Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Contrarian's Favorite Music of 2016

My appetite for new music is as strong as when I started buying albums and 45s at the age of 8 (I think it was a Monkeys album). Now, after 48 years that have included acquiring some 2,000 albums, 1,500 CDs, and a private 22,000 track digital database (and now streaming services), there’s no denying that my new favorites reflect I’m in my mid-50s and gravitating toward music that echoes the sounds I grew up with.

C. W. Stoneking: Gon’ Boogaloo
As a kid, I hated the blues, even dismissed Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Texas Flood” when it came out during my college years (it would later become one of my favorite albums).  Now, other than Americana, blues is generally what I listen too. C.W. Stoneking’s latest album speaks to those preferences.

Upon first listen to Gon’ Boogaloo, you might think you’re hearing a long lost 1950s gem recorded on primitive equipment, showcasing an overlooked Chicago or Delta bluesman. But Stoneking is a white Australian and the album was recorded in 2015. This album is a buoyant celebration of roots blues.

The song that first grabbed me was The Thing I Done. Its rhythm says ska, but the raw power of the feral guitar snarls the blues. The call and response of Tomorrow Gon' Be Too Late will easily put a big fat smile on your face, and while the chirpy female harmonies opening Good Luck Charm are reminiscent of early ‘60s girl groups, Stoneking’s voice arrives to steer the vibe toward gospel. The Zombie, is a fun number that should make your Halloween playlist. And the final track, We Gon’ Boogaloo truly could have been recorded in the mid-‘50s, a rock n’ roll rollercoaster delight about the giddy pleasure of buying a new record that makes you wanna dance. And this one certainly does!

Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust
My first introduction to the Jayhawks was in 1995 with their now signature song Blue, back in the days when we called their sound “Alt-Country.” And though nowadays they’re categorized as “Americana,” many thought the groups’ best days lay back in the 90s and early 2000s. Their last reunion in 2011 resulted in Mockingbird Time, a huge disappointment. So I wasn’t expecting much. But Paging Mr. Proust ranks in the top 3 albums of the Jayhawks 30-year output. It finds frontman Gary Louris catching a 2nd wind in mid-life, regaining his song writing, singing and guitar playing pinnacle. It’s simply astonishing to find a group well past its prime producing like a band half its age and eager to make a statement.

In the late ‘90s the band left behind their raw, stripped down, folk-rock picking and added polish to the songwriting and production. In doing so, they created a sound on albums like Smile and Rainy Day Music that would have put them on top 40 radio and on arena tours had they been a band of the 1970s. This newest effort is in that vain; harmonies that are at times romantic, then melancholy, then soaring, and guitar driven songs that could be strumming, sing-along soft rock, like Lovers Of The Sun and Pretty Roses In Her Hair, or grinding, feedback blowouts like Lost The Summer and Ace.  

Louris’s reenergized songwriting is crystalized on The Devil Is in Her Eyes. It's like he's fallen in love long after losing his innocents, elated to find such joy is still possible. Over an infectious jingle-jangle guitar, his strident tenor calls:

"Hail stones and butter scotch,
Firewalls and forget-me-nots,
Baby won’t you take a chance on me.
Heels dug in and braced to fall,
Hung my holster on your wall,
Baby won’t you take a chance on me.”

And as the song’s chorus arrives you’ll be cranking up the volume just when the band’s signature harmonies lift it to a new high that soon gets punctuated by a blistering guitar solo.

This was the soundtrack of my 25 mile summer bike rides in the Hoosier countryside in 2016.

Hinds: Leave Me Alone
Speaking of young bands eager to make a statement . . . This lo-fi, garage rock, girl group from Madrid, Spain got noticed by lots of music fans this year. Their debut album, Leave Me Alone captures a unique style that is at once familiar, and yet totally their own. Quite a feat for young rookies. The sassy/half-drunk vocals and surf-guitar echo paints the picture of a band literally learning their craft in the garage, and spilling some beer along the way.

The track Bamboo is a great place to start, and follow that with Chili Town. Also worth a listen, just to get a sense of their depth, is the instrumental surf-ballad Solar Gap. Will be fun to see where these girls go next.

