Friday, December 31, 2010

My Annus Horribilis

In many ways, the high point of my year happened as late as Wednesday, December 29, because it was on that date that I fully unloaded my toiletry kit. You see, I became separated from my wife in mid-July. She told me, “Either you leave or the kids and I will leave.” Not wanting to displace my two wonderful girls, I left. And for the next five months I served varying tenures in friends’ guest rooms and couches. There are many tales to be told by unpacking that one simple sentence, but suffice to say that I was taken in by good and generous friends, who enabled me to have a roof over my head at night and a hot shower in the morning.

I essentially lived out of a Rubbermaid container during that time, carrying a seasonal selection of my wardrobe along with my toiletry bag wherever I was staying. I was home often to spend time with my kids and was able to replenish, replace, and launder my clothing. But I had never fully unpacked my toiletry bag. I took out my toothbrush and toothpaste, my shaving cream and razor, my comb, cotton swabs, and deodorant as I used them, but they always went right back in the bag.

Ultimately, I reached a point where I had exhausted my supply of free beds and couches to sleep on, and despite the fact that I could ill afford an apartment in greater Boston while also still responsible for all the expenses associated with the home I was no longer welcome to live in, I realized I had to find my own apartment. I needed the stability and certainty of knowing I had a place to go, and I needed my own space – needed to reclaim my right to privacy. So I started looking.

I looked at standalone units, rooms to let, ad shared situations, until finally I found a two-room studio three miles from my house, reasonable rent, all utilities included. I spent my first night here on Wednesday, December 29 and while I had no furniture (I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor), I went into the bathroom and, after a good scrubbing of all the surfaces, unpacked my toiletry bag.

It seemed not to be a big deal until I actually did it. And then it occurred to me that I was holding an empty toiletry bag that I had to store, as opposed to carry around with me. My deodorant had its own place where it wasn’t in anyone’s way and didn’t have to be moved or removed. Unexpectedly, emptying my toiletry bag became a new definition of “Home” for me.

And so it is that as 2010 ends, I chart a new beginning – uncertain, as all new beginnings are, but with some hope. This has been, after all, my annus horribilis: my horrible year. It was a year that found me squirming whenever a friend’s Facebook status included the phrase “Life is good.” You’d be surprised how many times that phrase is used in people’s Facebook status updates. I’m glad that my friends’ lives are good, don’t get me wrong, but that is a phrase I have never had occasion to use. I don’t even know what it would feel like to put that out there. For me, life is often slow torture. It’s often hopeless. It sometimes even feels futile. There are good moments in my life, but they are snapshots, frozen in time, with no sustaining resonance. A fun time with friends or my children lasts only until the next fight with my wife or phone call from a creditor.

In a year like this, acts of kindness and generosity stand out like a beacon in the storm. I have been very fortunate. At my job, the people I work for and with have been very understanding and sympathetic. I often gets calls or emails from friends and family “just checking in” to see how I’m doing. Those friends who gave me shelter obviously have had an impact. I’ve been taken to dinner, had drinks bought for me, and gotten far more free advice than I ever could have afforded and know I never can repay. It has been made very clear to me who my friends are, how many I have, how wonderful they are, and how lost I’d be without them. Following a holiday season when I received no presents, facing a New Year’s Eve when I will share no midnight kiss, it is clear that they were the gifts and blessings I needed most and am so grateful to have gotten.

One gift that I know awaits me at some point in 2011 is my divorce. It will be bittersweet, I’m sure, but that legal act will finally cut the tether that has kept me moored to the ground. At this point, after this year, I feel there’s no place for me to go but up. And while January 1, 2011, is in many ways just another square on a man-made instrument for demarcating time, for me it is a sloughing off of dead skin, a rebirth of sorts, or at least a chance for positive change.

So may it be for me, so may it be for all of us.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Show of Hands

Many years ago, I came across a quote that I found very interesting. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it since, even on the semi-reliable Internet (see my previous post on the dangers of Googling quotes). But I remember it pretty well. It went more or less like this: “I knew I had become a man when I looked down and saw at the end of my arms my father’s hands.” I liked the visual impression I got from this quote, of a man, a young man, who one day realizes that his hands have grown to resemble those of his father. A father’s hands, traditionally if not stereotypically, are large and strong, the palms rough with work, the fingers thick like cigars, black hairs growing around the knuckles, yet somehow the encouraging pats stay longer in the memory than the angry spankings.

My own father’s hands are like that. Not huge, but slab-fingered, and with clean, perfectly shaped nails. Yet when I look down past my wrists, it’s not my father’s hands I see but my mother’s. They are smallish for my height, my pinkies narrow for a man (to my perspective, anyway), my thumbs almost hourglass-shaped (“Wallins thumbs,” my mother would say, referring to a genetic characteristic of one side of her family). My hands looks and feel fairly dainty. Too hairy to be a woman’s hands, but not the romantic ideal of a man’s hands. They are bigger than my mother’s, but far from being fists of steel.

My parents knew an artist, the Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom. I met him a couple of times and found him to be a quiet, quirky person. But I’ll never forget what my mother once said about him, that he had beautiful hands, an artist’s hands. I tried to remember what his hands looked like. I recalled that his fingers were long and thin, feminine even. Was that the ideal for an artist?

After graduating from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for Girls in Dorchester – the same high school Donna Summer later went to (by then it was co-ed) – where she did so poorly in math that she was encouraged to take art classes instead of continuing to waste the math teacher’s time, my mother went to the Massachusetts College of Art. All through her life, until she became ill with a neurological disorder that made it difficult and then impossible for her to use her hands, she would doodle her art school exercises on scrap paper, making ovals and drawing this same female figure with a tiny waist, pursed mouth, and fluffy hair. She never worked as a professional artist but she did paint professionally. She practiced an art now nearly dead, that of coloring black-and-white photographs with oil paints.

She worked for a photographer who would take the portraits and if the client wanted them colored, he gave my mother the prints and the coloring requests. She set up a tiny studio in what had been a bathroom on the first floor of our house. I used to love watching her because she painted in a way I’d never seen anyone paint before. She had rolls of cotton and boxes of toothpicks. She would tear off small bits of the cotton and twist them tightly around one end of a toothpick, making a delicate cotton swab that she used to convey precise details, such as the white dot of light in a person’s iris.

She would mix the oils in just the right combinations, then apply the colors to the print and wipe them with a cotton ball, leaving a sort of pastel tone that screamed the 1950s and 1960s. I would sometimes think she was being sloppy with the paint but they always looked perfect when she was done. She had done many of our own photos and they are treasured mementos of her skill. Once, she was at somebody’s house socially and saw their wedding photo on the wall. She was certain she had painted it years before; sure enough, when it was removed from its frame, my mother’s initials were on the back.

(This photo taken with my phone doesn’t provide a true sense for the shadings my mother applied to this portrait of me when I was maybe three years old, but lacking a scanner it’s the best I can do.)

I’ve lately been curious about this lost art of hand-coloring photographs. It was apparently quite the fad decades ago but is rarely seen today. In fact, just the mention of it seems to bring to mind the cheesy colorization of black-and-white movies that has to stand as Ted Turner’s most idiotic venture. But a well-done hand-colored photograph has a very real charm about it, and as black-and-white photography has been making a comeback, so perhaps will hand-coloring.

Searching the Internet, an unavoidable and often successful task, I found a number of people offering their hand-coloring services. One, a former professional illustrator named Mary Ann Erickson, had some useful information on her home page:

Hand-colored photos are, for the most part, a lost art form. The technique of painting on black and white photos originated back in the day before color photography existed and flourished for many years. When I was an illustrator in New York City during the 1970s-1990s this art form made a comeback as its own stylistic look. The development of amazing computer programs like Photoshop generally put an end to the art of painting directly on photographs.

I decided to write to her to ask if she had more information about the history of hand-coloring. Here is what she wrote to me:

Hi Jason
Thanks for getting in touch. I was an illustrator in NYC for a number of years and took up hand coloring because I knew a bunch of art directors who wanted that look - before Photoshop obviously! Basically hand coloring was used to tint photos before color photography was invented. Then it hung around as more of an artform and a look that was unique after that. I think it must have allowed the photographers to manipulate the images more than they could in the darkroom as well - sort of a retouching tool. Again, computers and Photoshop have changed everything, but I still think there's a place in the world for a beautifully colored photograph - they become paintings! Anything done digitally will have a quality of its own, but it never will be something that's been painted by hand.

The coloring on my mother’s portraits is quite a bit subtler and more natural than Ms. Erickson’s work, but I like how they both take the realism of objective photography to another level of visual intrigue. I didn’t ask Ms. Erickson what her hands looked like, but at the same time I wouldn’t describe my mother’s hands as “beautiful hands, an artist’s hands.” They were good at what they did, whether it was painting, cooking, or soothing. It was the heart and mind behind her hands that was important, and I guess that makes me feel better about my hands, too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Don't believe everything you read on the web - except for this post

Recently, I began writing an essay on the subject of immortality. Along the way from draft one to draft two, an interesting tangent announced itself willing to be sacrificed. Not wishing it to be lost forever, I am placing it here, though a little context is required.

