Thursday, May 23, 2013

That Smiling Face

“I’m not sure I’m ready for this,” Sophia said and laughed nervously.

“You shouldn’t doubt yourself! You’ll do just fine!” Chuck responded immediately, trying to fight the urge to reach over and touch her arm and verge into creepy territory.

“This is my first visit…”

“We’ll be there together and we’ll work through it together,” he tried to be reassuring. He was always a little nervous about these visits as it is and this was still his responsibility, so having someone there to help always comforted him. He always appreciated the back up. He was also nervous because he had developed a crush on her from afar. She was so pretty and so keen on jumping in and helping anyone and everyone out.

The week prior, Sophia approached him at the office out of the blue. He had seen her around, but didn’t know who she was. He had noticed her wandering through the office with her resonant smile and that long dark hair. Now here she was asking him if she could join him on his next run of home visits. Turns out she’s interning two days a week and wants to expand her experiences at their busy little office. Chuck straightened his back and stammered an approval. She brightened and said enthusiastically: “See you next week Charles!”

There she was sitting in the passenger seat of his car and he had been trying to prepare himself for this all week. He knew she would be with him, and he hoped that he would like her as much as he found her physically attractive. He wanted to make a good impression. So far during the drive across town everything had gone great in Chuck’s mind. Sophia was easy to talk with. She was interesting and engaging. She told him about what she wanted to do with her life and why she was interning. She wanted to help senior citizens. She wanted to be an advocate for them. She was going to school to study all angles of the social, political, and health concerns of all of our grandparents. She told Chuck about how her dream had been sidetracked as she initially dropped out of college to begin raising her two young children, but how after her divorce, she found the courage and wits to get her affairs in order and return to school. He marveled at the idea of her raising two young kids on her own, working a job, going to school full time and still taking time to volunteer (or intern) where he works in order to achieve her goals. It made him feel a great admiration for her and very sheepish about how much time he wastes away every day.

Still, despite, his own personal misgivings about the state of his life, that half hour with Sophia instilled Chuck with energy and inspiration. She helped him realize that his job is important and increased his focus on the few visits he had scheduled for them that morning.

“What will they think of me?” she asked him, concerned that his clients wouldn’t take her seriously.

“Just be the kind, courteous, and caring person you seem to be and they will all love you. They will prefer you over me, I’m certain. The most important advice I can offer is to genuinely listen to what these fine people say and ask,” Chuck offered.

Sophia let that last sentence hang in the air and they sat in the car wordless as Chuck turned left and pulled the car into an apartment complex parking lot. He kept hearing his own annoying voice echo around his thoughts. He always hated being aware of his voice and the stupid sounding things he would find himself saying. He didn’t allow this to deter him though. Being with Sophia made him feel positive and he had had a great week leading up to this day. He had been social and hung out with friends. He had found himself noticing an occasional smile from women he would pass at the grocery store and the bank and over the weekend he was pretty certain that the bartender at Bottles was flirting with him. He felt foolish thinking such a silly thing, but it made him smile anyway.

They grabbed some notebooks out of the back of his car after Chuck finally found an open parking spot and Sophia shadowed him as they made their way to the front entrance of the building to see Howard. Howard was in his 80s and mostly bed ridden and needed help filling out some insurance forms.

“You have a pretty girl following you! Heh Heh!” someone shouted towards them from the smoking area near the front door.

“I sure do. It must be my lucky day!” Chuck shouted back, as he grabbed a security card from his notebook and used it to open the door.


“Do you think Victor will be okay?” Sophia asked Chuck after they climbed out of his car at the office parking lot. He noticed that she had turned her face skyward to absorb the warmth of the sunshine after she asked about Victor. He cursed himself for keeping the car too chilly. Too much air!

“I sure hope so. His health hasn’t been very good lately. I’ll be joining him for his doctor’s appointment tomorrow, so we’ll see,” he told her with enthusiasm, but he knew that Victor was not doing well. “I sure hope so,” he mumbled.

“He’s so sweet,” she added before thanking Chuck for letting her go along.

Chuck did not want to say goodbye, but it was clear that their arrangement for the day had come to an end. He did need to file his reports and make some phone calls and so on.

