17 June 2016

Focused on Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

This grammatically dubious sentence was written in the late 18th Century and was added as the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It was intended to provide an outline of rights which were to be granted to citizens of the then-new nation.

But what does it mean?  

It's impossible to try to divine the intent of the authors without placing this sentence in its historical context.  The former colonists had just won their war for independence -- barely.  There was by no means any sense of assurance that the fighting with their former occupiers was completely over (see 1812, War of).  And most-importantly, the framers of the constitution knew first-hand what (things that they thought were) oppression looked like.  

Within this context, many would argue that the intent here was to make allowances for a formal, regulated, armed militia, which could be called upon to defend the rights of their fellow citizens, in the event of government overreach, or enemy incursion.  As history shows, the disparity between the type of weaponry to which the citizenry and the government had access was quite small at this period.  While a lone person probably didn't have access to a cannon, a small group of people and craftsmen could more than likely have made one.  The primary difference in fighting ability at this point in time would probably have been naval.  As to a ground skirmish, between comparatively equal armament and the elements of guerrilla warfare that had just won them their independence, a militia of citizens could very well have held their own for a while under either of the two listed scenarios.

In this instance, under these circumstances, we'd probably be hard-pressed to find anyone opposed to this Amendment.

OK, so what has changed?

To start, the disparity of weaponry between that which the government can obtain and which the citizenry can, is now incalculable.  In short, with tanks, planes, drones, missiles and an army, if the government overreaches, or a foreign invader encroaches on US soil, there is nothing the individual can do to stop it from happening.   A militia would not fare much better.    

Another change is that over two centuries have transpired since the penning of the United States Constitution, during which there have been a number of judicial rulings that have refined the scope of the rights granted therein, the Second Amendment included.  For instance, one cannot own a tank, or an intercontinental ballistic missile.  One cannot speak in such a manner that will incite riot.  The courts have appeared to send a consistent message over the years that with rights come responsibilities.

Another change is the clear degradation in society's fundamental respect for human life.  Whereas 225 years ago, most people associated the word "gun" with hunting for the daily meal and/or protecting the homestead, in 2016 word-association with "gun" leads to a much darker place of murder and violence.  While there are still hunters-a-plenty, and folks who own guns solely for personal protection, the simple fact is that these law-abiding citizens are not the ones receiving the attention in the frenzy of today's 24 hour news cycle, and, as a result, or as a cause thereof,(chicken/egg?) the attention of the public at large.

Finally, there is the unity factor.  Having just won their independence, the burgeoning nation had no red states and blue states.  There were just states.  United States.  They hadn't had time yet for the infighting knuckleheadedness we see these days. 

Yeah, but what about the part , "...shall not be infringed"?  That seems pretty clear.

And here's where we are today.  What constitutes infringement?  Where is the line?  Some states, counties and municipalities say the line is at personal ownership  any kind of firearm.  It's simply not allowed.  Some draw the line at concealed carry, while others go full-on cowboy and allow for open carry.  And when arguing each of these standards, the Founding Fathers are invoked, and their "real intentions" are used as the foundation of arguments -- for both sides.

Again, we need to put things into historical perspective.  The men who composed the United States Constitution were in many ways visionaries, who had bold new ideas for their time.  They were also, however, limited by their times.  They believed that only white, male land-owners should be able to run for office.  They believed that women should not be able to vote.  The believed either that it wasn't worth the potential unraveling of a consensus to fight the concept, or were straight-up in favor of actually owning other human beings.  While we do well to look to the good in our past, learning from the wisdom of those who came before us, these were not perfect men.  And while our judicial system is precedent-based, we simply cannot say, "this is what the 18th Century farmers thought we should do, so let's go with it."  

So where do we go from here?

It seems we can all agree that there is a problem in the United States, as regards gun violence.  Taking the myriad components that contribute to it, and pointing to that one thing as the reason is both short-sighted and foolish.  Any "solution" based on such thinking is a panacea, destined to fail.  Fixing what is wrong takes the kind of thinking exhibited in Philadelphia in the late 18th Century.   We must look at all angles, make every attempt to allow for future possibilities, and act in a manner that we feel will serve the nation well going forward.  

Looking at the recent mass shooting in Orlando, would stricter gun control laws alone have prevented the massacre from occurring?  Probably not.  Would a fundamental change in the way in which we treat violence against women in this country have landed this man in jail, incapable of harming anyone else, after he abused his ex-wife?  Perhaps.  Would more acceptance of our homosexual brothers and sisters have spared that bar and its patrons from targeting?  One would think.  Would that same acceptance have allowed the man to have simply come out, as opposed to exploding in a fit of murderous rage? (We are convinced this tragedy has just as much -- if not more --  to do with his being closeted than it does with ISIS.)  Speaking of ISIS, had we better interdepartmental communication as regards terrorist suspects, could we have avoided the situation entirely?  Or, if we showed more inclusion to our Muslim neighbors, would that integration result in more cooperation within that community?  It would have to, no?

As we can see, there are numerous factors that may have contributed just to this one shooting.  And that's not even mentioning the fact that, if mental health issues were treated for what they really are -- health issues -- the man may have gone on to live a productive, healthy, hate-free life.  And 49 people would be alive today.

Is completely banning the guns the answer?  No.  First, it's never going to happen, so in essence, anyone espousing that position is saying, "I want to do nothing".  The same holds true for those who advocate for completely unregulated ownership of all firearms.  Neither of these two stances make sense, and neither will ever be enacted.  Is taking another look at the Second Amendment, however, in order?  We think so.  And we think the look should be a deep dive.

The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution granted the right to vote to former (male) slaves.  The 19th Amendment extended that right to all women.  In the most-direct correlation that which we propose, the 18th Amendment banned the production, transport and sale of "intoxicating beverages" then, 13 years later, the 21st Amendment repealed the 15th, in its entirety.  The nation realizes that they made a mistake, and corrective action was taken.  That is what we propose here.

The corrective action in this instance, however, would be to craft a common-sense, 21st Century document that accounts for all of the factors in today's world, while keeping a firm eye on the potential needs of our nation's future.  A clearly-written Amendment, with well-defined parameters, that would replace the vague and, frankly, outdated text of the Second Amendment. 

Our Constitution provides several methods by which it can be modified.  What we would propose is this:

1)  Announce a date for commencement of amendment crafting that falls after every member of Congress has faced an election, thus giving the People their initial voice. 
2)  3/4 of both the House and the Senate must then approve the Amendment as written.  At this point the Amendment becomes Proposed.  (we opt for this over a Constitutional Convention of states, because that is too much of a wild card that would open the entire Constitution up to modification.  The potential for mission creep here would be enormous, and it is simply too great a risk to take.)
3)  For Ratification, we would be in favor of taking the decision out of the hands of the State Legislatures, who, unfortunately, many voters could not even name, let alone say they have voted for.  We would favor the State Convention option, bringing the decision closer to the people for final ratification.

There will always be special interests who will want to let their money affect the process and this would be no different. In fact, it is virtually a certainty that this would be a very bitter, intense, difficult fight.  There are people who want the absolute right to bear arms.  There are people who want all guns banned.  Both of these groups have high-dollar support.  Most of us are in the middle, though.  Most of us feel that there is a middle ground to be found.  We need to find it.

Will resolving this issue mean that there will be no more mass shootings?  Will it mean that there will be no more gun violence in the streets of our cities?  No more domestic killings using a gun?  Will suicides by gone become a thing of the past?   Of course not.  

But it will be a step in the right direction.

Until next time...

14 June 2016

Focused on the 49

49 people are dead.

We don’t yet quite know why, yet there is no shortage of internet barking.  Bombast abounds.  “Ban the guns!”, “We need more guns!”, “Gay Lives Matter!”, “You reap what you sow!”, “Obama is to blame!”, “WWTD?  What would Trump do?!”

49 people are dead.  49 lives extinguished.  Most young.  Many Latino.  Most American.  Not all gay. Not that any of this matters.  There are 49 people dead and, instead of coming together as a people to find a way to stop this new normal, instead of doing something, we instead splinter into our little groups, and take pot shots at the “other side”, even when the position of the other side isn’t necessarily in direct opposition to our own.  (Is it not possible to want to stop the threat of ISIS, while still being in favor of common-sense gun regulations?  Can we not be in favor of equal rights for all people, while simultaneously holding disparate political views?)

49 people are dead.  Were any of you in the least bit surprised when you heard the news?  Did it even phase you?  20 children.  30 adults – no 50 – wait, one guy made it.  49.  What number makes it horrible?  Of course we all say one.  But what number really shocks us?  In this post-September 11th world, does such a number exist?  Will it ever again?  Or are we going to lie down like so many of our dead countrymen, and let the worst amongst us speak on our behalf?

49 people are dead and we can’t even wait for the dead to be buried before we start fighting with one another, because, most-assuredly, popping out a clever meme to blast Obama or the NRA is way more important than taking the time to mourn the loss of 49 of our fellow human beings.  And it’s sure as hell easier than thinking of solutions and working toward them.

