I had the good fortune and complete ambivalence of being surrounded by excellent music from a very young age. I had The Eagles, Rod Stewart, and The Boomtown Rats coming at me from my father, and Elton John, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston coming at me from my mother. While those great songs were being absorbed by my brain in some sort of osmosis way that would show itself later in my life, at the time, my heart and ears belonged only to the pure ecstasy of 90s pop. Take a trip down memory lane with me to a simpler time… MTV was in its golden age, the Lip Smackers and Gelly Roll pens were plentiful, the Gushers and Dunkaroos were delicious, and Britney Spears ruled the world.
From age 3 to 9, I had the coolest babysitter ever; a teenager named Katie who helped me make scrapbooks and watched Clueless with me after school. She introduced me to the Starbucks Strawberries and Cream Frappuccino, took me to the pottery painting place to make my own mugs and plates, and even let me hang out with her and her high school friends sometimes – the ultimate achievement for a mere elementary schooler. We were two peas in a pod, and she would frequently take me with her on her teen excursions to the mall while my mom was building her business.
One day on one of these trips, when I was around 7 years old, we walked past HMV (the big music chain store in Canada) and I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of a blonde, bronzed, blindingly bleached-teethed teenager. Britney Spears. Baby One More Time. The album with the curly lettered font I had been seeing all over MTV and in the pages of Tiger Beat magazine, had finally arrived, and I needed it.
Katie, a saint if there ever was one, looked down at my desperate face, walked right into that HMV, grabbed a shrink wrapped copy off the shelf, took it to the register, and paid for it with her own money right then and there. Assuming she was buying the CD for herself, I was green with envy. I wished I were a cool teenager so that I could have a job and money and could buy my own CDs. I silently glared at the pink and white plastic bag in her hand, and without a word, we left the store and continued on our journey towards our Frappuccinos. As we waited at the Starbucks counter, my jealousy subsiding at the prospect of an impending sugar rush, she handed me the bag and smiled, “it’s yours.” WHAT!!!!!!!!! Pure excitement, pure delight, what a joy! My own CD! Oh my god!
In the car, before we even left the mall parking lot, we tore off the shrink wrap, put the CD into the disc drive, and gave ourselves over to the magic of a 1999 Britney induced bliss. It was the best thing I had ever heard. It sounded to me like fun in sonic form. We slurped our 1400 calories of cream and syrup, danced our faces off the whole way home, and continued to do so every day for the rest of the Summer. Still to this day, no matter how “good” or high-brow or critically acclaimed the music, nothing has made me feel that same visceral joy and pure excitement that Baby One More Time did almost 20 years ago. Just last week a song from that album came on, and I immediately found myself craving a strawberry Frappuccino…
When I was about seven years old, I was introduced to my first record by an old man on a train. He was seated with three other older men, as the train car rolled through a warm summer’s evening. His face seemed weary and craggy with years of travel, and despite his small stature he drew me in and commanded my attention. With a voice sharp yet gruff, he dispensed life advice in exchange for whiskey and cigarettes, which he bummed from the silver-bearded man seated across from him.
After the conversation wound down, the old man put his head against the window and drifted off to sleep. And then, quite unexpectedly, this old man passed away in his sleep. He died right in front of me. And unbelievably, an apparition began to fill the train car. It was the ghost of the old man, looming large over the other men. The silver-bearded man was singing this song, and the ghost began to dance and sing along. Finally, the ghost pulled out a deck of cards, threw them in the air, and showered the train car with them. Then the scene ended.
I was seven years old, watching an episode of The Muppet Show. I was completely transfixed by what I had just seen and heard. And the song that the silver-bearded man and the puppets had been singing was absolutely infectious. “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…” It just completely took over my mind. What was this song? Who was that silver-bearded man? I was possessed with the need for answers.
