Monday, March 19, 2018

Grateful For The Dead

Recently, the middle school I attended, David Starr Jordan, has been the subject of a renaming campaign, due to the fact that Mr. Jordan, an early President of Stanford University, was a proponent of eugenics who advocated for enforced sterilization and helped write the cornerstone texts for the Nazis eugenics program (including its use of gas). As a professor of Critical Race Studies, I strongly believe that we shouldn’t be honoring the names of people who were proponents of hateful ideologies. That's why I began a twitter campaign to get my old Middle School renamed for a member of the Grateful Dead, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.  

Some people may be surprised to hear me advocating for this, since I am known to hate the Grateful Dead. I hate their music, what they stand for, their fashion sense…the whole kit and caboodle. Hell, I hated my middle school, too. But I'd still like it to be re-named for Pigpen, who attended there in 1960 or thereabouts. So did Cory Lerios, of the band Pablo Cruise, and actor James Franco, now of #metoo fame. But I think Pigpen would be the best for this purpose.

According to my crack team of experts, the McKernan family lived on Santa Catalina Street. Ron’s dad had been a DJ on an R&B station (KDIA), so pretty much every blues, soul and R&B record was delivered to Pigpen’s doorstep, making him interesting to the likes of Jerry Garcia. Before 1964, McKernan dropped out of Paly and worked at Dana Morgan Music on Ramona Street  (with Jerry Garcia). They played a Be-In in Palo Alto on July 2, 1967 which my brother says is our first rock concert (I was a baby, so I don't remember). He died in 1973, and is buried in Alta Mesa Memorial Cemetery off in Palo Alto.
pigpen babysitting Sunshine Kesey

Other than the local paper publishing my letter pleading with citizens to consider the name, my campaign went exactly nowhere. The citinzry has moved on to debating whether the proposed name Yamamoto (for Fred Yamamoto, a resident/graduate who was interned in WWII) is problematic since he bears the same name as the Japanese general responsible for Pearl Harbor, and/or if a better solution would be to put plaques up explaining the history behind the current names. In the same spirit, my old school could be called after Barbara Jordan, or Jordan almonds, or Michael Jordan, or better yet, Michael B. Jordan (The Jordan Kilmongers has a nice ring to it.) But though I see the point, I still think that David Starr Jordan Middle School would be far better off being named McKernan Middle School. Here’s why:   

#1. History. Middle Schools should be named for people who have affected it. One of the names on the short list is Bill Hewlett, who began the company Hewlett Packard, and it’s true that this area prizes its role as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. But Palo Alto has other links to American history and culture, for example, as the home of Joan Baez, Ken Kesey, the Acid Tests and the counterculture as a whole. Sure, Palo Alto is obsessed with startup culture, but why should the idea of a ‘startup’ be limited to business and technology? Why not celebrate those who start-up art? McKernan ‘started up’ the Grateful Dead, a cultural icon who have had lasting impact on American history.

#2. Symbolism. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was nicknamed after a character in Peanuts. There is nothing cuter and more fun and more American than Peanuts. Also, let’s be real: what better term is there for a middle school – any middle school – than pigpen? You know it. I know it. Why can’t we just admit it? Middle school is a miserable time in every kid’s life. Maybe instead of naming schools after learned Stanford luminaries, we should name them after fun things that everybody likes, like Star Wars, or Super Mario Brothers, or sour patch candy, or, well, characters from Peanuts. 

#3. Reparations. Palo Alto owes its students a new set of community standards and value. According to his Wikipedia page, McKernan was a high school drop-out who was kicked out of the Dead several times, once for jamming too long (!!!!!) and once for drinking too much (!!!!!). Both of these attributes are directly opposed to everything that every kid in Palo Alto has been taught. Here, coloring in the lines, thinking in bullet points, and never, ever, indulging in any kind of pleasurable, non-money-earning pursuit is truly anathema; the students live in a world that is fraught with anxiety and test-taking, where failure is worse than death. Think I’m exaggerating? In the past three years, there have been twelve suicides of Palo Alto High School students, and those are just the ones who threw themselves in front of the local train; there have been countless others and even more attempts than the newspapers are willing to account for.

Renaming the middle school after someone who achieved something despite having poor grades and test scores  might be one place to start changing the wretched achievement culture of Palo Alto and environs. As my brother, a stone cold Deadhead, says, "Pigpen was a weird unhappy guy, who somehow found a way to take what made him weird and turn it into a community and a living. That's the hope of pretty much every kid, so Pigpen Junior High Seems perfect. 

