Sunday, August 26, 2007

Don't Fence Me In

I can remember quite clearly that there were two songs my father would use to try and sing us to sleep when we were kids. Interestingly, they were both originally introduced and popularized by Kate Smith whose influence upon the old man was, obviously, deep-seated and lasting.

Neither of them, I should point out, ever actually put us to sleep. We were far too frightened by the sight of our father looming over us and singing for us to consider closing even one eye until he'd finished and left the room.

The first was called Rose O’Day and the chorus went like this:

Rose O'Day,
Rose O'Day,
You're my filla-da-gusha,

The other one seemed closer to his heart and usually elicited a more dramatic performance, although I think the template here was the famous Bing Crosby version as I always thought I detected the old man slipping into crooner territory a little bit:

Oh, give me land, lots of land
under starry skies above,
Don't fence me in

Let me ride through the wide
open country that I love,
Don't fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don't fence me in

Like Rose O’Day, this song also felt like it came from some strange place that existed long before we were born. Even then we realized that things were no longer as free as they once were and that we were rapidly losing the open spaces that the old man must have taken for granted.

Not that we actually thought he had been a cowboy riding the range, you understand. But the song seemed part and parcel of our father’s childhood, along with the cowboy movies on the television that he would sit and watch contentedly. He’d seen them all originally in the theater and could sit through anything that had a horse in it.

The Cowboy Myth is one of the greatest of all American myths, of course, and it changes and mutates to fit each generation. He became the Private Detective and eventually The Avenging Vigilante, so it didn’t surprise me when the old man developed a thing for Charles Bronson movies. As far as he was concerned, it was just another Randolph Scott picture.

The effectiveness and longevity of The Cowboy Myth was recently proven in the world of politics when the country elected an actor they somehow felt actually was a cowboy. They actually expected him to ride in on his horse, six-guns blazing, and clean up the town.

Political handlers aren’t stupid. They know that the policy wonk with the pie chart doesn’t stand a chance against the inarticulate power of a simple “Shucks, ma’am.” That’s the guy you can trust.

Hence, our current predicament.

I have to hand it to the old man, though. As much as he liked to razz me about how my candidates always lost, he never seemed to buy the official line of Republican guff, even if he might vote for one from time to time.

He had one friend in particular who kept trying to sell him on the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh and the Republican party line. He’d tell me about him and the expression on his face told you that he thought this was an obvious bill of goods.

My dad had seen enough movies to know a real cowboy when he saw one. Limbaugh wasn’t it.

Neither was this guy who seemed to spend most of his time in Texas clearing brush.

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses

My father, who had spent a lifetime refining the fine art of getting something for nothing, knew full well when someone tried to give him nothing for something.

I can't look at hovels and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in

Something in my father’s range-riding past bristled at these counterfeit cowboys and their phony ten-gallon hats. He could tell they had fences on their minds and would probably get around to foreclosing on the ranch, given luck enough and time.

But not everyone is as perceptive as my old man, who had honed and fine-tuned his ability to recognize a false explanation through thousands of hours of arguing with the retail establishment. There was many a supermarket clerk that trembled at the jangling sound of my father’s approaching spurs, wielding his handful of coupons like a Winchester rifle.

No, the sad truth of the matter is that there are still lots of phony cowboys around today and they’ve got audiences who are only too happy to encourage them.

I looked around at the ocean of Toby Keith fans we’d wandered into and the exit lane in the distance that provided the only way out through the fencing around the parking lot and thought, just let us get out of here in one piece.

Let me ride through the wide
open country that I love

The old man had tried to warn me.

Conclusion: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

Sunday, August 19, 2007

In The Belly Of The Beastly

We have a joke about the local commercial alternative station here.

Every time we turn it on, there always seems to be some sensitive female singer going on about something with just the merest hint of a drawl or a twang, not enough to qualify as theatrical but just enough to project authenticity.

Because of this, we always call it the Cowgirl Music Station.

Nothing wrong with it, of course, if you enjoy Cowgirl Music. Some of it is even very enjoyable. But there’s just something smug about the attitude of the thing – you can tell that the disc jockeys feel like they’re really pushing the envelope when they’re actually pushing 60.

In other words, for all of their bluster about presenting the music “you can’t hear anywhere else” and giving airtime to those artists who are somewhat off the beaten track, it’s all incredibly safe and well behaved. You know in your bones that you’ll never have to worry about being bothered by anything approximating a sense of danger so long as you keep your radio dial tuned to them.

This is what happens when you give out tote bags to your listeners.

Now the other weekend, it so happened that this station was having its annual festival here, two days of live music performed by artists that appeal to their weary and middle-aged demographic. You know, the sort of folks who shop at the organic supermarket and tell you how they don’t own a television.

The Smithereens were on the bill and those that know the wife know she loves The Smithereens.

They may only ring a bell with you as a vaguely familiar name from the 1980’s with a handful of hits, but they’ve never actually gone away, playing to a loyal and hardcore base of fans that have continued to support them.

Frontman and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio writes songs that sound like a cross between The Left Banke and The Who, which is to say appealing streamlined pop songs with a rough-hewn edge that really have no place on the radio anymore. The songs themselves invariably deal with lost or unrequited love, but unlike the vengeful lyrics of, say, an Elvis Costello, DiNizio’s lovelorn losers are trapped in an endless cycle of sadness with no hope of reprieve. That these sad and poisonous little bon bons are couched in such vivacious music makes for a sort of “spoonful of sugar” effect, the sentiments tasting of both sweet and sour simultaneously.

As we got closer to the event and started to look for parking, we noticed that more and more of the people we saw walking around were wearing cowboy hats.

“My god,” I said to the wife. “You see? It’s the Cowgirl Music crowd coming out for this. They actually wear cowboy hats!”

