Jenna’s AZ bucket list No. 71 – See the Gin Blossoms Live

… at the Arizona State Fair, no doubt!

It’s hard for me to think of any other definitive Arizona bands that we followed, growing up, except for Jimmy Eat World and the Refreshments. I don’t really like Jimmy Eat World, or the Refreshments, musically. Just my personal taste.
But, growing up, I was very into the Gin Blossoms. In junior high I knew all the lyrics to every single song on their 1992 break-out album, Another Miserable Experience.

So when my friend Allyson Bills invited me to see them at the Arizona State Fair this year, I couldn’t say no.

It’s actually a wonder I’ve never seen them in concert live before this year. Actually, I won tickets to their show at some out-of-the-way Northern Arizona casino, playing a bill with Everclear, earlier this year, but I couldn’t go. I had to give my tickets away.

So, when I finally saw them in 2017 after being a fan for like 25 years, it was well worth the wait. They did all my faves like “Hey, Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Allison Road,” and some of their biggest hits like “Hear it From You” and “Follow You Down.” And a special highlight of the show was a Tom Petty cover, as an homage, since we lost his earlier this year.

All in all, the GB didn’t disappoint. Now, time to kick back with some Hendrick’s or Beefeater and try to forget those crappy $12 state fair beers I drank before the ferris wheel…

butter balls
This is what you eat at the AZ State Fair.
Robin Wilson, lead singer of the Gin Blossoms, at the Arizona State Fair, Oct. 2017.
Deep fried cheesecake state fair food
Deep-fried cheesecake with a total sweetie, Allyson Bills. AZ state fair Oct. 2017
Gin Blossoms power jam at AZ State Fair 2017

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List No. 77 – Be on KJZZ, local NPR station

Last month, I got to fulfill my long-time dream of hearing my voice on KJZZ, our local NPR station. I was invited by host Steve Goldstein and his team to come in and have a brief chat about the history and current state of Phoenix’s art scene.

You can hear my piece about half-way through this 8-minute segment: “Art Museums Turning More Towards Contemporary Exhibitions”


Jenna’s AZ Bucket List, No. 78 – Sedona Film Festival

I got the opportunity to visit the Sedona Film Festival last month (2/25). I heard from an old, dear professor of mine from The New School in New York City. Doug Morrione was basically my senior thesis adviser when I was working on editing my Kooz documentary. Doug has a strong background as a professional film and television editor. He’s worked on many documentaries and different reality TV series-es. Anyway, he decided to go it on his own and make a documentary–like actually assemble the concept and film it himself. The result was “Everything in the Song is True,” a documentary about cowboy poets, trick riders and ropers, ranchers and generally, honestly salt-of-the-earth talented and hardworking people of the Southwest.
I had been wanting to experience Sedona Film Fest for year. I didn’t realize it’s been running for more than 20 years! (I thought it was relatively new, like Phoenix Film Festival). I can’t say that I got to experience it as a true insider, because I only attended one event, but Doug’s film was sold out and I could tell from the emcee, festival organizers, and other filmmakers that I met that the experience was a success. I was especially impressed with the availability of parking in various areas around Sedona and the shuttle system they had set up. I imagine the after-party at the Hilton was pretty fun, too. I hope to return next year and maybe ever splurge on the VIP pass. Like anyone needed an excuse to get up to Sedona! (But then again, for me it had been more than 10 years. Conclusion: gas money well-spent!)

Courtesy of Pinterest

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List nos. 89-85

AZ Bucket List 89-85

I want to do something a little different this week. Switching from places I have been in the last year or so, I’d like to focus this week on a handful of places I’d like to go. I’ll explain the importance of each place and provide some Internet-research based descriptions and plenty of links.

  1. The Scotch Library at the Kierland Resort

Apparently there is a giant room at the Kierland Resort is Scottsdale dedicated to more than 200 different types of Scotch and whiskey. I have also heard a rumor they have a tasting room. I have no idea what the cost for tasting flights is, but all I know is, as a Duncan and a person who likes whiskey. Scotch and Bourbon—I must go some day before my time in AZ is up! Methinks I will need an Uber driver to take me home that night. Either that or a suite.

  1. The Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel, Winslow

If you watch the film Almost Famous, there’s a memorable scene where the band comes to Phoenix. This scene was really filmed at the Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood Boulevard, LA, but damn–it sure looks like La Posada, an historic and very beautiful old hotel in Winslow, Arizona. I read about La Posada and world-famous Turquoise Room in a travel magazine three or four years ago and ever since, I have been salivating for the dishes created by Chef John Sharpe. The photos of the food make it look like the best U.S.-inspired Southwestern cuisine on the planet (I can forgive him for being British). The architecture makes you dream of a beautiful villa in Spain. I vow that we will stay over night at La Posada and dine at The Turquoise Room some day!


