Sunday, September 23, 2012

Aint There One Damn Song ...

that can make me break down and cry.  I don’t have to tell serious music fans that this is the key line from David Bowie’s song, “Young Americans.”  This song will not make you break down and cry.  It will make you marvel at Bowie’s word play, the stream of images and one-liners that make no sense, but somehow nail a vibe of mid-70s America, bopping along through troubled times.  It sounds pretty good, too, never get tired hearing it.

I’ve noted Bowie’s influence on me before.  But I’m focusing in on that key line because I often ask myself, what songs can make me break down and cry?  And my response is very few.  I don’t think any song can reduce me to tears, but there are a select few that get my eyes watering, strike some chord that pulls me into that different emotional place where all shields come down.  It’s nice to be reminded that everything can stop on a dime and change, that there are things out there that can penetrate your façade so easily, so why the façade?

Of course, these moments often come when I’m on a bus or subway train, with my ear buds on, and it’s a bit awkward to be sitting there in public, having this deeply emotional moment.  I try to keep me head down when this happens, not make eye contact, because I know the feeling will subside in a few moments.  These songs are also a nice reminder of how your emotions work with real people, too, people who are gone, their presence will sweep over you at times, beyond your control.  Oddly, a lot of these song moments aren’t associated with any particular memory, it’s just some strange convergence of different variables.

So, I’m going to list a few of these songs in no particular order, as it’s a bad idea to quantify your emotions, although I’m sure these days there must be an app for that.

“Perfect Day” by Harry Nilsson.  The first time I heard this surely must have been the Bob Fosse movie, All That Jazz, where the song was misused.  As I recall, this song played while Roy Scheider’s conniving choreographer character seduced one of his dancers.  It didn’t register with me at the time.  It’s a flawed song, too.  The lyrics lose their way at times (Ride with me, glide with me, etc.), while the song gets a little too glossy, too.  But … the choir and background vocals are among the best recorded I’ve ever heard.  Particularly the choir in the last minute of the song, the sorrowful moans, the rising flourishes that perfectly match the string section.  It’s not easy to record a choir!  Whoever did it here nailed it.  Gets to me every time.

“Father and Son” by Cat Stevens.  Even before Dad passed on, this song would kill me.  Not a road song, but a pre-road song.  I got to go, leave home.  Leave home where I have parents who I know love me, but we’re driving each other a little nuts.  Loving someone is always a little nuts, particularly with parents, who are always going to present a mixed bag of emotions, because those people had to break you down and teach you some hard lessons along the way.  Cat Stevens gets that in this song.  That opening guitar riff, sounds like someone turning around one last time to get a good look.

“The Pretender” by Jackson Browne.  I’ll never quite understand the shit Jackson Browne took from critics in the 70s for being “too sensitive.”  This was a guy going into his 30s and writing songs that were wise beyond his years, much like Hank Williams Sr. or Bob Dylan in their 20s.  Surely not on that level, but good enough for me.  “The Pretender” nails that sense of not getting what you want in life, but going on anyway.  Which is everybody I know.  The ability to accept defeat and move forward is a necessary part of adulthood.  We want to bullshit ourselves with sports and money, these artificial win/loss situations that make us feel good when “we” win.  But our real lives are not the same.  You apply a sports mentality to life as an adult, you’ve got to be an asshole.  But people do it all the time!  Life isn’t about winning or losing.  It’s about living until you die.  A song like “The Pretender” acknowledges that life is going to get strange in ways you didn’t see coming, and you’re going to lose your way.  So Jackson Browne wasn’t running around in a Ramones t-shirt, getting stoned and insulting everyone in sight.  That’s not what you do when your wife OD’s on a bottle of pills and leaves you with an infant son.  You duct tape your broken life together, and if you’re lucky, write a song half as good as this.

