T for Tom

2017 Music In Review

Posted in Uncategorized by johnsontoms on December 7, 2017

The below five albums are not only the top seven this year, but also the seven without major flaw; they have their individual merits, but when I was looking to expand the list of top albums, I couldn’t think of what would be number eight. Every other record, even though there are good ones, has some major flaws. And maybe that then is the takeaway for these included below: they are far and away that much better, and I hope you give them each a listen. [sidenote: for all the new wave disco and dance music I listen to, the winners are always just rock and fucking roll]

 

1. Beach Fossils – Somersault – when we saw the election end, we knew a new political could rise for popular and underground music, but I didn’t expect it to arrive so suddenly and with such aplomb. Somersault possesses style, cool, and je ne sais quoi, without being effete. It is somehow the best of the Clash during the Cold War, translated to the New York underclass of youth who’ve never been given a chance. It’s general breadth of focus in fact makes it more pointed: these things we want to sing about aren’t new or sudden – the struggle to survive is persistent and affects us all.

 

2. Slowdive – Slowdive – This feels like all the emotions of a protest album filtered through space and time. Layers and layers of intricate detail open the album in reverie before descending into the face-smacking anthem of “Star Roving” and eventually descending into the eulogy of “Falling Ashes.” It moves along like time, our own and the infinite’s, equally and in motion together.

 

3. Sylvan Esso – What Now – Sylvan Esso found their calling and are all the better for it. By embracing Pop, real true pop, Sylvan Esso have charged hard into the next step for underground music: out into the light.

 

4. Ryan Adams – Prisoner – I’ve been doing this now for over ten years, and I’ve been hesitate the last couple to include a Ryan Adams record because it seems like every year when I got started he was at the top of the list. For Prisoner, I can no longer ignore it. He’s still writing some of the best American music available and Prisoner is, quite possibly, his finest achievement, seventeen years on.

 

5. War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding – War on Drugs found a way to take an award-winning formula and perfect it. While there are no major steps away from the success of 2014’s “Lost In a Dream,” the positive changes have paid major dividends. A Deeper Understanding is tighter, more controlled, and delivers a strongly-wound collection of rock and roll.

 

6. Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – I’ve never heard something both so gentle and violent at the same time. I wish more people would say the things that need to be said. On that alone, Joey Bada$$ tops all lists: “Start a Civil War within the USA amongst black and white and those alike / They are simply pushin’ us to our limit so that we can all get together and get with it / They want us to rebel, so that it makes easier for them to kill us and put us in jails / Alton Sterlings are happenin’ every day in this country and around the world.”

 

7. SOHN – Rennen – It’s a bit more experimental in production, though notably drastically less in one area: without dubbing his own voice into an instrument, the onus is more on the actual musical instruments and the layering that provides substance for his other-worldly singing talents. While the writing is sometimes limp in comparison to 2013’s monumental Tremors, Rennen is a thorough triumph that at times surprises with nuance while still bristling with energy.

 

Songs:

We should really listen to the words our artists are writing for us, here in these times.

1. “Thinking of a Place” – The War on Drugs – “And I’m thinking of a place and it feels so very real, just moving through the dark.”

2. “Star Roving” – Slowdive

3. “Down The Line” – Beach Fossils – “I don’t want your Wall Street, don’t got no degree. Written on the concrete, A-C-A-B.”

4. “Please” – Rhye

5. “The Glow” – Sylvan Esso

6. “Standing In the Middle of the Field” – Cut Copy – “You’ve got to give up the things you love to make it better.”

7. “Call It Dreaming” – Iron + Wine – “Where we drift and call it dreaming, we can weep and call it singing.”

8. “Prisoner” – Ryan Adams

9. “Land of the Free” – Joey Bada$$ – “The land of the free is for the free loaders, leave us dead in the street to be your organ donors. They disorganized my people, made us all loners. Still got the last names of our slave owners.”

10. “Ascension” – Gorillaz – “I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free, Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap, Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me: Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”

11. “What Once Was” – Her’s

12. “English Letters” – Favela

13. “Chinatown” – Liam Gallagher – “Well, the cops are taking over while everyone’s in yoga ‘cause happiness is still a warm gun. What’s it to be free, man?”

