Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Heart is a Lonely Shopper

A new acquaintance recently gave me the serious astrologers definition of an Aquarian: alien anthropologist. OR, alien, anthropologist. Either way, it was enough to get my nonbeliever's attention for. "You're alien in any group. There, but apart. You're just gathering data, doing anthropology. You are the record keeper. " I thought, "Why yes, yes I am." Always knew the alien part, but the anthropologist part struck a new chord of recognition in me.

I've spent my whole life trying to trace a vector of meaning from stuff I've found lying around, and people, too of course. Things, however, have a much more potent mystery: they can't pollute your interpretation of them with contrary dialogue or actions. This is much more satisfying.

My folks were kind of weird with money and weird with people. We never bought anything new- clothes, gadgets, furniture; and we never had any new people in the orbit. They didn't have friends, really, or any type of social life, just each other and a few family members. While my mother was lavish at Christmas with unwanted gifts, my father was almost luddite in his aversion to consumer goods. I was discouraged from bringing friends home during those critcal middle school years because of the condition of the house- it infuriated my father that those little girls looked horrified by the dark, kind of creepy condition of the house, and I would be harangued by him about it later. The message I picked up was that there was something wrong with the outside world- there was something wrong with those people becase they judged the condition of the house, they had wrong priorities- there wasn't anything wrong with the condition of the house. It was wrong to want new, nice things. It was wrong to want to have any control over your surroundings. You were to make the best out of what you found lying around. My whole life was built on the principle that you built a life around the stuff and materials that you found lying around, and if they weren't quite right, or didn't work, you didn't need them anyways.

In the credit crunched, hyper consumer early 00's, I know that philosophicaly, my father was ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. But I also know that his correctness was a complete accident. It wasn't a grand political statement, or even financial savy, but a total refusal to define his own life by any yardstick other than 'what he wasn't' or what he 'didn't believe in.' I can't think of any time that my father professed an actual belief insomething- just a long listof things he doesn't believe in. Now, a lazy thinker would say that you could easily extrapolate what he believed in by working backwards from what he didn't believe in, but that just isn't so. It implies a sort of binaryism that doesn't exist outside of a lab. I also know, from my own academic and personal development, that it's the coward's way out. Dissembling is easy Barnum and Bailey stuff- it's the equivalent of late night comedy- that mentally (and emotionally) challenging bit is the part where youlook at all those disassebled pieces and see how they would best fit together, how they would best serve your needs. The reason that that's so hard is that you have to have thought about and made a decision about what you want/who you are/how you'd like to be in the world. You have to know what relationship you want with stuff.

I heard loads of "That's nonsense!" but I never once heard "Here's the right way to think/do/act." I never got the message that someday Iwould have to find a way to be content in the world, make a living, or develop a satisfying life. It was always clear what was wrong (or would incite Daddy's wrath) but it was never clear what you should do/think/be. So I never learned the important set of skills required to determine what is right, or less globally, what is right for you.... I got the message that you shaped you life according to what you found lying around.

So, in addtion to the oddball nature of the Aquarian anthropologist, I have the need to collect data from people on how they use stuff- both in the physical sense of "does everybody have an industrial sized potato peeler, or is it just me?" and in the "how do people figure out the sort of life that makes them happy?" My orientation to these objects is generally skewed, and I over collect- both 'path of life' stuff and actual stuff, because I have no mechanism for judging the importance. I was raised by a man who thought that my cassette sollection was the pathway to Hell (not becuase of the content, but because it represented buying into consumer culture) and thought it was a great idea when I announced that, after college, I thought I might just get a van and drive around playing my guitar. This is not the kind of parenting that outfits you for everyday life in America. Here's why:

While it was fantastic that my dad thought it would be great fo me to hit the road, and try to be a musician, it was a joke, because he had spent my whole life denying me access to the the material things that would have made my creative development natural and easy. I had to sneak around to buy guitars and musical items because they were a waste of money. As a result, I found used and broken things and wasted a of time and energy trying to make things work. The stuff of the craft became it's own nearly full time occupation. I still struggle with that- I am likely, to this day, buy some marginal piece of equipment, with the idea that I will somehow make it work. This kind of magical thinking permeates every dealing I have with 'stuff,' - kitchen items, furniture, clothes. I accumulate a lot of 'not quite right' stuff, thinking that magically, I will make it work. I thwart myself, over and over again. I buy used self help books at the thrift store, figuring I can extrapolate something from them, even if the topic isn't an issue I face or a problem I have. What the fuck? And in the moment, it seems perfectly reasonable. It wasn't until I realized that I have a shelf full of books referencing problems I don't have but I still haven't managed to light the fuse to my own life, that I realized somethign was, well, off. And though it was intially amusing to make huge quantities of spiral cut potatoes for my friends, it wasn't part of essential plan and I'm just wasting time with it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

F*CK Brandi Carlile, or Face Down like Janis

A buddy of mine- a first rate singer songwriter who has successfully toured for years and has released several critically acclaimed albums was telling me, on her last visit to out fair Pennsyltucky town, that our local Triple A station, in fact a public station, just would not get behind her latest album, though similar stations across the land had picked it up.

