How the University of Kansas Made Snoop Dogg Dangerous

God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.

On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.

Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:

But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:

We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.

KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:

Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?

Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”

Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?

Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.

But cultural context makes an artist dangerous. Snoop Dogg performing “Gin and Juice” at the Las Vegas House of Blues is not news. But University of Kansas is another matter. KU wants to maintain an image as a sparkling institute of higher learning and noble athletic endeavors. But it’s been hard for KU to do that lately. On September 23, the NCAA charged KU with a lack of institutional control in its sports program, including responsibility violations by Coach Self. The charges do not specify what KU did wrong. But it’s public knowledge that KU men’s basketball has been associated with an FBI probe of illegal payments made by an Adidas consultant. And guess what? Adidas brought Snoop Dogg to Late Night in the Phog — in fact, Bill Self had promoted the concert ahead of time, wearing gold chains and an Adidas T shirt.

Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.

Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.

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Hold on to Your Butts: Why Samuel L. Jackson and Alexa Broke the Internet

Why are we so excited about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice coming to Alexa? 

On September 26, Amazon announced that Jackson will be the first celebrity to lend his voice to the Alexa voice assistant. Later in 2020, if you use Alexa, you’ll be able to add a Samuel L. Jackson skill, meaning that you can ask Alexa to perform a number of tasks in the voice of the beloved actor. He’ll do everything from tell jokes to sing happy birthday. And yes, the skill comes with both a G-rated and a profane version, in case you’d like Alexa to unleash full-bore Big Kahuna-munching Jules Winnfield on your living room through your Amazon Echo speaker.  

You can’t make Alexa talk like Jackson all the time – the skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do. The skill employs neural text-to-speech technology (TTS), which translates written text to spoken word with a tone and voice to reflect a personality. Businesses are exploring TTS to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots and content that requires voice-over narration. 

The Internet Rejoices

Even though the Jackson skill sounds basic, just the notion of having Samuel L. Jackson dropping F bombs as he delivers the weather report sent the internet into a tizzy of joyful celebration. Social media celebrated a life in which Alexa would sound like the man who told us to hold on to our butts in Jurassic Park and pondered the path of the righteous man in Pulp Fiction:

And journalists did, too:


But why did the news trigger such an outpouring of excitement about an Alexa skill that performs rudimentary tasks? 

Voice Assistants Catch On

Well, for one thing, voice assistants are rapidly catching on. An estimated 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, own an Echo, versus 30 percent who own iPhones – not bad penetration for a product that was released (in limited distribution) only five years ago. All told, about a third of Americans say they use voice assistants regularly in some form. 

Moreover, the Amazon Echo — and the Alexa voice assistant that powers it — most certainly enjoys strong name awareness due to Amazon’s marketing muscle. Amazon announcing a new Alexa skill featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson is going to generate buzz, more so than if, say, Microsoft did the same for Cortana. Super Bowl commercials are now featuring Alexa, as a sign of how how familiar we are with Alexa.

A Need for the Familiar

But I believe the enthusiastic response points to something deeper: a need for the familiar. Voice-based technology is coming on strong, as the big tech companies–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft–race each other to lead a voice-first future. The makers of voice-based apps are betting that the general population is ready to transition from text-based search to using our voices to get what we need, whether we’re searching for a nearby restaurant or finding out the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So they’re barraging us with a slew of products for the home and on the go.  

But the hype around voice can be disquieting. We’re still getting used to the idea of a machine listening to us and talking to us in the most intimate places in our lives, including our bedrooms. There is a fear that these AI-fueled devices will insinuate themselves into our lives in the creepiest way possible. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz discussed in the November 2018 article “Is Alexa Dangerous?”:

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Recent news reports about voice devices recording what we’re doing – and employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft listening in on our private conversation – have ratcheted up the discomfort to a general alarm. Now we have to worry about machines and people eavesdopping on us?

In response to the backlash, tech companies explained that they monitored select voice samples to do quality control and to teach the machines to get smarter; they also rapidly discontinued the practice. In addition, Amazon recently announced new features to give people more control over their privacy when they use Alexa

Nick Fury to the Rescue

In this context of unease, along comes Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to Alexa. He has starred in more than 130 movies, including blockbusters such as The Avengers and cultural touchstones such as Pulp Fiction.

And we’ve heard his voice in animated entertainment such as The Incredibles and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a stretch to say that he’s warm and cuddly. But he is familiar and, well, just about everyone’s personification of cool. As with Morgan Freeman, part of his allure is his voice – in Jackson’s case, confident, reassuring, in control, but righteously emotional when the situation calls for a display of passion.

When the chips are down, you want the Nick Fury who Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in The Avengers on your side. And we want him on our side when we venture into a voice-first future.

What Happens Next

Amazon was careful to point out that Jackson is the first, not the only, celebrity, to lend his voice to Alexa. In fact, technically he’s not even the first. In a popular 2018 Super Bowl ad, Alexa assumed the voices of celebrities such as Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  You know where this is headed, right? It’s only a matter of time before Alexa will assume the form of A listers with familiar voices such as Benedict Cumberbatch (for when we need British cool) and Scarlett Johansson (who famously played the voice of an AI voice assistant that forms a relationship with a human in the movie Her).  

Meanwhile, Amazon may gain something important from a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson: cultural relevance. Through a relationship with Jackson, Amazon hopes to make its brand more relevant to the beliefs, attitudes, and interests that bind us as a culture. Through his popular persona, Samuel L. Jackson is part of our cultural fabric. Amazon is a popular utility on which we buy things; it helps us live our lives. But we don’t feel an emotional bond with a utility. Amazon wants to give its brand a face – and a voice – to start forging one. 

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“Absolutely Live”: A Portrait of Jim Morrison’s Creative Rebirth

Absolutely Live is the only official live album the Doors released in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. It’s also a misunderstood album. Rock historians remember Absolutely Live, released in 1970, as a document of an artist in decline. In fact, Absolutely Live captures a time when Jim Morrison was finding a new muse through avant garde theater.

“I’ll Be Good for Nothing but Nostalgia”

Understanding Absolutely Live means going back to early 1969, an unhappy time for the Doors. The band had released three albums in 18 months, had toured heavily, and was working on its fourth album, The Soft Parade – a punishing workload. The Soft Parade had turned into a beast to create, partly because Morrison was drinking heavily and becoming an unreliable, disruptive force in the studio. 

