Personal Notes on Springsteen’s “River” Show

You can find my more formal review/recap of the show over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. But while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down a few more personal notes about my experience of Bruce Springsteen’s Jan. 19 show at the United Center in Chicago, featuring a beginning-to-end performance of “The River” album.

Full album shows fascinate me. On the one hand, I miss the insights I sometimes get from the mixture of old and new material – how newer material can reach back to converse with the old, shedding new light on both. And it’s a different experience knowing, for at least a good part of the show, what song is going to come next. On the other hand, if an album is carefully constructed, it tells a story that is more than the sum of its parts (songs). There’s a cohesiveness to the performance that can be revealing and informative. And, well, even I don’t spend as much time as I once did just putting on an album and listening carefully to it from beginning to end. I listen to playlists, I put stuff on shuffle… it’s different.

And “The River” is for sure an album I’ve spent a lot of time with as an album. When it came out, I was in college, living in the dorm, prone to a bit of drama (as most 19-year-olds can be). When I had a solitary evening, I’d often dim the lights in my dorm room, maybe light a candle or some incense (both, as I recall, forbidden in the dorm… such a little baby rebel I was), put on an album I loved, and just immerse myself in it. Oftentimes, “The River” was that album. I was especially obsessed with the song “Point Blank,” lifting the needle at the end of the song and moving the arm back to listen again. (Which was so much more deliberate an act than clicking a “repeat” button.)

My least favorite song on the album was “Wreck on the Highway.” Just morbid and depressing, I thought, set to an inexplicable tune – not exactly bouncy, but melodic and pretty, and a little singsongy. Certainly not as mournful as lines like

There was blood and glass all over / And there was nobody there but me / As the rain tumbled down hard and cold / I seen a young man lying by the side of the road / He cried “Mister, won’t you help me please”

oughta be. I mean, singing merrily away about “blood and glass all over”? Shouldn’t the music be darker, gloomier? Maybe some good angry punk stuff? And why end the album on something so damn gloomy anyway? And then the narrator just goes home and looks at his girlfriend and thinks about this stupid wreck that he’s obsessed with for some reason. What the hell, Bruce.

Well. I was nineteen. And I thought I knew a lot, but as anyone who’s been nineteen and gotten over it knows, I didn’t know much.

The concert was on January 19th, 2016. The 20th was the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death – some 14 years after “The River” came out. I remember watching my mother that week, realizing for the first time that signing up for a lifetime commitment with another human being meant committing to seeing them through the whole dying business too, if they got around to dying before you did. And realizing what that meant – the pain and difficulty of it, yes, but also the pure privilege and honor of bearing the weight of that journey. So this was on my mind a bit at the concert. Yeah, time tends to fold in on itself a bit when you get to be middle-aged. I’m learning that.

“Wreck on the Highway” comes right after “Drive All Night” on the River album. A lot of people love “Drive” as a hopelessly-romantic love song. “I swear I’d drive all night again, just to buy you some shoes.” But the song opens:

When I lost you, honey, sometimes I think I lost my guts too. / And I wish God would send me a word / Send me something I’m afraid to lose.

One, he’s not just singing to a woman; he’s singing to someone he has ALREADY LOST. Maybe he lost her and got her back again, but maybe not. “I swear I’d drive all night again… I just wanna sleep tonight again in your arms.” Is he singing to someone he’s lost to something more than infidelity? Is this a grief song?

In Chicago Tuesday night, Springsteen introduced “I Wanna Marry You” as being a song about the fantasy of what marriage might be like, not the real thing. (It was never one of my favorites on the album, either. Funny that.) But wishing for “something I’m afraid to lose” comes, I think, much closer to a real understanding of commitment. Who knows whether Bruce understood that when he wrote the song – he’s certainly said in many interviews that he didn’t understand love and commitment until some years later. When you commit to someone for life (whether that’s marriage, or any other form of deep lifelong emotional commitment with a peer [as opposed to, say, your children – who you expect will outlive you anyway]), you’re saying: Losing this person is my deepest fear. And I’m committing to staying with them until that fear becomes reality. I’m willingly accepting the near-certainty of my greatest fear coming true.

That’s pretty weighty. And that’s the understanding of marriage that Springsteen arrives at in “Wreck.” It’s not the fun-and-games part of love, it’s not the unrealistic interpretation of marriage we see in “Marry You,” it’s not even latching on to someone just because, well, two hearts are better than one. It’s something a whole lot scarier and harder and truer than that. It’s something that acknowledges mortality as fully part of the deal – and mortality, man, that’s hard to take.

Springsteen closed out the River album portion of the show, as the last notes of “Wreck on the Highway” played, he talked about how he’d realized the album was also about time:

“One of the things I was writing about on The River was time,” he said. “A friend of mine [who] was around last night said that time catches up to us all. You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, try and do something good.” (from Rolling Stone’s review of Pittsburgh show)

For sure, talking about time and mortality is not new for Springsteen – that’s what the “Wrecking Ball” album is all about, after all, and plenty of his other songs from the past couple decades. And anyone in the demographic he and I share (roughly 50-70) has seen some of their heroes and some of their loved ones die, knows that there’s more of that inevitably coming, and is probably grappling with how best to deal with that part of life. It’s sadly fitting that the first two shows of this tour included songs played in tribute to fellow musicians who’d recently died (David Bowie and Glenn Frey).

Mortality, man. We don’t sign up for that willingly. But when we love someone, the kind of love that means we plan to stick together, we are willingly taking on not only our own mortality but theirs. That’s crazy (says the longtime spinster who’s perfectly happy about that situation). But it’s also pretty damned profound.

And that’s the long story of why the song I least liked on “The River” when I was nineteen or twenty is probably the most important song on the album, and why the damned thing ends with such a melodic bit of gloom. Because that’s life, you know? Life.

Which is what rock & roll is all about.

_______________

A couple of other takeaways from Tuesday night’s show:

  • Whether I’m elbows on the stage or battling altitude sickness up in the rafters, an E Street Band show gives me something no other concert does. It feels like home. Sometimes the furniture gets rearranged while I’m away, but it feels like a place where I just belong. I sink into the show, settle into it, like the most comfortable pair of shoes that make my feet happy. Which is not to say that I just sit there. They’re dancing shoes. They’re rock & roll shoes!
  • As for the people NOT on stage: Hanging out with the friends I’ve met through Springsteen’s music is maybe the best part of these shows. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to be reminded. I don’t think I would have met any of these people without this connection, although we have so much more in common than just the music and the concert experience. They are creative, compassionate, interesting people and they make me laugh like nobody’s business. Love y’all – you know who you are!

Here’s “Wreck on the Highway” from Pittsburgh. Yes, the people chattering should be smacked upside the head immediately.

 

16 Comments

Filed under music, Springsteen

About a Bear: Health update on the Best Cat Ever

Those of you who’ve followed me on social media for any length of time have seen photos of my three cats, Honey Bear, Lotus, and Tamarin. Today, Bear got some bad news at the vet.

