Author: Gene

I’ve had a VHS copy of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing sitting next to my TV, in my family’s living room, for as long as I can remember.

Its particular relevance struck me this morning, on the heels of protests in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The fate of the film’s character Radio Rahim is as vivid as ever, just over 30 years later.

It was 1989, and my (now wife, then girlfriend) Jeannie and I – having met in the Los Angeles area – not necessarily knowing WHAT we wanted to do, but knowing we wanted out of where we were, sought a dramatic change. Both children of immigrants (which might explain our wanderlust), having attended very diverse public schools that reflected our own diverse backgrounds, we knew we needed somewhere that would reflect that…not just any place would do.

So, we packed three suitcases between us, and – with the help of Jeannie’s friend Carl (his Guyanese family still resided in Brooklyn), we headed to that borough of NYC, two young people with little money, but lots of spirit…and naivete.

We managed to move into an apartment on President Street, just off Flatbush Ave. As it turns out, it would be just a few blocks from Spike’s Joint, Spike Lee’s “pop up” shop, his having experienced some success with his recently released third film, Do the Right Thing.

Jeannie and I both respected that film, and as budding high school teachers, recognized how its message affected the community, and young people, that we were just beginning to prepare ourselves for. Its “anthem” (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) had resonated with anyone who recognized systemic racism, especially as directed at Black Americans.

It would be less than a year later that another race-related conflict (Crown Heights riots) would occur on our street, only blocks away. It was an early taste of what Lee was getting at (and many before him – and many after); that systemic racism plagues our country – and if not dealt with, will continue to cripple us.

After finishing programs at Brooklyn College (she even obtaining her MA), we were excited at starting our teaching careers with Brooklyn’s pubic high school students – she, at Brooklyn Tech; I, at Brooklyn’s Midwood High.

But it wasn’t to be, as (then NYC mayor) Rudolph Giuliani’s Draconian (I didn’t even know that word existed until then) cuts to public education forced both schools to rescind their job offers to us. Just out of college, with no job or prospects, we packed our things, fit them into a car we bought in Queens, and drove cross country…having heard of a new “promised land” (the Silicon Valley, in California’s Bay Area) that was growing rapidly…and needed teachers.

We spent part of the summer driving and exploring (14 states!) before resettling into the East Bay, where we would both teach public high school English for nearly a decade.

We’d find out later (when we provided job references) that our Brooklyn schools had been trying to track us down, to re-offer us our positions. Though that wasn’t to be I believe NYC, and it’s profound and dynamic influence, is inescapable.

Now, both of us teach in East Portland, working with (a growing population of) immigrants, students of color, and Black students…we find ourselves (once again) viewing a world that fails to recognize historic injustices directed at them, and also fails to support them disproportionately…as they suffer the most due to subpar health care, and other services.

The same can be said about Spike Lee’s work, in its continuing recognition of injustice, specifically directed at Black people.

I am not sure how Do the Right Thing holds up stylistically; I am going to try to get my teenage children to watch it. Though the film had many messages, the one I choose to come away with (based on the title, and on reflection), is that awareness is key, apathy is unacceptable…IF love is to triumph.

One thing is certain; its message is more relevant than ever.

Our family’s take on Japanese curry

Just discovered (thanks to my lovely wife) the Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories … 20 minute “appetizers”, where (as described by the producers) “patrons of an otherwise mundane Japanese diner find simple yet profound connections with one another based on the shared love of a particular dish”. The 12-seat Izakaya is the setting for the anthology (now in its fifth season), based on a manga by the same name, with each episode named after a unique Japanese entree (its preparation part of the story). It feels perfect for our times.

I’m not sure it started with Japanese curry (a comfort food “staple” for my family – my son Max in particular), and my friend Will Olson (who can speak to this better…partially because he can speak Japanese!) – but I realized that as I struggled to deal with the pandemic, and the notion of being ALONE, versus LONELY, that I found myself drawn to many things Japanese.

Will gifted me all the films of Hayao Miyazaki many years ago; I have had a number of conversations recently with my students about the work of the master animator, and those that dealt with loneliness (My Neighbor Totoro), as well as those – like many of his films – that examine our impact on the environment and relationship with nature (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). Miyazaki’s often fantastical, surreal and magical films are definitely a world of their own; but they still, uniquely, connect to many of us in this world.

