So, as soon as I started my podcast project “I’ll Follow You,” I knew with absolute certainty that I had to have today’s guest on, preferably sooner rather than later. I’m absolutely thrilled not just to have him on for this wonderful chat, but also to be able to introduce him and his work to those of you who may not have had the pleasure of knowing him–yet.
Today I’m so excited to welcome to the show Dr. Gene Kannenberg Jr. (Click the image to stream on Anchor.fm, or search for “I’ll Follow You” in the podcast service of your choice.)
Gene is a cartoonist living in Evanston, Illinois. His comics, mostly abstract with asemic writing, include Qodèxx, Space Year 2015, and The Abstract Circus. His work was included in the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 2017 exhibit “Asemic Writing: Offline & In the Gallery” and also appears in the book Abstraction et bande dessinée, produced by the ACME Comics Research Group at the University of Liège in Belgium.
Gene received his PhD from the University of Connecticut in 2002, and he has served in the past as Chair of both the International Comic Arts Festival and the Comic Art & Comics section of the Popular Culture Association. His book 500 Essential Graphic Novels was published by Collins Design in 2008.
Gene is currently the Research and Media Assistant at the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, where he has curated two exhibits on comic art.
As we allude to later in the conversation, Gene moved to Illinois in late 2014, and it was one of those rare examples of a later-in-life instant friendship. Just like, “yep, you’re my people.” He had gone to grad school with my partner Brian Cremins (whom we also allude to later in the conversation), and pretty much from the moment he signed the lease on his apartment, he was showing up at our gigs and taking the best photographs of us playing music, inviting us out to excellent readings and film screenings, and just generally being a key part of our urban family. We also collaborated together on a modern take on the Book and Record set with his project Qodèxx, an abstract graphic novella for which Brian and I composed the soundtrack. (You can read a bit more about my thoughts on making the album here.)
So, pardon all the giggles and excited blathering that you’ll hear from me here–it really does come from a place of extreme warmth and affection for Gene and our friendship and of course my enthusiasm for his work. So now to let him speak more for himself, here’s my conversation with Gene Kannenberg.
The quote from Dan Snaith comes from his October 2014 interview on The Quietus:
Charles Hatfield is Professor of English at California State University, Northridge, the author or co-editor of four books in Comics Studies, curator of Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby (CSUN Art Galleries, 2015), and founding President of the Comics Studies Society.
Tom Spurgeon was an enormously influential comics critic who recently and unexpectedly passed away at the age of 50. The New York Times published an obituary for him, and Douglas Wolk’s stunning remembrance of Spurgeon’s importance is on The Comics Reporter here.
Gene’s asemic tribute to The Who’s iconic Maximum R&B image appears in the zine Satan Is My Father: A Zine about Forgotten, Misremembered, and Nonexistant Bands.
Check out a short video of Gene’s handmade book “A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!” (Tribute to Steve Ditko) here.
Check out Shawn Sheehy’s pop-up books here.
The video of Gene’s pop-up tribute to the first Peanuts comic strip is here.
As I’ve written before, 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 music with my pals. I haven’t skipped a year, and I’m so pleased to have everything archived on the site here in the “Mixes” tab you see above.
This mix and all my notes will live in perpetuity there, but I wanted also to be sure to post everything in my main blog feed as well. I’ve embedded the Mixcloud player below so you can stream the mix, in its sequenced order, right here while you’re reading. But I also finally broke down and put it up on Spotify and Apple Music as well.
I hope you enjoy listening to these songs as much as I have all year! I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts and musings as well.
I give you my “Best of 2019: Songs Build Little Rooms in Time” mix.
1. Let’s Go on the Run—Chance the Rapper, feat. Knox Fortune (The Big Day)
2. Sports/Best in Show—Viagra Boys (Street Worms)
3. bad guy—Billie Eilish (WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?)
4. Kill Switch—Ride (This Is Not a Safe Place)
5. Veka—Zola Jesus (Okovi)
6. My Little Treasures—Richard Hawley (Further)
7. Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company—The Divine Comedy (Office Politics)
8. Ride Around—Matt Ox (OX)
9. Le Responsable—The King Khan Experience (Turkey Ride)
10. 8 AM—The Marcus King Band (Carolina Confessions)
11. MILES—Jamila Woods (LEGACY! LEGACY!)
12. Empty Handed—Robben Ford (Purple House)
13. Jerome—Lizzo (Cuz I Love You)
14. Hard to Be Alone—Tal Wilkenfeld (Love Remains)
15. We Are the People—Iggy Pop (Free)
16. Snow Is Falling in Manhattan—Purple Mountains (Purple Mountains)
Circa 2006(ish?), I’d been working on a book about punk rock at my publishing gig and was chatting about it with my dad at one my semi-regular visits to see him in his nursing home.
His brain had been altered in funny ways by his strokes. The slurred speech and loss of function on one half of his body were the most obvious/typical/expected. Some people were shocked by his outbursts of anger and assumed that they too must have been a result of the strokes; I struggled to adequately convey to those people that, no, that was actually the same old Terry, his temper just exacerbated by his frustrations with his new physical limitations. His anger categorically was not a personality change stemming from brain trauma. (Though, I guess, depending on how you look at it, the loss of his ability to mask that anger probably was a side effect of his brain changes. At any rate.)
But, the one change that did seem chemical (or borderline spiritual) was that some kind of mental door had opened to his deep, personal past, and he found he could remember things that he hadn’t thought about in years. Often it was nothing profound–one afternoon he went on a jag telling a series of jokes that he’d probably learned as a five year old. But on that day, as I was talking about how interesting I was finding the New York punk history I’d been reading about in the manuscript, he casually mentioned, “oh, I always really liked and respected Tom Verlaine’s playing.”
My mind = blown.
I didn’t grow up with the rock and roll affinities that a lot of folks my age did. My dad had always been mostly a jazz guy (with some doo-wop and other 50s-era “oldies” thrown in for good measure). Sure, he introduced us to “Good Vibrations” and a few of the Beatles’ earliest singles on 45, but there was certainly no Stones, no Zep, no Floyd. He gifted my brother some Hendrix recordings when my brother started to learn to play guitar, but I don’t remember ever hearing Jimi around the house prior to that. Not that my dad outright avoided guitar–he liked shredders like Pat Metheny and Joe Satriani, but also Jose Feliciano and Christopher Parkening. He prized technique and technical wizardry, no matter the instrument, his Virgo sun basking in all that exactitude.
Oddly, this was also where I think his masculinity felt most safe asserting itself. He was SO sensitive in so many ways, but he really got off on high-testosterone demonstrations of “chops,” exclaiming over complicated time signatures and outrageously high notes and ridiculously fast fingering the way I assume other dads enthused about sports stars’ athletic prowess. So, in that sense, Tom Verlaine–a guy playing extended, complicated, thinky solos in jazz-inflected modes–wasn’t exactly anathema to my dad’s sensibility.
It was just more–when in the hell and where in the hell was my dad listening to Tom Verlaine? My dad knew Television?? This square, accordion-playing, Polish-American nerd from Indiana knew about Marquee Moon?! When had that happened and where had I been and why hadn’t I known? Why was this information suddenly coming to light now?
The great joke being, of course, that I needed to learn about Television myself before I could be impressed with my dad knowing about them. Only took me til I was about 27, so, good job me being both a dick and a snob about it.
Brian and I had seen Television play live once before, in the spring of 2014 at the Metro in Chicago. It was an excellent show, and I even included it in my 2014 year-end zine on my short list of favorite concerts of the year. As far as I can remember, none of the players talked to the audience that night; in fact Verlaine even seemed borderline aggrieved by being on stage in front of a crowd at all. But that in no way diminished my enjoyment of the set; in fact, it kind of instantly catapulted the band into a weird personal pantheon of artists like Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) and Stanley Kubrick whom I love specifically because of the way deadpan presentation combines with extreme technical precision in their art to create a sort of ecstatic tension between heart and mind.
And because the show was so brainy, and their engagement with the audience so limited to the strictly musical, it was the perfect playground for me to practice my idea of psychically reading the players on stage. (You can read more about this, and see how I read drummer Billy Ficca and Verlaine himself, in my piece Musical Chakras.) The whole night was almost more like performance art or a classical concert than a typical rock show, and pretty much confirmed my idea of Television being an aggressively cerebral band.
