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Uncle John

Uncle John and Mom

Thursday we buried my Uncle John. He was the last of his generation, of Mom’s five siblings, to die. It’s the passing of an era but also, the passing of a great man. One of six, father of seven, John Duncan Harrod loved family. He opened his home and his heart to anyone who became part of his tribe. And his family became truly blended over the years, as was evident at his funeral. There were six of his kids and their spouses, and many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There were the relatives of his son-in-law Vito Zambetti, the two families indelibly bonded by Vito’s tragic death decades ago. There were the children of his second wife, Colleen, as red-eyed as their step-siblings. I know how open-armed John could be because he always treated my brother and myself, and my husband and my son, as if we were as welcome in his home as his own offspring. Our families vacationed together, camping in Yosemite and Kentucky, celebrating the country’s bicentennial in Wisconsin. Whenever we visited LA, we stayed with John and his family, even if we slept in our trailer parked outside.

The Harrods are pioneer stock, descendants of the frontiersman James Harrod. John, my mom, brothers Royce, Leon and Bill, and sister Louise moved to LA from their native Kentucky when they were still kids, and with my grandfather Arthur, they built houses for California’s booming expansion. John never stopped working. As his son-in-law Steve Ruda eulogized, he always had a hammer and a nail pouch hanging from his belt. At 87, he was strong as an ox — even after a massive brain bleed felled him and left him attached to machines. When I visited him in the hospital, he held my hand in a grip so tight I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to break free. His eyes were open, and they seemed to look around the room in response to sounds, but I don’t know that he could see or hear. Yet when I squeezed his hand he squeezed mine back. That was the last time I saw him alive.

Before the hemorrhage, his mind was strong too. At my mother’s memorial, he recounted vivid details and the exact addresses of all the places their itinerant father had taken him to live: Florida, Kentucky, near Macarthur Park. Like my parents, he loved to travel America, camping in our great national park system, making use of our highways. It’s a lost art, trailering across America. Maybe, if we toured our own country like our parents did, we would feel less divided.

The night before we buried John, a former marine killed 12 people in a bar not far from San Fernando Mission, the historic 19th century church where my uncle was honored with a last communion. On the day we said goodbye to my mother, a man killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando. Natural deaths are sad enough; why this haste to increase our country’s mortality rate? On our drive to the Valley for the funeral, my husband had a vision of Uncle John standing at the pearly gates, greeting those poor shooting victims with those great strong arms of his spread wide.

As we left the reception, a fierce wind whipped through Porter Ranch, a gale so strong I understood why multiple highway signs warned of dangerous gusts. At that moment in fact, flames were lighting north of Malibu, and an hour later in Woolsey Canyon. Soon the families we had been having lunch with would be evacuating their homes, and John would be hugging more of his California neighbors at the gates of heaven.

Uncle John on the left, my grandmother Guyla, Uncle Leon and Uncle Bill.

I don’t really believe that, of course. I don’t believe in heaven, or life after death. But I appreciate them as good stories that give us comfort in trying times. And we could all use some comfort these days.

Goodbye Uncle John. I probably never told you how much I loved you, but you probably didn’t need me to. That’s what family is for.

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Music Matters Launches!

Music MattersMusic Matters, a new series of short books on single acts, publishes its first two titles today, October 3: Why the Ramones Matter by Donna Gaines and Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker. As series editor, I am so honored to have helped bring these books into fruition, and look forward to many more volumes in the future. Music Matters is published by the University of Texas press, which means I’m labelmates with some of the smartest people thinking about music right now, including Oliver Wang, Vivien Goldman, and Jessica Hopper. The series would not exist without Stephen Hull, who originally conceived it for University Press of New England; when UNPE announced they were shuttering, we moved to UT. Thanks also to Robert Christgau for bringing me to Stephen; I have to admit, he truly is the dean of rock critics.

For more information, check out the press release.

If you are interested in submitting to the series, send a one-page query explaining why the subject matters, why you are qualified to write about that subject, and what would your writing approach be to myself at Evelyn.McDonnell@LMU.edu and ckittrell@utpress.utexas.edu. Please write MUSIC MATTERS in the subject line, and give us at least a month to respond.