14. “Do I Have To Talk You Into It” – Spoon

15. “Conrad” – SOHN

16. “Nobody Else Will Be There” – The National

17. “Head for Supplies” – elbow

18. “Outcome” – Anoraak

19. “Your Love” – Middle Kids

20. “In Between” – Surf Rock Is Dead

 

Albums:

Ryan Adams – Prisoner – **** – Truly challenges as his best record ever.

All We Are – Sunny Hills – ***

Alt-J – Relaxer – * – Eight tracks so empty you’ll fall asleep.

Angus & Julia Stone – Snow – ***

Anna of the North – Lovers – ***

Arcade Fire – Everything Now **

At the Drive-In – Interalia – * – It’s not 2000 anymore.

Beach Fossils – Somersault – ****

Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic – **

Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder – **

Brothertiger – Songs From The Big Chair – **** – Yes, this is a full cover of Tears For Fears and it fucking owns. By virtue of it being a cover, I didn’t rank it in albums or songs but it would be near the top of both.

Molly Burch – Please Be Mine – **

Cold War Kids – LA Divine – **

William Patrick (Billy) Corgan – Ogilala – *** – Sure, why not.

Cut Copy – Haiku From Zero – *** 

Day Wave – The Days We Had – ***

Drake – More Life – ***

Bob Dylan – Triplicate – ***

Justine Townes Earle – Kids in the Street – **** – He’s at his best when he’s cheerful.

The Early November – Fifteen Years – ***

Elbow – Little Fictions – ***

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – **** – Modern satire, he’s perfected his formula.

Favela – English Letters EP – **** – Another superb set.

Feist – Pleasure – **** – Upon follow-up, a fucking great album.

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up – *** – Actually exceeds all expectations (expectations were pretty low)

Liam Gallagher – As You Were – *** – not Oasis, but damn fine.

Benjamin Gibbard – Bandwagonesque – ***

Giant Dog – Toy

Gorillaz – Humanz – *** – Everything about this album is great except for Damon Alborn’s own contributions.

Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – ***

Aldous Harding – Party – ***

Calvin Harris – Funk Wav Bounces Vol. I

Heavenly Beat – John – ** – Better orchestration but with none of the energy of previous efforts.

Her – Her EP I – ***

Her’s – Songs of Her’s – ****

Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow – ***

Iron + Wine – Beast Epic – ****

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life – **

Joey Bada$$ – All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$ – **** – a true protest isn’t hidden in metaphors.

Jack Johnson – All the Light Above It Too – ***

The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful – ***

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – *** – It’s safe, and that’s not what Kendrick should be.

Langhorne Slim – Lost at Last, Vol. I – ***

LANY – LANY – ***

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream – *** – It’s as good as it should be, but it feels mostly tempered and cautious.

Leisure – Leisure – ***

The Lulls in Traffic – Rabbit in the Snare – **

Majid Jordan – The Space Between – **

John Mayer – The Search for Everything – *** – it’s fine, but it’s missing that forward leap he usually takes.

James Vincent McMorrow – True Care – ***

Methyl Ethel – Everything is Forgotten – ***

Middle Kids – Middle Kids EP – **** – Total love.

Midnight Mystery Club – Reason or Rhyme – ***

M.I.L.K. – A Memory of a Memory of a Photograph – ***

MuteMath – Play Dead – **

The National – Sleep Well Beast – **** – I was worried they would get old, but nope.

Kele Okereke – Fatherland – ** – Bossanova by Bloc Party

PJ Morton – Gumbo – ***

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love – ** – Exceeds expectations, still lingers too long.

Phoenix – Ti Amo – *** – So fun, like always.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains **

Rainer Maria – S/T – **** – Baller.

Real Estate – In Mind – **

Sampha – Process – ***

The Shins – Heartworms – ***

Slowdive – Slowdive – ****

SOHN – Rennen – **** – What a voice.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts – **** – Somehow they get better every time.

Sufjan Stevens et al – Planetarium – *** – This is actually, really an opera.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live – **** – A wholly different way to hear this great album.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Pt I – ***

Sylvan Esso – What Now – ****

The Texas Gentlemen – TX Jelly – ***

Toro Y Moi – Boo Boo – ***

Jeff Tweedy – Together at Last – ***

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding ****

Way Yes – Tuna Hair – ***

The XX – I See You – **** – Their best record, and one that finally soars.

Neil Young – Hitchhiker – **** – That good.

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On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.

 

That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.

 

It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.

Especially So On Sundays

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on November 7, 2017

The rain was always falling in Germany, but especially so on Sundays and often in the morning. Sundays alternated between blissfully hazy and rapturously gorgeous, and always there was nothing to do but reflect. I think it was some kind of law that kept all industry quiet on the holy day which had become a national day of rest, the Sabbath notwithstanding any longer. And for the opportunity to do absolutely nothing, I always took about sitting in a park and either watching the rain fall or staring into a big blue sky full of clouds. This particular day was the former, and I walked through the water towards the public sauna.

I hadn’t spoken a word since waking up. I was able to rise, shower, change clothes, check out of the hostel, smoke a few cigarettes and walk to the sauna across town without so much as a “hello.” We forget how pleasant it can be in a world full of noise. And so I was able to listen to my own thoughts as I turned the corners on foot, seeing a dark charge of leaves smothering the puddles, the late winter dreariness blanketing all paths. The branches of the bushes that were waist-high drooped over the fences and into the walkways, while a pallor of tree canopies loomed overhead to obscure the little light that broke through the density above. Eventually I reached the sauna and paid in, including the price of a few words. After locking up my things I walked with only a towel into the sauna room where men and women, old and young, stripped to sweat out the weekend. For me, that was a lot of sweating, but the peace always worked over me more than any of the heat.

The room had a couple different saunas on both sides of a foyer that opened into a garden, and in between takes in the hot rooms I would walk out with just a towel around me, breathing in the fresh air. The garden had managed to retain a bit of snow clumps on the tops of the bushes, and I remarked internally how fascinating the imagination can be if the public good is directed together – the existence of the garden in the sauna building, in the winter, to be walked through between sessions in the spa, was so simple and yet completely foreign to my American mind. I wondered why we didn’t like to do these things as well.

Eventually I tired of the sauna, exhausted and nearly sleeping there in the foyer between showers. I cleaned, grabbed my things and left again to walk about the city. I was only a thirty minute drive from home, give or take, and wasn’t in any rush at all. So I continued to walk around the river, staring at the homes of the people who were fortunate enough to live inside, and live here.

I continued to walk and stare at the green bushes that fell over from the weight of the rain and snow, and the grey concrete sidewalks that were spotted with brown and the colors of fall and winter. I continued to walk and talk to myself and at some point sat down to read from my favorite novel. I continued to walk and smoke cigarettes and take turns sitting and staring at the things around me, in total blissful ease. I continued by myself, I continued.

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Sea of Dreams

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

The valedictorian was the son of a truck driver

Had two brothers

Both older

Valedictorians the same.

I was eight seats behind the youngest when my name was called at graduation,

In order by our grade point average.

Some two hundred were behind us

Ordered by name to save them the shame.

But the kids at the top were spotlighted

And for us it felt like the inauguration to life.

It was affirmation that the kids would be all right.

 

With the applause came the dreams made for us

As much as by us

And the weight of expectations.

Those in the back came off easy

Because the valedictorian, well,

He was supposed to be a doctor.

The second fellow a lawyer

And the girl in third a politician.

Didn’t matter that we were sons of truck drivers

And so the dreams of our fathers weren’t out of sight.

The kids in the back could just smoke grass

And they’d be all right.

 

Those stuck with dreams weren’t the only ones to go on learning

And we weren’t the only ones to drop out either

We weren’t the only ones drinking underage

Smoking all day

And changing our minds

And for everyone it’s safe to say

We all missed the mark by a little.

None of us are astronauts, were never meant to be,

But a few of the kids are still all right.

 

A few of them made a few more moves and played it safe

Went out and became teachers before taking wives.

Not too far out, really,

When you’re still that close to shore.

 

A few others waded too deep and took the first thing

Married, then kids,

Then the fucking mortgages

While the lucky ones died just before.

