Month: November 2019

This is our Celebrated Midlife Crisis

Mike from Five Eight wrote this great essay! We have a show Friday 22 November at Nowhere Bar in Athens! You should come see Five Eight! It’s an early show because we are old!

Sean drove his Audi through the hills of Tennessee the fall colors rolled out before us as sun set golden behind the mountains. There was new music to listen to but no shows to play. I had got away early from work, but I forgot my dopp kit and jammie pants. I had a pile of cash from selling my extra Jason Isbell tickets and a nagging feeling like I forgot something besides just sundries.

The road trip was really about our friend Doug. His love of music but more specifically his top two bands Dinosaur Jr and five eight. A few months ago, Doug (Rasmussen our old manager owner of Mighty City Music) sent a text asking who wanted to meet him in Nashville, “Dinosaur Jr was playing at the Exit Inn!” and ordinarily I would have just filed that idea in the box marked “Really cool stuff that I have no time for what-so-ever”.
For me a road trip with five eight is a chance to connect, to share the latest music, what has happened to everyone’s family and friends, what’s happening with the various side projects and most importantly how will we survive the current political climate. This trip however was just me and Sean driving to meet Doug. We had no set list to write, we had no radio station interview to go to, and when you start removing Patrick, Dan and PDP members from the van, I start having this weirdo, out of body, anxiety feeling, like hey, what am I alone with Sean in his car, for five hours for, and what the hell are we going to talk about, but this time magic happens, one on one.

Being a sensitive liberal, artistic type, middle aged man, I wonder how to connect with people sometimes. This weekend road trip helped me find one more way to do it. At one point between my theories on how to parent and what new books I’ve listened too on audible, Sean asked me to teach him what I knew about meditation. I said I would love to. Nothing, maybe happens, but something does at the hotel, and later the next morning Sean finds himself alone in the water of the universe of his thoughts. Sean is going through a hell of a lot of changes.

We were running late, and it was cold out. Doug was even later. I wore my red scarf from an Old Delhi street merchant. Dinner at Bartaco. I had cauliflower tacos and split brussel sprout tacos. We drank homemade alcohol-free sodas. Upside down wicker baskets for light fixtures and dimly lit bare bulbs hung from wooden shelves, interspersed between wine bottles. The place had an outdoor patio carnival vibe, perfect for the Mexican street food it was serving up. We raised our soda glasses to a clink, then we three brothers got to talking.
Sean had us leap into his world; with his wild story of depression, surrender, confusion and rushes of crushed hurt, love and longing. I won’t be able to relay the power of his divorce story in specific detail, but I love him, and his ex-wife and I wish them all the happiness they can find. Somehow this tragic mess of pain is carving a place for the two of them to find themselves in and maybe a remedy to the loneliness. I’m not sure anyone could get close to so much loss and transformation in one meal, but Doug made a go of it. You know when divorce comes it never just effects the two. It grabs the rest of us on the side lines with our opinions, our jealousy, our envy and cups of bitters.

This 57 year old got to the show in time to watch a gray long-haired Jay Mascis pour his lonely closed eye melodies into three Marshall stacks. I became aware that I was living my perfect dream life. A life I was watching through the lens of Sean’s camera, which was opening a wild world around me in the crowd of Dinosaur Jr. fans. A world that I never knew existed. The longing love affair of a creamy skinned mascara girl’s soft kiss. Her thick Maybelline lashes on cheek of the campy jacketed boy, “They speak the language of heroin” Sean whispers to me “it’s a deep drug sleep” he spoke between the 133 DB songs. Was that wishful thinking of an addict or just surreal truth surfacing?

Don’t you love it when someone says, “The show kicked ass?” or “Had a blast on the trip!” Do you ever stop to think “What does that mean?” I think people want to share the “amazing moments” with someone. That night I saw Kevin Sweeney back behind the shaky stacks of amps. I yelled at him yet he didn’t hear but I didn’t want to lose my audience vantage point, so I just let the connection slide.

The mix of the show was amazing. I could hear Jay’s voice clearly and Murphy’s drums thundered. I could have used a little more-base but Lou’s manic, body swaying, head banging, long hair in his face, sweating, thrusting, smashing, fierce, about to lose his shit, temper tantrum, greasy song energy, made up for lack of tone. At one-point Lou kept running behind his amp stack constantly yelling to the backstage crew. It was obvious to everyone that something was terribly wrong, but the abandoned playing, did not let up, for even a mil a second. He was running back forth like a mad scientist: from Murph’s side to lock in, then quickly back to the side stage. Finally, he explained to the crowd and his band mates that he was happy to be here playing but the lights were so bright on his side of the stage that he could not see the frets of his bass.

As I write this, in Sean’s Audi, as a passenger, doing about 90 mph, the weekend has ended for the three blood brothers and although we didn’t, “bag a buck, throw any beer bottles, place dollars on any girls, score fifty yard tickets to the bulldogs game” (not that any of these things aren’t worthy pursuits) we did see a kick ass punk rock show and ate at least two awesome meals. We barely missed getting sucked up into the Nashville strip bus tour tourist trap, saved by lack of clearly delineated parking and a used copy of Tobias Wolfe short stories that was calling my name form the trunk of the car.

Finally in a moment of sheer masculinity and determination to “get shit done” Sean made us fill out our 7th SXSW application and we’ve been accepted!!! No doubt thanks in part to Marc Pilvinsky’s documentary on the band.

So the point of this little rant is to tell you to celebrate these momentous achievements of our midlife crisis at the early Nowhere Bar this Friday doors at 7:00 pm.

Look, I’m Sorry I Threw a Bottle at Your NewGrass Band, Topher, But Here’s Why it Happened.

Look, Topher, I’m sorry I threw a bottle at your NewGrass band. It was uncalled for and impolite, and I would understand why you’re a little confused and angry, right now. I do sincerely apologize, but I also feel the need to maybe clarify what I was thinking right before I slung Dierdra’s half-empty bottle of Sweetwater 420 at you.

There are a lot of names for this music y’all are stabbing at: Old Timey, String Band, Bluegrass, Mountain Music, etc. I’m a little older than you- we grew up calling it “pickin’”, and it got played by a lot of my family members at weddings, funerals, holiday gatherings, what have you. Bluegrass wasn’t big with the whole family, of course. Certain older ladies felt that songs about murder and whisky had no place in a house with children and church folks in it, so sometimes the players had to go the basement or the garage.

To clarify: I didn’t hurl that bottle at you because I think you’re terrible at playing music. You’re not GREAT, but you seem to know which end of a banjo gets picked and which end gets mashed on. Y’all do seem about 15 to 20 years early to start calling yourself “pickers,” though. I reckon if you take a lesson from tonight and you don’t hang it up and go to law school or get an MBA, you might get to the point where you can show up at the barbershop and hold your own. Eventually.

And I do appreciate you sprinkling in some classic old tunes like “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Frankie and Johnnie” in between your own songs about weed and flying saucers “landin’ in the holler,” I guess. But maybe don’t smile like a jack’o’lantern when you’re singing the last verse of “Pretty Polly.” Polly was begging for her life before the narrator drove a knife into her. It’s not like he was swiping left.

And about all this talk about “hollers” and “moonshine stills.” Number one, you couldn’t find a holler with three flashlights and a map. You’re from Marietta. I’d say “Write what you know,” but nobody wants to hear string band music about Panera. Also, “still” is just short for “distiller.” Nobody says “moonshine still.” You don’t make anything else in a still. That’s like saying “eating spoon,” or “chopping axe.” It’s just “still,” Topher. Just say “still.”

I could’ve probably hung in there and let it all go, and had a pleasant enough evening listening to Dierdra talk about massage therapy school, until your fiddle player started his “mountain preacher tent revival” schtick. Look, I know you boys think hillbilly culture is Quaint, and Charming, if a little, heh heh, BACKWARDS. I know Simon and his “fiddle” dropped out of Julliard, and that one strap button on his overalls has never, ever been buttoned. I know it all seems like a distant picture postcard of The Simple Life, of A Better Time, et fucking cetera.

