Summer Songs - 7/17/23 

Last Thanksgiving morn a friend said he was listening to his annual Thanksgiving playlist, and my record “TAW” was on it(!) (Little big victories.) Others there included The Band “Music from Big Pink” and Fairport Convention “Unhalfbricking.” Why these records? Well, HE knows why. I felt some vindication- even relief- that I wasn’t the only music geek who embraced these musical traditions like others might… hang a wreath, or shoot a bottle rocket.

On Easter morn it's Lyle Lovett’s “Joshua Judges Ruth”- is my church service. 4th of July? Beck- “Guero.” (Loud.) Last day of summer, slight evening chill, flowers fading- melancholy & uncertainty- Joe Henry’s “Civilians.” Halloween? Phoebe Bridger’s “Punisher,” featuring the haunting “Halloween.” (“Baby it’s Halloween… we can be anything.”)

Seasons have their own soundtracks & go-to's, which began unconsciously & organically as a wee lad addicted to Top 40 radio. Spring now brings out “Springtime” from Freakwater, The Bad Livers “Blood & Mood,” The Gourds “Ghosts of Hallelujah.” Fall evokes plenty of Tom Waits- the dark, beautiful menace of “Alice,” “Bone Machine,” “Black Rider” & “Orphans.” Winter? Perhaps Ben Weaver “Mirepoix and Smoke,” Sixteen Horsepower “Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes,” Emmylou Harris “Wrecking Ball.”

But now it’s Summertime time. A month+ ago- as our beautiful, tragic friend Summer was fixing to squeeze outta spring for his shift in the mine, with his intoxicating smells & sounds and palpable ghosts never far, I had a songwriter festival to play a few hours downstate. The last third of the ride (and first third the next bleary, satisfied morning) is 2-lane rural road, and the summer ridin weather was ideal, windows rolled open. Summer listens were considered and relished (good ‘ol tactile CDs), including John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters,” Chris Whitley “Living with the Law,” Freedy Johnston “Can You Fly,” Joni Mitchell “Court and Spark.” Summer musts also include Uncle Tupelo “Anodyne,” Jim White “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” Daniel Lanois “For the Beauty of Winona,” Mark Lanegan “Whisky for the Holy Ghost.” Some of these are sunny day fare, others… dark lightning bug nights, while people sleep and
Summer is at its vibey-est.

No doubt some of these choices & “traditions” stem from the simple fact that the records were first absorbed- covertly- during these corresponding time periods, seeping into the day or season like a crab blossom, spider web or frozen river, taking on and reflecting the time’s essence. And if I desperately need to visit Summer in January, I can throw on, say, Noah Gabriel's “Summers Gone,” and have a visit. In fact, I have the luxury to time travel to summers past through my own songs, those steeped in summery imagery, and when I sings 'em the feels flood back. For better or worse, though a bad trip is still a trip. Meanwhile, “Orange” only gets sung in Fall, “$5 Song” evokes Winter-into-Spring, “Valentine’s Day,” well, you get it.

So… what’s on your Summer playlist…?

Let's Get Vernal 

April 26, 2020

Hello from lockdown, fellow quarantinos - I hope you’re well. I’ve been remiss about the Blatherins - my pencil broke… As we negotiate our Big Pause, I notice that no one told the goldfinches not to turn yellow, or the bloodroot not to bloom. And while this morning’s shut-in music included Tom Waits singing “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” I also considered the schizophrenic nature of our seasonal pal. While discussing the recent snow, a friend called Spring a heartbreaker, saying “I prefer a season that knows what it’s about and owns it.” The next day - while performing a quarantine rummaging of old notebooks - I stumbled upon an ode to Spring I’d scrawled several years' back on occasion of the vernal equinox, and after a particularly brutal winter in which I’d worked outdoors, surveying. And I’ll share it here. Be careful out there - see ya soon.


Let’s Get Vernal 

The chilly sun is crawling north, crossing the celestial equator; comb your hair and grab your keys friends - it’s time to get vernal! Spring, we have rolled out the red carpet, giddy to bestow upon you a hero’s welcome. But alas - you’ve stood us up, like a bunch of shivering brides left at an icy altar. But I think I see what transpired; you stayed up too late last night celebrating Winter’s melty demise… “Hey barkeep - one more shot of Chambord!” (I imagine that’s what Spring drinks) and now you’ve awoke - fuzzy & tardy for your first day of work - no time for breakfast - you’re driving like a jackass, hitting every red light. And so the Crocus - pretty little soldier on the front lines of spring - keeps hitting the snooze button and drifting back off… What DO spring flowers dream of…? Sunshine, I suppose. And bees. 

And this year, oh Spring, we pine for your green, balmy touch even more than usual, for Ol' Man Winter was a real son of a bitch. The Bobby Knight of winters - stompin’ up and down the court - wild-eyed & relentless - throwing chairs and scaring the children. Seems he’d taken issue with all the global warming brouhaha, so instead of spending the off-season quaffing rum-spiked blizzards in the basement like usual, he hit the weight room and gulped protein shakes, and by the longest night - when our pal Sunny hits the wall and heads back north - he was ripped & ornery. Jeezus - he even strong-armed Autumn - I had the long-johns on before Halloween! 

But on New Years Eve - already wearied by his frigid beatings - I hatched a cunning plan: I shall grow me a beard and hide behind it - he shall never find me there. Oh… but find me he did… every time I had to dig a hole with an ax dulled by slamming it into asphalt and ice, every swing stinging elbows and rattling teeth, for the shovel was powerless against Winter’s frozen ground. Helluva time to bury a dog. Or a horse.  

And every time Nature cruelly called, and I pawed through layers of clothes with frozen hands while hunching behind a slumbering, leafless tree under a brittle, hopeless sky. (It’s hard to hide in winter - ask a deer.) And every time I stumbled off a wall or into a window well, as the deep snow hid the ground and Winter took delight. Firewood was like gold, whisky was like firewood, and I stopped chasing the spindly, haggard squirrels off the bird feeder, while the juncos, chickadees and cardinals cursed their non-migratory ways.    

Nature writer Hal Borland said “No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” And now I’m crawling around in Winter’s parting gift, which the retreating snow has revealed: a slimy stew of mud, garbage and dog shit. 

But Spring, all is forgiven. Better late than never, old chum. We’ll keep your plate warm, the door unlocked and our pale, weary arms wide open. Welcome. 

Spooks & Sparks (Gibson's Wild Ride) - 9.22.19 

Staring backwards. She’s been here a few weeks and I haven’t even touched her. Partly it's awe; to lay your eyes on something dear that reappears unexpectedly after being gone for nearly 30 years, lost at sea. Partly it’s the shame of sending her packing. Partly it’s… what if it aint like before… 

She looks like a ghost. A beautiful ghost. 1958 Gibson ES-125; thin line archtop electric hollow body guitar, sunburst finish. Maple body, mahogany neck- single P-90 pickup.  

Wedge the Instigator was in a panic one afternoon when I showed up at my high school stock boy job at Super Valu. “Skip is on the roof!” I knew what that meant. Boss man Skip went up to check on something, and my pal Wedge & I pictured him going slack-jawed as he stumbled upon all the whipped cream cans scattered about up there. No packaging measures were in place back then to keep one from huffing that single, glorious blast of nitrous oxide from an unused aerosol whipped cream can if you knew how. Though this renders the whipped cream useless; it runs out onto your rhubarb pie like spoiled milk. Wedge (RIP my friend) was in the habit of abusing those cans, then opening the back room door by the dairy cooler and chucking them on the roof. We chastised him often. Tempting, of course, but… moderation.   

