Under a Neon Moon

As Long As There's Light. . .
Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Under a Neon Moon

When the sun goes down on my side of town, that lonesome feeling comes to my door. The whole world turns blue. There’s a rundown bar cross the railroad tracks. I’ve got a table for two way in the back where I sit alone and think of losing you. I spend most every night beneath the light of this neon moon… If you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely to watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams of a neon moon .  Brooks & Dunn, “Under A Neon Moon”

A guy can’t really ever become a dude until he’s suffered from his first broken heart. There’s nothing quite as humbling as getting your guts surgically removed by an indifferent female and left like road kill by the side of some country road. Yet, when life decides to perform open heart surgery, there is no better anesthetic than an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” Hank Williams song. We seem to find solace in country music – the ballads and their lyrical, maudlin bellyaching . It’s just nice knowing that some poor idiot has passed through this place before us.  The music helps us get outside ourselves and discover our capacity to cope and eventually  rejoin the long gray line of “dudes”.

I still recall the dull ache of a certain July 4th weekend when my budding college romance was gutted by 2000 miles of summer. My dream job had landed me in Missoula, MT as a day hand working at a dude ranch while my love interest had parachuted into a Wall Street investment bank internship.  As I lived out the first few weeks of my Norman McLean fly fishing fantasy, she was slowly being seduced by the Big Apple and her 35-year-old boss.  It was clear after a succession of emotionless and increasingly distant phone calls that she had lost interest – – finding someone older, wiser and with an expense account.

I remained sullen for days, wallowing in self-pity. I was even more annoyed that my martyred behavior was going completely unnoticed by my bunkhouse mates –  a silent sinew of cowboys who rarely spoke or paid much mind to me unless I asked them a direct question.  Always keeping their own counsel and not wanting to meddle in anyone’s affairs, these emotional tree stumps saw nothing abnormal in the fact that I had been dumped – or as they like to call it, “bucked off a filly”.

The cowboys finally tired of my melancholy and set about “fixing me” – – admitting me to their midnight fraternity which convened each evening over beer and music to share emotional war stories and malign the opposite sex.  We were an odd remuda of misfits that had at one time or another been a passenger on love’s ship of fools.  I had been stung hard and my friends were concerned about the possibility of a rebound relationship.  While I had managed to offend most of the cabin girls at the ranch with my college boy arrogance, the town of Missoula still abounded with willing small town girls and the occasional divorcee with two young kids that worked as the check out girl at the local Super Save.

I was told to abstain from “wimun” for thirty days and report each night for therapy. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment always concluded with the prescription: “Take a few beers and call me in the morning.”  Physical therapy required me to join five rail thin dudes in filthy jeans and cowboy boots as we crammed into the cab of a rusted Ford pickup.  We would drive along the ancient Blackfoot river at dusk – –  seven dusty miles to a dimly lit roadside bar where we would listen to music, drink and shoot pool.

The juke box played only country and western music.  In Montana, The Doors were things you walked through.  The Boss was someone you worked for and the Grateful Dead were war heroes.  Music and life lessons were taught each night by professors Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Anderson, Ronnie Millsap and Tanya Tucker.  The lyrics seemed written just for me and each night, a different surgeon would seek to suture my eviscerated self-esteem. Each ballad sought to assure its listener that life was not over but in fact, on the cusp of being lived more deeply. I was neither the first nor the last person to ever allow a female get the best of him.

The wranglers with whom I shared the bunkhouse fell in and out of love at the drop of a ten gallon hat.  A guest/ranch hand affair had a shorter life expectancy than a lightening bug in a room full of flypaper. Each week was a soap opera with an all too predictable script. Introduce one new single female guest. Stir in the ingredients of ten wranglers. Watch as a doomed relationship heats up between successful Wrangler A and a clearly out-of-his-league female guest B. Their romance percolates like cowboy coffee over a morning campfire and heats up at BBQs by the river and under the spell of crimson sunsets.

