Launch: New Album, New (30 Day) Kickstarter – Tuesday, April 25

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – 2017: Musician Jonathan J. Bower.

Hello.

It’s been a while, and only because it has been such a long while, it’s a little hard to know how and where to begin this correspondence.

What’s new with you? It seems a lot’s happened since Bower’s “Hope, Alaska” came out…A lot that hangs heavy in the air in recent months, for sure, but that I doubt I would skillfully know how to address or discuss here of all places.

I will share that of the books I’ve read so far this year, even as recently as last night, and of the songs and albums I’ve listened to over the last few days, I’ve also returned with some  frequency to these lines from the poet, Robert Wrigley:

“Hope is a thing with sleek skin. A trout…There is no future and it’s coming.”

I can’t remember why a friend shared that with me a few years ago, but it still sticks. And since this correspondence is going to be too long anyway, I won’t go on and on about what those lines mean to me here and why it seems to make all the sense in the world to me in a time that not much going on in the world makes any sense to me at all.

So.

Wrigley’s words worked one over on me a few years ago, too, and enough so – in just such a way – that I threw those lines into the “Hope, Alaska” liner notes as a kind of footnote or “P.P.S.” at the last minute – like, right before we sent the album art off to the printers. I can remember pulling a quote about Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the eleventh hour and asking Bradley to make this last edit and worrying that – after everything I’d already put him through – he would reach through my computer screen and lift me off the ground by my throat like Darth Vader.

And in recent days – and in these strange times we find ourselves in – I feel like I’ve come a kind-of full circle. The songs on “Hope” were in part meant to push and pull on that buggering term and here I find myself in 2017 pushing and pulling and wondering about it more than ever.

Meanwhile, there’s this other thing going on, too. There’s new music. And some of you know about this already.

Three years since the last Kickstarter, I must admit that I’m still surprised I survived the crowdsourcing effort. I’m not saying I’m surprised we met our fundraising goal – though the moment we did that had its own shock and disbelief built into it, too.

But I’m more shocked I survived all the “shameless self-promotion” and the “buy my stuff” and “here’s my Bower face again” thing that Kickstarter’s all about. If there were any reason I’d ever pine for major label support today, it’d only be because someone not me would be paid to handle the promotion side of this machine so that I could just be my “INFJ”-self (see Meyers-Briggs) and mind my beeswax and write and record and play songs and that’s it.

So why I’d leap into the fray all over again is – on one hand – beyond me.

However, in other ways, it’s also a no-brainer, too. I met some incredible people through that crowdsourcing stint, then played in some remarkable locations, and – because the Kickstarter campaign brought the album to life – I have watched the “Hope, Alaska” album and merchandise travel to locations around the world that I haven’t. And that strikes me as pretty amazing. And – depending on the day – it can prove a little annoying, too. “Hope, Alaska” has been to Ireland and Paris and I haven’t yet. I’m jealous of my own CD. How is that even possible?

I also believe these new songs are right and good enough to warrant getting out of my own self-conscious way again and giving Kickstarter another whirl. So, we’re going to do that: We launch next Tuesday, April 25. If you liked the “Hope, Alaska” album enough to think it could be worth investing in the next record, then mark your calendars – or enter it in your phone or iCal or whatever we all do to remember stuff now.

Last summer, I spent a lot of the season house sitting and during this period, without any intention of doing so, I found myself flush in a songwriting period for the first time in a couple years.

One night, after being at it and in the songs for a lot of the day, I went out and wandered around town for fresh air and to maybe feel human around other humans for a few minutes, and at some point in the evening landed in a bar and ran into a couple people I knew. A few of us were shooting the bull for a couple minutes when one of these guys asked me, “Hey, what ever happened to your music thing anyway? Why aren’t you writing songs anymore?”

I can’t remember how or if I even responded to him; maybe I fainted on the spot, or turned and ran away like Forrest Gump, or maybe I leapt on him like a jungle cat – but whatever I did I woke up in my friend’s house the next day – so at least I made it back in one piece and continued working on the songs.

And in the months since that time, we found there are enough songs to warrant a new album. It’s untitled, but the working title, for now at least, is “Brave.” (We’ll share the story of that song/title soon enough, via other means.)

The only way I’ll know how to swear by and represent these songs to you and anyone else, however, is to share them with people, but – like the last record – the only way I’ll be able to do that is to leap into the void and engage in another crowdsourcing effort.

So, again, next Tuesday, April 25th, the new Kickstarter for this record will launch and go live. Forecasting recording production, post-production, and replication costs, it looks like I’ll be working to raise close to twice what I raised for the “Hope, Alaska” Kickstarter. (The “Hope” Kickstarter covered replication and some minor post-production costs.)

The album will feature Evan Phillips at the production helm again, as well as a couple returning musicians and a batch of new ones, too. Evan and I started pre-production tasks for the album in the new year, and even in their currently rough, skeletal form, we’ve become pretty excited about where this project will go once it’s underway. I’m entirely comfortable sharing that these feel like some of the “best” (most gratifying?) songs I’ve written since returning to songwriting in 2012.

Perhaps more than requesting that those of you who backed my last project get behind this one, I would doubly appreciate if you would consider sharing word of this project with anyone you think might enjoy the kind of sounds, themes, and songs we put together for “Hope, Alaska.” While this record won’t sound exactly like “Hope” it will certainly bear some clear similarities and hardly prove a stylistic departure a la…well, like recent Bon Iver, for example.

Since I am needing to raise a bit more than I did in the last campaign, I’m going to have to reach a little further out than I did with the last one, and it’d mean the world if you knew anyone with whom you could share this project or introduce to the music.

We have some great incentives and “backer rewards” this time around, and we’ll feature weekly updates, including backer-only video performances and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the project in progress. Backers will also get an early look at Brian Adams’s remarkable album art for this project, an early-bird glimpse of the track listing and more, and a digital copy of the record ahead of the release date.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – 2017: Musician Jonathan J. Bower.

Thanks for reading all this if you made it this far. Oh, and if you want the absolute first, earliest early-bird glimpse of the record, then read the P.S. below my sign-off. In the meantime, I’ll probably shoot another message Tuesday, when the Kickstarter goes live. And that message will be crazy short (I PROMISE) in part because this one is so crazy long. And once the campaign goes live I’ll be like a man with his hair on fire for 30 days straight anyway and probably only speak/write in monosyllables or emojis.

Ok. Be well and take good care,

Jonathan Bower

P.S. For about five minutes late last year, I thought that I’d title the new record “Tribute” and I toyed with this track listing of alternate titles. With the exception of “John Prine” (& never minding tracks 3 & 9, written before last summer) none of these are the actual titles of the songs on the new record, but were – at one time or another – working (alternate) titles, or seeds, that helped me stay a course while writing them:

*Tribute*

1. Song for Leonard Cohen

2.  Song for Matt/Bill Cunningham

3.  ***

4. Song for Trace

5. Song for Cameron

6. Song for Sam

7.  John Prine

8. After Harvey James

9.  ***

10.  Song for ?

Saturday, January 21st, 2017 Anchorage, AK

Well.

And Wow.

I’ve never marched in white out conditions with a couple thousand people before.

It was beautiful.

A sight to see. Here are some pictures & a few words:

In the spirit of the Quakers, who were on my mind a lot on Saturday – and who are known to concur with another by saying, “This Friend speaks my mind” – following Saturday’s events, “This scene speaks my mind.” My peace of mind. For now. And onward we go.

