In Praise of Interpretive Artists

When I was getting paid to be a music critic, one of the more entertaining nights on the job was the annual get-together of all my newspapers’ music critics to compile our “Best Of” lists for the year’s Local Music Issue. These editorial lists were based solely on our own subjective opinions and observations, ostensibly filtered through our superior critical experience, while the separate Readers’ Poll represented the vox populi. It was sort of a “what’s good” vs. “what’s popular” dichotomy, to some extent.

The fact that there was very little overlap between the two lists probably says a lot about how music critics exist in little bubbles of elitism that have no bearing on the lives and experiences of most normal human beings. As I wrote in one of the opening paragraphs of Eponymous, music critics are:

“. . . the deeply demented souls who live in a world where a packed stadium equals ‘lowest common denominator failure,’ while eight of their kind gathered in a space of their own making watching a nobody doing nothing anyone else wants to hear equals ‘artistic triumph.”

One of the things that used to cause particular outrage at the annual gathering of the music critics was the fact that the hoi polloi would routinely vote for cover bands in the “Best Local Artist” category that we gave them in the Readers’ Poll. Can you imagine that?!? Lawks, how much we needed to educate the rabble, to help them rise above the humiliation of dancing in public to bar band versions of “Mustang Sally” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” while (shudder) actually enjoying themselves?!? Forsooth, we must select the most experimental, underground, obscure band we can find to counter their ignorance! Excelsior!

One year, though, one of our own turned on us: a normally dependable music critic came to the annual gathering of the rock and roll gadflies and nominated a duo who primarily played other peoples’ music for the “Best Local Artist” slot in our annual critics’ poll. The duo dug up pop obscurities and then completely reinvented their arrangements, he explained, turning them into something unique and fresh. They offered extraordinary vocals and exceptional instrumental talent. They were socially active, playing at the sorts of benefits that we liked to support, on behalf of the sorts of causes that music critics get excited about (e.g. “Hey! Let’s go to the PETA rally and see if there are any naked women painted as tigers there today!”) They collaborated with others in the community, sharing stages with some of the obscure weirdos that we’d already selected in other categories. Why, he pressed, would we not consider them for the top slot in our regional poll, just because they didn’t write their own songs?

Why? Why?!! WHY?!?!? Because . . . because . . . HERETIC!!! ABOMINATION!!! FREAK!!!! OUTCAST!!!! I won’t go through the details, but suffice to say that voices were raised, fingers were pointed, drinks were slammed, cigarettes were stubbed angrily, words were exchanged, feelings were hurt, alliances formed and broke up, more drinks were slammed, and in the end, we gave “Best Local Artist” to a new group composed of three of our friends who had only played two shows out in public to a total of nineteen people (but, boy, that TEAC Tascam 4-track musique concrete deconstruction of ABBA Gold they sent us was awesome!), while the proposed covers duo was grudgingly awarded a prize in a new category we created especially for them: “Best Local Interpretive Artists.”

These days, honestly, I’m generally happier to go out and dance along to cover tunes played by great local bar bands than I am to go shuffle morosely in a seedy bar, hoping to find the next best thing, and having it fail to show up. I still appreciate the act of songwriting, of course, and I love up-and-coming artists who sing what they write, but I also appreciate the act of performing and connecting with an audience, and some of the better shows I’ve experienced in the past few years have been shows primarily composed of cover songs.

So today, I lift up and celebrate our friends the Interpretive Artists by sharing a list of my Top 20 Favorite Cover Songs Ever, below. Feel free to submit additions to this list in the comment section, and I will make sure that no angry music critics show up to stub their cigarettes out on your arm.

  1. “Young Man Blues,” by The Who (covering Mose Allison)
  2. “Morning Dew,” by Einsturzende Neubauten (covering Bonnie Dobson or Tim Rose)
  3. “Whole Lotta Love,” by Tragic Mulatto (covering Led Zepellin, filtering Willie Dixon)
  4. “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores,” by Bauhaus (covering John Cale)
  5. “Shipbuilding,” by Robert Wyatt (covering Elvis Costello, though technically Wyatt’s version went public first)
  6. “Black Diamond,” by The Replacements (covering KISS)
  7. “Sugar Smack,” by The Hanslick Rebellion (covering the Archies and the Velvet Underground, at the same time)
  8. “I’m Not Lisa,” by Killdozer (covering Jessi Colter)
  9. “Stagger Lee,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (covering Lloyd Price and 1,000 bluesmen)
  10. “Scumbag Pines,” by The Kamikaze Hearts (covering Beef)
  11. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” by Isaac Hayes (covering Glen Campbell)
  12. “Ray of Light,” by Madonna (covering Curtiss Maldoon)
  13. “The First Cut is the Deepest,” by Rod Stewart (covering Cat Stevens)
  14. “Pablo Picasso,” by John Cale (covering Modern Lovers)
  15. “Going Up,” by COIL (covering the theme song of British TV show Are You Being Served?)
  16. “Love Hurts,” by Nazareth (covering The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison)
  17. “Yoo Doo Right,” by The Geraldine Fibbers (covering CAN)
  18. “Personal Jesus,” by Marilyn Manson (covering Depeche Mode)
  19. “Viva Las Vegas,” by Dead Kennedys (covering Elvis Presley)
  20. “Kaw-Liga,” by The Residents (covering Hank Williams)

