Is it Art or is it Magic?

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Making music. Is it art or is it magic? Certain performances/collected works/bands/songs hit the notes of magic. Profound, mysterious, other-worldly. Running Dry and Helpless, by Neil Young, have always aroused the hairs on the back of my neck, invoking a sense of longing that exceeds the flaccid emotion of most pop songs. Moonlight Mile, by the Stones, transports me to a different, shimmering, druggy world. When I hear Billie Holiday’s recording of Pennies From Heaven I hear a voice that is a true musical instrument, like she’s being played by an unseen hand. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos warps me to the 17th century, at the intersection of music, math and creativity.

Ry Cooder’s cover of the Blind Willie Johnson instrumental, Dark Is The Night,  gets me every time. When I first heard it, I thought, this is why you learn to play guitar. Emotional. Profound. Moving. Perfect. Is it the simplicity, the complexity or the utter mastery of the guitar strings that creates my sense of wonder?

Every band or project of Ry’s is bit of magic—Sticky Finger-era Stones, Early Captain Beefheart, Paris Texas soundtrack, the collaborations with musicians of Cuba, Africa, India, Mexico, the American south and folk and blues.  If you’re a fan of Ry, you’re a fan of musical history, politics, anthropology and the connection we have with each other. Seeing him play live or being interviewed, he seems to be a regular dude.

The pathway that led me toward Ry Cooder began when my Dad put Green Door on the turntable, sometime in the early 1950s. I noticed how enthused my father was. He dug the beat. Pop music was on the cusp of rocking. I felt it, too. Then Elvis came, and my life—American life—was never the same. Music has shaped me.

Elvis was a big deal because he looked cool and he had the moves and sang some crazy songs; a sneer with sideburns. At the same time, Chuck Berry at Chess Records was exploding, and though his catalog is as important as any American songbook ever, Chuck couldn’t compete with the Elvis package. Chuck was black. It was 1956, the Jim Crow era.  Also, Chuck had done three years for armed robbery. It took years before I learned that the early rock & roll of Arthur Big Boy Crudup never reached a mainstream audience because Crudup was also the wrong color for the times. So, it was Elvis who introduced young white people to a new way of life. The opportunity to express pleasure by shaking your hips. He was the right guy at the right time to codify the potent combination of gospel music, country music, teenage insolence, sex, blues and rebelliousness.

To be a cultural force takes frequency—just like advertising. James Dean was a rebel without a cause, a sneering young movie star adored by the same demographic as Elvis, but Dean didn’t turn the culture upside down as Elvis did, because Elvis was on the radio every day. You could spin his record on your turntable at will. His first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show reached an 82 percent share of the television audience. This dwarfed the movie audience. Elvis had constant visibility. You want some Elvis? Put him on your turntable whenever you want. The radio played him all day and all night. You want some James Dean? Find a movie theater that’s featuring one of his movies and buy a ticket, because there is no VCR and no American Movies Classics and no Netflix. Elvis had the technological advantage over James Dean.

I was hooked on rock & roll as soon as I saw Elvis. I have a hazy recollection of my dad taking me to a record store somewhere on the west side of Chicago— there were no record stores in my tiny suburb of Clarendon Hills—to buy the Elvis 45, “Money Honey.” In 1956 the young rock and roll record industry relied mainly on 45 rpm singles. The “A” side was deemed the hit or potential hit, the “B” side was the toss off, the neglected sibling. The 33 1/3 rpm, long playing (LP) disc had been introduced the same year I was born, 1948, but that format was used primarily for classical music. Elvis was the first rock & roller to release an album’s-worth of singles. This first LP included “Money Honey” but I can only assume that we got the 45 because it was cheaper or maybe our phonograph didn’t have a 33 1/3 rpm speed setting.

Like Lou Reed would sing, my life was changed by rock & roll. In 3rd grade, I took a blonde wooden hair brush to school and often excused myself to go to the washroom where I could wet my hair and attempt to fashion an Elvis do. My hair wasn’t quite long enough, though, and I didn’t use Brylcream to give it the proper greasy look. The teacher must have thought that I had a weak bladder.

