Warehouse Mardi Gras

March 9, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans about a minute before Mardi Gras hit its Fat Tuesday height. Even better, I wrangled my way into a few warehouse studios thanks to my friend Reynard, an artist whose fulltime gig is painting parade floats.

Anyone unfamiliar with Mardi Gras in New Orleans might not realize Mardi Gras goes way beyond just Fat Tuesday. Carnival in New Orleans begins as soon as the new year turns, and there seems no end to the parade of parades. The weekend before and up through Fat Tuesday, you can see up to six parades a day, and Fat Tuesday alone has eleven parades going on all day long across the city.0

Catholics might begin their Lenten season of fasting, self-denial, and prayer on Ash Wednesday, but in New Orleans the parades continue. On St. Patrick’s Day, float riders have been known to toss raw cabbages instead of beads, and on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, the American Italian Marching Club holds their parade in the French Quarter. The Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day is “Super Sunday,” because it’s the day the famous Mardi Gras Indians emerge Uptown to parade and display their incredibly ornate costumes.

So if you don’t mind paint by the gallon and a canvas the size of an 18-wheeler, you too could make art every day, then have your creation viewed by thousands for one bright, shining moment. Think big.

Reynard showed me floats for two parades, one playful, one classic. First was Iris, the first female Krewe, dating back to 1917. Their theme this year was “Iris Through a Child’s Eyes.” Yep, you’ll recognize some of these folks . . .

Next was the remarkable collection of floats from the Krewe of Hermes, an all-male Krewe that began in the midst of the Depression. Hermes holds the distinction of having the first-ever parade with neon lights in 1938 and being the oldest continuous night parading krewe in Carnival. Hermes was also one of the first krewes to parade following Hurricane Katrina; their 2006 parade drew record crowds.

The Krewe of Hermes has a reputation for parading floats with the highest level of craftsmanship and detail. The handcrafted and painted flowers, the statuesque props, and the gold leaf create stunning tableaus one after another. This year’s theme? The Court Music of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, with a little art deco styling thrown in for good measure.

I was back in NH before Hermes hit the streets, but thanks to nola.com and the Times-Picayune, I could experience a little bit of the parade online. There was a mystery to seeing the floats waiting in the warehouse for their one night, and a delight to get a close look without getting hip-checked by bead enthusiasts, but I am sorry I missed seeing their one night of glory on the streets. Maybe next year. . .

3fd_hermes349

Elie Wiesel

July 3, 2016

 

FullSizeRender

In 1995, I went with my friend Tami to a lecture by Elie Wiesel at Fremont High School in Fremont, Nebraska, a small town about an hour north of Lincoln on Highway 77. At the time I worked for a literary magazine at the University of Nebraska, and most of my friends, like Tami, were fellow grad students in English. Young and earnest, we spent our time reading books, talking about books, and going to readings and lectures.

But Elie Wiesel was no ordinary author and scholar; he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a decade before, and his novels, essays, and memoirs are imbued with a wisdom, strength, and generosity that transcended most of anything I’d read or heard or seen. Truthfully, why he was even in Fremont speaking to a few hundred of us that night remains a mystery to me. A year later, he spoke in Lincoln to a crowd of thousands.

His lecture that night was beyond instructive and beyond informative; it was inspiring and electric, full of energy and hope. When he finished, Tami and I just sat, as if we couldn’t leave until the last echo from his words had finally faded from the room.

FullSizeRender

I brought my favorite book of his that night–Twilight, the first novel he wrote after being awarded the Nobel–and I used its flyleaves to feverishly recorded everything I could. I pulled the book out this morning and thought I’d transcribe some of what Wiesel said. As the world continues to fracture under fanaticism, we need to remember, to witness, to dialogue, and to do our best to live by words such as these.

 

Elie Wiesel, Fremont, Nebraska, March 30, 1995:

“In 1945 there was a great optimism that good had triumphed over evil. I believed that anti-semitism died, that racism died. . . that there would be no wars. Have we learned anything? That evil is emerging again.”

“The Holocaust is so powerful, it affects everything we do. There was so much hate then, we’re still feeling the fallout today.”

