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.
I put a photo up on Instagram a few weeks ago with a snotty caption explaining that I don’t really watch TV anymore because of technical limitations.
There’s no longer an actual television set in my apartment, so if I want to stream something on Netflix or via iTunes, I have to set my laptop up at the foot of my bed on a barstool, then connect it to a small guitar amp, which is precariously balanced next to it on the laundry hamper. I let the supposed hassle of this rickety set-up stand in for the true reality of the situation, which is that TV makes me sad.
Oh sure, I have plenty of positive associations with TV. It’s not that I don’t get the pleasure of it. Binge-watching Gilmore Girls and Deadwood with my former roommate; having a standing Thursday night date to watch the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with two dear friends over the course of my first year or so living in Chicago; or even discovering Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central during my final year as an undergraduate at Indiana University. I have nothing but fondness for all these shows and the situations in which I watched them. There’s so much joy to be found in the ritualistic qualities of proceeding through a narrative with dogged regularity (or in big gulps of obsessive attention), in the coziness of sharing a meal together and then slipping into that mindset where you’re temporarily unbound from prosaic time and lost in another reality with your viewing companions, where the regular concerns of your day-to-day life are suddenly much less vivid than the plot conflicts of the characters onscreen you’ve come to love. My roommate and I even used to joke about how much we “missed our friends” when we’d come to the conclusion of a season or an entire series.
But behind and beyond all that, there are my more formative childhood memories and associations with TV, which are not as fond or rosy.
I grew up in a house where the TV was pretty much always on. And, yes, of course, there was a lot of stuff that I loved to watch when I was young–the usual kid fare like The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My dad also used to delight in telling a story about how he figured out how to play that iconic opening riff from the Barney Miller theme song on his old Rhodes electric piano, just so that, as a toddler, I’d come tearing into the living room when he’d play it. As soon as I heard those first few notes, I’d start to boogie, and I’d scream, my Ls and Rs not yet distinct in my baby mouth, “Bawney Miwwew’s on!!!”
But after my mother died and a lot of my dad’s vibrance and creative spark began to dim, thanks to financial stress, lack of romantic intimacy, general overwhelm, and certainly undiagnosed depression, I began to notice the way that the TV had become an emotional pacifier for the household.
My dad was never a substance abuser in that he hardly ever drank and had probably rarely if ever used other chemical intoxicants; TV, instead, was his drug of choice. The addiction started off benign, understandable. During the early years of his marriage to my mother, in the years just before and just after I was born, when he was gigging with his band or conducting the pit for a local musical theater production on the weekends, he would come home late at night, wired with post-performance adrenaline, and crash in front of the TV. He’d sit there until he’d come down enough to be able to crawl into bed and finally get some sleep. But this template eventually began to inform the rest of his life. Any time he was desperate to switch himself off, the TV was switched on. It had to have been an attractive option after a full day of work and a grueling commute home to Indiana from downtown Chicago, and especially so on a Friday night at the conclusion of a week spent at a job he needed but didn’t particularly care about.
In the early ’90s, these Friday night veg-out sessions neatly coincided with the “TGIF” sitcom programming on ABC. The ritual became: dad gets home and orders a pizza; he and my siblings and I eat pizza in the living room, sitting in front of the TV for two hours; then we scatter to our individual rooms and go to bed. It started off feeling like a treat (pizza! funny shows!), but soon became a prison.
I’ve always been highly verbal, longing to talk and communicate about everything, wanting to notice any and all glimmers of nuance and meaning in the world around me. Instead, though, on those Friday nights, I was forced to be silent, to train my eyes on the flashing screen, to accept the flattened meanings and prepackaged narratives that I intuitively knew had nothing to do with real life. Yet the propaganda inevitably began to seep into my early adolescent consciousness. I reasoned that these stories must be telling some sort of truth that I maybe just didn’t have access to if they were being presented, so relentlessly, for our mass consumption. It was dissonance on top of dissonance, further compounding everything that I was already starting to feel was wrong about me.
