The Beatles

The Beatles released “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1967. It was supposed to appear on Sgt. Pepper, but it ended up on Magical Mystery Tour. When I was a boy growing up in the 1970s, the FM djs were still playing Beatles tunes and many nights I’d hold the black Magnavox transistor radio close to my ear and whisper/sing the words to the Beatles songs as I fell asleep. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from the first time I heard it and up to this day, always strikes me with it’s beauty, mystery and joy. How many songs can still affect you forty years down the road?

This evening, my daughter was listening to Magical Mystery Tour in her room so when it was time for her to go to bed, I put on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” crawled into bed with her and we just listened to the song. She softly sang along, in my arms.

The Clash

A few weeks ago, my six-year old daughter had a rather typical temper tantrum. Something (I don’t remember what it was) didn’t go her way, she stomped her feet on the ground, put her arms akimbo and, red in the face, shouted, “No one understands me in this house!” None of this surprised me until she ran upstairs, slammed her bedroom door and, seconds later, began blaring a Clash cd from the boom box in her room.

Let me just remind you: she’s six, as in six years old.

I first heard the Clash in 1980, when I was 15 years old. Up to that point, I was living off of a steady rock and roll diet of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and the Kinks. But one day as I was listening to the college radio station in the stultifying suburb of eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, the dj played “Clampdown,” the opening track from the Clash’s London Calling and after that I was never the same.

Here is the iconic cover of that album:


“Clampdown” begins with the lead singer, Joe Strummer, half-chanting, half-praying nearly inaudible lyrics about  ransacked kingdoms, descending helicopters and societal chaos.  The drummer lays down a 4/4 beat, a guitar sizzles behind the voice, there is a moment of pause before Strummer, beseechingly and desperately pleads, “What are we gonna do now?” From there, the song lurches into a marching, caterwauling, angry and desperate set of exclamations and musical ideas that challenged everything I knew and understood about music at that time and also confirmed some of my latent but emerging fears of what it meant to be leaving childhood behind and moving into young adulthood.

Here’s a link to “Clampdown”—listen to it for yourself.

I’ll spare you a detailed analysis of the lyrics except say that “Clampdown,” is about the fear that young people have of losing the idealism, joy and freedom of youth to the demands, strictures and ideologies of the adult political world. The beauty of the song, at least for me, was that I could not have articulated that idea until I was much older (like in my twenties), but at the time I first heard “Clampdown,” I knew, or I should say, I felt that that was what the song was about. And, frankly, that’s what good art does—it makes us/helps us feel some our deepest emotions.

Few people understand rock and roll as rebellion as I do. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home where rock and roll was the devil’s music. I was forbidden from listening to it, so I got myself a small transistor radio and every night, I’d lay in bed tuned into AM and then, later, FM rock and roll stations from Philadelphia and New York. What I got from rock and roll then was an opening up to ideas—political, cultural, intellectual—and emotions that I did not have access to, either because they were forbidden or because, developmentally, I just wasn’t quite there. More than any other rock band at that time, the Clash brought possibilities to me–even the Beatles and the Stones couldn’t shake me up, challenge my sensibilities, make me realize that there was a big world out there quite like the Clash.

It’s worth noting that no one in my house at the time understood this. Hell, I barely understood it myself.

Music is a big part of the home that my wife and I have built with out children.We have introduced our children to a lot of different kinds of music. They each play instruments (the boy, guitar, the girl, violin), they can tell the difference between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a Beethoven sonata and a Chopin Prelude and my son at least can identify just about any Van Morrison tune within the first three measures. So, when my daughter accused me of not understanding her and then tromped up to her room and blasted the Clash on her boom box, in many ways, it made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t she use music in general and, specifically, the Clash, to express, in this case, her frustration with the authority figure in her life? But, it also brought me to a pause. In some ways it felt like a turning of a wheel. In some ways it felt like a coming together. In some ways it felt bewildering to realize that my little girl is beginning to think and feel things that she can’t articulate and that I myself will never understand.

Thoughts on Nick Cave

Nick Cave is like carbon. In the 1970s he began emitting words and music and through numerous iterations, transformations and genres, he has continued to spread out through the cultural atmosphere. Like carbon, Cave has been around for a long time, and his music will continue to hang around as well. And, also like carbon, Cave is hard to see, even though he influences and has an abiding presence in rock and roll.

