You’ve Never Been, Part 2: People Who Died

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I caught on to Jim Carroll right around the time he shuffled off. Not sure what made me think to give Catholic Boy a listen, but there’s a fair chance that his death had something to do with it, that some obit came into my orbit and made me curious. Maybe I streamed Leo’s Basketball Diaries first, picked up the record second. Whatever it was, “People That Died” immediately sank into my head, left a mark, and I thought “by gosh, that’s truth there, that’s what it is.”

And then I thought: You’re a fucking idiot. You don’t know anyone who’s died. I mean not really. Not your people. WWII’s people, the Great Depression’s people. But not your people. You don’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve never been to Rikers, rumbled with bikers, never scored dope down on St. Mark’s, never really been to the city at all.

Until this year. Until not one but two were lost last winter. One quick one slow, one hospital lingerer another down in one blow. Lucky me, now I know people who died.

We don’t fall as fresh and fast as Carroll’s pals. There’s no blaze of glory, no movie-making magic. It’s not so poignant, so poetic when we go down after fighting on for a few more rounds. We take our time, stiffen the upper lip and wait it out a few more years. Push it back and push on. Make it work, get a job. Find a girl, settle down. Man up and fake it a little longer.

But now I know: When Jim sings about his friends he could be singing about mine. I wasn’t wrong to think it applied. I wasn’t wrong then and now I don’t want to be right. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish I was just another fucking idiot kid nursing an adolescent bent, sniffing out the tragic cracks of life. That our wild-eyed expectations, our declarations of mad intent, were not hid in our hearts like long-bearded prophecies. But that we left our longings lie – laughable larks, follies of life-drunk delusion to be forgotten with the dawn.

That we could burn forever “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” without the fizzle-crash of cold morning smokey dissatisfaction with how it turns out. How it always turns out.

I don’t want it to be true. It take it all back. I miss you.

[…]

And I remember when you drove me home that night, another night that went so late we didn’t beat the sun. And I remember when you played me your tapes and told me to shut up and listen. And I remember when you crashed my party. And I remember when I crashed yours. And I remember the times when we forgot to sleep. And I remember the times when we laughed. And we laughed when we were good. And we laughed when we were bad. We laughed the night I saw you last.

Business called me to hustle your new town. Another swing at life, faking a fling of good fortune. Look at me! I’m a self-made man on a tie-wearing trip to your city, spreading some money around. I done good – let me prove it to ya. And you’re doing fine too.  I’m so sure of it, you’ve kicked the habit right? It’s just drinking now, right? That’s no biggie. Sure sure, that’s fine. Wait, a new dealer? How’d you manage…how do you meet these people? You’re such a crazy nut! How ’bout another round, on me!

And you drove through my town a year or so ago. To start a new life with a girl in tow. And I didn’t call you to stop you to tell you to stay. I was too sad for you to see me this way. Puffy-eyed and pasty-faced and paxil-ed out. But you were happy right? You must have been happy! We’re always happy when nailing down shiny-fresh stakes in virgin turf and dreaming of the newness to be known. How could you not have been happy?  You’re supposed to be happy, dammit. We’re all supposed to be happy. Lord Almighty, we’ve seen the light! Right? No more sorrow no more…?

The bullet and the blood and the brains on the street and the baby wailing from the womb.

The IV drips and the mad rush of life slips to a yawning end.

[…]

These are people who died. Yes,
These are people who died.
And they deserve their own song;
They deserve their own stage.
Just as true.
Every bit as real.
And don’t you fucking tell me that it’s not.

 

 

play here: my take on People Who Died

download link: mp3 @320

You’ve Never Been, Part 1: Alphabet City

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Now it’s getting to the point where I could only listen to music released by old friends, path crossers, and fellow travelers and have a fully-loaded iPod. With more than enough quality and variety to fit any occasion.

The latest addition to that list is the solo record by Todd May. Todd’s a guy that I spent a few good hours with back in Columbus, a guy who’s first band, The Lillybandits, were big on the scene when I was new to town. He’s been getting out a lot since then, playing guitar for Lydia Lovelace all over the place. I didn’t know that he was still writing – or working so hard – but I guess he’s one of those guys who can never quite kick the habit of making music.

