Monthly Archives: November 2008

Sites For Sore Eyes: A Guide

internet

Here at Twenty Pounds of Headlines, I like to mix it up every now and then. Some days I’m all about long, expository diatribes concerning the virtues of legal prostitution or capitalist existentialism; and on others I feel like simply sharing a few interesting dispatches from that boundless, unruly universe we call “The Internet.” Since I gave you two lengthier pieces to digest this week, how about spending some time trolling a few of the following sites I discovered this evening while trolling for interesting story ideas. They each have their own fascinating tale to tell. You can thank me later for saving you the time of finding them yourself…

stumble-upon-logoStumbleupon.com: This is where our journey begins, at a unique networking site I recently, well, stumbled upon. It’s kind of like Pandora for Web surfing, whereby a powerful “Recommendation Engine” takes note of your personal interests and then begins finding sites you might deem worthy of your wandering eyes. A toolbar is installed on your browser with a button labeled “Stumble!” Press it and a Web site pops up. If you like it, thumb it up. If you don’t, thumb it down. Apathetic, just push the Stumble! button again and up comes another site. The more thumbing you do the more specific the Recommendation Engine becomes, helping you sift through the infinite mounds of useless minutia that make up the World Wide Web, making you, in theory, a more discerning surfer.

covergirl25Meet-An-Inmate.com: There are some sites out there so dangerous to my productivity that they should be permanently banned from my browser. Meet-An-Inmate.com is one of those sites. This was one of the very first suggestions Stumbleupon sent me, and it took me over a half hour to move past it, captivated as I was both by these inmates’ respective personal ads as well as the nagging desire to begin writing to each and every one. Consider the petitions of Chuck, a 22-year-old from Oregon:

I enjoy music, reading, writing, food and philosophy.  For exercise I like to jog and lift weights.  I striver to educate myself in a [sic] all ways possible.  I consider myself to be open minded, and intelligent, most of the time.  I’m seeking correspondence from a wide variety of people.  I’m in prison for manslaughter and currently parole in 2029.  Though with a little luck and certain legal changes I’ll get out in 2015 instead. That’s all the info you get for now.  Write me and find out more.  I’m the inmate you want to meet!  “Happiness knows no victory too great”…

Or how about “death row teddy bear” Philip Jablonski:

I ask your indulgence ladies and gentlemen, and promise to be as brief as possible.  Allow me to introduce myself.  Death row teddy bear seeks female and male teddy bears.  Caucasian male, 62 years old, seeking an open minded female or male for unconditional/blunt correspondence on a mature and honest level.  Someone that has a caring heart to carry a special friendship built from the heart.  Let’s share thought and feelings (good or bad) as we learn about one another freely and watch the growth of our friendship bloom like a rose.  Let out [sic] friendship be strong like a castle wall which can’t be broken.  A loving heart is worth more than a mountain of gold.  Love to communicate on any subject or issue.  Love cats and dogs, horses, dolphins, teddy bears, and birds.  Interests: History, reading, professional artist, amateur poet writer.  Award winning essay writer and artist. 

I can’t imagine many fates more trying on an individual’s spirit than incarceration, and to be so immediately connected to those who are living that experience fills me with a host of emotions too numerous and complex to delve into here. Anyway, maybe you’ll be inspired to write. If you do, please let me know. I will certainly do the same.

1976The Arrow of Time: If you haven’t ever read it, please check out Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (thank you Woody Allen). It’s a fascinating in-depth study of humanity’s subconscious denial of the one event that inevitably connects us all. The basic premise concerns the idea that we need to deny the reality of death every single day in order to function. If we didn’t, it would be impossible to keep moving forward. Our existential hubris in the matter—the silly, secret delusion we all harbor that out of the billions and billions before us, and the billions and billions of those yet to come, we are going to be the one who never dies—is as important to our preservation as oxygen. Necessary neurosis, if you will. I mention this book because The Arrow of Time will give you inevitable pause. Here’s the tag line:

On June 17 every year, our family goes through a private ritual: we photograph ourselves to stop, for a fleeting moment, the arrow of time passing us by.

It is a beautiful and melancholy meditation on the simple reality of our inevitably aging bodies, and trail of life they leave behind.

A List of Unusual Deaths: Speaking of death, here’s a Wikipedia entry sure to make you utter a good ‘ol fashioned “What the fuck?” My personal favorite:

207 BC: Chrysippus, a Greek stoic philosopher, is believe to have died of laughter after watching his drunk donkey attempt to eat figs.

stardust-aerogelAerogel: Otherwise known as frozen smoke, solid smoke, or blue smoke, this stuff is just flat out unreal. And get this: It’s been around since 1931! Were you aware of this? Yeah, me neither. I want some for Christmas.

