Archive | Music RSS for this section

The Rise and Fall of George Tenet

Former CIA Director George Tenet sits at a mahogany desk in the corner office of the appropriately secretive investment bank Allen & Company.  A glass of scotch sits atop a granite coaster while a cigarette smolders in a nearby ashtray.  He admires the many leather-bound books enshrined on his bookshelf.  His personal assistant, Kenneth Bridgewater, enters excitedly.

Kenneth: George, you’re never going to believe it!

George: Kenneth, do not waste my time, for you know that I have seen all things and believe in nothing.

Kenneth: One of the rappers has put you into one of his rap songs!

George: Oh, for reals?  Which one?

Kenneth: Kanye West.  The song is called “Click,” sir.

George: Sweeeeet.

He launches Spotify and hides his “Eagles Greatest Hits” playlist, embarrassed.  After 5 minutes of searching, he discovers that the song is called “Clique.”  

*Listening* Yeah I’m talking business, we talking CIA / I’m talking George Tenet, I seen him the other day / He asked me about my Maybach, think he had the same / Except mine tinted and his might have been rented



Mr. Nigga: A List of Things

  • In third grade, an older boy asked me, “What’s up, cuz?”  I told my mother that I had a cousin at school that I didn’t know about.
  • In fourth grade, we learned about Africa and thus Dahomey.  The other students found “da homie” hiiiiilarious and paired the phrase with their best 90s rap hands.  I was unimpressed.
  • In fifth grade, Pete asked whether or not I would date the Filipino girl, Mary, if we never got any black girls in our class (Congrats, Filipinos!  You are the next closest thing to black).   I responded, “I guess so.”  I should have acted on that quick because Mary is and always was awesome.
  • I went to a corner store and was shocked by the price of the Marvel Comics trading cards and left empty-handed.  The owner accused me of stealing from his shop.  My mom talked to him and we settled on good terms.
  • I too have endured a lifetime of people who wanted to touch my hair.
  • A “friend” from church once explained the scar on his stomach by saying that he was stabbed.  The detail that made it believable?  A black guy did it.  Because black guys. It was an appendectomy scar.
  • Another “friend” repeatedly insisted that I join the church band as a rapper just because.  “Come on, man.  I know you’ve got that soul in you.”  I never go to that church anymore.
  • I’ve been told, “Of course you’ll get into University X.  You’re black.”  Though well-intended, my resume is strong enough that that the comment is meaningless.
  • A woman in Squirrel Hill complained about the house nigger security guard at the laundromat for enforcing the rules as he is paid to do.  One can assume that if he didn’t have a job he would have been a regular nigger (or a field nigger if you are concerned with completing dichotomies).
  • Everyone assumes I can dance.  Ask my salsa class about this.
  • I once exited my college dorm on Forbes Avenue after a young white woman walked by.  She ran three blocks in her jeans.
  • An excited Vietnamese man in Ho Chi Minh City asked me if I was a professional basketball player.  I am 5’4″.
  • A dear friend assumed that one of my parents was white because that’s how you make me make sense.
  • After a weekend of prolonged exposure to the sun, a woman I was dating told me that I was now too dark to meet her father.  I think she was joking.
  • Following that same weekend, a co-worker laughed at how dark I had gotten.  She is a sweet girl, though not one knowledgeable of American racial dynamics.
  • At the end of a company Christmas party, a co-worker’s wife said, “Good night, Carlton.”  My name is Eric.  I laugh about the nickname I had and didn’t even know about it.  I may have others.
  • I am the world’s most well-spoken man according to middle aged white men.  This should probably feel comforting, but I fear that I’ve surpassed a low bar.
  • A young Mexican girl came to my place of work and asked, “What kind of Black are you?”  I told her what I knew of my family’s history.  She doesn’t know her grandfather’s name.

I feel like I never respond to these situations properly.  Sometimes I speak up and sometimes I say nothing.  Laughter is my default response to things that make uncomfortable.  Sometimes my blood boils, but I hold back for fear of going overboard.  I ask myself, “Am I being sensitive?  Sometimes people say stupid things.  Are they joking?  Are they trying to be funny and failing?”

And then I wonder am I failing?

Should I be angrier?

I used to be an angry guy.  I’m not anymore.  A lot of that is because I’ve divorced myself from “the small stuff,” among which many of the above incidents qualify.  Am I being complacent to ignore them?  Am I doing a disservice to the black and brown folks who are unable to ignore them?  Have I abdicated my responsibility to be an agent of change?

I don’t know.

TV on the Radio – Million Miles

I heard this song for the first time literally 5 minutes ago and fell in love instantly.  It’s a beautiful song married to an equally beautiful video (the gorgeous official one with superior sound quality can be found here*).  TV on the Radio should get some additional coverage around these parts soon.

*This is the highly recommended version – treat yourself.  

Closing Time: Bob Dylan and Going Out in Style

Bob Dylan could teach a master class in dropping the mic.  He has a longstanding tradition of concluding albums with songs that rank among his finest and be they funny, sweet, or epic, they serve as punctuation marks in the man’s career and life.

The final cut from every album was not always a monster (that mid-career fallow period was  brutal at times), but the tradition was established early with his self-titled first album.  “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” was written and recorded by Blind Lemon in 1928 and was recorded by many blues artists before Dylan covered it.  His take is noticeably darker than Blind Lemon’s in melody and vocal tone, which is weird because the lyrics are incredibly dark (the apparent mismatch could be blamed on the dominant style of the time; you can hear a church influence in Lemon’s singing and playing.).

If ever there was a criticism to be levied against Dylan as a musician, it was that voice.  It’s certainly not good on “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” but it stands out as one of his more evocative performances.  He’s desperate and he pleads and reaches into the gut to pull off some of these lines.  Dylan sings with a commitment that would abandon him in a few short years (he does stifle a laugh at the 2:20 mark though).  It’s a treat to hear him sing before cigarettes destroyed his voice.


He was only 20 when the song was released and he’s still got some of that baby fat on the album cover.  The fun thing is that this is the last moment before there were any of the personas that he created for himself or and none yet to rebel against.  This era is the most pure folkie Dylan.  Next up: the protest era.

A Growing List of Rappers Who Can’t Be Told Nothing

When rappers who can’t be told nothing are caught in the wild, they are tagged and released so that we may better study their migratory patterns and measure their defiance levels.  These are our findings:

Kanye West.  Obviously.
Defiance Level: 8

Dizzee Rascal.  Slightly less obviously, but equally defiantly.
Defiance Level: 8

GOAT rapper Tim McGraw gets in on the action, breaks scale.
Defiance Level: 12

Walking With Bison, Fleetwood Mac, and Adventures in Yellowstone National Park

I will always be the first to confess that I know next to nothing about Fleetwood Mac.  If an armed gunman were to burst into a room and say, “I will shoot the first guy who confesses to know next to nothing about Fleetwood Mac,” my hand would dart up into the air and I would proudly volunteer, “I am that guy.”

Who is this charming young devil?

Who is this charming young devil?

The things that I know or think I know about Fleetwood Mac are as follows:

  • They loved drugs
  • Everyone had sex with everyone
  • They were manufactured for an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music
  • Music critics adore them although no actual human beings do

Perhaps I’m being unfair.  I know of at least one human being who cares about them a great deal.  Someone who finds their music to be majestic.

Angie was one of eight Pitt students on a month long field course  held at Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding areas.  She was wise (or at least old) beyond her years for she enjoyed the music of Fleetwood Mac and recommended that it be played during our lengthy car rides.  “Everywhere” was Angie’s jam, so to speak.


And how could it not be?  Listen to that intro.  It is magical!  Pixies are comin’, y’all.

We started each day at the K Bar Z Ranch (the website is almost unchanged since 2002), close to Cody, WY and the Montana border.  We loaded up two vans with instructors and students and drove to some hardcore hiking in the Beartooths, the Abserokas, and in Yellowstone itself.  We went to Cody to see the rodeo and Fleetwood Mac followed us.  “Everywhere” was everywhere.

Young hooligans.

Young hooligans up to no good.

The trip was split into three portions, the first focusing on geology, followed by biology, and then a historical and political review of the development of the West.

During a particularly brutal and desperate hike we devolved into rampant lawlessness.

