just a dude

“Quantity over quality man, quantity over quality…” my friend Jonathan said, distracting me from my writing. It’s a bad idea to invite your friends to the coffee shop with you when you plan on trying to finish a blog post. It’s a bad idea for the same reason that “study groups” in high school were a bad idea. You don’t make a “study group” because you really think it will help you pass the test, you do it because you want to hang out with your friends and still convince yourself that you’re being productive. Sometimes you really did convince yourself— you get your World History test back with a fat D+ on top and say “what!? but we studied for like five hours last night!” Maaaaaaaan, you didn’t study for five hours— you ate Doritos and quoted the movie Half Baked for five hours.

But Jonathan is right. He was reminding me of a creative strategy that I hold dear to my heart. My goal for this blog isn’t necessarily to knock it out of the park every week with a transcendent essay. It’s simply to be consistent in writing. For one of my major motivations for having a blog (aside from being able to exercise my narcissism) is that I just want to become a better writer. And If I write something every week, then I’ll become a better writer. Right?

Well, let’s hope so. I can say that I was really trying to knock it out of the park with my blog post last week, and that it proved to be crippling. I wanted to articulate everything that feels wrong, or dark, or scary to me about the world right now— i.e. Trump, climate change, the threat of nuclear war, diminishing natural resources, prejudice, rampant misinformation, and people’s complacency in the face of all these things. I wanted to offer some small silver linings, and some advice in the face of all of this darkness (oddly my advice was essentially the moral of the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “be excellent to each other”). However, I didn’t post it last week because it felt incomplete and somehow untrue. I returned to it this week, but I found it felt even more false.

In that unpublished post I was trying to preach some high-minded and somewhat self-righteous stuff. All of the things I was going to say were good, but until I start actually living up to those standards, I don’t think I have any right to prescribe anything to anyone else. The truth of the matter is, I am, like most people, majorly self-interested. I’m not anywhere near Trumpian levels of psychopathic egotism, however, when I’m laying in bed at night, typically I’m not dreaming about working to end climate change or lifting up my fellow human; I’m dreaming about becoming a successful film composer and meeting Penelope Cruz. I’m not proud, but it is true.

I do sincerely want the world to be a friendlier, more equitable place. I want us all to work to mitigate climate change. I want everyone to do the inner work of transforming our prejudices into openness, and I want everybody to be excellent to each other. I know that I can do much more in my life to work towards these goals. However, I do not think that we can all make some magical leap towards altruism. We’ve got to acknowledge where we are and what we are before we can hope to progress in any way.

Personally, I’m just a dude trying to come up with enough words to fill out a Sunday blog post. And on the weekdays, I’m just a dude trying to come up with enough notes to fill out a three minute song. I do want the world to turn towards the light, but until I elevate my own activism, I’ll refrain from telling you how to live your life. In the meantime, here are two songs I wrote and recorded last week. Y’all listen in for the sound of the electric saw. See you next week.

 

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9 Protest Songs

On Friday night, I went with a posse of NYU jazz students to Cornelia Street Cafe to hear the brilliant Brazilian Trio of Chico Pinheiro (guitar), Eduardo Belo (bass), and Ari Hoenig (drums)— for the record Ari is not Brazilian, but he is perhaps the most skilled and tasteful drummer I’ve ever seen live. Back in early August, this trio was actually the very first band I saw perform in New York City. On Friday night, just like the time before, the band played with expert skill, incredible taste, and pure joy. They were a delight to listen to and an example of the height of human musical potential. Chico was especially inspiring to me as he seemed to make every note, whether loud, soft, short, or long, sing with musical purpose.

Yet unlike the first time I saw the group, this time a dark cloud hung over my enjoyment of the show. When I heard them play in August, you could likely find me and many others like me laughing confidently about the immanent election of our nation’s first female president. Life was good, our future was safe, and I could listen to beautiful Brazilian jazz free from worry. And yet here we are now. As we all go about trying to enjoy and prosper in our lives, there’s a giant sack of sub-human filth and his band of morally bankrupt mouth-breathers in the Whitehouse launching daily attacks on the Constitution, scientific knowledge, education, human rights, and basic undeniable facts.