The Cato Institute: Ah yes, let’s finish it off with a wonderful essay by Robert Nozick titled “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” Considering recent statements made by Mr. Hank Paulsen regarding the government’s need to now rescue the American auto industry (um…are you kidding me?), this is worth a quick read. Even if you don’t agree with his hypotheses (and there are several with which I do not), there is some great intellectual meat to chew on here, most of which has implications beyond the singular concerns of either capitalism or so-called intellectualism. Consider:

The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the “anarchy and chaos” of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

Happy surfing.

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Yes (I Think) We Can: Surviving Family Brunch In A Post-Election America

“So, grandmom. What’d ya think about the election? Ya know, about Obama winning?” The question seemed innocent enough. My grandmother is 92 years old, and it intrigued me to get the perspective of a woman who had lived through everything from the invention of Scotch Tape to the iPhone; from segregated troop battalions in World War II to the election of the first African American President of the United States. In other words, I thought she might have some wisdom to impart. But before she could even form an answer in her mind, my sister Erica turned to me with a look I imagine she would have given had I just asked our grandmother to expound upon the virtues of modern day sex toy technology, or the horrors of female circumcision in third-world countries. Apparently, I had just said something inappropriate.

“Are you insane?” my sister hissed.

I looked around the brunch table for understanding, only to find my mom hanging her head in despair. “I just got your father to come out of his coma,” she said, her head cast downward at her half-eaten omelet and cooling coffee. “And you just had to bring this up didn’t you?”

It was just after noon and we were gathered for brunch at the Flying W’s Avion Restaurant in Medford to celebrate my brother Tony’s 23rd birthday a week-and-a-half late due to his law school schedule preventing him from enjoying, well, anything besides law school. It was a cool, delightful, sunny morning in late autumn, but suddenly it seemed my question had cast a pall upon the proceedings. It was a buzz kill that could only have been topped had I just vomited on the table. “I may have to kill you,” Erica whispered under her breath. My brother just laughed while my father seethed a restrained seeth behind his gold-rimmed aviator Ray Bans.

I finally understood the problem.

***

Election night 2008 had been a prickly one at the DiUlio homestead. I visited my parents for dinner that evening and thought I would stick around to watch the returns. I thought it would be fun to see the night unfold alongside the two people most responsible for my political aptitude and passion. When I got there, however, my father, a devout, registered Republican, already seemed a little tense, even though not a single state’s polls had yet closed. I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision.

“Where’s mom?”

“She’s a poll watcher tonight. She volunteered to watch the polls. To guard them. In Willingboro.” He said this as though my mother had decided on a whim to fly down to Darfur to host a tea party for rape squads. “She’ll be home around 8:30.” He paused over the pasta he was cooking in a large pot. “I’ll tell you what, this is not going to be good. Not going to be good at all.” I couldn’t tell if he was talking about my mother’s volunteer work, the election, or the pasta in the pot. It may have been all three.

After dinner I had a few calls to make, and when I had finished, a number of state projections had come in. Obama was in the electoral lead. My dad sat on the couch with a face that suggested his mind was already going down a list of possible ways to terminate its own existence. I think I caught him somewhere between gunshot to the head and slowly feeding himself to an office paper shredder. He didn’t say anything when I came into the room, just looked up slowly with more than a trace of both insanity and despair. “Not good?” I asked. He didn’t answer, just turned back to the Fox News broadcast and its incessant, gabbing heads of expert opinion.

I didn’t press the matter. Didn’t try to cheer him up or lend any “it’s not over yet” perspective. In 27 years, I have come to know that trying to interfere with my father’s modes of coping with an unpleasant situation can be like trying to take food away from a dog mid-chew. You just. Don’t. Do it. This was, after all, the same man who once took off a brand new Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt after watching a particularly tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys, walked into the kitchen for a pair of scissors, and then proceeded to cut the garment into small strips he then tossed into the fire, one helpless, green strand at a time.

“I can’t believe he’s going to take North Carolina,” my father said. I took a seat next to him on the couch. “What are those morons down there thinking?”

“Well, look dad, first of all, they’re not morons just because they support a different candidate than you. And besides, North Carolina hasn’t even been called yet. So you can’t say he’s won North Carolina.” I looked at the fireplace and was pleased to see that it was dark and cold and fireless.

“Nicholas…he’s won it. Trust me.”

This was more or less how it went for the next hour or so while we watched the television and waited for my mom to return from her poll-watching duties, with every state that turned blue suddenly designated the moron capitol of America. When my mother finally arrived, she was in exceedingly bright spirits, her post-volunteerism glow radiating impossibly against the closing dark of my dad’s quiet rage. “It was really a beautiful experience,” she told us. “Just wonderful. I feel so uplifted right now. Apparently, everything is going very smoothly tonight. No problems with voting or anything like that. Very good to hear.”

I knew what was coming next. “Well, I guess you didn’t hear about the Black Panthers in Philadelphia tonight.” Oh boy. “They had billy clubs. Billy clubs, Elizabeth!” Here we go. “And they were trying to intimidate voters coming from coming in.”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t hear about any of that. And I don’t think it really matters.” My mom was getting dangerously close to her “keep bringin’ me down and I’ll take you down” tone of voice. My dad wisely backed off.

“Uh huh. Okay.” He went back to watching the returns and drawing further and further into himself as if there was a calm, magical land hidden somewhere deep in his body where a smiling John McCain was ready to welcome him with open arms and a smile that suggested, “Don’t worry Ed. Everything will be okay. Here. Come rest your head on my war-weary shoulder.”

***

Needless to say, my father never found that place, and once Ohio was called for Obama, the night was over. My mother had settled in with a glass of red wine and we both stole furtive glances at the mustached man beside us now rubbing his temples every two minutes and sighing a sigh that suggested the world was, in fact, about to come to an end.

“Are you alright, Ed?” my mom asked him. I could tell by the timidity of her voice that she was thinking about the burning sweatshirt incident too.

“No. I’ve got a splitting headache.”

“Well that’s ridiculous. You’re going to let this make you sick.”

“Too late.”

“Do you want a valium?”

“No.”

“Well look, relax. It’s not going to do any good working yourself up like that.” Then she whispered to me, “I’m really worried about him. He could have a stroke or something.” I patted my dad on the shoulder and rubbed his back. If there was an entry wound, I probably would have tried to suck the Democrat poison from his veins. He needed to relax. After all, how could I possibly deal with the fallout if my farther died because of this. Oh Nick, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. How did it happen?

Well, it began with a simple headache on election night. And then he just stroked out as soon as they called Florida. Right there on the couch. Bam. He just lost it.

Who would ever take me seriously again?

Thankfully, my dad didn’t have a stroke. He just went up to bed, signing off with the cheerful adieu of, “Welcome to the People’s Republic of America. I hope you all enjoy socialism.” Before any of the speeches were made, before any of the confetti was tossed, before any of Oprah’s tears were shed, my father slept the sleep of one last denial, wondering if perhaps when he awoke the next morning news would greet him that a mistake had been made and that John McCain was the actual victor. Or maybe the entire affair would have been a dream. Or maybe aliens would have swooped down from the sky during his victory speech and abducted the senator from Illinois for purposes of interstellar probing. Just maybe.

***

But it hadn’t been a dream, and my dad’s face at brunch the following Sunday told of his resignation to that fact. Meanwhile, my sister still had murder in her eyes.

“You always have to be the agitator, don’t you? Always have to stir it up.” The thing is, Erica had a particularly significant stake in the matter and was no more anxious to talk post-election sociology than our dad was. See, she had made it known since September that she was going to buck the paternal Republican trend and vote for Mr. Obama. I knew how significant that was. I was there when my father found out about this conviction of hers, and the entire time I had my fingers on the ready to dial 9-1-1 because of how deeply I feared his head was going to erupt into a gruesome explosion of blood and bones right there on the spot.

“Hey, everybody simmer down.” It was time I started defending myself. The tension was getting rather ridiculous. “I was just wondering what grandmom thought about the whole thing, okay? The woman’s 92, alright? Aren’t you interested in that at all? This doesn’t have to be a whole big, freakin’ ordeal.”

Silence. All eyes were now on my grandmother; my sweet, little Italian grandmother who clearly had no concept of the war zone into which she was about to walk. “Well,” she started, diminutively, “I think some of his ideas sound very good. And—”

“I’m sure the Germans thought some of Hitler’s ideas sounded pretty good as well.” It was a muted retort from my dad, but everyone heard it. Thankfully, everyone also ignored it.

“Mom, I think he means what do you think about Obama being the first black President?” My mother was steering a sinking ship. “Does that mean anything to you?”

“Oh, well, yeah. It’s…well…I mean—” and here my grandmother looked to me. “Wasn’t there a black man back in the 1800’s or something who won the election?”

Good grief.

“Mom, are you kidding me?” My mother was doing all she could not to take her mother-in-law by the shoulders and shake some sense into her feeble frame. “Are you seriously asking this? You think we’ve had an African American president before?”

