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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

This Christmas Take-Over: "With an uneasy feeling in my chest"

Another downer, but it seems fitting for this year: a time when our leaders are threatened by the very thought of cooperating with one another, and the nation can't muster even the slightest bit of enthusiasm for any of the egomaniacs battling to be the next president. 

It's a troubling state of affairs, and we all know it. That's the one thing everyone seems to agree about: this isn't working.

And yet each of us (myself included) seems more willing to draw lines in the social media sand than to try and find shared  goals for our nation. It's embarrassing.

For the record, I don't particularly like it when other people sermonize at me like this. Even with the greatest of intentions, it's terribly patronizing, and it doesn't actually change anything. 

So, I'll shut up and kick it over to Steve Earle. 

And with three days til Christmas, I'll try and get more upbeat....

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: How the Brits Won Christmas

Glam just never really caught on in America. 

It's a shame, really: so many great songs, so many terrific hooks, so many fantastic rhythm sections.  But we Americans were an easily-threatened lot back in the 70's. We didn't deal so well with ambiguity, so we left glam to the British, and banked on manlier acts like Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad.

And that's a real shame. Because on Christmas, 1973, kids across the UK were rocking the fuck out to Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody." Meanwhile, American audiences were struggling not to slit their wrists to Jim Croce's lovely, but maudlin (even for me!), "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way."

God save the Queen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: More Awkward Brits

Holy crap. Where to even start with this one?

Quick history lesson. Mud was a kind of big band in the UK. Not huge, but big in their day. They had two massive hits in the early 70's, one of which is included below. And the guitar player went to see notable success as a producer/songwriter of some tracks that were pretty big hits in the UK.

So, you know: respect.

All that having been said, get a load of these guys.

First, you've got this Benny-Hill-as-Elvis-Presley vocalist.

Then you've got Fraggle Rock on guitar.

Over there you have the drummer. (I'm assuming this. He could be anyone). 

And finally, you have the sullen bass player, seemingly only too aware that there's no prize for being the cute one in the world's most awkward-looking glam band.

The irony is, I like this song better than most of what's on the Elvis Christmas Album.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: I Would Like to Leave this City

Ok, so "Half the World Away" isn't actually a Christmas song. And everyone hates Oasis for some reason that I don't at all get.

But this is an outstanding song, and the video (ok, fine... advertisement) that accompanies it is just a wonderful holiday piece. 

That's the thing about the Brits....they're all sneering and sarcastic and bawdy until you're not looking, and then.....

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Pete's Dad

At least thirty percent of this song is a giant mess. But the rest of it is just so damned beautiful.

"Pete's Dad" got a fair amount of holiday airplay in the 90's, and I looked forward to hearing it each year. But I always had trouble following the lyrics, and never actually knew the name of the song. 

It took me a while to track it down, but here it is for your enjoyment:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: It's Not the Darkest Night I've Spent Alone

There's nothing quite like the first Christmas after a devastating break up.

While the Posies' version of this song doesn't meddle much with Florence Dore's original arrangement, the harmonies are just magnificent.
The song is already heartbeaking, but Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer's vocals provide an aching level of vulnerability....which was kind of their thing, I guess, and they were great at it.

This one goes out to everyone spending Christmas alone.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Christmas Takeover: White Christmas

I've never quite known what to make of Helloween. They've always struck me as one of those unfortunate metal bands that was unintentionally hilarious.

This is in large part because they are a pioneer in power metal -- arguably metal's single most ridiculous sub-genre. But I think it equally may be because they are so very German. And let's be real: Germans can be kind of weird. 

But in the name of the Baby Jesus, let's put that aside and celebrate our differences. Because this is the time to celebrate. And this is very different.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: All I Want for Christmas is More Music Videos Like This

True confession: 

I have no problem with Mariah Carey's version of this song. It's a little cloying on the 10 millionth play, but in the age on online shopping I've come to miss those songs that used to dominate shopping mall holiday play lists.

That said, I adore Dikembe's take. There's an element of longing and humility to the vocals that I identify with...probably more so in this disappointing year than at any other point in my life.

