vodka flavored vodka

“Do you have any vodka flavored vodka?”

I ask this of the kid sweeping the floor in the liquor store. He shrugs, points to the bottom shelf and a gallon of something called Vat o’ Vodka.  At least that’s what I think it says. The label is written in Russian.
I scan the shelves. There’s cake vodka, coconut vodka, strawberry, blueberry and every berry flavored vodka. There’s mint and peach and green apple and whipped cream and chocolate. 

Maybe it should be the other way around. Supermarket shelves lined with vodka flavored pie fillings.

“What do people do with this stuff?” I ask the kid.
“Make martinis.”

Oh, the modern martini. I’ve seen these on restaurant menus. I always think I’m reading the dessert menu and it turns out they are drink selections.  Chocolate velvet martini. Orange cream martini. Cherry Cheesecake martini.

“Those things are not martinis,” I tell the kid, who seems to care more about the dirt on the floor than my vodka anger. “First of all, a real martini is made with gin….” I barely start my rant before the kid mutters an apology about having to sweep the back room. He leaves and I’m thinking he’s heard this rant before.
“Bored housewives at Tupperware parties,” says the lady next to me. She’s holding a bottle of Maker’s Mark.
“People still have Tupperware parties?” I ask, incredulous.
“Well, that’s what they call them anyway. Just excuses to get together and get drunk on vodka that tastes like Skittles. I mean, if you’re gonna drink to get drunk, drink something that burns going down.”
I like this lady.

I finally find a nice, expensive bottle of vodka flavored vodka – a birthday present for my father, who would never in his life drink any alcohol that tastes like pink lemonade – and I spy next to it the vodka that sends me over the edge.

Peanut Butter and Jelly.

I think, Ok. I’ve had enough. You people don’t deserve vodka anymore. I’m taking it all away from you. I envision myself as Jesus in the temple, wiping the tables clean as he chastises the money changers.  I have a quick fantasy about knocking every bottle off the shelf, spitting out their names as they fall to the floor. Cupcake! Bacon! Bubblegum!

I may not drink a lot of vodka and, sure, straight up vodka turns me into a raging asshole, but I still have a weird place in my heart for good, old fashioned, let’s get plastered because life sucks alcohol. If you would have told me twenty years ago that a regular bottle of vodka flavored vodka would have to be labeled “classic vodka” so as not to confuse it with the banana or coffee or sandwich flavored vodka I would have laughed. Seriously. My laugh would have sounded like “Hahaha  ha nobody is going to drink peanut butter flavored vodka you fools, vodka is serious!”

Who drinks Peanut Butter and Jelly Vodka?? I’ll tell you who. People who think martinis have flavors. Those are not martinis you are drinking. They are drinks, yes. They come in martini glasses, yes. But a martini glass does not a martini make. A martini does not have the flavor of apples or chocolate or blueberry. Martinis taste like life;  bitter. Because they are made with gin. And gin is the chosen drink of the bitter.

I used to drink martinis. Well, I started out drinking martinis. Gin, vermouth, olives. As time went on and my drinking became more, shall we say, intense, the recipe changed a little until I perfected it: 

1 bottle gin
1 bottle vermouth
1 jar olives
1 martini glass

Open vermouth, pour contents down the sink. Stare at martini glass, wondering why you are even going to bother pretending like you are drinking for fun. Put glass back. Open gin. Drink from bottle, coming up for breath about every ten seconds until bottle is empty. Slam bottle on counter, open olives. Put olive on each finger and hold up hands, shouting “Look, olive mittens!” Pass out on kitchen floor.

That’s a martini. That’s a drink.

You do not drink peanut butter and jelly. You eat it. You make a sandwich and take the crusts off and pretend you are in fourth grade and life is simple once again. You don’t mix it with alcohol, put it in a martini glass and stick an umbrella in it.  

I’m just afraid of where this is going. How soon before the people drinking cake flavored vodka want something else? How soon before they come for the whiskey and Maker’s Mark teams up with Betty Crocker to present a German Chocolate Cake Bourbon and it suddenly becomes the drink du jour to serve at Tupperware parties?

I know. I have no right to tell you what to drink or what not drink. If you’re enjoying it, it’s all good. Go enjoy your sea salt caramel martini. I can still choose to be outraged about the co-opting of the good name of vodka, a fine, upstanding alcohol usually paired with fistfights and public arguments about your relationship status, not cake batter.

#

I’m back in the liquor store, just looking for a bottle of wine for my mother. Parents who drink make it so easy to buy birthday presents. I see the sweeping kid, still sweeping away.

