Priorities, Urges and Eulogies with My Morning Jacket
When My Morning Jacket released their Evil Urges Tour schedule, I was initially excited to see two shows scheduled here in Chicago to cap off their six-month tour of the Western world that will produce almost 60 shows in places like Belgium, Mexico City and Montreal. I imagined myself front row as the band relentlessly pushed the muscles in my neck to the limit song after song knowing full well that it would probably be another year before I could incur another rock and roll injury worth the pain. But instead of playing the The Vic or The Riviera like they have in the past, they will rock the historic Chicago Theatre, a venue the size of The Vic and The Riviera combined. I will wearily admit that the days of an MMJ underground are over and neither Schubas nor Fireside will ever attempt to book “America’s answer to Radiohead” again, but I feel a strange serenity surrounding their bourgeoning success.
Most people I have spoken with on this matter, fans and critics alike, acknowledge that My Morning Jacket is one of the few bands that never benefited from overwhelming hype and “put in their dues” with constant touring and an aversion to categorical recorded material. For instance, what other band could receive a 4.7 from Pitchfork and not bat an eye? In these exhausting days of new music output, so many people rely on tastemakers to navigate the scene that one small misstep can ruin decades worth of material. MMJ actually made Pitchfork irrelevant for at least one day. But, I am not ignorant to the fact that most bands worth their salt get bigger, and despite their original fan base’s unqualified resistance to this growth, the bigger a band becomes, the more flexibility it acquires.
This flexibility can manifest in distribution (Radiohead, NIN), exhibition (Sufjan Stevens, Dan Deacon) or, in MMJ’s case, through indulgence. Bluntly put, Evil Urges is a record of Jim James’ musical tangents. There is soul, country and futurism all on one album, a sort of culmination of every other thing they have released to date. I couldn’t predict what this album would be like, but its diverse palate does not surprise me. Make no mistake; this is still very much a MMJ album, it’s just more spread out and less consistent on its own. When the songs are integrated into the rest of their catalogue for a set list, it all makes sense; Evil Urges fills in the gaps.
As I waited for the day when tickets went on sale for the October show, I wondered what it would be like. Who would be at the show? Would it be like the Spoon show I saw a couple months ago sponsored by Camel and full of bobo’s on their way to the bar? Or would it be populated by teenagers like the M.I.A. show or TV on the Radio’s Lollapalooza set? Whatever the crowd, I knew that I had to be there, so I went online for the presale at 10am and nothing. Sold out. Was this the beginning of the end of my casual obsession? Was I going to have to work to see my favorite band? I had considered seeing a few shows on this tour, but this fiasco demanded a strong monetary commitment, so I reevaluated how I wanted to spend my time and money during the hours of MMJ’s twilight of the niche.
MMJ is popular in Europe, but they cancelled their Z tour over there when James came down with pneumonia and only played a handful of dates in support of Okonokos. They seem to have less of a following in Europe than in the States because of it, but I know it’s only a matter of time before their appreciation turns into devotion, so my friend Wyndham and I picked out shows in Amsterdam and London and planned a trip around them. Plus, fellow fan and friend Lily FM fell in love with a Brit and moved to London, so we knew that the opportunity to see MMJ with relative ease in a small venue was upon us and we seized it with a fury.
Then, a week before I was supposed to embark on my glorious journey, things began to fall apart. I couldn’t get anyone related to the band to ensure me a spot on the media list and because of the time it would take to deliver them, my window for purchasing tickets was gone. I had a plane ticket and an assignment, but no way of executing my plan. My life was consumed with plans for this trip and I had no control whatsoever. Then I got a phone call from my mom telling me that my grandfather was in the hospital. It’s amazing how your mind can shift from one complete set of priorities to another in a matter of minutes. My grandfather was my first role model, a man devoted to his family and the root from which my entire tree grows. He gave my father his first job and put my mother through the schooling necessary that would eventually provide for my own education. His presence permeated every soul that came into contact with him and when he passed away later that week, that same transcendence manifested itself in a collective loss that affected my entire extended family.
My family is Catholic and we mourn together with the body. Some people have hesitations towards wakes, but when you grow up with it as a tradition, you realize how meaningful and helpful it is to say goodbye to the body. We pray our entire lives for our loved ones’ souls to ascend to heaven when they pass and viewing my grandfather’s body was hard, but it confirmed that the soul I lived with for 23 years departed for a better plane. I often see in the movies a person on their deathbed asking for forgiveness or proclaiming past discretions and it is portrayed as an earnest attempt at making good. But there is something calming when at the point of our demise, we have nothing left to do but move on to whatever dream we’ve been living for and there is no dramatic last wish. It’s almost like every moment was lived in truth and there is nothing left to confess, and if you do have any regrets, sins, or wishes, you take them with you into the next adventure. I do not pretend to know the state of my grandfather’s conscience, but the night before he passed, his eyes told me that everything was in order, at least in this life.
Therefore, and probably due to my previous immersion with all things MMJ, the band entered my mind for the first time since we made the hospital our second home for a week. I know that song lyrics are constantly analyzed and interpreted to mean different things for different people and they are usually completely divergent from their original context. But, as I once heard Eddie Vedder say about the song “Jeremy,” once a song is put out there the original meaning bows to the personal interpretation of each individual. Not only did he refuse to speak about the song’s meaning, but he also renounced its origin as irrelevant. So in some weird time-space ripple, I was transferred back to the summer after my senior year of college, listening to “I Will Be There When You Die,” from the Jacket’s first album, The Tennessee Fire, with my dear friend Jamie. I told her that I had a morbid fantasy of Jim James showing up at my funeral and singing this song. She explained the lyrics were conditional and told me I had better keep a straight face my entire life, which would be exhausting and unnatural. She decided she didn’t like the song because of this emotional detachment that seemed like the stereotypical male non-response to something as traumatic as death.
Not one to dismiss her insight, I thought about the meaning of the song and the many ways to interpret it, but not until I saw the strength of my dying grandfather did I learn two things: first, that applying a relative stranger’s thoughts, no matter how poetic they may be, to your own life is only acceptable if they become a part of the foundation on which you personally build through experience and education; second, that I do not want Jim James to “be there when I die,” I want my family, I want peace, I want open doors, I want God, I want the souls of the departed, I want angels, I want acceptance, I want rescued Sudanese refugees, I want the collective unconscious, I want whatever it takes to keep a straight face. And that straight face is not a lack of emotion, like Jamie suggested, but rather a reaffirmation that truth was the basis of life. Not money, fame, or television idolatry, but the sensation you get when an extra guest shows up to dinner and you have an extra chair in the closet or when you receive a gift from a person that actually listened to your ramblings. It is the merging of the unexpected and the deserved.
I left the funeral and immediately got on my flight to Amsterdam. I had reservations about leaving my family, but everyone told me that my grandfather would have it no other way. As much as I wanted to stay, I did not want to burden his soul. It felt like the right thing to do, but my glorious trip would be more reflective that I originally planned. When I landed I received an email from the band’s amazingly helpful manager, Jamie, apologizing for the delay and confirming that I was on the media list. With that taken care of, I was able see MMJ play “I Will Be There When You Die” during the encore in Amsterdam with a new sense of satisfaction. (I wrote a review of the show, which can be read in the show reviews section of this site.) I walked out of the show feeling complete, but with an urgency to sustain this completeness through whatever contribution I could make to the world. For now I write as focused as I can, but whatever tomorrow will bring, I just have to remain in the truth as my grandfather did and as James advised so eloquently, if a bit ambiguously.