Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

I long ago quit using terms like, “the best songs,” or “the best bands.” I know Rolling Stone likes to dedicate issues to such titles, but there’s really no such thing. There’s just our individual preferences, and every music lover has a different list of personal favorites.

Here is the list of my favorite three albums of 2013, the ones I listened to most in the car, through headphones on my 20 mile bike rides, or streamed on Spotify while I worked in the garden or cooked in the kitchen.

Each met my personal measure of an album of lasting pleasure. Music I immediately love tends to lose its luster quickly. But albums that at first listen seem to have only one gem, but on second listen reveal another, and then another and another as you listen more, albums where my favorite track shifts from one to another over repeated listening, that are deep with layers of mood and emotion ­– those are the albums that stick with me, that become my personal favorites.

And all three of these have another thing in common: melancholy. While each has fun, ballsy, hell-raising moments, each is also filled with dispondence, desolation and damaged souls seeking redemption.

I revel in that shit.

On Jason Isbell’s album, Southeastern, he sings the line: “They’re two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” That phrase hints at the beautifully compelling, in-between world this album occupies.

Isbell is best known as a member of the raucous, alt-county/Americana band Drive By Truckers (DBT), from Athens, Georgia. Fans of the DBT’s raw, beer-soaked chug and grind might not take to this album’s polished, careful sound and how closely it nibbles at the edges of pop-country. They might wonder where Isbell’s sloppy, ragged voice has gone and wince at the warmth and clarity of his newly sober tone. But at the same time, the songs on Southeastern will never be played on pop-country radio stations. Isbell refuses to wear the costumes or adhere to the artificial constraints of Nashville’s rigid modern rule book. On one song he drops the F-bomb while imagining the reaction of friends if he had sex with his cancer patient drinking partner, and on another he sings to an old girlfriend, “Get off my God-damn back” – essentially disqualifying himself from pop-country stardom.

But on Southeastern, the Alabama-born Isbell isn't saying, “Fuck Nashville,” like so many Americana artists don But then again, he’s ain't Nashville either.

Consider the plaintive, standout track, Traveling Alone, a take on the truck driving ballad. At first blush it sounds like the flawless melody, polish, and yearning sentiments tailor made for pop-country radio. He sings, “And I know every town worth passing through, but what good does knowing do, with no one to show it to.” But just at the point he might be getting pop-country listeners to sing along, he opines on being “strangled by” his “appetites,” of being so high that prostitutes won’t take his money. 

Regardless, Traveling Alone is a damn pretty song. 

Isbell is a recently recovering alcoholic. Themes revolving around that painful, destructive journey reoccur throughout the evocative lyrics, perhaps best in the aching opening track, Cover Me Up. It’s a folk/country autobiographical song about the redemption of climbing out of the bottle while falling in love. He laments with pleading urgency:

“In days when we raged, we flew off the page,
Such damage was done.
But I made it through, because somebody knew,
I was meant for someone.

So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room,
'less someone needs medical help, or the magnolias bloom”

Southeastern reveals Jason Isbell as a gifted songwriter, as impressive with wordplay as he is with melody. He can tell a good story, paint images of vivid emotion, and make you care about those damaged souls.

I’ve always liked the band The National. They’re originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now based in Brooklyn. Last spring these darlings of music magazine critics put out an astonishingly well-crafted album called Trouble Will Find Me.

Early summer I sampled it during a long bike ride among the hilly green cornfields north of Noblesville. The only song that initially stood out was the chilling, Fireproof, a harsh critique of a former lover. A gentle electric guitar picks like the rhythmic breaking of delicate glass, countered by the low gear, deep baritone of Mat Berninger singing, “You’re fireproof. Nothing breaks your heart. You’re fireproof. Wish I was that way.”

The album played through twice before I pulled back across Potters Bridge. On the second
 listen two more songs jumped out at me as if I hadn’t heard them at all yet; I Need My Girland Demons.