“It Was You” by Fred Eaglesmith.  Time to get away from the 70s.  It occurs to me that a lot of songs that blindside me emotionally are from that decade, probably because childhood and teen years are such open times emotionally.  But good music is always being made, and I’ve surely heard plenty of songs since then that register.  Like “It Was You” – a simple, mournful break-up song by Fred Eaglesmith.  Also “Birches” by Bill Morrissey.  (More about Morrissey here.)  With the Eaglesmith song, it’s someone looking back and mourning a state of innocence that is no longer possible, while the Morrissey song is looking forward and realizing things aren’t going to work.  There’s something to be said for an artist simply picking up a guitar and singing.  I’m leery of any musician who can’t do this, who needs to stack the deck with production values and over-statement.

“Blue Moon with Heartache” by Roseanne Cash.  I can’t stand that easy-listening guitar noodling in the opening riff.  It nearly ruins the song for me.  But that’s where the disenchantment ends, as everything else about this song is perfect.  Her voice is well-suited to the subject matter especially with the line, “What would I give/To be a diamond in your eyes again?”  I’d love to hear a stripped-down version of this song, but have yet to find one.  Country music is filled with songs like this, which is why I like country music.  It allows you to be an adult, to have adult emotions, to age, to lose the urge to get over on people, to not wallow in self pity and anger.  Which discounts about 80% of pop music made in the past few decades.

“Houses on the Hill” by Whiskeytown.  Ryan Adams, another talented guy who takes a lot of shit for things that have little or nothing to do with his music.  A boyfriend rooting around the attic of his girlfriend’s house finds love letters another boyfriend wrote to her mother, decades ago when he was a soldier fighting in World War II.  He was killed over there, obviously not the man who went on to be her father.  Which explains and links up to this house on the hill, with this older woman, his girlfriend’s mother, who’s had issues with pills.  Just brilliant, simple songwriting.  He does this, every now and then.  Not near enough for me, but enough to let me know he can turn it on when he feels the need.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” by Bing Crosby.  There are any number of songs from this era that can hit me unexpectedly, due to Dad’s passing, and knowing that Mom is so much older.  She used to play Big Band music on her AM radio in the kitchen while making Sunday dinner.  At which time I’d harass her for having such archaic taste in music.  I had my head completely up my ass.  This song in particular, whoever does it, and countless singers have, kills me.  When someone dies on you ... this is the song to remind yourself that you’ll always carry around vestiges of that person.

“Orphan Year” by NOFX.  I often wonder how it feels for someone with a bad parent to mourn that parent’s passing.  Here it is.  I can live without the stupid “punk” vocal affectation.  I just want to hear this guy sing the song, defenseless, in his real voice.  This isn’t it.  But I guess the requirements of his job, being a snide punk rocker, prevent him from doing this, or that role he’s played has become who he is.  This underlines my problems with punk music as I age.  The affectation.  Which makes a lot more sense when you’re 17.  But makes no fucking sense when you’re long past that.  And trying to be honest.  Our youths are a prison of taste, and it’s a good feeling to break free of those constraints.  I can hear the constraints in the guy’s voice in this song, which is a shame, but doesn’t negate the fact that he’s written a great song about how awful a parent’s death feels.

“Days” by The Kinks.  The Kinks go all the way back for me, back to being a teenager and learning about what came before me.  I first heard “Days” on The Kinks Kronikles set that changed my life, and it registered from the first listen.  I later learned Ray Davies wrote it about the passing of a friend, but it could just as easily be about a break-up.  And the best response is to take what you learned from the person and carry it with grace.

“Pastoral” by Moondog.  I don’t know who Moondog was.  I don’t think anyone really does.  His work was all over the place, as was he.  This piece sounds as timeless as any famous classical piece.  I gather it was played on some type of harp.  The first time I heard it, I had to believe it was his version of some classical piece, but, no, he wrote it, apparently around 1970.  A similar piece for me is “Sligo River Blues” by John Fahey, a rolling acoustic piece he wrote in the 1950s that sounds like it could have been recorded at any time.  I don’t know what it is about music like this, but it sounds as elemental as the wind or water.  I gather it’s not that easy to be so simple, which I take as a mark of genius.

“Annie” by Ronnie Lane & Pete Townshend.  I’m not sure what Townshend has to do with this song, other than that he was gracious enough to record Rough Mix, a duet album with Lane, and raise a small fortune to help Lane get back on his feet financially.  (Unfortunately, while making this album, he’d feel the first pangs of Multiple Sclerosis that would take his life by 1997 at the age of 51.)  Every leaf must fall … that’s it.  A song that acknowledges the passing of time, and the dark side of ageing, that everyone must go.  Done beautifully.

