Laughing through rock hard times: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett

31 Aug Photo by Hunter Kurepa-Peers

The stereotypical great artist is a tortured genius. He or she rages against the pain of life with art as the only means of survival. That screaming into the darkness has created swirls of starry nights, howls of poetry, scores of beautifully painful rock songs … and, sadly, way too much substance abuse and death by suicide. The bleakness overtook them.

Stephen Colbert GQYet there are many other great artists out there who, in the face of unfathomable tragedy, not only make great art but use it to illuminate how tragedy feeds grace and gratitude. As I recently caught up on my reading, I learned more about two such geniuses: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett, who performs as Eels.

Colbert – one of the most talented, quick-witted comedians ever to hit television – is gearing up for his September 8 debut as host of The Late Show. Over the summer, he’s done a number of quirky videos to keep his hand in while he and his team develop his new style as the talk show host Stephen Colbert, as opposed to the vainglorious idiot “Stephen Colbert” he portrayed on Comedy Central for nine years. For instance, the world got to know the town of Monroe, Michigan just a little bit better thanks to Colbert taking over as host of the public access TV show, Only In Monroe. (Believe me when I tell you, not all Michiganders eat muskrat … although some most certainly do.)

Colbert also sat for an intensive cover story interview for GQ with writer Joel Lovell. Despite being a typical PR opportunity to promote the new show, it is one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve read. With Lovell as a guide, Colbert connects faith, comedy and humanity in a way few artists dare to in this cynical, agnostic age.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of eleven children in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten, his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash. The only child still living at home, he buried himself in books (particularly Tolkien, to the point where he speaks passable Elvish). A haphazard student, he transferred from Hampton-Sydney to Northwestern, found his way into Del Close’s improv sphere, joined Second City – and the rest is comedy history.

But Colbert never became an angry comic, or bitterly ironic, or one who used comedy to whistle past the graveyard and distract himself from despair. Instead, his mother, guided by their Catholic faith, helped him “recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.”

Things the Grandchildren Should KnowI’ve talked about Everett before and have gotten more familiar with his Eels catalog; his Shootenanny is currently one of my favorites. He published his memoir in 2008 when he was 45 – and if anyone should write a memoir at such a relatively early point in life, it’s him. Otherwise, no one could comprehend how the poor guy survived so much relentless heartbreak.

When Everett was 18, his father died of a heart attack, and young Mark was the one who found the body. A few years later, his troubled sister committed suicide while he was touring for his first big album. Within a year of that loss, his mother died of cancer. Later on, he lost a first cousin who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11, and his roadie ODed. (When Everett mentions becoming friends with Elliott Smith, I nearly shouted out loud, “Don’t do it!”)

Like Colbert, Everett had an unbidden, compulsive attraction to making art (creating alternative rock music, in his case) – and though he’s far from religious, Everett shares Colbert’s optimism. As he writes,

I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances, I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired. I realized that I had to write about what was going on … And the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this. For me, the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from all this, and also just the fact that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it …

Reading this book puts Everett’s music into a totally different light. When he sums up being in love with a beautiful girl in the same verse as falling on the floor crying your guts out by saying “Hey man, now you’re really living,” that’s exactly what he means. He’s not being sarcastic. He’s being truthful.

Read Colbert’s GQ interview – it’s gorgeous, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Then read Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett’s own story of finding hope existing in tandem with tragedy is surprisingly eloquent, too.

See you on the flip side …

The Break a Leg Tour: Foo Fighters at DTE Energy Music Theater

26 Aug Dave Grohl in red

Foo Fighters curtainAt last, four years after I’d seen them for the first time at the Palace, nine months after spending three of the coldest hours of my life waiting in line for tickets, the big day arrived: The Foo Fighters returned to Michigan, fronted by the indefatigable Dave Grohl.

