Finding My Personal Best in My Best-Of Mixes

Surprise! 2015 is the bonus-track year!

As I’ve documented before elsewhere, I started making year-end mixes back in 2004 as a way to avoid spending a ton of money on Christmas presents and to share some of my favorite new-to-me music with my pals.

As the years went on, though, and my mode of consuming new music changed quite a bit, I started secretly thinking that I’d call it quits after 10 years. A decade’s worth of mixes seemed like a more than respectable project. Who could possibly argue with my changing priorities, with my decision to step away from making what started to feel like little dollhouses full of adorable but non-functional furniture?

But, well, see, the one thing that doesn’t really change, though, is the fact that I love music.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to music and how much I’ve completely underestimated the way that performing has always informed the way I approach art. It’s honestly been such a huge blind spot in the way I’ve been writing about pop culture all these years! The fact that I am a musician and grew up around musicians and continue to prefer to spend time with musicians (and performers and creatives of all kinds) has been such a bedrock of my identity that it’s been completely invisible to me.

tiny magnets at cole's

Because of it, I think I instinctively gave WAY MORE weight to various critics and bloggers and online pundits than I probably should have, since I’ve always operated from the (unexamined) assumption that people who express strong opinions about music MUST KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT.

Like, as a kid, I could listen to my dad talk about music for hours. And not because I was forced to or because he expected me to be an audience for his mansplaining or anything like that—it’s just that he, both as a musician and a music teacher, knew an awful lot about an awful lot of stuff and I learned tons and tons and tons about music from him, as long as I kept my ears open.

Teaching

One of my main tenets for living on this planet is wanting to learn more, to know more about how stuff works, and the most effective way, I’ve found, to make that happen is to listen to experts who know more than me, and try to keep up.

And so, with total naivete, I just went off into the world of music criticism with the same spirit. I mean, obviously I knew what it felt like to disagree with someone’s opinion, and of course I realized that it’s very possible for non-musicians to have an exquisitely well-honed and generous approach to their ability to evaluate music. But overall, I found myself seduced into the belief that I actually didn’t know anything at all about music simply because I didn’t share a lot of contemporary reference points with these vocal, vociferous critics on the internet.

I assumed that lack of familiarity with or awareness of certain artists or albums or scenes meant that I was somehow wrong or stupid, not just that there were certain artists or albums or scenes I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet by the age of, oh, 25. Or that there might possibly be artists or albums or scenes that I knew a little bit about that others didn’t.

allison with headphones

A lot of what I was taking for granted, though, is the way that, as a musician, I hear and understand and appreciate music a bit differently than the casual concertgoer or person with Spotify droning in the background, because I know what it takes to create it—technique-wise, yes, as well as from within, from that place of inspiration. And I think that makes me slightly more catholic in my ability to listen to pretty much anything. It’s harder for me to declare “this sucks” because I’m always going to instinctively privilege the fact that it got made at all over whether I personally happen to care for it. (I think this is something of what Travis Morrison was getting at when he said that “Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste.”)

travis morrison at the metro

So I would read or hear a lot of declarations about something being amazing, or something being horrible, and I learned to tap into that style of evaluation, thinking that, eventually, I would learn how to project that same amount of absolute confidence and conviction in my writing. I aped it as best I could, but, it never really led me where I actually wanted to go—which was straight into the heart of the joy of the HOW of the thing. I didn’t want to know WHY it was good or bad; I wanted to know how it came to be, how it came to sound the way it did, who made it and where all that creative energy and inspiration was coming from.

Now that I’m finally starting to re-embrace the part of myself that craves that connection to creation more than feeling cool or in-the-know, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to take seriously music criticism that, while well-meaning and enthusiastic, literally doesn’t have the language to discuss what is happening sonically. Like, of course you don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy, viscerally, a certain instrument’s sound or a particular chord progression, but I’ve started to give the side-eye to so-called critics who will emptily describe a “jangly” guitar or a “jazzy” chorus. WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN. My boyfriend (who is a scary-brilliant genius guitar player and songwriter) and I will still howl with laughter when we remember that the Pitchfork review of The Clientele’s album Bonfires on the Heath describes the guitar sound as “echo-wobbly strum,” which is a non-musician’s way of describing what could much more simply, effectively, and accurately just be called tremolo.

pet theories guitar pedal board

In trying to reverse the course I’ve been on for the past 12 years, I’m probably being a bit too harsh. I’m, honestly, still just learning to trust my own heart and ears again, without trying to impress anyone or, god forbid, be some kind of self-styled arbiter of anyone else’s tastes. Sure, there’s the contrary part of me that’s sometimes still going to want to declare that someone completely unknown and obscure is THE BEST THING EVER, or the part of me that’s going to yawn dramatically when the subject of something ever-so-slightly overhyped and overexposed comes up.

But, I’m deliberately reminding myself, repeatedly, that often when things are just kind of obviously good, I’m allowed to, very simply, take pleasure in their obvious goodness.

best of 2015 track list

Hey, if you’d like to take a tour through my archive of the past 12 years of best-of mixes, they can all be streamed through my page on 8tracks!

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What Bono Taught Me About Mesmerizing an Audience

I’ve never considered myself the biggest fan of the band U2.

U2 in 1979

I mean, I’ve always liked them well enough—the big hits never fail to get my blood pumping when I hear them on the radio—but I think I’ve only ever owned a copy of The Joshua Tree and even then have probably only listened to it about twice all the way through anyway. Nevertheless, I respect them a lot as pop culture figures and know they’re really important to a lot of people whose musical opinions I respect.

In recent years, now that I’ve stopped going to see as many ultra-hot, of-the-moment buzz bands live in concert, I’ve started to make more of a concerted effort to see legends who might not be around much longer—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell. Even though I doubt U2 will stop playing or touring anytime soon, they are getting older and so I jumped at the chance to finally see them at the United Center here in Chicago earlier this summer.

U2 at the United Center June 2015

My boyfriend and I got relatively inexpensive seats with a somewhat obstructed view behind the stage. But, since the set design was basically open and allowed for the band to play to all 360 degrees of the room, it was still a totally fine place to watch the show from. Better than fine, actually, as far as I was concerned.

As covocalist in my band Pet Theories, I’m often in the position of connecting most obviously and directly with the crowd, both while I’m singing and while I’m bantering in between songs. So, once I got to my seat at the U2 gig, I quickly realized that I was going to have an awesome opportunity to get a Bono’s-eye-view of the performance space.

A Bono's-eye-view of Chicago

I’ve written before about going to concerts and psychically evaluating each player for her dominant chakra; I find it enormously helpful as both a clairvoyant and as a musician to watch the way that powerful performers set their energy. It gives me a fuller appreciation for their art and it always serves as a potent reminder that there’s no sense in trying to hide anything about myself when I’m on stage since I know the audience will feel my truth, whether they consciously realize it or not.

So all I can say is—wow. Bono is enormously skilled at handling A LOT of energy. He emanates power from his heart chakra and his throat chakra, obviously, but he also opens his crown chakra much like an orchestra conductor does, to be a beacon for everyone in the room to follow. It’s kind of a trite observation, but it’s really true in this case—he made a venue that enormous feel intimate and cozy through the sheer force of his presence.

