Mark Sullivan

November 12, 2007

Remembering D.C. Fitzgerald

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November 13, 2007 is the one year anniversary of the passing of D.C. Fitzgerald. Here is a piece that I wrote last year that appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic.

D.C. Fitzgerald Legendary Guitarist and Altar Server
by Mark Sullivan
When D.C. Fitzgerald passed away in November, his obituary described him as a talented guitarist and fixture on the Pittsburgh folk music scene. However, altar server at St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District was not listed among has activities. D.C. was that rare combination of first-rate secular musician and devout Catholic.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Edgewood Club on January 27th for a seven-hour concert celebrating his life and music. If musical success was measured in friendships made instead of records sold, D.C. Fitzgerald was the most successful artist of all time.
I took guitar lessons from D.C. for over three years beginning in August of 1999 until September of 2002. In the short attention span of a twentysomething guitar player, that’s a really long time. Besides teaching guitar, it seemed that he had read every book and listened to every album ever made.
I would say, “I’ve been listening to a lot of …” He would respond in a heartbeat, “Don’t you just love…” an hour-long conversation would follow. That was my favorite part of the lesson.
The last time I saw D.C. was Easter Saturday 2005 in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle in Braddock Hills. He greeted me, “My man! Check it out. Got my Easter ham, and I’m serving tonight at the Easter Vigil at St. Benedict the Moor. Praise the Lord!”
From my first guitar lesson with D.C., I could tell he was a religious person. But it wasn’t until I had taken lessons from him for about a year that he told me he his conversion story. D.C. was a fabulous storyteller, but he didn’t elaborate much—he wanted to know if God existed, so as a test he prayed for God to let him know if He did exist. God told him yes, so D.C. asked him what religion should he join because there was so many. God told him Christianity. D.C. asked what denomination, and God said Catholicism. He went to R.C.IA.
I saw him perform one time and found it curious that he dedicated a song to his “friend in the oil business,” which turned out to be his nickname for Fr. Lou Vallone who had given him instruction in the Catholic faith. Fr. Vallone had also given D.C. anointing of the sick before his liver transplant. D.C loved the “materialism” of the Catholic Faith–that bread, wine, oil, water, and even sexual intercourse could become the actual instruments of God’s grace. He would turn a song into prayer by directing it to God. I remember hearing him play “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” by Duke Ellington and seeing a whole new spiritual dimension open before my eyes.
When I heard that he died, I went to noon mass at St. Anselm’s in Swissvale, near where he lived, and asked the priest to offer mass for the repose of his soul. On my way back to work, I drove by his house hoping to catch a final glimpse of his figure through the window waiting for me to arrive for my lesson.  Later that night my wife consoled me, “Just think of how much he’ll be able to help you now from heaven.” The last time I saw D.C. in the parking lot of the Giant Eagle, he was on his way to heaven. The most willing altar boy with Easter ham in hand. I’m sure his Easter joy is full now.

November 11, 2007

Saturday Morning at the Mall with James

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My wife had to do some shopping so I took my two and half year old son down to the toy store on the first floor of the mall. The carousel is right in front of the toy store. James stopped and looked at it for awhile. Then we walked over to the toy store, but the obnoxious electronic stuffed animals in the front scared him away. So we looked at the fish in the fish pond and then returned to the carousel. James just stood there watching it.

I hate the carousel. I think it’s a rip-off. $1.50 per ride. It’s right in front of the toy store to sucker in parents. Or more accurately, for kids to whine their parents into letting them ride it. And I hate the mall and every emotionally desperate teenager and credit card debt it has created. I also never carry cash–just to avoid spending a few dollars here or there on frivolous items.

But yesterday I had $2 in my wallet. As James was watching the carousel, I pulled out my wallet and checked to see if the $2 was still there. I debated for a few moments and then said, “James, do you want to ride on the carousel?” I expected him to say no. At least in public he’s not very demanding. But he said, “O.K.”

As I gave the woman my $2 I offered it up to God. Money is tight, and it seemed stupid to spend $1.50 on a stupid carousel ride. I know God always out does us in generosity–as pathetic as it sounds talking about $1.50–but this is me. James circled the carousel 320 degrees. I kept asking him–how about this horsey. No. No. He starting to whine when I picked him up to put him on a horse. Two-year olds can’t make up their mind. I wondered if the woman would give me my money back.

