There really are no winners if there is no race

I’ve spent my entire life in a race that doesn’t exist outside of my own head. Well, perhaps a billion other heads, but in reality? No.

Competition is good – it pushes you, drives you, inspires you to move to the next level. But if you’re too hard on yourself, measuring yourself against others constantly, it can lead to perceptions of losing, failure, inadequacy.

And maybe that’s a good thing, to some extent; some level of available self-awareness. Granted, one most people – myself potentially included – don’t possess.

But it’s time to (further) remove myself from the rat race, and stop obsessing subconsciously about doing as well or better than others. That shit doesn’t matter, except to me and unimportant cuntbags.

I appreciate the pace rabbit, but I’m running for my own satisfaction from here.

Rinse, wash, repeat.

Yeah, I have issues….

Sometimes I marvel at why goes on in my head. I suppose, now that I’m considering it, that. These thoughts actually occur to everyone, and maybe no one is okay with admitting it. Maybe the Warren Ellises and Chuck Palahniuks of the world are not so rarified as I like to think, except I. That they’ll talk and write about things that other people find too unpleasant…

Anyway, as I imagine occurs to just about anyone who steps foot on an airplane, I’m in my seat pondering the idea of the plane going down, imaginable over the East coast of Florida (on this trip, at least). And (weirdly to everyone that I’ve ever told this to) I’m not really bothered by that thought. Not that I relish it, but when it’s time, it’s time, so why stress about it? In fact, if its inevitable and out of my control – and in that moment, happening – I’d personally prefer and therefore choose to enjoy the last few minutes that I’ve got. Right?

Well, agree or don’t. That’s my answer, and I’m sticking with it.

What is odd, to me, is where that thought took itself. I figure, at cruising altitude, you’ll probably realize that the end is near with a few minutes to spare – enough time to not only realize what’s happening but to do a thing or two. Most people would panic, of course. Some (like me) would fire off a text or try to make a phone call to a loved one – significant other, family, best friend. So that’s first on my list, followed (while I’ve got my wireless connection running) by a smart-ass but hopefully quippy and memorable tweet, cross-posted to Facebook. Everyone wants to have quotable famous last words, so I gotta give that a shot if I’ve got notice.

This flight, for instance, inspires a thought or two about the irony (or lack thereof) of dying so close to the toilet closet. Seriously, there’s not a better design for airplane bathroom placement?

But then I spent twenty minutes winding what song I wanted to go down to. And this became an overriding obsession for the next twenty minutes, and now that I can turn on electronics without causing panic in the sky, I’ve spent thirty more minutes flipping through my iPod trying to figure it out. Foo Fighters A320? Too literal. Devin Townsend seems appropriate on many levels, but I don’t think I can pick one song that sums everything up appropriately. Steve Vai, Queen, VAST, Porcupine Tree all get their turn, flipping through song after album after song, building yet another morbid playlist for eventual upload (with vague and pretentious title, no less) to 8tracks…

This, by the way, is why you should put me in a window seat, not in the back of the plane. Distract me with pretty clouds.

I eventually settled on Steven Wilson’s Drive Home, by the way. Probably trying to time it so the solo peaking would be the last thing to go through my head, aside from the talkative Air Force dude in front of me.

BTS: (The Show With No Name)

A few years back, some friends of mine got the moxie and the money together and started an Internet-based radio station, Birmingham Mountain Radio. I helped Harper with the web site (the design — this is before I was working with him, prior to having learned anything about C# and .NET web development), and eventually pestered Jeff into letting me have my own show.

The pestering started with the idea of a weekly show focused on hard rock and metal — not in line with the station format of AAA, but hey, this is Internet radio, right? No rules and such. At least, so went my argument. An argument that went over, it should be noted, about as well as a swallow dipped in chrome. Persistence is friend to the marginally talented, though, and I eventually got my compromise: a weekly couple of hours focused on music that is heavier and darker than the rest of our format, but still related. The opposite of Reg’s Coffee House — a flip side of the coin, as it were. After all, if there are people that dig finding out about singer-songwriter releases that you wouldn’t normally hear, there are people that want to hear the more rocking stuff, too, right?

And so, (The Show With No Name) was born.

It’s gone through a lot of evolution in a year-and-a-half (and continues to morph and shift into it’s own creature). Currently (and for the foreseeable future), it’s hosted by myself and Jeremy Harper. I pick most of the music each week, with a little help from Harper and Melisa (both of home are much more comfortable in the format confines than I am).

