Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sam Beam and High School Football are a Formidable Pair: The 1st in a Series of Blogs Inspired by "Friday Night Lights"

For the last 5 years, Friday Night Lights has been easily one of the best programs on television. Well-written, beautifully shot, with compelling story-lines, commanding performances, an exquisite score coupled with a rocking soundtrack; it was heads above nearly every other TV drama on broadcast television. With the series coming to a close earlier this summer and with the aid of a Netflix account, I decided it prudent for me to revisit the show in its entirety before the final episode aired, just for the sake of remembering just how we got to where we were and to give myself a greater sense of closure as one of my favorite shows took its final bow. As I ran through the first 4 seasons for a second time, I was nagged to by two ideas that seemed to escape me the first time around: 1., Life is fleeting, and 2., I don't listen to nearly enough Iron and Wine.

I'm not sure if Friday Night Lights is, at its core, a show about High School Football, or if High School Football is simply a superficial vehicle for the story-lines beneath the surface, but one way or the other, it was hard for me to watch this show the second time around without rosettes of memories from my own High School Football days opening up. It wasn't nostalgia, I wasn't reminiscing; the memories were tactile, visceral. It was smells, pains, feelings of exhaustion and frustration and glory, and they all came to me in a very abstract, almost surreal and overwhelming clump.

I started to think about the past. I started thinking about how much time had actually passed since I played a down of Football wearing pads and a helmet, where the outcome of the game actually meant something to me, and how little time seemed to have passed, and it just really drove home just how fast life moves. Time is the only thing we lose that can never be found again. Once it's gone, it's lost forever, and although that's the inherent nature of existence, it's also the great tragedy of it. If you're standing in the bed of a truck, and that truck starts moving, you're most likely going to grab onto something for security. In the physical world, whenever we feel a loss of balance, the natural response is to grab onto the largest, most fixed object we can for stability, and the same thing applies to the figurative world. Life moves at such a high speed that we grab onto the most readily available and easily graspable memories in hopes of maintaining our equilibrium, keeping up, not being left behind by time, and those memories more often than not tend to be the big ones, the milestones. Granted, the milestones are essential parts of our lives, but they're also the most easily digestible and superficial ones. But the small moments, the ephemeral, infinitesimal flashes of experience are the things that end up having the greatest impact on us as people. The big moments define time, but the small moments define us.

My wife Amanda and I started dating a little over 17 years ago. We had talked on the phone a few times before we ever met in person, and even before I had ever laid eyes on her, I was smitten. But 2 months into our relationship, she gave me this sort of confused look with a crooked half-smile, and in that moment, I knew I loved her. That look destroyed me and remade me all at once, and from that moment on, I've never wanted to be with anyone else, even at the darkest times in our union. 5 seconds, a single look, literally changed my life. Our wedding by comparison pales in significance to that 5 seconds, but I never talk about that moment although I do talk about our wedding.

And I have to say, even when we find ourselves locked into a particularly difficult time in our relationship, the memory of that look reminds me why she means more to me than any other woman ever could. The worst times with her are still better than the best times I could have with anyone else. And I get this all from a look that lasted 5 seconds that I saw 17 years ago.

The real tragedy of life is not that we are born to die, or the fact that (I imagine) even the longest of lives seem too short when they're coming to a close, but that life, moving at even its most standard velocity, moves so fast that we are almost forced to disregard those momentary but integral twigs of existence. They get shoved aside because they're too hard to hold on to when your hands are only so big and you have to do your best to latch on to the next branch that can support your weight.

This is where I was at by the time I was halfway through the 2nd episode of the 1st season of my re-watching of Friday Night Lights. As much as I was enjoying the show, I became sad. My fear that the best parts of life get shoved aside for the easy ones kept growing and growing. But in the close of what I believe was the 7th or 8th episode of that initial season, there's this moment. After a brutal and physical fight with his brother that seems to threaten the very integrity of their relationship, one of the main characters gets cold-cocked by his best friend, and so he returns home, not for solace but because he has nowhere else to go. As he navigates around the detritus that was a product of his earlier confrontation randomly strewn about the floor, he comes upon his brother in the kitchen, making a grilled cheese sandwich and reaching into the fridge for the last beer in the house. His brother hands him a bag of frozen peas for his blackened eye, slices the sandwich in two and cracks open the beer. He sits down next to him and sets one half of the sandwich in front of him, cracking the beer and setting it in between the two of them.

The duration of this scene can't be much more than two minutes, but in that short time their relationship is defined to the viewer. And though I realize it's a TV show, and the moment shared between these two characters is fictitious, it was the very kind of moment I was lamenting in real life. It was one of those little moments that mean so much even though they may seem so small. And as the shot began to slowly fade to black on the the two backs turned towards the camera as they shared a grilled cheese and a beer, the last song on the Iron and Wine/Calexico collaboration In the Reins started playing.

"Give this stone to my brother, because we found it playing in the barnyard many years ago. Give this bone to my father. He'll remember hunting in the hills when I was ten years old. Give this string to my mother. It pulled the baby teeth she keeps inside the drawer. Give this ring to my lover. I was scared and stupid not to ask for her hand long before."

"Dead Man's Will" is really about trying to make amends, but the lyrics tell a second story too. In this song, Sam Beam, the man who plays under the sobriquet of Iron and Wine, writes about bequeathing nothing of serious monetary value, but trinkets collected over the years not from those obvious milestones, but from those tiny moments that have ultimately defined the narrator's relationships with the people he loves the most, and though this is an exceptionally beautiful song, the sentiment is not an exception to the music of Iron and Wine.

Sam Beam seems to trade almost exclusively in the small moments. In countless songs like "Someday the Waves", "Promising Light", "Each Coming Night", "Upward Over the Mountain", "Radio War", "Passing Afternoon", and even in "Walking Far from Home" from his latest and most eclectic (and least "Iron and Winey") record Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam as Iron and Wine is concerned with moments, not milestones.

"16, Maybe Less", another song from In the Reins, is written from the perspective of a man now in his 50's, with a wife and a son and grandchildren, all of whom he loves, yet still, he can't help but turn back to a single hour he spent with a girl when he was in his teens ("We were 16, maybe less, maybe a little more."). He's not lamenting the life that could have been or regretting the life that is, he's just fondly remembering a fleeting experience that turned out to mean more than he could have ever imagined. In "The Trapeze Swinger", he sings about a string of seemingly innocuous moments that in actuality taught him what love meant. In "Flightless Bird, American Mouth", he talks about the epiphany of love, and how a single moment, a single look, can change the very fiber of your being forever, even if you're too dense to realize it.

In the pantheon of lyricists alone, Sam Beam is a man of notable distinction, and frankly, that should be enough, but the fact that his delivery of those words is so brilliant, his very southern, very down to earth voice that's capable of reaching ethereal heights is nothing short of excruciating in the best and most beautiful sense, lends his words an honesty and validity that most could only dream of. And the melodies and music he writes to accompany those words, whether deceptively simplistic or overtly complex, is shockingly poignant and striking in it's purity and sincerity. All three of these things work in conjunction with each other, producing not simply a song but an experience.

His melodies are soaring and haunting. They're soaked in sadness and hope, and always reflect the tone of the story he's telling, and the music does the same. The bass-line that opens up the aforementioned "16, Maybe Less" just oozes the tenderness and longing of that lost love. The melody in the chorus of "Flightless Bird..." is the sound of a heart breaking because it's just too full with love. The slide-guitar on "Promising Light" sounds almost lazy at first, but upon further listens, you hear it's not apathy but the malaise of a heart torn to shreds by stupidity and bravado and the realization that through equal parts of fear and ego, you just may have destroyed the thing you should have held most sacred.

Sam Beam takes those small but almost certainly universal moments and has turned them into a soundtrack for our lives. He somehow manages to consistently and accurately depict experiences from all of our lives that we may not talk about but will never forget, and he does this all so unassumingly and with such ease that makes him seem less like a musician and more like a historian of real life. Iron and Wine may not be my favorite, but I'm definitely glad Sam Beam's out there and continues to do what he does so beautifully.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Mid-Westerners and Jeff Tweedy (Who is, Coincedentally a Mid-Westerner) aren't Dumb

It only lasts 30 seconds, that's it. Just 30 seconds, a mere half a minute, but as insignificant a passage of time 30 seconds is, one half of one minute is all it takes to make a pretty damn good song into one of the most essential and definitive moments in Rock N' Roll from over the last 20 or 30 years. It happens at about the 2 and a half minute mark on the seventh song on Wilco's second record. For a little more than 2 minutes, "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" on 1996's Being There starts out as a good song, maybe even a great song, but once that guitar solo starts, it's propelled into amazing, epic, classic.

That solo's absolutely blistering: a bit bluesy, a bit dirty, a lot catchy, best heard when you're volume knob's been turned far enough into the black to push your speakers to their maximum wattage capacity, and quintessential Wilco. It's only 30 seconds long, but it's not fleeting or ephemeral. It stays with you long after the solo and the song ends. But that's Wilco.

They're a creative band who approaches every record with a fresh perspective. No two Wilco albums sound alike, but all of them sound like Wilco. They are consistently creative and artistically provocative. But what makes Wilco special are Jeff Tweedy's songs. Jeff Tweedy writes songs that are interesting and that musically, lyrically, melodically push the boundaries of perception of what popular Rock music should and could be, but are still always rooted in familiar, middle-American ideologies. They're thoughtful and thought-provoking but there's something about them that's unmistakably Mid-Western. They're cerebral and salt-of-the-earth. They're intellectual and Blue-Collar. And as simple as that sounds, it's never really been done before, or at least not before 1995, when Wilco released their first record.

Certainly, there have been "man-of-the-people", "working-class" artists before. Springsteen alone fills that void in both quality and quantity of work. But for as intelligent as Springsteen is, he's always been a man after the hearts of the everyman with little regard for the minds, not that there's anything wrong with that. But even though Jeff Tweedy doesn't avoid moving us emotionally, Wilco's music is about feeding the common man mentally. And this shouldn't be all that exceptional, but it is, because Mid-Western ideals and the prevailing image of the middle-American man has typically been humble, hard-working, God-fearing, a little weather-worn, with callused hands and good intentions, responsible, and respectable, but not intellectual. Maybe I'm wrong, but the impression I get of the world's impression of Mid-Westerners is that, unless you migrate to one of the coasts once you're old enough to make your own decisions, you're just a kind, polite, fat, white-bread rube. But Mid-Westerners are smart. We care about more than just red meat, football, and John Grisham novels (although red meat and football...come on, right?).

But it's possible to work on an assembly-line and appreciate Akira Kurosawa films. Farmers can read Kafka and Coal-Miners can admire Rothko. And even if most people don't understand this, Jeff Tweedy does. Jeff Tweedy realizes that middle-America and mid to low level intelligence are not mutually exclusive, because Wilco isn't just a band who started out in the Mid-West, they're a band that is Mid-Western. Tweedy hasn't left, he's still lounging in the Prairie State, being smart and Mid-Western, and that's awesome, because he's given me and anyone like me a voice. He's proved you don't have to be from Boston to be a janitor who can do calculus, and I'm thankful for that. Don't get me wrong, Wilco would still be one of the most interesting and best bands in contemporary music if Tweedy moved to L.A. or Brooklyn, but the fact that he's firmly rooted in Illinois and has no intention of leaving Chicago makes Wilco a band that's a little more relatable and accessible to me, an amazing band that's a little bit better, even if they are already one of the best.