With the news from the CT scan behind me, the logistics of confirmation and testing and the minutia involved in all of that began. I remained in ICU as they really had no idea whether I was still bleeding internally. They wanted to keep an eye on me and continue to monitor periodic lab results like hemoglobin.
Also, a colonoscopy needed to be done. If you know anything about colonoscopies, you know there is prep work involved in this. That means cleaning you out. There can be nothing in your colon when they shove that camera up your butt. The gastroenterologist that was to perform the colonoscopy came to visit.
After a summer of travel, I was a little done with social activities. It was wonderful reconnecting with friends and family. It was just a lot. I was looking forward for some time to process everything that had happened.
I went back to work. Around this time, I realized I wasn’t going to be working for Chevron after the contract ended in August, so I started looking for a job. Then I started on the business of getting the kids back to school – clothes, uniforms, school supplies, registrations – Justine did most of this. I also started looking for a new place to live, because it was apparent that I wasn’t going to have a roommate anymore and I hated the place we were living. It was too dirty. One of those places that will never be clean.
On the subject of 20/20 hindsight. There are many things I could point to now that were out of alignment leading up to the emergency on August 22, 2019. At the time, I wasn’t thinking of them as symptoms of anything but age, stress, depression, newly single over indulgence, and maybe some laziness.
I was depressed for sure. Justine’s illness beginning in 2016 was the start of a snowball that I never recovered from. I won’t detail everything that happened in the 3 years that span August, 2016 to August, 2019, but it was a lot. Anytime I thought I had some air, the downhill roll would start again. I kept telling myself that all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other. Do the next right thing. These are cliches I would have told me if I had come to me for advice.
It’s hard to have a sense of humor about kemo (my daughter’s spelling – I’m going to stick with it). Once it’s happening, there’s no turning back. A path to wellness through more sickness. Maybe…
I have had problems with anxiety for as long I can remember. Racing heartbeats, stage fright, social anxiety, whatever… It’s always there. I have landed in the emergency room more than once. I’ve been through long periods of chronic episodes and single episodes that blindside me. Over time, I’ve gotten better at dealing with it. I’ve developed little tricks for dealing with anxiety.
For the last four weeks, I have been engaged in a job search. My contract with Chevron ended when I was in the hospital (it was a six month contract). We don’t live in a socialist utopia, and I am not rich. So I have to keep working.
For reasons outside of the scope of this writing, I have had a lot of jobs in my life. Which means I have often had to look for work. In the 90’s, I developed some philosophy and methods around looking for work. Spend as much time looking for a job as you plan on working at that job. So if you plan on working 40 hours a week, spend 40 hours a week looking for a job. Go to every interview. Even for jobs you know you don’t want. You can’t turn down a job you don’t have, and you just might be surprised at how different the job sounds when you are actually talking to someone you might be working with. Also, going to a lot of interviews gets you out of yourself. People can feel when you are there just trying to impress them. I generally go for the laughs and try to talk people out of hiring me. It works.
I have not used a lot of these methods since around 2008. People call me all the time. So all of the jobs I have had in the last 10 years have just been through people I know or recruiters finding me. I have sort of avoided the large employment survey that I invented for myself.
Getting out of the hospital, I knew I needed to work, so I just did what I know how to do. I started a 90’s, 40 hour work week, survey of corporate Houston. It also kept me busy. I don’t want to sit around thinking about cancer. That’s why I’m writing about cancer. It gets these thoughts out of my head. I find that I get a brief respite after the writing.
As this week began, I had 3 companies ready to make offers. They all have their advantages and disadvantages. Commute time vs culture vs money vs company size. I told them all that I was not available on Thursday or Friday of this week knowing that I had a Central Port surgery today and the first chemo infusion tomorrow. Of course, one of them wanted to meet me face to face today. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what time the surgery was going to be. They only tell you the day, then they call you at 6pm the day before to let you know. I was just going to refuse the interview. Then I said, “I’ll let you know by 10am if I can make it by 11:30.”
So this morning I had a port installed in my chest. Beginning tomorrow they will use this port to deliver chemo. My arrival for pre-op was scheduled for 5:30am. My mother spent the night with me to get me there, and to take me home when I was all drugged up.
There are the usual questions asked by everyone involved. Have you been out of the country in the last 90 days? Are you allergic to anything? Have you ever had a blood transfusion? Every member of the surgical team asks these questions. I interrupted many of them before they started talking. “No I haven’t been out of the country in the last 90 days.”
The description of the procedure is pretty standard. We are gonna cut you here and slice you there. Then we’re going to close you back up. But the anesthesiologist perked up my attention a bit. Sedation not general. I was going to be awake while they sliced into a major vein in my neck. Interesting. Then one of the nurses asked me to name the doctor doing the procedure. I did. She said, “Oh he’s going to sing to you.”
Most of surgery is preparation and recovery. A good deal of that preparation for me is emotional. It’s all about answering the alarms. “They have prescribed three different pain killers for this procedure. I wonder what that means.”
I met the doctor. I asked him a good number of questions about how the procedure was accomplished. The mechanisms of catheterizing a vein that kept it from leaking. I asked which vein. He told me he was going to install the catheter in the jugular vein.
I said, “That sounds scary.”
“It is scary,” he laughed. I laughed with him. “But I have been doing this procedure for 20 years. When the catheter is installed in the jugular vein, it is less likely to clot.”
“You must do this a lot. Do you do any other procedures?”
“I used to do other procedures, but since I came to MD Anderson, I only do Central Ports.”
“I have done this procedure over 12,700 times.”
“Whoa. So I was reading that Avantis shouldn’t be administered within 28 days of a surgery because of the bleeding and all that.”
“In the 12,700 times I have performed this procedure, the catheter has only separated ONE time, and that was my fault. I only had a little bit of tubing left, so I only had a small bit left to clamp down. When under pressure, the tube separated. Now I will just open a new tubing package. So that was one time and had nothing to do with a side effect of the chemo administered through the central port.”
Every answer sounded like he had given it a thousand times. Not because he was boring, but because he was animated. Almost rehearsed. He talked without pauses. Like a weatherman explaining how the moisture was going to push off to the east outside of Punxsutawney.
“Did that answer your question,” with a smile.
“That more than explained my question. I feel unworried about that concern now.”
“Any more questions?”
“No. I think that covers it.”
“All right, I’ll see you in the other room.”
Minutes later I was wheeled to the other room. A room I was warned would be ice cold by the nurses and confirmed by my nurse mother. I was convinced that warm blankets were a good idea. The other room was a perfect room temperature.
Versed is a strange sedation that I have had a few times. I didn’t actually know that I was sedated. I had the idea several times to remove the overly warm blankets or to say something or to reach up with my hands to feel what he was doing mucking about inside my neck. I never had the sensation of can’t – like I want to do that but I can’t. It was more like – I don’t feel like trying.
About halfway through the procedure, someone turned on some music. The doctor started singing “What a Wonderful World” while mucking about inside my neck. Then it was “Beyond the Sea” followed by others that I can’t recall right now. During each, I thought I should join him, but then I didn’t want to try. He was doing such a great job. The nurse was wiping my chest and neck repeatedly.
In Post-Op, I started to snap out of it. I was asked for a urine sample and the nurse gave me my clothes when I went to the bathroom. I filled the sample cup and took the gown off. I saw what why the nurse had been wiping my chest and neck because she was unable to get all of the blood.
The picture totally changed for me. The doctor playfully singing “What a Wonderful World” became the doctor singing “What a Wonderful World” while cutting into the jugular vein in my neck. Blood pouring down my neck. A scene from a horror movie. I knew it was probably still as playful as it seemed, but I love the image. It made me laugh.
We were all wrapped up with neck catheters by 9:30am and I felt stupid, so I texted the recruiter with the company that wanted to see me at 11:30 to tell them I would be coming. My mother drove me home still all drugged up. I changed. We ate some bagels. I changed my clothes. Then we drove over to the Galleria/Uptown area – only a couple miles from my new apartment.
As I waltzed through the beautiful lobby singing “Beyond the Sea” under my breath, the drugs wore off and I wondered why the fuck I had agreed to do this. Just then, my main contact introduced herself. Finally face to face. I met her colleague. We sat in a very nice conference room talking about computers and people not knowing what they want. Writing code. Servers. Organizational difficulties.
They asked me questions about my approach to working with people and promoting change. I queued up an answer I have carefully crafted over the last four weeks of doing interviews for jobs that I didn’t want. I sounded rehearsed. I left no pauses between my thoughts, because it is annoying to be interrupted before finishing my thoughts.
Suddenly I was aware of the tube sticking out of my chest underneath my shirt. The blood that still really hadn’t been cleaned off of my skin properly (I can’t shower until Monday – doctor’s orders). I had just come from surgery to an interview that I was still uncertain I would be able to do while on chemo. Then I was back in the room with my canned answers and my rehearsed jokes and smiles. And I thought, “Sure I can do this job 12,700 more times while on chemo. The only time I really ever couldn’t do the job is when I thought I couldn’t.”
I wanted to write about chemo before I actually take it. There is always the anticipation of something and the reality. The reality often obscures the anticipation fantasy.
I am terrified of chemo. Our culture builds up chemo to 90’s apocalyptic horror film status. It’s hard to be alive right now and not have some emotional response to the word.
Professionals along the way have tried to downplay the severity of the side effects while also making sure that I understand that the side effects can be severe, even crippling or deadly. Playing both sides of the fence. I understand the dilemma. I’m relatively young for colon cancer. I recovered from a bowel resection pretty quickly if not miraculously. It’s 2019 and chemo technology is more targeted to specific cells. I’ve already been prescribed two antiemetics that supposedly work very well to control the nausea.
Although Folfox is fairly generic, I’m sure the dosage is more controlled, but the neuropathy is a guarantee, because it kind of starts dissolving the nerve sheathing. Avastin’s side effects look horrific if you get them. Watering eyes, GI perforations, bleeding, strokes, death, dying, Trump re-elected or one of the Democrats that’s running beats him, dogs and cats living together… Don’t worry, if I do get the worst of the side effects, I’ll still be in the hospital because while unlikely they mostly happen during the first dose. So there will be plenty of professionals to confirm that I shouldn’t have taken that. When I go home, I’ll have family or friends here from Friday until Sunday (when I go back to have the pump removed), so at least there will be some adults around to observe my demise.
Seriously, terror seems to be an appropriate emotional response right now. Maybe nothing will happen. It’s just such an unknown. Maybe everything will be okay. The conversation is just so full of contradictions and disclaimers.
“You have cancer. I know you feel fine and have no symptoms since we stopped that inconvenient bleeding out of your ass. Now we’re going to make you really sick. Well not really. You’re really strong. You should be fine. Yeah you’re going to be really fucking sick. We’re going to do surgery the day before to stick a device under your skin. It’s a port for us to put toxic substances straight into your neck. Yes your neck. You’re younger than a lot of the people that have had terrible side effects. Well no there have been people your age that had these side effects. To tell the truth, we just don’t know. We’ll let you know if you’re dying after we give it to you.”
Terrified. Amused at my own terror. I’m going to do it anyway, and we’ll see what happens. Here hold my beer.
Food is weird. There are a whole lot of experts out there that will tell you what you should be eating even when you don’t have cancer. But then you get sick, and you get a whole lot of advice. It isn’t just cancer. It’s every illness.
I’ll tell you this. There isn’t a whole lot that’s surprising where diet is concerned. And having already attended a GI Cancer Dietician seminar, there isn’t a whole lot that’s agreed upon about diet. There’s the obvious – cut out sugar, fried foods, processed foods, and red meat. Don’t char the lean meats you do eat. Eat whole foods. Yes that’s all pretty obvious. It’s basically what a dietician or nutritionist that didn’t specialize in GI Cancer would tell a perfectly healthy person.
What caused the cancer? Why do some people get it and others don’t? Why is there a spike in people in the their 40’s with colon cancer? Why is there a decline among those in their 60’s and 70’s? There are theories. I bet the theory that just popped into your head is among them. I look forward to your nobel prize in medicine.
Over the last five years, I have noticed a declining interest in sugar. I simply lost the taste for it. Chocolate, candy, cake… It all tasted horrible. I attributed this change in tastes to age, but then I had half my colon removed. The tumor was not small. It must have been growing for most of the last five years. Suddenly everything tastes the way I remember it tasting. Chocolate is good.
Of course, I’ve also completely stopped drinking alcohol. It seems a little irresponsible to be drinking alcohol with a tumor in my liver. Perhaps the removal of alcohol from my diet created a craving for sugar. Maybe wine or beer just changed that taste enough. Beer and chocolate aren’t a good mix anyway.
My point is that there are thousands of variables in what causes illness and changes in the body. It’s a good idea to cut out sugar and alcohol anyway. So what the hell. But if I shove a piece of chocolate in my face every now and then, I’m not going to cry about it.
I read Frank Zappa’s autobiography/memoir a long time ago. Zappa died from prostate cancer. He talked about loving fried food and made it sound like he just wasn’t going to stop. Cancer be damned. In his last televised interview, Zappa was smoking cigarettes. When asked about the smoking in relation to his illness, he said, “To me a cigarette is food.” and “Tobacco is my favorite vegetable.”
I find that amusing, but not a place to make my last stand. I’m going to do the best I can with diet, and certainly I’m not going to take up smoking again. But who doesn’t struggle with diet? Who hasn’t said to themselves, “I probably shouldn’t have eaten that.” (That’s what she said – couldn’t help myself.)
Of course, once the chemo starts, you eat what you can. Who knows what you can eat? Most of the things you find through Google involve maintaining hydration, electrolytes, and body weight. I don’t get the sense that there are any hardened rules about what you can and can’t eat on chemo. You eat what you can. I’ve already lost a bunch of weight just with the surgery. I call it the colon cancer diet. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it does work.
So I have colon cancer, and I’m going to write about it. I have been holding off on writing about it or giving a real update until I had all of the information. I have learned that it’s not a good idea to give any information when there are still outstanding questions because it leads to a lot of questions that don’t have answers. That’s the reason I have been holding off. Having the information is not why I’m writing about it. I want to write about it.
I want to talk about cancer in a way I haven’t seen. I want to joke about cancer. I want to joke about my death. I am not dying. I suppose I could die. I could die in a car crash tomorrow. It’s not all jokes. I am terrified, but I also have general anxiety disorder. I was going to be terrified of something anyway. Might as well be something real.
I hate the personification of cancer. I am not the first to say this. I noticed this personification in our culture before I had cancer, but it didn’t bother me like it does now. I suppose it had nothing to do with me at the time. I have a disease called colon cancer. No reason to give it any more power than influenza or heart disease. There is no consciousness. I don’t need to take this personally. Cancer exists. I am a human being. I have cancer. If personification helps others in dealing with cancer, that’s great. I’m all for it.
So after that introduction, I wanted to give an update of where I am. I also wanted a place for me to reference this information as my treatment progresses. My mother and my sister in law, Barbara, attended my oncology appointment on Wednesday where my oncologist proposed his plan for treatment. My mother has been a nurse for most of her life and all of mine. She has been there for me from the beginning. Barbara is a pathologist and offered to accompany me through this process as an advocate and to provide context. I was going to put all of this information in my own words, but Barbara knows way more than I do about this subject. She also took great notes and wrote an email to my family. There is no better way to describe it. I have redacted part of her words – doctors names, etc.
Personification and faith bring me no comfort. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the sentiment. Words of encouragement (including personification) and prayers are appreciated. I recognize these efforts for the care and love intended. I can really feel that love and care from so many people.
Science is a true comfort to me. Understanding. So Barbara’s description, and the relief I could feel from her as the oncologist described my current state and his treatment plan, affirmed my own understanding of his words and prompted my own relief.
Chemo is terrifying to me, but ya know, I’ve probably done worse to myself. Maybe… (It’s hard not to be superstitious.)
If you need the cliff notes version, I have a tumor on my liver that is the same cancer that was in my colon. I start chemo on October 4. Then every two weeks after that for two months. Then the liver surgeon will remove the tumor from my liver. Then I will have an additional four months of chemo every two weeks. The good news is that the tumor in the liver is operable and there is a good chance that I could be disease free.
Appointment today at MDACC with colorectal oncologist.
Review of CT scan from abdomen shows a solitary metastasis of colon cancer in the left lobe of the liver measuring approximately 3.5 x 4.5 cm surrounded by at least three smaller “satellite nodules” (very small <1 cm nodules that most likely are smaller metastases surrounding the bigger tumor). Tumor is in a location that can be easily removed, and is NOT near major vascular or bile duct structures, or “between” liver lobes as we were lead to believe by St. Joe’s physicians.
The remaining CT scans of chest, abdomen and pelvis show no other signs of cancer. Inflammatory changes remain in the area of previous colon resection and in the surrounding lymph nodes, but this is to be expected at only 4 weeks post-op.
Lab values: Hemoglobin 11.9 (slightly down from normal around 14) but to be expected post-op, liver enzymes ALL completely normal (very good sign) and elevated CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen, tumor marker for colon cancer) at 446.5 (related to liver metastasis still producing CEA).
Side-bar consult of Oncologist with Liver Surgeon: CT scans were quickly reviewed and Liver Surgeon felt liver tumor is resectable (either before or after chemotherapy) but both agree that giving chemotherapy up front is wisest, as getting the liver mass to shrink will be more advantageous at time of surgery. Goal is to remove the liver metastasis and make Larry cancer free.
Larry will be receiving a very commonly used, well tolerated, first-line chemotherapy regimen used for metastatic colon cancer called Folfox and Avastin. The Folfox is a mixture of cancer fighting agents and the Avastin is an endothelial growth factor inhibitor that actually starves the tumor cells from making new blood vessels and being able to grow, recur, or metastasize. This regimen has shown great success in treating metastases and in preventing tumor recurrence. Further in-depth information about each is available below if you care to read more.
Therapy will be given once every two weeks with each cycle followed by rest period before the next. He will go to MDACC to receive the main infusion on a Friday, then go home with a pump to deliver the remaining drugs over the next two days, and return to MDACC on the following Sunday to have the pump removed.
The tentative plan to start will commence with his first cycle of chemotherapy delivered on Friday September 4. The first dose will be delivered through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) in his arm. After dose one, he will be scheduled for the insertion of a central catheter with a port that will deliver the chemotherapy directly into the large vessels of his neck and chest, leading to more efficient dilution and delivery of the chemotherapy to all vessels of the body. The insertion of the Port-a-cath will be done under anesthesia, but is a very quick, routine surgery. The port will remain hidden under the skin of his chest and will be used for delivery of the remaining chemotherapy dosages. It is removed after all chemotherapy is complete.
Oncologist plans on delivering at least 4 cycles of chemotherapy (2 months) up front. Then Larry will have repeat CT scan of the liver lesions to see if there has been a response (decrease in size of main mass, disappearance of smaller satellite nodules). This will help determine the right timing for the liver tumor resection. A formal consultation with Liver Surgeon to go over the CT scans and proposed liver surgery will be forthcoming.
If all goes to plan, the liver surgery will occur after 4 cycles of chemotherapy (approximately December 2019), followed by at least 4-6 weeks of healing and recovery. Then chemotherapy will be resumed for another 8 cycles (4 months) after healing to complete a total of 6 months chemotherapy.
Side effects of the chemotherapy can vary, and are highly dependent on each individual’s response. Some of the most common side effects mentioned today by Oncologist include numbness and tingling of the mouth, feet, hands and throat (due to a peripheral neuropathy caused by the drugs), sensitivity to cold (especially the throat, should drink things at room temperature and no ice cream), sensitivity to sunlight and increased chance of sunburn. Other more common side effects like fatigue, diarrhea, and ability to work seem to vary by each individual, and will be best judged after Larry experiences his own body’s response to the chemotherapy.
I left the appointment today feeling very encouraged and positive about the proposed treatment plan and physician who will be leading the team for Larry at MDACC. I believe that his care is in some of the best hands in the world, and that complete remission is his achievable goal. He will need all of us over the next 6 months, but I am certain that he will have all the love, care and support he needs from a family that loves, treasures and respects him deeply.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Hemingway
My third semester at Berklee College of Music, I was in a Harmony/Composition class taught by a talented and accomplished composer whose name I can’t remember. He was blunt without cruelty. We always knew exactly what he thought of our pieces.
There was a Halloween faculty composition show in the Berklee Performance Center that year. One of the featured pieces was written by this professor. It was wonderful. The day after the show, students were congratulating him and asking about the piece.
“When did you write that? Do you have more music? I want to hear more.”
He was polite but avoidant. He said that he had written that piece a long time ago. He didn’t have much that he had written recently. The questions became more insistent.
He cracked and said, “I haven’t written anything in a long time because it’s too painful. Okay. It’s just too painful.”
Silence. It was clear that it was more than he wanted to share. One anonymous student said with a hint of disdain, “But you’re a composition teacher.”
“Don’t I know it. Look I don’t have an explanation, but I do know that’s the reason I don’t write now. It’s just too painful.”
Being 20, I remember thinking that it was the process that he was talking about. The focus of sitting down and writing a piece of music was painful to me at the time. At 48 (probably the age of this professor at that time), the focus is the easy part. The hard part is diving through my baggage and the fear to write something. In short, I often find it too painful to write.
I also believe this to be a good reason to write. Nothing worth doing can be done without anxiety. In my case, it’s terror. A lot has happened in these 48 years, but some of my bigger disappointments are recent. Of course, all of our bigger disappointments are recent. We become accustomed to the burden of previous disappointments. They don’t go away.
I am avoiding writing because it is too painful. For me, it is also too painful not to write. Since I am going to experience this suffering one way or another, I might as well have written something. So I write.
It seems impossible that it’s already been 3 months since the last episode with Duke Hunter. That episode was recorded in November. So essentially we have been quiet for the last 9 months.
A lot of things have happened in my personal life including a move. It’s been difficult to locate all of the gear in these moves, and I have just not been in a place to be able to create. But we finally have the gear set up and a new room. We’ll see if the consistency follows.
In this episode, we talk a little about the changes in personal life. Troy talks about what he’s got going on. Then we talk about the post production fiasco that is our first feature film with Studio Iguanamonk. There will be more discussion of this film in future episodes.
It’s good to have another episode in the can. I hope you enjoy it.
There are all these different ways to approach the same idea. And usually the simplest idea is the best. But experimentation is always the key to any progress. But I always end up coming back to the same idea. Consistency is really the key to a lot of things. The least confusing idea for this blog is that I write about a song every day. And when I can’t do that, I just simply can’t do that. I doubt that I will write about 365 songs this year. Maybe I will come up with another title for this blog. Maybe I won’t.
“To be the boss”
In elementary school back in Bryam Township, NJ, there was a math teacher named Hobb Engler. The local Little League organization is named after him. He was a big guy with a cigar. That’s how I remember him. I never had a class with him. But there were three female teachers around him in the 4th grade that would send their misbehaving students, especially male, instead of wasting the time of the principal. I got sent to his class once. I don’t remember what I did. I expected that I would sit in the desk next to his desk with my back to his class and the discomfort of the unfamiliar setting would be punishment enough.
“or carry my hat.”
But Hobb Engler’s methods were not passive. He told me to get up and write on the chalkboard while he sat in his chair. My handwriting has always been atrocious, so the numbers on the board were unreadable. But he had me carry on until the students were asking what the hell I was writing. Which he made me explain. The class he was teaching was one grade ahead of me, so I was a bit lost. And while I was incredibly confused, I attempted to figure out what was going on. I was engrossed in trying to decipher what I had written on the board when Mr. Engler said, “Mr. Lines? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “What?” Engler, “It’s a yes or no question.” Me, “What?” Engler, “Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “?” Engler, “Mr. Lines. It’s a yes or no question. Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Me, “?” Engler, “I think I have had about enough of you.” Me, “?” Engler, “Or you of me? Go back to your class and don’t bother your teacher anymore. Got it?” I didn’t bother her anymore.
“Don’t blow it away.”
To be the boss or carry my hat? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? There’s not much of a choice is there. I think it’s a really important thing to ponder an incoherent question. It’s sort of the daily dilemma of the modern world. The riddle of affluence. The curse of the middle class.
“I want it to stay.”
There’s a lot of encouragement about bettering ourselves and being of service. But society and possibly survival itself don’t lend themselves very well to idealism, community, passion, intelligent discourse, etc. When it comes down to it, there is no right answer for anything. Any of the political or social issues that own large swaths of our consciousness. Tax cuts, crime, social security, defense, world hunger… There are answers, but the questions are largely incoherent. Requiring yes or no answers where long discourse and argument are concerned is largely unproductive. But when the problem includes threats that seem imminent and life threatening, then intelligent discourse gives way to panic and threats.
“But our little fire’s not doing okay.”
Phantom Buffalo fits into a particular group of Indie artists and labels that don’t seem to distribute their music very widely via the internet. You can order a record from the label, Time Lag Records, but that’s about it. Mexican Kids at Home, who I wrote about in my last entry is the same. They are on Wee-Pop records and they even told me that they don’t necessarily put mp3’s out on the internet. This all seems rather contradictory in a way. And really this song, Be The Boss, has been bothering me. But it finally reminded me of this story about Hobb Engler. And while the song comes off as a love story, it seems to be saying something about the fruitless endeavors of the creative fringe of society. We used to be just underground, but now we are marginalized. Largely with our consent.
Being an Indie artist, or maybe to do anything truly artistic (I’m not talking about making music for the corporate context that is dictated to us.), is like walking backward through life. The answer as a musician seems to be to get a large following, get signed by a major label and make lots of money. There is a different formulaic answer for all of the media that artists work in. And it’s ironic to contemplate all of these solutions, because all of these paths to success involve some step or element that most people don’t have access to. A very basic step in the music formula is submitting a demo. You need an entertainment lawyer to do this. To retain a decent entertainment lawyer, you need to cough up a very larger retainer (In case you didn’t know. Retainer = cash.) and also be connected to people that know lawyers well enough to recommend you to them. So you need an agent to make an introduction. Run your head around that one a bit. It’s enough to make you crazy.
Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? Really! So we know the answers. We really do. There are thousands of books written about how to do it. And even how to do it as an Indie artist. None of these answers reflect that the questions are incoherent. How do you break into an industry that no longer even likes what it does? The music industry doesn’t like music or musicians. The people don’t like themselves. No one likes what they do. We all point to the government as if the government wasn’t the biggest employer in the country. Even people that work for the government talk about it as if it is something outside of themselves. We largely alienate only ourselves because we are always who we are criticizing. The truly rich have sold us the dream of being rich, and we have laid down our only defense. Freewill. We feel like we don’t have any choices. We need everything the middle class dream has dictated that we must have.
So my first instinct when hearing music so far out of the mainstream that the labels that distribute it have basically dropped out of the contemporary methods of the distribution chain is to just dismiss it all. I actually said out loud to a friend that I wondered if they were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. But then I thought about all of the things that I have said here. And really I am so full of shit if I come at it from this angle. The music is good. There are some really heavy metaphors lurking just under the surface. And I know for a fact that digital distribution only serves to expose more people to the music. It doesn’t even attract new people to the shows which is where the band makes all of its money. But no one makes any money off of the digital distribution except the corporations that offer the download service, iTunes, Amazon, Emusic.
So what does it matter. People downloading songs on their computers don’t really add a significant turnout to shows. Word of mouth. Scene buzz. That’s how people end up going to shows. The internet does hold a lot of promise as the great equalizer, but it isn’t the shoe in the door to the industry success that we would like to believe it is. So labels like Time Lag and Wee Pop are just choosing to reign it in. As are the bands that choose to partner with them. It’s kind of a smart strategy. It’s the community that has always been the strength of building buzz around music. But even if it doesn’t bring them bigger “market share”, there is some integrity in it. They are not playing the corporate game. The game where smaller players have to mortgage their future to buy into a new infrastructure that only benefits the larger corporations that own that infrastructure. These smaller players have their own rules and their own metaphors. They protect what they have when they drop out and say that they aren’t going to play.
“Even in our minimized world, we can survive girl.”
That seems to be it. There is so much promise in all of this new stuff. But I think a good deal of it is a waste. What was the original question that our modern answers are responding to? To be the boss or carry my hat? Do you walk to school or carry your lunch? Yes or no? I understand what he was trying to teach me. The teacher was there to do a job and I was being an asshole for making it harder. Teachers show up for work and most of the questions they are answering are incoherent. Their time with the students is short. The teacher isn’t the man. Just another victim of a senseless system. I get it, but if Hobb Engler asked me today, I would say, “No!”
My friend, Mark, that I was in several bands with is one of the most interesting characters I have ever known. But I hate to use a forum like this to tell Mark Pringle anecdotes. There are so many of them. But for the love of God, I wish I knew where to contact him. He’s a strange guy, but one of the best friends I have ever had. He wrote a song for me once that I have had in my head for over 20 years called We Shared the Same Song. I have only ever heard him play it live, because that’s how our musical careers have gone.
“I don’t want to sleep in the corner”
You can only take my word for it that the music I have actually recorded for people to hear is a sad facsimile of the original work. Mark and I tried to record several times. Some of it sucked very badly. Some of it was okay. But the truth is that we could never keep it together long enough for actual decent recordings of our efforts to be completed. We spent a long time writing songs. The song was more important than anything. But the end result is that there are few artifacts available for general consumption.
“where people throw stuff at me cause I’m smaller.”
We could work together for an average of 6 months before we were at each other’s throats. I blamed him. He blamed me. And really, it would be easy for me to present a case about how hard it was to work with Mark. But who cares. In the end, I have nothing to show for the some of the most valuable creative efforts of my life. And it’s a good thing I have a really good musical memory, because I have only heard the song he wrote for me a handful of times. But I can easily recall all of it. And it was perfect with just him and a guitar. And as frustrating as Mark could be, he could really reach you with his music. And when he did, he was easy to forgive.
“I would normally throw stuff back”
Mark made a living a lot of the time in Albuquerque playing in coffee shops by himself. He could throw down an open guitar case and pull in enough to pay bills. And you could see it when he reached someone. And he could do it over and over again.
“but it never seems to go down like that.”
Mark would do this thing where he would attempt to add additional instruments without adding additional people. Part of that was just wanting to get it done and he played live so much. Part of it was just Mark being weird. Part of it was just that he generally had a bad time working with other people. It would be really funny sometimes. And he would talk about the Dick Van Dyke character in Mary Poppins. The one man band.
“I just want to start a one man band.”
Honestly at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. It had been so long since I had seen Mary Poppins. But in the last few years, I have had the opportunity to see Mary Poppins with my son several times. I can’t help but think of Mark whenever I see that character. And it always makes me think about some of the values Mark had in entertainment. He told me one time about why he liked Chinese cinema so much, even beyond the Kung Fu movies we were into because the whole Albuquerque crew studied so much kung fu. He liked that they were all so intense. Every moment of the movies were so ‘lived’. And he must have thought the same thing about that Dick Van Dyke character. He was so alive.
“And write songs that people don’t understand.”
But it all makes me think of all the missed opportunities. And really there are so many in my life. As my friend Troy says, “We never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But I think we really misunderstand which opportunities we were missing. We always thought we were missing the business opportunities. But really we were missing each other. And yes, we were all pretty much handicapped mentally and doing our best to figure out how to overcome our disabilities. But we already had the community built. All we had to do was stay in one place and figure out how to work together until we had artifacts that we were satisfied with.
“I will finally be on my way.”
And I am using artifact in place of the term I would usually use to describe what I mean – product. Because I am finding that this is the obstacle that I have been unable to overcome in my creative process – the eventual commercialization of my artifacts. But this should have been the last thing on my mind. But it was always the first thing that would kill any of our endeavors. How do we make money doing this? And the answer really is – you don’t. You love it, and that’s the most you are ever going to get out of it. If there is eventually a payout, great!
“But I still don’t have much to say about it.”
But that’s where we would all end up. We have to eat somehow. And we would all be desperate to make money doing something we loved doing. So we would try everything and bite off more than we could chew. And eventually we would be sick of that part of the process and each other, and everyone would scatter. Back to shit jobs we all hated.
And really there are so many wasted words to try to capture what I mean. I became a programmer because I got sick of being in an Indie band. Paying $300 to $500 a month on a rehearsal space while living in an apartment with no furniture. Money seemed to always be the thing that was missing. “If I/We had enough money, then I would be able to put this whole music thing together.” But we were putting the music thing together. We were just starving half the time. And the idea of being a programmer was financing my own music projects and eating at the same time. A really novel idea. Mark did the same thing.
I don’t know where Mexican Kids at Home got their name, but I like it. I like their obvious dedication to acoustic music with no effects. It’s this really sparse landscape. An intentionally child like approach. On first hearing, it sounds like they wrote the song five minutes before they started recording. But even if they did that, which I doubt, it really has a much heavier message hidden in all that simplicity. It’s so hard to listen to commercial pop music and know that there are so many people much more talented all over the place. But it’s the lowest common denomenator always. Sex and corporate success. Fame and riches. It’s a carrot in your face as a musician. A vision of success sold to you as easily as a new brand of toothpaste. That’s what is being sold by commercial pop. It almost looks accessible. Until you realize you need contact with an executive class that you will never have access to. It almost kills you.
“And there’s some things I hate the most.”
And then a long time has passed and I realize all of this. That my one man band killed my creativity. That I didn’t begin with a vision of corporate commercial pop success. I just wanted to write, record and tour music. I got the writing part. And one part that I overlooked whenever I had it. Community. And that community seemed like the easiest thing to walk away from every time. And I realize now that it was the most important part.
“Listen to the radio and finding it hard to breathe.”
Three different people that found me on Facebook have said that one of the things that stands out in their memory of me 25 years ago was Ozzy Osbourne. I was apparently an Ozzy freak when I was 11. I do remember that shirt with the Blizzard of Oz album cover that I probably wore until it had holes in it. And I have to admit that any of those songs from the first two solo albums with Randy Rhodes, Blizzard of Oz and Diary of a Madman, still do it for me.
“People look to me and say”
I wrote about this song in my online journal in 2002. I knew that I was eventually going to have to write about Ozzy in this blog. I figured I would wait until I was really busy. Then I would find that journal and paste it here with some minor edits. I remembered it as the same kind of writing I am doing here. But it wasn’t. Apparently my writing has improved dramatically. That or I just hate everything I do after a couple years.
“is the end near, when is the final day.”
So in my writing about music, I have to touch on this particular subject about fathers. There’s a kid I know who is 10 right now. His father isn’t around much. He loves Greenday. He knows everything about Greenday. Boys need their fathers at this age. And unfortunately a lot of fathers, for whatever reason, aren’t around for them. I can see that Billy Joe sort of fills this role for him. It made me think about this particular age when my father wasn’t around. I didn’t like him anyway. But that’s what got me into the whole fantasy anyway. I didn’t like him. When my father didn’t fit the role, I fantasized. And in a way this saved my life. How often does an actual father give nothing but profound advice and wise words?
“What’s the future of mankind”
I would never have said, “Oh I think of Ozzy like my father.” I just listened to his music like he was saying something to me. There were two others that were just as big an influence. John Lennon and Jimmy Page. And I will write more about them another time. But Ozzy fit this particular period of time. And the records were coming out right as I was hitting several crises in my life that left me completely lost. So while I was still in New Jersey, Ozzy was a huge part of my life. And obviously I drove my friends nuts with his music.
“how do I know I got left behind.”
Then we moved to Texas. Texas scared the hell out of me. And Houston was still a part of Texas back then. Now it’s a large urban metrolopolis. You have to drive a long way from downtown Houston to get to Texas. But in 1983. Big trucks with gun racks in the rear windows. Dumb rough necks with large belt buckles. Drunk rednecks. Cookie cutter suburbs. Mexican food. Everything was unfamiliar to me. It was like moving to another country.
“Everyone goes through changes”
When we drove into Houston in 1983 in our Buick Regal with New Jersey plates, a pickup truck pulled up next to us on the freeway and rolled down the window. A redneck leaned half his body out of the window while going 65 MPH and motioned for my mother to roll down her window. When she did, he yelled, “You guys from New Jersey?” My mother, “Yes we are.” Redneck, “Well welcome to Texas.” Mother, “Thank you.” Redneck, “Now go home! YEE HAW!!!” Um… This actually happened.
“looking to find the truth.”
As I have documented in several blog entries, my first year in Houston was miserable. My brothers seemed to adapt easily. I was too loud. Too abrasive. Too insecure. Too afraid of this redneck backwater ass hicktown. I was terrified of everything. Then something Ozzy had done the year before in San Antonio changed my life. I don’t know why it occurred to me in 1984, because I’m sure I knew about it when it happened. I just don’t think the significance caught up with me until I had some context for it. Or maybe I was just tired of being afraid and connected the incident with my desire to be done with my fear.
“Don’t look to me for answers”
Ozzy pissed on the Alamo! Ozzy walked up to this shrine of Texas history. The ultimate symbol of Texas pride. Hiked up his skirt (he was wearing his wife’s dress for a photo shoot). And pissed on the Alamo. It was a revelation to me. Like he did it on purpose, which he certainly did not. He was way too drunk that morning (and I’m talking almost noon) to know that he was pissing on something significant. My fear of everything Texas seemed irrelevant at that point. I’m afraid of Texas culture, but Ozzy just went and pissed all over it. Go Ozzy!
“don’t ask me – I don’t know.”
Yeah don’t ask Ozzy. And make fun of Ozzy all you want. I feel some genuine affection for him on his Alzheimerish drug addled aging reality shows. Ozzy was there for me when a lot of adult men in my life were completely gone for whatever reason. And for all of the caricature that is made of his accomplishments, Ozzy defined a genre of music. He defied some of the more educated protest music of the 60’s with direct political protest that named the war machine for what it was – war pigs. And while he seems completely lost and his music hasn’t been compelling to me in years, I still see him as a metaphor. And there is no way that the power of his lyrics and his performances weren’t intentional. Not with that much consistancy for so many years.
“Nobody ever told me I found out for myself.”
And all of the talk of family values on the right. This is what it looks like when some families stay together. Just a hodgepodge of affection, loyalty and dysfunction. And for all of the criticism of his public figure as a father, he stayed there with them. Which goes a long way. Loyalty goes a long way with me. Showing up no matter how screwed up you are. Showing up and apologizing when you didn’t show up before. My standards aren’t too high where this is concerned. Show up high if you have to. But just show up. And Ozzy and Sharon figured out a way to make it work when they really didn’t have to. And then they were still able to see enough humor in it to make fun of themselves.
“Ya gotta believe in foolish miracles.”
And all of that “Prince of Darkness” crap. It’s such a great metaphor. He started out criticizing people with these ranting lyrics about how they were evil. And then because of his presentation and his lifestyle, people started associating him with the idea. Then his career evolved into playing the evil metal guy. It’s all so funny in a way.
“Don’t confuse win or lose – it’s up to you.”
And that’s what I learned from Ozzy. No one is going to live my life for me. There’s a whole world out there. It’s up to you.
“Asking me who to follow. Don’t ask me. I don’t know.”
One of the times I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , I was living in Boston and coming to terms with the idea that there are so many people trying to be heard. There are so many voices in this world. So many needs. I became very depressed. The idea of Quality as expressed by Persig in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, seemed to be directly responsible. Only certain voices were worth hearing as defined by some incredible esoteric formula. I thought of all of the people that are truly talented. But the average attention span for digesting and owning media in a human’s brain isn’t capable of hearing everything.
This depression lasted for quite some time. I guess in some ways I am still not over it. It led me to another set of conclusions about working. Especially working in something satisfying and monetarily rewarding. I thought about all of the food that is delivered to us at our supermarkets. How many people who plant or harvest corn play the guitar? How many can sing? How many have musical aspirations? Or dream of themselves in better circumstances where they entertain people with their talent? But someone has to plant the corn!
Around this time, there was a guy I helped produce plays with in a small Brookline community theater near Boston. I mainly did the music, but I did other things as well. He was a chemist at MIT and his other dream was producing classic plays by Chekov and Ibsen. He was doing these things. One day a male lead quit. He was very talented. He was from India and in scrubbing his Indian accent to get more parts, he had mastered a giant array of accents. He had a master’s degree in theater. He quit the play because he got a job managing the Dunkin Donuts right across the street from Berklee.
The MIT Chemist guy was telling me about this. He seemed kind of flabbergasted by the whole thing. Why would someone do something like that? Give up a part in a play he had always wanted to be in to manage the Dunkin Donuts? I kept asking questions to draw him out, because this point of view seemed so absurd to me. Finally his responses led to, “I don’t know. The guy has no dreams. He’s never going to have a house or a family or a couple cars in the garage. I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to accomplish. You have to stick with something. You don’t give up.” I was really speechless, but I did manage to respond, “You know. Someone has to manage the Dunkin Donuts. When people go to the Dunkin Donuts and want coffee or something, someone has to make sure that happens.”
Yes there is a separate idea of intention. If you intend to be a farmer or a Dunkin Donuts manager, then you should be those things. But how many people accomplish what they set out to accomplish. Certainly there are career paths that are almost set in stone. Become a doctor – follow this path. Become a lawyer – follow that path. But outside of doing something like that, there isn’t so much certainty. And for some people, the idea of certainty in life is a death sentence. I could hold my hand up to be counted as one of these. Perhaps it’s some kind of pathology that makes this happen, but more than likely it’s just different personalities.
But without certainty, there can be a lot of defeat. And it’s unfortunate that there are so many careers that we immediately associate with defeat. Barista! Oh you majored in philosophy, but couldn’t hack it. Or… Oh you couldn’t figure out what you wanted to do with your life. Here you are serving coffee. But the aesthetic of a profession or wealth shouldn’t really indicate the level of success or happiness in life. But it does. And even when a shitty artist makes a lot of money and becomes famous, people take them more seriously. Even when a criminal gets away with a large amount of money, society seems to give them some respect.
But someone has to be a foot soldier in Napoleon’s army. And without the 100’s of thousands of foot soldiers, Napoleon is nothing. Someone has to plant the corn! Someone has to manage the Dunkin Donuts. And when those people go home, they don’t dream the lesser dreams of the poor and defeated. They dream the dreams of great people. We are all great people. And the more we let the mass marketing of corporations define greatness, the more we cower in defeat. Paying taxes to subsidize wealth in ever increasing amounts, because somehow we believe that the amount of money a person makes or the level of fame a person has attained says something about the talents that person possesses. I’m not saying anyone can do any job. And certainly we want qualified people doing the jobs that are critical to our society. But the inmates are running the asylum here. We have reached a point where the only qualifications we think of as important are being rich and/or famous.
I don’t know whether Kutiman was thinking about all of these voices. All of these separate aspirations when he began his project of splicing youtube videos into amazing works of art, but this is what it makes me think of. More than ever with the internet, I am aware of all of the talent in the world. All of the voices clamoring to be heard. And Kutiman seems to have this awareness as well. He seems to be saying, “I hear you in all your isolated loneliness. Let me show you how great you are.” And this metaphor is a jumping off place for a profound shift in consciousness that I think is necessary and happening right now in front of our eyes. The Mother Of All Funk Chords is rising like a tidal wave. All of our voices will be heard in ways we can’t control. With meaning we can no longer recognize as our own.
Yes someone has to plant the corn. But that doesn’t mean that his voice is any less important. Because The Mother Of All Funk Chords is us. In all our clumsy gracelessness, there is still a depth of beauty that refuses to be defined by our net worth.
Getting back into writing after everything that has happened in the last two weeks has been ridiculous. Where do I pick up? What do I say about how profound everything has been? Or do I just ignore it all and write as if nothing has happened? There no way to ignore it all. I feel like I live on a different planet. I feel reborn. I know things about myself that I never knew before. I know things about the world that I forgot. That I keep forgetting.
“Down among the reeds and rushes.”
I was forced to confront my limits in a corporate environment. I realize now that there are some things I can’t do no matter how much you pay me. I also know just how much my family means to me. I know how important my children are to me. I know what I don’t want to miss. I know at which point I will lay down my life for another. I know what brings me to my knees. I know how little I really care about the events of the world. I know how small the universe is…
“a baby boy was found.”
So I spent days searching for the song I was going to use as my entrance back into my daily writing routine. But it was very difficult. And it wasn’t coming to me. Meanwhile, our baby was born. I reconnected with my son. As his trust grew, his arms thrown around my neck took on a deeper significance. It isn’t that we grew apart. It’s that he was obviously starting to feel a little rejected by everything that was happening to us. Hospitals, a sibling is born, cousins going away, a different person to spend the afternoon with every day. I vowed that I would never let my children feel this way. I worked for years to overcome my own feelings of rejection. His little arms around my neck is a catharsis. A giant ‘Yes! I am not going anywhere.’
“His eyes as clear as centuries.”
And I am left wondering about life. There is so much of it. There really is. Everywhere you look there is life. Even when considering larger systems – the world, countries, corporations, political groups, the universe, social cliques, hospitals – everything takes on the characteristics of life. Sometimes only because we humans are observing and participating in the fate of all of these things. Everything is alive with our dreams and aspirations. Everything exists in the numinosity of our intent.
