Friday, July 30, 2010

Best Cat Ever

We recently lost our beloved Cornish Rex cat, Rory. He was 16, and I was fortunate to have known him for 14 of those years. He was known at home as the BCE, the Best Cat Ever. Nobody who knew him would argue this.

Rory was a prize-winning show cat before he arrived in my life, but after he came to live with us, he was a therapy animal, surrogate dad to Nickel and Aggie, daredevil, fashion model (sporting pet apparel when I was designing at Target), gourmand and raconteur. He had a pretty huge life for a feline. There will be no filling the void he leaves. Even with rambunctious kitten Aggie in the house, it seems very quiet at home without him around.

Rory had a great personality, one that won over even ardent cat-haters. I can think of no better illustration of Rory's charm than his relationship with Jim. Jim is a resident of Hammer's Jersey house, home to four great guys with developmental disabilities. Rory and I visited Jersey for years, with Rory acting as a therapy animal. When we first started going to Jersey, Jim made it clear that he did not like cats and wanted nothing to do with Rory. "Those cats, they hiss, don't they? They bite!" he'd repeat. I assured him Rory would neither hiss nor bite - he never did. Rory formed fast relationships with the other residents at Jersey, especially with Bruce, who loved to have Rory snuggle in his lap while he read or listened to music. But it didn't take long for Rory to work his magic on Jim, and pretty soon Jim was saying "You know, I really like that cat!" Rory would sit with him on Jim's favorite chair. Jim would call him "buddy" and enjoyed how Rory would 'talk' to him in meows while he watched his favorite Westerns.

Here's Jim with Rory on one of his last visits to Jersey. Rory climbed up on Jim's chest and settled in. Jim, who is usually a very busy, restless guy, let him get comfortable, stroked him and talked to him, grinning the whole time.

I'll miss you, Ror. And I won't be the only one.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

It was junior year in high school and we were in Deirdre’s room in the dorm at Interlochen. Cyd Fenwick had a copy of Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” 45. Cyd had the 45 because she had been in Panther Burns, and Alex had run with that crowd. Cyd had probably been shipped off to school in rural northern Michigan because she’d been in Panther Burns and run with that crowd as a minor, but that’s only speculation on my part. Her worldliness was pretty impressive.

Anyway, she cued it up on the turntable and it practically ripped my head off. The music was raw, warped, and belligerent. The lyrics were perverse but the vocal was almost blasé. It was completely unlike anything that was on the radio or pushed in the record stores: pure trash rock genius. I was hooked. Being clueless and 16, the only thing I knew about Alex Chilton was that somebody mentioned he was in the Box Tops. I began a quest for more Chilton action, which was pretty futile considering the selection in the record stores in Traverse City and the 45’s extreme rarity. I could find nothing; ultimately, I let it slide.

Time passed, and I started university back on my home turf in Ann Arbor. One of my first acts of the academic year was to go see Let’s Active open for Echo and the Bunnymen in Detroit. Let’s Active played “Back of a Car” as part of the set, and it was another one of those songs that knocked me out. Mitch Easter said it was by Alex Chilton and Big Star. Of course it was. My urge to search was renewed, and the record store prospects were much better in Ann Arbor. I found a copy of Big Star’s Third on PVC first, which I adored front-to-back for its haunted, damaged aesthetic. I found an original pressing Big Star’s Radio City (and an Ardent promo copy, no less) at Wazoo Records for four bucks. Read it and weep, kids: Four. Bucks. An original pressing of #1 Record followed not long after. Of course, in the 80’s, original pressings were the only option: there were no reissues. Every Big Star record was brilliant, and I gave them all numerous spins. They also made the 80’s ‘jangle pop’ that infatuated me make sense: it was a link between the 60’s bands and the new indie bands I loved.

As school wore on, more and more of my favorite musicians and music writers acknowledged Chilton. Interest grew. I was working at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, writing music criticism, and when Chilton offered a new solo EP called Feudalist Tarts (his first record in 5 years), I was all over it. Chilton tour dates were announced, including one in Ann Arbor. I interviewed him for the Daily. He was working as a dishwasher in New Orleans, hardly the existence of a rock legend. He seemed bitter that the music hadn’t received a fair airing. He was making small inroads by issuing an EP and playing gigs, but he didn’t seem confident it would change much. It was a disheartening interview. Fortunately, the show was pretty well attended by people who knew their shit. Chilton played a set comprised of his new songs, Box Tops and Big Star tunes, and a bunch of R&B covers. He played well and seemed pleased with the enthusiastic reception he received. When he played "Bangkok" the club exploded.

