Southern Blood

Farewell albums by great artists have turned into a sort of sad, strange genre over the last few years. Warren Zevon was literate and funny and unbearably poignant in The Wind in 2003 and he sort of established the form. His cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door struck me as deeply felt when I first heard it, but maybe I’m oversentimental and he was being ironic: “Open up, open up.” Blackstar was one of David Bowie’s most experimental albums, a bucketlist modern jazz record, another attempt at wrestling with and redefining his legacy that opened up emotionally in its last two songs.

Even compared to other confessional album, these albums are impossible to divorce from their circumstances. You can’t know that someone was dying while making a piece of music without looking for clues about piece of mind, some kind of final statement and reckoning.

Gregg Allman was never one for playing coy, and almost every song on Southern Blood is either about saying goodbye or looking back. The title of “My Only True Friend,” which is the only song he was involved in writing, tells you where he’s at before he sings “I’ve got so much left to give/but I’m running out of time.” The same goes for “Going, Going, Gone” by Bob Dylan, which is just devastating. He takes a layer of humor out of “Willin'” and tops Little Feat’s original. There’s lust and humor elsewhere on the record, and “Blind Bats and Swamp Rats” gets more sober and becomes a Gothic horror movie. I don’t think anybody ever sang “comme ci comme ça” like that before.

I can’t be remotely objective about this, but he doesn’t just let the story of the album do the work. Gregg sounds great, and since the volume comes down, you can hear how tasteful and thoughtful a singer he is. These last performances are some of his best ever. That he recorded them after he had already far outlived the time he expected when he was told he had terminal cancer – and retired the Allman Brothers Band with a top-flight performance – is something like a minor miracle.

But if this album is a last word and testament, the last words have to be noted: he finishes by covering “Song for Adam” by Jackson Browne, and in the last verse he comes to the words “I guess that he stopped singing/In the middle of his song…” and just stops. He’s overcome and his voice cracks. There’s another chorus, but I almost wish they had just stopped there, letting the rest be silence with Gregg enacting that lyric. It’s a remarkable end to a record that’s both a goodbye and a gift.

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Today and every day

I’m following what’s happening in Charlottesville with sadness, horror, and that very 2017 type of shock that’s not shock at all, just a bone deep, desperate wish that we were living in some world other than the one we know we’re in. Today is also World Elephant Day, and I wanted to mark that as Your Friend Who’s Really Into Elephants TM. It doesn’t feel possible to do justice to both because it’s so hard to do justice to either. Here’s the best I can do:

I have the deepest admiration for the people who are fighting to make this world the place it should be for everybody here, all human beings and for all animals. For the Derays of the world. For the Leks, whether they know each other or not. Because there are so many who need saving, and so many who deserved saving and didn’t get it. Who my heart broke for, and broke again, and will again, until they day it doesn’t have to.

For the last five years I’ve been working on a book about humans who grow stronger by standing up for animals and by standing up for other humans. How those two causes support each other because there isn’t any separation between them. At their best, they are works of desperate compassion borne of the knowledge that there is so much in this world that’s worth saving, that’s worth dying for if need be. It’s as simple and as enormous as that. We can, I think, save each other. I don’t know if we will. I know we have to try because so many lives depend on us. There are so many heroes out there and I stand with all of you.

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Fifty years ago today the Supreme Court said, for the first time, that my wife Amber and I, and millions of families like us, have the right to live where we choose and travel where we like. Before that, generations of interracial couples faced absurd, impossible decisions: if we went to certain states to visit a sick relative, or to take a job and support our families, or went on vacation without taking precautions, or even made a wrong turn and ran into trouble on the road, our marriages were null and void and we could be arrested. These laws came into being before the American Revolution and they outlasted slavery, the Great Migration, and “separate but equal.”