 

We’re not really dreaming when we’re all doing the same thing.

 

Best to burn out bright

Or not go gently into night

Or whatever it is that keeps you from floating

Shifting around with human ghosts

Nothing to see

All of us lost on the sea of dreams.

This Proximity to the Water’s Edge

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

She had boarded the ship that would take her back across the water to her home, a ferry, but really a large cruiser that was used to transport people throughout the Scandinavian and Baltics via sea. I had made that sea-bound trip myself before from Estonia but this time flew into Helsinki and waited there for her arrival. Three days later she was leaving now and I had six hours or so until my return flight. I wanted nothing better than to walk around in the sun, or what little bit of it could slice through the Easter clouds of the typically grey Finnish morning.

My second time in Helsinki, this, and mostly all of both spent near the harbor, what is the heart of the city. That famous cathedral you know in the photos just a 100-meters or so off the central harbor not far from where she boarded, the steps to the chapel hall numbering some 50 or 60, enough that from its doors it overlooks the buildings at its feet and off into the water in the distance and further into eternity.

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I was so vibrant then.

Helsinki feels that way, the buildings rising to uniform height, all the even lines vertically and horizontally, so tight that merely meandering the human paths before you can feel as if stumbling through the Coliseum of the heavens.

But I didn’t go back to the chapel this morning, not for a third time just a couple days prior, but huddled close to the water line. It was early April and the sun comes up around 4am, had been up about five hours now as I walked the sidewalks along the water. The grass to my right separated me from the red brick apartment homes that overlooked it all. And from this proximity to the water’s edge, you can see, even in springtime, the frozen layer of ice that covers the sea for as far as the eye can stretch.

It’s been broken up now but not thawed. It moves slowly with the push of the ships coming to and from. It never laps recklessly like surf but merely slushes back and forth, hardly a line opening up to show the dark blue infinite. Just ice of various depths, the earth in cycle.

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…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

I sat there for the entirety of my hours and wondered how something could be seen as less than cosmic. Equally of magic and beyond our machinations but yet so rote and earthen. Here long before us, here long after.

Like the frozen sea so too like the fiddles here, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over, slowly, again, ceaseless unending, evangelical and worthy of praise.

 

One Minute for a Million Opportunities

Posted in america, poem, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 24, 2017

Staring out the window of our second-floor barracks room, facing southeast outward to the parking lot in front of our Alpha Company building, there were a few tall, green oaks that stood in the hundred-foot space that separated our building from Bravo Company barracks next to ours. Our room was near the corner, and the two windows that on either side of my locker were always open because the air conditioner was in disrepair at all times. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, the scene out the window would be dark except for the orange glowing halogen in the street lamp between buildings. But every morning just after physical training and each afternoon at the end of class, the few minutes when I could slow down to think for myself for just one minute, I’d approach my locker and then swiftly move aside for the other five soldiers I shared the room with who were eager to shower or eat or busy themselves in some or other. Early on during that training phase in Virginia, the second and longest I’d endure after entering the Army, we had limited personal time and were under constant supervision. When other soldiers across the Army were training to be infantrymen and supply men and gunners and were scrutinized during a short, two-month period that saw constant activity and rare personal time, my classmates and I were the fortunate ones. As aircraft repairmen, we set about a long, six-month, class-based training phase that freed us up for almost every afternoon.

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The hangar.

And every day that I’d get off that converted school bus that carted us from the hangar back to the barracks, after standing in formation to hear our orders, if we weren’t scheduled to conduct barracks maintenance or trash pickup or supply loading or weapons maintenance or general training, and if we weren’t forced to get in the chow formation and march to the dining facility, if all those things lined up, we could have the evening to ourselves, only so long as we didn’t leave the barracks footprint. It was limited to the basketball court and bleachers immediately in the front or the PT field adjacent, but we could go there. If we wanted. And during those days, when I had the freedom to make a personal decision, I’d stand at that window and look out at the green, take in the sun through the window, and ask myself what I wanted to do that evening.

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The locker, the windows on both sides.

I’d listen for the clang of a chain net that meant some were playing basketball, or I’d see Ryan and Jason taking off to the smoke shack for cigarettes. Later on in training, as we were given more privileges, we would walk to the library a half-mile away and sit in the smoke shack there alone, away from the hundred other soldiers that were constantly around. During the first early weeks when we’d walk to the library or the post exchange, I’d picked up a couple CDs. It was the only way I had to get music, culture of any kind, and was the first time I’d been able to do either in six months time. One of them was the latest Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues. A while later in the summer, it was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but in the early weeks and with no other way to get new music, Fleet Foxes was played over and over and over. I put the album on my computer and on my phone which I had access to only in the evenings. The sergeants would occasionally do uniform checks in formation to see if any soldier had snuck their phone to class, and so going without, I made the habit of throwing that locker open when I came back from class, turning on a song and staring out the window. It was only 5pm, but after 12 hours of commands, that peaceful, gentle minute to myself, to make any damn decision, was the minute I lived for. What would I do today? really can be the truth of freedom.

We had a day once, just a couple hours. John and I set out to find the body of water on post, because godammit there was a body of water. If you’re not familiar with how wonderful the sight of a lake can be after six months of walls and trees, then you won’t understand why I nearly broke down crying just listening to the soft wave from a fresh lake lap up on the hard dirt beach. I mean, we just took a walk to the water, and it was magnificent.

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The lake on that day.

“After all is said and after all is done I feel the same / All that I hoped would change within me stayed.”

Through these little moments of repurposing our perspectives on freedom, the spirit was rich and growing, but I was still that lost, confused young man looking for answers, questions that led me to the Army. I guess I remember this song most during those early afternoons because I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t become something, even in the abstract. Because it was enough then just to have a cigarette after class, and it was enough then just to order a pizza a couple times a week if only to eat outside the DFAC, and it was enough then just to be with the friends I’d made in a forced environment. Inside me, some things stayed: the desire to be great, the unending feelings of failure and loss and hopelessness, that my dreams were always tethered to the fortunes of circumstance, circumstances that led me to the army. And I knew it would take much more time to get anywhere nearer I wanted to be, because in those times, in those vacuum environments, it was enough to just be with people who understood.

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That’s Ryan Landes in the smoke shack where we hid.

“After all is said and all is done / God only knows which one of them I’ll become.”

More days than not I chose to live. Thankfully. I could’ve never seen the rest coming.

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John, Jason, Ryan, myself; Hampton, VA, 2011

A Few Weeks In and a Future So Bright

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 23, 2017

There’s a moment I remember in concert with this song, but the swell of emotions more accurately encompass the totality of a larger, greater period of years. M83 is a French artist, and I’d listened to his music in various depths throughout college. But there was always something about the lead single from his 2011 album HurryUpWe’reDreaming., “Midnight City,” that just told me the coming set of songs would be special. It came out five days after I landed in Germany and was nothing short of a soundtrack to those years in my life. It felt like birth, and the song “Intro” remains as much to me a sensation of new beginning, tied permanently with any great moment of vision I’ve ever had and create still today.

The moment I remember clearly, though, centered around a conversation I had with John and Corey in Ansbach, only a month after we landed in country for the first time. Corey and I were stationed in our home village of Illesheim, about 20 miles west, and had been to Ansbach once before, with a weekend in Nuremberg sandwiched in between. Because I had a flare for the cinematic, I had set about a plan to only travel out into Europe in steps, one distance at a time, each distance greater than the last. It began by walking to the nearest village the first weekend I had arrived, even if I were under orders not to leave base. Two weeks later and no longer on restriction, I took my first train ride to Ansbach, only those 20 miles, but a little bit further. Corey and I then spend four days in Nuremberg, about 50 miles away, and made the greatest friends we could have imagined there in the city. Our suspicions were proven true, and we knew Europe would be the blessing it truly was. A week after that Nuremberg trip we had reconvened to drink again and walk around Ansbach. With little direction at all, and with more joy to ever gained in the town center than can be done in one visit, we went back to the old town, which like any good European city was the center of the town and built around a centuries-old church.