James found the bench he was looking for, hopped up into it and snuggled against me and we were off. The carousel started, and he had the biggest smile on his face. He was so cute tears came to my eyes. I tried not to be a buzz-kill and hide how I really felt. Weeee. Weeee. See the snowmen. See the lights. But after a minute, I was getting dizzy and restless to move on. I had the urge to look at my watch, but resisted. This was James’s time. Not mine. Round and round we went.

Then I noticed that the woman working the carousel was talking to her teenage daughter and not watching the ride. We were the only ones on and no one was waiting. Round and round we went.

I thought about giving the woman the–O.K. enough is enough look, but the smile on James’s face kept getting bigger. So every time we went by her I looked the other way. Weee. Weee. See the snowman. So what if I barf. James was having a great time. Round and round again.

Finally the ride ended. James said, “Thanks Daddy.” But something happened to me on the ride. I’ve been told a million times that God loves me more than I love my son, and it’s a good thing to reflect on in my prayer etc…

But I realized how much I loved James. And how many carousel rides God has taken me on. It makes my eyes fill with tears.

October 27, 2007

Son of Skip James–Part II

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The opening cut on Dion’s new album, The Son of Skip James, is a Chuck Berry tune called “Nadine.” Dion sounds just like Levon Helm from The Band. Sadly, Levon had throat surgery a few years ago and can no longer sing. Comparing Dion to Levon is comparing the child to the father. But what strikes me is that if this album was under Levon Helm’s name there would be a totally different buzz around it. WYEP, the listener supported adult contemporary music station I listen to at work, would be playing a Levon Helm album non-stop. The Dylan connection. Right. Dion influenced Dylan.

Since the Dion album hasn’t been officially released yet, I’m not going to speculate that radio stations won’t play it. I am going to pitch some ideas to WYEP. Maybe they’ll let me write something for their web-site. It just doesn’t seem right that your success in the 1950s excludes you from recording something really cool in 2007. The Son of Skip James sounds really fresh. The band is tight. Each song has a really strong beat. All the guitar work is accoustic–which gives it a less predictable flavor than if Dion was ripping into a Stratocaster. Whoops. That’s me fantasizing that I’m playing lead guitar in Dion’s band.

Back to work.

October 25, 2007

How I got the money for the new Dwight Yoakam album

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The following post may cause embarrassment to some people.

On April 1, 2006 I became a Dwight Yoakam fan. For the whole month of April I listened to no other music. So when I heard that he had a new album coming out Oct. 23rd, I had to get it. It is his first new album since I’ve been a fan. But cash is tight around the Sullivan household, and I would feel guilty dropping $15 just like that.

Then I remembered the box of chocolate bars that a friend had given us. It was a big box that people bring to work for fundraisers. Please support Johnny’s soccer team etc… Yes I did.

I took the box of candy-bars to work and put up a sign that said in big letters “Free Candy Bars.” In small letters it said, “any donations will go toward the purchase of the new Dwight Yoakam album.” In one day I had ten bucks which gets you the whole album on iTunes.

When I pressed play on my iPod this morning for the first listen, I expected a let down. What kind of person would sell candy-bars to his co-workers to buy an album. How lame? I knew I would be disappointed. Not. Three listens later, and I’m loving it more and more. I know all the words to all the songs already because it’s Buck Owens. What’s the matter with that?

How could I doubt that the great Dwight Yoakam would not deliver the goods on a tribute to his idol?

Back to the iPod.

October 24, 2007

The Son of Skip James

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Before listening to Dion’s new album, The Son of Skip James, the extent of my Dion listening was playing “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” over and over. Usually this was accompanied by lip-synching and running back and forth from the living room to the dining room. Listening to those two songs is the only time I can remember wanting to be a lead singer. I’m an air-guitarist mostly.

When I heard Dion came back to the Church, I listened to some of his later stuff, but it didn’t grab me. The more I listen to The Son of Skip James the more I like it, and the more I understand what a great album is all about. A great album increases my thirst for music. It makes me want to pick up my guitar and learn some new songs. It makes me want to pull out the Skip James CDs and give them another listen. It makes me want to call up John Hiatt and say, “Come on back to the Church. Look at the cool stuff you can do. You don’t lose your edge. Actually, you get sharper.”

I’m hoping to interview Dion for an article in Our Sunday Visitor. Until then…

October 23, 2007

Dwight Sings Buck!

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First a new Dion album. Now a new Dwight Yoakam album. Released TODAY! Dwight Sings Buck. I can’t get a copy quick enough. “Dwight sings Buck” could be a career summary for Yoakam.

His second album, Hillbilly Delux, was dedicated to Owens.

His third album, Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room, had a duet with Buck and was his first number one hit, “The Streets of Bakersfield.

Buck was also on Tomorrow’s Sounds Today.

I can’t wait to hear this one. You can never listen to enough Dwight Yoakam.

October 22, 2007

What Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Quotes John Paul II on His New Album?

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That’s correct. A rock and roll legend quotes John Paul II on his new album. It’s not ironic either. In fact he says, “John Paul II, who I love.”

AND there is a song on the album about St. Jerome, “The Thunderer.” What is Bruce Springsteen gonna say when he hears it?

Stay tuned for a exclusive interview.

October 20, 2007

How I Met Marion Montgomery.

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Back in the spring I was writing an article about Catholicism in the South, and I was looking for a way to cover Flannery O’Connor. I hadn’t read much of her stuff. I randomly came across a review of Hillbilly Thomist by Marion Montgomery in First Things. I found out later that was the only publication that ran a review of the book. I contacted the publisher to interview Montgomery not knowing who I was interviewing except that he had written a book about Flannery O’Connor. Our first conversation had enough material for three articles. I posted the interview that ran in the National Catholic Register. A longer piece is scheduled to run in Catholic World Report later this year. Mr. Montgomery and I have exchanged a number of letters, and he’s kept me up to date about his newest book on Nathanial Hawthorne.

If you look to the left on this blog and see the links to the Summa and Walter Farrell’s Companion to the Summa, those are a direct result of my contact with Mr. Montgomery–himself a HillBilly Thomist.

Radiohead finds “the man” to “stick it to.”

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The two interesting things about In Rainbows: 1) it’s a return to a more accessible sound, and 2) Radiohead released it from their web-site without a record company. Both items are about rebellion. As I’ve mentioned before, I like The Bends and the first half of O.K. Computer. If you’re a band trying to be cool, you have to avoid becoming a band that the uncool listen to while trying to be cool. You don’t want some jock saying he put your song on a mix tape between Van Halen and Kansas. (I show my age.) You don’t want to be played during half time of a sporting event. You don’t want the President of the United States to quote you. To avoid that, you make albums that are really difficult to listen to. Only your true fans will make the effort to listen.

The record company thing is obvious. You always have to have “the man” to “stick it to.” It’s a limited concept because eventually you have to become your own man. Radiohead released the album on their own, but who handles the on-line orders? Who sent out the press release to all the critics? Who made Radiohead a household name in the first place? The man. But that’s what I love about Radiohead. They are clinging to the last postage stamp size area of cool. Who cares about contradictions? Maybe in 10 years their stuff will sound really dated. Who came first, Radiohead or Sigur Ros? Its that 2000s sound.

Anyway, it’s on to something new.

October 17, 2007

Radiohead’s “In Rainbows:” Where have all the songs gone?

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Listening to “In Rainbows” I’m reminded of how difficult it is to write a song. By a song I mean something that can stand alone. Carole King wrote songs. Cole Porter wrote songs. A song has its own inner logic—to get a little bit technical—harmonic development and resolution for one. That’s why 12-bar blues always works. There aren’t that many good songs in rock. Think of how many songs you would want to hear no matter who was playing it. 

Rock is all about performance. The artist goes into the studio and does their thing and it gets recorded. That one moment, screech, slur, or whatever is preserved forever. If you’re a cover band, you can’t cover a performance the way you would a song. You would just be trying to imitate a performance. That’s why cover bands play the same old stuff.

Take the “great” Robert Johnson and the non-stop praise he gets from the likes of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards because you can’t imitate him. You can play the songs easy enough, but you can’t imitate Johnson’s performances. Just like if I went into the studio and recorded “Crossroads Blues” nobody would be able to imitate me. I wouldn’t even be able to imitate me a second time.

I think Radiohead understands the difference between song and performance. To be a great you have to write songs. They want to be great. But songs are dangerous because they exist out on their own. To submit to a 32-bar song form or a 12-bar blues is to risk becoming predictable. To submit to the form and still make something original is really, really hard. It’s much easier to create some musical landscape/wallpaper in the studio and use your taste to make sure nothing “cheesy,” predictable, used by someone else not cool doesn’t slip in. 

I wanted to hear In Rainbows because I think Radiohead is the last rock band. I think that they know that. I like hearing them squirm to stay cool in a genre that has so desperately painted itself in a corner it’s suffocating.

Tune in tomorrow for part 2.

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