Pride in New York falls at the end of June, and two years ago the scene was especially joyous: two days earlier the Supreme Court had torn through a decade-old state by state patchwork of pro- and anti-gay laws by ruling that same-sex couples had the right to marry no matter where the lived. Amber and I took in the parade, our own wedding just three months away. In the middle of the floats and the costumes and the noise, she turned to me, in tears, and asked “Can you imagine if we couldn’t get married?”

“I can’t,” I said.

It wasn’t true: I didn’t want to imagine it. I grabbed my phone and checked the history of interracial marriage laws, and was relieved, irrationally, when I saw New York had never legally banned unions like ours.

I’m fortunate enough to be a straight white man in America, and I’d never considered what it would be like for the public and legislatures and courts to debate my marriage and do what they wanted with it, knowing nobody would ever do the same to them. I hadn’t imagined the powerlessness, the frustration, and the painful decisions that must have followed.

Mildred and Richard Loving were forced to leave their home in Virginia in 1959 after the police tried, and failed, to catch them having sex in their own bedroom. Mildred was black and Native American and Richard was white. Their marriage was a crime, and sex would have been a second crime. They plead guilty to interracial marriage and moved to Washington DC, where they had been married the year before. If police found them in Virginia again, they each faced a year in prison.

Five years later, their conviction led to an ACLU lawsuit. They were not the first couple to challenge laws like these: states spent generations finding ways to ban marriages like theirs, like ours, more or less for the crime of offending whiteness and the natural order of things. For almost a century, judges around the country agreed that couples like the Lovings, and like us, had no right to marry. Virginia’s Supreme Court maintained that because they were different races, Richard and Mildred had no right to marry, and because they received the same legal punishment, their rights were not violated.

Over time a few courts had come to disagree. On this date in 1967, Loving v. Virginia struck down state bans on interracial marriage. If you’re reading this and Loving was not within your lifetime, it was likely within the lifetime of your parents.

Amber’s question showed me that our right to get married was that tenuous, and it was so frightening that I refused to consider it. But the only real thing that separates our family from the families that endured that discrimination is time.

The families these governments attacked were no different than we are, and they were entitled to the same chance at happiness. American racism is hard enough to deal with in 2017. I struggle to imagine what it was like when people turned their prejudices against families like ours into laws, and governments said aloud that people of different races couldn’t marry.

Here’s to Mildred and Richard, to Frederick and Helen, to George and Josephine, to Ann and Barack. Thank you for fighting for us so I didn’t have to. And here’s to the couples who could have been great love stories if a kinder and more sensible world had given them a chance. I am getting what you deserved, and I did not earn that advantage. I can only say I will not waste it, and I will try to make it better for the families that come next.

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Dedicated to a Brother

Two weeks ago I started writing a blog post about Col. Bruce Hampton and didn’t finish it before I went away on vacation. When I got home I put it aside to write a tribute to Chris Cornell, and before I hit publish I heard about Gregg Allman. This is what being a music fan feels like in 2016-17. There’s cause for reflection and appreciation, but the losses are hard. I can see some of my favorite musicians are struggling with the deaths of some of family members and their biggest inspirations.

I have just one Allman Brothers concert t-shirt left, I think: the “2001: A Beacon Odyssey” shirt and I wore it the night my father and I met Gregg. We’d been going to shows together for a few years, and back then the idea of a fan from the old days seeing the band with his son seemed a little unusual. iTunes and streaming hadn’t yet erased the idea of a musical generation gap. Our friend Lana, who helped run the band’s website, talked us up to Gregg and we were invited to meet him. My father must have wanted to meet Gregg for 30 years but he let me do most of the talking, which was a tremendous gift. I said something like “I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve given us over the years, with the music and everything.” It was March 24, 2001.

I felt then that I was completing a circle that opened when my dad saw Duane Allman and Butch Trucks at a hotel in Miami – before there was an Allman Brothers Band – and at the Fillmore East in 1971, when they were bringing American music to a new peak that combined electric rock and blues and jazz and country, all fused with fearless, burning improvisation and devotion. But we were just getting started.