So, instead of us talking to each other about the pain and sadness of living without our mother, we sat and watched Full House, a “cute” sitcom about a fictional motherless family who, in their scripted and sanitized way, were also not dealing with any emotions that couldn’t be tidied up in 22 minutes punctuated with catchphrases, mugging, and the occasional musical interlude. It was the site of incredible psychic pain for me. Last year when the show was rebooted, I grimaced nearly every day as someone on social media would cheer, with varying degrees of kitsch or camp awareness, about how much they were looking forward to the new episodes.
Unlike my experiences in my late teens and early 20s, where I truly felt like I was watching TV with my friends, that we were journeying into these worlds together, TV in my childhood always felt profoundly distancing. It isolated me from the people I most wanted, and needed, to connect to. I wanted to scream about how lonely I was, at how much I resented the way the TV took us away from each other. Maybe it was also partially a narcissistic wound as well, that I simply wished to have that much undivided attention focused on me.
Much like my dad, I’ve never been much of a drinker or drug taker. But I recognize the part of myself that loves to attempt to “entertain” myself away from my problems and pain; these days, it takes the shape of endless, bleary-eyed iPhone scrolling. And I know that if I had a TV in my home, I’d be powerless against its seductions too.
Oh sure, I’d probably tell myself that I’d just be keeping up with pop culture by watching the hot new shows of the moment, that I could blog my thoughts about all the sophisticated narrative techniques and gorgeous production design and gut-wrenchingly honest acting that are part and parcel of these newly prestigious series. And, knowing my nasty little competitive streak, I would also feel like I’d have to know All the Shows so that I’d never have to admit “oh, I haven’t seen that one” when people began freaking out about something new and delicious. The time suck would be real. As would the drain on my emotional health.
So, just like someone who has seen drug or alcohol addiction ruin their family but also knows they have the capacity to lose themselves to the same addiction, I’ve had to go cold turkey. Now it’s easier for me to just watch no TV at all.
Which is of course not true. In the past few years, I’ve seen a few episodes of the Kenneth Branagh version of Wallander, a few of the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes, and literally one episode of Stranger Things. But mostly, when someone gets in my face with truly evangelical enthusiasm to ask “have you seen this show?!” or “do you watch this series?!” it’s just cleaner for me to say, “no, I don’t have a TV” and leave it at that. There’s no simple way in the moment to explain that it’s not the show, it’s me. Of course, there’s the part of me that also sees that, ironically, I’m sometimes actually missing a moment of potential connection with whomever may be asking me that question, and connection is exactly what I’ve been attempting to foster by cutting TV out of my life.
More important to me than any connection with a random friend or coworker at this point, though, is the connection to my childhood self, who can now have the freedom to communicate with me, far away from the distractions of the TV screen.
For at least a decade now, whenever my best friend and I have had to drive from our current homes in Chicago back into Northwest Indiana where we grew up, for weddings or baby showers or, alas, now also funerals, we have a little running joke about it.
We’ll look around at the scenery, usually while we’re tooling down the same roads where we practiced first learning how to drive as teenagers. And we’ll say to each other:
WE’LL NEVER NOT BE FROM HERE. No matter what happens and where else we may go in life, we’ll ALWAYS be from here. If anyone ever asks us, “where are you from?” we’ll ALWAYS have to say Dyer, Indiana.
For some reason, the absolute permanence and finality of that fact always strikes us as hilarious. There are so many ways that we have the power to change and rearrange our lives, but the sheer, literal unavoidability of our origins can never be altered. The nearly cosmic absurdity of it just hits us square in the funny bone.
“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” muses Pip in Great Expectations, and, well, not for nothing is it my all-time favorite novel. Though I probably never would have come straight out and said I was ashamed of being from Northwest Indiana, on many occasions have I sniffed something to the effect that it “just wasn’t the place for me.”
And, it isn’t. Or wasn’t. Or.
