Day in Velma

July 9th was a hot, dry day in the little Oklahoma town of Velma. My wife Nicole and I had come there to inter the ashes of her mother, Lynda Evers, who passed away from brain cancer last December, and of her grandmother, who died of leukemia in 1992, in the grave of her great-grandmother Hattie Young, which was located in the old Velma cemetery. Velma’s situated between Ada and Duncan in the southeastern portion of the state; no relatives were near, nor did we know anyone who could attend or assist with any service we might desire, so, as it so often was during Lynda’s battle, it was just us. To a great degree in our quarter century together, that’s how we have preferred it, but it had special meaning in this situation. At our hotel in Ada, we sketched out what we felt was a meaningful service.

After a local had dug out a spot in which we could lay the two urns, we drove to the old cemetery. Nicole read a poem by Emily Bronte, entitled “Encouragement.” It had come to her by an odd path, the kind of path we are used to in public education. I had assigned one of our mutual students Ms. Bronte as a British poet to research and study–particularly her poems. The student, needing help with the project, came to Nicole with one of the few Bronte poems she was comfortable with, as a starting point. Nicole wasn’t familiar with the poem, but, as she was battling through the grieving process at the time, it had powerful, beautiful and terrible resonance with her as she read it:

I do not weep; I would not weep;
Our mother needs no tears:
Dry thine eyes, too; ’tis vain to keep
This causeless grief for years.

What though her brow be changed and cold,
Her sweet eyes closed for ever?
What though the stone–the darksome mould
Our mortal bodies sever?

What though her hand smooth ne’er again
Those silken locks of thine?
Nor, through long hours of future pain,
Her kind face o’er thee shine?

Remember still, she is not dead;
She sees us, sister, now;
Laid, where her angel spirit fled,
‘Mid heath and frozen snow.

And from that world of heavenly light
Will she not always bend
To guide us in our lifetime’s night,
And guard us to the end?

Thou knowest she will; and thou mayst mourn
That WE are left below:
But not that she can ne’er return
To share our earthly woe. (1846)

After Nicole carefully recited the poem, I read a modified passage from The Book of Common Prayer, which an Episcopal pastor in Columbia had read from as Lynda passed. We carefully lowered the urns into the grave, then I walked over to the car (parked about ten yards from the site), started it, dialed the USBed iPad to the following song, turned up the volume, and left the passenger side door open so the music could flow across the otherwise isolated burial ground.

No doubt, there is something about Shaver’s hard-won (and hard-lost) worldview that fit not only the moment, but the sixteen months (from Lynda’s diagnosis) that led up to it. Neither Nicole and I are certain about what lies beyond earthly life, but the feeling Billy Joe bull’s-eyes in his song made it our near-unspoken choice for the ceremony’s last words. The version we played was not the one from the video above; it was a live version (from the classic Unshaven: Live At Smith’s Olde Bar) that ended with applause, which, given the solemnity of the occasion, may seem to have been inappropriate, but, considering the path of Lynda’s life out of this isolated Oklahoma geography to coast-to-coast nursing of the less fortunate for thirty-plus years, and to Ireland, it was perfect.

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A Memory Stirred by Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion 33 1/3 Book

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Funny thing about this book. I was at the library picking up a hold (Song of the Shank–more on that next month, probably) and, as usual, couldn’t help looking at the new music nonfiction. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my glasses, and my arms were only long enough for me to make out “Alex Ross,” “Brilliant,” and the title. Those sounded promising, so, I thought, why not add it to the stack? Upon arriving home and putting on my specs, I was initially dismayed to discover it was an expanded 33 1/3 entry about Celine Dion. Those things are so numerous, it’s hard to keep up with them–and, to my lights, they are seldom very good. I also noticed a Jonathan Lethem blurb, and, I’m sorry, but right now, “those guys” are not floating my boat much. Nonetheless, I chose to sample it. Not many hours later, I had finished it, and, truly, every music nut–and, especially, every music writer–should be required to read it. Wilson wasn’t a Dion fan when he took on the project (and still not much of one after); his idea was to use his distaste for Dion to examine what taste really is, and the results of his inquiry are sometimes rattling. Personally, as in Emerson’s old quote, I found many of my own past musings marched much more eloquently than I ever thought ’em back across my eyeline. The revelations Wilson makes are too numerous to go into fully here, but two fascinated me so much that, in the hours after I finished it, I began to reflect on some of the music “taste collisions” of my past. We all have bands that speak so directly to us that our responses are deeply emotional, that we can’t really think of them at a critical distance (right now, for me, that’s the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy). Often, that speaking doesn’t necessarily relate to the benchmarks of high art, much less the simpler idea of good taste. Wilson, delving into both the significance of Dion’s Quebecois past to her Canadian fans and also the needs she might be fulfilling in her listeners in the wider world, writes wonderfully about how this phenomenon complicates critical assessment and discussion. Second, the author enters a long thought-tunnel concerning kitsch, and exits wondering, with great justification, whether there’s something troubling about cultural gatekeepers disparaging artists who traffic in, shall we say, broad emotions. Why, for example, should it be more critically valid to lionize artists who shine a light on the darker corners of living than to exalt those who choose to magnify the glow of the brighter ones? Now, honestly, how many of us have paused and thought that, caught short by a corny wedding song we’d never be caught dead housing in our media players?

