Eddie Van Halen

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I’ve been off in the ether since John Prine died. And I’ve missed a few deaths; I’m sorry about that, but focusing on musicians we lose gets depressing sometimes. What have I been doing? Worrying about my mother, working at a bookstore, writing poetry, and getting new kittens.

But this one pulls me back in.

With all the smoke–both literal and figurative–that surrounded Eddie Van Halen, it was easy to forget how astounding he really was. I was barely in double digits when everyone started talking about Van Halen. I didn’t really listen to them until I was in high school. And they were always fun: easy to sing the choruses, light and breezy in a hard rock kind of way. Lead singers came and went. David Lee Roth tried really hard to make Van Halen his band, while Sammy Hagar just rolled with it. But Van Halen was always more about Eddie and his meteoric, pyrotechnic fret work. Everything else was negotiable, but Eddie wasn’t. A man didn’t just die. A band did.

Thanks for all the music, Eddie.

John Prine

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I’ve been MIA again.  Sorry.

And there’s been lots of significant passings in the music world that I haven’t noted here.  Sorry.

It’s just that all the death and sadness and silence of losing good music got to me a little bit.  And all the COVID-19 stuff lately has got me feeling extra worried and fearful, which means I’ve been withdrawing even further into myself.

But this is drawing me back out.

John Prine was one of those superb musicians that was mostly only listened to by other musicians and a cult of knowledgeable fans.  That was always a criminal shame.  No one could break your heart with the grace, literacy, and humor of John Prine.  And my heart feels just a little bit broken right now.

But I am grateful for all the beautiful music he left for us to enjoy. It seems so massively unfair that this man who beat cancer twice was done in by this stupid little virus.  No, not unfair.  Unjust.  Because if there were any justice, Prine would still be alive amd singing.

“Angel from Montgomery” will always be more famous.  “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” will always be more acclaimed.  And “The Speed of Sound of Loneliness” will always be my favorite.  But I’ll leave you with what is the most appropriate song in Prine’s stellar catalog.  Because even if a lot of people feel like crying right now, even if we feel like raging at the wrongness of the world, Prine would rather we laugh.  With just a enemy little bit of anger at the end.

Kiss my ass, COVID-19.

“Persuasion”

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I’ve thoroughly fallen down on my Team Tiny Peppers duties, but at least I’m here.  Sometimes.

But I haven’t been neglectful without reason.  In addition to all the general business of life, last Tuesday I saw the great and criminally underrated Richard Thompson at the Teregram Ballroom in Los Angeles.  It was a wonderful show, but left me with a pressing question: What does it say about the state of music today when a 70-year-old muslim from England with nothing but a slightly amplified acoustic guitar can rock harder than most everyone two generations younger?  Not much that’s very good or kind.

Of course, I didn’t take any pictures or video, partly because the Teregram said not to and partly because I choose not to live my life through the camera of my iPhone.  And of course, the song I decide to include with the post is not one of Richard’s harder rocking numbers (but here’s a little clip if you want a taste of that).  But it does represent, a little poorly, what I considered the highlight of the show.

Richard brought his son Teddy out to join him onstage for a couple songs, and “Persuasion” was the best.  Because it represents the kind of melancholy longing mixed with resigned cynicism that Richard Thompson excels writing.  Because it showed his delicate and deliberate skill with the guitar.  Because it allowed his beautiful baritone to soar.  And last, but certainly not least, because it surprised me with how glorious Teddy’s voice is.

Now I knew Teddy was talented; with Richard for a father and Linda Thompson for a mother, how could he not be.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was to hear this emotional, clear, rich combination of the best of both parents’ voices.  This clip from a few years ago isn’t anything close to the breathtaking experience I had a week ago, but it gives you a sense of it.  A couple times during the song, I saw Richard glance over at his son with the Proud Dad smile.  If I was his parent, I’d be pretty proud of Teddy, too.

