Friday, May 29, 2009

Jon & Kate Plus 8 Season 5 Premiere

I first suggested to my wife that she watch “Jon & Kate Plus 8” because I told it was funny watch Kate scream at Jon.

Now there’s absolutely nothing funny about this show.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about “Jon & Kate Plus 8” or the first episode that I watched but for some reasons, maybe cultural osmosis, I always knew about the show. This show first started out as television specials and evolved into a television show which this last Monday had the start of its fifth season.

Towards the end of the fourth season, photographs of Jon with another lady and rumors about an affair showed up on television tabloid shows and in magazines. Between the finale of the fourth season and this recent premiere the media interest in Jon and Kate’s relationship has continued to build.

Besides Jon’s alleged affair, rumors have come up that Kate also had an affair. People on both sides have come up saying that things have happened and it’s hard to say what has factually happened. Even though we don’t know for sure what exactly is going on in their relationship, we know something is off. Where there’s smoke there’s a fire, and the premiere of the fifth season of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” made it clear that something was wrong.

My wife likes watching “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” It’s not her favorite show but she’s probably seen almost all of the episodes. I’ll casually watch the show with her sometimes and it can an interesting and entertaining. I enjoy watching the dynamics of the kids and how they have grown up. Jon and Kate are not “television parents” but real people. They fight, make mistakes but at the end of every episode, they reaffirm their love for each other and their children.

For me, that’s the crux of the show: no matter how hard life is, no matter how bad things get, people can make things work and still love each other through it all. If Jon and Kate can get their eight kids on an airplane and on a ski trip, then maybe I can handle my classroom full of third graders. I may feel overwhelmed like Jon and Kate often do but it’s ok, we all have our moments. Sometimes life is hard but it’s ok if we keep love in our hearts.

I’m not an idiot, I know that “Jon & Kate Plus 8” is a reality show. If you take a couple days of any of our lives and film it, we can be made to be the most intelligent person or the biggest idiot. There are conscious choices on any kind reality show to portray people a certain way depending on what they leave in as well as what they leave out. We don’t get the whole story of what happens in “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” What we get is an “interpretation” of the events.

“Jon & Kate Plus 8” as a piece of art, not necessarily a representation of reality, in the past four seasons has expressed the hopes and dreams of that we all have for future generations while struggling to define what it means to be a family. However, the premiere of the fifth season expressed something very different.

Watching this last episode of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” was horrifying. I knew that this episode was going to address the rumors surrounding Jon and Kate from the commercials, but I didn’t expect to be so disturbed by what was revealed.

You know what, it wasn’t what the episode showed us, but what we didn’t see that was truly disturbing. We didn’t see Jon and Kate fight. Jon and Kate did not reveal whether they were separated or not and we still have no clue about the truth behind the conflict in their lives. All of this stuff is left to our imagination, which only makes it more powerful.

As a piece of art, the premiere was shockingly effective in evoking feelings of despair, sadness and loss. The director and editors are to be commended for creating one of the effective pieces of television I’ve watched in a long time. Was it effective in expressing emotions that I want feel again any time soon? No, but art isn’t always about expressing, rainbows and puppy dogs, sometimes it shows us darkness.

Part of what is disturbing about this episode is that behind the “reality show” we know that there is some truth: a family is falling apart. Watching Jon and Kate fight in the toy store makes us feel better about our own flaws, watching their relationship slowly fall apart reminds us of what we fear the most.

I will continue to watch “Jon & Kate Plus 8” this season, hoping that they can pull it together. This would not only be a great dramatic arc but it will also mean something very real for the Jon, Kate and their eight children. This resolution like the ending of a great television drama may not come exactly the way that I expect but I hope it does come.

I want this not only for Jon and for Kate, but for my own belief that through love there is nothing that two people cannot overcome.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

American Triangle by Elton John

"American Triangle" by Elton John

The following is a version of a letter I recently sent to Rep. Foxx of North Carolina.

Rep. Virginia Foxx,

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, your name appeared on their “Threat Assessment” scale. The magazine said that you called “hate killing of Matthew Shepard a ‘hoax.’” As Rolling Stone is a liberal tilted magazine (they had President Obama on the cover three times in two months before the election), I’ve learned to take their political commentary with a grain of salt.

In the political world, what people say is often misinterpreted and taken out of context, so I’ve learned to not get to up in arms when I hear that a politician misspoke. Even if a politician says something wrong, it’s ok, we’re all human. I don’t expect my politicians to never make mistakes, but I do expect them to take responsibility for what they say.

I found the quote that Rolling Stone magazine was referring to. It’s a statement you made April 29th in discussion of a hate crime legislation.

“ . . . hate crimes bill called the ‘Matthew Shepard Bill,’ is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery it wasn’t because he was ‘gay.’ The bill was named for him, the hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax”

After hearing this, I still wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. This clearly was a mistake, you probably misspoke, you feel awful, and I’m sure that you made an immediate effort to retract and apologize for your statement.

Well, that day you did make a statement:

“It has come to my attention that some people have been led to believe that I think the terrible crimes that led to Matthew Shepard’s death in 1998 were a hoax,” she said. “The term “hoax” was a poor choice of words used in the discussion of the hate crimes bill. Mr. Shepard’s death was nothing less than a tragedy and those responsible for his death certainly deserved the punishment they received.

The larger context of my remarks is important. I was referring to a 2004 ABC 20/20 report on Mr. Shepard’s death. The 20/20 report questioned the motivation of those responsible for Mr. Shepard’s death. Referencing this media account may have been a mistake, but if so it was a mistake based on what I believed were reliable accounts.”

A couple days later, you made another statement in a news interview:

“In the heat of trying to handle the rule on the floor, anybody can use a bad choice of words. Saying that the event was a hoax was a poor choice of words,” Foxx said. “I’ve apologized for that. I never meant in any way to harm the family or offend the family or anybody else for that matter.”

