Friday, May 25, 2007

Subterranean Homesick Alien

Leaning up against the back of the bench, my legs crossed, my eyes squinted in the misty morning air, I clutched my discman and turned to gaze out upon the patterned blue. We were crossing from Maine to Nova Scotia. To my impatient heart this was the longest ferry ride in the whole wide world. This was the longest morning. I closed my eyes again with the slow somber roll of the ferry engine. A breeze rushed through the summer skies and my hair fell onto my face, touching my cheek. As I brushed it away I looked up:

"The breath of the morning I keep forgetting. The smell of the warm summer air. I live in a town where you can't smell a thing, you watch your feet for cracks in the pavement."

I had bought a new organizer for the trip. This was long before the days of the IPOD, I picked out the most travel-worthy of the music collection and filed them, flip-envelope after flip-envelope in a big black book for the car, a small shoulder bag for day excursions. I preferred walking through the visitors centers and museums, Norman Rockwell's Studio in Stockbridge, Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, earbuds in, avoiding the wandering conversation of my parents. My companion for this day and the next, the voice that I heard, that told me everything as I walked down a cold, pale hallway in the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, NS, was Thom Yorke....

"I wish that they'd swoop down in a country lane, late at night when I'm driving. Take me on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I'd love to see it."

How is it that out of the hundreds of CDs that I had brought along on this trip, every moment of this three week journey across the eastern seaboard and to the north seems stilted in the warbling, earnest voice of Thom Yorke and OK Computer's intricate weaving modern bell-prose of the organ and guitar.

I think of walking through the gardens of a bed and breakfast, some hazy new england morning, driving up the coast of Nova Scotia, marvelling at the rising Highlands, the winding shore. I think of collapsing after a long day's journey, curled up in a hotel bed, no cares, no worries until morning, the darkness and Jonny Greenwood, the quiet and Thom's voice.

"I'd tell all my friends but they'd never believe me, they'd think that I'd finally lost it completely. I'd show them the stars and the meaning of life. They'd shut me away. But I'd be alright..."

(excerpts from Subterranean Homesick Alien from Radiohead's OK COMPUTER)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Topper Price

What makes you feel alive
inside this slowing shell,
this stifled air
I dream of cutting away the flesh
peeling it apart to free the soul

He sings to bring the days
an ever after youth
with a yowl and a beautiful scream
I'm half his age and only dream
of that sort of release
that sort of return

At the Scott Boyer benefit a few weeks ago, as Donnie Fritts wailed and writhed at the microphone, as the forever jam blasted out into the room, two men raced to the back-up microphone. Paul Thorne took the long way around, pushing back the stage curtains, careful to walk behind the musicians onstage...he stopped, midstride as he caught sight of Topper Price swaggering across the stage, in front of Donnie, David, and Scott, stepping over cords and around amps. Topper took his place, with a sideways smile, at the microphone beside Bonnie Bramblett, and pulled out his harmonica. I turned to John and we both wagged our heads and smiled. Topper.

"Hey little girl." He tugged on one of my ponytails as I sat outside the Nick. I looked up and saw Topper's curly mess of hair and crooked grin. I had never met him before, but I knew exactly who he was. Most of my musician friends had played with him at one time or another, always coming back from a late night/early morning liquor soaked roustabout with story after story. That night, almost 7 years ago, that I first met this Force of Nature will always stick in my mind....because beyond all of the stories, beyond of the tall tales, I found some kind of magic. When he pulled out his harmonica and closed his eyes and began to play, stomping his foot, bobbing his head, the crunching blues notes became something pure and true.

Topper passed away yesterday. The Magic City has lost one of it's bright, burning lights. But the stories, the legend of this extraordinary, wild-eyed music man, will live on.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tiny European Cars

I have a secret little page full of stars (otherwise known as bad poetry) that I've been working on for some time. Some of it is inspired by stories, some inspired by circumstance, most of it sails on memory, a glaring, crashing sea of streaming pictures. I stuff my little words in quiet corners, saving them for later, so I can pull them out one day and wag my head at my young heart's desires.

I was thinking of this last night, driving home from the Bottletree and listening to Clem Snide. I was thinking of my plain words on crumpled page and Eef Barzelay's lawn chair pondering lyrics, so simple and interesting. I say "lawn chair" because when I hear them, over his formulaic, easy construction of a song, it makes me think of sitting in the front driveway on a Saturday, leaning back in a criss-cross nylon and aluminum chair, drinking coca-cola out of a perspiring red can and watching the neighborhood cars zoom past one after another. I see the lazy, lingering stride of day but I'm thinking of something more. This is the way Eef Barzelay tells his stories. Open ended and honest. I wish that I could do the same, with such simplicity and beauty. In my last blog, I left you a small bunch of thoughts, a flash of memory of wintertime from what seems long ago. I don't know why I thought of it, or wanted to share, but there it is.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wherein Sara Leah's music geekness rises to a new level...

