Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listing A Few Favorites Is the Best I Can Do

A still from "Take Me to Church," a video that matches the power of the song.

My favorite song of 2014 was Sinead O’Connor’s “Take Me to Church,” not to be confused with the song of the same name by Hozier, which wasn’t bad either.

My favorite album of 2014 was Lucius’ “Wildewoman,” which actually came out in 2013 but I didn’t get around to buying it until 2014. 

My favorite concert was Neko Case at the Orpheum in downtown Madison, as much because I was standing front and center as for the music.

This is the time of year for lists. Lists for movies, lists for music, lists for TV shows, lists for books and lists for news events. What’s listed above is sort of mine, with one big difference from the ones showing up everywhere else: the absence of the word “best.”

If there’s one thing the explosion of information – be it downloading music or video, or just having it at your fingertips 24/7 – has done has underscored the endless supply of this stuff. Bands and songs and movies have always slipped through the cracks, but now that there’s so much more around that’s easily accessible it’s easy to wonder just how one goes about picking the best of anything.

Don’t get me wrong; I love lists. I used to buy every year-end magazine I could get my hands on. Even now  I try to wade through the various lists that are now on various websites. Paste, No Depression, Pitchfork, NPR and local sources all give fodder to confirm choices made during the year or to introduce readers to something else. The big difference is now it takes much more patience; where once you could look over a list and flip the pages, now you sometimes have to have the patience to click 50 times just to go one-by-one to find out what the favorite picks might be.

I’ve even been in the list-making world. In my multi-faceted career I’ve reviewed records, concerts and films. I’ve made year-end or decade’s-best lists that sometimes proved prescient and sometimes proved ridiculous (I’ll forever defend the brilliance of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”; I’ll forever shake my head at my glowing praise for “Rattle and Hum” and I will always hate “The English Patient”).

To review things years ago was to help introduce people to things they otherwise might not find, to help people use their time and money well when it came time to entertainment. Now people can often find it by themselves and they can figure out ways to hear it or see it for free.

The role of a critic in today’s convoluted entertainment world is somewhat befuddling. On the one hand, people need a guide through this crowded market. In fact, as with news websites, often critics use the word “curate” when referring to their favorite music as they organize it. On the other hand, the easy access to so much out there makes it easy to look at anybody’s “best” list and say, “Says who?”

All of this makes it hard to use the word “best,” at least for me. Part of it is that maybe I had my shot as a taste-maker once upon a time and I don’t feel compelled to be that person anymore. But mostly I think it’s a feeling that an opinion is just that and while one might have the information, they might not have the taste or at least the taste to match the reader. 

Sometimes, though, having strong opinions about this stuff can pay unexpected dividends. Recently a 20-something I know well introduced me to his longtime girlfriend, who I had never met. Since he was a kid we always talked about music, and we did once again as we got caught up.

“Remember that time when I was in high school you told me to help myself to any of your vinyl?” he said. “Remember how I took a pile of records and you made me take Devo because you thought I should know about them?”

Being in a mode of feeling less bossy about my music these days, I felt a little sheepish about that.

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

“No, I wanted to thank you,” he said, bringing his girlfriend further into the conversation. “When we met we bonded over a love of Devo, and I wouldn’t have known much about them if you hadn’t made me take those records.”

It would be an understatement to say that was the favorite thing I heard this year. Hands down, absolutely, completely and without question there’s just one way to describe it: It was simply the best. 


Sinead O'Connor: "Take Me to Church"

Neko Case: "Ragtime"

Friday, October 24, 2014

Coming Home Can Be a Winning Strategy

Once upon a time he was just a kid, now he's coming home a champion.

Forget what the old adage is, you can go home again. You just have to have your head and heart open to what might happen there.

Six years ago, I moved back to my hometown after being away for 29 years. I lived a whole life mostly far away from the place where my life began. It was college and professional life, some success and some heartbreak.

Next week when the NBA season begins again, LeBron James returns home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers after spending four sesasons with the Miami Heat. In a Sports Illustrated story last summer, the four-time MVP from nearby Akron said leaving Cleveland to go to Miami was his college education, the growing-up that every adult has to do. 

