Starstruck

I’ve not had cause to mention this yet, but I actually had my very own brush with Foo Fighter greatness. Up close and personal.

But we’ll get to that…

Wasting Light, the Foo Fighters’ most recent album, was released in the spring of 2011, and the band spent most of the next 18 months touring and promoting, both here in the U.S. and internationally. It was a grind of a schedule, and last fall they finally got off the road and went back home for some well-deserved rest.

So, what do Foo Fighters do when they’re not on stage or in the studio being Foo Fighters?

Turns out, they do lots of the same stuff that normal mopes like you and me do when we have time off. They go on vacations with their families. They have hobbies and activities outside of music – drumming wonder Taylor Hawkins is a cycling enthusiast, specifically mountain biking, and Nate Mendel, the Foo’s extraordinary bassist, dabbles in writing – he contributes regularly to the band’s web/blog sites and he wrote a well-thought out contribution to last year’s “90 Days, 90 Reasons” website supporting President Obama’s re-election.

And there are lots of side projects involving music, just not Foo Fighters music, per se.  If I had my way, the band would release an album every year just to satisfy my desire for more of their music. But, hey, we all need a break from the job, even if it’s a job we love. I get this. And being the good Jewish mother that I am, I try to be supportive of all those side projects.  Which leads me to my Foo Fighter encounter.

One side gig is a country band, Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants. Chris is the Foo’s lead guitarist. His roots are in punk music, he plays a pretty mean rock and roll guitar, and even though I’m not a big fan of country music, I recognize his skill as a country western guitarist as well. Safe to say, if you needed a skilled shredder to play lead guitar in your genre band of choice, Chris would be your man.

So last March, when I found out he and the Peasants were going to be playing at a local watering hole/BBQ joint on a Sunday afternoon, I informed my husband that we would be in attendance.

At our house, especially now that it’s just the two of us, Sundays revolve around coffee, talking head news programs, and laundry. I’m not required to get out of my pajamas for any of these activities. Often, I don’t. I allow very little to intrude upon my Sundays, so an outing to chow down and hear live music was a big deal. Mark, my husband, was a little stunned by the suggestion (actually, it was more like an edict, as I recall!) but happy to tag along.

“What kind of music is this?” he asked.

“Who cares? It’s Chris Shiflett!”

While I was getting ready, he was tinkering around on the computer. As we were leaving the house, he presented me with a little plastic sleeve of business cards. They had my name and all my contact information on them, along with the title “Band Mother in Waiting.” And a Foo Fighter logo.

“If you’re going to meet a Foo Fighter, you need to be prepared,” he said.

To see what was the essence of my dream job, my life’s wish, spelled out in black and white on a business card stunned me. It was one thing to talk about it to a very small group of friends and family, and something else completely to see the idea, MY idea, expressed in writing. I admit, it rattled me.

I couldn’t imagine any circumstance that would prompt me to take one of those cards out of my pocket. It seemed so presumptuous. And a little creepy. Stalker-like, even. Definitely not how I wanted anyone to think of me. Especially not a real live Foo Fighter.

There was even a moment when I thought maybe we should just turn the car around so I could go home and put my pajamas back on and forget the whole thing.

But I had to go. It was Chris Shiflett! Chris. Fucking. Shiflett! And besides, I was hungry.

So we went. We had lunch. Sat out on the patio and enjoyed a lovely March afternoon – St. Patrick’s Day, in fact. Chris and his Dead Peasants arrived and proceeded to set up their equipment. Apparently, when you’re out on the road with your side band, and the side band isn’t as well-known as your primary band, you become your own crew of roadies. That was okay with me. It softened a little of that bright shiny stardom that I had anointed Chris with, and made him seem more like a regular guy.

If I had to classify their first album, I’d say the Dead Peasants are a country/rock hybrid band. But that Sunday, their sound was pure honky-tonk.  Most of the songs were covers of old country classics by legends like Faron Young, Merle Haggard, and Del Reeves. My husband was delighted – this was the music he’d grown up with!

After the show, when the band was breaking down their gear, I went up to meet Chris. I said the usual things you say to a star when you’re star-struck and groping for words – I love your work, I have all your albums, I think the Foo Fighters saved my life – yes, I actually did say that.  My friend Lynne took my picture with Chris. It’s a goofy picture. I was facing the sun and I didn’t have my sunglasses on, so I’m squinting like Mr. Magoo and grinning like a fool. But it’s me! With Chris. Fucking. Shiflett!

As we were leaving and chatting with him and the other band members, I had a moment of bravery and I said “Hey Chris, if you guys ever decide you need a cook, I’m ready to take the job.” He said that when the Foos travel internationally, the food service is pretty good, but here in the States, it’s hit or miss.

“That’s why you need me. Here, let me give you my card.” And I did.

If you’ve still got that card, Chris, give me a call. I owe you a pan of brownies.

Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants’ second album, All Hat and No Cattle, is available July 30th at record stores and e-music outlets everywhere.

Advertisements

The Paths We Choose

My 52nd birthday rolled around recently. As a gift to myself, I ordered a half-dozen new CDs from Amazon.

Yes, I realize that it’s not necessary to have an actual CD on hand in order to listen to music nowadays – if you have an MP3 player or a smart phone which will hold and play music, you can download just about any song or album ever produced. And sometimes I do.

But I’m an old-fashioned consumer, I guess. I like to have a real CD, nestled safely in its little jewel case or cardboard box. Opening it is like opening an oyster and finding the pearl! I like to read the liner notes, because they provide all sorts of nuggets of important information.  Sometimes there are even song lyrics, so I don’t have to consult some lame-ass lyric website, which is just as likely to get the words wrong as I will myself. Still, downloading does have its advantages.

The main one being that it eliminates the process of extracting a CD case from the protective plastic wrapper, which poses more challenges to the average consumer than a rear-hook bra does to a fumbling adolescent boy making out with his girlfriend on the couch in the game room.

What kind of sick bastard came up with CD packaging? I understand the need for a security strip so you can’t stuff a dozen CDs in your purse or the pockets of your cargo shorts and then waltz out of Best Buy without paying. But once you’ve bought the damn thing, you need an engineering degree to get the package open. It’s not going on a space mission, for God’s sake!

If I buy a CD in an actual brick-and-mortar retail store, chances are I want to listen to it as soon as possible, like once I get to my car. After the loss-prevention issue has been eliminated, how much more protection does the CD need? I paid for the damn thing, but I can’t listen to it because I can’t OPEN IT!

Getting the plastic wrap off requires a sharp implement, which is why I keep a pocket knife in my glove compartment, and that’s not even the end of the process. Get that damned case unwrapped and you still have to pop the CD off the spindle without breaking it. Or a fingernail. Both of which I’ve done.

Sorry, I was ranting, wasn’t I? But it had to be said. CD packaging industry, are you listening??

Where was I? Right! Back to my birthday CDs…

There was a little of everything among my new treasures – an old favorite (Rush’s Permanent Waves) and a new band that intrigued me on a Letterman appearance (The Shins’ Port of Morrow). A new favorite band (Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations,) and a band I knew only by reputation (El Camino, by the Black Keys). Finally, there was Green Day’s American Idiot, and the brand new People, Hell and Angels, a collection of twelve never-released studio recordings from the legendary Jimi Hendrix. I heard a lot of Jimi growing up, but this was the first Hendrix album I had purchased for my expanding music collection. It won’t be the last.

When I buy a pair of shoes or a new shirt, I almost always know that I’m going to love it before I leave the store. Music is different for me, though. I have to listen to a new album three or four times before I know what I think of it; I have to try it on and wear it around for a while to make sure it fits me. Once I determine that it does, I like to intersperse it with old favorites. For this reason, my iPhone’s shuffle feature is my best friend. Pick a genre, any genre. Or an artist. Or try out the Genius mix feature. You get a little of everything. It’s pretty fucking amazing.

