Lost Howls of Youth

Now it seems like too much love is never enough 
You better seek out another road, ‘cuz this one has ended abrupt
— Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”

I woke this morning to a text from an old friend that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. A short while later I saw another friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook: it occurred after Soundgarden’s apparently triumphant return to Detroit last night, and the early speculation is suicide. He was 52.

I don’t generally go in for the extended mourning of celebrities. They are just folk, like we are: pray for their souls, and for peace and consolation for their families. Then again, sometimes a song, an image, a voice is so tied to a particular period in one’s life that there is no escaping the impact. Chris Cornell’s voice was the howl of my youth — the closest thing to a rebel yell I ever sounded in my relatively serious and square teens and twenties. His bands — especially Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog — were a part of me in my younger days.

I always enjoyed a diversity of music. I heard classic country at home, eighties pop and glam rock on the airwaves, and got an introduction to metal from my sister’s high-school sweetheart. In my own high-school days, a friend introduced me to the band Living Colour, which was my favorite band when I headed to Yale in the early 1990s. Grunge was beginning to emerge in my neck of the rural Michigan woods: the opening riff and drum fill of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could set a room of teens to pogoing in seconds, and Pearl Jam was seeping into the radio playlists. But in Durfee Hall, I heard Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger for the first time and was hooked.

Soundgarden’s music was unlike anything I’d heard before: deep, sludgy, and dark; brash and thrashing, like a mastodon in a prehistoric tar pit. Cornell’s voice could be low and soulful, brooding and angry, blue and weary — and man, could he wail. The music wasn’t typical — I didn’t think at all at the time about odd keys, time signatures, and rhythms, or a general lack of conventional guitar solos. I just knew that for me, it was interesting. In a good way.

And since I enjoy word-play, I always enjoyed Cornell’s lyrics, which were witty enough to be taken almost seriously, if they weren’t so abstract:

Every word I said is what I mean
Every word I said is what I mean
Everything I gave is what I need
Virgin eyes and dirty looks
On what I have and why I took
Counting all the hands I shook 
— Soundgarden, “Slaves and Bulldozers

I recall an interview I read in which he admitted to messing with people who looked too deeply for meaning in his songs, giving different and sometimes conflicting interpretations to his odd lyrics. And a video clip in which his sarcastic humor shines through as he explains just what Soundgarden is while his bandmates try not to crack up:

“Soundgarden is a state of mind. Soundgarden is a frame in time. …Soundgarden is a tear from an eye — dreaming.”

Soundgarden (and Badmotorfinger in particular) was the soundtrack to my college years, the go-to late-night rock when assembling the newspaper late at night at the Pioneer (sorry, Suz), the dark cosmic heartbeat that lulled our eldest to sleep when he was a baby, and the music that has tested every stereo system (home or car) that I’ve ever  purchased. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I purchased my first stereo system bigger than a boombox as a college junior, and used a credit card for a non-emergency purpose. Soundgarden shook the dorm-room walls in those days, and I purchased rarities, bootlegs, whatever I could get me hands on. That’s the sort of influence, for better and worse, Cornell and Soundgarden had on my younger self.

They were that band for me.

I don’t listen to that sort of thing as much as I used to, but my sons still do. I never saw Soundgarden live, though I did see Cornell in Detroit when he was touring to support his solo album Euphoria Morning. Bren and I talked about trying to get tickets this time around. I guess we missed the opportunity.

I don’t remember half the time
if I’m hiding or I’m lost
but I’m on my way
— Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” 

I didn’t know him, but I’ll miss him. Prayers up for Chris Cornell, his family and friends — may God grant them all peace and consolation.

Reflection on Freedom

From my Facebook page on Nov. 3:

Reflecting on, of all things, a line from the old song Remember the Alamo: “Young Davey Crockett was singing and laughing/With gallantry fierce in his eyes/For God and for freedom, a man more than willing to die.” 

Freedom like that — courage and even joy in the face of persecution, destruction, and death — does not come from politicians, legislation, constitutions, or economies. It comes directly from God. It is not freedom from, but freedom for, and it can only be taken away by the Devil. Only he can bind us, and only if we let him. 

Make no mistake, we are free men and women. This next week, and next four years, can only change that if we allow it. 

Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful morning.

It’s another beautiful day today. We are blessed by God with life and liberty — may we be as free as that song lyric: free to laugh in the face of power, danger, and death, knowing these things cannot touch our inner mystery: that we are made in His image, out of love and for love.