  1. Titan Missile Museum

It might be hard to believe, but somewhere sitting out there in the desert, just a little bit south of Tucson in Sahuarita is a complete, once-fully-operational missile launch site. It’s just sitting out there in what I imagine are a big group of silos and underground secret buildings. I don’t know, because I haven’t been yet. But you better believe this one made the AZ Bucket List!

Titan Missile Museum
Titan Missile Museum. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve been wondering about this place since I lived in Tucson, circa 1999-2001, and used to see the billboards all the time. I had a friend who was very into photography, and a couple times we went and skulked around the airplane graveyard. That was incredibly fun, thrilling and interesting, and I can only imagine an old, fully-automated missile launch area is even more mind-blowing.

The Titan Missile Museum used to be known as Air Force Facility Missile Site 8. It was deactivated in 1982. The Titan II was the largest land based nuclear missile ever built or used by the United States.

Admission is less than $10. I am thinking I’m going to roll this one into a Southern Arizona weekend, and roll in my next bucket list item, which is…

  1. Spend a night in Bisbee

The only time I’ve ever spent in Bisbee was on a day trip that I took by myself. I drove for what felt like all day from Phoenix. By the time I got to Bisbee, the sun was high and I got thirsty fast. Still, I walked around this little, charming, oddball ghost town, looking into windows of art galleries, roaming around noting the weird paint job on a lot of the classic old mining town houses, and wishing I had more time to actually go INTO the mine (I love going underground). I also wished I knew someone local who could show me around.

Bisbee, AZ courtesy of
Bisbee, Arizona, at night. It is a hilly little old mining town! Photo courtesy of

I wished I’d done some research and found a good concert or art event to go to. I also wished I had a room at the Copper Queen Hotel, because I was NOT looking forward to the five-hour drive back home. But rates were really high that night—about $250 (it was a weekend in the dead of summer) and I just couldn’t rationalize this expense for little ol’ me. Instead I sat in a bar that was completely dead and ate a hamburger, talking to this dark-haired bartender dude who was the epitome of hippie.

I’ve been dying to go back to Bisbee and actually spend a little more, but I have not had the occasion. This would make for one excellent stop on a group road trip, I’m thinking!

  1. Shady Dell Airstream Park

Shady Dell is an entire trailer park full of old (but cute!) fully restored Airstream RVs. For a very affordable fee, you can drive down to this park near Bisbee and stay in a trailer fully made up to look like the 1950s. We are talking vintage couches, record player, cute dinette set, tiny mobile kitchen—the works. They have about 10 of these adorable refurbished models ranging from the years 1947-1959 with cute names such as the Tiki Bus, Spartanette and El Rey.

Courtesy of
Shady Dell Airstream resort park. Stay overnight in vintage luxury.

On two different occasions I had reservations and serious plans to go down to Shady Dell. And on two different occasions some big life event happened and I had to cancel. I’ve been disappointed about this since the year 2000.

I’m not a big vintage clothing fan, but I do love to go visit relics that remind us of a time in AZ past, so add Shady Dell to my AZ Bucket List Southern Arizona weekend getaway plans!

Jenna’s Arizona Bucket List, nos. 100-96

Note: these items are not in any particular order of preference, or by theme.

I have been writing a lot of reviews for TripAdvisor lately (read them here: jcduncan2001) and I decided I’d like to try reviewing some local Arizona treasures. I will start with things and places I’ve seen and experienced, and then I will get to a longer list of AZ things I think everyone should try before they die in or move on from Arizona.

100. Karchner Caverns
When I was in my early 20s, I did an Americorps Conservation Internship in Carlsbad Caverns National Park New Mexico. Most of my job took place in the library (I served as the Park Historian’s assistant). But every single day I found a way, a reason an excuse to go into caves.
This interest started when I was a kid—an early teen, I believe—and my mom took us on a family trip to the caverns. The giganticness of this underground space seized my imagination. You could actually get lost down there! It was astounding.

It took me another ½ of my life to get around to finally visiting Karchner Caverns. What was my problem? Well, there were a couple of half-attempts, but it took me a while to figure out that to go to Karchner you need a reservation. It’s not like Carlsbad where you can just roll in any day of the year (literally, many, many national parks are open all days of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, check for details). Anyway, this was the first and most noticeable difference to me; the fact that Karchner is a state run park and therefore the hours are limited and the rules are different.