“His silky hair was brown.”
We breathe life into everything. We take a rock and hold it. Our warmth changes it. The rock is personified by our simplest actions. Everything the rock does is new and significant. The rock is separate and the same. And I can’t help but think how much we do without knowing it. How much of the raw power of life we breathe into things we consider inanimate and lifeless. From meaningless drudgery to our most profound dreams.
“Never been lonely.”
And when we have children, we take the opposite view for granted. That which we consider full of life is full of life because that is what is natural. I see it now as the same as the rock. We are breathing life into something inanimate.
“Never been lied to.”
If we leave life to itself, it fails. But when we stoop down and dig our fingers into the muck and pull it close. Share our warmth. Trust in its existence. Hope with everything we have. Love like we have never loved. That’s life.
“Never had to scuffle in fear.”
Like a musical instrument. You can play and play and it can mean nothing. Just some sound events arranged over time. But at some point as a musician, you learn to breathe life into the instrument. The same thing happens with writing. Everyone knows the difference between just getting by and the breath of life. There is no lesson for this. And sometimes, we spend our whole lives unable to be affected by even our own most important moments.
“Nothing denied to.”
It’s so easy to miss all of this life. It’s so easy to be an inanimate object in our own lives. Not seeing how much life we affect. How the rock lives. How the lives around us are dependent on our intent. The deeper significance of our lives is us. We aren’t waiting for anything or anyone.
“Born at the instant the church bells chimed.”
It’s all right there. The next right thing. The outcome. The conditions. Even under the worst circumstances and the best. We are part of a giant miracle. An epic illusion so rooted in faith and love that we can’t even begin to separate ourselves from its origins. Life is enormous. And it has no edges or seams. It can’t be defined or categorized and nothing can be removed or added to it.
“The whole world whispering born at the right time.”
So I decided on this Paul Simon song which holds a special significance for me. Especially with my son. Although the song came out over a decade before his birth, I didn’t discover the song until we were in Hong Kong. And what can you say about a Paul Simon song. Especially when he gets it as right as he does on this song. There are so many to choose from. I thought about him earlier and I was sure I would write about Graceland. My mother gave me Graceland at a time when I was sure she knew nothing about me. At the time I knew nothing about Paul Simon, and as a teenager, I was sure this was a dumb gift. But Graceland became one of the most important pieces of my teen years. And while there was a deep chasm between us in so many ways, this was a clear message to me that she did know who I was. “Poor boys and pilgrims and families and we are going to Graceland.” And Born At The Right Time is kind of the same story, but it holds a special significance for me about my son. He is a living metaphor as we all are. Our significance should not be lost on us. And somehow Paul Simon reached for this emotion and captured it. And I can see my son as a toddler dancing in our Hong Kong apartment with his total lack of self-consciousness. So intent on living.
“The planet groans every time it registers another birth.”
So I have been at the hospital almost every night holding my daughter. Feeding her sleepy mouth. Vibrating her tiny body with my giant voice. Humming a Dean and Britta song as a lullaby. Her sleepy eyes look up at me like an alien. A giant question. She is too small. She asks, with those dark blue eyes, if this is all worth it. Is the world – with all its suffering and callousness, uncertainty and disappointment – all that great a place?
“But down among the reeds and rushes the baby girl was found.”
And I don’t know if it is worth it all the time. But I do know that my two experiences with birth. Watching countless participants breathe hope and love and … life into this tiny helpless ball of energy. And it is so unorganized. And we all pray to whatever we pray to. We bring all of the mysticism of science and religion. And we crawl around in the mud. Digging our fingers into parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed. We are reborn in this experience. And nothing and no one is the same ever again. The whole universe changes. And all of the beauty that we spend all of our lives hiding from ourselves is revealed.
“Her eyes as clear as centuries her silky hair was brown.”
There is so much that can’t be said. So many words to finally reveal that I can’t tell you. It’s more than just moments. It’s more than just knowing. It’s more than just an emotion. Or a smile. Yes it’s all worth it. And when you grow up and read this, you can tell me if it was worth it.
“The whole world whispering born at the right time.”
I discovered this song a few weeks ago through some forgotten array of connections of music that I happened to be searching. And this may seem like a strange song to have attached as a soundtrack to the birth of my second child, but it only seems strange because of the title. Have you ever died? Yes I have died every minute of the last 6 weeks. There’s this strange middle ground I haunted while the pregnancy got complicated. I wanted to love the child into existence. I wanted to protect myself and my family from the possibility of a tragedy. But inevitably she crawled inside of me. I gave every ounce of myself to her.
“…and you climbing the mountain”
But you never know. But you do. And you don’t want to go, but you will. Here is all of life in little heart attacks and sucking breath and hoping for the best. I felt her little breath on me while I slept. She held my hand and prayed with me to a God I don’t believe in. Laid prostrate with me at the altar. Slept softly in the back seat while I drove.
“The tower you counted the stairs.”
A grackle spoke to me in the Kroger parking lot. I had been driving aggressively. Very fast. One place then another. As self-important as any other person on the wide swath of highway. Becoming something I despise. The grackle was perched under the bumper of an F150. It squawked at me and I realized that grackles had been near me every time I got out of the car. I looked him in the eye. He clearly said, “Slow down.” I said, “Okay.” He hopped away.
“Then you sang yodel-ay-he-hoo.”
And it’s been days since I posted about a song. I worried about it a few days. Then I thought I would catch up eventually. Then I realized that once again I was participating in the lie. Covering up the contradictions is a big part of mass marketing. But exposing the contradictions is an artist’s job. I want to write about a song every day this year, but circumstances are making this impossible. I could write 5 entries in one day and say, “There I did it.” But really I didn’t write about one every day. I wrote about 5 one day. And now I think this is okay, but I might as well expose this. I will write about 365 songs this year, but not one every day. Sometimes I won’t be able to do that.
“Lost and found all this spinning around.”
But we did hold a baby up to the sky this week. She was as perfect as a clear diamond. A Thumbelina emerging from a magic seed. A child asleep with her feet tucked under my leg. She came too early and at the perfect time. So many people gathered in a quiet storm. Intent on bringing this one soul into this world. And I thought about how many lives are brought forward. And how much will gathered from so many different sources it takes to bring each into existence. And how easy and smooth that warm breath of life reaches all of us from the sea. We all emerge unscathed and live until we die battle worn and beautiful.
“No wonder boy you stutter like a mule.”
There is no blemish. We cannot be imperfect. We are only additions of everything that is right. Even when the darkness takes us, we are only still products of the light. We do our best to not let evil befall us. But we are masses of contradictions and disappointments. Conglomerations of joy and eerily rhythmic spontaneity steeped in the great salt water wisdom of the mother. I learned that we are all right and wrong. I saw a girl anxious to see her mother in the light. Vibrated into the arms of her father by his voice. I am humbled and speechless.
“Each stop you know it’s going to wash away.”
We are washed up on the beach and wrung out with the wind. Carried gently and with purpose. None of us makes it alone. In the widest sense, we are all family. There is no life that isn’t a giant collaboration. I am every one of you. There is no me.
“You decide to go you gotta beat the road.”
This song has been sitting on my chest for a week. Eating away at the corner of my consciousness. Benjamin Wesley is a master of the unspeakable even when he is speaking. There is so much being said that is only summoned imagery. Have You Ever Died is such a contradiction. From the title. It’s like he’s really saying, “Have you ever lived?” All of the amazing things he does with stuttering lyrics, blurred melodies, unshakable rhythms and plodding content. There is so much celebration and joy in the primal experience. I get the sense of – oh well, I have to do the inevitable. Let’s celebrate the inevitable. The inevitability of death. But let’s not forget the inevitability of life. Especially if we are talking about death.
“It’s a compromise or there wouldn’t be a show.”
That’s right. Without the compromise of life. The sweet ripeness of life. The hope and inevitability of life. Death can never have its satisfaction. Death is its own hopelessness. There’s the celebration of life.
“It’s a quiet life you ain’t got no friends.”
Time was slowly eating away at us. Like a bird pecking at a pile of ants. Consuming us. Directing our days. We sat and watched. And made the best of it. And watched the clock. And pulled the days off the calendar like some movie montage. We pulled the rope at a plodding pace. Cooking our dreams until they were done. And then one day, life was inevitable. And she washed up on our shore wrung out and sputtering. And we watched in the hallway. The doctors pronouncing the science of yet another miracle. As they were sponging the salt water off of her, it occurred to me that we were all willing to show up for this impossibility over and over again. Every time celebrated like it had never happened before.
In 1990, I became enraged with the lies leading up to the Gulf War. I was pretty isolated in my existence as a music student at Berklee. We didn’t own a television, so I didn’t follow current events at all. But the Gulf War was impossible to miss. It was also proof of my argument against owning a television. You will hear about news when it is really important. There was no missing the lead up to the war.
And my days as an activist began one Saturday morning when I happened to be in Copley Square. I was at the bank with my wife at the time. (I was married for a few years when I was 20.) We left the bank and a large crowd was marching down Boylston on the way to the Boston Common. The signs the demonstrators were carrying were in opposition to the war. This was definitely our position, so we just joined in.
There was the usual array of groups. Mostly normal people who wanted to voice their opposition to the war. Then the specialty groups. “Republicans opposed to the war!” “Irish gays for peace.” And the embarrassing hippies that were always wearing face paint and banging on drums while dancing – the group that the news focused the cameras on. At Boston Common, there was a stage with a podium and an array of speakers doing their best to work up the crowd. The most memorable speaker was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.
I thought for sure in the lead up to the Gulf War that the people would see the lies that were being perpetrated and a giant opposition would rise up against the war. I did my best to tell as many people as I could as much about the lies as I possibly could It was an eye opening experience. People were in one of two groups. There were those who were just against it but only because they were opposed to the American Empire concept. This group was unconcerned with whether or not this particular war was just or necessary. They were just opposed to all forms of war – for any reason.
The other group was represented by a particular story of a person I talked to about the whole story. He was the roommate of a really good friend of mine. He repeated the rallying cry of the day as his sole argument, “How can you not support your own troops?” I was very good at engaging people in dialog. So I talked to him until I had explained the things that were not being reported well in the news. By the end of my well constructed argument, I had him more or less. And then he said, “I see your point. But really it makes me feel patriotic.”
“On television, the drug of the nation.”
I love the resistance model as laid out by Thoreau in Civil Disobedience. It is thoughtful, and it seemed to apply. And it does apply if the event that you are demonstrating against lasts long enough. The first Gulf War was so short that any resistance was easily silenced. Even if we were rioting in the streets of Boston. But this spirit of resistance lasted right up until the election of 1992, so perhaps it was all worth the effort.
“Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.”
Television Drug of the Nation came out in 1992. A lot of the theme seemed to be inspired by the Gulf War coverage. Even if it wasn’t, it made me think of all of the activism during the Gulf War and afterward. I’m not going to repeat a lot of the lyrics like I normally do in my entries. The lyrics aren’t specifically relevant to my story. The spirit of revolution and resistance is the thing that strikes me. Michael Franti is someone I don’t talk about nearly enough. From the Beatnigs, to DHOH, to Spearhead – he has been an intelligent voice of resistance. It was late 1992 by the time I had heard Television the Drug of the Nation when my friend Gopal played it for me. And while I know the lyrics to this song pretty well, it is my own narrative that dominates my memory of the song.
Being a music student with deadlines is difficult while organizing a bunch of activist events. And I beat my head against that wall for at least a year. Getting permission for and setting up tables in the main lobby at Berklee and talking to people. I even organized a bus of Berklee students to go to Washington for two large demonstrations. One against the Gulf War and one for the Pro Choice rally in the spring of 1992.
Now I was surprised to learn this, but musicians are the hardest group of people to motivate into activism of any sort. If it doesn’t involve a gig at the rally, then they don’t care. Berklee students in my time were the most politically apathetic group of students in Boston. It was easier motivating young conservatives at Boston University to oppose the Gulf War than it was to get a Berklee student to listen. This was also the case when I organized for the Pro Choice rally. I needed a student group to sponsor my presence in the hallway. I approached the Women at Berklee group. I realize now that it was pretty ridiculous to assume that the group supported a particular stand on abortion, but I needed a student group sponsor. They gave it to me.
Whenever I hear this song, I think of the hundreds of stories I know of this two year period of activism. The occupation of Storrow Drive in Boston during rush hour. The riot on the Mass Ave bridge when the bombing started. The riot on the mall in the Washington anti-war demonstration. The demonstrations outside of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston where friends of mine were arrested along with thousands of others. The friend that came within inches of hitting Schwarzkopf with a paint balloon at the Gulf War victory parade in Houston.
A lot of time when I get disgusted enough about the state of the nation, I think that my passion will re-ignite my activist spirit. But it doesn’t quite get me there. I tell myself there are bills to pay, and I have kids. And this is true. But sometimes I wish I had more latitude in my life to participate like this again. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a big mental illness trigger for me in activism of this sort. The personal involvement in civil disobedience like taking over a main thoroughfare in Boston or rioting with police and the “support our troops” people is something I will always remember with pride. Yes it’s not much more than a footnote in history, but we showed up to be counted and voice our opposition. And even though this DHOH song came out after it was all over, I remember it all with this song as its soundtrack.
This week my writing has sucked. In some cases, I knew what I was trying to say but couldn’t say it. In other cases, I loved the song but wasn’t able to express it. And there are hundreds of ways to explain this. Some of the biggest excuses could involve new jobs, soul killing corporations, being busy, environment… And maybe some of this is valid. And maybe my writing has just simply sucked. And I am embarrassed to read some of it, but I am going to let it stand. I have a couple of points to make in the long run that will be served by even my worst writing.
I want to insist that every song I have written about I have loved. This week especially. I put together a CD this week, and it has lived in my CD player. I could listen to these songs for the rest of the year. I drive up and down the freeway singing along. It has made me sad to move from one song to the next. And that is one of those things I am learning from doing this. It really is very hard work letting new concepts enter my consciousness every day. Music becomes a soundtrack for our lives. Especially when we are young. But as we get older, that music that was the soundtrack of our youth becomes our daily muzak.
Then there is the issue of how many stories I have to write about. I start becoming really critical of myself when I can’t come up with more. And I don’t know why I would become critical to tell the truth. But I was listening to this song that I am writing about right now (regardless of whether you know that), and I knew that I had failed yesterday when writing about a song that I loved. I was feeling sad that I wasn’t able to express that, and kind of embarrassed. And I knew that these two things, lack of stories left and feeling embarrassed about what I wrote, could totally kill me. This is my whole life.. Writer’s block (i.e. not knowing what to write about) and not wanting to take a chance because I might suck.
“Life on the margins, little looks we have to steal”
Then there’s the idea that it isn’t necessarily that I don’t know which stories to write about. There are real people involved in these stories. People that could be hurt or that could see the stories differently than I did. This isn’t necessarily a problem even when it is absolutely true. I have found ways already to change the way I present a story so that I leave out just enough. But there is a lot of energy that goes into that as well.
“I want to run like vagrants hand in hand across this field”
And all of this is metadata – data about other data. And funnily enough that is my new job. I deal with enormous amounts of metadata. And like my job here in this forum, it is difficult to remain interested in the attributes rather than the information. The meta-me is what I am talking about. These songs are about me. The artist’s stories are stories about my narrative. Our common ground is difficult to recognize and live in on a daily basis. And I hope I am being clear, because it’s very difficult to be clear with such an abstract concept.
“But I know the way you are I could fall into the star”
We like to celebrate our differences and our culture right now is all about dividing us. I am trying to remain awake to the idea that we aren’t very different at all. But my tendency toward isolation is really a pull that’s almost impossible to fight.
“It’s not easy for everybody to faill in love.”
And right now, one of the hardest things to do is remain passionate about this new music that is entering my life. Because I compare the larger than life emotion of the expression in the music and compare it with the gray daily life of work that has to be done. And I have to remind myself that this is one of those fantasies that just ends up making me ache.
“The city walls are reigning perilous and tall over dark chilling streets”
So while I have been awake, and I have written some stuff that has moved even me, I feel like I am missing everything. I am missing the mark at work. I am not interested in information about information. The name is a name, not an attribute. My clothes are not important. The garbage on the floor of my car is not an indication of who I am. This blog is not the music. It’s not even a map. My singular voice is my point.
“And I know I want to live my life”
We are all trying to find or invent meaning in our daily lives. But there are more moments alone for me than in contact with the people that provide the deepest meaning in my life. I think most of us are stuck with these circumstances. Whether we are driving up and down freeways and sitting in cubicles for most of the day. Developing laugh lines from our fake smiles that we give to people that we don’t really want to connect to. Sitting in hospital beds alone trying to maintain a firm grip on the purpose of choosing this particular suffering. Sitting underneath bridges.
“Don’t want to waste my time”
In most cases, there was a point to what we were doing that we can’t remember most of the time. Something that made the pain or dull ache worth it. And it’s so hard to keep that purpose in mind when I am not in contact with people that bring me joy. That there is a larger sense of mission. That I love my people. That I love myself.
“Trying to strike the right lyrical density.”
And this can be the hardest part of the whole entry. This is the part where I write a paragraph about the song itself. As if I wasn’t writing about the song the whole time. Really please! I understand that the concept is abstract. But every word I have written so far is about how kick ass this song is. I am left wanting to change my whole fucking life every time I listen to it. While writing this damn thing, I have listened to it about 30 times. The attributes – the metadata – are irrelevant. The relationship to progressive rock and Queen in particular. The blues turn arounds? The harmonic progression. The incredible amount of time that went into this song. It’s all clear. I can hear Ramesh Srivastava suffering over all of the lyrics he has. What to leave out – what to put in? But he has so much of his life on the tip of his tongue. Isn’t this all of us? You sing every damn word you got. Holy shit! If I could write lyrics like that, my songs would be 90 minutes long. And the connection to the music! Usually you get this kind of lyrical density and the music and lyrics are disconnected. An afterthought. Voxtrot puts a lot of work into this concept. And I am putting a lot of work into trying to express how it makes me feel.
“I used to be your biggest fan”
And I remember a girl that I don’t want to write about. Who was very private. Who was too depressed. Who lived in Houston, Boston, Albuquerque. Who follows me everywhere I go. Who lives in a hospital bed. Who walks free in her dreams. Whose smile follows me everywhere I go. Who are you? Who am I? And how I lose you when I am sitting here refreshing my fucking inbox.
“I used to be your biggest fan”
Yes I did. I used to believe in myself. I was a child and every day wasn’t a subject for my biggest critic. The scrutiny of the peers in my head. Every moment thrashed and dismissed. I didn’t worry about whether I would fail. I danced like a fool. I searched for mud puddles. I loved the rain and the wind. I waited for the sunset. I played the guitar like I was a rock star. I wrote like I loved every minute of my life. I spoke like a man possessed. And sometimes, right here in this moment, I am connected to that madman.
“Now I find that you are slipping in my estimation”
Yes you are. You disappointed me with your less than perfect blog entries. The passionless daily existence of a job at the pinnacle of some career paths. So ungrateful and arrogant.
“I used to be your biggest fan”
Finding enough courage to create in the face of all these voices of criticism. To be able to subject myself to the actual criticism beyond the tip of my nose. Not the self-flagellation in my head. It’s a wonder that I can get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that’s why I simply don’t go to sleep.
“Now I know that you could never love someone like me”
How many opportunities do we have to truly express ourselves? Probably every day. So it really must take a lot of work to avoid it. I’m not apologizing for the last time. I am not re-committing myself to being forgiven. I am not looking for a redemption that begins in the morning and lasts all day. I won’t be a better man.
“I made a mistake, well I made two, one for me and one for you”
And I’m going to keep making this mistake. I’m going to keep listening. And expressing myself. Searching for the thing that moves me about it all. Searching for the weakness in my armor. I’ll find it sometimes. Other times, it’s just going to be a bunch of hollow clangs that miss the mark. The music gets to me every time. Every single time.
“The science of music is stupid and cruel”
And I don’t want to quit writing about this song, because it means I have to move on to the next one. I love this song. It’s the cruelest thing about this project of mine. I want to pause on Voxtrot, The Morning Benders, Odd Nosdam, Ra Ra Riot and Hot Panda for a long time. This is my favorite week of music since I started this thing. And the lamest writing. Hopefully I got this one and it makes up for the rest. But maybe not. It’s not important. What’s important is that I hang myself out there regardless of how cruel I am to myself.
But let me end it with a great lyric that I wasn’t able to fit into this entry.
“I want to be the toast of the shanty town…”
He’s just got so many great lines. It’s amazing that he is able to string them together into a single concept. It’s amazing that the band maintains all of that interest through the whole piece! That they’ve done it on more than one song…
There’s this concept in sort of fringe American social and political groups that there will be a civil war in our lifetime. This concept has probably been around since before the country was even founded. Perhaps it’s even a human condition, but I don’t really know. Mostly it seems like a bunch of white guys talking about the coming apocalype. I have been around this scene quite a bit and even believed it for some time.
“It feels less important when you want to wait it out”
And really there can be almost nothing more ridiculous than this belief system, but it’s something encouraged every day in little fringe scenes, partisan talk radio and general water cooler talk. I’m not sure why it’s so prevalent in the American democracy. It’s really almost embarrassing to think about. Every time a group of people does not get what they want from our government, talk of fascism and totalitarianism come up. And people even start preparing for war. Buying guns because the liberal president is going to make guns illegal or because the conservative president is going to jail all dissenters. The details are amazing and true, and I have seen and participated in this kind of irrational behavior. It took some doing for me to realize that when the government was doing things that I agreed with, I thought the revolution people were insane. And when the government was doing things I thought preposterous, I was ready for war.
“I had enough, either give me what I want or put me on the streets”
Well the war isn’t coming. At least not today. And all of the people that think it’s coming won’t be proven right if it starts tomorrow. If you make constant predictions about the future, eventually one of them will be right. I am guilty of this as well. And I certainly like it when I get my way, but I am pretty sure that the one thing that is true is that if there is some controlling mastermind wanting to take control of our lives and thoughts, the first thing they would want would be for us to be paranoid. An easy way to do this would be to encourage any propaganda that was misleading – talk radio, fringe scenes, etc…
“I’m getting tired of living my life like nothing’s happening.”
The truth of our lives is much more obscene. I wake up passionless and tired most days. This makes me angry, but I don’t know what to do about it. I want to blame someone. But there is no one to blame, even the government when it does things I disagree with. And most of my disappointments have been self-imposed by my own fear, self-loathing and malaise. I don’t have what it takes in most cases to live a life I would deem worth living. And the president, my neighbor, my strange family have nothing to do with that.
“There’s nothing left to talk about but there’s plenty left to do.”
So I’m pretty sure that in most cases, I am just trying to escape the fact that I don’t do the things that I want to do on a daily basis. I seize so few opportunities and make such a big deal out of the opportunities that I do take. And my definitions for success are so narrow and close-minded, and they are usually the definitions that were marketed to me by corporations. I invent so many excuses for continuing a mythology that has given me nothing.
“And if it’s all the same to me then you know it’ll be different to you.”
The thing that makes me think of this is that when a real change is thrust upon my life, I really feel the passion for life that I think we all crave. And right now that change is a baby girl that wants to come early. And my recognition of all of the passion that we ignore is in my son’s eyes. Even completely exhausted at the end of a day, the world is his oyster. And yes it’s easier to do when you are young and everything is new. But it’s also easier to do when you haven’t filled your life with the preemptive disappointment of “I can’t do that.” Or the disappointment the pending civil war will bring – better not to try.
“I’m getting tired of living like I’m dying while the world is moving on.”
The Morning Benders have a deceptive garage band psychedelia going on. Their music is tight and well composed. There is a lot of musicianship in the band. The instrumental performances are very impressive but you have to pay attention because whatever dexterity they put across is always in the context of the song. The guitar, bass and drums are working on the same motifs and compliment each other without being boring. And the vocal performances are catchy melodies with unexpected lyrical phrasing that catch me off guard. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and they put together a pretty complex tapestry of light hearted discontent. It’s an ironic sound with ironic lyrics. I’m not sure that they were after as much of the direct context that I have read into Waiting for a War, but I like where my head goes with this song. It’s the idea that I am my own obstacle. That the coming apocalypse is my own personal apocalypse that I am living right now. I don’t need to predict anything. My self-destruction is imminent and planned by the cabal in my own head.
“Here I am in a graveyard waiting for a war.”
And really part of my rebellion against my own malaise is this blog. Rather than sitting around waiting for someone to listen to me, I am finding ways to listen to you. I will make your music part of my soundtrack. And I have to say it’s one of the more difficult things I have ever done. But by far this is one of the most rewarding and optimistic highlights of my life. I have discovered so much about myself and music that I didn’t even have an inkling about before.
“I’m here, I’m calling out your name.”
One way or another, my daughter is coming soon. I am excited and scared. And I should have it no other way.
My six year old son’s favorite song right now is Cold Hands/Chapped Lips by Hot Panda. He makes me drive around in the car so he can listen to it over and over again. He calls it the “yeah yeah no no” song. And I’m not just humoring him (although I am humoring him but not ‘just’), I like driving around and listening to a song when I’m into it as well. And there’s something detoxifying about the song which seems very necessary for us right now.
“Saw a girl I used to know.”
I had a friend in Houston that we all spent a lot of time with. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous stuff. And really I almost don’t where I’m going with this because I was a lot wilder at that time too. But we would hang out and do dumb things like mixtures of mystical readings. Like two people did Tarot readings, but they had different decks. I did the I Ching. Her thing was numerology.
“She’s got a job that’s so adult.”
I don’t remember a thing that any of us talked about but none of it was very serious. It was just something to do when we were all broke. Sit around drinking tea and coffee in someone’s living room and do stupid readings. She was in law school at the time.
“Now we’re shaking hands.”
Years later I ran into her, and I didn’t see any remnants of the person I knew. We had a very polite conversation and went our separate ways. And I always thought of it as her being the one that changed. By that time, she had graduated from law school and passed the bar. It never occurred to me until just now that maybe I had changed just as much by that time. I was no longer wandering around the country. I had a haircut, and I was working as a programmer. Maybe my change was far more dramatic. She had actually been in law school the last time I had seen her. So becoming a lawyer had been on her agenda even at that time. I went from anarchist nomadic rebel to oil and gas programmer.
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah…”
And even now in my haste to get from one place to another, it’s only me that’s changing. The world hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still round. The sun still rises. The moon and the stars were still there the last time I checked. I can do my best to make the circumstances worse by focusing on how I can’t relate to all of the changes. Or I can bring one of my biggest rules to live by: All organizations are defined by my involvement. I can shake things up as much as I want. Or I can decide to feel persecuted by every sidelong glance. And really, that’s not my style.
“No no no no…”
And I can’t see where Iggy is right now. He’s playing all of his cards pretty close. I know he’s going to be fine, but I also know that he’s going through some life defining changes right now. Everything was one way, and now it’s another way. I could make all of that mean something too, or I could let him define it however he wants to.
It’s easy to make situations worse as a parent. When they fall, you have to hold off your reaction to see if they are actually hurt. They are constantly looking to you for reassurance, so if you freak out before knowing if they are actually hurt, you could actually be the cause of the trauma as well as the comfort after the trauma. But I can’t help but feel a little sad. He’s having to do some growing up right now that I hoped could be put off for a few years.
Hot Panda seems to have taken every dramatic rock and roll presentation style that’s available and morphed it into a single style. David Bowie, The Who, Iron Maiden, Daniel Johnston, Genesis… I guess I could go on but it’s pointless. There’s something indescribly familiar, adolescent and comforting about even their most chaotic songs. And the final comparison that keeps popping into my head is the artist, Cy Twombly. On the surface, everything looks like a child did it. But with further observation, you can tell that the child like nature is measured. There’s a specific point to the metaphor. And maybe it’s a simple message, but it’s still powerful.
So during the crazy bridge that happens in the middle of the song, I was looking at Iggy in the rearview mirror. He was very thoughtful. He saw me looking at him and he said slowly, “That’s so awful. But I love it.”
I keep having these waking moments where I am half dreaming about Lucy in a sort of twilight between one world and the next. And I feel myself reaching for her, but I can’t get to her. She’s almost here. She just needs to be led by our voices, but she can’t understand what we are saying. She’s just almost here and almost there. Sometimes our voices startle her.
“When every little thing”
I was at the beach with my brother this weekend. He kept telling me about stone crabs down at the oyster reef in the bay behind his house. He kept describing their claws and that you had to know how to find them underneath the rocks.
“You own is looking back”
So I remembered how when we were kids, my brother would find all of the living things everywhere. There was a little stream by where we lived in New Jersey. We would go there and he would spend hours finding the crayfish buried in the mud at the bottom of the shallow water. Then he would observe them closely for hours.
“At you and starts to mean”
He did this everywhere we went. At the beach in North Carolina, he found the sand crabs and the sand fiddlers in the tidal sands. Blue crabs in the sound. Little living things are everywhere. And he would find them. So we were fishing on the oyster reef, and the tide was very low, so he calls to me, “See I bet there’s a stone crab under here!” Under the first stone is a medium sized crab with giant claws bigger than its body. He stuck a small board down into the crab’s face. The crab reached up and grabbed the board. My brother lifted the board and the crab came with it. Hanging in the air.
“Less than it ever did”
Apparently stone crabs can grow their claws back, so you can rip off a claw and throw the crab back to grow another claw. We didn’t take a claw as we aren’t sure whether it’s such a great idea to be eating seafood out of the bay around Galveston right now.
“On every, on every inch of stone”
And I kept thinking of him turning the stones looking for the crabs. All of this life hidden everywhere, and most of my day is spent oblivious to it. There ended up being giant crabs buried in the mud under rocks I had been standing on for hours. How much life is right in front of my face? How close is Lucy? I mean I see her. There she is in the physical belly.
“Skin and cloth”
But we are skin and cloth. Like the unpracticed notes of nature on a dry drum, we don’t make any music. Just noise and reflection. Static matter. And somehow even this is breathing life. The universe expanding. Breathing. Pushing us back and forth. Even living in death. Immortality in the close intimacy of mud underneath a rock and the empty caverns of blackness between us.
“Made to leave you”
And I feel myself digging in the muck for life. It’s a creation ritual. And how many rituals do we miss even as we perform them. When my son was born, I didn’t recognize that I was part of this rite until it was almost over. No less profound, I am deeply affected by it. The universe split open all at once like a bolt of lightning and handed us a child.
“Here you are you are breathing life into”
This is a little different. I feel her coming. I can hear her voice. I can see her little body in the graphs produced by the heart and contraction monitors. Her digital face. Her hands that never stop moving. Twisting back and forth. Her body is impatient.
“Ghost under rocks like notes found”
And she can hear us. Our concern. Our worry. Our impatience for her arrival. Her mother’s gentle and loving chiding. Her brother – already long past disbelief like she was Santa Claus. He probably believes in Santa Claus more than her. The nurses in and out. The endless discussions about the river of giving that is our community.
“In pocket coats of your fathers,”
She is tugging at my pant leg. She is 14 and sullen. She is 8 and incorrigible. She is an enormous healing. An open wound and the bandage. An infant smiling. A newborn red and puffy, unready for the world. We are willing slaves to her instincts.
“Lost and forgotten,”
She is preparing us for an enormous disruption. Her brother exhausted, expectant and disbelieving. Her mother quiet and brooding. Her father pouring his heart out to her. I am digging in the mud for your claws. Take a hold of me and pull yourself into the arms of the universe.
“all all all your soaking wet dreams,
Belief only a spark. Listen to our music, thrashing in the dark. We are here. All of what you are is breathing and growing. Groping in the dark. Can you hear us calling you? Let us lead you home.
“you’ve spent them”
Ra Ra Riot has this tendency for the dramatic. With dense harmonies and instrumentation. Complex vocal melodies and interesting phrasing. It’s a maximum approach. There is so much to hear. So much worth hearing. I had a hard time choosing a song to write about, which brings up another point of unfairness in my single song per artist rule. Ra Ra Riot has so many good songs. But Ghost Under Rocks is gigantic and multi-faceted. Unclear and open ended metaphors and this grasping for the ritualistic. The song wants to dance in the moonlight and sit in a smoky hut. Groping in the mud for hope and deliverance.
“you have gone and dreamt them”
And you reading. When is it time to live? Creation doesn’t ever end. We are stone crabs. Ghosts under rocks. Waiting for our turn in our lives. Our own time. We are the road on which our children walk. So much is left up to chance except the passion leading our children out of the dark. As Lucy coalesces, I can feel that she has been there all along. Piecing together our shattered hopes and aspirations. We are only shadows of her dreams. We toss in her restless slumber.
I had this idea in my head in high school that I wanted to go to Princeton and major in English. Each year of high school took me further and further away from this goal. I could not keep it together for more than a week. Eventually I got kicked out of public school. St. Thomas gave me a chance after seeing my grades and test scores. They told me that if I could prove myself during summer school, then I would graduate on time. So I pulled it off. Of course, summer school went fine. If there are crises or rapidly changing scenarios or bizarre challenges, I can do just about anything. It’s the normal, consistent routine that’s the problem for me.
As the regular school year progressed, I started missing school and getting into trouble again. But the school treated me like I would pull it together in time. They had this college week thing where representatives would come from a bunch of colleges and universities. You could set up an interview with them where you could go through your interest in the school. Then they could tell you what you needed to do to enhance your chances of being accepted. I set up an interview with the Princeton representative.
Just the idea of meeting with someone from Princeton was a sobering thought. I really did pull it together for a short time leading up to this interview. But I was definitely nervous as the time approached. And so I went to the interview. And we got through the formality of meeting, shaking hands and sitting down when the man doing the interview interrupted me to tell me my nose was bleeding. So I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and I never went back to the interview.
So I told myself all kinds of stories about this. And it has become part of my drug addled teen mythology. But honestly, I hadn’t done any drugs in months. I used this perceived failure as an excuse to go on a self-destructive binge that got me kicked out of St. Thomas and into a treatment center. For years, I have been telling the story the other way around. Like right before the interview was when the binge started, and that’s why my nose bled.
So I heard this song for the first time about two weeks ago. And something about it made me think of this story. And it seemed so out of character for the tone of the song, but maybe it isn’t. There something sad happening there. And the noise that it starts with is probably the feeling I had about the whole thing. Just wanting to run away.
So this morning I am on my way to the new job that I am fairly nervous about, and I’m listening to this song. It’s a big company. I don’t seem to do well with big companies. I find them kind of stifling I guess. Or maybe I just like to make things more difficult. I always feel sort of rejected by the whole corporate environment. I do much better with start up software companies. More freedom. More creativity. More impact on the overall direction of the company.
So these are my thoughts while I am driving in today. And it occurs to me that a startup sounds an awful lot like a band. I don’t want to get into an established commercial music venture or cover band for the same reasons. I want the freedom of controlling my own creative ventures. And then it occurred to me that the motivation behind a startup is the same as an Indie band. You follow a set of principles based on a mythology that is awfully similar. A startup has merely to have a good idea and some people that are willing to devote 70 or 80 hours a week to this idea to be wildly successful.
And this is all tied into this thing that has been becoming very clear to me as I have been writing this blog. The concepts behind this mythology are lies. And I have been saying something pretty similar to the thing I was saying the other day in my entry for Make You Sing when I have been going on interviews at startups during this round of unemployment. I keep giving this little speech:
“This would be my 6th time at this stage of development for a startup. And none of them have been successful. They all have good ideas and then something happens like a downturn in economic conditions or a lack of capital keeps the company unresponsive to the changing needs of the customers.”
No wonder startups haven’t been interested in me this time around. My experience is like a reality check that they aren’t going to be the rock stars that they think they will become. Because this little Indie company doesn’t have the connections to the people who will invent the new inflated value that gets them over the top. We are all being duped by major corporations that we will have this corporate success, but the truth is they don’t even have to kill our dreams anymore by telling us that we don’t have what it takes. If we are still on the hook with the corporate mythology that we will become start up moguls or Indie band crossover rock stars, then we will run up our dreams on our credit cards. Being in an Indie band is no different than being in a software startup. We see the Trent Reznors and the Microsofts of the world and it makes us dismiss all of the more modest stories as losers that just didn’t try or believe enough to make it happen.
So I am pulling into the parking lot and I am messing with my nose because it itches, and I pull my hand down and I’ve got a handful of blood. I’ve got a ridiculous nosebleed. I start feeling that ‘gotta run’ panic. Like I’m just going to turn around and go home. And then I start laughing. “What the fuck difference does it make?”
So I went inside. I had a conversation with the security guard about where I was supposed to go while holding my nostrils. He kept looking at me like I was a nutcase. So I laughed and asked where the bathroom was. It took me about 10 minutes to clean up and make it stop. Then I went upstairs and met the development manager who had been waiting on me for a while. I told him and the other new guy the story. They didn’t find any humor in it.
Odd Nosdam has these great techniques for bringing life to electronic sounds. Even the parts that sound disjointed and robotic have an organic element. And it’s odd to think of the tools he’s using as instruments like a guitar is an instrument, but everything sounds so analog. And yes, he’s using a lot of loops of analog devices, but it’s not like the end product isn’t an original song. It’s even heavier this way. A bunch of recycled sounds from the piles of audio refuse. It’s more collage than sampling. And most of the work has so much more emotion and depth than I would normally expect from music like this.
Then I realized that this song makes me think of that story because the sound has all of this irony packed with sadness. Like here you are human. Have another human experience. The pillars of salt are all around you. The eyes of stone peering out from the lost. You can find the eyes of Medusa to stare into, but it won’t be because she tricked you into looking. It will be because you had to know how you were going to lose. So have a fistful of blood. All roads lead through the corporation. But laugh because even the snake headed corporation can’t have your soul if you don’t let them.
Back in 1991, I was in Ear Training 4 at Berklee. The teacher was awesome. He had a lot of energy and he organized trips to Africa every couple years to study rhythm with an African tribe. He was very exciting and dynamic. One of those teachers you want to impress.
Ear Training gets pretty arcane after a while. At first, you are just identifying scales, intervals and simple rhythms. Then you move on to identify complex harmonies, harmonic tension and complex, sometimes odd, time signatures. This particular teacher used familiar songs to identify more complex structures. Like Changes by Yes.
And for those of us used to just picking out things by ear, detailing the documentation for a complex rhythm was pretty hard work. Honestly, looking at this song, it doesn’t seem so hard right now. But back then, when I was just being introduced to a lot of these concepts, this was incredibly difficult in the way that a new riddle is difficult. Of course it seems easy when you know the answer.
“I look into the mirror”
We would take a song like Changes, and five others, home and try to transcribe a few of the instruments and what the time signature was. Then we would come back to class and discuss the outcome of our analysis. The riddle would be exposed at some point, and we would either have it or not. But it was pretty likely that we would get it from that point forward – lesson learned. The teacher encouraged us to learn the songs thoroughly which of course meant more work in an already busy semester.
“I see no happiness”
At the time, I was getting burnt out. Berklee does three full semesters a year. You can take the summer off like normal people, but the school doesn’t really attract normal students. Four semesters in a row was taking its toll on me. I still studied hard, but I was really tired and just wanted Ear Training to be over. And Ear Training 4 was the last ear training requirement.
“All the warmth I gave you”
As the semester came to an end that Spring, there were a bunch of auditions happening. Berklee always did a bunch of international outreach with jazz and R&B bands going on foreign tours to promote Berklee. I really wanted to take some time off that summer. There was an audition for a rock/funk band going to China. All instruments needed. I was doing auditions a lot so I was getting good at it, but auditioning sucks. It’s like doing a 15 second job interview. The programming equivalent would be standing in line, when they let you in, they sit you at a computer and they say, “Okay, write a file parser with a team of people you have never met in 15 seconds.” GO!
“Has turned to emptiness”
I actually really wanted this particular gig. It would have been quite an experience. So I showed up early and sat where the line would be forming. I knew even then that being the first person at any type of interview was the best. People remember the first person. After that, you better really be good. If you are both, the first person and really good, then you can nail it.
“You’ve left me here believing”
So the door opens and the audition starts. And as luck would have it, the guy in charge of this ensemble, even managing the whole trip, was my Ear Training 4 teacher. He was pretty excited to see me and greeted me warmly. He ushered the first group of us in. One instrumentalist for each part in the band. Then he started handing out the sheet music as we all set up. He caught my eye as he slid the music in front of me pointedly. Changes by Yes.
“In love that wasn’t there”
I hadn’t learned the music. This was a guitar part that if I had learned it, even by rote, and pulled it off in an audition, then I would have looked really good. It was really just a turn of bad luck for me. But it was sort of a crushing blow. Given the opportunity to focus on one thing that could accelerate me into a pretty decent performance career, I just simply focused on the wrong thing. That’s pretty much my professional life in a nutshell. The designated path to success is never the one that I could follow. I don’t know whether this is good or bad.
“Change changing places”
It seems like such a shame that this is the story I have about Yes. Their music captured my imagination at a very young age. Roundabout is a song we would listen to over and over as kids. Mood For A Day, a flamenco classical guitar composition by Steve Howe, I learned on the guitar while in treatment when I was 17. Starship Trooper is a progressive rock masterpiece. Owner Of A Lonely Heart got me through some brooding teen and early adult years. Changes is a complex and well orchestrated composition that showcases Trevor Rabin in the band for the first time. I prefer the Steve Howe era of Yes, but Trevor Rabin is such a great addition to the sound. There is so much more of Yes because of this time with Trevor Rabin. And the name is represented metaphorically by the music. There are a lot of time signature changes.
“Root yourself to the ground”
I have since learned that these on the spot kind of interview/auditions are not for me. I used to take these tests during the interview process for programming languages. I have stopped taking them. If someone insists on a test, I tell them they need to find someone else. If they want someone to ramp up quickly and figure out their system overnight, that’s me. If they want someone who is an expert at this one thing, then they need to find that person.
“Capitalize on this good fortune”
I actually think that a lot of people are like that. Innovation is discouraged as a matter of fact in our daily lives. From our education system through our entire professional careers, the question is loud and clear, “Do you know how it has been done before you?” It’s a relevant question and it’s necessary for society to foster this for the purpose of consistency and security in our society. For a creative person with lots of ideas, it can be a crushing blow. “You want to wake up every day at the same time and do what?” But even then, creative endeavors are anchored in the past or else we would have to re-invent the wheel every time we wrote a song.
“One word can bring you round”
But for most of my life, change has been the only constant. There are some clearly defined ways to achieve success in some careers. I don’t see anything wrong with this. But I don’t seem to be able to follow any of these paths.
I didn’t want to play commercial music. Like actual songs for commercials. It’s not what I got into music for. – I got sick of being in bands with flakes. You work your ass off on rehearsing a band and then someone quits or just stops showing up. – All of the drama around working with other people. – The work of getting a band on stage is exhausting. Even when it’s going well, you still have to get up in the morning and go to work. – And right now I can tell you, I hate this entry. There’s so much I love about music, but my actual pursuit of music has made me feel terrible about myself. Some of my internal chatter around musical pursuits is almost debilitating. Why did I spend all of that money on music school? I’m not that good. What a waste of time! I am not consistent enough to actually put together a real effort. I’m not good or could be better at promoting myself.
And really with what I am doing right now, it would be easy to say to myself that I was just pursuing the wrong thing. I seem to be doing the right thing by writing about music rather than playing music. And it certainly would put a nice bookend on a lot of creative suffering. “Ohhhh… I was a writer. Not a musician.”
But let me tell you, I have been here before. I have written so much on so many different subjects with different styles and different voices. I have written poetry, tried freelance journalism, short fiction, essays and political commentary. Some of it was pretty good. Some of my music is pretty good. I love creating. I love moving people. I love knowing that I have touched people in some way. And you don’t have to be a prodigy to reach people with music or writing. There is some kind of spiritual synergy around breathing life into art that can’t be taught. And when you hit it, you know you’ve hit it.
“Put your hands together and we’ll pray.”
And I have written and performed music, when I wasn’t very good at singing or playing the guitar, that moved people. Just before moving to Boston, I played regularly at Downtown Grounds in Houston. We played there the night it opened. A lot of the time I was playing there just to fill time. The owner often didn’t have anyone to play. Sometimes bands would cancel. I always had my guitar with me. Sometimes we would just start playing if no one else was. There were a couple songs that people started requesting. Sometimes people would call me when there was no one playing and request a set.
“Memories coiled tight to spring.”
There is a mythology in our culture around music. That somehow you put together a band and develop a following, and then a major label notices you. Then you are a rock star. And perhaps that translates into many different forms of art. Visual, writing, music, drama… We have merely to have some talent and ‘go get em’ bravado to get on our path to the stars. This mythology is so strong that if you work your ass off and fail, most people will believe it is something about you that is the cause of your failure. No one will believe this more strongly than you.
“And make you sing.”