I liked that comparison, even if it might have been a slick PR move. James sought the bright lights of the bigger market and won two championships. But unlike so many superstars who chase that, he came back. And he came home before the twilight of his career. This isn’t Henry Aaron coming to the Milwaukee Brewers to be a DH for a few final seasons, this isn’t O.J. Simpson playing for his hometown San Francisco 49ers when he could barely move. This is a superstar coming home young and fit, an intriguing situation no matter the outcome.

Coming home isn’t for everyone. I can understand why some people might think it inconceivable. But doing so can create a certain kind of joy, one that is so esoterically difficult to describe that the Germans probably do have a word for it. 

That being said, and because I’m sure he’s really paying attention to me, I’ve got a few tips for LeBron James as he begins the next step of his professional career at home. It isn’t easy. But if it works out, King James, trust me: The joy will be indescribable.

People will call you by your sister’s name: OK, I don’t know if you have a sister, LeBron. I don’t even know if you have a brother. But when you go back home, people often just generally know who your family is, maybe not specifically who you are. That’s not a bad thing, if you don’t have siblings who are wanted by the law. 

Usually it’s OK. Sometimes I don't even notice. Once, though, there was a guy who mistook me for my sister – who I do resemble - and when I corrected him, he said, “Really?” as if I did not know who I was. When he said, “Really?” a second time, I called him by his brother’s name. 

Everyone has an opinion about what you do: I'm a reporter, so people tell me over my morning scone that their paper didn’t show up that day. You, LeBron, make millions of dollars and probably should have to answer for everything in your organization even if it’s not your responsibility. Even so, don’t be surprised if someone you went to high school with complains about the price of beer at Quicken Loans Arena. Or maybe about the actual name of Quicken Loans Arena.

You spend a lot of time at the funeral home: This was one of the biggest surprises of all, something that never occurred to me. Suddenly you are entwined again with the people who were part of your life in ways you didn’t think of until you returned home, and sometimes they, or their parents or siblings, die. At some point you just realize it’s your place to be there, to be part of what helps bring people comfort. It sounds morbid, but trust me, it’s not.

You truly feel the expectations of people around you: Working in a visible job, one that people have opinions about, in your hometown has its own set of challenges that go with the joys. For every hand-written note that comes to you at your home address telling you “Your mother would be proud” comes a voicemail on your home phone from someone telling you something you should have done better. Writing a story that touches on topics that are familiar to the people around you is nerve-wracking enough, I can’t imagine trying to win them a championship.

You communicate via hug: Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes it’s the only way to communicate. Something terrible happened to someone you’ve known forever and you see them walking down the street or in your coffee shop or the grocery store. You know, they know you know, you both know there’s nothing that can be said so all you do is wordlessly hug them. I’m not one of those demonstrative, warm grade-school teacher types to whom hugs come so naturally, but in this case it’s as natural as can be.

You find out your teachers have first names: And they will want you to call them by their first name. You will not be able to. Ever. 

You become aware of who has dementia: Twice in recent years I have had people in my community tell me to say hello to my dad for them. Both times it was a heartbreaking revelation and both times I said, “Sure.” My dad died in 1999.

You will remember the goofiest things about people: Maybe it’s the way someone walks or the way they wear their hat. Suddenly you realize that’s someone you’ve known your entire life and maybe have never even spoken to. But after all these years, they have a bounce in their step that’s unmistakable, are wearing a certain kind of scarf they've always worn or there's a voice you hear in a doctor's office or a bagel shop that you don't even remember that you remember. 

It’s them – the person who’s been in the background of your life forever and you never realized until now. Now you’ll see them everywhere, and they’ll help you know one big thing: You are home.

Friday, September 26, 2014

It's Not a Convenience; It's a Way of Life

Not the most beautiful thing to live near, but handy.

Each day, there is the realization that something is missing. Nothing is as it was, yet life must go on.

My world has been turned upside-down lately and the adjustments are slow, the emptiness lingering. I wake up daily with a yearning for something I cannot have at that moment if I need it -- panty hose, Pepsi, toilet paper, a Slurpee.

I have now gone two whole weeks without a convenience store in my neighborhood. The 7-Eleven down the street closed and in its place is an empty shell.

People live with far less, this I know. Why, there are unfortunate children in the suburbs who probably never got the chance to have a Big Gulp. Or, there are unfortunate people who live so close to fabulous 24-hour grocery stores that they never got the chance to pay way too much for toilet paper at midnight.

Of coure, I never planned my meals around what I could buy at a 7-Eleven. Sometimes the cats might be stuck with whatever was for sale there, but not me. Yet having the option 24 hours a day affected how I shopped.

This is a trait I inherited from my parents. When I was growing up in Mount Horeb, Wis., therer were two grocery stores that were open until 9 p.m. but just 5 p.m. on Saturday or Sunday. You bought what you needed ahead of time, or else you starved. You had to plan, you had no choice.

Somewhere along the line, however, it changed. The gas station next to my parents' house turned into a quasi-convenience store. Not much in the way of food was offered, but the pop was priced reasonably and the gallons of milk were only a few cents more than they were at Kalscheur's Fine Foods.

In a family of eight, those gallons of milk disappeared quickly. To buy them ahead of time meant the entire refrigerator was full of milk, not food. That wasn't practical.

So suddenly the gas station became our source of milk. Pepsi was never consumed with a meal, but my family managed to slam a good amount nonetheless. We also had tons of relatives who were often over for holidays or Sunday meals. Business boomed at the little station to the east of us, much to the delight of a high school friend whose father owned the place.

"The only reason my parents can afford to send me to college," my friend joked, "is that this is where the Burnses buy their Pepsi."

Sadly fo rmy friend's family, it was not to be. The big gun -- a real convenience store -- opened on the other side of my parents' home. Apparently, they knew that being next to my parents would likely ensure convenience-store success.

My parents stayed loyal to the little shop, but the big old Kwik Trip won out in the end. However, my family's shopping was changed yet again by the new, improved version of a convenience store to the west of them.

This one was open on holidays. This was an amazing concept in a small town, meaning that yes, Mom could buy the big old Butterball turkey when it was on sale and keep it in the fridge long enough because we wouldn't have to buy milk until Thanksgiving Day. The Kwik Trip gave us our freedom, not to mention something to do besides eat on the holiday because we could actualy rent a video, too.

So I learned that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shopping long ago and perfected it by living just yards from a 7-Eleven. If I had a party, I got my ice at the 7-Eleven and never ad to worry about running out of potato chips, beer or pop. Before I went into a movie, I'd stock up on my Everlasting Gobstoppers. When my cats howled because I forgot they didn't have any food, I could wander up and get them some Tender Vittles. I could run my tank down to empty knowing I could always coast to the corner.

Only once did the convenience store let me down. I had a cookout, and it was time for dessert.

Just go to the 7-Eleven, I said, and get some stuff for S'mores. My friends returned with makeshift ingredients that tasted OK, but weren't quite perfect. It's hard to handle S'mores made out of Teddy Grahams.

I'm going home to visit my family soon and they'll understand my loss. My mom will send me to the Kwik Trip for a gallon of milk and I'll be reminded. I'll stay with my sister, too, and tell her this sad tale as she gets her morning coffee.

She'll understand for sure as she buys that cup of coffee. After all, this convenience-store business is a family way of life.

She lives across the street from a place called PDQ.

This post first appeared as an essay in the Des Moines Register on Oct. 24, 1997.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The voice - and voiceover - for a generation

There was drama in those countdowns, even with the silly songs that were on them.

If you’re lucky, there are voices who provide the soundtrack of your life and stay with you for a long, long time.
There are baseball announcers like Bob Uecker, who has been calling the games of my beloved Milwaukee Brewers my whole life. There is Terry Gross, whose “Fresh Air” program on National Public Radio debuted about the time I began to pay attention to what National Public Radio was.

Then there are voices like Casey Kasem’s, once seemingly everywhere and these days, thanks to things like satellite radio and YouTube, seemingly immortal.

After Casey Kasem died on Sunday, the ever-snarky Internet was kind. There was genuine fondness from those remembering him, and remembering the faceless role he played in their lives.
And let’s face it, there would be things to chuckle about. “American Top 40,” heard now, is so saccharine your teeth could rot just listening to it, not to mention the songs it featured weren’t exactly the cutting edge of music.