Part of my argument on the subject of immortality is that while the ability to live physically for eternity may be impossible (I discuss reincarnation as a form of immortality; rather than a single uninterrupted, unending life, perhaps a series of discrete existences could also qualify), a person's life in memory - his words, deeds, and impact on his family, community, nation, and the world - can live on long after that physical life is quenched. Not surprisingly, I used Abraham Lincoln as an example.

To bolster my case, I looked up a number of Lincoln quotes I knew that I felt were pertinent. I also, as you'll read below, did a general Google search for "Lincoln" and "immortality" to see what I might find. As it turned out, I discovered just how unreliable Web searches could be. To wit:


The democratization of the gathering and dissemination of information, which is the ultimate outgrowth of the World Wide Web, often results in greater access but lesser accuracy. For example, there are many sites on the web that exist specifically as compendiums of quotes on a range of subjects. Speakers, writers, and owners of other web pages often scour these sites for appropriate pearls of wisdom, but there many quotes that are incorrectly sourced and misattributed – fake pearls, if you will. There is a tendency, however, to believe that something that has been published online must be accurate, but in fact there is no central standards body that is charged with ensuring that anything on the web is true.

Because it is so easy to copy, paste, and spread misinformation on the web, there are those who may be gaining a false immortality, or who may be getting credit for something they never said or did. Lincoln, again, provides an example. For this essay, I Googled “Lincoln” and “immortality.” I found thousands of results featuring the following quote, attributed to him:

“Surely God would not have created such a being as man … to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.”

In most instances, there was no attribution as to the specific date, letter, or speech in which this quote first appeared. That made me suspicious because Lincoln’s words have been so painstakingly documented by generations of historians. The only attribution I could find was that it was part of the text that Lincoln’s animatronic double spoke in the old Walt Disney World exhibit, “The Hall of Presidents.” While many of Lincoln’s lines are authentic (the full original script has been transcribed at, the particular quote in question, which dramatically concludes the presentation, doesn’t “feel” like Lincoln, and the knowledge that Disney was involved further casts doubt on its accuracy.

Finally, I consulted the acknowledged official source of Lincoln’s words, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (a searchable online version of which appears at I searched the word “immortality” and only two results were delivered (italics mine):

Eulogy of Henry Clay, July 6, 1852: “And in our last internal discord, when this Union trembled to its center—in old age, he left the shades of private life and gave the death blow to fraternal strife, with the vigor of his earlier years in a series of Senatorial efforts, which in themselves would bring immortality, by challenging comparison with the efforts of any statesman in any age.”

Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, February 11, 1859: “As Plato had for the immortality of the soul, so Young America has ‘a pleasing hope—a fond desire—a longing after’ territory.”

This leads me to conclude that Lincoln himself, the Lincoln who actually lived as opposed to the robotic tourist attraction that may in our world be the ultimate price of immortality, never did say – and probably didn’t believe – that “man was created for immortality,” even though the consensus of the online world is that he did.


Given what I discovered, I would caution anyone doing a web search for quotes to be very careful and check offline sources for confirmation that the quote is accurately stated and attributed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jim Nabors, Carl Yastrzemski, Abraham Lincoln, and Me

I am a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox, yet I was only four years old during their magical 1967 season, when they competed through to the seventh game of the World Series after having finished the previous season in last place. Therefore, I have no first-hand memories of the team nicknamed the Cardiac Kids, or their remarkable season, dubbed the Impossible Dream. Yet as I came of age and followed the team more closely, my hero became Carl Yastrzemski, who had the most incredible year in that most improbable season. Leading the major league in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average, he remains 43 years later the last player to win the Triple Crown.

But the crux of this story begins closer to the time of the Impossible Dream, and at its core is the song of the same name, which was the show-stopper of Man of La Mancha, the musical version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I suppose it makes sense to go back briefly to the very beginning. By chance, I was born on February 12, 1963 – the 154th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. My family made a rather big deal over this coincidence, as if it were a positive omen of some kind. Perhaps no relative of mine was more instrumental in drumming the connection into my psyche than my Uncle Arnold, a teacher who shared a birthday with the far less notable Millard Fillmore. He would grill me on the Gettysburg Address, asking me to correct his intentional mistakes (“Four score and 11 years ago,” “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or subtract.”).

So, suffice to say, I quickly became, and remain to this day, a certifiable Lincoln nut. Fast forward to 1967. Shortly after the unhappy conclusion of the World Series – which the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals (though they finally got their revenge in 2004) – on November 3, to be exact, a new episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. aired. It was episode number 99 of the series, which was in its fourth season. The episode was titled “The Show Must Go On.” In it, the cast is in Washington, DC, to perform a show. Gomer (played by Jim Nabors) is supposed to sing but he develops severe stage fright and loses his voice. Sgt. Carter, naturally, loses his temper. Gomer walks distraught through the nation’s capital, eventually finding himself at the Lincoln Memorial. He enters and striking close-ups of the Lincoln statue are shown. Gomer walks to the left, where, carved into the marble wall, are the words of the Gettysburg Address. He begins to read them in a raspy voice, which gradually – magically – begins to regain its full strength and sonority. He is cured at Lincoln Lourdes! The show does indeed go on, and Gomer performs – what else? – “The Impossible Dream” (a big hit in real life for Nabors).

As I was too young to experience the 1967 Red Sox season first hand, I was also unable to experience first-run episodes of Gomer Pyle. However, I know I was still of single-digit age when I first watched the episode in re-runs. I was transfixed. Around that time, maybe later, I got an album with broadcast highlights of the Red Sox’ 1967 season. It was titled The Impossible Dream and featured an instrumental arrangement of the tune, along with a groovy little ditty about my hero’s heroics that year, called “Yaz Song.”

Thanks to photographic evidence, I know that I first visited Washington, DC in 1971, when I was eight years old. I recall clearly how I felt ascending the seemingly endless stairs leading to the temple. My heart was beating wildly. I was somewhat fearful of seeing the huge statue up close. I must have seen the episode of Gomer Pyle by then, for I was in awe of its apparent power. My father took a photograph of me looking up at the statue. My face is not seen but it is not unreasonable to assume that my mouth was fully agape. I have returned to the Memorial several times since then, most recently in 2005, when I took a photograph of my oldest daughter – then-eight, like me when I first visited DC – melodramatically recreating my pose from 34 years before.

Just about everyone who knows me well knows that I’m a Lincoln nut and that Yaz is my all-time #1 sports hero. In fact, I hope to meet Yaz next week when he does a public signing. But there are not many people who know that I have Jim Nabors on my iPod. Fewer would even care to know the reason why. I don’t mind. I know Jim Nabors is not what you might call hip. But I can’t help it. To this day, when I hear him singing that song, I truly feel like I can reach the unreachable star.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tales From Typographic Oceans

My first job out of college was doing public relations for a producer of computer industry trade shows. I was there for two years and got to visit Atlanta and Las Vegas multiple times, as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tampa. But I wasn’t all that interested in the computer industry and so I left in search of new opportunities. After 10 months without a job, I was ready to do just about anything. During this span of time being unemployed, I was devastated by the end of a four-year relationship and I met the woman I would eventually marry and divorce.

It was at that point (1988) that I got hired by a company called Bitstream, which was the first independent digital typefoundry. What that means is that they made digital fonts that anyone can use on any computer or printer. That seems obvious now, but back then it was a matter of a U.S. patent for an artificial intelligence-based scaling technology, while a package of four typefaces (usually the roman, italic, bold, and bold italic of a single design) sold at retail for $200.

This was when the term WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) was in vogue; it meant that the type you saw on your screen looked very much like the type on the document you printed. Again, we take that for granted today, but back then it was pretty exciting. That capability and the democratization of type (meaning it was no longer the exclusive domain of professional printers and publishers) led to the emergence of desktop publishing.

As part of Bitstream’s marketing communications team, I had to know how to use this stuff and when I realized how easy it was to make a pretty professional-looking document I realized I could do something I’d long thought of doing: publishing my own music newsletter.

The reason I wanted to do a music newsletter is because I’ve always loved talking about music. I was sort of expert in various groups and genres, was always an avid liner note reader who could make connections between producers and studios, and loved comparing and contrasting different musicians and albums. My friends and I were all like this, and I thought it would be cool to create a vehicle that would broaden the discussion among like-minded people across the country.

At the time, I was a subscriber to a Todd Rundgren fanzine, which was well-done in terms of content (having had the cooperation of Rundgren’s management) but hard on the eyes. I wanted to do something that looked nicer and hoped that the content would work itself out. But first I had to figure out what group or genre I wanted the newsletter (personally I despise the term fanzine) to focus on. It didn’t take all that long, as I pretty much knew I wanted to talk about progressive rock, that cerebral form of music that grew out of late-‘60s psychedelia and whose heyday lasted until the backlash of mid- to late-‘70s punk and new wave.

The latter styles brought rock music back to the basics after the progressives blended classical motifs and impressionistic lyrics in a complex stew of unusual time signatures, expansive instrumentation (multiple keyboards, mellotrons and moogs, double-necked guitars, and Taurus bass pedals were standard, and flute, violin, cello, and vibraphone were in some groups’ arsenals as well), side-long songs (one album by Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans, was a two-record set with only four songs, while Jethro Tull and Nektar both put out albums where a single composition spanned both sides of a record), and the dreaded concept album.

