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Thursday, June 04, 2009
PEACE, AT LAST
Angel Air : 1980
EVERYBODY WANTS TO FEEL LIKE YOU
The Missing Years
Oh Boy : 1991
Available on : The Man and His Music
RCA : 1986
12 Haunted Episodes
Razor & Tie : 1995
Some weeks are filled with peace: peace in the weather, peace in the work, peace in the world. This wasn't one of them. It started with an illness that passed quickly but was severe enough to unsettle.
That was the first domino, and it fell over.
Then there were professional developments that, while essentially positive, were still destabilizing. I don't want to be vague, but I don't want to revisit them either. Suffice it to say that the same mechanisms that brings my work--the books, the essays, the journalism--to a broader audience brings that broader audience back to me, and while I like to know that readers are out there, sometimes I'm disturbed by how out there they are. Then I spent some time with a friend who is going through a hard time that seem to be half-psychological, half-somatic, if not all psycho-somatic. He will get better, I hope. Then I spent some time with another friend who is going through a hard time that seems to be half her own doing and half her undoing. She will get better, I hope. Then another friend got some disappointing news about a project she has been working on for years, and I spent too many hours on the telephone fighting the mortgage department of my bank over a dishonest escrow policy, and I encountered various forms of humorless mid-level bureaucratic stupefaction. Today I was at the end of the rope, and not the bottom end, either--I had climbed to the top with thoughts of leaping. Energy gone, patience gone with it, I then proceeded to have the worst day of the entire week, a dull afternoon growing frustrated with nonresponse from adults who should know better followed by an exhausting evening in which my younger son was impossible in all the ways that five year-olds are impossible. My older son tried to broker a peace, but I wasn't having any, and my wife, who is now in the grips of the illness that unsettled me at the beginning of the week, alternated between not reacting to any of it and overreacting to all of it. This is trivia, mostly, of course. It's the cost of doing business when the business is life. But this week, too, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down, in church of all places, and though I wrote a piece about that, my writing didn't make me feel any better about the cost of doing business when the business is death.
So I ended up here, now, looking for songs that produce peace. It took a while. The Chambers Brothers' "Love, Peace, and Happiness" makes promises, but it is too effortful to deliver fully on its title. Bob and Marcia's "Peace of Mind," a bit of Motown reggae with a little filip of a string arrangement, is closer, but Bob Andy's vocal is pushed too far forward in the mix to allow any listener to settle back comfortably. Cat Stevens' "Peace Train" and the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling" begin to create the desired effects, but they are cliches, and cliches turn themselves inside out.
I knew the songs were out there. I have Van Morrison on my iPod, and Caetano Veloso and Miles Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Some people would try to find peace in the space between the songs, but some people are wrong. Still, the search itself was starting to become disruptive to my day, so I just put the thing on shuffle and gave up. Slowly, they started to come to me. First, was Chas Jankel's "Peace, At Last." Jankel, who played keyboards with Ian Dury and the Blockheads and was responsible for much of the songwriting, particularly the work that leaned out of pub-rock into funk and disco, released his first solo album in 1980; it included a few piano instrumentals, including this one.
After songs by the Beastie Boys, the Fall, and Bongwater--a triple shot of chaos--John Prine showed up. Prine has plenty of peace. I was thinking of him while I was searching actively, particularly "All the Best," from The Missing Years, which is a beautiful, simple song. What I got was even better: "Everybody Wants to Feel Like You," from the same record. While the lyric isn't the most generous he's ever written--it's a song to a woman who won't show him affection in the way he wants--the melody and the vocal are simple and magnetic, like a compass, and Prine's lyrics are always at once childlike and wise:
Next time tell me that you want meThey are also lovingly lickerish, which carries its own kind of peace:
Put your little foot inside of my shoe
Next time tell me that you need me
Everybody wants to feel like you
I used to love you so hard in the morningAfter Prine came the MC5, Iggy Pop, XTC, Grandmaster Flash, the Gun Club: not bad but not peaceful, and not welcome. Skip, skip, skip, skip, skip. Then I got Sam Cooke's "Good Times," which I was about to skip. I didn't. I hung in there. And I was rewarded, I think. "Good Times" is among the most misleading of soul songs. It's a song about pleasure, certainly, because it's a song that's built of pleasure: the swaying melody, Cooke's subtly soaring vocal. But the undercurrent of sadness is at least an undertow, and it threatens to take you back out with it. He's singing about a party, and it's ongoing, but he Cooke doesn't know for how long, or what pain will return when it dissipates. This is especially clear in the final stanza:
I'd make you stutter and roll your eyes
I put your mind on a brief vacation
To the land of the lost surprise
It might be one o'clock and it might be threeThis felt hopeless, almost, so I was relieved when after another stretch of chaos (Stooges, Steinski, Sonny Boy Williamson's "Little Village"), the random hand of music landed on Graham Parker's "Cruel Stage." There are songs about coming out of the dark into the light, but few of them take responsibility to this degree, or do it with such a lovely, spiraling guitar part. It's almost a secular gospel:
Time don't mean that much to me
I haven't felt this good since I don't know when
And I might not feel this good again
Take me for what I'm worth though it may not amount to much The people who should call won't. The friends who should pass through their difficulties might not. The occlusions may not dissolve, certainly won't dissolve all at once. The frustrations will keep on coming. But so will the songs.
