“Life turns to minutes and minutes to memories…”

September 7, 2011

This morning, as I often do on mornings when I have time, I leisurely perused a number of music blogs that are favorites as I drank my coffee.

One of those blogs was Any Major Dude With Half A Heart who, on this particular morning, had posted a regular feature called In Memoriam, paying tribute to those involved in music that had recently passed away.

The last thing I expected to find in a music blog by a fellow who had grown up in Germany and is living in South Africa – if I have the plot straight – was mention of someone I personally knew.

Yet that is how I learned of the passing of George Green.

The name is unlikely to mean much to most unless they absorb liner notes with considerable recall, but music fans are likely familiar with songs which they probably (and mistakenly) attribute to having been written solely by John Mellencamp.

George had been the one who had penned the lyrics to songs like Hurts So Good, Crumblin’ Down, and Rain On The Scarecrow.

As a high school senior, a number of classmates had argued for Minutes To Memories from Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album, which had been released at the beginning of the school year, to be class song.

(we were growing up two hours from Mellencamp’s hometown)

Three years later, I’m in college and working in a record store with a woman, Kat, whose husband had written Minutes To Memories and that is how I got to know George.

As I recall, the first time that I met George was to ask if he would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. Kat invited me over, introduced me to George, and promptly left the room.

I honestly don’t remember if he wrote the letter or not. We spent the afternoon listening to albums that he wanted me to hear.

(10cc’s How Dare You being one)

One thing that does become more obvious as the years pass and is that people who are a part of your life – sometimes even an intregal part – often drift out of your orbit. It’s been close to ten years since I last spoke with either Kat or George and I’ve often meant to make an attempt to reconnect with them, but…

I did have the chance on a number of occasions to spend time with George, though, and those are times that I treasure as he was a gifted writer and a good guy.

During those infrequent visits, he would often recite to me things that he had written, one being a poem that he had composed and read at his grandfather’s funeral.

It was a stunningly beautiful and poignant work.

This land, today, my tears shall taste
And take into its dark embrace
This love who in my beating heart endures
Assured by every sun that burns
The dust to which this flesh shall return
It is the ancient, dreaming dust of God

As special as that particular afternoon was, it’s one that I couldn’t truly appreciate at the time.

While I, with human-hindered eyes
Unequal to the sweeping curve of life
Stand on this single print of time

Only now, with the passage of time – and now the man – do I truly recognize that moment for the gift that it was.

Not long after, I was living in a different city, but having a conversation on the phone with Kat. As usual, I asked what George was working on.

She proceeded to tell me that he had a song on the then-forthcoming Mellencamp album.

I asked it it was anything with which I was familiar.

“Do you remember that poem…”

I admit that I was a bit skeptical. The poem was so amazing, so perfect, so brilliant and so fully realized.

I wondered if its use in a song might diminish the power of those words, words that needed nothing more than to be read in the unassuming Midwestern voice of their author.

I should have known better.

Human Wheels took love and grief – emotions that we all feel yet few of us can put into words – and put them into words.

I suppose that’s what great writers do. They take “the sweeping curve of life,” bear witness, and through their words make us feel more connected to one another.

At least that’s what George Green did.

John Mellencamp – Human Wheels
from Human Wheels


Cap’n Crunch, His Dog, A Pig, And A Small Fire*

March 12, 2011

For most of my life, I rarely remembered my dreams. But over the past several years that has changed, so I get treated to nocturnal shows like last night.

The details are hazy, but it involved cereal icon Cap’n Crunch and a talking pig wearing a sweater. The two were in the mariner’s apartment discussing his missing dog when the place went up in flames.

I think everyone got out safely, but there was something suspicious about that pig and I wouldn’t rule out arson.

The dream also made me think of an album title by REO Speedwagon – The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog And A Chicken.

Growing up in the Midwest, REO Speedwagon was a radio fixture and never more so than in late 1980 when they released the album Hi Infidelity. The songs from that record sounded great on radio (which is fortunate, as they were always playing) and the band was a favorite to most of us in my junior high school.

Ten years later, as I was nearing college graduation, the record store where I worked received a couple of copies of REO’s The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog And A Chicken.

I was immersed in band’s like R.E.M. not REO, whom I hadn’t listened to for years. The album title, though, made an impression (even if I don’t think I ever heard the music).

Several years later, I was working in another, much larger record store. For most acts, we carried at least a token copy of each title in their catalog. On slow mornings, the Drunken Frenchman and I would browse through the bins, discussing various artists and albums.

One morning, there it was – The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog And A Chicken. The Frenchman was no fan of the band, but it became a recurring subject for us.

“It’s one of the most truthful album titles ever.”

“That man, though a bit portly, is, indeed, small.”

“There’s the Earth.”

“There is a dog and, here, a chicken.”

“Man that dog looks miserable.”

R.E.M. might well have been playing over the speakers in the store (it would have been around the time of New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

“Why would they put Sebastian Cabot on the cover, though?”

Thirty years ago, REO Speedwagon had one of the biggest albums in the country with Hi Infidelity and one of the most popular songs with Keep On Loving You.

Here are four other songs that I was hearing on the radio – often on Q102’s Top Ten at 10 – in March, 1981 as I indulged my fairly new interest in music…

Blondie – Rapture
from Autoamerican

Blondie was one of the first bands that I truly took to as I began to discover radio and, at the age of twelve or thirteen, the winsome Debbie Harry added an undeniable visual element to the appeal.

Following up on the massive success of the breezy, faux-reggae of The Tide Is High, Blondie offered up something quite different on their subsequent single. The chiming, hypnotic groove, metallic guitars, and Harry’s breathy vocals – my friend Will was convinced that the lyric “finger popping” was actually something more PG13 – made for an irresistible mix.

