Sunday, September 7, 2014

Playing With Fire

I told the cashier my father lost his lighter and that he asked me to go to the corner store to buy him a replacement. The cashier, my father’s age, Indian and thick-browed, squinted at me and looked at the crisp five-dollar bill in my hand, carefully selected and carried into the store in my hand to create the illusion it came straight from a parent’s wallet, bestowed from father to son for a specific errand.

A few seconds passed before he parted his lips. “What color?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I made that decision on the fly. My friend, who fronted the five dollars on the condition that I’d make the purchase, had told me to buy a blue one, but decided that no grown up would really care about the color of the lighter--just that it would produce a flame to light cigarettes, cigars, birthday cake candles.

The cashier turned to the cardboard display of Bic lighters behind him, arranged in rows by color. Only two blue ones left. Three greens. Four or five reds. And, filled to capacity, over a dozen ugly, canned-tuna-colored lighters. Naturally, he picked one of those.

He punched the keys on the register and read off the total. I held out the five and cupped my other hand to accept the change.

Outside the store, Billy waited for me. “How’d it go?”

I flashed a grin and held out the lighter in my hand. “Who’s the man?”

Billy squinted. “All they had was tan?”

On the walk home, I explained the rationale for taking whatever color the cashier would give me, and we debated whether I should pay for half the lighter after messing up the hue.

We forgot all that when we got home to his place. He dragged a big cardboard box from his garage—the packaging for his family’s new TV. For a second, I thought he meant to torch the whole thing. Instead, we spent the next hour breaking of clumps of Styrofoam padding from within the box, setting them on fire, and leaving them out on the street for passing cars to swerve around or run over.

In retrospect, I envision an Oldsmobile with an unsuspected gas leak. I see a new driver veering around the flames and straight into a tree.

But little of consequence happened. More often than not, the fires burned themselves out inside of thirty seconds with little dramatic effect.

And so we advanced to the next stage of Billy’s vision, uncoiling a spool of thread around his driveway with designs on setting the whole thing alight so we could shoot hoops inside a ring of fire. With shaking fingers, I tried my hand for the first time, pressing my thumb to the cold, ridged steel of flint wheel and flicking it downward. Marveling that despite my inability to generate enough hot air to inflate a balloon or to ever fold a paper airplane that would take flight, that I could, just that simply, create a flame.

Be it a demonstration of the principles of physics or a merciful instance of divine intervention, we couldn’t get our ring of fire burning, and before long Billy’s parents got home. Billy retained custody of the lighter. I don’t recall that the two of us ever used it together again, nor that he was ever caught with it.

For the responsible adults reading this post, and particularly any child who might stumble upon it, I wish I could share a moral at the end of this story. That we came to some grand epiphany about the dangers of fire or at least playing with traffic, and that we wised up. Because the truth is that fire is dangerous, and playing with it is stupid.

Just the same, kids do stupid things. To play. To experiment. To learn. And if they survive such experiences, literally and figuratively unscathed, and don’t grow up to become true pyromaniacs, then I dare say the story itself is the worth the while.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Sweet Dream

I spent three summers as a student at the Center for Talented Youth--an experience that was fundamentally important to my development as a human being. At the end of my last session, I wanted little more than to one day return as a resident assistant.

To have not only worked as an RA, but to have spent six summers employed by CTY, followed by six and a half years working full time in the main office was nothing short of a childhood dream come true.

Now it's time to pursue another dream.

My life in Baltimore was not perfect, but it was important. I'll take the memories and assorted lessons with me and I'm looking forward to the next steps.

So long, Baltimore.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Counting Crows Countdown

Counting Crows is my favorite band. So, in celebration of the upcoming release of their new album, Somewhere Under Wonderland I’m presenting to you a countdown of all of their original, studio tracks.

I’m leaving off bootlegs and songs that were never officially released (“40 Years,” “We’re Only Love,” “Barely Out of Tuesday,” etc.), songs that appear exclusively on live albums, and covers (including the entire Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) album). In instances in which the band released more than one studio version of the song, I defaulted to the first version the band released. The criteria for the countdown are wholly subjective—my preferred picks for lyrics, melody, and personal impact. Note, I’m a fan of the entire Crows catalog, so even the songs at the bottom of the list are not ones I actively dislike—just ones I love less. Feel free to debate the order amongst yourselves and let me know if I missed any songs in the comments section.

69. New Frontier Hard Candy In the right moment, I can find this song sort of catchy but the synth pop vibe and largely nonsensical lyrics don’t do much to inspire a devoted Counting Crows fan. From what I can gather it’s a song about failure to communicate—a message that the song, itself, fails to communicate all that effectively, and that sounds strangely dated for a post-eighties band.

68. All My Friends This Desert Life Counting Crows offers up its share of songs about feelings of isolation, abandonment, and otherness, and often does so in creative, thought-provoking ways. This song, in which Adam Duritz intones, “all my friends and lovers leave me alone to try to have a little fun,” feels altogether too true—about a narrator who is not just depressed, but too depressing for anyone to have a good time around.

67. Cowboys Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings A big part of why Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings rates as my overall least favorite Counting Crows album is because the impassioned noise that seems to bleed from one song to another on the first half of the album—not bad if you’re in the right mood for it, but also not the sound that I turn to Counting Crows to hear. This song seems to have appreciable political implications—possibly about a certain president being too much of a cowboy in office; it may also be more about self-flagellation. In either case, I can appreciate the emotional intensity of the song, but it’s far from my favorite to listen to.

66. Anyone But You Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings There’s a dreamy, meditative quality to this song that captures the stunted funk of post-relationship wallowing, and I reckon the song works on that level, but otherwise it feels as though the song says a bit too little to really say much of anything meaningful at all.

65. Good Time Hard Candy This one comes across as a song about awkward attempts at first moves in between more meaningful relationships. I dig the “I really love those red-haired girls, I’m just another boy from Texas…” refrain at the end of the song, but it’s otherwise kind of a snooze, a momentum killer, and a relative weak spot in the early stages of an otherwise largely underrated Hard Candy album.

64. Children in Bloom Recovering the Satellites This is one of the more off-kilter tracks on Recovering, vacillating between the cool, mellow repetition of “I gottta get out on my own” and shouting eccentricities. It sounds like a coming of age song and/or one about disillusionment. It never quite connected for me, though the outro is cool and memorable.

63. Hanging Tree Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings She brings her friends so we won’t have to be alone. She fears I might lose my composure without warning.

There’s an unstable edge to this song that I find appealing—divergent from the more pensive, self-reflective side the band usually embraces, more at home among, but also a bit more aggressively unpredictable than the rough-edged Saturday night half of this album. With the arguable exception of the chorus, the song isn’t exactly catchy or pleasant to listen to; as interesting as the lyrics and composition are, that docks it a few places in the countdown.

