e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu



"It makes no difference to me/how they cried all over overseas/If it's dark in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside."
-Wilco, Poor Places

Monday Misc.

Strange and unfocused day today. It's mid-morning and I've read the news, gotten some reading done, answered a few emails, and written two letters of recommendation. I have a mid-day meeting on campus, after which I plan to work out, write, and study some Arabic.

Hung out with our pals Jim and Janice this weekend. They came over and we watched Verlander miss his chance to win 25 regular-season games (bummer!). Various family members were in town to help Anna and company harvest honey from the bees. Mass Sunday morning. Sleeping past 6:00 am. Nice times, though I continue to have some residual, post-Lebanon blueness.

Shout out to Tony taking the GRE today. And to Gia the pug who's staying with us for the week. Time for an early lunch.


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Too many words have been written about R.E.M. in their thirty-one years as a band and their one day of retirement. Even before mainstream success, they made for great copy in the alt press. Media coverage of the band actually created some of the important narratives of (indie) rock: artistic integrity, credibility, resisting the imperative to "sell out," reluctance and liberal guilt in the face of success, the transition from indie label to major label. R.E.M. pioneered these now-ubiquitous narratives. Ditto the fan narratives: I knew them before you did. I discovered the band early on. Their early stuff is great. Ditto the idea of a gateway band. Just as kids today discover Dylan and the blues through Jack White, kids in the 80s and 90s found Television, Velvet Underground, and Mission of Burma through R.E.M. Without R.E.M., there's no Kurt Cobain telling his fans they can't like both him and Axl Rose. There's no Eddie Vedder retreating from the media gaze and retooling Pearl Jam as journeymen instead of buzz-band. There's also no "modern rock" format on your FM dial. If it weren't for R.E.M.'s string of I.R.S. records, there would be no fan-boy worship of Sub Pop and Third Man.

Like thousands of other nerds (not indie rock nerds...nerds) in 1986 or so, R.E.M. made sense to me and around the time that "Document" came out, they became my favorite band. In junior high, Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road," the notion of going off to seminary, and the music of R.E.M. (and to a lesser extent The Smiths, Dead Kennedys, and 10,000 Maniacs) created this odd and incongruous universe that seemed so anti-establishment. A fourteen-year-old needs a favorite band. My college roommate Jim and I saw R.E.M. three times on the "Monster" tour--in Auburn Hills, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor. By that time (post "Man on the Moon," "Losing My Religion," and "Everybody Hurts"...the big three), they were big enough to play three Michigan shows on the same tour...and with opening acts like Wilco, Radiohead, and Patti Smith! The last R.E.M. show I saw was on the Vote For Change tour in support of John Kerry in 2004--a show in Cleveland with Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, and John Fogerty. They all came out to jam on a finale of "Born to Run," "People Have the Power," and "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" Michael Stipe and Springsteen trading verses on "Born to Run" was a good moment.

All of that is well and good, but says little about the music itself. Much of R.E.M.'s catalogue is unfuckwithable rock and roll. It's jangly, artsy, punky, melodic, evocative, and illusive. Just for the hell of it, a dozen great R.E.M tracks:

1. Life and How to Live It (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction)**
2. Begin the Begin (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
3. Rockville (1984's "Reckoning")
4. What's the Frequency Kenneth? (1995's "Monster")
5. Finest Worksong (1987's "Document")
6. I Believe (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
7. Harborcoat (1984's "Reckoning")
8. Radio Free Europe (1981 single)
9. Feeling Gravity's Pull (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction")
10. Lotus (1998's "Up")
11. So Fast So Numb (1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi")
12. Man-Sized Wreath (2008's "Accelerate")

And a few live covers to find on youtube: See No Evil (orig. by Television), Crazy (orig. by Pylon), Superman (orig. by The Clique), Strange (orig. by Wire)

UPDATE: **Upon further reflection, I feel the need to add the following assertion about my list's number one: the lines "if I write a book it will be called Life and How to Live It" represent the best closing lines of a rock and roll song, ever.

Two nice links from salon.com
A series of remembrances of the band.
An essay about the band's influence.


MI Fest

Nothing beats great live music, especially when it's close to home on a sunny, cool Autumn day. Tony and Alice--my second eldest nephew and his girlfriend--drove up from Ohio to enjoy the inaugural festival and after late-morning sustenance from Dearborn's Sajouna (jibnee!) we headed west past Ann Arbor (no time to stop and cheer for the Wolverines) and got to the Michigan Speedway just in time for the Black Belles, a garage punk quartet whose members seem to aim for a witch aesthetic. Known mainly for backing up Stephen Colbert on the single "Charlene," the Belles kicked it without any Comedy Central cameos and somehow managed to make white make-up and tall black hats make sense in the context of an outdoor festival. I got the sense their aesthetic was a bit more geared toward a smoky bar after midnight. But they rocked, so, you know, kudos to them. They also circulated with fans afterward, made possible by a pretty low turnout. That early in the day I'm sure there weren't more than a few thousand people, max, and only a couple dozen at the second stage, where we camped out until nearly sundown.