49 people are dead and common sense says there are myriad reasons.  Simply pointing to ISIS, or to anti-gay sentiment, or lax gun control, or to too many Liberals/Conservatives trying to “fix” things/force their agenda down our throats, is a panacea.  Just as each of us is comprised of millions of ideas and feelings that make us who we are, so was the shooter.  So was what drove him to do what he did.  Early reports have him pledging allegiance to ISIS before the shooting – despite ISIS appearing to have no idea who the guy was.  We are also hearing that he was a hothead who liked to abuse women.  The most-recent reports have him frequenting Pulse “for years”, lending a potential American Beauty Garage Scene element to what transpired.

49 people are dead and we should all just shut up, stop trying to prove a point, and listen before we speak – unless it is to pray for the dead, their survivors, and each-other.  If we do so, we just may learn something from one another. 

49 people are dead, and they’re not the only ones.  Just since the turn of this century, over 300 people have been slain in mass shootings on US soil.  They’ve been killed in red states.  They’ve been killed in blue states.  They’ve died in states with minimal gun regulations, and in states where gun sales are heavily restricted.  Shootings have transpired in schools and movie theaters, post offices and on military installations.  Shooters have killed in the name of Allah and Jesus; they’ve killed over the loss of a job, and unrequited love.  Each of these shootings have one thing in common: after the requisite displays of mourning and sorrow, followed by the all-too-familiar fight to be the loudest voice in the room, both our politicians and society as a whole get distracted by the next shiny thing in the 24-hour news cycle and nothing happens.  Until the next time.

300+ dead human beings are represented in the list below, and your eyes are going to be tempted to gloss over and just get to the end.  And that’s kind of emblematic of our world today.  Why do the hard work of looking at things, when we can just “get to the end” of it, and react.  Look at this list.  Absorb it.

26 Dec 2000 – Wakefield, MA.  7 dead
05 Mar 2001 – Santee, CA.  2 dead, 13 injured
28 Oct 2002 – Tucson, AZ.  3 dead
08 Jul 2003 – Meridian, MS.  5 dead, 9 injured
21 Mar 2005 – Red Lake Indian Reservation, MN.  9 dead, 7 injured
30 Jan 2006 – Goleta, CA.  6 dead
02 Oct 2006 – Nickel Mines, PA.  5 dead, 5 injured
12 Feb 2007 – Salt Lake City, UT.  5 dead, 4 injured
16 Apr 2007 – Virginia Technical University – 32 dead, 17 injured
05 Dec 2007 – Omaha, NE.  8 dead, 4 injured
14 Feb 2008 – DeKalb, IL.  5 dead, 16 injured
03 Apr 2009 – Binghamton, NY. 13 dead, 4 injured
05 Nov 2009 – Ft. Hood, TX.  13 dead, 32 injured
12 Feb 2010 – Huntsville, AL.  3 dead, 3 injured
03 Aug 2010 – Manchester, CT.  8 dead, 2 injured
08 Jan 2011 – Tucson, AZ.  6 dead, 11 injured
12 Oct 2011 – Seal Beach, CA.  8 dead, 1 injured
02 Apr 2012 – Oakland, CA.  7 dead, 3 injured
20 Jul 2012 – Aurora, CO.  12 dead, 58 injured
05 Aug 2012 – 6 dead, 3 injured
28 Sep 2012 – Minneapolis, MN.  6 dead, 2 injured
21 Oct 2012 – Brookfield, WI.  3 dead, 4 injured
14 Dec 2012 – Sandy Hook Elementary School, CT.  27 dead, 1 injured
07 Jun 2013 – Santa Monica, CA.  5 dead
16 Sep 2013 – Washington, DC.  12 dead, 3 injured
02 Apr 2014 – Ft, Hood, TX.  3 dead, 16 injured
23 May 2014 – Isla Vista, CA.  6 dead, 7 injured
18 Jun 2015 – Charleston, SC.  9 dead
16 Jul 2015 – Chattanooga, TN.  5 dead, 3 injured
01 Oct 2015 – Roseburg OR.  9 dead, 9 injured
29 Nov 2015 – Colorado Springs, CO.  3 dead, 9 injured
02 Dec 2015 – San Bernardino, CA.  14 dead, 22 injured
12 Jun 2016 – Orlando, FL.  49 dead, 53 injured

49 people are dead.  What are we going to do this time?

30 June 2013

Focused on Incarnation

June 30th will come and go. 

And it'll be like we were never there.


At the turn of the 20th Century, gentleman farmers took their leave in the Northernmost confines of Philadelphia County.  Here, Whartons and Wilsons retreated from the bustle of the city to relax on their country estates.  It was a quiet life of leisure, removed from an increasingly cramped Center City.  However, amongst the rolling hills and tranquil fields, change was afoot. 

As the city spread northward, the wealthy gave way to the working class.   In 1908, the Whartons gifted their 23 acres to the city as a Christmas present.  Those 23 acres would become Fisher Park.  By 1925 many of the estates had been abandoned, as their owners took to the Main Line.  The village that remained, mostly inhabited by German immigrants, took on the name of the demolished Wilson estate -- Olney (for the non-Philadelphians of you, that's AHL-uhn-ee).

The immigrants took jobs at places like Heintz Manufacturing, which opened a factory in the neighborhood in 1921.  They opened businesses along 5th Street.  They built blocks upon blocks of row homes.  They went to movies at the Colney and the Rockland (the former of which had, upon  its 1925 opening, the largest seating capacity of any theatre in the world).  They built schools.  The new denizens of Olney were industrious.  They were close-knit.  And many of them were Catholic.

In April, 1900, seeing the northward growth, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia split off the Northern end of St. Veronica's parish, creating a new one -- St. Justin's -- Olney's first.  Based at 2nd and Tabor, the parish bought a parcel of land at 5th and Lindley the following year and renamed itself Incarnation of Our Lord.  The new community flourished. 

Again, Olney's one constant, change, visited.

With jobs plentiful, new streets and houses, thriving businesses and varied entertainment and recreational opportunities, Olney was one of the more desirable sections of the city in the first half of the 20th Century.  As the Germans established themselves and improved their circumstances, they moved beyond the menial, entry-level jobs, progressing into management or operating their own businesses.

Enter the Irish.

Still widely -- and in many cases openly -- discriminated against, the Irish would take the jobs no one else wanted.  With the paving of US Route 1, the Northeast Boulevard (which hadn't yet been renamed in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt), the road to the middle class was literally opened to the new wave of immigrants.  In Olney they found a better life, surrounded by fellow Catholics.

Olney started to become what it is to this day, a melting pot of cultures.  With the Irish came the Polish, the Italians, the Czechs.  And so started what also continues to this day: the clashing of those cultures.  The Germans looked on in dismay as their neighborhood was overrun with newcomers.  Some moved, some stayed, swallowed in the avalanche of influx.  Little by little, the German theaters and business closed.  New ones took their place, but the German identity was more or less lost.  Still, their parish remained.  It now had a convent and school.  It held dances and picnics, processions and pot lucks. It was like home.  Businesses and neighbors came and went, but through it all, that stone building at 5th and Lindley beckoned them back.  It was home.  Families may have moved on but they still came back to bury their dead, to baptize their children.  To remember their roots. 

The growth and prosperity of Olney during the first quarter of the 20th Century was mirrored by that of its first Catholic parish.  In 1916, Incarnation ceded half of the territory acquired form St. Veronica's, to form a new parish, St. Henry's.*  In 1923, St. Ambrose was born of the Eastern section of the growing parish.  A year later, everything North from Olney Avenue to the city limits became St. Helena's.  Over the next several decades, people continued to move into Olney and its parishes continued to thrive.  This growth culminated in 1956, with the construction of Cardinal Dougherty High school which, by 1965 was the largest Catholic high school in the world, with an enrollment of over 6,000 students.

Olney had arrived.

*St. Henry's parish closed in 1993, being absorbed in its entirety, back into Incarnation.


For most of its history, Philadelphia has been an incredibly segregated city.  This goes beyond the typical black/white/brown segregation you see in some places.  In Philadelphia, segregation was an art form.  In Philadelphia, you had Irish neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, Greek neighborhoods -- and the lines of demarcation were pretty set.  You crossed a street and you knew exactly whose neighborhood you had entered.  A lot of that isn't the case any longer, as white flight has pretty much decimated the city.  But when I was born, in 1969, it was alive and well.  Olney though, has always been a bit of an anomaly, in that, after that first wave of immigrants, it's always been a melting pot where, eventually, the newcomers were welcomed.  As long as they were white.  Unfortunately, racism was also alive and well in the Olney I inhabited as a boy.

Another thing specific to Philadelphia is that its Catholics are extremely parochial.  If you ask a Philadelphia Catholic where he's from, and he knows you're also Catholic, he'll more than likely answer with his parish.  If he's not sure if you're Catholic, he'll say what section of the city it is in which he resides -- then he'll still probably say the parish.  The parish is more than just a geographical area drawn on a map to a Philadelphia Catholic.  The parish is an essential part of who he is.  There's no "shopping for a church", no picking and choosing which school you'll send your child to.  You don't join a parish -- you're born into it. I grew up assuming that's just how it was to be Catholic.  My first inclination that we were different was when I was five or six and started to understand days of the week and realized that, when we were down the shore (in the Diocese of Camden), we were allowed to go to mass on Saturday night and have it count for Sunday.  You see, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, vigil mass, as it is called, was not permitted until sometime in the 1990's.  Many of the changes of Vatican II were very late arriving to Philadelphia.  Some still haven't taken hold.