“Thank you, Sophia!” he chirped back overenthusiastically. She headed off to see Theresa, her advisor, and he headed to his downstairs office to check his email. He couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. His face was flushed and his heart was racing. He was smitten, whether he wanted to be or not. He sent Sara a quick email about how his “hot date” had gone. Sara was the only one he had told about his new crush and how she had arranged their afternoon together. Sara was the wife of one of oldest and dearest friends. She had become his closest confidant, unwittingly, with his imaginary matters of the heart.

“Do you think you’ll pursue her?” was Sara’s immediate response, always the one to get straight to the point.

He pondered with his hands hovering over the keyboard, “Do I?” he thought. All of his crushes had gone nowhere except for one, which became a suffocating nightmare after only a couple of months before coughing, choking, and wheezing to a collapsing, yet merciful end.
“Not sure. She has two kids and is always busy. Not sure I’m ready for that,” he carefully pecked out. “I do really really like her though.”

“Hmmm…when will you see her next?” Sara replied immediately.

“Next Thursday,” he answered, realizing that the week ahead without seeing her made him feel sad. Again, he paused and wasn’t sure what to type. He knew he had all kinds of emotions boiling under the surface, but none of them made any sense. “I guess I’ll just talk to her then.”


Luckily for Chuck his week was incredibly busy. He had a weekend scheduled with friends and family. Nearly every night was booked with some sort of social engagement and work was always three weeks behind schedule and there to keep him occupied. Sometimes he had to over schedule his time because he struggled to be alone. Alone, his thoughts always turned to what he was missing. It was when he was alone that he realized that he had been alone for far too long. He thought of Victor. He thought about how he was close to the end and had no family and no friends around to care for him or to simply keep him company. All he had were occasional visits from people who were paid to check in on him. A big part of his job was employing a heavy dose of empathy and none of his clients could possibly know how deeply he understood their plight.


Chuck splashed on some cologne for the first time in about a year. He laughed as he glanced at the small bottle in his hand. He didn’t know what this was, where it came from, or if it still existed. He wasn’t even sure if he liked the smell, or if the smell was the same as it had been when it appeared in his medicine cabinet countless years ago. He tried to wash it off moments later. He smiled and bounced around that morning and hummed along with the Allo Darlin’ CD playing quietly from the oversized speakers in his adjoining bedroom:
“If I told you
I was never cool
And all I wanted
Was just to have you
And when I see you
I will put my arm around you
It will be hard to let you go”

One of Chuck’s other crushes was with lead singer Elizabeth Morris’s voice, and the uplifting message of “The Letter” was a perfect song to start his hopeful day ahead. Even with his busy week behind him, the idea of seeing Sophia had always been at the forefront of his mind. He was hoping that she would join him on some more visits. He pulled the disc out of the player and took it with him for the commute to work.


That magical smiling face of Sophia’s caught Chuck’s eye as he finally spied her on her way into the office. He had kept looking at the window all morning and there she was. She waved a greeting to Cindy as they passed in the parking lot. He was stuck on a conference call, which he had long ago stopped paying attention to. All he wanted to do was drop the line and rush to the entrance to greet her. He didn’t know what he would say anyway, so he put his head down on his desk and continued to tune out the chatter coming from his phone. He didn’t see her again the rest of that day.


“Good morning,” Chuck said to Sophia as she wandered into the break room. She had her back to him and looked out the window. He was squirting old coffee from a broken urn. She had surprised him. He hadn’t seen her all morning and wasn’t sure if she was scheduled to work on Fridays.

“Oh, hey,” she glanced back over her shoulder.

“How are you doing?” he asked, ready to ask more rapid fire generic small talk questions to keep her around.

“Okay,” she said as she turned around. She turned her attention to the doorway. Chuck could hear voices. She trotted out of the room after them.

“Hey, Mark,” he heard her voice again. “Would you mind if I joined you for that meeting today?”

“Sure! I’m headed out now. Come on,” Mark encouraged.

