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The Songs

A few quick points about the below:

  • This is largely pop music–hook-ladened, accessible, not dense, no Icelandic screeching for vocals.  Apple Music primarily serves me up pop music (no matter how many times I indicate my love for The Rover or Red Barchetta).  Just so you know.
  • I put in bold where I might land on my actual top 20 (of which–tee hee–there are 21).
  • There’s plenty of diversity here (in case you listen to one song and think the rest will be the same).
  • I granted myself a wee bit of license and included a few songs that are from other years.  They were 2017 songs to me.

“Starlight”—Jai Wolf

“Balland of the Dying Man”—Father John Misty

“My Fault”—Vinyl Theatre

“little light”—Lewis Watson

“Black Sheep”—Eyes on the Shore

“Shutdown”—Joywave

“I’m Gonna Get My Heart Cut Out”—All Our Exes Live in Texas

“Island”—HOAX

“Aging out of the 20th Century”—Trash Panda

“Little River”—Loamlands

“Can’t Let Go, Juno”—Kishi Bashi

“Alone”—Pretenders

“Gold Don’t Rust”—The Weeks

“Gentle Man”—Onward, Soldiers

“Learning to Fly”—Deep Sea Arcade

“Better Strange”—James Supercave

“Watch Me”—GROVES

“Crazy Bird”—Wild Child

“A Secret to Keep In”—Besides Daniel

“Step into the Darkness”—Said The Whale

“Jungle”—Saint Mesa

“Amsterdam”—Nothing But Thieves

“Life Like Mine”—Welles

“Wild Love”—Elle King

“Best To You”—Blood Orange

“Turning Heads”—NVDES

“Feel It Still”—Portugal. The Man

“Cringe”—Matt Maeson

“Let It Go”—Nik Freitas

“Miss You”—James Hersey

“10,000”—Elliot Root

“Hollywood”—Ruston Kelly

“She Said”—Sundara Karma

“Brown Sugar”—Lack of Afro

“Please Forgive Me”—Molly Burch

“Delicate”—Scott Quinn

“A Great Snake”—The Lemon Twigs

“Return to the Moon”—EL VY

“Song for Us”—Big Something

“Magnificent (She Says)”—Elbow

“Big Balloon”—Dutch Uncles

“Gold”—Delay Trees

“Can You Hear”—Jesse Stockton & Dream Machine

“Older”—Parcels

“Ordinary Idols”—Cold War Kids

“In Cold Blood”—alt-J

“Honey Babe, Don’t Be Late”—Junius Meyvant

“Wide Awake”—The Werks

“Ascension”—Andy Timmons Band

“Dr. Bubbleman”—The Magic Beans

“Five Points”—The Magic Beans

“Imagination”—Saint Mesa

“Here in Spirit”—Jim James

“High and Tight”—Republican Hair

“Find Love, Let Go”—Kyle Andrews

“One in the Same”—Eyes On the Shore

“Heaven”—PVRIS

“Fire That Burns”—Circa Waves

“Dear Life”—Beck

“Makin’ Excuses”—Mister Heavenly

“Start Again”—Sam Fender

“Goodie Bag”—Still Woozy

“Mama Can’t Help You”—Doyle Bramhall II

“The Greatest”—KING

“Runnin’ Out”—After 7

“Sky’s Grey”—Destroyer

“Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”—Kid Rock

“Balcony”—Lack of Afro

“raingurl”—yaeji

“A Side/B Side”—Tipling Rock

“Circles”—Brother Moses

“Third of May/Odaigahara”—Fleet Foxes

“33 “GOD””—Bon Iver

“call the police”—LCD Soundsystem

“Who’d You Kill”—Kishi Bashi

My Top 20 Songs of 2017 (sort of)

In my effort to sift through the music I accumulated in 2017 and arrive at my top 20, I found that you get to a certain point and your capacity to differentiate just sort of peters out. To drive a stake into the ground around just 20—because, goddamn it, it’s a top 20 list!—would maybe be 50% accurate, while the other 50% would be arbitrary. And at that point it’s no longer really a top 20 list.

In an otherwise relative piece of shit year (according to this card carrying member of the coastal elite), and after a fairly long career now of curating good music, imagine my surprise to have discovered in 2017 buckets and shovel-fulls of great new songs and interesting new artists. The force behind this is hardly a secret: I simply joined the millions who now gain from having music curated and pushed at them via a streaming music service (in my case, Apple Music).

Which isn’t to say I didn’t apply what might be a somewhat unique amount of effort to the task of amassing new music this year all the same. While probably most folks pay some attention to the “new music” option provided by the streaming services, I paid serious attention to it.

Allow me to describe my process to illustrate what I mean.

Each week Apple would push at me around 25 songs (which served to add a wonderful dash of added joy to Fridays). Over the course then of the next 7 days I’d work my way through that playlist, giving all the songs a listen. Any of them worth saving, I’d add to a playlist I created for that month(February 17, March 17, etc). That only begins to describe things, though, since any time I came across an artist that interested me, I of course then dug into the artist’s catalogue to listen to more. I added any great songs I discovered that way to the month’s playlist as well.

If I was done working my way through a given week’s new music, I’d listen to the music in that month’s playlist by way of becoming more familiar with those songs (or I’d listen to previous months). Doing so, I soon realized I wanted to highlight the best of these songs, so established a “Best of 2017” playlist and began populating that.

Finally, late this year I established a “Top 20-‘17” playlist and populated that just from those songs that had made it into the Best of playlist.

The numbers are pretty impressive, I’d say.

25 new songs pushed at me a week means I listened to about 1300 new songs this past year. Though this hardly gets at the actual number of new songs I listened to given those digressions I mentioned to explore particular artist’s back catalogue. For hyucks and grins, let’s say I listened to 2500 new songs this year. At an average 4 minutes a pop, that’s about 166 hours of listening, or almost 7 full days of pure music listening.

