High School Teacher at Hamilton High School and Adjunct English Instructor at CGC. Record collector, comic book nerd, one-time textbook author, and retired record store clerk. Loves hiking. Lindsey’s husband.
Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins passed away on Friday, March 25th, just hours before the band was scheduled to play at a festival in Bogota, Colombia. While the official cause of death has not yet been revealed, what really matters is that one of the most beloved musicians of his (or arguably any) generation is gone, and in his wake, a huge hole has been left in the music world.
The Foo Fighters are one of the biggest bands in the world, continuing consistently for ten albums spread out across 27 years since their self-titled debut album released in 1995. They famously started out as a solo project for former-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, written and recorded by him in the aftermath of the end of Nirvana, following Kurt Cobain’s death. However, what most people think of as the Foo Fighters came together with the addition of Hawkins just after the release of their seminal second album, The Colour and the Shape. He joined the band for the ensuing tour, permanently replacing departing drummer William Goldsmith. He quickly became an integral part of the group and Dave Grohl’s best friend.
His journey to that point, though, was one of a man seizing each opportunity presented to him. In a 2020 interview, Hawkins was asked what his plan B would have been if he hadn’t made it in rock ‘n’ roll. Laughing, he responded, “Weed dealer? Pizza delivery guy? Manager of the drum department at Guitar Center? I don’t know.” It was the third one – manager of the drum department at Guitar Center – that could have been the fate of the man who became not only a legendary drummer and member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but so beloved by seemingly everyone he encountered, from fans to fellow musicians. Guitar Center was exactly where Hawkins was at when he got the chance to join the touring band for Canadian rocker Sass Jordan.
This led to a two-year gig drumming for another Canadian musician (and legend): Alanis Morissette. He joined right as Morisette was becoming one of the biggest artists in the world, hot on the heels of her Jagged Little Pill album. It was while touring with Morissette that he first crossed paths with Grohl, when Foo Fighters and Morissette played the same festival. The two became fast friends, and when Grohl called Hawkins for a suggestion for a replacement for Goldsmith, Hawkins volunteered and the rest is history. Even within a band with such clear camaraderie as Foo Fighters, Grohl and Hawkins seemed like long-lost twins. Their friendship was endearing and affection for each other was clear.
By his own admission, though, Hawkins admits that early on he battled self-doubt. He felt that if he became a rock star, everything would be better in his life, and in some ways it was but in some it was not. This led to a period of self-examination. Though he had everything he could want, he still struggled with life. Money and fame, for him, didn’t translate to confidence and self-esteem. He seemed to battle these moments with a blue-collar approach to his job: he drummed every chance he got.
While being the Foo Fighters drummer was his main job, he also drummed on albums by Coheed and Cambria, on their Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow album, Eric Avery’s (formerly of Jane’s Addiction) first solo album Help Wanted, and on a Foo Fighter bandmate Chris Shiflett’s side project, Jackson United, splitting drumming duties with Grohl on the band’s third album. All of this was in addition to his own side project, Taylor Hawkins & the Coattail Riders, and his heavy metal cover band Chevy Metal.
With his passing, the tributes have poured in from all over the music community from acts as diverse as Stevie Nicks, Ringo Starr, Wofgang Van Halen, Questlove, Miley Cyrus, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Morello, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Peter Criss of Kiss; Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Susanna Hoffs, Conan O’Brien, and even First Lady Jill Biden. This list could go on and on and double the length of this tribute, but what is clear is that Taylor Hawkins was loved instantly by all he met and worked with. From the fan community, there are hundreds of stories of a guy who took time for every fan he met and always made people feel special.
Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth once said people pay money to go to concerts because they like seeing people believe in themselves. Even though he admitted to his own struggles with self-esteem, to see Taylor Hawkins drum was to watch someone who truly believed in himself the moment he sat down behind the kit or took over vocal duties, such as his Foo live highlight singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love” – performed in the US for the last time at Innings Festival in Tempe, AZ on February 26th. He clearly relished every moment, never taking a second of joy for granted. Maybe what we loved so much about him was getting to watch someone markedly love what they do.
Regardless of the cause of death, one of rock’s true good guys is gone now. He leaves behind an undeniable legacy. He might’ve been, as music critic and senior editor for AllMusicStephen Thomas Erlewin tweeted, “…the only drummer alive who could support Dave Grohl and not make you wish Grohl was sitting behind the kit.” He played with an unabashed passion, like a guy who had won the golden ticket of life, and was never going to let the opportunity slip from his fingers.
Honor his memory by revisiting his greatest moments: “Breakout” from There’s Nothing Left to Lose, “Times Like These” from One by One, “Best of You” from In Your Honor, or look up any Foo Fighters live performances on YouTube – especially the band’s performance of “My Hero” from the final episode of Late Show with David Letterman. As you do, let his legacy be more than just a great drummer, but a guy who took on every opportunity and gave it everything he had. Relish life, just as Taylor Hawkins did, and rock out every chance you get along the way.
Mesa, AZ — The annual Punk in Drublic Festival, held this past Saturday at Mesa’s brand new Bell Bank Park, is built around two things: craft beer and punk rock. This year’s lineup, anchored as always by festival founder Fat Mike’s band NOFX, also featured Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, The Bouncing Souls, Lagwagon, Authority Zero, The Last Gang, The Venomous Pinks, and WinterHaven. It was a lineup that covered several generations of punk and just as many styles.
When the gates opened at 11 a.m., with WinterHaven not going on to open the festival until 1 p.m., the other opener took front stage and center: craft beer, and plenty of it. With breweries from all over Arizona giving out free samples to the 21+ crowd in the free Punk in Drublic souvenir sample cups, cans and kegs were emptied on a consistent basis from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
What makes a punk festival so different from other all-day festivals is that punks, regardless of era or style, are accepting of everyone who enters the sanctum of punk, as a place of brotherhood and sisterhood for all. Names are never needed, as the t-shirt you wore is enough to identify you. “Hey yo, Black Flag, try that Hazy IPA they got! It’s my favorite!” was shouted at me as I approached one of the many tents. The same guy followed up with me later to get my thoughts.
There’s an inspiring sense of community and fun, like we’re all on the same team, whether we’re toasting a craft brew or slamming into each other in a circle pit. If this day were a musical, it would almost be expected that at any moment the crowd would break out into a punk rock rendition of “Gaston,” sloshing frothy beers from those mini Punk in Drublic sampler cups to and fro in the spirit of a hardy sing-along.
Opening the show was Flagstaff’s own Winterhaven. Made up of singer and rhythm guitarist Jack Hernandez, lead guitarist Brendan Goepfrich, bassist Colton Henderson, and drummer Nick Schira, they brought the right balance of humor and youthful energy to open the show. By their own admission, they have gotten onto the festival by getting in touch with Cameron Collins, who handles lining up the breweries for each stop (Fat Mike handles the bands) who dug what he heard and got them added to the lineup. Though the youngest band on the bill, they came out swinging like old pros.
The band wears its pop-punk influences on their sleeves like a badge of honor. Though you could hear the importance that bands like blink-182 and The Offspring had on their sound (and also some noticeable Ian MacKaye Fugazi-era basslines), there was nothing derivative about WinterHaven. As the opening chords of the first song hit, their music was a magnet pulling people away from beer and merch tents right to the front of the stage. In between songs, they joked with the crowd about Spider-Man and in a hilarious moment, Hernandez said that his mom asked him to remember to wear sunscreen before they went on that day, but he had immediately forgotten and asked that no one tells. (I’m sorry if she reads this and learns that way.)
The Venomous Pinks
It would seem Arizona was the perfect starting point for the festival, since three-fifths of the acts hail from State 48, with Mesa’s The Venomous Pinks playing second. Though the all-female outfit certainly has some Bikini Kill in their sound, they would not be out of place amongst the heaviest of hitters of early 80’s hardcore. The three-piece attack of Drea Doll on guitar and vocals, Gaby Kaos on bass and vocals, and Cassie Jalilie on drums sounded like the sister band to Bad Brains or Minor Threat, playing each song with a fast and furious intensity.
Their second song “Todos Unidos” had some Generator-era Bad Religion guitar and “oohs” and “aahs” on the backing vocals. Their new single “No Rules,” the first from their upcoming debut album Vita Mors from SBÄM Records, was a set highlight (the single is out on 03/24/2022 and the album is forthcoming). They closed out their nine-song set with “We Do It Better,” an absolutely righteous rager and the perfect anthem for the band. They were joined by The Last Gang’s lead singer Brenna Red for the final verse.