He spots me, looks up, points to the top shelf.
“Vodka flavored vodka,” he says.

I buy a bottle, even though I don’t need it.

Just doing my part in the war against flavored vodkas.

 

 

Last Days, Last Days

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Sometimes you find yourself longing for something different – something off the ordinary path. This is especially true with music: you go through your iPod and you hit skip on the shuffle more often than not, thinking “there’s got to be something different out there.”

And then you find it. An album so eclectic, so far off the beaten path you don’t know what to make of it at first. So you listen again and again, hearing something different each time, finding a different song to love upon each listen.

That’s what you get from Last Days, Last Days, the new release from Florida husband/wife duo Another Cultural Landslide.  Subtitled “15 or 16 Songs About Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, Despair, Anger & Alienation. Y’know – Happy Stuff,” Last Days is an album that borders on the indescribable: there are so many musical styles within, so many different subject tackled, riffs explored, rhythms detected, ranges reached that you don’t know what to make of this album at first. And then you find the thread.

Oh, there are things like despair and dejection throughout, but that’s not the thread: the thread is in how each song is separate and distinct from the next, yet they all speak to you with a deep emotion; there’s no filler here. Each track elicits from you a response, a need to hear it again to bring up the full range of emotion it affords you.

Listen to “Not Enough Bullets on YouTube

While a song like “Not Enough Bullets” is worlds apart from, say, the bitter dance rhythms of “Old,” there’s still a connection that exists between those worlds.  It’s a long walk from the world of one song to the next, but one you’ll want to take, precarious as it is.

From “Looking for Answers” to “You Think I’m Small” to the lilting, shattering closer “And a 21st Century Lullaby” you’ll travel from world to world with a sense of wonderment and awe.  How can so many styles fit so snugly onto one recording? You might as well be asking the age old question about angels dancing on the head of a pin. It requires no answer, just a lot of thought.

But be prepared to think deep with this one, to have your fears and hopes laid bare in front of you. Be prepared to be taken aback. Be prepared to not understand what you’re hearing the first time through. Most of all, be prepared to want to hear each song again, finding the one thing that tugs on you within each, bringing you back for more.

Last Days, Last Days is not a tale for the weak, nor is it music for the weak-minded. Bring your open mind, bring your doubts about the state of the universe.  Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, in the best of ways.

website: Another Cultural Landslide
Spotify

35 Years Of Rumours: A Personal Retrospective On Fleetwood Mac’s Iconic Album

I’m fourteen years old and I have two albums sitting on my bedroom floor. It’s winter, maybe late February. There’s a heavy snow falling, enough snow to send most fourteen year olds outside to do stupid things like attach themselves to car bumpers so they can slide down the slick streets.  Not me. I’ve opted to stay in and study. Not schoolwork. I was never the kind to study for school on a Friday night. I’m studying music.

Rumours 

On my right side is Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, an album I’d been listening to non-stop since Christmas. On my left is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, an album I’ve yet to put on my turntable. It was a gift from my grandfather, who knew someone who knew someone at a record label who gave it to him to “give to that granddaughter of yours that likes music.”  That’s me.

I’m into rock and roll. I’m into deep lyrics about stairways to heaven and hobbits. I’m into noisy guitars and the high pitched wails of Robert Plant. I’m not into whatever this Fleetwood Mac group is selling me.  That’s for people who like pop music. Not for rockers like me.

But something compels me to give it a try. What can it hurt? No one is around. None of my friends will know that I’m sitting here listening to what is ostensibly a top 40 album while I’m supposed to be rocking the hell out.

So I drop the album on the turntable. Lower the needle. I get through the first side unscathed, hardly taken in by the pop sensibilities and jangly beats. I’m about to give up and turn back to Jimmy Page and my air guitar when I decide to flip the album and keep trying. “The Chain” starts up.

I’m mesmerized.

There’s something about the song that reveals all the layers beneath the surface of what I thought was just another radio friendly album by a band I’d never admit to liking.  I listen to “The Chain” three more times before going back to the first side. I start the album over and listen with a better understanding of what I’m actually listening to.

I think about all those articles about Fleetwood Mac in Creem magazine and all those other rock rags I read. I dig through stacks of saved magazines and look for pieces on the band. I want to know their history. I want to know their lives.

After five listens of Rumours, it seems I do know their lives. They are lives of complications, of heartbreak and pessimism but of love and optimism. So many complex feelings, so many things that at fourteen I’m struggling to understand yet so many feelings that are vaguely familiar, having seen adults in my own life go through breakups and reconciliations.