Back to the process. Across those monthly playlists I amassed 675 songs. Once I’d established the “Best of 2017” playlist around mid-year, I then began pushing songs into it, either when I was revisiting a given month’s songs, or just directly upon first hearing a song and knowing it was worthy of that list. My “Best of” playlist ran 334 songs in length.

Finally, around mid-December I began to compile my “Top 20-’17,” which entailed listening to those 334 songs and identifying “the best of the best,” if you will. And that was no small task (334 songs being about 22 hours of listening). And thus I arrived at 76 songs, which I’ll offer in a follow up posting.

Was this all fun, you might ask.  85% yes, it was, since we’re talking about music, which of course is inherently fun.  But yeah, it became (and remains) a bit obsessive.  And re-listening to songs so many times as I did, I did run the risk of killing the joy in them (this is what lies behind my saying my capacity to differentiate eventually petered out).

Will I do this all again in 2018?  I mean, my list of playlists is going to grow awfully long after a fashion.  My answer at this point is, I don’t know…while January ’18’s playlist is currently at 6 songs…

The Sober Show

Let’s cut to the chase: going to a concert stone cold sober is not the same experience as going to a concert buzzed.

At the same time, there is enough that is better about the experience to make it well worth going all the same, generally speaking.

I get it, if you’re a tad appalled that my premise here is along the lines of, “you need a good buzz to enjoy a concert.” Pretty juvenile mentality, that. But going to a concert has always been for me a bigger opportunity than just seeing the band perform live. Certainly it was that, but it was always also the chance to leave your sober, rational “day self” behind, and lose yourself in a thrashing, pumping beast of a crowd in a fit of Dionysian abandon, all that being wrapped around hopefully a truly transporting musical experience. And the buzz always facilitated that.

I’m also talking about a sheer habit here as well. I’ve been going to concerts since 1978, have seen a countless number of them (have I seen a thousand by now?), and it wasn’t until The Dead’s Fare Thee Well concert in Santa Clara in 2015 that I EVER did one sober. So no, you don’t “need a buzz” to enjoy a show, but hell if I ever explored that possibility ’til going sober three years ago.

One of the things that’s revealed to you when you do concerts sober is a much clearer recognition of those elements that make a difference to you where the quality of your experience is concerned. Sober, not only are you more aware of these things, you’re also a much more acute judge of them on any given night.

Here are the things that I’ve come to know matter more to me where the quality of a concert is concerned (roughly in order of importance):

  • How well the band performs that night (obviously)
  • The set list
  • The quality of the sound system overall
  • The quality of the sound given where you’re positioned in the venue
  • The attitude of the artist(s) that night
  • How comfortable the concert venue is
  • How easy it is, logistically, to get in and out of the concert and grounds
  • How much the audience contributes to (or detracts from) the concert experience
  • The behavior of the people immediately around you

That about covers it.

In general what I’ve found is that, when buzzed, any and all of these elements become less important to my overall experience given my state of mind. A good buzz tends to dispose me to being more easy going, more accepting, more flexible, more forgiving. I have me a happy buzz, and I roll with things more easily for it.

I also experience the dissolving of boundaries between myself and others, the joining with the beast, a lot more when buzzed. “A lot more”—hell, I don’t really experience that aspect of the concert going experience at all when sober, truth be told. The romance of doing so gets pretty undercut when you’re the sober guy, the crowd now appearing much more to be what they are: a buzzed, blurry mess of a mass of people. So that is a big difference. What was once fundamentally a group experience is now for me pretty much a sort of isolated-among-others one. Do I miss this element? I suppose some, but it also seems to me a pretty ephemeral thing, and not nearly so “spiritually inspired,” I guess you could say, as I once made it out to be.

That I’m much more dialed into many of the technical aspects of the show—how the band performs, the sound quality, etc—is certainly a mixed blessing. I say this as, for example, I’m now much more aware of the fact that sound quality in concerts tends generally to be fairly shitty (it’s almost always bass heavy and lacking in crisp definition), or to have big flaws (the drums dominating, the guitar work needing to be brought forward!), on any given night than it tends to be really exceptional. And once I realize that, yeah, I sort of do a slow burn across the evening for it.

When all of the technical elements line up well, however, I really do love and appreciate the experience at a much higher level than I ever did buzzed. For that matter, God only knew, when buzzed, how accurate my read of these things ever was, frankly (how many times have you walked away from a concert and discovered that you and your buddy had markedly different views of how well, for instance, the band played that night? That it almost seemed like we witnessed two different shows was not uncommon).

The good news in all of this? First and foremost, I NOW REMEMBER SHOWS AFTERWARDS! Remember them in detail, including the transcendent moments that (hopefully) occurred and are well worth remembering. Being so dialed in, I’m way better at noticing what the band’s doing, or attempting to do, in the rendition of a given song that evening, which allows me to discover new things about their songs all the time. Previously, when buzzed, about the best I could do the next day was to roughly conjure these big, crude impressions (“They were ON last night!”), without being able to pinpoint very much why I felt that way. I get a lot more value for my ticket dollars in this approach, for sure.

Where the venue and logistics and comfort is concerned, I’m now able to “play the venue” much more effectively, from knowing the skinny on how and when to drive there, to where to park, to where to go to the bathroom to minimize lines, to where to position myself inside (if not a dedicated seating show), and when to leave in order to avoid the departing crush. In other words, I can make my experience much more comfortable overall as I’m able to exercise better judgment about such things and act on it accordingly.

I also get home SAFELY, and LEGALLY, every time! No need to elaborate on that point, other than to say it’s a really nice gift to give to your friends as well. This also means I save some real cash by not needing to, say, get a room in Oakland because I’m going to rip it that night and want nothing to do with that post-show drive home. And if I really do want to be home home the following morning (say, after a San Fran show, when I could just stay at our place up there), I can get there, no problem, and get up the next day per normal, versus having to go through the proverbial “walk of shame” to get home (in last night’s clothes, with a head that feels like it’s taken on a radical infection of some sort!).

