Mixing punk rock with grace

Against Me! @ Dour 2012
Last summer, I read this fascinating Rolling Stone article about a long-time male punk singer who had what’s called gender dysphoria—something which people who are born as one gender but identity with another suffer from. This week, I happened across the news from NPR that a comeback for the singer was in progress:

“The bracingly political Florida punk band Against Me! has been a going concern since 1997, but Transgender Dysphoria Blues can’t help but feel like a debut: It’s the group’s first album since singer Tom Gabel [now Laura Jane Grace] came out as a woman.”

Before this week, I’d never even heard an Against Me! song. But now, I consider myself a huge fan and supporter of Laura and her transition into the next stage of life. You can add her to my girl crush list. Why? Because it no doubt took an insane amount of courage on her part to become who she was meant to be. She didn’t give a shit about what other people thought of her. (Except for her wife and young daughter, who have supported her transition with love.)

And that, I think, is so very punk.

Though I know next to nothing about the genre of punk itself, I found myself hooked from the start of the title track of Against Me!’s newest album. As NPR notes, Laura “still barks her lyrics with fiercely assertive intelligence” with the same voice she had when she was still Tom. (She told Rolling Stone, “I like my singing voice.”) The new album takes the subject of Laura’s transition head-on, which I think will—and should—earn her a lot of respect.

It can be so damn hard to feel comfortable in your own skin—and I can imagine it’s even harder when there are so many critical eyes on you. Which is why I think it’s important to applaud those who take their happiness and future into their own hands and deal with the inevitable challenges of doing so as bravely as Laura has.

It’s fitting that Laura chose “Grace” as her new last name. She seems to have handled this major life change with exactly that.

Endless summer soundtrack

dusk

It’s mid-September in Los Angeles, but I’d be oblivious to the impending official end of summer if it weren’t for the sky that darkens just a little earlier each day and the Facebook posts from everyone back home about the fall-like weather (and subsequent pumpkin spice lattes). Usually by this time of year, my tan has already faded, and I’m wishing for just a few extra weeks of a sweaty Maryland summer. I always did have just a touch of seasonal depression, no matter how much I enjoyed football, beef stew, and fall fashion.

But this September, I’m not putting away the sundresses. I’m as tan as I would be if I spent a solid week at the beach. And even being very much in back-to-school mode, I don’t have the same blues I’ve always associated with it. It truly feels like the Endless Summer.

That’s not to say that life is perfect in Los Angeles. Every day has its own struggles. Being away from family isn’t easy, but at least I got to watch my sister open presents on her 12th birthday via FaceTime. The continuous search for employment can be a serious source of anxiety at times, but I know we’ll find work eventually; in the meantime, I’m just happy to be spending so much time with John. Whenever petty worries about cars, phones, or bills arise, some tragic news story pops up and gives us a heavy dose of perspective. By comparison, we’re living the dream. And in a lot of ways, we really are.

The following playlist is a culmination of memories and feelings associated with this summer of anticipation, exploration, and arrival. Most of these songs played through the car speakers more than once as we leisurely made our way across the country, and they’ll forever be ingrained in my mind as the soundtrack of an epic, endless summer.

So here’s to bathing suits, gas money, sunglasses, water jugs, pit stops, motel sheets, coffee shops, photo ops, Google maps, guitar pics, campfires, bike rides, time zones, calls home, L.A. traffic, and living to tell the tale. And wherever you are, may your summer be as endless as mine.

Tracklist: John Mancini Band – Shangri-la | Allah Las – Busman’s Holiday | The Band – Don’t Do It |Charles Bradley – Why Is It So Hard | Neil Young – Cinnamon Girl | Sam Phillips – Signal | White Denim – Burnished | Dire Straits – Wild West End

I’m with the band

John Mancini Band Shangri-la

You know those people who seem to have endless creative talent? The ones who seem to dabble in everything and do it really well?

I like to surround myself with those people in hopes that their talent will rub off on me. John is one such person. If you’ve been reading long enough, you know that my boyfriend is a musician and writer. And this musician/writer boyfriend of mine is always working on something, it seems. This week, John released his fourth album, and he did all of the songwriting, guitar & vocals, countless other instruments, and editing himself. He also enlisted the talents of a few others, and I got to be one of them.

