Sunday, May 29, 2011

CONCERT REVIEW: T Model Ford

Last night I learned the secret of healthy living and longevity.

I always wondered how so many of the hard-living, hard-luck folks you see in the beyond-dirt-poor areas of the almost-Third World southern states live so stinkin’ long and through so much.

I mean, haven’t you ever seen that; Photos of really old folks with weathered faces who’ve persevered in life and lived beyond the normal life expectancy despite considerable odds that would’ve done in folks like you and me in White Bread Land before we got out of junior high?

That secret is THA BLUUUUUUUUES.


I went to see blues great T-Model Ford for the third time last night and, as-always, had a life-affirming, spirit-renewing good time.

Never before had I needed a concert so badly. Money blues…job blues…life blues…Everything was adding up and taking its toll. The T-Model Ford blues cured it all. Helped me shake off whatever was weighing on me and keep persevering another day.

And I realized; all of those stories of blues dudes like T-Model Ford playing in little roadside juke joints and house parties…the stories of folks dancing the night away, drinking homemade white whiskey and eating fried catfish…Those aren’t just cool stories that seem foreign to folks like you and me. Those are stories of real life. Perseverance. THA BLUUUUUUUUES.

It’s a story as old as time: Folks work hard all week. Work for the man. Take more crap than they ought to have to. Fret about money. Struggle. Strife. Get by.

And then…Friday comes. You hear about some live music happening…and you think that’s gotta be better than sitting around the house looking at each other and thinking about everything bad that happened in the last week. So you go check it out. And you have a drink. And you enjoy the music. Maybe the drink limbers you up a little and you go from tappin’ your foot to swingin’ that booty.

Before you even realize it, you’re singing along and full-on cuttin’ a rug and don’t give a damn who sees you or what they think about your dancing skillz.

You’re sweaty. Soaked clear through. Smelly. More worn out than you even thought was possible.

But you haven’t given a thought to the troubles of the week in several hours. And now that you try to think about them, you don’t so much see what the big deal was.

And you sleep like a baby that night.

You get up the next morning (or afternoon), clean and refreshed, and able to face the world again for a few more days.

THA BLUUUUUUUUES.


My buddy, Bill, coined a phrase at last night’s concert: “North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy”. That’s what it was; a therapy session with no words (other than what T-Model Ford was singing). An intense work-out. An exorcising of demons. A letting go. A moving on. An inspiration.

T-Model Ford and his peers live in what’s commonly called the North Mississippi Hill Country, an area of the Mississippi Delta. Like much of the Deep South, it’s a poverty stricken area full of hard-working people, working harder than many other folks just to get by.

T-Model Ford thinks he’s 90, but no one can tell for sure. He has 26 children and more grandchildren than he can count. He’s been on the chain gang, in the penitentiary, and in jail “every weekend there for a while”. His dad beat him so badly as a little boy that he ripped one of his testicles off. He’s been married six times. He killed a man in a bar fight. A tree once fell right on top of him. He’s been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He had serious heart issues in his mid-80s. He had a stroke at the age of 88 or so. And not only is he still alive; but he still tours the country, singing THA BLUUUUUUUUES for people like me and you who can scarcely believe that someone like T-Model Ford actually exists.

I’ve been blessed to interview T-Model Ford prior to each of his three concerts at Off-Broadway in St. Louis. I’m beyond blessed that I’ve been able to get to know T-Model and Marty Reinsel (the drummer of the band GravelRoad who takes T out on the road and serves as his touring drummer) and can call them friends.

I entered Off Broadway last night and met up with Marty. We hung out on the sidewalk in front of the club for an hour or so, just visiting. A few older guys walked by, each wearing a T-shirt from a blues festival in a different city, and they joined our conversation. Die-hard North Mississippi Hill Country blues fans are a pretty dedicated – and, unfortunately, very small – bunch, and it’s neat to see the community that naturally takes place between us.

There was an early concert at Off Broadway that night – some independent folky singer-songwriter-type dude – and T-Model Ford sat in the audience and took it in. When he was done, our sidewalk delegation entered the club. I strolled up to T, re-introduced myself and asked if he remembered me. He said he did; but, honestly, with T, you never can tell (about anythang).

We did the interview as the Off Broadway crew took down the chairs that had been set up for the early show, leaving only the ones that T and I were sitting in, along with a small table for T’s ever-present glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.


Once the interview was done, there was quite a bit of time before the opening band for T-Model’s show took the stage. We visited some more and he asked if I was drinkin’. I said I would be and he reached into his pocket to get some money to buy me a whiskey. I refused and said I could take care of it. But I was more than flattered at the gesture. Before I headed to the bar, I told T to save my seat.

I’ve told tales many times before of T-Model’s love of the ladies. Every time one walked in, not only did he check her out (which has been his M.O. the past few times I’ve met him); this time he invited them right over and immediately asked each of them if they were married. What a fun exchange to watch.

Even when the ladies sat with him to visit, once they moved on, he kept his arm wrapped around my seat, saving it for me, as he promised. Each time I left and returned, he made sure I knew he’d saved it for me.

Two or three times, I told T that I’d move along so he could enjoy some other people’s company. Every time I said so, he said, “YOU OKAY! I saved your seat.” So I stayed. I felt kinda odd – especially after the opening band started – and T and I were the only ones seated (right in the middle of the dance floor), but when a dude like T-Model Ford wants to hang with you….YOU HANG.


We visited throughout the evening and I took great joy in hearing his stories. I was also excited to see that he really seemed to enjoy the opening band. Every time I’ve seen T before, he’s always been very still. He never expressed himself through others’ music much. The last time I’d seen him, he was fresh off of suffering a stroke and he wasn’t quite himself. He wasn’t nearly as animated as he’d been the first time I met him and his mind wasn’t overly sharp. He’d start one story and end with part of an entirely different story. He’d forget where he was headed with a thought. Etc.

But last night, he was on the money. And he was having a good time. He immediately picked up his cane and played air guitar on it throughout the opening band’s set. As always, though…he did look at me anytime the band did anything flashy, or anything that elicited a big response from the audience, he looked at me and said, “I ain’t scared of ‘em, though…”

When the time came for T to hit the stage, his band was already in place. So I had the privilege of escorting him to the stage. With a bit of difficulty (he’s a 90 year old man with a bad hip, a cane, and the effects of a stroke, and the stage at Off Broadway involves a BIG step), we got him onstage and Marty began to get him situated. Just as I was getting ready to head back to my seat, Marty shouted, “Hey Ryan…can you hold Black Mattie?” I had one of those frozen-time moments.

Black Mattie is T-Model Ford’s guitar. The divinely-touched instrument that he coaxes those beautifully rough North Mississippi Hill Country BLUUUUUUUUES sounds from.

I immediately remembered a story I’d heard about Eric Clapton, who was humbled to be able to perform onstage with one of his idols, the legendary Albert King (I’m pretty sure it was A.K.). One of King's guitar techs handed King's axe out on stage and asked Clapton to pass it over to its owner. Clapton refused. He later explained his superstitious belief in the power of a bluesman’s guitar. He didn’t want to interrupt whatever juju the instrument had working through it with his own mojo.

I took the risk and grabbed hold of ol’ Black Mattie and when T was seated and ready to roll, I respectfully placed this mighty vessel in the hands of her master.


And he went to town.

I don’t remember exactly what songs T played and that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t even tell what a few of them were. It doesn’t matter that you can’t always make out what he’s singing. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t even bother singing into the mic part of the time. It doesn’t matter that he performed “Mannish Boy” twice, about 15 minutes apart. It doesn’t matter that a few times he’d start one song and by the time it ended he’d used the second half of an entirely different song.

It matters that he showed up.

It matters that he loves the people who come to see him.

