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Wednesday, April 18, 2007
sly stone interviewed
bob dylan interviewed
sam cooke interviewed
nina simone interviewed
jello biafra eats a hamburger
the "lost" bruce lee interview
john lennon on the rolling stones
woody allen interviews billy graham
ladies and gentleman, meet alex chilton
hunter s. thompson interviews keith richards
paula abdul & james brown & serge gainsbourg would like to fuck whitney houston & the pogues & joe namath & joe namath drunk &
an awesome(ly sad) gil scott-heron interview
snoop dogg on bill o'reilly on dutch tv
joan rivers interviews husker du
captain beefheart interviewed
lady sovereign: the interview
duke ellington interviewed
the real andy kaufmann
bob marley interviewed
patti smith punks out
d.l. roth: rocker
I'm an Alex Abramovich fan, but I have a feeling he takes himself way too seriously.A decade or so ago, my friends and I came up with "Crack Island" - a game show on which homeless people stuck on an island compete viciously, for a lifetime supply of crack. Despite the rumor going round - somone we knew had gotten a movie deal and sunny exposure for coming up with the phrase "dot compton" - no one pitched it. We ended up watching TV history instead of making it.
Now Moistworks is making local-interest history, by holding a live reading in the very center of New York's hip East Village district. James, Joanna, and I will be there. Susan Choi, Sam Lipsyte, and Jenny Offill will read. Nothing will be on the internet, but visitors from out of town will find this an especially hip place to be on Wednesday the 25th, at 7 or so in the evening. (Ladies, take note: the 24th is Non-Fiction Firefighter Night.)
Stop by, sign our autograph book, and, in case you haven't seen it :
Labels: alex, writer's week, youtube
posted by Alex
Friday, March 30, 2007
Nash The Slash
Children of the Night
Dindisc : 1981
PEOPLE WHO DIED
The Jim Carroll Band
Atco : 1981
A NEW ENGLAND
Back to Basics
Elektra : 1987
Factory : 1987 (1981)
THREE RECORD STORES
1982: Cactus Records and Tapes
I don't know a thing about music and I never will. Still, like most kids, music and its precincts define freedom for me like nothing else. In 1982 my mother and I have been in Houston, Texas for three years. Our lives have come apart as thoroughly as they ever have yet. My mother is seriously ill and disabled. My father is, ambiguously, elsewhere; in time this ambiguity will take on the legal status of divorce but it will never, even to the early years of the twenty-first century, be resolved. No matter; that knowledge wouldn't have made any difference. We rely on the kindness of young foreign students in equally straightened circumstances, if hale health. One of them, an aspiring nurse from Indonesia, lives with us in a cockroach-infested apartment in a complex my fellow Girl Scouts are not allowed to visit. She pays us some minimal rent on which we rely, although I tell the Girl Scouts she's my sister. Is there any chance they believe me? Another, a dazzlingly handsome young Iranian aspiring chiropractor, takes us grocery shopping alternate weeks in his hazardous Volkswagen Bug. We pay him some part of our take from the nurse. I sit folded in the slot behind the front seats; my mother sits folded beside the dazzling young man, a woman in her mid-forties who looks sixty, parchment paper and bones.
I get a bicycle, make a friend.
I begin to spend hours, long afternoons, whole Saturdays at Cactus Records and Tapes. It's a long, hazardous bike ride from our apartment along streets without sidewalks, stitched with crabgrass swelling from the cracks. I don't know if Houston was as hot then as it is now, but it was astoundingly hot, ninety six degrees, ninety six percent humidity, the sun an angry white bulb in the sky. Suzan Seggerman and I, pedaling our three-speeds, our feathered hair flying behind us. We're so young, we're so homely and lonely, any slight attention from any hideous male and we strain toward it, gawky sunflowers aching for sun. Suzan burns easily and has pimples on her shoulders. I am waistless, I have braces, I'm still wearing terrycloth tops from the Sears catalog. In Cactus Records and Tapes we trail aimlessly through the long aisles, the air-conditioning turning our sweat into fine powdered salt. We stay for hours. We absorb the music passively, undiscerningly, hungrily. We never, ever buy anything. Once I am picked up by a much older man, taken to an apartment to participate in witchcraft rituals, chanted at while lavender burns in a large metal cup. A young child wails, ignored, from a bedroom; a telephone incessantly rings, ignored, in the kitchen. When she sees me again my mother - shrinking, receding, clutching her twin metal canes - asks me where I go, and when I tell her, Just the record store, she asks what I do. What am I doing? Only later do I grasp what she already knows: I'm going. I'm learning how to be free.
1985: Sound Warehouse
I fall in love with Bill Sherborne at first sight and stalk him to the cash register at Sound Warehouse, where I ask him to give me a job application. Three long years, and things have changed. No longer waistless. No more braces. No more clothes from the Sears Catalog. I get the job and before my first day I get Bill Sherborne, too, but he isn't, as it turns out, the thing I take away from Sound Warehouse into the rest of my life. That's a Sony UCX-S60, which isn't some virile speed vehicle but a flimsy sixty-minute cassette. I'm listening to it right now, at ten p.m. on a Monday, while my son sleeps and entire sad, strange, plain embarrassing times of my life I've apparently failed to forget newly blossom before me, as if all this while they've been pressed into capsules, awaiting some magical touch.
The other Sound Warehouse employee who makes me his business is Chris Kemmerer: wry, sly, often standing apart in wire-rims and a vintage trench coat, smugly watching the world go by. To me he always seemed petite, but he and I were probably about the same size. Our chaste partnership somehow immediate. Bill Sherborne makes all of the turbulent weather; unperceived in the midst of those hurricane winds Chris ensconces himself as my most indispensable comrade. Bill Sherborne and I share a damp, inarticulate passion; Chris and I can't stop yakking our heads off. With Bill Sherborne I think I've ascended, become iconic and noble, a Woman in Love; with Chris, I now realize, I've stumbled upon the adult that I'm actually going to be. A gawky and talkative smarty, happiest when companioned by same.
Like all of the men in my life, Chris gives me music, but he's unique among them in discerning, many years before I do, the sort of listener I am. I still don't know a thing about music. Chris can see that I won't ever learn. And yet for me music remains the condition for freedom, the way water and air are conditions for life. Haven't I come to Sound Warehouse seeking passion and friendship, as if obeying some primal instinct?
Inventorying tapes, squaring albums, re-alphabetizing, I become exalted by the most random things: Lydon's howl; Eno's trance; The Cocteau Twins' eerie yodel. I bask in these sounds the same way that I bask in good weather: ecstatically, gratefully, entirely resigned to the knowledge that nothing I do can protract or repeat my enjoyment. I very rarely learn band names or song names; I almost never acquire the songs I most love. I still don't know why I'm like this: a girl secretly starring in her own movie, who wants the soundtrack to happen to her, without lifting a finger.
Somehow, Chris Kemmerer understands this. While Bill Sherborne records whole albums for me, or collections of the best songs by a given artist (Todd Rundgren) or a given songwriter (George Harrison) - trying to teach me, in this realm as in so many others - Chris, within the first year he's known me, gives me mixed tape that I like for my soundtrack about as well as anything I've heard since. He doesn't try to inform me about the musicians. I'm not expected to seek out other records they've made. The tape is self-sufficient: it's intended for basking. Do I continue to like it just because I liked it so much then, when I was only seventeen? Is it like comfort food, permanently beloved because early consumed? It's possible; but there's a lot of other stuff I liked at seventeen that I can't endure now.
By 1985, one other big thing has changed: I'm a licensed driver. I take Chris' tape and jam it in my cassette deck, and I drive and drive and drive the endless freeways of Houston, as fast as I can. Great slabs of concrete that ascend and descend and describe graceful arcs in the air. Dividing and merging, separating and joining, sometimes even falling asleep: at seventeen I drive drunk with no fear, and I don't wear a seatbelt. The Tape urges speed: Chris and I used to joke that Houston has worse gravity than the rest of the planet. It's a city of reduced expectations, of torpor. We all dream of leaving and we never get out. What the hell is the escape velocity for this dump, anyway? It's late at night, I'm alone on the road; I step hard on the gas pedal, lift off the ground.
1988: Tower Records
But I've fudged for the sake of the story. The truth is, by the time that Chris gives me The Tape, we both know that I'm leaving.