Sure we raised hell but we worked hard- no one could cut and price a load as fast as us. Another duty tasked upon us was nicknaming the bag boys. One bagger, Savoir Faire, bragged of his dads old Gibson guitar, and I’ll be damned if this kid wasn’t planning to paint it! Even then I knew that was a cardinal sin and I aimed to prevent it. He brought it to work; fastest neck I ever played- to this day. So I plunked down 300 hard-earned stock boy dollars. Ransom. 

The guitar being a hollow body, it played pretty loud unplugged, so it became my acoustic guitar and was dragged hither & yon. Forest preserves, backyards, porches and kitchens. Parties clandestine and legit. Wood smoke & dew, a crutch & a blanket. 6-string rabbit’s foot. It endured the guitar histrionics of a kid squeezing in every note he could, the way he aimed to live life. Stupid kid.  

After high school it followed me to Florida, where partner Kuhn and I located on a tipsy whim, a dart stuck in an atlas page one late night, eyes closed. Jammed the 1973 International Travelall we rescued from the junkyard for $30. No door locks or speedometer. I plied my grocery store skills at the Tarpon Springs Winn Dixie, while BK line-cooked at the world famous Pappas’ Restaurant, smuggling me out a filet on occasion. We woodshedded many instrumental songs in those days- set staples for years: November Song, Seedless Tomato, April Fools, Euphoric Utopia, Real Life Melodrama… wish I could remember just one. Played our first bar gig- drinking age was 18. Cautionary tale concerning Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: once we were fixing to play at a party fulla glassy-eyed, grinning strangers but we couldn’t tune our guitars; the more we tried, the farther away we got… psychedelic slapstick. Gibson saw it all.  

A few years later, back North, Kuhn & I had been playing extensively as a duo: Bob & Dave- the Fun Specialists. This included our weekly liver-wrenching Friday Happy Hour residency at the Yacht Club. We carried a suitcase fulla shaky things, for those sozzled patrons who wanted to shake things. Heady times in the local scene, some great bands were working. Kuhn had procured a boner-worthy 1960 Fender Stratocaster and started a power trio, The Dangerous Zucchinis. Bassist Rob Fowler- McCartney devotee- lived to play, as he had an affliction gradually robbing his sight and hearing. Drummer Brett Hill (RIP my friend) was channeling Keith Moon, among other demons. When BK would get on his back at the Dragon Inn during Life During Wartime, squirming around in the spilt beer, the whole damn bar followed suit. Zukes rocked, and I aimed to make them a 4-piece power trio. But Gibson didn’t possess the intestinal fortitude- weren’t her style. And my old Les Paul copy was… a jalopy. Then, I was also offered a permanent guest spot in EP3, a spin-off of Nelson & Moffett’s band Dirty Deeds, after Stevenson left to form the Famous Vacationers. Hellfire! I needed that new guitar…     

Nickels were scarce after rent & beer; I was teaching guitar, digging ditches and cleaning engine blocks. Livin’ large, real small. I was dating a guitar student- a country girl and a cleaner of teeth. She’d bring home her instruments of hygienic torture and clean mine on her bed with a flashlight in her mouth. She acted as my pawn shop, buying Gibson for $300 with the (loose) understanding that I’d eventually buy ‘er back. So I purchased my piss-yellow made-in-Japan Fender Squier Telecaster, which sailed its maiden voyage at a Toxic Bunny show at the Dragon Inn, where it was ceremoniously consecrated AND desecrated by inebriated patrons, to my delight. But that’s another Blatherin… 

Life marched. Former girlfriend got hitched and moved to Florida. I locked Time in an old steamer trunk but the bastard got out and ran amok. The sun carved its lines. One heavy afternoon I was at my survey job pulling chains and digging for stones when the sky turned cranky, eventually becoming furious. Bolts of lightning, sheets of rain. Work day scratched, I was homeward when the tornado siren screamed its eerie and exhilarating warning. So I pointed it toward the nursing home where my mother existed, as I imagined chaos & confusion.                   

