I am an extremely impatient person.
Oh sure, I pay lip service to the importance of process, to letting life and art and healing unfold in their own magical timing. But like so many things I believe in and recommend to other people, I feel somehow exempt from allowing that truth into my own life.
I want the learning experience behind me, the knowledge and growth safely implanted in my head. I want my artwork to be finished, polished, and ready to share with the world. I want my challenges accomplished, the stories of their unfolding ready to turn into pithy anecdotes.
I’m very good at starting things, pretty good at ending them, but squirrely, angry, and itchy about their middles.
Just about the only place where I can embrace being in the middle of anything, actually, is when I’m physically in motion—most especially in a car.
My family never flew anywhere when we went on vacation. There was no reason for it. We couldn’t afford expensive or luxurious trips to exotic places (like, say, the East or West Coasts), and anyway, why would we need to go anywhere so far away? Where, outside the Midwest, would my dad even want to take us?
A deeply sentimental man, he was capable of feeling nostalgic about something he may have done that morning before breakfast, so unsurprisingly he invested the locations of our previous vacations with a nearly mystical reverence. Their repetition always had something of a fated quality. “Let’s do the things we used to do. Let’s go to the places we used to go to.” The highways of Indiana, lower Michigan, and western Ohio became a rosary that we would make endless loops around, their deeply ingrained familiarity a comfort to me even now so many years later.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we traveled in a brown, boxy full-sized van that my dad also used to haul his musical equipment to gigs in. It had a driver’s seat and a passenger’s seat up front, a U-shaped bench seat in the back, and a seemingly cavernous expanse between them. When not filled with his PA system and other gear, that’s where we’d throw our duffel bags and ancillary belongings before we hit the road.
There was also a square plank of wood that could be inserted into the cut-out portion of the U bench, with two rectangular cushions to cover it, to make a flat bed—a convenience for traveling with small children who needed to nap or have their diapers changed.
This plank also, inadvertently, created a small cave underneath. At some point my dad realized this and learned to tuck a lightweight blanket at the end of the makeshift bed, creating an incredibly enticing hiding space for little bodies to curl up inside.
So, as a small child, for vast portions of our road trips, I would crawl into this cave and lay my head against the pungent rubber of the floor and listen to the hum of the road underneath us, feeling the soothing vibrations of the chassis flying along at top speed down the highway.
Lulled by the steady rumble of the road, I was left to bask in my own interiority. What did I think about or dream about or conceive of while I was in my little hermit’s cave? I don’t really remember. But what I do recall is the desire to return—the excitement that would bubble up inside me when we were leaving on another trip and I knew I’d get the chance to disappear into my favorite little place again.
In later years, I of course not only physically outgrew the ability to fit in that small space but also outgrew the child’s privilege of not having to give a fuck about anybody’s happiness but my own. After my mother died, there was an unspoken understanding that I was expected to take her place as my father’s confidante and copilot. My siblings and I argued about who would get to sit in the front seat, like all siblings do, but it defaulted to me more often than not. (I was kind of snotty enough to assume I just inherently deserved it since, after all, I was now saddled with so much unwanted emotional responsibility. Like any asshole first child, I can get very rigid about pecking-order dynamics, especially when they’re set up to work in my favor.) The front seat brought pleasures of its own—watching the world fly by through the front windows, listening to and talking about music with my dad, kicking my feet up on the dashboard, being the first to see what was coming at us around the next bend in the road.
It was from that vantage point that I learned to love the small, temporary societies that emerged within the confines of a moving vehicle. I saw that it was possible for a whole world to be created in a car when you were settled in for a drive of any significant length. A cozy, often mute togetherness would descend, uniting the travelers, even when already genetically related, in a bond of deep care.
And it was more than just an acknowledgement that, yes, we’re all stuck here together until we get where we’re going. Despite the fact that we were very visibly traveling through a specific landscape, making progress that could be tracked on a map, there was also a feeling, oddly, of stasis. Being confined to the car, especially in those days before smart phones and GPS, actually kind of paradoxically made the world disappear. It was like the weird emotional truth of disaster movies—the people you were stuck with in these small spaces became your allies in a deeper, more intimate way than you usually had access to during the humdrum routines of everyday life.
Handing a bottle of water or a granola bar across the length of the vehicle to one of your fellow travelers took on a delicate intimacy that felt more like true generosity, honoring someone’s very human, immediate hunger or thirst. Because, after all, when are you ever more conscious of other people’s bodies in space and time than when you’re stuck in a somewhat cramped space with them? I think that’s part of what also makes a road trip feel like this tribal journey; you’re all literally, physically heading in the same direction, as a unit, everyone privy to each individual’s snores and farts and motion sickness and smelly feet as part of your unignorable collective experience.
I got my own driver’s license pretty much the moment I turned sixteen. The logic was that it would eliminate the need for me to beg rides home from friends’ parents after all my extracurricular activities, as well as allow me to run to the grocery store and help out with other chores that my dad otherwise couldn’t take care of until he was able to commute home from his job in downtown Chicago. And, yes, of course, being dutiful and obsequious to a fault (as I learned to be as a survival tactic in my family system), I ran plenty of errands and drove my siblings to and from their own extracurricular activities. But I was also suddenly…free. Free to exhale all the parts of my personality that I otherwise felt like I had to repress in order to make myself the model student, the model daughter. I now had the means to call the shots, and to build my own little motley society in the car with me.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, and even after that when I was home from college for summer and winter breaks, that car felt like my everything. It was the place where I listened to my favorite music (and sang along to it, loudly), exchanged heartfelt confidences with my dearest friends, made out for hours with my boyfriend, and wolfed down fast food on my way home from late-night theater rehearsals.
With gas prices still being relatively reasonable in the mid/late ’90s, I would often also just drive for the sake of driving.
I’d pick an arbitrary destination (often just some wide-open stretch along southbound Route 41 where it was easy to do a U-turn and head back home again), and I’d revel in the sense of purposeful aimlessness. I’d listen to music and allow my brain to simmer down from whatever full-throttle obsession it might have gotten stuck in, whether related to friends or family or school or my seemingly unreachable general ambitions. In these days before I’d developed a more formalized meditation practice, driving was the surest way I knew to connect with an expansive grace and a neutral yet observant regard for the world around me.
I lived with my maternal grandmother for about six months right after I graduated from college (which you can read more about in my brand-new zine, Loose Ends and Loneliness), and in the last hasty update to her will that she made right before she died, she left me her burgundy Cadillac Eldorado. It was a hell of a gorgeous car that made old men weak in the knees whenever they saw me in it on the street. I dutifully registered it with the city of Chicago when I finally, officially moved here on September 2, 2002. It mostly sat, though, undriven, in the space I paid for behind my first apartment near the corner of Chicago & Damen. I found that the CTA was easier to negotiate on a daily basis and that it offered, actually, more opportunity to develop that empty-minded meditative expansiveness than the stresses of city driving did. So, I eventually had to admit it was wisest to pass the car along to my brother, who needed a more reliable set of wheels for himself at that point anyway.
Thus my mobile meditations were then transferred to the trains and busses of the city, as well as my favorite paths to walk through the neighborhoods where I lived, worked, and explored.
But I still get a surge of excitement once I’m in a car on the open road—whether that’s a simple spin down Lake Shore Drive headed to Hyde Park for the day, or a longer trek outside the city for one reason or another. On especially gorgeous evenings, when the sky is full of pink clouds and the music on the stereo sounds just right and the miles are uninterrupted by gridlocked traffic, my love of the road will get the better of me, and I’ll shriek impulsively to my boyfriend, “let’s gooooooo! Let’s drive to Milwaukee!!”
We, um, don’t, what with cats to attend to and more rigidly booked schedules to maintain and astronomical gas prices to be mindful of. But like anyone with a lapsed religious practice, my early, formative experiences of life on the road continue to color the ways that I most intimately understand myself, moving me forward even when I’m sometimes, often, not exactly sure where I’m going.
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For a long time, beginning in my teens, my signature smell was vanilla.
I’d read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for school and became obsessed with the detail that Mick Kelly would wear “a drop of vanilla” so that she would smell good in case she happened to run into John Singer.
I resolved to adopt this strategy immediately; lucky for me, vanilla perfumes had already started gaining popularity then in the early/mid-’90s, so I wouldn’t have to sneak into my family’s spice cabinet. In some way I’d hoped that the thick, rich, ambery scent of vanilla would advertise my cuteness, my sweetness, my fundamental harmlessness, while still conveying an indefinable allure. I wanted desperately to be loved and admired, without having to ask for it.