I noticed a few weeks ago that Bear was a little gimpy on one of his back legs. It wasn’t that he was limping, exactly, but his leg kind of went out at an angle sometimes. Since he’d had complete blood work done at the vet not that long ago, and since he’s old enough that arthritis seemed a likely possibility, I started him on Cosequin (glucosamine chondroitin, specially flavored to be delicious if you’re a cat). He loved the stuff, and it did seem that he was noticeably better after he’d been on it for a bit. Arthritis, I figured, or perhaps a mild case of hip dysplasia (Bear is probably at least part Maine Coon, and they seem to be prone to this).

But he was still poking his leg out at that funny angle, and I was starting to think I ought to talk to his vet about it. Then a few days ago he was flopped over on his back getting a good long belly rub, and I felt an abnormal lump on his chest near his armpit (which I’m sure has another name on a cat, but you know what I mean). Uh-oh, I thought, and got a vet appointment scheduled.

Well, it turns out his “gimpy” leg is actually due to another lump that I hadn’t found myself, up near the top of the inside of his hind leg, near the groin area. The vet aspirated both lumps and under the microscope she clearly saw that the lump on his back leg contained abnormal cells. She’s not a pathologist, but she’s an experienced vet with good instincts, and she feels pretty sure my Bear has cancer.

Now, we could send the samples off to a veterinary pathologist for a more definite diagnosis. It would be expensive ($200 or more), and while I am happy to spend whatever it takes (even if it means taking out a loan) for my cats’ health, my vet and I talked about it and having a firmer diagnosis wouldn’t change our course of action. Bear’s an older fellow now (somewhere around 14 or 15), and he has a heart murmur that’s gotten a little worse over the past couple of years, so surgery is most likely not a good option for him. Standard treatment for osteosarcoma (which is what this probably is) is amputation of the limb, perhaps followed by some radiation and/or chemo. But in Bear’s case, the tumor is so high on his leg that they might have to take part of the pelvis as well, and regardless, it’d be serious surgery – and if the cancer has metastasized, which seems fairly likely, probably wouldn’t buy him all that much time. If he even made it through the surgery.

This sort of cancer is actually pretty rare in cats – my vet said she’s never seen anything quite like this in a cat, though she has in dogs – leave it to my Bear to be unique and different! She said she was going to do some reading and see if she could learn anything more, and of course I’ll spend some time online looking for authoritative information that isn’t so technical as to leave me in the dust. It’s possible that we will come up with some treatment options. It’s also possible that it will turn out to be benign, and stop growing, and he’ll just walk funny for the rest of his life. But, given that it seems to be progressing quickly so far (Dr. Hughes feels like she would certainly have noticed the lump if it had been there when she last saw him in July, plus he’s lost 3 pounds since then – he’s down to a little over 9 pounds now, which is skinny for a Bear), we’re probably looking at palliative care until his quality of life is no longer good enough for him to be happy and comfortable. I’ve got some pain medication for him – he doesn’t seem to need it now, but if he starts having pain on the weekend or sometime when I can’t get to the vet quickly, I’ll have a couple days’ worth just in case. Till then, we are just living day to day.

Portrait of Honey Bear the cat

Best. Cat. Ever.

I want to stress that Bear is feeling good for now. His eyes are bright and clear, his ears and tail are perky, his appetite is excellent, and he enthusiastically sharpens his claws on his corrugated scratcher and snuggles up on my lap & purrs just like he always has. I envy animals because, unless they are being chased by a predator or something, they pretty much don’t worry about mortality. All Bear cares about is whether he feels OK right now, and whether he’s getting the dinners and treats and belly rubs that he knows he deserves.

I could take Bear for a second opinion, etc. But my gut feeling is that my vet (who I have known and trusted for many years) is right. And while I’d prefer it if my cats all lived forever, none of us get that. (With the possible exception of Keith Richards, who shows every sign of being unkillable.)

Bear became a part of my life in December of 2002. I’d lost my 18-year-old cat Yoda to cancer a few months earlier, and by November I’d decided that I was ready to welcome a new cat into my home. I told my mom that for Christmas I wanted her to take me to the rescue where she’d adopted her cats, and we’d find me a baby kitten – I figured a baby kitten would be easier for my elderly diabetic cat Mudpuppy (who was around 14 then, I think) to adjust to.

But Mom just happened to visit her local animal shelter a few days after that discussion, and when we talked on the phone that day, she told me about the cat she’d met there. A big, full-grown, long-haired cat named “Tigger” who was incredibly laid-back, and who was such a staff favorite that one shelter worker who was allergic to cats had welts all over her arms because she loved him so much that she could not resist picking him up and cuddling him all the time. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was in love with this cat and that he was something special, so I said, why don’t you give them a call and put in an application for him? But you want a baby kitten, she said. He’s not a baby kitten. Never mind that, I said, call the shelter before they euthanize him or something! Well, my mom didn’t even bother saying goodbye to me – as soon as I used the e-word she was in too much of a hurry to call the shelter.:)

Because I would be the one actually adopting the cat, the shelter had me send in an application via email. After I described my life as a cat person, giving Mudpuppy his two insulin shots a day and all, they were pretty eager to let me have Mr. “Tigger.” (The email response to my adoption application came back really fast: “You are SO approved.”) Honey Bear – “Tigger” just didn’t fit his big, fluffy, ultra-laid-back self at all – got neutered and stayed at my mom’s for a few weeks until I could pick him up at Christmas. Best Christmas present ever. (And I agree that you should never give animals as Christmas presents. But this wasn’t a surprise present or anything – Mom just found him and facilitated the adoption!)

Bear has enormous paws, gorgeous green eyes, and the sweetest heart that ever beat inside a cat. I love and adore him, and he will get the best possible care and the most possible love for however much time he has left on this planet.

Oh yeah, and you may also know him as Santa Cat (he looks a little like David Crosby in a Santa hat here, I think):

Smiling cat in a Santa hat.

Santa Bear. NOT photoshopped!

6 Comments

Filed under personal

In the wake of Bataclan: For my people

I’ve written before about why live music is so important to me. While terrorism anywhere in the world appalls me, the recent attack at the Parisian music club Bataclan strikes close to home. It’s like what a religious person might feel if terrorists opened fire on a church. Perhaps even something like what a parent feels if it happens in a school. Music venues are my holy ground, my home away from home. Yes, bad things have happened at concerts before – going back to Altamont, and farther – and in the world today it does occur to one to be aware of one’s surroundings when in a crowd of people, and annoying as it is to be wanded or have your bag searched going into an arena, you realize that we live in a time when there have to be precautions.

But even so, even so. You just don’t expect this. And I feel like music people are my people – like music fans are fellow citizens of a (large and very diverse, but still real and precious) sort of country of the heart. The people who died and were injured at Bataclan, those were my people. Bono talked about this in an interview he gave hours after the attacks; U2 was in fact scheduled to perform in Paris – at a much, much larger venue of course – the next night and the night after, and of course those concerts have been cancelled. I would have spent this afternoon listening to someone’s stream of the show on Mixlr, most likely, and in fact I’d just downloaded the HBO Now app so I could watch the near-live broadcast of the show tonight. I was looking forward to that. My disappointment in not getting to hear and see the show is a tiny, tiny thing compared to the pain and suffering experienced by those who came under attack and by their loved ones. But it brings it that much closer to home for me. Those were my people.