And after demanding more information on all of this from my parents, they eventually bought me a cassette tape. 20 Greatest Hits by Kenny Rogers. And I played that tape until it wore out, on a little brown Fisher-Price cassette player. “The Gambler” was the greatest song ever written, according to my seven year-old ears. And for the next several months, wherever I went, that song came along in my head. Sometimes complete with the dancing ghost of an old man. And a group of puppets, their voices rising together in that rousing triumphant chorus.
It’s weird. Now that I look back on some of my earliest attempts at songwriting, they are replete with references to gambling and card playing. Despite the fact that I never cared much for either of those things in my real life. As I started to get into other music, I remember hearing gambling references in several Grateful Dead songs. And then on to Bob Dylan. And I began to see a metaphorical thread appearing. I followed that thread for a long time, and it led me to some amazing music. I owe the writer of “The Gambler,” a debt of gratitude for jump-starting a life in pursuit of beautiful song. Thank you, Don Schlitz. Also, while we’re at it, thank you to Jim Henson. And Kenny Rogers! I think of that little seven year-old kid in front of the television, stumbling on a seminal moment in his life. Ears in rapture to a truly great song. Worlds of possibility developing in his little brain. Future songs murmuring from somewhere far ahead in embryonic time.
Memory is a funny thing. Why did this record make such an impact on me? Was I merely seduced by Muppets with a clever hook? Or maybe it was my own budding interest in ghosts, cemented by the release of the film Ghostbusters at around the same time. Or maybe it was the fact that I almost died myself from anaphylactic shock resulting from an allergic reaction that same year. I can’t really know for sure. But that record, and that song, stuck with me. Somewhere deep in the darkness of my mind, the Gambler sleeps. On a train bound for nowhere. And there will be time enough for counting, when the dealing’s done…
The year before I moved to Israel, I worked at a restaurant in my neighborhood. I would walk to work through Seattle’s leafy Ravenna neighborhood listening to Meir Ariel’s 1997 record Bernard VeLouise, generally arriving at the restaurant somewhere in the middle of the fourth track.
Meir Ariel was an Israeli singer-songwriter often referred to as the Israeli Bob Dylan. On top of that, his ability to create words and turn phrases in Hebrew is heralded as somewhat Shakespearean. A supremely talented lyricist, he never enjoyed the fame in life that he found in death. He fought in the Six Day War (and the Yom Kippur and First Lebanon Wars), and he initially gained a following after he wrote a parody of a nationalistic song circulating in 1967 called Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer. Ariel’s version was called Jerusalem of Iron, and speaks of the horrors he saw fighting in the city. In Shemer’s version the chorus is, “Jerusalem of gold, and of bronze and of light.” In Ariel’s: “Jerusalem of iron, and of lead and of darkness.”
Bernard VeLouise isn’t his best known record, but for some reason it was the first of his that I picked up. And when I say picked up, I mean listened to on Spotify. Seattle’s Easy Street Records doesn’t exactly have a well stocked Israeli music section. It was the last record the Israeli folk troubadour would release before his death at 57 in 1999, caused by an infected tick bite.
Before I learned how to speak Hebrew, I had no idea what the record’s opening track, “Etzel Zion”, was about. With an upbeat, meandering, Eastern European melody, and the word “Zion” (biblical Israel) in the title, I thought the subject matter must be some pretty heavy shit.
Later, once my Hebrew had improved, I learned that Ariel had in fact penned an ode to the fast food chicken schnitzel shop across from his apartment in Tel Aviv.
At Zion’s on the corner of Hayarkon and Trumpeldor
Between the post office and the Dan cinema
They put a lot of heart onto your plate
For just a little pocket change
They put a lot of love into your pita
And they don’t make you wait.
In August, 2014, in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, I was outside a hotel in Jerusalem, in a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounded by a circle of Israelis, listening to Meir Ariel on a shitty iPhone speaker. A string of military helicopters buzzed overhead and someone said it was the ceasefire team returning to the Knesset from discussions in Cairo. Then the rocket sirens started wailing and we had to scramble to the bomb shelter, with Meir’s music still coming out of the phone.
Six months later, I had two suitcases, and an apartment with a lease in my name waiting for me in Jerusalem. Everything else was up in the air. As my flight dropped below the clouds and the lights of Tel Aviv came into view, I noticed that the Israeli guy next to me had started sobbing, and I could tell it had something to do with the music he was listening to. I peeked over at his iPod. Annie’s Song by John Denver. Weird. I put on Bernard VeLouise. By that point, Meir’s music was no longer foreign to me. It was a comfort, a constant, when moving halfway across the world was full of so many variables.
A few years ago, an Israeli winery put out a limited edition Meir Ariel series of wines that featured illustrations found in his notebooks on the label. I wrote the song “The One Who Shines, The Lion of God” on a hot July evening in Jerusalem after polishing off a bottle. In English, the name Meir Ariel can be translated to “The One Who Shines, The Lion of God.”
Keep up with Ben Fisher – and keep your eyes peeled for the release of Does The Land Remember Me? – here.
It’s back. More than 20,000 music and camping lovers from 41 states and 3 countries are expected for the fourth annual Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles, Iowa, on Friday, August 3 and Saturday, August 4.
Grammy Award-winning country music and roots rock singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson and South Carolina-based indie-rock band Band of Horses will headline the festival at Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater, just 30 miles south of Des Moines.
The 2018 event also features Scottish synth-pop band CHVRCHES, Denver folk artist Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, classic Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke and up-and-coming country star Margo Price. R&B musician Anderson East, independent Melbourne busker turned singer-songwriter Tash Sultana, the energetic, piano-driven roots rock of J Roddy Walston and The Business, country singers Tyler Childers and Joshua Hedley will also perform. Completing the lineup are Iowa acts The Nadas, celebrating their 25th anniversary, and R&B synth gaze group Ancient Posse.
Hinterland enhances the unique atmosphere of Iowa’s beautiful rural landscape with music, camping and activities ranging from children’s crafts to after-hours campfire performances.
Gates open Friday at 3 pm and the music starts at 5:15 pm.On Saturday, gates open at 11 am and music starts at 11:45 am. Tickets run from $49 to $65, depending on the day and whether you get them in advance or day of. Two-day tickets run $95 to $110. Tent camping is available for $25 to $35 per person, and RV camping spots may still be available. Campers get exclusive access to watch more performers at the Campfire Stage both nights after the headliners.
It starts with a simple song and summertime in Michigan. The Apple TV is a brand new invention, and Dad is experimenting with playing music through his newest gadget from Best Buy. After several minutes of futzing, the silhouette of a giant mango tree against a backdrop of mustard yellow appears on the screen. The descending bass line of “Better Together” invites me to take a deep breath. I do. I sink deeper into the cushions of the living room couch and unwind for the first time Jack Johnson serves me a little slice of life. I stole the entirety of In Between Dreams from my dad’s computer. This was pre- streaming. Buying entire albums used up Grandma’s gift cards pretty quickly, so you learned how to be handy with other peoples libraries and the “Burn to CD” function in iTunes. Soon after I downloaded the album, it became the soundtrack of my life. Even when I wasn’t really listening, I’d just have it playing somewhere in the background. I’d find new music and start listening to some other stuff, but eventually find myself putting it on again and again. Every few months or so I’d claim a new favorite song, discovering something I hadn’t noticed before.
Jack Johnson was one of the first songwriters I heard that tackled abstract concepts in a way that really resonated with me. The songs everyone knows him by – “Better Together” and “Banana Pancakes” – were definitely the gateway drugs. But as I listened more, things started to change. Songs like “Never Know,” “Breakdown,” or “If I Could” introduced some really rich lyrical content and difficult life questions that I’d yet to be exposed to. For example, “If I Could” starts with the verse, “A brand new baby was born yesterday just in time / Papa cried, baby cried, said ‘Your tears are like mine’ / I heard some words from a friend on the phone that didn’t sound so good / The doctor gave him two weeks to live / I’d give him more if I could”. He unpacks messy aspects of life like death, love or even mundanity with such gentleness and keen observation – it really sets the stage for listeners to empathize, which I love. Beyond that, the succinct storytelling in songs like “Do You Remember” or “Constellations” inspired me to capture that same kind specificity of imagery in my own writing.