“Well, Elizabeth, I was just saying…”

My grandmother may be 92, but she’s neither unintelligent nor senile. She knows fully well that no African American man has ever been elected to the office of President. She knows the historic significance of what occurred on November 4, 2008. I like to think her confusion was nothing more than the result of being blinded by the maelstrom of DiUlio chaos surrounding her that morning over brunch. It could happen to anybody, really. I mean, if I were in her shoes, I probably would have begun wondering if the Oval Office wasn’t made of cheese and that it was once run by a cat named Ginger along with his trusted sidekick Twinkles.

After my grandmother’s 1800’s comment the conversation dissolved rather quickly. My dad began raising the inevitable right-wing, talk-radio-inspired topic of questioning Obama’s proper citizenship (a petty one, for sure) while my mom gave her mother-in-law an abbreviated lesson in American political history. My sister, all the while, continued shooting me dagger glances and whispering surreptitious threats—“Sleep gangsta style tonight brother. One eye open, one hand on the gun.”—as my brother took up his usual Swiss neutrality in the entire matter. Me, I just continued enjoying my plate of strawberry pancakes and french toast with whipped cream, laughing to myself about what an interesting four years it’s going to be.

Review: “Cardinology”

 

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It’s probably an obvious point, but the so-called “digital age” of pop music in which we presently find ourselves helplessly fixed has numerous drawbacks. Consider the veritable death of album artwork, for instance. A shame. The possible death of the album, for that matter, as a work of artistic entirety at the hands of easily plucked ninety-nine cent single songs also comes to mind. And what about liner notes? These seemingly superfluous bursts of an artist’s thoughts can provide revealing aspects about an album’s greater purpose otherwise lost on the casual listener. I think about this in light of Ryan Adams’ newest studio effort, Cardinology, which was released last week on October 28. Buried deep within a collage of lyrics, black and white photos, and painted clouds that scatter across the record’s jacket are Adams’ requisite “thank you’s.” The first one reads: “Thank you Universe, for connecting us one and all. Consider this music as a gesture of our appreciation.”

I mention this little detail because it speaks volumes about this record; and while I think the sentiment is quite evident in the music itself, reading the statement was a confirmation of a nagging suspicion I had harbored throughout my first few listens, namely that Adams is painting with unprecedentedly broad, musical and lyrical strokes here, each one aimed at battles for individual spiritual redemption never quite won and a struggle to listen for a voice from God never quite heard. It’s an ambitious effort that feels familiar when it works but foreign and forced when it doesn’t, making Cardinology one of Adams’ most perplexing and, sadly, forgettable showings to date.

 

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

To put this in context, let’s first acknowledge another obvious point: Ryan Adams loves The Cardinals. No, he really loves them. The backing outfit of Neal Casal, Chris Feinstein, Jon Graboff, and Brad Pemberton has been with Adams off and on since 2005’s brilliant Cold Roses. In fact, Cold Roses, its 2006 followup Jacksonville City Nights, and this most recent album, were all released not as pure solo records but as works by the larger package known as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Much in the way Neil Young teamed up with Crazy Horse as a perpetual sonic compliment to his solo efforts, so Adams has indelibly married himself to The Cardinals’ remarkable ability to infuse his music with a broader complexity otherwise absent in his solitary arrangements. And his respect for these musicians with whom he plays is vast (and well deserved). Consider that in recent live performances Adams has been known to take a backseat to the staging of this band, hiding in the side shadows instead of bringing himself to the front of the stage. Here on Cardinology he does just that. Make no mistake, this is a band album, as Adams’ vocals and individualism play second fiddle to the quartet’s broader picture. Oh yeah, and lest we forget, the record is called Cardinology!

Before it was even released, the prospect of a new Adams effort bearing a title that gave serious props to his band was thrilling, as The Cardinals have leant wonderful compliments to Adams’ brilliance as a songwriter and composer over the last four years. Despite the critical disparity levied upon it, Cold Roses is as solid a work of brilliance as Adams has ever produced, and much of its success would not have been possible without his band’s significant contribution. But whereas that record’s two-disc sprawling ambition is peppered with nuance and character, Cardinology is plagued by overproduction and vagueness. It feels as though Adams is indeed trying to swallow the Universe whole; but he’s not savoring the meal. He’s choking on it.

The first four tracks are immediate indications of Adams’ intentions here, bearing optimistic tittles like “Born Into A Light,” “Go Easy,” “Fix It,” and “Magick.” On the first, Adams petitions the listener (himself?) to embrace the idea that we were all “born into a light/ we were born of light/ we were born into a light” and the promise that if you “heal your vines, eventually you’ll heal inside.” On track two he begs “go easy on yourself,” and while the subject of the lyric’s petition may very well be a specific lost love, the broader implications of the song are clearly aimed at the principle of individual forgiveness for ourselves and the mistakes we’ve made—a subject in which Adams, an infamous reveler in the sins of the flesh, is quite well versed. Look, I want to be lifted by these songs. I want to feel the redemption that inspired Adams to write them. But the obviousness of the message kills the rawness of the emotion, and that’s a shame. In other words, nothing in the entirety of these first four seemingly uplifting numbers comes close to achieving the absolution Adams realized with one beautiful line on Cold Roses’ “Magnolia Mountain,” wherein he sang, “It’s been raining that Tennessee honey/ So long I got too heavy to fly/ Ain’t no bluebird ever gets to heavy to sing.”