Great Songs & Honorable Mention:
-The Cactus Blossoms: Another band with a retro sound. In this case, think Louvin & Everly Brothers. Their album, You’re Dreaming has flashes of brilliance, including the title track and Travelers Paradise. If you like those, try their remake of the Beatles’ This Boy.
-Sturgil Simpson: I wanted to like the entire A Sailor's Guide To Earth album from this renegade alt-country hero, but the Jerry Reed-esque jive-country-funk that finds it’s way into a few songs just doesn’t work for me - like a dude who shows up at your 2016 party wearing clogs and bell bottoms. It just doesn't feel right. But there are true gems included, like Breakers Roar, Sea Stories, All Around You, and the inexplicably brilliant Nirvana cover, In Bloom. I won't spend much time listening to the whole album, but onto my Americana playlist those happily 4 songs go.
-Ray LaMontange: I just can’t get into LaMontange’s recent attempts at the blues, but half of his 2016 album Ouroboros is wonderfully atmospheric. It’s another half great album. Try In My Own Way and Another Day.
-Emeli Sande’s song, Breathing Under Water: Because I’m a sucker for a good pop anthem.
-Wildfire by Mandolin Orange is a brilliant, beautiful song.

My favorite concert moments of the year include Shovels and Rope opening for Jason Isbell in a smallish theater show in Indianapolis. It was my 3rd Isbell concert and he didn’t disappoint. The Shovels and Rope set was marred by sound issues, but they powered through it admirably. Isbell is at the top of his game, at his writing and performing prime. His confidence and showmanship are exhilarating!

My wife and I on the Ferris Wheel. In the distant background
The Who were opening their show with Substitute.
In October we flew to Palm Springs for Desert Weekend. I’m generally impatient with oldies shows, but I’d never seen the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney. Over 3 nights all the acts but one put on stellar shows. While I actually love Bob Dylan’s blues outfit in smaller venues, it didn’t work at this massive festival with 100,000+ in attendance looking to take a walk down memory lane. This moment called for big sounds and crowd-pleasing, not self-indulgent noodling. This was the event that called for Dylan to do what he has no intention whatsoever of doing - play a guitar and sing Blowing In The Wind and Like a Rolling Stone, straight, so the audience could recognize them.

The Stones understood this, following Dylan with a rousing, high-energy show that included only one song from their new blues album (they knew it was also no time to promote unknown music). The next night both Neil Young and McCartney wowed with lots of big hits and highly professional backup bands. Young opened with a perfect acoustic set, then brought on his full band, nearly outshining McCartney. On Sunday night The Who surprised by providing my favorite performance of the weekend. Townsend and Daltry have still got it and know how to build tension and deliver big payoffs.

I left Desert Weekend marveling at how far concert events have come since my first concert (Chicago, at the Indiana State Fair) in 1975. The promoters managed to bus over 100,000 people out into the desert and provide ample, 1st class food and drink venders and clean, plentiful restroom facilities over the course of 3 days. Astounding!

Buy Kurt's latest novel The Salvage Man

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My White Privilege

The founders of my personal affirmative action program: Alvie &
Marguerite Meyer, in the 1920s, around the time they began transforming
their poor, Hoosier farming upbringings into middle class success.
Most white folks I know deny white privilege, refusing to apply American history to their own success and comfort. But I recognize full well my own personal affirmative action program.

My grandfather Meyer grew up in a poor German-speaking farming family in northern Indiana in the early 20th Century. In fact, though he and all 12 of his siblings were born in America, they didn’t bother speaking English until they went to school – good schools. As a young man he took a solid work ethic and education to the nearest small town, married my grandmother and got a job at the post office.

I imagine the African American version of my grandfather. That man’s grandparents were slaves. His ancestors' culture, religion, and language were substantially suffocated by slavery, then Jim Crow. If he had a school, it wasn’t as good as my grandfather’s. He too probably grew up in hard circumstances, but there was no postman's job for him. Though he might have been a janitor at a post office earning far less than my white grandfather.

I once interviewed a Hoosier African American woman whose husband was the rarest of 1930s black men. He got a degree in chemistry at IU. After graduation he applied for a job at Eli Lilly, but was told, “The only job we’ve got for you involves a broom and a mop.”