And this video is just so heartbreaking and hilarious and brilliant. 


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Drinking Christmas Dinner All Alone

Up until recently, this was the snow leopard of Christmas songs in my family.

For decades, my parents swore up and down that several years ago, they saw Mac Davis on the Tonight Show, singing a song about getting plastered over the holidays. No one, however, could remember the name of the song, or any of the lyrics....

I am proud to announce that the magic of YouTube has finally closed the case on this mystery. 

Other things I learned on the Internet:
  • Mac Davis wrote "A Little Less Conversation" for Elvis.
  • Mac Davis wrote "Memories" for Elvis.
  • Mac Davis wrote "In the Ghetto" for Elvis. 
  • Elvis was worthless as a songwriter. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Remember When Bruce Was Fun?

Bruce Springsteen doesn't really excite me the way he used to. I suspect that's true for most of us (....well, except for the ones for whom it isn't. Which always strikes me as strange and a little bit sad, but whatever).

Anyway, I used to mark the official start of the holiday season by whenever I first heard this song on the radio. And it always put me in a great mood.

This isn't the version that's on the radio each year, but I like it a little better. Springsteen is more awkward on stage, but he also seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, and not displaying any of that odd, swaggering self-consciousness that the elder Springsteen lives within.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Santa Can't Stay

You should know up front: this song is dark.

Strip out the walking bass line, the holiday production, and the delightful lyric "He said he might just have to beat the crap out of Ray," and it's all bad.

That having been said, this is a really well-written song.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Christmas is the Time to Say "I Love You"

This song was a mainstay of Christmastime FM Radio when I was growing up (not to mention those early days of MTV, when this video basically ran every hour the last two weeks of December). Total cheese, in the best kind of way.

Somewhere along the line, I started denying the fact that I like Billy Squire. That ends today. 

...hey, is that Chrissie Hynde in the background?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: The Bells of St. Mary's

Never had any use for Bing's version of this song; it always sounded like a funeral dirge to me.

Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans' version is another matter entirely. If you don't believe me, just skip to the :58 mark.

Nice job, Mr. Spector.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Christmas Take-Over: Doin the Christmas Twist

Blog's been a downer lately. Time to correct things.

I dare you not to smile as you watch this.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

For I've Grown a Little Leaner, Grown a Little Colder, Grown a Little Sadder: The Christmas Take-Over

I'm going to do this.

I will enjoy Christmas. And it won't be as easy as it sounds. 

This holiday season finds me lonely, anxious, and just not in a great state of mind. Money is tight. And we're still living in an apartment that's too cramped for even a small Christmas tree.

And more than anything, I find myself actually dreading Christmas morning. I know it sounds crazy, but I used to love working on Christmas day. Waking long before dawn to be with people in need? That brought me more happiness than anyone really knows - certainly more Christmas joy than I think I've ever experienced as an adult.

I'm fortunate to have experienced that. But it kills me to know I won't be there this year, with the people I came to know and love  as my "other family". It certainly isn't my choice.

I have to shake it off, though, for the sake of my family and my own sanity. Because I do love Christmas, and I'll only be more depressed if I allow the holidays to come and go under emotional cloud cover.

And so, I'm introducing the Christmas Take-Over. For the next four weeks, I'll be posting nothing but my favorite Christmas music. Happy songs, sad songs, funny songs.....all of them centering me around a time of year that I'm accustomed to loving. 

I'm counting on this to put me in a better mood, and I hope it does the same for the rare and infrequent visitors who find this blog.

Today, we start with "We Need a Little Christmas," as interpreted by AgesandAges. 

I'll be up front: I have historically detested this song. I loathe the marching goofiness of it, the dopey children's chorus, and most especially of all, the Broadway musical that spawned it (....long a story about that one, which I will not be sharing here).

But I have to admit that AgesandAges nails it. For the first time, an artist strikes an appropriate tone for what this song is actually about: "We Need A Little Christmas" isn't so much about celebrating, it's about seeking distraction from a forlorn existence. 

It's not about powering through the holidays, it's about hiding behind them. And that's something I think I can relate to.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Little Drops of Rain Whisper of the Pain: On Giving Thanks

Some years, giving thanks takes effort. And this has been one of them. 