Being so cerebral, progressive rock was a natural for prompting musical discussion. However, I thought for a while as to whether I wanted to key on my favorite progressive group, Gentle Giant, or the prog genre as a whole. Ultimately, I decided that Giant was too obscure (this was pre-Internet and I didn’t have a way to know just how many Giant fans there are in the world). Also, Giant ended in 1980 and few of its members were particularly active so it seemed like the content well would soon run dry. So I decided to focus on progressive rock, but I named the newsletter after a Gentle Giant composition, On Reflection.

To lay out the newsletter, I used a long-defunct application called PageMaker. I learned on the job how to design a publication, prepare images for printing, and amass content. I was lucky in that former Yes members had just announced out of the blue that they would be forming a new band with the law-firm name of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (Bruford had done even better work with two successive lineups of King Crimson after leaving Yes in 1972). So between that, a manifesto of what I wanted to accomplish with the newsletter, and a few album reviews, I had much of the first issue composed in fairly short order.

The next challenge was to promote it. I elected to start small with a single 1/16-page ad in Goldmine magazine, the primary publication of record collectors. From one ad I got numerous queries. I decided that I would send an issue to all respondents with an offer to subscribe. Over the next few issues, subscriptions grew and I was surprised to get subscribers from Europe and Japan. I don’t recall how many readers I had at the newsletter’s peak but it was well beyond my poor management and financial skills, and within a few short years On Reflection went belly up.

When all was said and done, On Reflection ran monthly from February 1989 to March 1992. Nineteen months later, I married a woman who despises progressive rock.

I was sad yet relieved that my venture had failed. The fact is, towards the end I was getting kind of sick of the genre, the problem being that I had been bound to focus on one style of music, listening to new recordings sent to me of neo-progressive bands who sounded just like 1973-era Genesis or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Though I was desperate to explore jazz and ethnic music more deeply, I felt constrained by the needs and expectations of my subscribers to maintain a narrow musical focus – ironic, given the expansive scope of the genre.

Yet in many ways it was a very positive experience for me. It was my first entrepreneurial venture, it gave me a chance to write about a subject I was passionate about, I met some interesting people, and I had the opportunity to interview a few prog musicians, including the lovely Annie Haslam from Renaissance (she began the phone interview by saying she had just stepped out of the shower, and I nearly fainted), the iconoclastic Daevid Allen from Gong, and the ambitious Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, who at the time was president of Atco Records and is still an industry executive and entrepreneur.

Today, I still enjoy progressive rock, and have even reviewed CDs for Progression magazine, which essentially is the reincarnation of On Reflection, it having risen from the ashes by a former subscriber with minor assistance from me in the beginning. However, I now have the freedom to listen to whatever I want whenever I want, so I certainly don’t miss those days spent traversing typographic oceans around the dark side of the moon, venturing close to the edge and lying down on Broadway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Matthew Carter and Me

Note: This is an expanded version of a piece I recently wrote for the AIGA Boston blog.

In a previous post from 2008, I wrote about how my rather humble profession of copywriting has enabled me to come face to face with some truly brilliant individuals, such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; and Robert Langer, a chemical engineer whose name is frequently bandied about in Nobel conversations. Some of the people I’ve been honored to meet, interview, or work with may be considered geniuses, but one just became a genius in fact: world-renowned type designer Matthew Carter, who was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as “the genius grant.”

Matthew was part of a small group of ambitious and visionary people who left Linotype to found Bitstream Inc. in 1981 as the world’s first independent digital type foundry. Prior to Bitstream, customers bought type from their equipment vendor. For example, Linotype fonts worked only on Linotype machines. Bitstream’s founders applied both actual and artificial intelligence in creating digital fonts that could work on any platform.

I worked at Bitstream from July 1988 to May 1992. It was, for me, a truly transformational experience. I entered a young public relations professional with just one prior job on my resume; I left an experienced copywriter with a sure sense of what I wanted to do in my career. I entered not knowing much at all about type; I left being able to identify the fonts on almost any restaurant menu. I entered not yet having met anyone in the working world I truly admired and who inspired me. I left knowing Matthew Carter.

My first year or so, I didn’t have much interaction with Matthew. He was just this imposing figure who strode slowly on his long legs, usually on the design floor, among the creatives. Tall, thin, with a proud, elegant face and long, straight silver hair – the only affectation being his ubiquitous ponytail – he spoke with a proper English accent and it seemed that if only he had a cape and a cane he could have sprung directly from literature.

It was when I became Bitstream’s copywriter (the company being entrepreneurial at the time, all I had to do was ask) that I started getting to know Matthew better. He would explain the particulars of different typefaces for me. I would interview him for articles that I had been assigned to ghost-write for him. I would prepare materials for events at which he was invited to speak. With every interaction, I came to respect his deep intelligence, to enjoy his warm and patient manner, and to revel in my good fortune that I could learn from a world-renowned master.

I recall one time when Matthew had been invited to address a group – perhaps the Type Directors Club – at a dinner; he would be giving the after-dinner remarks and in the invitation I was asked to write, I worded it just that way. When I gave the copy to Matthew to review, the only change he made was to cross out “after-dinner” and in its place he wrote “postprandial” – a word I’d never heard before. “What does postprandial mean?” I asked. “After dinner” was his nonjudgmental response. If you ever have the choice between being an English major or being English, I’d suggest you choose the latter.

My proudest moment came when the Marketing Communications department in which I worked was saddled with a hopelessly dull and creatively constrained advertising concept imposed on us by the Vice President of Marketing. No matter what we did with it, it was bland and uninspiring – as were the results. The VP decided she would take the advertising out of house. We were all pretty peeved about this, and I asked that we at least be given the chance to come up with something new ourselves. This was granted, and I proceeded to develop a series of ads promoting our typeface families, with headlines like “At Bitstream, the Futura Is Now”, as well as an image ad featuring a photo of Matthew and the headline, “Introducing Bitstream’s most important face.” The VP presented them in a meeting with the other execs, mentioned that I had created them, and later told me that Matthew responded to them by saying, “He’s a bit of a dark horse, isn’t he?”

The department kept the ad work.

I departed Bitstream voluntarily after having survived three layoffs. I went to a company that Bitstream’s VP of Sales had left for some months earlier. I was laid off after three months. I then spent a largely unsatisfying year as a communications specialist for a specialty chemical company, the only highlight being the opportunity to work with another brilliant person, the company’s chairman, Samuel Bodman, who had been the #2 guy at Fidelity and later served as U.S. Energy Secretary under George W. Bush, for whom I wrote speeches.

Needing to nurture my soul, I took a pay cut to work for public broadcasting powerhouse WGBH. I was there for four-and-a-half years. One night in the mid-1990s, WGBH was presenting an Ornette Coleman concert. I was excited to go and through a contact was able to procure comp tickets. In the lobby prior to the show, I saw a tall, slim, silver-haired man wearing cowboy boots. No question about it, it was Matthew Carter. Turns out he’s a big jazz fan, as if he didn’t have enough qualities to recommend him.

It was a good dozen years before I saw him again, on Friday, September 24, 2010, at Cambridge Public Library, when he became the sixth recipient of the AIGA Boston Fellow Award at a gala event. I am the chapter’s director of communications and had the honor of heading up the committee that organized that well-deserved recognition. It was a wonderfully successful evening, and four days later came the news that Matthew had won the MacArthur.

I don’t know when or whether ever I will see Matthew again, but I certainly hope I do and before long. His work so far precedes him that his mere presence is inspiring. Being around very smart or very talented people is like being around very beautiful people. It’s a given that you won’t quite measure up, but there’s a glow you receive from them that elicits a sense that you’re better off for having been in their orbit. I first sensed that with Matthew when I was 25; now that I am 47, I realize how fortunate I was, and how fortunate I still am that I have access to greatness to serve as inspiration and perhaps a measuring stick. I’ll never gain direct access to the rarified air that Matthew, Tim Berners-Lee, and the others occupy, but my front-row seats provide quite a nice view.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I haven't posted anything in a while as I've been consumed with other things, including recently being separated from my wife and kids (against my wishes), which I'm sure I'll write about when I feel like it. Until then, here's a piece of flash fiction I've been unsuccessfully shopping around. It's pure fiction but based on someone I went to college with whom I noticed frequently but, as you'll read, never knew.

by Jason M. Rubin

We called him Kegger. There were two reasons why we called him Kegger. The first was that we didn’t know his real name. The second was because he had some kind of physical disability that made him walk in a jerky fashion so that he looked like someone leaving a “kegger” (that is, a keg party). In other words, he walked like he was drunk, even though he wasn’t. We used to joke that when he was shitfaced, he probably walked perfectly.

He was a classmate of ours in college. That was almost 10 years ago. We didn’t know what his ailment was. It could have been something like muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, but to tell you the truth, I can’t distinguish among any of those diseases. He could have sustained a brain injury in an accident or maybe there was a problem with his birth, like the umbilical cord tied around his neck or something. It would have been so easy to get the answer…no, strike that. Even had I introduced myself to him at some point during our shared tenure in college and learned his name, I don’t think I would’ve had the nerve to ask him the nature of his disability. “So what’s with the funny walk: brain damage or incurable disease?” No, I don’t think so.

The strange thing is, ever since we graduated, I see him around the city every so often. Maybe once every other year. I went to a large state university and for all I know I’m constantly coming into contact with people from my class – but I wouldn’t know them from Adam because there’s nothing about them that distinguishes them in my mind. Not like Kegger. I’d know Kegger anywhere. It’s true, because I’ve seen him with and without a beard, and there’s no question it’s Kegger.

It’s kind of ironic, how someone whose name I don’t even know cannot be anonymous. Because not only did I used to stare at him walking across campus, I would notice other people staring at him, too. I’m sure lots of people recognize him because like me, they routinely stared at him. But it’s human nature, right? If an eight-foot-tall woman walked by, I would turn and stare. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s an unusual sight. You can’t judge a person for being curious. It’s a little different, though, with a person whose difference is somewhat more gruesome. For example, burn victims drive me crazy. You can’t help but stare but then you wish you hadn’t. The same thing with people missing limbs or digits, children with no hair, the morbidly obese. Compared to them, Kegger was no big deal. After all, he just walked funny.

One thing I always found odd was that not only did I not know him, but I didn’t know anyone who knew him or who knew anyone who knew him. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was a popular game when I was in college, but with Kegger, there were no degrees. There was just Kegger. Thinking of that makes me a little sad for him, but he must have had a roommate and that roommate must have had friends, so there has to be some number of people who can link themselves to Kegger. Looking at it this way, suddenly I’m the one who feels isolated. I mean, what does it say about my social network if I have no connection whatsoever to a guy I went to college with? Maybe I’m the one with an issue. Perhaps it’s me whose life is unfortunate.

I’ve been thinking this way for the last 24 hours because I saw Kegger again. Just yesterday. Only this time, I talked to him. Yes! After all these years, I finally got up the courage to speak to him. Although I can’t take all the credit for the courage because our encounter was somewhat unavoidable. It turns out he works at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and I was in to get a new license because my wallet had been stolen. (Yes, having my wallet stolen and all the bullshit I have to go through to cancel credit cards and change passwords and stuff would probably make for a better story, but I’m too pissed off to write about it. Again, Kegger is an easy mark for me.)

To be honest, when I walked up to his window and began dealing with him, I didn’t recognize him because he was sitting down. But then he had to go over to the printer and there it was. The walk. It was Kegger. No question about it. I smiled. Nothing to lose, I thought. So when he lumbered back to me, I introduced myself and said that we went to college together.

“I know,” he said. “I see you around town every so often.”

“You do?” I replied. (What the hell was so distinguishing about me?)

“Yeah,” he said. But he didn’t say anything else, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say to him. Then he handed me my license and called the next number.

I walked out of the building feeling very strange. Are any of us really anonymous? Though we walk with our heads down and text more than we talk, somehow we all notice each other and for some of us, there are certain characteristics you make note of and file away. As I made my way back to my office, I began to notice the way I walk. It’s funny, when you think about how you walk, when you really concentrate on your gait, you can’t walk right. The attention you pay to it messes you up. Maybe the attention I and others paid to Kegger messed him up somehow. I don’t think so, though. Old Kegger (I forgot to ask his name!), he doesn’t even have to think about it. He just walks.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How I Got This Way

To my knowledge, I was not genetically predisposed to being a music nut. My immediate family was not particularly musical: my sisters and I went through a variety of instruments, committing any number of crimes against humanity as we defiled the intentions of noble instrument makers, without ever mastering one. My grandfather Harry, though, he was another story. He possessed a magnificent bass-baritone voice and as a younger man performed in synagogue choirs, local operas, and even gave concerts.

In the early 1930s, he sang on a long-defunct Boston radio station under the less-ethnic name of Harry Robbins. A recording exists of three songs he cut at Ace Recording Studios, 120 Boylston Street in Boston, on October 27 and November 2, 1947: “Old Man River,” “Der Becher” (“The Cup”), and “Eibik” (“Eternity”). At his wedding in 1926, he sang a popular tune of the day called “Until” to his bride; he reprised it at each of his five children’s weddings and at least a couple of his grandchildren’s weddings as well.

His children, my father and his siblings, therefore grew up in a house filled with opera and lieder. None of them, however, seem to have gotten an ounce of his talent. I grew up with radio broadcasts of operas, from which I ran as fast as I could. I would not be influenced by my father’s music and instead took to rummaging through my older sister’s small stack of LPs and 45s. For the most part, this was a choice selection of early ‘70s pop and soft rock: Carpenters, Carole King, Three Dog Night, Bobby Sherman, and James Taylor.

Of course, I knew the Monkees from their TV show, which I loved and still do to this day. In fact, I’m still a huge Monkees fan and sincerely believe they belong in that abomination called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. True, they didn’t play their own instruments (most of the time) and didn’t write all their own material (though they did write a fair share of it, especially Mike Nesmith, who had at least a couple of songs on all their albums and whose solo material alone warrants significant hero worship), but guess what? Neither did the Temptations.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how much rock music I got from television in those days. It seems like most of the kids shows I watched had some interstitial musical segment that usually featured psychedelic visual effects – an odd introduction to acid culture to an eight-year-old audience. For example, one show I enjoyed a lot was called Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which featured a bunch of trained, costumed monkees – er, monkeys – doing Get Smart for kids not ready for the humor of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. In each episode, the chimps were decked out in Haight-Ashbury uniforms and toy instruments, and lip-synched (well, obviously) to some pop dreck as Lancelot Link & the Evolution Revolution.

Another rock animal act for kids was the Banana Splits, a group comprising four dudes dressed in dog, gorilla (hmm), lion, and elephant suits. According to Wikipedia, music for the Splits was composed by the likes of such legitimate talents as Al Kooper, Barry White, and Gene Pitney. Then, of course, there were the Archies, the Partridge Family, the Hardy Boys, and who can forget the episode of Gilligan’s Island when the Mosquitoes showed up for a little R&R? Even the Brady Bunch kids took time out from their incestuous offscreen hanky panky to sing “Sunshine Day.”

So despite my father’s contempt for rock music, there was no escaping it in my house. In time, I was buying my own records. Inspired by their Saturday morning cartoon series, I started getting records by the Jackson Five and the Osmonds (to this day I have an almost-complete collection of the works of the original Osmond Brothers, and still listen to them). But in no way did I exhibit the characteristics of a music nut. I just enjoyed what I enjoyed. I listened to AM radio but didn’t really know who sang what songs, and didn’t really care. I was the kind of listener I now despise: someone who passively and dispassionately accepts whatever inoffensive sounds reach his ears.

That all changed in 1976. The year of our country’s bicentennial was a turning point for me. I was 13 years old, had my bar mitzvah, and became a certified, card-carrying music nut. Here’s how it happened.

My best friend and I did everything together in those days. One day we saw an ad in a magazine for the RCA Record Club. For a buck, you could get six records and best of all, two-record sets counted as a single selection. My friend and I would each select three, and we agreed that we should each pick one two-record set so as to maximize the value of our shared investment. My friend chose Frampton Comes Alive, which was all over the radio at that time. I didn’t know what record I should choose. My friend offered to help me make my selection. He decided I should get Endless Summer by The Beach Boys.

“What’s on it?” I asked. I wasn’t aware that I knew any of their songs.
“I think it has ‘Barbara Ann’,” he replied. (He was wrong.)

So I ordered it. When our shipment arrived, it was exciting as anything. It was the first time we had purchased something through the mail. When you’re a kid, any kind of mail addressed to you is special, but when it’s a big square cardboard box, probably 14”x14”x1.5”, it’s momentous. The only downside was that there were only five records in the box. One of my selections had been back-ordered. However, RCA included a coupon entitling me to another free selection. I decided I would hold off on making that selection until I checked out my other records (aside from Endless Summer, I also had ordered John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, which I still own).

And so it was that I broke the cellophane on Endless Summer, the gatefold cover smothered with a richly colored cartoon mural of the Beach Boys in a tropical setting, including a gull perching on a bikinied breast. I didn’t know who any of the Beach Boys were individually, all I could tell from the cover was that they were a hairy bunch, and one of them had a particularly sour expression and was seemingly trying to hide behind the foliage.

The records were sided as they were in the old days, designed for stacking on the tall spindle of the record player: sides 1 and 4 on one record, and sides 2 and 3 on the other. This was before I had a nice stereo system so I was used to the stack concept, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear two sides in a row right off the bat (after all, a quick peek at the song list told me that my friend was wrong about “Barbara Ann” being on the set, thus I was initially disappointed), so I just put on side 1. Five songs: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfer Girl”, “Catch a Wave”, “The Warmth of the Sun”, and “Surfin’ USA”.

I couldn’t believe it. I knew four of the five songs (“Catch a Wave” was new to me) and liked them all. Those incredible melodies and harmonies, especially on the two ballads (“Surfer Girl” and “The Warmth of the Sun”) and the pumping beat of the uptempo tunes was absolutely entrancing. I immediately put on side 2: “Be True to Your School”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “In My Room”, “Shut Down”, and “Fun Fun Fun”. Are you kidding me? How is this possible? How can any group have so many quality songs? While the Chuck Berry-inspired guitar on “Fun Fun Fun” got my blood racing like a dragster, the Beach Boys had me at “In My Room”.