There was something in that fresh Montana air. Perhaps it was the glimpse of a less complicated life or the sudden absence of confusing urban materialism that stirred some latent homesteading gene in these city girls – driving them into the arms of these weathered, sinewy, reliable, monosyllabic cowboys who worked like ants – lifting ten times their weight, stringing a mile of barbed wire, and still having the stamina to dance all night to the Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Tragically, the perfume of moonlit nights and high alpine sage faded into the musky reality of earthy communication, limited professional prospects and a parochial inability to know the exact location of Atlanta, Georgia.  The red hot romantic fire would quickly smolder. All the while, a distant transistor radio would sit illuminated in the bunk house window playing classic country music that hung like smoke of a distant forest fire.

In the summer of 1981,  country music became forever burned into my musical liturgy.  I instantly identified with the tortured baritone of Keith Whitley, a gifted rising country star who chose fame over family and drank himself to death. His penchant for self destruction battles with his self awareness and self effacing humor in each song.   In ” It Ain’t Nothin”, Whitley is “lower than well digger’s shoes, knee-deep in a mess of blues.” In his haunting signature song, “ I’m No Stranger To The Rain “, Keith seemed to understand that he could never escape his own demons. “I’m no stranger to the rain. I’m a friend of thunder.  Lord, is it any wonder lightning strikes me ?  I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level, but I never gave in so he gave up on me…”

I never forgot those feelings or the promise that I would recover to love again. There was integrity in the music and century-old, oak understanding in the lyrics.  Above all, this music was all American.  The songs were anthems to our way of life and dedicated to everyday men and women enduring hard knocks and taking risks.  Whether the singer got his or her black eye from a lost job, broken marriage or lost opportunity, every song seemed to revolve around having the courage to carry on. The songs also remind you to celebrate the little treasures of life –butterfly kisses at night with a young daughter or remembering to live your life like you were dying.  Country is not about serving yourself first, it’s about putting service ahead of yourself – – to your country, family and those less fortunate.  They are ballads of the broken and the brave. They preach personal responsibility and perseverance.

Country captures what it is like for those who live within the noble lines of life. It’s music fills a void in many of us. It teaches the value of family, and the simple pleasures that arise out of hard work and sacrificing for something that is worth the wait.  It serenades those who live, love and labor — and celebrates our authenticity and nationalism while lamenting our broken dreams, imperfection and disappointment. It’s all part of our personal life lessons as a people and as a country.

In the end, Americans are as durable as denim. When we get bogged down by our own divisiveness and self pity, we occasionally need to be kicked in the ass – perhaps in a song. The lyrics are sharp and to the point — tomorrow’s another day and nothing happens until someone starts doing something.  And don’t forget to give it everything you got. After all, that’s what it means to be “country strong”.

Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics

I am a child, I’ll last a while. You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.

You hold my hand, rough up my hair, it’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

I am a Child, Neil Young

The band was Buffalo Springfield – Bruce Palmer, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  It was 1968 and they had released what would be their final album – The Last Time Around.  A teenaged hippy baby sitter named David was watching us for the evening.  I am certain when my father saw him in his psychedelic shirt and Birkenstocks, he mourned for the future of America.  The teenager was holding a number of record albums under his arm. “ Hey, little dudes”, he cooed as he flipped back his hair, surveying the four boys under 13.  My dad gave my mother that one last “ are you sure about this look”.  She smiled.  He was the oldest son of one of her dearest friends and was a great kid.  “ let’s go, Miles” she said.

Within seconds of my parents reversing onto the street and driving off toward some exotic liaison with other adults in a land of tinkling martini glasses and swirling perfume, the loading mechanism was dropping an LP on to the rotating turntable.  Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young initiated the first track called On The Way.  As David grinned and fell into my father’s favorite lounge chair, I gathered on the floor and listened.  Eight songs later, a gentle harmonica led Neil Young into a soft ballad about being a kid.  “ I Am A Child” was the first melody where I can recall hearing the lyrics that were about me and how I felt.  The question of “what is the color, when black is burned?” came to symbolize for me a unfiltered world filled with innocent wonder.

