Chris Cornell taught me something about sex.

May 18, 2017

I’m not sure what compels me to write when my favorite musicians die. I think it began when Miles Davis died in 1991 and I put on In a Silent Way wrote an ode. When Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, a local weekly in Atlanta asked me to write a poem in tribute. I had already written it. In this blog I have marked the sociological significance of the passings of David Bowie and Chuck Berry. But waking up this morning to the news that Chris Cornell had hung himself was particularly rough.

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Soundgarden is/was in the middle of a tour and, this morning their singer was found dead in his Detroit hotel room. Chris was may age. I might be biased, but I tend to think people born in 1964 are special. It was such an epic year (The Beatles, Dylan, MLK, my birth). This spring, Soundgarden was a booked for a big reunion tour bringing much needed rock to the kids, or at least their parents. He seemed to be back on top.

Others will write about his life or the “Seattle sound.” I was cold on the grunge thing at first because we were trying to carve out our own musical identity in Atlanta at the time and didn’t need the competiton. I was invited to contribute some spoken word to a local compilation in 1991 and I wrote a rant against Seattle that contained the line, “Riding on Tad’s log, lame as Temple of the Dog.” About five minutes later, I was all about Seattle. Turns out I smelled like teen spirit, too.

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Others will also write about suicide. I’ve written about my own past with the issue here in this blog and how it unfolded in my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart. The follow up, The Dream Police, ends in a grand climax with the Soundgarden song, “Black Hole Sun” playing. I couldn’t think of a better song to accompany the end of the world, so it’s there as a musical epitaph.

I wanted to write a sex, or more specifically, how one night in Atlanta with Soundgarden pried open my brain about the fluidity of sexuality.

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It was March, 1989 and Soundgarden was touring in support of their first album, Ultramega OK.  Neighbors in my North High Ridge apartment (the fabled Treehouse) were probably sick of me blasting it (and extra notch up on “Smokestack Lightning”), but the punk era was over and I was growing my hair long. It was time for bass guitars to rattle the building. Aspersions of the Seattle hype aside, I loved their monster sound that was an alternative to the hair metal that was ruling MTV at the time. This was our music, not theirs. For those of us that grew up on Kiss and The Ramones.

In those days, I went out to see bands play almost every night. So when Soungarden had a gig at the Cotton Club on Peachtree Street of course I would be there. And when they opened with the song, “Gun,” and Kim Thayil’s exploding guitar riff, it was on. I was 25-years-old and pressed against the front of the stage, because that’s the only place to be when a band is splitting the universe open. They were inches away from us and it was one throbbing sea of sweat and hair.

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Chris Cornell was shirtless, screaming like a banshee, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders as he leaned back in his Jesus Christ pose. (I think you might guess where this is going.) The music sounded great but I was just captured by him and his charisma. Like the most iconic of iconic rock stars. Like if Ozzy Osbourne looked like Calvin Klein model instead of a puppy dog who had been hit in the head with a ball peon hammer. He was… beautiful.

Let me back up a space and say, at this point, at age 25, I was hyper-hetero. From the first Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall to my questionable antics on the road with the band I was working with, it was never not about being in a “girl-crazy” frenzy. Never even a crack. Sure, Tom Cruise was “good looking,” but I wouldn’t say it without the quotes. I would joke about homoerotic elements of skinhead and fraternity culture and even the mosh pit, and was still working out my own homophobic training. Gay was fine. I loved my gay friends and music idols. It just never was about me.

Chris Cornell cracked that. The memory is as clear as day. I thought, “I’m straight but I think I might make an exception for this guy.” It was the strangest feeling in the middle of a blasting rock show. What was my sexuality? Is he the only guy on the planet I would make an allowance for? He was just so, perfect. Should I try to meet him?

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I didn’t go backstage. Or write him love letters. I kinda forgot about it (at least until the next time I saw Soundgarden play). But I began to question the idea that anybody is exclusively anything as far as sex goes. Around that time I began teaching undergraduate sociology at Emory University and would lecture on the Kinsey Scale. In 1948, the famed sex researcher published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His findings identified that only about the 10% of the male population was either exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. The other 80% are somewhere in the middle (or asexual). I would joke to my students, “If you haven’t at least one gay thought, you will!” And then I’d make some crack about the repressed sexuality of “brothers” in the “Greek” system. Holla!

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During my tenure at Portland State University, I became immersed in Queer Theory. Queer Theory seeks to break down these arbitrary binaries we place ourselves in. Gender is fluid. How butch are you today? (After blasting Soundgarden all morning, I feel pretty macho, except the moments when I start to sob.) Sexual orientation is also fluid. A lot of dudes like to play this game. – If there’s one guy you HAD to have sex with, who would it be? It’s permission to flirt with Kinsey’s scale. In my PSU classes, I began to utilize Gender Gumby. Gender Gumby is an exercise that allows a person to plot where, in that moment, they fit on a scale of assigned sex (opening the discussion for people who are born inter-sexed), gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual orientation. The beauty of the exercise is that, where you map your gender today may be completely different tomorrow. I would map mine for the students. On sexual orientation, I would make mark pretty close to the “Attracted to females” end of the spectrum, but not at the very end of it. Because of Chris Cornell.