I cannot underestimate the profound impact that “In My Room” had on me. I was 13. I was overweight. Painfully shy. Intensely insecure. My life to this time had been centered on superhero comic books (Marvel, of course). My favorite was the Thing, the brute made of orange rock who was the muscle of the Fantastic Four. He was powerful yet gruesome, the perfect role model for a boy who felt ugly and impotent. And so I lost myself in the colored squares of comic book narratives, lying on my bed and imagining myself making things right with my big fists and confident cry of “It’s clobberin’ time!”

With “In My Room” (which I didn’t yet know was recorded and released in 1963, the year of my birth), for the first time I felt that a song truly spoke to me, that a lyric really spoke for me. I felt understood, and the music conveyed with astounding accuracy the quiet sadness and morose yearning of someone who feels less safe, less comfortable among most of his school peers than he does in the solitary confinement of his own bedroom. This is the song that made me a music nut, that made me realize that I couldn’t content myself with these magical sides, that I needed more, that I needed to collect this artist and others that spoke to me. With “In My Room” I realized for the first time that there was a music that was made just for me.

Needless to say, after side 2 I spun sides 3 and 4. When I was done, having sampled the likes of “I Get Around”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “California Girls”, and “Help Me, Rhonda”, I had heard 20 songs, liked them all, loved most, and had a new favorite group. More important, I looked at the composer credits and found that Brian Wilson (abetted on many of the tracks by a separate lyricist) was responsible for all of this brilliance. If I had thought it impossible that one group, one album, could have so many amazing songs on it, how much more outrageous was it to learn that it all came from the mind of one man? (The man, incidentally, with the sour expression trying to hide behind the foliage on the cover.)

I wasn’t done. I still had a coupon for another selection. I looked at the catalog and there was Spirit of America, the companion compilation to Endless Summer (which did include “Barbara Ann”). When it arrived, I had 20 more slices of insanely catchy melodies to play. I began collecting Beach Boys records and researching the history of the group. I came to realize that Brian Wilson wasn’t just the mastermind behind the group, he was now my hero. Not a hero like the Thing, someone who would help me through my adolescence, but a hero I could grow up with, someone whose music and whose very life would continue to inspire and speak to me to the present day, even after the thousands of other LPs and CDs I bought after he turned me into a music nut.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Ecstasy of Music

“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation/Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.” – Psalm 95: 1-2

I don’t care what your view on religion is, you have to love the psalms. No one knows what the first music was, or who wrote the very first songs (it wasn’t Barry Manilow; it wasn’t even some-time Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote “I Write the Songs”), but it’s clear that a primary purpose and subject was praise to God or gods, using melody, meter, and rhythm to come closer to the unknowable. Sure, there are spoken prayers and unspoken pleadings, but it was well understood that to cut through the clutter, you needed a trumpet, a timbrel, a tune.

How important were songs to the ancient Israelites? Let’s glance at another psalm:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion/We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof/For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion/How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” – Psalm 137:1-4

This one, of course, was written during the time of the Babylonian Exile. It is an extremely mournful psalm, no less than a dirge. They sat down, they wept. Further, they hanged their harps on the willows! Their instruments were of no use anymore, so inconsolable were they. And to add insult to injury, their captives, their tormentors, made them sing their songs, like a cruel overseer standing before a group of African slaves demanding to hear a song of celebration from the land in which they were taken, the land where their ancestors are buried. How indeed can they sing such a song in a strange land?

And yet, how has any group successfully made the transition from one country, one culture, to another, whether the move was voluntary or forced? By hanging onto their traditions, of course. Their cuisine, customs, clothing; their language; their holidays; their music. It’s why the Jews have survived everywhere they’ve gone, it’s how Asians, Africans, Latinos, Europeans, and all other groups maintained their identities regardless of where they are transplanted. By bringing their songs with them into the strange land.

As an art form, as a mode of communication, music cuts deeper than anything else. I suppose it, like anything else, affects different people differently, but throughout history music has been shown again and again to serve as soother, motivator, convener, wooer, and consoler. It’s everything you need it to be, and it has served all those roles and more for me throughout my life.

Like anything that excites the chemicals in your brain, music can also act like a drug. I certainly have felt high while listening to music, and the best part is that it’s readily available and doesn’t cause bad come-downs. Back when I used to indulge in such behavior, I always knew that when it came time to marry and start a family, I would do so cleanly. And in fact, the last time I smoked pot was the night before my wedding. I was solid in my decision and confident that I could close one door while opening the other without wanting to turn back. The one thing that concerned me, though, was whether I could enjoy music as intensely straight as I had stoned.

See, one thing pot does to you is to give you immense powers of focus and concentration. Taken to an extreme, it can leave you totally fixated on something or nothing to the extent that you look and act catatonic. That’s why when you’re straight and you’re within a group of stoned people, you realize how boring they are when they’re stoned. But I loved listening to music stoned, feeling every note and beat pulsing through my entire being. I felt like the music was consuming me, or that I had consumed it, the music and I were one, intertwined and ecstatic at this magical union of sound and spirit. I used to close my eyes at such moments and visualize the music as being a silver rope dancing in dark space like a cobra to a charmer’s flute in a street market in India.

Happily, I found – and am all too happy to promote the idea – that drugs don’t make the music listening experience so satisfying, the music itself does. Drugs really don’t add anything to the mix, other than allowing you to ignore everything going on around you, which isn’t always the best thing for you anyway. I still feel the ecstasy of music, still seek it out like any addict would his fix, and am grateful for those experiences when it all goes beyond simple enjoyment into another realm of deep spiritual fulfillment and inspiration. When it becomes, in other words, a religious experience.

I remember seeing the documentary The Gospel According to Al Green – actually I’ve seen it a few times, but the first time I saw it I was this close to converting. There was footage at the end of the movie where Reverend Al, still as sexy and sultry as when he sang secular hits like “Let’s Stay Together,” was singing in his church. And the sweat was pouring down, and people in the congregation were swaying and shouting and near to passing out with the sheer pull of the music, and as I sat there in my seat I could feel the tingling in my legs and it was all I could do not to stand up and be overcome with the spirit, shouting to witness and pleading for a blessing of salvation.

I was in a bookstore once, one of those places that has stacks and stacks of discontinued titles for small money. And I saw a book with a cover photo that made me stop and look closer. It was a black-and-white photograph of a long-haired cellist with a look of pure ecstasy on her face – not at all the composure of a typical classical musician. It was a biography of Jacqueline du Pre, whom I’d never heard of. But I was so compelled by that photo (and the low price) that I bought it and began reading it immediately. By the time I was halfway done with it, I’d already bought a 3-CD set of her cello concertos. She was touched with a gift beyond quantification, an intoxicating combination of the sheer joy of creation and the sheer force of spiritual awakening. I was hooked on the book, the music, and the person, who tragically died young, no doubt by the incredible weight of all that musical feeling.

In light of that, there have been times I have seen Brian Wilson in concert and been reduced to tears at the miracle of his endurance; without music, he could not live. Whatever brain damage he may have from his years of drug abuse and mental illness, it has not affected his capacity to make music and his ability to sustain his artistry when so many others of his generation are gone is testament to the life force that music is to him. There are those, among them unknown autistic savants as well as professionals like Brian, Andy Pratt, and jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell who only seem “normal” when they’re playing music. When the playing ends, their ability to successfully interact with the external world is hindered to some extent. What is it about me that envies people like that?

One more. My wife, when we were dating, would ask me lots of probing, difficult questions to learn more about me. It was like doing a psychological intake. One of the questions she asked me was, “If you had to give up either your sense of sight or your sense of hearing, which would you give up?” I didn’t even think twice about it. I’d rather be blind than deaf. Apparently, most people answer the other way, believing that not being able to hear is less of a handicap, especially in terms of personal safety and happiness, than not being able to see. But I didn’t see it that way; blind I could still enjoy music. And as tangible proof for why I need my hearing more than my sight, I offered up the 20 seconds of Aretha Franklin’s song “Angel” from about 3:37-3:57 where she sings, “There’s no misery – aaaaahooooow – like the misery I feel in me/Gotta find me an angel in my life.” That “aaaaahooooow” sums up every ounce of pain and loneliness in the singer’s heart and it’s a howl at the moon, a cry in the dark, and a shriek in the woods lost alone at night that seizes my own heart and makes me feel exactly what Aretha’s feeling. I can only imagine that I would be able to visualize that feeling even more without the sense of sight. But to not be able to hear her sing that again – even just that 20 seconds – is simply unimaginable to me.