And my god, that bass line on ‘The Chain.” Even beyond the words, those precious few notes speak to me of a  certain darkness. The last minute and fifteen seconds of the song encompass everything the members of Fleetwood Mac were trying to tell me about life and love and loss and misery.

Trust no one. Everything is a lie.

The stories unfolding in front of me while listening to Rumours are far removed from hobbits and heaven. There’s a level of profundity that’s a startling revelation to a fourteen year old.  Music nowhere near the simplistic pop I thought I would find on the album? Another revelation. Rumours is  just a different version of rock and roll, I think.  A more complex, intricate and even intimate version.

It wasn’t until many years later that I fully understood the process behind the making of Rumours and everything that led up to it. The breakups, the drugs, the romantic entanglements and estrangements, they all served a purpose in creating what is truly one of the greatest albums ever made.

The 35th anniversary reissue contains three discs encompassing the original album, twelve unreleased tracks and B-sides, acoustics, demos and instrumentals. Very few albums in history are worth this kind of attention 35 years after their inception.  If such lavish attention all these years later keeps Rumours alive, so be it. Let every generation discover and ingest what I took in at fourteen, with the benefit of having the whole story at hand.

Stay Gold

I don’t know how or why the rivalry started. I was born into it. By the time I was eleven or so, I knew that the kids from the next town were bad, bad children and I should never associate with them. I heard this not from my parents, who remained completely unaware of the rivalry, but from the older siblings of my peers, who regaled us with stories of a rivalry so intense that I often imagined it would escalate into a bloody battle that would make headline news around the world. We’re talking Sharks and Jets. Crips and Bloods. Yankees and Red Sox.

During the school months, the battle between towns was nearly dormant. Sure, we made fun of their school, their football team, their mascot, their heritage, their mothers. We made up songs about them and carved nasty rumors about them into telephone poles. They, in turn, did the same to us.

Our towns were separated by a two lane main road. The north side of the road was ours. The south side, theirs. We often straddled the yellow line that cut the road in half, just for the shits and giggles of being in two towns at once. Hey, this was the suburbs, 1970′s. Entertainment was not easy to find.

On the south side of that road was a 7-11. Unlike today, where there’s a 7-11 on practically every block, there was just a lone store back then. And we had to cross into the rival town to patronize it. Sure, we had Carl’s candy store. And Murray’s. But Carl didn’t have the array of candy that 7-11 did. And Murray had a vicious German shepherd in his store that left teeth marks in the candy. Besides, 7-11 was huge in comparison to the mom and pop stores. The huger the store, the harder it was to watch over. Which meant more opportunity for five-finger discounts.

Every once in a while, we would run into some of our rivals in the 7-11, especially during the summer when Slurpees were at a premium. Dirty looks would be exchanged. Stares would be met with icier stares. There might be a silent stand off. Someone might utter a whispered insult. There would be no scuffle, no yelling, no fight. Just a chilled silence coupled with the affected stares of middle class kids who weren’t sure how to get a rivalry past the insult stage and into gang war territory. Or maybe we just liked it the way it was.

Things finally came to a head in the summer of ’75. It started in June at, of course, 7-11, when I ran into Sissy Smith at the Slurpee machine. Sissy was the youngest in a family of five kids. She was the only girl. Her brothers had a reputation for being tough, mean and criminally insane. When we talked of bad kids, we talked of the Smiths. They were the ringleaders of every near-fight that almost took place. It was said that the oldest boy, Steven, was in jail, and that the three younger boys had all seen the inside of the juvie hall. They were legend. Sissy herself was two years younger and about three inches shorter than me. I wasn’t exactly a giant, so Sissy’s small stature (this was the first time I was up that close to her) surprised me. I had heard so much about this rough-and-tumble girl; I knew some older sisters of friends that were terrified of her. It was all in her demeanor and her voice. Sissy carried herself as if she were six feet tall and made of body armor. Her voice was thick, raspy and deep and you may think that would sound funny coming out of a tiny eleven year old, but Sissy, with her dark, short-cropped hair and permanently scowling mouth knew how to work that voice so that when she spoke to you, she was indeed six feet tall and made of body armor.

I’m not sure of the exact sequence of events that occurred that June afternoon. I just know that it involved me, several of the boys I was with and a perceived slight towards Sissy, and it culminated with the lot of us running out of 7-11 as if being chased by fire. We crossed the two lanes without looking both ways and only looked back at the store when we had safely made onto our side of the street. Sissy and two of her brothers were standing outside the store, emitting a string of curse words I had previously only heard uttered by large, hairy men at fire department picnics. A sense of doom fell over me. I had this vision of my entire summer ruined, months of relentless heat that would not be washed away with Slurpees. I was never venturing into that town again.

