Monday, May 26, 2014

The Worst Band In America

We’ve all seen them, the back window decal of Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, urinating on the car number of the NASCAR driver someone hates the most. When I first saw these, years ago, it always amazed me that it wasn’t enough to love Dale Earnhart. You had to equally celebrate your hatred for Jeff Gordon.

But this need to hate one side as much as you love another has taken hold in an ugly way in our culture. It comes out among music fans in a big way. Over the years, no topic I write about gets more people irrationally angry than when I write about music.

I’m a big music fan. I manage my own home digital database of over 20,000 tracks of music. Name the act, they’re probably there. And playlists. There’s a blues playlist with 700-800 songs on it, and playlists of Reggae, Soul, Folk, Western Swing, Country Blues, Jazz, Americana, Rockabilly, and on and on. Each playlist only plays songs I like, songs I put there by choice. There’s more than a decade of digitized hard work in that database. Thousands of albums. So I have opinions about music.

But scanning through an LA Weekly article titled, “The 20 Worst Bands of All Time,” I found myself dismayed by the condescending snark of critics actually listing bands they hate. Bands on the list inexplicably included The Eagles, LCD Soundsystem (c’mon, that’s not even a band, it’s a guy) Pearl Jam, The Black Eyed Peas . . .  well okay I get the hatred of the Black Eyed Peas. No, I’m kidding (kinda).

How about I list music critics I hate? You know, the ones who can’t play a musical instrument or write a song but have a lot of opinions about people who can? Naw. I won’t do that either.

When I was a kid, I loved The Monkees. They were a manufactured band with manufactured music made for Saturday morning TV - a unique item in that cartoon laden world, but as music went, they’re weren’t the real thing. But being an 8-year-old kid, I didn’t know that. In the black & white, vanilla Indiana of my upbringing, The Monkees looked pretty dam cool. I dreamed of having a car and an apartment just like theirs. I listened to their music and read the liner notes on their albums. There I found songwriting credits for Neil Diamond and Carol King and Gerry Goffin. I followed those liner note threads and still follow musical threads to this day.

Of course, The Monkees
Those liner notes led me from the waning days of Tin Pan Alley to lessor known music that was raw, real, and homemade, not made for Hollywood or the top 10, but just out of a musician’s desperate need to be heard and understood by someone . . . anyone.

I eventually became a guy with hundreds and hundreds of albums, hundreds of CDs, and now a guy carefully managing that ever-growing digital database of high-def music, all because I was once inspired by the Monkees. That’s a little fucked up, but how lots of people come to music. My playlists now include Dave Brubeck, Jimmie Rogers, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams, Count Basie, Joni Mitchell, Mozart, Robert Johnson, Fleet Foxes and Uncle Tupelo, to name just a few, all because I got inspired by the Monkeys. How can that be wrong?

So stop making fun of music you think is dumb. It’s inspiring somebody. I was once that guy, way too often, the one rolling my eyes at people not “smart enough” to like what I liked. What a horrible bore I was with my opinions about what music was best or worst.

There is no best or worst. There’s just what I like, what you like, and what others like.

Recently a petition signed by over 100,000 people was sent to the White House asking that Canadian, teen music sensation, Justin Bieber be deported. If America needed a list of over 100,000 of it’s residents with too damn much time on their hands, it’s just been conveniently compiled. People who like Justin Beiber MIGHT be dumb. But people who signed that petition are definitely dumb.

And Phil Collins, former drummer and eventual front man for the late-era version of the band Genesis, who sold 150 million records as a solo artist, has had entire web-sites dedicated to hating him. He actually quit music in part because of the relentless venom directed at him. I haven’t wanted to listen to his stuff for years, but I’ve got a life way too full to spend any of it hating on him. Besides, I have fond memories of Phil Collins. Remember hearing In The Air Tonight when I was about 20 and thinking it was cool as hell. Remember driving a rental car in England in ‘82 and having my roommate put Walkman headphones on my ears as I drove so I could hear Collins drumming with Scottish singer, John Martyn. Recall going to Bloomington with college friends to hear Collins in the early ‘80s – and one of my buddies on that trip ended up marrying one of the girls who went with us. Good memories.

