R.I.P. Mark Linkous; the rebirth of the Texas Tornados

Mark Linkous passed away Saturday. Suicide. I have really liked Sparklehorse’s music for the past 10 years or so and it’s a loss for him to go before living a full life and making all the music that he could have.

Sparklehorse – “Saturday” (Live in the Current’s studio):

Linkous was a figure like none other in music today. He made both brilliant “psych-folk ambient et cetera” but also understood pop music and could write a brilliant guitar hook. That hook might be mixed with fuzzy effects and startling, baffling, lyrics, but that only reinforced the brilliance of the songwriting that could keep you coming back to a song over and over.

I associate Sparklehorse with a friend from college, Richard. He and I were liberal arts majors stuck in the same Spanish classes as part of our degree requirements. Like me, Richard had apparently procrastinated fulfilling the requirement until his last couple years of school.

Sparklehorse – “Homecoming Queen”:

We had to take the classes somewhat seriously though, because to get our diplomas we had to pass a three-part exam, not just pass the classes. I remember a few evenings at the then-nascent Triple Rock Social Club, enjoying happy hour pints with our books open, imagining we were studying. Many a college student has attempted such a feat, I have not met one who succeeded.

The reason I associate Sparklehorse with Richard is because he had a party at his house one summer afternoon. We weren’t that close of friends, really, just class buddies I suppose, but Katie and I went to the party and had a great time. Richard was a potter and his friends were both ordinary and eclectic.

Sparklehorse’s album “It’s A Wonderful Life” had just come out and it was playing on the stereo. As usual, Katie was already aware of the band because she always picks out good music on the radio before I do, and mentioned it when it came on at the party. I listened, thought it represented something that I both felt I knew very well but had never heard before, and made a note to get the album.

After we passed the language tests and were done with the Spanish classes, I didn’t see much of Richard. A semester or so later, I graduated. I believe he did too, but we were already out-of-touch.

So Sparklehorse still reignites an ember when I listen to it. The music contains a feeling that I can understand, and it crystallizes that feeling in me. I believe that is when music is best, when it makes us feel something we feel often, but with urgency and fire.

Sparklehorse – “Rainmaker”

Always, when an artist dies young, I am left wondering what songs or books or painting we will now never receive. It is related to another feeling I have about music: the joy of knowing that, every time I hear a song for the first time and it sets me on fire or fills me with feeling, I will have that song for the rest of my life. Between recorded music and written music, once a song enters the universe of human culture, it will never truly die.

But Mark Linkous is gone now. We will always have Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (the first Sparklehorse album, which is a wonderful piece of music and perhaps my favorite album name of all time) and “I just want to be a happy man,” his cover of Daniel Johnston’s “My Yoke is Heavy” and Tom Wait’s “Rain Dogs” (which is almost indiscernible from the original). But we are left wondering what music he will not contribute to Earth. Maybe it will be waiting for us after.

Perhaps it was a celestial attempt at reassurance, but on Sunday morning, just hours after learning of Linkous’s death, I was listening to Bill DeVille‘s Sunday morning show “The United States of Americana” in which he celebrates all things alt-country, country and western, blues, and so on. He’s my favorite DJ on the Current, has an encyclopedia of music in his head, and a fondness for much of the same American music I do.

I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but I heard him say that a track he had just played was from a new album being put out by the Texas Tornados. This caught my attention. I have a strong association with the Texas Tornados and my dad. It always recalls memories as a boy of Saturdays in the house on the North Hill with Doug Sahm and his various Tex-Mex projects blasting on the stereo. But you don’t hear them mentioned on popular radio too often.

Texas Tornados – “Mendocino” (Austin City Limits)

But Doug Sahm has been dead now since 1999. Freddy Fender, the other founder, passed away in 2006. They were something of an old guard, and it had been sad to see the passing. So how could there be a new album? Well, it turns out that Doug’s son Sean has taken on his father’s work and the remaining living members have teamed up to put out a record. As my dad said when I emailed him the link, I’m sure there is some profiteering going on, but I can’t begrudge them that too much. It’s a rough business, trying to make a living in music.

And Sean seems to be carrying the mantle pretty well. His energy is much like his father’s, as is his voice, and the new record doesn’t sound too bad.

Texas Tornados – Interview, performance, promo video

So, like I said, maybe this was a lesson in how the universe works. Once you put a song, or an idea, or a feeling out there, it can live forever. Go with peace, Mark. I didn’t know you, but I knew your music, and I believe it will be sung for many generations.

Sparklehorse – “Happy Man”


Dancin’ in the moonlite

"Dancin in the moonlite" written on a chalkboard

I went to a city an hour-and-a-half from home yesterday evening for work. I fulfilled my duty and was on my way back by about 9 p.m. It wasn’t long before I was on the Interstate, cutting east across a big flat part of Minnesota, listening to Retribution Gospel Choir loud and driving a comfortable speed in the right lane.

It is the darkness outside my headlights that I usually think of when I think of driving down a highway at night. I like doing that. I like the narrow cone of light in front of me and the vast blackness outside of it. Last night though, I had been driving along for a while when I noticed that it was not black outside the light of my headlights.

The moon will be full on Saturday night, but it was already big and bright in the sky. And it was a cold night, maybe -3 or -4°F, and the air was extremely dry and clear. So the big flat expanses outside my headlights were illuminated in this moonlight. Trees cast shadows on gentle hills a quarter-mile away, the snow was blue.