I snorted, because like most local musician I am well aware of this station's peculiarities in choosing records to play. They're a public station, usually a good venue for local performers to get some airplay. Not here- they claim they're programming is strictly controlled... blah blah. They're allegedly a Triple A station, but I've tuned in a couple of times to hear the most un-adult acoustic stuff imaginable... Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, Steely Dan's Josie, Spearhead's Hole in the Bucket- great stuff, all of it, but not Triple A. They're playing it during the real jock's shifts, too, not the wacky volunteer weekend shifts. So god only knows what their mysterious playlist 'criteria' is. Meanwhile, they inexplicably pass on all kinds of good Triple A records. To try and explain this to my buddy, I used the example of the first Brandi Carlile record. When that originally came out a couple of years ago, it came out on RED, the 'indi' arm of Sony. It's kind of like the minor leagues- they put you there to see if you'll perform in the 'bigs.' Anyhow, I was working for a record distributor at the time, doing marketing, the record had just come out and BC was going to be performing in town. The label had some money they wanted me to spend at local radio to help promote the record and the show. I listened to the record. There was no doubt it was a stone cold fucking smash, none- right? Usually I had to listen to and help promote stuff I couldn't let play longer that 4 minutes, so this was fun. I emailed the MD at our little Triple A station. The answer I got back was just ridiculous. They were just going to have to pass. WXXX, on the other side of PA, had picked up that record for airplay, so they were going to pass on it. Yeah, they were passing on it because a station 400 miles away had picked it up. That's a sound decision. And you know what? Don't think for a minute that this type of vague, weird shit is limited to one station in a backwards town. The music industry is riddled with that kind of backwards ass thinking- whole label rosters come and go, informed by nothing more than the peccadilloes of some wonk that hasn't seen daylight since Kajagoogoo made him gag and he vowed to dedicate his life to exterminating synth pop. Forget what people like to listen to, he's on a mission. The other side of the coin is the big suits with expensive shoes- don't think for a second that these fucks are doing anything but moving product- and that product ain't really music. It's wallpaper.whatever. The bigs spend huge amounts of money placing product on the racks, on the air, on the tube, in your line of sight, and what you think you 'found' on your own was deliberately placed in your way, and it was placed there at the expense of something else. Let me give you an example- when the last Britney Spears album came out - not this new child custody one, her label spent in excess of 16,000 dollars with the company I worked for, buying advertising, giving price incentives and purchasing 'rack space.' In the grand scheme of things, we were just one medium sized distribution company. There are half a dozen or more companies in the US that do what we do - sell music to independent chains and mom & pop stores. So, multiply that dollar amount by 6- that's 96,000 dollars on one release in one tiny segment of the the music business infrastructure. Glossy publication ads in National Magazine? A review blurb on Amazon? Rack space and Ads in the BigBox Stores and Huge Music chains? That shit is all paid for. Hundreds and Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent essentially 'making' something a hit. And let me tell you, it's no different with the indi labels, they just have less money to spend and maybe really like music. And it means that even the most talented musician faces a total crap shoot in earning a living, even at the so called 'indi' level.

And that's why my buddy sputtered "FUCK BRANDI CARLILE" when I started to tell my "we're gonna have to take a pass on that record' story, her reaction raises a whole different set issues.

I'll be honest, I'd fuck her in a heartbeat. I mean, have you seen the kid? She is the total package- the music's good, the voice breaks your heart, she's enough of a knockout that I feel like a bitter old perv every time I see the album cover. However, she poses a problem to a lot of us oldsters in the singer-songwriter game. Yes, she's gifted, she works hard, and she's a genuine person. The records are highly listenable. But she's also easy on the eyes, has had a lot of help, both creative and administrative, and she just plain got lucky- she showed up at a point in history that was made possible by 40 years of other women laboring in relative obscurity. And by lucky, I include the fact that she was raised in some mountain cabin with nothing but a victrola and some old Carter Family records and NO MTV. She rolled down from the mountain with none of the video-era induced 'lifestyle/product/fashion' trauma that's caused so many of us to doubt ourselves, waste time redefining our images, or generally feel inferior. So, her success could feel like a slap in the face for woman working in the same vein that's been out there slogging it out for 10, 15 , 20 years. It's a particularly bitter pill for women musicians to swallow- not BC herself, but the general phenomenon of the mighty machine picking just one woman for artistic relevance every decade.

In my recollection, the first big explosion of chick singer songwriters, in the late 80's, went something like this: "Your record's great, but radio won't/can't play it because they're already playing the Suzanne Vega record." Like, Shawn fucking Colvin was shopping demos that year and heard this crap, right? One of the premiere songwriters of the last 20 years, and she had to swallow this Luka shit. Have you heard "Steady On?" It's a masterwork. "Luka" beat that? It's simply unconscionable. A lot of women's careers were foundered because of fucking "Luka", and let's face it, 20 years later, can you even listen to that song? Don't lie. You can't. The next wave- Tracey Chapman- 'Fast Car', sure they played the hell out of it, but ignored even better songs from that album and subsequent albums, because all anyone wanted from the black chick was that 'slice of life' view from the black underclass so they could say that they 'got it, they really got it.' Melissa Etheridge? ('Melissa Estrus' as one of my rural record store owners consistently and perfectly mangled her name....) Don't even get me started. The first album had some songwriting promise on it, but then she clearly signed off on the "Big Plan" from the record label: "you are the inheritor of Joplin's mantle, but you are happy playing along with the boys, not tortured by your lack of creative control and sexual confusion, you are also a lot like Bruce Springsteen, you will be growing your hair and having dermabrasion and you will name check as many products as possible on the next album." She was as fucking processed as velveeta, but not as tangy.