Grohl has more than earned his reputation for being the biggest bad ass in rock and roll this summer. Back in June, Grohl pitched off the stage during a concert in Sweden, dislocating his ankle and breaking his leg before getting back on stage to finish the show. As he told Entertainment Weekly,

[T]he doctor said, “Your ankle’s dislocated and I have to put it back into place right now.” They put this roll of gauze in my mouth and I screamed and bit down on it and they put my ankle back into place and then everyone was quiet for a minute. The Foo Fighters were onstage playing a Queen song or something and I looked down and said, “OK, can I go back on stage now?” Because it didn’t hurt. My paramedic doctor said “I have to hold your ankle in place,” and I said, “Well, then you’re coming on f—ing stage with me right now.” And he did.

Dave Grohl and Dave GrohlOnce the adrenaline ebbed, the pain took over, and the band had to cancel the rest of their European dates. However, Grohl was determined to return to the road for the American leg (ahem) starting with the Foo’s 20th anniversary concert on July 4th in Washington D.C. While in the hospital – high as a kite due to painkillers – he designed a movable chair with speakers and a smoke machine built into the base and a huge red logo surrounded by guitar necks and “lazers.” Sitting on his throne, he could prop up his leg and still thrash through three hours of music. His crew constructed the contraption and the tour was saved.

As gruff as he comes off during a concert, he’s a fan first and foremost, knowing what it’s like to brave the weather, inflated ticket prices and a weary day at work the next morning to see a show. Promising to pack as much time on stage as the local ordinances would allow, Grohl kicked right into “Everlong” and didn’t let up for two and a half hours. This is a guy who usually runs from one end of the stadium to the other, so staying seated had to be tough. Although he’s graduated from a hard cast to a boot (which he used as an ersatz bow for his guitar for one number), he stayed on his throne, singing, screaming and headbanging per usual.

Dave Grohl in red

He’s also running for Coolest Dad on the Planet. A few times he called to the wings for some water, and out trotted Violet, his six year-old daughter, sporting noise-canceling earphones. (Five year-old Harper came out toward the end; probably his toddler was asleep on the bus.)

The crowd was up for anything as long as Dave was at the helm, and he was ready to acquiesce to our demands. He brought a fan on stage to make good on his poster board request to share a beer in honor of the guy’s 50th birthday. During his introductions of the band, joking that they knew “the first minute of every rock song ever written,” he capitulated to the crowd’s demand to play all of Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City.” More than once, he left it to the audience to decide if the next song would be a Foo Fighters song or a classic cover, clearly favoring the former. (Despite a compelling version of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” the Foos really aren’t that great of a cover band.)

There are so few honest-to-goodness rock bands left these days, much less those with band members under the age of 60. Grohl carries the torch for a lot of us who, despite kids, jobs, infirmities and changing times, never want the show to end.

See you on the flip side …

Love Is a Losing Game – Amy: The Girl Behind the Name

15 Jul Amy Winehouse singing

Amy Winehouse documentaryWhen a gifted genius like Amy Winehouse dies young and horribly, you just want to find someone to blame for the terrible waste of talent and potential. Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy: The Girl Behind the Name, names numerous suspects:

  • Was it her dad, who left the family when Amy was nine and later talked her out of rehab right before stardom made recovery nigh impossible?
  • Maybe it was her mom, who refused to discipline her daughter as a child and did nothing about teenaged Amy’s bulimia, thinking she’d grow out of it.
  • How about her manager, who was also her promoter – hellbent on making her perform even when she was unwell and unwilling?
  • Most definitely Blake Fielder-Civil, her shitbag of a husband, had a hand in it, as he feasted on her insecurities and bank account to support his own drug habit – and expanded her repertory by introducing her to heroin and crack.
  • But so did we, the fans who made her a star and then, when her addictions were getting the best of her, turned her life into a tasteless series of Amy Wino jokes and frightful photos.
  • And let’s face it, Amy’s worst enemy was often Amy herself, as she couldn’t distance herself from alcohol and drugs long enough to save her voice, her career and ultimately, her life.

