I have thoughts and feelings about a 35-year-old album you have probably never heard of.
I never understood Christian rock. The conceptual underpinning of the entire genre just doesn’t make sense to me. Even when I was young and suffered frequently-recurring incidents of direct exposure to it, I could never quite figure out what it wanted to be. I’ve always suspected its practitioners had the same problem.
If you grew up white and agnostic in the 1980s South like I did, someone almost certainly tried to get you into Christian rock at one point or another. Maybe it was one of your churchier friends. (We all had them, even us heathens.) Maybe—and I’m just speculating here—that friend suckered you into going to a youth group meeting at First Baptist or wherever one Wednesday night, and the Dockers-wearing youth pastor with acne scars and a fuzz mustache slipped you a totally rad Petra tape, which you accepted out of politeness even though you realized it meant you’d have to come back next week to return it.
I once dislocated my shoulder while playing golf. Not some extreme, full-contact, Florida-only variant, either. Just regular golf.
It happened on the second shot of the fourth hole when I was playing a round with my then-father-in-law and two of his friends, which is how most of my golf happened in those days. I recall thinking for just the briefest of instants that I’d made decent contact before a searing, tearing pain shot through my left shoulder. My arm was suddenly loose and wobbly and basically unresponsive. Despite the pain, I was clear-headed enough to recognize what had happened, and to understand that having the shoulder reset later would only hurt more. So I did the logical thing: I dropped the club and, with my right hand, slammed the shoulder back into place. Then I collapsed in agony.
Tell someone you’re going to take Amtrak across the country and they’ll often tell you how much they’ve always wanted to do that themselves. But few ever seem to follow through. The excuses are remarkably consistent: Amtrak is too expensive, too slow, too inconvenient. All of these things are true, and they’re all valid reasons not to do it. Money and time are always in short supply, and life keeps getting a little harder every day even without us looking for ways to accelerate the decay. Americans like the idea of train travel, certainly—just not enough to make the necessary sacrifices a long-distance rail trip would require. Not when they can just buy a plane ticket and get to wherever it is they’re going in a few hours.
Train travel and plane travel are both uncomfortable, and in the same broad ways. It’s cramped. There are too many people too close to you for too long. Bathroom cleanliness is always a coin flip, especially later in the journey. With flying, there is the sense that you can close your eyes and wait it out, because you’ve only got three or six or however many hours. You can grit your way through that. But you can’t on a train. Or maybe you can, but it would be grim and petulant and you’d miss out on everything that makes train travel worthwhile. So instead you take the minor hardships in stride. You relax a little and try to get in the spirit, even though the discomfort will last ten times as long as it would in a plane. That’s the big paradox of train travel.
If you’ve read my novel, you may have figured out that it’s set in a thinly-disguised version of the Tampa Bay area, where I lived for about 22 years. During that time I came to know it well. Like the rest of Florida, it’s a strange place, by turns beautiful and maddening and surprising and occasionally actively hostile. But after all that time, and for a variety of reasons, Florida had begun to wear on me. When I packed up and lit out for the west coast seven years ago, I thought I’d never miss anything about the place once it was out of my rear view mirror.
Well, I was wrong about that. Turns out, Florida does have a few things that I can’t find or replicate easily here in San Francisco:
I’m getting old. I have a bad back. My knees grind whenever I take the stairs. My hair has receded clear off my scalp entirely. I’m starting to really feel the slow physical degradation that goes along with the aging process, every day of my life.
I tell myself that age is a construct, that it means nothing, that it has only the power you grant it. This is true to some extent, and while reminding myself of that does help, it only gets me so far. There is no denying my exterior travel casing is long out of warranty, and is starting to wear out.
To compensate, I try to do things old people do not do. I think of the oldest person I know, which is my dad. He has always been the oldest person I know. What would Dad never have done when he was my age, i.e., in his late forties? Would he have, say, spent a weeknight in a packed music hall while a hillbilly surf rock band threw fried chicken at the crowd?
I think not.
But preventing myself from turning into my father is not the only reason I still go to shows. I go because I love them. I love the crackling energy of the good ones, especially in smaller venues. I love the unpredictability of the performances, the beer spilled on my shoes, the low-key seediness of it all. I love spending two hours in the same room as the people who recorded some of my favorite music, sometimes close enough to cough on them. Live music makes me feel like I’m squeezing the most fun I possibly can out of life. It’s one of the best parts of living in San Francisco. I make it a point to catch a show whenever a good one pops up on the local events calendar. Right now that means not at all, because, well, you know why. (For posterity’s sake: Covid-19. Duh.) But I mean before that, before that.
When I lived in Florida, I did not have access to the surfeit of shows I have here. Florida is not on the way to anywhere else, so a lot of bands just skip it entirely. Those that don’t will usually stick to one or possibly two of the Miami / Orlando / Jacksonville triumvirate, none of which I lived in and two of which I actively loathed (Miami is seriously underrated though). I appreciate what I have—or have had, I guess—here in San Francisco, I really do.
Going to shows is one of the two or three things I miss the most now that we’re in semi-permanent lockdown status. I’ve been thinking a lot about the shows I’ve seen in my life—the good, the bad, the unexpected, the disappointing—and I’ve compiled a list of the ones that have stood out for me, and why I still think about them all these years later.
2018 was, as they tend to be now, a … difficult year. Fortunately, I live in a city where we want for little when it comes to top-quality live music options. And since going to a show is one of the ways I like to forget about my (and the world’s) troubles, you better believe I saw a few.
Though the year is technically not over, and I do have tickets to one more show—Lee Fields & the Expressions at The Chapel, which is a New Year’s Eve show that will not end until 2019, and so I will include it in next year’s wrap-up—I nevertheless present you with a list of all the shows I saw in 2018, in descending order of awesomeness.
All venues are in either San Francisco or Berkeley unless otherwise indicated:
If there is a Beatles album that could be described as “non-essential,” or “disposable,” or “give me my money back,” it’s Yellow Submarine. Consider—and then quickly dismiss—the entire second side, which is just a series of short orchestral compositions by George Martin for the soundtrack to the animated film of the same name. This leaves us side one—a handicap, but not a fatal one; there are plenty of worthwhile albums out there that have one really good side and one that’s best ignored—but the two famous songs on that side (the title track and “All You Need Is Love”) weren’t even new when this album was released.
Juliana Hatfield: Only Everything (1995) Sleater-Kinney: All Hands On the Bad One (2000)
It’s easy to forget now, but the 1990s were supposed to be the End of History. The threat of sudden nuclear obliteration arriving and raining down on us faster than Domino’s could bring us a pizza—one that we Generation Xers had lived with our entire lives—was suddenly just gone, and in the ten-year interregnum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Twin Towers, we never quite managed to figure out what we were supposed to do with ourselves.
There’s always been a current of beautiful disorganization running through Mingus’ work, and the structure of this record really helps bring that out. Consisting of one track per side, the “extended jam” format works especially well for “C Jam Blues,” where everything builds up over eighteen minutes or so to a sort of joyful chaos before collapsing into the frenetic honking of George Adams’ and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s saxophones for several minutes at the end. More like this, please.
Some real folk blues here. Languid and ethereal, James’ high-pitched voice brings a powerfully mournful feel to the sparse arrangements (James accompanies himself on either guitar or piano; only one track features a sideman, Russ Savakus on bass). It’s the perfect record for a Sunday morning spent reflecting on – and probably regretting – those things you did the night before.
Released in 1984, this album would have been a lot better if it had been recorded four or five years earlier. Dreadful ’80s production techniques wash out most of the impact of a pretty solid, if not spectacular, collection of songs. It’s not just the synthesizers, though: it’s the backup singers, constantly inserting themselves where they don’t belong, who are the problem more than anything else. A more austere guitar / bass / drums / vocals approach would have done much to bring out the life of songs like “I Love You, Suzanne,” “My Friend George”—which still manages to bop along contentedly and stick in your head for a little while after the record’s over—or “Down at the Arcade,” a fun little closer. File this under “missed opportunities.”