Friday, January 15, 2021


The Cheepskates, summer 1983

"...that's the only problem." So said Mark Strand. I was reminded of that observation last night as I listened to the Cheepskates' "Run Better Run." My then-girlfriend had dug the song when it came out, played it on her radio show at WNUR at Northwestern, and turned me on to it on a compilation tape. I never owned a copy—I've happily sung it in my head for decades—but I recently picked it up. When the Cheepskates released the single in 1983, they were a decade-and-a-half removed from the era and the influences they mine in the tune; the Farfisa organ, neatly-harmonized chorus, and early-Lou Reed vocals vibe might consign this song to the heap of Neo Garage tunes bands with the proper period gear and look were issuing in the mid-1980s. Spinning the 45 at home last night, I realized that I'm nearly four decades removed from its release now, more than twice as far away from the single as the single was from its ancestors. And the further away "Run Better Run" gets from its source material, the fresher or, dare I say, the more timeless it sounds. Gently lifted by the rising tide of history, its self-conscious fashion trappings falling away, the song stands on its own as a great tune—well written, well played, no more, no less—rather than a copy, or an homage. Stripped of its historical context, which paid explicit tribute to earlier times, "Run Better Run" now exists in the air above our heads, unmoored, if not new again, than certainly less moldy. I'm not sure what accounts for this except the passing of the years, which, as they often do, force us to reassess the past, maybe second guess the smug biases we'd placed on things, the boxes labeled This or That that we dropped them in, secure in our narrow knowledge of naming things, consigning them to smaller lives. It's what the late Ned Stuckey-French called, in another context, "the tyranny of taxonomy." Time's not only a problem, Strand, it's also a welcome, often surprising unburdening. Anyway, turn it up, it's a good song.

Photo of the Cheepskates via The Cheepskates Live at The Dive

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Beyond us

A disconnect has been shooting sparks in my brain lately. The wide gap between the ugliness of the events on the national stage and the beauty of the natural world around me has been nearly impossible to reconcile. Here in northern Illinois we've been blessed with a hoar frost that has lingered for days—trees have been wearing stately coats seemingly for our benefit for nearly a week. The landscape has been a surreally serene background to the abhorrent gestures of Trump and his rabid, terrorist followers, and has created a cognitive dissonance, a graphic tension between loud violence and silent awe, between monstrousness and brilliance. I confess to have been so distracted by what's gone down in the country that I haven't paid nearly enough attention to the natural world, a small, pretty patch of which I'm fortunate to have just beyond the backyard. Nature always wins out, of course, as, hopefully, will our democratic institutions, ideals that are larger than the puny folk who are trying to subvert and twist them. The stately, beyond-gorgeous trees in town bedecked in dazzling ice and frost, as in a regal ball, have been reminding me of what's always just beyond us—the world that will outlive us.