How does one follow a series of notes that say a whole lot without requiring words? In them she captures time when disparate lives share a melody heard from the street.
"But this moment all that's true
Is a song I hear; you hear it, too.
It rouses us from sleep into a dream.
For just a while I feel the ground,
Our lives are joined, aware of sound,
a matrimony made by melody."
- Lyrics, Pacific Street
On the flip side of Pacific Street's lyric card is a story ordinary New Yorkers will recognize, especially those who have moved into fringe neighborhoods looking to make a home that is affordable on an artist's dime. It's a clever summarization of neighborhood gentrification.
(Continued on next page)
Careful not to alienate though, Jean and the band engage the audience by having it participate in sections of lyrically powerful songs like Red Rover, Pacific Street and The Anthem. Melodically, critics might call these songs "hummable," a term that's either derogatory or a good thing, depending on the context. In this particular case, it is functional and descriptive.
The tunes echo the invisible yet palpable evening's hum. Especially vivid in Pacific Street's unwritten and angelic "hoo-oo-oo-oo-hoo," the notes swirl like brush strokes of Van Gogh, painting a haunting portrait before the words even begin. It is little surprise then that this take on the crowded and simultaneously solitary urban life "required a bunch of lyric rewrites," according to Rohe.
The Music of Thought
Reportedly, she had written her speech before she realized the U.S. Senator, one of the year's honorees, was scheduled to speak after her. Deciding that "the senator does not reflect the ideals upon which [this] university was founded," she went to work rewriting her speech at the eve of the commencement, rebutting an over confident–and in Rohe's assessment–misguided McCain speech. McCain's staff had posted the keynote remarks online, and the war and political veteran was repeating the same in all four universities, which honored him that year.
On "Why I Spoke Up," a blog she wrote for The Huffington Post, she recalled her insides were in knots, but she pushed through, compelled to communicate the differences in her own values and McCain's publicly held positions. Compounding the awkwardness, she was later asked to join the senator while the recessional music played.
From the blog, "I took McCain's arm. 'I'm sorry man,' I told him. 'I just had to do it. He mumbled something about it being alright [sic], but I think he probably would've rather not had me there."
In an interview with The New York Times, Sen. McCain would later be glib and dismiss the protesters in the audience as "people living in a dull world where they can't listen to the views of others." Rohe would also be pegged as an arrogant, naive, self-important opportunist by McCain's camp.
Mark Salter, an aide for McCain who helped draft the commencement speech, also responded calling Rohe an "idiot," He wrote,"Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber."
If Rohe's world is indeed an echo chamber, it is one heck of a colosseum. In her new record she reveals her thoughts on the significance of work to the human condition. In the accompanying story that inspired No Work, she writes:
"I dry my hands and open the door, just in time to see a young man descending the steps to leave. I greet him, sticking my body out through the open door into the spring day, and he lumbers back up the steps. Without looking up from his shoes, he explains that he's been out since six this morning looking for work; yard work, handy work, housework....
I invite him in for fruit and water. We talk about his family. He never once looks at me, but I see the distress in his face.
When he leaves, the distress stays behind. I stand in the hall with eyes clenched shut and imagine the brave millions, ringing all the doorbells of every home on the planet, the doorbells of every head of state and CEO, interrupting many important days."
Her take on youth and work are quite a contrast from Mr. Salter's condescending pontification several years earlier. Indeed his words–idiot, self indulgent, echo chamber–are rather "comical" (his word, too) considering it came from the same group that less than two years after the incident would pick Alaska's then governor as McCain's running mate.
But unlike that now epic fiasco of a political pairing, Jean Rohe as a musical stage performer commands attention without overwhelming. She generously shares spotlight with collaborating artists in her band, much in the same way a host might introduce friends to unfamiliar guests at a party. The music they make are like tales of shared experiences and adventure. It is akin to listening to a retelling of a fun road trip they've had, with each instrument supplying a complementary but distinct voice.
Rohe says the musicians in the record are in fact all friends of hers. Some, like Ilusha Tsinadze, she has known since childhood. She expounds, "They are all people I've played with in various configurations over the years. And I just decided I'd bring some of my favorite people together." This is evident, the camaraderie radiates.