The pressure of being a rock star was getting to Jim Morrison. He was also struggling creatively. According to The Doors: The Illustrated History, in 1969 he told composer Fred Myrow, “If I don’t find a new way to develop creatively within a year I’ll be good for nothing but nostalgia.” He was writing fewer songs, and his band mates (especially guitarist Robby Krieger) needed to pick up the slack by contributing more to The Soft Parade.

In late February, something happened that had an impact on the band’s fortunes, although no one knew it at first:  Morrison discovered the Living Theatre, and in doing so, found a creative muse.

The Living Theatre

The Living Theatre was a theatrical troupe that broke down the fourth wall and confronted the audience. For instance, in the production Paradise Now, the actors provoked arguments and goaded the audience into participating in the show. The performers protested the inhibition of personal freedoms, including not being allowed to smoke pot or take off one’s clothing. The production culminated in everyone taking to the streets for a parade and demonstration. Open nudity was part of the show.

Morrison had always been fascinated with the visual theater of music – the ability to draw energy from the audience and throw it back in a whirlwind of song and dance. He watched multiple performances of the Living Theatre when the troupe performed in Los Angeles, according to Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek.  As discussed in The Doors: The Illustrated History, Morrison attended a showing of Paradise Now on February 28: “Jim was mesmerized, and he eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.”

The Doors were scheduled to perform a concert at the Dinner Key auditorium March 1, in Coconut Grove, Florida, an event that would go down in the annals of rock history as “the Doors Miami incident.” According to Manzarek, Morrison decided to do his own version of the Living Theatre there. 

The Miami Concert

On March 1, 1969, he took the ideas of provocation to an extreme at the now-infamous concert. He berated and taunted the audience. The song “Touch Me” (which he didn’t write) was by then a hit (the band’s last Number One single). Morrison was fully aware that to his fans he was still a sex symbol despite his declining physique. He mockingly exposed his body onstage – including his genitalia, or so the Dade County Sheriff’s Office would contend when charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness afterward. Here’s how Manzarek would describe that night to NPR in 1998:

We’re in Miami. It’s hot and sweaty as a Tennessee Williams night. It’s a swamp and it’s a yuck — a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar — and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they’re sweaty. And Jim has seen the Living Theater, and he’s going to do his version of the Living TheaterHe’s going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.

He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set. He says, ‘You people haven’t come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. You came to see something, didn’t you? What do you want? . . . OK, how about if I show you my c—k . . . Isn’t that what you wanted to see?”

Eventually, Morrison challenged the audience to storm the stage. “No limits! No laws! Come on!” he shouted. “This is your show. Anything you want goes!” He urged everyone to take off their clothing. Fights broke out. The stage teetered on the edge of collapse. The house lights came on. Morrison joined the general chaos in the audience even though the rest of the band fled for their safety. He headed a human chain through the venue before leaving for his dressing room. 

“How Long Are You Going to Let Them Push You Around?”

Manzarek insisted that even though Morrison simulated the act of removing his clothing and exposing parts of his body, he never actually flashed his genitalia. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office disagreed. Within days, Morrison was charged with multiple crimes. An actual trial would not commence until August 1970. He would later be sentenced to six months in prison and fined $500. He would never serve the time. 

You can actually hear some audio of him that night. It makes for an ugly listen. At one point, he says,

You’re all a bunch of f—–g idiots! Letting people tell you what you’re going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it. Maybe you love getting your face stuck in the s—t. . . you love it don’t you? You’re all a bunch of slaves, letting everyone push you around. What are you going to do about it?

The ramblings of a drunk? Yes and no. Yes, he’s drunk. And yes, he rambles. But if you listen carefully to the audio, you hear the Doors trying to play the song “Five to One,” a 1968 Morrison composition that taunted flower children with lyrics such as:

You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand

Trying to tell me no one understands

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes

Gonna make it baby, in our prime

Morrison was taking the ethos of the song to an extreme: question. Confront. Provoke. Now, think of the Miami incident in context of this clip from the Living Theatre:

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities, such as when one of the actors in the above clip yells, “America owns the world! We’re all enslaved!” Notice, too, nudity in the context of the performance. 

But the Living Theatre was avant garde. The Doors’ audience was not interested in avant guard. They wanted to hear “Touch Me.” Many venues canceled Doors concerts. But even still, the Doors played more than 40 dates between 1969 and the first half of 1970. Absolutely Live is stitched together from performances from that stretch of 1969 and 1970.

Absolutely Live

Although Morrison sparked no riots or arrests during those subsequent concerts, he had forever shed any semblance of being a rock star. He was now a theater performer who happened to sing as part of that performance. And when he was on, the entire band was smoking hot. In fact, at a May 1970 performance at Cobo Hall, the Doors played so hard that they didn’t end until well after curfew, which led them to being banned from Cobo Hall – ironically not for obscene behavior but for doing what they did best: play music. Absolutely Live is a snapshot of Morrison as he was morphing into the theatrical shaman who eclipsed Morrison the rock star.

When I listen to the album today, I am struck by how hoarse and nasal his voice sounds at times. But his delivery is hypnotic as he embraces different personae. He is a demonic pied piper on the opening song, “Who Do You Love,” his words bouncing along with John Densmore’s Bo Diddley beat. When he sings the Bo Diddley lyrics “Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine/Just 22 and I don’t mind dying,” he chillingly prophesizes his own death, which would happen only months after Absolutely Live was released.

On the introduction to “Break on Through,” he assumes the spirit of a fallen, wasted preacher. To the piercing sound of a gong, he works up the audience by shouting these words: 

When I was back there in seminary school

There was a person there

Who put forth the proposition

That you can petition the Lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

He pauses dramatically before shouting the final line, as the band launches into “Break on Through.” Of course, Doors fans know that the “When I was back there in seminary school” spoken verse actually comes from the song “The Soft Parade,” from The Soft Parade. But he applies it to great effect as a build-up to the explosive “Break on Through.” His delivery on Absolutely Live is electric. 