I knew this film was going to be painful. How could it not be when we all know how she was going to end up? The film is even more of a wrecking ball because Kapadia was given access to a trove of video footage from family and friends to ground the film in Amy’s beginnings as a sassy teenager with a one-in-a-million voice. Amy is rarely out of the picture, as audio interviews with her friends, family and associates fill in the blanks between her performances and interviews. Her songs are used as the libretto of the film, floating over the action to point up how songwriting was her way of processing her life.

And when it gets ugly, Kapadia doesn’t shy away, and your heart breaks a little more with each explosive flash of the paparazzi’s cameras.

Amy’s reaction to winning the Grammy as best new artist, as announced by her idol Tony Bennett, was a perfect example of the clash between who she had become and who she wanted to be:

If only Bennett had been able to work with her earlier in her career, perhaps she’d be alive today, wowing people in jazz clubs across the globe as the next Dinah Washington, instead of being another member of the 27 Club. We’ll never know.

On July 23, 2011, our family was on a road trip back from Boston. I was reading Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? (great title, disappointing book) and came up on his name check of Amy Winehouse as a fellow traveler stumbling off the road to recovery. Within a few minutes of me turning that page, NPR announced she had been found dead in her apartment. It wasn’t a surprise. It was, and still is, a colossal shame, because her limited catalog only shows a small part of what she was capable of as an artist – and her beauty was like no other.

See this film – and if you want even more material, check out her album Live at the BBC to hear more music and enjoy the DVD that comes with the record to see Amy Winehouse at the top of her game.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be signing books at the Arts, Books & Brews Pub Crawl on July 29 in beautiful downtown Howell, Michigan. See you there!

Concertpalooza 2015: Mariachi El Bronx, Gogol Bordello & Flogging Molly at Meadowbrook

15 Jun

MEL GB FMWhoever came up with this bill was a genius.

The three groups have a lot of similarities:

  • a sizable line up of musicians
  • a violin/fiddle player
  • a good chance of having an accordion player
  • a female musician who plays more than just a tambourine
  • ethnic roots
  • punk approach
  • a good beat you can drink to
  • rabid followings
  • music that just won’t allow you to stand still

Months ago, I got tickets for my whole family to see this show, with Gogol Bordello as the main draw. Since my son and partner have not ranged the rock-and-roll show circuit as much as my daughter and I, I prepped them by taking them through as many contingencies as I could think of. “Bring a jacket. Use bug spray. Get some earplugs. Charge your phones. Be ready to wait in traffic longer than you spent watching the show. Watch out for knuckleheads who want to crowd surf.” It was like I sending them to Rock Band Day Camp. I did everything but write their names in their t-shirts.

At present, my partner is recovering from a total hip replacement. While we had pavilion seating at the Meadowbrook Music Theater, it’s a good half mile from the parking lot to the amphitheater, and it was supposed to rain (because it always rains at outdoor rock music events). Thankfully she was able to score a handicap parking permit. We were whisked to a small lot next to the bathrooms (!), the beer distributor (!!) and the seats (!!!). With all the time saved in getting onto the property, we even had enough time to hobble up the hill to the merchandise shed before the first note was played.

(While I hope you never have to obtain a handicap sticker, if you do, I highly recommend buying concert tickets shortly thereafter.)

Mariachi El Bronx

Mariachi El Bronx

I saw Mariachi El Bronx four years ago as an opening act for the Foo Fighters at the Palace in Auburn Hills and was blown away by how they embrace the traditional style completely. It was a surprise because these Angelinos (many of them non-Latinos) also perform as The Bronx, a hardcore punk act. Yet they play brilliantly and respect the form – the galloping waltz time, the tempos that can go from languid to rapid-fire, the glorious trumpets.

Their brief set wasn’t all it could be, sadly. Before they got on stage, a bizarre pulse filled the venue like a strobe light made of sound waves. It was a cool effect for about 30 seconds, but it went on and on until it was way too annoying and disorienting. Then, once the sound stunt stopped and the band began, the bass and percussion levels were set way too high so they overwhelmed the rest of the musicians. It was too bad that my family had a poor first impression; I still bought their t-shirt.