62. Why Should You Come When I Call? Hard Candy This song is catchy in a cheesy sort of way, not much like other tracks from the Crows catalog, but still aurally pleasing almost in spite of itself with the chorus of “ba-ba-ba-ba-bas” that easily could have been annoying and yet register for me as almost impossible not to sing along with. The content of the song is comparably dubious—ostensibly about an insomniac making the rounds trying to set up late night rendezvous with lovers, ex-girlfriends, and whoever else probably ought to know better.

61. Goodnight LA Hard Candy While I don’t actively dislike this song, I can’t help feeling that it comes across as a caricature of better songs in the Counting Crows catalog. The refrain of “What brings me down now is love, ‘cause I can never get enough” feels forced rather than earned in this tepid visit to melancholia.

60. Butterfly in Reverse Hard Candy There’s a simple, old-time feel to this song, adorned with piano keys and strings. It’s one of the prettier Crows songs and manages to capture nostalgia without slipping into a forlorn place, but rather focusing on more innocent memories and capturing them as they once were.

59. Insignificant Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This song has a lot of the jumping-off-the-top-of-a-building imagery that pervades other Crows songs, but rather than melancholy or particularly lost, Duritz’s narrator sounds indignant and righteously pissed off to have been rendered insignificant. It’s a song of defying rejection in favor of achieving his own significance.

58. Black and Blue Hard Candy A pretty melody and suicidal imagery intertwine for a song that’s a little melodramatic and colorless (no pun intended) for my tastes, but nonetheless pretty in its own way. In a sense, my feelings for this song are similar to “Goodnight LA”—not that it’s a bad song, just that the band has done the essentially the same thing so much better.

57. American Girls Hard Candy I probably underrate this song a bit, not because I don’t like it, but because on an album with so many really good songs, this largely uninspired pop ditty was the first single—only to be followed a cutesy reimagining of the “Big Yellow Taxi” cover that started as a delightful hidden track at the end of the album, and ended up with Vanessa Carlton singing backup for a single that overshadowed far better original music.

Back to “American Girls,” it has its catchy bits, but otherwise feels simultaneously conspicuously lightweight and weirdly sentimental in the “you make me cry” refrain. It feels like a knock off of the tradition of great American rock songs about women, but never quite finds its own voice.

56. Four Days This Desert Life This is a song of separation—probably a long distance romance, for which “four days and nights” feels like an interminably long period of time to wait to see someone again. As such, the song encapsulates a sense of young, impatient love, making marks on a wall like a prisoner. It’s a beautiful, off-beat piece of music.

55. Miller’s Angels Recovering the Satellites Down trodden, mystified, with a hint of anger this song is a meditation on watching for angels that may not be so benevolent. It’s a song of victimhood without a hint of recovery. I like it as a mood piece, and particularly like the contrast when it briefly transitions to more of a rock song. That said it’s not exactly a fun or entirely coherent listening experience.

54. Another Horsedreamer’s Blues Recovering the Satellites This song was purportedly written in response to Sam Shepard’s Geography of a Horsedreamer, about a woman who can predict which horse will win races and is subject to all manner of manipulation and mistreatment as a result. However literal that translation may be, the song is a simultaneously lovely and ugly depiction of a woman in crisis, trying to do what’s right and escaping into a world of pill-induced sleep to escape from it all.

53. I Wish I Was a Girl This Desert Life Errant use of the subjunctive aside, this is a pretty profound little song about dreams of jumping to your death, and wishing people would trust what you say. I love the pleading to Elizabeth, which reads distinctly as a series of long distance phone calls. It’s a both a song of resignation and absurdist speculation about what it would be like to be the opposite gender—though the band only addresses that theme explicitly in the title and its iteration in each chorus. I think that the popular interpretation of this song as Adam saying that women only trust other women and won’t listen to men is a little too simplistic, but don’t necessarily have a much better one.

52. Le Ballet D’Or Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings Despite it’s relatively low ranking, this track represents one of my favorite qualities about Crows songs, introducing an edgy, mysterious, almost macabre sound at an unexpected point in the mostly mellow Sunday morning half of the album. The song earns bonus points for the liner notes bit, crediting Brian Deck for climbing inside a piano and playing it like a harp to provide the instrumentation for the end of the song.

51. You Can’t Count On Me Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings There’s an interesting dissonance between music and lyrics on this one, particularly in the chorus which sounds so warm and inviting and yet is all about the narrator affirming that he shouldn’t be counted on. It’s a song about someone who toys with people and openly admits he isn’t reliable—and yet seems all the more magnetic for the admission. It’s one of the catchier and certainly the most radio-friendly of the tracks from the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album.

50. Carriage Hard Candy I went to my first Counting Crows show in the autumn of 2005, and the band played a number of songs that would be featured on Hard Candy when it was released the following summer. This particular song may always stand out for me more based on the story behind it--as Duritz explained it at the show--than the song itself which, while contemplative and laced with smart lyric choices, nonetheless feels a bit plodding and as though it never truly reaches its climax. Adam told the story of an unexpected pregnancy and the couple contemplating an abortion, deciding against it, only for the would-be mother to have a miscarriage. I particularly appreciated Duritz’s rejection of the audience’s cheers about deciding against the abortion; he refused to take a side on the issue, placing it as a personal decision and not a moral stand. The recounting of the story offered a unique glance behind the curtain of another human being’s life.

49. Washington Square Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings The opening lines of this song, narrating the choice to sell a piano, sets a tone of forlorn listlessness to key off the Sunday Morning half of this album. The song has been interpreted as one about going home (the “traveling homeward to Washington Square” lyric toward the end seems to support this reading), but given the itinerant motif and distance from family, I think it’s more about trying to forge a new home far away from a “real” home in the wake of major life changes.

48. Daylight Fading Recovering The Satellites Historically, I discounted this song for its seemingly out place countrified, laid back leanings on an otherwise more openly emotionally intense album. The track grew on me over the years, though. Melodically, it’s not as aggressively sad or angry as others on Recovering, but on further reflection, it feels more like a song of numbness—coping with lack of meaning and inability to create, despite friends’ reassurances that “everybody loves you” and “everybody cares.” It’s a song of quiet resignation and best attempts at patience, waiting for an emotion to pass so the narrator can get on with his life.

47. Speedway This Desert Life One of the sentiments I feel Counting Crows nails best in songs like this one is not so much emotional outbursts or agony as the sense of numbness and inaction that can come after breakups and other emotional trauma. The narrator spends so much of this song “thinking about” what he ought to do that it underscores how little he has actually done.

46. Ghost Train August and Everything After This song does a sensational job of synergizing the more literal interpretation of a ghostly, ethereal train with the metaphorical interpretation of looking at all of these past relationships and lovers as ghosts—the remnants and memories of which never go away entirely. The repetition of the “Hey, how do you do?” first meeting is perfectly haunting on this off beat track.

