Micah Schnabel: Music as a vehicle for Truth – by Larry Fulford

Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 - photo courtesy of Holly Rohner
Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 – photo courtesy of Holly Rohner

 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Larry Fulford has spent time on the mic as a comedian and behind the kit as a drummer. He’s a peach of a fellow and we asked him to reflect on a recent show he attended.

 

It was a Monday night, a night touring musicians dread even more than Sunday night, in Chicago, Cubs Country, during a Cubs game, in a city with a bar on every corner, a theater on every other corner, hundreds of ways to spend your money, and I was taking $8 to Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville, a smallish craft-everything bar just down the street from where the Cubbies were playing, to see Micah Schnabel (Two Cow Garage) perform a solo/acoustic set on the second-to-last night of his most recent tour.

A capable two-piece, acoustic singer/songwriter accompanied by an electric lead player, kicked things off. The sound was outstanding but the room itself was kind of stuffy, seated with table service and drinks I couldn’t afford.

Maybe fifteen people sat at the tables, kind of spread out, making their pricey drinks last and nibbling on food I was jealous of. Fifteen in a room that, according to a sign, held forty-seven. It felt more like a cafe than a dive bar or rock club, the kinds of places I was used to seeing Schnabel and Two Cow. But the sound was incredible, so I told myself to hold onto that.

From meager, midwestern beginnings as a simple alt-country outfit that was heavier than most, to a soaring, driving-with-the-top-down powerhouse walking a tightrope over a quarry of punk rock, to saying “Fuck it” and diving headfirst into that quarry but climbing up for air long enough to keep things interesting, I’ve been a fan of Two Cow Garage since I saw them play to an audience of maybe 12 as though it were an audience of 12,000 without a hint of bitterness.

Years later, on an unassuming Monday night in Chi-Town, Schnabel alone took the stage (or place on the floor where a stage might be someday) and, just as I’d seen him lead the charge in front of 12 as though we were 12,000, stepped up to the mic to do exactly what he had come here to do, regardless of outcome or interest.

Except this time, for the most part, he left the old songs on the records, save for maybe one Two Cow Garage track (“Let the Boys Be Girls”) and an I’m Dead, Serious bonus track (“How to Quit Smoking”). The rest of the set I was mostly unfamiliar with, with the exception of a couple songs I’d seen live clips of on YouTube.

And this new stuff, wherever it came from, whatever triggered it, was captivating in the most brutally honest, unafraid to make you uncomfortable, beautiful way.

There were lyrics about uncertainty, about questioning your own identity and the idea of identity, our collective reasons for doing things as simple as making small talk, existence, fear, the illusion of an “American dream,” domestic violence, child abuse, gun control, greed, starving, and finding hope in hopelessness.

Ya know, real cock-sure, glamorous rock ‘n’ roll shit.

Certain lines had me smiling, others had me staring, taking them in, sitting with them, asking myself questions like “How does this make me feel?” and thinking things like “Holy hell.” The imagery wasn’t always easy on the ears, but real art, the good stuff, isn’t always something you necessarily want to hear. But Schnabel’s words kept the room pindrop-worthy and landed as relatable, or at least easy to empathize with, because, subtly, ultimately, the theme of the night was We’re All Just People Here, Flawed and Fractured, Trying Our Fucking Best.

Afterwards, as though nothing had happened, Micah and I and some buddies shot the shit about nothing at all, came up with ideas for t-shirts we’re never going to make, pretended we were friends with Seal.

But something had happened. Something I was aware of even while it was happening. We’d all been temporarily whisked away to Greenwich Village or San Francisco in the ‘60s, when people gathered in rooms that wouldn’t hold more than maybe forty-seven people and turned their attention to someone who was singing or saying things as though he or she had been somewhere we’d never been, and maybe would never dare go, and had come back to us with pockets full of postcards.

It’s been said “the revolution will not be televised,” because it won’t be. Because it’s slow-going and all around us and happening all the time. And it’s not always big, with explosions, castle-storming, chaining ourselves to trees. Sometimes, more often than not, it’s very, very small and personal, like a butterfly a million miles away, flapping its wings.

I was born too late to sit in a smoky speakeasy and watch Lenny Bruce launch verbal cannonballs into the sails of hypocrisy, or Dylan boldly declare outright “the times, they are a-changin,’” but this show gave me what I imagine were similar chills.

The whole “being a musician” thing usually begins simple enough. You want to learn how to play guitar (or drums, or bass, or sing) because you don’t just listen to music, music speaks to you, and you want to know what it’s like to speak that language, even if at first all that sounds like is butchering “Come as You Are” (or “Enter Sandman,” or “I Wanna Be Sedated” or anything-Zeppelin) while your parents knock on the door and ask if you’ve finished your homework.

Your heroes are outcasts, outlaws, rebels who shirked real life in favor of climbing on stages, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, sweating and bleeding and leaving everything “real” behind for whatever reason; money, fame, chickz (or dudez), or purely because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

There are all sorts of reasons someone might start or join a band, but I think at the very core of every one is camaraderie. Whether you’re a misunderstood nerd with Rush posters all over your walls or a nerd-bullying jock dabbling in finding the only acoustic guitar at the house party to wow young ladies with Nickelback’s “Photograph,” there’s a sort of us-against-the-world feeling when you’re playing the role of rock star.

And I use “rock star” figuratively here to describe anyone who’s found a spotlight, be it at a dumpy coffee shop where someone blends drinks over your attempt at quivering out the tritest of trite lyrics about your last break-up, a garage with three friends who also happen to know “Say it Ain’t So,” or a lonely bedroom, sitting on the edge of a dirty mattress, strumming the ever-loving shit out of “Everlong.”

Myself? It couldn’t have been more about camaraderie if I’d known I was going to be writing this article one day and needed it to be. I became a drummer solely because my buddies in junior high were starting a band and needed a drummer, and back then, as now, there were no drummers to be found.

The thing about bands, and music in general, is over time it gets harder and harder to make time. People go off to college, get married, accept offers for “real” jobs, have babies, find Jesus, sometimes all of the above. The odds are stacked against you from the get-go. It’s as though every band is a camel that thinks it’s a tank, and life is a veritable desert covered in sand-colored landmines.

And, if your delicate endeavor does somehow beat the odds and sticks it out longer than, say, other high school garage bands in your graduating class, it’s almost inevitable that, eventually, the reason(s) you came together become filtered through reasons to continue to exist.

Why are we doing this? It’s clearly not the money. It’s not the fame. Chickz? Dudez? Expression? Sustainability? Legacy? Should we start dressing a little nicer onstage so, aesthetically, we look more like we’re in the same group? Where should each of us look in this photo? Did that make us look too depressed? How are we gonna pay for the next record? Why are we even bothering making a next record when we still have boxes of the old record? Do we know any mechanics in Des Moines?

It’s almost as though, to keep it going, you have to cling to some sort of goal, no matter how invented, farfetched, or out of reach, and start being concerned with things like marketing (blech), finding the right manager (blech!), and selling yourself (what in the actual fuck?!).

It’s a long way to the lower-middle if ya wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

Which is why it’s always inspiring when you come across a band or singer/songwriter (or, hell, painter, writer, comic, photographer, etc.) that refuses to be pigeonholed or let fashion and fleeting trends dictate the next thing that comes out of his or her hands and mouth, preferring rather to use their guitars, words, paintbrushes, and cameras as knives to cut out the bullshit and carve their own niche, searching for revelation, revolution, or simply a sigh of relief in the midst of a screaming world, where we all think we’re the centers of our own universes.

Those are the ones keeping the ball rolling. Those are the ones doing more than entertain. They’re fighting a good fight and an uphill battle blindfolded because, to them, it doesn’t matter if they never cross the finish line or get gunned down along the way.

They don’t do this simply because they want to anymore, they do it because they need to, because something in their brains or hearts or guts won’t let them set the tools of their trades down long enough to get a “real” job. There’s something burning inside and no extinguishing the flame. There is only breathing fire.

Some of these people have been at it for years and will be until their last gasps, when you can finally pry their reasons for existing from their cold, dead hands. They’ve missed loved ones’ birthdays, lost jobs, been evicted, had relationships crumble, and none of it has made them choose to slow down because there is. no. choice.

Micah Schnabel is one such “lifer” whose evolution I feel privileged to have had ringside seats for, and Two Cow Garage is one such band. And now, all these years later, when most groups at their level would be paralyzed with fear, carefully calculating what to say next, how to sound next, what to wear next, or deciding maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, Schnabel is all but dismissing the surface, choosing instead to turn himself inside out, more interested in what we as human beings might be trying to hide rather than how we as entertainers look under those precious lights.

And, in turn, he’s writing some of the most important songs of his generation, and the generation after, and probably the generation before, and probably generations to come.

I don’t know how else to describe it.

Important.

I could try to explain it better, like how it kind of reminds me of Salinger with a guitar or Dylan with a sense of humor, but to be fair to everyone I’m name-dropping, Micah included, I’ll stop at “important” and hope you see fit to check it out on your own when he comes to your town or commits it to plastic.