I thought to myself then that maybe this is a benefit of winter. I believe that to make it through winter you must find things you enjoy that you cannot do during the other parts of the year. Cross-country skiing is one example. And now I thought maybe such moonlit nights were another thing to look forward to. But then I remembered similar experiences on bright summer nights when a full moon throws its light on the lush landscape and you are on your way to and from swimming in the river. Alas.

"January Moonlight," by Marc Hanson (painted last night, too!)
"January Moonlight," © Marc R. Hanson '10 (painted last night, too!)

When I got home, I just caught Katie before she retired to bed. I asked her if she wanted to go walk on the lake in the moonlight with me and Lola and no, she would not, but she told me she did it last night when I wasn’t home and it was wonderful and I should be safe.

I put long underwear on and a hooded sweatshirt and then boots and hat and gloves and my warm jacket. Lola was surprised when I asked her if she was interested in a walk. She is a creature dependent on habit and walks at 10:30 at night are not her habit. But she quickly got on board with the idea.

We walked down to the lake and then I slid on my butt down a path to the water. It has been cold lately and everything is very frozen. Out on the lake, the wind and sun have conspired to wipe the snow clean off big patches of ice, leaving a surface so hard and slick that you really can’t walk on it. Lola neither. So we picked our way along paths on the snow-covered patches, where the walking was really quite good, with just enough snow to give firm purchase.

It was beautiful out there. The moon was almost directly overhead, with Mars right next to it. I could see the whole lake and I could see Lola running to and fro in front of me, scouting our path through the ice, occasionally coming back to me when she went down a dead end.

I felt very good. I was enjoying winter. And I was doing something that I couldn’t do during the rest of the year. It was very cold, but it was also very still, and with no wind, a few degrees below zero is really nothing. I saw the landscape with eyes that seemed anew, and I felt deeply appreciative for the experience.

It is something else to walk across a frozen lake under a full moon. But you grow up in Minnesota and you maybe take it for granted. It was just another frigid night to many folks, and such nights have been nothing more than that to me, too. But tonight, I was warm and safe in my choices of clothing and just walking across a city lake felt like an adventure.

It occurred to me that to survive a Minnesota winter, it is necessary to maintain a childish sense of adventure. You must enjoy the very act of survival. You must want to prove your worth against harsh elements. And you must never tire of remarking on a cold night to anybody: gas station attendant, waitress, friend, family, coworker.

There’s no denying, though, as the frozen days stretch into weeks and months, that maintaining that youthful perspective can be pretty hard to do. But one should just think of a childhood hero like Will Steger, spending months crossing Antarctica by dogsled, just the gear in his sleds and thousands of miles of ice and snow, uncertain outcomes, a historic journey, and remember what it was like to dream those kinds of dreams.

The almost full January moon


These roads don’t move, you’re the one that moves

Big Sur coastline, 2006I bought my copy of Jack Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur” at City Lights Bookstore when I visited San Francisco in 2006. I then proceeded to read it during a camping trip down to the namesake region of the California coast with my friends Zack and Steve.

It’s a dark book about Kerouac’s struggles with fame and alcohol. In it, he is plagued by hangers-on and wannabes; the “King of the Beatniks” can find no relief in the wake of the publication of “On the Road.” It can be argued that Kerouac never really recovered from the publication of that book and the demons he confronts in “Big Sur” led to his alcoholism-related death in 1969.

My own trip down to Big Sur was more about camping in the redwoods and hiking at a state park than suffering through delirium tremens, but it was poignant to read the book near where it was written. And I heard the song of the crashing waves that Jack famously meditates on in the book.

The new soundtrack album for the documentary “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone” by Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (Son Volt) has received quite a bit of airplay and other attention, but the film for which it was produced has been fairly under the radar. “One Fast Move or I’m Gone” takes a look at Kerouac’s life through the lens of his novel “Big Sur.”

The film looks like the typical talking head thing, but with some pretty good heads: Tom Waits, Sam Shepard, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name a few. Also, through digging around the film’s website a bit, I learned that the guy who played restaurateur Artie Bucco on The Sopranos is also a Kerouac “interpreter” (he provided voice-over work on the documentary).



Songs of the decade

Heard some music tonight that took me back a few years, and I started thinking of a short list of songs that stand out from the past decade. Nothing too obscure here, these are just the hits that seem to represent parts of the last 10 years, in quasi-chronological order:

  • St. Germaine – Rose Rouge
  • The Strokes – Last Nite
  • Outkast – Heya
  • Neko Case – Deep Red Bells
  • MGMT – Time to Pretend
  • M.I.A. – Paper Planes
  • Bon Iver – Skinny Love
  • Cloud Cult – Everybody Here Is a Cloud

Interestingly, the artist/album that I would say is the biggest stand-out for me from the zeroes is Arcade Fire/Funeral, but that album truly worked best as a single entity and there’s isn’t one single off it that I would pick out for the above list.

I can only wonder now how these songs will endure, and what new sounds the upcoming decade holds. Do you think music reflects the mood of the time in which it is created or more so contributes to that mood? Cause or effect?


“Smack against my ear”

There is a wonderful poem about Levon Helm in this week’s New Yorker.

And if, unfortunately, you don’t know who Levon Helm is, I suggest you watch these two videos: