Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bravo to David Brooks and his Let's Go For A Win On Opioids

for being a rare voice that cites an increasingly exigent crisis yet manages to pull the lens farther back to frame a larger picture: addiction as the insidious disease it has been conclusively and clinically found to be. It is cunning, baffling, and fatal.

It's a jarring fact that opioids are universally addictive--they require neither distinct genetic predisposition nor personal predilection toward abuse, and the recent exponential increase in their effected fatality numbers is abject and stultifying.

But Mr. Brooks nevertheless points with unabashed certainty toward an issue that so many others avoid for fear of piquing uncomfortable cognitive dissonances.

A three fold increase to 33,000 opioid related deaths last year is, dare I say it, sobering; but that figure is still less than half the seemingly accepted death rate from the culturally well-marbled alcohol usage, which is 88,000+ annually.

These figures do not include the plight and ills of the disease that occur during its active and progressing stages: hobbled spirits, wounded relationships, traumatized families, lost wages and productivity, extreme and needlessly burdensome health care costs.

It's encouraging to see Mr. Brooks point out that addiction, as an acute disease, is slow suicide operating at varying rates depending on the individual sufferer, the circumstances and drug(s) of choice. But the core drivers are despair, blight and anxiety which saliently present themselves as endemic to the darker and more hopeless gulches of our economic landscape. A vicious downward spiral is created, one that manufactures more and more pain for the addict internally and externally.

It's nevertheless encouraging that there's an aspiring nod toward political agendas that might address the over-arching causes of this blight writ large.

Not mentioned in the piece is an interesting and telling statistic: some European countries--Germany and France among them--have higher per capita alcohol consumption, yet an overall lower fatality rate.

More plainly, and at least as far as booze is concerned, the French and Germans drink more than us but fewer die.

Could that be partly due to their citizens having less of the pervasive background anxiety and stress that we here in America experience in the face of our record high health care costs, child care costs and the more and more for-the-more privileged system of continued education? That's another subject for discussion, but an arguably closely related one.

I'll hazard the observation that we Americans live in a more stressful society than those in more socially supportive and more self-investing nations.

Bravery is required. Any recovering addict knows it, and it would be refreshing for well placed apt leaders to accept and step up accordingly to create a new season of understanding and proactive measures that may enable a change in our approach to mollifying the societal effects of chronic substance abuse.

That some social conservatives immediately seize the opportunity to pivot from the subject of opioids to weed legalization issues seems to me clueless and irritatingly tone deaf.

Drugs and vice are here to stay, for better and for worse. But our species will continue to evolve if we so allow.

Perhaps the more urgent and dramatic scourge of opioids is another type of gateway, one that might open higher minds to formulate and legitimize efforts toward a more enlightened culture with universal benefits for all. In our deliberative hearts and minds, there is much room for improvement.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

For and Of Our Beloved Friend John Jennings

For Our Buddy John Jennings on his Birthday
(I never got around to formally reading this at our friend’s Memorial Service 1 year ago today):

OK, would appear--somewhat reasonably--that the vast majority of the good folks here today would consider themselves "middle-aged".

Those who subscribe to the tenets in pre-conceived dispositions of "ageism" would probably impose the particular year middle-age begins…whether it be 30, 40…50....

My mother-in-law is presently 92 years old. What she would consider to be her middle-aged years I don't know. I do know that when she relates stories from her younger years she doesn't begin with "back when I was middle-aged".

My son demurely mumbled to me somewhen around his 33rd birthday that he "doesn't feel very young anymore".

I once attended the funeral of a wonderful woman who had  died at the age of 101. Ripe, old? I suppose those adjectives are fair.

In light of the loss of my Father as a child and my Mother as a young adult, I declared to my companion that the occasion of her funeral after 101 years was somewhat refreshing since she had “made it to the finish line”: lived a long and multitudinous life. A joyful occasion, really!

My friend quickly countered, “No it’s not. She didn’t want to die!”

The point that most of us would gladly take life over no life at any point within a life. John and I chronically invoked the famous scene from Unforgiven wherein the blubbering young cowboy posse initiate is shakily confronting the emotional aftermath of his first killing.

Clint Eastwood says, "It's a hell of a thing killing a man: take away all he’s got and all he’s gonna have” to which the kid says, " yeah but I guess he had it coming, huh?"

"We've all have it coming, kid”, utters Clint.

At some point in our lives we look up to notice that we've been lucky to be around long enough and work at one type of thing along with a small group of people. And within that relatively cozy group, we’ve made life-long and cherished friends.

Weeks, months, years, decades pass and bonds are formed. Each is unique. Some are stronger or weaker than the last or the next, tacking a course with peaks and valleys as you forge ahead like a plow horse until the day you realize that you've known a particular soul for longer than most others, and you've spent more time with that person than you have with your own nuclear family--the home folks back before you flew from the nest toward adulthood.

And with these souls, if things went so rightly, you managed to create and accomplish some mightily profound feats. You’ve healed, entertained, taught, learned, served and earned your worth as you together gained and sustained.

I firmly believe that all time here is formative.

Those hours add up and—lo and behold—you have a true brother or sister. They know you—and you know them— extremely well. Sometimes seemingly too well!

The things you done, the places you've been, the experiences you’ve shared…together…realtime…over a long your history. Is anything more precious?

At one point during one of our many late night powwows (in our 20s and 30s— the fires were usually stoked by any number of mind altering substances, and in our 40s and 50s they were stoked with experience, jaded retrospect and hard-fought wisdom. The latter being every bit as—no make that more—intoxicating then the former) John confessed and professed a deep and abiding commitment : "Jon, I've known you since you were 19 years old and we are now in our 40s”. Regardless of what you may have ever said to me, about me or done to me and whatever I have ever said about or done to you, well…(taking a long thoughtful John pause) we're still here and I am highly rewarded with this relationship. Man, I am all in until the end of the line.”

It's interesting to me that John and I very seldom spoke in any sort of granular detail about what we did within the context of shows, recording sessions and such.

But we certainly talked about most all else.

John loved bandying on about any art whatsoever. His polymathic intellect new no bounds, and that made it especially difficult for the unsuspecting and quixotically reluctant new acquaintance to escape the compelling clutches of John's charmingly amiable, expertly convincing, informative, elucidative and engaging manner. John was pretty danged irresistible.

On a tour flight to Boulder, Colorado John was seated next to an attractive(ly) off duty flight attendant. He chatted her up for the entire way, as usual, and by the time we had landed John had not only made a new friend but had garnered an invitation for himself and a few of us others to meet her and her pilot husband for a late morning & early afternoon training session in a full-scale FAA grade 747 flight simulator. The ones in which the guys up front did their training.

It made total sense, this sort of encounter, and John’s associates would see it again and again:

A stranger, a friend of a friend at a party, a bandmate, a travel mate…hearing perhaps the voice first…gentle, genteel, that of a broadcast announcer who may always make it home to read the bed time story to the kids. His voice was velvety, lyrical, laced with experience, compassion and empathy. Perhaps prior to that, or concurrently…she’d see the eyes. John’s eyes were extremely easy on the eyes. And they were extremely intelligent eyes, and that—coupled with his overall demeanor and sympathetic ear—were indeed windows into an exceptionally beautiful soul.

He had that woman at “how ARE you?”, and the following Tuesday John and a few others were at the controls, trying not to crash.

It was a splendid field trip, and John would later glowingly report that he was the only one in the group to NOT crash the plane.

In an interview with Bill Holland, John confessed that in his younger years, one less than admirable trait was that “he could be manipulative”.

I’m venturing to guess that was born from an early life discovery of his spellbinding way with people. We know many who've found themselves wanting to impress John, longing to please John, for doing so rendered them pleased with themselves.

John somehow managed on many occasions to show, and/or share that he was indeed pleased with well--proud of--himself, and do it in a becoming way. It was undeniably evident and hell, you had to agree with him.

Yes, John was aware that he was extraordinary, with the self-assuredness of a phobic person who time and again has rediscovered his more than adequate tools for survival: a multitude of natural abilities and gifts: talent, intellect, compassion, and a hard fought and won heartfelt worth…

We all know he was one of those rare individuals to whom the skill for tasks difficult and tenuous for many others would come relatively easy.

It was John's way to somehow manage a disarming humility, fronted with a winkingly disingenuous modesty when he would remark that, for one instance, guitar playing was something that came "pretty easily" to him.

He must've been aware just how much that could piss off at least a dozen other guitar players we know, yeah?

John knew—and would privately share— just which other players amazed him or “gave him a run for his money”. You all know who you are. Maybe not. I’ll tell yaz later. He probably told you already. John would say, “I don’t want to talk out of school” frequently.

John knew how to do a lot of things and knew how to do them well without a whole lot of help from others. It was because of this that, when the rare situation arose wherein John asked for your help, it would certainly bolster your confidence, up your seeming (“conscious and unconscious”) aptitude and your self-esteem, for we all knew his prickly discernment of everything practical, artistic or just plain trivial, how fussy he could be.

It's informally accepted in musicians' circles that horn players can be bawdy, string players may be meekly sensitive, drummers can be crude, bass players smooth, piano players somewhat snobby and aloof, but guitar players… by and large: a fussy lot.

John was probably fussier than most.

He wasn't always outspoken with his opinions of things, but... he usually was…when among a small group and definitely when it was just the two of you chatting.

John would matter-of-factly state that he was good at "getting" people... that is to say: he was a great judge of people... he could pick up what made you tick and do it pretty damn quick, enough to make you sick…figure out your trick, make you feel like such a  d***.

He “could think faster than you could ever run, run, run…”

That could occasionally be a bit nerve-racking.

John could dish. For the most part his dishing was about music and art – let's just say music, because he was first to disclaim with a global "what do I know?… however" of literature or movies. but being a musician songwriter – brilliant songwriter – and a record producer, he felt he had the license to spill some acid for the benefit of a brighter more evolved scene on folks’ behalf from time to time.

Politics, current affairs…NOW we’re rocking’. John would chronically contextualize his sociological points with “let’s not worry about me…my politics are so left of left of left, they are OFF the table the radar is on…"

As an artist, that license is extremely healthy: the exchange (sometimes heated) of ideas, beliefs, concerns and consternations that apply to our communal belief that in our artistic endeavors we should primarily focus on creating something that matters. As an artist he felt that and strongly. As a producer, he was primarily concerned with the piece, that the track, the project on which you were working well, was “working”.  At that, John was excellent.

There was a calm and sure-handed approach to all his projects, which fostered a reassuring and angst free (for the most part) collaboration with many songwriters and artists. There was something about John that, if you allowed it to work, and didn’t fight it, could make you feel verrrry good about yourself. And that’s verrrry good, when recording yourrrr record.

John didn't like young bands very much. In fact, I don't think he took naturally or affectionately to youngsters much at all. When speaking of young bands that invite their friends to fill up a pub once a week, or a band of other-than-musical professionals: lawyers, doctors and dentists who throw together a band and play at the country club every now and then... John could be pretty merciless. He resented their “air time”, and was outspoken about it.

I would say something like “ah what the hell, live and let live, live and let play” or some such shite, and John would say "no I don't agree with that because they're out there taking up air meant for the the rest of us." Somehow I didn't see this as an elitist statement, I saw it as the way John was committed himself to seeing to  music and art getting the respect they deserve. If you were merely noodling on the guitar during an idle chat, there should still be a modicum of deliberation behind every half-minded lick. In other words: When it came to making music, John didn't fuck around.  That's not to say he didn't have any fun, he had buckets of fun. In the studio he had a way of being so totally many an adroit producer aspires to be--that he somehow got great performances out of folks most of the time. Laid back, praising, ENJOYING himself…enjoying others.

I think he loved being the first person to say, let’s take a break…this’ll be great…and we’d repair to the porch for chocolate and a smoke and conversation having absolutely NOTHING to do with the work at hand.

John was intense without appearing intense. When he was working.

When he wasn’t working John appeared intense. Not in a bad way, (unless really bugged “Jaking” as a close friend would say) but in a thoughtful, sometimes lofty way, as if his hyper-awareness rendered  most situations and conversations to be something with which he was either familiar, or one whose aspects and concepts he’d once easily grasped, or could easily grasp again. He bored easily.

He could come off as jaded, pre-occupied, cynical, skeptical, sardonic. Also whimsical, fantastical, and oh so funny.

Just when I’d be thinking or grousing internally that John had a bit of a superiority complex, he would say something so disarming, so self-deprecating, so…humble, that I’d feel guilty for thinking he was any other way.

He was taken aback, truly…whenever I’d compliment him on his economy, sensitivity and approach to piano parts. OK, I merely praised his part, and it seemed to stop him in his tracks.

When he’d make some of the best and wittiest remarks, resulting in my wincing and tearing with laughter he’d say, "Oh my God, Jon…you’re laughing at MY joke? Damn!"

John’s ego was huge, but it was dwarfed by his enormous heart.

Being friends with John meant seeing the world through the eyes of John, and that wasn’t always an uplifting experience.

You had a much better shot at rosy-ing up your outlook by listening to Marilyn Manson, Morrissey or something, but… we all know how it was to be greeted by John: Never a "hey how are ya”, or “hi” it was more than often “(your name here) how ARE you!”

When asked how HE was doing he would glow with aplomb..”I have NO complaints.” “I'm all the better for seeing you!”

John held fast onto pearls of wisdom, and would readily recite them.

As fussy, particular and bristly as John may seemingly be, he was an overall zealous celebrant of life and love. Love was most important in a life filled otherwise with “just details”.

John was very strong. "Strong like bull”, he would say. He was more self-reliant than most folks. He was intellectually strong, and for someone who had serious bouts with phobias and neuroses he was a remarkable exemplar of high emotional IQ. John dealt with all people in a most civilized fashion, but when holding fast to his principles, his tenacity was cement-solid. …whatever the aspects behind any contentious issue, he had thought about them a great deal.

John had strong opinions, and so do I, and it was remarkable that we remained friends in light of the fact that when we had opposed views, they were diametrically such, but those instances usually had nothing more crucial than Kubrick’s framing, Cukos ethos, Solti, Visconti or Debra Winger’s performance in Mike’s Murder.

There was the accident wherein the sky actually fell on he and Tamara.  A big tree, actually.

Mere months later John would be arriving to his gig, Holiday lights coruscating on the apparatus screwed into his skull and affixed to his torso, a device ironically called a ‘halo’…and exclaim gently and firmly “I am the luckiest person I know.”

But years later as John and I walked the corridors of NIH after his second cancer surgery—one day afterward, actually—he was his usual optimistic, highly philosophical self, praising Tamara, the network of folks supporting him, his top-drawer doctors. Grateful, humble, shuttling, scuffling, hobbled, strapped, poked, and tubed…he was upbeat.

But at one point, in that way we all know of John, he stopped, turned to look me straight me in the eye with a semi-beseeching rise in one eyebrow, and said, “Don’t get me wrong. I AM aware of and appreciate the gravity of the situation.”

As much as John enjoyed spinning yarns from the old days (show business does tend to generate many entertaining, funny, interesting tales. I can’t imagine why... it’s not inhabited with many entertaining, funny, interesting people) he was anything but a backward glancer. He cared not for rehashed, post-game analysis, or even discussions of past productions. He was ever and already onto the next thing. “Way down the road”…John would say….”I’ve moved waaay past it” he would say to someone longwindedly contrite after an argument.

John liked and lived to move forward.

In the end, as I believe he was for most of his life, John was a realist. Albeit one with the intellectual and spiritual gifts enabling him to pull cheeky hope from the jaws of a most dire situation. John was a true romantic, an egoist (with one ’t’), but he did not frivolously romanticize, and I know that he cared for and about others very deeply. He respected those with heart, and he supported, encouraged, advocated for and so many times facilitated those who had something important to say.

Life was important, and it was important to John to make sure it stayed important. Dwelling, resenting or recounting the past was wasted time. He once said, “One day I’ll sit on a porch with my old chums and do the 'remember when’ thing. But for now I’m going to keep going."

We often talked about future projects—our own and others’. “We’ve always got potential”, he’d say…quickly, tersely…as smooth as John’s voice was, and as long as he may have taken in any discussion to formulate what he was about to say (you know, with his hands raised as if to say, ‘hold up…I’m devising the perfect most convincing way to make my point here’)…when he finally said it, he’d say it FAST. He was a fast talker. There was an autobahn of neurotic alacrity between his brain and his mouth. One would not delay the other. 

John always had a lot on his mind, and not usually in a worrisome way. His brain was full, and so was his heart…and he was always happy and proud to give you generous pieces of both.

Bless his soul.

 I hope and I pray (yes, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning demiurges and deities, I believe in that great collective energy of prayer…) at any rate, for it would make me feel better to know, that somewhere along the arduous and rutted road of John’s last journey that his brilliant mind, his gifts of wisdom, his talent for devising ways forward conspired to reward him with a clear discernible vision that made some sort of sense, offered solace, laid the warm hand of grace…calming him with the knowledge that it was alright to “move way past it”.

That it was OK to keep looking forward toward whatever is next.  

 John left us with so much to ponder, to enjoy, to carry and he inspired so many with so much.   

Some of my favorite John sayings:

Remarking on digital manipulation of recorded performances:
This was intoned within the discussion of bars being ever lower, “It is now possible, to make a purse from a sow’s ear”

On Capital Punishment : “If you want someone dead, just be patient and you WILL get your wish.”

Missing a cue in the studio: “Sorry. I was hanging out like a kid at the 7-11 on that one.”

Relationships: “Even the best relationships are not always mutually rewarding. But all relationships must be rewarding enough to make you want to continue maintaining them.”

On touring, and spoken while sitting on opposable benches: “I love playing music, and I love all of you, don’t get me wrong…but I can think of lots of things I’d rather be doing than this right here.”

“Topiary Donkey with a Dick.”

Now for a famous jingle we'd never tire of recalling and reprising:

Bye for now!


Milk’s the soft soft drink, it doesn’t burn foam or fizzle
Doesn't snap doesn’t sizzle when you want to wet your whistle
Its the soft soft drink that’s good for you it'll make your
Whole insides say ‘thanks’

Makes your teeth grow strong starts a belly celebration
And a muscle jubilation, people all across the nation
Drink the soft soft drink for a vitamin sensation
Drink the soft soft drink drink milk

Milk’s the…
soft soft drink it doesn’t shout about its flavor always on its best behavior
When its food you wanna savor
Its the soft soft drink that’s always been the favorites
It’s the soft soft drink drink milk!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Public Discourse, Moral Re-examination, Offended Sensibilities, Court Rulings and Emblems of the Confederacy in Leesburg, Va

As Americans, as a Nation, we stand unified in our belief that each and all have the right to express their opinions proudly and openly, especially when doing so opens heretofore obscured pathways to a deeper understanding of our collective humanity during broad discourses such as these; vigorously reassessing an ever progressing and changing identity.

As a Democracy, we ideally look toward and rely upon a majority representation of our majority personality. There are many compelling forces in this broad “heritage” argument. I hear confidence and resolve from folks holding nearly sacred the recognition of those (especially our ancestors) who “died for their beliefs”.

As a native Virginian (Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia and until recently Leesburg) I'm proud of our multi-faceted history--rife with admirable and remarkable personalities manifest in myriad trajectories, often times in contradictory fashion. That any may have died "standing for something" doesn't automatically meet my personal standards for veneration. History is rife and rancid with all sorts of agents displaying hideous conviction.

Leesburg has indeed and repeatedly been a bed of revolutionary passion. Loudoun County earned the colloquial status of “Breadbasket of the Revolution” during that war, for its formidable agricultural support of the Continental Army as it feverishly fought to extricate its citizens from the demeaning and crippling clutches of a far-away and tyrannical regime.

The colonies—united—won that war. We became an officially independent nation, the United States of America. For months, years, decades and centuries we progressed as a young nation navigating, negotiating a brighter, fairer and ever more promising future for each and all. Relative to other "great” nations of the globe, we today still remain a young one.

No one can accurately predict when one established era's characteristic practices, social mores and moral standards will seemingly—suddenly—tumult into another with its laws, practices and traditions slightly more effectively reasonable, rational, righteous, enlightened and otherwise evolved.

The "War Between the States” was a bloody and divisive conflagration, when certain States within our unified nation attempted secession from  the majority collective thus allowing themselves to adhere only to their own codes and economic methods, one of which is now clearly recognized as a cruel, demoralized practice, that of keeping and utilizing human beings as livestock.

It is fact that many of our honored “forefathers” were slave owners, but during all that while an ever flowing enlightenment was by degrees reaching many enough shores to gradually become a mainstream. Those cultures—multiple generations of them—slowly gave way to change much as a frightened uprooted child slowly learns that a new home can be better, even while holding the memory of the old home near.

Of course, acceptance moves and grows by degrees as well. It requires dialogue both external and internal.

Recently, in the wake of "rulings" (we've been inoculated to steel ourselves as a reaction to that word) it’s irrefutable that this slow conversion is requiring this conversation, even within the considered climate of many a jarred sensibility. Perhaps we’ve evolved to a farther point where all of these opinions, reactions and detractions can be civil (writ large), constructive, non-violent (literally and literately), and made (and heard!) with patiently open minds and compassionately open hearts. We are compelled to examine ourselves as private and public entities, and do so privately and publicly.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently stated (perhaps within another context, perhaps not) that "pain (like stubbing your toe on the edge of furniture in the dark) is knowledge rushing in to fill a gap in knowledge. The pain is a lot of information really quick." In that sense, intransigence is our enemy, both as an end result and as a practice fostering more unpleasantness along the stubborn way.

As a unified Nation, we won the Revolutionary War.  Later, as the Confederacy begrudgingly struggled to deny this union, they lost the Civil War, a long and ugly conflict whose legacy, by virtue of its origins of regional solipsism and nationalistic self-loathing, is one of which, as an American, I’m not proud.

But we move on and we change…little by little. Whether they be flags or statues, we hold on to icons and emblems as commemoration of history. Some have become somewhat perverted vestiges of our times and culture, even while they gaze back on those that are past.

On the one hand, we feel strongly that the Confederate facet of our region’s identity should be recognized and taught. On the other, its arguably most salient historical mantle is slavery--universally deplored. Any nod to icons standing for this cause of the Confederacy risks being perceived as approval even celebration.

I personally find it rude to question and argue others' clear reasons for taking a valid and expressed offense. The offended sensibilities of our fellow Americans, and Leesburg/Loudoun citizens (especially those of African ancestry) should be of paramount importance and utmost consideration. Even so, many may hear protests against the location of statues and such to be but from a weak-kneed chorus of politically correct whiners.

I say let the cognitive dissonance flow like a robust and widely drinkable wine. In vino veritas.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Logan 3.12.15

Logan 3.12.15

Lithe, Lean, Slender
Nearly skinny
Minder rubber ‘round her wrist
Tine-like fingers quickly
Get to a banana
One, two, three strips divvy down
Disappear into rapid devour
All business

Sip, chew, sip
Paper cup not managing
Only but a peel
Where to conceal, the heel of a shoe?
Out of place, too small a space
Drape a perfect arch across the leather brief

Diamond ring, headlight lit
Promise just past the knuckle
Fiddle the wrapper of a breakfast bar
Barely two bites, she’s fed
Put it in the peel, on her case
At her feet

Perhaps this Spring she’ll stand
Speak vows and her words will float
On a haze of heartfelt devotion
He’ll think for a while
That she looks too thin

They'll sort that out 
Like trash in a cup

Which attendant scoops and whisks away

Leaving her perfect nails 
To start sifting through
Emblems and wee bits news on a wee screen
Back to my book, all business
And we’re all up and off to Miami


Monday, August 18, 2014

The Carnage of Capitalism (with Comment)



Stephen Kinzer's ("The Brothers") rather unsettling account of precedent setting patterns and policies established during and following World Wars 1 & 2 after several unabashed decades of corporate/government unholy allied practices in the name of "healthy commerce at all costs" accurately conveys how that dynamic paradigm was formulated, developed, implemented and yes, 'fostered' with post-war policies beginning with the Dulles brothers (Allen Foster and John Foster) and their dealings while in and out of the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell and on into their positions as Secretary of State and CIA Director, respectively.

While much of their verified cronyism and back-room/insider dealing would be abjectly unlawful within many of today's revised legal parameters, they nevertheless set the tone of monied exceptionalism into the 30's, 40's and 50's and for decades to come.

Subsequently, in the late 70's and 80's when global finance, currency trading, bundled debt, leveraged stocks etc. became their own lucratively nascent and nepotistic industry--but one without any real manufactured product other than increased (or squandered) wealth itself--the proverbial mule was let kicking and sprinting out of the proverbial barn. The wild beast has begotten generations of legions which will be extremely difficult to discourage, round up or recall.

This manipulated wealth has become a colossal engine which drives everything from national elections to the mega-industries of medicine, education, correctional facilities (many now corporate run), bundled corporate run HOAs (existing nowhere near the neighborhoods of their concern) big pharma and its R&D, food, energy, resource policies, FOREIGN policy and operates hand in hand within a new normal that brazenly ignores--in fact proactively embarks upon the dismantling of--any codified humane consideration for our common welfare.

Other than vapid and hyperbolic image hawking for the benefit of consumer market eyes and ears, there seems to be little corporate recognition of future consequences or real regard for the imminent and irreversible environmental damage about to be forever leveled upon our planet. That we still must tolerate climate change deniers while the tipping points toward catastrophic events are becoming alarmingly nearer than ever anticipated is truly disturbing. It all but ensures with abrupt seriousness that these events must indeed come to occur before those voices that tout their mythic nature are considered ridiculous enough to be muted, and coordinated efforts shall become crucial for survival in the face of undeniably vivid developments. We shall scramble as best a threatened and terrified species is able.

Along with an ever increasingly smaller and insulated power peak, the classic democratic process is hobbled, evidenced strongly by the recent identity crisis within the Right's conservative big tent, as well as the recent inefficiency of the Left's no longer potent moral high ground. The hopes, dreams and plans of the common citizen are rendered adrift and at the mercy of the unmerciful with any plausible representation frozen as an amber bound gnat within long-term legislative paralysis.

Argue the political particulars if you must, but the optics of the final outcome will be quite out of our control.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lou Reed’s Dirty Blvd.

A Songwriters Appreciation:

Lou Reeds Dirty Blvd.

Anyone nominally familiar with the mystique and work of Lou Reed would be aware of his status as a primary progenitor of the new honesty in rock: an unflinching stylistic trend that preceded "punk" in the mid to late 70's. Ian Hunter & Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, NY Dolls, Iggy & The Stooges, Alice Cooper, etc. were fresh new voices that returned to and embraced a stark expressionism. Vivid and lyrical, it was not altogether nascent, but a return to the blunter styles of early blues and rock. Eric Burdon & The Animals, early Rolling Stonesperhaps even Buddy Holly-- were punk in that the delivery was direct, the message deliberate.

Many a statement was brusquely made by sheer virtue of--indeed with and within the delivery itself: forthright and unadorned, stripped down to big notes and sounds with a wont-run-cant-hide mainline express approach that torched all chances for misinterpretation.

Since then, the tradition continues from mid to late 70s to now with New Wave/Punk icons The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith, Black Flag (continually Henry Rollins) into the Post-Punk 80s & 90s with B-52s, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Severed Heads, R.E.M., Mission of Burma, U2 and on to post-punk revivalists like The Strokes, Social Distortion, naming but a comparatively prominent few: those who embrace a more direct style to convey many and varied themes, tales, rants and laments, the last of which may hazard to be romance and love if those particular yarns were abjectly truthful, proud and with no nod to vulnerability. Sweetness for its own sake was elementa non grata.

Lou Reed was the principle writer of the Velvet Underground before a long career of collaborative adventure and solo works, and among the first of these artists to expound unabashedly on and of societys underbelly, its underdogs, the underserved and underrepresented in and out of the drug culture, moreover, sub-culture and alternative lifestyle writ large with multitudes theretofore underexplored. His social commentaries were, for the most part, delivered through the lenses of vividly drawn characters, although hes also known for not-so parenthetic rants directed at societys soulless and villainous entities, albeit usually uttered in tones of street-corner commiseration. 

"Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised."
—Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, (1979)

Mainstream Pop music, as with film or any other medium, might include the merely sincere among its myriad characteristics, but it was Punk that flipped the switch refreshingly back to Rock and Rolls original proclamatory (and in the purest sense, mandatory) adherence to the ethos of saying what you mean with as little incidental packaging as possible. The superfluous is an obstruction, no lightweight consideration especially when constructing a narrative arc no longer than a 3 minute record.

During his final few years alive Reed returned to radio, hosting--along with old pal producer Hal Wilner--the gleefully received eclectic weekly 5 hour New York Shuffle on Sirius-XM which still continues, with the implicit youre welcome if youre doing something interesting playlist policy. His broad-scope spin choices reveal other interesting aspects to his top-shelf artistic taste.
Throughout his artistic life Lou Reed maintained a loyalty to all that is straightforward.

He mostly recorded and/or performed sure-handed cleanor broadly dirtypresentations and portraits that relied on his deft ability to wrangle as much potency from a cunningly considered lyric, a true gift to be appreciated again and again in multitudes of well-turned phrases.

During his early growth as a student of journalism, film-making and creative writing he was profoundly impressed by the high-octane possibilities of well deliberated minimalism, propelling his lyric writing ever more toward that ideal.            

 The basic, aurally strong-boned construction of Punk provided the perfect accommodation for Reeds glib style which stands starkly and undeniably expressive, with imagery abiding in scandalous cahoots with primal rhythms and multi-entendre word craft.

Its this hybrid brew of narrative styles that that I find the most effecting throughout the Lou Reed catalog. Its sneaky, as though there may all the while be one continuous chaotic sub-text, a slip-stream cum river raging beneath a mundanely dead-pan commentary. I find Reeds dryly elegant effusiveness a deceptively rich archeological terrain begging to be upturned for closer scrutiny.

One of my very favorite songs can be found on his 1989 album release New York, a contiguous three-act collection that was performedsometimes stubbornly in its entirety during its initial promotional tour.

 For those allowing the indulgence, I’ve chosen the song Dirty Blvd. for a somewhat granular and reverent, if you will, unpacking: an “under the hood” look at why I consider it an exemplary piece of great songwriting, its layout so vivid and masterful that I had somehow managed to overlook it’s mostly spoken delivery for years. That was until last Spring when I listened with a college class of young aspiring songwriters. One student exclaimed that it was “the weirdest rap song” he’d ever heard.

Its urban universe revolves around the ambiguously young, cursedly poor, dreamily wistful Pedro. Within this relentless and cruel environment his pragmatic coping devices will inevitably, one might deduce, mature along with his hopelessness into an illicit and morally deficient existence.

Bleak? Undoubtedly. But truthful and credibly fashioned as only a native empath of the mean streets would manage. Over the years the haunting tale would come to wrap ever closer around my head much as this harsh reality would tighten intractably around the pitiful boys choked future. See if you might experience the same reaction.

