Sample Personal Essay: "Easter '93"
Easter Day, 1993. There it was, finally, in pink wrapping paper and surrounded by jelly beans and Pez in my Easter basket, a copy of Kris Kross's debut album, Totally Krossed Out. The record had been out for a year and I'd been asking my parents to buy it for 11 months. At last, there it was - all the hits, in my reach. "Jump," "I Missed the Bus," "It's a Shame" and, most importantly, "Warm It Up." For exactly 10 minutes I floated on air, hovering above the couch, ready for church, holding the squarish plastic case, looking at the liner notes, anxious to get home from Easter mass so I could watch my Sunday morning barrage of Nickeloeon originals before popping my new treasure into the still-new portable CD player I'd just received for Christmas. I'd wanted the disc more than anything else for Christmas, but didn't get it and was upset. My parents, clearly, took note. For kids back then, in the 90s, it was easy. We didn't need much. Maybe a little McDonalds here and a late night spent watching movies and eating candy there. But a new CD to call my own?! Totally Krossed Out was, in those days, the pinnacle. My parents didn't know about this kind of happiness, but I did.
Before I could listen to my CD on Easter day 1993 my life stopped, started again, steadied, then took a nose dive.
Dad came downstairs, acting cold as ever. "Get in the car," he barked, stinking of Old Spice. "Mom's not feeling well, she's going to miss Easter mass this year." Something was wrong. People have told me all through my life that I have intuition, and that was one of the moments where I felt it most. All through mass I sat still, not thinking about "Rocco's Modern Life," "Clarissa Explains It All," my new Jermaine Dupri-produced treasure or the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the sky. Rather, I was stumped, wondering what could be wrong at home. Mom wasn't sick; I'd just seen her the prior night and she was fine. My stomach turned and turned as I stole glances of my dad's face while he sang along to the usual hymns. Those ridiculious fucking hymns that I'll never forget.
Dad had been a different person for a year or so, and it had changed mom, too. But not for the better. Mom had been staying up late at night, long after dad went to bed, to talk to my older sister. She'd vent about this and that - all the bad things dad was doing - with anger while Laura sat listening and eating at her fingers. They'd heat up frozen pizzas and watch TV and talk until 1 a.m. I'd sit and listen, not understanding a bit of their speculative girl talk. All I knew for sure was that dad was as happy as ever, mom was as sad as ever and Laura was staying up really late into the night. Weeks earlier, on Christmas afternoon when I was supposed to be in my room playing with my new CD player, I caught my parents doing something strange. They were laying together on the recliner, wrapped in a blanket. I'd never seen them so much as hug before now, yet here they were, tangled together, red-faced - either fighting, crying or fucking. My guess was crying, but only because I still wasn't quite sure what this whole "fucking" thing was yet. The closest I'd gotten was a few mysterious crotch pains after looking at Kathy Ireland in the Kmart ad on the weekends.
When we returned from church mom was nowhere to be found. I wandered into the house and looked around, then sat and held my CD, pretending to stare at the liner notes as my mind raced. Dad went upstairs for what felt like forever and Laura went to her room, slamming the door. Eventually the phone rang and dad picked up. All he said was "okay," but he did so in a voice I'd not ever heard him use. Not once. Dad looked out the window for a while before going into the bathroom with the phone. He whispered to someone - was it mom or was it the woman mom had been talking about at night? - for a few minutes then came out and headed back upstairs as I continued sitting in silence, wondering where mom and my little sister might be. Just as I was about to give up on my bad feelings and forget about whatever was mysteriously going on behind the scenes I heard crying. Loud crying. It went on and on, for minutes and minutes. It was Laura, in her room, and she was really, really crying. In a way I'd not heard her cry before. She was only 15 at the time, but was already a smoker who dated boys who claimed to be in gangs. But none of that gangster shit mattered now, because when Laura cried like this, well ... she may as well had been six years old.
I cracked Laura's bedroom door and looked in to see my sister and dad hugging, both crying. "Your mom left with Dani," Dad finally said. "Come here."
I joined the hug/cry, still frozen and most definitely clueless. What did dad mean? Did Laura know something? What made her cry so loudly and was I supposed to be crying loudly? Would I ever listen to Kris Kross again or had my sub-culture exploration been spoiled? Would I ever watch my Sunday morning Nickelodeon line-up again? Had Easter been called off?