So where is all this coming from? I was driving in my car this morning, listening to a Van Morrison live album called A Night in San Francisco. The track was a 16-minute medley of Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” I can’t even describe to you how the performance progresses, but it builds with intensity, then the band pulls back a bit, inserts a piano solo, then builds it back up, eases a little, then plows ahead and when the music seemingly hit its peak it just kept going and I was going with it – going crazy with ecstasy, that is. I started getting chills, literally, goose bumps up and down my arms. Then the background singers did this funny chant, “Van is nooooooo prima donna” over and over, but instead of being funny it was totally fucking true and another wave of chills and goosebumps came over me. Then one of the band yells out, a reference to another Morrison tune, “Did you get healed?” and now my goosebumps have goosebumps (“Hell yes!” is my enthusiastic response) and the music’s not giving an inch, it keeps on pounding and suddenly I was overcome with that feeling of such intense pleasure where it’s almost too much of a good thing, like when a woman keeps licking your knob after you’ve shot your load and I just had to shout out loud and I did and thank God my windows were closed and thank God for ears that hear and good Lord what a joyful noise that was and I could sing this song in any land. And at that moment, no drug and no religion and no woman could have given me the feeling that that music gave me. And like a junkie has to find that high, and Aretha has to find that angel, I have to keep finding that feeling from music. And the good thing is, I know I’ll find it, again and again. And that’s why I’m a music nut. Hosanna.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Talking Drum

The Drum is a new online literary magazine, distinguishing itself from other online collections of written works by having the authors read them in streaming audio. You also have the option of downloading the recordings as an mp3 so you can download it on your iPod. It doesn't cost any money to listen or download, primarily because The Drum doesn't pay the authors it selects to feature. In my case, that's OK because I'm happy with the exposure.

You can find me reading my flash fiction work "A Handful of Nickels" (which I originally titled "In the Nickel of Time" but somehow the other title made it to the website; I think I may have had a brain fart when I filled out my submission form) online now at Just click on the link, scroll down a bit and there I am. Click "Play" to play or "Keep" to download.

While I'm excited to have been chosen to appear on the site, I also have two conflicting feelings about it. For one, I'm no fan of my recorded voice, though I used to play with tape recorders a lot when I was a kid, making up talk shows and singing dirty lyrics to songs taped from the radio with a friend of mine. I have this nasal thing going on and everyone always complains that I'm a mumbler anyway. But I tried my best when recording the piece to speak as clearly and emotively as possible.

Second, I'm not the biggest fan of author readings in the first place. To me, the great thing about reading a book with one's inner voice is that you don't know what is going to come next, and so the silent recitation in your head carries the tone of discovery. It's this constant word-by-word surprise that keeps one reading to learn how the sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story resolve.

But when an author reads his or her own work, he or she knows what comes next - knows, in fact, what will happen at the end of the story, and somehow that can't help but come across in the reading. Unless the author suffers from dementia or amnesia, he or she cannot regain the innocence required to replicate that sense that a first-time reader has of always discovering something new in the prose. No matter how skilled a public reader an author is, reading one's own work is an exercise in repetition rather than revelation.

Don't you wish sometimes you could go back and listen to "Stairway to Heaven" for the very first time again? Rediscover what made it such a magical and incredible experience? Instead, we listen to the song today having heard it at least 50,000 times before; we no longer are taken on the unexpected twists and turns because we know the terrain of that song so well. Which is not to say that it cannot be enjoyed - despite it being overplayed over the years, it still thrills me - but it never again can be an eye-opening experience. It's the satisfaction of a familiar flavor rather than the ecstasy of a profound new discovery.

All that said, as an aspiring author, I'm buying into the whole fantasy and dreaming of my first reading/book signing event. In retrospect, I suppose it's why I began practicing my autograph as early as sixth grade. I want to present my own work to a curious audience, field questions, and sign a perfect-bound page on which my name is printed as author. In time, I'm sure I would get over being self-conscious of my voice, and maybe would even be mindful of how I read my excerpt, and try to do so with as innocent and objective a tone as possible.

Until then, I plan to submit more pieces to The Drum and hopefully will have additional opportunities to practice my reading-aloud skills.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Respectful Memory of Ronnie James Dio

One of my favorite rock singers of all time died yesterday morning of stomach cancer. Ronnie James Dio, heavy metal's chief proponent of the "devil horn" hand gesture as a sign of musical power, sang professionally with the bands Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven and Hell (the latter reprising the Black Sabbath lineup but renamed so as to distinguish it from the Ozzy Osbourne-era repertoire). With this kind of pedigree, he clearly was a heavy metal demigod; yet his talent, appeal, and charisma transcended labels. To say he was heavy metal's most sonically and gifted vocalist is almost damning with faint praise, as the genre is not known for singers with refined voices. But Dio was different. Described as leather-lunged, he could scream with pure tonality and convey a gentle ballad with a smooth, lovely sound. He could growl at the moon and sing with a soft falsetto. No other hard rock or metal vocalist could approach the command and control he had over his voice.

My introduction to his music was via an oddly circuitous route. I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant inside a department store in the once-swanky Chestnut Hill Mall, in Newton, Massachusetts. One of the assistant cooks was a twenty-something high school dropout looking to turn his life around. I was 17 and just looking to earn some money for recreational pursuits. One day, we were talking and he asked me if I liked Black Sabbath. I said I'd never heard their music before. He replied, "Really? I thought all potheads were into Sabbath."

The next time we were working together, he handed me Sabbath's first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid. To put it kindly, they were beat to shit, having somehow survived untold parties where drunken hands carelessly ran phonograph needles against the vinyl grooves, while the album covers themselves were worn and faded and smelled vaguely of spilled bong water.

I took the albums home and played them, and through the skips and crackles I heard the heaviest music I've heard before or since, laced with Almighty Guitar Riffs and Thundering Bass Lines and Brutal Drum Beats, topped with Ozzy's Mutant Wolf Wailing Vocals. I was instantly hooked, but I knew it wouldn't be worthwhile to tape these noisy, skippy albums so I went to the record store to get my own copies.

At the store, I thumbed through the Black Sabbath section and saw a number of choices. I figured at minimum I would get the first two because I already knew I liked them. I then assembled a chronology from the available titles to see where they'd gone from there. It being 1980, I noticed that there was a brand-new album by the band, Heaven and Hell. I was disturbed to learn, however, that Ozzy was no longer in the band, replaced by a guy named Ronnie James Dio (I've always held that only assassins are known by all three names). "Figures," I said to myself. "I'm always getting into bands too late." (It's true, many of the artists I'm most into I discovered when they were either dead, disbanded, or on the artistic decline.) I ended up just buying the first two albums.

A short time later, I was visiting a friend of mine and he was blasting out an amazing album by a group called Rainbow. I'm pretty sure the track was "Stargazer." The vocalist was astounding. I asked him who it was and he said it was Ronnie James Dio. "Unfortunately, he's no longer in the band. He just joined Black Sabbath."

You can guess where I went next. Yes, back to the store. This time with Heaven and Hell in hands. I took it home and listened to it, instantly transported to that golden place where music is nutrition or a willing sexual partner - where music is not just good, not just even good for you, but essential to your very existence. I was hooked.

And just in time, because tickets for "The Black & Blue Tour" were going on sale. This was Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult on the same bill. My friends and I were already big Cult fans, having worn out copies of Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune, and Spectres. My Sabbath discovery was new to the gang but once they got a face full of "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" they were on board. Still, for all of us, Cult were going to be the bigger attraction.

The concert was in Hartford, Connecticut, so a road trip was in order. Not even an early dinner at Denny's could derail our enthusiasm. It only got better when we entered the Hartford Civic Center and discovered the sound board where our seats were supposed to be. The usher explained that they had to move it form its original location for some reason, then led us to new seats in the fifth row on the floor, not more than 10 or 15 feet from the stage. Just ahead to the left of us was a speaker stack about the size of a house. Whatever this show was going to be, it was going to be loud!

Sabbath and Cult took turns throughout the tour opening for each other. This night, Sabbath came on first. In less than a minute, Ronnie James Dio had me in the palm of his hand. He painted such an imposing atmosphere with his presence and his voice (he was oddly short for his power and affect), and made such a strong connection with the audience with the devil horns and his earnest stage patter. This was his first tour fronting a venerable band and he knew he had to win over the fans. He succeeded in spades.

By the end of their set, I was exhausted and drenched with sat. I stood and boogied the entire set, desperately communing with the congregation with shouts and horns. As the lights came up, I was hoarse and completely spent. Cult came on eventually and played a powerful set themselves, but I had nothing left to give them. I sat for most of their set and my hands were so raw from clapping for Sabbath that it hurt to applaud.

I saw Sabbath again on their next tour, in 1982, at which time I was in college. Then Dio left the band and I kind of ignored heavy metal for a few years. I didn't even respond when he reunited with Sabbath for a one-off album called Dehumanizer in 1992. (I've actually never been a huge metalhead anyway; my favorite bands all have colors in their names: Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, and Rainbow. Yes, there's also a Whitesnake but I prefer the Scorpions, chiefly because their singer sounds like Dio.)

A few years ago, Sabbath's label wanted to put together a collection of Dio-era Sabbath selections and they got back together to record three new tunes, which were strong. Then there was a tour as Heaven and Hell, which I had wanted to see but never did. Prior to that, the band Dio came to Worcester, Massachusetts, but I deemed it too far to go to stand among young metalheads. The result of the tour was a live album and DVD, Live from Radio City Music Hall. When I heard it I was amazed at how good he and they still sounded. I decided that if they toured again, I would definitely try to catch a show.

