Saturday, July 11, 2020

Don't Give Up

As a kid, curvy roadways used to make me violently ill.  There’s something about the constant turning, causing the stomach to shift from side to side.  It seems like every time my family took out on a winding road trip, it would be either burning hot outside, or damp outside, so the car interior was always warm and muggy, so the nausea of the rocking back and forth - sliding a little along the vinyl back seat – unsecured by a seat belt, came along with uncomfortable sweats.  Recently, I drove through Newberg, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Portland.  I will always associate Newberg with car sickness.  When my family moved from Portland to the Oregon coast, we passed through and I asked if we could stop, because I thought that I was going to throw up.  The deep breathing my mom suggested was not working.  We stopped off at a donut shop.  It was a rainy and humid mid-morning.  A common rainy Oregon day: wet and gloomy and strangely warm and humid.  The kind where you need a jacket to keep your clothes dry, but you don’t really want to wear more layers.  The four of us sat inside the donut shop with a few plain round cake treats in the center of the table.  My dad seemed to have a thing about ordering the plainest donuts in the world.  If I think back on it, his decision was likely partially based on the fact that they were the cheapest option, but it’s just as likely that his decision was to not offend anyone’s tastes, which always had the opposite effect.  My brother and I each had a half pint carton of milk and my parents had styrofoam cups of coffee.  My stomach was mildly better, but my head was still spinning and I felt like I was burning from the inside, which I remember because my dad was getting impatient and wanted to get back on the road.  I chewed the same bite of that donut for what seemed like hours, until it became a viscous goo that wadded up in the crevices of my gums with no intention of going anywhere near my throat.  I felt like I would feel years later when I experienced my first tragic hangover and every one after that.  I stared at the milk.  I hate milk.  I always hated milk.  I was always being given milk and I could not figure out why.  My mom had opened it for me, so I was afraid I would get lectured about waste, but luckily my bother chugged it down with his strangely amplified swallowing noises.  Glug Glug Glug.  Welcome to Newberg.

Why was I passing through Newberg?  I’m not really sure.  I have made reasons that take me to or through Yamhill County four weekends in a row.  This most recent trip, I took a route I haven’t used in years, after having driven back and forth through there countless times as part of that two hour trek from Lincoln City to Portland and back.  Not far from where I remember that now long gone donut shop, I turned right onto a highway I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.  It was a narrow two lane road that immediately began drifting back and forth needlessly.  Though I no longer seem to get car sick, I still don’t appreciate these types of roads.  I don’t have a particular affinity for driving, beyond the convenience it provides, so it all feels like too much work.  Yet, here I’ve been spending parts of my weekends driving through the countryside.  I suppose it’s a way to get out of the house responsibly during the Covid lockdown.  It’s also been a place I’ve imagined as an escape over the last several years.  I explained this a couple of years ago in the post Jennifer She Said.  The rustic Yamhill County has become a wine connoisseur hotspot since those days of plain donuts and car sickness, yet it has retained its quiet rural time capsule aesthetic.  It is still sprinkled with tiny towns with broken streets often slowed down by commuting tractors creeping past small local markets, dive bars, tiny schoolhouses, and now the occasional fancy tasting room for a nearby vineyard.  The escape daydreams started popping into my head with the image of living alone in some small house, working evenings at a small local pizza shop pouring pitchers of beer for parents after a local high school game, sharing odd philosophical notions or inventing on gossip to the locals.  I’d imagine I’d spend my days writing – believing that I actually had the talent and the will, and possibly hosting a local radio trade show, trying to sell or trade off Orville’s rusty back hoe or Thelma’s old claw foot bathtub that’s been sitting out back for the past 20 years and maybe spinning Shoegaze records for the farmers to enjoy.  Of course, these ideas hinge on some alternate reality where towns of less than a thousand people would have a radio station, the pizza place was still in business, and that I could survive on minimal wages, no healthcare coverage, or a nearby massive medical staff of specialists to manage my wonderful genetic syndrome.  The alternate vision?  That one involves going out to some random field at the edge of a forest to die in that peaceful setting.  I suppose it could be considered alarming that I keep finding myself returning there every week, but I have no plan.  No plan at all.

