Category Archives: Music

Hunk of the Day: Diplo

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One of the many mad musical geniuses that aided in the creation of Madonna’s majestic ‘Rebel Heart’ album, Diplo provided some of the most interesting and exciting work Our Lady has produced in the last few years, beginning with the insane ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’ track that she just performed so winningly on ‘The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.’ Who knew that he was also such a hot Hunk? As with most DJs these days, he gets all sweaty by the end of a set and doffs his soaked shirt like the best of them. More than that, though, it’s his musical madness that makes him so compelling.

 

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Adam Lambert: Ripped Rock God

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This is a little late, but when Adam Lambert is involved, any time is a good time. Here are a few photos that shook the internet a while back, featuring Mr. Lambert in all his gym-sculpted pumptitude. While he’s fluctuated in weight over the years, he’s always been incredibly hot and cute, but this just goes above and beyond that. The Glamberts had a well-deserved field-day over these shots – all of which are drool-worthy. He’s been honored by sexy tributes before, as in this Hunk of the Day crowning, and this follow-up Hunk of the Day redux – dare we hope for a third go at it? Take your shirt off, Adam – and you’ll be golden. Hell, you already are.

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To the Extreme: More Than Words

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The chain link fence ran the length of the bridge, preventing anyone with half a heart from climbing over and jumping into the slumbering Mohawk River below. The wind whipped through it in typical unapologetic and unrelenting fashion. We walked single file; there wasn’t really room to do otherwise. As dusk settled over Amsterdam, we made our way across the bridge that linked the southside with downtown.

To the right was the Amsterdam Mall, that low monolith which divided the once-whole downtown into two uneasily disparate sections, and then slowly emptied into hollow cement corridors of faded storefronts. In 1991, there was still a spattering of places that struggled to stay open, but the mall had been a bad idea from the beginning and was limping on its last legs. We eyed it as a teenage destination, and pulled out jackets closer in the night wind.

In my head, the song of the moment was playing on endless repeat, this acoustic ditty by Extreme:

 

Sayin’ I love you
Is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
Not to say it, but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cause I’d already know

My best friend Ann was walking ahead of me, leading the way as she often did. I followed  a little behind, perpetually in awe of her steely courage, sky-high hair, and uncanny ability to give the world the middle finger with attitude and Guns ‘n’ Roses. I leaned on her in more ways then she knew.

A few other misfits joined our less-than-rowdy crew: Jessica, Autumn, Amy, and John. The latter was the wild card of the bunch – prone to mischief and fits of crazed, maniacal laughter in between moments of melancholy and something much deeper. There were whispers of a troubled family life, but we were all part of such whispers to a certain extent. No one had a perfect familial existence; no one ever will.

We began the slow descent onto the ramp that dropped us in a parking lot littered with the glitter of broken bottles and stray weeds poking through cracks in the pavement. Such a sad set of surroundings, and yet I couldn’t have been happier, Free from my own angry family, on a Friday night with my friends, I felt the first tugs of young adulthood pulling me forward. I also felt the warm heartstrings of friendship emboldening my otherwise insecure countenance. Here was a group of people that accepted me, misguided hair and questionable fashion aside, with all my mood swings and unlovable attributes.

What would you do?
If my heart was torn in two
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say
If I took those words away
Then you couldn’t
Make things new,
Just by saying, ”I love you”
More than words,
More than words…

I carried my camera everywhere in those days, with a six-pack of 35-mm film bulging out of my coat pocket. I was forever waiting for the big capture, the shot that would change our lives, or simply make me laugh on a later, colder day, when I’d be missing my friends and longing for a night like that. I posed for more than a few pictures myself, trying to find someone in that gangly little boy who was all unruly hair and baggy clothes and silly grins. Some days I still find myself looking.

We turned onto the tiny Main Street, burning yellow and supremely surreal beneath the buzzing street lamps. Conover’s, the office store I remembered visiting as a little kid, still had a faded green sign above its fuzzy glass front. A few doors down, a band was setting up. We peeked in the back door and I snapped a quick photo before rushing out from fear of our ridiculously-underage status. We were a good group, staying clear from booze and other teenage explorations. Christ, we were Honors kids more afraid of a B+ than practically anything else.

Still, being out on our own, in a part of town that my parents would surely not approve of me traversing after nightfall, felt like a grand thrill. A little forbidden, a little adventurous, and a whole lot of what I needed. I don’t think I realized then how lonely I was, how much I needed those friends. It would have crushed me, and I was already pretty beaten down at that point.

Now that I’ve tried to talk to you and make you understand
All you have to do is close your eyes and just reach out your hands

And touch meHold me closeDon’t ever let me go
More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say
That you love me
Cause I’d already know

The night ticked on. I didn’t go out enough to even have a curfew. (See, I really was a good kid.) The minutes flew by and soon it was time to step back onto the bridge. We climbed the stars and rose above the river, the tiny city behind us. Cars whizzed by, engines roaring, light beams blinding us from the other side. I zipped my coat up, the wind whipping even more viciously, colder too. I didn’t mind in the least. My stomach was sore from laughing, the corners of my mouth aching happily from uncontrollable smiles. A joy I could never feel at home – the joy of fitting in, even if it was in a group of outsiders – resonated from within, and it was something I’d hold onto when things got really bad. We’d done nothing but walk around and goof off, and it was better than any fancy night I could have imagined.

What would you do if my heart was torn in two
More than words to show you feel
That your love for me is real
What would you say if I took those words away
Then you couldn’t make things new
Just by saying I love you…

More than words.

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Helplessly Aware

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Once upon a time I was a romantic.

In the summer nights between seventh and eighth grade, on the verge of adolescent angst and leaving boyhood brilliance behind, I wrestled with the bedsheets as the outside breeze rustled the curtains.

The red glow of a digital clock and the yellow light of numbers 87 through 108 from the radio illuminated the inner-sanctum of the room, while shafts of a street lamp fell in through the finely filtered cross-hatching of a wire mesh screen.

Seventh grade had been rather dismal for me, as I struggled with algebra and allergies – the latter of which knocked me out for weeks at a stretch, further alienating me from school-mates who were already feeling distant and less-than-friendly. It didn’t help matters that I was suddenly allergic to cats, and the few whom had found a home with us were slowly being shipped out all because of me and my sickness. The arrival of spring that year marked a new beginning, as our last cat was given away in the cruel month of January.

Now, in the summer stretching out before me, in the darkness and the humid heat of a night in which the screeching of an insect matched the buzzing of the search for a proper radio station, I felt relief and release. The treacly opening chords of a Richard Marx power ballad came through the haze:

Just when I believed I couldn’t ever want for more

This ever changing world pushes me through another door

I saw you smile

And my mind could not erase the beauty of your face

Just for a while

Won’t you let me shelter you

I sensed, even without having experienced the sensations yet, the loss and desire in a song like this. My heart felt something far in the future reaching back and connecting, some foreshadowing of pain and heartache that was soon to come. How I knew to access and fathom that sadness made no sense, but beneath the dim light of the night, I held on for dear life.

Hold on to the nights
Hold on to the memories
I wish that I could give you something more
That I could be yours

I didn’t like boys or girls then. I didn’t know what I liked. Stirrings of fraternal connections made certain body parts tingle, but it wasn’t yet sex or even love I was after. It was closeness. I craved a kindred spirit. I didn’t want to be so alone. And yet I kept a safe distance from kids my age, lazily usurping my brother’s friends when I wanted a bit of adventure. We’d ride our bikes beneath the leafy canopy of Pershing Road, popping wheelies on mismatched sidewalk ledges and skidding out over grassy islands, leaving dirty scars in our wake.

Most boys realize their boyhood in the sun of summer, and though I was no exception, I sought out something more in the night.

