Friday, January 23, 2015

Piano Man, AntiChrist

It's tough to pinpoint the exact moment Billy Joel became my personal antichrist. It's an attitude that hardened over the decades to the point where hearing Uptown Girl while shopping at the Market Basket would send me clutching for my blood pressure medication that my doctor had never prescribed for me for just those kind of sudden onslaughts of unprepared Joelness.

I don't deny my own culpability in all this and I won't back down from my many well-earned layers of musical snobbery. But overall, I have softened over the years. Look through my record collection! You'll see a goodly number of (early) Jackson Browne and Elton John records. I no longer wage a losing war against the entire soft-rock industrial complex. There are even days when I can listen to an Eagles song, an entire Eagles song (as long as it's not Hotel California) with something approaching, if not enjoyment, at least an attitude of live and let charge $500 for concert tickets towards Mr. Henley and Company. I enjoy the music of Spoon, which, if I were forced to honestly describe it, sounds much like Billy Joel without actual Joel-like components.

There was even a time, way back in the days of eight-track tapes, when I enjoyed the songs of Billy Joel. My parents had copies of 52nd Street and Shattered Glass. I would singalong to Big Shot. I was seven, and I also enjoyed the Village People's YMCA unironically. My musical tastes were far from fully formed.

I know there are many good, kind, loving people in the world, some of them are even my friends and family, who enjoy the musical stylings of Mr. Joel and I don't hold that against them. God bless each and every one of them. At this point, though, most people who know me expect me to turn red in the face and get the shakes whenever a Billy Joel song comes on the radio and would check for my pulse if I didn't.

But when it comes to the root of all Billy Joel evil, Piano Man gets at least 90 percent of the blame. Even thinking about the song, catching a whiff of the insipid singsong melody in my head makes it hard for me to focus on rationally explaining how much I hate that song.

Breathing. I'm breathing ... 

If there is a hell below, it is filled not with fire and brimstone, but with endless badly balanced stereos blaring the Satanic strains of Piano Man for 23-1/2 hours per day, broken up only by just enough of a daily dose of We Didn't Start the Fire just so I can be faced with the mindracking contemplation that there is the possibility that Billy Joel may have written a song that was even worse than Piano Man.

The damned sing-songy swaying tempo, the interminable length of the thing in the neverending American Pie vein, those awful lyrics that sound like there were written by John Updike's four-year-old grandson on a sugar high after eating a carton of Cocoa Crispies and then trying to translate a bad Bruce Springsteen song into Latin then to Russian and then back into English. The fact that no one ever sings along to the song in public. No, no, no ... every half-drunk moron who hears it come on the jukebox at the bar has to shout along to this fetid piece of musical kryptonite.

Where's my inhaler?

Joel's intrinsic need to prove that he is both a tough-guy ROCKER as well as a serious ARTIST only makes it worse. It would be easier to buy if you didn't make us try to sit through all 13 minutes of Scenes From an Italian Restaurant aka as the really long Billy Joel song that isn't Piano Man whose only saving grace is that it doesn't get played on the radio is much and if it is played in public no one really knows the words.

Still. People grow. People soften. Insufferable new music comes along to make the insufferable old music seem not so bad, or at least create an aura of misty-eyed nostalgia around it. I've seen the Youtube videos of Billy Joel approaching a level of human sincerity and pulling fans onstage to sing with him, much to the delight of the people who enjoy the music that Billy Joel plays. I approach something close to a level of appreciation for that. I mean, the video being on mute helps, but I can begin to feel seem melting of my Joelgrinch heart.

And then yesterday. I'm in Bull Moose Records in Salem and I overhear a conversation between two of the young, presumably hip record store cashiers. They are talking about how they had to shut off the music they were playing because it made one of the customers uncontrollably angry, angry, they said, like they have never seen anyone angry about a song before. I'm assuming they were playing some industrial/screech/gangsta rap/goth shit that sounds like a powerdrill mutilating cattle while yelling various forms of the words fuck and bitch over and over.

I'm just about to chime in with "shoot, the only music that makes me that angry is Billy Joel ... hahahaha" when the purple-haired cashier girl hits play on the CD player again. I hear

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in ...

Damn you, William Martin Joel. If there's a hell below.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The things we (temporarily) leave behind

I've got a little buddha amulet. I wear it around my neck, most days.