There could be only one Elvis, and the groundbreaking effect he had on our culture—to be fair, white culture—was at least the equal of other pop kings like Michael Jackson and even The Beatles. Young girls called bobby sox-ers, had screamed for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s but not quite as wantonly as they did for Elvis. And although the young girl screams would be more deafening for the Beatles, the venues were a hundred times larger and the young girls screaming for the Beatles were screaming because the cuddly Brits were so cute. The young girls screaming for Elvis was because he aroused them sexually. That made him dangerous.

In 1956, I had not yet been exposed directly to the Blues but “Money Honey” and “Don’t be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock” evolved from the blues. It became inevitable that I would make the path backward to this source. You’ll understand where rock & roll originated by listening to the early blues of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, black music for a black audience—they even called it race music. These country blues performers were the influencers of the Chicago blues beginning in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Buddy Guy were the bridge between the country blues of the south and the rock & roll that was about to sweep the nation. Call it a migration.

When I finally picked up an acoustic guitar at age 21, it was this early country blues that captivated me: The same holy grail that snared Mick and Keith and Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. I learned the guitar styles of Blind Lemon, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt from records, perfecting my technique on lunch breaks, back porches, saggy couches, VW mini vans, train stations and straight back chairs, while on the road in Lawrence, Kansas and Carbondale, Illinois, South America, Europe, Minneapolis and San Francisco. 

When you begin playing guitar—and you’re serious about it—you sense your progress, you sense how your skills plateau and then lurch forward. I learned to break things down and play them slowly before trying to play at the speed or the singular rhythm of the masters. I remember the liberating feeling of being able to bounce my thumb between the bass strings while my other fingers pinched and picked the trebles on Shake That Thing by Mississippi John Hurt. I was certain that I would play guitar for the rest of my life and that nothing would ever be more important to me. Time has confirmed this.

Magic enchants the supernatural part of our soul. The languid sustain of a long, drawn out note from Miles Davis triggers the many layers of consciousness. There’s more going on than meets the eye; or the ear. What was his trick? How did he do it? An insane amount of dedication and practice. Slight of hand.

Music is a big magical deal. I am thankful that I have been able to both live and craft a living with my guitar being either at the center of or dancing around the edges of my career, magically. I recently saw Ry Cooder perform at Thalia Hall in Chicago with my wife and son. It was magical. Long live rock & roll. Long live the blues. Long live magic.

©2019 Roger Bain

More Money Than God

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“He has more money than God.”

We’ve all heard this description applied to somebody who is well off, often uttered by somebody who wishes that they were as well off. It is the ultimate praise in our capitalist society. God is rich but this person is richer. The richer you are, the more god-like. God is money. God could replace Bennie Franklin on the $100 bill, if only we could figure out how to illustrate God’s likeness. A stack of Benjamins would become a stack of Gods. Cocaine sniffed through a rolled up hundred would, in a way, have God’s blessing. Or, at least, HIS assistance.

Does God have mortgage payments, pay for Impossible Whoppers, owe membership dues at Augusta, possess a garage full of vintage Aston Martins? Does God owe back taxes? Child support? No. God has none of these markers of wealth. A need to be transported in a helicopter? Overdue health insurance premiums? No-no-nah-no-noh! God has a credit card with no limits.

On reflection, don’t we all have more money than God? Forget it. That was a stupid notion. God is so well off that he doesn’t even need money? God is a penniless, omniscient presence who owes nothing, oversees everything, who is worshipped by billions. The poor one in the family was God’s son. He was notoriously poor. But he developed a lot of followers. He went viral. Since his passing, trillions have been raised in his name. It is a thriving business because there are a lot of customers with an insatiable demand for the product.

You know who has more money than God? Who is rolling in dough? The devil. Here is a mischievous dude adept at the financial arts, able to live high on the hog by whatever means necessary. The colloquial saying should be: “He has more money than the devil.” That is a more accurate statement. If you really have a lot of money, the devil is your guy. Like God, the devil needs your dough.

