“I Can’t Stand the Rain” – Ann Peebles

Jams, OP-ED

Part of moving to a new city is exploring your immediate neighborhood until you become comfortable enough to expand beyond your general territory into the various areas around town. In Kansas City, there are the usual parts of town that everyone suggests you visit: Plaza, Crossroads, PnL, Westport, etc. Each has a distinct flavor and history that you’re constantly cognizant of, whether it be the fountains at the Plaza or white sunglasses and studded jeans at PnL.

And then there’s the West Bottoms. A former stockyard during KC’s rapid agricultural expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the West Bottoms now exist as a virtual ghost town to tourists and many close-minded or unaware locals.

The West Bottoms are a five-minute drive from downtown KC. You take a huge, lazily winding bridge down into what feels like the depths of the city. My first visit brought surreal memories of the underside of Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, save for the seedy crime and caped crusaders. Stoplights are non-existent, craters filled with water from some long forgotten rain abundant. Huge buildings loom overhead, seemingly deserted like something out of a “Walking Dead” set.

For the most part, the area is used for art studios, to host the annual Boulevardia festival and, in the fall, as a hotbed for commercial haunted house attractions. However, situated in an alley in the middle of the West Bottoms is an old speakeasy called The Ship.

It was here that my friends and I first ventured down to the West Bottoms in search of The Ship, which had been written about in a local news story. The outside looked like the site of an unsolved murder: wooden shack of sorts with dim, overpowering red lighting. If it weren’t for the electricity, you’d think this were the Unabomber’s vacation home. Inside, however, you feel as though you’ve been taken below deck on an old boat. An impressive “The Ship” sign illuminated by dozens of individual light bulbs greets visitors as they find their seats in the nautical-themed bar.

All of these elements combined create a dreamlike environment that, beyond the swinging double doors, teleports visitors to a completely different, indiscernible time period populated by a cast of characters sometimes as illusory as the place itself.

We met one of those individuals on our second trip to The Ship, an older gentleman who had spent seven years bartending in Hawaii (the place where Hawaiian Punch is made). It was around 7 pm – an hour or two after they open – and completely empty aside from us and another bartender. Our bartender regaled us with tales of bartending in Hawaii and The Ship’s fascinating past while the other man popped a quarter into an ancient jukebox near the bathrooms.

On comes these old soul tracks I’ve never heard before, mostly from the 60s and 70s, that at any other bar would seem inappropriate, but here, they just fit. The music is as integral to the bar as water is to sailing, and you can tell that each song has been hand-chosen by the people who run The Ship. After a few songs, Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” comes on.

It opens with these strange, almost unsettling guitar (?) plucks that transport the listener – if only for a few moments – to a nebulous space devoid of familiarity. You’re floating there, unsure of your surroundings, until Ann Peebles comes in seconds later, luring you back to reality with the smoky, soulful voice that was so popular in the 70s.

Percussion and organ follow shortly thereafter, with some horns thrown in as well, and suddenly the listener is grounded. However, those otherworldly guitar plucks linger in the background for the duration of the song, sounding almost like the score from an old horror film, and when combined with the traditional soul sounds make it one of the more unusual tracks I’ve ever heard.

I can’t seem to get this song out of my head. It feels ahead of its time while remaining a product of its time. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” coexists with the West Bottoms and The Ship in a way that many songs don’t. Every time I hear it I’m whisked away, if only for a few moments, to that strange part of town that always seems further away than reality would have you believe.

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“Taro” – alt-J and “Dispatches” – Michael Herr

Jams, OP-ED

1.

I’m pissed off for two separate reasons. One has to do with my friend (and fellow contributor) Seth, and the other not, but I feel like blaming it on him anyway. I’m actually pissed at him because he already wrote about my favorite band, alt-J. I’m not actually pissed but feel like putting the blame on him for my having not listened to their song “Taro” until only recently.

See? Not his fault at all. But it just feels right saying it is.