I'd gotten into Yale, which was, in the context of my life at that time, akin to having been chosen for a mission to the moon. No one I knew had gone there, or anywhere near there, or anywhere like there. I myself was only certain it was going to change my life, not as in, make some alteration in my life, but as in, drop an entirely new life into the slot where the old life had been, so that the old life, down to its last grain, no longer existed.
But at Yale I kept getting homesick. Every winter, spring, and summer break, I rushed home. Sometimes, when I went home, I worked at Star Pizza, which was across the street from Sound Warehouse and down the block from Kinko's Copies, where Chris Kemmerer was now working. Sometimes when I went home I worked at the River Oaks Theatre, which was where Bill Sherborne was now working. I kept making damp angst with Bill Sherborne and I kept yakking all night over coffee with Chris Kemmerer, while, at school, I jittered uneasily from one department to another until, in the late summer of 1988, I told my parents if I didn't take a leave of absence from Yale, I might leave for good.
But I knew that I couldn't go home. Something had jammed the works and I kept toggling, back and forth, back and forth, never moving upward, and going home would just keep up the toggling. So I called Chris Kemmerer and somehow, in a very brief conversation, it was decided that Chris would quit his job at Kinko's Copies and drive to New Haven in his miniscule red Mazda to fetch me, and from there we'd drive to San Francisco and see what transpired.
I packed The Tape.
In San Francisco my Sound Warehouse experience got me a job right away at Tower Records, and our adventure, which could so easily have been a debacle, turned out a success. We scoured San Francisco. We felt an earthquake. We shared a six by ten room subdivided with milk crates. That December we drove East again, and whatever in me had needed settling had finally settled, and I returned to school and changed almost everything I had been doing, and I did well and throve.
But before all that, before the rest of my life, when we were first driving to San Francisco, Chris had pulled into the left-hand emergency lane and made me take the wheel. I'd never driven a stick. Chris said, "Keep shifting - up - up-up!" and when at last I'd reached fifth he said, "just leave it there," and I would, for as long as six hours, while The Tape and five other tapes played, until we had to eat or pee or get gas. Then I'd stall out the car on the offramp, and we'd coast to a stop. Into the West! Out of Texas, through Albuquerque and Flagstaff, past the Grand Canyon. And then the road turned northwest toward Nevada, and it all seemed to gel: The Tape and the Mazda's momentum; the particled indigo air. The sun had set, but the twilight had not yet grown monochromatic; instead it was the richest and most nuanced landscape that I'd ever seen. Charcoal mountains in purple and blue sliding past to the east. The sky's fading gray gently drawn overhead like a cover. Along the distant seam where the desert gave rise to the mountains, a line of boxcars crept by, crayon colors, but each dimmed by evening, as if dusted with ashes. The Mazda was not air-conditioned, so that we always drove with the howl of the wind, but now that battering pressure seemed buoyant, lifting us with each ticking degree that the light left the sky. While I drove Chris filmed me with his Super 8 camera. I wonder if that footage exists, if he ever developed it. And then, while I dreamed at the wheel, my austere, lonesome road was drawn into a tumult, enfolded by mountains, the road suddenly climbing and twisting, and because I had only learned fifth I was shouting in panic and grinding the gears - until we were corkscrewing down as if poured from God's funnel, and our road shot forth out of the jumble, straight and narrow again, with the gleam of a vast inland sea stretching off to one side and a void, an abyss, on the other. A swift shadow swarmed overhead: a cloud of bats, heading out to Lake Mead. The Mazda, spent, rolled to a stop atop the great Hoover Dam.
When we got out of the car I was jelly-legged, hardly able to stand. We hung over the rail and the great blank expanse of the dam glowed at us like the face of a glacier. We'd driven all that way without a map, ignorant and defenceless. Now the sublime had ambushed us and pummeled our hearts.
Then we got back in the Mazda, restarted The Tape, and drove on to Las Vegas.
. . . . . . . . . .
Susan Choi is the author of the novels The Foreign Student and American Woman.
Labels: rock, susan choi, writer's week
posted by Alex
Thursday, March 29, 2007
WHEN WE ARE A WILDERNESS
(I) Night of the Senses
There are a couple of early snapshots of me and my father that I haven't seen in years, thanks to my mother's inexplicable embargo, in place for well over a decade, on the display or exhibition of family photos. These snapshots are black-and-white in the unselfconscious manner of 1963; I believe the date, not that I'd need it, is stamped on the border of each. In both, I'm sitting on my father's lap in one of the raggedly covered armchairs I vaguely remember from our old apartment on E.13th. In one, he's bending toward me, no doubt telling me something; in the other he's holding me balanced on his knee, and appears to be commenting to someone off to one side, invisibly beyond the lefthand frame of the picture. In both pictures my face displays the delight that I have always associated with being in my father's presence.
My father rather famously loved jazz, particularly bebop and hard bop, though his interest extended well into the range inhabited by the likes of Albert Ayler (I can recall evenings when my mother lit out for the shelter of the bedroom as the transparent disk on which Ayler's spooky Bells had been pressed rotated on the turntable in our living room). He listened to music every evening, at the end of his working day. On Friday nights - hamburger night, in my parents' particular system of rituals - my father would stand guard at the entryway at the top of the stairs, the front door open to allow the greasy smoke to escape the apartment, with a cigarette and a bourbon over ice in his hands, the volume cranked so that the music banged up the narrow shaft containing the poured concrete steps of our apartment.
Among the many thousands of things my father told me - because in a sense his every action was a sort of enjoinment to me - was to love jazz too. Thelonious Monk was my favorite for a long time; through him I acquired a taste for dissonance, for the slightly skewed approach, that I've never lost. For a while I borrowed from my parents a 10" Monk LP with the irresistible title of Genius of Modern Music, and I would space out in my room listening repeatedly, in particular to the stupefying collaborations between Monk and Milt Jackson on cuts like "Epistrophy" [MP3], "I Mean You" [MP3], and "Evidence" [MP3]. When I was around twelve, though, I decided to get some records of my own and I became the only kid at I.S.70 to go out and buy Thelonious in Action, a recording of the Thelonious Monk Quartet live at the Five Spot in 1958. (My parents may well have been there, though not together. My father's first marriage was unraveling at the time, and while I don't know what stage my mother's marital woes had reached, I do know that her husband then was a man she has never referred to as anything other than "poor old George Bradt," a reference so liturgically consistent that I think of it as the man's true and complete name, so dismissive that I can never fully form in my head the idea of my mother's marriage to this cipher.) John Coltrane had left Monk's band by then and was replaced onstage by Johnny Griffin, a tenor man who's never entered the pantheon alongside Trane, Sonny Rollins, or Dexter Gordon. He was a good, hard player, though, and ballsy enough to include on his debut album a rendition of "Cherokee" [MP3].
"Cherokee" was the song on whose bones Bird built "KoKo" [MP3], the tune my father claimed had changed his life. "Great blasts of foreign air," as he put it. "Foreign air, the whole wide world entering the house" - the house, the block, the neighborhood of Bay Ridge that, to hear him tell it, he'd escaped like a refugee; the neighborhood where, sixty years later, he died alone in a bed in a podunk hospital, of lung cancer from the cigarettes he'd started smoking right around the time that he'd first put on that 78 by "Charles Parker and His ReBop Boys."
#Introducing Johnny Griffin and Bird/The Savoy Recordings were two of the twenty-five or so CDs (that may have been all I owned back in 1990) that came with me when I split with my girlfriend and quit my job and left San Francisco to set up as an Official Writer in Williamsburg. I worked at the kitchen table, writing in longhand in black marbled composition notebooks (a conceit I'd picked up from my father) and then typing up the day's work on my Brother AX-12 Studentwriter, a toylike machine that nevertheless devoured typewriter ribbons with professional inefficiency. I would write frequently and at length to my father (so that was where the typewriter ribbons were going), pissing and moaning about my slow progress and about the state of letters generally, impatient correspondence to which my father responded with forebearing support. He sent me lists of books to read. He tolerantly critiqued my work, and equally tolerantly responded to my own juvenile critiques of the western canon, which I was throwing myself at each evening from the wing chair in the living room.