The last few decades of the 20th Century would bring change that could neither be foreseen nor forestalled.


From its peak in the 1950's and '60's, Olney had nowhere to go but down.  And did it ever.  The first scourge came via the drug man.  As with many cities across America, the experimentation of the 1960's turned into the outright junkie culture of the '70's.  And with that came crime.  With crime came the urge to pick up stakes and find a better place to live.  And so started the trickling out of the neighborhood.

Next came white flight.  As with any sociological shift, there are myriad reasons for the mass exodus of white folks from cities across America.  The lazy view is to say, "this is what the neighborhood looked like when it was predominately white, and this is what it looks like now", and blame color for the change.  That completely ignores things like economics, education and the effect on property values white flight had.  I often wonder what would have happened had the first family of color on each block been greeted with a pie, instead of, at best, a bunch of For Sale signs springing up within weeks.  The trickle had become a flood.

All the while, unbeknownst to us, our leaders had been failing us in the most horrific of ways.  Of these three contributors, this would be the most lethal to Incarnation, in the end.


I was baptized at Incarnation on 7 September 1969, exactly one month after the day I was born.  I went to school there, as did my brother and sister before me.  We three all made our First Reconciliation, received our First Holy Communion and were confirmed there as well.  In July of 1981 I went to the funeral of one of my best friends, 12 year-old John Procopio there.  The following May we buried his father.  Three years later when my own father died, I was outraged that my mother brought him back to her childhood parish and not mine, not the parish in which my father had raised his family, to bury him -- condition of the neighborhood be damned.  In later years though, I came to realize she had simply done that of which I speak here.  In her time of need, her darkest hour, she turned to the one constant in her life -- her St. Francis Xavier.  At Incarnation, I sang in the choir then became an altar boy.  I was, for better or worse, molded into the person I am now by the selfless, tireless Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whose job was thankless and whose influence I only realized long after most of them had passed.  I was led spiritually by great men like Father Nelson, Fr. Lynch, who always had a joke for me as I vested him before mass, Father Himsworth, who taught me my first words of Spanish and Father Peter Welsh, whose first assignment out of seminary was to help a group of traumatized 7th graders come to terms with the loss of that classmate.

I was also fortunate enough to have had some great lay teachers.  Mrs. Stango and Ms. Flueher,  Ms. Chesna, a childhood classmate of my mother and Mr. Mulhern, who surely passed up more lucrative opportunities, to teach there for over 30 years.  They all showed me an example of living a Christian life as an adult.  I benefit as much from their life lessons as I do from their scholastic ones to this day.

Growing up in the time and place I did meant having a family of 300 or so.  We went to school together; we worshiped together; we played together; if someone was short at the end of the month or had a bad day at the track and the lights got cut off, we ate together.  And if we got out of line, there were plenty of parents with permission to beat our ass down.  Long before it ever became a punch line, we already had a village raising each and every one of us.

But by the 1980's, things were getting bad.  Folks were moving out of the neighborhood in droves, driving property values down, which in turn lowered the economic threshold one had to meet to buy a house there.  The poorer the neighborhood, the more crime you're going to have.  That, of course, causes more people to sell, driving property values down even lower and continues the downward spiral.  Laying in our room at 4850 N. Lawrence Street at night, my brother and I would count the Route 47 buses on 5th street as we drifted off to sleep.  On the weekends, we'd try to see how many different voice we could hear spilling out of the bar at 5th and Rockland.  As the years progressed, we'd hear the occasional, then regular, beer bottle broken against a wall, or someone's skull.  On (very) rare occasions, we'd hear a gunshot. 

My father's job moved us to South Carolina in the summer of 1984 and I've only been back to the neighborhood a couple of dozen times since, with greater infrequency. I'd drop in to see Mrs. Campbell and grab a slice of Crown Pizza.  I'd maybe pick up a donut at Oteri's but I'd always do two things, regardless of time or season: I'd drive down Lawrence Street and visit Incarnation. 

Sweeny's bar became Nicky's and now even that's gone.  So is Crown and Givnish Funeral Home and Frank's Hardware and just about all of the businesses I remember on 5th Street.  Just about all my neighbors have moved out and there's really nothing left for me in Olney.  Even the Olney Times stopped publishing a few years ago.  I understand how the original German inhabitants of Olney felt when I cruise through these days.  It's like going to a completely different city.  There are boarded up houses and burnt out stores.  There are trash-filled abandoned lots and the graffiti is everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, except from 4th to 5th Streets, along Lindley Avenue.  Even the thugs don't fuck with God.

I've always seen that as somewhat of a sign.  Just like my life may be a mess and my relationship with the Big Guy in tatters, I can always come back home to a clean, safe place.  And it will always be mine.  Much like a parent's home I know I'll never return to live permanently, knowing Incarnation is there has always been of great comfort to me.  Knowing I can always go back home, to her loving embrace has been a constant in my life.


I truly believe that in the 1950's, Church leaders sincerely thought they could send wayward priests out to "the farm" to get some counseling, clear their heads, do some praying and simply stop being attracted to young boys.  There was very little understanding of psychology at that time and I believe they thought men such as these could be fixed.  I also believe that the overwhelming majority of men with such proclivities did not become priests in order to gain access to children.  I think they simply thought that since they'd be taking a vow of celibacy, it would simply never be an issue.  It would fix them.

Clearly both of these beliefs were wrong.  When this became clear -- when priests came back from their sabbaticals, were transferred to new parishes and did it again -- Church leaders failed us in a way that can never be fixed.  Christ is nowhere to be found in a cover up.  He is absent in lies.  Christ is not present in hush money.  The men whose duty it was to protect not only our children but our Church as a whole failed.  And the cost has been staggering.

Sadly, with the financial structure of the Catholic Church, those who can least afford it usually end up paying the price.  The Church is kind of like the mafia, in that the money all goes up, with very little coming back down.  The parish pays its vig up to the diocese, the diocese to the archdiocese, the archdiocese to Rome.  So when a diocese gets hit with a huge judgment, Rome ain't paying it -- when we all know good and damned well that they knew exactly what was going on the whole time and can more than afford to pay for their failure in leadership.

Faced with huge liabilities from pedophilia lawsuits and no help coming from Rome, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did what many other dioceses have done in recent decades -- they decided to close some schools.

And change again swept through Olney.


The first domino to fall was Cardinal Dougherty, which, with the Archdiocese's largest physical plant and second-lowest enrollment at 704, was a logical choice for closure.  No one was going to ship their kids into Olney to go to school.  The math just made it impossible to keep it open.

Two years later, 44 elementary schools took the hit.  With St. Henry's no loner in existence and St. Ambrose having closed its school, the choice came down to Incarnation or St. Helena's, as Olney could no longer support two Catholic elementary schools.  Although it had a larger enrollment and longer history, Incarnation also had a much older physical plant, somewhat poorer parishioners and, in what was most likely the determining factor, laid ten blocks deeper into the badlands.  As the Archdiocese had been systematically abandoning North Philadelphia for decades, it came as no surprise that the school closer to the suburbs made the cut and Incarnation was closed, after 99 years of educating Olney's children. Still, the name would live on, as the kids who were moved up 5th Street would be attending St. Helena-Incarnation regional school.  The optimist in me said, "it's ten blocks.  It'll be ok".  The realist in me said, "this will make it a whole lot harder to keep the church open when the nex t round of parish closures comes around."

Sure enough, another panel was commissioned, to study churches in the northern half of Philadelphia and Delaware County, ie: the poorest part of the city and the (relatively) poorest of the three bordering counties.  Even though it was not even included in the list of parishes being reviewed, it was announced on Sunday 2 June 2013 that Incarnation of Our Lord Parish will be closing on 30 June.  The archdiocese had learned form the school closures, where folks had eight months to mount protests and appeals.  This time around, it was four weeks and done.  No appeal.  No questions.  Everything south of Roosevelt Boulevard will go back to where it originally belonged, again becoming part of St. Veronica's, while everything North thereof will be absorbed into St. Helena's.  The archdiocese said that the actual church at Incarnation will remain open as a worship site of St. Helena's.  There'll be weddings and funerals there.  The occasional mass.  But that's just diocese-speak for, "we'll let you bury your dead out of there until we can sell it off". 

Inky as we know it will die on that day.  And Olney will never be the same.


Retired NBA player Cuttino Mobley is only six years younger than me.  He also grew up in Olney.  It's a testament to how fast the neighborhood had fallen when, in interviews, he would talk about growing up in a rough, inner-city neighborhood, crime-ridden and violence-infested.  He talked about how basketball was his ticket out.  Mobley attended Incarnation for elementary school and Cardinal Dougherty High School.  Even though we had two entirely different experiences growing up and clearly have different lives as adults, I am connected to him.  He and I both learned about God and the world around us at Incarnation.  When we each think of home, we think of Incarnation.  Regardless of where we go and what we do with the rest of our lives, our foundation was poured at Incarnation.  From the first Germans who held mass at 2nd and Tabor to the people I don't even know who go there every Sunday now, we all share a common heritage, a common lifeline, a union that can never be broken.

The bars and businesses of our youth may be gone.  All the people may have moved on.  When we drive through Olney, Fisher Park (into which no one lacking a death wish would dare set foot) , Oteri's and the Library (operating on what amounts to a part-time schedule, due to budgeting cuts) may be the only things we recognize.  Until now though, Incarnation was always there to welcome us home.  No matter what mistakes we've made, regardless of how far off course we found ourselves, it was all washed away when we went back home.  But very soon it won't be.  We'll carry the lessons we learned and the experiences we lived with us, but we'll never be able to go back.


June 30th will come and go. 

And it'll be like we were never there.

Until next time,
Keep the Faith

27 March 2013

Focused on Adam and Steve

Gay marriage.

The US Supreme Court is taking their crack at it this week, so why not me?  Here's my take.

I was probably about six or seven years old the day I had my first argument about gay marriage.  It was with Christian Clancy, a kid who lived down the block from me.  I don't remember what started it or how precisely we got there but the essence of it was that he was trying to tell me that if he wanted to marry a boy when he grew up he could, whereas I was insistent that he absolutely could not. 

Then he threw the dad card. 

"Boys cannot marry boys, Christian!"  "Yes they can -- my dad said so."  End of argument.  Even at that young age, I knew that I was never going to win an argument once the dad card was thrown.  I mean, what do you do, call the kid's father a liar?  To what end?  Fisticuffs were frequent enough amongst the kids of Lawrence Street without bringing parents into it -- the surest route to escalation.  So we dropped it and it's actually pretty remarkable that I even remember the incident.

Yet here we, as a nation, are -- damned-near 40 years later, still having the same argument.

Now, my six year-old argument had nothing to do with equality or legality or anything of the sort.  My logic was simply that that's not how things worked.  While I'm sure Christian wasn't on any kind of a social crusade either, from what I can recall of his parents, they were all about peace and love and inclusion and such, and his comments were probably more about '70's acceptance of personal lifestyle choices -- kind of a 'be who you want to be' mentality -- than any actual opinion on gay rights.  I mean, we were little kids.

Fast forward to today and I am a 43 year-old heterosexual, divorced Catholic with friends both gay and straight.  Obviously my thoughts on gay marriage are affected by all of those criteria.

First and foremost, I believe a clear distinction need be made when having this conversation, between the civil, legal institution of marriage and marriage as recognized by a religious organization.  According to the Church of which I have been a lifelong member, I have never been married, as my wedding did not happen inside a church.  Now, if you ask the State of Texas, they most certainly will say that I was, in fact, married, for seven very misguided months in 1992.  Personally, I do not feel as though I have ever been married, as the sacrament in the Catholic Church I did not receive is far more important to me than the three-minutes my pregnant girlfriend and I spent in front of a judge, in his office, on a Tuesday afternoon.  However, that civil process -- that legal contract into which I entered on that day is exactly that with which the gay marriage debate is concerned.

No one is asking any religious organization to recognize same-sex marriage nor, in my opinion, should they.  The question of gay marriage is strictly a civil, legal, secular one.  As such, I can find absolutely no reason why same sex marriage should not be legalized.

I know the common arguments: allowing homosexuals to marry will lead to a degradation of the sanctity of marriage; it is tantamount to the condoning of illegal activity; it will "normalize" abhorrent behavior.  Let's look at those.   

There is no "sanctity" of marriage in its secular context.  Webster's defines sanctity as, "The state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly."  Now, when speaking about marriage within the confines of many religious faiths, this is absolutely something you'd be aiming for.  That's simply not the case when speaking of the civil institution of marriage though.  In its secular context, a marriage is simply a contract between two people.  That contract -- and the ability to legally enter into it -- is all homosexuals are asking for.

Now, if you want to substitute something like, "integrity" in the place of, "sanctity", well, you're still backing the wrong horse.  With over half of all marriages failing, the proliferation of "no fault" states and a virtual elimination of all stigma associated with divorce, I think it's safe to say heterosexuals have done more damage to "traditional marriage" than any homosexual can do.

As to the argument that, since sodomy is illegal in a number of states, legalizing gay marriage will be akin to approving of illegal activity -- if you are of this opinion, you've clearly not read any of the laws you cite.  By this logic, no one -- gay or straight -- in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia or Washington D.C., who also plan on engaging in oral sex with their spouse should be allowed to marry.  It's illegal in those states.  It's also illegal in Virginia to have sex with the lights on and in at least five states to do it in any position other than missionary.  Oh, and in Georgia, you and wifey better not have "toys".  That's a fucking felony!  (Pun unintentional).

The takeaway?  Unless you and your spouse only have sex in the dark, missionary-style, you're probably breaking at least one of the laws upon which you are basing your anti-gay marriage argument.

The other main argument against same-sex marriage is that it will take abhorrent behavior and make it "normal".  You mean like when they let white folk marry "coloreds"?  C'mon.  That's the weakest argument of them all.  It's not like making gay marriage legal will encourage straight people to become gay and marry.  If it were truly nurture over nature, how do you explain the very existence of homosexuals?  If heterosexuality is the "normal" state and two heterosexual people raise a child, how can he be nurtured into homosexuality?  That makes no sense.

This last argument is the one where the lines between folks' religious beliefs and a debate about a civil status get most blurred.   Allowing that bleed-thru is a terrible mistake because the fight for marriage equality is not about changing people's morals.  It is about allowing for some very basic, yet vitally important legal rights.  Among them:

-  The ability to make end-of-life decisions.
-  Estate and Inheritance rights
-  The legal protections afforded spouses with regard to court testimony
-  Insurance and tax benefits of marriage

This is, of course, a very small list but I want to focus on the first item and lay out a scenario.  Having worked as a chaplain, I know this is an absolutely realistic scenario in the State of Texas and imagine it's not an exception in that regard in many others.

Joe and Bob have been together for 25 years, in a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship.  Joe's family never accepted his homosexuality and sadly, he has not spoken with his family for over 20 years.  Joe has cancer.  He and Bob have discussed his end-of-life decisions at great length and Joe has decided he wants no extraordinary measures taken to preserve life should it come to that.  In fact, Joe has completed an advance directive, or "living will", that says just that. 

Joe's condition worsens and he is admitted to the hospital.  It doesn't look like he will make it.  Bob calls Joe's sister Mary, telling her of Joe's status.  Mary flies to Dallas, to be at her brother's bedside, having not seen him in two decades.  She immediately orders Bob removed from the room.  Not being a family member, not being in any way legally related to Joe, Bob's gotta go.  A few minutes later, Joe codes.  Mary tells hospital staff to take all possible measures to keep Joe alive -- in express conflict with not only his wishes but also his advance directive.  Being the closest blood relative, the hospital is compelled to do as she asks.  Joe suffers for another week before finally dying.  Bob does not see him for that entire week and a woman Joe had not spoken to for 20 years was able to completely override everything Joe had discussed with his life partner of 25 years.

This is not some ridiculously exaggerated example.  This is exactly what happens to people every day. 

Opposing same sex marriage is supporting stories like this.  Opposing same sex marriage is supporting the preventing of people to leave their loved one their estate.  Opposing same sex marriage is supporting withholding basic legal rights from an entire class of society.

And it's fucking wrong. 

I don't care what god you pray to.  No one is asking your church, synagogue, temple or mosque to condone same sex marriage. 

Your government absolutely should though.

03 January 2013

Focused on the Music, Vol. 7: The Top 10 Albums of 2012

Top 75 New Albums of 2012.

Part VII-- Numbers 10-1:

10.  Americana
Neil Young

When a basketball player is having an exceptionally good night shooting, he'll often throw up a ridiculous shot that on most nights would have no chance of making it into the basket  It's called a heat check.  If it goes in, it's confirmed that dude is, in fact hot that night and can do no wrong.

That's what this album is. 

Getting his band Crazy Horse back together after more than a decade and a half off, Young wanted the guys to focus on material for their new album, Psychedelic Pill (# 28 in this countdown), so when they got together and started practicing, they didn't play any of their own old material.  Instead, following up on a one-off live performance Young had had with the Dave Matthews Band, in which they covered Oh Susannah (88), Crazy Horse started playing around with old folk songs or, as Young puts it, "songs we all know from kindergarten".  Susannah led to Clementine (116), led to Tom Dula (the name of the real guy Tom Dooley was written about) and the next thing you knew, there was enough material for an album. 

In collecting material from 1619's God Save the Queen (with sthe track's second half comprised of 1831's America [My Country 'tis of Thee]) through 1964's High Flyin' Bird, the band pulls out the lost verses they don't sing to the kiddos, a la the real Grimm's fairy tales and paint a portrait of murder, betrayal and rebellion fitting for the nation it celebrates.  This is Young and the Horse painting a picture of America, warts and all, while turning a children's sing-along into an eight-minute guitar-fest.  In almost every case, the treatment works, with the lone exception being their cover of 1957's Get a Job.  This is in part because guitars and doo wop just don't mix but also because of our natural squeamishness around anything even tangentially related to the television show Sha Na Na, which has always creeped us out in a big way.  Damned thing should've been called Pedophilia: The Musical.

But we digress.

This album proves three things: Good songs will always have a new life if someone takes the time to record them; great bands can make great songs sound fresh; if you work hard, make mistakes -- learn from them -- and live long enough, you will eventually have the professional, personal and financial freedom to do whatever you want.

Just call it a heat check.

9.  Sensational Space Shifters
Robert Plant

Robert Plant's music has taken some interesting roads since the turn of the century.  Having found fame as the front man of one of the most popular bands in history, his place as a rock icon was set.  Beginning in 1999 though, he started exploring more folk and blues material in working with Priory of Brion and a new band he created called The Strange Sensation.  After pairing with Alison Krauss to record a Grammy winning collaboration, he took a step away from recording others' material and recoded an alum of mostly original songs with his Band of Joy which continued to explore the music of the 1920s and 30s US South.  It seemed to be the logical progression of an extremely talented musician: rise to unfathomable fame in his youth, mellow out over the years, explore his roots and kind of ramp it down.  He even married Patty Griffin.  The rocking days were done with.

Not so fast. 

Plant opens this live album with the Bukka White classic Fixin' to Die [Blues] (67) and proceeds to rock the crowd's face off for the next hour and a half.  Having rediscovered his, "big voice", as he says, he uses the hell out of it in this superb 15-song set. 

Mixing in some of his solo material, some reworked stuff from his days in Led Zeppelin and nod to White and other influences, Plant and his band go hard on this record and make  a song like Griffin tune, Ohio (83) shine as a lovely acoustic guitar-driven change of pace.  A strong Whole Lotta Love/Steal Away/Bury My Body medley leads to a finale of Another Tribe, followed by Gallows Pole, leaving the crowd and this listener blown away by a performance we never saw coming.  As recent discoverers of Plant, this serves as a great primer for our initial delving into his catalogue and is the best live album of 2012.

8. Babel
Mumford and Sons

Island Records, in a stroke of genius, released the weakest song on this album as its first single. It didn't matter what song they selected. It was going to be a Top Ten hit and the album was going to sell 100,000 copies in its first week. This is a tried and true record company trick. When an album follows a huge hit, they generally pick a lesser song for the lead single then go with the best track later on to re-launch sales. While I Will Wait (3) is a fine song, it is simply a continuation of that which was heard on Sigh No More. It got them the radio play they wanted and as such was a safe choice.

This album is a modest improvement for a band still feeling its way through almost instant success. The tendency here would have been to kick out a formulatic collection of songs that took no chances and tried to recapture the lightning in the Sigh bottle. And while there is not a great departure, there is some progression into a more arena-worthy sound, paired with a touch more gloss, while maintaining the heart of who they were going into the studio the first time.

Marcus Mumford still has an occasional tendency to turn the most beautiful of lyrics into a misguided mess by over thinking things but that is part of his development as an artist and adds a bit of charm to things. They're not trying to be Coldplay; it's ok to sound a little flawed on occasion. Using acoustic instruments, solid harmonies and real emotion, this music is every bit as personal as their debut album and makes us continue to enjoy the evolution of this band.

In ten years this will likely not be seen as their best album but it will have elements of what will contribute to whatever album that is. That being said, it is still one of the better albums of the year.

Our favorite track: Ghosts That We Knew

7. Observator
The Raveonettes

Battles with clinical depression and a post-back surgery drug addiction, while listening to The Doors are said to be the inspiration for this album.

It's a dark world of hazy riffs, wrecked love and drunken assholes that populate Observator and we love every second of it because underneath all the reverb and stomp pedal action lies truly gifted song writing. Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have been at this for about a decade now and taking their paired vocals and marrying them to superb guitar work and, in a new development, some piano, they continue to expand one of the more comprehensive sounds in music.

Going into the dark corners of despair and angst in Young and Cold, visiting the demons within on The Enemy or visiting the lush inspiration grounds of the Jesus and Mary Chain on album closer Till the End (sic), The Raveonettes continue to be the class of the fuzzy-reverb throwback bands. Sinking with the Sun could have been a hit in 1989 or 2009 and that's what draws us to this album. It hearkens back to a time in our life we thoroughly enjoyed, while pointing out that is wasn't all rainbows and unicorns and, while those were great times we like reminiscing about, we have no interest whatsoever in once again living them.

Our favorite track: She Owns the Streets (10)

6. Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen has always lived in those halcyon hours, "when the day has been ransomed/And the night has no right to begin"*. He sings of spirituality, sexuality, despair and isolation with such withering honesty that it is literally impossible for us to diagram the path he takes that ultimately leads his listener to contentment in the present and hope for the future. It would be easy to say it's simply because he's 78 years old and the elderly just have a way of doing that. It would be completely inaccurate however because Cohen has been doing this for over 50 years. It would also do a disservice to what the man has accomplished in the last decade.

In 2004, some eleven years into semi-retirement (his last public appearance had been in 1993), Cohen's daughter discovered her father had inadvertently paid the credit card bill of his business manager, in the amount of $75,000. Tip, meet iceberg. By the end of 2005, Cohen learned that all but $150,000 had been drained from all of his and his charitable foundations' accounts -- and he no longer owned the rights to most of his songs. After pouring his heart and soul into his career, at 70 years old he was essentially broke.

So what did he do? In 2006 he released a book of drawings and poetry that became a best seller. Two years later, at 72, hit the road on a world tour. Dude was literally singing for his supper and has not stopped since. Two live albums were released in 2009 and another in 2010 but this wasn't a straight money grab, as the latest, Songs From the Road is uniformly regarded as a spectacular album. Then, rather than live off the works of his past, here is Cohen, at 78 years old, putting out new material.

An unflinching glance at impending mortality permeates this album, beginning with the first track, Going Home, where Cohen signs of, "Going home without my burden/Going home behind the curtain." It continues and expands to include the loss of his fortune and, more importantly to him, someone he had considered a true friend, in Darkness (175), "I've got no future/I know my days are few/I thought the past would last me/but the darkness got that too." While the hurt is piercing in these tales, the writer never leads us into self-pity or a permanent melancholia. For just when we're on the verge of wallowing, he presents us with a plaintive plea to a lover, "I dreamed about you baby/You were wearin' half your dress/I know you have to hate me/But could you hate me less?"

Ethereal background singing supports the spiritual hymn we knew was coming in Come Healing and in the end that's what this is -- a personal healing for Cohen.  Thankfully, he brought us along for the journey. We have no idea where we will be in our late 70s but we sure as hell hope we're still as invested in life, love, the sacred and the sexual as Leonard Cohen is. Similarly, we don't know how much longer he's going to be with us but whatever wisdom he has left to impart, we want to hear.

Our Favorite track: Show Me the Place (44)

*From Amen.

5. Shields
Grizzly Bear

Our first exposure to Grizzly Bear was burning their 2008 cover of The Crystals' 1962 song He Hit Me (and it felt like a kiss), onto CD and giving it to our buddy Ivan on Valentine's that year and watching him freak out as he tried to figure out what we were trying to tell him.  We were saying nothing of course and were just digging freaking him out.

We checked out their catalogue and saw something we love seeing in a band: steady progression.  From their decent initial effort, 2004's Horn of Plenty, to 2006's Yellow House to 2009's Veckatimest, the band continually improved upon the richly-layered, heavily textured sound they were going for.  By that 2009 record, they had almost mastered it.

On this album, they do.  The final piece was strength of lyric.  Until now, Grizzly Bear was an interesting-sounding band but they really had nothing to say, a fact that was brought home in Rolling Stone's review of lead single Sleeping Ute (63), (which predated the release of the album).  The reviewer, clearly not having heard the rest of the album, clearly assumed we were in for more of the usual when he wrote, " What's he going on about?   Bet you won’t mind listening 10 more times to figure it out."  That was the story of listening to Grizzly Bear up until now.

A change in how they write, moving to a more collaborative style has served them well and propelled them into the realm of truly great bands.  It also affected the music on this album as, rather than a constant thematic soundscape, you have songs with multiple movements, originating as acoustic ballads only to turn into distortion-filled psychedelic rockers before doubling back to a synth-laden slow-jam.  Thing is, it all works.  While in the past, the band has come perilously close to over-production, doing things like layering vocals as many as six times over to eliminate imperfections, on this album the flaws show a little.  While creating appreciably more complex music, they've backed off a bit on the board and allowed some of the imperfections to rise to the top.  These production choices lend themselves perfectly to a record that sounds slightly unresolved, in the tradition of a great cathedral never quite completed.

Our favorite track:  Yet Again (87)

4.  Heroes
Willie Nelson

At 79, you never know when a Willie Nelson album might be the last one he releases.  If that were to be the case here, Heroes is a fine manifesto and a fitting farewell.

There's the inexplicably-effective pairing with Snoop Dog and Kris Kristopherson on the ode to weed, Roll Me Up (26); a shout out to his real life heroes on Come on Back Jesus, (where he implores JC to "pick up John Wayne on the way"; he nods at his own mortality with a remake of his own A Horse Called Music, which he sings with Merle Haggard.  Most noteably though, throughout the record, Willie's 23 year-old son, Lukas hovers in the shadows.  With a voice resembling the younger Willie, he chimes in, almost as if to prop up the occasionally fading vocals of dad.  The effect is quite touching and imparts a feeling that perhaps the son has too become one of dad's heroes.

Having long ago secured his finances and legacy, Willie is in the enviable position of recording simply because he enjoys doing so.  Perhaps as an accommodation to age, he has plenty of company on this album.  In addition to those mentioned, he pairs with Billy Joe Shaver, Sheryl Crow, Ray Price and Jamey Johnson, among others.  What you're left with is a vision of Willie sitting on the porch, regaling his buddies with wisdom and wit -- and more than a little pickin'. 