Someone once reflected that “music is what feelings sound like.”  When you become a teenager, music, lyrics, books and perhaps your best friend are the only things in life that can be trusted.  As a writer filled with teenaged angst, I fashioned myself a lyricist and wrote bad songs – I mean, really bad songs, inspired by a counter cultural generation of poet songwriters who used words and music as a wedge to liberate feelings that lay trapped behind a generational door.  Whether it was Jackson Brown warning me that the “ the (earth’s) fuse was burning” or Stephen Stills reminding me to savor “ those top down nights when the air was red wine”, these sages of song seemed to know what lay ahead on the highway of life.

My first exposure to the mystical power of the lyrics was in 1977 on a silky Southern California summer night as we sat in my friend Phil’s bedroom screwing up our courage to play the White Album by the Beatles backwards.  It was rumored that the Charles Manson and his blood thirsty “family” had slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca along with actress Sharon Tate after hearing hidden messages on the White Album’s Revolution Number Nine.  “ If you play it backwards, the song says, ‘turn me on dead man’.” Sean warned.  Our other friend Brian nodded, knowingly. He was clearly disturbed by our experiment.  It was if we were playing with a Ouiji board on his grandmother’s grave.  He and Sean were devout Catholics and this all seemed like some great cosmic felony to be gathering like devil worshippers to play an LP that divined satanic messages to druggies and psychopaths.

We turned the record in reverse and slowly increased the volume.  It was scratchy at first- perhaps sounding the way Thomas Edison’s voice groaned as he invented his talking gramophone.  But, I could hear it, amidst the swirling mayhem of anarchic music in reverse – a ghostly moan repeating: “ Man-yon-min–man.  Man-yon-min-man”.  In retrospect, it was complete gibberish.  But at that moment, as I looked Brian, who sat like a stupefied granite statue, I felt a cold chill.  Had we sent some demonic homing signal into the night that could only be heard by murderers and long haired Satanists.

“ Did you hear it? He whispered.” I heard it!”  Not wanting to be left out, I agreed that the cryptic modulation could have been from beyond instructing us to go out and wreak mayhem on capitalists – whatever those were.  Just then Phil’s Mom stuck her head in the door and we all jumped ten feet into the air, looking guilty as if we had been caught using bloody chicken feet to outline pentagrams in some secret Satanist ceremony.  “Boys, it’s time to ride your bikes home.  It’s getting late and Mrs. O’Brien just called.” We looked outside and realized that the lingering afternoon had descended into sinister night.  “ You guys gotta go.” Phil confirmed. It sounded like a death sentence.

Brian and Sean disappeared together under weak, intermittent streetlamp light that barely fought off the shadows that sought to take over the empty road.  A van passed slowly and seemed to hesitate as it rolled by.  I was suddenly convinced that the entire Manson gang was following me home ready to plunge forks into my body and carve Helter Skelter in my rear end.  On that fateful night, I broke a land speed record covering three miles on a ten- speed while making countless deals with God that in exchange for my safe passage I would never tamper with the occult or malevolent lyrics again.

Yet, while others devoured music, I savoured the lyrics.  While people fawned over Dylan, I drank in the truth of Simon and Garfunkel and became a closet acolyte of Paul Simon, the songwriter– an oracle who lived in a province governed by emotions and physical forces.  In my lifetime, his lyrics have led me through the ghettos of Soweto and into the lives of the inspired, lost, indigent and misunderstood. “Kodachrome” reminded us how we gild the colors of our past and “ Me and Julio” introduced us to Mama Pajama in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. He urged us to go look for “America”.