Remember. God never picks up the tab, but the devil might buy you a few drinks. Maybe even a nice dinner and a show. Would you rather be in Vegas with God or the devil? Would God frown on your gambling or would he turn a blind eye, which of course is impossible because God sees everything at all times.

The next time someone say, “She has more money than God,” keep this in mind.

Photos by Dave Clark

Character Doesn’t Count

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Some 25 years ago there was a popular campaign aimed at school children themed, “Character counts.” How we behave matters. Not whether we win, but how we conduct ourselves. It was a very obvious, almost vapid notion. Who could oppose teaching our children the importance of how we should treat one another? No lying, no bullying, no cheating. Kindness. Open-mindedness. Truthfulness. These were the traits we wished to instill on the future generation.

Today, character matters not a whit to nearly half of the country. On television, I heard some regular person in a coffee shop in New Hampshire say, “The president is despicable but I’m even more for him today than I was when I voted for him the last time.  He’s done a lot of good things for the country.” What might those good things be? Standing up for white people? Bad mouthing Mexicans? Attempting a Muslim ban? Appointing the supremely incompetent Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education? Rolling back environmental standards? Using cruelty as an immigration policy? Declaring the free press to be the enemy of the people? Attacking private citizens from the presidential twitter feed? Normalizing mendacity? Exacerbating income inequality? Doing everything possible to make health care worse for millions? Increasing the national debt? Confusing our allies? Empowering authoritarians? Obstructing justice? Promoting a private business from the oval office? Actually, the “good thing” that matters the most may be the white people thing.

During our 200 year plus experiment in democracy, we are now in a place where voters willingly vote for someone they consider to be despicable. Not unlikeable, or imperfect. Despicable. Instead of “I Like Ike” or “Hope and Change,” we now have “I’m With the Asshole” as a campaign slogan. A large swath of the American electorate has been exposed to be bigots or willful idiots. If a crackpot grifter can use mendacious conspiracy theories to get elected, then govern, does the future bode well for the good ol’ USA. Ponder that while you decide if the tag team of Putin/Trump has succeeded in permanently altering democracy.

I Meet Keith

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(from my memoir, Hardly Working.)

The advertising industry is fueled by seminars, conventions and cocktail parties. At an after-work Holiday cocktail bash sponsored by a now-defunct cable channel, I ran into a friend who worked for MTV. Between sips of punch, we commented on the general lameness of everything in sight, how shallow and full of shit so much of the industry was, especially most of the anointed rising stars. This is what you do when you are not a rising star yourself and are generally skeptical at the power dynamics that have passed you by, even though you wanted to be passed by. That was the goal.

This exercise in mockery eventually meandered into a discussion of things that we considered to be worthy of our praise. That’s when we discovered our mutual love of the Rolling Stones. We settled into animated chat of our favorite Stones tracks. Sway. Spider and the Fly. You Got the Silver, Moonlight Mile. I relayed my story of speaking to Bill Wyman on the phone while I was in high school. My cohort had a story about a Mick encounter. Then she dropped the bombshell: How would I like two passes to the live taping of a Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos concert that VH-1 was producing locally at WTTW’s soundstage? And maybe an after-show introduction to Keith! This is why we work. It’s not just for the money, it’s for the opportunity to meet Rock Gods. If offered the chance to meet any musician from any era, if Robert Johnson was busy being chased by a hellhound, I would have chosen Keith.

On the day of the taping, Linda contracted stomach flu but was going to give it a try anyway. After all, it was Keith! Sadly, on the way to the show we had to turn the car around and return Linda home to deal with her gastric misery. This lost opportunity amplified her illness. She was now both sick and devastated. After dropping her off, I didn’t have time to think about anything other than threading through expressway traffic and getting to WTTW on time.