About two weeks later my favorite song had become the lyrically goofy, Humiliation. It’s a perfect example of why this band is so amazing. The opening bass line thumbs like a heartbeat at rest. In the second verse Berninger lists the events that led him to a dark, damaged place:

“All the L.A. women,
Fall asleep while swimmin’
I got paid to fish them out
And one day I lost the job

And I cried a little
I got fried a little
Then she laid her eyes on mine
And she said, “Babe, you’re better off”

By this time the bass thump is at a trot. As the song progresses the bass and drums ever so gently pick up speed through choruses and recurring bridges. Just as it winds down to an apparent fadeout it suddenly swells back to life, arcing in a new direction, the bass surging like a heartbeat in a full-out run, pulled along by an infectious, looping, elastic, guitar line.

Like U2 or The Police, there are no guitar or keyboard solos. The guitars and keyboards serve the song. If you’re familiar with rock music of the past 25 years, you know the brushes The National is painting with. But the quality of the art they’re creating is, while immediately familiar, astonishingly expressive, masterful, and delightfully surprising.

Valerie June was kicking around the backwaters of the Americana music movement until this year when she released Pushin’ Up Against A Stone. It’s a pretty damn stellar assortment of songs, so varied in style it could give you genre whiplash from one track to the next. From banjo finger-picking “old-tymie” mountain music, to blues, to full-out soul, nearly all songs were co-written by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who also produced the album and plays guitar with June throughout.

My favorite tracks are the soul numbers, chief among them, The Hour, marked by a signature Auerbach blues groove intro that morphs into a rolling, soulful wave backed by Motownesque gospel vocals, and the dirty blues and chirping organ of Pushing Up Against A Stone. Other standouts include the country tune, Tennessee Time, which highlights June’s little girl whine, and the angry blues stomp, You Can’t Be Told.

If you’re a Black Keys fan, you’ll note Dan Auerbach’s fingerprints all over this album. But if he can be credited with stretching June into his trademark blues and soul, June likewise stretches him into writing and playing in the country and bluegrass genres she knows better. Though fabulous as-is, it will be interesting to see what Valerie June does next time out when she doesn’t have such a sonically recognizable producer and collaborator working with her.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers 3 weeks ago, currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Friday, December 20, 2013

The War On Christmas Myth

No Virginia, there is no war on Christmas.

Yet, each December there are relentless cries of a war on Christmas. These cries of victimhood are a silly attempt to further inflame the culture wars and a blatant example of reverse political correctness.

Fox News talk show host, Bill O’Reilly has his “Christmas Under Siege” campaign. His web site has listed businesses whose advertising uses the phrase, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and urges his viewers to issue complaints. The American Family Association has boycotted Target in past years for not saying “Merry Christmas” in its ads and The Catholic League once boycotted Wal-Mart for the way the word Christmas is handled by the company’s web site.

In this week’s USA Today, conservative columnist Cal Thomas even wondered, “if non-religious songs like Frosty The Snowman and It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year might be threatened next?” Are you kidding me? I can’t get away from Christmas music no matter where I go this time of year. In fact most of the places being accused of participating in a war on Christmas play Christian Christmas carols over their loud speakers all day long and sell nativity scenes. But because they tell their employees to say, “Happy Holidays” they’re somehow Christian-haters?

On Fox News this week they’ve been regularly reporting stories of homeowners with bright, garish Christmas light displays getting complaints from neighbors. Individual disputes between neighbors add up to a national cultural attack on Christians?

If there’s doubt about a war on Christmas, at least we know the culture of victimhood is alive and well. There’s apparently plenty of people walking around with a chip on their shoulders looking to take offense.

Making up roughly 80% of the American population, Christians are in control of almost everything in this country from the leadership of nearly all of America’s major corporations to every political body that makes our laws. I’d be willing to bet that Christians overwhelmingly dominate the boards of directors of both Target and Wal-Mart.

Christmas is not in danger. The ACLU has mounted no campaign against it. Liberals are not meeting in dark cellars, twisting their mustaches, plotting its demise. Yet, some would have you think otherwise.