I have always loved to sing. It’s a fun thing to do whether you do it well or not. (Though I imagine the better you are at singing, the more fun it is.) In high school, I sang and played guitar with friends in talent shows and open mic nights—always envisioning myself as a guitar goddess rockstar lady and ending up forgetting to breathe and not knowing what to do with my hands, but making it through each performance well enough. Still, I had this weird mental block when it came to singing in front of other people, especially in more intimate settings. It was one thing to do it in front of the whole school when the stage lights were blinding and I couldn’t see the audience. But in an intimate group of friends? Terrifying. To me, it was the most vulnerable way you could possibly expose yourself, and that scared the shit out of me. Because of that, I’ve always made an obnoxious point of singing really badly, really loudly. Ask my sisters. It’s my favorite way to torture them. (4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” is my go-to tune.)

Despite not singing a whole lot (at least well) around others, John knew I had a real voice in me. And the gorgeous songs he’d written for his latest release, Shangri-la, were in need of some female harmonies, according to him. Would I sing with him? Well, I’d always secretly wanted to. Of course I would.

Shangri-la consists of 8 songs that span several of John’s songwriting years, the title track being the oldest (and one of my favorites). It’s a concept album, meaning there’s an overarching theme, and listening straight through from beginning to end is recommended for the full experience. It’s a nod to a lot of the more traditional songwriters of the past, much of the instrumentation reminding me of Tom Waits and the vocals, Bob Dylan. (Yes, I just compared my boyfriend to Bob Dylan.) Band members from earlier albums make appearances on Shangri-la, including founding JMB member Tom Haller on drums, and Jessie Firey (of the JMB side project, Ancient Americans) singing lead female vocal on “The End of All Things.” A couple of John’s talented musician friends also make guest appearances, and the lady harmonies/vocals you hear on tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 are yours truly. The coolest part of recording? Getting over myself and just having fun doing it, like you’re supposed to.

So here’s hoping more of John’s talent rubs off on me, but I can say for sure I’ve got the music bug. I miss playing guitar. I want to learn piano. And damnit, I want to sing! I may not have Beyoncé’s range (oh, Bey), but I’ve got a good tone and an ear for harmonies. The confidence part is coming slowly but surely.

If you want to check out the album, it’s available on iTunes, and the hard copy—featuring my photography as the cover art—is available at CDBaby. (Anyone else still jamming out to CDs like me?) I recommend checking out the other albums while you’re at it. Sun King is pure musical genius. If you can spare a “like,” follow John Mancini Band on Facebook for updates. Witty Title Here AND John Mancini Band are going west. And we’ll be writing and singing about it along the way.

It’s All Good

This past weekend, I attended my first ever weekend-long music festival. All Good Music Festival, located in You’ve Never Heard of It, West Virginia, made for three days of camping fun for this girl. Four days for many of the unemployed and/or secretly rich hippies in attendance. But since I was busy earning my paycheck just in time for the weekend, I went for a Friday afternoon departure with my friend, Kristen, while our man-friends went a day ahead of us to make tent homes.

I was excited for a weekend of adventure– I’m far from being a hippie myself, but I do like flowy dresses, hippie music, and hippies. And there were a lot of those things. So I knew it’d be a good time. As I got ready Friday morning before work, bags packed by the door, I was so excited that I flipped my head awkwardly while applying make-up and pulled a muscle in my neck. So that was a problem. Surely to be intensified by driving for four hours and sleeping on the ground for a couple of nights. But whatevs. I went with logic, popped three Ibuprofen, and willed it to magically stop hurting.

Actually, it got worse, but I was distracted from my temporary pain by our stop in Frostburg, Maryland, which consists of a Rite-Aid and a hotel, along with a Sheetz that sits smack-dab next to a dollar store, both of which we breezed through in wonderment and awe. We got ourselves a beef/cheese dipping combo at the Sheetz since we were in need of some artery clogging before a weekend of port-o-pots, then stopped in the dollar store where I picked up a relatively useless pain relief sticky pad thing while receiving skeptical looks and an inquiry as to where we were from. I didn’t know it was so obvious that we were not, in fact, from down the highway on Pigs Ear Road, but sometimes locals can just tell.