Bono's seventh chakra beacon

The way I see it, when a performer is in front of a crowd that big, the energy goes both directions, right? The performer herself is obviously exposed, singularly, to all those people. But then there’s also the fact that she is receiving the expectations and communication (both spoken and unspoken) of all those people assembled together simultaneously.

Look, I’m good in front of a crowd. I’ve been performing on stage since I was a young girl and I am a notorious spotlight hog. I love being the center of attention. But being the center of that much attention? I dunno…!

Sure, Bono remains a tremendously charismatic, stirring, and appealing singer. But at this point in his career, I truly believe that pretty much the greatest thing he does is allow himself to be the focal point for that much attention. He jokes about being a megalomaniac, but like, if you’re actually capable of commanding an audience of that size…well, those aren’t really delusions of grandeur anymore, are they? That’s just straight-up grandeur.

U2's straight-up grandeur

It was transformative to watch. Not just because I was impressed by Bono’s psychic skills but also because, as embarrassing as it is to admit, it gave me this very useful yardstick to measure my own ambition against. As a writer, as a musician, as a communicator—would I be able to hold the energy of that many people without completely freaking out? It seems like a ridiculous hypothetical question for me to ask, I know (who’s got the delusions of grandeur now?), but, let me put it another way.

I remember laying in bed one night when I was a little kid. I don’t remember how old I was, but definitely no older than about 13, and probably even younger than that. And I remember consciously making the decision that if my dad could deal with the fact that his wife, my mom, had died; if he was suddenly thrust into the unwanted position of raising three young kids on his own; if he could drive to Chicago from Northwest Indiana every day and work at a job that he dutifully maintained out of financial necessity; if he could continue to find ways to make music despite all these challenges; then, by God, I would be able to handle it all too.

Whatever the “it all” was that my tiny megalomaniac self thought I would be responsible for handling, I’m not exactly sure now. An equivalent amount of hassle and despair and by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants little victories?

AF and TF handling it

It was a bullshit comparison, I know that now. But, sure enough, reviewing the way that circumstances have shaken out in the years since that decision hit me out of the blue, my life does kinda resemble his in ways that I’m not sure can be chalked entirely up to simple heredity.

So, at this point, I figure if I’m inevitably going to be looking to a powerful figure to emulate, and in so doing invite similar challenges into my own life, it might as well be someone like Bono, someone who does incredibly outrageous and fascinating things that I would be thrilled to tackle in my own way.

Bono in control in Chicago

Posed U2 photo courtesy of U2.com
Live photos of U2 at the United Center by Flickr user swimfinfan

Peach Buzz: Best Places to Pee in the City of Chicago

One of the things I’ve always found most romantic about truly knowing a city is one’s ease with the mundane.

By Anubhav Saxena

Where you go grocery shopping. Where you get your hair cut. What deli has the shortest lines and the most entertaining customer service at lunchtime.

During the summer that I studied abroad in London during college, I opted not to take as many weekend trips to out-of-town destinations as the majority of my American classmates. It was for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I didn’t care as much about the quantity of sites I could lay my eyes upon as the quality of my relative intimacy with a handful of very specific places.

lunch in london

That summer, I privileged wanting to know every nuance of the precise route I would walk to my local tube station and the precise shadings of light on the Thames as the sun went down well after 9:30 pm throughout the month of July. Sure, I visited Stonehenge once, and it was awesome and super-cool and of course I’m glad that I went.

AF stonehenge

But I cherish every bit as much my memory of the three-digit code I had to punch to gain access to the main hallway of the office where I unexpectedly landed an unpaid internship, and the way that hallway smelled faintly of cleaning supplies and mildew and pencil shavings, and the fact that every day I carried with me this great little satchel from Eddie Bauer, which was just big enough to fit my portable CD player and a couple CDs (primarily all the Divine Comedy albums that I’d just purchased at the HMV in Piccadilly Circus).

So, in that spirit, I would like to offer you my extremely unscientific, terribly biased, and completely un-comprehensive guide to the Best Places to Pee in the City of Chicago.

Peach Buzz!

I drink a lot, constantly, all the time—water, coffee, green juice, kombucha, bubble tea, occasional beer and wine and whisky. Consequently, I have to pee a lot, often when I’m running errands or when I don’t otherwise have easy access to a bathroom. Over the years, I’ve figured out a few reliable places where I can dash in, dash out, and get on with my life. Some of them require a tiny bit of psychic armor, to make yourself blend in to places you might not 100% belong, but most of them are well and truly public.

FIRST AND FOREMOST, though—a giant RIP to the bathrooms at Native Foods in Wicker Park. I always thought of them as my clever little secret, but apparently they weren’t so secret after all. One of the last times my boyfriend and I were in that neighborhood, I was utterly distraught to find a lock on the bathroom door, with a sign indicating that they were only available for paying customers. Like, of course a restaurant’s bathrooms should be primarily for paying customers. But what an incredible bummer that these animal welfare-obsessed vegans would feel the need to so suddenly, so flagrantly enforce it after several years of being groovy about leaving them open.

Whole Foods
Is this obvious? It seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, your local Whole Foods is a pretty great place to pee when you’re out and about. Who could possibly prove that you weren’t there to shop, stopped in to pee real quick, then couldn’t find the thing you were looking for and unfortunately had to leave the store empty handed? Anyway, that’s at least the story I tell myself if I’m feeling conspicuous. Depending on the day of the week, I’m most frequently near the one on Huron in River North (I love being able to skirt back out onto the street through the door that’s supposed to be reserved for residents of One Superior Place), the one on Ashland in Lakeview (this one’s a little dodgy to get in and out of since you have to walk a gauntlet of cashiers, but the ones who work there luckily tend to be too stoned to notice), and the new one on Broadway in Edgewater (pretty sure the bathrooms and coffee shop area in this new store have their own zip code—the building is SO BIG). The dangerous part, of course, is the high likelihood of being seduced on the way in or out by gourmet chocolate bars and fancy jars of stone-ground pumpkin seed butter, thereby potentially making it an extremely expensive trip per flush.

merchandise mart empty hallway

The Food Court at the Merchandise Mart
This location is actually temporarily closed right now while they’re remodeling the main seating area of the food court. But, they’ve helpfully redirected folks to a second bathroom location just down the hall on the other side of the McDonald’s. I’d never been in these bathrooms until very recently, so I’m not sure if they’re brand-new brand-new, or just newly remodeled. At any rate, they’re top notch—very clean and spacious. I’m so rarely in that area on weekends that I can’t really vouch for their status on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the work week, this one is a no-nonsense godsend for efficiency and anonymity.

