Category Archives: 5. Music

For the City and These Long Decades Spent Wandering

Photograph by Jose Padua
After dinner one evening my six year old son declares
“Trump is a barbarian” from out of nowhere or anywhere
I can immediately recall not that speaking the truth ever
requires a prompt, instance, or specific rules of condition
with truth being, like clear air, blue water, or green earth,
its own reason for being. Later my daughter, or as my
son says, his big sister, asks for help in using the almost
thirty-year old turntable on my twenty-five year old stereo
so she can listen to a song from Neil Young’s forty-three
year old LP, On the Beach, in beautiful, black analog sound,
and I have to think about it, have to figure it out because
I don’t use it that often myself though once I started thinking
it all came back like an after-midnight walk down Broadway
through the widening space of a New York City summer
which despite being many drinks, a few decades, and several
presidents ago is not the sort of thing one forgets. And what
lifts me from weariness and dread are the small things, not
the grand recollections and gestures but the brief but glowing
movements, the laying down of a hand on a table, the darting
of the eyes while reading a book. The history of the world
is the history of your outrage versus mine, your fist against
my tongue, my speech against your fist, because what is
mine will always be mine and forever forged into my blood
like the taste of my true love’s lips. This doesn’t mean
I won’t offer you food when you’re hungry and doesn’t
mean we can’t walk forward and change tenses, but your
sad story will need a new way of being told and recognize
that we are now walking through flooded streets and that
all the buildings that once towered over us have collapsed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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The Days Run Away Like the Great B-Side of a Hit Single by Prince

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was sitting in the car with Julien while Heather went into the grocery store. It had been about a month since Prince had died, and while for the last month I had been playing the music of Prince almost non-stop—he’s one of a small number of people you can do that with and never get tired of it all—that day, I was taking a break. So it was a sunny, spring day with something other than Prince playing on the car stereo. Julien listened for a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

“It’s Herbie Hancock,” I said. We were a few minutes into the “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters LP.

Julien paused then said, “I don’t like Herbie Hancock. Play Miles Davis.” Miles Davis was Julien’s favorite at the time. I don’t suppose there are too many five year olds whose favorite music is Miles Davis’s music, but there we were. The windows of the car were down, and a cool breeze came inside.

I tried to explain to Julien that Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he didn’t care and he refused to give Herbie Hancock’s music a chance. To make the wait easier, I went ahead and put on Miles Davis.

Back then, while my daughter Maggie was doing her homework, I’d hear her playing Public Image Limited (PiL) a lot. She had been listening to Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Kleenex/LiliPUT while she was studying, but then she added PiL to the mix. After that I’d always hear the voice of John Lydon going “This is not a love song/ This is not a love song” or “Anger is an energy/ Anger is an energy” as she did her algebra homework or worked on a brief essay she had to write.

That morning, right before we headed out to take them all to school, Maggie looked something up on her phone then she said, “I have the same birthday as the guitarist for PiL!”

“You mean Keith Levene?”

“Yes,” she said. “We have the same birthday!”

“Wow,” I said. And I remembered that she also shares a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, but I didn’t mention it because I think it’s still a few years before she’s ready to read about things like the massive drug run that begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also didn’t mention that I share a birthday with Jean Genet, because I didn’t think she was quite ready to read a book like Our Lady of the Flowers yet either. But, when she’s old enough, these great books will be among my recommended reading and can be added to the volumes of Baudelaire, Lucille Clifton, and Junot Diaz that she was already carrying around with her all the time.

For a couple of weeks, the question Julien had been asking most frequently was, “Who’s bad?”—with it being election season and with the death of Prince there were a lot of bad things in the air, making it a time for questions. (But then, when is it not a time for questions?) In the second of those two weeks, Julien began answering his own question. And when we all said, “I don’t know. Who’s bad?” Julien would then say, without the slightest pause of doubt, “Donald Trump’s bad.”

“Yes, he is bad,” we’d say.

A couple of days later, while we were having lunch at Blue Wing Frog over on Chester Street, Julien answered his own question about who was bad and added, “Donald Trump is a poopy head!” Then he stopped to think about it for a moment before asking, “Does he poop with his head?”

“Well, in a way he does,” we all said. Or words to that effect.

And later that day, it rained. Like on the B-side of an old Prince song—it rained and kept on raining. After having spent a few days not listening to Prince that week, he was back on the soundtrack, and  I was listening closely, hoping for more answers.