Sometimes I'd put down the book I was reading to concentrate on listening to one of those CDs. Often, I would pick The Best of Sonny Rollins, a compilation of Blue Note recordings Rollins made before his famous woodshedding retirement in 1958 to the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, whose towers I could see from my bedroom window. I succumbed to the familiar false syllogism: Rollins was a genius who woodshedded, I was woodshedding (i.e., I couldn't get my juvenilia published), therefore I was a genius. It soothed. My favorite song on that album was "Striver's Row" [MP3], whose title, in that year of ambitious decisions and changes, thrilled (though I still haven't visited the Harlem development that lends the song its name), a tune that begins with syncopated beats bouncing off the skins of Elvin Jones's drums, an intro from which Rollins' saxophone seems to explode like a million pounds of high explosive from the muzzle of a cannon. This is jazz stripped to its voodoo essentials - a drum, a bass, a saxophone; the basic vocabulary of percussion, sonorous rhythm, and the high jittery shred of the melody. I sat and listened until late, often, sometimes because I couldn't sleep - massive refrigerated poultry trucks, up from the Maryland shore, would rumble onto the block early each weekday morning and idle their engines for hours until the wholesale market across the street opened for deliveries - and sometimes because, having removed myself from the daily business my life had consisted of for some time, I was trying to project myself into an imagined future space, asking myself, Where the hell am I going?
It turned out that, via a couple of detours, I ended up in another part of Brooklyn, with a wife, and two kids, and two published books, and many friends acquired in the intervening years, and my parents in New York and a half-hour away after decades in California, and so it seemed I'd found not only the space I had been imagining in Williamsburg and subsequently, but a continuum - the comforting adjacent elements remained constant, and things could only get better and better as I moved forward.
#Every now and then I take it into my head to smile at an institutional camera - the DMV's, say - and the resulting photo invariably seems to expose a certain amount of the delirium that I imagine is always lurking within. I joined the YMCA the day I found out about my father's illness, so there's actually a picture I can gaze at that shows me - or, rather, my demented double - on the last day my assumptions were intact, grinning insanely just a little while before I phoned my parents and my mother advised me that an MRI had revealed a "significant" mass at the base of my father's brain. The demented twin's hour was about to come.
The news unhinged me - that is, it managed to unscrew every working part inside me. I startled my wife by weeping, openly and uncontrollably, on five successive nights after the kids had gone to bed. Following the diagnosis came neurosurgery, following the surgery came an additional diagnosis (metastatic lung cancer), following the additional diagnosis came a prognosis, following the prognosis came treatment, treatment, treatment. My wife lent her devoted support. My daughters remained oblivious to the seriousness of the thing, which was calming. I retreated into the comfort of my family, my apartment, my belongings, my books, into simple soothing reliability. All the mechanisms, the routines, the failsafes, the backups, that I'd painstakingly built into my life swung into effect, operating flawlessly. That was the plan. If I was unhinged, they worked just fine. That was always the plan. Gradually I fastened all the working parts back to one another. Gradually I became used to the idea of my father as a patient with a grave illness. I began walking the earth as something other than a gigantic abraded wound. I quit smoking. I went to the Y every morning to swim. And then I decided to destroy eveything.
#It's possible that every day the opportunity exists to seize the realization that you're not the good person you may start out thinking you are - through every venial act, every spasm of ungenerosity, every occasion of sin not shunned - but for me the realization came all at once, when I found myself some time later standing nervously in the doorway of my parents' kitchen, having literally backed away from the table where they'd been finishing up their lunch - my father slumped tiredly in his chair, his mostly-untouched food before him, my mother standing frozen at one end of the table, staring at me - informing them that for the previous month I hadn't been living with my wife and children; hadn't, in other words, been living at home. I'd fallen in love with a woman, another man's wife, irresistibly, with startling swiftness and thoroughness. I also had discovered in myself reserves of deceitfulness, immorality, and, finally, cruelty that our happy secret afternoons together could only temporarily paper over.
These were some bad times, full of - well, they were just bad. And friends withdrew from it all, or from what they saw as a possible source of contagion, or simply from someone who was less lucidly predictable than they required. But redemption, of a kind, was at hand: illogically or not, our affair was justified in a sort of back-formational way by the news of this woman's pregnancy, which seemed to put a seal on this momentous and unexpected shift. It was a boy, as it turned out, and what appeared to me to be the symmetry of preparing to welcome a son as I was preparing for my father's departure from the earth was, again, soothing. I thought of those snapshots. That look of delight.
Lying in extremis, the night before he vanished into oblivion, my father, struggling to speak, told me, "I'm sorry I'll miss your son." I responded, in one of the marvelously stupid equivocations I'd become so good at delivering, "Not necessarily." But of course I knew it to be true: he would miss my son.
(II) Night of the Spirit
As it turned out, we all did. On a warm spring morning about a week after he died, I submitted to a paternity test - a mere formality, I was more or less assured. There were issues that needed to be addressed, the usual kinds, concerning legal responsibility and child support; as well as more emotional ones that needed to be put paid to. We went to one of those older midtown office buildings near where B. Altman used to be that seems charming from outside and is tawdry within. We rode the elevator to an office that, oddly, was part employment agency and part DNA test administration center and after an awkwardly funny mixup - the receptionist queried us about the "job" we'd come about - we went into a small and shabby exam room where a technician checked our IDs, asked us to fill out some forms, took swabs from the insides of our cheeks, sealed them in plastic bags, took a Polaroid photo of us -- I remember that we're both grinning like fools in the picture -- sealed everything inside a larger plastic bag, and then sent us on our way. I felt official. My saliva was on its way to a laboratory in Ohio.
About three weeks later two identical envelopes arrived at our apartment, one for each of us. Return address, "205 Corporate Court." They looked like credit card solicitations; I nearly tossed them without opening them. According to the Test Report within, prepared on June 6, D-Day, the probability of my paternity was 0%. "The alleged father," the report said, "is excluded as the biological father of the amniotic sample obtained from the mother. This conclusion is based on the non-matching alleles observed at the loci listed above with a P[aternity] I[ndex] equal to zero. The alleged father lacks the genetic markers that must be contributed to the child by the biological father." Thus was resolved case number 276919.
And thus we entered a dark period. There were a lot of all-night conversations in the aftermath of Corporate Court's sterile revelation. An apparitional grief overtook me - I'd lost someone I'd been ardently anticipating, but the fact that he had never actually existed seemed both to delegitimize (so to speak) my emotions and to force them underground. I had to compel myself not to think of the unborn boy as the homunculus of his father, who - I was bluntly informed - would henceforth act in all respects as his real father, both prenatally and in that impenetrable complication called the future. My own role was mine to define in whatever interstices I found between the woven strands of guilt, shame, propriety, morality, ethics, and legality. In other words, I could go fuck myself.
For the second time in a month I realized that our fate, always, is to finally reach the point of convergence where reality and our arduous resistance to it meet, and reality wins out despite our most compelling argument against it; because as brilliantly as we may rise to the occasion at this convergent point, we argue against it the way a crazed mathematician might argue against the number 2 - maybe it's not really a prime, maybe it's not really even, have we considered this and have we considered that, etc., etc.: we're making sense only to ourselves, and while the killing awareness is there that the persuasive bit of nuance thrives right at our fingerprints, it's there invisibly, untranslatably. "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise." So wrote Scott Fitzgerald, referring particularly to his lost youthful ability to muscle, by force of will, reality into the rough form of his plans. The fact is that while it seemed, and seems, to me that there was more to the argument than simply the matter of the contribution of requisite genetic markers (Did I think of my father, as I stood over his wasted corpse at Victory Memorial Hospital, "He contributed the requisite genetic markers..."? Had I thought of that while I sat balanced on his knee when those snapshots were taken 43 years earlier?), the truth was blunt and definite enough to preempt subtlety.
It was during these tearful and angry discussions, these detonations of confusion and blind will that took place during the hours Fitzgerald spoke of figuratively when he referred to the "real dark night of the soul," when I noticed the bird living in the tree next door.