Our beliefs about the history of Christmas are at best selective amnesia. Few of us acknowledge that the Pagans celebrated the season with gift giving in Europe long before the birth of Christ. It was Constantine who added Christmas to the Roman calendar in the fourth century in an attempt to bring Pagans and Christians together. The Prophet Jeremiah condemned as Pagan (which it was – and so what?), the practice of cutting down trees, bringing them into the home and decorating them. Few know that the Puritans who founded our country detested the idea of Christmas. From their point of view, there was nothing about December 25th in the Bible. For a period in the mid-1600s in colonial Massachusetts, celebrating Christmas was illegal. There were various Christian movements opposing the celebration of Christmas right up until the Civil War.

But while those facts provide perspective, none render Christmas illegitimate. Two thousand years of secular traditions bound around a much deeper religious meaning are a completely legitimate foundation for Christians to celebrate Christmas. It’s Christmas, so titled to celebrate and exalt the birth of Christ.

Yet, an obvious reason to say, “Happy Holidays,” is that the season starts with Thanksgiving and ends with New Years Day, two secular holidays. On December 22nd Jews will begin celebrating Chanukah and before Thanksgiving Muslims began celebrating Ramadan. “Happy Holidays,” indeed. So if I say, “Happy Holidays,” I’m not saying, “Screw Christmas,” I’m saying, “Hope your Thanksgiving rocked, your Christmas is enlightening, and your New Year is healthy and prosperous . . . and oh yeah, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, I hope that all goes great for you, too!”

But there are apparently political correctness police who don’t want me to say, “Happy Holidays.” In general I prefer to say, “Merry Christmas.” That’s my thing. But if somebody else doesn’t, why would I want to force them?

Businesses who instruct their employees to say, “Happy Hoidays” are not trying to stamp out Christianity. They’re trying to be respectful of all their customers, not just the majority. During the holiday season Jewish customers are celebrating Chanukah, not Christmas, and some people aren’t celebrating anything beyond the joy of generosity felt from gift giving. Why, even though Christians are the overwhelming majority, would businesses want to alienate non-Christians?

There are pundits, politicians, and demagogues whose fame and fortune rely on our outrage. They’ve got books to sell, ad revenues to gather for their evening news channel talk shows, and votes to gather at election time. If you’re comfortable and calm, it’s of little use to them. So they use the oldest trick in the political book – cry persecution when it doesn’t really exist to rally their forces – point at an enemy, accuse them of wrong, and urge your brethren to take up arms, “before it’s too late!”

There is no war on Christmas. The entire notion is a carefully manufactured myth. Christians control nearly everything in this country by massive, indisputable majorities.

But at a time when there are Christians and others of all faiths in this world who are truly persecuted for their beliefs, it is at best embarrassing to claim victimhood because someone says, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers 3 weeks ago, currently available at iTunes,, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Indiana At The Gay Marriage Tipping Point

Back in April I wrote about the historic national sea change in favor of gay marriage and gay rights in general. But I hadn’t anticipated that by year’s end Hoosiers would be in a dramatic standoff on gay marriage and activists would be working quietly right here in Noblesville.

The buzz is about HJR-6, a proposed amendment to the Indiana Constitution that would ban gay marriage and civil unions. If state legislators pass the law, it goes to the voters next year as a referendum.

Over Thanksgiving I found myself listing Indiana’s amazing turn of events for a Hoosier-born gay family member who married her partner during the original glimmer of time it was legal in California.
Luke Kenley
An initial pebble in the water came a year ago when Noblesville’s own influential State Senator, Republican Luke Kenley announced he opposed the amendment. He told a CNHI Statehouse Bureau reporter last December, “I really value the institution of heterosexual marriage, but I do not think that putting a statement in the (state) Constitution which runs down or is bigoted toward people who have a different kind of loving relationship, that I may not understand, is going to be productive.”

Luke has a way of crystallizing the obvious at precisely the moment when others aren’t seeing it, but should be.

Then an eye-popping wave of opposition to the amendment appeared this past summer when two of Indiana’s leading corporations, Eli Lilly and Cummins asked legislators to defeat the law. Both companies released strong statements through Freedom Indiana, an organization working to stop the law’s passage. They were joined by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

The unified message: HJR-6 is bad for business.

