I don’t remember when we heard the news that Daniel had taken his own life, but I do remember how hard it hit us here at Hymie’s. Yes, we hardly knew him, but we loved his art — and we were working with his father, local musician Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, to have his jazz fusion side project Liminal Phase at our block party that year (this, by the way, turned out to be awesome). What has never left anyone here is how heartbreakingly familiar it was when Daniel died.
This past weekend was the anniversary of the death of a dear friend who took his own life eight years ago. It was, as always, one of the worst days of the year for me. But it was also a work day. All those years ago, I felt terrible contacting Adam about work-related things after his son’s death, but he was certainly nothing less than gracious when I checked in about the band, set times and those sort of things. It was a just another work day.
The Honeydogs had an album out weeks later, What Comes After. It was their best since 10,000 Years and likewise filled with dark premonitions — we were sure, however, that despite all we might read into that already-recorded album, there were nowehre near all the things left unsaid or undone. Last year, Adam wrote a cycle of songs inspired by his grief after the death of his son, and by all accounts Naubinway (his first solo album) is a great record. We couldn’t say much more here because to be honest we haven’t taken our copy out of the plastic yet. It’s just too much.
There are other very good records I simply cannot bear to hear for the same reason, notably The Pretender by Jackson Browne and End the Rain by Fargo folk singer Brenda Weiler. We’re often praising music which cuts to the bone here on the Hymies site, but sometimes it hits too close to the heart.
I wish I could get up in the morning and be “the happy idiot” from that Jackson Browne record, but the truth is I am just a plain ol’ idiot. I was a poor friend and all I have to show for it are regrets. Tomorrow we’ll go back to posting goofy stuff and strange records, because that’s what we’re best at doing.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams described the human race as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a neat idea.” One could replace the digital watches in Adams’ dismissal with smart phones and the statement would be as true as ever.
We take our kids to the Heart of the Beast’s May Day parade every year, and even though we arrive early and wait patiently on our blanket, there is always someone who insists on standing right in front of the kids. You’d think if anyone should be allowed to watch a parade, it should be a couple of children. And the people standing in front of the children are invariably filming the parade on their phones — It must be the most digitally documented event in the history of the world, with all the little screens facing Bloomington Avenue.
This past year the two women standing directly in front of the kids were each panning their little screens across until they reached each other and were, less than a foot apart, each pointing their phone directly at the other. Neither was embarrassed or even alarmed. They both just slowly paned back the other way.
We think about this obsessive use of smart phones every time we go to a concert. Some folks get all dressed up, buy tickets or pay a cover, and then spend the evening staring at a screen. Anyway, it seems to be making them happy, although Douglas Adams would probably disagree.
Now that the the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour has moved along to additional exotic midwestern locales like Indianapolis, Columbus and, presently, a two-night stand in Kansas City, we suppose the haters can take a break from all that exhausting hating. And the rest of us can go right on shaking it off.
There was a day during Tay-Sway’s visit it seemed our only local weekly’s website posted nothing but articles about complaints from “the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world” on their music blog. This is only surprising because we forgot there was any writing underneath all those pop up ads. The paper itself offered a begrudging explanation for the success of “Shake it Off” which was so insultingly dismissive of Tay-Sway’s talent we’d have been shocked if it appeared in a actual publication of repute. Turns out she didn’t write, record and release an awesome song: she “lured us with familiar trappings” and “told us a story that was alternately tricky and engaging” only to “let us down just enough to come back for more.” Taylor Swift, literally described in the piece as an “evil genius,” is portrayed as a loathsome temptress at best.
1989 is a great record, and “Shake It Off” is a great song. We can’t imagine someone needing a scientific explanation for the success of a song by a male performer. The article implies that twenty-four year old woman couldn’t possibly have succeeded by talent, and must have used an “evil” formula and “magical songwriting and studio tricker” to beguile our children. She is regarded with the sort of disdain deserved by the contrived corporate marketing which targets our children, when in fact she has been nothing more than a successful performer (and often writer) of pop songs. Nobody suggested Pherrell’s “Happy” was some sort of nefarious scheme, even though it first appeared in a children’s movie. It was just a damn catchy song.
