I was listening again, after a long while, to Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”.  It is truly a beautiful live album, and an honorable homage to the painting by Ed Hopper (1942).  The song by the same name has a vivid description of a blue-plate special: chopped meat (“Salisbury steak”) smothered in Velveeta and Campbell’s tomato soup.  There are laughs, nervous winces.  Not only for the name of some familiar spot, but for the food itself.  It’s funny what we consider comfort food, the things we seek out to give a sense of place, of self.   The plate in question is not a memory of mine, but I can understand the sentiment.  My mother was a baker, in one of the worst home kitchens imaginable.  She was able to create things I will never fully understand, and that none have ever held up by comparison.  Husband knows the sentiment too; with a jones every couple of years for oven baked “BBQ” chicken.  I can’t stand his version, but for him it is a memory of his grandmother.  It gives him comfort.  The food our our decidedly not wild youth (unlike Wait’s Frank) has little sentimental value, but vague memories of greasy spoons with sour black coffee, “texas” toast, and generic specials do linger.

I remember when many of us were new adults.  College students with vague, naive aspirations.  We recalled watching the original crew of Saturday Night live in middle and high school, just old enough to be jaded about the disco movement and deeply fond of punk for the alternative it offered.  Tom Waits came out with Nighthawks in 1975, a cabaret and club singer from the outside track of music.  A federal government that was represented by images of Nixon leaving office and the end of the Vietnam war, was constantly on the television when we were children.  Ford and Carter passing through, then later, we were suspicious (and rightly so) of the promises of Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  We went from using electric typewriters to the first PC’s, then programming in simple language to the first internet.

 We were midwestern college students buoyed up by our youth and our ignorance, our heart-felt ideas, and knowledge that we were so very far away in both time and space from where the action was.  We separated ourselves from the strivers, the lying basketball players (who gladly got stoned in private), and the bible-readers. 

Many of us migrated to Chicago, then urban points east and west.  I do not have unnecessary fondness for that time, so riddled with insecurity and unease.  Time has taught me that regret is just another form of self-pity, and things not done are just things best left.  There were poets and musicians who captured our fancy, captured our ennui.  Some were trite and passed into history, some linger on and get resurrected by a new crop of young, eager to understand, eager to see.

 There will probably always be some urban diner, some questionable gut-filling food, some young people living out an awkward night of unfulfilled dreams and reckless mistakes.  A right of passage perhaps, and for some of us, remembered best in song; best in a live performance if you can get it.

Depress me Elmo; er, Emo

I have myIPod, and am busy getting all my music on it, like some deranged neural tunes addict.  As I create play lists for myself, I find I have almost every category known except country pop (can’t STAND it.  Give me old-school country and bluegrass, sure, but not this computer generated lyrics and sound that to my ear is all the same) and some metal bands (enough already with the banging glam), and Emo.

Emo?  My niece told me two summers ago that it meant emotional.  I did not believe her, saying that would be the dumbest thing I had ever heard.  Emotional- all music is emotional.  But it was true, Emo stood for emotional, and stands for the whimpering, simpering, whey-faced boy-bodied musicians who exaggerate emotions like bad mimes. As my Husband recently said, “It’s just Depress me Elmo, the music of the everybody is supposed to get a trophy generation”, well give me a break. All adolescents are self-involved and often moody, it’s part of the developmental package.  But music designed to provide the soundtrack for that is annoying.  “Let me tell you about my belly button lint, it makes me want to cry”, well I’ll take angry hip-hop over that drivel any day. One of the Emo cross over singers, who had an entire fan club of tweens and teens, recently came out of the closet- this former American Idol singer really thought no one knew? Or is it the fact that he was completely non-threatening (as most Emo singers seem to be) that made him popular with young girls?

When I was young Pink Floyd was the moody music of choice.  Young men drank their alcohol, or did their drugs and let themselves go dark for a while, getting out the blues.  I prefer the mean reds myself (Truman Capote got it right in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), which are all about getting loud,active, and angry; not unlike a lot of rock and hip hop.  The red necks listened to old George Jones, and the Man in Black- drinking beer and feeling united against all the things they believed oppressed them. They still do.  But Emo?  What kind of music is that?  Resigning yourself to feeling persecuted, isolated or blue and then expecting people to listen to you drone about it with no point?  Come ON!  Even the Goth kids of recent memory could do better than that. Where is the youth movement? Where is the activity?

I guess my copious lists will be absent of Emo. I don’t mind.  There are a lot better ways to sing the blues, and a lot better people to listen to describing them.  I’ll start tonight with Martha Hayes from 1954, as I figure out how to get my vinyl digital.  Let the music play on.

Of Rap, Opera, and sippy cups

There is no rap music for middle-aged women. 

A warm day in the midst of winter is an opportunity to open the windows and air out the house.  This is not a fortune cookie statement, but a fact of domestic life.   I have a 4-disc set of Rai, what one might think of as international rap music, and cranked it up as I cleaned.  Passers by might have thought an annoying teenager lived here, but lo- it is I, Middle Aged Woman!  The MAW whose husband and children had gone off to decorate Christmas cookies with a couple of other dads and kids, leaving me a rare afternoon alone in the house.