The Ground Level Shops at the Palmer House Hilton
A couple summers ago, I was in the throes of a self-diagnosed UTI that was just bad enough to be inconvenient and annoying without quite being bad enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment about, so I was self-medicating with copious quantities of cranberry juice and cranberry supplements. I’d just picked up a new bottle of capsules at Kramer’s Health Foods on Wabash and figured there would be a Starbucks in the nearby Palmer House shopping area where I could buy a bottle of water as an outwardly “official” excuse to use their bathroom. Well, as luck would have it, there’s actually a three-stall public bathroom right across the hall from the Starbucks. I love staying in hotels so much that I secretly get a big thrill out of walking through here when I need to use this bathroom. I always pretend that I’m a spy or some kind of glamorous high-profile corporate ballbuster when I go clacking down the echoing corridors.

upstairs bathroom center on halsted

Second Floor of the Center on Halsted
This one could technically be filed as a subheading under the Whole Foods options, but since the Center is its own entity, I’ll count it separately. Especially if you eschew the often crowded and less than well-maintained bathroom on the ground level immediately adjacent to the bakery-side entrance to the Whole Foods and head upstairs to the spacious, industrial bathrooms instead. The signage designates them for male- and female-identified people, and there are gender-neutral facilities nearby as well, which is an obvious, awesome bonus.

2828 North Clark
Don’t get on the elevators or escalators! Jog up the first set of stairs immediately in front of you, go up the ramp, and turn to the left. It’s a tiny three-stall bathroom at an awkward angle because of the weird layout of the building, and sometimes it can be less than immaculately clean, but this is a great option in this part of the city where, as things get fancier and fancier, it becomes more difficult to find a place where you can pee for free. Just be careful not to count on using it if you’re leaving a movie late at night; they lock ’em down once most of the shops have closed.

OK, Chicago—what have I missed? Let me know if you have a favorite place to pee on the sly.

The Yearly Halloween Hassle

As I’ve written about before, my mom died when I was eight years old.

mom wedding

My dad never remarried and though we had plenty of much appreciated help from local relatives, friends, church members, and neighbors, a lot of responsibility naturally fell on my shoulders as not only the oldest child but also the oldest daughter. I was in many ways my mom’s mini-me and I learned to crave the praise and validation that came from being told I was “just like Sharon.”

As the years went by, my dad began to resist and abhor anything that broke the comfort of his routine. Regularly scheduled activities, like weekly church band rehearsal or games and practices during the years my brother played Little League baseball, were fine and posed no problem. But unexpected hassles, like doctor’s appointments or science fair projects, especially if they cost money, increasingly threatened his ability to hold on to his temper and, more than that, his ability to continue fooling himself into believing that he had a handle on, y’know, his life.

Which made Halloween, with its multiple layers of variables, a particularly stressful occasion in our household. Getting three kids dressed up in their outfits of choice was a pain in the ass; candy and costumes cost money that wasn’t always in abundance; the weather was often unpredictable; someone both had to be available to take us kids trick or treating and to give candy out at our front door. In other words, hassle upon hassle upon hassle.

allison fairy godmother

In an attempt to mitigate some of this hassle, it wasn’t long before it started to make the most sense for me to stay home, giving out the candy at our front door, while my dad (if he got home from work early enough) or one of my grandparents took my brother and sister trick or treating. I still got to dress up (the year that I wore a huge, borrowed fur coat and sprayed half my hair white as Cruella de Vil got a particularly enthusiastic response), and I usually still got to go to the costume contest held annually at the middle school gymnasium down the street, so it never felt like that much of a sacrifice to me. I either ate candy from my siblings’ stash or pilfered from the bowl of whatever we were giving out, so I didn’t lose out in that respect either.

But still, I eventually felt myself adopt my dad’s point of view about the holiday—it began to seem like a ridiculous hassle that I saw the point of less and less as I got older. Never one for large parties as a teenager, or the bar scene once I hit drinking age, there seemed to be little point in even attempting to put together a costume, especially since, always self-conscious about my weight, I never felt like I would have been able to pull off the “sexy” costumes that were increasingly de rigueur for girls older than, say, about 13.

mary mike allison pumpkin patch

Yes, there was a lovely year in college when my best friend and her fiancé and I spent a few happy weeks leading up to the 31st carving pumpkins and watching movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula together, but the best thing about Halloween for me, after a while, was the slashed price of leftover candy at the grocery stores on November 1.

So, even now in my mid-30s, as Tumblr and Instagram begin to fill up with all manner of #spoopy enthusiasm for Halloween, I find myself slogging through a persistent, inherited, but now groundless sense of avoidance. And honestly, it bums me out that I’ve allowed myself to become so Halloween-resistant! This holiday should be right up my alley! It happens during my favorite season and it’s a significant energetic threshold for so many spiritual traditions.

Not to mention, there is almost nothing I crave more in life than being seen. I love being the center of attention. I love wearing strange or outlandish clothing and getting noticed and complimented for it. (Not for nothing did I dye my hair bright pink for several years.) So, Halloween should be a natural for me, right? A day specifically set aside for looking one’s craziest, right? Well, yeah—but I’m contrary enough that I like looking crazy on the rest of the days of the year when muggles aren’t usually competing to get in on the act as well. It’s like the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the gang learned that real demons traditionally take October 31 off. Yeah, me too.

autumn on greenview

I’d love to give you an optimistic turnaround here and say that I have plenty of things that still make October meaningful for me. But I’m not sure that’d be entirely true. Sure, I love the color of the changing leaves and the crisp air and the fall wardrobe staples and the hot coffee and early sunsets that make it a particularly sensual and invigorating month. But in terms of feeling specifically compelled to observe any kind of annual ritual honoring the slide into the dark part of the year, I sadly find myself coming up short.

Mindlessly replicating old family patterns seems a particularly ineffective and self-defeating way to justify my admittedly, unpleasantly sharp-edged, high-pitched refusal to join in on the Halloween fun. But maybe that serves, in its own perverse way, as my own method of observing the Day of the Dead—communing with the spirit of Hassle and invoking Stagnant Predictability as a way of inadvertently reminding myself that, yes, there’s plenty of darkness in my life and memories still left to explore, no matter how much I may dress myself up in optimism otherwise.

My Time of Day

I’ve always been a night owl.

black and white futon

Somewhat mystically, I tend to credit this to having grown up as a theater kid. On nights after attending local musical theater productions with my dad, he’d hang out backstage chatting with the actors and musicians and directors, laughing and sharing compliments and general show talk. I have a distinct memory of being about seven years old, tagging along with him after a closing night performance, and being aware of the clock ticking over to midnight and then making the connection—oh yeah, this is where tomorrow starts.

(Not for nothing is this one of my favorite passages from Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night:

Later she was homeward bound at last in broad daylight, with the pigeons already breaking over Saint-Sulpice. All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.)

 

Well over a decade later, while attending Indiana University as an undergraduate, I took this preference to its logical extreme, claiming that my brain didn’t really start working properly until the sun went down. I have a similarly distinct memory of a winter weekend afternoon spent torturing myself in the library over a paper that was due imminently that I only finally cracked open once twilight descended. Looking down at my notebook suddenly alive with scribbles, I looked up again to notice the blackness outside and felt like it couldn’t possibly be that simple, that the time of day could make such a huge difference to my productivity. I always joked about my penchant for late nights, but there really was seemingly something to it.

a late night in december

My good pal Brendon, also prone to pulling all-nighters, had a car in Bloomington, and he’d often pick me up at my dorm to run off on errands together in the wee hours, buying blank CDs and notebooks and Pilot pens in the middle of the night at the 24-hour Office Max. “I really respect that this store honors the preferred schedules of people like us,” we’d nod sagely to each other.