The day before, I was at the work office when a full on panic attack struck me.  I suddenly could not catch my breath, I became light-headed, and an overwhelming feeling of alarm surged through me like a lightning strike.  I do not blame my job directly, though I’m pretty sure it was triggered by a flash flood of the usual insane vague emails I so often receive, full of demands that I rarely have not been provided the proper tools to address.  These messages tapped into the incredible weight of anxiety that is already in place and has become intolerable.  A lot of us are dealing with anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation during these past few months of pandemic lockdown, and I have not been immune.  I honestly thought when this all began to disrupt our lives, that I would manage fairly well, since I have spent most of my life in a kind of self-imposed lockdown.  I could not have been more incorrect.  I have been battling depression for the past several years, made more acute after my 2015 Halloween hemorrhagic stroke, and these past few months have absolutely exacerbated all of my greatest fears.  I have been mostly cut off from my small group of loved ones who I rely on for support and therefore am spending way too much time dwelling on the emptiness that I feel.  Consciously and logically, I know that I can make decisions to choose to see the positive, but my brain will not allow these things.  Instead, I am left terrified, hopeless, and listless – powerless to affect change.  When any additional challenge passes my way, like the work emails, the bottom drops out and I feel like I’m free falling.  The only option that is to surrender and allow the inevitable crash to happen.  

About six miles in to my journey along this recently discovered highway I turned onto, I had my window down, and I was trying to feel relaxed by the breeze whipping into my face.  The music of Russian trio акульи слёзы (Shark’s Tears: ) was loudly enveloping me like a mournful blanket of melancholy.  As I approached an actual fork in the road, I veered to the right and up a slope into a forested stretch – away from the open fields of the previous couple of miles.  It was there, along the roadside, at the end of a tiny gravel driveway, I spotted a plain white campaign style yard sign with block letters reading “Don’t Give Up.”  I began gasping for breath again.  Would I begin to hyperventilate like I had the day before?  I could feel blood rush into my sinuses pressing in like a punch to the nose.  The sign brought to mind memories of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Frankie Says” slogans that they so brilliantly used to promote their music back when I was first beginning to spend all of my money on records.  I’m not sure if this flashback was the cause of the sudden emotional reaction, or because the sign was so unexpected, like a cosmic message placed there along my unplanned path to put my mind at ease.  I began to think about the Peter Gabriel / Kate Bush "Don't Give Up" duet.  It was a song that I adored when So was first released.  It tugged at the heartstrings and shone like a beacon of hope.  As close as I possibly could, I identified as a young teen with the Peter Gabriel character of the song, and longed for the soothing, comforting voice of the Kate Bush character to guide me back from the proverbial ledge.  The older and more jaded I became, the less effective the song.  It was too contrived, almost to the point of pure cheese - but that bass-line is impeccable.  Sort of like Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours,” which is so heavy handed that when the life support machine sound effects come in like Darth Vader having an asthmatic attack, I can’t help but laugh, despite concurring with the song’s message that there is no such thing as fair and that there is no spiritual grand plan.  There is no plan at all. 

Soon I was back onto a bigger and straighter highway heading back to where I live.  Knowing that I was going back, pushed my thoughts far from the hopeful encouragement of the "Don't Give Up" sign, or is it an unrealistic command?  The realization that nothing is changing for the better only began to fuel my urgent desperation for escape and the inability to know how.  I began to feel completely exhausted.  The lids of my eyes began to linger against each other when I blinked.  The image of driving off the road into the strange swampy field adjacent to the road passed through my thoughts, but instead I pulled onto the shoulder, got out and leaned against the car, and was again overcome by uncontrolled panic.  Erratic breathing, nausea and pressure built up from within so quickly that I thought I might burst.  This was a new kind of car sickness.  I stayed there for a long time, as I began to calm down.  I fought off the urge to lie down on the blacktop next to the fog line and drift off to sleep.  Instead I checked my phone.  No messages.  

Why has this time now been so difficult to deal with?  I have been through a lot of challenging times, I have always found a way to battle through.  When my life has been in the balance with a myriad of emergency health struggles, I have been a fighter.  I have refused to give in.  I have never worked harder, than I do when I have had to recover from devastating surgeries and debilitating medications.  During my three years of dialysis, I was defiant and challenged myself to continue to live life as if I was healthy and wasn’t spending 4-5 hours every other day being tortured.  I was not going to give up.  Perhaps, during those times, the struggle was tangible.  I had something in front of me to deal with directly.  I had timelines and goals.  Relearning what once were simple tasks, allowed me to take heart in seeing progress.  I feel none of that promise anymore and I do not know what to do.  This is like trying to fight my own shadow.  How do people turn this around?  It does not seem possible?