I have a little different take on my own people, though, and they’re not cartoon characters. My grandparents clawed their way up out of the Depression, eating what they could grow and hunt, fishing for survival, and breaking their bodies in mills and garages. They held themselves with dignity, even when their hands throbbed from working in the cold, and their backs ached from being bent in labor. They trusted in God, lifted each other up, and never borrowed a dime from the bank. They sometimes had little, often did without. They left their homes in the hills and in the Piedmont to cross the ocean in enormous grey ships and hit the beach at Normandy. They held the beach, marched to Berlin, saw all of the attendant horrors of war, then made the journey home and never spoke of again.

So, while I was mostly able to ignore Jeremy’s arhythmic clawhammer picking, and the song about “Wacky Weed,” and your hyuck-hyucking and DRAWLing between songs, when Simon started bucking, and stomping his goddamn foot, and hollering about “JEEE-zus,” and “Resisting the DEBBIL,” I must admit that I allowed myself to come a little unmoored.

I’m not a religious man, which caused my grandmother no little suffering, but I am not without some pride. My first thought was to say goodnight to Deirdra, wish her the best in acupuncture class, or whatever she was talking about, and roll out, but then Simon started in on “HOMMASEXSHULS” and “FORNICATION” and I thought “Ok, enough of this shit.”

The pickers in my family worked jobs. They played for the sheer joy of playing. They did not sing perfect harmonies, they did not always remember all of the words, and they were imperfect men, but they struggled to accept the modern world, and they tried to meet everyone with love and kindness.

Simon’s mawkish, almost colonial, impression of those men is born of a deep contempt, and frankly, I have enjoyed about all of that garbage I can stand. I would invite you to watch the documentary “Harlan County, USA,” particularly the scene where the film crew visits the widows of the men killed in a recent mine cave-in. They’re just girls, really, barely into their 20s, and they are dressed in taffeta and bows, probably in the prettiest dresses available in whatever dime store downtown sprang up to tempt the dreams of miners’ wives and daughters. Even poor women want to feel beautiful, sometimes.

I suspect that they dressed up for the film crew because they thought that maybe there was a tiny chance that this time in front of the camera had something to do with Hollywood. When there’s only one movie screen in a company town, one doesn’t see a lot of documentaries. The whole concept might not have dawned on them.

But they are friendly, and gracious, and although I can’t remember their exact words, I remember how searing it was to hear them talk about the terrible day they heard the sirens wail. The sirens were to alert the community that a tunnel had collapsed, meaning that someone’s husband, or father, or son wouldn’t be coming home. And yet, they laugh and smile, a little giddy to meet an actual film crew.

And when they laugh, they daintily cover their mouths. And if you’re from where I’m from, you know why. It is to hide their teeth, because they know that people who don’t live in coal towns, mill towns, and hollers, don’t have teeth like theirs. They know that movie stars don’t have teeth that ache at night, and twist in odd directions, and are so much trouble that eventually you go to the dentist two towns over and have the bent, throbbing survivors pulled out. Old timers would tell you that teeth are so much trouble, “You’re better off shut of them.”

I’m sorry that I let my anger get the best of me, but there was just so much of it at that moment. Oceans of anger.

The bottle missed Simon, but it did silence him as he felt the wind of its passing on his face. I’m sorry that I threw it. I’m sorry that your bass player, Thomas, took it full on the mouth. I regret the whole affair.
Perhaps, though, going forward, Thomas won’t have to use a Sharpie to blacken out that tooth. He’s better off shut of it, anyway.

Why I Love the Video of Anthony Bourdain and Sean Brock in Waffle House

The video has 1.8 million views on YouTube. I have watched it a dozen times, myself. I return to it because it will be as close as I ever come to having a late-night conversation with Anthony Bourdain. I am not sure why I feel this loss so keenly, but I do.

The voice-over narration sets the tone: “It is indeed an irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” reads Bourdain, as the cameras shoot stark portraits of the burglar bars over the windows of a Charleston Waffle House. (Why burglar bars, though, for a place that never closes?) The last bit of this is a paraphrase from a quote in Kurt Vonnegut’s book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.” “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” was Billy Pilgrim’s ironic epitaph for veterans who survived the grisly horror of the march to Berlin. It is, of course, a lie.

