The American Sound: Top 2017 Albums

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In early 2017, Steven Van Zandt was asked about rock being “dead”. He replied that it’s not dead, but it might be endangered. Whether it’s called rock, rock and roll, Americana, or any other label some insist on placing on genres of music, 2017 showed that American music is fully well, alive and kicking down swinging doors. From Chuck Berry’s first album of original material released since 1979, meta modern sounds in country and incredible albums released from seasoned veterans like John Mellencamp, 2017 was a great music for music lovers of all sizes, shapes, colors  and styles. Here are a few of my favorites.

 

Chuck, Chuck Berry

The founder and back beat foundation of rock and roll and all modern music passed away in March at the age of 90 but that didn’t stop him from releasing his first album of original material since 1979. Berry had been dropping hints for years that he had new music waiting to be released but with a lot of things Chuck said, no one knew for sure. Released in June with eight originals and two covers, the music shows Berry was still in top form in song writing, guitar style and performing. Big Boys, Dutchman and Eyes of Man are some of the best songs of his career and show that he was ever evolving. My favorite track is 3/4 Time(Enchiladas) which is a Tony Jo White cover played live at Blueberry Hill, is place of residence over much of the last 20 years. The song demonstrates his playfulness with lyrics, the audience and sexual innuendo. “I love what I’m doing, hope it don’t end to soon. There’s one thing I been hoping to find, a woman like you honey whose software matches this hard drive of mine!!” The music of Chuck Berry will live forever as long as recorded music exists and we are here to listen. Hail hail rock and roll, hail hail Chuck Berry.

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The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Isbell continues to show he is one of our finest songwriters and musicians with this release with gems If We Were Vampires, Hope The High Road and Something To Love, a personal song written for his daughter. My personal favorite is Hope The High Road and these lyrics, ” I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well/ Uninspired and likely mad as hell/ But wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again to a world you want to live in”

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All American Made, Margo Price

Great follow up album from her stunning first release Midwest Farmers Daughter and featuring a duet with Willie Nelson on Learning To Lose, All American Made and a protest on the female pay gap in America.

 

“No matter your religion, no matter your race
No matter your orientation
No matter your creed and no matter your taste
No matter your denomination
We are all the same in the eyes of God
But in the eyes of rich white men
No more than a maid to be owned like a dog
A second-class citizen

Pay gap, pay gap
Why don’t you do the math?
Pay gap, pay gap
Ripping my dollars in half”

 

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Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, John Mellencamp

The poet laureate of Indiana rock continues his hot streak of writing and performing some of the best material of his career. His 23rd studio album follows the success and strength of Life, Death, Love and Freedom, No Better Than This and Plainspoken and features Carlene Carter on several tracks as well as Martina McBride on Grandview. Favorites include Mobile Blues, Indigo Sunset, You Are Blind and My Soul’s Got Wings which Mellencamp wrote based on an unfinished lyric in Woody Gutrhie’s songbook.

A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs

Great new rock band from Philadelphia and new album masterpiece of Thinking Of A Place which clocks in at a whopping 11 minutes on the album but could go on for another 20 as far I’m concerned. Sounds of influences as wide ranging as Jackson Browne, Bowie, Pink Floyd and Springsteen all rolled into their own distinct sound and style.”Once I had a dream I was falling from the sky, coming down like dripping water, passing myself on by”

 

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Cleopatra, The Lumineers

Incredible follow up to their first release eponymous album from 2012, Cleopatra shines for it’s lyrics, arrangements, singing and it plays as a single story from start to finish of one long hot summer night, much like Springsteen’s Born To Run, and the first I’ve heard like it in many years. Highlights of Ophelia, Cleopatra, Angela, In The Light and the album’s first track Sleep On The Floor was made into the best music video I saw this year.

 

 

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Big Bad Luv, John Moreland

This Oklahoma based singer/songwriter turns in the finest album of his short but fertile career, filled with rock, folk and country influences. Gems include Old Wounds, Lies I Choose To Believe and No Glory In Regrets.

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If All I Was Was Black, Mavis Staples

60 years into her career, the queen of gospel and soul continues to deliver with her voice and soul and years of experience. Since teaming up with Jeff Tweedy, she has released some of the best work of her career and it continues with this November release featuring If All I Was Was Black, Peaceful Dream, Build a Bridge and we go high. I had the privilege of seeing her perform live for the first time this year as she opened for Bob Dylan and she continues to give all of herself to the spirit of the music and her fans. The album is her honest and direct view of the current state of race and America.

 

But There’s Nowhere To Go, Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls

On the heels of their impressive albums A Season Undone and Packed For Exile, the band delivers their hardest rocking album to date with plenty of hooks, heavy guitar lines and excellent lyrics. My favorite is Ballad of The Brown Bomber but other highlights include South of Babylon, Dead Stars and Miss Arizona. Rock on.

 

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Graveyard Whistling, Old 97s

Best album so far from this punk, alt-country, Americana Texas based band. Covering all of the musical spectrum from ballads, rip roaring rock, country swing and pop, the band delivers an ode to misanthropes in She Hates Everyone, the glory of youth in Those Were The Days, and Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls and the barn burner Drinking Song. Hell yes, hell yes right on!!!!! The most impressive and enthusiastic show  I saw all year.

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From Room A Volume 1&II, Chris Stapleton

The hottest songwriter and performer in modern music continues the success of his Traveler album by dropping not one but two excellent albums this year, From Room A Volumes 1 and 2, a mix of 18 originals and covers, and some of the best lyrics of the year. Either Way seems to have been written just for me as is the key to a great songwriter, Broken Halos, Millionaire and No One’s Lonely Tonight shine through but all songs are high quality with no skip songs on either disc.

 

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Younger Now, Miley Cyrus

Up until now, I’ve not been a fan of this singer due to her poor behavior and childish antics in the past, but her talent and voice have won me over this year on the strength of tracks like her duet with Dolly Parton on Rainbow Land, including a hilarious voicemail message from Dolly, Malibu, Inspired, A Week Without You and Miss You So Much.

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Brand New Day, The Mavericks

Raul Malo continues to have the finest voice in modern music and his operatic, Roy Orbisonesque voice shines on Goodnight Waltz and I Wish You Well. Favorites include Rolling Along and Ride With Me. The band continues to improve well into their careers.

Films About Ghosts: A Christmas Visitor, 1983

If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts

Mrs. Potter’s Lullabye, Counting Crows

Who are those guys, and gal? Ronald Edwin, Robert Sean, Erin and Ryan Barr Hilligoss

Who are those guys, and gal? Ronald Edwin, Robert Sean, Erin and Ryan Barr Hilligoss

By Ryan Hilligoss December 24, 2017

Every year, starting around Thanksgiving, I watch the same movies as part of my inherent OCD compulsion to make sense of the holidays and to help jog my memory on years past. The usual suspects appear in a continual lineup of holiday spirits: Christmas Vacation, The Family Man, The Family Stone, Scrooged, The Christmas Story and last but not least, Love Actually which I watch late at night, as I wrap presents while the rest of the family is sound asleep upstairs. I always save it for last because it moves me the most on many levels. The film begins and ends at airports with opening and closing montages of family and friends greeting their loved ones as they come down the exit ramps. As you see random strangers hug and kiss their friends and family, Hugh Grant, who plays the British Prime Minister says, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” Each time I see the movie and hear the line, I am reminded of one of the many things I miss about my, and our collective lives post 9/11: greeting our loved ones at the airport, or saying goodbye.

The above picture was taken late January 1, 1987 in Phoenix, Arizona. My brother Sean and I are waiting to fly back to St.Louis along with our father Robert Lee and we wait at the gate with our uncle Ronald Edwin Hilligoss and cousin Erin. Ron and Erin didn’t have tickets, they just walked with us to the gate, killing time and shooting the bull before we boarded. Ron is gone now, and so are those days of walking past security without a ticket to either greet or send of your loved ones. Sean, dad and I had just spent the last week in Phoenix visiting our grandparents, uncles, aunt and cousins for Christmas and New Years, the only time as children we spent Christmas away from home. I don’t remember much from that Christmas other than receiving a boomerang and running out in the park to try it, failing miserably. One thing I do remember clearly was driving out into the desert surrounding Phoenix, far enough away from the city lights, to clearly see Haley’s comet as it made its first return to our planet’s view since 1910. Mark Twain was born in 1835, the same year Haley’s comet visited prior to 1910, and wrote this, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” Twain indeed did live long enough to see its return and died the following day. We all drove out together in our grandparent’s RV, all of us crammed in together. When we got far away enough from the city, we pulled over, went and stood outside and gazed up in wonder and awe at a natural phenomenon.

Hilligoss christmas 1985 Phoenix

As long as I can remember, our Christmases consisted of two events: Christmas Eve spent at home, just our family, three boys and mother and father, having a nice home cooked meal followed by the exchange of gifts among ourselves and then Christmas day, spent at home with our Aunt Glenda and Grandfather Hubert Barr and Grandmother Ivy Barr. We would exchange gifts and have a meal followed by visiting in our “Christmas room”. I call it our Christmas Room because other than Easter and maybe Thanksgiving, Christmas was the only day we were allowed to enter or sit in there. Enter on any non holiday and you could face the wrath of Madonna Sue. I don’t have any memory of my Hilligoss grandparents coming when I was a child but I know they did as I have the photograph to prove it. Uncle Ron was even there as well.

ron, dad, Sean and Ryan 1978

Winter 1983

“The path through the woods became a magical journey. The two friends skied along in silence, stirred by the beauty surrounding them. When they stopped to rest, Puddle said, ” I wish I could take this morning and put it in my pocket and keep it forever.” Me too, “Toot sighed. “It’s perfect.”Toot and Puddle, Let It Snow,  by Holly Hobbie:

 

Five years later, Ron would make another appearance in Godfrey for Christmas, or at least I think it was 5 years later, 1983. I do remember that in 1982, Sean and I received ET sleeping bags from our Aunt Glenda since ET had been released in June of that year and was a smash hit in the theater and merchandising was running rampant at Christmas time. Ron came the following year and was greeted with chilly temps and several inches of snow, very different from the much warmer climate of Arizona desert he was used to at that time of the year. The snow was a tremendous gift of mother nature to Kevin, Sean and I as we loved nothing more than going out and sledding for hours and hours on the surrounding hills. We’d be gone from daylight to sun down or until our clothes were too wet and cold, and we’d return home to dry off ourselves and outer wear and then head out again for more thrills. Back on this particular Christmas, after our large family meal and presets were exchanged and our family left to return to Springfield, Sean and I begged our mom to let us go out sledding. I am sure my mom’s patience was long gone after hosting and cooking, and quickly told us to get out and leave her alone. Sean and I quickly gathered our snow pants, boots, gloves and hats as the snow waited for us outside. Ron surprised us by asking if he could join. Sean and I quickly conferred in secrecy, finally agreeing to let our special visitor join us for some adventure.

We had several choices of hills: the gentle and smooth one 10 steps from our door in our next door neighbor’s backyard, a much larger and steeper version behind the nursing home at the top of the neighborhood or a much longer, more narrow, almost luge like track deep into the woods behind our house. We decided to test our Uncle and headed deep into the woods, each pulling our black plastic sleds by the lead rope, leaving a trail behind us in the deep, quiet snow. The woods have a small, shallow creek that winds behind the houses, leading for a long ways, eventually heading over the cliffs along the Great River Road and into the Mississippi River, 5 miles away. The creek was our passage way to our secret sled run. We walked in secrecy behind all the houses lit up against the gathering darkness as the winter sun descended in the late afternoon. Ron, being big, strong and athletic stayed with us, trailing slightly behind us, as Sean and I walked and talked, lost in the childhood thoughts of 9 and 12 year olds, speaking a language only the two of us could understand.

After walking for to us seemed like an hour, but was probably more like a 15 minute trek, we reached our destination, an empty creek bed, indented into the ground a few feet, with scrub brush and black locust trees looming overhead in the darkness, monsters in our imaginations. The run started at the top of small hill, twisted and turned several times, and quickly lost altitude as it headed toward the larger creek at the bottom of the hill. Sean and I went first, laughing our heads off as we gathered steam, landing in the creek and water after a few minutes of gliding over the snow, now glistening in the moonlight. After a few runs, Ron absconded with one of our sleds and set off on his own with both Sean and I sitting in the other sled chasing after our uncle as we hurtled down the hill slightly behind him.  After repeating time after time, Ron said we should probably head home so he could take his insulin shot and eat some dinner. Thrilled and exhilarated and yet exhausted from two days of Christmas, we begrudgingly relented and started for home, using the creek to once again guide us home.

As we approached our house and began the slow walk from the creek to the top of our backyard, I remember vividly looking at the back side of our family home with all the lights on in the house illuminating the backyard and snow-covered ground. I remember seeing my mom in the kitchen window, the one in front of the sink, as she stood working as she always did, cleaning up the plates and dishes from our Christmas lunch. What she had been doing since we left the house is lost to time and memory, but I am hope she had a moment to herself, perhaps a nap, perhaps watching one of her favorite holiday movies or I Love Lucy or The Andy Griffith Show. Dad was probably upstairs in his man cave watching TV and Kevin was in his room, playing our joint Atari gift we had received the prior year. At that moment, as we approached the house, we two warriors of the snow, we two brothers and our beloved Uncle Ron, with the lights of the house glinting off the snow, with the tracks of or boots and sleds in the snow behind us, all we could need or want was right there next to us, in front of us, at least in that fleeting moment.

 

Sean and Ryan sledding

Sean and Ryan, Godfrey, Il 1980

 

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” TS Eliot, Four Quartets

It's A Magical World Ol' Buddy, Let's Go Exploring

It’s A Magical World Ol’ Buddy, Let’s Go Exploring. The last Calvin and Hobbes strip.

Goodbye Lake Wobegon? Art Versus the Artist

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By Ryan Hilligoss, December 17, 2017

My first introduction to talk radio was while riding with my dad from Alton to Springfield, Illinois as a young child. I was about 5 or 6 and remember riding in our tan station wagon we used at our restaurant as a catering vehicle/day care/cross-country, back jumper seat, death-defying mode of transportation. This is the same tan Chevrolet family wagon that we took to Arizona with me standing on the hump in between the first and second row seats telling the driver, on the verge of murdering me and my brothers at any given moment, “Dad, we need gas dad!!!!” The same car that my brother Sean and I sat in the back section sleeping, talking, flipping off passing families and otherwise just being a couple jerks as kids are wont to be sometimes. But I digress….

Growing up with two older brothers in our household, there weren’t many times that I got to spend much time with either my mother or father without one or the other around, but on this day, I got called up to the big leagues and got to ride with my dad. It was a hot, summer day in central Illinois, hot and humid as the summers are, and we traveled in a 4/60 manner of air conditioning, 4 windows down and crusing at 60 miles an hour up Interstate 55. As he drove, there wasn’t much conversation between the two of us and the void was filled with the wind and the radio, AM, probably 1120 KMOX, the voice of the Cardinals, which broadcast talk radio during the day. As a six-year-old, I had no idea what they were talking about, might as well have been in Sanskrit for all I knew, but what I did know was the person talking was excited and speaking loudly and quickly. This was in the late 70s so they could have been discussing the oil embargo or the Iran hostages, but whatever it was my dad was listening intently as he smoked a small, thin cigar and spit from time to time into a Styrofoam cup. As a child, all I knew was what was being said on the radio was mysterious and seemed very important, like something exciting was going to happen at any moment.

Flash forward 15 years and I’m a 21-year-old college student driving back to Eastern Illinois University after a weekend spent at home, and I’m searching  the radio for anything decent to hear after running through my limited collection of cassettes for the 100th time…Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits, Elvis’ Aloha special….I’ve heard them all so much I hear it in my sleep, so I spin the dial looking for something new…then I hear a voice coming at me….slow but persistent, a deep baritone voice talking about his town, somewhere in the lakes of Minnesota, his neighbors, his friends, the Bachelor Farmers sitting on the town square watching cars and people walk by, the local Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Obligation and Father Emil. It was the voice of Garrison Keillor and his weekly Prairie Home Companion coming from The Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St.Paul, Minnesota, including his production actors Sue Scott and Tim Russell and sound effects by Tom Keith. The show was a weekly whirl wind of jokes, recurring bits, great musical guests and a superb house band. His voice was all-consuming and hooked me from the start, taking me to places in my mind I could only imagine., taking me to Lake Wobegon, ‘the little town that time forgot and the ages could not improve’. Lake Wobegon, where all the all the men are good-looking, all the women are strong and all the children are above average.

For over 40 years, his Prairie Home Companion drew millions of listeners every Saturday night. His last show was broadcast in July of 2016, performed in front of 18,000 fans at the Hollywood Bowl. I meant to write up an appreciation as a meager way of thanking him for the years of listening pleasure, but as usual, I was too busy with life and merely put PHC on my list of topics to write about when I magically had more time and energy. And now, it appears I’ve missed my chance given the fact Garrison has become one of many persons involved in the sexual harassment plague taking down one person in power after another, a wave of long buried shame and hurt and humiliation too large to be kept inside anymore by its victims. In November, Minnesota Public Radio cut all ties with Keillor due to allegations from at least one person if not more. In a statement, MPR insisted it conducted a proper review. The statement said two people formerly associated with the show alleged “multiple incidents of inappropriate behavior” by Keillor, though only one claimed the behavior was directed at her. The station said it hasn’t made additional details public because the two want privacy. Keillor didn’t provide details to the Associated Press but later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he had put his hand on a woman’s bare back as he tried to console her.

I guess the question I ask myself is where does this leave me and all the rest of his fans who experienced or heard his shows, read his books or op-ed columns, or listened to his morning poetry segment on NPR. I attended a few of the PHC shows live, twice in St.Paul and in other locations. My dad and I met him at a dinner held before one of his solo lectures held at University of Illinois Springfield. I got to shake his hand and thank him for all the pleasure he brought me over the years and sent him the above picture to get his autograph which he kindly signed and returned much to my surprise. But at this point in time, how do the allegations and his possible behavior affect me and the art he created over the years. If he is guilty and harassed one or several females, what happens to all those stories? I can’t unlisten to the shows or unread his books and columns. I can’t erase the memory of his voice lulling me into Lake Wobegon and all the characters that live there, walking the streets in my imagination. Whether it’s Keillor or Kevin Spacey or any other person, what does this mean for us, the fans, what does it mean for the victims?

David Sedaris

 

Some of my favorite authors include Larry McMurtry, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip Roth, and Sarah Vowell, but probably the funniest and the one I enjoy reading most is David Sedaris. I first became aware of him while listening to This American Life and heard him reading a story about what it was like to grow up in North Carolina. He signed up for guitar lessons and when his teacher asked him what he liked to play, he said he didn’t like to play but wanted to sing like blues legend Billie Holliday and then proceeded to break into the Oscar Meyer baloney jingle in a spot on Billie Holliday impersonation which made me almost drive off the road in fits of laughter. He has a very distinctive, easy voice that I fell in love with listening to. Over the last 15 years, I’ve read all of his collections of essays, my favorite book being Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim and my favorite essay is Rooster At The Hitching Post. I’ve been lucky to see him at several readings over the years in different settings including a small community college, a large theater in Chicago packed to the gills with 4,000 fellow eager listeners, and a beautiful older theater in downtown Aurora. I think his appeal at drawing crowds is his humor, the beauty of his writing and the cadence of his speaking voice. Watching him in action gives a keen observer the opportunity to watch a master at work. As he begins a new story yet to be published, he writes the time he starts speaking on the page, begins to read and marks on the manuscript where the crowd laughs and where it doesn’t that he was expecting a laugh, I assume so he can make revisions before submitting to his publisher. He writes the time down when he ends so he knows how long it would take to read the story as he generally tries to stay in the 10-15 minute range. Afterwards, he sets up shop in the lobby with a stash of writing utensils, water and an after show meal, and will sign and talk to fans who stand in line, each and every last one of them, no matter how tired he might be or how many.

After seeing him at the Arcada Theater in downtown St.Charles on his Let’s Talk About Diabetes With Owls tour, I was the last one in line of probably two hundred people that took an hour and half to get to the end. He is always very gracious to each and every fan, signing most things they present, making small talk, asking where you’re from, what you do for a living, etc. During that night’s lecture, he was reading about travelling around the world and observing cultural differences, large and small. He got into a list of curse words and insults in various cultures ending with the worst insult he had ever heard, in Romania which translated as “I shit in your mother’s mouth.” The crowd initially gasped and then burst into uncomfortable laughter. As I approached the table, he sized me up quickly and began small talk and I told him I enjoyed his most recent essay which has appeared in The New Yorker and we began a quick discussion on it while he quietly drew something on my CD case. He thanked me for coming, got up, nodded at his assistant who began to pack up his items for the night. As I walked away, I looked down at the inscription which was the exact worst insult he had ever heard and I laughed at his audacity. I knew from his writings that he was not insulting me, it was a wink and a nod that I was in on his jokes and dark humor.

A few days later, there was a small controversy when he wrote the same thing on a fans book at another reading. Apparently this particular fan wasn’t in on the joke, was highly insulted on her mother’s behalf, and began a campaign to shame Sedaris and seek an apology and get him fired from his publishing contract. In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he said that he had written the same thing on several fans’ books, making sure to look them overly carefully as they stood in line, to ensure they were on the same page with him. He simply misjudged this time. The offended party had contacted his publisher demanding a full apology and recourse of some sort. The fan’s demands reminded me of so many customers I’ve spoken to over my career who demanded I fire an employee for some offense like telling them something they didn’t want to hear or for simply being told no. Like a three-year old wanting their playmates toys, stamping their feet in the sandbox and turning red in the face at the indignation of not getting what they want, they make ridiculous demands and think they have power of someone else, they try their best, futilely, to bend the world to their vision of right and wrong. In the end, Sedaris did offer an apology for upsetting the reader in question, but he did not apologize for his works or words. Since then, I’ve often wondered what that fan did after that. Did she refuse to buy his new publications as they came out one by one? Did she decline friend’s invitations to go to another reading? Did she use the pages from her favorite books as toilet paper, returning the favor? Did she donate the books she had to charity, cleansing the author’s art from her mind and memory?

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Trust The Art, Not The Artist

During an interview, Bruce Springsteen was asked about his ability to write about working people and dirty jobs that he had never done himself. Apparently the interviewer was having a hard time reconciling a very wealthy recording musician writing about characters working in fields, factories and down on the docks. Springsteen has been very honest about this fact over the years, stating clearly that the only “honest job” he ever did was painting a neighbor’s house and mowing his aunt’s yard in order to earn money to buy a better electric guitar back in his teens. However, he grew up in VERY humble settings, with no running water in the family house until he was 10, his father bouncing from one job to the next as a bus driver, factory worker, jail guard, etc while his mom held a steady job as a legal secretary for many years, earning the only stead income their family saw. Pressed even further, Springsteen simply said, “When in doubt, trust the art, not the artist.” A fairly simple answer, but a profound one at that.  Just as the rest of us, no one is without faults, sins on our hands, human frailties, hypocrisy from time to time. Artists are no different, often living messy lives, filled with a never-ending list of mistakes and bad choices, bad decisions made for themselves and effecting all of those around them.

Whatever sins they are, who among us is clean? Is it fair to not appreciate art because of the human behavior of those producing it? On my desk at home, I have a small menagerie of collectibles showing my appreciation for those artists and their art that I love. If I stop and look at those totems and consider their source, I could easily start taking them all down and putting them in a box of shame.

My Chuck Berry bobble head doll, doing his patented duck walk wearing a St.Louis Cardinals jersey….gone. While being the godfather of rock and roll, his signature guitar playing being the foundation of all modern music that came after, his lyrics, song writing and arrangements still being imitated and influencing artists today, he had a sketchy past at best. Twice serving time in prison, the first more than likely influenced by his race and celebrity, but the second being for evading taxes. As owner of his Berry Park music club, he was accused and found guilty of putting a video camera in the women’s bathroom and taping women in various stages of dress. He later plead guilty to charges stemming from this and paid money in a class action settlement with the victims. Johnny B Goode and Sweet Sixteen and the two chord blues guitar rhythm sent to the trash heap? His legacy and music purged from our radios and the ether? It’s currently on a voyage in space, past Jupiter and out among the stars….that music can’t come back down.

Bruce Springsteen with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

What about my Franklin Roosevelt bobble head? Should I throw it away or place it back in its original packaging? FDR is considered by many citizens and historians as one of our best presidents ever for his handling of the country during the Great Depression, his ideas of A New Deal, his handling of the lend-lease program helping Britain fight Hitler’s encroachment on the western world, and his handling of our involvement and success in WWII. But his personal life was filled with mistakes including marrying Eleanor out of political convenience and multiple affairs including his longest lasting with Eleanor’s personal secretary Lucy, promising to break it off if she would stay and then continuing the affair until the day he died, literally with Lucy next to him as he suffered a brain hemorrhage.

What about my Woody Guthrie poster hanging on my wall next to my writing desk? After my father and I once traveled to Okemah, Oklahoma to visit the birthplace of America’s greatest troubadour and folk singer, I was talking to a family friend about Woody’s legacy and the fact he had written close to 3,000 songs in his life. “Yeah, but he was a terrible father and husband, ” my friend sneered. And in many senses, he was right. Woody was married three times and had eight children, often leaving them for months or years at a time as he wandered the country, living in labor camps, visiting the down trodden, playing music for all along the way. He often had no money, lived with friends while he was on the road, and leaving his wives and kids to fend for themselves back home. Does that diminish the power and glory of This Land and Bound For Glory, who is to say?