I’m not suggesting armed conflict is coming, but reminding us that we are always — always! — free to do what we think is best. We may suffer for it, but suffering in this life is expected and temporary. And as the Catholic evangelist Mark Hart says, even when our legs shake, the rock upon which we stand will not be shaken.

Take courage, whatever happens. You are free, unless you yield it up yourself.

Time Flies: A Thorp Family Update

The most recent photo of us all, with my folks and
sister’s family thrown in for good measure.

I’ve remarked more times than I can count in the past year: “My age doesn’t bother me; it’s the fact that Brendan is heading to college.” It’s my kids’ ages that get to me — not the the additional salt in my pepper, the aches and pains, the fact that I’m often tired and can rarely sleep.

This past year has flown, and with a grad party and a trip to Poland for World Youth Day, the summer promises to be even faster. So I thought I’d offer you all an update on our family before we blink and the leaves fall again.

Prom-goers: Brendan and Olivia

Brendan, as you may have heard, is headed to UMary in the fall. He will graduate early in June in the top 10 in his class, with a varsity letter in wrestling and local scholarships from Knights of Columbus Council 4174 (of which he is one of the newest members), the American Legion, and the Hanover Athletic Association. He loves Ultimate Frisbee (actually all four of our teens/tweens do), dabbles in swing-dancing, and is still happily dating Olivia. (Last night’s consisted of Adoration and ice cream.) He is still working at the hardware store, and just starting a second job with a local electrical contractor for the summer. He loves his bass and his music (Foo Fighters is his current favorite band), and yesterday, he bought an acoustic guitar for song writing and kicks. And he has a pipe, which he smokes on occasion.

Swing-dancers: Gabe and Kate

Gabe is now the tallest in our family, by perhaps a quarter inch. He is working on getting his driver’s license this summer, helping our friend’s taxidermy business, and preparing for his junior year of high school. He was confirmed this month, was just inducted into the National Honor Society like his older brother (NHS at our high school does a great deal in service to the school and community), and will be one of the leaders of the high-school pro-life group in the fall. He played soccer but didn’t wrestle this year, and is on the fence about next year — too many other interests, including reading and writing, teaching himself piano, learning Quenya (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language), and swing-dancing. In this last activity, he works hard and excels — especially when paired with his friend and fellow Lord of the Rings geek Kate. They aren’t dating, just dancing and discerning together.

Emma and two of her flute-playing besties

Emma is easily the tallest female in the house and explored the high-school for the first time yesterday as an incoming freshman. She played volleyball in the fall and is running track this spring — plus playing flute in the band and woodwind ensemble and singing in the middle-school choir. The music, at least, will continue in high school. Emma has followed her brothers to help with the church’s Core Team and is also an avid swing-dancer (which means boys); Gabe’s dance-partner is one of Rosebud’s mentors in becoming a young woman of virtue. Emma dabbles in piano, too; reads voraciously, and bakes like our family is twice the size (and it will be, unless we share her goodies). She is hoping to start baby-sitting soon and wants a new dog almost as much as her dad.

Trevor rocking

Trevor will be our sole middle-schooler next year, and plans to work out this summer in hopes of wrestling on the school team in seventh grade. He is a rhythmically gift version of the boy his father was: a creative thinker and storyteller, easily distracted, heart-on-his-sleeve…but coordinated enough to rock a drum kit (or the kitchen table, a couch cushion, his thighs…), to play basic piano music with relative ease, and to dance to almost any song when the mood strikes him. Also an avid reader and a good student, but with a style all his own: whereas Gabe has a hat collection and wears them on occasion, Trevor wears a brown fedora each day to school. He shows signs of a mechanical knack (another difference from his father) and still loves Legos.

Typical Lily

Lily completed her year of Catholic co-op preschool yesterday. She is colorful, funny, opinionated, and creative, with an ever-expanding vocabulary and a precocious sense of humor for a four-year-old, included puns and word-play and physical comedy along with the typical (non-sensical and never-ending) knock-knock jokes. She, too, likes to dance and to watch her swing-dancing elders, and she makes her siblings friends her own whenever she has the chance. She, too, has sprouted in the past year — she is a head taller than her plastic barn playset she so enjoyed last summer — and although she rarely eats a lot at a sitting, she would eat constantly if allowed. And she loves superheroes, especially Batman and the Justice Leaque.

Jodi and I are well — and abundantly blessed, in the midst of such breakneck activity. My bride often says it feels like only a short while ago that Brendan got on the bus for kindergarten the first time, and so it seems to be as well. We will have been married 20 years this August, and for my part, I am as happy as I have ever been.