By 2001 my little brother Tyler had seen the Allmans and quickly became a fanatic and an evangelist. He was an even bigger fan by 2006, the year he was diagnosed with cancer at age 14. He endured surgeries, spinal fluid leaks and a spinal tap, meningitis, physical therapy, relearned how to eat, and had radiation treatment. That was the first half year. And after about a year of good health he had a recurrence.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation offered Tyler almost anything he could’ve wanted. World travel? Celebrity meetings? No. Soon it would be March, the month the Allman Brothers set up residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Make-A-Wish got him tickets to 11 shows and he invited camp friends, school friends, family from out of town, and of course, me, our brother Jonah, and our parents. It was the band’s 40th anniversary and perhaps their final musical peak.

After one show we went out for dinner with guitarist Derek Trucks and bassist Oteil Burbridge. I got to watch the musicians I admired the most, men I’d interviewed and spent thousands of hours listening to, joking around with my parents. It was March 24, 2009.

The run continued and we hardly cared about the shows anymore. Tyler was running around backstage, taking photos with Gregg and hanging with Oteil and Derek. Oteil played Tyler’s bass for two songs during a show. He told piano player Chuck Leavell, after a solo, “that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard.” He spent that set dancing with a woman and at intermission he brought her to our seats in the orchestra.

“This is Galadrielle,” he said. Duane Allman’s daughter. She was something like a legend, known in fan circles but never seen. If he’d brought back a unicorn I’d have been much less surprised. The most impossible things were happening.

Reality crashed back in: the shows ended and immediately  Tyler returned to Boston for more radiation. That winter a friend gave him a drum kit. After all those years following the Allmans, I began making music with my brother. We formed a power trio with our dad.

Tyler’s cancer returned again the next year, the day after his 18th birthday, at summer camp. His condition deteriorated quickly and he called my parents to take him home. They were watching when he sat in with the camp band at one of their heavily-attended Saturday shows. His voice by then was scratchy and almost inaudible, but he wanted to sing anyway. They played Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post,” and even if they couldn’t hear him, his friends knew what it meant when he sang “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying.”

My brother died three months later, on October 29. It was the anniversary of Duane Allman’s death, and if it had to be any day, it made sense that it would be that one. The band’s music had carried us through the happiest times and the saddest, and somehow I was more bound up with it than ever because I now had the worst thing in common with Gregg: we’d lost a brother. I wanted to ask him how he got through it, but I’d heard him enough to understand it.

It took a few years before my dad was emotionally ready to see the band again, but I was back right away. Oteil played Tyler’s bass again on opening night. They covered one of Tyler’s favorite songs: “Blind Willie McTell” by Bob Dylan.

When the Allmans retired in 2014 I was saddened, but I was ready for the end when it came. Even before drummer Butch Trucks died this January I understood that something that had been in my life a long time was gone. I’d seen more than 70 shows in 17 years and couldn’t ask for more.

With Gregg gone, too, I’m even more amazed at how far the band and its journey took my family. The Allman Brothers were an epic story of tragedy and survival through art, and their greatness, and Gregg’s, was strong enough that it included other family’s stories of survival, too. Mine was only one, and we will always have what he gave us through his music.

Hit a lick for peace. Eat a peach for peace.

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That Face

I spent this afternoon walking through the “Art on Paper” exhibition at Pier 36. I experienced a lot of beautiful art, but the most incredible thing I saw was this face. For six months or so I’ve been looking all around for a face that matches a character I’ve been writing, and I knew all at once that this was her. She doesn’t look exactly like I thought she would, but in her face I see an openness, vulnerability, faith… it was like meeting an old friend. When I saw the photo I almost burst into tears. My own projection aside, this is beautiful work by Kris Graves. It’s part of his Testament series, a sequence of gorgeous, very moving photos of black people. I’m so glad I saw this today. It’s going to stay with me for a very long time.

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Stephen Colbert on grief

In this GQ article Stephen Colbert is extremely articulate on the complicated role grief plays in the lives of the bereaved. I recognize the truth he’s arrived at here. It’s painful and it takes you years to earn it, and some time ago I earned it myself.

