Monday, August 29, 2005

Time to get Crackin'

Somewhat of a watershed show for Burn Rome Burn on Friday night at Cubby Bear.

We opened up for Cracker. Or as my mother put it, "Cracker closed for Burn Rome Burn." Anyway, it was an unqualified success on all fronts. First of all, just the opportunity to meet and watch a band like Cracker was informative in itself.

These guys are all in their late 40's and have been musicians for over two decades. They've been in bands as avant garde as Monks of Doom, as indie-popular as Camper van Beethoven, and as commercially successful as Cracker. And there was not one ounce of pretension in any of them. Instead of a tour bus, they rolled up in a Chevy Astro Van with a trailer. They had one roadie/sound guy. They unloaded their gear and their merchandise.

Second of all, over 500 tickets were sold in advance of the show. And I believe the crowd numbered almost 700 when all was said and done, most of whom were there early and saw our set.

Third of all, we played as polished and energetic a show as we have yet and seemed to win the crowd over pretty handily. Not that it was note perfect (the sound was a little strange), but I think we pretty much brought it in terms on conviction and being comfortable in front of a big crowd. It didn't hit me until after our first three songs, when I had to talk.

There were a good 300 plus people packed in the middle of the club, up against the stage. As most of our fans and family were standing back by the soundboard, these people up front were the die-hard Cracker fan variety. They were there to see Cracker, not Burn Rome Burn. And we could have bombed.

But everyone up front was really into it and we would up getting rid of over 300 CDs. After the show, I walked into the crowd to see my family. I'm not the kind of person who goes fishing for eye contact or praise, but I could not walk 5 feet without a stranger approaching me and telling me how much he or she enjoyed our set.

What a great feeling. I was trying to figure out if this show or our House of Blues show was more important to us as a band, and I think each one showed us something about our band. The HOB showed us we can play a place that large and bring enough energy and noise to make it work.

With this Cracker show, I think we proved that we can win over a big audience of people who are completely unfamiliar with our music. Afterwards, I had to cut out before Cracker finished playing because we had an 8:00 am flight to catch on Saturday to go a wedding in Cleveland. But I got to see a bunch of their set. In a weird way (that is, not at all stylistically) they reminded me of a modern version of The Band.

The rest of the band stuck around to the end and hung out a bit with Cracker and had nothing but great things to say about them personally. Couple this show with the fact that Sunday saw the completion and recording of most of the strings for the Burn Rome Burn album, and I think that after slogging away at the recording process for nearly a year, we've stumbled into a new momentum...


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Eternal Mermaid of the Spotless Atlantis

I don't know how, but I feel guilty about a song I wrote. And lately, even though the song is four years old, it's been really bugging me.

Maybe it's finally hearing the song fully realized in well-recorded form. Maybe it's remembering when the song was written and knowing it was a rough time in my life when I was less than a good person. And I'm a bit stymied that such an asshole could write such a beautiful song.

And I'm not sure I would have written the song if I hadn't been such an asshole. For a while, every time this guilt would rear it's head, I would aspire to fight fire with fire and write a song in response to it. Sort of like a sequel to the original song. But as most of my over-calculated attempts at writing go, so has this one. And I've been left with squat. Until now. As it usually happens, I finally got into my redemption song through the back door.

So to speak.

So many times, I've started writing a song about (in best William Shatner voice) some thing, something in particular, only to get to the end of the song and realize I've really been writing about something else. It's very strange in a way, but I've come to embrace it and it's resulted in a bunch of songs which convey (I hope) the very ambiguity that figured into their genesis.

Anyway, I recently saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the first time and it really affected me... just a beautiful movie which manages to accomplish what I often try to do in song: make a simple point through a sophisticated, poetic and challenging vehicle.

In the case of ESotSM, I felt that the underlying theme was this very real struggle couples go through in reconciling the inevitable negatives of everyday, mundane life, with their pure magical (for lack of a better word) love for each other. So I started writing a song about this idea... I had some nice chords worked out and a first verse and chorus came fairly quickly. Then things kind of stalled. I knew I wanted three verses, and nothing was happening.

After a week of frustration, a second verse was born, but thematically it was quite different. Ditto a third verse. I noticed that these verses were really more personal than the first, and I began to see that this core idea of ESotSM had some relation to the time in my life when I wrote the "guilt producing" song. And so, I hope, I've written a suitable sequel...

