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Casey Black's blog about singer songwritering.

Ryan Morgan's Annual Torturefest

Christy Mansell

Ryan Morgan laments his aging, and pop music’s failure to age with him:

“Just finished my annual tradition of making myself listen to the Billboard Top 20 Songs of the year just ended. Summary: nobody writes verses any more, and I’m getting old, and pop music hasn’t changed much at all since 2004, both in terms of the way the songs sound and the actual people who are performing them.”

I try (kind of) hard to like pop music. My wife sings and dances to it in the car, and I wish I could do that. You’d have to be stupid not to recognize some of the great infectious little (actually, big) melodies in pop music. Why, some are beautiful like diamonds in the sky. But I agree with Ryan, verses are kaput.

I wrote a song called Radio Hit when I was a confused, religious, moral 20 year-old asshole. It was a genius piece of horribleness–a screed against “audio porn”–the “hit” in the title being the violent kind (get it??). It had a lyric that raged against “midriffs and their melodies,” which is hilarious now, as it’s cringe-worthy writing, and I quite like midriffs now that I don’t hate my own desires. Anyhow, there was one line in there that might be salvageable, in the bridge:

Thank you for teaching me a brand new meaning of pop/Pop, you’re gone

Which is to say, pop songs these days don’t feel like they’ll last. They ain’t timeless. Maybe ageless, but not timeless.

One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 3

Christy Mansell

(For context, see previous posts One, Two, Three to the Gut, and One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 2, in order.)

Ryan, I am trying to think of any act of violence outside of sport that has bettered the world, or raised us up in some way. War is the first thing to come to mind, as in something like a “good war,” where a bad man is defeated through violence because violence is the only way to defeat him. But even a “good war” is a war, and no side gets out clean. Some bad man throws the first punch and draws us down, even if necessarily, to his level. Dehumanization is what you’d call it I guess. And we don’t celebrate the death, violence, and animal behavior that comes with war when it’s over: We celebrate the survival of our value system, the victory or our way of civilization over the others’.

You ask if I would really go back and hit these people. For Marcus, at the football field, and for the gay-bashers in the movie parking lot, I suppose the answer is actually No, I wouldn’t. I thought about your saying that there is some desire in you “to see bad people hurt,” but you recognize that “it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion.” I have, when it comes down to it, very little desire to see bad people hurt. Even the baddest people, say, your Saddam Husseins and Muammar Gaddafis–some part of me did want them to suffer the violence and death they inflicted on others, then another part of me saw them getting hung or beaten to death and didn’t feel okay about it. I have even less desire to to see bad people hurt by me, especially when violence hasn’t been introduced into the situation. Neither Marcus nor the assholes in the parking lot threatened or introduced violence, so maybe my introduction of it would have symbolized a few steps backward, away from civility. And now that you’ve really got me thinking about it, Marcus seems like some sort of hero for civilization, some sort of teacher. After all, he did in fact think I’d called him nigger, so if any violence was called for it would have been his to mete out. But he said only, “I know you want to hit me.” He didn’t challenge me or provoke me, just told me how I felt, and correctly. With the group gathered around he could have been a science teacher, using me as an example of how a Homo sapien will bare its teeth not only when its corporal safety is challenged, but when its sense of justice is challenged. Had I hit Marcus (who had a big fat gut just like so many statues of a certain other teacher…) it would have been sad, unreasonable and less than civilized.

I can’t tell you if I’d hit Ben or not. I go back and forth. He did hit me after all, and I’d like to think I can (and would) defend myself without relying on authorities or alternative justice if I need to. (Of course, retreat was actually the best defense in terms of my physical safety, as it resulted in no more physical injury.) Had I hit him, I guess it would have done little good, save for allowing me to preserve some playground dignity. I’m sure that I’d have been disappointed in whatever punishment the teacher gave anyway, because, well, I’d say he hit me first (just like Hitler!) and she wouldn’t care. With or without Ben the revelation of subjective justice through my teacher would have inevitably come from someone else, and probably soon. I don’t know about Ben. 

And so I guess one could ask (one being the number of people who read things on this blog): Why in the hell would I write that I’d go back and punch them if I wouldn’t? Because when I wrote it it felt true. And even when I posted it it felt true.  Your point that “art may just be the best place to put that shit” is taken. Because I edited that post like crazy, and I rewrote it a number of times over a couple of weeks. (I didn’t, say, just punch it out.) All that work wasn’t done because I was looking to get the facts straight. It was done because I wanted it to read cleanly, and because I wanted it to express the thing I was feeling, which was a rage at all the things I’d never expressed, and a frustration with myself for not expressing more today. (The reason I started a blog was to get myself to write more, and express more.) When it did feel right, I posted it. In other words, it had become a piece of art for me, and the process had been almost identical to my songwriting process, and so I labeled the paragraphs like they were parts of a song. 