45. Sundays Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings On an album of rock and roll, followed by melancholy reflection, this song marks a good balancing point, upbeat, fast, intricate, and conversational—the narrator denied, rejected, or dumped depending on your reading of it. Given how fundamentally different they are from the rest of the song, the choruses either make or completely fail the song, depending on your interpretation. I’m partial to the verses, myself.

44. Perfect Blue Buildings August and Everything After This song exists in the space between depression and catatonia, looking at everything as mundane to the point that it both runs together and becomes vaguely fantastical—a perfect blue building, a green apple sea—more visions from a painting than pieces of the world that the narrator could ever access himself. The song is alternately a little plodding and a little tidy for my tastes, but the line about “get[ting] myself a little oblivion” still resonates with me after all these years.

43. 1492 Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This hard rock anthem of a song is wholly different from anything else in the Counting Crows catalog, and offers a jaw-dropping intro to the Saturday nights half of the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album. Vocal tapestries of sex and violence flash across a back drop of a ripping electric guitar. I didn’t much care for this track when I first heard it, but it grew on me upon repeat listenings—particularly the desperation of the bridge as Duritz swells up to scream “I am the king of everything, I am the king of nothing.”

42. Time and Time Again August and Everything After I really liked “Time and Time Again” when I first heard August and Everything After and I still think it’s a good song, but ultimately more of a “role player” track on a great album than a stand out songs in its own right. It captures a lot of the angst that recurs and is arguably improved upon in the Counting Crows catalog, but does also paint some unique, impressive images—the idea of watching someone in reverse to see them coming home rather than leaving, and the idea of laying waste to a whole city and riding out into the desert.

41. Shallow Days August and Everything After (Deluxe Edition) There’s something simple and understated about this early demo that brings a smile to my face on every listen. It’s ostensibly a love song about Adam and a girl named Mary Jane, more likely an extended metaphor for his relationship with weed. In the end, I prefer to focus on the sentiment of “small people squeezing out a good life, [who] need a little good time.”

40. I’m Not Sleeping Recovering the Satellites There are times when this band teeters on the edge of artistry and just having too much go on at once. This is among the songs that walks that line, and while it doesn’t land as one my favorites, I do feel that the overall product is successful in selling a narrator’s desperation and anger. It’s difficult to tell if the ubiquitous “she “is a lover, the narrator’s mother, a friend, or more of a concept—like his conscience or his paranoia. Regardless, the song works best on its explosions, which the shifts in dynamics set up beautifully, and I’m particularly fond of the closing sequence, led off with a sample of “Rain, Rain Go Away.”

39. Monkey Recovering the Satellites This is probably the most light hearted track on the Crows’ darkest album. While doom, gloom, and hints of desperation weave together for an intoxicating collection of music, this songs includes the whimsical confession, “I’m all messed up, that’s nothing new,” which communicates a sensation of someone who has come to terms with his otherness and life problems; just the same, it’s a mostly upbeat melody and comes across as at least an approximation of a love song, questioning where the narrator’s monkey has been all his life.

38. High Life This Desert Life This is, in a sense, the title track of its album—the only song to explicitly reference “this desert life.” It’s a fascinating bit of a dreamscape, navigating differences and overlaps between the desert and the big city, and the sense of waiting for someone and hoping she’ll stick around. The song has a distinctive sound and captures loneliness in an almost playful way. It’s long and has an ethereal sound and, thus, I think it tends to get overlooked on this album, but it’s a real forgotten gem.

37. If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel Is dead) Hard Candy This song is about Adam Duritz’s revelation of the impermanence of all things, people, and relationships upon learning Richard Manuel from The Band had passed. I love the recurring guitar riff in this song, and will always feel connected to it for becoming acquainted with the track during a summer crush and envisioning it as more of a love song than an exploration of why it’s hard to love anyone at all.

36. Love and Addiction August and Everything After (Deluxe Edition) This early demo never made it onto a Counting Crows disc until the re-release of August and Everything After in 2007. Based on a few critical turns, I preferred the bootleg recordings floating around the interwebs to this album version. Just the same it’s a fun courtship song about the intersection of affection and obsession, with a whole lot of youthful ambition woven in. It’s a worthy track that didn’t quite fit the vibe of the August album, but that nonetheless stands up on its own.

35. Omaha August and Everything After Duritz wrote this song before ever visiting Omaha, and claims that having written it earned him the key to the city, which he felt pretty awkward about. More so than the city itself, it’s a piece about leaving a place only to come back to it, and a feeling tread upon. Omaha all but explicitly stands for any number of faceless places in middle America, and conflicting impulses to find a new life and to come back to what’s familiar.

34. Accidentally In Love Shrek 2: Motion Picture Sountrack I actually like this song a good bit, but just the same lament that, behind “Mr. Jones” and “A Long December,” it’s probably the song casual listeners most readily identify with Counting Crows. It’s not a bad song, but it is a bubble gum pop song that isn’t meaningfully representative of much else from the band’s catalog.

But let’s stay positive. As far as I’m concerned, “(Come on, come on) jump a little higher, (come on, come on) if you feel a little lighter” remains one of the purest representations of what new love really feels like. And I’ll be darned if this song isn’t catchy.

33. Mercury Recovering the Satellites This off-beat, almost bluesy song is an interesting mood piece amongst an otherwise more obviously emotional Recovering the Satellites album. It tells the tale of a mercurial relationship and the narrator’s willingness to tolerate or embrace all of it. The song is simultaneously conflicted and understated for a pretty intriguing final product.

32. Kid Things This Desert Life I’ve never quite understood the fad of leaving several minutes of blank space on a track before giving way to a hidden track on an album. Sure, the surprise of a bonus song is great, but couldn’t you just leave it off the liner notes? This trend seems to have given way to “exclusive tracks”—as in, exclusive to iTunes download, or exclusive to buying a CD at Target. Or maybe that’s just been the case for artists I like.

Anywho, for those of us willing to hold down the fast forward button for a minute or so or who were too lazy to get up to change CDs after “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream,” the reward was “Kid Things”—a plucky song with country roots in which Duritz implores his homebody love interest to come out and play, extolling the value of immature activities, and their potential to lead to greater things. It’s a really fun song that I’d probably love even more had it gotten its own track originally, and thus lent itself better to repeat listening.

31. Amy Hit the Atmosphere This Desert Life There has to be a change I’m sure. Today was just a day bleeding into another.

This is a mood piece in the melancholiest of senses. No, it doesn’t carry the tragic weight of “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago” or “Raining In Baltimore” but rather is, in a sense, is even sadder for the lack of energy and the general malaise of the song. This isn’t a song of sudden heartbreak, but rather an ongoing one that the narrator has grown resigned to. I remember identifying with this song after long days during my high school career—worn out from early mornings to get to school on time, a heavy load of AP courses and extracurriculars, followed by late nights of homework and pining for a life that was less exhausting and more loving. The particular circumstances may vary, but I suspect we’ve all been there at one time and in one way or another.