That LA Weekly article listed the Dave Matthews Band as the worst band of all time. I’m almost embarrassed for the calculating, condescending guy who wrote that article.

I realize he was hired to inflame music readers. I’m guessing he’s the kind of critic who loved that Radiohead or Wilco album I couldn’t quite get into. The critic who said those were masterpieces. I love Radiohead and Wilco. So I kept listening and listening. Listened sober. Listened drunk. Listened high. Only to realize I just didn’t really get those albums, but was also left feeling maybe I’m not as smart as that critic. He must be tapped into the real deal. I’m just not cool enough to figure it out.

No. He likes what he likes. I like what I like.  And way too stupidly often if you’re wearing what’s out of style, you feel dumb. But you’re not dumb. You’re just wearing other clothes.

Dave & the boys
The Dave Matthews Band is not the worst band of all time. Not even remotely close. The worst band of all time is murdering perfectly good songs in a basement or a garage and they really do suck and we’ll never, ever hear about them because they really are that bad. But the Dave Matthews Band and the other 19 bands on that snarky, hateful list, are not the worst bands of all time. The list should have been titled: “The Bands I Resent Most Because They Get More Attention Then The Bands I Like More.” That’s what the list is all about, bands whose success seems unwarranted to people who prefer other talented, worthy, struggling acts who are less appreciated by the masses.

If you’ve got time to hate Dave Matthews, Justin Bieber, or Phil Collins, you’ve got way too much time on your hands. Instead of hating them, ignore them and turn your attention to music you love, and be happy that those acts are inspiring somebody who will someday share a musical love with you.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Duckling Heart

During marriage counseling, I was told by no fewer than three mental health professionals that we marry one of our parents.

After the first one said it, my ex and I stood in the parking lot outside his office building and mutually agreed, “That’s a lotta Dr. Phil bullshit!” But the third therapist took us through a process that identified which of my parents I had married, then led us through an exercise that put a big, expressive, tear-gushing exclamation point on the truth of it. It was one of the most emotional, revelatory experiences of my life.

How appropriate the sessions were held in the dimly lit, low-ceilinged basement of an unassuming, small office building in my own neighborhood. Into the rabbit hole of our childhoods my wife of twenty-five years and I tumbled. What I saw down there rang true, like the details of a hazy, half-remembered, fever dream from childhood, suddenly recalled and focused. And so I tried to grip the feathery, blow-away edges of those truths and understand the formative events that led to my impulses.

The theory that we marry one of our parents begins with the idea that we grew up in conflict with a particular parent. It can be as devastating as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or as simple as a longing for the nurturing and love a parent withheld. When we encounter people later in life who have personality traits similar to that parent, we often connect with them. Subconsciously they speak to our hardwiring because we know how to play a role in that familiar relationship. We may even see promise of the emotional resolution we’ve always yearned for but never got with the parent – The nagging itch that never got scratched.

We yearn to be loved by THAT kind of person.

In the same way that good dramas require conflict, seems life is more compelling when we have something to push against, which might explain why we pursue things that actually make us unhappy.

Late last winter I had a couple interesting, intense dates with a lovely woman named Jan. I’m a talk show host on a date – part Johnny Carson, part Dr. Drew, so better be ready to talk about your life in detail or hear about mine. Over the course of two evenings I coaxed out of her stories of an emotionally abusive father, an emotionally abusive ex-husband, and an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. This cute, fit, brunette mother of 3 told the stories with no air of victimhood, like it was just bad luck. Clearly a strong woman, she talked like she, “ain’t takin’ that shit no more.” But the first thing I thought once the common threads of those three men dangled in front of my face: I don’t stand a chance with this beautiful, dynamic, intelligent, hardworking gal. Why? Because I’m not silent, emotionally distant, or abusive. I’ve got my own issues, but not those.

Jan didn’t choose her abusive dad, but she chose the husband and boyfriend. They may have been assholes, but she’s the common denominator. She knows their traits, understands them, and knows what to do with them. Whatever the abuser’s best behavior at the start of a relationship, those qualities speak to her, to her imprinting, perhaps echoing the joy and relief she felt at the moments her father actually treated her well. She can say all day long she’s looking for a kind, loving man, but I’ve met way too many woman – friends and lovers who expressed that delusion, only to watch them fall for the next charismatic abuser who showed up.

First time I faced this I was a teenager. The girl even sent me a tender birthday card gushing about what a “Nice guy” I was. It had a picture of Charlie Brown on the front. She soon dumped me and went back to the older, ex-boyfriend who had cruelly, sexually abused her.

It’s not just women choosing unconsciously and poorly. On another date with another bright woman, I shared my belief that while many women say they want kindness, they often don’t choose it. She rolled her eyes and shot back, “And men say they want an intelligent woman, but how often do they actually choose one?”


Now, don’t mistake my harsh honesty for disrespect. I’m feeling utter sympathy in these moments . . . and maybe my own dysfunctional urge to fix things for them. That illusion is called the “savior complex.” It’s about being attracted to “birds with broken wings,” thinking you’ll save them, lighten their burden and get their love in return. I had a lucky childhood. My male and female role models were fixers. They fixed people’s problems. I know how to do that. I know how to play that role. And in my love life I’ve chased that fantasy even when it didn’t serve me well. That’s why women who are attracted to abusers have broken my heart regularly. I fall for them thinking I’ll fix them, but that doesn’t speak to their hardwiring. Don’t get me wrong, they want to be happy – but unfortunately they’re just not attracted to people who can make them happy.

Which is kinda a problem.

Somehow as adults, we seek roles familiar to the skill sets we learned as children. And it seems to form what we think we’re worth, what we deserve, what we’re worthy of, where we “belong.” And it can go way dark and way ugly.

Long ago in my teaching days I worked with another teacher, Mike. He was lovably nerdy, a good guy, and a good teacher.

The week before classes started one August in the 1990s I stopped in the empty central office of our school to check my mailbox and heard fingers typing furiously on a keyboard in the back room. I poked my head around the corner and found Mike at a keyboard, sweating bullets.

“Dude, you okay?” I asked. He motioned desperately for me to step in and close the door.

In a confession that clanged like fire crackers set off in a dumpster, this seemingly kind, gentle man explained that he’d been arrested during the summer for child molesting. “I want you to know that I never touched a child,” he said urgently. At this point, I didn’t care, I just wanted out of that room. “I was molested as a child,” he said. “I know I’m screwed up and I need help and I’m gonna get it. But I plea-bargained that I would never again work around minors. So I’m typing up my resignation.”

This guy was a great teacher. Visiting grads stopped in before holidays for years after asking me where he was, saying they wanted to thank him for preparing them for their intensive college courses.

I guess beauty and damage are tangled together in all of us.

I totally believed Mike when he said. “I got screwed up as a kid.” And as an adult he got caught doing weird, upsetting things near children, things that echoed what was done to him in the real life nightmares of his childhood. It excuses nothing, but explains a lot. Though I wish he hadn’t, he told me the whole story. Things I can’t unhear, though I wish I could.

How do we get imprinted so deeply in the half-forgotten dream of our childhood? Following and re-acting out the hurt of our early years like little ducklings who got one good look at their mother, whether matron or monster at just the right developmental moment, and so would follow her or anybody who looks like her off the edge of a waterfall, again, and again, and again, thinking this time it will be different, or more likely, we’re not thinking at all, just following a feeling.

