A Waste Of Gunpowder And Sky*

July 4, 2012

Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

– Aimee Mann

I’m not sure when it happened. It was probably some time in my teens when my cadre of friends included one with pyromaniacal inclinations to such a degree that he and another friend brought home dynamite purchased in Tijuana during spring break.

Things exploding accompanied by colorful flashes, once an annual treat of controlled carnage for the senses, was reduced to a common weekend occurence.

Instead of fireworks being the focal point, the Fourth Of July had become a day of overt demonstrations of patriotism and weathermen assuring viewers that it won’t rain no matter which way the wind was actually blowing.

A friend once accused me of hating America and I can’t say that I’ve ever felt truly patriotic, at least not in some palpable fashion akin to someone who’s had an indescribable religious experience.

I explained that I believed there to be a difference between the concept of America and the execution, a distinction that some self-declared patriots seem to have difficulty in making.

The concept is brilliant, but the execution has become a bit muddled and held hostage by portions of the population with their own agendas.

The patriotism I often observe seems to be underpinned by some zero-sum logic – “you’re either with us or against us.”

To hear some people speak, one would almost believe that the people outside our borders are begrimed and oppressed, shackled and yolked with every breath taken under the ever-watching eyes of the nefarious and the godless.

(some certainly are)

But, I’ve traveled a bit and, surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of people out there in other lands who go about there lives much as we do here in the States.

They shop.

They get drunk and suffer hangovers.

They enjoy their sports.

They sing and dance.

They do good things and they do bad.

They bitch about their government and they bitch about the weather.

They love their children.

They’re not much different from us aside from sometimes wearing unusual hats.

My grandparents emmigrated here from Italy and, at least on one side, I suspect they might have been asked to leave.

If great-grandfather hadn’t been a dodgy character, perhaps I’d be an olive rancher right now, wearing a large, floppy hat and fretting over this year’s crop. I’d be nursing the wounds caused by Italy’s recent failure to win the Euro Cup. These words, written in English, might make no sense to me.

Would my life be better or worse?

It likely would be nothing more than different. I suspect, though, that I’d still believe in the concept behind America. It would merely be accompanied by more pasta and more wine.

It’s the Fourth Of July. Americans will celebrate with fireworks and shows of patriotism that, without ackowledgment of the concept behind the country, will be mostly just gunpowder and sky.

It’s the concept, though, that the true patriots have fought to defend, not a flag (or a flag pin) or the fanfare or even a geographic point on a map – the promise held by a concept that many people in many countries strive to fulfill in ways that might be slightly different but not truly that different at all.

Here are four songs for the day…

Aimee Mann – 4th Of July
from Whatever (1993)

I actually had the opportunity to hear this song several years before it was released on Mann’s solo debut Whatever. An acquaintence had demos of most the album and this track, along with the equally somber Stupid Thing, was a highlight of that record.

Bruce Springsteen – 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
from Live/1975–85 (1986)

Possibly more than any other song in the E Street Band’s catelog, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) is closely associated with the late Danny Federici, who played accordion on the wistful song.

X – 4th Of July
from See How We Are (1987)

For all of their acclaim and status as punk pioneers, I’ve never enjoyed X as much as I’ve thought I should.

(does everyone have acts that fall into that category?)

However, I’ve always loved 4th Of July, a sketch of urban life from See How We Are.

U2 – 4th Of July
from The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

Having adopted U2 as my band following War and Under A Blood Red Sky, I was eagerly anticipating The Unforgettable Fire in the autumn of 1984. When Pride (In The Name Of Love) hit radio, my anticipation multiplied exponentially.

And then, I purchased the album the week of release and was confused.

Who was this Daniel Lanois and what had he done to my band? Much of the muscle and jagged edges had been replaced by moody, watercolor soundscapes and experiments like 4th Of July.

I was unimpressed.

However, by The Joshua Tree, this evolution made sense and I grew to fully appreciate The Unforgettable Fire. It is the one album in U2′s catalog that sounds better to me now than it did upon its release.

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And Then The Ceiling Comes Down

February 8, 2012

It was late January or early February and I was trapped in the special hell that was inventory at the large record store where I worked.