Entering the front door- where all inhabitants checked their dignity- the hypnotized employees seemed oblivious to the sideways trees and screeching sirens. I beat feet to mom’s room where she was prostrate and staring. She said what she often said: “I knew you’d come.” Ever the saint, she retained her gleam, so you would never cry or get openly angry in that room, you just kept pushing that shit further down inside. The window right next to her was open, the bed was soaked and rain puddled on the floor. What must her foggy mind have thought? None of this surprised me; one day while visiting, the fire alarm went off, and a rattled nurse stuck her head in the room and asked me what they should do… 

Mom ended her illustrious nursing career working in a nursing home, therefore never wanted to land in one. But Parkinsons is a robber, and once she spilled down the basement stairs- breaking her neck- there was no choice. Murky waters, no manual. I believe this all hastened her un-mooring, which offered her a retreat from the reality. Failsafe. She often asked me about the trial; she knew I didn’t kill them kids, but it all worried her. This, I believe, born from daily hours of awful crime shows blaring in the room, though we continually begged the staff not to put the TV on. She was powerless to turn it off. She hated television. Her hearing was fine.  

But she also regularly asked me- wide-eyed- about Gibson. “Did you get back your old guitar…?” I hadn’t discussed that guitar with her for decades, or even thought much about it. But now I did. 

Meanwhile, old former girlfriend had been back North for some time, divorced from her asshat husband. She had a cat named jimmy dickens, a mule named Jack and a horse- what’s-his-name. I’d seen her occasionally, and a couple times danced around the guitar. She was evasive, but I figured as long as she didn’t SAY it was gone, then in my mind it weren’t gone. But one day she came clean: the dude she dated right after me, he bought the guitar way back when. He collected ‘em, dunno if he played ‘em. I just knew him and her weren’t on speaking terms.   

Several years after mom was unshackled, I called old former girlfriend on her birthday. She said she was remarried, to a fireman. She always liked firemen. For all I know she set herself on fire. But good on her; a couple years prior she was engaged to some high roller who popped the question in Central Park, then broke it off in a text- which she received while waiting in line at a wake. 

Before hanging up she mentioned hearing that old former guitar-buying boyfriend was trying to get a hold of me. Me? Huh? Why? I never met the dude. But I recalled how recently a strange number had called both my phones back to back, so I found and called that strange number, shakily, like I was 14 and calling… a girl. Indeed, it’d been him.  

Old former boyfriend mused that he’d had some things in life he wished he’d not let go. He believed he had something of mine from a past life that he reckoned I regretted losing. He mentioned Gibson. Of COURSE I’d like it back, but I can’t afford the prices them things go for now. Damned Antiques Road Show! But money weren’t his concern- we’d work something out- maybe guitar lessons. “I’m having some surgery tomorrow, I’ll call you soon.” 

Sometimes for giggles, the prankish Universe likes to jerk you around on a string… A couple months went by but no word. I did not dwell, but someone goaded me: “Call him back!” I did. He haltingly said to call next time I was in his town- about 30 crow miles. As it turned out, then-current girlfriend lived about a mile from him (!) -I was in town the very next day. He agreed to meet at his shop…  

Hiding my ardor behind small talk, old former boyfriend fetched the dusty guitar case from a high shelf in the winter chill of the shop. Time got slow; it felt like I was opening a sarcophagus. Spooks & sparks. You know how you hear about somebody gone missin- lost in the woods or the wilds- and when they come stumbling out some reporter reports: “Amazingly, other than being dehydrated and gaunt, they seem to be relatively unscathed…” Strings were unplayable, but Gibson wore the years well. To pick it up was to be flung backwards- a young man’s reckless dreams flooding back- if only for a long second.  

I produced a crumpled check, to at LEAST pay what old former girlfriend had given me way back when the world was greener. Was all I could offer. But he didn’t want my money, a fraction of what Gibson was now “worth”. Maybe he was making reparations or… balancing karma. Or simply & kindly reuniting an old kid with his lost dog. I don’t know if he knew what a solid he’d done me- it was hard to verbalize. I did assure him I’d never sell it again. How often do we get a second chance? 

