Rants and Musings

When you close your eyes, you assume things. When you open your eyes, you see things.

When you close your eyes, you assume things. When you open your eyes, you see things.

 

 

 

This was the line I jotted down last night.

 

 

 

I took my niece Alexys to the Beautiful Bee's Daddy Daughter dance at Fox Meadows elementary school. I got a lot of 'how sweet" and whatnots. The truth is, I was the one that got my cup filled. I adore her, and her sassy little sister. The fact that I was her first choice was a big boost to the ego. Seeing my name as "King" Tony under "Princess" Alexys  on a personalized snowflake invitation was fun. The home points didn't hurt either. 

 

 

 

I always told my kids to approach situations where you are the social outsider as an anthropologist. Observe with as little judgment as you can. I will tell you what I saw.

 

 

 

I saw some teacher's turn a lunch room into a ballroom.

 

 

 

I saw more cuteness than I could stand. 

 

 

 

I saw 30 men being 100% there for 30 little girls. Fathers, Uncles, Grandfathers, Brothers, Family Friends . Men with neck tattoos and corn rows. Men with gray hair and old wingtips. Men who struggled with the language. Men who were putting in the full time work. Men who showed up when they were needed, just because she asked. 

 

 

 

I saw two refrigerator sized police officers, on their own time, put on rubber gloves and serve cheese cubes and fruit to little princesses. ("Its hot in here", wipes sweat, dabs eyes)

 

 

 

I saw hard looking dudes getting misty eyed, bending down to slow dance with their princesses.

 

 

 

I saw guy's getting their Stacy's scuffed up putting the tables back, so they could serve breakfast in the cafeteria in the morning.

 

 

 

I was proud to stand up with these men.

 

 

 

I was proud to eat pink cupcakes with these men.

 

 

 

I was proud to line up shoulder to shoulder in the soul train line with these men for 4 plays of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," while every Princess was announced, danced down the center, and got her picture taken.

 

 

 

I saw the best of what we could be, in what some call the worst of places. 

 

 

 

When you close your eyes, you assume things. When you open your eyes, you see things.

Notes from the road, Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree Sunset
4/15/18
Its our last full day in Joshua Tree. Played the Joshua Tree Saloon yesterday. Cool, laid back joint with great fish tacos. The lady who booked me, Leslie, played a fantastic song about "Cat Nip" on my guitar. Our old friend Danny from the Coffee Cellar (pre-kid) days came. It was good to see him. I self rate the performance as average. Caught some friendly faces, but too much distance from the audience, and too much sun, made it all very hard to read. I closed out with "Return of the Grievous Angel," in honor of Gram Parsons, the tentative reason for my pilgrimage here.
After I finished, a leathery man came up and said, "I really needed to hear that last song, thank you." I liked something about his vibe. We retired to a rare shady spot to talk over a smoke. He asked my name a few times. He told me he had been "blown up" in Afghanistan and his head was a little scrambled. He was a Marine. He had seen the world, and didn't regret his service. He had seen polar bears in the wild at the north pole while doing "stuff". I pressed, "stuff" was all I got. He was living in a F350 van in the park, that he had converted into a camper, complete with solar charging for all his stuff. He had stayed longer than the 14 days park rules call for, but he helped out on some search and rescue, payed for his campsite, and stayed out of trouble, so the rangers let it slide. He was a passionate rock climber. He showed me the patchwork of scars that made up his hands. He was leaving Monday, same as me. He was going to see his kids in Orange County, sleep on a bed and take a shower. He was heading to spend the summer in Yosemite or Yellowstone. He struck me as hurt, but mending. He spoke softly. His name was Jim.
I was taught from a very young age to speak in hushed tones while in nature. I come from a land of trees and thick woods that I grew up hunting, fishing, camping and playing in. This is the first time I have spent any amount of time outdoors in the desert. We drove down several dirt roads through Joshua Tree park, marveling at the beauty of the lonely expanses. You really get a sense of the magnitude of geological time, and the impermanence of everything to do with humans. We stopped to examine the rocks and vegetation. I climbed up on a rock high above the cacti and Joshua trees. Against my upbringing, I wanted to shout out into the roaring silence, just once, to see how long it took for the echo to bring my voice back to me. I let out a shout, but the wind snatched it up and never brought it back. Laying in bed I wondered if Jim came out here to be quiet, or to let the wind carry away his screams.

Notes on Songwriting (for Nancy Apple's U of M Songwriting class)

I was invited to speak to Nancy Apple's songwriting class at the University of Memphis. This started as bullet speaking points and turned into what you see here. I spoke extemporaneously, joined by my musical amigo Cecil Yancy. These were my notes.
 
First I would like to congratulate you on being brave enough to undertake a class in songwriting. I'm assuming you are writing songs and turning them in or presenting them. Most people would rather cook bacon naked than to put themselves out there like that. I was in a songwriting group once where about 10 of us got a word every week and had to write a song, complete with demo and lyric sheet. If you couldn’t, you were out. The first thing I did when I got the word would invariably be to write something so filthy I prayed I came up with something more respectable by the due date. Sometimes I turned in some absolute turds. We all did. To make it worse, these were people I saw at songwriter nights, and sometimes at the grocery store. Its like turning a corner and running into a person you walked in on in the bathroom. You have my admiration.
 
I consider myself a storyteller first and a songwriter second. Or more accurately, I am a storyteller and song is my medium.
 
To get the question out of the way, the words come first, for me its always the words. I am mostly interested in a particular songwriting style. I am interested in telling the human stories. The stories we will pass down. What we did and how we felt. Its a vanity to be sure, but I want to leave my interpretation of the events, real or imagined, that are the only traces that will be left of our lives. I want to capture the essence of things that can not be captured in photographs or videos. I want to conduct the feelings that make us all the same to the listener, so they know they are not alone. I’m not a songwriter in the commercial sense. I mostly write songs that I mean to sing myself, or occasionally one for a friend. I don’t knock writing commercially, nor would I turn down that opportunity, but for me, for now, it is a personal quest more than anything. Here is how I got started. I spent years playing guitar in bands, working in recording studios and later TV stations, raising kids and thinking songwriting was some magic I didn’t have. I had been musically inactive for awhile save playing Hank and Haggard on my porch, when my friend Harry asked me to play guitar in his band for a road weekend, on account of the guitar player’s pregnant girlfriend  wasn’t to keen on his being gone that much. I got home and I wrote a song about our adventure in Tuscaloosa Alabama. A few weeks later I was in the same friend’s studio tracking some guitar parts and I got the courage up to play him my song. He laughed at the funny parts and I thought “shit, I could do this”
 
I don’t write with the intention of being “discovered”. I’m not against it, I’ll take Disney money in a minute, but its not what drives me. I am interested in the oral tradition. Preserving stories like the bards of old. I guess it sounds lofty but its important. History will tell what happened, we will tell how it happened to us.
 
Path to enlightenment:
This is the disclaimer. The Buddhist say there are as many paths to enlightenment as there are people. To put it another way, there are many doors that may or may not be yours. This is what works for me, now. My door might change, yours might too, but we have to keep trying handles. What else can we do?
 
