“Grateful for Christmas,” Hayes Carll


It probably doesn’t go this way for everyone, but for enough people that it’s good someone wrote a song about it.

Those early Christmases when you’re a kid and there are so many people around, the cousins and aunts and uncles, a meal that seems to magically appear because who goes near the kitchen when your Uncle Ed is teaching you to play cribbage and your cousin Leslie is explaining why she rubs vaseline on her troll dolls? The thrown-together-at-the-last-minute Christmases when you’re in your twenties, you had other plans but your Mom calls and says you need to be there, it’s important to your father, and so you show up and plaster a smile on your face and indulge in sad thoughts about death and divorce and how you’d be having so much better a time with your girlfriend’s family. Then the Christmases when you’re north of 35 and hardly anyone is left, your Mom and a spouse if you’re lucky, and usually you’re someplace way too warm for December and sometime early afternoon you put on the news channel so there’s something to talk about and later you eat a Honey Baked Ham and exercise as much self-control as you can muster not to think sad thoughts because that’s a bottomless pit right there.

And you know what? You’re grateful every time, or should be. At least there’s someone around who remembers when everyone was around. And trees, lights, presents: even diminished they are something. We all need a pause to remember that every moment contains every other moment, to reflect on where we find ourselves.

I remember such moments of stillness from past Christmases: driving home dead-tired from a party, at 2 AM exchanging presents with my wife because we decided gifts on Christmas Eve would be our way of asserting ourselves over the family obligations that took up the rest of the holiday (we changed our mind because it was kind of stupid), turning off the Christmas lights last thing at night in an otherwise dark house. One year I made up a story about meeting Santa that reduced my son to astonished silence, and another year he whispered “He came!” under his breath upon seeing the gifts under the tree Christmas morning.

I loved Hayes’s album “Trouble in Mind” (check out “Beaumont”) and liked “KMAG YOYO,” which is where this song appears. His latest overly-morose effort, “Lovers and Leavers,” didn’t do much for me but I am already on record about my feelings about self-proclaimed divorce albums. I heard Hayes had a verbal feud going on with Steve Earle because he’d been dating Steve’s ex-wife. Long-held resentments and complicated family dynamics is another thing that Christmas provides an opportunity to be reflective about.

Happy holidays to everyone anyway! And try not to forget to be grateful.







Seasons Can Turn On a Dime


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Every three or four years I become re-obsessed with the Tom Waits song “Broken Bicycles.” It made no impression on me when I first heard it during the movie it was written for, “One from the Heart,” (boring!). But later on a transatlantic flight one of the featured albums was that soundtrack and I must have listened to the song five times in a row. I’ve done the same thing a few times since and did it again yesterday: the foggy middle of the night feel of the melody, the conversational vocal (in my mind as close as Tom got to Frank Sinatra, in feel if not quality), and especially the devastating last few lines, when you find out what this guy musing about broken bicycles laid out on his lawn like skeletons really has on his mind:

The seasons can turn on dime
Somehow I forget every time
These things you’ve given me, they always will stay
They’re broken, but I’ll never throw them away…

Here in Boston the season turned on a dime last night: yesterday it was seventy degrees and this morning it’s barely scratching forty. Winter is in the air and the clocks turn back tomorrow and those first few days when it turns dark at 4 and you’re still sitting at a desk in an office are always depressing. “Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast,” Bob Dylan said and the changing seasons and approaching holidays and “Broken Bicycles” made me think of that line again and about how I almost used it as my quote in my high school yearbook. I’m glad I didn’t, so pretentious and what did I know about time at 18? A little, I guess.

Some other things that changing seasons and “Broken Bicycles” made me think about: a short film a girl on my hall in college made of her parents lipsyncing to the “Fiddler on the Roof” song “Turnaround.” Cringe-y but I remember also finding myself a little choked up. What did I know about time at 21? Enough, apparently. Also that Donald Hall poem about how men at forty learn to close softly the doors to rooms they know they won’t be coming back to. That didn’t kick in for me until later but I definitely feel myself doing it these days, a pause for a few last lingering looks, though not always sadly.

When one door closes, another door opens. Or, as I saw on tea towel while trying to start my Christmas shopping the other day, when one door closes, talk shit about it. Seasons change and so do we. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but hey, what do I know about time anyway?

Tom Petty R.I.P.


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Trigger warning: less than fulsome praise for the recently-deceased contained below.

It’s not I’m not saddened by Tom’s passing, and the suddenness of it. Cardiac arrest days after concluding a wildly successful world tour is admittedly a totally rock and roll way to go for a guy who had a Springsteen-esque belief in the mystic power of rock and roll (Tom’s may have predated Bruce’s) but it is still cardiac arrest and 66 is way too young. He had two wives, three kids, bandmates he managed to stay close to for over 40 years, plus more rabid fans than I’d have anticipated. He deserved a reposeful old age producing records for less-successful artists he admired and overseeing a box set and coffee table book. I offer my condolences and join those family, fans, and bandmates all in a full-throated singalong to the chorus of “Free Falling” in tribute and appreciation.

My problem is that I never liked “Free Falling” very much, nor really anything Tom did after “Damn the Torpedoes” except “The Waiting” (which was supposed to be on “Damn the Torpedos” anyway). I heard the songs on the radio, sometimes they were fun (“Stop Dragging My Heart Around”) and sometimes annoying (“Don’t Come Around Here Anymore”) but mostly they landed on me with a shrug, okay, here’s another Tom Petty song that sounds like a lot of others (“Learning to Fly,” “Great Wide Open,” etc.) I bought “Wildflowers” based on early reviews, listened to it a few times through, shrugged, and ended up giving it away to Morgan Memorial during the music purge phase of my last move.

“Damn the Torpedoes” though: so many college evenings with it playing in the background! So many drunken singalongs to it with my high school friends during the summer of 1980! Ah, okay, side two trails off a little but the snarl of “Refugee”! The marble-mouthed-verse-ecstatic-release-chorus of “Here Comes My Girl”! The dumb fun bounce of “Don’t Do Me Like That” and (a personal favorite) the guy in “Even the Losers” trying to restore his pride after a shattering break-up, howling words to an empty street he wishes he was saying to his absent lover!

When you fall so hard for something, and then the artist (in your mind) never lives up to it again: there’s a disappointment there. Clearly not Tom’s fault, as shown by those rabid fans mentioned above, for whom the newer stuff must have connected in a way it didn’t with me.

Still love Tom for “Damn the Torpedoes,” and will still feel sad the next time (next 200 times) “Free Falling” comes on the radio. Even when the material was weak the guy knew how to make it sound great on the radio. Track down if you can a live concert on Wolfgang’s Vault of Tom and the Heartbreakers playing the Paradise in Boston in Fall of 1979, just before “Torpedoes’ was released. Magic.

Recent Songs #5


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This week’s theme: boy problems, and how even girls with plenty of attitude can have ’em!

  1. “In Undertow,” Alvvays
    A gorgeous, swirly mini-masterpiece, “sad by shiny” as lead singer/songwriter Molly Rankin said in a World Cafe interview paraphrasing a fan describing the band’s sound. The lyrics are a sympathetic lecture to a boyfriend who’s messed up: “You made a mistake you’d like to erase/And I understand.” The singer might understand but it doesn’t sound like she’s giving much quarter. She knows their relationship is “in undertow,” that hanging-on-with-cold-dead-fingers end time before the final break, but it sounds like she doesn’t think the guy is aware of that and is trying to break it to him gently. Jackson Browne used to write songs like this from the other side of the gender gap.
  2. “Sparks Fly,” Waxahatchee.
    In this one the singer’s estranged by emotion and distance. She calls her boyfriend from Berlin with regrets about a mean thing she said to him, but maybe the regret isn’t about the truth of the thing itself but in having said it aloud. Why is she regretting anything? Why is she missing anyone? She’s young, she’s in another country, she doesn’t have to be that sadsack girlfriend! So she goes out and has a few drinks and then a sudden vision of herself as alive, electric, better. Sure, the same sparks flew when she was with the guy but he never recognized it, and wouldn’t be able to appreciate it now. When she gets home they will have a long talk.
  3. “Out-Worn,” Soccer Mommy.
    Like Katie Crutchfield (singer/songwriter of Waxahatchee) above, Sophie Allison (singer-songwriter of Soccer Mommy) is chafing against the limits put on her by a relationship and a guy: “I’m sick of living in your eyes.” He’s sweet when he wants to be and so far that’s been enough but maybe now it isn’t anymore. “You made your love like a forest fire/I wanted someone to keep me warm,” the singer says, and based on personal experience she will go back and forth about which of these to want for the rest of her life. Where she lands will many times have only a passing connection to the  guy in question. Great whispered-into-a-microphone-in-the-middle-of-the-night feel to this one, and very catchy chorus.
  4. “No Guarantees,” Jade Jackson.
    Another case of smart girl, bad choices, but this time with a fiddle! On the run from another unfaithful, unstable man, metaphorically in the first verse:

     I’m somewhere in second gear
     I’m using my knees to steer
     Arms stretched to a bluer sky
     Learning to leave our love behind

    …but by the third literally in flight on the road with a girlfriend in the same situation, Jade the hardened older sister of a shattered Molly or Katie or Sophie a few months on from when their independence-day songs ended and the hard stuff has started. They drink Arizona iced teas and eat sunflower seeds and smoke cigarettes in the dark. They each grapple privately with the realization there are no guarantees in love. The both know the coastline they finally arrive at isn’t going to change that.

Empty Nest Songs


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Dropped my only child off at college this weeek, which is one of those things that is not a big deal (inevitable rite of passage, proof you’ve done your job as a parent, etc.) unless you are the one doing it. Some songs that have been helping me though:

  1. “Going Down to Laurel,” Steve Forbert.
    The best expression I know of the youthful bravado and confidence I want my son to be feeling on he embarks on this great adventure, the sense of being glad to be young, glad to be alive, ready to take on all comers. “I’m going down to Laurel, it’s a dirty stinking town/But me I know exactly what I’m going to find.”
  2. “A New Name for Everything,” the Weakerthans.
    Advice I’d want to give him when that youthful bravado and confidence falter, the main thing being to be cautious around advice: “Fire every phrase/They don’t want to work for us anymore.”  “If you come back, bring a new name for everything”–that’s what college is for!
  3. “My Old School,” Steely Dan.
    I’m on record as not being a huge Steely Dan Fan, but this is a great song, and one of the few in the rock and roll canon that will admit to having spent time in college. It gets the details right: “I was smoking with the boys upstairs/When I heard about the whole affair.” It also epitomizes the type of snarky, superior cynicism most of us cultivate and leave behind in school, though Steely Dan never did grow out of it. Everything can be made fun of, and should be! (RIP Walter Becker.)
  4. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” Billy Bragg.
    On the other hand: what shouldn’t be made fun of? College politicized me, though I never did much about it in terms of protests and picket lines. Even at a young age those sorts of group actions didn’t seem to me to make much difference. I’ve been proven wrong many times, so now I say man the barricades for what counts, buddy, and find some friends who will help make the great leap forward finally happen! (Unless of course your politics turn out to be the opposite of mine, in which case we can just argue over the dinner table during breaks.)
  5. “Better Things,” Dar Williams.
    The most hopeful song I know, it’ll do as my envoi for the last 18+ years and salutation for the next 70. “Accept your life and what it brings/I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.” Written by grumpy old man Ray Davies, and though I like his version I prefer Dar’s, who also has her grumpy side though not here. The urgent acoustic guitar figure reminds me of my son in his new dorm room trying to hide his impatience as we were saying goodbye. Guys, I love you, it’s been great, but time to get on with it!

“Wandering Boy,” Randy Newman


A grand weeper from Randy’s new album.

A man is on a doorstep saying goodbye to his hosts after a party. It’s an annual party, one he’s been to many times before. A holiday party, say, we’ve been having one of those for 25 years. He’s come to the party with his father; he’s come to the party with his wife; he’s come with his sons and daughters. Tonight he’s here alone but still wishing in these waning moments for the miracle appearance of his youngest son:

Where is my wandering boy tonight
Where is my wandering boy
If you see him, push him toward the light
Where is my wandering boy

There must be 20 songs that feature the phrase “wandering boy,” Irish songs, country songs, an old Carter Family tune. Maybe the man is a songwriter himself, and is familiar with these songs. Maybe the phrase itself gives him some comfort, lends a familiarity and continuity to something he can’t come to grips with.

The man launches into a story about his absent son, remember the time he jumped off the diving board, five years old, laughing like a maniac, Jesus Christ, that kid had no fear! His hosts nod: they have other guests to attend to, they’ve heard the story before. The man has had a few drinks but isn’t so drunk he doesn’t notice the impatience in their eyes. Again, great party, he says. See you next year. But as he drives home he can’t keep his mind from circling back to the son who didn’t show up:

I hope he’s warm and I hope he’s dry
And a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye
And I hope he has someone there by his side
And I hope that he’ll come home

I had a colleague at work whose son was Narcan’d twice in the nine months our project lasted. The first time I was shaken when he told me, I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, my therapist told me to be honest with people,” he said when he noticed my awkwardness. “The kid does enough lying for the whole family.” The second time the colleague let me know in an email. “Was in the hospital all night, Nathan od’d again. Will be in a little late.” I was more prepared to offer sympathy this time but he waved it away. “He’s going to kill himself. I’ve told him, my wife told him, the doctor told him. He doesn’t listen. Not a thing we can do to stop it.”

Maybe that’s not what the song is about. Maybe this guy’s son is just doing a junior year abroad or something. Still a sad song.