The studio held about 200 standing fans. A low-key, pre-concert buzz filled the room, emitted by rock fans in the know, sharing stories of other times they had seen Keith or the Stones or other famous rockers. We were the chosen ones and we knew it. This wasn’t some stadium show with 30,000 anybodys in attendance. This was a hyper exclusive event to witness a legend. I wormed my way to the very front, pressed against the stage. A small camera tethered to a cable zipped behind me. The director was practicing a shot that would swoop over the crowd, right up to the Winos. Just before the band appeared, I heard my name over the studio public address system. “Bain! Move to the back. Your bald head is in my shot.” I knew the woman who was directing, and she had recognized me. I moved about twenty feet back. Still a great spot to see the band smash through Take It So Hard and about ten other tunes including Time Is on My Side, sung by Sara Dash.

The set ended with no encore because it was a television taping. I headed for the stage door where my MTV friend had told me to meet her. As I made my way to the backstage door, I said hello to Winos drummer, Steve Jordan and sax legend, Bobby Keys. “Great set, guys!” What else could I say? The rock royalty was looking for the room where the buffet was. Because of the small, private nature of the show there wasn’t much security. I walked in. Backstage was a non-descript, dark-ish room with drapes on the walls and a few overhead lights. The gathering was just me, the MTV gal, the President of VH-1 and a guitar maker with a custom guitar for Keith to autograph. As we waited for Keith, we were all equals.

I was making small talk with the VH-1 President when a hush seemed to settle over us, a barely discernable change in atmosphere like the pressure drop that precedes a tornado. From the shadows, Keith materialized and noiselessly glided our way. He simply appeared, as if waved in by an unseen wand. I swear I detected an aura surrounding him. He seemed in good spirits but how would I know? Had he just smoked hash? Had he just looked at his bank account? Had he just had a plate of bangers and mash? In any case, there was no pretense. I could tell that he had done this meet and greet hundreds of times. It was the retail part of his rock star god job. He was polite, gracious, at once both all-knowing and oblivious.

What do you say to an icon? I hadn’t rehearsed any questions. I thought that a prepared question would seem hokey. Do stars ever get tired of being told how much we love them? Or how many times we have played their first album? I settled on blurting out, “My wife got sick this morning and she’s going to die because she didn’t get to see the show and meet you.” Without missing a beat, Keith says, “What you want from me mate? To pay for her funeral?” He was busting my balls. “That won’t be necessary,” I replied, “but could you tell her to get well soon?” An assistant who had slipped into the room handed Keith an event invitation postcard and a sharpie and Keith scribbled, “To Linda. Get well soon,” and signed his name. I posed for a quick photo with Keith and the others. For reasons known only to God and Elvis, I never got a copy. It slipped through the cracks of my life. What I most remember was the handshake. Keith’s hands were incredibly soft.

My Brown Suit

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by Roger Bain ©2019

Consider the business suit. Wrapping up in one of these once or twice a year for some special or somber occasion is fine, but to do so every day, for me, is overload. I view the suit as a costume. A fancy uniform. But that’s just me. You might feel differently. You might be among the millions who love to play dress up.

When you wear a suit, you are frequently in the company of others wearing suits. Part of the club. It signifies that your job does not require digging, heavy lifting, sawing, mowing or a tool belt. In a nice suit and tie, as you step off the train, enter an elevator or get seated at a restaurant, the world sees a person that can at least afford a suit, who is going somewhere and whose drudgery is more likely mental than physical. In the preferred job of my dreams I would dress for work the same as I dressed for a Saturday afternoon with the kids. Work is no more important than family, right? Why dress differently for it? Yeah, I know. On the job, you dress to impress. You dress for success. But what if your definition of success doesn’t require a business suit? Mine doesn’t.

When I accepted an offer to work for the Centel Corporation (not a fake name), it went without saying that a suit would be standard attire. During the previous ten years, my jobs had never required a suit. My work apparel had been some combination of jeans, boots, sneakers, khakis, aprons, work shirts, collared shirts and even a Santa Claus outfit. Now, things would be different. It was time to play dress up for real.

I would need at least three suits to rotate through the work week. I already owned a tan, summer weight number, and one other now forgotten garment. Let me tell you about my third suit. I found it at Irv’s Men’s Warehouse, sort of an outlet store for suits. (Note: Irv’s Men’s Warehouse no longer exists but has been reincarnated into a luggage outlet.)

The lighting at Irv’s was a bit dim, either to cut down on the electric bill—after all, this was a discount emporium—or because the merchandise was better viewed in crepuscular light. I was searching for something of a different color than the two suits I already owned. After swiping through the racks that were in my size and price range, I settled on a cheap brown thing made of some indestructible material that claimed to be wool but was more like thick burlap. At the very least, this wool was from a scrawny, low grade sheep. There were better suits at the Warehouse but not in my size or price range The brown one would have to do. Leaving the store, I felt that I had done something terribly wrong.

To say that this suit was vapid would be an understatement. Its hue was similar to chewing tobacco or dog do. It had no give. It didn’t drape. It was stiff and could almost stand up on its own. It was the opposite of fashionable. The suit would have been banned in Italy. When I looked in the mirror while dressed in this third suit, I actually felt embarrassment. It was hideous.

This nasty garment came to symbolize the oppression of my job. I never donned the suit outside of work. The only time I wore it was in my cubicle, in the bland office on the 6th floor of a featureless office building near the airport, home base for this rather boring corporation where I was trying to fit in. I went through the motions clad in brown. While wearing the brown suit, I felt mirthless, but I continued at the job because I had two kids. I had rent, obligations and now a cheap, brown suit.

Removing the suit was a daily highlight. On my after-work dash to the car, I tore off my suit jacket and loosened my tie. Soon I would be in jeans and a t-shirt. Upon arrival home, the kids often hid behind the draperies as I wondered aloud where could they be. When they could stand it no longer, they came bounding out. I was surprised every time. They didn’t seem to mind the suit.

When I left Centel, I vowed to never again wear the hideous brown suit and I have kept that vow.

Truck Drivin’ Astronaut

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I taught myself how to play guitar so I could write songs about whatever I fancied.  Truck Drivin’ Astronaut is one of the first ones I wrote, probably around 1973, though I can’t specifically pin down the date. The moon landing was an obvious inspiration.

My astronaut is an everyman who remains grounded even while in space. He’s the cowboy next door who takes out his own trash and sips beer on the front porch. Commercial endorsement rewards will soon be coming his way as they do to many successful Americans. In the last verse, now that he’s been in space, he’s uncertain that he prefers his earthly existence.

It’s also possible that the protagonist is not even an astronaut but instead is just a dreamer. Or a songwriter.

Many of the photos are from a Sunflower Cablevision video shoot for Randy Mason’s program “Bringin’ It All Back Home.” They were shot in and around Lawrence, Kansas. Probably around 1979 but not certain. Pretty sure the photog was Jim Jewell. The outfit is compliments of my dear friend, Jim Vaughn, who was working for a fire retardant company at the time. I photographed his visit to my wife Linda’s classroom at Wakarusa Valley Elementary. The shot of wife, Linda, and I (me in the cowboy hat) was taken by our friend Steve Burkhart near Lake Powell, Utah in 1973. The astronaut with wine was shot last week by Linda. Space shots compliments of NASA. The suit is still in our attic and one day will be donated to either to the Smithsonian or Good Will.

I Am Sick

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I Am Sick

I’m not good at being sick and right now I’ve been sick for seven days. Started with a slight headache in the afternoon. Thought maybe I had too much sun while on the lake, but then I realized I had upper respiratory pain when I took a deep breath and at bedtime I asked my wife to feel my forehead and it was warm. My temperature was 100. I never have a temperature and I never get sick. I am bad at being sick because I have little practice. On day two, the Fourth of July, the fever climbed to near 103, a level I may have felt 45 years ago when I had mono. Must be the flu? The next day, my wife’s birthday, it reached 104.5. Then it went down to normal. The next day I had a twenty-minute spell of uncontrollable shaking, the rigors, and the fever climbed to 103.7. Saw the doctor on consecutive days. He probed and listened and had me give blood for possible West Nile or tick fever. Ordered a chest X-ray that confirmed that I had pneumonia. Rather, I still have pneumonia. Strong antibiotics that upset my stomach and interfere with my sleep and bed rest and plenty of liquids. We’ve been taking my temp every couple of hours for seven days and writing them down. They remind me of radio station frequency numbers. Oldies 104.3.