In 2009, they toured again and a friend of mine scored me great tickets. The date was August 28, 2009 - what would have been my mother's 76th birthday. Little did I know it would also be Ronnie James Dio's last performance. It was the last show of the tour and they exhibited no fatigue. This was a burning hot show, tight, energetic, and mesmerizing. Dio was in fine voice, active, talkative, and as engaging and charismatic as ever.

The tour over, Dio began preparing to tour Europe with his own band when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That tour was canceled, as was a European Heaven and Hell tour slated for summer 2010. Periodic updates on his website were hopeful, but his gallant battle ended on May 16. The man who wrote "Die Young" had done just that. He was two months shy of 68 years of age, two years short of the three score and 10 he was due at minimum.

Tributes to Dio have come in from his bandmates, Queen's Brian May, younger metal artists who were influenced by him, and of course, from his wife, Wendy, and his fans. But I would like the last words here to come from him. RIP, RJD.

Catch the Rainbow - Rainbow
We believed we'd catch the rainbow
Ride the wind to the sun
Sail away on ships of wonder

But life's not a wheel
With chains made of steel
So bless me, come the dawn

Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath
They say that life's a carousel
Spinning fast, you've got to ride it well
The world is full of kings and queens
Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams
It's heaven and hell, oh well

And they'll tell you black is really white
The moon is just the sun at night
And when you walk in golden halls
You get to keep the gold that falls
It's heaven and hell

Friday, May 14, 2010

Confessions of a music snob

Being a music lover, I can tell you that there is no greater feeling than to discover some new music you’ve never heard or appreciated before. It’s a feeling of fulfillment or completeness, as if there is a slot in your brain with a distinct size and shape and only one kind of musical experience fits cleanly, and once it does there’s an undeniable sense of rightness that hadn’t existed before, like when your ears pop or a satisfying meal has placated a craving stomach, or even when an urgent need to relieve yourself is finally consummated.

My newest musical obsession may surprise you, especially if you know that I own several thousand units of music (LP, CD, cassette): it’s the Rolling Stones. Not exactly a new or obscure outfit. But I’m no ordinary music lover; I’m a music snob. Being a snob means that I love music so much I can’t help finding fault with most of the music that exists in the world (or at least in the marketplace).

Again, if you know me well, you’ve probably used the phrase “Jason’s music” before. It implies that the music I favor is either intrinsically weird or just out of fashion. It’s true that I’m an admitted ‘70s guy and that some musical trends and genres from that much-maligned decade are easy prey for those who don’t know any better (such as progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, concept albums, vocoders, and lyricons). But it’s not that I gravitate towards the noncommercial or the complex, I simply am suspicious of anything that is too popular.

For example, I didn’t own Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band until about 2005, and I almost never play it. I have no use for U2. Billy Joel’s music brings on a facial tic. I do like Bruce Springsteen but only when he was skinny and hungry, not his most popular years as a buff hunk with a hot butt. After he painstakingly brought me into his desperate, rambling wooing of Sandy on the 4th of July in Asbury Park, I should care that he’s dancing in the dark with Monica from Friends?

I’m much more drawn to musicians who aren’t necessarily physically attractive but who are staggeringly talented yet have never become household names. Artists like Al Kooper, who played the organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and was also in his band for that fateful electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. He later joined the Blues Project and founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, then he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced The Tubes. Along the way, he recorded a strong of little-heard solo albums that show off his deft arranging skills and white soul ambitions. And still, if I mention his name, most people think I’m talking about Alice Cooper.

Or Ian Hunter, whose name is even less known than his former band’s odd moniker, Mott the Hoople. Still rocking with full tanks of talent and integrity at age 70, Hunter rarely registers with people until you tell them that he was the singer on Mott’s “All The Young Dudes” and that he was the author and original recorder of “Cleveland Rocks” (the theme from The Drew Carey Show) and “Ships” (mawkishly taken to hitsville by Barry Manilow). He also wrote and originally recorded “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” a hit for ‘80s headbangers Great White, who will forever be known as the band whose pyrotechnic show burned down The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, killing 100 concert-goers who would have been better off following Hunter.

Or the Waterboys, helmed by Mike Scott, a highly literate, passionate, and spiritual Scot whose brilliant writing and emotionally forceful singing and playing are largely unknown in the country, with the possible exception of one song, “Fisherman’s Blues.” I am firmly convinced that “Waterboys” must somehow rhyme with the name of Pete Townshend’s band, because every time I tell someone about the Waterboys, the response is always, “The who?”

And then there’s Andy Pratt. Like my all-time musical hero, Brian Wilson, Pratt is only comfortable and socially engaging when he’s performing his music. He had one minor hit in 1973 called “Avenging Annie” (you’d only know it if you heard it, not by the title alone); the marketplace’s indifference to his unmistakable voice and gorgeous music is well beyond my ability to comprehend.

The last example I’ll give is a big favorite of mine, the progressive group Gentle Giant. People are surprised when I tell them that Giant released 10 albums from 1970 to 1980, because virtually no one has heard a single note of their music. Which may not be that surprising, since their musical arsenal includes such radio-unfriendly instruments as violin, cello, vibraphone, and recorder, in addition to the standard progressive gear (multiple keyboards and synthesizers, electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars, puffy shirts, and boots). The only people I can talk to about Giant are people who probably could have written this exact same post themselves.

So what about the Rolling Stones? Certainly not a group whose name elicits blank stares. Indeed, they are so popular, so consensually acclaimed, that they should never be able to occupy a place in the heart of a man who has never seen any Star Wars film in its entirety or read a single syllable of any Harry Potter book, purely out of stubborn refusal to be like everyone else. How is it that my snobbishness let them through after decades of turning my back on them?

As it turns out, it was purely happenstance, as I suppose it would have to be because I wouldn’t have purchased Ronnie Wood’s autobiography, cleverly titled Ronnie, on my own initiative. It was, in fact, given to a friend who offered it to me because he was even less inclined to want to learn more about the Stones’ third second guitarist (after Brian Jones and Mick Taylor) that was I, who at least is a ‘70s guy and who already owns the memoirs of such musical personalities of the era as David Crosby, Al Kooper, Ian Hunter, and Brian Wilson (who has admitted he didn’t write his).

I took the book because I was looking for new bathroom reading. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a paperback by the toilet for those times when I sit and feel like I might be there for a while. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through and it even though it’s horribly written (along with passing a urine test, writing a memoir is just not something he can do successfully), and even though he is an unreliable reporter (among his drug-addled contentions is that his pre-Stones band the Faces were the second-most popular British band of the early ‘70s – after the Stones themselves – conveniently forgetting that Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Elton John outsold the Faces infinity to one during that era), it still is a compelling glimpse into the musical history and moral debauchery of 1970s rock and roll.

Since reading Woods’ more or less accurate recollections of his life and career, I’ve become much more interested in the Faces, Rolling Stones, and even Faces vocalist Rod Stewart, whose solo career (at least since 1978) I had always judged to be something akin to a crime against humanity. But in retrospect, listening with some sense of the back story, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Woods’ place in rock history. (This is not a new dynamic for me. In college, I was completely confounded by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was only years later, after reading a biography of Faulkner that served to contextualize where, how, and from what sources that story came, that a rereading of the book brought me the rewards the author had intended.)

The Faces are an easy band to like because they never took themselves seriously. Competent musicians armed with a love of American blues and soul – and plenty of drink – they rocked with true spirit. Aside from Wood and Stewart, the band included keyboardist Ian McLagan, who became an in-demand session player; Kenney Jones, who became the inadequate replacement for Keith Moon in the Who (to be fair, Moon was irreplaceable); and bassist Ronnie Lane, a wonderful songwriter with a plaintive voice whose career and life were cut tragically short by multiple sclerosis.

As for Stewart, when I went back through his catalog, I realized he actually had a number of fine songs. In fact, his solo career began just months before joining the Faces, and his emerging stardom was one reason why the band disbanded after only four albums (according to Wood, the Stones’ courtship of the guitarist – in 1975, Wood toured with the Stones in between Faces tours – was another reason for the Faces’ demise). Despite his image as a Casanova, Stewart is at his best when he’s being sentimental or philosophical (such as my favorite of his solo songs, “Handbags and Gladrags,” where he chastises a shallow, self-absorbed girl that clothes, earned by the sweat of her grandfather, don’t make the woman). In comparison, the songs by the horny Rod bursting with bravado (“Tonight’s the Night,” where he deflowers some poor virgin; “Hot Legs”; and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) fail on every aesthetic level yet were among his biggest hits (supporting my suspicion of anything that’s popular).

And now, back again to the Rolling Stones, whom I’ve long hated for at least three reasons: 1) they had the unmitigated gall to call themselves the world’s greatest rock and roll band; 2) they tended to co-opt rather than create musical trends (cf. their brief forays into psychedelia, reggae, and disco); and 3) they were universally loved. While I still don’t like the idea of the band – let’s face it, they all seem a little too much in love with themselves – I am now able to admit that their music (most of it, anyway) does indeed not suck.

That said, given that I’m a music snob, it behooves me to note that I think I like the Stones on a different level than most people. While the Budweiser-swilling masses no doubt enjoy the Stones for their raucous, raunchy image and quintessentially bad-ass rock and roll – a personality-driven musical style that’s none too complex, none too tight, and all too catchy – I’m attracted to subtler, deeper aspects of their art.

