Category Archives: music writing

sporadic

Sorry, everyone, to not really keep up this blog. I’m trying to finish up my book about Vachel Lindsay and Sara Teasdale, doing the big push, and it’s really chewing up my time. And whenever I stop to write about music, I just will keep going on about that rather than finishing my book. So–hiatus, for awhile.

Or I might post some songs on here now and again. If I can control how much I write about them. We’ll see.

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Don’t Worry About the Government

One of my favorite bands has long been The Talking Heads, the great late 70’s/early 80’s punk-new wave group fronted by the ever erudite David Byrne. I never tire of them, not after all these years of semi-constant rotation. I could blither on about the musical reasons that this is so, and then engage in arguments over “who is better? The Talking Heads, The Clash, The Ramones, or Blondie”? But I never have much steam for these debates. I still obsess over the Talking Heads because of the odd abstractions of the lyrics, the driving rhythm, and the jangling guitar, and something incongruous about all of them put together. (David Byrne solo work doesn’t interest me nearly as much, so it isn’t just that I think the lyrics intellectually…deep.) The Talking Heads are so cheerfully abstract.

I have a long string of favorite Heads songs, but the one that sticks with me in a particularly personal way is Don’t Worry About the Government from their first album, Talking Heads ’77. (Man, I’ve always wanted to steal that title for something. Maybe someday I will.) You don’t need to have heard this song to follow my story here, but if you haven’t heard it, don’t you think you should? (Sadly, I guess we’re no longer allowed to post music mp3s here, so I can’t help you out with this one. I’m supplied an okay video of the song that’s on youtube instead.)

I see the clouds that move across the sky/I see the wind that moves the clouds away/It moves the clouds over by the building/I pick the building that I want to live in


This is a happy, weirdly and eerily happy, song about working at a bureaucratic desk job. And this is something I know about. It is a song that is not about laughing at the guy who loves his stapler. This is not a song about destroying the boredom from within or without. This is a song about — working —working–. And—living at your desk. And showing off your office to your friends. And being safe.

I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods/I see the pinecones that fall by the highway/That’s the highway that goes to the building/I pick the building that I want to live in/It’s over there, it’s over there—

There’s debate out there about whether this is an ironic song or one that is straightforward as can be. To me the song is poignantly real. And sad. And the only people who see it as irony are the ones who have never sat for years behind a desk. Or have not had friends and family who have sat for years behind a desk.

Springfield, Illinois, where I lived for a long time, has the country’s second largest bureaucracy—second only to, you know, the feds. It is an especially corrupt bureaucracy, which honestly just made it sort of fun. The level of evil dealing was really quite exciting and the gossip surrounding it all, nice and juicy, and very often sexual. I, and pretty much everyone else I knew, worked for the government (or people who received direct funding from the gummit). That was what there was to do there. And if you didn’t work there, you kinda figured you should, or that you would eventually, because the State paid better than nearly anyplace else. And if you went to the right fundraisers, and paid the right dues, you’d keep your job for a long time—possibly even through the next change in administration.

My building has every convenience/It’s gonna make life easy for me/It’s gonna be easy to get things done/I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,/take the highway, park and come up and see me/I’ll be working, working but if you come visit/I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

When this song came out, I had friends, of course, with government jobs, some more ingrained in the bureaucracy than others. In 1978, I was a student and got by through a string of part-time jobs pieced together to help me avoid getting a “real job.” I swore then that I would never work for the State, because, well—I knew I couldn’t do it. I was too ancy, too easily bored and too rude. Growing up around Springfield, it seemed to me like the beginning of the end—a trap. My mom at that time had just started the State job that she would have until the end of her life. She loved her job—at least it wasn’t housework. The people I knew with State jobs all pretty much liked their jobs—or at least they rarely hated them. I came to understand why later.

When the song “Don’t Worry About the Government” first came out in ’77, I thought it really was a kind of joke. Or, well, I wasn’t sure. Admittedly, a lot of Talking Heads songs were about work, whether it be artistic work or training to be a psychokiller or whatever. I had worked my way through college—I never once just “went to school”—but I hadn’t yet made that distinction between work (done for pay) and Work (done for love). For the Talking Heads, work was about both love and commitment.

As I got older, the lyrics to these Talking Heads work songs kept coming back to me. They’d spring into my head at inopportune moments. When I was working, mostly. The songs had very chimey refrains, which honestly was a bit disturbing when one was trying to type a long dull document, or file, or proofread. You could practically whistle along with those Talking Heads refrains. “I’ll be working, working, but if you come visit I’ll put down what I’m doing….” Yikes. Especially since I did not really want to put my work aside for my loved ones. Along with the lyrics would come things that friends had said to me about these songs.

