A summer full of music

I’m about to head into a busy summer music season that includes an equestrian festival, a beer festival during a county fair, a stint at a campground, random playing in a park and a couple of gigs on a closed-off street in Manassas.

Summer is my favorite time to play, not only because there are so many alternatives to straight-up bar gigs, but because I end up playing in front of people having a good time.

I’m closing in on the 35th anniversary of my first gig, and I don’t know how many anniversaries I still have in me (something I’ve been saying for YEARS but if anything, I’m the busiest I’ve ever been). I’m just grateful that there are still places that support live music, and as bars become less and less of an option, I’m grateful for the summers and falls and the many performance alternatives they provide.

‘Reckoning’ and rivers of suggestion

In one of those unfortunate reminders that I’ve circled the sun a whole lot now, I saw an article this week noting it was the 35th anniversary of the release of R.E.M.’s “Reckoning.” It’s my favorite album by a band I was obsessed with for the back half of the 1980s into the early 1990s, and I’d place this album on my personal Top 5 list any day.

Reckoning’s Howard Finster album cover.

I already was an R.E.M. fan when the album hit in 1984. Like so many other early adopters, I heard “Radio Free Europe” and that was all it took. That was unusual for me — I was a Top 40 guy at the time — but I thought these guys would be all over the singles charts soon enough.

It turned out that it took a few more years for that to happen, and “Reckoning” didn’t contain the cut that did it. What it did have was the strength of a band of undeniable talent that obviously had been honed by playing hundreds of crap gigs, and your ears told you that they were transitioning toward a much bigger future. But at the time, before the corporate music weasels eventually had their say, the band could still get away with rougher-edged songs, more obtuse lyrics, and putting Michael Stipe’s vocals so far down in the mix that they were felt as much as they were heard.

From a nostalgia standpoint, this album pulls up warm memories of a fantastic point in my life. I had moved to Little Rock and fallen in with a bunch of journalists, writers, musicians and artists (not to mention the occasional journalist-writer-musician-artist) that had their own scene in the mid-1980s. I hooked up with my first band, which had sort of a cowpony thing going on, and my musical tastes changed — all in the year or so around the time of the release of this album.

R.E.M. was a big part of my changing musical tastes. I mean, how could you listen to the hair metal and disposable dance stuff that was clogging up the Top 40 when you could hear this? They also helped drag me toward Los Lobos, and Jason and the Scorchers, and the Beat Farmers, and the Blasters, and Lone Justice — all bands who were rootsier and less art-school-y than R.E.M., but they all were in my musical sweet spot.

I wore out “Reckoning.” I have specific memories of flipping over the record countless times in my crap apartment of 35 years ago. And a couple of years after the album came out, I finally say the band play at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock, with Fetchin Bones opening up. It was one of the greatest live shows of my life.

I don’t have a turntable any more, although the vinyl version of this still sits in a crate in my backyard shed. This time around, I’m listening to the album through wireless earplugs synced to my smartphone. That would have been an unimaginable experience for 1980s Randy, but I’d put this slice of my past up against most of the overproduced and underperformed albums I hear today, and it’d win every time. After time. After time.

Here’s a piece from The Ringer that will tell you more than you want to know about “Reckoning.” Enjoy.

Son of The Return of theshow

Somehow, theshow has pulled me back in. I blew it off completely last year, after it was resuscitated and switched networks, but I caught some of the auditions this year and enjoyed the less-snarky format. Also, the all-musician judge panel — veterans of the scene with the scars to prove it — has a no-nonsense, but encouraging, edge.

It’s a modest pleasure, with emphasis on “modest,” and I’m also glad to see the show doesn’t have the over-reliance on oldie music that it once did. These contestants are modern artists, even if by near-necessity they skew toward the singer-songwriter model, and there is a depth here that I haven’t always seen in the past. The pageant-kid wing has been tamped down, although it still has a few representatives, and the raw amateurs with some chops but no stage skills are being politely trimmed here in the early stages. 