For example, the Stones are peerless at integrating lead and rhythm guitar parts, what Wood reports he and Keith Richards call “weaving.” The art of rhythm guitar has been lost over the years, largely due to the number of unheralded rhythm guitarists overshadowed by their showier lead counterparts. For example, if I were to ask you to name a member of the Beach Boys, you’d probably never come up with the name of rhythm guitarist Al Jardine. If I asked you who played rhythm guitar in the Beatles, you might have to pause before answering John Lennon, because that was not his claim to fame.

At the same time, lots of bands have eschewed the traditional rhythm/lead pairing by accommodating multiple lead guitarists, like Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose guitarists switch roles from time to time. And latter-day King Crimson successfully did the unthinkable by pairing another lead guitarist, Adrian Belew, with rock and roll’s version of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s sentient android Data, Robert Fripp. But if you had a band with two rhythm players, you’d be Seals and Crofts; it just doesn’t work.

The Stones, on the other hand, have developed and perfected a true union of guitar souls, a musical innovation so potent that it worked equally well no matter who was slinging along with Richards. Sometimes it’s hard to know which parts are which because they’re both integral to the overall sound. But for a band that doesn’t do a lot of soloing and has some, but not a ton, of classic riffs (“Bitch” and “Brown Sugar,” both from Sticky Fingers, are my favorite), it’s that weaving that makes Richards and any guitarist he’s playing with a guitar god.

I also think the Stones have done some of the best ballads in rock and roll. You don’t expect a lot of sentiment from Mick Jagger but when he goes for the heart instead of the labia he’s not only effective but very convincing. On “Play with Fire,” there’s a vulnerability behind the bravado that another singer may not have been able to reach. His ability to churn out bluesy testimony while also getting across a heartfelt falsetto on “Fool to Cry” is impressive, and whenever Jagger twangs on the country-ish songs like “Wild Horses” – has to be one of the top two or three ballads ever written – it never sounds false or forced.

To me, a quintessential Stones song is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This is a song I liked even when I didn’t like the Stones. Even though the main riff of the song is actually Charlie Watts’ machine gun drum pattern, it’s full of hooks that get the heart pumping, the fists waving, and the hips moving. It has the urban pathos one expects from the group (“I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block/And I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped.”) It has the cocksure machismo they’re famous for (“Hey! You! Get off of my cloud”). The repeated heys and yous in the chorus enable the audience to participate in the hero’s fight for independence, not realizing that his rejection of others will lead to a loneliness that won’t be expressed until another song. And those guitars are not playing single-string wailing solos but rather strummed chordal licks, all rhythm, ably supported and punctuated by Bill Wyman’s reliable bass.

Ultimately, what I appreciate the most about the Rolling Stones is that they’re the last band standing that draws direct connections to Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Holly, that understands that rock and roll is more about feeling than finesse, and that despite the whole Glimmer Twins cult of personality, despite the jet-setting ego trips, high-profile romances, drug busts and binges, despite all the SHIT that surrounds the Stones, good honest simple hip-shakin’, butt-kickin’ music remains at their core.

World’s greatest rock and roll band? Hell, they’re the only rock and roll band left. For that reason alone, I’m proud to be a fan.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Assignment: "It Makes No DIfference," by The Band

As mentioned in my prior blog post, I was given an assignment by Steve Almond, who led a session at Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace conference, to choose a song with deep emotional importance to me, and write about the event that imbued the song with such meaning for me. So here's my story - but first, here's the song:

The year was 1988. I was 25 years old. Just starting out in my adult life, but I was in a holding pattern, and soon I crashed and burned. It started the year before, when I let myself get fired from my first job out of college. For two years I'd been doing PR in house for a producer of computer industry trade shows. The first year or so, I had a manager whom I despised. She was evil and liked nothing better than to dress down one of her charges in full view of other departments. By the time she left, my morale was rock bottom. Her replacement, however, thought I had potential and not only treated me with respect but also gave me more responsibility and put me in a position where the higher-ups in the company recognized my successes.

So in short, I was feeling pretty loyal to this guy. Then the company decided to branch out into the housewares industry, where the national association had decided to cut back from two trade shows a year to only one. My company hired away their show manager and decided to hold a competing event. The industry didn't look too kindly on a for-profit company with no housewares industry experience elbowing into their space. Therein lay a PR challenge. My manager and I took the lead in building relations and by the time our show was ready to launch, the industry was excited to see what we could do.

Then, literally the day before we were to leave for Chicago (where the industry is based), we heard that my manager had been given notice and was not being permitted to work the show. Instead, I would be supervised by the Conference department head, a man I hated. This was a complete shock to me and aside from the loyalty I felt to my manager, I also felt that I was being put in a position to fail because I would have to deal with the "Where's Keith?" questions. I was pretty bullshit about this and my manager did nothing to pacify me. I and a person in the department even more junior than myself decided to refuse to go to the show. My manager appreciated this display of solidarity. And we all were summarily fired.

I later learned that my manager had in fact been given notice several weeks before and had been told that he would not be going to Chicago. He kept this information from me, which I saw as a betrayal because he had an opportunity to quell my anger and save my job. As a result, I shortly thereafter decided to have nothing further to do with him, and didn't even see his name again for about a dozen years, until the day I opened up the newspaper to find my mother's death notice and was surprised to find his on the same page.

So strike one was losing my job. I decided then I wanted to get out of the computer industry. I thought I'd like to work in health care. Over the next several months, I had a number of interviews at hospitals but always lost out to someone who had some prior health care experience. I did a couple of freelance gigs, leveraging my trade show experience and contact for a PR firm and an exhibiting company, but overall I was unemployed for 10 months. It was during this time that I sank into deep credit card debt and have never been particularly solvent since.

Fast forward a few months. It's Thanksgiving Day. I'm throwing around a football with some friends. I leap to make a catch and land awkwardly on the leg of a friend sprawled on the ground. My ankle hurts like hell, but I eventually get dressed and go to my folks' house for Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal, I go to my girlfriends' parents' house for dessert. My ankle is still killing me but I make it through the evening. Eventually, I tell my girlfriend what happened and she asks to look at it. My ankle is swollen and deep purple. She takes me to the hospital. I've torn ligaments and have to wear a cast and use crutches. Strike 2.

Fast forward 2.5 months later. It's my 25th birthday. My parents and girlfriend take me out for dinner. I'm feeling miserable because I'm still out of work, my ankle is still tender, and my friends have told me they're not around. We go back to my folks' house and SURPRISE! It's a surprise birthday party for me. That's nice, though I was actually hoping to have some alone time with my girlfriend. But whatever, I'm happier than I was earlier that day.

Now, my best friend's birthday is two days after mine, so we had a tradition of going out drinking on the day in between, which was February 13. The next day, of course, was Valentine's Day. On February 13, my friend and I went out drinking Scorpion Bowls. My girlfriend also went out that night. A guy asked her out. She told him she had a boyfriend, but inside, as she told me later, she wished it wasn't so. The next night we celebrated Valentine's Day. A few days later, she told me what happened on February 13 and that she wanted to date other people.

Mind you, we had been dating off and on (but mostly on) for four years at this point, and though she was three years younger than me and still just a senior in college, I was thinking that we would be getting engaged before too long. I had no thought at all about not spending the rest of my life with her. She apparently thought differently. And I can understand that, given she soon would be graduating college and spreading her wings, whereas I had been unemployed for about as long as it takes to carry a baby to term. Still, it was strike three.

I was horribly depressed and despondent. I went to a therapist because I was still interviewing and needed to be able to exude self-confidence, which I had absolutely none of at that time. I've never felt as much pain as I did then. I was desperately searching for a release, a way to express all the hurt I felt inside. I reached for music, because that's simply what music does for me. I recalled how several years before I had deliberately sought out a song that would make me cry, because a girl had broken up with me but I hadn't broken down at all about it. I eventually found it in Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" ("Just for a moment I was back in school/And felt that old familiar pain" is what did it).

So I went through my record collection and began auditioning tunes. It didn't take long to find my catharsis in Robbie Robertson's lyrics and, especially, Rick Danko's voice crying out those lyrics. The whole performance touched me to the core to such an extent that I listened to that song no fewer than 20 times a day for several weeks.

The lyrics are raw, honest, and real:

It makes no diff'rence where I turn
I can't get over you and the flame still burns
It makes no diff'rence, night or day
The shadow never seems to fade away


It makes no diff'rence how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no diff'rence who I meet
They're just a face in the crowd on a dead-end street


And then, at the end of the song, the dagger in the heart. I would scream-sing this part with a dark blue anger until I was hoarse:

Well, I love you so much
And it's all I can do
Just to keep myself from telling you
That I never felt so alone before

This was the lowest part of my life, which means there was no place to go but up. Not long after, I met the woman who would become my wife. And not long after she and I started dating, I got a job. And the fact that my wife and I are now divorcing after nearly 17 years of marriage only means that a certain cycle is coming around again, and I'm already thinking of the songs that will inhabit that emotional wound (George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" are top contenders).

But for that one bleak time period, The Band's "It Makes No Difference" was indeed the difference between sanity and depression, between hope and despair, and, quite possibly, between life and death.