March 30, 2013

Somerville Scout (Jan/Feb)

Not Ashamed

Matt Ganem wades through addiction, comes out slinging poetry.

Ganem reflects on his past in the Massachusetts town where it all began.  Photo by Michael Rose.

SOMERVILLE, MA---The high was always good--a straight shot to the heart, an immediate cooling of the blood and a washed out invincibility that pushed it all away. For Matt Ganem, it was an escalating drug addiction. Drug deals, court dates, lost friends--a general erasure of one's good standing imprint on society. But the high was always good.
     He wasn't born in Somerville, but for Ganem the city was a series of mazes to get lost in, escape from and eventually return to clean. Raised in a broken home, Ganem and his sister dealt with the effects of their parents' divorce. His mother, over-burdened by raising two children and sick of seeing Ganem come home with bad grades and a worse attitude, told him to get out. "It's hard being a woman trying to raise a rebellious man," he said with a grin and an aching laugh. He was 16.
     During our interview Ganem spoke candidly and bluntly about his struggle with addiction, often referring to himself as an addict as if it were his official title. He's unafraid to talk and write every aspect of his drug problems. With his first book of poetry, In the Shadow of an Addict, he hopes that slammed-down honesty will help others to open up, and those on the outside to understand. "Addiction has no color, creed, social class or sexual preference," Ganem stated. "It attacks everybody the same."
     Ganem won't say where he's from originally, except that it's in the Greater Boston area. He said he doesn't want to assign addiction to any specific locale. But soon after being thrown out and falling in Somerville he discovered the pleasant buzzing of Oxycontin. "When I first started it was with other people at a party," he said. Friends would split pills, dice them up on the counter, snort them, feel good, and live to see another day. Ganem entered the fray without much thought of consequence. "When you're doing it with other people it seems socially acceptable," he explained. No stranger to drug culture at the time, he said, "It was the Oxys that grabbed a hold of you and didn't let go."
     Ganem slid into a bubble--this wasn't relaxing with friends anymore. He began hoarding and snorting all alone. "Once you physically need it, you're willing to do anything to get it," he said. He began selling just to keep his own blown-up habit going. He was arrested, dodged the law, skipped court dates. Eventually there wasn't a crime he wouldn't commit to keep up a "couple hundred dollar-a-day habit."
Cover of The Shadow of an Addict
     His body had grown so accustomed to the rubbery comfort provided by a few pills that quitting cold meant throwing his body into the clamping industry of withdrawal. Tightening nerves. Unforgiving anxiety. "I didn't sell it to make money and look nice. It was so I could feel right," he said.
     "The interesting thing about Somerville," said Jasen Sousa, whose own J-Rock Publishing is behind The Shadow of an Addict, "is that you can't always see what goes on above the surface." Sousa's Fancygirl tackles the story of a teenage single mother using the Internet and her body to make ends meet. "Drugs plague the youth of Somerville. It's important to have artists like Matt, who have lived and experienced it," convey their story so others can relate.
     With so much happening around Ganem, it seemed someone was always close by waiting to take advantage of the vulnerable. "Somebody can come up to you and say, 'I have this little bag and it'll make you feel better.' You don't even care what's in it," he told me. "And that bag was heroin." Stronger, dirtier and cheaper; the high would continue.
     His dependency strengthened, leading him, one day, toward Arthur D. Healey School (5 Meacham St.) where he waited to make a deal and wound up arrested. Bailed out, broke and intolerably junk-sick, Ganem had to play economics again and convinced himself shooting the drug would be the most cost effective way to maintain his high. Shrouded from society, paranoia leaking into his skull, he left Somerville fearing the cops had it out for him. He moved in the shadows, slept in the streets, in the Boston Commons, until ending up sleeping head-to-toe with another struggling friend in South Boston. He paid rent in dope.
     When his friend left the rooming house to get help at the Boston Hamilton House in Dorchester, Ganem realized the walls were closing in. "I looked in the mirror and my skin was sunken, black under my eyes. I looked defeated," he said. "If I keep going like this," he thought then, "my life isn't lasting."
