Two Truths and a Whole Mess of Lies: Is there any Salvation for Mad Men’s Don Draper?

Sunday’s finale of Mad Men’s penultimate season showed anti-hero Don Draper commit two of the most evocative acts in the show’s history.  He told the truth.  Twice.  Well, that’s evocative for him anyway.  He’s the ultimate liar.

Here are some facts on his dubious nature.

Fact One: His name is Dick Whitman, and he’s gone to great lengths to suppress that truth.

Fact Two: He’s had countless affairs over six seasons, cheating on two different wives.  His affairs are well past a cool baker’s dozen by now.

Fact Three: How many promises has he broken to his children?  We’re leagues past a baker’s dozen on that front.  Remember season one when he was supposed to bring home a cake for Sally’s birthday, but he got drunk and sat in his car under a bridge.  Where’s daddy?  Who knows, kids?

Fact Four: He lies continually to his colleagues.  No wonder there was a coup d’etat at the end of this episode to get Don out of SC&P.

Let’s stop there.  I think we hit up the major factions of a man’s life: name, marriage, fatherhood, career.  There’s been more con artist trickery in Dick Whitman’s elaborate tapestry of lies.  As I’m sure you know.

What I’m interested in is whether or not there is any redemption for this character.  The show’s creator Matthew Weiner has done a masterful job creating an anti-hero we love.  He has his own version of the Midas Touch, where every life he touches turns to ruin.  He’s a monster at times, but he’s so damn suave that we’re like, Yeah, Don!  You keep up your cheating ways!  You’re the coolest drunk sociopath!  Weiner obviously took notes while he was working on The Sopranos.  (RIP James Gandolfini.)

Despite all this affection Weiner has garnered for Draper, you have to wonder, is there any real salvation for Don Draper in the world of Mad Men now that he’s started bringing his past into the open air?

At the end of the season finale, “In Care Of,” Don breaks down after giving an all-American-boy pitch to Hershey’s.  He reaches into the bowels of his soul, pulls out the truth of his whorehouse upbringing, and sets it on the SC&P table, horrifying his colleagues, bewildering the Hershey men, and shocking the rapt television audience.

There’s your first truth.

In the very last scene of “In Care Of,” Don brings his kids to see the whorehouse he grew up in.  He and Sally share a telling look, a look that shows Sally seeing her father as a human being for the first time in her life.  Of course, Don does this because Sally walked in on her father balls deep in Mrs. Rosen.

There’s your second truth.

Two truths.  Is that enough?  What would Don Draper have to do to regain his humanity?  Is his past so tragic, so traumatizing that he never had any humanity to begin with?  Is someone who has never truly been loved capable of loving someone?  Is he even capable of loving himself?  What if he only told the truth next season?  No lies at all.  Would that make him happy enough to become human and get him off his self-annihilating path?

He’s going through his own levels of hell — remember, he was reading Dante’s Inferno in the season opener; of course, it was given to him by his mistress.  The big question is, how does Don Draper emerge from all these levels of hell?  Does he surface as Dick Whitman?  Does Dick Whitman even exist any more?

All of these questions point towards a compelling final season of one of television’s all-time greatest shows.

Album Review: American Kid, Patty Griffin

PattyGriffin-AmericanKid

We all ache at our own frequency.  Maybe it’s the suffering Buddhism talks about.  Maybe it’s Christianity’s Original Sin.  Maybe it’s simply the pain of being on a lone planet in an ever-expanding universe.  Whatever you want to call it, the important fact is that it’s there at the edge of all our moments of bliss and contentedness.

But this human ache is part of what makes our species beautiful.  Enter Patty Griffin and her voice that knows the precise timbre of human pain.  On her seventh studio album, American Kid, her voice is locked in to something ethereal and timeless.  There’s a rapturous pain in her vocal approach.  It breaks your heart in a joyful kind of way.

Her voice is like laying in a field and looking up at the blue sky and realizing that this life might be all the existence we’ll ever be granted.  That thought is painful and exhilarating.  That’s how I can best describe Griffin’s voice.  It’s in the realm of Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss.  But if you listen carefully to these three Americana Sirens, you’ll hear the nuances of their respective virtuosity.  Each sings in a different color of pain and joy.

On American Kid, Griffin lands firmly on the kind of pain that speaks to my frequency.

Enough of this loosy-goosy talk on human suffering — let’s get to the specifics of American Kid.

First thing that sticks out on American Kid is the production.  It’s one part T-Bone Burnett and another part Patty Griffin.  I love that she didn’t make this album with T-Bone.  Not because I have anything against T-Bone — that guy has made some of the most beautiful music ever — but T-Bone brings such a specific sound to his projects.  Griffin co-produced the album with Craig Ross, and the two find a way to align the sound of American Kid with Burnett’s sound without being a stale imitation.  The spare sound has space for the vocals to breath, melodic lead lines, and dynamics that keep the acoustic album from being a snoozer.  A+ on production.