It matters that T-Model Ford gives it his all. For us.

T-Model Ford picked up a guitar for the first time at the age of 58. Within a week he’d gotten good enough that he was invited to play house parties. He didn’t record his first album until he was 75 or so.

He plays in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m certainly not a musician, but I’ve seen enough guitar players to know that T does it differently. He does it his own way. And it works.

T-Model Ford needs to play THA BLUUUUUUUUES. He needs to do what he does. I can only assume that it does the same thing for him as it does for his audience.

Everyone left in a good mood last night. A little North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy did us all good.

I looked around the audience several times. At one point I saw my buddy’s dad jammin’ away, stompin’ his foot HARD and snappin’ his fingers. That was the first time I’d met the man, and while I knew he was a big music fan, I got the impression he wasn’t typically an overly-expressive music consumer. But he was moved.

Of all the girls T flirted with before the show, there was one girl in particular who I thought could have spelled trouble for all of us. Most girls humor T with his “are you married” shtick. He’s 90. He can hardly walk. He’s a sweet (albeit vurrrry, vurrrry drrrrrty old man). He’s not exactly “a threat”.

But this one girl –very pretty and in her mid-thirties – laughed when he asked if she was married. Then she smiled. Real big. Eventually she managed to say, “Well….officially, yes…but not for long”. And then there was that fire in T’s eyes. And an awkward pause. Believe it or not, a really long, very awkward pause. And for probably the first and only time in my life, I don’t mind using the cliché, “You could cut the tension with a knife”.

The girl’s friend and me and the guys I was there with all kinda looked at each other…jaws on the floor…eyes like saucers. Even though none of us could muster words, there was a definite communication happening: YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME….THIS ISN’T REALLY HAPPENING IS IT? THIS CAN’T REALLY HAPPEN, CAN IT?!?!?!?!?

The girl eventually snapped out of it (whatever it was she was in) and walked away. But I looked at her several times during the show and while she was watching T-Model, she never, ever lost that genuine smile on her face.

One of the guys I was at the show with marveled to me afterwards, “Dude! You really danced tonight. Way more than when we saw Social Distortion”.

It was a beautiful night. We were all washed clean of whatever ailed us. Soon-to-be-ex-husband trouble. Work trouble. Money trouble. Woman trouble. Lack-of-woman trouble. Health problems. Whatever they were, they were taken care of. We received first-hand North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy and were all baptized by the divine cleansing power of THA BLUUUUUUUUES as only T-Model Ford can deliver ‘em.


With him being 90 years old, you never know when T-Model will stop doin’ his thang (voluntarily, involuntarily, or mortally). So if you’re interested in seeing him, do it when you can. After spending the evening with him and building a friendship with him and Marty over the last few years, I felt OK giving him a farewell hug. I wasn’t sure how he’d respond (after all…as I said in an earlier blog post…T-Model Ford is a teddy bear. He’s a teddy bear that would kill you without thinking twice…but he IS a teddy bear).

I said my goodbyes and told him quickly I was gonna give him a hug. As I leaned in awkwardly, he said, “OK”. I gave him one of those “safe side hugs” and he laid his head back on my shoulder for a few seconds.

I hope I see him again.

But whether I do or not, I now know – without a single doubt – the secret to a long and healthy life.

The blues can be a longing thing (you need a woman). They can be a sad thing (your man left you). They can be a fun thing (me and my woman are happy and want to celebrate). They can be a renewing thing (when it’s sho’nuff been a week and you need some more North Mississippi Hill Country Therapy).

It cures what ails you.

Bring on THA BLUUUUUUUUES.

AMAZING

I realize I’m a hateful, cantankerous, grumpy old troll of a man, and therefore I have started and abandoned this blog post several times over the last several days. I thought I’d spare you the crankiness. (Actually, I also thought I’d spare myself the “Oh, don’t be so grumpy, Mr. Raincloud” comments, too).

But last night was the final straw. I was at the wedding of a family member and as we were milling about in the church foyer after the ceremony, one of the bridesmaids walked by. Her boyfriend smiled and said, “You did an AMAZING job!!!” (He put big emphasis on AMAZING).

Really? She did? She looked pretty. She did everything she was supposed to. And I fully acknowledge that being a bridesmaid is a very important position on a very important day for someone who’s very important to you. But, amazing? What was amazing?

Few things get under my skin these days as much as the ubiquitous overuse of the word AMAZING.

With young people, everything is “amazing” these days.

In just the last few minutes I’ve had two Facebook friends use the term. One in describing her husband, the other in describing her entire group of friends.

I realize this isn’t anything different than generations of youth using the word “cool”. Or “keen”. Or “hip”. Or “epic”. Those don’t bother me, mostly because their actual definition isn’t too far removed from their use in this setting.

Epic means huge and kids use it to describe something that’s a big deal to them.

In the fifties, when kids said “keen”, they were describing something that was sharp and right on the money – which is what the word means.

Hip? Well, outside of the anatomical use of the word, it means “cool”.

And cool…this one may be a stretch, since when we use it in this context; we don’t actually mean that something has a low temperature. But “cool” is established enough that I think it has a double meaning.

But, “amazing”?

The dictionary.com definition of “amazing” is: “Causing great surprise or sudden wonder. “ and “Astonishing, awe-inspiring, awesome, awful, awing.”

And how is this used? In the last couple of days, I’ve heard several young women describe their husbands as “amazing”. A handful have called their mothers “amazing”. We have the “amazing friends” reference. I regularly hear my college-aged friends describing their favorite new songs as “amazing”.

The girl who used to host a radio show immediately before mine once gave my show a plug as I was setting up the studio to take over. We’d known each other exactly 37 seconds and she introduced me as, “an amazing guy”. I mean…obviously she’s exactly right…but even given my AMAZING awesomeness…I’m not sure 37 seconds was enough time to actually ascertain that. Talk about overselling that one…

Is your mom truly amazing? Is she astonishing, awe-inspiring, etc.? Well…actually…OK…I’ll give you that one. Most moms ARE astonishing and awe-inspiring in what they sacrifice for their kids and how much they get done in an impressive multi-tasking fashion. So, there’s your caveat: Moms ARE amazing. (My daughter is currently sick and I was thinking of when I was a sick kid, my mom could set her internal clock to wake up at any time she needed to in order to give me my medicine on schedule. She never set the actual alarm clock, so she didn’t wake everyone else up. And she did actually sleep. But she decided that she needed to wake up at 2:45 a.m. to give me my medicine and she just did. Moms. Amazing.)

Your friends? Are they amazing? Or are they fun to hang out with? Do they make you feel good? Make you happy? Sure they do. That’s why they’re your friends, yo.

Is your husband really amazing? Does he actually cause great surprise or sudden wonder?

Don’t get me wrong…I’m sure your husband is a really great guy. I’ll bet he loves you so much and makes you feel so special. He’s your husband – he’s supposed to do that. That’s why you married him out of every other man on the entire planet.

It’s like what Chris Rock once said, when he referenced how it’s a common thing these days for young men to exclaim, “Well, I ain’t never been to jail….WATCHOO WANT, A COOKIE???? YOU AIN’T SUPPOSED TO GO TO JAIL!!!!!” Or when unmarried fathers say, “Well, I take care of my kid……..WHATCHOO WANT, A COOKIE??? YOU SUPPOSED TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR KID!!!!”

Not every song is amazing. Not every person you know is amazing. Not every book or movie is amazing.

Yes, they may mean a lot to YOU. And that’s important. That’s one of the best parts of life; surrounding yourself with the people and things that make you feel good and make you enjoy life. Those people/things ARE exceptional to you.