Incidentally, the highest notes in “Happy” were in the first line of each verse, not the chorus. Its a much more common formula in pop music than as described in the article (doesn’t anybody remember Queen?), as are the other incantations of “magical songwriting and studio trickery” Taylor used to “lure” our children. “Happy,” for instance, also extended each successive chorus, hitting higher notes each time, and ended abruptly. Many pop songs follow this formula, but they do not merit such scrutiny because they’re performed by men.
Also, they do not have the audacity to tell the haters to go fuck themselves.
If anything has offered some bitter-old-bastard legitimacy to 1989, it’s Ryan Adam’s surprise cover version, out online Monday and in stores soon. After all his Whiskeytown released an awesome cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” when little Taylor Swift was all of four years old. Adams carries more cred than any music writer at any weekly in any city in America — he’s way cooler than us and we met Thurston Moore last week — and he thinks they’re “great songs.” T-Swizzle tweeted “I WILL DIE!” when she heard of the planned project, and we shared that hilarious response on the Hymie’s Facebook page as soon as we heard. We’re not ashamed to be Taylor fans, even though we’ve already been burned once (in this love letter to another record store disguised as an article). We bet Taylor has also been misrepresented in the press, but we haven’t had a chance to check on that.
Adams has been posting achingly brief samples of the songs for more than a month, and we’re especially excited to hear his “guaranteed saddest version of ‘Welcome to New York’ ever” (“or your tears back”), as well as the rest of “Stay” and, naturally, “Shake it Off.” These posts by the veteran songwriter have included praises for Tay Sway’s songs, including, “Stoked to dig in to these jams. So much going on in those songs,” and (about “Bad Blood,” which this week became the first full track released) “Unreal song, Taylor. Wow.”
Those who think so little of Taylor Swift can finally have their cake and hate it, too: enjoying an album of awesome songs while still resenting the success of a woman on “a never-ending campaign to convince us she’s a normal girl.”
“Drunk on the Moon” is hardly one of the most memorable songs from those early Tom Waits albums, but it has always conjured some funny images for us. Of course, if you’re actually paying attention he’s not drunk on the moon, he’s enjoying the exuberance of a lovely evening lit by the waning moon. This, of course, is what we’d do if Irene would let us come to the moon with her, and maybe we’d just have a celebratory snifter.
There are a handful of accounts of drunk astronauts, mostly dating from one of the darkest chapters in NASA’s recent history, the same summer US Navy Captain (and astronaut) Lisa Nowak drove nine hundred miles in space diapers to confront and kidnap the girlfriend of a former lover. Her story buried this one, about actual drunk astronauts: colleagues who were cleared for flight in spite of concerns over their intoxication. Nowak, incidentally, denies she was wearing space diapers.
Our interpretation of Tom Waits’ innocuous song has always been wrong. Turns out he is not one of the twelve men who have walked on the moon, and that none of those twelve had the opportunity to get drunk while bouncing over its dusty surface. We often attribute inspired musical accomplishments to drunkenness, perhaps all the way back to Dionysian mythology. This is only sometimes an accurate depiction.
For instance, the performers who debuted Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A Major on December 8th, 1813 are said to have thought he was drunk when he completed it. The orchestra, which included Louis Spohr, Antonio Salieri and several nineteenth-century virtuosos, was compelled to reprise the symphony’s Allegretto at the event, which was a charitable fundraiser for wounded veterans.
Regular folks like us, who rarely have enough in the piggy bank to attend the orchestra, can only imagine the fervor instilled by the coda of the symphony’s final movement, an Allegro con brio with a whirling, Dionysian delight. The seventh is one of the most unusual symphonies, not only of Beethoven’s but of the pen of any composer — second movement Allegretto is so popular as to be often performed on its own, and the manic energy of its fourth movement is entirely unique in the music of the romantic era.
