Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The Man in Black, Broken Arms, and Minimum Rock and Roll

1: We'll Miss You, Big Guy

It's been very hard to decide what to say about the death of Johnny Cash. I don't have too many heroes, but he was one of them, and the idea of saying anything at all is frankly scary- I feel like if I say anything, I need to make it good to live up to The Man.

But forget that. Part of what I loved about his work was that Cash wasn't afraid to make an effort that he knew might fall short- his catalog's full of missed notes, times when he's just a shade off-key because he couldn't quite get where he was going. And a lot of these spots are in the best songs.

I got the news on Friday morning. We were about to leave for a camping trip, and Rebecca's sister stopped by at 7:30 to pick up the apartment keys so that she could feed the cats. The doorbell woke me up and I was maybe 30% functional when I opened the door. And the first thing she said was just "Johnny Cash died last night."

And my first clear thought of the day was, "Man, I wish I believed in Heaven. I wish I could just tell myself that he's there, now, with June. And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he is." And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he is. If anyone deserves a good afterlife purely on the basis of creating immeasurable human happiness, it's Johnny Cash.

To be honest, I can't even codify what it is I love so much about his music- I spend a lot of time thinking about my aesthetic standards, and why I like what I like, and so on, but none of that ever seems to apply to Cash. He certainly was no virtuoso- his guitar skills were minimal, and even his singing was based more on unrefined talent than on technique… he had that beautiful, huge voice, but didn't have what you'd call perfect pitch. His songwriting was often incredible, but also featured some pretty low lows… "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart?" "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog?"

But none of that matters. I guess Cash's music just hits me in the gut and works on a level beneath fancily laid-out aesthetics. Part of it, I suppose, is that he dripped integrity, and part of it could be the showmanship, and a big part of it would be his sense of humor- even the songs I just cited as songwriting failures were, after all, jokes that didn't quite connect.

What matters in the end is that he's gone, and we'll never see another like him, but we were goddamned lucky to have him to begin with.

2. We Can't All Be Robert Pollard, Either

The Grumpy Alice show at the 4th St. Station a few weeks ago left all of us with surprisingly upbeat feelings. True, we played to a pretty small crowd, but it was more than that place usually packs in on a weeknight. More importantly, we knew that we played it pretty well; and when a show goes well, it doesn't really matter if you did in front of three people or three hundred. You feel good either way.

So, then, we all got an even bigger boost when the 4th St.'s booking people contacted us and offered us a Saturday night show in early October. In fact, we were all ecstatic. This was the biggest gain in momentum we'd had in years. I went home and started telling Rebecca about Robert Pollard and how you know, it was just remotely possible that we could do what he did.

If you're scratching your head, Pollard is the guy behind Guided By Voices. He was a high school teacher for years and years when, at an age well beyond my own, he decided to quit and start a band. He may or may not be a great musician, but he's in like his mid-forties and makes a pretty decent living making music, and he got started long after most people have given up.

Pollard was hanging around in the back of my mind when I left for the first practice session that would be aimed at the 4th St. show. When I got to Bob's house, where we practice, Grant was sitting on the front lawn with all of his guitars. No Bob. I sat down next to him, and we talked a bit. Then Mark showed up. Still no Bob. We sat on his front yard drinking beer and waiting, but the drummer remained absent. After forty minutes, we decided that Bob had probably gone mountain biking or something and thought we didn't have practice. No big deal, and we all headed him.

The word came out a little bit later that Bob had indeed gone riding, and had suffered a hellacious wreck that broke his arm in three places and messed up his knee. No drumming, he says, until December. No weekend show at the 4th St. No practice, even.

So Robert Pollard will not be on my mind for a while.

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