Discipline:
I rarely write in a quiet room at a table at an appointed time. Mostly I’m writing all the time, in the way that I react to the world around me. A turn of phrase catches my ear. Hopefully I remember it. Maybe I had a chance to make a note of it in my phone. I keep a “hook book” of random lines and couplets in Evernote. It syncs across my phone and computer. This was one purpose, to make it more likely that I would note these things as they come. People will tell you they have terrible handwriting. I have the most terrible handwriting. I can’t read it. The effort it takes to make it legible takes up too much of my brain to pay attention to anything else, so I’m stuck memorizing things. With the advent of computers I was able to hold on to things. You would think I would be some kind of typist. You would be mistaken. Back to discipline. I tend to do the most traditional writing activity in the morning. I’m usually the first awake at my house. I put on the coffee and pick up a guitar while it brews. I noodle around, maybe run through the chords of something I’m working on. I try to be sure not to check social media before I do this. My fear is I will be distracted by whatever nonsense is going around and I will lose access to whatever by subconscious left at the doorstep while I was sleeping. When the coffee’s ready I might look through my Evernote and see whats in the hook book that could either fill a hole in something I’m working on or turn into something on its own.  I might pick the guitar back up and work through some turn around or phrase that was giving me trouble. I tend to jump around until I find a trail that looks promising, and I stay on it until I realize I should have started getting ready for work half an hour ago. On weekend days when there is not much I have to do, I splash an adult beverage in my coffee, go sit in the 64 Cadillac in my backyard and make a live Facebook video with some unsolicited opinion and a song. I do these live so I don’t overthink it and talk myself out of it.  If a song seems like its shaping up to have legs, I might record a demo of it or add it to the rotation of songs I’m playing out. I find performing to be a good indicator of whenever or not I should keep refining a song. Its better than playing them for family or friends because they have a certain picture of you and a certain set of tastes. Just because my wife does not react to a song doesn't mean its bad, it just means it didn't hit her in the feelings (or the funny bone). Perhaps it doesn’t relate to any of her experiences, perhaps she asked me a question before I played it for her and is still waiting on an answer.
The other time I seem to write a lot is traveling. It could be the forced isolation of an airplane or a long drive. It might be the stimulation of new surroundings that makes me extra observant. Whatever it is, changing my location seems to jog the words loose.
 
Inspiration:
I find inspiration in stories people tell. The story tells you as much about the teller as it does the subject, if you know how to listen. One of the biggest treats for me is when someone who is good at telling a story tells me one that means something to them. The cadence of how they speak, The words they choose to put emphasis on, the rich subtext that is left for interpretation. I love the rhythms of how people speak. I find the best examples of this are when speaking with people older than me. Maybe they are from a generation that still knows how to have face to face conversations. Maybe they story got richer as it aged. Maybe they have just had longer to tighten it up. 
 
Place:
I have a theory about why so many great writers come from the South. We have a way of poetically speaking around things. We soften harsh words. We don’t say someone is pregnant or knocked up (we do but not around Grandma) we say she is “in a family way.” I detest small talk, but every so often the southern custom of being polite and making conversation has offered up some real gems. I love the particular turns of phrase or rhythms of various regions and times. Pay attention to how these can paint a picture of place. I write a lot about specific places. I really think there is some magic to it.  In his book Mississippi: An American Journey, Anthony Walton referred to Mississippi as "perhaps the most loaded proper noun in American English.” I spent a lot of time in Mississippi growing up and it makes frequent appearances in my writing. 
 
Humor
I tend to use a lot of humor. I was treated to a pearl of wisdom by a Memphis songwriter BB Cunningham during a listening party for a Memphis Songwriters Association. After a particularly morose tear jerking drone of a song the judges were commenting on how heart felt and powerful the song was and BB spoke up “Yeah, but nobody’s gonna pay $5 for a bad trip.” He was right, nobody ever wanted to hear that song again. Its one thing to be true to your feelings, but if you want to do a service to the listener you have to give them something, hope, a way out. I think its a working class reaction, a coping mechanism. I would encourage you to google African American folktales (look for John the Conqueror) of the slave period. You often find humor and hope to be central to dealing with an intolerable situation with relatively no power. We learn to laugh, even when it hurts.
 
Oral History:
I mentioned before the bardic tradition. Kings and Knights actually payed people to write songs about how noble, or brave or just bad-assed they were. These songs reached the next village before Sir Lanceaposer ever did, if he ever did. These oral histories shaped what we know and how we feel about these people and the events of their times. I don’t know if my story of buying a car from a dead man with my Father will ever sit beside the epic of Gilgamesh, but so what? I have this song that I’m asked to play often at shows or just family gatherings, maybe it isn’t immortality but its a sniff of it and it makes me smile. I don’t just write personal stories, but every story I write that has ever resonated with anyone resonated with me first. This goes for personal histories as well as made up or historical stories. I have no interest in writing ear worms, this is why I consider myself first a story teller.
 
What’s in it for the listener?
While all the personal meaning is important, what’s in it for the listener? Can they relate this to their own experience. Maybe not in actual events, but in feelings? Does this validate them? I heard an experienced elementary school art teacher talking to a new teacher in a  bar one night. The young teacher was complaining about how her students wouldn’t listen to her. The senior teacher quickly and forcefully replied “Have you given an 8 year old a reason to listen to you?” It stuck with me, never forget, why should someone spend 3 minutes that they’ll never get back listening to my song? Does it spark their imagination? Does it stir feelings? Does it make them feel less alone?
 
It’s lonely, It’s Messy
No getting around it. If you are listening to too many voices, you won’t hear the one in your head. It requires some isolation. It requires thinking about things you don’t necessarily want to think about. It comes with a ton of doubt, It requires just enough confidence to get past the doubt, but enough humility to know most are base hits at best, and sometimes you are gonna drop a stinker and worse you may temporarily be in love with it. You need to learn to take feedback. You need to learn to recognize and appreciate real feedback. You also have to know when to listen to yourself. You will often get it wrong, so don’t be too hard on yourself in this regard. Another nugget of wisdom I was treated to was from the producer David Foster at a talk he gave here at the University, “We mustn’t be too precious about any of this.” You have to know when to change something, or when to let something go when it doesn’t work. In the novel writers world they say “Kill your darlings.” It sucks.
 
It’s messy too. Your song is your truth, but it might not be the way somebody else sees it. Especially those close to you. They have an image of you, and when something alters that image it upsets the balance of power in the relationship. We are hard wired to maintain these power balances. Going against this is not without pain. Growth is not without pain. Truth is not without pain. 
 

Mine for truths, question motives

I got a Kindle awhile back. I avoided it for years. Like a stage coach railing at a steam locomotive, I clung to my paper books. In my work life, I find myself in a lot of hurry up and wait situations, and most of these in dim lit rooms, so the Kindle has significantly increased the amount of reading I do. It has also decreased the amount of mindless social media consumption I do, but more on that later. Last night, I started thinking about the Carlos Casteneda books I loved when i was but a wee weirdo, and decided it might be fun to re-read them. If you're not familiar, Casteneda wrote a series of books, published as non-fiction, about his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Shaman named Don Juan. It's been awhile (25+ years) since my Mom gave me a trade paperback of "Journey to Ixtlan". I'm fairly certain she didn't read it, but she did have an uncanny knack for passing me books at just the time I was ready for them. I devoured the mysticicm and lay philosophy and wondered about the peyote visions. I questioned the non-ficition classification even then. Anyway, thanks to the Internet, no one has to be ignorant (or, at least, feel that way), so off i went to see where I should start retracing my wide eyed 15 year old self's steps into the books that shaped a lot of my thoughts in a pretty critical period. I still hear phrases in my head from those books, like when someone who has attained some level of success starts condescending to others on the same path they followed, and stopped at what they thought was the pinnacle to look down, effectively ending their knowledge journey. Don Juan would have said this was just "the masters indulging in being the masters". I have chuckled this to myself as an explanation for someone's behavior, and a reminder to myself that it could happen to me. I bet if I do ever re-read them, I will find the forgotten source of several ideas I hold dear.

