Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rock & Roll Part 3: not dead yet

Last evening, as the world of popular music set it's sights on Cleveland and the induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one could almost be forgiven for the nostalgia and the tone of a memorial such an event can cast on the music. It's a grand thing, no doubt, to recognize the achievements of so many original artists, but there lies a danger to view the medium through the rosy haze of days gone by. We say “remember when” and toss around words like “classic” which should never have been associated with a music made of immediacy and rebellion, as we pour the bronze and build the pedestals and reduce our heroes and bad influences to pigeon roosts on a mall. As I say, it’s a great thing to behold and recognize our artists, and very cool for a bruised and bloodied city as ours to have this event, but it begs the question, if Rock & Roll is being stuffed into a museum, is it dead yet?

The answer last night, at a grungy little music club just a few miles east of the hard glass memorial to Rock, is an unequivocal “no”! At the same time the once young and relevant Metallica was receiving their plaque of gratitude, four ass kicking chicks were tearing it up on the tiny stage like the music had never died; indeed, like it was invented all over again as it has been for each generation.

HotChaCha is a band born of the city which fancies itself the Rock and Roll Capital, yet often forgets why that still matters. Jovana, the unforgettable singer with the dark eyes and sardonic smile, commands the stage and sings for the crowd, not her shoes, while the rest of the band propels her forward to the edge of the stage and into the audience. The music still matters to them, and it’s a joy to watch, like it’s being invented right before your eyes. And the crowd matters too, twenty somethings who don’t care what you listened to when you were their age, and some of us, even old enough to be their parents, who want to hear something new and vibrant, not just sing along to the oldies. When HotChaCha demands crowd participation, shouting the refrain “Bob” in the song of the same name, the interaction is immediate and genuine, as the musical experience should be. Never mind what their “influences” are, everyone is always influenced by what comes before, but nobody cares in this moment. This band creates a sound all their own with Mandy’s ringing, siren guitar, Heather’s staccato bass, Lisa’s urgent drums, and the throaty, midwest clip of Jovana’s vocals; and that’s all you need to know.

So leave those old records on the shelf, and get your ass out to hear the music now, and remember why you loved it all over again. HotChaCha is on a trajectory which may take them on to bigger and better things--because they are relevant, because they are fun, because they are even earnest in their enthusiasm and drive, and mostly--because they rock.

photo courtesy of John Scully

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I dreamt about a new VW

It was a Beetle, but not a "new" Beetle, it was a brand new "old" Beetle. And it was black and the interior had a new, plastic-y smell, and everything worked, like new. The seats were that tough, thick vinyl they used to use, and the carpet was just the simple, dark fuzzy stuff. There was heat from the heaters and it shifted smoothly, in fact, I think it had one of those clutchless gear shift systems VW used to make... I bought the car because I reasoned (in my dream) that I used to own a VW Kharman-Ghia and was familiar with the workings of such a car, that, and it was $1,200.00 new, which I thought was a good price to pay for any new car, especially since I could write a check for it right then and there.

It's not an unusual dream, as I often dream of cars--my old cars or imaginary cars I might have owned. I dream about shifting and sputtering up the hill from Little Italy to Cleveland Heights in my first VW, my leg punching the clutch and losing speed up the steep hill which delineates the "heights" from the flat, lower lying region of Cleveland around the shore of Lake Erie. I dream of my old mechanics, Hans and Tony, who would shake their heads and say to me in their thick German and Hungarian accents, "Stevie--what is the matter with this car now? This car is no good, Stevie!"

Their shop was in South Euclid, the suburb where I grew up, just east of Cleveland Heights. My dad started taking his cars to them since he knew them from the dealership where he bought his first two VWs. He was a quiet, modest man, with modest aspirations. An english major, he became a journalist, working his way up the chain of a major metropolitan newspaper from copy boy, beat reporter, until he found his niche as an entertainment critic, reviewing theater and movies mostly, and editing the entertainment section, until the paper (The Cleveland Press) finally folded in 1982. A child of Italian immigrants from Calabria, and of the depression, he could've been described as what we would call "green" in today's parlance. He gardened a good size plot in our backyard, growing everything from corn and swiss chard to garlic, peas, and even figs from cuttings started by his father. My brothers and I still have fig trees taken from those old trees which trace their way back to Calabria. We had a little orchard, too, with pears, cherries, apples, and plums. He was a DIYer, fixing anything and everything around the house himself, although usually with mixed results; our plumbing fixtures always needed a little extra torque or turn to stop the drip. And every other summer he would put us to work touching up the paint on different sides of the house.

In an era of chrome-clad, finned gas-guzzling wonders from Detroit, my dad bought a VW; inexpensive, modest, and fuel efficient. I was fascinated by the VWs of that time--the shapes were unique--they were the "alternative" car, whether for mild mannered men like dad, or the young boomers on the coasts. I cut out pictures of VWs from magazines and made collages, and I could draw their distinctive shape in one smooth, continuous line. He owned a total of three VW Beetles from the sixties and seventies, with a Fiat thrown in between for good pan-European measure. The entire family (before my sister was born) could fit into the Beetle--Mom and Dad up front, three boys in the back, and me in the cubby hole behind the back seat. We drove to Ontario like that one year, me in the little compartment with my children's books...

My second oldest brother, who became the first of three photographers in the family, shot a roll of film in the early spring of 1968. On it are what have become for me several iconic images which crystalize some important memories. Among them is a photo of my dad, emerging from his VW after work, with fedora and wool overcoat. Another shows me further out in front of the car, taking his place. Still another shows me in a toy pedal car, and another of my mom and dad and me in the middle, looking like we've just returned from church. In the most telling of the photos is me, wearing a cape and sunglasses; the cape represented Superman, whom I was fond of pretending to be, but the interesting detail is the sunglasses. You see, the sunglasses actually represented my disguise as Clark Kent, the alter ego of Superman, the mild mannered reporter for a "major metropolitan newspaper". In becoming Superman, I chose the low keyed yet all important character of Clark. Not unlike my dad, the newspaperman, driving his little car...

March 23rd would have been my Dad's 81st birthday, two days after mine, two early spring babies. He passed away in 1994.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Golden Diagonal...

I was recently asked what I thought of the "diagonal method"...

I think it's a part of our nature to apply order or symmetry to our world, and by extension our art. That's what we do--we make up shit to make the world make sense. So of course it's no surprise to find such order and symmetry in images we may be drawn to, nor is it surprising to want to impose an order on things which already exist to kind of "validate" them in our minds.

But after a certain point, usually the point being casual observation, that it just gets weird and arbitrary, like numerology. (Don't even get me started on numerology...) For instance, how convenient was it to draw the diagonal up from the lower corners in certain pieces while more examples have the diagonal drawn from the upper corners? What is the rule when it comes to this issue? Or is he simply seeing canals on the surface of Mars?

Don't get me wrong, I see the pattern. Sometimes. We have a collective aesthetic--certain chords and rhythms elicit certain moods in a lot of people because a lot of us have shared and heard examples which reference the same ideas. But there are entire cultures which traditionally do not share, for example, an aesthetic of representational imagery which you and I may take for granted.

There is a particular member of a certain photography forum who has recently become obsessed with "traditional" rules of composition and lighting. Problem is, few of my favorite photographers, who are quite well regarded, would pass his rigorous rules.

So where does that leave us? To paraphrase Duke Ellington, if it looks good, it is good. Of course, as our context grows, and that collective experience plays a larger role, what looks good may very well change right in front of your eyes.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Store Brand Oreos and Cheap Cabernet

So we're watching Anthony Bourdain--he's in Spain and we're salivating. Never watch Anthony Bourdain without something to drink or eat. I go crack a bottle of cheap California Cab and root around for something to eat late on a Monday night; I find an open package of Target brand Oreo type cookies. My girls swear that these are not as good as the "real" ones, but I beg to differ. Maybe it's the wine, maybe it's the exotic food preparations on the television, but these "oreos" are just a bit more chocolaty, just a bit creamier, and even a little less than perfect in how they're shmushed together and a little more crumbly; they are less shortening and more flavor. And the Cabernet loves them. Two modest offerings from the pantry, the right mood, lover at my side, Bourdain's wisecracking New York patois, and they meld into a perfect snack.

Like a lot of memorable eating experiences, my modest cookies and red wine have less to do with any great culinary finesse, and more to do with an attitude that this is this. The good life is here and now, to share and savor with whatever and whomever is near.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Summer Vacated

"may you live in interesting times"--an ancient curse, I believe.
Alas, it's been an interesting summer.

I hope to make new and regular contributions to this spot, including themes of, but not limited to, school, weather, travel, love, music, dining, drinking, smoking, sanity, and picture making.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rock & Roll Comes On A Thursday

(see this entry)
...but this time it's the Bellrays, who kick ass over and over, taking no prisoners with their head rattling, soul stretching rock & roll. Another band which renews your faith in why the music matters, Lisa and the band can make you believe nothing else matters when they are on stage, no mean feat in this age of over saturation and over commercialization in the music business. A time when some would have us believe that the price of your ticket or the size of the stage show should make you feel guilty for being less than impressed, here is the real deal.

Rock & Roll Comes On A Tuesday

...or whenever or wherever you might not expect it. After a half century, or really a whole damn century, of electrified, hip-shaking, brain rattling music from the American gut, and a complete commodification of said rattling, it's heartening to STILL find rock rolling.

Singing, screaming, thrashing and bashing out the rhythm, a melody as direct as a "hey, baby" a continuo that shakes your balls, and skull splitting drums in a room where you can feel, smell, and even taste it--that's rock & roll the way the lord meant it.

And that is what came, unexpectedly, on a Tuesday night in May at The Beachland Tavern, when Pela played on the second night of their tour. Warming up themselves as well as the small crowd of early-in-the-week music lovers, they fairly blew the few away. With insistent riffs and urgent singing, both catchy and pushy, Pela reminds you of why you love the music.

Going on a whim and a blurb, it's the unexpected, sometimes obscure, or otherwise just hard working shows like this which renew my faith in the music.