Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Last night down at the Rialto, I caught the Knitters - a collective of veteran punk rockers lighting country music on fire for the sheer enjoyment of it all.

Anchored by Dave Alvin’s blazing guitar and a tight rockabilly rhythm section, the band’s true brilliance is the same as it is for X – John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s synchronized wail that slowly becomes another beast entirely, its own singular creature, born to breathe fire and shout heartache.

The music was tight and spot-on, a reminder that Woody Guthrie is god and good American music is all the damn same - it comes from counter-culture fringes, the subversive elements of sex and drugs right up front, but with an earthiness and an honesty and a wisdom that comes from living on the down side of the good life.

It’s true and good and right. And the punk shown through. The punk will always show through and always has. Until the 1970s, it simply went by different names and came from different places. It was Woody and the Carters, it was Charlie Mingus, it was boogie brothel piano and Robert Johnson’s devil guitar.

What X put on stage in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and what the Knitter put on the stage last night is proof it’s all the damn same. The Knitters did turns on Woody’s “Do Re Mi” and the Stanley Brothers “Rank Stranger,” as well as X screamer “Burning House of Love” and Knitters fave “Call of the Wreckin’ Ball.”

It’s the America that fell beneath the cracks and is better for it. It’s the America of Woody and Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. It’s the outlaws and the righteous, but more accurately and most importantly it’s the America that denies and abhors the power structure. It’s the America that doesn’t want the Machine of oilmen and bankers and war-mongers. It’s the America of Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey.

So many of our greats and our legends have died, but more will rise, like John Doe and a host of others.

Last weekend, Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were exploded in a mess of fireworks 150 feet above ground in the crisp Colorado air.

The celebration included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of the Carter’s Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Another Carter tune reinterpretation became one of the cornerstones for the whole new movement. But look beyond No Depression to another Tupelo classic - their version of the standard Moonshiner.

Dylan - a Guthrie and Carter disciple himself - spun his own version of Moonshiner out of a put-on folkster image in the years before his words jumped out of his head and his pen kickstarted a new America.

Yesterday also saw new Dylan releases, priceless recordings dug out of some vault somewhere. They should’ve never been buried in the first place, but I don’t mind. This whole new release thing just serves to remind us all that the whole damn show is still being run by a bunch of crooks at the top.

The set includes the Vietnam protest song chronicling the disfigured soldier “John Brown” and song I’ve never heard called “West Texas.”

Which brings to our vacationing cowboy dipshit in chief. He may not be the evil incarnate of Hitler, nor the propagandized Mr. Magoo parody of the Chinese communist leaders, but there’s no greater symbol of a corrupt government sending its own sons and daughter to their deaths in an immoral war than the arrogant smug grin and cowboy chuckle of George W. Bush.

As Thomspon wrote in his last Rolling Stone piece:

“Your neighbor's grandchildren will be fighting this stupid, greed-crazed Bush-family "war" against the whole Islamic world for the rest of their lives, if John Kerry is not elected to be the new President of the United States in November.”

Well, Kerry lost, but we can still kick and scream and end this fucking war:
“We were angry and righteous in those days, and there were millions of us. We kicked two chief executives out of the White House because they were stupid warmongers. We conquered Lyndon Johnson and we stomped on Richard Nixon -- which wise people said was impossible, but so what? It was fun. We were warriors then, and our tribe was strong like a river.”

These days the tribe is strong as well - and right in our moral certainty that this war is both evil and stupid:

“While bumper-sticker patriotism may have anodyne effects on Bush and his followers, the retroactive ethical justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq are flimsy at best. And for so many on the left, the undermining of America's moral strength under this administration is more of a "grave and gathering danger" to America than Saddam Hussein ever was.”

The voices are out there and they’re strong. Another example: I stumbled onto some writer I’d never heard of today, somebody who is either a nobody or a wise man, but he wrote something amazing just in the past week:

“It is also certain that a doctrinaire, intellectually incurious, unblooded and stay-at-home gaggle of technocrats led by a faux cowboy from Connecticut unwittingly unleashed this waterfall of blood. …
The war itself is over, the retreat will begin shortly, and Iraq will settle in to its own bloody reinvention over the next decade. And America, my country, will reel."

The country will reel, but others will step up in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Dylan and the country greats and tell the real stories of this nation - the footsteps of the down and out, the longings and the imagination of the poor children.

There will be more anti-war songs and some will die away. There’ll be love songs and songs of screaming disillusionment. There will always be protest. There will always be an American spirit to the best of its music.

And even out of an unprecedented sadness and defeat, New Orleans blues will one day flourish like never before.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Catfish at the record shop

Go buy the New Pornographers Twin Cinema and the White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan.

Trust me. Just do it. Or Just Do Them, I guess, buy the records and trust me.

Catfish at the clubs

So, what have these fair readers missed since the Sufjan Stevens show?

For starters, Alejandro Escovedo.

Texas’ own mix of Dylan, Joe Strummer and Willie hit Congress Tuesday night, the day the desert dwellers drank in 2.29 inches of rain, the most of any single day in the past 22 years.

