Kanye West: Awards Aren’t the Only Measure of Art (OR Celebrity in the Age of Celebrities)

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s, Dennis, had a hard time a few weeks ago when he found himself being rated (very low scores) by women on a group-dating site. Dennis is usually a charming sociopath; he is witty and charismatic before ultimately disappointing any possible paramours by avoiding contact or outrightly disrespecting them. But now, completely overcome by a desire for good ratings, he forgot how to be charming, and was solely focused on his one star rating. Continue reading


Pearl Jam is Back

There was a time, between hair metal and boy bands, when MTV still played videos, and radio wasn’t streaming online, that scruffy dudes in flannel and Doc Martens ruled the airwaves. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and, arguably, to a lesser degree, Soundgarden were the kings of rock radio. They wrote songs about teenage angst, depression, suicide, drugs, metaphors for the new comfortable life our generation was provided and the emptiness that was found within such coziness. Continue reading

Samuel and Jimi Hendrix

One of the best things about teaching ESL is that you meet awesome students. You can meet impressive, precocious youngsters who correct your grammar or wild, excitable hooligans that are incapable of sitting still. You can meet demure, sweet kids who draw you cute pictures or give you their last piece of candy. You can meet the kindergarten munchkins who’ll tell you they love you every day. You can also meet a kid like Samuel. Continue reading

God Bless The Grateful Dead–For Helping Me Again

            The Grateful Dead, the quintessential hippie rock band, forged in the belly of the San Francisco underground Acid Tests, has kept us all rolling, twirling and tripping along with them on their long, strange trip since 1967 with the release of their first album. They have gained and lost band members, written timeless songs, and allowed us all an excuse to feel that freeing feeling of communal liberation that is, a Grateful Dead show. Although I was only 14 when Jerry Garcia died, I did experience the revival of the band in Furthur Festival, The Dead and The Other Ones. I even got to attend one in 1998 with my father, which remains one of my favorite memories and stories to tell. It’s such a spectacle of the other way to live life, the other way seeming to be a shunning of “traditional” values, appearances and cultures. The women have hairy armpits, the men wear wavy sun dresses, babies dance naked next to empty beer cans, grey haired hippies sell glass pipes and veggie quesadillas, while young trust funders rock short dreads, goodwill t-shirts and expensive huarache sandals from their last family trip to Belize. There was a very peaceful, sharing, familial vibe at those concerts, except for the mounted police (but, maybe that’s because I’m slightly afraid of horses). The Grateful Dead cultivated this atmosphere of freedom by allowing fans to tape all their shows without restriction or copyright issues. Now, there is such a large database of live music, some websites are “dead”icated to distributing and trading these past archives of live musical anarchy.

            One of the most underrated aspects of The Dead was their chief lyricist, Robert Hunter. He partnered with Jerry Garcia’s musical genius to write some of their most cherished songs with profound and remarkable lyrics to match. “Eyes of the World”, “Wharf Rat”, “Terrapin Station”, “Touch of Grey” and basically all of American Beauty were co-written by Robert Hunter. His lyrics meld with Jerry and Bob’s voice so well before creating those tender jams through the bands’ combined instruments. Hunter’s lyrics always spoke to me, but recently, when listening to the Dead’s traveling mantra song, Truckin’, I heard a lyric I never paid attention to before. The line goes: “Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime, if you don’t lay ‘em down.” It hit me rather straight on the nose. I have been thinking about that aspect of my life. Am I doing all I can, all the time? Am I taking chances, am I using my talents? Am I laying “my cards” down or folding? Another great idea of act first, worry later is from “Terrapin Station.” The narrator watches as two men observe a beautiful woman, then the sailor approaches her and she chooses him over the handsome, discreet soldier. Risk can be rewarded. Timidity rarely precedes triumph.