And like any wise person, Nelson knows there is very little original wisdom in the world.  The majority of what we know, we learned form someone else.  That being the case, he sees the value in sharing the words of others, as evidenced by his cover of Pearl Jam's Just Breathe, Tom Waits' Come on Up to the House and Coldplay's The Scientist.  (although, it should be noted that the first time we listened to the record through, we liked every song except it, even before realizing it provenance). 

Similarly, Nelson understands taking a second look at things can also be beneficial, such as on the aforementioned Horse and the Willie/Lucas/Price reworking of his own Cold War with You. 

Collectively, this serves as a superb Willie's last Stand if it ends up being so, with the reins being passed on to the capable hands of Lukas, who wrote or co-wrote five of the tracks here.  Then again, Willie's likely to outlive us all.

3.  Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen

"From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone/From the shotgun shack to the SuperDome/We needed help but the cavalry stayed home/there ain't no one hearing the bugle blown"

In a world where corporations are people, It's every man for himself in 21st Century America and if you are looking to the government -- or anyone else -- to save you, you are fucked.  The social contract that existed in the first half of the last century, whereby a mutual loyalty was mutually beneficial has been replaced by a system where enough is never enough and no one owes you shit.

That's the theme of this album, in all its harrowing detail.  From opening track We Take Care of Our Own (2), through the final fadeout of American Land, Springsteen paints a damning portrait of the world in which we live.  It is populated by the "rich man up on banker's hill" looking down on the Shackled and Drawn, a Jack of All Trades, who wants to, "find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight". 

He laments Death to My Hometown (13), in a natural sequel to 1984's My Hometown.  This time around though, there's no happy ending, no ride down the avenue with his boy on his lap, telling him it will all be ok.  No, this time there's only the stark realization that, "Just as sure as the hand of God/They brought death to my hometown."  This leads to the personal and national tones of This Depression (101). 

Even when he trying to find hope or defiance, Bruce can't seem to find much and needs to call on older material than never made it onto an album.  Wrecking Ball stands in the face of the chaos and screams, "If you got the guts mister/If you've got the balls/If you think it's your time/Step to the line/Bring on your wrecking ball".  As the rest of the album makes perfectly clear though, the wrecking has already been done.

In classic Springsteen anthem style, Bruce sings of the Land of Hope and Dreams (47) but even this is tinged with sadness, as it contains the last musical notes ever played by Clarence Clemons.  The Big Man stroked out the night after laying down the track, eventually dying.  It eerily parallels the theme of this album and the death of the American dream.

Despite being a vocal (and obvious) Democrat, this is not Bruce railing against the right.  The firmament of American society has cracked and may never recover.  This fissure has manifested itself in runaway capitalism and finger-pointing politics but at heart, all of society's failures find their root in the individual.  Similarly, so will the solutions.  The spaghetti western We are Alive  alludes to railroad workers, MLK and Mexican immigrants, with a core Springsteen populist message of survival despite the obstacles thrown our way. 

That's the American spirit and, despite the crushing blows it has been dealt over the last decade, this remains the American Land, where  even though, "They died building the railroads/They worked to bones and skin/They died in the fields and factories/Names scattered in the wind", the fact remains that, "There's diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song/There's treasure for the taking, for any hard working man."

That note is as positive as the record gets and it mirrors how most people view where we are.  We will be ok and things will get better but none of the social institutions we looked to in the past century will be there this time around.  This time, we're on our own.  We will take care of our own or we will perish.

2.  Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp
Public Enemy

"At the age I'm at now/If I can't teach/I shouldn't even open my mouth to speak".  So sayeth elder statesman Chuck D on Rltlk. 

That's right, Public Enemy is serving as the voice of reason in the hip hop world.  They look across the musical landscape they pioneered and they see a bunch of entitled, untalented wannabees who are more focused on misogyny and stackin' paper than they are on anything even closely resembling art.  And it pisses them off.

Whether one has agreed with their words or not, Public Enemy has always stood for something.  Their greatness has always been in their passion.  This album makes it clear that they remain firmly committed to the success of the young black male.  That doesn't mean refusing to change with the times, as Chuck raps, "I ain't mad at evolution/But I stand for revolution" on Get Up Stand Up (24), while blasting the results of that evolution, "How many more times we gotta hear that lame line/"I'm inspirin' 'em'"/To do what/Grow better weed and get higher than 'em/Feed the needy-ass greedy buyer in 'em/Be the same damned dog but to finer women?"  Enough already -- it's time for the hip hop "artists" of today to grow the fuck up.  The indictments flow on tracks like Catch the Thrown (a clear swipe at Jay Z and Kanye West) that expands the field of fire to include Corporate America: "Feed the people/Fight the power/Fix the poor/But that 1% done shut the door".  It's standard PE populist ranting but that doesn't make it any less earnest.  With killer hooks, well-selected collaborations and their usual superb production, this album also sounds completely fresh, which is pretty amazing for a group that is celebrating its 25th anniversary. 

Reveling in their place on, "the senior circuit", Chuck and Flav go past the artists in whom they are so disappointed, taking their case right to the fans, asking, "Is your mind, body, soul/Is it better from it?/Tell me why do ya'll love it/Songs meant to send you to prison/Bids to influence a million and a half kids".  Their appraisal of the current state of hip hop is scathing and one we have been waiting for someone to have the balls to say for years now.  Thing is, Public Enemy is probably the only group that could pull this off.  Their relative lack of success outside their group (aside from Flavor Flav's ridiculous reality shows) allows them to retain the street cred they have built up, so when they blast the kids, they don't come off as embittered sell-outs.

While society, racism and oppression by The Man are also given attention here, our takeaway is an articulate statement on the drek that popular music has become and the effects is has on the kids who listen to it.  The end result is, to us, the most important album of 2012, if not the absolute best.

With spoken-word interludes between songs, PE credits the civil rights pioneers who have led the way.  It's a unique way of getting the recognition out there and is very effective.  Amongst those listed are the expected, (Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez) and the obscure, (Cynthia McKinney, Dorothy Height, Colores Huerta).  The inclusion, however, of cop killer Wesley Cook in and of itself eliminates the possibility of making this album the top record of the year.  While we can appreciate that they are probably making a statement about capital punishment and race relations in general, the truth is that Cook killed a Philadelphia police officer in cold blood, in front of an eyewitness.  He doesn't deserve to mentioned in the same breath as the true heroes that don't appear on no stamp. 

1.  Handwritten
The Gaslight Anthem

"I'm in love with the way you're in love with the night/And it travels from heart to hand to pen/Every word handwritten."*

Clearly we bought a lot of music in 2012.  Some of it has been fantastic.  Some of it has been dreadful.  What though makes for the best?  For us it takes something that transcends a mere enjoyable listening experience.  There are albums that have great music.  Some have insightful, intelligent lyrics that make us think.  Others have flawless musical execution or phenomenal production.  In rare cases, an album has all of that.  Still, that doesn't necessarily make a record the best. 

For that designation, an album has to have an added layer of importance to us -- something very much like love.  We need to hear the right words, with the right music, at the right time and be open to it.  It all has to click at the right time and for us, this album did.  For us to consider an album to be an album of the year, we have to believe that in ten years, when we sit down and listen to it, it will take us back to a very specific place and time. 

We remember spending about 30 bucks on the Wildwood boardwalk in the summer of 1986 to win a copy of Billy Joel's The Bridge, a week before it was to be released.  Listening to it now, it's not very good but it was the first full album of new material of his that was released after we became a fan.  We then remember racing back to the place we were staying, only to realize there was no record player.  Somehow, some guy who, for the life of us, we can remember nothing about, other than he was and old dude -- maybe even 30! -- and clearly a Billy Joel fan, ended up scoring a cassette of it and we listened to it about 35 times that night.  We remember nothing else of that summer after our father died except that afternoon and night down the Jersey shore.

Similarly, we remember our girlfriend at that time giving us copy of George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol I, as we left for the Gulf War.  Until we were able to get into downtown Jeddah and score some bootlegs, it was the only cassette we had to listen to.  The war ended fairly quickly and the relationship shortly thereafter but whenever we hear the opening notes of lead track Praying for Time, we're a 21 year-old kid in the dessert, missing the girl he loves.

There are not necessarily any watershed moments happening in our life right now, (not that we'd really know that until a few years from now anyway), but that doesn't mean we are without touch stones.  This album is one.

Whether it was the pre-release single 45 (23) comparing a record to failed love or the superb lyrics of the title track (5) that are carried throughout the record, the first time we listened to this album we knew it would be a part of us forever.  Much like Springsteen before them, The Gaslight Anthem takes a look around, sees the ordinary and explores it anyway.  Real protagonists with real hearts and entirely human reactions to the situations life hands them.  50s and 60s beats with the occasional soaring chorus, they are New Jersey through and through. 

While Brian Fallon's writing explores emotion, particularly the pain of love lost or simply missed, he stops short of full-on emo when he asks, "What can I keep for myself if I tell you my Hell?", on Too Much Blood. 