Even after college graduation, if I happened to have a few extra days off work, over the holidays or somesuch, my body clock would start to naturally revert to its nocturnal rhythms, writing and reading and watching movies until all hours, then sleeping as late as was socially acceptable as an adult human.

(Although, my friend Casey learned to double-check the time of day that I watched any movie that I gave a bad review to. “I dunno, I just didn’t care for it,” I’d shrug. “The acting all seemed wooden and disjointed.” “Wait a minute,” he’d interrupt me. “When did you put it in the DVD player?” “Um, about 2:30 in the morning,” I’d have to sheepishly admit. “You always think anything you watch after 2 am is wooden and disjointed!” he’d remind me. He . . . wasn’t wrong about that. There was a point of diminishing returns with my late-night endeavors.)

dark windows

Otherwise, I was always fairly unbothered by my habit of staying up late, figuring that the world was pretty evenly split between morning people and night people, and that someone’s natural inclinations just were what they were. After a while, though, I started reading more and more interviews with successful writers and other highly motivated people, mostly on mid-2000s productivity blogs, where they chalked a good portion of their accomplishments up to early mornings spent at their chosen tasks. “The world is quiet and peaceful,” they all seemed to universally agree. “No one is clamoring after my attention yet, so I can devote myself to transcribing what remains of the dreams still rolling around in my head before getting a jump on the work day. I could never be productive late at night! I’m too exhausted and my brain is too cluttered with detritus of the day!”

And, typical of my general insecurities, I started wondering if I was somehow bad at being a creative person because I liked staying up late. It started to feel like night owls were characterized as hopelessly irresponsible procrastinators, avoiding their tasks until the last minute, putting the burden of their creativity on their less-than-fresh selves. I felt like I must be steps away from developing a debilitating drug addiction or otherwise descending into a hellscape of wasted potential.

 

It wasn’t that I didn’t like being up early. When properly rested (or, still wired from the night before), the dawn hours are lovely and invigorating. It’s just that I don’t feel like my truest, most lucid self until I’ve had a nice long stretch of time to rev myself into coherence. Even now, in a reversal of what pretty much any given time management theory will advise, I don’t start my work day off with my most important tasks—I leisurely check e-mail and do other somewhat mindless gruntwork for the first few hours at my desk, knowing that it’s only toward lunchtime or after when I’ll feel truly alert enough to tackle bigger tasks that require more genuine brain power.

As a studious, curious person who loves learning about how other people do what they do (cf, my penchant for looking in other people’s medicine cabinets!), the idea of the wisdom of crowds is extremely seductive to me. Not because I want to be a sheep or because I’m necessarily afraid of standing up for myself or standing out from the pack, but because I have such a lust for life that I don’t want to myopically miss out on something that might actually be awesome just because I was so committed to doing things my own way. And hey, just because something’s popular doesn’t inherently mean that it’s bad, right? But, try as I might, being a morning person, in the way that the world typically defines it, just won’t stick.

black and white sunset near navy pier chicago

Funny enough, I get up plenty early these days. I find it truly is the best way to sneak a bit of extra time into my day. But I know enough now not to force myself to try to be “on” in any meaningful way. I use the time to meditate and cuddle with the cats and maybe drink an extra cup of coffee on the weekends. But if something really exciting and important needs my attention, it’s best to come track me down after nightfall.

Amy Winehouse and the Wholeness of Song

This is probably the dumbest thing in the world to admit out loud, but—I actually thought the recent Amy Winehouse documentary Amy was going to be about the music.

amy winehouse doc

After weeks of trying to get myself to the theater because I was so looking forward to checking it out, it probably wasn’t til about halfway through the run time when it finally hit me—no, this is just going to be another handwringing rehash of her tabloid exploits with the added tsk-tsk factor of “shouldn’t someone have done something about this?”

It felt like just one more violation of her unbelievable talent and her fragile psychology in a long line of prior, continued violations. As the film went on, and the anecdotes about her drug abuse and other depravity got more and more lurid, I actually went inside myself, psychically, and sent out a beacon to her spirit, apologizing to her for my even watching it.

I truly thought it was gonna be about the music.

In the weeks leading up to our going to see the film, I was in the midst of reading A Genius in the Family, the memoir about growing up with classical cellist Jacqueline du Pre written by her sister Hilary and her brother Piers that was used as the basis for the film Hilary and Jackie.

hilary and jackie

I remember loving the movie when I saw it in the ’90s but didn’t realize until I did some cursory Googling a few weeks ago what a scandal it caused in the classical world—lots of musicians who knew du Pre during her heyday were aghast at what they saw as her siblings’ exploitation of her personal struggles. Given the disgusting way that Amy Winehouse’s father was depicted in the documentary, the parallels couldn’t have been more clear to me—fame and talent do weird, unexpected things to people. Not just to those in possession of them, but to the people in their orbit as well. And we’re all pretty much complicit in it.

I asked a classically trained friend of mind to recommend me some choice du Pre recordings, not so much out of penance to Jackie or feeling like I needed to apologize to her as well, as much as a way of getting a fuller picture of who she was and why people would feel so keenly that they could get something out of trading on her name (whether in her defense or by dishing dirt) so many decades after her death.

Honestly, as a musician, there are very, very few books or documentaries about music that give me as much detail as I actually want about the process of actually making music. Like, I found It Might Get Loud frustrating, not just for the overwhelming white maleness of it, but because I wanted less of The Edge’s moony recollections of buying his first guitar and more scoop on how he does exactly what he does. As I stated in my review of it way back when, “I wanted to hear more about specific chord tunings, songwriting techniques, recording tricks, all that trainspotting nerdery. . . . I could have used fewer rhapsodic monologues on the theme of ‘when I was a young boy, the guitar just called to me’ and more hardcore information about what they’re actually doing when they’re playing guitar.”

 

The documentary that got closest to this for me recently was The Wrecking Crew, perhaps because filmmaker Denny Tedesco was the son of guitar player Tommy Tedesco and grew up listening to his dad talk shop with other musicians and, like me with my dad, learned to love the rhythms of those overheard conversations.

the wrecking crew documentary

Of course I know that these books and documentaries are for a general audience and have to appeal to a wide number of people, most of whom are probably not interested in these things to the degree that I am. But, if you want to get an intimate portrait of an artist, I don’t really think you can actually get much more intimate than interrogating exactly how she came up with her music, getting inside that little chamber of her being where her heart overlaps with her intellect which overlaps with physical technique which overlaps with past experience which overlaps with a future-oriented intentionality.

Don’t get me wrong, I know this is a lot to ask for. Not only for the presumption that an artist would even want to talk about her process at this level of detail, but also because I’m not sure it’s even actually possible!