I’d like to think true artists aspire to reach a point where they’re comfortable baring their souls. Some manage to get over themselves and find a way to dig that deep. Even fewer will dig that deep, hit a gas line, stash of marked bills, lava, or worse and still throw enough caution to the wind to unearth it into a song, painting, book, joke, movie, etc.

Micah now goes beyond that. He hits the skeleton of his soul, chips it away and fires the pieces into space with a slingshot.

And now that he’s armed with these new songs and ideas, that run the gamut from friendly reminders to scathing satire, I’ve decided the only thing I enjoy more than listening to him myself is watching people hear him for the first time.

– Larry Fulford
Keep up with Larry on Twitter – @LarryFulford

 

LBIII & The Glory Fires – “Sweet Disorder” and On Covers

Sweet DisorderLee Bains III & The Glory Fires have released their latest 7″ this past week. The Alabama rock outfit on the SubPop label, purportedly ‘Too Loud For Texas‘ and known for their energy-filled performances, are coming from the release of 2014’s Dereconstructed which was not only Essential Listening, but my choice for Album of the Year.

While the track opens with thirty seconds of the blistering rock and roll we’ve learned to expect from this band, featuring wailing guitars and crashing cymbals, there’s eventually a brief intermission: Bains, singing quietly on a song for the first time since the band’s 2012 debut, with a simple piano accompaniment, before the rock returns with a vengeance. The point is made. The Glory Fires’ next effort, tentatively titled “Juvenile Detention”, may not be any less aggressive, but may be far more melodic than Dereconstructed. “Sweet Disorder” can be sung without having to be shouted. As the song builds to a climax and then breaks down, you find yourself wondering at the complexity that is possible even within such a powerful wall of sound (was that a trumpet?). Be prepared for it to get stuck in your head, doubly so once you read the lyrics.

The devil may be in the details, but the power of Bains’ songwriting is always in the lyrics. I strongly urge all Glory Fires fans to check them out; they read very easily as stand-alone poems.  In Bains’s own words, “The song developed out of months spent revisiting the Objectivist poets, binging on early Clash albums, and observing the Atlanta actions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed people of color.” While we on the site have been careful to keep personal politics out of our posts, Bains’s principles made up the bulk of his material on Dereconstructed, and are part and parcel of his music. With this track, Bains is honing his skills as a messenger, delivering sincere and incisive criticism of social norms and systems. While some music may be timeless, dealing with eternal themes like love and loss, who can deny the timeliness of a lyric focused on modern issues such as transgender rights:

I saw them lock her in her body, and tell her that it’s bad
Under the guise of affection.

You can pick “Sweet Disorder” up over on the SubPop website.

The B-side of the 7″ is a cover, “Stars” by the Primitons. The Primitons were a Birmingham band from the 80’s, one Bains describes with clear respect in the release for the single. You can hear it hear, and though while Bains plays it acoustic (there’s a definite Cheap Girls vibe), the original is very electric and very punk. It’s clear that the band influenced Bains in his Alabama youth, and likely continue to do so: just listen to those melodies!

The Cover is one of the most loving acts (or self-centered ones) a musician can undertake. Whether it’s the carefully crafted cover of an all-time favorite or the passionate proselytizing of a new fan, few things are as exciting to fans as covers. It’s a way for artists to pass on their knowledge and tastes, help spread the message of their influences, and most importantly help their buddies sell some records.

Some of these covers achieve almost-legendary status in their own way: how many younger Lucero fans had never heard of Jawbreaker before they heard “Kiss The Bottle”? That was where Lucero came from. How many had not heard of Glossary and Joey Kneiser before Ben Nichols played “Bruised Ribs”? That was the caliber of songwriting that an older Nichols was endeavoring to match. As soon as I learned from Chad Price that Drag The River’s “Leaving In The Morning” was a Lenny & The Piss Poor Boys cover, I bought Lenny’s record immediately. Michael Dean Damron’s soulful cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” got me to listen to a phenomenal rock and roll band I always associated with classic rock stations and movie montages.

Is there anything more exciting than hearing a song entirely new to you and discovering that not only do you have a new song, but an entirely new artist to listen to? What are some of your favorite covers, and discoveries you’ve made from them? Let us know in the comments!!

 

“My Sins My Own” – A Study of Vanessa Jean Speckman

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“It is most interesting to me,” says Cecelia Jean Speckman, “that she always said she was going to be an artist…and she IS an artist!” She’s speaking of her daughter here, in a breathless amazement that could seem typical of any parent talking about any child. The difference here, however, is that the devotion and commitment with which the mother speaks of the daughter is the same with which the daughter speaks of the art. There’s a clarity of expression here, an ability to be plainspoken and truthful that must surely be genetic. Her brother says the same: “Artists are the folks that can see the beauty in anything and translate that through their medium – it’s something that not everyone can do and Vanessa has found a way to do that.”

This article will be a rough sketch, as it has to be: Vanessa Jean Speckman continues to strive, grow, and learn, much more a tree with many branches than a simpler organism growing only in one direction. The lens through which so many have gotten to know Speckman is a musical one, but music is by no means her starting point or her primary inspiration. Through her family, her peers, and her own words you will get to know a woman whose work has inspired so many in this community.

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The open admiration of her family members is returned wholly in kind. Vanessa Jean Speckman loves and appreciates where she came from. “I was surrounded with art and makers from my earliest memories, so as early as I can remember, it was ‘the norm’.” A grandfather that regularly painted scenes from National Geographic magazines, parents that took her to see Leonard Cohen, a brother that regularly trekked out to shows with her and helped create a zine that influenced the rest of her life.

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The zine was called Lubricated. Speckman was just out of college and had moved in with her older brother Patrick, but was less than thrilled with the lack of community spirit in the Bay Area. “…everyone around me seemed to be straddling what they were, and what they thought we were supposed to be and I saw all this cool stuff in between that I wanted to celebrate. That there didn’t have to be any lines crossed or boxes to be put in.” The zine was about more than music, it was a way of connecting what burned brightest across all mediums: music, visual art, poetry, film. In Patrick’s words, the “common thread was creativity.”

“I was a high school art teacher and 6th and 7th grade English teacher,” Speckman says, “driving to shows every night, painting in my garage and staying up way too late making Lubricated…It was this really organic and beautiful process that took on a life of its own, that I don’t think either of us ever had imagined.”

11021068_10203536113474627_3728400290139592760_nLubricated introduced Vanessa to many like-minded people, including Michael Dean Damron of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House. “I was touring with Two Cow Garage,” Damron said, “and [Speckman] was doing a zine at the time and came down to talk. The next night we all played in San Jose and she gave us a place to crash and some kick ass Mexican food…One of the kindest, warmest people I had ever met.” And just as the music influenced Speckman, her art influenced the artists around her. Speckman painted the cover of Mike D’s recent solo album When The Darkness Come. “…it was the perfect combination of darkness and my childhood,” Damron said. “I related instantly.”

tumblr_ne8565B2HQ1rvtjh6o1_500Being more than willing to travel up and down the West Coast for shows, plans not being a necessity (for reference see her painted suitcases: ‘Gotta Run!’, and ‘…Can’t Stay!’), there are plenty of stories like the following. Frank Turner, when asked how he met Speckman, said, “Many years back, on the road, through road friends. We used to stay at her place in Northen California when we were on tour.” Vanessa recently contributed a print that was included with Frank’s compilation album ‘The Third Three Years’. The piece features many of Frank’s standby references and inspirations but in Speckman’s particular style. Lyrics have a habit of sliding out of songs and into reality, tattoos are almost too honest, and most figures are bearing quiet witness to their circumstances, looking out at the audience or down at their feet with similar melancholy self-awareness.

10628428_10152400087671325_191840535498871182_nBrandon Barnett of Ghost Shirt, another band Vanessa painted an album cover for, put it as follows: “Vanessa’s art is so direct…She can make you feel all your feelings with 4-5 words spray painted on an old map.” The album cover, featuring a defiant boy (with plenty of tattoos) braving rough seas in a boat also bearing a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Barnett: “If the record has a unifying theme it would be something about not looking for well-being, love, or salvation outside yourself. I never told Vanessa this. The first thing I noticed on the art was a little cartoon flag being waved from a boat that just said ‘Save Yourself’. I completely lost it.” Speckman is undoubtedly an artist who understands artists, who creates work not just for artists, but that artists will appreciate.

As previously written, however, there are many branches to Speckman’s artistic life and music is just one of them. Her artistic story has been one of constant change and growth, new mediums and themes emerging as old ones are thoroughly explored. “I don’t ever want to be stuck making the same thing with the same tools – that would be my own personal purgatory,” says Speckman. “I love that I am my own tool in the shed and it’s up to me to learn and develop and stay sharp.” In school she painted with oils and sculpted with clay, and after college she didn’t do much art other than “bastard stubborn photography” and the zine. What soon emerged, though, was a talent for re-purposing or re-imagining existing forms. Maps were a common vehicle for communicating Speckman’s melancholy and wanderlust.