To some extent, that’s the point. Radio once played a role in our lives that is gone now, replaced first by MTV and then all the things technology brought. For better or for worse – and for younger kids, it was a good thing – radio brought people together. Sure, there was a sameness of what was playing, but there was a familiarity to the music around us, a shared sense of songs we loved or didn’t love.

I remember a classmate in junior high school once writing down the names of various songs that were on the radio, and asking us which ones we liked best. (I voted for “Pick Up the Pieces,” by the Average White Band. Hey, I played trumpet and I liked the funky stuff.) Now, I’m wondering if junior high kids – who have the Internet and their parents’ music to add to what they hear on the radio – would even all have heard of any five or so songs a classmate would give them on a list.

Those Top 40 countdowns and the charts that fed them were the grade-school equivalent of water cooler conversations. (I grew up in Wisconsin, that made them bubbler conversations.) We’d listen to the songs on WISM or WTSO (AM, of course) and eagerly await the fliers that would list the weekly Top 40. The fliers were sponsored by the radio stations and would show up at Zwald’s Appliance or Bubby's Ben Franklin store, the places where we would buy our records.
Those countdowns were so important that one of my tentmates got a Top 40 flier sent to her when we were spending two week at a Girl Scout camp called Camp Black Hawk in northern Wisconsin. We were so out of the loop, being out there in the wilderness and all, that we were stunned and excited that “The Night Chicago Died” had shot up the charts so much. I don’t remember who the tentmate was, I just remember our excitement over “The Night Chicago Died” now being No. 1.

To hear Casey Kasem count them down was something else. There was his enthusiasm for a new artist, that this singer might be the pride of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia, or the way he could gracefully dance around the subject of a song such as “Afternoon Delight." There was the complete lack of irony, because he wouldn’t have known what was to come, when he’d introduce a band with “their first song on the charts,” only to have it be their last.
And there were the long-distance dedications. Oh my. As read by Casey Kasem, they conveyed all the drama that could be milked out of the earnest letters from listeners, hoping upon hope that their dad they never met or the child they gave up for adoption would hear the song and magically understand everything there was to understand.

I often listen to the countdowns now, both from the ’70s and ’80s, replayed on satellite radio and the dedications really give me pause for thought. For starters, I wonder about the people writing the letters, if they ever connected with that estranged relative or unrequited love. But also I think of the letter-writer because it conveys what people had then: a faith, a trust that their radio – this medium – was such an important part of their lives.
As the news has come in about Casey Kasem’s death, once again it’s something that is seen through the eyes of baby boomers and once again something that makes me cringe at being considered a baby boomer.

Baby boomers  have a wide range to them, as people born between 1946 and 1964. I’ve always thought that you can’t truly be a baby boomer if you don’t remember JFK getting shot, if you don’t remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, if you loved the Partridge Family and if you didn’t buy bellbottoms with your own money.

And a true baby boomer had all that ’60s music many still consider vastly superior to anything that followed. True baby boomers aren’t Girl Scouts who get giddy over “The Night Chicago Died” hitting No. 1 on the charts in 1974.
Conversely, Generation X is generally considered to follow, from 1965 to 1984. They had grunge and bad TV shows that featured black kids with growth problems being raised by white people.

For those who don’t consider themselves in either generation, perhaps our unnamed sub-generation has Casey Kasem as our icon the way others might have John Lennon or Kurt Cobain. After all, besides being the voice of all our music, Casey Kasem was, like, the voice of Shaggy in “Scooby-Doo.” He was the voice of so many commercials we heard, not to mention a voice on other cartoons from our era: “Hot Wheels,” “Cattanooga Cats,” “Super Friends.” He also made guest appearances on “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.”
If you remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, you never watched any of those shows. If you thrashed to Nirvana, you probably have never heard of most of them.

But for some of us who have always lived our lives on that bridge between the generations that got the fancy names, maybe it’s Casey Kasem who is our touchstone, our icon.

It’s probably why you’re not hearing too much snark (yet) over the death of Casey Kasem. It was his voice that carried us through our young years until we got to the point where we grew out of it and didn’t listen to him anymore.
But he was there, like the music itself, when it counted, when the quality of the music wasn't as important as its presence. For some, that will always make him No. 1.