So, to the musicians – and also the crew, staff, merch managers, promoters, bus drivers, instrument techs, sound and lighting folks, even the spouses and families who share their loved ones with us when they go out on tour – thank you. We follow you because what you do helps us navigate a world in which awful things happen, and it helps us celebrate a world in which beauty exists and needs to be noticed every day of our lives. We know touring is often hard, and after Bataclan it may be even harder in some ways. What you do matters deeply. Please know that.

To the music fans – let’s don’t let this stop us from getting out there and going to the show. Yes, look around you as you go into any venue and be aware of where the exits are. Maybe stay sober enough to make rational decisions should an emergency arise. But then let go of the awful world and dance, dance, dance in the beautiful world. Let’s don’t let anything keep us from that.

peace sign with eiffel tower

image by jean jullien

 

3 Comments

Filed under music

If the Sky Can Crack: On losing your chops

So, I wrote about why listening to live music is so important to me. But, asks the astute reader, what about playing music yourself? You have a guitar, right? Doesn’t that give you some of the same stuff?

It does, when it goes well. But of course my own history with playing music is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. Of course it is.

I first started playing guitar in high school, back when I was first discovering my own taste in music and finding that everything from Jackson Browne to Patti Smith, from Segovia to Springsteen, all kinds of music floated my boat. In fact, it was at a classical guitar recital my parents took me to (it might have been Christopher Parkening, although to this day I don’t remember for sure) that I decided I wanted to play guitar. I remember vividly that there was a piece which involved a lot of harmonics, these gorgeous pure chiming notes, and all I wanted to do in the world was to make a sound like that.

Eventually my parents got me a little Yamaha classical guitar (which, yes, I still have and treasure) and set me up with lessons. Before long I’m angling my way through Bach etudes, arpeggios, the occasional soft-rock song. I’m hardly ever more content than when I’m playing. This is around 1976, 1977.

Me at 17, playing guitar.

True story.

Fast forward a year or two. I’m checking out folk and rock songbooks from the public library, figuring out chords to songs I like. (I’m also using the library to read Billboard and Variety and Rolling Stone, when other kids my age are reading Tiger Beat. I am nothing if not Serious About Myself.) I’m using my savings to buy a steel-string guitar because the little classical just doesn’t really sound like rock & roll. (It’s an Ovation Balladeer, the round-back guitar like what Nancy Wilson of Heart played on stage at the time – I still have it, with its bright brassy tone and its propensity for volume.) I’m hanging out with my friend Sally, who also had a guitar; we both want to be Jimi Hendrix and we daydream about white Stratocasters.

A bit later, I bought an electric guitar: not a Strat, but a red Gibson Melody Maker. I kept that for about a year, never quite figuring out how to make it sound like anything, then sold it when I was getting ready to go to college and needed the money. If only I could go back in time and not do that… that was a sweet little guitar. But the electric guitar is a very different animal from the classical. It was a language I could hear and understand, but couldn’t speak it myself yet.

Anyway, college meant the end of classical guitar lessons, though I did manage a semester of beginning piano which taught me a lot about music theory. I kept playing, though I wasn’t practicing as seriously as I had in high school (arpeggios and finger exercises and so forth); I enjoyed strumming Fleetwood Mac and Heart songs in the courtyard of my dorm, singing with friends. After college, I even performed onstage a few times; I belonged to a writers’ group that gave readings a couple times a year locally, and every now and then along with my poems I put an original song into our “setlist.”

That? That was terrifying. Not the part where I was performing something I’d created myself – reading poems onstage never bothered me much. But singing in public felt more vulnerable and scary than pretty much anything I’d ever done. And I didn’t do it much before I stopped.

I’ve often said that if I could have one superpower, I would choose singing. Not playing guitar, funny enough; that has always seemed like something I could get good at if I just worked my ass off for years. I could understand how to get from here to there, whether or not I actually put in the practice time to do it. Singing? That was something other people were somehow good at.

The funny thing is: I have always LOVED singing. When nobody’s listening – in an empty house, in the shower, driving on the highway – I sing. I add harmonies to my favorite albums. At concerts, when they’re the singing-along kind of concerts like Springsteen or the Indigo Girls, I’m right there because nobody (I imagine) can hear me in the crowd.

But not where people can hear me. Which sort of always did put a crimp in my youthful fantasies of being a rock star. That, and the fact that I was too socially awkward to start a band so that I could just be the guitarist and let somebody else sing.

Stratocaster guitarAnyway. Adulthood being what it is, what with full-time jobs and bills to pay and everything, I stopped playing guitar very much. I’ve had brief flings with resuming it – most notably in 2008 when, after an epic road trip (well, it FELT epic anyway) for three Springsteen shows, I felt thoroughly inspired and went out & bought myself an electric guitar. (“So you wanna be a rock & roll star…“)  It wasn’t the white Strat I’d daydreamed of at seventeen, but it was a Strat, by golly. And it felt good to play it. I still didn’t quite understand its grammar and its syntax, but I wasn’t trying to play it like a classical guitar anymore, so I was able to get as far as making noises that were pleasing to my ear, if not my neighbors’ ears.

But that didn’t last. Because here’s the thing. When you don’t play, you forget how to play. You lose your chops, as musicians say. Your fingers feel fat and uncontrollable. Your hands cramp. You can figure out that you should play a B chord right there, but you can’t get your left hand gracefully from one chord to the next. And if you’re still fluent in listening to music, if you have a pretty good ear, you know exactly how crappy you sound. It is really hard to accept “well, I sound a little better than I did last week” when you know you also sound a whole lot worse than you did twenty years ago. When you can hear your own mistakes so very clearly.

This is how guitars end up getting dusty under the bed.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know that’s not enough…

Fast-forward to two or three years ago. I got an iPad, and I promptly downloaded the GarageBand app. Boy, is that a fun little toy. You don’t have to have any talent or musical skill, really. You can set it so that everything comes out in the right key. You don’t have to tune anything. I started noodling around and found myself composing little snippets. Nothing serious, but maybe the sort of thing you’d hear over the local forecast on the Weather Channel. It was stuff that sounded like music, and I was creating it, and holy moly, it was fun. I popped a few of my tracks up on Soundcloud, just for grins.

But it’s the paint-by-numbers version of making music. It’s fun, and maybe it takes a small amount of skill, but it completely lacks the physical aspect of playing an instrument. There’s more than just being able to choose the right notes at the right time – you also have to coordinate your muscles and your breath. Which is why it takes so much practice and also why it’s so absorbing, so immersive, and ultimately so healing.

All my GarageBand noodling was starting to remind me of how much I used to love sitting in my bedroom, working out chords and fingerings, trying to transpose songs into a key I could come anywhere close to singing. But my body resisted the act of going to the guitar case, taking out the instrument, tuning it up. I knew I would sound like crap. Playing badly makes me feel like I am disrespecting the guitar. (I know that is not logical.)

I’m in my fifties now, and I have a full-time job I like a great deal, which does not involve being a musician. It’s no longer even remotely realistic (as it is for every 17-year-old in the world) to daydream about being in a band, traveling around the world, making people swoon with my music. Anything I do now, musically, is going to be just for me. It feels different now than it did back then … but it still feels necessary.

So how to get from disrespecting a perfectly good guitar to doing something that would at least feel like fun and not an exercise in pure frustration?