On “Fix It,” Adams is yearning to do just that. “I’d fix it/ I’d fix it if I could/ And I’d always win/ I’d always win/ I’ll always win in the end.” Casal’s chunky guitar riffs launch the track and set up the song for a quiet rebel swagger that sadly dissolves as the song meanders and collapses under its own weight (a problem throughout). On “Magick,” the album’s fourth track and obvious single, Adams picks up the pace and harkens back to his Rock N Roll days, only this time with more parts Oasis and less parts Green Day. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Magick” is a quick, unassuming rollick that tells us to “turn the radio on/ So turn the radio up/ So turn the radio up loud and get down/ Let your body move/ Let your body sway/ Listen to the music play/ It’s magick, it’s magick.” I believe Adams here for the first time on the album, even though he can’t resist the urge to remind us of yet another Universal truism (“What goes around comes around”).

While the record never fully abandons the theme of Universe’s Greater Purpose Meets Individual Unrest, the remainder of Cardinology is somewhat less obvious in this regard; and when Adams familiarly opens himself up to the bittersweet conflict of yearning for enlightenment but meeting instead the silence of God and bedtimes spent alone, the results are far more interesting. Consider the semi-sleepy swing of “Let Us Down Easy,” wherein Adams admits that, “Every season I spend alone/ Feels like a thousand in my heart and in my soul” and that “Instead of praying I tell God these jokes he must/ Be tired of himself so much he must be more/ Than disappointed, Christmas comes we eat alone/ A pretty girl’s smile surrounds a pretty girl who/ Takes your order she yells it and cries alone in/ The backroom once in a while until it stops.”

Because so much of this album’s inability to triumph can be attributed to the overwrought sound of the band involved, it’s probably no coincidence that Cardinology’s most successful track is the one that features the fewest Cardinals. “Crossed Out Name” is a swelling acoustic number that finds Adams in the familiar territory of wandering darkened streets alone and yearning, once again, for home. It’s when he’s afraid (not scared), when he seems like he’s about to crack, when he questions his motivations and future, that Adams is often at his best. Consider the following reflection on solitude: “I wish I could tell you just how I felt/ I don’t pray I shower and say goodnight to myself/ And when I close my eyes/ I feel like a page…/With a crossed-out name.” Or the subtle perfection of the way he conveys new love with this: “I kiss her mouth and I know/ For everything there is a word/ For everything but this./ I like the dresses, the shoes, and the clothes./ And everything, you know, that goes/ With loving a girl I suppose.” Damn. That’s what Adams does better than any singer-songwriter in music today. He is at once both, you know, conversational and poetic. Oh how I yearned for more of that on Cardinology.

Another refreshing emergence from the muddiness of this record’s overproduction and thematic heavy-handedness is “Evergreen,” which leans on the whisper of Graboff’s deft pedal steel, Adams’ acoustic, and Casal’s tickling piano, all of which compliment the front man’s cracking, fragile falsetto. Again, I believe Adams when he sings here, “And maybe you’ll find someone/ To lay some roots down next to you/ Be more like the trees and less like the clouds.”

“Natural Ghost” and “Sink Ships” are potential alt-country teases that forsake their inherent possibility for understated greatness with an unwelcome mess of too many guitars, confused harmonies, and throwaway lines like, “Keep the faith, keep moving in time, with the music rolling in your mind.” Really Ryan? Come on man. You’re better than that. Sonically speaking, “Natural Ghost” in particular reminds me of the most egregious errors Adams made in producing Willie Nelson’s Songbird in 2006, an album that found Willie’s voice buried fathoms deep beneath the instrumentation (a sin for Mr. Nelson!) and the emotion of the songs therefore lost in the jumble. Consider that “Natural Ghost” feels anything but ghostly. What could have been an eerie, haunting ballad about rickety stairs and moonlight is reduced to one of the album’s most forgettable tracks.

