Where to write: In praise of…the mall — yes, the mall.

I’m a bit more than four months into My Next Phase (Whatever That Is), after taking the leap of faith and leaving the newspaper dayjob. So I am still attempting to cobble together a career/work scenario (or at least non-starvation living) out of various side-hustle fragments. And how’s that going, you ask? Mixed! Some freelance assignments have come my way, and I am grateful for all of them. It’s still not clear, however, if I’ll ever attain a sustainable financial equilibrium doing just contract work. On the other hand, I had an actual job interview for a part-time gig this week — more on that soon, I hope. We’ll see.

Meantime, I’m still adjusting, day-to-day. One major change in my new daily routine is that…I don’t really have one. I no longer have an office workplace to go to, which I miss a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a situation with pluses and minuses, of course. The commute from bedroom to kitchen table is lots faster than driving downtown. And yet it’s also just a little too easy to turn into the sort of hermit who never leaves the house, so I do try to get out at least once a day.

To that end, over the past few months I’ve been seeking public places where I can work. And here’s where I tend to wind up:

Brew.JPG(1) Coffeehouses — Coffee joint as de facto office has become kind of a cliche for those hoofing it in The Gig Economy (TGE), and yet I must admit: There’s something about the smell of coffee brewing that makes me feel like I should be writing. It’s a Pavlovian response similar to the smell of popcorn giving you a sudden urge to go watch a movie.

Coffee joints are everywhere, of course, but you don’t want just any old Starbucks. A totally deserted coffeehouse can feel dead, while a too-crowded one can be an even bigger drag. If you find a java joint with the proper-vibe combination of good coffee, just-right critical-mass crowd and good ambient music (something along these lines, say), treasure it. Brew in Seaboard Station has become my main go-to.

CVRL.JPG(2) Libraries — The public library remains one of the few truly egalitarian communal gathering spots because, as long as you behave, you can hang around pretty much as long as you want without spending any money (a big plus for those of us on the semi-employed budget). The bad part is, that often makes for an environment that might not be terribly conducive to thinking, reading and writing. I’ve been in some libraries that felt more like daycare centers, which feels churlish to complain about. It’s great to get kids interested in books at an early age, of course, but concentration can be difficult when the young folks are bouncing off the walls.

I’ve sampled a number of libraries around Raleigh, and Cameron Village Regional Library usually has enough other patrons around to give you a feeling of things going on without so many that you can’t find an open chair. It’s also big enough that you can just about always find a quiet corner. I usually wind up there a couple of times a week.

TTC.JPG(3) Shopping malls — Malls get a bad rap for being soul-sapping theme-park monuments to mindless consumerism, temples of banality and environmental catastrophes. In a world where you can get anything delivered to your door via Amazon, they don’t even really make economic sense anymore. Raleigh’s Triangle Town Center is in foreclosure, a fate that Crabtree Valley Mall is looking to avoid by adding a skyscraper hotel where Sears used to be. It’s pretty much the same story everywhere. There’s a book about the unmalling of America in the works, “The Decline of Mall Civilization” by Chapel Hill multi-media artist Michael Galinsky, and it’s a fascinating archaeological collection of 1980s-vintage photos of malls from the era when they were the only game in town.

And yet for all that, malls still strike a chord for those of us who grew up in them, and they’re actually not bad places to hang out. They’re climate-controlled with acres of walking space, plus food and drink available in food courts (free samples!). There’s usually decent WIFI, and most of them even have comfortable furniture set up on the concourses, in the style of living rooms.

I have spent hours camped out with my laptop on various couches in Triangle Town and Crabtree the past few months, working on this or that piece of writing. If anyone walking by finds it weird to see me working with papers and folders spread out, well, they’ve been too polite to say anything.

So yeah, I’d actually recommend the mall as satellite change-of-scenery workspace. Just find an easy chair within smelling distance of a Starbucks, and you’re good to go.