What would you do if you saw my neighbors and I dressed in baggy but comfortable clothes, no makeup, and rapping out sharp lyrics about our lives?  It might make U-Tube, and people would get a good laugh.  We are not male, and while female, we are not young.  The image would not fit the standard mental slot for rap.  Yet can’t we empathize?  What legitimacy do middle aged woman have?  Can’t MAW’s of all colors rap-out about their lives and what they see as repressions, frustrations, threats, and sins?

Oh I hear the standard backlash now- you are appropriating our form and messages.  Hmm.  And who started this form?  How long has it been going on, transformed by every user and communicator who has opened his or her mouths?  You might want to listen carefully too, because aside from the subtle forms and change ups musically, the messages will be very different.

This got me to thinking about David Byrnes 2004 “album”, Grown Backwards.  On it is a rendition of the grand opera classic Au Fond du Temple Saint (G. Bizet, The Pearl Fishers– re passion, friendship) .  Much like Harry Chapin describes in his classic song Mr. Tanner, there is a quality about Byrne’s rendition that is so raw, so innately human, that it reminded me of what happens after one attends a particularly good opera production.  You might find yourself standing under a streetlight late at night, after the post event meal and wine, singing.  Singing at the top of your voice with like-minded friends, singing the aria that captured all the pain, symbolism, and raw emotion of the show, of life; singing slightly out of tune, off tempo, but engaged.  Engaged fully in the human experience, in the joy that can be music, joy even when it transmits pain.  Byrne’s voice is not well suited to singing, but it does convey a very sincere and engaged quality that is compelling to listen to.  When this voice is married with his own lyrics and musical fusions of sound, it is repeatedly worth listening to.  When singing grand opera, it is the person on the street, the everyday nature of music, the– dare I say it– Humanist quality that draws me in.  I have sung grand opera arias, and I know that if one can get beyond the cultural stereotypes, the anticipated problems with different languages, all the “baggage” that most often accompanies opera, it can be a powerful musical experience.  Often a character is singing out about his or her tragedy, asking the listener to witness- just like good gospel or rap does – hear, learn, and at best, to understand.

My father knows this.  My factory worker, ashamed-he-never-went-to-college father, who tried one evening many years ago to take his wife and young son to hear a traveling company perform a grand opera, a one-night-only-performance at the local higher education outpost.  He could see as the doors closed that less than a third of the seats were filled, but the box office attendant stood firm that he had not reserved his ticket, this was a special fundraising performance, and his family could not go in even as he could pay.  He had listened to classical music his entire life, and knew the story of the opera, knew it’s power, and only wanted for once to see it performed live.  He didn’t bring a pocket lighter, he wore his only suit and tie- he knew how to behave.  He begged the attendant, explaining he had brought his wife and son; they needed to see this, to really hear it, to understand what he understood.  He was still turned away.  They drove the hour back home in silence.  He is 71 now, and he has still never seen an opera performed live.   Yet when he is cleaning, he will occasionally crank the worn audiotape I made him of “popular” arias and sing out at the top of his voice.

What I sing about today as I throw the plastic sippy cups into the trash is an angry lament for plastic.  Recent reports of exceedingly high lead levels in children’s toys, baby products, and even vinyl decorations on children’s towels (!! What the hell is THAT about?  Who puts lead into vinyl and why?  What known chemistry would have that make sense?).  Many parents jittery, but more disturbing is that yet another company( has begun ceasing the use of bisphenol-a, or B.P.A, a common plastic chemical. 

The research so far is clear, there is a low baseline of toxicity for this product and the effects are decidedly carcinogenic (cancer causing) as well as endocrine-disturbing, to the sex hormones of boys in particular.  Amidst junk food (see or read Fast Food Nation if you have not), amidst air pollution, amidst the tainted food and slack FDA enforcements of this administration, we also have pervasive toxins that alone, in small concentrations, others would argue are “safe”.  Sure, if you only come into contact with the substance once in your life, in a small amount.  But the truth is that we come into contact with these things everyday, everywhere, and under less than perfect conditions (mixed with other hazards, and under heat and cold that break them down and make them more available to our bodies).   As a parent, my job is to educate and protect my children.  Convenience be damned, bye bye sippy cups.  You don’t want a mentally deranged, damaged adult ruining your nice dinner or drive someday, so we as parents are expected to help “train up” children to be socially responsible, contributing members of society.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always clear how to do this- so forgive my caution.  Forgive my anger.  My children, your children, are not commodities to be drained of all value and discarded.  They are not just little consumers who ought to be treated as if caveat emptor was the primary rule, and if you can get away with hurting them then do so. 

Rap that ‘fiddy, or shut up and listen.  Hear and understand.  Sing it out.

I gotta go open a window.