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I know Andrew Kirell from his former tenure as Mediaite’s Ed in Chief, and now for the Daily Beast. I also know him to be refreshingly scornful of politics and the worst people in media. I also know him as that guy I met twice, and wish I could hang out with more because he’s pretty legit.

I heard whispers for several years that Kirell had musical yearnings and talents, and I was curious to hear what he sounded like. If you talk to someone a lot, but you don’t know their musical self, it feels mysterious. They could be a secret Bowie or Britney Spears or Paul Simon. You just don’t know.

A few weeks ago, Kirell had me listen to his song “On My Own” and it was completely not what I had expected, in a fun way. I knew Kirell had great taste in music — Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan and all — but I didn’t expect him to sound like the alt country Ian Curtis. He does. He sounds like the alt country Ian Curtis, and it is awesome. Go have a listen over at his Bandcamp page. I’m excited to hear what he does next.

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker The DJ 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. With DJ Jesse Walker 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 1-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

Old Time Etc. Pairs Show 2-2 by Djstaggerlee on Mixcloud

I'm the worst professor in history!The most infuriating thing about the 2012 Christian film God is Not Dead is not that it’s an email forward of a film. Nor is it that I am not a Christian, and therefore this movie isn’t for me. No, it’s simply that this doesn’t have to be so appalling, no matter the yay-Jesus sentiment.

There are numerous dodgy side plots including a Muslim girl who wants to find Jesus (and who wears short sleeves and a sloppy hijab, which I suppose is possible, but sure didn’t look like anything I’ve seen), a woman with cancer (and an I <3 Evolution bumper sticker, which sure seems like a Real Thing a Secular Human Would Have) and various other tedious cardboard cutouts in vaguely human shape. The main event, however, is the battle between painfully clean cut college student Josh and his villainous, atheist, philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo, who is both the best actor and the least believable person in the movie.

Professor Hercules isn’t content to simply teach philosophy, no, he demands that each member of his class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and then sign it in order to pass the class. Josh objects to this because he loves Jesus. The thing is, this is a horrible, bullshit assignment particularly in a philosophy class. Atheist boyfriend who was watching the film for camp value said he wouldn’t do such an assignment. I agreed. There’s an obvious principle at stake (and I will grant that some public schools might complete it because they’re wusses, but enough of them wouldn’t.)

This kind of activity would make you a bad teacher, especially in a setting where it’s not about factually right or wrong answers. This is a cheap, plastic way of making the prof the villain. Instead of making the debate truly rhetorical and religious, the menacing secularism has to be browbeaten into everyone. And maybe it’s some kind of metaphor for the world at large, but within a classroom setting, it’s terrible and false.

In short, this makes even the staunchest atheist want to root for Josh for contrarianism’s sake. (I also want him to call Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and become a national news story, because that would totally work). So, the young, earnest lad decides to fight his professor and debate in front of the class. He’s much too good at it, yet it’s also completely muddled and nonsensical. His metaphor-for-Christians-who-don’t-want-to-make-waves-in-the-secular-world girlfriend is pissed off and dumps him. But Josh soldiers on.

Oh, and professor has a beautiful, Christian girlfriend. She frowns a lot because he’s such an atheist.

The end — spoilers — is the worst. First of all, Josh appears to have converted almost his entire class to Christianity at the end of his final debate. This is, ironically for such an anti-secular movie, pure Hollywood claptrap. Wouldn’t it be more fitting if after class, one shy student came up to him and asked him for more info about Jesus? Then Christians would know that this wasn’t some fairytale confirming all that they believe, but that bringing people over to the Lord takes some work. The film appears to be telling Christians that if they just stand up for God in class, they’ll convert heathens by the dozens. A little humbleness about the state of this here fallen world seems more appropriate and better then this wish-fulfillment.

(I could, and may, write another rant on the difficulties of message movies and making them not Godawful. This relates to libertarian feelings and the several other terrible Christian movies I have watched out of curiosity.)

Prof Hercules had his own reasons to disbelieve in God. However, at the end, to the sounds of the Newsboys’ Christian rock jamz, he gets run over by a car conveniently next to these pastor and his friend who had had car trouble in the earlier film. It was meant to be, see. Hercules comes home to Jesus as he dies in the street. Yep. He converts, thanks to the pastor, but he still dies. And presumably directly in front of his bloodied corpses, the pastor stands in the rainy streets smiling because at least Prof is home now, and someone has even texted him “God’s not dead.” (“God’s not dead — but you are” more accurately.) The pastors or pastor and friend (I forget/who cares) then exchange a line about how “what happened tonight is a cause for celebration. Pain yes, but only for a few minutes. Then, think of the joy of heaven.” Okay, but can you not smile so wide directly in front of the dead man smeared across the street? Can we not immediately be quite so delighted?

The final scenes involve Josh, every other minor character, and someone from Duck Dynasty rocking out to the Newsboys while celebrating his victory over the professor — which, considering that he’s dead, seems a little like adding insult to injury. (Plus, the final scene encourages texting during a concert, which is definitely the work of Satan.)

Horrible, robotic inhuman attitudes permeate this movie, and this ending is the capper. There is no sadness that a man who was just coming around to the Lord, and you know, was a human being in addition to that, is dead. They’re all happy about it. This is one reason why the non-religious find religion — and religious films such as this — cold. How about a little respect for this life, not just pleasure in leveling up to Jesus?

When we’re talking about Jesus, songs are so much different than movies. Suburban Christian rock songs may not be. But painful country music can be beautiful, human, and accessible to the non-Christian just because of the depth of feeling (or even the wrath, if you have the Johnny Cash voice to match God cutting us all down sentiments).

Perhaps because Professor Hercules losing his mother is what made him lose his faith, and this tune is about the very same tragedy, I found myself thinking about “Can The Circle Be Unbroken” after watching God is Not Dead.

First recorded by The Carter Family in 1927, the song has been played many times by many people, but that trio’s version is it for me, because it’s just so brutal. Often in later covers the song is played more as a cheerful, hopeful gospel number. The circle will be unbroken by and by. Everything will be alright.

The Carter Family were not so sure.

AP Carter rewrote a hymn that seems to be a lot more chipper, like the later covers have been. But the Carters’ “Can the Circle be Unbroken” is not joyful or certain, but pleading. The strange, flat Virginia harmonies of Maybelle and Sara Carter make the tale of a mother dying eerie and heartfelt. And in a line that has made me tear up more than once, they sing “Lord I told the undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/for that body you are hauling/Lord I hate to see her go.”

Maybe — maybe “by and by” they’ll all be together again in heaven. They do believe that. But that doesn’t stop their pain now. It doesn’t even stop the dreadful grief of wanting to keep the body of the loved one. The body is just a vessel, right? The soul is gone to heaven. And they still hate to see what’s left of her go.

That sort of religious feeling — that sort of spreading of a message that says, yes, we’ll probably be in heaven later, but it sure is awful now — is worlds away from the self-satisfaction of God is Not Dead. Religion is supposed to fill those holes in your heart that appear when, oh, say your dear mother dies. I fail to see the good in it if it morbidly cheers the death of someone — even someone who has finally found Jesus.

charlieparrWhile watching Charlie Parr play a show on Wednesday night, I tried to count the number of people at Club Cafe. If there were 40, including bartenders, and only two of them wouldn’t stop talking, I estimated that humanity is doing pretty well. Hell, the bartender/waiters didn’t even pester during the show. For a darkened-corner, tiny, dark, acoustic venue, the level of silence was pretty damn impressive. That, sadly, made the two girls in the back and their constant buzz of conversation a lot easier to hear, and to think homicidal thoughts about.

This is not to say that the show was so dull I resorted to counting tables and then multiplying. Charlie Parr gives you a hell of a show, especially for someone armed only with guitar and occasional banjo. And the Club Cafe dug him. I haven’t seen such enthusiastic applause in a while. As my mother says, there is something awful and off about many Pittsburgh crowds. The one at X was nearly asleep. They’re too cool to clap, and too cool to shut up. At X, I never in my life had to work so hard to encore a band. And this is a punk band, people!

Ohio blues singer Roger Hoover opened, with his wife providing some strong harmonies. Hoover wasn’t as special as Parr is, but still had a lot more heart than your average white dude with acoustic guitar. He played a song about his uncle being caught in the perfect storm, which was pretty epic. Either that or my friend hadn’t yet appeared, and I was sipping the nostalgia-fuel that is Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale for the first time since halcyon Reason magazine days. But Hoover also noted that someone said the blue are inoculation against greater sadness. I dig that. And I dig that beer. And I do like the blues.