A writer who does that in a literary sense, for me, is Haruki Murakami. Currently working my way through 600-page The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (his Kafka on the Shore is a favorite); I also want to read his take on the “Great American Novel”, in this case, The Great Gatsby, in his most recent work (Killing Commendatore).

Murakami is known for his surreal/magical narratives, incorporation of cats, and musical references (one novel he entitled Norwegian Wood). So it came as no surprise that a Murakami essay was included in my recently purchased vinyl copy of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s BTTB (Back to the Basics…originally released in 1998), which was reissued in 2018.

I’ve turned to this particular album (like Murakami, finding it particularly rewarding on rainy spring days, with a cup of coffee) – but could easily lose myself in any of Sakamoto’s quite varied works. Arguably my favorite artist, he is a stylistic chameleon (in the best sense of the word – did anyone draw more from the brilliance of Kraftwerk, whose Florian Schneider passed away recently, than Yellow Magic Orchestra?), he is a master collaborator, having worked with so many different artists (from Caetano Veloso to P.I.L.), it would be ridiculous to list them.

But here, on BTTB, it’s the artist returning to where he started – just he and his piano, basically.

That being said, here’s a playlist of Sakamoto’s music to appreciate his adventurous spirit:

“Some Small Hope” – Virginia Astley/David Sylvian (vocals), from Hope in a Darkened Heart
“Risky” – Iggy Pop (vocal), from NEO GEO
“Forbidden Colors” – David Sylvian (vocal), from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (film soundtrack)
“The Last Emperor (theme)” – David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cong Su (film soundtrack)
“Whirlwind” – Arto Lindsay (vocal), from Noon Chill
“World Citizen” – David Sylvian (vocal), from Chasm
“Riot in Lagos” – Sakamoto/Andy Partridge (producer), from B-2 Unit
“Diabaram” – Youssou N’Dour (vocal), from Beauty
“The Revenant (main theme)” – Ryuichi Sakamoto/Alva Noto (film soundtrack)
“A Message to Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void” – Thundercat (vocal), from Apocalypse (music from Sakamoto’s 1992 Barcelona Olympics score)

Photo by Buenosia Carol from Pexels


The closing of the year is somewhat bittersweet, as its the first year that NEITHER of our offspring joined us to cut down a Xmas tree (our inconsistent tradition since moving to Oregon). It would be great if their absence was for ideological reasons, instead of indifference…so, while I normally listen to lots of really good holiday music (2015’s “It’s a Soul Party”/Sharon Jones and 2013’s “Quality Street/Nick Lowe top the list), here’s the stuff that leads me here:

  • Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee
  • Nick Cave – Ghosteen
  • Cate Le Bon – Reward
  • Anderson Paak – Ventura
  • Wire – Mind Hive
  • Baroness – Gold and Grey
  • Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
  • Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
  • Purple Mountains – S/T
  • Big Thief – UFOF
  • Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
  • Nulifer Yanya – Miss Universe
  • Black Belt Eagle Scout – At the Party with My Brown Friends
  • DIIV – Deceiver
  • Cristian Fennesz – Agora


This year will be forever remembered as THE year that the holidays traumatized me…Thanksgiving by itself was something worthy of a John Hughes film – substituting the (now) politically incorrect humor (racial stereotypes? rapey boyfriends?) with just plain hostility. Sooo, music was more important than ever – and some really good headphones…

  • Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo
  • Blood Orange – Negro Swan
  • Gruff Rhys – Babelsburg
  • Richard Swift – The Hex
  • Field Music – Open Here
  • Prince – Piano and a Microphone (1983)…damn I miss Prince…
  • Dirty Projectors – Lamplit Prose
  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Food and Sex
  • Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard
  • Shame – Songs of Praise
  • Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth
  • Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base and Casino
  • YOB – Our Raw Heart
  • Julia Holter – Aviary
  • Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams
  • Jon Hassell – Listening to Pictures
  • Iceage – Beyondless
  • Anderson Paak – Oxnard
  • Grouper – Grid of Points
  • Alela Diane – Cusp
  • The Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl
  • Black Moth Super Rainbow – Panic Blooms
  • Frog Eyes – Violet Psalms
  • Yo La Tengo – There’s a Riot Going On
  • Low – Double Negative
  • Soccer Mommy – Clean


Mercer reclaims pop’s throne with Port of Morrow

It’s been a long time coming, but with the latest album from The Shins, Port of Morrow the “band’s” fourth long player, it becomes abundantly clear that James Mercer is a master songwriter – and the one in charge.