To be sure, Adams achieves a refreshing musical and lyrical maturity with Cardinology, as he did on the preceding Easy Tiger in 2007, but his recent grasps at a steadier hand have not yet commingled fully with the wilder, unhinged efforts of his earlier works that, while often yielding more than a few duds (“Luminol” anyone?) also ushered forth some of modern American music’s most timeless compositions (“English Girls Approximately” or “To Be Young”). The shame here is that Adams seems suddenly intimidated to embrace his musical and personal demons the way he has so beautifully in the past. And it’s not that this album feels safe, it’s that it feel underwhelming.

In short, Cardinology is not what I expected; but then again, no effort from Adams is ever what anyone expects. After Jacksonville, fans and critics alike were poised for Adams (and The Cardinals) to finally inherit the dusty alt-country throne left vacant by Gram Parsons in 1973 and deliver a quintessential disc of pure Americana. But what did Ryan do instead? He came out with 29 less than a year later, a hushed, sleepy, dance-of-the-dead solo effort that veered significantly off the expected course. And then, two years later, Easy Tiger found Adams newly sober and suddenly harkening back to his 2001 Gold era polish, alluding to a forthcoming effort that would have finally silenced the fans and critics who have been begging for another “Rescue Blues” or “Answering Bell” since 2001. And this is what they get. Peculiar. In some respects, Cardinology feels like a necessary crossroads, a collision of Adams’ most recent history that will undoubtedly yield more greatness in the future, so long as he can start trusting in the Universe instead of trying to thank it so profusely.

BONUS TRACK: For an example of Adams and The Cardinals kicking some ass, check this out. It’s easy to see why Adams loves this outfit so much:


Let Us Now Praise…

Music For Coming Down:

David Mead and the Post-World-Series-Election Hangover

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Fade In: Interior. Nick’s Roast Beef. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wednesday Night. 7 p.m.

The clocks have been turned back. Another hour has been saved. Second Street in Old City is dark and desolate and wet with rain. Just one week ago to the day this place was clamorous with the delirium of hundreds in the street weeping and clapping to everyone, to no one in particular. Just one week ago to the day this place was filled with what seemed to be potential for new birth. With beer-stained hearts on fire. With senseless love overflowing. With the careless inspiration only triumph can bring forth. Just one week ago to the day, Second Street was alive.

Just twenty four hours ago, Second Street was alive, brightened by the hope of change in America, of change in the city of Philadelphia, of change in our dusty, cynical hearts. By this time yesterday, Barack Obama was already on the doorstep of victory. By this time yesterday, everyone braced for the eventual collision of history and expectation. By this time yesterday, legions of the lesser angels of our nature seemed poised for destruction. By this time yesterday, Second Street was yet another temple at which we could all worship the deity of possible hope. By this time yesterday, Second Street was alive.

Now, sitting inside Nick’s Roast Beef, Second Street is tired and alone. The bar is virtually empty. No music plays on the speakers. The Phillies already seem a distant memory. Two small televisions hang from a brick wall. One broadcasts a silent, subtitled Charlie Gibson, who guides America through replay after replay of last night’s Presidential victory, parsing every second down to the fabric of the dress Michelle Obama wore on the stage. On the other screen, a prime-time Hollywood program silently displays a montage from a new Broadway musical staring Chazz Palminteri. The disparity of the two images seems at once both obvious and obscure. There is something that connects them, I’m just not sure what that is.

More than anything else, what strikes me is how exhausted I feel—how exhausted the entire city feels—overwhelmed by a month that went by in a blur and culminated in a championship victory for a beloved baseball team and the election of the first African American to President of the United States of America. In the course of just one week, both of these events took place, and there is an overwhelming, atmospheric sense that the peak of joy has been reached, and now we must all come down. We must all swallow the bitter sweet fog of the morning after.

That’s why we’re going to see David Mead at the Tin Angel.

Some friends of mine arrive and we share a few pints over talk about quantum physics and Mr. Rogers; over the previous night’s election and the virtues of ketchup; over getting old and electric cars; over cheesesteak hoagies and the small entertaining bits of our own personal histories only we find important or funny. I know we are children of this time, I’m just not sure what that really means.

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When our rambling comes to a close we leave for the show. Two doors down we climb some narrow stairs and order some more pints. First to take the stage at the Tin Angel are The Sways, a Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo comprised of Carey Kotsionis and Adam Landry. Carey’s got her acoustic, Adam’s got his medicine-red electric, and just two lines into their first song I am struck by both the beauty of their harmonies as well as the undeniable pleasure of lines like, “Knowing what to wear doesn’t make you a lady/ Showing up at my door doesn’t make you my baby.”

It would be easy for me to call this duo a marriage between the Innocence Mission and She & Him, so I won’t. Instead, The Sways are a fragile little outfit with the icy edges of their tender sound rimmed in traces of southern attitude and rust. They’ve got California flowers in their hair, but they’ve also got dusty, Memphis boots on their feet. It’s sweet, American swaying, music perfect for the autumn and summer both. They are a pleasure to watch and I would recommend checking them out if they come to town again.

When it comes to the headliner, I am as ignorant as a man can be. Going into the night, I had only ever heard one, maybe two David Mead songs in my life; but the show came by way of a zealous recommendation from my friends T. David and Kristine Young, and since I trust their respective musical tastes so implicitly I figured it was worth the $12 admission fee. And friends, after sitting through an 90 minute set of this man’s music, I can honestly say that I would pay twice as much to see him again.

Oh that dastardly breed of man known as the so-called “Singer Songwriter” is everywhere, and usually I do not suffer him kindly. Look, he’s got a lot to live up to, so I think it’s only fair to be so critical. Every college-aged crooner strumming his acoustic guitar in a coffee shop or on a lawn full of pie-eyed ladies is cooing in the shadow of geniuses like Jackson Browne, Ricky Lee Jones, James Taylor, Joni Mittchell, Cat Stevens, or even Ryan Adams. It’s not their fault the genre has been so well mined, it’s just a fact. All of that being said, when David Mead takes to the cozy, dimly-lit stage at the Angel, my skepticism is tempered only by Dave and Kris’s admiration for him.

Now watch as David Mead lifts the glass statue of my vapid cynicism, hurls it across 90 miles of jagged rock, and allows it to shatter into pieces so small and numerous as to be indistinguishable from the air surrounding them. For the entire length of his set, I am as captivated as I have ever been by a performance. Mead is a master songwriter, crafting everything from bittersweet ballads about looking out of windows at girls walking away to traveling songs about rambling to lovers and friends in drivers seats as the landscape of America unfurls its lovely, lonely distances. He even covers “These Days”, giving an apropos nod to the man to whom I believe Mead is the obvious heir apparent.

Moreover, Mead’s stage persona is a delight. Irreverent, erudite, commanding, humorous, and humble. Watching him in the intimate confines of the Tin Angel feels like being part of a sublime secret. I look forward to nights that will surely unfold with Mead’s music lining the walls of my house and of the mornings over coffee and new love wherein his tunes will kiss the moment with the tenderness for which it begs. I’ve got him on right now, in fact, and I can think of no better soundtrack for coming down from the chaotic hand life has dealt me in recent weeks.

Check out this video of him at the Tin Angel in 2004:


Phinally: The Victory In Three Acts

 

Act I: Purgatory

It was a cold, wet Tuesday morning, and by the tone of his e-mail I could tell my friend Red Dog was not yet convinced. He needed some prodding.

I watched the slick, fast, frenzy of October’s rain prick the windows of my office, thinking about the purgatory of the situation. Of the night before when the entire city of Philadelphia seemed poised for a delirious rebirth. Of the men and women walking through Old City to their favorite watering holes clad in red and white and pale blue. Of their eyes looking to that place in the distance where victory whispered its seductions. Of the slate sky. Of the pints of beer we all consumed through five-and-a-half soaked innings of senseless hope. Of the clinical tarp eventually covering the field. Of the cruel Doppler Radar, flashing. And of each of us—the men with their clenched fists, the women with their sad eyes—walking back to our cars through the rain, heads hung low, not in defeat but in the dissatisfaction of having to wait even longer for our moment of triumph.

I sat in my office that Tuesday morning and thought about all of this—and also of the eventual conclusion to the game. I knew Red Dog had to be there when it happened. We had started this series together and dammit, we would finish it together as well. But I also knew it would be a hard sell. The two of us had already spent far too much time and money on this World Series, and in Red Dog’s case the sacrifice was particularly great. He’s a teacher, which means his alarm begins blaring around 5:30 in the morning, two full hours before mine even thinks about waking. He’s also a husband and a father, which means his energy output requires significantly more precise calculation than mine. Nonetheless, he needed to give it one more go. He needed to meet us at National Mechanics and finish what was started.

So I responded to his e-mail (which had the perfect subject line of “Raining On Our Parade”) explaining why I thought it essential that we take one last shot in the arm and head in to the city for the 3.5-inning conclusion of Game Five of the 2008 World Series:

Dude, that’s a great headline! I’m really surprised it hasn’t been used anywhere else…

So yeah, tonight is apparently suspended until tomorrow, to which I think, yes, I will be going out. Tonight will give me a much-needed rest and opportunity to get some things done. And my rationale for tomorrow is this: it’s only 3 1/2 innings, which means it won’t be too late/expensive a night. Granted, it could go into extra innings and last much longer, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. I mean, the whole point of being out was so if they won it in the city we would be there! If there’s still a chance to experience that, I’m there. Had they lost and it was going into Game 6, well, that would be a different story and I wouldn’t be going out. But this is STILL GAME FIVE!!