The other big difference is the commitment to conservation the AZ parks people have made to Karchner. I’m not saying at Carlsbad they aren’t committed to conservation—they are. Well, nowadays. It wasn’t always that way. As a result, decades of high-volume visits from the public have dried the caverns out and made the formation growth less active. Not the case at Karchner—this is very much a living cave. The entire cave system underground is probably gigantic, but it hasn’t all been mapped and explored (Carlsbad hasn’t either. Very highly explored (around 119 caves that are known of), but probably not entirely, plus it had a possible link to Lechugilla (at least 138 miles long) which is a whole new animal when it comes to massive cave systems). Anyway, Karchner is being protected with a sophisticated system of airlock giant tunnels and doors that are opened only occasionally to let folks in and out. There are two tours available: the Throne Room/Rotunda and the Big Room. The Rotunda tour has been operating longer and it’s an easy trek. I don’t know much about the Big Room tour because we did not do that one, but according to the website, it’s not for children under 7 years of age.

The Rotunda/Throne Tour is interesting. A ranger rides a shuttle with you to the cave mouth and you wait for instructions before you are let in. Once in you hang out in a humid damn antechamber while the ranger tells you some history of the caverns. The cave tour is only ½ a mile and you move at a snail’s pace following the guide and waiting for new portions of the path to light up so you can travel them. It’s an informative tour, but after Carlsbad it feels small and a little slow. There is a weird orchestral light show in the final chamber on an amazing formation called Khubla Khan. When we went you could barely hear the music from the weak speakers and by the time we got there we really just wanted to walk around on our own anyway. So the tour was a tad disappointing. If we had all day, I’d say do both tours. Oh, and then take a drive down to Mexico—you will find yourself only 20 minutes from the border.

99. Barrett Jackson Auto Auction
I’m not particularly a gearhead, nor do I love hanging out in places where most of the people have more money than they know what to do with, but… that said… I’ve always wanted to visit Barrett Jackson just to see what it was all about. Last year I had that chance. During the opening weekend, I snuck up to Scottsdale to check out the event for myself.barrett_jackson2015_4

Shockingly, I had no problem with traffic nor parking. Perhaps it’s because I arrive at 2:30 on Friday afternoon. The ticket line wasn’t a problem, either. Because I had no other agenda than just to go inside and roam around, maybe eat a corndog, I wasn’t deterred from anything by crowds or long lines.

I was impressed with the interesting vendors. I got to sit in a tiny commuter car especially designed for only one driver/rider (move over Smart cars!). There were cool amphibious vehicles from WWII. There were clown cars and crazy antiques, sparkly glittery cars, and cars that could go from zero to 120 mph in only seconds. Basically this show made me feel self-conscious about driving my Prius, and I used to feel COOL for it!

barrett_jackson2015_8I sat in on the auction for a while just because I always get a kick out of those barrett_jackson2015_9fast-talking callers “Do I have a sixty-sixty-five, c’mon-baby-keep-it-alive, seventy-seven-thousand, baby let’s go eighty, 80-thousand, ninety? Ninety-no? Eight it is! SOLD!”

I’m sure I picked exactly the right time to go and I got out of there in an hour and a half before horrendous traffic, too. A terrible crowd would have been a deterrent. But… I surprise myself when I write this: Barrett Jackson is a fun, family event and I’d recommend anyone should go. Once.

98. Lucky Boy Burger
I’d heard the rumors of this legendary place but did not believe it could rival Whataburger. Well, it can and does!

Lucky Boy burgers (3430 N 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85016) is near my house. Driving by, you would never assume this might be a place you’d want to frequent. The blue paint on the exterior is flaking off and the parking lot is frequently overgrown with weeds. At best, it looks like a place that was abandoned at the 1960s.

But once you try it you’ll find the service is friendly. I wouldn’t say “fast,” because it took a good 15 minutes to get my order, and I only two burgers and two orders of fries. But it was worth it because I could tell the food had been freshly made and wasn’t just sitting under a heating lamp.

I got the Lucky Burger and Lucky Original because they were recommended. These are your standard burgers with lettuce, tomato pickles. There isn’t anything particularly distinguishable from what your mom might make (on a good night). Still, they are great! The fries were great, too. So, long story short, we WILL be back.

Other items on the menu are standard burger joint fare: fries, fried zucchini, hot dogs. They have a long list of shake and malt flavors including banana, Oreo cookie, M&M, peanut butter and cinnamon (I know, right: Cinnamon? But that sounds delicious!). Next time I go I’ll get a dessert and then I’ll update this entry to let you know how it was.

97. Japanese Friendship Garden
I once tried to meet a friend at the Japanese Friendship Garden 1125 N 3rd Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85003) on a weekend around 4 p.m. in the summer. To our dismay, we found it closed. I can only assume this place has limited hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days, closed Mondays) because it’s mostly volunteer run. Still, I wish it were open longed hours and more often so more of us could enjoy it during the week.

Also disappointing is the giant condo complex going up on the Southside. Not my favorite thing to see when I look up and around, pretending to be “out in nature.” But what can the caretakers of this charming little garden really do against Big Development in Phoenix?