This year didn't go as planned...pretty much from the start.

Of course, I lost my job. I've already covered how painful that was.

But there was also the health scare back in February that still isn't really resolved.

There was another fucking band that died before it was even up and running...and a lost gig, to boot.

There was the domestic violence situation in my building....a situation I'd long-since suspected before I was dragged into its center.

There was the house we were about to bid on before we realized we couldn't afford.

There is the budget we now have to live on, which is forcing small but irritating sacrifices.

There was the morning I awoke to learn that there had been a shooting on the small suburban street where one of my best friends lives, and the nervous hours I spent trying to track him down.

There was the evening I spent searching Facebook for any kind of status update to indicate that my three friends in Paris were ok.

It's really hard to look over a year like that and say, "Well, on the bright side..."

But I'm going to try.


I'm thankful for my wife.

My wife and I have a mutually-held distaste for schmoopy professions of love on the Internet. That said, I'm not writing this without mentioning her. She is the Wendy O. Williams to my Lemmy Kilmister.

I'm thankful that I had that job (that I lost).

For a long time, I felt trapped in a career that I hated. But for two years, I loved my job with a passion. I enjoyed helping people for a living, and I was excited to tell people about it. I was so proud of what I did, and that's helping shape my career search in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago.

I'm thankful that I still have my health....I think.

Not receiving an official diagnosis isn't really that comforting, especially when you're at risk for a whole lot of health conditions that you don't want. 

Still, perhaps for the first time, I appreciate the line, "at least I've got my health." Because, let me tell you something: if you spend enough frightened hours getting blood drawn, wearing heart monitors and having scans done of your brain, you stop taking your health for granted.

I'm thankful that I'm back in touch with my friend, Marc.

Marc and I have tried to start a band at least four times in the past ten years. We're both way too busy, and sometimes we lose track of one another for years at a time. And even though we botched another attempt this year, I have to admit that Marc was an awesome friend to me when life got messy.

Plus, he turned me on to some great music.

I'm thankful that I stood up to a bully.

Intervening in a domestic violence episode is incredibly dangerous. I wouldn't recommend that anyone else do it; there have been times when I've been very, very afraid that I've only made things worse - no matter what the victim has since told me.

But the truth is that she called out for my help, and I answered the call. In a year when I suddenly don't have a lot to be proud of, I'm very proud of that.  

And I'm very thankful that I didn't get either of us killed.

I'm thankful that we didn't buy that house.

Raising a small child in a one bedroom condo sucks. But life would be immeasurably worse if we were carrying that mortgage right now.

I'm thankful that I'm learning to live on less.

I miss having hundreds of channels of cable TV. I miss having a gym membership. I miss having expensive beer in the fridge. I miss eating big slabs of meat for dinner.

But I now know that I don't need any of that stuff. Cable TV is a rip-off. I can swim at the public pool for free. Beer makes you fat in weird places. And your penis won't get any smaller if you eat a few vegetarian meals a week. (In fact, it makes you look even more awesome naked).

I'm thankful for my friends.

My friends are all safe and sound. No one has been killed, at home or abroad. Close calls, no doubt, but everyone is ok.

In fact, while we're talking about friends, I'm incredibly thankful for my friend, Scott

I met Scott in chemistry class, Junior year of high school. We both liked Led Zeppelin, and shared an appreciation for fine wit, naked girls and terrible haircuts. We became fast friends.

That was more than twenty-five years ago. These days, I see Scott maybe once every five years. 

And, yet, he is always somehow there when I need him. It's often with odd little moments of thoughtfulness, like remembering my daughter's birthday, or my wedding anniversary. (Or buying lunch, because I'm always the jerk who throws a card during a split check).

But then there are times when he just shows up with the eerily-timed check-in. 

This year, Scott knew something was wrong. And he stayed in front of me so that I didn't have to go through things alone. 

When my health got weird, he was an incredible resource; it turns out that I was being evaluated for two conditions that have affected his family.

When I had a sick feeling about work, he followed up with me to make sure things were ok.