Who knows why it’s been five years since Wincing the Night Away – a solid, if not underappreciated album – after which Sir Elton John dubbed Mercer the most talented songwriter.

The fact is that, for true pop music lovers, it was worth the wait.

Mercer has currently created a musical kingdom (a part of Portlandia?) from which to explore his sonic adventures; Port of Morrow (an actual location in Portland) allowed him to bring in members of the original band (court jester Marty Crandall guests on keyboards, Dave Hernandez provides bass and guitar work) along with Pacific Northwest icons (Janet Weiss provides some solid drumming on the standout single, “Simple Song”, and a handful of other tunes).

Perhaps it is because of this mix of the old and the new that the record occasionally pays homage to some of the great sounds to be found on the band’s debut (Oh, Inverted World) on tracks like “September”…while still exploring Mercer’s fascination with country-bar balladry (“40 Mark Strasse”) and his continued inspiration via 60’s pop (“Bait and Switch”).

Even with the different players, and the sonic shifts, the album is one of the band’s most cohesive. Mercer’s combination of hooks you think you’ve heard before, along with lyrics that run the gamut from clever playfulness to melancholy memory, remind the informed listener that it is possible to have solid songcraft for an entire album.

Perhaps Mercer knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that in The Shin’s five-year hiatus, there really haven’t been any serious challengers to his throne.

Smells Like:

Van Etten wows, War on Drugs channel Springsteen live in Portland

It doesn’t hurt when Bon Iver covers you, The National produce you, SXSW adores you, and hip websites anoint you the latest musical “it” girl.

That being said, Sharon Van Etten – touring on the strength of her latest, Tramp, didn’t disappoint a packed house at The Aladdin. After a solid set from Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs (channeling early Springsteen, and a self-professed love of The Waterboys – who they covered in their encore), Van Etten and her talented supporting cast seemed right at home in the intimate confines of The Aladdin.

Though Van Etten was the clear attraction, a reasonable contingent of folks were also on hand to support the (arguably) equally talented Heather Woods Broderick, who provided flawless harmony vocals, keyboards, and guitar. Broderick (affectionately nicknamed “Bro-Derek” by Van Etten during their tour) is a Portlander, and Smells Like Pop has witnessed her talent first hand as a member of Horse Feathers (along with her brother, Peter Broderick).

The band fleshed out the subtle and nuanced dynamics of Tramp – taking an already solid record and bringing it lovingly to life. Guitarist Doug Keith captured the gothic-twang necessary to make “Give Out” shine, while drummer Zeke Hutchins allowed the power and menace of “Serpents” to be showcased.

With her talent on an upward trajectory, hopefully the young Van Etten won’t get pitchforked over for the next inevitable find.

Field Music’s latest unearths more pop gems

Brothers David and Peter Brewis (the core of Sunderland England’s Field Music) have channeled numerous disparate elements in concocting their brilliant 4th long-player, Plumb. Hints of Yes and Steely Dan (chief songwriter/vocalist David even sounds like a young Donald Fagen at times) appear, along with their continued channeling of XTC. However, this is made all the more listenable by amazing hooks that rival Guided by Voices in frequency and abrupt change.

Plumb builds on a legacy of songcraft that the unrivaled (well, maybe James Mercer of The Shins would be a contemporary) Field Music have been developing for over a decade (2010’s Measure – a double album – was arguably that year’s best pop record). Plumb clocks in at about 35 minutes – frustrating for those of us who want more of them, but perfect for our hurried times – indeed, the underlying theme of the lyrics, which address (in a whimsical way) frustrations with the daily commute, and the need to acquire more “useless shit” and treat people like fecal matter.