His recent Tom Waits-inspired side project The Horrible Crowes creeps into his full time gig here and there, particularly on Here Comes My Man and the album's final track, National Anthem, which was likely a Crowes leftover.  With lyrics like, "With everything discovered just waiting to be known/What's left for God to teach us from his throne/And who will forgive us when He's gone?", these influences only serve to enrich a truly straightforward rock 'n roll album of the finest order. 

The deluxe version of the album includes a pretty cool cover of Nirvana's Sliver and a take on You Got Lucky that just might be better than Tom Petty's original.  In addition to these, the deluxe version contains two additional originals: acoustic ballad Teenage Rebellion, and Blue Dahlia, the latter of which we still cannot believe got cut from the album.  That kind of discipline though is what helps make this record so superb: they came in, said what they had to say and got out, without dumping a bunch of what they considered filler on us.  (Still, how can you not include a song with lyrics like, "I met you between the wax and the needle/In the words of my favorite song."?)  Arugh!

Sentiments like that had us from the start and make The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten the Number One album of 2012.  If you have a Spotify account, you can stream the entire album here.  If not, we've linked each track below (and we apologize in advance for the lyric videos.  We hate them too but trying to find a copy of the studio version of a song for which there is no official video often leaves one with limited options).  Additionally, our Top 100 songs of 2012 Spotify playlist can be heard here.

1)  45
2) Handwritten
3) Here Comes My Man
4) Mulholland Drive
5) Keepsake
6) Too Much Blood
7) Howl
8) Biloxi Parish
9) Desire
10) Mae
11) National Anthem
Bonus 1: Blue Dahlia
Bonus 2: Sliver
Bonus 3: You Got Lucky 
Bonus 4: Teenage Rebellion (unavailable online for linking)

*From the title track.

Previous: 75-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

May you and those you love have a happy, healthy and blessed 2013.

Until next time,
Keep the Faith

-Gary and the editorial panel (of one).

31 December 2012

Focused on the Music, Vol. 6

Top 75 New Albums of 2012.

Part VI-- Numbers 20-11:

20.  MDNA

There's a dichotomy of intent with regard to this album that should probably have killed its chances at succeeding as either the tale of Madonna's divorce from Guy Richie or as the first album of a new deal with her label.  She manages to balance both and delivers one of the better albums of her late career in the process.

The formula is the same as it has always been: take pop, mix it with dance, throw in a dash of electronica and then do something to shock the listener.  The difference here is that the shock is how bare Madonna lays her emotions.  Chick was hurt bad by this divorce and, perhaps more than ever, allows her listeners inside that pain, regret and conflict, with lyrics ranging from, "I tried to be your wife/Diminished my self/I swallowed my light", to, "Every man that walks through that door will be compared to you forevermore".  The regret stands out the most in these songs, probably because it is least-expected. 

What was absolutely expected was the open pandering for sales which, while it has always been a part of the Madonna formula, is taken to new levels as a result of the new record deal and LiveNation tour deal.  Enter M.I.A, LMFAO, dubstep bass drops and collaboration with the foul Nicki Minaj  -- basically all the stuff from this album that you've heard on the radio.  Gimme All Your Love (48), Girl Gone Wild (124) and such provide the sales, while songs like Falling Free and Love Spent provide the substance. 

The two paths this album is taking are for the most part mutually exclusive, with the notable exceptions of the Richie-slaying, Gang Bang and the best song on the album, I Fucked Up (138).  This separation of purpose is what gives the album its authenticity, however.  Anyone who's been through a divorce knows that while it can be gut-wrenching  and downright exhausting, you still have to get up and go to work everyday.

19.  The Ringmaster General
Dave Stewart

Moving to Nashville doesn't necessarily mean one has "gone country".  Dave Steward reaffirms that with this, his second record made since relocating to Tennessee last year. 

The followup to 2011's Blackbird Diaries has Dave again collaborating with ladies from all across the musical spectrum.  Be it Joss Stone, Alison Krauss or Diane Birch, Stewart again finds a way to select just the right partner for each of the songs.  His producer-at-heart instinct probably go a long way in making this so but, much as a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, Stewart realizes that going it alone is not the wisest move, so he enlisted Mike Bradford to assist in the production.  Together, Stewart and Bradford prove that a pedal steel and stings can be inserted into a song with neither irony nor condescension.  While not a full-on Country album, (far too much of a Blues and Rock influence), this is definitely within striking distance thereof.

Written and recorded in five days, Stewart and company entered the studio armed with only their instruments and a list of the people who would be guesting on the record.  Clearly Stewart is at his best when collaborating with others, as his voice, while competent, is in no way unique.  His lyrics can tend to opt for the easy cliche over the deep thought but his guitar playing is outstanding and he wisely defers when sharing a song with a stronger singer.  There are some excellent songs here, such as Drowning in the Blues, with Krauss and really only one clunker in the bunch, (the dreadful Girl in a Catsuit with Orianthi, she of the ill-fated Michael Jackson This is It tour).

Or favorite track: God Only Knows You Now, with Jessie Baylin (currently charting).

18.  Holy Weather
Civil Twilight

This sophomore effort from the South African - turned L.A. - turned Nashville trio represents a significant artistic leap.  These guys get it.  With rich textures, superb vocals, and catchy hooks, this should be the album that brings these guys mainstream.

While atmospheric piano ballads on their eponymous debut generated huge buzz on the underground indie scene, that has not yet translated into an explosion into the musical consciousness of the listener at-large. That is the listener's loss, as this album is everything that is right about music today.

This album reaches its true heights through lyric.  There's the spiritual bent of lead song River (It flows through walls of stone/It flows in between the bone/It has flowed since the divine exchange/It flows forever unchanged); the internal struggles of first single Fire Escape [62](I don't want to fill my body/With drugs I can't even name); the heartbreaking imagery of one of the most beautiful songs we've heard all year, It's Over (But they won't know/That my heart is driftwood/Floating down your coast).  Blended with superb musicianship, be it the haunting strains of It's Over the plaintive longing of Doorway (49)or the comparatively frenetic River (currently charting), there's an underlying kinesis throughout these eleven songs that draw you into a world you don't want to leave. 

Refusing to be typecast, the band goes from bass-driven rocker to trippy piano jaunt to indie acoustic to arena anthem, all the while maintaining the intensity throughout.  Rather than sounding disjointed, this genre-hopping only reinforces the energy of the album.  The result is an inviting, intriguing listen.

When we drew up the list for this countdown, we had this record in the mid-50's.  In the weeks it has taken to listen to everything in more detail and write up reviews it has made it into the Top 20.  If we were to revisit this list in six months, it may very well crack the Top 10.  We just hope more people hear this band because the next step for them is probably going to involve some level of selling out in order to keep their deal if this album doesn't sell.  And that would be a pretty damning indictment of the state of the music industry, when any jackass from American Idol can get a record deal.

17.  Someday
Susanna Hoffs

We bought this album because Susanna Hoffs is hot.  There was nothing else released the week this came out and we'd dug some of the stuff she'd done over the last few years with Matthew Sweet, as Sid and Susie.  But mostly, it was because she is hot.

Turned out to be an excellent purchase.

The two Sid and Susie albums were comprised of covers of the "other" songs of the 1960s.  While the main focus of those who write about music is screaming guitars and screeching vocals, folks (pun only semi-intended) like Simon & Garfunkel and Burt Bacharach were making hay with a more melodic sound.  Those were the focus of the Sid and Susie projects, as both Hoffs and Sweet were heavily influenced by this softer side of the '60s.

On this record, Hoffs takes the natural next step from those collaborations and presents an entire album of original material, recorded in the style of these 60's and early 70's classics (The record was released under the Baroque Folk record label).  Think of it as a sequel to Billy Joel's An Innocent Man: where Leave a Tender Moment Alone leaves off chronologically, Someday's first track November Sun picks up.  And like that album 29 years ago, Hoffs pulls it off without a hitch.

Exacting in its execution, this album is a flawless period piece without being derivative; it is authentic without being regressive.  Hoff's voice at 53 is still as light and vulnerable as ever but age has softened the edges a bit -- to her benefit.  Melancholy is more credible in this voice, happiness less cavity inducing.  Her guitar work remains top notch throughout.  With a rhythm section including Lindsay Buckingham and production accoutrement such as harps and flutes, this album is a smooth 30-minute, ten track journey along the lesser-known musical byways of the most turbulent of decades.  While not the kind of music we typically prefer, this is one of the best executions of an album from concept, to recording, to production, to release that we've heard all year.

Our favorite track: Picture Me (53)

16.  Strangeland

After their dreadful collaboration with K'naan and other assorted hip-hopsters on 2010's Night Train, this band was on its last leg with us.  They needed to deliver the goods with this record or we were done with them.

What they delivered was a return to the sound that made them famous in the first place and that's not a bad thing.  Critics blasted this album as safe and lacking daring.  However, when one takes chances and is daring and the results suck, perhaps circling back and getting it right is in order.

There are the pianos and strings, paired with weak lyrics of album opener You are Young that will inevitably draw Coldplay comparisons but the album recovers musically (if not lyrically) with lead single Silenced by the Night (25), and by Disconnected (137), the shaky start is a think of the past and the album explores their U2/Springsteen-nodding pop, while throwing the occasional Genesis and even Radiohead curve into the mix.  We question whether ordering the songs differently would have made for a better overall experience but in its totality, this is a vast improvement over the last album, if not quite up to the standards of 2006's Iron Sea.