And when he knew I had arrived in a bad place, he sent me a long and very heartfelt message about our friendship, and what it means to him. I return to that note when I'm feeling weak and alone, and it's always a source of strength.

I am so grateful for his friendship.


Looking back on it all, I fully own the fact that I take things for granted. I admit that I don't live with as much gratitude as I should. And I recognize the irony that I didn't start giving thanks until life threw me a couple of change-ups. I suppose that I'm thankful that I've gone through that experience, and I hope that it shifts my perspective in the future.

This entire post was a little heavy for me, and it didn't have anything to do with music. And, so, I leave you with my personal Thanksgiving anthem. 

Have a safe holiday.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Out on the Streets for A Living: On Love, Loss and KISS

I didn't cry when they told me.

I didn't cry, or yell or protest. I didn't make a scene or do any of the other things that they probably expected me to do.

I took the news like a man: the department I led was being dismantled, my position was being eliminated, and I was losing the only job I'd ever loved.

In a career that had so often been marked by anxiety and frustration, this was - by far - my most painful experience as a professional. I believed in my work, and I was more proud of it than anything that I'd ever done in my life. 

I helped people in need for a living. It brought me true happiness.

And, then, on a sunny September afternoon, the job disappeared. It was heartbreaking. It was humiliating. It was crushing, disorienting and invalidating.

But through it all, I didn't cry. 

I leaned forward, listened closely and asked the right questions. And, given the choice of going home for good that afternoon or finishing out the week, I chose to finish out the week, tie up loose ends and leave as the best professional I could be. 

A lot of people stopped by my office that week. And a lot of them cried. 

I did not cry.

They told me I was crazy to keep coming to work. They asked me how I could stand being there, knowing my job was being taken away from me. But the truth was that I loved the work, and - more importantly - I loved the people I was there to help. And I thought that they deserved better than to have me vanish with no explanation.

One of those people was Mark. Mark was a native Washingtonian in his early 50's. A talented artist with incredibly eclectic tastes, we bonded over music. I loved his stories of what it was like to be the only black kid in Anacostia listening to Alice Cooper in 1976, or how he hitchhiked to Landover, MD as a teen to see Earth Wind and Fire in concert. We'd talk about Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, Judas Priest. Anything. 

But mostly we talked about KISS. 

We both loved KISS. We'd argue about which songs were on Destroyer vs Love Gun, debate the merits of Music from the Elder and laugh about how amazed we all were by the band's theatrics when we were kids.

Sometimes, when I was having a bad day at work, I'd talk to Mark, and immediately feel less isolated and weird. I'd like to think that he walked away from our conversations feeling the same way.

On my last day, Mark approached me. He was with Bianca, the beautiful art therapist who worked closely with him most days.

"She tells me today is your last day," Mark said, nodding to Bianca. I looked at Bianca, who had a sad smile on her face.

"It is," I replied, unable to hide the sorrow in my voice.

For an awkward moment, all three of us were silent. And, then, reaching behind his back, Mark produced a 9x12 canvas. On it, he'd created a mixed media interpretation of the first KISS album cover. Without saying a word, he bowed his head, and offered it to me. 

I remember every split second of that moment. My mouth going ajar, the small gasp I drew in and the inevitable burning in my eyes.

I remember my inability to find any words.
very time I took a breath to say something, I found myself holding back a choke.

"It's yours'," he said. 

I looked at Bianca, who was still smiling. Too overwhelmed to even make eye contact with Mark, I stared at the painting.

"Listen: I don't sell my art; I give it to people if I know they'll appreciate it," Mark said. "I want you to have this, because I know you always loved it."

He was right, of course. That painting was the conversation piece that had sparked our entire friendship.  

I reached out and accepted the gift. "Thank you," I whispered -- because my voice was quivering too much to speak out loud. 

"No," he said. "Thank you. Thank you." His voice became gentle. "Sometimes when people say goodbye, they forget to say thank you. So, thank you."

I didn't cry. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Record Store Day

It would be easy to dismiss Record Store Day.

I mean, isn’t Record Store Day just a cash grab by the labels, to push out some special releases and boost sales for a day?