Sara Romweber Day is coming

SRD.JPGOne of my duties as Piedmont Laureate this year is to be on call for occasionally composing a few words for various occasions. One such task I was honored to perform recently was writing a proclamation in honor of Sara Romweber, the late great rock ‘n’ roll drummer who passed back in March at the much-too-young age of 55.

I’ve always been a huge fan of pretty much every band Sara ever played in, and I hope I managed to do her legacy justice with this proclamation. Something I can already say with complete certainty, however, is that I’ve never typed the word “WHEREAS” this many times before, ever.

This proclamation will be read at a town of Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday night, in advance of Sara Romweber Day on Sunday, June 23. There will be a “Celebrating Sara” gathering that afternoon in Saxapahaw at Haw River Ballroom. Former bandmates including Michael Rank, Lynn Blakey and Sara’s brother Dex Romweber are among those who will play.

ADDENDUM: Here is the proclamation being read at the June 23 event.


WHEREAS, Sara Romweber moved with her family to Carrboro in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1977, the year she turned 13 years old; and

WHEREAS, Sara was “Little Sara,” daughter of “Big Sara” Romweber and one of seven children; and

Rank+SaraWHEREAS, the Romweber family home on Pine Street in Carrboro was a unique artistic ecosystem in which all the kids were involved in various quirky artistic pursuits; and

WHEREAS, many of those artistic pursuits involved bands including The Remainz, UV Prom, Crash Landon and the Kamikazees and Flat Duo Jets, led by Sara’s younger brother Dexter Romweber; and

WHEREAS, Flat Duo Jets would go on to international acclaim, but Sara achieved even more as a key member of historically significant and artistically important alternative-rock bands including Let’s Active, Snatches of Pink and (with her brother) Dex Romweber Duo; and

WHEREAS, Sara pioneered a unique style of drumming and a playing style that displayed amazing power and versatility across a wide range of styles; and

WHEREAS, she also became a much-beloved icon, as renowned for her thoughtful kindness and on-point rock-star style as for her drumming; and

WHEREAS, her inspiration also extended far and wide as an important and enduring influence on friends, peers, fellow musicians and younger generations; and

WHEREAS, her death at age 55 from Glioblastoma on March 4, 2019, triggered an amazing and massive outpouring of love and remembrances across media platforms all across the globe; and

SaraLogoWHEREAS, her memory will never be forgotten as one of the North Carolina musicians who made the state great.

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I Lydia E. Lavelle, Mayor of the Town of Carrboro, North Carolina, do hereby proclaim June 23, 2019, as “SARA ROMWEBER DAY” in the Town of Carrboro, and urge all citizens to continue to celebrate the life and legacy of Sara Romweber and her important contributions to the state, nation and world’s artistic life.

Concert reviewing: Hazards of the gig

PaulOnstage.JPGBack in February, when I decided it was time to leave the News & Observer, this wasn’t the first thought I had but it was close: “Damn — I’m going to miss Paul McCartney.” Beatle Paul was coming to play Raleigh’s PNC Arena, and I’d had it on my calendar to attend as the N&O’s reviewer. Without the benefit of reviewer tickets, however, there was pretty much no chance I’d get to go.

Fortunately, thanks to a freelance assignment to review the show for WRAL.com, I did get to go after all. The show was this past Monday and it was great. So were the 10th-row-center seats on the floor — except, however, for the person next to me. Bless her heart, she was so excited that she seemed to be having trouble maintaining control (or at least respecting boundaries). And that got me to thinking about Problematic Audience Behaviors I have witnessed and experienced over nearly four decades of reviewing concerts.

PaulTix.JPGI’ve always said, never underestimate the power of a notebook or clipboard when you want to give the appearance of having the authority to be somewhere; more than once, carrying a notebook and moving confidently forward has been enough to get me someplace I was not necessarily supposed to be. At a concert, however, a notebook often seems like an open invitation for people to open up an inquisition.

It’s also no protection from the major categories of concert irritants, of which there are nine:

The Space Invader (formerly The Dancer) — This is who I was next to at Sir Paul’s show, a very very very enthusiastic super-fan. She was jumping up and down with her hands in the air the whole time, which wouldn’t have been a problem except she could not seem to keep them out of my field of vision. I was leaning to my left pretty much the whole time in an attempt to maintain personal space. And the last time I saw Randy Newman, in 2017 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, I was right next to a rather inebriated fellow who thought it was a good idea to hold his cup of beer overhead and wave it around during pretty much every song. Somehow, I didn’t get a beer bath that night.

The Jukebox Operator — The person who goes to a show wanting to hear That One Song, and they are not gonna shut up about it until they do. Mostly this takes the form of screaming the name of That One Song over and over and over again, and it’s often something so obvious they don’t even need to yell for it. At the Carolina Theatre some years back, Steve Earle mocked somebody hollering for “Copperhead Road” five minutes into the show by asking, “Did you really think I wouldn’t play that one?”

The 2-Year-Old — The person who has a desperate and almost toddler-like need for attention from whoever is onstage and will go to any lengths to get it, screaming seemingly random things. Many years ago, I was reviewing Billy Joel at UNC’s Smith Center in Chapel Hill and seated next to three guys who repeatedly screamed, “Long Island, Billy! Long Island!” all night long — except, with their New York accents, it came out sounding more like, “Lon Guyland!” — apparently because they had that in common with Joel. Understand, we were nowhere near the stage and there’s no way Joel could have heard them in a noisy arena, which I would have pointed out if the three guys had ever paused. But everyone in their immediate vicinity got to hear it over and over: “LON GUUUUUYLAND!”

The Heckler — Next level up from the 2-year-old is someone who doesn’t just want attention from the person onstage, but confrontational dialogue. You really don’t want to be anywhere near The Heckler in a crowd, for fear of being mistaken for him (and it’s just about always a him, not her), especially at a comedy show, where hecklers are likely to become part of the act. But it’s instructive to see how performers react to hecklers. I remember Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur, a world-class heckler himself, scoffing at someone from the stage of Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle: “C’mon, it has to be a lot meaner than that to be a truly effective heckle.”

The Super-Fan — The person who is determined to prove they’re the most avid, knowledgeable fan in the place. They’ll start clapping and/or screaming at the first note of every song, to communicate that (a) they recognize it and (b) are therefore cooler than you. Being around The Super-Fan can be pretty miserable, but on occasion it’s amusing. Some years back, I was reviewing Merle Haggard at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre and the old-timer next to me greeted the start of each song by declaring in a down-home drawl, “Thas a GOOD one!” He was right, too.

The Lover — The person who yells “I love you” at whoever is onstage. Whether or not this crosses the line usually comes down to frequency. If someone yells that repeatedly over the course of a show, yeah, it starts to seem a little creepy. But if it’s yelled just once and the person onstage hears it at the right moment, the results can be comedy gold. Years ago at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, Lyle Lovett responded to a stray “I love you” with a droll, “Thank you. That’s a very nice thing to say to, well, almost anybody.” And Ryan Adams, a man not exactly known for grace under fire onstage, had the perfect comeback when an early-show “I love you” rang out at Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall in 2005: “Then I apologize in advance.” Funny thing, he hasn’t been back here since.

The Singer — The person who is gonna sing, by God, no matter what, which may or may not be problematic. Proper behavior on this involves simply reading the room. If it’s a big sing-along of some beloved song where everybody in the crowd is doing it at the performer’s encouragement (which was the case for much of McCartney’s show), then by all means join right in. But if you’re the only person in your vicinity singing, and doing so loudly enough to be heard at the expense of what’s coming from the stage, that’s an invitation for death-stares. Nobody bought a ticket to hear you. Save it for your shower at home.

The Conversationalist — The person who is there to talk, not listen, and will not be dissuaded. A few years back, I was at the Carolina Theatre trying to listen to singer/guitarist Jonathan Tyler play a solo acoustic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” — one of the greatest and most poignant songs of all time, at least in my book. Unfortunately, a couple of bearded hipster douchebros nearby were having a conversation about work and took serious umbrage when I asked if they could quiet down or take it to the lobby. “No,” one of them hissed between gulps of beer, “this is a concert not a library.” Then, to underscore the point, he and his buddy started talking even louder. Nice. We had really good seats for that show but moved to the back to get away from those guys.

The Inquisitor — Related to The Conversationalist, and specific to reviewers, this species is even worse: The person who insists on talking to you after spotting your notebook, either to interrogate or lecture or give an unasked-for hot take. It’s even more fun when they just want to be antagonistic. At Walnut Creek on a rainy 2017 night during Chris Stapleton, a guy approached me to ridicule me for my choice of attire, a raincoat. Then there was the time a decade-plus ago when I was reviewing the Black Eyed Peas at Booth Amphitheatre, and this button-down-fraternity type and his date insisted on standing on their chairs directly in front of me. “We’re not moving,” he taunted. Then he noticed my notebook and added, “You should get a better job.” Since they weren’t gonna move, I did, right after thanking him for the career advice.

Alejandro Escovedo: A fan’s notes

Alsplosure

From left, Eric Heywood and Alejandro Escovedo onstage Sunday, May 18, 2019 at Artsplosure in Downtown Raleigh.

Alejandro Escovedo played in Raleigh Sunday to close out this year’s Artsplosure Festival, a show that had a few things working against it — wilting late-day heat, the not-great acoustics of loud music in outdoor spaces, weariness after an all-night drive down from New York and a pickup lineup not entirely familiar with all the songs in the setlist.

“We’re, uh, loose today,” Escovedo quipped at one point after a false start.

As usual, however, all he had to do was start singing and everything was all right. I’ve been going to see Escovedo shows since I was a University of Texas grad-school student in my early 20s, and he’s been maybe my biggest musical, personal and critical constant through three-plus decades. I’ve written about him all over and seen him more times than I can count — playing in nightclubs, theaters, restaurants and living rooms as well as the occasional street corner. And the next time one of his shows leaves me unmoved will be the first.

Al&Me

And that’s me, taking pictures. Photo by Billy Maupin.

I actually find him not terribly easy to write about, simply because my emotional response to his music tends to be along the lines of: If you get it, no explanation is necessary and if you don’t, none will suffice. While I have been, at best, an irregular church-goer as an adult, Escovedo shows are among the closest church-like rituals I have —  not in the sense of worship, but compass-setting. His voice and songs resonate on my particular wavelength more than just about anyone else, and going to one of his shows always feels like bumping into my younger self.

Given the abbreviated outdoor street-festival setting, this wasn’t the full-on epic that Escovedo’s late-night shows can be. But over the course of an hour and 13 songs, most of them recent and focused on his latest album The Crossing, he evoked the journey we’re all taking, and rocked it up.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the newer songs were angry — and how could they not be, given Escovedo’s immigrant roots and what a hot-button issue the U.S. Southern border is nowadays? Songs from The Crossing blazed, especially “Fury and Fire” (written, Escovedo said, in response to Donald Trump’s race-baiting 2015 presidential-candidacy announcement) and the snarling “Teenage Luggage” chorus of, “You think you know me/You’ll never know me/You’re a bigot with a bad guitar.”

But I found myself responding more to “Always a Friend,” and the more personal, upbeat songs. There’s always one moment at an Escovedo show where everything in my world feels like it snaps into place, and this time it was the oldie “Castanets.” A smoking rocker with a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff for the ages, “Castanets” was recorded close to two decades ago right here in North Carolina — produced by Chris Stamey, with Mitch Easter on lead guitar. Eric Heywood ably played it this time, and it was spectacular as always.

The melding of North Carolina and Texas felt like a personal bonus, for those who knew.

Those who can, teach

TAW.JPGWe are now in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10, which is a fine occasion for giving thanks to the teachers we’ve all had. It’s a noble profession, and I truly admire those who have the love and the skill — in part because I’m not so great at it myself.

I taught for a semester at NC State University in the fall of 2008, a class called “Principles of News & Article Writing.” That was back when the News & Observer newsroom was laying off staffers by the dozen and I was trying to figure out a backup career plan, and the one thing that semester taught me was that I’m no teacher. Oh, I got through it okay by working hard, and I even came away with surprisingly favorable (to me, anyway) reviews from my students.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a satisfying experience because I just never felt much of a connection, either with the students or the larger process. My best move all semester was probably when I offered free extra credit to any student who early-voted in that year’s presidential election, and I am proud to note that my class had a voting rate of almost 100 percent. Eighteen of my 19 students voted, the lone holdout being a foreign student who was not eligible (I came up with an extra-credit assignment for her to do instead).

Otherwise, those magic moments of buzz, when I felt like I’d really gotten through and made the students understand something important, were sadly few and far between that semester. I figured that was my fault, not their’s, and I was somewhat relieved when NC State cut its budget for adjunct lecturers the following semester. I had to let teaching go and that was when I began putting a lot more effort into freelancing, which went a lot better. It led to books and also laid the groundwork for the fulltime-freelance hustle I’ve embarked on since departing from the N&O a few months back.

Fortunately for me, I had a lot of teachers who were far better than I ever was in the classroom during my own formative years of education. And the one who probably had the most profound and long-lasting influence was a gentleman I met during graduate school at the University of Texas.

Way back in 1984, I was a UT graduate student mostly by default. I’d made a thorough mess of my undergraduate career by foolishly trying all the majors that led to well-paying jobs on for size. That went about as well as you’d expect, and I finally had to admit the truth: that I just wasn’t cut out to be a doctor or lawyer. So I got an English degree. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do beyond write, and my transcripts and grades were kind of in smoking ruins at that point. Thanks to a good score on the GRE Test, I barely squeaked into UT. So I went to grad school in journalism to try and figure out a path.

At UT, however, most of the professors were encouraging students to pursue thesis topics like designing computer programs to determine the “readability” of stories by counting the number of syllables per paragraph (and no, I’m not making that up). But I was already writing about music for the student-run Daily Texan newspaper and had something a little more offbeat in mind: a history of the already-defunct Armadillo World Headquarters, the funky concert hall that remained a symbol of Austin even though it had been torn down years earlier.

When I started talking to various UT professors about being my thesis adviser, they all reacted with puzzlement — until I approached Professor Gene Burd, who totally got it. Professor Burd had a reputation as, well, the “eccentric guy” in UT’s journalism department. Rumpled and cantankerous, he didn’t drive and referred to those who did as “Carbarians,” often in the midst of angry letters to the local paper.

He also had some fascinating and visionary opinions and ideas about growth, mass transit and the livability of urban areas, all of which were quite prescient because Austin was exploding into a rapid growth spurt that doomed grassroots institutions like the Armadillo. Professor Burd was a treasure trove of Austin cultural and political history, too, which made him the perfect faculty adviser for my thesis. After enthusiastically endorsing my proposal, he went on to give me a great deal of help and insight with the project.

thesis.JPGIn spite of his help, the resulting thesis (windily titled “Music, Media and the Metropolis: The Case of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters”) was earnest and amateurish, and contemplating it now kind of makes me cringe. Nevertheless, it was a crucial step in getting me on my way to becoming a writer. Decades later, it even came in handy as bonafides for one of my book projects, convincing Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson that I was just the right guy to co-write his memoir.

I’ve always been grateful to Professor Burd for his faith in me, and the fact that he treated me more like a peer than a subordinate even when I was still a student. Some years after I graduated in 1985, I went back to visit him in his office while I was in Austin for South By Southwest. It had been close to 20 years since we’d spoken; but when I walked in, he nodded and began talking to me as if it had been just a few days since our last conversation. That was the year he talked me into being a judge for a journalism contest, helping to decide winners in the feature-writing category for the Texas Press Association (an enlightening and fascinating experience, but not one I’ve been inclined to repeat).

WalkWithBurd.JPGSince Professor Burd never drove, he would walk to campus from his home two-and-a-half miles away every day — including his final day of teaching in the spring of 2014, when he was retiring. That last day, the students from his final UT class made the walk with him, posting pictures with the Hashtag #WeWalkWithBurd. And of course he went right on teaching, same as always. Along the way, the very first stop they made was at the commemorative plaque where the Armadillo World Headquarters used to stand. When I saw the picture afterward, it made me mist up a little because in a small way it felt like I’d been there. And I was, in the same way all his past students were.

So during this Teacher Appreciation Week, here’s to Professor Burd and all the other teachers out there who have made a difference and left a mark. Whether anyone else realizes it or not, there’s nothing more important than what teachers are doing every single day.

Repeat when necessary

I’ve been writing about music for close to 40 years (!), which means I rarely don’t have something playing in the background — including while I’m at the computer working.  A good bit of the time, of course, what I’m listening to is whatever specific artist or record I’m writing about.

But there are a lot of times I go off-script, too, especially when writing something fictional or longer or not related to music at all, or even just for a change of pace. At those times, I’m usually looking for the aural equivalent of comfort food: something soothingly familiar that I can slip into and eventually tune out, letting it work its magic subconsciously.

This actually isn’t all that unusual, because a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that if you want to really bear down on a task requiring concentration, it helps to binge on the familiar. It’s not just writing, either. My wife works as a real-estate paralegal and recently spent a day with Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” playing on an endless-loop repeat, and she reported that she felt like it greatly enhanced her productivity.

In my case, I’ve developed a few go-to favorites over the years. Some are individual songs, some are complete albums — and they all help focus my mind. What are some of yours? I’d like to hear about them in the comments.

Television, “1880 or So” — This was the leadoff track on the seminal New York new-wave band’s 1992 reunion album, and it was never any kind of hit. But it still kind of puts me in a trance every time I hear it, and I can listen to its hypnotic guitar interplay and mysteriously murmured lyrics for hours at a stretch. I’ve been trying to wear this one out for more than a quarter-century and it hasn’t happened yet. Another song in a similar vein is “Days on the Mountain” (1982) by Television founder Tom Verlaine. It’s weirder and less tuneful, but also longer and more epic. It scratches the same itch.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue — This 1959 cool-jazz classic is an album I could happily listen to every single day the rest of my life, and it’s another one I’ve never been able to wear out. In that, I rank it alongside my all-time number-one favorite, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But Riot isn’t something I put on when I need to really bear down on a piece of writing; too jittery, and it demands too much concentration to serve as accompaniment. Kind of Blue, however, retreats into the background just enough to work perfectly.

The La’s — This Liverpool band made one and only one album, about which there is a fair amount of lore. Unsatisfied with how things were going in the studio, the band broke up in the middle of recording, leaving the producers to piece together enough songs to make up an album. While that’s not a promising scenario, the result is nevertheless one of my all-time favorite start-to-finish records ever. You already know the hit, “There She Goes,” 2:42 of chiming pop perfection. But all 12 songs flow along, rising and falling at a perfect pace. Even though it’s barely 35 minutes long, The La’s really does feel like a satisfying, long day’s journey into night.

Ennio Morricone, Legendary Italian Westerns — I’ve always had a special affinity for the “Spaghetti Westerns” of Italian director Sergio Leone, including the wide-open ambience of composer Ennio Morricone’s elegant scores. Two decades ago, this 1988 compilation of the maestro’s greatest western themes was my main soundtrack while I was writing my novel “Off The Record.” There’s just something that feels intrinsically right about dramatic instrumental movie scores as fiction-writing accompaniment.

Aaron Copland, Copland Conducts Copland — Speaking of cinematic, Aaron “voice of the American Heartland” Copland is pretty much the last word when it comes to broad-brush musical landscapes. Between “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring,” this is music that should have your written epic sailing along in no time at all. And Copland’s music is so versatile, it even worked as soundtrack for a movie about basketball — Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.”