Bill Callahan, an appreciation

Around 2000, I went on two dates with a guy who looked pretty much EXACTLY like Brian Krakow from My So Called Life. After date #1, he made me a mix CD featuring songs by the Silver Jews, Clinic, and Grandaddy, among others. One of the standouts was “Ex-Con” by some dude named Smog. On date #2, blonde ‘fro guy divulged that he had something of a cocaine problem. I said no thanks to the dude, but that Smog song planted a seed.

Several years later, when I rediscovered Smog as Bill Callahan, it was like a whole new part of me bloomed. Bill’s music was lyrically complex and transcendentally clear. Like any great writer, he expressed universal experiences—loss, desperation, regret, sex, death, rebirth—with an economy of words and cutting honesty.

As anyone who has seen or read an interview with him knows, Callahan is not one to chit-chat. To the utter dismay of music journalists and college radio bloggers everywhere, Bill has very little public persona at all. At best, he is polite. At worst, he is crotchety. I have experienced this myself in the few times I’ve met him. Once at a book signing for his novella Letters to Emma Bowlcut. Once at the grocery store. And once last weekend, at a screening of Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan tour film.

To the credit of filmmaker Hanly Banks, the film doesn’t try to make any grand declarations. It just shows Bill in his dressing room. Bill in the car. Bill helping baby goat disentangle itself from a fence. Bill playing badminton. Bill watching another guy light fireworks in a backyard. And mostly, Bill on stage, playing with his band for the Apocalypse tour, Matt Kinsey on guitar and Neal Morgan on drums.

The performances are indicative of a typical Bill Callahan show. He doesn’t play to please you, necessarily. He doesn’t make it easy to get a lot of his songs, but at the same time, he desperately wants you to get it. He wants you to be up for the level of conversation he is proposing. It makes me wonder what BIll would be like at a party, if he ever engages with individuals the way he engages with audiences.

I was a late bloomer in terms of more difficult music. Growing up, I listened to non-stop pop music, both the Top 40 of my generation and the saccharine sweet “golden oldies” from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I can still sing along to almost anything on the oldies station. My dad played music constantly—singer/songwriters, reggae, ska, Motown, soul, straight up rock and roll. He was constantly changing the words. Around the holidays, instead of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” we sang “I’m screaming at a white Christian… Just like the ones I used to know…” And any song with the word “girl” in it automatically became “squirrel,” as in the Chi-Lites classic “Oh, Girl” … Ohhhh, squirrel, I’d be in trouble if you left me now…

When I ask myself why I love Bill Callahan’s music, I think it has a lot to do with my dad. They are both “still waters run deep” kinds of guys. It takes fortitude to love someone who can be impossibly distant, but it makes those breakthrough moments, when our hearts are open, incredibly sweet. It reminds me of a line from the Smog song “Cold Blooded Old Times”

“And though you were, just a little squirrel, I understood every word…”

I think of BIll as a writer, first and foremost. So here are some of my favorites songs, with some of my favorite lines:

When I’m alone in my room
I feel like such a part of the community
But out on the streets
I feel like a robot by a river
Looking for a drink

Hit the Ground Running
I couldn’t memorize a century of slang
or learn to tell the same story again, and again, and again

The Well
They say that black is all colors at once
So I gave it my red rage
and my yellow streak
the greenest parts of me
and my blues…

Say Valley Maker
So bury me in wood, and I will splinter
Bury me in stone, and I will quake
Bury me in water, and I will geyser
Bury me in fire, and I’m gonna phoenix…

Too Many Birds
If you
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat
If you could only stop your heartbeat for
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat

Riding for the Feeling
What if I had stood there at the end
and said again and again and again and again and again
in answer to every question?

Would that have been a suitable goodbye?

Please don’t kill me with your vehicle

Believe it or not, I usually get through most of my day without anyone trying to mortally wound, or even maim me. Which makes sense, as I am not an international spy, a drug dealer, a cow, a chicken, or anything else that routinely faces imminent death. But for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening when I am on my bicycle, I get the distinct feeling that the very sight of me sends everyone in a car into a homicidal rage. They rev their engines, honk their horns, come within inches of sideswiping me, swerve in front of me, and just generally act like they hate my fucking guts.