Overall, when I think about my previous experiences of doing concerts buzzed, it’s hard not to feel like that was a lesser experience. In the end, a concert is about the music, and getting what the artist was trying to convey that night. I do that easily and pretty acutely anymore. It’s a slightly lonelier experience, being outside of the crowd looking in. But the smoothness and the normalcy of the next morning seems to make it all worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

A Survivor’s Story

On the local news the other night they wrapped up their telecast by showing a video of a kayaker surviving an attack by a great white shark in the Monterey Bay. The footage initiates after the kayaker has been knocked from the kayak. What you see is essentially a large shark tail thrashing in the water next to the kayak, while on the far side of this scene, the kayaker, buoyed by his life vest, is making his way calmly but steadily away from the scene. A good Sam in a sailboat comes by to scoop safely up the kayaker while the shark continues to nosh on the kayak.

Three points to this story: that’s one dumb shark; that’s one lucky kayaker; and that’s one brave sailboater (since the shark has clearly revealed its taste in boats).

I had a similar incident happen to me not long ago. It’s taken me a while to calm down from it all, as you might imagine. I think I’m ready now to tell my story.

I love oysters, and love photography. It’s not hard to marry these interests in our area given the scope of oyster farming that takes place just 90 miles north of our house, up in Tomales Bay. The waters there appear so calm, but you never know what swims, what hunts, beneath their surface.

Not that I went up there with camera in hand, got up close to oysters being farmed, and Jaws showed up to wreck my afternoon. I mean, that COULD have happened. My point here is, I love oysters.

So my lovely and thoughtful wife, this past Christmas, gave me a gift of a three-month subscription to an oysters-of-the-month club. Each month, 50 of those brilliant little bivalves were to be delivered to the house for my enjoyment. “Enjoyment,” I should say. You know the expression, “big things come in little boxes”?   It’s true, but that’s for better and worse, as I learned. In my case, much, much worse.

I find myself reflecting on how innocent my delight was when at last that first box arrived in January. Unpacking it, inside a Styrofoam cooler about the size of pressure cooker, alongside a few of those artificial ice packs, sat nestled a bag of 50 lovely oysters, plucked just days before from the waters off of Cape Cod (not far from Martha’s Vineyard, where you-know-which movie was filmed). Unbeknownst to me, IT was also in there.

The authenticity of freshly farmed oysters was reinforced by how dirty these guys were, “dirty” with the fine grained sand, that is, that was their bay bottom home just days before. Job one was thus to clean the oysters, a task I took to doing in the sink in our cabana out back.

Oh, how silly a romantic I can be sometimes. Having placed the oysters in the stoppered sink, I then ran water to create a bath in which to clean and rinse them. The smell of the sea that then rose off the water—how transporting it struck me! I no longer found myself just hunched over a sink in my suburban backyard but was back east, on the coast, reveling in the joys and mysteries of our Mother Ocean. The water itself was taking on that greenish, bluish, brownish cast, just like the real ocean, the sight of the oysters dissolving in the now cloaking murk.

In other words, friends: I never saw the strike coming.

I closed my eyes, the better to leave my present and be there fully with the sea. Visions of clamming in the Long Island Sound came to me, as my hands fondled and rubbed at the oysters beneath the surface.

That’s when it hit. Out of nowhere, a lightning bolt of pain shot up my finger, my hand, my arm. In an instant I knew I’d been hit, was being attacked! Worse, the beast’s grip on me was unrelenting, holding me in its clench!

I yanked my hand instinctively back and out of the now damned waters. Whatever IT was came with it, still gripping, still biting me. God had mercy, that when my hand reached the limits of its jerked withdrawal the force of the beast’s momentum exceeded its grip, and it flew off and–THWACK!–hit the wall behind me. I spun around, instantly prepared to defend myself from its second advance, all notions of a water born animal being incapacitated on dry land being lost to the injured animal rage that now consumed me. But it was a crafty beast, whatever this thing was, and the scene before me was all sudden silent stillness. Even the birds in the trees nearby had gone quiet, no doubt absorbed by this outburst of man versus nature savagery. IT had obviously successfully secured cover, and was now hiding, calculating, planning…

I calmed my ragged breath, I gathered my wits; I too held still. I may not have known just then what IT was planning, yet nor would I betray my strategy with any wayward movement on my part. I checked my finger where the beast had latched onto me—thank God it was still there (and surprisingly clean of blood, and uncut).

The tension grew exquisite, until I realized the force of it striking the wall HAD to have affected my assailant. Perhaps it was injured, perhaps my best bet was to go on the offensive before the beast could rally. But where was the accursed brute? I stood at the precipice of a make or break moment, I was Butch and Sundance on the cliff above the river, Rocky before the bell announcing the 15th round. I offered a silent prayer, then casting my fate to gods and wind–it’s go time!–I took action.

Dropping to my knees to better scan the ground before me, I stifled the a scream as my eyes locked with those of my assailant. Just as I suspected—it was no less a monster than a Liocarcinus vernalis, crouched beneath a chair across the way. The goddamned oystermen had sent me more than just their silly damned oysters. They’d shipped a grey swimming crab alongside them!

He was only about an inch in diameter, just a little guy, dazed as hell from hitting the wall, and barely twitched when I picked him up and deposited him in our compost bin (figuring he’d at least have a few days of good eating before succumbing to the environment).

At least I think he’d succumb, my friends. For all I know, he’s still out there, still hunting, still hungry for the flesh of you and I.

God be with you…and you’ve been warned.

To Post Or Not To Post…

Oh, the many faces people put forward where their on line presence is concerned! How shocking it continues to be to me that, seemingly overnight, we have all been given the opportunity to put up billboards alongside the highway composed of the lives of our friends, on which we get to broadcast any and every thought that comes to us. What a remarkable opportunity this is—and how utterly terrifying. Who among us hasn’t been struck, repeatedly, to discover what this or that friend really thinks about things? We’re definitely getting to know each other in a very different way these days, mes amis, for better, for worse.

There are some very obvious stereotypes that have emerged in all of this. Here, a short list:

  • The family guy: gush gush gush about their kids. It’s like receiving one of those wince-worthy year in review letters that come with many holiday cards (the ones that depict lives in which it apparently never rains), only every day. One only hopes you haven’t eaten recently when reading the next gush.
  • The chucklehead: nonstop jokes, goofy pictures, quirky videos of people displaying the most comical aspects of the human condition. Good—great—for comic relief, but I’m often left wondering if you’re paying any attention to what’s really happening out there these days.
  • The foodie: yes! Please! By all means, do show me the incredible Dagwood sandwich you made just now! Which, food photography being its own industry for a reason, always ends up looking a hell of a lot less appetizing on line than you think, old pal!
  • The world traveler: you look good with the Pyramids behind you! Oh, you clever thing, you, “holding” the Eiffel Tower in your hand like that! Where, oh where will life find you globe hopping next? I sit with baited breath….
  • The curator of Great Big Experiences: seriously, is it a divine law that if you go see Hamilton, you MUST LET EVERYONE KNOW YOU JUST SAW HAMILTON?

I’ll stop there as it’s feeling like I could go on forever (the animal lover, the political ranter, the motorcycle guy, the exerciser, the nostalgia buff, the lover perpetually on honeymoon, the single cause crusader….).

I know, I know: cast not the first stone, McWright. I’m as guilty as everyone else of posting just these kinds of things (I’m pretty good at avoiding the food shots). If I ever get a photo of me with some celebrity, I assure you, you’ll be the first to know! But I’d like to think I avoid overdoing it in any one direction, and that’s kind of my point here. Are you monochromatic in what you post, or do you diversify your on line presence, use up more of the technicolor range of that which actually constitutes your life (at least I hope constitutes your life)?

I’d like to think I generally do the latter, such that who I show up to be on line is a decent depiction of who I actually am (I mean, isn’t the point of Facebook primarily to keep each other abreast of what’s happening in your life, all of your life?). And if I do lean in one direction too much for a while (I’m certain I can be accused of this where current politics are concerned), well, that’s probably still a decent depiction of who and where I am right now. Like the weather, things should change shortly.

So here are my, now formerly unwritten, parameters for what I post on line. You are officially welcome to grade me on these going forward.

Regarding what you’re about to post, McWright:

  • Is it clever? Why say what you’re going to say in the most banal manner possible? Go ahead and dare to be entertaining. Dare to address the topic or event in a way that others didn’t see coming. Remember: some people out there haven’t started watching Game of Thrones yet, so you are in some serious competition for their attention!
  • Does it provoke…just enough? Who doesn’t like edgy? Who doesn’t enjoy being made to feel…hmm…uncomfortable in a…comfortable way? By escorting me up to that edge, but not shoving me off of it, I end up trusting you more, trusting that, while you may have whatever feelings on the matter you do, you also have enough perspective to not need or expect me to feel the same way. You give me a taste of the pie, not slam my face with it.
  • Is it different than what you posted yesterday? Please! Unless you’re keeping us up to date on something serious going on in your life (which, by definition, is what you’re about these days), play a different song, dj!
  • Does it offer a slightly different glimpse of…you? I don’t mean to go too far with this one, as this could become burdensome fast. But I like the spirit of it all the same. A good example: we all have guilty pleasures that we’re reluctant to admit. Go ahead and admit it! I posted the other day that I’ve enjoyed the heck out of this last season of Girls on HBO. What manly man does that?? But it’s true, and it’s me, and what the heck do I care about how others react to that, and won’t the heckling I may get be itself worth the price of admission? Though no one has responded to that post yet, so I assume they’re all still in horrified shock.
  • Finally, the age old, am I okay with my mom seeing it? Because she will! (Love you, Mom!)

So them’s my thoughts. But I have to go now, to give some shit to a buddy of mine who just posted a photo of the egg sandwich he’s eating as we speak.

My Year of The Band

Sometimes life just comes together around a thing, and there, blessing of blessings, you have it.

Owing to a random sequence of events, 2016 – 2017 will prove to be my “Year of The Band.” I couldn’t be tickled any more about this.

The Band occupy a deeply impressive place in rock ‘n roll history. At a time when rock was either heading into the psychedelic cosmos or taking steroids and pumping iron during its classic rock era, The Band dared to put out music that went back in time, waay back.  With a mix all their own of folk, blues, gospel, rock, and R&B, with an occasional touch of classical and sometimes a big dash of funk, The Band would have been the perfect house band for a paddlewheel steamer plying the Mississippi in an earlier century, late night, when the the guests are read to kick up their heels and let down their hair.

Their accomplishments are legion, their legacy perhaps the best example ever of being at the right place at the right time when early on they were asked by Bob Dylan to back him during his infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour in 1966.  They were arguably the band to put roots rock on the map, stand toe to toe with The Allman Brothers in launching southern rock, and should be credited as the forefathers of the country rock scene that emerged in southern California (The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers) in the early ’70s.  They set the gold standard for rock documentaries, in partnership with Martin Scorsese, with The Last Waltz.  And of course they were there at many of the era’s most famous moments, starting with Dylan going electric: Woodstock, the 1969 Isle of Wright Festival; the trans-Canada all star train adventure known as the Festival Express, to name a few. George Harrison cited The Band as a major influence on him in the late 60s and early 70s; Eric Clapton tried unsuccessfully to join The Band.

Beyond their unique blend of sounds and songwriting, what probably distinguishes The Band are two things.  They boasted three exceptional singers, each of who could have fully fronted their own band–Richard Manuel, whose falsetto is best displayed on the songs “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released”; Rick Danko, whose voice emoted like no others, as in “It Makes No Difference” (there is simply no more heartfelt expression of these words in all of music as when late in this song Rick sings the line, “Well, I love you so much”); and of course Levon Helms, whose full throated back country drawl, as in “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” conjures up the deep south in a way Ronnie Van Zant could only dream of. Their other secret weapon was Garth Hudson, an absolute savant multi instrumentalist who lived to explore the outer reaches of the soundscape, and whose spontaneous excursions on piano or the organ in concert were the stuff of legend.  A great example of Garth’s contribution to The Band (and the world beyond) is when he revealed the remarkable funk potential of the clavichord, as he did in “Up On Cripple Creek.”  Whose your daddy, Trey McConnell?

Of course I missed all of this while it was happening (The Band broke up in ’76), though I can say I wasn’t geographically far from the action when they first got off the ground (they created their first album in Saugerties, NY, near Woodstock, about 100 miles east of Binghamton). Which isn’t to say they didn’t register for me back when I was young. Seems to me “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” as just one example of their music, was etched in my mind back then with the same sort of hymnal mythos as surrounded a song like “Amazing Grace”—timeless, perfect, with a story and message so epically told that listening to the song became reverential.

For all of these reasons, and being a hack rock historian, I do indeed revere The Band. Thus my delight at the sequence of events of which I’m currently in the middle, the better to know and touch and feel who and what this band was.

Robbie Robertson put out his memoir, Testimony, last year. As is to be expected, he did a book tour in support, and I caught him up in San Rafael in November. Robbie’s such a great talker and story teller that it was magic to just sit there and listen to him yak away. In describing his experiences supporting Dylan during the infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour, Robbie said, “That’s when I learned how to play the guitar without looking at my fingers, since I had to be ready to duck from shit thrown at us by the crowds.” Demoralized on that tour by night after night being met by a wall of boos and catcalls, I love the understated way that Robbie eventually approaches Dylan and says, “I’m wondering if maybe we should rethink our approach to this.” Much to Dylan’s credit his response was, “You’re right. Let’s play louder tonight.”

An unexpected treat to being there for Robbie’s event was in talking with the lady I sat next to that night.  Turns out, she was there for The Last Waltz, and indulged my every last question about what that night was like.  When Robbie first came out, he asked the crowd if any of them had been there.  She counted herself among about a dozen people who could say that in the crowd.  You have to be a good ten years older than I am to be able to say that.  I’d take on those years in a heartbeat to be able to!

In mentioning Dylan, I guess you could say my YOTB actually began in October last year, a few weeks before seeing Robbie, when I went to the Desert Trip festival. Granted, I never set eyes on Dylan that first night, due to the fiasco of my travel plans that day. But I can say, when John and I eventually pulled onto the festival grounds and stopped to present our tickets to security outside our parking area, the song carried on the wind from the stage was Dylan’s closing effort, Like A Rolling Stone. Dylan had just recorded that song in New York the day Robbie met him there.  So there’s that connection.

So first a minor Dylan encounter, then seeing Robbie.  This past weekend I wildly overindulged myself by running down to Austin to catch the opening night of The Last Waltz 40th anniversary celebration tour. This is a Warren Haynes based tour that features a number of other prominent artists, including Don Was, Cyril Neville, Taj Mahal, and Dr. John, who of course played at the actual Last Waltz.  Why I went to Austin is because I couldn’t make the performance that will take place this Saturday in San Francisco, which was going to drive me bat shit crazy. When I heard that Garth Hudson was going to play at a few shows, including the one in Austin, that more or less settled things and had me begging Ann to support my disappearing for 24 hours this past weekend to go catch this.

I’d like to be able to say the evening was end to end fabulous, but the truth is much of the performance was marred by a pretty bad sound system that allowed the deeper bass sounds to just crush the higher register guitars and vocals (sitting through a concert like that is not unlike being Tyson’s sparring partner). Still, the night was simply made by the arrival on stage for the final four songs of Garth Hudson. My Facebook posting pretty much says it all:

“They cap last night’s 40th anniversary celebration of The Last Waltz by bringing out Garth Hudson. God bless him, he’s stooped over, has a beard to make ZZ Top blush, needs two guys to get him to the piano… The crowd’s just so happy to see him, expecting nothing of this old hero…and then Garth begins to play. It was absolutely mesmerizing, a ten minute improv of funky Garth virtuosity, at the end of which he says, “Let’s do it,” and the band drops into The Weight. So, so joyous. “Take a load off, Fanny…and…and…AND…you put the load right on me…””

So, within 5 months I’ve managed to be in the same room with each of the two surviving members of The Band, including hearing perform the most talented musician in the group. Pretty satisfying.  And the best may be yet to come.

Sometime this past year I read that Big Pink is available to rent, the famous pink house in Saugerties, New York where many of the members of The Band lived while they worked out the songs for their first album (titled Music From Big Pink), and where Dylan and The Band recorded the famous “basement tapes” (once considered the holy grail of bootlegged recordings). I doggedly tracked that rumor down, and damned if it isn’t true. And damn right—I’ve rented Big Pink for two nights this June. I still can’t get my head around this, cannot WAIT to see and spend time at what may be one of the three most famous rock ‘n roll houses in history (Graceland and the chateau in southern France where the Stones recorded Exile On Main Street being the other two).

Consider the songs that were created at Big Pink: I Shall Be Released, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn the Eskimo, The Weight, Tears of Rage, Chest Fever. Aaaa-maaa-zing!

Being at Big Pink will be heady enough, but it will also allow me a base from which to go visit the site of Woodstock, about an hour away, another screamingly obvious bucket list item for this hack historian.

The Band.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that name reflects either a painful lack of creativity, or, truly remarkable balls for claiming it.  In truth it was more the former, a name they more or less whimsically happened upon at the time of signing with Capitol.  That their majestic body of work resulted in them earning the title is all to their credit.

“…and all the people were singing, they went, naa…na na na na naa….”

GOOD EVENING, BROOME COUNTY!

In the realm of topics to get conversations really grooving, I’ve got one that never fails to hit the mark: what was your first concert? It’s a question you can ask anybody, age be damned, and I guarantee you’re going to hear an entertaining story, told with an inspired look in the eye, slightly soft focused as people spontaneously dip into time travel. Sometimes the story will involve a megatour at a stadium (“The Jackson Brothers Victory Tour, Arrowhead Stadium, 1984”), sometimes it will involve a favorite artist (“Bruce Springsteen, 1979”), sometimes it will have demanded the person travel a distance since they came from small town America (“We road tripped from Montana to see Madonna in Seattle in 1985”), and sometimes the person will need to ask if a given experience counts. My favorite response of this sort has to be: “I saw David Hasselhoff perform at the Mall of America. It was for free. Does that count?” I knew this person desperately didn’t want THAT to count, but alas, I had to tell her, it indeed did. Live with it, sister, and love—LOVE—your story!

Most of the time, I’ve found, your first concert will be an unlikely artist that happened to intersect with your town and your age when you were finally ready to go see a show. And that’s great, given how colorful the responses often are. Ann’s first concert is a classic example of this: The Ohio Players. If you know my wife at all, The Ohio Players probably won’t leap to mind as candidates for her answer, but that’s less the point than the fact that her first show was a band that probably less than 1% of us can claim seeing. “Oingo Boingo,” “Thomas Dolby,” “Bread,” “Terrence Trent Darby,”…. Anytime a person’s answer makes you say, “Oh yeah, those guys,” it’s a fun first concert answer (because right after you’ll think, “THAT was your first concert??”).

Since it’s my question (!!), I’ve permitted myself actually two answers. And this is a fair mentality, one I’d happily extend to others in my same boat. Because my first concert was a show that my parents took our family to when we were fairly young, and then my second answer is the first show I ever sought out myself, when I was old and punk enough to go to a show with friends. And God bless the interweb, I can specify the exact dates of both.

First concert: October 21, 1973. The Carpenters (Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, Binghamton, NY).

First concert as a semi-independent punk: March 2, 1978. Blue Oyster Cult (same venue).

I quite frankly take real pride in being able to say I saw The Carpenters, arguably the most popular treacly band of the 70s (and there were a LOT of treacly bands in that singer/songwriter era). Why? First, can you name a better concert-with-training-wheels band than these guys (I was 9 when I saw them)? Second, I once heard it said that there are two indisputable female singers with perfect pitch: Ella Fitzgerald, and of course Karen Carpenter (I’d argue Eva Cassidy as well). So I can say I saw one of them perform live, at least. Third reason, and write it down: Karen Carpenter was a terrific drummer! For proof go find videos of her when she and Richard played early on in a jazz trio—the chick could swing! And finally, while not a classic live-fast-and-die-young rock ‘n roller’s death, well, she did die young under what at the time were pretty freaky circumstances. Poor Karen may well have opened the world’s eyes to the tragic disaster that can be that condition.

The Carpenters?  Damn right, The Carpenters!

Okay, pretty lame, but still sort of cute.  If nothing else, given where I’ve gone in life in my live music enthusiasm, you have to figure The Carpenters put on a drop mic show that night.

[Fun, funky sidenote: I remember earlier that day watching the Oakland A’s beat the Mets in the 7th game to take the ’73 World Series. Sort of interesting, sort of ho hum, right? Check out this list of players on those two squads that day: Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, WILLIE MAYS, Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris, and one of the most vicious (and colorfully named) pitching rotations ever for the As: Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter, Vida Bue, and of course their closer, Rollie Fingers. I mean, hokum smokum! And then to see Richard and Karen perform later that night? LIVING THE DREAM!]

Does Blue Oyster Cult strike you as colorful, as unlikely a first concert band? Well then you didn’t grow up in Binghamton, NY in the late 70s. All those treacly songs that maple syruped out of our Coke can radios in the early 70s gave way later in the decade, when my crowd started to spread our defiant little teen wings, to a more unbridled appreciation for all things hard rock. And Blue Oyster Cult was all that, of course, AND, being from Long Island, we considered these guys more or less our band. And “BOC” was peaking in the late 70s, off of the back of their magnum opus album, Agents of Fortune, and then Some Enchanted Evening, their instant classic live album which came out later the year I saw them, thus serving as something of a recording of the show we saw.

So maybe a quirky answer if taken out of context. But for a late 70s blooming teenager? With the famous BOC lasers (they did it first, folks), the Godzilla drum solo, the hard rock anthem, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”? A perfect first concert for this punk, I assure you.

And, of course, the funky sidenotes: by the listing above taken off a website I see that Angel opened up for BOC this night, a faux-prog rock band I only remember for their logo being ambigrammatic (visually the same if flipped upside down). So too did Walter Egan, a one hit wonder from back then, and what a lovely one hit it was: “Magnet and Steel.” Meaning: even this night had its dash of bona fide treacle.

On The Wings Of Lavender

It was the silliest of moments until suddenly it wasn’t, when I found myself in Eden.

I went in for minor shoulder surgery on Friday. I’ve written before about being a frequent flyer where surgery is concerned, this one being around my 14th or 15th. I wasn’t feeling nervous about the procedure (I love a good nap). If I had any concern, it related to the fact that the last time I had surgery—in this facility, in fact—I ended up with a staph infection that resulted in having to reverse the procedure, go through an arduous process of fighting the infection, then performing the original surgery all over again (surgeries 11, 12, and 13, respectively). But that was all just crap luck as far as I was concerned, and still didn’t deliver much for pre-surgery jitters this day.

In any case, while they were checking me in, they presented me with the unexpected option for aromatherapy beforehand. Aromatherapy. Hunh, I thought. The nurse registering me explained that research indicates that aromatherapy can help with relaxation. While I was feeling pretty relaxed already, I thought about the scene in the waiting room I’d find myself in momentarily—the sterility of it, just sitting there in my flimsy gown—and thought, hey, anything that might bump up that ambience. What the heck–I said yes.

I’m taken back to my room, handed my gown, socks, and hairnet, allowed to change, and then I sit with another nurse who’s going to run a bunch of questions by me and prep my shoulder. In the midst of all of this, she notes where I said yes to aromatherapy, and she hands me a capped plastic vial that contains what appears to be a few cotton balls. “Here’s your aromatherapy,” she says.

Now, shame on me for at all fancying that “aromatherapy” might involve something akin to what you experience in a massage room—soft lighting, innocuous new age music playing, and the transporting aroma of something like cottonwood wafting gently on the wind around me. This version of “aromatherapy” bore little difference than had she handed me a similar vial and said, “Please submit your sample in this” and pointed me to the bathroom. “Lavender okay with you?” she asks.

Uhm, sure, lavender’s fine. I take the vial from her, which has a very clinical label on it with the facility’s name, five scents listed (bergamot, lavender, lemon, peppermint, and other) and a line for the date. The box next to lavender is checked, and the date written is today’s. If nothing else, I know for sure I’m getting myself some fresh lavender aromatherapy here.

While she continues with her questions, then sets about shaving my shoulder, I pop the cap on the vial and take a tentative sniff. Hmm…not bad. That’s a pretty accurate lavender smell. I take a deeper inhale of it. Why, yes, yes indeed, that is very lavender, I discover. And in no time, I go from zero to sixty in being curious to utterly tickled by this delightful aroma. In a word, this shit smells GREAT! Surgery? Hospital? I’m feeling in the land of Ali Baba, baby! I’m half tempted to just bag the vial and pop the cotton balls right up my nose.

The nurse notices my enthusiasm and laughs. “You’re liking the aromatherapy, eh?” My first reaction is, why you harshin’ on my aroma jam, yo? But of course the positivity coursing through my system on the wing’s of lavender has me smile at her like a drugged child and say, “Oh, yeah!”

The anesthesiologist, he then comes in, catching me nose deep in the vial, and he laughs too. “Doc,” I say, “beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and extend the vial his way, suddenly the world’s most generous junkie. He holds up his hands in no thanks and says, “I’m driving.” We both laugh.

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Point being, it was a terribly fun discovery, that this wholly artificial little intervention they’ve come up with actually had the outsized effect on me that it did.

After coming to following a successful surgery and getting my wits about me, Ann ready to take me home, and with post-op directions explained, they end my time there with the obvious: “Do you have any questions before leaving, Mr. McWright?”

“Can I take the aromatherapy home with me?”

 

A Good Boy

Ann called me Tuesday sometime around 8am. As I was in Florida visiting Mom, I knew the call couldn’t be good, being that early for her. She was crying when I answered and shared that Calvin had pretty much been up all night panting like mad, and seemed unable to settle down or get comfortable when laying down. By default he was thus standing a lot, but purposelessly. She knew something was wrong–very wrong, she felt.

These past few months for the boy haven’t been easy or good ones. Two months ago he developed some growth in his paw that caused him real discomfort when walking. After the doctor said there wasn’t much to be done other than surgery that could result in the removal of the affected toe, Ann declined that option given the larger potential impact of such a procedure on a 13 ½ year old dog. Bless her heart, she then proceeded to jerry rig a pad for his foot for his daily walks that really did seem to make a difference, using foam and blue tape and a boot. This she did every day, faithfully.

Then last week something else kicked up in another paw, rendering him gimpy as can be. The vet couldn’t quite figure out what that was about and suspected perhaps something small had penetrated that paw. As to whether it was still in there or not, couldn’t say. Ann tackled that one using the age old Epsom salts soaking technique, and damned if a day later he seemed better. Taping the one foot up, holding the other foot in a shallow bath of Epsom salts—she loves the boy.

And now the other day, this. Ann anxiously asked if I felt she should wait for her vet to open up shop, or just take him into a vet emergency room. I counseled the former, and of course Ann went with the latter.

Her next call to me was light years more despondent. They found a tumor near Calvin’s stomach, a sizable one that was pressing on the spleen, the liver. They needed to hold him there to explore whether the tumor had metastasized to other parts. In effect, this didn’t matter much to Ann. Clearly the only option for addressing the tumor was surgical removal, and as I already mentioned that kind of thing was a nonstarter. Calvin seemed indeed to have entered his end stage.

Well enough to get out of there, Ann brought Calvin home, the game plan being to monitor him and keep him comfortable (she left the vet with plenty of pain meds for that, and the name of a house calling vet, who could help us put Calvin to rest at home if it came to that). The next 24 hours quickly revealed where there didn’t appear to be a lot of room to keep Calvin comfortable. Calvin struggled to sit still, apparently no position being comfortable to him. He seemed to want to go outside a lot but would only walk out and then just stand there, as if befuddled by it all. He did eventually eat, so that was good.   Ann’s anxiety grew through the day Wednesday until she finally called the home based vet, who happened to be a neighbor. Sam came by and said things didn’t look too good. The goal then became to keep Calvin sufficiently comfortable for the next 24 hours until I got home from my visit. This would allow me to see the guy one last time, and also for Ann to not be so very alone in dealing with this gut punch of an experience.

Mercifully Calvin made it to my return. As did my wife, the preceding 36 hours being surely the worst she’s known in years, maybe ever. Anyone would hurt badly over the impending loss of a 13 year old pet and friend. Calvin came into Ann’s life right after her divorce, was there throughout the transitions in the next few years, including moving into her new home, and inviting the likes of me into her life. Calvin and Claire were the constants for Ann during some really shitty years, thus were the good luck charms that ushered in the goodness that has since followed.

I got home Thursday early evening. When I first saw and hung out with Calvin, I have to say, I was given pause over whether the agenda to end things was really necessary at this point. He seemed reasonably alert, and while he wouldn’t sit in any of the various ways we’re used to seeing him sit, he had a whale of an appetite, would wag his tail in the presence of food, and was able to go outside almost like normal.

However, even in just the short hour and a half between when I got home and when Ann had arranged for Sam to come to take care of things, I quickly saw how very and sadly off Calvin was. He would only sit in a manner he’d never preferred before; he’d get up only to just stand ther; there was only a lightless look in his eyes. He still had some life in him, but living was surely only going to slowly kill him in the coming days at this point. Of course we wanted to believe that he was caught up in some bad phase, one he’d eventually get to the other side of, but the data was all pointing in the wrong direction.

Ann asked me if I thought we were making the right decision. I understood the dilemma, now three-dimensionally, being here in his presence. I also understood all too well what my loving wife had gone through over the past 36 hours, over the past 8 months, really, since the day last summer I ran Calvin over with my car (fortunately I pretty much passed over him and he was shaken but fine within days). All the slow but real declines he’d experienced, the specific incidents that each stood to undercut his quality of living, which seemed to be emerging at a more rapid pace these last few months. He’d take his walk one day with the vim and vigor he’d shown for years, then the next day could barely hobble across the room. He’d dodged a bunch of bullets during this time, barely. A large tumor near his stomach? That was one bullet too many. I told her yes, I did, and I meant it, and hated like hell the instinct that whispered that truth in my ear.

That last hour with Calvin felt to me like the epitome of my experience of him this past half year. I enjoyed being there with him, but there wasn’t a lot of reciprocity in this. Calvin became almost maniacally Ann-dependent during these past months, tracking her every move, following her if she left the room, even going into the bathroom with her. It was sort of cute, sort of maddening for Ann, but I missed him and what affection he’d formerly shown me. Ann started to experience this goodbye in her way this past half year, but given the depth of their connection, that wasn’t going to curb in any way the intensity of her grief at this final goodbye. For me, I started saying my own goodbye to Calvin these past six months, and otherwise deferred to the affection he shared with his Momma.

I wish the actual procedure had gone otherwise. There are two steps in this kind of thing. In the first a general anesthesia is administered, allowing the dog to slowly go to sleep (this is what’s used for cleaning teeth, or minor surgery). After the dog is under, a dose of something is given to finally rest his heart. Sam administered the first shot and then left Ann and I to be alone with Calvin. He was already calm, lying there on the floor with us. Eventually he set his head down on his front paws, sleep taking over. It was as peaceful as you could hope for—until it suddenly was not. Apparently some dogs can experience an almost epileptic seizure with this drug, and this infernal reaction suddenly took our poor dog over. Ann was horrified, while I saw it for what it was, just a biological reflex. Sam came rushing back in the room when we called out to him and worked to both hold Calvin down and explain how oblivious he was to what was going on. That was too much for Ann who left the room at that point. I lingered a moment as Calvin calmed back down, then when he did, I leaned in for a last kiss on the snout. This reawakened the damn spasming some, and I left too. I know Ann will struggle with that moment for a while.

Sam and his wife Nancy (also a retired vet) finished the procedure, then came to give us hugs before departing with Calvin’s remains. I couldn’t help but hear every note from the sound of their car leaving, shock and sadness vying in my heart to grasp the moment.

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Ann’s mother once made an offhand comment about dogs that could not have rung truer to the dog owner education that came with my life with Ann and Calvin. She said, “Give a dog a little bit of food, a little bit of love, and they’ll be loyal to you forever.” Yes, indeed, Joan. Yes, indeed.

Calvin was a true Golden Retriever. Never a candidate for the Doggie Mensa Club, he could detect and would respond to a human emotion from across the bay. He didn’t beg for affection while welcoming all that came his way, and ditto (mostly) where food was concerned. He had that utterly charming habit of bringing Ann something in bed after his breakfast (most often a shoe), and that utterly horrific habit of rolling around on any dead thing he found along a trail. He rarely barked unless someone pulled into the driveway or walked past the house with their own dog. He cherished his goodnight routine—treats from Ann, then a loving rubdown from her, then me. I can’t remember him chewing a thing up of any importance, though if he escaped the house with a toy in mouth it was as good as buried within minutes. If you dropped your speed below 50 in the car he’d demand his window be rolled down. Nothing entertained him for more hours then sitting poolside with his captured tennis ball, knowing that damn ball was trying to escape back into the pool, and if it couldn’t figure out a way to do so itself, Calvin would eventually nose it in there, then barking to raise the dead at its treachery. And always, always, parked by the door whenever we left the house to be there when we returned.

So of course the house doesn’t feel quite like home for now; a 25% loss in pure heart will have that effect. What else to say? We loved you, “Calbeen.” And thank you for all of your love, you good boy!

Get Off Of My Cloud!

Perhaps nowhere is human nature more self-mocking than when you’re in a crowded situation and pissed off at everyone around you for it. You get ample opportunity to explore the many manifestations of this when you live in the bay area, being exhibit A of a victim of its own success. I can’t wait until two years from now, when I stop working and get to spend all my time strategizing over when to go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, so as to avoid the irritating masses (which will be at 3am, 4am, and never, respectively).

One instance of this has nothing to do with living here, or anywhere in particular, and is a grim reality of which we have all partaken: the unique ordeal of attempting to score a ticket online to a popular concert. Since I’m a pretty avid live music fan, it is my fate to adorn the guise of combatant about twice a month in this regard. But guess what? I’ve figured out the trick to success, and here it is:

Oh, ha effing ha. Did you really think…?

“RIGGED! BIGLY!” Right concept, wrong target by he of the small hands. A buddy of mine just sent me this article that pretty much confirms everything we’ve ever suspected about the ticket sales systems. Yes, professional scalpers own these systems. Yes, bots are widely deployed. Yes, venues direct a huge proportion of available tickets to preferred customers (read: corporate sponsors). Yes, there are subscription websites that will provide anyone the presale passwords to every show. Yes, we are screwed and it is hopeless. Yes, Stubhub is your friend (who demands you pick him up in a stretch limo with caviar and Moet et Chandon in hand).

Does this mean Ticketmaster and Live Nation are to be spared of blame? Should I stop calling them Ticketbastard and Evil Nation? Well, they’re for sure in cahoots with venues where allocating seats to corporate elites is concerned. And their precious little service and processing fees will gall me to the grave. But just like the Ruskies can hack an election if it really wants to, so too can the reprobates of the internet hack these systems no matter the attempted defenses by the systems themselves. It’s a jungle out there, baby.

So, at least for now it really does boil down to how bad do you want to go, and if you do, then paying the man. Our consolation? That little wretch of a notion you have to let hold the door for you now and again: misery loves company. Then again, once you’re at the show, the lights drop, the band tears into that song you came to hear, that’s a joy that eclipses what it took to get there. And that’s human nature too.