Saturday, April 14, 2012

It's Great To Be Alive

Recently, my friend Paul said, "Okay, what's the deal with Drive-By Truckers? I haven't heard of them. I haven't heard you say anything about them. Therefore, they're not a thing."

"I talk about them on Twitter all the time!" I protested.

"I mean something real, OMG."

All right, then; here it is. I don't really know how it happened. A few years ago, I somehow acquired the song "Birthday Boy" from someone. Maybe it was a mix CD. It wasn't form iTunes, because my attributions said that it came from an album called Western Skies, which as far as I know and can tell is not a Drive-By Truckers record.

"Birthday Boy" is about a stripper who both hates her life and is resigned to it. That's such an oversimplification, because the song is so much richer than that. There's a line that always elevated it for me: "It doesn't take smarts to tune out what hurts more than helps." I liked the implied opposite of that, too: even if you are smart, you can't always figure out how not to dwell on the stuff that wrecks you.

Now, I liked this song for a year, without having any interest in getting into the rest of DBT's stuff. And it happened as it usually happens. I had burned out on listening to Blue October's Any Man In America record on an endless loop, and I'd plumbed as deep into Seger as I could, and Springsteen's new album wouldn't be out for at least six months. I liked other bands - Gaslight Anthem, The Killers, other stuff - and I was into singles, but I was really poised for a discovery.

I was at work one day (because, honestly, when am I not at work?) and listening to music and "Birthday Boy" came up. It was one of those confluences that sometimes strike with music - all the conditions were right for me to suddenly want to go deeper in. I went to iTunes and downloaded their greatest hits record, the somewhat awkwardly titled Old Buildings, Whores, and Politicians, which comes from the movie Chinatown - essentially, all three become respectable if they last long enough.

I fell in love with a lot of what I heard. The greatest hits records has three principal singers: Pattersoon Hood, who has a very intense Southern style; Mike Cooley, who has a drawl; and Jason Isbell, who had the most radio-friendly voice but who was no longer with the band. One of their early lo-fi songs, "The Living Bubba," was about a singer who had AIDS and played over a hundred songs in a year, chasing off his death by doing shows. Another one, called "Zip City," was like this slow burn of a song that I started off just liking and then became one of my favorites ever. And then, of course, there's "World of Hurt," a mostly spoken-word mediation on life and death and love that ends with the line, "It's great to be alive."

The Truckers, circa 2010.

Things escalated, because I don't know how to do it differently. I went to and discovered that the band was actually well-respected, especially after their breakthrough double album, Southern Rock Opera. (I'm unused to this, because except for Springsteen, most of my favorite music doesn't get a lot of respect, especially bands with regional points of view and somewhat jokey names. Yes, I'm talking about Barenaked Ladies. Forget "One Week" and listen to "War On Drugs" and then tell me they're a silly joke band!) The site gave me some recommendations, and went to every album on iTunes and downloaded representative tracks. There had even been a woman in the band for awhile, Shonna Tucker, who had been Isbell's ex-wife. And she had an awesome voice and had some really interesting songs and sort of changed the group dynamic a little while she was there.

I listened every day. Got more into them. Dug deeper and deeper, uncovering rare tracks. Actually learned some stuff about the Southern take on things (one of their more famous songs, "The Southern Thing," is all about how they're not all racist back-woods rednecks, which sounds obvious but weirdly isn't). Bought the T-shirt. Joined the message group. Bought tickets to see them ... in Atlanta, Georgia.

It was time to get inked.

Now, here's another new thing. I have seventeen tattoos. The first two were done out of state - Ohio and New Hampshire - and the third, the DD symbol, was done at my now-regular shop, but by a guy who no longer works there. I visited Kelly the Wonder Tattooer in 2005 for my Springsteen ink, and never looked back. For seven years, he's been doing my stuff ... but then he up and moved back to Texas because he apparently loves oppressive heat and urban sprawl. Where do I go for my work now? Kelly had recommended a fellow Chameleon artist, John Meredith, who specialized in nerdy stuff and New School ... which is right up my alley, but I'm dumb and I foraged anyhow. Tattooing in Boston falls into two basic categories: really terrific but really expensive work, and really shitty and only semi-expensive work. Except for Chameleon, which had always given me super impressive ink for a really accessible price. Why was I straying?

A few weeks ago, my guy Shawn went online to take a look at the Chameleon portfolios. He's looking to get Jupiter to compliment is Saturn. Oh, for reference, he doesn't appreciate jokes that he should get them on "Uranus."

Anyhoodle, he stumbled on John's portfolio and fell in love. So did I. I mean, the robots alone. All right, then. Let's make this a thing.

Meet John.

Now, one bit of Drive-By Truckers lore is the Cooley Bird, named for Mike Cooley in the band. Artist Wes Freed has done most of the band's album covers in watercolor, and they're unique and distinctive and fantastic, and one of the recurring elements is the Cooley Bird - what started off as a "black flamingo." It's turned into the symbol of the band, and as anyone familiar with the rest of my ink knows, I'm a sucker for iconography.

Yesterday, I showed up for my first consult with a non-Kelly tattooer in seven years. John looked my stuff over and proclaimed it "cool," which is something I'm always striving for and falling short of. I told him I wanted to add it to my rock and roll arm, which features Springsteen and Seger tattoos, not to mention my Steampunk Dr Pepper waistcoat-watch, which is undeniably awesome. "Everything's rock and roll except my Star Trek tattoo," I told John.

"Hey, Trek is rock and roll." I knew at once I was in the right hands.

Actually, in more ways than one. Except for my Blue October flames, this tattoo was the easiest one I've ever gotten. John explained that he and Kelly had different styles - Kelly goes deeper and faster (boom), John has a lighter touch but goes much slower. That and maybe the placement - just above my elbow, on the outside of my arm - made this one of the most easygoing, pain-free ink sessions ever. (Which is good to know. If I'm going to work on completing an actual half-sleeve and going into the more sensitive skin on my inner arm, maybe a lighter touch is what I want. We'll see.)

In the end, John did a lighter, less "black flamingo" look than I'd initially wanted ... and totally kicked it bigtime. "We can absolutely darken it in if you want, but I used three different shades of blue in there to bring out some extra dimension."

"Holy shit!" Seriously, holy shit is right. While the other arm is fun, and will continue to be (comics and cartoons are the right - coming up, a full-body Daredevil, Disney's Robin Hood, and maybe the Rescuers), this arm is pretty certifiably badass. My Dr Pepper watch kind of rules in all ways, and that Seger eagle is one of those traditional things that, like, bikers have. All of it's working in conjunction now, in the kind of harmony the best tattoo sleeves achieve. And all of it's underlined by the best philosophy I can think of: it's great to be alive.

It's great to be alive.