The songwriting on American Kid is top-shelf.  Lyrically, Griffin eschews the cliches that come with writing songs in the old-timey, American songwriting tradition.  Griffin doesn’t lean on her euphoric voice to hide thin writing.  The words and the vocal performance soar together.  Griffin sings, “It’s a lonely highway / Sometimes a heart can turn to dust / Get whittled down to nothing / Broken down and crushed.”  Her pain-filled voice wraps around these lines and drives them deep inside you.

I cannot write about Patty Griffin without discussing the rock god elephant in the room: Robert Plant.  It’s been rumored for years now that Griffin and Plant are an item.  Griffin is part of Plant’s Band of Joy.  I’ve heard of Robert Plant sightings at our Portland, Maine Whole Foods.  Selfishly, I’ve been hoping to run into Plant and Griffin in the organic grass-fed beef aisle, so we three can become fast friends.  It hasn’t happened yet.  I’ll keep you posted.

When I caught wind that Griffin had a new studio album, I was so hoping that Plant would sing on some of the tracks.  Since 2007’s Raising Sands, it’s been a pleasure to watch the post-Zeppelin Plant reinvent himself in the American Appalachian tradition.  He’s done it well.  On American Kid, Plant gives us some of what we want — we get a touch of his voice without him taking the limelight from Griffin.  Listen to “Highway Song.”  The duet offers surprising harmonies.  Two of the greatest voices on this lonely planet tap into something important here.

I have a good friend who worked with Patty Griffin at Governors in Bangor, Maine back when she was in high school.  He describes Griffin back then as meek.  Barely speaking.  Avoiding eye contact.  He explains that it was an enormous surprise when he first heard her sing.  On American Kid, that once meek girl from Maine boldly sings her way to the top of Nashville’s good side while giving voice to our ever-present human suffering.

(Click to listen through Spotify.  Do it!)

Nutella’s Assault on Writers and Husbands

There’s a Nutella commercial on tv right now that grinds my effing gears.  Click on the link to watch this domestic drivel, and then I’ll tell you why this commercial makes pure anger run through my veins.

Enraged?  I wasn’t the first time I watched it, but then the commercial kept playing, and, instead of an innocent tv ad for this popular-in-Europe nut spread, I saw a full on assault to authentic character building in fiction writing and to husbands, fathers, and every family everywhere.

I’ll start with my fiction gripe.

These characters are so flat, so stereotypical that they are an affront to the full range of humanity good writers give their characters.  These pasty white actors are the low-hanging fruit for all writers.  My three-year-old niece could have written a commercial that offered better drawn characters than this.  A stay-at-home mom fixing breakfast for her family, helping her daughter study for a state capitals test, and finding the backpack for her son and the blackberry for her husband.  Are you kidding me?  Isn’t it 2013?  Why isn’t this looked at as an ironic nod to commercials of the 1950’s?  Shouldn’t we be pushing some boundaries?  Actually, weren’t these kind of boundaries knocked down in the ’60’s?

Another fear I have for a commercial like this looping endlessly on televisions all over our great country is that it waters down the story palates of Joe Six-Pack and Mrs. Six-Pack.  If the characters in this Nutella commercial pass as acceptable characters to the masses, ambitious writers everywhere might be doomed.  Commercials like this lead to the box-office success of unimaginative movies like A Good Day to Die Hard — a movie filled with cliches and characters acting like sad imitations of humans.  It leads to vapid novels being grossly downloaded onto tablets.  It leads to the demise of Western Civilization!

Maybe the last claim’s a stretch, but how can a hyper-suburban, bleached white, stereotypical commercial like this still be viable in the twentieth-first century?  And if it is viable, what does that say about the state of humans and fictional characters?

Now on to my second gripe.

I’m a husband.  Someday I hope to be a father.  Why is it that the husband/dad in this commercial is such a dufus?  Dad doesn’t help with breakfast?  Dad doesn’t help the kids to study in the morning?  And why doesn’t the wife say something when her husband says ‘good morning’?  What a cold bitch!  Does this married couple sleep in the same bed?  Intimacy in this commercial is ne’er to be found.

Rewatch the end of the commercial when the wife hands her husband his blackberry.  He walks across the threshold of his front door, turns, and just when you think he’s gonna lay one on her, she hands him a piece of whole grain bread lathered in Nutella.  What a sad, sad picture of marriage and human intimacy.

The Nutella literally stands between this married couple.  Instead of a meaningful kiss, here’s some Nutella.  WTF indeed.

We need to demand more from pop-culture.  We can’t let feeble representations of humanity and the family unit be acceptable in the twenty-first century.