As much as I did enjoy the show, I was distracted by the thought that there are much more pressing issues to address than the temporary entertainment of thirty or so erudite jazz lovers in a small bar. This is not meant to be a criticism of the band at all. Each artist has the right to express themselves however they wish; furthermore this trio undoubtedly brings joy to whomever listens to them. I’m pointing more towards a question for myself: what do I want from music? Since arriving here in August, I’ve been practicing hard to attempt to approach even half of the pure musical skill of someone like Chico Pinheiro. And yet ever since the inauguration of our nation’s first orange president, I’ve been yearning to get in touch with music’s more political face. In that spirit I would now like to share with you nine of the great American protest and political songs of the 20th century and today.

  1. Rebel Girl— Joe Hill 1915

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR7fBCENkN0

There aren’t any recordings of Joe Hill singing his pro-worker songs so we’ll have to rely on this adaptation from Hazel Dickinson. Not to insult your intelligence, but due to the southern twang of this recording, I feel I must clarify that this is certainly not a “rebel girl” in the sense that the confederate flag is called the rebel flag. This rebel girl is someone who is rebelling against the oppressive working conditions in the early 1900s. I’d also just like to say that there is something terribly wrong when America’s president in 2017 has more antiquated views on women and human rights than someone born in 1879.

2. Strange Fruit— Abel Meeropol 1937

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

This was originally a poem and was first recorded as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939. It’s heartbreaking metaphor linking a tree’s fruit to victims of lynching is perhaps still the most stirring and powerful protest song of American racism.

3. This Land is Your Land— Woody Guthrie 1944

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxiMrvDbq3s

This song has experienced a resurgence lately as numerous artists have played and sung it in protest of Trump’s racist immigration ban. Although the more scathing verses were not originally released, this was a protest song from the beginning.

4. Alice’s Restaurant— Arlo Guthrie 1967

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m57gzA2JCcM

Musical resistance ran in the Guthrie family. I’m certain you don’t have time to listen to all 18 minutes of young Arlo’s meandering anti-Vietnam War epic, but you should make time.

5. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised— Gil Scott Heron 1971

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGaoXAwl9kw

No the revolution will not be televised, but it will probably hit Twitter.

6. Hurricane—Bob Dylan 1975

Plenty has been written for good reason about his political songs from the early 1960’s, but this song from his 1975 album desire is my personal favorite Bob Dylan protest song. It chronicles the racism towards and wrongful imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and it just sounds really great.

7. Fuck Tha Police— NWA 1988

I can’t think of a more direct articulation of the frustration felt by black people after dealing with systemic racism on the part of the police. Unfortunately this song still feels relevant today.

8. Raegan— Killer Mike 2012

Noted Bernie Sanders supporter and rap genius Killer Mike wrote this song eviscerating the policies and legacy of Ronald Raegan. He viciously criticizes the war on drugs, Raeganomics, and Raegan’s foreign policy over an excellent instrumental made by his future Run the Jewels partner El-P.

9. Can’t You Tell— Aimee Mann 2017

This is just one of the many trump protest songs coming out daily. To hear more I’d encourage you to visit 30days30songs.com where the site’s producers have promised to assemble a playlist of 1,000 songs to help us all get through the next four years of “what promises to be a tumultuous and frequently dispiriting and certainly bizarre presidency.” Among new songs from Death Cab for Cutie, The Gorillaz, Mavis Staples/Arcade Fire, CocoRosie, and others, I chose this song from Aimee Mann for it’s emotional depth and because I just love the sound of her voice.