Lesser known artists created singular works of art – testimonials to the marginalized of their generation.  Janis Ian summed up the broken glass and dark corridors of adolescence in “Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skinned smiles who married young and then retired. The valentines I never knew. The Friday night charades of youth were spent on one more beautiful. At seventeen I learned the truth. And those of us with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and murmured vague obscenities. It isn’t all it seems, at seventeen. “

John Lennon’s “Imagine” challenged us to think about a world devoid of war and hate. Don McClean’s American Pie became an anthem to America and rock and roll. Jim Morrison’s tortured literary genius was posthumously set to music and released by former band mates Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzerek and John Dunsmore in An American Prayer.  I feasted on every offering of free verse, attempting to conjure up my anthems to the sacred and the profane – dead Indians, women in ginger nylons, angels and sailors.  This turned out to be more difficult to accomplish in a sedate suburb cocoon where ballads about men with leaf blowers, postmen gone bad and car pool moms who choose to turn left and never look back did not seem to capture the imagination of anyone except perhaps, a child psychiatrist. I would have to wait until life led me into darker, rugged places where the raw minerals of insight and truth could be mined and forged into lyrics that could change the world.

I continued to listen between the lines of the music.  I became a boorish anthology of stories and useless anecdotes about the genesis of songs and the truth behind the music.  My world was shattered one evening when watching a special on the 60’s band Iron Butterfly.  The song, Indagaddadavida, soared up the charts in 1968 and was heralded as the convergence of psychedelic rock and heavy metal – a fulcrum moment in the evolution of the school of rock.  The seventeen minute song was analyzed, memorialized and canonized by legions of bobble headed burn-outs in search of truth and a party.

Years later, band members drummer Ron Bushy and Doug Ingle purportedly admitted that the title song was really intended to be called “ In The Garden of Eden” but that Ingle was so drunk during the recording session that he slurred the words to the track and the alternative version stuck.  All the years wasted trying to define the origins of the word

“Indagaddadavida”.  Sometimes, I learned, the lyrics were just in fact, words and the music was in fact, just music.  Things can be exactly what they appear to be, like the world seen through the unfiltered eyes of a child:

You are a man.  You understand. You pick me up and you lay me down again.

You make the rules, You say what’s fair. It’s lots of fun to have you there.

God gave to you, now, you give to me, I’d like to know what you learned.

The sky is blue and so is the sea. What is the color, when black is burned?

What is the color?

Walking Before You Run

Walking Before You Run


I like to run.  I suppose it is really jogging since two guys pushing a car once actually passed me on Weed Street.  Suffice to say, it is movement beyond walking.  My gait resembles a hobbled horse and at night, my hulking silhouette sometimes causes oncoming cars to swerve. “Good God, Sue, what the hell was that?”  For all I know, I could have been mistaken for the bear haunting the hollows of Lost District last year. 


While my “prosperous” physique seems inconsistent with my exercise regimen, the fact is jogging has been an important thread in the fabric of my life.  The fact that I even admit this is quite the revelation since the first 20 years of my life had me gravitating toward any activity that involved the least amount of physical exertion possible.  In Southern California, there were no curling teams or chess clubs so I chose baseball as it seemed a sport with a lot of standing, sitting and the occasional ninety foot run if you were lucky enough to hit the ball.  Players like Boog Powell, Willie Stargell and Tony Gwynn waddled their ways around the bases and into the Hall of Fame. These beefy bombers were my heroes.  They clearly preferred Sprites over sprints.


In a weak moment of bravado, I consented to play Pop Warner football. It was Dante’s Inferno – each day a virtual Bataan Death March with two a day practices in smog and heat that would have me literally dry heaving – – before even arriving at practice.  No place was safe from activity.  In school PE, we had a day a week where we had to run a timed mile.  24 hours prior to the weekly “600s”, I developed a series of mysterious ailments that would defy logic, my parents and our pediatrician.  Within 48 hours, the symptoms would lift miraculously as if I had drank water from the grotto at Lourdes.  There were times when I simply could not avoid the hell run hosted by our PE teacher “Herr” Stebben, whose Leroy Neiman moustache would twitch with sadistic anticipation as the herd of shuffling seventh graders moved in a great dust cloud for the first of three 600 yard laps around the school.  At the far end of the baseball field was an equipment/scorer shack where the running rejects would hide like Christians in the catacombs bonded by a physical aversion to exercise. Like Rosie Ruiz, our plan was to rejoin the third and final lap and claim victory.  It was in this dingy garret that my blood brothers in lethargy and I would tell whopping lies about our prowess in sports and with girls. 