Word was spreading. Chilton played more gigs, showing up in Michigan with some regularity. Big Star became a name to drop in college rock circles. The Replacements recorded “Alex Chilton”, a song Chilton himself dismissed, but got a lot more indie rock kids on his radar. Eventually, the Big Star albums were reissued and made much more accessible. By the 90’s there was enough of a groundswell that Chilton and Jody Stephens experimented with a reformed Big Star, adding Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies to replace Andy Hummel, who was no longer gigging. A genius move, truly, because the Posies were about as close anybody ever came to approximating Big Star’s brilliance.

The reformed Big Star didn’t play out often, but often enough that I could catch them once, a couple years ago, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was a great show. There were some name musicians in the crowd, and many other enthusiastic fans. Chilton looked good, albeit a little like Hunter S Thompson, puffing on a cigarette holder. He sounded good. He seemed to be having a good time. He didn’t seem to be in the dark place he was in the 80’s. Everybody loved hearing all those brilliant songs. I was glad he’d received some of the admiration he deserved from the music community. I’d like to think that’s how he was feeling last night when he was getting ready for the Big Star gig at SXSW: accepted, admired, and ready to rock.

He was a big part of my musical life. I’ll miss you, Alex.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Best of 2009 Music

The bad musical news: The losses of Ron Asheton, Lux Interior, Sky Saxon, Jim Carroll, Jay Bennett, Mary Travers, Les Paul, Vic Chesnutt, Rowland S. Howard, and Rhino Records.

The good musical news: People keep on making more music. Here are some of my favorites from 2009. Please note that since I have no editorial compulsion to limit it to 10, or attach any sort of rating scheme here, I won’t.


AC Newman “Get Guilty” Carl Newman has yet to let me down, and “Get Guilty” is no exception. While “Get Guilty” is not particularly distinct from what he does in the New Pornographers, it’s still crisp, melodic, and well-written. “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” is probably my song of the year.

Avett Brothers “I and Love and You” They’re rootsy, but not necessarily tied exclusively to the past… they’re rocking, but not necessarily afraid of letting their sentiment show. Are the Avetts are the sonic descendents of the Band? That is as credible a reason to admire this record as any.

Boston Spaceships “Zero to 99” It would hardly be a year-end list without our prolific Uncle Bob, and this may be his best record since GBV called it quits.

The Clean “Mister Pop” NZ veterans return after a nearly decade-long break with one of their best records ever. Spare and sunny.

Decemberists “Hazards of Love” As leery as I was about this (it’s a rock opera), I enjoyed this ambitious disc. Its oddball prog rock overtones confound indie expectations, and the articulate, archaic lyrics frame this rake’s progress perfectly.

Dirty Projectors “Bitte Orca” Another one I was prepared to hate, thinking it was part of that lite indie genre heavily promoted by Pitchfork (see Animal Collective, Phoenix, etc. etc.), “Bitte Orca” is engaging and musically ambitious.

Drones “Havilah” It came out in Oz in 2008, but in the US in 2009, so it counts. Dark and epic. There’s no reason why this band shouldn’t be huge everywhere.

El Goodo “Coyote” – Welsh weirdos with a deft touch for retro pop glory.

Girls “Album” – Bad album name. But it’s a good album.

Grizzly Bear “Veckatimest” Worshipers at the Church of Wilson for sure, but they’ve got the chops to pull it off.

Jarvis Cocker “Further Complications” As dirty-minded and wickedly clever as Pulp’s “This is Hardcore” but substantially more rocking, it hooked me from the start, and boasts some of his pithiest couplets in “I Never Said I Was Deep.”

Jay Reatard “Watch Me Fall” – It’s a shame about Jay. This is a great record, and was on the list before the recent news of his death. The scene will be a lot less lively without his chaotic presence.

Julian Casablancas “Phrazes for the Young” –Angular, slick and noisy like the city it evokes, New York.

