HOME | ABOUT | BIOS | EMAIL
Thursday, March 05, 2009
Nilsson Sings Newman
Buddha : 1970
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
Available on: King of the Road
Bear Family : 1994
FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
My Name Is Buddy
Nonesuch : 2007
LOVER IN THE SNOW
Available on: Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo
Geffen : 1997
STEAL SOFTLY THROUGH SNOW
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
Reprise : 1969
HUMIDITY BUILT THE SNOWMAN
Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings
Oh Boy : 1995
Last week I went to a land of snow, though not the land of ice and snow. I skied, which hasn't happened in years, and skied fairly well, which hasn't happened in about as many years. My only goal was not to fall. I also met some new people and found them all to be very nice, which surprised me. I had forgotten that about people. I should get out more.
While I was in the snow, one of my friends was also on vacation, though she went to a land where it never snows. She was going on her trip, in part, to forget something unpleasant. I won't say whether it was an unpleasant circumstance within her family, or an unpleasant work experience, or an unpleasant relationship. The point is that she was trying to forget, and using distance and difference as tools to do so. She went somewhere with a beach, which made for nice symmetry: her surf, my snow. We figured we'd both be out of the reach of technology, but we forgot that nearly every remote outpost has the dreaded internet, and that the reach of cell phones is now roughly equal with the reach of the human species.
My first day in the land of the snow, it was sunny and warm. People skied in jeans and light jackets. The second morning I woke up to a blizzard. Snow was coming down everywhere. I was determined to get to the mountain early, and so I went tromping out in my ski boots, picked up my skis from the rack outside the hotel, and waited for the shuttle bus to take me to the base of the mountain. When I got there, I got into the lift line and realized that I had forgotten my lift ticket. To say that I was aggravated is an understatement, but I had time, so I went back to the shuttle bus and back to the hotel to pick up my ticket. As I went into the hotel, I noticed that there were no footprints by the entrance. As a record of the morning, this was inaccurate. I had been there, and I assumed other people had been, too. But the snow that was falling had already erased them. I had forgotten my lift ticket, sure, but now the snow was forgetting me entirely. It was like natural amnesia.
When I picked up my lift ticket, I also loaded up my iPod with songs about snow, and pretty soon I saw that I wasn't the only one who had considered the connection between snow and memory. Randy Newman's "Snow," which was recorded by Harry Nilsson but left off the original version of Nilsson Sings Newman, describes snow as a medium where memories both live and die.
Snow The bluegrass standard "Footprints in the Snow" complicates the case considerably. The song--a staple of Bill Monroe's act that has been covered by dozens of musicians--tells the story of a man who has been separated from his lover and uses the snow to locate her. More specifically, he tracks her:
Fills the fields we used to know
And the little park where we would go
Sleeps far below
In the snow
It's all over and you're gone
But the memory lives on although
Our dreams lie buried
In the snow
Now some folks like the summertime when they can walk aboutThis seems like a nice story, right? His darling got lost, he went out to find her, snow helped, the end. But then the song turns, and makes it clear that it really was the end:
Strolling through the meadow green it's fun there no doubt
But give me the wintertime when snow falls all around
For I found her when the snow on the ground
Well, I traced her little footprints in the snow
I traced her little footprints in the snow
I can't forget the day my darling lost her way
I found her when the snow was on the ground
Well, I dropped in to see her there was a big round moonMiller's version is upbeat, almost chipper, and it's easy to overlook the fact that it's a love song about a frozen corpse. Ry Cooder shifts the story so that it's a cat in the snow, not a woman -- "My Name is Buddy," where his version appears, is a concept album about the American labor movement that uses anthropomorphic felines as characters -- but goes back to the older lyric in one important respect. While neither version disputes that the woman/cat in the song lost her way, Miller "can't forget that day" while Cooder (like Monroe before him) wants to "bless that happy day." Snow death is many things, but a blessing? It almost turns the tracking into stalking, and the death into a wished-for moment of revenge. That's even more plausible in Rivers Cuomo's "Lover in the Snow," which forgoes memory entirely for discovery.
Her mother said she just stepped out but would be returning soon
I found her little footprints and I traced them through the snow
I found her when the snow was on the ground
Now she's up in heaven she's with an angel band
I know I'm going to meet her in that promised land
But every time the snow falls it brings back memories
For I found her when the snow was on the ground
I wanna knowMy cell phone worked perfectly on the ski lift, and after the third run, legs burning a bit, I called my friend to compare notes. She was on the beach. "Interesting," she said. "Footprints are a pretty dicey issue here, too. You can run from here to there, and as long as you keep close to the water, pretty soon there's no record of it at all. On the other hand, if you're too many yards up on the sand, it's too dry, and the wind blows away any evidence of you. That middle band, where the sand is damp, is the one where footprints last for days. Are there different names for those different kinds of sand?"
What were you doing with my friend?
Out in the eve
Deep in the shady glen I saw you,
Lying with him, down in the snow,
Letting him do all of the things that he wants to
"You're cutting out," I said.
"My phone has worked fine all week," she said.
"Maybe it's mine," I said, and hung up.
She had gone too far into the issue, and I wanted to back off to a simpler, more elegant question: Is snow an instrument of memory or an instrument of forgetting? It was snowing harder, and I looked out at a creek, at the trees, at the other mountains in the distance. I didn't know anything about them except that I was among them. And then I wasn't. Let me be clear about this: it wasn't a mystical experience so much as a mathematical one, a calculation of proportion: when everything is covered by snow, what you forget most is yourself. Newman/Nilsson were right (personal pain is under there somewhere), but also deeply wrong (insisting that it be visible is an act of narcissism). Snow may not be time, exactly, but snowfall is a measure of it, a means of cutting human experience down to size. When I got to the top of the mountain, I went through a number of songs--Marvin Gaye's "Purple Snowflakes," Jonathan Richman's "Abominable Snowman in the Market"--until I found Captain Beefheart's "Steal Softly Through Snow," which is even clearer on the opposition between nature and man's desire to mark it:
Breaks my heart to see the highway cross the hillsAt the bottom of the run, my phone buzzed. It was my friend, leaving me a message. "I guess we got cut off," she said. "Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I'm doing fine. I'm not remembering as much about the bad thing as I worried I would. Sometimes I do, and it's not pleasant, but I'm not going to beat myself up about it. It'll pass, right?" She was right but I didn't call back to say so. Instead, I went back up the lift with John Prine's "Humidity Built the Snowman," a song about human limits that stubbornly indulges human hope:
Man has lived a million years and still he kills
The scientific nature of the ordinary manI didn't fall.
Is to go on out and do the best you can
Labels: ben, country, folk, pop
posted by Ben
Thursday, January 15, 2009
MY LOVE FOR YOU HAS TURNED TO HATE
Available on: Original Singles Collection
Mercury Nashville : 1992
I'VE GOT REASONS TO HATE YOU
Available on: Life's Like Poetry
Bear Family : 1992
HATE STREET DIALOGUE
Light In the Attic : 1970
I HATE U
The Gold Experience
Warner Bros. : 1995
HATE IS THE NEW LOVE
OOOH! (Out Of Our Heads)
Quarter Stick : 1992
I HATE YOU
Black Monk Time
Polydor : 1966
TURN IT INTO HATE
Razor & Tie : 1996
This week I published a short article in the magazine where I work. It was a humor piece about the Holocaust. Well, really, it was a humor piece about the Herman Rosenblat case, and the way that our culture encourages the artificial sweetening of memoirs about even the more horrific events so that those memoirs can better appeal to publishers, programmers, movie studios, television executives, and the public. It wasn't a major achievement, but it was a piece with a point. I should know. I sharpened it.
