Friday, June 25, 2010

I Come From the Land Down Under Part 1

I had been accepted as an exchange student at Macquarie University in Sydney. I had never left the safety of the North American Continent. Given the unbelievable opportunity to travel to a land that seemed so adventurous, I readied myself for the unknown. Australia, hmmm, vegemite, kangaroos, koalas ... INXS, Midnight Oil, AC/DC, Kylie Minogue, Crowded House, Little River Band, Savage Garden, Natalie Imbruglia, Nick Cave - uh yeah I was not going to miss this!

While everyone went back to class for spring semester in the new millennium, I shopped for swim suits,watched re-runs of Magnum PI, read up on walk abouts and psyched myself up for some awesome music adventures.

I also psyched myself up for ... wait, I have never flown. How long is the flight? I thought I had everything under control. I would make tons of mixed tapes (yes, you read that correctly). I wasn't going to take my CDs or my cassettes. No, I spent days creating mixed tapes and planned on listening to them on my Sony Walkman. Was I so concerned about connecting flights, looking right instead of left while crossing the road, or what classes I would take that the idea of mixed tapes sustaining me in my new home seemed credible and logical?

This crucial under-expectation of my musical needs while being 10,000 miles from home would haunt me and cost me.

The flight to LAX terrified me. What was I doing? What if, I don't know, what if I forgot how to speak or lost the ability to read when I landed in Australia? How do I navigate airports? How do I find my apartment? What the hell was I doing?

Anxiety attack aside, I made it to LAX. My luggage found it's way to my connecting Air Pacific Flight. Whoah - that is the plane that is going to fly me 15 hours to Fiji? That thing was huge. How did it fly through the air? Inside, it was very roomy and not at all cramped. The staff all wore sarongs (I don't know about the pilots) and the food was really yummy. Still no music. Off I was to my first destination - Fiji.

My seat mate was a yachting priest from New Zealand who like to abscond with airline silverware. It was a very brief lay over in Fiji. Absolutely gorgeous. I was so tired (I was too nervous still to sleep) that I mistook an actual window with the gorgeous sunrise for a painting. Fiji on the return trip would prove much more exciting.

Alright, almost there. Back on the plane and this time my seat mate was a vegetarian folk singer who reminded me of Charlotte Church. I asked a ton of questions about Sydney to which she had no answers. Five hours and I was there. My new home. I never would have believed you if you had told me that this place would not only shape the person I would become, but would ultimately be one of my favorite places that I wouldn't mind calling home. Aside from the occasional spider, Vegemite and lack of peanut butter on the market shelves - it is a magical place filled with honest people, great food and an awesome blues fest every fall (spring to the rest of us). I had never seen a sky so big or so blue, met people so humble and birds so loud.
I did not expect the house that the keys opened. It was a four story house on the edge of a ravine. Geckos sunned themselves on the brick steps. It was a house that seemed very empty except for two unkempt beds on the third floor and toast crumbs and cheese wrappers in the kitchen. I began to believe my flatmates were boys.

I found an empty room on the second floor complete with a balcony. I could not believe that I had gum trees and eucalyptus in my back yard. No need to unpack just now. I fell asleep and awoke to the smell of ... toast. A tinge of homesickness hit - but I had to shake it.

In the kitchen I met two young gentlemen. One from Norway and one from Sweden. From this point on they will be named Curly and Mick. I was offered some toast and butter (they were out of cheese). It was quickly decided that we must go explore the city after we check in at Uni for our classes. To their delight, I offered to pack us lunches.

Turns out, Curly loved Pantera and Mary J Blige. Mick liked the Rolling Stones (and James Bond). I could see this would work very well. A speaker system was needed to listen to our music. Finally, this was becoming home!

After a beautiful day of exploring the city and going to Manly Beach - we trekked home, tired, salty, hungry, to discover a fourth flatmate: Jules. Jules was the girl I needed to balance out the house. She grew up in Germany but spoke and understood the English language better than I ever would. She loved music: Miles Davis, Kylie Minogue,Santana, club music. It was a beautiful fit. We were ready for our first night out on the town.
And what a first night it was. We ended up a pub called Scruffy Murphy's on George Street at the very same night some Australian soldiers came home from protecting East Timor. The Runners played covers at the front of the smokey, stereotypical Irish pub. Jules and I danced all night and into the morning.
Soon the house was filled with music and spiders. We all soon adjusted to a daily school and TV schedule. I cannot remember what night it was, but we looked at our first floor sliding door screen at what looked to be a frog. Upon closer inspection and then far away "make sure it doesn't get in!" inspection, we determined it was a spider. A big, hairy, eight-legged spider. Someone remembered that we received a ten deadliest spiders "web guide" in the mail and went to get it to compare (now through a closed and locked sliding door - because you know spiders can unlock doors).It turned out to be a non-dangerous spider, but he looked scary and that was enough for us to leave all screens closed tight. I think we all slept in our sleeping bags that night - just in case.