The psychiatry world tells us that children who were abused often grow up to be abusers? That’s their norm. That’s what their roll models did. You think it would be the other way around – that they’d resolve to be different. But the human mind is a rabbit hole with immeasurable variations. 

Even folks like me with minor childhood issues can find it hard to shake their imprinting.

Just like I read between the lines on those two dates with that lovely women named Jan – the one with a habit of choosing abusive men? Any psychologist reading this story is reading between the lines, doing what any smart person does when they hear someone judging others; they’re pulling my common threads together, for often judgments say more about the person pronouncing them than about those he’s judging.

There was another rabbit hole in my life, one that at first looked like clear-eyed, adult clarity.

In a spare, darkened bedroom, on a mattress that lay flat upon freshly refinished, blonde oak floors, in a late night argument with a woman I dated after my marriage ended – a woman I thought I loved more than anyone else I’d ever met in my life – she silenced our angry debate with a simple, searching observation about herself, and me. Lying on her stomach, leaning up on elbows, her long, dark hair falling over her shoulders, she softly but urgently whispered at me, “Well maybe I’m attracted to birds with broken wings – thinking I’ll fix them.”

Occasionally, in that bed I awoke in a sleepy fog in the middle of the night to the glow of an iPhone screen cast against the wall. I’d turn to find her using it as a flashlight, her face illuminated in the blue-white glow, writing furiously on a small notepad. First time it happened I mumbled, “What are you doing?” She replied without looking up, “Writing down my dreams before I forget them.” She told me often she wanted to understand her dreams, tease out their hidden meaning.

The night of that earlier argument, we fell asleep back-to-back, then woke in the morning with our arms apologetically wrapped around one other.

But that didn’t fix anything. How I wish it could.

You see, I was still me and she was still her. We talked a lot about changing for each other, but never got there. The tea leaves of her dreams and my rabbit hole journeys with a therapist couldn’t outrun our old impulses or keep us from stomping out the last remaining embers of each other’s innocence.

Though the relationship ended painfully with us at odds with each other, perhaps we were more alike than we ever realized – both of us fixers, trying in vain to repair the other person’s broken wings. And how that urge got imprinted on our little duckling hearts in our long distant childhoods is anyone’s guess.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Life In The Fast Lane

On a two thousand mile drive to Alabama, Florida and back home last month it occurred to me that driving behavior has changed since the days I got my license back in the ‘70s.
My chariot, captured mid-journey in my sister's driveway
in Chuluota, Florida. It's a great vehicle for turning the
slow lane into a make-shift fast lane.

Out of shear boredom, and admittedly, more than a little impatient frustration, I conducted a highly biased traffic study of Interstate driving habits. These are my findings.
Lesson #1: “75 is the new 55.”
At some point passing through northern Alabama I recognize that nobody, and I do mean nobody, is going the speed limit. The old oil-crisis-Nixon mandate of 55 mph that was in place when I started driving seems quaint in retrospect. In those days I used to fudge the 55 mph law by setting the cruise control at 62.

We’re in an era of accelerating instant gratification. “I wanna be there, and I wanna be there right now!” The journey is to be tolerated. The destination is our birthright. We’re in our little living room on wheels; comfy chairs, stereo, smart phones feeding us email, music and social media updates, video screens mounted on the ceiling – the entitled Ugly American at our ugliest.

Now, if the posted limit is 70, my fellow drivers and I have cruise control set at 85. Just like original Oreos, old school IPAs, and 1950s ranch homes weren’t enough for Americans and needed to be “doubled,” mph over the speed limit have doubled, too.

Lesson #2: The “fast lane” is a dead concept.
When I was a kid the fast lane was a place where faster traffic actually went past slower traffic. When a faster driver approached a slower moving car, the slow guy noted this approaching reality in his rear-view mirror and courteously moved to the right. In the Midwest, this disappeared along with bell bottoms and disco. I wouldn’t even be surprised if a state-by-state study showed Hoosiers are the worst at moving over for faster traffic.