Music is a multiplicity. There is not a single right way to use or experience music. It can provide a sweet escape (hi pop music), mine the depths of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic possibility (hello jazz), or get you pumped for your intramural basketball game (hey Space Jam soundtrack). It can also give a powerful and infectious voice to the resistance of oppression and injustice. In the dark shadow of the Trump presidency, it is cleansing, empowering, and important to turn on and tune into the righteous voices singing of justice, freedom, and equality for all.

This is What America Looks Like

I’m proud to say that I took a trip to Washington DC last weekend to participate in the historically huge Women’s March on Washington. Unfortunately, my whole trip was a near perfect demonstration of Murphy’s law. The most flagrant tragedy of the weekend was obviously that a fleshy orange sack of unchecked ego was sworn in as our nation’s 45th president, yet my personal experience of the weekend also included setback after setback.

My original plan was that I would hitch a ride to Maryland with my friends Jonathan and Tina (who were also going to the march), take the train into DC to stay with another friend Friday night, and then go to the march on Saturday morning. We did depart on Friday afternoon, yet what Google maps claimed would only be a four hour drive ended up taking closer to seven and a half as we travelled among thick unrelenting traffic. Thus, I called my friend in DC and told her that I was going to get in too late and decided to just sleep on the floor of Jon and Tina’s hotel room.

After the long journey Jon and I desperately desired some beer in our bloodstream so we walked to a nearby gas station only to discover that in College Park, Maryland, you cannot buy beer in gas stations. So we then drove down the street to a bar (aptly named “Bar”) and settled in to some stools next to the locals. The first thing that happened was that we witnessed a drunk man in a powder blue sweatpants and hoodie getup being kicked out of the bar for pouring extra booze into his drinks from a flask in his pocket; the second thing that happened was that we were ignored by the bartenders for a solid ten minutes before we got to order our drinks; and the third was that our conversations was hijacked by a man spouting the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump was hypnotizing the populous with those weird hand movements he does.

The next morning, we drove down to the train station, parked a block away in a seemingly pleasant little neighborhood (Jon described it as “where your grandma would live”), and then took our place at the back of what I’m certain I can accurately describe as the longest line in the history of College Park, Maryland. We waited in line for roughly and hour and a half before we finally reached the machines that were dispensing metro cards. Go figure, as soon as I got to it, my machine decided it didn’t want to print metro cards anymore. Thus, I had to merge into another line and wait just a little longer before getting my card.

We finally packed ourselves into a train full of fellow marchers and made the trip into the heart of DC. We didn’t make it in time to hear the many wonderful speakers at the event, but we did get to march, chant, and wear ourselves out for a just and beautiful cause. Around 5pm we boarded another train and began our return journey and we were two stops away from our destination when the train suddenly stopped, broken. Everyone on the train waited helplessly, packed shoulder to shoulder for over an hour before another train came to slowly push us back to the previous stop. We finally boarded another train and made it back to good ole College Park, Maryland around 8pm, still anticipating a long drive back to NYC. We wandered back to the car and discovered that the back right window was smashed. Jonathan’s and my bags, each containing our laptops, were stolen.

Like I say, it was a near perfect display of Murphy’s law. Near perfect, but not perfect, because there was one glaring exception to the rule: The Women’s March was an unequivocal success. In DC and across the nation, people engaged in what was likely the largest demonstration in US history— a demonstration that despite it’s size and fervor incited no violence, and required no arrests. I was in awe of the sight of the seemingly endless sea of people marching past the Capital and the White House and on to the national mall, and invigorated by the energy that ran through the entire crowd. Every fifteen minutes or so I would hear a distant swell of jubilant screams that grew louder and louder until it swept over our portion of the march in a continuous wave. It was incredibly inspiring to come together in solidarity with so many people and affirm our belief in human rights for all people. For this was not so much a march against a truly despicable man, but a march for the rights of the historically disenfranchised. Sure, there were plenty of anti-trump chants (my favorite being “he’s orange, he’s gross, he did not win the popular vote”), yet there were just as many simply affirming basic rights (“My body, my choice! Her body, her choice!”) or basic tenets of American democracy (“Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”).