The store was so large that it took our staff of sixty or so two days at about ten hours each day to accomplish the task of counting – and recounting – everything.

And, the festivities started at six in the morning.

(if you wish more grisly details, they’re here)

On this particular morning, my head was splitting with a headache that – surprisingly for that period – was not a hangover.

(we were not opposed to a cocktail or six before, during, or after our shifts)

Attendence for inventory was non-negotiable; absence was a fireable offense even for veterans, but I had enough tenure and title to skate late that afternoon. I had realized that I had cracked a molar which had been the source of the headache.

I managed to get a dentist whose office was a fifteen-minute walk from the floor of the house I shared with two roommates, one a drummer who resided on the couch. The staff had mercifully agreed to stay a few minutes late and see me after the last scheduled patient.

The assessment was that a root canal would be necessary, but I would have to return the following morning. However, I was provided with the means to alleviate the pain until the problematic tooth could be properly addressed.

I stepped out of the doctor’s office, dazed and hungry. And then, the skies opened and, though it was unseasonably warm for the time of year, I was drenched to the bone within minutes.

I continued the trek home, now dazed, hungry, and drenched. Across the street from our house was a small grocery store and, though I was pretty much skinned, decided that, after the traumas of the day, I deserved something of sustenance more than Ramen noodles.

Ten minutes later, I unlocked the front door, salivating at the prospect of the Tombstone pizza I had purchased.

(truly a luxury at the time)

I preheated the oven and went to my room to change into dry clothes.

Entering the room, I noticed a large “blister” on the ceiling in one corner. I actually mumbled to no one, “Hmmm…that doesn’t look good” a split second before a chunk of the ceiling came crashing to the ground.

Fortunately the mess of plaster and water missed the stereo by eight inches.

Here are four songs from CDs that were likely in the stacks nearest the stereo that day…

Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger
from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)

Though it was received mostly with a shrug here in the States, Paloma and I loved Definitely Maybe, Oasis’ debut, spending a lot of time listening to it during the early portion of our friendship.

A friend who was a label rep snagged me a copy of the band’s sophomore effort and, though we weren’t quite as passionate about (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, I professed our approval.

(then I added that I didn’t think that it would break them here)

Six months later, Wonderwall was finally making the Gallagher brothers a sensation Stateside (albeit briefly). Personally, my favorite track was the shuffling sonic tower of grandeur that is Don’t Look Back In Anger.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost Of Tom Joad
from The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)

Late in 1995, Bruce Springsteen released the stark solo album The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which recalled his grim masterpiece Nebraska. I lived with the album for months.

And though the album wasn’t as stellar as Nebraska, I’d put The Ghost Of Tom Joad‘s haunting title track on the list of Springsteen’s essential songs.

(and, sadly, the lyrics resonate far more now than they did fifteen years ago)

Pulp – Common People
from Different Class (1995)

I discovered Pulp from reading British music magazines in the mid-’90s and, though the band never really broke through in the States, I became a fan when I snagged a promo of His ‘n’ Hers in 1994.

A year later, Different Class became an even bigger seller in the UK, making Pulp and lead singer Jarvis Cocker superstars in their homeland. In the US, the group remained a cult act relegated to college and alternative radio or MTV in the middle of the night.

The witty, slightly acerbic Common People – in which Cocker describes a relationship with a female acquaintance from a wealthy background – has an infectiously elastic melody and is impossible to dislodge from the brain.

Aimee Mann – You’re with Stupid Now
from I’m With Stupid (1995)

Aimee Mann was a favorite from the first time I saw her platinum blonde rat tail in Til Tuesday’s video for Voices Carry. I hung with Til Tuesday through a trio of albums in the ’80s, each better – and more ignored – than the previous with the wonderful curtain call Everything’s Different Now being essentially a solo effort from Mann.

The quasi-title song from Mann’s second true solo album I’m With Stupid was as stripped down as anything she’d done before. Uncluttered and sparse, the song was a lovely showcase for Mann’s clever wordplay and knack for a catchy, melancholic melody


Colors

November 2, 2011

Trudging out early this past weekend, I dressed for the morning chill, throwing on comfortable, worn jeans, a heavy, dark blue sweater (which I’m told is actually grey), well broken-in combat boots, and my Belgian army coat.