Who even has a turntable anymore? And CD’s? Even I’ve moved on to a less cluttered embrace of mp3s and those streaming services (that happen to make me so uncomfortable).

And if you really want to be a jerk about it, who even needs brick and mortar record stores anymore? If you need a hard copy CD or vinyl record that badly, can’t you more easily order it online instead of trolling around every record store in town, hoping one of them might have it in stock? You get your disc in 3-5 business days. Everyone wins, right?

There’s a grain of truth in all of the above. And, yet, I reject it all. Because record stores do matter.

Record stores have been a special place to me, and to many other people. They are places when music isn't just consumed, but where it’s shared and discussed. They’re places where friendships are made and communities are built. No one ever met their girlfriend at the iTunes store. And no one ever hung out with their friends on Spotify.

Record stores were safe spaces for me. Places to get lost without feeling scared, and to be alone without feeling lonely. Places to get exposed to new things and indulge the things I already knew I loved.

Every year on Record Store Day, I find myself thinking about my favorite record stores. In no particular order, here they are:

Amoeba Music, San Francisco -- An obvious pick; the mecca of record stores worldwide. Perhaps too massively spacious to have the warmth and community of a more traditional mom and pop shop, but who cares when there’s so much music to rummage through?  I've been to Amoeba about four times. Nearly every visit has come with a $70 minimum investment.

Notable purchases: David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (double album re-issue); Sahara Hotnights: Jennie Bomb

Tower Records, Rockville, MD – The record store I spent more time in than any other. I actually credit the presence of this store within two miles of my home (and their late hours) as the primary factor in my staying out of trouble through high school. I mean, who wants to get drunk in a parking lot when you can eyeball the entire Aerosmith catalog?

Notable purchases: Nearly the entire Aerosmith catalog.

Streetlight Records, Santa Cruz, CA
-- Around 2004, I spent several lonely Autumn weeks working on-site with a client in the San Jose/Santa Cruz area. Almost every single night I drove into Santa Cruz to grab dinner, walk the pier and stare at sea lions.

The experience was typically kind of depressing. The summer crowd has rolled out, and even with downtown teeming with college students and beach bums, it had the feel of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" -- a town defined less by what it is and more by what it used to be (...even if that "used to be" was only three weeks earlier).

Eventually, I happened upon Streetlight Records, and it felt good to wander into a strange place and find myself among familiar types of people. I eyeballed fliers for punk rocks shows. I filed through the staff picks. I slowly grabbed a handful of CDs. 

And I waited every second until closing time before I paid for them.

Notable purchases: The Pixies: Doolittle; Lynch Mob, REvolution 

Waxie Maxie’s, Rockville, MD – Crappy, dark, cramped, and not particularly friendly. One of those places where the entire damned inventory of tapes was kept behind glass. But it’s where I purchased my very first Rolling Stones tape. And that's good for something.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out

Kemp Mill Records, Rockville, MD –
Less cramped and more friendly than Waxie Maxie’s, Kemp Mill was a phenomenally successful local business before Tower came to town. I especially valued their selection of silly heavy metal posters.

Notable purchases: Dokken: Beast from the East; Iron Maiden: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son; Andrew Dice Clay: Dice; Metallica and Iron Maiden: various posters.

CD Depot, College Park, MD – Back before the Internet, finding rare recordings took some work. But if you knew the right people at the right record stores, there was this entire underworld of “bootleg” live and unreleased recordings that one could partake in. In the distant past, CD Depot was one such place. (I'm pretty sure they discontinued this practice many, many years ago).

I don’t remember what I bought at CD Depot, but I remember it being expensive and rare. And I remember the thrill of buying it….so much like buying porn or beer, or something else you weren’t supposed to have. Except something about it being called a “bootleg” made it seem even more illegal. 

Notable purchases: Very likely something by the Stones. 

666 Rock Shop, Beijing – China is a confusing place. Just about everything feels unfamiliar, and the linguistic and cultural barriers are a constant source of bewilderment and frustration. To stumble upon a record store that specializes in extreme metal is comforting in a way that's hard to express.

Notable purchases: none.

Yesterday and Today Records, Rockville, MD
– I’m old enough to know why owner, Skip Groff, is an important guy to D.C.’s music scene. But if I’m being perfectly honest, the guy was needlessly rude to me more than once. To this day, I still don’t know what I did that was so wrong when I asked him if the Samhain “Unholy Passion” poster on the wall was for sale, but he channeled the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons pretty aggressively on me.

I remember feeling embarrassed in front of other customers, and wanting to smack the glasses off his fat face. (If I’m remembering correctly, I think I spit on the front door of his shop on the way out. Sounds roughly like what the 19 year old me would have done).

All of that said, well, he ran a pretty damned good record store, and I came back several times over the years.

Notable purchases: The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Requests (vinyl, with the 3-D cover. Status: missing/stolen).

Phantasmagoia, Wheaton, MD (various locations)
-- This is where I purchased my first Metallica cassette in 1988. And after they moved down the block and opened a club, this is where my first band played most of their shows…where I saw Nebula, the Friggs, ScottWeinrich's and John Stabb's various bands perform live.

The owner was nice. The head bartender was pretty. I spent a lot of Friday nights seeing kind of overpriced shows at Phantas.

I don't remember being shocked when it closed; it often felt like it was just about ready to fold. But now that I'm thinking about my time there -- and very likely about to move back into that area -- I do miss it.

Notable purchases: Metallica: Ride the Lightning. 

Down in the Valley Records, Minneapolis, MN – I was about 24 years old, and finally getting into the groove of business travel.

The plan was to finish a day of sales meetings in Minneapolis, then spend the night in town, getting to know this music scene I’d heard so much about. After finishing the day at work and checking into my hotel, I called home to let my folks know where I was.

That’s when my dad told me my grandmother had died, and that I needed to come home as soon as I could.

I wasn’t distraught, but I was sad, particularly because there were no flights available until the next morning. I’d lost the will to go drinking or hit up the punk rock clubs, but I still had time to kill in Minneapolis.

I wondered around the Mall of America and ate a burnt cheeseburger for dinner, not really sure what to do with myself. By the time I left the mall, the sun was down, and I was still sad. And the only thing I thought could possibly make me sadder would be to sit in a hotel room by myself all night.

So I pulled my rental car over at a gas station, found a Yellow Pages directory (remember the 90’s?), and found a record store that was open late.

What do I remember about Down in the Valley? Not as much as you’d think. They were selling some expensive Misfits boxed sets and strangely shaped bongs. They were playing loud punk rock. The employees seemed to like one another.

I hung out there for a long time, pacing up and down the aisles, not speaking to anyone or buying anything. But it makes this list because -- like so many of the stores on this list -- it was there for me on a night when I needed to not be alone. I’ll always be glad that I found them.

Record stores matter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Strange New Sound That Makes Boys Explore

A year ago, my wife and I had a little girl. It has changed our lives in all of the predictable ways.

The experience has been joyful and scary and frustrating and exhausting. But it’s also been fairly typical; this is what all first-time parents experience. To suggest otherwise seems awfully close to the definition of hubris.

That’s a big part of why I won’t be blogging about my child. This is a special time in my life, but I’m not going to demand that it has to be a special time for everyone else.

That said, I'm making an exception for the event of her first birthday. Because it’s been a year, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I want for this child in her life.

I grew up in what you’d call a musical household. There was a ton of music in our house….lots of folk and Celtic music. Tons of show tunes. Country music. Church hymns. Some jazz. 

We were exposed to all sorts of stuff at an early age. We didn’t love all of it (…fucking show tunes. Hate em), but the good stuff stuck, and I feel like it gave me and my brothers a foundation for identifying “good music” and articulating exactly what about it made it “good.”

(I take a lot of pride in this. Possibly too much.)

We were all encouraged to take up music and play in the school band, and all of us played through high school. I played through college, and never really stopped. 

Music became a refuge for me – perhaps for my brothers as well, but definitely for me. Some kids find that safe place playing sports or hanging out with their friends. Some kids find it by being out in nature. For some it’s found buried in a book.

For me, it was music. Listening to music. Studying music. Reading (and re-reading) books about music. Practicing. Writing. Recording. Performing. Discerning. Music was always a safe, healthy space, no matter what else was happening around me.

I'd like for my child to have a similar experience. But I also want to know my place as her dad first and a music snob second.   

I don't want to over-step my bounds....insisting that she listens to the same music as I do, or (far more annoying) insisting to my friends and family that she likes the same music as I. (This is one of the biggest lines of bullshit any parent will ever try to serve you: your kid does NOT like punk rock. Your kid likes you. She likes what you like. Don't lie to yourself).

(And, really, do you need or want for your tastes to be formally endorsed by someone who can't read?)

With all of that said, I offer the following advice to my daughter on the occasion on her first birthday:

  • You are young and you are female, and as such, I accept that you will like pop music for a substantial portion of the next several years. In fact, I encourage it. Pop is the only musical genre that exists exclusively in the present moment. As such, I can think of no more worthwhile genre for a young person to become immersed.

  • You will likely obsess over attractive young men with great hair, who dance better than they sing and who can neither play musical instruments nor write music. They will do idiotic things in public and often get in trouble. I accept all of this. Sometimes it will annoy me, but trust me, I do get it.

  • At some point in your youth, you may become fascinated with nostalgia. This is normal and healthy. Have fun with it. Get to know those bygone eras. But resist the urge to indulge this at the expense of what contemporary artists are doing. The minute you hear yourself saying that "music was so much better in [add era here]" is the moment you must realize that you are certainly missing something great happening right in front of you.

  • That said, know the classics. If it turns out that pop is your thing, your old man can point you towards mountains of albums by the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna. You should give them all a listen.

  • I hope that you'll be a good dancer. Your father is not, and it makes him sad. Sometimes, you will just want to dance, and that's not something one should be afraid to do.

  • Stay away from boys who dance too well. They will bring you nothing but heartache. (Beware of singers while you're at it). 

  • Your dad has an open mind and an enormous appetite for music. That means sooner or later, he will intrude upon your musical interests. Try not to be mortified if I sing along to crappy pop radio in front of your friends. Mock me if you must, but secretly take it as a compliment.

  • It is inevitable that you will listen to music that I don't understand. At some point I will definitely bang on your bedroom door and demand that you "TURN THAT NOISE DOWN!" This is a ritual that marks your burgeoning independence, and you should relish it. 

  • You can rummage through my mp3s any time you like. Please.

  • Some day, we will have a proper house, with a basement and lots of acoustic tiles. My drums will be set up, and I'll buy a new amp for the crappy guitar I stole from your Uncle Kevin, and maybe we'll even create  makeshift PA system. Your mom and I will sometimes jam down there (believe it or not, she's a pretty good drummer!) You are welcome to join us any time that you like. I won't pressure you, but please know that it would make me very, very happy.

Happy birthday, kid.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: The Year in Shows

It's safe to say that this year was seismic.

My wife and I had a baby. I found my legs in a new-ish career. And in one head-spinning two-month period, I lost someone I loved, another person who I tried to love, and two people I really liked.

And then there was a major family health scare.

All in all, it was an insanely busy year that didn't allow for much writing or very many shows. I say that every single year at this time, but this year it was true: there just wasn't any personal time in 2014.

All of that having been said, I'm deeply grateful for every single show that I did see. Here are the highlights:

Bob Mould at the 9:30 Club

My wife and I realized when we bought these tickets that the show was scheduled for three weeks after our daughter would be born. And frankly, neither of us knew if that was an ok thing to do. But we went ahead with it because other parents told us we'd need a night out by that time.

Which was a fact. We were utterly exhausted and claustrophobic by the time this show rolled around, desperately in need of some alone time. And the show was fantastic: a friendly, unpretentious performance of the "Workbook" album. 

But the truth was that we both had trouble focusing during the set. In fact, just about the only thing either of us could think about was getting back to our baby.

No foul on you, Mr. Mould. You'll always be our guy, but you'll never be our little girl.