When you are sick you have plenty of time on your hands. But it isn’t your time. It’s sick time. Slow moving. You just lie there and feel tired. And useless. And you begin to think of everything you could have ever done but never did. And you begin to feel that maybe you’re not getting any better. You’re feeling sorry for yourself, the most despicable feeling you can have. You’re a worthless lug and that’s how you became sick. When you’re sick, you aren’t in your right mind, so stupid thoughts can form and fester. A fevered imagination is that of someone who comes up with wild thoughts and notions that have little grounding in reality but when you’re sick, reality shifts and these fevered thoughts make as much sense as anything else.
Lying in bed much of the day, often with a splitting headache and no appetite for daytime TV, I read from my five-pound book, a President Grant biography mischievously titled: Grant. Somewhere past page 600, we are in post-war reconstruction and there is graphic description of the wonton slaughter of blacks by my southern skin peers. I have to put down the book for a while because it is difficult to slog through such cruelty. Of course, the hundreds of pages leading up to Reconstruction, describing the Civil War battles of Grant were also gruesome, but this lynching and mutilation of defenseless, terrified people is revolting. The collective PTSD inflicted upon these ex-slaves will endure for untold time. It yet endures. Over the years I have often heard my skin peers say they—African Americans—need to “just get over it.” Are there time limits to what one is able to get over? Every high school kid should be required to spend a month, with all of the grisly details, on the insanity of the Civil War, the conditions that lead to it and the lawless terrorization that followed and continues today. It must not be candy-coated and presented as some distant, now-forgotten mistake. Today at plantation tours and Civil War reenactments it is historical entertainment. We must eliminate all traces of glory from this travesty. in Germany, do they have Auschwitz reenactments on select weekends? Do accountants quit eating for a year in order to accurately portray those emaciated beings on their way to the gas chamber?

I am sick, and I am really lousy at being sick. I am sick of getting plenty of rest and drinking plenty of liquids. With the heavy Grant book now closed and resting beside me on my bed, while in some grotesque, fetal-like position, I sneak a peek at Twitter. What is the gangster baby clown up to? What new cruelty has this mal-formed soul who runs America perpetrated upon civilized society? The count of immigrant children ripped from their mothers’ arms is now up to 3,000. Just following the law. These kids will carry the same terror that Holocaust survivors and ex-slaves carried for the rest of their lives. And the effects ripple outward from America. Give us your tired your humble and we’ll piss on ‘em said Lou Reed.

I am sick of American exceptionalism. I am sick of the phrase “deeply held religious beliefs.” I am sick of conservative principals, that are merely code words for “fuck the poor and the dispossessed and just give me more.” I am sick of billionaires. I am sick of CEOs. I am sick of the Koch Brothers. I am sick of America because America is a sick country that elected a foul beast. I am sick of a system where politicians spend more time with donors and lobbyists than constituents who are seeking justice or equality.

My fever has been gone for over twenty-four hours, yet I am still sick. The Supreme Court will soon elect a Justice who will ensure that civil rights take a step backward. If we could just work our way back to the Civil War.

Be sure to vote. Get well soon.

Roger Bain
July 9/10, 2018

Why Oh Why?

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Last May our current President asked,” Why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” That presidential musing was the genesis of Why Oh Why? Upon writing this song, I knew that I had to visualize it. The images are from the public domain.
•Thanks to Geoff DeMuth for the evocative horn and background vocal arrangements.
•Jack Mazzenga for the banjo and mando accompaniment.
• David Prusina on Civil War snare
White folks often say about black…”The Civil War is over. They can vote. Can’t they just get over it?” This lays out the “it” that they must get over.