Truth be told, I tend not to listen to their albums all that often, though Brian always knows he can make me laugh if he randomly throws that stabbing, two-note riff from “Marquee Moon” into any given song he may be playing on his own guitar. Still, I felt like I knew what to expect when we got tickets for their first set at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday, May 10. Imagine my surprise, though, when I walked in, braced for a chilly though intellectually nourishing night of music to find them…loose? To find Verlaine not only talking to the crowd but telling jokes? Jokes?!
My mind = blown.
Let’s be honest–growing older, it’s harder and harder for me to be impressed by much anymore. I remember that youthful sense of feeling like I’d just had sex on a spaceship if the energy at a concert was electric and alive and if I was in the right frame of mind to receive its blessing. I don’t go out expecting to come home feeling like that these days. A softer sense of contentment, of aesthetic satiation, though, does still arise from time to time–with young artists still figuring out the limits of their own power, yes, but even more encouragingly with old dogs who’ve resisted calcifying into audience-pleasing tricks and have instead managed to stay connected to a current of vitality and discovery. I’ve experienced that with Peter Gabriel, with Iggy Pop, with King Crimson, with Bob Dylan, and now with Television. It’s nice to be reminded that an old door doesn’t always have to open onto the past; it opens into the future sometimes too.
Back in 2017, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Jimmy Webb composition “Wichita Lineman.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.
JANUARY–STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, FEATURING GLEN CAMPBELL
I loved the way that last year’s batch of covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man” turned out, but I couldn’t really imagine dragging the series on indefinitely, focused on just that song. (I was already starting to have trouble scraping together additional interesting cover versions each month.) So I figured why not just pivot to a new song for the new year. And after my boyfriend sat down with his guitar to start learning “Wichita Lineman” for an event at his school, I knew I’d found the perfect next song.
Because–it is indeed a perfect song. Perfectly, perfectly composed by the great Jimmy Webb and given its highest expression by the incomparable Glen Campbell. (I sort of ruefully chuckled after the clock ticked over to 2017 that, despite his Alzheimer’s, at least the celebrity deathsweep of 2016 left Glen Campbell behind.) His definitive version from his 1968 album of the same name is one of a handful of songs that will reliably bring me to tears nearly any time I hear it. So, let’s just get that out of the way now–no one will ever surpass it. Which, I think, is why doing a covers series around this song might be kind of fun. Like, if you know you’ll never record a better version than the one that already exists, what do you do with it? Let’s find out.
That being said, I’m going to cheat a little bit on this first one.
Yes, it’s Glen Campbell on vocals and his signature baritone guitar. But, he’s being backed by the Stone Temple Pilots (sans Scott Weiland). Just like I loved White Denim for having the balls to tackle Steely Dan’s “Peg,” I love that STP not only covered “Wichita Lineman” but covered it with the maestro himself singing lead (and, clearly, as the video shows, putting them through their paces musically). They do a lovely, restrained, refined, respectful take on it that’s all the more impressive for feeling genuinely laid back. As I’ve argued about them a couple times before, in considering what kind of hole Scott Weiland left in rock music, and in that band specifically, the DeLeos (and their cohorts) are clearly at the mercy, not necessarily in a bad way, of the quality of their frontmen. Here, they’re working, if only for a moment, with the best of the best, and it shows.
FEBRUARY–SAMMY DAVIS JR.
As I documented a few years ago, I became obsessed with the Sammy Davis Jr. live concert album The Sounds of ’66 after Brian brought home a copy of the CD and pressed it into my hands. I’d never thought much about Davis one way or another (well, despite being horrified after watching the original Ocean’s Eleven a number of years ago that they made him drive a fucking garbage truck while the rest of the guys were cavorting in the casino). But after living with that album for a while, I completely fell in love, convinced that he was indeed one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And I was of course delighted to discover that he’d covered “Wichita Lineman.”
His proper album recording appears on 1970’s Something for Everyone, and I found two different pieces of footage of him performing it–one on Dean Martin’s show and one on his own show, Sammy and Company. The Dean Martin Show version is maybe a little cheesy; it’s just Davis performing solo with a mic and a tambourine to a canned track. To my eyes, he fares much better on his own show when, like on The Sounds of ’66, he can lean into the support of a full backing band.
Unlike when Glen Campbell sings “Wichita Lineman” with his illusion of plainspoken subtlety (which is of course devilishly hard to actually pull off), Davis goes in the opposite direction. His delivery is HUGE, all characteristic razzle dazzle, with only a loose fidelity to the lyrics and melody. Which, I think, is a brilliant way to honor the song, by not being at all precious about it.
Contemporary covers of “Wichita Lineman” (which I’ll of course write more about below) tend to be overly reverent, similar to the gaggle of painfully earnest covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that were proliferating for a while there in the late ’90s/early 2000s. But Davis, as the consummate showman, knows that he’s the attraction here, that the song, no matter how masterfully composed, is supporting him. Which allows different, often unnoticed aspects of the song’s brilliance to be brought to the fore–like a certain funkiness in the signature instrumental riff, the bigness of that soaring melody line, and a twist in some of the phrasing that actually turns the song from melancholic and wistful to full of pride.
I mean, yes, obviously, it’s bombastic and over the top, but that’s what makes it so awesome–having the confidence to not only go all out, but having the chops (and then some) to make it cook.
Keith Urban seems like he’s having more fun being Keith Urban than should be strictly legal. I’ve always thought he’s just a straight-up terrific guitar player, and I confess I even have a soft spot for his cologne, “Phoenix.”
In this live cover of “Wichita Lineman,” he starts off perilously close to frat-boy singalong territory, but then quickly elevates it with a combination of his fleet strumming patterns, his winningly earnest singing, and the fact that he does a measure or two of Glen Campbell’s baritone guitar solo in a funny little bit of neener-neener vocalizing (which even cracks him up).
A couple years ago, my boyfriend and I were going through a box of my dad’s old 45s, and we came across Jose Feliciano’s absolutely incredible version of “Light My Fire.” My dad, evidently a pretty big fan, had also been known to play Feliciano’s album Steppin’ Out around the house and in the car in the early ’90s, so I have lots of fond memories of his music. So, I was naturally delighted to come across his instrumental cover of “Wichita Lineman” (even though I wish he’d sung on it as well–I would have loved to hear his soaring tenor hit that “still on the liiiiiine…!”).
Having grown up playing piano, I think I’ll always consider the guitar somewhat magical, and Feliciano is nothing short of a wizard. His dexterity and fluidity with the instrument makes it seem like he can pull more music out of those six strings than should be physically possible, especially given that it’s all acoustic, without the benefit of amps or effects pedals or anything like that. I love the gentle, flamenco-style introduction, but it’s his run getting into the solo around 1:36 that really makes my heart leap out of my chest. Casually rendered mastery at its smoothest.
Rita Wilson is apparently living my dream life.* (*Please note, however, that being married to Tom Hanks does not constitute any part of anything I ever dream about.) Not only is she a successful actress and producer, she also released an album called AM/FM in 2012 that’s full of super groovy and singable stuff like “Never My Love” and “Cherish” (someone’s a fan of the Association) and, yes, “Wichita Lineman.”
I totally understand the temptation to do an incredibly reverent version of this song. It just feels at this point like a secular American hymn. But the plinky piano and drippy strings on her recording unfortunately sound like they were flown in from a late-’80s Narada recording session. Her vocals are the saving grace here, though; they are, for the most part, simple and heartfelt. The one thing I do especially love about her take is that she sings the first line without alteration–“I am a lineman for the county”–rather than trying to fidget around with “I am a linewoman” or some equally unnecessary gender pivot.
JUNE–SCUD MOUNTAIN BOYS
One of the sort of implicit concerns I’ve been curious about examining with this covers series is the question of identity. The identity of a song, the identity of a band or singer. How do they interact? Does one dominate the other? When and how does the hallmark of an identity become a blessing, or a curse, to any given performance? To whom does it matter, and why?
The Scud Mountain Boys’ cover of “Wichita Lineman” is a case where the identity of the song itself wins out, but in a way that just seems genuinely humble without being overly reverent.
I think it would be easy to listen to a group of guys playing ultra low-key like this and gripe that they’re not really “doing” anything. Especially given that, like, who even knows who the Scud Mountain Boys are? Isn’t the goal of a band to announce, as loudly and specifically as possible, “here I am! Here is how I am different from all the other bands!”? (Ahem, the Scuds are referenced most often these days in discussions of Joe Pernice’s career as a singer and songwriter, which is a polite way of saying that unless you were frequenting the club circuit in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early to mid ’90s, there’s little chance you’ve probably heard of or cared about them. And yes, I myself only know about them via being a fan of The Pernice Brothers’ album Overcome By Happiness.) I mean, I’m the kind of person who raves about the “labyrinthine complexity” of King Crimson, so, like, I totally admit to having a tendency to privilege flash and pizzazz, to crave the unmistakable.