Seth is also responsible for introducing me to “Dispatches,” a memoir written by a war correspondent that worked in Vietnam. During the war. Not in some “ivory tower” like all of these so-called “intellectuals” and “professors” seem to be doing these days. Turns out, things weren’t exactly like “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” I was in the prologue of my obsession with “Taro” when Seth started bugging me about reading “Dispatches.” Finally, about a month ago, I conceded defeat, bought the book and read it.

2.

I used to have a war book when I was younger. “Scholastic Encyclopedia of the United States at War.” Man, I loved that thing. There were incredible pictures on each page, dating all the way back to the Revolution. (There weren’t actual photos from that time period, just to be clear. They were paintings and drawings. Unless those were actually real, in which case, I’ve lived a lie my whole life.) I still owe the majority of my war knowledge to that book.

What always struck me about it though was the difference between the Korean War section and the Vietnam War section. You’d see photos of soldiers in Korea, bundled up beyond all recognition. Walking blankets with machine guns. Sometimes they’d be covered in ponchos. Actually, now that I think about it, there were only about four or five pages dedicated to the Korean War. Before it was WWII, which is the granddaddy of all American wars. How many movies have they made about it? Miniseries only count as half.

But then I’d turn to the Vietnam section. And there they were: Soldiers in full color, close up, personal, no blankets or ponchos in sight. Their fatigues unbuttoned with sweat beads so pronounced you almost felt the humidity.
When you’re a child, everyone more than four years older than you seems like an impossible age that you’ll never reach, like being 9 and having a 13-year-old babysitter. These soldiers just seemed so grown up. They smoked cigarettes for godssake! But I never really realized how young these boys were. Not even when I turned 18 or 19, when I finished up high school and lounged around in college, did I really understand what it meant. And I doubt that I ever will.

3.

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Taro.” I wish I’d catalogued that memory away, next to all my other valuable brain keepsakes (my friend and editor, also named Seth and coincidentally the same Seth from earlier, suggested I use a different word besides “memories,” so this is what you get) that I keep shoved in a cabinet somewhere in my brain. Actually, if I’m being honest, what has become my favorite song didn’t really strike me as anything other than another cool-sounding alt-J track (which pretty much describes their entire catalog). I heard it again in my girlfriend’s car one day and something about it stuck with me.

I had to find out what it meant. If you’re at all familiar with alt-J, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible to understand what Joe Newman is saying. Go ahead, give it a shot. I’ve listened to both albums more than I can count and still don’t know 80 percent of the lyrics. It’s the kind of music that makes you mumble along when you sing in the car, and it feels like you’re nailing it even though you know you’re not.

I found this article while doing some research on “Taro,” as one does when they’re living on his own in a studio apartment. DIY Magazine interviewed alt-J and asked them about the meaning of each song on their first album. Here’s the description of “Taro”:

“Taro” is about two war photographers – Robert Capa and Gurda Taro – who met during the second world war. They became lovers and got engaged to one another and were head over heels, then Gurda Taro was killed. I don’t think Robert Capa ever got over it. He died about ten years later in Indochina, when he stepped on a landmine, so the song documents those moments just before, during and after he steps onto it. It’s basically talking about those moments and how he knows that he’s dying, but that he’s going to be seeing Gerda Taro soon.

This is heartbreaking. Even the “happy ending” is horrible. But, like the cover of an Animorphs book, the song changed into something completely different for me once I knew the backstory.

4.

“Dispatches” is a reading experience I’d never encountered before. Each page is a slow trudge toward a depressing anticlimax. It’s engrossing. Michael Herr puts you in Vietnam, where he and his colleagues worked alongside Marine “grunts.” They get to know the Marines. They become friends with them. They see them die.

And Herr and all his colleagues were there voluntarily. The Marines weren’t. Sure, Herr wasn’t holding a gun, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the war. His stories are more affecting, more truthful than any other portrayal of war I’ve ever read. He wasn’t there because he had to be. He wasn’t there because he had an opinion of the war, though he clearly did. He was just there.

Throughout, he talks about photographers who’ve won the Robert Capa Gold Medal award for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” The award loses a little of its glimmer though once you know Capa’s backstory, which is befitting of the stories of all the guys who shot and reported on Vietnam.