But the song also blew our young minds. It was our first exposure to hip-hop and as much as we were entranced by the rhymes regarding aliens dining on bars, Subarus, and human noggins, we were also baffled.

April Wine – Just Between You And Me
from The Nature Of The Beast

Rush, Triumph, Loverboy…and sometimes April Wine…the American Midwest loved Canadian rock bands in the early ’80s (at least this was the case in my part of the Midwest).

From the opening riff, Just Between You And Me makes me think of certain older kids in my hometown, usually notorious ne’er-do-wells, smoking cigarettes and hearing this song blaring from their Camaros.

Donnie Iris – Ah! Leah!
from Back On The Streets

I heard a lot of Donnie Iris while listening to local radio on family vacations to Western Pennsylvania (from where Iris rose to semi-prominence and still resides). At home, not so much.

Ah! Leah! did make it to radio in the Midwest, though. It was too monstrous to ignore. It’s a towering, glorious behemoth of a song. It thunders and shudders and Iris wails like a man possessed.

John Cougar – Ain’t Even Done With The Night
from Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did

Before he was John Mellencamp, saving American farms, and incessantly reminding television viewers that “this is our country,” he was simply John Cougar (or, as my friend Bosco dubbed him, Johnny Hoosier).

He’s arguably done better music since those early years, but Ain’t Even Done With The Night captures the restlessness and possibilities of late summer nights and is one song of his which I still never tire of hearing.

*it seemed appropriate – given the recent hullabaloo surrounding the good Cap’n – to repost this entry from March 9, 2009


While I Gently Weep For My Guitar

January 2, 2011

I think that I had to be sixteen or seventeen before I ever held an electric guitar.

It must have been a BC Rich as it belonged to the younger brother of my buddy Beej and younger brother was a metalhead who aspired to join Dave Murray and Adrian Smith in Iron Maiden.

The next time I ever held a guitar was a good five years later. A housemate in college, Billy, owned a white ’64 Gibson SG.

Many nights we’d be hanging out in the living room watching some bad movie on late-night cable. Billy would be sitting there mindlessly playing scales and, on occasion, he’d show me a chord or two.

Over time, I’d grab the guitar from its case and monkey around with it when Billy was at work and I was likely supposed to be in class.

(cable and a couch trumps class on a cold winter’s afternoon handily)

I figured out how to play Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more of a rush of accomplishment.

Billy noted my increased interest in the instrument. He told me tales of the guitar’s history, of how it had supposedly once changed hands as part of a drug deal and how it had once belonged to a guitarist in a band called Mike & The Raiders.

(it was all so rock and roll)

Obviously I had no way to know how much was true, but the wear and tear apparent in the nicks and scratches on the guitar made anything seem possible.

Billy also had a bit of an agenda. He wanted a Fender Stratocaster.

And so, for a pittance of the SG’s worth, the guitar became mine.

I’d like to tell of how I played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and that I now have a mansion and a yacht. I have no doubt that, in some parallel universe, that is exactly how it played out.

In this universe, the guitar was stolen from our house less than six months after I bought it.

I caught a few breaks, a canary sang, and I tracked the perp – a high school student – to his hometown four hours away.

The police, the attorney of the kid’s parents, and a co-worker that had done six years for armed robbery became involved, but, in the end, the guitar had been destroyed.

(or so I was told)

In some parallel universe, the co-worker did decide to go after the kid and shanked him.

I reaquired the SG, played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and I now have a mansion and a yacht.

Here are four guitar songs…

The Jayhawks – Miss Williams’ Guitar
from Tomorrow The Green Grass

Paloma and I spent innumerable hours listening to Tomorrow The Green Grass, the fourth record by the alternative country-rock band The Jayhawks. Though the group never really broke beyond having a devoted grass-roots following and a slew of swooning critics, the Minneapolis quartet was beloved at the record store where we worked at the time.

Miss Williams’ Guitar had everything we’d come to expect from The Jayhawks – stellar songwriting and musianship delivered in an exuberant mixture of country, folk, and roots rock.

Tomorrow The Green Grass would be the final album that featured the glorious harmonies of vocalists/guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris as the former would leave the band and marry folk singer Victoria Williams, the subject of this song.

Steve Earle – Guitar Town
from The Essential Steve Earle

The title track from Townes Van Zandt-protege Steve Earle’s debut album captures the wanderlust of life on the road with humor and twang.

It all rings true when delivered in the rough-hewn vocals of the hard-living Earle and makes the fact that the artist shared bills with Dwight Yoakam and The Replacements at the time seem totally appropriate.

Radiohead – Anyone Can Play Guitar
from Pablo Honey

Though it lacked the distinctiveness that caught the attention of listeners with Radiohead’s more offbeat breakthrough hit Creep, Anyone Can Play Guitar is still a wonderful alternative pop song from the band’s debut.

Mainstream Interest in Radiohead waned in the States following the initial excitement of Creep, but the band remained a favorite of our record store’s staff with the brilliant follow-up album The Bends.

Then came O.K. Computer and Radiohead again – and deservedly – became the “it” band of the late ’90s.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Play Guitar
from Uh-Huh

Growing up in Indiana, any new album from John Cougar was going to get a lot of play on radio.

But, as American Fool had sold millions and been one of the biggest albums of ’82, the release of its follow-up in the autumn of ’83 was treated by local radio as an event. Stations teased the arrival of Crumblin’ Down, the first single, for weeks before its premier.

Though Uh-Huh wasn’t quite the commercial juggernaut that American Fool had been, the singer was now a homegrown institution no matter what his moniker might be and radio latched onto – and played into the ground – almost every cut on the record including the raucous and rebellious Play Guitar.