Not that I'm a buddhist, except maybe a little bit, or as much as anything else, anyway. More it's a totem I can hold on to, feel it's weight in my hand when there is the need. A reminder to slow down, take another breath. Maybe two or three.

It's a good thing to have around, most days.

It's except on the days when there are no good things to have around.

Goddamn, it's one of those moods again! And there might be a reason for it, and there might not be, and it's stupid, stupid either way and I've got nothing to say and I should say I have nothing to say but then that would mean I have something to say. At least deep down, I know it goes away quicker, whatever stupid reason set me off, and tomorrow will be better and tomorrow was not always better, so it's more of a little peak over the edge more than a long-time descent.

But it's still a day, or two, to ride out. Black, black, black and I'm a fraud and if I said anything at all it's that I'm a fraud and there is no buddha, nothing around my neck reminding me to breath two three four and its just a further proof that its all bullshit anyway and who did I think I was fooling?

But goddamn if the next day the little guy isn't around my neck again and I'm breathing two three four and even talking, talking about that little black hole that gets a little smaller and easier to cross every year.

It's almost like I know, now, that the sun

will come out

.... well, you know. And the things I left behind, if even for a day, they are still there.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book List 2014

It's time for my first annual best books of the year list of books that were mostly not published in 2014. I set myself what ended up being a modest goal of reading 50 books this year, and ended up finishing somewhere around 80.

Thanks to the easy magic of Goodreads, I was able to look back on those titles and come up with an honest-to-goodness this is the best of what I read this year list. One or two were by authors I have read before, but most were by writers I've been meaning to read for years, or caught me by surprise.

10. Among the Thugs - Bill Buford

By far the best book I've ever read about soccer hooligans, doughy English men punching people, lighting things on fire, and running away from the authorities. Buford inserts himself into a you-are-the immediacy of bad behavior and social class, but he never lets himself overshadow the story.

9. Hiroshima Nagasaki - Paul Ham 

There were a couple of popular history books I could have slid into this spot,. but none of them offered as clear and moving overview of the big picture alongside the immediacy of everyday life for those living in Japan at the end of World War II.

8. Stephen King - It/The Stand 

Last year, I started reading Stephen King again for the first time in decades. This year I backtracked to two of his longest, most popular, and most critically acclaimed novels. I've come to terms that King is not always as scary as you think he's going to be, 90 percent of the characters sound like the talk exactly like Stephen King would and have no concept of popular culture outside the baby boom generation, and after a 1,000 pages, the endings can be a little anti-climatic. But, I've also come to appreciate that King creates worlds filled with a wonderful sense of dread and humanity.
If only he had stuck to the creepy clown and not the giant cosmic spider at the end of It.

7. Ross MacDonald - The Lew Archer novels 

About 75 percent of the time I spend at the library is in the mystery stacks looking for the proper mix of literary, hardboiled noir. This year, I finally took the dive into the Ross MacDonald Lew Archer novels. It's pretty much the perfect mix of post-war California detective fiction with good, tight, smart writing.

6. John Connolly - The Gates

Do you miss Harry Potter? Do you wish Harry Potter had more lovably cranky weiner dogs and bad dwarves who steal ice cream trucks, all while the minions of the dark side try to invade a small English town? Of course you do! John Connolly's Samuel Johnson series has been my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for outstanding new young adult fiction.

5. Daniel Woodrell - Winter's Bone

I guess they made this into a movie with JLaw. I haven't seen it. Maybe some day I will. If it is a fraction as tough and moving as the book, it will be worth it. But you should read the book instead. Or also. Just read the damn book if you haven't already.
I also read several of Woodrell's earlier, more explicitly crime/noir novels this year. You should also read those.

4. Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita 

I should have read more classics this year. Maybe next year. I got about half-way through Bleak House, which was still a good 400 pages, and I do love me some Dickens, but the timing just didn't feel right.

I also read the Great Gatsby again. By my totally arbitrary rules, I didn't consider that for my list of best books I read this year because I've read it before. That rule could easily change next year.

Which leaves me with Lolita, which may well be a better novel than Gatsby anyway. English wasn't even Nabokov's first language, and still, there are maybe a dozen writers who have ever lived who are more accomplished in their first language than Nabokov was in his second.

3. Donald Hall - Essays after Eighty 

Simple and profound. Nothing else I read this year came close to this small volume essays when it came to writing about life, loss, simple pleasures, struggles, and about writing itself. There are a hell of a lot of writing guides and manuals out there that offer far less practical information about what it is to live and write than can be found across a page or two of Hall's latest.