30. Los Angeles Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings In the hyperactive Saturday night half of this album, I’d argue that the Crows sound most at home on “Los Angeles”—not a hard rocker, more of a lazy party song about going out with friends and revisiting a Crows theme of coming to terms with fame and retaining one’s humanity.

Hey man, it’s a really good place to find yourself a taco.

29. Einstein on the Beach (For an Egg Man) DGC Rarities Volume 1 By Duritz’s own description, this was a song the Crows assembled when they were still learning to write pop songs, and he never intended for it to be released in any meaningful setting. Yet it went from a “rarities” compilation to radio play, and became one of the band’s most recognizable tracks from its early years. No, it’s not the weightiest or more coherent Crows track, but it is the essence of a fun summer song, edging toward deep philosophical thought, but consistently tipping back to its lighter roots.

28. She Don’t Want Nobody Near Films About Ghosts This early Counting Crows song never got a formal studio release until their greatest hits album. Like a number of Crows tracks it has an upbeat melody, but don’t let that misguide you to thinking it’s a happy-go-lucky song. It’s ostensibly a piece about social anxiety, wrestling with the competing impulses of a desire to be alone and fear of loneliness, all set against classic Crows pop song instrumentation.

27. Walkaways Recovering the Satellites Clocking in at one minute, thirteen seconds, it’s easy to dismiss this song, but I actually feel it’s one of the most underrated pieces of the brilliant Satellites album. Down-trodden and defeated, the song at first feels like one about abandonment, and yet takes a turn in the final lines in which Duritz sings that “one day, I’m gonna stay. But not today.” The lyric hints at shared responsibility for loneliness—a culture of one-night stands and short engagements. Just the same, the finish sounds something like hope—that the narrator can foresee an end to that lifestyle amidst his current malaise.

26. On Almost Any Sunday Morning Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings This is the kind of track that it’s easy to overlook for just how understated it is, but I really dig the quiet depression and desperation inherent to it, reflecting on lonely Sunday mornings with a brand of disillusionment that’s especially apparent after a raucous Saturday night. It’s one of the clearest, most fully realized tracks of the Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings album.

25. When I Dream of Michelangelo Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings The title of this song is a callback to “Angels of the Silences” in which dreaming of Michelangelo hints at hidden depths and madness in the narrator. This beautiful ballad with a fundamentally different vibe lingers on that image and explores the space between being an artist and a person of strong opinions, and being torn between that and a plainer, less nuanced life and the love interest that seems to embody that simpler life. The soft, smooth instrumentation paints this inner conflict in a soft light, creating a beautiful song in its own right.

24. ColorblindThis Desert Life This song will probably always receive disproportionate attention in the Counting Crows catalog for having been featured in a sexy scene from Cruel Intentions. Of course, it’s no more fair that I tend discount it because bandwagon fans only recognize it from the movie. All of that said, it is a beautiful piano-driven ballad that at once captures loneliness and a complete willingness on the part of the song’s narrator to unfold and release himself to the trusting arms of another.

23. On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings I think of this song a bit like a poor man’s “Raining In Baltimore.” The thing is that “Baltimore” is a such a good song that even a poor man’s version is perfectly worth listening to. It’s Counting Crows at the band’s most down-trodden and melodramatic with a tragic refrain of the narrator pleading, “come back to me.” It’s haunting. It’s beautiful.

22. Baby I’m a Big Star Now Rounders: Motion Picture Soundtrack This is a pretty infectious song, released as a hidden track on the vinyl version of This Desert Life and, more prominently on the Rounders soundtrack. It revisits Crows themes of disillusionment and self-loathing, with the catchiest of hooks that suggests an undercurrent of optimism and continuing to try.

21. Come Around Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings I remember listening to this track along a road trip to see my friends for the time in months after I first moved to Baltimore. The song perfectly encapsulates the spirit a reunion—the idea that old friends and family will find a way to come back around to each other, surviving all manner of short-term relationships and other pursuits. Sure, there’s an underlying tone of abandonment and heartache to lyrics like, “What I know is, she’s going. When you know it, it’s all right. So you put yourself between you and your pride.” Just the same, the song has more of the trappings of recovery than misery, and as such functions as an excellent track to close an album.

20. Have You Seen Me Lately? Recovering the Satellites Throughout this countdown I refer to “the narrator”—a term that my background in writing workshops and literature classrooms has driven into my skull, demanding that the consumer never assume the author speaks for herself. That said, Duritz has been pretty open about the autobiographical nature of Recovering the Satellites (not altogether different from the band’s other albums). The dynamic is particularly true of this song, a meditation on exploding from artist to superstar based on the commercial success of August and Everything After, and trying to decipher real relationships from faux ones; real identity from public persona. On top of all of that, it’s a kickass rock song that subverts the expectations set by the songs that immediately surround it.

19. Holiday in Spain Hard Candy This whimsical, but downtrodden piece about a narrator retreating from a stark reality to an exotic location ostensibly caps Hard Candy (excluding the hidden track cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”). One of the sensations this band and particularly this song captures with pure artistry is the sense of keeping busy, keeping up appearances, and trying to stay cool when all the while you know your life is in shambles. For me, this is a song about attempting to recover, and just the same acknowledging that the flying away to someone new is part of cycle, not an elixir in and of itself.

18. Sullivan Street August and Everything After The debut album from Counting Crows is full of heartbreaking music. This conflicted song is all about the desperation that comes with a relationship falling apart—that uncomfortable period in which you’re still together, but know that it will be over before long. From what I’ve heard, Duritz wrote the song when he was in the habit of driving a girlfriend home, but the lyrics double up with the sensation of fighting a losing battle—doing drivebys past an ex-lover’s place with no real reason for doing so, no intention of stopping in.

17. Up All Night Hard Candy To me, this was the sweetest surprise of the Hard Candy album, a song that starts melancholy and lonesome that keys into feel like a late-night adventure, albeit one for which the narrator may still be forlorn. Indeed, Duritz ostensibly sounds as though he can’t sleep for his dreams having slipped away. He acknowledges it’s too late to get high, in the same breath observing that his sleepless night may well give way to a cycle of sleeping through the daylight hours. The song seamlessly weaves together sensations of a partying and sex with disillusionment and disappointment, all against a backdrop of booming piano chords.

16. Hard Candy Hard Candy The title track of its album is all about memories—studying old photographs, remembering the best parts of a relationship past. The imagery of a girl “standing by the water as a smile begins to curl” and “the evenings on Long Island when the colors start to fade” always grab me when I’m listening to this song—we may not all of have quite the same memories, but I reckon every one of us has specific people, signature landscapes, and moments that make us smile and sigh and reflect in all of the happiest and most gut-wrenching ways imaginable.

