Finally, a beginning.

So,

I’ve been working on this one book for the last few years, and most of the time it seems like it’s never going to end. Some chapters and sentences have undergone ten and twenty and almost certainly thirty drafts, and when I reread them for the hundred-and-fiftieth time all I see is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I imagine a curious Glory leafing through the huge stacks of pages that are scattered around our house and discovering with horror the same familiar text repeated ad infinitum. (Don’t worry, The Shining analogy ends there, but it’s enough already to be terrible: the discovery that our hero has long forgotten how to write anything at all, has lost his mind in the process, and has spent all this damn time doing nothing — all of that is horror enough.)

Much to most of the book exists by now in draft form, but I’ve put off writing the intro(!) all this time, painfully aware that I don’t have a book — and can’t sell a book, either — until I have a beginning.

And then today, when I least expected it, a breakthrough! 

I don’t want to give too much of it away: but the first two paragraphs of this thing will take place in Tuxedo Junction, Alabama, in the summer of 1985. And the next two paragraphs will take place at — of all places — Birmingham’s The Nick, in the summer of 1988.

After that, and a few more introductory remarks, the book proceeds as planned all along: rewinding to the close of the 19th century and proceeding forward to the close of the 20th.

The new opening scenes make explicit, too, the most essential of the book’s themes: more even than music or race or Birmingham or education or segregation or jazz or any other thing that this book is also about, it’s above all a book about home: about what “home” means, and doesn’t mean, and might mean.

I couldn’t be happier to have finally found my beginning.

Stay tuned;

and thanks.

— Burgin

 

Jaybird Art: Elnora Spencer & Roger Stephenson

Last September, Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, and Glory and I opened up this little space in Birmingham called The Jaybird. We’ve got books and zines for sale, and we’re also the home of the Alabama Zine Library, a reading room and archive of independent, DIY, handmade publications. We have live music once a month, and an art opening every other month. This whole thing is a community-driven, homegrown creative experiment not intended for profit. We don’t intend to be here forever, but we’ve promised at least 12 months of programs and gatherings and are doing are best to facilitate a series of beautiful, warm, and inspiring moments. So far, so good.

A couple of weeks ago, we opened our third art installation, and it’s been a great pleasure to spotlight the work of two local artists, Elnora Spencer and Roger Stephenson. It’s a visual exhibit that’s deeply steeped in music, especially in the blues: Roger’s photography offers portraits of blues and jazz musicians in performance, and Elnora–who is best known for her own sensational, soulful singing–invests her painting with the same depth of feeling, rhythm, and passion that’s at the heart of her music.  This Friday, February 9, Elnora will be the featured performer on our stage, and we can’t wait for her to fill our little room with her giant voice, surrounded by her own artwork and Roger’s intimate musical portraits.

If you live in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come see this art show–and Friday night’s performance would be the ideal time to come check it out. We’re also open every Saturday from 11 to 4, which gives visitors a good chance to get up close to the art; this show will be on our wall until sometime mid-to-late March. And for Elnora’s upcoming concert, we’re adding to the walls a good bunch of brand new paintings and drawings not included at our opening. On the blog today, I’m posting a bit of information about the installation, but most of all I hope you’ll come check it out in person.

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Roger Stephenson is a freelance photographer specializing in performer and performance photography. He is an official photographer for the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge and is a contributing photographer for Living Blues Magazine. His photos have been featured in numerous publications across the world and have appeared on musicians’ websites, album covers, and concert posters. You can find more of his work at www.rogerstephensonphotography.com.

Stephenson’s distinctive eye celebrates the soul of the blues, the buoyancy of jazz, and the intimacy and energy of live performance. His subjects include both legendary performers and the unheralded masters of the blues and jazz traditions. Among the portraits in this show you’ll find the faces of many of Alabama’s own homegrown musicians, from jazz legends Dr. Frank Adams and Cleve Eaton to blues hero Willie King—and you’ll encounter such iconic musical landmarks as Gip’s Place and Freedom Creek. There are even a couple of recent images taken here at The Jaybird—and a portrait of this show’s other featured artist, Elnora Spencer.

Stephenson calls this series “Listen, Can You Hear the Music?” and he hopes the images will appeal to the ear as much as the eye. “I feel my photograph achieves its objective,” he explains, “if you feel you are there at the venue with the musician.” If you can hear the music, he says, the image has done its job.