I must’ve been around fourteen when I’d listened to the record for the first time. I grew up listening to mainstream pop, The Beatles, and a whole lotta country radio, mostly because it was easy access. In Between Dreams was the first record I digested as a whole. The first record I felt I could claim as my own. It became part of my identity, in a way. Whenever I come back to his music, it brings back all these different versions of myself – almost like a musical reminder of who I am and where I came from.
I grew up in a small town surrounded by a lot of green open space. Living in LA – getting used to a desert climate and the over-development of land – has been a somewhat difficult adjustment for me. Jack Johnson’s music and especially In Between Dreams utilize a lot
of nature imagery and metaphor in the lyric. I listen to his songs, and I feel the way being in nature makes me feel – centered and more myself. I can always count on a little Jack Johnson to bring me back to Earth, both literally and figuratively. It’s my own little musical state park, so to speak – no matter where I am.
I’ve heard a lot of people refer to Jack Johnson as being “easy listening,” usually with a certain amount of disdain in their voices. Honestly, I get it. For the average touch-and-go listener, he’s this soft-spoken, happy-go-lucky dude from Hawaii who plays acoustic guitar and sings about banana pancakes. But for me, he’s a modest voice, pioneer of asking difficult questions, and vigilant observer of the most important simple things. Like Papa’s translations of the stories across the sky. Or sepia-tone lovin. Or resolve is just a concept that’s as dead as the leaves. I could go on for days. He’s the most underrated lyricist of our time (in my own very humble opinion, of course). And that’s my first record story.
When I was doing freelance work for a company in New York City from my home in Kansas City, we started doing more list and humorous pieces for their content department. AKA, I tried to get more people to go to their site. They were clearly news-based and I think my writing was some of the only comedy on the site, save for one podcast a week. It was really sad, and my ideas became almost desperate to bring them into this century.
Good news! They approved “Best Viral Videos of 2012.” Since I’m guessing none of you saw it, I’m going to post it here as my Throwback Thursday. It will make you laugh. And probably reminisce. So enjoy these videos and my little blurbs about them!
2012: A year of ups and downs. Intense elections (though, compared to now…), more comedy television to love, Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan (how often can a young girl be arrested?). It’s a miracle that the viewing public had any time to get acquainted with their computers! But, as it is, we have compiled a list of the Best Viral Videos of 2012—otherwise known as the best things we saw while we were supposed to be working or paying attention in a lecture.
Please Move the Deer Crossing
A woman with bad luck thinks that deer crossing signs are the culprit. We can’t tell if she’s for real or not. And we don’t care. This is hilarious.
Arrested Drunk Guys Singing Bohemian Rhapsody Posted to YouTube and then subsequently to College Humor in March, this video of a drunk guy singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” is like the grown-up version of “David After Dentist”. And we’re obsessed.
Kristen Bell’s Sloth Meltdown
Kristen Bell is stunningly gorgeous. Her hair is shiny and full, her voice is like wind chimes, and her face is so symmetrical she looks like a Barbie. And now we know her kryptonite: sloths.
Olympic Athletes Do “Call Me Maybe”
“Call Me Maybe” had so many re-makes and cover videos made that it kind of made our heads explode. But we did very much enjoy this version. Maybe because it shows us that Olympic athletes are just like everyone else.
“Call Your Girlfriend” SNL
Who knew Taran Killam would kill it with his dance moves? And we watched it over and over and over. We also kind of love his rendition of Brad Pitt’s Chanel No. 5 commercial.
In April, “Caine’s Arcade” was uploaded to YouTube. The story of a boy with an imagination the size of Texas is already incredible, but the way the internet made his dreams come true is extraordinary. This can be our “feel good” video of the year.
“Gangnam Style” has almost 1 billion views. We don’t think an explanation is necessary.
News Blooper And finally, this gem. Because apparently we all have dirty minds.