Chuck poured his cold cup of coffee down the sink and sat down at the table. He thought about their drive the week before. It was then that he realized that through their entire conversation, the only questions she asked of him had to do with work, while he had touched on not only work, but also her life and her interests and her kids and childhood. When Sara asked him if he was going to pursue her, he only thought about the idea of him not being able to handle being a part of her busy life with kids, school, and work. He could only think about the amorphous directionless mess of a life he had always led – a life without a plan. All he could count on each day is that he would wind up at work the next day until he could no longer work anymore. He never considered what she might think of him. She smartly was on a fast track to achieve her goals, which had nothing to do with him. Chuck needed to get to Victor’s to take him to his doctor’s appointment. The last prognosis was not positive. He started his car and rolled down the window. Allo Darlin’s “The Letter” spurted on midway through the song. This time Elizabeth’s words made him feel overwhelmed with emptiness. He wanted a beautiful voice to be singing those words to him – not for him.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told

“I was frustrated and angry”

Sometimes a band and/or an album come along at the perfect time. When I was spending three years strapped into a dialysis chair for three days a week for four to five hours at a time there wasn’t a lot to look forward to each day outside of trying to make it through a work day and surviving. One might think with all that downtime at dialysis, I could at least get in a lot of reading, listen to a ton of music and maybe even write. One might think that, but for the most part those years are blank. I pretty much lost my fanatical taste and exuberance for music, I did read my way through many sleepless, restless nights, but couldn’t focus while going through those awful sessions. There are a few exceptions. Every once in a while an album or a song would come along to breathe new life into my waning soul. It was at a 2002 summer time Dillinger Four show (a rough and tumble Minneapolis punk band, who I discovered in the late 90s through another Allied Records punk compilation Invasion of the Indie Snatchers in my constant search for a new punk rock band to replace Husker Du, then Jawbreaker and J Church, then V Card, etc. in my weird little lexicon – see the prior two posts Ache and Letter to Hope), when opening act the Lawrence Arms cranked out the soaring and heartfelt “Nebraska” and blew my friend Jeff and I away. Initially, during their set, we exchanged accepting glances, because we were surprised to find an opening act we’d never heard of, earning our jaded attention. It was when we heard memorable lines from “Nebraska” like “your sarcasm radiates unhappiness / so withdrawn and rooted deep inside” over a dry repetitive guitar pluck, before exploding into an earnest desire to help a depressed friend (“your bitterness doesn’t surprise me / as these pointless days go screaming by / rejected sour eyes / can’t imagine blue skies / I wish you could find something to live for / besides the agony of bleeding towards this last breath”) that completely won us over. It was those understanding words that I needed to hear during a time when I felt sick and weak all of the time and wasn’t sure if I would ever get an opportunity for a kidney transplant. It was hearing those words coming from a self deprecating loose punk band that made it seem somehow more poignant.

Nebraska live 2009

The Lawrence Arms are (or were) a punk rock trio from Chicago, who have released five albums along with a couple of split albums, singles and a ton of punk compilation tracks (so far between 1999 and 2009). I love every single one of them. However, it was their 2003 fourth album, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which stands as their high point both creatively and for me personally. It is also their most overlooked. It’s one of those album albums. Most of the songs connect together and reference each other creating a big picture theme. In other words, it’s not the type of album where it’s easy to pull out a song or two for mixes to share, nor is it easy to listen to just one song. It is an experience. It isn’t a bloated double or triple album mess. It is concise at just over 30 minutes and stays true to their roots – roots that land firmly in the long standing sensibilities of Midwestern punk rock. Their hard partying tales of ineptitude and debauchery provide a picture perfect postcard into the life of the disaffected and downtrodden in an insightful and an alternately blunt and poetic way. This album is brilliant at mixing odd pop cultural references with literary masterpieces into a cohesive message of frustration and anger (there are mentions of Juggalos and Hot Shots Part Deux slipped in between references of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita, painter Elhajiman Young, writers J.D. Salinger, Tobias Jeg and Gustav Meyrink among others – and yes, there are actually footnotes for the lyrics!). It is that message of frustration and anger and feelings of helplessness that I not only identified with during those dialysis sickness years, but fed off of. Their music and this album inspired me and filled me with an energy that I had forgotten I was capable of. It was the 2003 holy trinity of albums spewing social and political outrage TSOL’s Divided We Stand, Killing Joke’s second self-titled masterpiece along with this, The Greatest Story Ever Told, that helped me find my outrage and verve and passion for music and life again. It became impossible for me to listen to a song like “Alert the Audience” and ever feel sorry for myself, while reclining in the pleather dialysis chair, hearing bassist Brendan Kelly’s raspy voice shouting at me in my headphones during the shredding climax of the song:

“I’m a clown and I’m choking on blood, teeth and tongue
Fuck the spectators. Fuck the ‘he was so young’
Fuck forced sympathy through lifeless glass eyes
Povichian voyeurs drinking my cries
Fuck faced trilobites waiting to die
I can’t stand the humor, and I can’t stand the lies”

Instead I became instilled with a desire to take back control of my failing health and fight to overcome or at least fail trying my hardest to make a difference, while scratching to survive.