Take me from this abyss and put me back in touch
Though I have strayed from you though I have fallen from grace
I am back on higher ground up from that lonely place
And I have found the going tough
But I will find the strength enough
And I am undoing this cruel stage
That I've been going through
Labels: ben, folk, soul
posted by Ben
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
Friday, November 07, 2008
HOW CAN I MISS YOU WHEN YOU WON'T GO AWAY?
Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks
Available on : The Most of Dan Hicks
Epic : 2001
HOW CAN I MISS YOU WHEN I'VE GOT DEAD AIM?
Available on : Complete Recorded Words, Vol. 3: 1925-1927
Document : 1925
Tiring week, no? Exhilarating, then exhausting, and the second part, maybe, because of the first. So, welcome, new President. I also went to a wake this week, for a friend's father, and that was exhausting without being exhilarating, except that exhausting isn't exactly the right word. It was sobering without being bracing, spine-straightening without being exciting. If I didn't already know that time marches on, this would have reminded me. Left boot, right boot.
The friend whose father died ended the week more or less tapped out, which is more or less predictable. One of the hardest things about the wake, he said, was having to conduct intimate business with so many people he didn't really know. What do you say to the man who was your next-door neighbor when you were four? You don't really remember him, but he's part of your past, and consequently, part of your present. His absence for most of your life doesn't erase a sense of presence at key moments.
Last night I had a book launch. The event was the opposite of a wake, or maybe the mirror image. Acquaintances showed up, along with colleagues, along with strangers. The people I see and speak to all the time were also there. Those people interest me the most, which is probably why I see and speak to them all the time. They interest me because the very fact of them is so strange. What makes you stay close to another person over time? Though I am not stupid--or because I am--that question interests me. Are you drawn back day after day because you believe that person to be a source of wisdom? Of amusement? Because the person is pleasing to look at? Because the mere fact of interacting with that person gratifies you greatly? Because that person's interest in you is also evident and you feed off of it? I'd say that it's some or all of the above. Cynics or depressives will say that friendships persist as a result of inertia, but inertia is harder to keep up than physics suggests.
There aren't many people I talk to or see every day, but there are some. How much is there to say to a person like that? There are two answers to this question. On the one hand, there is nothing to say, because you've used it all up. On the other hand, there's everything to say, because it's always all in play. Party conversations are a quick, clean illustration of this principle. With old friends, you catch up on plot. With new acquaintances, you acquire information about character. With everpresent friends, you reflect back the ongoing light. You talk about nothing and everything: small talk, non-talk, fragments of conversations from before. Yesterday's inside joke becomes tomorrow's cherished nostalgia.
Assuming, that is, that everyone remembers yesterday's inside joke. The circuit I've sketched out above is how it works when it works. But what about when it doesn't work, when one little wire goes haywire? At the party, I was talking to a friend I talk to all the time, and I reminded her of a comment she made a few months ago. She said that she didn't remember saying it, but that it sounded funny. I laughed and said that she was her own best audience, but for one split-second, I missed her. It was a crazy reaction. She was standing right there. I speak to her all the time. It was nothing. A few seconds later she asked me why I hadn't answered an email she had sent earlier today. I said I thought I had, but even if I hadn't, what difference did it make? I knew I'd be seeing her later. What was it about, anyway? She didn't remember. Another nothing.
Later, after my friend left, after my wife and I went home, after some food, after some TV, I thought about the party conversation a little more. Or rather, I thought about the week that had ended with the party conversation. The wake, in particular, had furnished hard evidence of what happens when the circuit between people breaks irrevocably, leaving all memories one-sided and all emails unanswered. Is that why the tiny hiccups in a relationship have a slightly larger ripple effect, because they're fore-echoes of the Big Forgotten Comment? Does presence in most of your life erase a sense of absence at key moments? I clarified with the assistance of two songs, one by Dan Hicks and the other by Ida Cox. Hicks's song is about being fed up with (or possibly pretending to be fed up with) another person's ongoing interest:
Out of three billion people, why must it be me?I am certain that people feel this way about me sometimes, because I feel that way about them sometimes. Get another roost! But the best friendships outlast this impulse and return to finer feelings, in part because they are driven by the fear that when people really go away--back to the wake again--you are condemned to miss them forever. Cox's song shifts the power balance, almost completely, and gives advice for women recovering from their man's sudden withdrawal of interest. Here, too, a lack of attention activates intense attention, but of a different sort--the results have collateral damage:
Oh why, oh why won't you cut me loose?
Just do me a favor and listen to my plea
I'm not the only chicken on the roost!
