Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mundane Minutiae, Vol III: Spaghetti and Meatballs

A couple of weeks ago at work I was preparing to put my lunch in the microwave when a guy made the comment "Lasagna with a side order of lasagna, huh?" (The Tupperware container I was using had compartments, and they were all filled with pasta.)


"Nothin' like homemade food though, right?" he said.


And that was the end of the conversation.

I was thinking about that conversation while I was walking home from the bus stop when I got to thinking about how I like Italian food, but only the common kinds. I like spaghetti, lasagna, and chicken parmesan, but you're not going to find me going much further than that.

Certain people like to kid me about my "pickiness" when it comes to food, chiding me by asking "Well, how do you know you don't like something if you haven't tried it?"

The truth is I don't know, but what does it matter? I know that if I order the chicken parmesan that it'll more than likely be good and I will enjoy my meal. What's wrong with that? (You're boring, you're not willing to take chances, that's no way to live life, I know...)

Then a weird thought popped in my head: My aversion to trying different foods is sort of like being a married couple -- or being in a long-term relationship, for that matter -- in a way.

Think about it: When you marry someone, you've decided that this is as good as its going to get. You don't know that this person is perfect in every way; maybe there's still someone out there with the same record collection, or who shares the same love of whiskey and the Brewers. (Note: I'm quite certain this person doesn't exist.) But you don't need to know, do you? If it feels right it feels right. When you're comfortable enough with someone to want to spend the rest of your life with them that's all that matters, right?

Of course, unlike taste in food no one's going to get on your case about not testing unknown waters. (Unless the marriage/relationship is a train wreck.)

So there you have it - marriage is like spaghetti and meatballs to me. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Concert review: Vampire Weekend at the Riverside

Black and white plus lights - Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend @P... on Twitpic

(h/t to @haleylandsman for the pic)

Vampire Weekend might be one of the most polarizing indie-rock bands around today, but that didn't deter their Milwaukee fans from selling out the Riverside Theater on Tuesday night.

Amidst a backdrop of a gigantic picture of their latest album cover -- apparently the girl's name is Kiersten -- and a bunch of chandeliers, the band played 60+ minutes of their polished, somewhat-wordly, but definitely danceable indie-pop.

Considering Vampire Weekend only has two albums under its belt, I was pleasantly surprised to find how tight and comfortable the band sounded. They opened with two tracks from their new LP Contra, "White Sky" and the sunny, should-be-the-next-single "Holiday." The crowd that was formerly subdued by openers Abe Vigoda was now on its feet and wouldn't sit down for the rest of the set.

Lead singer Ezra Koenig didn't talk much, but was unfailingly polite when he did. He acknowledged that though the show was in a theater, that people could still dance. "Sometimes the most fun you can have is in restricted spaces!" he said, as the band launched into the fantastic "A-Punk." You might not believe me, but in the floor area where they took out some of the seats there was indeed a couple of crowd-surfers for this song. I wasn't aware hipster douches knew how to have fun unironically.

The rest of the set was a mix of tracks from Vampire Weekend's debut album and their new one. I particularly enjoyed "M79" and "Oxford Comma," while the deliberately Auto-Tuned "California English" was a lowlight for me. Also, during the rather boring "Diplomat's Son" I went on a beer run for a $3 PBR Tallboy.

Vampire Weekend came out for a three-song encore, which was highlighted by set-closer "Walcott," which is probably my second-favorite song of theirs ("Oxford Comma" is the first). Overall, they set the tone perfectly; it was a show full of good vibes and fun times set to breezy, infinitely catchy pop music, lack of balls be damned.

Openers Abe Vigoda did not fare nearly as well. They sounded generic and the lead singer tried too hard to sound like Robert Smith of the Cure. The actual Abe Vigoda may or may not have been more entertaining.