Eugne Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Eugene Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Then on to the band we were waiting for: the gypsy punk troubadours, Gogol Bordello. After seeing them last year in an indoor venue, I hoped an open-air environment wouldn’t diffuse their magic. Not to fear: Eugene Hutz and the rest of the international gang were in fine form. My daughter and I had a bet that Eugene wouldn’t be wearing a shirt: while I lost the bet when he entered, I won it about 15 minutes later when he’d worked up enough of a lather to toss it into the wings. They’re the kind of band that will get you singing along, even if you don’t know the words – since they could be singing in any number of languages, it doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth as long as it’s in tempo.

Given how many green t-shirts – and men in kilts – there were in the audience, it was clear the bulk of the crowd was there for Flogging Molly. I had never heard any of their music. I assumed they were direct competitors with the Boston-based Dropkick Murphys, but their brand of Celtic punk is less screamy and and more folky, with fiddle/flute/banjo instrumentation and songs that could be heard closing down a pub at 2 a.m. This was a bit of a hometown gig for the LA-based band, as the fiddle/flute player Bridget Regan is from Michigan. (Her Irish husband, lead singer and guitarist Dave King, made a point of extolling the beauty of his mother-in-law from the stage.)

Floggin Molly - 1

Bridget Regan and Dave King

King is a charming showman: bearded, goofy, bounding around the stage barely time for a breath and a swig before starting the next number. My daughter described him as looking like a great dad. The guys in the audience who had been amping up their anticipation with the help of a few tall beers sang along to every song at the top of their lungs. We, the uninitiated, had our fill after an hour and left before the encore, slipping out of the handicap parking lot without having to hit the brakes once.

I talk about tribalism a lot when it comes to rock music. You go to a show to be with those like you, fellow fans who love a bunch of musicians enough to pay the ridiculous Ticketmaster fees and put up with the knuckleheads just so you can breathe the same air, sing the same lyrics and throb to the same beat. Putting these three tribes together was not only brilliant cross-promotion. It opened our ears and widened our circle to include even more like minds and hearts.

See you on the flip side at the next Concertpalooza gigs: the Violent Femmes on June 20, and the Heartless Bastards on June 21

The “Summertime Sadness” of Lana Del Rey

9 Jun Lana Del Rey - screen

Concertpalooza 2015 got off to a terrific start on May 31, thanks to the generosity of our friends who had tickets to Lana Del Rey they couldn’t use. Off to the rain-sodden DTE Energy Music Theater we went, my younger daughter and I, thrilled to see one of our favorites from the fourth row.

Lana Del Rey - 2

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Lana Del Rey used to perform under her given name, Lizzie Grant, but changed it to be more in line with the noirish Hollywood image she cultivates. Her look is very feminine: chiffon, liquid eyeliner, long hair and nails. Her multi-octave voice juices her ethereal, whiskey sour sound. In most of her work, she chronicles a doomed combination of attraction and danger when it comes to men. “Off to the Races” is a love song sung from a jail cell to a seedy older guy with a gambling habit and a “cocaine heart.” She excerpts The Crystals’ “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” in her lyrics for “Ultraviolence.” She even gives over to her boyfriend’s passion for Springsteen and video games.

It’s as if Carole King scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The staging for her Endless Summer tour amplifies this, with the singer framed by two listing skyscrapers towering over a sign spelling her name in high-watt bulbs. The video footage on screens around the stage – of flowers, a car wreck, even Del Rey herself – shifted between black and white and the burnt rust and ocher of the cover of a pulp novel. Smoke furling around them, she and her four-piece band were mesmerizing.

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

I appreciate her daring disregard for what a modern woman is supposed to express. Her persona survives more than lives, loving whatever her boyfriend loves without question, molding herself to whatever shape her lover demands. She also appreciates her fans a great deal, to the point of stopping the show twice to go into the general admission area to pose for selfies and sign autographs. This struck my daughter as sweet, although it made me wonder why she couldn’t have just sung a couple extra numbers and stuck around after the show instead.