Other acts who, like the Belles, are on Jack White's Third Man Records dominated the second stage. Black Milk, an excellent Detroit hip hop artist, was undeterred by his status as the only rapper in the house and had a very nice set, making me sorry I never discovered his stuff until he put out a single on Third Man. Must seek out his earlier stuff. Pujol and Jeff the Brotherhood both do a scruffy, stripped down rock act--more the kind of band you'd expect Jack White to produce--and seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd. White seems to have fostered a real family vibe at Third Man and the camraderie came across from the tiny stage. The Speedway facilities are not huge, which was a plus, as you could wander freely to your car for snacks and water and be back to the stage area in a few minutes. Did I mention how great the weather was? Sunny enough that my ears were red when I woke up this morning, but chilly by the time the sun went down.

Speaking of sundown, we ventured over to the main stage in time for the Romantics ("What I Like About You"), straight outta Hamtramck, Michigan, who broke out a Kinks cover in addition to the British Invasion-esque songs of their own, including, of course "Talking In Your Sleep," which benefited from the lack of the 1980s sheen of the recorded version. Did they close with "What I Like About You"? Of course. Did 40-somethings dance nostalgically on the lawn? Of course. As Sheryl Crow was taking the stage, a young woman smelling of the venue's expensive inexpensive beer, came over, told us we seemed cool (which I thought she was going to follow up with an invitation to "party") and handed over three VIP bracelets. Thank you, kind intoxicated girl, if you are out there.

The VIP area had free drinks but the line was too long so we headed toward the stage and got really close to Sheryl Crow. I'm not a fan or anything, but hearing her upbeat tunes up close was pretty cool. She kept saying we were in Detroit and referring to her friendship with Kid Rock, who I thought might join her for a duet or two. He didn't. She broke into a nice version of "Stuck in the Middle With You" at one point and had a really strong backing band. And the age-diverse crowd had a good time. Thanks for coming to Michigan Sra. Crow. We were about two hours from Detroit, but close enough. Really, her music isn't really my speed, but she's got really top notch pipes. Actually, much like hearing the Romantics, I appreciated her voice live, divorced from the production of her records.

Okay, after her set we worked our way close to the stage. A lot of the 40-plus crowd headed for the parking lot, leaving behind some huge Jack White fans. Really. Around us, I heard people comment on roadies who they knew from the White Stripes days. Wow. The Raconteurs, the second of White's three beloved bands, headlined the show and really killed it. I mean, they know how to please a crowd. The band has five amazing musicians when you include the keyboardist with whom they tour. They played much of their two records and the crowd sung along. Guitarists White and Brendan Benson both do a Zeppelin-esque thing--lots of solos, lots of shredding. Like a lot of the Third Man acts of the second stage, you got the sense they were having a fabulously good time on the stage. They played "Old Enough," my favorite Raconteurs track, so I was a happy audience member. Jack White's relatives sat in rows on stage left, rocking out, apparently (the local press reported) after traveling in his tour bus from Detroit. That Jack White. Whatta guy. When the family came out, I commented to Tony and Alice that maybe the older woman in the yellow jacket might not want to sit right next to the amps. A guy in front of me turned around and said "That's mom," so I figured, well, Jack White's mom probably knows better than anybody here that it's about to get loud. It did. Fitting for a guy who's become one of the definitive icons of Detroit rock and roll to close the day. Despite some hiccups last week, the MI Fest acquitted itself as a worthy event that I hope becomes an annual Fall tradition.


Ahlan wa Sahlan

Winding down after the second week of Fall classes, I realize that keeping up is going to be a challenge. Keeping up with the paper load, keeping up with the writing I plan to get done, keeping up with my Arabic. What's the routine look like? Something like this:

Mondays are writing days. I'm in the middle of several writing projects connected to the work I did in Lebanon and don't want to lose any momentum.

Tuesdays/Thursdays are campus days. Teach two sections of Comp 105 in the morning, followed the Arabic 101 class I'm taking, followed by office hours, followed by the Lebanese History class I'm taking. **By "taking," I mean sitting in.

Wednesdays are semi-campus days. Work out on campus, spend much of the day grading papers and doing class prep, teach my grad class in the evening.

Fridays are wild cards. Spend at least part of the day writing, though often I have various meetings and commitments on campus.

Every day: find an hour or so to work on the Arabic. I'd like to make time to blog, too, and post some updates here about the writing projects in particular, but also some rants about trying to learn Arabic. Stay tuned...