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I blame it on deadlines. Every writer has a love/hate relationship with deadlines. A friend gave me a small magnet that hangs on my door reading “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Without them, I wouldn’t get as much done. But they can also be a pain in the neck. Normally I spend a little time at the end of the year thinking about the music and poetry I discovered that gave me pleasure, made me think and got me through the year, and then I write about it in the January issue. And so, a month late, here it is.
After reading my friend Marc Eisen’s column in Isthmus on his favorite live music events in 2016, I almost gave up. I love Eisen’s eclectic tastes, accessible knowledge and authentic commitment to live and local music. I can’t compete. Like Eisen, I’m not a critic. I’m even less of an “expert.” But music and poetry are both so important to me—so necessary to getting by, to understanding the world and even why we’re in it—that I want to share my experiences in the hope they might add some pleasure to your lives as well.
I like the trend of putting together compilations of music to accompany and complement books by or about musicians. I enjoyed listening to legendary guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony,” and rocker Bruce Springsteen’s “Chapter and Verse,” as I read their books. And thus, honed in on my musical theme of the year: musicians of a certain age. While I very much enjoyed the indie folk band Bon Iver’s hugely creative 2016 release “22 a Million,” singer and songwriter Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks” and the exciting and soulful “Sea of Noise”—proof that soul band St. Paul & The Broken Bones are not one-hit wonders after all—it was the Robertson-Springsteen- (and Heinen-) aged Peter Wolf and Van Morrison who put a politics-be-damned joy in my heart. I’m a fan of Wolf, an American rhythm and blues, soul and rock and roll musician. I really liked this year’s “A Cure for Loneliness,” and count his performance at the Majestic Theatre as my favorite live music experience of the year.
And while I didn’t experience this live, I’ll never forget watching the video of jazz and rock musician Ben Sidran performing at Café Central in Madrid the night jazz and blues great Mose Allison died. And Sidran’s “Blue Camus” was another standout pleasure. But my favorite music in 2016 was celtic soulman Van Morrison’s album “Keep Me Singing.” Elegant and gruff, it spoke to me. “Every Time I Hear a River” makes my heart ache, “Memory Lane” sends me there, and “In Tiburon,” in addition to being a most evocative description of the San Francisco I know and love, contains the line of the year for me: “Now we need each other more than ever to lean on.” Oh my, do we ever.
Those examples aside, 2016 wasn’t a great year for new music. Unlike for poetry. This past year was one of the best years for verse for me in a long time. As deeply sad as it is, Jim Harrison’s last book, coincidentally titled “Dead Man’s Float,” is an intensely human accompaniment to the unforeseeable challenges of growing old. Kay Ryan’s “Erratic Facts” is so smart. Billy Collins’ “The Rain in Portugal” is, as always, clever, fun and surprisingly familiar. But the discovery of the year is Martín Espada, a poet who includes in his bio a stint studying history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Vivas To Those Who Have Failed,” which I discovered at a wonderful bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is actually his 15th book of poetry. The combination of Whitman’s influence, political content and illustrative notes once again proved correct Percy Bysshe Shelly’s description of poetry as “lift(ing) the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.”
May music and poetry add beauty to our world of 2017.