Then came the huge epistemological problem that was The Indigo Girls. The same surge in College rock power that catapulted R.E.M. and 10,000 maniacs and fucking Luka into ubiquity created just enough of an anti-gravity chamber to let these two into the a major label contract. They totally slipped under the fence, and no one made them clean up or change their clothes. The sound was fresh enough, they were hip enough looking to get a shot at initial airplay on MTV and college radio- the difference is they had the material and the work ethic to stick around and develop a live following (and not just the lesbians- they're musical appeal is pretty wide, go to a show, there's a lot of walks of life there) and keep vibrant for a long time. In some ways, their longevity echoes that of the Grateful Dead- who also got very little airplay but connected with a huge amount of people and happily made music that they loved for a lot of years.

However- back to the 'problem:' At no point on 50 years of rock and roll had there been a successful female creative duo. You had Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, CSN, whatever- name two other chicks (who weren't raised from birth to work as a team, like the Wilson Sisters,) who negotiated a productive creative relationship. NONE. Suzy Quattro rocked alone, Joan Jett too. No one expected creativity from the Disco chics. The Runaways were really just some puppet show put on by a pedophile, other than Jett, no one really made it out alive, or maybe was even alive to start out with.

Women's place in rock music had always been tolerated because either they were

1) the chirp - as Joni Mitchel so elegantly put it on Miles of Aisles, just frontin' the band.

2) Unique enough to be respected and granted special dispensation to be in charge of their shit - Joni Mitchell, maybe Carole King, after she karate chopped her way through the Brill Building.

2b) Unique but viciously attacked for taking artistic risks and stumbling, disposable freak show: Essra Mowhawk, Laura Nyro, Grace Jones, Jane Childs, Toni Childs, Sinead O'Connor, Joni Mitchell every other album, Linda Perry prior to becomng Uber pop producer, Cyndi Lauper,

3) the tortured and then dead artist- Joplin was way more successful as a corpse than as a living, breathing, smelly, unattractive blues singer.

4) a gig bag - somebody's girlfriend- Again, Joni's an interesting exception that proves that rule, since Graham Nash was sort of her gig bag, talentless barnacle that he was.

6) man clone/one of the boys.... Melissa Estrus, Bonnie Raitt in the 70's/80's, Joan Jett,

5) puppet - I'm not even going to bother naming names
and no matter how you cut it- all of those roles serve to inhibit and diminish the idea of women themselves as strong creators. Culturally, if the 'idea' doesn't exist in theory, no one will aspire to it.

Now here come the Indigo Girls. Two singer songwriters with unique individual styles, working together (which you know from all of the mainstream rock media - ahem, lester bangs, that that's just not possible, the implosion of the Runaways, that just can't happen) and basically gigging themselves into the consciousness of music listeners. (and this was before the much vaunted Ani Difrano DIY juggernaut that made us all feel like losers because we couldn't do it all like she did -we paled in comparison to AD)

They worked together writing and arranging, they worked together gigging and networking, and they generally just fucking worked- which, correct me if I'm wrong, please, but you never saw that in rock music before, not the collaboration, not the work ethic from chicks, and not the just humbly getting it done. Sure Joni Mitchell worked her ass off, but she never collaborated with another woman, and she'd be the first person to tell you she's been cut throat in taking advantage of the few opportunities presented her. Sure the Wilson sisters collaborated, and don't get me wrong, I love Heart like I love chocolate, and I denied this for years but my ears don't lie- they rode the backs of their male bandmates to kick out the jams - if you don't believe me- take a look at what happened when the Fisher Brothers left the operation. Yeah, What about Love? my ass, it ain't no Crazy on You, and I can't even come up with an explanation for the Quasi-Broadway musical that was Private Audition. That don't mean I don't like, but it ain't rock and roll.

So here's IG, working their asses off, not trying to be anything they aren't, and not acquiescing to any weird label imperatives - now remember, they would have been signing with Epic at around the same time that ME was signing with Island, and somehow no one sat them down and insisted on high hair and tight jeans) and succeeding. They didn't get any prettier, thinner, smoother skinned or suave. I'm not saying they didn't feel the same pressure, I'm just saying they didn't do it. I've been at shows where Amy Ray, god bless her, looks like she just rolled out of bed and maybe needs a shower. In other words, they just rocked on like a rock band- not a girl rock band.

Very few artists anymore get the chance to keep working as they see fit for 20 years, and even fewer were women. Think of another band from the late 80's college rock or indi scene that's still viable. I can't. But their continued existence opened up a whole new mental channel for musicians younger than them: women as collaborators. Not just collaborators with each other, but with men too. Women as strong creators capable of equal artistic partnership.