Anyway, I went on a Friday morning after visiting with some girlfriends at Lola’s after coffee. We breezed through the little park at a not too slow pace. When I return, I’d like to spend more time there. It has some cute pagodas and lot of delicately manicured plants, even water lilies. The path is gentle and easy—anyone could do this walk (although when we went they had just watered and the path was a little tiny bit slippery). There’s a reflection pool area and places where you could sit in the shade.

I imagine this is an ideal place for a small private event such as a wedding or company luncheon. We have so few cute outdoor spaces around downtown Phoenix, that I hate to be a naysayer, but… the Japanese gardens in Portland and Seattle are really astounding compared to our quaint little one in Phoenix. It’s cute, and I hope it doesn’t close, but it’s also not grandiose or elegant.
96. Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour
From the moment I first heard the name of this fancy signature cocktail joint, I knew I had to try it. Bitter & Twisted (1 West Jefferson St, Phoenix, AZ 85003) is a novelty for Phoenix but the type of fun, fancy cocktail place you’d find in Brooklyn, Austin, San Francisco or the hipper parts of L.A. It’s dark and there are huge plush booths and the place gets packed on the weekends—sometimes you have to wait in a line out the door. It’s located in the historic Luhrs building downtown. Be prepared to pay $10 to $20 for parking lots on game nights.

That said, it’s worth the wait to have expertly trained bartenders shake you hand-made cocktails from a loooooong, very long, list of cocktails beyond your basic Manhattans, gimlets and martinis. They have a seasonal drink with the catchy name “Slap & Tickle,” and they had a fun one called the Rosie Perez that I want to say contained watermelon juice? Don’t ask me, they were strong. I think I had two one night and then had to ask a friend for a ride home.

The food menu, like the revolving cocktail menu, is a tad experimental, too. But mostly good. You can’t go wrong with the bar snack popcorn (covered in butter, garlic sesame spices, sushi and crunched up spicy rice crackers), mouthwatering brisket street tacos and the meat and cheese board. They used to have a pork belly dish that was interesting, but they tend to change the menu around (drink menu, too). The desserts always look good (they serve campfire-style ‘smores!), but I always get full on drinks. And, I have to say about the Banofee pot: don’t they have the same thing just down the block at that Sam Fox nightmare place, Butcher-something? Salted pudding, or something gross?

Anyway. I will be back to Bitter & Twisted because it’s cute, cozy and I have some out-of-town friends coming to Phoenix that I want to impress.

Jenna’s Arizona Bucket List, part 1

For the next 2-3 years, I will use this blog to post the top 100 places in Arizona I think that everyone should see and experience (myself included). I know that this has been done before, but this little experiment has a special meaning for me. I am an Arizona native, and for years I’ve struggled with this identity. You see, I love this beautiful state, its natural wildernesses and break-taking contrasts of topography, but I don’t always relate to the ideas around here nor all of the people.

That said, and even though I am a Native Arizonan, there are still dozens of places I’ve always wanted to visit but have yet to explore.

My goal is to post short write-ups on ten different places, attractions, features, etc. each week which that are uniquely “Arizonan.” At the end  of this little experiment I may go back and somehow compile a complete list. I’m starting with places and things where I have been but I’ll move into uncharted territory this summer.

I invite friends to follow along, come with me to try new things and send your feedback and ideas throughout the summer (and into September).

Let’s do like ADOT suggests on those obnoxious lighted freeway signs: Slow down, enjoy Arizona.

10 Bands/Artists/Albums that I (Utterly) Cannot Live Without

Warning: this is a long one, so… you might want to go grab yourself some hot cocoa and buckle in for a minute or two.

  1. Wavves

It’s weird—I discovered the Wavves by accident. I was doing a really spotty job pretending to be a freelance DJ/television assistant/novelist while I lived in New York City. This was all circa 2005-2010. To be really honest, I was just a lazy grad student and I kinda sort supplanted my student loan income by occasionally being “guest” DJ alongside my friends who had regular gigs. Anyway, it occurred to me once, probably close to the time I wrapped up the whole NYC experience and packed a freight truck full of my life’s belongings back to Arizona that I should call a record company, tell them I was a DJ, and ask for stuff to play and give away. Hey, it worked when I was a hack college DJ, why shouldn’t it work as a 20-something hack NYC DJ? After several failed attempts, I finally convinced Matador Records that I was worth sending a promo kit of their newest artists’ released. I got an amazing stack of new music from The National, Kurt Vile and Wavves. I’ve come to love all three,  but I love Wavves the best. I think it’s because Wavves is that surf rock band I always wanted to grow up listening to but we didn’t have when I was a teen. Wavves is like what the Beach Boys are, to my mom. I friggin love this band, and it’s been amazing to watch them grow. I think it’s only fair I share my top three Wavves tracks. So here they are, in this order: 1. Idiot, 2. King of the Beach and 3. Afraid of Heights.