His first band, The Birthday Party cast out 1970s gothic punk that was nearly unlistenable and notable mostly for its unleashed sonic terror as well as the band’s provocative, caterwauling, thumping and slightly scary stage performances.


Drugs, alcohol and exhaustion got the better of The Birthday Party, but following their breakup in 1983, Cave formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a group of masterfully understated musicians. That was fifteen albums and nearly 30 years ago. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are still at it.

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And, I should say that, despite the remonstrations of many of my friends who know something about Cave, he plays well with the children. It’s not unusual for my daughter to settle herself into her car seat, rest her head back and say, “Dad, can we listen to that Sad Man?” Her favorite album is the 2014 release, Push the Sky Away. Sometimes, I can hear her singing Cave songs to herself in her room. “We know who you are and we know where you live,” she softly sings, “and we know there’s no need to forgive.”

Cave has written over ten soundtracks, three novels, an introduction to the gospel of Mark and he’s received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Brighton. In the annals of rock and roll and late twentieth/early twenty-first century pop and indie rock culture, Nick Cave is not someone to be trifled with.


Cave is a writer’s writer. His lyrics are densely packed with historical, philosophical and literary illusions. Somehow, though, that never comes off as precious or so much over intellectualizing, mostly, I think, because all of that gets bumped up against quotidian observations and fantastical stories and images that sound like a Dali painting, if it could sing.

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Because they take sharp and surprising emotional and narrative turns, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen in a Nick Cave song, even if you have heard it more than once. Take, “Deanna,” a tune from Tender Prey (1988). With its Farfisa organ, thumping bass line and bouncy back beat, the first few measures of the song sounds like something from The Turtles circa 1967. The narrator sings, as if to a lover, “Oh Deanna! Sweet Deanna!” He calls her, his friend and announces he’s not down here for her money, or her love and then after the half beat, admits, “I’m down here for your soul.” Oh no.

I think Cave is at his best when he’s telling a story and the Bad Seeds are droning, commenting and adding sonic touches to the story line. Consider, for example, “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” the opening track of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ No More Shall We Part 2001. Much has been said about Cave’s interest in religion and Cave himself has made public statements about his religious beliefs. “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” like so many of Cave’s songs, transcends the melodramatic, cheap attempts of most rock musicians to deal with matters of the spirit and organized religion. The song is pretty easy to summarize: two people, a man (the narrator) and a woman, sit in front of a window, holding forth on the nature of good and evil. But given that Cave is writing theology more than he is writing rock anthems imbibed with Christian themes (think: U2 in the 1980s). The song gets complicated pretty quickly.

As I sat sadly by her side
At the window, through the glass
She stroked a kitten in her lap
And we watched the world as it fell past
Softly she spoke these words to me
And with brand new eyes, open wide
We pressed our faces to the glass
As I sat sadly by her side.

There are a couple things to note about this opening verse. First, there’s a cat and as the song progresses, the cat gets passed back and forth between the man and the woman as they, respectively, articulate their very different ideas about God and his relationship to humans. The second thing is the woman, who like so many of Cave’s women, is formed in our minds through her thoughts rather than her physicality. Cave is really quite extraordinary in the way he writes about women—they can be oracles, like the woman in this song, or serial killers, like the many female narrator’s in Murder Ballads, or more conventionally, they can become the love interests in some of his ballads. Either way, though, I can’t think of another male rock and roll lyricist who places women in more powerful positions than Cave.

The woman begins the theological dialogue by articulating a long list of identities and natural objects and she introduces the idea of fallen-ness, the major trope of the song:

She said, “Father, mother, sister, brother,
Uncle, aunt, nephew, niece,
Soldier, sailor, physician, labourer,
Actor, scientist, mechanic, priest
Earth and moon and sun and stars
Planets and comets with tails blazing
All are there forever falling
Falling lovely and amazing

There is a lot going on here. First, the dialogue is set up in a way that’s reminiscent of the conversation between Rafael and Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost and/or Krishna and Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, where a transcendent, knowing figure (Rafael/Krishna) appears before a confused mortal (Adam/Arjuna) and reveals mysteries. And I should say that this is no accident Cave has stumbled upon—his body of work pretty consistently updates, re-fashions and re-imagines historical and literary moments in the context of his own songs. The other thing has to do with the idea of fallen-ness. First off, we know that this is probably the central trope of Christianity; that is, the whole world view hinges on the story of the fall and then the opportunity God provides for redemption from that fall. Here, though, the woman introduces the Miltonian idea that the fall is “lovely and amazing,” rather than terrifying and regrettable. This of course is not a new idea, but, let’s face it, in the annals of rock and roll, it doesn’t come up that much and from the pen of a lesser writer, it would fall flat.