Baseball eventually betrayed me and became more physically taxing in high school.  I was so optimistic with the advent of the designated hitter.  No fielding, just hitting and sitting.  Unfortunately, our coach was a fan of the National League.  We ran wind sprints and engaged in endless base stealing drills.  Given that I had the mobility of a house plant, I played first base.  This carried to college where I was switched to third, an equally immobile position, and dubbed “The Turtle “ for my cat like reflexes.  I remained inspired by such physically fit pro players as a young David Wells, Cecil Fielder and Gorman Thomas.


Upon graduation I met and fell in love with a woman who had run practically every day of her life since the age of 12.  Her father had calves the size of Popeye and a six miler was routine to start a Saturday.  On our first date she suggested we run a few miles and I eagerly agreed without any hesitation.  Within a half mile, my lips were purple and I had gone five shades of gray.  “Are you ok?”,she asked putting a hand on my shoulder. 

“Fine” was all I could chirp for fear of hurling my breakfast all over her. Another mile and I suggested we stop while I use the bathroom where I promptly threw up.  I awoke the next day with sensations not unlike the bubonic plague and knots in my hamstrings like the rubber bands on a wooden glider. Yet, I kept with it and running became my primary means of exercise as I traveled on work and vacation.  I dropped 30lbs and started to run 10Ks and half marathons.  Ever the balanced, moderate person, I would get up at 4am to be sure I could get in my run.  I would feel so alive, intoxicated by endorphins, as I navigated dimly lit residential streets dodging dogs, trash collectors and the occasional flying newspaper.  I had become what I used to despise – – a runner. 


While living in Europe, jogging gave me a deeper appreciation for the cities where I was conducting business.  I had a favorite running route in Barcelona down the Rambla and across the marina to the beachfront and on to the Olympic Village.  The route returned through narrow alleys and ancient streets through the Jewish quarter and spilled onto the Plaza Catalunya.  Madrid’s Parque Retiro was lined with great shaded elms and a sanctuary to jog at dusk as generations of family members would walk arm in arm.  The pace of Spain reminded you that you need not always be in such a hurry.  Rome was a death defying chaotic ballet as you navigated Vespas, cars and trucks, swirling like mosquitoes.  You course through the bucolic Villa Borghese, winding down to the Spanish Steps and finish triumphant at the Forum.  Paris is remembered as a chilled winter jog across the Trocadero and down to stand under the Tour Eiffel, watching steam rise from your body as the colored lights danced up and down the great Tower. Istanbul was a cacophony of honking horns, traffic, staring people and motorcycles.  It always felt as if I was wearing a giant sandwich board saying, “ Hi, I am soooo foreign. I would make a great hostage”. 


In London, the short winter days had me running at night and invariably, into the wild, Wimbledon Common that transformed from peaceful oasis by day to malevolent woods after dark.  A particularly gruesome murder had occurred years back on the Common and its memory lingered like a black fog and became the stuff of local legend. The suspect who was identified but never convicted was rumored to still be living in a flat adjacent to the running trails.  I remember jumping about ten feet in the air whenever a spectral squirrel or sinister rabbit would cut across my path.  I am ashamed to admit that on one highly paranoid night, I grabbed a six foot branch and ran with it like a jousting ram ( I assume in hopes that a would be pursuer might actually attempt to assault me from the front and in doing so, I could skewer them)   After running a half mile with the medieval weapon, I fell out of the woods exhausted near the Fox and Grapes pub where three young men looked at me as I stumbled, gasping for air holding my giant stick.  “Right” was all they said.