From John’s apartment up the hill, it was a direct walk down the towering land overhead that made way to the river bed where the church sat in the middle of the town, a 30-minute’s walk to paradise. Once through a little urban apartments that scattered outside the old town ring, and under the breezeway supported by a bell tower and clock, the walkways no longer accepted cars, narrowed into tight, cobblestone lined paths, and was lit up by the shops on all sides, the shopkeepers living overhead in the second floor and third floors. The road makes an S-curve quickly and just past the coffee shop there heading north sat a döner stand, on the east side of the street. It was the quick bite, but it was also the most rewarding. We started each night in Ansbach this way, and rather than getting cooped up in a restaurant, we took the döners outside with a beer and sat on the steps to watch the passersby, the light peering in from in between the tall urban shops and homes turning from pale blue to orange and finally to a rich hue of navy, night setting in overhead and the soft white of the cobblestone illuminating from the lamps on every wall and on all sides. Europe really has a special way of lighting up at night.

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John standing in that European night.

I remember sitting there buying beer after beer, talking about our hopes and dreams for the immediate future. We didn’t have conversations about the state of politics (not directly, anyway), and we didn’t set out our plans for financial security. We were men under control of other men, and the best we could hope for was the freedom to travel the world on the other side, one weekend at a time. We made jokes about the few places we’d been, the things we’d learned, and how we’d do it better next time. We talked about Corey spending an entire afternoon in Ansbach sitting at the outdoor coffee shop not 30 feet from our current location, sipping radlers until we were drunk, making his plan for approaching the beautiful girl who worked in the jewelry store directly in our vision. The sun hung sweetly overhead all that afternoon, a blue sky blue, as we burned through a pack of cigarettes and dreamed of getting to know her name. He eventually went in, tried on a watch, and came out alone.

Later on after the döners, we made our way to a nearby bar that became our patronage. I liked being in these new places with these wonderful people, like Aldi, the bartender and owner at Brasserie who always laughed with us and poured us shots of absinthe (pronounced “ab-sin-tay!,” emphasis on the exclamation), the only people in his bar after dinner hours. I liked being in a strange, small, low-ceiling building that I learned was commonplace and expected. I liked eating strange and different foods, drinking whatever was passed my way. But mostly I liked walking from each of these places to the next and not even really knowing where the next one was or in what shape it would take. We needed another bar and so we put on our coats to warm us from the chill of the European winter and started walking in any direction, usually the direction opposite of the way we came. Endless adventure, always onward. I remember walking by a chapel on the way back to John’s apartment, the kind of chapel that is innocuous in and of itself, but from the alley where we emerged just slightly downhill from the chapel, it appeared to rise like a mammoth and stand lit, a stone-cut yellow giant against the faint last breathes of a blue sky day fading into night. And I remember it being magical.

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That church rising like a monolith.

But mostly I remember sitting outside that döner stand and talking about the future and how it had no end. In a short week’s time I’d be able to pick up my car from the port of call where military vehicles were shipped. I’d finally be able to start driving around Europe. I loved the train, but I loved even more being able to go anywhere at any time. I remember how I didn’t even have an idea yet of where I would go, only that I would be driving through Germany and Europe like it was my home, because it had become that, though I didn’t feel it just yet. I remember telling John, “I’m going to get in that car and speed down the autobahn, M83 at full blast.” I remember saying it was “European music in a European car on a European highway” and I just wanted to feel the breeze from the open windows at ninety miles an hour.

And then I did, and the future never felt so bright.

Age 25, First Snow

Posted in Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 22, 2017

I had only been back from Rome for a couple weeks and wasn’t traveling anytime soon to save for whatever came next. Most of my friends were off to the Alps for skiing, and I had been left behind without a plan, alone there on the post with the German winter to pass the time. It was inviting. Farmland spread all around, the grey skies over the rolling hills of deep green fields where the farmers woke before sunrise to till with manure before the ice set in. It was the beginning of January and the worst of winter hadn’t yet arrived. Without a snowfall, it didn’t seem to have been quite winter yet, though it was still very cold.