15. Catapult Recovering the Satellites This opening track is certainly off beat. It starts out with dreamy a quality before a solitary electric guitar chord shakes up the scene, crystallizes the vision, and stirs the listener to wakefulness. The song encapsulates longing, fear of abandonment, self-realization and so many other themes of the album that it functions something like a de facto overture. Ironically, it’s a song that I think listeners tend to overlook for such a loaded album to follow, but regardless, it is not a track for any serious listener to sleep on.

14. Hanginaround This Desert Life I know plenty of Crows fans tend to look down on this song as lightweight and uninspired. I think the lack of doom and gloom makes this song all the more special to me, though—despite the undercurrent of hanging around too long, there’s also an unapologetic air about this song. It’s not quite a party song, but more so a chill piece about hanging out with friends with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and little interest in changing all of that. Moreover, the song is smarter than folks may give it credit for, recorded using looping techniques that repeat the drum and guitar riff over and over again in a song about hanging around the same place.

13. Round Here August and Everything After The opening flicker of an electric guitar and lyrics about stepping out the front door at the beginning of this song function as an iconic introduction to the Counting Crows catalog—the first track on the group’s first studio album. The song proceeds to take listeners along an emotional roller coaster about coming of age and disillusionment. The song most truly comes to life on the positively electric bridge segment about the girl in the car in the parking lot who says man, you should try to take a shot. The song comes full circle with a soft outro for which the instrumentation falls away to leave the narrator all alone, just like he started.

12. Angels of the Silences Recovering the Satellites For me this has always been a song about wanting to believe, and I love the choice for it to be an upbeat rocker, bursting with youthful energy. The sentiment that, “all my sins, I said that I would pay for them if I could come back to you,” is a perfect encapsulation of bargaining and the desperation to hold onto something that’s already gone. Moreover, I appreciate the song’s vacillation between bitterness, regret, desire, philosophy, and crises of faith—perfectly conflicted and perfectly complete.

11. Miami Hard Candy I love the economy of this song. It, at once, has the mellow easy feel of a vacation song, but just the same, an undercurrent of longing for Duritz’s angel who won’t return his calls, and the borderline epic feel of a hero’s journey in the triumphant closing lines about “shut[ting] it down in New Orleans.” The song also has its double meaning embedded in the title, with “Miami” purportedly equating to “my Amy,” a frequent Crows muse, and a brilliant way of showing the way in which a person and a place can be become one in a person’s memories.

10. Rain King August and Everything After No doubt, “Rain King” charts as one of Counting Crows’ most recognizable songs, and fittingly so. In its original recording, despite bits of doubt and discontent, it nonetheless sounds like a carefree, rocking pop song. Moreover, Duritz has talked about the song in the context of an artist’s statement—a song about being an artist and all the disparate pieces of a life that come together to manifest in the form of self-expression through music and writing. The song also accounts for the intrinsic sense of deserving more—the sensation that the artist’s work is worth more than he’s getting credit for at this point. The closing exclamation of ‘yeah,” registers as something akin to Duritz’s barbaric yawp.

While I’m focusing on original recordings, it’s also worth noting this song as the one the Crows may have reinvented more than any other on the live stage, and used as a portal to cover many, many other songs.

9. Good Night Elisabeth Recovering the Satellites It’s difficult for me to separate this song from “Rain King,” for its most iconic line at the climax of the song.

if you’re the queen of California, then, baby, I am the king of the rain.

There’s a sparseness to this song that, for me, has always encapsulated loneliness, or perhaps more precisely the feeling of missing a specific person. The song portrays Duritz’s lullaby to a lover he lost when he was on the road. The final verse in particular captures him in a phase of simultaneous acceptance and complete denial of his circumstances. He’s accepted he won’t be with Elisabeth and readies himself to sleep with someone else, all the while thinking of, waiting for his true love. It’s a beautiful, tragic, and very real song.

8. Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby This Desert Life This elaborate dreamscape of a seven-minute song probably never should have been released as a single—far too long, thoughtful, and abstract for a top 40 audience. Duritz reportedly wrote the song as an ode to an actress, hence the references to singing to someone on a TV or movie screen and imploring her to come meet him; he his framed the song as introducing himself, by way of encapsulating everything going on his mind. Lines like “there’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing,” speak to the roots of a writer—the people and the concepts that inform everything he does. Moreover, the song somehow manages to connect all of these disparate, abstract vignettes into one epic, greater whole. It’s an unforgettable memoir of a song.

7. A Long December Recovering the Satellites Though I tend to think of Counting Crows’ signature sound as skewing melancholy, a disproportionate number of the band’s singles are upbeat pop songs. This is one of the most prominent exceptions, probably the band’s second most famous song after “Mr. Jones” and one of their most melancholy numbers. It’s a song about everything going wrong, spending long nights in hospitals at the end of a cruddy year. And, just the same, it’s a song of remembering better times, like when “all at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl.” Better yet, there’s the closing sentiment of getting out to see the ocean, which carries the suggestion of rediscovering the things that used to make the narrator happy. I listened to this track on repeat in my earbuds, walking alone, my very first time setting foot in the Pacific Ocean four years ago.

6. Raining in Baltimore August and Everything After When I first heard August and Everything After at the ripe age of 10, I remember being struck by it. It was tragic, and as such it was beautiful. Before I had experienced any real sense of heartache or loss in my own life, I instinctively embraced this song about being so far away from the person you love that it actively hurts.

There’s things I remember and things I forget. I miss you, I guess that I should. 3,500 miles away. What would you change if you could?

This song took on another level of meaning for me when I moved to Baltimore, closer to three hundred than three thousand miles from the people I knew and my girlfriend at the time, but nonetheless recognized so many of the sentiments of the song, perhaps on an altogether too literal level.

As time has gone by, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for a handful of Crows songs that I feel encompass not only sadness, but an additional layer of conflict and redemption. Just the same, the song remains a key teacher in my emotional education and a track that still holds up after all these years.

5. St. Robinson in his Cadillac Dream This Desert Life Excluding the hidden track at the end of the CD, “St. Robinson” wraps up This Desert Life and certainly fits as a closing number—complex, epic, and endlessly narrative. It’s a song about dreaming and all the things that get between everyday people and all of the things they want for themselves.

The song clicks on a whole new level for me on the devil-may-care FU to normalcy in the closing movements of the song, when Duritz retorts to whoever dare challenge him, “there are people who will say that they knew me so well I may not go to heaven—I hope you go to hell.” The song ends on a delicious slice of Americana, the narrator inviting his lover get into his car, not to head toward any specific destination, but rather just to drive.

4. A Murder of One August and Everything After This is the epic, lovely, desperate, heartbreaking, rise-from-the-ashes finale of Counting Crows’ first studio album, and it is a masterpiece. The song is often misinterpreted as, in some way, being about homicide, and Duritz may well have been playing with that idea in a song ostensibly about an abusive relationship and urging someone not to waste her life. Just the same the song also seems to be about flock of crows—a “murder”—and all the more interesting for the title suggesting a flock of just one.