#This is a tree-lined block, a pretty block, the nicest I've ever lived on in New York City. The trees are home to families of birds, birds who cry out intermittently throughout the warm days but whose calling is most especially apparent in the mornings as the sun begins to appear over the housetops and in the evenings as it sets. This particular bird was alone; he would start up usually around sundown and would keep at it throughout the hours when, ordinarily, I would have spent my time unconscious. He was a haranguer, a heckler, with a series of different calls that he would cycle through, sometimes in a strict sequence, other times seemingly completely at random. In those middle and late weeks of June his evening and nighttime addresses were a constant. It was when, for the second or third time, he burst from silence into song as I approached the house on the street - joyous? warning? who knows? - that the comforting certainty came over me that this animal was my father. Why not a subversion of natural law? Not a single one of the constants I'd relied upon remained: I'd left my beloved wife, I no longer slept in the same house as my beloved daughters, my beloved father was dead and blasted to ashes, my beloved son had been replaced by someone else's genetic markers, and the beloved woman who seemed to shimmer at the center of all these changes, a woman clothed with the sun, had become intractably remote. A supernal visitation? Why not? The more I thought about it - and you may rest assured that it is perfectly commensurate with my state of mind then that I devoted a good deal of thought to the possibility - the more it seemed as if it had to be the case. Natural parodist, long-winded, telling the same stories over and over, entrenched in a comfortable routine: even if this bird wasn't my father, he definitely was. And of course there was Parker's nickname, Bird: irresistible, trite, irresistible.
#My mother asked me if I ever felt that my father was with me. She told me that she felt him in the bedroom, sometimes; that she would catch a glimpse of him in the kitchen and while she would then realize that it was just a shadow, or an apron hanging from a hook - the way that a pair of boots in the corner might momentarily appear to be the ginger cat you'd had put down last month - she knew, ineffably, that it was my father. He wanted her to be all right, to let her know that it was all right, she said. I, for whom nothing was all right, eagerly told her about my bird, but she shook her head: "That's a mockingbird, Chris," she told me, as if the ghost I had conjured was grievously delusional compared to her own comforting perceptions.
He went away, finally. I'd like to say he rode me through the crisis, but although hearing him made me feel less alone than I might have felt at this time when I felt the extraordinary aloneness of the man to whom ordinary life has become a stranger - he was, as Edward Dahlberg wrote, "the immaterial food we need when we are a wilderness" - I think that as my father often did when he felt that he'd reached the limits of his influence over me (I clearly wasn't going anywhere, if his plan was to perch in the tree next door and sing "get out get out get out get out nownownownow") he just knocked it off.
#One song that makes me cry each time I hear it is Miles Davis' version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" [MP3]. His trumpet moves once, thinly, through the sad changes, acknowledging the melody, and then through ensuing choruses defies it; holding the notes close, bending them into blue patterns. He lays out, and is followed by Coltrane - another man denying the tune's invitation to sorrow, his variation on the song inimitably dense, clustered tones filigreeing the tune, gently mocking it, building more on the changes than on the melody: both men working to keep the composition from moving down the scale into the sad refrain like two friends joking over their respective unbearable losses, trying to cheer themselves up, to avoid bursting into tears. Red Garland begins his solo in the same spirit; his right hand seems to hit the keys one at a time, dryly, with restraint, but then six and a half minutes into the song he repeats a figure twice and then breaks everything open with a lush chord progression that concedes the mood totally, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers swinging into an oom-cha! vamp behind him; he not only descends into the heart's well of the song but finds the inarticulable loss of the world afloat there, the sum of all parts put into motion when jazz is working, the fact that sadness is not necessarily a state unto itself but a progression whose onset involves the surrender of joy - joy and hope escape that solo like the final exhalation of one's life. It is, after all, a farewell.
. . . . . . . . . .
Christopher Sorrentino is the author of the novels Sound on Sound and Trance.
Labels: christopher sorrentino, jazz, writer's week
posted by Alex
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Rocket From the Tombs
Smog Veil : 2004
Certain people in your life change everything where music is concerned. Back in school, one such person, for me, was the guy who went on to become the novelist Jim Lewis (Sister, Why the Tree Loves the Axe, etc.). We couldn't get along as individuals or as would-be scribes (I quit speaking to him for a couple months, e.g., when he insulted Samuel Beckett), but he certainly had an amazing record collection. Before meeting Jim, I was probably only punk rock in an obvious way (Pistols, Talking Heads, Dolls, Television, Patti Smith), but after I met him, after I heard some of his records, I was an entirely different kind of music enthusiast. Jim had The Ascension by Glenn Branca, and he had The Mumps and The dBs and The Cramps, and most importantly one night (while drinking) he played for me "Dub Housing," a song by Pere Ubu. Twenty-five years after, it's hard to recreate the feeling of first hearing that song, near to its genesis. What remains of that night is the bass-heavy groove, the intensely paranoid lyrics, the free-jazz sax, and the weird chanted backing vocals ("We know, we know"). The song scared the shit out of me in a deep, existential way. Soon, I became obsessed with everything Pere Ubu, at least that first fertile period thereof (best documented, these days, on the box set called Datapanik in the Year Zero).
I followed Pere Ubu through their not entirely rewarding later phases, where there was always be a good song or two. But this later iteration seemed tame. I longed for, and still long for, that early, uncanny, nightmarish sound. So upon reading about the proto-Ubu band known as Rocket From the Tombs, I got really excited-especially when the old demos were released a couple years ago on The Day the Earth Met The . . . , I was immediately an owner. This release was followed by the first tour of the "reunited" band, which as far as I can surmise meant that Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) and David Thomas (Pere Ubu) located the original bass player, Craig Bell, drafted a young, mohawked double-kick drummer, and hired Richard Lloyd to fill the lead guitar spot vacated by Peter Laughner, who'd long ago drunk himself into the grave. They played a couple of New York dates, and I went with my band mate and friend David Grubbs.
The show was a revelation, not only because RFTT dragged out all these amazing old chestnuts like "Final Solution," that were later definitively recorded elsewhere, but also because they had souped up the early punk attack so that it sounded more like Midwestern hardcore from the mid-eighties. The guitars were loud and fast, and the drummer was ridiculously virtuosic. David Thomas seemed cranky and sat through some songs in the middle of the stage. He had the lyrics in hand, to avoid forgetting. Yet despite appearances you would never mistake this band for late-middle-aged road warriors. They played like they had a lot to say and believed in it fervently. And the album that they later recorded of this lineup playing the antique material, Rocket Redux, is my favorite of the spate of recent "reunion" projects. This album loves the old songs, but finds ways to make them sound contemporary without pandering.
Somehow, this reminds me of a story of my school days with Jim Lewis. We were drinking a lot of Soave Folinari back then, because you could get it for $2.32 at the store near campus. The bottle had a screw top. It tasted awful, especially as you got toward the bottom. We also liked generic beer, which you could find for about $1.30 a six-pack, but generic beer felt entirely poisonous afterward. One night we'd pooled our remaining resources to acquire one final bottle of Soave Folinari. We were on our way to visit another friend, and he lived in one of those cinder block dorms that you found on campuses in those days. I was carrying the precious bottle. It was concealed in the brown paper bag favored by local package stores. As I was running up the stairs in the cinder block dorm, I somehow managed to knock the bottle of wine on the metal banister in the stairwell, administering a fatal crack. The bag started to leak. I alerted Jim to the situation, and we formulated an emergency plan. We banged on the first door we could find, shouted that there was a situation, and then barged into this room where two studious looking guys were doing their homework. "Got a strainer?" we yelled. I barely knew what a strainer was in those days. But these guys, amazingly, did have a strainer, as well as the requisite cereal bowl. Jim and I then began the process of straining the remaining Soave Folinari into the cereal bowl, as the two studious guys watched skeptically. We were not going to lose that bottle of wine. When we had done the best we could in decanting, we carefully examined the cereal bowl full of inexpensive Italian white wine, to insure it didn't have too many glass shards in it. However, in the bottom of the bowl there were a few slivers of faintly tinted glass. Shards big enough to seem, well, digestively unwise. I looked at Jim, Jim looked at me, and then, with an audience of studious college guys, we began passing the cereal bowl back and forth, tipping it just so, to avoid swallowing glass.
Grasshopper Records, 2004
Bill Gage records under one name, like a lot of contemporary R&B hipsters. But his single name is probably not a marketing gambit. "Bill" is as much of his own name as Bill can write, in fact this is all that Bill Gage can handwrite, and this recording is nothing if not faithful to the contours of Bill's life. It's worth noting that Bill Gage is also, among other things, the younger brother of a guy I went to high school with, John Gage, who himself records as "Bleat," and who runs the record label that released this album. On his own, John Gage makes eighties-influenced pop songs that sound a little like Cocteau Twins, Sisters of Mercy, or Bauhaus.
