Back in the day, I had a strong belief that if you worked hard, paid your dues, and attended rock concerts in large venues, you’d experience the very best that life has to offer. I grew up in a small and declining city, where we braced for the icy grip of winter by drinking a lot of beer and urinating wherever the hell we wanted. That was the way it was back then: hard work, dues paid, large rock venues, and urinating regularly.
A bit of fiction, perhaps, although I did witness certain unnamed jerks peeing all over creation back then, into the pool, into the fire pit, and so forth. And the large venue rock concerts were a real thing, with people blowing huge plumes of pot smoke into the air, poisoning themselves and everyone around them.
It was awesome! I saw bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Rolling Stones while packed in with drunk young people who threw up all over themselves. And then, I saw that some formerly hugely famous bands suddenly couldn’t fill those large rock venues and would instead play in bars. Bars! The very thought!
Now I can’t seem to bring myself to see the large rock show, unless it’s Radiohead. Instead, I prize the small venue.
Enter Billy Bragg, your favorite folk-punk love troubadour of yesteryear. Turns out Billy and his East London-esque accent were in town to play the tiny Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, easily the best small venue in the area, with great sight lines, reasonable crowd sizes, and actual urinals for us to use. Tickets went on sale in late 2018 for a late 2019 show, so the nation’s most acerbic high school principal had to clue me into tickets and encourage me to buy two pair, which I did while drinking beer and then going off to urinate.
I’ll admit I was a little worried about this show, as I was bringing my lovely bride of 16 years, who attends stand-up rock shows about as often as Jesus did, but seemed game enough if we could stand in the back. We did better, standing some 20 yards away on a secure balcony, with a clear view to Billy and his lefty anti-Trump, anti-Boris Johnson message.
I won’t go through all the songs, as you can always find those by going to setlist.fm, but I will tell you that for about half the show he was talking activitism, and in this bitterly divided world we currently live in, his message was enormously well-received in one of the most left-leaning cities in the US.
Back when I was almost still Catholic, I met a man who, I was told, would be the music leader for the kids in the parish CCD program I somehow found myself teaching in. This man came with his wife from Mexico – they were a lovely couple – and he was studying at Berklee College of Music.
It sounded perfect.
My then-wife was Costa Rican and she and I struck up a friendship with the couple, inviting them over for dinner one night. I had just finished working on a radio play and was using a new sound tool that was software-based, and I really couldn’t sort out how to use it. I showed it to my Mexican friend and asked him to explain what the tool was doing to the sound. All I knew how to do was use the mouse and keyboard to bend the sounds and make funny noises and so forth, but not what each effect tool was actually doing.
My new musical friend, who was going to Berklee because he was a highly skilled musician, played around with the software too, but his silence and bemusement indicated he didn’t know much more about the tools than I did.
One Sunday, the couple stayed after mass and came into the parish hall, where this new musical genius from Mexico would play songs for the kids – Catholic singalongs – while his lovely wife sat beside him or next to my wife and me (can't recall those exact details). He had a guitar on a strap and a pony tail, as you might imagine a Mexican Catholic troubadour would have, so we were all waiting in anticipation for him to sing Jesus-themed songs of freedom to us. He strummed a little, started, stopped, strummed again. We all waited for him to stop strumming aimlessly and start playing songs we could all sing to.
It never happened.
If he actually was a musician, he was under some kind of temporary spell that rendered him incapable of playing music, but I began to think that he was not a real musician after all, just a guy who had gotten into Berklee.
You might imagine that I often think back to those days and reminisce, as I just did here in a publicly available and highly-read blog, but the truth is that if I hadn’t just now remembered this series of events , I perhps would never have recalled that memory , and it would have been lost to history.
How is it that it’s 2019 and I’m just hearing about the Mountain Goats? You’d think this essential information would have been in one of the email loops I’m included in. “Maybe you missed it in a debriefing.”
OK, first of all my debriefings have been a little thin on content lately. Sorry to have to air that dirty laundry in such a widely-read forum as this blog, but eventually you get fed up with not being told about things, like really clever rock bands you probably should see, such as the Mountain Goats, or the nuclear launch codes. What if the Mountain Goats came to town, or someone said launch the nukes? How could I know to see the show and/or destroy the planet?
I shouldn’t have to rely on WMBR’s Breakfast of Champions for all my rock and roll information. Shouldn’t my government have a Rock Czar? And for that matter, why should I have to contact the Russians to find out what numbers to punch in such that we can finally have our long awaited Armageddeon?
From my informal survey of people around me, I’ve come to learn that others in my midst have not been adequately informed about the Mountain Goats either. Seems to be an epidemic of poor communication.
From what I can gather (via their tour schedule), it's clear to me that hey have something against Massachusetts. On the other hand, I'll bet they're going to Georgia.
I’ve received word from my publicist that you’re wondering what my rock and roll experience was like way back in the 1990s. I’d rather not talk about it.
OK, but just this once. The decade was progressing more or less like most decades, in fits and starts without a strong sense of how to distinguish itself from other decades in the history books, when my acerbic high school principal friend Bob reemerged into the US from Colombia, where he’d been teaching. Bedraggled and looking for work, he nevertheless came armed with word of the band Soul Coughing. I was made to pay heed – probably via a cd he had illegally smuggled through customs undeclared, that sneaky bastard! Which he then ripped so we could listen to it endlessly on our smartphones (which we had purchased on Amazon).
Anyway, I listened to the first album, Ruby Vroom, on my smartphone on and on and on in the early-mid 1990s, while driving and texting, and right around when the second album was coming out, the band played a fundraiser gig at the Middle East Club in Cambridge (that be in MA). The lineup, by order of appearance, was Dan Zanes (of Del Fuegos), the incredible Groovasaurus, now lost to history (but with videos on youtube!), Morphine Jr. (Morphine sans their injured drummer, whom the show was benefitting, but with the legendary Mark Sandman at the helm), and headlined by Soul Coughing, doing a short and spot-on set (with Doughty getting pissed at one or two choice mosh-pit bullies).
I saw Soul Coughing probably 4 or 5 times after that first show, and then they too were gone forever, living on only as a band-that-was, as front man Mike Doughty wanted nothing to do with the music or the bandmates.
Until this winter, when Doughty launched a tour in which he reprised Ruby Vroom, playing it beginning to end with the band Wheatus backing him up. To my great pleasure, he played the music with faithfulness to the original hip groove, even if his band (with little pepper on the drums!) didn’t quite manage to recreate the energy of those early years.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it, from some early iteration of the band, doing Moon Sammy. (As always, I don’t own these videos and can’t count on them sticking around forever, so watch them now).
J'Biden Era Haikuage
People's Arms. That's right!
200 million shots
In 100 days
We are good people
But we still have far to go
Repair. Restore. Heal.
There's nothing new here
The Affordable Care Act
We're restoring it
Democracy is fragile
The world is watching
Strategy is based
On Science, not politics
Truth, not denial
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