Finished with her opening salvo, the woman passes the cat to the narrator, both press their faces to the glass and the narrator reminds her that her perceived loveliness is actually horror for the actors they are observing:

“That may be very well”, I said
“But watch the one falling in the street
See him gesture to his neighbours
See him trampled beneath their feet
All outward motion connects to nothing
For each is concerned with their immediate need
Witness the man reaching up from the gutter
See the other one stumbling on who cannot see

The narrator reminds her that from the street level, our fallen-ness is actually quite horrible, additionally; there is no order, no meaning, no help or redemption offered here. It’s important to note that the narrator is, as he says, sad, about this state of human affairs. He is, after all, sitting “sadly” by her side and we are led to believe he finds human behavior and the lack of goodness in the world regrettable and, while he seems to wish that things were different, he can’t conjure up any ideas to change the situation.

The kitten jumps back to the woman’s lap and Cave allows her the last word as she draws the curtain down, obscuring their view through the glass:

Then she drew the curtains down
And said, “When will you ever learn
That what happens there beyond the glass
Is simply none of your concern?
God has given you but one heart
You are not a home for the hearts of your brothers
And God does not care for your benevolence
Anymore than he cares for the lack of it in others
Nor does he care for you to sit
At windows in judgement of the world He created
While sorrows pile up around you
Ugly, useless and over-inflated

This final theological articulation is in many ways a rewriting of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

It doesn’t matter what we do nor does it matter how we care for others—our fallen-ness has cast us into a position and into a world that is fraught with sin, loneliness and despair. We will never change that equation, despite our perceived will and power to do so.

Finally, the woman turns her head, “Great tears leaping from her eyes,” and the narrator, enigmatically, cannot repress a smile as he sits “sadly by her side.”

Wow. I think I need to go listen to Miley Cyrus now.


On The Flaming Lips

This morning as I was driving the kids to school, I switched off the Dan Zanes cd that my daughter loves and turned on Peace Sword, the 2013 EP from the Flaming Lips that’s inspired by the film, Ender’s Game. I love Dan Zanes, but I just couldn’t take any more. My daughter, protesting, asked derisively, “Who’s this?” My son and I both exchanged knowing glances and he shouted, “Pink Floyd!”

Well, almost.

I’m going to begin with a passage from Peace Sword. Of course there are many other places to begin. The Lips have entered their fourth decade making music and over the course of that time they have transmogrified, meaning transformed in a magical manner, from a weird art punk band from Oklahoma City that wrote songs about giraffes and abandoned hospital ships and Jesus on heroin to a cultish band of improvisers, tricksters, interrogators and searchers that still resides in Oklahoma City and ponders life’s big questions: Why are we here? How can we be good? Why does evil exist? Can good triumph over evil? And, How can we fully love?

Peace Sword, a fine and lovely six-song cd, is classic post-Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) with is driving synthesizers, pedaling bass lines that lift the music up above our heads and all that  played against the simply-strummed acoustic guitar chords that keeps it all within our reach. The Flaming Lips are best when they are operating within the binaries of human behavior and oscillating between opposites: fear and ease, love and hate, terror and bliss. Peace Sword does that throughout all six songs, sometimes changing emotional equilibrium across a few measures within the same song. They bring you to a place where you feel uplifted and expansive and then a buoyant drum beat slowly falls apart, a soaring synthesizer quietly disappears and a soft, lonely voice emerges to express loss, remorse or fear.

The second to last song on the EP, “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy,” begins with an keening synthesizer that sounds like a melodic ambulance siren. Then a slightly reverbed acoustic guitar strums some major chords and Wayne Coyne begins singing about a mind that’s been “poisoned by your lies,” and that has been made “violent and strong.” This mind, though, resists this education into violence and plaintively wishes,

The beauty that surrounds me

The gentleness of love

I wish I could go back

And be a boy

Once again.