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A Festival Where the Future Is Fem

Festivals have a bad reputation for not showing a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to women. (See what I did there?) Numerous articles over the last several years have pointed out how few female artists are booked at some of the major music gatherings, and how low they are often kicked down the billing. Drunken bacchanals can be mine fields for audience goers as well, who at best have to push aside guys who insist on dancing close, and at worst, are gang raped; see, Woodstock 1999.

Hopefully the triumph of Beychella proves once and for all that women can very successfully headline music festivals that aren’t named after biblical heroines or take place in the woods of Michigyn. It’s an idea that the Music Tastes Good festival has been testing for a few years, and last weekend, the two-day gathering in Long Beach demonstrated loudly and joyously, as Ann Magnuson would say, the power of pussy.

Both days of the sun-blessed soiree featured a variety of female-led acts. Saturday’s lineup included the psych-punk ¾-female Silver Lake band Feels, one of my favorite local groups, although I missed their MTG set. I did get there just in time to catch Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the adorably kitschy New Orleans duo who blend punk, polka and puppets. They played the classic alcoholic anthem “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as the lazy-susan stage rotated them out and away from the crowd, the perfect fadeout.

I was there for the ladies so when the four lads from shame (they lowercase their name; bell hooks appropriation?) came on, I went to check out the food-tasting tent. As its name indicates, MTG pairs food from all over the left coast with sounds from, well, all over. So you can enjoy some super-foodie treats instead of the turkey legs or butter-soaked corn cobs of your usual outdoor concert. The tastiest tasting I tried was the pork-belly rice bowl by Wesley Young of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver.

I finished noshing just in time for Cherry Glazerr, another fave LA band, led by the young Clementine Creevy. Creevy has a great, brittle throb of a voice and suicide-blonde looks, but what impressed me most was the way she pulled off sneering guitar licks while singing completely contrapuntal melodies – all with the support of just two bandmates. Lead singers who are also the lead, and only, guitarist are few and far between; Creevy’s the shit.

She rotated off, and on came a four-piece guitar band with three dudes and one player whose sex I wasn’t sure of, until Adrianne Lenker opened her mouth and this alto vibrato flew out. I didn’t know anything about Big Thief, but I was converted. Their take on Flying Burrito Bros. country-rock is so studious it’s almost pretentious, but Lenker’s words are poetic and felt.

Princess Nokia’s political rap-rock made for a bit of a jarring transition – it’s great that the rotating stage makes the segue between acts timeless and seamless, but sometimes you need a few minutes to, er, digest. Still, she and her DJ won me over immediately with her rap about brujas, Arawaks, and Black-a-Ricans. She pulled a classic riot grrrl move, asking for not just girls to the front, but people of color, queers, nonbinaries, etc. Then she sang about her little titties and big stomach, a tomboy retort to the typical festie cry of “show us your titties!”(I also saw a girl with a bag that said, “Show us your kitties!”)

Then, it was Santigold. Oh my goddess. Her show was so smart, so creative, so thoughtfully put together and so unlike any other concert I have seen (and you know, I’ve seen thousands, and I’ve seen Santi before), that it is hard to describe. She wore a scarlet cape with plastic water bottles, dollar bills, and green pompoms sewn on it, and was flanked by two dancers: black women clad in white tennis outfits whose bodies moved impeccably throughout the show and who never betrayed any emotion. They pulled off a James Brown routine: pretend fainting, then getting revived. Rock rubs against reggae, funk, new wave and hip-hop in Santibrown’s songs, shooting off sparks, getting hot. As DJ Lynnee Denise writes in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, “Santigold is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not black music, but from my gatekeeping position, my work here is to place her where she belongs,  squarely  between the tradition and the future of black music.”

Some bands named “Broken Social Scene” and “New Order” played afterwards. I saw the latter about 35 years ago, when they actually sort of mattered (and I personally played “Temptation” live every day), and they were the worst live band ever – they were so bad, they made fans in Boston riot. Why would I go see them now, with Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” ringing in my ears?

Hollie Cook started my Sunday off on a beatific reggae groove. She’s punk-rock legacy, daughter of a Sex Pistol, member of the Slits version 2, friend/collaborator of my friend/collaborator Vivien Goldman. In her vivid pant suit basking in the Southland sun, she was a bit of a flower child, bless her.

