Thursday, November 19, 2015

Memoir Outtake: Thanksgiving

I stared out to the Quarry Lakes as the BART train rolled into Fremont. The small lakes shimmered in the sunlight. A majestic heron stood on a grassy bank. Up above, a V of Canadian geese appeared to fly to the sun. John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” played from my iPod. I picked it because I felt happy and sappy, heading home for Thanksgiving. The song packed an emotional wallop. We had history. Three years before, I had traveled through much of South America by bus. I remember riding through the countryside from Uruguay into Argentina listening to “My Favorite Things.” I stared out the window as these beautiful trees that graced the highway swooshed by. When Coltrane soloed during the song’s outro, I began to cry to myself. The melody he plays during that final verse is excruciatingly beautiful; it sounds like a eulogy, a call of profound gratitude as though Coltrane were ascending into the sun’s light, turning back and expressing through his saxophone: it was a good ride. Listening to him play, staring at that Argentinean countryside, I simply cried because I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel, to see foreign lands, to feel such beauty.

On that train ride home to Fremont, I felt like I should feel a profound sense of gratitude given the deathly visitor residing in my chest. Thanksgiving was upon us—a time when I should be extra grateful to be with my family. That time together, gathered around our dining room table replete with steaming plates of yummy-goodness was not something I could take for granted. It never was. 

When I walked out of the station, my dad was waiting at the drop-off curb in his Toyota Rav. I swung the back door open to toss my travel bag in.

“¡Hola papi!” I said.

“¿Hola hijo, cómo estás?” Dad said, smiling.

After I took my seat beside him, I leaned over to kiss him on the cheek as I always did whenever he or my mom picked me up. To my surprise, I didn’t feel sentimental like I thought I would. I was simply excited to be home for the next five days while my sister, Carmen—a.k.a. Chimp-Chimp[1]—was in town. We had a can’t-fail recipe for chillaxation and family-goodness:

·      gobs of turkey gravy & mashed potatoes 
·      my sister Mariana’s yummy homemade vegetarian quiche
·      my homemade mac 'n cheese
·      2-3 days of leftovers, including my favorite: turkey sandwiches
·      mornings and afternoons in our PJs
·      reading in the backyard with our kittie cat curled up on my lap
·      multiple games of Super Mario World
·      our home at full occupancy like when we were growing up         

Once we sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner, I felt a weightiness come over me. My mom sat to my right, my dad at the other end of the table. I was afraid Mom would get a little serious, un poco emocionante, maybe even somber as she gave our food a blessing before segueing into a tangent about my cancer—how we should feel grateful to be together.

But thankfully, there was no such talk at the table. With Andean flute music playing from the stereo, we dug into our feast. We complimented each other’s dishes and ate until we were stuffed.

In the end, our Thanksgiving turned out to be like any other.

And I was more than grateful for that.

[1] That’s the childhood nickname Mariana bequeathed Carmen with. When we were kids, Carmen’s favorite toy was a chimp doll she named Bebe. She used to take him everywhere: to the potty, to stores, to the tub for her baths.

In kindergarten, my mom made Carmen a full-body monkey costume for Halloween with big monkey ears and a long tail. In photos my parents took of her, Carmen stuck out the tip of her tongue and protruded her bottom lip to make a chimpilicious mouth.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Goo Goo G'joob!: My Top 10 Favorite Beatles Songs

About a month ago, my good friend Chris and I were strolling through Central Park. Since we're good boys, we made a pilgrimage to Strawberry Fields. Once we paid our respects to one of the greatest hippies ever, I mused that it would be difficult to whittle down my favorite Beatles songs to a top 10 list. A few days later, at a bar in Brooklyn, I told my homie and fellow blogsmith, Justin “Ticket to Ride!” Goldman about this thought I had. Two pints deep, copping a fluffy buzz, Justin did not hesitate to ask the bartender for a pen. “Let's do this right now,” he said, or something like that, and off we went. Within a few minutes, this is what we produced:

The napkin with the more handsome writing is, of course, mine.
I was floored. I figured coming up with a top 10 Beatles list would be arduous, the musical equivalent of coming up with a top 10 list of favorite Simpsons episodes, which took weeks to research. But there it was—a list. A beer shit. I knew I might change my mind on the flight back home, but all in all, I figured it would stick.

Before I launch into my list, a few historical notes are in order. The Beatles have always been one of my favorite bands. I can thank mi hermanita, Carmen, for bringing them into my world. One of the sweeter memories I have from our childhood is listening to her play The Beatles: 1962-1966 over and over from her bedroom so many times that I began to memorize the songs. Because I wanted to be different, and because I didn't want her calling me “a copycat,” I bought their Blue Album and gravitated toward those songs. When I was seventeen and depressed, those songs comforted me a lot, especially Lennon's compositions. Although I don't listen to The Beatles as much as I did in my late teens or early twenties, I can still recite practically all of the 108 songs I own. And when I feel a malaise from being alive in this crazy world—like yesterday, for example—listening and singing or humming along to the Beatles more often than not still cheers me up.

In short, I can't and wouldn't want to imagine a world without their music.

But enough fluff, here's my top 10! And if you love these music lists, check out my homeboy's top 10 write-up.

I hope I passed the audition. : 0 )

10. Julia
Album: The White Album

Okay, so let me get this out of the way because it will inevitably merit discussion at some point in this post: John was my favorite Beatle. He was my favorite Beatle when I first fell in love with their music when I was a teenager, and he still is two decades later. (God, I'm getting old. That's great!) Whereas I can easily come up with a top 10 list of Paul McCartney songs that annoy me (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” would probably be my #1. And I know I'm in the minority here, but “Hey Jude” would be a top candidate as well), it's going to be hard for me to ever come up with a list of Lennon songs I outright dislike. He's my boy. Now that I think about it, I would wager that people rarely ever change their favorite Beatle. That's just my suspicion.

But anyway—Julia. What a song. I rarely ever listen to it. I'm rarely in the mood that the song requires from me, but I think it's John's most tender song. That counts for something in my book. And it's a song of such pure beauty. Fortunately for me, I could never relate to John losing his mother at such a young age, but knowing that he lost her when he was a teenager always made me empathize with his music even more.

For me, the main difference between Lennon and McCartney as composers is that Lennon was more forthright, honest, and far more willing to be vulnerable in his songwriting. When the Beatles were blowing up, John was the one who broke away from their lovey dovey boy-band material to write “Help!” And “Julia,” a homage to his dead mother, is another prime example of how he was consistently willing to play from the depths of his heart, to play from the pain to compose beauty.

Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

When we shared our handwritten lists, I remember Justin asked me why I picked this song. He told me it annoyed him, and I can see that. Plus, I just now spent a paragraph discussing how Lennon was more willing to write from the heart than McCartney, and then number nine on my list is a whimsical, not heartfelt song. Ay.

So how did this song crack my fucking top 10 list? I guess the easy and concise thing to say is that I used to get stoned on an occasional basis throughout my mid to late twenties and this song was pretty much one of my favorites to listen to on my iPod when my mind was off and floating in the dreary San Pancho sky. Call me fickle, but that's about 90% of why this song makes this list over other psyche-delicious songs like “I Am the Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” The 1:00 – 1:26 section is my favorite. Dear god, that musical passage just always takes me spinning away, sober or high. And the outro has always been one of my favorite parts to hum or toot along to. Like “Drive My Car” or “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the song is infused with a spirit of playfulness, but it's different than those tunes. With its “carnival atmosphere,” I humbly believe it is truly a unique Beatles song. And like “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which was inspired by a gun magazine, this song gets yummy brownie points for being inspired from an antique circus poster.

Album: Yesterday and Today

What a surprise—another John Lennon song! “Day Tripper” makes my cut primarily because it has my favorite Beatles riff (“I Feel Fine” is a dandy one, too), which Lennon lifted from Roy Orbison's “Oh, Pretty Woman.” It's a playful ditty, and, on its sonic veneer, deceptively innocent; The Beatles wrote it in 1965, henceforth known as ABD (After meeting Bobby D), which means these mopped-haired mofos were up to their ass in weed. Paul acknowledged that the song is about drugs, which is probably why I like it so much (although that opening tambourine is quite delicious and perfect, no?)

7. Here, There and Everywhere
Album: Revolver

A few weeks ago, this song came up on random play from my iPod. Outside, the sun was setting. The sky was a soft, drab, comforting gray. I texted Justin: “If I ever did heroin, 'Here, There and Everywhere' is the one Beatles song I would listen to.”

This song is exquisite. Paul's double-layered vocals feel dreamy, and the backing vocals provide a soothing backdrop along with the bare guitar chords. “Here, There and Everywhere” feels genuinely sorrowful, melancholy and mysteriously uplifting at the same time; that's what makes it stand out for me. There's something enchanting about this song. Score one for Paul.