Prince-From-Another-cover

Prince From Another Planet

And if human behavior is to be the guide post on right and wrong, where does that leave my largest inspiration and influence, Elvis Presley. I love him for his music and legacy as well as his life story. One boy from a dirt poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, literally growing up on the wrong side of the tracks on the black side of segregated town. Eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches because his mother Gladys could get free bananas from the produce trains coming through town and getting rid of their spoiled stock by throwing it out on the passing country side, slicing those protein filled bananas in between slices of bread and peanut butter for the only nutritious meals she could prepare. This boy who grew up in dire circumstances, with a father who served time at Parchman prison for changing a check from $30 to $300, a boy who grew up living in a shot-gun shack and later public housing in Memphis. This boy gave the world everything he had, helped change modern music by blending country, hillbilly music and the blues into a new sound. That same boy grew up to be a man who committed many mistakes: affairs, almost shooting his girlfriend Linda Thompson by mistake as he attempted to shoot a tv but putting the bullet through the wall and into the toilet paper holder inches away from Linda’s knee, throwing a pool cue across his pool room in a fit of anger which struck a female friend’s breast, deforming her, and most egregious, taking thousands of prescription pills over the years, ultimately leading to his death, a victimless crime. In 1977 alone, he took close to 12,000 pills in the short 8 months he was alive. Do these add up to defenseless crimes of behavior and choices that erase those words and songs ‘That’s Alright Now Momma” and “Mystery Train” from further rolling down the tracks?

This started out as me simply trying to analyze my feelings on Garrison Keillor being expunged from NPR and MPR, his entire Prairie Home Companion website and his huge catalog of past shows being wiped off the internet in one fell swoop, and his columns no longer appearing in newspapers. I’ve listened to him talk and read his words for 20 years now and own many of his News From Lake Wobegon compilations. His voice and his stories are still rolling around in my ears and memory. His cadence and storytelling are part of who I am. If there is more to be found out about his transgressions, then I’ll have to reconsider his place on my desktop, but for now, with two persons coming forward with sketchy insinuations, I’m giving him the benefit of doubt. If you are a person of power and influence and leverage that to your benefit at the expense of another or you commit crimes of sexual harassment and multitudes of other actual offenses, you need to be removed from that position and face jail time, pay retributions and be held accountable for those sins. If those persons are creators of art, it’s up to us as the readers, listeners, and viewers, it’s up to us to decide where that art goes and the place it has in our lives. Peace.

For My Mom: Dance On Donna Sue

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Madonna Sue Barr Hilligoss dressed to the nines as she always was. Lanphier High School class reunion, Springfield, Il

 

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations on Immortality.

 

 

My mother loved music and she loved dancing. All the music that has been played today are songs and artists that she enjoyed throughout her life. Mom was not always good at articulating her feelings and thoughts, but she loved music and dancing from the time she was born. In a way, all of these songs are a part of her, who she was as a person, her thoughts, her fears, her passions, her loves. In short, all of the music is our way of letting mom speak for herself through the music that she loved.

 

I was lucky enough to have two parents who introduced me to a lot of the good music and musicians from their times, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Anyone who knows me understands how important music and live music are in my life, as they are for Kevin and were for Sean, and we can thank mom and dad for that. Mom and dad took me to see my first concert at the age of 10 when we went to see Neil Diamond at the old Checkerdome in St.Louis. Dad and I have talked about this and I believe the facts support it, but I believe my first memory as a child that I remember vividly was August 16, 1977 when I was three years old. I remember riding in a car with my mom and looking up at her across the seat as she wept, tears streaming down her face as she heard the news on the radio that Elvis Presley had died at the age of 42. I think it stuck out to me because as a child, your parents are these huge personalities that dominate our lives and to see my mom for the first time as something less than perfect, as a vulnerable, earthly being was shocking to a three year old boy.

 

 

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Mom doing the Twist with Chubby Checker, Alton Argosy, 1995

 

Mom loved to dance and watching her on the dance floor was like watching poetry in motion as she effortlessly glided over the dance floor. When my mom and Aunt Glenda were little girls, our Grandfather Hubert and Grandmother Ivy taught them how to dance….swing dances, slow dances including the waltz and square dance. Instead of getting baby sitters, they would take the girls with to the dances and taught them how to dance, little by little, piece by piece. And from there, mom took off on her own, dancing up a storm at school dances, weddings, social gatherings and on and on. One of my favorite things as a kid was when we went to a wedding and we got see mom and dad out on the dance floor, it seemed so effortless as they worked in perfect tandem with big grins on their faces. When Bruce Springsteen  was just a boy, his family came from very humble beginnings and they did not have much in the way of worldly possessions, but his mom Estelle loved music and always had the radio on and would grab her kids and dance around the kitchen and living room. So on the night of that concert, when he looked down into that fans eyes, he was remembering all those moments of dancing with his mom as a child and relived it in front of 30,000 people. Just as when mom took to the dance floor, she was remembering all those great moments of dancing with her dad and mom so many years ago.

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Save The Last Dance was written by Doc Pomus, one of the most famous and prolific song writers of the 20th century, many of them made famous by the Drifters and Elvis. But what was ironic about it was even though he wrote all of these great songs that included a lot of different styles and rhythms like calypso, salsa, two step, cha cha, Doc himself couldn’t dance because he had suffered from polio as a child and walked with crutches. But his wife loved to dance, and they would go to clubs and watch as she danced with one guy after another, always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye because he knew that no matter how many people she danced with, she was going home with him.

 

When they were younger, mom and dad would go to social dances with a group of somewhat older people. During the dance, all of the guys would be clamoring and lining up to dance with mom, this young, beautiful vivacious girl who could dance so well. And be the gracious guy he was, dad would let them dance with her while he was left to dance with the other wives. And as he told me, “I’d look across the dance floor watching all these other guys have the time of their life dancing with her and me dancing with other women, but I didn’t want to dance with them, I wanted to dance with my wife.” No matter how many other guys she danced with, she was always going home with him, so she always saved the last dance for him.

 

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Every time I’ve lost someone in my life, I like to think of their small personality traits to give myself something to hold onto and help jump start my memory a little.

 

  • Some of her Favorite Movies included: Turner and Hooch, Casper, Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair To Remember, Somewhere in Time, Dr.Zhivago and Out of Africa. She loved watching Dancing With The Stars and American Idol.

 

  • She worked as a lifeguard while living in Springfield, As a teenager, she was a babysitter earning 50 cents an hour watching 6 kids. She worked as a personal assistant to State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego and served as an aide to the Speaker of the Illinois House. She got to meet Muhammad Ali who came to the state capitol to give a speech. Even though she had previously thought he was loud and obnoxious, she came home and told dad that he was a very nice man, very articulate and very handsome. She wanted to be a funeral director and even went to the school for a tour before deciding not to pursue it.

 

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  • In 1968, mom and dad attended an event held for US Senator Charles Percy. They went through the greeting line and Mr.Percy took her hand at the same time as the Mayor of Springfield interrupted and proceeded to bend Percy’s ear.  After about 5 minutes, mom turned to dad and whispered, “He has been holding my hand for 5 minutes.”  Dad looked over her shoulder and SURE enough Percy was holding her hand.  Percy looked dad in the eye and said, “And I’m enjoying every second of it!”

 

  • She worked for Illinois State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego, Illinois as his personal assistant and secretary

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  • When they were young, Easter was a special holiday for her and her sister and parents …new outfits including hats and patent leather shoes, a church service followed by an Easter Egg Hunt in the iris’s that ringed their house in Mattoon. When I was kid, she always made Easter special for us with colored eggs, egg hunts, baskets and plenty of marshmallow Peeps.
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Hubert, Iva, Glenda Lou and Madonna Sue Barr, SPringfield, Il 1958

  • When they were first married, mom and dad spent $13 a week on groceries. She could cook 4 things: fried hot dogs, fried hamburgers, deep fried shrimp and grilled cheese that she broiled instead of toasting in a skillet. (Correction, my aunt Ruth said she could also make iced tea and angel food cake 🙂

 

  • She had many boyfriends and suitors before she met dad including her first crush, Billy Gas from Mattoon.

 

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  • She was dad’s designated driver, refusing to drink other than a sloe gin fizz every once in a while

 

 

  • The two people outside of our aunt Glenda who knew her the longest are Bill and Norma Thomas, very good friends of her parents. Bill called her Donnie Pig but doesn’t know why, just a colorful nickname, but one that carried her through her life.
  • She argued with a bank loan officer about being able to sign for a loan to buy furniture by herself without having her husband cosign which was standard for the time in the middle 60s.

 

  • She didn’t like it when people in public life spoke out such as Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, or politicians and yet she lived her life as a poster child for Women’s Equality and the ERA by working hard all of her life, always dressing well and carrying herself in a very professional manner while at the same time, raising three boys and a husband, some could argue she was raising 4 boys 🙂

 

Mom with boys black and white

Standing in the half light with her three boys, Rochester, Il

  • Mom and dad met while attending college at Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, Illinois. They first met in 1963 on a snowy cold December night. Her parents had bought her a black and white 1960 Nash Metropolitan. The battery to her car was dead as she stood in the parking lot of Blair Hall and dad happened to be walking across campus. As he approached her car, she asked if he had jumper cables. He went back to his car to get them and after searching for a time, found the battery under the front seat and jump started her car for her and as they say, the rest is history.

 

Mom and dad wedding day

Wedding Day, 1965, Springfield, Il

 

A Note of Gratitude

While everyone is gathered here, on behalf of the family, we want to thank everyone for the kindness shown to mom and dad and Kevin and I and the rest of the family after Sean’s passing two years ago, many of whom are here today and have done the same now……at a time when terrible things are happening in the world on a daily basis and we see so much darkness and pain around us, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and we lose sight of all the beauty and kindness in the world.  The things I witnessed during the last 2 years echo many of mom’s own thoughts and traits…. Be kind, be compassionate, love your friends and family, take care of yourself and take care of those around us.

 

Life of Service- Giving yourself to others…making sacrifices of yourself, your pride, your ego, your own interests in life, your own wishes and desires to help others. She served her life raising three kids and being a good wife, a good sister and a good daughter. And in the end, she served another human being through the gift of her liver as an organ donor, giving someone else a second chance at life. In the last 5 years, I have lost both of my in laws who I loved very much and watched their daughter Kim serve them on a daily basis, helping them through their time of need. In the last 2 years, I’ve witnessed our father do the same for our mom and I want to thank him. Many people have helped during these hard months and years and I want to say a special thanks to our neighbor and friends Diane and Jeff. Diane helped mom in countless ways, right up until the end. And also to our friend Karin Witt who helped both mom and dad in many ways in the last few years. For everyone who helped, you were performing an Act of love…..words and concern are important but actions speak louder than words and nothing speaks louder than an act of love.

When we are born, we start with a collection of family members we are born to: mother and father, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. As you grow older, you develop a secondary circle of neighbors, friends, school mates that form a security blanket of people in your life who you spend time with, those you trust, those you share your feelings and thoughts, those you share your time with. As years pass and time rolls on, one by one, you start to lose those around you. However, for those of us who are lucky enough, your family can grow to include people not related by blood, but related through the heart and kindness. There is the family we are born with and then there’s the family we grow older with. Through the size of her heart, mom had many people around her I consider family including surrogate daughters and sons from our days at the restaurant, an adopted son in Sean’s best friend, kids she volunteered with at the Alton schools, neighbors and people she mentored over the years. I think mom often struggled with issues of insecurity and low self-esteem, never quite measuring up to the high standards she held for others and herself, but as you can tell from the amount of people here today, she was truly loved and respected by those around her, whether through blood or friendship and in the end, that is one of the best measures of a person.

 

Family with Mike, 2016

I would like to close with this from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I depart as air…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Mom as little girl(2)

Last Waltz:

She’s not going in the ground, per her wishes, she will be cremated but like Whitman said, she’ll never be far from us, stopped somewhere waiting for us. I know that she now has joined her mom and dad and Sean and they are dancing above, free of physical pain and enjoying the music. For those of us like mom who love music, it’s an ever present part of our lives, bringing companionship, inspiration and enjoyment, the melody and rhythm running beneath our feet like a river, a river of life transporting us from one side of shore to the other.

Musicians come and go, bands come and go, the fans and listeners come and go, but the music always plays on, the band plays on, and the dancers dance on. Sometimes the song might be a shuffle, a Texas two-step, sometimes a cha cha or the twist or sometimes in ¾ waltz time…But whatever the rhythm, rise from your seats, feel the water under your feet and dance on my friends, dance on.

And one last thing, if you’re out looking for love, make sure to bring your dancing shoes and a really good set of jumper cables, you never know when love might walk in.

 

Mom and dad dancing 2017

One More Waltz, Grafton, Il, Father’s Day 2017. Music and 3/4 time supplied by the Eclectic Horseman Stan Corliss

 

We Should Always Remember: Robert Sean Two Years On

Kevin's 40th family picSeptember 28, 2017

I am a week late in posting this but life has been rough the past month as it has been for two years since my brother, our brother, son, father, nephew, cousin, friend, Robert Sean Hilligoss, passed away on September 22, 2015.

Just like older generations who can remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt passing, John Kennedy’s assassination, younger generations will always remember where they were when they heard about the tragedy of September 11, 2001 among other historical events of our times. Those dates and times are guide posts that mark the movement in time for ourselves, our nation and the world we inhabit. I’ll always remember the day my brother passed away, emblazoned in my memory with a single, quick phone call from my father, four words, “Sean didn’t make it.” Not knowing what he meant, having no idea of what had transpired over the last few hours, being 300 miles away, my mind couldn’t process the information in a coherent manner. Didn’t make what? His doctor’s appointment, a job interview? What are we talking about here?

Not that it matters, but I was sitting at a table at Starbucks in Belvidere, Illinois, working on my laptop after having spent the morning in Chicago for work and driving to watch Graham run in his 6th grade cross country meet. It was a beautiful, cloudless, warm day in northern Illinois. I had a thousand things on my mind at the moment. Trying to handle things for work, coordinate on the track meet, how was Graham going to do today, how is Rory feeling, thinking about my mom, home in Godfrey recovering from a broken hip, thinking about my dad taking care of her. Then four simple words: Sean didn’t make it. Four words that knocked me sideways, a timequake from which I haven’t recovered from, nor will I recover from on many profound levels. Watching your two parents struggle with losing a child has often been unbearable. Watching your brother struggle with losing a sibling has been heartbreaking. Hearing from his aunts and uncles and cousins and close friends and seeing the grief. Knowing his two young daughters lost their father and will grow older having little to no memory of him and not having their father has been beyond the pale.

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Robert Sean Hilligoss with his girls Audrey and Annalynn, 2015

 

My brother was a different man, a man who did things his way come hell or high water, and for which he paid an awfully high price. He struggled with juvenile diabetes from the age of 3. The doctor who diagnosed him at the time said, with Sean lying in the hospital bed feet away, he wouldn’t live past 25. How does a three year old hear those words and process them in a way that could make sense? He internalized those words and from then on out, set out to prove that doctor, his parents and friends, his boss, were wrong about him. He stuck out his chin to the world and wore a badge of courage that said, “Oh yeah, well just watch me you son of a bitch. I’ll show you.” Our mom told him not to get earrings, so he got 5. She said not to get a tattoo, so he got sleeves on both arms. She said not to get a motorcycle, so he got several. Just like Sinatra, he did things his way. Doing things your way is a long and lonely highway, but one on which he traveled gladly, sitting on his Harley, with a doo rag flapping in the wind, his glasses covering his eyes, the eyes with a glint in them, a glint of humor, a glint of pride, and wearing a smile, a smile to a joke only he knew the punchline.

Sean with mom on motorcylce

In the weeks after, I stayed to help my parents and brother in whatever way I could, physically, emotionally, spiritually. We helped organize his house and affairs and at least try to handle the things he left behind the best way we could, to give him the respect he deserved in life, but often times did not receive. In a way, we tried to make sure his grave, as it were, was kept clean. I kept some of his things. Some practical, like his clothes, personal effects, concert ticket stubs, photo albums, his CD collection, the music he loved, the things he carried in his pockets. The things we carry. While sorting through his personal papers, I came across a few of the poems he wrote. He wrote more and I guess those are lost to the hands of time. But one hit me like a shot through the heart. Sean had a good friend of his, a fellow member of his motorcycle club who passed away a few years ago while riding on his motorcycle from Indiana back to Chicago after one of their gatherings. Sean was deeply saddened and bereft of a close friend, the loss weighed on him daily. He wrote this poem for his friend as his eulogy, but he could have written it for himself and those of us left behind. And in his own memory, is the poem for all of you to read and pause and think of Sean.

 

“Times shared never seem enough, whether they are the best or they are rough

Friends and family always within reach, to help to guide and to teach

First as children and again in later years, with words of wisdom for our hopes and our fears

To fill our minds with thoughts so tender, the words we’ve heard we should always remember

To those who believe that we sit and do not understand

It is those who I look forward to the day when again you’ll guide my hand”               –Robert Sean “Piper” Hilligoss

The moments were not enough, the best and the rough my brother, but the words and moments we remember, like a guiding hand. Always.

Sean at Wedding-4

Postscript, Tuesday’s Gone

Sean loved music, both recorded and live, seeing hundreds of concerts in his life, near and far. He had a very wide and deep range appreciation for music of every kind, stripe, shape and color. Blues, country, rock, southern rock, swing, old school rock and roll. Some of his favorite artists included Buddy Guy, Dale Watson, The Allman Brothers, Hank Williams III, BB King, Johnny Cash and Lynyrd Skynrd. He gravitated towards those who carried the kindred spirit of outlaws, those on the edge of the law and civil society. In the last few months, I had the privilege of going to see two artists in concert, with family and friends, he never saw but know he would have loved. Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, country, rock, blues based artists with great songs, lyrics and guitar playing out of this world. Sturgill Simpson burned down the Fox Theater in St.Louis shredding his Les Paul in pure, raw blues while a wild man did a stage long worm dance before getting bounced by security. Chris Stapleton played his song The Devil Named Music with an intro of Tuesday’s Gone. I recently ran across a version of Tuesday’s Gone, Sean’s ultimate favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song, sung by recently passed Gregg Allman. If you ever hear this song on the radio, you can stop and think of Sean standing at a concert, standing in the dark of a smokey theater, soaking in the music, surrounded by friends and family. “Train roll on….on down the line. I don’t know where I’m going, when this train ends, I’ll try again.”

 

 

 

 

Bye Bye Johnny B Goode: The Lasting Impact of Chuck Berry on Bruce Springsteen

Bruce and Chuck

Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry, 1986 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, June 14, 2017

My friend Shawn Poole and I  today celebrate the music and legacy of Chuck Berry. While Chuck passed away last March at the ripe old age of 91, his legacy will be everlasting. To help prove it, his first album in 38 years, simply entitled Chuck was just released on Dualtone Records last week. Containing 10 new tracks, 8 originals and 2 cover songs, it reflects Chuck’s continuing artistic powers up to the very end. Bob Dylan once referred to Chuck Berry and his lyrics as being the Shakespeare of rock and roll, and this album contains plenty more great lyrics just like the rest of his classics.

We are celebrating this new Chuck Berry album, as well as Chuck’s enduring influence on Bruce Springsteen and all of rock and roll music. So let’s start this off with “Big Boys,” the first single released from the album, featuring Chuck on vocals and guitar along with backing vocals from powerhouse Nathaniel Rateliff, of Nathaniel Rateliff and The Nightsweats, one of our favorite new bands, and backing guitar from key Springsteen collaborator and part-time E Street Band member Tom Morello. Morello takes the final and extended guitar solo on this recording and while remaining true to Chuck’s signature guitar sound, pushes it well into the 21st century where Chuck’s music firmly belongs for new generations of fans to listen to and enjoy. The video below is the first official Chuck Berry video and clearly recalls the movie Back To The Future and the scene at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance wherein a young Michael J Fox as Marty McFly rips into Johnny B Goode at the school dance while band leader Marvin Berry phones his cousin Chuck to have him listen to the music of the future.

 

Go….Go…. Go…. Little Queenie!!!!

The recordings Chuck Berry did at Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, mainly with  the backing of Johnny Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums, have inspired countless musicians the world over including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and of course, Bruce Springsteen. Berry’s influence on Springsteen has been evident throughout Springsteen’s career including lyrics, guitar rhythms and stylings, similar song titles, and  Berry references in his live performances including the classic Growin Up’ outro  ‘And it was bye-bye New Jersey, we were airborne.’ During a 1972 interview with rock journalist Paul Nelson, Springsteen was asked what inspires him musically, “Eddie Floyd’s arrangement of Raise Your Hand, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, and Chuck Berry. I saw him the other night at a show. He was to the 50s what Dylan was to the 60s. He just laid it down so much…just incredible.”

In 1975, after 18 grueling months of recording the Born To Run album, Springsteen was very ambivalent about the music and releasing the album. He even threatened to scrap the whole project and just release a live album of material recorded at the Bottom Line. According to Dave Marsh,  a very concerned Jon Landau talked to Springsteen and said, “Look,” he told him, “You’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybellene’? And when he does hear it, don’t you think the wishes a few things could be changed? Now come on, it’s time to put the record out.’ It was an argument Springsteen could understand, and he accepted it. So it was over. The monster was tamed at last.” The key to that paragraph is “it was an argument Springsteen could understand.” Landau knew how deep Springsteen’s love and admiration of Chuck Berry’s music ran, and by using Berry’s name and song, he was putting the argument in terms near and dear to the young artist’s heart. And we as the audience are all the better for that discussion.

Bruce Springsteen with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

When Chuck Berry died last March, Springsteen issued an internet statement that sums up what Chuck Berry meant, both to him personally and to music in general. Here’s what Bruce wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.” Springsteen has played Berry covers hundreds of times in concert over his career, possibly the most infamous being the “bomb scare” version of Little Queenie played on October 2, 1975 at the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee. A threat had been called into the theater and the band was sent back to the Hotel PFFFFFister where they enjoyed some spirits and then came back and performed the show including a…lively and “spirited” version of the Berry classic. Here are two cover versions from more recent years. First up is Bruce and the E Street Band performing Chuck Berry’s classic “Little Queenie” live in concert in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, Missouri back in August 2008. Incidentally one of the best concerts Ryan has ever attended and one that was just recently released via Nugs as an official release. Second is a great 2013 version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” featuring the E Street Horns, live in Leipzig, Germany, complete with on the fly arrangement and key selections, a master class demonstration to all musicians on the beauty of watching seasoned, incredible musicians improvising and creating magic out of thin air.

 

 

Stranded Way Out On The Kokomo- No Particular Place to Go

If you go the Backstreets.com NEWS page and click on the “News Archive” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives, you’ll see our appropriately extensive coverage on the death and enduring impact of Chuck Berry:  four separate reports in all, and I’m honored to have written three of them. The last one I wrote came about courtesy of Born To Run cover photographer Eric Meola, who was smart and kind enough to point out to us what probably is the earliest known Chuck Berry lyrical reference in a Bruce Springsteen song. Some of the characters in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” park at a place called The Kokomo, which also gets mentioned in Berry’s classic song “No Particular Place To Go.” You can read all of the interesting details online, but another Springsteen reference to The Kokomo popped up again years later in the song “Light of Day,” which certainly sounds a lot more like a Chuck Berry song than “Sandy” does. So here back to back are Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and Bruce’s “Light of Day,” performed back in 2001 with the great Joan Jett, another guitar-slinger heavily inspired by Chuck Berry.  Take it away, Chuck!

 

Mister I Ain’t A Boy, No I’m A Man and I Believe In The Promised Land

Regarding the fact that both Chuck and Bruce wrote about the Promised Land, I’ll just advise you to go to the Backstreets.com NEWS page, click on the “News Archives” link at the top of the page for the March-April 2017 archives and check out Shawn’s essay entitled “Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen: Seeing The Promised Land from Different Sides of the Divide.” There’s a lot of interesting information there about the layers of meaning and the connections between Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.”

 

 

Cadillac, Cadillac Long and Dark, Shiny and Black

While learning his musical craft playing in clubs at night, Chuck Berry had many jobs including carpentry, which he learned from his father, a beautician, and he also worked on the assembly line at the local General Motors plant producing,……you guessed it, Cadillacs, the trademark vehicle in so many of his classic songs. In his lyrics, many of Berry’s characters obtained freedom by either buying a car, cruising the highways, or getting friendly with their loved ones in a Cadillac. To Berry, in his own life and in those early songs, the Cadillac represented elegance, grace, social currency, and freedom: personal, racial, and, sexual. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes, “Cars were dear to me and provided luxuries far greater than any others. It wasn’t so much travelling that motivated me to better cars, it was the quality of settling down I anticipated. With the restrictions we had at home, it was imperative to have a place to base for face-to-face. In your car, you could enjoy any sort of spectacular performance without the likelihood of a heckler or someone crossing the stage during the climax of your show.” Berry’s use of the cars for escaping seem to have rubbed on Springsteen who often times used cars as central characters in many of his early songs including Born To Run, Thunder Road and Racing In the Street. During The River tour, Springsteen often used a small portion of Berry’s No Money Down as an introduction to Cadillac Ranch, purposefully demonstrating the influence of Chuck Berry on  his own work.

Last year during an interview Springsteen did with Apple after his autobiography Born To Run was released, the interviewer seemed perplexed about Springsteen’s propensity to write about cars despite the fact he himself didn’t obtain a driver’s license until well into his 20’s. Springsteen’s final summation was perfect, “Look, Chuck Berry wasn’t in high school when he wrote all those great songs, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, and I didn’t drive cars Ok?”