2. Andre Dubus - Selected Stories

I reread some Raymond Carver short stories this year. I may never be sure of what I really think about Carver. I feel like I should love him or hate him, but he just sits there, capable, workmanlike, touching on themes I should care about more.

Instead of reading Carver again, I will read more Andre Dubus. His stories are in the Carver territory, but much more human, mystical, and touching. It doesn't hurt that many of his stories take place within a mile or two outside my door. But these stories would be about real people with real lives and struggles regardless of the geography.

1. Peter Matthiessen - Shadow Country  

As soon as I finished reading Shadow Country this summer, it was all I could do not to turn back to page one and start reading it again immediately. If that isn't a sign of a novel that stays with you, I don't know what is.

Matthiessen hits on all the big themes of the big American novel, the violence, the expansion of the country, what it means to be an American, what is truth, but never lets the excitement of the underlying story get away from him. I also read The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord this year, and both of those could easily have made my ten best list, if it were not for my arbitrary rules. But Shadow Country was the one novel that lived and stayed inside my head this year more than any other.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Nobel Prize for being me

I'd be lying if I said I didn't still want to be a famous writer, or at least known by people beyond my friends some day. I'm realistic enough to know the clock is ticking on that. And that I don't work hard enough most days to make that close to a reality.

But the older I get and the less likely it is to ever happen for me, the more I am accepting of it. Because it is the age of niche content and narrowcasting. And I have found my niche. All I care about (well, mostly care about, a check for doing what I love would still be nice) is that there is one person who thinks I am the funniest, most talented guy in the world.

She is likely delusional in this thought.

But that there is even one person whom I have touched in this way makes everything worth it. If there is never a second person who thinks (or may have thought) that I was the funniest, most talented person in the history of ever it won't have mattered.

We all spend so much time on this little blue ball wondering if anything we did ever mattered that much. In truth, all you have to do is touch one person deeply and it will all have mattered. I'll take that over all the bestseller lists and literary statue things there are (not that I would reject them if they were thrust upon me).

Monday, June 02, 2014

Sports radio

I generally don't spend a lot of time trying to explain any of the poems I write because

a) I try not to be that guy

b) They are generally pretty self-explanatory

c) They usually aren't all that great to start with

and while b) and c) likely hold for this one as well, it is something that has been banging around in my head and in stages in notebooks for a while and was inspired to get some of it down because of a lovely, touching, and personal post that Leslie wrote about her battle with depression.

So basically, I'm not sure I can come anywhere close to writing as well as she did about the big picture of the disease, this is a poem about depression, and how it has affected me in the past, and how I know it can still come and tap me on the shoulder at any time, and how when it is here for me, I lose all desire to do the things I know could bring me happiness. So I listen to sports talk radio instead.

Sports radio

Don't care,
don't care
if Mark Bellhorn is batting
seventh or eighth, if Alan Embree
has lost a little off his fastball and
should be kept off the playoff roster.

Care, don't care about a lot and
not caring sinks me deeper into
the afternoon drive time of
Lefty and the Sportz Nutz only
to hear voices, something that
means nothing to me, voices
shouting over each other and Bruce
from the Cape thinks Lefty is a
moron for thinking the team even has
a shot this year.

Don't care, don't care, don't care
and someday I will again but for
now I need the voices to take
up the empty space and I'll never
care that Ed from Everett thinks
Danny should package the seventeenth
pick in the draft to go after a lottery
slot and still I listen eight,
ten, twelve hours a day because
the shouting and voices that mean
nothing to me are better than the
emptiness and better than believing
I deserve to hear voices I'll
enjoy and boy
if that
third line
isn't enough to take us to
the conference finals this year
we are going to run these bums

out of town.

Friday, April 25, 2014

In case you're curious, this is the kinda stuff that takes up space in my notebook when I get free falafel wraps at the coffee shop

Laughing, flying

Love lives in the lines
let go with the flight
of our laughs.

Letting loose with cartwheels
of joy and mirth,
downhill to
side by side and if we
can't cartwheel we will
jump and let go of gravity.

Roll. Fly.

Roll and jump and cartwheel and
there was a time I was the king
of the backwards somersault,
impressive in its own way.