Waiting for a Superman / Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips.  Wayne Coyne writing about the passing of his father.  “Is it getting heavy?”  That’s how you feel when you have no precedent to measure this thing against.  You don’t know if someone is just really sick, or days away from passing on.  I can tell you now, if everyone around you in a given situation with someone in very ill health can’t seem to come up with a straight answer about the person’s health, get ready.  We tend to push ourselves into these gray areas where no one can or wants to admit the truth, that this is the end, like a bad daydream that won’t end.  I think “Realize” covers the same ground.  I often get annoyed with Coyne for writing such flip/silly lyrics, but there are times when he can and does connect.  Unfortunately, haven't felt that way for a few albums!

“Clay Pigeons” by John Prine.  Prine has written so many great songs.  But he didn’t write this one.  Blaze Foley did, and his original just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight.  “Sing a song with a friend/Change the shape that I’m in/Get back in the game/And start playing again.”  This is a song about someone who knows he’s lost, but also knows he has to stop feeling sorry for himself and find his way again.  Which is why he's on the bus with the mother with two or three kids, maybe going nowhere, but at least moving.  We’ve all been there.  “Lake Marie” is another place and song for John Prine, that doesn’t make my eyes water up, but it is about a guy who links all these stories about that lake with his failing marriage, more of a “what can you do” vibe when life turns against you.  He wrote this one, and I’m guessing it’s not fiction!

The more I think of it, I could add about a dozen more songs.  But this is enough for now.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Late Retirement

I’m just finishing up the latest Joe Paterno biography by Joe Posnanski which seems to be getting mixed reviews because the author didn’t crucify Paterno as a vast majority of journalists (a better but less apt word choice than hacks, charlatans or necrophiliacs) have chosen to do in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.  It’s a good read that examines the man’s entire life as opposed to the bitter end.

A good read, but I surely have issues with it.  I’m left feeling much like when I read Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, which received glowing reviews.  I’m not sure why.  I’ve read at least a dozen books about The Rolling Stones.  Perhaps the most blunt was Spanish Tony Sanchez’s book, which Richards clearly doesn’t like for obvious reasons as it gets into touchy areas like Swedish blood transfusions and years of drug abuse.  But Richards’ book, I couldn’t help but feel afterwards that he was a profoundly spoiled rock star who found success very early in life and lived in a bubble of his own making for the rest of his days.  A self-serving, self-mythologizing bubble that, since he was a depraved, heroin-addicted rock star, doesn’t much lend itself to bubble-bursting, since low-level degradation is a sacrosanct understanding with most rock stars.

I feel like I’m being told a relevant story, but one that comes with a bill of goods, based on image and legend.  The last chapter in the Paterno book is where Posnanski loses me, as it’s a series of personal remembrances by family members and former players.  All positive in some respect, which feel like a stacked deck of cards.  (A biography is no place for a memorial like this; a coffee-table pictorial book would be a much better place for remembrances like this.)  All are “success stories” in some respect of players who have gone on to become businessmen, sportscasters, coaches, high-school principals, etc.  All because of the lessons they learned while associated with Paterno, the things he taught them that propelled them through life on this higher plane of existence, thanks to his guidance.

Which may be true on one level … but complete bullshit and against so much of what Paterno preached.  On one hand, you have him getting across the benefits of humility, a basic understanding of life, the simple desire for excellence of some sort, regardless of success to the outside world.  Boy, I can get behind that.  We all can.

On the other, look at it this way.  You could include Jerry Sandusky in that last chapter, sans what we’ve learned about his serial pedophilia.  Without that crucial bit of information, Sandusky is a raging success story thanks to Paterno’s tutelage and guidance.  Coach and defensive coordinator who helped forge two national champion college football teams, dozens of teams that finished in the Top 20 or even 10.  A man who also created an organization to help disadvantaged children get through life (we’d later learn the horrible, diabolical truth of why he created this organization).  In short, a winner in life.