List of songs played in no particular order:

"Night Sky"
"Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"
"Oxford Comma"
"California English"
"One (Blake's Got A New Face)"
"Giving Up the Gun"
"Diplomat's Son"

"Mansard Roof"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Seven Songs: Song 2 - "Santa Monica" by Everclear

For most of my pre-pubescent to early pubescent life I was immersed firmly in the music of my parents. Sure, I once convinced my parents to buy me a Vanilla Ice tape ("Those lyrics are horrible!") and was sorta-kinda into really gay club music (Technotronic, Right Said Fred) and gangsta rap (Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg), but I didn't have much emotional attachment to it. Aside from The Beatles -- and my feelings for it -- it was all Beach Boys and Herman's Hermits for me.

At 14 years old I had nothing music-wise to call my own. As a shy kid who mostly lived inside my own head -- as a grown man I still do most of the time -- it was imperative that something could speak for me. For all intents and purposes I had no voice.

/sidetrack time

This brings me to one of my favorite stories my dad told me about me.

I was a quiet little boy -- ya fuckin' think -- all of 2 or 3 years old and my parents were visiting with my dad's mom and his uncle. This is paraphrased because it was over 25 years ago, and I couldn't possibly remember it.

Me: /plays with alphabet blocks on the floor.
My dad: He doesn't talk much yet. That's not normal, is it?
Uncle Donnie: It'll come. Maybe he just doesn't have anything to say.

I smile every time I think about that little story.

/end sidetrack

Well, I discovered "alternative" rock radio in the 8th grade. I loved Nirvana (more sidetrack: my dad yelled at me when he saw the booklet for Nevermind with Kurt Cobain flipping off the camera; I thought that was awesome) and Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins. And then there was Everclear.

I dared not ask for the album that first year -- in fact I bought Sparkle and Fade at a used CD store on my own -- because of song titles like "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore" and "My Sexual Life." But I loved the hell out of that album. It was just music to me at that point, but I still loved it.

Then I started high school. A public school. In a town I had lived in for all of a year and a half. I was optimistic, but I was also scared out of my mind. Still being shy and voiceless, being that proverbial fish out of water, I needed an anthem. I needed something to describe perfectly how I felt. I found "Santa Monica."

Say what you will about Everclear, but Art Alexakis knows his way around a hook. Those opening chords kicked in and I was taken away to my own little place. The first two verses represented my ticket out of Cudahy. I didn't hate suburban life as much as I hated being thrown in with a bunch of people I didn't know. It didn't help, being me, not being able to strike up a conversation with people. In September of 1996, I would have given just about anything to take "my big black boots and an old suitcase" and "find myself a new place."

And then that chorus. Jesus Christ that chorus influenced my worldview, and still does, as sad as that may seem:

We can live beside the ocean
Leave the fire behind
Swim out past the breakers
Watch the world die

Aside from the obvious angst in those lines, he does start it off with "we." Much like imagining myself being held to "With A Little Help From My Friends," I imagined swimming out past the breakers of Lake Michigan, finding some non-existent island with someone, anyone (hopefully a girl, though) to spend the rest of my days with, watching the world die before our eyes. She would soothe the pain of every pretty girl that would sneer at me -- of course, I never would have the courage or confidence to counter that, but what's the difference now? -- and every jock asshole that would make fun of me. Damn, the solution seemed so simple then.

That chorus is great, no doubt, but the couplet at the end of the song brings it all home. If there are two lines in all of 90's rock that I would have to pick as my favorite, I would be hard-pressed to pick something other than this:

I just want to feel some sunshine
I just want to find some place to be alone

In those high school days, it would take me away from those aforementioned sneering girls and laughing jocks; today it's a celebrity-obsessed culture; it's a bickering political wasteland; it's the guy with a high-paying job that he loves, who consumes things just to consume, obtains things just to obtain. I know I can't be bothered to just let go and have a good time -- this much I've known for years -- but I sure as hell can be bothered not to be deluded into thinking this world isn't just puppy dogs and rainbows.

Don't get me wrong, though. "Santa Monica" is far from a downer for me. It makes me feel wonderful every time I hear it. It gets my head bobbing -- and my fist pumping for the 'place to be alone' line -- whenever it comes on. It reminds me -- despite all of the confusion and hurt and hate -- of a time much simpler then the present. Then again with a present full of economic uncertainty, bitter political partisanship, soulless advertisers, pop music based on image (I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga) not songcraft, and reality television, who wouldn't want to swim out past the breakers and watch the world die?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Seven Songs: The Long-winded Intro/Song 1

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity for the second time. If you've read the book or seen the movie – both are wonderful – you know that music plays a prominent role in both. In some promotional footage for the film, John Cusack – who plays Rob, the lead character – talks about how we experience music autobiographically. I have to agree with him wholeheartedly here.

Even more poignant than that, however, is this passage from the book (which also serves as the opening lines in the movie):

What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos.; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”

Hornby took those points one step further with 31 Songs, (not quite as good – I didn't recognize most of the songs) a series of essays about songs that affected him in some sort of way. Various authors took notice of this, and McSweeney's even published a bunch of them.

After reading through the songs I knew, I thought that I could do the same thing.

I picked seven songs that, throughout my life, really got to me. Going through them, I noticed that the tracks weren't necessarily connected to specific events; rather, they're concepts and themes that reflect who I was, who I am, and perhaps who I may become.

I hope writing about them doesn't take too long. The longer I get away from an idea, the easier it becomes for that idea to fade away. The songs will appear in roughly the chronological order of my life.

Without further ado, here is the first song in the series:

“With a Little Help From My Friends” – The Beatles

from: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band

The short version: Henry Rollins already described it better than I ever could.


I was 12, maybe 13 when I would come home from school each day and turn on the television. I watched after-school programs like everyone else – Animaniacs, anyone? – until I got bored. This is when I would scavenge through my dad's CD collection. Aside from the car radio, this is where I discovered the Beatles.

My favorite albums at the time were A Hard Day's Night and Sgt. Pepper. Right off the bat, I heard something in “With A Little Help From My Friends” that resonated with me. Only thing is, something was a little bit off: I didn't have any friends. Sure, I had guys I played basketball or video games with, but I wasn't close with them. I couldn't confide anything in them. They were just dudes who enjoyed my company enough not to tell me to fuck off.

That camaraderie in the chorus (“I get by.../I get high.../I'm gonna try... with a little help from my friends”) was something I longed for. It would kill me every time Ringo got to that second verse:

What do I do when my love is away?

(Does it worry you to be alone?)

How do I feel by the end of the day?

(Are you sad because you're on you're own?)

The third verse doesn't get any happier:

(Do you need anybody?)

I need somebody to love.

(Could it be anybody?)

I want somebody to love.

There were nights then (and throughout my adolescence) where I would hear those lines and imagine myself being held. If it wasn't out of loneliness it was out of the fact that I knew even then that those years of my life were going to be tough. To my feeble mind being held was adult and exotic; it was my ticket out of Hell.

As a child – and probably still somewhat as a grown man – many felt I was afflicted with this profound sense of sadness. Hearing those verses certainly brought it out in me then. I continue to be affected by such lyrics to this day.

Listening to the song now – and I think even then – I can find hope amidst the sadness. Ringo does have his friends to help him get by; I would eventually find friends of my own. Ringo believes in love at first sight; I would find love. Really, I could have picked any Beatles song here. As sad as that song made me feel at 13, it also made me feel human. In those seven years (1962-69, Let It Be was done way before it was released in 1970) the Beatles recorded music, they made songs of joy, exuberance, despair, hurt, love, loss, and a million other emotions and experiences. I can put on any one of those tracks, experience those feelings, and feel alive. It brings me back, in a way, to a time when those feelings were new and exciting.

To listen to the Beatles is to listen to life itself happening before your ears. “With A Little Help From My Friends” was the first song to lead me down that wonderful, terrifying (and, yes, long and winding) road.