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Speckman’s art seems to be about the medium just as much as the message, whether it’s a cheap plastic compass with “nobody at the wheel” on its back or a matchbook with “i just have a lot of feelings” sewn to it. These simple pieces, a common item and a few words, are also some of her strongest. “I don’t think musicians or artist create a piece in hopes to dictate something, rather to spark something,” Speckman says. A keychain tucked into your bag with another purchase, a notebook with the reminder “we’ll never get out alive” pasted to it, a map saying “we don’t need a map”…all of it is easy to see, to understand on a surface level, but there’s also somewhere to go. Her art is a starting point, and often one that starts you off very abruptly.

There’s something refreshing about saying exactly what you’re thinking, and Speckman’s work embraces those hard truths. “I suppose I try to aggressively gain the viewer’s attention right off the bat, but then I hope that it makes them come back to self reflect on it.” Perhaps the most aggressive of her works are the bummer Valentines, vintage love notes that Speckman updates with feelings and thoughts that are just as powerful and present on V-Day as love is.

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Other truths, often aggressively vulnerable, come painted onto the t-shirts that Speckman makes. Her “Dear rock’n’roll, you can’t break my heart, XO me” has become a favorite for touring musicians to wear onstage and in music videos. There’s nothing ironic or cynical about the statement: being a musician is hard for a long time before it gets easy, and these are people spitting in the face of adversity to do what they love. This is true for all artists across all mediums, for the ones that refuse to back down from a challenging life. In Speckman’s words: “Art is not a means to an end for me.  Art is a means to living for me.  The fact that I currently support myself as an artist, is something that does not get lost upon me or is ever unappreciated.  But art and art as a career are two different things and I am on the side of the first, not the latter.”

It can’t be easy, constantly creating and making so that you can create and make further, but difficulty doesn’t necessarily come with unpleasantness. One element of Speckman’s life is constant touring, either solo or with her partner Micah Schnabel. While touring is a whirlwind no matter who you are, it’s also slightly different for visual artists than performers. “Did I make enough t-shirts? Did I bring enough variety in my art and in my prices? [There’s] this feeling of incomplete completion upon leaving.” But there’s plenty to enjoy about the life as well. The newness of each town, the unease at not knowing where to get your next cup of coffee and the feeling of having conquered the world when you take your first sip: these are all feelings that Speckman lives for. “There’s too much to do and see to be too comfortable doing the same thing every day.”

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Comfort plays a role in her art as well; or rather, the lack thereof. Whether it’s the word ‘FUCK’ emblazoned on a t-shirt, an unapologetic refutation of normal life emblazoned on a map, or a girl holding a Popsicle frozen around a knife out from her crotch, Speckman sets out to make the viewer uneasy. “I like the topical sweetness upon first look,” Speckman says, “and part two hopes to make you uncomfortably comfortable.” All art is the expression of human emotion through some medium, and Speckman’s chosen form of expression is to say what we’re all thinking. In the words of Schnabel, “When you find an artist that makes you think, ‘That’s exactly how I feel! Why didn’t I write that! Why didn’t I think of that!’ it is really something special. It’s challenging and inspiring. Which is what art is all about.”

Everyone in Speckman’s carefully and carelessly drawn/painted/written world is on the same page: the wires are visible, the boom mic is in the shot, there are ordinary cruelties whipping by like storm winds, and her characters stand gazing out at it all. They represent her audience, each of them individually, and this real world is no less cruel. There’s the hope, though, that strength can be drawn from everyone’s own unapologetic observations of the world around them, that maybe honesty of the heart and not just the mouth could get us through all of this. Though the world that Speckman conjures with her words and paints is sometimes bleak, it is never without hope. Like the little boy in the boat, defiantly sailing with Death alongside him, we all have to save ourselves. In the words of one of Speckman’s heroes, the punk rock heroine Patti Smith, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

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You can check out Vanessa Jean Speckman’s Tumblr, her Instagram page, and see more of her work at her Etsy.

Scattered Points in Space. And Hop Along.

I wake up early to make lunches for myself and my fiancée to take to our jobs. I put on headphones and listen to something as I shuffle back and forth between fridge and countertop. Some days I listen to a podcast. It’s conversation, it’s pleasant and funny and it’s like I have company. But on days when I start with podcasts, that usually turns out to be all I listen to–I get sucked into other human’s voices and let myself zone out and pass the time without thinking about my own voice or my work. Most days, I try to at least start my days with music. It’s stimulating, it’s active, less like pleasant company and more like an intense date. It structures the day. If I’m dancing by 5:30 am, what do I have to fear?

Last Friday I listened to The Coroner’s Gambit by the Mountain Goats–an album from 2000 mountaingoatsproduced and played and written solely by John Darnielle. Person, guitar, voice. I heard the line “the wind began to wail / and you gathered your hair behind your head / like god was gonna catch you by the pony tail.” If I’ve heard a moment of such powerful, pummeling beauty by 5:45 am, coming from one single person, what else is left to accomplish today?

Later that night, my fiancée and I went to see the Florida Orchestra play a few things I’d never heard of: Barber’s “The School for Scandal Overture,” Mozart’s “Bassoon Concerto, K.191,” and Holst’s “The Planets.” In relief of my Darnielling that morning, the orchestra interested me for its lack of vocals–which seems obvious. Here were dozens of musicians speaking to each other, playing with such impressive dynamics, communicating the character of the cosmos with just wire and wood and brass; here was a conductor making me realize the heft of that job for the first time, conducting the music from the players to the audience, from the dead composers to the players, from the vast history of far-off everything through those once-living men–like lightning that could pass through much more than atmosphere. I understood so much by watching him; and none of it could match the significance of Darnielle’s single line, which dealt with the same cosmic emotions by tossing off the god reference and investing everything in the girl in the scene. Darnielle is a great conductor.

hopalongFrances Quinlan and her band Hop Along are great conductors. Like Darnielle, she can deliver you a line obviously brilliant and make it seem like she just stumbled upon it. She comes upon a line and her voice coils around it. She squeezes it until the last breath, but not like murder, like murder-suicide, like something mutual and powerful enough to shove back at life. “The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing,” she screams. To me, it’s an answer to her call from the last album, “Why’s everything so expensive?” The band is masterful at intensifying conversation. Like an orchestra, the band and her voice can surf awesome dynamics–swells of terror and confessional whispers and harsh silences. No band right now captures as much cosmos in pop song as Hop Along. Painted Shut, their Essential Listening second LP, is out on Saddle Creek.

A last grasp at meaning: A week after the orchestra, Dave Dondero played in Ybor and he played a cover of Don McLean‘s “Vincent.” “Starry, starry night, portraits hung in empty halls / Frameless heads on nameless walls.” In between earlier songs, he yelled at the Scientology center across the street. A week before I had pitted an orchestra against John Darnielle as conductors. Now it was Dondero and Scientology: once again, a guitar and a man, whose van had broken down earlier in the week, and who had then, in thanks, brought along his mechanic (himself a songwriter) to play the rest of the tour with him…strumming to handful of people in relief of a religion purporting to literally channel the cosmos. A cosmos they, or one of them, invented for profit. Is that a different kind of conducting than Darnielle or Quinlan or Dondero or Van Gogh or McLean’s version of Van Gogh or Mozart? Is it a question of who would be there for me at 5 am with a short, sweet song?

From Hop Along’s new Painted Shut. Get it all the ways from the band. Or from Saddle Creek.

Horseshoe Crabs

Powerful Man

From the Mountain Goats’ new Beat the Champ. Get it all the ways from Merge.

The Legend of Chavo Guerrero

Heel Turn 2

SLEATER-KINNEY and the impossibility of overstatement

I’m a cis-white-male-middle-class person, so in a lot of very real and important senses, I’ve never needed “saving”–nor have I found myself in the grip of much visceral high-stakes shit to “save myself” from. But I wasn’t born with dead-smelling rubber guts, so when I first heard the music of Sleater-Kinney as a 19-year-old it charged all those alive human parts in me and rearranged the furniture in my brain and my heart and my entire body. This, I gather from reading reaction pieces and talking to people about Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 hiatus and their current reunion and new album, is a common feeling amongst their listeners. They’re a force of activation.

As a feminist they mean everything to me. As a guitar rock fan they mean everything to me. As someone with toddler nieces and a sister and a mother and aunts and grandmothers and and a fiancee and a badass woman cousin who drums in a great band–they mean everything. As someone who has the privilege of teaching teenage boys and girls, and especially girls, in the subject of writing…they mean everything. We need all the activation forces we can get. I remember one piece written after their hiatus lamented, “What are my daughters going to do without them?” If somebody said that about Led Zeppelin you’d call them a fucking idiot. This is a rock band, right? That has to be overstatement. What comes is better than what came before and all that. But there’s a reason most of Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s discography sits on my record shelf, and it’s not just because I enjoy listening to them–those are going to my nieces when they’re old enough. Sleater-Kinney has given so many people a vocabulary to talk about what it’s been like to be alive in the past 20 years. That’s what needs to be passed down. Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss are living examples of how to be awesome. That’s what needs to be passed down. And songs as great as “The Swimmer”–those need to stay with humanity for the duration.

