Songs w/ Substance #7 – The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”


Some songs find a way to say the least profound things in the most profound ways.

It’s no secret that people use alcohol as an escape—a tool for a temporary departure from whatever reality they wish to leave behind.  It’s also no secret that alcohol often fails to offer a real remedy, and instead, serves to compound the problems facing the person on the other end of the bottle.

Countless songs have been written about the struggle against alcoholism.   Many of these songs are deeply personal and powerfully depressing, lending credence to the idea that, sadly, tortured artists are often the greatest artists.

The Handsome Family has a bit of “tortured” to them.  One commentator described their music as “a safe place to express terrifying things.”  Perhaps this explains why their song “Far From Any Road” was chosen as the theme for the eerie HBO series True Detective.


“So Much Wine” isn’t all that terrifying, but it is ugly.  The lyrics tell a story of a plastered significant other who spends her Christmas chugging wine, wrecking shit, and passing out on the floor (been there).  The verses describe the events as they unfold, while the refrain contains the advice that the singer whispers to his drunken companion.  The advice itself isn’t all that revolutionary:

Listen to me, Butterfly,

There’s only so much wine

 You can drink

 In one life

But it will never be enough…

But what gets me about this song is not what the singer says but the way that he chooses to say it:

…To save you from the bottom of your glass.

To save you from the bottom of your glass…What a gorgeous way to say something so depressing.

To me, that single line showcases the immense power that music has to shine light on the darkness.  It can take a depressing topic like alcoholism—a disease that has painfully affected nearly every person on the planet either through their own struggles or the struggles of a loved one—and turn it into something beautiful.  The beauty, in this case, lies not in the disease itself, but in the truth that’s expressed about the disease, so plainly and so simply.  Alcohol may seem to offer a temporary solution to whatever it is you are hiding from, but once the glass is empty and the buzz fades, the whatever still remains. Accompany that truth with a melody, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica, and it’s almost enough to make you cry.

Like most songs, “So Much Wine” can speak to different people in different ways. For those who struggle with alcoholism, this song can offer both company and comfort, reassuring the struggling that they don’t struggle alone.  For those who have overcome alcoholism, this song can offer redemption and a reminder of the journey that led to sobriety, and hopefully, a more meaningful existence.  And for those who don’t struggle with alcoholism but still like knocking a few back, perhaps this a song to ironically enjoy a glass of wine to.  After all, music always plays better to the tuned up ear.


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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  


Minnesota, Race, USA

The killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez

Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time.  I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends.  They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.

Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise.  Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure.  The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner.  The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life.  It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him.  But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder.  He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact.  This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force.  We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.

However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions.  He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.

But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story.  Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting.  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict.  In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense.  Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license.  There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did).  In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.

This case is unique, and should be treated as such.  What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past.  That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump.   From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it.  As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.”  I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.

Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure.  This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy.  As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his.  Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room.  Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call.  But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?



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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.


The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.


Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.


Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:


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