Friday, July 31, 2009

The Real Winner

I sat in my kitchen last night while Michael made dinner and watched a Smiths concert. It was Live in England taped in 1983. I was 8 years old then.

“Imagine being a senior in high school in Chugiak, Alaska,” I said to Michael while he boiled basmati and heated up saag paneer, “and the only celebrity crushes you’d ever had were Cary Grant and Morrissey.”
Michael turned around and blinked at me. “Cary Grant?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “When I was in junior high.”
He turned back to his pots and pans. “Weird,” he said, and continued to stir things.

While Morrissey gyrated on stage in front of flower-tossing fans, I wondered out loud how he managed to make his pompadour so successful. “Superglue or egg whites,” Michael speculated. Turns out, there’s a lot I don’t know about successful pompadours.

During “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” I reminisced about how I first discovered the Smiths. I was a junior in high school…or maybe a senior, I can’t really be sure. Anyway, my then-boyfriend and I were driving around in my parents’ gold Honda Accord on a summer night, on our way to pick up my friend Dave. When we arrived at his house, Dave emerged with a cassette tape in his hand. “You have to listen to this,” he said, as he crawled into the back seat. Dave was always giving me cassette tapes. He introduced me to They Might Be Giants. He gave me recordings of bands like Bad Religion and NOFX. Even though I could never really get into those bands, my musical tastes were molded in a deeply profound way by Dave’s cassette tapes, because they forced me away from church music, showtunes and top 40 radio hits from the 80s.

The cassette tape that day was the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead. Expecting more sloppy 4/4 time drumming and I IV V I chord progressions from some punk band with a clever name, I was shocked to my core when the title track played out of the car speakers. That is, after that “Take me back to dear old Blighty” pub chorus at the beginning. We drove around my tiny town, listening to that album. In fact, I wouldn’t take Dave home until the album was over, because once Dave was gone, so were the Smiths.
“I have to hear more,” I said to Dave, once I finally released him from my clutches. “Do you have anything else?”
“I have everything,” he said.
“Including new stuff?” Dave laughed. What can I say, I was oblivious. I had just assumed they were a magical new band that appeared from the ethers without my knowledge, and I was thrilled I was getting in on the ground floor.
“Um, no. They broke up in 1987.”

This news was nothing short of devastating to me. Broken up? In 1987?? How could this be? I had just heard them, and was deeply affected (which was easily done, since I was a 16 year old virgin who grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Alaska), and it turned out that they disintegrated five years earlier. It felt like I had found my soulmate and then held them while they died in my arms, all in one day.

So I became obsessed, as stupid teenagers are wont to do, and I remained obsessed for years, searching through record stores for discarded B side compilations (remember the days when we couldn’t just go to iTunes and download things? ) and trying to quell myself with Morrissey solo albums, some of which were solid while others, well, you know. Fans don’t like to discuss THOSE albums.

I was relating the above story to someone I knew about 10 years ago, gushing magnanimously over what a huge influence the Smiths were in my late-blooming formative musical years. “You mean to tell me,” the person said, “that you hadn’t heard of the Smiths until you were in HIGH SCHOOL?” This person not only looked shocked, but offended, like I committed the biggest personal effrontery aside from punching his mother in the face and stealing her wallet. “I’ve been a fan of the Smiths since waaaaay back,” he said, and then proudly proceeded to inform me that he discovered them right after the release of their first solo album, his chest puffed out as if he had been the one to first sign the Smiths.

And to this day, I wonder, why with the pride at discovering them before me? Do people get prizes for knowing who a band is before they make it big? I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard that start with, at the mere mention of a band’s name, “Oh man, I saw them in this tiny club in Portland back in 19-so-n-so, and it was awesome! Their instruments sounded horrible because they didn’t know how to tune them yet and there was constant feedback from the amps because the sound system sucked! It was great!” Well done! Congrats on becoming a fan while a band is still green and working out its kinks and still kind of sucking a little bit! All that says to me is that you have low standards when it comes to music.

Ultimately, who gives a flying fuck WHEN you discover a band is good? Isn’t enough that you’ve discovered a good band is, in fact, good? I mean, for God’s sake. If I was still stuck in the same musical rut I was in circa 1984, I’d be listening to my parents’ old recordings of the Oak Ridge Boys and Barry Manilow, whistling Rogers and Hammerstein tunes, singing “How Great Thou Art” in the shower and spinning my mother’s vinyl version of “We Are the World”. Who’s the real winner here in the game of musical one-upmanship? I think that would be none other than yours truly.

Just one more reason to hate pretty much everyone.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part V: Kingston, NY and Princeton, NJ

Please don’t be pissed at me for taking way too long to wrap up this tour blog. Turns out, working and being a mom is really starting to cut into my blogging time. Who knew? But frankly, I’m dying to put a button on this because now that I’ve got you hooked, I intend to occasionally write about subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with Stick Men, or prog rock, or even music at all. Don’t run away. I promise it won’t suck…much.

There are really only a few things I’d like to highlight about the last two stops on the Stick Men east coast tour. The penultimate show was right here in our own back yard at Keegan Ales in Kingston. When Stick Men played there in January, the bar was absolutely packed. So much so, in fact, that my friend sneaked me up to the balcony area right above the stage so I could take some video…which I promptly and accidentally deleted while simultaneously fumbling with my cocktail and trying to delete a picture I took of my own thumb. That was a great show.

Stick Men played even better when they came back to Keegan Ales in June, and sadly, only about 40 people were there to witness it. One could chalk this up to a number of reasons: They played at the Bearsville Theatre, which is only a few miles from Keegan Ales, the week before. The day of the Keegan show had also been incredibly rainy and shitty, alternating between torrential downpours and irritating spit/drool rain. But I suspect it had more to do with the dozen or so other, much crappier acts that were playing at other venues nearby. “Non-threatening classic rock” cover bands. Screamy suburban angry white kid bands. Dirty trustfund hippie folk drivel, featuring harmonica, during which smelly girls with dirty long skirts would dance that stupid arm-waving hippie dance and end up sleeping with the guitarist who wears a ski cap even in the summer time. People around here seem to really dig that type of music, the kind you hear at a county fair. Anything new and interesting tends to get ignored in favor of bands that have been playing the same songs in the same dive bars and local street festivals for the past 35 years. I suspect, however, that it’s like that in many places in the US. Music is something people want done to them. They don’t want to have to THINK about it. “It’s the weekend,” cries the bar crowd. “I’m drunk on $1 Miller Lites, and I want you to do music at me!”

A friend from work met me at Keegan Ales to see the show. She had never heard Stick Men before, but she had met Michael a few times, and I’ve talked about the kind of music he plays, and she seemed genuinely interested. Back in the 70s, she used to do catering for bands that passed through a local college town, and back in those days, it was everyone. She remembers the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, and she got to hang out backstage and see the shows for free. She said she had heard every type of music from every kind of musician, from rock to jazz to funk to classical to avant garde classical to jazz fusion to Latin. “I’ve heard everything,” she told me at Keegan Ales before Stick Men took the stage.

“I’ve never heard anything like this,” she said after the second or third song. She stayed for over two hours of a three hour show, mouth hanging open, peppering me with questions about the Chapman Stick and all those gadgets on Pat’s drumset. Eventually, the dirty girl hippy dancers started to drift in, probably from other shows. Personally, I love trying to watch audience members attempt to dance to Stick Men. The ever-changing time signatures and beats in variations of 5 and 9 and 15 and 23-and-three-quarters keep them spasming off the 1 while they frantically try to find it again. And just when they think they’ve got it sorted out, something else changes and they’re still doing what they were doing before. Nothing is more hysterical. Next time you’re watching a band play and the hippie dancers show up, grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show.

It was another great performance, if terribly under-attended, and more importantly, it took us approximately 15 minutes to get back home and into bed, which is always a refreshing change.

Princeton, New Jersey. I had never been there, but I knew there was some kind of big school there, though, like Yale or Harvard or something. Anyway, after what seemed like a month of rain, it was stunningly beautiful on Saturday, June 27th. We knew that the venue was at a park or garden, but we assumed there would be clearly marked signs, pointing us toward an amphitheatre. Instead, all we found when we got to the address of the venue was a gigantic parking lot and very rustic-looking restrooms. Turns out, in order to get to the amphitheatre, we had to drive along a wooded bike path, where bikers, walkers and nature lovers dove out of the way. I fondly reminisced about having to drive on the sidewalk in Buffalo the week before, and considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to finally take the Stratus off-roading once again.

The amphitheatre was adorable, a little bowl surrounded by trees and opposite a pond filled with turtles, sunning themselves languidly on bales of hay on the shore. While Stick Men sound checked, I walked the path around the park, and eventually discovered a little footbridge that led to a tiny water fall and bench, nestled in the shade. I lamented that fact that I hadn’t known that this is where they were going to be playing, because Michael and I could have brought our daughters with us to play.

I stayed at that little peaceful spot for quite a while, testing the settings on my camera, staying cool and not bursting into flames in the sun. But more importantly, I stayed in that little spot for quite a while because of the appearance of another Super Fan. I’ve met one at nearly every show (I sense a recap!!). Here are some of my favorites:

1) Syracuse: Super fan who complimented me on being Michael’s girlfriend.
2) Buffalo: Super fan who rhythmlessly, drunkenly danced at the lip of the stage the whole night.
3) Natick: Super fan (remember John 3:16?) who sat in the front row right next to me and occasionally played drums on my leg.

But this guy in Princeton was a shining, singular example of a hardcore, well-intended and socially-awkward prog rock Super Fan. Perhaps the King of the Super Fans, in his own small universe. This dude did everything a true Super Fan would do:

1) He showed up to the venue hours before the show was to start, just to witness the sound check.
2) He sat right in the front during sound check the whole time.
3) He never left the amphitheatre during sound check, seemingly not once to pee or eat or anything, and believe me, I was watching.
4) He went up to the stage to talk to the band during the sound check every few mintues or so.
5) When the band was not on stage during sound check, he followed members of the band around to ask them questions and offer helpful tips.
6) He brought friends.

It might be ill-advised for me to say this, but it’s my blog so I’m going to. Potential Super Fans of the world, please keep this question in mind: How would you like it if a stranger showed up to your job, followed you around, talked about how good he is at his own job, offered you helpful tips on how to do your job better and asked you to give him a lesson on how to use the copy machine? And for hours on end? How long would it take you to lose your shit? I’m simply asking you to pose this question to yourself every now and again, when you’re thinking about driving 6 hours to stalk your favorite band during their sound check.

After having lunch in town, we headed back to the venue for the show. The amphitheatre is a bit of a hike from the parking lot, and more importantly, it’s a bit of a hike from the bathrooms. This proved rather unfortunate as I was suffering from some, ahem, gastro-intestinal discomfort. After the fourth frantic walk-run back to the bathrooms, I started to seriously consider staying in the parking lot for the show. But I remembered that it would soon be dark, and it was a park, after all, filled with trees, and I did grow up in Alaska and went camping in some pretty remote places, so I decided to take my chances.

I’m glad I did. There were some great moments during the show, including Michael popping a string right at the end of “Red” and witnessing what Tony referred to as a record-breaking string replacement. You can watch it all unfold on youtube, if you feel inclined. As night enveloped the amphitheatre, the fire flies came out and bobbed along in front of the stage, a much nicer thing to watch than hippie dancers or flailing, air-drumming Super Fans.

The tour was fun, and it ended perfectly at a great venue in front of a great crowd, but ultimately, I was ready to be finished. Our apartment was starting to look like a flop house. We had given up on laundry and were living out of our luggage, even on days when we were home. We hadn’t seen the girls in too long. Hell, we hadn’t even really seen each other in too long, and sitting in a car, racing toward a destination and then racing back, half asleep and bleary-eyed in the middle of the night, does not count as quality time with your significant other. We were beat and tired of driving. Our dishes were piling up, and the bedroom…I’m still not ready to discuss the state of the bedroom. And I was tired of dragging ass into work every day, falling asleep in meetings and letting hundreds of messages go ignored in my inbox. I am a creature of habit. I find my routine comforting. Being home, just being home, with my daughter and Michael and the fishies, is one of those simple joys that taste so much better after a long day at work, or a week in the car.

Three weeks after the final show in New Jersey, I’m starting to feel normal again. Except that I still haven’t cleaned out my car from the tour. You can keep your autographed CDs. I’ve got half-empty to-go cups from every rest stop from Buffalo, NY to Princeton, NJ. And maybe if you ask nicely, I'll have Michael sign one for you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Stick Men Tour, Part IV: Natick, MA

I was in a Mood on the day of the Natick, MA show. Overtired, overwrought and over-worked. “You’re acting really impersonal,” Michael told me on the three hour drive, “which is pretty much the complete antithesis of how you usually are.” He was right. I’m pretty nice most of the time, and if I’m snippy or cranky or just downright bitchy, it’s because I’m having a blood sugar crash, I had a bad day at work or I’m sleep deprived. Or I’m hungover. I’m fairly certain I was all of the above on that day, at least until Michael popped one of our karaoke CDs into the car stereo. His Michael McDonald imitation never ceases to cheer me*. The goofy-ass VERY white dance moves helped a lot, too, but more on car karaoke later.

We found out when we stopped at a rest area to grab snacks about halfway to Natick that Farrah Fawcett had died. Not that it was a huge surprise. Farrah’s been about 75 pounds soaking wet for a while now, and mentally, I think she checked out about 5 years ago. And what a kick in the balls for her. Ryan finally proposes after 30 years of on-again-off-again, and she bites it, what, 48 hours later? It just confirmed my long-held belief that deathbed proposals DO NOT COUNT. Take heed, gentlemen, if you’re thinking about holding out.

Natick is cute. It takes about 3 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The venue, The Center for Arts (TCAN), is not at all what I expected. It’s a small theatre with concrete floors and brick walls, meaning that sound would bounce around all over the place, and oh, did I mention that apparently, Stick Men are loud? I don’t know if that’s come up yet in this blog. Anyway, it looked like it was more suited for chamber music or children’s theatre workshops than noisy prog rock. But that’s the nice thing about the human body. It’s all-natural baffling, so if the venue was to fill to its 290 maximum occupancy, all those soft dudes with long hair would soak up that extraneous noise.

While downstairs in the dressing room, I took advantage of WiFi to surf a little. “Hm,” I thought, as I looked at “Michael Jackson was taken to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. Didn’t see that one coming.” A few minutes later, the statuses (statii??) of my friends on Facebook started to say things like, “RIP Michael Jackson,” and “OMG, Jacko died!!!” That’s when I started to suspect something was up. Pat was down in the dressing room with me, and he immediately jumped onto the Drudge Report (don’t even get me started on fucking Drudge, but that’s another blog), which was reporting that according to Hollywood anal-probe, Michael Jackson was, indeed, dead.

Maybe I was supposed to start rending my garments and wailing to the heavens, but honestly, people, I don’t get all choked up over celebs dying anymore. I don’t know them. They’re not my friends. I’ll save my righteous tears for genocide and wholesale inhumane behavior, but I’m not about to start crying over dead famous people. Michael Jackson did not have a huge impact on my life. Yes, I begged my mom to buy me the Thriller album when I was 8 years old. Yes, I enjoyed Off the Wall. Yes, I thought he was a kook and a sad cautionary tale of what can go wrong if your dad is an abusive prick who pushed you into stardom and early adulthood. But Michael didn’t write his own music. Quincy Jones wrote all the good stuff.

But enough about Jacko, except to say that as I was walking down to the corner store during soundcheck to pick up some dirty, sinful cigarettes, some teenager stopped me on the sidewalk and said, “Hey, did you hear that Michael Jackson died?”
I replied, “Yeah, Farrah Fawcett, too.”
“Who’s that?”
I think I laughed all the way back to the venue.

The Natick show sold out. The audience was great, especially the superfan I like to call John 3:16 in the front row. John 3:16 was nice enough to let me sit next to him when I lost my unassigned seat after intermission (there was an actual intermission!!!!), but his constant attempts at banter with Tony, Michael and Pat while they were onstage, not to mention his spastic, personal-space-invading dance moves, made me wonder if I should have just stood in the back. Regardless, it was another outstanding show, and Michael’s and my friend Steph and her boyfriend drove a rental car from Boston to see it, which was a really cool thing for them to do.

Tony, Pat and Robert Frazza, the sound engineer, stayed overnight in Natick. Michael and I were not so lucky. Once again, I had to be back at work the next day, so we schlepped it to NY in the middle of a dark and stormy night, and got stuck in road construction in the process. Thankfully, we still had the Smiths karaoke CDs. Both of us have an inordinate and probably disturbing affection for the Smiths, and when we got our hands on some Smiths and Morrissey karaoke disks last year, we’ve been wearing them out on our machine at home, drunkenly warbling our way through “Shoplifters” and “Suedehead” a hundred billion times. That CD kept us awake during those crucial moments on I-90 where there’s nothing, no one, nothing around for miles, as Morrissey would say in “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, proving that no matter where you are, or what you’re doing, or how long it’s been since they broke up, the Smiths will not only save your life, but they’ll live forever. Unlike Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Sorry. Too soon?

*Please do not ask Michael to do his Michael McDonald imitation for you. That shit’s all mine, yo!