Speaking for myself, there are only so many variables I feel remotely in control of while I’m playing or singing. I’ve been doing both since I was a child, and yet I still always feel that I’m riding this enormous wave that’s always on the verge of completely crushing me anytime I so much as go to rehearsal, much less make a recording or get on stage. Maybe I’m just a perpetual novice, a hopeless hack, but I’m not sure how much of my own process, such as it is, I could articulate—I mostly hold on for dear life and hope to God not to fuck anything up before the song is over.

pet theories live at schubas

There can be joy in there too sometimes, and instinctive communication with my fellow musicians, and an attempt to convey a larger, wordless sense of love to an audience, but for me, it’s almost always undergirded by struggle at worst, or forceful, deliberate attention at best. That’s why I’m always amazed by musicians who drink or are on drugs while they play; it takes every ounce of concentration I’ve got to make whatever mediocre sounds I’m capable of. I could never spare the extra energy and attention that gets eaten up by intoxication.

And maybe that’s why I’m so hungry for stories about how other musicians do what they do—to compare notes, to see if I’m doing it “right,” to see if I’m doing it like people I respect and admire, the people really and truly touched by extreme grace. The great and overarching refrain of my monkeymind is, “am I doing it right??” And that’s in everything from my gender presentation, to the way I do my job, to the way I eat and otherwise take care of myself physically, to the way I meditate and experience Spirit. I guess I feel like if I can get some validation that I’m doing it “right,” then I can relax and keep doing what I’m doing. And if I’m not, then maybe I can at least save face and quickly get on with doing it another way before anyone else notices. Even the rebellious part of me thinks that I’m never seeking rebellion for the sake of itself, but for the sake of righting a popular situation gone wrong.

I suppose much of this resonates with what I wrote last month about looking in other people’s medicine cabinets and reading personal blogs—my sense of curiosity is nearly always informed by my own selfishness. I want to know more about the world because I want to know more about myself. I want to know more about other people’s music because I want to know more about my own.

So I guess that’s what made Amy, the movie, extra disappointing for me. It wasn’t enough that the rehash of her public problems felt so cruel and even redundant; it’s that the small crop of anecdotes actually about the music gave such a tantalizingly incomplete glimpse at what informed her massive talent—there was her teenage recording of “Moon River” that plays over the opening credits; producer Salaam Remi saying that he would have been willing to work with her for free just because he wanted the experience of having her over to his house to sing and play for a while; her and Tony Bennett’s mutual admiration society; the brief footage of The Kills rocking out at the epicenter of Camden cool in the early 2000s; Questlove enthusing about the way Amy put him through his musical paces over the phone when they were thinking of collaborating after the success of Back to Black; and even Amy’s wickedly hilarious, under-the-breath disdain at her pre-Grammy performance for the fact that Justin Timberlake’s best record nomination was for something actually called “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”

The film was much on my mind in the weeks after I saw it, as I mulled over these questions of musicianship and process and public persona. And, out at lunch one afternoon, the radio happened to be playing the recently released recording of Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good.” I’d heard the song once or twice last year after it first came out (mostly the Timberlake duet version), but hearing it that day, with everything else on my mind about Winehouse and du Pre, its brilliance hit me extra hard. I downloaded the John McClain-produced version onto my iPhone immediately and have been listening to it incessantly ever since.

 

And, true to form, I’ve been voraciously seeking out what little information I can find about its arrangement—I’m desperate to know more about how it’s put together. It feels so authentic to that Off the Wall-era mode of production that I’m dying to know if the fully orchestrated version was indeed recorded at that time or if McClain put it together posthumously, specifically for inclusion on Xscape. (If anyone knows more of the scoop, please send me an e-mail!!)

Of course, we all know the sordid details of Jackson’s demise. But hearing him sing on popular, contemporary, Top 40 radio again, on an otherwise mundane weekday afternoon, was such a perfect reminder to me that even if people want to get distracted by the trappings surrounding a life in music (and that obviously includes musicians themselves), it’s still possible for music to leave us breathless, and speechless, marveling at its ultimately irreducible wholeness. We seek its wholeness so that we may feel our own more readily.

On Blogging

I’m an extremely, inherently nosy person.

I am an eavesdropper extraordinaire; I will look in your medicine cabinet if you invite me over to your home. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve always loved blogs.

I remember, in college in the late ’90s, when I first discovered that people I only vaguely knew from classes and other activities were spilling their guts online on webpages that absolutely anyone with an internet connection could wander over to and read through to their heart’s content. I was sort of aghast yet fascinated—I couldn’t fathom why a person would voluntarily make their innermost thoughts so readily available for anyone to judge, yet I couldn’t turn away from reading them myself.

Not only that, but I think I secretly wanted to be bopped on the head with a magic wand that would somehow give me the permission I thought I needed to be granted in order to share in the same way. I guess I was looking for self-esteem at the root of it, for enough confidence to take up space, to claim the inherent validity of my own inner experience.

After learning some HTML in a course on computer basics, I messed around with some rudimentary public-facing sites that mostly collected my film reviews and other academic writing I was proud of. But I totally missed out on the whole LiveJournal phenomenon. Even the blog I started in mid-2004 wasn’t overly invested with sharing personal details—I was sort of self-defensively invested in presenting myself as A Writer. I’d convinced myself that no one would possibly be interested in the minutiae of my daily life (yet I somehow fancied that anyone would give a shit about my jejune musings on film and books and art?).

But now in the Twitter era of everyone being a critic/pundit ready to pen voluminous commentary on any given political event or pop cultural radar blip, my knee-jerk contrarian impulse is to head in the opposite direction—to delve more readily into private memory and personal reflection.

I find myself actually craving the languorous rhythms of lists, of people detailing the stuff that they’re currently obsessing over or writing about the places or things or experiences that have made their lives more pleasant, or at least more interesting. It’s no wonder I fell in love with reading perfume blogs—though they can certainly be intellectually rigorous, they necessarily have to linger over personal, sensual experience at some level.

And, contrary to a lot of professional blogging advice that insists that writing must be helpful if you want to monetize your content and build your brand, I’m way more interested in anti-helpful writing at this point, to be frank. I don’t want to be sold anything; I don’t want to swallow heaping spoonfuls of self-aggrandizement disguised as useful advice. I want personality above all else, a window into genuine lived experience. I’ll never get tired of quoting this line from Carl Wilson’s book on Let’s Talk About Love:

But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors—to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.

So, all that being said—it’s late July. I’m too hot and too exhausted and moving at much too slow a pace to try to think thoughts any deeper than this, and wonder if the same might be true of you as well. Rather than contribute any further to the pileup of self-serious ruminations that I was just busy castigating, I’ll give you a tour of some of the things that have been making my world go ’round lately.