I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be singing. It seemed to be a sing-a-long type of moment. We were crowded in the center of the room. Crowded in the dark, circling John Vanderslice and his guitar, David and the bass drum, St. Vincent and her crystal clear harmonies. John pulled his arm up from his side and waved it in the air. Was it a sing-a-long? No one else was singing with them, but Will and I, but at that moment there could have been choirs behind us. The whole room was filled with sound. As John opened his mouth and wagged his blonde head, the whole world seemed to be singing along:

"You know that guy who
stole your girlfriend
away from you
in the summer
of '95
he's going to die

you know her name
sits in your brain
like a tumor
eyes still shine in your memory
she's going to die

well you can carry that grudge
or you can let it go
but as sure as I'm singing this song, you know
she's going to die, she's going to die

five'll get you ten so just let it go
that she and he and i will hear the final chord
just let it go, let it go, we're going to die"

-Nikki Oh Nikki, Life and Death of an American Four Tracker

john vanderslice - May 2007

The room was still. The lights were very low, casting an orange and golden glow upon the faces of my friends, standing just across the way. Rebecca stood, elevated on a bar stool, camera pulled up to her small serious face. Amber stood below her, hands clasped, eyes warm, smiling in my direction. This was it. A perfect moment.

I sat at the bar earlier, trying to tell Ben way I love John's music, telling what scattered history that I knew, what my nervous brain could remember. I kept saying the word perfect. Scott Solter's production, perfect. John's lyrics, perfect. I know that these statements are not true. The lyrics, the clicks and whirrs, the piano, the guitar...not perfect. They are odd and interesting, off putting and inviting at the same time. There is an earnestness in every measure that I can't shake off, that seems perfect when it hits my ear, like that moment when you slip into a warm bath and you sigh and smile. It's a good moment and to you, it is perfect because it's what you've longed for. I long for music that speaks to me. More than that, I long for music that makes me think, drives my day. I long for music that will make me tilt my head as I start my car, exhausted from a long day of work. I turn through the intersection, underneath the overpass and forget everything. I lose myself in his voice and what he has to say, every clear strum of the guitar. Every distorted chord transports...

John had walked quickly to me once he had found that I was there. We chatted about the music scene, the Bottletree, Chris Ward and Pattern is Movement, the SDRE/Mk Ultra show in St. Louis. He smiled so easily and spoke with an honest warmth. Why was I so nervous? I felt nauseous still and the meeting was already over. I knelt down by Hamric, who was sitting at a table on the patio, his green "Wes McDonald and the Fizz" t-shirt, his smirking, wonderful eyes. I told Jason Hamric and Brandon that maybe it was because as a listener, you build this image of, this meaning behind what you hear. This is the freedom that you are given, to create a persona, a history from which the stories and the songs are born. To finally meet the person behind all of this can be devastating or transcendent

I remember meeting Mark Kozelek a couple years ago at the Nick. I had seen him in Nashville the night before and had decided not to talk to him as he stood beside me quietly during Warren Gently's opening set. Having seen him on stage a few times in my life and knowing his cloudy and sometimes downright mean disposition, I did not want to actually talk to him, for fear that his stage persona would leak into his true self, a self that I so honestly wanted to be the yearning, sad hearted, quiet lover of his voice. In other words, I did not want him to punch me in the face for asking him about a particular song or album. When I finally got up the nerve to approach him at the Nick, after much pushing and prodding by my friends, he was genuinely...well...sweet. "Hi. Hey. I remember you. Pink scarf girl." It was a great moment.

I've been listening to John Vanderslice for ten years. His music has been a great part of my life soundtrack. I do not know him, but I know his climbing voice. His voice has been a friend to me. His music has gotten me through dark days and accompanied me on great adventures. When he walked up to me after his set and hugged me and thanked me for smiling and singing along...I thought to that moment, sitting at a table at the back of the room, when he had traveled from the stage to the organ by the bathrooms to sing a number. I sat at that table and smiled as he lifted his head and sang out. It was a perfect moment. Worth all of the nervousness, worth all of this quiet hope.

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