I think I can blame Eddie Vedder for the ukulele. Or maybe Amanda Shires, who also plays one occasionally. I had a little string of realizations:

  • Buying a new instrument usually motivates me to play, at least for a while.
  • Ukuleles are a whole hell of a lot cheaper than guitars. You can get a decent one, not a professional-quality one but something that is a real instrument and not just a jangly toy, for maybe a little over 100 bucks on eBay.
  • You can’t take a uke too seriously. You just can’t. And maybe, just maybe, if I picked up something that wasn’t a guitar, that I didn’t have to worry about disrespecting, I wouldn’t have the undercurrent of expectation that I would somehow magically sound like I did thirty years ago when I was seriously practicing and playing every day.

ukuleleAnd you know what … it worked. This past June I got a little Lanikai uke on eBay, a pretty thing made of curly koa. I had to look up how it was supposed to be tuned. (Then I ordered a tuner online, which helps tremendously.) I looked up some chord charts, and I started noodling. Pretty soon I was making noises that sounded sort of like music.

And then I figured out a few actual songs. First, “Angel From Montgomery” – a song I have always loved singing. Then U2’s “Every Breaking Wave.” I even recorded that one onto GarageBand and put some reverb and some strings on it. I was up till 4 am a couple of nights figuring out string arrangements. IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! (And weirdly, once everything was pulled together, I could even sort of stand the sound of my own singing voice. Crazy. A little reverb helps, of course.)

And then, just a couple weeks ago, I got out my nearly-forty-year-old Yamaha classical guitar. I tuned it up and I started to play. My fingers hurt like hell after about fifteen minutes, but thanks to the uke-playing I at least had a bit of a start on regaining the calluses on my left fingertips. Then, the other night, I got out my little blue Strat and made some noise. It sounded like crap, I’m quite certain. But it felt so, so good just to strap it on and stand there.

If the sky can crack, there must be some way back…

For the past few days I’ve been working on an acoustic version of U2’s song “Electrical Storm.” It’s a gorgeous song about a couple at an impasse in their relationship, mired in stasis, desperately looking for a way to get back to the love they feel sure must still be there somewhere. It’s not a crazy difficult song to play, really, but it does have some rhythmic quirks and a bunch of barre chords that make my left hand cramp after three or four times through. It is juuuuuust beyond the boundary of what I can currently manage comfortably, and so it’s a perfect song for me to work on.

And the song itself is a good metaphor for the struggle of regaining your chops. You remember how good it feels when you can just sit for hours with the guitar, your fingers in conversation with the strings, fluent. You remember coaxing notes out of it, each note pure and ringing or staccato as the song requires, the notes and measures a language you speak well enough to write poetry in it. You remember not even having to think about where your hands should go, the guitar practically an extension of your body.

And now your hands feel like you’re wearing heavy gloves, the guitar slips out of position at odd moments, the strings muffle when they should ring and blare out sound when they should be quiet. The notes are like tired, angry children who refuse to get in line. You make yourself work through the song just one more time, you practice that tricky chord change over and over and over. You’re glad you live alone because only the saintliest of neighbors would put up with the endless repetition. Your fingertips burn. You soldier through because you remember what it used to feel like, and you want that. You don’t know if you’ll ever have it. But you want it.

coffee’s cold, but it’ll get you through
compromise, that’s nothing new to you

It’s harder, in a lot of ways, than learning the instrument the first time around. You know that musical fluency is water, not stone: unreplenished, it drains away. Every song you learn, or relearn, is a conversation you’re in danger of forgetting – not a jewel tucked away in a box for safekeeping. You realize that you can’t take anything for granted: memory, muscle, breath. You have less of a margin: when you’re fluent, you can go a few days without playing and you’re still good. But when you’re trying to get your chops back, there’s no room for laziness. If I don’t play for a week, I’ll have lost everything I’ve gotten back in the past month. My muscle memory is still shallow – the playing hasn’t sunk in to become a part of me yet.

“Electrical Storm” ends without emotional resolution. The chorus, “Electrical storm, electrical storm…” suggests that the singer wants some external force to come along and crack open the impasse like lightning cracks through the sky – but it’s unclear whether the invocation of the image is wishful thinking, or whether the storm is actually brewing. The coda goes to a couple of chords that haven’t appeared earlier in the song, which suggests some sort of movement out of the lovers’ stasis, but neither the lyrics nor the chords tell you what resolution they might be moving towards. The song ends with the repeated plea, “Baby, don’t cry,” which tells you that both partners feel the pain of whatever’s going on but doesn’t tell you whether the storm (wished for or actual) is breaking them apart or healing them. And yet, by the time you get to the end of the song, you do feel like you have moved through something.

On rainy days we go swimming out
On rainy days, swimming in the sound

It’s kind of like that with getting your chops back. It’s a struggle to regain fluency, to swim comfortably in the sound. Every night you put away your guitar and you don’t know, really, if you’re ever going to get back to where you were – or if getting back to where you were is really, anymore, the goal.

You’re in my mind all the time – I know it’s not enough
If the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love…
Electrical storm
Electrical storm
Baby, don’t cry… 

“Electrical Storm” lyrics ©U2

Leave a comment

Filed under music, ramblings

Music Is My Strawberry: How concert-going saves me

It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)

If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!  (http://deoxy.org/koan/18)

tiger

photo: catlovers (flickr)

We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.

Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.

Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.

When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.

Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.

That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.

And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.

Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.

"Little Steven" guitar pick

I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.

Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.

I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.

The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.

one single strawberry

photo: WIlliam Warby (flickr)

5 Comments

Filed under music, ramblings

Love, Technology, and Rock & Roll: Notes on Two Nights of U2 in Chicago

Chicago skyline

Intro

You will probably be surprised to learn that, at the ripe old age of 54 and having attended rock & roll shows since the mid-1970s, I made it all the way to 2015 without ever seeing a U2 concert. It’s not that I haven’t liked them – I’ve never NOT liked U2. Mostly, for years, they were one of those bands who’d come on the radio and I’d turn it up and think, golly, I do love this song, I should really pick up more of their albums one of these days. (There are a LOT of bands like that, to be honest.) I almost went to the St. Louis show on the 360 Tour, but I had neither a viable car nor anyone to go with at that point, and between overly complicated travel logistics & the whole stadium thing – it was all just so *big* on that tour – I just didn’t do it. (And I’m one of the few people I know who quite likes the “No Line on the Horizon” album.)

Then “Songs of Innocence” came out, and I quite liked that as well. Plus, Mr. Springsteen wasn’t making any kind of noises about touring anytime soon, and I was feeling the need for a big old arena rock show. So when the U2 Innocence+Experience Tour was announced, I was on board for Chicago.

When they first announced the tour the shows were in pairs, and they said nights 1 and 2 would be distinctly different. As it turns out, that ended up not being the case – and then when the stage and big-screen setup was revealed, I realized that my seat for night 1 was right smack facing the edge of the big screen (which I was told was pretty integral to the show) so I wouldn’t be able to see what was on the screen *at all*. And my seat for night 2 was waaaaaaaaay up in the rafters. Terrible seats, both of them, I thought. Plus, three more shows were announced *after* I had bought my tickets for nights 1 and 2, any of which would have been more convenient for travel than the Wednesday/Thursday pair I’d just spent what was for me a lot of money on. So, I was actually feeling a little cranky about the shows, half tempted to scrap it all, try to sell the tickets, and go on with my life.