But really, there’s no reason for this particular version of this particular song to be anything fancy. The Scuds were smart enough to realize here that they could best serve the piece not by trying to reinvent it, but just by presenting it, which takes a certain level of confidence and maturity that not every musician or band has. It’s a risk, but, to my ears, it paid off.
JULY–THE TERRY FELUS TRIO
In continuing to reflect deeply on my dad’s musicianship, I figured this would be the perfect time to bust out his cover of “Wichita Lineman” (which is the second song in a Glen Campbell medley, after “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).
Personnel-wise, I’m fairly certain that this is not actually the version of the Terry Felus Trio that I grew up with. It’s my dad on Cordovox, I can tell that much, but I have no idea who the singer or drummer are. Throughout my childhood, the drummer and primary vocalist for the group was Don Graves, and though it might be him on drums, it’s definitely not his voice. (For reference, check out Donny’s incredible tenor on their version of the great Bee Gees tune “How Deep Is Your Love?” recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1982.) Whoever it is, though, does a great, simple but soulful take on it. The thing that really cracks me up here, though, is my dad’s immediately identifiable playing style. He would only have been 24 at the time this was recorded, but those jazzy chord stabs and the mini glissandos would remain a consistent part of his instrumental voice for the rest of his life.
And though as the years went on he played the Cordovox less and less, moving on to regular piano/keyboards and even just regular accordion, that sound will always be synonymous with Terry Felus to me. About ten years ago, I was in Boston for a friend’s wedding, and the day before the ceremony, I had dinner at a raw food restaurant with another friend in the North End neighborhood of the city, where the rowdy Saint Anthony’s Feast street festival was in full swing. As we dodged drunken revelers in the narrow streets, snaking our way through the festivities to get to the restaurant in time for our reservation, we happened to walk past a small stage where someone was actually playing a Cordovox. I hadn’t heard one in years at that point, and tears instantly sprang to my eyes. The sound of the thing was so familiar and so specific, and I was so grateful to be reminded of how singularly my dad utilized it in his work for so many of my, and his, formative years. You’ll hear it in full flower on “Wichita Lineman” here, in all its perfect, loungy goofiness and beauty.
I often get flummoxed when I hear people talk about, say, redecorating their house, and they insist that, because the blue paint they picked for the walls dried exactly two shades darker than they were expecting, the whole job is now ruined. I’m always like, “wow, where does that level of specificity come from and why does it matter?” Until, of course, I remember that my own similarly microscopic gradations of taste manifest themselves musically rather than visually. Like, I love dance music…but only when it has enough bass. New Wave and Synth Britannia stuff? No thanks! Brian will often playfully test my taste-o-meter in this genre, pulling up early ’80s English pop obscurities on YouTube until I realize what he’s doing and will start shouting, “ugh, no! It’s too bleepy bloopy!!” Similarly, I have very specific rules about the kind of reggae that I prefer to listen to–late-career Bob Marley is out (too preachy and weirdly stiff); early Bob Marley is awesome (Catch a Fire, yessss); but the totally demented King Tubby dub stuff is the very best of all (“Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber,” anyone??).
I’m not sure what flavor of reggae I was expecting when I found a recording of Dennis Brown singing “Wichita Lineman,” but I was pleasantly surprised to find how low-key and straight-ahead it is (at least until the solo; more on which momentarily).
Dennis Brown’s name is likely best known to most of us hipsters of a certain age as the nominal subject of the Mountain Goats’ “Song for Dennis Brown” from The Sunset Tree. But he’s also a straight-up musical hero in Jamaica. No less than Bob Marley said that Brown was his favorite singer, and it’s easy to hear why. His pipes are smoother than smooth, with a seemingly effortless panache. And if the dates I’m seeing online are accurate, he only would have been about 15 when he recorded this. (!!)
The tempo here is gloriously relaxed; if the song’s narrator is still on the line, he may end up being here for quite some time to come, so what’s the rush? The tempo, combined with the absurdly charismatic vocal, really pulls the song out of the realm of existential inquiry and reconfigures it as something more like a love song. Perhaps a love song to music itself? As the pop culture writer Matthew Perpetua once said about Huey Lewis, “If any other band in the world was playing this song it might make you cry, but Huey Lewis simply cannot sing without smiling. HE LOVES SINGING SO MUCH!!!!!” And it’s pretty much the same thing here. The song itself can be such a heartbreaker, but there’s nothing but joy in this particular vocal take.
And then there’s the guitar solo in the middle, where I suddenly remembered, oh yeah, these reggae guys were making all these crazy, inventive sounds with the most basic studio set-ups. I asked Brian what kind of effects pedal they would have been using to get a sound like that, and his response was basically “I have no idea.” Not because it’s necessarily complicated–today it would be easy to use a wah-wah to get that effect and call it a day. But in the very early ’70s, it would have been something unwieldy like an Echoplex, or some kind of panning effect in the mixing board itself. However it was generated, it’s pure ear candy, something fun and slightly off-kilter for no other reason but sheer delight. Glorious stuff.
SEPTEMBER–GUNS N’ ROSES
I know I haven’t written anything yet about Glen Campbell’s death, and I really think it’s because I kinda just can’t. I can’t wrap my head around how to process the enormity of his musical legacy, which is different than even the kind of cultural legacy left by, say, Bowie or Prince. But I love that apparently no such processing was necessary for Guns N’ Roses to cover “Wichita Lineman” as a tribute to Campbell at their August 30 show in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
The fact that it’s not a particularly “good” or skillful cover, combined with the fact that they were sort of actively willing to alienate most of their audience, who most assuredly were not Glen Campbell fans (in the original footage of this I saw right after it was posted on YouTube, there was a woman who screamed, around the 1:55 mark, “I have no idea what this song is!”), to me, just means that they were really, sincerely committed to playing this song. I love that! It’s so pure.
Axl totally rushes through the first few lines of the verse, almost crashing and burning before the song had a chance to get into a groove. And even once they do manage to lock in, it all still seems incredibly tentative, like a group of middle school students who are just learning to play their instruments and are nervously stumbling through their debut performance at the talent show to the general indifference of the audience.
They are, though, of course, actually really good musicians, so Slash’s acoustic guitar flourishes kind of pull the whole thing together, as does the drummer when he really lays into the beat toward the end. And, how can you not love that big grin and shrug that Slash gives right after the final note rings out? I’ve made that exact same face on stage so many times over the years, that “maybe we pulled it off? Who knows?!” gesture of giving it your best shot, knowing it might have been a little shaky, but also knowing what’s done is done, no take-backs, and thank god it’s over.
“For Glen,” Axl says solemnly at the end. The sweet, plainspoken, vulnerable earnestness of it is actually in perfect keeping with the song’s spirit of dignified melancholy.
Sure, I saw them live once back in 2004, and Automatic for the People will always be a perfect album to listen to on a long drive in grey, cloudy weather, but I’ve never actually been the biggest fan of REM. I actually find them pretty boring most of the time! So I was all set to bag on their cover of “Wichita Lineman.”
Especially since they manage, somehow, to not play Jimmy Webb’s beautiful chord progressions accurately in a few key parts. But I couldn’t bring myself to be too hard on them, given that the recording is from ’94, when Michael Stipe was at the full height of his powers vocally. Ignore what the rest of the band is doing (OK, maybe give a little love to the nice and easy beat that Bill Berry lays down for it) and take a few moments to bask in Stipe’s weird, serpentine charisma and earnest, plaintive voice. That’s one of the main things I’ve discovered over the course of this year that makes the biggest difference to a successful cover of this song–the quality of the vocal. And of course that’s not always just about having a “good” voice. It’s more being willing to sing the song honestly and with a modicum of vulnerability. That was, like, Stipe’s whole deal, especially in that era of his career, which makes this a more than fine version of the song, despite the rest of its flaws.
For extra credit, compare it to Stipe’s performance of “Wichita Lineman” on New Year’s Eve 2011, sitting in at one of Patti Smith’s solo shows in New York City. The band is much stronger (and know how to actually play the damn song), but Stipe, without his youthful live-wire edge, slides into a technically proficient but much more emotionally distant, even smug, take on the melody. It’s actually the disappointment of this performance, despite the fact that it’s overall much smoother, that convinced me of the merits of the take from ’94.
This recording of Cassandra Wilson singing “Wichita Lineman” from her album Belly of the Sun was one of the first I found when I started researching different versions of this song.
First and foremost, my god, what a divine voice. There’s pleasure to be found in all kinds of different vocal styles, to be sure, but every once in a while, it just feels really good to let your ears be graced by the talents of someone with an exceptional command of their instrument. And that’s really the main selling point of this version, her utterly gorgeous deep alto range and subtly masterful phrasing and delivery. (Get your earbuds out if you wanna hear the smallest, loveliest intake of breath at about minute 2:59.)
The shimmery arrangement is pleasant enough (I nerded out a bit when I connected a few dots to discover that the guitarist, Marvin Sewell, has occasionally collaborated with one of my favorite drummers, Brian Blade). And I can kind of understand why she would do one of those jazz pivots where you change the shes to hes, although rewriting one of the most iconic first-lines-of-a-song in popular music history (to “my man’s a lineman for the county”) creates just enough of a speed bump that the song doesn’t 100% recover from the dissonance between your expectation and what you actually hear.
I very much wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt for the change; I tried to hear it from a feminist/Shakespeare’s sister perspective, like, well, what does the character of this woman have to say about the guy who’s been out searching in the sun for another overload?? But, the lyric change alone doesn’t automatically turn it into a proper response song; it just kind of repeats everything the guy character already wants for himself in her voice. Which is…fine, it’s fine to love someone and want for them what they want for themselves. But then…why not just sing the lyric as written? Brian and I laugh a lot about lyrics where some rock dude is wailin’ about how he’s been working out at the docks or whatever, and we’re like, “sir, you’ve never worked the docks a day in your life.” Which is to say, suspension of disbelief is already such a big part of what it means to be a performer, and I sincerely don’t think at this point anyone is going to be confused to hear a woman singing the words “I am a lineman for the county.”
DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
The primary lesson I took away from listening to and thinking through this year’s worth of covers of “Wichita Lineman” is that the best way to tackle this song is with ruthless honesty. And I don’t necessarily mean to equate honesty with simplicity; I think Sammy Davis Jr.’s bombastic take is just as honest as Dennis Brown’s reggae smoothness, which is just as honest as the Scud Mountain Boys’ stripped-down approach. The best versions let the best of an artist’s truth shine through.
After how much fun Brian and I had at the end of 2016 recording our take on “I’m Waiting for the Man,” I knew I definitely wanted to close out this year with our own cover of “Wichita Lineman.” And of course, I came down with a terrible cold in late December, so all my convictions about honesty being the best approach were going to be put to the test, given that my voice is not in the best shape its ever been in. But hopefully the depth of our affection for this song comes through loud and clear.
When I was 23 and working my first big-girl job in Chicago, I split my time in the office between two departments. I worked in the department I had applied to be in (the department I wanted to be in) for three days a week, and then a department that simply needed extra clerical help for the other two. My ambition was satisfied by the former, but the latter satisfied my cravings for community and friendship, which felt especially acute at that point when I was new to the city and new to adulting. It also allowed me to persist, for a brief period of time, in the fantasy that working in an office actually was as dirty-glamorous as working in an office seemed like it should be, in a very early-2000s indie movie kind of way.
That department was headed up by professionals but was largely staffed with other folks similar to me who were in some sense slumming it for a paycheck. We were also physically adjacent to the customer service department, which was staffed by a bunch of gorgeous punks, all of whom I fell desperately in love with en masse. They adopted me like a pet, introduced me to their other gorgeous scuzzball friends, and generally helped knock quite a bit of the lingering small-town shine off me. Work got done around the edges of a lot of banter and pop culture references and plans to carouse at the nearby bar at 5:01 on the dot.
Since I knew my time in this department was limited (looking back on it, I think it only lasted about five months total, although my memories of it are expansive and loom large), I didn’t invest much energy in decorating my cubicle. I would occasionally change the background image of my computer desktop, but that was about the extent of it.
It’s maybe worth noting here that, in those days immediately before the ascendance of social media, it was still kind of a novelty to find things on the internet that felt useful or relevant or somehow representative of one’s life. It seems almost impossible to conceive of now, but for so long anything other than, say, a word processing program used to type papers for school seemed like it was exclusively the domain of, I dunno, hackers. Like, you had to be tech-savvy in this very specific way to get computers to “do” anything worthwhile. But as search engines became more sophisticated and user-friendly, it was suddenly possible to see more general interest material at the click of a button.
Around this time, the singer Josh Groban was reaching an early peak of his popularity. I have no idea where I first heard of him. I feel like my dad had seen him perform on PBS or something? And to this day I don’t feel like I’ve ever knowingly heard him sing more than about four notes total. But his image was pretty inescapable at that point, this adorably mop-topped young crooner of light opera and love songs.
I’m not sure why, exactly, other than everything I just wrote about him, but something about Josh Groban struck me as hilarious. I had no beef with him or his fans; I didn’t find him ridiculous to the degree that it became derisive or mocking. Something about him just irrationally tickled my funny bone. His earnestness? His complete lack of being controversial in any way? All that wholesomeness just struck me as adorable. I was endlessly charmed by the idea of him, despite feeling wholly divorced from any access to his appeal in a more direct or visceral way.
So, aided and abetted by a vastly more functional search engine connected to the internet, I Googled up an enormous, very moony photo of Josh Groban and set it as the desktop image on the computer I used two days a week in the department I was temping in.
It made me laugh every time the computer went to sleep and I had to jiggle the mouse to get the black screen to roar back to life.
“She must really like Josh Groban,” someone from another department observed to one of my coworkers who sat near my desk.
“I think it’s ironic,” he assured her.
The thing that I adore most about this memory in retrospect is how much the joke was played for an audience of one, for myself, for my own amusement. To anyone who didn’t know me, there would have been no reason to assume that this sweet, small-town Indiana girl wasn’t a Josh Groban fan. I very conceivably could have, even should have been. I was exactly the kind of person who should have unironically had a photo of Josh Groban as the desktop image on her computer.
But maybe exploring that line between public expectation and private reality, that strange, taut place where they snuggled up against each other, was a process too delicious to resist. The allure of going to that place, diving into that confusion that contained its own clarity, was apparently so irresistible that I was actively willing to court being misunderstood. Normally, I would have avoided that possibility at all costs, especially in a context like that where I would have been concerned about portraying myself as “cool.” But following the joke has always been the most reliable way of finding my way back to wholeness, and giving myself the freedom and grace of that journey unequivocally felt like going home.
Queen of Peaches will be going on summer break! Be good to yourselves, and each other, while I take a bit of time to rest and realign with my own creative vision. See you in the fall!
Road trips are inherently circular, right? You go in one direction, and then, unless you’re moving somewhere permanently, you have to turn around and come back again. There’s the promise of the return even in the first seeds of the journey.
I’ve written before about how much I love driving, how much I love being out on the road on an adventure. So I hesitated before I started writing this, thinking, no one wants to hear me muse about road trips again. Unless something catastrophic or otherwise significant happens along the way, one road trip is pretty much exactly like another. Hearing about someone else’s road trip is like hearing about someone else’s dream. Boring, nonsensical, too personal to be relevant to anybody else, right?
But actually, hearing about someone else’s dreams is one of my favorite things in life! The previous night’s dreams are inevitably one of the first things that Brian and I discuss every morning! Our relationship is my dream diary, and our dream spaces even sometimes overlap in funny ways (like the night that he was dreaming about watching old Replacements videos on TV while I was dreaming about hearing a song on the radio and incorrectly guessing who wrote it before being informed, “actually, Paul Westerberg wrote it”).
So, yes, one road trip might be effectively exactly like another, and, may I suggest, that’s what makes them awesome? There’s the predictability of snacks, boredom, naps, rest stops, weather, traffic, maps, gas, companionable silence, beloved albums played on the stereo in their entirety…one road trip bleeds into another, memories are overlaid on top of present-moment experiences, plans for future road trips are made before the current one has ended…and these echoes even start to emerge in real time, recurring over several hours, or even days.
Like this flatbed truck carrying these strange metal cylinders.
On our recent drive from Chicago to Hanover, New Hampshire, we played leap-frog with it a handful of times as we barreled through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, wondering aloud every time we saw it just what those things could possibly be. We stopped for the night at a hotel about an hour outside Scranton, and when we got back on the road early the next morning, we, unbelievably, passed the truck one more time. The circular logic of our shared dreamscape strikes again.