The scene itself is nearly as familiar to every Southern musician as the dots on a fretboard, or the gap between the snare drum and rack tom: A Waffle House after last call, the parking lot bathed in the flashing lights of a police car, the diners inside enjoying a temporary reprieve denied the outside losers of the thousand-dollar cat and mouse game of “I can make it home, I’m fine,” and the defenders of Law and Order.

Anthony is shithoused and laughing. Sean Brock is there, loquacious and joyful, defending the guilty pleasure of us all, but without any shame. And here is why I think some of us love it so much: Sean, with his soft Southern accent, is undeniably from working-class roots. Underneath the table, he’s probably wearing the same shoes he works in: kitchen shoes, with their greasy funk, familiar to anyone who has ever walked on the squishy rubber mats of a line, or slung steaming plates out to anxious expediters, screaming for “MORE NUMBER TENS, NOW!”

Anthony is a celebrity chef. A man who can walk with ease into restaurants where the bill would be a mortgage payment for most of us, but Anthony would never see the bill, because he is above even that rarified strata, now. “Tony” is a doyen of the world where culture and food collide, a world where most of us would be ashamed to lift the lid on a pot of our grandmother’s beans, but a place about which we have endless curiosity.

And yet, Sean is unafraid. Sean is from Pound, Virginia, not far from the Red Onion State Prison, an oddly named Supermax prison where every inmate is in solitary confinement.

Sean and Anthony sit on the same side of a booth, with plates of nearly everything that Waffle House makes spread out in front of them. A tasting menu of everything both pedestrian and sublime.

“You don’t come here expecting the French Laundry,” says Sean, around a mouthful of pecan waffle, “You come here expecting something AMAZING.”

“This is better than the French Laundry, man,” Bourdain says.

And there it is. Sean represents something very important to me. You can get from my hometown to his hometown in about three and a half hours, pedal to the metal, winding through the mountains. He is a rocker: tattooed and boozy, a workaholic even on his night off, and though I’ve heard that he, like me, is no longer a bucket into which to pour bourbon, he still has the tattoos that probably troubled his grandmother as much as they troubled mine. He has put in the hours. I mean the hours and hours and hours and HOURS of work it took to claw his way up into the outer fringes of respectability.

Husk began in Charleston, a frontier outpost of the cultured class. Husk is just blocks from the very wooden post to which stolen black bodies were lashed to be auctioned off into a short, brutal life, hacking cotton out of the iron-hard earth. A friend visiting from England once noticed that the only black people he saw working front-of-house in Charleston were at Husk. Everywhere else, black men and women were hidden behind kitchen doors, as they have been in Charleston for 400 years.

Bourdain is from New York City. While New York hides its racial animus much more discreetly, Bourdain has spoken at great length and with great clarity about how much he knows he benefits from his privilege. Southerners know, on an intuitive level, how much disdain is reserved in Bourdain’s world for the vulgarity of The Southern Thing.

But here is Sean Brock, and here is Waffle House, and here is Bourdain, through Four Roses-tinted glasses, seeing it for the first time, and rhapsodizing about its greatness. This is due, most likely, to Sean being such a fearless advocate. And I love him for it.

Waffle House is what it is: Humble, consistent, a little trashy, but egalitarian and hard-working.

For a moment, Bourdain was happy, bathed in the “warm, yellow glow” of a 3AM Waffle House, and the loving attention of his friend Sean. They’re both drunk and laughing. And Sean, bless him, is unbowed in his enthusiasm to show off the closest thing most Southern towns have to a New York diner. He knows his friend Tony is also Mr. Anthony Bourdain, a man with Opinions That Matter, and with a palate refined by years of Michelin-starred dining rooms, and yet he implores him to explore the “sauce-work” in the bottle of Heinz 57.

In the uncensored version, Sean says “Fuck the French Laundry, this is where I want to be.” Bourdain laughs and Sean laughs, and for a minute, it appears, nothing hurt.