Five Statements, Five Questions II: Albany Edition

1. I am in Albany tonight. Did anyone notice a disturbance in the force?

2. The Albany-Colonie area has about half the population of Des Moines, but the traffic is orders of magnitude worse. Why?

3. I put my suitcase in the back seat of the wrong rental car, and now it’s gone. Do you have my clothes?

4. I had dinner with Jed Davis tonight, who’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. Who are yours?

5. I drove from Great Barrington to Albany tonight taking a shortcut on Dugway Road, which is a gorgeous dirt path southeast of Spencertown. Why does it feel so good to drive fast on dirt roads?

Rubbernecking at the Trainwreck of Journamalizm

My dictionary offers the following definitions of the word “news:”

1. a report of a recent event; intelligence; information.

2. the presentation of a report on recent or new  events in a newspaper  or other periodical or on radio or television.

3. such reports taken collectively; information reported.

4. a person, thing, or event considered as a choice subject for journalistic treatment; newsworthy  material.

5. newspaper.

Definition number five is pretty near and dear to me, as I’ve written numerous times before how much of a newspaper-lover I am — and how poorly I though that our daily newspaper, in both its print and online incarnations, served my old home community in Albany.

My distaste for that newspaper notwithstanding, there are still a couple of writers I like at the old newspaper’s hyper-hormonal blog portal, so I occasionally poke my head over there to catch up on their latest musings.

I’m often silently appalled by the non-news things that get placed on the front page there — but today they really out-did themselves, moving into a whole new realm of unbelievably idiotic traffic-mongering, shown below:

Bad newspaper? Or worst newspaper ever?

Three cannibalism-related stories on the front-page, one on top of the other? Wow. I don’t know where to start with unpacking the idiocy of this one, and once I do, I don’t really know how I would stop in less than 25,000 words. So I guess in summary, I’ll just note that in every definition of “news” I’ve ever encountered, the subjects in question generally involve things that are real.

Last time I checked, zombies did not qualify on that front, and hence, they should never be news.

But even if they did qualify, why in the world would I care how my boss would fare against them? Will having a strong zombie-fighting boss make me feel safer if a bath-salts-addled face-eater or a human-consuming Canadian blue-movie star happens to land in the office next to mine?

The mind reels . . . as do, I suspect, the hit counters. Wow, and wow again . . .

America Drinks and Goes Home

The Bumble’s Thumbs allow her to manipulate Scrabble tiles far better than most cats are able. She was actually having a fine game of Scrabble tonight, until Marcia nailed her with a bingo and gloated (see photo below), forcing The Bumble to get all puffed up with indignation and chase The Nervous Orange Cat into the linen closet. I finished out The Bumble’s game for her, and got stomped:

Never challenge a cat with thumbs . . . if The Bumble says “QIJKUORX” is a word, then it is . . .

Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake, per pics below:

Beautiful rural cemetery in Cumming, Iowa.

Road between Cumming and its cemetery, under big Midwestern skies.

Creek on the Great Western Trail.

On the Great Western Trail. (I love the missing blades on the weather vane, and the bullet holes in its tail, which become more obvious and visible if you click to enlarge this shot).

Trees reflected in a frozen creek, on the Great Western Trail.

Katelin on the trail around Saylorville Lake.

I will eat your soul . . . . I want your soul . . . .

Uhhh . . . . I think we will pass, thanks . . .

2. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly:

We lived in the end unit of this apartment complex.

My bedroom window was the one on the second floor of the end unit, closest to the front of the house. When I looked out this window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!

Moving Along With Moving Along

This week is Marcia’s last in her current job, and she will be heading west to Iowa next Thursday, picking up Katelin en route so they can keep each other company through the long drive and first few days in Des Moines. I’m glad things worked out that way, schedule-wise, for both of them.