Suddenly, though, I find myself more simply interested in Northwest Indiana. In the fact of it. In its more elusive, underlying, animating spirit. I guess it’s a similar impulse to when folks get the genealogy bug and start tracing their way through the generations of their family tree. But for me it feels less like I want to specifically reclaim my own Hoosier identity and more like I’m interested in reappreciating the genuine pockets of the place’s uniqueness and specificity that people who grew up in other parts of the country or world would never otherwise know about. A more nuanced take on those clickbaity “You Know You’re From the Region If…” listicles, so to speak.
Part of this, I’m sure, stems from the fact that I’ve been in a relationship for the past six years with someone who was born and raised in Connecticut. In addition to all the other things about him that totally fascinate me, I find his essential East Coastness endlessly intriguing. (My standard line about this is always that I never really got Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.)
I delight in hearing my boyfriend tell stories about his childhood in Waterbury. I see and appreciate more deeply certain facets of his personality that only come to the fore whenever we travel there to visit his family. Just the landscape alone tells me so much about his psychology. And that’s not even factoring in seemingly minor but actually super meaningful stuff like what local grocery chains his family shopped at, what TV stations they watched, and whether the elementary schools he and his sister went to stopped at fifth or sixth grade.
And, much like the American who realizes that she too speaks accented English when she hears a Brit or an Australian parrot her own voice back to her, I began to realize that, of course, my place of birth has stories and history that inform the way that I understand and carry myself in the world too.
Like, just off the top of my head, lemon rice soup.
The constellation of context and meaning surrounding this simple side dish is actually so complicated that I’ve been idly doing research on all the contributing factors that make it such a uniquely Northwest Indiana thing. I mean, I’ve been looking up the patterns of immigration of Greek families to the Chicago area, how and why that community found such success as restaurateurs, and what confluence of factors led to avgolemono becoming a staple of those restaurants’ menus. All these details must then also be funneled through a more personal recollection of why everyone I know from my childhood and teen years is obsessed with the stuff. And how it’s now just as much a part of our identities as it assuredly was for the Greek families who most likely nicked their Yia-Yia’s special recipe in order to cook up thick, steamy vats of it to serve their patrons by the bowlful.
Earlier this summer, my boyfriend and I drove from Chicago to Valparaiso, Indiana, to hear Roger McGuinn play a solo concert at the Memorial Opera House. We had just enough time before the show to grab a quick bite to eat at a restaurant nearby. Overjoyed to see lemon rice soup on the menu, I greedily ordered a bowl and insisted on posting a photo of it on Facebook. “Introducing Brian to the ancestral dish of my homeland,” I captioned the shot, and my friends lost their minds. A flurry of comments and reminiscences began unspooling under the photo, and I felt the profundity of that shared point of reference in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. I mean, I’m Polish, I’m nowhere close to being Greek; but it really kind of is the ancestral dish of my homeland.
I’d wanted to share the specificity of that with my boyfriend, to show him this strange, tiny part of my heart, but in a lot of ways it was more about me finally recognizing the significance of that collective memory for myself.
Growing up, I’d often bemoaned the Nowheresville quality of my hometown. I used to think that if I were from elsewhere in Indiana, I’d at least be able to claim a certain sort of aw-shucks Heartland corn-fed wholesomeness that people would understand. Or that, obviously, if I’d grown up in Chicago—rather than an hour outside the city on the wrong side of the state line—every new person I met would have an easy, instant shorthand for the overall essence of where I was from. “The Region,” as it’s colloquially known, always just seemed to me like an unfortunate armpit part of the state that had no true identity.
But in the grand tradition of James Joyce writing about Dublin while living far, far away in Europe, I suppose I’m becoming a similar sort of more local ex-pat who can finally wrap her head around her place of origin now that she’s no longer living there. The absolute permanence and finality of having grown up in Dyer, Indiana, turns out to be a lot less permanent and final than I’d once thought. Just as new roads get bulldozed through farm fields and seemingly indestructible structures like the high school I graduated from get torn down and completely rebuilt, even if the facts of my past won’t change, my understanding of them most certainly can, and will.