I didn’t wear a tie, mainly because I don’t own one and the concept puzzles me.

Paloma, who once worked in a fairly posh department store, was pointing out ties on a television program the other day. She wanted me to guess their costs and, each time, my reply was reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man.

“About a hundred dollars.”

To my surprise, I wasn’t far off.

One hundred dollars? For a tie? I could be a land baron in South America for one hundred dollars.

(are other countries still accepting U.S. currency?)

I asked Paloma the purpose that ties serve and was informed that they offer men a way to accessorize.

So, I’m going to choke myself with this cloth noose so that I might have something to bring out the color of my shirt? Who was the sadistic bastard that believed this was a necessity?

If there truly was a need for men to accessorize, why not nail polish? It’s far simpler and non-constrictive.

And colors – I’m not colorblind (I took the test), but Paloma reminds me that the sweater which I mentioned earlier (and have owned for years) is, in fact, not dark blue, but grey.

(if I squint, I see her point)

Of course, it’s probably not grey but slate or something. I suggested to her that colors should have names that are more informative to the average person (or at least entertaining).

What’s a taupe? Is it some kind of fish that is found only near some reef off the coast of Micronesia?

(and are Micronesians really small?)

However, she didn’t seem to think that the color names I suggested were marketable.

I don’t know. I think Pond Scum, Cocoa Puff, Hypothermia, and Open Wound have a certain descriptive quality that taupe lacks.

As for my Belgian Army coat – why do they even have an army?

I’ve never been to Belgium, but I imagine the Belgians to be polite, civilized folks who never squabble (like Flemish-speaking Canadians). Maybe it is to protect the waffles.

I do love waffles, so, perhaps I should enlist. I have one of the coats (it’s green, I think) and I probably wouldn’t have to wear a tie.

Here are four colorful songs…

Aimee Mann – Red Vines
from Bachelor No. 2, or the last remains of the dodo (2000)

Though I loved Voices Carry, ‘Til Tuesday’s Top Ten title hit from their 1985 debut album, I truly came to embrace the band on their next record, Welcome Home. By 1988, the band was essentially down to lead singer Aimee Man on the brilliant swanson Everything’s Different Now.

The group had lost most of their audience, but I eagerly awaited Mann’s solo career which arrived in 1993 with Whatever and was a devoted fan up through Lost In Space almost a decade later.

(I simply never took the time to check out the last few albums)

But the forty or so tracks I own almost always blow me away when one of them shuffles up. Hearing the gorgeous, wistful, melancholic Red Vines is likely going to send me on a ‘Til Tuesday/Aimee Mann listening bender.

(and I couldn’t agree more with this ode to Mann’s greatness from over at the stellar Bottom Of The Glass.

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
from Revolver (1966)

The Beatles are very, very good.

I’ve come to believe that their existence might be proof of the divine in the universe and that it’s possible that no entity in the history of mankind has brought more joy and happiness to more people than The Beatles.

Tarnation – An Awful Shade Of Blue
from Mirador (1997)

Somehow, with no effort, I came to own a pair of the three albums that the San Francisco, alt-country band Tarnation released. No doubt I snagged them as promos, liked them enough to file away, and promptly forgot about them.

After listening to An Awful Shade Of Blue, I need to revisit them as the song wowed me.

The group issued one album through 4AD and, if you were listening to college radio in the ’80s, you had an idea what to expect when you heard an act signed to the label. An Awful Shade Of Blue features the ethereal vocals of Paula Frazer and a twangy sound that would be ideal for a spaghetti Western.

Hole – Violet
from Live Through This (1994)

I had no interest in Hole in 1994. The sheer drama of Courtney Love exhausted me to the point of disinterest.

But I loved the band’s chainsaw-guitar cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman and, then, Hole released Celebrity Skin, their belated, 1998 follow-up to Live Through This, and I was won over.

The album – what I imagine ’70s Cheap Trick might have sounded like had they been a ’90s alternative rock band fronted by a feral frontwoman – is still one of my favorites from the decade.

Celebrity Skin prompted me to give Live Through This a more openminded listen and, though I still prefer the follow-up, the bracing Violet is a corker of a tune.