The difference between Morrison the singer in the studio and Morrison the shaman on stage becomes vivid when you listen to both versions of the spoken introduction side by side. Here’s the studio introduction. And here’s the live preamble. In the studio, he is reciting words to no one. He sounds resigned to sadness. Live, he feeds off the audience’s rapturous cheers to create a crackling energy.

On “When the Music’s Over,” he interrupts the song and berates the chatty audience. “Shut up!” he screams, in full Living Theatre mode. Then he gently shushes everyone before asking, “Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?” Then he scolds the audience and pleads, “Give the singer some” . . . before launching into the climactic “We want the world and we want it now!” line. It’s as if he was making a statement recorded for his and future generations: if we want the world, then you need to stop your idle chatter and join me. (Imagine him saying that in 2019 to an audience of mobile phone waving millennials and Gen Zers.)

On the centerpiece of the album, “Celebration of the Lizard,” he transforms into a tormented poet, speaking of lions roaming the street, and a beast caged in the heart of the city. “Is everybody in?” he asks. And then, 

Wake up!

You can’t remember where it was

Had this dream stopped?

Is everybody in? Yes, we are, even from the comfort of our suburban homes decades later, as we listen to a shaman on vinyl.

Mr. Mojo Risin

Jim Morrison was in conflict with who he was and what he had become. But in the spirit of the Living Theatre, he did not hide his inner torment from anyone. He embraced theater as catharsis. In doing so, he rekindled his creativity. In the 24 months following the Miami incident, the Doors released two albums, Morrison Hotel, and L.A. Woman, which are widely regarded as classics.

Both contained songs featuring some of Morrison’s strongest writing – “Riders on the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” “The Spy,” and “Peace Frog,” among them. (After the Miami concert, the Doors also released The Soft Parade, considered their weakest album, but as noted, most of it had been written and recorded before the concert took place.) Unfortunately, the winning streak of brilliant albums would come to an untimely end on July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison died at age 27, a victim of his own hard living. He could channel his torment creatively, but he could not conquer his inner demons completely. In the act of trying, though, he left behind a compelling creative legacy. Absolutely Live is a powerful portrait of an artist rediscovering his muse through theater. 

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How to Fail Early and Often

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

If you want to learn something about dealing with failure, try to do some improvisational acting. Because when you act, you fail a lot. On stage. In front of everyone.

During summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, in 1574. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. There are stage shows, shops, restaurants, and actors dressed up in period garb walking around to play with visitors.

I portray a character named Nicolas Wright, and my friend Kendall Monaghan plays Dandy Goodwell. We are two of the characters guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are our stage. Our job is to engage with people quickly and figure out how to uplift them through improvised talking and joking that usually lasts a few minutes per encounter.

Photo credit: Denise Beidler Bennorth

We do this kind of street improv all day, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And we are good at it. We know how to read people and find a way to engage them with our improvised comedic bits. People are asking us all the time how we do it. Well, we’re good because we fail a lot and learn from failure.

Photo credit: John Karpinksy

When you meet and greet people all day in an outdoor theater, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to make a joke that falls flat. You might approach a Mom just when she’s distracted with a fussy child. Or maybe you’ll forget the name of someone you met 5 minutes ago. This is the nature of street improv.

One recent weekend, Kendall and I really screwed up. We wanted to stage a water balloon toss with some patrons on a particularly hot day. We thought the idea was brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to play catch with a water balloon and see it splash all over dusty streets?

We chose a heavily trafficked spot in the park and placed several water balloons on the ground. Then we called out to different patrons. Would they like to have a water balloon toss?

Guess what: no one cared. In clusters of two, three, and four, the patrons just kept walking past us like we didn’t exist. Every once in a while, we might convince someone to stop and play, but it was obvious they were bored out of their skulls. It didn’t help that the balloons never broke, and everyone’s aim sucked, leading to several moments where one of us needed to stop, scurry off, and retrieve a rolling water balloon.

We called an end to the toss after about 5 minutes, which seemed like five years. Here’s what we did next:

  • We went backstage and had a good laugh. Could you believe how bad we bombed? we asked each other. And how about the 20-something dude who looked like he was ready to doze off in the middle of the balloon toss? Could we have failed any more spectacularly?
  • We figured out what we needed to fix. We realized we’d made two crucial mistakes: first, we’d chosen a location near the entrance of the park. Well, when people are just walking through the front gates, they don’t want to stop and play with two actors in 16th Century garb. They’ve usually decided to go see one of the stage acts or the joust, and they are focused on walking to their destination. We were a distraction to their day, not a source of fun. And, second, we tried too hard to get people to play with us. We were like the desperate kid brother and sister who beg everyone to play. We were too needy.

Based on our analysis of what we did wrong, we adapted our approach. We chose a spot where people tend to tarry a bit and take in the day. We carried out our water balloons in big reproductions of 16h Century military shields for a little visual theater. And then we started tossing the balloons at each other without asking anyone to participate.

As it turns out, when people see two people playing and having fun, something happens: they stop eating their turkey legs and watch. They become curious. What’s going on? What’s up with the flying water balloons? And some of them want to join in.

Within a few minutes, patrons just started naturally picking up the balloons we’d set on the ground. We formed a circle and started tossing water balloons until one of us dropped them, leading to laughter when the balloons splattered on the grass. Sounds kind of silly, right? Well, when you’re dressed up in a funny costume, something as mundane as a water balloon toss seems amusing to other people.

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

The bit worked so well that we repeated it over a few weekends. Then we experimented with a watermelon toss, which really went over well. A water balloon splattering on the grass is funny. A watermelon exploding all over the place is spectacular.

Success!

The key to dealing with failure: we laughed. We owned the failure. But we learned and got better.

How do you bounce back from public failures?

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Vinyl Vibe: Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible”

Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.

Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.

Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not? 

Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit. 

Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:

There’s a family Bible on the table 

Each page is torn and hard to read 

But the family Bible on the table 

Will ever be my key to memories 

At the end of day when work was over 

And when the evening meal was done 

Dad would read to us from the family Bible 

And we’d count our many blessings one by one 

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages cleft for me 

Now this old world of ours is full of trouble

This old world would also better be 

If we’d find more Bibles on the tables 

And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me

He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields. 

I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.