But I think perhaps that this a mythology that is everywhere in our culture. You went to school for what? Why aren’t you doing that? Oh you must just be lazy. You are a musician? Oh why aren’t you famous? You aren’t happy? Well you know maybe you should just decide to be happy. There’s not very many people I know that are satisfied with where they ended up personally or professionally. That’s why a song like this speaks to me.
“Such a simple sickly thought of mine.”
There’s a vision of the world that’s encouraged when we are children, and the reality of even the simplest childhood dream is so far removed from the fantasy that’s encouraged. If we aren’t supposed to reach for these larger than life realities, then why do they exist as ideals? And I mean the simple child like ideals. You want to be an architect? I can see you building great buildings. We conjure images of I.M. Pei and the seeds of the mythology of greatness are planted. Of course, the alternative is ghastly. I don’t think it would be a good idea to limit our children’s expectations by telling them about the realities of CAD drafting electrical conduits.
“I’ll always be a loser but in time.”
The Sleepover Disaster has been doing what they do for a long time. They are really good at it. I am always impressed when a band has been together for so long. But I love the whole idea and the giant sound of the guitars, the plodding beat and the patience with the arrangement. The emotional impact is timed well throughout. I obviously feel deeply about the message. There are a lot of disappointments in life. But it’s a really great accomplishment to be able to move people. What else do we have to live for? Our connections to each other and our world, our universe should be emphasized more in our daily life. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to reach you. I want to reach myself. I want to reach a group of musicians like The Sleepover Disaster who have been working their asses off for longer than I was able to handle it to let them know – I heard you! We heard you!
“I’ll make you sing!”
We didn’t expect to become adults just so our passion for life could be killed. We didn’t dream about what we would do with our lives just to grow up to be disappointed with ourselves. I didn’t spend thousands of hours alone honing my craft to have someone off-handedly tell me that I needed to be able to promote myself better. That I needed a more corporate sound in my music. A more marketable message with my writing. We have become a culture of critics in the worst sense. We all have an opinion about the apparent failure of some peers and a ready excuse for the dizzying success of others.
I’m not saying that we should all be rock stars. I’m not saying that anything should change. And some of my failures, and the failures of others, have everything to do with a half ass effort. But I think we would all be better served to spend a lot more time consuming the creativity of those around us. We are all Indie artists. And there’s no reason to try to break each other down because we are at the bottom of the ladder. Can you make me sing? Are you afraid to try? Are you afraid of failing over and over again? I know I am.
“You’ll learn to love yourself if you just kill your pride.”
Hell yeah! In idolizing the fantastically successful. In putting aside the creativity to focus on the impossible puzzle of self-promotion, I forget why I wrote anything to begin with. I forget why I love music so much. Music made me want to live when there was no other reason for me to live. It’s the connection to creativity. The connection we have with life. The connection we have to our children’s passion for living and growing up with hope. For learning and teaching. For being able to articulate what is going on with us in such a way that…
The Kinks are one of those bands that I could sit around all night fighting with myself about which song to write about. It kills me in a way. Because when I look at the reams of music that they have in my head, I wonder how it is that it has been at least 20 years since I owned anything by The Kinks. It’s like 30 years of music that has some enormous influence on who I am. Which song do you choose out of all of that?
“They put a parking lot on a piece of land.”
I can remember about a dozen stories before I moved from NJ when I was 12 that involved a Kinks song. And for some reason I remember very clearly a girl in 7th grade that used to sing Destroyer all of the time. The late 70’s hard rock era of The Kinks was how I first got to know The Kinks. It seems unfathomable now to think that I hardly knew anything about The Kinks before Give the People What They Want. And how the hell does a band stay so relevant and obscure at the same time?
“Where the supermarket used to stand.”
There are all of these Kinks songs that were popular in the 60’s. Then they were covered by bands in the 70’s and the performances were so iconic that these are the performances we remember like You Really Got Me when Van Halen covered it. And it’s funny because I was just sort of drifting toward sleep a little while ago. My brain started toying with what I was going to write about and Come Dancing just popped into my head.
“Before that they put up a bowling alley.”
Now here’s what really got me writing about this song from this perspective. You Really Got Me came out in 1964. In 1978, Van Halen did their cover version. In 1983 at 13 years old, I had no idea that You Really Got Me was written 20 years earlier. I thought it was a Van Halen song. So sometime in 1983 I was living in Houston and bought State of Confusion with Destroyer in mind. I was surprised at its lack of hard rock edge, but I was into it anyway. And I played Come Dancing over and over again. The video machine wasn’t as polished in the early 80’s, so I didn’t see the video for months. It took me a few more years to make the connection between the string of 60’s hits and The Kinks of the 80’s and the Van Halen version of You Really Got Me.
“On the site that used to be the local Pally.”
And why was Come Dancing carving a place out in my head? I wondered at this even then. I was really into a fantasy life at the time being that my connection with the real world was intensely depressing. I couldn’t connect to anything or anyone in any meaningful way. But I had no connection to the nostalgia that he was singing about. I didn’t even like dancing. And I remember wondering how he had any connection to what seemed like 50’s bands. Certainly he wasn’t that old.
“That’s where the big bands used to come and play.”
And thinking about that now makes me nostalgic and seems kind of funny in a normal way. I loved The Kinks and thought of them as somehow relevant to my time as a teenager. Like Van Halen and The Kinks were the same age. And maybe that’s something that I forget a lot of the time when I am telling stories about my misspent or misguided youth. Some of the events were significant and sometimes disturbing in an adult way. But I was a child. Sometimes I forget that about myself. And this song makes me nostalgic for that.
“My sister went there on a Saturday.”
I love Ray Davies vocal style with a talking sing song approach and how it differed from other songs. For some reason on State of Confusion, his British accent was apparent on every song. His singing on so many earlier albums is actually singing and not a styling that often uses spoken word, so you can’t really hear the accent. But it seems intentional along with so many other things that The Kinks changed over and over again. The guitar sounds are so updated on State of Confusion, but that could be heard from album to album throughout their career. And then there’s this keyboard carrying the main hook, and the horns in the bridge. Obviously nostalgic for a simpler time in their own lives and a sister they missed. I think we all forget sometimes that we were children.
And maybe with so much to prove as adults we forget about the simplicity of the song. So concerned with the deeper significance of everything. And this isn’t altogether new for me. I needed songs like this at 13 years old to remind me that I needed to slow down. Sometimes the deeper significance is the simplicity itself. Sometimes it’s good to dance even when you generally don’t like to dance. Sometimes it’s good to refuse to worry even when there’s something to worry about.
“That’s how they did it when I was just a kid.”
Tomorrow is another day with a whole new list of problems.
“And when they said come dancing.”
Iggy’s sister dancing away in the womb. I guess we are all going to come dancing. Because you are rolling away in there. Hang on little Lucy. Hang on.
Sometimes I might get caught up in my loftier goals with this blog. I have a very important point I am trying to make. I am actually being very anti-corporate and trying to make a pretty extended academic point about the ignorance in academia about Indie media and it’s importance. In the larger scheme of my approach to this, I don’t care if I make those points. I am really trying my best to give my very best appreciation of the artist. A work of art derived from the original work of art.
“People put pictures of places in frames.”
But right now, the side project of documenting some sort of anecdotal memoir is being sidetracked by the very large distraction of my wife being in the hospital. So the first thing I think about when I am trying to write about something is that my wife is in the hospital. It’s a little too relaxed to be sitting around with some kind of smug bull shit about “I remember when…” Great Larry. Maybe I can subscribe to your newsletter.
“I remember someone’s face but then I forget their names.”
So then there is this idea, and I should continue it, because truthfully I feel like it is that important. Maybe not for it’s original intention, but maybe for the idea that I seem to be reaching people. And maybe the first person that I seem to be reaching is me. I really believe in what I am doing for the first time in a very long time. Maybe for the first time in my life.
“I have a book for writing down who I meet and where I’m going to,”
And it may be that I am reaching one other person that it is critical to reach. My wife. She is in a hospital bed and completely isolated from the daily life that brings her comfort. From any feeling of connection and viability in her own family. The discussion of the daily difficulty of life is too stressful for her right now. She has to be quiet and meditative. Pulling energy and calm from the spiritual. Her quest has me as close as I get to not being an atheist. Without being able to discuss the daily stations of the cross, we are left with each other’s presence as comfort. But since I have so much to take care of to continue our daily lives, proximity is limited. The only way I can reach her is by creating.
“but my home is nowhere without you.”
I was a little hesitant to allow myself to like Herman Dune. And I have a problem. If I can’t write a dissertation or engage in a ranting monologue about why I think something is important, then I can’t really like it very much. So I was toying with the idea of continuing to listen to this music and never writing about it. But then it occurred to me that there is something very important happening here. Herman Dune is offering up a simplified style that gets deeper with each repetition. There’s this quality production style. And this laid back beach bum sound. And a strange French accent.
“There is nowhere like the ocean to breathe.”
David Ivar is a vocal stylist. It almost sounds like a way of saying, “The guy can’t sing but I like his music anyway.” But really there is something a little more complex to his rambling style than just a bizarre voice. It’s a really accessible metaphor for a deeper spiritual simplicity. I am not going to get into a whole lecture about other examples of vocal stylists. But there are plenty. And comparing them with David Ivar is going to cause an argument with myself. So I’m just going to have to agree to disagree with me.
“And the world is wonderful as it is.”
And on some level he reminds me of Jacob Holdt in the idea that he seems to be holding up a mirror as his only commentary. This sort of leaves a blank page where he should be. And just as I was about to dismiss him completely, I found My Home Is Nowhere Without You. It’s like he’s doing Tarot readings. He repeatedly offers the same cards in the deck. It’s almost a joke. We expect the fool. He appears to be offering what we expect. Then you look closer and it’s actually the hierophant. A hierophant styled as a fool with a mask on the back of his head. Suddenly there is a candid challenge to explain myself. Who are we and what is happening to us now?
“Now I might try to settle down on some beach in Malibu,”
And the action of time is being held at bay – the blacks and whites of negative space. I am a bolt of energy in a cross dimensional melodrama. The only importance in the narrative is my own emphasis. The tension hovers and breaks apart in an Ambien haze. The messages reach me from across the distance between us in the middle of the night. They are incomprehensible and completely clear at the same time. The hours of the night will inch toward dawn, and Herman Dune has thrown the dice into the future and the fool has returned with a reassuring answer that only the hierophant can interpret. Only time will tell.
“but my home is nowhere without you.”
And somehow this is all so necessary. There needed to be some ritual that ushered in a new era. An era in which Lucy could exist. Nothing could possibly be the same from this point forward. And we will climb the mountain and dance around the fire to prepare the way. To answer the call of the spirits. With all of the irony of the fool and the gravity of the hierophant we open our eyes in a liquid dreamworld and find the wide eyes of the hermit staring back at us.
And while I just discovered Little Hands of Asphalt the other day, I was searching for a story in the past to write about. And I wondered why it was Oslo that was so gripping to me. It’s such an intimate story about a small city. I racked my brain for something to relate to the song out of Albuquerque. Some synonymous elements and regional contrasts and a clever spin on the story. Meanwhile I’m driving nearly 100 miles every day.
“The calendar looked”
My wife is in the hospital. The doctors are trying to keep her from giving birth early. No stone will be left unturned toward this end. It is a noble cause, but there are hospitals and shift nurses. A 6 year old in Kindergarten. Family and friends that need status updates. Errands to run. Homework to be done. Lives to be lived. After school programs to register for. Ash Wednesday to acknowledge.
“just like the novels we had only skimmed through.”
Daily rituals to adjust. Spirits to assuage. And all of this driving to be done. Space and time to massage until it’s putty in my hands. This is a story as important as any in my life. I am the reporter. Here is my live feed. And somehow a sentimental song about a small town is the soundtrack for the leap into light speed my life has taken. Somehow it seems appropriate. With all of this chaos, an environment of stillness has to be maintained. Lucy is after all, a baby.
“So I circled out the dates that I’ll skillfully waste.”
And I was searching and searching for the story that would bring this song home for me. Some clever segue into an existential experience. When I realized that I am here having a human experience right now. And there is nothing that has come as close to seeing into my heart as it is right now than Oslo.
“For now that’s going to have to do.”
And the miles of concrete become just sidewalks in a small town that I happen to be traversing at an enormous city pace. And thinking of how many experiences get us here. So many bridges that I thought were burnt.
“It was the brightest summer day, after we swam into the lake,”
In the past month, online social networking has brought all of these segments of my life back together. From elementary school to junior high to high school. All of these personas that I have presented throughout my life must be resolved. Maybe something I haven’t wanted to do. Maybe something I need to do before my daughter is born.
“that you told me our luck is gonna end.”
And the backdrop of this is a world in chaos. War, economic collapse, corruption, partisanship… People are angry beyond description. My existential tendencies might get me wondering why we are bringing another child into this world, but our personal circumstances won’t allow this. Our little crisis is the center of our world. Our love for each other in our corner of this troubled world trumps any global concerns. I’m going to have to plug back in later to see what happened out there.
“So we better be concerned. We’re where the subway turns.”
And then some part of me has to know. I have to have one foot in each concern. I have to provide, so I start a big job next week. My miles traverse the chasm between these worlds. There is electricity to deliver. Natural resources to plunder. Negotiations to extend. Somehow we must reach a truce by 5 o’clock. Live to fight another day. Then I cover another 50 miles making sure to transition my emotional state to one of caring parent and compassionate spouse.
“We need a camera and some cash to spend.”
And this baby delivered from the sea. Her brother delivered to the trees. The ashes of his prayers on our foreheads. We wait another day and experience the tiny miracle that is our love and peril. The phone calls from the concerned. The generosity of the able. And still show up to put ourselves down for the evening and nourish our souls. Each day a phenomenon in giving and a lesson in receiving.
“And our picturesque blame, we’ll put in Ikea frames.”
Somehow we will bundle the experience in some cohesive narrative that we can recall at dinner parties into the future. That I can somehow fit into a few hundred words in a blog. But each mile is a an experience. And this enormous city gets smaller and smaller each time I drive down its gaping freeways. The arteries pushing me like a blood cell with a payload of oxygen. Breathe in, I am home. Breathe out, I am in Fulshear. Breathe in, I am in the medical center. Breathe out, my son’s elementary school. The church. The freeway. Clear Lake. The grocery store.
“Up on the wall it looks profound.”
Little Hands of Asphalt is a new discovery for me. With a conversational style and a sentimental approach, this is some very thoughtful music. With impressive instrumental performances and measured vocals, all of their songs are so intimate and reach beyond their simple themes. Spit Back at the Rain is their EP that I have been listening to for a while, but Oslo is on a compilation from the Oslo, Norway Indie music scene called Oslo! And somehow the song has wormed its way into my present circumstances. Such a compassionate approach to the human condition. And a reminder to me to stay calm. I present the compassionate persona. I give the gifts of the magi. The scents of a king. The trappings of a queen. Hope is all we have. And the freeway gives and receives.
My freshman year in high school, I had this advanced English class with a wonderful teacher. And I sat next to a girl named April. There really wasn’t anyone else in the class that either one of us could relate to. We were too smart for our cool friends and too cool for the smart kids in the class. It was so nice to have her there every day. I really have to say that I would not have gone to as many days of high school as I did if it had not been for her. I didn’t have anyone else in my life that reflected who I was. I don’t know if I had ever had anyone to provide this reflection in my life.
“Measuring a summer’s day.”
We never talked about music. We usually talked about books we had read. Considering that none of our cool friends read books and none of our geeky friends were interested in the books we read, we had a lot of ground to cover on this subject. But one day I saw her with Hammer of the Gods which is just a trashy gossip book about Led Zeppelin set chronologically. I asked her about it having only seen the title and not knowing that the book existed. She explained what it was and was sort of in awe about it. I was surprised that she was a Led Zeppelin fan. I was a nut job for Led Zeppelin. I have owned every one of the released records on cassette. Playing them so much that they wore out and snapped. I started playing guitar because of Led Zeppelin.
“I only find it slips away to gray.”
She had this amazing face with really defined cheekbones and red hair. I believe her eyes were blue but I could be wrong. She would draw all of these fashion pictures and wanted to be a fashion designer. Most of the faces looked like hers. The drawings were amazing. And I was always excited to see anything she drew.
“The hours they bring me pain.”
I feel that one of my rules about writing this blog is kind of unfair. The rule about only one song per artist. It’s my rule and I’m going to stick with it, but how do I choose one Led Zeppelin song. I know this might even come off as ridiculously uncool with as much street cred as I keep brandishing with my punk rock experience and my Indie music dedication. But it’s just the truth. I was just so into Led Zeppelin for so much of my childhood. So this entry might be dense. In fact, I was still really into Led Zeppelin when I was really into punk music. It was kind of sacriledge in both circles. You didn’t admit to the punks that you liked LZ, and you didn’t admit to the LZ people that you liked punk. Just another one of those dumb teenage clique rules.
I remember the day I heard Led Zeppelin IV for the first time. My brother had a new stereo. He might have had LZ IV for a while, but I remember when it broke into my consciousness. I was probably about 9 years old. I can see my brother starting the record. The automatic arm on the record player moving to the first song on the record. I can hear the static crackle as the stylus touched the record for the first time. And the opening Jimmy Paige softly on the distorted guitar. Then Robert Plant singing the opening line of Black Dog. Then the snarl of round mid range guitar and heavy bottom end explosions. My life changed. I don’t care what the hell anyone thinks. It was a life changing experience for me.
I didn’t do anything the same after that. I had a whole new soundtrack in my brain. I have always had a really good memory for sound. And I have a constant soundtrack in my head. A lot of it is stuff I have written. Then there is the writing process itself. Just making up sounds in my head and listening to the music. After listening to LZ IV over and over I had to find something else. Led Zeppeling III was next. LZ III is in general rotation in my head. Daily events can trigger parts of LZ III songs. The album is pretty obscure as far as LZ goes, and as far as their hits go, Gallows Pole and The Immigrant Song are some of their more obscure singles. And Tangerine is just out of character for even their other folk rock songs.
And whenever I hear Tangerine, I think of April. What a revelation it is to be so far removed from connecting with another human in this world, and then to find someone you can have a regular conversation with. I couldn’t even have a conversation about things that were important to me with anyone in my family. Truly, I believe they actually cared and still do care about me, but my thought process is just different. Perhaps different from most people. Really I have a whole existential mythology built up around Led Zeppelin III. If you think it’s weird that I can write 1000 words about a 3 minute song. Let me tell you that this is rushed. Given a week or two, I could probably write a book or two about Led Zeppelin III. This is one of the most important and understated records of the 20th century. And yes, I’m a freakin’ nutcase.
“Thinking of how it used to be.”
And so much of youth is rushed. I think we forget about the idea that we are only alive once. So much pressure to succeed. So much pressure to have a plan. To be moving from one thing to the next. So much of what is beautiful about life just moving on by in a blur. In most cases, the things we thought we were after are unsatisfying or we never attained the level of success we desired. Then it’s like looking through a telescope across the universe to try to capture some of the light of an event that happened ages ago asking ourselves how much we missed.
“Does she still remember times like these?”
I thought too much about the outcomes of any risk. I paralyzed myself with fear of making the wrong choice. The product of too much thought. Perhaps I still think too much. If I can get a book out of LZ III, I’m sure I do think too much. But I really can see so clearly how afraid I was of doing the wrong thing. But then I would just do the stupidest things in the world. Like develop a meth habit. April was so patient with my drugged out ramblings. Perhaps she was impressed, but I’m sure it was just annoying after awhile. Especially the class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts where I wandered around with her in a drugged out haze. But the biggest casualty of my drug habit was that it never let our friendship progress. I know now that I just didn’t want anyone in the way, but I made all kinds of hurtful excuses. What an asshole!
“And I do.”
Tangerine is a song that touches on regret. It is so lyrically sparse. And I have often thought that it was an afterthought. Some filler on a record that Jimmy Paige had left over from The Yardbirds. Perhaps it was. Perhaps its nostalgia and its emotional significance built up over the time between writing and recording it for release. But I can’t imagine anyone else singing it. That’s the beauty of an LZ song. Every part of it is essentially only a result of those present at the time of its recording. It may have been an older Jimmy Paige composition, but it’s a Led Zeppelin song. Iconic and yes, dated. So much of the sound that they helped create is iconic for its time, and the over-commercialization of that sound has taken a lot of the edge off of it making the sound impersonal. But the concepts are so intimate and sparse. And what’s so exciting to me as a teenager is how much is unsaid.
It always surprises me that more discussion isn’t generated about songs like this. These are essential human emotions. Chinese characters tend to have deeper significance than their literal Western translations. For instance, you could write a book in English about the character for sky. And I tend to think of music like this. There is so much waiting to be explored here. But it’s significance rushes past in a blur of current events. And then one day we find ourselves looking through a telescope at even the art that defined our time trying to determine its significance in our psyche. We seem to only find the art of other times significant. We miss all of the art right under our own noses in our own lives.
And April is as significant a person as has ever been in my life. Making possible the type of things that are possible in my life right now with my family. It’s funny how some things end up resembling other times and circumstances. And I have basically recreated that friendship over and over again.
“Living reflections from a dream.”
I have this type of friendship with my wife. We make up entire mythologies around nothing. Sort of evolving jokes and narratives that are blatantly farcicle. We have restless minds. And we overcome the monotony of daily life with a constant mutation of reality. The real hurdles in life are met with complex mythology and adaptations of cultural rituals.
“I was her love she was my queen.”
And it’s almost like Led Zeppelin is completely lost to me. I don’t sit around listening to Led Zeppelin records. They are just a piece of who I am. Although there is one story of how my son, Iggy, had to sit in the car seat a lot as an infant. He would get sick of it and throw a fit. But we could count on Ramble On from LZ II to put him to sleep every single time.
But it’s funny how one mythology derives from another. How significant and poignant certain events can be. How tangible and graphic a memory can be. I am here and there at the same time. I sometimes wonder how a conversation would go between us as adults. If it would be just one of those dumb uncomfortable conversations that you hoped would go much better. Who knows?
Written by Burt Bachrach with lyrics by Hal David.
Most of the time I have some story to tell centered around a song. But in this case, it’s just a bunch of impressions. I discovered this song through a girlfriend. I actually bought her a CD of Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits or something like that. I can’t remember how I knew that it would be a good gift, but before I bought the CD, I had no idea how much of my creative voice and my music consciousness were due to Dionne Warwick and Burt Bachrach.
“If you see me walking down the street,”
It’s cold and it’s November, and I have to work. The cold humidity seers through my jacket. The two cups of coffee warm my hands. The street is wet and dirty. The foot traffic is picking up. Everyone has their heads down. The sky is gray. I’m waiting on the corner of Commonwealth and Berkeley for the light to change. I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing, but it makes sense right now.
“and I start to cry each time we meet.”
I’m driving around the 610 loop in Houston. It’s one of the cold months. It’s around 3am. This is my third time around the loop. I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it feels right.
“Walk on by, walk on by.”
There’s a big window in the living room and it looks out over Commonwealth Avenue. It’s drizzling. The street is shiny in the street lights. The light on top of the Old Hancock tower is blinking red. I wonder about the architecture of the Prudential building. It’s very late and I’m tying my shoes. I’m going for a walk.
There’s a certain sadness to Walk on By that isn’t reached by other pop break up songs. And it’s the imagery that I’m left with. The impressions are always so solitary. It’s like there’s nothing else. And there is something in a big break up that is like this. A life completely centered around another person. All of the plans of a day and all thoughts of the future around this one person. And then we are supposed to become strangers. It’s tough on either side of a breakup like that.
“I just can’t get over losing you.”
And most of the time a breakup song is overly sentimental with declarations of independence meant to inspire and overcome. The solid reality of a breakup, the part where the only reason you talk to people about it is to fill the space in between the silence. The conversations that don’t really help anything. These are the moments represented here.
“So if I seem broken and blue.”
And maybe I’m just avoiding being specific because it seems so irrelevant and unreachable. And there’s something about this that is very specific. The arrangement only says what it has to say. And Dionne Warwick takes over the space with an understated performance. There is so much in the way of vocal acrobatics in new vocal divas. And I think most of the time this doesn’t serve the song or the vocal performance. Dionne Warwick sings this song and it lands right on my chest and works it’s way in. Many people did this song after her. And for some reason, she re-recorded the song several times as well.
But none of these performances matches this original 1964 recording. She’s very clean and understated with very little self serving vocal styling. I mean she’s Dionne Warwick, but in 1964, she wasn’t Dionne Warwick. She was a rising star with a lot to prove. I’m sure there was a lot of feedback from the other legends in the studio about just singing the song without a lot of ornamental phrasing, but that’s so hard to stick with. It’s some of the hardest advice to take everywhere in life. It’s such a temptation to attempt something extraordinary with every breath. Just sing the song.
“Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left.”
There’s the stark reality of a breakup song. The part of the breakup you don’t want to remember. The part your consciousness blocks out. The part where you wonder why you did it. It’s the part of a breakup you spend 700 words avoiding talking about because it’s too intense. No one wants to remember what that actually feels like. It’s not a Sex in the City episode where the pain is all wrapped up by the end of lunch, and we are planning our next encounter by the last 5 minutes. It’s the pain that makes the human race gravitate toward monogamy.
“So let me hide the tears and sadness you gave me…”
And then there’s this very subtle touch with the last time she hits this at the end. Just a hint of how much control she actually has.
“When you said goodbye.”
My final impression is the pictures left afterward. There are always fewer pictures than you remember there being. You can find one or two, but they don’t seem to say what you want them to say. You can’t reach what you know was there from the images. There’s never any real evidence of what the relationship meant at the time. And if you look at pictures like this for too long, it will make you crazy.
It’s a cruel song. Just crushed, missing and spent.
So I have known for a couple days what I would write about this song. And today it seems even so much more relevant than it did when I first had the thought. But now I think it’s important to relate how that happened. And to say that my wife is in the hospital right now because our daughter wants to be born early. So she is literally going to be in the hospital until our daughter is born. That might be weeks.
So about two weeks ago my wife sent me a link to this song. As soon as I heard the opening, I knew it was from Little Miss Sunshine and I knew I had to write about it. Obviously she knows me well enough to know that I would have to write about something like this. But I didn’t know what that might be. I just knew I had to. But two days later I was driving down the freeway, and as I listed to this song, this scene popped into my head. The scene from the movie where they are all running after the van that they just push started. I started crying. It just welled up out of me, and it was very surprising.
In 2003, when Iggy was born, we had a CD in the stereo of our car from Interpol. The song was the ‘200 couches’ song and it became the soundtrack for Iggy’s birth. And there was a lot of relevance to what this meant to us. Iggy was born in the light from his planet in the obscure but poignant relevance of an Interpol song.
This last week, I took Justine to an appointment with the perinatal specialist and I played this for her. Before we got 30 second into the music, she started crying the same way that I had. Just a surprising well of sobs pushing out of her chest. She said that it was just as powerful as the Interpol song. That she wanted to listen to it on the way to give birth to Lucy. It didn’t occur to me to play the CD as we drove to the hospital just now, but she isn’t giving birth yet. She’s still incubating. She’s just on bedrest in the hospital now. And maybe she can listen to it online while reading this because she’s going to be there for a while. Because there’s something that feels so relevant to this birth. To Lucy’s anticipated arrival on this planet.
For so much of our lives, we are presented with lofty ideals and impossible aspirations. The world is filled with greatness. Or so it would seem. Men putting their boot prints on the moon. Prodigal musicians playing parts that only they can play. Politicians uniting people who only a day before seemed completely opposed to each other’s existence. Men and women of all races doing incredible things for the first. time. Discovering things that no one ever thought were possible. It would seem we have only to look to the sky to find an ambitious path to greatness laid out before us. It is only to be dreamed.
The reality of each day is so much different from this, and it makes me think a lot of the time that our best laid plans lead to far too much disappointment. Our aspirations are so beautiful. But our failures are so private and catastrophic. And really even the burden of greatness that we put on the truly great is too enormous even for an exceptional human being. We carry our own burdens in our dreams. Especially when the greatest thing we do on a daily basis is get out of bed.
It would seem to me, and this is what I am getting to as the essential emotion in this song, that for most of our lives, the drudgery is the average. The soul searching. The private struggles with mountains of inanity and cruel helplessness. And when we show ourselves all of this greatness, it feels like it should just be possible every day. Like we should just be able to pop out of bed every day and fly to the moon and plant our flag.
But there are 6 billion of us alive at any one time. All of our aspirations of flying to the moon are manifested in the dozen or so people who have actually done this. I’m not saying that we all aspire to this one feat. But I think we all aspire to some ideal that may or may not be possible. And I think that it’s not necessarily our fault that we do or don’t accomplish this. And I’m sure that it’s not our fault that we blame ourselves for not being able to achieve everything we set out to do.
I don’t know what it is about this piece that does all of this for me. I seems like it’s climbing toward something and falling down. But the attempt at scaling whatever harmonies are available with the adjusted melody is not interrupted by contemplation. They don’t even dust that melody off. They just toss it right back on the rhythm of the ostinado and ride it. We can reach that amazing place in the sun with the strings and the wind in our hair. The whole piece aspires to so much but is so close to our suffering. It’s down in the mud and up on the mountaintop at the same time. Mychael Danna and DeVotchKa use the instrumentation perfectly. The conversation that happens is so defined and contrasted. So freely giving room to what needs to be said.
But for some reason the sobs that welled up out of my chest when I listened to this song in the car that day had everything to do with finally being okay with not being great. Iggy and Lucy, I am not a great man. But I am a man. And I have lived in a time that is my time. And for a large majority of the 6 billion of us that are alive in our time, the most amazing thing we do in our lifetimes are like running to get in a van that shouldn’t be running to begin with. That we live in a house that shouldn’t be standing. That our house of cards doesn’t collapse when it rains. That we make it through the night when it rains and the wind blows. That we have extra food to give to our neighbors. That we are witnesses to other people’s tragedies. That we are witnesses to our own tragedies. That we raise and love our children and have compassion for one another. That this life happens at all is a miracle. And nothing is to be taken lightly. It’s a proud and beautiful thing to be a human being. And none of us agree on everything. And our wars and disagreements and threats are sad and unfortunate. And sometimes it feels like it’s not worth it to run and jump in that broken ass car but it’s an indescribable miracle and there is nothing more noble and worthwhile than getting up and trying again.
We are the sum of our attempts. Not the product of our accomplishments. It doesn’t mean you get a trophy in the end. It might just mean a lot of heartache. And this is important to note and the heart of everything that I am trying to say. Even the great aren’t great. Any great accomplishment is the sum of all of our attempts. We acknowledge the individual effort only because of the mountain of definitions that help us understand that a particular effort is noteworthy. And when I see my son in the morning or think of my future daughter and all of the effort that goes into making a single day happen. I think that is noteworthy. We are small. But our spirit is infinite and we stand together on this little ball of dirt and look to the sky. And everything is ours. All of it…
So I have been getting really worried about this blog. Did I bite off more than I can chew? How long can I keep up this type of creativity? What did I do to myself? I feel like I am writing into a pit. The feedback I get feels polite and dismissive even when I can tell it’s sincere and effusive. I really couldn’t ask for more. I am not fishing for compliments. I am just finding the breaking point where I always quit. The place where I get too paranoid to continue with whatever line of creativity I have begun. I start to feel obligated to giving up something for nothing when as recently as yesterday I couldn’t believe that I was doing something I loved this much. It’s all a tired and exhausting argument about circumstances that don’t exist.
“This is not the time. The time to start a new love.”
This is not the time to start a new blog. The song almost makes me anxious. I like it a lot. And I understand it’s perspective. Perhaps a little too well. It’s about the burden of communication under the astrological idiom of Mercury being in ‘retrograde’. An overall time of pitfalls in communication. But there is this overall frenetic energy around miscommunication and anxiety in the song. A perpetual state of misunderstanding and fear of misunderstanding.
“This is not the time. The time to sign a lease.”
I feel like I have gotten away from the original intent which was to express an appreciation for the music. In trying to express that I really appreciate the efforts of the artists with a derived artistic expression of my own, I feel like I have marginalized the actual music in my writing. I have gone from being generous to being selfish. Then full circle to completely self-centered. My blog has re-arrived at my efforts at trying to be cool.
“Trying not to worry about what’s forgotten.”
I stand tortured by my second guessing. Am I doing anything? Is it right to do what I am doing? Is anyone reading? Does it matter? Am I still enjoying what I am doing? Is it important to be enjoying what I am doing? Is it more important that I am just creating again? Is the rich vein that I tapped in the beginning tapped out? Do I have anything left in me?
“Trying not worry about what’s being missed.”
I have to think that it’s okay to be doing this. That I am doing more than serving my own ego. I know more than ever tonight that I am doing the right thing because of how uncomfortable listening to and writing about this song is making me. I have been listening to the song all week. And it has been stuck in my head. But when I think about writing about the song, I want to turn it off. And that’s the nature of what I am talking about.
“Scars on my shins and scars on my knuckles.”
There is this terrible fight going on inside of me because I am reaching beyond my comfort zone. I could just do what I had been doing before two months ago. Get home from work. Hang out with the family while polishing off most of a bottle of wine and putting the kid through the motions to go to sleep. Spending the better part of the latter half of the evening half drunk and watching sitcoms.
“I’m sitting in SOHO trying to stay drunk.”
This is the point where the defiance comes in. That terrific low end synthesizer in the choruses with this fabulously anxious and violent response to an internal struggle.
“Mercury’s in retrograde.”
Then that crazy bridge with a bunch of chromatic counterpoint and atonal harmonies. I have no bearing. I just write again. I defy the definition of the end with my means. I won’t let the end obstruct my means anymore. I won’t lose sight of the end with my means. And the end isn’t in sight. And it’s never out of my sight. It’s just a crazy frenetic loop starting over and over again. Which side will win. My fingers keep typing. I keep looking for the next song to write about. The next mythology to drive my passion.
“Bleeding gums and veins protruding.”
I have such a physical response to this song. On the one hand I want to dance. Then I want to run. Then I want to flounder for the off button like I am pushing the snooze button on the alarm.
“You’re starting to hate all of your clothes.”
Then when I remove the song from my immediate center of noise, it returns to my mental rotation. For as little time as I have been exposed to it, this song has made the general playlist pretty quickly. There are a lot of Bloc Party songs that I like and their early stuff kept making me think that they were an old band from the late 80’s or early 90’s, but they are 00’s. In some way, it’s the dedication to their sound that makes me think of them as an older band. They have something essential about them that is missing from a lot of new pop music in general. That’s something missing in general from pop culture right now. They sound bigger than their time. It doesn’t even feel like a compliment from me, because it just feels like an observation. I spend a lot of time listening to new music and trying to like it. I believe I have caught myself in every instance when I was about to write about something that I was trying to like. But I don’t think I even have to catch myself. I just can’t write about it.
“When I saw you last night, I wanted to say…”
What did I want to say? What is it I was trying to say? Did I say it? Did I move you? Do you exist out there? Does anyone read this thing? Are you more than a bunch of numbers in a mess of site statistics?
“‘Run away with me, away from these cynics.'”
But Bloc Party is maybe too big for their time. I hope that’s not true. I hope that their essential nature isn’t too big of a body of work for our dime store culture. I hope I don’t have too much to say. I hope I am not putting too much out there. I hope that my words add to something. That I am creating a voice worth hearing. My voice resonating low and constant in the din of corporate cynicism and pandering ephemera. I could easily dispose of myself in the heap of 5 minute pop nostalgia. It’s terrifying that I could just stop. That I could leave myself hanging.
“That this could be the start of something truly real.”
There’s an art scene story that goes like this: I run into a guy and he’s got a great project going on. He talks for two hours about it. He’s so excited I want to jump out of my seat and run to his studio and make coffee for him. We exchange numbers for the billionth time. He doesn’t return any phone calls. Three weeks later I run into him at a coffee shop and ask about the project. “Ahhhh man. That fell through. But I’ve got this other deal going on. It’s fucking hot.”
Insomnia is not just a night that you can’t get to sleep. It’s a period of time that you can’t get to sleep. Like days. Or weeks. Or years. You still feel tired, but you just can’t sleep. When insomnia goes on long enough, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between sleeping and waking life. Everything occurs like a dream and sinks into the experience of memory as reality. So you could be at work and feel like you are dreaming. Or you could be asleep and feel like the dream is actually happening. Then remembering the dream as if it actually happened.
“You are the treacle in my pie.”
My first real bout with insomnia came when I was about 10 years old. At least the first one I can remember. The first few days I remember staring at the door as usual. But sleep never came. Failed starts at sleep built over the first week until I was crying in frustration. By the end of the second week, I was punching myself in the head.
“You are the splinter in my eye.”
I didn’t tell anyone about this because it doesn’t occur to a 10 year old to talk about problems with sleep. The most frustrating part of my insomnia is that I become uncontrollably sleepy right at dawn. Unfortunately, this is when the world insists on getting up. So right at the point where I am able to sleep, my opportunity for sleep is over. I have to get up with everyone else and flounder through my day. The edges of some other dream world barely visible in the corner of my eye all day long.
“You make the ice melt. The butter run.”
I had to conceive a mythology around my daily visions and glimpses of an alternate reality. I am convinced that it is always there. That we see it all right in front of us. But we train ourselves not to. It’s very much like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Much of life is an ethereal world with simple answers to plaguing problems easily within our grasp and largely and purposefully ignored and avoided.
“You are the ink stain. You are the one.”
And the biggest problem and the most enchanting part of living on the edge of this dreamworld is that time doesn’t function normally. My linear grasp on my own history is loose. I experience things out of order. And in order. I don’t know whether I have a premonition that it will happen or that it already happened or that it is happening right now. At the same time it’s a game I play with myself. I shouldn’t ever be taken too seriously where sleep is concerned. Sometimes I am unresponsive and it looks like I am asleep. But I am fully in my environment. Enjoying being awake has opened me up to the possibility that I am actually asleep which makes me feel more rested.
“I am the local. I am express.”
So in a dream and a reality occurring over the period of about 25 years, I met a girl. I had a conversation on the phone with her after our first date. We lit a candle together. Crazy saint candles from Fiesta. Mine was St. Michael. I have always felt reassured by the Archangel Michael with his glittering sword and his foot on the head of a demon. There is always a crossover as the sleep slips away. Who knows what is real.
“I am a tourist in a summer dress.”
But in this conversation she said that it was time for sleep. I told her that I couldn’t sleep. She said that she loved sleep. Like it was big fat pink baby. “Sleep is like candy.” And suddenly I was tired like I hadn’t ever been tired before. We ended our conversation. I slept like Adam and Eve experiencing sin for the first time. Tiredness washed over me like warm water. My dream world disappeared in a foggy misshapen cloud of real sleep. This sleep was like a new dimension between two worlds that I had made my home.
“I am the night nurse. I am the most.”
And now I always have periods of time that are like power sleep zones. In the early evening, I can lay down any time and have 45 minutes of the most refreshing and perfect sleep. It’s like a new ripple in an ever unfolding intersection of alternate realities. Since time is almost irrelevant, I remembered this mechanism into every other period of sleeplessness and the additional sleep corrected sequences and improved my handling of difficult situations. This resulted in a more well-adjusted now.
“I am the visitor, you are the host.”
The more well-adjusted me married that girl. And before that reality, I could never sleep with another person in the same building being awake. I would listen to them breathe on the other side of the house. I would listen to upstairs neighbors talking softly in their living rooms. Now as long as she is the one awake, most of the time I can still sleep. But I can also remember her in the room if she isn’t there. And this changes everything. Like Michael standing watch at the door of time.
“My lips are lipped.”
Dean and Britta are the candy of sleep. Easily digested and hard to harm. They have this way of slipping inside of me easily like they were there all along. Like a Burt Bachrach tune. How do you know the first time you heard it? At the first listening of a Dean and Britta song, I am humming along like I’ve been listening to it for decades. And I have a real affection that I have developed for them. Their intimacy so candid and thorough. Like I’ve known them for a long time. And maybe I have. Slipping between here and now. Between then and there.
“My lid is flipped.”
Their music is like the feeling right before you fall asleep. The place that I have spent so much of my time. On a wheel finding different perspectives on consciousness and motivation. Deprivation and fulfillment. Observing all of the metaphors in the in between. The places where it appears nothing is happening until you stare long enough to find something. There is always something new in their music. And it’s laid back enough that its message is flexible. Easily available to whatever dimension I happen to be roaming in any given time. I am here. I am listening to a Dean and Britta song.
“Sleep together in the Milky Way.”
There is some interesting candor in the slow march of time. And the lack of linearity of sleeplessness scoffs at revelation. Progress is always related to time. If it isn’t, then it can’t be measured. So perhaps if time isn’t a factor, all time is awash with light and dark tones and hints of subtlety and marked resilience. And sometimes the senseless march of words ends up like the last five sentences. Running concepts together with no regard for their meaning.
“Sleep forever and a day.”
The only real comfort is that sleep is like candy. And if I had never found sleep, where would I be. Stuck between two worlds. Clutching my belongings to my chest like a homeless man. Stooping under the burden of stupefying exhaustion. I am asleep and awake at the same time. I have 15 more life times. I am somewhere on my way and right next to you. I feel the warm water rise from my feet to my eyelids. I am a color tone in a changing tide.
Mandy broke up with Justin at the prodding of Mark who had just moved out of Justin’s one bedroom apartment that he still shared with Dan who wouldn’t talk to Justin anymore. I had just talked to Justin and told him I would try to come over that night which I fully intended not to do. Justin had gone to a place that was too dark even for all of us. When he finally did use the shotgun on himself, a few hours after I talked to him, Dan was just falling asleep in the next room. Dan heard the sound but couldn’t make himself go into the living room to see what had happened. So he crawled out the window of the first floor apartment. He found a pay phone and called his psychiatrist.
“Aly, walk with me in the summer.”
I found out in the morning when Mark and Mandy woke me up at about 8am. I was sleeping on Darrell’s couch because I didn’t have a place to live. I don’t know how they knew where I was, but I remember their faces as I woke up very clearly. Mandy’s unruly mane of hair and worried smile and Mark’s common expression of indecipherable irony. My first questions were about how Dan was doing, but they assured me that he was okay. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I had fallen asleep knowing that I truly hoped that Justin would get it over with so that we could all get on with our lives.
“Aly, walk with me.”
Of course I felt guilty about hoping for this outcome in the morning. Of course all of us felt guilty in the morning. We all had some culpability in Justin’s emotional state. Justin got all of us didn’t he?
“Aly, walk with me in Portland.”
It’s amazing how far the ego will go to protect itself from admitting its own faults with denial and blame.
“Aly, walk with me.”
There was a lot of time between the act and the funeral. And I know I spent all of that time with Mark and Mandy. But I don’t know how many days that was. But we were never apart. I don’t remember eating or sleeping. I remember a deep feeling of anguish building inside me. I remember talking a lot about other things. I remember half hearted attempts by all of us to try to absolve each other of guilt.
“Aly, walk with me in my dreams.”
I also remember looking at Mandy and wondering where she went. And I also remember clearly answering myself. I didn’t want to know where she went. My guilt was enough. I didn’t want to know how she felt.
“So strange and true.”
As soon as I had these thoughts, I had to know where she was. I caught myself several times, in a quiet room with Mark and Mandy, not talking. I was just staring at Mandy who wasn’t seeing the room. She obviously wasn’t even in the room. I snapped myself out of my revery and turned to Mark. He was also staring at Mandy. He was obviously at the same level of worry. He noticed my attention, and we exchanged an understanding.
“Can I walk with you in Portland?”
This was something outside of either of our experience. And really there was no knowing what to do. We put off making any decisions.
“Walk next to you.”
The funeral was a farce. There were hundreds of people there. And while most of the people knew Justin, most of them had very little experience with being his friend outside of being in the same room with hundred of other people, and one party at Justin’s tiny apartment that was fun but only in the sense that it was concrete evidence of Justin’s mental illness.
“Aly, walk right out of my dreams…”
There was a letter. There’s always a letter. Even if there’s not a letter. I received a copy. Funeral attendees excitedly told me with a smile that I was mentioned extensively in the letter. I held the copy, absently looking at it.
“into my arms.”
The words on the page were not taking shape. The words of the people around me were not taking shape. There were black blotches of ink on the pages of the letter. Some of the blotches were covering words which made it hard to read. Then I realized that this was a copy and the blotches had originally been red.
“Aly, walk with me in the city.”
A man eulogized Justin as a Christian and a decent and generous person who was in the loving arms of God in heaven. I could hear Troy laughing somewhere. I could tell he wasn’t able to control himself. And I knew exactly why he was laughing. I might have had the same problem but I was too tired.
“Aly walk with me.”
The Raveonettes have this knack for evoking very clear imagery. The music. The lyrics. The vocals. I have yet to hear one of their songs that didn’t take me somewhere specific. This song specifically took me to this event. I immediately went to the next song because I didn’t want to think about this. I kept coming back to the song though. There’s a very specific distortion and a very specific clarity. A specific rhythm with a very specific emotional imbalance. They peak through the ether, appearing as darkened and sad angels, to tell your own stories to you for the first time. As if you didn’t know them. And maybe some stories need to be retold.
“Aly, step right out of my head.”
Mark and I could not leave Mandy alone. For days after the funeral we were always with her. She never closed her eyes. I slept and then Mark slept. We talked to each other but Mandy became more and more distant. We knew we had to get on with our lives and stop hiding in Mandy’s childhood room in her mother’s house, but we didn’t know what to do.
“And kiss me goodnight.”
Eventually, Mandy became completely unresponsive. So I started talking to her. Asking her questions. I just kept talking for hours, and I could tell that sometimes I got to her. I stopped talking and Mark kept going. We traded turns at this. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it seemed better than sitting there. Mandy’s mother tried to break into our circle, but we didn’t know how to receive her. We didn’t eat. We were running out of time on some clock that we could only barely perceive.
“Aly, walk with me in my dreams.”
I don’t know what it was that prodded her to speak, but her voice came from far away. “I am waiting for you guys to leave. And then I am going to wait for my mother to go to sleep. Then I’m going to walk down to his apartment and break in. Then I’m going to lay there… And wait for him.”
“All through the night.”
Somehow after this we were able to get her to take a shower and go to sleep. Then we called someone, a friend of ours and Mandy’s, who was familiar with interventions and all of the professionals that had to be involved in something like that. She took over. There was nothing more to be done.
I find something very upsetting about the breakup of Mommy and Daddy. And I realize how bizarre that sentence pans out, but it’s true. I find the breakup of Mommy and Daddy a little more upsetting than the breakup of my actual mother and father. The day they told us they were ‘separating’, I cried out of relief and my brothers laughed uncontrollably. They were very somber and serious. I stared at the 70’s brown shag carpet until the tears welled up. I didn’t even know what it meant really, but I was so glad that it was over.
“…” I’m not going to attempt to figure out what she’s saying. Really. I have tried. But it doesn’t matter. The groove is so hard and satisfying. And the timbre of her voice makes it all right. There’s a metaphor there even without the actual words.
It’s like a fantasy. They were living our fucked up Generation X romantic fantasy. We grew up listening to all of these songs about running for the hills with the love of your life. Born to Run by Springstein or I Melt With You by Modern English. The scene at the end of the Graduate on the back of the bus. It’s our fucked up rock and roll escapist fantasy. The heroic couple stands up to authority and runs away. Presumably they continue flipping everyone off and being passionately in love forever. Every day is a rock and roll montage of good rebel love and matching tattoos. The world never comes to trouble their doorstep even when they have kids.
Really I don’t want it to come off sounding too snarky. I am actually being sincere. I am a sucker for a love story. But one day after my 5th or 6th major breakup in my 20’s, I stopped and asked myself a question. What relationship am I trying to emulate? Which relationship, family or friends or famous couple or acquaintance or royalty, is the example that I am striving for? What does a ‘happily ever after’ look like? How does a realistic love story end? I couldn’t think of an answer to this question. I really spent a lot of time thinking about this. I went through lists of people that I knew. Aunts and uncles. Teachers. Friends the same age as me that looked like they were together for a while. Which example of the perfect relationship were they trying to emulate? My conclusion was that not only did I not have an example but most people didn’t.
So I thought about songs like Born to Run and I Melt With You. And then the question got kind of philosophical. Because when you are 14 and you are first confronted by these concepts, you might have a close friend that you can talk to about how it makes you feel. All of the longing and angst that a 14 year old can express. But quickly enough everyone figures out that it’s just a song no matter how beautiful, and if you enjoy the feeling these songs conjure and know what’s good for you, you will keep those feelings to yourself.
While I might admit to really liking a song like this, I hate to admit that it’s still a role I can picture myself in. Like a rock and roll romance novel. The rock and roll rebel, screw the world and run away romance song. Maybe I’m the only one that feels this way, but I doubt it. And while the examples I give are really obvious. I think there are way more songs that fit into this category. It’s like trying to be cool. It’s a concept that better be really amazingly right on to go for directly like Born to Run or I Melt With You. Other more subtle examples are songs like Going to California by Led Zeppelin or Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode. But these are songs. Beautiful adaptations of all of the emotional connections we long for.
And then Mommy and Daddy started making this really incredibly original music as a couple. Not just a couple but the only two people in their band. They were living out one of these rock and roll romances. Their songs aren’t about this kind of thing, but it’s easy to see that energy in their relationship. It’s aggressive and kind at the same time. A private affection that we can understand without invasive voyeurism. We are all lost in the fog of romantic disillusionment and found in the romantic discontent of Mommy and Daddy. They didn’t offer themselves up as examples of the rock and roll romantic fantasy, but there they were. And I can’t help but take it personally that they broke up. And I do realize that’s too much to put on them. I am a big believer in break ups or divorce when that is the best option. Or whatever the hell they did, because they didn’t announce it. They just stopped making music.
And that’s the part where I feel sad. Because I really believe that no one but the two of them can make music with this particular energy. I am lonely thinking that they won’t be making any more of it. There’s not going to be a reunion tour or album. We got a couple of really good CD’s worth of songs out of them that end up coming at the tale end of Electro Clash. They are significant as a step in the evolution of punk from insignificant history to relevant post-modernism.
They are even somewhat controversial in their seeming simplicity and lyrical senselessness. Not that I find this controversy significant. Metaphor and poetic license are better served by the ephemeral nature of impulsive magic than the well constructed allegory. If you wanted allegory go listen to some Wagner. The energy of wild untamed love is here with Mommy and Daddy.
“And I want to take you home.”
And some realities of home are better than others. My reality is pretty damn good. Significantly better than my parents. But maybe it’s time to go get some matching tattoos.
I was looking around on the internet for music and music criticism and I wasn’t finding any writing that told me anything about the music. Then I started wondering what I meant by that. Being a musician, I wondered what a decent description of the music would be to me. So about a year ago, I started thinking about a blog that I would like to write. The first idea I had was a new Indie CD every week. So I kind of kept my eye open for Indie CD’s that I could write something meaningful about. No bad criticism. I didn’t want any bad energy. Just music that touched me in some way.
I quickly found that it was very difficult to find a CD that I thought was really great all the way through. I kept looking, and I discovered that there was a lot of bad Indie music. Then it occurred to me that I am an Indie musician. I have been discouraged by the mediocrity of my own recordings and performances. The limitations of technology, time and money. In some cases really I had to admit that one of the other limitations is talent. I love writing songs, and I love performing them. But I am finding since I began writing this that it is useful to point to the place that I belong in the wide variations of quality in music. I am somewhere on the worst side of the middle. There’s probably a lot of music that’s not as good as mine, but my music is pretty mediocre.
The reason I find this worthwhile to point out is that there is one opinion that matters most in the music I find it worthwhile to write about. And that opinion is mine. I have to really be honest about what I think about my music to get to what I really think about other people’s music. I couldn’t write anything significant about the one CD I have compiled out of all of the recording I have done over the years. I could write about 1 or 2 songs though.
So that was how I arrived at the concept that I would write about songs rather than entire CD’s. Then I thought, how in the hell am I going to find 52 new Indie songs to write about in a year. At the time, I was having a hard time finding 1. I just couldn’t figure out what to do with this.
Then on New Year’s Eve of 2008, I was inspired to write about a significant period of my life centered around Baba O’riley by The Who. There were many factors that inspired me to do this, but it was the first thing I wrote around this concept. By the time I was done, I had a challenge before me. Maybe I could write about 1000 significant words about a song every day. I would look for Indie music, but if I failed to find a song in a given day, I could just write about a song that had a big impact on my life.
The idea of writing about my life while writing about the song, or using the song as a soundtrack for significant events in my life just sort of evolved as I started writing. Part of the reason I push further down this particular route is that I have now read a lot of writing about music, new and old, on the internet. Most of it is of the “What I did on my summer vacation…” variety. “I like the music because…” There are some really good music blogs out there, but I wanted my blog to really celebrate the music itself. What would I like someone to say about my music? I would want to know that if they liked it, my music somehow became part of the soundtrack of their life. Because this is what music is to me. It’s not some aural events arranged over time that are either pleasant or unpleasant. They are significant memory markers in the story line that is my life. The songs in my soundtrack are as powerful as distinctive smells that can conjure entire periods of my life in imagery and emotion.
Music is really profoundly important to me. If I am going to take the time to write something about a song, there have to be some rules:
No negativity about the music. This rule can be bent but not at the expense of an artist. I think any of the negativity I have participated in so far has only served to criticize myself and to transcend negativity in the end. Why the hell am I going to listen to something enough to figure out exactly why I hate it. That’s just stupid. If I don’t like it, I’m not going to write about it. Indie musicians and small genre musicians especially don’t need this or snarky jabs at all sorts of aesthetic aspects of significant efforts. Fuck you and your blog about how you hate some Indie record from a band that you label as hipsters and/or scenesters. Go get a guitar and practice 30 hours a week in a studio you pay too much for and drive up and down freeways in a piece of shit car to pay to entertain assholes who go home and write shitty reviews in their blogs. As you can see I feel pretty strongly about no negativity except where it concerns other people’s negativity.
Do my best to render an artistic tribute to the music I am writing about. This is subjective, but I am doing my best.
No bands twice. This is difficult as there are some bands that hit me over and over again over a 15 year period with many incredible songs. And then there are some bands that broke up, but I can write about a song from one of the member’s solo careers.
Write at least 500 words. I have since expanded this rule to try to write 1000 words about each song. I truly didn’t know I had this much to say. This stuff has been kicking around my brain for a long time and it wants out.
Even the old stuff can be new to me. It’s been a good exercise when I am stuck to just get someone to tell me a song to write about. Even if it’s really old. The ideas I have expressed about those songs because of their unique constraints have been kind of surprising.
Try to contact the Indie bands whenever possible to point out that I have written something about them. It’s difficult to get meaningful press for an Indie act. Maybe I can help a little bit.
Links to listen. Links to buy. I have a little flash thing at the top of most of the posts now to listen without downloading it. And all of the posts have a link to buy if I could find one.
No ads. I don’t know how we’re supposed to take Indie credibility seriously when every site dedicated to Indie media is stuffed with corporate ads. This isn’t always the case and there are lots of examples of good uses of ads. Myspace is one of them. I can’t even imagine what would have happened at the birth of punk or hip hop if there had been widespread social networking and free marketing tools like Myspace. But I wonder when we are actually reading stuff that we have all of this visual clutter on the page. I may change my mind about this, because I am not against selling out. All of us sell out every day. But for right now. No ads.
When I was a kid, I hated to fight. I was the youngest of three boys, so I was afraid of fighting as it was rare for me to win. And if I did hurt one of them it only meant that they would hurt me worse later. Any of my retaliation came in the form of punching and running. I had my moments, but overall fighting was something that I avoided. Or most of the time, I simply ran. I would cry at the idea of a fight. And young boys will fight.
“this is not the song that we wanted to sing”
I developed a reputation for running, so all of the kids wanted to fight me. If you have to fight at some point and you are terrified of fighting, why not just pick a fight with the kid you know is going to run. Of course, I didn’t know this then. I thought everyone hated me and wanted to beat me up.
“got no choir, got no bell to ring”
The thing that I didn’t realize is that no one hits you as hard as your brother. When I fought my brothers, I would come out bruised and aching. They would make sure to punch me in the same places they had hit me before. The torture a sibling can deliver is unrivaled. Kids really are afraid of hurting each other mostly, so they don’t hit that hard. Not nearly as hard as my brothers. So when I finally learned this lesson, I still hated fighting, but I would stay and fight.
“you’re not clever, you’re not even sly”
One day I ended up pissing off a kid that was a couple years older than me. A theme of my life is doing the opposite of what is right in almost every situation. In this case, the kid was taller and bigger than me and I should have run. But in this particular situation, I was tired of kids picking fights with me, so I was just going to slug it out with him.
“the wings of soul will not take you higher”
So I got beaten down by this kid. And when he tried to walk away, I got up and jumped on him. I beat on his ears. I head butted him. He threw me on the ground and hit me a couple times. Then he got up and kicked me some. Then he turned to walk away and I jumped on him again. This went on for hours. All of the voyeurs left and it was just me and him. He begged me to let him go home. I cried and jumped on him again. The action moved like the pace of this song.
“there’s nothing moving in the tower of song”
And really, I can’t attribute all of this energy to fighting. My life was wrong. And this was the theme for quite a bit of my childhood. I was constantly on the wrong end of retribution. I didn’t look for trouble. It was there for the taking, and I took more than my share. I’ve always been somewhat of a glutton.
“this silence is loud, but it never comes”
And there’s this tremendous release in finally fighting when you feel oppressed. And I have to admit that I have recreated this situation too often in my life. And I suppose it has something to do with being abused to begin with. I have recreated abusive environments to fight my way out of over and over again. The release achieved by fighting against some perceived injustice is intoxicating and addictive. And in the fog of self-righteousness and turmoil, it’s impossible to know the difference between real injustice and a fantasized grievance.
“got a use-by date on your life like a tattoo”
I discovered something in the fight with the older kid. Everyone may want to fight the kid that runs away, but no one wants to fight the crazy kid. No one can predict what the crazy kid is going to do. And while there were more situations after this that enhanced this reputation, this was the beginning.
“and if your mind goes blank, well here is a clue”
Later in Houston in 8th grade, I ended up with a similar reputation. I did something to a kid that offended just about everyone in the school. And I was the new kid, so I became the school punching bag. I got in a fight or two every day for about two months. Most of the time against multiple opponents. And this is a reality of fighting for boys, and men for that matter, that is commonly ignored in our fist fighting mythology. There is hardly ever a fight that is one on one. Don’t take it personally but the pack is always close by.
“everything’s showbiz, pop is the new porn”
With the previous lessons in fighting behind me, I knew that even multiple opponents weren’t going to hurt me as bad as my brothers. They were all terrified as well. So I just took it. I hardly ever fought back. I just let them beat me up and made sounds like I was getting hurt. Then I would get up and go to class. But one day I finally had enough.
“repeat and repeat until the feeling is gone…”
And I don’t know what it is about A Thousand Flowers that makes me think of fighting. Something about the motion. Something about how I felt the first time I heard the song. But the sound just has friendly violence all over it. And I find the contrast between the title of A Thousand Flowers and fist fighting to be quite satisfying. I just discovered The Sand Pebbles, and I really like them. And there is something about their approach to indifference and irreverence that I think I could listen to over and over. There’s something very physical about the music and the insistent beat. Everything from the drums to the guitar effects has a punchy quality that drives the song from one end to the other. And the live song feel reflected in the vocal signals at the end of the long bridge section is impressive in the overdub age. And I like the visceral approach to intellectual underpinnings. They are like a fist fight after a philosophical debate. I really don’t even know why they affect me like this.
“let a thousand flowers bloom”
One day I finally just snapped. I saw someone that had been involved in one of these fights in the hall at school. Our eyes met and I socked him in the eye without warning.
“like a promise, can’t come too soon”
Later I saw someone in the bathroom that I clearly remembered kicking me in a group of other kids. I pushed his head into the tiled wall and threw his books in the toilet.
“take a picture of the moment, then”
To cement the end of this period of fighting in my life, I went looking for the kid that had participated in and been the main instigator of a good number of these fights. When I found him, he happened to be walking in front of the principal and one of the redneck coaches that delivered swats to kids in exchange for skipping detention. Both of these guys knew that I was being bullied like this. Ah what a prehistoric world 80’s Houston was. I grabbed the kid right in front of them. I took his books from him and threw them at him saving the biggest one to hit him in the head.
“blow it up start it again…”
The principal and the coach took me to the office. They threatened me with suspension and expulsion and a whole lot of other things. I mumbled something about wanting to go home and calling my mother. Then I realized that they didn’t want to talk to my mother. They had been ignoring all of this for a while, and they didn’t want to have to explain that. So they just sent me on to class.
I have to start out by saying that the reason that I went to a music school for guitar is that I wasn’t very good at it. There… I said it. I always managed to get into bands where I was the worst musician of the bunch. And relatively speaking, I was pretty good at the guitar. I could hold my own and improvise fairly well. But compared to my aspirations as a guitar player and my criticism of other guitar players, my playing was terrible. If I were to have listened to my playing, I would have said I was pretty mediocre at best. So I packed up everything and went to Berklee.
Yes there are a lot of people that want to play music. And there’s nothing more humbling that aspiring to be a guitar great at a school with 1500 guitarists who all aspire to do the same thing. And add to that the fact that as an entering student I didn’t even qualify to be in an ensemble. This means that I couldn’t take classes for the very reason I went there, to play with other people and get better at it I had to work from there up.
Granted playing punk music in a bar in Houston doesn’t require ensemble ratings. And you can still do great things as a musician without being a great instrumentalist. Reading music isn’t required for playing punk or rock. It isn’t even required to do what Eric Johnson is doing in the Cliffs of Dover. Really, reading music isn’t required for any part of being a musician, but if you want to scale the academic tower and participate in what academia has to offer, then you probably will need to learn to read music.
When I was first learning to play the guitar, I wanted to be able to play the music I loved. I worked really hard at that. I got pretty good at that, and I could pick out most Led Zeppelin songs. I played with some other people before long. Playing on stage is hard work. Writing music with other people is fun and demanding. And then sometime after high school, I developed some demanding dreams around playing the guitar. I wanted to be proficient in any style and great at some. I fell in love with the guitar. It’s all I wanted to do.
After two years of Berklee, I hated the guitar. I really have never re-developed this affection. I like to play the guitar to make music. I don’t enjoy the guitar for the sake of the guitar. It’s amazing though. I pick the damn thing up and I am proficient in almost any style. My fingers and ears know how to make the thing work and produce sound that is nice to listen to. But I am not great at any style. This was a reality that I had to deal with in my third year at Berklee.
I remember waiting for Ah Via Musicom to come out. It was a big thing among guitar afficionados and Texas music fans especially. Eric Johnson is a perfectionist and it took a ridiculous amount of time for him to complete this record. He kept starting over and over. Eric Johnson is great guitarist. And Ah Via Musicom is a great record. The Cliffs of Dover is a great song. But this isn’t the best recording of the Cliffs of Dover. The live version of the song at Austin City Limits is the best recording. But the Austin City Limits show came about four years previous to the studio version. I can remember being somewhat disappointed by the studio version even though it’s still a great recording. Of course, there was a lot of press about how Eric Johnson might be overthinking Ah Via Musicom, so I wonder if that had anything to do with my disappointment.
The truth is that I never wanted to be the kind of guitarist that Eric Johnson is. But there is an energy that runs among musicians to earn the respect of other musicians. And it’s hard to know when you are crossing the line from doing what you want to be doing to doing stuff just to impress other musicians. Just to be cool. I don’t think Eric Johnson suffers from this. He suffers from perfectionism. But in a way, that’s what made me hate the guitar. If I can’t be a virtuoso and satisfy my own impossible standards then fuck the guitar.
Before I went to Berklee, I didn’t know what I wanted to go to college for. I am one of those terrible college students that think it matters what you major in as an undergrad. It only matters if you know exactly what you want to do with your life and you never waver from that path. Like being a doctor or a research scientist. Or a concert instrumentalist. I only wanted to be a concert instrumentalist because I wasn’t satisfied with how impressive I’d be if I just wrote and produced some songs and performed them. At first, this desire was a love of the instrument, but then I got sidetracked with trying to impress other musicians.
I know now that my love of the song far outweighs the love of the instrument. Any instrument that gets me there is acceptable. I love writing songs. I love listening to songs. I have developed a new love for looking for Indie songs from this blog. And since I can’t always find a new song (I went through about 10 Indie artists last night trying to find something I liked.), I write about songs that had a huge impact on my life like Cliffs of Dover.
Cliffs of Dover has its place in the genre of virtuoso instrumental guitar rock. It’s a one of a kind approach. Eric Johnson’s patience and perfectionism pay off. There is a reason for the disappointment between his studio efforts and his live performances, because his live performances are so amazing. But the truth is even his studio performances set the bar ridiculously high.
The third year at Berklee is the time when most musicians come to terms with the fact they won’t be performance majors if that is what they originally intended. So you either choose a major that is more suited to your abilities, go on a hiatus and practice or just leave the school. Don’t get me wrong, there are other majors that people go to Berklee for. And there are a lot of people that don’t understand why you want to be a performance major at Berklee because there are other schools more suited to specific performance styles. But I just knew I wanted to major in music, the choice about what major to declare was too much for me, because once again I thought it mattered what my major was.
In the end, most of what I am talking about is where I fit into the whole scheme of things. The difference between the dream and reality. Sometimes coming to terms with that difference is heart breaking and it was for me. I see this everywhere though. Friends that majored in English who end up on the editing staff for computer text book companies or training dogs. Philosophy majors waiting tables. Music majors in computers and programming. Engineering majors designing toasters. There isn’t a total disconnect between these majors and the professions. But it takes each individual story to know which crazy reality leads to another crazy reality. It’s just that the reality you see on the other side of an English major is usually something to do with creative writing, not text books. And computers isn’t what I saw myself doing. But I’m not Eric Johnson. Sometimes he’s not even Eric Johnson. But it’s not that bad being me either. Most of the time it’s pretty cool.
And I think that there is a choice about what you can do. I like to produce music anyway. Maybe it will always be mediocre. Maybe sometimes it’s really good and people don’t notice. Maybe it’s objectively great but people still hate it. And I’m pretty sure that even Academia is missing an important opportunity in Indie media, but there is a really cool freedom there. The idea that you can reach a few people doing what you really want to be doing, but all of the recognition aside, maybe I really just like doing it. And if I let go of the cool factor of trying to impress people, maybe it’s a lot more fun for everybody.
I spent my 8th grade year at Dean Junior High School in Spring Branch. It was my first year in Houston. I was really dumpy and awkward. That year I had four separate ear infections, two cases of strep throat and the flu. I got in a fight every day at school for two months at one point. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
When I left New Jersey, I had a cadre of devoted friends. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, and I certainly didn’t have to figure out how to get people to like me. It’s hard enough being 13 but to be in a new environment where I had no friends was terrible. When I found the courage to open my mouth, I was either too loud or just flat out offensive.
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
It literally took me three months to figure out where to sit during lunch. I just didn’t eat or sit down. I stood in the hallway that ran along the cafeteria watching the kids at their tables eating. There were a couple of times that I actually made an attempt to sit down. But I couldn’t do it. I just walked through the cafeteria.
“It’s the same old thing as yesterday.”
Each hour of that first three months of 8th grade was excruciatingly long. I barely spoke and when a teacher caught me off guard with a question, I spoke in mumble or a whisper. After a while, even the teachers avoided my awkwardness. I was a ghost in the system.
“There’s a black hat caught in a high tree top.”
Every day I daydreamed of better things. That I wasn’t so fat. That I knew what to say. That I had some confidence about anything. That I could play the guitar. That I was back in New Jersey with people that I understood and who understood me. Texas might as well have been a different country in 1983. I knew nothing of what that meant then. No culture shock will ever compare to the move we made to Houston.
“There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop.”
On the drive to Houston from New Jersey, we only had FM radio. So we would search the dial as we left a radio station’s reach. And usually the first song that would come on the new station would be Every Breath You Take. On that 3 or 4 day trip, we must have heard that song about 10 times a day. It was played every half hour. Everyone in the car would groan every time it would come on. I was so optimistic on the drive.
“There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall.”
My brothers seemed to adjust to the move to Houston before the summer was over. They had friends across the street and around the neighborhood. I went to the pool a lot and got 3 ear infections within 6 weeks. My energy wained. I signed up for football with some optimism. Spanish sounded fun.
“There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.”
I got more and more frustrated until I was offending people I had just met. A kid that would later be my best friend was trying to get me in a fight. Truly I was so whiny that I would have wanted to beat me up as well.
“There’s a blue whale beached by a spring tide ebb.”
I waited all day for my mother to get home, but I didn’t really have any reason to see her. I hardly even talked to her. It just seemed like a good point in the day to look forward to. Some of it was the ear infections. She was a nurse, and I was in a lot of pain. One day I spent all day groaning on the floor. The pain was constant.
“There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.”
If I thought the summer was bad, school was so much worse. On top of not knowing where to sit for lunch, I realized that I really hated football in Texas. More than anything. Getting a bunch of pads on and standing around in the August heat and humidity was just stupid. So I started skipping practice which included a first period gym class replacement. So within a few days of starting 8th grade in a new town that I hoped would be a good opportunity to start over, I was skipping classes on a regular basis. I dropped football, but it took three weeks to process. So I just didn’t go to first period until I was given a new schedule.
“There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out.”
I discovered the rest of the Synchronicity album. I hated it. I wanted Sting to stop speaking to exactly what I was feeling. I listened to it way too often trying to find a way out of the maze of emotions that was my life. But I was always trapped in a dead end of rejection. Retrospectively, I realize that the biggest rejection of me was from myself.
“There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back.”
I found a table to sit at at last during lunch. It was the table where all the stoners sat in the back of the cafeteria. Nothing was going to be any different here. I didn’t speak. When I did speak, I was almost in a fight with someone at the table. I went outside with a couple of kids to smoke cigarettes after eating. They used chewing tobacco. I tried it and nearly threw up.
“There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed.”
The Police concert was coming up and the kid across the street bought a couple of tickets. Somehow my brother was supposed to get the extra ticket if he couldn’t sell it. I didn’t know this was part of the deal. So this kid asked me if I wanted to buy the ticket. It seemed like a good idea. Nothing else was going right. I bought it. Then my brother was mad at me. I tried to give him the ticket, but… Nevermind.
“There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bed.”
The show was great. The first big show I saw in Houston. As an adult and a musician, I appreciated seeing that show a lot more 10 years later. All three of them are ridiculous. Their presence on stage was gigantic. The sound flawless. And there really is nothing that sounds like the Police. All of Sting’s work after The Police is not the same. The combination of Sting with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland produced some profoundly original work. King of Pain is one of those. How do you point to a musical and lyrical influence for this song? They played together and fought and their conflict produced this.
“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”
The day after the show, I wore my shirt to school. Someone at the stoner table that was far cooler than me said, “You go to the show?” I said or whispered, “Yes.”
Cool kid, “Those fags.”
Me lying, “Well I went for free and the shirt was free.”
Consensus of cool kids at the table, “I’d see The Police for free.”
“It’s the same old thing as yesterday.”
I couldn’t believe I had lied about something that meant so much to me. But I wasn’t going to retract it either. Every day of 8th grade was just something to survive. And if it meant lying, then so be it.
“I have stood here before inside the pouring rain”
As the year wore on, I became very attached to my English class. I spent hours on the simplest writing assignments. I suppose the object was that we would be able to write a simple essay by the time we got to 9th grade.
“With the world turning circles running ’round my brain”
My English teacher, I can’t remember her name, started to speak to me more often. My mumbling and whispering couldn’t be corrected, so when she wanted to talk to me, she would wait for the rest of the class to be occupied. Then she would pull a chair up to my desk and lean in close to listen.
“I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign”
Toward the end of the year there was an assignment that was more or less a full essay. It was describing an event and how it made you feel. I couldn’t express how I felt by speaking, but it was a revelation to me that I could express myself in writing. So I wrote. And I wrote. And I re-wrote it. Then I wrote it again. And I ended up with something that wasn’t overstated or rambling. It was an easy 1000 words from an 8th grader about how painful it is to move away from everything you know to something so foreign and difficult to connect to. How everything was just out of reach and indecipherable. How every day was a heroic mission in tolerating pain and rejection. I couldn’t turn it in.
“But it’s my destiny to be the king of pain”
A week before the end of the year, the teacher pulled her chair up to my desk while the class was reading. She asked me softly whether I had written my essay. I said yes. She asked me where my essay was. I told her it was in my book. She asked for it. I slid it across to her. She sat there and read it. She forgot herself and her eyes welled up. She thanked me and got up and walked away. The next day someone from the Gifted and Talented Program came to talk to me about my essay. They published it in something that I never got a copy of, and they enrolled me in the Gifted and Talented Program for high school. I burned the essay along with the rest of my writing and music and art when I was about 16.
“I’ll always be king of pain.”
How can I possibly resolve this story except to say that I’m glad it’s over.
Justine and I lived in a one bedroom apartment on Emerson street for 3 years. We probably knew from our first date that we were going to get married and have kids. And we got married after dating for less than a year. But this apartment was sort of a magically creative time for us. We had two long heavy folding tables that had an array of computers and art supplies strewn across them. There was always some kind of media playing. Fight Club was a favorite. And the video for this song was on the internet and we played it over and over again. We couldn’t find the CD. I don’t think there was ever an American release. And even now on Amazon, the CD seems to be selling as an import collector’s item. I don’t know. I’ve never owned the CD. I just downloaded the MP3 from a questionable site because it was the only place I could find it.
She made dolls from Sculpey. Some of them were very odd and disturbing. One in particular that I remember quite clearly was a monkey. She found a dress for it somewhere. It was kind of like a clay sock puppet and it was about 16 inches tall. There was another one that I found really disturbing that was a bizarre two-headed invention of some kind. It was beautiful and horrifying, and it made her laugh. That’s what I remember most about that apartment when we lived in it together. Justine laughing and the disturbing dolls.
“Her skin is like velvet.”
I made these experimental stop action movies with plasticene models. I have never been much of a visual artist. The connection between a pencil or pen and my brain has always been rather painful. My handwriting is atrocious. But for some reason, one day I woke up and I had to make stop action animation. Digital camera technology was just taking off, and it was finally possible to get a cheap camera. We got one and my thoughts went immediately to stop action movies.
“Her face cut from stone.”
My most successful movie was of a purple head with eyes made of sculpey that moved. There wasn’t much to the movie, but I did it. I have no idea where it is now. Probably on one of the 10 hard drives I have in a box somewhere.
“Her eyes when she’s smiling. Would never reach home.”
Justine also started writing in her online journal at that apartment. Online journaling and online social networks were in their infancy. But it didn’t take long for us to have friends around Houston that we had met online. And actually, some of these very early friends are still in our life.
“But hear how she sings.”
I also started recording all of my old songs that were worth recording. This was a long project as it had to fit into work, conflicting schedules with my co-producer, Aaron Trumm, and lots of other conflicting creative obligations. Numen was a work about everything that I had written or co-written that I felt needed to be recorded along with one original song. A purging of musical thoughts and motifs that had been stuck with me for 10 years or more. Some of them had been recorded or played with other bands several times. I am so glad I got those ideas out. My ideas have now taken a totally different turn.
“Her touch would be tender.”
One night we went to the Valentine’s Day Goth pageant at #’s. Justine had been experimenting with hair extensions for months. So she used the evening as an opportunity to get glammed up in this crazy goth outfit. There were a lot of people that we knew there. The organizers wanted Justine to be in the pageant, but she wouldn’t do it. She would have won. At least I think so.
“Her lips would be warm.”
There were so many evenings that we spent about two or three feet from each other for several hours creating stuff. Sometimes she was just writing on the internet. Sometimes I was writing code for work. More often than not we had some crazy art project going. But the tables were side by side and we just spent hours together making stuff.
“But when we’re together. I’m always alone.”
And I never say it. And I don’t know why. But Justine is a great singer. Some of the songs are just a clean alto that is very sweet. Then she used to love to sing crazy Loretta Lynn songs like Fist City or You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man. Or she did all of these crazy accents and immitations that I find very comforting to think about now. Or she would do characters in stores. Or profess the magical powers of her “Shaolin Wonder Booty”, which was a deadly weapon.
“But hear how she sings.”
There was also this incredible dollar store to Ebay thing that she had going on. She would go to the dollar store, buy a bunch of stuff and sell it on Ebay for 10 times more than she paid for it. Sometimes she got it wrong and we had 50 Star Wars lollie pop spinners in a box in a closet for a while. But most of the time she hit a winner, and I would be totally baffled.
“Her skin is like velvet.”
I remember that apartment with a sort of magical quality. There were people over all the time. They would just stop by. One time, these two kids knocked on our door because they were looking for an apartment that ended up being across the street. We were making all of these things and listening to Nick Cave. The girl said, “Is that Nick Cave?” And we started talking to them. They sat around and talked and made phone calls while we tried to figure out where they were trying to go.
“So I went to her home.”
We had lots of problems but we hadn’t invested enough yet for those problems to cause us any real trouble. It wasn’t until we moved away from that apartment when Justine was pregnant that we really had to deal with ourselves. Our history would visit us and we would deal with it and move on. It was easy to do with nothing to lose. But mostly I remember that it was where we fell in love. And our soundtrack was Velvet.
“Her house like a palace.”
The important part was that we trusted that we weren’t going anywhere. We had all of the running behind us. Both of us knew exactly where all of the running gets you. It gets you right back at the starting line where you have to run the whole damn race all over again.
“With things you can’t own.”
Velvet is this anomaly for me. I had never been an A-ha fan before. But Minor Earth Major Sky somehow crawled inside of me. I never owned it. Tried to own it several times and couldn’t find it. Still don’t own it. And the ethereal nature of Velvet was the energy of the apartment. Everything sort of took place in a protective halo. The music was a metaphor for this. And the video is this morbid reflection. I’m not sure if the song meant to convey the meaning carried in the video but it works. And the metaphor worked for us too. Everything that we were before living in that apartment together died as we created a new life. A new us. We cleared a place in the clutter for us to have something of our own. Something uninfluenced by the tragedies of our time before.
“Her skin is like velvet.”
It was this clearing that we took with us and still own. Reorganizing our brains to handle daily life and the stress of success, the stress of having something to lose, was only possible because of this initial creative outburst in that apartment. Our tendency before this was to run or quit or worse. But we took a peace and faith in our persistence everywhere. To Hong Kong and back. There is something to lose now and that is way more difficult to handle. But so worth it.
When I first moved to Boston, I made a friend who was a little obsessed with his stereo. An audiophile. I didn’t have many friends. I was still extremely serious, and it took a long time for me to make friends. I don’t know whether he was particularly serious himself or if he just had a really big tolerance for seriousness. Or if he just totally ignored me. Hell I still can’t figure that out about him. So at the time, I was always in some sort of emotional crisis. It was the only way I had of relating to people. I must have been a drag.
“we’ll talk about bigger and bigger things”
Anyway, I used to go over to his house a couple days a week and we would drink coffee and talk while playing chess. One day I went over and he had some new speakers or a turntable or something. And he had this Bach organ record. So rather than sitting there for hours being heavy about nothing, we played chess and listened to this Bach organ record extremely loud. It was an apartment and I’m sure someone must have tried to complain, but we would have never known. It was simply too loud. I tried to talk a couple of times, but if I continued, I would have wasted my voice for a week.
“my oh my you are a friend indeed”
Some music should be heard really loud. And sometimes it’s not very obvious. Bach organ music is music that should be heard very loud. I’ve never been to the church that is the organ that created that particular record, but I feel like I have been there. Strangely enough I feel like this song is one of those pieces of music that should be heard very loud. Not because that’s the way it was created (the organ is a very loud instrument), but because all of the instruments have a depth that can only be heard in the recording really loud. I don’t even think a live performance of this song should be that loud. Too much distortion. But it was kind of a mistake that I listened to it so loud, and now I like it that way.
“all our puzzle pieces”
I was going to Berklee and I got home from visiting my parents one New Year’s Eve at about 11pm. I had just flown into Logan Airport. I was sick. I got all the way to the door of my building before I started looking for my keys. That’s when I realized I didn’t have my key. My roommate didn’t get off until after 2am. She worked at a bar.
“have fallen behind chairs under beds”
I followed another tenant into the building and sat with my luggage on the bottom stair in front of my first floor apartment. Being the holidays, it was unlikely that anyone was going to be coming home. So I just leaned my head against my bag on the stairs. I was fairly sick and tired from the flight. So I just about drifted off.
“it’ll take the night to sift and sort them out”
A gentle voice was shaking me carefully. It was my upstairs neighbor. She was going to New England Conservatory. Her roommate was a good friend of mine. I had tried several times to get her to go out with me. She couldn’t say ‘no’, but she never went out with me either. I told her that I was sick and locked out. She invited me upstairs to wait. She was with two guys that were her friends from out of town. They were extremely drunk and I gathered that they had been visiting for a couple days. I also gathered that she was about done with them and the whole holiday season.
“well that’s okay you can sleep here instead”
We got upstairs and she made me some tea. Her friends tried to be boisterous and yell at me about New Year’s. It wasn’t easy to motivate me in the state I was in, and they were kind of dumb in addition to being stupid drunk. There was some music playing softly somewhere. I don’t remember what it was, but it was acoustic instruments and soft vocals. I sipped tea and she told me about her lame holiday. The stupid drunks fell asleep on the floor. “Thank God,” she said softly and we both laughed.
“and oh it’s been a long time”
That particular holiday had been incredibly disconcerting. I felt like I didn’t actually need to be in Houston at all. And I felt invisible around my family. And the whole Houston thing was so distant and unlivable for me right then. Sometimes my orbit was close. Sometimes it was so far away. I was a comet in my own life. Returning from my long icy journey only sporadically. Spending most of my elliptical life far out in the lonely darkness.
“but I am a friend in need”
We went to her room and talked softly for a long time on her bed. Music school is a journey in disillusionment. Half the time we wondered what the hell we were doing but couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I thought that what she was doing at New England Conservatory made so much more sense than what we were doing at Berklee. And of course, she was envious of our exposure to modern genres. Unless you are a prodigy student in either setting, the undertone is always, “If I’m not here to learn to teach, what am I doing?” It’s only after I left school that I realized that I should have stayed as long as I could. Life is long, but some chapters come at the beginning of the book.
“i want him to know without being told”
Marla Hansen has something unique happening with this music. I want her to make more of it. She plucks her viola in this song and it’s got a very warm and dry sound. And the minimal input from other instruments breathes a lot of life into simple melodies and rhythms. On the surface it’s all sparse and sing-song. But after listening longer, there’s a lot more to the space than emptiness. Like turning a telescope onto a blank space in the sky and finding a cluster of galaxies. And sometimes when nothing happens, it’s still the perfect story.
“and why shouldn’t I”
We fell asleep on her single mattress fully clothed. I woke up feeling decidedly less serious, and now I like the song played softly. Nothing ever came of us. But that morning while I watched her sleeping, I would have gone anywhere with her. And when she woke up, she was so happy to see me. The first thing she said was, “Christmas sucked.” I agreed. Then she hugged me and cried for a while. We made breakfast and then I left her to her hungover asshole friends. The world isn’t so heavy and loud after all.
After I had a taste of counter-culture, I had a giant problem with living in my house. It seemed like there was a giant truth outside the door that didn’t play by the same rules inside. Outside there were brilliant colors or dark heavy rain. Inside there was silence and heavy cotton wads inside my ears.
This isn’t something you should know.
I don’t know whether I just have extremely sensitive ears, but for as long as I can remember, I could hear conversations that weren’t in the room. Word for word. I’m watching television and listening to my parents talking in the bedroom. I’m lying in bed. I can hear people talking as they walk down the street. I feel their footsteps a block away. When I was a teenager, I started using fans as white noise. Some static sound waves to distract my ears. This would help me sleep when I finally could sleep.
This isn’t something you should feel.
After the first concert I went to, my ears were ringing. As I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t hear anything but the steady tone of tinnitus. It was very comforting. I felt warm and safe. I slept easily which is rare for me.
They confuse themselves with fear.
After my first punk show, I could barely hear anything. I sat on the concrete against a hurricane fence listening to the tone. My friend Denton sat next to me talking. I watched his lips move. I didn’t care what he was saying. A police car drove by. The punks were milling about. Denton and I weren’t very good punks. We both had long hair. I remember the punks could be just as toothless as any redneck. “What are you guys rockers?!!?!” Holding his rock and roll fingers up. Denton was always good natured and friendly, “Yeah man. Whatever you say.” People are always trying to scare each other. The punks were succeeding in scaring the cops. The looks on their faces as they drove slowly past. This wasn’t New York City. This was downtown Houston.
It keeps you near. It keeps you near.
When you stick a bunch of words on a page, it’s like this giant commitment to meaning. There are all these things that I want to say. And my own yearning is so tied up in everything that I want to be saying. I would figure that at some point I’d catch a break. But it’s also just as likely that it will just keep coming at me hot and heavy like thick syrup in a giant water gun. I could also say there is nothing here that isn’t my own doing. My chaos is my own. My catalysts dissolve in a hail of precipitation, and I still have no idea what I am saying.
This isn’t something you need said.
But it’s always nice to think I am getting somewhere. That I am not waking up every day for nothing. That when I walk out the door I am closer to something called success. But when I look closely at the underlying philosophy of this daily assumption, the whole concept falls apart for me. What the hell is success? Why do I do anything? ‘Why’ turns into lists…
Your list gets longer every day.
Why does music turn into anything at all? It’s just a bunch of noise. That’s the beginning of my step back from the abyss. Music is meaningful a priori. But the genres and lists and the music we become attached to. Why does some music never attach to people and other music becomes a phenomenon?
Confusing love with disarray.
I made this CD before I left work of about 10 MP3’s of 10 different bands and listened to them all on the way home. I chose the MP3’s after listening to 10 second snippets. I had never heard any of them before. I had just about given up on the whole CD when this song came on. It snatched me away from wherever I had been.
It keeps you near. It keeps you near.
I wonder sometimes about all the things that I question. I seem to question the fundamentals of almost everything every day. It isn’t something I talk about every day. But it’s something that dominates my thought process. I think people would get pretty tired of me if I talked like an existential nutcase every day. But every day I am searching for meaning in everything I do. Why do I do it? Why do I get up? These are really important questions for me. These questions lead to other questions. Not answers. I am not interested in the structurural discourse of society in this internal discussion. I don’t want the concrete direct answers that society makes up and regurgitates over and over again. I want the wonder in the question itself.
To think that someone somewhere…
It’s amazing to me that people felt so uncomfortable with not having the answers that they started making them up. That we told these made up answers to each other so much and so totally that we assumed the answers were a priori. It seems obvious to me that it’s the questions and the wonder that are a priori.
said that this should begin.
All Girl Summer Fun Band is a band I really want to see live. There’s something kind of 60’s pop about their approach to punk. Like maybe a little Nico or Nancy Sinatra mixed with our hardcore with some Clash thrown in and a little hint of the Bangles. I love the abrupt changes and the timing. There is no slop here. This is a tight approach to some fast music. And then a laid back pop vocal floats on top. We are at the mercy of her questions. She doesn’t seem to need any answers. And I wonder how far from the original intention I am here. The one thing that I’ve always loved about punk is how close the philosophical context is to the aural metaphor. But the point is emphasized by the lack of gravity necessary to accomplish this state of wonder. AGSFB seem to add something new to this state of being.
This will never end.
But it also seems obvious that we would be afraid of our own wonder. Because the answerless world is infinite.
Creative failure is a constant in my life. I say this because it just happens. Real success comes with consistency. It really does. My record for a having a band together performing on a stage is something like 3 months. Just enough time to ruin some friendships for a couple of years. Some of my songs are good, but I have yet to be satisfied with a recording. I know I have some really good recordings that have disappeared with the bands I wrote them with. The artifacts missed an apartment move somewhere along the line. I have written sporadically, but it doesn’t come to much. Just another thing to become despondent about. “Oh look there’s another thing that I didn’t finish.” But I’m not unique in this. I know several people with creative talents that can’t be consistent.
But I wonder about classifying my efforts as failures. I wonder about any of us classifying these things as failures. I get up every morning and go to work. As I get older responsibilities pile on top of others. The free market system says I must work and make money, and in the free market sense of things, maybe I never really offered a product. It was incredibly hard to adjust my motivations from creative tendencies to concrete efforts to stabilize my life.
I think of it like my description of insomnia. I disciplined my mind and emotional state to stop being bitter about missing sleep. Not being bitter helps me get through the day. The day is usually dominated by responsibilities and things that I have to do like work. When I was younger, bitterness about all of the things that work was keeping me from doing might get me walking out the door. But I would just have to go find another job because I was broke. Over the years, I have disciplined myself not to be bitter about having to do things that I don’t want to do. In some cases, I have learned to enjoy the things that I have to do. But all of this kind of comes off to me like, “Boo hoo!!! I didn’t become a rock star.”
There are much worse things that can happen in your life. And the truth is I more than just enjoy providing for my family and watching my son grow up. I love going home and knowing we have another day together. It’s pretty awesome.
I also know that anything becomes just another gig. I have a friend who has been a cellist for a major orchestra for 15 years. At the time I met him, he had been with this orchestra for about 8 years. I asked him a lot of questions about his job eventually concluding that it was a pretty cool job. His reponse, “Ahhhh ya know. Eventually everything becomes just another gig.”
“One of those fucking awful black days when nothing is pleasing and everything that happens is an excuse for anger. An outlet for emotions stockpiled, an arsenal, an armor. These are the days when I hate the world, hate the rich, hate the happy, hate the complacent, the TV watchers, beer drinkers, the satisfied ones. Because I know I can be all of those little hateful things and then I hate myself for realizing that. There’s no preventative, directive or safe approach for living. We each know our own fate. We know from our youth how to be treated, how we’ll be received, how we shall end. These things don’t change. You can change your clothes, change your hairstyle, your friends, cities, continents but sooner or later your own self will always catch up. Always it waits in the wings. Ideas swirl but don’t stick. They appear but then run off like rain on the windshield. One of those rainy day car rides my head implodes, the atmosphere in this car a mirror of my skull. Wet, damp, windows dripping and misted with cold. Walls of gray. Nothing good on the radio. Not a thought in my head.”
Some days I get in the car and I just don’t want to do it another minute. No matter how good I feel about everything. And it was easy writing these things when I first started. I was unemployed. It’s easy to be inspiring when I only work at things that I’m good at. Or that I want to do. When my day consists of getting up and thinking about what I will create.
The commitments aren’t always just about diversions from a creative career. Life is just full of shit that I don’t want to do. But the truth is that I have been trying to figure out how to get all of this stuff to co-exist for 20 years. But always with the idea that in the end I would have the freedom to spend more time on creativity. Recently it occurred to me that I am getting so good at the means to my end that the end is getting in the way of my means.
It would be like trying to go to the store. The means to getting to the store is walking down the street. But along the way there are people that I don’t want to know that I am trying to get to the store, so there are these road blocks. They stop me and ask where I am going. I lie and tell them I am going to the coffee shop. They tell me the coffee shop is in the opposite direction. I go off in the opposite direction of the one I want to go.
“Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe.”
This isn’t entirely accurate because it’s just a feeling. All of us want to be somewhere else some of the time. And the truth is that more often than not, people are impressed that I have other goals. Everyone wants to do something extraordinary with their life. And from time to time, we all have the opportunity to do something extraordinary. But there’s a lot of deep valleys between those mountains, and it’s easy to be at the bottom. Going uphill is hard work. Shit rolls down hill.
I noticed something today. I was listening to the news and I became very focused on what was wrong with the world. I wanted to start another blog about politics. But then I thought about how yesterday I wasn’t interested in writing a blog about politics. The only reason I was interested in this is because I was listening to the news. The noise was deafening. It blocked out all of the appreciation I had yesterday for living. I’m not going to stop listening to the news. I’m just going to keep fighting for something transcendental.
“I know a place we can go and I’m falling. Love so hard that you wish you were ten.”
The Cribs have a lot of great songs, but today I feel like Be Safe. I was listening to the song and wondering why the spoken word guy didn’t have a British accent. Then I realized it was Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. I love how raw The Cribs make everything sound. And how a lot of their songs sound like they just thought it up and screamed it into a microphone. On the surface it all sounds like a bunch of “fuck off”. But when I listen a little longer, it’s exactly what is right. Like Lee Ranaldo is a little bit of a downer on this song with this spoken word tirade. Then The Cribs vocal comes in periodically and it’s an uplifting answer to a shitty day. And he just repeats it until it overpower all the shit.
“I know a place we can go and I’m falling. Love so hard that you wish you were ten.”
Here I am. It’s another day. The only thing different about this year and last year is that I’ve written 40,000 words in a blog about shit that I am actually thinking about rather than honing my skills of pretending to be interested in stuff that makes the world move. Money. Work. Software. Computers. Minerals. The stock market. Politics. I care. I do. But I let it kill what makes me want to live sometimes.
My ex-wife moved back to Boston and stayed with me and my friend in his house in the Fens. I was 26. We both had crappy single mattresses across the floor from each other. We had broken up ostensibly because she was a lesbian. Before she came back to Boston, I had not seen her in about 4 years. We got married really just to emancipate ourselves from our parents so we could get financial aid for college. The pull across the room was obvious. Our orbits were so close. The previous four years so rootless for both of us. So much in contrast to the 3 years we spent together.
“Build a wall of books between us in our bed.”
There was so much that was familiar. But the gulf was enormous. We had our moments where we could see what it was that brought us together, but there were also moments where we saw what it was that tore us apart. Really I guess there was nothing wrong with either of us in the malicious sense. We were just young and finding ourselves. But after four years of wandering around for both of us, the pull was there to settle back in.
“Relax into the need. We get so comfortable.”
But the pull wasn’t that strong. It was just there and we went our separate ways.
“I just want back in your head.”
I bought tickets to a Pink Floyd reunion concert in 1987 while I was dating this girl. I think we had actually camped out for the tickets or something. We went to the Cure together a few months previous to this. I think we were trying to recreate the magic of that night.
“Remember when I was so strange and likeable.”
I really liked her a lot, but we broke up before that concert. We had friends that were going to the show as well. So we just all hooked up and went to the show together. I hadn’t seen her in months. I was a depressive mess. I remember trying to reach her emotionally that night. For a time while we were dating, we communicated without speaking. There was no distance between us. We shared everything. This state probably didn’t last that long, but I missed it terribly.
“I know these habits hurt important parts of you.”
I wanted her to look at me. I had to see something in her eyes but it never happened. My heart was really broken over the whole thing.
“I just want back in your head.”
I was living in Houston and trying to get my shit together when a girl I had been broken up with for about 6 months flew in to see me. Something traumatic had happened in her new and perfect relationship. ‘Something traumatic’ is an extreme understatement. A married man had posed as a naval officer and developed a relationship with her. He explained his long absences as part of his job. Talked to her on the phone several times a week. When her father told her about his wife calling, she just took a cab to the airport and bought a plane ticket. She called me from the airport to tell me she was on her way.
“Remember when I was sweet and unexplainable.”
I imagine that the whole deception was a hair raising experience. Her immediate reaction was to get near me. I always represented some kind of safety. But we did a lot. Looking back, I think she was trying to create a wall of memories between her ‘now’ and the relationship with this guy. We did more in that month than we had for the years we had been together.
“Nothing like this person unloveable.”
It was sort of disconcerting because this was everything that we never were. It was the relationship we always thought was just around the corner. But it was this strange rebound relationship. There was too much water under the bridge. We connected like never before, but once again the timing was wrong.
“I just want back in your head.”
I love the 80’s pop feel to a lot of Tegan and Sara’s songs. This one especially reminds me of the Buggles or Kim Wilde. There’s something about where their voices are coming from that says 80’s new wave. Deep back in their throats and the inflection. The disjointed feel to the rhythm and melodies. The types of repetition. It definitely isn’t an 80’s production. It’s like a digital version. That being said it’s definitely not all about the 80’s and I might be the only one hearing this. But it’s all good pop music with good hooks and emotion. And it’s certainly a difficult subject.
“I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray.”
This song reminds me of Annie Hall. They go through all this stuff in their relationship. Their witty banter slowly crawls inside of you. Their problems are real and maddening. You think you don’t care that much about what they are going through. When the break up comes, you think, “Oh that wasn’t so bad.”
Then they meet up later and you realize that the whole movie was written from this perspective. The relationship is over. He is looking back over their relationship with a nostalgic affection. Where did it all go? The connection. The tolerance. The silent breakfast in familiar company. Being kicked in the middle of the night. Blowing in the door from a long day. The emotional lines in the sand that grew too unbearable and burdensome. The actual love. The familiarity. It’s so hard to know someone in general, but it’s so amazing that you can be so close to someone and then… not.
With the lights off, I pull the string on the mini-blind and slowly let the moonlight in. I slide the window to the left. I swing my leg over the sill. I’ve done this so many times the move is choreographed. I know exactly how to get in and out of the window with the least amount of noise. I reach back in the window and pull the string to let the mini-blind back down. And I quietly slide the window closed. Next is the 6 foot wooden fence. I step on the bottom horizontal support with my right foot. I put my left foot on the brick exterior window sill to my bedroom. I lift my right foot and put it on the top horizontal support with my right hand on the top of the fence and my left hand firmly holding onto the roof. I lightly drop into the grass into a squat. I stop and listen. A car drives past. I walk quickly walk to the right out of the cul-de-sac without looking back at the house.
I did this almost every night of my sophomore year in high school. Most of the time I had someplace to go. Some friend. One guy in particular was often up well into the morning and I would go hang out, drink Crown Royal and watch TV or work on his car. Or another friend could be counted on to be up most of the night. But sometimes there was no place to go. But I wouldn’t go back home. I have no idea why I had this need to not be at home during particular bouts of brooding depression.
“Give me your prettiest chain to wear.”
If there was nowhere to go, I had a few options. Smoke cigarettes in the cemented section of the bayou. I could lie against the concrete and stare at the sky. Maybe I was claustrophobic. Because once I was outside like this I could think more clearly.
“And a bracelet made of your finest hair.”
Insomnia claimed me very young. As early as 10 years old, I can remember lying in bed for hours staring at the door. There is only so long you can take this. There is something incredibly powerless about staring at a door in the dark. I would insist that the hall light be left on all night. My brothers thought this was because I was afraid of the dark. Really I was afraid of staring at the door in the dark. I didn’t necessarily mind the dark.
“Eagle get me a wing…”
There was an abandoned house at the end of a dead end street. Not in the wrecked sense of a house. It was just empty. Typical Houston suburban house. Just no one living in it. Cutting through the yard and hopping the fence into the Church of Latter Day Saints parking lot might shave 15 minutes off the walk to get to friends who lived on the other side of the church. After the house was empty for a few months, someone kicked a few boards out of the fence. Then we could just squeeze through. But it didn’t take long for one of us to decide to find a way into the house.
It was empty. I would go inside this house late at night by myself and just sit for hours. I could do that at home, but really that’s all I would do. Sit. It isn’t like there was something additional I could do here that I didn’t do at home. I just sat there staring at doors.
Insomnia has been a trial of discipline for me. Drugs don’t work for me. Anything that I try I eventually develop a tolerance for and then I can’t use it anymore. Exercise seems to help. But the discipline later in life has been mental and emotional. When I was 15, I might get so frustrated sitting in the dark waiting for sleep that I would punch holes in the walls. In fact, this reaction went well into my 20’s. Now I understand two things. Sitting in the dark can be an opportunity for meditation, and bitterness about lack of sleep will make you exhausted and crazy. I don’t think about how tired I am all day, but that’s an oversimplified version of what I mean. Imagine being frustrated and tired all day for years on end. Not just one or two days a week but every day. Every single day of your life… frustrated and tired. Hallucinating tired. Now imagine one day all of a sudden you don’t need the sleep you are missing. I can provide you with all kinds of explanations about what that means, but the best thing I can say to describe it is that I spent years disciplining myself to not be bitter about the sleep I am missing. And one day, I finally…
But I imagine what sitting in an abandoned house by myself might have looked like if there were a hidden camera. A 15 year old kid sitting in a house for hours smoking cigarettes. No lights. No reading materials. Nothing. I try to imagine what that must have felt like, because I don’t know. I can only assume the worst. And I can imagine that any observer would also assume the worst. I try to imagine what would happen to my heart if I were to observe my son in this state. I cannot imagine. All of the signs point to the worst kinds of mental illness. And surely I was mentally ill. Yet here I am. And maybe I am mentally ill now.
Raymond Raposa is Castanets. And some of his nomadic background sounds eerily familiar to mine. I wonder sometimes about the choices that I make or someone like Raymond Raposa makes. Wandering for years. This crazy ambient, psychadelic folk music. Because there is something disturbing about this music. What’s worse is that I find it comforting in a way. Why would we go looking for loneliness. I am not talking about being alone. But this vast American loneliness in all of Raposa’s music. You don’t express things like this without feeling it. Without staring at some doors in the dark often enough that you either need some fresh doors to stare at or no doors at all. I feel the emptiness of the highway in this song. The silence of the wind. The gigantic slumber of the thin oxygen at high altitudes. The fear and solace of standing in a clearing far from everything. The battle with self in the dawning of a new day alone. The simplicity of a day enencumbered by the demands of community. The sudden static closeness of the cloying darkness in an unfamiliar place. The experience of thousands of hours of unanswered questions of a spec of consciousness on a tiny ball of dust in a corner of a small glaxy in an infinite universe. Raposa says all this with so little. And so much…
The reverse of the trip out. Stand on the brick window sill. Lean on the wooden fence. No horizontal beams from the outside. Let my legs fall against the the fence while holding myself up by the top of the fence. I swing my left foot up onto the top of the fence. I use the brick window sill to get myself down. I squat in the yard and listen. Nothing. I go to the window and slide it open. I reach in and use the string to open the mini-blind. I crawl through the window. I get ready for bed. It’s usually 2am or 3am by this time. Maybe 4 hours of sleep before high school.
I stil have a habit as an adult of wandering in the dark. I turn off all the lights and let my senses drift into my surroundings. Once my eyes adjust, I check the windows. Then I listen. I roam the house a bit and check the doors. I watch the cars in the road out front. I listen for the usual dogs. Note the refrigerator noises. Wind chimes. Voices in the street. The shadows from the TV next door and across the street. Sometimes I can hear faint murmurs of conversations. And then with all my senses satisfied, I settle back into a pillow and stare at a door until sleep finally wins.
Moving Pictures was an album that crawled inside of me and lived for years. I was barely 11 when it came out, and it just captured my imagination. Everything about it was perfect for my time and place in the world. And this record (along with a few others) would dominate my consciousness for the last two years I lived in New Jersey. I sort of projected myself into their success.
I learned the songs on the guitar. I listened to Limelight over and over again. And for years I had a real vision of myself as growing up and becoming a rock star. It’s an easy target. I’m 12 and listening to one of the biggest rock bands of my time and imagining that I too could be a rock star. Combine this with the fact that from about the time I was 10 until I was 20 or so, almost everyone I knew was of the opinion that I was destined for great things. Friends, family, everyone that I knew really. I believed this too. Smart, talented, whatever…
Sometimes it was, “Oh you’re so smart Larry. You will go on to all these things while we sit here and make cheeseburgers.” Or it was, “You’re so talented. I’m not talented at anything. You will leave us all behind. Remember us…”
I was carefully humble about these things, but secretly I bought into my own press releases. I was it. I was going to be a rock star. I would write many volumes of heart rending literature. I would also solve some complex scientific problem. All hail Larry! My fantasy life was so rich with these stories that I forgot to go do anything but the part where the rock star becomes self destructive and delusional. I built the barriers between myself and my adoring fans.
“Cast in this unlikely role. Ill equipped to act.”
My towering success seemed so inevitable that I ignored all signs of my dismal failures. I was brooding. I didn’t like my fantasies being interrupted by details like actually doing the things that were necessary for some kind of success.
“With insufficient tact. One must put up barriers to keep oneself intact.”
And at my worst which was often, I could completely disconnect myself from reality and travel my whole day as if I was in another world. Flash bulbs in my face while my handlers cleared the way into my school.
“Living in the limelight. The universal dream. For those who wish to seem.”
I saw the definition for fantasy prone personality type about 10 years ago and thought that about summed me up. I experience my fantasies as if they are actually happening. So I have already been a rock star.
“Those who wish to be. Must put aside the alienation. Get on with the fascination.”
Wow I thought I was going somewhere else with this. Because I was really thinking about the disappointments of childhood dreams. But maybe I am this person. Maybe I do have all of that talent. Maybe I have always just been too afraid to try anything. Anxiety ruling my life and creating a rigid fantasy to control anything unknown.
“The real relation. The underlying theme.”
I think it’s fascinating that I am writing this entry, because really this is an unspoken truth behind a lot of what I am writing about. I thought about my own music and my own writing. For years, as an indie musician I wondered what it would take to make it. I know other indie musicians that get no recognition as well. So then I started thinking about all of the indie musicians. Not just people that I knew. What keeps us all Indie? Is it just some kind of crazy fantasy life that we are even making music that’s worth listening to?
Then I became fascinated with American Idol. Because here is the same phenomenon. And yes, a lot of pandemonium can be created by referencing American Idol with hard working hipster Indie musicians. They have nothing in common if you know what’s good for you. Indie musicians don’t want to be famous. They are true to their art. Wanting to be famous is not part of what being a famous Indie musician is about. If you are a successful Indie musician with a big record deal (don’t get started on contradictions here), then being famous is a nuisance.
So let me get this straight. You are supposed to get famous and rich and successful as an artist. But you aren’t supposed to want these things. I think this is a formula for making thousands of crazy Indie musicians. So we go around pretending like we are in Limelight.
“Living in the fish eye lens. In the camera eye. I have no heart to lie.”
But we aren’t. We reject fame and it’s self-centered musings. We are brooding hipsters. Told we were talented. Secretly wondering why we are still only Indie.
“I can’t pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend.”
But don’t Neil, Geddy and Alex kick ass. I know every second of this song and most people don’t need me to describe it. It has been muzak in our lives for 28 years. There isn’t a person in the the USA who hasn’t heard this song. If you hold your hand up to say you haven’t heard it, then we cue the song and you go, “Oh yeah. That song. I heard it at Target.”
But what I learned from American Idol is the sheer volume of people with this identical fantasy. We grew up with this muzak in our lives. We thought we would produce the muzak for the next generation, but something happened along the way. The playing field was levelled and now anyone can put out a record. So you can be a hard working Indie musician, but you are one of many. Up until the 80’s, there was only the cathedral of the music industry. The bazaar came in the 90’s with the internet and MP3’s.
And the fascinating thing I learned about myself from watching American Idol was how little new music I listened to. And it seemed to me that I was learning that a lot of us Indie people weren’t listening to each other’s music. We were all just too cool to be each other’s fans. And I thought of this prayer by St. Francis and I modified it a bit. “Let me seek to listen rather than be listened to.”
And then this amazing thought occurred to me while watching American Idol. No one is listening anymore. We are all just waiting for our turn to sing.
“All the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players. Performers and portrayers.”
Well I am listening now. I am not always listening to something new. But I am looking hard for those people like me that want to be heard. And I want it to be active. I will listen. Really listen. Not like I am just waiting for my turn to sing.
“Each another’s audience outside the gilded cage.”
So I will admit my rock and roll fantasy is still alive and I am nearly 40. How uncool am I? I don’t know. Try to admit your dreams, fantasies and wishes out loud and see how foolish you are… That’s what I thought.
“If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground”
There were all these kids in the mid-90’s in Albuquerque from all these different places. Most of them were punks and goths, and I have no idea how they all ended up there. But there they were with a thriving little scene. If you know anything about Albuquerque, there are very few places that you can hang out after hours. One of the places that this crew of kids liked to go was the Denny’s on Central. And really I don’t know how the staff there put up with them.
“And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound”
I would end up at this Denny’s a lot late at night. And I also knew quite a few of these kids from the music scene around Albuquerque. It’s a very small city. Basically these were a lot of kids in black with tattoos and piercings. I don’t know what it was about Albuquerque during this time (or any time maybe), but a lot of these kids turned out to be fugitives. And they were looking for trouble. Specifically they were looking for a fight and they would find fights often.
“Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys”
And one night in particular a mentally ill guy just walked into Denny’s looking for a fight. And he got one. Not even exaggerating a little bit. He walked in the door and walked up to the scariest looking guy in the place. Remember it’s full of decked out punk and goth kids, so it was probably pretty hard to choose the scariest looking kid in the place. And literally just did his best to get the guy mad enough to go out in the parking lot with him. And in the end he was being kicked by a bunch of punk and goth kids in the parking lot. And I remember the sounds and the faces. And the blood.
“And the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound
Of the low spark of high-heeled boys”
And the sickening idea that there were people at home asleep. I don’t know why that struck me more than anything.
“If the percentage your paying is too high priced”
There were people out there that were asleep. And they would wake up in the morning and take their children to school. They would go to work. They would worry about their children’s progress in school. And they would worry about the mortgage and the promises of employment and the fate of the economy.
“while you’re living beyond all your means”
They would keep their heads down and do their best to follow the rules. The rules in all of the propaganda that is drummed into us from birth.
“And the man in the suit has just bought a new car”
And what is wrong with these rules. Look at Somalia. Lawlessness just gets you a boot in the face in the parking lot of a Denny’s at 3 in the morning. Finding safety in a path to security for your family is a noble cause.
“with the profit he’s made on your dreams”
So we will all get up and have faith in this monstrosity of a system that promises us something new every day. When something goes wrong there are thousands of solutions. Thousands of causes. Thousands of people to blame.
“But today you just read that the man was shot dead
by a gun that didn’t make any noise”
While our neighbors lives collapse, we just sit and watch and wait for someone else to do something. We try to invent solutions and causes and blame. Rather than true compassion as a rule, our first reaction is always to fabricate some outrage for other people’s misfortune. I’m not talking about blaming the victim, because we are all victims of our own self-righteousness. I’m really pointing to the continuation of our cultural propaganda that there is a one … right … way.
“But it wasn’t the bullet that laid him to rest
Was the low spark of high-heeled boys”
I have this sort of irreverent idea that I would be afraid to live in an America where there were no young people experimenting with drugs. I don’t really take the War on Drugs seriously outside of the idea that it is a profit making machine. I think there are people that take it seriously, and I don’t understand them at all. I don’t use drugs. And I have hardly ever used illicit drugs as an adult. I truly don’t advocate their use at all. And I definitely don’t take the anti-prohibition people seriously. How can you? But I do think that most of our moral opposition to drugs is simply because they are against the law. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is not about drugs. But it does combine the ideas of counter culture and trying to succeed by the rules in the same motif.
“If you had just a minute to breathe
And they granted you one final wish
Would you ask for something like another chance
Or something similar as this”
We are a nation of evangelical preachers looking for the devil in everything we do. We always see the problem as somewhere outside of our reach. That the corruption is in Washington D.C. or Wall Street or Hollywood or xenophobically abroad. We never see the corruption of our own morals at the tip of our nose. We gather in groups that find a common ground of victimization and deceive ourselves into thinking we weren’t in line to receive it. That we ignored the corruption because the rules told us to keep quiet and wait our turn at the fountain.
“Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
As sure as your sorrows or joys”
And it really seems as if we have no choice in the matter. We have to live and it’s still better than lawlessness. Like some stupid Mad Max plot playing out in a Denny’s parking lot.
“And the thing that disturbs you is only the sound
Of the low spark of high-heeled boys”
There is a chaos that sort of pervades the entire history of humanity. We would like to think of ourselves as universally chosen, but I am always thinking of the massive amounts of nothingness that surround us. The vast areas of real estate on other planets and the massive energy of the billions of suns. I almost think of us as universally ignored and arrogant. The narrative of human history doesn’t really seem to play out very well as a story with causes and conditions.
There are thugs exploiting the weak on the street. And there are thugs exploiting the trust of the masses at the bank. And the lawlessness seems to be uniform when viewed from this perspective. We are just paying our protection money. But our complaints better not be too loud. Our hopes, dreams, emotions and work are all exploited for the benefit of the few. And history sort of repeats that back to us, but somehow the patriotic propaganda gives us some kind of ownership. The chaos and violence emolliate us, but we find some way for it to be a celebration of our heritage.
But there is nothing like The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Everything in the song serves the metaphor, for whatever it means. The length of the song especially. And there are these crazy solos that sort of burn the building down. It’s amazing the level of interest the band is able to maintain over eleven and a half minutes. Building it up and breaking it down. And really most of this song is just this one simple ostinato repeated over and over again. And the spiritual epic of the lyrics is really just an extenstion of what’s happening musically. I don’t think the words come off well at all sitting by themselves on a page. But with Steve Winwood singing the words over a competent collaboration of music it’s pretty powerful. And in the end there is a note of hope amid the gloom.
“And strip me of everything, including my pride
But spirit is something that no one destroys”
Maybe we are where we are. Maybe it’s not all emptiness. Maybe we are dwarfed by what we cannot see. By all that is invisible in our consciousness. Maybe something beyond us is being accomplished in that parking lot of the Denny’s at 3am. Maybe there’s a reason we get up in the morning and trust our peers to do the right thing. Maybe compulsion frees us of so many choices. Maybe the absurdity of order while chaos and violence reign is an absurdity that is measured and liberating. And maybe all of our choices lead somewhere. From our beginnings to our endings. And maybe we are a resolved motif in death. And maybe it’s good that I find all of this so disturbing and enlightening at the same time. Because there is something transcendental in a Traffic song with its allusions to fusion and the primeval necessity of counter culture and corruption.
“And the sound that I’m hearing is only the sound
Of the low spark of high-heeled boys”
And the fade in and fade out. Maybe the world doesn’t just end with a whimper but begins with one as well. This is the way the world begins. Not with a bang but a whimper. For thine is the chaotic beauty of a Traffic song.
Being a human being is very complicated. I know exactly what I want to say about this song, but I instantly hear every argument against it. And all of these points of view are just as valid. We are all humans and we make mistakes. And we inherit all of these problems from our parents. Even if they are just behavioral or environmental problems. But as soon as we have our own children (if we choose to have children), then all of those problems that we inherit end up having a much sharper focus in our lives.
But sometimes, the mistakes of our parents are just too much to bear. And sometimes there is no satisfaction to be had in confrontation. There are some disappointments and betrayals that leave a black mark on our souls. And there is no erasing that mark. If you have such a mark, it takes a long time to understand that not everyone you come into contact with can see it. But it’s also useless to talk about it sometimes. There’s only so many times that you can rehash the same story over and over. Especially when the re-telling only leads to more disappointments and betrayal. Sometimes the new hurt comes from the listener as broken people have a lot of expectations about how a listener reacts to these revelations.
It’s just endless.
“You named me judge the day that I was born.”
I have a really hard time writing in a third person omniscient voice. This seems to limit the amount of narrative I can confer. Long stories make a lot assumptions about the nature of thought and emotion that are misleading and oversimplified. All of life is lived from my own perpspective. And third person omniscient point of view can make whatever assumptions about the character’s motivations and develop an entire narrative around one assumption leading to another assumption.
“You asked too much to fix what you had torn.”
Memories are filtered through the fog of developing sentience. It’s almost as if children evolve right before our eyes. So all of the tragedies of childhood are hazy. All of the observations are re-interpreted with an adult thought process. And all disappointment and betrayal is hard to decipher.
“Things got out of hand. Now I understand.”
Most of the time, we are all really doing the best we can do. I really know this more than ever right now. As a parent, you do the best you can do and you still screw it up. But I do know that there are some things that I find unconscionable, and I can’t imagine ever putting my children in these positions. And some of that opinion has developed out of being placed in those situations.
“And I’m out of your range. Now it’s kind of strange. How we change orbit in our lives.”
And in my story, there are convenient packages where we contain devices of truce. This allows for civil interaction. And some genuine love and affection. But in another fiction there is real lifelong pain and a betrayal that runs so deep that its resurfacing is inevitable. It’s always there. And it’s always troubling.
“You were kind of the moon outside of my room. I could just feel you nearby.”
Really there is no describing these marks. And whether or not we have our devices to contain them, we can become the sum total of our wounds. And there is so much hope with a new life. But the reality of the human condition leaves almost no alternative to betraying our children.
“Now I feel you gone.”
It’s almost essential in the individuation process. And it breaks my heart into so many pieces.
“Cause I know which side you’re on. And it’s not mine.”
Sometimes I really didn’t feel like I belonged in my family. There seemed to be a genuine disconnect where I somehow turned out just different enough from them that I couldn’t ever get real understanding. My mother can admit as much as this now. It’s one of our packages. And it’s convenient and it works. But it doesn’t do anything to erase the black mark on my soul.
“I walk the line between now and then. It’s deep sea diving with no oxygen.”
And I really don’t know how to tie this story together. And the agonizing part is that I can’t control how it turns out with a bunch of assumptions based on my third person omniscient voice. I can’t control even my own motivation. I can’t turn my own fiction into a truth. And I can’t turn my own truth into a fiction. But I can sort of toy with the concept like it’s a poem. I show you this side and that side. I turn it over and I observe it over and over again, and it never turns into a nice package that I can hand back to you and rest my case. It’s just a lot of beautiful words about something I don’t quite understand.
“I went somewhere to hide. Far behind my eyes.”
And there is this fantasy that somehow everything will just straighten out. Maybe someone will come along and say the right thing. Or just be what is necessary. But the fantasy just gets us further and further away from reality. And this fantasy can get dangerous. How do we find ourselves when we have hidden ourselves so well?
“I willed you there to see. But you never came for me.”
I love the meandering melodies in the verses. And then the chorus melody just sort of cascades through to a conclusion. And there is a nice feel to the whole thing. Somewhere between folk, pop, rock and island music. The second guitar sort of wanders all over the structure creating these harmonies and textures with subtle effects and breathy tones. So sweet and floating. And there feels like there will be some universal release from our pain when it’s all over. But it’s just the same conclusion we come to over and over.
“And it’s not mine. And it’s not mine. And it’s not mine.”
Lately I have found this blog to be incredibly satisfying. But in that satisfaction, I find myself at a crossroads. And while it may take me a while to get to my point, I think this is a common theme of my entries. I have a point, but there is no way I can go straight for it. In this case, I have to announce at the beginning that I am at once completely satisfied and ready to stop writing completely.
It’s late and I’ve had a long day. I was looking for something easy to write about. I got a couple of easy suggestions, but I wasn’t feeling either of them. Mainly I can’t feel those things because they are so removed from where I am right now. Sometimes I can just push through that and get it done but not tonight.
Then I thought about an easy story to write about. Pick a Black Flag song and write about the Black Flag show I went to when I was between 13 and 15. I can’t remember the name of the club. I want to say it was the Cabaret Voltaire in Houston and the year was 1984, but I can’t be sure. I didn’t know who Black Flag was really. I also didn’t know I was going to a Black Flag show. This was pretty common for me at the time. Anyway, it’s a pretty canned story. I was in crowded club that was not very big. It was Houston summer hot and I was on drugs and probably had not slept for a long time. I’m pretty sure I had also skated into town on my skateboard. Maybe a 15 mile trip.
Black Flag took the stage and I had been inside the club for a few hours already. It filled up and I was pressed against a wall far from the door but close to the stage. The place was hopping, but a few songs in, I was overheated and dehydrated. One of the songs was ending and I started to pass out. An altercation was starting in front of the stage. Henry Rollins was dealing with this in some way. Maybe he was part of the altercation as he often was. But I was drifting in and out as this was going on. After a while, I opened my eyes and saw Henry Rollins looking at me and he pointed at me saying, “Hey get that kid out of here!”
The crowd lifted me up and passed me to the door. I could feel the cool air as they set me down in front of the open door. It was summer and it never gets cool in the summer in Houston, even at night. So it must have been very hot inside.
As I contemplated which Black Flag song would be the soundtrack to this anecdote, I was getting really angry. I couldn’t think of a Black Flag song that I would have heard at that show. Then I realized that I never owned a Black Flag record. Then it occurred to me that I never liked Black Flag. I don’t much like Henry Rollins either. I kind of hate the ‘rage’ style even though I have been known to have rage problems. I feel like Henry Rollins has been an advocate of just creating more anger. It isn’t a release or ctharsis. It’s anger for the sake of anger.
“There are those who understand that long before this all began, a hammer hit a nail with great sympathy.”
So I gave up on the Black Flag song and I went and looked at the Bishop Allen site for the 20th time this week. And I started listening to songs that weren’t officially released yet. As this song played, I realized that I really wanted to write about this song.
“And strings that bowed in concert make a symphony.”
But I couldn’t think of what I would write about The Ancient Common Sense of Things. And I became more despondent. I really just need to go to bed. And then I thought about what it felt like to be pushed along the top of that crowd. I can feel the cool air approaching.
“Oh oh oh… the ancient common sense of things.”
Then I understood my problem. I was trying to write about a song that meant nothing to me because I happened to have an interesting experience at a Black Flag show. I don’t want to write about Black Flag. It means nothing to me. The emotions I had on top of that crowd had more to do with Bishop Allen than Black Flag.
“There are those who know to look in all the crannies and the nooks. And when I found you dear what it meant to me.”
I am a young teenager on top of a crowd of angry punks who are about to have a giant fight. I have heat exhaustion and I’m dehydrated. Henry Rollins just directly addressed me. He will be a legend. The noise disappears and my eyes focus on a heart on the ceiling that someone drew with a red marker with some names and a plus sign between them. And suddenly 25 years later everything is clear to me. I hate Black Flag. I hate Black Flag almost as much as Black Flag hates Black Flag. Almost as much as they will hate talking about Black Flag 20 years from then.
“My heart is pounding loud just like a tympany.”
For years I will do my best to self-destruct. I will succeed on an enormous scale at that particular endeavor repeatedly. And now I will have written about an interesting story without having to associate it with a song I hate. But with a song that really makes me happy. Almost as happy as I was on top of that crowd knowing that the noise and confusion and overwhelming heat were about to be over. As happy as I was looking at that heart knowing that someday I would feel as connected to someone as I do to my wife.
“oh oh the ancient common sense of things.”
And I can see that while Henry Rollins and Black Flag represent to me this machine that generates bad will and anger over nothing. This may not actually be who they are or how most people experience them. But at the time, I was 14 or something, and I was so angry. And I didn’t want to be at that show. Or I wanted to be in that building, but I wanted all of the redneck punks to be gone. The invasion of the urban punk scene by white suburban hate killed punk rock. Within a few years, you wouldn’t be able to put on suspenders or shoelaces without worrying about what it meant about your politics. Somehow I blame Black Flag for this.
But Bishop Allen represents this simplicity and gratitude. And the Ancient Common Sense of Things is this sort of simplified explanation for where I’m at overall right now. But I also think it’s got a bold statement in its lack of solicitude. It doesn’t sweat the small stuff. No distortion. Well arranged harmonies. The non-pretentious approach to simple wisdom. I love how the overall sound has a carefully muted attentiveness. And the entire musical motif leaves me feeling too light, floating on top of a sea of compassionate hands on the way to the cool air of the outdoors. The muted safety in stark contrast to the hard attitudes surrounding me. This peace in the midst of noise and haste.
During a particularly purple time in my life where the world had a sort of grayish twilight feel to it, I drove between Houston and Albuquerque about two or three times a month. I thought it was a girl in Houston. And some of it was, but the girl was a lesbian. She still is. And we were in love. But only in the sense that we were in love with being in love. If we weren’t living in a purple twilight, we would have seen how ridiculous we were.
“Picking up sound on the interstate. I am my breath letting in waves.”
I worked the night shift in Albuquerque at a residential treatment facility for disabled people. This meant that I was up all night watching cable and standing outside watching the sky while the residents slept. I only worked 3 days a week. I hardly saw the residents at all. When I left in the morning, I couldn’t ever make myself go straight home. I drove out to the volcanoes on the west side of town to watch the sun come up.
“There will be a time when the sleep I’m in.”
I have always thought that living across the street from the nice house was better than living in the nice house. That way when I open the curtains in the living room, the view is of the nice house across the street rather than the plain house I live in. I felt this way about the volcanoes in Albuquerque. The big tourist trap is the Sandia Mountains on the east end of town, but the view from the Sandias is really flat and opaque. It’s just really high. The view from the volcanoes is the giant red faced cliffs of the Sandias. There is hardly ever anyone there.
“Covers me whole. Covers me thin.”
I have a great admiration for people that write long narratives, because I think like a songwriter. All of my memories are jumbled in metaphors and the timeline is inconsistant. Things that haven’t happened yet always make it into the story. When relating past events, references to people that weren’t around at the time keep surfacing. My observations are imbued with impossible hues and salient contradictions.
“I know I’ll wake up old. Forgetting which box this is in.”
And then I am in West Texas somewhere. Not the I-10 West Texas, but closer to Lubbock. It’s a long drive and I had to stop somewhere. I always liked stopping in tiny picnic areas in the middle of the night. I would lie on a picnic table and watch the sky. Fantasizing about the way things ought to be in my purple twilight.
“How I will keep you. Just how I left you.”
Or maybe I would stop in the desert just east of Roswell in the desert moonscape. Nothing is real. In the moonlight, you can hardly see your feet on the ground. And there is so much alive and moving just beyond the ring of violet dust.
“My daughter once told me I know a lot.”
And all of those long nights, I would have long discussions with my children just out of sight in the backseat. I would tell them about everything in my purple twilight. Covering my words with incongruous sheets of wisdom. I could hear their breathing. I couldn’t ever tell if they were listening. I loved them so much it hurt. They weren’t there yet.
“It made me feel fine. Made me feel quiet.”
I could have driven forever. But mostly the destinations on both ends of this trip were a fantasy. And really anyone that knew me during this particular period of my life might be able to verify that this is exactly the way it happened. But mostly they’d be lying, because I didn’t really tell anyone anything. I talked a lot. But I don’t think there are words…
“If you said it right. Instead of painting words white.”
The instrumentation is so beautiful. The lonely drums with brushes and hardly any metal. Just a lot of dry scratchy coughs. The guitar in a simple strum with the strings pulling every ounce of sentimentality from the lyrics. And I love vibraphones. There is something very satisfying in the sound of the stereo unison vocal. And the harmonic combination and timbres of the vibraphone, vocal and strings in the chorus melody is my purple twilight.
Or is it our purple twilight? Did we ever share that light? Or did I just make up all my own colors in my own palette? Repainting my one canvas in the thousands of miles I drove.
“How I will keep you. Just how I left you.”
You’d think that our lives would have some kind of consistent narrative. But we always make up the story to end as if it were for the best. And maybe that’s true. But we always seem to remember a place mostly for the reasons we left it. Maybe we do the same when we leave people too. Forgetting all of the magic in a glance. Conversations we never wanted to end. All of the playful anticipation of life in the act of discovery. Where does it all go?
Don’t wake up. I never want to miss this purple twilight. The muted grays of dawn. The peripheral absolute black of the stars. The warm glow of faces I have been waiting to see. The long conversations about subjects not worth remembering. How everything was perfect and right.
By the time I heard the Dead Kennedys for the first time, I had already seen a couple of local punk bands playing somewhere in Houston. So it’s sort of interesting for me to note that my first real exposure to punk rock was on a local live scene. No one that knew had Sex Pistols or Dead Kennedys records. I didn’t know who they were.
But I can say that really punk just seemed like noise to me until I heard this song. I didn’t really get it. The whole intentionally sounding disjointed and almost bad was something that I couldn’t stomach. I was only 13, so the idea of sound as artistic metaphor was fairly removed from my white suburban outlook on the world. And I was a couple years into playing the guitar at this point and my motivations for playing the guitar had everything to do with the guitar gods of the 70’s. So the onslaught of noise and deliberate debasement of music was something I found rather insulting.
Then I heard Holiday in Cambodia. I think it was my friend Spong who was in a punk band and a couple of years older than me that played the record. And it’s likely that he played it over and over again until I heard. Until I suddenly had to know what Jello Biafra was saying.
As a kid, I was unusually politically aware. I don’t remember seeing anything on television around the Watergate scandal. I was only 4 when that happened. But I do remember people talking about it. And I remember the end of the Vietnam War. The last of the American troops left Vietnam in 1975 or 1976. John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought ads on billboards welcoming the troops home. And I remember the election of 1980. I was 10. I dreaded the inevitable election of Reagan. Then John Lennon was killed and Reagan was shot. We moved to Houston.
The state of the world seemed so unfair and cruel. Nothing in popular media seemed to acknowledge this as the truth of the human condition. I found this very confusing. Even liberal ideology seemed misguided to me. More about self than it’s advertised selflessness. The Cold War seemed misrepresented, and while I wanted to be patriotic having been interested in the founding of the country, I found the contradictions hard to ignore.
The Dead Kennedys were a revelation to me. Here they were with this deliberately offensive name delivering this cynical message that seemed more realistic than some hippie fantasy.
“So you been to school for a year or two, and you know you’ve seen it all.”
Where was the peace? There were only power vacuums and powerful players trying to exploit the helpless.
“It’s time to taste what you most fear.”
Even today listening to this song, I get in touch with my own foolishness in my faith in progress. The assumption that our leaders are well-intentioned and the powerful are benevolent is misguided but pummelled into us with propaganda from the moment we are born.
“It’s a holiday in Cambodia. It’s tough kid, but it’s life.”
How is it so easy for us to recognize the propaganda in other cultures but so hard for us to see it in our own culture? So hard for us to see us creating our own propaganda to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing? We get older and we do our best to justify our position in the world. Whether it’s on top or on the bottom, we spend a whole lot of time creating the propaganda of our own self-righteousness.
“You’re a star belly sneech. You suck like a leach.”
How is it so hard to see that we are set against each other to keep the focus off of the people that are really causing the problems?
“Kiss ass while you bitch. So you can get rich. But your boss gets richer off you.”
And fast forward 30 plus years to the members of the Dead Kennedys suing Jello Biafra in court. All of them in court with lawyers suing each other. It was some kind of terrible joke on all of us. The members of the Dead Kennedys in court suing each other. Fuck you! Fuck all of you! You weren’t supposed to grow up and become part of the same system that exploits me. The same system that I grew up enough to use to exploit other people.
“It’s a holiday in Cambodia. Where you’ll do what you’re told.”
I better get my propaganda machine cranked up. I don’t know how we’re going to justify this one to ourselves.
Instrumental jazz has played a huge part in my life, but I have had a hard time finding a way to start writing about it in this blog. So far I have written about what I as rock/pop music, mostly with lyrics. There is something sort of sacreligious in writing about Miles Davis in the same blog that I have written about Coldplay. But this is my blog and it’s sort of unconventional anyway.
I bought Kind of Blue in 1988. I owned other jazz records, and they were part of the soundtrack of my life. But Kind of Blue stayed in the cassette player in my car for a couple months. So one day on my way to work, So What started and I actually heard what was going on with my tiny ears. And suddenly my place in the musical world was defined in a way that I had never considered before. Here was musical genius to which I could only aspire. I was never really going to be this type of musician. Not in the sense of being a jazz musician, but in the sense that I was never going to change the world with my revolutionary guitar tonality and style.
My contemplation of So What, which involved my rewinding the cassette over and over in my car ended with me realizing that I was sitting in the parking lot at work. I was probably going to be late to work anyway, but I had been sitting in my car for a while. Now I was going to be very late.
Although I knew that I was never going to attain this level of mastery, I knew from that moment that I wanted to study music. I started the wheels in motion that winter to get myself to Boston to go to school at Berklee. My interest in going to a music school had everything to do with knowing that I would never master it. Not that I wasn’t a decent songwriter and guitar player. There are a lot of things that I am good at. And there are a lot of things that I have a natural talent for. Music is not one of those things. I was really just too damn stubborn to accept that I wasn’t any good. So I kept getting better. But further than that, I knew that I would never master everything about music. The levels of complexity are enormous even if you only consider the 12 tone scale.
And really I don’t know what it is for this particular song that makes it so significant. Some part of the attitude and delivery from these guys says that they had no sense of who they were yet. They were all strong musicians. They knew that. The jazz world knew that. But after there is Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly and rest of them before Kind of Blue. And then there is all of these guys after Kind of Blue. And it seems very much like after they did this record, they all became very comfortable with their place in the world of musical giants. Like, “Hey I don’t know if this is a good idea or not. Wait a minute. I’m Miles Davis. Of course it’s a good idea.”
So there’s this crossroads represented by Kind of Blue. At least in my understanding of jazz history. But sitting in a car in 1988 and realizing that there was a mountain of musical expression to climb was a humbling revelation. And coming to terms with the idea that this was a moment that sort of lives beyond time is a lifelong battle. Here is a single person hearing the tip of the iceberg for the first time when the song is a part of the American sountrack. Most people can go their whole lives and never hear the significance. But for all time, this particular moment in time is frozen for anyone to experience. And I guess that is the staggering part of the story for me. I could have gone my entire life and missed it.
The only time I have been suicidal for any length of time was the winter of 1992 and 1993. I was working as a bureaucrat and trying to put something together musically. But really I was just too depressed. I lived in Brighton and commuted to the South Shore in Quincy and later to Braintree after the company moved our office. I bought a car at some point in 1992. And I moved from my long time apartment across the street from Berklee. I thought I wanted out of the environment right there in the college campus area, but I think it was a huge mistake. I was also getting over a relationship of a couple years.
During that winter of 92/93, it seemed to snow every day. I had never had to drive to work in the snow. Getting up every morning to shovel snow and scrape ice off of the car before I had taken a shower or drank any coffee… That was rude. And I thought I knew traffic hell in Houston. And truly, Houston’s traffic is bad. But Boston’s traffic is just way more depressing. There is only one way from west of Boston to the South Shore. That is right through downtown Boston. Yes, there are other ways. It’s just going to take 3 times longer.
Now these are all just circumstances. And I don’t want to make it seem like I was depressed because of the circumstances of my life. This is one of the lessons I learned that winter. Depression is commonly attributed to life circumstances, and to some extent it really is. But relative to starving in a poor developing world country village, it’s hard to imagine circumstances being that depressing. My circumstances of depression had more to do with what I wanted to do with my life. I certainly didn’t want to be a beaurocrat. I certainly didn’t want to live in Brighton. I didn’t want to be alone.
“If I should fall, would you swallow me deep inside?”
I suppose really most of the true depression in my life has been about trying to find some meaning in my life. I have since decided that all meaning is made up. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all meaning is meaningless. It just means that you can make anything mean almost anything you want it to mean.
“Thought that I could get along, but here in this water, my feet won’t touch the ground.”
Relative to this line of thought, I couldn’t make anything mean anything during this particular period of my life.
“River deep, can you lift up and carry me?”
Really the idealism of youth is something to encourage. But it’s demise is crushing.
“Letting go, it’s so hard, the way it’s hurting now to get this stuff untied.”
I was a stranger in a strange land. I had friends. Life long friends. And really all of us were having our struggles. Many of them were similar. What do you do with your life? Not in the 30 minute episodic nature of a sitcom. But in the real sense of reconciling the dreams of youth with the reality of your 20’s.
Driving along the tollway every morning and then south away from Boston with a mixture of ice, water and the sand they spread on the streets coloring my windshield in my piece of crap car with no real heat to speak of was unspeakably gray. Happier music seemed so lost and empty. The other cars were miles away. The hardness of the tollway employees was white and clenched. And there is a lot of humor in telling stories like this as I get older, but at the time, the only thing carrying me up and down that freeway was a little music and the idea that somehow I was going to get out of this particular phase of my life.
“Bring me something that will let me get to sleep.”
This particular Peter Gabriel album was something that I made deeply meaningful in my life. I couldn’t afford therapy at the time which I probably really needed. I knew that the songs were about Peter Gabriel’s therapy sessions, so I just sort of created my own ctharsis around his descriptions of the therapy that he could afford. You do what you have to do.
“In the washing of the water, will you take it all away.”
I love this particular song as being completely out of character for Peter Gabriel. Rather than the elaborate arrangements and perplexing metaphors, here is the truth in a simple approach to the agony of breakups. When all the words are gone and all the fanfare and noise of your day is gone, you are left with yourself and your simple truths. Every single one of us. From the poor to the rich.
Ume took the stage around midnight. They were tight and well rehearsed and there was something new and crisp about all of their delivery. The new songs were great to see played onstage. There’s something about seeing the live version of any song that gives it some other meaning. I am always amazed at how much sound is coming off the stage in an Ume show.
Lauren Larson’s performance is sort of mind boggling. I’m a guitarist/singer/songwriter and a lot of the time when I am singing and playing at the same time, I feel like there is a meat cleaver wedged between the hemispheres of my brain. Watching Lauren Larson play gives me the same feeling and I’m not even playing. She has a lot of complicated leads and effects going on with the guitar. Then she has demanded a complex tonality with her vocal delivery ranging from a growl to screaming and then a lot of whispering. All of the voices are necessary to deliver these songs on stage and in the studio.
Jeff Barrera is a beast on the drums. He’s a big guy, he keeps his drum kit really low and he beats the kit like he’s trying to kill it. He works up a sweat and really it’s not overdone. The songs and the entire tonal aesthetic sort of demand this performance.
Eric Larson kind of holds the ship together. With Jeff and Lauren giving these virtuoso performances, I’m sure there is a pull to let it loose on the bass. Eric has a disciplined approach to playing with all that’s going on. He shines in his moments as well, but it’s a really tough job pulling it all together from his corner of the stage. Everything he does makes all the other sound make sense.
The only thing that I couldn’t figure out was why the sound guy couldn’t stop the feedback in the monitors and the main mix coming off the stage. It wasn’t happening the whole time which makes me think he was tinkering. Live sound is a tough job and I would think that doing live sound for Ume has got to be challenging. Everyone on stage has an enormous dynamic range. It sounded good, but I wanted it to sound better.
All I could think about was how much work it takes to do what Ume does. The writing, rehearsing, recording and promoting. Driving up and down freeways to get to shows with questionable turnout for very little monetarily. All this while holding down regular jobs of some sort to pay the rent. I know this mill very well. Sometimes it can suck, and you start to wonder if you are reaching anyone. Maybe this doesn’t occur to the members of Ume at all. But if it does, I want them all to know that their work is appreciated. I bought the new EP last night. I could have waited and bought it online and paid the shipping, but I know there is a little bit of satisfaction in finishing a show and selling someone a CD. I also know that it’s tough to drive 150 miles to another town and barely cover your gas money.
We aren’t supposed to acknowledge these parts of a working band, but as my blog should make clear, I’m not a critic. I’m a musician. I think that the appreciation of music should ackowledge all of the hard work that goes into it. Somehow there is this idea that a band just appears on stage and they have a good time and then they move on to their next good time. I don’t know what level of industry backing finally makes this fantasy possible, but at the level of a $6 cover for three bands at Walters on Washington, $6 for a self-produced EP and no venture capital marketing budget, you are paying to entertain people.
And then to pull off the show that Ume pulled off. Damn. My hat is off to all of you. Thanks for coming down and blowing the doors off of Walters.
I credit my father with my earliest exposure to Johnny Cash. And whenever I hear this song, I end up thinking of him and wrestling with how I feel about him. Because this song makes me feel a genuine affection for him that I don’t normally feel. And something about Johnny Cash’s history and his own problems with the demons of alcohol and drug addiction establishes some kind of crossover connection between my father and myself that leaves me with all of these contradictions.
My father was not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I used to kind of think of him that way when I was much younger, and perhaps he had his days of excesses. But I was definitely not a witness to that. If getting home every day and having a few beers is an alcoholic then I guess there are a lot of alcoholics. My father’s response to everything was to get mad. At least that’s the way I remember it. So when I was in treatment for depression and drug addiction, his response from 2000 miles away and no real contact for a couple years was to get angry. His disapproval mirrored my own of him. I was trying so hard not to be him that my only option was to become him.
I don’t give my father much credit for who I’ve become today. But as I get older, I really relate to a lot of my father’s traits that I would have considered to be defects. He really had a problem with not being able to tolerate people he considered to be idiots. His self-righteousness could be so vehement that he could tip the scales toward making himself wrong in the ferocity of his passion alone. It wasn’t always rage, but that was a trait as well. It seems that I am following his path there as well. He told me once in one of our rare telephone conversations after I had become an adult, “I just don’t get angry anymore.”
And really that is some good advice. It doesn’t really accomplish much. And I can see other areas that I followed his path. I am very generous with my time and expertise. I like doing things with kids. Doesn’t matter if they are my kids or not. My father coached a Little League baseball team when he didn’t have any kids on the team. But one of the biggest influences that he has had on me was music. Specifically 50’s music and Johnn Cash.
Now whenever I hear this song, I can hear my father singing it. I can see the look on his face. He had that same deep baritone voice that I seem to have inherited. His speaking voice slightly vibrated the walls. His yell was like a physical blow. My wife complains that my speaking voice will keep her up from the other side of the house. She can’t hear it, but she can feel it.
The thing I am missing in listening to this song as an mp3 is the static crackling from the stylus on the record player. I can see the heavy brown carpet in the living room. The strange 60’s panelling. The windows open. The sun coming in from this giant window in the front of the house. Maybe it was not giant, everything is bigger in a memory of childhood because you are so small and the world is so big. I remember my father as this hulking figure that had to duck through doorways. I know he was only about 6 feet tall.
It’s funny how I can be so affected by this song. It’s definitely a country song. Like out in the country. My existence has always been more suburban or urban. I never lived anywhere this rural. I know my father didn’t either. I wonder if his affection for things like this was inherited from his father who definitely had some more rural roots. At least from what I know of my grandfather, his roots would be more rural. Desert rural.
Everything I remember about my father is shadows and fog. And while I was having a tough time in life, it was easy to give my father credit for influencing all of those troubles. Now that I am having a better time of it, and I have a son of the same age as I was when my father was still around, maybe it’s time to remember some of the good things about him. I love Johnny Cash. I mean who doesn’t? But I am so grateful that I have Five Feet High and Rising on general rotation in my head because I heard it when I was so young. I guess he isn’t such a bad guy.
I love how relaxed Johnny Cash’s voice in this song. I love how he just writes a song and sings it. I really want to be so much more like Johnny Cash. Post drug addiction of course. As he aged, his sense of wonder was reflected in everything he did. I could be so fortunate as to emulate this. And there is this sort of relaxed irony in the music and lyrics. They are talking about a flood here. No one is relaxed while the water is covering everything they own. It’s this larger metaphor for everything. Look around you.
“How high’s the water mama? It’s 3 feet high and rising.”
Not a damn thing you can do about it. It’s gonna rise as much as it rises. If it rises too much, then we are going to swim or grab something that floats. “Five feet high and rising.”
In April of 1987, I went to treatment for depression and drug addiction. I spent a few months in psychiatric intensive care, which was enlightening. Let’s just say I needed to be there. Then when I was no longer a huge risk, they sent me over to the adult unit. I was the only 17 year old sent to the adult unit. My history was determined to be a risk to the adolescent units.
By the time I made it to the adult unit, I had a full beard and crazy hair. I had the beard because in a psyche ward, every time you want to shave, they get a psyche aid to bring you your razor and watch you shave in the metal mirror. Everyone is assumed to be a suicide risk. You are in a psychiatric ward! What do you expect? Well, I really couldn’t handle it. For some reason, I was okay with every other invasion of my privacy. The hourly checks while in my room sleeping. Sharing a room. Having to get my vitals checked every morning before breakfast. But I just couldn’t handle having someone watch me while shaving.
So I kept that beard for months. There were a lot of people in that ward that were young adults. I call it ‘the treatment binge of the 80’s’. It took a long time for the girls to warm up to me, but I made a lot of friends. Eventually the girls would talk to me. And I guess I got over myself about the beard after about 3 months in there, and I finally shaved. Suddenly everyone told me about how I looked like an ax murderer with the beard. And the girls were a lot friendlier.
As the time for release would near, a patient would be given more freedom with the outside world. First you would have a pass to spend the day with your family. They could come pick you up and drop you off. Eventually, they would let you out on your own to venture into the world and come back in the evening or after a few hours. This gave patients the opportunity to try out the world to see if they were ready. In the case of the young adults, if your nearing release time coincided with another person’s nearing release time, then you spent a lot of time with that person.
In my case, it was one of the girls that had been afraid of me when I first came over. We would go to meetings together and she would describe how incredibly scary I looked. I can imagine what I must have looked like to other people, because my turn around on seeing who I was and what I was doing with my life was a few weeks before I shaved. I looked in the mirror and actually saw myself. What I saw was something like Alice Cooper in all his makeup.
This girl and I became very close. She was only a year older than me. I didn’t have a car. She had a tiny yellow convertible MG. Put two lonely messed up young people together and what do you get? You get crazy messed up romance. We arranged all of our individual and meeting passes together. We were inseparable. And we had an incredibly good time. I was really smitten with her. She was all the fun I didn’t have being a young person. She dragged me to the beach, to her college campus, meetings, her family’s house, my family’s house, Beaumont, Huntsville…
I never really had that much fun being young. I was always too serious and way too serious about the trouble I got into. She broke my seriousness up and never let it drag her down. I was always crazy anxious at all of the new and normal experiences I was having with her, but I did it anyway. ‘Normal’? That’s pretty funny. We were having a relationship while locked up in a psyche ward. That should tell you everything you need to know about who I am right there.
So The Cure was coming to town and she was a big Cure fan. I was a Cure fan too. But not in the sense that she was. I really liked them and I had a lot of goth friends from high school, but I was always a punk. So I didn’t buy their albums or wait for their live appearances. She saw that they were coming and went nuts about it. She insisted that we had to go get passes to go out the night of the show and buy tickets and go to it. In fact, she was all legit about it too. We weren’t going to get passes for a meeting and go to the show. We were going to ask our treatment teams for passes to go to the show. Remarkably they let us have these passes.
And this is where this song should be cued, because the video that I have in my head for this song is what I am about to describe. Edited into small 2 second clips like a video.
The day before the show, I was sitting in the recreation room smoking cigarettes. She was taking a nap in her room. I was sitting next to an older adult, probably in his 40’s. He was reading the paper. He turned to me and pointed at an ad in the paper, “Aren’t you going to this show tonight?”
“No it’s tomorrow night.”
He said, “No it’s tonight. See.”
He was right. It was that night and it was already about 6pm. We weren’t going to make it, but I had to tell her. So I went down to her room and woke her up. Being in her room was a big no no. But I knew she was going to freak. And she did. We didn’t even have meeting passes for that night. If we had the nurse’s station call our doctors and request passes, there was the real possibility that they would either say ‘no’ or give permission for the pass too late. So we just walked out. I don’t remember how we got her keys, because they take those from you when you come back in. But I do remember that we just followed people through locked doors. In one case, there was a psyche aide who just assumed we had a pass and held the door open for us.
“You’re so gorgeous I’ll do anything!”
We got in the car and she drove like a maniac.
“I’ll kiss you from your feet to where your head begins.”
We didn’t have tickets. I don’t remember what our plan was for buying tickets the next night, but I couldn’t imagine where we thought we were going to get tickets that night. We just drove to the Houston Coliseum.
“You make me. Make me hungry again.”
When we got downtown, we parked on the street somewhere and ran to the Coliseum. We happened to come up to the back stage entrance where the tour buses were.
“I’ll run around in circles. Til I run out of breath.”
We asked the first person we saw where the ticket office was. He didn’t know and told us that he thought the show might be sold out.
“I’ll eat you all up. Or I’ll just hug you to death.”
You have to understand. I was 17 and she was 18. It must have been one of those classic moments in working live shows. We must have been the funniest sight in the world. And she was cute beyond description. She was 4 foot 10 and about 100 pounds. And I can still see exactly what she looked like when she asked almost hysterically, “Have you seen any scalpers?”
“Everything you do is irresistible.”
This guy. The first person that we ran up to on the street at a show we were certainly never going to get into held the backstage door open and said, “I don’t know. You might get lucky. The ticket office is right over there.” And he pointed inside like he was pointing to something. We walked through and he closed the door behind us. It took us a few seconds to realize what he had done for us. And then we could see that the lights had turned off and the crowd got loud.
“Everything you do is simply kissable.”
We ran around in the dark trying to figure out where the hell we were and how the hell we were going to get into the actual arena so we could see the show. We busted through a door. We could hear the music. There was a tunnel and some lights. We ran up the tunnel and came out on a lower section right next to the stage. Since it was The Cure, no one was sitting anyway. They were all dancing.
“Why can’t I be you?”
This was one of those moments. I knew I was going to remember every minute of it while it was happening. I don’t know where she is. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to find her. I don’t remember her last name. After we were released from the hospital, our relationship fizzled. It’s not a way to begin a long term relationship. But back in 1987, we broke out of a psyche ward to see The Cure.
They were playing this song. And Robert Smith is a mountain on stage. Really there are very few people that have that kind of stage presence. And on video he always came off as a shoe gazer. I didn’t think he would be that interesting onstage, but he is just one of those personalities that can just stand there on stage. And he has everyone. It was one of the best sounding shows I have ever seen. So much attention is paid to Robert Smith, but there is a great band up there. I really don’t have much to say about the song. It’s a party song. It really has that whole 80’s party song feel. And every time I hear it, I see this bowl of people dancing.
There was a flop house for a punk band on Houston’s east side in like 1985. Depending on the day, you would find any number of people there. Because of lifestyle concerns (meaning most of the residents were up all night and slept all day), the windows were rigged to keep the sunlight out with wood and duct tape. This also helped with containing the noise, because if there wasn’t a stereo blasting punk music, then there was a punk band blasting out of one of the bedrooms. Most people would be hard pressed to remember what the outside of the house looked like. No one can recall ever having arrived or left the house during the day.
Punk bands from out of town would stay there while in town. And while today one can imagine that bands would meet online and communicate logistics like, “Hey we’re coming there. Can we crash at your place?” In 1985, I have no idea how bands would communicate concepts like these or how they would meet.
The nights spent at this house were confusing for many reasons. Especially on the weekends or if a band was there from out of town. You could be sitting on the couch and someone that you didn’t know would walk up and ask something like, “Hey can I use your bathroom?” or “Can I crash in your bed man. I’m beat.” Knowing it was useless to say that you didn’t live there, you might answer in the affirmative just for expediency. “Sure man, it’s right over there.”
One night in particular, a bunch of people went to the Grateful Dead concert at Southern Star Amphitheater in Astroworld (that’s a story on it’s own). This strange older guy named Jack that did these amazing psychedelic paintings was staying at the house at the time. So he went along to this show. When the show was over, Jack was definitely on his own journey. He decided he was going to walk back to the house. It was confusing, because everyone was certain that Jack didn’t know the way back to the house. He wasn’t from Houston. And he definitely was in no condition to be finding his way to a house in a bad neighborhood in an unfamiliar city. Especially on foot!
Everyone went back to the house without Jack. A few hours later with everyone on their own journeys, it was uncharacteristically quiet in the house. Then the door started rattling as Jack fumbled with his keys in the door. And voices could be heard, like he was talking to someone. To everyone inside, the sound built as the lock turned.
“m on that other baby girl know where i can get more?
crash ready to burn so you know what it do”
Then Jack walked in with about 6 girls. All of them about 20 years younger than him. “Hey I found these girls on the way home and I have to do a Tarot reading for them.” A knock on the door. “Hey there you are!” Another 10 people came in.
“and shes a dime, just watchin for her man in the back”
More and more people kept arriving. There was loud music. The band that actually lived in the house started playing in the rehearsal bedroom.
“everybody knows where you keepin at”
The place was hopping.
“you keep walking by”
Jack did about 100 Tarot card readings. The core of people that were there when it was quiet were kind of huddled on the floor. Jack came over and did readings for them too. It was like a circus had descended. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see sword swallowers and fire jugglers.
“100 grand that his mattress can hold”
Perhaps the strangest part of the whole scene was how no one acknowledged that they didn’t know each other. The people that arrived would sit on the floor with the people that were there from the beginning and vice versa. The mood in the sit on the floor group was mild awe and muted intense conversations and the mood of the rest was loud party. People kept asking who lived in the house. No one knew how to answer, “I thought you lived here.”
“walkin round the town with a red carpet on”
And it turned out that the later arrivals didn’t know each other. Jack had managed to meet about 10 separate parties of 5 or 6 people while walking home and gave them all directions to the house.
“everybody knows where you keepin it at.”
At some point, the party just stopped. The last person to leave that was going to leave opened the door on the gray dawn and closed the darkness back in. A jug of orange juice was passed around and everyone fell asleep where they sat. In the morning, people sat around chuckling to themselves about the inexplicable nature of the evening.
“you keep on walkin by”
Jack was really intense and bizarre with this long brown beard and hair with streaks of gray. He was round and short and his art was amazing. He would wander from place to place and never hung onto or sold his artwork. He did some covers for some Houston punk albums and crashed on a floor. When he was done with Houston, he just left. People told stories about hearing that he was in the swamps in Louisiana doing more artwork. But he never stayed anywhere for long, and that story about the swamps went on for years. He just disappeared.
Holy shit! Sometimes I am just so happy to hear something the first time I hear it. There is so much energy and momentum in this song. And there is a good fusion of influences here. There’s punk, rap, 70’s and 80’s metal with maybe some Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana mixed in. It’s so much fun to listen to how each of these influences are recognizable and indistinguishable at the same time. The song starts driving in the beginning and drives itself right through the end with this paste of abstract lyrics that coalesce into a punk rock anthem melody in the choruses. The energy level of the drums and bass is crazy and then they just pile this raw guitar mayhem on top. The singer’s voice sounds like he chewed some nails before grabbind the microphone. This song is why punk was created and why it has survived. A lot of the time, I hate the way punk can be rehashed for no good reason. This is no rehash. This is something new.
The song for me obviously is the embodiment of this one night. All of the chaos. All of the metaphors with no explanation and no meaning that end up creating meaning in their meaninglessness. Who knows where this ends up? Who knows where Jack ended up? Who knows where anyone ends up? We are all just a handful of dice thrown in the air. Let them fall how they fall. It’s also the embodiment of Houston punk rock. These guys are kick ass!
“you keep walkin by”
This weekend should be interesting. Two release shows that I really want to see. American Fangs at Rudyards on Friday the 30th and Ume at Walters on Saturday the 31st.
There’s a feeling in this song that I can’t quite get to. And I can hardly understand what’s he’s saying, but I don’t think not knowing what he is saying is the thing that is keeping me from knowing what this song means to me. The feeling is just too abstract and it pulls me in all these directions. I keep thinking of all these seemingly disparate themes.
“I was the silent partner I found”
It’s so hard for me to start writing these blog pieces sometimes. The words “I” and “me” creep into the writing so much. I understand now why a writer has to write so much. You have to write that much to get beyond all that you have to say about yourself. The pull to confess and be heard is overwhelming. But to hear myself write about me day after day when sometimes it isn’t actually useful in getting to the emotion I am trying to express is truly disheartening. On the other hand, this is what I came here to do. And whether or not I use pronouns that indicate that I am the subject of my writing, the fact remains.
“Myself with some rabble that stood on the mound”
We all have a story. And the stories are specific. And the number of stories is truly boggling. Today I stood in a reception area on the 18th floor of a building in the medical center looking out over the city. It occurred to me that there were 6 billion people out there. One hundred years ago, none of these 6 billion people were alive. And in another one hundred years, all of the 6 billion people that are alive right now will be dead. But there will still be 6 billion people alive. Maybe more. Just not us.
“There are too many prophets here.”
And there is this satisfying longing in the song. I am on the 18th floor of a building full of people looking out over the city. I can feel the people. I can feel their thoughts. I am 12 and walking through the woods in the cold. The cold is thorough and satisfying. And I will get where I’m going, but I’m in no hurry.
“I took it in silence. I took it to heart.”
I am in Hawk Mountain Sanctuary watching the raptors catch an air current and shoot into the sky. I have been walking all day and my legs hurt. I have been depressed, elated, happy, sad, angry and now satisfied. I am driving at night in Houston and it feels like there are no other people in the world besides me even though there are cars driving alongside of me.
“I carried it quietly over the wall.”
I am reading someone else’s story. I can relate to every word. I am suddenly lonelier than I have ever been.
“There were too many prophets there.”
While the song has a traditional tag line lyrical structure and the music follows along in the same model, the arrangement is definitely not your traditional pop song. I like how he isn’t always on the beat with the vocal even though the vocal and the arrangement were obviously meant to harmonize. There’s sort of this slurring around the time with the vocal, but it’s not sloppy. It’s just a masterful handling of time. All of the instruments are raw without giving way to noise. It’s more of an organic feel. Not quite acoustic, but not electronic either. All of these elements make the song sound like it was through composed, but it’s got sections and moves along like a song.
Moving through the world is mysterious. We’re all going to do it and we are all going to die. And none of us knows what’s going to happen. And none of us knows what’s happening right now. But there is this feeling that we know. And we want to put it in words.
“Here is my heart. Here is my song.”
And while we all have the same spontaneous reactions to something beautiful or the overwhelming enormity of our universe. Or the realization of just what it means for there to be 6 billion of us. Communicating what this really means to us is impossible. And our words always fall short.
I worked at a large medical insurance company in Quincy, MA for a couple years of my 20’s. I did several stints at this company for different reasons and under different circumstances. (They made me interview every single time to make sure I could act like I cared.) Mostly around school breaks. After I decided to stop going to school, I took a job at this company full time. I moved to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music. Four years pass and a lot of school and I find myself working at this meaningless job doing something I hate. This is like a rite of passage in the United States. There is nothing that will break a young person’s spirit more than the meaningless existence of going to an inconsequential job.
I was trying to put together a band at the same time and I was also doing this community theater music in Brookline. There wasn’t a minute of my day that wasn’t scheduled. And I did get a lot done. But there is only so long that you can keep up that kind of pace. To maintain the idealism that keeps a person creative requires a lot of energy. Energy that is sapped by going to a job that you can’t care about.
Every day I would get up and I’d be late. So there would be a ton of stress from opening my eyes. And I would hurry on to the subway and make my way through my day. And yes, this is one of my clinically depressed periods. But the T, the MBTA train system, was the bright part of my morning. The bright part of my day. I loved riding the T to and from work. I loved looking at all the people and seeing the expressions that were probably on my face. I loved the dirty, grimy, cold wetness of winter in the tunnels. The sounds of metal wheels grinding on the track. The moldy smell of a cave. Looking into a dark tunnel and wondering what it would be like just to take off down the track and explore the tunnel. The flash of the third rail.
“Sometimes I see a flash from the third rail and I wonder where it’s from.”
There is all this grey and darkness and then there is this flash of light. And looking around, I always wondered whether anyone else was seeing the contrasts. The purple and white colors flashing on the walls in the darkness. On people’s faces. Lighting up the shadows of those already on the train.
“It’s like a pinhole shot from a 38 that broke the aching sun.”
I’m always amazed at the personal space that people take on public transportation. There is so much privacy there even when it’s packed. Sometimes people don’t follow the etiquette and it’s taken as a grave offense.
I took a short fiction writing class in school once to satisfy an English requirement. It was a strange class because it was at a music school. We had to write a short story a week. One of my stories was about a man that lost his job and became homeless. This story was based on a guy I saw at that time on a corner by one of the T stations I used to get to work. The first time I saw the guy he was wearing a suit and begging for change. My first thought was about how the guy was better dressed than me and he was begging me for change. And he was definitely mentally ill, but it was obvious that he had lost his job in one of the bouts of layoffs that accompanied the recession of the early 90’s. But over the period of a month, I saw the suit disappear, and then he slowly deteriorated. He ended up looking like that’s all he had ever been doing. A homeless guy begging for change on a street corner.
“and every evening someone lingers in a broken doorway shallow
and he knows he’ll have to sleep tonight on concrete wet with breath”
And I think of that guy a lot. Because it’s so easy to see how close we all are to giving up. It’s so easy to see that most of this doesn’t make any sense. There are better ways to think through this life and utilize all of the energy and hope that is born into us and trained out of us.
“We call him crazy but he’s just a prayer sent all the way from somewhere else.”
We are all walking prayers sent from somewhere else and trying to find our way back. Trying to maintain the hope that was sent with us in a world that is trying to destroy hope. And from time to time, we are given fleeting glimpses of the place we came from. In the light of the third rail. In a magical connection with ourselves or another human being. In the sun. In the recognition of our similarities when everything around us celebrates the exploitation of our differences.
“I can’t believe the things we leave, I can’t believe the things we take.”
We have to somehow make this recognition of hope happen over and over again. And it’s damn near impossible with all of the material maintenance that comes with being human. And life can get away from you and the years pass. And you find yourself further and further away from what you thought you were trying to accomplish. And then it’s a whole other effort to find the same beauty in the place you find yourself. Because this darkness is inevitable. It’s a death and rebirth in the light of the third rail.
I love the darkness of the arrangement. The plaintive piano. The attempts of the arrangement and the movement to free itself. And it never quite makes it. I love Aaron Trumm’s phrasing. There ends up being a lot of oddly timed couplets with triplets and quarter note triplets that move the rhythm more than the drums or bass. It’s like the bass and drums are fixtures for the vocal line to play with. And while this really is supposed to be true in general, this is almost never the case. Usually songwriters find a melodic fixture and leave the melodies as fixed as the rhythm. By unhinging the vocal melodies, the door opens for every part of the arrangement to be heard from different perspectives. This gives the ordinary elements of the arrangement an other-worldly feel. Just like the light from the third rail.
I was unable to find this MP3 for sale. I just keep listening to it on the Simon Bookish MySpace music site. If anyone knows where to find it, let me know.
In my 20’s, I probably had somewhere around 50 or more jobs. I really was always just trying to make enough money to get to another town or to support a creative endeavor or both. To get a job, you usually have to interview for 10 different jobs to get one job. So if I averaged 10 interviews for each job, I probably have been on about 500 interviews. I got pretty good at the whole process. I also figured out that if you interviewed a lot, even for jobs you didn’t want, that you would get better at interviewing.
For a creative person that doesn’t necessarily want a job, this is torturous. I started trying on different characters. I treated the interview as a rehearsal. During some periods of time, I would only keep a job for two weeks. Either because I really didn’t want the job and didn’t know that during the interview process or they really didn’t want me and didn’t know that because I was playing a character. After sort of finding a way to enjoy interviews by inventing a performance rehearsal for myself, being out of work became kind of exciting. Another opportunity to practice acting. In most cases, this would be the most creative and challenging part of the entire job.
I have found the persona that interviewers seem to enjoy the most is the pushy character that points out everything they are doing wrong. People seemed to like this and found it entertaining and reassuring. “This is what you are trying to do? Well why don’t you try this? Let me challenge the fundamental philosophy of what you are trying to accomplish.” People like to laugh at themselves. People like to think that by hiring you, they will do their jobs better. The funniest part of this story is that the character started off as a persona and then it turned into what I do for a living.
But there is still this disconnect between who I am and who I present to people at work or in an interview. But I do think that everyone is like this. And at that point the whole thing becomes absurd. Everyone really would rather be doing something else, but everyone has to make money somehow. So while the interview is about verifying whether a person has the skills to do the job, it is mostly about figuring out whether the job applicant can act like someone who cares about the job. For example, no one likes working with the guy that constantly points out that we are all just slaves to the system. You know! The guy that presents all of this information to everyone in the office like they had not thought it themselves and already come to terms with it. And everyone wonders how that guy made it through the interview process. Because the interview process is supposed to weed out people that don’t fit well with the team. And most team players know how to act like they care about the job. And really, this caring about the job business, is probably the most important part of any job.
Leo Chadburn is Simon Bookish. And this song quantifies the absurdity of the interview. Sitting in a meeting room with a long conference table. Even if it’s not that imposing, it’s still some kind of meeting room and you have never been in it. Someone comes in and asks a series of inconsequential questions that really don’t get to the heart of who you are or what skillset you have mastered. Not to mention, this interviewer doesn’t want to be doing this job either. So they just make notes and appear to care about what they are doing.
“She sits down next to me
I forget who she is immediately
The questions she asks are very vagues
I forget them too
I mumble vague responses”
But I have had some fun in interviews. After a while, you learn to figure out when you don’t want the job. So once you recognize that part, you can do whatever you want in the interview. And this song reminds me of that:
“Leo, which British Monarch do you most identify with and why?
I reply, with conviction, ‘Queeeeeeeeeen Victoria!'”
I love how the music captures the spirit of the interveiw. I usually am very tense even when interviewing someone else. And I have problems with anxiety. I have an anxiety attack in almost every interview. I am very good at hiding it. So the music gets really frenetic right at the point where I would start to lose it in an interview. And there’s this whole automaton feel to everything. Like we are all just robots submitting to the scrutinization process. Why do you want to work here? I will make something up now because the reason I want to work here is that I need money. His moment of honesty toward the end “Queen Victoria!” is even presented in this awkward robotic sound. The interviewee malfunctioned. The whole thing rolls off with these sort of David Bowie theatrics. The disjunctive noise that breaks up the music just adds to this. I kept looking around for more information on the song, because I have a feeling it’s part of a larger musical piece but it stands on its own for me.
It isn’t that we don’t want to work. It’s that we would find other ways to be productive if left to our own devices. Hats off to those people that are doing exactly what they want to be doing. But in all the jobs that I have held, I have come across too many examples of people doing something other than what they truly want to be doing with their day. Most of us get through our day with the satisfaction that comes from putting in a day’s work. And even doing a job you don’t like can be partially fulfilling in that way. But I love how this song presents the absurdity of our interactions when we are bringing people together to do a job. The interview! The ultimate excercise in irony.
They sat in a one bedroom apartment in Houston off of Gessner watching a movie on the VCR and eating frozen pizza. Only one of them had a job at any given time. None of them were in school. The movie ended. Dan went off to the mattress in the bedroom to sleep. The other three sat and talked about Pigs on the Wing. It was all coming. Something. They could feel it. Then Justin looked at the door. Mark and Larry followed his gaze. An ominous darkness filled the room. Justin pulled a shotgun out from behind his chair and sat with it on his lap. They sat in silence. It was 1988.
“The faces all around me they don’t smile they just crack.”
These were bright but rudderless kids. There was a feeling that they should be doing something. They had passions and things that they would like to be successful at someday but had absolutely no idea of what the first step toward those goals might be. Life was just a long night of staring at a door that everyone was too afraid to open.
“Waiting for our ship to come but our ships not coming back.”
This night might always end with one of the three throwing the door open and standing aside… Just in case.
“We do have time like pennies in a jar. What are we saving for?”
If there had been an ounce of sanity in the room, maybe one of them would have asked what the hell they were sitting there for. What exactly were they expecting to be on the other side of that door? If any of them had been thinking clearly, it might have occurred to one of them that really what all of them needed to do was get up, grab everything that they absolutely needed and get in one of their shitty cars and drive to Austin or California or New York or… Mars. Anywhere but sitting in a living room in a crappy west Houston apartment with a shotgun pointed at a door.
“We sit and throw our roots into the floor. What are we waiting for?”
There was a general agreement within the walls of this apartment. Life is full of disappointments. There is absolutely no winning in this life. All of the cards are stacked. The game is fixed. There is nothing and no one to believe in. Especially ourselves.
“I need something to believe. Cause I am living just to breathe.”
One would die a few months later. One would die 15 years later. Somehow karma tied these four together for this night. Somehow it seems right that it should mean more than it did. Perhaps there is some kind of existential question that remains unanswered. Perhaps not.
“Something’s always coming you can hear it in the ground.”
If you pack too much meaning into every event… If you find a way to make everything mystically significant… If you change everything about your life just because of the lyrics of a song… If you sit too long in that chair with a shotgun staring at that door…
“I am hiding from some beast
But the beast was always here
Watching without eyes
Because the beast is just my fear
That I am just nothing
Now its just what I’ve become
What am I waiting for
Its already done”
So much had to happen to make everyone scatter. So many tragedies. So many dumb Texas punk rock deaths. So many unspeakable things that no one even wants to make art about. No one wants to commemorate this senseless time in any of their lives. They just want to segment those parts of their brains and go on surviving. Fucking “pennies in a jar”. Who knows what fiction I am talking about? Is it all fiction? “What are we waiting for?”
This song just reaches up and grabs me by the throat. Before I started trying to figure out what I was going to write about tonight, I was sitting here struggling with anxiety. I have the flu and it’s holding on as long as it can. So I was feeling kind of helpless. Then… BELIEVE! The instrumentation is dense. There are a lot of layers and a whole lot of movement. And it doesn’t seem like any of them let up the whole time. But I can imagine when an entire group manages to release themselves from staring at the door and get up and write something like this, then well… you must have some energy that needs to be released. It sort of reminds me of the The Eels and the Smiths. But it also has a unique energy all its own.
You can spend your entire life staring at the door. You can spend an entire life holding yourself back. You can spend an entire life being afraid of death. You will be vindicated when death finally gets you as it will. But your life will never be satisfied by its end. Life in defiance of death is pretty weak, but it sure beats life in fear of death.
“And I need something more
To keep on breathing for
So give me something to believe”
Maybe it’s time for all those conversations you have been avoiding. Maybe it’s time to be okay with wanting something satisfying out of your life. Maybe there are fates worse than death and you are living one of them. Maybe a lot of really bad things have happened between now and then. Maybe none of these things are true. Either way, you should stand and be counted. Put the gun down and open the door.
There’s something I keep trying to capture with all of this writing. I am still not satisfied that I have come anywhere close to it. I guess part of this is that I am trying to quantify what it is that makes a song good. There is an abstract truth to any piece of art that can’t really be expressed. Trying to explain it like it is a concrete concept is impossible. So the hope for me with these blog entries is that they are an artistic response to an artistic expression. A derived work. In doing so, I hope I end up paying tribute to the original work. An artistic act of appreciation. This asumes that what I am doing doesn’t suck.
Living life is a constant struggle for me. There is this idea that my heart is attached to. We should all have a much more passionate existence. That every moment should build on the moment before. If I think too much about it or try to improve my existence based on this concept, I either become depressed or self-destructive. It’s so easy for me to think that my current emotional state could be fixed by dismantling my life the way it is and re-inventing myself and every aspect of my life. In fact, that’s how I used to respond to difficulties in my life. Just get up and change everything.
“I tremble. They’re gonna eat me alive.”
The problem with doing this is it is just self-destructive. It certainly is easy to be your own muse. Everything is fresh and alive. You actually see everything that you are looking at.
“Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.”
I once shared a bottle of Thunderbird with a bunch of homeless guys under an overpass. I was a teenager. This is an experience I could never forget. Regardless of the haze my mind was in, there was a lot that registered. These were nameless and faceless fixtures on the side of the road. Now I always see their eyes. Next time you see a homeless person, give them a dollar and look in their eyes.
“Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”
In high school I had this gigantic crush on a girl in my gifted and talented classes. She made it clear that she had a crush on me. We sat next to each other for years. She sent friends to talk to me. I couldn’t respond. The word got around. My best friend at the time confronted me about it when we were eating dinner with his parents. His father said, “You are afraid of girls.” I lied to get out of it. I made up reasons why I didn’t like her. He was right. I was afraid. I am simultaneously attracted to my own passion and terrified of it.
“Come take my pulse, the pace is on a runaway train.”
As I have aged, things come a little easier. I build on previous successes. I do the best I can. I have plenty of regrets. I learn a lot from my son and other kids. Being excited is something I have a hard time doing. I love watching him when he can’t keep himself composed because he’s so excited. Composure is something I struggle for. I would rather just let myself be that excited. To erase anxiety from my vocabulary and just be so excited that I can’t sit still.
“If you’re still alive, my regrets are few.
If my life is mine, what shouldn’t I do?”
I want all of those things that belong in their time to stay in their time. I don’t want to travel back and correct all of my mistakes. I just want to make sure I miss less of what is so beautiful about life as life occurs to me.
“while my blood’s still flowing
and my heart still beating like a hammer, beating like a hammer.”
I like Emily Haines’ register changes. The simplicity of her approach. Knowing that she has really said what she needed to say with the few words she used. James Shaw’s change ups are nice. Emphasizing the existentialism. And each of the transitions build up and then drop off. Enough changes to keep the interest flowing. Plenty of continuity to keep the idea alive. And this is just as much a musical idea as it is a lyrical idea. It could have easily been a ballad that doted on itself. But there is all of this build up to defeat and then changing to victory over adversity.
“If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.”
I don’t want to be that tight. I want to approach life with passion and grace. I don’t want to worry about all that. I don’t want another 20 years to pass and to think of them as lost.
I am always changing my mind about redemption. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I appreciate the concept and have to admit that it is a selfish appreciation. My life has been filled with mistakes. Not to get mistakes mixed up with accidents. Some of the mistakes I am talking about were intentional acts of cruelty. Hurting people on purpose or by omission. So I like the idea of redemption. And I guess in my world, I believe that redemption is not a passive act. You can’t just recognize that you did something wrong. You have to change. But then I have this idea that there are some things that you can do for which you can’t seek redemption. There are some things you can do that are unforgivable. These are just conflicting concepts. I have learned to live with both residing in my head at the same time.
Everything is Everything always makes me think about redemption. And then I end up thinking about my mother. My mother who raised 3 boys mostly by herself. Who made the hard choices when they had to be made. It’s very easy to fault her for things that went wrong in my life. Some of it is easily her fault. But the thing that I always get to when I think of laying blame at her feet is the nature of motherhood. In some ways it’s a no-win role. Especially for a single mother. When I think of something my mother did wrong, it’s so easy to call her and talk to her about it. When I think of something my non-existent father did wrong, it’s so easy to call my mother and talk about her role in that. I know that my father wouldn’t give a shit about the subject, and he would end the conversation. So I don’t call him ever. There’s no payoff. The sympathetic ear is my mother’s. That has to suck. She gets to answer for the mistakes of both parents, and he never has to answer for anything.
“I wrote this song for everyone who struggles in their youth.”
Is redemption available to the father that never has to answer to the children he abandoned? The idea makes me furious. Me forgiving him is one thing, and I don’t offer it. He doesn’t really want it anyway. So who cares? But does he deserve a karmic salvation if he privately acknowledges his wrong and makes up for it with generosity or emotional availability to another family? I don’t know the answer. The questions are rhetorical. And even though I talk about that type of redemption making me furious, I really am at peace with the concept more than this statement suggests.
But then I think of my own middle class suffering and compare it to the idea of being second class citizens in your own country, and I think that relatively speaking, my suffering pales in comparison. And true poverty is way beyond that. Combine the two and you have the perspective that I hear Lauryn Hill coming from in Everything is Everything.
“It seems we lose the game before we even start to play.”
And so here we are in the week that a black man was sworn in as president of the United States. And I was thinking about that as I fell asleep. Then I woke up an hour later at like 11pm and I had Everything is Everything in my head. And I thought of being dragged along by a bunch of punks when I was 15 to throw rocks at the KKK march in Dallas. The police could have easily arrested or stopped us and the small groups of black teenagers that we met up with along the way. But they didn’t. The time for this type of expression was over and everyone knew it.
“And the ones on top won’t make it stop. So convinced that they might fall.”
The struggle isn’t over for equality, but it’s nice to reflect on what a monumental leap forward this week has been. It’s so interesting to think that the first serious consideration of a hip hop album for Album of the Year was only 10 years ago. Now there’s a black president. What planet am I living on?
All of the arrangement on this song is so dramatic. So many nods to so many influences. It goes way beyond hip hop, R&B or soul. It’s a song with universal appeal. And by far, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the most important album of the year it was released. And this song is always the first thing that comes to mind for me about the album. What an inspired production by an amazing group of people. And I remember it being one of the more meaningful Album of the Year Grammy Awards that I can remember being given to anyone. And I think it was Whitney Houston that presented it, and I remember how she hopped around the stage. She was so excited after she read the card. That sticks out in my mind like the thousands of images I have seen this week of black people crying.
There’s a lot of connected concepts, but I really don’t know why redemption seems to be a concept that sticks with this song for me. I guess it’s the slow march of time. I like to believe that things are getting better. That the human race causes itself less suffering than it did 100 years ago. That maybe we can really achieve world peace. That our descendants can redeem our current ignorance. That there is some kind of collective psyhological evolution that we are achieving. That redemption is available to us all because we are all truly trying to do what is best. Maybe it’s too optimistic, but I have only to point at our black president as a reminder that anything is possible. Maybe it’s even possible right now. All it would take is for us to all collectively change our minds. And even that sounded impossible last year.
“After winter, must come spring. Everything is everything.”
I feel like an asshole writing about Viva La Vida. Yesterday I wrote about A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. A Whiter Shade of Pale deserves a couple of gigabytes of criticism, interpretation and commentary. With this in mind, I plan on writing about that song again some time in the future, because my commentary falls way short. In contrast, Viva La Vida has been written about by everyone on the internet. Coldplay has also weighed in on the subject in interviews, but in line with my idea that the lyrics are an unreliable way to interpret the narrative of a song, I also believe that the commentary of the poet, author, musician, composer or artist is an unreliable way of getting to the real meaning of a particular work.
In another fiction there is hubris. Prolonged criminal activity is obviously dangerous. But it’s the mental game that is mostly in play. Most people can walk into a convenience store and steal a candy bar as an experiment and get busted. The only thing you have to say most of the time is, “Man I don’t know why I did it. I just picked it up and put it in my pocket.” This will work the first time in an argument for leniency in almost all cases. It might even work the second time. But after that, no one is with you.
When you have a criminal operation running, the problem is knowing when to stop. Any organized attempt at black market economics has so many pitfalls that can’t be avoided. As you make more money, more people become involved. As this goes on longer, you have made possibly a lot of money, but there are entry level people who have not made very much money. They need the operation to keep going to make a living or to get the “big payoff”. So the pressure is on. Long after you know that you are attracting attention and it’s time to quit, new acquisitions are looking at longer scams. Any crime of genius is beautifully simple. A weakness in the system is exploited quickly and for maximum profit. Any organization around this event is quickly disbanded when the deed is done. This is rarely what happens.
There was this meth lab that was busted in Northwest Houston in 1983. It started simply enough. A man with a family who had extended family that were bikers. His body shop was not doing very well, and he had children. So he started making meth amphetamines which were very popular with oil field workers, bikers, weathermen and punk rockers. The market was ripe and he made a lot of cash very quickly. The problem was that once he provided enough of the right people with a good supply, then they all required more. Since he had made quick money and he didn’t have to put out any more money to continue, he made more when he really didn’t need the money. Suddenly a mostly abandoned body shop had 24/7 traffic. He had a giant trailer in the back lot with a door in the side of it. They dug a hole under it and put a trap door in the floor of the dumpster. Suddenly they had a manufacturing operation that many families depended on for income and many junkies depended on for a fix. When personnel was tight, the kids would be down in this underground lab stirring beakers of chemicals. The personnel was always tight.
The pressure was on to ignore the signs. It was easy to do so. After a year of operations and supplying Houston’s finest with private stash, who thought that anything would change. But of course the change did come, in the form of 50 cops descending on the body shop. I watched the footage on TV in between Saturday morning cartoons. Families were separated. Those that remained at liberty, pointed fingers at each other. Repercussions were felt everywhere. A lot of junkies had to sober up for a while. Someone else eventually filled the need.