 

 

Chuck

Berry’s newest album, his first in 38 years is full of surprises and shows that he was still writing and recording quality songs as he aged. Recorded mostly at his personal studio at Berry Park in Wentzville, Mo along with a live recording at Blueberry Hill, the St.Louis institution where he played over 200 shows, mostly on Wednesday nights once a month for over 20 years. The album was recorded with his normal house band from his St.Louis shows and features his son Charles Junior on guitar as well as his daughter Ingrid, a fine singer and harmonica player in her own right, both of whom typically accompanied Chuck at his live shows. As you heard above, “Big Boys” is a modern day rocker with that classic driving beat and Chuck guitar tones. Other highlights for us include “You Got To My Head”, a standard cover but showing Chuck’s still fine voice, “Wonderful Woman” with lyrics just as playful and descriptive as “Nadine”, and the “Dutchman”, a talking blues of original lyrics with a driving guitar and modern rhythm behind his solid, smoky voice. Our biggest favorite is “Darling”, featuring Chuck as he sings to his daughter Ingrid who backs him on vocals about “her father growing older each year”. The back and forth between the two is touching to say the least and you can hear the love between father and daughter in the twilight of the father’s life.

 

Way Down In New Orleans, There Stood A Boy Along The Railroad Tracks

In Dave Marsh’s excellent, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he places Johnny B. Goode second best of all time, only behind Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and he writes,“Buried deep in the collective unconscious of rock and roll, there’s a simple figure drawn from real life: One man, one guitar, singing the blues. But he’s not any man. He’s black, Southern, poor and (this is the part that’s easiest to miss) dreaming. In many ways, his story is terrible and terrifying. We’re speaking after all of someone like Robert Johnson, by all evidence as sensitive and perceptive as, say, F.Scottt Fitzgerald, but rather than pursuing lissome Zeldas through Alabama mansions, he’s enduring the pitiless reality of sharecropping, segregation, the threat of lynching, and all but inescapable twentieth century serfdom in Mississippi.”

“Chuck Berry’s genius lay in his ability to shape those gruesome facts into a story about joy and freedom. Not that he didn’t have to make concessions to the reality he was subverting. He says in his autobiography that he wanted to sing, “There lived a colored boy named Johnny B Goode,” rather than the “country boy” we now have, but, “I thought it would seem biased to the white fans.” Especially no doubt those white listeners who programmed the radio stations that would determine whether the record became a hit or was not heard at all.”

“Already a star, Chuck Berry was on intimate terms with the pop game and the limits it imposed on famous men with black skin. Standing at the edge of the rules, Berry shot himself right past one crucial dilemma of American culture into the center of another. By changing “colored” to country, he found that, instead of speaking for himself alone, he’d created a  character who also symbolized the likes of Elvis Presley, another kid whose mama promised that “someday your name will be in lights.” Horrible as the source of the compromise may have been, its effect was to treble the song’s force. For ultimately, if you could identify with either Berry or Presley, there was a chance you could identify with both. The result is history- and not just pop music history.” DM

The correlation between Presley and Berry is an important one given their placement in the firmament of rock and roll and its’ development. Both artists combined all of their influences into a new sound, both equally great, but equally different and containing slightly divergent genres. Throughout his career, Elvis Presley loved to play the music of Chuck Berry, both on stage and in the studio. I recently stumbled across a release of live audio taken from Presley’s performances during his brief but important tenure on the Louisiana Hayride radio program from 1955-1956 which contains several versions of Presley playing Berry’s first hit, Maybellene. In the 1960s, amidst the dearth of movie music, Presley recorded great versions of Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and Too Much Monkey Business. In later years, Johnny B. Goode was a Presley concert staple and in 1973, Presley recorded Berry’s Promised Land, as Presley may have seen a lot of his own life story in the lyrics of a poor southern boy who makes good and sees his name in neon lights. Berry wrote the sequel of Johnny B. Goode, entitled Bye Bye Johnny in which a tearful mother “pulls her money from the southern trust and put her little boy on the Greyhound bus to make motion pictures out in Hollywood.”

Unwittingly, Berry had written the lyrics that Presley had lived out in his own life with this: “She remembered taking money out from gathering crop/And buying Johnny’s guitar at the broker shop/As long as he would play it by the railroad side/And wouldn’t get in trouble, he was satisfied.” Given the level of Presley’s poverty, not many people would know at that time, but those four lines sum up the first 20 years of Presley’s life. Gladys had indeed worked in the cotton fields around Tupelo, Mississippi while pulling a very young Elvis down the rows on her cotton sack. She then used the little money the family had saved to help Presley buy his first guitar on his 11th birthday. And, the Presleys lived along the railroad tracks in the Shakerag neighborhood of East Tupelo, the poor side of the tracks amongst the African-American section of the town.

After Presley died in 1977, Springsteen, a devoted fan of both artists, chose to write his elegy for Presley and reversed Berry’s title and borrowed the first two lines of Berry’s song to open his farewell. For this, Berry is given co-writing credits on the studio release.You can also hear the basic Chuck Berry guitar rhythm which accompanies the lyrics.  Below are Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny and Springsteen’s Johnny Bye Bye. For the clip of Little Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen singing Bye Bye Johnny, please forward to 4:47 mark in the video. This was taken from Steve’s Soulfire CD release show 4/22/17 held in Asbury Park.

 

 

Even This Shall Pass Away

After Chuck passed away, director Taylor Hackford gave an interview and discussed details of filming the great documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! Hackford stated that knowing the influence Berry had on Springsteen and his music, they reached out to Springsteen to perform at the highlighted concert filmed at the Fox Theater in St.Louis on Berry’s 60th birthday. Hackford said Springsteen was the biggest rock star in the world at the time, coming off the success of Born In The USA, and they felt like his presence would push the film along in it’s narrative. While Springsteen was unable to perform, he did agree to be interviewed for the film and Hackford said it was the cornerstone of the whole film.

Berry was the 4th of 6 children born to William and Martha Berry in a segregated St.Louis, Missouri. William was a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church where the family attended services and sang in the choir. At night, William would gather the children around and recite poetry, literature and biblical passages. The poetry and word play seemed to have worked their magic as Berry began writing poetry at a very early age and this helped foster his incredible lyrics later in his career, In this outtake from the film, Chuck recites a poem taught to him by his father years ago, a poem written by Theodore Tilton during the Civil War entitled, Even This Shall Pass Away. As Robbie strums the guitar, Chuck recites the poem strictly from memory and then on the fly, demonstrating his agile, quick mind, he makes up a final stanza of his own, and looking into the camera, relates a story befitting his own life.

 

Johnny B Good Belongs To The Stars

Yes, Chuck Berry has passed away at the age of 91, but his music will live forever as people continue to listen to his music, the lyrics, and that singular, much mimicked, but never to be replicated guitar sound. As Shawn pointed out to me before, Chuck’s “Johnny B Goode” was the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager “Golden Record” which was launched into outer space in 1977 as a representation to extraterrestrials of life and culture on Earth. Coincidentally, that record was put together with help from noted Springsteen collaborator Jimmy Iovine. According to historian Douglas Brinkley who wrote the liner notes for the Chuck album, Chuck loved the idea that Johnny B Goode is now past Jupiter and Saturn, over 4 billion miles away, out of our solar system. Brinkley asked Chuck if he ever looked up at the stars and wondered where exactly Johnny B Goode was to which Chuck replied, “Sure, it’s somewhere in the heavens. That’s as good as it gets jack.”

I think I know what John Lennon was onto when he suggested if you needed to come up with another name for rock and roll you could call it Chuck Berry because when you a hear a Chuck Berry song with that back beat and driving guitar rhythm, it gets into your body and makes you feel good, it makes you want to get up and dance in the aisles, and it makes you feel like it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. May you rest in peace, Chuck, out there somewhere in the universe among the stars. Thanks for the all the artistry, music and joy you have brought to all of us. Thank you, you beautiful, hard rockin’, guitar playin’, Cadillac drivin’, song writin’, highway cruisin’, booty shakin’, motorvatin’, space travelin’, musician inspirin’,  duck walkin’, legendary, hard-core, rock and roll genius. Hail Hail!!! Rock and roll. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry!!!

 

 

 

Like A Steel Driving Hammer: Favorite Chuck Berry Performances:

Through The Eye of The Needle

“My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known
Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home
Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned” Mellencamp, Minutes to Memories

By Ryan Hilligoss, June 7, 2017

The Things We Carry

Words can have powerful meaning and significance. On a daily basis, we talk and listen to hundreds, thousands of words during our workday, through our friendships and daily encounters as we walk through life. Words wash over us from the radio, television, the printed word, and on on. Thousands upon thousands turn into millions. Many of those go in and out without reaching us or making any impact. However, if we stop and listen, some of those words reach us at the perfect time, the perfect place in our lives and send us off into another direction and force us to stop and consider life anew.