It was a nice surprise, full of good songs, but the one that I can’t shake is “Alphabet City.” He calls it a “postcard from NYC”, but I still had to look up what he was talking about. Turns out that Alphabet City is the east-side of the East Village, around Avenues A, B, & C. Underground velvet territory back in the day.

I’ve mentioned before how New York looms large on the far right coast of my imagination. Towering 100,000 concrete stories into the sky, casting its daybreak shadows over every town east of the Mississippi, with a bull’s eye staring down on the rust belt.

For a 17-year-old kid in Akron, driving around with a sun-warped cassette of Walk On The Wild Side, watching a late-night VHS of Taxi Driver, there was something ominous, unassailable about that town. Wildman plans would be hatched every night, to rocket there and back before daybreak and dawn. But no matter how fast and far you drove the family car, or how hard you licked up midnight’s teenage kicks, you still woke up knowing that you’d “never really been to the city at all.”

By the time I made it to The City, things were already getting tidied up and Giulianied. And by then I didn’t care. My new summer town was broad-shouldered Chicago, and college weekends in Pittsburgh satiated my crumbling-concrete curiosity.

But I still go back and think about it. Some of those old NYC records are new to me, and whenever I hear another one, I wonder. I wonder if I could have kept up or if I would have been crushed. I wonder if I could have lasted a week around CBGBs, made it a day writing my own Basketball Diaries. Seemed equal parts playground and nightmare, and sometimes I don’t think I would have survived the game.

As Todd sings, “You and I weren’t built for that speed, or that level of temptation… and that’s just as well.” That might be the truth. At this point, it’s alright that I’ll never know.

 

 

play here: Alphabet City

download link: mp3 @320

I Love It When The Band Keeps Getting Better: House Of Heroes

House Of Heroes 01 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 02 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 03 Grant Wentzel

Because how often does that happen?

All of my favorites have had their moments, and sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to catch the right show at the right time to add some live proof to the mix. But there’s rarely a need to repeat the experience.  You’re rolling the dice, and the odds are not in your favor. Whatever it was that captured your heart on that first magic night is likely be over.  Maybe the show got too big and your love’s lost beneath the bright lights. Maybe the venue’s too small, and golly it’s just so sad to see them now.

Not that I always mind. Rock shows are like pizza: even when they’re bad they’re still pretty good. You know I’ll always be up for catching another Jane’s tour, and if Against Me and The Hold Steady swing through town again, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.  You can even go tell Tegan & Sara that I’ll be back.  I’m very forgiving.  Except for you, Mr. Matisyahu, but that’s another story.

But I digress.  This post is about House Of Heroes, that rare band that keeps getting better. I used to catch them around Columbus a bit, and they were surprisingly solid for some local kids. They bent ears by adding a few tricks to the tunes – a vamp, a breakdown, switching up the ol’ I-IV-V rock ‘n roll formula with some harmonic imagination.

That was all well and good, but somewhere along the line they really learned how to play.  I hate to use the term metal – it’s charged like lighting – but the chops are getting so sharp, it’s getting hard to avoid the word.  But don’t worry, these are pop guys with a knack for a good riff, which makes them the exact opposite of the Def Leppards of the world (riffers with an ear for a good tune – not that there’s anything wrong with that either!)

As the fates would have it, they play Sioux Falls every Labor Day at the LifeLight fest — just 10 miles of dirt road from my abode — so I’ve seen ’em here more than I ever used to see them there.  I’m really glad they make the trip, and that they spend the rest of the year tightening up new tunes for the tour.

‘Til next year, boys.  Keep up the good work!

(Photos by Grant Wentzel, kindly used by permission.)

 

September Gurls

Most every September 1st I pour myself a little Big Star.  Yesterday it slipped my mind.  It was 90 sweaty degrees, the most August of days that we’ve had in weeks.

But today is all different.  A wet 60-something, with a chill blowing from the north.  A September day for this December boy.

One really shouldn’t rush into things like this anyway.