“I love that song!” said one friend. “I know so many people like this. They really say things like that! Our office is really a kind of…family.”

I found that hard to believe, at first. But then I worked in a couple of these pseudo-family offices. I stayed in one for nearly ten years. We had potlucks and secret Santas, and when women (they were all women) came back from trips, they would bring little presents like pencil erasers that looked like pigs. I once had someone in the office give me a button that said “Almost Famous” (before the movie made that cool), which honestly just pissed me off. We had pens that had little airplanes embedded inside and we had pieces of seashells. We loved each other the way we would love people in our family that we would half-hate. We would perch on the desks and share stories and would sadly shake our fists at injustice. When newcomers came into the office, they were given intense loyalty screenings, and they nearly all failed. Since it was an all woman office and we dealt with the bureaucratic side of social services, we may all have bonded particularly intensely out of sheer fear. We never knew when some crazy guy whose wife was hiding in a domestic violence shelter would come and get us all. And when you read about rape, beating, and killing day in and day out, well—the world looks like a pretty scary place. I mean, it was not an entirely paranoid fear.

Nearly all the places I worked—libraries, universities, hospitals, and, yes, our little office—had an element of this “hating outsiders” fear. When pressed into service (for cash), we bond with our surroundings and we bond, for good or ill, with the people around us. And we bond, too, with our buildings. The buildings themselves represent what we need. And it is safer in an office with all of its many rules (which could not be broken unless the job was to be lost) than it was in that flux outside. But being in the office too much made the outside seem more and more overwhelming, incomprehensible. It became harder and harder to leave.

Don’t you worry ’bout me/I wouldn’t worry about me/Don’t you worry ’bout me/Don’t you worry ’bout me

David Byrne’s voice in this song is so plaintive and so…sweet, in a way. The song honestly has always made me worried about this man in his little office. I imagine him looking, well, just like David Byrne if David Byrne worked in an office. There are a lot of sweet natured people working in their buildings. They usually don’t rise very far because if you are too nice, you’re going to be run over by the competitive ones. But there are always these quiet ones who just sit at their desks and work. I think they are worth worrying over, mainly because no one will notice them enough to worry.

I see the states, across this big nation/I see the laws made in Washington, D.C./I think of the ones I consider my favorites/I think of the people that are working for me

I absolutely love this passage. This is how you know this is a government job. People who work at government jobs really do have their favorite laws. I know I had mine. And my mom, who did precisely this kind of rules-logging, definitely had hers. The legislation, the legal-ese, becomes oddly consoling in its blandness. Even the most morally threatening law is written in this kind of whitewashed language, and the language means, see? you’re safe. see? how innocuous. see? how boring. don’t think about that. We are benevolent. We are good. We have your interests at heart. And we are only words, and can be changed. If you work within our system.

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones/They work so hard and they try to be strong/I’m a lucky guy to live in my building/They all need buildings to help them along—
it’s over there, it’s over there

In a big messy corrupt bureaucracy the work filters down through so many people. Our little office received government funding, but all we could do was to lobby to get more of it so that the good cause would get some of that stinking green slop. As the work sifts through levels, it becomes so bland that one’s little piece means virtually nothing. What is left at this point of powerlessness are the attachments made with the people in the office. You do come to know these people that you don’t really know at all. You do come to really care for the people you work with. Whether you adore them, hate them, disrespect them, admire them, pity them, fear them, you really are forced to care. You hear the most personal things about people, things that I can’t repeat, that are truly scandalous. I heard of these things from people who I barely knew, from people of all ages and all backgrounds. Within a month of a new job, I’d hear confessions of affairs, of abortions and suicidal brothers, of seductions of the young or neglect of the old, and eventually I would usually get invited to toke up on the roof. I thought every time that this person might always be my friend. I even occasionally thought my enemies would be my friends. But I’ve found that once a job is left, the people are nearly always left behind, too. Maybe Christmas cards will be exchanged for awhile, or maybe not, but I’ve found these friendships formed at jobs to be nearly all time-limited. I don’t even remember everyone’s names, though of course I remember the faces of everyone I ever worked with, whether I liked them or not. Once we left the building, there was no point of re-entry. I don’t know what became of most of them. A lot of them are probably even dead by now. Isn’t that spooky?
The man in the song probably knows this. That’s why he’ll never leave his job. He’ll know what happens, and he won’t care about the ones who leave. He likes it, and he’s lucky. Where’s the irony in that?

My building has every convenience/It’s gonna make life easy for me/It’s gonna be easy to get things done/I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building/Take the highway, park and come up and see me/I’ll be working, working but if you come visit/I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

Don’t worry ’bout me/I wouldn’t worry about me/Don’t you worry ’bout me/Don’t you worry ’bout ME……….

p.s. Here is another favorite Talking Heads’ song of mine, “Citiesfrom Fear of Music.

(Lyrics by David Byrne. Index Music, WB Music Corp., publishers.)

Rocky Mountain High

I’m not saying I’m a John Denver fan. Really. I’m not. When I hear that nasal whine, I really want to duck and cover. Sort of. Look, I live in Denver now. He’s our native son, the naive train that smacks into the tree; he crops up in the most peculiar places. A hip coffee shop, a road sign, the park in Aspen. John Denver’s mom died today, I read in the Denver paper—actually, John Deutschendorf’s mother died—and it turned out she’d gone to a nearby Presbyterian church and of course did all the things that nice middle class women do in Denver. The paper said she was “feisty,” right in the headline. She liked to drive 90 miles an hour. She liked pecan rolls and tacos. She lived in Aurora, a Southern suburb gone a bit to seed. I imagine I ran into her at Whole Foods, for instance, or sat with her while entertaining a guest at India’s Pearl. This got me to thinking about what I really felt about John Denver—trying not to care about what others might think of my opinions.

Hard to do. There are always those performers we hear at a certain young age and love a little, only to find later, and with more musical and urban knowledge, that they are sappy schmoes. We all have these people tucked in the dark pockets in our hearts. I know, Post-Modern Professor, that at your deathbed you will utter…”Barry…Barry Manilow….croon Mandy, one more timmmmeeeeee.” Your final words. Scary, isn’t it. I have quite a few of such people in my secret past, and some of them actually are good and some of them are worth artistic justification. I’m not going to do that here. I’m talking here about pure sentimentality, about meaning and identification that comes long before rational judgment. Back before you have that real basis of comparison.

I first heard John Denver back in the 1970’s, when he had a string of big sappy hits. (Actually, I heard his song first, we all did, sung instead by Peter, Paul and Mary: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Come on, you’ve heard it: “All my bags are packed I’m ready to go/I’m standing here outside your door”….moving on to that kind of lame chorus: “ I’m leaving on a jet plane/ don’t know when I’ll be back again/oh babe, I hate to go..oh….” Maybe it’s me, but I still hate the way that chorus trails off, like a car with a radiator leak coming to a full stop and at all dramatically.) I really hated some of his hits, even then—they were played to death on the radio, which, guess what, was my only access to music at that time. You heard what you heard. You loved, shrugged, and hated, but as the radio is a stream, there was no ability to cut off that stream of song other than to turn off the machine. There were no one thousand channel options. There were maybe three if the reception was clear, and the other two were a country station and a talk radio channel playing a lot of Paul Harvey and Swap Shop. On a crystal day, we might pick up WGN in Chicago or KXOK in St. Louis, both to be greatly desired, but only found if the radio was just so, cocked to the window like a half deaf dog. So across a few summers, it was John Denver, crossing over on both rock and country. This song he did that finally turned me against him forever: “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Pure sugar shtick and not good, either—and worse, it was so damned clear that the guy had never lived in the country, him with his “old fiddle” and his farm that was “kinda laid back.” Farms are not laid back, fella. Farms are places where people work their asses off. If he had lived where I lived, he’d be slipping in more negatives, like the real country singers did. But John Denver caught me on this other damned country song. I loved this song then, and when I hear it now, I don’t love it, but this little hinge kind of swings open and I go, “Goddamn it.” This song is “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s a paean to West Virginia, and the middle section is really pretty—”I hear her voice in the morning hours she calls me/ the radio reminds me of my home far away/and riding down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday/yester-day-yay”—and I didn’t have to look up those lyrics. I know them all. I learned to play them on the piano, in fact, and I could probably sit at the piano and play that song even now. The song is a homesick song, and for John Denver, it’s pretty restrained. I think he really did want be taken home by country roads to the place he belonged, West Virginia. Except apparently as a kid John Deutschendorf belonged nowhere. He was a military kid, bouncing from Roswell, New Mexico, to Tucson, to Montgomery Alabama to, sadly, Fort Worth, where he ran away with his Gibson guitar while still in high school. He called himself Denver because, well, he loved Denver best, and look at his real name. He loved the mythical West Virginia best until he got stoned on a mountaintop in the 27th year, on the road to a place he’d never been before—when he got his Rocky Mountain high.

I know what that Muppet-looking mop-head meant. (An aside: John Denver looks like a stuffed toy with a wide mouth and big 70s glasses. I recommend the movie he did with George Burns, “Oh, God,” to get the full impression is how almost cute and downright ugly John Denver nee Dusseldorf actually could be. Or watch The Muppet Show. There was a reason he was regular.) I was homesick for country roads even when I lived on them (hell, I wanted John Denver’s, not mine; his had more trees and less Illinois corn). And when I moved to Colorado I caught the high, even though I don’t walk down to the neighborhood medical marijuana shops and purchase the wares. The mountains trump all. Coloradans love John Denver’s tribute to the mountains; “Rocky Mountain High” is officially our state song, and we like to think he is high on life as well as the ever-present weed because when you’re up there, you can see nearly everything. John Denver is not faking his love in this song and when you hear it slipping into some song mix in some mountain town, you know it. Even if you don’t really like the song, like me, you can’t help but feel in that sub-logic part of your mind that he nailed it. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year/ on the road to a place he’d never been before/ he left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again, you might say he’d found a key to every door” (okay, say what you will, but that last long line is really cool, even sung in Denver’s piercing tenor—because he nailed the conversational rhythm, he’s getting ready to tell us a story over, say, a sub sandwich in that dive)….And then there’s the chorus, heard ad nauseum all over Colorado: “And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high/ I’ve seen it rain and fire in the sky/ Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high-yi-yi” (dogs wail at this final note)…Rocky Mountain High, Coloradohhhhhhh.” Enough? Okay. The thing is, it does rain and fire in the sky. When you’re in the mountains you are close to the sky. You can kiss the sky, of course, although it’s likely that the sky will smack you in the mouth then and knock you down the mountain. The sky in the mountains is so close that you are subject to electrocution during a sudden storm, knocked over by wind, burned by a sun that is shockingly close to you (I never get used to that). It is not benevolent but something odd happens to humans there. In packs, we get kinda mellow. We feel really good. We are kind and we walk big dogs, and even mountain bikers say hello on the way down. Strangers tell you what’s around the next turn. We are really high.

Poor John Denver was killed flying a small plane. I always respected that. Of course, it’s the fall that gets you, but that’s not the point. It’s how high you got. Everyone in Colorado, even the conservative ones, know that John Dusseldorf went into the clouds. We don’t really care if he was any good or not. That’s not the point.

on the mall at the Democratic National Convention: “come on out and buy some product!”IHa

Having no special tickets to get me into the “special musical events” for the “special” people at the Democratic Convention (the conventioneers and those who are connected to them and those who donated lots of money or those who are just paying close attention to the parties), I didn’t see Sheryl Crow or Stevie Wonder or the Drive-By Truckers playing for the Montana party or any of the other people who performed in the exclusive events.  But I didn’t really want to…much.  I was even too tired to try for the Rage Against the Machine tickets, in part because I think the band is imitative and strident and NOT FUNNY (the best of the older punkers had a sense of humor, remember?).  But I kind of wish I had, since there was a big protest afterwards, and it would have been fun to see that.  But by then I had already spent hours walking around the 16th Street Mall, a ten block downtown area that was packed with people throughout the convention. (Oh, it seems so empty and lonely now.)  I went to hang out, to watch, to just sit and listen.  I heard some music in the protester’s park and I heard some musical snippets of conversation.  I’ll try to give you a sense of what it was really like at the convention, from someone who was not Important:

On the way to the mall, walking through Denver’s strip of parking lots and office buildings–one lot attendant to another: “The guy got a replacement eyeball and he said he never wanted to  see the person it was  coming from.  He said it just kept lookin at him.”

This set the tone.

The mall is crammed with people.  Not the kinds you’d necessarily imagine.  Some were delegates, easy enough to spot in their suits and conspicuous nametags and their happy grins.  Some were tourists, all ages (especially teenagers) from all over the city, all ethnic types, all shapes, all weaving through and seeming to have a good time.  It is very carnivalesque; a lot of people are drinking from cups, people drinking liquor in the sidewalk cafes, people laughing.  While there is an armed brigade of police in riot gear on every corner, in the middle of every street, literally everywhere, it doesn’t diminish the generally gleeful mood.  People are really happy about the Obama thing.  (Sure the press is full of accounts of disgruntled Hillary people, but they weren’t very obvious about it.  I saw very few Hillary signs, saw very few people looking angry.  Maybe the press assumes that all middle aged women are Hillary supporters?–because there were many middle aged women around, particularly among the delegates, all of them exceedingly well groomed.)  There was a guy on stilts and an Uncle Sam outfit carrying his signs, and a random T-shirt booth trying to pass off the Hillary gear, but other than that….It felt all about unity, man.  Progression, all that good stuff.  The glee was apparent at night when people would stumble out of the clubs, trying to figure out how to find a taxi in North Denver.  It actually did have a feeling of hope.  

Though hope was not particularly apparent in the music that I heard that day.  The street musicians were singing folky songs, but nothing that would offend–nothing that you wouldn’t hear from any standard street musician in any given city.  Like the pan flute–oh, yes, we had one.  And a guy with a clown nose playing Dylan on a harmonica.  You couldn’t really hear the 5 piece doo wop group who sat against a downtown wall that entire day, collecting money for independent musicians (according to their sign).  They were mostly drowned out by the anti-abortion protesters not far from them, who were rather vocal in their disapproval of the Democratic party.  They were the most obnoxious and obtrusive of all the protesters I saw on the street during the convention.  They positioned themselves at an intersection and proceeded to block the sidewalk so that it was nearly impossible to get around them, and thus were forced to actually listen to them.   Another vocal protester was the nutjub who walked down the street chanting “Democrats are Crybabies!!”  He was engaged in vociferous debate with a tidy young man until a police officer strode over to add his views on the matter.  Also drowned out were the clipclops of the horses ridden by some of the officers, who mostly hang out in groups and talked about their horses.  The token German Shepherd was also led around by riot police looking for drugs? bombs?  Once the dog started fiercely barking, sounding like he was tearing off someone’s leg; when I walked past, the officer told another, “I love this dog’s bark, it sounds so ferocious.”  And the dog was just hanging out, not looking particularly threatening, but looking rather German nevertheless.  Occasonally, too, you’d hear the rev of a group of cops racing their motorcycles down the center of the mall (causing consternation among the crowd, who scrambled to grab their children).  Also bullhorns blasting out views of various varieties, most of them conservative, actually.  

“This place has a bad vibe, man,” I heard one teenager say.  

But I did spent quite a lot of time at the center of radical activity, the Civic Center park.  This was where the hippies, the protesters, the rowdy professorial types, the media, the curious set up shop.  Ther e were booths promoting the legalization of pot, booths against the war (of course), booths for animal rights (veganism, anyone), booths selling tshirts and buttons and such of course–maybe 12, 20 booths in all, scattered around the periphery of the park.  There was a bus for Rock the Vote (which never garnered a bit of attention the whole time I was there).  It all felt very sixties and early seventies, as in the days when I went to college at the hippie school (Sangamon State in Illinois) and there would be protests emanating from some of the residents of the nearly communes and from radical faculty and such.  People even dressed the same, had the same beards, but they were young, and so that was strange, that was quite timewarpish.  You’d think that they’d have some new styles, something other than the long hair and braids and peasant skirts, but maybe it’s just that “back to the earth” thing.  I liked the face paint.  Anyway, they were all very quiet, these people, sitting in their little roped off areas playing guitars and singing folk songs and (maybe?) getting high (though with the police presence, maybe not).  They looked a little bored, a little disappointed, because really,  not a lot of protesting was happening, and there weren’t that many of them.  It felt a little lonely somehow.

So I saw a band there.  I’d tell you their name, but I don’t know it, because I didn’t get there at the beginning of the set and they weren’t exactly handing out programs.  These were the free concerts, “for the people,” and they performed in this well area where the acoustics aren’t too bad.  The band was, I believe, a Puerto Rican-American hip hop band from Chicago.  Five or so people who played instruments and sang along with their rapping. And they were pretty good.  They added some flavor, and while I thought I was just observing, I actually got into them.  The listening crowd was pretty sparse–maybe 50 people up front paying close attention and a lot of scattered observers–and so their chants about liberation and the murdering pigs kind of fell flat.  The murdering pigs, by the way, were there, but they stayed far back from the action, hanging out on their bicycles and talking about their lives.  They seemed to be pretty amused by the whole thing, and didn’t rise to the bait.  “You have to be willing to DIE for your beliefs!”  Right.  And it’s true.  Unfortunately, they were being ignored by the authorities at the time, even though I never shook that sense that we were all being watched.  Because we were, and having our pictures taken, too.  I walked around the park area while they were playing, taking in the scene, and I’m posting a few pictures of what I observed there.  Despite my own cynicism, I was taken in by the feel of the thing; it felt important that it be there and people be allowed to say what they felt.  Maybe it was that old sixties laid back feel of optimism and community that I was trying to find.  They were lucky to find it so simple.

The media did outnumber everyone else there.  And I have to say, I found that exciting.  The documentary crews (announced by their shirts, which said Documentary Crew).  The CNN, MsNBC, Associated Press, the unidentified, it was interesting to watch the interplay between them and the people being observed.  It added to the sense of it all being staged, right down to the peace & love (although I know that the kids were sincere).  It felt like something I was watching from a distance.

I left when a performance poet, a really bad one, came on–preceeded by an announcer who said:

“Come to the liberation source!”  (And just where was that again?)

“Art is not free!”  Which was a lead in to:  “Come on out and buy some product!”

Hmm.  You mean over at that Free Trade Booth?

It’s hot as hell and my feet hurt.  It’s starting to get dark and the police are looking ancy; they start challenging some of the people working in a booth; someone, I hear, gets robbed.  Everyone is drooping.  On the way back, a man carrying a Hillary sign is laughed at uproariously by a man in shades sitting in a sidewalk cafe–Hillary guy starts yelling “Chill out!  Chill out, man!”  And the guy laughs louder and louder as the crowd looks at the Hillary guy runs away.  

Even so, it is mostly quiet.  “Freedom ain’t no joke, ya’ll” were the last words I heard from the performance poet.  Mexican workers begin carrying in chairs from the middle of the mall.  The shops begin to close.  The mall empties as people head to the speeches, to the parties, to the food.  I think I even saw Angelina Jolie throwing out her lemonade.

come on, I know white people have rhythm!: music at the Democratic National Convention

Denver, where I live, is swarming with people here for the Democratic Convention.  Fifty thousand or so, say the papers.  It’s like a big party out there, even the protesters and cops smiling until they got into the pepper spray.  Booths selling Obama dolls (made to look suspiciously nappy-headed) and Arbonne Cosmetics and sno-cones and of course lots of T-shirts, buttons, stickers, banners. It’s like going to the State Fair without the cows and where everyone is pretty much like you.  White is mostly the color of the day here (from skin to t-shirts), and the attire ranges anywhere from suits and pantsuits (for Hillary supporters) to the kind of casual almost boho attire that relatively hip older people like me like to don.  Once in awhile I passed someone dressed as a donkey.  Once I passed a girl in a pink Playboy Club type outfit riding a bicycle.  Secret Service people are everywhere, although they try to come up with disguises sometimes (you can see it in their eyes–steely, just like in the movies–and they usually don’t move from position).  I saw one skinny guy in full jogger attire, carrying a huge jar of protein mix, and could never decide if he was real or undercover.  With the crowd, though, there was not much jogging to be had.  The real attention grabbers were  the riot police driving down our usually quiet Denver streets in tanks.  They are everywhere: huddling in the shade, when they can find some, or perched on the tanks, or just leaning against buildings.  A lot of them smile at you, like they’re in the spirit of the whole thing themselves.  Hey, it’s my job, don’t worry.  But they have weapons.  They have riot helmets.  As a kid, I was obsessed with Kent State.  Obsessed with, curious about the Sixties, would stare at the photos of the hippies and the soldiers for hours, the kids coming up the hill, the kids laying face down on the ground.  I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but I couldn’t shake it out of my mind.  Even though the bystanders,

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

the tourists, the media, far outnumbered the 100 or so protesters who we soon glimpsed, I was paranoid.  Things just happen–as they did last night, when a group surrounded by officers and pepper sprayed.  They’re saying it’s going to be worse as the convention goes on.  But you know, I’m going to go watch it all this afternoon anyway.  There’s an excitement to that kind of fear.  Everyone is enjoying it, this party, just as people in Denver always seem to enjoy themselves.  Anyway, it’s Obama, everyone is happy.

 

Surreal.  I know this has nothing to do with music yet.  So let’s throw some in.  Most of the music events are by special invitation.  No surprise.  Not being any kind of official press, I didn’t even try to get a pass.  Anyway, there’s nobody here I’d really want to see, to tell you truth.  But I do walk down the packed streets and I did go to a concert last night at Red Rocks.  Let me tell you quickly about the Red Rocks affair, which, in the terminology of the young, COMPLETELY SUCKED.

It was sadly disorganized.  Or, well, it was organized, as in it was done in proper order and timing.  But the music selections didn’t work for the crowd and the thing wasn’t well advertised.  Being at Red Rocks, an enormous outdoor mountain ampitheatre, when no one is there is just depressing.  The sound bounces around the rocks and makes for some kind of sucking void of guitar distortion.  In brief, a sad spare  crowd, average age about 50, exceedingly white, are greeted with a folk singer (Jill Sobule, who was sweet and entertaining), a boring DJ doing dance mixes of 60s and 70s song, a young rap singer named Murs (who tried so hard to no response that I felt sorry for him)…by the time Apples in Stereo came out, the crowd was in a state of depression, no doubt thinking that if they were actually important Democrats they’d be at the convention itself watching Michelle Obama’s speech.  Poor Apples in Stereo were predictably poppy and sunny and silly to the point of being oppressively whimsical, but good, you know, and fun, and would have been fun to see in a bar.  “We LOVE Obama!” they’d occasionally trot out, to crowd cheers, but they made their love sound a little like mushy love, like they wanted to ask him out on a chaste date, complete with roses and a meaningful hand touch at the door.  Sigh.

The best song of the evening: Jill Sobule and her mother singing Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Here.”  Seriously.  And Mom could sing.  Most painful note by rapper Murs-the-Seventh-Wonder:  “Sing along with me, people–when I say Hustle, you say Hustle!” Cringifying.  Although hilarious to see about 200 middle aged white folks imagining drive bys in West LA while yelling  Hustle in unison.

Okkervil River, who were billed, apparently didn’t show–or at least hadn’t by the time we left, after 3 hours of boredom.

My husband, sitting beside me, was just pissed.  “Fucking Democrats can’t organize themselves out of their own asses,” he said, or something to that effect.  He made a list of what they needed to do to arrange the event and get the trains to run on time.  He began the list by insisting that the event NOT be a Red Rocks, a giant wall of rock that is miles outside of Denver.  Even though the musicians loved being there (as in “I LOVE being at Red Rocks!” and “I finally get to play at Red Rocks!”), nobody else did.  

Once when I escaped to  the bathroom, I saw melancholy women wearily washing their hands: “Well, at least we couldn’t have asked for a better sky!”

After all this, they were to show 10 short winning films on democracy.  But by the time they got around to it, everyone had left.

from San Miguel to home

Back in my last post I said some stuff about Mexican music.  About how in San Miguel in Mexico I hadn’t heard any rap and rowdy music on the streets because the town was so small & quaint, etc. etc.  Most of those ideas had to be changed the next night when the neighbors next door had a crazy pool party.  Or maybe it was the neighbors.  Actually, we think it was probably some of teenagers who were doing construction on the house, which to that point consisted primarily of a concrete shell and a hot tub and a swimming pool.  So with the tarps flapping over the window spaces the guys switched on the lights, brought in the stereo, and got the water ready.  By midnight the pool was filled with girls and the wheelbarrows with beer.  And the music went on all night.  Loud. Right by my room.  Thus I got a good overview of what a party full of Mexican teenagers listen to all night. 

            Really bad pop, really bad rock, a little rap, and (by 2 a.m.) mariachi.  A few American songs mixed in, but nearly all Mexican.  The only thing that got the sing-along chorus going outside was the mariachi–and the wails and the yee-haws went on for quite some time, until I finally fell asleep.  Until then most of the music was pretty wretched….It’s funny how bad cliched tunes transcend all languages, especially in the early morning when nobody wants to hear them.  I’d be moved by this idea if it hadn’t been so painful.  The kids seemed to be in disagreement about the song selection, with the volume turned up then down, a love song replaced by a rap song, etc. In the morning, the detritus of the night (empty bottles, clothes, who knows what) lay scattered across the cement until finally someone woke up and cleaned it all up again.  Since most of the large walled houses on our street were owned by rarely present whites, it’s unlikely that the owner would ever have known.  (Unless, of course, the house is owned by Mexicans–but Mexican owned mansions didn’t seem to be the norm in our part of San Miguel.  The full time residents seemed to live in the small adobe houses abutting the little fruit stands.  The trend seemed to involve razing these houses to construct walled complexes for the gringos, like us.)  At any rate, the drunken house party gave me a chance to hear some watered-down  mainstream Mexican rap.  The next night I heard it again, playing quietly on our street as a pack of six kids loitered around a low-slung Chevy.  Just like in our neighborhood at home.        

            Once back in the States, I found that the carniceria a few blocks from us no longer looked so forbidding, even if I didn’t speak Spanish.  Mexicans, even Mexican Americans, seem to just take us stupid gringos in stride while they work and collect our cash.  I guess when we leave town, they have a celebration.  I vow yet again to learn Spanish and to go engage our neighbors in conversation.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.

 


wandering San Miguel

 

I find myself in San Miguel Allende, a Mexican town in the center of the country.  I’m lucky to be here, putting in my pesos to stay with my friend Sharon Solwitz.  She is renting for the month; Paige (my daughter) and I for only ten days.  I understand now the desire for a month of writing time in this place.  Although there are internet cafes and even (if you really really want one) a Domino’s pizza, the place is relatively separate from the kinds of traffic and noise and strip mall clutter that you get anyplace in America.  There is no stream of WalMarts along the highway because there is no highway.  The road to San Miguel, a paved 2-lane, winds through a string of towns selling tamales and Cokes in bright shacks along the roadside.  The only thing in the states I can really compare that drive to was a trip once made through the South.  It is the rural, but not American rural—instead of tractors, nearly all of the farmers used plows and donkeys.  It was lush, mountainous, beautiful—green, after the monsoon season—the cacti and the trees all enormous, not failure like the shrunken Colorado cacti I’m used to seeing.  For some reason I thought I was expecting scrubbrush, a place so horrible that people would fight border guards to leave it.  The only thing I see plaguing this particular spot is poverty, and even that seems to be kept to a relative minimum by the number of gringos and Mexican tourists who flock to San Miguel to patronize its many shops and restaurants.  

This place is not exotic or rustic or cute or any of those labels that you might expect to apply to a non-coastal Mexican city.  If there’s a label of that sort to be had, it might be quaint—. It feels in some ways old and untouched and still a town.  You know that everyone here knows one another.  You know that they watch to see who you are and what your name is and where you are staying and if you plan to stay and if you have dogs and children.  There are many dogs and children here.

And there is music.  And this is a music blog, so I swear to keep mentioning it.  There is music every night here somewhere, and I won’t have time to see much of it live.  I hear it on the streets, though, everywhere I go.  From shop to shop to shop a radio is playing.  From private windows comes music, and to seduce us inside the restaurants, a guitar player or mariachi band.  The dogs bark and roosters crow in rhythm.  (And they bark and crow a lot.)  From the cars comes some Mexican rock.  So far I haven’t heard any rap or anything that is cursing too loud.  I’ve heard a lot of Mexican rap in my neighborhood in Denver, but none here; I don’t know if that’s by choice or whether the teenagers are kept under lock and key because the town caters to tourists. There’s plenty of Mexican pop on the radios, pretty much interchangeable with Britney Spears-type stuff, and there’s some Mexican rock, not too rowdy but with a lot of rhythm and some spicy inflections, but I don’t know my music well enough to identify who is playing.  Much of the music, though, is traditional.  I’ve come to think that it’s the Mexican version of country and country/folk—I guess here they call it regional.  Some of it seems to be more authentic than others—and I get this impression in part by flipping through the many Mexican language channels on our cable TV here.  Lots and lots of music channels.  Mexican MTV (like ours, same audience, more music), VH1 (the same), plenty of other channels, and then the Mexican version of CMT (Country Music Television) which has rougher production values, more crusty men (or young soulful men) in matching outfits and cowboy hats.  What am I saying here….Mexico is not very different in what it likes commercially than us in the States—their music breaks out urban and country, likes ours—their music TV seems to be either directly patterned after ours or run by the same US companies—.  But walking the streets here you just hear one melody after another and nothing is too loud or too obnoxious—it’s tuneful, melodic, light on the bass.  It fits the town, it doesn’t grate against it.  Perhaps the kids here never rebel against their families in that way.  They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to help support them, and to take care of brothers and sisters.  I’m only guessing.

Our cab driver from Leon to San Miguel told us he had crossed the river ten times to take jobs in Texas and North Carolina.  He would work and then bring the money back to the family in San Miguel.  He said that on his last trip he had been jailed for six months and told if he returned he’d be in for 3 years.  Several of men I’ve talked to here speak decent English, come from spending time, they said, in Texas.  

Yet I’ve seen no more beggars here than I would in any US city.  I don’t know if they keep them off the streets or if everyone gets by okay.  There are many people with small shops in the neighborhoods.  Many sell cokes, fruit, laundry detergent, and such.  The shops have names like “Victoria” and “Laura.”  Many of these places have children, girls, as vendors; they know very little English but are willing to work with my very little Spanish.  Closer to the tourist center the shops focus on crafts and clothing, the tamale stands turn into Japanese restaurants and Irish pubs.  There are street vendors, too, roasting corn and meats over open flames.  The streets are cobblestone and the traffic (many cabs and buses) wind through them slowly, all one way.  Everywhere, buildings are being constructed and rehabbed; there is always the sound of hammering and sawing.

The ultimate destination in San Miguel, the center of life, is the medieval church on the plaza.  Pilgrims come to this church and spend time in its courtyard.  The church is old, a bit battered, almost frightening in its serious saints and Mary.  It does not have the feel of a welcoming church—but then, I’m not Catholic.  It is all arches and points.  

There are many churches in San Miguel.  We hear the bells tolling all the time.  I suppose that is a kind of music, too, although it also seems to be a kind of alarm.  The birds are plentiful and here on my balcony that’s the music I hear.  LIttle bird chirps, abrasive sqwawks and wings flapping.  (At least when the people next door aren’t drilling on the new stone mansion that probably replaced someone’s little home.)   It all moves very slowly; it is a flowing rhythm, no pounding or jarring.  

I imagine that the young people must be bored.  But it moves at about my speed.

I hope to add some photos later (perhaps even of local musicians).  Right now I don’t have the cord to attack my camera to my computer.  I am, though, able to hang out at a local coffeehouse and use their wireless service.  And so here I am.

–Becky Bradway