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Roman Polanski: Why I Separate the Art from the Artist

On September 7, Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, where viewers gave the film a standing ovation. An Officer and a Spy has also resurrected a longstanding conversation about how we are to deal with repugnant people who create great art.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of high-profile artists accused of horrible behavior, partly because of the advent of the #MeToo movement, and partly because digital news coverage amplifies scandals quickly. Chuck Close, Placido Domingo, Morgan Freeman, Paul Haggis, James Levine, Bryan Singer, and Kevin Spacey are among the notable artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. These accusations have been unsettling, with some of the most beloved names in entertainment being viewed in a new light.

Roman PoIanski’s case is different. He has been convicted of an actual crime: the rape of a 13-year-old girl. In 1977, Polanski was charged with multiple crimes involving an incident that occurred at the home of actor Jack Nicholson: rape by use of drugs; perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under fourteen; and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. As part of a plea bargain, he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. By then, he was already a celebrated film director whose creations included landmarks such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Not only did he face the potential ruin of his career, he also was looking at serious jail time. In 1978, he fled the United States. He remains a fugitive.

In subsequent years, he has continued to make movies, including The Pianist, which earned Polanski an Oscar for Best Director, and The Ghostwriter, which won Best Film of the Year from the International Federation of Film Critics. Meanwhile, a number of women have accused him of sexually abusing him when they were underage.

In 2011, he publicly apologized to Samantha Geimer, the victim of his 1977 rape. But his comments about his other accusers have been less charitable, characterizing the accusations “absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.” He has remarked that being persecuted inspired him partly to make An Officer and a Spy, which concerns the historical case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French army who was falsely accused and imprisoned for treason in 1894. In response to his remarks, Jezebel’s Emily Alford sarcastically reacted with the article, “Roman Polanski, Convicted Child Rapist, Has Been Given Yet Another Award.”

She wrote, “Since his conviction, Polanski has been persecuted with an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and the Cannes Palme d’Or, which is exactly like the story he tells in his film except that Alfred Dreyfus didn’t do it, had to go to prison after he was convicted, and wasn’t given a wheelbarrow full of awards by people who never gave a sh — t about the crime he was accused of in the first place.”

I would never want Roman Polanski in my home, and I certainly would not want him anywhere near my family. Even so, when An Officer and a Spy is released, I will judge the film on its own merits. Regardless of what kind of person he is, he is a brilliant creator. I have copies of ChinatownFranticThe GhostwriterThe Pianist, and Rosemary’s Baby in my film library. These are deeply affecting works of art.

The fact is, Roman Polanksi has plenty of company. History is full of people who behave badly and create art that we hold dear. If you like the work of Picasso, you’re admiring the creations of a man who was abusive toward women. Composer Richard Wagner was antisemitic. In more recent years, Al Green admitted to assaulting his wife, and Mel Gibson made antisemitic remarks to officers after being pulled over for drunk driving. Really, the examples are easy to find.

And yet, I will continue to watch Mel Gibson movies, listen to Al Green’s music, admire Picasso, and appreciate the majesty of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I believe that art separates itself from the creator whenever an audience receives it. I believe that when people release art into the world, they create a malleable artifact that anyone can claim and interpret as their own. The art takes on a life unto itself apart from the creator and, by extension, the creator’s personal attributes, negative and positive.

I realize that paying for tickets to see An Officer and a Spy puts money in the pocket of a fugitive and a rapist. And I have no easy solution to that problem because I believe in paying for art. This is an uncomfortable topic, and I respect those who choose to hold people accountable for their behavior by boycotting their work. But I cannot go through life denying myself the intellectual and creative self-growth that happens when I experience compelling art that speaks to the human condition. I cannot cut myself off from art because of how I view the artist.

So when An Officer and a Spy is released in November, I will separate the art from the artist.

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Nike Stays True to Its Brand Values by Pulling the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker

Nike just raised the stakes for what it means to be a culturally relevant brand.

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal, Nike is pulling from store shelves its special edition Air Max 1 USA shoes that had been created to celebrate the July 4 holiday. The shoe design incorporates the image of a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag because it was created during the American Revolutionary War. But as Nike was rolling out the shoe to retailers, the company encountered a hitch: activist, former NFL quarterback, and Nike brand partner Colin Kaepernick reportedly told Nike that he considers Betsy Ross flag to be offensive because it has been co-opted by extremist groups and because it symbolizes a time when slavery flourished in the United States.

So Nike is pulling the Air Max 1 USA from stores. As a Nike spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag” (a bland statement that misses an opportunity for Nike to articulate what it believes and why).

By heeding the advice of Kaepernick, Nike is demonstrating that its relationship with the embattled former NFL quarterback goes beyond a one-time advertising campaign. In 2018, Nike made a bold move by aligning itself with Kaepernick — then embroiled in a bitter dispute with the NFL over his refusal to bend the knee during the playing of the National Anthem during football games. The company released an ad that featured Kaepernick with tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

The ad fostered a public discussion about race, the symbolism of the American Flag, and the role of the athlete in society, mostly because of Kaepernick’s visibility and name awareness. In doing so, Nike added a layer of meaning and cultural context to its famous “Just do it” tagline — a brilliant move that resulted in Nike’s sales to jump. The ad worked for a number of reasons, namely: its audience was (and remains) receptive to brand activism and Nike has taken a stand on social issues for years. By being culturally relevant, Nike connected with its customers.

Nike could have stayed in a narrowly defined lane of relying on Kaepernick to be the face of the brand with more advertisements. But Nike has now shown that Kaepernick is more than a spokesperson. He’s a counselor affecting how the business operates.

Kaepernick is not the only one to take offense with the Betsy Ross flag. In 2016, a Michigan school superintendent issued an apology after students waved the flag during a football game. The superintendent said that the flag is “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.” In addition, Twitter users began speaking out against the Air Max 1 USA along with Kaepernick.

Nike read the social signals, listened to its appointed counselor, and took action. In doing so, the company has sparked a backlash and also a discussion about the history of the American flag and its appropriation in contemporary society. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has ordered the state to rescind financial incentives for Nike, and social media is exploding with criticism but also support and commentary. The ensuing conversation is likely the first time many people have learned that the Betsy Ross flag has been co-opted by modern-day extremist groups:

The long-term impact of the action remains to be seen. For now, the backlash underscores the reality that Nike is raising the stakes for what it means to be culturally relevant: by halting distribution of the Air Max 1 USA, Nike is connecting its actions to its ads.