A simpler example is a gang selling crack on a street corner. When an operation like this first begins, it usually begins in desperation on a street corner in a poor neighborhood. You need money somehow, so you will do anything to get it quickly. Kids have bad judgment and left to their own devices, they will just stand on the corner selling to friends and anyone who pulls up in a car. The very simple plan is to just run if the cops come. Also, the need is greater than the punishment for a minor. So just do it until it falls apart. Desperate friends join the operation and suddenly there is a gang of thugs on a street corner in a residential neighborhood.
There’s a guy on the corner with kids. He calls the police repeatedly. The police come and drive by. Of course, the kids take off when the cops are near and the cops aren’t really committed to doing anything because the people that pay their salaries are in other neighborhoods. They aren’t going to risk their necks for this guy. In their minds, if this guy was a decent man, he wouldn’t live in this neighborhood. One day the man gets sick of it and goes out and confronts the kids on the corner. Having been out there for years now they ask simply what the man is going to do about it. This is where they make a living. They think of this guy as threatening their livelihood, but they see it as an empty threat. The man sees their point and sort of gives up.
Months pass. The police put together a drug enforcement task force to produce some results and get some money from some federal grant program. They set up a complicated net to produce evidence and then one afternoon about 50 cops descend on the street corner and arrest everyone involved. They all go to prison. Those that remain at liberty point fingers. Junkies… Need…
On a slightly more macrocosmic scale, Blagojevich was recently busted for selling influence and specifically for selling Obama’s senate seat. Now it appears that he knew that they were tapping his phones. It sounds inexplicable that he was so explicit on the phone when he knew that federal agents were on the line. But hubris is the final sin of the criminal mind. “I’ve been doing this for years and the feds have threatened me. I waited for the other shoe to drop for a long time. It isn’t going to drop. I’m untouchable.” Even now, he thinks he has enough dirt on enough powerful people to remain untouchable. He may destroy some people’s reputations but he is on his way down.
All of these people, “I used to rule the world.”
The thing I hate about this song is that it really is a great song. I was impressed with it the first time I heard it. It’s like Coldplay was sitting in on a conversation I had with a friend. I said, “I’m not much into Coldplay.” Him, “Really. Tell me why.” Me, “That last popular album was just one song. They had a good idea and did it over and over again.” Then I heard this song and I was pretty impressed. They don’t sound completely different. They just developed and enhanced their sound and found a new direction for what they were doing right. I tend to start rebelling against the “in” thing and they are surely the poster boys for “in” right now. But this ends up begging the question, “Is a song necessarily bad because it is popular?”
I guess the idea is that if your average indie band had enough money in their personal bank accounts that they didn’t ever have to work again, a following that would like anything that they did and a large label funding a large project with as many people involved as necessary for any idea, then the indie band would be Coldplay. But maybe this hypothetical indie band would come up with something more profound and unique. Or maybe that indie band would take their capital and involve a lot more artists?
Or maybe they would have a large operation already developed that involved people that the members of the band worked with on a daily basis. Maybe those people would have names and faces and families that depended on this band to make a living. The success of the next project would determine whether these people could continue their relationships with each other. An entire community of people dependent on the success of a single project. Much like any small to medium size company. To accomplish this under pressure with the amount of style that Coldplay did it with Viva La Vida is very impressive. They got the pop world discussing metaphor. Even if they don’t get it right most of the time, it is quite an accomplishment. It isn’t Dylan Thomas, but it’s a start. And that arrangement is kick ass. They used an orchestra and didn’t sound like assholes.
But the fact is the size and scope of any project they do is determined by the number of people that depend on them. Metallica seems like a good example of a band that has to keep doing huge projects to keep the Metallica Corporation solvent. They don’t pull it off nearly as well. But it’s an impressive organization.
“Oh who would ever want to be king?”
In the end, I think Coldplay is talking about themselves in a hypothetical future. It doesn’t matter which crime you are committing, eventually hubris catches up with you. It’s sort of a cry from the top. And oh right!!! Are we supposed to feel sorry for them? Knowing that we wouldn’t feel anything for this narrative, they metaphorically ask us to feel sorry for a fictional narrator. I think it’s an interesting device. And certainly there isn’t anything this thought provoking happening anywhere else in the pop world.
Another reason I started my blog was this song. I looked on the internet for any sort of essays or blog entries about personal impressions or meanings around it. Nothing. I was incredulous. How is it that one of the most haunting songs of the classic rock genre has nothing written about it? Maybe there is something in print, but I doubt it. All I can find written about it is that it was recorded, there were lawsuits finally settled around 2005 or so and the original version was much longer. It’s very easy to find the lyrics to just about any song these days. But no critical writing of any kind. Really I am still sort of baffled by this. You can look for any song and pretty much end up with the same result. Nothing. So I figured, what the hell, why don’t I do it? I know all of these songs meant something profound to me. I can do a serious critique of some kind. Who cares if anyone takes it seriously? I really believe there should be something there other than the lyrics and evangelical Christians co-opting the concepts when someone looks it up in a search engine
I went to high school at St. Thomas High School after I was basically kicked out of public school. St. Thomas eventually kicked me out as well, but not before making a profound impact on the way I thought about the world. I packed a lot into my year at St. Thomas. I really tried to make it happen there. It felt like my last opportunity for a normal childhood, which of course meant that the opportunity didn’t really exist. Kids with normal childhoods don’t feel this way.
I loved all of my classes and I loved the atmosphere. There was a lot of ambition and curiosity. If I had been there from the beginning, maybe I would have made it through. But once again, high school was probably not made for me. I wish I had known this sooner. But I really think it was better for my final discovery of this to be preceded by a lot of suffering.
One day I showed up for school, and I stood outside the building. There was no way I could make it inside at that moment. I didn’t know what to do, so I went into the woods behind the school and just laid down in the leaves to stare at the sky. It was a gray midwinter day and the trees were as bare as trees get in Houston. I don’t know what I thought about. But the morning moved like soup. Same as the tempo in A Whiter Shade of Pale.
“The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away”
My world started deconstucting at that point. A lot of my irreverance was sort of built from an understanding that it was all for nothing. And I lived that way for a long time.
The first time I saw The Graduate was at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston. It was the 30th anniversary of the original release, so they were showing it for a couple weeks. It was interesting that I got to see it on the big screen. Two scenes in the movie have this same feel. The first is when Dustin Hoffman is using the scuba gear in the pool and he lies on the bottom of the pool staring up. You get the impression that he really is looking for any way to eliminate the noise from all the pressure around him. The second is the end of the movie when Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross are on the back of the bus, and you see the dawning realization that despite their victory everything is still impossible.
“and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been closed”
And then you see them both their faces “turn a whiter shade of pale”.
I didn’t like taking responsibility for my actions over a long period of time, so I would create situations where I knew I woundn’t be in one place for very long. I would put a time limit on it at times. I would think, “I’ll stay in the city for six months and then drive away and go someplace else.” And in driving away my irreverance fell apart. I lost my right to the existential crisis. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it came to. There’s something about this song that brings all of the reality of my existential contemplation to an embarrassing end.
“She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.'”
In the plodding thickness of the apparent nonsense, I find a very personal criticism of my inability to respond to stimulus appropriately. I am failing in school. I go sit in the leaves and wait for someone else to decide. I graduate from college and sit at the bottom of the pool listening to myself breathing. I destroy every chance of being with a girl I feel would be perfect for me, so I create a situation where I can rub both of our noses in it. Rather than take responsibility for my actions, I would just create situations where I didn’t have to think about it. And drive away. I loved to make other people decide for me.
“But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be”
Compulsion is so inexplicable. Every tragic flaw seems to have roots in compulsion. And as the events unravel in any given tragedy, there seem to be so many lessons that compulsion refuses to learn. There are so many stories that make up my life where just thinking about them I turn “a whiter shade of pale”. At the time, I didn’t think I had any other choice, but in retrospect, it’s obvious that I had plenty of choices. And for the outcome, I have no one to blame but myself. “And so it was later…” And so it was always later that we knew. I think this song is about regret. Not what might have been but regret in the nature of grief. Sometimes we just make a lot of mistakes and there is nothing to be done for it.
“And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale”
This song is one of those moments where everything just came together. There are universal truths just floating on the ether, and sometimes if you are open to it and prepared to hear that particular truth, then you are the vehicle for expressing it. Procol Harum is the vehicle for expressing this truth. There is no subtracting an element of this ensemble to express it with the same power. It just happened that they were prepared and inspired, and they plucked this truth off of the wind and gave form to an idea so abstract that it can’t be adequately explained outside of the context of the song.
I used to go to this club on Lansdowne in Boston called Axis. I went there enough that I usually just walked in without paying. I knew the bouncers, the cashiers and the bartenders. I look at pictures of myself from this period of time and wonder how that happened. I looked awful. I wonder if I ever looked in the mirror. I had this bizarre long pony tail and my hairline was receding despite the fact that I was 23. I was obviously overweight. And I had these weird large glasses that looked like something out of the 60’s or 70’s. Not a good retro look or anything. I just really looked like a nerd. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. I looked terrible. I mean I still look like a nerd, but the hair, the glasses. What the hell?
Axis was definitely a scene bar. It felt like Numbers in Houston which is why I went there all the time. I was sort of homesick. And for some reason I always felt like dancing at this time. So I went there by myself a couple times a week. Sometimes I would drag friends from Berklee over. And maybe that’s got something to do with the appearance. There were a lot of nerds at Berklee. We were music nerds.
There is also this “never enough” thing at Berklee. There was this Psychology 101 class where when the teacher got to the clinical therapy sections of the semester, he would demonstrate group therapy by asking a simple question. “How many of you don’t practice at all anymore?” More than half the class would raise their hands. Then there would be the other half that would be practicing like 8 to 12 hours a day and going to classes. I was in the 8 to 12 hours group. I would fall asleep playing the guitar. Everyone felt like they were not doing enough. Everyone felt like they didn’t belong. The inevitable discussion that followed would be what the teacher pointed to as group therapy. But 15 years later the fact remains, there was no way to get all the work done that we were assigned in a full time semester.
I love Broken In All The Right Places. But it makes me feel like I did at that time. I couldn’t really break through to anyone. I dated all of the time. Looking at the pictures of myself at the time, I really wonder how this was possible. I was awkward, a terrible conversationalist and just flat out weird. There is this humility in I Am Jen’s presentation that I find perplexing. She is the scene! How is it possible that she feels so outside? I am on the outside and it doesn’t feel like her music. I walked through Axis looking at people like her and wondering how I could possibly meet them or be that cool. My visual memory of the time is like I am looking at a fishbowl all of the time trying to figure out a way to get inside.
“You know I never thought I was a beauty queen
and I never felt like a part of the scene”
But I guess if I look at the evidence of everything that I did and all the places that I was and all the people I knew, I was the scene. Maybe scenes are all about insecurity. I remember how awkward I felt and how I would blurt things out and I was too loud. When I see those pictures, I feel every ounce of insecurity I felt at that time. But it’s also an insecurity that I find endearing in kids that I see at that age now. And at the time, I saw the startled looks on people’s faces as “What the hell is wrong with this kid?” When really it was probably, “Wow he is talking to me! What the hell am I going to say?” I know that’s what I was thinking whenever someone talked to me. I guess we were all “Broken in all the right places.”
Jen Scaturro has this simplicity in her productions that is truly remarkable. There’s all this separation. I tend to overcrowd mixes and I definitely can’t leave things alone. She has all these singular instruments laying it out there. Then there will be three or four going at the same time. Very little blending that isn’t treated as a singular voice in a larger contrapuntal idea. And I love this sort of Suzanne Vega relaxation in her vocals.
And then I feel like I’ve totally missed the point of her song. It’s like this song reminds me of something that I have to experience as rejection. But then I think of 5 years after the period of time that I am describing. The time when I met my wife. When I just decided that whatever I was doing was okay. And I remember the conversation we had on our first date where we were obviously trying to scare each other away with long descriptions of all the ways in which we were broken. We weren’t hiding anything. And in hiding nothing, it became very easy for us to become inseparable. And really most of the time, her presence is as clear to me as this mix.
“but when I look at you and you look at me
I never want you to change a thing”
It is so easy to get caught up in your impressions of a song by what is being said in the lyrics. It’s also an unreliable way of interpreting a song. I think there is no greater example of this than What’s the Frequency Kenneth. You can plug “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” into any search engine and find that the title references the story of Dan Rather being mugged on the street in New York City. The assailant punched him repeatedly asking, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” While I am sure that the title and concept is inspired by this event, I am sure that this isn’t the whole story. I don’t know what that story is to R.E.M., but I don’t think that matters.
I listened to this CD frequently in 1996 at work. I had a dumb job in the Medicaid billing department located in the basement of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA. I lived in Boston. Lemuel Shattuck is a state mental facility as well as acute care for the state correctional units (prisons). I sat at my little desk in the basement with my stacks of paper from various agencies, my monochrome monitor and all the other trappings of my tenure as a bureaucrat. I don’t know how old that hospital was, but it felt like it was at least 100 years old. I don’t think I have ever had a more depressing job. Working in that basement office made me a likely candidate for the state mental inpatient ward on the 8th floor.
I split my home life in Boston between a room I rented in a house that a friend of mine owned in the South End and my girlfriend’s apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. Both of these places were way out of my league. I couldn’t afford the rent on the parking places really. I was really trying to build something. My forays into creativity were always lame and characterized by initial successes followed by dizzying bouts of failure. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t get up on time for work. I couldn’t pay for most of my meals. I felt like I owed money to everyone. That was mostly true, but I really didn’t owe as much as I felt like I did. I didn’t even own the Monster CD. It was my girlfriend’s. Most of my life was really trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.
I can’t even begin to describe how exhausted I was most of the time. It was summer and the office in the basement was hot. There was this window unit air conditioner that was behind my desk. At some point in July when it first got hot enough, someone stepped behind me to turn it on while I was on the phone with my girlfriend who was having a depressive meltdown. I used to go down to the cafeteria pay phone to continue these conversations because they were just too bizarre to have in a quiet office with a bunch of co-workers. I hung up the phone and stood up to go down to the cafeteria. I fell forward into the filing cabinets. I was too dizzy to stand. My stomach was doing somersaults. My co-workers were concerned for my well-being only in the sense that they wanted whatever was wrong with me to be over. As I looked up at the rotating image of my blonde co-worker, whose name escapes me, my only thought was, “I have to leave this job.”
It took me another month to figure out that I was allergic to mold, and this allergy manifested itself by making my inner ear swell. So I left that job for a much cushier job in Wellesley at a women’s health practice where I continued doing medical billing to insurance companies. Essentially a bureaucrat again. And I still listened to Monster on my CD player. For some reason, What’s the Frequency Kenneth made me cry.
So one day in November or something I left for work without a hat. It got cold and started raining around 3pm. I left work at 5pm. By the time I got off the commuter train in Copley Square, the sleet was coming down hard and horizontal. The temperature must have dropped from 65 to 32 or lower over the course of the day. Just cold enough for sleet but not yet cold enough for snow. That would come later. I was crossing the street and I got blown back. I struggled in the wind and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. I looked up and barely got out of the way of the people crossing in the opposite direction who were flying toward me and struggling to stay on their feet. The sleet was beating on my forehead. The walk to my girlfriend’s apartment was painful.
When I got there, I buzzed her apartment. She buzzed me in. I made it halfway up the flight of stairs to the second floor and I fell over. My stomach lurching. My inner ears must have frozen or I walked into a pocket of mold spores or something. So I am lying on my back waiting for some sense of equilibrium to return and I see my girlfriend lean over the railing to ask if I am all right. And right then with the world spinning, I could hear quite distinctly:
“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”
There is nothing worse than your best efforts resulting in failure and being misunderstood. I am a talented person. I like to think I am pretty smart too. But everthing I did up until I was about 27 left me with nothing but experience. Here I am lying on my back after quitting a job to get away from an allergy that had me lying on my back in the basement of a state corectional facility hospital. Every time I hear Michael Stipe’s voice in What’s the Frequency Kenneth, I hear his exhaustion. I don’t know where it was he thought he was going, but I hear the sort of bitter irony in his reflection on Dan Rather’s misfortune. Here is Dan Rather, one of the biggest journalist’s of his time, and he is being beaten by a crazy man on his way from work. Not only that, but then the very media for which he was an icon was blowing the incident into an international event with speculation about KGB involvement. I get the sense from the Monster CD that Michael Stipe was having an exhausting experience with his celebrity.
“You wore a shirt of violent green, uh huh…”
Then there is this glam rock feel. I just spent 20 minutes trying to verify whether Peter Buck used a Fender Vibrolux amplifier to create that crazy sound in the choruses. In my narrative, that’s what it is. It’s so perfect, it hurts. There’s this twisting bass melody that reminds me of the world spinning. And thinking about that reminds me that it was during the recording of this song that the bassist discovered he had acute appendicitis and had to immediately go to the hospital. There is apparently a tempo change as a result of this pain that was never corrected. That’s perfect too.
“I never understood the frequency, uh huh…”
No I never did understand the frequency. I couldn’t understand a fucking thing. I went from one thing to another with this giant question mark over my head. A beating from a schizophrenic might have brightened my day. And that makes me return to the staircase with my girlfriend. We would be breaking up in a year or two. I feel a genuine affection for the suffering that was our relationship. Nothing was going right for either of us, but we couldn’t relate to the nature of each other’s misfortunes. There was a complete disconnect. She helped me up the stairs, gave me some coffee and rubbed my head with a towel. Despite our differences, we were a genuine comfort to each other in a time of distress. Everything was out of our control and changing. Even the timing of our relationship couldn’t have been worse.
“You said that irony was the shackles of youth.”
That may be one of the greatest lines ever uttered in a rock and roll song.
In any sort of music critique, it is so easy to rely on the narrative provided by the vocalist. But it is a complete misconception that there is no narrative in instrumental music. Our ears have fallen deaf to music that provides no literal vocal narrative. The narrative is, nonetheless, still there. We just have to learn to hear and then to trust that we hear it. Shostakovich related in his memoir that Russian culture had a rich history of instrumental narrative. His explanation of the narrative in his own work made me listen to all music differently. What I understood after reading that was that even the lyrics of a song were unreliable as a guide to a narrative.
Communication is complicated. You can say the same thing many different ways and it can mean different things. Tone of voice can help a listener determine if sarcasm is intended or sincerity. Misinterpretation of tone can also lead to misunderstanding. There is no one way to hear anything. We hear everything through our own filters. This makes the interpretation and criticism of music open to anyone. It also opens the door to an infinite number of narratives.
My narrative about Zwei Streifen Im Blau begins with a listener and a musician. The listener keeps asking questions and the musician keeps answering with music. The listener is confused. The musician repeats the question in music. The listener still doesn’t understand and starts to talk over the music. So the musician repeats himself. Then there is this sarcasm where the musician and listener exchange phrases repeatedly. The musician says: “Don’t you understand what I am saying?” The listener says, “No I don’t understand.” But obviously the listener understands. He keeps answering the question.
At one point, the musician breaks down and tries to start over. “Do you hear this? Can you recognize your own question? I’m repeating your question back to you?” Then there is this chorus from the listener where he keeps repeating with his hands over his ears, “I don’t understand.”
I’m trying to reach you. I’m trying to reach you. Do you hear what I am saying? You are not alone. Here is all this warm sound. Here is the embrace of the arrangement of sound. Here is 4 minutes and 30 seconds of compassion. Don’t you even understand what it sounds like anymore? Listen to it enough and you might begin to hear yourself. Listen to your own pleas. Let me teach you how to listen to yourself again. Let me show you what your reflection looks like.
It’s the conundrum that faces us in the age of technology. There is more communication than ever before. But as we communicate more, we forget the basic rules of communication. Here in this narrow format, we lose all sense of the purpose of communication. Communication isn’t just for providing noise to digital receivers. Noise that only serves as evidence that we exist. “Ping I’m here.” Existence is a valid thing to communicate. But being is lost when we forget to tell our narrative.
What is your narrative? Do you have time to listen to an instrumental and provide your own narrative to yourself? It’s possible that the answer is “no”. There are valid reasons for that answer. Most of the time that is my answer. Life is full of business that has to be attended to that doesn’t leave time for contemplation of instumental music. It’s easier to have the narrative packaged and handed to you. But you have to admit that it’s sad.
Zwei Streifen Im Blau calls for a renaissance of language. It isn’t merely a translation problem. We have lost our passion for communication. The passion for learning something new from each other and from ouselves. Communication is a puzzle and we all come from different countries with different cultures. If we reject immigrants and tourists who can’t communicate in local dialects, then we reject anything we don’t understand at first blush. We reject instrumental music out of hand. We reject narratives that don’t immediately make sense. We don’t even try on different narratives that help us to understand the plight of our fellow human beings. Our rejection of language barriers becomes our insulation against anything that makes us uncomfortable. We wallow in the bitterness of our self imposed isololation. We have only to try to say something real when we have already succeeded.
I love the mix of analog and digital sounds in this song. Rather than one dominating the song and the other providing some cohesion, the mix leaves room for both. The sounds are distinct. There is a lot of patience in the composition. There are themese that have to develop for the transitions to make sense. Then in the end there is an abupt but subtly dissonant surrender from the musician, “I give up. He won’t hear me.”
Here is a completely obscure piece of 70’s rock. And in this song is every feeling or memory of the late 60’s through the 80’s that everyone who lived this version of that era would like to quietly sweep under the rug. Or maybe anyone who lived through a period of their life in any time that was addled by drugs and/or alcohol. It’s fun to sit around and tell anecdotes about addiction and all of the crazy things that can happen. But the psychic reality of living through something like this is captured in this song. And that is precisely the reason the song is so obscure. Lowell George was a train wreck and a genius. The most painful kind of genius. A talent that could reach and touch those around him with every artistic breath. But his addiction must have wrecked everyone. I feel every ounce of that pain in Kiss It Off.
As in Heart of Darkness, we are Marlow’s audience at the mouth of the Thames waiting for the tide as dusk settles on us. There are shadows and fog, and Marlow’s features are obscured. The only thing that is clear is his voice. And somehow the faraway look in his eyes stays with us even as the light fails. I don’t necessarily want to hear what he is saying. He tells us about Kurtz in the jungle and how the jungle finally claimed him. George is both Marlow and Kurtz. I feel like he is telling us about how the jungle will claim him. It’s almost like he made some kind of peace with himself about this. He’s kind of speaking from purgatory. He is not himself. The Lowell George that is with us is on the rest of Dixie Chicken album telling us about the Fat Man in the Bathtub and reminiscing about a girl down south in Dixie Chicken. Kiss It Off is the man we don’t want to know.
The band is with him one way or another. I wonder how everyone felt about the song. Was it something that everyone was living? I don’t even know how far along Lowell George was at the point that the song was conceived. And Dixie Chicken is definitely the best Lowell Goerge era Little Feat album. But Paul Barrere and Bill Payne seem to be producing sounds so in line with where Lowell George is coming from that I wonder if they were having their own struggles with the Heart of Darkness. At least they survived. But I hear it in everyone’s performance.
“You were the child of some electric nightmare. You could move mountains, the swords of fire.”
And Marlow could tell you about sitting in abandoned houses for hours waiting to die. Lying in bed sweating and waiting for someone to come help you. Walking up and down a hallway while a soup of vague gestures to those around you gave no voice to the vague thoughts that dominated your obsession of the moment – to get through the next 8 hours. The next hour. The next five minutes. To make it to the end of the hallway without your heart exploding.
“They keep you around to watch the house of gold. Keep the hungry away from the sacred grove.”
And what of those vague thoughts. To write about a thought, you have to understand it first. And sometimes, the compulsion is about revisiting thoughts that you don’t understand. You think if you get to that state of mind again, you could actually bring back something insightful and damn near revolutionary. There’s something in the fog that’s just out of reach. You almost understand it. You can feel it. The distraction is the physical body. And that distraction will kill you and you won’t bring anything back. But you keep pushing it like this. And at some point you split. You are no longer the face you show the world. The face you show the world is real. It just offers no clues about who actually lives behind that face.
“You were holy and you made me wonder how. But you looked like a devil who would seize and shake you down.”
And even when you do want out, you realize that you have no idea how to do that. The jungle has you. Your entire existence is singular with that jungle. And the need has primacy. The thought about how to end that need is always so much further down the list. You can’t even pay attention to that thought. Taking action on it isn’t even a consideration.
“On the hopes of a tyrant, no one makes it over.”
But you never actually bring anything useful back. Sometimes you think you do, and you try to explain it to someone. But that person would be alarmed at best. Downright terrified for you and themselves at worst. You can’t even explain it to yourself in the cold light of day. And every now and then, you sit on a gently rocking boat at the mouth of a giant river in the twilight and you can be honest with the people just inside the ring of fog. But you still can’t really reach them. And twilight only lasts so long even when it feels like it will last forever. And that’s as close as you get to anyone. A brief embrace at the mouth of the yawning darkness where you can explain exactly what despair tastes like. And then the darkness has you.
“There is no peace. Is no love. Milk-toasted love. Ain’t no velvet glove.”
On March 26 of 2003, me and my wife got in the car and started driving to St. Luke’s Hospital in the medical center in Houston. She was in labor with our son. Or more accurately her water broke and he was coming out one way or another. The Interpol CD had been in the CD player of our Jetta for a while. The song that was on when I started the car was PDA and we put it on repeat until we were on the way home from the hospital 3 days later.
There has been so much water under and over the bridge in nearly 6 years since. As humans, me and my wife have always had a black mark on our foreheads. Nothing has come easily in either of our lives. Sometimes this is the case to this day. When you are a child, there are things that can happen that virtually hardwire your brain to have a certain response to certain situations. Hopefully, that hard wiring is an optimistic and compassionate response to even the worst situations. In our case, the hard wiring creates a dramatically tight and stressful situation in the best case scenario. Thank the stars we are way too stubborn to give up. We’ll do almost anything to work out whatever is going on for our son.
Our son is a magical gift in our lives. And as the soundtrack for his birth, this song sends me back to my first eye contact with him. For the 20 hours that followed our arriving at the hospital, I had PDA in my head. And all that optimism in the chorus – “Sleep tight, grim rite, we have 200 couches where you can… Sleep tonight…” – was with me as I greeted our newest human. We have been waiting for you. Any couch, any bed. We had to put him under a blue lamp for a while to treat his jaundice, and we talked about how it was the light from our planet. He just needed it to make the transition. I tell him whenever we hear this song that it is his birth song. “I KNOW DAD!” He gets sick of hearing me say it.
The verses of PDA sound like someone making fun of me and my wife when we fight. Like I can see a video of us arguing and whoever is speaking, their voice comes out as Paul Banks’ voice. First her, “You are the only person who’s completely certain there’s nothing here to be into. That is all that you do.” Then me, “You are a past sinner, the last winner, and everything we’ve come to makes you you.” You can mix and match these. It makes sense either way. Neither of us is making sense and that’s sort of the point.
We don’t do this nearly as much as the years pass and we slowly get about the work of rewiring our heads. It takes a lot of patience and compassion. Something that we had in short supply 10 years ago, but something we have a lot more of now. I feel bad for our son sometimes. He didn’t sign on for our lame attempts at getting better over time. Then sometimes I think we are the perfect parents for him. We err and then we try again. That’s in the end the most important part. Keep showing up. Admit when you are wrong. Apologize. Try better next time. Sometimes I believe we are the gifts to him that he has been to us. I guess I’ll leave the final analysis for him when he grows up.
It’s sort of absurd to try. And that’s what I hear in this song. “Sleep tight.” “200 couches.” We are our own absurdity. We should just get up every morning and put on clown suits and pull on each other’s noses. But with as much as has passed, there is still a genuine love and affection. I wouldn’t come to this planet and put on my clown suit with anyone else.
“Yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to.”
I love that driving raw simplicity in the music. Makes me want to pogo. A song is irrelevant without the meaning the listener gives it. I know this song has nothing to do with me or the situation I described, but it lends itself to my narrative just as well. These are the pieces we drag along with us. These magical audio events that keep time to the passing years and remind us of things that have nothing at all to do with the music. Just other planets. Other lives. Other times. Lending order to the absurdity of our memories. What do I know? What do you know? At least we are from the same planet.
“Sleep tight, grim rite, we have 200 couches where you can… Sleep tonight…”
I have no idea what band I saw first at the Cabaret Voltaire in Houston. It was the early 80’s and it was likely to be something like Bark Hard, Stark Raving Mad or Blind Ignorants. But I do remember that it was a revelation. What an amazing thing it is to be a part of something that is actually happening. The energy. I went to the Cabaret Voltaire regularly for years and other clubs were added to the list. The quest is that original feeling. Is something new happening here? Can I feel a part of this? Are these guys going somewhere?
These are the feelings and questions that drive me to see new live music. And to tell the truth, I don’t like most of the music I have seen. But the exhiliration of seeing a good show more than makes up for all the bad shows I have had to suffer along the way. And who knows? Live music is a mixed bag. Sometimes a band has an off night. Sometimes the sound guy sucks. Sometimes the show you hear coming out of your monitors on the stage is totally different from what the crowd is hearing. But it’s hard to give a band another chance if I thought they sucked the first time I saw them. There are just so many things that can go wrong. But when it’s right, it’s so amazing.
I’ve seen so many bands come and go on the Texas scene. Some were popular and I always thought they sucked. Some were never popular and I always thought they were great. I have actually been in some decent bands that didn’t last a month. I have hated some bands that I knew were better than I’d ever be. I guess what sort of defines our Texas rock/punk/alternative scenes is bands that should have made it and bands that almost made it. Then there are the bands that self destruct right before or as they were onto something big. There are a few that kind of stuck it out and made a name for themselves. But I always felt like we even defined ourselves by our lame ass scene that can’t keep it together. But you know what I hate more than anything? It’s trying to explain to people in Houston or Austin that there is a good scene here. There are a lot of really good bands.
The Cabaret Voltaire had this sort of legendary scene associated with it. Really on any given day you would find about the same number of people there for any band. That’s mostly because a punk scene really holds together pretty easily. The goth scene had that too. There aren’t any cohesive genres holding any scenes together anymore. Maybe it’s something lost. I don’t know.
I didn’t actually go out to see any live music when I walked into Notsuoh in March of 2007. I just happened to be going to Notsuoh to hang out with some friends. Ume got on stage and blew me away. Here was all of the energy of the early punk scene in Houston. Here was a cohesive aesthetic. A powerful performance. A lot of passion and significance. I search for this experience, but I just walked into this one. Obviously they have a following that knows a lot. I asked people in the crowd to tell me more. It was hot as shit in there and I stayed for the whole show. It just doesn’t happen very often.
I liked the Urgent Sea CD. There’s a lot of great raw sounds there. And now they have an EP release coming up next week on January 24th. Go Ume! I like Sunshower and I love The Conductor. The Conductor is the same raw sound they had on that stage in Notsuoh. It’s got something new as well. Some new optimism that I didn’t hear in anything on Urgent Sea.
“Conductor won’t understand. This embrace is like quick sand.”
And maybe that’s where I’m going with this whole post. I have all this crap to say about how some “scene” doesn’t hold together very well. It’s all some pessimistic bull shit. I spent half this post getting down on some hopeless mythology that perpetuates through Texas scenes. But really it’s time to ignore shit like that. Ume is out there. They aren’t the only thing happening. If the first time in months I walk into a random club with live music and hear something I really like, it really is just time to get out more often.
Then there is this narrative. As far as I can tell, The Conductor is this metaphor for being trapped into a certain direction. We can’t get off this train. Somehow we started this momentum, and now we can’t get off. “Think I’ve made a bad mistake. We just passed through 7 states.” But then there seems to be all this temptation later in the song to sell out. You’ve ridden it this far, why not “change our sound, make a mint”. Maybe our Texas alternative/punk scene is just more dedicated to the basic fundamentals of punk. Do what you do. Do it well. Don’t measure your success in dollars or fame. Measure success in how much you enjoy what you are doing. Maybe I got the whole thing wrong, but that’s what I heard. It feels right, so I will stick with it.
The Conductor is everything that I miss about that Cabaret Voltaire scene. Self absorbed without being self conscious. Raw power without senseless violence. Metaphorical without the obscurity. Purposeful without preaching. Driving intensity with direction. Everyone is on in the original sense of Ume as I understood it. Ume really sounds like they are enjoying this ride.I hope I can make it over to Walter’s on the 31st.
I find the hardest thing to do when writing, especially about music, is catching myself when I am trying to be cool. It’s quite obvious to most people when someone is trying to be cool. I don’t think that people put it like that. It just generally comes off as just bad. This happens with music as well. I know I have been guilty of it with making music. I have done a lot of bad writing and made a lot of bad music.
When I started this blog, I thought I was going to be doing a new Indie CD each week. Rather than 365 songs, I was going to be doing 52 new CD’s in a year. I didn’t want to do any bad reviews. This was a pretty important part of the whole focus of the blog. No negativity. Only write about CD’s that I liked and effected me in some deep way.
The immediate problem I ran into was finding 52 entire CD’s that I liked enough to write something meaningful. I almost gave up on the entire idea when it occurred to me that it would be difficult to find 365 songs that I actually liked. It might even be difficult to find 52 songs that were meaningful enough to me to write something acceptable, but the idea of writing about 365 songs seemed like a really formidable challenge. So I was intrigued enough to actually get up every day and think about a song that I might write about before I went to sleep. In doing this, I ended up running into a bunch of new Indie music that I actually liked, which was a complete surprise. Because I really had been looking before but couldn’t come up with anything. So now that I was finding Indie music, I was giving up on writing about songs that meant something to me and looking for NEW songs that meant something to me.
So I have been thinking about Everbody’s Talkin for a couple days now, and I knew that I had to write about it. But I started thinking about my non-existent readers and how uncool I would look if I wrote about a Harry Nilsson song. Then I thought about how I would start this entry with this justification written above as the introduction and how that would come off as trying to still be cool. I also thought about the possible residual coolness that might be conferred to me around the cachet of being able to write about something with so much kitsch. My conclusion is that being honest is hard as shit sometimes.
And maybe in all this, I am talking about the song anyway. Maybe I am talking about the movie as well. I always got the sense that Midnight Cowboy was essentially about what happens when you think you’re missing something cool. “I should be in New York City. That’s where everything is happening.” The John Voight character gets there and everything goes wrong. Whatever tragedy he was escaping by trying to get where it was all happening is compounded by the tragedies of actually being there. He was trying to be cool. And the image of him standing there looking like a yokel when he thought he had it all together is basically the metaphorical image of me trying to be cool.
The song comes in at the end of the movie as Dustin Hoffman is dying and it picks up the narrative after everyone figures out that this attempt at coolness has been completely miserable. It’s about being home. The music is simple and after all of the darkness and complexity of a day in the life of Ratso is offset by this description of a place that exists in a dream. But it’s really there. You just have to stop trying to be so cool.
But then the really surprising part of this story is about Harry Nilsson himself. Somehow he was a good friend of John Lennon and Ringo Starr. The whole 70’s Lennon/Ono separation where Lennon went to Los Angeles for a couple years was spent with Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr and resulted in this crazy ineffectual drunken Harry Nilsson album produced by John Lennon. Also, Harry Nilsson owned a London flat that was used by people that knew him as a crash pad, and that’s where both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died four years apart. Obviously distraught after Keith Moon died, he then sold the flat to Pete Townsend. I’ve always thought of Harry Nilsson as pretty uncool and certainly disconnected from any of my childhood rock gods. Shows what I know about being cool.
And for a final twist, I believe that Harry Nilsson had a little bit of the cool bug himself. It seems that his career would have gone a lot further had he stuck to a sound. But he really was just too cool to come up with a single sound and aesthetic. If he could have put 3 albums together that sounded similar, he would have had a following that would stay with him throughout his career. But he just kept jumping around. Just at the point he was ready to capitalize on the early his late 60’s and early 70’s pop successes, he did an album of show tunes that no one cared about. For all of his success and connections, he really was just too cool to build success upon success. He had to show everyone how versatile he was.
“Backing off of the Northeast wind. Sailing on the summer breeze.”
There’s something sort of ordinary about everything in this song. Sparse in every way. Few lyrics. Simple concept. There’s only bass, drums, guitar and violins. I don’t know what it is about Harry Nilsson’s performance, but it really captures this really homesick feeling for me. I know I have heard the original version by Fred Neil, but this is the popular version that has stuck in my head. And while the song wasn’t written for the movie, I won’t ever be able to separate the song from the scene of Ratso slowly dying in the back of the bus on the way to Florida.
I love music that has a sadness that burns with this kind of optimistic intensity. But Burning Hearts does it for me.
I used to walk up and down Clay Road. Do you need a map? I don’t know how many times I made this trip. I have been thinking about this walk for a couple of days. There were various reasons that I made the trip so often, but really the walk was probably more important than the destination. I usually define most of my experiences in the dramatic context of events. “This tragic event happened…” “We went here and did this…” When really the reality of day to day life has nothing to do with events. It’s all about movements of people.
I had friends that were on the east end of the journey. And there were stops to make along the way. Places that I had some kind of business to take care of one way or another. But I know my reasons had nothing to do with this. I would spend an hour, or sometimes more if I made stops, walking to visit with people for less than 45 minutes. Then I would turn around and walk home.
There was something about the movement of walking that actually felt good. Much of my teen years were just a sort of deperate loneliness. I found it hard to breathe at home. Things weren’t necessarily bad at home. There was drama there. But none of it fully explains who I am or how I got that way. I have always been sort of a brooding character. My big question has always been, “Why are we here? What’s the purpose?”
Existential questions used to make me feel completely isolated. Motionlessness made me feel stifled. I could think and contemplate and feel like I was getting somewhere when I was walking, or at least outside. So I would invent places to go. And then I would go there. And when I got there, I would invent another reason to seek a new destination. Just keep moving. A big part of my identity was tied up in this, and I truly miss it. I miss driving around the country. I miss walking for 5 to 10 miles on a whim. Running does it for me a little bit. But really it no longer does the same thing. I can’t feel as constricted and repressed as I did then. So the release isn’t the same.
Despite being dirty and sweaty by the end of that trip, I would sit in the bayou for as long as I could to avoid having to go home. The bayou was just a tributary of the larger bayou system. There was a small cement part that made sort of a half pipe (maybe a one third pipe) where we would skateboard,hang out, smoke and wait for trouble to find us. I would sit in the dark leaning back on the inclined cement still warm from the day and feel my muscles tingling.
Sometimes in motion I can catch glimpses of myself in the universe from a distance. I can feel the global spherical nature of the ground I am walking on. I can see myself as a spec of dust on a giant ball of debris in a mostly empty universe with billions of stars and trillions of existences and experiences as meaningful and precious as my own. For a second I am not alone. For a burning instant I feel all the hope of life and all of the sadness of the gaping distance between me and everything else.
In my adult life, I can miss everything. Sitting at a desk. A computer. I forget that in motion life is in a completely different context. I lose my color vision and I see the world in shades of grey. If I stay there long enough, I start to think:
“What does one need color vision for anyway?”
I Lost My Color Vision really sort of leans these concepts against each other for me. There can be a real joy in depression. Really, walking up and down the street in the burning heat is no solution to feeling isolated. But it’s a “…rainbow on the wall…” in an otherwise hopeless existence. I really miss being depressed.
“You planted some flowers on the same spot I’d been planning to drop a nuclear bomb.”
I can see the stars above my head as I walk in the grass on the side of Clay Road, there are no sidewalks. I know the stars weren’t there. The glow from the city lights tends to block them out.
“I have all the right to feel blue if that’s what I’m into.”
I can feel the smoke in my lungs as I’m lying on the warm concrete in the bayou. It’s warm and dark.
“No colors can change my mood.”
I walk home and wonder whether I’ll be able to sleep.
I hate that when I am listening to something like this, and I feel like I have to go back to look everything up. “Who is playing the piano there? Who is on the bass? How did she feel about this song? Who are Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington? Did Johnny Mathis do it better in the original version? What the hell did the David Bowie version sound like?” Maybe it’s the music school in me, but every time I start listening to something with the kind of historical significance of Wild Is the Wind, I feel like I have to have a history book open.
No wonder I started getting turned off to jazz at Berklee. And really, it wasn’t their fault. I showed up with a profound lack of knowledge and respect for great American music. It’s tough to grow up in the USA and not end up this way. No wonder Berklee recruits so many foreign students. Yes, it adds to the prestige of the school, but the foreign students would show up and be years ahead of us in every subject. I remember sitting in Jazz History and the European students knew all the answers. A lot of them would place in later classes beyond classes that I already had a hard time not failing. The most frustrating part of this state of affairs is that the first thing I feel when trying to write about Wild Is the Wind as sung by Nina Simone is stupid. But hell it wasn’t the foreign students’ fault that they knew their shit.
I was walking by 1B (a recital hall in one of the Berklee buildings) and heard a voice in a small ensemble. Berklee was great for this. In between classes, I might be making my way down the hall and I would hear something coming from a room. I’d duck my head in the doorway to see what was going on. In this case it was a tiny Japanese girl singing Wild Is the Wind. She sounded just like Nina Simone. Everyone in the room was sitting there mouths agape. When the song was over she said “Thank you.” in a tiny Japanese voice with an embarrassed smile. It took everyone a minute to remember to clap.
Love is impossible. And love is more than impossible under bad circumstances. It’s also all that you have sometimes. And while I don’t think Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington meant for the song to have overtones of the civil rights movement, Nina Simone has all of that history in her voice. The struggle of millions is this thick soup. Her voice is plaintive without being sappy or overly sentimental. It’s like the evidence of the dispossessed in the intimacy of real love. Not the love that goes out to dinner and brings roses. The love that has no idea what tomorrow will bring.
I don’t know if it’s possible for this kind of subtlety to occur from any contemporary musician. To sing about love and everyone knows damn well that you are singing about the struggle for equality. To be able to perform a song outside of its original context and make it mean something entirely new. This kind of subtlety. This kind of genuine melancholy is gone from popular culture almost entirely.
There is no way to look that up. Nina Simone is like her own movement in history. Somehow she was able to project this rich imagery with her voice. A strong narrative that went beyond her technique and the mere lyrics of a song. She went further into something deeper and personal. An interpretation with significant moral and cultural overtones. Wild Is the Wind indeed.
I used to sit in my room and listen to music for hours and hours. I know this is not an uncommon story. Teenagers sitting in their rooms listening to music and daydreaming. It’s part of what makes music such an important part of the human condition. There’s this really important step in our evolution where we are somewhere between the fog of childhood and the sentience of being adult. I saw the world coming at me and felt the weight of what real responsibility was going to feel like. I was not sure of what that really meant. But the most important factor there is that I really still had a sense of wonder and music was magical. And truly music is magical. Don’t believe this? Try to explain exactly what it is that makes a song good.
I think that all of the arts are like this, but music sort of holds this distinction that sets it apart. It’s the only art that combines all of the factors of the other arts. There’s a dramatic factor where everyone is playing a dramatic character. The character may be the same for every song depending on the band, but it’s still there. There’s a visual element. Especially since video, but even without that, you eventually have to stand on stage and do something. For writers, there’s the poetry. Then there’s this additional element of being the only art that is defined by audio events arranged over a specific period of time.
I believe that musicians tend to be more dedicated to artistic integrity than any other art. Part of this is that you have to live with songs forever. As an actor, you can say, “Oh I’m older now. I don’t like that movie (or play) anymore.” An artist says, “Yeah I did that and so and so bought it.” Or, “It hangs in such and such gallery and it is what it is.” A writer says, “Yeah I wrote that and it stands for what it is in my time.” In any other discipline, you might be interviewed or asked about a piece, but you aren’t asked to get up on stage and recreate the entire piece for the millionth time. You write a piece when you are 18 and play it until people like it. If at 25 years old you don’t like the song anymore, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be asked to perform it over and over again.
But there is also this element of 14 year olds sitting in their rooms listening to music. And somehow you have to reach them. Which means that you still have to somehow be connected to the magic that a teenager feels. So to breathe life into 3 or 4 minutes of audio events is a tremendous challenge. There has to be this sort of innocent approach to the fact that magic exists, but music also has to somehow give some room for the pain of letting that magic go. So music is almost in a state of perpetual grief as we all grow up. Simultaneously trying to hang onto our concept of the magical and trying to function in a world that categorically denies it’s existence.
One of the reasons I started this blog is that I started looking at music reviews online. I have yet to find a blog post or magazine review of music that doesn’t leave itself entirely reviewing the music from the perspective of whether it’s “good” or “bad”. There’s this whole “it” factor and whether an act has “it”. Is so-and-so washed up on this record? Maybe this other guy is set to make a comeback. Or the I-don’t-like-this-song-because review. Even if the review is good, it’s just another review that’s a bunch of words that have nothing to do with what someone really thinks or feels. There’s no one out there doing deeply meaningful reviews of music. The reviews all categorically deny the existence of magic.