Wagner was impelled to declare the seventh the “apotheosis of the dance,” praising its “blissful insolence” and “bacchanalian power” in an oft quoted essay. Klaus Roy’s notes in our copy of George Szell’s late 50s recording of the symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra add to the impression of drunken inspiration: “For drunk he surely was, drunk with a power that is granted to a few mortals: to sustain during the hard work of musical creation and notation a sense of motion so irresistible that he sets his listeners afire with him, every time, and all the time.”
Many believe Beethoven was an alcoholic. It would account for much of his behavior, including oppressive social anxiety and his inconsistent, often callous changes of heart. In spite of the enormous artistic achievements of his last decade (the late quartets and the ninth symphony representing some of the finest art any human being has created) his life’s story is characterized by a steady downward spiral. When he died at fifty-six in 1927, an autopsy revealed signs of cirrhosis, as well as strong traces of lead, which was commonly used (illegally) as a sweetener in cheap wine.
Whether the initial response to Beethoven’s seventh symphony was any more than an oft-repeated misunderstanding is lost to the ages. We’re not even certain who was performing that night. If his contemporaries thought of him as a drunk, this is likewise lost — perhaps no one had the courage to put their convictions in writing. Most were in awe of the maestro. Franz Schubert, after a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet no 14, lamented, “After this what is there left for us to write?”
History has recorded Beethoven’s father as an abusive alcoholic who beat his son and forced the boy to perform for his friends. Whether Beethoven would have continued the cycle will never be known because he never married or had children. After his brother’s death, Beethoven began a long and hostile battle with his sister-in-law for custody of Karl van Beethoven, the sole heir to the family name. Karl attempted suicide in 1826, and bid farewell to his mortally ill uncle the following year to serve the Austrian army in Jihlava.
Karl was pretty unsuccessful, but lived well off his inheritances. He died as young as his uncle, also likely from cirrhosis, so we could speculate he too was an alcoholic. There is only one picture of Karl, forever to live in the shadow of his uncle just as nearly every contemporary composer feared they would. His only son, named for Uncle Ludwig, emigrated to America and worked for a railroad company in Detroit. He and his wife, a concert pianist, had a son named Karl Julius van Beethoven, who died without having children and with him was extinguished the family name Beethoven.
Some of us do struggle with alcoholism. Others feel abandoned, or have never recovered from some rejection. You have no idea the kind of pain the person sitting next to you has survived. Some of us just wish we were appreciated — imagine being Beethoven and at the height of your accomplishment you have no one to make proud. No father, no mother, no children. People will never forget that Beethoven had to be told the audience was applauding the finale (or the scherzo, depending on the account) of his ninth symphony when he conducted its premiere. This was his first appearance before an audience in a dozen years. and he was, by most accounts several measures off at the end.
So was Beethoven drunk on the moon, perhaps when we composed his Sonata no. 14 at about the age of thirty? Maybe, but the common title “Moonlight” wasn’t applied to the popular work until several years after Beethoven’s death, more than twenty-five years after it was published as Sonata in C# Minor “Quasi una fantasia” — literally “almost a fantasy.” It’s Adagio sostenuto feels more like a funeral dirge than a fantasy. Hector Berlioz called its melody “a lamentation.”
All signs suggest alcoholism as a defining factor in Beethoven’s life, and likely in much of his art. The maestro is largely silent on the subject, although he did once write that the “world doesn’t know that music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out his glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.”
The story in yesterday’s Star Tribune about Krista and James Botsford, the North Dakota couple who have refused to accept payment of $50,000 to allow the Sandpiper pipeline to pass through their land, had for us a David vs. Goliath feeling.
It also reminded us of the long battle in Minnesota over what was called the CU Project. This proposal to build high-voltage direct current power lines across several central Minnesota counties led to substantial protests from farmers. All were worried about future use of their land, its value, and the safety of the lines. Most of all, we wrote when first wrote about the events here on the Hymies blog, “middle-Minnesota residents felt their lives and land were being disrupted to serve urban populations.”