We were ushered into the parking lot of a nearby stadium where it seemed that another show was going to happen that evening. Tailgate parties and impromptu games of football were already going on. We could see kegs of beer and small grills here and there.

“There must be a show in the stadium tonight,” the wife said. “I wonder who it is?”

We parked and walked the rest of the distance to the festival, passing more and more cowboy hats as we did so, though we now realized that these seem to be concentrated in the parking lot.

There was already a sensitive barefoot fellow on stage asking the audience to recycle when we arrived. The wife staked out her place in front of the stage, carefully placing herself at arm’s length from the obviously drunk.

The Smithereens’ set was a crowd-pleasing mix of hits and covers and they thanked the crowd for being there for them for so many years. After the meet-and-greet had concluded, the autographs gotten and guitar picks confiscated, we made our way back to the car.

About halfway there, the wife’s curiosity got the better of her and she decided to ask someone in the crowd who they were there to see.

Her face went ashen.

“Who is it?” I asked. “Who’s playing?”

“Toby Keith,” she said.

It all made sense now, all the tattoos, all the cowboy hats, the tailgating, everything but someone screaming “Yee haw!” at the top of their lungs.

Toby Frickin’ Keith!

Toby Bush-Lovin’, Dixie Chick-Hatin’, Eye-Rak-Eee Ass-Kickin’ Keith.

How had we wandered into the middle of this?

And how would we get out alive?

Next: Don't Fence Me In

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach: 1924-2007

Max Roach, a founder of modern jazz who rewrote the rules of drumming in the 1940's and spent the rest of his career breaking musical barriers and defying listeners' expectations, died early Thursday in New York. He was 83.

His death was announced Thursday by a spokesman for Blue Note records, on which he frequently appeared. No cause was given. Roach had been known to be ill for several years.

As a young man, Roach, a percussion virtuoso capable of playing at the most brutal tempos with subtlety as well as power, was among a small circle of adventurous musicians who brought about wholesale changes in jazz. He remained adventurous to the end.

Over the years he challenged both his audiences and himself by working not just with standard jazz instrumentation, and not just in traditional jazz venues, but in a wide variety of contexts, some of them well beyond the confines of jazz as that word is generally understood.

He led a "double quartet" consisting of his working group of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums plus a string quartet. He led an ensemble consisting entirely of percussionists. He dueted with uncompromising avant-gardists like the pianist Cecil Taylor and the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. He performed unaccompanied. He wrote music for plays by Sam Shepard and dance pieces by Alvin Ailey. He collaborated with video artists, gospel choirs and hip-hop performers.

Roach explained his philosophy to The New York Times in 1990: "You can't write the same book twice. Though I've been in historic musical situations, I can't go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting."

More here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Break In The Weather

The man in the next booth eating his hamburger was bald, his arms crawling with tattoos, and he had one of those little silver horseshoe piercings hanging out of his nose.

It was the black t-shirt, however, that completed the look. In large white letters, it read:


Then, in smaller letters underneath:

After we have sex, you get lost

It’s been that kind of summer.

Sometimes it seems like it will never end and the relentless and oppressive temperatures will last forever.

I tell the therapist that I was never good at long-term thinking. Whenever I say something negative about myself, she counters by trying to find the positive side of it. Sometimes I take her point, but other times it seems a little far-fetched to me. I think she could probably find the silver lining in falling down a flight of stairs.

Don’t you hate people like that? I mean, aren’t I allowed to be awful?

She says I can change. A fat lot she knows.

“There’s that can’t word again,” I can hear her say.

Stick around, kid. There’s a lot more where that came from.

Summer often feels like this endless commercial, beating you about the head and shoulders with advertisements for movies and concerts like some giant blaring loudspeaker as the sun tries to melt you into butter.

The advertising isn’t geared towards me anymore, though. It’s not interested in my money anymore. They’re after the kids down the street, which is fine by me. Let them get their pockets picked like I did.

The commercials that want you to buy a car are actually aimed at me, which is why they all have these old punk bands playing on them. That’s a little disorienting. It’s a wonder one of them hasn’t come out with an SUV called “Anarchy” yet.

I don’t know what I thought I was going to do for money, I tell the therapist.

I suppose don’t is a close relative of can’t.

And now I don’t have anything to sell, I tell her. I’m on the outside of everything.

I’m beating my head against the wall and punching at shadows.


Well, all right, I suppose there are some things I could do differently, but I…


Summer really beat our brains out this week, not just here but the whole country, frying like an egg on the sidewalk. Then Friday came around (blessed are ye among days) and you could almost hear people gasping as they left work to find that the heat had been replaced by a cool breeze.

We’ve got the windows open and the air conditioner’s off for the first time in weeks.

It’s coming to an end. Summer’s over, again.

The sober and mature films will be coming out that nothing blows up in and the kids will be going back to school and saving their money.

I always felt like the year started in the fall, not in January, my therapist says.

And there is that sense of an ending vacation, I suppose.

Then there was the young woman with the t-shirt we saw at the restaurant this weekend. It showed a fork and a spoon smiling and holding hands and it read:


You've got to admit it's an improvement.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Take The Dennerlein

Considering how much I enjoy organ music of all types, you'd think I'd buy more or see more of it, wouldn't you?

Luckily, a stray e-mail informed me that organ whiz Barbara Dennerlein was coming to town and I just got back from seeing her.

It was a solo performance on the pipe organ at Verizon Hall, splendid for classical music but, as Dennerlein herself noted, it's a little difficult to get it to "swing".

Because of that, the music occasionally sounded stiff. But on the other hand a Hammond B-3 can't deliver the apocalyptic blare of a pipe organ, either, and the hybrid sound was oftentimes glorious.

She'll be at Joe's Pub in NYC in a duo format tomorrow night, so what are you waiting for?