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Thursday, February 24, 2005

CONCERT REVIEW
Paul Thorn
Jen Chapin
Shank Hall, Milwaukee, WI


Ah, another night at Shank Hall taking in the music and the Guinness with Lovely Lady Leslie.

Let me first start off by saying that it is indeed ironic that I am about to write a lengthy posting about seeing a musician that hails from the deepest of Red States whom I actually admire. Two postings ago, I ripped Red Staters a new one about the hypocrisy of their moral values argument, but I believe that the best kind of music, when used properly and with great care, should bring people together.

Which brings us to last night's Paul Thorn show at Shank Hall. Thorn, from Tupelo, Mississippi, brings the colorful journey that is his life in story and song. I first caught him with a full band at last year's edition of Summerfest here in Milwaukee, and he impressed me immediately. His between song banter, although I was hearing quite a bit of it last night for the second time, adds an engaging dimension to his songs (all of which are available on Back Porch Records). This former tent revival singer, boxer and chair factory worker brings honesty-something in short supply in the current climate of recorded music- to his audience with his songs that touch mostly on gospel and blues. Thorn was alone with his acoustic guitar last night, and his songs lost nothing without the presence of a full band. It is rare these days that I can say that. I hope that Paul Thorn comes back to Summerfest this year. He goes so well with beer. If he comes to your town, check him out. You won't be disappointed.

Opening the evening was Jen Chapin, a singer/songwriter from Long Island who blends a jazz feel with quasi-poetic lyrics under a fairly strong voice. Chapin was helped out by Stefan Crump on upright bass (I hope I spelled his name correctly) and Jamie Fox on lead guitar (no, the other one). I was impressed by the musicianship of Crump and Fox, with Fox sounding quite a bit like fellow New Yorker Bill Frisell. Some of Chapin's lyrics were somewhat painful to listen to, with many lyrics crowding out any melody that she tried to get going. Her lyrical ideas more often than not went too far afield and distracted from some fine melodies underneath. With less pretention and more focus, Chapin could be a force to be reckoned with given the lineup she's sporting. What a shame.

Monday, February 21, 2005

First Warren Zevon, now this...

Hunter Thompson committed suicide today. Unfortunately, I can't say that I ever met the man. I've read almost all of his books, and caught his recent articles on espn.com.

As I read his final article last week, a typical offering about calling Bill Murray in the middle of the night about designing a new game that combined shooting and golf, I thought to myself that in this most horrible of times, in this cesspool of a country, where the will of the masses is being trampled by Bible-waving, redneck sheepfuckers in Red states, at least I can count on something. At least Hunter's still got it.

Is this the end of all hope as we know it? Did Armageddon not mention four horsemen, but rather a chemical-tinged scribe biting the dust by his own hand, that ushers in the end of the world? As the lemmings in America bumrush to the edge of that cliff like a Depression-era bank run, the wreckage of 9/11 behind them and fading in the distance, the carrion-like smell of rotting soldier's corpses from a needless war lining their path, with a cocaine-addled fratboy leading them, rattling the Ten Commandments in one hand and a tattered flag in the other, it is the duty of those people still left in America with a conscience to celebrate the pioneering spirit of the American Outlaw that Thompson represented to the literary community. Instead, all we get is an acceptance of voter theft, surveillance of our every move on highways both of information and automobiles and a blank check for big business to poison us all slowly, like an IV drip of Jonestown Kool-Aid.