     Knowing he had to move on from where he was, but not exactly focused on quitting dope, Ganem went to St. Elizabeth's in Brighton for detox. "I showed up with my bags thinking I had a bed when [it was only] an interview," he said. "I didn't know any better." The house director gave Ganem eight hours to see how he could handle it. Thinking he'd wait it out and get high afterward, he bided his time, sat in on a few classes, waiting, and to his surprise was given a room.
     That pivotal moment was the first step in the climb to his recovery. "When you're an addict, getting high is easier than getting clean," Ganem said. "The insanity you go through getting high--the vicious cycle--it's easier to keep repeating."
     The house provided him with something that slipping away in the doze of heroin doesn't afford: structure. "It reorganized my life," he said. Ganem was expected to follow a rigid schedule with 20 or 30 others in the same space. One hour each day was spent studying addiction, where he picked apart his behaviors and summoned the courage to move forward. Now 27, Ganem has been sober six years.
     As a kid Ganem wrote poetry in the classroom and raps at recess. When his body first felt the full awakening shot of sobriety those early wordplay drills came rushing back. "Once you first get clean there's a lot of emotion you deal with. You hold all your pain [while using]. I bottled a lot of stuff," he said. "As an addict, you're ashamed. Nobody wants to be an addict. Nobody wants to admit to their parents, their friends, to people. You end up getting high because you're ashamed. You isolate yourself [and] a lot of stuff starts coming out. I started writing just to get it out."
     The Shadow of an Addict is made up of six chapters and walks the reader through Ganem's tribulations. There are some painful scenes, each one upfront with the simmering details. "I write ugly," he said. "You'll walk in my shoes as you read the book." Sousa, the publisher, added, "Matt's poetry is very lyrical and has a hip-hop style." The book is available on Amazon and in 30 cities, he said, scattered among bookstores. Ganem has also hit the road to deliver books around New England and has personally mailed copies out. He now hustles books.
Ganem up against the fence.  Photo by Michael Rose.
     Sharing his experiences has been a way to open up the dialogue on addiction and confront it head-on. "I don't want to go to NA or AA because it's anonymous. Not many people speak out about it and show that it could be you, could be me," he said. "I want to change the stigma and not be ashamed."
     Before going to print with his book  Ganem wanted to share a dedication page to those affected by addiction. "I know a lot of actors or hip-hop artists forget their fans [after] they first start," he said. "I wanted people to have a piece of my book." He took to Facebook opening up the offer to print any names of loved ones shaped by the struggle, in memoriam. The gesture was honest, but negative feedback seeped in, with some people seeing the move as exploitative. Ganem was rattled. "I didn't do this to be put on a pedestal," he said. "I'd rather be successful in that I've touched people's lives and helped them get through a hard time." Past the piercing negativity, though, Ganem is finding success.
     Last year Ganem was nominated for Performer of the Year by arts organization RAW Boston. He's been performing across the region, opening hip-hop shows and competing in poetry slams. The live performances are an avenue he didn't account for but enjoys. "I try to open eyes every time I touch the mic."
     Ganem stays defiant and focused on his addiction, but a pull in his voice when he discusses it suggests it's not as easy and redemptive as it seems. When I ask Ganem to tell the most rewarding part of his recovery he does not hesitate. "Not dying. I should've been dead." His face turns stone. "The last months I was getting high I just wanted to die."
     He thinks back to the eight hours he spent waiting for an interview at the halfway house to our interview six years later in Bloc 11 (11 Bow St.). "You don't think life is beautiful until you get out of it. I like fresh snow falling on trees," he said before trying to pull the statement away. "I like very stupid little things you wouldn't expect to notice." His slight embarrassment quickly turns thoughtful. "I could only focus on one thing for so long. When you get high, you get high with whatever problems you have. Now I just gotta face them."
     The Shadow of an Addict is available at
     from Somerville Scout (No. 19--January/February)
Michael Rose Photography

March 12, 2013


Ferranti and King. Photo @
The Reggae Solstice

Yellow And Green Suns Rise Above Union Square

"I feel so good in my neighborhood." -- Bob Marley in his song, "Kaya."
     The ghost of Bob Marley soars above Somerville, raining drops of positivity on Union Square below. Most assuredly, the Jamaican-born, reggae legend wasn't thinking of this neighborhood when he sang the above quote, but if his ghost truly lingers here it ought to feel pretty good.
     Down on Somerville Avenue, The Duppy Conquerors channel his spirit for their weekly Marley Monday night sets at Sally O'Brien's (335 Somerville Ave.). For Curtis King, the dreadlocked lead singer of the tribute band, performing Marley's music is an honor. "His music is not just feel-good and pure," King said, "but it's also positive lyrics." The band, titled after a song from Marley's huge discography meaning to vanquish the evil spirits, lives up to the name. "It feels good to be able to share that positivity and feel it back with the dancing and people getting into the vibe," King said. "There's a good meditation."
     The Duppy Conquerors have been a mainstay at Sally's for two years since January, but they are only one part of a reggae scene that has since steadily grown in Somerville. Across the street at the Irish pub Bull McCabe's (366 Somerville Ave.) the rest of one's Rasta cravings can be sought out with three weekly residencies in full rotation: Dub Apocalypse on Sunday, Skiffy & The Ghetto People Band on Tuesdays and The Dub Down featuring The Scotch Bonnet Band on Thursdays. The influences of each act range widely but the music comes from an honest place. Reggae is the sole source of expression. But, even more than a creative outlet, it's a form by which to live by and get lost in.
     Last September approximately 300 people rocked and swayed in the parking lot of Bull McCabe's for their second Roots to Reggae Fest. The crowd swelled over the course of the sunny day that featured six bands, with Dub Apocalypse closing it out with their more modern, psychedelic pounding strand of reggae. The concert was a success and a marker of how far this music community has come in Union Square. "It's a word-of-mouth scene," said Boston Globe rock critic Steve Morse, who's covered music for over 30 years. "You gotta know it's there." The scene is ascending, but it's ben a long time coming.
     Jimmy T, who sings and plays bass with The Dub Down, has been playing Union Square since the early 2000s. He, along with Dub Apocalypse members Tommy Benedetti and Johnny Trama, moved in and out of each other's groups. Before finding Union Square they coveted residencies in a parallel universe at Matt Murphy's, an Irish pub that hosted reggae in Brookline. After the club shut down they tried gigs out at Boston's House of Blues and a few places in Jamaica Plain, but none of them lasted. "There has to be a certain vibe in place to do what we do for people to really get it and enjoy it," Benedetti said.
     With Dub Apocalypse being nominated last year for International Artist of the Year and Best Live Ongoing Residency at Bull McCabe's for the Boston Music Awards, it seems they've found the right place. "Now I call it Reggae McCabe's," Jimmy T said. "Somerville is where it happens now," Benedetti added. "This is where the support is. This is where the vibe is."
     King reflected, "Since I came on with The Duppy Conquerors I've seen, in this area, a large uprising." Before finding Sally's, The Precinct (70 Union Sq.) hosted The Duppys for a year and the audiences then were meandering and sparse. "We were really raw," drummer Sarah Mendelsohn admitted. They've since grown more cohesive and have made an imprint as the go-to Marley cover band of the Boston area.
     "Sally O'Brien's has been their springboard," The Globe's Morse said. As he talked, he grew increasingly enthusiastic about the brewing scene and had much respect for The Duppys who opened with the rare "Small Axe." "I've never heard them play the same set twice," Morse said. "Not a lot of bands can do that in any genre." By their second song most everybody not nursing a bottle was up and dancing. A college couple swung and waltzed all over and new patrons kept leaking in.
     Weeknight sets see a variety of people all in flux. "A lot of late-shifters stop in on their way home from work," Mark Ferranti, The Duppys' bassist, said. Indeed, one eager-to-speak friend with sleepy eyes mentioned, grinning, "This is my stop between work and home."
     The lack of any significant financial benefit--shows at Bull's cost only $5, Marley Mondays are free--keeps the performers free of any pressure. "It's more community than business," said Morse. Their residencies serve as rehearsal time, allowing each act to stretch their limitations and experiment. For The Duppys, it's a chance to dig deep into the Marley songbook and not rely on the standard bong hits. They have a minimum of 80 songs in their cannon ready to go.