“I’m a clown, we’re only here to entertain” is the thematic link that spreads throughout this album, starting with the ‘Hobo Clown Chorus’ that acts as the introduction amongst a hacking cough and the sound of a beer can opening. Could it be a statement of dissatisfaction and disaffection from the faceless masses (the 99%) who help earn fortunes and glory for the few and are left with little recognition and reward? I think so (“Tear us up and stuff us down the drain” is the Hobo Clown Chorus’ concluding outro). Fittingly, the incredibly detailed and impressive sleeve art is loaded with old fashioned circus imagery to go with the repeated circus references in the lyrics. From that opening introduction, the album unwinds as guitarist Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly alternate the lead on each song. This is an important distinction, because they are two very different sounding vocalists and have very difference styles - Kelly’s more profane lyrics and chaotic bursts of noise pair perfectly with McCaughan’s more refined punk balladry (whatever that is). I can honestly say that I have no favorite song from this astounding collection that sweeps by too fast to fathom – begging for repeated listening.  I absolutely love this album from beginning to end.

Come to think of it, listening to this album now reminds me that I need to heed the lessons I learned ten years ago. It’s time to stop the slide into lethargy and regain some fire. Isn’t that what rock-n-roll has always been about?

The Disaster March 2003

Monday, May 6, 2013

Letter to Hope

I have referenced it several times over these many posts over the years, either via journal style entries or through short stories, but the early 90s was a terrible time for me. Besides dealing with my own fairly serious health crises, I lost my mom to cancer, lost two friends to suicide, and frittered away what may have been my best shot at love. It didn’t help that this all went down during the emotionally charged age of the early twenties, when pretty much everything that happens in life seems way more epic and significant than it really is due to a lack of experience crossed with heavy doses of uncertainty while trying to find a direction with life. These are things that we all experience.

The main way I have always chosen to deal with personal crisis is to turn to music. It has always been my sanctuary. I rise with it when I am on a high, maintain with it when things are running along routinely, and wallow with it when times turn rough. Writing about Jawbreaker with the previous post (Ache), a lot of those powerful and dark memories that coincided with that band’s existence have returned to the forefront of my thoughts. So too has much of the music that I discovered during my efforts to track down every single song that Jawbreaker released. Not only did that great band release four amazing albums, but they routinely put some of their best songs onto different punk compilations from around the country, so I had to track those down too. It was through these that I ran into the frighteningly prolific and always thought provoking J Church (from the legendary 17 Reasons Mission District 7” boxed set), the tumultuous buzz saw shred of Radon, the politically fueled Strawman, among many others. However, it was hearing the early Husker Du - like magic of Spoke’s “Descant,” (from the 1993 Allied Records’ amazing compilation: Music for the Proletariat) that inspired me to check out more from them and would lead me to find great solace, comfort, and joy in their words and sounds (little did I know then, that I already had this song on a spilt 7” that came sleeved in a comic book from a year or so prior).

