Tower of Song

161017_r28842_rd-320x240-1476123699Like the rest of the the civilized world, I was distraught and horrified by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, after both a terrible and – I don’t like to say this out loud – wonderful 2016.

The worst thing about 2016 was that my dad finally succumbed to his cancer. He was seventy-seven, but I really hoped he’d be around for another decade or so. 2016 also packed a terrible punch for the loss of so many talented personalities. Some that hit me hard besides Leonard Cohen were David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Pat Conroy, Carrie Fisher, and Craig Sager.

Other than losing my dad, it was a really good year for my family and me. Professionally things were great, capped by my giving a presentation on telecom program management at the Avaya ENGAGE conference in Orlando. But in true 2016 fashion, just days later, Orlando went nuclear: singer Christina Grimmie was murdered at her own concert, toddler L2016-06-07-004ane Graves was eaten by an alligator at a Disney resort, and Omar Mateen massacred 49 people at the Pulse nightclub. This all happened in Orlando just days after I and thousands of others had an amazing time at our conference, which also featured a killer private concert by Nate Ruess. It was hard to hold onto my wonderful memories of Orlando when the nation was rightly mourning their multiple tragedies.

Also in 2016 our family took an incredible trip to Europe, likely the only one we’ll be able to afford to bring the kids on (and just two of the three kids at that). The family is made up of human beings, who all have ups and downs like me, but for the most part we’re all healthy and moving in a forward direction. I made some serious changes to my diet, joined and kept a commitment to a gym, and made some other positive personal changes.

But when Leonard Cohen died at eighty-two, just one day before the election that ushered in the repugnant and frightening Donald Trump, I was shaken. Cohen’s passing wasn’t announced until November 10, two days after the election, while millions of us were still wondering if we were sharing a collective nightmare from which we’d soon wake up. And now Cohen gone? Talk about salt on the wound. But at eighty-two, suffering from cancer and general age-related maladies, it’s hard to say he was taken too soon. Just a couple weeks prior to his death he released his last studio album, a fine collection of original material called You Want It Darker.

I came to Cohen late, not until the early 2000’s or so. I’ll always treasure the memory of seeing him in San Jose 2009 with my cousin David Gandy: Cohen seventy-five, me forty, both born on September 21. He was so gracious and so good. It was a concert I will never forget.

Leonard Cohen: novelist, poet, painter, illustrator, monk, musician, singer, philosopher. He left us as our hopes and dreams left us, the day before the ignorant, insane, or evil in America elected a dark spirit to guide our coming days. Cohen’s Tower of Song from 1988 is one of his classics, and upon his passing I pretensiously decided to add a verse.

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I’m very sorry, baby, doesn’t look like me at all
I’m standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah, they don’t let a woman kill you, not in the Tower of Song

Now, you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there’s a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don’t know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We’ll never, we’ll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I went to the Tower to sing one last song
They met me at the gate and said “Come along”
I said “Show me to my room, I’m tired, I’m eighty-two”
They said “Room, what room? This whole Tower’s for you”  –C.P.

Mac Sabbath

16265618_10154362487986588_9218050968312380673_nTo say Mac Sabbath was a trip would be a gross understatement. The forefathers of Fast Food Metal came to Harlow’s earlier this week, and I can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time. It’s a schtick, a crazy gimmick, but wasn’t Black Sabbath kind of a similar thing back in the day? I’ve loved Black Sabbath since I was 12 years old. To hear a killer cover band in a small club, dressed as McDonald’s characters, changing the lyrics from Sweet Leaf to Sweet Beef, and Iron Man to Frying Pan, all with amps cranked to eleven, was pure joy.

It had been a very long time since I was at a real hard rock, metal, or punk show, and I loved every second of it. My friends Jeff and Scott and I started the night off with Mexican food, beer, and margaritas at Tres Hermanas, and once we confirmed the car was parked in a ticket free zone, it was only a few blocks walk to Harlow’s, which is an amazing place to see a show in Sacramento. We wormed our way right up front and center, and I couldn’t have been happier. Sure, I don’t know the Mac’s version of the lyrics (and apparently Ronald Osbourne doesn’t either, as he flipped lyric sheets in a booklet and kept glancing down during the numbers), but the music to Children of the Grave, Sweet Leaf, War Pigs, and Electric Funeral among others was enough to kick my ass six ways to Sunday. When the mosh pit started during Paranoid at the end of the night, I was as happy as a pig in shit. My only concern was for my glasses. (I have to remember to bring Croakies or hand them off to someone in the crowd. Prescription glasses are never cheaper than two hundred bucks, and I do not want to lose them.)

16387310_10154362487901588_1411331443573761512_nThere’s always that one old school punk rock guy who’s strong as an ox, and storms in with fists and elbows flying. He’s got something to prove. I love the pit, but I’m not really into punching people in the face. I can take the bumps and bruises and give them out when needed, but I don’t want to  make an emergency trip to the dentist. (After a Fungo Mungo show I had a defined imprint of a Doc Marten sole on my chest for days.)

Although I’m closer to fifty than forty, I didn’t get hurt, and the adrenaline kept me flying for a good couple days. I’m grateful to have some younger friends like Jeff and Scott, who are typically down for any show, any time. And I’m grateful for freaks like Mac Sabbath, who are dealing with a ton of props, makeup, and costumes – in addition to the normal mountain of band touring gear – for what can’t be much (any?) money as they sludge through the highways and byways of this great land, bringing their crazy funhouse to the masses.

Police Horse, Part I

image1Welcome to Police Horse. I’m a person in Sacramento, California named Chip Powell.  Chip is not the name they gave me when I was born, but it is more or less my real name now.

My dad was named Tracy O. Powell, II. Dad was Mom’s third husband, but Mom was Dad’s first wife. My folks were only married about six or seven years, and I was their only kid. Dad had been named after his own father, Tracy O. Powell, a urologist from Los Angeles by way of Oklahoma and Arkansas. His family always called my dad “Tops,” an acronym for Tracy O Powell the Second, although he despised the nickname. Dad always introduced himself as Tracy, and later went professionally by either Tracy Powell, Tracy O. Powell, or Tracy O. Powell, II.  Never Tops. I never heard the name Tops unless the rare relative from that side of the family came to visit. Dad preferred his real name.

When I was born, they named me after him: Tracy O. Powell, III. The O doesn’t stand for anything. My birth middle name is literally capital O, period, and it was the same for Dad. Even though Dad had a rocky, complicated relationship with his own father – the original Tracy O – he wanted to continue the tradition by naming me after himself.

The only problem was Mom already had a child named Tracy.

Mom got married at fifteen, and had daughters at sixteen (Tracy), eighteen (Kelly), and twenty (Nicki). She and her first husband divorced not long after that, and a few years later – after a second, brief, childless marriage – met my Dad, Tracy Powell. So here Mom was with a fourteen year old daughter named Tracy and a husband named Tracy – a husband who wanted to name his firstborn son after himself. After I was born in 1969, three of the six people in my house, HALF OF THE PEOPLE!, were named Tracy. There were going to be problems.

There’s no one left to ask – except maybe my sisters who were young teenagers at the time, as Mom died twenty years ago, and Dad just last year – but my recollection of the story is that they started calling me Chip not long after I was born, as in a chip off the old block: Dad being the old block, and I being that little fragment, the chip. It’s a thing. More importantly it cut down the number of people in the household one had to address as Tracy.

As I learned to talk, I couldn’t pronounce my sister Tracy’s name too well, and it came out as “Sissy,” which is a solid nickname for a girl. I still call her Sissy; I’m 47, she’s 62. So before long the Tracy ratio worked itself out organically. My dad was either Daddy or Tracy, depending on who was doing the talking; my sister was Sissy or Tracy, also depending on the speaker; and I was always Chip. Before long Sissy was married and out of the house, which further reduced the number of Tracys. (And Kelly not long after her. Both married as teenagers, like Mom, but in the 1970’s. They were the real chips off the old block.)

Dad must have thought, “OK, we’ll call him Chip for now, but surely he’ll eventually prefer his real name – Tracy – as I did.” But that didn’t happen. I hated my real name and never wanted to be called anything but my nickname. To me Tracy was a girl’s name, my sister’s name. It wasn’t MY name.

My real name was a closely guarded secret, but it would slip invariably on the first day of school or whenever a substitute teacher filled in. On the official school roster I was Tracy Powell, so that was the name an unfamiliar teacher would read off during roll call when she got down to the P’s. I would dread the reading of the names, sweating, heart pounding all the way through Scott Manfred, James Nakamura, and Shelley Orson. “TRACY POWELL” the teacher would say, certainly in a normal voice, but to me it sounded like screaming. My classmates would all turn in their desks, some simply staring at me slack-jawed, some openly laughing, but none indifferent. I would sheepishly raise my hand and croak “here,” and later I would have a conversation with the teacher to ensure this humiliation never happened again. My friends would tease me for the rest of the day, during recess and lunch, playing kickball, riding the bus home, but after the next couple days when the teacher got the message and read my name correctly, the spell would break, I would suffer no more taunts, and I could go back to being me again. That’s how my name, Chip Powell (no middle name, initial, or suffix), became a kind of talisman for me, an incantation, magical words. To see or hear my preferred, “rightful” name in print or spoken by a teacher or other official gave me great joy: it signaled victory.

Mom and Dad divorced when I was in first grade, and I think Dad was always a little hurt that I so openly wore his name like an albatross. It was never personal. I loved my dad, but I didn’t want the name. As a kid, it wasn’t important to me where it came from. Dad hated his own nickname, Tops, and only ever wanted to be called by his legal, birth name. He was safe in the land of teacher roll sheets, university records, and his professional life. His danger zone was the home front. The people who knew him, whom he was supposed to trust and feel safe around, didn’t respect him enough to call him by his real name, his preferred name. I was the opposite: family and friends called me what I wanted to be called: Chip. But to everyone else in the world, people who didn’t know me, I was Tracy Powell, a stranger. This says something about who my dad and I each became.

When I learned I needed a Social Security card in order to start my first job at sixteen, I decided to roll the dice and apply simply in the name of Chip Powell. Here’s what happened…

Continued in Part II

Gary Taubes

Author of The Case Against Sugar, Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories

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