So when a band like that makes their first record in ten years it sure warrants the launch of a million think-pieces. I won’t add too much more to mine because there are many more ecstatic, intelligent, radical ones to be read by writers who were touched with more crucial versions of the saving offered by Sleater-Kinney. If you’re looking for a good overview of the band, I’d recommend Jenn Pelley’s recent review of their box set. Meredith Graves’ essay, like all of her writing, is tops. She also makes great band recommendations there. Those are both by young people and they’re both great. Folks have been writing academic love letters to Sleater-Kinney for decades, though. If I remember correctly, I was turned onto them in an essay by Jack Halberstam (who then was writing as Judith Halberstam) called “What’s that Smell?: Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives” from his 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place. I carry that essay around with me still; it also introduced me to Ferron and Bitch & Animal and a number of other queer artists whose songs about loving women would come to define my desperately horny and unrequited male adolescence.

So, listen to No Cities to Love. Listen to everything they’ve done because it’s all at the gold standard of galactic achievement. But, really, what comes is better than what came before. There are tons of bands today who can do the heavy lifting of Sleater-Kinney. On the occasion of something so great coming our way, I’d like to recognize a few other bands with great music to offer. All these albums are streaming on Bandcamp and really cheap or donation-based. Give them a good listen, please.

Filthy Liars – If All Else Fails (Cry, Cry Again)2014

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Fuming from Halifax, Filthy Liars burn through their songs in a sinister swath of pop dynamics. Nothing is simple and everything is simple with them. It’s rock and roll but queer’d boy-band. It’s pummeling riffage and wrenching pluckery. It’s rage and heartbreak but it’s disappointment and self-defense. Every song feels like everything depends on it. So, the moment at-hand is simple–this has to work–but everything after is a putrid black room of indeterminable size–what else will go wrong if this goes wrong?” A shot in the dark is better than a shot in a face,” goes one lyric. In prose they’re as lyrical: “Shit gets fucked” they wrote to me in a note apologizing for a scuffed cassette I’d ordered. (I didn’t see anything wrong, guys.) That says it all, though. Rock on, Filthy Liars.

Hands on Ends

Guts – Guts – 2014

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One fourth of Guts is Samantha Jones, whose work has shined brightly over Gainesville for over a decade. Her bands–Crustaceans, Vanbuilderass, Bitchin’, Rumbleseat, The Deep and Holy Sea, Cave Rave, Cassette, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch–are each gems of their genres, each featuring Jones’ signature voice and guitar (except for Cave Rave, which is an all-girl drum band). Guts was a challenging listen at first because I was drawn to the familiar parts of it–the parts where Sam Jones takes a primary role. “Sugar,” for instance, is a staggeringly beautiful melody on acoustic guitar that recalls the best tones of Cassette. But Guts does not deal exclusively in that sweet spot of mine. Nor should they, of course. Jones is the mentor here and the other members bring so much strength to the group. They’re after a new sound that privileges vocal harmonies and percussion. Guts (Jones, Rebecca Butler, Kentucky Costello, and Kara Smith) drum-up a dancey sort of schoolyard album. I’m not afraid of the unfamiliar anymore, Guts! Give me all the funk you got!

Sugar

Hey Hallways – Absence Makes the Heart Forget EP – 2014

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This is a perfectly put together cassette. Side A is four crashing punk songs. Real kick-ass power-pop shit. “Is this a better life? / Is it enough to justify / spending all my time / just thinking about myself / and how I got this life?” the dude sings. “I’m lucky to feel anything at all,” he decides. Side B, though, is the wonder. It’s one 9-minute performance that ties samples from Side A into an acoustic guitar sermon. It’s such a different feel than Side A but it’s just as engaging and effective. When I listen to it, I feel like I’m absorbing stuff I can’t identify but will probably have to meet sometime in the future. “My biggest fear is apathy,” a voice interjects over a layer of reverent “oohs.” It’s mysterious. How many songs are still mysterious? Also, it was produced by Jason Clackley of the awesome band The Exquisites.

Anything At All

High Dive – High Dive EP – 2014

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I listed High Dive’s premier EP These are the Days in my belated recap of 2013’s best releases. They’ve only gotten better since adding Ginger Alford. Alford is in many ways like a Sam Jones of Bloomington IN, a city with a lot of great songwriters. She kills on guitar here and in all of her bands–One Reason, Traveling, Good Luck, her Springsteen-covering duo with Paul Baribeau, and I’m sure I’m missing a bunch. Ginger Alford needs to make music for the next thirty years or else I’ll always know what I’m missing and be super bummed. The founding members and songwriters in High Dive–Toby Foster, Nick Romy, Ryan Woods, and Richard Wehrenberg, Jr–are superstars, as well. Every song is an anthem–needed ones, too. No general drinking choruses, but poignant calls for camaraderie. If Katy Perry sang Toby Foster’s “Sirens,” it would change the world. But High Dive sings and plays it as though they were playing to a Katy Perry-sized audience anyway. It marks one of the best final songs of a release I can remember. Foster and Woods collaborated on a record a few years ago with Clyde Petersen and Theo Hilton, and the tagline to that record was “By Queers, For Adventurers.” I always dug that and that spirit certainly extends to their High Dive stuff.

Sirens

I said in my review for DBT’s English Oceans how much it means to have bands who incorruptibly and articulately stand for righteous shit and kick ass at guitars (like Batman but so much better). Bands who expand your world because they’re so good at making art that reflects what your world already is. I’m sure you have a band like that close to your heart (tell us who!) and I hope you get to enjoy new music from them as long as possible. Dear glob, Sleater-Kinney, I love you so much! Thank you for everything.

NEW ORLEANS, THE AFGHAN WHIGS, and INVINCIBILITY

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“Here me now, and don’t forget, I’m not the man my actions would suggest.” – The Afghan Whigs

 

In 1994 when my friends were listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was listening to The Afghan Whigs and Pulp. Pearl Jam played for the masses and Eddie Vedder swung from the rafters. Nirvana had written “Smells Like Teen Spirit” years before and nothing would be the same. Grunge had already peaked and, embarrassingly, Korn and Limp Bizkit would soon rule the alternative airwaves. The whole thing was cool for about two minutes and then it was gone.

My first time in New Orleans was summer of 1992. I’d been out of the Marine Corps for about a year. I was there with an ex-girlfriend who we shall call “Shelly” (totally not real name) and my parents. Being in New Orleans with your parents is kind of like watching porn with your parents, let’s just say it’s ill-advised. Lollapalooza was in town. Shelly and I saw Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers drinking coffee at Cafe Du Monde. Hey look! There goes Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden walking out of some shitty Bourbon Street bar. We walked on an elevator and holy shit! That’s Cypress Hill! Hell, I even got propositioned by some Drag Queens right in front of Shelly. Yeah, I pretty much fell in love with New Orleans.

“What Should I Tell Her? She’s Going to Ask…” are the first lines you will hear from Gentlemen by The Afghan Whigs. Released late ’93, Gentlemen is a masterpiece of self-loathing, narcissism, and more than a hint of misogyny. Greg Dulli, frontman and songwriter of The Afghan Whigs, wrote lyrics that spoke to the broken, insecure, psyche of a rudderless twenty-something. The music contains elements of grunge that was fashionable at the time but added an element of old school R&B that none of their contemporaries were doing. Quite simply, Gentlemen became one of my all time favorite albums and remains so to this day.

If memory serves, I first saw The Afghan Whigs in 1996 touring on the follow up to Gentlemen, the Black Love album. I saw them in a small venue in Salt Lake City that no longer exists called Club DV8. Though details of the concert are fuzzy I do remember it being beautifully raw and perfectly sloppy. When performing live it isn’t uncommon for an Afghan Whigs song to morph into a cover of a Motown classic or a modern R&B pop song. That night they covered portions of “I Hear a Symphony” by The Supremes and “Holiday” by Madonna. The show was perfect.

I wouldn’t return to New Orleans until 2004. My life was remarkably different by that time but New Orleans had changed little. This is one of the charms of New Orleans. While Main Street, USA is abandoned as shoppers flock to the newest Walmart across town, New Orleans remains defiantly, proudly, the same, for better or for worse. It’s been my experience you either love or hate New Orleans, few people are on the fence. I am, decidedly, in the “love” camp. In fact, I always say I fell in love with my wife as I took her hand as we were walking in the crosswalk across Canal Street into the French Quarter on a typical hot, humid, New Orleans day. It was meant to be.

The Afghan Whigs broke up in 1999 or so after failing to gain any traction with their incredible 1998 release, 1965. I was happy to have had an opportunity to see them one time and continued to listen to their albums for all those years. Then, unexpectedly, they announced they were going to release their first album in 16 years called “Do To the Beast”. A full tour was announced. As many bands routinely do they decided they were going to skip Houston, the 4th largest city in America. But of course they were going to play New Orleans where Greg Dulli owns both a home and a bar. Tickets were secured, road trip planned, this was some kind of cosmic fate. Let’s do this, New Orleans.

The Civic Theater in New Orleans is a beautiful, ornate, theater which looks as if it would be equally comfortable hosting a rock and roll concert or an opera. Arriving early, we were able to get pretty damn close to the stage. I couldn’t quite believe I was going to see The Afghan Whigs again after all these years, and seeing them in New Orleans (?!); it was all just kind of surreal. After the forgettable opening act left the stage, The Afghan Whigs arrived fashionably late but after waiting 18 years to see them again, I wasn’t going to complain. I’d like to think of some witty metaphor to describe what I was feeling but let me put it this way: I was fucking losing my mind as they hit the stage.

As expected, “Parked Outside” from “Do To The Beast” started the show because it’s the first track off their latest, and first album in 16 years, and that’s what you do if you aren’t a bullshit nostalgia act like Motley Crüe. The band was tight and nearly flawless. Perhaps we all are a bit more sober than we had been in our earlier years. Maybe we just learned how to handle the alcohol and drugs better. Regardless, that show, that MOMENT, that night, was the greatest evening of live music I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to a shitload of shows. Pure, unadulterated, adrenaline and joy. They ended the evening by covering one of my all time favorite songs, “Across 110th Street”. I don’t believe in heaven because I don’t believe in fairy tales, but if there is a heaven, I’m pretty sure it involves The Afghan Whigs covering Bobby Womack.

R. Kelly has taught me (amongst other things) that there is always an after party. It’s not common knowledge where Greg Dulli’s bar is in New Orleans but it’s not exactly a secret either. So after dropping my sleepy wife off at the hotel I took a cab to Dulli’s bar. I figured if they were going to show up anywhere it would be there. Walking in, it was crowded and I was the oldest and least hip person in the place. Screw it. I took a seat at the bar and listened to what has to be the greatest jukebox in New Orleans.

After about 20 minutes Greg Dulli walked behind the bar and, entirely without ego, looked like he was about to be the replacement bartender. He talked to a few patrons, joked with a few employees, and then I talked to him. We had a brief conversation. I told him how much the show that night and his music over the years meant to me. I told him that when I heard “Fountain and Fairfax”‘ from Gentlemen at the concert that night it was the single most joyous and greatest moment I’d ever had at a rock and roll show. I told him it transported me back to my youth, “OUR youth”. Mr. Greg “Fucking” Dulli looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hey Man, we’re still young, age is just a number in your head”. Then he graciously thanked me, shook my hand, and walked away like the Lone Ranger or Matthew McConaughey or some shit. It was beautiful.

A couple beers later it had to be near 3AM. No cab needed. I didn’t know where I was but I was within a couple miles from the hotel. I walked back. This is not something I would recommend doing in New Orleans (seriously, don’t do it) but that night, I just didn’t care. It turns out that evening would haunt me for a couple months. I felt invincible and the feeling didn’t subside for awhile. I’m not sure it has yet. You see, The Afghan Whigs are kind of like the opposite of The Hold Steady for me. I love them both but The Hold Steady appeals to the best parts of my personality; the joy and the happiness, The Afghan Whigs appeal to the very worst and darkest parts of my personality. I won’t elaborate on the darkness but I’ve seen Star Wars and the Dark Side is a powerful thing.

Despite my fading invincibility, I hope to see you again at Christmas, New Orleans. Through the good and the bad, dark and the light, wives and children, addictions and pain, you are my greatest muse. You bounced back from Katrina and you are “Same As It Ever Was”, you gorgeous, regal, whore. You will always be my favorite city and for better or worse The Afghan Whigs will always be one of my very favorite bands. Somehow, the three of us belong together. Let’s have a drink, shall we? Will it be Sazerac or Absinthe? Regardless, I will be waiting for you on Fountain and Fairfax, or Royal and Dauphine.

 

Fountain And Fairfax

Somethin’ Hot (Album Version)

WITNESSES pt. III – BILLY BRAGG

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I am not clued-in to the minute developments in Ferguson right now. Nor to our aggression in Iraq, what’s happening or not happening in Israel, water shortages, ice buckets, the Tsarnaev trial. I feel like I am failing because of my distance from all of that, but failing on these specific terms: I am keeping my distance because the internet (and I suppose, by extension, people?) disgusts me right now, and I’m disgusted by my own attitude about that. I like my relatively insulated Facebook feed (where conservative relatives pipe up only occasionally) better than the comments sections on specific articles I’ve been reading (where I don’t know what the fuck is happening). I cannot stand collective stances when they are less about the substance of stance than being the first/best/most righteous stance–from the collective grieving over Robin Williams to the collective condemnation of Ferguson cops. I am at a breaking point here and I feel like I’m copping out at the expense of Ferguson and my soul, which is very vain of me. I suppose all I’m saying is I’m balking at feeling disgusted by people. I like people. Even when they’re disgusting. Usually. But nothing makes me sadder than media or individual people who defend the fucking system over their brothers and sisters being killed by the system. You don’t have to be clued-in to any of this to take away from it that the system does not care about you. Your brothers and sisters are the only entities in this universe capable of caring about you. The system doesn’t care how much of a suck-up you are, whether you’re sucking up nobly in defense of the system’s logical prowess (it doesn’t matter what color you are, if you follow these steps you won’t get harassed) or righteously in defense of its racial assessments (all of those kids are trouble, if it was a white kid there wouldn’t have been riots)–the system will not reward you with untouchable riches, and even if it does, it will still turn on you when it fucking wants to. Your brothers and sisters are the ones you can’t live without, because they grow your food and teach your children. You can live without a military, and you should, because militaries suck up all the money that should go toward teaching your children. I was in the post office the other day and the first thing the clerk said to me, referring to Michael Brown, was, “The kid was no angel.”

So I can’t take it anymore, a position from which I claim no moral authority. I’m being too lazy to go to better media for these things, too “busy” to go work with The Democracy Center down the street. But this is a music blog and there is a musical component to this–to frustration over obvious things and not being clued-in to minute things. All the reviews I’ve been writing lately are about albums that were made before all this shit had gone down (duh) (but, on the other hand, shit has gone down before this), and I feel less convinced when I write that these albums have important things to say than I usually do. When the government shut down last October rather than pass a healthcare reform thing, the indie band Dikembe from Gainesville re-assembled themselves as Government Breakdown and released a hardcore punk EP called Fuck Your Health for free. It was a great rhetorical response to the situation! Hardcore responds to government bullshit very well. I am not clued-in enough to have heard of a similar musical coming out of Ferguson, Iraq, or Palestine yet. HAVE YOU? I’ve been feeling that gap in this discourse. I don’t want another HuffPo article, I want a furious album. I want an album that asks “ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY, TAKING THE GOVERNMENT’S SIDE? ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY, ASKING FOR QUALIFICATION BEFORE YOU JOIN THE SIDE OF CIVILIANS BEING MURDERED IN THEIR HOMETOWNS BY THE PEOPLE TO WHOM THEY PAY TAXES FOR PROTECTION?” In my Drive-By Truckers–English Oceans review I said I was grateful to have a band like them that’s on the peoples’ side no matter what. They know the people are shitty to each other sometimes and that at the end of the day cops are people, but they’re never going to fool themselves into thinking that the people are the real problem or that cops haven’t spent the whole day serving the problem. I’ve been thinking about the Drive-By Truckers, I’ve been thinking about Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, and wondering whether my expectation for instant gratification is too much for right now. I haven’t been listening to them, or anything political lately. I’ve been expressly avoiding Vietnam-era stuff that I usually love because I think it would sound tone-deaf in this context, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been listening a lot to a 90’s rock band from England called Bivouac, who are fucking awesome and sound appropriately like collapse. I think Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right from this April is an album to reckon with this moment. BUT I ASK YOU AGAIN, sincerely, is there a contemporary music addressing this shit that you’ve encountered? Or, what music do you turn to in extended situations like these, if you find yourself needing to turn to music?

I’m going to look to Billy Bragg now, even though I haven’t been turning to his music in these past weeks, because as a songwriter/person he offers a great example of how to maneuver in these kinds of situation. This is a continuation of the Mark Kozelek and Phil Ochs pieces that discussed their roles as activists/witnesses/first-person songwriters.

Before becoming known as a troubadour and labor rights activist, British songwriter Billy Bragg briefly led a Clash-inspired punk band called Riff Raff. One of their songs from the late 70’s stayed with Bragg through his transition to solo/folk songwriting—“It Says Here,” an Orwellian screed against money-chasing media bias. In 1984 Bragg led off his first solo LP Brewing Up With Billy Bragg with the song. Over a quarter-century later, Bragg combated the issue again in the wake of The Sun’s phone-hacking scandal, with his 2011 freely issued single “Never Buy the Sun.”