 

My journey started innocently enough. I  wanted to go in order, so i would need to see which book came first. I should have stopped there, but I got sucked in to the controversy of whether or not he had made all of it up, was it actually Yaqui teachings, blah blah blah. Now, I'm a big believer in not letting facts get in the way of a good story, or, as I like to say it, "Don't let the truth get in the way of a truth.”  (This is not an original thought but I don't remember where I got it, so no credit given.) I could have stopped there, but you know how it is, one article links to another, to another, and a few hours later, you're wikki-jacked and stranded miles from where you started, or your original destination. What I found was that later in his life, what could have been kind of a benign hoax repackaging of Eastern philosophy as Native mysticism evolved in to something much darker that was basically a cult. That's not the point of this little thought share, but if you want to explore you can read an excellent article published in Salon HERE

 

It seems like every day we find out another admired public figure has been hiding behind their fame to commit atrocities. To be honest, I'm not terribly surprised when its an actor, a newscaster, or the like. I guess its a prejudice of mine, but I'm suspicious of the motives of anyone who has stayed the course and made the ethical and moral compromises required to achieve fame in these arenas. Am I saying that every famous person is a dirt bag? Of course not (maybe most of them), but like I said, I'm not surprised. What about when its an author? A beloved songwriter? The best of these know our feelings and put them into words. They share wisdom of the ages in ways we can digest. They inadvertently become spiritual mentors, that we probably only know through their works. These hit me the hardest. The question is, what do we do with their works? Is the wisdom any less relevant in light of their human failings? In the case of Casteneda, did he initially believe in what he was doing, and the power and affluence go to his head? Was he always a manipulative sociopath, and these books merely the building blocks to making a demagogue? Want my theory? He broke Tony Manard's number one rule: "Don't believe your own bullshit." I think he played fast and loose with the truth for the sake of sharing his philosophy, through a compelling story that would appeal to the times. The first book was published in 1968, and the public ate up the Native American (actually Mexican) spiritualism through the use of psychedelics (Peyote and Jimson weed). It didn't stop there. These books have NEVER gone out of print and are steady sellers to this day. Did it just get out of hand and turn dark? Could be. Does it negate the truth's contained in his works? Absolutely not, but it does mean they require examination. First, there are very few original truths to be had. Things that are true tend to be universally so, and have been since the beginnings of man. This is why you find so many of the same precepts across most religions. Where the waters get murky is motivation. Example, in modern history, the bible has been used as justification for slavery, genocide, misogyny and bigotry. Does this negate the good lessons inside? Of course not. If that were the case, we would have to invalidate every religion that ever was. Thoughts are not inherently dangerous until they are made into weapons to support people's agendas. What I'm saying is, we need to glean the truths,  while always questioning the motives. We're seeing a lot of this in the current news and political cycle, but it’s

 nothing new. What is particularly troubling about the modern version is that we are buying it without question. I want you to pay close attention to anything that divides us or pits one of us against the other. Look for false equivalences, selective facts, and oversimplification. Read something longer than a meme or slogan. Don't believe stuff because it rhymes, or is satisfyingly simple. Have an opinion you formed from carefully considered facts and not because it holds with your social circle. Be able to articulately discuss it without resorting to name calling or storming off. Read a damn book.  Mine for truths, but question motives.
 
PS - As I was getting ready to post this, I realized that the nudge to revisit Casteneda might have come from my old friend, Louis Magnifico, contacting me out of the blue last week. He and his wife Char are musicians too. I went and sat in with their band and had a blast! Louis and I tripped down memory lane to when we were in Paulette Reagan's (also a Memphis musician) speech class at White Station High School. Both of us were big fans of The Doors. It was around the time that ridiculous movie came out. It was a good exercise in what the photographer Sally Mann calls "keeping on nodding terms with your old self". That was from her book "Hold Still", that my daughter,Chessie, passed me at the exact right time.

Asking Questions

I'm not one for reflection at prescribed times (or anything at appropriate times for that matter.) Yeah, today is the day for it, but that's not my style. Its 10 degrees outside, even the dogs don't want to go out.  My fingers are even less cooperative than usual, so the guitar is just an exercise in frustration, so here I am, reflecting, at the prescribed time. I'm not trying to act like I'm above the cliché, oh far from it. I have made all kinds of specific goals and broad declarations in years past only to see them wither in the cold, and give up in the way too early sunsets. But I think I've just been thinking about it wrong. I've been trying to change myself and my situation, without changing my mind. I've been chasing this thread for a while now. I think it starts with asking myself questions, and accepting the answers for what they are. There's a kind of symmetry in the contradiction of challenging assumptions while trying to accept the world for how it is, and not how I want it to be, that appeals to me. This is not cynicism, I'm far more interested in finding the beauty in the rubble. I'm not trying to tell you how to get your house in order my friend, that is a task I am absolutely unfit for. I'm just admitting that my own could use some ordering, and musing on the path to get there. See, I think I have been thinking about it wrong. I started with answers and didn't read the questions. Here are a few questions I'm starting with:
Could I walk there?
It could do me good, provided that it's safe and that I have the time without creating stress for myself. Walking gives me time to slow my mind. It lets me focus on the rhythms of the world around me. Its good exercise. It works the kinks out in my muscles and my mind.
Do I care?
This one specifically concerns my reactions. Does my reaction reflect how I truly feel, or is it just a reflex to some arbitrary idea I'm holding on to? Am I reacting in a way that other people expect me to, for their comfort, to stay in the box I exist in for them?
To what end?
To me this one is the mother of them all. Is what I'm doing moving toward a purpose? Does it increase my understanding? Does it serve a greater good? Does it increase my health, happiness, security, or well being? Does it increase someone else's health, happiness, security, or well being? 
That's enough questions for today, I have black eyed peas to eat. Happy, healthy and meaningful new year to you!

Manicures and Memories

Confession time. I got a manicure. I liked it. As a guitar player that engages in a fair amount of manual labor, I fuss over my nails, a lot. I am a finger picker, by necessity. A flat pick slides right through my fingers. I never got the hang of those picks that slip over your fingers, so it's finger nails. Now before you jump to any conclusions (if you haven't already), I'm not particularly fancy, or particularly particular about my appearance. I'm a function over form kind of guy. Most of my clothes come from places that also sell tools, and sometimes farming implements. I guess I wear as much flannel as any songwriter. So anyway, back to the manicure. I had heard of guitar players getting press-on, or acrylic nails for the durability they offer. I considered it. I recently read an excellent biography of Guy Clark titled "Without Getting Killed or Caught", written by his last manager. I highly recommend it. Anyway, I found out that Guy would get acrylic nails to keep from having to worry about them holding up to marathon picking sessions night after night. Armed with this justification, I was warming up to the idea. I ran into a gregarious English guitarist and songwriter named Richard Wilson at a songwriter night, and in the course of our conversation he showed me his acrylic nails and explained how it worked. They actually mix up liquid acrylic and shape it with a paint brush over your existing nails. These things are HARD as rocks. I was sold.

At lunch on Monday the next week, I decided I was going to walk to a nail place across the street from work and give it a shot. I didn't have any shows coming up, so I figured I would have time to decide if the plastic fantastic was, in fact, for me. I walked up to the door and the gentleman standing outside smoking a cigarette greeted me with a suspicious "Can I help you?". As I tried to explain the reason for my trip, I could see we were up against a language barrier. My ignorance on the protocol of how these kinds of services are rendered was obviously compounding the issue. My clumsy and exaggerated pantomime of playing the guitar just drew confused looks. It probably was also a factor in cigarette man sitting right next to me the whole time the lady was getting me fixed up. As soon as she was done he took my money and ushered me out the door. Funny thing is, my buddy Crockett Hall hit me up to do a last minute show with him at Growlers the next night, so much for getting used to the nails. But wait, that wasn't even the manicure.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. As the nails grow out, the acrylics grow out as well, and have to be filed. This is an adventure all its own, because, like I said, these things are HARD. I have visualized a scenario of an angle grinder in a vice for speeding this task up, but in an unprecedented sign of maturity, I did not rig this contraption up on the spot. I filed, with Zen like patience, to the confused stares of my co-workers, until Joe, in his cut-through-the-bullshit manner that makes us friends, said "What the fuck are you doing?". Then I explained, and mid explanation I realized that maybe nail filing is like scratching certain spots, folks do it but not in company. I'm still not clear on that one, and its passed far enough I guess I missed my chance to ask. Anyway, we still haven't gotten to the manicure. When the nails grow out they leave a gap that you go back to a nail place and get filled in. I was in Collierville picking up a favorite pair of cowboy boots I had resoled. I had let the nails grow out to a point that I was going to have to get the fill in, or let them go. I spied a nail place and decided to go for it.