Desert island music? Oh, hell yeah!

  1. Nirvana

I was one of those grunge kids before grunge kids were cool. That’s right—I had Nevermind as soon as it came out. It was 1992, and I was 12 years old. I barely understood what rock ‘n’ roll was—but I knew enough. I knew that it gave me a tingly sensation right there in the middle of my teenage torso. I knew it made me want to get out of seat, and if not dance, then at least dash around like a maniac mock-copying what they did late at night on MTV, Head Bangers’ Ball. OK, so I got exposed to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through the radio—we all did. But not everyone has a special memory like I do of an elementary school bus trip locking fingers (yes, fingers—not even holding hands, because, like, we were 12), with the cute boy I called my boyfriend, who also happened to love Nirvana, and was also listening to Nevermind as we drove through the desert all the way from Phoenix to San Diego to go to Sea World. Yes, listening to the cassette tapes—ON OUR WALKMANS!!

I begged my mom to take me to see Nirvana at the state fair when they played with Mudhoney and me and my little ‘tween and teenage brat junior high friends then ditched my mom, my sister, and my sister’s godmother and spent the whole time in the pit. Until we got kicked out. I nearly gave my mom a heart attack (this was the early 1990s, the era before cell phones).

When Kurt Cobain died, my junior high best friend and I lost it after D.A.R.E. And we cried all the way until I said goodbye to her as she got on the bus. Shortly after that, I went through a Nirvana backlash—a personal rebellion of sorts. Kids that I mentally deemed “poseurs” started wearing Nirvana shirts to school—like all over the place, and I couldn’t handle it. I had loved Nirvana first. I was the angsty kid first—the one who truly meant it. Like the Sallinger novel kid’s character thought, these other guys were phonies. I gave up on Nirvana all through high school and most of college.

Still, I couldn’t part with my cassettes and CDs, and slowly but surely I started listening again. It turns out that In Utero never gets old. It turns out that Cobain’s lyrics take on new, sometimes darker, sometimes brighter, meanings, the more you listen to them. So I could never be all out of Nirvana.

It took until they released that box set around 2003 and my editor at the small weekly entertainment magazine I was then working at offered to let me review it that I had to take a deep breath and plunge back into the abyss. And I’ll never deny them again. I’ll always love this band.

  1. Sonic Youth

As hard as I took it when Kim and Thurston broke up, I had to finally admit that it had nothing to do with me.

I think like a lot of coming-of-age females of my generation, the Kim/Thurston duo represented the unattainable, and that’s what made them so highly desirable and iconic. Who wouldn’t love a moppy haired glasses wearing dweeb who identified as a feminist, wrote cool ‘zines and could shred on the guitar? Thurston was the dream BF, and Kim represented what I always wished I had the balls to be—a rock star. So in my fantasy life, that could be me—a hot, confident indie mega-babe, with her nerdy prince rocker BF/husband, rocking their way to liberation, fighting fascism and taking us on a dream trip, too. Come to find out from Kim’s memoir, Girl in a Band, it wasn’t always fun and games, nor was it a love-fest the entire time. But so what? To me, these people were heroes. I love everything that they stood for. I even got into Two Dollar Guitar and once went to a film art show put on by Lee Renaldo’s wife, Leah Singer, in Seattle just because there was a Sonic Youth connection.

If it weren’t for this band, I wouldn’t know who the artists Mike Kelley or Richard Prince even were.

I owe a lot to this band for helping me find art, strength, creativity and passion, at several critical junctures in my life. Just for the record and since I’m on topic: I can probably never tire of Washing Machine or Dirty, I think Experimental Jet Set is entirely overrated. Free Kitten was cute, but I never knew whether or not I was supposed to take it seriously or not. I really liked X Girl when Kim was running it, and I wish I’d known more about Kim’s life when I was a teenager. I would have liked this band even more.

  1. The Concretes, but only with Victoria Bergsman as the singer

Like my accidental addiction to Wavves, I honestly cannot remember how I got into The Concretes. I am happy to say that I am fairly certain I discovered them on my own. But whether I heard them first in a bar, a record store, or something cheesy like Pandora, I really do not recall. What I do recall is the way The Concretes’ album Layyourbattleaxedown gently coaxed me through grad school as I was completing my MFA in Creative Writing, and then became so ingrained in my psyche that I find I can’t make a mix CD or own a personal music device without loading at least one, two or three songs—Oh, OK, at least half the album—onto it, and celebrating every musical note with joy. Lady December is one of the finest tribute songs ever written. Stop. Dianna Ross is equally a good tribute, but it also sums up girlhood in a way that is utterly, blissfully perfect. Chico is probably my favorite, most tenderest getting-over-broken-heart-song ever (I secretly hope and dream and pray it was written about a cat), and Miss You is thee best Rolling Stones cover, I think I have ever heard (a possible second-place I would give to The Sundays for Wild Horses).