We all were finally deep in studies. I began to listen to the radio on my Walkman when I studied at the library, because I admit, I was getting bored of listening to the same music over and over. I was ten thousand miles from home, away from my CD collection and I needed to hear either something new or something that wasn't on a 60 minute cassette. I fought going to the HMV music store because that would be credit card suicide. No - I decided to use my resources: the radio.
The two big radio stations in Sydney are Triple J and Triple M. They played both modern hits (Madison Avenue became a favorite) but most of the time -- and I love you Australia -- but you are stuck in the 70's and 80's, they played old INXS, the Little River Band, Crowded House. But I learned to like it. I didn't have radio like that in the States.
Soon, I was looking forward to listening to Midnight Oil while studying away in the library. But there is one song that will always bring back Sydney to me.
One night while walking past the golf course on my way home (it was a Monday because Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be on when I got home)I was listening to Triple M and a song I never particularly paid attention to by INXS came on: "To Look At You". It is a slow, almost haunting song. It's supported by simple 80's keyboard harmonies with the tell-tale sensual voice of Michel Hutchence. I looked up at the plane lowering it's landing gear as it came into Sydney Airport and then further up to the stars. The Southern Cross flew high in the sky. I was in Sydney. I was in Australia.

The song always seemed to be on the radio at the most perfect times: While sitting at my desk in my room, my balcony door open and a breeze of eucalyptus tempting to move my papers from their neat pile; Walking back through the rugby field at the Epping Boys school after a late night of back to back movies at Uni; After surfing at Noosa Beach (before Curly's non shark injury).

The only night it wasn't played was May 25th at the Metro, when I saw INXS perform their second show without Michael Hutchence. Not only had I made a pilgrimage to the memorial of Michael Hutchence bearing tigerlillies for him, I managed to get tickets to a 1,200 seat show at Sydney's famed Metro club. This would be the first time the band played Sydney without their leader. It really was amazing to be a venue so small with a band with so much energy. I was up front of course and I wish I had video, even audio, when the venue went silent and I screamed "Kirk!". I was referring to their saxophone / guitar player Kirk Pengilly. To my amazement he turned and looked at me and said, "What?" Now I had to really think fast. I didn't expect him to answer me. So I replied " Play me a song." They moved into "Shine Like It Does". I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for days.
This is but one story of many that Australia had to offer. What to expect in the next installment?
  • Is that a monkey in our back yard?
  • How I discovered the man who would eventually live under my bed
  • A $400.00 trip to the zoo and Aunt Suzies Dancing Shoes - sort of
  • Girls night out with Savage Garden and Vanessa Amorossi and Popstar Madness!
  • That's so nice of then to fly the Fijian Army first class -- wait, a coup?
Until next time...
"Once there was a swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of the coolabah tree, and he sang as he watched and he waited til his billy boiled, you'll come a waltzing Matilda with me"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my Dad's 86th birthday. Happy Birthday Dad.

I imagine what his life was like. Dad's don't share much with twelve year olds. I wonder what it was like to go to war with his three brothers, the uncertainty of what was ahead. What went through his mind when he landed on Utah Beach on August 31st, 1944? Did friend's of his perish on that sand on June 6th? What was it like to occupy buildings vacated by Nazi soldiers? I do know he lost a comrade on New Year's Eve following the Battle of the Bulge. He never stayed at home on New Year's Eve. I still have the picture of his friend who was lost, he and my dad leaning against a jeep somewhere in Germany.

When he returned he began his life-long career with the Coal Mines. He loved the mines. He became involved with Mine Safety until eventually moving into the United Mine Workers. I loved when he took me to the District Office, housed in an old house complete with all the old fixtures. I could copy, climb the stairs until I was tired or people got annoyed, I think I sat in on a few meetings, and I could use his tape recorder to pretend I was his assistant.

He never judged the music I listened to, at least not to me. He taught me about working for the things I wanted (my telescope). We watched the Steelers, the Pirates, and eventually the Penguins. Sunday's when the Steelers didn't play, we watched war movies on TBS. I look back and think, this is like us watching a movie about 9/11. What memory was he transported back to when he watched The Dirty Dozen or Kelly's Heroes. I wish he could have seen Saving Private Ryan - I wish I could have seen it with him.