And it wasn’t just the flat-bed truck carrying precious (if obscure) cargo, either. We were driving, instead of flying, specifically so that we could bring the guitars and amps and pedals we used to create Music for Qodèxx to the 2018 Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth College. We would be both playing the music and giving a short presentation about our collaboration with Gene Kannenberg Jr, the author of Qodèxx, the abstract graphic novella. We’ve “toured” to play music before, but with minimal gear that was easy enough to take on a plane, never the kind of production with such specific technical requirements that it necessitated several days on the road just to ferry the instruments to the venue. But the sound of Qodèxx just wouldn’t be the same in any kind of stripped down configuration, so we gleefully loaded everything into our car, and then loaded it in and out of our hotels along the way, ever-diligent against theft and fluctuating temperatures.
We were diligent against boredom, too. Aware that the idea of playing a 20-minute mini-rock opera in the context of an academic conference was in itself completely ridiculous, we knew this wasn’t a time to back down from the very premise on which our presence there was predicated. If we were going to do this thing, we were going to do this thing.
Avant-garde performance artist and filmmaker Jack Smith has long been one of Brian’s heroes, and we’d looked to his writing, performances, and life as inspiration for what we’ve been calling the “Qodèxx Happening.” One of Smith’s recurring images in his photography and live performances throughout the mid to late ‘70s was Yolanda la Pinguina/Inez the Penguin, and we, with abundant affection, couldn’t resist creating and bringing along our own stuffed tribute.
As J. Hoberman notes in the museum catalog Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970-1980, the site-specific performance artworks that figures like Adrian Piper, Laurie Anderson, and Jack Smith created in New York during this era “left not artifacts but traces. The work exists as fragile recordings, random documents, impressionistic descriptions, art-world legends, and spectator memories; and, in some cases, not even those.” Not artifacts but traces—this is dreamlife in a nutshell. Pulling even a scrap, a reconstructed scrap at that, from the river of time back into being was a way for us to not just pay tribute to beloved artists who have gone before us but to circle back around to a destination that we’d remembered, even if we’d never visited it before.
I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002. In the weeks leading up to the actual, physical relocation, I was driving into the city from Northwest Indiana a lot. Mostly to look for an apartment but also to hang out with a dear friend who lived in Rogers Park, who kindly let me crash on his couch while I was getting all my ducks in a row.
As I’ve talked about before, I’d gotten my driver’s license as soon as I could after I turned sixteen. I needed a measure of independence so that I could help my dad take care of shopping and other chores but also so that I wouldn’t have to inconvenience anyone else’s parents when I needed a ride home from theater rehearsal or other after-school activities and performances. So, a couple months before I officially got my license, my dad bought a car for me to use, a 1994 white Chevy Lumina. I loooved that car, in the way that you really can only ever love your first car, the car that lets you finally feel truly independent. I drove it throughout the remaining years of high school, during summers when I was home from college, in Bloomington while I attended Indiana University (after I was finally able to wrangle an on-campus parking pass), and after graduating college, to and from the job I had at the mall while I lived with my grandmother.
The route that I would take to Chicago from my hometown in Dyer was 394 to 94 to 55, then on to Lake Shore Drive, all the way up the length of the city until the road curved into Sheridan and delivered me into Rogers Park proper. In those days, depending on traffic, it usually only took me about an hour and twenty minutes, and I could practically drive it in my sleep.
One Friday in August of that year, I was taking this very familiar drive in the late afternoon, planning to spend the weekend doing some more apartment hunting and maybe seeing a movie with my friend. It was a beautiful summer day, not too hot or humid, the sky blazing blue. I was cruising north on the Drive, when suddenly I felt a mild jolt. The car immediately lost momentum and rolled to a complete stop. In the far left hand lane. Of Lake Shore Drive. On a Friday afternoon. Just before the official start of rush hour.
With that eerie calm that can sometime accompany deep panic, I reached for my first-ever cell phone and dialed 911. I explained the situation to the operator, and they said they’d send one of the city’s tow trucks out to get me off the road, but that I’d be on my own once I was somewhere safe.
I waited with my flashers on, keeping an eagle eye on my rear view mirror, both watching for the tow truck and wincing with nervousness anytime I saw a driver speed up a little too close behind me, certain that someone would inevitably rear-end me there. Still, I cannot emphasize enough what an idyllically, perfectly beautiful day it was. It was long enough past the solstice that the sun was starting to go down noticeably earlier each day, and though it was still nowhere near dusk, there was a certain autumnal quality to the slant of the light as it bounced off the lake and streamed through my smudgy, fingerprinted windows. The whoosh of the cars whizzing by me was discernibly louder without the sound of my own engine or the car stereo overpowering them, like the sound of blood pumping through one’s own body that suddenly becomes apparent in a still, dark room.
The city tow truck showed up fairly quickly, dragged my car across an off ramp and into one of those beach parking lots that span that stretch of the lake, and then rumbled off again with little fanfare. Safe now, but emphatically stuck, I called my friend to let him know what had happened and to say I would need to be picked up whenever I got my car to a proper garage. I then also called for AAA roadside assistance.
In those weird days when we had cell phone service but not GPS, just because I knew where I was didn’t mean I knew where I was. The AAA operator on the other end of the line asked me, in order to figure out how to help me, for my zip code. “I’m at about 4800 north on the grid in Chicago, in a parking lot off the beach along Lake Shore Drive, that’s all I know.” The person kept pressing me for a zip code, saying they couldn’t do anything for me otherwise. Inwardly, I was freaking out at the absurdity of the situation. What if I’d broken down on a dark country road late at night? How would they have found me then? In desperation, I finally ran over to a snack bar that happened to still be open near the beach. “Do you know what the zip code is here?!” I wailed to the person behind the counter, and they immediately, kindly told me what it was.
With that information, the AAA operator was able to connect me with a local tow truck company, who understood how and where to find me. When he showed up, the tow truck driver, full of smiles and helpfulness, asked if I had a garage I preferred. I said I didn’t know, that I didn’t even live in Chicago. He nodded, then pulled a fat stack of business cards out of the front pocket of his overalls, rifling through until he found one that made him say, “ok, then I’ll take you here.” He got my poor busted car up onto the bed of his truck; I climbed in the cab with him, and we drove off into the streets of Chicago.
It was early evening by that point, the light even more golden, the shadows being thrown off by the taller buildings deep and blue. In my Indiana provincialism, my knowledge of Chicago was still relegated to extremely small snapshots of the city. I knew corners, I knew blocks, but I didn’t yet understand how they all fit together, how neighborhoods merged and bled into each other. I didn’t know where we were, didn’t have a clue where I was being driven. But the driver and I chatted amiably the whole way; he informed me that he usually asked people if they had a preferred garage out of courtesy but that he thought the place he was taking me would be a good match for what I needed (with the implication that it would be relatively affordable, and honest).
We eventually pulled up in front of Marvin’s Auto Service, a garage that was slightly tucked back from the street. And like a scene from a movie, suddenly at least half a dozen garage employee came dashing out in a frenzy of activity. I stood next to the tow truck driver on the sidewalk, both of us watching with no small bit of amusement as one or two of them jumped onto the bed of the truck, popped the hood of my car, and poked something that squirted a stream of fluid into the air.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, a man I’m assuming was Marvin himself evaluated the situation and informed me that he knew what was wrong. “How bad is it?” I theatrically grimaced, bracing myself for an expense that I, currently still jobless, didn’t exactly know how I’d pay for. He shrugged and said, “About $300.” Not only that, but he’d have it taken care of for me by noon the next day. I followed him inside and filled out some paperwork, happy to be in the care of these professionals. I hope I said good-bye to the tow truck driver.
My friend I was staying with had pulled up and parked outside by then, and on our drive back to his apartment, I delightedly related to him everything that had happened, my stress almost completely gone by this point, giddy that what had begun as a scary roadside incident had now turned into something like an adventure full of colorful characters.
Late the next morning, shortly before we were planning to head out to pick my car up again, I called the garage just to confirm everything would indeed be ready by noon. “More like 12:30,” they said, so we pushed back our departure by a half hour.
When we arrived, I settled up with Marvin at the desk in the front office, and I thanked him profusely for his kindness and speed. His English was halting, so I thought something was wrong when he held up his index finger to indicate that there was one more thing before our transaction was complete. But then he reached under the desk and handed me a burned CD that he declared contained “American romantic music.”
My jaw nearly hit the floor and my eyes lit up with delight. The disk was labeled with a sticker that they’d had custom printed with promotional information for the garage, their name and address and phone number as well as an image of a red sports car. There was no jewel case, no track listing, so I had no idea what it was going to contain. I couldn’t wait to pop it into my car stereo.
The problem had apparently been with my car’s alternator, so it wasn’t a huge problem to fix, and everything worked fine once I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. I pulled out of the garage into the now much warmer and muggier August air, and began to follow my friend back up to Rogers Park. I pressed play on the stereo, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” blasted through the speakers. I scanned through the other eight tracks, fully a third of them by the Bee Gees: “More than a Woman,” “I Started a Joke,” Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” America’s “A Horse with No Name,” Ritchie Valens’s “We Belong Together,” Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” and “Night Fever.” I was nearly levitating with delight.
When I told my friend about the CD, he was tickled as well and joked that perhaps the garage needed those extra thirty minutes to burn the CD just for me.
Of course they didn’t, but on a deeper level, it really was just for me. As much as I’d been fighting the inevitability that I would move to Chicago, I couldn’t deny that the stars were aligning for me to be there. A friend’s boyfriend had an empty room in his three-bedroom apartment, ready for immediate occupancy with a month-to-month lease. That same friend also knew of a job opening that I applied for, got, and started within ten days of officially moving into my new apartment. In the midst of breakdown, I was constantly being rescued, fixed, and sent merrily on my way, to the accompaniment of American romantic music.
Marvin’s Auto Service has since moved to a new address; they’re now located at 3020 W. Irving Park Road. I hope they’re still sending their customers home with music.
I lived in Indiana for the first 23 years of my life and have only ever lived in Chicago subsequently, so even though I have an internal conceptualization of myself as extremely worldly and sophisticated, let’s face it, I’m about as Midwestern as they come.
In my first couple years in Chicago, I lived with roommates who originally came from Philadelphia and Ithaca, but I don’t think I’d ever met anyone as thoroughly “East Coast” as Brian until he and I started playing music together. He grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the way I always describe my impression of his extreme East Coastness is that I never really felt like I truly got the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.
But it’s not just the seedy, bitchy, casually brilliant aspects of that tri-state area that I came to know better through him; it’s the smallness too. The way that closely guarded generational memory is such a real and present driving force in people’s everyday lives. The way that loyalties and clan kinships form ley lines that define and delimit people’s understanding of themselves. And of course the hauntings too—the unspeakable grief that lurks in the shadows and saturates the landscape. I find it all terribly fascinating, a welcome counterpoint to the bright, open Midwestern obviousness that I grew up with (which manifests even in the Heartland’s own attempts at familial machinations and backstabbing).
I’ve always been very up front about the fact that I have an enormous black hole where my familiarity with the music of the ’90s should be. I was a musical theater nerd as a teenager and basically couldn’t stand much of anything that came out of the Seattle scene, finding it too noisy and abrasive and petulant in a way that didn’t resonate with my own defense mechanism of insistent cheeriness. At the time, I just thought current popular music was not, y’know, for me, the end.
Once I started working at the student-run radio station at Indiana University as an undergraduate, my eventual tip-toe into pop and rock music was still qualified by a preference for Broadway-esque “big” arrangements and “clever” lyrics. Ben Folds Five and the Divine Comedy were in heavy rotation during my shifts and on my own dorm-room stereo. But while working the 4-6 am shift my first semester on the air, I stumbled across the Pernice Brothers’ debut album Overcome by Happiness. It’s one of the first albums that I remember feeling cool and smart for knowing about, not that anyone had asked or cared.
Around the same time that I was discovering this album, Brian was playing guitar and singing in a three-piece band while he was in grad school at the University of Connecticut. They’d actually played a bunch of the same clubs as Joe Pernice’s previous group the Scud Mountain Boys, but it turns out Brian didn’t know Overcome by Happiness at all. I tend to assume that his knowledge of the music of the mid to late ’90s will necessarily be much broader than my own, but he’d somehow conflated the Pernice Brothers with Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers (!) and written them off entirely as not his cup of tea.
As we inevitably bonded over the music we loved in common, we also rushed to fill each other’s blind spots. I gave him Jason Falkner and the Clientele; he gave me Chris Whitley and Mink DeVille. But somehow when I gave him Overcome by Happiness and he gave me Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band, it felt more significant. I was introducing him to an album that had originated in his homeland; he’d even spent time recording at Mike Deming’s Studio .45, where both Overcome by Happiness and Eccsame had been made. Since I had introduced him to an album that had originated in his homeland, I felt like it cemented some kind of karmic inevitability in our own friendship.
I remember listening to Eccsame the Photon Band on my headphones one night walking home from my neighborhood El stop and feeling uncannily like I was somehow listening to shadow transmissions of my own band. The Lilys’ inky black bass lines and thoughtful, whispery vocals are specific to the ’90s, yes, but I can also now hear how very specifically Connecticut they are. They added new context to Brian’s own songwriting sensibility for me. The cavernous drum sounds and dissonant chords that he prefers, coming from this slightly different angle, helped me hear his own past even more clearly than his old band’s recordings did in some ways. I felt almost projected into the past, like I was recalling a false memory of having known him decades before we ever would have had reason to cross paths.
And beyond the glitchy déjà vu, there was a sense of mourning there for me as well. I can imagine how incredibly perfect “Overlit Canyon (The Obscured Wingtip Memoir)” or “Radiotricity” would have sounded swelling from the speakers of my car stereo as I drove late at night down the flat, dark back roads of rural Indiana in my own teen years. If I’d heard these songs then, would they have been welcome medicine, a tether to the reality of that era that I otherwise felt desperate to escape? Or would I have been too stubbornly entrenched in my own taste to enjoy them?
As a Buddhist and a clairvoyant, I make an effort to sit for a few minutes each day in silent meditation. The meditation helps me quell, a bit, my obsession with time. I’m impatient and ravenous for experience and sensation and gratification. I want to know the world, and I want to know my place in it right now. The summer I graduated from college, I made a comically mournful list in my journal of all the things I had to accept that I’d never be and never do. I’d never be a skilled athlete, I’d never be a ballerina, I’d never be a world-famous musical prodigy that released an immaculately wrought debut chamber pop album at the age of 22. Did I actually want those things or was I more bothered by the fact that I didn’t feel I’d been presented the opportunity to choose and/or discard them at my own convenience?
I have to catch myself from feeling this way about smaller things in my life even now—and that includes something as trivial as wishing I’d somehow known Eccsame the Photon Band closer to when it had originally been released. In accepting my present-time experience of this album, I allow myself to find gratitude for its delayed appearance in my life. Sure, maybe it would have sounded great in my car when I was a teenager, but it definitely sounds great on my iPhone in my 30s. Mostly because, here and now, I have a fuller context to appreciate what it means to receive it from someone I love deeply, a grace that allows me the patience to open a window onto his experience of it, rather than being so locally fixated on my own.
This essay originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of the now sadly defunct Maura Magazine and was meant to be read in tandem with Brian Cremins’s essay on the Pernice Brothers’ Overcome by Happiness. It has been lightly re-edited.
The narrative that I often tell about this blog is that I couldn’t not blog.
I’d kept my first pop culture blog for about six years, and then shut it down when I noticed that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’d grown bored with simply reviewing the movies I’d been watching, the concerts I’d been going to, the books I’d been reading. I felt like I wanted to be more than a rote recommendation machine; I wanted to expand my writing beyond critiquing someone else’s art. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about instead, only that I wanted to get to a place where my writing was more personal. (I don’t think I realized how extremely personal my reviewing actually was, how much of myself was revealed in my preferences and critiques, but that’s a subject for another time.)
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I went into clairvoyant training later that same year and quickly discovered that the part of me that was good at giving psychic readings was the same part of me that was good at writing. It stood to reason that as long as I was doing something that involved my third eye, it didn’t exactly matter what the medium was. So I was perfectly content to stop writing for a couple years, just going to psychic school and giving readings there and playing music with my band the other nights of the week. Plus, I’d had a day job in the publishing industry for nearly ten years at that point, and all the reading and editing that I did there seemed to satisfy the part of me that felt most natural with a pen in my hand (or with a keyboard at my fingertips).
But almost exactly a year after I completed my two-year stint in psychic school, I wasn’t giving readings anymore, the band had imploded so I was no longer gigging or practicing regularly, and my job had taken a distinct shift away from editing and into the nuts and bolts of scheduling and budgeting. My creative restlessness was beginning to show, especially in comparison to my boyfriend’s creative output, which was in a phase of huge blossoming and development. He was blogging regularly, writing scholarly articles, and working on his first full-length book. I wasn’t necessarily feeling competitive with him—our strengths as writers are completely different, as are our areas of focus—but I was feeling a bit, oddly, call it, left behind. “Why don’t you just start a new blog?” he kept imploring me. So finally, I did.