I do hope that we the people never again have such a dark reason to show up by the hundred thousands and affirm our belief in basic human rights, yet it was an incredible moment, a beautiful sight to see, and I felt extremely lucky to be there. The silver lining of electing a grotesque, sexist, xenophobic, neo-fascist, climate-change denying, cartoon super-villain as our president is that a massive number of American citizens now feel inspired to do things like call their senators, protest, and engage in civil-disobedience (parts of democracy that I and many others overlooked during Obama’s presidency). For all of the evil actions that Trump is going to attempt, I hope that there will continue to be equal and opposite reactions from the millions of people in the United States that truly believe that “all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, (and) that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I spent the majority of my waking hours last weekend either sitting in a car, creeping along in bumper to bumper traffic, standing in a line, or packed shoulder to shoulder with strangers on a train. I also had my favorite bag, some of my clothes, my journal, a book, and my laptop stolen. And yet if I were given the chance to do it all again, I absolutely would. All of that was a small price to pay to witness and take part in the beautiful, historic, and life-affirming moment that was the Women’s March on Washington. Let us all continue to fight the good fight.

Love Trumps Hate


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I said to myself, “I am thoroughly happy and content, now. If my most pitiless enemy could appear before me at this moment, I would freely right any wrong I may have done him.”

Straightaway the door opened, and a shriveled, shabby dwarf entered. He was not more than two feet high. He seemed to be about forty years old. Every feature and inch of him was a trifle out of shape; and so, while one could not put his finger upon any particular part and say, “This is a conspicuous deformity,” the spectator perceived that this little person was a deformity as a whole. A vague, general, evenly-blended, nicely-adjusted deformity. There was a fox-like cunning in the face and the sharp little eyes, and also alertness and malice. One thing about him struck me forcibly, and most unpleasantly: he was covered all over with a fuzzy, greenish mold, such as one sometimes sees upon mildewed bread. The sight of it was nauseating.

The above is an abridged passage from Mark Twain’s 1876 short story “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” and the sense of disgust that the protagonist feels at this fuzzy little troll-person very accurately sums up my feelings right now about president-elect Donald Trump. I borrowed Twain’s description because I, in fact, cannot accurately convey with my own words the deep visceral disappointment that I am feeling about the election results. The closest I can come to expressing it with my own faculties is by making pained guttural noises (not unlike what I imagine an aardvark dying would sound like).

I, and nearly all of my friends, family, and Facebook feed are feeling shocked, outraged, and afraid at the prospect of Donald Trump being our next president. It is tempting (and quite enjoyable in fact) to sit back and fire insults at Trump and his supporters. Like this: Trump and his supporters are the human embodiment of a Nickleback song— tasteless, gross, loud, and limp. Yep, that felt good. I could do that all day. Yes it is tempting (and fun), and yet counterproductive. For here is the twist in Twain’s tale: the narrator reveals that the “vile bit of human rubbish seemed to bear a sort of remote and ill-defined resemblance to me!”

Like Twain’s character, we as a nation are now face to face with a clear embodiment of our own twisted nature. I don’t believe that most of Trump’s supporters are overtly racist, misogynistic, or stupid, yet I do know that Trump’s victory has seemingly given license for some of his supporters to partake in some very racist, misogynistic, and stupid behavior. The KKK in North Carolina has announced plans for a Trump victory parade. On Thursday at my own NYU the door to the Muslim Student Association’s prayer room was vandalized with the word “Trump.” On Friday a teacher reported that a ten year old girl had to be picked up from her school because a boy had grabbed the girl’s vagina—when asked why he did it, the boy said “if a president can do it, I can too.” Since the nation’s founding, America, while boasting some truly great cultural, social, economic, and technical achievements, has always harbored an appalling underbelly of racism, sexism, and domination. Because we have elected an appalling, racist, sexist egomaniac to be our president, this underbelly is simply being more blatantly exposed than usual.

If there is any silver-lining to the fact that some people now feel emboldened to play out some of their darkest drives, it is that we as a country can no longer ignore it. Whether in a single person, a family group, or an entire nation, things do not change unless it is first recognized that there is a problem. In my eyes, it is clear that we have huge racial, economic, social, and educational divides in this country, and that those divides breed fear, hatred, and disregard. We cannot simply write this off as the fault of those “ignorant” Trump supporters. If we want America to be great—not “great again,” but for the first time— we all have to accept responsibility for the fear and prejudice in our country and in our own hearts and combat it with love whenever we see it.

I am encouraged by the massive and active backlash against the election of Donald Trump. Right now there is a days long protest roaring at Trump Tower, just a subway ride away from me. Liberals and democrats have been suddenly inspired to action in a way that they would not have been if Hillary had been elected. This is a wake up call. There is a huge amount of energy behind the anti-Trump movement and if everyone who is disappointed in the election results decides to use this energy not towards Trump-hate, but towards acts community building, volunteerism, social justice, and general kindness, then I believe that we can transform Trump’s presidency into a step forward, rather than two steps backwards.

In addition to being inspired towards social action, I also also feel an urgent desire to double down on my musical life after this election. For playing music has been a bridge in my life to communities of people that I would have otherwise not been exposed. I’ve performed with and for people of all different races, cultures, sexual orientations, and political leanings (yes I’ve even been in a band with a Trump supporter or two). It did not matter what our superficial differences were, we were all there to just enjoy the incredible human endeavor of making music.

For it is not politics, but our shared passions (whether music, sports, cooking, dancing, art, science, writing, sewing, etc…) that have always brought people together. In 1999, it didn’t matter if Eminem was white, he was accepted into the historically black Hip-Hop community because he could rap really well. In 1947, it didn’t matter that Jackie Robinson was black, he was accepted into the historically white Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse because he could play baseball really well. In 1898 it didn’t matter that Marie Curie was a woman, she was accepted into the historically male scientific community because she discovered Radium (and made many other great scientific breakthroughs I don’t claim to understand). Now I admit that Robinson and Curie were “accepted” into those communities with a lot of struggle and backlash, and I need to point out that you shouldn’t have to be superlatively great at something to be accepted into a community. Yet the point that I am trying to make is that it is in fact rarely politicians that affect true social change and progress— the most powerful positive force in the world is normal people coming together to do the things we already love to do.

Backstreet Boys vs. Milli Vanilli


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Watching the presidential debate last Monday was similar to what it would be like to watch the mighty German national soccer team play a match against the tiny nation of Belize* if all the Belizean players were drunk and high on cocaine. Imagine: Germany is far and away the better team, relentlessly and smugly scoring goal after goal after goal on Belize, yet the intoxicated Belizean players refuse to recognize any of the goals scored on them. Belize stubbornly pretends they’re tied and that its an even match. They celebrate furiously every-time they administer a violent slide tackle or use their hands and try to throw the ball in the goal. Also the referee is Lester Holt, and he obviously has no control over this shit-show of a match.

Now I’m not suggesting that Hillary is as precision perfect at debating as Germany is at soccer, nor am I suggesting that Donald Trump debates like he’s drunk and high (although he was sniffling a lot, rambling on and on, yelling… you know what, maybe I am suggesting that). I’m pointing out the vast difference between Hillary and Trump that was exposed by putting the two candidates on stage with each other. One came across as being competent and substantial, and the other came across as being as competent and substantial (and aesthetically pleasing) as a chicken McNugget.

And yet, Trump still has his supporters. No matter what ridiculous, inaccurate, or offensive thing he says, a lot of people are still going to vote for him. The logistical and ethical holes in his policy plans do not deter Trump supporters. They just like the way he talks: simple superlative adjectives delivered in a coarse, firm tone and a healthy dose of xenophobia. That or they just hate Hillary— probably continuing in the ages old trend of hating or distrusting women, what with their vaginas and everything. Hillary can present all of the well-researched, plausible policy plans in the world, she can continue to not say racist or offensive things in public, and she can tout all of her experience in both the white house and senate, but she will not sway some people.