“Rock and Roll”

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One of the things I think is going to happen with this restart is that a lot of songs are going to get fresh takes.  Or at least looked at again with eyes that are a few years older.  Notice I did not say wiser; the paradoxical thing about getting older is that you learn just how much it is you don’t know.  Things that seemed so black and white, so life or death, when you were 20 just aren’t the same when you’re 50.

I first posted on this song back when Lou Reed died six years ago, and I still feel pretty much the same way.  Rock & Roll is home in a way that not many other things are for me.  Music in general is home.  It’s been a sadder home for my the last few years, but it’s still mine.  It’s where the misfits and the weirdos can find each other.  And I’m one of the misfits and weirdos.  I’ve never really been able to conform with expectations and norms. I’m not just a square peg in a round hole; I’m a Lincoln Log in roomful of Legos.  And maybe in some ways that makes my life a little harder, but it makes me a hell of a lot happier than I would have been trying to fit in.

My life was saved by rock and roll.

“The Bitch is Back”

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Hi there.  It’s been a while.  Not quite as long as I thought it had been, but still.

I’m back.

I’ve not been posting for a variety of reasons: caregiving, general laziness, dying pets, dying musicians, political exhaustion, rage, regular trips to Disneyland, reading.  You name it, I’ve been doing it.  I’m also gainfully employed once again.  (I’ll go into that in some near-future post.  I’ll probably go into all of it in future posts; I’m not afraid of oversharing.)  But I committed to this year’s Nano Poblano (go Team Peppers!) and while I’m probably not going to follow the rules Ra set, I will use this committment to bring myself back into the blogging world, which I’ve missed.  It’s a way to get me writing again, which I’ve REALLY missed.  And I can once again harangue people about the music I love more than just about anything else.

Yeah.  The Bitch is indeed back.

You’re welcome.

“Asking Me Lies”

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Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?  It’s the question Johnny Rotten (nee, Lydon) asked at the end of the final Sex Pistols concert in the 70s.  (“Final,” of course, until they reunited with original bassist Glen Matlock in the 1990s.  I saw them in L.A.; it was awesome.)  That’s kind of the feeling you get from “Asking Me Lies.”

Not like you’ve been cheated by the song, mind you.  This is a fabulous song by an even more fabulous band.  (The Replacements, the true voice of my generation, remain to this day Criminally Underrated.)  But the narrator of the song–who for argument’s sake lets just agree to assume is the ‘Mats lead singer and main songwriter Paul Westerberg–is pointing out there is something of a disparity in the world: “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting drunk.  In a black and white picture, there’s a lot of gray bunk.”  He’s feeling just a little cheated.

Can’t blame him.  Nearly thirty years on, this song is still relevant.  He is still getting cheated (most recently by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which still hasn’t admitted the Replacements).  We all are.  We are living in a fucking Orwell novel; I’d feel less dystopian about things if the Cheeto in Chief had not literally said that what we are seeing and hearing is not what is happening.  (For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, google it; I’m not kidding.)  The gap between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us just keeps growing.  The climate has gone to hell, or at least it feels that way.  There’s even word that the Trump-driven EPA wants to relax rules governing the restrictions on asbestos.  Asbestos.  You know, that horrible thing that causes mesothelioma, aka the disease that killed Warren Zevon way too soon.  There’s more mass shootings, more public bigotry, more of everything that’s bad.

I get that this is part of the political cycle.  The price we are paying for having had a black president is this spray-tanned yahoo who’s only goal is to undo any and everything that has Barack Obama’s name on it.  And it will pass.  If nothing else, we’ll get a new president at the next major election, although I think it will happen sooner with a proper impeachment.  The bricks for that are falling into place slowly, but Mueller is building the wall that Trump promised.  Too bad for him it’s going to be a wall that closes in around him.  And for every step backwards, there will be a commensurate step forward.  It’s just kind of hard to remain zen about the whole thing when all this injustice and unfairness and damage is being wrought with the United States’ stamp of approval, even if it is just nominal.