Next, I made my way over to the Gold Stage for Lizzo, a dance diva with a big, beautiful voice and body, both of which she flaunts unashamedly. She and her dancers, the Big Grrrls, and DJ dressed in black pleather dominatrix corsets and sang about body positivity. Lizzo was the poster child for Music Tastes good: After asking the audience if they had eaten as well as she had, she stated, “I’m sexy when I’m bloaty.” She urged people to dance to burn off all the calories they had just consumed. She had a practical message for this week’s stupidity/evil in Washington: “I deleted every fuck boy in my social media.”

It was time for the main event. Janelle Monae has for years been weaving a sci-fi song cycle as intricate as the Earthsea trilogy or the Matrix movies, as funky as a Prince groove, and as crazy sexy cool as a TLC hit. She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get personal. Rewind: She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get political. Because these days, as ever, the personal is political.

“Woman must write her self,” Helene Cixous wrote more than 40 years ago in Laugh of the Medusa. I think of Dirty Computer, particularly the track “Pynk,” with its accompanying bootylicious video, as embodying Cixous’s call for ecriture feminine, women’s writing. It’s a glorious celebration of pussy power, with a spelling that harks directly to 1970s womyn’s culture. Monae kicked off the album’s release by coming out as “pansexual,” which may seem a bit ambiguous, but “Pynk” leaves little to the imagination. With her Fem the Future organization and her speeches at the Women’s March and the Grammys, Monae has been at the forefront of the current liberation movement, black and pynk and proud. Plus, she kicks out the jams. Dirty Computer is my album of the year.

As the crowd made its way back to the Franklin stage, Lizzo’s admonishments to be their own inspirations echoing in their heads, I had that special feeling that I was part of a movement, that in the female, nonbinary, multihued bodies around me, I had found my tribe. We waited with bated breath for our screen siren to appear in flesh before us. And then, there she was, dressed like an Afrofuturistic queen with an elaborate stage setup.

Monae certainly tapped into the mood of this moment; on the double-entendre track “Screwed,” she put special emphasis on the lyric “wanna get screwed at a festival.” And yet, the show was tightly scripted, the moves highly choreographed, her body, from head to toe, firmly encased in costumes. On album and in interviews, she may be revealing her self, but on stage, she doesn’t seem to have fully made the transition from android to human. Tellingly, the song that seemed most real was the sweet confessional “I Like That,” from Computer, in which she celebrates her idiosyncrasy, claiming not badassness but being “the minor note you hear in major songs.” Monae is my major note, but that’s a lot to ask anyone to live up to, android or not.

Some Blake bloke followed Monae, but again, he was an afterthought that I didn’t think. I wish Music Tastes Good had put a woman in one of the weekend’s two top slots, but Janelle was billed as a headliner. Overall, the festival almost alternated male and female-led acts of an impressive range, from punk to funk to reggae to rap to rock. Plus, they worked with the #HereForTheMusic anti-harassment campaign of Calling All Crows, who trained staff and security in how to make Marina Green Park a safe space for everyone. An anti-assault statement was printed prominently on the back cover of the program. Last time I felt like I had a tribe like this at shows, in the mid-‘90s, we had to carve out our own territory in mosh pits. Here’s to a future of getting screwed at festivals, in a good way.

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My Aretha piece

In the sad, crazy tumult of the passing of the Queen of Soul, coinciding with the start of classes, I forgot to post my tribute to Aretha Franklin, which I was honored to write as the cover story for Billboard‘s tribute issue. Here it is: https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/8471733/aretha-franklin-path-to-greatness-obituary

 

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Village Voice Memories

There’s been a lot of reminiscing about The Village Voice. I contributed to two pieces: The New York Times Popcast podcast, and Billboard‘s roundup of writers remembering their first Voice pieces.

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Respect

I can’t think of any artist who so masterfully spanned so many decades and genres as Aretha Franklin: gospel, soul, pop, rock, funk, disco, opera. Along with Bob Dylan, I would call her THE towering solo figure of the 1960s and beyond. I’m working on a large piece on her for Billboard’s tribute issue, writing through the tears. In the meantime, critic and novelist Caryn Rose wrote a great tribute to the GOAT a year ago for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. You can read it now at Salon.  I just wish the Queen of Soul were here to see it.

 

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Don’t Stop the Press!

Los Angeles journalism legend Patt Morrison argues vigorously and eloquently for the importance of the fourth estate in her book Don’t Stop the Press! Check out my Los Angeles Review of Books review: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/extra-extra/#!.

 

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