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Why Netflix Isn’t Afraid of Disney

Will Disney’s U.S. subscribers outnumber Netflix by 2024? That’s the question Danny Vena of The Motley Fool asked in an article after a Morgan Stanley analyst predicted that the combined subscribership of Disney’s streaming services could surpass Netflix’s own subscriber base within five years. Now here’s another question: how much do these numbers matter? After all, we don’t even know what kind of business Netflix will be in five years.

Netflix Is an Entertainment Company

As recently as 2012, Netflix was a streaming service. Today Netflix is an entertainment company, creating television programs and movies that have won Academy Awards, Grammys, and Golden Globes. Netflix has become a thriving haven for New Hollywood artists, such as Russian Doll’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne, or Roma’s director, writer, and co-producer Alfonso Cuarón, who seek to make unconventional and daring art that requires Netflix to take risks. And whereas vanguard rivals such as HBO changed the course of television, Netflix has changed how we watch TV by ushering in innovations such as on-demand binge watching.

Netflix Is Diving into Gaming

The increasingly popular narrative about Netflix is that the company that disrupted the entertainment world now risks being disrupted by new entrants such as Apple TV+ and Disney+, two streaming companies launching in 2019. Disney+ in particular will offer a formidable line-up of original programming, tapping into its extensive catalog of Marvel titles.

But while Apple and Disney leap into streaming, Netflix is already adapting its business model, an example being its expansion into gaming. Netflix recently announced that by 2020 it will offer a mobile game based on the hugely popular Netflix show Stranger Things. The company also said that a game, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics,” will be launched as an adaptation of the Netflix movie The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 movie, which should appeal to the coveted Millennial audience).

A push into gaming makes perfect sense for Netflix. The gaming market is expected to reach $180 billion by 2021, fueled by the growth of formats such as mobile gaming (which will grow to $106 billion by 2021). Netflix can offer well-known entertainment titles that lend themselves to games and an audience that is receptive to gaming. According to Karol Severin, lead gaming analyst for MIDiA Research, 46 percent of Netflix’s weekly active users play games on mobile devices and 33 percent play on consoles, “which over-indexes significantly compared to the consumer average.” In addition, gaming keeps Netflix’s audience locked into its own platform. After you’re done watching Stranger Things, you can play the Stranger Things game without leaving the Netflix universe. In addition, gaming creates the potential for revenue through features such as in-app purchases, a model that Fortnite has mastered. And Netflix needs more revenue.

Netflix is already showing us another way the company is incorporating gaming — by embedding a gaming experience into the content itself, as we’ve seen with choose-your-own-scenario interactive film Bandersnatch that Netflix aired in 2018, and the choose-your-own adventure experience Minecraft: Story Mode. These are not games, per se, but interactive content in which the viewer participates in the storylines. Watch for Netflix to create more sophisticated social experiences that merge plots with games, perhaps with augmented reality and virtual reality.

Three Ways Ways Netflix Is Evolving

Netflix is changing in other ways, too, such as:

  • Becoming a licensing and merchandising companySpeculation abounds that Netflix will offset mounting operational costs by incorporating ads. In fact, Netflix is already monetizing its shows. Stranger Things alone has created a strong base upon which to build a licensing and merchandising business. For example, Netflix and bike maker Mongoose have agreed to offer a limited edition Mongoose based on a fictional bicycle used in Stranger ThingsAs reported in License Global, “The collaboration includes an in-episode promotion that will see Maxine ‘Max’ Mayfield from the series riding the bike in the upcoming season of the show. Starting later this month fans of the series will also be able to get their hands on a replica of the bike used in the promotion.” And Mongoose is hardly the only company co-branding with Netflix — as evidenced by co-brands launched in 2019 between Stranger Things and Burger KingCoca-ColaH&M, and Nike. These relationships — hybrid in-show product placements plus real-world merchandising — offers a glimpse of how Netflix will monetize its titles more broadly. In fact, Netflix has merchandised Stranger Things so extensively that Fast Company recently noted with derision that the show is turning into Sponsored Things.
  • Becoming a center for music exploration. Netflix is rapidly becoming a music brand. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé recently demonstrated how powerful and relevant Netflix can be as a platform for music distribution. Miley Cyrus understands this reality, as witnessed by her using Netflix as to drop new music linked to her appearance on Netflix’s Black Mirror. Meanwhile, the new Netflix movie Beats has gained street cred for its use of hip-hop, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Director P.T. Anderson recently made a music video for Netflix. Netflix is especially ideal for artists such as Beyoncé who are savvy about using multi-media to extend their audiences. Stay tuned.

I could also see Netflix monetizing customer data. Netflix is sitting on a trove of data about its customers’ viewing habits and demographics. It’s possible that Netflix will build a revenue stream from that data, as Amazon does. In addition to providing customer demographic data to third parties, Amazon also offers advertising services both on the platform and across the digital world by using data it has amassed on customers’ purchasing habits. Netflix has denied it will offer advertising on the platform itself. But Netflix could conceivably sell customer analytics services and even develop advertising products beyond Netflix.

Netflix Succeeds with Cultural Relevance

Meanwhile, Netflix continues to play to one of its strengths as a content creator: tapping into cultural trends, a case in point being the launch of Tidying up with Marie Kondo. The show not only mirrored culture but shaped it by prompting viewers to return their used clothing to vintage stores in droves. Shows such as Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Stranger Things remain important: they attract and keep audiences. But creating great content alone is not the future of Netflix.

Netflix Embraces Risk

Netflix’s ability to adapt is a reason why Netflix Vice President of Original Content Cindy Holland recently said of Disney and Hulu, “I don’t think there’s any one that stands out as the competitor. We’ve anticipated that all of these traditional players would enter into our space. The more successful we were at building an on-demand subscriber base with content, the more likely they were going to stop licensing to us. It’s actually one of the reasons why we started original content in the first place. We believed this shift would happen. It’s just taken many years longer than we thought. So we welcome it.”

Netflix succeeds by doing the things you don’t see coming. Doing so means taking risks. And perhaps the ability to take risks is really Netflix’s greatest asset. As Holland said, “We are not afraid to try a bunch of different things, some of which may work, some of which may not. It’s part of our culture to embrace mistakes and failure and learn something from it.”

