Hardship and Hope and Musical Discoveries in 2017
What is even wrong with you, 2017?
I mean, I’d thought 2016 was rough. For one, my estranged dad died. He was a monstrous clod of a man, a selfish beast with awful habits like showing up at karaoke in blackface and picking a Louis Armstrong tune. The twisted buffet of grief and relief at his passing did a real number on my poor brain: I came out of it stronger, but it was a mind-alteringly strange time. And then there was the presidential election, during which a man without the presence of mind to take care of a cat, much less run a country, stumped from rally to rally spewing ignorant hate.
But goddamn, 2017 made all that feel like a picnic. Now a terrible void of a man who behaves a little too much like my late dad is the president, and now I’m the one who landed in the hospital – with freaking cancer. So I’ll ask again: what is even wrong with you, 2017?
With this mindset, I decided a few months back that it was time to reread Transmetropolitan, comic book writer Warren Ellis’ chaotic and cynical vision of a grimy, corrupt dystopia. It’s a little bit cyberpunk and a whole lot gonzo: its antihero, if you haven’t read it, is a futuristic Hunter S. Thompson analogue named Spider Jerusalem.
It had been at least a decade since my last read. Frighteningly, we’ve all but caught up to the future predicted in Transmet: the comic, which ran from 1997 until 2002, features a citizen-driven, Twitter-like newsfeed; a heavily militarized and trigger-happy police force (their riot shields read “SUBMIT NOW”); and a megalomaniac president who hates the job, but craves the attention it brings – and the ability to fuck with people’s lives. Yet within the crushing darkness of that tale, and of the real-life year I’m just now limping to the end of, came a remarkably positive Spider Jerusalem quote. “The future is inherently a good thing,” the fictional journalist asserted (while aiming a massive snowball cannon at his two assistants), “and we move into it one winter at a time.”
So that’s how I’m going to orient my brain. Winter isn’t forever – it can’t be – and I owe it to my daughters to prepare them for a bright future, not this waking nightmare. I don’t even know how we get from here to there, I have to admit, but I choose to believe that it’s possible.
And of course this year wasn’t all bad. On a day-to-day basis I tend to be pretty happy. I’ve done some cool stuff, like the story I did on Caspar Babypants (aka Chris Ballew, once of ’90s radio staple The Presidents of the United States of America) for the winter 2017 No Depression print journal. He’s a phenomenal children’s musician who we listen to daily. Ballew’s an inventive and hardworking musician, and it was really satisfying to talk to him and really dig into his craft for ND. I got to interview rap legend DMC, which was huge for me. And I had the privilege of shining a light on actor John Wesley Shipp’s impressive social justice track record, which dates back to his high school years in 1960s rural North Carolina. I’m also really pleased with the Bandcamp Daily profile I did of Pierce Freelon, the forward-thinking rapper who ran for mayor of Durham, NC. I still wish he’d won.
Oh. And I got some sweet tattoos I’ve been wanting for years. They look awesome.
And then there’s the cancer. As odd as it may sound, I’m doing okay. See, what I have is called chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which I was diagnosed with in August. It’s a disease that usually hits seniors and I was 35 at diagnosis, which is so unlikely it’s not even statistically significant. Yes, it’s terrifying. Yes, it’s recast everything in my life. But I’m also on these modern meds that are working amazingly so far. It’s under control for now, which is all I can ask for. I’m doing okay, really, and I’m doing what I would have been doing anyway, which is watching the new Star Trek show (which is amazing) and hanging out with my wife and daughters (who are okay, I guess).
Anyway, I was supposed to do a top 10 list. What a weird concept, right? Most of the music I got into this year wasn’t even made in 2017, such as Mazzy Star’s Among My Swan and Joan Armatrading’s late-’70s LPs. This year has also been defined by me watching my daughters’ musical tastes evolve. This year, both my girls got hooked on Beastie Boys, which challenged me to create a relatively clean playlist. On top of that, my 5-year-old daughter developed a taste for heavy metal this year (she digs Mastodon). We’ve since tested the theory with a few other heavy bands, and it’s been confirmed. Our sweet, innocent child has a metal streak, which is awesome to see.
Ok. That’s enough detouring. If you’re still reading (or if you just skimmed to the bottom, which is fine, too), here’s my top-ten list:
1. Tinariwen, Elwan. This record tops my list, no contest, as Tinariwen became one of my very favorite bands on the strengths of this album. It’s the music of resilience, of surviving – flourishing, even – despite the world around you. That’s what I need in my life.
2. John Davis and the Cicadas, El Pulpo. This one is like a National Geographic story set to music. It’s somehow simultaneously dense and catchy.
3. Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black
4. Mdou Moctar, Sousome Tamacheck
5. Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die
6. Caspar Babypants, Jump For Joy!
7. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
8. Sharon Jones, Soul of a Woman
9. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway
10. Turnpike Troubadours, A Long Way From Your Heart