However, Del Rey’s obsession with death and “Summertime Sadness” raises concern and criticism in the press. (This is someone whose two big albums are Born to Die and Ultraviolence, after all.) When she capped her admiration for Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain to a British interviewer last summer by saying, “I wish I was dead already,” Frances Bean Cobain challenged her, saying “the death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize.” It doesn’t help that Del Rey comes off as a bit flippant, making me shake my head as she considers feminism as merely being able to do what you want to do as a woman and otherwise “not an interesting concept.”

Clearly I don’t know her personally, so I don’t know whether she’s dealing with personal demons or shrugging off philosophical discussions to focus on her music. I also have to ask myself if quotes like this get hyped in the press because she’s a female singer who doesn’t do shiny, wildly costumed and choreographed pop.

Setting aside what may or may not be her personal foibles, Lana Del Rey is uniquely engaging because she isn’t out to be a role model, or empowering, or even fun, which isn’t what many would expect of a young female singer.  That’s what makes her appeal equally to jaded concert-goers like me and upbeat, well-adjusted young fans in flower crowns like my daughter:

See you on the flip side …

The opposite of Gen X: Neil Diamond and All Time Low

31 May

Neil Diamond poster

I am a Gen Xer by the skin of my teeth, having been born nine months after the Baby Boom shut its doors on December 31, 1964. I’d like to think I embody my generation’s reputation for being “savvy, skeptical and self-reliant,” particularly in terms of musical taste. After wasting our teenage years binging on MTV, we Xers demanded  the seething purity of Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, the Pixies and Sonic Youth. We wouldn’t settle for pop or posers, we of the clove cigarettes and flannel shirts. We would live and breathe the Real for the rest of our existence and pity those who didn’t follow in our Doc Martens’ footsteps.

Therefore, I feel I have to explain why I went to that Neil Diamond concert at the Palace a few months ago …

I don’t have anything against the Jewish Elvis. Diamond was inescapable on 1970s radio but I didn’t give him much mind. I honestly didn’t think he had much of a following. Then my concert buddy Lois called the night of the show with a last-minute request that I join her, her sister and a friend to use their spare ticket – and I learned otherwise.

As I entered the Palace, it was clear there are thousands upon thousands of people who love Neil Diamond – I mean, love Neil Diamond. This was made very public by the messages appearing on the big screens sent from fans in the crowd to #TweetCaroline (nice). Clearly, these folks had been fans for a long, long while:

First concert in 20 years!

So glad to bring my mom

Granny in the house!

Thanks to Lois’ sister being a particularly devoted fan, I was seated directly under the scoreboard at center court: the best seats I’ve ever had at a show at the Palace. (Where, oh where were these when we saw the Black Keys?)

I have to give Diamond his due. His work means a great deal to his fans worldwide, and even at 72 he’s not slacking off. He started promptly at 8:00 with no warm-up act and sauntered through more than two hours of hits, accompanied by a no-nonsense band and two seasoned background singers. I nodded along, tamping down my ageist impulse to snicker at devotees like the gent taking photos with his flip phone. I admire Diamond’s craft and commitment, but his work just doesn’t ring my bell or rattle my cage. As another great pop song writer wrote several generations before, he’s “writing songs of love, but not for me.”

###

All Time Low tour posterI, the sneering Gen Xer, was equally out of place drowning in a sea of Millenials at the All Time Low concert at the Compuware Sports Arena a few weeks later.

Here’s another act that has no emotional resonance for me; they sound like a Blink-182 cover band doing their best Green Day imitation. My younger daughter, however, has been a rabid fan since kindergarten, thanks to her older sister’s iPod. And she was not alone: the 5,000 seat venue was sold out.

Clearly I was not the only Xer in the place. We parental chaperones and chauffeurs were everywhere, wearing t-shirts indicating the many places we wished we could be instead of in a hockey rink full of screaming teenagers. I wore the shirt I recently got at the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville. The guy in front of me had a B.B. King & Friends tour shirt from 2001; the fella behind me was in a Tigers jersey. One woman even got her CATS shirt out of mothballs. Many of them were also wearing an accessory I should have had the sense to bring: earplugs.

During the three (three!) opening acts and the main attraction, I was under assault. The bass and percussion rattled the stands on the opposite side of the arena. We were sitting in the center section, so whenever the lights spun around they’d go straight through my eyeballs and out the back of my skull. At a certain point, I was doubled over in my seat, my fingers jammed in  my ears and my eyes shut tight. But I was in the minority. Just as at the Neil Diamond show, the majority of the audience knew every word of every song and squealed every time a new one began. They were having fun doggone it, despite me curling up in a ball and running through a mental list of synonyms for “excruciating.”

I know that generational superiority only goes so far when it comes to music. Everyone has his or her own internal soundtrack that draws from decades of material, and what warms one heart leaves another one cold. Rather than rage against music I don’t enjoy, I would be better to allow someone else to take my seat. Otherwise, I will become my dad – a proud member of the Silent Generation – who pretty much summed up all music written after World War II as nothing but “too damn loud.”

See you on the flip side …

The Last DJ: SiriusXM

12 May

As they say about anything addictive, the first taste is free.

When we bought a new car a few months ago, it came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. Since it wouldn’t be my primary ride, I didn’t think this would matter much to me, but once I realized 1) we were going on a cross-country vacation and this could save me from 20+ hours of radio hell, 2) I could also access the stations via the web and a phone app and 3) there is a station dedicated to playing repeats of Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure 24/7, I knew it would spell my doom.

Camera:   DCS420A          Serial #: 420-2040 Width:    1524 Height:   1012 Date:  11/24/97 Time:   11:39:45 DCS4XX Image FW Ver:   081596           TIFF Image Look:   Product ---------------------- Counter:    [88] ISO:        100  Aperture:   F2.8 Shutter:    60   Lens (mm):  28   Exposure:   M    Program:    Po   Exp Comp:    0.0 Meter area: Mtrx Flash sync: Norm Drive mode: S    Focus mode: S    Focus area: Wide Distance:   3.4m


Paying for satellite radio seems practically un-American

I am not a fan of the concept of satellite radio. I believe that, like schools and security, radio ought to be a free service existing for the public good, providing listeners a quality listening experience with as much variety and as few commercials as possible. Following this logic, I should cut my Comcast cord, slap the round antenna back onto my television and be grateful for the times I can get PBS without too much snow on the screen … and turn off the TV during pledge drives.

Many problems exist with this model now, particularly for rock enthusiasts. There are only so many channels on the dial, and that sorry few have to balance popular taste (which is often an oxymoron), the sheer quantity of rock songs produced since “Rocket 88” started the fad, and the overwhelming competition from more flexible streaming options that serve every possible taste.

Streaming sites have their advantages, particularly the fact that anything that’s ever been recorded is right there, a few keystrokes away. If you detest commercials or crappy loading speeds, you can pay for their services, meaning that instead of being completely ripped off, signed artists might make minimum wage once their songs get played approximately 1.1 million times. (Check out the amazingly depressing infographic to see how the streaming sites stack up in terms of how well they pay their artists … if at all.)

But what if you have lousy taste and want to expand your horizons? What if you don’t have a patient older brother (or cool mom) to take you through the milk crates or playlists? Who’s going to tell you what’s worth your time? The answer is DJs: music geeks with robust personalities, vast musical memories and voices with a bit of grit. That’s what’s missing from the streaming sites, and that’s what got me hooked on SiriusXM good and quick.

Little Steven's Underground GarageThe E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt is a pillar of SiriusXM as the leader of his namesake Underground Garage channel. In addition to his own show, he’s got a passel of DJs “spinning” a great mix of gritty rock classics, recent pop punk and little-known gems including a weekly Coolest Song in the World. My favorite is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators NYC – check him out here and on tour:

I’m sure the other 964 channels have their charms, and one has Tom Petty 24/7, which I may have mentioned already (ahem). I’ll have to find out before my six-month fix subscription runs out …

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need a beach read? Love and Other B-Sides is the perfect paperback for summer: breezy, romantic, and holds up in the heat!

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