How do we explain something that took us by surprise
Promises in vain, love that is real but in disguise
What happens now
Do we break another rule
Let our lovers play the fool
I don’t know how
To stop feeling this way

I breathed in the air in the space between my bedroom and the lofty boughs of an old hawthorne tree outside my window. A dog barked in the distance, a lonely plaintive sound that echoed my own loneliness. In later years, I’d combat that sinking feeling by opening a book, but at that age, in that summer, I listened to the radio and found solace in the noise that masked the heart while revealing it at the same time.

Hold on to the nights
Hold on to the memories
If only I could give you more…

Fleeting moments of friendship flashed across my brain from the previous school year: sitting next to Ann in art class as she created an epic Bon Jovi collage, sharing answers with Jeff for a health test and trying the wrath of a very scary health class teacher, walking to band with Tim and laughing as he mentioned how a certain person was surprised to see the sun come up in the morning.

It dawned on me, earlier than most I suppose, that I wasn’t just trying to hold onto the nights, I was trying valiantly to hold onto my youth. As dismissive as I was of the silliness of being a kid, I knew it was a realm I’d regret having to leave. As much as I wanted to grow up as fast as possible, I was cognizant enough to know how much I would miss it. That awareness was childhood’s greatest – and quickest – killer.

Well, I think that I’ve been true to everybody else but me
And the way I feel about you makes my heart long to be free
Every time I look into your eyes, I’m helplessly aware
That the someone I’ve been searching for is right there.

I had a few more years before I’d leave all that innocence behind. For that night, the summer felt a little endless, and somehow there was comfort in that abyss. We never know what is in store for us. That’s the beauty and the rub. Though I’d never be one to really hold on to anything, I was still just a boy trying to find his piece of the kingdom. “You may know what you need, but to get what you want, better see that you keep what you have.” One midnight gone…

Hold on to the nights
Hold on to the memories
I wish that I could give you more…

Hold on to the nights.

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A Little Bit Dangerous

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You pack your bag.

You take control.
You’re moving into my heart
and into my soul.
Get out of my way!
Get out of my sight!
I won’t be walking on thin ice to get through the night.

It was 1990. The dawn of a new decade. I was a freshman in high school. Scared, frightened, meek, but just a little audacious, I wanted to be the girl in this song – the dangerous one. The one who had eyes that hit like heat. There was power in being perceived that way. There was power in beauty – and a sinister elegance in danger. I knew then, however, that true power and danger didn’t need to announce themselves boldly and grandly. They didn’t shout or cause a commotion. They didn’t attack or assault.

It was the quiet ones you had to worry about.

If I portrayed danger, it was in the name of protection, like those poisonous caterpillars who displayed their colorful plumage-like shells to ward off any would-be predators. I was small and slight. Against a brawny football player I didn’t stand a chance. Against a riled-up teacher, I was powerless. It’s a wonder I was so daring and so mean. (Sometimes you have to be a little mean to survive.) That was the business of high school. That was the game.

Hey, where’s your work?
What’s your game?
I know your business
but I don’t know your name…
Hold on tight,
you know she’s a little bit dangerous.
She’s got what it takes to make ends meet
the eyes of a lover that hit like heat.
You know she’s a little bit dangerous.

Popularity was the main currency of those ridiculous high school days. That wasn’t what I was after. Hell, after a while I didn’t even hope for acceptance. Mostly what I wanted to do was survive. I wanted to get through it all relatively unscathed. Brutality waited around every corner ~ the burning end of a cigarette in the bathroom was always attached to the hairy arm of an older boy who would either smile or stub it out on the back of your neck as soon as you took your place at a urinal and unzipped your pants.

In the locker room, in those scant minutes we had to change after physical education, roving packs of pugnacious and puerile boys ran amid the maze of metallic boxes, honing in on their prey and taking their squirming catch around the corner to the showers. I never stayed to watch what happened next.

You turn around, so hot and dry.
You’re hiding under a halo, your mouth is alive.
Get out of my way!
Get out of my sight!
I’m not attracted to go-go deeper tonight.

Somehow I managed to skirt all of that. We’re often a little more popular than we think we are. (And sometimes, a lot less.) I was never great at reading the crowd, so I did my own thing – flagrantly and yet unassumingly. The stray skirmish at lunch, the random bloody nose, the whispers of a knife – they passed right by. I was more cloak than dagger. When I eventually did come out of my shell, I’d already built a fortress around me.

Hey, what’s your word?
What’s your game?
I know your business
but I don’t know your name…
Hold on tight…

A few years later I really did turn a little bit dangerous. I was careless with hearts, dismissive of love, and had a predilection for hurting anyone before they could get close enough to hurt me. Strangely, and somewhat sadly, that sort of danger seems to hurt the one who wields it more than anyone else.

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A Senior Recital: Caleb Eick

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Back in my high school days, I played the oboe. I was pretty good, but I was far from great. While music came pretty naturally to me, the oboe is an unnatural, and decidedly difficult, double-reeded woodwind to master. Thanks to a wonderful private teacher, Mrs. Green, and hours of work and perseverance, I managed to do decently enough for various NYSSMA performances and ultimately ended up making it into the Empire State Youth Orchestra – a rather competitive place for young local musicians. I also had the opportunity to perform with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra. The point of this thin musical résumé is that I know how much hard work and effort goes into making a career in the arts – especially in the world of music. You have to be dedicated, driven, and basically obsessed with perfecting a craft that is largely imperfect. Very few are the times when you feel you’ve had a perfect performance – but that is precisely the goal of many a musician. It’s an elusive quest, but a noble one, and so my heart always feels a certain tug for those who attempt such a path.

Caleb Eick is one such musician. Currently, he is preparing for his Senior Recital this Friday. A baritone majoring in Vocal Performance, Mr. Eick knows the discipline and work ethic involved in a musical career. Music also opened a world of acceptance and possibility for someone who preferred Chopin to science or sports. (Not that classical artists were his sole inspiration; he equally favors the work of Panic! At the Disco and Paramore.) Last year he was named the first Auriel Scholar at the College of Saint Rose:

The Auriel Scholar program is an educational program, aimed at mentoring college-aged voice students, that provides practical experience and knowledge of the inner workings of a professional arts organization. Students involved in this program have the opportunity to sing in a fast-paced professional choir, acquire advanced choral and vocal skills, learn challenging repertoire and add practical performance experience to one’s resume – all the while learning the business skills it takes to become a music professional. The Auriel Scholar program is a valuable apprenticeship that helps students get a head-start on their professional musical careers.

His Senior Recital is scheduled for this Friday (you are are all invited) and will feature works by Lully, Campra, Bellini, Verdi, Schumann, Bizet, Gounod, and Vaughan Williams. A challenging program, Mr. Eick has been preparing for it for over a year, and it contains pieces that span from the Baroque period to Late Romantic and 20th Century works. Great music transcends time, and great musicians remind us of that.

Music made sense. It allowed one to move in ways you couldn’t in any other situation. Music allowed me to connect with people on a deeper level that we don’t allow ourselves to in our everyday interactions. ~ Caleb Eick

The Senior Recital of Caleb Eick

Friday, March 13, 2015, 7:00pm
Kathleen McMannus Picotte Recital Hall
The College of Saint Rose
Albany, New York

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A Revelation & A Rebellion: Madonna – ‘Rebel Heart’ Review

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It’s become almost impossible to objectively review any Madonna album at this point in time. Thirty years of an unprecedented stint in the spotlight (a light that continues to shine brightly as everyone continues to offer their take on the woman). It’s worth resurrecting one of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” To cavort, wrestle, and entangle yourself with the fickle beast of fame takes something altogether superhuman – to win more often than not takes a miracle. The fact that the world still has an opinion on Madonna– no matter what it may be – is proof that she’s still winning.