(Please note that, yes, this whole thinky prelude was also a way of tricking myself into writing exactly the kind of gorgeously, poetically mundane and intimate “this is what I had for breakfast” blog post that I always weirdly felt like I didn’t have permission to indulge in.)

sunroom

Frankie Knuckles House Masters ♥ Lyle Lovett’s Anthology: Volume One (+ concert anticipation for seeing him live for the first time at the Chicago Theatre on August 1) ♥ all things tulsi ♥ Benefit’s Brow Zings ♥ Eugenia Bone’s Mycophilia  Arctic Monkeys’ “A Certain Romance” ♥ Jeff Buckley’s “What Will You Say” live at Glastonbury ♥ moving into a new apartment! ♥ my zine Satan Is My Father officially being available to buy at Quimby’s ♥ this exchange between Bjork and philosopher Timothy Morton ♥ this quote from Brian Eno Armani Si ♥ Spinning Wheel Apothecary’s powerful Crystal Vision salve ♥ Moon Mapping ♥ Sherman Alexie’s Twitter feed, always ♥ giving a psychic reading via Skype to a woman living in Dubai (hello, time difference!) ♥ our cats marching down the hallway behind us like they’re in a Fellini movie ♥ starting to learn how to use Evernote ♥ anticipation of playing a couple awesome gigs with my band later this year ♥ Keiler Roberts’s Miseryland (and Brian’s insightful blog post about it) ♥ anything Fassbender (fucking Macbeth! ZOMG, Steve Jobs!) ♥ Joshua Clover’s #HowIQuitSpin Twitter epic

APPENDIX

Of course the queen of these kinds of posts is Gala Darling with her running Things I Love Thursday feature. Ashley Ford’s 5 Things goes deep into emotions and experiences in a beautifully raw way. I’ve also recently been enchanted by Mlle. Ghoul’s writings—the posts Current Loves and Still Life with Adornments on her own blog and her guest post on the Bloodmilk Jewelry blog, Summer Scents for Those Who Shun the Sun.

The End of an Era: Goodbye to Lincoln Square

I often like to boast about how infrequently I’ve moved during my life.

There was the house in Indiana I grew up in. The same dorm room for all four years of college. And just three apartments during my nearly thirteen years in Chicago.

Looks simple, right? Looks like I don’t ever move anywhere, right? Looks like my life could be described with a very linear narrative arc focused on my tendency to get grounded in one place and stay there until absolutely compelled to leave, right?

Well, as with any story I tell myself over and over again, I’ve started to realize that it’s not actually the whole truth. I’ve started to realize that the places I lived during the liminal zones in between those big, stable chunks of time are actually some of the most vital parts of my life story. The temporary locales that aren’t as easily defined as “places” where I lived, more like stopping points, are nevertheless key sites where I spent significant time and learned significant lessons. Reviewing them now, they provide unmistakable evidence that gives lie to my insistence that I only feel comfortable if I can put down roots, that I like to be surrounded by my stuff, that I inherited my father’s lack of flexibility, that I suck at moving, that it’s hard for me to find the adventure that my heart yearns for.

How do I quantify the influence of the flat in London where I stayed during my summer studying abroad after my junior year of college? The influence of the insanely beautiful house in Bloomington that I lived in for a few months after I graduated from Indiana University while the married professors who owned it traveled for research? The adorably shitty apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood where I crashed for a while with one of my best friends from high school, temping and going to movies while she traveled for business and while I waited to hear if I was going to get an internship at a high-profile magazine in New York? The spare bedroom in my maternal grandmother’s house where I lived for six months while she was rapidly dying of lung cancer? The two apartments in Chicago where I’ve unofficially lived with my boyfriend while I maintained the lease on my own studio apartment so that my high-functioning autistic sister could have somewhere safe to stay until she could be placed in her own housing for adults with disabilities?

These are all extremely important places in my life, but other than my memories and maybe a handful of photos (that are currently in storage because I’m, ahem, moving again soon), there’s basically no tangible record of my time spent in any of them. This is not the story of a person who has trouble with the idea of impermanence and rootlessness.

Even though the past three years of caring for my sister have been ridiculously stressful in so many ways, it was a complete blessing to walk into my apartment after she’d moved out and be struck with the realization that I didn’t give a crap about half the stuff that was still in there. The apartment had become a time capsule of my life circa 2012. The events that had driven me out of the apartment in the first place had now become the same events that had neutralized my perceived attachment to so much of what was in it. How elegant the effects of the passage of time!

And not only that, but there’s clearly a connection between how personally fulfilled I feel, how avidly and actively I’m creating and adventuring and loving, to how much I ultimately care about where I live and what I have. My being able to happily travel through London or bash around the Pacific Northwest with just a couple small suitcases proves that I carry my own groundedness and sense of at-home-ness with me. I allow other people to make me forget this truth at my own peril.

Long before I consciously started developing my skills as a clairvoyant, I used to joke that the only recurring dreams I ever had were about architecture. And it was true—location was usually the most powerfully felt feature of my dreams, the shape and layout and design of a building the aspects I would remember most vividly the next morning. And sometimes, months or years later, I would even see a place in real life that I’d long since forgotten that I’d once dreamed about. I think the first instance of this phenomenon occurred on a road trip through southern Indiana with my family when I was probably thirteen or fourteen.

“I had a dream about that house,” I matter-of-factly stated when we happened to drive past a beautiful, open, green clearing with a simple ranch house tucked back a nice bit from the road.

“No you didn’t,” my dad shot back. Not angrily or even incredulously. Just as simply and matter-of-factly as I had spoken up in the first place.

I wasn’t usually one to talk back all that much, even at that age, often assuming that there was so much about the world that I didn’t know, that it was best to trust the word of people who were older and thus had seen and experienced so much more of it than I had. So, I didn’t deny his denial. But I do remember very clearly thinking to myself as we sped away down the road, yes, I did. I know what I dreamed.

And so even though I am happy to be moving with my boyfriend to a gorgeous new apartment in a gorgeous new neighborhood, divested of so many of the things that I’d been dragging, with borrowed sentimentality, along behind me from both my childhood home and my grandmother’s home, I also know what I dreamed about the building that I’ve lived in for the past eleven years.

Both the two-bedroom where I lived for six years with roommates and the studio apartment I subsequently moved into across the hall were beautiful places to live and grow. I’ve expressed my gratitude to my landlady, and have energetically cut ties with the building itself, and have even sent some love back in time to myself circa 2004, to promise her that there’s so much juicy wonderfulness waiting to be experienced in this location and beyond.

 

 

 

Shame, Creativity, and Zines: The Making of SATAN IS MY FATHER

I’ve never been very good at coloring outside the lines.

At Club Foot

I have my rebellious streak, to be sure, but when it comes to expressing myself creatively, whether through writing or music or something else entirely, I want everything to be just so. Austin Kleon’s whole philosophy of showing your work is great . . . for other people. Personally, it horrifies me. No thanks. I will give you my finished product, or I will give you nothing at all.

And guess what? That often means I give you nothing at all.

The potential landmines laying in wait for my various creative projects often feel too numerous to mention. There’s, of course, the fear of creating something that doesn’t live up to my own standards. The fear of not living up to the standards that other people have for me. The fear of making something that’s basically inoffensive but completely meaningless. The fear of making something that I think is good but that secretly has a huge, glaring flaw that I was blind to until it is pointed out by someone else. Given this gauntlet of potential humiliations, I have to either play to win or not play at all.