I want to thank the few folks out there who know that I am in a dark place and have reached out to offer support (I hope you know who you are).  It means more to me than I can ever express.  I also want to apologize for being a burden.  I would not have made it this far without you.  I do not wish to push my problems onto anyone and would rather be a positive part of your lives.  I’m just unsure of how to get there.  

Sunday, June 14, 2020

It Isn't Forever

Several years ago my friend Mindy offered both of us a writing challenge.  The topic was making a mix-tape for a person one doesn’t know.  We both wrote fictional stories around this notion, and even though they were fictional, I believe the seeds of both stories contained nuggets of tragic truth.  I know mine did.  Creating mix tapes, especially during my teens and twenties was a passion for me.  They were important for personal use and for connecting with friends.  Plus, they are legendarily supposed to be some sort of powerful romantic audio love letter that can and will win the heart of a crush.  It makes for a magical idea, but I’m not so sure of its actual effectiveness.  It never stopped me from daydreaming about this possibility. 

Mix tapes (or the modern equivalent – CD, or more likely, streaming playlist) were always important to me.  I have always made them. It has been going on for even longer than I’ve been buying music. They used to come along fast and furious. I could and have cranked them out for myself to listen to in the car, or Walkman or to simply catalogue a moment in time.  In 1986, on a school night, for no apparent reason, I created a tape for my own enjoyment titled October 18, 1986 (the rainy evening it was born), and it included three songs named “Shame.”  This became an annual tradition for a few years – all containing at least one song titled “Shame” (that’s a lot of shame), and then was reborn as a CD series after receiving a kidney transplant on an October 18th.  Mostly though, these mixes have been made for friends, co-workers, classmates, and relatives. I’m not sure why, other than my near psychotic need to share my love of music. What better way is there than sharing the actual music?  It’s much more effective than my efforts to write about it.  Perhaps all of this has been practice for the dream scenario mentioned above (and sadly rarely ever implemented) – the mix tape for a crush or a girlfriend.

During this Covid-19 pandemic home time, like so many, I’ve been purging junk that is taking up space around my place.  I’ve been browsing through a giant stack of old spiral notebooks, mostly dating back to 1991-93, full of writing - old record reviews, short stories, several drafts of a mission statement of sorts for the fledgling This Wreckage ‘zine, a disturbing number of lists of personal single and album rankings - my own strange version of Billboard countdowns, and a few sketched out song lists for potential mix tapes.  Unfortunately, there is no sign of a playlist for a particular mix tape that I made that has become legendary in my mind.  It’s a mix I made for a girl, where I laid everything bare.  A collection of songs that were able to break my heart and thrill me with shivers.  If only I could hear that collection again.  Sadly, I do not remember what exactly wound up on that Maxell cassette.  I have some ideas and some pretty sures, but with too much alone time on my hands, I have become obsessed with the notion of recreating this long forgotten mix.

Nineteen Ninety One was a really difficult year for me.  I had to drop out of college and move back home to the isolation of the Oregon coast, due to my mom’s serious health issues that would lead her down the road of undergoing long distance kidney dialysis (the closest clinic was at least an hour away from our home) and seriously declining health, leading to her unfortunate passing nine months later.  Plus I had my own related health problems (genetics!) that landed me in the hospital for about a month, due to a botched surgery.  Let’s just say that recovery was slow and painful.  It felt like the table my life resided on had been flipped over suddenly, leaving me blindly searching for some sort of solid ground to stand on.  So, I did what I had mostly done up to that point in life, I shoved all the pain, fear, and uncertainty down into my gut and tried to rebuild some sort of foundation to stand on.

The following year found me back at my High School-era job making pizzas, shuffling through life, creating a handful of Xeroxed ‘zines with Wil and trying to get them some exposure, and then eventually returning to a different school in Seattle that fall for three months.  Why three months?  Well, in December, I found out that I needed another surgery, so at the end of 1992 I packed everything up and moved back home, which honestly didn’t feel like much of a home anymore.