This, in conjunction with with the social changes brought on by the internet for youngsters (See "we are everywhere, virtually) brought about Brandi Carlisle.
We say "fuck brandi carlile" but what we really mean is "fuck time, and fuck my luck." It's not magic that she has, it's extra energy from not having to second guess herself about everything from the music she listens to, whether or not she can jam with the boys, not having to fight for space on the bill, not having to stress about sexual orientation (I know she's huge with the the lesbians, but I'm not sure she's a lesbian, I'd wager she is, but it just doesn't matter - it wasn't an impediment in her personal development or in her career development.) The only difference between BC and my buddy is that for BC, there's a very clear spot for her to plug into the culture, and it's a spot that simply wasn't there before. I'm not saying that sexism, homophobia, whatever, has vanished, but I am saying that I believe it's sphere of influence has shrunken dramatically.

And time and luck wise, she's dealing with younger, better dudes- they are more enlightened. Those twin boys she pals around with- they write half of the material and don't mind simply beng the un-named backing band. Ten, even five years ago, you never would have seen some boy show so little ego in supporting a girl artist. That's because it wasn't just the girls who grew up with this new ideal of women as legitimate partners for collaboration, it was the boys too. This generation of boys grew up with real women rockers as touchpoints.

I grew up barely being allowed to mention that I had a guitar in front of the of the boys- I was in a couple bands in highschool but always as the singer - never a guitarist- even though my voice hadn't changed yet and I was a much better guitarist than singer at that point in my life. I can't improvise for shit because there wasn't an safe place to learn how- the boys wouldn't play with me without mocking not just my playing, but my very desire to play- I was a girl!!!! I was 30 years old before I finally broke through the fear of performing that that created, and I know it wasn't just me that happened to. Janis Joplin's band was full of terrible fuckwad musicians, but no one else would play for her, and even these suckbags wouldn't take direction from her cause she was a chick. BC hasn't had to deal with that, so she gets the benefit of collaboration- most of us are better when an outside influence tempers our work. The genius of the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and most other paragons of rock authorship was collaboration. The whole was better than the sum of it's parts. They were better because Paul pulled John out of his own head, and Jagger could interpret Keith's monosyllables into something the rest of the band could follow, and Daltry reigned Pete and his 72 minute long rhapsody about the beauty of a single note in by simply saying "that's great, man, but how will it help anyone get laid?"

Generations of rockers grew up under that male dominated sky, and really only one generation of singer-songwriters (so far) has matured into touring age under the new regime, and little BC is the result. So yeah, we say $%*^$ Brandi Carlile, but at the same time, I can't help but be a little proud that she exists, because really, she serves to prove the theory that all the women who came before her proposed: woman are equally strong creators and rockers, work with us and good things will happen.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Of Jedi Knights and Mix Tapes

For a lot of people my age, mostly the boys, childhood was clearly divided. There was a Before and there was an After. When you saw Star Wars for the first time, you came out of the theater in a dreamy state, knowing that the world had changed, and feeling like you were a part of something larger than yourself. I had that same experience as a 17 year old, the first time I heard an Indigo Girls bootleg.

The one family vacation we ever took was in 1983. My sister had had a baby down in South Carolina, and on the drive back to PA we stopped at some family style restaurant in VA. I went to the restroom, and as I was walking through the dining area, I caught sight of myself in one of those big room length mirrors. It was totally disorienting because I was going the wrong way in the mirror. I was going the wrong way in the mirror because it wasn’t me. It was some other girl that was my dead ringer. Back in the car, my mother explained what a ‘doppleganger’ was, but that didn’t make the experience any less disconcerting. Hearing Amy Ray was disorienting in the same way- ‘what am I doing over there?‘

Now you think back- whether or not you like 'em, when you were a young lesbian, something clicked when you first heard the Indigo Girls in the late 80's. Something changed for you.

When I heard my first Indigo Girls track in 1988, it was the same kind of 'time standing still' moment that I had when I saw Star Wars in the theater. Now, keep in mind that this was before the rivers of information were brought to us by the internet. Things you really liked were hard to come by. In sleepy backward towns, even the most aggressive seekers had to rely on the record store clerk, mainstream radio and the card catalogue at the library.

I was lucky enough to have the complete radio station record library at my disposal, but who the hell knew what to listen to? The school had given up on the station years ago. The priest that ran it got disgusted with the students and gave the broadcast license and tower away to a neighboring school. We broadcast solely through the electrical wiring of the freshman dorms. No shit. That being the case, no one bothered with us. I never once saw a faculty member at the studio. I was willfully obscene every time I took the air, no one noticed. I once played Bruce Cockburn’s “Silver Wheels” back to back for three straight hours on my own "Organic Music Show." No one noticed.

The down side to this was that we were left out of the grand accumulation of power that College Radio went through in the mid to late eighties. The AP didn’t care what we played. CMJ didn’t call for our tracking numbers. No cool indi labels sent us promo copies. Everything was mainly major label top 40 stuff, still white label, still 12”vinyl singles, so the stuff we did get was largely anonymous. If it was a new artist, who knew what it was? Name and title only on the white labels. It could be R&B, it could be bluegrass. Who knew? Our entire Replacements catalogue was cassette tapes bootlegged off of a local townie drop out.