"Plus, think of the merchandising possibilities."

Pigpen Middle Cchool T-shirts seems like a real possibility -- if I were at all arty, I would make some and sell them on Etsy -- but the fact is, it will never happen. Although the final decision isn’t going to be made until the city council meeting of March 27th, the possible names (Hewlett, Yamamoto, and a lady who was responsible for installing bike lanes, among others)  were decided by a “citizens committee” months and months ago, and I am sure that can’t be overturned or added to by me. But wouldn’t it be fun if it was? 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Are We Still Here Yet?

One night recently I was sitting in the balcony at the Fillmore between sets by They Might Be Giants at when the song “The Waiting Room” came on. And I jumped. It felt as if I’d been kicked internally by a burgeoning baby, only it was a kick inside my brain instead of in my belly. I am a patient boy, I wait I wait I wait I wait. My head banged.

The woman sitting next to me did too. Only a minute before we’d been having the world’s dreariest conversation about the trials of high school juniors getting into college. But that now came to a sudden end, and she too bopped around.

“I know this song!” She shouted. “I love this song! What is this band again?”

“Fugazi!” I yelled back.

Her: “What did you say?”

“FUGAZI!” I shrieked it. My friends and I used to call it the Word of Power. “Remember? DC? Dischord? $5?  Straight Edge? ALL AGES?” 

And I gestured at her, scrawling an imaginary X across the top of my hand.

But she had no idea what I was talking about. It’s a lost world, that one.

It was a world I loved though, a womb that bred me to be what I am. Yet a few nights later, I sat by the wall in an All Ages club in Santa Cruz, feeling utterly disconsolate. A series of mistakes had led me there with my daughter to see a band called No Vacation, and I was about as unhappy as it was possible to be. I like No Vacation’s music, but my presence there, surrounded by super hip 16 year olds with Emma Gonzalez-haircuts, was inappropriate, to say the least. At one point, I saw one of my actual students, and I don’t know who felt worse about it, her or me. A lot of my colleagues refuse to use the gym at our university for fear of being seen in their underwear, and it was like that, only more awful.
The experience reminded me of a recent graphic story from the New Yorker called “Young and Dumb Inside” by Emily Flake. It’s about being a Jawbreaker fan back in the day and then going to see them at Riotfest and mourning for one’s lost youth. It’s a great cartoon and it captured something essential and poignant about being a fan of punk and post-punk in the 1990s, but it didn’t capture everything. Also, it implied, as I did just now, that going to shows when you’re older is terrible. But it’s not, or not always. It can be great.

Or at least I like to think so, and most of the time, I succeed in doing so. The No Vacation show was an anomaly, because I had ventured into the kingdom of youth, where I am, if not unwelcome, at best a sort of ghost or a serf with car keys and a wallet. But most of the time, being at shows is fine. There are really only two things that are fucked about going to shows when you’re older, and both are sort of imaginary. You could be felled by self-consciousness of being the oldest person in the room. Or you could be distressed for physical reasons, like being tired, not wanting to stand or touch people, or having stopped drinking. Those things are real, but they’re also just states of mind. Once you get rid of them, you can enjoy yourself again.

Being old has advantages. You can afford to go to more things. You can leave whenever you want. And you don’t sit around thinking about Some Boy, or who said Hi to you, instead of about more important things. 

So being an older rock fans has perks. Not so sure about being an older rock artist though, and especially not if you’re female. For that demographic, doing anything in public can be difficult, especially touring, which is why I have so much respect for two people I know who are living that hard life right now, Amy Rigby and Cindy Lee Berryhill. Both of them have new albums out, but they don’t sound alike, despite the fact that they are both of the same gender and play guitar. Cindy Lee’s record, “The Adventurist” sounds very West Coasty: think Laurel Canyon, Van Dyke Parks, John Doe's solo works. It’s hard to see her as a punk rocker, but then, neither are the Blasters, really: as one of the leading lights of the anti-folk movement in the late 1980s/early 90s, she injected folk and country into straight up rock. That shouldn’t have been considered a radical move but it somehow eluded radio programmers. Today, although she is beloved by many musicians and has a hardcore following of fans, she is hardly a household name.  