The Last Gang
The decidedly more political The Last Gang played next. The California quartet – Red on vocals and guitar, Ken Aquino on guitar, Sean Viele on bass, and Robert Wantland on drums – surprised the crowd throughout their set, as they used the punk rock template as a springboard for so many other styles. Their third song, “Gimme Action,” even opened with a surprising AC/DC-esque guitar riff.
Red admitted to listening to a lot of The Clash and some classic reggae and dub, including Toots And The Maytals and the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. This was no more evident than on “Noise Noise Noise,” the title track from their 2021 album, which had some very clear Clash London Calling-era dub influence. She is an incredible frontwoman, and the band plays loosely within the punk genre. If their nine-song set is any indication of even a snippet of what they are capable of, they are going to be a band to watch for many years to come.
Rounding out the Arizona triad was Mesa’s Authority Zero. The skate punk legends came out guns blazing with lead singer Jason DeVore leading into the first song (or perhaps warning the crowd) with “Here we go!” He was immediately perched on top of amps (rocking one precariously forward before he hopped off of it) and bounced around the stage with each song. For a guy who’s been doing this since the mid-nineties, he didn’t show even a hint of slowing down.
Though DeVore’s vocals are rooted firmly in hardcore, Authority Zero includes reggae and some very noticeable Bad Religion rhythms in their music. The band’s new song “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free” from the album of the same name was a set highlight.
Mid-set, DeVore stopped to plug Punk Rock Saves Lives, an organization he supports whose work focuses on mental health, human rights, and equality. His passion for their work was clear in the set’s closer, “Lift One Up.”
It spoke to DeVore’s love for his audience and to the communal feeling so clear amongst the attendees since the gates opened: “So lift one up/To put one down/We’ll keep singing these old songs our whole lives through/It’s where we’re found/They’ve touched our hearts/They’ve saved our lives.” It was one of the best sing-alongs of the day.
Considering their name was inspired by the band’s unreliable touring van, Lagwagon have been anything but unreliable, recording and touring since 1990. Before they began their set, an audience member complained to the soundman checking the microphones that it was “too loud.” In response, he received a hard laugh from the guy who said, “Don’t worry. Joey’s known for his soft vocals.” Indeed, the start of their set was like a bomb going off (leaving this writer wondering what the kids playing soccer just across the way from the festival at the rather vast Bell Bank Park complex were wondering).
With nine albums spread across their 30-year career, frontman Joey Cape joked, “All we have are old songs,” when an audience member requested they play something new after they played “Bombs Away” from their 1995 album Hoss. Regardless of his self-deprecating comment, the band with a lineup almost unchanged since they started, played each song with an ageless vigor. They dedicated “Surviving California” to all of their fallen comrades over the years, in the highlight of their set.
The Bouncing Souls
New Jersey’s favorite punk sons The Bouncing Souls showed that Lagwagon were not the only 30-year veterans who hadn’t lost a step. The pogoing punk icons brought their trademark lighthearted sound to the stage. Opening with the title-track from the 1999 album “Hopeless Romantic”, the band had the crowd bouncing in unison from the word go (not the song “Go,” because that was their fifth track).
Singer Greg Attonito was a consummate showman, playfully dancing around the stage during each song. The Bouncing Souls have always been a fun live band, and this day’s set was no different. Their song “That Song” was one of the highlights, with the audience singing along throughout. It felt like a fitting summation of the vibe for the day, with the lyrics: And in the end what have we learned? Are we just faces in the crowd? I died and was reborn again today. Hold fast to myself. Make these good feelings stay. On a pleasantly cool Arizona spring day, it felt like many of us were reborn in those moments of community.
Me First And The Gimme Gimmes
“We’re not a cover band,” declared lead singer Spike Slawson, “We are THE cover band!” For the uninitiated, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes are like punk-rock karaoke. They are a supergroup, with a rotating cast of members including Slawson of Re-Volts and Swignin’ Utters, Joey Cape and Dave Raun from Lagwagon pulling double duty, Fat Mike, and CJ Ramone. They will cover any genre of music, with the songs poured through their unique filter.
Opening with “Different Drum,” written by the late Mike Nesmith of The Monkees and made famous by Linda Rondstadt, they followed it with “Sloop John B” and a three-song country superset of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and John Denver’s “Country Roads,” with Fat Mike coming out to sing on the songs. With no set genre they will pull from, the set is full of surprises because every song is unexpected. Where else are you going to get Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” followed by CJ Ramone singing Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”? Only at a Me First and the Gimme Gimmes concert. They closed their night with a rousing rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
To close out the night was NOFX, fronted by Punk in Drublic founder Mike “Fat Mike” Burkett. Though their live album I Heard They Suck Live!! might set certain expectations for anyone who has never witnessed a NOFX concert, they make each show unique from any other they’ve played before.
Not to veer into politics, but it can be reasonably inferred by the t-shirts and buttons you see around the festival exactly what the political leanings are of a punk-rock crowd. Regardless, Fat Mike opened their set with “Greetings Republicans!” Throughout their set, he continued to playfully troll the crowd, from saying the only thing Arizona got right was doing away with daylight savings, to telling the crowd the only good thing to ever come out of the state was stand-up comic Doug Stanhope. Mike even attempted to call Stanhope from the stage, but the call went to voicemail.
Some songs were introduced but quickly abandoned. After claiming that drummer Smelly Sandin did not want to play “Liza and Louise,” they moved on to “I Love You More Than I Hate Me” instead. “We’ve only got 5 good songs,” Mike claimed at one point, “and we’ve been doing this for 38 years!” Following “Eat the Meek” and “Franco UnAmerican,” Mike called Arizona “the Alabama of the west.” They closed out their set with a one-two punch of “Don’t Call Me White” and “Kill All the White Man.”
Though the beer tents were all long gone at this point, everyone held tight to their Punk in Drublic beer sampler cups as they headed for the exit. Together or not, the punk community is always united, and maybe those cups will make their way out again on some random night, filled to the rim, and toasted high to the brothers and sisters, before turning the music up and slamming the beer down.
The 2022 Punk In Drublic Craft Beer & Music Festival will continue on through the spring and summer with the following dates:
Saturday, March 26 – San Diego, CA – Petco Park – Tickets
Sunday, March 27 – Ventura, CA – Ventura Fairgrounds – Tickets
Saturday, May 7 – Sacramento, CA – Heart Health Park at the Cal Expo – Tickets
PHOENIX — Before Flogging Molly’s concert at The Marquee Theater – with support from Vandoliers and Russkaja – even began, there was a vibe in the crowd different from anything seen the last time concerts were a normal occurrence, and it led to what made this show so special. You see, back in those waning, naïve days of January and February of 2020 – before our lives were collectively turned upside down, leaving us wondering if any semblance of normalcy would return, let alone gathering en masse to enjoy live music once again – we could see live shows whenever we wanted. Though we may not have realized it then, we took live music for granted.
No, the crowd on Tuesday night at the Marquee was buzzing with a noticeable sense of joy, community, and most of all, gratitude. Strangers happily chatted away with each other when the house lights were still on and an array of punk and classic rock was piped through the P.A. Conversations centered so much on “I was supposed to see… until…” and many specifically mentioned having tickets to see Flogging Molly in spring of 2020. No one was taking this moment for granted, because so much was survived to get to this point.
Openers Vandoliers hail from Dallas, Texas and were described on the hype sticker on the vinyl pressing of their 2019 album Foreveras sounding like a cross between Boston Irish punk legends Dropkick Murphys and Arizona’s own Calexico. With so many physical miles between Boston and Tucson and just as many musical style miles between the two as well, the description was intriguing. At the start of their set, the description immediately made sense. With a similar style of rhythm section, made up of bassist Mark Moncrieff and drummer Trey Alfaro, combined with guitar and aggressive vocals from Dustin Fleming, the Murphys-punk influence was evident. What made their sound so unique, though, was the addition of fiddler Travis Curry and multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves who combined to bring a southwest seasoning on top of the Irish punk brew.
Their seven-song set was fast and furious, punctuated with shout-along should-be classics like “Cigarettes in the Rain,” “Sixteen Years,” and “Troublemaker,” which should be the band’s anthem and the anthem for anyone who were told early on that they’d “be a problem” in life. They closed their set with a cover of Scottish rock duo The Proclaimers’ classic, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” recasting the early 90’s alternative sing-along smash as a rowdy West Texas bar band end-of-the–night, last-call rager. If there was a person in attendance not singing along throughout, they were not easily spotted amongst the packed crowd.
Austria’s Russkaja, self-described as “Russian Turbo Polka Metal,” played second. With a foundation of traditional Russian music, they layer it with a confluence of styles, ranging from punk to ska to metal to, yes, polka, all rolled into a wholly unique sound. Founding member and vocalist Georgij Makazaria leads the charge alongside bassist Dimitrij Miller, guitarist Engel Mayr, violinist Lea-Sophie Fischer, Mayr, potete player Hans-Georg Gutternigg, and drummer Mario Stübler, with each member contributing their own particular stitch to their vast tapestry of sound. Mayr’s guitar playing shifted effortlessly between ska and metal, not just across the entire set, but even within one song.
The highlight of their hard-charging set, though, was not even music, but a somber moment midway when Makazaria and Miller stood together and spoke to the crowd not as musicians but as citizens of two countries. Makazaria is Russian and Miller is Ukrainian and together they condemned the war and called for peace and love.
“The people of Russia and Ukraine have to fight against each other, and it is terrible. This is the politics that is destroying peace. We condemn this fucking war. We are against this war! Instead of battle stations, we bring some music equipment and make a festival. We will not give the world a chance to destroy our music!”
It was as powerful, if not more so, than any note played or any lyric sung, and it underscored a theme, intentional or not, that was playing throughout the evening: through disease and war and a score of so many other horrible things plaguing our world now and in the future, we are all very lucky to be together sharing a space and letting live music nourish our souls.
What was once an annual tradition, Flogging Molly’s St. Patrick’s Day Tour, like so many other tours, was put on hold, going on a two-year hiatus, save for a St. Patrick’s Day show done via Zoom for fans last year. While their concerts are always a must-see event, they performed with a renewed vigor. Opening the show with “Drunken Lullabies,” from their 2001 album of the same name, there was an extra punch to every note and every lyric.
Hitting some old favorites early in the set, that theme noticed so early in the night amongst the crowd chatter re-emerged as frontman Dave King touched on the feelings so many of us had surviving the past two years, with the emotional struggles and low-low points before launching into “The Worst Day Since Yesterday” from 2000’s Swagger, which immediately took on a new feel. They followed it with their first new song of the night, written during those early scary and confusing days, called “These Times Have Got Me Drinking,” which given the crowd’s reaction to it, will easily stand beside so many of the band’s greatest.
Flogging Molly have always been a tight band, both on their albums and performing live, but each member was in top form throughout the night. King regularly shouted out members of the band between songs. With such an incredible group of musicians holding down each song, it allows King to be so many things throughout the show: singer, showman, dancer, and all-around master of ceremonies. A lesser band would not be able to afford such freedom to the frontman, but Bridget Regan (violin, tin whistle, and King’s wife of almost 15 years), Dennis Casey (guitar), Matt Hensley (accordion), Nathen Maxwell (bass), Spencer Swain (mandolin, banjo, and guitar), and Mike Alonso (drums) are all so accomplished that it gives King a wide lane in which to play. One minute, he’ll be bantering with fans, and the next, he’ll have his pant legs pulled up, as he dances around the stage, sometimes doing an impromptu jig and others doing a one-man chorus line.
This is what makes a Flogging Molly concert so special: it never feels overly-rehearsed but instead gives each show an impromptu feel, like each moment is special for that night’s audience exclusively. These moments accompanied a run through a great many classics, including a particularly rousing run through “If I Ever Leave this World Alive.” They left the stage after “Seven Deadly Sins” from 2004’s Within a Mile of Home that felt like it was a well-rehearsed rendition between the band and the entire crowd who sang along and mimicked each one of King’s movements.
Returning for an encore, they finished the set with “Tobacco Island,” also from Within a Mile of Home. That was not, however, how they closed the show. While it has become the norm for many bands to have a walk-out song (Vandoliers came out to The Vandals’ “Urban Struggle,” Russkaja played an anti-war message set to a dark, ominous beat as they walked out, and Flogging Molly themselves used The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” paired with the acapella intro to their own “The Wrong Company”), but very few bands have a walk-off song. While most shows end with a good night, band walk off, and the house lights coming on as music is piped over the P.A., Flogging Molly played “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
While not as well-known to the audience, save for this journalist and others within his particular age range, the lyrics, even to fresh ears, served to punctuate the night’s theme: “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.” As the song played out, the group stood together, joined by various members of Vandoliers and Russkaja in kick lines, as King handed out set lists to the younger fans (there were many older fans in attendance with their children), and playfully blew kisses to the audience before everyone at last left the stage with the song’s fading notes and those awkward feelings of 2020 despair dissipating. Nights like this remind us to never again take live music for granted, because it’s one of our true blessings, and that alone should hopefully keep us all on the bright side of life.
With a career dating back to 1982 with their lone release as a hardcore group, the Pollywog Stew EP, and their 1986 genre-defining hip-hop debut, Licensed to Ill, it’s hard to remember a world without the Beastie Boys. Considering the deep personal connection many of us have with them (Questlove from The Roots once said that there’s no such thing as a casual Beastie Boys fan), it feels triumphant and yet bittersweet to see the Beasties take one final career lap. Beginning with the 2018 release of their mammoth tome of a memoir Beastie Boys Book, and continuing this year with Apple TV’s Beastie Boys Story, the cycle is now complete with the release of the career-spanning Beastie Boys Music, which was released October 23rd on Universal Music Enterprises.
This is not the first compilation from the band, however, as it follows the previous releases of 1999’s Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science and 2005’s Solid Gold Hits. What’s so different about Beastie Boys Music is the feeling of finality to it. While the future could perhaps see the release of anniversary deluxe editions of any of their landmark albums featuring B-sides and unreleased tracks or alternate takes (the 30th anniversary of Check Your Head is in two years, for instance), this still feels like the final word on a career that dates back to their early days as a New York hardcore punk band, through their years as hip-hop innovators, and finally their time as the genre’s elder statesman. With the 2012 death of Adam “MCA” Yauch from salivary cancer, we will never get “new” Beastie Boys music in the truest sense, as Adam “Adrock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond have vowed to never again record as Beastie Boys.
Now, the first issue to confront with any greatest hits album isn’t in reviewing the songs themselves. It’s insulting to the reader and even to the band themselves to approach a collection of their hits as if it is the first time any of us have heard the music. “You should really check out the song ‘Sabotage’ because it’s a total banger!” As with any greatest hits collection, it comes down to two main things: which songs and the sequencing.
Looking at a track-by-track breakdown of the album, it is evident that for this collection, the group opted for the singles specifically in chronological order. That is why their landmark debut Licensed to Ill (the first hip-hop album to go to #1 on the Billboards chart) is disproportionately represented, as compared to later albums, with a total of five songs appearing on the collection:
“Hold It Now, Hit It” – Both Beastie Boys Book or Beastie Boys Story explain the importance of this song to their growth as a hip-hop group).
“Paul Revere” – If you doubt its well-earned stature, try saying “Now here’s a little story that I got to tell” and listen for the inevitable reply from someone within earshot of “of three bad brothers you know so well”
“No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” with Kerry King of Slayer providing the iconic guitar riff, was a long-time set closer for their live shows (later to be supplanted by another song on the collection) and is a deserved inclusion.
The goofy-fun drinking ode “Brass Monkey” is a nice surprise, though it comes at the cost of a lot of great singles that were left off.
Of course, no Beastie Boys collection could possibly omit “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” the song the band intended as an ironic parody of “party” and “attitude”-themed songs, in the same vein as “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “I Wanna Rock” and which the dearly-departed MCA once referred to as “kind of a joke that went too far.” Regardless of its original intentions or how it was received and what it became as a result, it’s still a fun song and hard to not sing along to (as loudly and obnoxiously as possible).
Heavily regarded by both fans and critics as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, Paul’s Boutique still somehow feels like it’s underrated in their discography, as it’s sandwiched between the instant-classic Licensed to Ill and the one-two punch of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, like being the smart, sensitive middle child between the class clown and the golden child. Maybe it’s that status that makes the three tracks included from it (“Shake Your Rump,” “Hey Ladies,” and “Shadrach”) sound so fresh. They also don’t suffer from cultural saturation, as some of Licensed to Ill’s singles do. In fact, I would argue that “Shadrach” may be one of their greatest tracks on any album (check out the Nathanial Hörnblowér-directed video for it that featured live footage hand-painted by different artists to create a moving painting).
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Anyone who even has a cursory knowledge of the band’s history knows that the lack of success from Paul’s Boutique left the group with a unique opportunity: to reinvent themselves free from the somewhat indifferent eye of their record label, Capitol. This led to them doing anything and everything they wanted to try, resulting in the genre-defying 1992 classic Check Your Head.
