Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ben Nichols

Last night, I saw Lucero in concert … again. Each and every time that I have seen this band they have floored me. It was a few years back when the eldest Brother McC called me to say that Lucero were playing in Brooklyn. At the time, I had never heard of them – but I was told that I need to be there. The Mrs & I were residing in Brooklyn at that time – so off we went.

One word: Amazing.

So after the show, I walked over to the merch table and said: One of everything, please.

As a band, Lucero is one of the great live acts out there. There’s no flash, no light show, no schtick … just a great set of musicians who give passionate performances of the songs that they obviously love to play. And those songs are amazing.

Throughout most of the 70’s – every serious songwriter got saddled with one version or another of the tag – “The New Dylan” – and throughout the 80’s & 90’s – many great songwriters came & went. Some reach amazing heights – and some never got passed the local club circuit.

But an amazing thread ran through the best of these. Common Speak. Lyrics that were universal – or at least, universal to the working class. In Ireland, Shane McGowan cornered the market of songs that painted pictures of the life & times of the working class. In England, Joe Strummer struggled with his quest to speak out for the common man. In the US, the reigning champ was Springsteen. But then there was a lull in the action. Sure, there were pretty great bands & songwriters here & there. But there was nothing that rocked my world like the first time I saw The Pogues … The Clash … or The E Street Band. Till that night I saw Lucero in Brooklyn.

Last night, something caught me off guard. The show was an all-ages show. So the riotous, drunken behavior on the dance floor was absent. And, as noted by lead singer – Ben Nichols – the crowd was paying rapt attention to the ballads. Sure, they were raising hell on the rockers – but singing along with every word on the slow songs. So Nichols ran with it – playing more of his introspective songs than we usually get at a Lucero show.

And it was the more I appreciated the lyrics – the ballads – songs from the new, soon-to-be released CD, and some old favorites – that I came to really appreciate the level of talent this guy has cleared with his craft.

The people in Ben Nichols’ songs are the same people in the audience of a Lucero show. Sure, in “The War” – Nichols is singing about his grandfather. But as he poured his heart out in last night’s version of that song, all I could think of is how many kids in the audience had already done their time serving this country – and how many more will.

Ben Nichols isn’t “The Next Dylan” – he’s Ben Nichols. And, for my money, he’s currently in the cream of the crop of American spokesmen today. His songs tell the story of the 99%. His songs tell the stories of the forgotten, the overlooked and the lost. And, yes, there are folks in these tales that have just made bad choices in their lives. But in the end, these are songs about folks who no longer recognize what the American Dream once was. For them, a good day is having enough money in your pocket to have a whiskey at the end of the day.

“Smoke” – by Ben Nichols

The bike was on the street
Outside a midtown bar
He went looking for a drink
Wasn’t looking very hard
She was sitting on his seat
When he came out the door
She said, “Run away with me”
He’d heard that line before
He said, “Better men than me
Have all be left behind”
She said, “We’re doing pretty good
If we can just get out alive”

She wrapped her arms around his waist
Nowhere to run to anyways
The bolted out into the streets
Unknown and beautiful

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Life Starts At 50

Maybe it’s because I’ve always liked to live my life a little outside of the mainstream. Maybe it was just my way of rebelling against my Dad. Or maybe it’s because I’ve just always felt comfortable in my own skin. But, since I was a teenager, I have always been fond of earrings, long hair and tattoos.

Well, now I’m 50 years old. And, the older I get, the more I am expected to “act my age.” But, the older I get, the longer I want my hair to be – the louder I want to listen to music (Yep … I’ll blast Lucero these days just as loudly as I blasted The Faces when I was a kid) – and … and here’s the big surprise … the more I want to do to help out my community.

Yep … long-haired weird-os, with tattoos and earrings can actually do good things.

In my “day job” – I often find myself working with folks who – shall we say – lean to the right. And a lot of these folks are really great to work with. But, let’s be honest here, these are folks who would like working with me a lot better if I would only “just cut my hair.” How do I know this to be true? Because they have told me … time and time again.

It happens all the time with my volunteering with the local chapter of Optimists International. OK … so I am basically about 20 to 30 years younger than the other members of my club. And, to their defense, they did grow up in a time where only women had long hair, only hookers & pirates had pierced ears, and only sailors or prison inmates had tattoos. But times change.

It’s fun to hang with the “old folks” as we help out the young kids with our Optimists International programs. And it’s even more fun to sit around at our weekly lunches – telling tales and listening to the perspective of folks on the far side of retirement. But it never ceases to amaze me that, more often than not, I hear comments about the way I dress and the length of my hair. And how much better I would look if I would only get a haircut. Really??? It’s 2011 and long hair on a man is still frowned upon??