New Directions

grant wentzel new directions

I’ve been off on a new project, the convergence of three things:

Number Uno:  My most reliable source of blog content — and deepest font of blessedly (self)righteous opinion — is the record review.  However, I know a lot other guys that already do that, and do so better than me.  Some of them even get paid.  Fellas, it’s better left in your professional hands.

Number Dos:  I gotta cut some new chops.  I once had a band that kept me on my musical toes, or at least propped up, consistently.  We aspired to a “monkeys on crack” level of showmanship, which meant knowing the songs so well that you can play while launching off the drum riser and dodging another crushed can of PBR.  Now I play mostly at church.  This is a very fine thing to do, and something I really enjoy.   However, the lazy in me finds a holy host of excuses to fall back on the same fills and sonic variations.  I don’t push myself like I used to, but it is easier on the knees.

Number The Tré:  I love recording.  The blinking beacon of the red record button continues to call, though I have no business getting my sticky fingers anywhere near it.  But like anything, the only way to get better is to practice.  Furthermore, nothing illuminates the flaws in your performance like a nice crispy playback.  You gotta play tight or it will never sound right.  (Unless you want to spend the rest of the day tweaking away via software, but where’s the joy in that?)  Recording forces me to dig in and really listen to what’s going on and what I’m doing wrong.

So here’s the plan:  Instead of stitching my thread-bare opinions to the tails of better-said observations, I’ll be firing up the amps and covering something from whatever I happen to be digging on.   Hopefully, I’ll be learning something in the process.  So strap on the headphones and warm up the hi-fi:  You might enjoy it too!

Jane’s Addiction in Pittsburgh

This summer, I finally made it to a show.

The first time Perry came to my town was with the original Lollapalooza line-up at the idyllic Blossom Music Center.  I was invited by a gal I was kinda dating.  Hindsight being 20/20, I think I wish I had been dating her a little more.  She was cool. Cooler than me.  (Speaking of nothing shocking…)  But my intimidated 16-year-old self stuck his head in the sand and his fingers in his ears when the invitation came.  Jane’s represented a secret world of clove-smoking art students, clad in weird black xl t-shirts emblazoned with letters like PIL and KMFDM and XTC.  I had yet to crack the code, let alone be initiated into the scene.

But I think I’m glad I waited.

That first trip was marred by reports of blasphemy and nudity and a sloppy set cranked out by a band about to blow.  Seems Perry’s a better man these days.  A little Torah never hurt anyone, eh?  He was certainly in high spirits in the ‘burgh this June, bouncing around the stage in his lamé and lycra-infused fashions, peeling off a layer a tune as he proved that 50 ain’t too old to rock and roll.  Did I mention that he’s 50?  Goodness.  Stamina.

I’d witnessed Perry do what Perry does once before with Porno For Pyros a long time back.  But I’d never sat at the feet of my all-time-guitar-hero Dave Navarro (sorry, Edge,) nor had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the elusive Eric Avery ’til now. I’ve often watched the Three Days documentary DVD which commemorates one of the last big tours featuring Flea on the four-string.  This was a different experience.

Of course, Flea played the parts flawlessly, sliding effortlessly from supple to spank.  Eric didn’t care about that.  He wrote the damn parts in the first place and he was gonna play ’em any way he wanted.  This meant pounding it out while stomping out a tribal tantric circle dance like an Iroquois warrior preparing for the fight, clad in direct-from-1991 combat boots and cutoffs.  No poofery for this fella.  While bass players are often unjustly remaindered to the periphery of the 8×10 glossy, hiding behind the ego(s) up front, this band never would have happened without Eric giving Perry a platform on which to wail.  He’s the most essential Jane; here’s to détente if not reconciliation.

It was good to finally make it to a show.  It was great to see the band in fine form after all these years.  And it was pleasing to look around at the beer-sipping crowd of 30/40-Somethings politely comparing notes while respecting each other’s space to enjoy a civilized conert.

We all got older, but Jane’s stayed the same.

Is This A Problem?

It’s happened before.