I’m so sad about his passing. I also loved those Audioslave records, and, after some time, came to appreciate the Temple of the Dog album. I saw him many times over the years. Soundgarden played the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The city fenced off an area downtown and forced people to pay to get in. I watched the show, precariously perched on a newspaper box so I could see over a fence. Soundgarden was onstage blasting their wall of sound into the city and Chris saw me straining to see the band. He said something to someone, who came over and let me in so I could watch from inside, safe and fully rocking.  We shared this generation together.

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Gender and sex are complex things, far from black and white. And sexuality is like magma looking for a way to the surface. Horrible things happen when you try to suppress it. (Google “Afghanistan” or “Mississippi.”) It’s not surprising that people are fearful of all that hot lava. Even the most “100% certain” person can be surprised by their own sexuality and where it might take them. I got a lesson about that in 1989 thanks to a killer Soundgarden show and got to let go of that certainty. Thanks, Chris. You were never not really hot. Lava hot.

Father Randy’s Top 20 LPs for 2016: Back to Vinyl

December 27, 2016

Near the end of my tenure at Portland State University, the provost instituted her “challenge,” called reTHINK PSU, designed to encourage the growth of the use of technology to expand the university . She invited a speaker to get the faculty onboard the move to online education. He repeated the Nathan Harden line, that in fifty years half the brick and mortar colleges and universities in the country would be history, replaced by websites (probably run by some kid in India). The message was get on the train or get left at the station. He tried to make the point by claiming that CD technology had replaced vinyl records, so get ready for college professors to go the way of the Foghat album.

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Ironically I was listening to this talk sitting in my office in Cramer Hall as it streamed on the university server. If I had been in the room, I would have jumped up to say that CDs sales were tanking, but vinyl was making a massive comeback, growing even faster than downloads and streaming music. Fortune magazine reported in April that vinyl album sales were at a 28-year high. Turns our kids want their Taylor Swift on wax (and their teachers in the goddamn classroom). Sometimes the old way is the best.

I say this because I really fell off my hipness high horse this year. The arrival of the baby in 2014 got me out of the cavalcade of live shows and endless hours in record stores. In 2016, between a rampaging toddler, the effort to return to work, busting Trump’s tiny balls, and finishing my new novel, The Dream Police, I just abdicated my staples for side-lined music aficionadodom. My favorite podcasts,  All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, and Alt Latino, went un-downloaded. Our local weeklies, Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, remained in their boxes on NE Alberta Street. An occasional breeze or hip kid would blow in to let me know what was up, but I missed so much. Did you know that Radiohead put out an awesome album in 2016? Of course you did.

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Where I kept things real was on the vinyl front. A large chunk of the new releases I bought this year were on vinyl (including a bootleg vinyl release of Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to the brilliant 2012 release, Orange). I couldn’t stop buying vinyl, at Amoeba Music in LA and Peaches in New Orleans, and a dozen record stores in Portland. Old, new, kids’ records, 45’s, and even Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass from the 50 cent bin at Everyday Music. Solange just sounded better on vinyl and Bowie had to be experienced deep in the ruts. The ghost is the grooves, not the machine.

Andrea and I took our love of LPs into the sharing economy. Our basement just became an AirBNB called the Alberta Vinyl Den. Each guest lets me know his or her music tastes when they make a booking and I stock the room with a dozen albums from my massive collection. So guests get to feel like they are staying in the record store of their dreams, complete with a turntable and a refrigerator full of beer.

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2016 was a still a great year for music. With the blessing of babysitters we did manage to see some great shows, including some true classics; Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Electric Light Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (a double bucket list item). We saw some good world music, like Bomba Estereo and Bombino. We saw a wildly drunken gig by Greasy Alice in New Orleans and caught a show by old friend Chris Robinson that took us down a rabbit hole. I just caught Georgia underground pioneers Pylon at Mississippi Studios. (Last time I saw them was at the Agora Ballroom in 1983.) Earlier in the year we caught a barely attended show there by Sir Paul’s son, James McCartney and got to chat after the gig. Other than the Cuban band we saw every Sunday during our summer on Isla Mujeres, I think my favorite show of 2016 was Father John Misty at Edgefield in the pouring rain surrounded by a thousand other dudes with beards. It was perfectly Portland.

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So here is my Top 20 favorite albums of 2016, recognizing that I’m surely missing a ton I will discover in 2017 or 2027. (Nick Cave’s new one? Someone said it was killer.) I really think we’ll be talking about the Beyoncé and Solange albums 50 years from now.  A serious thanks to the gang at Music Millennium for pointing me in the right direction on some good stuff.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar
  2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
  3. Y La Bamba – Ojos del Sol
  4. Solange – A Seat at the Table
  5. Drive-By-Truckers – American Band
  6. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
  7. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
  8. Frank Ocean – blond
  9. Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
  10. Bombino – Azel
  11. Patti Smith – Horses: Live at Electric Ladyland Studios
  12. The Beatles – Live at Hollywood Bowl
  13. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  14. Carla Morrison – Amor Supremo
  15. The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen…
  16. A Tribe Called Quest  – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  17. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  18. Chris Robley – The Great Make Believe
  19. Ages and Ages – Something to Ruin
  20. Cheap Trick – Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

Here’s to more music on vinyl in 2017. And more professors in classrooms.

Dad’s Favorite Discs 2015

December 28, 2015

SaturnspatternDespite the fact, now that The Beatles are streaming on Spotify, there is a whole new generation of kids that will never listen to Rubber Soul straight through, I’m still a firm believer in the album format. Artists like Kendrick Lamar can have a complete musical vision that can’t be represented by one track. Some, like Bjork, will actually wrap it in some wonderful album artwork. And some will release a set of songs that you just can’t stop playing. For me that was the 9 track album a hero of mine from my teenage days, Paul Weller. Andrea and I both played the hell out of it and it will still be on heavy rotation in the new year.

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It was hard to hang out in record stores this year with a wild monkey living in our casa. I even fell behind on my three favorite music podcasts (Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered, and Alt Latino). Most of the year was spent watching Cozy transform from a baby into a toddler, and on planes and writing my ass off. But there was still plenty of music in the house and the one thing we learned in 2015 is that Cozy Valentina loves to dance, especially to hip hop and Latin music. And she likes record stores, too.

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The six weeks we spent in Mexico helped to infuse her with her native rhythms. Our weekly “Sunday Funday” fix of Cuban music on the beach and the endless playing of Osmani Garcia and Pitbull’s single, “Taxi,” had her up on her feet and shaking her diaper. The other day I was playing some dreary Bob Dylan and she figured out how to get the CD out of the stereo and replace it with a Bomba Estero disc. She hit play, climbed on the table and danced. She’s mama’s girl.

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There was a great theme of classic jazz this year. The amazing DJs on KMHD got me through the ups and downs of 2015. They provided much of the soundtrack while I worked on my new novel, The Dream Police. The year culminated with a show at the Village Vanguard in New York City a few weeks ago. The Christian McBride Trio provided an evening of bliss in the world’s most historic jazz cellar.

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We actually did manage to get out and see some shows this year thanks to some much appreciated babysitting. We went to see Patti Smith, Algiers, Madonna, Genders, Emily Kinney, La Santa Cecilia and Paul Weller. Andrea made it to shows by Sleater-Kinney and Elle King. And Cozy went to her first two concerts with us this year, U2 in Vancouver and then The Waterboys in Portland.

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As I predicted, I bought a lot less music in 2015 (and a lot more diapers). But here are 20 releases from 2015 I really enjoyed. I’ve been a Paul Weller fan since he was in The Jam in the late 1970s and I think his latest is one of the best things he’s ever done. Seeing him play these songs at the Wonder Ballroom in October was beyond thrilling. And I have to say how excited I was about a new ELO album. It may really just be a Jeff Lynne album but it captures what was great about the group in the seventies; the music that inspired my last book.

  1. Paul Weller – Saturns Patterns
  2. Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe
  3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Algiers – Algiers
  5. The Waterboys – Modern Blues
  6. Bomba Estereo – Amanecer
  7. Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love
  8. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  9. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
  10. D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
  11. Madonna – Rebel Heart
  12. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  13. Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Best of the Cutting Edge
  14. Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves
  15. Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart
  16. Bjork – Vulnicura
  17. Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure
  18. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
  19. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  20. Pete Townshend – Truancy

You can stream tracks here on my Spotify 2015 Top 20 playlist.

Honorable mention: Waxahatchee – Ivy Trip, Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night, The Flaming Lips – With a Little Help From My Fwends, Ringo Starr – Postcards From Paradise, Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect, Various Artists – PDX Pop Now 2015

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I love year-end lists. They typically serve as shopping lists (or at least streaming). SO much music to catch up on. I bought a Kedrick Lamar track over the summer but the album topped so many year-end lists, I finally purchased the whole thing and now I get it (but it loses points for all the “bitch” talk). It will be on heavy rotation in 2016. But it’s going to have to compete with the new David Bowie album out on January 8. And I know I need to get into Grimes and give that Sujan Stevens album another try. But what all about the great stuff that I’ll be ranking a year from now? When am I going to listen to that?