As I drive south, I'm always reminded that the mid-south is more courteous than the mid-west at getting over. It improves in Kentucky. Courtesy appears around Louisville and stays strong well through Georgia. But once you get into Florida, that social contract falls apart again and as in Indiana, the fast lane is once more clogged with slow fuckers just don’t care if it bugs you.

Today the fast lane has become a promise of swiftness that rarely pays off. It’s a bit of a status claim, too: everybody thinks they belong there. Only losers poke along in the slow lane.

And the fast lane is a place of hope. Think of the intermittent reward of gambling. People throw away their money gambling because, well, they won once, and so keep playing and losing, certain the next big payoff is right around the corner. Likewise, people line up in that far left lane, beating the steering wheel with their palm, wondering what the hold up is. Long ago they got in the fast lane a time or two and actually went fast, and so they hope against hope that once that blockage opens up, they’ll be zipping along smoothly.

Hurdling through central Florida on I-4 with my sister, the fast lane was bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye could see, yet the “slowest” lane to the right was totally – I'm not kidding, totally empty. We gave up hope and slipped into the far right lane and blew by the front of that line over and over again (yes, I’ve become one of those drivers). As a result, I can tell you first hand what the various blockages are at the front of that so-called fast lane.

Blockage A: Drivers texting, or so absorbed in a cell phone conversation they momentarily lost connection with where they are and why. You can see them alone in the front seat, talking urgently into their phone or a Bluetooth headset, sometimes gesturing wildly to the disembodied caller on the other end. 

Blockage B: Elderly drivers who have forgotten the point of the fast lane and, and like most Hoosiers have come to see it as just another lane. They’re driving along, slow and happy, hugging that left-hand guardrail. When you finally pass and give them the stink-eye, they look back and gesture to the other lanes like, “Hey, there are three lanes. They’re all the same. I chose this one. You choose yours and get off my back.”

Blockage C: Long-haul Zombies – not truckers, but forlorn, straight-thru drivers in Civics and aging mini-vans who decided to drive non-stop all the way. They’re just staring ahead, eyes swollen, mouths agape, half mesmerized/half lost, steeped in second-hand diesel fumes and way, way past caring that there’re a line of 20 or 30 defeated drivers stacked up behind them.

Blockage D: Self-righteous Drivers. They’re indignant as hell and don’t care if you’re irritated. They’re already going 5 mph over the speed limit, dammit! And, “For the love of God, that ought to be fast enough for anybody! If you don’t like it, next wide open break in the center lane, I might get over for you, but it will have to be wide open – it can’t cost me a moment (or an ounce of pride).”

Lesson #3: SOBs + Enablers = Injustice
There is a class of driver so dispicable they don’t deserve the smallest courtesy. They are the “SOB Driver.”

How to spot the SOB: There’s road construction ahead and you’ve had ample warning that a lane is ending and you must merge. As you near the final merge, drivers have all lined up. But here comes the SOBs barreling past the line on what’s left of the dying lane. He (and it’s always a he) pulls to the front of the line, puts on his turn signal and waits to be let in.

Which brings us to The Enabler. This is typically a Blockage hybrid whose enabling tendency combines with their #1 or #2 Blockage tendencies. It’s The Enabler who lets the SOB in ahead of everyone who followed the merge instructions.

I merged dutifully in line south of Louisville, watching an Enabler allow an SOB in an urban assault vehicle force his way in ahead of us all. Steaming a little, I started mentally listing Enablers: those who spoil petulant children, those who pick up cigarettes at the store for their smoking friends (who really ought to quit), those who quietly clean up after slobs without complaint, those who subscribe to Comcast despite its obvious status as pure evil, and those who allowed Hitler to consolidate power in 1930s Germany,

Why didn’t I just fly? I’d be drinking a gin and tonic and reading Rolling Stone magazine.