ATLANTIS Wouldn't we all like it back? When this was new, and there was no past To rob us of the sun that shines On the moment when we both realized Chorus: I'm right here It's still clear Why it's worth All these tears And on that wall above the sea Where the wine-dark waters sing their melody We watch the island come alive With crosses, white against the Grecian sky Chorus And now we've come down off the wall Even empires and islands rise and fall We watch the sunset streak the sky And know it's a dawn for other eyes Chorus


Monday, August 22, 2005

Hold on, Magnolia

Somehow, another week has gotten away from me with nary a post. Never fear. I'm back, baby.

Had a couple of good rehearsals last week in anticipation of our big show opening for Cracker on Friday. Also went to a party to celebrate the passing of an important institution: the brick 3 flat in Edgewater that has housed at least two of my group of friends since the winter of 1998.

The chronology, as far as I can remember, goes something like this (identities obscured to protect the guilty):

December of 1998: a certain B___ K. moves into a first floor apartment on the 5900 block of North Magnolia ("Magnolia") with a college friend. On New Year's Eve '98-'99, he hosts what stands as one of the five best parties I've ever been to. 

August of 1999: a certain J___ G. moves in with B___ K.

New Year's Eve 1999: J___ G. and B____ K. throw what stands as one of the three best parties J____G. has, er... I've ever been to.

2000: B___ K. moves out of the first floor apartment, a certain J____ V. moves in with J_____ G. C_____ M., D_____ B., and M_____ M. move into the second floor apartment.

New Year's Eve 2000: the first and second floor apartments of Magnolia host what stands as one of the one best parties I've ever been to.

2001: Magnolia is sold to a new landlord, who lays plans to renovate the entire building and move into the first floor apartment. The future of Magnolia looks grim. Plans are laid to move. Diaspora looks imminent.

August of 2001: A reprieve! In a last minute show of clemency, new landlord allows J____ G., M_____ M., and J______ V. to move into the newly renovated third floor apartment.

August of 2002: J_____ V. moves out, P_____ moves in and quickly becomes known as the "phantom" roommate.

August of 2003: J____ G. moves out to get married. P____ moves out. The future again looks grim, but at the last moment, G____ G. and M_____ P. move in with M____ M. to carry on the legacy. 

September 1, 2005: G___ G., M_____ P., and M_____ M. will be moving on, leaving Magnolia uninhabited by the Oak Park crew for the first time in nearly 8 years.

So indeed, a place that I called home for four years will now be a thing of the past. Lots of great things happened there, lots of not so great things.

I remember moving in with my best friend, fresh from college, first apartment, all the optimism and naivete. I remember listening to so much music... The Who, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix, Black Crowes... I remember forming my first band. I remember writing and recording a lot of music, some of which I still perform today. I remember burgers and beers in Moody's Beer Garden and the questionable third pitcher on a Thursday night. I remember riding the Red Line downtown, always getting a seat. I remember the Pumping Company and penny pitchers. I remember falling asleep to the sounds of a manual typewriter and the smell of a midnight cigarette. I remember getting my tonsils out and lying in my dad's old recliner for two weeks doped up on liquid Vicodin. I remember consuming large amounts of alcohol and not a few recreational substances. I remember bringing home my furry companion Hendrix, all 28 pounds of him. I remember coming home from all-nighters in the studio. I remember basketball at Senn High School. I remember being dumped by my future wife on my 24th birthday for having my head up my ass. I remember losing a good friend and roommate to egos, stubbornness, and immaturity. I remember 7 months of drifting, and all its costs and benefits. I remember moving up two flights of stairs. I remember sitting on the couch in the third floor apartment with Hendrix watching the events of September 11th unfold, and then going out for lunch with my landlord. I remember hours and hours in my bedroom, writing the Odyssey, singing into a tape recorder. I remember being barely employed. I remember shopping at Dominick's on Broadway. I remember countless hours at the Senn High School dog park with Hendrix. I remember parties and parties and parties and parties. I remember breaking up with my first band, and forming my second band. I remember jogging the lakeshore path. I remember breakfasts at The Little Corner. I remember morning bloody marys at the dive bar across from Little Corner. I remember puking in my own bed from falling off the wagon during the Bears' playoff game. I remember pulling my head out of my ass. I remember getting engaged. I remember hours and hours of great conversations with the best friends I've ever had, and many I no longer talk to. I remember sitting on the roof in the summer sun nervously calling high schools and trying to get them to let me perform The Odyssey. I remember watching football games with a hangover. I remember attending my landlord's wedding. I remember moving out of Magnolia and into the next phase of my life, somehow emerging a stronger person for all the shit I went through while living there.

Hold on, Magnolia...


Sunday, August 14, 2005

There's Something About Sunday

I don't know what... an obvious reminder of passing time maybe?

Can I have a blog entry without talking about time? Can I stop asking rhetorical questions of myself on my own blog?

Captain Narcissism strikes again. Better than Capt'n Tenille I guess. Actually I don't guess: I know. It's better.

Anyway... last night I drove back into the city from the suburbs at about 10:00. I was playing the last of a three week run of shows out in Oak Park. The show was a 50's music review I've played a few times over the last three years. It's easy, fun, and cash money. A chance to keep my chart-reading chops up and play with some very cool and talented guys.

I returned home to a backyard party in celebration of our friend Teri's birthday. Teri also lives below us with her fiance Dave. They've rented from us for almost two years and in that time we've become good friends. It was a fantastically cool summer evening, the yard was lit up with torches, columns, and a beautiful fire, and the beer was flowing freely. Great group of people hanging out too...

The whole scene just served to deepen my lifetime-long love (excuse me, Mr. Nabakov, I've "borrowed" your favorite alliterative consonant for a moment) affair with the city of Chicago. I don't know why, I just know I've got this damn city in my blood. I love walking, jogging, driving, riding the train... anything to see parts of the city I haven't yet seen, anything to revisit familiar places with a fresh eye and be amazed anew. I especially like the rainy days, the windy days... anything to bring the sky a little bit lower, anything for the clouds to swallow the Sears Tower's twin spikes.

There have been a few good songs written about Chicago. Not the obvious songs... like Sweet Home Chicago (although the original Robert Johnson recording is s-p-o-o-k-y)... but songs like the Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight"... "and the embers never fade in your city by the lake..." Or almost anything Wilco has done... "taxicabs are driving me around..."

There's an incredible sense of place in that music, a sense of this place, of our place. So the cool weather brought back memories of last winter, of riding the train in the post-time-change afternoon darkness, trudging through the slush, and trying to capture love with futile awkward words (do I know any other kind?)...

Travesty of Blue (Kathy's Song) The picture where we moved you looked like me And somehow the light arranged itself in a "t" They always take at the start what matters the most They always shoot first and ask questions once you're a ghost It's raining glass on the lake tonight As clouds divide the nightmare sky And lightening strikes the Tower's heights It echoes... I saw him hanging on Western Avenue His eyes were born in a travesty of blue And the empty car lots gave way to something else And the pavement cracks grew up as winter fell It's raining glass on the lake tonight As clouds divide the nightmare sky And lightening strikes the Tower's heights It echoes... It's raining stars on the streets tonight As clouds divide the nightmare sky And lightening strikes the Tower's spikes It echoes... It echoes... It echoes...


Thursday, August 11, 2005

Why You Had to Fall

You struggled for words And even when you spoke, nodody heard How the night bloodied your brown eyes And left your pillow a blackened sky It will come clear Why you had to fall Even the sun must have its stars And even the coal can learn to shine, shine, shine So when the clouds roll in your eyes We'll drink the rain as if its wine It will come clear Why you had to fall Sometimes you fly... Sometimes you fly...


"It feels like Star Wars tonight..."

"And the Empire's been defeated... and there will be medals and Wookies... And I'm the princess." 

More immortal words, these from Rufus Wainwright last night at Ravinia. A princess indeed. And an incredibly talented princess at that.

Backtracking for a moment, each month Gina and I take turns planning a monthly "surprise" date. Past surprise dates have included dinner at a nice steakhouse, high-end seafood, and attending a Jamaican cooking class. It's a lot of fun and we've gotten kind of competitive in trying to plan cool dates and keep the other person off balance as to when it will happen.

So August was my month to plan a date, and it only took one look at the Ravinia calendar to know what I wanted to do: The Ben Folds/Rufus Wainwright concert. It was perfect. It was music we both wanted to see, it was a night she'd never expect, it was a beautiful setting, it was... SOLD OUT.

Arrggghhh. I set about watching online scalpers and the like and thought I was out of luck until... one of my students saved the day with two extra lawn tickets. Sold to me at face value.


So yesterday in the late afternoon, much to Gina's delight, I revealed the surprise. We stopped by the store, got some wine, cheese and crackers, and headed up to the northern suburbs. Ravinia is an ideal place for a summer concert. There's a large, beautiful pavilion with a great stage, but the bigger draw is the multi-acre lawn section, from which you can't see the stage, but you can lie back on your blanket, look up at the stars, drink your wine, and listen to the music being piped through speakers scattered around the grounds.

All for $15.

We got there at about 7:15 for the 8:00 show and the lawn was already packed with people. People really go all out with buffet tables, candles, you name it. So we wedged our way into the lawn with our little blanket and picnic backpack and settled into our food and wine.

At about 8:00, opener Ben Lee began his half an hour set. I realized that I'd heard one of his songs on WXRT recently. He's Australian and was an endearing performer who played good pop music. A nice beginning to the night.

Next was the main event: Rufus.

Rufus Wainwright simply makes music that no one else is making. A blend of classical, opera, folk, pop... as sophisticated as music gets but also honest, simple, and direct. And his voice... he's one of the few singers who has a voice that is actually better live than on CD. And his voice is amazing on CD. It's just that 1's and 0's can't capture the size, depth and range of his baritone. I doubt any audio format could. It defies description.

Rufus played for a little under an hour, leaving us wanting more. He played two or three new (unrecorded) songs, which were cool to hear. He played a bunch of songs off of his latest album, Want Two, a few from Want One, and just one from Poses. He also did a cover of the Leonard Cohen tune Hallelujah (made famous by Jeff Buckley).

Overall, it was nothing short of breathtaking.

His personality onstage matches his music: he's honest, sometimes to a fault, chatting the audience up about such things as the boot strap he was wearing as a choker (not kidding), how well-dressed the people in the front row were compared to the audience for a recent show in Atlantic City, and even letting out an audible "BLERH" during a song when he thought he made a mistake. Just amazing and inspiring.

Ben Folds, whom I like a lot, suffered from having to follow Rufus on. Or course, almost anybody would. He and his band seemed a bit sloppy and uninspired and I thought the overall sound was thin, as they were lacking a guitarist and playing as a piano, bass, drums trio. Which is fine for a lot of Ben Folds' older material, but on his second to last album, Rockin' the Suburbs (which, ironically, he was doing last night), he added a lot of cool heavy guitar, and the songs from that album sounded incomplete without it.

Ben Folds did play a hysterical piano rock version of the Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg classic Gin 'n' Juice. Not kidding. Alone worth the price of the ticket.

All in all a great show.

In closing his set with the song Gay Messiah, Rufus said this: "In America right now, it's not a good time. If you're black, if you're gay, if you're a woman, if you're poor... you're fucked."

Indeed, Mr. Princess.

But for one night, you made it pretty easy to forget just how fucked.


Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Time makes you bolder Children get older I'm getting older too

So go the immortal words (can words be mortal? What distinguishes the mortal words from the immortal words?) of one Ms. Stevie Nicks. I've never been a particularly big Fleetwood Mac fan, but I've always thought Landslide was a pretty good song... hell, I was one of two people who liked the Smashing Pumpkins' version.

The other person was Billy Corgan.

Anyway, perhaps my attraction to this song has to do with its subject matter, namely, time and getting older. I've already (over) documented my feelings on time, but this week I've been even more preoccupied with it due to the fact that I attended my 10 year high school reunion on Saturday night. Indeed. The 1995 Class of Oak Park/River Forest High School reunion was at the bar Fitzgerald's in Berwyn (that's BEEERRRR-wyynnnnn for you Sven-Goolie fans).

Gina and I didn't get there until a little after 10:00 pm, and this was a smart move. The prospect of being in the bar when the reunion started at 8:00 pm and sitting around stone-cold sober watching people file in was too much for me to handle. And I had a gig. So by the time we got there, it was packed and most of the crowd was already several or more drinks into their magical liquid coping mechanisms.

And I joined them via the wings of Guinness immediately upon arrival. Overall, it was actually a great time. As I hoped, I saw a lot of people with whom I hadn't kept in touch. And almost everybody seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves. Of course there were a few people who looked like they'd had a bad decade but... them's the breaks I guess. And secretly (or not so) everybody goes to high school reunions to see the trainwrecks, right?

My favorite moment was when my senior year Valetine's Day Dance date didn't recognize me. That episode and other's reactions to my appearance reminded me: in high school, I had a crew cut, no facial hair, and weighed 145 pounds. And now I look like a well-fed Jesus. People did a lot of hanging around with their lunch groups and I guess I understand that... nobody seemed to be harboring any decade-old hatred towards me for some perceived social slight. Not that I was really in the position to do much social slighting in high school.

And to this it's only 10 years until our next reunion.

On an unrelated note, I have figured out how to solve our current summer drought: I will just water our plants everyday. Because last night, not 30 minutes after I spent an hour carefully wetting our parched backyard, the previously cloudless sky started laughing at me and laughed so hard it cried.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

It's only time after all, redux

In reading over my last post, I'm not sure I really got the core of how I was feeling when I wrote it. But it's nice to know somebody reads this thing.

As such, further thoughts and conversations regarding the issues of time and creativity yielded the following conclusions:

1. What was really bothering me was not my current lack of time to put towards songwriting: it was the question of whether I'll ever have enough time to satisfy my own self-imposed demands of and standards for being creative.

2. More than time per se, I was also frustrated over the pace at which I write songs, which is not a function of available time: it's a function of me and my process. I'm not Jason Molina or Ryan Adams, or any of these songwriters that just seem to crank out songs, even though I'd like to be that productive.

3. Jason Molina = Joyce Carol Oates = Tennessee Williams. Trust me. It's been proven by people waaaaaayyyy smarter than you or me.

4. Stephen King, while perhaps a model of productivity, is not so much one for quality. Or much of a spokesman for D.A.R.E.

5. Although I hold up Jason Molina as an example, I am not a party to his process. More likely than not, he writes more songs because he writes all the time. He writes just as much crap as anyone else, throws it out, and writes until he gets something he likes. That's just how it works.

6. Ditto for Beethoven. But in the past tense.

So it is always time, after all.




Monday, August 01, 2005

It's only time after all

It's come to this: quoting my own lyrics on my own blog.

Nice work, Captain Narcissism.

"It's only time after all."

Taken from the song Revenant, this line is a prime example of my obsession with time. My other two crutches, er, I mean "lyrical obsessions" are dreams and water, not particulary unique song subjects, but not unworthy either.

Anyway, as I was lying in my typical Sunday night persistant non-vegatative state (aka "Shit, I have to go to work tomorrow") I was thinking about time. Or the lack thereof in my life right now. To wit, my weekend consisted of: Friday night: rush home from work, rush out to Oak Park for a music rehearsal, rush to our practice space, load our PA down three flights of stairs, go home.

Saturday: wake up early due to incessant dog nuzzling, jog 3 miles, drive an hour and a half out to Woodstock, Illinois, to play guitar and sing for a wedding. The wedding consisted of: unloading and setting up PA system in 90 degree heat, playing 4 songs for the 25 minute ceremony (which was very nice and tasteful), and immediately loading the PA back into my car.

After a two hour drive to Oak Park, I played guitar in the pit band for a two hour 50's music stage review (I - vi - IV - V: repeat) at the Hemingway Arts Center. I then loaded my guitar gear into an increasingly crowded car and hauled ass to our practice space to load our PA back up 3 flights of stairs in the impossibly humid night air.

While I should have gone home and slept, I decided instead to go my friend AJ's house and have a few beers. After hanging out for awhile, I got home at about 2:30 am, ate a late late dinner and passed out, only to have my blissful sleep interrupted at about 5:00 am by Gina and our friend Melissa arriving home after Melissa's bachelorette party.

On Sunday, I hung out with my uncles in our backyard, talked with our neighbors for awhile, jogged 3 miles, and went grocery shopping. It seems like this weekend, every hour was promised to something or someone that isn't writing songs.

Does that make sense? And it's frustrating. I'm pretty good at grabbing little slices of time and using them to write lyrics: riding the train, between lessons, lying awake in bed, etc. But I write best when I then have a few hours by myself in silence to piece these fragments together and make them into something more coherent. And I've been lacking those blocks of time lately.

So in considering this, I wondered if it would ever be any different... if/when BRB is on the road for large chunks of time, am I going to be disciplined enough to write in the van, in hotel rooms, in green rooms? When I come home from a tour, will I be able to dedicate four and five hours a day to writing, like I'd like to?

Or will my time always belong to other things? The only time in my life I've really been able to treat writing like the craft I believe it is, is when I was writing the Odyssey. I'd just get up, eat breakfast, and start writing... like 5 days a week.

Of course, I was only working 2 days a week, not 6. And the rest of my life was really falling apart at the point... which brings up all sorts of butt-clenchingly cliched questions about the correlation between suffering and art, which...

Which I don't really have the time to write about.

It's always time, after all.