It Says Here

It Says Here: 

It says here that this year’s prince is born
It says here do you ever wish that you were better informed
And it says here that we could only stop the rot
With a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock
If this does not reflect your view you should understand
That those who own the papers also own this land
And they’d rather you believe in coronation street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers
Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press
To print pictures of women in states of undress
When you wake up to the fact that you paper is Tory
Just remember, there are two sides to every story

Never Buy The Sun

Never Buy the Sun:

Tabloids making millions betting bullshit baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And just say “Well, we’re just giving the people what they want”
Well they’re crying out for justice

Bragg’s choice to translate his punk Riff Raff song into a folk song seems like a choice based on sustainability, and, in light of the folky “Never Buy The Sun,” a choice that allows for instant, direct response. Artists can logistically travel further and cheaper as a solo act than as a band. And it is easier to respond to a current event if you only have to execute a song yourself. Although, of course, most DIY forms of music enjoy the possibility of instant witnessing—especially punk, which at its most populist and inclusive functions as folk music. For example, the aforementioned Government Breakdown EP.

If Guthrie’s project was to put what he saw of America into songs; if Dylan’s was to use Guthrie’s folk forms to address contemporary issues, combining them with dynamic forms of rock and roll and lyrical philosophy; if Ochs’ was to uphold the responsibility of songwriters to Guthrie’s standards of witnessing, to the importance of first-person narrative, to navigate the poet-witness’ role after Dylan redefined it; and we’re skipping over the beautiful projects of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Steve Earle and Nina Simone and…; then Billy Bragg’s is to reconcile all of the above with punk rock, to make sure that after The Clash broke up that people still knew that Joe Strummer wanted to be called “Woody” by his friends because he looked up to Guthrie. His career is the example of how witnessing can be effective in the tension between traditional forms like folk and reactionary forms like punk.

Bragg’s “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night,” featured on perhaps his most pointedly political collection of songs, The Internationale EP, significantly borrows its title from Afred Hayes’ poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” which had been made into a song by artists like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Joan Baez, and in turn referenced by Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”

Bragg’s song is an intersection of that lineage of songs and another lineage that includes Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” which was set to the tune of the traditional “Ballad of John Henry,” a tune borrowed independently by Phil Ochs in his song “Joe Hill.” Bragg’s song about Phil Ochs, when all’s said, forwards the melody of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” while maintaining the seminal verse from the Guthrie/Ochs line of songs, the Steinbeckian “Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ a guy, I’ll be there”—inspired verse:

I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night

Bragg “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”

When the song of freedom rings out loud
From valleys and from hills
Where people stand up for their rights
Phil Ochs is with us still
Phil Ochs inspires us still

Tom Joad – Part I

Guthrie “Tom Joad”

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night

Robeson “Joe Hill”

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
Where working men defend their rights,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill!

By “writing his words to the tunes of the day,” as Ochs sang of Hill, Bragg connects the testimonies of those previous generations of songs, storytellers, and subjects. Indeed, his whole persona is carefully constructed to embody and pass on the tradition of witness songwriting. The guitar Bragg plays live is emblazoned with The Clash stickers. His biggest commercial success has been his collaborative albums with Wilco wherein they record unearthed Woody Guthrie songs. When Bragg plays a Clash or Woody Guthrie song live, he always carefully explains the context of the original, what the songwriting choices meant at the time, and how they remain relevant. But Bragg also wardens the first person perspective inherent to those witness songwriters. He talks about what his life was like when he saw is first Clash show. He writes I dreamed I saw my hero last night and he compared my time to his and steeled me to continue working.

Even when Bragg isn’t singing from a direct first-person point-of-view, he achieves a similar directness. Perhaps songs can do this because they assume a speaker and a listener. Perhaps folk songs can do this at such a consistent and high level because they posit that there is an oppressor and the oppressed, and that the song witnesses on behalf of the oppressed. If you were getting the oppressive point of view, it wouldn’t be through the folk song—the form anybody has access to—it would be through more privileged means like corporate news. The performance of a folk song is therefore an insistence on a point-of-view from the oppressed—a testimony. Which is why Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” warranted a response from Ochs in his Gunfight at Carnegie Hall album—the power of populist music isn’t a secret, don’t take it for granted that it won’t be used against your best interests. And which is why Bragg also has an activist project called Jail Guitar Doors that brings musical instruments into prisons to help inmates maintain a voice; to resist the whittling down of the resource of first-person perspectives. Merle Haggard, an inmate himself, rededicated his life to music after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin, where Haggard was jailed.

All that said, I don’t think folk or punk will be the form the best responses to this current shit will take, no matter how immediate, angry, or people-championing they historically are; probably because they’re forms largely, though not exclusively, taken up by white people. I don’t think an acoustic guitar can bring the world into focus the way it needs to be right now. And this is just me asking for focus from the point of view of someone disgusted with the internet; what the fuck is going to need to be sung from the point of view of people who are there?

The Life in the Songwriting of Two Cow Garage – Part III

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Daniel James Clark Photography

I asked Charles if I could take on the third part of his exceptional write-up of the evolution of Two Cow Garage, and the songwriting of Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney. Some folks suggested looking at their solo albums, but those are so personal as to feel like a different beast entirely. I’m going to cover Death of the Self-Preservation Society,  and focus briefly on two new songs they’ve been trying out. Stay until the end, there’s a video…everyone’s favorite part of class.

In Part I, Charles discussed the band’s early records, and how those deal in the realities of desperation and regret.

In Part II, our own Mr. Hale explored some later albums, and how acknowledging pain can help you recognize the beauty in life.

Well here in Part III I want to let you know: Two Cow Garage really doubled down on the whole no pain, no gain thing. As much as parts of Speaking in Cursive and Sweet Saint Me may have felt like being doused in gasoline, Death of the Self-Preservation Society is like being handed a match and being told to make your own decision.

Think about the title of the album: Death of the Self-Preservation Society. As far as Two Cow Garage are concerned, the time to play it safe is over. We have a society geared towards insulation and comfort; how can you really feel alive if you’re so busy figuring out how to maintain the status quo? To take it a step farther, how can you really be living life to the fullest if you’re a judgmental observer? Micah has one of the most honest lines on the record, in “Van Gogh”: ‘Thirty scared the cynic out of me‘. In “Spiraling Into Control” Shane writes, ‘It takes your whole world being shattered/Before a person will really change‘.

These songs are no longer reflective or contemplative, they are active declarations to a lethargic world. These are songs by men who have experienced life and made a decision about how they want to live the rest of it. The only way over is through. In “Stars and Gutters” Micah writes what may be my favorite line of the album: ‘I can still see the stars from the gutter at night‘. It doesn’t matter how low you go or how hard it gets, as long as you never stop putting yourself out there.

It’s a dangerous way to live, and a difficult philosophy to carry out. It’s difficult to keep climbing in a van and driving across the country in pursuit of your dreams. This razor thin line between carelessness and religious fervor is summed up on the title track of the album, which is also the last song.

Kiss me, I’m broken
My house is on fire
A piano plays a loser’s parade,
I’ve been singing it for years


When you listen to the live recording at the end of this article, pay attention to the way that Shane Sweeney roars. He has indeed been singing it for years, but he hasn’t stopped yet. That’s the through line, that’s what makes Two Cow Garage more than some guys who have some good songs and defines them as a flagship band of a genre. They never stop playing, and they never stop caring. The confidence and understanding that it took to make this album for themselves and their fans instead of trying to achieve commercial success with big name features and marketability is impressive. That record is a grunted nod of approval at the boys that they started out at and the men they have become, with eyes ever towards the future.

We just never learned to fake it, and all we have is sincerity
This is the Death of the Self-Preservation Society


A conversation about the new songs dovetails nicely with one of the biggest improvements on the most recent album, and you can sum it up with one bearded syllable: Murph. This is not to besmirch any previous members of the band, but David Murphy adds an incredible dimension to the band. Not only is he one of the most sincere individuals you could have the pleasure of meeting (which goes a long way in a rock and roll band), but his drumming abilities are stellar and the vocal harmony he enables is remarkable; listen to the end of “Continental Distance”, a new song by Shane Sweeney featured on the KEXP video below.

The other new song is a Micah track called “Let The Boys Be Girls”, and it’s a force of a track that I’ll let you experience it for yourself.

Two Cow Garage has been a band since I was in middle school, and they had released four albums before I knew that they existed. To be able to look at their back catalog and trace my own faults and impulses, to be able to revel in the same pain that they played out nightly, and then to reach the understanding that you can run towards as well as away…

That’s what you call rock and roll…

We can call this a new beginning,
We can write our own soundtracks this time around


PS. Shane Sweeney saying “Hi, Jack” at the end of this performance is the reason I’m glad to call him my spirit animal.

P.O.V.– PHIL OCHS ¡VIVA!