So, yes this is a music blog and I am getting to the main point of this entry. When my dad got sick, I cleansed my fears, my pre-pubescent stupidity, my opinions and my anger with music. I had at that time really gotten into Led Zeppelin, Motley Crue and Guns N Roses. Life and everyone in it for me was invincible. The music had to be fast and loud. It was, I will humbly guess, my way of hiding the fear that my dad was sick, weak and he couldn't keep up with me anymore.

Then, one day, my neighbor played a song in his basement, cranked to 20, that forever changed me: Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan. I knew guitars. Kirk Hammet kicked it, Jimmy Page possessed his but Stevie Ray spoke through his guitar. Again, the obsession began and I had to hear more. On a weekday trip to the doctor's office, I begged to go to the Richland Mall. I bought a cassette of Texas Flood. His music sent chills through me. All of a sudden I needed the blues. It was August of 1990.

My father left this life and met up with his Army buddies and his brother on August 19, 1990. I had to be in control of the situation. I didn't cry for five days. I met people I had seen at his office, Congressman Murtha even paid his respects. Now that I look back, I didn't listen to music for a week. Things had to be done, I had to be strong, I had to make sure my dad would be proud of how we handled ourselves.

August 27, six days later, I was in Spencer gifts (you remember the store with the t shirts, black light posters and stupid gag gifts). Rick Dees was on the radio, I was looking at Red Hot Chili Pepper shirts. It sounded like Rick Dees announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan had been killed in a helicopter crash. Wait, he did say that.

My father and now my new found guitar hero were both gone. All of a sudden I couldnt breathe. This news broke whatever glass barrier I had placed around my self and I was now bombarded with the fact that my dad was gone. No more Steeler games, no more cigar smell when he came home from the Lemon Drop Lounge, no more polkas on Sunday morning. I was listening to Texas Flood a mere hour before my father died. I cried and cried and grieved. How trivial does it sound, even as I write this, that Stevie Ray's death allowed me to grieve for my own father. That something snapped inside of me the moment I heard the announcement.

Had Stevie not gotten on the helicopter that night. I still know what would have happened. I would be sitting at a venue, probably ten or fifteen years later, Stevie would have hit the first note of Dirty Pool and I would have lost it. His music takes me back to that time. It makes me think of regrets, wishing he told me more memories about his time overseas, made me realize the importance of what he did as a mere twenty year old. Maybe that was the plan. His importance would not get handed to me and simply pushed to the recesses of my young memory. I searched, looked at photos, read history books, even spoke to men he worked with once I was older.

I had to earn my father's journey through life.

I wish he could have seen me graduate from high school and college, watch the Penguins win the Stanley Cup with me, walk me down the aisle at my wedding (not that being walked down the aisle by a former hostage negotiator is a bad thing - you understand Mike)and he would tell me stories of the frigid days of December of 1944, running communication lines in the Ardennes Forest ahead of troop movement.

Whenever I hear Stevie Ray, I think of my father, not in sadness, but in appreciation for who he was and what he taught me. I hope I have made him proud in my choices. I laugh at how similar we are (so I have been told). I cherish what memories I do have of him. Dad, Happy Birthday. Stevie, please play a little Riviera Paradise for him tonight.

All those burning bridges that have fallen after me
All the lonely feelings and the burning memories
Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door
Burning bridges lost forever more
"Kelly's Heroes"

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Op-Ed Guest Columnist - In Ireland, Tuesday’s Grace -

Check out this Op-Ed by Bono in regards to the Saville Inquiry

Op-Ed Guest Columnist - In Ireland, Tuesday’s Grace -

I just remember music always being there like, well, like air

Music is what feelings sound like
 ~ Author Unknown

I don't know exactly where or how or when it began. I guess there was always music around whether it was my mom's Neil Diamond, my dad's polkas or my sister's Prince albums (the Purple Rain cassette is still in my room if you want it back - I have it on cd now), even my grandmother's Hank William's albums. I just remember music always being there like, well, like air. No one stopped me from putting on an ABBA 8 track, or dancing around to Alabama.

Whether they knew it or not, my family really did influence my love of music. Let's recap a typical week (from my 5 year old memory): Mom listening to Gordon Lightfoot while Dad was at work; Sister watching Miami Vice which was filled with some amazing music; Grandmother listening to Elvis gospels; Dad watching Hee Haw on Saturday and listening to polkas on Sunday. See - maybe they didn't even realize it.

I highly doubt that at five I walked up to my mother and requested she buy me the Private Dancer album by Tina Turner - but somehow I got it, along with Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club (to which I am finally over the fact of the 45 of That's The Way breaking because it was left too close to the window on a winter's night and someone thought bending it would warm it up...snap)and Billy Joel. There I was at five, six and seven, listening to music I didn't understand but could feel the ups, the downs, the harmonies ... then I got to see it on TV!

Videos were the best most awesome amazing terrific wonderful stupendous thing that could have ever been introduced to me(besides Miguel from 321 Contact). Now I could not only listen to these songs, I could see the artists and dress up like them! Oh, that explains the yellow pumps, gary suits,leopard shirt, blue eye shadow and Levis! Bless my parents. Bless them for letting me be that creative. Maybe The Facts of Life helped tone down the Bananrama / Madonna look I had going on (thanks to Joe, I insisted on an army jacket at one point). My sister will point out however, that the neon and denim skirt phase went on for a while.

Music became a part of me that early - an appendage I guess. Once I got a little older (you know, nine) I began to explore on my own because I could. I would listen to the local radio stations, praying for a clear night because then, just maybe, 102.5 WDVE would come in from Pittsburgh. Led Zeppelin, who was that? Journey - ok, my sister listened to them. Van Halen? Whoah, I was mesmerized. I would sit there with a cassette on the ready to hit record in case a song came on that interested me. Then I would play it over and over until I remembered every single word. I became obsessed with Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, One More Night by Phil Collins, Let's Dance by David Bowie,and 1999 by Prince.

Then there was my other source of music: my sister's cassettes! Oh, it was like a field trip. She went to school and I went "shopping". Prince, Journey, Genesis, 80's top 20 - I was amused for hours. And back then, there was nothing on PBS during the day that I recall, except there was something with a harpsichord and I have loved harpsichords since then.

Who knew where this would all lead. To think if I had MP3's and the Internet when I was five! It amazes me how music clutches on to certain people while others listen to it for leisure, maybe owning 100 cds in their lifetime. I couldn't imagine not ever singing Whitney Houston in the back of my dad's car driving home from football games, him giving me quarters to play the jukebox at the Foxburg Inn, or learning an important lesson about leaving records out in the sun. Friends would cry if their dolls or trucks broke. I would throw a fit if my favorite 45 was broken (and I did, reference above).

I am thankful to my family for allowing me to have music. Thankful they didn't hesitate giving me albums filled with things I didn't understand. I am thankful to the friends who had patience with me when all they wanted to do was play in the woods while I had to find batteries or an extension cord for the radio.

Music has been my crutch, my security blanket, my therapist, my friend and my voice. This is how it all began.

Monday, June 21, 2010

I hope we never run out of music

Where do I begin? Music has filled my life since I can remember being tall enough to be able to shove an 8 track cassette into the player in the dining room. I must have mortified my grandmother when I asked if she wanted to see me sing along with a record on my new Fisher Price record player. It wasn't Sesame Street or Disney, it was Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper. I was the only kid who brought Culture Club records to show and tell in first grade and definitely the only one in fifth grade who wanted to be a groupie on the sunset Strip (no, I had no idea what that meant back then but the Sunset Strip was where Nikki Sixx was and I was going to be there).

I dreamed of seeing U2 and INXS, couldn't wait to go to the Richland Mall to see what was new in National Record Mart, and I HAD TO HAVE Gun's N Roses Use Your Illusions I and II at the stroke of midnight. And you know what -- nothing has changed since then.

I have spent the last twenty years making up for the fact that I was too young to see Stevie Ray Vaughan. I never heard Jeff Buckley sing Lilac Wine in a small coffee shop and I regret that fact even though I know I had no choice over the matter. I have spent too much money to see Eric Clapton, traveled too far to see INXS, I don't care how many times Dave Matthews plays Jimi Thing I will go and see him, and I will wait until forever to see Robert Plant play one more time with Jimmy Page.

I have met so many new friends through music - where would I be without Dark Star Orchestra, who not only made me a fan of the Grateful Dead, but helped my best friend through some pretty rough times through not only their music, but their love and friendship. And ... without them I wouldn't have such a cool engagement story. Thank you DSO!!!

So what is this blog? I see it as two venues. The first, a way for me to go back in time and share stories about concerts and musical choices of past. Second, to share the journey that I am still on and will continue to travel down. Where else will you hear about me asking Warren Haynes for a corkscrew, hugging Bono,getting kicked in the head at a Pantera concert, or even driving 1,000 miles to spend four days with 80,000 people as crazy as me.

Welcome aboard the crazy train folks - enjoy the ride and share some of your own stories (especially if you were a part of them).