There are similarities and differences worth noting in both of the nail establishments I have visited. I always told my kids to approach unfamiliar situations or when they were places that they were obviously outsiders, to act as an anthropologist. Try to observe without judgment but an intellectual curiosity. In my observation both operated as I imagine a brothel does. A person (not a madame in this case but a guy that speaks ok English) greets you at the door and determines what services you are there for. Once they have determined your needs, they direct you to the lady that will perform the services, in a very detached, business as usual manner. The first place was pretty bare bones. There was only one lady working, and they didn't seem to want my stay to extend any longer than it had to. I guess like brothels, or any other service providers, there are varying "levels" of establishments. In the second place, I was greeted by a very friendly fellow, and ushered to a plush chair next to another customer with perfectly lacquered hair and an accent out of the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes". We were offered champagne while we waited. Luckily I had swapped out my tennis shoes for the newly resoled cowboy boots, I hadn't gotten my lunch on my shirt (or maybe I had, but hey plaid!) and my boots no longer had two "mouths" at the toes where the soles had split, so I wasn't feeling too out of place. I was pointed to a table where the man explained to a rather matronly lady in their shared language what I wanted (I don't know if that happens in brothels, the metaphor might have played out). She prepped my fingers then snatched up my left hand to examine those fingers. I'm a guitar player so the nails on my left hand are clipped, or sometimes bit, as short as possible. She pointed to each finger individually and exclaimed "Bad! Bad!". She was right. Ingrown, cuticles hanging, uneven, and unequivocally Bad! "You need manicure. Yes?" I nodded my agreement and the magic began. She squirted some kind of gel on my fingers, shoved my hand in a baggie, and then shoved the whole shooting match in a bag made of electric blanket, to cook until she was ready for it. She was grinding away on the right hand, and of course my nose started to itch. The right hand wasn't too terrible. I had the acrylics on all but the pinkie finger. She finished it up, bagged it, and set about salvaging my disaster of a fretting hand. She scraped cuticles and dug out the ingrown bits. It hurt, not terribly, but enough to jog a memory (we'll get to that later). When she was done, I noticed my fingers felt odd. They didn't hurt! I thought constantly ingrown nails was a guitar player's burden. She could tell I was pleased, and teasingly asked "You want pedicure?". Maybe next time. Maybe next time.

The memory? This wasn't my first manicure. In high school, I went to vo-tech for half the day my junior and senior year. I had my own car and drove myself a lot of the time, or caught a ride with my friend Randy from Overton, in his Volkswagen, affectionately known as "the drug bug". I was driving a 66 Chevelle I built with my Pop and my brother, from about a dozen donor cars. It was a teenage boy of a car, flashy, fast, offensive and totally unreliable. This meant I had to ride the dreaded vo-tech bus on many occasions. There were a couple of guys going for welding, commercial art or small gas engines, but the bus was mostly populated with about 25 girls and 25 styrofoam heads that were taking cosmetology. The ring leader of these girls was a little firecracker named Marilyn who once very loudly made me an indecent proposal and nearly hurt herself laughing at how flustered I got. Her side-kick and court jester, was a tall thin girl named Trixie. Marilyn led the girls in these unbelievably dirty raps with Trixie hollering hilarious asides. The bus driver pretended not to hear. As a gang, they were a little terrifying so I don't blame him. But among the girls with severed styrofoam heads was Rosa. She was thin and delicate, half Palestinian and half Puerto Rican, all beautiful. She said something to me in Spanish and when I shrugged, she switched to English. We talked on days when I rode the bus. She talked about her boyfriend and I talked about my girlfriend, or whatever band I was obsessed with at the time. One day she noticed me absent mindedly biting a nail off on my left hand and she snatched it from my mouth. She got her bag out and kind of violently started filing at my nails. She filed and spoke angrily, not at me just whatever she was angry about. Her Mom, her boyfriend, whatever. I don't know why, but during these exchanges I didn't talk. She filed, I listened. She was new to her craft, and sometimes when she got really going, there was blood. That was the dance. We never exchanged numbers, or really talked outside of that bus. Sitting in the nail parlor, I wondered what ever became of her. I didn't wonder about the manicure though. That's definitely happening again.

New Orleans in the vicinity of Mardi Gras 2017

Had the good fortune to be in New Orleans for some of this year’s Mardi Gras festivities. Me, Shane Essary and Harry Koniditsiotis went down on Thursday and left on Monday (Mardi Gras being Tuesday). We were there under the guise of working on Harry’s documentary, “Who the Hell is Alfred Medley” (check it out here). We stayed with Harry’s folks in Metarie. I’m not sure if guise is the right term. We did get the interview we went for. We caught some parades and had a good, relaxing time. We’re old friends of the kind that everything is pretty drama free. I’m proud of us. I was relatively kind to my liver and I think I leaned a few things:

  1. Places, or your relationship with places, change as you get older. I have been to New Orleans in a variety of capacities from filthy rock and roller to rolling in on the corporate jet. Common to every trip is an excess indulgence. I have literally found myself at my front door in Memphis and not been able to put together the events that transpired between that moment and being tossed out of a bar on Decatur Street (Thanks Woodsy).  This time it was King cake. Mrs. K had a different one every morning, along with her home made baklava, salami and cheese. It was fantastic. I have to tell you, folks down here ain’t playing about the King cake. We were in a comic book shop when the bakery next door ran out and had to lock their doors. There was indignant anger expressed in at least half a dozen accents. We were expecting a mini riot. We caught some parades and ate good food. I got a shower everyday and never had to use a portalet (what we call port a potties) so 40 year old me is calling this one a win!
  2. While I’m glad I have the memories of being in an invading army of dudes with greasy hair and greasy jeans, I’m equally thankful for the opportunity to crash with locals and experience the city as they do. I’m sure that this is the best way to truly experience any city but forgive me if I choose to believe that no place has local pride like New Orleans. Hold on, now, I’m not defecting or anything. I’m still fiercely Memphis as it gets and I get it, a lot of us are proud of our town, but it's the exception and not the rule. To a person, everyone I have come across in New Orleans, that was from there, was eager to share their town with an outsider. Also, I have never met so many natural story tellers in one place. Mr. K ran restraints in the French Quarter since the 60’s, so he’s full of stories. We went in a music store to borrow a guitar and to shoot the Saturday morning cowboy song, and instead of telling us to get out the owner told us stories about being in a band in the 60’s and making enough money to buy a new car in high school. 
  3. Everybody, from all walks of life, participates in Mardi Gras. Rich, poor, from the most counter culture crazies to the most basic bitches (unisex of course) get in on the party. The people watching is better entertainment than some of the parades. 
  4. People say “brah” a lot. I mean A LOT. To the point that it sounds like a sick bird. “Brah brah, brah, brah.” What’s the deal with that?

 

It was a good trip. I still love you, darling Memphis, but don’t mind if I check out Miss NOLA’s backside as she goes by.