Working in Manhattan offices my entire adult life, I’ve dealt with many “successful” people … a large percentage of whom tend to be oddly miserable people who have left a wake of destruction in terms of broken families and personal relationships, along with a crippling sense of personal insecurity that finds them never happy or satisfied with their financial wealth despite net worths well into seven figures.  Not everybody I’ve worked with, surely there are some people who have held on to their integrity and made efforts to be humane and decent with the people in the lives, personally and professionally.  But enough for me to know that people presented to you on paper as successful often do not see themselves this way and have lives no sane person would desire, as the personal unhappiness greatly outweights the financial wealth.

So, I’m a bit leery of Paterno’s “success stories” and would really feel no differently about those presented to me as people who “went nowhere” in life after clashing with Paterno or not living up to his expectations.  Don’t get me wrong – I know the man has done immeasurably more good than harm in his life.  If you can’t see that, you’re too focused on the awful way things ended for him and not taking into account the thousands of lives he’s touched in his work over the course of decades.  Millions when you count fans, of which I’ve been one since early childhood.

The truth is his inability to fully acknowledge simple human suffering – a boy being raped by a pedophile – ended up forever tainting his image and destroying a football program he spent his entire adult life creating and nurturing.  Forget about that for a moment.  Think about what he professed to believe in – winning with dignity, the great experiment, creating student athletes, etc.  There’s a story in the book about him quoting Shakespeare to his players to inspire them at a low point in Penn State’s history.

Cute stuff … but if he wanted to be an English teacher, why not be an English teacher?  If he loved literature that much, wanted people to share his wonder in the things he read, why not teach it?  At the end of the book, he claims he might have wanted to try his hand at poetry.  I can only imagine how awful it would have been, but kudos to him for even pondering the possibility.

My point being, he was a man so obsessed with always winning in some sense, winning in every way possible, even if it meant a minor personal argument that had no consequence, this was a man who could never truly grasp an artistic way of life or seeing the world.  Where you need to ponder, accept and in some way embrace losing, as it’s a simple part of the human condition we all face every day.  You need to accept and understand darkness on some level.  You need to accept failure.  You need to see through success to understand it often means nothing in the grand scheme of things.  Your personal success might mean everything to you, but it means nothing to everyone else.  All other people will care about is how you treat them, how humane and decent you are with them, what you genuinely show the world through your words and actions.  They don’t care about your statue.

The author claims that Joe understood this, but did he really?  He created a football program where he routinely put in 16-hour days to do nothing but win.  If you understand and accept failure … you just don’t do that.  Sure, failure will be part of your life in any sport.  But your obsession with winning will be so strong you will do whatever you can, within your moral parameters, whatever they may be, to ensure that you win.  Paterno certainly did, much to his credit.  If you’re a football coach, that’s what you’re paid to do.

There’s an interesting story one of his son tells, of being a bit of a black sheep in the family, the wild kid, who eventually got his head on straight, went to law school, and after his first year found himself ranked seventh in his class: a monumental achievement for someone who, it seems, might have spent the previous few years with a gurgling bong and fellow dudes attending college on the 10-year plan.  He tells his father about this, this incredible news of how he turned his life around.  Paterno’s response:  what, there are six kids smarter than you, and you’re resting on your laurels?

Think about how fucked up that is, in and of itself.  Here you have a son, who seemed on a path to nowhere, who had reversed his course in life to rise nearly to the top of his law-school class.  There are numerous stories like this in the book, of Paterno demanding his players to rise above, to keep pushing to do their best.  But in this personal case, a child he’s brought into the world, who had been stumbling and lost, turns his life around completely … and is then told his efforts are not good enough?

In the context of how Paterno handled the McQueary revelation in 2001, much less the knowledge (if we are to believe the Freeh Report) that he was aware of the 1998 shower incident with Sandusky, Paterno’s response to his son becomes even more pathetic.  Because bottom line, Joe did hardly anything.  Yes, he was a good administrator and reported the incident that a coach had reported to him.  But if he knew of the 1998 incident, with McQueary sitting at his kitchen table describing what sounded like a grown man having sex with a prepubescent boy on school premises that were his domain … the man should have been turning over the kitchen table, cursing his head off, grabbing McQueary, getting in his car, driving to Sandusky’s house and trying to kick the man’s ass knowing that this monster was raping a kid in the football coach’s locker room.  And after that, going straight to the police, forget about school policy, this is outrageous behavior he could not and would not tolerate.