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Al Green: The Spirit Is Willing . . .

When I told my sister Karen I was going to see Al Green perform at the Chicago Theater May 7, she replied, “You mean Reverend Green.”

Yes. Reverend Al Green. The Al Green who sold millions of records singing about love and sexuality before becoming an ordained pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where he preaches today.

When I was a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, Al Green was my world. He made me fall in love with music, a love that remains today. Whenever I could save up enough money, I’d ask my mom to take me to Kmart, where I sought out 45s from his Memphis record label, Hi. He was more than an entertaining singer with a sweet falsetto voice. He introduced me to feelings of love and longing through songs such as “You Ought to Be with Me” and “Call Me.” He was also the only black person I knew, or at least I felt like I knew, in our neighborhood north of town in the country. To a lonely kid afraid of the world, Al Green felt like an exciting voice from a grown-up place, assuring me of experiences yet to come with people from unexplored paths who looked and sounded different than me. He also figured into some family history, too, as I’ve described in my post “Al Green and the Family War.”

As I grew older and my musical tastes branched out, I never lost sight of Al Green’s brilliance. That cooing voice, punctuated by the Memphis horns and the tight rhythms conjured up by Willie Mitchell’s smooth production, always brought me back to those magical days of musical discovery in Battle Creek. Meanwhile Al Green embraced gospel for a lengthy run and then returned to secular music in 2003, releasing generally well-received albums over a period of five years. But after 2008’s Lay It Down, he stopped recording. So a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that out of the blue, he had decided to do a tour of eight venues, including the Chicago Theater. I scooped up two tickets for me and my wife, Jan.

I did not quite know what to expect. Al Green had recently turned 73 years old. Mick Jagger, two years his senior, remains a powerful force in concert, but he maintains a rigorous physical regime (as evidenced by his rapid recovery from a recent heart valve replacement). Artists such as Robert Plant have shown that they can turn their aging voices into a strength by adapting their vocal styles. They choose songs that not only accentuate their maturing voices, but also open up new vistas of musical discovery for themselves and their audience. But Robert Plant hones his voice through ongoing touring and songwriting. Al Green had not toured in years. Judging from recent photos, he looked heavier. But this might be the only chance we’d have to see him live.

So on a spring Tuesday evening, Jan and I took our seats in the balcony of the Chicago Theater to find out what Al Green had to offer. After an opening act, a 15-piece band blasted a salvo of strings and horns, and out sauntered the reverend, holding roses in his arms, singing “It Ain’t No Fun to Me.” He sounded huskier, but he hit those high notes with conviction. He wore a red vest and dark suit that barely contained his stocky frame. He prowled about the stage and handed roses to the women. He waved to the balcony and yelled “I love you Chicago!” often. We could feel his charisma even from where we sat. When a woman tossed her sweater onstage, the audience roared with approval.

I cannot remember the last time I heard a singer yell “I love you!” to his audience and seem like he meant it. Maybe I never have. A few years ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was performing at the Riviera when a fan yelled “We love you!” Darnielle replied, flatly, “No you don’t. You don’t even know me.” Al Green would have none of that disaffection. He fed off the audience’s obvious affection and gave it back to us.

The roses and the “I love you’s” were great theater. The gestures also captured the essence of Al Green. This is a man whose signature tune is “Love and Happiness” and who once released an album entitled Al Green Is Love. This is a man who was also a notorious lothario. At the height of his fame, a married woman he was romantically involved with, Mary Woodson White, became distraught when he refused to marry her. She poured boiling grits on him while he was bathing and then shot herself in the head. The story is essential to the Al Green mythology — the sinner who loved liberally before tasting hell and turning to the gospel for personal redemption. In reality, the lover-turned-preacher myth is not so clean-cut, as stories of domestic abuse dogged him into the early 1980s. In 1982, the same year he recorded the album Precious Lordhe admitted to spousal abuse. Whatever demons might have consumed him, he recorded more than a dozen gospel albums in the 1980s and 1990s, as he focused on preaching and singing for God.

He is also a man whose falsetto pierces your heart. Such is the power of artistic expression that a loyal audience casts aside the inconvenient facts and believes the myth. It was clear from the enthusiastic response from the audience at the Chicago Theater that we were surrounded by believers. He blitzed through his classics, such as “Let’s Get Married” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” He delved into country (“For the Good Times”) and briefly transformed the Chicago Theater into the Full Gospel Tabernacle with a tender “Amazing Grace.” When he sang “Let’s Stay Together,” I shed a tear. He passed out more roses.

But about midway through the show, the myth began to fade. He became winded. He sat in a chair for a few songs, which made me think of an aging Phil Collins, now performing entire concerts seated in a chair owing to chronic back problems. He occasionally took off his jacket, lay it on the floor, and then slowly put it on again, an odd gesture that seemed to serve no purpose but to give him an excuse to stop singing and take a break. He paused to walk over to a table laden with bottles of Gatorade and water, and he took leisurely swigs, taking his time to unscrew the caps instead of singing.

And the reverend began to cheat. He cut corners with his songs. He sang incomplete verses before walking away from the microphone to hand out more flowers. He coasted through medleys, which allowed him to pick the least-demanding parts of the songs before moving on to the next one. He leaned on the audience to sing along with him, inviting them to handle entire verses for him. I knew what he was doing, and Jan did, too: taking a rest and letting the audience do the work we’d paid him to do.

Jan would later tell me that he reminded her of a visibly winded Axl Rose performing at the United Center in November 2017. But whereas Axl Rose could lean on the powerful guitar work of Guns N’ Roses bandmate Slash for a rest, Al Green didn’t have a foil onstage. But he did have the audience, and maybe it was appropriate that he leaned on us. After all, we were his wellspring of energy.

I wanted badly to like what I was hearing and seeing. And Al Green’s charm draws you into his orbit. I also wanted to relive those days when I would flip through the singles at Kmart in search of an Al Green song and then celebrate the moment when my eye caught that black Hi Records label. So this is what it must have been like for all those Elvis fans watching the bloated King labor onstage in his caped Elvis suit in the 1970s — longing and wanting, not for the man onstage but for an experience they could not have again. Perhaps if you shut your eyes, you could hold on to the myth.