This hurts my feelings. I am a perfectly nice woman. I hold doors open for people. I make sincere small talk with strangers. I let people cut in line if they are in a hurry. I am fairly certain it isn’t me personally, because these same potential vehicular manslaughterers are sweet as pie when I see them outside of their cars (unless I see them at the grocery store, where they are flatulent dickbags who should just get the fuck out of my way and let me use the produce scanner).

Is there some kind of bicycle hatred pheromone that is only released when I start to pedal? Is it the maddening rotation of my bike tires that whips drivers into a venomous frenzy?

Whenever possible, I try to make eye contact with these folks, much like I imagine a gazelle looking into the eyes of the lion who is about to take a big chomp into its jugular. This way, at least there is a moment of karmic acknowledgement that a much larger, more aggressive, and more physically powerful thing has just taken me down.

Except the lion eats the gazelle for dinner, and these people are just worried they will miss the first five minutes of American Idol.

Perhaps I would understand the whole situation better, if in fact, they planned to strap me to the back of their enormous fucking trucks, make steaks out of me, turn the rest into jerky, and hang my head in their den.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I commuted several hours a day for years, so, believe me, I understand road rage. You don’t exactly know why you are so angry. All you know is that you FUCKING HATE EVERYONE AND IT IS ALL THEIR FAULT. Well, shit. Maybe you are right. Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why you might hate a tiny little woman on a bicycle:

1) Because you had to slow down. First of all, no offense, but you were probably going too fast anyway. Especially on the residential streets where I ride. There is a reason why speed limits are low in places where kids or animals might accidentally dart into the road. If you want to drive fast, then get on the highway. Oh, right, you will end up sitting in traffic on the highway. I guess you should be glad that I only slowed you down for one or two blocks.

2) Because some bicyclists are assholes and do dangerous things. Well, fuck, man. I don’t like those shitheads anymore than you do. Just as you may not be the kind of driver who purposely cuts off a bicyclist, I am not the cyclist who rides stealth with no lights in the middle of the night, darts in front of you, and throws an empty PBR can at your windshield. An asshole is an asshole. Let’s not judge each other by the worst examples of our kind.

3) Because cyclists are elitist and judgmental, and they don’t understand that some people can’t commute by bike. It is obviously not fair to judge anyone whose health or other circumstances make it impossible to ride a bike instead of driving a car. However, it seems to me that car commuters should be grateful to bike commuters who can and who choose to lessen their carbon footprint. Like it or not, a person on a bike is doing a helluva lot less damage to the environment and “reducing our dependence on foreign oil” if you care about that kind of shit, so show a little respect for the sacrifices and the effort it took for that person to ride instead of drive.

4) Because cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road. I am guilty of not stopping completely at every stop sign, but let’s be reasonable. If I approach a stop sign where a car has obviously gotten there before me, I will stop and wait for that car to go. However, if I get to the stop sign first (or it is clear that I would have gotten to it first), then I take some liberties with being able to keep my momentum and not come to a full and complete stop. Especially if I am going uphill. I know this isn’t technically fair to drivers who have to stop completely, but the amount of effort it takes me to stop and start again is equivalent to propelling ALL of my body weight forward, while the amount of effort it takes you to stop your car is this (makes small motion with one foot).

Please try to have just a little bit of compassion for the fact that I am lugging all of my daily necessities through blazing heat, humidity, rain, and wind while being harassed by arrogant, self-absorbed buttholes who are trying to run me off the road. Meanwhile, you are sitting comfortably in your temperature-controlled car, barely paying attention as you text and listen to the radio and eat the stray french fries that have fallen out of their cardboard container and into the bag.

So, to sum up: I think we will both be happier in the long run if you don’t kill me with your vehicle. Thanks a bunch. See you on the road, you murderous maniac who looks like a nice little grandma but who is actually the minion of the devil himself. Unless I see you at the grocery store first, in which case, GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY. I AM TRYING TO BUY SOME BANANAS.

The Rob Delaney School of Manhood

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to score a free ticket to see Rob Delaney at the Scottish Rite Theater, aka, Austin’s freemason headquarters. Apparently, when they aren’t performing ritual sacrifices and inventing new satanic tax codes, they open their doors for comedy and rock shows.

On the outside, it looks like a church. On the inside, it looks like a place where Scooby-Doo would hang out with Phyllis Diller and the Harlem Globetrotters: dim lighting, red walls, brown wood paneling, ornately framed paintings of old white dudes whose eyes follow you as you walk down the hall. And globes. Lots of globes. Maybe they use these to plan out the New World Order to scale. When I went looking for the women’s restroom, I expected it to be a port-o-potty in the back alley. The first thing my friend said when we walked in was, “this place makes me want to break some shit.” Luckily, there was also a sign with an arrow that said BAR.

The actual theater had old wooden auditorium seats and a backdrop depicting some kind of ancient vista as seen through Greek columns, which I imagine the Austin Illuminati uses as a set when they videotape themselves shaving designs of pyramids and eyes into each other’s balls. As we sat down with our $7 rum and Cokes in between a nice Dell employee named Tab and a woman with the loudest and most awkward laugh since anyone ever, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

If you don’t know Rob Delaney, let me lay down some knowledge on you. I first fell in love with his writing when I read an essay he wrote for, titled Problem Areas. It begins like this:

Hi everybody! How’s it going? If you’re a woman, I hope your answer is “I’m fucking starving!” Bikini season will be here before you can say “Jamochachino Surprise,” so you better be torturing yourself and focusing your meager intellect and out-of-control emotions on shedding those pounds, girlfriend!

He goes on to mock the ridiculous culture of beauty worship (perpetuated by both men and women), that routinely mind-fucks generation after generation of women into believing that their natural bodies are gross, that their instincts are untrustworthy, and that their value as human beings goes up as the numbers on their scale go down. He rattles off a list of just some of the things that are probably wrong with your body, including:

Saddle bags, upper-arm fat, cottage cheese thighs, midriff-bulge (aka F.U.P.A aka “gunt”), flat chest, asymmetrical breasts, butt-beard, bacne, pit-cheese, cankles, surprise tampon string cameos, eczema, ham spatula, ashy elbows, feet of any kind, hairy knuckles, beef knuckles, uncle’s knuckles, vaginal halitosis, bald spots, loaf latch, sideburns, flatbottom, creeping jimson weed, dowager’s hump, treasure trail, Pepperidge Farm, razor bumps, leakage, phantom dangle, and panty dandruff.

My favorite is Pepperidge Farm.

Of late, Delaney has become a pretty big deal on ye olde Twitter. He has more followers than God and is routinely hilarious in his political commentary, bathroom humor, and sexual non-innuendo. It’s non-inneundo because he doesn’t innuendo it at all. He just comes out and says whatever the fuck is on his mind, and I respect that.

Have I mentioned that he has the bone structure of Superman, crossed with Jon Hamm, crossed with a Kennedy?

My adult woman self wanted Mr. Delaney to come out like the James Bond of comedy and deliver a cleverly crafted satire of our current socio-political climate. My inner adolescent fantasized that somehow the house lights would go up, we would lock eyes, and, he would take me out for an innocent, but sexually-charged post-show ice cream cone and then we would become best friends, and then I would meet his wife and we would all three become best friends, and then they would invite me to a party in LA where I would meet Ryan Gosling and we would get married and Rob Delaney would be the maid of honor at my wedding.

What actually happened was more surprising and, in many ways, more satisfying. (Ok, maybe not more satisfying than sex with Ryan Gosling, but still.) He was just really real. He talked about the humiliation of being a bedwetter as a child, about his struggles with alcohol, and a drunk driving accident that landed him not only in casts on both arms, but also in jail. (Sounds like a laugh-a-minute, right? Well, it actually WAS.) He talked about the joys and fears of fatherhood, and about how insanely hard it is to maintain a healthy marriage. Perhaps the biggest laughs of the night came as he described how sometimes he wishes that he and his wife could forego the infuriating difficulty of talking and just beat the shit of each other.

I left that creepy-as-fuck Scottish Rite Theater having laughed my ass off and with a much clearer idea of what I want in a man: Honesty. Strength of character. Humor. Vulnerability. Willingness to admit and learn from mistakes. Passion for the adventure of life, even when it is painful, and raw, and messy.

I am sure if I knew Rob Delaney in real life, I would sometimes think he was an insufferable shithead. But that is what it means to be human. We are all insufferable shitheads sometimes. Thank you, Rob Delaney, for having the courage to joke about it.