I am trying to stay off the news today because the last week has been a little overwhelming with the constant updates and rapid changes. The chyrons on the local news station are giving me headaches unless I un-focus my eyes and look slightly to the side. Our 24-hour news cycles mean that every update – however minor – is given priority of place.
It comes as something of a surprise that anything not virus-related can really stand out in the constant bombardment of new cases and new lock-downs and new warnings.
This morning when I got up it was out there everywhere already. Probably because so many of the people I hang with on social media (and IRL when we’re allowed to do that) have similar tastes and experiences and memories, and the presence of Kenny Rogers in our shared world was basically a given. A randomly-cited lyric from The Gambler needed no explanation as to its origin. It is a rare person in my life who doesn’t know the song and won’t start singing along when provided with the opportunity.
That song has been played at pretty much every house party I have ever hosted. One of my bffs (now a semi-responsible financial advisor and father of two) performed an interpretive dance while wearing my mother’s wicker hanging planter on his head as he belted out the tune. I have pictures, if you doubt me. Another friend and I managed to get it into rotation in the post-meal singsongs at our camp when we were first year staff. Visiting years later, it was heartening to see that it remained a favourite – alongside The Ship Titanic and Charlie’s inability to get off the MTA. It still receives a ritual playing when certain friends come to visit, as a final wind-down to an evening of beers and talk.
The loss of one person – and a person who had a long, fruitful, impactful life at that – at this point in time, as we deal with uncertainty and anxiety and, in some cases, more immediate losses, might seem negligible in the overall scheme of things. But so many people have already left fond memories and feelings up and around the social medias I feel like I’d be irresponsible if I don’t add my double pennies.
I grew up in a house in which we were fortunate to be surrounded by grandparents and older relatives pretty much all the time. When we were very young both sets of grandfolks lived within walking distance – and they were all very much part of the fabric our of regular lives. I wrote about one of them here (back in the days when I will still pretending it wasn’t me that was writing this blog). Gramps loved Hee Haw. He loved the country music of the time – and the stories the songs told. They were closely aligned with his way of seeing the world and his own deep love of a great tale, well-spun.
I’m not sure when Kenny really hit my radar in a big way but I do know that I received his Greatest Hits record for Xmas the year I turned 10. I knew that record start to finish. I know that record start to finish, actually.
You see, I have this thing I do when I’m anxious or stressed or, as is increasingly the case, when I start getting concerned about my memory with the whole aging thing – a panic that can easily turn to paranoia about incipient dementia, given our family experience.
I’ve always had a thing for lyrics – I remember them easily and pretty much forever. Even songs I don’t like much get stuck in there. It’s a mixed blessing sometimes (looking at you Achy Breaky Heart). But it provides me with a fantastic stabilizing exercise – one that comes in very handy in weeks like the past few have been.
I run through certain songs more frequently than others – I have my standbys: I wrote out the words to Tears for Fears’ Mad World before every exam – high school to doctorate – and two from that regular playlist came to me from Kenny.
The Gambler, of course (a song as celebrated for its catchiness and sing-along compliant nature as it is underrated for the overall philosophy of life it presents) but Coward of the County has long been another of my go-to head-songs (since 1980!) in times of stress. I ran through it all while in the shower this morning, as a matter of fact. And I cried. Which, I understand, is at least partly in response to the stress all around us. Except that it always makes me cry. Always.
The words run through my head, but I hear Kenny’s voice singing them (I wouldn’t want to hear my own) and the emotion and authenticity with which he imbued the lyrics resonates completely. Still. I never doubted for a second that he had a nephew named Tommy whom folks called ‘yellow.’ Never. Just like I never questioned his chance encounter with the old gambler on that train. It happened. All of it.
Kenny – and others like him – helped shaped my musical taste in a very real way. I remain drawn to those singer-songwriters who speak to life experiences and general states of being on the planet, while reflecting on weightier issues of good and evil and love and hate. Small stuff to the very large. Basically all aspects of our interactions in the world with other humans.
Most artists rely on touring and merchandise sales to support themselves and ensure the continuance of their wonderful contributions to the world of art and music and storytelling – something that has been interrupted at the moment.
Spotify and the like are all fine and well and good for exposure to new music, but these platforms doesn’t do enough to support the artists who are creating the music. As we look for things to fill the days as we distance and isolate, this is something that we can actively do to change things for the better.
One of my very very favourite guys has a new album coming out on March 27. The songs he has pre-released for us are beautiful, heartfelt and representative of incredible growth in his songwriting trajectory. Brian Fallon was supposed to visit us at Danforth Music Hall in early April, but we’re not going to get to see him just now. We’ll make sure we’re there when he is able to reschedule, and I’ll make do with multiple playings of the new album in the meantime. Please check him out and buy Local Honey – and his other records – directly from his website.
Then there’s this other guy, who I’ve written about before. He was out on tour in support of his latest record (we saw him here in the fall) – but it seems likely that it will end sooner than anticipated. He released a new video this week – along with a remarkable article in Rolling Stone about the subject of the song – that notorious and remarkable songwriter, Shane MacGowan. Follow Jesse on his website for information about his tour and how to get Sunset Kids.
While I’m talking about Jesse, the opening artist at that show I talked about in the post was a singer-songwriter named Matthew Ryan. Since seeing him that night – and having the opportunity for a quick chat – I’ve followed him on twitter and the fb, accessing new tunes as he brings them to us and appreciating his thoughts on life, the universe and everything, He posts lovely reflections about his favourite songs – definitely a kindred spirit – and he sings about things that can break your heart. Give him a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
I can’t consider complete any reference about the overlap between story and song without noting that Mikel Jollet has a memoir coming out in May, concurrent with the release of The Airborne Toxic Event’s first record in five years. He was on the fb yesterday, live streaming and talking about favourite tunes and concept albums, and playing bits from the new record alongside some old favourites. He has been a significant and important presence on Twitter since that 2016 election – calling out all the things that need calling out, but it was wonderful to listen to him talk about the healing that music – and the completion of his story in order to share it with all of us – has brought to his life. I wrote about the band what seems like ages ago. Even then, I was reflecting on memory and the tricks and trials it can bring. Plus ça change, as they say. You can pre-order the book and the album here.
I love a good concept album (there are Pink Floyd records that make me shiver just to think about them), and there is no one, these days, better at that than Lord Huron. If The Gambler is a poignant short story, then albums like Strange Trails or Vide Noir are epic novels in which you can lose yourself completely. Ben Schneider, the driving force behind the band, trained as a visual artist and the tangible storied imagery of the settings comes through like individual paintings in every song. I can see the scenes and the characters as he sings about them. I wrote about the band, along with another guy you might’ve heard of, when I was hoping to get back into the habit of writing – and when I was searching for inspiration in the face of too much loss. Again with the plus ça change… Lord Huron is planning to produce a movie based on Vide Noir. I don’t know where those plans might be sitting, given all that is real right now, but you can buy the album – and lots of other fun merch – here.
It sort of feels like this train we’re all riding together right now is bound for nowhere. Or nowhere we’re going to like and want to stay, anyway. As I wrote the other day, regardless of what happens in the next weeks and months, change is going to be our new and continuing reality for the foreseeable future.
We might not be able to get out to see the musicians we love right now, but this time should be teaching us about our continued reliance on the artists that make the hard times less hard and who celebrate the good as it comes right alongside us. The best ones teach us something about ourselves as they tell us their stories. They deserve to be fairly compensated for all that they bring into our lives.
Support them directly, however you can, and spread the word about the songs and the stories that are keeping you going. Start playlists with friends – recommending and linking those musicians you can’t live without.
Stop taking for granted that their hard work and inspiration will always be there to get us through, and acknowledge the important role they play in providing entertainment, and inspiration – and in keeping anxiety in check when things are really hard and uncertain. Make sure they get the appreciation they deserve.
Pay the creatives.
We need them more than ever now, as we think about what is important to throw away, and what is important to keep.
Go gently, and with thanks, Kenny. I’ll keep those aces you dealt me held as tightly as I can.