Ageist, sexist, and below-the-belt jabs aside, the single constant that most people side-step when it comes to the woman herself is what she has always done best: music. With ‘Rebel Heart’, the music once again almost gets lost amid the tumultuous journey to get here: early leaks and piracy, sexy photo shoots and red-carpet ass-flashes, and that dangerously epic tumble on stage. Now that the album has seen its official release, the world can hear things as Madonna originally intended.

Opening with an instant Madonna classic, ‘Living For Love,’ things get off to an anthemic powerhouse start, as a gospel-tinged chorus builds to a rousing hand-clapping climax. At first I was oddly unimpressed by the song. Yeah, it was good, but was it great? It took a few listens, one magnificent video, and a pair of live performances to reveal the merit of this. Madonna knows what she’s doing. That some of us still doubt and wonder only makes her prove it, and such drama is what drives much of the album.

“Tell me I’m no good and I’ll be great,” she defiantly commands on ‘Iconic’, following up, “Say I have to fight and I can’t wait.” With a spoken-intro by Mike Tyson and a bit by Chance the Rapper, ‘Iconic’ is a pretty pop song draped in other distractions. As on bonus tracks like ‘Autotune Baby’ there’s a gorgeous song trapped within the skittering rap and musical madness, and she’s going to make you work to find it.

For ‘Rebel Heart’ Madonna worked with everyone and their mother ~ Diplo, Avicci, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Natalia Kills, Nas, Kanye West, Alicia Keys and even Mike Fucking Tyson ~ and it’s apparent in the sometimes-jarring stand-alone construction of the songs. While some Madonna albums (‘Ray of Light’ or ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’) work best as a cohesive whole, others offer a smorgasbord of songs that have nothing to do with one another (‘True Blue’ and ‘Music’). Each format has its merits and drawbacks, and ‘Rebel Heart’ is decidedly in the latter bunch. The first eight songs alone are the very definition of extreme, veering from the wild and wonderfully crass ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ to one of the most tender songs she’s written in her career ‘ Joan of Arc.’ Such a roller coaster is sometimes difficult to stomach, but to her credit Madonna manages to wrap it all up into one giddy ride.

‘Devil Pray’ is a glorious folk song accented by electronic flourishes, vocal distortions, and a melody-line oddly reminiscent of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ while rumored second single ‘Ghosttown’ is the sort of power balladry that Madonna has never been given the due respect owed for such majesty. (See ‘Rain’ or ‘Live to Tell’ or ‘Drowned World.’) ‘Ghosttown’ is rife with apocalyptic images of the end of the world, but Madonna finds solace in holding onto another person. That sort of rumination is what lifts the album through its sagging points. Like the pair of bitch songs: ‘Unapologetic Bitch’ and ‘Bitch I’m Madonna.’ The former stings an ex-lover over a reggae-electronic beat and the latter is an all-out aural assault on any naysayers. Those two cuts fall clearly on the ‘Rebel’ side of the equation, but they veer toward the grating. Madonna does rebellion more convincingly on ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ where she ticks off a list of all the provocative and milestone pop culture markers she’s staked over the years (name-dropping ‘Ray of Light’, ‘Music’, ‘The Power of Goodbye’, ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Open Your Heart’, and ‘Justify My Love’) and on challenging tracks like ‘Illuminati’ where she espouses the ‘all-seeing eye’ and shoots down conspiracy theories with commanding authority.

Madonna’s own hurt and vulnerability form the crux of what makes her so lovable in spite of her self-obsessed tendencies. Scars form a metaphor for a number of cuts here: “We made it through the fire, Scarred and we’re bruised but our hearts will guide us,” she sings on ‘Hold Tight’, while ‘Beautiful Scars’ expounds upon its titular theme atop a percolating modern-disco backing track. After everything she’s been through (and put herself through) a few battle wounds are to be expected. For the woman who once showed off her naked body in ‘Sex,’ she’s been largely uncomfortable in her skin – no one who shape-shifts in such chameleon-like ways could be entirely happy with herself. Madonna works that out through the music here.

One of the strongest cuts on the album, ‘Inside Out’ finds her seeking a deeper connection: “I wanna know what you’re all about, You’re beautiful when you’re broken down, Let your walls crumble to the ground… Every scar that you try to hide, all the dark corners of your mind, Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” It also boasts the best bridge Madonna has written in years ~ big, beautiful, and soaring: “Let’s cross the line so far we won’t come back, Can’t read your mind, I shouldn’t have to ask, Cynical smile, Time to take off your mask, I’m on your side so let me love you, let me love you.”

Madonna has said that she wanted to focus on solid song-writing this time around, and she’s largely succeeded, even if you have to hunt to find some of them. (Buried gems lie in hidden wait behind the distractions constructed around ‘Illuminati’, ‘Veni Vidi Vici’ and ‘Iconic.’) Other songs are more readily accessible. ‘Heartbreak City’ is emotionally haunting, chronicling the dark ending of a relationship, as the steady drum march drones toward its inevitable ending.

 

Despite its double entendres of soft porn and some almost-clunky car lyrics, ‘Body Shop’ allows Madonna to make the most casual and breezy delivery of a song in her entire career. Thanks to some super-sweet melodies, this is actually a stellar cut. It’s got wisps of world music to it, a gently-driving undertow of clap-along percussion, and a whimsical banjo base that lends a wistfulness that defies the listener not to sway along.

Then comes ‘Holy Water’ in which she out-Princes Prince himself – straddling the line between sacred and profane, sexy and silly, earnest and completely comical. It’s over-the-top, ridiculous, and epic in its electronic soundscape of the moment. Bonus: it directly quotes one of her biggest hits with an incomprehensible wink and nod.

Percussion plays a main role on this album, driving in some songs, dropping out in the middle of others, and it comes in all forms. From the natural hand-clapping of ‘Body Shop’ to the thundering beats of ‘Hold Tight’ to the racing programmed power of ‘Graffiti Heart’ it’s always exhilarating. Remember, Madonna got her start playing the drums, and the beat has always been her most powerful stock in trade. Even when something starts out as quietly as ‘Wash All Over Me’ the percussive march of time arrives to obliterate: “Torn between the impulse to stay, Or running away from all this madness. Who am I to decide what should be done? If this is the end, then let it come, let it come, let it rain, rain all over me.”

In the end, Madonna is at her best when stripped down and working a pop song within its basic framework. The lush orchestral grandeur of ‘Messiah’ and the gorgeous melody of ‘Joan of Arc’ find her at her most vulnerable (“I can’t be a superhero right now, Even hearts made out of steel can break down”) but the music is so rich the introspective lyrics are buoyed by her delicious delivery.

Title track ‘Rebel Heart’ provides the emotional apex and namesake centerpiece of the beautifully unwieldy collection, finding Madonna at a certain peace: “I’ve spent some time as a narcissist, Hearing the others say ‘Look at you, look at you’ Trying to be so provocative, I said ‘Oh yeah, that was me,’ All the things I did just to be seen.”

Three decades into the fascinating career we’ve had the privilege to watch unfold before our eyes, she’s still finding new ways to surprise and rebel, and it’s still the best show in the business. As the brilliant ‘Graffiti Heart’ reminds us, Madonna played with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the 80’s, and the artistic scene of New York City that was so fresh and vibrant and raw is something that Madonna, even in all her commercial success and polished personae, has kept as key to her artistic merit. Now she’s inviting the rest of us to show her our graffiti hearts, to reveal our scars, to confess and to be ourselves. Throughout all the guises she adopts in this latest romp ~ a rebel heart, unapologetic bitch, martyr, lover, sinner, and queen, there’s one thing she can’t help but be: Madonna.