There's one other bit of relevant factual information, of a sort that would be disingenuous to conceal, so let me note that Bill is, according to the present terminology, learning disabled. Bill is a person with Downe's syndrome. And it is Bill who does all the singing and lyric writing on Bat Man. In fact, this recording finds its origin in the fact that Bill, as his brother is first to point out, loves to perform. The album, therefore, amounts to a carefully calibrated interaction between two brothers. And the result is one of the most honest and most vulnerable recordings I've heard in a long time. Bill, despite his somewhat placid demeanor (more information on an attendant video is to be found below), has some demons, and on songs like "Big Foot," they all come out. Much of this tune features Bill, in an irate and terrified yowl, chanting Big Foot's name. As elsewhere on the album, it is sometimes unclear what exactly he has on his mind. However, he can also be quite straightforward, with disarming results: ("Dead meat, dead meat, dead meat"). Bill likes to count off. He also likes to tell everyone when he is done singing. He whispers, he feints, he shouts, he mourns.
John Gage, the preeminent session musician on Bat Man, is despite his training unconstrained by pop music. He's concerned instead with making backing tracks that will amuse and divert Bill. As a result, Bill is free to roam, and the sonic density of the backing tracks is what determines his method of inquiry. On heavy songs, like the Sabbath-esque "Steve Pepper," Bill manages some kind of rhythmical attack that seems to be cued to the high hat or the hammer-on guitar solo in the middle eight. Bill's strange sense of rhythm is never wide of the beats, it's remarkably sophisticated, and his melodies are very, very punk. Usually just a few notes clustering around a root note or a simple harmony.
The big question, of course, would be what is the level here of consensual participation by Bill Gage. Since I happened to know John Gage well when we were teenagers, and since I saw firsthand some of the confusion he felt about Bill, I know that John wouldn't make a move except out of love for and fealty to Bill. John is working hard to keep Bill amused, trying to find sounds that will provoke him, in the best ways, and the uncanny result becomes more and more unmistakable on repeated listens. Few are the albums that are as generous. That doesn't make Bat Man an easy listen, however. It's an album about how the human animal is musical when intention is not a significant feature in the process. Bill Gage has few musical intentions, that is. But he has an ear and he has a heart, and when he opens his mouth, something very tender happens. So much so that I have frequently wept while listening to this recording and lamented that I am all but incapable of being as open as Bill is here, or as devoted as his brother.
To drive home the point that John Gage is working here at the service of Bill, I do recommend that you go and watch the video for "Big Foot," at the Grasshopper Records web site, because there's a moment in it when John is interrupted attempting to film Bill. This is out on the street. A neighbor complains about the noise, and then this neighbor further complains that John is "embarrassing" Bill. John, harried, and irritated at the suggestion, immediately turns to his brother and says, "Bill, am I embarrassing you?" To which Bill immediately answers "No," whereupon the singer returns to performing his lead vocalist duties. The concentration and joy in the vocalist as he does so makes most contemporary rock musicianship seem callow by comparison.
Upon releasing Bat Man, the Gage brothers embarked on filming a movie, Elvis Dream Attack, starring Bill in the Elvis role. They're still working on it. This is one of the things in life I'm looking forward to.
From English Planes
Notes on Hannah Marcus composed by me run the risk of nepotism, or conflict of interest, because Hannah is my collaborator in a band, the Wingdale Community Singers. But I'm willing to run this risk if, for a second, I can briefly extol the virtues of Hannah Marcus, solo artist. I met Hannah when Bar/None Records was faithlessly wooing me for I know not what purpose, despite my lack of musical product or prowess. Glenn, the proprietor, sent me Hannah's album, Black Hole Heaven, along with some other stuff. Black Hole Heaven, unlike the other Bar/None releases, had some of the most devastating songs I had heard in long while, most of them about romantic failure and drug abuse. The songs were like Leonard Cohen, but they were angrier. Well, the music also had something to do with the kind of jazz-inflected strains that you find in Joni Mitchell, Rikki Lee Jones, or maybe Tom Waits. "Stars From the Side," for example, in which the narrator demands that a lover who has spurned her attend to her version of the events, is one of the most hopeless and outraged love songs anyone has written in the last twenty years.
After hearing the album, I wrote Hannah a fan letter, and we became friendly. After we became friendly, we started playing together. I then became well acquainted with the dark interiors that are the daily life of this, the most gifted songwriter I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Hannah can whip off a jazz ditty on piano in ten minutes, play folk guitar as well as anyone in Brooklyn, and dabbles in fiddle, banjo, oboe, harmonium, and just about anything else. At the same time, she can barely find her house keys, and her ill-behaved dog is the scourge of anyone who goes over to her place. She is often miserable about love, doesn't feel like she is doing anything worthwhile with her life, wants to buy a house somewhere and never does, and is a total failure at getting gigs. She is loveable, impossible, insecure, imperious, generous, undependable, pissed off, and she always has unpaid parking tickets. She is the third generation on her father's side to compose, and like John Gage, she has an impaired sibling, who has long been institutionalized. Her mother is a well-known painter and sculptor who also plays banjo.
Hannah finished this album, From English Planes, a while ago. It was mainly recorded up in Montreal (like her last release, the very excellent Desert Farmers), on her own dime, with members of A Silver Mt. Zion, and it is noteworthy for the overwhelming feeling of something splendid and luminous falling apart. There are great string parts on the album, and wind instruments, backing vocalists tumbling in and out of tune, strange things scraping against hard surfaces, sly key changes, beautiful melodies everywhere, and grim, heartbroken lyrics, despite the fact that Hannah alleges she is an inconsistent lyricist with nothing left to say.
Nobody seems to have the pluck to release this record! I am using this space, therefore, to tell you how this is one of the best singer-songwriters recording these days! Whether by fate or anomie, she is almost entirely unable to get her songs out to the public, but whichever the cause I would like to reverse it. Would this happen with Townes Van Zandt? Leonard Cohen gets fleeced by his accountant, and it's enough to stoke a revival! Here, on the other hand, is a songwriter who actually merits comparison with either, and she's healthy and working, and she can't get anyone to release the songs! I write these lines not only to say how much I care about this musician, but also to say that this turn of events is senseless to me! Ashlee Simpson can release an album that is a waste of the petrochemicals required to make it, and on this point everyone agrees! No one thinks that Ashlee Simpson's career has any purpose but helping to insure the stock valuation of some multi-national, or to further her latest elective cosmetic procedure!
It's hard to live in the world if these are its dimensions! I walk around and I feel like this world is a sequence of doping opportunities! You are doped by television, you are doped by superhero movies, you are doped by a twenty-one year old with too much eye makeup and a nose job, you are doped by nationalist feel-good rhetoric and literalist biblical commentary, you are doped as the bombs fall nearby. Meanwhile, the one thing I can't bear to lose, which is songwriting, looks like it is already lost, and if, in dark times, these three albums are obscurantist selections, selections from the jukebox of crabbed, middle-aged nostalgia, so be it. Better a once heroic form, now archeological, than the half-hearted attempts of frauds.
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Rick Moody's Right Livelihoods: Three Novelas is forthcoming from Little, Brown in June.
Labels: rick moody, rock, writer's week
posted by Alex
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I started working in a used and new record store in Seattle in 1987. A significant portion of my dreams came true when I actually got paid (very little, of course) to flip through records all day. One of the benefits of working there was I got first dibs on any used records I bought for the store. At that time, CDs were making vinyl practically obsolete. People couldn't trade in their records fast enough. Great vinyl abounded. One day I came upon my first Gram Parsons record. Or rather my first Flying Burrito Brothers record. The album, Burrito Deluxe, featured a photo of a burrito encrusted with sequins. The cover intrigued and disgusted me, so onto the turntable The Burritos went. But since I am a sucker for what I know as much as the next girl, I dropped the needle right on the Burrito version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." So while my music interests were willfully adventurous and I was always up for hearing the unfamiliar, once committed I did gravitate to the most familiar bit of the unfamiliar. The singing was slightly distorted by a tiny warp in the vinyl but pretty clear otherwise: a gorgeously sad and lonesome vocal. I was instantly in love, this poor guy meant it, lord he did. Later I would discover the Burritos did their version first. Some say the Stones got their arrangement from Gram Parsons (although the Nicky Hopkins-like piano perhaps indicates it was Parsons' version of a demo that already had the beginnings of the Stones' final arrangement). None of that interested me. I just wanted more Gram. In any case, I soon acquired all the Parsons material. I loved his original songs, but he always included some fascinating covers of other peoples' songs. Which brings me to my subject: the fascination of covers and Gram Parsons' cover choices in particular. (I see from Wikipedia that the term "cover" is fraught - although the term's fraughtness is also apparently fraught because there is a disclaimer attached to the entry. Some people think the term "cover" specifically refers to making a white version of a black artist's song to score a rip-off hit, particularly in the 1950s. They prefer "remake" for a nonexploitative recording of another person's song. I'm sticking with my broader definition of a cover. I'm using the term "cover" to simply mean recording a new version of a song someone has previously recorded under any circumstance.)