The June “Magic Circles” Psychedelic crusaders from Parma, Italy. If they were from Parma, Michigan, I’d move back to Ann Arbor.

Kurt Vile “Childish Prodigy” – Lo-fi multi-instrumentalist with a sprawling monster of a record.

Mission of Burma “The Sound the Speed the Light” – The horrible truth about Burma is they still kick the ass of every band aspiring to noise from here to Boston and back.

Kram, “Mix Tape” Infectious, fuzzy and upbeat, it’s probably not going to be an enduring critical favorite, but it got played an awful lot Chez JJ this year. It does read a little like a mix tape, since it’s Kram’s collected solo work apart from Spiderbait.

Mason Jennings “Blood of Man” – Played, produced and written entirely by Jennings, Minneapolis’ best kept songwriting secret takes an electrified excursion into the dark.

St. Vincent “Actor” – Understated and charming, this really grew on me. Challenging, masterful guitar complements appealingly anxious lyric content.

The Shazam, “Meteor” A delightfully big, dumb (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) rock record, the kind that you needed to listen to every day in junior high. Equal parts Cheap Trick, Move and assorted glam bands in a hard candy shell.

White Denim “Fits” – Ratty Austin garage rockers should be getting the ears of Black Lips and White Stripes fans here in the US, but for some reason are making it with the English first. Beat the rush.

Wilco “Wilco” Infinitely likeable, and infinitely accessible, Wilco improves with age. Even my mom likes it… you should too.


Big Star, “Keep an Eye on the Sky” It’s a lot less redundant than I initially thought, with superb outtakes from their seminal albums. Nice package, too.

Jayhawks “Songs from the North Country” – a very nice survey compiled by Gary Louris. Their reunion show this summer was magnificent, and I hope it’s a sign of better things to come.

Love “Love Lost” An unissued 1971 album by Arthur Lee and Love, this is a far less structured record than “Forever Changes,” and offers an interesting look into what could have been had Lee stayed out of trouble.

Pylon, “Chomp More” “Chomp More” expands 1983’s dB Recs dance rock epic with additional tracks and remixes. The band has never received adequate credit for their role in the 80’s Athens GA scene.

Feelies: “Crazy Rhythms” –Nerdy, noisy, arty, and still every bit as bracing as it was nearly 30 years ago.

Nirvana, “Bleach” – Beyond all the hype, it’s still a great record.

Vaselines “Enter the Vaselines” – We used to use this album to clear out the record store after all-ages shows. I heard it in Treehouse the other day and couldn’t help but wonder if that was the intent. Made me smile.

V/A “Where the Action Is” – While not as essential as the Nuggets boxes, it’s a informative attempt to make sense of the sprawling mid-60’s LA scene, and there are a load of hard-to-find tracks.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

Thankyoubyebye 2009

It’s been an interesting year, 2009. Started out a little ‘off’, shall we say, with some epic weirdness, but after some work to resolve the issues, it was brilliant from about June out. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate, and there are a lot of things I appreciate more than I did a year ago. Some are petty things, but others are pretty big. Here are a few:

I am grateful the August 19 tornado missed my house by a couple hundred feet. Also grateful nobody was killed or badly hurt by it.

I am grateful for my office/studio space. It’s got good light, good equipment, and good company.

I am grateful that people still choose to gather together to play music. They could be in their bedroom with a sampler, but they haul equipment through snowdrifts to play for little more than gratitude and a few beers. Thank you. (On that note, I was extra grateful to have seen Prince play at his studio this fall, easily the gig of the year. How often do you get to see someone with that many hits just play what they like? Larry Graham’s cameo on the Family Stone covers put it over the top.)

I am grateful for material things, but in the interest of conservation would rather acquire less this year. I have too much stuff, admittedly: too many shoes, too many records, too many of which I love far too much. It's hard, because damn, every time I put on those killer mod George Cox winklepickers I smile. It’s time to make do with less, and appreciate what we have.

I am grateful I have been afforded opportunities to travel. The old St. Augustine saw, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” rings true to me. I have now read a few chapters, which have been enriching beyond all expectation.

I am grateful for pets. They don’t care who you know, and they can usually spot the nice people in the room. Everybody needs friends like that. We had a big scare for Rory’s health earlier in the summer, but it’s resolved, and every day I get with this grand old Cornish Rex is a good one. We have a saying in the house co-opted from Bruce Lee: “Be like the Corn,” because he loves everybody, and trouble just rolls off his back.

I am grateful for continuing opportunities to learn. Academia's great, but I’ll take it however it comes. I'm finding the unplanned kind, resulting from tribulation or experimentation, is often more valuable and easily retained.

I am grateful for bright colleagues. Clients, vendors and partners constantly impress me with their drive, reliability and resourcefulness. The good things you do enhance people's lives every day, and I am glad to be a part of your efforts.

I am grateful for family. I am especially grateful I got to spend time with the branch of the Jurrjens family tree in Victoria, Australia at the very start of 2009. We really get around, and didn’t do too badly for modest folks from Haarlemmermeer, did we?

Finally, I am grateful for good friends. (You know who you are.) I'm constantly indebted to you for the amount of love, generosity, and fun you add to the world, and I'm constantly awed by the talent enclosed within my circle. You rock, straight-up.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Michael Jackson: I'm just saying...

I'm watching the entire week's news devolve into nothing but MJ hagiography and wondering:

If someone of greater musical significance and lesser dancing ability died, would there be less hype?

If someone of comparable dance chops and musical significance died, but with lesser tabloid marketability, would there be less hype?

Heaven forbid if George Clinton/Neil Young/Quincy Jones/Prince were suddenly gone, but if it were the case I don't think we'd be seeing non-stop coverage.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

In Business

I've cheerfully left the corporate world and started my own studio. Thankfully, this means no more suits, ridiculous acronyms, business doublespeak, or painful sports metaphors.

It's in the Lynlake district of Minneapolis, and it has big windows and high ceilings. It's not the corner cubicle in a Fortune 100 company, like two weeks ago, but it's mine, and any successes or screwups will be entirely my own. Feels good.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Rules for Travel

(written on the plane to Melbourne, amended after arriving.)

The first rule, the overarching rule, I suppose, would be ‘go native’. You’re here to see and do something different, not replicate your routine. This generates a whole subset of additional rules:
  1. Eat and drink like the locals. See what everyone else is having and try something you haven’t had before. I once heard someone at work mention a buyer that wouldn’t eat anything but McDonalds when abroad, which struck me as tragic. Sure, don’t do anything that risks your health or offends your moral sensitivities (eating dog in Shenzhen immediately springs to mind), but do come back with some new impressions.
  2. Be entertained by the local scene, not something you can see in your own backyard. Example: I didn’t see Bon Iver and the Black Lips in London, two acts I enjoy, because I could see other bands I would never see in the States. There are exceptions: I passed on seeing Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed in Melbourne in favor of another gig, but found out later I should’ve gone, given that Ash Naylor was filling in for his guitarist. This rendered it local, a show that couldn’t be replicated in the US, which saddened me since Ash is an ace and I missed it.
  3. Learn something new through experience. Attempt a few words of the local language, ask someone about their favorite place in their city and go there.
  4. Buy a locally made souvenir over the junk sold in tourist shops -- you’ll enjoy it more than that magnet or tea towel. In my case, it’s usually local music: music evokes place differently than anything else. It could also be clothing, artwork, etc.
  5. Use a variety of means of transport, including walking. Most industrialized countries aside from the US have good public transport. By using it, you see the neighborhoods, hear the cadence of people’s lives (this is a nice way of saying ‘eavesdrop’, I suppose), and do it on the cheap. Walking gives perspective: you’re at street level, and see detail you’d otherwise miss.
  6. Read the local paper, not USA Today. USA Today’ll rot your brain… don’t read it ever.
  7. See the big tourist sites you want to see, but also do some wandering that doesn’t involve a pre-packaged experience. Don’t go to Tokyo and just go to Disneyland.

Some other rules:
  1. Look up and down, not just straight ahead. If you’re somewhere where there is no urban light pollution, looking up at night is essential. Most Americans probably haven’t truly seen a night sky.
  2. Cleanliness is next to godliness but practically impossible on long flights and in many travel situations. Accept it.
  3. Be prepared, but not overprepared. Overpacking slows you down.
  4. Know your limits. There is nothing less fun than being hurt or ill while you’re someplace interesting.

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