            I just saw an interview with the insane Steve-O who told cameras he’d rather regret things he’s done rather than things he hasn’t done. He is no model for life without regret, as he is the same man who jammed fireworks into his rectum and sat in an “overloaded” portable toilet slingshot. Yet, those stunts gave millions a reason to laugh and made him a well-paid household name. Those experiences can wash away with an enema and a strong shower, but regretting things we could have done, is a fate far worse. As Calogero learns by the end of the movie—A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices you make will shape your life forever.” I had learned this life gem back in 2006 when I was traveling Europe—“Always say ‘Hello’”. It was a great way to meet new friends when rolling solo, but required action, and the chance of spurning. (“60% of the time, it works every time.”) It did work, and allowed me to meet some crazy dudes and some marvelous women and it all started by putting aside preconceptions and just doing. But, what about using my talents, do I have any talents that I’m unaware of or am not stimulating enough? Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it and focus on the things I do well. Perhaps that is acceding to mediocrity or stagnation. Perhaps I’m okay with mediocrity. Perhaps I’m setting low goals so that I reach them. Perhaps I’m American and told from an early age to aspire to greatness and distinction in life and like a multitude of the anxiety riddled masses perpetually left disappointed with my seemingly mediocre existence, yet only mediocre when compared to others’. Perhaps I am happy. Perhaps I know the secret to my happiness is individualized and not a shape or size that others may conceive of for me.

            The Grateful Dead made music and performed the way they wanted. The fans fed off this customized way of life and lived accordingly. Maybe living the way you think you’re supposed to live is the biggest waste of talent. Maybe comparing your life to another’s is like the apple to the orange. Both fruits will be disappointed and unaware of their own individual sweetness and uniqueness.

I’ll see you on the Dark Side of the Moon.

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, hereafter DSOTM, is the greatest album ever made. Not because it has the best songs, or the most amazing musicality, but because it has the greatest flow of any album ever created. (Yes, I sound like Will Ferrell’s imitation of James Lipton using hyperbolic description, but it’s apropos for this idea.) I know I hear people disagreeing saying U2’s The Joshua Tree; Nirvana’s Nevermind; MJ’s Thriller; Jimi’s Electric Ladyland or even for some indie-folk Radiohead’s OK Computer are contenders. But when was the last time you listened to Nevermind? It’s dated after 20 years, albeit dated with a stamp of awesome. And Thriller is close, but it’s slightly disco in parts. Those are all great records, but the songs present on those albums can stand alone and fit on any of their other discs. You can find radio friendly singles on them that don’t float ethereally into the next making a complete ball of soaring sound like DSOTM. Any song from DSOTM cannot be heard without humming the next track at its conclusion. Sure, “Money” or “Time” is heard on rock ‘n roll channels, but I’m always upset that they don’t lead into “Us & Them” and “Great Gig in the Sky” respectively. Each of the ten tracks is perfectly placed to complement the others. It is a soundtrack for relaxation, contemplation, and exploration. Also, what other piece of music can fit itself into a classic movie? (For the uninitiated, DSOTM can be paired to make some interesting coincidences with The Wizard of Oz.) Yes, I watched them together after the third lion roar, and they do fit, and not just in some “Whoa, he said money when the color starts!” (which does happen, among others.)

50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong, and the 15 million actual sales of DSOTM can’t be wrong either. It means that by estimating the population of the USA under 70—1 in 16 people have bought or owned the album. (Those are just sales. Have you ever met anyone over 25 who hasn’t heard DSOTM? I wouldn’t trust them.) Sales are not the best indicator of the beauty of the concept. Its simple lyrics and astral soundscape create a personal and particular moment each time you listen. Once, after an all-nighter, my friend Damian dropped me off at my house as the sun rose over a cold, leafless horizon. As he put the car in park, we heard, “Home, home again…it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire.” I know it’s simple, but it made sense at the time, and was a memorable moment. Many times, driving to work with my father in the dreary dawn of weekday workdays, we would hear Pink Floyd come on the radio and my dad would always mutter aloud in a peaceful, pleased manner, “It’s always Floyd.” I thought it was his way of acknowledging a good day, or the transient beauty of life’s small pleasures.

The cover is attractive too—a simple prism expanding white light into the spectrum of Earth’s colors. They didn’t need anything fancy, nothing to really investigate, but nothing to distract either.

You don’t have to agree. You can keep your #1. You don’t have to believe in my opinion. I’m only presenting an idea, a notion that those 43 minutes can transport you to a time in your past, or a time in the present—of living in the now. As you listen to that album, it forces absorption, captivating your energy into self-awareness of the world around you. “…Ten years have got behind you…” You cannot hear those words and not visualize yourself a decade ago, complete with your younger thoughts, ambitions and ideals. Inside, there is philosophy, “..all you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be.”; poetry, “…there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”; recent politics, “…money…share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie.”; and Zen wisdom, “…in the end, it’s only round and round.”