This post is adapted from a paper about “witnessing” and first-person POVs in songwriting, so it’s a little up its own ass but it still means something. It continues from an earlier review of Sun Kill Moon and talks about writers who use their positions as songwriters and “witnesses” to tell political and personal stories. This section deals with Phil Ochs, who should be considered as a successor to George Orwell–a writer whose entire project was dedicated to exposing systematic bullshit and power-perpetrating bullshitters and empowering people who are constantly heartbroken or worse by that bullshit. As with the last section, this piece is meant to facilitate discussion on first person songwriting in general or whatever you want in particular. 

image by Ulysse2000, pulled from Wikimedia Commons
image by Ulysse2000, pulled from Wikimedia Commons

In 1965, Phil Ochs titled his first album All the News that’s Fit to Sing, a title that plainly articulated his position as a “singing journalist.” It was also a title that would undercut his skill as a guitarist and singer until the end of his career. Ochs started his recording career just as Bob Dylan was transitioning away from straightforward folk music and into Beat-ist rock—a matter of timing that limited Ochs to many as merely a topical folkie trying to extend that form’s brief moment of usefulness in the early 60’s (even though troubadours had functioned as popular news sources for hundreds of years). Politically, as well as musically, the environment Ochs entered into was in rapid flux (which is why Dylan ditched basic folk songs for other, more flexible forms, right? He would try less-direct, more personal or philosophical approaches to witnessing contemporary problems), which could’ve easily rendered Ochs’ songs obsolete upon issue. But even as his political affiliations, singing career, and his very life were tested throughout his songwriting years (the recorded portion of which lasted just over half a decade), many of Ochs’ early bare-bear-witness songs retain their original power. And because Ochs was sensitive to the place of his songs in the world, he was able to add power to the old songs while keeping his new songs up to critical speed.

One way Ochs attempted to build a lasting life for his songs was to explore different sonic moods on his albums. Just his third studio album, 1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor marks a departure for Ochs that reflects his evolving opinions of witnessing, activism, and music. The album is strange and somber, lush yet sour compared to his early rompy sound. These sounds date the record in the baroque tradition of Scott Walker and others just as much as his early albums are clearly of early-mid-60’s Greenwich–but for writers with who deal intimately with their present, is dating a problem in lyrics or music? Ochs’ studio choices make his albums stand out in relation to each other. They give him the opportunity to work with great musicians like Warren Zevon, Lincoln Mayorga, Van Dyke Parks, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons, Bob Rafkin, and others–which wouldn’t have happened if every album were “timelessly” him and his guitar. He was a great band leader and a great guitar and piano player himself. The differences between the sounds of the albums also tell that Ochs doesn’t try to apply the same dressing to every wound. As shit went down in that decade, he thought critically about his musical and lyrical place. In the liner notes to Pleasures, Ochs writes,

I watched my life fade-away in a flash


A quarter of a century dash through closets full of candles with never a room


For rapture through a kingdom had been captured.

And so I turn away from my drizzling furniture and pass old ladies


Sniffling by movie stars’ tombs, yes I must be home again soon.

To face the unspoken unguarded thoughts of habitual hearts


A vanguard of electricians, a village full of tarts


Who say you must protest you must protest


It is your diamond duty…


Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.

Pleasures of the Harbor

His lush sounds are reaching toward beauty, but in a strained way that doesn’t hide the fact that this beauty is trying to address deep pain. In that passage we can also recognize several moves characteristic to this “witness” role I’ve been talking about, especially the witness in a stressful position—“turning away,” “facing,” and then testifying (making beauty, finding poetry, as Mark Kozelek put it). It would seem an obvious misstep for an artist interested in witnessing to turn away from anything—that would be diverting the gaze, missing events. Ochs, however, posits turning away as a critical act, a basic human reaction on the part of the witness. Of course we flinch, we get fed up, but what then? He articulates this in a well-known early song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (from 1965’s album of the same name) and revisits the proposition on several occasions across various live albums until his final full-length release, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is, from its title, a song about not doing something. Written in first-person from the point-of-view of a soldier who has fought in all of America’s wars up to Vietnam and who now decides to refuse the ever-repeating trend of old men sending young men to die, the song stuck in the minds of anti-war protesters. The turning point for the narrator seems to be the use of nuclear weapons, as noted in this verse:

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky,

Set off the mighty mushroom roar.

When I saw the cities burning, I knew what I was learning—

That I ain’t marching anymore.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore

It’s a visceral and subtle verse for what could have been a song that merely surveyed all wars and said, “No, thanks.” Ochs brings in the image of flying over entire cities aflame and the immediate knowledge that this is different—and when compared to the previous verses that tell the notable horrors of killing “millions of men” in World War One, killing your brothers in the Civil War, and stealing California from Mexico, the nuclear bomb verse clearly acts as a testimony of change. The impulse to turn away as a witness is not driven by denial or distraction; it is the result of an event that is insists that things have changed and new approaches must be considered. The nuclear bomb, to Ochs’ narrator and to many anti-war activists of the time, signaled a need to turn away from excuses to go to war, and to face the challenge of finding alternatives.

As a result of the song, Ochs became a legal witness in the trial of the Chicago Seven. Ochs, along with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and others, was active in organizing protests outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The protests were mainly aimed to criticize President Johnson and the Democratic Party for their continued military involvement in Vietnam. Ochs had written another song in preparation for the convention, the purposely overly optimistic “The War is Over,” from Tape from California, a tune which borrowed Alan Ginsberg’s idea of simply declaring the war over and letting that self-appropriated power speak for itself. Ochs performed “The War is Over” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” live at the convention and his performance was reportedly so impactful that many young men in attendance burned their draft cards on the spot. Eventually, Chicago police violently dispersed the protesters, making several arrests. The violence disillusioned Ochs, who was of course already critical of power systems. But being so closely involved in an artistic and political protest doused with brutality by the supposedly more liberal party, affected Ochs drastically.

Rehearsals_For_Retirement

The cover art for his subsequent album Rehearsals for Retirement features a gravestone that lists Ochs as having died in Chicago, 1968. Although Ochs had been involved as an activist on behalf of the issues he sang about, the Chicago riots were a major moment of first-person witnessing for him as a writer. In response to that moment, Ochs, as a first-hand witness, faces his duty in interesting ways on Rehearsals. In line with the title and cover art, the record assumes a mostly baroque sound that refines the attempts on Pleasures of the Harbor. His most direct account of the riots is “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” in which Ochs assumes the poetics and persona of Yeats to tell his own story. He said he expected to return from Chicago and write thunderous protest songs, but he actually came up with one of his quietest songs:

The towers trapped and trembling,

and the boats were tossed about

When the fog rolled in and the gas rolled out

From Lincoln Park, the dark was turning

Like wild horses freed at last

we took the streets of wine

But I searched in vain for she stayed behind

In Lincoln Park, the dark was turning

William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed

The song is immediately followed by a music hall ditty:

Where were you in Chicago?

I didn’t see you there.

I didn’t see them break your head or breathe the teargas air.

Where were you in Chicago,

When the fight was being fought?

Where were you in Chicago, ‘cause I was in Detroit.

Even while writing as characters, Ochs conveys his own testimony. But it is interesting to note that at this point in his career, after he has experienced one of the most important turns in his life as a first-person witness, his articulation of the events is as a character—a historically real character, a poet. The “joke” from the cover art of Phil Ochs dying in Chicago is extended into the album, where there isn’t a Phil Ochs voice where there should be, but “Yeats’s.” An Irish poet, no less, which suggests Ochs didn’t feel he had any American poets left to call on. The use of The Poet, whichever one, perhaps speaks to how Ochs witnessed—he certainly took himself seriously as a writer, as he should have, and to assume the persona of Yeats when he was at his most-Ochs, shows that Ochs saw witnessing and poetry and songwriting as a compound action.

As a live performer, he was more easily able to bridge his own voice and his characters, but his albums function as pastiches of different first-person points of view used to map out the landscape of contemporary mindsets. When he offered his own mindset, it was usually in commentary on the others. However, his late-career, live album performances of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” speak to how the years of singing the song affected its singer personally.

In a March 1969 performance in Vancouver (several months after the Chicago riots, a couple months before Rehearsals was released), Ochs introduces “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” near the end of the set:

I’m going to do for you nice people now a protest song. A protest song is defined as something you don’t hear on the radio. And they’ll say you don’t hear it on the radio because the guy can’t sing or because the words are no good, as they play the shit that they play these days. But it’s got to do with a process all around the Western trail that includes England and France and Canada and America—they have the media syndrome where they control everybody’s mind by use of fairly mindless and mind-distorting distortions of the facts, which lead all of us into the Vietnamese war and into the Kennedy assassination. So what can you do? Here we are a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh amid all this cruel machinery and terrible heartless men. So all you can do is turn away from the filth and hopefully start to build something new someday. Here’s a turning away song…

Ochs started to face a better world by confronting his own life in a way he hadn’t openly done on stage often. “Boy from Ohio” and “Jim Dean of Indiana” from his final studio album Greatest Hits and his live act Buddy Holly and Elvis medleys let audiences into the formative elements of Ochs and, by extension, the majority of his generation now faced with confronting the atrocities of a nation which had also given them the mainstream joys of Buddy Holly and Elvis in their youths.