My grandfather wasn’t ambitious enough to get a degree at IU, but qualified for a better job than his black IU peer. That IU chemistry grad never used his degree.

My grandfather learned that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded. What did the black IU grad learn? I’m guessing he didn’t learn the same lesson from his experiences that my grandfather learned from his. He might have learned a bitterness that my grandfather couldn’t understand.

After their sons entered school, my grandmother worked as a secretary. They bought a house in the 1930s and built equity with each payment. As they approached retirement, they paid cash for a new home. The number one way American families have built wealth in the past century is through homeownership. During the years my grandparents bought their homes, banks drew lines around minority neighborhoods, systematically denying loans to African Americans, and if giving them loans at all, did so at elevated interest rates. It was legal and called “redlining.”

My grandparents were good, hardworking people. There’s nothing in the rewards of their labor to apologize for. But that opportunity to build wealth was systematically denied to their black counterparts.

The two hardest working people I've ever known: My father, Jim, in
1951, and my mother, Nancy, in 1952, in their graduation photos.
They were about to set off for the middle class success that would
make all things possible for me and my siblings. I was slapped in
the face just once as a child, and it was by that sweet looking
woman on the right. I'd said the word, "nigger." While my face was
stinging and tears trickled down my cheeks, she gave me a
clenched-teeth explanation of what that word meant and why I
should never say it again.
Jim Crow laws were still in affect when my father went to college. It didn’t just keep the black versions of my father and uncle from white lunch counters and bus front rows, in their alternate American universe, blacks were segregated in poorly funded schools. Few made it to college, because of course their parents hadn’t built wealth from home ownership, wealth that could be turned into college degrees for the next generation.

Still, there's nothing about their Purdue engineering degrees for my father or uncle to apologize for. Degrees weren’t handed out like candy. They worked hard for them. But they got opportunities kept from their black counterparts, black men who likely lived with a bitterness that I know my dad and uncle didn't understand.

In my little Indiana hometown in the 1960s and ‘70s I went to safe, nurturing schools. I was blessed; born white and middle class in 1960 in an all-white town, attending an all-white school and learning along side kids whose families had not-so-different backgrounds from mine. I say "blessed" because these were places with the best resources, where the spoils of earlier generations were concentrated so that even if you were white, poor, and uneducated, there were radiating waves of economic activity that provided decent jobs.

My father's engineering job put me in a big house on a nice, crime-free street. And there was enough money to send my mom to night school and summer classes. She got a teaching degree and taught elementary school.

In the late 1960s I saw black people rioting on the evening news, behaving with a bitterness I couldn’t understand. Though I didn’t try very hard in high school, I still got into college. I wonder how many of my African American counterparts could say they day-dreamed their way through high school and still got into college in the 1970s.

As an adult I worked hard to build a successful career as a school teacher, then Realtor, working both jobs for years, often 7 days a week. There’s nothing in my success to apologize for. 

Me in 1976: Slouching toward graduation.
Around my 40th birthday, a couple years after my grandmother died, I received a check for $60,000. It was my cut of the estates of that frugal postal worker and secretary. I’m not sorry I got it. I’m proud of my family heritage. But I’m Christian-enough to wonder about my African American counterpart – the grandson of the man who couldn’t get a post office job in the 1920s because his skin was black – the son of a man who didn’t go to college in the 1950s because his skin was black, the same guy who didn’t get a check for $60,000 like I did.

I invested that money in my home and my kids’ college funds. And so our white family’s affirmative action program continues echoing down a full century, long past the passage of the Civil Rights Act and to the end of the first black president’s two terms in office.

Two of my kids have college degrees – the youngest is still in college. They have no apologies to make for their opportunities. But I suspect, like the 3 generations of Meyers before them, they encounter black peers who harbor bitterness. With pride, I see them trying to understand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Batshit Crazy & Conspiracy Theorists

I passed a car on US 31 the other day with a bumper sticker that read, "9/11 Was An Inside Job!" With a reflexive sneer I craned my neck to get a good look at the driver as I passed. A bearded, tight-jawed, 30-something dude gripped the steering wheel with clenched fists, glaring at the road before him.

Figures he’d look a little . . . crazed.