“The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. We must fight fanaticism and indifference. When you’re a fanatic, you have no more problems, no more questions. The fanatic has no patience for dialogue, and when a fanatic has power, he can be very convincing. The fanatic believes it is his right to conquer.”

“In a world that it meaningless, we must endow it with meaning.”

“Whatever the answer is, I believe that education is the component. Whatever subject you learn, it must have a moral dimension. When you read a text, you must resist it, challenge it. Never learn alone, never study alone. You don’t just need a teacher, you need a friend.”

“What is morality, but dialogue? We define morality and humanity not through our relationship with God, but our relationship with other people. So how do we define relationships? We must know what pains one another in order to relate. We can’t take their suffering on, but we can be present to witness. I don’t understand the silence of the world. Our task is to bear witness. We need to see. Whenever some force contemplates genocide, we must organize.”

“We must open our hearts to someone who is ‘not me.’ Decartes was wrong; it’s you think therefore I am.”

FullSizeRender

 

Dika Eckersley, 1939-2015

February 28, 2015

imgresIn the summer of 1995 in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, Hilda Raz and I met with a few friends for lunch, one of whom was Dika Eckersley. It was my birthday, and I was being treated by the lovely collection of women who produced the literary magazine, Prairie Schooner, where I worked as Managing Editor. Hilda, the magazine’s editor, and I shared office space at the University of Nebraska English Department, but the production team worked at the University of Nebraska Press across town, so Hilda established the birthday lunch tradition, ensuring we’d all get together at least a few times each year. Outside the restaurant that bright day in August, Dika handed me a red clay pot with a newspaper laid flat on top.

“Open it,” she told me with a mischievous smile, so I lifted up the newspaper. I laughed in surprise as out flew a monarch butterfly; attached to a twig inside the pot was what remained of its chrysalis. “I’d been watching it outside my kitchen window,” Dika said, “and I thought it would make the perfect gift.” Indeed it did.FullSizeRender-1

This is the story that came to mind when I heard that Dika had died at home in Lincoln this week, at age 75. Her designs for Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska Press were so like that gift, so like the person Dika was: lovely, full of delight, and wrapped in layers of meaning.

Four times a year, Dika collaborated with Hilda to create the cover of Prairie Schooner, and watching them work was one of the best parts of my job. Sometimes Hilda, Dika and I trekked to the Sheldon Art Gallery where the director would let us go into the cool, dry rooms and sift through the terrific breadth of images they had in storage. Other times we’d visit a local studio or meet with an artist in our offices, but more often than not Dika would just create cover art using one of her own photographs or images or using another favorite medium—the copy machine—and the result was always remarkable.

Once we visited local artist Kate Brooke, intending to choose one of her woodblock prints, Dika instead picking a page from Kate’s journal for the cover, littered with scraps of poems and tiny animals that she had reproduced in silver. Another time, Hilda brought in a collection FullSizeRender-2of her own childhood photographs, and she and I selected two perfect images of Hilda at three, smiling beatifically at the camera as she held her older brother’s hand. For the cover, however, Dika picked a photo slightly out of focus where Hilda’s brother has had his head unceremoniously cut off. Of course, Hilda and I immediately realized it as the ideal image to reflect that issue’s particularly troubling stories and poems. For Dika was a designer, but she also was a reader, and she recognized the intimate connection that a magazine’s cover should have with the narrative created from the stories, essays, and poems within. In Dika’s world, books should—and could be—judged by their covers.