Now what?

I voted. That is my right. That is my duty. I voted my conscience, or at least as best as I could given the choices. I voted with my family. I secured my right to comment with that vote.

 

I don’t think the world will end because of the outcome, but I am disturbed by the breakdown in civility it illustrates. Do I tell my kids their vote doesn’t count? Certainly not, even though we cast them knowing full well where the electoral votes for our state would go. The fact that an entrenched, career politician lost to an outsider and a proud misogynist, bigot and bully proves that every vote does count, for better or for worse. 

 

I will let others try to figure out what happened, I have an idea, but it is based on my own experience with disenfranchised people, and may not reflect the larger reality. I earned the right to state my opinion with my vote and I will use that tiny soap box to say this:

 

Conversation will never be more important.

 

Art will never be more important.

 

Music will never be more important.

 

Comedy will never be more important.

 

Film will never be more important.

 

Dance will never be more important.

 

Calling out bigotry, misogyny and hatred will never be more important.

 

Calling out greed and corruption will never be more important.

 

Connecting with people that have  different ideas and come from different backgrounds than ourselves will never be more important.

 

Turn off the tv. Get off the computer. Leave your house. Quit listening to the echo chamber in your phone. Go out in the world, and stay there until you see the humanity in every person who does not look like you, talk like you, or think like you. You don’t have to agree with them, or change their minds, but see them as a being struggling just like you.

 

We won’t lose our freedom to politicians or invaders, we will lose it to hate.

 

Love is the only way we can be free.

 

 

Insomnia Train

2am 

Riding the insomnia train

Memories rattle by the windows

Nothing smells familiar

Pinned to the seat

Eyes wide open

Homesick, guilty

alone

Wanderlust's hangover

Live a life of duty

Or seek a life of beauty?

Is there really anything in between?

It's not as if it's some magical land

Brick is still brick

Steel is still steel

But it is, and you know it is

Kid yourself if you can 

And woe for what I have to do to find it

Books, Hats, and Maybe Overthinking it

Last night I traded blood for the stars. Dramatic? Ok, last night I got ate up by mosquitos looking at the stars. It was a pretty clear night and there were a bunch of them, accented with the occasional flash of heat lightning. All the standard emotions, oh the beauty that’s always there and we never see, small and insignificant in the face of the universe, blah, blah , blah. It did get me thinking. What am I doing? Why songs? Why any of it? Nothing original there either I guess, but the question remains. Why? I don’t know. Maybe its a bit like putting on a costume when you’re a kid. Maybe its something like playing tourist. Visiting a place without having to buy real estate. The sharing of stories. Truths unburdened by facts. Songs are a container for these truths. I like performing the songs for a similar reason. It’s like reaching into a trunk full of costumes and pulling out a weathered cowboy hat, or, more often for me, Groucho Marx glasses.

 

 

The rewards? Other than the aforementioned, I don’t know about those either. I couldn’t describe them anyway. I know there is a lot of anguish right now over who is being cheated and who is profiting from the work of others. I didn’t come to debate that one way or another. I can say that there is no way to separate the two awkward bedfellows, and that is where it gets messy and ugly. I will say I wish it wasn’t that way. I do wonder if its smooth g akin to burning a field. Maybe the creation of art for art’s sake with no chance for profit will bring back a little purity. Maybe the old forms will evolve when we aren’t afraid to stray from them because we have nothing to lose. That’s not to knock the old forms, they have comfort and ritual and fulfill a need, but it sure would be nice to stumble on another peanut butter and chocolate kind of moment.

 

 

Also, I recently turned 40, Vinnie loaned me his copy of Blood Meridian, and yesterday I impulsively bought a cowboy hat. I might be going through something. In my defense, the style of the hat is called “Gus” (after the character in Lonesome Dove), and I was powerless as a child is to a movie themed happy meal toy to resist. Fuck it, no regrets on the hat. Jury is still out on the rest.

Waffle House, West Memphis

The lady in the booth behind me is crying into her scattered, smothered, and covered. It’s none of my business but there it is. She is obviously a regular here. The waitress sits down with her and the story pours out between sobs. She had just quit the motel next door. She was a cleaning lady there. It was also her temporary residence, in between apartments. Her horrible excuse for a boss had been caught steeling, and was let go. She talked about how this woman had been the owners favorite. How the owners had given her tormentor the old furniture, she herself had asked for and been denied, to set up house keeping. The owner’s favorite, and she betrayed them. The real stinger was that she had been paying her boss for the room, and the woman had apparently been pocketing the money. The owners were demanding she pay for a room for two weeks, at full cost. They accused her of lying about it. Her house of cards was completely destroyed. It was none of my business, but be damned if it didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks. I was helpless. I was uncomfortable. I was ashamed, and I had nothing to do with it. I realized this woman had probably never had leverage in a situation in her entire life. I should have picked up her check, but it was none of my business, after all. I paid my check and left. I felt like an asshole.

Comus

The least famous ghost in New Orleans 

Treads the rickety stairs
Past the 2nd floor with the concubines 
To the third where the man sleeps with his wife
Wipes his brow and prays over his pillow 
It's not him of course, but it doesn't matter
She has been here since Jean Laffite 
He was rumored to be Comus

A Tale of Two Orange Mounds

Note: I have had this one floating around for a bit. I have hesitated to share because  neither of the men discussed are ones to seek attention. Nevertheless, I feel the story is one worth sharing, if only to highlight our similarities.

Orange mound is a neighborhood in Memphis, TN that has the distinction of being the first community in America built for, and by African-Americans. It was started in 1890 on the grounds of the former Deadrick Plantation. There is an excellent documentary entitled "A Community Called Orange Mound" produced by Memphis' PBS station WKNO that explores this cultural phenomenon, and I highly recommend you check it out. Although I currently live less than a mile out of what would be considered Orange Mound proper, my real connection to the neighborhood comes through two men; my Father, and my good friend and coworker Eddie Hill. The differences, and similarities of their experiences in the same place and time have been a lesson for me in the common threads that bind us all together. 

 

Eddie Hill is my friend. He is an easy smiling, gentle giant. Over six and a half feet tall with a shiny bald head. It’s not hard to see the young man that was part of the 1970 undefeated Melrose High school state championship basketball team. He's had the nickname Fuzz since he was a baby not, as I once assumed, from the impressive afro he sported in his Melrose days. He grew up in a shotgun on Spotswood, in the heart of Orange Mound, and not a mile from where my Pop grew up on Newell. One day at work he was talking about growing up there, and I mentioned that my father grew up in the neighborhood. I ignorantly wondered aloud if they had gone to school together. I got a compassionate, but sideways glance from my friend and I realized my mistake. This was the 60's, my father is white and Eddie is black. Ironically Messick, the high school both my parents went to, was on the street Eddie grew up on. Melrose, off Park, was within walking distance of to the house on Newell where my Pop grew up, but those were the days of supposed "separate but equal" if not in law, then in practice.  

 

I grew up hearing tales of Mom and Pop's adventures at Messick, and tales of growing up in the neighborhood (My Mom came from the Bronx and moved to Memphis, but they lived in the then new Parkway Village area). It was drag racing down Park avenue, taking MeeMaw to work at Loeb's laundry or Tops BBQ and general teenage boy mayhem. It never seemed odd to me that he grew up on the edge of one of America's most famous black neighborhoods. It was just part of who he is. Anybody that was alive in Memphis April, 4 1968 can tell you where they were, and what happened in the days following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. Tanks rolled down the streets of Memphis, and a strict curfew was in effect. My father dove his Mother and a black lady she worked with home from Loeb's laundry with a shotgun on the front seat. Someone threw a brick thrpugj the back window of his prized ’57 Chevy sedan. These stories are a part of everybody who's family has roots here's folklore. I don't guess he gave any more thought to him going to an all white school than, I did to going to an almost exclusively black elementary school until long after the fact. It was our reality and it seemed normal.  