Music is the liberator of our emotions. It’s our life soundtrack. It’s more important than we appreciate. It sustains loneliness, eases depression, inspires dancing, and establishes memories. You never hear a couple saying, “Oh my gosh, this is our smell!” Many things are individualistic like sight or taste. No one can ever know what you’ve seen or eaten. But you can hit up youtube and play them a meaningful song from your soundtrack. “Gangnam Style” reached over a billion people in the world and gave them an opportunity to dance cheesy and smile. Music eases a troubled mind. David used his harp in the Bible; David Bowie used a guitar in the 70’s. They both had something inside only expressed through song. Learning an instrument is an important part of being human, it provides an ability to express what sometimes, cannot be said. Pink Floyd’s DSOTM helps me when I need it.

“There is no dark side of the moon, really, matter of fact, it’s all dark.” (heartbeat()()()()()()()Image

Van Halen vs. Van Hagar vs. Celine Dion

Contact is all that it takes
to change your life, to lose your place in time
Contact. Asleep or awake
Coming around you may wake up to find

Questions deep within your eyes
Now more than ever, you realize

And then you sense a change
Nothing feels the same
All your dreams are strange
Love comes walking in/Beauty and the Beast

Ooh, and there she stands in a silken gown
Silver lights shining down

Love comes walking in/Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends

Just a little change
Small, to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared

Love comes walking in/Beauty and the Beast

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

These are the lyrics to a Van Halen song: “Love Comes Walking In” and the classic Celine Dion song: “Beauty and the Beast.” Can you tell the difference? Everyone always likes to bust Sammy Hagar for ruining Van Halen. The popular response is, “I like Van Halen, not Van Hagar.” But, they aren’t so different. Diamond Dave focused on silliness, sexiness and splits. Sammy Hagar seems to focus on drinking and love. A casual fan probably wouldn’t be able to identify the two singers from a cursory listen. I like both bands. I like both AC/DC’s. It’s never easy to replace a dead lead singer like in the case of Bon Scott and AC/DC, but Brian Johnson did it and rocked lots of their most famous songs. I think if David Lee Roth had died a classic rock n’ roll death of masturbatory self-asphyxiation or a drunken car crash, Sammy Hagar would have been received with a higher acclaim. But Dave was strutting around singing about California Girls and fans couldn’t understand why he wasn’t still “running with the devil.”




The Sounds of Music

The Sound of Music, a whimsical musical which belies the serious undertones of the Nazi takeover of Austria, features songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, came out in 1965 at the moment of America escalating the Vietnam War. It is a war movie, despite the happiness of its songs. It is magical, it is fantastic, and it is a classic. And I never saw it until I was 30 years old.

During the summer of 2011, I was in transition between USA and Korea. The part-time work kept me busy during the day, catching up with old friends kept the nights occupied and the Jersey shore kept weekends lively and sun-filled. It was a great three months spent with family and friends.

One hazy summer night my mother asked me to attend a community theater presentation of The Sound of Music. Several people from my childhood church were performing, I had never seen it and the Phillies had the night off, so I went, not sure what to expect. I was entranced within the first minutes. “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” It was wonderful fun. The actors were amateur, the stage was tiny, and the audience was a tiny group of 50 friends, yet I was holding myself back from singing along to words I had never heard before, but knew somehow. I watched the great Julie Andrews version 3 times the next week and now I am an unadulterated and unabashed fan.

I remember years ago, in my salty teenage brininess, when my family was sitting around the TV, fire crackling, with huge grins watching it, and I walked by and mentioned how I’d never seen it, my father asked incredulously, “How could you never have seen THIS?” He then broke into his loud, gesture-filled version of Edelweiss, which finalized my opinion to return to my basement. But now I know what he was talking about. It won Best Picture and Best Sound for a reason. It won because of the transcendent singability of the songs, the mystical beauty of the Alps combined with Julie Andrews heavenly voice and smile and because Dr. Zhivago had too much snow, sadness and no singing.

One day last week, while my kindergarten kids were coloring their self-portraits, I started humming or whistling Do-Re-Mi and three kids finished the verse with the lyrics: “…a drop of golden sun…” I was so excited I put it on the youtube.com and we all sang together. It was so great, and another little moment of unexpected joy teaching the younglings. I grew up with timeless, ageless Wizard of Oz. I’m glad I saved this one for a time when I was mature enough to enjoy it.

The daunting task of climbing every mountain still lies ahead of me, but I am following the rainbow, searching for my dream.

Music: of the People, by the People, and for the People

Did you ever wish you could go back to the first time you heard a song? Back to where you were when “Thong Song” blasted out of your friend’s convertible one crazy midsummer night, or any of the wonderfully great rap songs of the 90’s that helped define summers. What about the first time you heard “November Rain” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine” ripping your eardrums open without ever thinking of turning it down, or seeing your first MJ or Bjork video? We can never go home again, we can’t know then what we know now. We shouldn’t. It might make those moments mean less to actually see them for what they were, instead of how we remember them after time’s filtering mirror has been shone upon them.

I remember the first time I heard The Doors. At the Jersey shore with a kid who was maybe 5 years older than me (which at age 9 feels like 20 years) and he put on the greatest hits album. I couldn’t believe how deep and cool Morrison’s voice sounded, alternately screaming and crooning along with the haunting, melodic piano of Ray Manzarek. A few years later, I remember looking at my Snoop Dogg CD and totally missing the “Doggystyle” joke as a 12 year old (but I knew it had something to do with those big butted pooches crawling in and out of the Dogg house.)

Now, American music pumps out of my gym’s speakers in Korea. Americans dance the tango to Latin words and rhythms. People around the world meditate to the Tibetan and Indian mantras and ragas. Music is a shared commodity.

Recently, at a fantastic display of traditional Korean dance, we watched the talented high schoolers do their thing for over 2 hours before taking their final bow and rocking out to LMFAO’s “Party Anthem.” They were shuffling, twisting and shaking it, all while wearing ballet slippers, tuxedos or hanboks. Music needs no translation; although the words may be a mystery, even if you didn’t speak English, you’d know Elliot Smith was depressed, Pink was pissed off, and R. Kelly was horny. Smells are intricately tied to memory, but sounds are pulled out of your own personal nostalgia every time you hear that one song from your middle school dance with your crush, or your first kiss song, or the song driving with your great lost love, or how a particular song helped you through a nasty breakup or death, or even helped you understand to keep on moving forward no matter who or what is holding you back.

A friend told me that Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” helped her realize, mid-jogging session, that all will be okay as long as she stays true to herself and keeps running, metaphorically and literally.

Music is not always a good story though. Like the times driving with my mom, when she asks me to explain a Notorious B.I.G. or 50 Cent song; it’s pretty damn awkward as a 17 year old to tell your mom the lyric that she misunderstood was: “your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement,” and it isn’t any easier when you’re 24 and she asks if the ‘candy shop’ where he will let her “lick the lollipop” is slang for some new drug she doesn’t know about and you have to set her straight that the seemingly obvious has passed right over her adorably naïve head, before she tells you, “I don’t like that.” But that isn’t her music. It’s ours. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, 90’s rap, Chili Peppers, Jewel, basically all MTV is all ours. For that brief moment in time, before reality shows and after hair bands, before the Iraq War but after the Gulf War, when Clinton was president and all was right with the world, we lived as know-it-all teenagers in a musical wonderland. Almost everyday we heard a great, new song for the first time, and we actually had to buy the music to listen to it unedited.

Then, seeing your first concert is an eye-opening experience too. My first was Steve Miller Band followed the next weekend by The Dave Matthews Band. The Camden lawn was a beautiful place. The Philly skyline gently reflecting into the Delaware River, the light breezes drifting off the coast ruffling the summer dress of the supple blonde girl next to you, and the methodical madness of youth in revolt powered by overpriced light beer. But, as always, you gradually get over the silliness of adolescence and then concerts become a way to hear your favorites with 5 good friends and 15,000 strangers.

It is the truth that when you learn to play music you make a friend for life. Sitting in any of my many apartments over the last 15 years since I learned to play guitar, I have always been soothed by the fact that I had that familiar instrument to strum and pluck to remind myself that no matter where I am, I am there. Be there, and be your past and future within the present. Just as music was, it will always be. I was watching SNL, and Josh Brolin said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Gotye.” And I watched for my standard minute as I always do to give the band a chance, and then another, and watched the whole song in a trance. That shaggy Australian minstrel was talking to me, he was singing of the pain I had felt. I had another moment of hearing a song for the first time and it was tremendous.  Everything was new for those 4 minutes.

Music is the force that Obi-Wan could have been referencing when he said: “[It] surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Of course, Master Kenobi was speaking of the force that gives a Jedi his power; but, who’s to say Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Bonham, John Lennon or Sting is not a Jedi of a separate, musical order?

And, a side note, God bless the Grateful Dead for giving us an opportunity to hear a song we know, in a different way—every time…

Oh Thunder Road

About six or seven years ago, I was working construction with my father.  It was probably summer time.  We were renovating a 19th century mansion on the big hill overlooking my childhood town.  It was not an easy job.  There were nasty days full of the worst grease, grime and grit you can imagine.  There were days where we felt like nothing was getting done and the job would never end.  There were days when I wished I were anywhere else but there.  And, of course, there were days that I’ll never forget—quality time with my pop learning his craft.  During that summer the University of Pennsylvania radio station was playing the 885 greatest songs of all time (as voted on by listeners) to go along with their call sign of 88.5 FM.  We love this station and it never left the radio.  We listened during our breaks, our work hours and turned it up to extremes whenever our favorites came on the air.  During the few weeks it lasted, my Dad and I and the three other co-workers, whom I’ve known all my life and feel like family, would argue and speculate on what could possibly be called the greatest song from an indisputably great radio station.  We all knew that the Beatles, Zeppelin, Who, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Clapton would be represented.  It was always a pleasant surprise to hear each song with its subjectively ranked number, but when it got down to the top ten we had invested lots of time into those songs and were angry if it didn’t match our taste.  Finally, number one came and it was announced as Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.  We were all shocked when “Like a Rolling Stone” came at number two, which is a classic to anyone’s flavor of music, but this was even more shocking.  ‘The Boss’ Springsteen is an adopted son of Philly, a blue-collar, hard working, Jersey Shore, cheese steak on lunch break kinda guy.  He sold out around 40 consecutive visits over 30 years to the Philadelphia area.  I knew that may have influenced the listening public, but I just didn’t understand that choice for number 1.  Until now.  I have listened to more Bruce since being in Korea than in my whole life.  After you’ve been working for a living for enough time, with enough bosses harassing you, failed relationships, tough life lessons, paying bills, unrequited loves and bad days to fill in the otherwise daily beauty of existence, you hear new things in tough, old songs.  I believe his words and understand the feeling of wanting to get on the road without even knowing where it is you want to drive.  Thunder Road plays on my shuffling Ipod and brings a smile every time.  It doesn’t have the nostalgic poignancy of “Glory Days” or the idyllic dreams of “Born to Run” or even the jingoistic pride of “Born in the U.S.A.” but it has rambling romance, self-confidence, and my favorite line “you ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright…” It deserves its place at number one.  Put aside your VH1 and Top 40 accepted wisdom of what a number one song is, and you might agree that this one is poetry in motion.

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves 
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays,
 Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
 don’t turn me home again 
I just can’t face myself alone again
 don’t run back inside 
Darling you know just what I’m here for,

So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore 
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night,
 you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright—oh and that’s alright with me 

You can hide ‘neath your covers
 and study your pain 
Make crosses from your lovers
 throw roses in the rain 
Waste your summer praying in vain
 for a savior to rise from these streets 
Well now I’m no hero
 that’s understood all the redemption I can offer girl 
Is beneath this dirty hood
 with a chance to make it good somehow 
Hey what else can we do now?
 except roll down the window 
And let the wind blow
 back your hair well the night’s busting open 
These two lanes will take us anywhere
 we got one last chance to make it real 
To trade in these wings on some wheels
 climb in back 
Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks
 come take my hand 
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land
Thunder Road oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun I know it’s late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road sit tight take hold

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk 
And my car’s out back
 if you’re ready to take that long walk 
From your front porch to my front seat
 the door’s open but the ride it ain’t free 
And I know you’re lonely
 for words that I ain’t spoken 
But tonight we’ll be free
 all the promises’ll be broken 
There were ghosts in the eyes
 of all the boys you sent away 
They haunt this dusty beach road
 in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets; they scream your name at night in the street 
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
 and in the lonely cool before dawn you hear their engines roaring on but when you get to the porch they’re gone on the wind so Mary climb in 
It’s town full of losers
 and I’m pulling out of here to win