Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday On My Mind Random Ten

I'm getting ready for my final next week. It'll be 2/3's material we just covered, and 1/3 cumulative. I'm feeling good about it. I'm trying to hit the books to get ready for my end-of-year nursing exam that we'll all have to take. I need to score 800 out of 1000 points or I have to go to summer school. Feel pretty good about that one too.

In the meantime, I picked up an extra shift at work, so I'll be working tonight. A little less time with my kids, but it'll help ease some financial worries.

1. What's It All About, Alfie?- Dionne Warwicke
2. Rip This Joint- The Rolling Stones
3. Ode To Billy Joe- Bobbie Gentry
4. Cocaine Blues- Johnny Cash
5. Sex (I'm a...)- Berlin
6. I Robot- The Alan Parsons Project
7. Sam Stone- John Prine
8. Heart To Heart- Kenny Loggins
9. Five Years- David Bowie
10. Don't Fence Me In - Willie Nelson and Leon Russell

1. Got this one from a "Best of Dionne Wawicke" cd I checked out from the local library-- I've come to be a big fan over the years.
2. From "Exile On Main Street," the greatest rock and roll album ever produced.
3. One of the greatest one-hit-wonders ever.
4. From the "Live At Folsom Prison" album
5. I heard this one a thousand times in the clubs, along with "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys and New Order's "Blue Monday." And like those songs, I never, ever got tired of hearing it.
6. I hear this futuristic-sounding instrumental a lot on sports shows.
7. From John Prine's incredible first album-- a heartbreaking tale of a guy who comes back from Vietnam with a heroin habit.
8. Grew to love this bubble-gum hit hearing it on a local station in college.
9. From the Ziggy Stardust album, one of the first records I ever bought.
10. Willie and Leon coveing Cole Porter.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Johnny Rojo's Fave Raves: Rodriguez, "Cold Fact"

Sometime in the last year or two, I heard a song I liked on Sirus/XM satellite radio's "Little Steven's Underground Garage," "Only Good For Conversation," by Rodriguez. The song had a buzzing drive to it and sharp lyrics that rang in my head. It told a tale of a guy who meets a woman who he realizes has little concern outside of her own little life-- she cares little about politics, the oppressed, etc.

You're pretending that you got it made
You know I know you know no truth
You're still serving cookies and kool-aid
You're so proper and so cute

After hearing it a second time and loving it still, I bought it on Itunes. I assumed that the song was a fairly recent one; perhaps one of the many garage-rocky sounding groups coming out of places like Detroit and Buffalo lately.

A few weeks ago, the song popped up on my ipod shuffle and it occurred to me to look up Rodriguez. Turns out that I had the Detroit part right. But Detroit native Sixto Diaz Rodriguez recorded "Hard Fact," the album the "Only Good For Conversation" was from in 1970. Out of curiousity, I went on Youtube and listened to most of the rest of the songs on the album. By the end of the evening, I'd bought the whole album online and had messaged my friend Peter, who owns a record store about buying the album (he had a used copy in stock).

"Hard Fact" is brilliant. It's as if a child of Mexican immigrants (which he is) had hung out with Billy Bragg, Donovan and Jack White, and recorded Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." (there's even a song called "Inner City Blues" that is thematically similar to the Marvin Gaye song of the same name, though different stylistically and preceded Gaye's song by about a year) The album explores styles from folk to R and B (it was co-produced by noted R and B producer Dennis Coffey) with a lot of rock in between. He examined inner city drug addiction-- "Sugarman," politics and apathy ("This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst, or The Establishment Blues") and relationships ("I Wonder").

Listening to the album, I was floored by the fact that it moved me so much-- and that I'd never heard it before. In messaging back and forth with Peter about the album and artist I discovered why; the album hadn't done much when it came out. Auto worker Rodriguez went back to working factory jobs and raising a family after his second album, "Coming From Reality" didn't too well either.

Then, in the seventies, his songs began to gain popularity in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where people were fighting apartheid regimes. He toured Australia in the late seventies and early eighties with Midnight Oil, but remained unaware that his music was the soundtrack to a revolution until his daughter discovered a tribute website for him in 1998. Rodriguez began touring again, starting with South Africa, and in 2008, "Hard Fact" was reissued on cd. "Coming From Reality" was released last year.

Peter mentioned that he played in the Chicago area last year. Hopefully he'll play again sometime after I finish nursing school (when I can afford to go out to concerts again). He's supposed to be great live. In the meantime, I can't recommend "Cold Fact" enough.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chapter Two

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to start a new blog. I'd been posting on my original blog, Here Comes Johnny Yen Again for over 3 years. For various reasons, I've decided to have a fresh start.

I started "Johnny Yen" for a variety of reasons. In June of 2006, I had the worst week of my life. I'd known for a long time already that it was going to be a rough week; I'd discovered a couple of months before that I was not going to be tenured in the teaching job I was working, a job I loved. I was faced with the prospect of being a guy in his mid-forties competing in a job market against thousands of new grads who match the image that principals seemed to love-- young, female, perky and pliable. As my final week in that job approached, I got more bad news; my father had been diagnosed with cancer. There was a huge tumor in his abdomen. The doctor would not know how bad it would be until he operated, but there was a strong possibility that the cancer had gone into his pancreas-- a cancer that is nearly 100% fatal.

As I braced myself for the first two blows, my final week in a job I loved, and the possiblity of my father's death, I got the worst news I'd ever gotten in my life. My friend Mark, whom I'd been friends with since meeting him in college in 1983, had been murdered in front of his home.

As I struggled to deal with these things, I fell back on something I'd started my last year as a teacher. I'd read an article in the New York Times about a woman who'd died in one of the World Trade Center towers in 2001. I alluded to this in "Johnny Yen" a few times. Her parents had retrieved her belongings from her apartment. One of the things was a laptop. It was a couple of years before they plugged it in and examined the contents. In it was a list of life goals that ran the gamut from the mundane to the lofty and everything in between.

Their daughter had, at her young age-- late twenties-- accomplished many of her goals. I imagined that they took some comfort in knowing this. This article inspired me to create my own list. One of the goals was to start a blog. With "Johnny Yen" I did this.

Number one on my list was to make sure that I could pay for my son's college when it came time. When I set this goal, he was 11 or 12. Now he's sixteen. With that in mind, and with goal number 3, Plan for retirement-- over the next couple of years I formulated a plan for a career change. At first, I had the idea to be a pharmacist. I began taking the prerequisites for this, and left teaching, supporting myself by working as a waiter at a place I'd worked part time for years. One of my co-workers at the restaurant was studying to be a nurse, and we ended up taking classes together. As we worked together in our Biology and Microbiology classes, she kept lobbying me to consider nursing school. It would take me much less time-- 2 years verses at least six for pharmacy school and prerequisites-- and they were actually looking to get more men in the field. In January of last year, I put in my application and to my surprise got in-- very lucky, since there are many more applicants than open slots.

Here I am nearly a year into my two-year nursing program. I'm in a very different place than I was three and a half years ago, when I started "Johnny Yen." I've moved on from the anger over how my teaching career ended; I'm delighted with my choice of new career and feel that I made the right decision. My father is healthy and happy; his cancer is completely gone and it's given him a new perspective on life. And my grief over my friend has become manageable. The guy who killed my friend is behind bars for the rest of his life. I feel like the biggest tribute I can give to Mark is to live my life, raise my kids and to feel joy every day.

Why the new blog then? A few things.

First, one of my big inspirations is the "blogger formerly known as 'Barista Brat.'" She had a fascinating blog, one of the first I started reading regularly, that centered on her reflections on working for a major coffee retail chain. She made a couple of life changes, including leaving that chain, and has moved on to realizing her dream of being an author of young adult literature. With this, she's ended posting on her old blog and started a new, equally interesting one with the focus on her new incarnation, i know, write?!?. With her old blog, she was rarely posting anymore; her old life-- and old blog-- had run their courses. It's a delight not only to see how she turned lemons into lemonade, but to see her posting frequently again. I came to realize that my situation was similar.

Secondly, I realized that I was not posting on the old one for various reasons. One of them was that there were people reading it that I really didn't want reading it, including a family member-- namely my spouse. In my favorite book, Tom Robbins' "Still Life With Woodpecker," one of the points is that in order to share a life with someone you also have to have a space of your own. Perhaps it's a corallary of "Good fences make good neighbors." I held back on certain things-- including references to previous relationships and marriages. I feel a lot freer to allude to these things now, including my reflections on an old lover who is still a close friend who has discovered she is seriously ill.

And lastly, there were a couple of people who felt compelled to put their two cents in who'd gotten on my very last nerve. To quote my late grandfather, "Everybody's entitled to their own stupid opinion." But it doesn't mean I want to hear it.

I plan on continuing some of the old stuff-- politics, history and my life-- but plan on delving a little more into art. I'll continue some features that people seem to like-- the "One-Hit Wonders" and "Chicago Stories." There will be, of course, stories about my kids and reflections on nursing school and some new ideas I have.

I hope that this new format will make me write more often and I hope it interests the old readers who follow me, and any new ones I may get.

The name of the blog is a reference to my favorite poem, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." From the first time I ever read it, the poem has gripped me. One of the first lines, about "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" is stunning and beautiful. My life has been one of trying to balance being true to friends and lovers, and of course, to "mine own self," with also attempting to find that joy and wonder that life offers up. Sometimes, those things even cross. As I approach my 50th year of life, getting ready to launch my kids into adulthood and myself into a new career, it seems more important than ever to embrace those things that bring me joy.

Oh, and one more thing-- new blog, new nome de plume: Johnny Rojo. Most of you probably know that "rojo" is Spanish for "red." As I approach fifty, I've realized that my politics continue to be unabashedly, unrepentantly and unapolegetically leftist.

And what of my old blog? I think I'll leave it up-- I think of it as lying fallow. I may return to it eventually. Time will tell.