Anyway, save for my frenzied Foo Fighters CD extravaganza a few summers back, I normally purchase music more prudently. One new album a month, two at the most. So, to say that the birthday array was a little daunting is an understatement. I couldn’t decide where to start.

So I did what any normal denizen of the 21stcentury would do – I sought advice from social media. I posted a photo of my CDs on my Facebook wall and asked what to listen to first. And of course, the answers were as varied as my friends.

“Muse, of course! Silly question!”

“We saw the Shins in Toronto last year, they were great!”

“Go with the Black Keys!”

“Hendrix, DUH!”

I got lots of input – my niece and grandniece were pushing hard for Green Day, and my ever-practical daughter suggested that I go in alphabetical order.

But in the end, I chose Rush. Permanent Waves was a staple of my early years in college, and decades later, when I began to understand that sometimes the lyrics from a particular song can have an influence on your life, I remembered a line from the song “Freewill” which had done so. In retrospect, it was this particular line that I had filed away, carried through my adulthood, and pulled out of long-term memory whenever I’d been faced with making a decision. 

“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” 

Why that line stuck with me so tenaciously, I can’t say. But it did. Not just in my college days but many times, from then until now. It reminded me that sometimes, we are forced to choose a path, even when we are scared to move, because not choosing just leaves us idling where we are. The paths we choose may not be exactly right, but moving forward is almost always better than just sitting still.

Sounds like my life. Maybe yours, too.

And remember what I said about those liner notes? They really are important. All these years I’ve given primary credit for “Freewill” to Rush front man Geddy Lee, so imagine my surprise to learn that the lyrics which nudged me along on so many occasions were written by drummer Neal Peart. 

I wonder if he likes fried chicken…

Turn That Fucker Up!!

Sooner or later someone will ask this question, so I’ve been pondering the answer in anticipation.  How did the Foo Fighters become the be-all and end-all band for me?

If you don’t know the Foo Fighters, you can Google them or check them out on Wikipedia.  They’re not new to the American music scene; in fact they’ve been around for nearly 20 years.  But in the spring of 2011, with the release of Wasting Light, they were new to me.

After college, my rock and roll soul took a long vacation.  I spent most of my child-bearing years listening to Top 40 radio and lots of pop music (at least after my kids were old enough to stop listening to Raffi and the like.) People like Seal, Sting, Bryan Adams and Phil Collins. Terrific singers, all.  But once my kids hit their teen years, they protested my musical selections in the car, and we were always in the car.  They wanted to listen to THEIR music!  And honestly, I was getting a little restless, too.

Over the next few years, I took to digging around in their CD collections, looking for something that I thought might be intriguing.  I took a particular shine to Queens of the Stone Age.  I nicked two of their albums, Songs for the Deaf and Era Vulgaris, from my son’s room one day, with his permission – he had everything on an MP3 player. Nobody listens to actual CDs anymore, Mom.  Duh!

I loved QOTSA. I loved Josh Homme’s voice.  Loved the rhythm.  Cranked the volume as high as I could stand it.  What’s that saying? If it’s too loud, you’re too old? Not me, baby. Turn that fucker up!  And it was the Queens of the Stone Age, and Josh Homme’s side project, Them Crooked Vultures, that ultimately led me to the Foos.

While the Foo Fighters were busy releasing a new album that spring of 2011, I was fighting a strangely paralyzing combination of restlessness and depression.  I was in a state of melancholy.  I’d just been passed over for a promotion. My husband had recently taken a job which had him traveling 2 weeks of every month, and the constant separations were hard on me. My kids were around, but grown and doing their own things.  I felt gloomy and stuck and directionless.

Not knowing what to do, I did nothing.  But while I was doing nothing, I decided to find something new to listen to.  No new QOTSA. No new Vultures. Damn.  What next?

One slow day at work, in a desperate attempt to stay awake, I started watching live performance videos of the Vultures.  I’ve always had a burning desire to learn to play the drums, so when I watch musical performances, I watch the drummer. The guy behind the Vultures’ kit was a fearsome creature who had the most magnificent mane of shaggy hair I’d ever seen. My CD case told me this was Dave Grohl. I was mesmerized.  I Googled him.

Drummer for Nirvana? I knew who Nirvana was. Guest drummer on Songs for the Deaf? I loved that album! Founder and front man of the Foo Fighters?  Wait…who? And really, the drummer sings? Well, Phil Collins did it with Genesis. Might be worth a listen. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.

I found a YouTube video of the Foo Fighters performing on The Late Show. The drummer was not Dave Grohl – Dave was out front with a guitar, in fact. They performed “Rope,” and I was impressed enough to buy their new album the next day.  I listened to it several times in a row. And then over and over again.

The following week I went to Best Buy and bought every Foo Fighters CD they had.  What they didn’t have, I ordered online.  Eight albums total – seven studio albums and a live acoustic concert they had performed in L.A.  For the next few months, I immersed myself in Foo Fighters music.  I listened every day. I learned every song, every note. And inexplicably, while I was listening, the fog around me began to lift. I started to feel better.

I was still alone frequently, but that was okay, because the Foo Fighters were filling that space with music.  Just hearing them made me feel less lonely. After a while, the promotion I’d missed out on didn’t seem to matter much. I started thinking maybe it was time to look in other directions, and that maybe I should start working on my master’s degree.

I’d considered it several times before, but always shied away because I was so fucking intimidated by the idea of taking the GRE.  But this time, for some reason, I wasn’t so freaked out anymore. I bought a few study guides. I read through the math sections several times. I picked a test date and registered for it, and I enrolled in grad school on a provisional basis, so I could take a few classes and get my feet wet. I did all of this while listening to the Foo Fighters.

Their music gave me hope. And confidence. And courage, I suppose. I was becoming a braver, stronger, more bad-ass version of myself.  I was still me, just with a brand new set of brass balls!  I took and passed the GRE. My math score was not great, but it was enough to be accepted into grad school as a ‘degree-seeking’ student.

As a present to myself for completing my first 6 hours of school, I started a sleeve on my right arm.  I have other tats, but the idea of a sleeve was always daunting to the old me. No more, though. New and improved me was ready. 18 hours of chair time.  I gritted my teeth, practiced deep breathing and listened to my band through all of them. My sleeve is a depiction of the solar system with a fierce purple dragon woven between the planets. Oh, and Mars is a Foo Fighters logo.

So, here we are, a blog post later, and I still haven’t answered the question.

Why the Foos?

I don’t know.

I wondered for a long time, but finally decided ‘why’ didn’t matter. Some things you just learn not to question.

But something clicked. Five guys that I don’t know, who’ve been making rock music together for nearly two decades, touched a chord in me.  They brought me back from a dark place.  Maybe there was a void in my soul, and the only thing that fit there was Foo Fighters music.  Again, I don’t know. But I do know this.

They triggered a profound change in me.  And I’m pretty sure they saved my life.

Mama’s Kitchen

She came to America when she and her family fled Austria just before the start of World War I. She was the youngest of 11 children. She never lost her heavy Austrian accent, which just made her more endearing. Her name was Marian. I adored her, and I wasn’t the only one – she had many admirers.

She was my maternal grandmother.  And she taught me to cook.

Mama, as we called her, was about five-foot-nothing of fierce energy and constant motion – a little firecracker of a woman who knew her way around a kitchen like nobody’s business.  Any celebration at her house was a guaranteed food orgy. There was always a huge spread, multiple dessert options (although her cheesecake was everyone’s favorite), and plenty of Mogen-David to sip.  My first hangover, at the age of 15, was a painful result of drinking WAY too much wine during the Passover Seder at Mama’s.

