Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Adding Up New Music

The mini-bio on Emily Jane Powers' Bandcamp page used to say something along the lines of, "Emily Jane Powers is a Chicago indie pop artist who plays guitar, violin, keys, drums, and sings. She also teaches math." I loved that. Nowadays, the second sentence reads, "While she incorporates aspects of 60s pop, folk, and punk into her music, she has never looked to any influence but herself for a sense of direction."

The first recording of hers I heard was a cover of The Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." I forget where I downloaded it from, but wherever it was, they credited the song to "Yellow Mica Recordings." Whereas the original bops along with Wall of Sound cheeriness, Powers' version has a melancholy edge honed sharply with acoustic guitar, piano and strings.

I have listened to The Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" countless times, so I loved the fact that someone had taken a song I knew so well, a song that's a major part of the punk rock canon, and turned it on its head. Powers'version popped up on my iPod enough times, I finally decided I needed to find out who this woman was.

A quick Google search gave me, as always, what I needed. Since then, I've downloaded two of Powers' many albums, and plan to listen to the others and grab at least two more. She's prolific, that's for sure. She has 10 albums available on her Bandcamp page, recorded over the past dozen years.

Her music is sometimes sweet and simple like the Mamas and Papas (those are the ones I like), sometimes a bit too freak-folkish for me, like, I don't know, whoever is annoying in that scene. Overall, though, I like her aesthetic and DIY attitude.

Here are a few samples:

Dani from EJP on Vimeo.

"What Makes You" by Emily Jane Powers from Look Sessions on Vimeo.

Powers shares a sensibility with other women whose music I've found myself drawn to in recent years: She & Him (a duo featuring actress Zooey Deschanel), Arthur & Yu (a male/female duo that no longer exists) and First Aid Kit (a sister act from Sweden).

I'm not sure where this new musical leaning comes from. Don't get me wrong, I still rock out, still thrive on playing air guitar to The Descendents' Milo Goes to College album:

And I spend a lot of time listening to neo-twangy stuff like Lydia Loveless:

There's something about the harmonies, the longing in their voices, the deceptive simplicity of the music that gets me with artists like Powers, She & Him and First Aid Kit. It all goes back to Nancy Sinatra, I guess. I listened to her quite a bit during my 1988 road trip, and while I don't listen to her much any more, I always like hearing "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'" or "Sugar Town" when they pop up on my iPod.

The math just adds up for me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Uncle Bill

This past Saturday I went to my Uncle Bill's memorial service. There were times in recent years when, unless I was talking about my dad's family, I forgot about my uncle.

Growing up, I saw my dad's older brother, George, and his family regularly. And today, although we're all grown and have gone our various ways, some with kids, others without, a big group of us cousins gathers at least once a year.

Bill never had kids, and lived in Rochester, New Hampshire, about three hours from where most of the rest of us lived. He visited us in Connecticut on rare occasions, and kept his distance in other ways, too.

I knew very little about him. Random images float in my head, but they are like Viewmaster slides. I load a picture of Bill in my head, mention it to someone in my family, and then someone flips the switch and the picture changes.

"No," they say, "he had the Winnebago in Simsbury, not at Grandma Jo's house."

He was a crew-cutted mystery, a pot-bellied ghost. I remember a picture of him with a flat-top haircut, big sideburns, an orange blazer and thick, black glasses (similar to the ones I wear). I thought he looked cool. But I haven't seen that photo in years, and sometimes I wonder if I made it up in my head.

I saw him at my grandmother's funeral in 1989, and he looked much as I'd remembered him, but very different in so many ways than his brothers. Sure, he was tall and dark-haired, but where my dad and George wore jackets and ties, George donned jeans, a checked shirt and a big belt buckle. He looked like a trucker, which he was. Or at least I thought he was, until I learned otherwise at his service.

I know he was a firefighter in Rochester, as well as a bus driver.

Last summer I drove my parents to Rochester to see Bill. He'd been sick with Alzheimer's for quite some time, and his wife, Mary Lou, had to put him in a nursing home. She told my dad that Bill was deteriorating both physically and mentally, and might not have much more time.

Our visit went as well as could be expected. None of us had seen Bill in 24 years. He spoke only in a low whisper, and only to Mary Lou. She knew what he wanted and could understand what little he said, or interpret his gestures. We watched the Red Sox on TV and made small talk with each other and with Mary Lou.

One of Mary Lou's granddaughters accompanied her to the nursing home. After our visit, the five of us went to lunch. I really liked Mary Lou. She was tough, smart and easy to talk to.

Since that visit, I have thought about Bill a bit more than usual.

I thought that back in 1989 I could've made an effort to see him in Rochester. At the time, I was living a short distance away, in Dover, NH. I worked for a few months at a local factory, and discovered that my boss knew my uncle from the fire department.

"You uncle is Frig'em Brigham?" he asked when I told him Bill worked as a firefighter in Rochester.

I shied away from asking him about that nickname, and what my uncle was like. I felt weird because I didn't know my own flesh and blood. I have a feeling that if I'd reached out to my uncle, given him a call or driven up to the fire station, we would've had a few laughs over cans of beer.

I suspect he told more than a few dirty jokes in his life. He could've told me how to fix stuff, because none of the Simsbury Brigham are particularly adept mechanically.

I didn't know what to expect at the memorial service. My parents rode up with one of my cousins, and my sister and two other cousins arrived separately. Only my parents and I had met Mary Lou before.

I suspected the Rochester Fire Department would be represented at the service, but I couldn't have imagined how big a presence they were. Before my arrival, apparently, a long line of firefighters paid their respects. Outside the chapel the department parked the truck that my uncle had driven when he was on the job (he retired in the late '80s). They put black and purple bunting on the truck, and boots, a helmet and coat that I believe belonged to my uncle.

The department put a display at the front of the chapel featuring my uncle's uniform, two silver-bladed axes, his honorable discharges from the Navy and Army Reserve, and his urn. Firefighters took turns standing at attention at the front of the chapel until the service started.

During the service the department's chaplain offered words of comfort to the gathering, and read a letter that Mary Lou wrote. It was all very moving.

Near the end of the service came the part that really got me, though. Two young Navy men in uniform approached the front of the chapel, saluted Bill's urn while "Taps" played, and then unfurled the triangular American flag that lay on the table. Once the flag was unrolled, they showed it to the congregation, and then methodically folded it back into its three-corner shape.

They then presented it to Mary Lou, and offered these words:

"On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

The minister spoke of Bill's service to his country and to the people of Rochester, including the children he took to and from school during his many years driving a bus. Others spoke of his good humor and great ways with his stepchildren and grandchildren.

It felt strange to hear these words about somebody who I barely knew, but I felt it connected us just a little bit.

My immediate family and I stuck out like sore thumbs at the service. My dad and my cousin John wore suits; I had a nice pair of pants and a button-down shirt. My mother, sister and two cousins were dressed nicely as well.

Everyone else in attendance was in jeans, sweatshirts, fleece jackets, leather jackets, etc. I knew this was how it would be, because I knew that Rochester was a blue collar town, and my uncle was a blue collar guy. But once we broke the ice a bit with a few folks, things felt OK. Nobody seemed to hold a grudge that Mary Lou put my family in the reserved pews at the front of the chapel.

The delicate new bond between us was solidified a little more when the guy who looked most menacing -- leather jacket, black boots, neck tattoos, ear tattoos, scruffy beard -- told my dad he liked his cane, which is black with a silver snake head for a handle.

"My grandfather had one like that," the guy said. "His had a cobra for a handle, and you could pull it out and it was a sword." We laughed at that, and it felt pretty good.