Thursday, January 31, 2019

For The Record: my first hip hop show

(Noname live at First Ave, January 25, 2019)

For the record, I’m a 48-year-old white dude. While I was first introduced to hip hop at the age of 13 or 14 (through the movie Beat Street--I was wearing windsuits and back- spinning on cardboard almost immediately after seeing the movie), Noname was my first legitimate hip hop show. Ever.

Sure, I’d absorbed the rib-rattling bass thunder of Run The Jewels opening for Lorde (still awed at that particular pairing), and I’d caught an in-store performance by Minneapolis MC Greg Grease with DJ Just Nine at Electric Fetus on Record Store Day, but Noname at First Avenue in Minneapolis on January 25 was the first show dedicated solely to a hip hop artist.

My introductory hip hop phase didn’t last real long back in the mid-’80s. For decades I had minimal exposure to hip hop artists, only what leaked through the whiteout of MTV and made people move on the dance floor at the college bars. I’ve made a late-in- life return to hip hop within the last three years or so, sparked by building with some amazing Chicago poets and educators (Young Chicago Authors), who inspired me to dig into hip hop history, spoken word poetry, and Black literature. I became a diligent student of hip hop: reading nonfiction books, watching documentaries (always with a notepad and pen in-hand), and amassing a large collection of (mostly used) hip hop CD’s I’d read or heard about along the way.

Every morning for the last three years I’ve listened to hip hop on my 35-minute drive to teach high school English. My tastes run old-school. Public Enemy served as my main ambassador during the re-entry phase, clearing the path for BDP, Digable Planets, The Roots, Redman, Eric B & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Geto Boys, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. Through Twitter I came to know of more modern artists like Chance the Rapper, Saba, Smino, and, of course, Noname. Telefone pretty much redefined what hip hop could sound like for me. I was enthralled. Still am, so when I saw that she was playing only two hours away at First Ave (when you’ve grown up and still live in rural northwestern Wisconsin, “local” takes on a whole new meaning), I bought a single ticket as soon as I could. (I already mentioned I live in rural, northwestern Wisconsin. Not too many hip hop heads in my friendship circle.)

Leaving my wife and daughter at the hotel, I walked several blocks through the face-numbing Minneapolis winter winds to First Avenue. I grew up listening to Prince on the radio. I’ve seen Purple Rain multiple times. I’ve attended dozens of shows at First Ave and 7th Street Entry since 1990. I know the significance of the place, so I was incredibly excited to see Noname at this legendary venue. Still, I was nervous. Even my students chuckled a little when I told them what I was doing Friday night. Would I get side looks from true fans wondering why a 48-year-old white dude would even show up at a Noname show? Would I stand out like a jacket-holding grandpa waiting by the claw machine at a roller rink? Would there be many other white people there? Despite my middle-aged, white insecurities, as I entered First Ave, my most burning question was actually, Will there be any Telefone vinyl left?

I tucked my record and free poster under my arm shortly after doors opened at 8 PM, staked out my position behind the balcony railing adjacent to the lighting booth, and tried to become invisible. Just two people down from me sat another white dude who was at least as old as me (though much cooler, I’m sure). The floor began to fill, and I kept thinking, Do only white people show up this early?

Promptly at 9 PM, the screen rose on the main stage, and opening act Elton started his set. With youthful enthusiasm and abundant energy, Elton successfully hyped up the crowd--arms in the air, hands waving, bodies bouncing, and “making some noise.” A friend told me hip hop shows are always awkward, so I didn’t think too much of my own discomfort at not knowing exactly how to react to or interact with Elton’s onstage antics. I just wanted to follow a mentor’s advice and “Shut the fuck up and listen.”

During the change-over, the floor filled to capacity: a sold-out First Ave is an energizing sight. Still, I kept wondering, Where are all the Black people? And then the realization hit me: We’re in fucking downtown Minneapolis. As diverse as the Twin Cities may seem, downtown Minneapolis is still very white.

Noname’s incredibly tight band began laying down a solid groove that remained rock steady all night. Listening to digital downloads of Noname didn’t prepare me for her playful stage presence. In a long, black, floral skirt, black boots, and a thick, mustard sweater, Noname could just as easily have been walking into an English classroom instead of onto First Ave’s main stage. The fact that I was NOT in a school became abundantly clear, however,when several overpowering whisps of weed smoke wafted my way. Noname’s big smiles and sometimes child-like shuffling to the music created a whimsical atmosphere ofmusical and lyrical bliss. I was enthralled. (Still am.)

After several smooth songs and one brief, mid-verse interruption to ask if the crowd could even hear her words (they were a bit muffled), Noname paused, shaded her eyes from the spotlight, peered into the crowd and commented, “Damn there’s a lot of white people out there!” Seemingly unfazed, she dropped back into her rhymes and finished out the night with the crowd fully engaged...well, except for the chatty frat boy next to me wearing his silent girlfriend like a loose flannel, and the oversized, vociferous hipster dudes directly behind me. (Seriously, why the fuck do you people even go to shows? Shut the fuck up and listen!)

Standing outside the main doors afterwards, I bundled back up and prepared for the frigid several-block walk back to my hotel. I overheard several people comment about how short the show was. At far less than two hours, I could see their point; however, I also noted (in my head) that Noname has only two albums out, both filled with songs that often seem pretty short already. Plus, as a 48-year-old white school teacher, I was totally OK getting into bed before midnight, especially on a cold-ass January night in Minneapolis.

Monday, May 28, 2018

For the Record Top 10: #5 (halfway there, folks!)

The Replacements Boink!! EP (1986)

Just as kids can’t believe their parents may once have been cool teenagers, I can barely fathom a time when I did not know and love The Replacements; however, before pulling this obscure cassette from the stacks at Tu Trax record shop, the fabled quartet was wholly unknown to me. Pre-Internet there were a precious few ways for smalltown-me to discover new bands: 1) friend recommendations and 2) cover art. Boink!! was a gamble. The band name had potential--who but a truly clever punk band would name themselves after something that substitutes for something else? The cover seemed promising--a sepia image of scrappy-looking nobodys loitering in a dank alley. Then there was the record label: Glass, Linburn House, London. That’s right, I thought The Replacements were a British band.  Popping the cassette into the deck of my car, I was hooked immediately. This band was exactly what I had hoped for: raw, melodic, restless, dirty. The bullhorn intro to “Kids Don’t Follow” made me love them even more: “Helloooo, this is the Minneapolis police, the party is over!” These guys weren’t Brits, they were Midwestern cousins from the Twin Cities.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

For the Record Top 10: #4

The Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold As Love (1967)

I was born on the day Jimi Hendrix died: September 18, 1970. Perhaps this explains my deep connection to Hendrix’s music. (Too bad I couldn’t have gleaned more guitar skills as our life forces slipped past other that day.) He was an odd interjection in my musical world. My older brother wasn’t into Jimi, nor, in fact, any of the other bands I would eventually embrace as my own. My dad is a bluegrass nut, and Mom loved Barry Manilow, mostly while she ironed.  Certainly the posters, T-shirts and other paraphernalia I ogled at Trucker’s Union on Water Street in Eau Claire (a nearby college town) were an influence. Axis’s cover was intriguing when I pulled it from the shelf at Tu Trax (also on Water Street), but what really tripped me out was the music: swirling, screeching wah guitars, irresistible grooves, and Jimi’s laissez faire vocals. Hendrix became the soundtrack for summer; in fact, anytime I play Jimi, especially Axis: Bold As Love, I am zapped back to the municipal tennis courts playing against my buddy Andy with “Spanish Castle Magic” blaring from the speakers of my car.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

For The Record Top 10: #3

Sorry for all (two) of you who had to wait for me to continue my top 10 albums list, "real life" needs to take priority over my dreams of rock writing. But, the list continues, and will continue, though intermittently. Stay tuned...

Ramones Subterranean Jungle (1983)

This is the record that yanked me out of popular music almost altogether. Prior to my friend Tim Jacobson playing his copy for me, I was addicted to Radio (yes, at that time it was capitalized). While playing driveway or indoor Nerf basketball, I  kept a blank tape in my puny, fire engine red Panasonic boom box and stopped--sometimes mid-shot--to hit “RECORD” when Casey Kasem or the local WAQE DJ played a song I liked. Eddy Grant, The Police, and Men At Work were frequent game-interrupters. When he first played this cassette for me, Tim likely had to eject a TDK tape hand-labeled “KOOL TUNES” to make way for New York’s finest. I made sure my bedroom door was closed for that initial listen: these guys looked badass, forbidden, underground. What would my parents think? As soon as the first naked bass riff melded into the head-bobbing, hand-clapping beat (and soon after that cowbell interlude, DAMN!), I was hooked. Joey’s nasal delivery, Dee Dee’s chainsaw guitar, “Outsider” (my theme song), “Psycho Therapy,” “Time Bomb.” I grabbed my RATT Out of the Cellar tape and threw it (literally) into the back of my closet. I’ve been riding the underground ever since.

Monday, April 16, 2018

For The Record: Top Ten #2 Multiplication Rock

Multiplication Rock (1973)
In my musical world, before there was Michael Stipe, Robert Smith, Bono or Lou Reed, there was Bob Dorough. While many Gen Xers gravitate to “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just A Bill,” four decades later, I still count by threes and fives fluently by singing songs from this album. The genius of this record is its stylistic variety. Bob Dorough, a noted jazz composer and pianist, didn’t just generate cheesy campfire songs or bland middle-of-the-road rock-turned-teacher. He infused his masterful mathematical lessons with a bit of California rock (“Three Is A Magic Number”), shades of psychedelia (“Little Twelve Toes”), solid soul (“I Got Six”), and, appropriately for that troublesome times table, some smokey blues (“Naughty Number Nine,” sung by the fantastic Grady Tate). When I put on this record (which I still do; in fact, that’s my original copy from childhood in the photo), I’m taken back to the mid-’70s, not sitting in front of the Saturday morning TV but huddled with my brother and our Panasonic cassette player (the kind you’d find in an old school A/V room) in the backseat of our family car counting Noah’s animals off two by two.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

For The Record (rebirth): Top 10 Albums challenge

My friend Deb recently tagged me for the "Top 10 Albums" challenge on Facebook.  I normally disregard such "chain letter" bait, but this challenge hits at the heart of who I am as a music fan and writer. I've been wanting to resuscitate my long-neglected blog, and this was the perfect primer to re-launch my "For The Record" online column.

I obsess over music they way most guys obsess over sports; therefore, when this challenge came my way, I pushed it off until the weekend so I could devote myself to generating a proper list with quality write-ups. I began brainstorming my Top 10 List, which quickly grew to more than 20 albums that I felt were foundational in my life. With much difficulty, I was able to narrow the list to a true "Top 10" (OK, I went "Spinal Tap" and took my list to 11) and immediately planned to add a bonus "Next 10" list later.

To enhance the "challenge" aspect, I decided to set some parameters for formatting: cover pic (from my actual collection), release year, and write-up, 200 words MAX.

Here's the first installment. Stay tuned!


U2 Acthung Baby (1991)

As a 21-year-old exchange student in Japan, I first spotted the “new U2” on music TV in their frankly confusing “Fly” video. Where’s the stunning, black-and-white starkness of The Joshua Tree? What the fuck is up with the sunglasses and cigarillos? Are those rhinestones on Edge’s pants? Then the boys from Dublin really pissed me off. On November 11, 1991, I asked for the album at the underground CD shop (literally in a subway station). The clerk instead handed me a flyer touting “Super Rock Band U2.” The release date had been overwritten in Sharpie to November 18. I had saved my yen and searched them out, and U2 stood me up. To spite them, I bought an album by Japanese band Fence of Defense, digitaglam-FOD VI, whose sci-fi-infused single “9.9.9” I’d also seen on music TV. That album is phenomenal--one of the greatest headphone records I’ve ever experienced--but it’s a novelty compared to the depth, discombobulation and painful rebirth pangs of Achtung Baby. The songs sound like Japan felt. I have an undying love for Achtung Baby, perhaps because it initially played so “hard to get” on so many levels.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

For The Record #1

I'm trying to generate some new writing on a regular basis Here's my first stab at what I hope to be an ongoing column entitled "For The Record," focusing on records and live concert experiences.

For The Record #1: The Cure live at UIC Pavilion, June 10, 2016

For the record, I didn’t anticipate the first time I laid eyes on Robert Smith in the flesh would be with my head tilted forward through bifocals. With a hefty paunch and gray hair. With my 13-year-old daughter in tow. And my wife of 19 years. I did not feel cool. Honestly, I felt old and fat but thrilled to finally experience The Cure live, to ceremonially scratch off one of the few remaining names on my list of “bands to see before I die.”