After about an hour, the opening strains of one of his signature songs, “Love and Happiness,” filled the hall. “Love and Happiness” is recorded with a gentle guitar strum, a simple tapping of two feet on a Coke carton, and a whoosh of an organ, all atmosphere and nuance. But at the Chicago Theater, the song sounded like an anthem, engineered to fill the entire auditorium with a loud stampede of trumpets and a stanza repeated while the reverend handed out more flowers before disappearing and leaving us alone with his band and a table littered with plastic bottles of water and Gatorade. The lights came on. There was no encore.

But he was still Al Green. In the flesh. As the Reverend Green could quote from scripture, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

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Unsigned and on Fire: Alexis Saski of Tennessee Muscle Candy Writes Her Future

What would you do if you were a young musician with a record label interested in you — but you realized that your future with the label meant singing songs you didn’t believe in? Would you somehow make it work? Now let’s up the ante: you just moved to Nashville, you’re far from home, and you have no means to support yourself. What would you do?

If you’re Alexis Saski, leader of the Nashville band Tennessee Muscle Candy, you turn your back on the label even if it means performing in the streets to make ends meet.

“When I first started out, Sony wanted me to be a Christian artist,” she told me in a phone conversation on a recent Friday afternoon. “They moved me to Nashville to work with a producer for a month. But on my first night out in Nashville, I met two brothers from a rock band known as the Gills, Matt and Andy Prince. They had the most dynamic rhythm section I’ve ever heard. I realized I didn’t want to be a Christian artist. I wanted to play my own music.”

So Alexis dropped Sony and started her own band on her own terms. She learned how to sing live on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, performing for tourists and the homeless. Today, she is one of the most charismatic, powerful singers I’ve ever heard perform live, singing as part of a loose collective of musicians that includes popular guitarist Ricky Dover, Jr. She is Tennessee Muscle Candy’s undisputed leader and chief songwriter with a singing style that evokes Brittany Howard, Amy Winehouse, and Tina Turner. When she sings live, as she did recently at the Cobra in Nashville, she owns the floor, twisting her curvy frame, shaking her head, spinning like a tornado, and dropping to her knees at the lip of the stage.

Her band is unsigned, and her future is uncertain. But she is doing what she loves, creating art on her own terms, and performing concerts that can make you put down your drink and run out to a dance floor.

Riding a Wave of Energy

“When I am onstage, I feel like I am literally riding a wave of energy, and I just follow it,” she said. “Everything you see onstage — my confidence and my attitude — came from playing in the streets of Nashville. It’s weird that I had to leave a major label to find that. I had the freakin’ dream. I had what everyone wanted. But I was not happy at all.”

When I saw her onstage on May 4, my wife Jan and I were hanging out at the Cobra watching different acts take turns with short sets. We had no idea who was playing that night. We’d spent the day as tourists bombing around the city and wanted to chill out. We were tired and tempted to head back to our Airbnb. We were glad we stayed. From the moment Alexis, three guitarists, a keyboardist, and drummer hit the stage, they generated an electric garage-band energy that ignited the narrow, sweaty room. Ricky Dover, Jr,. and guitarist Matthew Paige (also of the Blackfoot Gypsies) traded licks with a ferocity that made me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous double-barrel guitar sound. Alexis dominated the stage with her muscular singing, while giving everyone around her room to shine.

Jan and I both rushed to the front of the stage, drawn to the grungy rock sound, immersed in a crowd that moved with its own energy force field. I had not felt this motivated to move in a very long time. Afterward, Jan and I lingered. Post-show, Ricky Dover, Jr., and Matthew Paige were quiet and courtly, but Alexis was effusive. She accepted our hugs and basked in the energy her band had just created.

When our trip to Nashville ended, for all the great music we experienced that weekend, I thought most of Tennessee Muscle Candy. Where did this band come from, and where were they going? I just had to know. It was easy to find Alexis — one Instagram private message to the band’s account was all it took. We set up a time to talk, swapped a few texts, and I listened to her story.

“Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes”

She told me she was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and raised in Rockport, a beach town with 7,000 people that was recently ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Music was her world from the start. Her dad drummed for a Christian rock band and instructed her to write a song a day. Her mom performed for a rock band that played everything from Heart to No Doubt. Alexis remembers doing her homework while watching her mom rehearse.

“I was completely in awe of my mom,” Alexis said. “None of the other kids’ moms were in rock and roll bands. I basically wanted to be my mom.”

She loved singing as early as age 5, when she sang hymns in Sacred Heart Church. By age 15, she was organizing a praise and worship band in her local church, where her mom is choir director to this day. She taught herself how to play guitar, while earning recognition for her talents. She won a music scholarship to study at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Music to her was about singing gospel songs, although hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?opened up her ears to the power of rock and roll. After hearing Hendrix, rock called to her like a distant siren — and just might have gotten under her skin.

“Growing up, I was Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes,” she said. “I was a role model. But it was a lot to maintain. It really is tough living up to expectations, especially in a small town. You can make no wrong moves.”

She would shatter those expectations before going to college — in fact, her first night away from home. At a bar she saw 311, the rap-rock band from Nebraska that was becoming a national phenomenon, with albums such as Music and Grassroots. After their performance, she hung with the band.

“I partied with them all night before my first classes began,” she recalled, noting the irony of meeting the band at the same bar where her mom often performed. “After that, the only class I attended was surfing.”

She was consumed with a passion to perform — not four years from now, but now. So, she dropped out of college. When her parents asked her what she was going to do with her life, she replied, “I’m going to sing.”

She traveled to Las Vegas to sing in a contest, Talent Rock, where she won a car. She sold the car to finance an R&B demo that she shopped around to different record labels. Warner Bros. Records came calling.

Nashville

Everything was happening so fast. At an age when her peers were either in college or working local jobs in Rockport, Alexis was tasting the first fruits of commercial success. As Bruce Springsteen once said about being an unknown talent, when you get your shot at making it, you say yes to everything, even if saying yes to everything isn’t always in your best interest. Warner Bros. introduced her to a record industry executive who asked her how she would feel about singing Christian pop music, at the time enjoying an explosion of popularity.

“I said, ‘Fine,’’’ she recalls. “I answered without thinking.”

The next thing she knew, she was in New Jersey making a Christian music demo with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors — yes, the band that gave us “Two Princes” back in the day. The demo caught the attention of Sony Records. Sony sent her to Nashville to start recording songs for its Provident label.

Land-locked Nashville held little appeal to a woman who grew up in a beach town. But she needed to surround herself with talented producers and musicians to break through, and Music City is where they are found. Sony put her up in hotels and then a lake house to work with different songwriters and producers. She was paying her dues and finding her voice as a Christian pop artist. But just as a chance encounter with 311 changed her life, so did her random encounter with Matt and Andy Prince of the Gills, unleashing her passion for rock music. And so began her education on the streets of Nashville.

Alexis and the Prince brothers decided to try performing together. So Alexis moved out of the lake house.

“The lead singer of the Gills, Jesse Wheeler, stealthily helped me move my stuff out of the lake house,” she remembered. “It was like an escape.”

Alexis moved into a house in Antioch with the band and practiced. It was January. They were broke. They could not afford to pay their heating bills. Things got so bad that they used an open oven to keep warm. They decided start performing in the streets to earn enough money just to pay the bills.

Lessons from the Streets

“Playing in the streets is the best education you can give yourself,” she said. “You have to play for people who don’t have any reason to see you. You have to send a charge of energy to attract them. I felt like I had this power in my chest, like a magnet in my heart: energy force, engage!”

The band played covers such as Jerry Ragovoy’s and Bert Berns’s “Piece of My Heart” (made famous, of course, by Janis Joplin), Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” If you search YouTube, you can find amateur footage of the trio playing on the sidewalk. Her talent is evident even in the rough fan footage. In her cover of “Piece of My Heart,” she nearly drops to her knees as she caresses the microphone like Tina Turner, then uses the microphone stand like an instrument. She is pure energy, drawing a crowd around her.

In 2011 fan footage of the band singing “Rock and Roll,” you can hear the random passers-by gasp and break into spontaneous dance, while Alexis jumps and sings.

“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” a voice exclaims.

But Alexis believed.

“A Bottle of Soda That Was Being Shaken Forever”

“I was a bottle of soda that was being shaken forever, and then someone finally took the lid off,” she remembered. “Playing in the streets took the lid off.”

People began to ask them who they were. They needed a name. Tennessee Muscle Candy resulted from a prank Facebook status that the Prince brothers posted.

Nashville was, as it is today, a large collective of musicians who are always hustling side gigs in addition to their main careers. If you need to find band mates to play with, it’s a wellspring of talent so long as you accept the fact that the guitarist you perform with in April might not be the same one you record with in May. Soon Alexis started meeting other musicians and playing on their gigs, such as Magnolia Sons:

She met guitarist Matthew Paige at the High Watt club in Nashville after a Blackfoot Gypsies show. Paige asked her to sing back-up vocals on a record (she continues to sing back-up for them today). After that, she met Ricky Dover Jr. while she was gigging with Magnolia Sons. Meanwhile, Andy Prince joined a band full-time, Manchester Orchestra. Matt Prince got married and moved to Pensacola, Florida. (“We will always be family, but our paths are different,” she noted.) Tennessee Muscle Candy evolved.

Songwriter

She also began writing songs, which capture a vibe all their own. Her first single, “Walk That Walk,” produced and co-written by Reno Bo, is described on the band’s Facebook page as a “catchy three-minute jolt of psychedelic garage pop,” which is an apt description, especially with the theremin solo that whines like a drone. That fuzzy theremin evokes Jimmy Page’s theremin solo on the live version of “Whole Lotta Love” you hear on Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

“Weird Around You,” is all rock and soul. But “Lights On” and “So Good” grab you with a full-on Led Zeppelin-esque wall of sound. In “So Good,” Alexis unleashes a furious, tough bluesy vocal that sounds even earthier live.

These are songs made from the gut and meant to be played loud and live. The Tennessee Muscle Candy line-up we saw May 4 did the songs justice, with a tight set that sounded as if they had been playing together for years, which is impressive when you consider how often local bands like theirs change personnel.

“Everyone brings their own ingredient to the mix,” she said. “It’s not always easy to define our sound. We’re a mixture of punk and those old 1960s garage bands.”

“You Have to Own That One Thing”

When I told her the band’s live sound reminded me of early Doors, circa London Fog 1966 or Led Zeppelin on their first tour, she laughed. She recalled playing Led Zeppelin covers such as “Whole Lotta Love” and mentioned that the Doors are an influence.

“A lot of people want to be Jim Morrison,” she said. “But no one can be Jim Morrison. You have to own that one thing that you bring that no one else can.”

That “one thing” for her is being the uncorked soda bottle onstage. Somehow, she manages to own the stage without suffocating everyone else playing with her, though. When other bandmates play solos, she even kneels beside them, as if offering a tribute. How does she pull off that balance?

“It’s about empathy,” she replied. “A lot of front men go wrong that way. They can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what other people in the band are feeling when they are onstage with you. Empathy is in my nature. When I kneel in front of them, it’s a chance to thank them.”

But make no mistake: she commands the stage, draws energy from the audience, and shoots that energy across the room. “You have to go big,” she said. “Performing with my body is like strutting as animals do to attract others.”

She added, “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am not heroin chic. I am a full-figured woman. There are a lot of young women who approach me after the show and thank me because of who I am. Performing is great for body positivity. It’s good for young women to see someone with body confidence. It’s a feeling that this is what I am meant to do. It feels really good.”

And now, ahead of her, comes more recording and possibly touring. In June, she will record in Nashville studio Bomb Shelter with a line-up that will include Matthew Paige and her regular guitarist, Jon Little. Her producer (and owner of the studio) Andrija Tokic, recorded the Alabama Shakes’s breakthrough album Boys and Girls.

“I would love to tour,” she says, “Building a following happens with touring. We need to get a good single out and hit the road with that.”

“A Foolish Sense of Hope”

And, ultimately, what does Alexis Saski want? How will she define success?

“I just want respect, and I want to support myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be self-sufficient. We’re over the dream of being fabulously wealthy.”

She has no health insurance and not enough money to support herself. So why do it?

“A foolish sense of hope,” she laughed. “My love for music.”

I’m on Twitter @davidjdeal

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