Metallica and the Middle School Morning Commute

Listening to music in a moving car is one of life’s primary pleasures. The speakers surround you. You are encapsulated by sound. If the car is moving fast, all the better. You can melt into that sound. The boundaries of your body disappear and you are allowed to become the amalgam of your thoughts, feelings and sensation.

The music you choose is important. It sets the tone for the journey and colors your mood upon arrival. Always important, but perhaps never more important than the middle school morning commute.

For most of my daughter’s young life, I have been DJ, curating her musical experience with chauvinistic care, thoughtfully exposing her to the things she is supposed to love. She heard Beatles and Hendrix and They Might Be Giants with odd bits of classical, jazz and current pop tossed in. She soaks it all in and has taken my playlist as her playlist.

Now she is ten, and I let her assume the awesome responsibility of iPod selection. She dives in and out of her playlist. She grabs random tracks just because she likes the title. When we are out in public, say the grocery store or a restaurant, a song will occasionally reach out from the background and catch her attention. “What is this?” Tap Shazam. “Add this to my playlist.”

My daughter is getting her ears.

Every day for the past three weeks, my ten year old daughter has chosen Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” for the middle school morning commute. Understand my surprise and amusement.

Metallica is an incredible sound. Metallica is art, but I could not realize it when I was ten. When I was in middle school, music was tribal. The music you chose for your own defined you. I found the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I was nerdy and in my head a lot. I liked words and abstraction.

When I was a kid, Metallica belonged to the “hoods”. Those rough and rude, slightly scary smokers with the badass tee-shirts. They lived in their bodies. They weren’t “my people” and thus, Metallica was not for me.

I hope it is different now. I hope the ease with which we shuffle our playlists or stream across Spotify genres reflects the ease with which people of different backgrounds and experience blend their musical personalities. Perhaps music is no longer tribal.

As I grew older, I realized the Metallica listeners actually were my people. We were all people who formed deep, intense emotional connections to whatever sounds helped connect our inside selves to our outside. They just had cooler tee-shirts.

My daughter still dives through my iPod playlists. She still digs Beatles and Hendrix and TMBG. But she is finding her own tastes. She is curious about K Pop and hip hop. She likes video game music. She adores Melanie Martinez, an aesthetic I call “baby doll mope pop”. She is finding it on her own.

And so, “Master of Puppets” every morning for three weeks. I like to think it lifts her morning mood, cuts through the haze like a first cup of strong coffee. I imagine her bursting through the middle school doors with that intense, learning forward energy, feeling like a bad ass as she walks through the lockers, toward her people and her day.

That is the pleasure of music heard in a moving car, a pleasure you carry with you, felt most keenly during the middle school morning commute.

Middle School Band Holiday Concert, a Proud Parent’s Review

Miles Davis. Wynton Marsalis. Louis Armstrong. Great trumpet players, all. You know their work.

Less familiar, perhaps, the sonic stylings of Emersey Benson, 5th grade trumpet player for Robertsville Middle School band. You can be forgiven for not yet knowing the impressive oeuvre of this young talent. She started playing trumpet three months ago and made her triumphant stage debut on Thursday, November 30, 2017.


The evening was a rousing success. Dozens of eager young musicians crowded onto stage, some of them battling their first bout of stage fright. Others seemingly immune to prey of nerves. The palpable expectation of young musicians and parents alike radiated through the auditorium as our musicians warmed up, practicing their embouchure, clarifying their tone, moving together as one unit through a series of controlled aural blasts.

And then, show time. The band director introduced each section, one by one, letting each present a sample of their craft so the audience might better appreciate the contribution each instrument brings to the sonic weave. The trumpets were ascendant.

The 5th grade performance was crowned by two performances of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. The program listed the piece as “Star Search”, but we knew the song’s true title. The first take had trumpets playing medley. The second take had trumpets providing color. Both were solidly recognizable.

As any proud parent, I strained to hear the notes sail from Emersey’s horn but could not pull them apart from the other joyful sounds. That’s pretty much the point. Unless you are playing a solo, it is usually best not to stand out. Emersey’s trumpet melded with the rest, indiscernible, but I knew from her practice at home just days earlier that her playing was solid, steady and bright. All the notes in the right order at more or less the proper time.

It was, for me, an intensely emotional experience. I am learning to play piano but have never played in the company of other musicians. I love to see music played live. The coordination and self-discipline required to bring one instrument into concert with many others is beautiful. Every performance, no matter how small, is a conversation without words. I am always overcome, sometimes moved to tears.

I often feel most human in the company of musicians having their conversation. Each of them connected to one another in a unified band and the band, in turn, connected to the audience, which is now its own thing rather than a collection of people. Live performance welcomes individual people into human company. It is among the most powerful things people can do.

Thursday night’s performance was special. I felt the thing I felt when watching Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins or Wynton Marsalis perform at the Tennessee Theatre. The thing that moved through me Thursday night was the same thing that has moved through any of the Indigo Girls, U2, Tom Petty or Violent Femmes shows I’ve attended.

I can only hope my trumpet playing daughter and these young 5th grade musicians felt it too. I hope they will continue to develop their coordination and self-discipline no matter the level of talent each believes they individually possess.