6. And I Love Her
Album: A Hard Day’s Night

Now score two for Paul!

This is the part of my post where I start rationalizing my selections by saying, This is one of my favorite songs to sing along to. Well, this is one of my favorite songs to sing along to—well, at least in the privacy of my car. I wouldn't ever want to sing this song in front of people because I suspect I'd get a little emotional. I am weird like that, but this song is just so gorgeous, so perfect it can make me cry listening to it. (I got this trait from my dad.) And the acoustic solo—so simple but so goddamn perfect. Not one word, not one note you would want to change from this gem. 

5. I Want You (She's So Heavy)
Album: Abbey Road

Here's the first of my three selections from Abbey Road. John wrote this song about Yoko, shortly after she began to sink her claws in him. (For many, many years, I was not resentful of Yoko and the ridiculous claims that she was partly responsible for the break-up of the band. But after I watched this clip of her singing like an attention-seeking banshee, I firmly slid her over to My Shit List. Bill Burr is spot-on with his analysis.) Musically, it's one of The Beatles' more progressive songs. Back when I used to play bass guitar, I tried to play the tablature to this song, and goddamn it's a difficult, intricate line; it's a prime, prime example of Paul's virtuoso playing—Exhibit A or B of how he revolutionized the instrument for rock 'n' roll.

From an emotional standpoint, I love the mounting despair, peaking with Lennon's primal Yoko-like scream during the third verse. And then the looping three-minute outro with mounting white noise: fuck me. Still sometimes just sucks me in, man. Though I've never played Abbey Road on vinyl, what an astounding way to end Side 1. It has to be one of the greatest end-of-Side-One songs in rock history.

Album: Help!

The world's most covered song? Probably. My favorite McCartney song? Probably.

Like many of my favorite songs, this one is oozing with melancholia. Although the song doesn't feel like McCartney was thinking of someone specific, the sense of loss he conveys feels genuine.

And score one for the power of dreaming! Like Keith Richards' riff for “I Can't Get No (Satisfaction),” “Yesterday” was a melody that McCartney awoke with.

3. Across the Universe
Album: Let It Be

If The Jesus came back, slinging a six string, I think he might have written this song.

According to Wikipedia, music critic Richie Unterberger said “Across the Universe” was "one of the group's most delicate and cosmic ballads.” What a succinct way to describe this song—a cosmic ballad. The 5th Beatle, George Martin, did a masterful job recording this song. Lennon's vocals sound spacey, and the opening guitar notes sound like a sitar. Although Lennon was unhappy with the recording of the song, in particular the usage of strings, I think it added the feel-good-cosmic feel that makes this song stand out. I think it would have been a good but unspectacular ballad if the production were sparser.

Along with “I Am the Walrus,” this song has some of my favorite Lennon lyrics. In particular, the lyrics, Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind /
Possessing and caressing me are so quintessentially John. To me, the song feels like it could have been his credo, especially the chorus, Nothing's gonna change my world. And when I listen to this song, despite all the ugliness happening out there in the world and being deposited in the Interwebs, the chorus feels like my declaration, too.

2. Because
Album: Abbey Road

I've always been a sucker for a resoundingly sad and beautiful song. “Because” is both. It feels like it acknowledges both the overwhelming beauty and pain that comes with being alive in this world. When I first listened to Lennon sing Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry, I felt a window open. The words, the tone he sung it in made me immediately understand, and it was the first time I can remember any person conveying that feeling. 

1. Here Comes the Sun
Album: Abbey Road

Originally, this was my #2 song on this list. But once I reframed it as if I were asking myself, if you had time to listen to only one more Beatles song, which one would it be?, this George Harrison song sprouted to the top. I wasn't much of a fan of this song when I was younger, but the older I get, the more beautiful and astounding this song seems to become for me.

In reading up about these songs, I discovered that in 2008 NASA transmitted "Across the Universe" in the direction of the star Polaris, using a gigantic antenna outside Madrid, Spain. Although I love that song, I wish they would have transmitted this one instead. If any alien life form picked up the signal, I think this song would be a great example of what beauty we humans are capable of.

Honorable Mentions:
Drive My Car
I'm Only Sleeping (Take One) - from The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 1
Dear Prudence
In My Life
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
Back in the U.S.S.R.