First, the lyric only:
(The mix of the recording is wonderfully narrator-centric, as if the storyteller waits just out of the frame during the compellingly simple guitar intro before stepping in, immediately nose to nose with us listeners)

Dirty Blvd. 
(Lou Reed) 

Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel
He looks out a window without glass
The walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
His father beats him 'cause he's too tired to beg

He's got 9 brothers and sisters--they're brought up on their knees
It's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
but that's a slim chance, he's going to the boulevard

He's going to end up, on the dirty boulevard
He's going out, to the dirty boulevard
He's going down, to the dirty boulevard

This room cost 2,000 dollars a month, you can believe it man, it's true
Somewhere a landlord's laughing till he wets his pants
No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
they dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
That's what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death
and get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard

Get em out, on the dirty boulevard
Going out, to the dirty boulevard
They're going down, on the dirty boulevard
Going out

Outside it's a bright night, there's an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets

A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He's selling plastic roses for a buck
The traffic's backed up to 39th street
The TV whores are calling the cops out for a suck

And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He's found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares up at the cracked ceiling
"At the count of 3" he says, "I hope I can disappear"

And fly fly away, from this dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly, fly, fly, fly, from the dirty boulevard

I want to fly away
I want to fly 

Now with some notes, just for fun:
(And it need not be said that these thoughts, interpretations and suppositions are this writers alone. Its perilous to analyze songwriting. Most writers dont enjoy doing it to their own work, and I apologize if the reader is repelled by this overstep. On the other hand, step offits just a song, a really good song.)

Dirty Blvd. 
(Lou Reed) 

Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel
He looks out a window without glass
(The stage is economically set within 5 seconds with these  first two lines.Taken literally: abject poverty.  Figuratively, it might suggest there is no lens or protective layer of shelter between outside and in: One reality. Pedro doesnt live IN the Wilshire (will share?) Hotel, he lives out of it.

The walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
His father beats him 'cause he's too tired to beg
(Further establishing the environment as deprived, abusive, flimsy to the point of ephemera)

He's got 9 brothers and sisters--they're brought up on their knees
It's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
(The begging is reiterated as we learn there are many others there, and they are brought up on their knees, raised to believe that they are lower and worth less than most)

Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
but that's a slim chance he's going to the boulevard
(Back to Pedro, he dreams. To wit, his pathetic visionary aspiration is to one day murder his parent. And our credibly world-wise narrator dryly and jarringly dashes even that demented hope as futile, pointing out that Plan A is sadly:

He's going to end up, on the dirty boulevard
He's going out, to the dirty boulevard
He's going down, to the dirty boulevard
(The signifiers here are quick and potent: end up, going out, going down)

This room cost 2,000 dollars a month, you can believe it man, it's true
Somewhere a landlord's laughing till he wets his pants
(Reed introduces what will be a recurring device here and elsewhere throughout the album, using defecation as a handy expression of a total lack of dignity and respect.)

No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard
(Here again is the insistent mention of dreams, a term for aspirations, but now they lead irrevocably back to the dirty boulevard, perhaps as Robert Frosts After Apple Picking refers to the hauntingly perseverating images which cannot be dispelled by an exhausted laborer at the end of a long day) 

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
That's what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death
and get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard

(Boldly animating--then desecratingthe Lady in the Harbor, taking four lines to further dehumanize the immigrants to so much rodential detritus thereby conflating to national policy the landlord laughing while he wets)

Get em out, on the dirty boulevard
Going out, to the dirty boulevard
He's going down, on the dirty boulevard
Going out
(Now we are introduced to the third act which offers some specificity to the job descriptions on the boulevard. Going out is a streetwalkers standard pitch, while going down is often at offer)

Outside it's a bright night, there's an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
(We stay out, outside Pedros world, and the privileged and well-heeled are antithetically busy in theirs. Their night is bright, although Lou slyly and seductively reforms the word limousine into the name of a drug like mescaline or Dexedrine. Just as this listener is thinking this, the following lines affirm the theme): 

The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets
(No explanation required.)

A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He's selling plastic roses for a buck
(I discovered that The Robert Frost poem alludes to “stem end and blossom end” as well as other salient images and themes that correspond not too remotely.) 

The traffic's backed up to 39th street
The TV Whores are calling the Cops out for a Suck
(A vivid scene,with metaphors for those who are looking. Economical phrasing right down to numbers and acronyms.)

And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He's found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
"At the count of 3" he says, "I hope I can disappear"
(The cracked ceiling: figurative, literal with multiplied metaphoric weight and now, after all, Pedros dream and hope, is to disappear)

And fly fly away, from this dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly, fly, fly, fly, from the dirty boulevard

I want to fly away
I want to fly

(The Doo-Wop style backsing remember the doot da doot in Walk On The Wild Side?function as Greek Chorus and Uriah Heep, ushering the listener, and Pedro to whatever comes next. Another voice (a grown man) assumes Pedros persona with the vociferous desire: I wanna fly)

 This song is a wonderful example of how a simple, thoughtfully considered lyric can achieve amazing and transporting results.

Many Thanks, Lou.