Word of the clash traveled quickly. An non-existent exchange of words by the Slurpee machine was run through the machinations of teenage rumors. It became warped, stretched out, magnified and distorted until that one small instance became the shout heard ’round the towns. War was declared. It was going to be a long, hot summer.

Perhaps we were the product of suburban boredom. Or perhaps we had all read The Outsiders one too many times. Either way, we had quietly assumed the role of gang. We were no longer a group of friends, a gathering of kids, not even a clique. We were a gang. And we were going to have a gang fight. No, not just a gang fight. A rumble. Yea, just like in The Outsiders.

Now that we were tough gang members, we had to act it. We roamed the streets at night in packs, looking menacing and furious. We said mean things about cops. We loitered where it clearly stated NO LOITERING. We played handball against the wall that had NO BALL PLAYING spray painted across its surface. We went into the school yard after sundown. We were bad.

Two of the Smith boys met with a few of our older gang members to iron out the details of our rumble. At first, it was going to take place the first Saturday in July, but a few people couldn’t make it because their families would be on vacation that week. It was moved to the following Thursday, but that was nixed because too many kids were going to summer school and had early curfews during the week. Finally, after much haggling and checking of family calendars, it was decided that we would rumble the second Saturday in August.

As the summer days went by, we busied ourselves by playing Kick the Can, swimming and practicing our loitering skills. We talked about the rumble only when a safe distance away from family members, especially younger siblings. When talk turned to weapons, I got nervous. I knew what happened to Dally in The Outsiders. Which one of my friends would be the one to die? Which one would have to choke out the words stay gold, Ponyboy? I was all ready to get melodramatic and put a stop this tragedy waiting to happen. Scenes from West Side Story ran through my mind but in some odd way I thought it would be really cool to break out into song while one of my teenage friends lay in a pool of blood while his brokenhearted girlfriend from the other side of the tracks looked on and oh, the heartbreak! The drama! Then leaf subsides to leaf/So Eden sank to grief/So dawn goes down today/Nothing gold can stay.

Ed slapped me across the head. Hello? You paying attention? I snapped out of my dramatic reverie. They were asking if I could steal a lead pipe from my father’s work yard. Sure, sure. No problem. Lead pipe. I never gave it another thought. I knew even then, despite my warped musical fantasies, that this rumble was never going to happen. We were chicken shit. All of us. We were middle class, suburban kids looking for some excitement. The excitement, of course, was in the talking about it, not in the doing. Who needs that anti-climax? The summer would just sail by if we spent every night getting worked up about hiding lead pipes in the sump. The anticipation of this would see us through right through August.

The day of the big rumble finally arrived. We met at the playground early that morning to map out our battle plan. But Ed showed up with a bag full of fireworks that he found in the bushes behind his garage and we spent most of the morning trying to light them off. They were all duds, made impotent by days of rain. The abject disappointment of not being able to scare the neighbors with early morning firecrackers put a damper on our spirit. We kicked some rocks around, played a game of handball and headed to my house for an early afternoon swim, forgetting all about our gang plan. Our plans wouldn’t have mattered, anyhow. We were the little kids of the gang. The real meat of the gang, the high school kids, had a last minute meeting scheduled with the Smith boys. While we were playing Marco Polo and eating PB&Js provided by my mother, they were hammering out rules for the rumble.

Finally, darkness descended and we met in front of Ed’s house as planned. I had forgotten the lead pipe, maybe on purpose, but no one asked about it, anyhow. We walked as one towards the sump. Our hearts were racing, our adrenaline pumping, our fear meter ramped up just a bit because, for all our posturing about being rough and tough gang members, we were scared shitless. Still, I couldn’t help but grin a little bit as I quietly hummed “Tonight” on our way to the fight.

We arrived at the sump expecting to see a crowd of people climbing through the hole in the fence. But there was no one. No rival kids in sight. No one but Ed, sitting on the curb drinking a soda. Apparently, the fight was off. Again. The other kids wanted to change the venue to their terrority. Our guys wanted it here. They almost decided on a neutral site in another town, but no one felt like walking all the way over there. So the fight was off. Again. Disappointed but slightly relieved, we headed back to my house and played Kick the Can until our curfews were up.