Anyway, no worries if you can’t swing it man. I understand. Let me know. But come hell or high, raging waters, I’ll be there. And I will scream out into the night. And the city will ring with the echoes of our elation. And the curtain of our sorrows will be torn in two. And all will be right with the world.

 

Act II: So This Is What Pure Joy Looks Like

And so it was. After a few more persuasive e-mails, Red Dog decided to come out after all, and when Brad Lidge threw the final strike of the evening, the two of us did indeed scream into the night. And indeed the city rang with the echoes of our elation. And indeed the curtain of our sorrows was torn in two. And all is, indeed, right with the world.

What occurred after that game can scarcely be put into words, as Philadelphia erupted into a scene I have never before witnessed. Along with three of my closest friends (sans Red Dog, who had to go home), I walked up Market Street from Old City, getting closer and closer to the din rising from behind City Hall. It was the kind of juggernaut rumble only tens of thousands gathered in a city street can create…and it sounded glorious.

Finally reaching the pandaemonium, we saw the entirety of Broad Street pregnant with a sea of humanity. Shirtless men running up and down sidewalks, screaming until voiceless. Women whistling from windows. Trucks and SUVs loaded with dozens of rabid Phillies fans spilling out of the windows and doors. Beer and wine bottles littering every spare inch of gutter and curb. Stoplights bending beneath the weight of those who hung from them like mad gargoyles. Overturned planters. Sidewalk trees shaken by those who wanted to uproot a piece of the evening. Fireworks slicing through the perfect dark of sky to explode and rain their sublime fire upon the cheering masses below.

We stopped into a bar serving three dollar whiskeys and toasted to our team. We gave high-fives until our palms were raw. We called our loved ones and tried to paint the scene for them with hoarse voices and the distraction of car horns honking perpetually behind us. We bummed cigarettes and stopped into Nodding Head, where we enjoyed dark pints of sticky Grog and sang “We Are The Champions” and watched replays of that final pitch over and over and over again on a small television. We saw an overturned car on the sidewalk and some firemen at the end of the block trying to put out a small garbage can fire. We hugged the homeless. We made more calls. We took photos and stood on planters like warriors on hilltops of victory. We visited one last bar—the Locust Bar, to be precise—and swallowed down some lager, still watching that final pitch. Still delirious. And then we all went home and slept one of the most peaceful sleeps we had ever known.

 

Act III: Tears at Broad and Federal

I wrote in a previous post about how silly sport is, about how its triviality and inconsequential nature cause so many to feel apathetic about the thing but that these qualities are what make it so wonderful to experience. So while I realize the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory is not going to bring about world peace or an end to global poverty, I also know (and admit shamelessly) that it was one of the most beautiful moments of my young life, and that I am forever going to recall its sublimity as fondly as I would any fortune to befall me. It is good and righteous without condition and I am thrilled to have been a part of it.

The Friday afternoon parade down Broad Street was a far tamer experience than the Wednesday evening that proceeded it, but its sunny, measured execution was the perfect denouement to a release 25 years in the making. It was a moment of unhindered positive vibrations, of love overflowing, of new tides coming in for the city of Philadelphia and everyone who was there to see the moment unfold. Leading up to the afternoon, I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel once I finally saw this team I had been watching all my life finally showered with the unconditional attention all champions deserve. But then the parade made its way down to our post at Broad and Federal, and I had my answer.

Leading the caravan was the Philly Phanatic, and when his green, fuzzy paws became visible over the thousands of red heads bobbing up and down in frenzied elation all along Broad Street, I suddenly realized I was about to start crying. This was totally unexpected and I immediately tried to hold back, tried to tell myself how silly it would seem to have a grown man weeping in the streets over something as superficial as a baseball team; but then I realized how ridiculous the reasons for my resistance seemed and I let go of my insecurities and the tears started to flow. It wasn’t just the joy of the victory, or even the overwhelming sight of thousands gathered for this singular purpose, that brought me to tears. It was the Phillies game my father took me to see at the Vet when I was eight. It was watching the 1993 World Series in my childhood best friend’s basement at the age of 12, back when it seemed baseball was the only concern worth caring about. It was the baseball my entire family signed when I turned 13. It was Eagles football by fireside while my parents trimmed the Christmas tree. It was backyard home run derbies with my little brother, both of us wishing for the impossible. It was catches with my father in that same backyard. It was the watershed of 27 years coming to me in a flash of raw, unstoppable emotion at the hands of a silly, sarcastic mascot. And it was beautiful.

Thank you Phillies. Thank you for all of this. It is without a price and it will live forever in the hearts and minds of millions. Thank you.