Parsons' albums made his cover versions as much a part of his art as his orginals. As noted, certainly part of the appeal of a cover song is the strange combined with the familiar. But in Parsons' case the covers were often songs that were obscure to a rock and roll audience. It is almost as though Parsons is proselytizing with his covers. Some of his other choices just seem perverse until you hear them. Covers are a way for an artist to tell you where he's coming from and whose shoulders he is standing on while at the same time indicating how different he is by doing his distinct rendering of the earlier artist's song. (I have always been envious of how musicians can do cover songs. There isn't a literary equivalent: it is not a mere reference, or a quote. Or a tribute. It has elements of collaboration. It is an intimate hybrid, unique to music.) Parson covers helped, in a very deliberate way, indicate what he his ambitions were: mixing country music (and a country music sound) with R & B (soul) music and rock and roll music. He called it Cosmic American Music, which is just fine by me. For someone who sang with such remarkable and unaffected sincerity, he was single-minded and very self-conscious in laying down his concept. I think he escapes seeming contrived because his feel for the music was quite genuine and organic. He just took what he liked from all the music he loved (and discarded what he didn't like).
A SATISFIED MIND
The International Submarine Band
Safe At Home
LHI : 1968
This song was a hit for Porter Wagoner in the 50s. Parsons covered a lot of country music classics and did not shy away from the slide or steel guitar sound (which took balls in 1968). But although he uses the same country steel guitar sound as in the original, his singing style is real breathy, more folky than country. And he stretches out the words until his voice almost breaks, making it sound much more desperate than Wagoner's more polished style. Gram would shamelessly sing country songs, but he would sing them with a folk/rock sensibility. (Wagoner also wore sequin-crusted suits, and Parsons soon took to wearing his rock variation in his famous Nudie suits. Wearing a sequin suit was brave in the days of the late 60s when you were supposed to wear a poncho like Steven Stills or, at most, velvet pants like Hendrix. Even Elvis was in black in the late 60s. Parsons wore country sequins, but had long hippie hair. And his sequins and embroidery depicted marijuana leaves as well as a crucifix, somehow giving it all a counter-culture flair. Anyway, it looked really good, cosmic American even.)
TO LOVE SOMEBODY
The Flying Burrito Brothers
A&M : 1970
This Bee Gees song was covered by everyone. The men, including the Bee Gees, tend to sing it as a declaration - slightly menacing even - of obsessive love. Eric Burdon sings it that way. Gary Pucket does too, with orchestration to prop up its grandiose sentiments. But when women sing it, like Janis Joplin, and especially Roberta Flack, they sing it with torch-song, self-immolating masochism. They sing it as confession, low down and sad. Gram Parson sings it the way the women do, all submissive and girly. (Yeah, he out girls even the Bee Gees.) He gets rid of the orchestra and keeps the vocal real up front and slow. So that's another Parsons component: his extreme vulnerability. His willingness to out girl the girls, his willingness to let his voice break. His unimpeachable sincerity. Very soon male vulnerability would be everywhere in the singer-songwriters. But before 1970 you really had to look to the black male soul singers. This brings us to the other main component in Parsons' vision.
DO RIGHT WOMAN
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Gilded Palace Of Sin
A&M : 1969
DO RIGHT WOMAN, DO RIGHT MAN
The Soul of a Bell
Stax : 1967
Aretha Franklin had a great soul-mama version, but the amazing William Bell also had recorded a version of this song. Bell used elements of country sound in his soul music, so he was a natural influence on Parsons. The Burritos sing "Do Right Woman" in a vocal style very similar to Bell's, really soulful and emotional. The only difference is they put a pedal steel guitar on it (played by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, who just died this year). Parsons connects soul music and country music in a way that hadn't been done before. He saw them as one southern tradition, and by simply putting the classic country sound of the pedal steel on this classic soul song, he brings it all home. Finally he adds rock-style harmonies, and what do you know? It is really sounds different from everyone else. No wonder people didn't like it.
SING ME BACK HOME
The Flying Burrito Brothers
A&M : 1976
SING ME BACK HOME
Merle Haggard & The Strangers
Sing Me Back Home
EMI : 1968
This is such a great Merle Haggard hit song. It is a real country prison ballad. I include it because Parsons sings it the way he'd sing a gospel song or a love song. He sings it almost delicately, as if he might weep from longing. Country music had self pity, but that isn't the same as vulnerability. Parsons sings as though singing is his salvation. Merle Haggard's version is more self-contained and polished. I think this song has some of the prettiest singing Parsons ever did.
Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris
Reprise : 1974
Hair of the Dog
A&M : 1975
Another song that everyone covered. It was a hit for Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. Parsons sings this as a straight ballad with Emmylou Harris. The harmonies are close, like the Everly version, but they slow it way down. The passion in the singing is touching but not at all corny despite the lyrics ("love is like a stove, burns you when it's hot"!). Nazareth later had a horrible version that became a swollen, lumbering hit single, one of the proto-metal power ballads. Gram's version didn't sell. And then of course he died. But hey, check out Ryan Adams' cover of Parsons' Return of the Grievous Angel....
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Dana Spiotta is the author of the novels Lightning Field and Eat the Document.
Labels: country rock, dana spiotta, writer's week
posted by Alex
Monday, March 26, 2007
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground
Verve : 1969
David Bowie [UK]
Mercury : 1969
THE COMMANDER THINKS OUT LOUD
The Long Winters
Barsuk : 2005
What Would The Community Think?
Matador : 1996
Island : 1972
For almost a year, I only listened to music at Rite Aid. Rite Aid was a block from our apartment. It was exactly the distance I could make in the freezing cold, carrying the baby in my arms. Also the farthest distance I could sprint if she started screaming again and I had to go home. (These calculations were important because she screamed a lot in those days. Enough that our neighbors averted their eyes when they saw us, enough that it felt like a car alarm was perpetually going off in my head.) Something happened to me when that alarm went off. It filled up my thoughts until there was no room left anymore for books or music, things that had once been like air to me. My desire for them didn't vanish, but my will to obtain them did.
I'd always believed that if you were patient enough you could find the perfect song for any emotional weather. (Indeed, I'd spent most of my twenties on such pursuits.) But in those early months with my daughter, I didn't even look. The hours I spent with her were characterized by such a strange mixture of terror, exhilaration and loneliness that I couldn't imagine their musical corollary.
All I knew was that the days were incredibly long. Babies are supposed to sleep a great deal, but this baby did not. Nor did she consent to being put into a stroller and wheeled out into the world to be admired by strangers. Attempts to leave our apartment were met with such furious wailing that I'd soon give up and sit with her sullenly in our living room until my husband came home.
It's true that I could have played music to pass the time. Every now and then I tried. But for once in my life it only made me lonelier. I wasn't going to be riding a speeding motorcycle or living the pirate's life anytime soon, was I?
Except it was more than just a sense of abruptly curtailed adventure. It was that time itself felt different to me. The hours I spent with the baby were long, but there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to perform a series of small tasks over and over again, tasks with the peculiar quality of seeming at once urgent and tedious. They carved the days up into dispiriting little scraps. I couldn't think anymore. And since music had been a kind of thought to me, it vanished too.
This is the point where I'm supposed to stop and tell you all the things that are great about having a kid, but I don't think I'm going to. There are many, of course. Some go beyond the great to the sublime even, but I'll leave that to the poets. If you have a kid you already know about those moments and if you don't I'm not sure that they're interesting in the abstract. Because as it happens there's nothing abstract about the good parts. It's like trying to explain why you love the smell of your girlfriend's hair. Or why a certain slant of light in October makes you decide not to leave this impossible, ruined city. These are important things, essential things really, but they are not transferable. Something in the explanation cheapens them.
So let me just say that she was very small then. Her eyes were improbably dark, almost black. She looked like an alien crossed with a lemur. She didn't seem even a little bit human. That came later. But in the beginning she was all creature. My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought. But if there were, I didn't know them.