I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m sure when I get the latest albums by Alabama Shakes, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dwight Yoakum, and Young Fathers I’ll wish I had listened to them in 2015. Cozy just wants more salsa and hip hop. I’m setting aside some album time when Cozy goes off the college.

Go back 1 year! Dad’s Favorite Discs 2014

Even Better Than The Real Thing: Cozy’s First Concert

May 19, 2015

First concerts are a big deal. When I taught my Youth Subcultures at Portland State, BP (Before Purge), on the first day I’d read the role and ask students to tell the class their first concert. It typically went two ways. You might have some cool obscure punk band or you might have something completely cheesy (a lot of New Kids on the Blocks). There’s also a subcategory called “Christian Rock Fest.” I used it to start a conversation about generational experiences. My first concert locates me in time and space (Elvis Presley, 1973, Atlanta, Age 9, thank you, Mom and Dad). There are also first concerts that you wanted to go to and ones your parents took you to.

So Cozy will probably have a concert she will claim as hers sometime around 2028. But I wanted to give her a Point A that she could start from and maybe brag about 50 years from now. I think she’s got it. On Friday we took her with us to see U2 in Vancouver, BC. You might know that I have a bit of a history with this band that started when I first saw them play at the Agora Ballroom in 1981. Personal relations aside, a U2 show is always an emotional, exhilarating event. And Andrea had never seen them, so there was no way we were going to miss the northwest stop of the 2015 Innocence and Experience Tour.

The original plan was to dump Cozy with a babysitter and make the 5 hour drive up to Canadia. But overnight babysitters are in short supply and the folks at the Rogers Arena said babies don’t need a ticket. (Canadians are so nice.) Andrea made a reservation at an Airbnb and grabbed the passports and I burned a few Alt Latino podcasts for the ride. So with a good set of baby headphones we strapped the kid to the Prius and fled the country. Thanks to the horrid Seattle traffic, I got a little stressed about making the 7:30 show time and brought the fun-level down a bit, but Cozy was fine the whole way up.

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Gone are the days of getting on U2’s guest list. It’s probably easier these days to get backstage to see the Pope than Bono. So we ended up with tickets in the top row from the evil StubHub. Although, I did bombard U2’s new manager, Guy Oseary, with a bunch of tweets and pictures, including of a letter that Bono wrote me. Top row. But with this stage set up, pretty damn good.

Cozy loves a crowd, so her eyes were open wide as we made our way to the seats. On the way, in the ladies room, some middle-aged “lady” with a wine glass and a Coach purse stopped Andrea and asked, “Why did you bring your baby to this?” (Obviously not a Canadian.) Andrea gave her the Mexican finger. But everybody else was charmed by Cozy, as usual. Then the lights went down and the Ramones came on the P.A.and the band took the stage, playing “The Miracle of Joey Ramone.” Crowd goes wild. Cozy, head phones on and in a pouch on my chest, seemed a little freaked out. What’s this craziness? she cried out.

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By the second song, “Vertigo,” there was a big smile on her face. She loved the colors and vibrations. The staging was massive with a huge screen the band could climb inside of. She was transfixed. The fourth song was “I Will Follow,” from their first album and sounded as explosive as it did when I saw them in 1981. I looked down and Cozy was asleep. She’d wake up every few songs, including for a powerful version of “One” that ended the night. She seemed to love it. She won’t remember any of it, but I will tell her how much she dug it.

Of course her parents were blown away. Andrea loved Bono’s tender tribute to his mother, “Iris,” and I was happy to see them play “When Loves Come to Town” for the recently departed B.B. King. The band was tight and grand, tackling issues like AIDS drugs and the unpunished murders of the Irish citizens from the 1972 bombings and then keeping it light by pulling a fan on stage or Bono making jokes about The Edge falling off that stage.

There are better reviews of the show. It’s must have been the 25th time I’ve seen the band play live. Maybe 35th. I’ve never missed a tour, even when they opened up for the J.Geils Band on the 1982 October tour. But this one was special. I think Bono would have loved Cozy’s wide eyes at the whole thing.

One day you’ll look back

And when you see

Where you were held

By this love

– U2, “Mysterious Ways.”

I wanted to just let go of everything throughout the concert. I did during the rare performance of “Bad,” a song I saw take shape in the studio in Dublin in 1984. But I just kept looking at Cozy and imagining her 20 years from now playing the first concert game.

Snotty brat: “Well, my first concert was the Flip Flerps at the Massengil Amphitheater in ’24.”

Cozy: “OK, but my parents took me to see U2 when I was 9 months old.”

Game, set, match.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 12.53.10 AM Cozy sees U2, 15 May, 2015, Vancouver, BC.