I took this photograph of Union Hall, which was part of a joint called Victoria’s Restaurant, when we left Blue Wing Frog that day. Union Hall and Victoria’s restaurant have been closed since February 2009, when it was discovered that its owner was a fugitive wanted on drug charges in Massachusetts. Union Hall had been one of the few places in Front Royal where you had music and dancing. The owner had been here, in our small Virginia town, for nearly two decades. He raised his kids here, had grandkids, and ran his restaurant and club for as long as he could. And then they took him away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Directions in Music and Other Ways of Approaching the Day

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I pick my five-year-old
son up from school
then stop at the grocery store
to get milk instead
of going straight home
he says “I’ll just stay here
in the car
and listen to Miles Davis”
because right then “Spanish Key”
from Bitches Brew
is playing on
the car stereo and
since it’s a warm spring
day here in the valley
and what he wants to do
sounds better than
what I want to do
we sit in the car
and listen
until the song is over
and we’re thirsty for something other
than sound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Black

Photograph by Jose Padua
I don’t like to wear hats, but sometimes,
when I lived in New York, and it was cold
enough, I’d wear a beret. It was black, of course,

because if it isn’t black it isn’t really a beret.
Most of the clothes I wore in New York were
black, though it was hard to tell because that

rich deep shade was usually faded from being
washed and worn too many times—I didn’t know
the art of wearing one’s clothes gently, I never

mastered that because usually I was the one being
mastered. Mastered by some woman who wore
black better than me, mastered by my inability

to find just the right amount of work, mastered
by the middle class and those things you need
to buy, mastered by my apartment when the

bathtub backed up and the water that rose
from the drain was black. One time I sat
in my apartment listening to the stereo and

imagining that when Nina Simone sang
“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
that she was singing it for me. Or that when

Rahsaan Roland Kirk played “Never Can Say
Goodbye” from his album Blacknuss I wasn’t
in my apartment but in the audience, watching,

listening, traveling the lost years through time.
And when I stepped outside with that music
in my head, I put on my beret hoping it would keep

the music there longer. As if music were the key
to everything from the color of clouds to the
brightness of the early morning’s light. As if

on a dark winter night all the shelter I’d need
to keep my significant sound and light secure in
the cold winter air was the power of the color black.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Signs of Life

Photograph by Jose Padua
The Biograph Theater in DC, where I first saw
Casablanca on something other than a TV screen;
Joe Cocker and Leon Russell in Mad Dogs & Englishman,
a rock documentary I saw when I was still too young
to attend a live show what with all the pot smoking
and hippie kids dancing without their shirts; and
Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary while the outraged devout
camped outside the lobby, protesting the film’s supposed
blasphemy, has been a CVS drugstore for over two decades
now, a place where you can buy shaving cream, Slim Jims,
toilet paper, ibuprofen, and all the other tools, necessary or
optional, for living in the 21st Century. But where are those
images, the words, sounds and songs that I also need?
The airplane in black and white and mist that’s about
to lift Ingrid Bergman up and off to a safer place;
Joe Cocker singing and Leon Russell playing “Delta Lady”
with English accent and Oklahoma twang; the irreverent
challenge of taking the divine back down to earth with
allegory. There is a way of living, here, in that moment
that takes you away from whatever commerce brought us
together. That allows you to forget the body while being
of the body, seated, your eyes open, glancing away from
the screen and across the dark auditorium to catch, partly
by accident and partly by intent, the unforgettable sight of
a face, in the crowd, illuminated as much by sound as by light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On This Day in the Summer of 2014 When The Ohio Players Reunite to Play Several Songs in My Car and in My Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the summer
of 1975
the thought never
occurred to me
that one day
I’d be dropping off
my kids at camp
for the day
while listening
to The Ohio Players’
“Sweet Sticky Thing.”
As I was just seventeen
that summer and
had just graduated
from high school
there were innumerable
essential ideas
and concepts that
had never crossed
my mind at that point,
but for some reason
on this summer morning
nearly four decades later
this seems the most
significant of them all.
And because it’s
my first real observation
for the day,
that means that
like a great bass line,
it’s laying the
foundation for
everything else that
may come to mind
in the hours, weeks,
days, and years
that lie ahead,
until that slow
quiet moment
when the radio station
in my head
signs off for a billion
or more nights.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua, Self-Portrait as Shadow on an Empty Space at the Grocery Store Parking Lot.

