My poem, "You Laughed when I didn't know what 'Jaded' Meant", is published in the new issue of the San Pedro River Review - "Music", Spring 2018 Volume 10 Number 1. You can purchase a copy here.
Yesterday was raw*. The rain started when I woke up and was still falling when I fell asleep. The cold wind cut through all the layers and sliced into bones. It was the first day of the year that felt like winter. It felt good. It felt like Pittsburgh.
Back then I’d keep myself warm riding bike to class through shit-stained slush with a pair of headphones and a beanie. I’d escape the brutal cold not with layers, but with music. Layers kept the chill out; music kept me warm and away from the congestion and concrete of the city. My roommates and I were also really cheap, so we kept the heat only as high as needed in order for the pipes not to freeze. I had the largest room in the house, up on the second story, with a set of three windows that looked out onto Juliet Street, two streetlamps shining their signs onto the beige carpet all night, no curtains and a mattress on the floor. I’d burn a few sticks of Nag Champa every night and throw on a record to fall asleep to and keep warm under my comforter. In 2005, during my senior year, there was one particular album that I would listen to nightly as I waited for the incense to fill the room - Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney’s masterpiece Superwolf. It took me 44 minutes to fall asleep on those nights.
“I know nothing and I’m overjoyed…” is sung, repeated as an incantation, throughout “My Home is the Sea” as Sweeney’s guitar sends reverberations, ripples of riffs throughout the industrial landscape of cold, winter Pittsburgh night. Silence outside for once. The snow has a habit of doing that, shutting everything down, sending a big “shhhh” quiet enough and long enough that everyone gets the point. Those were the nights that I loved that city the most. When Sweeney’s guitar and Oldham’s voice created an urban meditation in a sea of concrete and rough edges, I could see the city as a habitable place, a home of sorts. An ocean.
That record played me through Pittsburgh, loneliness, heartbreak, hangovers, delirious canoe rides down the Allegheny. It kept me from capsizing when the barges came to close, or when I just couldn’t paddle fast enough. Sweeny’s rumbling chants would protect my ears from wind as I pounded those bike pedals up and down riverine hills and across yellow bridges.
The thing is, that record didn’t stop playing when I left Pittsburgh and headed up deep into the north Maine woods. I couldn’t bring my LPs with me, but I had it, at the time, on cd and then eventually on my Zune. For three years that record would put me home as I lived out of a backpack and traversed the country from Maine, up and down the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and then Colorado. One night I sat on the beach and listened to Oldham sing about running as elk bugled behind me and otters wrestled in the water. There was a thick mist the next morning. I could hear the waves, but couldn't see where sand stopped and water began.
I kept repeating those lines to myself, a mantra for me - “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed, I know nothing and I’m overjoyed”. Because I didn’t. I still don’t. I was living not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night. All I needed was a sleeping bag and a little stove to heat water with. A chaw of beef jerky and my lunch was done. I had so little, knew nothing, and was happy.
I still am. I still barely know anything and yet, I get excited just driving to work. Today, a field of sunflowers. Yesterday, some rain that darkened the creek. Tomorrow I’ll drink a cup of coffee and mow the grass. I know nothing and I’m overjoyed. My copy of the record is now 12 or so years old. It’s one of my most played records and I can't tell if it's dust or Sweeney's guitar fuzz that I hear as I wash the dishes. It's beautiful either way. I still have the tickets to the Superwolf show I saw at the Rex Theater back in 2005 in the sleeve. After the show, I saw them outside the theater smoking cigarettes in the back alley; I was too nervous to say hey and tell them how much their record meant to me.
“I sing evil, I sing good, I sing as a seagull should, and if you melted, then I would, melt myself all into you” - Will Oldham
Buy it here - Superwolf - Superwolf
*I wrote that line last November. It's actually really nice, fall like weather right now. The record still plays perfectly as cicadas and locusts get their last choruses in.
There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not Dylan should have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I'm firmly in the camp that he is well deserving of the accolade. Here's why.
All of what we consider to be Literature came from the Oral Tradition. Stories like Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Illiad, are the foundations of our language and story. These stories were created with breath and given to the air through a scop or someone like Homer usually accompanied by a Harp or instrument. Dylan is simply an extension of that, therefore, I consider his work Literature.
You can read his lyrics off the page or listen to it with music, both have their individual effect and emphasis on the word. Add a different voice to it, the effect changes. Change the instrumentation, and the meaning/mood will change. One could argue that Dylan's writings are more dynamic than a novel in that regard.
Take Shakespeare and his works as an example. Reading a Shakespeare play is dramatically different from witnessing it. The lines take on different meaning based on individual performances by actors & actresses. Make changes in tone, setting, backdrop, costume, and performers and the play takes on a different meaning and effect for the audience. Change the audience and you'll change the play. Dylan's lyrics can be read from the page for one effect, then performed in many different ways by different people using different instruments; each singular way projects a different interpretation and meaning.
Take, for example, "All Along Watchtower". It can be read one way on the page without any singing or instruments (I read the tone very different than the album version - pleading, desperate); however, listening to his version off of "John Wesley Harding" can impart a different mood and voice (laconic, matter-of-fact). Then, take Hendrix's electrified version and the song takes on a completely different meaning (apocalyptically urgent, intensely fried) . It's great Literature either way and up for endless interpretation.
There is also the argument that a lot of modern Literature, and even some of the writers that were/are also in consideration for the Nobel (Murakami is the most obvious), wouldn't be possible without Dylan's lyrics. His influence both on artists and language is undeniable and, at least in my opinion, larger than any other modern writer.
Dylan's lyrics contain everything great Literature has: story, characters, conflict, theme, and a universal appeal. They can be read off the page, sung to yourself while you walk up a stream, witnessed in concert with thousands of others, performed by anyone, and translated into other languages. Without Dylan's work, the culture of the world and the literary landscape would be without a foundational block that thousands have used in order to create their own art.
My record player broke a few weeks ago. It just stopped turning on. I never liked it much anyway, so it was awesome when I went onto Craigslist and found a beautifully kept German-made Dual 1246 for sale locally. I met the guy in a Turkey Hill parking lot the next day, during which he gave me a thorough walk-thru of the mechanics of the LP player. I took it home, plugged it in, and rediscovered my love for vinyl.
I stopped buying records a year or two ago when it was looking very likely that Jess & I were going to be packing up, downsizing, and moving into a small place somewhere with mountains. When we realized we won't be having kids, we felt a strong urge to get rid of all the things that rooted us to a home, a place that wouldn't be filled with the sounds we had imagined. We were ready to go somewhere new we could fill with new sounds, dreams, ideas.
Anyway, this year brought us both new jobs, which has put off the moving for at least another couple of years, and here I am with a sweet old record player that sounds awesome, free space on my record shelf, and space to fill with new sounds. I went crate digging for the first time in a long while yesterday after work and found some sweet records. The best find for me was in the last bin I looked through. It's a record by Michael Chapman called Michael Chapman Lived Here. It's a collection of songs from 1969, 1970, and 1971. I discovered Chapman through Steve Gunn's "Ancient Jules" video and his brilliant cover of Dylan's "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat" on Mojo's Blonde on Blonde Revisited record (really worth picking up...). He's not very well known nor given a lot of notoriety, yet he's one of those musicians that a lot of other musicians know about, respect, and dig into.
I played through this record three times. When Jess got home from teaching girls how to code, I made her listen to one particular song - "You Say". Every once in awhile a song just sticks. It speaks to you from the past, in the present, about the future. Or it just has a great hook that tags you somewhere nothing else has before. As I listen to this song over and over again, I can't help but feel like it should be played as the credits roll at the end of an amazing film. It's a song that I'll be putting on every mix c.d. I make for the next few years. It's a song that I'll always come back to throughout my life and it'll sound slightly different each time I hear it. Another line will stick out, phrasing will take on new images. It's up there with certain Jack Gilbert poems, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, Han Shan's Cold Mountain Poems, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Steinbeck's East of Eden, and a few other pieces of art that thread their way throughout cups of coffee, hikes up ravines, and early morning drives to work.
"You Say" Michael Chapman
And so I'm saying goodbye
Although God knows I don't want to
And so I'm saying goodbye
I just don't know when it will be that I see you
Oh it might be when the spring time does come
Then we can walk on the seashore.
And it might be when the winds they blow cold,
And I can lay in your warmth once more.
And it might be when the rain starts to fall,
We'll ride on trains through the mountains.
And it might be when there is no rain at all,
And we can lay all the day in the sunshine.
You say you know where I'll be bound all alone,
You say you know why I'm leaving
You say that nothing ever touches me at all,
And I don't know what it is to be broken.
And so I'm saying goodbye
Although God knows I don't want to
And so I'm saying goodbye
I just don't know when it will be that I see you
The sultry September summer air drifted in through the open doors of the theater mixing the smell of decaying plaster and patchouli; reminiscent of the mixed generations of people who showed up for a beautifully intimate performance by Steve Gunn in the lobby of the historic Lansdowne Theater. Industrial fans, set up like sentries at both sides of the lobby where the bathrooms once were, blew through the heavy humidity. Light, occasionally flickering in, found its way onto the ancient scrolls of flaking paint on the walls and ornate carvings marking steps across the ceiling. Faded paintings of ships sailed above the cracked concrete where fountains used to stand and greet visitors.
With, at most, 100 seats, the lobby was completely full of people as an old friend of Mr. Gunn's took the stage to introduce him. His preamble was an amazing, rambling homage to the community that he and Steve created in Lansdowne as kids. It marked the occasion perfectly; this was a homecoming and a celebration of community, of saving a special part of the past for the future while performing in the present. As an outsider who never stepped foot in Lansdowne and, honestly, only came because I am in love with Gunn's music, I was moved by the connections to place, home, and family that were celebrated at last night's show that was set up to raise money to restore the Lansdowne Theater.
The meandering introduction to "Water Wheel", relaxed and cyclical, like a a small stream low after a long drought gently pushing the wheel for another spin, set the rhythm for the night. Each song was full of Gunn's sweat and sweet improvisation. "Night Wanderer", about a cat prowling around Lansdowne at night, was next and the first track played off of his latest record, Eyes on the Lines. The song, stripped down like it was, connected eloquently back to the introduction and the powerful connection to this austere place the audience and musician have.
I was giddy when Gunn took a few minutes to tune his guitar and mention that, because of the heat, he was going to take the next song slow and that "it'll be kind of long". I knew it was going to be "Old Strange", a personal favorite of mine. Gunn played the intro for a few minutes and abruptly stopped to let us know that it was borrowed from an old Greek folk tune and that the song was in honor of a local Greek Pizzeria, which drew a loud applause from the hometown crowd. There's this lick inside of that track that, even when the music goes far beyond where it started, is still lifting the tune on its back and taking it through the dark woods and a "path through the fields/to find out what was real....". That riff shows up throughout my days, playing a subtle rhythm while I'm teaching the kids about the rhetorical situation or mowing my grass or walking Whitman down to the river. It's beautiful and I never want it to end. I could have sat there on that hard plastic folding chair with my eyes closed and listened to him play that song for hours, days, forever, just to watch that melody come back and leave, come back, leave, diminish, then expand, endlessly going back and forth and reaching itself out like a patch of mint that grows and dies and with each death comes back even taller and further out from where it sprouted.
Gunn then went into a set of newer numbers from the last two records - "Ancient Jules", "Milly's Garden", "Way Out Weather" and "Ark" with winsome stories about his championship youth soccer team (which, I think, Kurt Vile also played on), skateboarding in the parking lot out back, and his short run with the Boy Scouts scattered throughout. "Milly's Garden" was more of an improvisational track. He sang the first stanza a few times until eventually making his way to the chorus. We were left to fill in the rest of the lyrics as he kept coming back to remind us that "...your faith is savage, your mind is damaged, you're more than halfway there..." while taking the song into all the corners and cracks of the lobby. "Ancient Jules" has been the soundtrack to my summer since it came out earlier this year with the lines "take your time, ease up, look around, and waste the day". It was my mantra for my summer vacation and it took me to some beautiful places. Thank you, Steve.
The show ended with "Wildwood", which Gunn mentioned was his father's, who recently passed, favorite song. He dedicated it to his mother and sister who were in the audience and mentioned how much it meant for him to play it that night; a perfect ending to this great homecoming and celebration of place, family, friends, and great music.
Way Out Weather
Merle Haggard just died. He was responsible for my first and only time getting kicked out of a bar, back in 2006. Our trail crew just finished a couple month stint up in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of the Oregon border. It was late October and the snow had finally pushed us south.
We were headed to the desert, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, where it’s always warm and sunny. On our way down the long state of California, we stopped for a night in San Francisco. One of our crew members had gone to Stanford, so we rolled up in our van and spilled out into a swanky co-living space stories high. Haggard, hairy, and hungry for civilization, we set down our sleeping bags in a heap in their entry way and took the train into San Francisco.
After a day of sightseeing, we ended up at a joint on Haight-Ashbury. Reveling in the sounds of other people and hypnotized by the bright TVs broadcasting some football game, we embellished deep into the night. Eventually we found the jukebox. Willie & I packed it full of country tunes. Classic ones that we knew all the words to and had been singing in our heads for months out on the trail, keeping us company far from home. Finally, “Okie from Muskogee” came on and by the third verse, we were pushed out the street, our lungs still filled with those classic lines about hippies, into the gloriously blurry darkness of San Francisco in the deep morning.
Thank you Merle. You will be missed.
I love how music can take you back to specific moments in your life. Every time I hear this song I slip back into the first time I heard it taking a lonely drive from Millinocket back into Baxter State Park after doing my weekly laundry and making my weekly phone calls on the payphone downtown to friends and family back home or scattered about.
The drive was always bittersweet for I was blessed with a not-so-subtle landscape of Kathadin and its brothers & sisters captivating my eyes while simultaneously feeling subtle pangs of loneliness. Though, that feeling never ventured into disconnect for I worked hard at sending letters and making calls on my weekly visits back into town.
Oddly, whenever I look back at that particular time in my life - living out of my pack, traveling every six or so months to a new place that would most definitely be in the middle of nowhere due to the nature of trail work, finally learning how to cook since no one was going to cook for me - I feel like I was more connected to my family and friends than I've been since. My relationships were more deliberate - laying in my tent at night writing a letter instead of sluggishly scrolling through mindless chatter and meaningless memes, taking a trip to town to find the only pay phone and dialing those 20 numbers on my calling card hoping the entire time someone will actually pick and if not, opening my tattered "address book" to find someone else to call I hadn't talk to in awhile - and therefore kept me more connected to those in my life, even if they were thousands of miles away.
I guess sometimes the further away you are from people the closer you feel.
Random Note About the Song:
This is a quintessential "Maine" song for me. Probably because of the geographical location of the son, but more importantly also the length and cadence.... it's the perfect song to drive down seemingly endless dirt roads in thick forests where you can lose yourself in a beautiful story.
"What a way to ride... ah, what a way to go..."
There's a random painted highway
And a muzzle of bees
My sleeves have come unstitched
From climbing your tree
And dogs laugh, some say they're barking
I don't think they're mean
Some people get so frightened
Of the fences in between
And the sun gets passed from tree to tree
Silently and back to me
With the breeze blown through
Pushed up against the sea, finally back to me
I'm assuming you got my message
On your machine
I'm assuming you love me
And you know what that means
Sun gets passed, sea to sea
Silently, and back to me
With the breeze blown through
Pushed up above the leaves
With the breeze blown through
My head upon your knee
Half of it's you, half is me
Half of it's you, half is me
I'm not sure what there really is for me to say about this song other than that I absolutely love it. The lyrics... pure poetry. The performance... man can Nels Cline rip. I also love the people you can see walking outside the windows. It seems to fit very well with the performance and lyrics.
One of the best albums of 2014 was Damien Jurado's Brothers & Sisters of the Eternal Son. It's folky, it's surreal, it's metaphysical, it's psychadelic, it's unique. Damien can easily carry a song with just with voice and guitar playing, but this album is both sonically & lyrically layered so beautifully that I keep coming back to it.
Just last night I found myself enamored with the song "Jericho Road".
Here's a performance of it -
This particular performance is pretty powerful. Jurado includes a lot of Christian imagery in his songs, and "Jericho Road" is no exception. My wife has a much stronger Biblical understanding than I do, so I had to have her explain the story associated with this place called Jericho Road. According to her, this is the road in which a Samaritan helped a man who had been beaten and robbed and was culturally his enemy. This after men of religion had passed over this downtrodden man. Hence, where we get the term "Good Samaritan". Please forgive my paraphrasing of the story, I know I probably left out a lot.
I can make fair interpretations of most of the lyrics (at times it feels like a conversation between two men instead one single narrator), especially in the context of the Biblical story. However, one line stands out that I'm still rolling around in my head like a koan -
"We are secrets sold"....
For some reason I find that line pretty powerful; I just don't know why.
That's OK to me. I'll let it roll around in my head for a couple of weeks or years and maybe something will eventually click.
Much to my wife's disappointment and annoyance, I've slowly fallen in love with The Grateful Dead over the past few months. I've always liked their music and listened to them casually, but this summer I really dug in and found myself loving certain runs of certain years, able to discern the different "Sugaree"s, etc. Out of all the things I love about the Dead, one of the things that keeps me coming back to them is that the sheer size of their discography lets me fall in love with certain songs and certain periods. Even though they aren't making anymore new music, I feel like I'm constantly discovering something new about them.
Once of those recent discoveries has been the brilliant song "Jack Straw". To be honest, I probably didn't realize the greatness of this song earlier because Bob Weir sings it... I usually skip over his songs...
This is one of those epic Western songs with outlaws, killings, and hangings. There's multiple characters, and the Dead are designed perfectly to carry out a song like this with Bob and Jerry switching back and forth on the versus in order for the story to really come together.