This album is definitely a “grower”, which should reward the patient and intelligent listener upon repeated spins.

Smells like:


Luz Elena Mendoza’s band, on Court the Storm, bring latin radiance to Portland pop

If you’ve already heard Y La Bamba (there’s a reasonable chance, what with all the positive – and well deserved – press they’re getting, including multiple plugs on NPR, where the album is currently streaming in its entirety), then this is old news. Their new record, Court the Spark (released by Portland’s Tender Loving Empire), is everything that is good about cultures clashing…lead singer Luz Elena Mendoza’s Mexico-via-California-and-Oregon roots clearly influencing an otherwise Americana take on pop.

But Y La Bamba is, in the best sense, a band. Mendoza’s bandmates contribute everything from solid musicianship, to rich vocal harmonies. And all the while, the mix is tasteful, striking and subtle at the same time – due in no small part to Portland-resident Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and his long acquaintance (perhaps his creation of?) latin-tinged modern pop music. There’s even a little treat on the record with the inclusion of Americana vocal goddess Neko Case, a long time fan of the band.

There will be a record release party with the band at Music Millenium (which has a great background story on the Y La Bamba posted) on March 4th (at 3 pm) and a show at the Doug Fir on April 21st.

Smells Like:

Great live music dies, while studio zombies like Lana Del Rey “live”

My friends – please excuse me while I shake my cane – but I was listening to the radio this Sunday morning, when the deejay (a younger fellow) reminded me about the sad news that The Woods (perhaps Portland’s most unique – and likely best – music venue) is no more…

The intimate space played host to a slew of artists off the promotional and hype-driven radar. The deejay echoed as much, and talked about a particularly memorable show delivered by a shy musician from Colorado.

Smells Like Pop was able to enjoy the venue, as well – one of our more memorable shows was watching our friend, and London’s musical gem, Alessi’s Ark perform her magic there. It didn’t hurt that the venue was run by Ritchie Young of Portland band Loch Lomond. His sincerity and welcoming attitude helped make The Woods a special place. The fact that it was a former funeral home, with its unique atmosphere, and haunted sound, only added to its mystique.

But it is no more.

Perhaps with a sense of irony, the same radio station seconds later advertised a visit for a live performance from Lana Del Rey. Only time will tell if she has any staying power (or talent) – but she seems to represent everything that The Woods was not…ostentatiousness (the rumors of “enhanced” lips), hype (if you haven’t already heard about her, crawl out from under that rock!), wealth (her father is apparently a billionaire), studio-wizardry (Damon Albarn – Gorillaz, etc. – is rumored to be working with her), glamour (her name was “inspired” by hanging out in Miami with friends) – a symbolic nod to our culture’s severe ADD, as much was made from her SNL appearance after all of ONE decent song to her credit.

The same local radio station will be hosting a live session from The Shins’ James Mercer – who at least has a few albums under his belt.

The Shins (with a new lineup) also have an album (Port of Morrow) due out in March (so do the Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea ); Field Music has a new album (Plumb) due out in early February, the Dirty Projectors have a new one due in spring, and Outkast has something coming out this year.

In the meantime, you might find me listening to music in the woods (you know, with real trees, plants, and stuff).

You be (Kim Jong) illin’! Though this pirate is dead, the CD aint, yet…with a couple of exceptions, I actually purchased a physical copy of my favorite albums of the year.

  • Wye Oak – Civilian
  • Kate Bush50 Words for Snow
  • St. VincentStrange Mercy
  • Peggy Sue – Acrobats
  • Destroyer – Kaputt
  • The WeekndHouse of Balloons
  • Atlas Sound – Parallax
  • Alessi’s ArkTime Travel
  • The AntlersBurst Apart
  • Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
  • WireRed Barked Tree

Honorable mentions: The Roots – Undun, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical, Tom Waits – Bad as Me, Tuneyards – Whokill, The Decemberists – The King is Dead, Toro Y Moi – Underneath the Pine, Chad Vangaalen – Diaper Island, Cass McCombs,- Wit’s End, Radiohead – King of LImbs, Stephen Malkmus – Mirror Traffic, EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints, Real Estate – Days