Marcia will be living in a furnished corporate apartment for the first six weeks or so, while I remain in Albany to take care of various local and regional things that I need to get done before I’m able to join her. If all goes as planned, my last day of work at the University at Albany will be November 9, the packers and movers will take care of clearing our current house on November 10 and 11, I will head west on November 12 (with the cats), arrive in Des Moines on November 13, with closing on our new house on November 14.

Between now and then, I will also be serving in my volunteer capacity as Secretary of the Corporation for the American Institute for Economic Research at their annual meeting, and as reunion coordinator for my Naval Academy class at our 25th anniversary homecoming. I will also be attempting to maintain a small and tidy footprint in our current home, to facilitate selling it soon. So it’s going to be a busy six weeks.

Of course, that period of time is still going to seem somewhat empty to me, since I’ll be alone at the house for much of it. While a six week separation for Marcia and me is nothing compared to what many of my Naval Academy classmates and all of our fellow soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines endure as a matter of course, it is pretty dramatically outside of the family paradigm to which we’ve become accustomed, as we’ve never been separated for more than a week during the past 24 years.

So I’m advance planning on how to amuse myself during that time to make it go more quickly. Those of you who know me or have read my work over the years are probably aware that I have a fairly deep masochistic streak. Not in the sexual sense, mind you, but rather more in the monastic/ascetic/penitent/endurance athlete model of the word. I often like to push myself to the point of discomfort to see how I manage it, because I believe we learn things about ourselves that way. For example: is it possible for a reasonably fit person to lose 30 pounds in 30 days? Answer: yes, which I know because I’ve done it, though it was a long, long month. What did I learn from the experience? That I never, ever, ever want to gain weight to the point where I feel like I need to lose 30 pounds again. 16 years later, I never have. Mission Accomplished.

So, my planned self-betterment schemes for October and November currently include:

1. Eating The House: You know how you often buy food items on a whim, or when planning some meal that never quite comes to pass, and then they sit in your cupboards for months, or (sometimes) years? We have a good number of those sorts of items about. So, starting October 7, I will not spend a penny on food until I have eaten every bit of food in the house. (Within reason, of course: I’m not going to drink a bottle of Tabasco Sauce straight up or eat a bowl of ground cumin, but rather will be focusing on living off all of the end product dry, canned and frozen goods in the house). As an adjunct to this, my fighting weight for the past several years has been in the 208 to 212 pounds range, and I’d like to see what I look like back under 200 again, since the last time I was there was in 1995, after dropping from 227 to 197 in 30 days (see above). So I’m sure I’ll come up with some extra uncomfortable physical activity to facilitate that piece.

2. Living Off The Stuff: My last paycheck from my current gig will come sometime in late November, and I’d like to be able to put away all of my earnings from October and November to provide some buffer and safety net for the first couple of months in Des Moines. Toward this end, I will be attempting to live completely off money earned or collected outside of my salary and benefits. For example, I plan to hold a CD and DVD sale of the “Three bucks per disc, 10 discs for $25, and 25 discs for $50” in my garage some night in October. I guarantee you that my collection contains a lot of stuff that you’re not likely to find elsewhere, especially at those sorts of prices. I have a restored vintage ARP Solus analog synthesizer that I’ll be selling too, and I’m going to start re-activating some of my paid freelance writing relationships over the next couple of months. Finally, there will be The J. Eric Exotic Escort Service . . . okay, just kidding on that last one. At bottom line, though, all discretionary activities until I arrive in Des Moines (to include gas for getting around outside of work responsibilities, and food, once I finish eating the house) will be funded through such additional income streams, which will also help me de-clutter in advance of the move.

3. One Bag Out Of The House A Day: Some de-cluttering can’t take place through selling stuff, but rather needs to be taken care of by chucking or donating things. For my last 30 days in the house, I want to have one large garbage bag’s worth of stuff (or a similar volume, for items that don’t go into bags) leave the house each day, either into a dumpster, a Salvation Army collection bin, or someone else’s home, in the case of items that can be directly free-cycled that way. I used this approach in a facilities job I had once, and it was amazing how much we cleaned the place up just by forcing ourselves to look for the things that really could go, right now, rather than seeing them and thinking “Well, maybe someday this might could possibly of some use, to someone . . . ”

I’m sure I’ll come up with other games to play to amuse myself, but these are the ones I’m planning at the moment. Watch this space for updates.