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Elnora Spencer paints the world as she sees it. Her paintings and sketches range from the autobiographical to the mystical, from the humorous to the profound. “My paintings,” she says, “are my view of the world—they show the good that I see in the world. Some of it’s what I want the world to be, my view on the way the world should work.” Many of Spencer’s paintings come to her in dreams. “I put the visions I see in my head into the painting, and it makes me feel better. Sometimes I feel like I’m in that world while I’m painting.” All in all, Spencer hopes to capture in her art what she calls the mystery of life: that mix of good and evil, of highs and lows and striving and dreaming that makes up our time on this earth. One of her key themes is that anything can change in the blink of an eye. And throughout her work there are angels, the protective spirits that look out for and watch over us. Through all of life’s ups and downs, she says, “the angels are always there.”

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“In a Green Dream,” by Elnora Spencer

It’s no surprise that there is a musical quality to many of Elnora Spencer’s paintings. In addition to her work as a visual artist, Spencer is best known as a dynamic and beloved blues, soul, and jazz vocalist. She’s worked with and opened for many blues icons—B. B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Koko Taylor, and others—and she’s long been a mainstay of the Birmingham scene, routinely bringing down the house with her own powerhouse vocals. She will be performing at The Jaybird on Friday, February 9—a night we can guarantee you don’t want to miss. Here’s a little preview–video recorded last year during a series of engagements in Argentina.

Once again, we’re grateful to get to work with these artists, and we’re grateful too to everyone who’s come out already to check out the installation. We hope to see you soon at The Jaybird.

Weekend Listening: Frantz Casseus’s “Haitian Dances”

In the 1940s, Frantz Casseus emigrated from Haiti to the U. S. because he wanted to meet Fats Waller.

That’s about as fine a reason to go someplace as I can imagine.

Sadly, the two men never met — Fats died about the time Casseus got to New York — but Casseus, a gifted classical guitarist and composer, went on to write and record some beautiful music of his own, adapting Haitian folk songs and styles to European classical traditions. “Frantz came here with the ambition to compose a distinctly Haitian classical guitar music,” wrote the guitarist Marc Ribot, for whom Casseus became a mentor. Casseus released three records on the Folkways label, creative and poignant works steeped in the rhythms, textures, and traditions of his native culture.

Here’s his 1954 album, Haitian Dances, my recommended listening for you on this cold weekend. It’s a short album: you can listen to it back-to-back-to-back, three times in a row, in about an hour. I’ve probably played it six or seven times already today.

P.S. It goes without saying. But thank God for Haiti and Haitians, and for Haitian-Americans — for Frantz Casseus, for example,  and the wonders he wrought in this country, his second home.

Frantz Casseus

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

New Year’s Hankathon

Tomorrow, New Year’s Day 2018, marks the 65th anniversary of the death of Hank Williams; and to commemorate the date I’ve got four hours of Hank tributes from The Lost Child — the perfect soundtrack, I think, to your black-eyed peas and new year’s greens.

First, here’s the extended edition of this weekend’s show, the Hank Death Show. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this 65th anniversary seemed like good timing: we listened back to Hank’s historic funeral and heard some of the (many!) Hank tribute songs released in the wake of his death, along with some original Hank records and radio broadcasts. The extended online version includes more of the funeral than I could squeeze into my usual broadcast hour, plus a further look into all those tribute records.

That show was a sort of epilogue to this show, Hank at 90, the three-hour tribute I aired on the 90th anniversary of Hank’s birth, back in 2013. “Hank at 90” pulled together into one place many years of Hank collecting and obsessing on my part, and it’s still one of the most popular episodes of The Lost Child. There are Hank classics and obscurities, reflections from Hank’s old bandmates, a look into the roots of Hank Williams (including the evolution of the “Lovesick Blues” and “Jambalaya”), and, best of all, a world of Hank covers — including gospel, conjunto, soul, zydeco, doo-wop, ’60s psychedelic Thai pop  covers, and more. Here’s the playlist, if you’d like to follow along:

  1. Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  2. Dean Martin: Wedding Bells
  3. Johnny “Guitar” Watson: Cold, Cold Heart
  4. Conjunto Atardecer: Jambalaya
  5. Hank Williams: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  6. Johnny Cash: I Heard that Lonesome Whistle
  7. The Maddox Brothers and Rose: Honky Tonkin
  8. Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams: Live on the Grand Ole Opry, 1950
  9. Hank Williams: Next Sunday Darlin’ is My Birthday (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, WSM, 1951)
  10. Piano Red: Hey Good Lookin’
  11. Billy Lee Riley: Kaw-Liga
  12. Papa Cairo: Grand Texas
  13. Chuck Guillory: Grand Texas
  14. Hank Williams: Jambalaya (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1952)
  15. Louis Keppard: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  16. Washboard Sam: Bucket’s Got a Hole in It
  17. Hank Williams: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (demo)
  18. Esther Phillips: I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)
  19. Hank Williams radio interview with Mack Sanders, WFBI, Wichita, KS, 1951
  20. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: Ramblin’ Man
  21. Louis Armstrong: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  22. Isidro Lopez: Kaw-Liga
  23. The Five Crowns: You Win Again
  24. Kenneth “Jethro” Burns: You Win Again
  25. Bill Monroe: I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome
  26. Braxton Shooford (Braxton Schuffert): Rockin’ Chair Daddy
  27. Big Bill Lister: Countrified
  28. Big Bill Lister: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  29. Big Bill Lister: Story Behind “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
  30. Hank Williams, Sr. & Hank Williams, Jr.: There’s a Tear in My Beer
  31. Bob Log III: Settin’ the Woods on Fire
  32. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter: A Picture from Life’s Other Side
  33. Elvis Presley: Men with Broken Hearts (Las Vegas, 1970)
  34. Dinah Washington: Cold, Cold Heart
  35. Hank Williams: You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave) (Live, Grand Ole Opry, 1949)
  36. Audrey Williams: Tornado of Love
  37. Lloyd Clarke: Half as Much
  38. Lum York: Memories of Hank Williams (My Life and Times with Hank Williams, Sr.)
  39. Hank Williams: Mother’s Best radio show excerpt, featuring “I Saw the Light” (1951)
  40. Emmett Miller: The Lovesick Blues
  41. Rex Griffin: Lovesick Blues
  42. Hank Williams: Lovesick Blues
  43. Porter Wagoner: Porter and Marty (Men With Broken Hearts / I Heard That Lonesome Whistle)
  44. Link Wray: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  45. Silver Sand: Kaw-Liga
  46. Hank Williams: How To Write Folk and Western Music To Sell
  47. Zelenáči (Greenhorns) & Miroslav Hoffman: Posledni hrana (Long Gone Lonesome Blues)
  48. Hank Williams: Weary Blues from Waitin’ (demo)
  49. The Golden Crusaders: Hey Good Lookin’
  50. Hank Williams: On Top Of Old Smoky (Live, Mother’s Best radio show, 1951)
  51. Preston Fulp: Wedding Bells
  52. James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart
  53. Hank Williams: radio interview with Bob McKinnon, Alexander City, AL, 1950
  54. Jack Cardwell: The Death of Hank Williams
  55. Dr. Henry L. Lyon: Hank Williams eulogy (excerpt), Highland Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, 1953
  56. Johnnie and Jack: Hank Williams Will Live Forever
  57. The Five Blind Boys of Alabama: I Saw the Light
  58. Hank Williams: I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing

Hank Death Show copy

In Birmingham the night before New Year’s each year is Hank Night, bandleader Chad Fisher’s annual tribute to the music of Hank Williams (Hank spent the night of January 30, 1952 in Birmingham, on his way to the gig he never made). Each year it’s an incredible night. For the last three years I’ve had the honor of introducing the band onstage and saying a few words about Hank. This is more or less what I said last night:

Happy Hank Night.

65 YEARS AGO TONIGHT(!!)
Hiram Hank Williams
pulled into the city of Birmingham
in the middle of a snowstorm

in his eggshell blue Cadillac convertible
on his way to a New Year’s gig in Canton, Ohio

He checked into the Redmont Hotel downtown and got a room for the night.
It was his last night in any bed
And the last night whose morning he’d live to see.

In the morning Hank got back on the road
but somewhere in the dark hours
between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
he breathed out his last breath; and
somewhere around Oak, Hill, West Virginia
his driver pulled over to discover him dead.

In life Hank wrote a litany of hits:
     “Hey Good Lookin'”
     “Jambalya”
     “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
     “Cold Cold Heart”
     “I Saw the Light”
     “Kaw-liga”
     And too many others to name

When he died DJs all over the country saturated the airwaves with his songs
and put also onto their turntables a world of Hank tribute records
so many musical eulogies they constituted a kind of miniature genre unto themselves

Songs like:
     “The Life of Hank Williams”
     “The Death of Hank Williams”
     “In Memory of Hank Williams”
     “Ode to Hank Williams” 

     “A Tribute to Hank Williams, My Buddy”
     “Hank Williams, That Alabama Boy”
     “Singing Teacher in Heaven”
     “Guest Star in Heaven”
     “Heart’s Hall of Fame”
     “That Heaven Bound Train”
     “When Hank Williams Met Jimmie Rodgers”
     “Hank Williams Will Live Forever”
     “Hank Williams Isn’t Dead”
     “Hank, It Will Never Be the Same Without You”
     And more

One of Hank’s recent hits, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” was still on the charts
And that song, which a few months ago had just been a jokey, catchy novelty tune

Became suddenly endowed with a tragic, near-mystic significance

Hank’s record label rushed to release a posthumous anthology of all the records Hank
     had made as Luke the Drifter
     his moralizing, sermonizing alter-ego,
a collection meant to assure Hank’s fans that for all the hell-raising for which Hank was
known
Hank had believed above all in mama and God and sweet sacred things and home.

The DJs read out over the airwaves the home address of Hank’s mama, Lily Stone in
Montgomery
urging their listeners to send their condolences
So a flood of cards and letters

poured by the hundreds into her mailbox
and filled up as best as they could the empty spaces in her home

There were letters from housewives
and farmers
teenagers
and aspiring songwriters
from black listeners and white listeners

and GIs stationed in Korea and in Germany.

A letter from Eua Claire, Wisconsin, was addressed to “The Mother of Country Music”
and said, quote:
     “I’d love to come to your home and see Hank’s room
and feel his nearness everywhere.
     Do you think Hank would care?”

I grew up in Montgomery some years after all this
and Hank’s nearness could still be felt if you knew how to look for and feel it.
When the Hank Williams Museum got ready to open there in 1999
a headline appeared on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser
     my hometown paper
announcing the appearance of what seemed to be Hank’s ghost
in a piece of plywood
at the museum’s construction site.
A contract painter, the paper said, had discovered in the wood grain
–o
n December 31, of all possible dates, just days before the museum’s opening–
the image of a cowboy hat
and then of a guitar
and next to that the letters HW;
a few days later, a cowboy boot had “appeared” in the grain
and the museum’s owner told the paper:
“We don’t know what will appear next.”
Quote: “It’s strange”

But strange things happen in country music
and God knows strange things happen in Alabama

David Allen Coe in the ’80s and Allen Jackson in the ’90s both wrote new sorts of tribute
     songs, describing run-ins with Hank’s ghost in and around Montgomery
and Waylon Jennings’s tour bus always kept one empty bunk open for Hank’s ghost,
which Waylon said came around often for the ride and a talk.

Hank just can’t seem to leave us alone.
And we can’t leave him alone either.

Hank Williams seems to fill for millions of us some kind of essential need
and 65 years after he last pulled through this town

we still have limitless room for his Ghost.

For nine years Chad Fisher has brought to Birmingham one of the greatest nights this
     city knows,
assembled on this stage one of the most joyous and inspiring lineups of talent we might
hope to hear
and it’s a joy to be with you all here tonight
for Hank Night Nine.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors,
     Chad Fisher
     and the Hank Night Band.

One last thing or two for now, speaking of musical New Year’s traditions: here’s 20 minutes’ worth of “Auld Lang Syne” to help ring in the new — and a blog post from this time last year, with still more(!!) New Year’s listening from The Lost Child.

Happy new year, and long live Hank Williams. See you in 2018.

hank!

Audio Archive: Frank “Doc” Adams remembers…

This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my book with the great, much-beloved Alabama jazz hero, Dr. Frank Adams: a master performer, educator, family man, community icon, storyteller, and history-keeper known to many around here as “Doc.” Our book — Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man — tells Frank Adams’s story in his own words, drawing from more than two years of weekly interviews.

To celebrate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I’ve uploaded the first few minutes of the first interview I conducted with Doc, from July of 2009 (in the recording below, I attribute this interview to 2002, not catching my verbal typo). At the time, I thought I’d write an article about Doc and about the history of Birmingham jazz community. Most of all I wanted to preserve some of this man’s remarkable story and storytelling for posterity; beyond my vague ideas for an article I didn’t have much of a plan. But this interview turned into many more interviews, which turned in turn into our book — and eight(!!) years later, I’m still very hard at work on the book that’s grown out of that one, a history of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz.

Doc died two years after the publication of this book — three years ago this month. It’s a joy to hear his voice again in this recording. I remember vividly the day of this interview, sitting across from Doc in his office, engrossed in his stories and his spirit. I had no idea that we’d record ninety-something more of these interviews, no idea that this recording would become the opening pages of our book. I certainly did not anticipate the friendship and collaboration that would grow out of this first session. For that friendship, above all, I’ll be eternally grateful.

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When the book was finished, Doc constantly instructed me: “Keep the book in front of people.” He believed, and I believe, that it told an important story — a story about more than jazz, and more than Birmingham — and a story that ought to be widely shared. He didn’t want it collecting dust on book shelves but wanted it to pass through as many hands as it could. So I’ll remind you on its anniversary that’s it’s still available from Amazon — and right now available at the best price I’ve seen on it yet. Maybe your library has it, or maybe you can get your library to get it. If you’re in Birmingham, we’ve got it for sale at our new store, The Jaybird. However you get your hands around it, I hope you’ll spend some time with this book and with Doc.

Meanwhile, here’s how this whole thing started: Dr. Frank Adams sitting in his office, age 81, talking about his father and his brother and his mother, and about his first musical performance — a brothers’ duet of “The Old Rugged Cross,” performed for the congregation of Birmingham’s Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church.

“That,” he said, “sort of hooked me on music.”

Happy anniversary, Doc.

Remembering Ralph (1928-2017)

Tomorrow on The Lost Child: You might not know Ralph Lewis, but you should. The seventh son of a seventh son, he was born into the Great Depression in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. By five or six he was getting his hands around a mandolin and soon was sitting in with brothers Ervin and Blanco, The Lewis Brothers, a popular regional act. When Blanco was killed in WWII, Ralph joined Ervin as half of the brother duet, developing a following around Niagara Falls, New York. By the late forties Ralph had landed in Detroit, where an audience, made largely of displaced Southerners, packed out local venues to hear his mixing of mountain music tradition with a creative, propulsive, high-energy bent: “I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t know it,” he later said, suggesting an affinity with modern sounds that would last his whole life. He moved back to North Carolina and played in a number of bands before joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1974, at a peak in Monroe’s career. After touring the U.S., Japan, and Europe with Bill Monroe, Ralph returned to Madison County, choosing to develop a band with his young sons, Marty and Don.

I first encountered Ralph, Marty, and Don when I moved to Asheville, NC, in the year 2000. Their band, The Sons of Ralph (Featuring Ralph) was an enormous local favorite, especially at Jack of the Wood, the downtown stage they made their headquarters. As he always had, Ralph mingled his family’s mountain music traditions with a wide-open, innovative embrace of influences, and with Marty and Don at his side Ralph was more than ever pushing the boundaries of bluegrass–really forgoing boundaries altogether–and mixing in an eclectic, electric range of sounds from rock and roll to reggae to Cajun music and beyond.

Ralph remained a fixture of the area’s musical culture and scene until his death last Saturday at the age of 89. I am grateful for the opportunities I got to see him and Marty and Don and their band, live on stage–grateful for the opportunities to participate in a community and family that extended beyond the stage to every person in the room.

I’m going to do my best tomorrow to play/pay tribute to Ralph on the radio. I’ll play a bunch of Sons of Ralph songs, and a recording or two of Ralph playing with Bill Monroe in Japan. I’ll play a few excerpts from an interview I recorded with Ralph in 2002. I will leave some things out, I’m sure, but it will be a heartfelt tribute anyway to a musician and a man I’ll always admire. You should tune in.

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The Lost Child airs Saturday morning from 9 to 10, Central, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 in Birmingham, Alabama; 97.5 in Tuscaloosa; and streaming online every & anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday evening, 8/15, from 11 to midnight (also Central), at the same places. And it’ll air a final time at Radio Free Nashville a week from tomorrow: on Saturday, 8/19, from 10-11 (Central again). You can hear it there around Nashville, Tennessee, at 103.7 & 107.1 FM, or you can stream it anywhere at www.radiofreenashville.org.

Thanks, Ralph. Rest in peace–or, better than rest: keep having a raucous good time up there. You’ll be missed down here.