I hope they recognize what they are doing together is art and that they keep mashing keys and pressing forward to recapture the transcendent experience of music so they might always know what it really is to be human.


Jazz is Life: Remembering Dave Brubeck

Jazz is life: improvised, rhythmic, always leaning forward. There is mad, crazy logic to  jazz, patterns hiding in the stitchery to constantly surprise the attentive ear. Jazz is a sermon without words. Jazz is the gut punch. Jazz is the handshake. Jazz is the casual stroll and the jazz is the feverish race. Jazz is a conversation. Jazz is the leap from the cliff. Jazz is friendship. Jazz is contemplation. Jazz is the bordello, and jazz is the church. Jazz is life.

Jazz found me when I was 26. It spoke the language I was trying to express in my best writing. It was the sound of my inner ambition, the voice of that feeling that moves me inside. Two things happened when I was 26. I heard Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue for the first time and then heard Dave Brubeck’s song Blue Rondo a la Turk. No looking back.

Blue Rondo is a ferocious, playful bundle of nerves, constantly moving. Urgent at times and then slow and swaying. There is so much discipline and control in the quartet yet the song feels completely new and reinvented with every listen.

Dave Brubeck is a great introduction to jazz. Melodic piano. Strong, rhythmic riffs. Tenderness, sincerity, curiosity and lots and lots of playfulness.

I sat front row when Brubeck played at Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre on February 2, 2003. He would have been 82 years old at the time. He tottered out on stage, shuffling toward the piano, looking very much like someone’s great-grandfather lost in confusion. The crowd was silent as Brubeck staggered to the piano and took his bench. Then, a few tentative keys followed by a few random chords. I was worried that I was witnessing what happens in the years after a great career has ended. He sat with eyes closed, like he was lost in some thought that did not include us or the band. And then he leaned forward, on his face a wry, amused smile and then the gorgeous music began to pour from piano. He was screwing with us. Working against our expectation. And he was terrific – strong,  inventive and clear.

As much as I enjoyed watching Brubeck, it was almost more fun watching his bandmates. He kept surprising them with twists and riffs that kept them on their toes. There was no room for laziness. There was nothing routine. They played the Brubeck catalog – old and new, but they played it fun and fresh, like they were making it up for the first time.

Seeing Dave Brubeck in concert confirmed what I knew from hearing his recorded music. Jazz is my kind of music because it is about invention and the urge always and forever to make something completely new.

Dave Brubeck died on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, one day shy of his 92 birthday. His music brings me so much joy. I hope you already know and enjoy his work. If not, give a listen to one of his most important, interesting compositions, “Take Five”:

If you like that, you’ve got to hear “Blue Rondo a la Turk”, the song that started it all for me.

Remembering John Lennon

John Lennon would be 72 today if he were still celebrating birthdays. I was 6 when he died. I don’t have any great story or specific memory about where I was when I heard that he died. I’m not sure I knew. My family isn’t big on talking about death.

I do know that I was already familiar with Lennon’s music by the time I was 6. I don’t carry around many childhood memories, but one of my earliest and most specific memories is driving through Cincinnati with Rocky Raccoon playing on the radio. That and Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.

I would have heard the Beatles more often because my dad listened to them some, but he wasn’t a heavy fan. My lifelong fascination with the Fab Four didn’t officially begin until I was 14. That’s when my friend, Chris Larson, gave me a cassette dub he had made of the White Album. This was my first chance to really obsess over the Beatles and listen to the songs over and over and over again. I listened to White Album maybe a thousand times that year and it changed me. It made me better.

Everything I came to discover about the Beatles, music and art in general started with that cassette tape. The White Album is a weird mix of songs that don’t quite hang together, a quilt of  30 oddly made pieces that are perfectly complete and individual in their own way yet which somehow belong together in a way that can be felt but not explained. The White Album offers some of the best and worst the Beatles had to give. The best of the best came from John: “Dear Prudence”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Yer Blues”, “Helter Skelter”, and “Revolution 1”. All of these songs had heavy mix from the other Beatles, but they each felt like direct gifts from John.

I should also note that the White Album gave me two of my most favorite songs of all time: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”. Both of these are George Harrison tracks and deserve their own post.

So here’s what I love about the Beatles. John, Paul and George were each geniuses in their own right. Each had a latent gift that the world needed. The thing is, the world would have never gotten the gift of that genius without the presence of the other Beatles. John had a brilliant, keen mind, an acerbic wit and and poet’s heart. Those gifts would not have been expressed if he hadn’t met Paul and George at the right time and started playing around. He would have been in jail or a baker or a sailor like his dad.

A hundred unlikely events occurred to allow the Beatles to happen. John Lennon was open to those events. He was ready for them. Before John Lennon made history, history made John Lennon. He always moved toward the unexpected and never stopped inventing himself up to the day he died. I admire that: brave, relentless, restless, a bit of pain in the ass and always ready to become something new. The Beatles never grew stale. They tore themselves apart, but they never grew stale. That was John’s energy that kept them moving forward, always exploring, never resting, never getting comfortable until the machine wore itself out and it was time to do something else.

John was 40 when he died. I’m 38. Hard to fathom how quick and deep his mark went. I am grateful.