Another problem was: vinyl. Shit was still not portable. I spent a solid week before leaving for college transferring vital records to cassette tapes. You couldn’t take your stereo to school, no one did- they were still the size of foot lockers. The boys brought boomboxes, but most of the girls in my dorm had a clock radio, period. My cd player was still regarded as a novelty. Those of us that liked music too much traded carefully constructed mix tapes with each other and with friends from other schools. That’s how you found out about new music, and that’s how I, with the contrariness that’s been a theme throughout my life, met the Indigo Girls in a freshman boy’s dorm at an obscure Catholic College. A mixtape had arrived, I don’t know from where, other than it must have been from a bigger, cooler school.

This school, you know, well there was a joke at the radio station that every Freshman Orientation Kit contained a copy of Steve Miller's Greatest Hits V2 and whichever Billy Joel album that was that had Scenes from an Italian Restaurant on it, because that’s all you heard in the freshman quad. R.E.M. hadn’t reached the working class East Coast neighborhoods we came from. I was friendly with the kids that liked the Smiths and the Cure in highschool, but the music didn’t speak to me, so other than hard rock and 70’s albums that my sister left behind, my 'palette' was limited, to say the least.

Bill (damn me if I can remember his whole name, but it was Irish, we were almost all Irish.) and I had jammed some that fall, learned a couple of songs together, but it was hard. He played keyboards and was keyboard oriented, and since I was a girl in high school, there wasn’t anyone for me to jam with and I just didn’t know how. But we could listen together.

The anonymous mixtape maker had tacked what our AOR ears heard as ‘country’ on the end of the tape… two completely out of control acoustic guitars and a low, rough voiced girl.

"Is this you?” Bill squealed, like maybe I had recorded an album secretly over the summer but decided to start college anyways….

I don’t know what he thought, really, and I was too stunned, too Star Warsed to do anything but grab the j card to see what was written on it. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. I knew it was powerful, but I didn’t know if I liked it, and I sure as hell wasn’t thrilled that anyone might sound like me. Vocally, she had a lot more control and a lot more ability to project, so it was totally a compliment that Bill thought my voice sounded like her. The guitar, though, that was the kicker- if I hadn’t known it definitely wasn’t me, I would have thought it was me. Loud, hard, fast… the kind of strumming that wore holes in guitars. The way girls play who know they have to play acoustic 'cause they're a girl', but in their mind they are a Thundering God of Rock.

At that time, in 1988, our guitar styles were both heavy handed, fast and more focused on percussion than finesse- we both were just banging away and yelling, tearing through the song hoping that if we sang loud enough no one would notice we weren’t really playing the guitar.

I knew in my gut that we were both hanging onto our guitars like brick walls we were wanted to climb, using every muscle in our body, struggling to pull ourselves up, exhausting ourselves just trying to keep up and get over. I know she’s a better player now, and I think I am too, but in that moment in 1988, that moment of recognition changed my life in a lot of ways-

1) I wasn’t alone, there was another girl guitarist out there scraping the top off of her guitar, not lady-like-at-all. And she hollered like I did. My mom called mine ‘caterwauling.’

2) I might now sound like a copy cat. That was bad.

3) I wasn’t alone, and they weren’t that much better than me, but they were miles ahead-they had recorded something. You could tell from the vocals that they weren’t that much older than me. There was a whole new ball game to get in on.

4) We both sounded like we were taking buzz saws to our guitars, hers sounded good, so mine might sound good too. That was good.

5) If they were country, that means I was country too, and that was bad. (This was the indie release version of Land of Canaan…. It was a while before the Indigo Girls album was released nationally by Epic, promptly relieving my worries by turning up in the ‘college rock’ bin. Alternative hadn’t been invented yet, and definitely not Alt Country. Whew, I wasn’t country.)

I’m not a competitive person. In sports, I’m coordinated and I have a natural athleticism, but no killer instinct. I’m just having fun, I hit the ball because I like the sound it makes. I have a high IQ, in school, I sporadically did well, I mainly intuit stuff, if interested, I actually learn. It never bothered me when less talented kids did better. I never cared to be the best. I do my thing, that’s all I care about.

I heard these girls for the first time, and suddenly, I want to be the best at something. I feel threatened. Amy Ray sounds like a better version of me. I want to be the best version, I’m me after all, I should get to be the best at it. AND I’m NOT. She is BETTER AT BEING ME THAN I AM. I simultaneously hate her, yet am totally mesmerized. Jealousy, and awe combined with the new realization that there might be a place for me in the scene, changed singing and songwriting for me. With that one random turn of the tape, (and what turns aren't random at that age?) what was once simple therapy for an odd, lonely girl became the main metric against which I judged myself in the two decades since.

Amy Ray Kenobi, the Jedi need your help.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The odd, poetic moment

in response to hearing that I am 'smooth'

If I am smooth It is the smoothness of a river rock
Or a pocket-worn coin I wasn’t made that way:
I came into this world all hard angles, bounce and static-
The lone receiver of a longing filled broadcast
That could only be my ancestors,
Desperate to defend the choices they once made.