The climactic build up is as grand as the story itself.
One more thing... I love how the story itself can be interpreted a few different ways - "Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down..." leaves a few things for us listeners to wonder. Did Jack Straw kill him because he was too slow, maybe didn't have anything else to share? Or did he cut him down after he was hung, out of brotherly respect? My answers change depending on the mood.
All in all, probably one of the Dead's best songs. It captures their truly unique way of storytelling both through song and lyrics.
I first fell in love with trains after watching Stand by Me when I was a kid. It’s a story about a group of boys that decide to take an adventure in search of something. Their way out of town? The train tracks. These tracks lead them on a journey that shapes all their lives in very different ways. At the core of this journey is a sense of freedom that resonated with me. I would daydream about hitching a pack on my back and wandering through the secret crevices of America all the while creating deep bonds with my fellow travelers. From that point forward, trains symbolized the possibility of living a truly unique and inspired life. They symbolized an untaken path, an alternative way of traveling. Something different.
Eventually, the likes of Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits came into my life. Waits’ gravelly, sandpaper scraped voice took my love for trains and created magnificent sculptures of freedom loving train jumpers and other-side-of-the-tracks poets waving poems around like trainmen’s lanterns lighting my way away from my small hometown into big cities and tall mountains. From boyhood dreams to adulthood meandering, the symbolism of trains has always found a way to seep into my world view.
I took all of the weighty connections trains have developed for me in my head and I went traveling on my own journey, searching and experiencing. I filled my backpack with all my camping gear, a few choice books (I’m pretty sure some Gary Snyder made its way in there), a journal, and some clothes and set off. For three years I stretched myself out across this country: Baxter State Park in northern Maine, up and down California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and plenty of places in between. It felt good to have everything I needed on my back, a home wherever I laid my head and lit a fire. I learned more in those three years of working in the woods than I did in my four years of college.
That journey eventually led me here, to Marietta, where my wife & I bought a house and settled in. The train comes through every few hours, just a few yards away from our front yard. I hear that train working in my garden, sitting at Shanks weaving tales with friends, eating dinner with my wife in our kitchen, and I can’t help but feel light and free every time I hear that rumble of steel on steel or the low call of the horn. I no longer feel the need to pack a sling and “walk those tracks” away from the place I live, but it’s nice to know that right out my front door somebody could and somebody will. I’ll look forward to hearing their stories.
I finally got back in the saddle of my bike today. When I had younger legs and bigger lungs, I used to ride everywhere and every day. But for too many inane reasons, I haven’t ridden as much as I used to. It was my way of exploring a place, and I missed it. So this afternoon I finally pumped up my tires, put in my headphones, filled my water bottle, and set out on a ride. I live down on the far end of town, in brick row, so I went up on 441 and headed towards Maytown. My goal was to complete a nice big arc from my home, to Maytown, then back to Marietta on the Charles Greenway.
It didn’t take but one block for my legs to remember the motion and the rhythm of pedaling. I slowly got into a good pace and started to feel a good burn in my legs. I had to drop the hammer to get up Maytown Road, but luckily The Doors and Ray Manzarek’s manic rhythm greased my gears. I rounded the circle and turned my wheels down Vinegar Ferry Road, towards the river.
As I coasted down the road towards the River, I took note of the geographical placement of Marietta. From my vantage point, I could see that Marietta sat just a bit lower than the surrounding area, pretty obvious considering all the natural laws of rivers, land, and watersheds. However, something more of awareness of people, and of community, grew out of that view.
One thing I love about this town is that people seem to be here deliberately. They seem drawn here like salmon are to their headwaters, like mayflies are to the river in June, like my smelly old dog Sid is to cheese. Just as I was drawn to move to this town, I’m now drawn towards it once again, riding downhill towards Riverfront Park. Gravity pulls my bike and I towards the banks of the trail along the river. I ride until I hit those banks and take a sharp left onto the Greenway, winding through cornfields and silver maples.
The town itself has its own type of banks that defines it. We live on the banks of the river and the banks of River Road. The town, its buildings and roads, can’t go over those banks, but the community can grow. There’s something beautiful about that idea – a community growing in its geographically constrained area.
Like the water of the Donegal and the Chiques, I have found myself on the banks of the Susquehanna in this little town on the elbow of the river. Maybe it’s simple geography that drew me here, or in matters of bikes, simple gravity. But I like to think it’s something more. Either way, no matter how I got here, I’m pretty darn happy to be able to finish my ride with the Cherry trees of Front Street flashing by in my peripheral.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.