“The Adventurist” is her first record in a decade, during which she watched her husband, the critic Paul Williams, die and was left to raise their son singlehandedly. That fact only seems worth mentioning because it’s the kind of personal history that can derail a person’s career pretty thoroughly, especially if they are a woman, and because some of the songs (“Contemplating the Infinite in a Kiss,” and “An Affair of the Heart”) seem to reference that sad narrative. Others, like ‘I Like Cats, You Like Dogs,” are more joyous and catchy. Perhaps because of the bigness of her life events, Cindy Lee’s songs easily take on big themes: “American Cinematographer,” for instance, likens the panoramic tendencies of modern film-making to how we think about our lives: “In a small frame/I’ll paint a big story…your face is a secret territory/my love in your geography.” Their careful and pretty orchestration – strings, piano, etc. -- mean they could easily fit on a lot of Sirius XM formats, from The Coffee House to the Loft to Spectrum and well beyond.

In contrast, Amy’s music is more late night punk bar on the lower east side-like, i.e., it sounds like almost all of the bands you loved in the 1980s, the ones so influenced by the Velvet Underground and Big Star and the Beach Boys, bands like the Replacements and Miracle Legion and Tommy Keane. That means it’s relentlessly mid-tempo, with loud major chords, grungy production and singalong choruses, and it’s characterized by the kind of extremely clever but heartfelt lyrics that can, in a word or two, succinctly pop your feelings like a zit. She references a lot of the pop culture obsessions of People Like Us, the things we discuss on our Facebook pages, and the pretensions we had as children, and the way that modern life has left us disappointed and weak in the face of its ultimate betrayals, and other, more nuanced things about life. She plays music like she loves all the same bands as I do, but at the same time, she seems like she is a hell of a lot nicer than them. (Not that they're not nice, but, might not want to actually hang out with a lot of them after the show.)

What’s great about Amy’s songs, though, is that they are not mean or condescending, and that she knows it’s not just us who feel life’s little betrayals: the opening track on the album, for example, speculates on what Philip Roth felt when he saw Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel prize for Literature (i.e. bad - although, the fact that, in her scenario, Dylan has an aol account is about as biting as Amy gets.) It’s good to remember, when you’re sitting in a nightclub reminiscing about your glorious past and your very indifferent present, that even famous people have such moments of self-doubt and humility. It’s not limited to peons. It’s the human condition.  

I've always really admired Amy for her fearlessness: I know of it, because she writes a great blog that refers to a lot of the issues I think about as well - you can access it here - and is truly unafraid of mulling over the aging process (which she once called “Middlescence”).  So maybe it's not surprising, that her new record, ‘The Old Guys,” refers specifically about having the “50-something Blues.”  On the title track, she allies herself with the vanguard, singing, “Still taking risks/I keep my hand in a fist,” before ending on a rueful note, “we become the old guys.” And on “Are We Still There Yet?” a rumination on how the past informs our present, she sings, “Turn the radio off so we can choose between CD and cassette/hail fellow well met.” 

That line alone is what links her record to Cindy Lee’s – and what links them both to myself as well. I am not a musician, but in other ways we are fellow travelers through this vale of tears, since we live in a society that does not want to hear about what it’s like to be an older woman, that doesn’t make it enjoyable to be an older woman, that doesn’t make it easy to be one, and that devalues that experience to the point where we internalize the process. What these two artists, and these two records, have in common is that they defy that. They are defiant. And I endorse that message.

Monday, March 5, 2018

If Not Now, Where?

Last night my daughter posted a picture on Instagram with the caption, “Thanks for being the only tolerable music on my mom’s ipod when I was 5” over a picture of They Might Be Giants. We’d just returned from seeing the band live at the Fillmore, and I was touched, because I thought there was NOTHING on my ipod that she liked.

The remarkable thing wasn’t just that she loved the show, but that her experience of seeing them live was so close to my first time seeing them, at the Kennel Club, on Divisidero, in 1986. That time they wore — and sold — fezzes during the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” an unexpected cover if ever there was one, and we fell down laughing during their rendition of “The Sun is A Mass (Of Incandescent Gas),”a song lifted from an insert in one of those Golden Book Encyclopedias which were the staple of all our childhoods.