If Paterno expected his sons and players to not rest on the laurels, settle for mediocrity and push the envelope … what in the hell was this?  Something doesn’t pan out here.  All these cute, inspirational stories of Paterno, in his yammering, high-pitched voice, pushing his players to go the extra yard … while he essentially did nothing in a situation that yearned for him to do so much more?

No.  I believe the reality was Paterno simply didn’t care.  No cover-up.  No evil scheme to protect his legacy.  He just didn’t care.  Which is almost as bad as a cover-up.  Because he turned his back on one particular young man who was in profound need of help from anyone … most likely because the situation did not impact his football program directly, and he didn’t want to get involved.  This radical moral error brought down not just him, but his entire program.

In the context of his entire life?  I think he just hung around far too long and should have retired at age 65, like most people do, record books be damned.  Problem being, he was incapable of letting go of that power he had.  It was obviously his only sense of identity.  Again, with my work in Manhattan offices, this is something else I see routinely, too.  Men working into their 80s because they have no identity without the sense of power their work grants them.  It’s sad to see.  These men are incapable of enjoying life without that identity – they’re afraid to even try.  For the men I see, it’s money.  For Paterno, it was being a legendary football coach.  For both, it’s power.  These men feel powerless as simple human beings which, again, as an English major in college and writer in my adult life, is how I will always see myself, just a human, with no desire to see myself as having more or less power than you have.  That’s about the only chance I have to see the world clearly.  I can only imagine how clouded your vision of the world must be if the only view you have of it is from some counterfeit citadel you’ve constructed out of your life.

Even through all this, I still consider myself on Joe Paterno’s side, his presence and influence  are woven into my life like so many other things I grew up with in Pennsylvania.  But I’m on his side with the knowledge that he blew it terribly in a situation that called for him to rise above and take control, as he so often demanded of his players, coaches and sons.  While I don’t advocate anyone losing his sense of power or legacy the way he did, losing his ultimately made him human again, which he wasn’t for a long time to so many people, be it weeping kids on campus when he got fired, or sports writers who felt the need to burn him in effigy when his situation blew the whistle on the shitty, plastic hustle their writing careers are.  He was a great college football coach who wanted to weave academics more into the sport to ensure that his players were ready for life after leaving college, as most of them would not become professional football players, and even if they did, would only do so for slightly more than a decade.

And do he did.  Would have been even better if he felt the same sense of protectiveness and dedication towards disenfranchised, defenseless kids in a program designed to help them, that really turned out to be a farm system for a pedophile.  But those kids offered him nothing.  They were just people … who were outside his program.  Even if something happened to one of them on premises that fell under his domain, and he chose not to be outraged, which he should have been, especially given that he couldn't stand Sandusky, according to Posnansky.  We still have a lot to learn about why he wasn’t and what really happened in 1998 and 2001 when this monster should have been stopped, as opposed to being ignored.  But again, I find myself learning more as new pieces, like this, keep getting added to the puzzle.  The next big pieces should be the upcoming trials next year.

Greatness?  Success?  Fortune?  They’re all things you should think about, balance with your own life, place in context with your experiences in the world, when you read a book like this, which I do recommend.  But the older I get, the less I want to respect people for presenting themselves as “successful” to the world.  I was raised by a factory worker, who was raised by a coal miner, and I have no idea what my great grandfather was.  Most of the kids I grew up with were raised by factory workers.  When I went to my class reunion recently, a lot of those people had basic working-class jobs and were struggling to put their kids into and through college.  They weren’t trying to impress upon me how successful they were – most of them professed to having a rough time.  We all do – that’s reality for most people.  We were all raised to recognize the only things we truly had were our word and each other.  What that has to do with beating everyone over the head with how wonderful and successful you are, I don't have a clue.