Monday, October 17, 2016

My Year in Music

It might seem as though October is an odd time to start the “Year in Music” posts. The truth is that I haven’t been operating on a calendar year lately.

For me, the passing of time has been measured against my layoff. And that occurred one year ago.

This is my year in music.

If there will be a musical theme to the last twelve months, it will be the deaths of so many of our musical heroes. Of course, I loved Prince – we all did – but Bowie and Lemmy were actual influences on me. More so than any other two musicians, they were the ones I looked to when I was afraid.

Bowie taught me I could be whoever I wanted. Lemmy taught me to be true to myself. That guidance never seemed the slightest bit contradictory to me. It seemed true and it felt right.

The loss of both Lemmy and Bowie within weeks of one another – at a time when I needed heroes so desperately -- should have crushed me. But I didn’t mourn either of them the way that I would have expected.

I was already grieving something more important.

Losing my job was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to work through. I’ve written about it before, but this was a job that I treasured. It was a job that brought me happiness. It was the job I’d always dreamed of. And how many of us ever get to say that we had a dream come true?

I am one of the lucky few.

And, so, when faced with the deaths of two of my favorite artists, I just didn’t have that much to give. After all, it’s one thing when your heroes suddenly die. It’s something else entirely when your dreams do.

I realize that losing a job isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. But it remains a deeply humiliating and invalidating experience. It wreaks havoc on your finances, your emotions, your relationships, and your career prospects. It destroys your plans for the future, and sometimes forces you to make undesirable decisions. If you take any pride in your role as a provider, the experience will attempt to torch that part of your soul.

So often in the past, I had turned to metal in these moments of crisis. I've referred to it in the past as my own primal scream, a forceful expression of my deepest self whenever I felt hurt or unvalued. When careers and relationships were in disarray, it was my reminder to the world – and to myself – that my spirit would always be untouchable.

Extreme metal, in all of its grotesque aggression, is magical that way. It is an ugly, ferocious genre, often hateful and destructive, but deeply committed to its core. It is outsider art, made by and for people who are thoroughly at peace with their identities.

For most of the past twenty-five years, that was always me. But for the past twelve months, I was having an identity crisis.

Without my job, I no longer knew who I was as a professional. Without my income, I no longer knew who I was as a husband or a father. And to add to all this confusion, many of my closest friends simply stopped talking to me during this period. Without my friends, I really didn't know what I was worth.

My core? My spirit? My soul? I had lost my grip on all of these things. No amount of blast beats, death grows, or screams would give me anything to declare on my behalf.

And so, when I retreated to music this year, it wasn’t metal. I was in a deeply-hurt state of mind, and I no longer had the energy to lash out at the world. 

I was defeated, and I just wanted a salve.

The first several weeks of my layoff, I medicated myself on immense doses of shoegazey pop. I didn't understand a single word of Yukari’s “Marginal Man,” but I’d surmise that it soothed me more than any other track during this period. Not far behind was Mum’s “Green Grass of Tunnel,” with it’s childlike vocals and nonsensical lyrics.

Songs like these were haunting and tender. So many times I felt myself become nearly dissociative as I listened to them - which eventually became a troubling pattern.

Then there was the long foray into Van Morrison. This was an overdue artistic appreciation on my part. I'm grateful for it, even though it became the soundtrack to my self-pity (along with big doses of Bob Dylan and Butch Walker).

As the year went on, things got marginally better, and I found my way back to metal. I listened to Ghost Bath….a lot….never entirely sure if it was "good," but knowing that it felt pretty, and sad, and desperate, and that it touched me somewhere where I was hurting.

And then there was the day that I looked at my iTunes account and realized that “Slaughter of the Soul” by At the Gates was my most listened-to track of the year. (I suppose I had subconsciously identified it as the perfect song for tuning out the constant babble and noise that comes with working in a coffee shop).

Still, I missed out on a lot of metal this year. I decided to skip Maryland Deathfest and the Shadow Woods Festival. Somehow, I also managed to not attend a single live show of any genre the entire year. In retrospect, I can see just how unhealthy this was.

Of course, in time, things sorted themselves out. 

Nearly a year to the day from my lay-off, I received a job offer, and I am now officially employed again. I'll probably be working through the aftermath of everything for a long time, but I know this is the start of believing in myself again, which means the metal won't be far off.