In 19aught what?
my Grand Uncle Walter
was the first man to ride a bicycle down Pike’s Peak
-before it was paved or graded-why he did it I do not know
The song writer thinks that it was to show that
When our days are done no stone will be rough - no path unpaved
but the householder knows:
his brain was starved in the high altitude.

Your hands are not smooth
They are calloused from the
Grasping and hefting and testing of
Your own river’s bed of rocks
Still, the very work that roughens those hands
Washes them so clean.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cleaning out my closet with Erik Estrada, or "Grand Funk Show and Tell"

I didn't realize until after it was done that I had managed to clean my closet out on National Coming Out day. I think I'll make it my new habit.

This was actually in honor of my latest breakup. I have a lot more space, not just cause she moved out, but because I managed to purge a lot of things while she was here. She hated clutter, and I thought that since it looked like things were finally ok, it was maybe ok to start letting go of some things. She didn't stick around, but the new habit of letting stuff go did stick.

In retrospect, I would have held on to the 1000+ classic Northern Soul 45's had I known she would stay for less than a year, but I digress....

Anyhow, I just counted 9 pairs of absolutely identical khaki cargo shorts. I had dozens of band and tour shirts, thousands of white tube socks, and a lot of other repetitive wardrobe items. I buy the same items compulsively, like I’m afraid they’ll stop making cotton socks or something. I don’t know why. Oh, I do know why, but I don’t know why I can’t stop. No wait, I know why I can't stop.

The perfect moment. Change is bad. Everything good is in short supply and the things you love disappear. Stock up while supplies last.

After cleaning out the closet, I went shopping. So now, I am wearing brand new olive green cargo pants and a grey zip up hoodie instead of the ragged ones I just threw out. Today isn't even the day that I realized I've been wearing this basic outfit for 30 years. About five years ago, when cargo pants came back into fashion (well, you know what I mean) I found myself running around Pittsburgh playing phone tag with my friend Diana. While retrieving my cell phone from my leg pocket I was vividly thrown back in memory to a day spent riding my gold Schwinn Stingray (with the sissy bar and banana seat) around the neighborhood, with a walkie-talkie in my leg pocket, playing CHiPs with my cousin Johnny. Not the Cousin Johnny that caught 18 crawfish for me, but the other Cousin Johnny. What was I wearing on top that Autumn day? You guessed it: a grey zip up hoodie.

The reason that memory sticks is this: the walkie-talkies were another completely unsolicited Christmas present. My mother ordered them from a catalogue- she was rabid for mail order. If she had lived into the internet age, or even in the home shopping network era I shudder to think what might have happened- there would have been a trebuchet in the backyard.

I'm not talking the SEARS catalogue, either, my friends. She was on mailing lists for educational and experimental egg head toy manufacturers from around the globe. The pure possibility found inside those pages called to her inner Svengali. She was going to find the toy that would inspire my adult greatness. As a result, I never got anything that I asked for, but I did get a range of exotic and frankly very dangerous 'toys.' She was always embarassed that I wasn't very lady like, but she gave me crewcuts and bought me 'toys' that could have been used for Navy Seal training. I was doomed from the start, right? Examples:

Asked for matchbox cars and track to race them on- got drafting kit- a real one with lots of sharp things.

Asked for the little bleep bleep electronic football game every one had- got set of oil paints and easel.

Asked for Rubik's cube- got wood carving kit complete with very sharp chisels, a mallet and x-acto blades.

Asked for Crayola Markers - got mini printing press, complete with type blocks.

Other 'interesting gifts included: Stilts. Real ones. Pogo stick, "Medical Kit" This included a real microscope, slides, chemicals, a variety of animals preserved in formaldehyde, and a dissection kits with real scalpels and a BUNSEN BURNER. Again, very sharp things. I was under ten. This woman was afraid to drive over bridges and wouldn't let me ride roller coasters.

With the exception of my guitar there was never anything I could take to show and tell, and for some reason, none of the other kids thought it was cool that I could play the riff from Grand Funk's "Closer to Home", even though I thoughtfully brought along the record so they could hear both versions and see the fascinating cover art with the moving eyeballs. Mrs. Bannon, my second grade teacher, now treated me with even more suspicion. I had, not long before my 'show and tell guitar god' debut, come to school with one of my big sister's roach clips, thinking only that the feathery thing was a neat sort of hair thingy that the girls who had long hair would think was cool. Now I had brought the devil's music into her classroom. Clearly, I would be firing up giant spliff during kickball if she didn't keep an eye on me. That was the year I threw up every morning before school. It was also the year I started listening too my big sister's abandoned record collection like she had left them behind to throw me a ifeline, to comminucate some sort of secret message to me. Kids never wanted to play with me or my toys. I had no friends at school (gradeschoolers that talk like Bette Davis and listen to boogie rock have a hard time with their peers) and there was nothing but old people in my neighborhood. I was a weird, lonely kid.