From the winter of 1985 on, listening to The Cure always made me feel cool: underground, gothic, intelligent, isolated, misunderstood. I was part of an exclusive club. Only one other person I knew of in my small, northwest Wisconsin town listened to The Cure--Jack Rothenbuehler, and he was perhaps the coolest person in Chetek. A few overnight VHS-movie-watching/cassette-dubbing marathons at Jack’s house poured the musical foundation upon which I stand firmly today: U2, R.E.M., The Cure, Midnight Oil, Bauhaus, among many others. A trip to Deaf Ear Records in La Crosse, WI, (again with Jack) yielded my first actual Cure tape: Standing On A Beach (used). Many would follow: The Top, Head on the Door, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. MTV provided my first glimpse of the band’s outrageous hair, stylish suits and not-very-subtle make-up. Watching Robert Smith “spinning on that dizzy edge” in the “Just Like Heaven” video cemented The Cure as an audio-visual staple in my life from then on. (I still wish I had the iconic black and white “Boys Don’t Cry” and neon-faced “Head on the Door” posters from my high school days.)

Concert opportunities in my neck of the woods were limited, and I stuck to collecting tapes and CDs in lieu of pursuing long-shots of catching The Cure live. I settled for a VHS copy of In Orange first, then embraced Trilogy (still one of the most gorgeous concert videos I’ve seen) and was grateful for Festival 2005 (sort of). 

Then my daughter started discovering The Cure. 

Then my friends Cindy and Karl posted about their Cure experience at Riot Fest 2014.

Then the 2016 North American tour announcement came.


Standing in line at the UIC Pavilion, I was greatly relieved that I was neither the oldest, fattest nor  “uncoolest” fan awaiting the show. The crowd was, well, weird, running the gamut from pasty, blue-haired Goths in full make-up to a few couples who looked as if they just walked off the 18th green. In my Beneath The Planet of the Apes T-shirt and cargo shorts, I imagine I was leaning toward the latter. Still, if you were to peel away my outer shell, you’d uncover a genuine, corpse-like Goth snarling away behind the gray hair and bifocals. I had to try to remember this when scoping out the rest of the “I can’t fucking believe THAT person is a Cure fan!” crowd. 

Listening to The Cure alone in my basement or isolated in my car perpetuated the illusion that I was somehow their only true fan. Robert Smith spoke to me directly. He was much darker, more manic, more romantic than me, but his pained voice and melancholy melodies where the shape of my thoughts. Sitting inside a 6,000-plus-seat sports arena full of other people who, I assumed, felt the same way was honestly disillusioning. 

Our seats? Also disillusioning. We were definitely in the “nosebleed” section with a giant, rivot-splayed beam blocking the screens in back of the stage, and a speaker that covered up Roger O’Donnell entirely. My Cure live dream was dying, further shit upon by the cutting conversation unfolding in the seats directly behind us: two divorcees discussing (loudly) their (banal) philosophies on (failed) relationships and (“soap opera”) religion. I wanted to conjure that inner Goth, turn and spit, “You WILL shut the fuck up when the music starts!” But I silently stared at the dusty, battleship beam in front of me and prayed for Scottish openers The Twilight Sad to drown out the chatter. (I was pleased The Twilight Sad sounded even more like Chameleons UK than The Smiths live, proving they are worthy cohorts on a Cure tour. Kudos to frontman James Graham for writhing, dancing and gesticulating as wildly as an engaging frontman should.)

Can’t you sit and “dance” (i.e. sway awkwardly while holding your beer with one finger pointing in the air) for God’s sake, I thought when the mom in the black Eddie Bauer dress one row up from us rose in salute to “Lovesong” and “Just Like Heaven,” two of the four songs she recognized from MTV “back in the day.” As The Cure played through a dreamy mix of deep cuts and alternative radio staples, I was once again torn--how could this band that made me feel like such an outsider resonate with the likes of Drunk Mom? The feeling was laughingly adolescent but nonetheless unshakeable: The Cure is my band, not yours. Naivete leaves an indelible mark on a person’s soul. 

This crowd clash of MTV binge watcher and cassette Walkman disciple continued throughout the night with true Smith devotees coming out ahead: “Shake Dog Shake,” “Screw,” “Primary,” “One Hundred Years,” “Jupiter Crash,” “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” “The Exploding Boy,” and my favorite of the night “Give Me It” energized me and other longtime fans as much as “Pictures of You” and “Friday I’m In Love” satiated the ‘90s flashbackers. 

The most impactful moments of the night came when I diverted my tilted gaze from the faraway stage to catch my daughter’s profile, her starstruck eyes glazed from the spectacle of laser lights and projected backdrops, and her lips mouthing along in sync with Robert Smith’s lyrics, which have scrolled continuously inside me like a poetic teleprompter for decades.