My astrological birth chart assures me that this tension in my personality is encoded in the stars—that it can be chalked up to a combination of my Sun sign (Aquarius) being in conjunction with both Mars and Mercury, as well as my Mercury (Pisces) being in opposition to Saturn. This means I’m incredibly competitive but I also have a keen fear of not being taken seriously or of being laughed at for the way that I communicate.

I have the saddest childhood memory of being probably about five years old and helping my maternal grandmother make desserts for our family’s Christmas Day dinner.

In addition to the dozens and dozens of cookies we’d baked, she had a teeny tiny pie dish that she let me fill with the remainder of the chocolate cream left over from the other full-sized pies. I was so proud of having made my own little pie! I wanted to show it off and present it with a due sense of ceremony to everyone, especially because my beloved aunt and uncle, whom I didn’t get to see all that often because they lived in Michigan, were in town.

My grandmother helped me gently take off the plastic wrap that had been covering it while it chilled, and I made a big show of carrying it into the living room after dinner for all to see and appreciate. Well, I fucking tripped and ruined the goddamn pie. Of course, I was horrifyingly embarrassed. I can seriously feel my heart seize up with sympathetic mortification for my young self even now. It was awful.

I ran into my grandmother’s bedroom and threw myself on the bed and sobbed. My uncle eventually came in to console me and assure me that everything was OK, but I can’t imagine I was too easily convinced that I wasn’t, in fact, a damn fool. I’m also not sure if they all actually did laugh when it happened, or if I’m only imagining that they did. (I mean, come on—falling down while holding a cream pie is a staple of silent film comedy for a reason.) Regardless, that combination of having worked hard on something, having been excited to share it with people I cared about, then accidentally screwing it up for all to see was a pretty formative experience of shame. No matter that it was purely an accident. It taught me to avoid the possibility of having any other accidents at all costs.

And what else is writing or playing or singing something subpar if not an accident of taste? An accident of deluded self-perception regarding my own skill or talent or importance? Of course, factoring all that in, it becomes a pretty short leap from “I’ve made something that might or might not be good” to “I’m considering making something—is the idea good enough to work on?” to “I’m not making anything at all!”

I'm not making anything at all!

When I first started this blog back at the tail end of 2013, I overly ambitiously thought I could write three posts per week. I kept up that schedule for maybe two months, before eventually reducing it way down to one per month. And though I write here entirely of my own volition, and am beholden to no one, and actively think of myself as a person who writes, I start to get nervous and itchy as the end of the month draws near, knowing that I have to come up with something to post here. It’s ridiculous! It’s ostensibly a safe space, I’ve disallowed commenting, I’m lucky not to be trolled by nasty anonymous lurkers—I’m set up to win. So what’s the problem?

My poor, sweet, supportive boyfriend gets understandably frustrated for (and with!) me when I start thrashing around in a birdbath of my own self-doubt. I get angry at myself for not writing, angry at myself for not knowing what to write, angry at my own procrastination—and then expect him to be able to console me or find an easy solution for me and my self-created problems.

He is the most methodical writer and creator that I have perhaps ever known; he is the anti-procrastinator, a perfect example of the (very reasonable!) recommendation to write something every day, to be steadily productive rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, to let the effect of the practice be cumulative rather than banking on a burst of glorious inspiration. So, the thing he does best for me doesn’t happen in those moments of acute panic at all. It’s showing me, over the long haul, that there’s another way to make art. And I do strive to be more like that.

But, as I’m torturing myself to start writing something, anything—and torturing him with my whining and thrashing—it’s actually kind of impossible, in rational terms, to convey the degree to which my subconscious is still gripped by the fear that I’m going to drop the fucking pie.

But. The thing that my attempts at self-protection don’t account for is, of course, magic.

Lincoln Square bright spring flowers

And by that, I really mean magic, not just the warm, fuzzy feelings that come when people say something nice about something I’ve done. In focusing exclusively on the potential for disaster, I’ve forgotten that it’s possible for work that begins, instinctively, humbly, inside my own little brain, to blossom outward in ways I never could have imagined.

Like, right now I’m putting the finishing touches on an amazing new zine project that I’ve been conceptualizing since at least the beginning of this year. It’s called Satan Is My Father: A Zine about Forgotten, Misremembered, and Nonexistent Bands.

Satan Is My Father cover art

I got a dream team of eight other writers and artists to contribute essays and drawings on this very loosely defined topic, and it’s by turns hilarious, ridiculous, and melancholy (all my favorite flavors). I’ll have it ready to share with the world by the end of next week. It’s available to download digitally via Sellfy here, or you can click here to buy a physical copy.

As it turns out, two of the contributors, while they were reviewing the proof copy that I provided everyone by e-mail, discovered that they both had known, at different times and in different places, one of the musicians being written about. I don’t want to give away too many details here because it’s not really my story to tell. But, given the obscurity of this singer and the number of years gone by since her death, it’s a remarkable, remarkable coincidence. The revelation of this synchronicity has catalyzed an avalanche of very healing reminiscences and communication between these two writers as well as with other former members of her band.

I’ve been avoiding taking credit for any of this. I didn’t know this singer; I’m not the one who reached out to her former bandmates; I wasn’t part of that scene. Nevertheless, some kind of . . . shall we say . . . portal opened up through this thing that I was driven to put together, and the connections being made have already been mind-blowing.

Might these memories and coincidences have come to light eventually anyway? Sure, at some point, probably. But watching something this beautiful happen through the auspices of this initially goofy little idea that I came up with is nothing if not a healing for me. It gave me the confidence to at least ponder—what other magic hasn’t had a chance to flourish because I killed an idea before it had time show up in the world? What’s being held back in other, unseen places when I cop out and play small?

And anyway, what good is a pie if you make it all by yourself? At this point, I’d much rather call some friends, ask them to bring something to share, and enjoy a full meal together.

Hipstamatic Thanksgiving

APPENDIX

These quotes all proved helpful to me as I was writing this piece.

If I’m not telling it, it’s because I’m ashamed or feel guilty, and I don’t want to live in those places emotionally anymore. I spent a long time there. There’s some risk of overexposing myself but at the same time, telling my story is how I counteract the very real desire to hide everything about me. —Ashley Ford

I did things in my 30s that were ignored by the world, that could have been quickly labeled a failure. Here’s a classic example; in 1974 I did a movie called Phantom of the Paradise. Phantom of the Paradise, which was a huge flop in this country. There were only two cities in the world where it had any real success: Winnipeg, in Canada, and Paris, France. So, okay, let’s write it off as a failure. Maybe you could do that. But all of the sudden, I’m in Mexico, and a 16-year-old boy comes up to me at a concert with an album—a Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack—and asks me to sign it. I sign it. Evidently I was nice to him and we had a nice little conversation. I don’t remember the moment, I remember signing the album (I don’t know if I think I remember or if I actually remember). But this little 14 or 16, whatever old this guy was… Well I know who the guy is now because I’m writing a musical based on Pan’s Labyrinth; it’s Guillermo del Toro. The work that I’ve done with Daft Punk it’s totally related to them seeing Phantom of the Paradise 20 times and deciding they’re going to reach out to this 70-year-old songwriter to get involved in an album called Random Access Memories. So, what is the lesson in that? The lesson for me is being very careful about what you label a failure in your life. Be careful about throwing something in the round file as garbage because you may find that it’s the headwaters of a relationship that you can’t even imagine it’s coming in your future.  —Paul Williams