Self-Portrait as a Being of Sound and Motion on the Northern Edge of the Southern States

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Driving to Winchester
the other day
Stravinsky’s Symphonies
of Wind Instruments

comes on the stereo
as we head west
into the sunset
on 66 ready
for the curve at the end
of the highway that
changes our direction
and sends us North.
Yesterday on West Main Street
in Front Royal
heading back to my house
I hear Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s
“Gueule d’amour” and
I roll down the window
an inch to let just
the right amount of cold
inside so I can breathe
and feel the air
move around me like
a spirit drinking whisky
when I haven’t had
a drop to drink.
Today on Route 11 South
of Harrisonburg it’s
Al Green singing
“Loving You”
from The Belle Album
as we ride up and down
the hills in the early winter’s
late afternoon light
past farmland that’s dry
and bare between seasons.
And each time I am
entranced, bedazzled, amazed
by music I’ve heard
hundreds of times,
and comforted
to know that as
we travel through
the various frequencies
of light and dark
there is a pure constant sound
stirring within me
whether I am rising
or falling
heading east or west
and that whether I am
dust or flesh
I will be here
standing on the continents
spinning on this Earth
and moving through the universe
at great speed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

P-Funk Reshapes the Landscape of the Redneck Town I Live In and Other Acts of Reformation and Reconstruction

Photograph by Jose Padua
Behind the wheel listening to P-Funk in my new neighborhood
the blank stare of the shirtless Larry the Cable Guy lookalike sharpens
to crystal clarity as his lazy slouch straightens up into a confident
strut and the words Git-R-Done are banished forever from his lips.

The colors start to run on the confederate flag bumper sticker
on the pickup truck ahead of me, its starry X melting like
the Wicked Witch of the West turning into a smelly puddle of scum.
Having freed my mind from the “Our God is an Awesome God” sounds

that limp through the streets from the doorway of the Heaven Sent Shoppe
downtown until it oozes like toxic waste into the Shenandoah River, having
been lifted from the list of endangered species by a bop gun blast,
I am ready to stand tall in my off-white glory and the knowledge that

God does not appreciate those lame-ass Christian pop songs. I step
out of my minivan, open the back door and take my daughter
by the hand. “Who sang that song?” I ask and right away she
answers “P-Funk” because I’m trying to teach her what’s well

and what’s real and we glance at our house, stop and wave to
our neighbors, then together we turn to walk towards the future.

– Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Sign on a Country Road and Other Failures of the Imagination

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”

Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.

In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.

Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”

This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.

But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.

I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017

The Birthday Party

Photograph by Jose Padua
For my birthday this year I will
walk twenty miles away from the sunset or
until I am too tired to chase the sunlight
any longer, whichever comes first.
I will tell stories to the devil so scary that
he or she will disappear into a cave for a week
and write apologies to everyone he’s harmed
before he comes out again to fuck with us.
I will invent a new word that means
the same as chrysanthemum and will be
just as hard to pronounce when you’re
totally drunk at closing time in a bar
that smells like roasted peanuts
and stale air conditioning. I will
consider the ways I might spread joy
among the astronauts who while traveling
through space have actually come to miss
the effects of gravity when responding
to questions from their fellow astronauts
about what animal they would most like to be
if they had to be an animal instead of human.
On my birthday I will clear a path for world peace
that will cut right through the living room
of a man who has just renovated a house
downtown that he plans to flip despite
the still sluggish real estate market.
I will buy all the corn chips from the shelves
of a convenience store and make corn chip pie
crusts to use for all my upcoming holiday baking
projects. I will wear blue pants, blue shirts,
blue underwear, a blue overcoat, blue gloves,
and a scratchy old blue knit cap so I might
blend in with the sky at the time of day
when it’s at its bluest. And when it’s my birthday
I will carry these young birds that have fallen
from the nest, then climb up the tree in an effort
to convince their mother to take them back,
just in case she wasn’t going to already,
and because I have so much to learn regarding
the behavior of birds and other things that spend
at least some of their time occupying the sky.
I will walk tall among the reeds and wild animals
of both swamp and forest, pushing forth
through the brush back toward the city
singing this—my swirling, dancing, ten-acre
song about clocks pulled up from the rubble
of the distant past, then held up to the light
and smashed. And I will break free from the
old. The out-of-tune pianos that were chained
to my ankles and my wrists by the master of
ceremonies at the moment this party began.
I will shake off the iron links from ripped-apart
chains. They will fall from my hands like candy
at a parade. I will scatter the hammers and strings
of busted pianos by the pavement as I pick up
speed, making my way toward the interstate.
I will find another instrument to play.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua