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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When We Were the Kids

After seven years, my second book, When We Were the Kids, has been made available. Amazon and Barnes & Noble will have it soon, but it can be purchased through the publisher now

Thanks to everyone who waited.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Healing Road

I've never looked into the science of it, but somehow, motion has a soothing effect on our bodies and minds. It's the action that (usually) soothes babies who are crying about some want or desire they have, but they can't explain with words. Motion, whether it's walking, riding, or driving, puts someone's mind at ease, no matter what the age.

On the nights I couldn't go to sleep as a baby, my father would drive me around the streets of Metarie in our blue Pontiac Catalina. (Years later, that car would serve as my first car.) Something worked better by being on paved roads instead of a rocking chair. My mind was filled with only a few thoughts, mainly about hunger and answering nature's call. Eventually I would fall asleep and my dad would bring us home.

These days, motion provides something that doesn't make me fall asleep. Motion lets me spread out my thoughts and inspires me to keep going in life. 

Neil Peart wrote a bare-all book called Ghost Rider, about travels he took on his motorcycle after his teenage daughter died in a car accident and his wife died of cancer, only one year apart. The amount of grief he went through is there on every page, as rode 55,000 miles over four years.

Since I identify with Peart's perspectives on life (as found in interviews and his lyrics for Rush songs), his book gave me a lot of ideas on how to deal with grief a lot better than any other self-help book I've read. I've never experienced his kind of loss, but I have experienced loss, and that's the crux of Ghost Rider.

Peart could afford to spend years away from his band, making me think a journey like that is for people in a much higher tax bracket than mine.

Years before I read Ghost Rider, I read Our Band Could Be Your Life. For some reason, I laughed when I read the part in the Fugazi chapter when Guy Picciotto hit the road trying to find himself, drifting from place to place. Apparently a lot of people did that during the mid- to late 1980s, and I couldn't relate.

From time to time, since graduating college in 2001, I've thought of driving somewhere far away, knowing fully I would come back. That seemed like an aimless retreat to avoid dealing with things. But in the past few months, I've decided I must take road trips this summer and try to walk a few miles at least five days a week, along with a couple of bike rides a week.

Why I'm doing this is because motion is helping me get through a backlog of grief.

In the past two months, I lost a friend to a longtime battle with cancer and a very close friend to a heart attack. My two-year relationship ended. I lost my full-time job, but landed another full-time job only hours later. And my car was broken into, which left more mental damage than physical damage.

Once again in my adult life, a lot has happened in a very quick succession. The last time a lot of changes happened over a handful of months, I tried to understand the logic. For years. Why me? Why so fast? What have I done? Questions like that were ones that a final answer probably won't come.

I eventually realized I don't need to understand the logic and should try to make some headway towards acceptance.

In dealing with this latest round of grief, I've already taken two trips. One was to Houston to visit my family for a few days. The other was to visit a friend from college who is about to become a father. By spending time in a car and seeing people I don't normally see everyday, it's significantly better than pacing around my house, milling about and replaying uncomfortable and unfortunate experiences again and again.

By taking to the road -- the "healing road" as Peart called it in Ghost Rider -- I have a task at hand of moving forward. Yet I choose to be responsible and not ditch my new job and the responsibilities I have at my house, like paying the rent and taking care of the dogs. I'm happy to work with great people and still have a roof over my head. I don't want to throw those stabilities away because the pot of grief is overflowing.

I'm encouraged to take time off from my job, especially since my time-off days don't roll over to the next year. When an opportunity comes my way and I give my job proper notice, I make every effort to take that opportunity.

Summer's near the halfway point and I have my eyes set on a few more road trips. I will see my college friend again, helping with whatever needs to be fixed or prepared at his house before his wife gives birth in September. For another trip, I hope to drive all day to see a show in a town I've never been to. This isn't any regular show. It's a band that won't be coming to Texas this year, and a longtime writer friend plays in this band. It will be worth it to go as it will be much more than seeing a band play songs for an hour.

I don't think of myself as a drifter or a lost soul. I have stability with a support system made up of family, friends, and co-workers. Reaching out to these people, whether by phone or in person, is keeping me going with a (mostly) positive attitude. Everyday can be a rollercoaster of emotions, thinking things will go one way or the other.

What I am doing now that's different from the past is, don't think about a when or a where down the road. Think about what to do in the meantime. Instead of trying to force a when and a where, I look for opportunities that can keep my brain in the present instead of a possible future. I've made it this far in life, so why the hell should I stop now?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Whenever, If Ever

Here's a recap of what I've been up to with the Observer.

I wasn't planning on going to the Jeff Tweedy show at the Majestic, but when my editor asked if anyone was interested in going, I signed up. I had trepidation about seeing a show filled with random yelling from the crowd and random musings from Jeff. Luckily, the show was great with very little of that. You can read the full review here.

I don't consider myself a huge fan of The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, but I was impressed when I saw them live back in February. So when their publicist asked me if I was interested in interviewing them, I was open for it. I talked with main member Derrick on Tuesday and the interview went live on Friday.

And while I was excited to see Deafheaven again, I came away from the show disappointed. How the hell this happened, I explain in the first few paragraphs in my review.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Stuck On You

Living in Dallas, I'm well aware of some great musical acts that only come to the biggest cities in America. If I could deal with the crowded living found in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, then I could see even more bands that come around only once in a lifetime. But I love living in Dallas, and I've never thought about getting on a plane to see a band. (I have done a roadtrip and it was worth it.)

When a band like Failure reunites, I'd expect them to only play a handful of shows, mainly tied in with festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza. I don't begrudge the bands who do this; the money's way too good.

Failure did do a special one-off show earlier this year in Los Angeles, but they decided to mount a national tour. Seeing Dallas on the itinerary, I jumped at the chance to do anything I could with press coverage. That resulted in a show preview, an interview with Greg Edwards, and a live show review. That's a lot of Failure, but being a Failure fan and knowing quite a few fans, this was huge.

I keep thinking of a wonderful quote by Keith Phipps:

Like so much of life, music is best appreciated while it’s happening, and without the bittersweet tug of missed chances and things that might have been.

As someone who missed his fair share of shows, I completely concur with what Keith wrote. I've seen many shows that I never thought I'd see and cherish their memories forever. While I decided to skip Pavement on their Brighten the Corners tour, I saw At the Drive-In twice, Hum and Swervedriver, and whole bunch of other shows that I'm glad I didn't skip.

My attitude is, if I really think I should go, I should go, because there's no guarantee a band will come back. No matter how healthy a band might be, a band can break up at any time. If there's little or nothing to be lost in seeing this show (even if it's sleep), I should go.

Still thinking about Failure's excellent set last night, I'm quite happy I went. As much as they hope to keep working together, I will always have the memory of finally seeing them. (I would definitely be up for seeing them again.)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

You Saved Me

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I went to three shows, two of which I reviewed for the Observer. You can read my thoughts on Eagulls' first time playing Dallas here and read my review of the Journey show here.

But the show that really impressed me was the show I didn't review: the Winery Dogs at the Granada Theater. I had the pleasure of interviewing their drummer, Mike Portnoy, for DC9 as a show preview. He was friendly and open with me, making the interview flow very well. I didn't want to ask any direct questions about Dream Theater, but did share about his past while focusing on the present with the Winery Dogs.

Coming into the show on Saturday night, I had a feeling I would enjoy the show. The tunes on the band's self-titled debut are enjoyable, bluesy pop rock songs. But I did not expect to see a crowd so charged by the band's set. People were going crazy at the sight of the band, with everyone raising arms and fists, yelling loudly, before they even played a note. 

Immediately with the first tune, "Elevate," I saw how joyous Mike, Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen were together. Smiles, constant eye contact, jamming -- all of those sights. The band ended up playing almost two hours of material, which is impressive as the band has only one album. There was a bass solo and a solo acoustic tune by Richie, but no drum solo by Portnoy. Which, even though I'm a huge fan of Portnoy's, I was fine with. The guy played his ass off the entire time that I didn't need to see a solo.

The most important thing I came away with was seeing firsthand how Portnoy has successfully moved on from Dream Theater, the band he will probably always be remembered for. His departure from the band a few years ago was shocking, on the level of, "What if Lars Ulrich left Metallica?" And as happy as I am to see Dream Theater carry on with a world-class drummer named Mike Mangini, I get agitated by people who leave comments on Portnoy's social media platforms about how he should rejoin Dream Theater. No, Dream Theater isn't the same without Portnoy, but he and the band parted ways, and they do not wish to reunite.

I accept the fact that there are many who will never truly accept Mike's departure from Dream Theater. The Internet is a great place to vent those thoughts, but I try to not spend too much time reading them. I'm much happier to see Portnoy play with guys he is genuinely excited to play with, playing music that is in his wheelhouse, and still being an active, fan-friendly personality. (Yes, I got a picture with him after the show.)

Fans often think their words will truly make business decisions reverse and longstanding feelings subside, and the band they want to see will return in its purist form. The thing is, bands are made of humans, and not all humans get along. Add in business dealings and it gets really divisive, especially if someone cannot legally rejoin a band, even if he co-founded it.  

I like to use the adage of, if people want all of the original members of their favorite band to reunite, they probably want divorced parents to remarry as well. Nevermind how the divorcees have found new partners they can tolerate and be happy with, when it comes to bands that are crystallized in fans' minds with studio albums and documented live performances, fans want to relive that magic again and again. There is no such thing as a final encore in their eyes. 

I am fine with the Winery Dogs as well as the two Dream Theater records they've done without Portnoy. If DT never reunites with Portnoy, I'm happy to have all of their albums and DVDs to enjoy what's come before. What I want to see in the present and the future, though, is what makes the artist happy to carry on, whether it's with a new band or a band that's been around for almost 30 years.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Drinkin' That Ice Cold Beer

What happens when a trend in music reeks of terrible offenses to the audio and visual senses, yet is somehow still infectiously catchy? A trend in particular that's been on my mind lately is the one dubbed, "bro country."

This trend has been perfectly mocked on YouTube and the best talk radio station in the DFW area. Essentially, these days, if you're a male artist and want to have a massive hit on the country charts, the song lyrics must include references to the following:

1. A truck
2. A girl
3. Alcohol
4. Driving on dirt roads
5. Farm equipment
6. Tight jeans on said girl 
7. A small body of water
8. Sunset and/or moonlight
9. Summer
10. Guns
11. Fishing
12. Boots
13. God

The more references the artist has in the first 60 seconds of the song, the better chances of it becoming a hit. Don't believe me? Just watch the clock as a song gets going. 

Musically, bro country is more like hard rock with flashes of hip-hop beats and flows, rounded out by acoustic guitars and banjos. Think more "We Will Rock You" and "Make 'Em Say Uhh" than "The Grand Tour." 

Loaded into these cliches are melodies that can easily get stuck in your head. I freely admit they get stuck in my head like parasites. Songs like "This is How We Roll" by Florida Georgia Line and "Crash My Party" by Luke Bryan. When I first heard them, I wondered how they got by my usual tastes. Like I was a goalie with a pretty good save record wondering why there were pucks finding holes in my defense. 

As someone who detested country music in my youth, I don't think I've fully embraced all the colors of country music. During periodic exposures to country music in my teens and twenties, I found the music to be irritating melodically. There was very little room for endearing melodies to my ears, which were more geared towards an extreme between the Carpenters to Metallica. With the country music I heard, I thought you could only dance around a small amount of vocal melodies while repeatedly strumming an open-G chord on a guitar. Not helping matters was the constant, slightly off-key, twang that made country music cun-tray.  

What artists like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw sang about didn't register with me in my teens or my early twenties. I didn't have friends in low places, didn't get the meaning of unanswered prayers, or going to some stupid dance. 

I'd like to say my horizons broadened a little in my late twenties by not immediately scoffing at music I didn't regularly listen to. With country music, that enlightenment came from reporting traffic for a small market, "classic country" format and having a housemate who loved country from the 70s and 80s. Every now and then, I'd find a tune that was actually quite enjoyable. My drawbridge was occasionally coming down, thanks to these good people that I'm still close to. 

During the past twelve months, I spent a lot of time around bro country songs. I worked in a few Walmarts as a merchandising rep for a marketing company, and I did traffic reports to various formats, including modern country. Talk about being near epicenters of bro country. You could not escape the exposure to bro country. For example, when Luke Bryan's Crash My Party came out, there was a short commercial for it, featuring the title track, running on a loop in every Walmart. Spending a few hours at a time per store, always working near the wall of TVs, I'd repeatedly hear, "If you wanna call me/call me/call me/You don't have to worry about it baby." By the end of the marketing campaign, I believe I heard that hook 500 times, easy. 

All those times hearing said chorus hook, I didn't find the tune melodically odorous. The same would happen when I pre-recorded a traffic report for a country radio station. While the lyrics of "This is How We Roll" reflect nothing from my life, I couldn't but help sing along in a joking way. Eventually, I thought, "Hey, this isn't bad if you look past the lyrics."

Consider this eventual submission by the marketing/researching powers-that-be. 

Bro country is like what hair metal was to hard rock music in the 80s. There's a look and sound designed for a mass, paying audience. There is no denying who the target demographic is for Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan: good ol' boys who were raised a certain way and act a certain way as adults. There's always church on Sunday, alcohol for the good times (and bad), a truck for work and play, and a girl to light up his life. The more specific the song plays into the stereotype, the better. 

Is this scope narrow? Absolutely. It's pandering to an extreme. But it sells, and the music industry thrives on what sells. What our inner Statler and Waldorf criticism says about this scope doesn't really matter to the industry as long as it keeps selling. Nashville songwriters aren't going to stop writing songs like this because of satirical YouTube montages, think pieces, or radio bits. If there's money to be made in the music industry, you milk that cow until the cow's dead. 

While I will defend certain tunes on Crash My Party like the title track, "Roller Coaster," "Have A Beer" and "Goodbye Girl" on their melodic merits -- which are more pop rock tunes more than anything else -- I am not a 100 percent supporter of Bryan and his bro country bros. There are a lot of awful songs with repugnant melodies and moronic lyrics. "That's My Kind of Night" is far more like Master P than George Jones. "Amarillo Sky" by Jason Aldean makes me wonder where the Nyquil is. Granger Smith's "Country Boy Love" makes me wonder where I can find some duct tape for my ears. 

This is music for people who relate to the stereotypes. I am clearly not in the songwriters' minds as a member of the target audience. I didn't grow up around rural areas, riding around in a pickup truck blasting classic rock and traditional country. And I didn't eventually start bopping my head to hip-hop with a country hat on. That's the kind of guy I wouldn't believe I could have a deep conversation with. I don't go to church, I've never driven a truck, I've never wooed a girl to come to a creek in the moonlight, I don't drink a lot of beer, I haven't gone fishing in a few years, and I've never shot a gun other than a BB gun. Our family does have a farm, though. 

You can't stop bro country and it doesn't look like it's going away soon. The music doesn't offend the men and women who buy the music, the concert tickets, and the T-shirts. All I can do as a listener is be OK if a melody is enjoyable no matter what the format. If I find the the music catchy but the lyrics to be the work of cynical, cash-hungry songwriters, well, that's the way it rolls.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Real Good Time Together

I'm a little behind in posting these links, but I've been pretty busy with articles for the Observer. In the last few weeks, I wrote about an Indiegogo countdown party, the Hold Steady returning to the Granada in fine fashion, had a fun little interview with Dylan from Tiny Moving Parts, and a did a brief interview with Eric Nadel, the great Texas Rangers broadcaster.

After not doing much for the paper in the last few months of 2013, things keep popping up now, and it's still a lot of fun. I'm going on five years with this place, and I have some really cool interviews coming up in the next few weeks. Interviews with people I never thought I'd interview that I've long admired.