I don’t know why Bergsman left the band. I tried to get into them without her, but it just wasn’t there. It’s something about her raw, quirky, sentimental yet not sappy voice that I can’t live without. I also tried getting into Taken with Trees, but I just couldn’t do it. The instrumentation of The Concretes, as a band, plus Bergsman’s angel-voice is the perfect combo. I think Taken by Trees to me feels… well… a little too much like a weak samba band. I don’t connect with it as much. But the old lineup with V.B. as singer could last me till the end of my days (I just hope my CDs and digital devices last that long).

  1. Neko Case

I once saw Neko Case and her band play the Williamsburg pool. She opened with “Favorite.” My eyes flooded with tears and I thought I was going to pass out because I believed that Neko Case had read my mind!!

Come to find out, no, she hadn’t read my mind (turns out she doesn’t even know me. Huh.) but her tarot card deck had TOLD her to lead with that song.

“Holy shit!” I thought when I found that out. “That is even BETTER!”

Whether or not Neko really is a psychic Wiccan (which I suspect. But in a good way), she can croon like nobody’s business, and I can’t imagine a single person with a cold heart so stony that he/she could not relate to her. She’s gorgeous and pure, just city enough and just hippie enough for me to relate to her. She’s not too angry, and she’s not too sad. But she, like all of my favorite artists out there, seems to know exactly what she stands for, and she doesn’t take no slack from anybody. As evidenced in her bone-chilling song “Make your Bed” off Canadian Amp. “Maybe Sparrow” seems really sweet and “Knock Loud” (Sook-Yin Lee) is a cool cover. Plus, Case shows she’s a gal who stays connected to her roots, even if she had a tough childhood with parents who were mess-ups.

Neko Case has written some of the tenderest, best versed, most emotive, crafty and intelligent songs of our generation. And I mean that honestly, and not just because I secretly really, really really want to meet her.

  1. Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith died before I could ever see him perform. It’s funny cuz I know a lot of kids from Phoenix who all have a similar story—they were on the way to see him play in Phoenix, circa sometimes around the year 2000, but his tour bus broke down in Vegas or LA or blah blah. I don’t know what I was doing at that time, but I probably did not live in Phoenix. Anyway, it’s weird, I always liked/loved his music and felt almost a personal connection to him. And, the thing I think is even weirder than that is that a lot of people would talk about him in this same way I was feeling—almost like they know him on a first name basis.

Without ever knowing, here are some things I am certain of: I am certain he was an introvert to an extreme. How do I know this? Duh. I didn’t need to watch a documentary or anything you get it from his music. This was a guy who was left alone a lot, and probably preferred it that way, and you know what? Not everyone has to be the life of the party. I think I related to this part of him as an artist so deeply because I have tried time and again, time after time, again and again to insert myself into one scene or another—tried again and again to BE the life of the party. And failed. Again and again. And I find myself alone in my own little room, wrapped deep in my own thoughts. And again and again, that is OK. The people I know who have loved Elliott Smith loved him in a deeply personal way, almost like an intimate friend, without ever knowing the guy. Somehow with his sheepish grin, his unkempt hair and his not-too-secret rocky brick path of drug use, a little part of A LOT of us could find a way to relate.

Plus, he’s the only songwriter I can really, truly, honestly name who can drop the F-bomb and make it sound pretty.

When he drops a line like: “Do you think I outta shake your mother-fuckin’ hand?” you are taken right to moment. You can actually see his shaky scary scarecrow nemesis staggering down some alley, and you just want to kill that guy on behalf of your friend Elliott Smith because for some reason that you can’t even explain he just hates him so bad.You just know he wronged your friend, you don’t know how, but you just know that other guy is bad news.

There’s a lot of reading between the lines with Elliott Smith. I once almost got in an argument with a dear friend of mine who is a bigger fan of his than I because I suggested a lot of his lyrics are code for drugs, and she did not like that. I stand by my original assessment; I just can’t think of many other meanings for so many needles and so many starry skies, and so many lyrics that overtly say things about “high on amphetamines.” Still, I think his music is pretty and enchanting. I don’t know all the demons he took down with him, and I hope to God I never know them all as up-close-and-personal as he did, but I still think he fought the good fight. And I sorta wish he was still around writing more good songs, even ones with curse words.

  1. Willie Nelson

Ha HA! I know is a curveball after reading most of my list. But let me explain. When I was a kid, I grew up in a house divided. My mom loved Elvis and the Beach Boys, and my dad was into country music—err, what was then “new country.” Almost 24 hours a day, we would have the Country Music Network on cable, and crooners such as George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, and 1980s Glen Campbell would flood through the house. For some tweens this would be seriously annoying. But I didn’t know any better. So I loved it! (P.S. once they got divorced my mom made a point of always, only playing the pop rock station in her car. I was quickly weened from Willie and fed a steady diet of Madonna, Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. I had music identity issues well into junior high…)

When I was 8 years old, KNIX (local Phoenix country station of that era) was my favorite station. And whenever we got in the car, I’d insist we listen to it. My parents actually bought me a cheap alarm clock radio from Walgreens so I could listen to Tania Tucker and the Judds in my room. (That was the late 1980s, and I still have it—it’s a little beat up but it’s still on the nightstand). So, basically, I grew up with Willie, and Willie is nostalgia music for me.

I remember following him through the heartbreak of his bad IRS years in the late 1980s. I remember Farm Aid—hell, I probably watched all of it with my dad on CMT, both of us with tears in our eyes, touched by Willie’s great generosity. (Come to find out as an adult that he was kind of forced by the IRS to record a few records and turn over almost 100% of the profit in order to get himself out of hot water. But I can forgive the guy. Everybody owes someone something).

Even though I think of him more as a pothead than a cowboy, and his blood might run a tad more Libertarian than my own, I still love the guy as an artist and an icon. I saw him some years back at Austin City Limits, and he was and is one of the best live performers I have ever seen—a real professional.

It wasn’t too long ago that during a cable doc about him that I caught the tale end of I got a tear in my eye for Willie. It occurred to me that when he dies, I will cry—and I will cry hard. He’s one of the last holding institutions of what was once a great country music era—the 1980s. And when Willie Nelson is gone, so too, I fear, will be the last vestiges, childhood comforts and some of the nostalgia of my youth.

  1. Dinosaur Jr.

Sure, I liked grunge in junior high. But then I went through a backlash (see the previous entry on Nirvana) and then in high school I thought I was really into punk and ska. Punk I still have a stomach for, but ska—blech. It must have been the hazy brain I had in high school for the guy I was dating and went to prom with. He was in a minor local ska band, for a hot minute.

Anyway, enough high school weekend nights spent spent “skanking” with white, suburban, wannabe Rude Boys, and then I grew out of in. In college I discovered indie and quickly got my earbuds massaged by such bands as Death Cab for Cutie, Yo La Tengo and Pavement. And I liked all of them a’ight. But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and actually lived and commuted entrenched in the misty climes of the Pacific Northwest—the place that grunge was culled from—did I truly begin to understand and appreciate the mysticism, longing, loneliness, silliness and occasional giddiness that comes with the territory.

See, Seattle has a troll. Not everyone knows this. But I knew this. He lives under the 99 overpass in what was once my neighborhood—Fremont. And I discovered this troll about the same time I was discovering a lot of things about myself and my life, and this was when I also truly got into Dinosaur Jr. Ironically, I was working at Urban Outfitters at the time. Not ironically as in “hipster irony is cool.” It is NOT cool. I’ve never thought doing ANYTHING solely for the sake of irony was cool, and I still don’t like it. To me, (and I was an English major) irony is one of the cheapest forms of comedy. So I didn’t want to get into Dino Jr. for that. No! It just so happened that I briefly had a crush on a coworker who was legit really into them. And he used to play them in the store a lot. And I would wonder around, hating my job, feeling lonely because no one would date me that year (spoiler alert: low self-esteem is a real bummer when you are trying to attract a date. And there is nothing ironic about that). Since my crush wasn’t into me, and I was weirdly getting into his music, I suddenly started to get the downer theme that a lot of the Pacific Northwest music has to it. “I don’t see you, I won’t call you. I don’t know enough to stall you…” Not to mention I was coming off of a serious break-up with someone I’d been very, very into but had never had the guts to really come out and say it. Ugh. I was feeling like a failure at love. Not to mention life! Here I’d finished a college degree, and all I could find for work was Urban Outfitters? “I’ll be grazin’ by your window/please come pat me on the head. Just want to find out what you’re… nice to me for…”

Then the icing on the cake was when my friend who happened to be an intern at Up! Records took me to see J. Mascis live at the Tractor. The guy WAS a Dinosaur! And man, the guy could shred. I was overwhelmed at the intense amount of emotional energy he put into a show, just sitting there with his guitar. I’ve seen Dinosaur Jr. three or four times now, all in different cities, and every single time he’s been unstoppable (I heard the dude is hardcore into meditation. He is another rocker on my list of “really, really, really want to meet this person”).

I moved away from Seattle because at the end of my brief stint there I really ended up hating the climate. And I sorta thought the people acted funny, too. But I think what I really just hated most was being alone. I’ve never done well as the lonely guy. But hey, at least I had the music of Dinosaur Jr. to relate to. And there is no irony in that.

  1. Bikini Kill/le Tigre/Julie Ruin/whatever the fuck that Kathleen Hanna does

I’m not a singer. I have a terrible voice. And yet, for some sick reason, I still like to get up and torture my friends with performances at karaoke. I can’t really explain that, except… no, wait, I can—Kathleen Hanna taught me when I was a teenager that if you need to express yourself, verbally, vocally or in poetry you have every right to do it and nobody should shut you up.

Given this secret, silent unspoken message that I somehow derived from her music at age 13 has sometimes gotten me in trouble. I’ve told some folks off when I maybe probably shouldn’t have. I don’t regret it. And some people would say that is stubborn, but those people do not know what it feels like to have been constantly shut up, ignored and dismissed throughout life for not being cool enough, not being smart enough, not having Guess jeans and not being elected class president.

True, I have some chips on my shoulder. But that’s because I was an ambitious kid. And I was a kid who faced a lot of rejection. And it’s not something I always share with people as an adult, even my close friends.

But what I like about this fact about me, and what I like about Bikini Kill, is that these things made me strong. It did take a long, long time to realize—that is true. But I am a strong person. Nigh! A strong WOMAN, and that is a valuable thing. I didn’t even know how strong until recently I looked over scores of poetry I’d written when I was, oh, ages 19-25. And there is some pretty damn good stuff in there!

The first time my cousin put a Bikini Kill record on at her house, I wasn’t sure I liked it. The singer sounded shrill, and pissed, at the same time. I was into Nirvana, my cousin, Shannon, had been into Guns & Roses for a while. So, frankly, when she put the record on, I was confused.

But I read the sleeve, and the lyrics matched a lot of things I’d been thinking and feeling. Feelings of being shot down, feelings of being squashed by boy-culture, confusion about sexuality, ideas about girl empowerment. That was brand new. The first time we listened, I was confused. But the second, third and fourth times we listened, I started to like it. Bikini Kill, like Elliott Smith, is another of my all-time faves that I never got to see perform live. But I DID get to see le Tigre a couple times as an adult, and all the old feelings came back, were reinforced, and then even expanded. I don’t think I’d truly know my place in the world as a volunteer, teacher, do-gooder, woman-lover, friend and activist if it weren’t for Bikini Kill. And for that I feel I owe a lot. Plus, turn on le Tigre at any dance party and you automatically WIN as DJ. So, you know, double-good.

  1. Patti Smith

When I read Just Kids about Smith’s friendship/soulmate-relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I bawled my eyes out. Patti Smith had the same effect on me when I saw her perform live at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Dec. 2005. I have to admit that for me there are times when music becomes something of a religious experience. And Patti Smith is paramount in this regard.

I didn’t always love her. In college I was curious. I knew zero about her back story, but I knew that some of my older, intellectual friends seemed to dig her for her poetry. I gave Horses a listen and was instantly hooked. I can’t say the same about Easter, Land or Gung Ho, although over time they’ve grown on me.

I needed a wise older friend to explain to me why Rock N Roll Nigger was OK. Why was it OK for this white woman to be saying it? No—why was it OK for her to be scream/singing it? Why was it OK for her to be claiming to be one? At first, to my overly-sensitive politically correct tuned suburban white girl ears, everything about this was evil and wrong. But that’s because I was still an outsider to the outsider subculture. Still really just a fangirl to rock and roll, I had to go through some tough shit and trying times to get to really understand what that song, and many of Smith’s others, were really about.

Now that I understand the relationship with Maplethorpe and her thirst, drive and commitment to her art, the song, “Free Money” tears my soul apart. But I could never have gotten that song if I’d never been broke, suffering for art or lived through severe disappointment and desperation. Sure, “Money—it’s what I want”—it’s what EVERYONE wants. But it adds a depth of almost depravity when you actually need it so bad because your soulmate is almost dying of pneumonia and you can’t afford to hit the doctor’s office.

I discovered Smith’s love for William Blake and immediately I knew she was kin. An ex gave me a book of just her poems at a particularly devastatingly sad moment in our relationship and I ate it up like chocolate chips. I needed it. It was comfort food. We’ve since parted ways, but I’ll always have mad respect for the person because he knew that we’d share in her words some modicum of strength and recovery.

Just looking at M Train sitting on the floor of my office on top of my “to read” pile is making my eyes well-up, so I think it’s probably time to get to that. Patti Smith is not just a poet but a lover and a lover of peace, and I have more respect for her than any teacher or mentor that I’ve ever had face-to-face. Because she lives her art. And I take this as a strength, and more than a light suggestion. I’d really like to be more like the person I observe her to be in her art—pure, honest and true. And I think when I finish her book that may have to be my New Year’s resolution.