One of my proudest moments at Prairie Schooner was when we celebrated the magazine’s 75th anniversary in the fall of 2001. Writers came from around the country to give readings and lectures about the magazine’s impact on American literature in the 20th century, and in conjunction with the conference, Sheldon Museum director Daniel Siedell curated a gallery exhibition, “The Visual Culture of Prairie Schooner.” At that point, Dika had been designing Prairie Schooner covers for about twenty years, and walking through the gallery opening, no one could ignore that it was her designs dominating FullSizeRenderthe show. Dika, however firm she was in her vision, was also modest in accepting praise, and I was so glad that for a time her work shared equal space in the Sheldon with Rothko, Warhol, Hopper, et al, where she absolutely belonged. Dika was a wonderful designer and a good friend, and while her designs will live on, she will be missed by many.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Daniel Siedell’s essay that accompanied the Sheldon Exhibition; his praise is more eloquent than mine:

Raz and Eckersley both understood the significance of material and visual culture and used it, through a visual politics of the cover, to “represent” or “image” the shifting focus of the Prairie Schooner. . . . Moreover, Raz’s and Eckersley’s aggressive aesthetic is intended to communicate the significance of the written word within a culture saturated by visual imagery. These cover designs illustrate the significant relationship between the word and image that intertwine the histories of modern literature and art. “The Visual Culture of Prairie Schooner” suggests that if we isolate word from image, literature from art, we do so to the impoverishment of our appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the world of culture.

Eulogy for the Phoenix

April 23, 2013

In my latest blog for Ploughshares, I write about the demise of the Boston Phoenix. . .

photo

If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenixhad the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal.  This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.

Click here to read the rest. . .

Another blog of mine up on Ploughshares begins thus:

There’s truth in patterns of nature that endlessly replicate, like the Fibonacci spiral, the syntax of language, the simple act of sexual reproduction. With so many recurring patterns in our world, only a lack of overlap, or coincidence, would be remarkable. The best overlap occurs when artists translate the invisible—pain, joy, loneliness—into a book or song or film. We take that art, superimpose it on ourselves, and suddenly it belongs to us.

0Here is a scene: a girl, 16, lies on her bed, eyes closed, in a house alone. Music plays at an ear-splittingly high volume on her brother’s stereo. She gets up only when the needle scratches the center. When the song ends, she plays it again. When it ends, she plays it again.

A good question to spring on friends is this: at 16, what was your song—the one you listened to lying on your bed, eyes closed? The one you blasted when it came on the radio while you drove aimlessly through the night? It’s a knee-jerk kind of question—instantly everyone has an answer.

Want to read the rest? Click on the link below:

I Am Not the Actor; This Can’t Be the Scene: Quadrophenia b/w Nick Flynn’s The Reenactments.

Steve Sargent: In Memoriam

February 25, 2013

Unknown-2It was with a heavy heart I received the news from my friend, Scott Sargent, that his father had died. Memory and distance can trick the brain into freezing time altogether, and this can be particularly true when it comes to teachers and friends we leave behind after high school. I hadn’t seen Mr. Sargent since my graduation from Gilford High School decades ago, so in my head he’s still the same as he was then, flattop haircut and short-sleeved dress shirts, a different striped tie for every day of the week.

Mr. Sargent didn’t look like an English teacher, he looked like a math teacher or an engineer or like an actual military sergeant—the kind who would flip a quarter onto to your bunk and give you two weeks of latrine duty just because it didn’t bounce high enough off the blanket.

images-7If you didn’t know him—and I definitely didn’t that first day of 11th grade English—you’d expect him to be exacting and severe, the kind of guy who’d cut you no slack, no matter what.

It didn’t help that while the other English teachers at Gilford got to serve up The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies—books with enough intrigue or violence or adolescent angst to make any lesson slightly more manageable—Mr. Sargent had the trying task of teaching early American Lit. The curriculum consisted of Pilgrim journals, Puritan sermons (mainly of the fire and brimstone variety), Emerson essays, and, worst of all, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, a book that seemed just as torturous to a sixteen-year-old as calculus or SATs or a gym class first thing in the morning.images-6

And we didn’t even have a proper classroom—we were shoehorned into a tiny, windowless space in a corner of the library that probably had been storage at some point or an office where the librarian hid to catch up on reading the Life or Outdoor magazines that never seemed to remain on the racks. There were no desks, so we all just sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Mr. Sargent, who sat in one of the only available chairs, crossed his legs, balanced whichever thankless text we currently had to read, and began to teach.

And we all know what happened next, right? Even Mr. Sargent would have to agree that this is one of the oldest stories in the book, whether it was part of his early American Lit curriculum or not. I know I wasn’t the only one who ended up scrawling Emerson quotes on my notebook—the most popular was “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist”—or the only one who grudgingly admitted Thoreau had some pretty good points. (I was probably the only one who tacked a poem on my bedroom wall by the Puritan Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, but that’s a story for another time.) Emerson and Thoreau were rebel punks and Wigglesworth was possibly the original Goth—as for the deceptively meek Emily Dickinson? She was easily the trickiest of the bunch. images-8

I’m not sure how Mr. Sargent led us to a place where we could find value in what we read, where we could somehow connect words that were centuries old to our own world of Joe Strummer and John Hughes and the all-too enticing anti-Thoreau sentiment of “Greed is Good” from Wall Street. I think his gift had something to do with his sense of humor—this wry little smile he’d get once we wore ourselves out with complaints and finally happened upon the truth that he knew was there all along—but more to do with a deep and genuine kindness. His smile didn’t mean he was laughing at us—though we sure deserved that more often than not—it was just benevolent amusement that it took us so darn long to figure everything out.

And I wonder now if we were shoehorned into that tiny room by design rather than lack of space. It wasn’t much smaller than Thoreau’s cabin had been, and it certainly was spare. There was just us on the floor with our notebooks and pencils, and Mr. Sargent sitting in his chair, legs crossed, book on his lap.

I suppose you could say that in addition to having this frozen-in-time image of Mr. Sargent from my 11th grade English class so long ago, memory and distance also have allowed me to idealize his impact on me as a writer and teacher and an ever-evolving nonconformist, but I really don’t think so. With that vintage flattop and a different striped tie for every day of the week, he was probably the first real nonconformist I ever knew; Emerson and Thoreau would be proud. I’m proud too, that I could call him my teacher.

images-5

After I take my pumpkin pie out of the oven and before I dive into solving the equation of x = y x 15 (+/- 30)–where y = weight in pounds and x equals total minutes in oven and (+/- 30) is the time it takes for any turkey to either come out absolutely perfect or, alternately, pink in the middle and black on the outside leading to a Thanksgiving where mashed potatoes will serve as the main course–I will take one of those minutes to reflect on my favorite Thanksgiving Day movie.

 Thirty-five years ago, The Band decided to throw a little concert on Thanksgiving to commemorate the end of an era spent on the road. They opened up the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, served up a few thousand turkey dinners, and then played music all night with a bunch of their friends. And since one of their friends is Martin Scorsese, we all have the privilege of watching the night play out in the film, The Last Waltz.

The boys play nice on stage, which is just one reason The Last Waltz is one of the greatest concert films ever—fantastic for its footage of all these terrific musicians playing at their peak. But backstage it’s just another classic Thanksgiving, full of all the love and bitterness and age-old grievances that every family has after so many years stuck together.

Robbie Robertson is the big mouth, commandeering every conversation and taking credit for whatever he can, while Levon Helm sits and smokes, interjecting wry comments in a slow, careful drawl, barely containing the loathing for his blowhard brother behind a polite, Southern smile. Rick Danko is your happy-go-lucky ameliorator—the middle kid I guess—who drinks too much and plays the sad clown, wishing everyone could just get along, and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson are your classic bachelor brothers, shy and eccentric and in the shadows.

Every other guy in the concert is a cousin or long-lost uncle—from Ronnie Hawkins and Dr. John to Neil Young and Van Morrison—and every other girl is singing backup or hiding out in the kitchen (except for Joni Mitchell, who of course is the exotic, astonishing aunt that everyone’s a little in awe of). Neil Diamond is there just so everyone can whisper “Who invited that guy?” before Bob Dylan comes out to lead a heartfelt and satisfying sing-along before we all escape back home.

So if you’re looking for reasons to slip away from your own family for a few moments today, or if you’re on your own this holiday, waxing nostalgic (or not) for Thanksgivings gone by, take a minute for The Last Waltz. Thanks to You Tube you can watch pretty much the entire movie in a series of three-minute clips, so I’ll leave you with my favorite for today—in memory of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel—because every Thanksgiving should begin with a moment of silence for those who won’t be pulling up a chair to the table.

Happy Thanksgiving.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6QxPkXzEQ4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqJJdiG61jo

Thanks Gerry

October 18, 2011

     My friend and teacher, Gerry Shapiro, would have laughed at my last blog, a recounting of a near-death experience with a vacuum that was as pathetic as it was unspectacular. Ezra Pound might have waxed tragic about life slipping by like a field mouse not shaking the grass (before we meet our end in a stupid and embarrassing fashion), but that’s precisely what Gerry would find funny about our time here on earth.

When I heard Gerry had died, I was reminded again of how he delighted in exploiting those neuroses in fiction, creating characters who worried so much about everything that they inevitably pitched headlong into horribly awkward situations entirely of their own making, the theory being that the best way to excise fears is by making their worst nightmares come true.

I also thought of how much I learned from Gerry and how productive I was under his tutelage—in Gerry’s classes I wrote what became the first chapter of My Brief History of Sex Education as well as several short stories that will become the basis for my next book once I put this first one behind me. One reason I flourished was because Gerry recognized in me another anxious, uptight soul, but more important was that he taught me—in class and with his writing—how essential it is to create the imperfect person.

My early stories were full of naïve and helpless characters—people who rode the waves of life in a near-constant state of befuddled surprise—and Gerry was remarkably patient with them and with me. But soon I learned—from Gerry the teacher and Gerry the writer—that it’s also important to show the dark side of your characters.

The characters in Gerry’s stories—my favorite creation of his was Leo Spivak—can be charming and ingratiating and funny, but then the page turns, the mood shifts, and that other side comes out. The vindictive side, the vengeful side, the side that makes a reader catch her breath and say, “Did Leo really just do that?” (And I won’t tell you what Leo does—just read Bad Jews or watch The King of the Corner and you’ll quickly see what I mean.)

One question we often try to answer—in fiction or memoir or life—is why bad things happen to good people. And that’s probably the question I began with when I wrote my first stories for Gerry’s classes—but the trickier and more interesting questions Gerry forced me to tackle are why good people do bad things to other good people and why on earth they’re forgiven after they do. They’re certainly questions I had to face in My Brief History of Sex Education because despite my early fondness for the befuddled ingénue, I have certainly been responsible for more than a few moral failings myself. It would be disingenuous if not outright deceitful to pretend that I had been an innocent, and the book is far better for it.

What I also learned from Gerry is that the reason we are so often granted forgiveness—and the reason we grant it ourselves—is because our lives are left unfinished. There’s always another chapter, there’s always another edition, there’s always another revision. So we grant others the chance we want ourselves—the chance to finally get it right. Gerry told me he used to agonize over his stories that had been published in literary magazines—he’d read them over and over and beat himself up over typos or mistakes or stilted dialogue or endings he wished he’d rewritten—until he realized that the publication was just one more stage in the process. “I can fix it before the book comes out,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.” And he was right. We can endlessly revise our stories and our lives.

And I don’t think death ends that process of revision, that chance for redemption. Gerry won’t be continuing Leo Spivak’s story here on earth, but Leo’s story—like Gerry’s, like mine and yours—will continue because there’s an infinite chance for another story, another chapter, another chance for forgiveness. (And yes, Gerry often commented on my habit of repetition—“Kate, you have a way of repeating words and phrases over and over—it works sometimes, but sometimes it really doesn’t. Keep an eye on that.”)

So Gerry’s friends will continue his work—his fellow writers, his students, and of course the wonderful writer and teacher Judith Slater, his wife—and we will write that next chapter, we will write that next story. And others will follow us when we leave our own work unfinished. And all of us—and the characters we create—will continue to make mistakes and do bad things to good people and hope to forgive and be forgiven for our imperfections. But for now we will miss you Gerry. . . thank you.

While I was entrenched in myriad everyday tasks having absolutely nothing to do with writing, a copy of the Fall 2010 Louisville Review arrived in my mailbox and reminded me that there are delights in the world other than the daily chores of living and making sure I get enough fiber in my diet.

This issue of Louisville Review includes Chapter 7 of My Brief History of Sex Education, which I cleverly re-titled “The Integrity Test,” and of course I won’t let on what happens in this excerpt other than saying there is such a thing as an Integrity Test with multiple choice questions you answer by filling in dots with a No. 2 pencil and I did have to take one way back when. Whether I passed or not is for you to discover on your own. (FYI, the Vegas oddsmakers put my chances at 6 to 1 against).

While it may seem odd for me to publish chapters here and there before publishing the book itself, it’s actually pretty standard in the small world of literary publishing and it also worked pretty well for Charles Dickens a long time ago so I figure it’s okay. Not that I’m comparing myself to Charles Dickens, if only because my entire book is about the length of one chapter in David Copperfield and I don’t have nearly as many cliff-hanger endings. 

But seeing another portion of the book published made me feel a little better about my chances at getting the entire manuscript in print all at once, and it also put me in the mind of how often we only remember the bits and pieces of things rather than remembering the whole.

When my friend Holly read a chapter I’d published in the magazine Prairie Schooner, “Method Acting,” she remarked that it was amazing I’d remembered so much because her memories of high school were “sketchy at best.” But aren’t all of our memories sketchy and it’s just that I remember sketches she’d forgotten? I might remember school plays and band concerts and first dates gone horribly awry because I was intimately involved, but don’t ask me if or when the basketball team went to the state championships or who any of the prom queens were or what the art or home ec or history teachers were like because I flat out cannot tell you. And it’s not because I don’t think that stuff is important, because I know that in high school everything is important to someone, even if what was important for someone else was spending as little time as possible in school and being done with it as soon as possible. Memories aren’t always good.

Sculpture by my friend Reynard Rochon–he calls it “Alone in My Room.” I call it “How Memory Becomes Art.”

But back to the bits and pieces—isn’t that how our memories are formed in the first place? Except for frat boys knowing verbatim all the words to Animal House and Caddyshack, don’t most of us remember only parts of what we wholly love? We remember scenes from movies, images from books, how a painting makes us feel rather than each individual brush stroke. And it’s the whole, complete feelings that those individual details leave us with that is so important, isn’t it? So below I will honor the memorable sections of songs, in part because music is the undercurrent running through My Brief History of Sex Education, and in part because I suspect music is the undercurrent of life (or perhaps the big raging river) for most all of us.

And since I think we all know and love the obvious—like the bottom end of White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” or the Emergency Broadcast System intro for the Breeders’ “Last Splash” or the first pounding piano chords of the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall that told you not only was the incomparable Nicky Hopkins still alive but that real rock and roll might have survived the eighties after all–here are some that might be new for you. And yes all of these are relatively old songs, but if I used current ones how would that really test the theory that they’re memorable? Give me a little credit.

The Pretenders, “Middle of the Road”

The 5-second vicious purr Chryssie Hynde spurts out before her harmonica solo (3:21). And yes, she can do it live too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsnMFfMmV8I

ELO, “Do Ya” 

You’d think Jeff Lynne, with all his over-the-top orchestrations, might be a sedate guy, but there’s a lot of great growl in ELO songs, and my favorite part of my favorite ELO song is where he sings “Aw. . . look out. . . ” (3:25) and so the song ends. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bci283mfNs

Steve Miller Band, “Take the Money and Run”

The handclaps (0:35 and 1:16). I am a big fan of the use of handclaps, and these are my favorite post-Motown, post-Beatle, but I’d love more input if you have suggestions!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZwLsvO6YTw

Crosby Stills & Nash “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” 

Where Stephen Stills sings “Can I tell it like it is. . .” (at 3:40). The song is so long, there’s no way you’d keep on listening if he didn’t break it open halfway through and he sure does it well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4FNqNTfc18

Maria McKee, “Sweet Relief”

The crystal-clear “wooo” Maria McKee sings at the end of this great Victoria Williams song (2:26). Maria can do joy like no one else.

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=maria+mckee+sweet+relief&aq=f

Harry Nilsson, “Jump Into the Fire” 

As you may already know, as a young child I imprinted on Harry Nilsson like a baby duck to its mama, so he has to be here—beginning with the drum solo, a bass line that digs so low I’m pretty sure only elephants can hear the rumble, and then, um yeah, everything else that follows (3:58) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySsnE3aB36I

I’d love to hear your own suggestions of what I’m sure I’ve missed. . . and in the meantime go way, way, way down to the bottom of my blog and subscribe. Facebook is becoming passé and it’s the only way I reach most of you; trust me when I say you don’t want to miss a thing.

My ticket along with my daughter Emily’s sketches of Ringo that she made during the concert.

I have been a little depressed about the progress of the revisions for my memoir, A Brief History of Sex Education, mainly because I haven’t done much of anything except change the title to My Brief History of Sex Education, and that revision wasn’t even my idea but was instead suggested by a friend of mine who, as an editor, is right in predicting that the old title would cause too many people to think the book is a manual of some sort with ink-drawn diagrams and footnotes. Caught as I am in the malaise of the work I have yet to begin, I headed out to the Hatch Shell in Boston last night to see Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band so as to cheer myself up. I confess Ringo is not my favorite Beatle (and yes I think it’s important to have a favorite Beatle just like I think it’s important to admit which character from Peanuts you most identify with and whether you fall into the creamy peanut butter camp or the crunchy). Though I did play Snoopy in my middle school production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, my brain works more like Linus, I’d rather eat creamed spinach and jam on toast than touch my lips to crunchy pb, and my heart has always belonged to George Harrison.

I could write volumes about why, but what’s more important is that just like some of my best friends have been Lucys and Snoopys and Charlie Browns, of course I have a soft spot for all Beatles, particularly Ringo. Let’s be honest—is there anyone who dislikes Ringo? Is that even possible? And particularly when you’re a little depressed, George “While-My-Guitar-Gently-Weeps” Harrison is not necessarily where you should turn for a pick-me-up. Ringo Starr on the other hand? The perfect natural Prozac.

For those who’ve never seen Ringo in this incarnation, his All Starr Band is an ever-changing hodgepodge collection of musicians and singer-songwriters who all have had some form of a heydey sometime over the past several decades. The concert is made up of a mix of Ringo’s Beatles songs, Ringo’s own songs, and a few of the hit songs pulled from the grab bag each band member brings with him into the mix.

Ringo at the Hatch Shell, June 29, 2010

I saw the concert as a rock and pop memoir of sorts, a mixed-tape of music in which I saw my own life and my own history, a history in which music has played an integral part. And isn’t music the soundtrack for all of us? Everywhere we go—bar, supermarket, home, car—I suspect most of you will connect with this playlist as well, in some form or other.

Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band, Hatch Shell (Bank of America Pavilion),Boston, MA, June 29, 2010

Stage 1: the early years

“Boys” from the Beatles’ first album Please Please Me

When Ringo began singing all I could think was I was seeing a Beatle! And he was singing a Beatles song! The Beatles were the first band I remember hearing on the radio; I was four and my family had just moved into a little house tucked behind Christmas Island Resort on Weirs Boulevard in Laconia, NH. My mother cleaned rooms at Christmas Island to help pay the rent and I spent days with her as she worked either at Christmas Island or at home, listening to WEMJ all day—1490 on your AM dial. It was in the midst of hearing the Beatles sing “Please Mr. Postman” that it clicked—those words they sang were telling me a story, and I began to understand every pop song told a story if you just listened hard enough. Last night, when the band laid into those first jangly chords of “Boys,” and I thought of all those mono AM pop songs mom basically raised me on, I almost burst into tears. If I’d had on a sleeveless Jackie O. dress, my hair teased into a bouffant, I could have fit right into the audience of the Ed Sullivan show way back in ’64.