With one hand on the wheel and the other back and forth between my sticky pad that refused to actually stick and the beef/cheese delight whose nutrition label I refused to read, I got us to the festival, which was clearly in full swing by the time we got there. This fact was confirmed by how far away from anything resembling music we were forced to park. I had tried to prepare myself for how overwhelmed I’d be by the span of it, but I hadn’t done it justice. What some call a “small” festival in comparison to others felt vast to me, and I wondered how we’d ever find John and Tom who had already moved the tents twice due to crazy neighbors. Turns out we didn’t find them. Not for close to two hours, anyway. With all of our stuff on our shoulders– which was great for my neck, by the way– we wandered from staff person to useless staff person who knew nothing of the road names within the festival. Luckily, I had the sense to keep track of our uncertain steps so we’d be able to find my car two days later, but I was pretty worried to leave ole Bertha behind with potential weirdos camped out nearby all weekend. I imagined her hood serving as a coaster for multiple beer cans (relatively harmless) and her roof transforming into a late-night dance floor (less so).

When we sat our stuff down to regroup and a car ran over Kristen’s sleeping bag, it pretty much solidified the tone for that journey.

Nevertheless, we found John and Tom after a lot of walking and a couple of overpriced cab rides on golf carts. I love golf carts, though, so that helped. What really helped was our coveted spot in the woods, which was one of the few camping spots without tents sitting one on top of the other. With relief from the sun, I was reminded of my first camping trip last year and how it was actually quite lovely and not too physically demanding.

This whole weekend, however, was physically demanding. While we indeed had some prime real estate in our favor, it was still a long trek to and from the music stages, intensified by the impossibly steep hills we climbed maybe a dozen or so times. TALK ABOUT A WORK-OUT. Not just any old work-out, but a work-out in flip flops. At 3 a.m. Up the steepest hills in all the land. I did it with minimal complaints, though, because I never do cardio on the weekends, and I was glad to be accomplishing things on days of the week when I’m usually lounging around, staring at my bellybutton.

Of course, the music was what we came for, and it was great. There were essentially no set breaks– one band finished, and another started immediately. This lasted all day and well into the night. And let me tell you, there are some really funny looking people at these festivals. Anything goes: crazy hair, colorful make-up, funky clothes, no clothes, and lots of glow sticks. I kept it pretty low-key (no topless photos on the Internet, mom), but at no point did I worry about whether an outfit matched. All Good festival was the ultimate people-watching experience.

I guess really the only downside of the weekend was when I went to step inside what looked like a decent enough port-o-pot but smelled like something even your dog wouldn’t lick and instead stepped in a very wet and disturbing puddle. Oh. My dear God. I was reminded of the time I stepped on a slug barefoot and thought I’d never recover from the utter despair and slime and how THIS WAS SO MUCH WORSE. The only way I could stop myself from shuddering until my teeth fell out as I looked for something skin-dissolvingly clean to submerge my foot in is that I figured it definitely was. Not. Pee. and was actually something very, very clean. ‘Cause, you know, sometimes clean things are sticky like this was.

I’m still shuddering.

Still, the weekend was an overall success. The pain in my neck did actually magically disappear once I settled in, my car, though dusty and with perfectly preserved beef/cheese leftovers sitting warm underneath, was not defaced in any way, and Kristen and I made it to John and Tom for a weekend of bonding over music, tents, and we-might-as-well-just-go-in-the-woods experiences. And, oh, did it feel good to shower on Sunday. Extra scrubbing on the tainted foot.

The happy family – photo belongs to Kristen

Addiction-free

Many of you who read my blog know me personally and therefore know about my past. For those of you who don’t know me, however, let me fill you in– I used to be addicted. No, not to drugs. Certainly not to helping. But I was very much addicted to Bon Jovi. I’ll let that sink in.

I didn’t like to use the words “addiction” or “obsession” when referring to my love for the Jovi. I’d insist that I was merely enthusiastic or a dedicated fan. But the truth is, I was a high-functioning, “Livin’ on a Prayer” belting, a “steel horse” is a TOUR BUS-ing Jovi Head for many years, starting at the young, impressionable age of 10. Bon Jovi was to me what coke was to Drew Barrymore.