Even before Tyler died I recognized that I wouldn’t want to give up what I had learned about life over the course of his illness, and almost five years after he died – next year it’ll be a decade since his diagnosis – I still feel that way. It hurts and the struggle and eventual loss shaped who I am, but I am glad for the knowledge I’ve gained. And I’m glad I know I’m tested and that if four years of on and off hell and then years of grief didn’t break me, nothing else will.

It’s that much more wonderful to read Stephen’s thoughts because I wouldn’t have ever put it the way he does, but I know what he means.

I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time and I’m that much more of a fan now.

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June and July 2015 playlists

There’s so much to catch up on! We moved. We’ve spent month settling into our new place and it’s starting to look the way we want it to. The wedding is getting close and we’re very excited about how it’s going to go – although we still have planning to do.

I’ll try to bring this blog up to speed soon. In the meantime here are modified versions of my June and July playlists. For some reason Spotify ditched its very useful “import playlists feature.” I assume this was some kind of corporate-driven decision intended to force listeners to use Spotify more often, but it’s just an inconvenience and I don’t work that way, so I canceled my Spotify account. So I’m trying YouTube instead. I’d love to find a better permanent replacement.

For the June playlist I included some movie themes like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and a song from “Shaft” and music from both Latin artists (Los Lobos) and Latin-influenced music (classical guitars appear on several cuts). Calexico sit right in between: they’re Mexican-influenced and most of their songs sound like they came from a soundtrack. Check out the trumpets midway through “Minas de Cobre (For Better Metal):” the song becomes the life-and-death climax to the greatest movie you never saw. And Sketches of Spain is Sketches of Spain.

The July mix was shaped by a dream where I spoke to St. Vincent. It was intense! So her song “Prince Johnny” makes its second appearance on a 2015 mix, and that shaped everything else. I think this mix is on the cool and serious side. My July playlists tend to go that way for some reason. This one went so far in that direction that I made some last-minute changes to make it a little more fun. Enjoy!


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May 2015 playlist

I didn’t realize I’d been this busy or un-bloggy. But no matter what happens, I make time for my monthly mixes. This one is informed by a cool “Fresh Meat” comp I picked up in April. The Dan Deacon song is outside of my comfort zone and I found it really moving. And I’m very happy with the last five songs here. I spent a lot of time getting them right, and any time you can follow Bob Dylan with Funkadelic, you have to do it.

2015 05May Mix

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April 2015 playlist

The April playlist! How did I find time to make it? Grooves a yard thick on this one – great jams from some legendary figures in jazz, soul and funk. To me this sounds like spring finally breaking through the winter.

2015 04April Mix

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March 2015 playlist

2015 03March Mix

Something funny happened in 2015: I’ve made three straight playlists that include a David Bowie track. The only other time he popped up in one of my mixes was July 2012. But I find Mick Ronson’s guitar on “Joe the Lion” very exciting and I picked a series of other songs with similarly jagged guitar lines. For a while I also tried to make a “work” theme happen with the lyrics, but I backed away from that. The only other song that fits that theme is “A Day in the Life.” The final mix features some big riffs (“Joe the Lion” > “I Don’t Live Today” > “Hit It and Quit It”), some dreaminess (“All I Need,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and jazziness (“Sure Shot” > “St. James Infirmary,” a combo I’m enamored of), with “Naima” straddling those last two lines.

Check out the Booker T. song at the end. It’s from the MGs’ “Abbey Road” tribute album “McLemore Avenue,” which I somehow didn’t know about until Wil Wheaton Tweeted about it recently. It’s an instrumental cover/reimagining of the Beatles album with some substantial changes. It’s great, greasy stuff. The last minute of “You Never Give Me Your Money” is my favorite part of the album and its why I included the song here. The band simplifies the main Abbey Road medley riff and turns it into something peppier and relentlessly uplifting. It’s a joy to hear music like that. So give it a spin!

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