From the reminiscent Sovereign Light Cafe (60) to the exploratory Sea Fog, we don't see this as a step back at all.  We see it as a renewal of purpose and are much more optimistic about the future of this band than we were at the start of 2012.

15.  We All Raise Our Voices to the Air
The Decemberists

While winding down the tour from their breakout album, The King is Dead (2011 #2 album), The Decemberists taped a few shows and from those recordings culled the best, releasing this 20-song set.  While it does include seven songs from King, as well as their three most popular pre-King singles, the gems of this album are the remaining ten album cuts.

Seeing a great opportunity for the band to get songs from their catalogue out in front of listeners, songs most have probably never heard, they do not disappoint.  There are at  least four or five songs that are radio-ready right now and the rest, while probably not commercial enough (how would they fit the 12-minute Mariner's Revenge Song onto a playlist?), every one of them is an excellent example of the signature sound of the best band to come out of the Pacific Northwest since ever.

Colin Meloy continues to show why he is hands-down the best lyricists in music today and the band, using anything they can get their hands on (dulcimer, anyone?) make some of the most organically beautiful music we've ever heard.  Meloy interacts easily and cleverly with the audience and at several points mentions wanting the crowd to feel as though they've gotten their money's worth.  With topics like the end of the world, the fate of Irish miners in 19-teens Butte, Montana and a joint suicide pact, how could they not?!?

With keyboardist Jenny Conlee battling cancer and Meloy announcing the band would be taking a, "multi-year hiatus", it may be quite a while until we get any new music from The Decemberists.  As a something with which to manage one's appetite until then, one could do much worse than this album.  We can only hope that Conlee comes out the other side of this in good health and the band's break is a short one, for the music world is a little less intelligent with them gone. 

Our favorite track:  It changes almost weekly and we really hope they choose to release some singles from this album but, as it has been out nine months now, it's not likely.  Currently, we're listening to The Bagman's Gambit* quite a bit.

*If you're not going to listen to the whole thing -- it's like eight-and-a-half minutes long -- at least give it to the 2:45 mark, so you can hear the first tempo change.  But we're tellin' ya -- you're gonna want to hear how the story ends.)

Incidentally, if you want to hear the album in its entirety, you can stream it here.

14.  Love This Giant
David Byrne & St. Vincent

When we were one album short of a round number for how many albums we purchased in 2011, we frantically bolted for the iTunes store, deciding we would buy whatever the best-selling album of the year was.  It was Adelle's 21.  Yeah, there was no fucking way that was happening, so we went to Plan B.  Buy something by a local artist.  We ended up buying Annie Clark's album, Strange Mercy and it ended up being one of our favorite albums of the year.

Clark, late of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' band, records under the name St. Vincent and is most often described as "quirky".  She frequently is compared to David Byrne.  When they found themselves together with a horn section onstage at a charity event, this album was destined.  Many a, "what if" conversation took place and eventually, they found themselves in a studio.

In order to listen to either Byrne or St. Vincent, one must step outside their comfort zone and, having an ingrained distaste for horns in general, we had to do so, as every track on this album is layered in them.  Added to that is that, while the two artists share similarities, those only serve to make the differences more stark and the results a bit unsettling.  Byrne is all mania and exuberance, while St. Vincent is the queen of distortion and tempo change.  Those two forces colliding with one another are what give this record it's life.

Be it the tale of reverse evolution on I am an Ape or the notion that perhaps one should become more stupid, so as to better relate to society at large on I Should Watch TV, the pair thrive on people watching then presenting their utterly unique take on things.  And while there is a certain chemistry there, even what might be flirtation, it's more of a general man/woman dynamic than any specific attraction -- like being in love with love.  In this instance, we find it refreshing that the older man/younger woman cliche is never part of the equation.  The album is much better for it.

Our favorite track:  Weekend in the Dust

13.  Blah Blah Reagan Blah Blah Punk Rock
Responsible Johnny

What if Rutger Hauer had a guitar, instead of a shotgun?

Would a hobo wreaking havoc in the streets slaying those in his path with wit, insult and shredding been as entertaining a movie?  Fortunately we have this album to provide the answer -- a resounding yes. 

From the fade-in of lead track and first single Stomp (80), this album takes off running and doesn't stop, in true old-school punk style.  There's no polish here and that's what makes it work.  But don't let these fuckers fool you -- there's some serious talent here.  They put on a good show of being all about drugs, pussy and rebellion and, to a certain extent, they are but beneath that lies a whole lot of depth.  Punk bands are supposed to know what, two chords?  Yeah, tell that to these guys.  Listen to Cock Wig (currently charting) then tell us these guys aren't for real.

Between Hobo Rob Michaud's biting, hilarious and, yeah, we're gonna say it -- intelligent lyrics, the ridiculous talent of Coy VD on guitar and one of the better bassists in the D/FW are in Quel, this is a really skilled set of musicians.  Ripping through 11 songs in just over 24 minutes, this album is the epitome of a punk record: it makes you believe your opinion matters.  It makes you want to share your fetishes, frustrations and mental illness with the world.  And telling someone to fuck off and let you do your thing matters.  Sure, in the end we all realize the world is indifferent to us and our gripes but that doesn't mean it isn't fun raging against the man.  Pop on this album and do so for a half hour.

Whether you want to tell politicos on both sides of the aisle what a jackass they are with Ain't Fer It (I'm Agin' It), feel like shitting all over someone else's perfect idea of what they think YOU should be with Suburban Nightmare, or just celebrate a personal accomplishment with I Didn't Shit Myself While Puking This Time, there is something for everyone here.

Our favorite track: Paranoid

12.  Which Side Are You On
Ani Di Franco

Unless you're an uber-feminist who looks at that Lenin guy and thinks, "he's a little bit right-wing for my tastes", listening to an Ani DiFranco album is like going to certain churches for charity: yeah, I'll listen to your speeches and attampts to convert me but I'm really just here for my dinner.

Being an election year, we really expected the proselytizing to be unbearable.  We were surprised to find this not to be the case.  Taking out the title track (173), an update of the 1931 labor anthem that, ironically (or intentionally) ignores the fact that labor has as big a part in the state of affairs as anyone else) and the ridiculous Amendment (seriously?  in 2012 you are still railing for an ERA?), this is a surprisingly apolitical album.  There are oblique references to abortion on Life Boat and a benign dabbling with environmentalism on Splinter but for the most part, these are personal tales of life and love that at times are simply stunning.

For someone so wrapped up in issues -- perhaps because of that fact -- a song like Mariachi (68) literally makes one sit back, relax and enjoy being in the moment.  And that is where this album succeeds.  Be it the early navigation of a relationship and finding out one another's strenghts and weaknesses on Unworry (20, 2013) or an ode to the benefits and downside of weed, while taking a swipe at the president she loves on J (dude could be FDR/But he's just shifting his weight), this album resonates with the simple, articulate telling of personal tales we can all relate to, regardless of political stripe. 

DiFranco's delicate voice and superb guitar work come together to make some truly beautiful sounds on this record, highlighted by Albacore (8), the most beautiful song of 2012. This album was an unexpected surprise and we're glad to have picked it up.  Its very existence reinforces the wisdom of not judging a book, or in this case, album, by its cover.

11.  4th Street Feeling
Melissa Etheridge

We've got more love for Melissa Etheridge than any straight man you'll ever meet.  Most of this is not a result of the music played on the radio though.  Billy Joel once said, "if I only heard the Billy Joel records they played on the radio, I would hate Billy Joel."  While we wouldn't go that far, we definitely appreciate Etheridge's music mush more as a whole than we would as a greatest hits package.

On the heels of 2010's superb Fearless Love, the release of this album was as highly anticipated as any of the year. 

When we listened the first time, our reaction was, "meh".  And the second.  By the third we were thinking we might have a dud on our hands.  Then we listened to it on our motorcycle and the whole thing changed.

Part of the issue was song ordering.  The title track is just awful and it is the second song on the album.  That, coupled with a change in producers threw us a bit.  This is Melissa Restrained and we'd not yet heard that.  The first time we were consciously aware of an artist intentionally "holding back" in order to give a better performance was in the 1989 movie In Country.  In a supporting role, Bruce Willis deliberately gave a subdued performance and it was exactly what was called for.

The same theory is at work here.  The crescendo is more so when one is not screaming all the way there.  It took a bit to get used to but the effect is brilliant.  The label went with something more traditional with lead single Falling Up (27) but that is the exception more than the rule.  This is a dark, stark, bluesy set on which Etheridge plays all the guitars.  Rumbling bass lines and strident, if not necessarily soaring, choruses permeate this back-to-basics record.  Always good for some tongue in...cheek lesbian fun, there's Rock and Roll Me and references to he ugly, very public custody fight in Shout Now but the standout track is when she breaks out -- a piano? -- on A Disaster* (currently charting).  While this album took a while to grow on us, it's simple approach allows Etheridge to show just how talented she is both musically and vocally.

*Sorry about the quality; it's the best we could find online and that's sad because this is a great song.  This version is just her with a piano, whereas the studio version has full band accompaniment.  You can probably get a better feel for the song by previewing it on iTunes, as this performance really does not do it justice..

Up Next: The Top Ten.
Previous: 75-61, 60-51, 50-41, 40-31, 30-21.