 

Eddie's desk is right next to mine. Over the years we have bonded over a love of music, and "big boned catfish" among other things. Its the kind of close you get to people you work with in a business that involves a lot of "hurry up and wait". The places, and some of the events in his stories are familiar enough, but the perspective is a little different. Where my Pop and his brothers would have thought nothing about getting into a physical altercation with someone who gave them offense, it was a little different for Eddie. Chief among my own sins is a quickness to anger. On more than one occasion, I have felt Eddie's hand on my shoulder and a grave plea to turn down the intensity. This perspective comes form someone who grew up in a time a black man could easily lose his life to such a display of aggression (though sometimes I fear we are still there).  

 

One day not so long ago I managed to get them together. We (the guys I work with) were having lunch at our favorite Mexican joint (the sadly deceased Chivas Mexican Deli) and my folks were coming through from their place in Mississippi. I had mentioned to Eddie about my Pop growing up on the outskirts of the mound. Neither of them have ever met a stranger, and the conversation lasted for hours. The years fell away as they talked through the old haunts. They visited the grocery, and the parks, and the drainage ditch that isn't there anymore. I came to the table with assumptions about their differences, but the real story was the similarities. My grandfather was a heavy equipment operator for the city. Eddie's father was a pipe fitter for the city owned utility. Both their fathers fought in the 2nd world war and had a taste for whiskey. Both men went to neighborhood schools with neighborhood pride. They determined that Eddie likely delivered cases of Nehi soda to the house on Newell, riding a 3 wheeled bicycle. When it was time to go they shook hands and parted like the oldest of friends, just two fellas from the old neighborhood.  

 

God don't come to Mississippi

God don’t come to Mississippi, at least not often. I was 5 maybe 6. Grandma carried me to Aunt Nancy’s to play with my cousin Jennifer, about my age. It was summer. A thunderstorm came up. It was sound and fury. Jennifer and I holding on to each other under the little kitchen table. Aunt Nancy’s little house shook with every clap. The rain driving relentlessly on the tin roof. Aunt Nancy going on with her cooking and cleaning like nothing was going on. Every inch of the little house scrubbed threadbare and beautiful. In case he came. God don’t come to Mississippi, but here he was. He didn’t come to sit on the porch and talk. He was just coming through between jobs to terrify the children into behaving. He was rattling old Scratch’s cage and reminding him of who put who where. Sending him to hunt a hole in the cracks where the red clay had dried up and opened, then sending the water to close the cracks. It wouldn’t keep him for long, and when he came out and God was gone, he would be angry and take it out on the other kids until Daddy came home. Lucky for the devil, God don’t come to Mississippi, at least not often. 

I would lose a scholarly argument, but I would argue the same, that Adam, Eve, the serpent, the apple, the whole shooting match could have happened right here in the primordial soup of Mississippi. The God I heard about in the Methodist church where we had cub scouts  was a god of love and compassion and forgiveness. This certainly couldn't be the vengeful God of Mississippi. In my limited church experience, I never heard the verses of the “good book” that told us who to hate and why, that information seems to be carried by oral tradition. Mississippi loves a good contradiction. I once saw a beautiful black girl in rebel flag booty shorts and rain boots walking the campus of Ole Miss on a sunny day. God don’t come to Mississippi, at least not often. Its just too damn confusing. If Jesus came back today to lead his people from the darkness to the light, Mississippi would don masks and hang his black ass from the nearest tree, using his own scriptures as justification.

I recall being the palest face in my kindergarten class. It was the first time most of us had been around a bunch of kids, and we were all feeling each other out. When the topic of church came around Krystal, the meanest girl in the class, who once blindsided me with a brick on the playground, declared that God would turn anybody who didn’t go to church into a little helpless baby and drop them on a dirt road in Mississippi. Always Mississippi. I was confused and terrified. Why would a God of love do that? Why Mississippi? That's where my Grandma lived, my aunt’s, my uncles, my cousins. Everyone I personally knew there had such a sweetness about them. How could this be a place of punishment and fear? But why not? It is a land hacked from a jungle that seems bent on reclaiming it from the men what though they could tame it. The same men who, in their hubris, brought in kudzu to keep down the erosion and watched it turn on them, able to swallow an entire house in one wet summer. The land where an old testament flood comes every ten years or so to remind the people who is boss, or just that they aren’t. God don’t come to Mississippi, at least not often as best as I can tell, but I would argue that anyone who doesn’t believe in heaven and hell spend a spring and a summer there, and get back to me.

"Are you going to the end of the world?"

“Are you going to the end of the world?” the lady behind the counter at the Arkansas welcome center asked.

I played a few shows in Clarksdale, MS recently. On the way back to Memphis I decided to go through the town of Elaine, AR. I had used the town as a back drop for my song, “Sharon”, that took place during the Mississippi river flood of 1927. I have to admit that I didn’t really research Elaine to deeply. I got the idea for the song reading about Jeff Buckley, the singer, who drowned in the Mississippi river one night in Memphis. I was moved by the imagery of being swept away by the powerful waters. I went down a wikipedia “rabbit hole” and ended up reading about the flood in ’27. One of the earliest levee breeches happened near Elaine, and it was the name of a dear high school friend, so I had my town and my story unfolded. The dates in the song line up with the actual events, but the town was just a town.

After the song had been written and recorded, I began looking for imagery to use in a video. This is when I learned more about the town of Elaine, and its dark past. The town of Elaine is a .5 mile square of land located between the Mississippi and White rivers in Phillips County Arkansas. Its a bit south of Helena on Highway 44 (near “the end of the world” but more on that later). It is the birth place of Levon Helm, who was a member of The Band as well as a solo artist and actor. The town suffered floods in 1912, 1913, 1916, 1922, 1927, 1929 and 1937. Elaine’s darkest hour was a racial unrest that left over 230 of its black citizens dead, as well as 5 white men. On September, 29 1919 black sharecroppers were meeting in a church to organize for better compensation and working conditions. They posted armed guards outside. Two armed white men, one a deputy came and shots were fired. One of the white men was killed as well as an undetermined number of sharecroppers in the building. In the next 3 days white men from the surrounding counties came to Elaine and hunted blacks like game animals. Five white men and an estimated 240 blacks were killed before the Governor came with troops to restore order. It remains the worst incidence of racial violence in American history. In the aftermath 260 blacks were arrested, 122 brought to trial, 73 charged with murder and 12 sentenced to hang. Seeing other defendants condemned to die caused many of the defendants to plead to lesser charges with lengthy jail sentences. There has been much written about these events, although little firsthand information has survived.

Today the town of Elaine is barely hanging on. The sign says population 636, though I saw none of them on my visit except for a red Corvette that sped down an empty Main street and a farm truck speeding down Highway 44. So what about the end of the world? The lady at the welcome center showed me on the map where Highway 44 just ends at Moon Lake about 30 miles south of Elaine, leading to the nickname “the end of the world”. With all the stores closed the few residents left must drive 30 minutes into Helena for necessities. The school was closed and shuttered years ago.

I was a little shaken by my visit to Elaine. There was an eerie quality to the empty storefronts. I looked in windows of stores, cans still on the shelves, where the roof had caved in. It looked as if the people just gave up and walked away. It was Sunday and there was a police car in front of the tiny storefront city hall. I have a feeling that speeding tickets are the last profitable enterprise in Elaine. Someone has put dozens of brightly painted birdhouses in the trees and empty buildings of Main street, a strange contrast to the overall atmosphere of decay.

What killed Elaine? I’m sure the fact that its the last outpost on a highway that ends in a cotton field is the major factor. But what about the shadow of the events of 1919? Sometimes I wonder if the shadow of what happened here on April 4, 1968 is the albatross around the neck of my beloved Memphis that keeps us constantly falling victim to our own hubris and shortsightedness.

My Song "Sharon"

 

 

Crippling Self Doubt and Copy Machines

 

 

Crippling Self Doubt and Copy Machines

 

When we were in the 9th grade my friend Scott Pejaver and I decided we were going to start an underground newspaper. Why not? We were already a couple of brown skinned, dorky attention whores, and this was just another in a series of “happenings” we orchestrated to entertain ourselves and our friends. We weren’t handsome or popular, Scott was a budding young actor and I hadn’t played the guitar long enough to be anything but a “bless your heart”, but damned if we couldn’t make a commotion with the best of them. We just thought stuff up and did it. On this occasion we went by the little bookstore on Poplar that was between White Station High school and his Grandmother’s house off of Mt. Moriah to purchase a $5 word processing program for his screaming 286 generic PC. We spent most afternoons after school at his Grandmother’s, with Katie feeding us pimento cheese sandwiches and plotting our capers. I will be the first to admit that most of our ideas were at best, dumb and at worst, just bad. This particular caper was a masterpiece of naive, anti-war, kid drivel we distributed to our friends via photocopy. We were shutdown and “banned” before a second issue. I hadn’t thought about this in years, until I found myself standing in front of a copy machine in the same Kinko’s (now Fedex Office) 25 years later. 

 

I wrote some songs as a young dude, but they were always topical or parodies for a quick laugh, and nothing more. I wouldn’t write a serious song that I would share with anyone until I had nearly grown kids of my own. I guess I lacked the skill, and didn’t feel like I had anything to say that hadn’t already been said better. I have had a hot and cold romance with music over the years. I always come back to it. My son Vincent got the bug and has surpassed me in instrumental prowess. He’s a pretty amazing songwriter as well. Initially he had a lack of confidence in singing for demos or in front of people. In seeing him struggle with these insecurities, I had to face some of my own. Did I make him like this? What happened to the 14 year old who went to school in a shirt made from his childhood Noah’s ark curtains without giving a single fuck? My insecurity wasn’t singing but songwriting. I would write parts of songs then abandon them when they weren’t Dylan on the first draft. I had all kinds of excuses about what I was missing to get my own music off the ground. Meanwhile Vincent is figuring out how to make multitrack recordings on his iPod through pure trial and error. I was called out on bullshitting myself by a 14 year old. 

 

What made a 40 year old man think of all that? I recently made my 2nd album in a derelict ’64 Cadillac on jack stands in my backyard. Its rough, raw and all me, for better or for worse. I decided to go all the way with the DIY theme and made photocopied covers glued to CD sleeves bought at the office store. The songs have a loose theme of stories being told in the Cadillac and have a narrative framework meant to mimic an episodic tv or radio show. Its almost like I’m 14 again parlaying my pennies into photocopies of a homemade newspaper with some big differences. Scott is gone, I spent years feeling like I would never escape the loneliness his absence left. Some days it feels like the hole was filled with indiscriminate and overwhelming self doubt about every creative endeavor I get into. Am I making an ass of myself? Probably. Do I care? Not on most days. Vincent is making awesome music and I’m doing the best I can, presented without apologies. Come out to one of my shows, I would be happy to share a copy of Sedan deVille Season 1 with you in all its photocopied, glue sticked glory. Hell, I don’t even mind if you snicker about me being too old for this shit.

 

Check out Vincent’s stuff:

https://soundcloud.com/vincentmanard

 

Checkout Sedan deVIlle Season 1:

https://soundcloud.com/tony-manard/sets/sedan-deville-season-1

 

Civil War documentary, bumper stickers, boobs, explosions, and “it’s complicated."

I have been watching the remastered documentary “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. Its 10 hours long so I will give you the spoilers here, THE SOUTH LOST and IT WAS ABOUT SLAVERY. There, I’ve just committed the sin I came to complain about, did I lose anybody? WHY DO WE HAVE TO SHOUT BUMPER STICKER SLOGANS AT EACH OTHER? WHY CANT WE HOLD VIEWS AND OPINIONS THAT DON’T FIT ON BUMER STICKERS. Crap I did it again. 

Back to the documentary, It breaks the war down year by year, including the political climate that led up to it. The filmmakers used personal accounts from soldiers, politicians and civilians, from both sides, to give the war a human face. The photographs are haunting, some of them ghastly. I have a whole new appreciation for the signifigance of the sunken road at Shiloh that I walked as a kid. It is presented sympathetically and without political agenda. I wonder if such a documentary could be made in today’s political climate? We seem to have lost sight of the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum, and most of all we have stopped listening to, or having tolerance for, any view that does not fit with our own. There seems to be a movement toward hard black and white with no room for gray. Social media thought process demands that our views on any matter fit in a quote over a picture of Morgan Freeman or Sam Elliot or an incredulous baby. Fewer people consume any long form media without boobs and explosions (calm down I love them both too), or at least quotable one-liners. The Civil War documentary was 10 hours long, and was still criticized as not adequately covering every aspect. We as a modern people demand everything be boiled down to a bite size essence that we don’t have to think too much about. 

I am not a man who defines himself by religious or political views.  Other things define me at this point in my life. That doesn’t mean I won’t change over time. I hold the opinion that I don’t have to hold an opinion on every issue. I find the difficult balance between principle and how we respond to ever changing circumstance fascinating. I find the recent trend away from rational conversation alarming.  

My, my I sound like a curmudgeon. It is not my intent to bitch and moan about “people nowadays”, but to offer up an idea for an exercise. Make a regular habit of looking into an opposing point of view with an open mind. Its not as easy as it sounds, especial when it starts with bumper sticker rhetoric. Try to understand why the opposition feels so strongly about their position. You don’t have to agree to develop empathy for their point of view. Whats the worse that can happen? You might have to view people with opinions different than your own as people too? You might have to consider how others came to hold these opinions? You might have to acknowledge the bias that led to your own position? I am not advocating giving up your principles. I am not saying that you need to be knowledgable about every side of every issue, but if you are going to hold a strong enough opinion on an issue to look for arguments, you need to have a better understanding of the opposition than “that’s just stupid”. Be aware that what passes as “fact” could very well be painted with the author’s own bias. Understand that human truth’s can exist outside of fact, and that seemingly contradictory truths can both still be true from a given viewpoint. The historian Shelby Foote made a point in the documentary that despite our nation’s great strength was actually compromise, not a dogged adherence to positions. Compromise starts with conversation, not covering our ears and shouting slogans at each other. Compromise starts with acknowledging common ground (boobs and explosions). As you examine other viewpoints, you just might come to the sticky conclusion that “it’s complicated”. Ain’t everything?

I welcome your comments, but if you shout at me don’t be too disappointed if I don’t shout back.