Thompson represented the last of the writers influenced by the Beats, celebrating a time on America when you could jump in a car and drive the long, dusty, undeveloped highways, the wind in your hair, a drink in your hand and only the faintest notion of a destination. It was a time when only J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had you under surveillance and only then if you were a rabble-rouser, rather than every paranoid Christian freak on the street. There were no cameras at intersections, there were no Wal-Marts polluting the landscape and the signs hanging over businesses in any town were either neon or hand-painted. Hunter Thompson putting a bullet in his head is the ultimate sign that America can never hope to recapture the freewheeling spirit that it still futilely markets to the rest of the world. America is officially lost in a morass of gun violence, depravity and false gods in cheap suits. There is nothing left to conquer in this country. There is no hope for a brighter tomorrow on the other side of the hill. Manifest Destiny is just a buzzword for that cliff that the lemmings climb a little more every day. Goodbye America. It was fun while it lasted.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The New Reality: Blue Props Up Red
It has been over 3 months since the semi-believable results of the 2004 Presidential elections have been foisted on the American people and one question remains:
Where's General Sherman when you need him?
We are told by the media at large that the reason the Republicans won the majority of the votes in the 2004 election was because of something they keep calling "moral values". Let us set aside for a moment the fact that the American media seemed more concerned about fair elections in the Ukraine than in the United States in the last three months, despite overwhelming evidence that Diebold fixed this election for the Republicans in at least Florida and Ohio. Let's take a closer look at this "Moral Values" argument.
Let's start this analysis with these questions. Choose either Red States or Blue States as your answer:
1) Who has the higher rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy?
2) Who ranks lower in education?
3) Which part of the country is the home to more predatory corporations (predatory corporations being defined as companies who routinely make it a practice of abusing their employees, either through reductions in basic benefits or not paying for overtime)?
4) Which part of the country has the higher percentage of depraved guests on "The Jerry Springer Show"?
If you selected Red States for all of the above answers, you obviously live in a Blue State. Unfortunately for you, you'd also be 100% correct. I say unfortunately because the latest studies of who gets more government benefits per tax dollars spent has Red States at the top and Blue States at the bottom. The undisputable conclusion drawn from this analysis is that those of us in the educated part of the country are propping up our so-called "moral superiors" in the Red States with our hard work, educated minds and - more than anything else - our tax dollars.
How is it that Red States, with their focus on Old Testament punishment and racist symbols such as the Confederate Flag, take the moral high ground from those of us who actually lead productive lives and have the nerve not to stand on street corners and proselytize?
Red States are afflicted by an inferiority complex. The North beat the South in the Civil War, The North had to come down and teach white Southerners how to be tolerant of people who weren't white Southerners, the biggest claim to fame of Dallas, Texas is the murder of an American President in broad daylight in 1963 (which has led in time to Dallas' women wearing more makeup per capita than women in any other city), and places like our vice-president's "home state" of Wyoming have shown what kind of tolerance they have for people of different sexual orientations . With a track record like that, you'd do anything to rally the ignorant masses at your disposal and try to recapture some kind of high ground. What better way than that tried and true anesthetic that we in the reasoning Blue States call Religion?
Our current president loves playing the Bible card, and having slept with half of the women in the South while he was drinking and snorting coke in the '70's gives him a unique window into the nature of the people who vote for him blindly. The most evil of manipulators know exactly which buttons to push. Our president-and mainly his handlers- know the buttons well. Those that use moral issues love to talk a big game in terms of superiority to those of us who choose not to prop up charlatans like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The problem, as we see by the current moral, economic and environmental decay of the Red States, is in the follow-through of all of those well-stated -if not well-practiced- beliefs.
So for those of you in Red States, you'll have to excuse those of us in the Blue States for laughing at you when you claim moral high ground. Statistics don't lie, and when it comes to hearing you pat yourselves on the back for being "better" than we are, you would do well to learn that talk is cheap.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Fanatic
The crowd was only now beginning to build for the concert, but Jenna Quinn had been here all day, braving the biting January chill from just after Noon. She didn't seem to mind, as the severe cold took her mind off her left hand. Standing outside reminded her of the day she bought tickets to the show. She had arrived three days prior to tickets going on sale in order to be the first in line. On the first night she was in line, the police had actually shown up to ask what she was doing there,
"I'm waiting in line for concert tickets", she said, which was an odd statement given that she was the line at that point in time.
"Who's coming?", the cop asked, thinking it to be someone famous.
"Miles Roberts"
"Who?"