What started to creep into state-wide thinking about the law: Just it’s consideration – even to have it on the ballot for voters to consider would be damaging for Indiana’s reputation in the eyes of the nation, giving the impression that Indiana isn’t simply a conservative place of traditional values, but a backward place, unwelcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, and out of touch with emerging national consensus on the civil rights issue of our time.

That’s when the universities started to speak out.

If the first wave was corporate, the second was higher education. It rolled across the state in September and October. The presidents of Purdue, Indiana University, Ball State and then Butler all spoke out saying, “Kill this bill.” Where corporate leaders were worried that HJR-6 would affect their ability to attract quality employees, the university presidents were worried about attracting the best and the brightest students to their campuses. Not just gay students, but straight students who might perceive Indiana as a place that enshrined bigotry in its constitution.

If you’d asked any Hoosier political talking head two years ago if they could foresee this growing wave of opposition, they’d have rolled their eyes and said, “P-lease!”

But there was still another wave building. By late November and early December mayors of major cities across the state began weighing in. Eleven mayors, including those from Indianapolis, Bloomington, Evansville, Anderson, Lafayette, Hammond, Ft. Wayne, South Bend and even Carmel released a joint statement opposing the amendment.

Republican Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel said, “Our government needs to be focused on attracting and retaining good jobs and improving public education for future generations.” He added that government isn’t the institution that should be deciding who is allowed to marry.

This wave was bi-partisan: 6 Democrats and 5 Republicans.

My sources tell me that Noblesville Mayor, John Ditslear also opposes the amendment, but has refused to do so publically.

If this wave continues, Ditslear may wish he’d had the vision and courage of leaders like Kenley or Brainard. Polling over time reveals a decrease in Hoosiers’ support for gay marriage bans every year in the past decade. Polls in 2012 showed Hoosiers evening split on the issue. Polls this year show supporters of a gay marriage ban are now in the minority. And Freedom Indiana has community activists on the ground right here on Noblesville’s courthouse square, chatting up people in coffee shops and restaurants, looking to build small-business opposition to the law to try to influence State Representative, Republican Kathy Richardson to vote no on HJR-6.

In my blog post back in April, I compared those who oppose gay marriage today with those who “stood in the schoolhouse doors” back in the 1950s, trying to keep African Americans out of whites-only schools. I look back on news stories from that time and wince at the faces of those angrily trying to keep blacks “in their place.” To fight so hard on the wrong side at the moment of the tipping point, believing so strongly in a cruel opinion that you can’t see how harshly history will soon judge you, well . . . I almost feel sorry for those folks.
Kathy Richardson
I feel the same way for Tea Party Hoosiers and the Christian-right today. Future generations will judge their actions on this issue and won't judge them kindly. But I’m not angry with them. My heart just hurts for them a little. But not as bad as it hurts for gays and lesbians who have to look on while we all debate whether they should be given the same rights the rest of us take for granted.

I’m hoping Kathy Richardson feels this sea change and has her eye on history.

But while these waves of change are strong, they’re not tsunamis. As I ticked off this list of recent history for my married gay family member, she listened silently and said little. She must have been painfully aware that I wasn’t expressing excitement about making gay marriage legal in Indiana, as it is in her state. I was simply excited that we might not chisel its ban into our constitution.

We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

To share your thoughts with Kathy Richardson on HJR-6, her number is 317-773-6123 and her email is:

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers last week, currently available at, Fastpencil and I'll be doing a big launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Facing An Empty Corner

Went to St. Vincent Hospital to spend some time with my dad on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

From the doorway I could see his bed was empty. Wanting to respect his privacy, I waited in the hall in case he was in the bathroom with a nurse. But soon a nurse breezed by and into his room. She found Dad, hooked to IVs and monitors, wearing his hospital gown, leaning against the wall, facing an empty corner away from the windows, the door, the TV. He’d been sitting in a chair and somehow managed to get up without the alarm going off. She turned him around and set him down.

I walked in and said “Howdy Pop,” and he said hello as if it were just another day. But it wasn’t. It was hard to see him – unshaven, looking feeble and confused. He’d had a dramatic loss of physical and mental function, going in just a few weeks from completely independent to nursing home care. It was the first time I’d seen him this way. I was uncertain if he’d know who I was.

