I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live? Continue reading
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. We didn’t have to deal with a generation altering war, a corrupt president (at that time), global recessions, or international terrorism. It was the 90’s. We (we, in this case, is basically middle class, suburban Americans for I can only write what I know) were in a temporary bubble of glory. Our parents were aging hippies, our president admitted to smoking but not inhaling, our country was still a mess, but the media wasn’t as intrusive as the Internet saturated, fear-filled 21st century. There was assuredly still gun problems, poverty, childhood hunger, failing inner-city schools, ignorance was rampant as always, but I was just a kid, all I knew was I needed new pegs for my Mongoose bike or had a test in Social Studies with Ms. Greenwood.
Nirvana is probably the biggest of the so-called “grunge” bands. Their hit, “Smells like Teen Spirit” is supposed to be the anthem of my generation. With lyrics like, “here we are now, entertain us…” Kurt Cobain grabbed the first string of modern youth entitlement, as if to say to the world, do something for us, we deserve it. Kurt looked bored with life, acted jaded by his celebrity and essentially burned out instead of fading away. He wrote lots of the enduring hits from the 90’s and because he followed the James Dean model, he will always be remembered for his youthful insouciance, greasy blond hair and intensely weary blue eyes.
Alice in Chains and Soundgarden I found later to be agreeable to my ears. Particularly, the unplugged album of Alice in Chains and the Chris Cornell voiced Audioslave. I know both of those bands rock well and hard, but my taste always leaned toward the final, and in my opinion, greatest of the Seattle sounds, The Mookie Blaylock Band, a.k.a. Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam’s Ten is counted among one of the first five albums I purchased at the antiquated Sam Goody. I listened to it with a sense of rebellion and wonder. I knew he was screaming about pain, pain that I just hadn’t experience at age 12. Eddie Vedder spoke of drug addiction, lost loves, school suicides, child abuse, and familial estrangement. The lyrics were touching, despite their confusing and mature themes, but it was the melodies, harmonies and riffs that kept me hooked. Nirvana rocked straight through the amp. Pearl Jam caressed the speakers with a slightly warmer, less bar chorded lead guitar sway. I hate to compare the two, but music is meant to be interpreted, and I deduced Pearl Jam to be my first favorite band.
I used to drink to oblivion, especially for the concerts at Camden, New Jersey’s outdoor pavilion. There are few shows I remember fully. Save for the brief memories of waving my hands back and forth in the shape of a shark fin, and making out with tequila breathed 20-somethings, I’m not even sure I saw Jimmy Buffett some years. But, for some reason, among the possibly 50 shows I saw at that grand venue on the Delaware River, I was never close to drunk at a Pearl Jam concert. I wanted to hear them so bad every time. They never let me down.
Re-visiting PJ’s MTV Unplugged album this week was such a nostalgic experience. Eddie’s voice sounded so crisp, so undamaged by age, so naively indignant and perfectly clear. He sang the song “Even Flow”, about an old homeless man, down on his luck, “hand out, faces that sees time again ain’t that familiar”. He sang about a depressed boy who shot himself in front of his class, “seemed a harmless little f*#%”. He sang about a girl he lost, who will “..someday you’ll have a beautiful life, someday you’ll be a star, in somebody else’s sky…why can’t it be mine?” And then the classic line from the slow song to end the album, a possible ode to a troubled paternal relationship, “I see the world’s on a rocking horse of time.” It’s a nice image to finish such a turbulent album. One day, we will all be released into this rocking horse of time, this world of everlasting ebb and flow, the eternal purge and surge, the familiar creation—followed by destruction.
And that is just their first album! We haven’t even discussed Better Man, Daughter, RVM, or Corduroy. Music changed in that brief moment between pagers and cell phones, The Real World and Survivor and Tupac and Little Wayne. There will continue to be new music that is incomparable to what came before it. Visionaries will push the boundaries, producers will push the stars to their mental limits and music will continue to push us forward through our lives, giving us soundtracks to remember when we were dancing in ecstasy with that beautiful girl on a beach rave to Madonna’s first techno single, “Ray of Light”. The first time you felt the power of singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in a karaoke bar in Korea. Or maybe, just the calming vibrations of recalling your first Bob Marley moment can remind you to slow life down and take a deep breath.
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.
I’ve known Samuel for just about two years now. On his first day in kindergarten last year, he asked me if he could sing a song. I thought he’d stand up and sing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” or something juvenile and boring. He confidently strutted to the front of the room next to me and sang a popular K-Pop song called “Itaewon Freedom” complete with the dance moves! He sang until he forgot the words. The shy young 5-year olds sat smiling with jaws agape and clapped. My Korean co-teacher, Elly, laughed the whole time. I knew I found an extraordinary little soul. He didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) what peer judgment was, or embarrassment, or being cool. He just knew he wanted to sing, that’s it. Throughout that year, we’d let him sing and dance for new teachers, visiting parents, our hard-nosed principal and basically, he’d sing even if we didn’t ask him to. Anyone who saw my Facebook page during the “Gangnam Style” craze of 2012 summer remembers Samuel. He was wearing the backwards hat in my video of the kids playing conga drums to the song on our field trip to the local funny farm.
He’s a natural entertainer. I heard one story where, on another field trip, he went up to some typically shy high school girls for no reason and sang a song to them. They blushed and covered their mouths like they were talking to some cute English-speaking foreigner. Another day, our attractive young female intern was putting some papers together for a parent newsletter. I happened to walk by the desk and Samuel was casually singing and dancing next to her, as if teaching her the moves. It was apparent he had been there awhile, for she wasn’t even paying attention anymore.
This brings us to last week. I called my pretty co-teacher a foxy lady (because she is the teacher of the room called “Foxy”) and she didn’t get it. I said, “You know, like the song, Foxy Lady…(nothing registered on her face)…The song by Jimi Hendrix…(still nothing)…You know Jimi Hendrix right?” I couldn’t believe it. Neither she, nor any of these six intelligent Korean women had ever heard his name let alone his style of psychedelic blues, radical behavior and flamboyant fashion. I thought he was a household name. (At least they knew Bob Dylan.) But it made me think maybe that’s why Asia and Asians are so dissimilar to Westerners. Entertainment seems to be America’s number one export and the only thing we do well lately. Their world of entertainment is so far removed from the West. I’m not familiar enough with it to explain. But I know their silly TV shows, overacted dramas and outlandish Friday night K-pop extravaganzas are incomparable to the unmatched quality of SNL’s comedy, The Simpsons’ writing, CSI’s production, or even Glee’s singing (if that’s your thing.) There’s a reason American TV and cinema is shown around the world. There’s a reason Western bands and singers can sell out arenas all around the world. There’s a reason why PSY was only a temporary global phenomenon. But there is NO reason why you should know his name but not Jimi Hendrix. The reason is unfortunately, inexplicable. If I have to explain it, you won’t understand. I’m trying not to be intolerant and biased. I know there is great music, TV, and cinema from the Asian world. Perhaps their culture values others traits more than musical creativity. Perhaps their culture doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Perhaps their culture is okay not having a U2, Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix to call their own. But, by the same token, where would the world be without Confucius or Lao Tzu? Would they be the Beat poets or the Bob Dylan of the modern age?
It’s hard to get across my feelings. Maybe you agree or disagree that the Western world is providing better music and movies that the Asian world. Maybe it’s a matter of economics, and Hollywood and big record companies have more money to throw into marketing; but what I do know is that when Samuel sings “We Will Rock You” by Queen, and does a decent Freddy Mercury impression, I’m more happy and more impressed than when he does the horse dance and sings about snotty girls who are overdressed and underfed wearing high heels south of the Han River in Seoul.
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.
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 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.
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