Friend R.F. showed up a little into Parr’s set. Parr has great, sophisticated blues guitar. There’s some Doc Watson elements there, but he doesn’t sing friendly like Doc often did. Parr is more huuguh, in the guts thing. His voice actually sounds more powerful and more beautiful live than it does on record. Like Willie Watson, the only other person I have seen at Club Cage, Parr can fill the room with just himself. That is a rarity. And the enthusiastic crowd response was a constant surprise, not because it wasn’t earned, but because, again, Pittsburgh.

Parr is scruffy and uncomfortable looking, with a longish beard and balding head. He dropped out of highschool in the 1980s, but he looks older than that. He’s pathologically deadpan in his delivery of in between song banter. The crowd really enjoyed his depressingly hilarious dead cat story. He never smiles.

He’s not dour, though. Now, listening to Charlie Parr on the bus has diminishing returns — not unlike Greyhound buses themselves. At first it goes with the scenery, but if you fall asleep and wake up to something called “Hogkill Blues” (which Parr played — it’s a union tale) the ache can become too much. (Old Crow Medicine Show’s Tennessee Pusher album as 4 a.m. in Baltimore soundtrack has similar problems.) But seeing him demonstrated why it’s worth it to go see someone live. They’re, you know, live. A-live.

Anyway. I can never quite be an atheist because the two girls with their endless crawl of conversation decided to take what I assume to be a smoke break right before Parr played “1922 Blues.” Judging by crowd response and Spotify listens, that’s his number one hit. It’s a good one.

On the other hand, I am merely an agnostic because the crowd wasn’t as interested in my second favorite tune, “Bonneville” from the same album. This heralded the return of the chatty twins. I had hoped they were just that bored and left.

Parr played a version of the murder ballad known sometimes as “Delia’s Gone.” He, as I had hoped, also played “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down” as his final song before encore. He did it a cappella, which was gorgeous and powerful enough to shut up the whole cafe.

Some people might be bored by this sort of show*, but besides bringing up a pleasantly archaic shadowy corners of cafes singing the blues thing, it was also just good. Undeniable guitar, and Americana as filtered through a Minnesota man and his beard. Anybody can plug in and break enough eardrums to get folks’ attention. Doing it with just one instrument and just one man remains a particularly impressive type of incantation.

It was kind of like this, but also different.

*These people are wrong.

IMG_2789I am not sure when it happened and which flailing body part gave me the bruise, but it currently sits very brown-yellow-purple on my upper arm, looking for all the world like a piece of stage makeup because it’s a bit too perfectly oval.

Last Monday night I mostly stayed out of the Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo Bay School of Medicine mosh pit at a sparely attended Mr. Smalls show. Biafra — looking a little grayer than he did back in 2010 when I saw him last — did as he always does, which was sing newer songs which provoked polite, if sincere appreciation, and then the occasional Dead Kennedys number which brought about a more enthusiastic, cheerfully violent response.

In between songs, Biafra slipped in plenty of topical, geographically relevant rants. Former PA Sen. Rick Santorum got a reference. So did Gov. Tom Corbett. Fracking repeatedly came up. So did the Tea Party in general.

Biafra’s rants are, as always, bracing and amusing in their formulaic way. He calls the Tea Party racist, fascist whatevers, and my face takes on a bemused expression and I imagine — in the spirit of the old Conan O’Brien worst chant ever skits — yelling back instead of “yay!” something like “Yes, many Tea Party members are theocratic creeps, but some people like Rand Paul and Justin Amash have some Tea Party affiliation and they have fought for many good causes, most prominentl opposition to drones and the NSA! Furthermore…” [Booooooooo!]

Or: “I am uncertain of the science behind fracking, but human society demands trade-offs, one of which is energy that pollutes! I believe that knee-jerk opposition to fracking is making the perfect the enemy of the good! Certainly further research…” [Boooooooooooo!]

Nuance of this kind is completely antithetical to the Jello Biafra spirit. The appeal of the Dead Kennedys lay in the killer buzzsaw/surf rock guitar riffs from East Bay Ray, the solid basslines, the weird warble of Biaffra’s voice, and the very existence of songs with titles as direct as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Subtlety, even later Clash era variety, was not their forte.

Arguably, an exception is the best Dead Kennedys song, and one of the finest punk songs of all time,  is “Holiday in Cambodia.” “Holiday in Cambodia” is a blistering, (comparatively) subtle condemnation of both Pol Pot’s slaughter and fashion radical, whining lefty college students.

It’s also the only time on Monday that I didn’t fear the mosh pit.

I’ve been at country shows too long. I now have even less pit stamina than I did at age 17, when I first stared in fear at the squished together youths going nuts for the tubby old profane Irishman Jake Burns and the rest of Stiff Little Fingers (yes, I love me some old punks). I enjoyed that show. I kept my elbows up and kept my eyes out for people bouncing out of the pit and flailing into me — and then when I heard the opening guitar for “Suspect Device” I found myself joining the joyful masochism of the pit without much thought.

Since that day, at all punk shows, this same feeling never fails to happen, provided I love the music enough. It is difficult to dance to bad music (one reason I’ve never been to a club in my life), and it is much harder to mosh to music you dislike, or even are indifferent towards. The fearless, foolish mosh urge cannot be faked or summoned at will.  Moshing is a fucking stupid activity, and it is wonderful one. And it simply is or is not. I had a hint of the desire to move with everyone else for “Chemical Warfare”, a solid tune off the Dead Kennedys’ first album. I bumped a little on the edges of the pit. I tried my hand at the non-douchey, non-punching people in the face version of hardcore dancing, but that was all.

And then, after more over the top rants from Jello, more pleasant, but unknown solo stuff, there came the familiar notes of “Holiday in Cambodia.” It was all over. I jumped in. All worries over broken glasses, gimp legs kicked, or teeth knocked out vanished in an instant. All was happy screaming along with drunk, disgusting strangers. All was the highest form of joy that music exists to bring us all. We smashed together, my friend A. — tiny and blind, and a better mosher than I am — and I tried not to sexually assault Jello Biafra when he crowd surfed on our hands. (A drunk girl asked if I believed her when she said she had groped the man in an unfortunate place. I did. I think we all did. But unlike my youthful grabbing of the leg of Eugene Hutz from Gogol Bordello, I did not intend to do so. It was more an earnest effort to prevent him breaking his face.)

I used to be bothered that punks and certain leftists thought I was a ring-wing scumbag — that I was never, ever going to be one of those black hoodie and Municipal Waste T-clad people at the Mr. Roberto Project, or Gilman Street. I had so many happy experiences with these strangers, and if they knew me, I would never be one of them. The music wasn’t enough to bridge the gap between us, but it felt like it should be. I knew some left anarchist kids in Pittsburgh who tolerated my occasional presence, but I was not in solidarity with them. Nor did I want to be, even then, I suppose. I have been a libertarian since I was 13. (Since I realized George W. Bush was full of shit when he said he knew everyone executed under his watch was guilty. But that hate didn’t translate into leftism, unfortunately for my teenage social life.)

I can put my fist in the air in shameless emotion, arms around sweating strangers, in a painfully earnest Defiance, Ohio pit, and then the next day go back to my internship at Reason to rake in those David Koch dollars. And as I grew older, I could laugh about that dichotomy more.  It might be more satisfying to be “part of” the scene, than to feel like I alone had that secret joke, but the more “liberty movement” (for all its flaws) I found, the less that alienation from the motivation for this music I love mattered to me. (Plus, after hearing horror stories about the East Bay anarchist scene from T., I once again think I am good. I am not a punk.)

Music is more important than politics, and I wish my politics could be translated into kick-ass song, but at the end of the day, the baggage that goes with these ideas belongs to me for two hours at a show, and then I drop it. It’s not about growing out of it. Or that those shows don’t matter. It’s just…compartmentalizing. Metal fans don’t get to go home and be wizards or orcs. I don’t get to go home and be a punk. It’s a costume — an exaggeration that feels meaningful, and comes from real anger but maybe also is pretend the way “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” or “Fuck Tha Police” is a portrait of a feeling, not a photograph.

I try to explain to my mother the joy of the mosh, but she never quite gets it. I remember distinctly a girl who was my year at Chatham trying to tell me once that she was too old for pits. She was actually two years younger than I was, but that wasn’t even the point. My annoyance stemmed from the fact that this was water from the wide river of grow the fuck up, wear business casual and heels. Certainly the mosh is not everyone’s cup of tea — and again, I don’t believe it can be forced — but the teenage perfection of it, which still feels holy, and mad, and necessary, and not political, is not something to grow out of.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC