Month: September 2012

Starting with a Song: Big Dipper

I’m going to try something new today, I will start with a song and see where it leads me. My goal will be to get back to the song by the end of my rambling. I will not edit or make corrections while composing. So here it goes…

Cracker’s song Big Dipper is a song I have been listening to a lot lately. It is my favorite Cracker song of all time, for right now. There is a melancholy aspect to it that I really like, the primary instrument is a piano, but there seems to be a slide guitar hiding in the background giving the whole song a very strange sound. The song turns at one point and John Hickman (lead singer) sings about a brother of Jack Kerouac calling him a lucky bastard.

Now Kerouac isn’t someone who I would call a lucky bastard. The leader of the Beat Generations road novels doesn’t seem that lucky to me. I have been reading Dharma Bums lately. I haven’t formed any real opinions about whether I really like the novel or not, but I have been a big fan of Gary Snyder‘s poetry for a long time. Snyder is portrayed by Kerouac in the novel as a small Dharma Bum who takes him on a long hike to the top of a mountain. I do believe that Snyder is probably like the man portrayed in the novel, but I like Snyder’s poetry better than I like his portrayal in the novel. If that makes sense. Snyder’s poetry has just the right amount of rebellion and nature for me.

I wrote a letter to Snyder at one point in my life. I never sent the letter. I am not one for too many overt hero worshipping moments, but I thought poets probably don’t get many fan letters. I knew that Snyder was teaching poetry at Cal Davis and that he lived in the mountains in a stone house he built himself. I don’t know if the whole house was made of stone, but that is how I imaged the house. Like a cave, but cool and with a dinning room table and windows. I guess that says more about who I am than Snyder, but I never sent the letter.

Two years ago, when I was taking a writing class from Pam Houston, who also teaches at Cal Davis, I asked her if she ever met Snyder. She had, and then I did a weird bit of creepy hero worshipping. I guess telling one writer how much you like another writer is like telling a girl how beautiful her friend is. But like most men, I only know how stupid I am being about four hours later. Anyway, Houston did say that Snyder was a nice man, but he was no longer teaching. I don’t know why I was disappointed, it isn’t like I was going to fly down to Davis to take a class, but I was sad to think that he might be holed up in his stone house drinking tea and making ax handles.

This year I went to see Pam Houston and Cheryl Strayed do a reading in Port Angeles, Washington. Houston is one of those writers who is great to see read. Her sense of humor and condensed stories make her material perfect for a reading. She charmed the packed audience and sold out her latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, at the reading. Each of her 144 stories has an element of humor, but what I liked best about the novel is the puzzle quality of the stories, they fit together and tell a story, but it is not a traditional novel built on a plot. The one thing I thought was really interesting was that Houston read before Strayed. Houston was the more established writer, but Strayed’s novel Wild was the New York Times best seller at the time.

When Strayed read she was as warm and caring as I expected. Having a novel take off and become a best seller is probably a mind bending experience, but Strayed did not put on airs. She talked for a little bit, read from Wild and then took out a book that she had just released, Dear Sugar. The Dear Sugar book is a collection from her online advice column. She said that she started the column with the focus of “radical empathy.” I bought the book that evening and have been reading a letter a day since then, the letters a often heart wrenching and sad, but Strayed’s advice is so insightful and wise it is hard to believe that she isn’t sitting atop a mountain in the Himalayas. There are times she takes her writers over her metaphoric knee and gives them a good spanking, but most often she deals with the brokenness of the human condition with such compassion that it gets me a bit weepy. (Yeah, I am a crybaby, so what.)

When I had Strayed sign my copy of Wild I told her I only cried twice while reading the book. She guessed that I cried about the horse, which wasn’t the case, not a huge horse fan, but I told her that the part about Crater Lake really got me. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t give it away, but it is a beautiful metaphor for turning life’s challenges into something wondrous.

Which brings me back to where I started, Big Dipper. What I like best about Cracker is the skillfully written lyrics. Hickman, in my opinion, is one of the great song writers of today. I first fell in love with his songs back when he was leading Camper Van Beethoven. When I Win the Lottery is still one of the best songs ever written. Big Dipper is wonderful because the song is so personal. Is he really sitting on a cafe steps watching all the girls walk by? Is he really in love with a girl who is in love with someone else? I don’t know where the song is set, but I picture it being Berkley. The same Berkley where the Dharma Bums live and where it is a short day trip to the mountains where you can see Monterey and think about San Jose even though it isn’t that pleasant.

What I Learned About the Seattle Rap Scene


Last week, I wrote a sarcastic little review of a rap concert I attended with my kids. I thought it would be a fun way to preserve the memory for my family and allow some of my blog followers to have a laugh. My intention, and all writers realize this, left my control once I hit the publish button. My blog blew up and I learned a great deal.


Lessons Learned:


1. The Seattle rap scene is really interconnected, supportive, and for the most part a  positive group. My review was snarky, but the groups themselves seemed to enjoy the review. The review got picked up on social media and I believe almost everyone performing that night read it and had a laugh. I doubt this would be the reaction from most urban rap scenes which made me feel even better about the connection my kids have with this music.


2. Prometheus Brown (Bremerton graduate hence the shout out to Bremerton) is a stage name and the group he was performing with that evening is called The Bar. The other members of The Bar are Bambu and DJ InfraRed.  Brown also performs with a group named Blue Scholars (not Blues as I had first written.) This still confuses me a bit because I think of being in a group like being on a team, you can’t just play on two teams, but it speaks to how interconnected the Seattle rap community is. Someone wrote a comment that if I didn’t like The Bar and BFA I could listen to Wiz Khalifa. At first I thought The Bar in question was the club I went to, but it wasn’t. I still have no idea who Wiz Khalifa is and I am not going to Google him either. Ignorance is a gift in this case.


3. I am really out of touch with what is fashionable. I made fun of the BFA’s DJ and his fashion choices, but it appears I am the one dressed like a doofus. I watched a video by Macklemore yesterday about shopping at thrift stores. From what I can tell, the new thing is to wear old people’s clothing.


4. Social media really works. I blog but I don’t tweet or do anything else that pushes my blog out to more people. My daughter tweeted my blog to somebody and then the thing just snowballed. I think of the internet as a flat world where things are linear, but it isn’t. Twitter connects people one way, Facebook another way, Reddit (never heard of it until last week) another. I follow media in an old-fashioned way. I do one thing at a time, but people who are really connected toss all of the media together like a salad.


5. People are passionate about the music they love. While the groups I reviewed didn’t take much offense to what I wrote, the same cannot be said about all of their fans. One person thought I was a closet racist. (I really have nothing against closets. In fact, some of my favorite rooms are closets.) Others didn’t appreciate that I made fun of music that they really love. A few people couldn’t believe how clueless I am. I wasn’t always this clueless, but it happened. A few years ago (the 80s and 90s) I was ahead of the curve, I have the record collection to prove it. I worked as a college radio DJ and did a reggae show every Friday night, but one day I looked in the mirror and I was old.


6. Parents shouldn’t be too worried about letting their kids go see groups like The Physics, BFA, and The Bar. I wouldn’t take a bunch of ten year-old girls, but if your kids are listening to the rap music, why not go to a concert and see what it is all about?


Two Things I Want My Readers to Learn:


1. Buy your music. Don’t steal it off the internet just because you can. If you love music keep it alive. These groups you love deserve it. They are not millionaires, and if they are, it still doesn’t make it okay. I know music can be expensive but you have to feed the things you love. Music and musicians cannot live off of your love (unless your love comes in the form of food.) Supporting artists is a tradition that has been around since Man started developing culture. We would not have the great paintings, music, sculpture, and writings if it were not for patrons of the arts. Become a patron instead of a leech.


2. Get to know the reggae branch of the rap tree: Toasting/Dancehall. Yelllowman, and Eek-a-Mouse are pretty good, but when it comes to spoken word music no one was ever better than Linton Kwesi Johnson. If you don’t know him, you should.


English: Linton Kwesi Johnson on stage reading...

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