Like so many of my favorite songs, this one resonates me on a personal level. I remember listening to those gritted-teeth lyrics, “Does he tell you when you’re sorry? Does he tell you when you’re wrong?” as a junior high kid and thinking about the way my father controlled me and tried to tell me what was right or wrong from the perspective his aberrant and misguided sense of morality and prioritization. And I remember thinking of being “feathered by moonlight” as walking free and even taking flight.

Counting Crows is often at its best on deeply conflicted song and this song nails so many emotions around confinement and freedom. I love it.

3. Recovering the Satellites Recovering the Satellites For me, this is a song about rediscovering oneself and the realization that time is fleeting. Duritz sings about getting back to basics and staring at the sky in a way that feels very small town to me—but maybe that’s my small town upbringing and recollections of my first encounters with this song that inform that interpretation, and the reference to “this angel town” suggests it might have been written about Los Angeles, where other Crows songs from this era are set. Regardless, there’s a sense of inevitable loss and yearning to the song, particularly in my favorite lyric: “we only stay in orbit for a moment of time. And you’re everybody’s satellite—I wish that you were mine.”

2. Anna Begins August and Everything After Duritz inked this song in remembrance of a love affair he engaged in, backpacking through Europe in his youth. In my totally subjective opinion, it’s the most beautiful love song ever written. I can take or leave most of the verses, but each chorus pulls at my heart strings to truly profound effect—the sentiment of falling in love for every minor gesture a woman might make, such as sneezing; the idea of lovers understanding each other’s every nonsense-sleep-talking mumbled syllable. Perhaps the song is a bit melodramatic, but as such it captures young love and infatuation in strikingly earnest ways.

1. Mr. Jones August and Everything After For all of my self-professed modesty and focus cast on the craft of my art as opposed to recognition, I can’t deny the impulse to strive toward fame and fortune. The American Dream is engrained in me like so many of my contemporaries and those who came before me, indoctrinated in a culture of self-betterment and boot strapping, and the implicit suggestion that celebrity is the natural and inherently desirable reward of all that hard work.

“Mr. Jones” gets me.

The song is about seeking celebrity without a concrete sense of why you’re doing so, and the companion amorphous desires for love and companionship and influence, all couched with in the setting of San Francisco dive bar, making bold claims with a drinking buddy whilst watching a flamenco dancer strut her stuff. “Mr. Jones” is nothing short of a portrait of a generation—a song all about dreams and desires that closes on the sorrowful, unspoken recognition that the narrator may never achieve his lofty goals.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Learning to Read

One of my earliest memories: I’m two or three years old. I have a shiny black plastic revolver with a white handle that has a star and a horse’s head embossed on it. I walk into the entryway between the living room and kitchen, gun drawn. I tell my father to leave my sister alone.

My sister’s crying and my father’s still breathing heavily from his last round of yelling at her. When I speak up, already mumbly, my dad looks at me. He smiles because I’m too young to scold that way, and as nicely as he can manage tells me to go away.

In my first revelation of my own futility, I do leave.

It wasn’t until I was five that my father started teaching me to read, the first in a series of lessons that my father first tried on my sister, then applied to me (algebra and a capstone course on driving an automobile would follow).

The reading lessons involved an elaborate system of hand-written index cards that built from phonics to language to more advanced vocabulary. At a time when I wanted nothing more than to play with my He-Man or WWF action figures, teaching me to read was my father’s pet project. He made me promise not to tell my mother about our lessons.

I went to kindergarten in the mornings, came home for lunch, and then proceeded to my reading lessons. In actuality, the lessons couldn’t have lasted much longer than a school year--probably only a few months, but from a child’s perspective and without the experience to formulate temporal context, this period of my life stretched on for an eternity. Reading flashcards. Hearing the growl in my father’s voice as he grew irritated when I couldn’t master a word or sound. Shrinking when it came time for him to yell at me, sobbing when he called me a wimp for crying too easily. He’d smack the back of my head, sometimes with his hand, more often with the rubber bottom of a fuzzy blue slipper.

I’ll openly acknowledge that it’s absurd that a fuzzy blue slipper would be an object of trauma and terror from my childhood. But when you can associate such a device with the first time your intelligence, your masculinity, and your value as a human being were each implicitly called into question, even the most domestic accessory can bear new weight.

When I tell folks I’m a writer, more than a few people have identified an immediate connection that I must have loved to read.

I find this ironic. Because they say that I must have loved to read in the past tense, as though reading were not an activity that could have transcended adult life. More so because, in fact, I did not love to read for most of my childhood, and in fact only embraced reading fully later in life.

I knew that I was supposed to like reading as a child, but I preferred writing my own stories or playing Nintendo, and didn’t read much more than the average kid. A handful of books captured my imagination. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons, the first book I read multiple times. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which my mother started reading aloud to me but we never got to the end of. (Note: I revisited Jurassic Park and read it over the course of a week in my twenties. It was heartbreaking how poor the prose were from the vantage point of years as a reader, after I’d built up the novel in mind for over a decade.)

In middle school, I became infatuated with basketball, which opened a gateway to reading through a new lens. I devoured The Jordan Rules and tell-alls by Wilt Chamberlain, Pat Riley, Dennis Rodman, and countless others.

In high school, I started reading newspapers. Then I discovered John Irving. I read A Prayer for Owen Meany over the summer between my sophomore and junior years; The Cider House Rules the following spring, The World According to Garp immediately afterward. Add in The Catcher In the Rye, 1984, The Great Gatsby, and a handful of other key titles and for the first time in my life, I actively loved reading.

My voluntary reading regimen waned in college, when I mostly read for class and for my newspaper editing job. I was a little slack in the years to immediately follow undergrad, as I navigated my first pockets of adult free time as well as my first minefield of cohabitation with a significant other.

Then I moved to Maryland. Away from the people and places I knew, into a one bedroom apartment where my downstairs neighbor was all too ready to slam a broomstick against her ceiling if I made noise via such raucous activities as pacing the floor or laughing out loud.

So I read.

I’m a creature of routine and systems. I took to reading two books at a time. Set the arbitrary objective of reading at least (an average of) two books per month. One serious, literary read (novels, short story collections, weighty memoirs). One frivolous read (pop or YA literature, celebrity memoirs). I’ll read from the lighter book first thing in the morning, over a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, seated at the very same kitchen table, migrated from my childhood home, where my father taught me to read. It's how I ease into the day and turn on my brain. I’ll read the heavier book when I don’t want to be social over lunch, between sets at the gym, and into the late hours of the night.

The act of reading is, of course, vital to my writerly aspirations. But moreover, it has become a key way in which I access the world. A way I continue to learn and understand. A way in which I empathize. A way in which I escape.