That sense of wonder, silliness, and charm was exactly what I know my daughter felt during the Giants show at the Fillmore when, in the middle of their set, they unexpectedly played the song “Bills Bills Bills” by Destiny’s Child — that is, transforming and embracing a song that she associates with being a little girl. By exhibiting it in this other incarnation, through guys and guitars (her least favorite combination), they put music itself  on display as the actual magic trick that it really is.
note chandeliers

 They couldn’t have done anything to please her more…I mean, until they did, by interjecting Sia’s “Chandelier” into “Particle Man,” (an impromptu moment inspired, apparently, by the actual chandeliers in the auditorium). It reminded me of so many deep moments in my own past, of U2 folding “Alison” into “Bad,” or the Afghan Whigs suddenly segueing from “Faded” into “The Boys of Summer,” of a mashup I once heard of the Breeder’s “Cannonball” with the song “Wabash Cannonball.” Such moments can be so uplifting; they send your brain into some kind of Connect-4 slot machine of memories, to a place where music can literally inhabit every pore of your past. At its best, a song by the Giants can make the sonic experience into a sort of  stream of consciousness novel, so that you go from thinking about the band in front of you, to thinking about bands that you’d seen on that stage before, to thinking about the meaning of life, and finally, to how saxophones remind you of Lisa Simpson and Bruce Springsteen and that one hit song by Gerry Rafferty, thus forcing you to recall what it was like to hear music go from being in the hands of beard old British men and into the hands of people like the Giants John Flansburgh and John Linnell, that were young and accessible and funny and authentic, that were people that I actually knew.

Because that’s what happened. In the mid-1980s I lived in a four story Victorian that was a little bit famous because it was the cover shot of a coffee table book called ‘Painted Ladies.” The building was full of shenanigans and rock bands, it featured a rotating cast of six roommates, and we rented it from an older guy who was a singer in a Rolling Stones cover band that, astonishingly, still plays around town today. Early in my tenure there a guy named Bill knocked on my door for all the world like an old traveling encyclopedia sales person, and handed me a record by a band called They Might Be Giants.

In fact, he was a friend of a friend of my sister, and he’d heard I wrote about music — which I did, two paragraphs a time for 10$ a pop, for the Bay Guardian, where I also (hand me my cane, children!) typeset two days a week.

Those were simpler times you see – so simple that I was able to make rent on that little amount of work – and I played said record instantly, not having yet been overrun with product by the six major labels which would soon be sending me 24,000 new releases a year in cardboard mailers that would end up making our recycling bin a huge problem every week. I loved the record the minute I heard it, especially the song “Don’t Let Start,” which it’s spelt out chorus: “do I need apostrophe T need this torture?”

From that time forward, They Might Be Giants became connected to some of my favorite memories, like  the time only a few years later, by which time I was established as a real rock critic, and my friend Glenn pulled his car over to the side of the road, in Hoboken, by the Hudson and made me listen to the demo for the song “Birdhouse In Your Soul." We were on our way to see a Butthole Surfers show at ABC No Rio, and to this day I can remember sitting there listening by the side of the while the sun set over Manhattan. Wait (I thought): did they just reference “Medea?” Did they just rhyme “The Longines Symphonette?” Is this a song about an ambitious nightlight that longs to be a lighthouse, so that it can illuminate more things, or is it actually a metaphor for friendship, love and caution?

I voted for the latter. Now, as previously observed herein, no band likes to be called quirky, a word that surely has been applied to TMBG more than any other. But to me they aren’t; indeed, they aren’t even funny or comic or nerdy, despite having an audience that can shout out the 14th president of the United States without resorting to google. To me, they are simply nonpareil. I am not joking when I say that I believe that “Birdhouse In Your Soul” stands as one of the best songs of the 20th century, alongside giants like “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “What A Wonderful World” and “Summertime" and “Thunder Road.”

Like those songs, which meld sunny thoughts with an unstoppable melodic poignancy, They Might Be Giants actually have their dark side. "I use my outside voice because I have no choice," they sing on their newest LP "I Like Fun," and a similar risible tension, lying somewhere between tunefulness and ire, pervades songs like “Bluebeard’s Wife,” in which the murdered remains of one of that pirate’s victims reflects on the ways she should have conducted her relationship with him, or “Lake Monsters,” which ends with the observation that there’s no hypnosis like a mass hypnosis – “because a mass hypnosis isn’t happening.” Oh isn't it?

"I Like Fun" continues an impressive streak for a 30 plus year old band, as did their performance at the Fillmore, that is, by pleasing both my daughter and I. Have you ever thought that the reason so many bands have slumps or get boring as they age is because they only have a certain amount of words and notes and ideas to use, and they’ve used them up? They Might Be Giants store of the same is seemingly unlimited. I mean, think about it. Most pop songs are about love and loss, emo-y shit like that. But if you can write a song about the eternal soul masquerading as a child’s nightlight, then you are simply never going to run out of material.