It's funny, but I can point to the musical moment when the healing began, and I suppose it wasn't very metal.

I was sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop, laptop out, transitioning one of my low-paying freelance accounts now that I'd accepted my job offer. Music was shuffling randomly through my earbuds, when Bob Mould snuck up on me, and I realized that everything would be ok.

And as the chorus hit, I bowed my head down, squeezed out a heavy tear from each eye, and took a deep, deep breath. 

And my year in music was complete. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Remembering John Stabb

Yesterday morning, the punk community awoke to the news that John Stabb had succumbed to stomach cancer. He was 54.

It was not a secret that John was sick, and based on the few cautiously-worded updates that travelled across social media, it seemed like the situation wasn't good. Still, no matter how many times we go through this (and we've been through this a bit too much for my tastes lately), it's always a shock. 

I had the pleasure of meeting John several times. We had a few common friends, and that yielded a handful of shared shows when I was in my first band, and John was playing in Betty Blue. 

It's a kind of crazy situation for your first band to open for someone "famous." It would be easy -- especially when you're young and kind of immature -- to get over-excited by the prospect. It would be easy get nervous, or desperate for his attention.

But John was so normal, and goofy, and nice that it was never an issue. 

Stabb made a tremendous impression on me. He was a captivating performer, but more importantly, he was funny and friendly. And in such a stiflingly self-conscious scene as D.C.'s, that was special.

I probably met him half a dozen times; I don't think he ever really remembered me, but he was always pleasant and typically would ask after the friends we shared. If he was with his partner, he would unfailingly take a moment to introduce her. (That gesture, in particular, always stuck with me. What a genuinely polite thing to do). 

John was the first of the D.C. punk legends I met, and it was a sad surprise to learn that not everyone was as generous of spirit as he was. Of course, the D.C. scene is packed with legendary figures, and many of them still have a presence around town.  I'm sure all of them are nice enough people, but few of them are at all approachable. John, on the other hand, was as un-insulated as they came. 

For several years I'd see John everywhere...debuting a new band at the Black Cat, playing gigs at the old arts space where my wife used to work, rifling through CDs at the old Tower Records in Foggy Bottom, or maybe just waiting at a bus stop in Silver Spring. I seemed to see him everywhere for a time, and I'm sad that it'll never have again.

My favorite memory of John was playing a party with him in 1997. It was a weird event....a big all-day, all night field party somewhere in Savage, MD. At some point in the afternoon, John took the stage to read a spoken-word selection from a memoir he was working on. 

The details of the story elude me, but I recall that the tale climaxed with Stabb somehow inadvertently getting himself in a feud with Glenn Danzig, and subsequently receiving a threat from none other than the Iron Sheik.

That, my friends, is a life well-lived.


This recent wave of celebrity musician deaths has been a brutal thing to behold. And in the coming years, we will undoubtedly eulogize more and more of our heroes.

So many great things will someday be written in the obituaries of the pioneers of DC hardcore...about what they did to bring important concepts like DIY, and punk rock activism, and straight-edge to the forefront, and the impact they had on so many future superstars. 

This is certain.

What is less certain is how many of these people will be remembered for being...well, nice. For being funny. For being not only talented, and visionary, and charismatic, but also being friendly, and kind, and polite. 

I don't know. But I do know that John Stabb was a really nice guy. You didn't have to be in his circle of friends to know it. You didn't have to be one of the smart or cool kids to discover it. You didn't have to know the right people to experience it. It's simply how he was.

That's how I want to be remembered. And it's how I'll remember John Stabb.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Don't Call It A Comeback: Adler's Absence from the Guns N'Roses Reunion

This weekend, Guns N'Roses kicked off their long-awaited "reunion." 

It's a weird moment for me; I loved Guns N'Roses. In fact, I was the first kid I knew to own Appetite for Destruction. But I hate reunion tours.

It's not just because I'm a self-loathing agist; it's because reunion tours are almost always an exercise in compromise.  Something doesn't feel right. Something is missing. Someone  has almost always died or has been replaced. 

Besides the natural effects of age, something in the fundamental chemistry of the band is not the same. But we call it a "reunion" anyway, and we pretend that if we pretend hard enough, things will go back to the way they used to be (regardless as to if that's really a good thing).

All too often, it's painfully obvious how much things aren't the same. The Who tours without its legendary rhythm section. The Doors tour without their legendary singer. The Stones tour with more session musicians and back-up singers than actual band members. Van Halen and Cheap Trick tour with their fucking kids in the band. And Black Sabbath -- fortunate enough to have all four original members alive and kicking -- look like they have enough trouble just conjuring themselves from bed each morning, much less conjuring up any demons.*

* That's Jimmy Page's line.

Like Sabbath, GN'R is unbelievably lucky that their starting five is still with us. And, yet, on Friday night, only three of them were in the band.

I could go on for ages about Izzy Stradlin, who quietly wrote or co-wrote the majority of Guns' best songs. Writing credits on Appetite and GN'R Lies may be mysterious, but the overwhelming majority of salvageable content on the Use Your Illusion albums is directly attributable to Stradlin.

Izzy is fundamental to GN'R's sound. Regardless of the fact that he opted out, regardless of whether he joins them for select dates, any tour without Stradlin cannot be considered a reunion. This is irrefutable in my mind.

The more complex issue surrounds Steven Adler.

There are a lot of very practical reasons not to have Adler on the tour: he hasn't been in the band for 25 years. There are a lot of songs he didn't record and has never played live. He doesn't have an appropriate amount of touring experience. He sometimes comes across as an imbecile. And the guy needs back surgery. 

Those factors make him a liability to promoters, insurers, bandmates and fans.

And, of course, there's his long, ugly history with drugs. 

I actually know a thing or two about being in a band with an addict. It's frustrating. It's infuriating. And it's painful on several levels.

Rehearsals take forever. Songs don't come together. There are no-shows. There are trust issues. And -- especially if it's a member of the rhythm section -- your entire band starts to sound like shit.

Common sense dictates that you have to kick the addict out, and I don't fault Guns N'Roses for giving Adler the boot. How could I? He was a giant mess.

But I do think that if they're going to proceed with this reunion charade -- of selling the public a return of the most notorious band of our teenage years -- they should give him a seat at the table. 

Sure, Matt Sorum and Frank Ferrer are superior musicians, and they both certainly offer a steadier hand on the road (even if their feel isn't quite right).

But they aren't originals. They didn't play on the classic record. And that's what Slash and Axl are selling to the public: the return of the classic line-up. Not the circus act of the past fifteen years. Not the bloated arena monster of the early/mid-90's. Not Velvet Revolver with a different singer.

They're selling the Appetite-era line-up. They're selling the five guys who dominated high school gossip and the pages of Circus Magazine. The five skulls from the cross tattoo.

No doubt, including Adler would have created problems. It would have meant fewer dates on the tour. It would have meant putting his sponsor on the road with him. It would have meant postponing everything so he could recover from surgery. Maybe it would have reduced the whole thing down to one or two shows.

Maybe that isn't smart. 

Maybe that isn't practical. 

Maybe that's dangerous.

Which is funny. Because that's exactly how I remember Guns N'Roses.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In the Heat of the Mourning: On Grief, Gratitude and David Bowie

Let's be clear about something right from the top:

Coming to terms with the death of your favorite artist is not the same thing as mourning a friend or loved one. It is incredibly easy to confuse the two, but the experiences are fundamentally different.

In the aftermath of David Bowie's death, I've spent the past two days considering this. Like thousands upon thousands of other people, Bowie's work and influence meant the world to me, so I've tried very hard to be honest with myself about what I am currently feeling.

When you lose a friend, family member, or even a pet, you grieve everything about them. You miss their weird habits and odd mannerisms, and fear for a future in which you will have no more shared experiences together.

I've always found that this is the most profoundly painful aspect of grief: realizing - sometimes for months and for years - all the things that you will no longer do together.

You ache for the silly jokes you shared, and the satisfaction you'd get from making that person smile.You hurt each time you cross a life milestone without them. And you yearn to make things right for all of the times you never said or did what you should have when you had the chance. So often, you just wish you could sit in the same room with them one more time, and feel complete again.

When someone you love dies, you long for the coexistance you once shared.

But when your favorite artist dies, something different happens. 

You don't really mourn the person -- no matter how much you might be temped to believe that you do. You won't be missing your lost time together or your shared experiences, because you didn't actually share anything together.

You won't really mourn their art -- especially if it's a musician -- because the art lives forever, and you can always revisit it. And it will always be wonderful -- perhaps even more wonderful over time.