Good thing I didn’t.

tl;dr

So here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. “I’m not a rabid U2 fan. I like arena rock shows generally. Should I go see U2 on this tour?” My answer is, YES. For sure. That is, unless you can’t stand the new album (because it really does form the centerpiece of the show – as a new album SHOULD, I think), or unless rock shows with a strong, predetermined narrative bother you. (At some point, though not today, I plan to write more about what I see as an essential tension between the scripted/theatrical and the spontaneous/improvised – something that I think is a pretty interesting tension to explore in the context of rock & roll. After all, improv is theater too.)

The technology is great, the songs are great, the show’s narrative works really well and incorporates both new and old songs for the most part seamlessly. The band seems enthusiastic about performing and the audience is also enthusiastic. It’s an immersive experience, emotionally and musically engaging.

Bono in the spotlight

Bono + spotlight: they love each other

Well, if you can’t stand U2 (as several of my friends can’t), you probably shouldn’t go. Bono hasn’t stopped being Bono, you know? Ha! (I actually do like the “little megalomaniac,” as he called himself on stage one night. Would we be best pals if we met in real life and were in a social position to hang out? Doubtful. But I’m not paying my ticket money to have a best pal. I have friends who will hang out with me for nothin’, believe it or not. I’m at a rock show to see a rock star. And Bono’s pretty good at that. But I digress.)

Obviously I can’t compare this show to previous tours. And yes, I envy my friends who saw them in the early years, for sure! But you gotta live in the present, and live music for me is very much about being in the moment, not regretting the past or worrying about the future. And this moment, this tour, this show, is pretty great.

So, on to my more detailed (okay, verbose) thoughts on the shows that I saw.

Arrival

Getting to Chicago is, for some reason, always fraught for me. It’s just a little over 200 miles, not a bad drive at all, but I always end up at my destination frazzled, later than I’d planned, and muttering things under my breath about traffic and not being a city girl and I don’t know why I put myself through this. This trip was no exception. Despite the best efforts of my perfectly good GPS, I took TWO wrong turns in Gary, and of course I managed to roll into town at about 5:30 so I felt like I was rolling into a greatest-hits double-bill show by Chicago and Traffic. I had just enough time to check into my hotel, change clothes, eat a quick snack of cheese and Fig Newtons and a banana, and get over to the arena; the ticketed start time was 7:30 (I knew the show wouldn’t start until eight-ish) and I got to my seat around 7:45 or so. Just enough time to breathe for a minute, and to think about getting an overpriced crappy beer but not to actually do anything about it.

I love, love, love the minutes before a rock show starts. The GA floor was filling up rapidly – I’d thought about trying to pick up a GA ticket, but between getting there so late and the packed-like-sardines appearance of the floor, I was glad I hadn’t; at 5 foot 1, if I’m farther back than three deep or so from the stage, I’m probably not going to see much unless I can get some space between me and the people right in front of me. My seat was, indeed, pretty much smack behind the edge of the big screen, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see that. But I was on the aisle, which is always pleasant, because that way even if there’s a big dude in front of me (which there usually is) I can edge out into the aisle and see. And I was in row 5 behind the smaller stage, which – I suddenly realized – was very, very close. I didn’t know whether I’d see much of U2’s faces, since I was behind the stage, but whatever I saw would be from pretty dang close. And my view of the larger stage, at the other end of the arena, was pretty much unobstructed.

It was going to be OK.

A bit about the stage setup, for those who haven’t been to one of these shows and haven’t been following on social media or whatever. So there’s a big, rectangular, fairly traditional-looking stage at one end of the arena. It’s open on all four sides (U2 is doing interesting things with the sound on this tour, so there are no speaker stacks behind or on the sides of the stage, in fact very little equipment to speak of other than the instruments and mics and a few guitar amps). Then there’s a long runway or bridge spanning the length of the arena, and there’s a big screen hanging from the ceiling that’s the length of this bridge; the screen goes up and down during the show and performs various functions – I saw it described as the Swiss army knife of big screens, and for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a corkscrew in there somewhere.

Then at the other end of the arena is a smaller, round stage with no speakers or equipment on it to start with. The big stage is the “i” stage and the small one is the “e” stage, each stage’s surface painted with its respective letter – fitting the “innocence + experience” theme of the show. The entire floor is general admission standing, with two areas near the “i” stage set aside as the “Red Zone” where people pay exorbitant prices for VIP tickets and the money goes to U2’s global anti-AIDS charity, (RED). Because of the setup, even the people with the worst spots on the floor are less than half the width of the arena away from at least some part of the stage – not that much farther back than the back of the pit at a Springsteen show. And the whole band performs extensively from both stages as well as from the runway and even from inside the big screen, so everybody gets a chance to be close-ish at some point. It’s actually a really good setup.

U2 stage & screen

City of Blinding Lights

Night 1 Notes: Until the End of the World and Then Some

Thanks to social media, I knew that Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” would play over the PA just before the band came onstage. So when that song started up – and the lights dimmed, and the volume rose, making it an actual part of the show – I stood up and got ready. (That’s such a great song, too. Especially LOUD, with people singing along.) What I hadn’t realized was that Bono enters from the “e” stage. People around me got really excited and then whoa! There’s Bono! RIGHT THERE! Ha! Fun moment.

He starts singing the “oh, ohhh, oh” intro to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and acknowledges the crowd, then saunters down the runway and then the band kicks in and holy crap, when you’ve had as many huge hits as U2 it takes a bit of nerve to open with one of your new songs I think, but it works REALLY well as an opener. Is there anything that feels as great as that first big bass drum blast and that first ferocious guitar of a rock show? Some people like fireworks or roller coasters. I’ll take this instead, any day.

I won’t go through the entire setlist song by song, but I’ll hit some of the high points. Mostly, the narrative of the show works really well. A little tribute to the Ramones, who inspired and influenced them to start playing, followed by one of their very early songs (night 1 was “Electric Co.” and night 2 was “Out of Control” – both sounding incredibly fresh and joyful). “Iris,” Bono’s love song to his mother who died when he was young – “She left me, and left me an artist,” he says, talking about how artists create in order to fill the empty places in their own lives and hearts – was heartfelt and quite moving.

“Song for Someone,” another love song (this time thinking back on when he fell in love, still quite young, with the woman who would become his wife) was also lovely although this was where I began to notice that the rumors about Bono being sick were probably true, as his voice did sound a bit ragged around the edges. Didn’t impede my enjoyment of the show, honestly, but I’m not a vocal purist either. Vocals can be a bit off and still be OK for me. But guitars, man – you gotta tune those!

The heart of the show is about the intersection of personal and political pain, loss, and rage – and how coming of age is about love and loss (the innocence/experience thing). The segue from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Raised By Wolves” to “Until the End of the World” is wholly scripted, with technology and choreography and everything planned down to the second, but it’s completely *present* and some of the most intense moments I’ve witnessed in a rock show. The three songs flow from one to the next; as SBS ends Bono’s singing “I can’t believe the news today” over and over, there’s an audio montage that sounds like going from one radio station to another with snippets of news about a car bomb and other radio snippets from the same moment, and Larry’s standing in the middle of the bridge with a single drum, alone and perfectly still, ringing out single ominous drumbeats.