     Each band represents a different slice of the reggae pie. Each has their own style and every player a different background, but all know where their roots are planted. The Duppys are the quintessential reggae act, rejuvenating the back catalogue of Marley and giving each song new life. Skiffy & The Ghetto People Band play a more gritty, from-the-dirt reggae sound. The Dub Down splashes heavy beats into the rhythm with raps from MC Kabir laced throughout. They hold the longest residency of the four, since May 2010. Dub Apocalypse, meanwhile, pries open another vein with their fringe-reggae.
     "The platform," said drummer Benedetti, whose arms are covered in tattoos and who grew up on metal, "is 70s and 80s Jamaican dub...Depending on who's on the gig, the gig can take any shape." With an alternating sax section and fluctuating band members, Dub Apocalypse represents reggae's trippier side. "They have a dark dub style," Jimmy T said. "I call it gangster future dub reggae."
     Jimmy T's own Dub Down has five alternating vocalists, including Skiffy. They showcase harmonies ranging from rock-steady ska to dancehall. "We're a song band," he said. They play a half-and-half mix of bootleg bin covers and originals.
     While The Dub Down, Dub Apocalypse and The Duppy Conquerors have been constants the last two years, the addition of Skiffy & The Ghetto People Band has strengthened the scene. They snuck in last June replacing David Johnston Band who held a nine-year tenure at Bull's. "Skiffy's been a real surprise," Morse said.
     Formed from the previous band, Dub Station, The Ghetto People Band pulled together a legion of reggae soldiers. "What we really try to do is have an authentic sound," drummer Glen "The General" Grant explained with thick accent. "I try to give more of a spiritual, authentic sound because I'm from the Caribbean." Dub Station toured the U.S. throughout the 90s featuring different vocalists. Skiffy sat in for a period and formed a relationship with Grant that eventually evolved into their Tuesday night residency.
     Grant is a seasoned reggae drummer who protested nuclear power on the White House lawn the same year The Duppys' Ferranti discovered Marley in a dark room developing prints. To have come from the music's birthplace, it's been satisfying for Grant to see the scene in full swing. "If I take you to Jamaica and we turn on the radio station, we won't hear reggae. You'll hear R&B, you'll hear hip-hop, you'll hear classical music Sunday mornings," he said. "Mostly you hear music for the tourists." The foundations of the home base have risen to America to create a flavorful reggae stew--something veterans like Grant appreciate. The newer artists "came from different genres," he said. "They bring it together. It's all connected to reggae."
Bull McCabe's where reggae can be heard three nights a week.
     Collaboration breeds creativity and when the backdrop is the looseness of reggae, the results can blossom into new forms, new sounds. "We're not just trying to be a traditional roots reggae band by any means," Benedetti defended. "You keep it pure and it's a sincere thing--it's not contrived. It's just us up there playing the music that comes naturally to us."
     Last October, Bull McCabe's celebrated its fourth anniversary in business. "These bands have done so much work to guild the nights into what they are," owner Brian Manning said. "They're a [big] reason for our success. The biggest part of what we do is music. It's a pleasure to bring people in for that."
     The respect is mutual. "Brian's super supportive of the music we all play," Benedetti said. "You can't have a successful residency if the venue isn't behind you." "No man is an island. It takes many people together" to build a scene, Grant said.
     Everyone talks of the vibe and there is no doubting its pervasiveness. The shows lack the stiff-necked pretension usually found in rock and roll rooms. "It's not competitive," Morse said. "Rock bands, a lot of times, can get competitive. Reggae bands put the vibe first." Nobody is there to prove anything because the only thing to prove is a slick and shuffled groove. "It's the tradition of Bob Marley," said Morse.
          from Somerville Scout (No. 18--November/December 2012)

Duppy Conquerors
Bull McCabe's
Sally O'Brien's

March 08, 2013

Piano Brains (Or, The Life Of A Piano As Related To Suzy Mulligan)

"Piano Brains (Or, The Life Of A Piano As Related To Suzy Mulligan"

Directed, Written, Produced by: Eli Jace Bulno
Staring: Blabbermouth, Eli Jace Bulno, Jordan Hoon, "Andy" Lambcastle, Jimmy James Lintelmann, Christian Reeb, Tim Wandrey.
Score by: Professor Divebomb
Crew: Jon Balding, Enrique Lopez, Alex Macdonald

Piano Brains [Tungsten Comedown Version]
Piano Brains [Original Version]
Professor Divebomb
Eli Jace YouTube Channel