If your man quits you, don't wear no black.The songs, taken apart and then taken together, draw a bead on the not-quite-conversation I had at the party and the not-quite-problems it raises--at the forgotten comment, at the unanswered email, at the remembered affinity. They reframe the question and, at the same time, answer it: The friends you talk to all the time are the ones you miss even when they don't go away.
Find the girl that bit you for him, and bite her back.
If you kill my dog, I'm gonna kill your cat;
I'm gettin' even with the world and there's nothing to that.
Labels: ben, blues, folk
posted by Ben
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
IF I NEEDED YOU
WAITIN' AROUND TO DIE
Townes Van Zandt
Be Here to Love Me (soundtrack)
Tomato : 2005
[Unreleased] : 2005
In the spirit of end-of-year roundups, here are my two favorite discoveries of 2005. One old-but-new-to-me and the other new-new:
I just saw this movie, Be Here to Love Me, a recently-released documentary about Townes Van Zandt. I've been hearing about Townes (I feel comfortable using his first name because everyone in the movie does, including his kids and people who have never met him) for years from my friend Sam Brumbaugh (who co-produced the movie) but never actually heard the music. He was just this guy Sam seemed overly obsessed with and I couldn't bring myself to listen to the songs in case it made me think this great friend was an idiot for spending so much time on this movie. But, thank god, I loved the movie and love the songs and now I'm the idiot for taking so long to get wise to it all. Townes was a troubled soul, a drinker and drugger who believed in his own genius, who loved the search for the perfect song more than his own family. As a girl with a (past) penchant for junkies, I've fallen in love with him a little bit myself. A sort of Texan uber-American Dylan, with some Alex Chilton and Neil Young sprinkled in. A beautiful guitarist with a not-always-beautiful-but-heartbreaking voice.
And for the very new, Sahra Motalebi, a young, Brooklyn singer-songwriter with a haunting, sexy voice and a talent for all the right instruments. She's played with a variety of others, but this is the beginning of her own thing. She doesn't have a record (yet) but there's more here.
Labels: folk, joanna
posted by Joanna
Friday, December 16, 2005
TRYING TO GET TO YOU
1968 'Comeback Special'
Available on Tiger Man
RCA : 1998
HOMEWARD BOUND (live)
Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits
Columbia : 1972
HOME IN YOUR HEART
Atlantic #2180 : 1963
Available on Home in Your Heart: The Best of Solomon Burke
I've been away for a while, not sure if any of you noticed. But I've been out here on my own, Moist-less, not having the greatest fall. Music has felt very, very far away. I've peeked into the MW empire now and then to see what you all have been up to, but for the most part have felt a bit alienated, to be honest. Boys, boys, boys. Music, music, music. Alex says I'm "truant," Brian's busy getting wounded down south, James thinks everything's great (just to give you a small picture of the MW innards.)
At Alex's birthday party the other night a friend kissed me on the mouth. I'm a married woman, and it was just a "hello" kiss, but it took me somewhere I don't usually go. Shortly thereafter, Alex and I were speaking to a book packager friend of ours about Moistworks. (He had never heard of it. My god! But said, "Sounds like my dream blog.") (Is this a blog? I still can't accept that word). And, in a fever of (drunken) excitement (throughout which Alex didn't fail to mention what a poseur I am for even talking about this thing I've "abandoned"), I pitched the packager guy a "Moistworks book." Then, about three seconds later (during which he looked remarkably intrigued), said, "No, never mind, there's no book." And he was like, "Wait a second," and I was like, "No, fuck off, there's no book."
So, all that to say, I guess I'm back. Songs about being back. Can you return if no one noticed you were gone?
Labels: classic, folk, joanna, rock
posted by Joanna
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
HARD TO SAY I'M SORRY
Warner Brothers : 1982
STUCK INSIDE OF MOBILE WITH THE MEMPHIS BLUES AGAIN
Blonde on Blonde
Columbia : 1966
HOW CAN I LOVE YOU (IF YOU WON'T LIE DOWN)
Drag City : 2005
Oh music, music, music. It's hard to keep you in my life. The iPod, which I introduced to the world via Moistworks, has gone untouched for several weeks. I'm sorry, little pink one. I live with a vinyl junkie, and I'm sitting here in my apartment surrounded by it all, in addition to my own CD/tape/vinyl collection (from a time when I did have a genuine and strident interest) and all there is is a car going by on Humboldt Street blasting this Chicago song ("After all that we've been through!"). And the memory of being in a cafe in my neighborhood on Sunday morning, watching a pretty girl sing along to this Bob Dylan song. She couldn't have been more than 25, and I marveled at her knowledge of every single word. Bob. I think he's been a little too "around" lately, with the paperback release of Chronicles and some other scrapbook-style book, and the PBS documentary.
"Are you a poet?" a reporter asks a young Bob, looking gorgeous and young as I wish I could've kept him in my mind (had he dutifully died at 27 like all the rest).
"I'm just a song and dance man," he said.
And, with that, my mind goes to David Berman, whose new Silver Jews record came out yesterday. A poet and a musician certainly. I'm not sure about the dancing part.
Labels: folk, indie, ipod, joanna
posted by Joanna