These days, my jogs are half runs and the occasionally bout of walking.  Spies routinely report me to my spouse by innocently saying, “I saw your husband out walking today”.  “Walking?” she would say and then I get that disappointed “you lazy man” look. Alas, my cadence has changed from thoroughbred to Clydesdale.  Yet, there are times, when the knees stop hurting and the hip is not acting up, when I find myself in that perfect zone.  A song by Blind Melon comes on the old iPod and I am suddenly flying along narrow country roads lined by ancient stone walls and sequined ponds.  The wind whips up and hints that something exciting is on its way.  I stop and soak it all in – – walking slowly, breathing deeply and enjoying the moment.  A car approaches from the west and veers slightly to pass as I stroll basking in my solitude.  The driver recognizes me and honks a greeting.  


Shoot!  I think they saw me walking….  



 Apple has sold millions of its popular “ipod”, MP3 player in the last six years.  The ipod has accomplished in the MP3 space what Starbucks has achieved in retail coffee – – the creation of a nation of addicts.  The device has caused metamorphosis at Apple as well, transforming the PC upstart into a successful consumer electronics company.  Ipod has begun to shape and mold a generation.  The nuclear family who once talked at the dinner table, played mind numbing games like “ I Spy “ on family car trips and walked down the street keenly aware of all conversations and the community around them, has changed forever.  Each day, millions of children, teens and adults insert the signature white earphones – – a sort of evil tap root stretching from some invisible umbilicus  pumping music into their brains, oblivious to noise, weather or perhaps a family member who has fallen and cannot get up.

I finally succumbed to the relentless accusations that we were indeed the “last family in North America who did not have ipods”.  Santa surreptitiously left four ipod shuffles and one ipod Nano underneath the tree for Christmas.  He must have been laughing as his sleigh pulled out of sight because my life has never been the same.  My office was quickly reduced to what looked like a crime scene with green boxes ripped open, white entrails of head phones and UBS port cords, installation CDs and of course, four rectangular plastic devices the size of a Bic lighter.  With reckless bravado, I sat down to attempt to “register” the first ipod on the computer.  A few clicks and some information and I was done.  Voila!  How easy was that?  I attempted the second ipod and ran into a few difficulties.  It seems the “second” ipod was not recognized by the computer as its host computer.  Apparently the first ipod had mated with the Dell Computer and they had entered into a monogamous relationship. The instructions suggested in such emergencies that I merely click on the “Restore” button.  Never click anything that says “Restore” – – this applies to cryogenically frozen relatives, used batteries and anything with a hard drive.  Restore means erase everything on the hard drive, which included my daughter’s songs that I had recently purchased and downloaded.  It was on this Heart of Darkness journey down Silicon Alley that I discovered the clever snare that is — the Apple ipod.

 Many of Apple’s ipod brands are closed platforms.  It is the equivalent of working in the coal mine and then having to buy your tools and food from the company store.  You can only buy music online from iTunes.  The device is fragile.  It is expensive to buy but not so expensive to where the cost and hassle to get it repaired is not worth the aggravation.  That is, if you can find anyone who will repair it.  Most retailers will not handle repairs.  My theory is that you must send all broken ipods to Steve Jobs’ cousin Mitch who just happens to run an electronics repair store in Naples, Florida.

 The ipod Nano is a .99 cent slot machine that never pays off.  Nanos also only acknowledge authorized computers.  The devices always boomerang you back to, you guessed it, iTunes.  The iTunes store itself seems like a giant crack house where music addicts can disappear for days, only to emerge pale, fleeced of their money and exhibiting signs download withdrawal.  As if adding insult to injury, Apple has developed every conceivable accessory so that even fetuses can have a selection of music piped en-utero.  These devices are called Amniopods.