I have to admit, I didn’t really expect a political rant when I chose this song.  I heard it this afternoon on my way to buy grapes and strawberries on sale.  It’s kind of stuck with me ever since.  But the sadness and anger lends itself to the times.  They are indeed “telling you questions and asking me lies.”  Just don’t expect me to shut up and take it.

Aretha Franklin

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Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin.  They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure.  They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine.  But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha.  The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you.  Aretha Franklin was awesome.

I’m not going to try to explain why.  Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios.  Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times.  Yes, she was physically beautiful.  But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible.  Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical.  Supernatural, if you will.  It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others.  There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.

Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),”  or even “Natural Woman.”  I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers.  It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites.  I only wish it weren’t still relevant.  After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.

“Joy to You Baby”

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I usually have my ipod set to shuffle–like the best radio station ever because it only plays what I like–or I listen to podcasts.  But for the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a Josh Ritter playlist I made almost nonstop.  It’s about two hours long.  When it ends, I just start it over again.  I’m not sick of it yet.  So you could say I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Ritter’s music.

I did a post for this song way back when it first came out in 2012 but didn’t comment on it other than to say that it (along with most of the rest of Josh Ritter’s catalog) makes me really happy.  I feel like I want to say something about it now, but I’ll be honest.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this one.  We could end up someplace. . . interesting.

There’s something luminous about “Joy to You Baby.”  It is sad, melancholy even.  A meditation on a lost love, on broken hearts and missed chances.  “There’s no ghosts in the graveyard.  That’s not where they live.  They float in between us, what is and what if.”  An ode to what was and what might have been if only things had been a little different.  It’s a sad song, yes, but that sadness glows with a light that I can only describe as holy.

Special note:  I have no idea what Ritter’s religious beliefs are, or if he even has any.  All I know is that from the content of many of his lyrics, he’s clearly pretty familiar with belief and believers, whether he is one or has lived among them.  When I say that the light I hear in this song is holy, I mean that in the most general definition of the word.  It is holy in the sense that imparts some sense of a greater power than this mere mortal coil could ever possess.  Something closer to the sound of pine trees whispering in the wind or vast twinkling brilliance of a starlit night.

I love the way this song makes me feel.  Sad, yes, but happy, too.  Forgiving and generous.  Open and free.  Loving someone can be an amazing experience; losing love can be just as awful an experience (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).  But letting go of that love, even after it has died, is a whole different beast.  Letting go of the sadness and anger is like letting go of a boulder.  You become weightless, free, flying: “And joy to the many, and joy to the few.  And joy to you baby, and joy to me, too.”

I’m not much for love these days, largely because it’s never really gone my way.  But the tenderness, grace, and yes, sadness, of “Joy to You Baby” makes me feel like all that heartache in the past was worth it.  That the tears and the emptiness and the loneliness was nothing more than the equal and opposite reaction to the happiness and warmth and contentment that came those few times it did work.  Or the price I willingly paid for the pleasure of dreaming and aching for an unattainable person.  Yes, sometimes even the ache of unrequited love can be pleasurable.  To quote another Josh Ritter song, “I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know.”

“Henrietta, Indiana”

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Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while.  And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.

I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song.  Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song.  1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant.  A former worker develops a drinking problem.  One son loses his faith in god.  The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator.  The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear.  Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney?  Were they simply innocent bystanders?  Who ended up dead?  Who were the police looking for?  What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”?  Why wasn’t he crying?  Was he the one that committed the crime?

You know what I’m gonna say here.  That the answers to these questions aren’t important.  And they aren’t.  But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down.  It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.”  It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge.  It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.

“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully.  It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.”  It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome).  There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs.  A restlessness, an anger, a dread.  In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last.  I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place.  It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul.  Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness?  Is it really living if all you do is survive?  Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with.  Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.