My dad was my primary enabler. Every Christmas, birthday or Boxing Day, he’d shower me with Jovi memorabilia. Vintage Bon Jovi records? I’ve got all of ’em. Every unofficial bio in existence? Check. Jon and Richie “action figures”? Uh, yep. Those too. And I don’t just own all their studio albums. No, I own 130+ Bon Jovi CDs including singles, imports, live discs, and remasters. I bet you had no idea.

That’s because my love for Bon Jovi has died down in recent years. This is for a number of reasons, but I’d say the fact that their last good album was 11 years ago has something to do with it. Okay, arguably none of their albums were good. I NEVER SAID THEY WERE THE BEST BAND IN THE WORLD, PEOPLE. They were just my favorite. I feel the need to explain the fact that I know they’re by no means musical geniuses, because I’ve often been judged harshly due to the fact that Bon Jovi was my #1. There’s another demographic I can think of that many people rightly believe shouldn’t be judged based on who they love, so WHY SHOULD I BE ANY DIFFERENT?

I wonder how many followers I’ll lose because I got all tongue-in-cheek and compared my strife to that of the LGBTQQRSTUVWXYZetc. people out there. And for getting all hyperbolic with the ever-changing acronym. But I’m getting off-track.

Bon Jovi did actually have a few good albums. And even on the not-so-good albums, there were some gems. Their 1995 release, “These Days,” was so un-Jovi that you probably wouldn’t be able to guess the band’s name if it were withheld. So, by “un-Jovi,” I mean musically complex, lyrically interesting, and kind of depressing. Incidentally, “These Days” is my favorite Bon Jovi album.

As I grew up, my love for the band progressed from decorating my homework with “Bon Jovi Rocks!” to keeping a Bon Jovi journal with a detailed discography, collection of press clippings, and lyrics from every album to, much further down the road, deepening indifference. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I felt as if I was having an identity crisis. If I admitted I no longer had the same affection for the band as I once had, did that mean the person I was for almost 10 years meant nothing? Did I even know who I WAS anymore? This was perhaps the low-point of my addiction. The fact that I was concerned that I wasn’t addicted enough.

I got to meet the band when I was about 12 or so. By “meet,” I mean stammer when the really short drummer Tico offered to sign my shirt, be rejected by the keyboardist David who WOULDN’T sign my shirt, and feel like I could die of happiness when I got a wave, smile and “hello” from the uber-hotties Jon and Richie from a distance. (The humor in the fact that I was so obsessed with dad-aged rockers does not escape me.)

The high point of my Bon Jovi career, however, came during the phase in which my love had already started to dim. In 2009, my dad and I got media passes to the Les Paul tribute in Cleveland just a year or so before the legend himself died. Richie performed at the concert, and we sneakily made it into the after-party simply by acting as if we belonged there. Lo and behold, there was Richie (and Slash, but who cares about Slash?) lounging behind a velvet rope. Though I was a Jon girl in my younger years (the guy’s got a killer smile. And hair. But we make fun of his hair.), I eventually came to realize that Richie was the true talent. His voice is just better! And the guitar! So my dreams were about to come true. After a glass of champagne, I felt comfortable enough to chat politely– and like a sane human being– with Bon Jovi’s tour manager. WHO THEN SO WONDERFULLY INTRODUCED ME PERSONALLY TO RICHIE SAMBORA. YES, INDEED. WHAT WAS I EVER THINKING WHEN I SAID BON JOVI WASN’T MY FAVORITE ANYMORE? THIS IS RICHIE SAMBORA, AND HE IS HERE, AND SO AM I. AND NOW WE ARE FRIENDS.

I got to have an actual conversation with Richie, and though short, it was almost exactly what I hoped it would be for all those years. And by “exactly what I hoped,” I mean I said things with coherence. I may or may not have cried afterwards (don’t judge me) and deemed my life downhill from that point on.

Thank God that’s not actually the case, because peaking at 19 would suck. And despite how easy it is to make fun of Bon Jovi (and despite the fact that they gouge their fans’ bank accounts for even the nose-bloodiest of seats), I have to keep a special place in the back corner of my heart for giving me music to love, concert experiences to cherish, and “Wanted Dead or Alive” to sing for the 8th grade talent show.

When they’re live in D.C. next Sunday night and I’m at home eating leftover Valentine’s Day candy, maybe I’ll blast a little Slippery When Wet. And play some air guitar. And tease my hair.