And then BOOM – the big screen flashes white and there’s an explosion sound that shakes you to your core and ricochets around the arena like a Star Wars explosion in a surround-sound theater. I’ve not heard anything quite like it on this big a scale – it’s just a moment, but it’s quite a feat of audio, really. Made the hairs on my arms stand up. And then “Raised By Wolves” which isn’t my favorite on the album but in this show it is ferocious and sinister and chilling. It ends with Bono on his knees muttering parts of the 23rd Psalm, then muttering “comfort me” and finally screaming, “COMFORT ME” – it’s so intense I get goosebumps just thinking back on it. And then “Until the End of the World” which is whirling and apocalyptic and … just everything, everything. I’m not sure I have ever felt so *immersed* in a rock show before, not even Springsteen at his most emotionally riveting.

There’s a tiny intermission at that point, which I’d heard about and thought it was weird but you know what, after that three-pack I kind of needed to sit down and breathe for a minute! There’s a video on the big screen, animated, Johnny Cash singing “The Wanderer.” It only lasts about four or five minutes, during which time crew members scurry around the smaller stage setting up a drum kit and other equipment. Then the next couple of songs have the band playing actually *inside* the big screen, with animation enhancing them – turns out the screen is actually a cage of sorts, with the lights and animation and whatnot being projected on a closely woven mesh and not a solid “screen” really at all. It’s quite ingenious actually. You kinda have to see it. Then they troop out of the screen, still playing, and all four take up residence on the smaller stage for a few songs.

I’m a big fan of the Edge, and I gotta say, it was incredibly fun to be that close to him to witness firsthand his “Mysterious Ways” dancing/playing. And “Elevation”! That was one of my favorite songs from either night – again, the recorded version is not necessarily one of my favorite U2 songs, but the energy was just off the charts with the audience singing and dancing along. It wasn’t exactly like being in a small sweaty rock club with the band, but it was about as close as you can get in a 20,000 person arena. So, so fun.

The rest of the show was loaded with the big hits, played well, with cool lighting and screen effects. “Pride” sounded amazing, as did “Beautiful Day” and “City of Blinding Lights.” And “Where the Streets Have No Name” basically never fails, does it? So great. I left the arena afterwards feeling washed clean, feeling bigger and bolder and ready to take on the world. If a rock show does that, it is without question a success in my book.

U2 on the

not quite like a sweaty rock club, but I’ll take it

Intermezzo: Doing the Ticket Shuffle

Thursday I enjoyed some downtime walking around the Lincoln Park neighborhood near my hotel. (Did you know there’s a diner in Lincoln Park called “The Edge”? Yup. Right around the corner from my hotel, open 24 hours, and it’s nothing super special but you can get breakfast all day, and at lunchtime on Thursday it was quiet enough that I didn’t feel bad about taking up a table for a couple of hours so I could have a leisurely meal and write in my journal for a while.)

I thought about how close I’d been to the “e” stage the night before, and I thought about my ticket for that night, waaaaaaay up in the rafters. I’ve had this feeling before: after being so close to the band, how can I bear to be so far away? Yes, I’d like to see the big screen, but… ugh. I decided that there were probably some seats in the sections to the left and right of mine that would still be close to the “e” stage but would be at an angle where you could generally see the screen. Oddly, those weren’t tier-1 pricing seats, like my behind-stage seat they were tier-2; for months I’d been looking at available seats and just could never bring myself to buy the most expensive (non-Red Zone) tickets, which were nearly $300. Just couldn’t do that, nor could I bring myself to pay a scalper much above face value. But if one of these would pop up…

I kept poking at Ticketmaster and StubHub all day, just in case. And around 3 pm, lo and behold, there appears a single ticket in the section just to the left of where I’d been. In the third row. I knew there was very little chance I could sell my single seat in the rafters that late in the game, and I decided to splurge anyway. Section 107, row 3, here I come. When I do something crazy like this – like the very expensive last-minute ticket I picked up for Paul McCartney a while back – I can tell if I’ve done the right thing because I kind of start dancing. At least in my head. And that was happening. So.

Got to the arena with a little more time to spare than the first night and found my seat, which was in the middle of the row, next to a rather large man who was eating something quite … er … aromatic. He asked me, a bit crankily, if I was going to be screaming the whole time. “Probably,” I said. Then my neighbor on the other side sat down – a middle-aged woman, with her husband in the aisle seat on her other side – and proceeded to start coughing like she had bronchitis, and asking her husband if he knew whether there was going to be an opening act. I guessed that they might not take too kindly to my “screaming the whole time” either. And directly in front of me, a fairly tall man. Greeeeeat. I was starting to think I was going to regret my last-minute ticket purchase and maybe I should just leave and go up to my original seat in the rafters.

Next to the tall man in front of me was a young mother, in the second-row aisle seat, with her daughter who was probably around six or seven. Super cute kid. And, well. As the lights went down and “People Have the Power” started to play, the young mother realized that the front-row seats in front of her were vacant, and she & her daughter upgraded themselves. I gave it about a half-second’s thought before I slipped down into the second-row aisle seat she’d been in. Tapped her on the shoulder and promised to give her her seat back if she got kicked out of the front row by the rightful ticket holders. And we shared a moment of joy at our suddenly-improved seating luck. I could indeed see the screen, and I was still really close to the “e” stage, and I was behind short people and could see both stages perfectly, and all of a sudden I was very much in my happy place. Yeah!

Night 2 Notes: You Look So Beautiful Tonight

A very similar setlist to night 1 in most respects – the first set featured “Out of Control” in the “Electric Co.” slot, and the second set had a little more variation. Emotionally and musically, still basically the same show. Bono’s voice was decidedly rougher Thursday night – I’ve since heard that the poor guy had bronchitis, which isn’t fun for anyone, much less a singer! By the last song, “One,” he’d pretty much given up singing; he took maybe half a verse and the audience was happy to help out by collectively taking on the rest.

Despite an ailing frontman, I thought the show still had great energy and resonance. The three-pack that closes the first set seemed to have a little less intensity and impact than on night 1, but it’s hard to say, since night 1 also had the “first time I’ve witnessed this” sheen for me. It was really really lovely to get “Bad” towards the end of the second set; despite a rough vocal, it’s one of my absolute favorite U2 songs and I was excited about it.

The middle bit of this show was the highlight for me, most definitely. I was, as I mentioned, in the aisle seat in the second row of one of the sections to the rear of the “e” stage. I was wearing an Amnesty International t-shirt, and that’s one of the band’s pet causes, so I was hoping I might get a nod of approval from someone at some point. (It says “Fighting Bad Guys Since 1961” – which, since I was born in 1961, is so perfect.) I was also directly behind an attractive young woman and her adorable small daughter, as you’ll recall. For at least one of those reasons, and perhaps a combination of all of them (with the added special sauce of me dancing and singing like a giddy maniac), the Edge spotted our little section during “Mysterious Ways” and grinned at us. So that was fun. Then during “Angel of Harlem” he zeroed in on us, stood right in front of us and played directly to us, smiling, for what felt like ages. (I timed it on someone’s YouTube video. It was actually about a minute. Time does funny things sometimes.) “Angel” was never one of my favorite U2 songs, but it’s now taken up residence in my head as this fantastic memory.