The post went on: “Opposition to the CU Project led farmers to use ingenious guerrilla tactics – Construction sites were vandalized with tractors and farm tools. Trucks were used to block construction and their ignitions damaged. By 1978 incidents were increasingly serious – A crowd of a hundred or more farmers chased powerline crews from a worksite. Soon after, in the famous ‘Battle of Stearns County’ farmers sprayed state troopers with anhydrous ammonia. We are not making this up.
There were also nonviolent protests. Just a month later eight thousand people marched from Lowry to Glenwood in protest. Temperatures were below freezing. Regardless, the CU Project was ultimately completed nonetheless, using land owned by nearly 500 farmers, and the Coal Creek Station, which creates the power transmitted through the lines, is today the third largest producer of coal ash in the country. It is supplied by the Falkirk Mine in Underwood, North Dakota, one of the largest such operations in the country. It may be powering the computer on which you have just now listened to Larry Long’s song.
Other Minnesota folk singers wrote about the events (including Nancy Abrams, Dana Lyons and Charlie Broten) but Larry’s was the only recording we could find.
Whether someone will write a new song for the Botsfords fight against the Sandpiper pipeline seems unlikely to us — dramatic as they could be, court battles are hardly as exciting as protests. Like the Botsfords, who can trace the land’s legacy in their family back generations, we’re uncomfortable with the precedent set by the State of North Dakota using eminent domain law to force the family to comply.
Historically, these controversial provisions have been used to serve the public good, usually in the form of utilities. They seem increasingly to be used to further private interests, as in several cases here in the Twin Cities. Does it truly serves the public good for North Dakota Pipeline Co. to run $2.6 billion worth of line through three states to deliver Bakken fracking oil to Superior, Wisconsin? We have pretty simple lives here in the Longfellow neighborhood, and we’re glad to pay more for the little gas we use, the airplane tickets we rarely buy, and so on — especially if it means we’ll continue to live in a country with family farms.
For starters, the Baltimore riot. And for good measure recent events from North Charleston, Ferguson, and Tulsa, where after restrained suspect Eric Courtney Harris was shot ‘by accident’ and said he couldn’t breath, the last words he heard on this Earth were “fuck your breath” — its harrowing footage to watch, especially considering the savage choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.
The media has offered a tragically narrow view of the Baltimore riots, completely ignoring the crowds who showed up to help repair damages during the aftermath. CNN’s own coverage sure seems like its set to promote the same stereotypes the media pushed after the 1989 LA riots. Meanwhile, the “Black Lives Matter” movement has misdirected is passion to punish unrelated people. Whether their protest at the Mall of America last year ‘raised awareness’ is negligible, but whether it cost thousands of workers much of a much-need Saturday’s income is certain. There appears to be no leadership on this issue which public officials address with trepidation. There are enormous systemic problems and no one has the courage to acknowledge them.
The fact that the US Justice Department doesn’t track police shootings of civilians at as alarming as any other fact unearthed by recent events. A recent Washington State University study suggests police actually shoot white suspects with less hesitation, but the cruelty of police killings of black suspects is nothing short of a national disgrace — especially considering footage of officers not providing CPR or other care in South Carolina, Oklahoma and elsewhere. What have we become?
Unfortunately, the Justice Department largely has no interest in the subject, since local police usually handle inquiries into claims of an officer’s use of force, and the officer is rarely disciplined. Look at a recent case right here in St. Paul, in which Chris Lollie was followed and harassed by police while waiting for his children outside their pre-school in a skyway seating area:
His ‘crime’? Refusing to provide identification, even though there was no probable cause he’d committed a crime and therefore no cause for officers to ask for his identification, let alone follow him for several blocks. He was undeniably harassed for his race and innocent of any crime (it was a public area where First National Bank had previously encouraged everyone to “enjoy a seat”) — the video is especially upsetting to us because it happened so close to home.
What discipline did the officers who harassed and assaulted Chris Lollie recieve? None. Even though all charges against Lollie were dropped (you cannot ‘trespass’ on public property), they were exonerated by the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Commission in a decision announced last November.
This is the militarization of police we’ve allowed. Lollie was in the right: innocent of any crime and honestly passing time while waiting to pick up his kids at pre-school before being harassed, followed and tazed (this hurts a lot, by the way) not merely for his race but also the additional ‘crime’ of asserting his rights.