For much of my late teenage years and into my twenties, I battled depression.  I always chalked it up to the tumultuous times that young adults are always told about, you know, never fitting in, not cool enough, no love life, no taste for partying, spending most of my time alone, etc.  No big deal.  Swallow it down.  Rinse and repeat.  Hold onto my nature of being quiet and even keeled.  Yet, this time, after dealing with another major surgery, things were different.  I began to talk more, I began sharing my thoughts, and my insecurities.  I became an open book.  Once I returned to work at the old pizza joint, I remember being a 21-22 year old, working with a lot of 15-16 year olds, and I felt like a complete and utter failure.  Many of my friends were closing in on their college graduations and here I was in the local teenage hangout asking about the town gossip from a boy who was still a year away from shaving once a month.  That kid became a proxy therapist for me as I blabbered on and on about how life sucks and why.  I could no longer hide my depression - my total sense of loss.  Everything bubbled up to the surface. 

Now that I had become an open wound, a raw nerve, I began to yearn for my life from two-plus years prior.  I missed the idea of possibility, potential, and hope.  I started to reach out to the few people I knew from school, which included a young woman who, during my dark years away, had become to mean the world to me.  I couldn’t get her out of my mind.  She became some sort of ideal who inspired me to become a better person.  I can see it in those This Wreckage mission statement rough drafts I tossed recently.  There was a desire to broaden my horizons, connect with people, and to offer a place for open expression.  It was about this time the mix-tape plan hatched in my head.  I would mail it to her and it would be a compilation that laid out the story of my scrambled emotions and yearning heart and to let her know how important she is.


This is where things get hazy.  I have a feeling that I opened the tape with the solo live rendition of Mark Eitzel’s “Firefly.”  I had been obsessed with that whole album (Songs of Love Live), and that song in particular for a nearly couple of years by that point.  Though, Eitzel’s sad sack “Thanks for coming” that opens the song, or the “I’m always fucking this part up” apology during his guitar bridge, have become repeated jokes over the years within the small circle of my friends.  It’s the warbles and imperfections of his soaring repeated howls over his loss (“Where did you go?”) of a loved one has made people I’ve shared it with laugh, albeit uncomfortably.  It’s a heart wrenching song that never fails to send debilitating shivers down my spine.  That temporary notion of fireflies was strong in those times, and I think I likely bookended things and closed the tape with the Magnetic Fields’ beautiful “100,000 Fireflies.”  Long before Stephin Merritt graced most of his songs with his droll baritone, and every album would be based on some sort of gimmick, his songs were sung by the folk-sounding Susan Anway, whose voice managed to infuse the words with a simple melancholy.  I purchased the 7” single for this song during the height of my love of loud, fast, abrasive music (industrial, hardcore, noise).  However, this quiet, fragile, unique sounding song about the bittersweet nature of love couldn’t have been a more perfect representation of my mindset.

“I went out to the forest and caught
A 100, 000 fireflies
As they ricochet 'round my room
They remind me of your starry eyes
Someone else's might not have made me so sad
But this is the worst night I ever had"


Elsewhere, I’d like to imagine that I put on something by the Field Mice whose plaintive uncomplicated songs are the type that no one is supposed to like, because it's too hard to admit their sheer vulnerability have such much emotional power. I’m afraid the spare plea for physical contact of “It Isn’t Forever” was the choice I may have made for this collection.  It’s a song that begs to be heard, while alone, late at night, when the last thing in the world you want is to be alone.  “It Isn’t Forever” alternates quiet verses of longing with loud abrasive instrumental passages that, like the title, display the all too often fleeting nature of intimacy.


I must have also put on the majestic and invigorating love song “Sunshine Smile” from Adorable, because it was this girl’s electric eyes that captured my initial attention, dropped my jaw, froze me in place, and placed about 100,000 fireflies ablaze in my stomach.  I cannot hear this song without thinking of her.  Speaking of which, I would’ve been remiss if I hadn’t have placed Ride’s crashing single “Taste” onto this tape.  Again, the chaotic burst of pure energy that drives the song, Laurence Colbert’s unbelievable rollicking attack on the drums, and the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that come in about 30 seconds into the song make for the exact representation of what was going inside my mind and body every time I was anywhere near her presence, and for long after.  It doesn't hurt that "Taste" was released not long after that first time I was awestruck by her.  It became my constant adrenalized soundtrack to guide me through her presence.


There’s a chance I may have doubled down on the Mark Eitzel pain, when he moonlighted for a few songs as the vocalist for the creative instrumental band Toiling Midgets.  The turmoil and self-flagellation that he goes through in the searing “Golden Frog” can only end with a repeated conclusion to himself “you were weak.”  A feeling that I often felt of myself then and now.  The anthem of someone who is often too afraid to take chances in order not to disrupt whatever tiny fragments of comfort remain. 

A good balancing follow-up to that abasement could’ve been “Awesome Sky” from Boston punk rockers Moving Targets.  I'm about 87% certain that this amazing instrumental was near the end of side A of the mix.  Despite being absent lyrics, this song may have encapsulated my emotions better than all of the other soul-baring lyrical songs included.  Its restless energy, its earnest search for that glimpse of an 'awesome sky' that keeps getting momentarily obscured by something. Once we reach that triumphant sight (what a chorus!) the song reaches incredible heights like a stellar sunset poking out between clouds or over a magnificent horizon.  Yet like the sun disappearing, the song quietly runs out of steam and disappears.  Gone for good.  Leaving us astonished and inspired.

It’s difficult to know how I filled all 90 minutes of this tape.  Could I have gone for it and crammed it entirely with spirit shredding content?  Was I that willing to be exposed?  Perhaps I threw on something such as Concrete Blonde’s delectable wizened cover of Leonard Cohen’s remarkable “Everybody Knows,” to keep the thread alive but not so damn direct, or the surprisingly groovy and tender love song to planet Earth: “Living in the Rose,” from the normally political and intense New Model Army – a song that would’ve been brand new at that time.  I had to have included something from the Sundays too.  They were and are one of my all-time favorites who wrote a ton of the types of songs to fill this brand of mix-tape.  I imagine that I would’ve snuck the stunningly beautiful and brief b-side “Noise,” an ode to silence and solitude on there as a tasty set up for their second album highlight “Goodbye.”  The first single to follow up their flawless debut is indescribably pretty as it builds to a satisfying and dramatic climax, before ending with the inevitable cold send off to her now former lover.  A dose of reality crashes into the dreams of heaven.  That was it.  A goodbye wasn’t needed in this case.  It was over before it had a chance to begin.


These songs I’ve mentioned are merely educated guesses as to what made it onto that tape.  I remember dubbing it on a lazy music filled sunny spring afternoon.  I distinctly remember being abuzz from the emotional impact the lovelorn songs had over me after completion.  I remember feeling completely despondent, yet alive with an unidentifiable sense of accomplishment.  This recorded cry for attention was likely a terrible mistake, but I knew I had to do something.  I was bursting with love to give and utterly incapable of believing the notion that I could ever receive that kind of love in return.  I could not and still cannot imagine it, so the whole thing was an exercise in futility. 


By the time autumn of that year came around, I had gone back to bottling everything up.  I nearly stopped speaking entirely.  An overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness swallowed me.  A callus formed around me creating a numbness that still encompasses me to this day.  I have been smashing frustrations, disappointments, sadness, and illness into my gut for so long that there is no room for anything else.  The bubbling over anxiousness, excitement, passion, and most important, anticipation that filled that mix tape and the reason behind it stand as a symbol for everything I feel I’m missing.  I think the idea of recreating that grouping of particular songs, despite the sorrow attached to them, is a tiny spark of life buried deep within my clouded mind fighting to get out.

I’m not sure it can.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

What Happens After


What Happens After

(Color Station)


What Happens After is really the question isn’t it?  What happens after we’ve endured the horrifying Trump presidency, after the pandemic, after the media shifts its focus away from all of the Black Lives Matter protest marches for justice, after yet another war, or religious sanctioned genocide, after the planet’s atmosphere turns to carbon monoxide and cooks much of the life on the surface and in the sea?  What a mess we’ve made of things.  It feels like we, as a whole, never learn from our collective mistakes.  We really can’t seem to get along.  We really can’t seem to avoid not feeling cheated by some change that hurts us in some way, be it financially, religiously, misplaces us, or hinders our conveniences, so we do what we can to get things back to the way they were.  Is there really progress, or just a push and pull between all kinds of various factions fighting for temporary supremacy?  Is this mess really what we want to hand off to our youth?  A youth, that at this point, can only ask themselves “What happens after” everything has already blown up? 


All the kids are fucked up

No the kids don’t care about love again

And everybody’s caught up

With the same growing pains of their ways


So go the lyrics in the first part of the chorus for the powerfully epic ballad of encouragement “L.”  Yes, the kids are fucked up.  They’re fucked up because we’re all fucked up.  All the kids come into the world searching for meaning, and their teachers are the adults who are even more fucked up and hopeless.  Ali’s comforting vocals have to remind us “you’re not a mistake.”


The debut album by this New York duo asks a lot of the types of questions mentioned above in this emotionally charged, and frankly exciting album.  An album full of beautiful atmospheric washes mixed with striking walls of guitar noise, and a low end that at times is felt more than heard.  I know an album is a good one, when my favorite song changes every time I listen.


My introduction to Laveda came with the stratospheric “Dream, Sleep,” as Ali Genevich pleads urgently for a break amidst all of the chaos.  The dream and the sleep become quite threatening here.  The next single was the very unusual sounding, yet incredibly catchy “Better Now.”  I didn’t know what to make of this song for a long time.  Jacob Brook’s vocal is altered to a phony deep tone, where he repeats the ominous line: “she was seventeen when she looked at me / I doubt she knew what she was in for.”  The only thing is, I couldn’t (and can’t) stop playing this song over and over again.  In context of the album, the song’s message becomes clearer that the deep voice is coming from the Earth after everything has “turned to grey” and “there’s no turning back.”  A wearied messenger for the young girl looking for “Neverland.”


The opening salvo, “Ghost,” on the album is a horrifying and sad duet detailing a struggle for life in the midst of some sort of apocalyptic disaster like a nuclear holocaust.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard so much nuclear end of the world imagery since Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome.  The mostly instrumental “CND” is an industrial soundscape with a scratchy recording of a statement about our society’s obsession with apocalypse.  It acts as an explanation for our televangelist preachers and their end of days pleas for donations.  This would have fit nicely onto Front 242’s album Official Version.


“Rager,” as implied by its song title is an absolute scorcher!  This straight-ahead song gets louder and more intense as it progresses.  It’s a tragic and depressing anthem that could and should get an audience bouncing around and singing along with this bleak chorus:


Now it’s on fire

There’s nowhere left to wander

Soon everyone dies

We’ll never find another


As the album progresses everything turns to more personal matters of the heart.  “If Only (You Said No)” acts as the LP’s power ballad – a song full of misguided devotion.  “Child” comes on with a soaring chorus and an admission that sometimes one feels like reverting to the lost innocence and neediness of childhood.  The sad reflection of “Blue Beach” has a haunting beauty that reminds me a little bit of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way.”  The album closes with “color,” a musically meditative reprise of “Blue Beach,” with a thoughtful and somewhat uplifting spoken message: “And I think it’s lovely the way we can see the world and the way we can see time / It’s lovely how it rains outside.” 


Perhaps there is hope.  We could be going through growing pains.  We may need to hit bottom before finding out how best to recover – to become better as people and better as a collective.  Maybe the kids will figure out a solution.



Laveda "L" (session video)


Saturday, May 9, 2020


Fire in the Radio
(Wednesday Records)

When I was a young teen working my first job, I saved up all of my money in order to buy a big ole Hi-Fi component stereo system with tower speakers.  It was my pride and joy.  Late at night, I would sit in the dark on a canvas chair in front of the system with my headphones on.  I would stare into console, as I marveled at the power boost a strong FM signal would give to music – an added buzz and increased separation of sound.  I would lose myself in the music and the lights that illuminated the otherwise dark components of the stereo creating a warm glow.  It looked like little city grid in there, or like a little fire burning inside.  My family constantly made fun of me for staring at the stereo with such intent, which could happen at any time and for hours at a stretch.  “Enjoying the view?” my Mom might quip as she passed by my room.  Though some of those components have broken down or petered out over the last 35 years, I still have the same basic system.  It is still an alter acting as a nightlight in my darkened bedroom, and the music it plays keeps me alive.

What does all of this have to do with the new album, Monuments, from Philadelphia band Fire in the Radio?  Other than the fact that their name brought those memories to the fore, the music does make me feel like a kid again.  This is the first I’ve heard of this band, though it is their third LP, and it is filled with punk inspired guitar anthems.  This is the type of thing that used to mystify me.  Like, why isn’t this hugely popular?  These guys rock!  There are chiming power chords, propulsive throbbing basslines, relentlessly upbeat drumming, and sing along choruses everywhere.  The lyrics are thoughtful and can draw out all kinds of personal emotional connections.  Plus the production is big and bright and radio ready.  Yet, here we are.  I found the album via Bandcamp just like most of the other criminally underappreciated artists on there fighting for an audience.

I do not know anything about Fire in the Radio and there is no information about them on the record sleeve.  To me, it sounds like there are two lead vocalists, which is always a strength if you ask me, because it creates a nice unforced variety.  The album opens with an instant favorite “Let’s Get to the Start,” a song about needing to reset after a crippling disagreement.  It reminds me a ton of early Idlewild’s incredible 100 Broken Windows album, as does the excellent “Tulare” and the more Remote Part-ish “This is My Document.”  On the other hand, you’ve got the more difficult (not as straight-ahead), heavier songs such as “Gravity” and “Breaking,” which hint at Bivouac -era Jawbreaker as played by a mid-90s Washington DC band, are still infused with ear appealing choruses.  Speaking of Washington DC, the cranking “Ex-SF” reminds me of Fugazi.  Another highlight for me is the wistful “I Said,” which cruises along like a Chris McCaughan led Lawrence Arms heartbreaker.  I am a sucker for sparse lyrics about quiet moments in time that feel emotionally monumental.  Which brings me to the closing song “Save Me.”  This is exactly the kind of song I was referring to earlier.  This universally understandable song should be massive!  It is so damn catchy, it rocks, it’s easy to sing along with (and to get stuck in one’s head), and it is tragically sad in a desperate identifiable way (“Save me now / save me from the demons I once brought home / I don’t want to be left alone”).

It has been too long since I’ve had this kind of punk rock band come into my life, and there is always room.  It's energizing and exciting.  There's a certain cathartic enjoyment I get out of loud, emotionally charged upbeat songs that are also tender and, at times, heartbreaking.  It doesn’t hurt when the bulk of the songs stick with you and repeat over and over in your head – in a good way.  “Wake me up / It’s time.”


Fire in the Radio "Tulare"

Saturday, April 25, 2020



Nostalgia indeed!  When I first listened to this album from Vancouver BC’s Spectres (their 4th LP, but my introduction), I was immediately transported back to when I was a shy kid in the 80s losing myself in the discovery of post-punk music.  These discoveries were so exciting for me that I still get a charge thinking about it.  I used to dream about finding rare (or non-existent) vinyl singles in strange places, like in the grocery store near the produce, or in a roped off section of a hardware store.  These records would have striking cover art that would intensify my curiosity about what mysterious music was inside to discover.  Hell, I still have dreams like these on occasion.  What’s so great about Nostalgia is it not only sounds like it could’ve come from the early 80s UK indie chart (though thankfully without the over treated 80s drum sounds), but it could’ve thrived there.  I can easily see them being heralded as legends now, if they had been a part of that era.

The most obvious influence could be the bass, which draws on the style that Peter Hook created in Joy Division and New Order.  The opening of the incredible “When Possessed Pray” is very reminiscent of “Ceremony,” and the influence is only intensified when vocalist Brian Gustavson borrows the vocal melody from “Age of Consent” to open the second verse.  What’s funny though, is despite a handful of nicks like these here and there, Spectres do not sound like any particular previous band at all.  My introduction to Spectres is the second track “Dreams.”  This song is a shimmering breath of fresh air as it evokes both the excitement and sadness of a young relationship that is experiencing that first separation.  One is off across the world, while the other stays at home.  The trebly guitar chimes of the chorus is exhilarating. 

It’s damn refreshing to encounter lyrics that are about things beyond broken hearts and relationships (don’t get me wrong, I love these things too), but here we get songs about the world, culture, religion, and politics – but not in a preachy specific way.  The LP opens with “The Head and the Heart,” which builds momentum as it progresses, making it a perfect introduction.  It is about discovering a worldview beyond religious doctrine and they seem pretty happy about it as the song closes with the repeated refrain of “the worst is over.”  Elsewhere, in “Pictures from Occupied Europe,” Gutavson channels Pete Shelley as he shouts over a frenetic set of verses lamenting the fact that we struggle to learn from history and as a warning against the factors that lead to fascism (“Recondition / shapes of what’s to come / polarized parties / breakdown has begun / and no one cares what happened anymore”).  The dangers of political polarization between the left and right continues in “Years of Lead,” which has an absolutely killer guitar hook.  “Insurgence” reflects all of this political tension and comes on the some chanted “woooah –oooooohs” like a fueled up to the point Killing Joke.  Meanwhile, “The Call” is a song after my heart with its Peter Hook bass intro that jumps in like Big Country’s “Steeltown.”  I can almost hear a phantom e-bow from the ghost of Stuart Adamson, as the sing-along chorus kicks in.  As my friend Matt said, when I shared this song with him: “That’s got it going on.”  The exciting finale is “Along the Waterfront,” with its stumbling forward musical momentum and its melancholy mix of the excitement and possibility of youth and the dashed hopes of experience. 

There is not a weak track on this collection.  If you like you like UK post punk, catchy pop songs, and thoughtful lyrics, then this is likely right up your alley.  Highly recommended!

Spectres "When Possessed Pray

Monday, February 17, 2020

Digging Your Scene

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself muddling through another day.  I was feeling despondent and overwhelmed – so pretty normal.  Somehow I made my way home from work, and began the process of paying bills, and preparing my stuff for this year’s taxes.  Fun stuff, right?  I sat down in front of my laptop, when suddenly “Digging Your Scene” by The Blow Monkeys popped into my head.  I mean with force, as if it were actually blaring from speakers nearby.  I had no choice, but to pull up the video on YouTube.

“Digging Your Scene” was a top 15 hit in the US way back in 1986.  I was a freshman in high school.  As far as I know, they did not crack the pop charts again.  I never went out and bought the record, but I liked the song ok.  I would get the opening refrain stuck in my head a lot back then – exaggerating the vocal and haunting my friends with it at school.  I have no idea why it forced its way into my thoughts on this recent dreary weekday, but I can truly say that I was not ready for the music video. 

I had likely seen moments of it, when it was new.  However, my small town did not have MTV yet, and I spent much of my time, like now, huddled near a stereo, with headphones, listening to music.  I think I ran across the beginning of the video over at Bill’s house.  The God TV (it was named the God TV, because it was always on whether anyone was there or not, and often recording endless hours of material onto VHS) had recorded a few hours of the previous weekend’s episode of Night Tracks on WTBS.  I think we (the Campbell family and I) all thought the singer was extra creepy, made a bunch of jokes, and went on with our day.

Yes, the singer in this video looks especially creepy, but what I just now discovered is that the video is actually kinda funny.  It appears that the singer is parodying a mythic lounge-singing diva of epic proportions.  He works the audience, magically changes outfits every few moments, makes a mockery of guitar solos, and walks away to cheers and applause, a fistful of cash, and an overcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape.  It’s brilliant!

Immediately, my mind began racing.  I have always had a certain fondness for music videos – especially from the 80s, because so many of them are so damn strange.  As I have touched on here before (first paragraph of Downtown), there was often a dystopian landscape where videos were taking place in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with raging skies, blowing dust, and possibly revolutionary factions of horseback warriors carrying flags with cool logos led by our musician heroes.  Don’t forget the oppressive societies that our heroes had to face, where music and dancing were all illegal and could only be found in hidden basements of faceless grey stone buildings under constant threat of violent discovery.  I had an instant rambling essay forming in my head.  One that would touch on all kinds of bizarre 80 video-isms that I find fun and fascinating.

Once I began to collect video references I wanted to address and notes of things, I wanted to essentially make fun of, I had “Digging Your Scene” playing on repeat to get myself into the right mindset.  Unfortunately for my silly essay, each time the breezy, jazzy pop song with a killer bassline flowed into my brain, something began to happen to me.  I began to actually listen to the lyrics.  The words to this song are actually quite powerful.  Instead of being some kind of light-hearted expression of love, it is an indictment about the societal backlash toward people who have AIDS (“It’ll get you in the end / it’s God’s revenge”).  It comes from a place of fear, when being true to oneself could also mean a death sentence (“Everyday I walk alone / and pray that God won’t see me…Tell me why is it I’m digging your scene / I know I’ll die baby”).  

Shit.  Things just got real.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Records of 2019

Not feeling especially nostalgic at the moment, despite reaching the end of another year - another decade.  This list is comprised of my most listened to records of this past year.  There are many other deserving releases that I'm neglecting, which is never easy for me.  Here it is nevertheless.  

Moving Panoramas In Tune

Happy New Year Everyone!