Saturday, August 1, 2015

It's Elemental--A Mixtape of Sorts

What is most elemental about summer? For me, it’s getting out on the road and being gone gone gone.
Like one of our other bloggers, I make my life as an expat teacher, so travel is a pretty...well, elemental part of life. and I'm gone as much as can be.

Which doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing—at least for me. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to getting the words down, and I often lament that I’m not taking advantage of new environments to inspire my work into new directions. Great writers would scoff at that notion--that it's hard to write when you're on the road. Maybe I spend too much time seeking out and imbibing the local booze...
When I do travel, though, I love listening to music, especially music inspired by the places I am. When I went to Philadelphia a few years back for a ball game and a night of boozing it up at one of my favorite bars, 12 Steps Down  I listened to Marah’s brilliant rock epic Kids In Philly the entire weekend, and the music made more sense when backed up by the visual vibe of the streets it spoke about.
 (an aside: Marah? One of the greatest f@#king bands you've never heard--The LAST Rock 'n Roll band!)
Meeting your music this way—viscerally, tactically, by-hand—is the best way to hear what it means.

Same goes for this batch of tunes I’ve picked out for our theme this month: elements. Each of these are songs I’ve dug into deeply in their proper places, by inspiration, by the fact that the song was written in or is about the place I heard it, or…just because it made sense to associate the place with the song. And speaking of, that is another great way to connect to a tune: loving it because of the time and place you first heard it, and forever associating it with the place. For example, I can not hear OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”  without going back to Spoleto, Italy 2003, when I was falling in love with the Umbrian hills and “Hey Ya!” was coming out of every radio I passed. It was the soundtrack to a great time. Always will be. And even if I don't particualrly like the song, the association has the magical, unnameable resonance forever attached to it, so, I will always listen when it comes on the radio.

That being said, here is a small selection, culled from a much longer list, from the strange soundtrack of my life with a brief explanation of how each song came to achieve its own unique significance.  (Making sure I could satisfy the ‘elements’ requirement made this all the more interesting…)

Iron Man by Black Sabbath—The Pawnshop, Woodbridge, Virginia.
There was a pawnshop right next to the Music and Arts Center where I first took guitar lessons. I was in 7th grade at the time, and while the guitar lessons were great, the pawn shop was it’s own wonderful treasure chest. Among the usual pawnshop fare—guns, jewelry, power tools—the place had a huge section of vinyl for sale. This is where I bought AC/DC’s Backin Black and Dirty Deeds; LedZeppelin Four; and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, which featured Iron Man, a strange little exercise in sci-fi headbanging. And the main riff , the one everyone knows, was pretty much the first thing any nascent guitar student learned. When I hear Iron Man, I always think back to rushing headlong across Rt.1 with my pocket full of saved up quarters, wondering musical gem I was about to find.

 Mercury by Counting Crows—Outerbanks, North Carolina
This gem from Recovering the Satellites is a ghost walking in a blues funeral suit. Recovering the Satellites was my constant soundtrack after graduating from college. Released in October of 1996, this disc was a perfect accompaniment to a quiet winter of near-total solitude when I lived in Nag’s Head, North Carolina, trying to figure out what to do with my life. The album, soaring and contemplative, full of affirmation and dark, whispery sadness, was the perfect turbulent collection of songs I needed to get from one ending to a new beginning. It was also a different, sometimes harder and much more complex sound than their debut, August And Everything After. And where that album spun gold out a feeling of nostalgia for American solitude and Van Morrison-esque lyricism, Recovering nearly roared to life at moments, and for this listener, cemented Counting Crows’ reputation as one of America’s finest bands. Mercury , one of the quieter tracks on Recovering, is a song about a girl who is unstable, and whose changes of mind and heart put the speaker through that special hell known as ‘love’, and though she changes like mercury, ‘she’s alright with me…’ Multilayered slide and whisper guitars and a rhythm like a creaking ship on the water, Mercury showed the band was capable of brilliant musical chameleonism, and they made a brilliant career out of exploring and expanding rock n roll soundscapes. And Mercury will forever remind me of sitting on a cold, windy beach at night, with my guitar, trying to capture not only that sound, but also a clue.

Silver and Gold, U2—Cape Town, SA
Another bluesy stomp, with the politically charged lyrics that are now almost an afterthought when it comes to the definition of U2’s sound and themes. Originally released on a compilation called Artists United Against Apartheid, with Keith Richards and Ron Wood, the better-known version appeared on Rattle and Hum. Both versions smoke—but it is Bono’s lyrical reaction to apartheid politics, the boom drop drums and the Edge’s lightning sweep guitars make this a loud and strident statement. When I was in South Africa, I kept hearing Bono’s famous refrain, “Am I bugging you? I don’t mean to bug you—OK, Edge, play the blues!” After listing a imagistic litany of grievances and abuses that dwelled in black and white on subjects like rich versus poor and freedom versus slavery, Bono’s question to the listener is hard to ignore. The song is literally on fire, taking about fevers burning white hot, and doing its best to explain to those who might not understand, why it is the oppressed is ready to take up arms against an oppressor.
One doesn’t need to study too long to know that sad tale that is modern South African history. The sense of wrong doing is palpable when you go there and
It’s hard not to shake your head in terrible wonder at what happened in South Africa for so long. Ghost stories about troubled times that seem like they might never really go away—but Bono’s take—that money and greed will always trump good will and morality—rings particularly true and rang in my head the entire trip.

Iron Lion Zion- Bob Marley—St. Anne’s Parish, Jamaica

Honestly, I never paid attention to Marley until I went to Jamaica and stayed off-reservation, so to speak. Bob Marley’s Legend was a prerequisite requirement for college admissions and honestly, every tool I knew that wore frat letters could sing Redemption Song by heart, and thought Get Up, Stand Up was all they needed to know to get a poli-sci degree. Marley was realpolitik to most of the kids I partied with and I thought I might crack if I had to dance another slow groove with some girl to Waiting In Vain. So, I never listened. Ever. Unless I was at…oh, any party ever.  Fast forward a few years later, my misspent college days far behind me, I got the opportunity to in a private seaside mansion in a pretty remote part of Jamaica, on the shore in Saint Anne’s Parish, where Marley was born. It was a pretty amazing trip—far away from the resorts and the pale, never- smoked-a-jay-tourists lounging it up in Montego Bay and really, just kind of out there. No Internet, no phone—just the vibe of solitude and the sound of the surf. Honestly, with what I know about the place now, I probably would never stay that far away from any kind of security, but at the time, it was pretty cool just to be in the middle of the island, walking to the villages, snorkeling in the open water and fishing for our dinner every night. Someone in our group was a big Marley fan, well beyond the greatest hits, and when I said I didn’t dig the music, he told me to put Rastaman Vibration, “dig into the stuff that doesn’t get played all the time.” By the end of the week, I’d gone deep, devoured all the LPs, and heard the songs that never got played on the college radio station.  By pure stroke of luck, he’d brought all his CDs with him—this was pre-ipod and mp3 days. So, in fitting with our theme, I pick Iron, Lion Zion as my representation of this time and the amazing memories I have of Jamaica. The track comes from the Songs of Freedom box set, which is where anyone not interested in hearing Legend for the billionth time needs to start. And the song itself is a good primer for the complicated political and religious belief system that mark so much of Marley’s music. Rastaman Vibration remains my favorite album by Marley, and even though, I don’t listen to Legend on principal no matter what song happens to come up by the man, I will always be reminded of good times on a strange, quiet part of the island of Jamaica.

...As I write this, I am waiting to get on a plane to head back to America. While I’m excited to see home, see my family, drink amazing IPAs and eat Mexican, I wonder excitedly at what new music I will discover on this trip and hope to find yet another perfect song that will define this summer and all the strange places I will be…

(Hint—I’ve been digging hard on the Dead this summer, so….and the new Wilco…hmmm….? What's next?)

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