Like its various versions (Standard, Deluxe, Super Deluxe) ‘Rebel Heart’ is a fragmented affair ~ a fascinating patchwork that almost becomes a rich tapestry, but even when it’s a mess, it’s a gorgeous mess (witness the sonic wonder of ‘Holy Water’ or the scattered multiple-personalities of ‘Iconic’). In the end, Madonna reveals and revels in the rebellion of her heart, and as she continues to forge new ground in the way a female artist is perceived and behaves, she proves to be as relevant as she was thirty years ago.

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Hunk of the Day: Ed Sheeran

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All sorts of gentlemen have been named as Hunk of the Day since the popular feature debuted a few years ago. You’ve seen the hairy and the hairless, the hefty and the twinky, the old and the young, the chic and the clueless – and in the end I hope there’s been someone for everyone. Today’s Hunk is a somewhat polarizing choice, which makes him one of my favorites. Long before Shawn Gillie challenged his hotness, I actually thought that Ed Sheeran was kind of cute. Look, there’s no accounting for taste, it is what it is. Besides, he’s a ginger, whether you like it or not, and gingers rule the world.

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Where Academia & Pop Art Collide: Special Guest Blog

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{Had history and biology played out differently, I might be in Dr. Joseph Abramo’s position right now. He’s married to my first girlfriend. Yeah, that could have been me. For his wife’s sake, and his I guess, it’s better that it never worked out. Joe has become one of my rare, and therefore treasured, straight guy friends. I still remember the first night I met him: I welcomed him to my attic with typical theatricality, and I’m not sure he knew what to make of it all. Through the years though, he’s become a friend in his own right, and he’s one of the few people who can appreciate Mahler as much as Madonna. (Don’t even get him started on a treatise of ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears because he can go deep.) He’s also one of the only people on earth to get me to sing along with him (I croaked out a few bars of ‘Like A Prayer‘ as he strummed the guitar.) We also worked on some artistic creation as well, in the form of a few Halloween songs that were more of an excuse to hang out with people I love than any real hope at Billboard glory. When I first contemplated the notion of a Guest Blog, his was one of the first names that came to mind because I knew it would be interesting, intellectual, and just a little bad-ass. It does not disappoint.}

The Crux of Academia & Pop Culture

By Dr. Joseph Abramo

It is a pleasure to write a guest blog for Alan’s website. I’ve been an admirer of his musings, photography, and writings ever since my wife and his childhood friend, Melissa, introduced us. One of our first in-depth conversations was about Madonna. This makes sense because, for a day job, I am a professor, where I teach courses in music and education. I work with twenty-somethings who want to be music teachers.

The professorship is not as glamorous as one might think. We are not the bespectacled, elbow-patch-wearing ilk the general population imagines us to be. In fact, we usually dress more informally than other professions, something I’m sure Alan would be horrified by.

As part of that informality many of us often study topics that some people may be surprised by. One of my topics of study, for example, is how music teachers can incorporate popular music into the classroom. If you were one of the many adults who think back to music lessons as the banging out of awful classical music on the piano, or inducing headaches by blowing air into the oboe, as Alan did, then you can imagine the need for music teachers to have the discussion about using music that is a little more relevant to students. The truth is that the classical music that I and most music teachers love is simply not interesting to most people.

But popular music is incredibly interesting to many people, and for good reason. It allows us to escape repeatedly into our own worlds. My mother tells me that when she was a teenager, she listened to her recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” so many times that the record turned grey because she wore the grooves out. For me it was hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, and buying an electric guitar to learn how to play the song. The repetition irritated her, but she endured it thinking back to her similar relationship with Simon and Garfunkel. For Alan, it is his indefatigable love for Madonna, which he chronicles on this blog.

But our love for popular music is not just frivolous indulgence. It is not simply, as Dick Clark blandly said, “the soundtrack to our lives.” It tells us something about ourselves and about the important issues of the day. Beyoncé’s sudden use of feminism, for example, tells us about contemporary womanhood. In many ways it has shown how feminism, once reviled as radical, has become as bland as singing about wanting to “rock and roll all night and party everyday.” This is both a blessing and a curse for feminists. It shows the inroads feminists have made in helping everyone understand issues of equality. But this mainstreaming of feminism might also water down and misrepresent its message. Some, for example, interpret Beyoncé dancing on a stripper pole in front of the giant word feminism as a misunderstanding and dismantling of feminism through this popularization. Others see it as an important demonstration of contemporary feminism—that “women can have it all.” Which is it? Probably both and neither; it is a double-edged sword.

Reactions to popular music also tell us about society, too. Former Arkansas Governor and Fox News Channel host, and presumed 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s critique of Beyoncé as imposing liberal urbanites (read as “Black”) values upon the humble conservative middle Americans (read as “White”) demonstrates that not everyone embraces equality.

Similarly, recording artist Hozier’s video “Take Me to Church” suggests progress for Gay rights and marriage equality. The song’s lyrics are about heterosexual love; a man sings about a lover, using the pronoun “she.” But the video depicts images of queer love. This mixing of queer and hetero love blurs them, erodes the indefensible distinction that society has made between them and puts them on an equal plane. The fact that such a video was inconceivable twenty years, but passed with little comment today, shows real progress in gay rights and marriage equality. But predictably, like Huckabee’s reaction to Beyoncé, some decry the mainstreaming of queer culture as an indication of the decay of “good ol’ American values,” and perform rational, ethical, and legal gymnastics to fight equality and restrict freedoms.

It is because of this “academic” aspect of popular music, along with its ability for us to escape into ourselves that I love popular music, and why I think it has educational value. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall said that he studied popular culture because it is “one of those sites where this struggle for and against culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle….That’s why popular culture matters.” Popular music serves as a mirror to ourselves, it tells us about our desires and pleasures. It is a barometer: the ways people react to popular music gives us a reading of where society currently sits on important issues. Use any other metaphor you want to describe its ability to clearly reveal to us the state of society. For Hall, this is the power of popular culture. “Otherwise, to tell you the truth,” he continues, “I don’t give a damn about it.”

So next time you listen to your favorite artist, take some time to ask, “What does this say about society?” Does it articulate my values? Are those who are quick to devalue the music I love creating a veiled critique of me and my values? Or maybe you don’t ask these questions; maybe you just listen and escape into yourself. Either way, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn.

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Zephyr in the Sky At Night, I Wonder

mad ray light 000

On this date way back in 1998 Madonna released what remains her best album to date: ‘Ray of Light.’ It’s my personal favorite as well, thanks to the time in my life when it came out, in addition to its own musical merit. ‘Light’ remade Madonna into the critically-acclaimed artist she has remained through this present day (continuing with next week’s release of ‘Rebel Heart.’)

Whenever winter starts to crumble, when spring is in the night air, I’ll play this album start to finish, and go on the emotional roller-coaster that was 1998 all over again. It’s Madonna’s most fully-realized album, a soundscape held together by William Orbit’s production, grounded in the warmth and resonance of Madonna’s voice, and lifted by the higher concerns of our place in the universe. It’s also a marker of my youth, of a time when I was searching for love, stumbling through my 20′s, and wondering whether I’d always be alone. When music comes out at such personal cross-roads, it becomes part of your soul. That’s what ‘Ray of Light’ is for me, and if you ever want to get closer to me, listen to that work and we’ll talk.

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #111 – ‘Secret’ – Fall 1994

mad secrt 11

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

This post has already been written. When the lead single to Madonna’s 1994 ‘Bedtime Stories’ album was released, I was at the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis. I was also about to kiss the first man I would ever kissed in my life. In others words, a whole lot of crazy shit was about to go down. As such, it’s a period that I remember more clearly than almost any other, and I’ve written about it a number of times. What follows, at least in the first portion, is the recounting of the time period that formed the backdrop to Madonna’s ‘Secret’ song.

 

Things haven’t been the same

Since you came into my life

You found a way to touch my soul

And I’m never, ever, ever gonna let it go

If you’ve only kissed girls all your life, the first time you kiss a man is a shock. A rough shock. Literally. My face feels like it’s being shredded by some ridiculous grade of sandpaper. He holds my head in his hands, and this will not be the only way he hurts me. For now, though, it is completely what I want.

In the afternoon light of September, in an apartment on the steep incline of some side street in Beacon Hill, I am sharing my first kiss with a man. The year is 1994 and it’s the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The room is small, and comprises both the bedroom area and the kitchen. A bathroom is outside off the hall.

The sheets on the bed are white, or the lightest of gray, and he doesn’t seem to have many worldly possessions. I’ve always envied that sparse sort of set-up, and those not bound by attachments or material goods. Even in a few short weeks I manage to accumulate things, my closet over-stuffed and scarce of empty hangers. Here, just a small collection of plates and kitchen utensils dries in a wire dish rack. A lone towel hangs on the doorknob. By the window a cluster of books stands on a table.

He excuses himself to take a quick shower, and I am shocked at his simple, instant trust of me, having only met a few hours before this. Already jaded before I’ve even been hurt – or maybe there’s some sort of hurt that I can’t even remember anymore, a phantom pain from not feeling loved or protected – my suspicion lies hidden like a dagger, hidden but always present, ever-ready to strike, to slash, to slay.

He returns wearing only a white towel, and in the light of the bed my summer-tanned body lies atop of his, the cool bright sheets blocking the slight breeze from the half-cracked window. I wonder what the other people on the street are doing in their apartments on this afternoon.

My face and lips feel raw after sliding against his stubble. It tickles and stings and troubles in a dangerous, intoxicating way. He admires me like no one has ever done before, but I’m still uncomfortable as he watches me pull my pants on. It seems odd to just leave, but he mentioned something about his shift, and it’s even stranger to think of staying, so I depart after leaving my phone number.

 

 

Happiness lies in your own hand

It took me much too long

To understand how it could be

Until you shared your secret with me

 

Something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me

My baby’s got a secret

I step out of the stale smell of the old brownstone row, and back on the street I look up to his window. He is there smiling and waving. I wave back and walk down to the bottom of Hancock Street. Across the way is the site of a former Holiday Inn that my mother once stayed in with me and my brother. We saw E.T. in the movie theater there that no longer exists. Part of me still feels like that little boy, but as I board the train I catch my reflection, and, aside from the backpack, it is the visage of a young man.

How to explain the heady giddiness of my heart in those early days of fall? Every phone call with him carried me further away from the campus, away from the silly dorm antics, the childish college pranks. I wanted no part of that carefree fun, looking down on my fellow school-mates and disconnecting from that world irrevocably, in a way that risked future regret and silly behavior long past the point when it should have been out of my system. I was far too serious for my own good, thinking I was setting up my life for happiness at some time far in the future, putting off a good time in the moment and mistakenly eyeing what was to come, what was always ahead. I gave it away for him, as I would do for countless others, but in the beautiful light of that flaming September there was nothing else I could have done.

Somewhere there is an old 35-mm photograph of me, taken while I was on the phone with him, showing a rare unguarded moment where the camera was set up just as he called, the sun was setting, and my face betrayed not happiness, but worry. High in Usen Castle, in our semi-circular dorm room on the top floor, I sat on the bed talking to him. He was squeezing in a conversation just before his shift started at the hotel restaurant, from a pay phone no less, back when there were still pay phones around. He must care, I thought.

Every place he moved through held meaning for me. Across the street from the fancy hotel at which he worked was a park. An unlikely oasis in the midst of downtown Boston, it was quiet there, and workers in business suits and sneakers sat on benches reading books. I spent a lot of time in that park. Even when we weren’t meeting, I sat there, reading or writing or just watching the few people who meandered along its walkways.

Sometimes we did meet, for dessert or dinner, and there was a night when we kissed in the shadows of the Southwest Corridor, before the condo was even a glimmer in my eye.

In his apartment, we spent most of the time in bed. The flickering light from a tiny television glowed on the stark white walls. Night air drifted in from the window, along with some muffled shouts and street noise. I asked him how you could tell if you were truly in love with someone. He told me he once heard it said that if you were really in love with someone, you could envision spending the rest of your life in a tent with them and be perfectly content, never wanting for anything more, and never wanting to leave.

Sometimes I tell people that I could envision the two of us doing just that – other times I express doubt that anyone could be happy in such a situation. I never tell it the same way twice because I still don’t know how I feel about it. How could someone who was capable of being so hurtful possibly know anything about love? I trusted in his years of experience, putting a blind faith in simple human decency, only I never let him know. In my silence was acquiescence and the assumed aloofness that would destroy so many chances. I did not know that then – sometimes I don’t know it now.

You know when you’re not supposed to be with someone. It starts with a pang so small you’re not really sure that the doubt is real, but as the days and weeks pass, the pang becomes a full-fledged throbbing, and every moment you’re with them threatens to suffocate with its worry. When it happens for the first few times, you do not yet have the sensitivity to feel it coming, nor fully experience the hurt it leaves. At least for me, this was the case. I liken it to the first time you’re really hung over. You swallow and swallow as the saliva mounts in your mouth, and you know you don’t feel right but you still don’t know how not right, so you trudge along to work or school and from sheer ignorance or refusal, you do not stop to vomit and end it all quickly.

When his calls stopped and the lingering light and warmth of fall gave way to the harsh chill of October and November, I didn’t know enough to feel the pain of having such affection withdrawn. I also didn’t know how to cling or hang onto someone, to emotionally obsess and hold onto something that was already dead. This may have been what saved me – my ignorance of how to feel that pain, how to access that hurt. It would be the last time I didn’t know.

My parents invite me along for a weekend in Chatham, MA and I gratefully accept. In the air is the misbegotten notion that he might miss me, when my absence would only bring relief at the most, if it registered at all.

The weekend is gray and cold. There is no going back to any hope of Indian summer throwback days – we are too far gone. The first thing I do as my parents settle into the room is to walk to the forlorn, empty beach. It is dark and windy, and the town and beach are deserted. Wind whips wildly around in a savage attack, sparing no bit of shelter or respite. I pull my coat closer around me. In the sky is the promise of an imminent storm, but I don’t care. Dark clouds threaten, the cruel wind stings, and as I arrive at the beach, the sand and salt water shoot stinging pin-pricks into any exposed skin.

Part of me wants to walk into the ocean, numb myself with its cold, be helplessly drawn out with the undertow, and let come what may. What else could a thinking person want on such a dismal, gray day, in such a dismal, sad world? Of course I don’t, deliberately walking up and down the shore instead, dodging the tide and peering behind at footprints that will come to nothing. The weekend passes in a sad blur. I return to Boston alone, and think over the previous weeks.

To this day, I can point out which bench I was sitting on when we first spoke. I want to pretend it doesn’t have that power, that it no longer matters, but the memory won’t let me. It comes back, haunting and pulling me out of whatever momentary happiness I have found. I always return to that moment, and it always starts up again…

 

You gave me back the paradise
That I thought I lost for good
You helped me find the reasons why
It took me by surprise that you understood

You knew all along
What I never wanted to say
Until I learned to love myself
I was never ever lovin’ anybody else

Happiness lies in your own hand
It took me much too long
To understand how it could be
Until you shared your secret with me

Something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me
My baby’s got a secret

In Copley Square, before the rising spires of Trinity Church, there are just a few benches that face each other. I pass them first, and then pass him. His eyes, sparkling and blue, glitter in the September sun, and I can’t do anything but stare into them. And so I turn around and settle on one of those benches, pulling out the book I’m reading, ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton.

I was not meant to be in Boston today. I was supposed to be at a school newspaper meeting at Brandeis, but halfway through it I knew I would never like being told what I had to write. I snuck out as they were touring their make-shift office space and got on the commuter rail to the city.

It is a beautiful September day – a little on the warm side but when faced with what is to come, quite welcome. For some reason the city seems quieter, and despite the recent influx of college kids, less crowded. Maybe it’s because I can only focus on him.

I read the same page about three times before I acknowledge him sitting on the bench before me, and he is the one who speaks first. It would always be the other guy who speaks first because I will always be too afraid.

He asks if I want to walk with him, and I nod. We turn toward the river. I had never been this way before, and if there’s one thing that makes an indelible impression and memory, it’s discovering some new part of a city you thought you always knew. We must have meandered along the Esplanade, past the Hatch Shell, in the dappled light of the changing trees. I remember the walk, but it is dim and vague, and the only thing I could focus on at the time was him. We are going back to his place, and while I had never done anything like this before, somehow I knew what to do, what I had to do.

 

At the tender age of nineteen, how could I have been so sure? This was before the ubiquity of the Internet, before ‘Will & Grace’, before Ellen. No one had ever told me it was okay. He was no exception. He told me nothing. To all my questions, he gave out no answers, at one point snapping viciously that he didn’t want anything to do with “this education crap”. That no one had helped him to come out, and he was not about to help anyone else figure it out. But all this had yet to come.

There is no use recounting in detail how our weeks together passed. He was callous and cruel in ways that cut me deeper since it was my first time, and because of that it would take years to thaw the icy boundaries I erected to deal with it. The bigger person I sometimes try to be wants to absolve him of his guilt, but I can’t forgive him for how he treated me.

I am now almost the same age he was when he met me, and I still can’t fathom treating another person like that. At first I thought I might, when I reached this age, but it’s not an age issue. My introduction to the gay world was a cold, cutting, every-man-for-himself attitude that should never have been. There were other atrocities too, darker things that I will never put into words, but I’ve written enough about him already, and it’s not fair to post just one side of the affair – God knows I’ve never been an angel. For now, I am done, and the story ends here.

I wish I could say that it didn’t affect me, and that I was mature and knowledgeable enough to chalk it up to an isolated individual, but I can’t. Even if was just one bad seed, it happened to be the seed I tasted. You can’t get rid of that so easily, no matter how intellectually you understand it shouldn’t matter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That was all I wrote about him for some time, until I revisited the scene of that fall in these posts. Some kisses changes your life. That was one of them. There was no going back. I had a few more entanglements with women, but my heart had to admit that I was gay, even if I couldn’t express it. I was so young then, so alone, and it was a secret that I couldn’t share. Not at that time. Instead, with a mixture of shame and heartache, I went through it all by myself. I don’t have many regrets, but that may be one of them – not so much that I did it all on my own, but that I felt I had to.

To carry a secret like that can be very damaging. Secrets are by their nature insidious, and one secret always begets another. It would take me a few years before I could come out, and even then some people still wanted me to keep it quiet. When it’s your own family, that hurts a little bit more.

Enter the woman who had just taken the critical and popular beating of her lifetime: Madonna, in the aftermath of the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album. She had fallen from her lofty perch and faced derision and vile press. Rather than hide away, she did what she had always done best, and released a fantastic album. A mid-tempo acoustic guitar-strummer, ‘Secret’ brought her back near the top of the charts, and is a song about finding the happiness within yourself. For Madonna, ‘Secret’ restored her to herself. The ‘Bedtime Stories’ album got pretty good reviews, and the next single would bring her back to number one with a bullet. She found her way back from a very dark place, and that was the lesson I took from the proceedings.

So heavily-laden is the song with the affiliated time period, I can’t enjoy ‘Secret’ on its own musical merit, no matter how great a song it is. Yet as the years pass, the feeling I get isn’t bitterness or anger or sadness – it’s more of a downtrodden ennui. It makes me exhausted, so I don’t often dwell on it. It exists as a talisman of a time that was powerful and necessary, but one that doesn’t have a place in my current world. I had to go through there to get here, but it’s nowhere I’d like to visit again.

It took me much too long to understand how it could be…

SONG #111 – ‘SECRET’ – FALL 1994

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Shot Through the Heart

imagine sky

The dangerous rhyme-riddled plague of blame and shame can wreak havoc on the most well-ordered of lives. Even when you think you have the thing beat, it rears its ugly head again, reminding you that no matter far you’ve come you can’t erase the past. In the following song by Imagine Dragons, we find a protagonist giving up and giving in. Such a thing is a horror to go through, but a fascinating process to watch. We are an emotionally blood-thirsty species. We revel in the misery of others. We find relief in any struggle that’s not our own. It’s the wretchedness of human nature, and sooner or later we are all brought so low.

I’m sorry for everything
Oh everything I’ve done…

Am I out of touch?
Am I out of my place?
When I keep saying that I’m looking for an empty space
Oh I’m wishing you’re here
But I’m wishing you’re gone
I can’t have you and I’m only gonna do you wrong

Sometimes you have to give up on things. Sometimes you have to give up on people. It’s the only way to absolve certain issues. Let go and let come what may. There is a strength that comes from owning your fuck-ups, and a grace that results from admitting your failings. Whatever terrors are in the past will always lurk, ready to trip you up at the most inopportune time, unless you face them. The first step in doing that is admitting your own faults and mistakes. No one is perfect. Not all the time.

Oh I’m going to mess this up
Oh this is just my luck
Over and over and over again

I’m sorry for everything
Oh everything I’ve done
From the second that I was born
It seems I had a loaded gun
And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through
Everything I loved
Oh I shot, shot, shot a hole through every single
Thing that I loved

Am I out of luck?
Am I waiting to break?
When I keep saying that I’m looking for a
Way to escape
Oh I’m wishing I had what I’d taken for granted
I can’t help you when I’m only gonna do
You wrong

There are those of us who can’t seem to do anything but hurt others. Even with the best of intentions, even when acting out of a supposed place of love, the end result is always pain. When that happens over and over and over again, something has to change. In certain romantic relationships, I’ve been that bull in the china shop. In certain familial relationships, I’ve been on the receiving end of such harm. Somewhere in-between I hoped to find happiness.

In the meantime can we let it go
At the roadside that
We used to know
We can let this drift away
Oh we let this drift away
At the bayside
Where you used to show
In the moonlight
Where we let it go
We can let this drift away
Oh we let this drift away

To let go, to allow time to pass, to move on along your own path – this is how I’ve survived – and it’s how I’ll continue to survive. A certain courage is required to do that. A fortitude and belief, somewhere deep within, that you’ll be all right, that no matter what happens you can do it. You will be ok, because you have to be.

And there’s always time to change your mind
Oh there’s always time to change your mind
Oh love, can you hear me
Oh let it drift away…

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The Modern-Day Valentine Mix – Side Two

vday 2015-2

The relatively dark ending of Side One now over (there should always be a dramatic finish to the first act) we turn now to a Valentine’s reprieve in the form of fantasy. When real life doesn’t work out, and more often than not it doesn’t (at least not to the perfect extent that some of us would like) there’s only one thing to do: escape. I’m not talking the well-practiced acceptance speech after winning an Oscar/Grammy/Tony/Emmy award, or the imagined thunderous applause after performing a sell-out concert in Madison Square Garden, or even the perfectly-executed dance routine at a wedding that has all guests gasping in thrilled adoration and awe, I’m talking something more subtle yet just as seemingly unattainable: the perfect guy.

Track #4: LOST IN YOUR EYES

 

I get lost in your eyes, then I feel my spirit rise

And soar like the wind, is it love that I am in?

I get weak in a glance, isn’t this what’s called romance?

And now I know, cause when I’m lost I can’t let go…

He watches me in the brief moments between classes. Our lockers are across from each other, and out of the corner of my eye I can tell he is pausing, waiting until I catch him staring, at which point he’ll look away or rush off or, on those happiest of days, look back and give a brief smile. He is older than me, but I like that. There is something protective about the way he behaves toward me, something I never felt even from my own parents. His protection was absolute, unwavering, and unconditional. It was simply in his nature.

After school one day he found me sitting by the curb, waiting for my ride. He sat down next to me. The brush of his denim was soft but firm, and he smelled vaguely of warmth – of toast on a cold morning, of apple pie on a cold night, of hot chocolate on a winter day – and of something dirtier.

He makes a bit of small talk, asks about a class I’m in that he took a couple of years ago, then squeezes my shoulder as a way of saying good-bye. I look up at him as he rises, and he has that smile again. And those eyes. And suddenly I am lost.

That night, I lie in bed unable to sleep. The feel of his hand on my shoulder had thrilled me, and I put my own hand on the bony area trying to determine what he might have felt. It is thin and slight beneath my hand, and I wonder at how it would compare to his own broadness and muscles. I feel embarrassed and ashamed, and my heart is in riot and rapture. I try to conjure his scent, try to recall the brief brush of his leg against mine, and only end up pulling a pillow close to myself for comfort. I want to cry.

I don’t mind not knowing what I’m headed for

You can take me to the skies

It’s like being lost in heaven

when I’m lost in your eyes. 

I just fell… 

The days pass slowly, filled with the agonizing distractions of school work and classes between which I live in the brief moments that I’m near him. I write his name on scraps of paper that I quickly tear into tiny pieces with less than a letter on each lest anyone piece together the secret wishes of my heart. Alone in my bedroom, I write more than his name.

Love letters and dreams and fantasies of a life together. I write him my darkest fears, tell him my most daring desires, and explain how in the moment he touched my shoulder my whole world changed. I fold it up, seal and date it, and hide it deep in the bottom drawer of my desk. One day I will present it to him ~ maybe when we get married, maybe when we buy our first home, maybe when we celebrate our 50th anniversary – but some way and somehow he must know.

 

Track #5: I’LL BE YOUR EVERYTHING

 

I’ll lift you up when you’re feeling down

Make your whole world turn around

Give my heart and soul to you

Let you know this love is true…

He says hello to me in the hallway, whenever we pass. Sometimes it seems like he goes out of his way to do so, pushing through a throng of students just to get closer to me, then I think it’s all in my head. Why would anyone bother, especially someone as beautiful as him? But then I’m sure of it, certain that he looks frustrated if he can’t reach me before the sea of classmates swirls me away from him. On those days when we both linger after classes are done, I wonder if he too feels shy and excited and reluctant to leave. We begin walking out together, and I admit that I wait if he’s running late, or hurry if some teacher keeps class a little longer than usual. After a few days, it feels like old habit, and soon it is my favorite part of the day. There is a decent trek from our lockers to the parking lot where his car is and where my ride arrives, and I want to believe we both slow a bit near the end, anything to prolong our time together.

One day he tells me he should just drop me off to save my parents the drive. I’m not far out of his way. The excitement of the prospect of being alone in a car with him is matched only by the realization that he knows where I live. In those pre-internet days, before FaceBook and social media left us all transparently visible on a Google map, he managed to find out something about me. That someone cared enough to research where I lived, or at least to ask, touched me more than anything. Most of the time the world – at least my world – didn’t bother to care. Then, just like that, he was driving me home every day. Away from the prying eyes of classmates and the boundaries of school, he was different.

It’s hard to explain – he was a little less guarded, more ready to laugh, and somehow happier. I thought it was just being out of school that produced the giddiness, but a small part of me – the part that struggled to believe whether I was worthy of love – peeked out from years of hiding and allowed myself the possible realization that he was happier because I was with him. No amount of therapy or self-help books would ever surpass what that single moment accomplished. There is nothing quite as nourishing as feeling loved.

One day he doesn’t stop at my house, but glides past and around the block again. I challenge him with a quizzical glare, but his look and subsequent tone are so serious I don’t make a sarcastic comment. He tells me that he has something for me but that it’s not a big deal, just something he made because he saw how I liked certain songs on our rides home. With a trembling hand, he reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a cassette tape. On the side he has written, “Alan’s Melancholy Mix” and then a listing of all the songs. Most are ones we’d listened to on our brief rides, when he’d briefly sing along and give me a side smile, knowing I was too shy to ever join in.

There were a couple of classic rock songs, some power ballads from the likes of Journey and Chicago, and a few New Wave dance ditties that we both guiltily admired. The smile-inducing if infuriating inclusion of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ (because he knows that you absolutely can’t) rounds out the tape, but the best part is what he writes within the liner notes:

“For a guy who always seems a little sadder than he should be.”

 

Track #6: FAITHFULLY 

 

Highway run into the midnight sun,

Wheels go round and round

You’re on my mind

Restless hearts sleep alone tonight

Sending all my love along the wire…

I wear the tape out, getting out of bed multiple times in the night to flip it over and begin it again. I replay the moment he gave it to me, the way his hand touched mine and lingered, as if there was more to be done. Years later, I would reassemble that mix of songs into a playlist and present it to him on an iPod. His eyes would light up as he played each song and we remembered those rides together. Our first kiss, the way he held my hand before it, and the ensuing lifetime of love played out amid the pop songs of the 80′s. We were in a different car, in a different city, and a completely different world, but we’d managed to stay together.

I’m still yours…

Faithfully.

You don’t need the whole world to love you, you just need the one.

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The Modern-Day Valentine Mix – Side One

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There is no cheesier “holiday” than Valentine’s Day, and while I have no horrible V-Day memories to conjure, neither have I any overtly romantic ones that come to mind. Every day with Andy is like Valentine’s Day. (Pass the barf bag.) This has always been a Hallmark-perpetuated celebration of the hollow and trite, and traditionally I wear black to mark the occasion. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a boy the sweeping grand possibility of romance blasted from the horns of golden cherubs, and I fervently believed that one day my prince would come. As a throwback to that innocent time, to the moments when my jadedness had not yet hardened into its current implacable state, I present to you this modern-day version of a mix tape.

Back when I was a wee youngster, we had cassette tapes. They were small plastic rectangles that slid into a stereo or Walkman and played music from the slow turning of a fine, shiny brown filament. They could hold anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes of music – most clocking in at the 90 minute range. That’s a lot of space to fill with sound, but there never seemed to be a dearth of things to say though music. I won’t put you through anything as torturous or time-consuming as that – in fact, this is more of a super-brief EP than a proper mix tape, but the sentiment is the same. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Track #1: YOU’RE THE INSPIRATION

 

You know our love was meant to be

The kind of love that lasts forever

And I want you here with me

From tonight until the end of time…

In the scant few years before the boys would square off against the girls, my best friends were mostly of the female persuasion. While any burgeoning physical attraction was leaning toward the guys, I had much more in common with the girls. They found me funny, and I found them more interesting than boys. They cared about pretty things, like hair and shoes and jewelry, and they were less rambunctious and violent than boys. We were not quite to the age where the lines were drawn in the sand though, so my friendships with girls in the class went relatively unridiculed. Such safety and freedom were more fleeting than I realized, and soon enough it would be forbidden to sit at a table of girls until high school. I didn’t know this then, so went about blissfully unaware of the impending end to such easy and sexless camaraderie.