Doing a weekly radio show is more work than most people would imagine, I imagine. (echo?) There’s the two hours of the actual show, but the preparation is the tricky part — hours of sifting through ten or forty new albums every week, finding stuff that fits the show, stuff that I like (or at least, that I think the listeners would like). And it sounds like it’s easy, creating a 120 minute playlist every week, and it is, in some light. Especially if, like me, you love music, and love discovering new music. But then, remember that it shouldn’t ever become predictable, else people stop tuning in. Some weeks, there’s just not enough new music to fill out the time, so you have to dig through the archives, trying to remember what you’ve played recently, and what you maybe haven’t turned people on to yet…

The hardest part for me is drawing the line between my tastes and what will work on the radio. It’s nice to think that I can drop in my favorite Devin Townsend track, or the new Storm Corrosion disc, or anything from the Coheed & Cambria catalog… but it doesn’t necessarily work that way, or that well. As much as I dig them — and hopefully, at least a few people listening might, too — the truth is that a lot of what I listen to (especially in the context of everything I listen to) is an acquired taste. The new Steven Wilson leans heavily on its 70′s prog influences; Devin Townsend is Phil Spector meets Andrew Lloyd Webber in a knife fight with Meshuggah. These aren’t necessarily things that anyone other than me wants to hear, as Harper points out to me reasonably often.

If you dream of being a DJ… just stop, now. Really. Even if you buck the system and manage to get your own show, playing what you want (instead of what your program director’s computer tells you people want to hear), you’re in for a lot more work than you imagine, and for far less money. None, if you’re working on the bleeding edge of the radio-internet idea, for instance.

But, you know, First World Problems and all that. Overall, it’s something I enjoy, placing it safely in the “postiives” column (I guess that’s obvious, given that I’m still doing it after twenty months). I do get to share a lot of good music that most people wouldn’t hear otherwise — hopefully turning folks on to unfamiliar tunes (and expanding the fanbase of some deserving artists). And, you know, occasionally slipping the random prog tune into the playlist, when no one’s looking.

Ghosts in the wires

There’s a negative connotation that goes with the word “ghosts”. It conjures images of frightful things, trapped or angry spirits who can’t move on.

There are all kinds of ghosts, though. Some are happy, some are sad, some are angry. Most are not ready to let go, or if they are, they just don’t know how.

My head — all of our heads — are full of ghosts.  They span the emotional spectrum, from those we happily visit from time to time, to those that come at us out of the blue, bringing a sudden and unexpected shower of tears.  Ghosts of yesterday, of long ago, and even of tomorrows that are no more. They’re wispy and ethereal, impossible to grab when you want.  They’re there and gone, and you’re left with a shadow of a ghost, nothing more until it comes back to visit again.

Every one of my ghosts has a soundtrack.  Sometimes, when I am visited, the appropriate song pops into my head; more often, the song triggers a visit from the spirits in my memory.

I try to remind myself that it’s all about perspective: if you can change the way you look at something, the definition shifts. Good becomes ugly becomes inspiring becomes wrong becomes the way forward. But sometimes, these damn songs force a point of view on me, the emotional memory that goes with each one.

And some ghosts, fresh as they are, have a lifetime of music to play for me.

And for a rare moment,I find myself praying, wishing, begging, for just a little silence. At least until I can find the perspective that makes this look not so painful.

Music as a Blanket

There are times when the quiet of the world surrounds and engulfs you. The rest of the populace has gone to bed, the traffic has gone still, and it’s left to you and the owls and the moon.

Not that this can’t be a wonderful thing, but occasionally, the white noise machine that plays the ocean waves or the Brazilian rain forest to slow your brain to a dreamstate just won’t cut it.  Maybe the voices are too loud — or maybe they’ve gone quiet.

The right songs, chosen carefully and ordered correctly, can be the best blanket you have — to protect you from the cold, or the breeze, or the boogeyman.  You can set it to carry you sleeping through the night, or even to create the dreams you specifically hope to have.

On the rare night that I find myself in an empty bed, or on a sofa, I share my thoughts and dreams with her still, thanks to music, and I awaken warm and refreshed, even if I do long for her skin next to mine.