I’m a singer/song writer as well. I know that writing a song is deeply personal. I also know that there is no other art where people can be so rejecting right off the bat. If there is something wrong with a song, people will tell you about it right away. They are not shy. But even worse, when people like a song, they won’t tell you why. To accomplish any sort of magic in a song, you have to give a lot. You have to take a piece of yourself and put it out there for general consumption. For better or worse. I think if you are going to take the time to do a critique, you should have to get that personal about yourself. In other words, the consumption of art should be an art. Make yourself as vulnerable as the artist.
So I set out to do this. A deeply personal blog entry for 365 songs. I have to say this is incredibly difficult. And finding a song that I can use to get in touch with something deeply personal on a daily basis has been nearly impossible. But I keep thinking about what I want from consumers of my music. I want them to be deeply affected by my music. I want to know that I have not only rendered a change in their consciousness, but that I have actually gotten them in touch with their sense of wonder and an attachment to the magic that really exists all around us.
Soul Meets Body does this for me. I am lying in bed staring at the ceiling and I’m 14. Everything that I have been. Every dream I have ever had. Every crush I have ever had. Every aspiration that I may never reach is terrifying and exhilarating. Every idea that transcends the ordinary. Every childish fear and every adult explanation. I am found in being understood and understanding this music. I am lost in the loneliness of my own pain and longing. But I am filled with the magic of hope and transcendence “where soul meets body…”
“And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too
So brown eyes I hold you near
Cause you’re the only song I want to hear
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere”
I want my words to be as meaningful to the musicians as the music has been to me. Because I really want to know that I’ve reached someone. Really touched them. I think it is the aspiration of every musician. Every human. My offering at the altar of music. I hope it is enough.
I’m driving a 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis. It’s not mine. I have a .380 under the seat and a lot of meth-amphetamines. Those aren’t mine either I swear. I’m driving to Houston from Lufkin and it’s a long drive. I don’t give a single thought to the consequences of being pulled over with these things in the car. It’s 11pm and I’ve been up for 3 days. It’s raining like it can only rain in Southeast Texas. I can’t see the lines on the road and I’m hallucinating.
I don’t know anything about Nick Cave’s anger. But I do know that this song makes me think about how angry I was years ago. I am so far from that anger now that I don’t know what it feels like. Listening to this song is like watching a movie. Watching a movie about someone I used to be. And certainly it’s a work of fiction. There are so many shades of reality that I have no idea which order anything came in. I don’t know what’s true in its entirety. Don’t ask me to testify under oath because I’ll only tell you what I believe happened.
From 8th grade all the way through high school, all I talked about was being a writer. Even when I dropped out of high school, the first claim I made was that I was just going to write a book. There won’t be one person I know from high school that didn’t know that about me. No one would have guessed that I would have gone to a music school for college. I played guitar and I played in punk bands and garage bands… I was really passionate about music. But I knew I wanted to be a writer. Teachers supported me in this aspiration. I wrote well. Although my mother’s first response was, “Well you better figure out a way to put bread on the table!”
All writers seem to have a need to write a coming of age story before they write anything else. I have suffered over how I would approach this for years. I don’t remember enough about what happened to create anything cohesive around a narrative. It’s just a bunch of anecdotes. And then a good deal of it I don’t believe and I can’t create characters that are dumb enough to live them. The stories tend to be believable only in a truly anecdotal sense. To tell the entire story of the weekend of New Year’s that I am leaving behind in Lufkin is ridiculously unbelievable. But I do even have myself believing that I am driving home in the rain completely out of my mind 14 days before my 16th birthday. So I guess I didn’t know this about this blog until just now, but I guess this is as close as I’ll ever come to that coming of age story. And maybe I am only coming of age right now, 5 days before my 38th birthday.
I have figured out how to put bread on the table I guess. I know a lot about the world that I was sure I wouldn’t live to learn. I’ve done everything the hard way. I can’t lean on any credentials. I didn’t stick with a hip scene to back me up when my credibility comes into question. And while Deanna won’t come out for two years after the anecdote in question, I feel like it tells the story of how I felt on New Year’s Day 1986 rather well. I am angry. I don’t know why. And I will make up any reasons or surround myself with the craziest situations just to explain that anger. Guns, drugs, money, cars, bizarre Texas towns, punk rock, skateboards, bikers, classic rock, music, weathermen, friends I call family, family I call enemies whether they are or not. None of it is believable. I don’t even ask myself to believe it. Especially with who I am now. It’s a work of fiction. I have talked to some of the character actors in this film and they remember it differently. They remember the normal days at my house with my consistent mother who worked her ass off.
“No carpet on the floor. And the winding cloth holds many moths.” I’m in a deranged 50’s do-whop song. “Around your Ku Klux furniture. I cum of death-head in your frock.” I’ve told so many stories that the stories started telling me. “We discuss the murder plan. We discuss murder and the murder act.” Am I real. This was a life I cannot dream. “Murder takes the wheel of your Cadillac. And death climbs in the back.” I really don’t know who I am anymore. It’s like at some point I crossed over the line and became a human experience. I should have gone the way of the dozens of senseless punk rock and classic rock biker deaths that surrounded us.
“We will eat out of their pantries
And their parlours
Ashy leaving in their beds
And we’ll unload into their heads”
Apparently Nick Cave should have gone there too. This song must be his fiction. His surrealist landscape. There’s all that over the top energy. He doesn’t want just acceptable. He wants raw. You wake up from 10 years of what really happened and this fiction seems way more believable than the truth. You wish it were the truth. You aren’t sure whether you should be grateful to be alive or just shoot yourself. I often think about people that are in their 50’s or 60’s who clean up for the first time and they have 45 years of broken lives and burned bridges behind them, and I wonder what their fiction is that gets them through the day. Because I wouldn’t wish that dawning sober realization on anyone. My advice, out of compassion, would truly be: “Man. Don’t do this to yourself. Take it to the grave.”
“Our little crimeworn histories
Black and smoking christmas trees
And honey, it ain’t mystery
Why you’re a mystery to me”
So I’ll tell my coming of age story in the seams of the soundtrack. Most of the soundtrack didn’t exist in my time, but it’s telling my story to me, because I don’t seem to be able to tell it properly. I’m walking backward through the village. My existence is questionable and my story is my truth whether it’s true of not.
I see the cop car behind me. It takes me about 20 seconds, or longer, to convince myself that it’s really there. I haven’t seen a car in an hour. I pull over. I am not panicked in this version of the story. How could I know how I felt? “And I ain’t down here for your money.” I was so high, I couldn’t feel my face. “I ain’t down here for your love.” The cop pulls up alongside the driver’s side of the car and rolls the passenger window down. “I ain’t down here for your love of money.” I roll down the driver’s side window. He yells to me over the storm, “Son I don’t want to get out and give you a ticket in this rain. And I REALLY don’t want to be scraping your ass off the pavement in the morning. So please. Slow down. I know it’s a highway, but 35 will do.” I drive away.
I’m in a parking garage in downtown Houston in 1984. I’m 14. I’ve got a board with pitted wheels and rusted bearings. I don’t know where I got it. This is what we do. Skate around town all day. Maybe someone had a car. Just as likely, we just skated in from Spring Branch and caught a bus for part of the way if the bus came or if we had money. Who knows where we will sleep. It’s as much a coming of age story as any childhood on a farm. It’s not as urban as it sounds. Houston in 1984 was still very much Texas. Now there’s Houston and there’s Texas. They are two different places now. But we were at our post-apocalyptic best coming from punk and goth clubs that would let us in off the streets if we promised not to try to drink alcohol or worse.
I’m in the Edwards Marquee 23 parking garage at 3am. It’s 2008. Here are the skate kids. Who knows how old they are. Some are definitely young teens. Who knows where their parents are. Who knows what their existence means. I am so glad to be here to see this. I am so glad there are still kids skating parking garages at 3am. The technology is different than when we were out here. These kids have long boards with 75mm gummy wheels. There’s one kid with a short board and ramp wheels and he is shredding 9 floors of parking garage while drinking beer. There’s a tall skinny kid that somehow makes downhill turns on his back two wheels. There’s a girl with blond hair flowing behind her in shorts that squats pulling the outside edge of the board up as she leans into the first corner. I don’t know how fast they are going, but I have no desire to go that fast. I’m not too old. I just never could skate like that.
They are comic book characters. They are so unreal I wish I had a video camera to shoot a documentary. Everyone has a recent story about the police or an over-zealous security guard. Some of them have stories of paying off cops in exchange for skipping the ride downtown. Why am I so comforted by the idea that they are still here? I know our existence was pretty miserable most of the time. But we also had a lot of fun.
And a parking garage at 3am has a very post-apocalyptic feel to it. You skate to the bottom and take the elevator or the stairs to the top. You get a good view of the buildings from the top. Especially in Greenspoint. The medical center to the Southeast, the Galleria to the west, Downtown and Midtown to the northeast. It’s a lot of light and a lot of activity. But you still feel alone up there with a board and a bunch of kids. Where the hell do we come from? Where do all these at risk identities go as adults? Are we really all of the failures that society believes us to be? Or do we just fit somewhere else? Is there some kind of thought process that is valuable to society that is born only in the freedom of high risk teenage years?
Post-apocalyptic urban skateboarding. That’s what Club Foot does for me. It makes me think of family that is really lost forever. Dark parking garages. Dirty, sweaty, stinky, parentless teenagers. Misguided authority figures. Road rash. Leg cramps. Urban skylines. Blackened concrete. Cold ass wind ripping us apart in January. August nights that just wring you out and spit you up on a sticky dawn cherishing your discomfort on the long ride home.
What do you say about a song so unafraid of itself? So sure about it’s original intent? There’s nothing wrong with Club Foot. It holds itself together from the beginning to the end. I have listened to a bunch of live versions in mp3 and on youtube and they execute brilliantly on stage. There’s not much drama in their stage persona, but who the hell needs drama when you are playing this song like that? I challenge you to sit without moving some part of your body while listening to it. I don’t think you can do it.
For everyone who ever waited in a line outside a club while people that knew the bouncer skipped the line. For everyone who spends another minute of their precious time waiting in traffic for god knows what. Work. Home. Traffic bottlenecks. People that don’t know where they are going. Worrying about the home and the kids and a way into or out of the rat race. For everyone waiting for the starting gun on life. For everyone knocking back a few because you can’t find any answers, or to find answers, to your existential questions.
“Gather around the light post. Everyone in line gets in. Quit hiding hiding hiding hiding…”
A couple of days ago I wrote a post about the new definition of punk around a song by It’s a Musical called The Music Makes Me Sick. Even more satisfying than finding out I don’t have to like stuff that sounds like traditional punk just because it’s punk is to find something that does sound like traditional punk that’s really good. Granted, Radio 4 doesn’t really sound like traditional punk. In fact, they are described as “danceable punk” by… um… somebody. (I can’t find a reference for the quote. So I heard it somewhere… Sue me!) But the sound at least suggests a direct punk lineage to bands like The Clash and The Damned.
I think this is a large part of what I am missing about punk. A sense of what suffering is. Punk needs a release from something. When it was just noise and angst, punk addressed a release from an idea that success and happiness in life was attained through some absurdly narrow path. Punk said fear was not a path to success and happiness and that people living this lie were obviously not very successful or happy. Even to play rock and roll in the 70’s, you were up against all of these legendary players. Punk said you didn’t need to be Jimmy Page to play the guitar. You could still express yourself by just grabbing the damn thing and choking it. A lot of what punk is now just sort of needs a release from itself and some ear plugs. But Radio 4 inspires me to write a post that contradicts myself, which I love. I hope I never suggested that I would be consistent.
I think this “quit hiding” concept is this large contemporary metaphor. Maybe it will sound dated, the way hard core punk sounds dated, in about 15 years. Or maybe they hit on a universal truth. So many people hiding in lines and cubicles and social etiquette and professional aspirations. All of these things do produce satisfaction and results, and it’s not that there’s something missing. It’s that there is something additional. No one wants to wait in line for their turn to live. And I don’t think the metaphor is about waiting behind other people with the same aspirations to be done with their turn. It’s just that somehow we don’t allow ourselves to live now. Waiting in line suggests some kind of delay. But if I’m in the line and I feel connected to everyone around me. If I feel satisfied with what I have in that line, then am I really waiting for anything?
“Restless days and shades of gray and muted sounds. And cafe bars play songs no one can bear.”
Amen! I can do without listening to James Taylor again while waiting for my cup of coffee. Maybe he’s good, but that’s not the reason he was chosen to entertain you while you were waiting in line. He was chosen to entertain you because he’s not offensive. It’s a good business practice. If I owned a coffee shop, I would make you listen to James Taylor too.
The point is that absent direct oppression from war and poverty (which is real in many parts of the world), we are really free to be oppressing ourselves and more often than not, I think we go ahead and do that. Everything is about where we are going instead of where we are.
“Gather around the light post. Everyone inside gets in. Quit hiding hiding hiding hiding…”
I love this. Later in the song the line changes. It isn’t “in line”, it’s “inside”. Look friend. You are already inside and you still aren’t enjoying yourself. Where are you? I love the other very punk suggestion. Are you waiting in line for paradise? Maybe you are already there. Maybe you are a legend. Maybe you are looking at a pile of dog shit in a very large and beautiful field.
Open up your eyes. You might have it bad in the affluent society sense of the word. But you are what you are waiting for. There’s nothing for you on the other side of that door that isn’t on this side of the door already. Quit hiding.
A lot of singers attempt to get a sound that evokes Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin. The effort usually dominates the attempt. All you can hear is a singer trying to sound like a legendary singer. I hear hints of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin in Carol van Dyk’s voice in Painted Word. It comes off so well that her voice carries the whole song. There’s very little instrumentation in the song. It’s all Carol van Dyk. I don’t know how to describe what it is that is so rich and genuine about her voice. The whole song is just really all her hanging it out there. No vocal acrobatics. Just her singing a song.
I have been trying to write all week about this song. I have several woeful attempts at interpreting the lyrics where I get my filters all tangled up in her narrative. I ended up like the kid with his fingers in the dike trying to plug up all of the holes in my spin. I don’t know what keeps me going down this particular path. I don’t know why it is so hard to write about. I don’t know why I keep tying it all up in an interpretation of the lyrics. There is so much there without getting hung up in her words.
The song starts with this bass drum and these pizzicato strings come in with her voice. She sounds so relaxed and sultry. Then there’s this clarinet or something that keeps playing with the perimeters of the sound. There’s very little structure. Just keeping time and moving through the chord progression. Then this new world opens up with a new vocal that comes in over the tag line “the painted word”. It’s just her voice and it’s not like she changed registers or her approach to the singing, but there is a shift in the energy of the entire song. Nothing feels the same as it did in the beginning. “Woke you up, 4am. Said I wanted more here we go again.” Where are we now. Really I want to hear that moment in the song over and over again. Then the end of the song has this strange playful thing happening between the pizzicato strings and the bass.
It’s all very dark and mysterious. Maybe some lipstick, rumpled clothes, messed up hair, skirts, unmade beds. It’s all very sexy. There’s some kind of subtle narrative happening throughout the song but the plot is never handed over. You have to fill in the blanks. The blanks are enticing. I want to be involved in that sound. But my tendency is to take the sensual and make it barbaric. I want to make the song darker than it is, because it makes me uncomfortable. But the truth is, I want her to be singing about me.
It would have been so easy to overproduce this song. To keep adding things to a good idea until it became very mediocre. There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this, but Carol van Dyk comes off owning this sound like she invented it.
I love this new definition of punk. The original definition of punk was generally a music and style that broke all of the rules. Now new stuff that sounds like old punk is stale. The fashion, the instrumentation, the concepts are all ridiculously overdone. So the new definition of punk is that you don’t have to adhere to the traditional rules of making music. So there is a lot of stuff that sounds unlike traditional punk, like The Music Makes Me Sick, that is listed as “alternative/punk”. The link to the mp3 actually shows that as the genre. The Music Makes Me Sick is definitely not old-school punk. I’m sure there are a lot of people that don’t need a lesson in the new definition of punk, but I have recently found it fascinating and liberating. I was certainly getting tired of trying to listen to new old school punk and trying to get into it. I was starting to feel old. “Am I supposed to like this? Because I don’t.”
I just love the idea of laying critical concepts against light hearted musical landscapes. I feel like I’m listening to an ABBA song and then I realize they really are saying, “The music makes me sick. I stop to listen when you start to sing.” I guess what I’m really saying is that Ella Blixt and Robert Kretzschmar gave me permission to reject the idea that punk has to sound like punk.
When I started this blog, I was sort of in this place with music that this song was written about. Where is the good Indie music. I wanted to do a blog where I reviewed a CD a week by an Indie band. So I started looking for Indie Music. I ran into a lot of crap in my initial searches. And a lot of bitterness. I kept finding posts by Indie musicians saying stuff like, “Why am I not making it? I sound like those guys on the radio.” Part of it truly was that they did not sound like what was on the radio. It was terrible. But I was really more bothered by the aspiration. The stuff on the radio generally sounds like a million other things. Very little originality. And the repetition is agonizing. Is this really the best we can do? Diversity spread around the world in an instant via the internet. The freedom of whatever we want to listen to and I was listening to a bunch of bad reproductions of top 40 hits and classic genres.
I don’t know if It’s a Musical is great. Maybe. Have you ever heard the Scorpions early stuff? It’s a Musical sounds a million times better than that. But I do know that this song had my attention from the beginning. I suppose if a new old school punk band wrote these lyrics and set them to traditional hardcore punk and played their instruments as well as It’s a Musical, then it probably would be just as good. But isn’t that it. “It’s all been done yes. We’ve heard it before.” If all these factors came together in this hypothetical punk band, wouldn’t it occur to them that they were doing something that had been done before? But setting this line to traditional hardcore punk would be outrageously funny: “Do you really think it sounds better when it is so loud?” There is so much noise in a traditional punk song, you really can’t tell if anyone is screwing it up.
All that set aside, this song is infectiously happy. It’s very satisfying in so many ways. The instrumentation. The lyrics. An actual bridge. I watched the video on their website and at first I was like, “What the hell is this?” But by the end, I liked the video too. The harmonies are awesome. The sparse arrangement with very little noise to fall back on. That’s a tough thing to do when you are going to really emphasize intimate harmonies. If you can’t play, hear or keep time, it falls apart. This doesn’t fall apart anywhere.
Oh boy. “There we are! In the holes in the walls.”
It occurs to me that I might be happier if I just took my packaged dream and got over myself. But there is something that tells all of us that our particular dream is original. Even though there are 500 million people buying the same dream at the same time I like to think of myself as unique.
This is the point where the floor drops out from beneath my feet. And really, this whole song is this sort of blissful floating in some sort of consumer void with a sort of maniacal early B-52’s/Violent Femmes soundtrack. Everything is so shiny and packaged and we want it. Don’t deny it. You want it. I want it. I’m not turning down anything that gives me more consumer buying power. Credit or cash, I don’t care. If someone decides to give me millions of dollars I’m going to buy a glossy magazine life. I have the cheap version right now. It requires a lot more thought and strategy to get there, but I’m sold.
Every now and then I catch glimpses of myself that defy my firm alternative vision of myself. Usually I see it in other people first. Recently someone that I consider to be an idiot added that phrase that we all throw around to the punctuation of some antidote or conversation: “People are idiots.” And I laughed. And I guess I laughed on cue, because the laugh didn’t inspire any questions about what was so funny. But it occurred to me that everyone is saying this. So which people are the idiots? Is it you? Is it me? Do I go through my whole life with the mistaken idea that I am one of the chosen intelligentsia? I go to work every day and play my part in a system I despise and criticize whenever I get the chance. I project myself into every situation and see myself running the show flawlessly. Meanwhile my daily activity reveals gaping holes in my ideology. I am the idiot. I really am…
“There we are! In the holes in the walls.”
This song sort of celebrates our idiocy. Why not laugh madly as we browse the Ikea aisles? What choice do we have? Oh I guess we could go to Sears, but that’s just it. Our options are only different aesthetically. Even our option of not playing at all ends up being a play toward motivating others to keep playing. One way or another, we are all playing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s tattoos or towels, it’s all consumerism.
I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to get us off the grid. You know. Solar panels, wind turbines in the backyard, gray water, waterless toilets, rain water filtration systems, an organic vegetable garden… There are whole product lines dedicated to this demographic. The millions of us looking to escape the rat race. Looking for ways to escape the idiots. Ourselves. I can’t wait until I can afford all of the beautiful new product lines available to escape the system. Won’t that be wonderful? I can see myself now with my iron fence around my yard, manufactured in Mexico. I’ll be tending my organic vegetable garden, grown from seeds bought from a beautiful magazine that charged me more to guarantee that the seeds were harvested according to stringent organic guidelines. My roof will be covered with solar panels that took me eight years to pay off. The wind turbine on my roof might actually net me some money as it feeds electricity back to the grid. And as people drive by on the street outside my fence, I will flip them off because they are such idiots.
This makes me think of Fight Club: “You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center…” Okay. After that I’ll be exhausted and won’t want to cook. So we better look up city search to find a place in the area to get cheeseburgers. I’m not saying that there aren’t good messages there. It’s just good for us to understand that it’s a movie marketed to millions of idiots that are slaves to the system. That depend on the system to provide for our families. In the end, the movie helped repackage Ikea for a demographic that is tough to market to. The movie also helped create significant buying power for its creators. Damn, I wish I had done that rather than just being one of the consumers. I wish that Ponies in the Surf could write an alternative soundtrack to Fight Club. That would be ridiculously funny. Hell it might be ridiculously funny that I figured out a way to use Ponies in the Surf and Fight Club in the same sentence twice.
Our best efforts got us a system that we hate. Who are the idiots? Yes, people are idiots. Last time I checked, I was a person. I guess that’s me. What this song did for me was make me laugh at myself about it. Just remember this: “When it’s in your living room, it’s gone.” And damn that’s so true. Repeat it over and over like a mantra because that’s how true it is. Harmonize it in about ten different ways with a partner. This will make it even more true. Then repackage it and sell it.
The first time it happened I was in elementary school. I was sitting in class and there was a slight tickle near the top of my skull. Suddenly everything cut into halftime. I was looking at the teacher. Her voice was still making sounds in real time, but everything she did seemed to be slowed down. The sensual perspective was like an itch in my brain that I couldn’t scratch. Like if I could reach up and scratch my brain about two inches from the crown of my skull, everything would right itself. The mental equivalent of kicking the jukebox. After a few eternities, it went away, and as surely as I wanted the feeling to go away when it first occurred, I immediately wanted the sensation to return. I stared at the teacher trying to concentrate hard enough to make it happen again. I wonder what the expression on my face might have been and what she might have though of me had she noticed.
Throughout my life, this happens a couple times a year. Maybe it’s just a neat chemistry trick that my brain plays on me from time to time. I have conducted my own chemistry experiments to simulate the experience, but it never really comes close to the natural sensation. I have thousands of explanations involving a myriad of mystical variables that I like to try on as the truth. I suppose any one of them is true at any given time. It doesn’t really matter I guess. But my ego likes to latch onto experiences like this and create giant structures and ideals that I am universally responsible for. As I’ve gotten older, the sensation that I described becomes more of a burden as its familiarity signals new layers of responsibility that my consciousness will decide to take on.
Ego Blossoms is like standing on a street corner in Hong Kong and watching people for hours and wondering how all of this consciousness could exist simultaneously. Everything I think and do is a universe of conflicting desires and contradictory needs. I really never can tell what my true motivation is for anything. When I dream, the universes multiply and die. When I create things, I build a whole mythology around a thousand perspectives. There is so much input inside my own thought process that accounting for billions of other voices outside my own head is completely out of the question.
But sometimes I can block my own thoughts out long enough to contemplate throngs of people in a crowded metropolitan setting. Each person on each street, in every restaurant, in every office building and apartment building piled to the sky. Each of them has a consciousness filled with unfathomable depth. Each ego wants what it wants. Each blossom of consciousness is staggering in its complexity and contradiction. When each process decides what its motivation is, the carrier uses communication to add another layer of complexity to each consciousness that accepts its message. The message is construed by all those filters and the meaning is changed until it is unrecognizable to the originator of the thought.
I can’t imagine how the barrier of self could possibly be overcome to eliminate conflict in the world. The ego loves itself too much. Consciousness creates elaborate hoaxes to overcome widespread solidarity. There can no agreement with self, so there is definitely no way to even fabricate the appearance of agreement among large groups of people.
“Careful of the ego blossoms. They eat up everything in sight.”
About the best we can do is observe. To watch the ego grow itself into staggering structures that require resources and maintenance. There is no fighting this. It would be like trying to eliminate insects from the planet. The only outcome would be our own demise, and still, some insect would survive on some floating rock in the asteroid belt. The evidence of our ego would be all around. Marching constantly upward like the music. Plodding onward for the sake of self-perpetuation. You feel the music drop away from time to time but it’s just the blossoms building another plateau for their gardens.
“Nothing changes. Just another day.”
She visits this thought at the end of each chorus. And she whispers it at the end. You think the song is over and just fading out. But you listen and she just dropped a couple of layers and says in a whisper, “Just another day.” I immediately think of the underdogs from the beginning of the song. “They don’t show their face here anymore. I hear they’re doing fine. In the mountains drinking wine.” She wistfully repeats that too. I understand why. It sound so good in relation to the persistent manifestation of the ego blossoms. “Drinking wine.”
And there it is. I wish I could switch it off and on. I reach up and push my right index finger through the top of my skull and find the switch that manifests itself as an itch that slows everything down. I lightly scratch the place in my brain that complicates my life. I turn it off. And then I have a moment of peace “in the mountains drinking wine”. Doesn’t that sound nice. A season without ego blossoms eating “everything in sight”. A vacation from my self. I can feel the stress melting away.
Sometimes I get kind of panicked about how little of what I have wanted to do with my life I have actually done. In that state, I can hardly take any action that gets me closer to doing the things that I want to do. It’s sort of self perpetuating at that point, because then I get even more panicked that I haven’t done anything with my life and now I definitely can’t. It’s sort of easy to sit at that point and wonder how the hell I am supposed to move forward. I would guess that the most dismal failures of my life have been me sitting around wondering how to get out of this state of mind. I have pissed away a lot of opportunities this way.
It’s kind of like Hamlet in a way. I hate Hamlet. Everyone knows what Hamlet should be doing next. He is the only one suffering the indecision. Everyone in the audience knows what he should be doing next. But for whatever reason he is incapable of taking action. Even if death is his fate, at least he would die having taken action. But he just lets everything build until the whole thing just explodes on him. I hate Hamlet because I have spent so much of my life being like him.
But this song isn’t about a character flaw or blown opportunities. It’s about the actual panic. The actual feeling that causes the inaction. There I am sitting in some indescribable nothingness unable to hear my own thoughts. If I could hear myself think, maybe I would actually get up and do something.
Ghosts sort of drift in and out of the room, each with their own motif. They all have something interesting to say, and I am listening. They speak in metaphors and puzzles and I am sure that I manufactured their thoughts in my own head. But none of it sounds familiar. I want to follow one and see where it goes but I am too afraid. Their exits seems to suggest a very large population of their kind. That’s too many metaphors and too many puzzles.
But still, I am fascinated by the idea of writing something that truly captures this state of being. I could sit and contemplate it all day. I thought I was always trying to escape the anxiety of my end, but it occurs to me that I am comforted by the presence of my own death imagined in thousands of original sequences. I want to fully contemplate each of them. I want to savor every ounce of that panic. I identify myself by this anxiety. I count my heart beats and breath deeper. Sounds more like satisfaction than desperation to me. Most of what I know about myself has been discovered in my fear of death.
But ultimately, I am those ghosts. “I was the corpse that spiraled out… Into phantom hallways…” The vocal is sort of woven into this tapestry of sound and it waves in the wind like a flag. That voice never escapes itself. It never knows that it is itself it is trying to escape. The voice cries out of the smoky ripples on the surface of the seer’s cauldron. It is paralyzing and fulfilling. So powerless and ethereal and self-determining all at once. There will be no disappointment here. I will get exactly what I expect.
I find this feeling nearly impossible to write about, and I suppose that’s why it’s being said with music with hardly any lyrics. Hell, I really don’t know that this is what the song is trying to express, but this is what it makes me think about. Truly, Octet shouldn’t be removed from the concept album, Cryptograms, that it was created for. Cryptograms is brilliant overall and maybe I should write a book about what Cryptograms means to me, but the song Octet makes me get up in the middle of the night and check all the doors and windows.
Houston, Winter 1997. I’ve been staying at my mother’s house for a few months to get a job and an apartment in Houston. I’m standing in the shower. The shower is one of those stand up things with no bathtub and it’s covered with rough beige one inch tiles. I lean my forehead against the tile. I lay in bed for 10 minutes every morning dreading this moment. Sometimes longer. Somehow I make myself get up and take this shower. Now it’s time for the actual moment I’ve been dreading. Turning off the water. For some reason, this bout of depression manifests itself as physical pain when I turn the water off in the shower. My skin feels like it’s being burned off. I don’t really know what that feels like, but I’ve read about it. This is how I imagine it feels. Eventually, I reach up and turn the water off anyway.
Boston, Spring 1996. I am walking up Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and I can see my girlfriend like a ghost through the second floor bay window smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. There isn’t much light in the apartment, but I can see her just the same. Maybe a lamp behind her in the living room. She hasn’t left the apartment for days. I have groceries and she will cook them. The food will be good. The conversation predictable. About once a week she will call me at work and break up with me. By the end of the day, she won’t be able to make it through the night without me. I am required to enter her mental space a couple nights a week to draw her out. Sometimes this is not pretty. There are lots of tears. Sometimes there is screaming.
I am thinner than I have ever been in my adult life. During the week, I only eat the food that she cooks. Sometimes I can make her get out of the house at midnight to walk across the street to buy cigarettes at the Ritz Carlton Courtesy Booth. If there’s a holiday, we spend a week preparing her to go to her parents house, pummel her with wine through dinner and go home. Sometimes on the weekends, we will go to my apartment that I keep for some ridiculous reason and watch football the whole weekend with my roommate. He isn’t much better off. We all ordered a pizza one night and when the pizza guy rang the doorbell, my roommate and my girlfriend both ran and hid. At least we were able to laugh about that after I paid for the pizza.
Boston, Winter 1993. I’m in the Charles River Park at midnight by myself. I haven’t slept in about five days. I work during the day at Blue Cross Blue Shield. When I look at pictures of me from this period of time, I look older than I do now 15 years later. I am unsure of what is real. I really don’t remember how I got here. It’s 20 degrees and the wind is blowing. I have this crazy obsession at the moment with finding a green leaf. I stand under a leafless tree with a wide canopy watching people (I can’t imagine they are actually there at midnight in 20 degree weather.) walking or running along the jogging trail. I walk along muttering incoherently and crying from time to time. I find myself facing a bush with one green leaf attached to it.
Every week on Tuesday, I go swimming with a recently divorced woman 14 years older than me at Simmons College. We were introduced through a mutual friend. We are close and should be dating but I am losing my shit. I tell her about the one green leaf with a maniacal intensity, and then I pull this leaf out of my pocket. After this, I never return her phone calls.
Houston, Summer 1989. My friend Justin calls me for the 20th time in a month detailing how he is going to commit suicide as soon as we get off the phone. I don’t have a car or I would go get him and take him to a meeting. The trouble that he is using as an excuse for his despair seems so minor 20 years later. He showed the police a fake insurance card after he got in a wreck. This isn’t the first time all of us (Justin’s friends) have been through this. We did this the previous year. I can’t help but be a little impatient with him. I half heartedly say that I will try to get a ride over to get him. I make a few phone calls but everyone says that they have already talked to him. They all feel the same way that I do. You just wish that whatever was clinging to him doesn’t make it’s way onto you. You want to help him, but he’s drowning and it’s definitely possible that he is going to drag you down with him. I spent months almost as depressed in his apartment with two other friends eating frozen pizzas and watching movies (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October) on the VCR and listening to Pink Floyd. I don’t want to go anywhere near Justin, but I know he needs help. I also know that I am incapable of helping him.
No one goes to get him and he shoots himself with a shotgun. His roommate is in the next room. He dies an accidental death 12 years later in his apartment from combining prescribed anti-depressants with probably 24 cans of beer. The thing that keeps me trucking through all of my future bouts with depression is this one incident. I may want to disappear. I may want my life to be over. I may want the pain to end. But not at the expense of dozens of friends and family members.
“But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through. You’ll fake it if you have to and you’ll show up for work with a smile.”
There is plenty that’s bad enough to make you want to end it. There are fates worse than death. One of those fates is suffering through a loved one’s suicide.
I love the march on the snare. I love the plodding nature of the downbeat. I love how the whole band builds into a crescendo of defiance toward the end. The illustration about how sometimes you’re on. Everyone sees glimpses of freedom and greatness in your depression. Everyone can see you in your abyss. They all want to reach down and pull you out, but it’s damn near impossible. And then the energy dissipates in the end and the darkness engulfs you. And as you descend into your darkness for another indefinite period of time, you invent things, like the sing song nursery rhyme Jenny Lewis sings at the end of the song, to build a fantasy about something to look forward to. And you hang onto that for dear life.
I haven’t been depressed like this in a long time. If you have never been depressed like this, thank whatever you believe in for that! Because the truth is that for a good long time, there is no “…ship may be coming in…” You’ll just sit there and wonder what the hell is happening.
I have been struggling with what is so powerful about this song for a while now. There’s something shamanistic and incurably psychedelic about Gold Lion. My temptation is to say something narcissistic about knowing what Karen O is trying to tell us. Those attempts at relating to her message come out something like this:
“Karen O what are you trying to tell me? There’s only darkness and wind. We have inherited this hopelessness. We are the misunderstood. Rejected even by ourselves. Destined to be misrepresented in our every success and jeered in our failures. Tempted to live our whole lives in disguise rather than approach true expression. Dry, barren, cold or unbearably hot. Gold Lion has a secret about where the light is. But it seems so impossible. I search the darkness. Impenetrable…”
It’s so terrible it’s almost embarrassing. I struggled around in this vein for a long time trying to get at the essence of the song. Why do I feel so damn cool when that incredibly sparse drum beat begins? And finally that question did it for me.
Gold Lion is so unbearably cool. I want to be that cool. I want to know what she’s saying. I want to know every nuance of meaning behind those Karen O bangs. I want to write 1000 words trotting out my punk street cred and why it’s me that knows what she’s saying. I want to be elevated to the status of punk saint because of my understanding of the deeper cultural significance of the Gold Lion. Then I’ll explain what the light is that the Gold Lion knows the location of. I would trace this song’s origins backwards through all alternative and punk history. I would be able to draw analogies that reference Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop and David Bowie and Johnny Rotten and Patti Smith and Nick Cave. I’ll even make sure to spell the names right so you understand that I actually owned their records.
I can’t help but even fail at my self referential circle jerk. Karen O is way cooler than I’ll ever be. Brian Chase is so hip that I can’t even begin to understand what makes him think he can get away with so much space in his grooves. Nick Zinner redefines guitar raunch with powerful riffs with enough space to drive a truck through. Nick’s so cool that every sound that comes off his rig sounds like he meant it. In Gold Lion, all of the ideas are simple. All of the execution is monstrous. I have no fucking idea what the song means, but every time the song comes on I feel my face changing shape.
This song makes me question everything I do. Have I made a right choice about what to do with my life ever? Isn’t there something else I should be doing? Shouldn’t I just get up and walk out the door and never turn back? Everything is so certain. That drum beat is the right beat and no it doesn’t need to be embellished. Gold Lion is going to tell her where the light is. Those guitars come and go as they please. Now I know what makes a moon without a tide. Cold desire.
I could go on but the song is over and I feel like throwing my guitar down and leaving the stage. My life is so completely uncertain. I want that kind of certainty. Show me where the light is.
I’m walking out the back door of our house in Byram Township New Jersey. I walk straight through the neighbor’s lawn behind our shed. I move quickly because they don’t like it when I cut through. The bushes are overgrown. I have to rub my shoulder against the other neighbor’s wooden fence. On the other side of that fence is a pool that I have spent much of my childhood in. I pass from the darkness of the narrow alley on the side of the fence into the front yard. I am mostly clear now. I have come this way because I don’t want to see anyone I know. My mother may have been just pulling into the driveway before I left. I am not sure if this is true but I was suddenly struck with a very claustrophobic feeling and I had to leave. I know where I’m going but I also don’t care where I’m going. The air is crisp and clean. I have an adult sized army shirt for a jacket and work boots. I am maybe 10, 11, 12. I am the loneliest kid on the planet.
“I farm for my meals…”
I walk quickly down the street. I don’t want Mr. or Mrs Matulo (the neighbors with the pool) to drive up the street while I am here. It’s not that I will be in any kind of trouble. I am just ashamed. I couldn’t tell you what I am ashamed of, but my whole life is filled with shame. There are only a handful of people that I don’t feel ashamed around. I’m on my way to see them.
“I get my back into my living…”
Sean’s house is at the end of the street I am on. I am walking quickly and I stare at the ground. I don’t want to see anyone I know. Or more accuarately, I don’t want to make eye contact with anyone who knew me when I was 8. I don’t know that person anymore.
“I don’t need to fight…”
I walk straight up Sean’s driveway without looking at the front door or the house. When I reach the garage, I pass to the right of the house and follow a stone wall to the woods behind the house where I pick up a faint trail. I haven’t slowed down once, but now I can breathe a little easier.
“To prove I’m right…”
The path emerges from the woods onto a steep slope where nothing grows. It’s clay and top soil and rock mixed together and it’s treacherous. I can see the backs of the buildings along 206 from here. I walk straight down the slope without slowing down. At the bottom of the slope, I am in a gravel parking lot and I walk to the front of the building. A store front of some sort. I can’t even visualize it. I still don’t look up as I step into the busy traffic on 206. I am not exactly reckless. I can see the cars and I am timing it well. But I don’t want to see anyone I know on 206. It could be my mother. Any one of my neighbors. It could be any of the dozen friends I used to have before my parents split.
“I don’t need to be forgiven…Yeah yeah yeah…”
I am across 206 and walking through the parking lot of a bar whose name I can’t remember. Now I am passing down a gravel driveway and I am hidden from 206. I don’t care who sees me in West Brookwood. I hardly know most of the people and most of them don’t know my family. It’s the eyes in East Brookwood that I find oppressive. I make my way through the streets of West Brookwood to the Wecht’s house. It doesn’t matter who is home. Jason or Jonathan will be somewhere. I am free.
“Don’t cry… Don’t raise your eye… It’s only teenage wasteland…”
There are no uncomfortable questions here. I don’t care if I eat or do drugs or break into a bar. I don’t care what we do. If only one of the 5 other siblings is around, I will sit there with them until Jason or Jonathan show up. If no one is home at all, which is damn near impossible, I will sit on the porch until someone shows up. I don’t want to be anywhere else ever.
“Sally take my hand…”
My fantasy life is about someone that I have a crush on in school. It doesn’t matter what name it is. Melissa, Laura, Michelle, Patty… The fantasy is about someone that doesn’t exist. They are being abused and I save them and we run away. I feel it like it’s real. We escape into the night and don’t look back.
“We’ll travel south cross land…”
My life is so miserable and discontented, I would go anywhere and do anything other than be around my house. There is nothing I can do at home that is satisfying. There is no person I can see that I have known for years that won’t produce some kind of anxiety. I don’t know how to answer the simplest question. “What do you want to drink?” “Would you like a hamburger?” Can you imagine how the more invasive questions are handled? “How are you feeling?” I can remember not being able to speak. Knowing it was my turn to speak and not being able to move my lips at all.
“Put out the fire and don’t look past my shoulder…”
I wanted to disappear. I wanted to be completely annhilated from the list of my parents mistakes. I wanted to be so high that I couldn’t think about anything. I wanted to be around people that felt the same way that I did. I wanted to be around a group of people that didn’t have adults. No rules. No judgement. No real questions.
“The exodus is here…”
We truly didn’t have that many drugs. We liked to think of ourselves as big into this kind of thing. But truly we spent a lot time dreaming about what we would do if we had a lot of pot. But we seldom had any. Alcohol we would steal when we had the chance. Most of our lives were defined by a lot of incoherent laughter about nothing. A lot of aimless wandering that was deeply meaningful to us.
“The happy ones are near…”
I hated seeing my previous life so much that I would make this same trip every morning just to be on a different bus from the one I had been taking since Kindergarten. When I made it to the bus stop, Jason, Jonathan, Laura and I would make a decision about whether we were going to school. Obviously, often we didn’t go to school. If I got up too late to walk across 206, I would wait until the bus was gone. Then I would walk out the front door and go a different way through some yards and across a stream until I got in the woods. Without a trail of any kind, I would make my way in a straight line to the school. Maybe a 2 mile walk.
“Let’s get together before we get much older…”
I had no thought in my head about anything changing. The only comfort I could comprehend was my friends. We smoked cigarettes until our lungs hurt. We broke into the storage shed for the bar on 206 multiple times. We scrounged for money. We asked each other how much money each of us had every day.
We crashed the older kids parties. They tried to hide them from us but we always showed up. Midnight parties at the older kid whose mother never left her bedroom. The lean-to at the boy scout camp. If the police showed up, we ran. I wouldn’t come home on the weekends until 3 am or later, if at all. No one ever seemed to notice.
“They’re all wasted!”
I hear this song and a desparate longing fills my chest. There are times of my life that I have avoided listening to it. Times when I was trying to build something else. I have a fairly successful life now. I have a son and a girl on the way that I hope never feel that rejected by everything around them. But all of my fears and desires have their basis in that longing. I can still see the looks on all of their faces the last time I saw them. I lost some brothers and sisters 25 years ago. Everyone cried a little.
My whole life has been about leaving little pieces of myself with different groups of people. We were children. And children move away. And grief is a hard lesson to learn. But I left a piece of myself with them. They saved my life in ways they couldn’t possibly understand. I don’t really understand it. But every time this song comes on I can see Jonathan, Jason and Laura on the last day I saw them in New Jersey. It makes my heart hurt for all of the innocence we didn’t think we had left at that time. It makes my heart hurt for everything I wasn’t able to share with them later. But really, being able to feel something with this kind of intensity is what life’s all about. And all of that intensity is tied up for me in this song and that narrow strip of Northern New Jersy that we stomped in our time.
In Boston, when I was very active with music, which, to be honest, I wasn’t active the whole time. I used to do this community theater gig and it was really the most amazing gig I ever had. I was given complete artistic freedom and I could just come up with whatever I wanted.
The director and producer of the community theater was this Chemistry professor at MIT. He was very strange. And we clashed a lot. I was young and I didn’t care if he was paying me, which he was. If there was any one gig I would like to have. That was it.
I would be there for rehearsals from the beginning and develop themes for the characters. A couple of the plays were Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Chekhov’s The Seagull. All of the plays were classic plays. The director was a little inept sometimes but it was one of his dreams. He wanted his own Chemistry Lab (MIT) and he wanted run a community theater and he wanted to direct classic plays. He also wrote a song for each play. The songs were terrible.
So one of my jobs was to produce and record his song. Not only produce it, but score it, arrange it, find appropriate people to perform it including the singer and then somehow make the song recognizable to him while still making it sound good. I have a reel of 8 track tape in my box in the living room with The Seagull arrangement on it. I haven’t heard it in 20 years.
I also participated in blocking and the character’s motivation. Sort of just critiqued and helped him put on these plays. It was my first experience in drama and soundtracks of any sort. And it was really a great experience in producing stuff I didn’t like and making it sound as good as I could whether I liked the piece or not.
I’ve been listening to Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous. There are a couple songs that have really entered my head. And there are a couple of songs I really don’t like, and I don’t think it’s their best, but Portions for Foxes and A Man/Me/Then Jim are really great songs. And Jenny Lewis’ honesty I guess is the thing that always gets me going back to Rilo Kiley. I envy that. I don’t think I can see myself that clearly. Of course, maybe it’s all fiction and I just understand it as clear self-examination. I don’t know Jenny Lewis, so how could I know.
I’m sort of in this amateur bull shitting myself area with everything. I need lyrics but I don’t like anything that I’m thinking of. And then the Berklee teacher that told me, “Writer’s block is the luxury of amateurs!” pops into my head whenever I end up in the “I don’t know what to write about” corner. It’s all crap. The opening song of More Adventurous is It’s a Hit and I have added enough of my own experience to read the theme as being about writer’s block. But I don’t really think the lyrics point to that. It really is about the futility of trying to write a hit.
So I have sort of invented this excuse about writer’s block. It means nothing. If I don’t attempt to write a song then it won’t happen. If I don’t really do anything, what?. If I don’t have somewhere that I am a musician every day, then I am no longer a musician every day. Who am I talking to? Why would I write anything when there is no venue? And why am I apologizing first blog post? I wonder how long it will take before I just say what I think.
Portions for Foxes has really had me thinking for a long time about what’s left of us. I wonder at what point a person solidifies their view of the world. “We’re start out as suckers and end up as assholes.” – Beijing Rocks