All posts by lfurman

Not One More holds candlelight vigil in Ambridge in remembrance of those lost to addiction


Photo and story by Luke Furman for The Beaver County Times

AMBRIDGE — Dozens of red, heart-shaped balloons dotted the sky on Wednesday evening in remembrance of friends and relatives who have lost their lives to drug addiction.

More than 100 people gathered in Ambridge’s P.J. Caul Park to not only remember those who have lost their lives, but to also encourage those in recovery.

Laura Probst, the founder and president of Pittsburgh’s Not One More chapter, said she wanted the event to not only reach out to people suffering with addiction themselves, but also people affected by the addiction of a relative or friend.

“We want to reach the people who aren’t (directly) affected because we know they will be in one way or another,” she said.

Probst described Not One More as a community education organization that seeks to engage in a way that is “talking with them rather than talking at them.”

The organization, which relies on donations, also works to bring local law enforcement members to its vigils, including Beaver County Sheriff Tony Guy, who spoke at Wednesday’s event, and Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier.

“Groups like this are the answer,” Lozier said. “Probably 70 percent of the people we prosecute are for drugs. They don’t need jail. They need treatment.”

Probst held the first vigil of the Pittsburgh chapter in Beaver in June 2013. Wednesday marked the second time the group visited Ambridge and the first since 2015.

Throughout the evening, several speakers who had either dealt with drug addiction themselves or witnessed it through a family member shared their stories to those gathered around the stage. Some presenters read poems written about loved ones who died.

“It’s breathtaking,” Renee Rock of Ambridge said. “The fear is there everyday, and I’m so thankful there’s so much awareness. It makes you really think about how precious every single moment of life is.”

The meaning and gravity of the vigil was felt strongly on two attendees who recently suffered the loss of an employee.

Herb and Angel Bailey, who run Uncommon Grounds Café in Aliquippa, said one their employees recently succumbed to an addiction, which Herb said led to second-guessing, grief and wondering how an untimely end could have been avoided. Along with other charitable programs, the café provides candidates recovering from drugs with work.

“We work with people in recovery, and this is the first time that I’ve had someone die like this,” Angel Bailey said at the vigil. “It’s difficult.”

As attendees lit their candles around 8 p.m., two women read the names of people who died from drug overdoses in the local area.

Near 9 p.m., the crowd released dozens of heart-shaped balloons representing their losses into the sunset.


Amplified Observations: Shoegaze, dream pop have major obsession with replicating feel of heaven


Five weeks into the semester and with all the assignments, exams and personal upkeep, college might feel like the farthest place from paradise — at least on the weekdays.

But if you need help in falling into a trance-like state evocative of clouds and angels, shoegaze delivers, only with electric guitars instead of harps.

Last week, I compared rock and roll to the devil, and because I think purgatory is boring and nearly impossible to musically write about, I’m taking a stairway straight to heaven. And what type of bands are more infatuated with producing a heavenly sound than shoegaze?

Shoegaze, a type of spaced-out, reverberated rock/pop music from England in the 90s, often calls upon imagery of Elysian Fields to create an atmosphere of peace and comfort. Although the guitars wail and the drums crash, nothing about shoegaze feels sinister and foreboding. For the most part, bands who shoegaze focus more on the light and dreamlike rather than the heavy and realistic. Singers explore surrealistic themes and tend to create choruses from short phrases and advice to listeners.

In Beach House’s “Used to Be,” Victoria Legrand sings “Don’t forget the nights/When it all felt right.” Many lyric whispered by shoegaze singers evoke sadness but also some kind of underlying hope. The struggle to remain optimistic in the climate of being drowned out by noise creates a sense of perseverance, a subtle replication of daily life.

Upon hearing titles such as “Heaven or Las Vegas,” “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” “Ninety Ninety Heaven” and A Storm in Heaven, it’s clear that there’s some ethereal energy going on. And it makes total sense.

The echoing and swirling guitars in shoegaze meet the ears with encompassing emotion. If done right, the mix ends up akin to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique and becomes as dense as it is beautiful.

The lyrics of a recently-released song, “Shadow” by Chromatics, delve into hometown angst and suppressed wanderlust. But one could almost forget they were stuck in a small town with the celestial tone and optimism. It’s song that moves past good and evil and searches for some heavenly plane to exist. At least, that’s how I think the band intended it.

The negative feelings in shoegaze — depression, heartache, death — are depicted more as mystical obstacles than representations of evil. Whereas rock and roll feels very Western, shoegaze manages to feel exceedingly Eastern. Perhaps, the ambiguous lyrics about love, life and happiness ask more questions than they answer. And nothing ever feel truly lost or complete.

Initially, shoegaze bands might have adopted the angelic imagery from their alternative and goth rock predecessors like The Cure with “Just Like Heaven” and Echo & the Bunnymen with “Heaven Up Here.” The only separation between the three genres rests on how high the guitarist sets his or her reverb knob. The Jesus and Mary Chain bridges the qualities of these two approaches well.

But the morality of shoegazing songwriters extends far beyond the complexity of most rock songs. Shoegaze transcends the rules of music and progresses forward with lush viscerality and dream-logic.

So if you ever come home from class or work feeling like the world is a living hell, you know where to go to climb the ladder out. At least, I do.

Amplified Observations: How rock and roll made a deal with the devil


Somewhere in the mid-20th century, rock and roll music split into two sects: bands following in the tradition of gospel roots and those who adopted a more southern undertone.

Of the latter, many groups took musical cues from blues music. Bands like Black Sabbath, Motley Crue, Van Halen and even new wave bands like INXS, embraced the perilous Satanist tradition in rock and roll.

In the early days of rock, conservatives warned against the devilish influence rock and roll might have on its listeners. I suppose that’s a testament to the power of music.

But in contrast to the Norman Greenbuams and the U2s, the sinful and hedonistic nature of rock and roll falls close to the realm of the devil than any squeaky-clean paradísio. Even the imagery of bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden or Slayer evokes the occult, the weird, the unmentionable or any other adjective that H.P. Lovecraft liked to use.

Even acts like Elvis Presley embraced moral rebellion through his suggestive themes and performance, closer to horns than a halo. And Charlie Daniels, Robert Johnson — and even Goethe — did the devil a favor by personifying him as a fair character with a sense of justice. Somewhere down the line, rock musicians plainly started embodying outright evil.

It’s difficult to tell if the image of debauchery arrived before the actual sex and drug debauchery that long defined rock, but they probably informed each other. Of course, other bands shifted the meaning of evil from things defying the Bible out of protest to a more positive action of defying the Bible out of spite. Norwegian black metal bands took the notion of the style to its logical extreme conclusion.

But sometimes, subtlety proves more effective. Less is more. A duality, or qualified opinion fairs better than an absolute.

Music that hints at a never-ending fight between Good and Evil without taking sides ends up the most objective lens into the unknown. Of course, Good and Evil are synonymous with the morality of decisions, like the bargain in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Contemporary artists that meditate on the practicality of living, whether in music by Josh Tillman or in film by Darren Aronofsky, reveal the most through discussion and the sanitizer of sunlight.

Ultimately, rock and roll’s obsession with Satan emerged from its rejection of the so-called straight and narrow path. But it’s only a way of pursuing the path toward goals. The important thing to note is that no absolutely correct path exists.

Rock music in the 21st century summons the spiritual and occult ranging from Godsmack’s “Voodoo” to Foxygen’s “666”. The Luciferian trend has continuously subverted the radio since its early days as blues.

No matter if you follow Good or Evil, the only true mark of judgement comes with inner-character. That’s why some of the most vile-looking people are in reality some of the kindest.

However, above all, I think evocations of the afterlife and devil-fraternizing is just a humorous way to prepare for the unexpected. Whether or not Hell exists, it’s fun to think — or sing — about it.

Amplified Observations: When the music matches the moment


The first time I realized that a memory or location could call into mind an associated song happened in the fledgling days of Minecraft, circa 2012.

As background, I spent a good portion of my early high school years invested in the world-building game. Having outgrown LEGOs long before, the game stoked my architectural creativity and issued a satisfying challenge of trying to simply stay alive and prosper.

I excavated strip mines, built a house, started a farm and crafted glass for a greenhouse. After a while, however, I began to retread the same blocks over and over again, which gave me a sense of familiarity.

At that point in my life, I always played my iTunes library from the speakers of my first PC while gaming on it or Xbox Live. Since then, my taste has grown enough to where I feel like I can write a music column each week, but I’m certain that my old library housed some embarrassing music: Linkin Park, Seether and a whole lot of the Chili Peppers (as a disclaimer: I still like the Chili Peppers, especially John Frusciante’s guitar work).

But MGMT’s infectious hit “Kids” sticks out to the most of all the songs of that era. While burrowing underground in Minecraft, searching for the ever-precious diamonds, I passed a certain mineshaft that put a needle to the gramophone in my mind and “Kids” started to play in my head without prompt. Perhaps, it was a Pavlovian reflex; the song did have a tuned piano. And each subsequent time I passed that section, I would associate it with “Kids.”

Although a moment of little value to anyone else, this experience helped me to realize that, like sight, smell, taste and touch, our minds recall sounds from particular times, rendering memories even stronger. In retrospect, I now realize that I associate MGMT’s song not only with a moment in a game, but also with a youthful time in my life. The connection has expanded with age to mean more.

From that point on, I noticed the phenomenon of being transported to a distant place through nostalgic or meaningful music. I will always associate Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs with waiting to be picked up for winter break. I connect Earl Sweatshirt’s second LP with a rough and uncertain time during my sophomore year. And, every time “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads comes on, I imagine I’m at Casa Nueva on 80s Night.

Along with the more pronounced visual components we see in our mind’s eye, audio memories can recall the same amount of emotional weight and hindsight clarity. Some people with synesthesia have these two sensations combined, being able to see sounds as corresponding colors. Musicians ranging from Billy Joel to Pharrell Williams experience this condition.

But for the rest of us, a song associated with a key moment in one’s life might hold the same importance as the people who were present, the magnitude of it and the feelings one felt. There is no hierarchy of sensation.

I still hop on Minecraft from time to time, but I can no longer remember the specific associations I had with places in the game. Like algebra, uneventful days and old technology, they faded into nothingness.

But perhaps it’s time to turn on some music and create new ones.

Amplified Observations: Birds and musicians share purposes in the world


When a bird sings during the dawn chorus or later in the sunlight, the tones and phrasing emerging from its beak repeat in a hypnotic and often moving way.

Nature granted male birds the ability to create beautifully pure-tone sounds to attract mates and assert personal territory. Some female birds, like the mockingbird, can also sing for the same purposes of courting and defense.

But to most humans, the singing of birds sounds more like a form of emotional expression, a joyous hymn from a sparrow or the reflective lamentations of a robin. This common, even subconscious, interpretation paints birds as nature’s purveyor of art and song, an idea embraced in a similar manner to the role of the artist or musician in society.

Whether in John Lennon’s somber “Blackbird” or Bob Marley’s elated “Three Little Birds,” songwriters have incorporated birds as not only a symbol for freedom but also instinctual expression. With their effortless flight and carefree songs and chirps, birds embody the life for which artists strive, one full of creation untethered by the tedium of constraint. Among recent relevant works, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” idealizes and supports this image of escape and autonomy.

For the artists, music or any other form of creation can feel like a natural impulse than a choice. Birds have no choice but to sing for their life’s fulfillment, artists have no choice but to create in the same passionate and legacy-building way. And both musical expressions — merely sound arranged over time — possess a deeper, abstract meaning about the capabilities of absorbing life’s strange gifts of song and practically inexplicable aesthetics.

Had I not mentioned birds sing for mating and territory, their songs might seem wholly spontaneous. But in either humans or birds, nothing comes from true spontaneity and is always devised deep in the neural firings in the mind before being brought forth into existence.

Although, in songs of all human and non-human languages, biological or sensical meaning is not necessary, only reaction and emotion. What matters more than words are deeper feelings of melancholy, joy, loneliness or alienation.

On Mount Eerie’s new album A Crow Looked At Me, which deals with the death of artist Phil Elverum’s wife, the words hold great impact in their obvious catharsis of death as a reality. But the true sadness of the album comes from listening to Elverum’s inflection of melancholy and thinly-masked despair.

Like the namesake crow, the songs with titles like “Real Death,” “Raven” and “Crow” deliver a reproduction of the power of earthly suffering, reaching from the same rawness of black metal music. And despite the modern references and exploration of social constructs, A Crow Looked At Me is appropriately named as a crow or nightingale could encapsulate the music’s message perched on a willow branch, lamenting in solitude and pain.

Of course, bird songs can also carry the essence of more hopeful music, such as Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” or The Shins’ “New Slang.” Only their compositions are interspersed with more noticeable silences, less structure and little temporal rush.

But perhaps the most important art and music deal not with content but with the act of loss and discomfort. Cheerful songs only act to distract while requiems heal. And although birds might not sing specifically for the dead, the right sounds from a black-feathered avian might give an unmistakable impression.

Like a bird’s haunting lament, the songs like Phil Elverum presents on A Crow Looked at Me or, for that matter, Sufjan Stevens sings on Carrie & Lowell regarding lost love and worn-out territory feel just as much a part of nature expressing itself as anything in the forest.

Songbirds fly among us and experience the same reality as humans. They are simply less aware than us but often more truthful. With attention, one might find the full spectrum of terrestrial emotion from the throats of both the robin’s beak and the broken heart.

Amplified Observations: ‘Every Breath You Take’ encapsulated the good and sinister of love and loss


The Police released no singles that matched the popularity and longevity of 1983’s “Every Breath You Take.” It marked a high-water mark in the group’s career, despite the circumstances surrounding it.

Accompanied by a solid b-side, “Murder by Numbers,” and a clean and ageless music video, the band’s four-minute signature song creates a tender atmosphere that dives straight through the chest and into a place of deep vulnerability reserved only for inner-monologues.

Sting’s ambiguous and heartfelt lyrics find safe haven behind Andy Summer’s steadily uncertain strumming, two components the song that would earn the band two Grammy awards and an endless flow of royalties.

But for all the acclaim placed on “Every Breath You Take,” the song’s meaning — or rather multiple meanings — is not typical of a record with such a level of popularity. Unlike the generally straightforward contemporary pop songs by artists like Adele or Ed Sheeran, Sting’s relaxed composition suggests multiple interpretations with a narrator who is either exceedingly devoted or exceedingly obsessive. And the only way to discern among the two possibilities is by the recipient of the song’s message.

Each time the “Every Breath You Take” plays on a classic rock radio station or in the background of a restaurant, without fail someone comments on the creepy, stalkerish undertones within Sting’s lyrics. In interviewers, Sting himself has called the song “sinister” and “ugly,” despite initially intending to write a love song.

However, this question is the entire draw. The narrator reaches into a gray area of love and loss that only makes itself known within the level of the subjective psyche. Is it worth trying to hold this together, is it no longer love but jealousy, and when is it time to let go?

Sting wrote the track in the Caribbean between a divorce with his ex-wife and a blooming relationship with his future wife. Writing in the same space that Bob Dylan did for 1975’s Blood On the Tracks, Sting inhabited a strange limbo of emotional loss and newfound affection. Knowing this position, it is difficult to decipher which person the song is more directed toward.

Perhaps the residue of the former relationship lingers in the narrator’s mind, stalking him with curiosity. But it’s also possible that the narrator simply wants to give his new lover the attention that he feels she deserves, giving notice to her every move out of pure affection.

The lyrics simultaneously contrast endearing love with what we mistake for love after it has left.

Additionally, the song might also apply to the sort of relationship between a government and its citizens. The government loves its citizens so much that it needs to monitor their every breath and every move, which adds to the “sinister” aspect of surveillance whether by authority or a former partner.

With the syntax of such simple statements, Sting manages to leave enough ambiguity in the song to keep people wondering about its real meaning, which is undoubtedly in human nature to do.

If anything, “Every Breath You Take” exemplifies that great works of art can arise during times shrouded with domestic unraveling general tension. It shows that, if harnessed correctly, energy from the lowest point can lead to success and recognition.

Certain truths and revelations can only be expressed by those engulfed by them, and the expression in “Every Breath You Take” is not one from a commonly explored space, but one that manages to encompass the full spectrum of loving and loathing.

Volunteers in Ambridge assemble bicycles for foster children nearing independence

Photo by Emily Matthews


By Luke Furman for The Beaver County Times

AMBRIDGE — More than a dozen student volunteers grabbed the handlebars Friday morning and worked to assemble 50 bicycles for foster children about to reach self-independence.

The students, who belong to a University of Pittsburgh PittServes program called Jumpstart, broke into small teams at Allison Park Church in Ambridge with a stack of cardboard Huffy boxes scattered throughout the large room.

The nonprofit Together We Rise, which helps to improve the lives of children in foster care, donated the bikes to the church for one of its annual Serve Day outreach programs, but the charity left some manual assembly required.

Bethany Jarmul, who handles public relations for Allison Park Church, said it had never before held a bicycle assembly outreach program.

“Children are the future, and it’s important for us to have programs and give back to our communities,” Jarmul said. “Foster-care children usually can’t afford a car after emancipation and don’t have means of transportation.”

The church takes part in the annual Serve Day, formerly known as Servolution, with hundreds of other congregations nationwide. While talking about the meaning of the outreach project, Thomas Manning, director of Allison Park Church’s Ambridge campus, paraphrased part of Matthew 20:28 that reads, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

“In the past, we’ve given backpacks to children, paid for customers’ ice cream at an ice cream shop, brought people groceries and served people breakfast at a bus stop,” Manning said. “We’re happy PittServes students came to partner with us.”

PittServe’s Jumpstart discovered Allison Park Church’s Serve Day project from a grant application by the Network of Hope and decided to take part, said Christine Chua, a student executive of Jumpstart.

Network of Hope functions as a nonprofit connected to Allison Park Church’s main campus, Ambridge campus, Deer Lakes campus and its soon-to-be-opened Butler campus.

Julie Mikus, who serves as director for the decades-old entity, said this year’s Serve Day consists of more than 30 outreach projects, which range from lot beautification in Homewood to working on a garden that feeds local refugees in Troy Hill.

“The vision of Serve Day is to communicate the love of God in a real and tangible way and to reach those who are hurting or lost,” Mikus said.

Mikus estimated that 1,000 volunteers would turn out for the projects over the weekend, and the Pitt students in Jumpstart ranked among the first of them, beginning their work at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

“We usually work with kids in low-income areas,” Chau said. “We can only do service projects on Friday because we work with preschoolers from Monday to Thursday for kindergarten preparedness.”

However, not everyone in Jumpstart volunteers on the basis of being an education major. Several volunteers major in the sciences and other nonpedagogical studies.

“A lot of it is helping people from low-income areas,” said Sid Dash, who studies biology at Pitt.

The project presented many of the student volunteers with their first opportunity to assemble a bike straight from the box. Unlike home assembly, instruction manuals proved a must, at least for the first one.

“It’s my first time assembling a whole bike, but not the first time putting on a wheel,” Pitt student Robert Brown-Gartei said.

“We haven’t really had experience with assembling bikes, but we are happy to learn,” Chau said.

The bicycles came in two styles: a white street bicycle with sea-foam-green accented tires and a black mountain bike with streaks of an intense forest green.

Manning said he expected the bikes to be completed and donated to a local foster home on Saturday.