Rather than be frustrated with the cop not knowing who Miles Roberts was, it made her happy. That was one more person who wouldn't stand in the way of her someday forever being with her idol.
Jenna could still remember the first time that she heard Miles Roberts' voice singing just to her. She was up late one night. She had just finished studying for the night and a thunderstorm outside her dorm room window was not allowing for sleep. She grabbed her portable radio and looked for something to drown out the thunder. She was used to hearing the latest hits of the day, but she was looking for something a little quieter to help her sleep. She began to turn her radio dial to the left. It had almost run out of room when a voice pierced the darkness of her room. After hearing one line of Miles Roberts' song "Natural Love", a bolt of lightning lit up the walls of her room. She kept listening to his voice in front of a lovely , flowing piano accompaniment as if listening to the voice of God himself, her pupils and her heart dilating in unison as her head rested on her pillow. When the song ended, another song by someone else followed it, and then another, and yet another. She wondered if she would ever find out whose voice it was that had made her feel this way. At last she heard the DJ's voice deliver words that would change her life forever.
"...and before that we heard Miles Roberts from his debut album 'Night Songs', and that was 'Natural Love'.....".
She jumped out of bed and scrambled over to her desk. She fumbled in the darkness for the switch for the lamp on her desk, grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote down what she had just heard. She promised herself that she would find this album at all costs, which was strange for her, as she usually wasn't given to buying music on a regular basis. She somehow knew instinctively that this album would be something she needed to hear.
After classes the next day, she ran into her friend Tanya, who had a car, and convinced her to drive to the CD store in town. She asked the clerk if they had the Miles Roberts record.
"I'm not sure. It would be in 'ROCK' if we have it", the clerk said. Chain store CD clerks were always worthless when it came to information.
She went to the R's and frantically looked through the rack. She found it right in front of a reissue of Rockpile's "Seconds Of Pleasure". The cover had Miles Roberts' picture on it, with his name across the top, and the words "Night Songs" ethereally drawn at the bottom. She was immediately drawn to Miles Roberts' face on the cover. He had thick dark hair, somewhat tossled, with dark eyebrows to match. His face had a days's beard growth on his face, making him look rugged in a downtown poet-artist kind of way. He had the face of a musician. Miles Roberts did not have the face of someone you would trust with your tax return, but he'd be the first person you'd connect to the piano in the corner of the room.
Jenna turned the album cover over. The album contained 13 songs. There was another picture of Miles Roberts next to the song listings. He was leaning against a wall, a leather jacket in his left hand hanging over his left shoulder as he leaned, looking off to an imaginary point in the distance. Jenna was already happy that he didn't have a cigarette in his hand.
As she walked to the counter to purchase the CD, she held it with her left hand and gently stroked the CD case in a petting motion with her right hand, as if holding a recently-discovered buried amulet. She nearly tripped and fell over a discount cassette display because she wasn't paying attention. Tanya giggled at her as she stumbled, with Jenna soon joining her in spite of herself. They shared a capuccino at the coffee shop two doors down from the CD store and chatted after her purchase. She kept the small bag containing the CD on the table in front of her, never letting it out of her sight. As she sat at the table talking to Tanya about the upcoming end of the semester, she kept thinking to herself that she was being incredibly juvenile, but the excitement drowned out the self-reproach in her mind.
She had purchased the Miles Roberts CD on a Thursday. She went home that night, put the CD in her portable CD player, and began to listen. Every nimble piano note made her tremble inside. Every word that poured out of Miles Roberts' mouth seemed directed to her or related to her life situation. Unforced smiles beamed from her face at some moments, and at others she displayed a look of dreamy longing brought about by the feelings and moods of Miles Roberts. When the CD ended, she started it again, thankful that she had purchased an A/C adapter for her CD player. The same moods and expression enveloped Jenna again, this time going just a bit deeper. Five hours later, as Jenna listened to the record again, she did it staring at the pictures of Miles Roberts in the CD booklet. One photo of Miles Roberts showed him looking directly into the camera. Jenna pretended that Miles Roberts was looking her right in the eyes, telepathically singing and playing his songs to her. It was just the two of them, and they were completely in sync with one another. No one else in the world could disturb their moments together now. Between tracks five and six, Jenna made sure that no one would disrupt her moments with Miles Roberts by turning off her cell phone and unplugging her dorm room phone from the wall.