 

 

The Week in Waxwings

Well, a more accurate title would maybe be “Two Weeks of Waxwings.” These pictures were snapped over the course of a couple weeks when my day’s activities crossed paths with what at first glance would appear the random goings-on of waxwings in Anchorage, Alaska.

Over the last five years, I’ve come to adore these birds and to anticipate the unpredictable moments that our paths cross.

Perhaps it’s what Mark Whitmer – in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior – calls “the stately, upright posture” of waxwings. When they descend and then perch in a tree, they appear almost distinguished, proud – and entirely oblivious to the cold temperatures this time of year. They’re good role models for helping you endure, with character and dignity, the bitterest cold of the long winter months.

And maybe it’s also, in part, their head crest, which on one hand immediately – for me, still a novice birder – distinguishes them from other flocking birds, and that also just looks really cool in profile or silhouette.

I don’t know. If I knew exactly what it is about them that consumes me this time of year, and how to describe it, I would. Maybe it’s mostly that I have an associative affection for the word “bohemian” – a word that too accurately describes my life and the choices I’ve made in adulthood – and so I’m narcissistically drawn to them as a sort of totem or spirit animal/bird.

All I can say here is that when I hear them approaching or within earshot, in this season – deep winter in southern Alaska, from December through February – something goes to rest, goes light and easy inside me. In the moment I hear the waxwings – before I see them or even know where to spot them – whatever weighs on me or is taking up too much space in my mind disappears. I immediately start scanning the sky in the direction I hear their song.

And maybe that’s another part of what attracts me to them: I know their song. Even from a considerable distance, I can hear them and know that waxwings are close. I can only distinguish between a couple other kinds of birds by ear, from far away – without seeing them. They’re one of the few bird species that I immediately recognize by sound.

Then, once they’re within view, the real show begins. It’s this part that causes me to drop everything – whether my activity, or my “troubling mind.” Such as when, a few days ago, while running a work errand, my head teeming with worry about one or another thing, I saw a flock of them twisting and sharply turning  through the air, diving and racing around the sky before finally descending together on a few nearby trees. I pulled over, put my hazard lights on and got out of the car. I lost track of how long I watched them take turns diving from the top of one tree down to a nearby mountain ash – where they consume the berries – and then fly back to the higher branches, only – I imagine – when they’ve had their fill. I lost track of how long I watched them, but when I returned to my car and drove away, I also lost track of everything that had been consuming my “trifling mind” until our paths crossed.

A friend of mine texted me a couple weeks ago telling me she was zoning out on videos of starling murmurations, and she encouraged me to do the same. Curiously enough, I had a little earlier been reading about the science of starling murmurations at a website and had just watched a video that was included with the article.

While never, in my experience, as dramatic as witnessing a starling murmuration in real time, when you watch waxwings in flight you’re aware that a flock’s motions and activity possesses its own science, too, and – like the starlings – equally proves mysterious and musical to witness as it happens.

Maybe, if a starling murmuration is an orchestra performing a symphony by Mozart or Beethoven, then watching waxwings flock and fly and descend and feed is like witnessing an acclaimed jazz trio or quartet at the peak of their powers in an intimate venue.

Lastly, I appreciate the “shy” nature of these – and many, many other – birds. I’m not a nature photographer. I like the way they don’t let me step too close before swiftly darting away, out of sight. I admire that these regal, beautifully-coiffed birds – like others, of course – are not prima donnas. They are beautiful singers – and fliers – and exceptionally dressed, and yet they don’t trust a close up encounter. And don’t need one the way I do. The way I crave one.

I don’t have fancy lenses that cost the maintenance needed on my car, or the price of a good guitar. I’m occasionally wracked with envy and wishing I did. I am, it’s obvious, as much a novice photographer as I am a bird watcher. More than the perfect, most beautiful or postcard-perfect shot of wildlife or nature in action, I’m more interested in (and snap pictures of)…”moments” as I experience them. These are often inexplicable or intended (/staged) photographs. I yank out my phone (in most cases) and play with lighting as quickly as I can, and look for form in the moment. Sometimes it “works” enough to my satisfaction. Or, to put it crudely, sometimes this process affords me a few photos that, for me, “don’t suck.” (A lot of them, however, do, and I do trash a lot of the pictures I take.)

Anyway. I stopped looking at social media and the major newspapers and media and magazines last week, beginning 1/19. I found that without my feeds and media at an absentminded, automaton click away, I was scanning the sky a lot more. Looking somewhere, anywhere. For something. Not just for anything.

I think I was looking for waxwings.

 

A (Belated) New Year’s…Affection/Desire

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through…

…Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

– John O’Donohue

Happy New Year – belatedly, I know.

How did you welcome 2017?

I wasn’t sure how to ring in the New Year this year at all. On one hand, since my boys and I were traveling in the air for a lot of 12/30 – returning to AK from PA – I hadn’t even thought about it. Add to this, jet lag from returning to AK at 3am New Year’s Eve morning, and the fog of missing family and friends back East following our return, and I was plumb oblivious about how to proceed towards the new year.

Also, the last quarter of 2016 felt, for me, like it was all motion all the time, possessing very little conscious pause or rest. A lot of this was my own doing, I’ll allow – I took on a bit of extra work in the fall and winter – and then some of it was just the furious pace and energy (and stress) that seemed to characterize the closing weeks of the U.S. Presidential election season.

Anyway, I stopped by the home of friends for a little while that evening, then stopped by my favorite Anchorage hideaway bar and asked Mandy to give me that rye on the rocks that she’s always recommending. At 11:55pm, the bar staff graced us all with free champagne. Sometimes you want to be where nobody knows your name (except for that one bartender), and that proved the best, right way to ease into the year ahead, bewildered uncertainty and all.

In the soft, blushing light of New Year’s Day morning, I woke up feeling that, in hindsight, I may have spent at least half of 2016 holding my breath, too. And for a few different reasons – not any single specific one I can name right off the bat, though I can think of a few circumstances in the past year that loaned to that feeling.

But, despite these feelings and thoughts, I also woke up on New Year’s Day feeling absolutely “speechless.” Wordless. And I’ve felt that way for a lot of the week since then, too.

As a writer, not knowing what to say, the feeling of maybe not having anything to put down in writing can feel briefly disorienting, and sometimes downright unhinging. Especially when you’ve grown accustomed to drafting your thoughts on a regular basis. I was, for example, writing a weekly column for the paper here from September through the holidays. I’ve been back in the writing groove for a while, so – what gives? Pray tell, how this sudden vacancy?

And yet, I wasn’t distressed this time around. Just a little tired, really.

And quiet.  Rather, I only felt quiet – and by that I meant the “presence” of quiet, let’s say – and in its arrival, or in the awareness of it that morning, I wanted only to rest in that. And have spent as much of the week since New Year’s Day giving over to that impulse when I’m able.

In this way, I wondered if I had unknowingly come to occupy the curious spaces the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote about some years ago in his poem, “For One Who Is Exhausted” (which I’ve included here, below the photo essay). Rereading that, yes, I have to confess – a big part of me easily identified with the circumstances described in the poem; it’s not a big leap to recognize myself occupying the emotional landscape he writes about there. In some obvious, simple ways, some of what I’m feeling and experiencing can be chalked up to little more than plain, ordinary exhaustion.

Meanwhile, there was the year ahead to consider and I admit, too, that I’ve had little idea about how to embrace it, lean into or welcome it. Not for any reason other than perhaps – putting the looming matter of our country’s president-elect aside for a moment – my own poor planning, as well as a soft-spoken desire to honor my time here – in the world, in writing, in work, in play, in parenting – in a different way. Or, not different, so much as “tweaked,” or “slightly altered”…the way you might alter or hem a dress or favorite pair of pants.

Though how exactly, I can’t say just now…I’m “speechless” right now, after all. (He said, a few hundred words into a post…)

On New Year’s Day, however, a friend I hadn’t seen in a few weeks stopped over for coffee. We sat on the couch and caught up on our lives and at some point I noticed the day’s bright sunlight splashing across the coffee table in front of us. Not too long later, I noticed that same sun casting across my friend’s lap, and then – not long after that – it was reaching along her shoulder and chest and then soon her face was blinded in it.

It passed, too, of course. The sunlight soon moved across her face, and then along the edge of the couch on her right side, and across the rest of the room as it traveled its path across the sky outside.

I didn’t stop our conversation to note as much, but watching the sun proceed along its course through that room and along the sky seemed to offer me the closest thing I have to resembling a New Year’s resolution for the coming year.

I won’t even call it a resolution, actually.

This year, I want to note and find light. In the spaces. Wherever it is and wherever they are. (The light and spaces.)

And so less wordy, verbose posting (I’ll slip off this part of the intention frequently no doubt, I’m sure). Less adding fuel to our collective anxieties, nerves, and caution. Less Facebook and twitter, if any, for example. Less clutter.

More light. More spaces.

More songs. Music. More poems. More white space on the page.

It took seeing the sun travel across this friend during our conversation to find or discover this well of desire. After she left, I felt suddenly giddy (Scrooge, revived, human again) and infused with affection. I looked at pics I’d snapped the night before and earlier in the morning. I grabbed my cameras and jumped in the car – it was nearly sunset – and I drove over to the coastal trail for a New Year’s Day walk in the frigid winter air at sundown.

I wanted only to be in that naked, rich silence, and to catch a little more light. And that’s all I still want. And I think, I trust, that’s all I’ll continue to desire for now, too…

Happy New Year.

A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

–John O’Donohue

Songs for the Darkest Time of Year, Vol. 4

I cried when I wrote this
I’ll always remember
The worst kind of lonely
Is alone in December.
– “Here It Is,” Over the Rhine

I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year
– Merle Haggard

This time last year, while running errands around town with my boys, my 8-year-old, Matt, shouted from the backseat and above the music on the stereo, “Pop? Does Over the Rhine not like Christmas?”

The most recent of the Cincinnati duo’s three Christmas albums was playing–2014’s Blood Oranges in the Snow–and the song that sparked his question, “My Father’s Body,” was a haunting, melancholy reflection on the loss of a parent.

While I’ve never, over the course of the band’s three Christmas records in twenty years, felt that the husband/wife ensemble dislikes Christmas, I do think my son posed the matter nagging him in the only way he could frame it right then. As a tuned-in listener–but a boy entirely beholden to an American childhood’s manic thrill and wonder towards this holiday–you’d be forgiven for hearing a band singing about Christmas in minor chords and thinking that they missed the memo about cheer, joy and all that jazz.

Wait, what? Acknowledging, singing about grief in the season of making merry and bright? Quick, someone pop Elf into the DVD player. Someone hand that boy a tree-shaped cookie.

Or maybe that’s what any sane parent would do. That afternoon, however, I tried to casually inform my youngest that while, yeah, Christmas is fun for many kids and families, sometimes it’s also a sad time for people, too. He seemed surprised by this, as I would have been at his age. And that’s when I shared with him that one of the saddest days of my life was the Christmas Eve, a long time ago, when I attended the funeral for a murdered relative.

After I shared that, I wanted a few tree-shaped cookies, too. For both of us.

I forgot about last winter’s interaction until a couple weeks ago, not long after the start of a new holiday season. That afternoon, I popped OTR’s 2006 holiday collection, Snow Angels, into the car stereo.

I don’t know where my head went after the album started, but not long into it, I noticed my 12-year-old, Sam, seated next to me in the front of the car, muttering and repeating to himself, “Yup…Uh-huh…Yeah…Yup…”

I assumed he was talking to me and that I’d spaced out, unaware he’d started a conversation. I pushed to the surface and asked, “Huh? What’s that?”  

Sam nodded towards the stereo, “I’m listening to the song.”

He turned the knob, rewinding the second track, “Darlin,” and returned it to the start of the first verse:

So it’s been a long year –

“Yeah,” he nodded.

Every new day brings one more tear –

“Yup,” Sam agreed, which is when my heart plunged for the umpteenth time in two weeks.

Till there’s nothing left to cry.

“Uh-huh,” he mumbled, and then looked at me, “See,” he asked, “Ms. Drinen died, and then Beckett,” (his best friend’s dog) “and it feels like there’s nothing left to cry…”

A knot caught in my throat and my eyes welled up with tears and now it was me who wanted to avoid going to those places right then. And so I turned the volume down and we again worked to pull it all together.

A couple weeks earlier, our little Waldorf-inspired ASD school, Winterberry Charter, lost a cherished community member and teacher. It’s proven a deeply-felt loss for Sam, his classmates and a number of the parents of the kids in his class. She had become a good friend to many of us. Some of Sam’s classmates had been her students from Kindergarten until her official resignation last year, when she left her position to attend to her health.  

On one hand, we’ve been reminded in the days since her death that she cast a wide, rich light on not only our school community, but throughout Anchorage as well. Reflecting on her life in this way has admittedly loaned a softer-than-usual tenderness to the holiday that might otherwise elude me if I were on auto-pilot and robotically ordering gifts on amazon, or anxiously hunting for specific Lego sets all over town. Which is not to at all suggest any of this has been worth the weight.

In this particular holiday season, songs about burying a loved one in winter or surveying the year and recognizing it’s been harder than we could have foreseen sound entirely more true and resonant of our lives than all the triumphant choruses of angels casting joy to the world or peace on earth.

And it’s not as though Over the Rhine represent the only artists undertaking a more thorough, full-hearted accounting of the Christmas season.

Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine, among others, have penned notable reflections on the holiday from the point of view of narrators caught in a vacant and stark no-man’s land. Their stories emerge from a limbo between the manufactured joy and requisite excitement of the commercialized Christmas holiday, contrasting with the stark reality of the challenging situations in which their characters find themselves.

John Prine – Christmas In Prison

Over the Rhine – If We Make It Through December (by Merle Haggard)

In that spirit, while it’s hardly a Christmas song, this holiday season I’ve found myself returning frequently to Jose Gonzalez’s “Stay Alive,” a song found on the soundtrack for 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Jose Gonzalez – Stay Alive

In the week that Sam’s teacher passed away, a coworker and I were scheduled to deliver a two-day, Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) training at the mental health agency where we work. While we already offer the class at our place of employment a few times each year, we had weeks earlier been approached by The National Council of Behavioral Health in D.C. about participating in a nationwide effort to bring the training to states featuring the highest suicide rates. They asked if my coworker and I would add a class to our December schedules as part of a national effort to increase suicide awareness in at-risk communities.

Over the space of two days, YMHFA trains participants to become equipped to respond to youths experiencing a variety of mental health crises, with an increased emphasis on attending to individuals at risk for suicide or self-harming behaviors.

I’m well acquainted with the bullet points of our PowerPoint presentation by now and I know most of the case study scenarios, as well as the goals of each group exercise inside out.

I know, for instance, that most major holidays, and the darker time of year here specifically, prove a challenge for people at risk of suicide and other mental health issues. I know that regions in the northern climes, at latitudes similar to where Alaska is situated on the map, see dramatic spikes in substance abuse, suicide and depression compared with other regions on the globe.

I know all of this after many years in the mental health field and by my immersion in this and other training curriculums. And I have delivered the training enough times by now that I know at which point in the training I’m going to share the story of a suicide intervention I took part in a couple Decembers ago in Anchorage.

But even knowing this story was coming in the training that week–never mind having lived it–nothing could stop the sudden surge of emotions that rocketed to the surface when I commenced with it in front of our trainees in this particular week. I’d never experienced, in my years teaching or leading trainings, a moment where the weight of personal matters flooded in to overwhelm and unhinge my ability to manage myself in a class. And, in no time, I felt I’d triggered a rippling groundswell inside.

I offered the group a few extra breaks over those two days, though only so I could remove to the bathroom or my office to compose myself, to breathe off mounting overwhelm and collect my wits. The impact of one noticeable loss earlier in the week seemed to be calling to life other felt losses and crises during this season–Ghosts of Christmases past, if you will.

I texted and emailed my co-trainer out of sight of the training a couple times during the breaks, worried that I was proving as out of it at the front of the room as I felt inside. She knew about our school and family’s loss days earlier and conveyed her full understanding and expressed concern that our roles as trainers leave little if any room for attending to the emotions or feelings that our material might sometimes call to the surface for us.

I found something unexpectedly comforting and reassuring those two days then, darting home in the swiftly darkening December afternoons and ducking any mention of Christmas and holiday cheer and, in this case, listening to Jose Gonzalez wearily murmur, “I will stay with you tonight” in “Stay Alive.” In any other songwriter’s catalogue, that would sound like an invitation to bed down for an unforgettable night of carnal bliss. However, in Gonzalez’s hands, it’s an effort to insure a loved one knows he or she’s not alone; a genuine concern that the person in his care quite literally stays alive.

Similarly, I rediscovered in Neil Young’s voice a thread of pathos and an undeniable well of melancholy that I had not considered or encountered in a long time, which proved quietly consoling late into those evenings after the boys went to sleep.

Neil Young – Star of Bethlehem

Over the Rhine’s Linford Detweiler has shared that when he first heard lead singer, Karin Bergquist’s voice–before they were a couple, and when he and a couple friends were starting a band in the late 1980’s–he noticed that “Karin sang from the place where her pain lived.” The space she went to, the emotional landscape that she could convey in song demanded he also strive to achieve a similar legitimacy and authenticity in his songwriting efforts. “I came to believe that if she was willing to be that emotionally honest and vulnerable, maybe I had the permission to tell the truth as well.”

“Songs,” he added–and it cannot be overstated–“are safe containers for pain.”

Is there any other way to honor and be true to the spirit of your grief than to be present and grieve when you’re grief-stricken? No matter where in the calendar or the music trends that it finds you?

Doing so, of course, is not the least bit entertaining. It’s certainly not fashionable. Lord knows I’d prefer to revel in multiple romps with Buddy the Elf this time of year, to watch Jimmy Stewart learn life’s most valuable lessons from his guardian angel. However, this December I’m again reminded that it’s important to afford time in the less glamorous, more shadowy and vulnerable places when our hearts or circumstances beckon us there.

In a season where every place of commerce blares and demands, “Joy to the World,” “Deck the Halls” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” I’m grateful this year for a wealth of alternatives–songs for the rest of us limping or staggering through the season. I’ve no idea what state of mind or heart these songs have found you in this year. For me, these selections serve as dimly lit side streets away from the hustle and bustle and the glare of the bright lights flooding main street. In these spaces, you might feel terrified, sad and alone, but–take heart–you’re in good, reliable and undeniable company.

Take care, be well, and keep the good songs close in 2017.

Songs for the Darkest Time of Year, Vol. 3

A couple of nights ago, I returned to the gym for the first time since the election. The last time I went was November 2, the night of Game 7 of the World Series. I thought I’d be able to avoid election mayhem on all the televisions lining the wall and park myself in front of a TV showing the Indians/Cubs game. No such luck.

That night, I wandered up and down the line of treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines for a TV airing the game—the game in which the Cubs would, as we know, go onto break their 108 year-old curse—and not one TV featured it on screen.

A few aired college football, food shows and network dramas. Meanwhile, the overwhelming rest, of course, aired non-stop election coverage. So, I resolved to cut my run in half and then head somewhere that would be airing the game.

I stepped on a treadmill and on the screen ahead of me CNN featured a frail, elderly, razor-thin African-American woman, under which ran a headline indicating that this 100-year-old woman might not have been legally registered to vote in the election. I  stood still on the treadmill and watched the closed-captioning roll across the screen, telling the story of the controversy surrounding this limp, ghost of a woman.

I walked off the motionless treadmill back to the locker room, dressed, drove to the Blue Fox and watched the Cubs game and drank IPAs. It was the right decision.

Fast-forward to a of couple nights ago. I knew the TVs would be buzzing with all the ways Trump’s been taking up oxygen since November 9. So, I brought a couple magazines and loaded my iPod with podcasts in hopes they’d distract me from the TVs.

But then, approaching the treadmill, I saw the script for Star Wars: A New Hope receding into deep space on one of the televisions. I’d worried for nothing. I could run and lose myself in Star Wars for the 973rd time in 40 years.

And, for a time, that was just what the doctor ordered. Then, the TV next to the one airing Star Wars continued a program returning from a commercial break. It was a retrospective on Obama’s presidency airing on CNN. It opened with the Sandy Hook shooting of 12/12. Following select footage of the scene that day at Sandy Hook, the screen showed the President standing backstage in the White House briefing room.

I had never seen this footage before. I had seen his speech to the press—from the podium on the other side of the curtain on which he stood here—and perhaps you saw that speech, too: Maybe you recall the President losing his composure as he tried to inform a White House press briefing room full of reporters that 20 children had just been fatally shot by a gunman in Connecticut.

What I’d never seen—and saw now for the first time—was that he wasn’t holding it together in the moments before he walked to the podium either. Before someone cast the curtain aside so he could proceed to the podium, the President stood visibly shaken. He wiped tears away, and in one swift moment that curtain was swept open and it was show time; he inhaled then strode through the opening into the press briefing room.

On the TV in front of me, a farm boy was stumbling into the galactic journey—and myth—of a lifetime. Meanwhile, on that other TV—the one at an angle from me—I knew I was witnessing something more powerful than a Death Star, an army of Stormtroopers, or a cache of laser blasters. A true show of strength: A leader capable of empathy; a man shattered by the circumstances his fellow citizens were facing, who was unafraid to go to a vulnerable place in a dark moment, to risk connecting on a human level with those thrown into the deepest well of pain imaginable.

I knew, too, again, that I was—we were—encountering something in President Obama that I can never expect to witness or experience with the current President-elect. He isn’t even the President yet, and I’m already convinced of this.

And that both saddens and deeply concerns me. Though I’ll pray with everything in my being that he proves me wrong.

12/17/12 – The Decemberists

Shortly following its release, I learned that “12/17/12”—the track referencing the title of the band’s 2015 What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World—served as a short meditation on the Sandy Hook shooting. However, I only recently learned that Colin Meloy penned his plaintive rumination in response to Obama’s address to the nation following the incident.

It’s hardly fashionable to note how truly challenging this time of year is for a lot of people, but even the song’s title plants the unspoken, unmentionable seed that is another lived truth for many people this season.

Many in my parents’ generation can tell me where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. When I first learned of the Sandy Hook shooting, I was, strangely enough, preparing to teach a CPR/First Aid class.

And did every parent across the country want to drop everything that morning and race to their kids’ schools and scoop them up and draw them close?

Colin Meloy assures me here that I wasn’t the only one.

Scud Mountain Boys – A Ride

“It was winter of ‘85. It was Christmas outside. At 1a.m. my phone’s awake. All f***** up, you called me for a ride … ”

The New Mendicants – A Very Sorry Christmas

When I first heard Joe Pernice in the mid-1990s, he was fronting a little-known outfit out of New England, the Scud Mountain Boys. Their Sub-Pop release, the lo-fi, acoustic and ambient, quaalude-infused, Massachusetts, remains one of my desert-island albums, though that lengthier discussion belongs to another day.

One reason, however, is that there’s no immediate base of comparison or point of reference for the record. What or who did they sound like? They sounded like the haunted and hazy musings of a stoned, downer, entitled brat who realized that his fun, or maybe his life, was over before the Zoloft started working. They sounded like the song you’d moan in the first 15 minutes of a blistering hangover, at the moment the full import of the previous evening’s regrets surged to the front of your throbbing head.

For example, as Pernice’s narrator looks back on that long ago Christmas in “A Ride,” he’s hard-pressed to understand—much less explain—his behavior toward the girl who reached out to him for help one inglorious evening. He made the drive, retrieved her, after which she hid her face in her pocketbook, her shoes in one hand. “The road was slick and we never spoke,” he recalls, after which he laments, “I held the wheel, when I should have held your hand.”

On that recognition, the electric guitar goes hauntingly ambient and spreads like a cloud of cigarette smoke through the room.

And as if that admission weren’t enough, Pernice then wearily acknowledges, almost as a beleaguered parting shot: “I look back and I don’t feel one thing. I don’t feel one thing.”

That, for him, however, is the clincher; evidence of a gaping vacancy at the heart of him. Still, whether that means or changes anything for him or not is hard to say.

“How come I can’t cross that water in my head?” he numbly asks, “How come I get the feeling a part of me is dead?”

Fast-forward nearly 20 years later—and perhaps a bit of therapy, maybe a good SSRI, or just plain maturing, growing up, and insight—and Pernice seems to have reached a vulnerability he couldn’t access as a young, spaced out phantom menace. In 2013’s “A Very Sorry Christmas,” and recording under The New Mendicants with Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Pernice seeks to reconcile with the ghosts in his past.

Over a charging power-pop melody, he pleads, “Oh silent night, oh holy night, oh fabled Christmas Eve – I come here as a beggar on my knees…I’m carrying a cross you won’t believe.” He then confesses, “I’ve hurt so many people along the way – some are dead, and some merely hate me,” after which he petitions the Christmas Spirit:

“On a very sorry Christmas Eve, I wonder if the ghosts will let me be.
On a very sorry Christmas Eve, I only want a chance to say I’m sorry.”

While I wouldn’t presume Pernice specifically intends the song for the girl of Christmas past in “A Ride,” the two songs portray one man’s path through the complicated meanings and experiences of the holiday from different sides of life’s stages and journey. Taken together, they play like snapshots, chapters lifted from the before and after portions of a modern day Scrooge’s redemption story.

Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country

I feel awful admitting as much, but I’m one of those knee-knocking, anxious cads who—since 11/9—has spent time researching what I need to do to leave the States again, to make another move overseas. I know the effort has self-preservation written all over it, but I’m having trouble weighing the point of sticking around the U.S. to just keep signing online petitions that go … where exactly? All while this guy with his tweets and erratic, diagnosable behaviors is handed the keys to … well, everything. I’ve surfed the web, emailed with a few friends and pondered which country would most likely tolerate an American seeking asylum from the Trumpian tragedy the president-elect is currently stage-designing for everyone in full view.

Self-centered escapist fantasy or not, Scotland’s Camera Obscura’s 2006 piece of ear candy delightfully reminds me that traveling off to new lands is to adulthood what Christmas morning is to small children.

Carey Lander, the band’s lead singer—who passed away in 2015—touches on something teeming away in me this season as she blandly intones, “Let’s get out of this country/I have been so unhappy.” Even if temporary, her remedy sounds like a perfectly-timed respite:

We’ll pick berries and recline
Let’s hit road dear friend of mine
Wave goodbye to our thankless jobs
We’ll drive for miles maybe never turn off
We’ll find a cathedral city, you can be handsome I’ll be pretty

Sigh. She’s reading my mail. Yes. Let’s do that, please. Like, today?

Adam Jones & K.S. Rhoads – Who Will Carry You?

A heart-achingly beautiful melody picked and sung by Idaho’s Hollowood frontman, Adam Jones, I heard the song for the first time a few weeks ago in the closing moments of an episode of amazon.com’s series, “Transparent.”

Following November’s election, I spent a few nights binge-watching the program. In many ways, the family drama felt reminiscent of the varieties of family dramas many of us are living out in real time this season, and perhaps in past holiday seasons, too. If nothing else, the show is worth every difficult moment of Jeffrey Tambor’s stunning portrayal of one man working out the massively complex and intimately personal, conflicted matter of his sexual identity. His performances are easily worth whatever award anyone can throw or has thrown his way.

I’ve learned in recent years to appreciate a song that asks—and that even leaves me hanging on—a good question. Though not just any question, of course. It has to be a question you feel on the skin, or in a skip of your heart. The question this song poses, for example, is a timely one to consider. After the gifts, the goods, the items are given or gone; after all of our treasured moments have passed into memory—who is there for you? Who will carry you?

At a time of year when many struggle to feel they belong or to feel as loved or as honestly blessed as the smiling, gorgeous chuckleheads bursting with season-specific joy and products in unbearable ads and commercials, this song pushes us further, deeper in, beyond the glare. It drives you past the cashier and into the cold, dark night. Direct their question inward, and then look around. This song nudges you, asks that you take a more expansive view, inside and out. Chances are you probably know who will carry you when you need it. And if you don’t know, finding the answer to that question is a more dignified search than landing any bargain, tracking down any deal pitched to you in any ad anywhere.

 

Songs for the Darkest Time of Year, Vol. 2

When I was first introduced to the Narnia series in first grade, the magical land was ruled by a White Witch who held the land captive in endless winter. The four English youths who accidentally stumbled into this mysterious realm through their caretaker’s wardrobe grabbed coats from the closet through which they entered this world.  

I always think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at this time of year, partly because after my first grade teacher read the book to my class, I asked for and received the series for Christmas that year. I obsessed on what was back then the first book in the series (it’s now branded as the second), and reread it more than any other book on my bookcase.

Over the last few winters, I’ve also started wondering if Alaska’s in the process of becoming a Bizarro-world version of Narnia under the White Witch’s rule. Rather than endless winter, however, warming trends may be enslaving us to a cycle of new, unreliable and absolutely unrecognizable winter-time conditions. And these unseasonable conditions are impacting the state in increasingly noticeable ways. As the New York Times recently reported, “Alaska is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and the state is heading for the warmest year on record.”

It’s a strange state of affairs to live in Alaska and to watch what we otherwise thought we knew—and have come to adore as winter in the far north—perceptibly shift in plain view. The rare appearances or accumulation of snow in Anchorage the last few seasons make snowfall feel like an event as mystifying and exciting as entering Narnia for the first time. And it makes me feel sorry and sad for ever taking something as simple as snowfall for granted in the first place.

When the snow fell in Anchorage for the first time in weeks a few days ago, I rushed out to be in it, to be in that specific quiet accompanying new fallen snow, to sit in the particular light that new snow casts across a landscape at every hour, day or night. I was reminded of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s reflection on a winter morning from his youth in My Struggle, “Outside, everything was still, as only winter can be … [The] light over the countryside shimmered and was perfectly white. I remember thinking all I wanted to do was sit right there … in a circle of light in the middle of the forest and be as stupid as I liked.”

I’m not a scientist. I wish I had more to offer than a simple musing on how much I love winter and snow, and how much I wish things were different for us as we attempt to adjust to some potentially long-term transitions here.

If you haven’t noticed by now, there’s a tension running through the songs in this season’s mixtape, representative of a tug-of-war in which I’ve felt recently consigned or entangled. On one side, hope and magic and wide-eyed wonder flex all their muscles and dig in their heels for a good fight. On the other side anxiety, frustration, and flat-out despair pull hard, growl and spit and put up the match of a lifetime.

In my better moments, I remember a song. And that’s when I try to sing, regardless of the outcome, of whether it does a lick of good or not.

Paul Simon – Getting Ready for Christmas Day

If I could tell my mom and dad that the things we never had
Never mattered, we were always ok…

Sorry to give away the ending, but something magical’s happening when you finally reach those closing lines (above) on the opening track of Paul Simon’s 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What.

In some ways, the lyric leading up to it reads like a less earnest tale cut out of a classic Springsteen-rocker. Simon’s narrator’s a struggler doing his best to make ends meet but still barely squeezing by. From early November to the end of December he’s got money matters weighing him down. By day he works his day job and at night he works his night job, though for what sounds like small compensation. On top of financial distress, he’s also got a nephew in Iraq on his mind. The kid just headed over there for the third time and will likely celebrate another Thanksgiving somewhere in Pakistan, far from home.

Simon, however, remains hopeful. But it strikes me early into the song that Simon’s hope is not in a literal promised land, nor in an event entirely bound to the calendar. And the moment he’s courting is not exactly ever specifically stated either, but simply referred to as “Christmas Day.” Rather, the Christmas day in the song might or could be the literal Christmas occurring on December 25th, but I’m not convinced it is. After all, “the music may be merry, but it’s only temporary,” he reminds us.

Interwoven through each of the song’s verses, and then under Simon’s singing, the song features a looping series of lines spoken by the Reverend J.M. Gates, a preacher who extensively recorded his sermons and gospel songs from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Christmas for both Simon and Gates sounds like an entirely other unacknowledged thing wending underneath the commercials, the tired retreads of stories capitalizing on something we call the Christmas spirit, and any merchandise deals you find from Black Friday ‘til New Years’.

And there’s something to be said for the song—something remarkably effective—in his not entirely going there and having to spell out or directly, pound-us-over-the-head with any crude “messaging.”

In this way, Paul Simon—aided by the Rev. Gates—asks us to consider again from another or an alternative angle what we ever mean or possibly suggest when we speak about a Christmas spirit in the first place.

Getting ready for what, exactly, on Christmas Day?

It’s a good question.

Andy Williams – My Favorite Things

I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad…

In my childhood, two records marked the turn into the Christmas season for my family. More than any 24/7 string of Christmas hits on the radio, more than any new spin on the classics by any then-hot or washed-up pop artist, nothing heralded the onset of a new Christmas season in our home like The Perry Como Christmas Album and Andy Williams’ Merry Christmas. It’s fair to say, in fact, that we nearly entangled the two albums in an unnecessary competition over which deserved the most time on the turntable. My dad, I know, preferred Perry Como, but I was a diehard Andy Williams guy and throughout my childhood I petitioned on behalf of Andy’s rightful place atop the Christmas music throne.

Years later, however, I’m aware that my devotion to Williams’s record solely hinged on one critical song: Side A, Track 4, “My Favorite Things.”

Before I heard the song in The Sound of Music, I was introduced to it by Andy Williams, and all these years later its appearance on an otherwise celebratory, big-band romp through traditional holiday tunes still baffles and mystifies me. How did that song ever make it onto a Christmas record anyhow? But more than that, how much did this single song shape my penchant for melancholy songs crooned in a minor key? (The original is composed in E minor.)

I would lie on the floor beside a stereo system the size of R2D2 over multiple winter afternoons listening again and again to Williams wail about dogs biting and bees stinging and feeling (believably) “saaaaaad.” I was only a small boy—and a sheltered child, I’ll add—but something about all those unfortunate downers and circumstances grabbed at me. The cure for these, Williams exclaimed, was “simply” remembering his favorite things: Mittens, sleigh bells, and—God bless the poetry of Rodgers & Hammerstein—“wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings” and “snow flakes that stay on my nose and eye lashes.” Oftentimes, I jumped straight to the fourth track, bypassing the album’s opening songs, lifting the needle and placing it on the designated marker for the tune and then returning to my place on the floor for another run.

Echoing Rob, Nick Hornby’s narrator in High Fidelity, I’ve sometimes wondered about the impact of “kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss.” In my case, however, I’ve often wondered about the impact of one song more than any other in my life. Paraphrasing Rob, did I listen to “My Favorite Things” nonstop through the Christmas season because I was already melancholy? Or was I melancholy because I listened to “My Favorite Things” nonstop through many, many Christmas seasons?

Nepenthe, The Magic Place, etc.—Juliana Barwick


Right out of college, I worked a brief stint at one of the mammoth bookstore chains. Part of my daily tasks required managing and stocking the store’s religion and philosophy sections. At that moment in the mid-1990’s, angels were, it’s fair to say, “all the rage.” The glut of mawkish and saccharine books about reliably accessing your special guardian or getting in touch with their majestic realm—in a section otherwise overflowing with works by hard-hitters like Nietzche, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Kierkegaard, HHDL and more—felt like the cosmic equivalent of a smirk and a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”

Similarly, there’s so much talk and mention of angels in our culture’s many spins on this season that you’d be forgiven for imagining these characters speak with all the authority (and English) of Patrick Stewart or Tilda Swinton, or for believing that the celestial beings resemble the perfectly-sculpted, androgynous offspring of a youthful Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron.

But have you ever stopped to wonder what a choir of angels might really sound like? What sound in the sky might truly convince a herd of shepherds that peace on earth is actually possible or near at hand?

Of course, I’m no authority on the matter, but I hardly imagine the angelic orders resemble the bleating of a church organ, or any of the never-ending derivative pop spins on Christmas songs—most of which sound like they were produced by a slice of white bread inside an empty soda can. In fact, I’m not even convinced these curious beings would sound like the choir that knocks audiences out (and wonderfully so) during Handel’s Messiah.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d wager that avant-garde vocalist and composer Juliana Barwick offers us the closest glimpse of how otherworldly song and petitioning might translate into music.

At her shining best, Barwick’s compositions seem housed in a realm a few star systems beyond Bon Iver and Van Morrison at their most mystical. There are times, too, that Barwick’s vocalizing surpasses the lyrical edge and import of many of my favorite songwriters.

Now and then, some friends I’ve introduced to Barwick’s work have written her off as sounding too much like Enya. However, where Enya was a singular personality turned aesthetic and then industry, Barwick’s experiments in sound and arrangements feel more reminiscent of a classical composer. Her orchestra, however, is the limitless possibilities and tracking potential of the human voice, along with the endless mysteries that continue to unfold and come to life from a synthesizer.

For a good intro to her work, dial up her “teaser” trailer for 2013’s Nepenthe, recorded in Iceland and offering a glimpse of the recording process for “Forever” with a chorus of teenage girls. Then, if your curiosity is piqued, dial up her video for “Pacing” and do nothing but sit quietly and watch. If nothing else, it will permanently dispel any Enya references.

When words fail—whether due to grief, amazement, or wonder—dial into Barwick. Everything beyond belief or language that occurs in a life cannot be captured by words alone. And I’m more inclined to believe the angelic, celestial orders—if they’ve ever offered their two cents on anything—more closely resemble Barwick’s gifts than anything found in a dusty hymnal or cornball radio station.

Songs for the Darkest Time of Year, Vol. 1

 

The morning after November’s presidential election, I woke up—sleep-deprived and slightly hung over—to find an unexpected comment in my social media feed: “@jonathanjbower Can’t wait to hear the playlist of mourning & hope.”

My heart, which was already struggling to keep afloat, plunged and sank. For starters, I had nothing immediately in mind to offer, only a dizzying, numb stare into what then appeared a spiraling, dark void. And I had nothing on hand or deck to suggest either. As encouraging as it was to learn people were actually reading what I was writing during the weeks leading up to the election, I had submitted my last installment of the “Coping Skills” mixtape articles the day before the election. And that piece was set to run two days after the election. I had written it, of course, with no knowledge—only, admittedly, a misguided assumption—of who would in fact win the presidency. However, I had done so by pitching songs that have served for me in difficult periods of my life as “shelter from the storm”—through all kinds of different storms; songs not so overly well known or popular as to sound redundant or tired—and songs intentionally not of that anthem rock variety, the kinds bombastically heralding victory or proclaiming some fierce, emotionally-charged truth.

In a similar spirit now—and partly due to a slog of days and news feed that’s followed the presidential election—I find myself standing thick in the midst of the holiday season this year feeling stuck and bewildered, absolutely flummoxed. And I don’t think I’m alone. For instance, have you noticed the overwhelming number of articles appearing in newspapers and magazines and online sites offering tips and self-helpy advice for how to cope with family and loved ones of different political persuasions this holiday season?

Insofar as this does feel like a holiday season unlike any recent one in my memory, I find myself again, or still, casting off, alighting for the low-key, shadowy spaces. Here I am a few weeks after election day and still ducking the glare, now seeking respite from the mayhem synonymous with the holidays.

While a number of Christmas season-themed songs will appear in these pieces over the next few weeks, it would probably be best to think of these songs, much like those appearing on the Coping Skills mixtape, as an alternative to the crass and aggressive in-your-face-ness of commercialized Christmas and holiday cheer. These are songs—some familiar, others not so—to dial up if you’re in a state of overwhelm at the mall and can’t swallow another single Mariah Carey, Michael Buble, or Name-Your-Pop-Star’s spin on “Joy to the World.”

If your brain threatens to go into lockdown hearing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Silent Night” belted out like the National Anthem at Barnes and Noble—or if you find you’re craving a warm fire while anxiously rolling a shopping cart through the toy aisles under a fluorescent glare at Walmart or Target—this playlist is for you. Here are some songs to play on your headphones as you weave through the aisles at Costco, or to dial up when you get home, depleted, and want only to recover with your head down and legs up on the couch and a mug of tea or wine nearby.

Seasons greetings, all.

Come Talk to Me – Bon Iver (Peter Gabriel)

I can imagine the moment – breaking out through the silence
All the things that we both might say – and the heart, it will not be denied
‘Til we’re both on the same damn side – all the barriers blown away
I said please talk to me – won’t you please come talk to me?

It feels fitting to lead off with this 1992 gem penned by Peter Gabriel. Gabriel, to my memory, was one of the first of a handful of popular artists to notably incorporate the influences of world music into his pop efforts. The impact of artists and musicians from a variety of cultural hubs around the globe served to inform his and other pop songwriters’ efforts to such an extent during the 1980s and 90s that it spawned a kind of pop-Renaissance during a period otherwise known for truly awful hair choices and glam rock.

Meanwhile, Bon Iver’s spin on this track is—like Justin Vernon at his glorious best—a few spare threads short of otherworldly. If there are banjos in the afterlife, they sound like the banjo here. On the original Peter Gabriel recording, appearing on the album Us, Sinead O’Connor provided the track’s searing background vocals. A search did not turn up O’Connor’s counterpart on Bon Iver’s version, but whoever it is sounds as equally glorious as Sinead did in the original.

While perhaps my lone opinion, I also think Bon Iver’s delivery poignantly resembles the raw, bare, and vulnerable soul of America right now. And by “soul,” I am specifically not referencing the armed and guarded, brain-fueled part of your consciousness that bristles when you learn of someone who supported him or her, or the part of me that spits fire while perusing news items in my Facebook feed, or the part of you or me that unfriends family members when you learn who they voted for.

I’m saying that Bon Iver here echoes the deeper, truer voice inside the fragile paper shelter housing your flaming heart—a part of you that’s often too terrified to admit it longs to understand or connect on some authentic level with someone, much less bridge our differences.

Vernon and Gabriel appeal to something other than what we’ve witnessed occurring in spades since election day. “Come Talk to Me” urges us to the table together. This song says, “I want to understand. And I want us to do better.” And it convinces me that better understanding is actually possible.

Waitin’ for Superman (Remix) – The Flaming Lips

Tell everybody waiting for Superman
That they should try to hold on the best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift

In the spring of 2003, my sons’ mother, Anya, and I eloped at a wedding chapel in a rundown neighborhood between Philadelphia and the working class neighborhood where I grew up. We didn’t tell anybody we were getting married, and we told ourselves we’d have a “real wedding” with the suits and dresses and bells and whistles someday down the line.

That afternoon, after the Justice of the Peace pronounced us married, we drove to my parents’ house a few minutes up the road from the chapel. The plan that Saturday was to descend on my childhood home to visit with my sister and brother-in-law, who were up visiting from Virginia. My brother and his girlfriend came down from the Reading area where they lived and we ordered a Chinese food feast from our favorite neighborhood takeout joint.

The U.S. was right then only a few weeks into Desert Storm—or, what some of us more headstrong types referred to only as the “Illegal Invasion of Iraq.” My parents and sister were fans of W., while my brother and I stubbornly fell into the “He’s not my President” camp, which now, years later, admittedly sounds immature and a little childish.

I don’t remember now what snarky thing my brother said about the Iraq invasion at the table that afternoon, but I remember that it did not please the Bush fans in the room. And I remember that when I came to his defense we then all swiftly became entangled in a Blue State/Red State meltdown at my parents’ dining room table over exceptionally good Chinese takeout.

But what were the details of that blowout anyway? Why can’t I remember? My parents had no doubts that we should be in Iraq; I could under no circumstances understand why we were there. I remember our voices escalated and then we were shouting. My new wife and my brother-in-law mostly kept silent. They were probably the wise ones.

It also happened that my brother and I and our partners, along with our cousin and his wife, all had tickets to see the Flaming Lips in Philadelphia that evening.

However we dusted off after that dinnertime blowup eludes me today. But the concert-bound of us packed into one of our cars and darted into the city. We bought some beers on our way into Philly and drank in the parked car behind steamed windows outside the venue and tried to process what had gone down at dinner. We marveled that our family was marked by so many disorienting differences.

Then we entered a concert arena and the family feud was behind us, drowned in the sound of the delightful, large-hearted Flaming Lips.

I’ve recently found myself returning to that night in my mind for a variety of reasons. My wedding day, on the day I married an immigrant, my sons’ mother, featured a fevered argument with family about a politician who then seemed to many of us extreme, ineloquent, dangerous, and unpredictable (and who had also lost the popular vote to the Democratic nominee). One of the reasons we hastened to marry, in fact, was because of the post-9/11 rhetoric in the air and coming down from on high, and we were, as per Bey, “crazy in love.” I had no idea that night that I would be moving to Alaska in six months time. I do, however, remember standing with my new wife in the crowd at that show and feeling like, to paraphrase Tom Petty, “the future was wide open.” And I know that when we learned we were pregnant shortly following that night, I wanted—on my albeit limited skills and resources—to somehow do right by this child, my son Sam, to in whatever way possible engage in work that could make the world a better place for him and his generation.

Fast-forward to 2016.

Is it getting heavy?
Well I thought it was already
As heavy as can be

*If the Flaming Lips aren’t your speed, then try Iron and Wine’s beautiful lo-fi cover of the song appearing on his album, Around the Well.

Waitin’ for Superman – Iron & Wine

If It Be Your Will – Leonard Cohen

After his passing the Monday before Election Day (officially announced on Wednesday, 11/10), Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—perhaps covered the world over enough times to give “Happy Birthday” a run for its money—finally cracked the Billboard Top 100, more than 30 years since he first released the song on Various Positions.

It’s a song that some have argued could actually do with a healthy, lengthy moratorium. As a songwriter and passionate advocate (or, nerd) for the written word, I heartily support that suggestion. As one of the more spellbinding prayers and lyrics, if not hymns, composed and committed to record in my lifetime, there’s something more than a little unsettling about relegating it to background music while you shop at Target, or having to sift through five different middling versions of it on your Facebook feed as you also sort through the latest Trump flap and blow past ads for the shoes or speakers you just looked at over at amazon.com a few minutes ago.

And while I do remain an unabashed fan of the song, this season, this year I confess I’m hard pressed to proclaim even the “very cold and broken hallelujah” that Leonard Cohen claims bears true testimony to abiding love, more than any religious or political victory march ever does.

Leonard Cohen penned a staggering assortment of prayers, psalms, and meditations over his recording career, and this winter, in this specific collection of our darkest days, I would recommend bypassing “Hallelujah” for a little while, and contemplating the darker, melancholy truth of “If It Be Your Will.”

Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will to make us well
And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here in our rags of light –
In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
End this night if it be your will.

While unarmed protestors in North Dakota are being gassed and ravaged with rubber bullets and armory, and when, among other incidents, a black youth in Alabama has just had a noose thrown around his neck as part of a “prank,” I don’t think you can underscore that “dressed to kill” line now at all.

It’s in this spirit that I appeal to whoever the dark, silent being Cohen appealed to in his 1984 prayer:

End this night, if it be your will.
Please. And soon.

 

Coping Skills: Coda – Communication Breakdown Songs

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Well. What a week, huh?

I wrapped up the “Coping Skills” series of “election season survival” essays for the Anchorage Press in this week’s paper. You can read “Coda: For Meg, Forever Ago” here.

The “Coda” piece was harder to write than the previous installments, as I had no idea who the winner of the election would be ahead of my deadline. So, I took things in a slightly different direction than in previous posts. There’s a story there and it’s about connection, mostly, and – god – if this week doesn’t feel like a crash course in disconnection, I don’t know what does…

The piece grew out of an…encounter, an experience, a reacquaintance I had with Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” a few days before Election Day last week:

The Press article illustrates my history with this work in detail.

For this last batch of songs at the blog, I wanted to first acknowledge and thank a few of the readers who sent me music recommendations or suggestions along the way of this series of pieces.

That was one of the really unacknowledged (until now) coolest parts of this endeavor – having people write in and share with me the songs and albums that were offering them solace or wonder in recent times.

Here are a few suggestions that people fired my way through email, text, or social media:

Scott in east Anchorage recommended Johnny Hartman’s “I Just Dropped By to Say Hello” –

Mary in North Carolina recommended Josh Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam” & a song by Quiet Hollers, “Mont Blanc” –

Daniel and Mark – both in Philadelphia – separately recommended I work more Willie Nelson into my listening diet –

Shane in Alaska didn’t only recommend the three songs below to me,  but gave me his own critical assessment of why these songs are important to him:

1.) Hellhole Ratrace, by Girls:

The chorus is repeated so many times because it has to be. How many times do we have to remind ourselves that the root of so much of our angst is simply this looming specter of death and that the only real way to face it down is to accept it and go out and shake a leg or two — that is, in spite of it:

2.) Somebody to Love, by Valerie June:

Her voice seems dislocated, like she’s singing alone in a tin room, and I think that’s how a lot of people feel whether they are aware of it or not. Our society has atomized us intentionally. We strive for deep connections like we see in marketing but we can’t quite reach it because we have been split based on trivial preferences. Her longing is right on the surface. Nothing is guarded. She doesn’t even pretend to hide it and it makes you immediately recognize her humanity and drop all your own pretenses. You just want to be there for another person who feels alone.


3.) Contact, by Daft Punk:

It’s a simple instrumental. A progression suggests a blastoff into the unknown, a journey promising catharsis, as if a climax is the ultimate thing we seek. What about peace as a result of catharsis? one wonders. And we get what we set out for. There is a mesmerizing and dramatic climax and then some vaguely ominous shit goes down culminating in a laser blast and what sounds like the thud of a body hitting the floor. Whose body? Does it matter? Like the results of this election, and probably elections yet to come, there is a sense that the answer is just that what happened is just what we deserved.


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Some really good ones in the songs and artists friends and readers recommended.

Below, you’ll find the songs that appear in this week’s “Coda” article. I listed them as “Communication Breakdown” songs. Assuming one “side” of the election would be wildly disappointed with the outcomes, I thought to share a number of songs I lean on when I’m battling an interaction or circumstance gone a wry, or not how I expected…

Think You Can Wait – The National

Impossible Germany (Live) – Wilco

Why We Build the Wall – Anais Mitchell (feat. Greg Brown)

Come Talk to Me – Bon Iver (by Peter Gabriel)

Closer – FKA Twigs

Ful Stop – Radiohead


Things Have Changed – Bob Dylan

Stay Alive – Jose Gonzalez

Telling Stories – Greg Brown

 

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Once more, with feeling: it’s been a good go writing these and sharing the tunes. I was sad, so sad to learn of Cohen’s passing yesterday, on one hand. But then I was and am happy that I had an opportunity to write about him during this endeavor and that this process entailed spending a week buried in his material and living and breathing all things L. Cohen during the week I worked on that essay. In the end, it added up to feel like I shared a last visit with him before he passed away.
And for that, and for all of this, I am very grateful.

Take care and be well, folks. Play that music, and lean into the good songs in the darkest days ahead…

best,

JJB

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Election Day Soundtrack/Playlist (or, Background Music)

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers
Illustration by Oliver Jeffers

Hi All,

Here’s a special Election Day selection of “Coping Skills” *Bonus Material*… I’ve made a playlist for you to spin while standing in line at your polling place or at the office while we try not to keep looking at results on our phones or PCs, or while at the gym staring at Anderson Cooper without the sound on, or to have in the background when you get tired of hearing the talking heads talk as you make dinner later.

Some songs have the election in mind, some don’t at all, and some are in here to keep time with your/my/our racing heart and/or thoughts…

Make it a good day, friends. No matter the outcome…

peace,
JJB

table shoes

(dispatches & ruminations from the regions of art & fatherhood)