But amazing? When you hear that “amazing song” do you truly stand in front of the radio with your jaw hanging open, completely staggered at the amazing power of the tune you’re hearing? You might once in a GREAT while…but do you really do that with every song you call “amazing”?

That’s what you do when you see the Grand Canyon, right? Stand there, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, and marvel at how huge and awesome and incredible it is? That’s because the Grand Canyon IS AMAZING.

Your favorite song isn’t. It’s just really, really good.

Words have actual meanings. And when we throw them around all willy-nilly it cheapens them.

When you use the same word to describe your favorite book that you use to describe Niagra Falls, it takes something away from Niagra Falls.

I don’t want to take anything away from your friends…but when you use the exact same term to describe them that you use when you see a satellite picture of the cosmos…it does take something away from the cosmos.

And…I’m just now realizing…it also takes something away from your friends.

Your friends…your spouse…the people you love. They are special. They’re important. They’re wonderful. They mean everything to you. And THAT IS awesome.

In fact…it’s bigger and better than “amazing”. Don’t cheapen those relationships, those people, those special things that make you who you are, with a word better suited at describing a rock formation like the Grand Canyon.

Use the right words. Call your husband/wife “loving”, “beautiful”, “wonderful”, “funny”, “inspiring”. Whatever fits. Be specific. “Amazing” is generic.

They’re MORE than amazing. They’re important. The Grand Canyon isn’t important. It’s amazing, sure…but your life wouldn’t be too affected one way or another if it weren’t there, would it? Would your life be radically different if outer space was organized and colored in an entirely different way that was completely unpleasing to the eye? Probably not.

But, if you didn’t have those friends…Or if you hadn’t met your spouse…or if you didn’t have the music/books/movies that you enjoy regularly…your life would be impacted. It wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be as enjoyable.

The Grand Canyon is amazing.

Your husband/wife/friend/favorite song/etc. is not.

To borrow a line from Sir Paul, maybe you’re amazed at the way they love you. Or maybe your amazed at the love you have for them.

But they themselves are more than amazing.

They’re important.

Let ‘em know.

Friday, May 27, 2011

RIP, GIL SCOTT HERON

I first became acquainted with the art of Gil Scott-Heron when I was leading a non-profit organization called The Dirty Roots Revolution. Obviously, we gravitated toward things that played on the "revolution" theme. Eventually, I stumbled across Gil Scott-Heron's classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". I'm certainly far from an expert on Gil Scott-Heron's and his work, but I did become a "casual" fan. I enjoy a compilation album I have of his and I got his latest album, "I'm New Here" when it came out last year. Very good stuff.

When I heard "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", I thought there was another one of those guys that I'd always heard ABOUT, but hadn't heard. When you see people doing what they might call a beatnik impersonation, they're doing a cartoonish, caricature version of what Gil Scott-Heron did, especially in his early years. His spoken word pieces laid the foundation for what would eventually become hip-hop.

Prior to the release of his most recent album, Gil Scott-Heron had struggled extensively with drug abuse and was in and out of prison several times through the last few years. When "I'm New Here" was released to great acclaim and somewhat surprising success, I'd hoped he'd turned a corner and might enjoy a late-career renaissance like Johnny Cash, et al.

Gil Scott-Heron was bold. He was intelligent. And he was brave. Brotha had something to say and he did it in interesting ways that mattered.

If you haven't already, check out the music of Gil Scott-Heron. You won't be disappointed.

THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED by Gil Scott-Heron
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
bbout a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

T Model Ford: Put A Stamp On Yo' Woman

If you’re going to see T-Model Ford tonight at Off Broadway in St. Louis, it just occurred to me that I left a vital piece of information out of the blog post I wrote about him the other day…

If you’re going to tonight’s show – or any other show in any other city, for that matter – PUT A STAMP ON YOUR WOMAN!!!!

T-Model Ford has been married 6 times. He has 26 children that he knows of. He has more grandchildren than he’s ever been able to count. Obviously, he ain’t got no problem with the ladies.

When I interviewed T-Model back in 2008, he told me plainly that he wasn’t lookin’ to stir up no trouble, “but if your woman comes around, and she’s lookin’ mistreated…if she flags my train, I’m gon’ let her ride.” Thankfully, he also told me he liked me. He therefore informed me that if I put a stamp on my woman to let him know she was mine…he’d leave her be.

My wife hasn’t gone with me any of the times I’ve seen T-Model Ford. Never seemed worth the risk of takin’ her.

But if your special lady is coming with you tonight – or, again, any night – and if you want her to leave with you…FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S GOOD AND DECENT...

PUT A STAMP ON YO’ WOMAN!!!!!!


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

T Model Ford


People like you and I don’t know people like T-Model Ford. Sure, we hear about them from time to time, but it’s always in some very far off, mythical sense.

T-Model Ford is one of the original blues artists on the Fat Possum Records label. In its early days, Fat Possum specialized in raw recordings of hardscrabble Delta bluesmen. Most were completely self-taught and completely unconventional. Now that Fat Possum has gone more in the direction of indie rock, T-Model has recorded for Mudpuppy Records and, most recently, has issued a few albums for Alive Records.

I first met T-Model Ford in 2008. After following him for a few years, I found out he was going to play at Off Broadway in St. Louis (the best live music club around, for the record). I set up an interview and was very, very nervous going into it. Up until then, in any pictures of or interviews with him that I’d seen, the man was just plain scary. Rough, tough, and MEAN. He looked mean and sounded mean.

But age must have gentled him down. He was kind, gentlemanly, and grandfatherly. A teddy bear. Make no mistake - he's a teddy bear that'd kill you, but he's still a teddy bear.

T-Model Ford’s real name is James Lewis Carter Ford. A white man he was working for gave him the nick-name T-Model. He grew up in and still lives in Greenville, Mississippi and got a big kick out of the fact that I was from Greenville, IL.

T-Model is now approximately 90 years old. I say approximately because it’s everyone’s best guess; he has no way of knowing for sure.

He told me that his father "rode me hard" when he was a boy. When he was very young, his daddy beat him so badly once that he split his sack and tore one of his nuts off. Following that story, T-Model IMMEDIATELY told me that even though he "only had one", he still fathered 26 children - THAT HE KNOWS OF. There could be more. He couldn't tell me how many grandchildren he had.

He bragged on one grandson in particular; an 11-year old who serves as his drummer back home. But "he can't handle the road". He said, "I sho’ wish you could hear him play with me". A proud granddad :-)

In his younger days, T-Model Ford killed a man in a knife fight. He was stabbed in the back, which felt “like a piece of hot iron going in”. He immediately turned around and grabbed his knife, “one o’ them ol’ 25 cent switchblade knives and opened it with my teeth – I had good teeth back then” and swung at the man who stabbed him. He cut his throat and killed the man. T hid out in a hole for a few days before he was caught. He was put on a chain gang and served two years of a ten-year sentence. He was put in a penitentiary later for another offense.

Throughout his life, T-Model has been shot, stabbed, and poisoned. He “cain’t read, cain’t write, ain’t never been to school a day in my life.”

At the time of our first interview, T-Model had been married 5 times.

His fourth wife bought him a Gibson electric guitar and amp for his birthday, but he never bothered to learn it. The day she left him, he told me he “watched her drive away, and I looked up at that moon, and I said, ‘God, she done left…it’s just you and me now.” He walked back inside his house, “saw that guitar…and said, “I’m gon’ learn me to play that muthee-fucka.”

He was 58 years old then. He walked me through his process of getting out the guitar, turning on the amp, and making some noise with it. Within a week he thought he “had somethin’”. He's never had any formal training. He recorded his first album in his mid-70s.

