Go Home, 2019… You’re Drunk

Dani's boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar...
Dani’s boyfriend had an interesting experience in a bear at the end of Midsommar…

Some years I do a year end list or two (Here’s 2016, 2015, and 2011). Why not? I mean, 95% of the lists out there are lame, so why not throw my 2 cents in to the hopper?

Top Songs of 2019 (which may or may not have been released in 2019)

Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork
Timebends by Deerhunter cover artwork

Here are the songs that have dominated my Spotify listening the last year… If you’d like to take a listen, click on the Spotify Playlist Link here.

  1. Timebends by Deerhunter from the album Timebends (2019)
    • A sprawling, rambling, operatic jam, this track is a phenomenal breath of fresh air. At nearly 13 minutes it has enough room to breathe and transform as it goes. It is a joy to take in.
  2. Cop Killer by John Maus from the album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of ourselves (2011)
    • I discovered this ethereal, weird song while watching Russian Doll this year. The oddly (and almost cliched) vampiric delivery of the transgressive lyrics force a detached, otherworldly vibe.
  3. Doin’ Time by Lana Del Rey from the album Norman Fucking Rockwell! (2019)
    • Lana Del Rey is phenomenal mood-maker and NFR! is a great effort. I’m drawn to many songs on the record, but this is quintessential LDR. Bartender is also a standout track. My only real low for this album is the horrible cover art; get a graphic designer, Lana.
  4. Tiberius by The Smashing Pumpkins from the album Monuments To An Elegy (2014)
    • Tiberius signaled a real return to form as the lead track on William Corgan’s reconstituted Pumpkins lineup in 2014… though I didn’t experience this album until 2019. It might as well have been recorded in 1996 for all the melodic bombast and lyrical melodrama it contains.
  5. True Dreams of Wichita by Soul Coughing from the album Ruby Vroom (1994)
    • Mike Doughty‘s Soul Coughing made some of the most unique and catchy tunes of the 90s. True Dreams of Wichita – like many of the songs Doughty has written – is loaded with imagery and visual/linguistic puns. The phrase turning paired with a sharp evocation of location and emotion is just good poetry.
  6. Pitch Or Honey by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)
    • Neko Case is nothing short of a national treasure. Outspoken (follow her on twitter [@NekoCase] for some serious fire) and totally aware of her power, Case brings intensity from the first note to the last on the Hell On album. Pitch Or Honey is the perfect song for an artist like me; the refrain “am I making pitch or honey?” is a question all creatives – indeed, all people – have to ask ourselves. I want to make sweet sustenance, not just crap to gum up the works. Neko knows.
  7. I Only Play 4 Money by The Frogs from the album Starjob (1994)
    • I was introduced to this legendary shock/lo-fi/weirdo-rock band from Milwaukee, WI in 2001 while ensconced in the woods between the town of Saugatuck, MI and Lake Michigan. It was a strange time. Recently I’ve been obsessed with this song and the number of versions where the likes of Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan sing and play on the song. Go to YouTube and just search for the track to discover these funny, chaotic iterations.

Best Shows of 2019 (that I watched in 2019, at least)

Regina King as Sister Night from HBO's Watchmen
Regina King as Sister Night from HBO’s Watchmen
  1. Watchmen – HBO (2019)*****
  2. Russian Doll – Netflix (2019)*****
  3. Schitt’s Creek – POP (2015-2019)****
  4. Dark – Netflix (2017-2019)****
  5. True Detective Season 3 – HBO (2019)****
  6. Better Call Saul – AMC (2015-2019)****
  7. Black Mirror – Channel 4 and Netflix (2011-2019)***

Watchmen is an incredible thing to see exist as art in today’s America. It’s everything you want art to be – challenging, genre-breaking, character-driven but not subservient to tropes and minor concerns. While many producers of American culture believe that they can fulfill the representation of people of color or tell formerly-non-centered stories with token characters and shallow arcs (I’m looking at you, Disney) Watchmen doubles down on history, context, and powerful performances with developed characters. The ensemble cast is top notch, but Regina King (Sister Night) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan) absolutely dominate as the main characters. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, and an amazing Louis Gossett Jr. anchor a group of actors – both veteran and very young – who really buy into the deep magic of the Watchmen universe in ways that give keen insights to what is happening with racism, rising nationalism, and the frayed edges of our political establishment right now… wow. All that and an alien squid shower.


Best Movies of 2019 (well, watched in 2019)

Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar
  1. Midsommar – Directed by Ari Aster (2019)
  2. The Lighthouse – Directed by Robert Eggers (2019)
  3. Mandy – Directed by Panos Cosmatos (2018)
  4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Directed by the Coen Brothers (2018)

Midsommar is a powerful film about family, death, belonging, and the social construction of meaning. The tension created between how death visits Dani’s typical American family and how it visits the cloistered, alien, cult-like community she visits in Sweden calls us to reconsider how we understand the trajectory and significance of our lives. Are these very different notions of human dignity, purpose, and value truly at odds? Might the strange, pagan ritual of Midsommar offer something altogether deeper for those who believe? Excellent, challenging film making.

Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.
Dani simultaneously experiencing existential brokenness and the assurance of communal emotional support in Midsommar.

One Year After

It has been a year since my heart attack. Since my cardiac arrest. Since the trauma I don’t remember and that my family saw. Since members of my family kept me alive until the EMTs arrived. Since the radical changes of diet and lifestyle. Since the shift in horizon.

img_2048

Three days before that I lost my big sister; a life of incredible value and service, gone. Two months afterward my estranged step-father died; a life wasted in self-concern and alcohol.

How would people have summed up my life one year later, if it ended that night?

img_2049

Since I didn’t go, I have to assess it myself. I know my life has been valuable. I know I have taken deep draughts of experience and thought. I have been astonished. I have been disappointed. I have known love and sacrifice. I have seen things that made me cry in sorrow and weep in happiness. I have tried and failed, then barely hoped and succeeded. I have yearned and yearned, in spite of cheesiness or irony. I have worked so hard and received so much through no merit of my own doing. I have believed and doubted. All through I have attempted to be honorable and careful, passionate and present. Sometimes I have succeeded.

img_0200I am SIMUL IUSTUS ET PECCATOR.

I am AGATHOKAKOLOGICAL.

I have tried to understand what it all means. I still don’t. But I think I have some sense of how it feels.

~

It feels a little like these songs (click the titles to listen):

 

At Last

I can say that I’ve lived here in honor and danger

But I’m just an animal and cannot explain a life

Down this chain of days I wish to stay among my people

Relation now means nothing, having chosen so defined

And if death should smell my breathing

As it pass beneath my window

Let it lead me trembling, trembling

I own every bell that tolls me.

 

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Driving home I see those flooded fields

How can people not know what beauty this is?

I’ve taken it for granted my whole life

Since the day I was born.

Clouds hang on these curves like me

And I kneel to the wheel

Of the fox confessor (on splendid heels).

And he shames me from my seat

And on my guilty feet

I follow him in retreat…

What purpose in these deeds?

Oh fox confessor, please,

Who married me to these orphaned blues?

“It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder

When the death of your civilization precedes you.”

Will I ever see You again?

Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?

I flooded my sleeves as I drove home again.

 

A Widow’s Toast

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

The tears are warm, I feel them still.

They’ll heat to vapor and disperse

And cloud our eyes with weary glaze.

You raise your glass and may exclaim,

“I’ll put my hands on the truth, by God!”

But it’s faster, love, than you and me –

Faster than the speed of gravity.

That’s how it catches you from falling

And how it always, always, always slips away.

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

And better times

And better times

Are coming still.

Neko knows what to say.

~

I find attention, clarity, and rightness in teaching. I find wonderful confusion in my art-making. I find solace and laughter in my wife. I find a strange wine of joy and frustration in my children. I feel both lost and found. I feel both at home (warm, in bed), and far away in the dark (clouds, wind). I’m in orbit around a great truth and yet my tether is strung out miles from safety.

Believe it or not, all of this is so much better than the 3 or 4 years before the heart attack.

I know that some would want me to declare something, some truth, some more faithful words, some thoughts that sound more spiritually centered. I’m sorry.

Today, I want to take the lessons – the cumulative astonishments of being – as they come. I want to have joy and camaraderie in my students. I want to be gentle and full of wonder with my children. I want to continue to cherish my wife. I want to be a better husband, father, son, brother, artist, teacher, mentor, helper, and friend.

No regrets. I have not loved every moment, but I have been given such grace and love. I’m thankful.

~

img_0164

The Best 23 Albums of 2011…

…a completely subjective, personal list that was based entirely on how much I played them and/or was inspired by them, and regardless of when they came out. So here they are – artist, album (conveniently linked for your perusal), and year of release.

m83 – hurry up we’re dreaming (2011) 

battles – gloss drop (2011)

broken bells – broken bells (2010) 

the national – high violet  (2010) 

doves – kingdom of rust (2009) 

tori amos – abnormally attracted to sin (2009)

bat for lashes – two suns (2009) 

beck – modern guilt (2008)

the shins – wincing the night away (2007) 

the national – alligator (2005)

radiohead – OK computer (2003)

the decemberists – castaways and cutouts (2003) 

yeah yeah yeahs – fever to tell (2003)

broken social scene – you forgot it in people (2002)

doves – the last broadcast (2002)

neko case – blacklisted (2002)

cake – comfort eagle (2001)

modest mouse – building something out of nothing (2000)

holly golightly – God don’t like it (2000)

soul coughing – el oso (1998)

alice in chains – dirt (1992)

the pixies – trompe le monde (1991)

tom waits – rain dogs (1985)

Now if I had to pick 3 absolutely essential recordings from this list, I think I’d pick the Tom Waits, the Neko Case, and the latest The National albums. But, then again, it seems to me that the whole “desert island list” thing is played out and – at least now days – ill-conceived. Right now I can carry pretty much every piece of music I’ve ever owned in the cloud… so let’s not say this is a desert island list, no. Let’s say it’s an electro-magnetic-pulse list. An EMP has hit the earth and YOU – you alone – have a way to play a select bit of music in our post-EMP world. What would you play?

Yes, I think I could survive with some Neko, some Waits, and some National. But, man, I’d really need some Shins and Radiohead…

What are your EMP essentials?

Keep rocking in 2012, folks! (image above taken by Jake Johnson)

Ghost Wire Writing?

One of my favorite songs, from one of my all-time favorite albums (Blacklisted) and one of my all-time favorite artists (Neko Case), is called Ghost Wiring. When you listen to the track, I suggest a late night and low light and the tension of strange memories to enhance the experience.

One of the song’s enduring aspects is the short, whispered sentence that precedes the opening bars of music. I had listened to the track dozens of times before I heard it, and now it’s something that I love to bend in close to hear – especially when traveling late at night on empty roads, or ensconced in my dark studio trying to suss out glory from paint. Below is the section in question, pulled out and enhanced. What do you think is going on here?

Ghost Wiring Intro Whisper (mp3 format)

Neko Case Favorites

Neko Case‘s voice is something beyond description. You need to experience it. Go to NPR right now and listen to her concert recorded in April 2009.

Mark one up for sharing music: a few years ago a friend burned mix of Neko’s music for me. I now own most of her stuff – and I paid cold hard cash for it – because it’s all good work and worth every penny.

My favorites are a few from Blacklisted, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone – her latest. Here they are (with a few linked to YouTube videos of live versions):

From “Blacklisted” – Ghost Writing

From “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” – Star Witness and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

From “Middle Cyclone” – Prison Girls and The Pharaohs

My wife and I got to see Neko in Kansas City this past July; it was awesome. You should see her, too.

neko case uptown