For Valentine’s Day we would create our own Valentine receptacles out of brown paper bags, decorated with construction paper and glitter and doilies – the only time it would be ok for boys to dabble with doilies. I poured my heart into it, making the prettiest bag I could, hoping to attract the most Valentines  ~ not just because of who I was but because of how pretty I could make my bag. In truth, none of this really crossed my conscious mind. I loved a good craft project as much as the next person, but when given free reign I always felt a shiver of panic, particularly when no guidelines or rules were established. A little freedom is a good thing; too much makes me uncomfortable. Chalk it up to my Virgo birthdate.

Looking back, I can see now that I was never as despised as I sometimes felt I was. In fact, my bag was one of the heavier ones. This was a time before we were really hardened by the world, a time before any serious divisive differences. When left to their own devices, most children are pretty accepting of each other. It’s when parental and adult prejudices and influences start coming into play that kids get ruined or enriched.

For those few Valentine’s Days when boys and girls could give loving cards to each other without care or concern, I felt happy and adored. There was a purity in that exchange, something that would be missing after a certain age. We gave our hearts to one another, without reserve, without fear, without judgment.

You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiration.

You bring feeling to my life, you’re the inspiration.

When you love somebody til the end of time…

 

Track #2: OPEN ARMS

 

Lying beside you here in the dark

Feeling your heart beat with mine

Softly you whisper, you’re so sincere

How could our love be so blind?

By the last years of our time at R.J. McNulty Elementary School, we were beginning to galvanize into adolescents. The change was sometimes sudden, sometimes slow, and always irreversible. Boys didn’t much socialize with girls except to torment and antagonize. It was playful teasing for the most part, the set-up for more serious flirtations to come. Yet my heart sang a different tune. The sirens that called to me weren’t female, and the attractions I felt toward girls in my class were platonic and comforting, not dangerous or tinged with desire.

At night, the glowing red digital colon of my alarm clock blinked on and off its steady count of seconds. Staring idly at the shaft of hallway light that came in through the cracked door, I listened as Journey’s ‘Open Arms’ came on over the radio. At such a young age, I couldn’t have had the first clue about romantic love, but something in me had always understood longing. The unrequited fancies of a boy too often get lost in the assumed toughness that comes from being a boy. I never had that toughness, so I’d have to craft a cage for my heart for my own protection. I didn’t know that then, and I’m sort of glad.

I opened my heart to every silly crush and foolish infatuation, and fell head-first into the giddy swirling notion of what I thought was love. I pined silently and relentlessly for a camp counselor, a class-mate, and the blonde guy on ‘CHiPs.’ It would be my major downfall in life: to want the ones who didn’t want me back. My heart would never learn. My heart would never quiet. And my heart would never stop… longing… wanting… loving.

So now I come to you with open arms

Nothing to hide, believe what I say

So here I am with open arms

Hoping you’ll see what your love means to me…

 

Track #3: THE SEARCH IS OVER

 

How can I convince you

what you see is real?

Who am I to blame you

for doubting what you feel?

I was always reaching…

Shards of ice amid a crazy state of mind. Disconcerting winter thaws and restless summer nights. The shifting of seasons across the mine-field of my heart. The ongoing search for a match. The quest for a partner. The fear of being alone. Such thoughts marred the mind as it tried to empty itself for sleep.

A love song on the radio. Lovers listening on the ride home. And me, not giving a fuck. Not even trying. In black and gray, damning the day of St. Valentine with a vehemence reserved for the bitter and the bereft, I spit out emotional vitriol and the carrion of trampled hearts in my wake.

I was living for a dream,

Loving for a moment.

Taking on the world,

That was just my style…

The random act of violence upon an innocent bystander is somehow easier to take than the sweet stab of veiled aggression by a lover or a family member. The former may leave you with a sickening lack of faith in the world, but the latter always leaves you with a sickening lack of faith in yourself. It is invariably destructive.

A shattered heart can never quite be put back together again.

All these silly love songs, all the cards and flowers and candy, all the jewelry and perfume and cologne – are but masks to disguise the utter emptiness of this holiday. If you’re lucky enough to get to this point in your life relatively unscathed, and if your heart has never been broken, hold onto that. For the rest of us, we’ll just keep looking for a way back to the day our school desks were littered with the innocent love notes of classmates, to a time when love was given without hesitation or reluctance or question, and to the last moment our hearts were full.

 

[I bet you can't wait to flip the tape to get to Side Two...]

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Living for This Video

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The last few videos Madonna has made have largely been, gasp, lackluster – and for the woman who practically invented the music video, this was simply unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, fluffy escapist trifles like ‘Turn Up the Radio‘ and ‘Give Me All Your Luvin‘ provided passing interest, and were devoured by a Madonna-hungry public because of the piss-poor promotional efforts for her last record, MDNA, but they paled in comparison to former glories like ‘Like A Prayer‘ or ‘Bad Girl.’

Her latest video for ‘Living For Love’ doesn’t quite return her to the apex of video artistry, but it comes damn close, and carries with it enough powerful imagery to turn a relatively standard song into something more meaningful, something more galvanizing, something more, well, Madonna. As noted, I found the ‘Living For Love’ song nice enough, but wasn’t convinced it was lead-off single material. Yes, it brought her back to those 90′s-nostalgic house beats and piano chords, and the injection of gospel elements lifted it to a higher ground, but it still felt a bit like a filler track, a throw-away song that could be taken away without leaving a hole in my heart. The video changes things a bit, more succinctly bringing the song into focus as a self-empowerment anthem, as Madonna vanquishes a circle of encroaching minotaurs like so many fallen chess pieces.

As someone who’s been under his fair share of attacks, both deserved and unfounded, I like the metaphors and the dazzling imagery. Most of all, I like the classic Madonna theme of exorcising the ghosts of those who have wronged her in such a cathartic and spellbinding way. We go to battle with our demons every day, be they family or foe (or any combination of the two), ex-lovers or longstanding-obsessions, former flames or future fucks – but rather than indulging in the bitter she exults in the sweet, rising above and leaving the past behind. It’s what Madonna has always done best: never looked back. There’s a cost to it, but you’re not about to see her emotional bank account.

The video is notable for the impossible way it manages to reinvent Madonna for the bazillionth time, repositioning her as toreador, and showing off several camera moves and angles and dance moves that she’s never tried out before – that in itself is a pretty substantial accomplishment for a woman who’s done practically everything on video by this point (witness the incredible fall and rise close-up that begins at 0:41 and the stunning jump at 1:48.)

Most thrilling for those of us die-hard fans who notice every subtle nuance, intended or not, are the references that Madonna makes to her own body of work. The matador outfit brings back the days of ‘You Can Dance‘, and the bolero might even have been reclaimed from 1987 itself. She steps into the male bull-fighter role she so elegantly paired off with in ‘Take A Bow’ and ‘You’ll See‘ – and executes a snippet of the ‘Papa Don’t Preach‘ strut that originally ended with the first sanctioned peek-a-boo of nipple back in 1986.

Madonna’s come a long way since that epochal decade in which she rose to the pinnacle of the pop heap. She still hovers in that rarefied air, and really, no one else can quite touch her when it comes to history and legacy and modern-day currency. If she isn’t as pervasive as she once was, she still holds incredible sway and power, and the readily-admitted worship of almost every current pop star, and quite a few who have come and gone over the incredible ongoing span of her career.

“Man is the cruelest animal. At tragedies, bullfights, and crucifixions he has so far felt best on earth; and when he invented hell for himself, behold, that was his very heaven.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

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