Gibson was checked out at Dr. Cremer’s amid oohs & ahhs, and I slapped on the heaviest strings the Doc allowed. And then I stared. A gradual re-acquainting… Perhaps I wanted to go back. You can’t go back. But now, with crooked fingers and 50,000 songs in my pocket, it fits better than ever. That kid back when didn’t understand finesse, and the beauty of every individual note. Old guitar feels good. Sounds good. REALLY good. She come home. Thanks mom.

Jim White’s Coat - 4.29.19 

     I got 10 miles to go on a 9 mile road…
     -Jim White 

Didn’t your mama tell you? If you can’t write somethin nice about someone on the bathroom wall, then don’t write nothin at all. Though the artwork is captivating… This gas station bathroom outside of Madison, WI is repugnant- sticky & foul- like if dungeons had bathrooms. (Did they?) It’s the wee hours and I’m considering how to wash my hands without touching the faucet when I glance up at the cloudy mirror and see it for the first time: Holy crap- I’m wearing Jim White’s coat!   

A tiny apartment next to the funeral home on a muggy night, that was the first time I heard a Jim White record- his first- The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus. What a find, like a four-leaf clover or… a parking lot 10-spot. Scary devil-cowboy on the cover, Jim White’s face obscured by a book on the back. The Good Book. I’d never heard of him. But now the strange sounds & words & mosquitoes & sticky night air all sloshed together, making a potent cocktail that I was very thirsty for. One of those records that gradually becomes the soundtrack to your current existence, for better or worse. 

Walking back to my truck in Jim White’s coat with some extra swagger- which is to say any swagger at all- it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet reached into the pockets of Jim White’s coat. Hell, until I just looked in the smudgy mirror I’d forgotten I was even wearing it. And now, with Herculean effort, I still abstained, for then I could still cling to hope of finding a weathered rabbits foot or forgotten scrap of paper with an unfinished poem or a mysterious phone number. The wondering was mildly electrifying. 

Some months before I’d ventured to Kiki’s House of Righteous Music in Madison to see legendary Texas troubadour Sam Baker, and was honored to join my pal Gerald on a couple songs during his opening set. Pre-show in Kiki’s kitchen, Sam apologized for taking a call. “It was Jim White”, he’d said. “Do you know Jim White?” Well, I mean, I don’t KNOW him… That afternoon during the drive I’d listened to the new record Jim White had produced for North Carolina’s Packway Handle Band, which included a few of Jim White’s songs. The next morning, after waking on Kiki’s couch with a whisky head, I gave Sam Baker the new CD to listen to in his rental car on his way to the next town. He was most appreciative.  

     Between a rock called heaven and a hard place called home 
     We wander the shadows so restless and lonesome. 
     For in the fallow field where what’s reaped is what’s sewn
    There lies a road to ruin and it’s paved with our tombstones

If you believe everything I read, then you’ll believe that Jim White has been a film school student, fashion model, comedian, boxer, preacher, pro surfer and a New York City cab driver. I once described him to someone who asked as being David Byrne if David Byrne was raised in the rural South on gospel music, Pentecostal ranting and lots of drugs. After the Wrong-Eyed Jesus discovery I immersed myself in Jim White’s next several records, each one a different journey I was exulted to take. Gun-to-my-head favorite? It’d be Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See, co-produced by Joe Henry. Aural cinema. I had my personal Holy Trinity of songwriting geniuses but Jim White couldn’t be denied, so I had to update to a quartet. My Mount Rushmore of songwriting geniuses, tortured misfits all. 

With vile gas station coffee and a Snickers, I was humming back down the lonely interstate in Jim White’s coat- no music just thoughts. Earlier I’d been back at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music to see Jim White. In her cordial basement, like God intended. Jim White told a story leading into That Girl from Brownsville Texas that spooks me still today. He tells a lot of stories.