5.

“Taro” feels like a song from another culture. It immediately teleports the listener to a different time and place. Newman’s enunciation and delivery are equal parts confusing and foreign. The guitar plucks haunt your ears. Reading lyrics is essential to the listening experience. At 1:14, an instrument I’ve never heard bursts through the bush.

I literally can’t stop listening to it. And it’s such a bummer that Seth already wrote about alt-J because he, Chris and I want to share cool tunes and impress people with our music knowledge. It’s hard to do that when we talk about the same band all the time.

Some songs take on new meanings when you discover the artist’s intention. For example, I never knew that “Stoned” by Smash Mouth was about drugs until I learned what “weedajuana” was. “Taro” reshapes the way you view the album, alt-J and what songs can do.

6.

“Dispatches” should be required reading for everyone even remotely alive. What it has to say about war and man can’t be taught with history lessons or by watching documentaries. It will change the way you see conflict.

“Taro” should be required listening for everyone even remotely alive. The way it takes obscure source material and wraps it in song and lyrics is nothing I’ve ever heard or read before. It will change the way you see music and art.

“Ex’s & Oh’s” – Elle King and my (sort of) apology to 102.3 BXR

Jams, OP-ED

I take no pleasure in admitting that I’ve conducted a 5-year smear campaign against Columbia’s local “alternative” station 102.3 BXR. Any time Columbia radio stations ever came up in conversation, I was quick to dismiss BXR as having gone downhill, down the furthest hill you could possibly find with a camp set up at the bottom.

My parents even talk of a time when BXR was cool. Way back in 1997 when we first moved to Columbia, BXR played the good stuff. They invited new artists into “Studio X” to perform live acoustic versions of their hit songs. Artists like Dave Matthews, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, Los Lonely Boys, etc. all made BXR hip, cool and relevant.

However, as with many radio stations, being hip and relevant doesn’t last long. BXR’s problem over the last few years is that they haven’t really moved on from this era of music. There’s nothing wrong with hearing “Low” by Cracker every once in a while, but this shouldn’t be a mainstay on the only alternative radio station in town. And Cracker is hardly the worst offender.

U2, Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Counting Crows. These are all regulars on BXR. And while it’s okay to like these artists, I think that BXR and Cumulus Radio aren’t giving Columbians enough credit when it comes to new and interesting music.

This is why I was shocked to hear Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” last night on BXR. I did an actual double take, the exaggerated kind you see in movies and TV shows, just to make sure that my eyes hadn’t deceived me.

I was shocked for several reasons:

  1. I’ve never heard “Ex’s & Oh’s” before
  2. Elle King, as far as I know, isn’t playing a show in Columbia any time soon
  3. It’s actually good

This is coming from the same station that introduces “new” artists months after they’ve been popular two hours away in Kansas City. This is the same station that pretty much ignored Arctic Monkeys (arguably the biggest rock band in the world) until they miraculously PLAYED A SHOW IN COLUMBIA, MISSOURI last winter. Arctic Monkeys have five albums under their belt and BXR plays only three of their songs: two from last year’s release and one from their first album, which came out eight years ago.

“Ex’s & Oh’s” is a great song. Elle King has a raspy, throaty voice that makes you wonder just how many cigarettes she must’ve smoked to acquire it, but you don’t care because she got the combination right. She’s an infectious mix of Gin Wigmore and ZZ Ward, which is the perfect concoction for Columbia.

This might be the beginning of a new time for BXR. It seems as though Cumulus Radio is finally allowing the station to seek out new music that still fits Columbia’s tastes (while still insisting they play The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” five times a day.) Baby steps.

I heard another song just this morning that I’d never encountered before, “Dearly Departed” by Shakey Graves feat. Esmé Patterson. It may not conform exactly to my music tastes, but the beauty of great radio is that it can change what listeners like and what they want to listen to. Plus, if you play upcoming artists often enough, they may actually come to your town and play there. And that’s infinitely cooler.