And we're never sad when we
let go of gravity and travel
with our feet off the ground
and laugh
as we roll toward the sun,
like flying only with
a few more well earned

bumps and bruises.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Doing something different with the same results in eighth grade

If seventh grade was an epic tale of lovelorn longing and embarrassment, then eighth grade was more of a haiku of embarrassment. In general, with the exception of the whole remaining girlfriendless for the year and throughout the remainder of most of the next decade thing, eighth grade was a pretty awesome place for a 13-year-old me to be.

We'd had a year to complete that transition from elementary school to the new-found relative freedom of junior high school. And as eighth graders, we were at the top of the hill, a relatively small hill of only two grades, but still a hill.

I was doing well with the making friends thing, and had deluded myself into thinking a) I was one of the popular kids, and b) that being one of the popular kids counted for something. Eight grade was likely the crest of the wave of my popularity delusion, but for that one glorious year I was riding it with as many surfing metaphors as I could.

Just how bad ass was life as an eighth grader?

We got to spend our gym classes playing Ultimate Frisbee, which until Golf Frisbee came along was the cutting edge of flying disc-based sports technology.

Study hall was even better than gym class. There was a group of about a dozen honors students who got to spend at least some of our study time in our science teacher's classroom watching tapes of Friday Night Videos on his giant, toploading classroom VCR. Since most of our town had yet to obtain the magic of cable television and all the Duran Duran videos MTV could play during the early 80s, this was about as good as it gets.

And, in between viewings of the Safety Dance and Jessie's Girl, I had found my new object of affection, eighth grade version. This girl, was, well, I guess she was cute. And occasionally within viewing distance of me, and in my badass study hall. And I was on an Ultimate-Frisbeeing roll and was gonna get this girlfriend thing down in year two of junior high. Yeah, I was going to go for it, eventually, maybe.

I'd thought, or at least I like to think I thought, I'd learned a lesson from the previous school year's attempt at winning going-steady favor through the use of humorous epistolary. This time around, I was going to stand up and be a man (okay, boy - mannish boy) and outright ask this young lady to be mine.

Honestly, I don't think this girl made anywhere near the impression on me that seventh grade not-girlfriend had, but I was in the game and worked myself up and I was going to do this. Now other than committing the sin of being cute and somewhat in my line of daily activity, I'm not sure what this girl did to deserve my swaggering approach. But I was going to go for it. Eventually, maybe.

Going to put my plan in motion!

Great plan!

Just go up to her and ask her out!

Two weeks later. Still my plan. Still had not asked her out. Every night working myself up to do it the next day. Building up high levels of eighth grade anxiety. Hoping she would say yes. Not really having any clear plan what would happen next if she did say yes. Extreme handholding? Walking to the arcade on a half day?

Finally, one day I worked myself up into enough of a sweat-filled frenzy of nerves of I'm Going to Do This that I convinced myself that by the end of the day I was going to Do This. This was the one part of my plan that had not changed from seventh grade. Wait until the last possible minute. As a matter of fact, this has been the one consistent thing that has ever held true about any plans I've ever had for anything.

Doing It consisted largely of cornering the poor girl near her locker at the end of the day, covered in sweat. My sweat, although as soon as I cornered her near her locker, I don't doubt that she began to break out into her own cold sweat. I put my arm up on her locker, looking all cool-like in that 80s eighth grade way, felt my heart go up and out of my throat and dive back down to my knees at the same time, and promptly began stammering.

Something along the lines of:

So, uhhh. You know, mm, I really like you and ummmm (cough)
was thinking, just thinking really uhhhhh, maybe that
you might, maybe mmmummahh wanna
go out with meeeee?

In retrospect, the supremely well thought out and solid part of the seventh grade wooing by letter plan was that I did not see the reaction to my lovestruck idiocy playing out in real time.

Because in eighth grade real time, the reaction could most closely be described as: The facial expression of a teenage girl who had swallowed a skunk that had rolled around in a city dump sized mound of garbage that had been sprayed by a thousand other skunks. If there was a way to wrinkle one's nose so far upwards that it disappeared into the back of one's skull, she discovered it that day.

Uhhhh, yeah, no, that's okay,
I don't think so.

She managed to get out once the skunk smell dissipated enough and her nose had retracted back out from the back of her skull.

I managed to keep my cool arm on the locker pose as she walked away.

During the 20 seconds of what seemed like a sweaty eternity it took for the full powers of rejection to hit me, one of my friends had come up to get his things out of his locker.

Woah man, he said, that was pretty rough. Wanna go play some ultimate frisbee?