After the show I told Jim White about how I’d given his CD to Sam Baker. It made him happy. He insisted on replacing it with the vinyl version. I was also purchasing his record Where it Hits You on vinyl, as I only had it on CD. He refused my money, but knowing he was out on the road and working I refused his refusal. Impasse. Finally he said “Tell you what. I’ll give you both records if you’ll buy my coat for $25” Uh… what? I recalled seeing him in Chicago several years prior at the Old Town School of Folk and after the show he was selling thrift store clothes out of a duffel bag from the stage. It was odd. It was perfect. 

So Jim White says he sells used clothes on his travels, and at the end of the year he gives all monies to Doctors Without Borders. He peels off the coat he’d been wearing- brown leather with a heavy ‘ish lining- and I worried about him staying warm, as he was heading north for shows in Minnesota where it was even colder than here. He still resides in the south- his blood is thinner! I put Jim White’s coat on. Mojo for days. I’d never buy a coat this style, so I had to buy it. Jim Whites coat. Jim fucking White’s coat. 

     God was drunk when he made me, but that’s OK 
     ‘cause I forgive Him 

Dog Bite - 04.11.19 

Blood mixed with snow truly does make an enchanting shade of pink. And as you stare down at it your mind contemplates a delightfully colorful sno cone on a sultry day. But that thought bubble is rudely popped by the throbbing, and your mind now contemplates the big angry dog that just chomped your hand like a cartoon steak, in a violent flash of teeth and snarl. Jeezus, that was… unexpected. And now you’re watching it drip in the snow, winter-cracked fingers already turning an interesting shade of purple.

On this early February Monday afternoon the world appears dismal & bleak, submissive to Ol’ Man Winter’s frigid grip. If the day had a soundtrack it would surely be that Police song Invisible Sun. The TV weather prognosticator proclaims no thaw in sight, and she would never lead you astray. Indeed, you would roam to the very shores of Hell to hear her forecast the highs & lows… though one suspects the weather there would remain pretty consistent.

Right here right now this dreary neighborhood conjures feelings of a Cold Hell. Certainly the Fool’s errand you’re on and concern for your chomped hand aint helping, but you can’t help but think that when the gray snow does melt, it’ll reveal a landscape of garbage, dog shit and resignation. And if you ventured back here on a sun-soaked early spring day- when the daffodils were poppin and children’s gleeful shouts filled the balmy air- it would still appear dingy & hopeless, it’s grimy secrets obscured by the glare.

What can be taking them so long in the house…? Your mad middle finger- packed in snow- is much fatter now than when you got here, and you wrap it in glove compartment Subway napkins. Big Angry Dog is behind the fence, whimpering softly. He seems… contrite. No hard feelings chum, you’re a creature of impulse. You consider the dreams- the animal attack dreams- and then you visit a star-crossed lunch with a pretty girl a few years past, full of forbidden promise. She was from another planet, the same one as you. Over chicken salad you told her about the recurring dreams- jungle cats, snakes, bears, crocodiles, big angry dogs- always on edge and poised to attack. At some point she asked if you were happy. Well… yes. Such a simple question.

Later that day she sent you a message: animal attack dreams represent indecision; a struggling to come to some conclusion. Huh. Interesting and… sadly unrevelatory. That evening you stared at nothing out the kitchen window, drying dishes real slow in the twilight. Are you happy? Christ. It’s like she made you look in a closet you weren’t supposed to. Such a simple question, and one that would catapult you down a brambly path with many consequences, trajectory unknown. You’re still picking the damn cockleburs off your coat…

Driving back to town with rubbing alcohol and whisky on your mind, your wily passenger asks what happened to your hand, and you ask him if that fella back in Cold Hell seemed the sort who’d be mindful of procuring rabies shots for his pet. “Probably.” Well, another scar it is…

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