Two weeks later, the big end of summer event arrived. The local church fair, with its Ferris wheel and zeppoles and gambling tables, signified the coming of another school year and the end of our lazy days. It was as if the fair put a spell over everything; for five days we’d swim in the epitome of summer, riding the Tilt-a-Whirl, scooping fresh lemon ice out of a cup, begging the grownups to let us into the gambling tent. The noise from the fair could be heard blocks away; I spent many summer nights listening out my window to the DJ spinning Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, the MC calling out the names of raffle winners and the calliope music of the children’s rides until 11pm, when everything would go suddenly silent and dark. And when the Sunday night session ended and the fair went dark not for the night, but for the year, the spell would be broken and mothers across town would wake up with the urge to go back to school shopping.

This particular August I was 13 and finally allowed to stay at the fair until closing. No more listening from my room. I watched the MC hand out prizes and danced to the Doobie Brothers and ate so many zeppoles I could feel the yeast expanding in my stomach. I watched as Ed, after sneaking three cups of beer from the ever running keg, shoved an entire sno-cone into his mouth and then proceeded to puke every color of the rainbow in the football field behind the church.

It was about 10:30 on the last night of the fair when I ran into Sissy Smith. I had exactly one quarter left out of my meager allowance and I knew what I wanted. A pickle. Not just any pickle, but one of those half-sour, half-crunchy pickles that had been sitting in a barrels of garlicky, salty pickle juice for days on end. The kind of pickle you could only get at the farmer’s market, except during fair days, when the farmer’s market guy brought his pickle barrels to us. My mouth watered just thinking about. And now the only thing standing between me and that half-sour was the mean, foul-mouthed, vicious Sissy Smith. Except she wasn’t looking so mean. Her usual scowl was gone and she seemed to be frowning. The fact that she was apparently sad didn’t bother me at all; it was like all air had been sucked out of Sissy’s bully balloon. I felt empowered by her obvious sadness. I could go get my pickle without fear. When I got closer to the pickle guy, I could hear him telling Sissy that the pickles were a quarter, take it or leave it, her dime was of no use to him. His voice had the edge of someone whose patience had run thin; by the time the fair ended all the vendors sounded that way. I approached the counter. Sissy looked me up and down. I ignored her, dug the quarter out of my pocket.

Give me your quarter.
Her raspy voice didn’t have quite the roar in it that it did that day in 7-11.
Uhh..no. 
I said give it to me.
I said…no.
I want a pickle. She frowned.
So do I.

She pouted, then. And I remembered that she was only eleven. Practically a baby. She looked tired and a little bit dirty and I recalled my father telling me about the Smith family and how the parents were hardly every home and the kids would just run amok with no supervision or rules, and that’s why they got into so much trouble. In that moment I saw an eleven year old little kid who was way too young to take part in psuedo gang fights and smoke cigarettes and sneak beers and stay out this late by herself, and I felt instantly bad for her. I handed the pickle guy my quarter.

A half-sour, please. Cut in half?

He cut it in half, fat ways, and smiled at me as he wrapped each half in plastic deli wrap. I handed half to Sissy.

We spent the next half hour in the side alley of the church lot, leaning against the convent wall, eating our pickle and listening to the workers dismantle the rides. Summer was over. So was my stint in the local junior high; I’d be going to the Catholic high school come September. I knew that my days of hanging out with Ed and the gang were pretty much over. And when Gina and Lori, who had been looking for me, finally found me and I was giggling at some joke Sissy just told me and they didn’t gasp or recoil in horror, but sat down, and Gina took out her Marlboros and handed one to Sissy, I knew the rivalry was pretty much over, too.

the paranoia of being

You don’t accept invitations to parties.

Or, you do. But you accept them knowing at the last minute you will find a reason not to go. You say yes knowing you mean no.

Because parties terrify you. Any kind of gathering with more than, say, five people terrifies you.

The thought of walking into a room full of people. The assumption that those people will stare at you, size you up, wonder why you are there among them and decide, silently, that you don’t belong.

The terror of being frozen in a spot, alone, every eye in the room upon you as you try to find a familiar face, someone to talk to you, anyone who appears to offer even a minute respite from the feeling of prey among hunters.

But there will be no one. You are sure of this as solidly as you were sure no one would offer you a seat in the third grade cafeteria and you’d be standing there with lunch tray, waiting, waiting, all eyes upon you as you scanned for a friendly face and found none so you would eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the nurse’s office every day.

You don’t go to parties. You accept the invitation and imagine yourself going. Getting dressed, traveling to the party, building up your confidence as you listen to some empowering music in the car or on the train. You imagine yourself walking into the house or bar. You try to picture yourself having a good time. You try to put yourself in a world in which you talk and are talked to, in which you are greeted and welcomed, in which you have enough self confidence to start a conversation.