The weeks that followed moved like a blur. In no time at all, the posters in Jenna's dorm room had been converted from cute posters of animated unicorns and kittens with their paws playfully resting on a ball of yarn to different posters all showing the dark and mysterious visage of Miles Roberts. All of Jenna's spare time was spent researching the many wants, needs, desires and the other little wonderful ingredients that made up that one great mass of certifiable genius that was Miles Roberts. She joined internet discussion groups about Miles Roberts. She downloaded Miles Roberts wallpaper for her computer. Her computer design class web page became a tribute to the music, life and times of Miles Roberts. She learned that Miles Roberts was the son of Dale and Fred Roberts of Mission Viejo, California. She learned that Miles Roberts' favorite food was anything Italian, and that Miles Roberts' favorite restaurant was DeLucci's in his hometown of Mission Viejo. She learned that Miles Roberts' greatest influences were The Beatles, Carole King and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. When she learned this, she decided to listen to music by these three artists, but she found that even after repeated listens, they simply didn't measure up to the groundbreaking sound that was Miles Roberts. She was a frequent visitor to Miles Roberts' official website, checking it almost hourly for any news or updates or announcements of new concerts added to Miles Roberts' already busy touring schedule.
Seemingly overnight, her grades and her focus on her studies began to slip. Suddenly it seemed that everything around her began to become less and less important. Papers were left incomplete, if commenced at all. She missed more than a few classes. She had less and less contact with friends, the better to spend her spare time listening to the increasingly-familiar sounds of Miles Roberts. Had it not been for the invention of headphones, the other people on her dorm floor would surely have gone slowly mad along with her.
She wrote home and told her parents that she wouldn't be coming home for the semester which ended a month from now. From recent visits to Miles Roberts' website, she discovered that he would soon be touring. It would be a short ten-city tour of the East Coast, but Jenna was determined to follow Miles Roberts to all of his concert dates. Her parents were distressed that she wasn't planning to come home for Christmas and the New Year. They hadn't heard from her since she left for Thanksgiving. She seemed out of it during that weekend to everyone who came across her, spending most of her time in her room with her headphones on, barely noticing the relatives around her who had come to town for the holiday. Jenna was too busy. There had been plans to make, and she wasn't going to let something as unimportant as turkey bog her down.
Jenna thought about all of this as she continued to wait outside the concert hall in Washington, D. C. It was the last stop on the tour. The tour had been through Burlington, Boston, Hartford, Providence, Albany, two spots in New York City, Trenton and Philadelphia. Miles Roberts was scheduled to take four months off after this show to work on his follow-up to the now-Grammy-nominated "Night Songs". As Jenna waited in a stiff Potomac wind for the doors to open, she smiled to herself. Tonight was the night. She had lurked in the shadows for nine shows, but tonight, in the nation's capital, this would be the place that she would finally introduce herself to Miles Roberts. She had been sending him letters for about a month now. At first, they were the usual fan letters. After her first two, she received the same autographed photograph from Miles Roberts' publicity department. Not content with that, she continued to write letters to him. She would only sign it "Love, Jenna", so as not to attract undue attention from anyone who might be reading her letters to Miles Roberts. That was not to say that anyone other than Miles Roberts was reading her letters. Of course Miles Roberts was reading her letters. And only her letters.
At the first nine concert stops, she just knew that Miles Roberts looked right at her as he sang his songs. She knew all of his songs by heart, and sang them along with Miles Roberts with her whole heart and soul. Something inside her told her that that simply wasn't enough. Miles Roberts, being generally shy by nature, never stayed after the show to sign autographs, prefering the relative safety of his tour bus and his bandmates to the group of twenty or so people who waited at the back door of his concert venues desperately wanting an autograph. Miles Roberts liked to relax and sleep after shows. Jenna knew this by reading it on his website, but she always held out hope that she would meet him after the show. After nine venues, nine misses. Her need turned slowly to desperation. Her desperation morphed almost overnight into anger. It had been three days since the show in Philadelphia. Another long wait by the stage door by Jenna had turned into yet another meaningless sighting of the back of Miles Roberts' head as he jumped onto his tour bus. She knew that there would be a brief pause beetween the last two shows, so she decided to lag behind Miles Roberts' bus by an extra day.
After the Philly show, she drove south and stopped at a hotel in Northern Maryland to rest for the night. Her anger and sadness melded into one, Why hadn't Miles Roberts acknowledged her as she followed him around on tour? He just had to know that Jenna Quinn was his biggest fan, and yet he showed no sign of even knowing of her existence after each show ended. Desperate times now called for desperate measures, as Jenna saw it.
One night before the show, she treated herself to an early dinner alone at the local steak house. She asked for a table for one in the non-smoking section as far away from the bar in the middle of the floor as possible, which at this time of the day was easier to get than at the peak of dinner hour, when the line was out the door. She ordered buffalo wings for an appetizer, and a 12-ounce sirloin for her entree. She knew that she had all night, so she asked Dave the Waiter to take his time bringing the entree. Carefully, she ate her way through her appetizer and then the rest of her dinner. She took her time with the entree, stalling as much as she could. She enjoyed watching the blood run from the medium rare steak as she carefully sawed every small bite with her steak knife. After some time, Dave the waiter brought the check and she gave him her credit card while still eating her entree. Dave the waiter brought the check and credit card back, thanked her for letting him serve her and stepped away from the table. Jenna told him that she wanted some time to finish her entree in the restaurant, as she had no place to store leftovers while traveling on the road. That much was true. She signed the credit card slip after adding a generous gratuity for Dave. Then, while no one was looking, she carefully took the bulky steak knife, placed it in her handbag and nonchalantly left the steak house. No one followed her to her car as she got in and drove back to her hotel. Desperation made theft look easy.
She saw a drug store that was still open on her way back to her hotel and stopped in to buy some isopropyl alcohol, sterile gauze, medical tape and an 8X10 padded mailing envelope. The clerk didn't bat an eye at the purchase as she paid for the items and left. She now had everything that she needed as she got back into her car.
She walked through the lobby with everything she needed. The desk clerk barely noticed her passing through to the elevators up to her room on the third floor. She reached her room, unlocked her door and threw all of her things onto the bed. She reached into her handbag for the steak knife she had taken from the restaurant. She took it into the bathroom and washed it off. As the hot water ran over it, taking with it microscopic bits of sirloin down the drain, she went across the room to the desk, where she had placed her notebooks upon checking in. She grabbed her favorite pen and wrote another letter to Miles Roberts.
Dear Miles,
Tonight is the big night. Your final stop on the tour. I've followed you all the way from Vermont to our nation's capital. It has taken me a long time to realize that you are everything I've been looking for in my life. It doesn't make any sense for us to be apart for another moment.
I have been looking into places where we can get married. We can settle on a date when I see you when I see you after your final show, but I've been thinking that Dale and Fred would want to be there, along with my parents, so I was thinking about someplace special to you in Mission Viejo. We could just go back to your place for the honeymoon. You could play your songs to me after I bring you breakfast in bed.
I only have one problem. Since I've never worn jewelry, I have no idea what my ring size is. As tradition dictates that it is the groom who chooses the ring for his wife-to-be, I have enclosed by ring finger for you to size. If I had my choice, I think white gold would be my choice, but I trust your judgment.
I'll see you after the show, my love. Our future lies ahead of us like the vast open road in your song "Sunset Desert". Someday we'll see those mountains in the distance, so beautiful. Like our love, dear Miles.
All My Love,
Jenna
She took the piece of paper, folded it in half and placed it in the mailing envelope. With a magic marker she carried among her possessions, she wrote "ATTENTION: FOR MILES ROBERTS URGENT!!!!". She underlined the word "URGENT" with three thick lines.
Taking the steak knife, she returned to the bathroom. She unscrewed the cap to the rubbing alcohol, and began to tear 3-inch strips from the small metal roll of medical tape. She stuck them to the edge of the sink in a short line, numbering ten in all. She unpacked the gauze and placed it next to the tape. She washed her hands in the sink with the hotel soap and dried her hands with a white hand towel. She placed a washcloth next to the sink and placed her left hand on top of it. she poured some alcohol onto the base of her left ring finger, and followed that by sawing off her ring finger with the steak knife. In her mania, she felt no pain as blood poured from the wound. She placed her left elbow at the edge of the sink and knelt down, putting her now-altered hand above her head. She poured more alcohol into the wound and quickly covered it with as much gauze as could fit over the wound. she then proceeded to tape it all in place.
Feeling slightly dizzy, she took her severed finger and placed it in the envelope and sealed it. It wouldn't be long now before Miles Roberts would be with her forever.
The January wind continued to blow as people waited for the doors to open. Jenna was the ninth person in line. She waited to savor every vocal note and every piano arpeggio from the great Miles Roberts. In short order, the doors opened. Her ticket was in her right pocket. Her left hand was covered with a glove and hanging at her side. Inside the glove, the gauze was completely soaked with blood from her still-bleeding hand. She stepped inside the theatre and handed the ticket to the box office attendant. They searched her and found nothing.
One minute after she arrived, an announcement was heard over the loud speaker.
"Attention please.....attention please....will Jenna Quinn...Jenna Quinn...please report to the box office.....Jenna Quinn, please report to the box office. Thank you."
Her heart and head raced as she made her way back to the box office. Maybe this would be the night that she got a front row seat. Maybe she would be escorted back stage to meet Miles Roberts after the show. All of these thoughts raced through her head as she approached the box office. She hadn't noticed the two police officers waiting by the box office.
"I'm Jenna Quinn", she said with excitement.
"Why don't you come with us tonight, Jenna. We need to take you to get some help".
Before she knew what was happening, and despite her protestations, the police had removed the glove from her left hand. They delicately handcuffed her with her hands in front of her, taking all of their might to restrain her. She began to kick and scream as they led her outside to a waiting squad car. The other concert patrons watched wide-eyed, never learning exactly what happened in front of them.
"We better get her to a hospital for her hand, Dan", one cop said to another, as they placed her in the back of the squad car with force equal to her kicking and screaming. The siren wailed as they took Jenna away from Miles Roberts for the last time.