I thought it would make a little trouble, and it did. People don't like jokes about the Holocaust, even jokes that use it to make a broader case. In the wake of the piece, I have been getting a pretty steady stream of hate mail. The people who have decided to send me hate mail have derided not only the piece, but my entire body of work, not to mention my character and (in one case) my parents' character. That guy was the worst. I won't say his name. Let's say his name was Bill, which it wasn't. Bill wrote many negative things about me. Some I will repeat, some I will not. I will paraphrase and conflate, possibly also inventing: I'm trying the Herman Rosenblat thing. Among the things Bill said was the following: "You should be ashamed of yourself and your parents should be ashamed of you and if they aren't then they are just as self-hating as you." He went on: "race traitor," "talentless," "awful," and one misspelled profanity. (To be fair, it was probably mistyped: does anyone think it's spelled "fcuk"?)
I thought for a little while about Bill, who I won't identify, but whose remarks I will briefly dignify with a response. Dislike of the piece is fine, Bill. I prefer praise, Bill--who doesn't?--but I don't believe in a world where my preferences should always be satisfied. People are under no obligation to like my work, Bill. For me to believe otherwise would be idiotic, Bill. Sometimes, something I write will rub people the wrong way, Bill. Don't you think so, you freakin' moronic eunuch? See: it can happen. Other times, it's just that different readers occupy different territory. Let's say, Bill, that you love Claire Messud. I pick her only as a random example of an author I admire and like, but haven't yet found a way to love. Not her fault. Not mine. Could just as easily have been Etgar Keret or Barbara Pym. It is possible, even likely, Bill, that love for Messud/Keret/Pym is incompatible with love for me. Your heart and mind have staked out territory, and I am beyond the pale. That's fine. That's good. You can't love everyone, as they say, or your love is not love at all. You need hate so that love is real, as they say. They also say that a world without dislike is a world drowning in diet cream soda, and that it's better to have some bourbon and scotch too, so that people get intoxicated by what they consume rather than pleasantly, fleetingly carbonated. So in some ways, Bill, we're on the same page. I'm sympatico with your unsympatico. That's what I would have written back to Bill if I had written back.
I didn't, though. Why? Because I was mad. In the matter of Bill, I felt like stomping his head until I got wine. I put on heavy boots and looked up his address on the Internet. I even had a line I was going to say before I put the boot on his neck: "If you shift things into a hateful register, you might get rung up on that register." It wasn't exactly Dirty Harry -- it wasn't even Gran Torino -- but the boots were all laced up. A friend of mine asked me why I was so mad, when I professed not to care about criticism. I didn't know, and I said I didn't know. "I mean it," she said. "Why are you bothered so much by a reaction that's clearly ignorant? How thin is your skin?" Again, I said I didn't know. My friend was making me mad. It turned out the questions were rhetorical, which didn't make me any less mad. My friend is a writer, and she told me that she has an odd reaction to hateful readers. "Sure, they make themselves look bad, but they also make me look bad," she said. "So, mixed feelings, like watching an ex-boyfriend drive off a cliff in my Jaguar."
Why is it okay for Bill to hate me but not okay for me to hate him? What's the difference between a response that demonstrates measured disdain for me and my writing and one that lashes out? And why is ad hominem hatred any less virtuous than a more global misanthropy? It's the last of these questions that should come first. What's ironic about the whole experience is that the humor piece in question, the one that Bill thought was trivializing the Holocaust, was written from a place of deep and abiding hatred. All the people who expressed outrage that I was burlesquing the Holocaust were, whether they know it or not, simply re-expressing the outrage I felt when I first heard about the Herman Rosenblat affair. You should have seen my face. I mean it. You should have, because then you could have explained my expression to me: it was a look of sadness and distaste and frustration and despair, not only at the poor old man who felt compelled to fictionalize the horrors of his youth, but at the swarm of houseflies that came so quickly to the carrion. My sense of the whole incident just burned at me. I felt more than just hot under the choler. I was, well, Holocaustic. In the end, the outrage got filtered through at least three layers of trickery and irony, through masks, through fictional devices, because it needed to be at a temperature where I could safely handle it. (Incidentally, this is why I'm not as mad at Rosenblat as I am at the people who ringed around him opportunistically: maybe his introduction of fictional elements was somehow psychologically necessary. Who am I to say?) So that's the thing, Bill. I don't mind hate. I depend upon it, as do many people I depend upon--Stanley Elkin, Axl Rose, Ice Cube. But I like it to be deployed correctly, Bill, by which I mean non-idiotically.
Eventually, I took off my heavy boots. I never got the wine from Bill's head. I wrote a sentence about punching him in the face. An ear flew off. Call it cowardice or call it satire. In his honor, I'd like to offer a few songs about hate that use the term (and the weapon) correctly: a pair of bitter country tearjerkers, a hippie relic, the Mekons' "Lone Pilgrim" update, Prince's "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" update, a classic from the eternally mad Monks, and an undervalued anthem from Graham Parker. The Parker is my favorite of the bunch, I think. It's a song about how war and celebrity culture and the deadening of the human spirit has only one proper response, and that's to load up a whole quiver with arrows and then, quivering with rage, let them fly:
Send your little boys and girls to go and play in a giant sandboxParker doesn't attack anyone individually. Rather, he attacks everyone, implicates whoever contributes to the blindness and complacency that lets the world go on cracked and crooked: that allows a memoirist to be lionized and then turned into a sacrificial lamb, that allows a justice department to be used as a blunt political instrument, that allows an economy to be rubbled by short-sightedness. Though the song was released in 1996, it feels even more contemporary, in the sense that it feels like a hurried, heated pushback delivered in response to a proximate threat. New technologies have harmed music in many ways, but jeremiads aren't one of the victims; digital delivery permits hatred and rage to range more freely, with often bracing results. In fact, Parker himself has recently taken to YouTube with a series of topical songs performed under the pseudonym Tex Skerball, and other rock stars like Neil Young are beginning to see how the death of record stores and radio and the rise of alternate distribution channels can help rather than hurt their cause. Elsewhere on the album, on "Sharpening Axes," Parker delivers a lyric that is nearly a manifesto:
Put your movie stars on the cover of People for going in for a detox
Let your happy-face news readers share a little joke
At the end of the night's transmission
Let's see the world through the eyes of some clown
Gonna make all of your decisions
Well if you can sleep at night go ahead that's great
It's all been manufactured like the junk that's on your plate
Turn it into hate
Turn it into hate
I don't appeal to the masses, and they don't appeal to me.Dyspeptic but fair-minded, angry but controlled, misanthropic because of his love for humanity, kicking against the pricks without ever breaking down: that's the kind of hate I understand and, consequently, the kind of hate I love.
Labels: ben, country, rock
posted by Ben
Thursday, January 08, 2009
EASTBOUND AND DOWN
Available on : The Essential Jerry Reed
RCA : 1995[Buy It]BUSY DOIN' NOTHIN'
The Beach BoysFriends
Capitol : 1968[Buy It]TOO BUSY
Available on : The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Sony : 2000[Buy It]WORK SONG
Dan ReederDan Reeder
Oh Boy : 2004[Buy It]
I had a busy week back from vacation. Lots to do and not very much time, and so the days felt pinched, kind of like they did for the Bandit:
We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there
He wasn't kidding. In only twenty-eight hours, the Bandit and his Trans Am had to block for Snowman as they ran 400 cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia. They had to make the Southern Classic or else they'd never get their eighty thou from Big Enos:
Keep your foot hard on the pedal, son, never mind them brakes
Let it all hang out cause we've got a run to make
The boys are thirsty in Atlanta, and there's beer in Texarkana
We'll bring it back no matter what it takes
My situation is nearly the same as the Bandit's, with some instructive differences. Instead of ducking and dodging Buford T. Justice and picking up runaway brides on the roadside, I sit in an office, generally either writing or editing, sometimes meeting to talk about writing or editing. In any given day, there are many things to do, but the size of those things is subjective. They have no set physical dimensions and consequently few set chronological dimensions. At my discretion, within reason, the time spent on those things can contract and so, in a sense, the time-container can be felt to have expanded. This was not dreamt of in the Bandit's philosophy.
Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine and...well, that should tell you something about how busy I was. I was pressed for time. I was strapped. I was running in circles. Still, I had time for her in the sense that I had the desire to talk to her, and consequently the will to contract the tasks at hand. You can always count on my making time for friends, because friends are what make time count. I think that was stitched on a sampler I saw once. (One of the other ones was "Peace in your heart can be seen on your face and in your soul." I never quite got that.)
As coincidence would have it, the conversation we had was about how another friend of hers is always too busy to talk. The two women have been friends for years. Their friendship with one another predates my friendship with either. Despite that, whenever the first friend calls the second friend during the day, the second friend says that she is too busy, and rushes the first friend off the phone. The first friend has complained bitterly to me about the state of affairs. "How can she be too busy? That's crap."
As I have said, to disagree would smack of hypocrisy. The other day, when she called, her purpose was twofold: to reiterate her central complaint about the second friend and then to dispense an epiphany. I think it was a fresh one and that she dialed me as it was crowning. "I don't think it's that she's too busy at all," she said. "If she's really as busy as she says, she would just let the phone go through to voice mail."
"Good point," I said.
"I think she's trying to put me in my place."
"Well, we have a different relationship socially. Whenever we're at a bar, she monopolizes the conversation. She tells me about her bad boyfriends, about how this one was mean and that one drank too much and the other one kept meaning not to drink so much."
"Monopolize, you say?" I said.
"Absolutely. One hundred percent. No, more. One thousand percent. It's not fair. I mean sometimes I have a bad day, like today. My boss is opening a second store and she's been in a terrible mood and she almost took my head off when I asked her where the deodorizer for the bathroom is. I'd like to be able to talk about that. But when this friend and I go out, it's all about her. I like hearing about it, but sometimes I look at my watch and I see that she has chewed up two hours. I don't know where the time goes, and I don't mean that like someone in love."
"Have you said anything to her?"
"Of course not. What could I say? It would hurt her feelings, and she's my friend. So why doesn't she feel the same way?" I started to answer, but then I remembered the terms. She went on. "You know, the reason I feel so bad about it is that once I had a boyfriend who was exactly the same as her." This, delivered like an epiphany, was not one. It had been rehearsed. In fact, I had heard it before. "He was my first serious boyfriend when I came to New York. He was a lawyer in a big firm and I was just getting started in the office of an art supply store. There were no cell phones then, or far fewer, but I had a phone at my desk, and lots of downtime. I used to call him during the day. He rarely answered, and when he did, he was like a different person. It was like someone was pointing a gun at his head on his end of the phone. It made me feel smaller than a flea, like a worthless little speck. But did I break up with him?"
It was my line. "Not soon enough."
"You said it," she said. "Not soon enough." Our conversation went on from there into other topics: her brother's nagging cough, the strange appeal of commercial wallpaper, a book she read, another she meant to read. My phone keeps track of the length of the call, and this one was more than fifteen minutes. I won't say how much more. Eventually she said she had to go. Someone was standing near her desk and she needed to look busy.
I put on my headphones and forgot all about the phone. I had editing to do. While I worked, I listened to music: it's like being busy in two different ways at once, and since I was listening to music about being busy, it was like being busy in three different ways. I went through Elvis Costello's "Busy Bodies," which is, predictably, about a different kind of getting busy, and the Lyres' "Busy Body," which I think is also about sex, or possibly about rock-and-roll. For more than a little while, I stuck close to the Beach Boys' "Busy Doin' Nothin'," which is a little Brian Wilson vignette about the way that the daily grind can interfere with important things, like communication with friends. I will quote a large swath of it, because that's quicker than picking out a few resonant lines:
I get a lot of thoughts in the morning
I write 'em all down
If it wasn't for that
I'd forget 'em in a while
And lately I've been thinking 'bout a good friend
I'd like to see more of, yeah yeah yeah
I think I'll make a call
I wrote a number down
But I lost it
So I searched through my pocket book
I couldn't find it
So I sat and concentrated on the number
And slowly it came to me
So I dialed it
And I let it ring a few times
There was no answer
So I let it ring a little more
Still no answer
So I hung up the telephone
Got some paper and sharpened up a pencil
And wrote a letter to my friend
There is a desperate Zen flavor to this, as there is to many Beach Boys songs of the period, but there's also practical advice. Don't spend all your time on the phone. If you don't get an answer right away, write a letter.
I called my friend to tell her, but she didn't answer. I called back a few minutes later: still nothing. Once, a few months ago, after weeks of her calling me all the time to tell me about her troubles, she dropped off the map. I experienced an even mix of relief and lack. But this was just a phone that wasn't being answered. I returned to the headphones, and soon enough came across Louis Armstrong's "Too Busy," from 1928, which is a fairly straightforward tale of busted love, distinct only as a result of the spirited and altogether strange lead vocal by Lillie Delk Christian. (Armstrong shows up scatting at the end.) The lyrics are short and sharp, like a pocketknife, and they are occupied (maybe even preoccupied) with what happens when one person can't find time for another person. When you're blown off, what's the blowback? Again, to save time (I could explain the reasons but that would defeat the purpose--you can find them up above, by the Beach Boys' song), I'll quote generously:
Why do you keep avoiding me
I confess it's annoying me
Honestly it's so aggravating
Play that twice, the way Christian moves from the rhyming verse of the first two lines to the almost witheringly conversational "Honestly, it's so aggravating." Play it three times, in fact, then move on.
Won't you tell me just what to do
When I ask for a kiss or two
You say no not now dear
You're always too busy for my loving
Too busy for my petting
That is all that I've been getting from you
What's more and I'm not lying
I noticed you've been trying
Hard to shake me
And it's making me blue
I can't understand your actions
But I'll get my satisfaction
Don't you worry just you wait and see dear
Wait til you want me honey
Then it won't be so funny
When I say that I'm too busy for you
The Armstrong was the flip side to the Beach Boys, not literally--though that would have made a great split single--but temperamentally. Should you let the day run its course and value precious time when you find it, or should you feel acutely the sting of other people's alleged unavailability, sharpen your resentment to a point, and then plunge it into their hearts? I see that my friend has called a few times. I should call her back and see where she falls on the question, but it'll have to wait until later. I tell you, I've got enough to do.
Labels: ben, country, jazz
posted by Ben
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Available on : The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
Sony : 1998
YOUR ENEMIES CANNOT HARM YOU (BUT WATCH YOUR CLOSE FRIENDS)
Edward W. Clayborn
Available on : Goodbye, Babylon
Dust-to-Digital : 2003
(SHE'S SO) SELFISH
Get the Knack
Capitol : 1979
SHE'S MY BEST FRIEND
Coney Island Baby
RCA Victor : 1976
MY FRIENDS HAVE
Before the Poison
Anti : 2005
Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (with Ray Price)
Available on : One Hell Of a Ride
Sony : 2008
The other day I was bothered by life: frustrated by it, impatient with everything around me. I went for a walk with the iPod, set to a playlist I made of especially long songs. They're intended to calm me down. One of them was Miles Davis's "Great Expectations," which he recorded during the Bitches Brew sessions and later released on Big Fun. The desired effect was not what I got. I found myself thinking about the title rather than the music--occupational hazard--and how many of life's disappointments result from unmanaged expectations. I went home and called a friend to complain. I picked the friend of mine who disappoints me the least. I can usually count on her to make me laugh or remind me that the world's a good place, if only because there are laugh-productive people like her in it. She answered curtly. "What's up?" she said. I said that I was bothered by something but couldn't quite figure it out. She said she'd have to call back. She is a landscape architect, and these days she's working on an arboretum, and she was waiting for a call from an insect expert.
"An expert on insects or an insect who is an expert?" I said.
"I have to go," she said. While I was waiting for her to get back to me, I became annoyed again, not at the world, but at myself. I had allowed myself to have high expectations again, and she hadn't lived up to them. Then I got annoyed at her. Were my expectations so high? I was feeling bothered, as I said, and I wanted a sympathetic ear, not an ear connected to a body that was preoccupied with a stupid insect expert. Mostly, I resented the fact that by ending the conversation without really talking to me, she had created an imbalance that, for a few minutes, seemed grave. She isn't always employed, at least not to the same degree. Arboretums are a seasonal concern. On days when she's not as busy, she calls me frequently to talk about her problems. Maybe she's fighting with her brother. Maybe she went on a bad date. Maybe a bird flew by her window and gave her a dirty look. I don't mind listening. I like it. But then the shoe is on the other hand, and I need her to talk to me, and she can't deal with my bad day, it irritates me.
What do you do when you're feeling this way? I've been known to kick a chair or say mean things to people nearby. This time, I listened to music. I started with Robert Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend," which seems to be a song about treating those close to you well until you get to the third verse:
Mmm, baby I may be right or wrongJohnson was taking up a theme articulated in other records of the twenties and thirties, most notably the preaching blues "Your Enemies Cannot Harm You (But Watch Your Close Friends)," by Edward W. Clayborn, which seems mostly like a big I-told-you-so to Jesus but also states explicitly that close friends have access to parts of you that others do not, and that they can use that access for good or evil:
Baby, it your opinion, I may be right or wrong
Watch your close friend, baby, then you enemies can't do you no harm
People I want to tell youThis started me thinking. What finished me thinking was the Knack's "(She's So) Selfish," which sketches out a related (if far more carnal) problem:
Just how your friend will do
They will wait to get your secret
And dig a pit for you
And she sayThe song is four-and-a-half minutes long, and the impulse to send it had dulled by the third minute, mainly because I remembered that everyone is selfish, and everyone knows that everyone else is, too. If I like listening to my friend's problems and want to hear more of them as a result, doesn't that make me just as selfish as she is, but with a different agenda? Evidently there's something about hearing from her I like, and when the rate of contact is reduced, I kick and scream about it.
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Gimme gimme gimme gimme please
Oh won't you give it to me please please please baby
Day after day after day
After night after night after night
You've been giving her what she wants
Is she giving you what you need
I became more reasonable. I couldn't help it. I know that in the days when she's calling me very often, it's partly because she's unhappy. It's not that she associates me with unhappiness. It's just that one of the versions of our relationship casts her as the somewhat underemployed, somewhat isolated one. I work in an office. She doesn't really. I am married. She isn't anymore. So frequent calling is a double-edged sword: I'm making her feel better, I hope, but she must also feel like she's reinforcing that side of herself: the underemployed, the isolated. At other times work gets busier (arboretum season!) or she starts dating someone, and in those times she goes partly off the radar. It's not that she vanishes entirely, or at all. But the parts of her that are more needy recede. Right now, both are true: arboretum, boyfriend. In many ways this is good. I'm sure she feels happier and more balanced. But since I have chosen to make peace with (and even learned to enjoy) the parts of her that are needy, I miss those parts of her. Or maybe I just resent that she doesn't seem to develop a corresponding interest in dealing with the parts of me that are needy. I always liked that part in Lou Reed's "She's My Best Friend" when he sings "she understands me when I'm falling down"; I have included the alternate, far louder version that was included on the "Coney Island Baby" rerelease.
The day went on, and I went on with it. I calmed down into circumspection, and started asking myself rhetorical questions. Did I have the right to feel annoyed I wasn't a higher priority that day for my friend? Of course. Did I have the right to say anything about it? Not really. Was I aware that any real friendship is the average of those days when you're not the other person's priority, the days when the other person isn't your priority, and the days when you're both more interested in engaging? Sure. I even found a song that summed it up nicely: "My Friends Have," which P.J. Harvey wrote and Marianne Faithfull sang. Like many Faithfull songs, it takes a fairly straightforward sentiment and turns it on its head with her blasted vocals:
My friends have many featuresEventually my friend called back. We had a nice conversation. I accused her of being a jerk for not coming through but admitted that I was a jerk for expecting too much. She agreed and added that I was a jerk for even thinking of sending her the Knack song, which she remembered had a line in which the woman gets the guy "by the short hairs." "The singer says 'it's the only thing she'll leave you down there,'" she said. "That's disgusting."
Many reasons, I can believe them
My friends have many things that
I am needing, to keep me singing
Yeah, you're a friend of mine
You're a friend of mine
Yeah, you're a friend of mine
You're a friend of mine
As we spoke, I faced into the galling realization that as I get older, I need people more. And not people in the abstract: Certain people. Friends used to be more fungible: if one went missing, I'd pick up the thread with another one. It made life easier. But then you settle into yourself, and you meet your wife, and you have children, and time sifts whether you want it to or not, and most friends recede. Those few who remain become permanently, irreversibly important. You can act casual. You should. Admitting that other people--specific other people--are important to your survival is embarrassing, even more so if it's true. I can't predict the future at all, so I can't predict the future of the friendship between me the landscape architect. It's just as likely she'll acquire a serious boyfriend who doesn't like the idea of her having close friendships, or that someone will hire her to design a town square in Alaska, and she'll vanish never to reappear. But I'm entitled to my hope, no matter how prognostically nostalgic and mawkish. And in the same spirit, I'm entitled to "Old Friends," not the Simon and Garfunkel hit but a Roger Miller song on which he's joined by Willie Nelson and Ray Price:
Old friendsWe can go to the arboretum.
Pitching pennies in the park
Playing croquet til it's dark
Swapping lies of lives and loves
Pitching popcorn to the doves
Looking up to watch a bird
Holding arms to climb a curb
Lord when all my work is done
Bless my life, grant me one
Labels: ben, country, rock
posted by Ben
Thursday, April 03, 2008
QIDRECHINNA (I AM DESTINED TO LOVE)
Abdel Gadir Salim
Blues in Khartoum
Institute Du Monde Afrique : 1999
YA WANNA BUY A BUNNY?
Spike Jones and His City Slickers
Available on : Greatest Hits!!!
RCA : 1999
Tommy: The Soundtrack
Universal : 1975
VALENTINE AND GARUDA
Frank Black and the Catholics
Black Letter Days
Spin Art : 2002
YOU'RE THE REASON OUR KIDS ARE UGLY
Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
Available on : The Definitive Selection
MCA Nashville : 2005
SEE THE BIG MAN CRY
Available on : Greatest Hits
Import : 2004
When I was seven, I went through my parents' records and played all of them. It was a pretty standard mid-seventies set: Beatles, Beach Boys, Supremes, James Taylor, Carole King, West Side Story, maybe one or two Jimi Hendrix records. I remember sitting cross-legged in the living room and listening to Smokey Robinson.
I am using this memory as a shield against sentimentality.
Today is my older son's seventh birthday. Last week, my younger son turned four. My wife and I will throw them parties, take pictures, wish they had fewer toys: the usual. It's strange to have kids, especially kids who are becoming people, and it is also the most natural thing in the world.
I am using this truism as a shield against sentimentality.
There are few memories that still survive from 1973, when I turned four; even 1976, when I turned seven, is mostly a blur of Jimmy Carter's gigantic teeth and TV commercials celebrating the bicentennial, principally through low rates on car loans. Still, I remember clearly the first time I heard Jim Croce's "One Less Set of Footsteps," when I was the age of my younger son, and how frightened I was. I also remember hearing the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster" in 1975, when it was all over the radio, and trying to get the blinds on one of the front windows to move in sync with the guitar part. So I don't want to underestimate the degree to which my sons, even if they're not identifying themselves by the music they like, are identifying music that they like. My younger son seems, so far, to favor soundtrack music and classical music, neither of which made a tremendous impression on my older son when he was that age. When we watch movies, my younger son will start humming the score and say, "I like this music." Later on, he will hum it again. My older son prefers songs with simple melodies and complicated lyrics. He repeats the lyrics to himself later. The earliest examples of this, which date from when he was two or even younger, are Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll," Captain Beefheart's "Tropical Hot Dog Night," Frank Black's "Valentine and Garuda," and the Rolling Stones "Let It Bleed." I'd be playing them at home or in the car and he'd perk up, and ask me what they were, and smile, and laugh, and ask for them again. There are enough exceptions, of course, that these cease to be rules. The younger one got completely hooked on the Hives' "Tick Tick Boom." The older one loves Buddy Holly. The younger one has, for the last twenty nights in a row, forced me to put him to bed with a copy of "Born in the U.S.A." playing in an old cassette machine that is very similar to the one I had in 1976. The older one, at three, choreographed a modern dance set to Elton John's version of "Pinball Wizard." He later taught it to the younger one, who added a few flourishes of his own. Both of them worship Michael Jackson and AC/DC and Spike Jones, which only means that they are part of the human race. And both of them are obsessed to the point of joy with "Qidrechinna," a song by the Sudanese pop singer Abdel Gadir Salim.
Soon they will get older, will cease to experience that joy, or else they will conceal that joy from me and my wife. That day's not too far off. Until then, they're little, and their appetite for the world is large, and so I'm going to wish them a happy birthday by posting a quartet of songs that they love, and then a pair of songs that they don't know. Both are country songs, because it's a genre they don't particularly like, and I am a sadist. I am using sadism as a shield against sentimentality. One of them is Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty's "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly," which distills the chaos of domestic bliss into low comedy.
Besides that, all of our kids took after your part of our family anyway.I am using low comedy as a shield against sentimentality.
Oh they did, huh? What about the one's that's bald?
Well, I guess you might say they took after me.
The other is Charlie Louvin's "See the Big Man Cry," in which a man spies on his estranged wife and the child who does not even know him. Many married men have imagined circumstances that would separate them from their wives--falling in love with others, losing the war of attrition against boredom and self-hatred. But being separated from children is an atrocity, and Louvin mines it for maximum horror:
I followed them to the pet shop window the little boy stopped to seeI am using horror as a shield against sentimentality.
He looked up at her said if I had a daddy he'd buy that puppy for me
See the big man cry mama that's what I heard him say
See the big man cry mama he looks like his heart will break
I am not, as you will notice, posting Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," though I will admit that Verities and Balderdash, the album on which the song originally appeared, was one of the records in my parents' collection, and that I probably took it out and played it once or twice. I am not posting it because, well, I am still holding the shield against sentimentality, though it's quaking a little bit when I think of my sons, littler than I ever remember being, dancing around the living room to "Pinball Wizard."
Labels: ben, country, rock
posted by Ben
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Federal : 1951
Available on: Rural Blues vol. 1 1934-1956
Document : 1995
Chascamp c. 1960 (?)
Available on: Nashville Rockabilly
Stomper Time : 2004
THE STORY OF ALABAMA BOUND
Jelly Roll Morton & Alan Lomax
Available on: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings
Rounder : 2005
Welcome, folks, to Alabama!
The great state of Alabam' is the 'bammiest state there is. Established in 1973, Alabama was desert until a creek run through, and didn't that desert turn verdant with pasture and slaves? These days, Alabama folk live peacefully and know there never was much to worry about.
The Blue Sky Boys
RCA : 1949
Available on: The Blue Sky Boys
JSP : 2007
The Delmore Brothers
Columbia : 1931
Available on: Classic Cuts: 1933-1941
JSP : 2004
AUTOMOBILE RIDE THROUGH ALABAMA
OKeh : 1928
Available on: The Roots of Rap
Yazoo : 1996
Still, people is people, and Alabama people have stories to tell. Stories about apple trees, space men, bull frogs and the sometimes mistreatment of peoples. Up in Chicago, J.B. Lenoir had some mean things to say about the way white folks treated the black folks down in Alabama, and up in Chicago he wasn't afraid to sing about it -
J. B. Lenoir
L& R : 1965
and sing about it -
Home Recording (with Willie Dixon) : 1962
Available on: One of These Mornings
JSP : 2003
and sing about it some more -
('bout 7.5 minutes in)
Like Skip James' "Washington D. C. Hospital Center Blues," the song "Alabama," by J. B. Lenoir, is a last gasp of the old, acoustic country blues. But "Washington D. C. Hospital Center Blues" is a spider-web of a song; "Alabama" is a mighty gasp. Born in Mississippi, Lenoir recorded in and around Chicago for over a decade, but never broke through to a national audience. By 1967, he was working as a dishwasher a the U. of Illinois Champaign campus; he died of heart attack that year, at the age of thirty-eight. The last, unrecorded song he wrote went like this:
Something got a hold of meAccording to the liner notes I'm looking at, "J.B.'s autopsy revealed that blood from his heart was backing up into his abdomen. His family settled a wrongful death suit against a driver who had hit his car from the rear [three weeks earlier] for $2250. After the lawyers and the court got paid, there was a little over $1,400 for the Lenoir family." Across the pond, in England, John Mayall recorded this eulogy for Lenoir; you can see more of Lenoir on YouTube here, here, and here.
it must be the Lord
Something got a hold of me
it must be the Lord
Something got a hold of me
it must be the Lord
Something got a hold of me
it must be the Lord
I can't sing right, I can't play right
I can't walk right, I can't talk right
I can't eat right, I can't sleep right
I can't do nothing at all.
But that's neither here nor there (big love to the Heart of Dixie!) except insofar as "Alabama" by J. B. Lenoir always did strike me as one of the more politically-minded records of the sixties; just a few years earlier, you could stick a microphone in front of any old bluesman, ask all about the hard times, and get no reference to any mistreatments whatsoever:
MONOLOGUE ON ACCIDENTS
Alan Lomax & Blind Willie McTell
The Library of Congress Recordings
c. 1940; first released in 1969
Document : 1995
Given all this history, it's not surprising that some of the ways folks in Alabama get along is by drinkin':
I AIN'T A BIT DRUNK
Availbale on: Kentucky Mountain Music
Yazoo : 2003
Artists Unknown (Recorded by Alan Lomax)
Negro Prison Blues and Songs
Legacy Intl. : 1994
And singin' about movin' to Alabama:
GOING TO MOVE TO ALABAMA
Paramount : 1930
Available on: Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues
Revenant : 2003
If you're thinking of moving to Alabama, you'll want to print this handy map out. Keep it in your glove compartment. And those of you without a glove compartment, take heart: Alabama is also a fairyland where no one else can enter, and your every valuable is always safe:
STARS FELL ON ALABAMA
Verve : 1957
Available on: The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959
Polygram : 1993
STARS FELL ON ALABAMA
Available on: The Tatum Group Masterpieces vol. 4
Pablo : 1991
STARS FELL ON ALABAMA
The Mountain Goats
Nine Black Poppies
3 Beads of Sweat : 1995
Labels: alex, blues, country, geography, jazz, old-timey
posted by Alex
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
NORTH TO ALASKA
Columbia : 1960
Available on: Greatest Hits
Columbia : 1987
WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (IT'S 40 BELOW)
Sony : 2006
ROCKIN' LITTLE ESKIMO
Igloo : 1959
Available on: Nashville Rockabilly
Stomper Tome : 2003
THE MIGHTY QUINN
Bell : 1969 (Unreleased)
Available on: Proud Mary: The Bell Sessions
Sundazed : 2000
The Velvet Underground
Polydor : 1985
THE MIGHTY QUINN
Hopeton Lewis, Henry Buckley & Dienne w/The Gaylettes
Available on: Trojan 60s Box Set
Sanctuary : 2004
WHEN IT'S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (IT'S 40 BELOW)
Columbia : 1958
Available on: Greatest Hits
Columbia : 1987
Readers of Moistworks!
On this, the twenty-third day of our millennium's eighth January it is cold as stone/ice/witch's teat/Kerouac's liver/someone who's digging for gold, and throwing away fortunes in feelings! But nowhere is it colder than in the United States Internets' 49th State of Alaska, which the following bullet points are intended to clear some pretty nasty preconceptions goings on about town about Alaska:
"My initial impression is that Alaska is very very big. And cold, too, sometimes." So writes a friend who's actually been to Alaska. But these, too, are misconceptions. In fact, visiting, or even reading or watching television about Alaska tells us very little about Alaska itself. For this, we must look to song.
- People in Alaska arrive in Alaska by crossing over a land mass which covered the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years ago
- People in Alaska have a median income of 3.6
- People in Alaska are 5 years of age or older
- People in Alaska are not people in Alaska
- People in Alaska are polar bears
The recording artist Jewel, who is from Alaska, and has never recorded a song about Alaska, but other, equally talented recording artists have. Our personal favorite? The Gaylette's "Quinn The Eskimo," which if this wasn't the theme song for Jamaica's bobsled team then, OMG/WTF/BFF/QWERTY/TGIF/UOK?
But, of course, "Quinn, The Eskimo" was written and recorded by Bob Dylan, who had this to say about it in his memoir:
On the way back to the house I passed the local movie theater on Prytania Street, where "The Mighty Quinn" was showing. Years earlier I had written a song called "The Mighty Quinn" which was a hit in England, and I wondered what the movie was about. Eventually I'd sneak off and go there to see it. It was a mystery, suspense, thriller with Denzel Washington as the Mighty Xaveir Quinn a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that's just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song "The Mighty Quinn."And, of course, our other friend - let's call him Dan - has this to say about "The Mighty Quinn," the film, which he's actually seen, and which I saw him talking up just the other (equally cold) day, to yet another friend - let's call him Garnette - who is actually from Jamaica but not, to the best of my knowledge, a police detective or Eskimo:
A-So: We sincerely hope that clears up whatever mis-and-preconceptions you might have had about Alaska, and goes some way towards freeing your doubting mind/melting your cold cold hearts
Denzel Washington, the police chief Xavier Quinn, from The Mighty Quinn (1989). The general idea is mostly that he's chasing his childhood friend Maubee, who is accused of murder. Quinn considers his case with a lieutenant:
XAVIER: You think Maubee did it? Cut a man's head off?
JUMP: That fucker, he does that! That's why he's like that!
XAVIER: Try and make sense when you talk, Jump.
Denzel gets to do a vague West Indian accent, wear a white suit, and sing.
XAVIER: I had the blues
I had the blues so bad
It put my face in a permanent frown
But I'm feeling so much better, I could cakewalk into town . . .
I woke up
Felt so good I got back into bed
Put that big leg over me mama
I might not feel this good again . . .
Watch me cakewalk, y'all.
The black people in the movie sing "Quinn the Eskimo" at him a lot, and drink beer, and go to work; the white people in the movie lurk around being racists, attempt and fail to sleep with Denzel, and try to overthrow governments. Some of the black people try to sleep with Denzel, too, but that's neither here nor there. Overall it's a pretty accurate picture of the universe. There is no actual cakewalking, which, as I understand it, was a dance that took as the source of its name competitions held by slaveholders, with slices of hoecake as prizes for the best dancers.
A couple hundred people singing in an island juke joint sound like this:
Come all without,
Come all, within
You aint seen nothing like the Mighty Quinn.
No, actually, that's not what they sound like.
Labels: alex, country, geography, reggae, rock and roll, rockabilly, soul
posted by Alex
Friday, August 10, 2007
BRAVE & STRONG
Sly and the Family Stone
There's a Riot Goin' On
Epic : 1971
I'M NOT AFRAID TO DIE
Hell Among the Yearlings
Acony : 1998
Alpha and Omega
Bungalo : 2004
JEANNIE'S AFRAID OF THE DARK
13 Hillbilly Giants
Bloodshot : 2001
IS IT SCARY
Blood On The Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix
Sony : 1997
This Is Hardcore
Island : 1998
I was reading an article by Ron Paul recently, and that's the first time I have ever started a sentence like that. It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. I might even do it again. I was reading an article by Ron Paul recently, and he was outlining his thoughts about fear:
While fear itself is not always the product of irrationality, once experienced it tends to lead away from reason, especially if the experience is extreme in duration or intensity. When people are fearful they tend to be willing to irrationally surrender their rights.As the end of these rather dense and prolix sentences--no political speechwriter would ever sign off on them, and that's part of their charm--he reveals the heart of his argument, which has to do with the way that fear can be used as a tool of political repression. Ron Paul's completely right about that, of course, and that's the first time I have ever started a sentence like that either. But if Ron Paul wasn't running for office, he'd be making a broader point, and a highly contentious one that that. Does fear lead away from reason, especially if the experience is extreme in duration or intensity, or does it lead to reason? Is fear irrational or is it the most rational aspect of humanity? I flipped a coin to find out. It landed on its edge.
Pop music is full of fear. Fear of Flying, Fear of a Black Planet, even Fear of Music. Songs that say they're about bravery, like Sly and the Family Stone's "Brave & Strong," are also about the absence of bravery:
Frightened faces to the wallThe big fear, of course, is the fear of death. This last week, it seemed to be everywhere. My wife has been planning her father's 85th birthday party, hoping that the Uninvited Guest doesn't show. A friend in her twenties was taken to the hospital, unexpectedly, for something that turned out to be nothing but had her family worried, briefly, that it might be everything. Another friend in her thirties told me, matter-of-factly, that she has been thinking of dying often. Or rather, she was thinking about dying once, often.
Can't you hear your mama call?
The brave and strong survive
In all of these cases, I tried to kill off this fear of death. I told my wife that her father will be fine. I mean, who dies in their eighties? I sent cheery messages to my twentysomething friend. I told my thirtysomething friend that she can think of dying all she wants, so long as she's not afraid of it. "I'm not afraid of dying," I said, full of bluff. She said nothing. Her silence suggested that maybe claiming that you weren't afraid of death was in fact proof that you were afraid of death. It also suggested that the largest issues work by contraries. Silence just won't shut up sometimes. There are songs that also have something to say about this issue. In "I'm Not Afraid to Die," Gillian Welch finds solace in the inevitable:
Forget my sins upon the windBizzy Bone's "Not Afraid" takes a more nihilistic route to the same destination. So, two versions, one peaceful, one meaningless. What is there to fear? According to my thirtysomething friend, her fear involves being alone on her deathbed, with no company, no family, no solace. Oh, and caring about it, and not having any confidence that she'd go on to something better. That's bad.
My hobo soul will rise
It's strange that fear of death makes people feel so alone, because it's something shared by almost everyone. If you think thirty is young, what about "Jeannie's Afraid of the Dark," which Dolly Parton wrote and sang with Porter Wagoner on the 1968 duet album Just the Two Of Us. (The version here is a fairly faithful Robbie Fulks cover, though remaining fairly faithful involves preserving the almost unbearable five-hankie weepiness of the thing.) Jeannie's a little girl, afraid of the dark, and every night she runs to her parents' room so that she doesn't have to sleep alone. One day, her parents take her to the cemetery, and she makes a morbid (not to mention unhygienic) request -- that when she die she not be buried, because she won't be able to deal with the dark. Parents with kids this nervous should probably keep them away from the Paul Tillich books:
The first assertion about the nature of anxiety is this: anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing. The same statement, in a shorter form, would read: anxiety is the existential awareness of nonbeing...It is not the realization of universal transitoriness, not even the experience of the death of others, but the impression of these events on the always latent awareness of our own having to die that produces anxiety.So how to deal with these anxieties? Well, one way, weirdly, is to feel fear -- fear, that is, of other things, things that don't involve annihilation. In fact, other fears are life-affirming, because they require being. So be afraid of snakes. Be afraid of clowns. Be afraid of ghosts. (That's why fear of the dark has a special status, I think -- it's easy to forget that you exist.)
The other night I did a reading at a bookstore in the city. Afterwards, at a bar, I was talking to another writer whose husband is a film scholar who specializes in horror movies. I was asking what counts as the minimum requirement for a horror movie, as opposed to a scary movie. Does someone have to die? Does more than half of the audience have to scream? Does the film have to be aware of the entertainment value of its own capacity for producing fear? "There are books written about that," she said. I went on, asking her if werewolf movies were all about masturbation and vampire movies all about sex (there are books written about that, too, as it turns out), but the basic question was the one that stuck. What makes something a horror movie rather than a scary movie?
I brought the question with me back to music. What's scary? Fantomas? Scott Walker? Nico? Is bleakness scary? Is Ice Cube scary? Is rage scary? Is truth scary? And if many of those artists have recorded scary songs, what's a horror song? I found two, I think: Michael Jackson's "Is It Scary," which is an unholier-than-Thriller piece of meta-horror in which he keeps testing your threshold for experiencing terror as entertainment, and Pulp's "The Fear," which does more or less the same thing, stacking misgivings like bricks in English bond. The effects in both songs are so outsized, so preposterous, that they shouldn't work at all, and yet both of them work scarily well at delivering their message. Existence may be terrible and scary, but it's life. it goes and goes again. And it has death beat by a mile:
Here comes the fear again.
The end is near again.
A monkey's built a house on your back.
You can't get anyone to come in the sack
And here comes another panic attack
Oh here we go again.
Labels: ben, country, rock, soul
posted by Ben
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
GHOST IN MY HOUSE
Available on : Loose Monkeys
UpYours : 1999
Available on : Greatest Hits
Curb : 1990
MISS YOU SO
Available on : The Best of Excello Records
Excello : 1994
HAVE YOU GONE
Mary Margaret O'Hara
Outside : 2002
Available on : The Definitive Collection
Motown : 2006
PLANS I MAKE
New Day Rising
SST : 1985
Recently I was vacationing with my family--my parents, my wife, my kids, nieces, nephews--and at the end of the first week, my wife, my younger son (he's three), and I left to come back to New York. My older son, who's six, stayed an extra week with my parents and his cousins. On the day we left, the three of us got onto a boat and waved at my older son, who was on the dock. "See you in seven days," he said, with a precision that betrayed his anxiety.
We came back to New York. For much of the next week, I went around the house in a fog. I had one kid there, but not both kids. The place was full of emptiness, haunted by it. I felt incompleted, and I tried to complete the picture. "So, are you homesick?" I said to my son when we spoke on the phone.
"Maybe a little," he said.
"Do you miss Brooklyn?"
"Yes." His voice wobbled slightly.
"Do you miss going to the park?"
"Yes." The wobbling increased.
At this point I was leading the witness. It wasn't that I wanted to break him down, exactly. But I did want to get a sense of what he was feeling about the separation. He's only six, of course, so I imagined that his feelings were more representative of some pure state, that he could admit them straightforwardly, without irony or defensiveness. Evidently I was wrong, because he recovered his composure. "Gotta go," he said. "There's a bat in the house."
During my son's week away, I had a number of other experiences of missing people, or maybe I was just tuned to that station. One friend of mine left for a long weekend in the Pacific Northwest with a friend of hers. They were having boring summers and thought that maybe the trip would reënergize them. Another old friend left to go abroad for the rest of the year. A third friend told me that he and his girlfriend were leaving New York for good. None of the departures was especially surprising. The friend in the first case always travels. The friend in the second case has spent a decent amount of her time out of the city--and some of that out of the country--for the last few years. The friend in the third case has discussed this move for the last six months. And yet, in every case, as soon as my friends told me about their trips, I began to miss them. It was difficult at first to understand why. For starters, it's not entirely appropriate to miss an adult friend. Or rather: you can miss anyone you want, but saying that you miss someone--or even acknowledging it to yourself--suggests a degree of emotional involvement that is, at least, sketchy. The world of pop music bears this out; the vast majority of songs about missing people are romantic songs. Take Graham Parker's excellent cover of R. Dean Taylor's "Ghost in My House," one of Motown's most durable rarities.
There's a ghost in my houseFor two lines, this is a generic song, human to human. The third line blows all that up. Let's try again, with Ferlin Husky:
The ghost of your memory
The ghost of the love you took from me
And it keeps haunting me
Keeps on reminding me
Since you've goneFor three lines, this might be platonic. I suppose you could be astronomically sad because your brother left Bakersfield. But it's not platonic. Lillian Offitt gets there even quicker, in the first word:
The moon, the sun, the stars, and the sky
Know the reason why I cry
Love divine once was mine
Now you've gone
Darling, how I miss youIn all these cases, what's emphasized is powerlessness. The songs suggest that there is not only a separation, but an abandonment, that there is one party who has left, and another that has been left behind. This sentiment is broadly inapplicable to my situations: with my son, I was the only potential abandoner, and with my friends, no one abandoned anyone. Adults were just living their lives, a process that sometimes brings them closer together and sometimes takes them further apart. All these factors explained why I didn't say anything to my friends about anyone missing anyone else. "Have a good trip." That I said. "Fly safe." That I said. "I'm sure Texas will be great." That I said.
Oh, darling how I miss you
You've been gone so long, baby, you done me wrong
I miss you.
But then, left to my own devices, I thought about this situation and the other, wondered at the weight of a departure. During my son's week away, I looked in his room, looked at his toys and books, spent time imagining the moment when he'd return. If anything, it served to remind me how much I enjoy him when he's around. As for my friends, we'll continue to email during their time away, I'm sure, and since in at least two of these cases we don't see each other so often these days even when we're in the same city, I don't know why it makes any difference that they're in another city or on another continent. And yet, it makes a huge difference. In at least one of the cases, the sense of being without was almost physical at first, more than a twinge if not quite an ache. I think maybe Mary Margaret O'Hara, mostly writing one of her singularly weird love songs, catches a piece of it.
I have no one to be anymoreWhen someone is nearby, in matter or in mind, you come to depend on that other person's presence to know that you are present. When they go, a piece of you may go with them. Identity, a fragile thing, cannot always endure the sudden shifts. And while with a child there is ultimate control--I can tell my son when to come home, and in fact he depends upon that order--with another adult there is an ultimate absence of control. In "Missing You," which Diana Ross recorded as a tribute to Marvin Gaye after his death, this is very clear. Written by Lionel Richie and based on conversations Richie had with Ross about Gaye, it plays like a straightforward lovelorn song:
You have no one to be anymore
Since you've been awayMost lost-love songs at least hold out the faint hope of reunion. That's not the case here, even though the lyric won't admit it. There's a false optimism, both in the writing and in the lightness of the vocals, and this gives the song its bottomless sadness and a certain creepy beauty. It's a song of deep denial, more so than, say, "Wish You Were Here." And it's easy to understand why. People can walk toward you or away from you any time they want. They can come and they can go at will--at their will. But the person who goes always has more power than the one who remains, whether it's in friendship, in love, or in death. Movement is less sad than the observation of motion.
I've been down and lonely
Since you've been away
I've been thinking of you
Trying to understand
The reason you left me
What were you going through?
Toward the end of the week my son was away, I was watching TV. He's home now. It's been great. We took a long bike ride together. Movement is less sad than the observation of motion. Anyway, on TV, a man was leaving on a trip. A woman--maybe she was a girlfriend, maybe just a friend--took him to the airport. She dropped him off. She pulled away. She had to drive fast to escape the sense of being left behind.
Labels: ben, country, rock, soul
posted by Ben
Thursday, June 14, 2007
THE LAST LETTER
Available on : The Thesaurus Transcriptions
Bear Family : 1991
LETTERS DON'T COUNT
Screen Gems Columbia : 1969
YOUR PICTURE SAYS REMEMBER, THO' YOUR LETTER SAYS FORGET
Edison Gold Moulded Record
I used to send lots of letters. In college, I had a girlfriend who was at another college, and sometimes each of us would send three or four of them a day. We had no Internet then and we scooped food from stone bowls with our hands.
As soon as email came along, though, things really took off. The problem wasn't sending messages. It was finding someone who was willing to get those messages and give the same back at a clip. The problem was finding someone who corresponded to you.
It might seem that I'm writing about love letters. I'm not, although that's also a worthy topic for a post. It would include Hank Snow, and his eloquent, bitter, all-too-forthright communiqué that doesn't--as the last line tells us--hit its mark. It would include the Nazz, who turn a typically dopey Rundgren pun into a typically beautiful piece of Rundgren pop that goes nuts at the end with its aggressive backing vocals. It would include Frederic Rose, in 1908, warbling out a B-list song with a Grade-A title. It would not include Richard Thompson's "Tear Stained Letter," which, though fine, contains the lyric "The scars ain't never gonna mend in a hurry." (How can something "never mend in a hurry"? Isn't it either/or? He's better than that.)
I'm writing, I think, about songs about messages. Not message songs, like "For What It's Worth" or "Fortunate Son" or "(We Gotta) Bust Outta The Ghetto" or "1 Million Bottlebags," but songs about the equivocal process of trying to reach out and communicate with another person. And though there are probably a million places to start, there's really only one place to start.
I'VE GOTTA GET A MESSAGE TO YOU
The Bee Gees
Polydor : 1968
GOT TO GET A MESSAGE TO YOU
Available on : Total Destruction to Your Mind/Rat On
Charly : 1991
I GOTTA GET A MESSAGE TO YOU
Available on : Tim Rose/Love: A Kind of Hate Story
RPM : 2000
I should start by saying that this song has a story. The main character is condemned to die, and he's desperate to tell his wife that he's sorry and that he loves her. We know this because Robin Gibb has said that's what the song is about, and he co-wrote it. This Death-Row-What-A-Brother-Gibb-Know plotline, though, is among the worst things about the song. For starters, it results in some laughably bad lyrics, which sometimes happens with the Gibbs.
It's only her love that keeps me wearing this dirt.I like to think of it as something more epistolary and epistemological, a song about the urgency and imprecision of communication. Partly because this is because I have already seen "The Green Mile." Partly it's because there is something interesting about the syntax. The man in the song is not saying "I've got to get a message to her." He's saying "to you." This seems to be an internal monologue; he's talking to that part of her that is alive inside of him. The alternative is paradoxical. If his wife hears the song, or any part of it, then she has in fact received a message from him. In that case, he might as well say what he wants to say instead of just saying that he has a message. It's like sending a telegram that says, "I am trying to send you a telegram." And given his precarious state, even if she hears the song, she is certainly hearing it after his execution. There's an issue here not only of the man's death, but of his death as an author. I'm not saying that my logic is flawless, only that the song's logic is flawed.
So why is it so hard to get a message to, or through? Why is it so difficult to be heard, let alone understood? One of the problems is that most forms of expression are insufficient. There's the famous Flaubert passage in which he derides the impotence of language ("Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity"). I'm not sure that it's the bears that are dancing. I'd argue that just as often, it's the messenger -- people are afraid to say the things they mean to say, and so they hem, and they haw, and that's how more language gets born. This isn't to suggest that all writing is evasion, but most works would be shorter if the speeches, and the speech, were more direct. That kind of directness might result from an upjut of bravery, from painful impatience, or from another kind of urgency -- like, say, imminent execution, though we've already seen how circuitous a condemned man can be. If I always had to say just what I meant, things would be...well, different. There would be a little more lust, a little more anger, and fewer jokes. Much of what I'd say would involve my asking people to say things back to me: any things, really, just a conversation (with words, gestures, touch, whatever) so that I know I'm not dead. If I rewrote the Bee Gees' lyrics, they'd go like this:
I've just gotta get a message to youNo worse than Robin.
Which is that you've gotta get a message to me.
Of the three versions here, my tastes lean toward the Swamp Dogg cover, which is sung with a kind of abject ecstacy, and away from the original - chamber pop, no matter how tremulous, doesn't strike me as a particularly lonely genre. (Tim Rose, on the other hand, does. Rose, of course, was one of those semi-obscure Greenwich Village folk-rockers--the third Tim, behind Buckley and Hardin - and a King of Almosts. He almost had a hit with his slow arrangement of "Hey Joe," which inspired the monster hit by Jimi Hendrix. He almost recorded the headlong version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" that went to Joe Cocker instead. He almost replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. His life of ups and downs, marked by bouts of alcoholism, ended during a late-career comeback in 2002.)
It's fitting to end with a message song about the importance of messages.
United Artists : 1972
Labels: ben, country, funk, oldies, power-pop, soul
posted by Ben
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Complete Smash Sessions
Polygram : 1992
Our friends at Minnesota Public Radio are putting together a segment on campaign songs, so MW & MPR are forming like organized crime to pose the au courant musical question: What campaign songs should America's most enterprising and indefatigable candidates adopt?
Toots & The Maytals
Berverly's : 1970
?UTAH MORMON BLUES
Available on: Jazzin' the Blues vol. 4 : 1929-1943
Document : 2000
?Readers of Moistworks - good news. We're opening the floor up to you! What do you think? We mean, really? We're interested. And, for once, we're talking big news: Obama, and McCain. Romney, Clinton, Edwards, and Hero Mayor Rudy G. - Important stuff!
OMG WTF LOL, right? But for serious - you're our BFF! So let us know, in the comments below. Ground rules?
Surprise Us:TAKE ON ME [DEMO]
& Make Us Love You:NOBODY
Larry Williams and Johnny Watson with the Kaleidoscope
Okeh : 1967
Courtesy of [the newish & wonderful audioblog]: Office Naps
Tell The Truth, But Eschew The Obvious -RUN ON FOR A LONG TIME
Bill Landford & The Landfordaires
Columbia : 1949
Available on: There Will Be No Sweeter Sound : The Columbia/OKeh Post War Gospel Story 1947-1962
Legacy : 1998
& Off Point:BRENDA AND EDDIE
Live : somewhere
& Omit Those Words That You Find To Be Needless:ONCE
Darla Records : 1990
Bonus points for riffing off something whichever candidate you're on about said, or did, within the past few news cycles - we paying enough attention to you to know you're paying attention to that sort of thing so: we'll post the best songs next week, and who knows - you might even end up famous here or on the radio! Either way, any idiot with with a suitcase nuke can tell you that the fate of this free world we're building rests squarely and securely on your shoulders.
NB: Speaking of same, Moistworks' Astoria Bureau would like to take this opportunity to endorse Mitt Romney - who believe you us, the last thing we want is to see our friends and readers committing Sodomites and catching Gommorrhea
Labels: alex, country, gospel music, indie, pop, radio, reggae, soul
posted by Alex
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
SHEET METAL WORKERS
Brighter Than Life
Wharton Tiers Ensemble
Atavistic Records : 1997
NINE TO FIVE
Nine to Five and Odd Jobs
RCA : 1980
originally from No Matter How Long the Line Is at the Cafeteria, There's Always a Seat!
Enigma : 1985
I AM A SCIENTIST
Guided By Voices
Scat Records : 1994
It's a hard time in America, a lot is unknown. But for us lucky ones with dry homes, one thing is as sure as death and taxes this week. Back to school. Back to work. Even if you have nothing to do with school, or even if you've had very little vacation this summer, your job has probably gotten just a bit more or a whole lot more busy and pressured today. If you're like me, getting to sleep last night was hard. Typical Sunday night blues/insomnia times a million.
My most alternately lovely and painful memory of this time is the purple Caldor corduroys and heart-patterned turtleneck outfit I desperately wanted to wear for the first day of school. Even though it was doubtless still eighty degrees in early-September Massachusetts, I wore that shit, sweated it out, loaded down with a new backpack filled with a shiny plastic-covered Velcro-closing notebook (if anyone remembers the brand name, let me know; it's driving me crazy that I can't remember), and new Erasermate pens (what happened to that whole erasable ink idea, anyway?). I hated school, but there was always a little bit of hope each year, that this grade would be better than the last.
Now it's just all about work. Those people I've been exchanging emails with saying "after Labor Day," those phone messages I've been neglecting to return, it'll all come home to roost this week. No more pretending to be in the Hamptons or Croatia. No more free Tuesday evenings (therapy!).
So. Songs about work. Get to it friends, make your country and your parents proud. I counted (and believe me, I included Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, and Thanksgiving): it's only 75 work/school days till Christmas vacation.
P.S. I was looking for a Tuesday work song, googled "tuesday song," came up with this.
Labels: country, holidays, indie, joanna, punk
posted by Joanna