After his 5th marriage, T-Model said he was “done with that”. At the time of my 2008 visit with him, he’d been with "Stella" - who he sings about a lot - for almost 20 years. She "TRIES" to keep him on the straight and narrow :-)

The second time I met T-Model, in 2010, I’d heard a rumor that he’d gotten married. I asked…could it be true?!?!? He grinned, “MAN!!! She tricked me, man!!” I forget the explanation he gave, but I’m sure it made sense at the time…she conned him into a trip to the courthouse and they were married. They recently celebrated their first anniversary.

A free fell on T-Model several years ago, which permanently messed up his hip. He walks with a cane and has a hard time getting around. He also had some serious heart trouble about three years ago and had a pacemaker put in. He forced me to rub his chest so I could feel the coils inside.

When I saw him in 2010 he’d recently suffered a stroke. He told me it had caused some problems in one of his hands and he couldn’t play quite like he wanted to.

I asked him if all of these stories, all of these hard times, and all these heartaches were what made him want to sing the blues.

He said, emphatically, "NO WAY! The big man up above has been good to me and He's what makes me want to do this." I said, "Yeah, He is good". He looked me like I was crazy and said "GOOD??? He's the BEST!"

When asked how he still did this at nearly 90 and how long he'd keep it up, he said "As long as I can. As long as HE lets me do it. Only He knows." He’s had that stroke since then and is still doin’ it.

And man, can he do it. T-Model doesn’t play like anyone else I’ve ever seen or heard…and he makes a glorious sound like no one else, too. He takes pride in the fact that his fingers aren’t calloused in his fretting hand (most guitar players have tough fingertips). His are “like doctor's cotton”.

He’s also pretty competitive with that guitar. There were three opening bands the first time I saw T-Model and me and my buddy Bill got to sit with T during each of the openers. Every time someone did something flashy with a guitar or got a big response from the audience, T looked at me and shook his head…”I ain’t scared of ‘em,” he’d say.

Another frequent occurrence during both of our interviews was that any time a woman - ANY woman - came into the club, he'd tap my knee under the table or elbow me in the side, motion to her with his eyes, and grin. He even did it from the stage. It was a bit like junior high…but I gotta admit, it was fun.

During the interviews and all of the opening bands, T-Model sat very still. He didn't even tap his toes to the music. He told me he never practices his guitar; he only plays guitar on stage. He doesn't even listen to music.

He told me when he was a young boy, he heard one Muddy Waters song and one Howlin’ Wolf song. He only heard them each once, but they stuck with him his whole life. When he decided to try and play music, he went after the sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf that he'd kept tucked away in his mind for over 50 years.

Each time I’ve seen T-Model Ford live in concert it was plainly obvious that we - the audience - made this man's night. After all of the hardship and struggle he's been through in his 90-ish years, he's living the life. He's good at what he does, he is respected, and he loves the fan adoration.

He deserves it.

My favorite part of encountering T-Model Ford is his graciousness and generosity. He’s glad to do what he’s doing and he’s glad to be appreciated. And he reciprocates it.

During our first interview, T’s road crew went out and got him some dinner. When they put his chicken and fries in front of him he asked if my buddy and I had eaten dinner yet. We hadn’t and he insisted that we share his food with him. We objected, but he wasn’t taking no for an answer.


After each concert, as I left the venue, T had a crew of young people (mostly college-aged, mostly girls…go figure) sitting at his feet on the stage. I still smile at the thought of what wisdom he must have been passing on to them…

So, if I accomplish nothing else in my life, I can say I've felt the pacemaker of and double-dipped with one of the baddest men alive. I can live with that.

It TRULY does my heart good to know that T-Model has reached some level of notoriety and success and that he's out there doing his thang. God bless him.

T-Model Ford will play this Thursday, May 26th at Off Broadway in St. Louis. There won’t be many more chances to see him play live. And you definitely won’t have many opportunities to meet someone like James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford. There’s only one phrase that seems appropriate for an invitation like this (one that I’ll borrow from my good buddy Ian)…GET THINE ASS TO OFF BROADWAY THIS THURSDAY NIGHT AND SEE ONE OF THE LAST TRULY GREAT DELTA BLUESMEN.

Show Details:
T Model Ford & Gravel Road w/Rum Drum Ramblers

Thursday, May 26

Door: 8:30pm / Show: 9pm

21+=$10 / -21=$13

Buy Tickets Online!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan

I’m quite sure this is the 100,000th blog post to be loaded to the interwebs today concerning one Robert A. Zimmerman. You know him as Bob Dylan. And in case you hadn’t yet heard, he celebrated his 70th birthday today.

Most of these blog posts/news articles/what-have-you begin with a line something like “What can be said about Bob Dylan that hasn’t been said before?” Nothing. But, here we are anyway.

I’ll not go into the history of Mr. Dylan or his significance in the pantheon of American culture. I’ll especially not go into the intricacies and hidden philosophies and meanings attached to every step or breath the man has taken.

First off, I’m not any kind of a Bob-ologist, and second, I think such endeavors are an exercise in missing the point.

When I was a senior in high school I argued ad nauseum with my English teacher about the true intentions of great authors. I contended – and still do – that authors such as Fitzgerald, Salinger, et al. were indeed massively talented, but that they never intended every single word and punctuation mark they wrote to be analyzed in the manner that we study them today. Again, I stress that these folks were incredibly talented and were among the greatest minds of their times. And while I agree that they wanted to make quality art that would last, I think they’d laugh if they saw the extents that we take our study.

Same with ol’ Bob. The legendary producer Bob Johnston, who worked with Dylan, summed it up best: “I believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I don’t think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God, instead of touching him on the shoulder; He kicked him in the ass. Really. And that’s where all that came from. He can’t help what he’s doing. I mean he’s got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that.”

In saluting the great blues legend Robert Johnson on my Dirty Roots Radio Show a few weeks ago, I wondered several times if there was a figure that had had such an impact on music as a whole as Johnson had. I think Dylan qualifies. (The Beatles may, too, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to make myself be a fan, so we’ll stick with Dylan for now). Dylan has undoubtedly had a major impact on every aspect of modern music; one the likes of which we’ll probably never see again. But, as Bob Johnston said, let’s give credit where credit is due.

Yes, Bob Dylan is without doubt one of the greatest minds of his generation. Yes, he is unarguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

But, with all due respect to Bob Dylan, I don’t think he had much to do with it. In the excellent Dylan Documentary “No Direction Home” (directed by Martin Scorsese), Joan Baez talks about how Dylan used to tell her, “I don’t know where this stuff comes from…”

When you look at Bob Dylan, in a literal-not metaphorical-sense, you could see that “something special”. I’ve never noticed that quality about anyone else. But you watch video footage of Dylan around the time he was “going electric” and you can’t deny it. It’s almost like there’s something angelic about him. Not in a sweet sense…but in the sense of there almost being an aura about him. He seems to be buzzing; vibrating. It’s as if things are happening to him and happening inside of his brain almost faster than he can keep up with.

Sure, his amphetamine use had something to do with that appearance, but I get the feeling that the amphetamines just helped him keep up with whatever was going on inside him. He’d clearly tapped into something on another plane that most people never get close to.

And that’s where it all came from.

If Dylan hadn’t had his motorcycle accident when he did, I contend he would have died in some other fashion. Some artists are here with us for a very short time and they burn extra bright – for us – for that short time. Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Kurt Cobain. Robert Johnson. Those folks tapped into that intangible thing, too. And I believe it was more than they could stand. More than they could keep up with.

But Dylan had that motorcycle crash and that forced him to slow down. And he is one of the few who burned so bright so early in their lives who are still with us.

I think Dylan was just like I assume those classic authors to be: Someone who loved music and someone who worked really hard to make the best art he could, who wanted that art to last, but someone who didn’t expect the kind of reaction he got.

I have no problem with Dylan’s Machiavellian maneuvering of the media and his audience. I take no issue with his fabrications pertaining to his back story and career.

Watch a few of the press conferences from his early days and it’s quickly obvious how ridiculous the inquiries into his art were. People asking about the philosophy behind his wearing a Triumph motorcycle shirt on the Highway 61 album cover and whatnot (the reporter’s clear offense when Dylan said he hadn’t thought about it; “Well, I’ve given it a great deal of thought”).

Dylan knew how great he was. I don’t believe he know HOW he was so great. But he knew his songs were something special. Combine that quality with the buffoonery surrounding almost every other part of his career and I’d actually encourage him to have a little fun at the expense of the media and his fans.

The other facet of Bob Dylan that particularly interests me is his status and career as an elder statesman who is clearly re-writing the established American songbook.

I remember buying Dylan’s 1997 “Time Out of Mind” album (right around the time I was beginning to develop my taste in “Dirty Roots” music…unpolished-sounding music with plenty of rough edges). I was knocked out by his voice and the feel of the album. That’s what really piqued my interest in Dylan.

His next two albums, “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times” REALLY blew me away. I remember hearing “Love and Theft” and thinking that his voice had finally broken. It kept threatening to on “Time Out of Mind”, but never quite crossed that line. The voice crossed the line with “Love and Theft” and a new phase of Dylan’s career began. I believe this is also the time he began recording with his stellar touring band. I was fully into what you’d call roots music by this time and loved how Dylan, as I mentioned, seemed to be re-writing the American songbook (sometimes literally, as in the case of “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” from “Modern Times”).

We are indeed blessed to have someone like Bob Dylan in our midst. The world is forever changed – forever better – because of what he contributed. I say quit trying to figure him out. Enjoy the music. Be inspired. And enjoy the myth. It’s probably much better than reality anyway.

You don’t want Bob Dylan to be like you and me. He’s got the Holy Spirit about him. Enjoy the ride.

Friday, May 20, 2011

DIRTY ROOTS RADIO - May 19th Playlist

Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOEY RAMONE (One of the founding fathers of this show and our nation) - RIP

Joey Ramone – What a Wonderful World
Steve Earle – Little Emperor
Steve Earle – Gulf of Mexico
WAR – The Cisco Kid
Robert Johnson – Last Fair Deal Gone Down
Ramones – Cretin Hop
The Blues Brothers – Theme from Rawhide
C.W. McCall – Wolf Creek Pass
The Animals – Story of Bo Diddley
Hasil Adkins – Ugly Woman
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Black Cadillac
Bill Abel – Mississippi Diddley
Marty Robbins – A Hundred and Sixty Acres
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Zig Zag Wanderer
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Dark End of the Street
Ramones – California Sun
Motorhead – Ace of Spades
Steve Earle – God is God
Joey Ramone – What a Wonderful World

BOB DYLAN 70TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE:
Highway 61 Revisited
Subterranean Homesick Blues
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Tangled Up In Blue
Talkin’ World War III Blues
*Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
Blowin’ In the Wind
Masters of War
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
*R.L. Burnside – Everything is Broken
Standing In the Doorway
Shelter From the Storm
Ballad of a Thin Man
*Mike Ness – Don’t Think Twice
*Travelling Wilburys – Runaway
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat
*Wanda Jackson – Thunder on the Mountain
Chimes of Freedom
The Times They Are A-Changin’

*Background Music: Brian Setzer – Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL

THANKS TO OUR GUESTS TONIGHT:
Nona Willis Aronowitz
, editor of “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis On Rock Music”: www.NonasWriting.com

Gary Golio, author of “When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan”: www.GaryGolio.com

Deena Guzder, author of “Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Change”: www.DeenaGuzder.com

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"The radio makes hideous sounds." - Bob Dylan

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Make Yourself Un-Fire-Able (a/k/a: The American Dream)

I just read one of those online “news” articles about how to make yourself “un-fire-able” at work.

The advice was all the same. Be the first to arrive and the last to leave. Do whatever is necessary. Blah Blah Blah.

They ought to just say “work harder than you ought to have to” and “don’t think for yourself”.

First things first, NO ONE is un-fire-able. Ever (especially in today’s business environment). But, let’s just assume for a minute that these steps will make you un-fire-able.

Know what else they’ll make you? UNHAPPY.

Be the first to arrive. Get up before the sun and get out the door to work before your kids are up for school. You don’t need to see them, do you?

Be the last to leave. Get home late in the evening. Maybe you’ll make it in time for dinner with your family. Maybe not. Of course, if you’re like everyone else, you probably eat drive-thru dinners in separate cars, anyway. No time for a legitimate sit-down-together family meal. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the kids a little before they go to bed. And before you stay up working some more.

There’s always the weekend anyway, right? Never mind the fact that you have to tend to your perfectly manicured yard and maintain all of your other toys (boat, car, etc.) on the weekend.

Never mind time with the wife. It’s this kind of lifestyle you’re working to give her that she desires…not actual quality time with you, at any rate.

One of the tips was “Make everyone love you”. Forget being yourself. Be whatever everyone wants you to be. That may, of course, require balancing several personas, based on the audience you’re with. But you can keep up and juggle all that, right? It will also probably require lying and keeping an awful lot to yourself. But, hey, you’ve got plenty of space to shove those feelings down deep inside you. What harm can come of it?

Cut the company’s costs.

Make the company money.

Show you’re a leader.

Show you’re a team player.

Blah – blah – blah.

Think the way they think. Act like you’re supposed to. Do everything you can for them.

Don’t be real. Don’t be interesting. Don’t be you.

Do what you have to do to make them successful.

I see people do that.

And they’re rewarded. With more work.

I also see an awful lot of people not doing those things. Or ANY thing. And they’re also rewarded.

More work isn’t so bad. Just means more expectations, right? Earlier mornings. Later evenings. More to do.

More toys, though.

More money.

More power.

More prestige.

More personas to juggle.

Less being you.

Less time at home.

Less time to examine your life.

Less time to cultivate the interests and talents God gave you.

Less time to make the world a better place.

But, hey…you’ll be un-fire-able.


What Am I SUPPOSED To Listen To???

So, I have this job (the “other” me).

In this job, I’m a “professional”. I wear a work “costume”, which involves a tie most days. I sit at a desk.

As part of my job I teach a monthly customer service class to new employees.

Following the class, I take the new hires on a tour of the facility.

I keep the class very laid back and casual. I didn’t wear a tie today. I made ‘em laugh. A lot.

On the tour, two maintenance men walked by. I pointed them out, teased them, they teased me…everyone had a laugh.

One of the maintenance guys’ cell phones went off with a ringtone of an AC/DC song. I pointed out that it was AC/DC.

And several comments were made, clearly in shock and awe that I knew AC/DC.

I jokingly told them all not to judge me because I wear a tie most days.

But then it got me to thinking…

I’m a "grown up". I’m a “professional” (at least in their eyes). I wear an office “costume”. A tie most days.

What does that mean I’m supposed to listen to…

STING????


Yikes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dirty Roots Radio: The May 19th Literary Event

Its gon’ be a literary event of epic proportions – at least according to Dirty Roots’ standards – this Thursday night on the big show!

First off, three different authors will join Ryan Mifflin on the program:

Gary Golio, author of “When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan” (A kids book that details the story of Bob Dylan’s journey to reach his hero, Woody Guthrie, and how the world was changed when they did meet.)


Deena Guzder, author of “Divine Rebels: American Christian Activists for Social Justice” (A book featuring the stories of Christian activists who moved their faith away from politics and toward positive action to make an impact on the world.)


Nona Willis Aronowitz, editor of “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music” (Ellen Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker and had a tremendous impact on popular music journalism/criticism. This book, edited by Willis’ daughter, collects many of her essays.)


These books may sound quite different from one another, but they’re a perfect summation of what Dirty Roots Radio – and Ryan Mifflin’s personal “Dirty Roots” philosophy – is all about.

We’ll also pay a brief little tribute to one of our favorite artists, Steve Earle, who’s just released a new record as well as a novel; both entitled “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”. (This is mostly a good excuse to play the liner that Steve recorded for Dirty Roots Monday night while in St. Louis for a book reading/signing event)…


Finally, starting a little after 9 p.m., we’ll mark the monumentous occasion of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday (the actual date is May 24th) with an exploration through his vast catalog of music.


Three authors, music (and don’t forget that liner) from a singer-songwriter with a new novel, and a heckuva lot of music from perhaps the most literary songwriter of all time. All that and more (Thursday is Joey Ramone’s birthdate, so you KNOW we’ll be celebrating that, too) this Thursday night on Dirty Roots Radio.

Tune in this and every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central). Listen from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net. Be sure to tag Dirty Roots Radio in your Facebook status if you're listening - and post on our wall where you're listening from!!! Invite your friends to listen and to join our Facebook page, too!

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Friday, May 13, 2011

DIRTY ROOTS RADIO – May 12th Playlist

Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.

(Today marked the 39th anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ classic album, “Exile On Main St.”)


Rolling Stones – Ventilator Blues
Robert Cage – Get Out of Here
James Leg – Have to Get It On
Charles Bradley – Heart of Gold
Bo Diddley – Story of Bo Diddley (a/k/a My Story)
Social Distortion – Down Here (w/the Rest of Us)
Social Distortion – Road Zombie
Social Distortion – Far Side of Nowhere
Chuck Ragan – Rotterdam
Rolling Stones – Rip This Joint
Steve Earle – Waitin’ On the Sky
Hank Williams as “Luke the Drifter” – Pictures from Life’s Other Side
Faces – Stay with Me
Blind Boys of Alabama – Higher Ground
Dick Dale – Riders in the Sky
Johnny Cash – Aloha Oe
The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) – Union Town
Solomon Burke – Cry to Me
Ramones – I’m Against It
The Carter Family – Single Girl, Married Girl
Social Distortion – Bakersfield
Rolling Stones – All Down the Line
Nirvana – Molly’s Lips
Rolling Stones – Happy
Albert King – Crosscut Saw
Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine
Ben Harper – Faded
Ben Harper – Rock ‘N’ Roll is Free
X – The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss
Patsy Cline – Faded Love
T-Model Ford – Cut You Loose
Hasil Adkins – Chicken Walk
Social Distortion – Don’t Drag Me Down
Iggy Pop w/Kate Pierson – Candy
The Stooges – 1969
Chuck Berry – Carol
Gram Parsons – We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning
Rolling Stones – Loving Cup

Special Program...ROBERT JOHNSON: THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

*Background Music: Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis

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"The one thing the blues don't get is the backing and pushing of TV and radio like a lot of this garbage you hears. They choke stuff down people's throat so they got no choice but to listen to it." - John Lee Hooker

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dirty Roots Radio Presents "Robert Johnson: The Centennial Celebration"

"The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams...” - Jimmy Page

I can think of few listening experiences that are more profound on a regular basis than listening to the music of the great Robert Johnson.

Normally I have trouble just sitting a listening to music. I have to be busy with something else, to keep my hands and eyes occupied while my ears soak up the music. Johnny Cash is a rare exception. So is Robert Johnson.

Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. Growing up, he wanted to emulate the blues guitar stylings of the great Son House (an amazing artist with an incredible story in his own right). House lived in the same town as Robert Johnson for a time and remembers him as a decent harmonica player, but a painfully bad guitar player.

Robert Johnson left that town, Robinsonville, and headed to Martinsville, to search for his father. While in Robinsonville, he fell in with Ike and Herman Zimmermann who schooled him blues guitar. Ike was said to have acquired supernatural abilities by visiting graveyards at night.

By the time Johnson returned to Robinsonville, he had quickly acquired his unique superb guitar style. The time between Martinsville and his return to Robinsonville – like nearly everything in Johnson’s short life – is shrouded in mystery. Rumor quickly circulated that during this time period Johnson had sold his soul to the devil “at the crossroads” (Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi both claim to be home to “the” crossroads.

One can’t argue that SOMETHING profound happened in that time. Johnson returned with a guitar style that no one could touch. For almost 100 years, musicians have tried – unsuccessfully – to replicate Johnson’s style.

Johnson used to perform with his back to the audience, so they couldn’t see what he was doing with his hands to create the music.

Robert Johnson also suffered from what is now believed to be a small cataract, which made his eyes look different from one another. At the time, feeding into the “selling of the soul” story, his fans often claimed Johnson had “the evil eye” – further proof to them of his big deal with the devil.

It would take a very well researched book – something surprisingly few people have attempted – to truly do Robert Johnson’s story justice, so I’ll stop here. Those are the high points. I’d encourage you to look up Robert Johnson on Wikipedia (and anywhere else you can) for more detail.

One cannot overstate the impact of Robert Johnson and his music. Countless bands and musicians have been affected by Johnson’s story and the small amount of music he created – just 29 songs - in a short amount of time (he died at age 27, allegedly from being poisoned at a juke joint by a jealous husband).

Listening to Johnson’s music is truly a haunting experience. It’s almost as if a ghost is in the room as you listen. Is this because of the quality of the material and recordings? Is it the lyrics (stones in my passway, hellhounds on my trail, etc.)? Is it because of the supernatural legend surrounding Johnson?

It’s pretty awesome, whatever it is.


Dig into some Robert Johnson and enjoy some serious Essential Music 101.

Dirty Roots Radio this week is a great place to start. At 9 p.m. (central), we’ll share "Robert Johnson: The Centennial Celebration". This program features brand-new exclusive interviews and many of Johnson’s legendary songs. Comments are offered by guitarists Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule) and Corey Harris, Johnson’s grandson David Johnson, and blues historians Peter Guralinick and Scott Barretta.

Tune in this and every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central). Listen from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net. Be sure to tag Dirty Roots Radio in your Facebook status if you're listening - and post on our wall where you're listening from!!! Invite your friends to listen and to join our Facebook page, too!


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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Night Blues

This ain’t new.

I’ve been here before.

But, damn, the Sunday night blues got some TEETH tonight.

I’m in the wrong place.

Things aren’t as they should be.

I thought I’d become numb to all this.

Why do I feel this way?

I’m broken.

Broken spirit.

But, I don’t want my will to break.

Don’t want to let them.

It’s what separates us.

Soul sucking.

Spirit crushing.

I’m tired.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

CONCERT REVIEW: Social Distortion

I saw Social Distortion in concert for the fifth time last night (not including having seen Mike Ness solo twice). As I sit here today with ringing in my ears and that “cotton-y” feeling in my head, I can’t help but think I witnessed something pretty special last night.

The first two times I saw Social D it was in the early 2000’s, shortly before and shortly after the release of their album “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll”. Both shows were at the Pageant, a spacious and very nice club in St. Louis.

The next two times I saw them, in 2008 and 2009 (I think), the gigs were held at Pops, a smaller, “rougher” club in the East St. Louis “suburb” of Sauget, IL.

Social Distortion releases an album and then tours around that record for about four years at a time. My guess is that since “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll” was about to be released and had just been released around the times of their two Pageant shows, interest in the band was high, so they merited a larger venue. When I heard their next gig was to be at Pop’s, I was a little disappointed, because I could only assume the demand for their tickets wasn’t there. However, those two shows knocked my socks off!

The first two Pageant shows were good. Social D are my favorite band and I believe them to be incapable of delivering a bad show. But, they paled in comparison to the two gigs at Pops.

The Pops shows had a definite edge to them. The audience was in a much smaller space and Pops has a much tougher, more blue-collar vibe than the Pageant. But the band played as if they had something to prove.

Over the past several years, I’ve thought a lot about Social Distortion. Mostly, their aging. Mike Ness is now 49 years old. I wondered at one point how much longer they could keep doing what they’re doing and not begin to look/sound silly. Even formerly great artists, such as Mick Jagger, have become caricatures of their former selves in old age.

I needn’t have worried with Social Distortion.

The late-2000’s Pops shows proved that they could still rock and had no intention of stopping. At each show, Mike Ness was dressed simply in his traditional high-waisted work pants and a black T-shirt. He didn’t talk very much between songs. It was all about no-frills rock-n-roll, baby.

The last time I saw SxDx at Pops, they debuted several new songs. And then came “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”, the home of said new tunes.

This was the album that made me realize I never needed to worry about Social Distortion’s punk rock credentials, their integrity, their age, or whatever.


Put simply, I think the album is their masterpiece. It has the same hard edge and trademark sound of their early stuff. It also bears the roots we’ve come to expect and love – but even more so. And it represents a fair amount of growth for the band. A few years ago, they added keyboards and organs to their live show and those sounds made their way onto “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes”. One track, “California (Hustle & Flow)” even featured Exile-era Rolling Stones-style background vocalists.

Very good stuff indeed. And proof that you can still be a punk rawk band AND grow up.

So it was with high expectations that I attended last night’s show. What would the new songs sound like? How many would they play? How would they pull off some of the new sounds???

Fuggedaboutit.

Right from the start, the band threw curveballs. In the times I’ve seen Social Disortion and/or Mike Ness, they traditionally take the stage in one of two ways: together, as a band, to music piped through the sound system (ranging from old rockabilly, doo-wop, or other classic genres), or the band comes out and plays an instrumental piece, during which Mike Ness, their leader and the clear star of the show, emerges.

Last night, they came out as a band. To 2pac’s “California Love”! Then they launched into “Road Zombie”, the instrumental lead track off their new album, which I expected. But Mike came out with the band, and they started together.

Rather than a simple T-shirt, Mike strutted out in tailored suit pants with suspenders and a sharp white dress shirt last night. He usually takes the stage in some kind of hat and flashy jacket. Last night it was a classy fedora and full length overcoat.

“Road Zombie” segues right into “California (Hustle & Flow) on the new album and I figured it would in the live setting as well. Wrong. They launched straight from “Road Zombie” into “So Far Away”, a track from their 1990 self-titled album.

They followed that with not one, but two tracks from 1992’s “Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell” (one of the greatest albums of all time in my humble opinion).

As a 20-year fan, I loved the expedition into their back catalog, much of which I’d never heard performed live. But, after three songs, I figured they’d be keyed up to get to the new material. They have a record to sell, after all!

Wrong.

These songs were followed by two more from older albums; “Mommy’s Little Monster”, the title track from Social D’s debut full-length album (1983) and one of their signature tunes, “Sick Boy” from the 1990 self-titled album.

Only at this point, did they dip into new material. Mike introduced, “One of my favorites from the new record”, which was “Machine Gun Blues”. This was, for a time, the only song that troubled me on their new record. I love the song. But it’s full of gangster imagery, violence, killing, running from the law. The kind of thing I’d been wondering how much more of they'd be able to pull off as they neared 50.

Again, my fears were put to rest. The band recently unveiled a “short film” to accompany the song, which explained the significance of it to them. Again, good stuff indeed, and shame on me for doubting Mighty Mike Ness.

After that one track (during which a new backdrop, featuring the new album cover, was unfurled) , Social D launched back into the old stuff; the classic “Ball and Chain” from their self-titled album, which was followed by “Down On the World Again”, from “White Light White Heat White Trash”, an album they very seldom feature in concert.

And then things got sa-weet.

Mike introduced “Bakersfield”, one of the most ambitious songs on the new record, and one of my favorites. They followed that with what Mike called his “favorite song on the new album”, “Gimme the Sweet and Low Down” – another song that marks a departure from tradition for the band, but at the same time manages to still totally be Social D at the same time.

At this point, a fiddle player (from one of the opening bands) joined Social Distortion onstage, Johnny “Two Bags” Wickersham, the guitar player, switched to acoustic, and the keyboard player strapped on an accordion.

(SIDE NOTE: The openers for the show were a young punk band from Birmingham, England called Sharks. Meh. But the second opened was Chuck Ragan, who’s apparently played in punk bands previously and now does a rootsy, Americana type thing consisting of him on acoustic guitar and vocals, a stand up bass, and a fiddle. The Riverfront Times Music Blog this morning called it a mix between Motorhead and the Pogues – and as weird as that description sounds, it nails it. It was VERY good stuff. And unlike it usually is for an opener, the audience was digging Chuck Ragan!)

Ness introduced the first song in this new setting as “one we hardly ever play live”. It turned out to be “Down Here (w/the Rest of Us)” from “White Light White Heat White Trash”, another of my favorite SxDx songs, but one that’s usually done pretty ‘hard’. The acoustic/honky-tonk setting did a LOT for the song. Most of all, I think it made more space for the vocals.

When most modern bands sing, even when I like them, I still feel like they’re just singing words. But when Mike Ness sings about burying loved ones and knowing how we feel when we’re down, I believe him 100%.

They did one more in the unique set-up they had going on, the sole track played from the “Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll” album, “Reach for the Sky” – another case where the new set-up left some room for the gravity of the lyrics. In the song, Mike sings about living wild and recklessly, knowing that “a day may come when you have something to lose”.

Mike hasn’t shied away from sharing his personal story of wild living, heroin addiction, prison, and violence. I’ve interviewed him twice and both times he graciously spoke about the process of growing up. Much love and respect to my brother for being bold and transparent like that.

They ended the first segment of the show with their cover of the Kitty Wells classic honky tonk number “Making Believe”, a song from “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” that I’ve always loved, but haven’t ever heard live.

They started their encore, as they have every time I’ve seen them, with “Prison Bound”, the title track from their second album (1988); they talked a lot about and then played “Story of My Life” from their self-titled album; and ended the night with their take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” from the same album.

The set-up to “Story of My Life” was another case of getting older and growing up. Mike talked about how the song “stopped being about me a long, long time ago” and how it was now the story of everyone in the room. He pointed out that many of us had grown up singing it with Mike and now there was another, younger generation growing up listening to it, too. And we all sang it together that night.

At one point, someone yelled out a request that I couldn’t make out. Mike stopped, laughed, and said, “Man…I hate that fuckin’ song. I’m 49 years old and you still want me to sing about mom and dad and jail?”

And I felt a little validated. I’d felt badly as I’d questioned how Social Distortion was going to age. I didn’t want to doubt them, but I also never wanted to reach a point where I had to “break up” with my all time favorite band.

Turns out, I didn't need to be worried at all, because it’s been on Mike’s mind, too.

He spent much more time talking to and with the audience tonight than I’ve ever seen him do. His trademark vertical leap may have lost a few inches in recent years, but Mike was clearly having a really good time. He was thoughtful and introspective.

And while the last two Social Distortion shows I saw were about having something to prove, this one was decidedly about NOT having anything to prove. It was almost as if they had released their masterpiece album and now it was just all about playing and enjoying the music. About the art.

Bully for Social D. And…just for the record…just because they’ve released their masterpiece, doesn’t mean they have to stop. Or that they can’t release another one!

I bought “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” my freshman year of high school and it literally changed my life. Social Distortion has been my favorite band for over 20 years now. I thought for a while about taking my four-year old daughter with me to the show. This is definitely a band I plan to pass on to her and that I hope we can share. I wasn’t sure if she was ready, and it turned out she was sick last night, so the decision was made for me.

But during the last song of the night – their scorching version of “Ring of Fire”, I looked to the far edge of the stage, and Mike Ness (after jokingly rubbing the head of a bald bouncer) began playing with a child someone in the audience had lifted up to his level. Kid couldn’t’ have been more than two, if even that. Him and Mike slapped high fives, played a bit, Mike gave him a pick, and then they ended the show.

Perfect.

Long live Social Distortion. And if the Good Lord’s willin’ and the crick don’t rise, I’ll bring my daughter to the next one.

5-4-11 Social Distortion Setlist
Road Zombie
So Far Away
King of Fools
Bad Luck
Mommy's Little Monster
Sick Boy
Machine Gun Blues
Ball and Chain
Down on the World Again
Bakersfield
Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
Down Here (w/the Rest of Us)
Reach for the Sky
Making Believe
Encore:
Prison Bound
Story of My Life
Ring of Fire

Monday, May 2, 2011

WWJD

This isn’t going to be a pretty, well-thought-out post. I’m processing, just like everyone else is tonight…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” - Matthew 5:43-48

‎"Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice." - Proverbs 24:17

‎"Do you think I like to see wicked people die?" Declares the Lord, "Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live." - Ezekiel 18:23


A couple of hours ago news broke that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden and “taken custody of his body”. And the world rejoiced.

Facebook erupted with comments…jokes…”towel-head” remarks…and several posts taking others to task for celebrating someone’s death.

I fell into that last category.

Yesterday, it was announced that NATO forces had attacked Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi himself wasn’t killed, but his son was. And his son’s three children were. That last bit about the children barely got a mention in the news. No one made a big deal about that. Three children were killed…three children who didn’t have a choice who they were born to and had nothing to do with their parents actions…and no one seemed to care.

Tonight there’s rejoicing outside of the White House at the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

Many of those I know who are rejoicing are Christians. Christ followers. Disciples of the man who instructed us to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us.

Obviously this is a complicated issue. I’m one of the very first people to say that what’s good/right for Christianity may not necessarily be good/right for the country. I don’t believe America is “a Christian nation” – we’re a nation whose people are free to be Christians. So, the nation’s responsibility is to do what’s right for the nation…not what’s right for Christianity.

Obviously my real issue here is with Christians.

Was Osama Bin Laden a bad guy? Yup. Awful? Sure. Did he deserve to die? I guess so. But if we’re using God’s righteousness as a measuring stick…you and I are bad and deserve to die, too.

If you haven’t given up on me yet, let me go ahead and state that I am NOT anti-American and I do NOT mean ANY disrespect to our servicemen/women or those who lost their lives on 9/11.

9/11 was a horrible day. Nothing but a tragedy for everyone involved. And our armed forces are made up of brave people who deserve our utmost respect and admiration.

I understand that the laws/norms/whatever of our society dictate that America retaliate for what happened on 9/11. But I cannot wrap my head around a follower of Christ ever being behind any war. Jesus not only told us to turn the other cheek and to pray for our enemies…he also told us NOT to kill people. His father, God almighty, told people not to kill anyone thousands of years before Christ, even.

Many of my Christian friends have talked tonight about all of the lives that were taken by Osama Bin Laden and his forces. About all of the American lives lost. What no one seems to talk much about is the thousands of lives lost in other countries as America has pursued Osama.

One source I saw tonight said those lives lost came to an estimated 50,000 in Afghanistan, 1.6 million in Iraq, and 320 in Pakistan.

Does that make us even? Does it bring justice? President Obama said tonight that with the death of Osama Bin Laden, “Justice has been done”. (With the death of one man, justice has been done. I guess all of those others were “collateral damage”.)

But, I ask, how? How has justice been done?

Justice is defined as “the quality of being just; righteousness; equitableness; or moral rightness.”

Former President George W. Bush tonight talked about the phone call he received from President Obama: “This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.”

The death of a man is an “achievement”? How is this “victory”? What did we win?

President Obama tonight talked about the families of those 3,000 people killed on 9/11 and how they ached for their loved ones. That is a valid point. And my heart breaks for those people who died senselessly and their families who were left behind.

But did anything that happened today validate, vindicate, avenge, or whatever else those 3,000 deaths?

I just see it as a horrible cycle.

They attacked us. What do we have? A lot of tragic, senseless deaths. We attacked them back. What do we have? A WHOLE BUNCH of dead people on both sides. And what is different?

That’s what I’m not sure those folks celebrating outside the White House realize: this isn’t over. Terrorism won’t stop tomorrow. The sun’s going to come up in America and Pakistan tomorrow and bad guys the world over are still going to do bad things.

From a strictly practical standpoint, a guy like Osama Bin Laden (who supposedly considered death in battle the ultimate victory) doesn’t seem like someone not to have a back-up plan, “just in case”.

I’m probably rambling now. This is a heavy night…and I’m going to trust you see what I’m saying.

Maybe these words can better say what I’m trying to get at. This is text from the “Adopt A Terrorist For Prayer” website (www.atfp.org), an official ministry that seeks Christians to pray for terrorists:

“Where is the Christian response to terrorism? If the struggle against violence done in the name of Islam is primarily spiritual, then defeating it requires a spiritual response.

This site features FBI and State Department identified terrorists and terrorism sponsors. Terrorism inspires fear. According to Jesus, the antidote to fear is love.

When we hate, we are reactive victims. When we love we seize the initiative. Love for country helps soldiers to risk their lives. Love for children enables parents to discipline them without being intimidated. Love for us took Jesus to the cross. Love for enemies will give courage to face, overcome, and transform them and the environment that breeds them.

Historically, Stephen was the first fatality in terrorism directed against Jesus' followers. As Stephen died from stoning, he prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Later, Paul, who had supervised Stephen's stoning, met Jesus in a vision and repented.

Can we pray today like Stephen prayed then? Would Paul have repented if Stephen hadn't prayed?”


I’m not saying Osama Bin Laden wasn’t bad. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be punished. I’m just asking, what’s it all for? My heart aches in seeing people celebrate over the death of a man. It seems misguided.

What did it accomplish? What’s going to be different?

Is the war over? Will our boys and girls come home tomorrow? Will terrorism stop? Will religious differences stop leading to conflict? What’s it all for? It’s just another guy dead.

In closing, here are the words of one of my favorite songs from one of my greatest heroes, the prophet, Kris Kristofferson:

“In The News”
Read about the sorry way he done somebody's daughter
Chained her to a heavy thing and threw her in the water
And she sank into the darkness with their baby son inside her
A little piece of truth and beauty died

Burning up the atmosphere and cutting down the trees
The billion dollar bombing of a nation on it's knees
Anyone not marching to their tune they call it treason
Everyone says God is on his side

See the lightning, hear the cries
Of the wounded in a world in Holy war
Mortal thunder from the skies
Killing everything they say they're fighting for

Broken babies, broken homes
Broken-hearted people dying everyday
How'd this happen, what went wrong
Don't blame God, I swear to God I heard him say

"Not in my name, not on my ground
I want nothing but the ending of the war
No more killing, or it's over
And the mystery won't matter anymore"

Broken dreamers, broken rules
Broken-hearted people just like me and you
We are children of the stars
Don't blame God, I swear to God he's crying too

Hating terrorists is easy. Not hating them is tough. Praying for them is even tougher. But didn't Jesus always want us to do what is hard?

Another of my heroes, punk rock prophet Joe Strummer, once said, "The world is worth fighting for". Not fighting in the physical sense. But righteously fighting. Against hate. Against darkness.

Let's not give up. Let's not give in to hate.