During a desperate moment we devolved into rampant lawlessness.

The hiking was hardest in the geological segment, but also the most giving in its beauty.  The Yellowstone region is essentially a laboratory where you witness almost every significant geological process at work.  Old Faithful is merely a fraction of what is fascinating about the region.  I saw gorgeous blue pools that could melt your skin off, young kettle lakes, stones transported by glaciers that were large enough to crush houses, and the collapsed remnants of an ancient volcano.  The whole place could still blow up soon.

In the Beartooths.

In the Beartooth Mountains.

Rushing waters.

Rushing waters.

I was impressed beyond the geology because the wildlife was also incredible.  We drove to the park long before the sun rose to search for wolves and we encountered a baby bear on the side of the road eating flowers, so unlike the ruthless killer it would eventually become.  The mysterious watermelon snow could be found at the tops of the highest mountains in June.  We walked through a field of hundreds of bison and came within 30 yards of the massive creatures.  We wore boots for the hiking and also for protection from rattlesnakes.  There were midnight raids from curious black bears.

Vicious honey bear at work.

Vicious honey bear at work.

I’ve done a good deal of international travel since 2002, but I regard the Yellowstone trip as the most important of my life.  It gave me a sense for how large, weird, and wonderful our world is and how you don’t have to go that far to see it.  Perhaps it is a naive memory on my part, but I feel that even the politics were different out there.  I recall that Red State/Blue State flag-planting was muted by a strain of libertarianism that existed before high school philosophers thought it was cool.

Cody, Wyoming children traumatizing a calf.

The young children of Cody, Wyoming traumatizing a calf.

That Fleetwood Mac would be my most dominant memory from the Yellowstone trip seems appropriate.  The band seems like it would be a hit with the “turquoise and silver” crowd, the kind of guys that wear cowboy boots, bolo ties, and t-shirts with wolves on them.  There’s a lot of that in one of America’s last sanctuaries of nature.  I never seek out “Everywhere”  for a listen, but the song is a time warp for me during our scarce encounters around the radio dial.

A better kind of turquoise.

A better kind of turquoise.

Deep blue pool.

Deep blue pool.

From within Yellowstone.

From within Yellowstone.

Also from the park, possibly from the top of Mt. Washburn.

I will never forget.

Bad to the Bone

I nailed an interview yesterday.  My suit was sharp, my walk confident and as I exited the building, “Bad to the Bone” started playing on the radio.  It was surreal and made my day.

The most rewatchable and greatest action movie of all time.

Sorry About That Whole “Not Rioting” Thing

The George Zimmerman verdict came and went with a minimum of violence and a surfeit of peaceful demonstration, but that did not stop the concern trolls at The Drudge Report,, and InfoWars from predicting riots and providing hysterical coverage of marginal incidents.

Matt Drudge.  Ugh...

Matt Drudge. Ugh…

(There was a tendency to refer to the courtroom proceedings as the “Trayvon Martin trial,” which I hated because he was the dead child in the scenario and very much not on trial.  You could be forgiven for getting the impression that he was.)

Problem is, the riots never happened.

There is a psychology to riots about which I am not knowledgeable, so I can’t say that they are completely irrational responses, but I am confident that they are a symptom of an unhealthy society distrustful of its institutions.  I’m also certain that if wildly racist media outlets are looking forward to your riot with glee, then you probably shouldn’t start one.

It did get me thinking about the last major riot in American history and how the moment was captured musically.  Dr. Dre stepped up first with the “The Day the N***** Took Over” (I have future job ambitions, sue me) in 1992 and the boys of Sublime offered up “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” 4 years later.  Dre and Nowell both frame themselves as participants in the aftermath of the Rodney King decision (there we go again), but the paths that they took musically diverge there.

Dr. Dre’s beat invokes paranoia infused with a sense of real rage when backed up by samples from Birth of a Nation 4x29x92a documentary assembled after the riot.  The quotes that he pulls from the doc make it clear that this song is more than just gangster posturing.  The bass line communicates a low-boiling menace and the loop that constitutes the main beat feels like it could spin out of control any minute.  On The Chronic, “The Day the N***** Took Over” transitions smoothly into “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” because there was no other choice; the tension had to be relieved. If “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” is the breezy soundtrack to a summer BBQ, “Day” is the same suffocating 97 degree weather experienced from a room without air conditioning.  Dre isn’t known for deep lyrics or the ease of his flow, but he kills it on this track.  This is personal.  This is something that happened next door.  It is is chaos is made audible.

It is evident that Dr. Dre’s effort informed Sublime’s because the group also begins “April 29” with a sample (this time of a police radio broadcast) and because screaming 187 on a m************* cop is not a typical Sublime lyric.  “April 29, 1992 (Miami)” features a meandering baseline and a mellow delivery from Nowell, but he does engage a little with the riot from a socioeconomic perspective.  Even though he narrates the song from the first-person, it’s clear that his relationship to the riot is that of an outsider.  It’s not a bad effort and the song is enjoyable, but it feels insubstantial when placed next to Dre’s.

So Drunk in the August Sun

It’s a rainy Thursday morning in DC and so I turn to the sunniest song I know and the surest pick-me-up I have.  The atmosphere surrounding Pavement’s “Gold Soundz” is incredible.  I adore the melodic guitars stacked beneath the vaguely poignant lyrics that could mean everything or possibly nothing at all.  It is a victory for music’s joyousness over the pitfalls of pretension and grandiosity, over anger and depression.

I’ve loved this song for 9 years now, but I had no idea it had a video until I wrote this post.

“Gold Soundz” is the sweetest and most accessible song on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the best album by a mostly slept on band.  Pavement was popular for a very brief moment in the 90s and then never again and I think that the band’s members were happier with it that way.  They specialized in pretending not to care in order to conceal the fact that they really, really did.  Their production could be shoddy and their playing sloppy, but the band had a true talent for crafting guitar based pop music.

Pitchfork ranked “Gold Soundz” as the number one song of the 90s, but I didn’t regard it as a standout until the final verse jumped out at me one day and I was forever floored:

So drunk in the August sun
And you’re the kind of girl I like
Because you’re empty and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past
Did you remember in December
That I won’t eat you when I’m gone
And if I go there, I won’t stay there
Because I’m sitting here too long
I’ve been sitting here too long
And I’ve been wasted
Advocating that word for the last word
Last words come up all you’ve got to waste

“Gold Soundz” strikes me as deeply romantic because it is mostly devoid of romantic content.  The final verse comes closest and even then it’s a bit weird and oblique.  There is a notion that shared secrets are an element of sustained emotion.

I keep your address to myself ’cause we need secrets
We need secrets crets crets crets crets crets back right now

Rage Against the Machine – Bulls on Parade

Rage Against the Machine introduced my 13 year old self to the idea of encapsulating politics in art.  Most serious art, that most insufferable of phrases, contains a political element, but rarely so nakedly and on the surface as with RAtM.  I already knew that music could contain a message.  I was even willing to accept that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” played a significant role in the civil rights movement (because I had seen movie montages) even if I wasn’t clear on the mechanism by which it worked.

But Rage left none of the politics to chance and instead wielded a duel ended sledgehammer of political fury and bludgeoning hard rock and hip-hop.  Problematically, I couldn’t tell you exactly what their politics were.  Only that they really felt it.  Also, think about a duel ended sledgehammer and how well that would not work.

“Bulls on Parade” arrived with an explosive guitar intro and a chaotic video that mixed concert footage with historical protests that served to heighten the “WTF?!” factor for me.  Never before had I heard anything like it in the MTV Buzz Bin (if you remember that, it’s ok to feel old).  Zach de la Rocha’s line “They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ’em now” always stuck with me, like the wisdom of a man who had thought about things.  I didn’t even have a half-baked political agenda at the time, but I found value in Rage Against the Machine’s anger over grunge’s general disaffection.  Whatever was happening here felt pretty important in 1996.


I don’t know enough about playing the guitar to say that Tom Morello is a great guitarist.  I do know enough to say that he teased some devastatingly cool noises out of his instrument and made the sound popular and distinctive.  You know when Tom Morello plays guitar.  Morello is the Hideo Nomo of guitarists – an unconventional delivery that redefined how to be successful in a craft.