And, just a few weeks ago, I got to work with a gentleman from my company who I respect. A man who has had a career of putting his life on the line for the safety of others. And we do work together amazingly and get along great as friends. But the humor for me was, on an almost daily basis, he lamented the length of my hair. He told my co-workers to buy me a pair of scissors for my next birthday. He told my wife & son that I was an amazing worker and a great guy – but couldn’t they get me to cut my hair?!?!

And funnily enough, it is when my boss … and/or the folks at OI … when they keep telling me how much better it would be if I cut my hair – that just makes me want to grow it even longer.

You see … folks with long hair, earrings and tattoos do great and positive things in this world every day. I got my first tattoo back when my Mom passed away. I was a teen-ager who was looking for a way to keep my Mom’s spirit alive … so I got a tattoo with her name on a flower on my shoulder. I’ve gotten a few others along the way. The most recent being when my son was born.

My hair and earrings … they change from time to time. And, truth be told, I’ve had short hair more often than not in the last ten years. But the older I get – it seems the more folks expect me to conform – to look like I’m running for a political office. And, I guess it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m gonna let my freak flag fly for a while. I’ve put my earrings back in – and my grey hair is growing a bit longer.

And the best part is, even with my long hair, my tattoos and earrings, I’m still able to do my job well – and I still volunteer to help out the neighborhood kids.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Old Man Hockey - Another Great Season

Some days are just great days. And most times –these great days can come through no fault of my own. Outside of my family and friends – there are two things that I truly find joy in: and that’s music and sports. And so often, my “great days” involve either music or sports.

OK … so I’m a bit of a cliché. A working class kid from the outskirts of Philly finds escape it music and sports. It’s a softball I just pitched up there – so feel free to add a punch-line.

But here’s the thing. One common thread that runs deep in these two subjects – but can so often be overlooked – is that; when push comes to shove – barriers are almost meaningless with these two topics. I know there has been race, religion and a whole host of other problems with sports and music over the years. And, I’m guessing if John Feinstein or Dave Marsh were to write an in-depth book on either – there would be chapters dedicated to this.

But I’m 50. And I’ve come to a pretty good understanding about sports and music: if you’re good – run with it – and if you’re running with me - welcome to the team! Because, at my age, the guys who are still doing it (“it” being sports or music) have already left their hearts and souls on stages, fields, courts and rinks around the world. At my age, after a hockey game, a hoop game or a late night gig – a large part of the conversations will circulate around medical issues! Who’s hurt, who has had surgery and who has to go see what doctor about which problem.

And the funny thing is – it makes any group of guys sharing all this with each other as thick as thieves. The guys I run and play with nowadays are some of the greatest guys that I’ve ever known. And some of them - I hardly know at all!!! There are a few guys that I lace ‘em up with every week – and I have no idea what they do off the ice. There are musicians that I’ve played with over the years – and maybe we have gone our separate ways – but when we do see it other – it’s like no time had passed at all.

And that brings me to the way my friends reacted when the news broke that I had cancer. Holy shit! It was like someone raised the flag that cried; ‘Time to rally the troops, boys!!’ I could tell you stories that would bring tears to your eyes, smiles to your faces … or just have you scratching your head … but no story I tell could ever do any of those moments justice.

But this passed week … our Old Man Hockey season came to an end. Our local ice rink will close for a few weeks for maintenance and repairs. And we did what we always do; we had “The Old Man Hockey Banquet.”

Now, calling this gathering a “banquet” is about on par with, if I sat in a tree you could call me a “bird.” We basically met at a bar for wings & beers … and scotch. And actually, a pretty good amount of all of the above. And, to give you an idea of the mindset of our crew; each year we hand out “The Old Fart” award – to the player who best lived up to said title throughout the year.

As we sat there telling stories about great shots, great saves – and moments of silliness – it seemed that I was the odds on favorite for this years coveted award. And when Joel, the leagues resident Top Dog called the party to attention, there sure seemed to be a lot of cameras facing my direction.

And, yes, your humble writer did receive the award. And after the cheers and laughter died down, there were many hugs and comments that, with all due respect to you kind readers, I’ll keep mostly to myself.

But there was one great moment. As we looked at the trophy – and ordered another round – a comment was made that; “The trophy was going to me one way or the other this year. It was going to be to hold my ashes – but since I survived the surgery …”

And so we sat there. A group of guys basking in the joy that one of their own was still around to celebrate another season. And all I could think of was, if we all knew then what we know now; how great would it have been to have had a great writer like John Feinstein or Dave Marsh cover the ride?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Patty

Mol an páiste agus molann tú an mháthair.