Concert Review: The Moth Main Stage Event at the State Theater (6.6.13)

The Moth is a storytelling godsend.  For those who haven’t listened to The Moth Radio Hour on NPR (Sunday nights at 7 on MPBN), here’s how The Moth works: a storyteller takes the stage without any notes and tells a true story for ten minutes or less.  Other than that, there aren’t any rules.  Their motto: True Stories Told Live.  The Law of Simplicity is at work here.

If you listen to The Moth Radio Hour, however, you know that this simple premise conjures up complex stories and emotions.

At the State Theater last Thursday (6.6.13) that complexity was turned up to eleven.  By the time I left, I’d experienced such a range of authentic emotions that I needed three fingers of bourbon to detach from the beautiful human muck I’d been wading in all night.

Moth At State TheaterSitting in my balcony seat before the show, I looked at the single microphone at the front of the stage.  I’m use to seeing ten-piece bands with amps and drums and organs scattered around the State Theater’s daunting stage.  The juxtaposition of the lone microphone with that mammoth stage gave an added buzz to the room.  Instead of a four-piece horn section filling the aural space with melodic lines, it was going to be the fragile human voice telling a story.

The night opened with a violinist playing an instrumental piece.  The audience took their seats during the composition, the lights dimmed, and when the music stopped, Dan Kennedy walked to the mic.  Kennedy is a Moth-er from the group’s inception back in 1997.  He’s a witty, engaging guy, as you might expect from a New York writer.  More about him later.

I won’t go into detailed descriptions of all of the stories.  You’ll be able to listen to the Portland, Maine show through The Moth podcast.  But to understand the 10,000 volts of emotion we were exposed to last Thursday I’ll give a quick recap.

Story one: a mother stumbles upon her daughter’s email in-box and discovers a photograph of an erect penis.

Story two: a guidance counselor replays a pre-Columbine shooting his school survived.

Story three: a woman tells of her sister’s death when they were both children and the guilt she’s carried since.

Story four: a woman raised by her prostitute mother, then foster parents, then her grandparents tells the story of giving her son up for adoption when she was sixteen.

Story five: a NASA pilot recounts captaining the first trip to space after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1985.

All evocative story sketches, but in the wrong hands — which is the danger with all storytelling — they could crumble into sloppy sentimentality.

But not at The Moth.

These storytellers hit the mic with sizzling first lines.  I don’t doubt that the storytellers themselves are deeply talented at their craft, but one of the real geniuses of the entire Moth dynasty was the director who works with the storytellers.  I didn’t catch her name when Dan Kennedy pointed off stage and asked us to clap for a faceless person.  The Moth is dialed in, and the producers and directors deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the storytelling honest, raw, and pointed.

Now back to Kennedy.  After the story about the woman whose sister died tragically, I started looking around for the pieces of my shattered heart.  As I collected bits of my aorta and right atrium, Kennedy stated, “Back when The Moth started, I thought, ‘All these stories are so funny.’  That was the only night I ever thought that.”  The audience let out a collective breath.  We laughed.  Kennedy added an appropriate levity between stories.  This created a rhythm to night.  The storyteller ripped out our hearts, and Kennedy, with tact and self-deprecation, placed them back into our respective chest cavities.

The Moth has found a way to move us in ten minutes or less.  Listen to the podcast.  Tune in to your local NPR station.  Go see it live.

Feel the mysterious charge as the stories course through your veins at the speed of sound headed straight for your heart.

Summer Reading Selections For The Beach

Summer in Maine is a cold IPA on the back deck of In’finiti.  It’s dreamy drives home from Crescent Beach.  It’s blue sky views from the top of Bradbury State Park that make you feel infinite.

Most importantly for this nerd, Summer is reading beach-appropriate books.  You know, it’s tossing aside the dense copy of Ulysses you keep starting, only to stop because you have no friggin’ idea what’s going on, and picking up that book that toes the line between literature and entertainment.  A book where if you dig deep, you can have your mind blown, but if don’t, well, you’ll catch one hell of a story.  This is a list of those kind of books.

Novels

The paperback novel is a summer mainstay.  It’s a friend you can take to the beach or the park throughout the hot summer months, and pick up where you left off.  Here are three novels guaranteed to be good company this summer.

1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yeah, that’s right, Gatsby.  If you missed this classic in high school, it’s high time you toss a copy in your beach bag next to a cold six-pack of Baxter Stowaway IPA.  This book has been reinvigorated by the Baz Luhrmann film currently in theaters.  Forget how your English teacher ruined the novel for you when you were seventeen with all that American Dream mumbo jumbo.  This masterpiece is adored for a reason.

2. East of Eden, John Steinbeck

EAST-OF-EDENI’m a hundred pages into this novel, and it’s given me new respect for Steinbeck.  Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath are great books in their own respects, but I never found them particularly well-written.  Eden, however, shows Steinbeck at the top of his writing game.  The fully-realized characters are what make this book sizzle.  Wait until you meet Cathy Ames — she’s one of the most evil characters I’ve encountered in American Literature.  This one’s currently my summer read.

3.  A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

I’m going new school in my third pick for you guys — it was published in January of this year.  I just finished this North Carolina based novel a few weeks ago, and the ending has haunted me since.  The book is a solid read about a family dealing with religious fanaticism and its effects on their lives.  The story has a creepy villain, a solid mystery at its core, and blazing shootout scene.  All great elements for a summer read!

Short Story Collections

I have no idea why short stories aren’t more popular in the ADD world we live in, but I think they’re great summer reading.  In one beach sitting, you can ingest an entire world, complete with an ending.  These short story collections kick a ton of ass.

1. This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

Here are some stories about guys making some shitty decisions and losing someone they care about.  In true Diaz fashion, the stories are written with Pulitzer prowess.  The stories are about the many types of love that exist and how humans are often doomed to mess up the good things they possess.

2. Olive Kittiredge, Elizabeth Strout

Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for this collection of stories that takes place in the great state of Maine.  (Yeah, Maine!)  The stories dig into the life of Olive Kitteredge and her family.  The writing is superb, and the stories endlessly entertaining.  Olive is a woman with many layers and they’re all brought to life in this book.  The book takes many surprising turns with each story.

3. Burning Bright, Ron Rash

burningbrightThis book will clear out your sinuses.  It will leave third degree burns.  In this collection, Rash weaves compelling stories of Appalachia.  His characters are desperate and human.  The writing is raw and quick.  Think of the best American storytellers — Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCarthy — that’s the literary crew Ron Rash belongs to.

I’ve got my paperback copy of East of Eden ready to go with me on summer adventures.  Get your hands on a copy of your summer reading selection, and let the story move you as the sun works your pasty skin to a solid tan.

Album Review: Wrote a Song For Everyone, John Fogerty

FogertyTribute albums can be the saddest damn things.  Music executives shamelessly trying to squeeze every last gold nugget out of beautiful music.  Aging rock stars with plastic faces struggling to hit notes they once reached with ease.  Flat duets with a new top ten sensation.

Tribute albums reek of the cheap perfume of sloppy nostalgia and human desperation.

It’s with this in mind that I gave a listen to John Fogerty’s new effort, Wrote a Song for Everyone, and from the moment the phat drumbeat of “Fortunate Son” dropped in, I knew I was listening to something special.

In my first two listens, this album continually gave me chills.

These songs are not flaccid covers of great songs.  They are brimming with new energy.  The songs move from rock to country to R&B with a natural ease and authenticity.

In an interview on WTF with Marc Maron, Fogerty explains that this project was his wife’s idea.  She suggested that he ask his favorite musicians from the New Guard to collaborate with him on an album.  So he contacted the musicians he admires and asked them to come up with their own takes on his classics.  The mutual respect that exists on Wrote a Song for Everyone between the songs’ creator and the new musicians is what makes the entire project sizzle with vitality.

The Foo Fighters, in true Foo Fighter form, blow “Fortunate Son” out of this universe with their rock and roll ferocity.  To hear Dave Grohl and John Fogerty trade verses of this Vietnam-era rager is a gift from the rock and roll gods.

Somehow the transition from the rock and roll force of “Fortunate Son” to the banjo opening of “Almost Saturday Night” feels perfect.  Keith Urban sounds great here.  (Did I just compliment Keith Urban?  Why, yes, I guess I did.)  This song could be a number one country hit now.  A country hit I would actually listen to.

Album highlight: My Morning Jacket’s take on “Long As I Can See the Light.”  This song has always moved me.  In high school, it was one of the first songs whose lyrics I payed special attention to.  That first image, “Put a candle in the window.”  Shit.  On Wrote a Song, the song has such reverent restraint for the first two minutes, then MMJ open things up, moving towards a scorching solo that embodies the yearning, the beautiful desperation at the song’s heart.  It sounds like Jim James and John Fogerty are trading solos at the end.  Come on!  Could you think of a better collaboration?

Other standouts: Tom Morello’s solo on “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” Zac Brown Band’s lively “Bad Moon Rising,” Dawes on “Someday Never Comes,” and the one and only Bob Seger on “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”

Do you like CCR?  Trick question, of course you do.  If Fogerty’s songs have ever moved you, like I mean ever, then you have to, I repeat, have to listen to this album.  In an age where you can access every song ever recorded using a device that fits in your hand, you have no excuse not to listen.

Get in your car.  Roll down your window.  Turn the radio loud.  Let the beauty of Wrote a Song for Everyone pour over your soul.  Because that’s what I plan on doing all summer.

(Click to listen through Spotify.  Do it!)