This is a singing show now, not a cultural juggernaut, and I suspect it may not be around next year if its ratings sink again. But it’s a pleasant way to kill a few hours a week, and there is some real talent here that I’d be glad to see in person. Really, that should be enough.

I have a long history with theshow, formerly The Show. You can find some of my past posts here.

This year’s Saint Somewhere

This year’s Saint Somewhere was St. Croix, the only U.S. Virgin Island that my wife and I had not explored at length before this year. For the last few years, we’ve found a Caribbean island to hang out on near the end of the winter, and St. Croix was a worthy addition to this tradition.

Cane Bay (photo by my wife, Kristi).

The big surprise was the completely uncrowded vibe. That might be in part because we choose to stay in a villa at Cane Bay, away from the island’s two major towns. There were only a few other villas around and we could walk down a hill to the beach and a trio of beach bars/restaurants. These included the fabulous Off the Wall and Spratnet — two immediate nominees for our list of Great Dive Bars of the Caribbean. We liked the area so much that we stayed close a lot of days, and didn’t explore the rest of the island as much as we could/should have.

From a tourism standpoint, St. Croix is pretty obviously still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria, the twin-headed monsters that struck in 2017. Irma just swung a glancing blow (unlike the other Virgin Islands to the north) but Maria dug right in, causing truly massive damage and stripping the vegetation. Since then, the island has greened back up but there still is rubble in places, the locals are great/friendly/approachable, the roads are a bit of an adventure but not as much as in St. John, and the place is ready to support tourists again. If you’re looking for a chill Caribbean island with lots of roaming opportunities. St. Croix definitely fits the bill.

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It should be obvious to anyone who’s read my past posts that I’m a fan of structurally questionable Caribbean beach bars. They are really more about the hangout than anything else, although most of them will be happy to get you hammered if you’re after that, but I’m just looking for a relaxed vibe and a bit of rum. Here’s how I’d rank my favorites in the Virgin Islands. The ones with an ‘X’ next to them still have a chunk of rebuilding to do after the 2017 hurricanes, but they’re more or less open:

1. Ivan’s Stress-Free Bar, Jost Van Dyke   X

2. Corsairs Beach Bar & Restaurant, Jost Van Dyke   X

3. Rhythms at Rainbow Beach, St. Croix

4. The Beach Bar, St. John   X

5. Seddy’s One Love Bar & Grill, Jost Van Dyke   X

6. Off the Wall, St. Croix

7. The Soggy Dollar, Jost Van Dyke

8. Spratnet, St. Croix   X

9. Skinny Legs, St. John

10. Island Time Pub, St. Thomas

Last jobs

My first last job was with CNN. I was 40, I’d just gotten hired as the senior Washington editor in the digital unit, I wanted to work there for the rest of my career and I was gone two years later. I thought the gig would at least last longer, but then AOL bought CNN and tried to run it like AOL, which at the time was on a “We Don’t Create Content” kick. As a result, almost all of my staff was laid off and my job existed only because someone had to maintain the website pages. I managed to get transferred into AOL proper, but I knew that never would last, and I left after another two years.

My second last job was with USA Today. I was in charge of the news section of the website and also ran the breaking news desk with another manager. It was a great job and I loved it. But after five years, parent company Gannett started swinging the layoff knife, and I could see what was coming. They had a reputation for ruthlessness when it came to making their numbers No Matter What. I knew that, eventually, the gears of that machine would grab me and I’d be ground into chunky bits. I got a new job instead.

My third last job was with NPR. Who wouldn’t want to work for NPR? But it was exhausting, day in and day out, to reconcile the enormous talent of some of that organization’s key journalists with their nearly constant and reflexive resistance to change. Eventually I accepted a voluntary buyout just to get on with my life, as did a surprising number of digitally oriented staffers at the same time. (NPR did change, though; it just took a very long time.)

I’m now on my fourth last job, this one with AARP. I’m pretty sure that if this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to rely on gig work until I retire. I really want this to be my last last job in the best way. Things are looking up so far.