Immediately food arrived and the nurse, named Kelly began trying to help him eat. Dad did pretty well feeding himself, but kept trying to take huge bites and she kept making him take smaller ones. From time to time Dad got exasperated, dropped the utensils and glared at her like an angry child. Kelly was very kind and very patient but it was an ordeal. She explained to me that his swallow test showed it would be very easy for him to choke.

A neurologist on rounds came in and introduced herself simply as “Cindy.” We chatted while she made notes on a wall-mounted computer. A tall blonde woman with a cheerful smile, Cindy asked questions about Dad and his past health issues. We talked about him like he wasn’t there. He took little notice. She too was very patient and professional. Nice to know my dad was getting great care.

She turned to him and said “Hi Jim.” He half barked, “hello,” in return, fussing with the IV tubes and the hem of his gown. She asked him a series of questions starting with, “Do you know who this is?” pointing at me. He grunted defensively, “My son.” When she asked, “What’s his name?” he replied, “Kurt.” Dr. Cindy asked him to move his arms in different ways. He could do it all until she asked him to touch his nose with a finger. His hands froze in the air and he just stared back at her, lost and defeated, as if to say, “I can’t do it.”

Other questions were hard for him to answer like, “What season is this?” or “Do you know where you are?” After much prodding he finally managed, “Hospital?” But when asked, “Do you know why you’re here?” he looked back at Dr. Cindy with that lost expression, eventually dropping his gaze to the floor.

It had been 10 days since the Cicero police called my brother saying they’d pulled Dad over for driving erratically. After a brief conversation the officer decided he wouldn’t let him drive home. The officer sat with Dad at Dairy Queen until my brother Tom got there. When I brought Dad’s car up to Tipton the next day, he had no idea why I had the car. The vacant look in his eye was unnerving.

Nurse Kelly left and I sat on the edge of the hospital bed, helping Dad finish his food. As we watched the Rams/Bears game, I commented at each touchdown. He’d glance up at the TV, but quickly got lost staring at the wall, or his hands. And heaven help anyone caring for an engineer with dementia; at one point I found him trying to dismantle the electronic monitor that had been resting in his gown pocket. My father was a mechanical engineer who spent his career testing and trouble-shooting transmissions for Chrysler. Working with machines and working with his hands defined him. But this time I had to stop him. I took the device from his hands and told him gently he mustn’t. He looked back with a desperate, pleading look in his eye as if to say, “Don’t you see this thing has to be opened up.”

But he wouldn’t say that because he’s really only speaking in 2-3 word sentences.

I smiled, put the device back together and told him to keep it in his pocket. Thanks to him and all he taught me about machines, I understood how to put it back together.

The tests found a lesion on the brain that wasn’t there a week ago. Seems certain he has had a stroke, and perhaps more than one. I asked Dr. Cindy if he had had multiple, ratta-tat-tat little strokes – that would explain the last month+ of sudden loss of function, then plateau, then another loss of function, and then plateau. Another test showed severe dementia.

After a couple hours Dad fell asleep sitting up in his chair. I knew a rehab nurse was coming later to run him through his paces, so I gathered my things and left quietly. Heading down the hall I saw nurse Kelly in another patient’s doorway and let her know he was alone.

It’s hard to accept that my dad, the man I’ve known my entire life, is kinda gone. There are glimmers of him in there, reflexes of that old personality, but it’s not really him. It’s like all the parts are in place, but the gears that engage the parts are stripped, like a car with a broken transmission – you can rev the engine or flip the turn signal, but it ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Flying through the air, propelled by a stick: From the time I
was a child I always loved this high school photo of my dad
pole vaulting. In it, he seemed magical.
I stepped into an empty elevator and when the door closed I turned and faced my own empty corner, away from the world, and cried for a minute as I slowly fell 5 stories.

My new book began going online for e-readers this week, currently available at Fastpencil and Barnes and Noble. I'll be doing a big launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead when it's finally available in all formats, but for now, here's an early look: