Midwestern Followers Unite (No, I’m Not Asking For Money) + The Wildest Music Story of My Career

MidwestSceneryUnless you’re skillfully adept at ignoring the posts from this site (highly probable), you’re well aware that I’m a musician in addition to being the writer that pummels your feeds at every possible juncture. I’ve been playing live music for 5 1/2 years, have put out five albums of varying lengths (two most-recent of which you can buy here), and keep a fairly active live concert schedule. This has often been in tandem with collegiate coursework and/or jobs. And this, along with my fiction writing, is the primary reason this website/blog exists in the first place. As I wrap up my final two weeks of college (!), I’m preparing for that ever-so-uncertain summer/future post-graduation when I really have no idea what’s on the horizon other than seeing Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in Milwaukee in June, and a few imminent trips to Wrigley Field. There’s excitement and horror in equal ratio to that uncertainty.

But like most musicians, I wish success on my music. Time, work, love, and money all pour into this music, even when I don’t necessarily have all of them to give. I have no shame to humble myself to my potential audience, because, in truth, I need you. I need you to listen, I need you to buy the music, I need you to come to shows. You’re an immensely important part of the equation and I don’t ever want it to sound like you’re not. The best I can do is share the music I create, and hopefully meet a few of you along the way (and hope you like what I’m offering –as a musician, and as regular old me). Music can be incredibly self-gratifying, but it’s infinitely more meaningful when it’s a two-way street.

Case and point: A friend of mine recently caught up with their brother who they hadn’t talked with for a while. He informed my friend that my song, “Lullaby #12,” was his favorite song of all time and that he had covered it at multiple shows in multiple states. You can imagine my excitement. I do recall him mentioning that he liked it several years ago (I have never met him) and indirectly asked permission to cover the song, which I of course granted, but I never realized anything had come out of it. But his favorite song of all time? And that’s just half of the story.

I don’t know the details, nor do I need them, but he ended up in jail for a short period. During his time there, he told my friend that he sang “Lullaby #12″ to the 16 people in his cell area every night and that they wouldn’t let him sleep until he did. This cycled through the 40-50 people who came through during his stint there. When someone does something like that with something you created, what can you possibly say to it? An obscure song that was quietly drifting away into the annals of my music history reached further than I ever thought any of my songs would, much less a simple ballad mixed among an album that all of 15 people in the world own (After the War, 2011). You’ll understand if I told you this more or less made my decade. If you’d like to hear the song, you’re welcome to listen through the link below. If you want a digital download of the album, get in touch via comment or email.

That story has been a tremendous encouragement, and has been one of the driving forces for me to approach the summer as I am: By playing lots of shows across the Midwest! As I type this, I have 12 shows scattered with several more in development. And I’m always looking for more. If you know someone that may wish to have me, or know someone who might host a house concert, or people who might like what I’m offering, tell them about what I’m doing and I’m always happy to come. If you’re in the areas, come to a show. You have no idea how far little kernels of support go, or how crucial they are for the well-being of artists of any kind. I’d also love to meet the people who are kind enough to follow this blog. If you live in Europe, or anywhere else (I know a few of you do), I’ll admit to probably not making the trek for some time, but take a listen and get in touch. Help me start cultivating relationships abroad so that when I do come someday, it’ll be a rocking trip.

Thank you all for your support and here’s to a great, uncertain summer. Enjoy the music.

~Brian (A Metropolitan Guide)

Mule Variations (Tom Waits) –15th Anniversary Celebration!

412YGAJNY4LWe’ve finally made it. After seven daily posts (this has been harder to keep up with than you might expect) of some killer Tom Waits numbers to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Mule Variations that you can find in my “Journal” section above, the day of reckoning has arrived. Fifteen years ago today, Tom Waits released one of his finest albums to date. The rustic, life-affirming, slightly offbeat, Mule Variations. And let me tell you, it still rules.

One of my favorite quips about this album came via Zach Hooker’s review for Pitchfork back in 1999. He said basically this; “You’ll never write a song as good as Tom Waits’ worst song.” I’ll agree with that claim and extend it to this: I don’t think any of Waits’ worst songs are on Mule Variations, so your chances of writing a song as good as a song on Mule Variations are even lesser still. 

As is evident by many of my reviews, I love comparing and contrasting albums to one another within an artist’s catalog. And I’ve made good on that routine during my recent posts on various Waits records and songs. Prepare yourself, I’m going to make good on it again here. Maybe it’s just the wheat field Waits is photographed in on the album’s cover, but where Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change, and Rain Dogs feel embedded in the life of a hopping metropolitan burgh, Mule Variations sounds like Waits abandoning big-city living for the more tranquil small-town lifestyle.

The shift isn’t necessarily a condemnation of the big-city living he was singing about for so many years, but the opening words of “Big in Japan” get at what could be read as an autobiographical series of statements about Waits:

I got the style but not the grace
I got the clothes but not the face
I got the bread but not the butter
I got the window but not the shutter
But I’m big in Japan

The reservations about never quite fitting in all the way could lead to this longing for a simpler life (and why we get this track first), surrounded by people who cherish their simpler lives. Throughout Mule Variations, Waits sounds settled. I would argue it’s the first record of his where he does to this extent. He still gets plenty of time to play with his normal toolkit, but he’s fleshing out the community he’s built by valuing its flaws and its beauty, not using the flaws as an excuse to get away from it. “Hold On” –one of my favorite tracks, here– clings to that community and often gives quips that can be seen as knocks on the grander lifestyle that led him here:

They hung a sign up in our town
“if you live it up, you won’t live it down”

Or this verse:

Well, you build it up, you wreck it down
You burn your mansion to the ground
When there’s nothing left to keep you here, when
You’re falling behind in this big blue world
Oh you got to hold on

These lyrics don’t sound like strict condemnations of “livin’ large,” but, as the title suggests, there is a desire to hold on to that simpler side. But these lyrics read more like proverbs than cautionary tales. On a side note, it was nice to see “Hold On” get some renewed recognition when Beth Greene sang it in the third season of The Walking Dead (you can listen here, but it’s cooler when you can watch it in context):

“I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee” is one of the finest lines of Waits’ career, while being embedded in probably his best spoken-word piece, “What’s He Building?”  I already mentioned a lot of what I like about these spoken word tracks in my piece on “9th & Hennepin,” but one of the ways Waits is effective on these is by getting a lot of mileage out of his key phrases. There is a lot of depth to unearth by naming the town “Mayor’s Income,” but he doesn’t have to say any of it. Little things like that are what set Waits apart from so many others.

I want to talk about how heartbreaking “House Where Nobody Lives” is, or how glorious “Come On Up to the House” is, but I’ll consider myself lucky if you’re still reading after 700 words, so I’ll wrap it up. Happy 15th anniversary, Mule Variations! To take a phrase from the man himself: If I can, I’m gonna’ take it with me when I go. I might as well, I take it everywhere else.