Taake at Maryland Deathfest 

I like the idea of black metal a whole lot more than I actually like black metal. In fact, aside from the early classics -- which basically demand that you embrace the shitty production as part of the overall aesthetic -- I find the sound of black metal to be very much lacking in any kind of blues- or soul-based foundation (lacking soul...geddit? Because: Satan).

Which is why Taake's set at DMF XII was so thoroughly enjoyable. The band completely owned their decades-awaited U.S debut -- a set that was unquestionably black metal, but also commanded the crowd with a decidedly rock and roll stance.

And they did it at 3:00 in the afternoon.

Outdoors. Facing the sun. In late May.

In full leather and corpse paint.


Solstafir at Maryland Deathfest

One of the best things that can happen at a music festival is getting turned on to a new band. This year, that band was Solstafir at MDF XII.

The deck was somewhat stacked against Solstafir that afternoon. Sandwiched between Necros Christos and Taake, it would be safe to assume that most fans would struggle to embrace Solstafir's "post metal" stylings.

(By the way, if anyone can actually explain to me what "post metal" means, I'll consider editing that last sentence. Till then, my apologies for using dumb terms I don't really understand).

But for the sizable crowd that did stick around for Solstafir's set, they were treated to one of the most thoughtful, visionary acts of the day. Despite some significant sound issues (which plagued other bands on that particular stage), the band methodically built its set to something that was very much a hybrid of metal and rock - somehow blending elements of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd with that particular Icelandic vocal style that's at once eerie and enchanting (see also: Sigur Ros, and to a lesser extent, Bjork).

This set kind of blew my mind. It may not have been extreme metal, but I still felt sorry for everyone who skipped them that day. If you get a chance to see this band, take it. I'm serious. These guys are artists.

(Plus, we chatted briefly during At the Gates' headlining set that night, and they were awfully nice guys. Awesomely engaged with me and other fans on Twitter, too: @solstafir).

Samhain at the Howard Theatre

Never bet on Glenn Danzig.

Just don't.

Sure, he made incredible music for much of the 80's and 90's. But, God, did he start to suck after a while.

And then there were the concerts. The late starts. The no-shows. The prima dona demands that made life hell for promoters and concert staff.

There came to be a long period of time when Glenn Danzig just didn't seem to give a damn about his fans. Which was a great source of irritation for those of us foolish enough to continue to champion the guy in spite of himself. (God knows I tried).

And, so, I was understandably conflicted when I heard Samhain was touring. I'd always found Samhain to be Danzig's most fascinating and overlooked work, but I couldn't stomach the idea of wasting my limited time and money on another one of his old-man temper tantrums.

But I caved, as I knew I would. Because the show was to take place on Halloween. And if Danzig is playing in your town on Halloween and you don't see it, then you fucked up.

As for the show: it exceeded ALL my expectations.

It would be my fourth time seeing Danzig, but the first time he actually looked happy to be on stage. In fact, the guy looked uncharacteristically pleased to be there. Like, REALLY happy. Having fun. Even smiling every so often.

His banter with the crowd was funny and down to earth, and he even managed to tell a story or two ("Thirty years ago, we put out the Initium album. A whole lot of people got it. A whole lot of people said....[muttering] 'What the fuck is this?'")

I'd forgotten how many Samhain songs I'd memorized over the years. I'd forgotten all of those incredible sing-along choruses. I'd even somehow forgotten that "Archangel" is one of my favorite songs in the entire history of music.

And that's how I came to be standing in a group of guys I'd never met, bellowing at the top of our lungs to every single song. Things went from exuberant to kind of silly in no time flat, the group of us shouting out the ""Whoah-OOOH! oh-WOAH"s on "He Who Cannot Be Named", and the "WARNING YOU!" section of "Horror Biz."

At the end of the night, I was 19 again, in a spent 40 year old body.

If there was one downside to this show, it was an absurd curfew that wrapped things easily 45 minutes earlier than it should have. But as a consolation, Glenn Danzig brought special guest, Randy Blythe from Lamb of God, on stage to perform Mother of Mercy, which more than made up for the early shut-down.

Hands down, my favorite show of the year.

Here's to an even better 2015!