Category Archives: Reporter’s Notebook

Outtakes From Songwriter Kevin Gordon

The most lovely thing about doing 20-inch previews of music shows for any given local paper are the turns a conversation might take when both parties aren’t in any rush to get off the phone. I previewed Kevin Gordon’s latest show at the Elk Creek Cafe in September and during the course of our conversation, other topics came up. You can read a lot more about Gordon in this cover story from the Nashville Scene.

We talked about his experiences attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late ’80s for poetry.

“For me it was exactly what I needed,” Gordon said. “I needed to have my head blown open. I went to college at Monroe State for four of my five years in college, with the other year at Louisiana Tech … I was fortunate enough for three of the five years to have an incredible writing teacher who had gone to school in Virginia, Dev Hathaway.”
That was the first time Gordon had “ever seen a literary journal that was current, with poems written in the last year,” he said. Jorie Graham was a writer-in-residence and encouraged him to apply to graduate programs.
“I got in, and the slacker that I was said this is what I’m going to do for the next two years,” Gordon said. The other option? Move to Austin and become a singer-songwriter, like his friend Kevin Russell, who’s now playing with the Shiny Ribs.

“It was an ego circus as you can imagine,” Gordon said about Iowa. (And what follows, it should be noted, are scattered sentence quotes from a stream-of-consciousness conversation.)
“We were always the juvenile delinquents of the program. I’m still amazed I didn’t go to jail more than once. I was incredibly lucky. We were doing crazy shit. We were living the so-called intense life. The passionate life. Jorie was saying one time in class, urging us to live our lives full of experience. All we took it as was I should fuck as many people as possible; drink as much as I can; and hey, what are those pills you’re taking? At the same time it was also really serious I guess in that I never had as much time before or since to read.”

Frank Conroy would show up at the bars and play pool and talk after-hours. And the students had responsibilities for throwing visiting writers their shindigs. Meaning they had to buy the booze. Gordon drew Seamus Heaney.

“I thought he’d want some Irish whiskey, or single malt. I asked him at the bar, and all he said was ‘Jack Daniel’s, love.”

Though Gordon is slated by critics into the “singer-songwriter” genre, whatever that means, he says he grew up on punk rock in Monroe, Louisiana.

“For some reason our parents let us drive to New Orleans to see people like the Dead Kennedys at an absolute shithole like Jimmy’s. It’s now a college dance bar. Back then it was just a pit.”

“The punk thing came from my own interest in skateboarding,” Gordon recalled. “I was one of five people in Monroe who subscribed to Skateboarder magazine. I was exposed to what was going on in California from that magazine. It took a few years for people to be aware of what that even was.”

“The punk thing kind of made sense to me because it was tied to the early rock and roll stuff I liked … that my parents listened to. They were pretty much Beatles generation people. Their tastes were Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. I remember that a lot more than the Beatles.”

If a musician must have a day job, there are worse ones than dealing outsider art. That’s Gordon’s other gig, besides playing and songwriting.

“I really despise all the terminology,” Gordon said, “… but it became an aesthetic obsession.”

“I figured out pretty quickly, even as economical as folk art was, in some cases, I still couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t be a collector. Over the years it just became that kind of zen bargain that what comes in might have to go out someday. God knows there are easier things to sell. I get to live with the work, I get to learn about it. And write about it occasionally.”

“It’s primarily artists that are deceased. Most of them are already widely collected and exhibited,” Gordon continued. “It’s not like I had the time or capital to help build someone’s so-called career. The first time I heard the phrase “folk art career” — by a kind of nouveau folk artist who was about 25 – when my career started, Oh my God, it sure has changed.”

Southeastern art students of the ’80s and ’90s knew who Howard Finster was, Gordon continued. “The results sure are different. There’s a certain aesthetic integrity that I find in the real stuff that is totally missing in the folks who have cable TV and smartphones and such.”

Rewriting Dylan’s Lyrics In Millheim

Wrote up the 7th Harry Smith Festival in Millheim as an ‘audition’ piece of sorts for Relix, probably way too late to make publication, and anyway, I’m pretty sure one needs to present a lock of hair from Bob Weir to the editors there to get a byline in that rag. This event learned me about the folk music and it benefits a good cause.

Harry Smith Festival

Elk Creek Café

Millheim, PA
November 16, 2014

The final set of the seventh Harry Smith Festival opened with a how-do-you-do from Kai Schafft that no stadium pop princess is ever likely to utter: “Here’s a song about great tragedy – you all ready!?”

Festival organizer Schafft and his band Chicken Tractor Deluxe then kicked into an hour-long set of stories from Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music. Whether the subject was wishing to be a mole underground or requesting a grave kept clean, drummer Gary Gyekis and bassist Jimmy Baughman kept a hard-stomping beat behind banjo, guitar, pedal steel and joiners-in on the fiddle and harmonica.

Three sets full of Depression-era songs from Gnarled Knuckle String Band, NattyLou Race and Junior Tutwiler, and Jerry Zolten and Richard Sleigh didn’t have the crowd in this microbrew hall down and out when headliner Lenny Kaye took his stool on stage around 4 p.m.

Barstools were claimed and tables pushed tight: any curious local Amish trotting by on a Sunday drive would have needed to step inside to figure out the commotion, for the plate glass windows were opaque from body heat and hoppy exhalations.

Acoustic guitar underarm and accompanied by Christine Smith of Marah on the squeezebox, Kaye opened his set with “Banks of the Ohio.” He then promptly admitted to the crowd he’d never played any of the songs live before, and that he might be a tad hungover. His Saturday night solo show in Millheim, backed by Smith and her bandmate Dave Bielanko, went a bit long on the afterparty end.

“I was so negligent yesterday, partying out, drinking Oktoberfest here,” Kaye said. The Sunday comedown didn’t affect Kaye’s ability to play at a hootenanny pace while offering some of his erudition on musical history.

“I never knew any of the originals, which is a real example of folk communication,” Kaye said of the Anthology tunes before kicking into Big Joe Williams’ “Turn Your Lamp Down Low,” learned from the Amboy Dukes. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” came to him from Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Kaye ranged well outside the Anthology for his selections and educational asides. He told the crowd:

“There’s a lot of music in the late ’20s and early ’30s that’s not on the Harry Smith anthology. You have to remember what the times were. It was a time of depression. People didn’t get to eat burgers from cows 10 miles away, or drink craft beer.”

Before playing “Where the Blue of the Night,” Kaye reminded his listeners how “revolutionary” Bing Crosby’s voice sounded when the microphone was invented in 1931, that invention itself a “very odd topic” that obsessed him for 10 years or so. Before launching into a singalong version of “The Old Gospel Ship,” Kaye mused on how much religion is in folk music: “Music is just one step away from the spiritual enlightenment that is heaven. It’s kind of like the pathway.”

How folk songs evolve was demonstrated when Kaye played “Like a Rolling Stone.” The crowd was singing along until verse three began, when Kaye stopped, unable to remember the first line.

Kaye kept strumming, hoping for a prompt: “Can somebody look it up on Google?” he asked. “Bob Dylan is like turning over in his grave.”

After a minute or more pause as people pulled out their phones, Kaye started making up the next verse:

“Drinking Oktoberfest, and that’s probably why I have to confess, I can’t remember the words/
And you know this town of Millheim is so sweet. I’m going to come back here in the summer and have something to eat.”

A voice finally called out “Never turned down to see the crowns.” Kaye then sang Dylan’s lyrics to the end, after shooting another verse into the folk cosmos from the year 2014.

Josh Brokaw is a writer currently based in Ithaca, N.Y. Direct critiques, communiques, and cash to jaydbrokaw at gmail.com

Rally ‘Round The Gadsden: A Meeting Of Upstate New York Secessionists

Vice News expressed interest in coverage of an Upstate New York secession rally, held on Sunday, August 30 in Bainbridge – a lovely little village on the Susquehanna about halfway between Binghamton and Oneonta. So I went, and wrote the story pretty “straight” on Monday morning, as was requested, and it must’ve been too straight, or something, because it was killed. There were a couple TV reports from the rally, but this is the only “print” report so far as I can tell.

If, someday, the state of New York decides to get a legal divorce, whatever government or revolutionary committee is operating in Chenango County will have to spring for a historical marker in the village of Bainbridge.

The first “Secession Movement Rally” was held there on Sunday, Aug. 30, in General Clinton Park on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Southern Tier landowner groups who want to allow fracking have proposed joining Pennsylvania, a story that made news this past February. Another proposal pitched by the “Divide New York State Caucus” calls for a two-region “autonomous zone” that separates the city and Downstate from Upstate. Regional governments would do most of the legislating – the new one region is to be called “New Amsterdam” – with the state governor retaining “no more power than the Queen of England,” according to caucus chair John Bergener, Jr.

Bainbridge Rally Cuomo Must Go
The nitty-gritty business of how to secede was discussed some during the rally, but the majority of the 11 speakers throughout the nearly three-hour event focused on why they have problems with living in Upstate New York. Burdensome regulations – on guns, gas, and schools – figured prominently in the litany of woes, as did Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s existence. Safety-green T-shirts with “CUOMO MUST GO” on the back and a handful of red “Yes, I Can Say Windsor, Pennsylvania” were dotted throughout a crowd that peaked at about 150, though it dwindled to perhaps half that by the end. They mingled under a row of pop-up tents sheltering tables loaded with literature on too-high taxes, unconstitutional gun control, jury nullification, and how to frack safely.

Dan Devlin, of the New York Oath Keepers, began the proceedings by decrying New York’s SAFE Act, the state gun control law passed in 2013. The greatest injustice, Devlin said, is the state’s mistrust of those who served in the military or police.

“You have to go to the state or county and say, please, may I have a firearm,” Devlin said. He called for men to stand up and defend their rights and the rights of those scarred by war. “I can tell you of people who lost arms and legs and their sanity and sight because they believed you’d take care of the country they left you.”

Devlin made clear his position on whether he feels the Constitution is actually in effect when the next speaker asked him to lead the Pledge of Allegiance and he called for someone else to do that duty.
“Are there any veterans in the crowd who would like to lead this pledge?” Devlin asked. “It’s a pretty important thing to decline to do this … Until people know what they’re taking the pledge to, I’ll decline on occasion.”

Upstate Secession Bainbridge
Several horror stories of “American heroes” screwed over by stringent gun laws were told by Steve Aldstadt of SCOPE, including one about an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who “had a few rifles with the pistol grip on them, the scary kind,” that he needed to sell to make ends meet. After visiting a dealer with these guns, which Aldstadt said were legal in other states, the veteran was reported to “the feds.” They posed as a gun buyer and are now charging the veteran with felonies.

“They’re making good, honest people into criminals,” Aldstadt said, before closing his piece with a shout of “Andrew Cuomo, let my people go!”

The “New York 2nd Amendment Grassroots Coalition,” or NY2A for short, was handing out postcards with four emphases listed – education, voter registration, nullification, and non-compliance. REGISTER NOTHING the card said, in government-stamp font, alongside a picture of four men feeding papers into a lit kettle grill.

Jake Palmateer of NY2A told his story of New York’s Sullivan Act, a concealed weapons law passed in 1911. The sponsoring state senator, Tim Sullivan, was “suffering from syphilis, he was crazy,” Palmateer said. To boot, the law was “born out of ethnophobia” – the Irish didn’t want Italians to have handguns. This led into a mention of the National Rifle Association helping to arm Southern blacks against the KKK during Reconstruction.

Secede! Upstate Secession - Bainbridge

 

Freeing gas from the ground after New York’s statewide fracking ban was also a popular talking point.

Vic Furman said he was watching his grandchildren play in the yard the morning of the rally and was wondering how their lives would turn out.

“They’re going to have people like Yoko Ono telling them how to live their life, while flying around in jets,” Furman said, referring to Ono’s Pennsylvania tours with Gasland director Josh Fox. “We have to get these assholes in Albany out,” Furman concluded.

Sandra Davis, of the Deposit Gas Group, had her own big closing line after she talked about gas drilling benefiting everyone: “It’s all well and good to save the whales. Let’s save our young families, too.”

And Jane Stebela, of Americans for Restoring the Constitution, read a Jeffersonian declaration of secession, which started its litany of grievances with this: “Property Rights is the Cornerstone of our Freedom and our potential Wealth. This Right has been usurped by the Royal Governor and his Activist Minions by restricting the opportunity of extracting precious minerals provided by the Infallible Creator himself. Surely God had no plan to harm us with the bountiful Natural Resources provided for our consumption.”

Common Core requirements and testing came up for criticism. Cathy Sapeta, of New Yorkers United For Kids, told the crowd that the new education requirements are “not about education, it’s about control and money.”

“’It’s going to take about 10 years to see if this education stuff works,’” Sapeta said she had read in an interview with Bill Gates, “the biggest sponsor” of Common Core. “They tell you it’s about education, but it’s about sorting children.”

Gilda Ward, of a local Tea Party group, expressed the most wide-ranging frustration. She told of her son having to leave the state to find a job, and talked about Upstate towns that “look more like inner-city Detroit.” Cuomo is all about control, Ward said, citing the “Upstate New York Economic Revitalization Competition,” the governor’s initiative to fund three $500 million proposals from seven different regions from financial crisis settlement monies.

“Again, we have to have a contest,” Ward said, “for these public-private partnerships that don’t have much to do with the needs of the people. They call it the upstate Hunger Games. Isn’t that lovely?”

Bergener said in a phone interview that much of his motivation for working with the Divide New York caucus the past seven years is also frustration that his own children and friends’ kids have had to move out-of-state to find jobs. Bergener acknowledged that a new region without Downstate’s tax revenues would have less state income, but it “wouldn’t be a super-poor place.” One of the things the “token state government” would still take care of through some taxation power, Bergener said, is outstanding pension obligations – “one of the most expensive things.”

“The current regulations are destroying everything,” Bergener said. Since no Congressional approval is needed for the New Amsterdam plan, two separate regions is realistic, he believes.

“Once people accept that it’s a workable plan, it’s getting people to believe it could actually happen,” Bergener said. That will require voters saying yes to the every-20-years ballot question of “should New York have a constitutional convention?” in 2017 – and then sending delegates to that convention who will work for regional autonomy.

Palmateer told the ralliers that the idea for secession has come “from strange places before” – that is, New York City. He cited Norman Mailer and Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaigns and said that the city’s support will definitely be needed if any sort of secession plan can happen.

“We won’t get anywhere without the support of New York City,” Palmateer said. “They get to keep their lifestyle, and we get to live free. Or freer.”

Josh Brokaw is a writer currently based in Ithaca, N.Y. Direct critiques, communiques, and cash to jaydbrokaw at gmail.com