These questions took me back to a moment in my late teens that I have often recalled. Having just finished my first year of college, where two new friends hipped me to many punk bands, notably The Ramones and Black Flag, I had returned home for the summer to work in a factory and save up some dough. Even though I had graduated from high school with “decent” taste–I was deeply obsessed with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello–I was ill-prepared (and completely, totally ready) for the worldviews of X, the Germs, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, the latter two to whom I’d listened but not “got” prior to my college exposure. I knew good and well that, returning to the small southwest Missouri town where my parents lived, I would be spending the social segment of my leisure time tolerating the music of others. Such snobs we can be when we are wet behind the ears.

One weekend night, a carload of fellow factory workers, city pool rats and I headed across the state line into Kansas, where we could legally drink 3.2 beer (main attraction), ogle and even dance with women (second by a slim margin), and bask in the glow of .38 Special, Loverboy, Head East–must I go on? This particular evening, the rest of my party had had an exhilarating time; I, on the other hand, had spent most of the evening playing the wall, grimacing during mega-Midwestern-blasts like “Hold On Loosely,” and thinking about the Minor Threat/Bad Brains mix tape I’d just gotten in the mail from one of my college buddies, who, lucky for him, went home to California and was seeing L.A. punk bands live. I was a mope, and couldn’t wait to get back home. No wonder no chick wanted to dance with me.

On the way back, we were all quiet, most in a bit of a “j mood.” The car stereo was loud. The music fed their fantasies; it discouraged mine. Journey. Escape. My head was right next to one of the back speakers, and, with each Steve Perry vocal skyscrape, I took a deep swig of piss water and gnashed my teeth. An hour’s ride full of this, equivalent roughly to having an old filling drilled out without anesthesia. Casually at first, I looked around at my comrades, most of whom were reclined almost fully, their eyes closed, grinning blissfully (the driver was not among these, to our immense good fortune) and occasionally nodding to key phrases. An unsettling thought hit me: against the backdrop of a hometown they didn’t have much refuge from–I was the only college student among them–which offered little career fulfillment beyond industrial work, little social fulfillment beyond the bars, bowling alleys, pool, and, well, forays across the state line, and precious little diversity of culture and opinion, the–yes–soaring, Utopianmusic of Journey was simply and powerfully beautiful. In a flash, I realized, “The subjects of Springsteen songs don’t listen to Springsteen songs; they’re Steve Perry and Neil Schon fans!” Thinking from a writing student’s perspective, I thought, for a minute, “But…it’s so generic!” Well, it’s that just-right generic quality that allows for projecting one’s reality, no matter how constrained, upon the song’s magnificent scene, right?

You have to understand, Journey was everywhere in ’81–especially on the municipal pool jukebox on our days off and even more especially on those weekend Kansas clubs’ sound systems. This wasn’t a decade or so later, when the band’s reputation underwent some overdue reconsideration, when “Don’t Stop Believin’” closed downThe Sopranos. Journey could not be escaped, which made the aesthetically deft escapism in their music easy to miss. For me, at least, this uncomplicated band was very complicated. My mind finished its convolutions at the approximate moment that “Open Arms” drifted (if loud music can be said to drift) from the car stereo speakers, and by that time, I had made peace with Journey’s music–in fact, I felt a little shamefaced that I had to furrow my brow to appreciate it, that I had to condescend before I could appreciate the other guys’ appreciation, but at least I found myself enjoying “Open Arms” for the first time. Of course, I didn’t share this tableau with my buddies when I returned to school, but it did help me avoid being a jerk when I started teaching and got into music gab with my students. I still don’t own even a Journey greatest hits album, but I can hear their finest achievements with startling clarity in my memory, and the feeling is warm, and good.

If, like me, you’ve experienced such a moment, you really need to read Carl Wilson’sLet’s Talk About Love–or, then again, maybe you don’t. It’s all in really hearing the soaring.

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.”

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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, use your favorite streaming service to check Sinatra and Jobim’s masterwork out.

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