Just a few weeks before, on Christmas Eve in fact, I had been in a town about 30 miles to the east visiting a good friend at his own army post. We had gone out for the last of the Christkindlemarkts, the festivals in every German town where merchants gathered and music was played and food and alcohol was served and where the spirit of Christmas was so rich that it could’ve been a film played before our eyes. It wasn’t our first time to the Christkindlemarkts. I went there in Ansbach with John some three or four times, but I had been also to Wurzburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Bad Windsheim, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and a couple more. Each were different and unique and I wanted to get them all in me, to see the lights and savor the mulled wine that was served by the cauldron at each, each township with their own slightly different brew. At the last of the markets there in Ansbach, we weren’t intending on getting wild, but posted up by a fire pit with a glass of wine and listened to the local horn bands play their renditions of Christmas classics up on the stage, complete with John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Under the blanked of night but standing under a wooden awning to cover the fire, the snow began to fall for the first time, at least in my life. John had told me before that it snowed in Ansbach a few weeks ago, but the 30 miles distance between the two towns was more pronounced by the nearly 300-meter difference in elevation as Illesheim, my home, sat just below a steep drop from the plateau that defined upper Bavaria. It was enough to keep us from sharing weather events, and the early snow fell above the plateau after drifting up the ridge with the rising winds. I had to wait for my first snow.

It happened in that couple of weeks after Rome when I was alone. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time, if I had left the gym or the commissary or was just generally going for a walk in the first place. But I remember seeing the snow begin to fall and thinking that I must walk further, out and into it. The thing I love and miss most about the German farmlands in their connectivity, each combined by a walking path for tractors to drive and horses to walk and just generally to get about in large areas where roads don’t exist. Where in Texas there was no way thru, in Germany everyone was welcome to saunter by. I had walked out into these fields this way already many times, but in the late morning hours on this day, I felt it in me as necessary. I packed a bag with a heavy number of half-liter beers, put on my jacket and just started walking toward the next village in the way I always had.

I remember along the way, after crossing the creek from the village twice and stepping over the bridge that headed to main turn toward Bad Windsheim, there was a little pond on the left. Very small, about the size of a bedroom, but a foot or more deep. It became the first frozen body of water I ever walked over on that day, and remains the last. I sat for a time at a bench along the walkway, staring at the thin line of trees that separated the two fields before me, watching the branches sway gently, the snow falling to the ground. When the skies are grey it doesn’t look like the snow comes from anywhere in particular. But the skies were always grey in Germany, and the snow was thick and real but soft and plenty. It landed on the arms of my black jacket and sat for a few minutes before melting away. It gathered on the paved walkway, it gathered on the leaves of the single tree next to the bench where I sat. I blew heavily under the bridge of the road about 100 meters away, and through that bridge by another kilometer was Bad Windsheim.

Instead of taking the path all the way to main road that entered the circular village from the south, I followed the short cut footpath into the village from the west where it would take me to the grocery store. The footpath ended on a road that guided me north into the heart of the village, a few lovely two-story homes along both sides of the road before a block of empty lots that sat behind the village cemetery. The cemetery gate was open and I went in.

There were a few people walking about the cemetery slowly. In the center was a small building that held maybe two rooms, and the headstones were on all four sides. It wasn’t a large cemetery, but it serviced the village well, I’m sure. The oldest date I saw was 1914, I remember clearly, because I learned from John later on that the bodies were interned for only so long before being rotated out – there just wasn’t enough room for all the people to be buried. But there were probably 300 graves there now, in one of most four shapes. The dark, dirt green and rust brown fading over the stone that on this dark day looked more black than any color of rock. Large oak trees sat in the center of each grouping of tombstones, to give shade to the dead. But in this grey, snowy sky, it cast a dark, late evening-like feeling over the middle of the day. I walked from corner to corner and took in the scene, all the grave stones that were marked with crosses, a few with saints, but none larger than a single headstone, no great fanfare for any single person over the rest. For the few people that still walked through the cemetery I eventually ended up on the northern boundary where the exterior wall of stone had a hallway lined with wooden benches. I took a seat.

I peered out from the hallway into the cemetery, dark above me from the brick overhead, shade below me from the trees, tombstones scattered out before me, and all of it shaking with the snow that fell to the ground, each piece growing more and more and more white with the time that passed and the snow that gathered. The sky never brightened, the day never ended, and I sat there for an hour or more listening to “o god, where are you now?” The song says there’s no other man that could raise the dead, but I felt like I could right then and there.

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The fields where I lived and walked often.

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Mojave 3 – Bluebird of Happiness

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on August 16, 2017

I have a playlist of 200 songs that remind me of the best, wildest, strangest years of my life, the sound track to my third life. This will be the first in a series chronicling just what a few of those songs means.

Rain pattered on the window as I stayed awake on the floor, eyes on the white, cantilevered ceiling. We were together on the floor unintentionally-intentionally because she was moving in two weeks and the furniture was already gone. This weekend was reserved for us to be together alone for the first time away from our friends, a chance to get closer. I drove us down to Munich that night in the dark, late on a Friday after I left work and picked her up from her home. The drive down was like the other times I’d driven to Munich on the autobahn, but a little darker and with a little more rain and with a girl I’d only just fingered the week before. It was her idea to go to Munich and I didn’t question the details, even now as I lay in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment.

The ceiling is the thing I remember most. How these types of homes in Germany and across Europe are so small, but so ample for a person. The spaces on the top floor are even worse, where we navigate the rooms that are built into the slopes of the exterior ceiling, one room drooping away from the center in this direction, the other room drooping in the opposite. It was like something out of all the black and white films I had ever seen, but I was living this one, a few minutes at time.

She was much younger than I, and I was only beginning to find out. She wanted to please me, do everything I asked, do anything I could think of and more, except for the few things she wasn’t ready to. Once we were through the door, and even while driving the two hours from Nuremberg, it was a constant series of questions about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, the things I wanted to do. I just wanted to fuck there in the apartment at some point over the weekend. After we parked my car that first night we went straight up to the apartment, dropped off our things, and out for dinner.

That night I learned that she wasn’t going to have sex with me. There on the carpet in a sleeping bag with two bottles of wine in us, I didn’t think much of it. But it was the morning I remember.

It was still raining but the clouds have a way of thinning out in Germany that provides enough high-grey light while raining and still keeping the sun from shining directly. I could see it was one of those days from the floor where I stared up at the ceiling. We were using her laptop computer for music, for the same reasons we were on the floor. It was silent as I woke up before her, dismissed myself to the bathroom and relieved myself of the night’s drinks. She had an eye open when I came back and so I turned on the computer thinking that I might get laid here.

I needed something quiet, peaceful, not overwhelming, and instantly I thought of the soundtrack to the O.C. Clicked onto youtube and started the first playlist I saw. We sat there on the floor necking and kissing and staring at each other before I moved my hands into her pants and really thought this time that she was too young and inexperienced, and I knew then why she wasn’t ready. Just never had before. She went down on me, and I knew from the way it ended that she’d never done that either.

I told her it was okay and stared back at the ceiling as she cradled into my shoulder, the rain still falling, the ceiling overhead illuminating with the rising sun and the soft words echoing over and over from the speakers: “Gotta find a way to get back home, gotta find a way back home.”

There are other things I remember. The locals in all the pubs celebrating the home team’s big victory, and the emptiness of being with a girl I knew I’d be leaving. I remember walking everywhere in the rain and sharing an umbrella that only sheltered one. I remember the weekend being like nothing I wanted, but leaving a lasting mark in my memory. And I remember, as much time as we spent in the apartment cooking food and drinking wine and laughing and not fucking, I turned the Mojave 3 on over and over again, time and time again, even though I’d just heard it for the first time during that rain-spilled Saturday morning. I remember lying there thinking of this girl and her wonderful innocence, and thinking that even as juvenile as the days had become, they were nothing less than sweet, and I remember thinking that even sweet has a place in my memory, like this day now holds. But mostly I remember lying on my back and staring up at that white ceiling, dotted with the shadows of the raindrops on the window, and I remember being hopeful.

I remember thinking that this was home. Not the girl, explicitly, nor Munich and Europe, necessarily, but the movements in my life. Movements forward had become my home and the only place I could truly be comfortable. Home for me will always be on the road.

Everywhere I go now, I take home, as a piece of mind, with me. Got to find a way back home.

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