The man is a legend, the legend is a man. He was wearing a tie-less black suit, with slick-backed hair and looked nothing like a man who’d been beaten down by disease.

He could rock as hard or as quiet as he wanted, but he rocked.

It was the type of show where you’re just drinking in the singer’s presence, washed out and surrounded by the sound of the performance.

Some of Stu’s friends came down earlier this month on a tour of their own and while I missed their set, I did carry guitars from a basement and sit in a plastic chair in an alley next to a van, drinking cheap beer. And some of the boys journeyed with me to catch the Bad Monkey.

The Old Pueblo loves its own, harbors a heartfelt, solemn respect for those who tread its streets. A woman whose fingerprints are all over the Tucson music scene died recently. I never knew her; I missed the punk scene here in the mid 1980s because I was in elementary school. But I gave my $5 to the benefit show and saw the re-united Fourkiller Flats play one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It was as if the Beatles were native to Tucson and never quite got out, broke up and were playing a one-off benefit show. All their best friends were there, the bar compatriots and the folks who spent three years wondering where the hell the Flats went. The tunes were so comfortable, so damn well done. Incredible.

This weekend will be incredible as well. Viva Tucson. Viva Desert Rock. Viva.


August has muscled its way in and there’s nothing you can do about it. Get ready; there’s plenty of shit to be done.

August is a demanding sonuvabitch. August is a Monday, no two ways about it. You’ve had the weekend, and now it’s time to grind.

August points down the road toward September, and says “That’s your rest.”

August is sweaty. August is full. August is what you’ve been preparing for.

August is a playoff race – there’s no room for beginners. August just got done lifting weights and sure looks like it.

August isn’t patient, but it’s rich. Sleep later, the fun is as intense as the work in August. August is a pagan celebration of absolute movement – complete, frantic, spastic, unending, unquestioning, vital movement.

August is out of synch – too many moving parts. There’re gears grinding, missed moments and not a moment to think.

August is first grade, or freshman year. There’s no wisdom in August – you’ll sort through it all later. August is caffeinated, sleepless adventure.

August is when filing systems go to hell, when stacks stack up, the start of the hole you’ll spend the rest of the year digging out of.

August is blue collar, not decadent like September. August is experience showing the newby how it’s all done.

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about it: August’ll kick your ass.

“August was awesome,” you’ll say when September hits, “but who the hell’s idea was that nonsense?”

August has given me more newness than anything else in a long time. August is all five sense set on high, pushing the limits. August is the price you pay and the reward at the same time.

If August were a band, it’d have four guitarists, bass, drums, keys, horns, backup singers and special guests sitting in on harmonica and pedal steel.

August really should be two months.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


So I finished moving Saturday, but spent most of the week unpacking and putting stuff away. I'd have loved a day off work besides the weekend, but no dice.
At this point, I'm more or less settled in, enjoying the balcony's mountain view and enjoying the quiet.
There's still more to be done, some unpacking-wise and some shopping-wise, but the pace has slowed and hopefully comfort will settle in.
As a bonus, I discovered I have some measure of free cable. It's only the lower stations and pretty much the bonus channels are just WGN and two CSPAN channels. But the rest are crystal clear and that's what really matters.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sufjan Stevens

While a friend struggled with whether he could like Sufjan Steven's
music in the days leading up to the show, I was more or less clueless.
I'd heard a couple of tunes and read several reviews, but went in
nearly expectation free: I knew just that I'd be seeing an indie folk
The eight-piece band came out all decked out in Lt. Col. Henry Blake
style Illinois gear, cheerleading their way into the set, which opened
with a state-by-state account of the U.S.
The show was damn good. The songs jumped between quiet and boisterous,
but each one seemed to fit.
At first I couldn't quite decide how to read Sufjan, but a theory emerged.
A cynic could easily view the whole shebang - matching costumes, an
overly literate musical and lyrical style and the ambitious 50-state
project - as a completely pretentious act. But it was all good and
Sufjan is infused with this childlike enthusiasm and creativity, which
he harnesses remarkably well.
Think of it like this: the costumes are dress up, the imaginative
songs are filled with a childlike fascination of their subjects, the
multi-talented band is a play group and Sufjan is in the middle of it
all, an adult reflecting on childhood by playing childhood.
This theory is still vague, but it grew during the show.
His state-themed songs are deeply researched and filled with
characters that fit well into a quirky appreciation of a state's
uniqueness. He even brings in legend and superhero tales, all the more
fitting to capture a child's mind. Though his songs are deeply
researched, they're haphazardly so - more grade school book report
than scholarly text.
And when he introduced one song with a story about a summer camp
experience making up a flying wasp predatory bird thing, it fit just
I was reminded of Finding Neverland, with the talented adult writer
captivated more by what captivates children than by anything else.
Sufjan fits with that, but even moreso, playing this character
himself, swirling between the creator and the subject matter.
The show was beautiful at times, quirky for the most part and filled
with songs that seemed to bridge the creativity of kids and adults.
And I'd never seen anything quite like it. Great for $10, but now I
should move on to an album or two.

UPDATE: Edited to get rid of that weird font.