 Psychologists were the first to observe the ipod nation phenomena.  Terms like “Podaphiles” became commonplace in medical journals.  There is an actual ipod Anonymous website where people can share “their experience, strength and hope with each other so they might solve their common problems with downloading music and help others to achieve musical sobriety.”  One addict shared, “ it started so subtly with a few downloads of Rap and some hip hop, and it just escalated to where I was living in a basement apartment in SoNo, downloading obscure German polkas and Albanian folk songs. Things got way out of hand.”  As a rule of thumb, if you start downloading music by groups like Sonic Death Monkeys or Seven Poison Dwarves, you need help.  Other bloggers are out to take a bite out of big, bad Apple.  An Australian website recently awarded Apple its coveted “2006 Choices” Prize for the most “shonky “device on the market.  A friend from Oz tells me that shonky means dubious or underhanded.  There is even an ipod Death Clock website where you can input all of your ipod’s particulars and predict the exact hour and minute that your ipod will die.

 With all that said, I remain addicted.  I am hardly the frenetic dancing silhouette on the TV ads.  Actually my dancing shadow would probably resemble two rhinos fighting over a donut.  I have been downloading music and have found myself at times drifting into some strange musical neighborhoods.  I have had a few “incidents”.  I recently showed a friend my ipod and was relating all of its operational subtleties.  We discussed my musical interests which widely range from The Grateful Dead and Neil Young to Brazilian Jazz.  I turned on the ipod and a song entitled “My Fo-Fo “by some guy named Fat Joe populated the digital screen.  After we listened to the rapper, we surmised the “Fo-Fo” was a ‘44 magnum.  Hmmm.  The next song was by Ja Rule and was entitled “21 Gunz”.  It was clearly that some suburban gansta from my family had acquired my ipod password and had let a few new “artists “into the library.

In a world where we have become slaves to modern day addictions – – caffeine, work, exercise (did I say that?) and now ipods, it is important that we are reminded that the ipod is not a necessity but an indulgence. It is not a “need”; it is a “want”. It was designed to keep us coming back for more and to slowly liberate us from our hard earned cash.  Mr. Jobs understood all too well that music is a timeless addiction and it stirs in each of us a restless, irrational flutter of memories, feelings and need.  Shakespeare once wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die”. Personally, I think Hunter S Thompson had it right when he said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” 


By the way, I kept Fat Joe on my ipod.  After a hard day in the city, “My Fo-Fo” sounds pretty good.    

So You Think You’re A Gangsta

“I love you like a fat kid love cake . You know my style I say anything to make you smile” – 50 Cent

I was stuck in traffic the other day and decided to listen to some music to pass the time while inching along the snail’s pace of parkway.  When I turned on the radio I realized each station had been pre-programmed by my children to hip hop stations with loud lyrics and thumping bass, a swirling pulse of sound that felt like I was receiving angry CPR.  My car moved rhythmically up and down and for a moment I felt compelled to lose my tie, throw on dark glasses and “stick it to the man.”  I then remembered that, I am the man.

I recognize the messages conveyed in today’s rap and hip hop are hardly respectful in how they depict women or personal and social responsibility.  I find myself torn between the relentlessly creative and militant expression of a new generation of artists and their misanthropic, misogynist words and lifestyles.  The music claws at you.  My own children fashion themselves as suburban “gangstas” and have gotten me hooked on performers like The Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake and Eminem (personally, I feel Outkast should have won a Grammy simply for the lyrics, “Ladies, lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor”. My iPod has been invaded by the likes of Big Boi, Snoop Dog, Akon, Ne-Yo, Ludacris, Dr Dre, Fat Joe (a man after my own heart), Gorillaz, Jay Z (he married Beyonce; enough said), and older, building block reliables like House of Pain and Arrested Development (a term people often use to describe me).

The genesis of rap and hip hop is social expression.  Some artists distort their lyrics, glorifying violence, gratuitous sex and drugs.  They obscure with verbal graffiti the beauty of music that tugs at our consciences with bitter honesty to describe social injustices and the consequences of inequality.  As US hip hop and rap splinters, the rest of the world is carrying the torch, using them to offer young adults an outlet for coping with the hatreds that dangle like poisoned snakes above their heads. As the artist Common puts it, ” real rappers are hard to find, just like the TV remote.”