Still, something deep inside of you hurts like mad. And it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

I believe that this pain is deeply rooted your own path to self-discovery, and the role that the artist's work played in it. 

There is absolutely no shame in believing that an artist's work has changed your life. Great art can challenge you to broaden your horizons and try new things. It can force you to reconsider preconceived notions. It can overwhelm you with a beauty that you didn't realize was possible. And it can validate feelings that you've never before been able to process. 

This is why, when our favorite artists die, we are so often overcome with inappropriately personal feelings of sadness and loss. And most of all, we feel a deeply disorienting sense of muted gratitude.

I believe that this is what hurts most: never having the opportunity to thank the artist for making your world more vivid and show them that their work brought you happiness or solace when you most needed it. To tell them that they may not realize it, but that they made a difference.

To that end, the experience can closely mimic that incompleteness that follows the death of a loved one. 

But it's not quite the same thing. In fact, practically speaking, it is nearly nonsensical; under what circumstances do we ever meet our idols? When I envision what might have happened if I'd ever met Mr. Bowie, I practically recoil in horror as I consider the things I might have said. The influence of our favorite artists may be acute and profound, but our relationships are probably best left to be one-dimensional.

Still, I can't help but to feel that same sadness that I could never thank him. 

I was very fortunate to experience a tremendous amount of personal growth as I studied Bowie's work. His approach to identity helped me become comfortable in my own skin for perhaps the first time, and it taught me how much control I have over how people perceive me. I learned something important about the thin line between the grotesque and the exotic, and that helped me partially overcome the body image issues that have stuck with me since I was a scrawny little boy who was unable to defend himself. I have so much more gratitude for that than I can even express.

Of course, it is now impossible to thank him. It probably always was.

But I can tell you what is possible:  

I still remember who it was who turned me on to Bowie. It was my friend, Miguel. He was an awesomely charismatic high school classmate, a reformed "problem child" who'd done some truly crazy stuff at a young age, and had lived to tell the tale.

I remember how he approached me one afternoon and poked a finger into my breastbone.

"You...Major Tom. That's who you are," he said, grinning. "You look like David Bowie. You know that, right? People tell you that, right? That's who you look like."

Then he walked away, and my fascination with Bowie was born. All because of one cool kid with a strange and sudden observation.

I can't thank Bowie. But, tonight, I can thank Miguel.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Year in Shows

Broncho at the Black Cat backstage 

Small room, packed house, and an entire room waiting pensively for the band's signature song....which they wisely saved for the last number of the evening. 

One of the greatest experiences in live music is feeling a crowd surge forward when a song begins. And that's exactly what happened at the opening vocals of "Class Historian" kicked in. I'm pretty sure that no one in the room wanted that song to end.

Goatwhore at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Goatwhore isn't necessarily one of my favorite metal bands, but I do like the idea of the "blacked death metal" sub-genre (in execution more than name, I suppose). Either way, they pull it off pretty well.

Two things struck me about this show:

1. Goatwhore is a good band. And that's not always a given.

The gap between an average metal band and a good one might as well be a gulf. The two bands that opened for Goatwhore that night were clear road dogs. They were living it and loving it, but they simply weren't all that good.  It pains me to say this, and I certainly won't mention any names, but by the time Goatwhore took the stage it didn't really matter how much I liked them. It mattered that they were - by far - the best band in the room.

2. Ben Falgoust seems pretty normal.

Case and point: at some point in the show he said something about looking out for one another in the pit. This isn't unheard of, but I was surprised to hear him follow the warning by muttering that he knows what it's like to live with a physical disability, and that we need to take care of one another.

Not your typical satanic band stage banter...

Pentagram at the rock and Roll Hotel

I resolve that in 2016, I will stop using this blog to talk about my career problems. It is undignified.

But in this case, it fits.

Pentagram's homecoming show was less than two weeks after I lost my job. To say that I felt damaged would be putting it mildly. It was at or around this time that it was dawning on me that I was going to have to completely rebuild my professional life.....possibly in ways that I didn't want to.

I was 41 years old, with a head full of grey hair, and a wife and kid to take care of. And here I was, suddenly without a job, without a plan and without any confidence that I'd ever be as happy as I was two weeks earlier. It was hard not to feel like things were over. I felt though I was only good at things that didn't matter to anyone.

So, I went to the club alone that night, stood in the back of the room, sipped beer and watched a beaten-but-not-quite-broken sixty-one year old Bobby Liebling sing doom rock for an hour.

He looked frail, but happy. He was nervous in front of his hometown crowd in a way that way that seemed to scream "sober, at last." 

And while his stage presence was somewhat awkward, his voice was in tremendous shape. The highlight of the evening -- probably the concert year -- was hearing Liebling hit a surprise falsetto note on "Forever My Queen."

I headed out of the club that night, thinking how miraculous the entire event was.....five years earlier, Liebling was a full blown addict, living in his parents' basement. He'd burned all of his bridges, and missed countless career opportunities. By all accounts, it should have been over - his band, his career, his life - decades ago.

I walked to my car, reminding myself that it was never too late, and to never give up.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why Lemmy Matters

So, there goes Lemmy.

For one moment, let's put aside the "I thought Lemmy was invincible" jokes. Anyone who was watching for the past year knew that this was coming. He was shortening his sets and cancelling shows, which wasn't the sort of thing Lemmy did. He'd stopped giving interviews, and was often seen walking slowly with a cane. He'd been sick - very sick - for a long time. And, now we know that he was dying.

It's been heartwarming to see how the news had trended on social media for the past 48 hours. A lot of people really loved Lemmy. I've been holding back that childish tendency that so many of us have when a lost icon suddenly becomes celebrated: I find myself suspecting that many of the mourners didn't really love Lemmy enough, or love him the right way, or love him for the right reasons.

There's often a grain of truth in that kind of thinking, but it's still a pathetic impulse to indulge. (In fact, this is the third re-write of this post, specifically because I kept finding myself somehow suggesting that my love for Ian Fraser Kilmister was superior to that of other people).

So, instead of projecting how other people might or might not have felt about Lemmy, allow me to tell you why he mattered to me.

I am a failure.

I am a failed musician. I am a failed professional. I look and feel like hell most days. My time management skills are terrible. I am chronically late for everything. And somewhere along the course of my adult life, I've also become rather bad at managing my money. I live in a cluttered one bedroom condo, while all of my friends have neatly-manicured front lawns. And although I try to be a good husband and father, I sometimes wonder if I'm any good at those efforts, either.

So much of my adult life has been defined by compromise, surrender and defeat. I try not to think about it too much, but when I do, I tend to see failure all around me.

When those moments arrive, I can tell you with complete honesty that I have often thought of Lemmy Kilmister.

By so many measures, Lemmy could be considered a failure.

The man was a life-long addict, so dependent on substances that it famously impaired medical professionals from being able to treat him. 

As a young man, he was fired from a band that was on the rise. 

His next endeavor became legendary, but was chronically insolvent. He hired bad people and signed bad deals throughout his career.

Despite being a prolific songwriter, most people only knew him for one tune, which was recorded 35 years ago. Even fewer people ever bought a record from him after 1992, even though he never stopped writing or recording.

He was a borderline hoarder whose raggedy-looking apartment did not say "rock star" on any level.

He was an absent father, who never got to experience the joy of having a loving family of his own.

It's not an inspiring portrait. And one considered Lemmy to be a failure.

And that's because Lemmy understood what he was good at, and he understood what made him happy. He dedicated his life to that....even if he never made as much money as he should have. Even if it sometimes seemed like no one cared. Even when he got fired. Even when he seemed like a kind of lonely guy. Even when he got sicker and sicker and sicker. 

He uncompromisingly did what made him happy. It gave him integrity, and it made people like me interested in what he had to say.

With a new year on the horizon, his example reminds me that I have to have to find that happiness for myself.....even if no one else gives a damn. It reminds me that I'm actually great at certain things, even if no one cares about them. And as I try to figure out what the hell I'm going to do about my career, it reminds me to continue saying no until I find the right opportunity. 

It reminds me that just because I'm a failure, it doesn't mean that I can't be successful.

Thank you, Lemmy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: "He said let's run And we'll have some fun Now before I melt away"

I'd never actually heard this track before a friend posted it on her Facebook page last week. And I couldn't be happier to have heard it.

The Cocteau Twins remains a mysterious band to me. I own very little of their music, but I've never heard anything by them that I didn't find enchanting -- due in no small part to magnificent production, and Elizabeth Frazer's unabashedly playful approach to her vocals.

I have not heard a Christmas song this year that has made me happier than this one.