The Swell Season @ Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham, AL, 26 May 2010 (review)

Normally, I prefer recorded music to the live alternative.  My girlfriend and I differ greatly here — she, I think, backs the intensity and rawness of an in-the-moment performance, where as I really like the feeling of something that is larger than life, through layering and production.  The very nature of live performance, I’ve always thought, makes a cinematic experience improbable at best — think of the difference between the potentials and possibilities of theater and film.

And then along comes Swell Season.  The band is not one that I was familiar with (although I’m not sure how that’s even possible) — singer-guitarist Glen Hansard and singer-pianist Markéta Irglová play a sort of folky storytelling reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.  Just this morning, I’ve learned through the magic of Wikipedia that they toured together, shot a movie called Once, fell in love, won an Academy Award, fell out of love, made more music… It’s not your usual overnight-success rock band story.

I went into the night with absolutely no expectations — I purposefully and uncharacteristically avoided exposing myself to their music beforehand. Normally I like to have some sort of aural anchor for the evening, so at least I’m on familiar ground, but the girlfriend encouraged me to try it differently for this one. I’m glad I did — not that their recorded versions are bad, but the band is enough out of my usual alley that I might have missed out on the big picture of the experience.

Opener Justin Townes Earle played a set of what my brain insists on calling Stephen King’s soundtrack — the kind of music that would fit perfectly over the childhood scenes in IT or Christine, tunes that make me think of radio shows in the 1950s midwest. Usually, the support act sets the tone for the evening, and so my brain was being pulled in the wrong direction completely for Swell Season, who came out after an intermission.

I had a really hard time describing this to the girlfriend in our post-show wrap-up discussion, and I’m fairly certain that I’m still not going to be able to put it into words, but: for the most part, the next two hours was one of only two cinematic live concerts that I’ve ever experienced.  It was a perfect storm combination of the players’ abilities, the sound engineer’s work, and the acoustics of the Alys Stephens Center hall that turned the show into an immersive experience, especially on the more dynamic songs.

A lot of what it boils down to is dynamics and space.  There’s a real magic to letting each song build through volume and attack (or lack thereof) and intensity, and Swell Season have that mastered.  The individual instruments and voices ebbed and flowed from the spotlight, gradually coming to and leaving the focus instead of jumping sharply in and out.  Each instrument had it’s own place in space, clear and precise — and still the emphasis was on the overall picture and combination of sounds. It was the live performance equivalent of Seal’s second album (1994)*, something I never would have imagined possible.

I’d give you a set list, but since I don’t know the band… Some standout moments of the night, though, included Falling Slowly (the song from Once that won the Oscar), In These Arms, Backbroke, and Glen’s solo encore performance of Leave, sung from the side of the stage with no microphone — spine-chillingly intense. It was a night that deserves, unlike so many others, the description “magic.”

* This is the description that gets me funny looks all the time.  It’s a production thing. Trevor Horn is a genius.  Listen to it a lot.

Chris O’Brien @ Red Cat, Birmingham, AL, 15 May 2010 (review)

The best thing about dating someone who is as passionate about music as I am — and who has a lot of tastes that vary differently from mine — is discovering new music, often defying expectations (my own, I should note).

I had heard some of Chris O’Brien’s tracks from my girlfriend, and was non-plussed.  The tracks aren’t bad, not at all — but it’s folk-ish, singer/songwriter type stuff, not really in my wheelhouse. The lyrics are good, but it took me a while to get into those (I’m much more music oriented than lyrical).  But he’s been to Birmingham twice before, and he’s got a hometown connection with my girlfriend, so we decided to go.

It was a great choice. We got there a little early (there were various times listed for the show start, from 8 to 9 PM, and we erred on the side of early), so we caught Hannah Miller and Emily Lynch, two songwriters that played a dual set, alternating every two songs or so. Not bad — Emily was less enjoyable for me, leaning a bit more country, but Hannah has a really nice smoky voice and a good feel for chord voicings.

They finished up, and Chris took the stage… and then got off the stage. Since there were only ten or so of us in the audience, Chris took his guitar and sat on a table in the middle of the coffee shop.  I’m not sure if it was the more intimate feel, or the stripped-down versions of his songs, but the night was really engaging and provocative in a way that I never would have expected. It was a good mix of material from both his discs — he put a lot of life into his old material (hard to do when you play it all the time) and seemed really excited and familiar with his newer stuff.

Chris is on tour right now — make sure if you have a chance you check him out, whether you are a fan of the genre or not.  His songs are moving and meaningful, and he’s got a really good stage presence as well that keeps you there during the breaks. It’s a show well worth your while.