It’s pretty ridiculous. When I was writing that I admired people who’d been in bar fights, I was thinking of people like Norman Mailer, who was known for that kinda thing. That’s what I was thinking, that he was known for that kind of thing. But he wasn’t known at all for that kind of thing. He was known because he was a writer, and the fact that he may have fought in bars makes him, I dunno, more interesting. But people who only get in bar fights aren’t interesting. Hell, I guess I wouldn’t think of you as being interesting (actually, I guess I wouldn’t even know you) if you were just a dude who’d smashed some guitars. But the fact that you’ve smashed guitars is interesting now that you’ve have used guitars to write the kind of songs you write. I guess the whole thing comes down to my admiring expression and the people who express. But you’re right. Though punching is a kind of expression, it’s dumber than art. Violence only leads to more violence, or a temporary end to violence. Violence leads to maintenance of a status quo or a degradation of it. It makes me think of other dudes we’ve talked about outside (the appropriately named) Path Cafe, like James Baldwin and Paulo Freire. Now those were two dudes who had every reason to resort to violence. But they both wrote instead of punching, and they wrote warnings to other groups of people, who also had every reason to use violence against their oppressors, and they said, in essence, don’t throw the punch, for if you do, you adopt the practices of your oppressors and eventually, perhaps, become the oppressors yourselves. Had they thrown punches, I s’pose I’d have never taken their point, or been fired up by the way they think, or talked about them outside Path. 

I think I may have not really addressed all the good stuff you mentioned in your response, and instead focused on (or got distracted by) your question of whether or not I’d really go back and hit those guys. All the same, I think you’re right. I wouldn’t punch them, and I shouldn’t. I appreciate your making me think about it. 

One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 2

Christy Mansell

My pal and fellow songwriter, Ryan Morgan, sent a thoughtful response to my last post. I know Ryan from the Big City Folk scene in New York. He is a great songwriter (and conversationalist). You can, and should, listen to his music here.

He writes:

The thing is, your memories of when you wish you could go back and be violent are all in response to some injustice or another - arbitrariness on the playground, mistaken identity at the football game, homophobia in the parking lot. And in all cases, you’re in effect being targeted for something that isn’t your fault. So the rage is, in a sense, just. At least a response to injustice.

It’s an interesting venue for something like anger and violence, which are normally so visceral and instinctive. I’m thinking of violence as catharsis. Or as defensiveness. Or, anyway, as something less pure than what you’re describing. We are, after all, talking about hurting someone. You’re talking about hurting people who deserve it, like a vigilante, once principles or authority have refused to dole out appropriate punishment. I find that really interesting, because it’s an appropriation of a very carnal desire to what is in effect a very civilized end. Like the death penalty, or drone attacks.

Do you really wish you would have hit those people? The offender in the second story is the kid who really did say nigger and then slunk from your side when you were falsely accused. Shouldn’t he, rather than the black kid who knocked you out of the air, be the target of your nostalgic fury?

Anyway, when I was younger, I used to punch holes in walls, and I smashed the first three guitars I owned to bits. As an adult, I took on the habit of shooting handguns at paper targets, but it was always more for sport than catharsis. Still, yes, I think there is in me some desire to see bad people hurt. But I recognize that it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion. Art may just be the best place to put that shit.

One, Two, Three to the Gut

Christy Mansell

First Verse

My friend Ben punched me in the stomach on the playground. We were in kindergarten. It didn’t really hurt that bad, but it shocked the hell out of me. I’d never been punched before and I couldn’t comprehend the violence. I remember I flamed up in anger, but before I could react with that anger I started crying, and the anger came back toward myself, as outwardly I was then a boy who was crying in front of everyone and that was a bad thing to be. Next thing I knew I was running to the teacher on playground duty, feeling ashamed as I did, but feeling that I had to use those tears somehow. When I told the teacher what happened, she said, “For the rest of recess you stay on that side of the playground and Ben will stay on that side of the playground.” My mouth fell open. I was a kid with a deep moral code and I expected the adult judge to enforce the code. But she was punishing us both, and Ben was getting the better half of the playground. Maybe I deserved it for being such a wimp and tattle tale, but it was a sick moment. There was the introduction to violence followed quickly by the realization that justice means different things for different people. I guess I felt I was better than punching, that we all should be. I am not better than punching now. If I could go back in time I would go to that playground and punch Ben as hard as I can.

Second Verse

When I was 12, I went to high school football game with my friend Nate. Our favorite thing to do at the games was to stand behind the goal posts and try to catch the ball after a field goal attempt. That night there were about 25 other kids back there and they were mostly older than us, so our chances of catching the ball were low. Still, a field goal was kicked, the ball went long, and I was fast, so I was able to sprint back and get to it. When I saw that it was going to bounce I dove, and in the middle of the dive I was knocked out of the air by a huge black dude, who ended up with the ball. As he walked triumphantly toward the end zone to throw the ball back to the ref, Nate, who had seen the mid-air knock, lifted his head toward the guy, and, under his breath said to me, “Nigger.” But he hadn’t said it quiet enough. A dude close by turned and said, “What you say?” But he wasn’t looking at Nate, he was looking at me. 

“I didn’t say anything,” I said, and I felt good and moral because I was telling the truth. “You said nigger,” he said, and then he turned to the guy who’d caught the ball, who was now walking back from the fence, and he said, “Marcus, this guy right here called you a nigger!” “No I didn’t!” I said. I turned to Nate and he was just looking at the ground. Marcus walked up to me. He was a foot taller than I was, had a big ole gut, and his head was shaved. His head was steaming, too. I could see it in the stadium lights, hot smoke from his sweaty skull floating up into the cold air. He came within a foot of me and stopped as his friends gathered round. “You call me a nigger?” he said. “No,” I said. “I heard it, man!” said his friend. “I didn’t.” I said. “You calling me a liar?” the friend said. “No,” I said. “Well what you wanna do?” Marcus said to me. He was staring down into my eyes and I looked right back at him. And I balled up my fists just in case. “You wanna hit me?” said Marcus, “I know you wanna hit me!” I let my eyes travel from his face to his big fat gut, right there in reach, and I did want to hit him. I wanted it bad. Here again was a failure of justice, a betrayal of a friend, and anger, and I wanted to punch his fat stomach and make my fist go through. “You wanna hit me?” he repeated. I looked at him one last time, squeezed my fists, tensed my arms, and . . I walked away. Behind my back the kids called me names and laughed as I retreated, Nate in tow. I walked behind the bleachers where nobody could see me, and I cried. Nate looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” I said. If I could go back I would punch Marcus in the stomach, and after I was done getting my ass kicked by all of his friends I’d find Nate, who would no doubt have fled, and I’d punch him too. 

Third Verse

I was walking to my car in the movie theatre parking lot, 16 years old, when I heard a voice yell out, “Hey, faggot!” I made the mistake of turning to see the speaker, a slightly older dude who had two friends with him, and I realized he was talking to me. He was maybe 20 yards away. “Are you gay?” he asked me, in a kind of evil way. I took a second to think of what to say. And incredibly, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay.” I wasn’t gay then, and I’m not gay now–I didn’t even know a gay person then–but I said, “Yeah. I’m gay.” The guy opened his eyes real wide and laughed, and his friends laughed, too. I balled up my fists at my sides, ready for a fight, and they started walking toward me. But I changed my mind and walked as quickly but cooly to my car as I could. The car was close by and I got in, started the engine fast, and pulled away. As I waited to turn out of the parking lot onto the street the dudes pulled up to me and the driver, the same kid who’d asked me if I was gay, rolled down his window. He puckered his lips and smacked them in this sick way. “Hey faggot, you want a kiss? You want a blowjob? Lips are lips, right?” His friends laughed hard, and I pulled out onto the street. 

I didn’t and I don’t know why I told them I was gay. It makes no sense. It was a lie and it put me in danger. The only sense I can make of it is: Those kids were being jerks, to me, and well, to gay people, and this pissed me off. So, in the moment I must have made a heroic and stupid decision to represent all gay people. It’s as if my full reply was, “Yes, I’m gay, and what’s wrong with that?” Moreover, it must have been that saying No, in my mind, would have been to somehow ally myself with the homophobes, like, “No, dudes, I’m cool just like you guys are.” Saying No could have also made me look like a liar to them, like they’d made their minds up that I was gay, and that my denying it would have made me a coward. I guess I stood up to them a little bit in that way. But if I could go back, stupid as it would be and for whatever stupid reason, I would fight them.

Chorus

There are phases I go through when I feel something pent up, and I joke around that I want to go out and get into a fight. Once or twice when I lived near a not-so-nice place in Brooklyn I walked late at night into those streets to tempt fate. But nothing ever happened. Sick or not, I admire my friends who fought with their brothers when they were younger and people who have been in bar fights. The reason why is I’d like to know how it feels. Meaning, I’d like to know how it feels, less the punch and more the expression, and the close connection to another human. I guess I’m not a violent person. Violence scares me and baffles me. But I’m terrible at raw expression in real life, and I wish I weren’t: I admire people whose nervous systems have less inhibitors than mine. So I write a lot of songs with a narrator who knows his mind and speaks it, and about characters who say and do bold things out of hurt and anger. Because, to my chagrin, I have rarely been able to. The only place I’ve ever been able to throw a punch is in a song.