So, that's why in addition to being totally unsolicited, the walkie-talkies were, not cruel, but definitely a thoughtless gift. I had no one to use them with. I had no one to play with, my little sister was 3, my next oldest sister was 19. As imaginative as I was, I could find nothing to use them for until the day Cousin Johnny was there and we tore around the neighborhood playing "CHiPs" on our bad-ass Schwinn Stingrays in our matching cargo pants with the walkie-talkies stuffed in them. It was a good day for me, and I've been dressing for a repeat ever since. You be Ponch, I'll be John.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

We Are Everywhere, Virtually

It occurred to me this evening that the ease with which kids are able to come out now has a lot to do with the internet. I saw a 14 year old identify as a lesbian on Myspace. I'm sure there's more than just that one rogue girl. Though I am certainly in favor of rogue girls.

I've known for a couple of years that kids, at least city kids, were able to come out a lot younger- I have by no means conducted any scientific research, but my best friend has twin teenage girls.

Now, her girls are straight, but since early junior high they have had girl friends that 'went with' other girls, 6th and 7th graders who identified as "Bi" have been traipsing through scout meetings, cheerleading practice and slumber parties (now that's a kettle of fish right there...Mom-friend called me once, as friendly lesbian uncle, to ask if I thought she should watch the gay girl 'couple' a little more closely at the slumber party- I said hell yes, gay or not, 13 is too young to be having sex) that she has chaperoned.

Don't the wrong idea- this is not some Williams-Sonoma catalog family I'm talking about. I'm the only lesbian they know (unless you count all of the women I've dragged to their barbecues...), and when Mom and I first met, I was the first lesbian she'd met.

Mom and Dad are both working class, the girls are at run of the mill city schools with other working class kids. There's no liberal agenda at play in these schools or in these homes, just a lot of Steelermania. You wail on people for being Brown's fans, not gay. No gay/straight alliance going on here, just some good old fashioned American "It's none of your Damn business, you don't pay my bills." (A stance I think the gay community should adopt more of.)

We were watching the news together once when the flap over Gay Marriage in Mass. erupted into the living rooms of Middle America, and my dear friend howled with laughter, her deep smoker's voice laying it on the table for the talking heads. (it was kind of a funny moment, because she went off on her rant like she had forgotten there was an actual lesbian in the room.)

"He did not just say that. Who do they think they're kidding? Old man, as soon as these kids are old enough to vote, it's a done deal, motherfucker, mind your own business. Go ahead and just TRY and tell these kids they can't marry who they want to marry, I DARE you motherfucker! I mean, aren't they paying any attention to what's actually going on in the country?"

One of my all-time favorite moments- seriously.

The thing is, there's plenty of kids and parents that are homophobic in these same schools- it's not some big gay wonderland. But the LGB (I've had no reports on the T kids) just don't care. I mean they literally make fun of the dumb ass homophobes. I've heard them. "Asshole- I bet he's really gay but afraid to admit it because his dick's so small and he knows no one will want him." I almost swallowed my teeth hearing it.

Let me see, how was I handling homophobes in the 10th grade? Hmm, that's right, I wasn't. Nor would I have had a peer group to do it with. I would have been kicked out of school for even saying the 'gay' word-much less insisting it was legitimate. Sure, I went to Catholic School in the 80's. But it was no different for my gay brother in public highschool in the late 70's and not much different for my lesbian sister in the early 90's.

Something has changed radically for that bravery to exist. For a while I thought that it mainly had to do with TV and the 'coming out' movement- sure, by the mid nineties, people were generally comfortable around their wife's funny sister or 'sports-loving' college roommate. Then, for a while I thought capitalism would be the final blow to homophobia- Amex and Subaru discovered gay people had money and were loyal customers when thrown a media scrap- sure it's a scrap, but we're now in Middle America's living room along with the Tide commercial. Good enough, right?

But those cultural milestones (millstones?) still don't account for the speed with which, or the age at which the youngsters have started coming out. It's not just the queer kids either- one of the twin's boyfriends has taken a lot of flak for publicly announcing that he is intentionally celibate. Right, he's fifteen. I couldn't even have managed being intentionally right-handed at fifteen. I can't imagine having made any statement more illuminating about my core beliefs than "Madonna Sucks." (And you know what? I recanted on that later.) I certainly may have been worrying over shit like: was it dykey that all my pants had cuffs? Maybe I should wear something besides topsiders and a button down. What if Megan finds out that I like her that way? Would I ever meet Pat Benatar? Would she know I liker her that way?

These kids- they identify as gay, queer, bi, celibate- whatever, in junior high now. Sure, increased cultural exposure because of Ellen and other funny sisters helped, but it doesn't explain the ease with which kids now adopt the lesbian identity (or any identity for that matter.)

It's obvious that the ability to much more quickly reach a much larger peer group has helped: we all saw that potential when our weird roommate declared her love, via the VAX, to the 'boyfriend' in Canada she met off of some Geddy Lee Fan BBS on the Bitnet.

I believe, more importantly, that cyberspace (which really isn't even a good word for it anymore) allows the kids to so fluidly claim an identity, or many identities, with so little immediate risk or impact, that they may be much braver and bolder with their claims. They just aren't as afraid to be.

Imagine 15 or 20 years ago, trying to proclaim any identity in a public sphere - unless you were going to hang up posters in the lunch room, there was no way to reach the masses. There was no ubiquitous public sphere like there is now.

We didn't set up profiles, we had no choice but to be our profile. You just appeared as you were, every day- there was no dry run, no remaking your profile or changing your nick name or consensus building on values. Just vulnerable you, in the flesh. You couldn't publicly change your likes and interests- you would never have even articulated to yourself most of the questions that kids now answer to describe themselves when setting up a Myspace profile. You just were. Often, you just were what your parents told you you were. For most of us, the only chance we got to change our profile was when we left our homes and highschools for college- and then, you only had the one chance.

Remember the feeling you had the day you wore the brand new outfit/haircut/drug habit, that was a departure from your usual style, an updated declaration of identity and it was either 1) totally perfect 2) a hideous failure that you longed to scrape off of your skin? These kids do it a dozen times a week in hugely public forums with no worry about whispers behind them. Sure there's nasty comment leaving, etc... but that's nowhere near as visceral or terrifying as a coven of teenage girls squealing at you when you enter the locker room.

These kids are engaging in really sophisticated identity mechanics 10 years younger than previous generations. Imet a 17 year old a coule of years ago who self-identified as a foot fetishist. My Christ. Did you know that you were a queer/people person/leatherwoman/buddihst/vegan/nihilist/republican at 14? If you did, and had the words to articulate it, would you have told the world? No, you were trying to learn German by listening to both sides of Nena's 99 Luftbaloons repeatedly. Your twenties (or 'the black years' as I like to call them) were for working all that other shit out.

Imagine the contribution these kids are going to make to the Gross National Product/Medicine/Animal Husbandry in their twenties- think of all the productivity that WON'T be lost because they had take a 'mental health day' or four to deal with all the coming out/getting sober/making bail crap like previous generations did. They will be clear minded, well balanced and sure of themselves in ways we could never dream of. They'll be throwing smoke like you won't believe. Forget mere marriage rights- some supremely well adjusted little queer genius is going to cure cancer within the next ten years because she didn't lose her youth, her focus or her talent to self doubt and all it's self defeating accoutrement.

Mark my words, motherfucker.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Strange Beast...?

"What strange beast would turn its life into words?"

When I was introduced to Adrienne Rich at 18, by the only lesbian faculty member on campus, who sadly, was actually just a heretical, dramatic, straight male from the English Department, it was the first time I concieved of poetry (pun intended) as anything practical, as anything useful, as anything necessary.

"Dream of a Common Language" was a manual, a road map, a survival guide for me. I felt her cadence, her word choice, her longing and utter lack of sentimentality so deeply at such an impressionable age, that to this day, they live in the root of my tongue, giving form to the way that I speak to myself. Nearly 20 years later, I know that every line I have written since owes its birth, in some genetic way, to her, just as I do.

Am I a poet? No, not in the way that you mean.

I don't read poetry. Modern poets make me uncomfortable - the endless self examination, (right, I got a lot of nerve) and the experimentation with the mechanics of language, the thesaurausness of it - They give me the same creepy crawlies that beginning songwriters do: too much passion, not enough editing, too much reliance of cleverness instead of simple truth. I clench up the same way I suspect men do just as someone kicks them in the nads.

God knows (and I hope has forgiven me) that I have committed more bad writing than most. Do the math- I've written more (I write about everything- cars, breakfast, sex, the perfection of Lester Bang's caption writing in Creem Magazine...whatever... I have a thought, I'm compelled to write) than most regular people would, so it stands to reason I have committed more crimes against language.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten much less earnest, so I've gotten better. The fact remains though, that if I have loved, lusted after, or longed for you, chances are I have written a song/verse/letter of intent for you. Or maybe simply about you. You maybe don’t know about it, but it’s there, some where in the archives. I have a wicker chest that some ex gave me full of marble notebooks, reciepts, matchbooks, index cards, envelopes and traffic tickets that I have written lines on. Somebody, some day will have to throw all that away.

The final product was probably very sad and likely rendered impenetrable by allusions that only have meaning to me. I maybe brought it to you like a gift, or I hurled it at you like a brick, or it's in that box, waiting to be thrown into the trash by my heirs. A whole history of my brain, heart and labia throbbing together in inchoate misery, the whole unholy triumvirate quivering with the desire to make you understand. You poor woman.

Now, this addiction didn't sprang fully formed from the forehead of Rich- I’ve used this writing thing in conjunction with loving women my whole life. Since 9th grade and my crush on Megan (swoon....), the third string forward on the basketball team. Conversation just doesn’t do it. I just can’t have a conversation with somebody the way that my head really talks. I don't chat, I do blood transfusions. You poor woman. I am sorry.

I actually consider it a sign of health and maturity that I didn't write a damn thing about my most recent ex- not in courtship, not in situ, and not over the break up. No song, no poem, not even a meaningful IM. Yeah, she got some generic lovey dovey cards, but nothing over the top.

I managed to fail in a relationship like a normal person: without literary devices.

It's not the 'not writing' part' that I consider the improvement. It's the 'not giving away everything I've got' part. The 'not expecting some magical response from somebody just because I chose to crack myself open like a geode and show them the rough shiny stuff.' I finally grasped that no matter how well I write/sing/build birdhouses, how much of my truth I expose, understanding is never guaranteed, I am not owed an equally intense, complicated response, it may be impossible and undesirable for someone to really get inside my head, and frankly, having seen the inside of my head, it's a little un-sexy.