In November 2003, USA Today profiled the Israeli rapper, Subliminal, and his side kick, Yoav Elasi (The Shadow).  With songs like “Snake Fish” and “Fingers on the Trigger” the artists form a release and graphic honesty around the terrors that plague their land: “The Country is rolling around like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.  Everyone running and with a lighter.  The blood flows to the sea….a stunted reality.”

And from Palestinian Arab rappers, Wahad and Chakaki: “To think the olive branch symbolizes peace.  Sorry, it does not live here anymore.  It’s been kidnapped, murdered.  There was peace my friend.  Handshakes, fake smiles, treaties signed in blood.  Where is God?  Domination from another nation.  We used to be brothers of Cain and now we’re under occupation.”

Rapper Disiz La Peste, of both Sengalese and French heritage, raps against the headwinds of racism.  “For France it matters nothing what I do.  In its mind, I will always be just a youth from Banlieve.

There are Bosnian Herzegovian rappers Edo Maajka, Frenkie and Hamza.  Turkish rapper, GurkanKan often jams with Sirgee and Kaisoze.  Each culture wrestles with its own heritage and chafes against the social reins that restrain a generation itching to burst out and run from the problems they inherited but did not create.  This highly charged music and lyrics can cause social fissures and generational stress fractures that shift the status quo, causing cultural upheaval and change.  These artistic quakes both relieve and build pressure.  Rap and hip hop are a confluence of musical artistry that can range from poetic genius to sociopathic nihilism.  It’s a lyrical dark alley with seductive whispers and scabrous, dancing shadows.

I admit it captivates me.  I even tried to master some of the lexicon.  For example, the other day, I was feeling “all flush, raw and bustin’ and decided to blow some cabbage at Brooks Brothers when I got a little skirby cause a Bama Buster Keaton started sidebustin’ my choices.  It turned out the guy was pervin’ and 5150.”  (Translation: I was feeling rich and very good and decided to spend some money at Brooks Brothers when I got a little freaked out because this guy who did not even know how to dress himself started sticking his nose into my business and didn’t know what he was talking about.  It turned out he was intoxicated and crazy.)  Hip hop slang can be useful in social situations.  Let’s say a friend has an infant with a “fragrant” soiled diaper and you want to gently tip them off to the situation.  Just say, “I think lil’ Johnny’s ridin’ dirty.”

Whether some like it or not, rap and hip hop have become as American as apple pie; as with all Western phenomena, the cultural pollution has penetrated the institutional defenses of other societies.  The graphic messages may offend some listeners, causing discomfort and resentment.  However, music offers an outlet and expression to adolescents trapped between childhood and adulthood – too young to rationalize the consequences of a chaotic world and too old to forget what they have seen.  Generations have always had to suffer the hand dealt by the preceding generation.  Whether the fact that old men make wars and young men fight them or a world polarized by the few who have so much and the many that have so little.  Adolescence, idealism and iconoclasm combine with inequity, injustice and anger to create a highly combustible form of expression.

My car throbs – pumping like an iron lung along Elm Street as I drive to pick up my teenaged daughter.  She is embarrassed, as usual, thinking that somehow I’m trying to pass myself off as someone who has a clue about music, her music.  I retaliate by cranking the volume and mouthing the words to a song by Young Money , ” Call me Mr Flinstone, I can make your bed rock. ” – all the while moving my head back and forth, with a smiling overbite worthy of Eddie Van Halen in mid-solo.  What she fails to realize is my appreciation of her music is not a disingenuous gesture to bridge a generational chasm.  I actually like hip hop and readily accept it as my generation’s urban burden to bear.

I say “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Or, as Snoop Dog might say, ” if the music is fly, than you should try.”