Recently, I sat on a patio having a nice, unhurried conversation among friends, surrounded by trees, fragrant flowers, bushes and good company on a beautiful, quiet summer evening. Early evening, the time of the day when the world slows down and you can unwind your mind and body from a long day of work and activity. Early evening, when the sun starts to set and turns the leaves a different color, sunlight falling at a low angle muting the world around. Ancient coins, relics and totems are passed around and explained. Coins and bracelets carried and worn by Israelites, Italians, Africans and Irish 2,000 years ago sit in the palms of our hands like secrets from days gone by. Did a peasant walking the streets of Rome 1,800 years go ever consider the possibility of people long in the future carrying the same coin? The sunlight reflects off a beautiful cross and chain necklace.

I stare off into the woods behind the house. Woods made of scrub bushes, black locust trees, and a meandering, shallow creek. My brother Sean and I used to walk these woods back in our childhood, what seems like a lifetime ago in one sense, but also just like yesterday in another. We walked these woods on spring and summer days, walking for the sheer joy of childhood, unencumbered by life and the burdens of adulthood yet to come. We walked the woods on winter nights, with snow filling the ground, carrying our sleds looking for one more hill to glide down before heading home in the dark.

A very kind, humble man tells stories of his life experiences, travels, and lessons he’s learned during his time here. Tales from Greece, Germany and Switzerland flow as easily as wine from a bottle. He once was invited to give a speech in Switzerland and sat next to astronaut John Glen. They shared their past as pilots in the Marines. When someone from the event tried to interrupt their conversation, John Glen turned and said, “Excuse me, I’m talking with the Major here, I’ll be with you in a minute. ” In recounting all the people he’s known in his life including family, his professional life and his military experience, he stopped and said, “I can count on two hands the people I have known who if I called and needed help, they would be here tomorrow. Those are my true friends.”

His statement made me stop and consider my own life, not as a competition, just as a measurement of what I have in life. My mind quickly worked through my immediate surroundings. My father and mother and brother. My aunts and uncles, cousins, distant cousins. My professional colleagues. My friends I’ve known through baseball, living in two parts of the state, high school friends. My friends I’ve gotten to know through the power and glory of music. My friends from the Bruce Springsteen, E Street Radio, concert experiences. Some of these I’ve never actually met in person, but some are ones I have gotten to know very well, spending time with them in person, often communicating with each other about music, but also about life and misfortunes. My list of those I can call friends that would show up tomorrow if I needed help knows no bounds. In fact, many of them have already helped me many times already in various forms and would do so again if asked, without judgement or concern for themselves.

As I’ve struggled through some hard times in the last few years from my own personal issues as well as those around me, it’s been the power of music and the love of friends and family that have helped steady me and guide me through. Kindness and support can come in many forms. Large gestures such as a free ticket to a concert, or small, meaningful gestures such a random phone call or email or regular text messages just asking “How are you doing, what’s going on in your world?” To the person sending them, it might not be much, but to me the recipient, they meant the world that people I know care enough to reach out and say in the end, in one form or another: I care about you and want you to be happy. My brother Sean passed away almost two years ago, and I don’t think he knew how much he was loved by those around him. It was obvious by the efforts of family and friends to attend his services and all the kind gestures and words, that he was truly loved and had impacted the lives of so many. A woman we did not know came to his visitation and told my father that through Sean’s work in the probation department, he had saved her life, literally by putting her on the right track in life, getting her the help she needed, and without him, she wouldn’t be here today. While Sean wasn’t given that while he was here, I’ve been fortunate enough to be rewarded with kindness, warmth and compassion thousands of times over.

They Belong To The By and By

I am not alone in struggles. As the late, great comedian and human being Robin Williams once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” Tragedies of every manner have struck many around me. Friends and family have suffered serious health issues themselves or their family members. Cancer, heart failure, leukemia, blood clots, breast cancer, diabetes, car accidents, etc etc. Too much heartache and sadness to count. And yet, we persist, striving to find a better way in life, a better way to behave towards and around those we love. We strive to learn from our past mistakes, avoid them in the future when possible and to live a full, happy life, taking in all the world has to offer. We carry the aches and pains, the slings and arrows, the tragedy with us as we live out each day, never forgetting those we lost along the way, but looking for a brighter future, looking for a land of hope and dreams. Leave the mistakes in the past, they can’t be solved, the past will solve itself.

With all these troubles, it’s very easy to fall into depression, guilt, regret. It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but in the big picture, I can say I live a full,blessed life already. While billions around the world struggle for the basic necessities of life such as clean water, food, shelter, clothing, I have all that I can ever need: a roof over my head, all the clean water I want, I can walk into 5 grocery stores within 5 miles of my home and buy anything I want or need at a moment’s notice, 24/7. I have two beautiful, healthy, smart, funny, and engaging kids, my Graham Ronald and Aurora Eva Rose. I have a father who is still here and healthy enough to be engaged in the lives of his kids and grand kids and entertain all those around him. I have a mother who, while she struggles with health issues of her own, still worries about her kids and tries to help anyone she can. I have a loving brother who shares many of the same passions as me along with my sweet sister in law. I have many aunts and uncles and distant family members who love me for who I am and who all enjoy being around each other as much as we can, sharing life’s experiences whether through a baseball game, a concert, a family reunion or often times, just sharing a meal together, discussing life, movies, music, sports. Often times, we talk around a lot of the things we want to say but can’t bring ourselves to say aloud. No matter the subject or the amount of words we might speak boil to this: I love you and care about you.

IMG_3334

Busch Stadium, St.Louis, Missouri. May 29, 2017. From left to right: Ruthie Marie Hilligoss, Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Michelle Teutken Hilligoss, Kevin Lee Hilligoss, Richrard “Big Dick” Eugene Hilligoss, Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss, Robert “Little Bobby Wee Wee” Lee Hilligoss, Graham Ronald Hilligoss, Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, Travis Joel Hilligoss, Alan Volkmann.

 

From Minutes to Memories

The picture above was taken at Busch Stadium in St.Louis, Memorial Day, 2017. The Cardinals lost to the Los Angles Dodgers on this day, mired in a dismal baseball season so far. The weather was extremely hot and humid as St.Louis summers will be. 80 degrees felt like 100 with the humidity and sun baking us in our seats like Pillsbury cookies. The Boss Man’s Born In The USA blasted from the PA as a video tribute to our service members rolled on the giant video screen. We were all there together, family and friends, enjoying the day and enjoying being alive, at least for one more day, hopefully many, many more. The picture captures us at one particular moment in time, and we’ll be able to look back on it later in life as how things were, but we carry each other in our hearts every moment of every day. As Mr. Mellencamp says in the song, “My family and friends are the best thing I’ve known, Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home.” It’s easy to get lost in life, but with a little help from our friends and family, we usually make our way through the woods and back home. Thank you.

Thank you roll call: Lew Trigg, David and Sarah Reed, hank Weaver, Tracy “Big Sky” Thomas, Deborah “What’s Up Doc” Hewitt, Shawn “my brother from another mother” Poole, Dawn Leinenberger, Jeanette “Queenie” Amadeo, Billy Planner, Jeff Calaway, Patrick Canny, Jen Roscher, Barb Greenwald, Sharon Hardin Eaton, Judy Lendsey, Ginger and Jo, Brittany, Karin Lefferson-Witt, Nick and Meg Piazza, Dave Buerstetta, Matt Moritz, Jarrie Lesure, Jennifer Conley, Jim Rotolo, Dave Marsh, Vincent Rockwell and everyone else at E Street Radio, Jane “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” Arnone and all of our friends from The Wild and Innocent FB page on Friday nights (many Friday nights this was the best two hours of my week). The Boys of Summer, all the boys in SYB and Titans whom I’ve had the privilege of coaching. And the kids of South Prairie whom I was given the gift of time to work with on a regular basis in their classrooms along with my kids. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologize, no harm intended.

Thank you to Bruce Springsteen for giving us your gift for the last 50 years. Your music has been a constant companion and source of inspiration for me and has helped create a community of fans like I’ve never seen. People, sometimes complete strangers, who genuinely love and support each other. Thank you to John Mellencamp, Jason Heath, Randy Newman, Miles Davis, Ella and Louis, Willie Nelson, James McMurtry, Josh Rouse, Steve Earle and so many others who have brought me happiness in dark times through the beauty of their art.

It may only be rock and roll but it feels an awful lot like love.