But what to write about?
I knew I didn’t want to write exclusively about the arts anymore, but I also knew I would inevitably want to discuss some movie or album that had captured my fancy, so I wanted to make space for that. I had recently taken up perfume as a hobby, and had always loved playing around with makeup, so I thought it might be fun to have somewhere to explore all the ways that I presented and processed my own femininity. And of course there was the psychic stuff. Long before I’d gone through my in-person training, I’d been a religious minor in college and had been attending a Zen Buddhist temple on Sundays. Spirituality had always been enormously important to me, and I wanted to continue to reflect on what I’d learned and how it fit into and influenced my daily life.
So, rather than winnowing any of those things down, I just decided I’d kind of write about them all.
This was in the last little sliver of time when blogs were still a viable way of communicating and building an online following, before social media (in the sense of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook) really took off as the primary way that people not only kept up with friends but also consumed news and reviews. And so I read up on some best-practices for blogging and decided that consistency was supposed to be key. I never kept a regular schedule at my old blog; I posted when I had something on my mind. But all these self-proclaimed blog strategists were recommending that my readership would want to be able to rely on a specific day, and even a specific time, when I’d be posting, so I thought, OK. Let me take those three areas of interest and slot them in for publication on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and then make sure to write something short on the subject every week.
I kept up the schedule for a little while, but it ended up being far too much for me, considering that I hadn’t been actively blogging in close to three years and my writing muscles were way more out of practice than I thought they would be. Writing had ceased to be fun and started feeling like a chore, like something I was doing to keep up with a vision of the me I used to be, rather than a disciplined but ultimately joyous expression of my own constantly churning inner monologue. So I tried to devise ways to make the burden feel lighter. I scaled back to posting once a month and all but eliminated the focus of the three sections, loosely tagging whatever tumbled out of my brain with one of the categories, no matter how little it actually fit. I gave myself fewer restrictions, rather than more, and that somehow ended up being worse. If I’d promised myself to post something once a month, that meant I would start nervously thinking, mid-month, that I really should come up with something to write about, then go into a hysterical panic the last few days of the month as I struggled to write something I could feel remotely proud of that would also be somewhat legible to the handful of people who still, graciously, clicked through to read what I had to say.
So what was the easiest thing that I could come up with to fill the inspiration gap? What could I pretty much always count on if I was at a loss for something to write about? Me. My own past, my own memories.
As you can see if you read the About section linked above or if you scroll all the way down to the footer of this page, I describe this blog as being about “music, film, spirituality, memory, time, love, perfume, and my life in Chicago.” And when I appeared on the “Blog vs. Podcast” episode of A Chatter of Fact, at approximately minute 37, I went so far as to describe what I do here as “memory work.”
I’ve spent literally years writing here and thinking that I was chasing validation from other people who would be interested in what I have to say about a movie or a book or a perfume or cool stuff to do in Chicago. But I finally had to admit to myself that this blog is actually pretty selfish and self-centered. Everything that’s happening here has no pretense of being about anyone or anything but me. I’m finally just now consciously figuring that out!
To be clear—the primary purpose of my writing here has always been to examine and catalog moments and memories and impressions and experiences from my own past. Although I may have tried to connect some of these anecdotes to broader subjects that would be relevant to other readers, I’m mostly just telling stories about myself to myself.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like nostalgia to me; I’m not longing to go back to another time or place that’s now unreachable. For a while I did think it’s because both my parents are dead and there are, in general, fewer and fewer people around who remember me from when I was a kid. I considered that maybe I’ve been trying to foster some sort of personal coherence and permanence through these stories that other people usually get from their families and communities and other long-term relationships. But then I recall that, actually, I’ve always been like this—even when I was small, I loved when my dad would set up the screen and projector in our living room to show old, silent home movies on 8 millimeter film. This fondly remembered ritual from childhood feels intimately related to how I ended up creating this web-based environment for myself in the first place, in that I learned to think about memories not only visually, but also to interact with them by giving them voice.
My mother was a mostly self-taught but very talented photographer. I’m so lucky to have had a thoroughly, beautifully documented baby- and toddlerhood. My father, likewise, was obsessed with self-documentation. He often recorded his band‘s gigs on cassette tape (which I’ve recently been busy archiving on Bandcamp) and was hardly ever present at a family gathering without his 8mm camera and, later, camcorder. These images they captured and created may have been the way in, but when we would look at them later, the conversation and narration they inspired were another art in and of themselves. The images reflected back enough hard data to establish primary facts—who was there, about what year it was, what the occasion would have been—but it was up to us to continually supply the meaning, to tell the story.
A lot of people say they write things down to remember them, but I’ve always felt like I write things down in order to forget. To exorcise them, to get the repetition of a phrase or idea out of my damn mind so that it can stop haunting me. During college, I used to stalk around campus with my head down, internally chanting portions of essays-in-progress to myself until I could get a moment to sit down and transcribe it all into a notebook, where I could build on and edit my ideas. This is still how my best pieces compose themselves to this day. And that’s why I often completely forget about things that I’ve written. Once the words are out of my head and exist on a page or a screen, they’re out of my system, leaving space for a new me to arise and get to know all over again. She’s always teaching me to be a better listener.
January is secretly my favorite time for listening to music.
I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit. I’m always listening to music, and there’s no bad time to listen to music, ever.
But over the past thirteen years that I’ve been making mixes in December full of my favorite songs from the preceding eleven months, I notice a curious thing starts to happen to my ears in January after all the selection and curation and analysis is over. My tastes become broad, and catholic again.
While I’m making a mix, I’m of course focused on music that was released that calendar year, or within a year or two prior. I’m also somewhat necessarily focused on making sure that the mix itself flows together like its own cohesive statement. Not only that, but I’m also imagining what it will sound like to other people, wondering if the charms of a particular track will be readily apparent to my dearest friends and other folks that I nerd out about music with. I’ve always got my eye on posterity a bit too, asking myself, “how will this mix sound in the context of previous years’ mixes? How does it compare? Have I still got the knack for making these?” And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I still poke around online to see what other folks are citing as the year’s best music, seeing where my sensibilities have definitively diverged from the indie mainstream, as well as where my taste is falling right in line with what I’m told I’m “supposed” to like. It’s a lot of mental gymnastics!
But in January, all those rubrics fall away. Music doesn’t have to appeal to anyone but me. It doesn’t have to fit in with what anyone else is listening to. It can be poppy or abrasive, barely recognizable as music or laden with saccharine strings. And since there will be plenty of time later in the year to listen to new releases that will be eligible for inclusion on the subsequent mix, age is of no importance during this window of time—a track can be four or forty years old. Music’s main job for me throughout January, especially here in Chicago, is to keep me centered in a sense of delight and the promise of pleasure, even when the weather is forbidding and it’s a challenge, to put it mildly, to get out of my warm bed in the morning.
Having the chance to sit with an album or an artist that’s particularly knocking my socks off is as pure a motivation as I can think of to get me out of my house and onto the train on a snowy, frigid day. When I’m released into permission to do nothing but sit quietly for 30 or 40 minutes while I’m whisked through the city to my office, disappearing into a musical bubble for that length of time is almost more than compensation for the attendant hassle and the stress. I mean, I barely even sit in my own apartment and do nothing but listen to music for that length of time (as opposed to having it on in the background while I’m cooking in the kitchen or putting on my makeup in the bathroom). The fact that the Chicago Transit Authority gifts me with that indulgence five days a week is something I’m not nearly thankful enough for.
One of the albums I associate most strongly with this cold, but potent, time of year, this month that’s often so empty but also so full of promise, is electronic sound artist Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet.
Back in my days of more avidly reading Pitchfork and trawling blogs for hot new shit, December wrap-ups were a goldmine for finding new-to-me music that I’d not heard of or had otherwise overlooked the year before.
Harmony in Ultraviolet was appearing on plenty of best-of lists at the end of 2006, and there was something about the way that people were talking about his work that drew me to it. (Call anything “oceanic” and that’s kinda gonna automatically do it for me.) Even though I’d only previously dabbled the very tiniest bit with what I then broadly thought of as “ambient” music, it ended up being the perfect soundtrack to a very cold, very snowy January.
Hecker’s mournful strings coupled with fat, fuzzy blankets of distortion and blown-out washes of sound felt desolate yet contemplative, mirroring January’s barren landscape. The tensions and dissonances in the music heightened the contrast between the incredibly cold air outside and the coziness of my being wrapped in a winter coat and hat while smashed into a tiny seat on the train, surrounded by dozens of other chilled, sleepy commuters. For all the drama of Hecker’s soundscapes, though, they didn’t remove me from the mundane but somehow situated me more firmly within it. And a large part of that effect was because of the way that the sounds combined and layered together to produce a sense of timelessness.
When I was listening to music that had a regular meter and predictable structure, I knew I could listen to about seven to nine songs between the time I left my home and the time I would arrive at the station nearest my office. Each song with a familiar verse-chorus-verse format became its own tiny, dread-filled countdown to the time I’d have to abandon the solace of my own interiority for the chatter and distractions of an eight-hour workday. I would start being sad about the train ride ending nearly before it had begun, simply because I would look at any given playlist on my iPod and would know I probably wouldn’t reach the end of it before I had to go put on my professional face.
But the formlessness of Harmony in Ultraviolet released me from that pressure. Since I could barely tell where one track ended and the next one began, I discovered that I wasn’t mentally rushing through one song to the next, that I was allowing myself to simply be present with it. There were no melodies to cling to, despite the occasional appearance of the ghost of a melodic hook, so the tracks themselves prevented me from craving the cathartic release of a shouty chorus or an epic guitar solo. Since I wasn’t waiting for the catchy part of the song, and thus unconsciously wishing away the rest of the track (not to mention also wishing away a whole micro-chunk of my morning me-time in the process), my commute started to feel extended, in the best way possible. I suddenly had more time within my time.
Harmony in Ultraviolet, in its own mysterious way, reminded me that I didn’t solely exist to be shuttled from one obligation to the next. It assured me that my purpose for existing wasn’t just my utility in others’ agendas. It inserted me back into the middle of my own life and regifted me with the ability to find expanse in the midst of what otherwise looked like restriction.
My fascination with Call Me By Your Name began, as it did for so many of us, with that clip of Armie Hammer dancing.
Armie Hammer is one of those celebrities I mostly know because of social media, and not because I follow him anywhere, but because the people I do follow have an affection for him and post lots of GIFs of him looking handsome and saying funny, self-deprecating things. (I’m confounded by the sudden and mysterious ascendance of all these extremely handsome dudes, including Chrises Hemsworth and Pine, who are somehow also genuinely, extremely funny.) But then that dance went viral and lots of other people started getting obsessed with him in that singularly social media-informed way that’s beyond just Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame, that instead casts everyone who reaches a certain level of fame as the star of their own fanfic, where they can be dressed up and outfitted with each individual viewer’s very specific and often very quirky desires. That’s the point I knew the movie was probably going to be A Thing when it finally came out.
So I downloaded the ebook of the novel onto the Kindle app on my iPhone and spent a few weeks reading it during this past rainy October.
It’s a lovely, erotic little bit of writing that made me wonder how the film was ever going to manage to convey the painstaking, multilayered interiority of Elio’s sexual awakening without resorting to voice over. It also made me preemptively appreciate Hammer’s casting all the more; there is no one else I could imagine playing the role of Oliver.
One of the things that bugs me most about current practices in film distribution is the way that everything revolves around hype. Not that it hasn’t always, of course, but it feels particularly intensified now. Everything’s a summer tentpole; everything’s year-end awards season bait. I see and feel how easily I’m played through targeted promotion and the relentless unavoidability of advertising, at least for the chosen handful of films that can afford such tactics.
It always reminds me of the summer that I drove from Chicago to Chelan, Washington, with three friends. None of us had ever been to Wall Drug in South Dakota before, even though we’d all seen the bumper stickers and knew the main gist of its legend. But, as we were first setting out and planning when and where we’d take our rest stops, none of us felt any particular need to actually go there. Until, of course, we’d been driving for hours with very little scenery to capture our attention other than Wall Drug advertisements along the side of the road, and suddenly its allure became that much more understandable, and irresistible.
Even after all those times we joked about its omnipresent, single-minded advertising juggernaut, still, after all that build up, we somehow started to feel like, gosh, we kind of have to go now, don’t we? And so of course we did. My actual memories of the place are pretty vague, mostly informed in retrospect by the few snapshots I managed to take with what was probably the last film-based camera I’ll ever own. But, by god, the photos prove I was there!
And that’s pretty much what it feels like to go to the movies now.
I don’t get as excited about an actual film as much as I get excited about my idea of the film. And my idea of the film is carefully implanted in my imagination by a canny and cunning campaign that’s solely meant to get me through the theater door, preferably sometime during opening weekend. At which point my idea of the film ends up not mattering at all after I’ve shelled out my cash at the box office.
And even if a tiny film ends up blowing up beyond its initial projections, it’s ultimately still hype that gets me to see it, when I read people talking about this small great film that’s so winning, so charming. And so many times I leave wondering what the big deal about it was in the first place, wondering why that random film, among so many others, was the one that found its statistically unlikely success.
The big deal, of course, is innocence. It’s the simplicity of a piece of art’s is-ness, before it’s burdened by its audience’s opinions of it.
As I wrote about in my 2016 film write-up last year, I have no head for plot and thus I rarely have ever cared about spoilers. If I’m watching a movie for its mood, for the vibrancy of its symbolism and for its ability to make me feel something, I’ve always thought its plot actually hinders me from contemplating those elements with the depth that I want to. Like, I’d seen Kubrick’s The Shining I don’t know how many times, but it wasn’t until I made my boyfriend, a lifelong Stephen King fan, explain the mechanics of the story to me that I could finally watch it as a piece of art without being breathlessly frightened by every cut to a new scene. I’ve always kind of felt like, if a movie can be ruined by being spoiled, well then, maybe it deserves to be spoiled. If there’s not enough there there for me to appreciate beyond a simple progression from “A then B then C to—whoa!—D,” then it’s probably not worth my time in the first place.
But now that GIFs on Tumblr and micro-analyses on Twitter have become the de facto water cooler chatter where I often inadvertently pick up information about any given movie before I’ve actually had a chance to see it, there’s this new level of, like, emotional spoiler that I have become much more wary of. When some actor’s sidelong glance at a character in a scene in a film can be not just captured, but repeated ad infinitum via an animated GIF, its power, which was maybe so vital, so trenchant in context, becomes siphoned off and turned into this weird commodity, just another way for us to perform our own identities online. Now that there’s this new technologically based ability to extract the very thing that I go to the movies for in the first place, I find that my investment in the anticipation of these moments completely robs me of my ability to feel the profundity of the thing.
Like, when I finally got myself to the movie theater to see Call Me By Your Name after nearly two full weeks in bed with a terrible flu, I was so primed for the moment when Oliver says “I remember everything” on the phone to Elio near the very end of the film, that the moment blew right past me. I felt nothing because I was expecting it to feel like everything. I had read so much about it and was expecting to, like, levitate out of my seat with sympathetic grief and rapture. And when I didn’t, I of course was looking somewhere to place the blame: with myself, with the people who’d hyped that moment on social media, with the film itself.
There has to be a way to talk about the things we love in a way that illuminates rather than colonizes them. And, don’t get me wrong, I fully admit my own culpability here; I’ve written reams and reams about film online since 2001, much of it laden with the kind of emotional spoilers I’ve just spent this whole post deriding. In my own small way, I’ve contributed to this me-first, everyone’s-a-critic discourse that has turned into this monster that destroys pleasure by isolating and magnifying it in the name of critique.
So my small act of penance, my small gesture toward allowing precious things to remain precious, is that I’m not going to tell you about my favorite moment in the film. I’m not going to tell you about the line that made me cry twice, first in the theater and then later again in the car when my boyfriend and I were talking about it on the way home. The moment may not hit you in the same way it hit me; hell, it may not even hit me the same way again when and if I see the movie a second time.
Because, that’s the whole message of the movie, right? Don’t deaden your reactions to life by brushing the overwhelm of your feelings aside or stuffing them down. Or, I might extrapolate, by elevating or otherwise blowing them up as a way of fashioning them into a substitute for your personality. As that devastating final shot of Timothée Chalamet’s face shows us so vividly, it’s entirely possible for love, even when painful, to be an experience of accretion. This brief affair not only restored elements to the character’s life (such as the Star of David that he began wearing again around his neck), it also added to it (he got a secret new name, a deepened relationship with his father, etc.). Love, even when it’s fleeting, is something you can keep.
And until I can figure out a more effective way to elevate the things I’m compelled by rather than flattening them through indiscriminate sharing, I’m choosing to keep what I love close to me for a change.