While for a band that released eight albums across 25 years, “best album” becomes a heated debate, I place myself firmly in the Check Your Head camp. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard them: “Jimmy James,” “Pass the Mic,” and “So What’cha Want” still hit just as hard. The album’s “anything goes” experimentation took them to the next level. By taking up their instruments again (for the first time since their early hardcore days) and creating their own samples, they did what no hip-hop groups before them had done and only a few have sense.
If Check Your Head was the reinvention, then Ill Communication was the polished refinement of that reinvention. Two of Ill’s tracks, “Get It Together,” (featuring Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip guest verse), and the ode to early NYC hip-hop “Root Down”, are no brainers, but the album’s two true classics get to the essence of the Beastie’s greatness, “Sure Shot” and “Sabotage,” as they draw on the band’s two eras: hardcore punk (“Sabotage” is essentially a radio-friendly punk song) and hip-hop (“Sure Shot” has the classic pass-the-mic structure of the best of their songs).
“Sure Shot” features a verse from MCA that still sounds ahead of its time, when the late rapper dropped “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end,” and seemingly became the first male rapper to embrace feminism. This lyric and MCA as the group’s spiritual leader was well-highlighted in the book and documentary. At a time when a lot of rap lyrics were still leaning heavily into “bitches” and “hoes,” MCA took an important step for rap music as a whole and changed the image of a group much-maligned early for songs like “Girls” (you can Google the lyrics, if you don’t know).
Now, “Sabotage” is “Sabotage” and it will outlive us all. Heck, a joke in the rebooted Star Trek films was Captain James T. Kirk’s love of the song — considered to be an “oldie” in a distant future of routine space exploration. Fun bit of band trivia: “Sabotage” first had life as an instrumental jam inspired by MCA fiddling around on the bass and coming up with the signature bassline. The original recording had no title, and became known as “Chris Rocks” after an overly-enthusiastic studio tech named Chris lost his mind after hearing them record the demo and yelled “this shit rocks!” It lived as “Chris Rocks” until Adrock free-styled the vocals screaming his frustrations at the band’s producer Mario Caldato, resulting in the thinly-veiled but good-natured shots at Mario C, such as: So, so, so, so listen up, ’cause you can’t say nothin’/You’ll shut me down with a push of your button. Though arguments can be made for their greatest track, “Sabotage” is their most well-known song, finally dethroning “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” for that title and has aged well, now 26 years since it’s original release. That is why it became and remained their set closer for the rest of their existence as a touring group.
The later half of their career, though representing three albums over a 13-year period is relegated to a total of five tracks, with two tracks from 1998’s Hello Nasty, one track from 2004’s To The 5 Boroughs, and two tracks from their 2011 swan song Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. This is the lone weakness of this compilation, as each of those albums deserves more time, but that is time that a single-set greatest hits collection simply cannot afford. Still though, it feels strange that the demands of a reasonable runtime means that Nasty’s “Three MC’s and One DJ,” Boroughs’ “Triple Trouble” or “Open Letter to NYC,” and Hot Sauce’s Nas-duet “Too Many Rappers” are unfairly left off the album. It is recognized, though, that those tracks were singles but not huge hits. Que sera, sera, I suppose.
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While the dream of a Beastie Boys compilation in the same vein as the three-part Beatles Anthology series — filled with outtakes, b-sides, and demos — will hopefully be realized someday, for now we have this solid greatest hits. Though the hardcore Beastie devotees, like myself, will still pick this up and file it next to all the albums its songs are taken from, it is not an album strictly for us. It is an album for the next generation — for kids who are discovering the Beastie Boys through their parents and a family viewing of Beastie Boys Story.
A greatest hits album is meant to crystalize the essence of the artist, and to that degree, Beastie Boys Music does that admirably so. This collection eschews The Meters-inspired jazz-funk tracks that were sprinkled across Check Your Head and Ill Communications, as well as their returns to their hardcore roots on the same albums. (Not many are going to argue that a greatest hits collection should include “Heartattack Man,” no matter how killer of a hardcore track it is). The focus here is on the accepted canon of Beasties hits and the tracks that made them so beloved worldwide.
If this is their final career lap, then it’s a fitting send-off for them; it’s a reminder of everything that made them so great, because more than anything, the Beastie Boys are the soundtrack of fun. With this collection, older fans will revisit those moments in our lives and rekindle those memories with each song. (“So What’cha Want” was the first song I played in my car when I got my license… to drive, not to ill.) However, this collection will serve as a bridge to new fans — the children (or even grandchildren) of those who grew up with Mike, Adam, and Adam.
There is certainly a timelessness to the Beasties’ music that will transcend generations, and as each comes and goes, and even as each of us who remember the first time we saw the 70’s cop-show inspired video when it premiered on MTV are laid to dust, there will still be people with the windows down and “Sabotage” turned loud.
“Released in conjunction with his book How to Write One Song, the Wilco frontman’s response to the pandemic is a mellow, easygoing collection of songs stressing the importance of human connection.” — Pitchfork
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Jeff Tweedy’s New Album is Available Digitally Now
John Lennon once said his dream would be to write a song one day, record it the next, produce it the following day, press and release it immediately after in an attempt to get art out into the world as fast as possible (he came close as was probably possible with “Give Peace a Chance”, which was written, recorded, produced, pressed, and released in just over a month). While our modern musical landscape may make that dream even more feasible, with musicians able to put music into the world via SoundCloud and other such streaming services as instantaneously as it can be written, it’s still quite the daunting task, and even more so to do it with an entire album.
Drive-By Truckers have come as close as is probably possible for a band in this era to accomplish that task with last Friday’s surprise release of The New Ok, the band’s 13th studio album and second of 2020. For a band that has released that many albums over the course of their 22-year existence, it is still a remarkable feat. They are a band who has set a standard for themselves of releasing an album at least every 2-3 years, with 4 years being their biggest gap between releases (between 2016’s American Band and The Unraveling, released just this past March). In a normal year for the Truckers, as their fans most-often call them, they would release an album, tour the world like crazy, playing epic shows in each city, return home to write and record, and begin the whole process all over again. That is a normal year for the band.
This, however, has been anything but a normal year. Back in March, I was playing The Unraveling on repeat and gearing up to see the band play live for the fifth time, and my first time as an Arizonan. I was loving the new album and could not wait to hear it live with all the furious energy I had come to expect from seeing them those previous times. A Truckers show is an event: a true ROCK SHOW that leaves even the newest of converts pumping their fists, singing along, and riding a rollercoaster of emotions until the moment Patterson Hood says goodnight and the band leaves the stage. A Truckers show is a life-affirming good time. I could not wait to see one of my favorite bands in my new home, and then the pandemic happened. Live shows went away, and my wife and I were left stuck at home, both of us teachers trying to teach in the new reality of a world turned upside-down. I sat in my office and tried to figure out how to do my job all over again, and listened to all their other albums through headphones while adjusting to this new reality.
The Truckers were always one of the hardest-working bands in rock, and not even a pandemic can slow them down. In between playing online live shows, founding members and dual songwriting threats Hood and Mike Cooly managed to write and record The New Ok —an album that speaks as much to our times through its title as it does through its songs.
The opening track “The New Ok” pays homage to that thing we struggle every day to accept and are at the same time so sick of discussing: the idea of our collective “new normal.” Things that were at once so commonplace now seem foreign and strange to think about, like going to a concert or a live sporting event. Even our attempts to adjust and find that semblance of normalcy have gone awry. Hood sings on the track: Deep in my own head drenched from the cups/I thought going downtown might cheer me up/We promised each other we wouldn’t let it get too rough/Said, “Let me know son when you’ve had enough.” While the narrator struggles to adjust, he struggles along with everything that has occurred during this new ok, as the struggles of the pandemic give way to the Black Lives Matter protests and violence that happened in cities across the country. This new ok is anything but ok, and the Truckers are struggling right along with us.
The high-water mark for relevant political songs is Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Ohio,” written by Young in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings. It was written and recorded within two weeks of the shootings and released as a single within a month. With “Perilous Night,” the Truckers have their “Ohio.” The song was originally written and released just two months after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that saw white supremacist groups descend and duel with anti-racism protestors and resulted in the death of activist Heather Heyer. The song directs its anger not just at the white supremacists but at the politicians who enable them and oftentimes embolden them. While “Ohio” captured a single, tragic moment in our nation’s history, “Perilous Night” is a song I cannot imagine the band could have ever thought that when the single was first released in the fall of 2017 it would still be relevant enough to be included as an album track three years later and feel like it had an immediacy to it. (Literally as I wrote this review, news broke that a member of a white supremacist group shot up a police precinct in Minneapolis during the protests over the death of George Floyd and tried to frame Antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors for the crime.)
“Sarah’s Flame,” released as the b-side to “The Unraveling” on the first Record Store Day drop in August, is a plaintive drum-and-organ-driven ballad from Mike Cooley that may stand as one of his finest songs in the Truckers’ oeuvre. The band has been ever-evolving in their sound since their 1998-debut Gangstabilly (this is a band after all whose third album was a legit rock opera and still stands as one of their finest works), and yet the Memphis-soul vibe of “Sea Island Lonely” proves to be a bold step and one of the album’s true stand-out tracks, with the horns and rhythm section serving as a perfect compliment to Hood’s always-distinct vocals.
The extended political metaphor of “Watching the Orange Clouds” finds Hood, or at least a Hood surrogate, bracing himself for an impending storm and wondering what more he can do to stop it from happening. He worries for his kids who have benefited from their race and position in life, but sees that they are becoming increasingly aware that not everyone shares their privilege. As he stands on his balcony, his mind is awash with how overwhelming the horribleness is that has beset all of our lives: he contends with violence against BIPOC, white nationalists, the pandemic, and the relentless assault of the bleak. As for the titular “orange cloud” he hopes will go away, well, you can probably figure that one out on your own.
While they have never been adverse to cover songs, the Truckers have usually reserved them for live-show surprises in the past (such as their cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” on their 2000 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’) or as one-off covers for tributes (their covers of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” were both recorded for tribute albums and included on their 2009 B-Sides and Rarities album The Fine Print [A Collection Of Oddities And Rarities] 2003-2008). But their album-closing take on The Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away” is the tonally perfect ending to an album about dealing with new realities. While the song was originally written by Ramones lead singer Joey Ramone as a dig at bandmate and rare punk-rock conservative Johnny Ramone, who teased Joey often for being Jewish and then stole Joey’s girlfriend Linda, here the Truckers put a universal context spin on it, as some of us have seen friends or family reveal alt-right leanings or outright white nationalist proclamations. While to some, the southern Drive-By Truckers covering the prototypical New York punk rock legends may seem surprising, there is more shared DNA between the two bands that might be apparent if you held up pictures of each band side-by-side. The cover serves as the perfect coda on dealing with a reality that is so often unrelentingly horrible, and though Ramone’s protagonist is calling to get help as his girlfriend is literally kidnapped by Klan, helplessly seeing people close to us seduced by racist ideologies is terrifying and just as tragic.
There is an urgency to The New Ok that feels welcomed right now. It is an album that feels the walls closing in and is screaming into the void. If misery loves company, then the Truckers have given us the perfect record to commiserate with. While things are anything but ok right now, The New Ok is what we need to come to terms with not feeling ok.
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Album To Be Played In Its Entirety Live From Rustbelt Studios at 8pm EST This Friday, October 9 on Band’s Youtube Channel
When approaching any new band, it’s best to avoid assumptions to keep from pigeonholing them as this or that instead of just themselves, Still though, it would be understandable that The Messenger Birds, a Detroit two-piece rock band made up of members Parker Bengry and Chris Williams, whose debut album is being pressed at Jack White’s Third Man Press, might cause people to assume they are a band in the same vein as another great Detroit band: The White Stripes. If that was anyone’s assumption going in, Bengry and Williams quickly dispel it with extreme prejudice just moments into their debut full-lengthEverything Has to Fall Apart Eventually.
What’s instantly shocking about the album is that it was, according to the band, written in 2018 and recorded mostly in 2019, because the music feels immediate, like the band is bunkered down somewhere, inundated by the relentlessly bleak news of the day, and cranking out these songs to express their frustration and rage. Make no mistake: Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is not just a great rock record – it’s an emotional journey.
The opening track, “Play Dead (Just For Tonight)” opens with a somberness of a funeral dirge, with a slow-building guitar, picking up more and more momentum with each note. Lyrically, some connections are made because of what we, the listener, are feeling inside at the moment. But one can’t help but feel the line “Keep your mask up on the nearest shelf,” even if its meaning is about the need to escape into another persona to get away from everything that feels horrible. The further references to “another day for the Holocaust” – a shooting at a synagogue, pipe bombs, and false-flag conspiracies – lay open the song’s ominous tone of fear and paranoia, like it’s anticipating an oncoming apocalypse, complimented by the creeping feeling of dread of the music that eventually explodes into chaos of drums and guitar with the song title repeated as a refrain “Just play dead for tonight,” like needed advice to survive these times.
“Play Dead (For Tonight)” is just an opening salvo. “The Phantom Limb,” which has hit 5 million plays since it debuted on Spotify in 2018, is where the record really kicks into high gear. It’s the kind of fist-pumping, all-out rocker that’s been missing from our recent music landscape. It’s a song that forces you to remind yourself that it’s being played by two guys on two instruments, and is the best that dynamic has produced since The White Stripes. One of the many things that stand out about Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is how much Bengry and Williams are able to pull off with each song, reaching sonic landscapes that seem impossible for a two-piece band.
If the release’s ominous, paranoid tone is merely hinted at in the first two tracks, the one-two punch of “What You Want to Hear” and “Self Destruct” releases it like a primal scream. The Messenger Birds clearly didn’t set out to write songs about how we are inundated every day with bleak news brought to us by society’s most heinous monsters – these songs are merely a byproduct of what it’s like living in these times.
Even a cursory glance of a news feed or comment thread sees people desperately clinging to a vision of our society that is far from reality, and “What You Want to Hear” is the ballad of confirmation bias: a song directed at everyone who wants to live in an insular bubble and shut out any challenges to their flawed beliefs. “Self Destruct” is where we’re headed as our country seems to be handed off more and more to hate groups that have been emboldened in the past few years. “My tv’s like a time machine/Takes me back… 1943/Tiki torch, marching up the street/Flying flags of a dead dream” is a lyric that is clearly inspired by the events in Charlottesville just three years ago, but sadly are still too relevant in light of The Proud Boys and other supremacist groups trying to bully and intimidate those who push back against their messages of hate.
The first single and true emotional centerpiece is the title track “Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually.” As hopelessness seems pervasive and the walls start closing in, we’re too often left with our own thoughts screaming inside our heads. While we all hope for the best, we fear the worst, and the narrator of the song knows this better than anyone. It’s the anthem for fighting back when fighting back feels pointless, and for when loss and tragedy feel too inevitable to resist anymore. As the song closes with the repeated “Hope we make it through,” we can all close our eyes, nod for a moment, and mouth “I hope so, too.”
If the title track is the emotional apex, then the acoustic “When You’ve Had Enough,” gives us a moment to scale it all back for a breather and some introspection before gearing up again. It’s a song that seems perfectly placed at the end of the record that has been an intense rollercoaster of emotion, like the moment when the ride hits a long stretch of gentle hills and you feel for a moment a cool breeze on your face and gain a sense of peace. It’s providing comfort through the reminder that we are not alone in this, even if, like the song intones, “Most days I’m only getting by,” which we all have felt in these past 10 months.
The world we are living in is a constant rollercoaster that never seems to end, and the album closes with “Start Again” to remind us of that. The lyrics reference the Greek myth of Sisyphus (“I feel like Sisyphus just got it started again…”) who angered the gods by putting Death in chains so no one else had to die. As punishment, he is forced to push a heavy boulder up a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom again, forcing him to start again. I’ve always loved the myth of Sisyphus because it is a tale that defines determination, even in the face of that which is unavoidable. French philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay about Sisyphus’s pursuit of getting the boulder to the top without rolling back down again, even though he knew it would. Camus tells the reader that it is important to picture Sisyphus as happy. If we can picture Sisyphus as happy, then we too can be happy and believe in our collective potential to survive all of this horribleness. Even as the song descends once more into a chaos of screeching guitars and drums, The Messenger Birds seem to want us to do the same.
Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is one of the most self-assured debut records I’ve heard in recent memory and one that feels the rafters begin to shake as the foundation of our reality cracks underneath and knows it’s all caving in on us. Even if the lyrics warn us that we are at the forefront of an apocalypse, it implores us to stand together against every wretched monster carrying tiki torches and trying to shout us down with hate. We will fight back and reclaim our world and our sanity and do it together, pushing back those who are only concerned with power.
Let’s hope for that return soon, because with our world being on pause for the moment, live shows won’t be happening for a while. This is a shame because this album is an album that demands – cries out – to be heard live. In the meantime, blast it from your speakers and let it pulsate through your body and reverberate through your soul. The Messenger Birds are a band for this moment and could define a third phase of Detroit born-and-bred rock ‘n’ roll. The Messenger Birds Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually was released October 7th through Earshot Media. You can order the record, buy some merch, watch videos, and get the latest news on the band on their website.
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The Messenger Birds will continue to celebrate the new release with fans as direct support for Steel Panther’s upcoming socially-distanced ‘Fast Cars and Loud Guitars- Live at The Drive-In’ show taking place on October 16 at Pontiac, MI’s Crofoot Festival Grounds. Tickets for the event are now available here.
Dave Hause’s music is a punk-infused take on the classic singer-songwriter that is equal parts righteous anger and soulful introspection. Since going solo from The Loved Ones, he’s released four stellar records: 2011’s Resolutions, 2013’s Devour, 2017’s Bury Me in Philly, and last year’s Kick. Between his often clever lyrics and shifts from ballads to all-out rockers, he is, arguably, the Elvis Costello of this generation.
A constant presence on the road in a different time in our world, he was a magnetic live performer, who managed to be just as entertaining when bantering with the crowd as he was playing music. In fact, when we first tried this interview, he was in the middle of a tour. When the world shut down, the questions originally asked no longer made sense, so I rewrote my questions to reflect this new world reality, and he was generous enough with his time to answer them for me.
Interview with Dave Hause
Q & A with music journalist Ryan Novak
RYAN: Dave, first off, thank you for taking the time to do this. As I think I’ve told you, I’m not a full-time music journalist and am just a school teacher who does this in my spare time for fun. When the woman who created and runs our website asked me if I ever wanted to do an interview, you were the first name I mentioned just because I’ve talked to you a few times after shows over the years, and you’ve always been such a friendly guy every time that I knew you’d be a great interview.
Since your tour was cut short by COVID, you’ve transitioned to doing online shows, which have been a lot of fun and have had the same atmosphere as your solo shows. Was it difficult for you to start doing the online shows and how has preparing for them been different than preparing for an in-person live show?
DAVE: It is difficult. My neighbor works for a big software company and was struggling with having to work entirely via Zoom, and we shared some of the same challenges. Social cues are different (or non existent), there is a lag time, and you’re simultaneously trying to focus on performing AND considering the audio, software glitches and wifi speed. Just like anything though, you do your best and hope for the best, and keep your true north at delivering the song the best way you can in the moment.
RYAN: One of the things I’ve always loved about watching you play live is the spontaneity of your live shows and that they’ve always felt fun and loose. A big part of that stems from how you interact with your audience.
Have you found that doing the live shows allows you to maintain the same atmosphere of your in-person shows, maybe through reacting to fan feedback as you’re playing?
DAVE: No, I have to build that into the live streams, which is why I add covers and old songs, it’s to keep the tightrope taut, so I can attempt the magic trick of walking over it. Interacting with fans online is tough because it is harder for the rest of the “crowd” to relate the way they would if they were all in the same room.
RYAN: Throughout this, you’ve played online shows with some of your friends, such as Brian Fallon, and it’s reminded me a lot of Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tours, a couple of which you’ve been a part of.
How has it been working with other artists remotely, and do you see this as something you’ll continue to do, maybe even on a growing lineup of artists with many of you playing together or trading off songs?
DAVE: One of the positive things about this pandemic and having to stay home is that I’m co-writing more with friends; we’ll see what comes of that. I think you’re referring to the short period where I did a bunch of things online to stay busy when the initial quarantine happened, but I’ve intentionally haven’t done much online since May. I feel like there’s so much going on and I need more quiet. I want to spend more time with my kids, and the online shows prompt a ton of anxiety in me, so there’s that part of it. I also have been recording songs like crazy. More news on that soon.
Has this time at home and off the road allowed you to start working on new material, and will a new album come out of this?
DAVE: It has allowed me to start writing, yes, and it will lead to the 5th solo record. I think I even already have the title, which is a first; I usually don’t find a title for an album til towards the end.
If so, since the pandemic prevents the opportunity to get everyone together to record in a studio, how will you handle the recording of new material? Will everyone work together remotely, or will it perhaps be a more intimate recorded-at-home solo record, a la Springsteen’s Nebraska?
DAVE: I’m not that far along yet; we are still working on the songs themselves. We’ll figure out how to record them later. Meantime, the stuff I am recording now is definitely born of the “I-can’t-tour-on-this-anyway” mentality, so it’s really fun to just create without any of that in mind. I’m so excited about what we are putting out in October.
RYAN: You’re not a guy who shies away from his feelings on a lot of issues. When you last played Phoenix, opening for Bad Religion, you asked the audience to hold up a finger towards Washington, before playing “Dirty Fucker” off of Buy Me in Philly, which drew a mostly positive crowd reaction, save for one person who seemed annoyed — which I thought you handled well.
Do you feel in a way that it’s your duty, especially with your platform, to speak out and let your music hopefully at least get people to think more about what’s going in the world, especially right now?
DAVE:I do feel compelled to; not sure if it’s a duty or not. I think we are in one of the bleakest times in our country’s short history, and I want to be crystal clear about how I feel about it. Should we see the administration change in November/January, I’ll be as outspoken as I feel compelled to be when they’re running the ship too. I never trust the people in charge.
I purchased “Your Ghost” from Bandcamp, and it’s such a heartbreakingly gorgeous song. Using the death of George Floyd and his final words as a refrain throughout the song really hit me as I listened to it. Was this a difficult song for you to write, or was it one that almost poured out of you?
DAVE: It was difficult. Tim and I labored over it more than many other songs, because I think it is a loaded thing for a privileged white rock and roll singer to sing “I Can’t Breathe”. I’m glad we put the extra time in, and I’m thankful to various friends and colleagues who helped to make sure we got the tone right.
One of the things that really stands out about “Your Ghost” is the backing vocals by Kam Franklin of the great band The Suffers, which felt almost like a ghost in pain haunting the song. How did she come to be involved in the song, and what was the collaboration with her like?
DAVE: That was suggested to me by my agent, Alex Fang, after he heard the song. I was familiar with both and totally blown away that they agreed to do it, and then did such an incredible job with it.
RYAN: As I was listening to it, I remembered your song “Seasons Greetings from Ferguson,” which you released during the Ferguson protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. In fact, “Your Ghost” and “Seasons Greetings” feel like they could be the A and B side of a 7”. It’s sad that the two songs were recorded nearly six years apart and yet nothing has changed.
Were you thinking of the writing and recording of “Seasons Greetings” as you were working on “Your Ghost,” and how would you say the two songs differ, perhaps in tone or approach to the topic?
DAVE:Yes, they’re meant to sound related. The delivery, the chord choices, and the tone are similar. My intention after “Seasons Greetings” was to continue a sort of a singles series of socially related songs, maybe 1-2 a year, but I didn’t finish a bunch of them and got sidetracked in 2015 and 2016. When Kick came around, we wanted to put a bunch of those kinds of songs on that record, so we went with the traditional full album release. The experience with “Your Ghost” sort of reignited that desire to get some topical singles out quickly as we move forward. We’ll see.
RYAN: You’ve had several big life changes in the past couple of years, including moving and marriage, but anyone that follows you on social media has seen that not only are you a father to twin boys, but that you’ve embraced fatherhood with a lot of joy. (I especially enjoyed the video of you vacuuming the house with both boys strapped to you).
How has fatherhood changed how you approach life in general and your music specifically, especially now that the pandemic means you aren’t leaving for tours and are just getting to be home with your family?
DAVE:This could be the topic for a whole book. Ultimately, I’m trying to make life all about them instead of all about me. That’s a challenge, but an incredibly rewarding one. It’s been the greatest thing that’s happened to me in my life.
It’s August 7th, 2019 at 11:45 AM, and I’m on lunch break at the high school where I teach in Arizona’s East Valley. The group of baseball players I have coached the past three years, and who eat in my room every day, file in one by one, and I glean bits and pieces of their in-progress conversations. As I get out my lunch and begin eating, I check Twitter, a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. At the top of the trending topics, I see David Berman is trending.
Though it’s been less than a month since Berman’s reemergence after a ten-plus year absence from music with the release of his new band Purple Mountains’ debut self-titled record, I know he’s not trending because of the album. My first thought was of the lyrics to “Death of an Heir of Sorrows,” from his previous band Silver Jews’ album Bright Flight: “When I was summoned to the phone, I knew in my heart that you had died alone.” Replace “… was summoned to the phone” with “… saw you trending on Twitter.” I knew I didn’t need to click on his name to find out the awful truth. I clicked anyway. Checking Twitter is a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. Confirming my immediate suspicion crushes me. I feel an emptiness that carries through lunch and the final two classes I have to teach: Film Studies and AP Research.
The first time I had heard of David Berman came, like all great moments of musical awakenings, via an off-hand recommendation from a record store clerk in 1998 at Kansas City’s legendary Recycled Sounds. Like I had done dating back to when I was 13 years old, I asked for a recommendation and then tried to appear cool and nonchalant while I rattled off a list of bands I liked. “You know, I like Superchunk and Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo; just cool indie rock stuff.” When he asked if I liked Silver Jews, I defaulted to the stance of someone out of the loop who didn’t want to appear out of the loop and claimed to have heard of them but just hadn’t checked them out yet. I asked where I should start, desperately hoping they had at least a couple of albums. They had three, an EP, and a few 7’’s, so I was safe.
He handed me the just-released American Water, and I bought it without question because record store clerks were the gatekeepers of cool to me at that age. I will forever owe that guy a debt of gratitude for his recommendation that day.
Whenever I hear a new song or album, I judge it on the existence of a firework moment, which is to say the part of a song where it seemingly takes off into the stratosphere and explodes in a moment of glory. This could be in a rocking style, like the vocal interchange between David Bowie and Freddie Mercury on “Under Pressure”, or in a more subtle, emotional way, like how Elliott Smith could write a song where the vocals never rose above a whisper but it was emotionally gut-wrenching. What I didn’t count on, or at least never would have expected, was the cleverness of the lyrics.
Berman, a poet with an MFA from UMASS, was a brilliant lyricist on a level few achieve. From the opening line of “Random Rules”, the first track, I knew that this album and this band were special. “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” was a lyric unlike anything that I’d ever heard before. I obsessed over the lyrics, listening to them and writing them down in my college notebooks. Had I not been a year removed from high school, every yearbook I signed would have been a randomly selected lyric, like “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads/And day after day up on this beautiful stage/We’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage/But we are real, I know we are real,” followed by “anyway, take care” and my signature.
I searched for every release like water in a desert. There was a need in my heart for it. During every low time, Berman’s music gave me comfort and hope. During my deepest battles with depression and anxiety when I felt no hope, I’d sooner play his albums on repeat late at night than take a single pill my doctor prescribed. “When I go downtown, I always wear a corduroy suit because it’s made of a hundred gutters the rain can run right through.”
I wanted desperately to see them live, but Berman had always resisted touring or even one-off live performances. In that now quaint time of message boards, rumors ran rampant as to the reasons, running the baseless rumor gamut from acute anxiety to drug addiction being the culprit. When they suddenly announced the first ever Jews tour to coincide with the 2005 release of Tanglewood Numbers, the band’s fifth album, and that they would be playing in St. Louis (a short drive from where I worked and wallowed) I snatched up tickets for me and my friend Tim, the other Silver Jews fan I knew.
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The show took place in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and music venue owned by Chuck Berry. The Duck Room was nothing more than the restaurant’s basement with a stage built along one wall, but I would have watched the show if it was in an alley during a thunderstorm. Standing twenty feet from the stage with Tim, just after opener Jennifer O’Connor left the stage, Tim nudged me and pointed to the merch table by the door where David Berman stood carrying a duffel bag, wearing faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and a trucker hat. He started cutting across the crowd who seemed either oblivious out of a hip glibness or because he drew no attention to himself, just moving forward with an even pace. As he drew near, I jumped at a chance I’d wanted to have since I first put on American Water seven years before.
When I made eye contact, he stopped and set down his duffel bag. “Hi,” I stammered, “I just want to thank you for this tour and including St. Louis. I’ve wanted to see you live for so long.” He smiled at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Thank you for coming tonight. I’m looking forward to being up there tonight.” He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze, smiled again, picked up his bag, and continued on his way, going through a door to the right of the stage.
The show that night was as great as I’d hoped it would be. At 26, I didn’t own a cell phone, so no pictures exist. I borrowed a matchbook and a pen from the bar and wrote down the set list on the inside cover in the tiniest handwriting I could muster, so I could include all 22 songs. As we left, I bought every shirt they had (a reasonably priced $15, imagine that) and a vinyl copy of Tanglewood Numbers, and I buzzed about the show all the way home. I later wrote him a letter and sent it and the record I’d bought at the show to the P.O. Box address that was always in the liner notes of his albums. A couple of weeks later, Berman returned the record, which he had drawn on the cover and inscribed: “The good friend Ryan. I wish you 34 years of good luck. Love, DCB.” Also in the package was a copy of his poetry book, Actual Air, inscribed and signed, given to me unsolicited.
Two months after the show, I turned 27 and got a MySpace account and made my first post “In 27 years, I drank 50,000 beers, and they just wash against me, like the sea into a pier,” a lyric from the Silver Jews’ “Trains Across the Sea.” I did it partly as a joke and partly because stupid rock and roll lore taught me 27 was a cryptic and mysterious age. But for me, it was just 27 and nothing more. Still, I thought, if I burned out hard and fast in the coming 365 days, it would make a bitchin’ epitaph.
Fast forward three years to June 13th, 2008: my 30th birthday. I’m up early to drive ninety miles from the college town where I live to the nondescript small town where I grew up, to see family before returning home to celebrate with friends. I get a text from my boss telling me to come by the record store. When I get there, he hands me two copies of the new Silver Jews album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; one on CD and on vinyl. They’re presents for my birthday, gifted to me four days before its formal release date (sorry Drag City Records).
I drive back to the house I’m living in rent-free in the basement, through a thick summer rain that threatens to eliminate visibility altogether. At the house, I leave the CD in the car, planning to listen to it on my drive home, and take the vinyl inside. I have to finish packing and then need to leave. As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I step into knee-high water; the result of a floor drain in the basement backing up while I was gone. I see possessions of mine float by me: books, records, and moves are ruined, and my cat Miss Kitty is perched on a shelf terrified. Also among the destroyed items was a small box that contained among other things, the letter from Berman thanking me for my kind words in a letter I’d sent him that came with a signed copy of his poetry book Actual Air.
I won’t be going home, but would instead spend my 30th birthday trying to salvage my mostly-destroyed possessions, as I listen to the new album on repeat, trying to hold it together, even though I feel like my life is falling apart. The album would turn out to be their last, but it somehow manages to be their most hopeful. It’s that hope that keeps me from crying and wallowing in self-pity. I write Berman a letter telling him the story of the flood and my misery and thanking him for his music saving me.
Two weeks later, I received a large manila envelope with my name and address written on the front in the scrawl that I’d come to recognize from the liner notes of Silver Jews albums. Inside is a note from Berman expressing that he was sorry to hear of my birthday misfortune.
The envelope was filled with a veritable treasure trove of random items: drawings by him, a slip of notebook paper with some chord changes and snippets of lyrics to an unfinished song, a flyer for a shot written in Hebrew from the band’s tour of Israel, a photocopy of a love letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd, and a stanza pulled from a poem by William Blake that appeared to be typed on a typewriter. It read:
“It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast
To hear sounds of love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field and the sickness that cuts off his children
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door and our children bring fruits and flowers
Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten and the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains and the poor in the prison and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.”
Months later, still reeling and lost, I decide to get out of town and visit my sister. I plan the trip to coincide with the Silver Jews 100th show at The Metro, just blocks from Wrigley Field. My sister and I stand just a few feet from the stage. The set that night spanned every album and featured guest appearances from Dan Koretzky of Drag City Records and Berman’s college friend Bob Nastanovich, the original Silver Jews drummer and legendary Pavement hype man. It eclipsed the St. Louis shows and is still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. At the close of the show, he retrieved the setlist that was written on a styrofoam plate from his suit jacket and attempted to throw it like a frisbee out into the crowd. Instead of flying out, though, it shot straight up into the air and came back down. I launched my 6’4” frame into the air and snagged it one-handed and pulled it back down with me like an NBA center snagging a defensive rebound on a would-be game-tying final second shot that secures a championship. It’s in a frame above my records to this day, and people who see it and ask, “why do you have a styrofoam plate in a frame?” are in for a longer answer than they anticipated.
It was also around this time when Berman announced the end of the Silver Jews. In a post to the Drag City Records message board, he detailed a lengthy struggle with his father, Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist for everything that is horrible in the world. “Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret,” Berman wrote on the Silver Jews messageboard. “Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.” He said he wanted to dedicate his life to undoing all the damage his father had caused. What followed his announcement, however, was silence.
Nearly a year and a half later and a year after his announcement of the end of his band, I returned home exhausted from student teaching and found a package in the mail, written in his now familiar handwriting. It included his then-new art book The Portable February. I’d moved twice in the time since he had my address but somehow he got the book to me. As shocked as I was at his generosity and that he had thought of me a year and a half after the fact, I was more shocked by what was in the book: a note to me that read “Hang in there, Ryan. I am struggling too. Your friend, DCB.”
Reading this note from someone I felt a kinship with but did not actually know made all the stress in my life up to that point come to a head. I was denying how much I was struggling working 40 hours as a student teacher, 35 hours at a large-box store so I would have insurance, and 20 hours at the record store just to have a place where I loved to be. Somehow, all this time later, he knew the perfect time to send me a gift. The book and note still sit together on my shelf, and from time to time, I still get out the note and read it as a reminder to hang in there through the tough times.
Three years into his self-imposed music exile, his label Drag City Records issued the Early Times compilation that collected his early releases, including the Dime Map of the Reef 7” and the Arizona Record EP. He started a blog called Menthol Mountains, which included a lot of Rabbinic commentary on Judaism. His final post came just days before his death, when he shared “The Lost Princess” parable by Nachman of Breslov, about a princess who is exiled following an angry slip of the tongue by her father, and the viceroy who is sent to find her and bring her home. I don’t know if there was any special significance to it, with regards to what would happen 15 days later.
The Purple Mountains’ eponymous album was released on July 12th. The album shows that Berman hadn’t lost a step as a songwriter. It stood alongside the great Silver Jews albums and did not suffer from feeling like a pale imitation of previous, better work. No, this was an incredible album, punctuated by obvious heartbreak. Multiple songs alluded to the ending of his marriage (“All My Happiness is Gone,” “Darkness and Cold,” and “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”), a song acknowledging his isolation in life (“Maybe I’m The Only One For Me”) and most heartbreakingly, a song grieving the passing of his mother (“I Loved Being My Mother’s Song”). The album was beautiful but still worrisome, as the lyrics seemed to check every box of someone who was headed to a very dark place.
Reading interviews with him prior to his death and reading about his life leading up to his death, pieces of the puzzle made sense. Knowing his story – that he had been separated from his wife for a while – one can’t hear the songs on Purple Mountains’ self-titled album and not feel his pain. For an outsider like me, regardless of my level of fandom, I saw that he was not with his wife and still reeling from his mother’s passing, losing the two most central figures in his life and no doubt feeling isolated from the world. When you’re struggling with mental health, isolation is the inescapable weight. It doesn’t have to be isolated from people, as he had friends and supporters all around him. To feel true isolation is to feel isolated regardless of your surroundings; to feel alone in a crowded room. In reading what would turn out to be his final interviews, I saw nothing but red flags. As someone who had struggled with many of the same issues, every alert in my brain went up. You never consider that you’ll someday worry about your heroes.
All of this brings us back to August 7th at 11:45 AM and his name trending on Twitter, not in celebration of his talent, but in mourning of his passing. I was not alone in my deep love of him and his music. My experiences with him, though as deeply personal as they are cherished and loved, were not unique, as reading tweets in the days, weeks, and months after his passing showed that his kindness, generosity, and empathy for those who held his music dear was vast. A simple note in response to a letter or a small gift of a piece of Silver Jews memorabilia was the norm. Fans shared memories or just their favorite lyrics, and even in his passing and the grief felt by his friends, family, and fans worldwide, he drew us all close together one more time. Like a sing-along of “Black and Brown Blues” or “Random Rules” on one of the two Silver Jews tours, strangers were united in these moments of both loss and celebration of his life and career. In the end, his talent and his pain seemed forever entwined, with the x-axis of them being a straight line.
As I sat there in my classroom, with my baseball boys eating lunch and talking, I felt overwhelmed with grief, but again thought of those Bright Flight album-closing lyrics: “We were never promised there would be a tomorrow,” in “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” He may have been reminding his long-lost friend, but 18 years after he wrote them, he was also reminding us.
My history with the music of Jason Isbell is long by most standards, dating back now seventeen years since he was the “new kid” in the Drive-By Truckers, almost like a hired gun as the band’s third guitarist, during their brilliant trio of albums: Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing and a Curse. Isbell seemed like the band’s little brother at the time, and yet his songs easily stood toe-to-toe with those from bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with standout tracks like title track “Decoration Day,” “Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South, and the outtake “TVA” from those sessions.
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As good as he was when he was younger, he has managed, since going solo, to continue to push himself more and more with each album, effortlessly stretching creatively to one-up himself across three proper solo albums and now four albums with his backing band The 400 Unit. Through those seven post-Truckers records, he has solidified his position as one of our greatest-living songwriters, an assertion he might deny but one with which his legion of fans would certainly agree.
On his new album Reunions, Isbell, a dyed-in-the-wool Alabaman whose early albums were steeped in the Southern rock tradition, has taken on a sound that is more Americana than Southern. The America that Isbell explores is one haunted by ghosts and populated by characters wanting nothing more than to move forward in so many ways in their lives, but while struggling with pasts often complicated; wrapped tightly in both warm memories and regrets of mistakes they made but can’t quite shake or forgive themselves for. In fact, on the album’s opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help,” Isbell laments a life of mistakes; questioning with the title if he’s made any effort to make his situation better, and revealing that in fact, he’s only made it worse; a sentiment many of us can relate to when we are haunted by the ghosts of regret in our minds.
The emotional toil of the first song gives way to its counterbalance: “Dreamsicle.” Isbell spent his childhood in Alabama, as I spent mine in Missouri, separated by some-odd 600 miles, but joined by those moments spent outside in a folding chair enjoying a sweet, cold treat. However, the song’s nostalgia for the innocence of childhood spent outside in the twinkling twilight of childhood summer nights is shadowed with the foreboding of a sadness not fully realized, but one that is still ever-present.
By his own admission, Isbell was first able to write songs for a character that was not him or based upon a story he knew with “Elephant” from 2013’s Southeastern. “Only Children” is one such song, as the protagonist revisits his home town and is reminded of a friend lost. Even among those good memories, though, are moments tinged with a sadness; moments of more questions than answers, hinting at a story with an ending that is unknown and tragic as a result. Even the solo towards the end of the song feels like tears on a guitar.
Side two kicks off with “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” a track that would not have been out of place on an early Heartbreakers album, as you can close your eyes and for a moment imagine Tom Petty taking that lead vocal. As Isbell sings of a romance that at any moment seems in danger of going completely off the rails but manages to continue on, he lets loose with a bluesy guitar riff unlike anything he’s attempted before and yet nailed with aplomb.
The album’s next two tracks — “The River” and “Be Afraid” — feel like a one-two punch. On the gentle, gorgeous “The River,” Isbell finds spirituality, baptism, and forgiveness on the titular river, as if he has been washed of the sins of his past and is ready for a rebirth. That rebirth is realized on “Be Afraid,” as he implores the listener to be afraid and “do it anyway,” meaning of course for each of us to challenge ourselves to go after the “thing,” whatever it may be in our lives that we want more than anything but let fear keep us from. Just as Isbell got on stage and played his songs for the first time, no doubt with a fear eating at his gut but with a headstrong perseverance that allowed him to do it and make an incredible career out of, he is imploring his listener to do the same: to go after the thing they want to do but are too afraid to try. Maybe this, more than anything, is the album’s central message: the world is screwed up, scary, and unforgiving, so why not just go for the thing that will fill up our souls with purpose and joy?
Part of our individual quests for self-improvement and a life better spent means being less reckless and more aware of our weaknesses and immortality. Isbell, sober since 2012, writes of the everyday struggles with sobriety on “It Gets Easier,” but the song is no downer that wallows in the mistakes of the past or laments the desire to drink; instead it is a song of hope, meant to cheer on those battling the temptation to let them know, in fact, that it does get easier with each passing day.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I read that if you’re a songwriter worth his or her salt and have a child, and you don’t write a song for that child, then you need to turn in your guitar and take on another profession. Isbell closes the album with the plaintive, beautiful “Letting You Go,” written about a father who loves his child so dearly, has cherished every moment, and knows that someday he will need to let that child go out into the world. One can imagine Isbell, with his guitar in his hands and his daughter with his wife, musician Amanda Shires, in his sight struggling with that same knowledge.
It’s fitting that the album opens with songs about the ghosts that haunt each of us: those mistakes we can’t erase and the pain we’ve caused others, but slowly builds to a redemption found in rivers, bravery, sobriety, and the love of family. While this redemption belongs to Isbell, perhaps there is inspiration to be found for the listener to let go of the pain of the past, start forgiving ourselves, and embrace the joy and beauty in our own lives. The America that Isbell wrote this album in is not the America we see today. It’s an album where he chases ghosts of the past; real, imagined, fictional, or nonfictional, but we’re all chasing ghosts right now in this new America. So if you’re chasing ghosts, then why not this tour of his America? Because it’s the America we’re all living in, haunted and filled with regret for the mistakes we can’t change and the present and future we’re all accepting as a result.
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