For me, there are few nicer moments during a rock show than feeling absolutely joyfully immersed in the music, making eye contact with one of the musicians, knowing that they see how much you’re loving what they are doing, feeling like they’re happy to be there too. In the best of those moments, this exchange of energy happens and it’s a pure and beautiful thing. I can only guess at how it feels for the performer; different, I’m sure, but I bet they love those moments too.

I really loved watching Edge both nights. As a (semi-lapsed, I guess) guitarist, I was fascinated by watching his technique. There were times when he was playing really fast but his hands were so, so quiet – just pure economy of motion that allowed him to play both super fast and super clean. He seems totally centered as he plays, and moves around the stage so gracefully. (Which is why it’s pretty funny that he managed to fall off the stage during one of the early shows on the tour. He wasn’t hurt, but I don’t think Bono is ever going to let him live it down. “Some people have fallen off of this stage, you know,” he said on one of the nights. “But when the Edge falls off stage, it’s like throwing a cat off a wall – he always lands on his feet.”)

Later on during the show, he comes back to the “e” stage for part of “City of Blinding Lights” – the “oh you look so beautiful tonight” part. He’s standing there in the middle of the stage, singing his harmony on that line, and the audience is circled around him, singing it back to him, pointing at him. That was a really shiny, fun moment too. And eye contact, AGAIN. Oh hello there, Mr. The Edge. I feel like we’re almost getting to be friends now. Hee!

The Edge on stage with guitar

Oh, you look…

Oh, the screen! I could see the screen, which I hadn’t been able to the night before. And it is an amazing amazing piece of work. There are times when the band is performing inside the screen and the images on the screen part to reveal them. There’s a moment when the Edge is playing inside the screen and Bono is over on the “e” stage, and Bono reaches out his hand and the giant electronic Bono being broadcast on the screen suddenly has the tiny-by-comparison, real human Edge dancing in the palm of his hand. So many other neat moments on that screen that I won’t spoil for my friends who have yet to see the show. Whoever designed it should get some kind of an award, because it’s very, very well done. I’m usually anti-high-tech for rock shows, you know? I like them gritty, sweaty, human without too much fancy lighting or theatrical effects. But somehow, this band and this show manage to make it work so that it enhances the music and the narrative created by the music. WELL DONE.

“Well done” by the audience too, which sang along with great enthusiasm, especially on the big 1980s hits. My favorite had to be “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which you can just scream along to for days and when the whole arena is doing it, it’s just miraculously loud and joyous. And given recent events in this country, that song was especially resonant for a lot of us, I think. And (I know I’m jumping around a bit here), how about that bass line on “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Freaking incredible at that volume. Both nights, I had to sit down for a moment and just let that tremendous roar rumble through me. I cannot say enough good things about the U2 rhythm section. Adam Clayton – does anyone have more fun playing rockstar while playing propulsive, just-funky-enough bass lines? And Larry Mullen Jr. – for a guy who verges on scrawny, he certainly makes that drum kit thunder. His work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was a particular joy to behold. What a powerful heartbeat those two create.

Lastly, a word about “Every Breaking Wave.” I fell head over heels in love with this song when I heard bootlegs of early versions of it on the 360 tour. When I first heard the full band version on “Songs of Innocence” I felt like it had lost something, that it was maybe over-arranged, although I’ve grown to love that version too. On the i+e tour, there’s a piano that literally rises out of the “e” stage for just this one song, and the arrangement is simple – just the Edge on piano and Bono singing. It’s really lovely, and yet I feel like this song (which I still adore, in whatever form it takes) hasn’t found its best arrangement yet. To my ear, it’s still missing something. I’ll be interested to see how (if) it evolves over time.

Aftermath: a moment of surrender

The day after my two shows started out bleary and half-awake (because who can go to sleep within a few hours of so much energy?? so I was up late) – and became a flurry of excitement about five minutes after I sat down in the hotel breakfast room only to find out that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of marriage equality. It’s a bit surreal finding out news like that before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee. I spent the day doing a little sightseeing, then decamped to a good friend’s apartment and had dinner with four friends I don’t see nearly often enough. So fun, and so good for my heart and soul.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, lots of sun, low humidity – also a bit surreal after a very rainy stretch. I hit the road for the drive home and managed NOT to take any wrong turns in Gary, for once. At my first rest stop I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the world and found out about Bree Newsome committing a beautiful act of civil disobedience and taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

A bit later, I was blasting a bootleg from an earlier show on this U2 tour (I know I definitely liked a concert if two days later all I want to listen to is that same band, preferably live, preferably recent). Bono’s been singing a bit of “The Hands that Built America” at the beginning of “Pride” on this tour, and it’s (I know I keep using this word) lovely; when the opening notes of “Pride” rang out on the boot I turned it WAY up, blasting down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs. “In the name of love! What more in the name of love?”

And then “Beautiful Day” – at the line “after the flood, all the colors came out” I just started weeping. I was picturing the photos I’d seen of the White House and other landmarks, not to mention the Facebook profile photos of many of my friends, all lit up in rainbow lights to celebrate marriage equality. Who’d have thought I would see this in my lifetime? There is still a lot of work – a LOT of work – left to be done. But what a moment, all the same, you know?

I was picturing Bree Newsome up on that flagpole, taking down that symbol of the past, knowing she would probably be arrested and the flag would probably be put back up – but also knowing that her act would help millions of people take heart and find the courage to take some action of their own. I was thinking about how heroes are just brave, crazy, ordinary humans who are willing to be seen.

And I was thinking about how, at those two rock shows, all the technology was fantastic and yet what was I over the moon about? A minute of joyous eye contact exchanged with the guitarist. The pure ringing sound created by human fingers against steel strings, amplified a millionfold to become a clarion call. I thought about what it means to be human, what it means to put yourself out there, what it means to acknowledge the tension (a tension essential for both activism and rock & roll) between the need for independence and individuality and the longing for community, acceptance, love.

After the flood, all the colors came out. It was a beautiful day.

Driving down the highway, weeping so freely I had to pull over and get myself together before I could go on. Everything was just washing over me in a great flood, and I couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to stop it. My heart felt open and my eyes felt open and I was holding so much gratitude for everything that is good in this world. And that’s a lot.

Oh! You look SO BEAUTIFUL tonight… you look so beautiful, rock & roll. You look so beautiful, those precious nights when you catch yourself fully living in the moment. You look so beautiful, humans who push themselves to the limit of what they are afraid of doing, what they need to do. Humans who take risks like pulling down symbols that hurt the people they love. Like singing for all you’re worth whether you are a rock star with bronchitis or a middle-aged lady in the middle of a crowd. Like facing headlong the breaking and the broken places in your heart, and making art out of them, and using that to bring people together somehow. You look so beautiful, humans who hurt each other and love each other and fight with and for each other. You look so beautiful tonight.

Thank you, U2. I needed that.