I’m not going out on a limb by saying that Hillary is objectively more qualified to be president than Trump— yet that’s not what matters to people. Do you like Hillary? Or do you like Trump? That’s the question. To use a musical example (this is a music blog after all), let’s address an old question: Beatles or Rolling Stones? Sure you can like both (I do), but everyone likes one a little more than the other. Some people are going to fight me on this, but I’m also not going out on a limb by saying that The Beatles were the more musically advanced group. The Rolling Stones never wrote music in odd time signatures, they never utilized a Bach-influenced piano solo, or borrowed from Indian Classical music— The Beatles did (Here Comes the Sun, In My Life, and Within you, Without You, respectively). Yet I am not going to try to convince you that you should like the Beatles more than the Rolling Stones just because they are more musically intricate. If you like the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles (or vice versa), you do so because you just like the way they sound, and that’s fine. Unfortunately political decisions are a lot like this as well— I contest that they aren’t always (or even often) informed intellectual decisions about who would make the best political leader. Most likely, if you support Trump, you just like his Trumpiness, and if you support Hillary, you just like her Clintinivity (and the truly inspiring fact that she could be the first woman president).

I suppose I was comparing Donald Trump to the Rolling Stones in that last paragraph, and for that reason I would like to sincerely apologize to the Rolling Stones. I also don’t want Hillary to start thinking she’s the Beatles of politics (whenever she reads this blog post). These two candidates are not the Beatles and Stones— we’re dealing with two of the most hated candidates of all time. If I’m searching for comparable musical acts, I’d say this election is closer to The Backstreet Boys (Hillary) vs. Milli Vanilli (Donald Trump). If you don’t remember Milli Vanilli, they were the German R&B duo popular in the late 80’s who were eventually outed for not actually having sung any of the vocals on their album and for lip-syncing at all their concerts. They were just models posing as singers (perhaps not unlike many singers today). Similarly, Donald Trump is just a super rich guy posing as a politician (perhaps not unlike many politicians today). The longer he sticks around, the more likely it is that he will be exposed as the phony that he is— I only hope we don’t have to elect him president for him to be fully exposed.

For as much as I clearly detest the man, I also feel sorry for him. It must be hard to so often stand up in front of people and not know what the hell you’re talking about— Lester Holt’s asking you questions about creating jobs, and you just want to go watch the Bachelor. I admit that I sometimes feel a little bit Trumpy in my NYU jazz studies master’s program. Compared to some of my other classmates, I don’t sight read very well, I don’t know as many tunes, and I’m not as familiar with the Jazz language, and yet when it is my time to take a solo, I have to come up with something to say just like the rest of them. Between trying to simultaneously navigate the song form, the guitar fretboard, and the sound of the band at large, I sometimes get lost and basically don’t know what the hell I’m playing or what I should be playing. I end up just rambling on incoherently.

The difference between me and Trump (well, hopefully not the only difference) is that I am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. When I suck (and I suck often), I want to do it freely and openly in front of my teachers and classmates, beckoning them to help me. The repeated embarrassment of this experience will motivate me to practice my craft and elevate my level, and (if nothing else) the fact that I’m paying many thousands of dollars for this education will hopefully motivate my teachers to show me the way forward.

Playing jazz, running for president, and challenging Germany in soccer are all enormously difficult tasks. No one is born ready for these endeavors. Sure, you can pretend you are— you can also pretend your sloppy spray-tan looks really cool. The better idea would be to resign yourself to the difficulty of your goal (whatever it may be), embrace a life-time of honest learning, and walk the long path from mediocrity to competency and ultimately to mastery. That’s my plan at least.

*I want to say that I meant no disrespect to the nation of Belize in this blog. Belizeans don’t get drunk or high more than any other nation (although the white tourists who travel to Belize probably do). Just to clarify I picked Belize because they have a pretty bad soccer team and I traveled there once.