In those early days, I only ventured out of the house with her when we were desperate for food or diapers and then I went only as far as the corner. But on one of these brief outings I discovered something odd. The baby liked Rite Aid. It calmed her somehow, the harsh, brilliant light of it, the shelves of plenty. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, she would suspend her fierce judgment of the world and fall silent there. And when she did a tiny space would clear in my head and I could think again.
So I began to go there with her every day, wandering up and down the narrow aisles while the terrible drugstore music played. I'd stare at the light bulbs and the cold medicine and the mousetraps and everything looked strange and useless to me. The last time I'd felt that alienated I was sixteen and lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wore moth-eaten dresses and fancied myself an existentialist. The days were long then too.
But back then music had saved me. One afternoon I was walking through a park when I heard "Candy Says" playing on a boom box (this was nothing short of a miracle given where I lived). I stopped and talked to the pale, jittery boy who owned it and in an act of stunning generosity he took the tape out and gave it to me. "This album will change your life," he said, and he was right. I got in my car and drove around and around my stupid town, listening to it. By the time I got home, I knew that one day I would move to New York and everything would be ok. And that is more or less what happened.
But the songs at Rite Aid were crap. They were not going to change my life. The songs that could were playing on some obscure website or in some dimly lit club, places I wouldn't be visiting anytime soon. Except that one day while we were wandering the aisles, "Rocketman" came on and I listened to it. When the song ended, I started to cry.
This was, as you might imagine, deeply alarming. I'd never been much of an Elton John fan ("Benny and the Jets" is my idea of perfect torture), but still there was something about "Rocketman" that got to me. It seemed like maybe it was the song I'd been looking for.
Because "Rocketman" although written and performed by two of the gayest men ever to walk the earth, is actually about having a kid. It's about finding yourself suddenly at a distance from the world you once walked through and took for granted. It's about the applause of strangers and the alienation of friends. It's about how what is supposed to be a transcendent experience can also be a profoundly lonely one.
Or maybe it's just another song about being a junkie, I don't know. It doesn't much matter to me because "Rocketman" showed me the musical corollary for my new life which turned out to be songs about hurtling through space.
It's not hard to think of more brilliant examples of the genre. "Space Oddity" in all its spare beauty or The Long Winters' hauntingly cinematic "The Commander Thinks Aloud". (You could even cheat and add Cat Power's version of "Bathysphere" to this list since plummeting to the bottom of the ocean in a steel ball probably has its share of terror, exhilaration and loneliness too.) But "Rocketman" is the only one you're likely to hear while buying toothpaste, and there's something great about that. To think that music can still find you even in the most unpromising places.
I found out something about astronauts the other day that surprised me. It turns out all these melancholy songs are wrong. There wasn't time in space to contemplate the tropic of Capricorn or dictate love letters to your wife. NASA was careful to schedule every minute of an astronaut's time, filling it up with endless tasks and experiments. Some of this was important, but some of it was just busywork, designed to keep them from thinking about being hundreds of thousands of miles from home. The theory was that astronauts should never find themselves in space with time on their hands, that it was safer this way. Because otherwise they might truly see the Earth floating beneath them. Because otherwise they might realize where they were and what they'd done.
. . . . . . . . . .
Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things.
Labels: jenny offill, rock, writer's week
posted by Alex
Friday, March 23, 2007
WRITIN' PAPER BLUES
Blind Willie McTell
Available on: Statesboro Blues: The Early Years 1927-1935
RCA : 2003
THERE SHOULD BE A BOOK
Amy 7" : 1969
Available on: New Lee Dorsey
Sundazed : 2000
EVERY DAY I WRITE THE BOOK
Punch The Clock
Columbia : 1983
THE BOOK I READ
1975 CBS Records Demos
READ, SLEEP, EAT
Thought For Food
Tomlab : 2002
Ladies and gentlemen, next Monday marks the launch of the United State's Internets' Fourth International Writers Week! With:
Susan ChoiCheck out previous writers weeks via the navigation bar to your left (or just click on the dust jackets below left - they'll take you directly to that writer's post).
& Christopher Sorrentino
Labels: alex, writer's week
posted by Alex
Friday, June 30, 2006
Drag City :1987
You might imagine people painting houses, as they're listening to this song. Or maybe you see them driving home from work, or to it. Or maybe they're just standing around in 1986, being younger. I think I speak for all of us when I say, "Hmm." When you listen to music you used to listen to a long time ago, it brings up the same feelings it used to bring up. But now, unsurprisingly, or surprisingly, the feelings are older. Old feelings. Imagine that. A nine-year-old feeling, a sixty-five-year-old feeling. Squirrel Bait is from Louisville, Kentucky. Or, they were, at one point. This song could be construed as the national anthem of a short-lived and violent country that turned out to just be some kid.
Another Green World
EG : 1975
This song, it only takes a few listens to realize, doesn't have any words in it. Nonetheless, or maybe, therefore, the story is very clear and forceful, with little vulgarity and few contradictions. "Big Ship" is an opera about life in a small pond. Listening, you should see gentle grasses and frogs, a circling hawk, a young deer standing completely still, also listening. Maybe water dripping cinematically off a leaf. And then, suddenly, finally, at the right moment, in slow motion, bursting through the smooth surface of the small pond, a breaching whale. Or you'll imagine a different libretto altogether-- no whale, no deer, none of the details above, no details at all. If you look up "breaching" in the dictionary, you'll find that it's done by whales "purely for play or to loosen skin parasites, or it may have some social meaning, or be used to communicate with other whales." Ah, words, dictionaries. Ah, "breaching." It's for communication or for loosening parasites-- something like that. "Big Ship" is an instrumental. No words. A model of composition. The rare song that seems to have written itself, that then seems to play itself, and then seems to end.
WILD BILLY'S CIRCUS
The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
Columbia : 1973
I always saw the tuba as an instrument that fell to its unlucky player by some kind of fairly simple height-and-weight-chart default. Find a bellowing kind of kid, maybe with some Europe somewhere in his blood, who is big enough to at least hold the thing off the ground, and there you have it: your tuba player. One of the last two kids left, when the instruments get handed out, the other smaller of whom gets one end of a banner to hold. Then I heard this song. Then I saw small children standing along the nation's parade routes, bored by the majorettes and the more-wieldy instruments, bored by ceremony and commemoration and wishing for rain, until suddenly the tubas came marching by. "What is that beautiful sound?" I saw their curious faces and the storefronts of their little towns reflected in the giant horns. I heard them saying, "That's the sound I was born to make. That's the huge thing I was born to carry." It's a much a happier world when you believe that tuba players are tuba players simply because they wanted to play the tuba. "Wild Billy's Circus Story" has a tuba in it, prominently. The sound sends you back, to somewhere unrecognizable. It's an old-fashioned but un-placeable sound. The notes are round and lumbering, and have a close but somewhat comic relation to gravity and pain. The words in the song are good, too. Yes, sir. Oompah. God save the human cannonball, indeed.
THERE'S A STAR ABOVE THE MANGER TONIGHT
Red Red Meat
There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight
Sub Pop : 1997
Let's skip considering what this song might sound like or mean or the question of whether it's religious. As a song, interestingly, it doesn't need you or me. It has a banjo in it, or something like a banjo. The band is from Chicago, possibly. My friends' little boy Benjamin calls it "dog music," for some reason. He plays Little League with a kid who is much bigger than the other kids, supposedly because he got struck by lightning.
24 Hour Revenge Therapy
Tupelo : 1994
There's something for everyone, in this song, if everyone is a self-destructive and broken-hearted sea captain of Celtic descent who loves hard guitar rock. This has the legitimately haunting echo of a sea shanty or a work song. Plus some hard guitar. There are certain songs that might be said to be suitable for framing. Whatever that would mean, I think we would agree that this is probably not one.
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME ('CHEERS')
The Wedding Present
Spin Art : 1997
Enough, maybe you say, of rock 'n' roll covers of television-show theme songs. And maybe you say, enough, of a nostalgia for a nostalgia that was just commercial slop to begin with. But, quiet down, quiet down, and gaze upon the damp fluorescence of the dishwashing area of a bar/restaurant in Western Massachusetts. See a dishwasher named Peter, hunched over with scoliosis, and hear him say, as he always said, "I know I'm not going far in life, I know I wasn't meant for big things." See Peter and the other dishwashers singing along to this song, as loudly as they can, unembarrassed, unashamed for once. You never saw such joy, such glad white people, in your life. Enough, would you say, of these dishwashers and their happiness? Enough, of their fleeting moment of community? Of course, you wouldn't. So have a listen and don't say anything. Pretend your sneakers are all wet, and you're stuck somewhere you don't want to be, feeling that everything in the world is either above or to the side of you, and that you are-- along with your good co-workers-- friendless in this world, friendless. From that perspective, in the spray of the sprayer, in the middle of a bad year, I hope you won't find anything in the experience that is not excellent.
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Will Eno is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Helen Merrill Playwriting Fellow, and a Fellow of the Edward F. Albee Foundation. His play THOM PAIN (based on nothing) was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and has since been performed in many different languages and around the U.S. The past year, he has been at Princeton University, teaching playwriting, and as a Hodder Fellow. An excerpt of his play TRAGEDY: a tragedy appears in Harper's Magazine, this June. His plays are published by Oberon Books, in London, and by TCG, in the United States.
Labels: will eno, writer's week
posted by Alex
Thursday, June 29, 2006
TAKE HIS NAME IN VAIN
HATE IS THE NEW LOVE
ONLY YOU AND YOUR GHOST WILL KNOW
OOOH! (Out of Our Heads)
Quarter Stick : 2002
I'd like to begin my comments by directing you to Sam Lipsyte's post, because it's funny. Next: Have you ever, in the years since your adolescence, relived that adolescent longing to proclaim your own secret clutched desperate euphoric love to all the world, as though the world gave a shit? That's how I feel about the Mekons. I fell in love with them in 1991 and have never gone back. Sure it's unrequited. The best love always is.
Those Mekons have broken my heart with tracks as ancient as "Teeth" (1979) and "Darkness and Doubt" ('85). They did it again when I first heard "Take His Name In Vain," which made me long for religion, almost made me run off and join a nunnery in the hopes of delivering myself up to an ecstatic and shimmering God. An unearthly presence calls out from the song-either the vampire of the lyrics or a charming demagogue or a Tall Grey, hard to choose between them. "I've forgotten more/Than I care to remember/Try to tell me something/Please, please keep trying..." A phantasm glowing up in the stratosphere, barely visible to the naked eye as the moon is rising. A God? A dream of a God, glinting there? It might also be an old piece of Soviet military hardware snapped off a satellite now commanded by Rupert Murdoch. Anyway, a weary idealist invokes the sublime in an exhortation to blaspheme: what could be a more pleasant prospect for a night's entertainment? I say swear till your mouth is aching, then fall asleep as we all float away, arms and legs spread-eagled, into the cold arms of space.
Listening to "Hate Is the New Love," if you choose to disregard the slightly hackneyed title, you can sweep into melancholy on the back of the lyrics sung by always stunning-voiced Sally Timms. "Underneath all this/The only thing that matters is/What and where you born ...cause there's no peace/On this terrible shore/And every day is a battle/How we still love the war." Battle cries are the Mekons' hallmark. When the Mekons rage and mourn all of us Yuppies who yearn for a Western hemisphere that's run by the righteous-or at least reasonable people from Europe-tear up our subscriptions to Self and run out onto the street to lead the mangy stray dogs into warmth and shelter.
Finally there is "Only You and Your Ghost Will Know," which performs the ultimate pop-music service of making the lonely feel romantic about their solitude. I'm not sure there's a simpler or more time-honored job description in the world than this mission of mournful rock and roll, namely to stoke a sweet romance between me and me. "You've got just one sympathetic companion/First the chill and then the stupor/Then the letting go/If you found one thing out on that road/Only you and your ghost will know." How pained I am by my outsiderness, and yet how rarefied is the company! Ghosts and demigods and dead astronauts and criminals and aging communists: enter the Mekons' pantheon and number yourself lovingly among the dispossessed.
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Lydia Millet's most recent book is Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, a novel about the physicists who invented the A-bomb.
Labels: lydia millett, writer's week
posted by Alex
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
We are, for the day, Moistwords, as veteran cruciverbalist Manny Nosowsky favors us with our very own crossword puzzle.
Traditionalists can download a printable copy of the puzzle:
Music By The Book (.PDF)
Or you can solve the puzzle online:
Music By The Book Interactive Puzzle
First person to solve it (without looking at the the answers), let us know in the comments below, and we will send you an assortment of prized oleos.
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Manny Nosowsky is a retired physician whose crossword puzzles appear regularly in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He lives in San Francisco.
Labels: James, writer's week
posted by James
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Songs for Mouth-Listeners.
People, the ear is not the only organ of hearing! Every hole in the body admits those agitations of the air we call music. The long-standing dominance of the ear in matters of hearing is unfortunate, to say the least. It curtails both the listening pleasure of deprecated body parts, such as nostrils, and the composition of songs more appropriate for the pores, anus, etc. Remember, it is not the ear's superior sensitivity to music that has made it pre-eminent, but its proximity to the brain. Our eagerness to, as we are pleased to call it, "understand" has made the ear a mere caddy of that obscure and even eerie cargo, meaning. This has deprived speech in particular and sound in general - with the exception of loud bangs, screams, and rumbles (there is a violent storm just breaking overhead)- of its audience in the rest of the body. It has starved the stomatic, urethral, vaginal, and colorectal system of music, causing serious blockages, and perverted our mouths from their original functions, such as sucking. Musicians, take heed: we want to hear the wet! I consider myself fortunate in having but a feeble understanding of music, possessing as I do what is called a tin ear, though I prefer to call it a meat ear - that is, an ear that hears huff and grunt and trickle where others hear intelligible syllables. With this in mind I would like to offer a short list of songs that can be enjoyed by the mouth and other parts, precisely because they offer considerable resistance to the understanding. Those who must still rely on ears for their hearing needs will, however, find much of interest here, and may even discover that extended listening has a healing influence on their body. Try wearing your ear[sic]phones somewhere else for a change!
1. Mumble Song (Fawn-Breasted Bowerbird).
A member of Clamydera Cerviniventris that resided near a construction site in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea was recorded by Ian Burrows for the British museum in August 1993. A John Cageian bird with a sincere and catholic admiration for noise, it mimics the stutter of a shaken spraypaint can, the scrape of an aluminum ladder on concrete, hammers and saws, but most awesomely and poignantly, the mumble of overheard speech, in which no distinct words can be made out. Study the Bowerbird to learn the song of sotto voce (sadly omitted on the short clip included here).
2. Song of American (Dario Fo).
I saw the Nobel-prize-winning performer Dario Fo perform his one-man show Mistero Buffo in a huge tent in Berlin circa 1984. The show revives an ancient Italian theater form he calls grammalot, an onomatopoeic, rhythmic nonsense language composed of words you can chew - words for the mouth, not the understanding. Consulting a dictionary I would like to get my hands on, he translated his un-Italian into un-French and un-American. Not un-English: without one recognizeable word, the bawled vowels and jaunty rhythms were unmistakeably American. But American as a Bowerbird would understand it.
3. Song of Simlish (The Sims).
The figments that occupy the game of Sims speak their own grammalot. It sounds something like Tristan Tzara as delivered by Hello Kitty. You can listen to Depeche Mode singing in Simlish if you want to meditate on strange convergences, but I recommend eavesdropping on any two Sims in conversation, like these.
4. Song of Minus I (Language Removal Services).
Not to be confused with Ben Marcus's fictional operations, this group of real live sound artists take recordings of speeches and performances by notables (Maria Callas to Abbie Hoffman) and digitally subtract the words. What remains is a spooky seethe of breath, gasps, gulps and echoes.
5. Song of Minus II (Jaap Blonk).
What the president will say and do. Wht the president will say and d. What the president will say nd d! What the president will s nd d, etc. Idiosyncratic sound artist Jaap Blonk bleeds this phrase of its vowels until only a martial clash of consonents survives to sputter and pink the face. Whtthprsdntwllsnd! Political commentary you can feel.
6. Song of Plus (Jason Salavon)
AKA The Song of the Century. Twenty-seven simultaneous cover versions of the most recorded song in history, the Beatles' Yesterday. The tune goes away. What lingers: one long, sentimental sigh.
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Shelley Jackson is the author of the short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl, several
children's books, and Skin, a story published in tattoos on the skin of 2095 volunteers. With the artist Christine Hill she is co-founder of the Interstitial Library, Circulating Collection. Shelley Jackson lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at the New School University. Her first novel Half Life is forthcoming from HarperCollins in July.
Labels: shelley jackson, writer's week
posted by Alex