This is also the extent to which we pretend to not see communities within our country. For years we were told we’d win the “hearts and minds” of a country we occupied, while at the same time denying the own concern to our own citizens.
Last Wednesday the Supreme Court halted the execution of three death row inmates in Oklahoma until their challenge to the state’s method of execution can be reviewed. The State of Oklahoma had taken an unusual step of requesting the Supreme Court to halt the pending executions because under its Constitution the Governor cannot delay them for more than sixty days, as reported in the Wall Street Journalhere.
Thirty-four states and the Federal Government use lethal injection for prisoners sentenced to death, although many states rarely execute prisoners. One of the three drugs used for most lethal injections, sodium thiopental, was discontinued by domestic drug company Hospira in 2011. Companies in the European Union will not provide the drug if it is used for lethal injection, so several states have experimented with different combinations of drugs to carry out the procedure.
As a result, the State of Oklahoma executed convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett on April 29th last year with an untested combination of drugs. The 43-minute procedure was described by his attorneys as “torture.” It was the second US execution last year using midazolam as a sedative which resulted in the prisoner speaking, gasping, and attempting to rise from the gurney. The Supreme Court will hear arguments that the new drug cocktail used to execute prisoners violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The spiritual advisor for one of the three Oklahoma inmates, Richard Glossip, is Sister Helen Prejean, a long-time advocate for the abolition of captial punishment. In 1995, she wrote a book about her experience advising another death row inmate which was made into a feature film. Glossip was twice convicted of a contract killing.
Opinion polls consistently put Prejean and persons such as ourselves in the minority when it comes to capital punishment. The United States is also in the minority, finding ourselves in the company of such enlightened bastions of freedom as China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
We wouldn’t really recommend Dead Man Walking, the film based on Prejean’s book, which describes her experiences meeting the families of an inmate and the victim of his crime. We’re much more interested in music than movies, of course. The soundtrack for Dead Man Walking was an interesting compilation album. Unlike the public defense of the poor, no expense was spared: the disc included new, original songs by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Patti Smith. It was a top-selling soundtrack, and Springsteen’s song was nominated for an Academy Award.
We’re fans but also cynical folks, and it’s hard to see how his song wasn’t nominated simply for having been by the Boss. His hasty treatment of the heavy subject is really no better than the rest of the songs from his mid-90s malaise. Likewise we love Tom Waits, but the two songs he wrote for the soundtrack fell short of what else he was recording around the time. One, “The Fall of Troy,” was later recorded by Kurt Wagner (of Lambchop) backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and is our all-time favorite cover of a Tom Waits song, and the other has a jaunty charm not removed at all from Bone Machine or the Night on Earth score.
The remarkable thing about the Dead Man Walking soundtrack was that the reason we’ve never gotten rid of our copy of this best-seller is a song by then-unknown country songwriter Steve Earle, the only person on the disc to have actually done time (Johnny Cash’s aggradized one-nighters don’t count as “time”). Like Sister Helen Prejean, Earle approaches the subject with insight and sensitivity. All of those marquee names might have once been great songwriters, but it’s Earle who actually gives listeners something to think about.
Prisons are a major employer throughout the rural United States, including Walker County, Texas, which is the setting for Steve Earle’s song. While they provide a modest living in many similar counties which otherwise lack employment opportunities, the primary beneficiary of the American prison industry is major corporations. If you eat at McDonalds or Wendys, its entirely possible your burger was packed by an inmate. Your Verizon or Sprint customer service call is likely to be handled by another inmate. Elsewhere prisoners make blue jeans sold in budget department stores like KMart and JC Penny, and female inmates in South Carolina have sewed products for Victoria’s Secret.
And one of the ugliest jobs in America, the execution of prisoners, is carried about by employees like the protagonist in Steve Earle’s song, who find themselves working in prisons like the Ellis Unit because there are no other opportunities where they live. There is more than one way in which capital punishment in America is limited to the poor.