Last time, the tears filled my eyes and spilled over the broken shards of all my shattered dreams as they lay splintered on the hard-tiled floor of my new hard-won, respectable existence.   I’m a little better off these days.  This time it was just a shrug and trip to the hardware store for a tube of Titebond.

Last time, I had a pro patch-up by the formidably talented Mike Cox (if you’re in c-bus, look him up.)  This time, I knew the scars were to be permanent and unavoidable.  Time to embrace the beat-down/beatific patina of warts-and-all life and DIY.

As long as I can keep on pickin’, it’ll be alright.

Dickory Dock

A few weeks back I was setting up some microphones for one of my Not-So-Pro (TM) recording sessions and thought I’d test out some settings and make sure that the cords and the cables were humming along and making the right connections in the right directions and otherwise gettin’ the electronics all ready and warmed up to jump and jive and hoot and holler before the real musician arrived.

Thought I’d test it by doing a little bit of recording of my own.  For old time’s sake it seemed like a good moment to revisit a two-chord creation of Chicago’s one and only Blue Meanies, a second-rate third-wave ska band that still holds a nice little spot in the back side of my heart for playing a part in the old fun times when I used to romp around with Sarah and with Steve and with the suburban punks of dirty downtown Elgin, where the AA meeting hall would play host to dread-headed and tattooed teens who would pogo and skank till the floor boards would creak and crack and the the mic stands would topple and tables would spill the merch on the sweat-wet floor.

And we were there to hear this drummer named Jay, a guy that I used to work with in the summers and who had a place up in St. Charles with his brother.  I went over and I dropped him off and there were girls there, lovely girls in the prime of early lithely adultlife with summer-sunned shoulders and confidence and swagger and smoking cigarettes and they were beautiful and there were books being read and sketches being sketched and there was music being played and I said “uh, hi.”

And then I said “bye” and I drove away and that was about the end of that , but then I went up with Sarah and with Steve to see the band and they were opening for the Blue Meanies and the Blue Meanies were doing everything that they could to get that party started, as it were, and we rejoiced.

And they played a song that was not so much ska but a little more funk and they pressed it on pink vinyl and pink vinyl sounded pretty cool for 3 dollars, so I bought it and brought it to College and J (not Jay) put it on the Vortex (the Vortex being a Salvation Army Store-bought turntable taped up with the guarantee “Work Good”.)  And he dropped the needle on the record and we worked out the chords and gosh we played that thing a lot at all the college student-union and rec-hall and dorm-basement gigs.  Sometimes with flute and sometimes with sax and sometimes with harmonica and sometimes with whoever happened to grab the mic and it’s still stuck in my head all these years later with its vaguely suggestive title which only suggests things to someone who’s like 19 and totally sheltered but really wants to get out because he stood on Jay’s front porch and he saw girls and they were beautiful and he thought “maybe some day.”

Anyway, here’s the song as I recorded it a few weeks back.

Back To Ohio

My Media Is Junkie

A friend of mine recently announced that he was giving up the Internet for Lent, with the exception of necessary e-mail and a brief window on Sundays to actually read the electronic content that must be read.  I found this odd.  I start every day by looking over a dozen blogs, a few news sites, and a little app called Facebook.  Everyday, including Sundays.  Why?  Because I’m afraid I’ll miss something.  I want to be in-the-know, so I subscribe to a dozen magazines, spend an hour a day “keeping up on things” via the magic web and scratch my old-school itches with a daily walk to grab the morning paper still stuck in the frozen slush at the end of the driveway.

Now, you’d think this would lead to a mind filled with interesting facts and informed opinions on the greater good for the greatest number of mankind.  However, the cracked cranium of Grant Wentzel is really just an un-indexed pit of half-remembered half-truths battling about for a moment in the mental sun.  And like a board meeting with a bunch of budding bigshots, it’s the loudest, brashest, and most bombastic butthole that gets the floor and carries the vote.

A love of learning and a catholic disposition is a lovely thing, but I’ve really got to re-evaluate my motivation for such unfiltered consumption.  This informational gluttony is more about the Fear of being left out and a futile quest for Power and Control over the great unknown.  My mind is left crapulous, constipated.  There’s Anxiety in it, and I need to let it go.