Chicago 1 setlist | Chicago 2 setlist

Crappy cellphone photos by Anne Haines; videos as credited on YouTube

3 Comments

Filed under music, reviews

Back to Basics: Notes on content strategy, reference librarianship, and my Confab talk

hainesTo say that I am thrilled to be presenting a talk at Confab Central this coming May would be a hu-freaking-mongous understatement. Confab is THE conference on content strategy, and it’s a ridiculously great experience. The first year I attended (2013), I arrived in Minneapolis as a newbie with a strong interest in content strategy and a desire to learn more; I left feeling confident in saying that I am a content strategist. It’s a conference full of presentations that make me think and teach me new things, impeccably organized by smart, friendly people who think of every detail to make sure attendees can use all their energy on learning and connecting rather than having to stress out about logistics, and it fosters a lovely community of content strategists that has been an amazing resource for me throughout the year.

So you’ll understand why, when I submitted a talk proposal and got the email that it had been accepted, I literally sat at my desk staring at the email with my hand over my mouth for a good two or three minutes. I felt like I’d just been given a ticket to Cinderella’s ball or some such. It was incredibly flattering to think I might have something smart enough to say in that setting.

Then I realized I actually had to, um, write the damn thing. (And then get up in front of people and present it, but we’re just not going to talk about that part right now. LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU)

My talk is titled “If She Knew What She Wants: Librarian mind-reading tricks for fun and profit.” (That link will take you to a short summary of the thing on Confab’s website.) It’s something I’ve been chewing on for a couple of years. A lot of content strategy work is all about communicating with our clients, stakeholders, colleagues, and so on. And a lot of that communication revolves around problem-solving, in one form or another.

The first step in working with someone to solve a problem is to make sure you both know what that problem actually IS. Right? This is also what happens in reference librarianship. A patron will come to the ref desk (or get on your “Ask a Librarian” chat, or email you, or whatever) with a question, and part of what you have to do is figure out what it is they really want to know. I mean, if they start out by saying, “I’m looking for a book” – grabbing a random book off the shelf and handing it to them isn’t the answer they want! Okay, that’s a little extreme; that’s like someone asking “Do you know what time it is?” and answering “Yes.” (I know you do that. Smartass.) In that case, you know good and well that there’s more to the question. More complicated questions work pretty much the same way. Except more complicated.

And that’s a lot like what happens in content strategy. If a potential client contacts you and says “Hey, I need some content for my new website” – you can’t just send them a dozen random PDFs and an invoice and call it good. Right? (Except again, usually, more complicated.) There are times when someone needs stuff from you, and unless you figure out how to work together with them to figure out what it is they really need and what you can do to fill that need, you’re screwed. My theory is that the reference interview techniques that librarians have developed over the past 50-75 years or so will actually be helpful to content strategists who are working with stakeholders who need their problems solved.

So I’m working on the talk. (Except when I think, hey, let’s write a blog post. Um, procrastination much?) And in the information gathering stage, I’ve gone back to read some of the basic writings about reference librarianship, in particular the reference interview. A lot of this is stuff I read back in library school, 15 years ago or so, before I had any reference experience whatsoever. I’m reading Robert Taylor on question negotiation, Dervin & Dewdney on neutral questioning, and so on – also some newer work that’s come out since I was in library school (oddly, in school I didn’t read much about how reference interview techniques might or might not apply in a chat-reference situation – since, you know, such things didn’t really exist back then!). I’m also going back to a few of the basic content strategy texts – Halvorson, Kissane, people like that – to see what they’ve said about communicating with stakeholders, and to sort of check myself to make sure what I’m talking about really DOES apply to this kind of work.

It is so, so interesting to go back to the basics of something when you’ve been actually doing that thing for a while! Some of the literature on reference work that seemed really dry and theoretical before makes SO MUCH SENSE now. Turns out, I must have really paid attention to Dervin & Dewdney in library school, because neutral questioning (which some writers have redubbed “sense-making questions”) is something I do all the freakin’ time now.

And not just when I’m at the reference desk. Woe betide the Facebook friend who posts something like “hey, can anybody recommend a good restaurant in Bloomington?” because I will inevitably come back with questions like “hey, what kind of restaurant are you looking for? what kind of meal do you want? what’s the occasion?” I mean, I need to know stuff like that! Otherwise I’m going to send them to the downtown Bakehouse (which is where I’m sitting right now to eat a veggie burger and a lemon cupcake and to write this post) without realizing that what they want is a place for a kinda-fancy, but not necessarily pretentiously-so, place for a celebratory anniversary dinner. In which case, maybe go a couple blocks away and try FARMbloomington.

And then other Facebook friends will chime in with their recommendations, and it drives me crazy because they so often just say “Oh, go to the Uptown, because I really like it.” I want to know why they’re recommending it, what it is they like about it – otherwise, how do I know whether it’s a useful recommendation for me or not? If you tell me to go to Janko’s Little Zagreb, I might want to know you’re suggesting it because their steaks are amazing – if I’m a vegetarian, that recommendation is not worth much to me. (So yeah. If you’re asking for restaurant recommendations, you should probably mention if you’re a vegetarian. Or incredibly broke. Or celebrating your wedding anniversary. See how it works?)

On Facebook, somebody might well be asking a question like that just to amuse themselves, or to compile the canonical list of Bloomington restaurants liked by their friends. But if you’re working as a reference librarian or a content strategist, people aren’t usually just asking you questions to kill time. They’re asking because there’s a problem they are trying to solve, a task they want to accomplish, something they want to do or create or make happen. And your job is to figure out what that is before you try to give them an answer. Kind of like how, when you’re creating a website, you aren’t just putting content there for the heck of it – you need to figure out who your users are and what it is they need to be able to do, and then you can figure out what content to put there. (Why, yes, I do think there is a huge overlap between how you need to think in order to do user experience work and how you need to think in order to be a reference librarian.)

Anyway, that was all a little circuitous. But I am having a lot of fun revisiting some of the library literature, and thinking about how some of it applies very nicely to the non-librarian world, specifically content strategy. In the back of my mind I’m chewing on the possibility that both reference librarianship and content strategy offer tactics and strategies that are helpful in the much larger context of problem-solving in general. At least, when the problem-solving involves dealing with other human beings, which I think a lot of problems do. (People. Such troublemakers!)

By the way, if you wrangle web content in any way, I cannot possibly say enough good things about Confab. You should go. You really should. It’s not cheap (tip: if you enter the discount code HAINES2015 when you register, you can get a discount equivalent to the early-bird rate that you missed out on a while back), but if you can get your workplace to splurge a little, it is so so worth it. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that they feed you really well. Breakfast, lunch, and all the snacks you could possibly stuff into your mouth between sessions – and we’re not talking stale muffins or rubber chicken either, the food is always super great!) For a much better-articulated post describing what’s so great about it, go visit Jonathan Colman’s blog post on “Why You Should Go to Confab.” And hey, if you go, you can hear me speak a little more coherently (I hope!) about the reference-content-strategy-problem-solving-hoo-ha stuff I’ve rambled on about so ramblingly today.

If I ever get the dang talk finished, that is. Time to get back to work! See you in Minneapolis?

Leave a comment

Filed under content strategy, librarianship