Mama grew up in Dallas, married my grandfather, a milliner, in the late 20s and started a family.  Eventually, they moved to Fort Worth and settled here. The house where my mom and my uncle grew up was where my most significant food memories were created.

You know those little hand-crafted signs or ceramic tchotchkes that say something along the lines of “Grandma’s house – where the cookie jar is never empty?”  Yeah, well, screw the cookie jar – Mama didn’t have a cookie jar.  Mama didn’t NEED a cookie jar! She had a freezer! And it was always full of cookies; giant tins full of every kind of cookie or bar that you could imagine. She kept them on hand for frequent visits from her grandchildren, or to serve to her bridge club, or for some event at the synagogue, or anytime someone she knew needed a plate of refreshments on a moment’s notice.

Mama was like the Boy Scouts of baked goods – always prepared.

If you wanted a cheesecake, all you had to do was ask.  Not only did she make them for her guests, she also made them for other people to serve at their feasts! It was not uncommon to visit her house just before Rosh Hashanah or Passover and see 7 or 8 cheesecakes lined up on her breakfast table, just waiting to be picked up by grateful friends who didn’t have the same knack for baking that she had. I am certain there is a baking gene, and I have been fortunate enough to inherit it, and it came from Mama.

I learned the basics about baking from Mama – following the directions in a recipe and not skipping steps. Greasing and flouring pans, and mixing until the batter was the right consistency, and how sifting the flour affected the density of the cake you were making.  And when I helped Mama in the kitchen, I got the drudge work too.  I think of myself as the original food processor, because when something needed to be ground or chopped, she had an old crank grinder that she attached to her kitchen counter, and I was the power source.  When I was still too short to reach the crank, she dragged a chair in from the breakfast table and I stood on it and cranked away.

There was nothing fancy about Mama’s kitchen, but magical things were created there.

There was a huge General Electric refrigerator, circa 1934, which was filled with wonderful things.  It was like a big treasure chest on legs, and with a giant motor sitting on top.  It got colder than any fridge I’ve ever had, and there was always a tub of whipped butter in there – Land ‘O Lakes or Falfurrias, maybe – to spread on matzohs. Back in those days, butter was king. Mama used only butter when she cooked.  Like an Austrian version of Julia Child.

The other major appliance at Mama’s was an O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove, slightly newer than the fridge.  It had actually been my parents’ first stove, but it went back to Mama’s when they built a new house in the early 60s.  To light one of the burners, you had to turn the dial and hold a match to it, and then there was that little whoosh noise and voila! There was your beautiful blue flame, ready to cook something to perfection.

I was terrified of it.

I expected that I would catch fire if I tried to light it, or blow up Mama’s house.  But Mama always said that it was the best way to cook.  Even though she could have replaced it with a more modern electric stove at some point, she never did.

Up until the early 80s, both the mammoth refrigerator and the stove were still going strong. They don’t make appliances like that anymore.  I still have the fridge.  It doesn’t run now, but it makes a wonderful baking pantry. Besides, it’s like a family member. Wherever I go, it will always go with me.  Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the old O’Keefe and Merritt, but just a few years ago, we moved to a new house with gas available in the kitchen, so we bought a gas oven, and I was able to experience gas cooking again.  And Mama was right, of course. It’s the best way to cook.

There is a smell that comes from a gas oven which is particularly distinct. If you grew up in a house with a gas oven, you know that smell. The first night we were in our new house, I had a pan of lasagna from the freezer that I was going to cook. I turned on the oven to let it warm.  And there it was. That smell. I stood stock-still in my chaotic, still-not-unpacked kitchen, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.

Me: “Smell that?”

Husband:  “What, the oven? Yeah, why?”

Me: “It smells just like Mama’s kitchen.”

It smelled just like home.