My patience with conspiracy theorists is utterly gone. Feels like bat shit crazy is spreading across America like the stomach flu on a cruise ship. I've gone from laughing at it to fearing it. Our nation is overfilled with folks who’d rather believe blurry, complicated, bizarre conspiracy theories than an obvious truth screaming in their face. Vaccines cause autism, global warming isn’t real, Obama was born in Kenya, and oh yeah, he's a Muslim, and the government is hiding the truth about UFOs. Who believes all this crazy shit?

Are these the same people who sign up to sell Herbalife?

Years ago I had a conspiracy theorist next-door neighbor. Once over the back fence he explained that the United States never landed on the moon. Claimed it was all filmed in the Texas desert. He eventually developed his own conspiracy theories about me. After that first unnerving conversation, I started avoiding him. When gardening, every time I saw him pull in his driveway, I’d stroll to my garage as if looking for a rake. I’d wait there watching from the window until he disappeared in his back door. Years later he said to me, “I know you're up to something. I've seen you sneaking around over there.”

He was half-right. I had been sneaking around. Trying to avoid his crazy ass! I guess even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in awhile.

President elect Trump is the king of conspiracy theories and he’s spun some real doozies! On his twitter feed he's claimed that global warming was a hoax concocted by China, that thousands of Muslim American’s celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11, that Christians aren’t allowed to immigrate to America while the U.S. is importing terrorists, Obama wants to take our guns (Aren’t we about up to our 8th annual “Obama’s coming for your guns” gun sale?), immigrants with Ebola are coming to America, and he was a prime promoter of the Obama/Kenya/Muslim story. Problem is, none of that is true. And it’s all demonstrably not true. And I’ve just scratched the surface. When you look at the voluminous list of conspiracy theories he’s spread on his Twitter feed, it gets hard to tell the difference between a conspiracy theorist and a pathological liar who's simply sees the conspiracy theories as a means to an end.

Whether Tump believes the more bizarre things he's tweeted or not, the conspiracy theories resonate with his followers. And consider this: He’s bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and thus far 14 women have come forward claiming he in fact, did. Yet his supporters don’t believe it. With no evidence they’ll believe global warming is a hoax created by China, but won’t believe a fact based upon the perpetrator's taped confession, backed up by 14 corroborating witnesses.

Sometimes bat-shit crazy is a willful choice.

Most often, conspiracy theories are about deflecting blame or laying it at your enemy’s feet. This explains where holocaust deniers come from– anti-Jewish folks convinced it's just a scheme to build sympathy for Israel or the Jewish faith. Or perhaps Anglo European folks who’d rather not believe what their parents or grandparents did or at least allowed to happen in the 1930s and ‘40s.

My former nutty neighbor told me that the world is actually controlled by three Jewish businessmen. All of the events we see from elections to wars are manufactured elaborate slights of hand, meant to distract us. Elections aren’t real, they’re staged, the winner predetermined. And wars aren't about civil strife or ethnic differences or competition for natural resources, they’re staged to consume our attention, thin the herd, and allow those three Jewish businessmen to maintain control of the world.

And members of the tin foil hat brigade seemingly lay in wait everywhere. Three months after 9/11, I arrived late at real estate classes to find the only open chair was next to a Middle Eastern-looking man. People were avoiding taking that seat, pulling chairs from another room. Dismayed by the way fools and bullies harassed innocent Middle Eastern Americans after 9/11, I promptly took that empty seat. The man sighed with an appreciative smile and shook my outstretched hand. “Thank you for joining me,” he said. We chatted during breaks. He shared worries for his family in Afghanistan and we eventually talked about the horror of 9/11. But as I was leaving for lunch, he leaned in and whispered, “You know, on 9/11, none of the Jews went to work at the World Trade Center. They knew what was about to happen!” My heart sank. I’d heard of the conspiracy theory spreading in the Middle East claiming that Israel did it to frame Muslims and Arab nations. I replied simply, "Really?" Then I walked away and left him to sit alone when I returned for the afternoon session.

But that was a decade and a half ago. Today, my patience with conspiracy theorists is utterly gone. I will no longer nod and smile and avoid them. I’m calling bullshit every time from here on out.

 “Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard