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.


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


Evolution Isn’t Pretty

November 22, 2009

Paloma bought me an early birthday present yesterday, a copy of Andre Agassi’s new autobiography Open.

The book has caused a bit of an uproar in the sports world for some of its revelations and even rippled beyond as the man’s celebrity transcends the tennis court.

As a reformed jock, I played a fair amount of tennis growing up, but a lack of self-discipline – I smashed more than a couple rackets – hindered any natural ability I might have had. Ironically, the player I most admired was Bjorn Borg, the cool, unflappable Swedish great.

I was playing less tennis by the time Agassi began rising through the ranks. I was in college and other things were occupying my time. I wasn’t even following the sport as much.

In fact, I first really took note of Agassi when I was mistaken for him while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was 1989 and I had a mullet-like hair, a bit spiky on the top that was similar to his. In Singapore, some German tourists wanted an autograph. In Thailand, some local tried to dupe me into a common ruse to purchase worthless jewels – “You wealthy tennis player.”

I’ve read plenty about Agassi over the years inclduing an amazingly poignant piece in Sports Illustrated a few years back which I wish I could find. Driven from the time he was a small child to be a tennis machine by a father who had boxed for Iran in the Olympics, his tale reminded me of that of Michael Jackson.

I’ve also read excerpts from Open, including Agassi’s admission that he used crystal meth in an attempt to destroy/escape from a career that he, for the most part, never wanted.

I won’t discount that his career has afforded him a life that most of us would envy, though I imagine few of us would have had the fortitude to achieve. That said, I find the ballyhoo surrounding his tome to be missing the point.

The man wasn’t driven by blinding greed to pilfer and destroy the economy, placing the lives of millions in a precarious position. He didn’t manipulate facts in order to launch an illegal war to invade a sovereign nation, treating the lives and treasure of millions as his own toy chest.

The man hit tennis balls and did so well enough to become one of the best to ever do so. His mistakes were his own and though those mistakes likely caused those around him hardship and pain, they didn’t cause the average person watching him perform his athletic feats hardship or distress.

By all accounts, Agassi owns those failures in his book. There’s no, “Yeah, but…”

Since 1994, Agassi has been described as perhaps the most charitable athlete of his generation, founding a tuition-free charter school for at-risk children in Las Vegas as well as several other endeavors. And, as he played his final US Open match in 2006, he was arguably the most beloved US athlete.

In short, Agassi has travelled a star-crossed path from there to here, arriving a better person, an admirable person, flaws and all. If he’s to be held accountable for the hiccups along the way, he should also be applauded for rising above them.

It’s an interesting twist of fate that his book should arrive at the same time as another autobiography, that of someone who’s greatest attribute appears to be the ability to gut a moose, a woman who did quit when facing adversity, has no shortage of folks she blames for her failures, and apparently craves revenge more than redemption.

But, I suspect that Sarah Palin doesn’t believe in evolution.

Aimee Mann – Save Me
from Magnolia soundtrack

Sometimes it takes a while for the light bulb to go on. And, sometimes people need a hand. The closing scene of the movie Magnolia expressed those sentiments as powerfully as any film I think I’ve ever seen and Aimee Mann’s heartbreaking song Save Me was the perfect accompaniment.

Fiona Apple – Better Version Of Me
from Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple’s third album found the eccentric artist working with long-time Aimee Mann collaborator Jon Brion. The record had a troubled birth, rejected and held up by Apple’s label for a belief that it lacked commercial appeal.

It went on to be one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2005.

Yoko Ono – Revelations
from Rising

Personally, I like Yoko’s music – not all of it, but there’s some compelling stuff in her catalog – and Revelations is simply lovely with lyrics that are words to live by.

Garbage – When I Grow Up
from Version 2.0

When I Grow Up is twisted fun from Shirley Manson and crew.