The song ends with Coyne repeating “the beauty that surrounds me” three times before the synthesizers quiet down, the drum beat stops and the machine comes to a halt.

I have listened to this song upwards of 50 times and the best way to describe “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy,” is to say that it’s not the kind of song that you can walk away from with a neutral mind. Just like you can’t walk away from a beautiful man or woman, or maybe even a fresh plate of sushi, without feeling a spasm of regret and longing. When everything in this song closes up and goes away, you are left wondering, longing, worrying and hoping. And this is important because that is what makes a great pop song in the same way it’s what makes a great poem, film or work of art. It pulls you in, messes you up a little bit inside and then turns you loose as you beg for more.

I get a similar feeling when I read the Irish poet, Eamon Grennan. In particular, I respond to one of his poems, “Pause,” in a similar way to “Think Like a Machine, Not a Boy.” The narrator of the poem is a father peeking out the front door window as his daughter emerges from the school bus that has  just dropped her off at the end of a school day. She “hurries through silence and snow grass,” and bursts through the front door, her voice immediately “filling every crack” of the home. As the narrator touches his daughter hello and then picks up her coat he quietly reflects,

In the pause before all this happens, you know something

about the shape of the oife you’ve chosen to live

between the silence of almost infinite possibility and that

explosion of things as they are—those vast unanswerable

intrusion of love and disaster, or just the causal scatter

of your child’s winter clothes on the hall floor.

And while The Flaming Lips are writing science fiction and Grennan is writing about the marvelous in the quotidian, both force us into a position, a way of seeing and feeling that makes us appreciative.

Beyond all that, though, listening to The Flaming Lips is a physical, visceral experience because when you listen to The Flaming Lips something really weird and wonderful happens to you and it’s this: the music goes right through you. Yes. It does. The music enters your body where it first makes contact, is absorbed by all of your pores, zips through your blood vessels, pumps through your heart, down through your lungs, pounds around your belly and intestines, plummets down to your lower extremities, bounces back up and then explodes out the top of your head. If you ever listen to The Flaming Lips and this does not happen, something is seriously wrong with you and you should go see a doctor immediately or just go back to listening to James Taylor.

The Original Cosmonauts 2014 CD

The Original Cosmonauts 2014 CD

I play in a band. We call ourselves The Original Cosmonauts. Last year we changed our name from Animal-Mineral-Vegetable to The Original Cosmonauts. Neither of our respective spouses approve of either of those names. Besides myself, the band is made up of Joe Kosowitz and Ben Brewer. Here we are in our studio, well, it’s the studio that Joe has in his basesment.

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Joe plays guitar and keys and  he is a wizard sound producer. Ben plays drums. I play bass, keyboards and guitar. Joe and I share lyric writing duties. We have been playing together since 2012.

Our families occasionally join us. Last year, Joe’s son helped us on a track called, “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I wrote the song with his son one day while we were practicing. The lyrics came from his son’s journal and he helped us sing the song, too. This past February, my kids helped us on the track, “Fly On.” Here, they are, working hard.

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Every February, we get together and write 10 original songs or 35 minutes of original music for a thing called the RPM Challenge ( This link will take your to our 2014 CD, “Fly On.”

Meeting Jeff Tweedy

On 18 February 2006, Sujata and I walked through the backstage door of the Gothic Theatre in Denver, found our way to the auditorium and sat ourselves in two chairs, center stage left.  Besides Jeff Tweedy, who was running through a sound check on stage, we were the only folks in the building.

Standing in the red spotlight, Tweedy seemed intense and forlorn at the same time, and I noticed that he was wearing the same rumpled and worn khaki Levi cords he’d worn the last three times I’d seen him. He was surrounded by 6 acoustic guitars, and he ripped through truncated versions of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Bob Dylan’s Beard,” “Shot in the Arm,” and “A Unified Theory of Everything.”  As Sujata snapped photos on here 35mm, I listened to his gravelly voice and the clangy guitar chords echoing off the concrete floor.


After he finished the final sound check, he unstrapped his guitar, hopped off the stage and started walking toward us. “Hi, I’m Jeff Tweedy.”