 

Talking Judsonia, Arkansas Blues

 

 

Let me start by saying I have nothing against the town of Judsonia or the state of Arkansas. This just happened to be the setting for the classic coming of age tale of two hapless dudes in a broke down van. With that being said, the journey did leave me wondering how far a family tree can grow without a fork (calm down I’m kidding, They were probably only 2nd cousins). It was the summer of 93 and I was a 17 year old mobile calamity, along with my best friend Josh, a year my senior and certainly the voice of reason (not much but enough to keep us from getting killed). We were plotting our first solo camping trip to Chickasaw State Park in TN. The night before we were to leave, I was talking to my girlfriend who kept saying how cold she was at her summer music program in Jonesboro. Forgetting she had left our fair city with a care package of chemical entertainment that might have influenced her perceived body temperature and comfort level, I took her complaints to heart and endeavored to bring her a blanket. Obviously, Jonesboro wasn’t on the way to Chickasaw so, as all great adventures start, we said “Fuck it” and changed plans to head for Heeber Springs in Arkansas.  With a bit of eye rolling from the parental units we were off. The first stop of the trip was at the ASU campus in Jonesboro to deliver the blanket. Our Jonesboro reception foreshadowed our human interactions for the rest of the trip. It was like we were an army of invading mercenaries instead of a couple of chubby hippie dudes in a conversion van.  My girlfriend (and later wife) also seemed kind of shocked to see her boyfriend in all his cutoff jeans and flannel shirt with the sleeves torn off glory holding an indian blanket, under watch of campus security. First awkward encounter down we persevered on. The actual camping trip was mostly uneventful, save for us forgetting to bring pots or pans to cook in (everything was cooked on a stick or can goods were just opened and set in the fire). Oh and there was the lantern fuel spill on the picnic table that Josh got the bright idea of cleaning up by dropping a lit match on without warning. Overall it was swimming, freedom and picking under the stars.

The narrative of the song covers our mishaps getting home. I mention that the story has no point, and in the context of an obvious struggle against a tangible enemy I guess it doesn’t. I’m not 100% sure why it sticks out so vividly in my head amongst other adventures but I think it had something to do with the two of us being completely on our own to navigate the good and the bad, the exciting and the mundane. Even though it was full of mishaps and a little hardship it in no way dulled my taste for road trips and adventures. If anything it just served to increase my love affair with saying “fuck it, let’s see what happens”. So here it is, a firsthand account of trouble on the road in Judsonia, Ar.

 

I never made it to where I thought I was going.

I never made it to where I thought I was going.

 

I was 2 days behind schedule and 2 days without sleep.

I was existing on coffee, antacids and truck stop uppers.

I was staring at eggs, sunny side up, Staring back at me

My radiator pouring steam in the parking lot

 

He walked in unnoticed

There was something unsettling, but at the same time comforting about his presence.

a man out of place, not so much in space, but in time

He could have been from anywhere, but more likely, nowhere

 

He took a seat opposite me in the little booth

Plucked a cigarette from the pack in my shirt pocket

Lit it up, despite the signs

Nobody seemed to notice

 

We sat in silence.

I ate my eggs. He poured coffee in a cup

2 creams, 2 sugars

His clothes were threadbare but clean

 

I dropped a twenty on the table, he nodded toward the door.

I followed as he walked to the edge of the lot.

Through a tarp curtained hole in the fence, into the woods

In the darkness before dawn

 

As we walked, he began to speak in a monotone drawl

“I used to think freedom was a house with a swimming pool,

 but it’s a pile of truck tires and a hidden watermelon patch,

when you don’t have anything, nothing is required of you”

 

We came to a clearing and sat down.

I leaned against a tree, and soon fell asleep,

I woke to the late morning sun in shafts through the trees.

He was gone.

 

I never made it where I thought I was going

Don’t guess anyone ever does

50 Dollar

 

 

Recently I submitted this song to the NPR Tiny Desk contest. While I seriously doubt my status as a contender, it was a lot of fun and I hope to do more videos.  I have been questioned as to exactly how true this tale is. The answer is absolutely, form the perspective of my 12 to 13 year old self! Growing up one of the things we did was hustle old cars. My brother and I both had ’66 Chevelles and my parents still have their ’67 droptop that this hobby partially funded. My Dad would find cars driving around in the course of his job and we would go back after work and purchase them.  We scavenged the parts we needed for our cars and sold what we could of the rest. The sweat equity allowed us to build our own cars for considerably less. This particular car we managed to get running and kept that way for awhile, we drove it around my Grandmother’s pasture like maniacs until it eventually just gave out. We called it 50 Dollar because that’s what we paid for it and “remember that time we bought a car and the guy was maybe dead” doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Anybody that knows my Dad knows he’s a bit of a larger than life character. All my friends call him Pop, and in one way or another he’s taken them all into his wider circle of shady but generally good characters. This is where my love for these characters and tales come from. It amazes me that he just recently took up reading fiction for pleasure, when he has spent a lifetime gathering the craziest misfits and stories anyone could imagine. I’m a decent mechanic, I can weld, shoot, drive a stick and all kinds of things a man should be able to do, but I think the best thing I got from my Pop is the ability to find an endless source of fascination in the elastic truths in the tales of all the characters he taught me to appreciate. Even when those characters are us!

 

Tin Roof Lullaby

Tinroof_Lullaby.wav 

Click to Play

Its Thanksgiving and I’m back in the red clay hills of North East Mississippi under a cold blanket of a thousand stars.  My parents retired and moved down here , where we spent the weekends when I was a kid. Where my Grandmother moved back to after marrying a sailor and starting a family in New York, circling back by way of Memphis. It seems like this place is the beginning or ending of most of the circuits that define my family’s history. The soil is a sandy clay that has so much iron that it’s a rusty red color. It will stain your clothes and your soul.

 

This song is a bit of what I remember from growing up down here part time. We lived in Memphis and I went to very urban elementary school downtown. On the weekends the four of us piled on to the bench seat of Pop’s 65 Chevy truck and headed for Grandmas house. It was like living in 2 different worlds. I had kids of my own before I fully realized that not everybody grew up like this. I was equally alien and at ease in both of these worlds.

 

During the summer I would come down and spend a week or 2 with my Grandma. She lived alone on a piece of land that featured a creek, a bit of woods and a pond. It didn’t much matter where her property ended because it was bordered by kin and neighbors who didn’t care if me and my brother went exploring. We dabbled in old cars and had a pasture full of them in various states of decay and disassembly. When we tired of exploring there was always a clubhouse or fort to be built from scrap lumber or cane poles to pull tiny perch from the lake.

 

My Grandma grew up all over Tippah County.  The family worked the saw mills and moved often to be near them. She was the youngest of 10.  One of our favorite forms of entertainment was riding through the back roads to places she had lived. She had a big white Chrysler Corodoba . It was a giant 70s boat with Buckshot Mudders on the back. We would burn an afternoon on the gravel roads and hit the place on the highway for a peanut butter milkshake before calling it a night.

 

Grandma still worked for the Pep factory making wiring harnesses for Ford automobiles, so during the day I would stay with her older sister, my Aunt Nancy. They farmed and had horses and dogs and all kinds of fascinations. She was an amazing cook. I once ate 10 of her biscuits with deer tenderloin, losing a tooth in the 8th one (at least that’s how 6 year old me remembers it). She had a granddaughter Jennifer, around my age that came to play sometimes. I remember the two of us hiding under the kitchen table when thunder shook the little house.

 

My Uncle Jeff* had a muffler shop up the road and also housed the volunteer fire department. His son, my cousin Stacey, and I spent many hours playing “Dukes of Hazzard” or standing on the stump (that’s a story for another day). The muffler shop had a pot belly wood stove and one of several tin roofs I listened to the rain under. He had a drink machine out front that you opened the door to take out a glass bottle. The bag of change he pulled from the machine was in his desk drawer and we would go into it at 10, 2 and 4 to get our Dr. Pepper fix.  I don’t think he ever made any money on that drink machine.

 

As I got older and grew a life of my own I made it down less and less. My parents retired and moved to the piece of land they bought down there. I still make it down several times a year, but not as much as I would like. My Grandma passed earlier this year. I started writing the song before that, when I realized she was slipping away. I found myself thinking about that piece of time and wanted something I could hold on to.

 

*Jeff is actually my Mother’s cousin but here in the south if they’re older they are Uncle or Aunt and if they’re the same age or younger they’re cousin.

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