That said, I had to be reminded of something not long ago, with the help of a priest friend: as Christians, spouses, parents, we have a serious call in this world, which requires a serious, heartfelt response — but none of that means that God doesn’t desire our happiness or enjoyment of this life. He came that His joy may be ours — shame on us if that joy does not pervade all that we do, and all that we are. It can seem terribly romantic to think ourselves unworthy of the blessings in our lives — the soft warmth of the one who lies next to us in the wee hours before waking, or the noise of a full and laughing house — and to strive and sacrifice to show our appreciation and earn our worth. But in truth, we are worthy — intrinsically — as God’s beloved children. So while I must not take my beautiful bride and these five awesome children for granted, I can love them best if I realize that my worth, and each of theirs, comes from our creation in His image and in resting in his embrace.

We are so blessed. As sinners, we don’t deserve it…but what else should we expect from such a God as this?

Last summer…where does the time go?

On the Verge: Local Band Pabulum Shakes the Shed With Eclectic Mix of Rock and Humor

Set List:
Are You Ready? – Pabulum
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran
Luminous – Luke Eicher
Apologize – OneRepublic
I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
Tribute – Tenacious D
Fun-Size Love – Pabulum
Valley of Lights – Pabulum
Verbigeration – Pabulum

Who: Pabulum with special guest Luke Eicher (all ages show)
When: Saturday, May 16, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Where: The Shed in St. Michael

It’s a rare treat for a rock reviewer (or a rocker’s parent) to get in on the ground floor of a band’s rise to stardom, but that was the vibe at The Shed last night, where rock trio Pabulum and guest pianist Luke Eicher played their first-ever show. Local promoter Abigail Herbst took a chance on the new band to close Catholic Prom, a do-it-yourself formal dance for the youth St. Michael and St. Albert parishes and their friends hosted by the Eicher clan. The result? A rough and ready glimpse of young rockers in the making.

Although the three founding members of the trio aren’t related by blood, Pabulum is very much a family affair: cymbal-smashing drummer, accordian player, guitarist, and vocalist Joe Eicher is brother to part-time contributor and classically trained pianist and singer Luke Eicher; and laconic bassist Brendan Thorp’s bowler-hatted and bow-tied brother Gabe is the band’s stage manager, tech, and jack-of-all-trades. The band’s primary front man and lead guitarist Jeff Geiger is their brother-from-another-mother, setting the tone for the group by alternating freely between aspiring rock god and manic musical comic.

The band changes configurations between songs.

In fact, that dual identity pervades Pabulum’s music, their influences, and even their name. Webster offers two opposing definitions for pabulum: “intellectual sustenance” or “something that is insipid, simplistic, or bland.” The band enjoys the irony, and their set Saturday included radio- and  chick-friendly pop songs as well as classic rock tunes and their own unique sound. The band opened with the surging “Are You Ready?”, which ends abruptly just as the crowd swells to a fever pitch — the laughter showing that the band and their fans share a special brand of humor. A raw stomp through The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” kicked off and held together by Brendan’s deft bass work, was followed by a soulful rendition of “Simple Man.” (“By Lynyrd Skynyrd, covered by Shinedown, perfected by Pabulum,” Joe told the crowd). A cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” with the Eicher brothers harmonizing on vocals elicited a chorus of “Awwws” from all the ladies in The Shed (including the moms, I think), then Luke’s original piano-and-vocals composition “Luminous” brought the house to a hush, his voice and keyboard work highlighted only by accents from the rhythm section.

The crew…

So rapt was the audience that they didn’t notice Joe, who had gone out into the wet night to retrieve his accordion, which he played through the crowd and back to the stage to lead a cover of OneRepublic’s “Apologize.” The song reached its climax with Jeff leaping from a chair to match Joe solo for solo with his gleaming Strat and Joe’s accordion. The battling front men made amends moments later, combining voices and acoustic guitars on Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” (Jeff’s scatting was one of several humorous highlights of the evening.)

But Pabulum really hit its stride beginning with the cover of a band favorite, the epic rock-comedy masterpiece from Tenacious D, “Tribute.” Brendan set aside his bass to tell the tale of the band’s confrontation with a shiny demon who demanded they “play the best song in the world, or I’ll eat your soul.” They succeeded, of course, crushing the demon utterly — but they have no recollection of the song and are powerless to repeat it. What was essentially a hard-rock in-joke signaled a shifting of gears to three original pieces showing the depth and diversity of the band’s musical interests. The first, “Fun-Size Love,” dedicated to 6′ 2″ Brendan and his diminiutive girlfriend Olivia, was two parts ’80s power ballad; one part heartfelt ribbing among friends who share an affection for miniature candy bars and “short” jokes. (Best line: “I got to know you/It didn’t take much time.”) The second was the show-stopping “Valley of Lights,” a prehistoric slab of psychedelic blues rock penned by Jeff and propelled by Brendan’s huge, brontosaurus bass — showing the bands love of the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s and calling to mind Led Zeppelin, the early days of The Black Keys,  and Jack White’s post-Stripes projects, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. They closed the set with “Verbigeration,” a rousing blast of punk-piano-rock (or something like that), with Jeff’s rapid-fire rapping about Culver’s cheese curds and his emotions at the death of Jabba the Hutt in Jedi — Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys over a mellow-yellow summertime groove. It was classic Pabulum: smart, funny, energetic, and totally rocking.

According to Pabulum’s management, they are booking now for grad parties this summer. Email them at pabulumrocks@gmail.com, and catch them while you can — definitely worth the price of admission!

Go Ahead: Be a Stick In the Mud

I watched the Super Bowl last night with my bride and, at times, my kids. They came and went as it held their interest, and I spent the second half contemplating why we consume this (or why it consumes us) year after year.

The game was exciting to the finish, marred at the end by an odd play call that sealed the victory for the Patriots, followed by a borderline brawl as the Seahawks saw the championship slipping away. But the halftime show and commercials were what really sparked my thinking. Unlike past years, last night there were only a couple of commercials that made me happy the younger kids had already gone downstairs to play — unfortunately, one was a movie promo, which means not only will we be seeing it for months, but there’s a feature-length version somewhere. The halftime show, on the other hand, once again had me talking to my three teens about what’s wrong with the world. It was a short, pointed conversation, since halfway through the performance, my eldest went downstairs to practice his bass and the other two voiced their agreement with my rant and tuned out (from the show, and likely me, as well).

I try to stay somewhat familiar with popular music to know what my kids are exposed to, so I watched the whole thing. Afterward I watched Facebook to see what friends, family, and the general public thought. As expected, opinion was polarized between fans of Katy Perry and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (the female rapper who joined Perry onstage) and people who don’t like their styles of music. But I was struck by the number of comments in the middle — people offering some variation on the theme, “At least this year it was kid-friendly.”


Call me a prude if you wish, but Perry’s lyrics, antics, and outfits are not kid-friendly. Consider just the songs we heard last night: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention. I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion. It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on. I’m curious for you, caught my attention” (I Kissed a Girl). Or “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach. Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets. … Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans. Be your teenage dream tonight” (Teenage Dream).

Of course, these pale in comparison to Missy Elliot’s Work It lyrics, which I will not post here. Elliot’s verbal dexterity is such that I couldn’t make out most of what she said last night, but I’d like to assume that her halftime rendering of her hit song was substantially edited to even make it on the broadcast.

“Well, it could have been worse…at least she was fully clothed and not dancing suggestively, like in years past.”

Modesty comes in many forms, but crouching like an animal in a minidress, snarling, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!” is not one of them. And as I shared with the teenage boys I spoke to at the church on Wednesday, “It could be worse” is a pretty low bar.

Perry’s performance was only relatively kid-friendly, as compared to shows in years past — and that underscores the problem with relativism. This is how we lose the practice, or even the recognition, of virtue: by allowing ourselves to slip so far down the slope that a half-step back toward the top seems like innocence regained. And the entertainment industry knows their target market well. They don’t care if a 40-year-old dad enjoys the show — they want to hook my offspring, and in that respect, it’s probably better if I don’t like it. The gleaming space lion, the cutesy cartoon beach sequence, and the sandwiching of Perry’s more provocative songs between hits Roar and Firework, which even turn up in grade-school music concerts — the whole production is meant to keep the kids in the room.

Folks, like it or not, they are selling sex to your children — and not the life-giving kind. Last night’s post from the Practical Catholic Junto blog summarizes my concerns in two brief quotes:

It reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses.  …

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall.

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

When we say, “It could have been worse,” we are too comfortable. We have lost the capacity for righteous anger that could set the world straight. We’re giving in.

Late yesterday morning, I was talking to one of our deacons, who was shaking his head at the fact that families might skip religion classes to get an early start on the Super Bowl extravaganza. “I’m an old stick-in-the-mud,” he said, half-apologetically. “I’m not watching any of it. Not the game. Not the commercials. None of it.”

I suppose I’m becoming a stick in the mud, too. But perhaps such sticks will be the only thing people can grab onto to slow our descent.

Next year, I think we’ll watch Groundhog Day instead.