June 7, 2020

Sparks That Lit The Fire

It’s hard to know what to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the protesting for change to the white supremacist America structures.

Silence is complicity. 
Remain quiet and listen.

Most white people I know want to do the right thing and are looking for ways to get involved. It might appear that we’re assuaging our white guilt or that we’re guilty of performative alleyship. I hope this post and the ones that follow do not fall into those categories. I understand the value of amplifying black voices and I realise that this may not be the best time to add my voice to the collective white noise. Having said that- I feel my friends, close followers on Twitter and some of my students may benefit from hearing the stories that have led me to my current state of understanding.

I am no expert in this field and many of my stories will surely lack academic scrutiny. I do not claim to be “woke” any more than anyone else, but I have worked my whole life trying to understand injustice bred from racism. While my work has been unevenly tilted toward awareness and less toward action, I hope that sharing these stories, I may enlightened a few friends, family and students. I’m hoping that this stock-taking of my own experience will inspire others to help motivate us find ways to transform learning into concrete action.

I'm curious about the stories of when people were radicalised or how our past experiences influence our values and beliefs. I believe in the value of sharing stories in an effort to unearth and connect.

Much of my learning comes from music, films and books, so I thought I’d write a series of posts about how various media have influenced my consciousness. I wanted this series to highlight various Black authors, artists and filmmakers that have shaped my views.

But are you ready for the biggest irony of ironies? 

If I really want to start from the beginning, which as a first post in a series seems to make sense- I need to start with a white Jewish dude from Minnesota.

My race awareness begins with Bob Dylan. I remember his voice for as I long as I remember hearing. Blowing In The Wind and Times Are A Changin’ were the soundtrack of my childhood.

It must have been in Middle School when I started studying the 1964 album The Times Are Changin’. Songs like Ballad of Hollis Brown, With God on Our Side, North Country Blues were more important to me than any text book or curriculum I was learning in school. Even my childhood growing up in a predominately non-white community hadn’t prepared me for the stories unfolding in these songs.

The songs that stand out as the sparks that lit my fire were:

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll 

“But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears”

Only A Pawn In Their Game

“The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain't him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.”

I can’t say I knew too many Black stories at that point in my life beyond MLK's I Have A Dream speech, and so in a world without the Internet, it was a Dlyan song that introduced me to Medgar Evers. Although my two best friends in elementary school were Black their lives and cultures were unknown to me. It was through these Bob Dylan songs that I started to shape my empathy.

For years after that, I became stuck in the romanticised vision of the poor 1960’s negro. These songs and that history did little to teach me about the contemporary plight of the Black people in my community or school. Not once did we have open conversations about Race during this time of my schooling. I can’t help to think how much faster I would have come to important realisations about systemic racism had I had teachers to help me understand that while the civil rights movement and the protest music of the 60’s had improved the Jim Crow south, they had not eradicated racism. Or even come close.I would come to these realisations on my own years later.

I’m sorry I started my series on the power of Black culture on my values and beliefs with a white artist, but it felt important to start at the beginning.

When did you first become awaken to Racism? How old were you? What shed the light?

April 4, 2020

things about things

a few weeks ago,
before the world broke,
i came across a young boy
crying because he had just killed a bird.

“i didn’t mean to,”
he whimpered earnestly.

but the bird was dead:
bloodied beak
snapped neck
crushed wing.

it’s tiny legs
limp and smashed
into the concrete
like damp matchsticks.

his friends circled
the scene
like giddy vultures
confused by blood
and remorse
and endings
they were never equipped
to process.

“it’ll be okay.
it was an accident.
there’s nothing you
could have done.
go play.
don't worry about it.”

i took care of the corpse
and watched the children
return to play and not worry about it.

that was a few weeks ago
before the world broke,
at a school
where we naively tried to teach kids
things about things.

March 26, 2020

New Pearl Jam Album

This might a chicken and an egg situation, but for the last thirty years, Pearl Jam have released an album at a significant time in my life, or maybe every time Pearl Jam release an album it acts as a time maker for what is happening in my life.

Either way, on the eve of the release of their eleventh studio album, I thought it appropriate to write up a quick timeline of each album's significance, what I was doing at the time and key songs that mark the time.

Ten- 1991

While Ten was released in August of 1991, it didn’t enter my world for a few months later. I was still infatuated with GnRs Use Your Illusions album and listening to a lot of Skynyrd. I had seen Man in the Box by Alice In Chains on 120 mins as my entry into grunge and Pearl Jam was not yet on my radar.

There is a infamous SNL performance, that we watched with friends, where I apparently said I didn’t really like Pearl Jam because they didn’t have “rhythm.”

Anyway….fast-forward a few months and we are about to graduate. Suddenly I had forgotten their lack of rhythm and Ten was my soundtrack of senior year. I listened to it all the time. I must have gone through four or five copies of this CD within a few years.

To this day, I still see Ten as the break from High School and my entry to the real world. Songs like Why Go, Once and Porch where main stays on my CD player for decades to come. To this day Black and Release feel as fresh and necessary as they did in 1992.

Vs- 1993

I had moved to San Diego and back to San Rafael. The SDSU frat scene was not for me and a longing for my high school girlfriend, found me back in my hometown. Anthony and I had our first apartment on 1313 fourth street. I was taking a few classes at College of Marin and working at Bank of America.

I remember skipping classes and work on the day this album came out and locking myself at home with it. I may have drank and ate and smoked a few things, and I listened to it non-stop for twelve house.

To this day it might be my favorite Pearl Jam album. Hearing Daughter and Elderly Woman for the first time were revelations. Leash and Blood and Rearview Mirror were the soundtrack songs of many late night moshing sessions in a variety of living rooms throughout the 90s.

This was also when Pearl Jam stopped doing videos and released things like Monkey Wrench radio which pre-internet days, was the greatest gift.

It was during this time that I saw Pearl Jam live in SF, Berkley, San Jose, and San Diego. The live shows cemented them as not just my favorite band, but my religion and therapist.

Indifference is still one of my favorite songs and one of the first songs I sang a few years ago when I was doing open mics. I remember sitting in our house in Novato with nothing but a candle and singing this song to the darkness. We were young and drunk and angsty and it felt right.

Vitology 1994

Speaking of Novato- it’s a year later and I am living at 1576 South Novato Blvd with Anthony, Josh and Einar. We had just met Felicia and soon Cortney, Lacey and Mary. Emily was around a lot and things were wild and free.

I remember I bought the vinyl because it came out two weeks earlier. I loved looking through the crazy artwork. We had wild loud parties with no neighbors or adults or any need for control or restraint. It is the freest I have ever felt in my life and songs like Whipping fueled this time in my life.

The music was getting more experimental, which was perfect for where I was emotionally. I was in a very experimental stage too and the break from their Ten sound was welcome. Songs like Tremor Christ and Last Exit were dark and brooding and fit the long car rides to work in Corte Madera.

More shows for this tour and this is when I got my Pearl Jam stick man tattoo. I was in deep.

No Code 1996

This is when people speculate that Pearl Jam tried to lose fans, by going very experimental. They brought Jack Irons on as drummer and the sound was very different. I loved the Polaroid art work and some of my favorite songs are on this album.

I was still in Novato when this album came out, and I remember long drives to Sacramento but Emily was drifting away and I was headed more and more to San Diego. Jason was back on this feet so to speak and to this day Off He Goes is our love song to each other. There is lots of Neil Young influence on the harder songs and this is when I saw them at Golden Gate Park with uncle Neil.

A lot of people probably stopped listening to Pearl Jam at this point, but songs like Sometimes, Present Tense and I’m Open held my attention.

This is probably around the time that Jeff and I rode his Honda motorbike from Sand Diego to the Bay Area to see Pearl Jam at the Bridge School Benefit for the first time.

Yield 1998

I am living on in San Francisco now. First in the Haight then South of Market. I’m working in restaurants and going to SFSU. I’m a year away from graduation and working hard and partying with new and different people. I remember cold rainy night coming home from night classes, writing crappy poetry books and reading. Reading. Reading.

Given to Fly is to this one of my favourites and songs like MFC and Faithful are staples in my commutes. Wishlist and Lowlight ended many long nights, alone in my room spinning in the dark.

This album will always remind of the days living in the City. There were less parties and group listening. We were old enough and had money to be in bars, so I listen to much of this album alone and on head phones. It was a warm coat during those cold foggy nights. I also remember sharing many of these songs with Chris.

Binaural 2000

I am living in a small hut and have met Mairin. We are in Mozambique. I am not sure how or when this CD made it to our little post office, but my favourite song off this album has always been Of The Girl. I remember countless nights writing letters in the glow of the kerosene lamps listening to Light Years and Nothing As It Seems.

These songs always transport me to those long African days. It’s the first time we hear Eddie on the Uke. I wasn’t able to listen to these songs very loudly, so I think the soft songs spoke to me more during this time.

Riot Act 2002

We are back in the US and living in NYC while going to grad school. I am a member of the International Socialist Organization selling news papers on the weekends and attending meetings. It’s the Bush years in America and Pearl Jam is more overtly political as am I.

Their sound is tight and maturing and a great blend of their styles. Songs like Love Boat Captain, I Am Mine and Thumbing My Way are still on constant rotation in my life.

Many of these songs were played at 5:30 am, cold winter days going to 176 st to teach in The Bronx. You Are still stands out as a crazy new sound they were experimenting with.

I saw them two nights in a row at MSG and was buying live show CDs of nearly five shows across the country. The Philadelphia show was a gem…nearly four hours.

Pearl Jam (The avocado album) 2006

Kaia was born this year and songs like Parachute and Come Back felt light and playful, like Pearl Jam had never sounded before.

This was the start of Doha before the anger really set in. The songs were wide open and free. Marker In The Sand and Life Wasted felt urgent and necessary in the desert.

This an album that I am listening to now as I write, remembering so many of the songs. At this point I am overseas and missing shows and tours. There are songs that hint to a different sound that I was not in love with. Songs like Inside Job and Gone.

Back Spacer- 2009

In a month from its release Skye is born and we will be leaving Doha soon and on to Jakarta. The Fixer was the song we played on constant rotation. Unknown Thought and Just Breathe are staples from this album. This is the first album where there are a few songs I really don’t like. Got Some and Force of Nature are hidden little gems.

I think this is the first album that becomes late stage Pearl Jam. Gone are the wild communal listening parties. I am listening to Pearl Jam much more alone these days. I am hoping for a solid five songs that I love from any album. I know there will be four or so that I will not get into and the rest….well they get a revisit every few years. Back Spacer delivers the six songs I needed from it and a few are favorites for sure.

Lightening Bolt 2013

We are now in Singapore and it has been a while since the last Pearl Jam album. Opening song Getaway and Pendulum are keepers for sure. Sirens becomes my immediate favorite and gets constant rotational play. Infallible and Yellow Moon feel like No Code style loose Pearl Jam and anchor this album.

This is my least favourite art work of all their records. There are a few duds on this one for sure, but also a sweet piano intro Future Days that feels rightfully middle age. I am a different man than I was in 1991 and so is this band.

We have grown up together. It’s like these later stage albums are the advice that Pearl Jam should have given their younger angrier selves. I have gone though so much with this band. They are the soundtrack of my life and I am thankful that to this day that they represent all my values. They have stayed true to their art, to their politics, to themselves and to their music.

I am so proud to be a life long fan.

And now after seven years, their new album drops tomorrow. I am not sure what stage of my life I am in. This virus has put us in a shitty place, so maybe we need new Pearl Jam music to carry us through.

They’ve released three single so far and while none of them have blown my mind, they are all different from each other and show the evolution of a band that has stayed together for decades and is still exploring what they have to say to the world.

Tomorrow night, I will make myself a drink or five. Get the lyrics ready and listen to every song three or four times.

I will think about the boy who was awaken by these riffs, these words, these prayers, and think about how blessed I am to have found my soulmate of a band in their prime and in my youth. And as we grow old together, I am lucky enough to enjoy a new album by such a remarkable band.