It’s always a little discouraging when you get all excited to listen to a new CD from a newly discovered band and the credits in the little booklet state this about the band: “Spoke was Chuck Horne, Scot Hagel, and Jonathan Resh.” Sadly, by the time Spoke’s first CD Done, a 1994 collection of their three 7” singles and a couple of compilation offerings, the band had split. This is a massive shame, because these early recordings from this Florida trio show a huge amount of promise. All three members sing and write songs and this versatility is what seems to drive my love of punk rock trios (which would be a list way too long to bother to provide). Done, as a whole is, not surprisingly, a little scattershot, considering that it’s a compilation of their earliest songs. The metal tinged opener “Anithistamine,” which makes using an inhaler for an asthma attack sound like breathing in napalm on a battlefield (“clenched fists grind down abraded eyes”) before relief finally comes (“I cannot prove how my misery’s removed”). Similarly, “Harsher Winds Fall” and “Crushed” come along later in the proceedings with a striking metallic influence, which isn’t really my thing, but they are decent songs. “Harsher Winds Fall” addresses the sad fact that racism continues to be an issue in these times over some tight riffage, while “Crushed” is a short burner with abstract words that effectively convey the feeling of being trampled by someone you hold dear. Other than these small examples of a metal side, Spoke seem to have brought to the table more of a punk rock aesthetic. Their heartfelt and sometimes roughly played songs remind me of the early Lemonheads as fronted by Ben Deily (Spoke was also recorded by Tom Hamilton, who recorded those first three Lemonheads releases) and when Jonathan Resh takes over the lead, he has a gruff, yet spot on vocal style that reminds of Bob Mould during his Husker Du years (check out the chorus of “Prey” or the aforementioned “Descant”). What really made these guys always stand out for me amongst the rolling drums fills, buzzing guitars and mid range exploratory bass lines they provide are their powerful lyrics. Having said that, there are two instrumentals, “Mareado” and “You & Joy” that are downright harrowing and exhilarating. They tackle politics (“Descant”), racism (“Harsher Winds Fall”), religion (“Prey”), prostitution (“Dark City Sister”), and of course many matters of the heart. Just try to get the repeated refrain from the wistful love song “Just a Thought” out of your head (“she’s a rose in a pond of water”).

Luckily, Spoke left us with an actual debut album All We Need of Hell (the title fittingly taken from the Emily Dickinson poem “Parting”) that was also released posthumously in 1994. The liner notes provide that two of the songs included were written in memory of two different people lost and that loss is reflected all over this massive 19 song album. It is those two heart wrenching songs that provided the understanding comfort I needed to help with my losses. “Letter to Hope” instantly became one of the most powerful songs in my collection with its poetic imagery, swiftly shuffling music, and Resh’s mournful, angry and lost vocals. Just hearing the song now makes tears well up in my eyes (“and though I still stand unresolved / and though her world came to an end / and though she can’t be seen again / the ink bleeds forth from the pen of what once was / I’ll soon send my letter to hope”). Likewise, “Lil,” the other tribute, uses sparse lyrics to create a powerful scene of uncomfortable uncertainty (“close the light / but I don’t want to go to sleep / pace in circles / talk to myself”) over nervous and naked guitars before exploding in a cascade of frustrated noise after the narrator decides to self medicate to ease the pain (“behold the scythe / it tears a patched quilt of life / let’s spill the medicine and drink down good night”). The musically similar “80 Percent” (a song that provides an imaginary soundtrack opening for a short story I wrote: Kim the Waitress) powerfully addresses regret over a failed relationship with some serious self realization (“but I know an assurance of perpetual love was quite impossible / when only 80 percent of what she wants can I fulfill”). I’m not sure what it is, but I seem to be drawn to emotionally devastating songs, but their impact on me often is increased in a punk rock framework. Maybe it helps to swallow the rough message when it’s combined with some sense of release. The busy “My Eyes” arches and races through it’s tempo, but still smacks you across the face with a scene of inner turmoil for the narrator as he encounters someone who has used him, but he still yearns for their love (“my soul’s been yours to lose / my feelings fall to you / so what will you do? / I want to see you all the time”), while the wistful and dreamy “Crazy” finds joy with the early stages of a relationship (“I have lost all control of my heart of which you stole”). The powerful short story inside of the “Celebrated Summer”-like “Porch” seems to introduce us to some lifelong friends who are ready to embark on their life’s travels (“and the world spins on axis with little assurance for us all / but the steps between our home and the cold world bridge each day in time”), while the hard charging “Ruptured Seam” allows some real catharsis within its ranting toward breakdown in two minutes. This album is not all deadly serious. The opening instrumental “Sculpture” eases us into the odd “Gordon Johnson.” I’m not sure who he is, but according to the song “he blows.” Also, “Inga” opens with hysterical psychotic sounding laughter before merging into an atmospheric instrumental roll with haunting vocals expressing a longing for an inflatable doll. There are also two fine covers of two influential bands: Wire’s comeback song “Ahead” (1987) and a drastic reworking of Minor Threat’s “Salad Days” (1985). I could go on and on, but I will take a breath and relent. This is an amazing album that has been virtually unnoticed from its time of release and especially since, which is a tragedy. I am not doing it much justice here, but I urge you to give this short-lived band a try via their one time label No Idea Records. You can track down Done here and All We Need of Hell here.

Spoke "Letter to Hope"