But even your imagination is terrified of parties and your social fantasy turns into the usual nightmare of you standing against a wall, nursing a drink that’s supposed to make you feel like you can take part in the festivities and it all falls apart quickly as you sneak out of the room fifteen minutes after you arrived, sure that everyone in the room is talking about your strange entrance and exit.

So you don’t accept invitations to parties. Or you accept them out loud and in your head laugh at the idea that you’ll actually go. You’ll ask the host if you can’t get together some other time, just the two of you, quiet place so you can actually talk. You apologize and say a last minute family thing came up. You come down with a sudden case of food poisoning. You pretend. You pretend like you were ever really going to go to the party. You pretend you’re sorry you can’t attend.

That moment you back out is a sigh of relief, a letting go of expectations and anxiety. You breathe for the first time in days. You make plans with yourself for the evening of the party; a book, a quiet dinner, catching up on a tv show, maybe a glass of wine. You take comfort in your own in company, in the fact that you are a party of one in a comfortable place. There’s nobody staring at you. There’s nobody sizing you up. There’s nobody closing off their conversing group to you.

There’s nobody.

You don’t go to parties.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight: Thoughts About Elton John, Teen Years and Suicide

Elton_John_-_Captain_Fantastic_and_the_Brown_Dirt_Cowboy1975. I was 13 years old, a rebellious fledgling teenager living off the adrenaline of rock and roll. Led Zeppelin. Kiss. Bowie. Pink Floyd. That’s what we were listening to in the converted garages of suburbia, cramped together in the teenage version of clubhouses pretending to be cooler than we actually were. It’s hard to be cool at 13. You still wear a thin veneer of childhood at that age, a softness that belies the affectation you present as you sit there sipping a stolen Rheingold beer while listening to music whose meaning still escapes you.  We liked to believe we were hardcore, the kind of kids who wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day and despite the fact that at 13 we had already perfected the art of rolling a joint we were still soft. When we left the garages we went home and let our guards down. Everyone had their thing they hid from the others, that one thing that might stop you from looking like the juvenile delinquents hopped up on rock and roll we wanted to be seen as. I know Eddie had his Archie & Veronica comic books. Me, I had Elton John.

I had harbored a secret love for Elton since 1973 when “Daniel” entered my heart and “Crocodile Rock” got stuck in my brain. I bought Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player with my allowance thinking it was the epitome of anything Elton John could ever accomplish musically and then later that year Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out and I was blown away. I was eleven then, too young to really get the nuances of the album but old enough to know it was brilliant.

I never told anyone about my Elton John obsession, how I would collect magazine articles about them, cut them out and carefully tape them into a scrapbook dedicated to all things Elton. I had no posters on my wall, no album covers hung as art. I had a hard enough time maintaining friends as it was; my loose circuit of garage rock kids was just a bunch of superficial friendships held together by Robert Plant and the lure of getting high while discussing the meaning of “Stairway to Heaven.” I couldn’t let what few friends I had know I was secretly the biggest Elton John fan on Long Island.

And then came “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” My mother took me to the store to buy it the day it came out. I spent the ride home from the store gawking at the album cover, studying it. When I got home I intended to listen, as I always listened to new albums, from start to finish. But I got stuck on the last song on the first side: “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”

There are few songs that catch you like that on the first hearing, songs that sound immediately familiar, songs that feel like they were meant to live inside you. I had no idea what the song was really about and that didn’t matter. I knew what it felt like to me. I had no idea of the emotions that had been bottled up inside me but the cork had been pulled out and everything came rushing at me. What does a 13 year old know what to do with such a rush of feelings? Nothing but cry. So I sat there listening to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” over and over again, letting the rush of sadness, loneliness and darkness work itself out of me. I had no idea why Elton John’s life needed to be saved or what events led him to the point of writing that song or what it meant to him, I only knew how the music, the pain within transferred to my own psyche and forced out things I’d been feeling but could never articulate.

At first I didn’t know if I was crying for Elton John’s despair or for mine. Hell, I didn’t even know what despair was at that age. It was just a feeling I had no words for, a weighing down of my soul that kept me from being truly happy. And here was Elton, so obviously unhappy with things in his life. Was he fleeing from the thing that made him unhappy or was he fleeing from his unhappiness in general? I dug deep into the words, trying to decipher them. The thought of him walking head on into the deep end of the river filled me with dread yet at the same time I thought about how freeing that would be, to just slip into the water and let it take me.

Elton John had given me this: my first real thought of suicide. It both frightened me and gave me a sense of elation. To be free of everything, free of the constant struggle to fit in, the loneliness I felt even when in a room full of people seemingly just like me, the constraints of the cloak of invisibility I seemed to wear all the time. What if I didn’t want to do this anymore? What if this was all there was, a life long fight to be heard, seen, acknowledged and liked? Wouldn’t it just be better to walk into the deep end of the river now and not have to struggle through countless years of having my heart and soul crushed on a daily basis?

I listened to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” for most of that evening, writing down a few words in a journal I kept tucked away with my Elton John albums. I knew I’d never have the guts to kill myself. But I also knew my first time thinking about it would not be my last. And there was some small comfort in the fact that this musician I idolized shared what felt like a sacred moment with me; that moment when you think maybe enough is enough. I thought about how many other people in the world have felt like ending it all and how many actually did it. It was a sobering thought and I pushed myself into thinking that it could get better, it would get better. After all, Elton John walked away from that river and freed himself from his unhappiness. If he could do it, so could I.

The next day I bought an Elton John t-shirt, one with the cover of Captain Fantastic ironed on to it. Coming out to those garage friends as an Elton John fan was my way of freeing myself from a part of my darkness. Here I am, I was saying. This is me. Take it or leave it. Whether I was really saying  that to myself or to them, I still don’t know. I just know that 40 listens of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” pushed me into a new phase of my life. Because suddenly all my friends seemed like little kids, just a bunch of punks sitting in an overgrown clubhouse arguing over KISS lyrics. I wanted to shout at them “I thought about killing myself last night,” but I didn’t because they wouldn’t understand. I wanted to sit them down and make them listen to the song a dozen times or so until they got something out of it but I didn’t because they wouldn’t understand. I wanted to tell them about me, about my feelings, about my inadequacy. But I didn’t because they wouldn’t understand.

So I went home and listened to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirty Cowboy again because Elton John understood.

Laboring vs. Labor of Love: On Writing For Views And Validation

I’ve written for page views. I’ve written for hearts and reblogs. And while they are two very different things – the page views were for money, for being published as a music writer and the hearts and reblogs were for personal content – they were really very much the same thing. They were all a form of validation that kept me from enjoying the craft of writing to its fullest.

Over at Forbes I wrote about music several times a week. I’d obsessively check the stats each day, doing the proper multiplication to see how much I’d be paid according to how many readers I brought in. It wasn’t so much about the payment as it was about it that number. It was a curse that I could see exactly how many people were reading my story or at least giving it a cursory glance. I’d fixate on the number, checking it daily at first then several times a day then hourly. I never rested after hitting publish. I never sat back and said “That was a good piece I wrote.” I waited to check the stats and let those stats tell me if it was good or not. My confidence as a music writer rode the wave of readership. Up, down, up, down. I was soaring. I sucked. My writing suffered as such. I was writing as if I were on stage. And while all published writing is more or less done on a stage, sometimes it’s better when you can’t see the size of the audience. It’s better to just know the audience is out there without counting heads.

It’s the same at tumblr. The validation. I write something at 3am, some heartfelt thing about my depression or a 1,000 word ode to a favorite band and I wait. I wait to see if anyone likes it. I don’t write for anyone but myself, I say. I write at tumblr to practice writing every day. I write to get out out feelings. I write to share. But then I refresh the page and there are people who pressed a little button to let me know they liked what I wrote or at least took the time to let me know they saw it. Sometimes someone reblogs it and then other people I don’t even know put that heart on it and I feel if not necessarily validated, at least acknowledged. I don’t count up the numbers like I did at Forbes but I do agonize over those numbers sometimes, equating the heart total with a summary review of my writing.

Then a weird thing happened. I was published in other places where I wasn’t privy to the page views or readership. Where I was just published and that was it. My piece was finished, edited, put out there for consumption and I had no relationship with any numbers associated with that piece. And guess what? Those are my favorite pieces of writing. They are the ones that caused me no second guessing, no angst, no wondering if I turned a phrase the right way. Because I couldn’t see the views or lack thereof, I had no way of knowing how many people liked it and thus I remained as  satisfied with the writing as I was the moment it was published.

I left Forbes for several reasons but one of the main reasons was that it was killing the spirit of my writing, if not my love for the craft. Writing to reach a plateau that is about numbers is almost sinful; it feels dirty and wrong, like the very act of doing sullies whatever words were put down on the page. It’s writing for the wrong reasons. For as long as I have wanted to be a writer – and that’s about 40 long years – there was never any part of that dream that included obsessively checking a page of statistics and judging my self worth by the numbers within. I always wrote for the sheer pleasure of it, from putting that first word down to finishing the final edit, writing has always been a labor of love. Recently, it had become just a labor.

So here I am back at my old domain, the one where I started writing publicly (ok, blogging) in 2001, the one where I started telling my stories to the world. I’m taking the majority of my writing away from tumblr, away from the hearts and reblogs, away from the instant validation. I don’t want to labor anymore. I want to love what I write. I want to love why I write.

There are no stats programs here. There is no like button. I will have no idea how many people will read each post. But I will write and I will learn to love to write again.

[on edit: some of the wording has been changed to reflect the fact that Forbes pays not by page view, but for readers and repeat readers. I just want to note the important distinction]

 

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Music To Dance To Skeletons By: A review of The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me”

I have a weird relationship with the music of The National. Most of the music grips me in places I don’t want to be touched, yet I listen over and over again, letting it not only touch me but embrace me, pull me in close and whisper in my ear. Sometimes it’s ok and I get a certain comfort from it, like somebody sitting quietly next to you, just handing you tissues as you mourn a loss. But sometimes it pushes a button and takes me to a floor I didn’t want to get off on. And I stay there. I stay on that floor with that music, with that awkward arm around me, with emotions that flood my heart and my eyes and I revel in it.

There are some albums more than others that force these feelings upon me. Boxer and Alligator both have the ability to set me on a path that usually ends in tears and a feeling like having your soul poked with a stick repeatedly.

And here is Trouble Will Find Me, an album that took just one listen to surpass both Boxer and Alligator in terms of emotions felt and fists squeezed around my heart.

Make no mistake, it’s not simply a case of lyrics hitting home. No, there’s so much more to the National and especially to Trouble Will Find Me than that. It’s in the tone, in Matt Berninger’s beautiful baritone, in the presentation and arrangement. It’s all put together in carefully constructed layers; a cake made of ingredients you find in your brain at 3am. All this beauty and sadness, all the poignancy and melancholy, crafted so precisely, so perfectly layered you can barely tell one piece of the cake from another, you just devour it without knowing which parts are which and you taste everything at once. You’re smiling, you’re crying, your heart is soaring, your heart is breaking, you want to turn off the record and never listen again and you want to listen to nothing but this forever.

So you listen. And your heart goes one way while your brain goes another. There’s a tug of war between your rational self and your emotional self, part of you just wanting to enjoy the intricate melodies, the lullaby lilt of Berninger’s singing and part of you wanting to just find someone to cling on to and hold tight while you weep and sigh and love and rage.

The best thing about Trouble Will Find Me is the best thing about most of The National’s music; each song is immediately familiar and known, a friend you didn’t know you even had until it knocked on your door and let itself into your world. You pour it a cup of tea and sit there talking about love and loss and fear and anger like you’ve been friends forever. In a way you have. Trouble Will Find Me is a culmination of all your inner thoughts and emotions come to life. That friend you’re having tea with, that song you let into your house and heart is just really a piece of you. The National are best at being familiar, at turning a mirror on you while you listen to their music so you’re never listening alone, there’s always your Demons to hang out with, there’s always the trouble that will find you, knock on your door in the form of album full of salt for your wounds and then offer you a salve for the sting.

If you are your own best friend and your own worst enemy, Trouble Will Find Me is a manifestation of self, something to listen to alone – which is really the way to listen to all of their albums. But you’re never really alone. You share this one with your demons, with your hidden skeletons, with all those 3am ghosts that hover around your bed. And you don’t mind. You don’t mind them coming out because my god, the music is beautiful and heartbreaking, music that needs to be shared, even if it’s with just the other parts of yourself that understand how a simple set of notes strung together can make you feel so much.

I’ve tried to foist The National on others to no avail. Maybe they don’t hear what I do. Maybe they don’t listen for it. Perhaps The National is one of those bands that you have to have a certain mindset to get. To someone else, maybe all the songs sound the same, maybe in a perfect world that voice and these arrangements and the low key cadence shouldn’t work. Maybe if you live in a world that has its share of cracks and sharp edges you can hear it. You can hear it in “I Should Live in Salt” and “Sea of Love” and you can feel it in “Slipped” and “This is the Last Time.” In a perfect world a band like this couldn’t pull off six albums of sounding exactly like the other albums, but in a perfect world we don’t need the comfort of songs that sound like old friends to sit with us while we mourn. In a perfect world, everything sounds like a pop song played on a car stereo on a hot summer evening, but this is not a perfect world and sometimes things need to sound like this, like the world is cracked and peeling and falling apart and the only thing that holds it together is knowing you’re not alone. So you slow dance with your demons and skeletons and ghosts while you listen to Trouble Will Find Me, knowing your cracked world is, in a way, perfect for you and whoever else finds their heart in these songs.