"Mom's going to call back in a bit and we'll know more," Dad finally said. "But she's okay, and so is Dani ... why don't you go watch TV and relax, buddy."
Oh, sure. Easy, buddy. But I did as told. I always did as I was told. Eventually dad, seemingly oddly happy all of the sudden, turned off the TV and knelt in front of me. "Mom is coming back with Dani in an hour," he said. "But she wants me to leave. So I'm going to go stay with my friend Jack for a while. You look out for your mom, okay?"
The time inbetween when mom came back and dad left was terrifying. Why would dad leave and where had mom been? Would someone explain to me what was going on! Or did they maybe just assume I understood. In those days I understood Kris Kross, Major League Baseball, the NBA, a number of sitcoms, and was starting to understand the NFL. Little else. Eventually, after a few more phone calls from mom, dad suggested that I leave for a while. "Why don't you go over to Teddy's house and play basketball," he said. "I just talked to his dad and they're expecting you."
This was odd. Dad had never once called Teddy's dad or took any interest in my budding basketball obsession (dad liked baseball, swimming and rollerblading). "Mom will be here when you get back," he added. "I love you ... are you okay? ... don't worry ... did you like your new CD? ... is it the right one? ... did you enjoy mass this morning? ... go have fun with Teddy ... we'll talk tomorrow ... I'll come by and we'll go look at some new Rollerblades for you ... it'll be fine ... I'll call you tonight ... hurry, if you go now, quickly, you'll beat the rain." I just stood there, looking at my dad's dirty green eyes, clueless. There were brown flecks in the green that made him seem distant. "You have to go now, they're waiting for you."
And so I jumped (Jump! Jump!) on my bike, absolutely dazed, and peddled to Teddy's house, which was about two miles directly east of my house. When I got there Teddy and his dad were already shooting baskets. Teddy's dad, Ted, smiled big at me and just said "hey dude." The three of us shot and shot and shot, not talking, until the rain came. Then we went inside and ate leftovers from the previous day's dinner and, eventually, played video games, listened to Totally Crossed Out and shot more baskets. All day the rain and sun traded places until the grey evening began to set in. Ted and Teddy just kept on hanging out until finally the phone rang and Ted told me my mom wanted me to come home.
I rode home, frightened. What was waiting for me beyond the greyness I rode slowly through? Dad? Not dad. Mom? Yes mom. After putting my bike in the garage I walked outside and looked at the sky, wondering where all the rain really came from. Wondering if dad had maybe done some of the bad things mom had been talking about - or worse. Not yet anywhere close to the knowledge that Easter would become not just my least favorite holiday, but my least favorite day of every year for the rest of my life.
I don't remember what happened after I walked into the house, but people kept coming in and out of our house all night long. Friends and family. My mom's sister came down from Indianapolis. Three or four of my mom's friends stopped by and talked to my mom late into the night. Even Jack, my dad's friend, stopped by for a while, "just to check up and get some things for Victor," he said. Why couldn't my dad get his own things? He slept here last night. He woke up here this morning. Flecks of his shaven facial hair were on the sink and his grass-cutting shoes were in the garage. Before I knew it the moon was up and it was nearly midnight. Mom, also oblivoius to the time, finally came up to my room, where I was, for some reason, playing with Legos. I hand not played with my Legos in years and years. Half my life at the time, probably. "Do you want to come down and watch TV with Laura and I? I can make us some dinner." I had no reply. "You can miss school tomorrow if you want. Just this once."
I took my Totally Krossed Out CD downstairs with me, feeling better, as well as some of my Easter candy. I was excited to stay up late and sleep in the next day and eat dinner and see that my mom was still alive. I didn't yet know the pain of real human growth, but I was beginning to see that life was tricky. Sometimes you had to lie about being sick and sometimes you have to leave. And happiness, for most, doesn't boil down to something as simple as discs containing music or shooting hoops in the driveway, or kids wearing their clothes backwards, or staying up late watching the still-pretty-damn-great Thelma and Mah'Fuckin' Louise while eating prozen pizza and egg rolls. (After Thelma ended Laura went to bed while mom and I stayed up. The next movie on USA Up All Night was National Lampoon's Vacation, which meant that my mom and I were about to share a glimpse of Beverly D'Angelo's then-perfect boobs - a memory I'll probably never forget.)
I often ask myself these days if I've been since stuck in a state of suspended reality. Am I stranded at age 13 because of the emotional horror of Easter 1993? Do I love CDs the way I do because my parents decided once and for all, on the same day I got Totally Krossed Out, that they were splitsville? Has the importance of holding that CD on that day lasted all along? Because, well, I most definitely still turn to CDs in times of need, and have always done so ever since.
A few days ago I happenstantially ran into Teddy's dad, Ted, at Best Buy. He was on his way out, carrying some sort of huge electronics box with a big smile on his face, practically bouncing through the store; I was on my way in, planning to buy Craig Finn's mediocre debut solo album. This was the first time I'd seen Ted, now in his 60s, in at least 10 years. Ted was a self-made man. A successful psychologist who spent most of his life working at a very rowdy State Mental Hospital located on the north end of Fort Wayne. He played college football and was one of the best amateur weightlifters in the country for 25 years. Growing up Teddy and I would often go to Ted's weightlifting competitions, where he'd always win first place in his age group while Teddy and I wandered around the town where the meet was held.When I saw him recently I realized that, at 5'9 1/2", I was now taller than the aging Ted Striverson, Sr. who always seemed bigger than life to me and Teddy. But, damn, he still looked just as muscular as any linebacker I'd ever seen. And, more than anything, he looked very happy. Happy to see me? Happy to get home and plug in whatever new toy he'd just picked up? My guess is that Ted had just bought a 3D projector for his house, because that's exactly the kind of thing Ted would buy. Not a coffee maker, not a computer.
As much as I despise the 3D fad of the day, I can't help but wish I could go back over to Ted's house again to hang out, watch television, eat leftovers and shoot baskets and forget about the pain my family has been in since that gray Easter day in 1993. As much as I love music and look forward to cracking open any new CD I buy - even a strangely Christian one by the fading frontman of The Hold Steady - I can't kid myself. I'd much, much rather hang out with Ted and Teddy again, sitting on the floor, watching NBA games or whatever movie happens to be on. Passing around a bottle of hot sauce as we sip sodas and aim funny comments towards the television. Shoot hoops, listen to raps and forget about the mess that is real life.
Sample Feature Story: Silver Jews
Published in NUVO, June 2008
If much can be inferred about a person’s life and inner state through a snapshot, then photos included on the two albums that currently serve as bookends to the Silver Jews catalog speak volumes about indie rock’s poet laureate, head Jew David Berman. Berman displays two very different grins in the shots. The first, taken in the early ’90s for his proper full-length debut, Starlight Walker, depicts a jolly — even naïve looking — Berman who is, we can surmise, smiling at his new future. The second, a live-on-stage photo taken for his recently released sixth Jews album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, sees a sort of weathered and appreciative smirk that suggests the challenges he has overcome — substance abuse, depression, suicide attempts.
The young man who wore the Starlight smile was much more a thinker, writer and wanderer than a professional, travelling musician. Indeed, that poet laureate title is at least partly earned: A collection of Berman’s poetry, Actual Air, was published by Open City in 1999; GQ thought it captured the “absurd American sublime” with lines like “I am not a cub scout seduced by Iron Maiden’s mirror worlds.” He didn’t tour in support of his first four albums, eventually setting out on the road in 2005, 13 years after the first peep from his band, the seven-inch Dime Map of the Reef. The band was created by Berman in 1989 with musicians who would become more well-known through their work with Pavement: guitarist Steven Malkmus and drummer Bob Nastanovich.
“I think not playing gave me time to develop in a way that people who develop their songwriting on stage and in public never get a chance to do,” Berman told NUVO. “I’m glad that things worked out this way; working with myself and learning, and revision, and not really getting any feedback aside from album reviews — which aren’t really feedback — just made me more informed.”
On Saturday, Oct. 11 the puzzle piece songwriter and his suited Jews will play their first ever Indianapolis show at Birdy’s Bar & Grill for what will be the band’s 106th show. Suffice it to say that the Lookout Mountain smirk came from a man with a new love: the road.
ALBUM MAKER DISCOVERS HIS PEOPLE
During those initial tour dates, Berman says that he quickly realized that, against his expectations, many of the folks singing along at his shows were half his age. Many in the crowd seemed to know all the words to his songs, singing along while Berman read the lyrics from a notebook. Before the Jews could make it to the 13th date of their initial scheduled jaunt they had more shows lined up. Many more. By the time the band returned home to East Nashville, Berman was a changed man.
“My mood has been very good the last year or two. When people tend to be happier they have more interest in the world around them. So the title [of the new record] is outward looking,” said Berman, whose 2001 album, Bright Flight, was an often awkwardly inward look at Americana heartache. “I got a real dose of the music I’d written up to Lookout Mountain when last touring; it was the first time I’d really played any of my songs. For the first 12 years of recording I would finish the album, then on the day it came out I’d never hear the songs again. So this was the first time I ever wrote an album after listening to what I’d done previously.
“The albums are a series, and the new one caps off the other five.”
Berman explains, “It brings things around again and shows me facing an audience, where I was [at first] coming out of the audience. I was the music fan for 10 years before I wrote a song, so I feel like I came out of the audience. I’ve always had that perspective, but I stopped paying attention to who the audience was [because I didn’t play for so long]. Now I’ve been going out into the crowd after the show. People like to hug and I love that because we just experienced something together.”
WRITING FOR A NEW JEW ERA
Berman makes albums with very specific ideas and themes in mind, with each release acting as a snapshot of the writer at a different age. Where Bright Flight was a middle America record about living and loving (and more importantly, variety in where you live and what you love) and Tanglewood Numbers was comprised of children’s songs written for adults, Lookout Mountain is a love letter to youth. Stylistically, each record features a new collection of musicians assisting Berman, similarly formatted packaging, almost always 10 songs, lyrics that take time to settle in, minimal production and the kind of vocals you either love or, well, turn off as quickly as possible.
Berman’s latest record appears, at times, to be solely aimed at his younger fanbase. The songs are funny, full of energy and insights and, more than his first four albums and similar to Tanglewood, even somewhat accessible to unaccustomed ears. But don’t be fooled, Berman himself is still at the center of it all, claiming in interviews that the album works as an advice manual of sorts for young listeners, complete with Berman’s words backed by his own mishaps.
“After a show young people come up who seem to really have a relationship with the songs and tell me, you know, that they love me and things like that. And they probably might,” Berman said. “When I say I love a city or a crowd, that’s a different kind of love. A lot of other [bands] come to these cities and say they love the crowd and the city, but they’ve loved a lot of cities for a lot of years. Mine is a new love. It’s fresh, and I mean it."
Sample Film Column: How Television Punked Cinema
Published in ZeCatalist.com, November 2011
I don’t often write about television. Growing up in the 90s, small screen programming never felt like art to me – that is, not to the degree that film did. The were shows here and there, such as “Northern Exposure,” “Twin Peaks” and “My So-Called Life,” that certainly had cinematic minds behind them; that said, most television, to me at least, felt more like entertainment than art. “Hollywood Squares,” “Full House,” “My Two Dads,” etc. Then, towards the end of the 90s, HBO went to work on a new wave of original programs (“The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and the City”) that featured a production style close to – and even exceeding – the indie films of the day. Those shows, all three of ‘em, did deservingly well. A new model was in place.
Now, about 10 years after these landmark shows really hit their strides, nearly every program on television is following suit. Film actors are doing television, as are producers, cinematographers, writers and even the biggest snobs of them all, directors. Even studs like Gus Van Sant (an all-time legend in our book), who recently directed the first two episodes of a great new Chicago-set drama called “Boss,” is getting in on the action. And, further, many modern TV writers, directors, actors and producers are, for the first time, are making the big jump into credible film careers. (For our younger readers: if you were a film actor before 2003 or so, and moved into TV, people said your career was over; and if you were a TV actor during or before that time and you made your way into film, you had to really prove yourself before people took you seriously.)
Why is the production on television now so good? Why have things changed so much, and so quickly? Couldn’t just be the heavy influence of Tony Soprano, could it? Well, for one, due to advances in technology, it has become quite a bit cheaper to produced a high-quality picture. But that’s not enough, as quality starts with talent, not toys. Mostly, the networks have found new ways to make money from their shows (both past and present), starting with – and focused on – television’s broad introduction to the retail market. Ya know, TV on DVD – something that, for the most part, didn’t really exist before “The Sopranos” (season one of that great, great show was the first big selling TV series of all-time). Now, taking the money-making even further, the networks have all begun streaming their shows on the Internet – on sites painted head-to-toe with paid advertising. Oh, and that Coke can you saw Dexter drinking out of? That’s there for reasons having nothing to do with Dexter’s thirst or soda preferences. So, basically, the studios and networks have more money to play with than ever before, and they’re actually putting a lot of it into their productions rather than their pockets.
Now, more than ever before, TV is the absolute focus of the American entertainment industries, film studios even suddenly banking much of their future dollars on TV programming, rather than Jim Carrey or Peter Jackson. The result in 2011, somewhat surprisingly, has been the best year ever for television, our screens bursting with quality programming. The bad shows (most of ‘em), the good shows (say, “Pan Am” or “Two Broke Girls”) and the great shows (“Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” “Treme,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland,” etc.) alike all look great, up and down – they’re beautiful to look at. Sometimes the writing is contrived or the acting misses the mark of quality, but, for the most part, television seems to have caught up with film, kicking aside the monetary limitations of decades past.
So what does all this mean? Well, plenty. For starters, a whole lot of people don’t go to the movie theaters nearly as often as they used to, if at all. And a lot of people have cable TV these days. But, mostly, (and this is something we hinted at weeks ago), an immeasurably large percentage of people are downloading everything they want to see – usually for free – from websites like The Pirate Bay. The scary new trend resulting from the influx of downloaders is, for the first time since the rise of TV on DVD, a drop in the retail sales connected to television programming. Thus far the decline in sales is small, but if the negligent policing of downloaders continues, what do you think will happen? Fewer DVD and Blu-ray sales and thus fewer shows that can afford to feature film-level quality crews and writers and actors and directors, most likely. What do we do then? Go back to the theaters and watch whatever comic book sequel of the day is out? Ugh. This transitional period we’re in sure is … interesting. And infuriating.
Sample Album Review: Dan Deacon's Bromst
Published on EasyStreetOnline.com, March 2009
There’s a scene in director Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, where music plays a key role in the film’s secondary agenda – forecasting the future. Foul blasts of broken robot noise spill from the screen as actor Michael Caine dances a jig we’ve never seen. It’s a noble effort by Cuaron, Caine and whoever programmed up the awful sounds, but let’s leave the musical predictions to the musicians. Dan Deacon’s second album to see major distribution, Bromst, whether it means to or not, does a better job at predicting the future of pop music than Cuaron's beautiful film does.
Beginning with a hushed ambiance that slowly builds into what functions as an introduction, Bromst gives the listener a final moment of peace before the aptly-titled opener, “Build Voice,” really revs up. An arrangement of vocal loops, piano, digital beats, horns and rolling keyboards create a song that feels more like a rethinking of classical composition than it does electro-pop. No real strings being stroked with bows; plenty of programming and loops. The song, like most of Deacon’s material, would fit well if played between cuts from LCD Soundsystem and the Animal Collective – good company. The general vibe here is electronic pop, though maybe the most anything-goes version of said genre you’ll find in the U.S. It’s a somewhat brutal sound, just as the music in Children of Men was.
While 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, Deacon’s first major release, was maybe a tad too silly to be taken as the grand artistic statement it was so often written up to be, Bromst settles back a bit, expanding on Spiderman’s style while tightening the screws. Each song, including the record’s shortest composition – the three-minute “Wet Wings” – here feels epic, almost exhausting. By the time track three, “Paddling Ghost,” ends you might need a break – it feels almost as if Deacon has thrown the whole world at you. The whole world, backed by somewhat organic drum programming, electro-fuzz, loads of vocal effects, endless keyboards and solid production. It’s the kind of solid, hard-labored work that even a late-70s Brian Eno would be impressed by. It’s the kind of work only a pop culture junkie with extensive college-level composition studies under his/her credit could accomplish.
The only real question remaining is whether or not Deacon ever intends to make music that can be taken seriously by the heard-it-all set. (Is he maybe just a step or two too far ahead of his time, or will his snazzy style always feel a little too youthful, playful and, well, forward looking?) Should he buckle down even more, or would doing so take away the magic? Songs like “Snookered” and “On the Mountains” suggest that Deacon is capable of making the kind of forward thinking proto-prog Radiohead has made … but do we really need another Radiohead? Does “serious music,” even when of the futuristic breed, need to be self serious and joyless in order to be effective? Something tells me Deacon will answer these questions in no time at all.
Until then, we have Bromst, one of the very few recent records this writer would consider filing under “genius.” It’s an extreme collection of sound that wont fit your every mood, surely, but one that will stand the test of time due to its sweeping imagination. Deacon is not so much predicting the future as he is influencing it – a rare feat indeed.