As we were talking, I told Tweedy that since I became a father 5 months ago, I’ve heard sentiments about childhood, parenting and growing up in the Wilco lyrics that I hadn’t notice previously.  This was no surprise to him. He stroked his chin and noted that when Wilco got together in 1995, he was becoming a father for the first time and was struggling with raising a child when he felt that he had yet to grow up.  He noted, too, that the cd, “Being There,” was originally slated with the title, “Baby.”  From there, we talked about the challenges and joys of parenting.  As we were talking about some of the challenges he wryly commented that his way of dealing with those things was to go on the road for extended periods of time.  He also went on to say that despite the fact that he was on the road so much, he felt that his kids had a better sense of his life and his career than he had of his own father’s life outside of the home, mostly because the kids traveled with him when they could, they made good use of their I-camera,  and his boy, a 10-year old aspiring drummer, would often play a few songs with the band when he accompanied them on the road.

As we were getting ready to leave the auditorium, I pulled out my copy of the Wilco book and asked Tweedy if he would sign the front cover for my son.  Before we left the house that evening, I slid a photo of Atticus into the front of the book, so when I opened to the frontispiece for Tweedy, I showed him Atticus’ picture.  He asked if Atticus was a fan and then he took the book and moved off to write. In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with the tour manager, who had come from backstage.  Tweedy seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to write in the book, and when he handed it back to me nearly two minutes later, he said, “It’s hard not to sound apocalyptic when I write notes to kids these days.” We laughed about that, Sujata snapped a few photos of Tweedy and me on her 35mm and then we shook hands and said our goodbyes.  As we were walking back to our car, I opened the book to see what Tweedy wrote.  Since he was at it for two or three minutes, I was expecting to read a few paragraphs of witty prose, but what I found instead was, “Dear Atticus, Never stop listening.  Jeff Tweedy.” When I expressed surprise at this, Sujata said that she watched him after he took the book from me and that he opened the front and just stared at it for a minute or so—he was thinking about what he wanted to write.

From this brief exchange, I learned a few things. First, it’s a wonderful thing to meet famous people who you admire and to realize that they are as gracious, sane, engaging and thoughtful as you’ve hoped them to be.  And, second, I realized that the real joy of this encounter with Tweedy was swapping stories about things that mattered a great deal to both of us:  being parents.


Later that evening, Sujata and I returned to the Gothic to watch the show. Tweedy took the stage and played acoustic versions of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo songs, and he threw in a few covers as well.  What struck me the most was a few exchanges he had with the audience:  after the first song, he said that he didn’t want to sound like a prick, but could people please be quiet while he was playing?  He went on to say that one thing he appreciated was silence and that people missed on a fundamental element of the human experience when they gathered together as we were tonight and could not just “shut the f#ck up!”  This was all delivered in his wry, half-serious/half-comic manner, but three chords into the next song, “Kidsmoke,” when he heard a few guys chatting up on the balcony, he stopped playing, held his hands out as if pleading and yelled, “Gentlemen, how can I serve you better?”  What happened then, was rather amazing: Tweedy stood his ground and he simply cajoled the audience to silence.  He said it was okay to sing along, but the background chatter was unacceptable.  In an ironic twist, Tweedy actually began heckling the crowd, and, in many ways shaming them to shush.  By the fourth tune, things had quieted down a bit, but not enough to Tweedy’s satisfaction, so he said, “Alright, if you won’t be quiet, I’ll just play without the PA.” And then he walked over to the PA system, flipped a switch and, voila, went into a stunning version of “New Madrid” without any amplification. At that, the place went dead quiet.  No one moved and it almost felt like the entire audience was hesitant to even breathe.  It’s ballsy enough to walk out on a stage with just an acoustic guitar and try to entertain 1000 people for two hours, but to actually unplug your instruments and turn off the microphone (rather than, turning it all up to drown out the audience)?  The rest of the show was quite simply one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life. The Tweedy songbook is full of heartfelt, passionate, emotionally difficult lyrics that create a nice tension between his ironic, borderline caustic stage presence.  Throughout the show, he continued to interact with the crowd, and there was even one point, in the middle of “War on War,” where he playfully stuck his tongue out at someone in the balcony who was making a ruckus.  There’s nothing sentimental about Jeff Tweedy, and he also has an inimitable way of saying things without actually saying them, so when he began his second encore with, “I’m the Man who Loves You,” I took that as a way of saying, “Thanks for coming,” and then when he came out for his sixth encore, unplugged the PA and the mic again and went into a rousing, heartfelt version of “Acuff/Rose,” a song that’s about a kind of invisible common culture.