In high school, I developed this theory about my personal vocabulary.
The theory went that I was allotted a certain number of words throughout the day, and once I had used them up, they were gone until they regenerated the next morning. I came to this conclusion when I noticed that on days after long theater rehearsals or other tasks that stretched late into the night, I would find myself spluttering to get my thoughts and feelings across, which inevitably led to my swearing like a sailor more avidly and frequently. It seemed to make sense that, if I’d used up everything else over the course of the day, all I would have left by the end of the night was curse words.
(This was well before the current theories on decision fatigue had been documented, so I guess there was some kind of intuitive grain of truth to my otherwise silly notion.)
Similarly, later on in college, I noticed that I would go through these weird phases where I would just straight-up lose words.
The first one I noticed was “thermometer.” I’d have this blanked-out moment of aphasia where I’d be looking at a long glass thing filled with mercury that was divided into evenly spaced units of measurement, and it would take me several generous beats before I could pull the word “thermometer” to the surface of my consciousness.
The next one to go was “report card.” It got to the point where, when I couldn’t wait those extra few seconds for the right phrase to appear out of the depths of wherever it had gone missing in my brain, I’d improvise a close-enough equivalent. I remember having a conversation about grades at some point and breezily referring to “you know, the summary report.” An Anglophile friend often accepted these substitutions with a laugh, suggesting that I should just pass them off, if ever questioned, as obscure British slang.
So, this is just a thing that happens to me for whatever reason. (The reason usually being that my mouth is moving way faster than my brain.)
Recently at my day job, two women in our marketing department were telling me that the new CFO, who was just hired this summer after leaving his gig at a big fancy publisher in New York City, had been scrutinizing the editorial department’s invoices. He was wondering why we’d recently ordered a set of bound galleys from Printer A rather than Printer B. The implication being that we were foolishly wasting money by using Printer A since Printer B could do the job a buck or two cheaper.
This has been a recurring power struggle over the years, and I, as the person in charge of tracking the book budgets, have had to explain to numerous people numerous times that while we do still use Printer B on occasion, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth, despite the relatively minor cost savings. Printer B will take three or four rounds of corrections just to get all the text on the front and back covers right, and their schedules are often unpredictably slow, which causes trouble downstream for our publicists, who are trying to get galleys out the door to their contacts at magazines and journals as soon as possible. So, the extra money that we pay to Printer A is worth it to us, because they get the job right the first time and routinely turn around the finished copies in two weeks or less.
Even though I know the women I was talking to probably knew this, my temper still flared a little bit and I ran them through this basic explanation all over again. Exasperated, I rolled my eyes and assured them, though, that the only reason the new CFO, with all his East Coast bravado, was suddenly bugging us about this was that he was…and here I hit one of my aphasic moments.
Deep in the caverns of my brain, I’m pretty sure I was looking for the phrase “throwing his weight around.” But as I shouted through the climax of my monologue, not wanting to take a breath and ruin the illusion that I was the second coming of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, what I managed to spit out was that the CFO was just “feeling his bones.”
Guys, I am literally laughing out loud about this right now as I type. Feeling his bones! What the! Holy shit. “Feeling his bones.”
Though I knew it made no sense as soon as I heard the words come tumbling out of my face, I was so committed to being professionally annoyed that I couldn’t bring myself to stop and acknowledge the ridiculousness of what I’d just said. But maybe that’s the ultimate revenge of my perpetual inner mischief-maker. Maybe, all along, it’s not that the words necessarily disappear. Maybe it’s that, when I’ve devoted myself to other people’s projects for too long and have ignored my deep inner thirst for pure silliness too egregiously, they’re just temporarily taken out of commission so that I have no choice but to get a little playful with the weirder and funnier substitutions I reach for to replace them.