[Acting in the film Young Adult] didn’t give me the confidence to say, “I can do it.” It gave me the confidence to say, “I can put the work in,” which, weirdly enough, a lot of people don’t. And for a long time, I didn’t really have the confidence to do that either, because I had come up out of that whole alternative scene, which was all about, “Don’t try it, man. Just go up and wing it.” I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, “Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.” So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment. I’m giving this my all. Now my all might not be good enough—and I’m just now seeing that with some movies I’ve done—sometimes your all is not good enough, but that’s a scary risk to take. That’s what Young Adult gave me the confidence to do, and working with someone like Charlize, who just gives her fucking all. —Patton Oswalt

Mark Knopfler’s TRACKER and Art in Present Time

As a bookwormy kid, I was, of course, very comfortable and conversant with the past.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilia

With the exception of The Baby-Sitters Club series, which released new books periodically that I would greedily read in one sitting once I got them home from the Waldenbooks in the mall, a good chunk of what I chose to read for my own enjoyment or was assigned to read in school was old. From the ’70s trashy VC Andrews stuff I snuck from my own babysitter to, later, the Fitzgerald and Hemingway I came to adore in high school, it just seemed a given that books = the past.

I suppose learning about the past is an inescapable part of most kids’ education, both formal—historic dates, classic texts, facts and figures that had been safely proven and deemed true long ago—and informal—family stories that get repeated over and over, solidifying the sense of This is Who We Art and This Is Where We Came From.

My dad in particular, though, always seemed intensely invested in preserving the past. Though that tendency was definitely exacerbated by my mom’s death in 1987, even before her cancer showed up, he relished showing family movies on 8mm film, listening to cassette tape recordings of former musical triumphs (most notably the recording of a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar that he conducted the pit band for in the summer of ’79), and telling stories of his (extremely mild and benign!) college exploits. Family vacations rarely deviated from the predictable routes to the same destinations we drove and redrove around the Midwest every spring break, summer vacation, and winter holiday we had free.

Perhaps that’s why, aside from other obvious reasons, my mother’s death was so intensely shocking and disruptive to our family system—it was a thing that was unavoidably happening in the Present. Her illness interrupted our preferred location in the past tense.

And then as I unconsciously tried to heal the grief of everyone around me, always aiming to be both a model student and a model daughter, I dove into the past with alacrity. “These are the things that YOU used to like? These are the things that were vital and important and current for YOU? Great, then they shall be my favorites, too.”

Ah yes, the glory days of Book-It!

I only bring up these details to contextualize the disproportionate and late-blooming shock I felt after reading Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (twice, back-to-back) in the summer of 2001 when I realized, “holy shit—he just wrote this. This is new.”

Like, of course I knew that there were new books being written by still-living authors all the time. I guess, as a young woman in her late teens and early 20s living in Indiana, I just didn’t have the sense that any of it was for me. I was snobby enough, too, to have assumed that all the good work had somehow already been used up by authors of the past.

“I just don’t really like much of anything written after the 1920s,” I was known to simper, when I would even give the 20th century the time of day at all.

What can I say, I was tons of fun throughout high school and college.

And yet, only a few months after I graduated from Indiana University, I had this Eggers book in my hands. It was full of pyrotechnic wordsmithery, pop culture references, and postmodern meta-level tweaking of the very form of a memoir, but was also aching with trauma as it recounted the deaths of his parents and the responsibility he had to assume for his kid brother. Not to mention, the author was barely that much older than I was and had, like me, grown up just outside Chicago. It was all so exciting! I very, very self-consciously thought to myself, with something akin to mystical reverence, that surely this is what it must have felt like to have been alive when Fitzgerald had first published This Side of Paradise.

I haven’t reread A Heartbreaking Work in quite a long while, so I have no idea what I’d think of it now, but I don’t care. I loved it then and it woke me up to the idea that it was possible for good art, art that would be important to me, to be made right now.

As the years went on and I became more conversant with a tiny fraction of the new fiction being published, as well as music and movies, of course, I became consumed with the thought that, in all likelihood, someone out there was currently busy writing a book, or recording a song, or scribbling a screenplay, that would come to mean the world to me a year later, maybe even ten years later. That, while I was folding laundry or otherwise going about the mundane business of my daily life, someone out there was making something that would catch up with me in the future, that would be profoundly meaningful both for the way it touched my heart and for the fact that it, in some respect, was new enough to still have the stardust of its own inspiration and creation on it.

Like, currently, Mark Knopfler’s Tracker.

Mark Knopfler, "Tracker"

I’ve never really known the music of Dire Straits and was only relatively recently introduced to Knopfler’s solo work by my boyfriend. I started to joke with him a year or two ago that I knew he was really getting down to business with his own writing projects when Shangri-La started going into heavy rotation on the stereo. So, though I expected to hear Tracker on in the background while we were making dinner or reading before bedtime, it came as pretty much a complete surprise when it started to dominate my own precious listening time on morning and evening train commutes.

It’s all I want to listen to right now. And, it just came out in March! His last solo album was released in 2012, so that means that while I spent the last three years taking care of my sister and starting up this blog and playing in my band, he was holed up somewhere in the UK working on this magnificent collection of songs. This obsession with simultaneity is always a sure sign that I’m really a goner for something or someone; when I start asking, “so how old were you in this year? What grade were you in at school? This is how old I was. This is what I was up to. How funny to think it was happening at the same time!” then you know I’m really smitten.

Even though I’ve just written this whole blog post in preface to talking about how much I love the album, I don’t really even want to write that much about it for fear of breaking the spell. Do you honestly need me to describe in flowery language the burnished tone of Knopfler’s Les Paul guitar in order for me to convey how good the album is? Do you need a track-by-track analysis of his lyrical themes, or comparisons to other songs that kinda hit a similar vibe to the one he’s bringing to life here? Truly, the most accurate description of this album, to me, is not a description of this album at all. It’s this terrific quote from Bill Murray, talking about acting in Wes Anderson’s films:

Well, it’s like if someone plays an instrument, say, a guitar. A young player can play it, and if he wants to play a high note, or a fast rhythm, it has a certain [makes twangy noise] desperate quality to it. But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find. A young player can go [makes clumsy blip sounds], whereas a real player can go [makes smooth blip sounds]. You can notice the difference, and it’s like with that fast pace of Wes’s movies. If you’re real quiet, your whole body will be quiet, and there’ll be echo, and resonance. It’s like your head, or your chest, is a guitar box.

But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find.

That’s Tracker exactly. Much like my well-documented admiration for Mark Eitzel, right now Mark Knopfler and his music are fulfilling a major need for me to hear what it sounds like when highly trained, highly skilled, highly tasteful musicians make music as grown-ups, for grown-ups. It’s the sound of supreme mastery held lightly, finding time that other people can’t find. I feel oh so lucky and oh so grateful to be sharing my own time with it today.