Stage 2: adolescence

“Rock and Roll Hootchie Coo,” Rick Derringer

“Frankenstein,” Edgar Winter

“Free Ride” Winter and Derringer both

In middle school I owned few record albums and so gave a good part of my adolescent angst over to Manchester’s radio station Rock 101 and their weekend rock blocks. I rarely knew who any of these bands were, but they all provided the essential element of music that adolescence requires—intense and throbbing bass and drums layered beneath a primal scream of vocals and lead guitar—which must, absolutely must, be played so loudly that you feel as if the music is actually coming from inside your body, from the depths of your brain, because your brain and body, like the music, is also thrumming with yearning, confusion, and nameless desire. How do I recall these feelings so clearly? Rick Derringer and Edgar Winter reminded me of them just last night when they ripped into “Frankenstein” “Free Ride” and “Rock and Roll Hootchie Coo” (a song you can sing just from reading this title I’m sure).

Stage 3: high school

“Kyrie” and “Broken Wings,” Richard Page of Mr. Mister

I went to high school in the eighties, and I loved to hate bands like Mr. Mister, I loved to hate Phil Collins, and I loved, loved, loved to hate Madonna. I skipped from classic rock straight to punk and alternative and I was an insufferable snob. . . I have all the record reviews I wrote for the high school newspaper to prove it. But secretly I was a sucker for a good pop song with soaring vocals or at the very least a beat that was easy to dance to—I may have hated Mr. Mister and Madonna but you can be sure I got up to dance whenever I heard them over the sound system during teen nights at the Station in  Meredith and Club 777 in Manchester. (Though to this day I am still amazed I used to drive an hour to Club 777 in Manchester so my friends and I could dance in that tiny, smelly club and ignore getting hit on by boys who were way too old for us—were we having fun? I honestly don’t know). But I give kudos to Richard Page, not only for writing those classic Mr. Mister songs but also for being in excellent voice last night as he sang them with the band. “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” are not songs that would be kind to any vocalist not on the top of his game, and Page sounded great. I’m sure I sounded almost as good as I sang along, because despite my snobbery I knew every word.

Stage 4: college

“What I Like About You” Wally Palmer of the Romantics

“Dream Weaver” Gary Wright

In college I worked four years as a DJ for my school’s radio station where I lost a great deal of the snobbery mentioned above, if only because playing for (and pleasing) a crowd larger than the one in your own bedroom involved a bit of give and take, especially if the radio station encourages the granting of requests. This also helped when I became the roommate responsible for making mixed tapes for parties. My favorite tape included “What I Like About You,” and it never failed to produce an instantaneous (and only slightly alcohol-fueled) cheer as well as spontaneous pogo-dancing, especially during Palmer’s knock-yer-socks-off harmonica solo, which he admirably performed last night. And yes, last night I did do the pogo. . .

All I can say about “Dream Weaver” is that every time I hear it, I think “Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World,” because “Dream Weaver” is what Garth hears in his head when he sees the beautiful waitress at Stan Mikita’s donut shop. That probably sounds kind of mean, but I bet it doesn’t bother Gary Wright at all. It’s still a beautiful song and whenever Gary Wright hears “Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World,” I bet the next thing he thinks is “Ka-ching, Ka-ching.”

Gary Wright, we are not worthy, but you are welcome anyway.

Stage 5:  the here and now of singing out of tune, dancing out of time, living life as it is

“Photograph”

“With a Little Help from My Friends”

When Ringo came down to center stage to sing “A Little Help from My Friends” and “Photograph” (one of my absolute favorite Beatle songs, and not just because he cowrote it with my favorite Mr. Harrison) what can I say that I haven’t already said? Music is stronger at triggering memories than even the taste of Proust’s madeleines, the scent of the ocean, a picture posted on Facebook of an old grade school friend. The musicians themselves—Ringo and his charmingly out-of-tune vocals and that strange inability to dance that is the curse of all rock n’ roll drummers, plus all of those hitmakers he assembled whose sunglasses could only hide so much how slightly aged and bedraggled they were—still could speak to us and speak for us, or rather sing in a most delightful way. It’s a day later, and I’m still stymied by my manuscript—work is hard, especially the kind that involves a very delayed gratification—but  even though George remains my favorite Beatle, I’ll take some inspiration from Ringo. I too plan to spend more time singing just a little out of tune and dancing with complete abandon to my own random and haphazard beat, because I believe, like he does, that you can get by with all that help from your friends.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MubU8qHutY&feature=related