I teach elementary school and one thing I tell my students is that it’s not the mistakes that we make that define our character, it’s what we do when we make mistakes that defines who we are. Your “apology” for the statement you made about Matthew Shepard shows very little of your character and is more disappointing then your original statement.

Yes, the term “hoax” was a poor choice of words and maybe referencing a 20/20 news report was a mistake. I do believe that you never meant to harm or offend anybody. I don’t believe that was your intention but I agree with Matthew Shepard’s mother who was there when you made your statement that your “apology” doesn’t change anything.

“Hoax” was not a poor choice of words; it was the wrong choice of words. A poor choice of words is calling is calling someone who is “mentally retarded” an “idiot.” The basic meaning measuring mental capacity of both words is the same however the cultural context and use of the words is vastly different. Calling something that factually happened a “hoax” is calling “banana” a “race car.” They are two completely different things. Saying that you made a “poor choice of words,” tells us that your intent, to discredit his tragedy hasn’t changed, you just wish you didn’t use the word “hoax.”

You cite a 2004, 20/20 news report that questioned the motivation for Matthew Shepard’s death as a source. Here’s the story that you were referring to. The article interviews Matthew’s killers on their motivation. One of them makes a statement that he was only trying to get rob Matthew. The article also calls into questions why the two killers so brutally beat Matthew and hung him out on a fencepost to die if all they wanted was money.

Are you seriously going to believe the words of a convicted killer as facts? Even when the killer’s explanation for his actions is as poor as the one given in this report? This is the kind of thing I expect out of my 5th graders when they are doing research not my public servants.

It’s not 20/20’s fault that you misinterpret a news report correctly. You may not have known the facts of this case but you should have known better.

Maybe, the reason you made the original statement or don’t seem more apologetic now is because you don’t know what Shepard’s death means to people. I’m sure by now the facts have been made clear to you but there is another piece which is just as important.

I heard about the Matthew Shepard tragedy when it happened but what made it mean something to me was the song “American Triangle” by Elton John. He wrote “American Triangle” in memory of Shepard and it was featured in the television move The Matthew Shepard Story.

Elton John has spent much of his career examining the American experience, like “Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatters,” one of my favorite songs of all time. Elton doesn’t explicitly tell the story of Shepard’s tragedy but focuses on the emotions around this tragedy. We feel the promise in the beginning of the first verse “young boy just starting out,” and the spit and anger at the end of this verse, “God hates f--- where we come from.”

Elton is right, “Western skies” don't make it right, and “Home of the brave” doesn’t make any sense. Even if the killers were motivated only by a simple robbery, the death of Matthew still would be a tragedy. What this song understands is that it’s a tragedy for the killers as much as it is for Matthew: “Three lives drift on different winds, two lives ruined, one life spent.”

At his older age, Elton Johns tenor has deepened into a dark and expressive voice colored by a life surrounded by the peaks and valleys of life. In his voice you understand that what Matthew Shepard represents is bigger than legislation, it’s about who we are as a people, not just the homosexual community, but all of us.

I can accept that people believe that homosexuality is a choice and a sin. We as country must respect people’s opinion, but we should never accept hate in the hearts of our citizens directed at anyone. Hate crime laws are not about special treatment for certain groups of people, it’s about saying as country that we will not accept hate and prejudice in our society.

Rep. Foxx, I hope that you will reconsider what you said. I hope that you will make steps to be more cautious in the future and I hope that you understand why your words have offended so many of us.

Thank you for choosing to serve your constituents and our country. I do not doubt your intentions and I believe that you acted and will continue to act in the best interests of our country. I am disappointed by this incident only because I believe so strongly in the great things that you and our government do every day to make America a better place.

Kingsley Tang

Monday, May 25, 2009

Travelin' Soldier by The Dixie Chicks

Many people take the opportunity on this memorial day weekend to go on vacation, have barbeques and spend time with family. Memorial day also marks the end of the school year providing a feeling of freedom for children (and teachers) all across America. With all of this excitement, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the point of Memorial day.

Celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War, Memorial Day originally honored Union soldiers who had died in the America Civil War. After World War I, the American government changed the day to include all Americans who died in war or military action.

How do we honor all those have made the ultimate sacrifice? When I think of the magnitude of loss, it’s too much for me to comprehend. In World War II, we lost around 290,000, in Vietnam, 47,000 and in our current war in Iraq, we have lost 4,250 as of April 30, 2009. I have issues imagining what 4,250 people look like in as a crowd let alone 290,000. I don’t even have a chance of relating to the emotional power of this kind of loss when I have issues with simply picturing that many people.

Human understanding does not lie in groups but in individual connection and its through the stories of individuals, that we can get a sense of what this all means to who we are as a people. Often the stories that we hear about veterans are the heroic tales of soldiers who win purple hearts. The story is about a different kind of hero. It’s about a teenage girl, a chance encounter and the love of a traveling soldier.

Bruce Robison wrote and recorded “Travelin’ Soldier” in 1996. Ty England also recorded this song in 1999 but it was the Dixie Chick version off their 2002 album Home that became a hit. Home, their third album with lead singer Natalie Maines (sixth album as the Dixie Chicks) displayed a musical maturity not heard on their previous albums. The Dixie Chicks contrasted Home from their previous two albums fusing their pop sensibility with a more acoustic bluegrass sound, which is most notably heard on their second single “Long Time Gone.”

“Travelin’ Soldier” is the story of a teenage girl meets a soldier while working at a cafĂ©. The girl notices he is a little shy, so she smiles at him and he asks if she has some time to talk. The soldier tells her that he doesn’t have anyone to write to and asks if he can write a letter to him. We don’t hear the girls response, instead the chorus flashes forward to a time when the girl has fallen in love with him.

The chorus is a simple but powerful description of teenage love. The first two words of the chorus “I cried” are followed by a declaration of commitment saying that she will never hold the hand of another guy. She states that their love will never end as she waits for him to come back. The chorus ends “never more to be alone when the letter said ‘A soldier coming home.’” With this notification that the soldier is coming home the melody descends and the instruments seem to pull into themselves like a shallow breath, foreshadow the end of the story.

The next verse follows the soldier’s letters and his commitment to her. He writes all the way from Vietnams and reminisces about the time they had together. He tells her of his heart and how “it might be love.” Even within the dire situation of war, this soldier is thinking of love and what it means.

The last verse is set at a football game. As part of the opening ceremonies, an announcer reads of a list of local Vietnam dead. As the rest of the crowd seems to move on with the game, the girl, a piccolo player in the marching band cries alone under the stands.

Her hopes were high. She found companionship in the soldier, in his letters and the promise of him coming home. In the eyes of a teenager, this means the world, and the loss of her soldier was not only a loss of companion and a love but loss of hope.

Often when we hear stories of teenage love, they sound trite, but Natalie Maines takes this story seriously. Maines scales back her voice, drawing in the listener as she carefully paints the lyrics with the colors in her voice.

The Dixie Chicks, set up the last chorus, pulling the instruments down to a moment of silence in the last verse behind the words “Vietnam dead.” After this silence, Maines enters on the word “crying.” She sounds almost angry when she sings about no one else caring, like she’s screaming at everyone to look at the girl, to feel her loss and to acknowledge what has been lost.

Part of me feels like I want to shake up our country and remind everyone the point of Memorial Day, but maybe it’s in enjoying, truly cherishing the freedoms in our lives that we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Maybe it's enough, maybe it's not. And taking a moment to think about this leads us to the meaning of this day.

"I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did."
~Benjamin Harrison

Friday, May 22, 2009

Father and Son by Cat Stevens

Dear Boyzone fan,

Recently I came across a video of you with a stadium full of your fellow Boyzone fans cheering at a Boyzone concert. I understand how boy-bands like Boyzone provide an escape for many pre-teen and teenage girls like yourself.

I’ve seen stadiums of girls going crazy over singers starting with Elvis Presley, rising to new peaks with the Beatles and continuing with bands like Bon Jovi. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. What was odd, and honestly kind of bizarre was how the song that the entire audience was singing along to was “Father and Son.”

Most of the time when you see thousands of girls singing along to pop songs, they are rock anthems or love songs which have relatively simple lyrics without deep layers of meaning. So you can see how Boyzone is unusual in choosing to cover “Father and Son,” one of popular music’s most personal, powerful and emotionally brutal songs.

I’m not trying to discredit Boyzone’s performance or recording of “Father and Son” but rather, I want to illuminate some things about the song that you love so much. Studying the meaning of the words and understanding the history rarely diminishes my personal enjoying of the song but rather adds a layer of meaning that only makes the song better.

Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, originally composed and recorded “Father and Son” in 1970. Stevens sold over 60 million albums in the 1960s and 1970s At the peak of his fame in the 1977, he converted to Muslim, changed his names to Yusuf Islam and left the music industry. He has only recently released started performing music and his first album since the 1970s, Roadsinger.

As one of the most successful solo male artist of his times, Stevens set himself apart singing about relationships in an revealing and powerful way. With songs like “Wild World,” Stevens added a unique perspective on life with a folk music style that challenging artists of the time to dig deeper into the complexities of human relationships.

“Father and Son” is unique in the fact that the song is a conversation between a father and his son. Cat Stevens differentiated these two characters by singing with darker tone for the father and a brighter tone for the son. Stevens does not provide any that explains the context of the song. Instead, he starts in the middle of the scene as the father responds to the son.

We can gather from the father’s opening words that the son feels he needs to make a change. The father tries to reassure his sn but some bitterness seeps through when he says tells his son that he is young and that’s his sons fault. The father cites his own life as proof that he need not do something drastic to find happiness.

The father continues talking about how he was in his son’s shoes. He says that he knows “that’s its not easy, to be calm when you’ve found something going on.” He encourages his son to think about everything that he has because “you [the son] will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”

We do not hear the son’s words in response to his father but instead his thoughts. The son explains, “from the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.” The son is so focused on the fact that he feels that his father does not validate his thoughts and feelings that he is completely closed to any advice his father has to give.

The father continues, repeating what he just said to his son again. We hear the son’s thoughts in the background, ”away, I know I have to make this decision alone, no.” It’s as if the son is standing there being lectured, holding in his words as they have proved useless, trying to will his thoughts to his father.

The son responds “all the times I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside, it’s hard but its harder to ignore it.” He explains that if these feelings were right, he’d agree but “its them [other people] you know not me.” None of these ideas and thoughts feel like his own anymore. It’s his father’s words, it’s people telling him how to be and in order to feel independent, to be himself, he feels he needs to go away. Behind his son’s struggle the father’s thoughts echo in the background, “stay, why must you go and make this decision alone?”

Everything that is between this father and son, are within all of us. There are times when we try to give advice and it’s not taken because not because our advice is bad, but because the people who we seek to help need us more to listen than to advise.

On the other side, there are times when we need to communicate what we feel, and be willing to listen to advice and trust people who simply through living longer may know better. We struggle for so much of our life to be independent, sometimes we forget, that independence is not an end goal, but a means to leaning to know ourselves. Sometimes out focus on independence blinds us to the feelings of the people around us.

I don’t know if you felt all of this when you were singing along with Boyzone. If you weren’t, it’s no a big deal, but now that you know more about this song, I hope it’s more meaningful. Is it a little weird for “Father and Son” to be a boy-band song? Yeah, but is it a horrible thing, not really. Boyzone’s version of the song bring people to “Father and Son” who otherwise never would have heard it and give them a glimpse of the complexity of love and the struggles that define our relationships.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cat's in the Cradle by Harry Chapin

Whether we like it or not, most of us are more like our parents than we’d like to admit.

If you spend enough time with a friend, you pick up their mannerisms and perspectives. For many of us there is no one that we’ve spent more time with in our lives than our parents. It’s only logical that in many ways we are like our parents.