Jim Dean of Indiana

Ochs’ final album, the live Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1970, released in 1975), was meant to be an amalgam of Ochs’ songs from the 60’s and other songwriters’ songs from the 50’s in an attempt to connect those generations of songwriters, to connect pop and folk and country, and to fight bigotry and atrocity with the power of combined and connected first-person testimony. Early in the Carnegie show, he introduces “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by saying: “I’m going to wear this gold suit and sing a song of significance. And try to have wealth come to terms with responsibility.” The song has grown from journalism into performance art.

gunfightatcarnegiehall

Ochs follows his song with a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” written by Haggard in 1969 (just months before Ochs concert) as a response to anti-war protesters and youth counterculture in general. Ochs introduces the song:

It used to be all the songwriters were leftwing types. And now as we get toward a fascist America, which is coming in the 70’s in a big way, we start to see a change in the right wing. The right wing usually does without artists. They usually have to rely on William Buckley and his good looks and a lot of television time to present the façade that the right wing has a mind or sense of art—which Buckley has, but which the right wing doesn’t have. Just lately they’ve come up with an artist, a genuine songwriter, who’s as good as anybody around, his name is Merle Haggard. He has the possibility of being today’s Hank Williams, who is still the foremost songwriter.

Okie From Muskogee

Ochs would make similar connections about John Wayne when introducing “Pleasures of the Harbor.” Haggard’s song is so square that it borders on parody. The point-of-view character thinks that none of the drug use or sexual awakenings of San Francisco have touched Oklahoma, is proud of still flying Old Glory and respecting the college dean. He, when presented with the litany of generational, geographical, political, social differences between the posited “San Franciscans” and the “Okies,” picks their footwear choices as most egregious: “Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear; beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen.” Haggard’s ability to write songs that live up to Ochs’ comparison of him to Hank Williams lends him the benefit of the doubt that this is either an earnest song about folks who are proud of being square or a written-off song Haggard wrote while frustrated at the hippie entitlement he perceived. The song has Old Glory (the symbol of slavery) flying at the courthouse (the symbol of justice) while claiming that Okies like “living right and being free.” The argument that preserving slavery is better than protesting against war or for civil rights seems impossible to sustain. Ochs’ performance of it at Carnegie Hall (the symbol of high culture and musical significance) is consistent with the pastiche of viewpoints he assembles on most of his albums. Ochs’ own composition “I Kill Therefore I Am” presents similar material to Haggard’s song, though obviously derided:

I keep the country safe from long hairs.

I am the masculine American man,

I kill therefore I am.

I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place…

But Ochs’ use of Haggard’s song at Carnegie Hall, as opposed to his own “I Kill Therefore I Am” does more than simply deride violent masculinity or “traditional values” or racists. Firstly, it gives his band a chance to show off—and they make lovely use of the traditional country form of the song, imbuing it with some Byrds-like jangle pop while keeping it twangy and danceable. Mainly, the song’s inclusion speaks to Ochs’ respect for the first-person narrative. To Ochs, the journalist-witness-activist-poet-songwriter-Buddy-Holly-loving-American (Holly and Ochs, both Texans), the first-person narrative is a right. Everybody has the right to express what they’re turning away from, what they’re facing. Ochs sees the significance of the popularity of “Okie from Muskogee”—Haggard obviously saw a need to write it and it was obviously needed by its audience. But Ochs disagrees that the narrative witnessed by Haggard is characteristic of “normal people” or “true Americans,” as its proponents assumed. He’s witnessed millions of “normal Americans” risk their freedom in worthy protests. So Ochs offers a counter-narrative by re-contextualizing the song in the Carnegie set. As I said, Ochs ends “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (the symbol of anti-war protest) in the set and then offers “Okie from Muskogee” as an example of what songwriting looks like from the other side, from a songwriting perspective that isn’t radical-activist-oriented—and of course it turns out that the ideas in “Okie” are far more problematic than Ochs saying that we shouldn’t send young men to die for the benefit of powerful men.

This turn underscores Ochs’ career-long project of stewarding the ties between activism and American music, between youth culture and America’s self-perception.

How does Ochs’ project jive with what we’ve been interested in regarding Lee Baines and Two Cow Garage and Mark Kozelek and other majorly first-person songwriters? In publishing there’s been a huge memoir boom in the last handful of years, in songwriting we seem to be paying more attention to individual testimonies, so there’s a big premium on Voice at the moment. Sometimes we might make demands on individual voices that they actually be speaking about greater social concerns, which is a bummer for artists trying to just make whatever art they can manage to make. But I think those demands are good in moderation–if by “actually speaking about greater social concerns” you really mean, “show me you’re smart and sensitive enough to engage me, with stories from your unique experience, in a discussion of how all this bullshit effects us as individuals and communities and couples and generations and…” Most of the time, that’s what I like about the writers I like. Phil Ochs is a model for that. I really think he belongs up there with Orwell or James Baldwin in a group of writers who saw through a system that fucks people up and then blames them for it, and then, as artists and humans, they couldn’t not use their writing to dismantle those systems from every angle.

Boy in Ohio

I highly recommend Kenneth Browser’s 2011 documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, which should still be on Netflix and elsewhere. Listen to all of Ochs’ music, especially the live albums. Read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and anything by Baldwin. Let me know what other writers you think write in that league.

The Life in the songwriting of Two Cow Garage – Part II


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Christine Lortie

In part I of this essay I talked about themes in early TCG records. I left off right before Three. Read part I here.

Not long ago I caught Micah playing a solo show. He took requests and when I asked him to “No Shame” he introduced the song as being about trying to get a job at Taco Bell while being a touring musician. I had not heard this before and it’s possible he was pulling our chain but for the sake of this write-up I’m going to assume it’s true.

03 No Shame

In plain terms that anyone can understand, the chorus of “No Shame” asks the question we all have to ask ourselves at some point. Is what I’m doing worth it? In the song Micah calls the guitar the instrument of his downfall. Without his introduction we can only assume, but with the extra bit of information from the live introduction it’s clear that one of the consequences of pursing a life in art is that it makes you unemployable at even the most rudimentary level. There are countless examples in the Two Cow discography where Micah and Shane question what they’re doing with their lives, the consequences of their choices and whether or not they should just give up and walk away.

In” No Shame” things have never been worse because the job wasn’t there. Not getting the job recalibrates the value of life where all Micah can see is the unfinished songs and the all the things that haven’t worked. I know that feeling, all too well. When I’m down in that hole there’s nothing to see but the dirt wall. Several years ago I had a short story published called The List She Made. In that story the main character’s life is on a downward spiral and eventually he breaks down and fills out an application to work at Hardee’s. In the story he gets the job but then he is then left with evaluating his life based on the fact that he now works making french fries for minimum wage and what does that say about his life. If you want to read the story you can find it HERE. I don’t bring it up to toot my own horn but to try to show that there are dire effects to the human spirit no matter if you get the job or don’t.

The second song on Three that really typifies the beautiful despair in Two Cow’s songwriting is” Should’ve California.” Talk about regret, the whole damn song is one regret after the other and they circle back so if you didn’t really feel the regret the first time you’ll have another chance.

06 Should’ve California

“Should’ve California” really resonates with me, yet none of the regrets in the song are my own. I went to college, I worked in blue collar professions, I moved west, my Georgian ass has even been all the way to California. Yet I don’t feel like my life has ever followed the easy route. I can’t help but think I should have made different decisions about things, that I could have done things that would have made my life easier. But the decisions I’ve made have always seemed like the best decisions I could make at the time. It doesn’t make any sense to me and probably never will but I also know that I’m not the only one who lives this way.

“Should’ve California” is such a simple song but it seems to have held up well. I feel like Two Cow has played it almost all of the times I’ve seen them live and Micah has played it at the solo shows I’ve seen. There is comfort in collective pain and Two Cow Garage shows can often turn into tattooed revivals. And it is songs like these, painful songs that matter, that help us make sense of our lives, that help us get out of the bed each day. And, these songs of desperation and regret help us see the good things in life in a way that others can’t.

You may be asking yourself, is there more of silver lining than finding others that share the same downsides of life that you do. And there is, there totally is! I firmly believe that experiencing hardships allows someone to relish in the beautiful aspects of life. The beauty may not be as apparent or present itself as often, but through the lens of hardship beauty is magnified and details that might otherwise be missed are recognized and embraced.

04 Jackson, Don’t you Worry

Is there a more touching and beautiful song in the Two Cow Garage cannon than “Jackson, Don’t You Worry?” A song that Micah wrote for Shane’s young son, this masterpiece appears on 2010’s Sweet Saint Me and I firmly believe a song with these details, that is this touching could only be written by someone whose has, and continues to experience the desperation and regret of the songs already mentioned. It’s as if Micah is saying this is a good thing in the world and I >refuse to let it pass without acknowledging it in a significant way. I find it more touching that Micah writes a song for Shane’s son. To me song feels like a preemptive strike, Micah saying to Jackson what Shane might not be able to say or what a son might not want to hear or accept from his father.

At the same time the song probably works as a comfort while on the road. In “Jackson, Don’t You Worry” there is confirmation that doing what you have to do has consequences, and for the first time in the Two Cow cannon the consequences are not just to the adults that are in charge of their own decisions. But the tenderness between two friends is undeniable and without the hardships that populate most of Micah’s and Shane’s songs then the value of, night after night, standing next to someone that understands what you’re facing and what you’ve already faced down, wouldn’t be as powerful.

For them, and for us.