To think that my entry to reading was one filled with tears. That I was such a frightened little boy.

I don’t know that it’s hyperbole to say I hated my father more than I loved him at that stage of my life, when I was too young for much emotional nuance. Just the same, I like to think that reading stories of a thousand scoundrels and misfits and fools have helped me to distinguish between a villain and someone who’s living his life the best he knows how, even if the results skew toward calamity.

And for each revelation of this ilk that I find, not through self-reflection or the passage of time so much as the simple act of reading, I am grateful for the words so many writers, great and small, have contributed to the world. I’m grateful for my capacity to consume these words. And I can view my father, not through the sights of a plastic six-shooter or the blur of tears, but for what he is, as the man who delivered the gift of literacy to me, clumsy as he may have been in the teaching.

I can turn the page.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear of Darkness

When I was little, I saw gorillas in the dark.

I don’t recall my exact age but it must have been around when I started elementary school. After sleeping with relative ease for years, one night I lay in bed, peered at the blackness around me and saw big black gorillas.

I was terrified. I called out for help. When my parents came to my room and turned on the light, there were, of course, no gorillas. Just plain white walls, the same fringy yellow carpet, the same clutter of toys and clothes and I had, even at that young age started to accumulate.

When I had calmed down, they turned off the light again. And the gorillas were back.

The next step was to plug in a small orange lamp that flickered on and off like a strobe light. I’m not sure who would rest easy in the presence of such a thing, but more troubling was the gorillas who appeared and disappeared in rapid succession, loping closer to me each time I could see them in the dark.

My parents let me sleep with the light on for the rest of that night, and the next day bought a more traditional nightlight that glowed faintly from the corner of my room, bright enough to ward off all manner of beast I might see the black of the room, subtle enough not to keep me awake.

I outgrew the nightlight. Though I had on-again off-again fears of what creatures might share the darkness with me in the years to follow, spurred on by every scary movie I might see, or some of the early episodes of The X-Files, such fears were nothing I couldn’t escape by tucking my head beneath the covers or distracting myself by imagining stories--most effectively of all by turning on the lights for a couple minutes.

*

A fact I never knew until Archie came to live with me--cats can see in the dark.

Well, that’s not quite right.

Without getting overly scientific about it, cats evolved as night-time hunters, and so have a much greater ability to adjust to very limited light. For the contemporary house cat, that means freedom to wander an apartment, climb bookcases, and hunt vermin by what illumination streetlights provide through the cracks between Venetian blinds.

Despite this greater capacity for sight, cats cannot see in true darkness, which brings me to the day when Archie must have snuck into my closet while I fished out my work clothes, and remained stealthy enough to go unnoticed when I closed the door, got dressed, and headed to the office.

What a strange world it must have been for creature accustomed to seeing in all places at all times to be confined to blackness for a period of nine hours. I wonder what philosophical questions he may have pondered. What gorillas his imagination may have conjured.

What I do know: he found his way to a trash bag full of old bank statements I intended shred. Between teeth and claws he managed tear of half the papers to ribbons. Otherwise? I suspect he slept for much of the day, just as he would have in the light. Maybe he slept easier without the distraction of spiders scaling the walls, or the robins in the tree outside the living room window, or the expanse of hardwood floor to dart aimlessly back and forth across.

Still, by the time I got home, surprised that he didn’t greet me at the door, I heard his muted, plaintive meows, luring me to find him and let him back into the light.

*

On a dreary autumn Friday, I went to the gym after work, drove home, and napped. It was dark when I woke. In lieu of any better plans for dinner, I threw on a hooded sweatshirt to walk to the Chinese place a block away to get takeout.

As I walked past a row of houses, through the drizzle on a poorly lit street, a young woman approached from the opposite direction, earbuds in. She didn’t notice me until the space between us had reduced to four or five sidewalk squares. A porch light lit her face as it rose from the pavement and looked at me in terror.

I smiled and said hello.

She quickened her pace to just shy of a run.

And as I continued my walk, it occurred to me that the way the porch light hung may have revealed her face, but coming from the opposite direction, I remained the most shadowy of figures. Tall. Hood up. Face obscured. In all of that darkness I might have had a third eyeball protruding from my forehead. Might have had blood dripping from my vampire’s visage. Might have been a gorilla.

Or may have been a stranger intent on snatching her Vera Bradley handbag. Such things do happen on the streets of Baltimore, particularly in the dark of night.

And I suppose that’s where all this fear comes from. Reality, informed by frightening tales, contorted with all of the disorientation of not being able to see; amplified by a world of the unknown.

I made my way from that dark stretch of sidewalk to the traffic light at the intersection where a line of cars waited, headlights shining a path to guide them to bars and movie theaters; to take them home.

And I rounded the corner, where the red and blue neon sign read OPEN, and stepped into the familiar smells of soy sauce and glossy breaded meats; the same sounds of Mandarin hollers that I’d heard at my grandparents’ house when we visited in my youth. I stepped into the light.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Swamp Ophelia

I stood without clothes.
Danced in the sand
I was aching with freedom
And kissing the damned
I said, “remember this as how it should be.”

The refrain above closes “Fugitive,” the opening track of Swamp Ophelia, my favorite album by one of my favorite musical acts, The Indigo Girls. I first heard this CD in the mid-1990s not so long after its release, and though over time I’ve come to love the whole album, this stand-alone song may stand out most for the sheer fact that I’ve never not liked it. It sounded profound the first time I heard it, sitting at an oak card table playing pinochle with my sister and my grandmother. I loved it no less 18 years later, listening to the MP3 as I drove two hours back to my Los Angeles hotel after a first date that lasted 24 hours, highlighted by a lengthy stretch on a San Diego beach after which I felt every syllable of the sentiment of dancing in the sand. It’s a song about hiding, sure. But just much an anthem for release.

Jump jump
Jump so high
Watch me let you down
If I stumble
I will stumble
If I fall
I will fall

As much as I loved “Fugitive” it wasn’t my favorite track from Swamp Ophelia. In the early days, that distinction went to “Touch Me Fall.” It’s an epic in the tradition of a “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” starting in a very dark place before a string interlude ups the tempo, only for an explosion of electric guitar and rolling drums to launch the final leg of the song. You’ll be hard pressed to find a song more emotionally complex and chaotic, yet strikingly beautiful just the same.

It feels so funny to be free.

We all have our demons. I spent the better part of my pre-collegiate years aspiring to a time when I would leave a house that felt far from a home. This is a song of escape. Of discovering freedom and all of the joy that comes with it. I hold no illusions that the origins of this song were much like the associations I applied to, but that doesn’t make the message resonate any less clearly.

Don’t you write it down
Remember this in your head
Don’t take a picture
Remember this in your heart

For me, “Dead Man’s Hill” is and always will be a coming of age song. I remember listening to it while trading AOL Instant Messages with a dear friend a few nights before I left home for what would be the final summer for each of us CTY students. I crafted a clumsy poem for her about leaving her camera at home, and getting ready for three weeks we’d never forget. She tactfully told me they weren’t my best crafted verses, but that she appreciated the sentiment and felt much the same way.

I’ve read that this song is a meditation on a childhood experience in which Amy Ray witnessed older boys setting cats on fire (and the last verse pretty literally supports this interpretation). Less inspiring, for sure, but no less potent as you weave element of shame all the more intrinsically into the power of memory.

“Least Complicated” is probably the best-known song from Swamp Ophelia, and second only to “Closer to Fine” and maybe “Galileo” as an iconic selection from The Indigo Girls catalog. Indeed, I won’t argue with anyone who suggests this song is the best of the album--a simple piece of music, brought to life by just as simple if universally true lyrics, “the hardest to learn is the least complicated.” Perhaps with a touch of clairvoyance, my younger self foresaw a time when I would listen to this song with a hurt heart, and sure enough, years later, spurned by girls who would not return my affections, I would turn to this song, accepting that so many of my attempts were anchored in the fact that “I never was cool.” This isn’t a song you have to work to understand. Nor is it one that you can easily deny.

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And maybe steer us clear of some the pain it took
To get us where we are this far.

Maybe that’s all that we need
Is to meet in the middle of impossibility

It’s difficult for me to separate my two favorite songs of Swamp Ophelia--“The Wood Song” and “Mystery.” Growing up Indigo, I was squarely a fan of Amy Ray’s rocking melodies over Emily Salier’s mellower offerings. As such, I tended to gloss over these tracks, positioned in juxtaposition with one another on the album. Whether I’ve softened over time, grown more sensitive, or simply come to identify more closely with the messages embedded in Emily’s lyrics, these two songs are now the epitome of what I love about her as a songwriter--letting ambitious, wordly, but universal truths unfurl with the all the majesty of music and purity of lyrics they deserve. “The Wood Song” has always sounded like a small town song to me. One of community, family, richness and love. “Mystery” is more intimate. A song about a love that is not na├»ve, but is hopeful just the same.

I get flack for my Indigo Girls fanboy status. True, I don’t know many other men whose first concert was an Indigo Girls show, or who will go for a late night walk with Swamp Ophelia streaming through their earbuds. But for the better part of twenty years, this band, and more specifically this album has been a treasure to me. A means to cope. A vehicle of hope. A collection of stories worth every re-telling.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Best Cut

From childhood until I moved away for college, my father cut my hair. The process of cutting may have been considered an artistic practice. That is, if my father had had any clue what he was doing when it came to cutting hair.

He didn’t.

It may been considered an act of love when he delicately threaded curls of my black hair between his index and middle finger and snipped with his pair of kitchen scissors. That is, if he hadn’t tugged at hair until the knots came loose, alternately screamed at me sit still or be more malleable to better suit whichever purpose he fancied at the moment.

An act of love, it was not.

My sister stopped letting my father cut her hair in her early teenage years, after he unilaterally decided to give her a close-cropped, boyish cut. By the time she finished high school, she had grown her hair long enough that she could sit on the ends of it, and had earned the nickname of Pocahontas among her friends.

And I--I walked around with doofy haircuts. Short enough, for the first week or so, that they looked more or less fine, but before long stupid-looking, curling outward at all the wrong angles and proportions.

Around the age of 11 or 12, I started hyperventilating when my father would cut my hair. The solution was to move the operation out of the cramped bathroom, into the more open space of the garage, which, as a bonus, was easier to sweep. My breathing issues went on for a year or two, then, like so many other pieces of my childhood, receded.

*

Toward the end of a particularly stressful summer, working full-time with CTY, I talked with a woman named Sarah who was working for me, and she told me about the time she and her program manager from a decade earlier made a pact and each shaved their heads. She remembered that people stared and people laughed, but also the bond between that older soul and her for taking the plunge together. She remembered another staff member who took her aside in the dining hall when she thought she might cry for being such a spectacle--a woman who took her aside, put her hands on her shoulders, and told her she beautiful and brave.

I had shaved my head once before. Stressed out with a heavy course load and ever-increasing obligations to the college newspaper. That, and my flavor of the week girlfriend had dumped me and I felt the need to make some sort of grandiose gesture.

I remembered that time. Being 19 and capable of such things, and how it had been years since I had considered such an act--embroiled in a series of long-distance relationships, working in an office setting. I reflected on Sarah’s story.

To kick off my California vacation at the end that summer, I stopped at Target and bought a set of clippers.

A couple hours later, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror at my hotel. Not quite bald, but hair buzzed down to an eighth of an inch length. I looked different. Not quite newborn. But new.

*

I sat in a barber’s chair at the hair salon on Main Street, my junior year of college. I’d worked my way through most of the hairdressers by that point. Each time I had scheduled an appointment with the same hairdresser twice, the results seemed to worsen, so I kept switching.

I sat with a new girl, named Christy. Younger than most, probably not more than two or three years my senior. Awkward when she introduced herself, laughing nervously the first time I cracked a joke. Curly, long brown hair. Blue eyes. Copy paper white skin that stood in stark contrast to the bright red stream of blood that poured from her finger after her second snip at my hair.

Christy wadded a tissue against her finger and kept going. When the tissue wouldn’t stay, she got another, ripped a piece of scotch tape from the front desk and fashioned a makeshift bandage, and kept going. If she’d cut herself like that, I grew wary not only of how the haircut would turn out, but if I’d leave without getting the point of her scissors stabbed into my scalp, or if I’d still have both ears intact.

But I stuck it out.

When she washed my hair, she got the temperature just right and worked her fingers against my scalp, firm but gentle, establishing a rhythm, as much a massage as a cleansing.

I looked at my hair when she was done. Short as I preferred it at the time, but perfectly blended between the close-cropped sides and backs and the longer hairs on top. Perfectly asymmetrical. Perfect, period.

I returned to that same hairdresser for the rest of my days at Geneseo, and each cut was every bit as good as the one before it.

I dropped in when I visited town for a weekend the year after graduation, and asked if Christy were around. A woman who had cut my hair two or three times before I met Christy worked the counter, and told me with a sneer (that I probably imagined) that Christy didn’t work there any more.

I like to think Christy outgrew the little college town salon. That classier, more appreciative clientele are appreciating her craft somewhere, and tipping her generously. Or perhaps that she stole away to some other sleepy village to open her own shop.

And though I’ve taken to using the clippers more often than not, as a cost saving measure, I still speculate about a day when I may step into another salon or barbershop, in some altogether different place. A time when I might get my haircut and not reflect on my father’s butchery. A time when I don’t wish to settle for shaving my head or my own humble trimmings. A time when I might recognize a woman I met long ago. And whether she draws her own blood or mine, I’ll nonetheless trust her. I'll trust her to once again give me the best cut.