I’m in my late 20s, and I’ve noticed my friends and I seem to talk about our parents more than we did in college. College creates the illusion that you are on your own, when most of us truly aren’t. When you get out to the real world, many of the safety-nets of college are gone. I never realized how much my parents and college took care of for me until I truly had a place of my own and was working a job full time.

Living life as an adult has made it easier for me and my friends to relate to our parents. I’m paying bills just like they are, dealing with taxes and having to make difficult decisions just like they did when they were my age and continue to make at their age. When my dad was 10 years old, he may have been very much like me when I was 10 years old but I didn’t know my dad when he was a kid so I don’t have a frame of references. However, I have seen my parents go through life as adults so when I make decisions and do “adult” things the similarities come across clearly.

“Cat’s in the Cradle” explores the idea of children taking after their parents from the perspective of a father. Harry Chapin’s most memorable song is one of those songs in our popular culture that goes against what we expect. There are not that many songs that deal with the idea father and son relationships.

The father in “Cat’s in the Cradle,” is simply too busy to spend time with his son. In the first two verses of the song, the father misses the son learning to walk and talk. Later the son asks to play ball but the father says he is too busy and promises and that there will be time later for them to get together and have a good time.

The son grows up and goes to college. When he visits his dad, the tables turn as the father wants to spend time with the son, while all the son wants is to borrow the car and go out with his friend. The father retires and the son gets married and has kids of his own. One day the father calls his son and asks if they can get together and the son answers that there is too much stuff going on with his family and job to see his father.

There is no anger between the son and the father in this song. There is a feeling of disappointment when the son is turned down and later the father. The son states in the first too verses that “I’m gonna be like you dad.” His “smile never dimmed” when the father says he is too busy. There is a sense that the son understands even at a young age that the father would truly like to spend more time with the son but feels that he simply cannot. When the son later says he is too busy to see his dad, he reassures his dad that “it’s been sure nice talking to you.” Even though the son states that he is too busy, he feels a need to express to his dad that it’s been nice talking.

The father realizes that the son’s declaration, that he will grow up to be like his dad comes true, but not in the way that the dad imagined. The dad seems to mourn the fact that the son grew up to be like the father focusing on the fact that the son just like the father simply doesn’t have time to spend with him.

Instead of anger, there is a feeling of guilt that the father holds. He feels that he let down his son by not taking the time to spend time with him. The fact that his son throughout his life never seemed to get anger at his dad only make the guilt worse.

Even though the father’s realization is depressing, the song ends on a sense of hope, “when you coming home son? I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son, you know we’ll have a good time then.” I like to think that after the father made his realization that he talks to his son and they both make an effort to change not only for each other but also for the son’s children.

Many credit “Cat’s in the Cradle” for having a life-changing effect. This song has helped people realize the power they have in their children’s lives and the inevitability that we all have in following in our parent’s footsteps. .

Harry Chapin, said that he thought “Cat’s in the Cradle” was a scary song. At it’s heart, it’s a disturbing idea that the worst of us will be passed down and that we are destined to repeat the sins of our fathers.

I chose to look at this song another way.

I have no doubt that most of who I am, I got from my parents. I like to think that I’ve reciprocated back to them the best of what they gave me. As dark as “Cat’s in the Cradle,” is, it comforts me in the idea that in the inevitability of picking up negative things from our parents; we also pick up things that we admire about our parents

When I listen to this song, I am reminded that the things I admire about my father truly are within me. Whenever I do something or say something that reminds me of my dad at first, I’m a little freaked out, but then I smile to myself laugh and thank God that he is always with me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash

You know Shel Silverstein? He’s the guy who wrote those beloved children’s books full of poems and drawings. His most famous books “A Light In The Attic,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Giving Tree” continue to be some of the most popular children books.

Before Silverstein broke it big writing poems for children, he was a songwriter and his most famous song was “A Boy Named Sue.” Silverstein was inspired to write this song by a close friend named Jean who was often taunted for his feminine sounding name. During an informal gathering, Silverstein performed “A Boy Named Sue,” and Johnny Cash’s wife, June Carter happened to be there and she thought it was a great song. Johnny Cash had recently released At Folsom Prison, a live album recorded at a prison. Critics consider this album one of the most important albums in popular music and is one of Cash’s best-selling albums. As a follow up to this album, Cash went to another prison to do a live album and this time June Carter brought along, “A Boy Named Sue.”

June suggested that Johnny bring the sheet of paper that had “A Boy Named Sue” onto to stage with him at San Quentin Prison. Cash brought it with him and decided to perform it for the first time ever, never having rehearsed the song. Cash can be clearly seen looking down at the paper throughout the performance but if you were just listening to the song you would have never guessed that this was one of the first time he was encountering this song.

“A Boy Named Sue,” tells the story of a boy who struggles through life because of the fact that his father gave him a girl's name. Sue isn’t angry that his father left him, he’s just frustrated about the name his father gave him. Because of this name, Sue became a mean and hard. He vows search for his dad and “kill that man who gave that awful name.”

One day, Sue walks into a bar and recognizes his dad. They get into a fight and it builds to a standstill with Sue and his father pointing their guns at each other. Sue’s father explains:

Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong.

Sue gets all chocked up and he embraces his dad. He sees the point of view that his dad was coming from and feels grateful for what his dad did. Sue lovingly thinks about his dad and promises, “And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him. . . . Bill or George! Anything damn name but Sue! I still hate that name!”

We think for a second that maybe because of Sue’s reconciliation with his dad, that he would name his son Sue as well, but then the bitter feelings of having a name like Sue come rumbling back.

As silly as this song is, it deals with some powerful themes about fathers and sons. The lack of anger at the dad walking out in an interesting commentary on the time and society’s double standard in which many seems to forgive fathers for leaving their family and not mothers It’s hard to know if Sue’s life is as hard as it is because of the name or because his father wasn’t around.

Sue’s dad provides Sue with what he needed to hear his whole life, that his dad cared about him and did something to help Sue. This intention and thought is enough for Sue to forgive him. Son’s often misunderstand what father’s try to do for them and many people including myself come to points in our lives when we realize that our dads were not there to make our lives more difficult but to help us grow. However, like Sue, just because our dads did something to try to help us, doesn’t mean we want to repeat their actions.

Silverstein’s humorous story in the hands of Cash becomes one of the funniest songs that I know. Cash’s dark baritone and earnest delivery expresses the pain and frustration of a boy who feels cursed by his father. The vocal delivery by Cash is a stylized half-singing which like rapping adds a melodic phrase to the words while exaggerating the natural rhythm in the lyrics. At certain points in the song at the ends of phrase, Cash slows balancing the pace of the lyrics and emphasizing certain lyrics. The way that the melody is shaped and the words are paced is a reflection of Cash’s musical instincts and story-telling ability from years of performing and composing.

As Silverstein grew older and became a father himself he decided to tell the story of Sue from the father’s perspective. He wrote a sequel to “A Boy Named Sue” called “The Father of a Boy Named Sue.”

So according to the father, he hated the kid, named him Sue in spite. When the bar fight happened Sue was cross-dressing and started the fight hitting him with his purse. The father admits that made up the stuff about naming him Sue to toughen him up. The father tells how they now live together and Sue takes care of him “better than a daughter can do.” And um . . . the punch-line at the end of this song, well, let’s just um . . . I can’t really . . . eh. . . eww . . . just listen to it yourself.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trapped by Jimmy Cliff/Bruce Springsteen

"Trapped" Jimmy Cliff live performance
“Trapped” Bruce Springsteen 2008 live performance
"Trapped" Bruce Springsteen Born In the U.S. A. tour live performance

You never know what you are going to get at a Bruce Springsteen concert. With over two hundred songs in their repertoire, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have a remarkable amount of songs that they can perform. In the earlier days, Springsteen would throw out random songs to his band to play on stage that they often had never rehearsed just for the fun of it.

At age 59, an age when most people decided to play it safe, Springsteen has started taking request. Since the beginning of the Working On A Dream tour, Springsteen has taken time during each show to collect signs from the audience that have requests on them. Some of these signs request old Springsteen favorites while other signs ask Springsteen and the E Street Band to play songs that they have never played before. These performances have a garage band-like energy as the band rocks out to songs from “Wild Thing” by the Troggs to the Clash’s “London Calling.”

During last Tuesday night’s performance at the United Center, Springsteen again took requests. He played “Candy’s Room” responding to birthday wish on a sign and rocked out to “Mony, Mony.”

Any doubt that I had whether Springsteen and the E Street Band was actually playing some of these request for the first time ever were blown away as I watched Springsteen try to figure out what key to play the song. He asked Steve Van Zandt, one of the guitarists in the E Street Band to find the starting chord from a snarled tone that Springsteen kept repeating. Once they settled on the key, he warned that the song may “have a weird part in the middle.” If you ask anyone who saw the E Street Band on Tuesday, they will tell you the performance of “Mony, Mony” was awesome and that the rocking bridge was one of the highlights of the evening.

Out of all the songs that request that Springsteen played there was only one that I didn’t know. Now listening to songs that you don’t know at a Springsteen concert in the United Center can be challenging. It is be difficult to know what Bruce is singing with the speed that he moves through lyrics in some songs and the mediocre acoustics of the United Center. Because of this, I highly recommend that if someone is not familiar with Springsteen’s music and is going to one of his concerts, that they prep themselves and get to know a couple of his more regularly performed songs to enhance the experiences.

So when Springsteen pulled out a sign from his stack that he had collected that had the word “trapped” on it and the crowd went berserk, I was baffled.

Honestly, when I heard the chorus with the word “trapped” being repeated, I thought it was lame. Bruce usually has more subtle and creative ways to describe the feeling of entrapment. I thought the rise through the chorus was powerful and the sudden drop into the verses was effective but overall, the song did not feel significant.

When I woke up Thursday, two days after the concert, one line from “Trapped” kept rolling around in my head: “And it seemed the game I played made you strong.” On the way out the door to go to work, I hesitated and went to my computer to see if by some chance I had a recording of “Trapped.” I did have a live performance of it that I never got around to listening to. After a quick internet search, I found out to my surprise that Bruce did not compose the song and that it was originally written and performed Jimmy Cliff. I downloaded the song from itunes, loaded it on my ipod and ran out to my car.

For Springsteen, a man that rarely performs music that he does not compose, it seemed odd that “Trapped” which he featured in his Born In U.S.A. tour would play such a prominent role in his catalog. Well, after listening to Jimmy Cliff’s recording of the song it made perfect sense.

Jimmy Cliff is a reggae artists and one of most revered Jamaican musicians. He is best known for his cover of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Jimmy Cliff’s composed and recorded “Trapped” for his 1989 album, Images.

Listening to Cliff’s performance the optimism of the song seems to shine through the song. The relaxed reggae beat and Cliff’s gentle soulful voice expresses a sense of calm reflection. Springsteen’s voice on the other hand seems to dwell on the darkness of the situation and feelings of regret which permeate his interpretation.

Cliff is able to express similar feelings to Springsteen but with fewer words. Maybe that is what attracting Springsteen to this song. With all that is going on in the world, sometimes Springsteen’s metaphors are not as powerful as a man singing the word “trapped.”

It’s funny how it took listening to the original recording of “Trapped” to fall in love with Springsteen’s recording. Sometimes people you meet simply make sense when you get to know their parents. In a similar way sometimes it takes getting to know the original recording of a song to find meaning in a different version.

Part of me wishes I had known “Trapped” before I heard Springsteen perform it live, but I’m glad I came to love this song as I did. As great as it is to fall in love at first sight, it’s even more rewarding to change how we feel about things in our lives, giving us confidence in our lives that no matter what how we feel in life we are never trapped in our emotions.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wrestler by Bruce Springsteen

The stage lights suddenly shut off and I heard a wash of synthesized strings, slowly moving through a four-chords pattern drifting over the audience. Standing up on the third level of the United Center, I looked out over the audience and felt a sense of relaxation fill the arena.

The synthesized strings surrounded me like a summer breeze, comforting in its warmth but fleeting in its presence. Slowly a spot light slowly opened up to reveal Bruce Springsteen standing behind a microphone, head down in contemplation. He rose his head up slowly looking out at the audience with as if he was looking into a mirror deep into his own eyes. He approached the microphone and slowly counted, “1, 2, 3, 4.”

Springsteen’s voice cut through the wash of sound like reality pushing its way into a dream. As he counted to four, a single acoustic guitar entered strumming solemnly bringing us into ourselves, changing our glances from the heavens above to the earth below.

Up until this point in the concert, Springsteen was throwing a party. The most optimistic of the five times I’ve seen Springsteen live, this concert was a celebration of hope, optimism and the American dream. Springsteen and The E Street Band started the concert with “Badlands,” a tribute to resilience. He worked his way through songs that spanned his entire career, it was after “The Promised Land,” one of my favorite Springsteen songs that the lights shut off, and the introduction to “The Wrestler” began.

Springsteen has spent his career composing and performing songs about people who have difficult lives. However, there is something different about “The Wrestler.” It’s not a song like “Promised Land” which describes a person in bad situation but is resilient in facing challenges. Describing “The Wrestler” as a song about a man who is depressed isn’t really what this song is about either.

Springsteen wrote “The Wrestler,” for the critically acclaimed film of the same title, which was touted as the “resurrection of Mickey Rourke.” The Wrestler is as good as everyone says it is. I have only seen a couple films in which the actors become their characters so convincingly and so completely. The plot of the film follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed out professional wrestler. The character of Randy has fallen on hard times and because of injuries has to stop wrestling. Randy feels drawn to go back to wrestling as his only human connection. It’s a place where he feels alive in a world that seems to keep pushing him.

Springsteen utilizes questions to expresses the feeling of the narrator. Like Bob Dylan’s use of questions in “Blowing in the Wind,” Springsteen asks us if we’ve seen things that most of us can only imagine. This draws us deeper within ourselves as our own imagination takes us into the depths of our hearts.

The opening line “have you ever seen a one trick pony in a field so happy and free?” takes the phrase “one trick pony” which is used to describe a person who can only do one thing well and combines it with the literal meaning of a pony. Within this line, we understand the sadness but also the feeling of bliss that animals get when they are free.

The chorus enforces the response in the verses stating that if you’ve seen that, then we have seen the narrator. Each line “then you’ve seen me” is followed by a declaration. He is a man who stands at every door, always leaves with less and can make you smile, but only through his pain. When he wonders, “can you ask for anything more?” he asking us if there is anything more in life that is important. In a way, it is these consistencies that bring him solace with is true in all of our lives.

He takes full responsibility his life in the bridge. He pushes away what he the comforts, the people, in his life, which he accepts That is what is so poignant about these statements. His words touches us as we all struggle to accept ourselves throughout our lives.

Faith is something that we have in things that are beyond understanding, inspired by intangibles that touch our souls. The wrestler’s faith in his body which reflects a darkness.

Springsteen invites us to questions the choices in our lives, the constants that bring us comfort and the faith that brings us hope. To call “The Wrestler” depressing would oversimplify what is meaningful about this song. This song is is indescribably, spiritual and personal.

As Springsteen sang through “The Wrestler,” last night and reached the climax of the bridge, I was overcome by a sense of belief. And for a moment, my soul was overcome by truth, faith, hope and love.

Tell me, friend can you ask for anything more?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Best Day by Taylor Swift

"The Best Day" by Taylor Swift music video

Dear Mom,

Occasionally at school, one of my students will get upset because something his or her mom did. It’s usually small stuff, like forgetting to sign a permission slip or forgetting to pack a snack. Other times it’s bigger stuff like not waking up in the morning to help their child get ready for school.

Talking to kids who have been let down by their moms is one of the hardest things I do. I don’t get how a mom can’t take 2 minutes to put some crackers in zip-lock back and. I don’t understand how a mom can’t sacrifice a little sleep to make sure her son has a good start to his day. Most of all, I have a hard time emphasizing with a students because I have no idea what it feels like to be let down by my mom. However, I do know exactly how Taylor Swift feels in her song “The Best Day.”

“The Best Day” is the second to last song on her album Fearless. It’s a beautiful ode to her mother and ever time I hear this song I think about you.

While Taylor Swift thinks about tractor rides, I remember being in first grade and helping you cook chicken legs. You’d get out my stool so I could reach the stove and you’d let me season the chicken and stir it around. Later at dinner, you would proceed to rave about how great the chicken was that I cooked. I remember feeling so proud.

Back then things were simpler and Swift reflects this feeling.

I don’t know why all the trees change in the fall.
But I know you’re not scared of anything at all,
Don’t know if Snow White’s house is near or far away
But I know I had the best day with you today.

There is so much that we don’t understand when we are children but it doesn’t seem so bad if we know that our mom isn’t scared of anything. All of the things that kids wonder about just don’t matter as much if they have a good day because what makes a “best day” for a kid is simply feeling loved.

Now that I’m older, I know why the all the trees change in the fall. Nothing lasts forever. Things withers and things die and like the harshness of winter, life is difficult. However, I have the strength though to push through and I have the faith that in there is always a light after the darkness.

My strength and faith don’t come from the fact that that nothing scares you. I know that’s not true. I know that you are on my side and that I’m never alone which gives me the strength to face anything. I know that you believe in me and that faith inspires my faith in the world, the people in the life and most of all, myself.

There was one day in elementary when you asked Ed and me if we wanted to go for a walk. Often my mom and I took walks around the neighborhood so I said sure; Ed didn’t feel like going for a walk because of a book he was into. As we walked out of the house, you asked me with a mischievous smile asked me if I wanted to go to the mall. My brother and I loved going to mall back then, so I jumped at the your invitation. At the mall we looked around at my favorite shops and it was great time.

When we got home it was obvious to my brother that we had been to the mall because of our shopping bags and annoyed Ed asked, “You went to the mall?!? I thought you were going for a walk,” and you responded “we did go for a walk, we took a walk at the mall” as we both giggled to each other.

I had the best day with you that day.

Happy Mother’s day

love you,

Friday, May 8, 2009

Don't Look Back In Anger by Oasis

Reasons that people give for hating Oasis’ music:

- Liam and Noel Gallagher have abrasive personalities
- They rip-off the Beatles
- Gallagher brothers act like spoiled brats
- The band members have massive egos
- The music is lame
- They haven’t done anything interesting since their first album
- They want people to die of AIDs

These are all direct quotes I found online. Now people do have a way of saying things in the seemingly anonymous world of the internet that are exaggerated, however these comments do reflect a general disdain for the Oasis' that many people express.

People really don't like Noel and Liam Gallagher, the brothers who are at the core of the band. These brothers have made controversial comments and consistently act in ways that many people find distasteful and irritating. I doubt that the Gallagher brothers actually want people to die of AIDs but I wouldn't be surprised if they made a comment that could be interpreted with that meaning.

Most of the criticism I have read of Oasis is inconsequential to the music that they produce. I’m fine supporting an artist who may be a jerk. I’m interested in the music. There are times when it’s difficult to separate the art from the artists but unless the artist is a serial rapist I don’t really care all that much about artist's personality.

It is a great feeling to support and artist who you believe is doing good things with their lives and works hard to use their celebrity to make the world a better place. I see this more as the exception than the norm. When a musician does great things the music endears itself to me because I know there is something positive behind it. When there is something negative behind a song, it does change the context of the song but at the same time it doesn’t change the song itself.

At the same time I was discovering the Beatles in high school Oasis released their break out album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and their first single “Wonderwall” catapulted Oasis up the charts. I bought the CD single for “Wonderwall” but wasn’t too interesting in buying the album until I heard an MTV news report (MTV used to have news reports ten minutes before every hour) discussing the controversy around Oasis' new single. The song they cited was “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and the controversy had to do with its similarity to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” After hearing "Don't Look Back in Anger," I was hooked and bought Oasis' album immediately.

The MTV news report compared the piano introduction of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” to the piano line in “Imagine.” They are similar in the fact that they are both eighth note patterns punctuated every two measures by an upward line. Noel Gallagher commented on this similarity saying, "In the case of Don't Look Back in Anger - I mean, the opening piano riff's Imagine. 50% of it's put in there to wind people up, and the other 50% is saying 'look, this is how songs like Don't Look Back In Anger come about - because they're inspired by songs like Imagine'. And no matter what people might think, there will be some 13 year old kid out there who'll read an interview and think 'Imagine? I've never heard that song' and he might go and buy the album, you know what I mean?"

Oasis came out in a time when rap music was freely sampling from all types of music so it seems strange that anyone would be annoyed by this similarity, but people looked down on Oasis' nods to the Beatles. It was because Noel would say stuff like, “50% of it’s put in there to wind people up.” He’s saying he put it there just to annoy and aggravate people which is a horrible reason to make a musical choice. Even though Noel makes a good point that his song might bring attention to “Imagine," his comment is self-defeated because of the way he responds to the criticism.

Is this enough reason to bring on the Oasis hate? Not really, so they’re a little cocky. That doesn't change the fact that “Don’t Look Back in Anger” is still a great pop song. The beginning of the verses starts with a energized high note that draws in the listener and the reflective chorus expresses a sense of sentimentality, regret and hope. Gallagher admits he has doing drugs when writing the song and has no idea what it means, but the song itself brings a powerful sense of expression despite it’s author’s intentions.

The piano line is taken from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The structure of the song is a basic rock form that the Beatles helped define and the guitar solo is reminiscent of solos by George Harrison featured in Beatles' songs. However, Oasis is not copying the Beatles. The melody has dynamic contours and the even though the lyrics quote John Lennon (“I’m going to start a revolution form my bed”), they have different lilt than Beatles' songs do.

Is Oasis' voice similar to the Beatles’ voice? Yes, but is it their voice? No.

Having listened to almost all of their recorded work, I can say that the more that you listen to Oasis less they sound like Beatles.

I can’t really say if Oasis “deserves” the scorn that they get, but I really love “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and if you don’t, that’s fine. The “hate” is silly. It’s a waste life to focus on how much we dislike things. If you spend time focusing on things that annoy you then you will spend most of your life being annoyed, however if you spend your time with things that you will love then you will have a positive and joyful life.

If you think fondly of Oasis, revel in it, if not move on with your life focus on things that bring you happiness and don’t look back in anger.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I Want to Hold Your Hand by T.V. Carpio (from Across The Universe

One of the worst films I’ve ever seen is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This disaster of a film starred the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and a host of other music and film stars including Steve Martin, Aerosmith and George Burns. The filmmakers attempted to link together Beatles' songs to create a musical and the results were both musically and dramatically disastrous (well except maybe for the Earth, Wind & Fire and Aerosmith performances).

I’m not trying to be sarcastic or funny, this film is just painful.

So when I heard that there was a film being made that was going to link Beatles songs into a musical, I was dreading the result. Even though the director was Julie Taymor one of my favorite artist who directing The Lion King on Broadway and Titus, one of my favorite Shakespeare films I was still nervous about the venture.

The Beatles catalogue is amazing. They recorded music that represents every single genre of music of the 1960s and beyond including Motown, Rock, Folk, and Punk. Many songs the Beatles recorded told great stories from the lonely life of "Eleanor Rigby" to the silly romp of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer." However there are no linear stories across songs even in the concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is one reason that the previous attempt to make the Beatles’ songs a musical failed so completely.

Then I saw the trailer for Across The Universe and I was floored. I saw the film a couple months and it didn’t disappoint. The visuals are original, sometimes shocking but always sublime. The music sounded fresh and the film as a whole worked.

For most of the songs Julie Taymor brought out what musically characteristic about the songs. Taymor with “Let It Be” brought out it’s spiritual overtones and set it as a gospel song. This approach was effective because it brought out the meaning of the songs and put them in a musical context that came within the song itself. However one song was shockingly different.

Roger Ebert in his review of Across the Universe observed: “When Prudence sings "I Want To Hold Your Hand," for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It's not happy if it's a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song.”

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” introduced America to the Beatles. It was the Beatles first number one hit in America and started what is known as the British Invasion, a period of time when British rock groups dominated the American pop charts. ”

The songs mix of emotions from the exuberant opening to the reflective bridge combined with innovative chord changes revolutionized and defined the pop song for generations to come. The songs message of wanting to hold a girl’s hand because of the happiness it brings is both innocent and genuine. The energy of the instruments and the infectious melody add to the song resulting in one of the most loved songs in popular music.

In Across The Universe, the character of Prudence played by T.V. Carpio sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a love to song to a fellow female cheerleader. This lesbian fantasy (“the love that dare not express its name") because of the slower tempo and mournful performance by Carpio comes across as a longing that will never be fulfilled.

The slower tempo brings attention to the lyrics. In the original Beatles version, they go by so quickly in the verse that many people who have listened to this song for years still don’t know them. It becomes clear in Carpio’s performance that she first thinks that the other girl will understand but then proceeds to plead “oh please, you’ll let me hold your hand.”

When the Beatles sing “I can’t hide,” we think of a teenager who is so in love with someone that they can’t help but tell everyone about their excitement. When Carpio sings this line she is expressing how much she yearns for this connection. The sad truth is that because of the time and place she has to hide what she feels she cannot.

At the end of both songs, the feeling of joy and bliss from the idea of holding someone’s hands shines through. The context of this feeling coming from a teenage simplicity with the Beatles and a tortured yearning of Carpio’s performance are both part of the magic of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

It’s pretty amazing that without changing the lyrics, melody or chords Julie Taymor could bring a new light to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It’s as much a credit to her artistry as well as the song itself that this was possible.

What the Beatles understood about popular music is that it needs to be specific emotionally but open enough to apply to different people’s lives. That is the beauty of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” We all know how magical it is to hold someone’s hand and want this feeling in our own individual and equally valid way: from my excitement when my wife comes home to work to a teenage girl dreaming of a day when she no longer has to hide the love she feels in her heart.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Karma Police by Radiohead

The Beatles recorded some weird stuff.

There’s “Revolution 9” made up of sound clips, tape loops and reverse sound effects and the Indian-inspired “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Both of these songs represent the musical experimentation that was prevalent throughout the Beatles’ career.

The musical legacy of the Beatles is as much in songs like “Yesterday” as it is in their more progressive work. The Beatles continue to influences musicians combining musical ideas from the Beatles with their unique perspectives. While most bands draw their inspiration from songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Radiohead’s music grew out of the less popular and more progressive songs like Happiness is a Warm Gun.

Radiohead is not a mainstream band in the sense that you hear their music played on most radio stations. However, they have an enormous fan base and receive great admiration from critics and other musicians who recognize the high level of musical invention in their music. Many of their songs feature complex meters, adventurous harmonies and song forms that are both inventive and original. Radiohead continue the Beatles musical experimentation for future generations pushing popular music to new creative heights.

For many people, including myself it was “Karma Police” that introduced me to Radiohead. In 1997, I was a freshmen in high school and my daily dose of music videos from and MTV provided entertainment but didn’t musically challenge my ears. So when I saw the music video for “Karma Police” for the first time I was stunned.

First off the music video plays like a David Lynch film. The video starts with someone getting in a car and chasing a person down a road. The lead singer Thom Yorke is in the back seat, barely mouthing the words of the music as the car continues to chase this man. After a while, the man falls down, turns around and like a scared child the car backs up revealing a trail of gas from the car's broken gas tank. The man lights the trail of gas on fire, the car speeds backwards and we are in the car as it is engulfed in flames.

Yeah, that made for some messed up dreams for about a week.

The song itself is similar in form to later Beatles’ songs like “Hey Jude." In “Hey Jude” there are two distinct sections, the “Hey Jude” part and the “Na, Na, Na, nanana Na” section. There is some transition between these sections but it’s pretty abrupt and unlike a verse chorus form the music from the first section never comes back. "Karma Police" does the same thing building up slowly to the second section providing a sense of arrival and release.

“Karma Police” is a dark song. The bare piano, the plodding guitar and Thom Yorke’s vocal performance all create a feeling of despair. This song feels like walking into an abandoned apartment building and it’s within this feeling that Yorke sings with devilishly sarcastic tone accusing others of crimes that are never revealed.

The first section of the song is a call to the “karma police” to arrest a man and a girl for messing with the narrator. His descriptive of the man who “buzzes like a fridge” and the girl with “her Hitler hairdo” are slightly demented, a little funny and depict our narrator as being psychologically unbalanced.

“This is what you get, when you mess with us” builds into the second section, which features one line that is repeated: “and for a minute there, I lost myself.” This man realizes how caught up he was in revenge that he wasn’t acting like himself.

I don’t really like dark music, but there is revelatory about “Karma Police” and much of Radiohead's music. Through the bleakness there is true human emotion that wallows in the depths but often reaches grand heights. The music takes us somewhere and even though you may not want to go to the place the music leads, being part of the journey is amazing experience.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer in this interview talked about how he never really liked “reset” television. Shows that end exactly in the same place where they start every week. A lot of music is similar where nothing changes within the narrator from the beginning to the end of the song. Often the same sections in the beginning of the song return and are exactly same. Sometimes this is great but other times our soul thirsts for more.

Like the Beatles' more experimental work, Radiohead does not always create the most accessible music, but I encourage you to give this band a try. If you dive into Radiohead and let them take you away, you may hear sounds that aren't pretty and you may hear words that are disturbing but I promise you that it will be an unforgettable journey and you will be amazed at the places that you will go.