After a dalliance with the omnipresent Vanilla Fields, I became devoted to Victoria’s Secret Vanilla Lace scented body lotion. I wore the scent for years, until it was discontinued. The company briefly resuscitated it, after customer outcry, I believe, and though I tried to go back to it, the moment was over. I lived scentless for a little while, save for maybe a highly scented shower gel here or there.
For a variety of reasons, I managed not to date much throughout my twenties, but at a certain point I finally determined to have a bit of a spree to make up for lost time. The relationships, if you can call them that, were mostly light and short-term, though I eventually fell harder than expected for a long-haired artist named Jake. Most likely sensing my insta-intensity, he of course broke up with me after a little over a month. I was more crushed about it than I should have been; unreasonable expectations will do that. Knowing I could easily spiral into a dark, obsessive depression about it, I vowed to try to do something constructive with my mourning. I signed up for six weeks of sessions with a personal trainer, whom I ended up despising, and then also became obsessed with perfume. Specifically, at first, with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s oils.
In the beginning of my new infatuation, simply reading about their scent descriptions and reviews was enough. (BPAL’s online catalog is extremely extensive and borderline confusing for a newcomer; it actually kind of invites a lot of reading/research to even understand what you’re getting into.) Then, of course, I wanted to try a few samples, telling myself I mostly wanted to find a substitute vanilla scent, one that would hopefully be a little more mature but still warm and sweet and sultry. I wanted to recapture the certainty that came with slathering myself in a signature scent every morning, while imperceptibly inching toward a more refined version of myself that I felt like I’d earned by becoming a Responsible Adult with a Grown-Up Job in a Big City. Even though nothing hit the exact spot I thought I was looking for, I was kind of surprised that it ended up not mattering. I loved ordering samples and playing around with the temporary personas I felt I magically inherited with each new fragrance.
For a long time, despite my scented attempts to tell a story about who I really was, I never actually felt like a solid person. I always was sort of waiting to connect with something external that would somehow solve the problem of my personhood for me. (In a recent reading with her, the wonderful astrologer Aeolian Heart chalked this up to my sun sign being in Aquarius on the cusp of Pisces, an astrological placement that she says is considered weak in terms of its ability to fully express an ego identity, but not in its abilities to study, contemplate, meditate, and investigate Mysteries.) A new activity or interest was always redolent with the promise that maybe some latent part of me would be activated in a way that would draw together the disparate parts of my life into a suddenly unified, cohesive whole that finally made sense.
This is partly, of course, the seduction of consumer capitalism, but I think it was also just an extension of the way I’d always felt obliged to make other people happy, always contorting myself into shapes that were meant to gain approval and approbation; if I was responsible for other people’s happiness, safety, and well-being, then surely someone or something was responsible for mine, right? No one ever really pointed out to me that there was maybe an overlap between the two—that it was possible to self-actualize in ways that would connect with and inspire other people’s own self-actualization in ways that weren’t so co-dependent.
At any rate, as I experimented with the temporary personas that arose from my smelling like, say, graveyard dirt, a burnt-out candle, a jewel-toned vase full of rotting flowers, or a strong cup of tea surrounded by sugar cookies, I realized I was also developing the more long-term persona of a Perfume Person. The message board connected to the main Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab site was frequented by other smell obsessives, and though I never developed the kind of deep friendships through that space that I know plenty of other people have, I enjoyed lurking and eavesdropping, especially on reviews of new scents that I hadn’t had a chance to try yet. The written descriptions of how strong the notes were, what emotions and flights of fancy they inspired, and how they were similar (or not) to other scents delighted my imagination and often evoked my writer’s envy.
Naturally, of course, I eventually stumbled upon Turin & Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which dealt with mainstream classics and niche perfumery. Aside from having known that my dad’s signature scent had been Eau Sauvage, I’d never really previously considered exploring, you know, actual perfume. Reading that book, though, led me to the decant sites like Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court and The Posh Peasant, where I could buy tiny samples of all these famous perfumes I was newly discovering, which then led me to the profusion of perfume review blogs, which led me to Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu’s books, which led me back to the decant sites, and on and on.
If I really became enamored of a particular scent, I would likely upgrade from a 1 ml decant to a 3 or 5 ml. But I instinctively shied away from full-bottle purchases. Full bottles were far too expensive, especially given that I knew my tastes would continue to be promiscuous and that I’d inevitably get bored before I had a chance to drain any of them. I was also suddenly scared of being tied down to one idea of myself. I wanted the permission to change who I was at the drop of the hat, as easily as I could spray on a new perfume every morning.
But even though the idea of finding a replacement signature scent had definitely fallen by the wayside, I found myself circling certain scent categories again and again—sweet scents of course, but also vetivers, cologne-y citruses, leathers, musks, incenses, and what I thought of as “grown-up lady” florals (the apotheosis of which, for me, was Neela Vermeire’s heavenly rose perfume Mohur . . . which is actually more of a gourmand scent anyway).
But then one category I would have never expected started dominating my preferences without my consciously realizing it: wet wood.
Yes, specifically wet-smelling wood scents.
I’m not joking—dry woods were often too screechy on me, and anything just straight-up aquatic was, of course, anathema after my teenage memories of the Cool Water and Aqua di Gio overdoses of the ’90s. But somehow the exact combination of wet wood drew me back to certain perfumes over and over again: Profumi del Forte’s Tirrenico, Byredo’s Encens Chembur, and Comme des Garcon’s Hinoki.
Hinoki was a recent find, so I feel like I know it the least well at this point. It’s fairly light, the way so many of the Comme des Garcons scents are on me, but surprisingly tenacious. It smells, not unpleasantly, of an unmistakably musty humidity, like it’s a stormy midsummer day and you’ve just come home to an un-air-conditioned house and made your way directly to the basement, where condensation is lightly stippling the grey-painted concrete walls and the wooden beams of the ceiling swell and creak with all the moisture in the air, where maybe the dusty old couch that’s been sitting down there forever exhales a cloud of sweet dust whenever anyone sinks into the cushions. I’m making it sound horribly creepy and claustrophobic and dank, but it’s incredibly light and comforting to me.
Encens Chembur, on the other hand, is much more spacious. Perfumer Ben Gorham’s ostensible inspiration for the scent was a park in India near where his mother grew up, and I’ve willingly let that description affect my perception of it. There is of course incense in it, but not in an overpowering way, like gales of smoke. It’s more like the ambient sweet spiciness that infuses the walls of your standard Indian buffet restaurant. Here the wet wood aspect is sweeter and warmer, like a sun-warmed dock extending out into a small lake, its continually soaked planks exhaling fresh dampness as the sun hits them, almost shaking the fragrance out of its very grain like an enthusiastic dog. For all its spaciousness and exuberance, though, it’s a soft scent on me that stays quietly close to my skin.
Tirrenico, though, is my absolute favorite. I first discovered it thanks to my subscription to beloved monthly perfume sample service Olfactif. I savored the small sample that came to me in the summer of 2014, and ordered a second smaller sample from Lucky Scent some time later, and then finally ponied up for a full bottle once it seemed like it was becoming more difficult to find online, for fear of its being discontinued and disappearing entirely. The initial blast is a bitter exhalation of licorice (or, if you really scrutinize it, more likely fennel). As the scent begins to evolve on my skin, it becomes downright briny—like oily, washed-up seaweed curlicuing along a desolate stretch of sandy beach. The bitterness eventually fades back enough to reveal, as befitting the scene, a creamy, bleached-out driftwood, as if the stumps are dotting the shoreline like wise old troll spirits, while salty mist dances fairy-like above it all. It’s the strongest of the three scents, with the most shifts and surprises. It’s an almost entirely different perfume by the end of the day, when the strong, dark chewiness of the opening is a distant memory and all I can smell are the fresh, open spaces between mineral-heavy stony cliffs.
I grew up a land-locked Midwesterner and have little to no experience with coastal life. But, I did spend many happy summers at my great-aunt and -uncle’s lake house in Michigan, and as a teenager I of course spent more than enough time in various musty basements of my various dirtbag friends, so I feel like my emotional entry point into these perfumes is mostly private, rather than performative.
It’s somewhat of a cliché these days to say, “I wear make-up for me!” or “I dress this way because I like it; I don’t care what other people think!” but perfume actually is one of the few areas of my life where I feel like I can get away with this kind of attitude. (People, I’ve worn Absolue Pour le Soir to my day job before. Not the best idea I’ve ever had in my life, but still—my perfume really and truly is for me.)
So I guess it only makes sense that I would gravitate so readily to these odd, atmospheric scents, as I continue to investigate the Mystery of my own selfhood, in true Aquarian fashion. In so many unexpected ways, I find that they in fact allow me access to the memories and emotions of the person I actually was during all those years I was attempting to hide my own odd, atmospheric weirdness in a cloud of misguidedly benign vanilla sweetness.
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OK, wow, my extreme, deep, immediate love for this video of the band White Denim playing a cover of the Steely Dan song “Peg” puts me right at the center of a Venn diagram that I previously wouldn’t have ever considered I’d need to talk about. Where do I even start to connect the dots?
I’ve written a bit before about how during the bulk of my 20s when I wasn’t, for various reasons, making that much of my own music, I compensated for that lack by listening to and exploring a ton of other artists’ stuff—mostly new, mostly “indie.” I wrote about the music I was hearing and the concerts I was attending a lot on my old blog and at some point parlayed that into a brief stint reviewing albums and live shows for Daytrotter.
I am a terrible, terrible journalistic writer—I have no head for, like, narrative or facts, just wild associations and strongly voiced opinions—so this was really mostly a way for me to try to get my writing in front of more eyeballs and to maybe get into some shows I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. (For a stretch of time when I was single in my late 20s, I used a similar, in-through-the-side-door approach to look for tickets to sold-out or expensive shows on Craigslist—instead of checking the for-sale section, I would comb through the M4F dating sections, looking for guys who had optimistically bought two tickets and turned out not to have found anyone else who wanted to go to the show with them. I went to a handful of concerts and even one opera, for free, that way.) Anyway, one of the best events I attended while I was writing for Daytrotter was the two or three day stretch of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival when it was still being booked solely at Schubas.
My editor put my name on the guest list and I did my due diligence in the days leading up to the festival, trying to listen to as many of the new-to-me bands as I could, so I could at least feign some sort of awareness of these acts before I started attempting to evaluate what they were doing live. I was introduced to so much incredible music in that short stretch of time: Baby Teeth, White Rabbits, Illinois, the Redwalls, Bon Iver (!), and White Denim.
I believe you can still read some of my original write-ups of this festival via the sidebar of my old blog (in the event that the URLs are still even active), and I could of course go on at length about my memories of all this. 2008 doesn’t feel that long ago to me, yet I know it sorta is at this point.
Anyway, I pretty instantly fell in love with White Denim, both thanks to their chaotic, frenetic EP Let’s Talk About It and subsequently their funny, ferocious live set.
Side note on funny bands—god bless ’em. I will always have a soft spot for a funny band. Not like a ha-ha-funny jokey novelty band, but a band full of performers who have a sense of humor about themselves, life, and the whole endeavor of being in a rock band. This is what initially drew me to Baby Teeth, and I’ve always held that Dan Bejar/Destroyer is WAY funnier than anyone gives him credit for being. It’s a rare, underappreciated skill.
Because of the way that I grew up around musicians, I’ve always been pretty fearless about marching up to them after shows to at least say “good set,” no matter how nervous or excited I might be about it on the inside. Musician to musician, that’s just what you do, even though of course these random bands would have no idea that I played and sang too (especially in those days when I was actively doing neither). But to me, at some level it was a participation in the wider project of honoring music itself, of paying obeisance to the greater spirit of the thing that we were all, ultimately, in service to. I can’t remember anymore which of the guys from White Denim I happened to run into that night, while the club was still, frankly, kinda empty, but I raved “GREAT SET!” emphatically at him in passing, trying not to seem awkward or pushy while still conveying my sincere enthusiasm. He responded, “yeah, I could see you grinnin’ out there!” which made me feel like a total Band-Aid in the best way possible. It was a perfectly heart-swelling Almost Famous moment of the purest reciprocity one could hope for in that specific environment.
At the end of that year, I put “Mess Your Hair Up” on my Best of 2008 mix, citing its “itchy post-punk pleasure that surprises and delights me every moment that it doesn’t just completely fall apart.” (Dear Lord, save me from the acute pain of reading through my own archives.) As I recall, it was kind of hard to find their subsequent full-length releases, and since this was in that weird window of time when artists weren’t required to have quite as strong a presence on social media, I kind of lost track of them for a while, though I did finally hunt down a digital copy of their album Exposion.
Just before my current boyfriend and I started officially dating, I made him a mix CD with “Migration Wind” on it, and I was thrilled when he told me that it was one of his favorite tracks on there, especially since that song seemed like such a departure from what I’d loved about the EP, and in some ways, an even bolder stylistic choice for the band. The band was confident enough in itself to say, “yep, we’re going to hit you with some Doobie Brothers-level AM radio gold right now.” Since I’d become sort of ashamed of my true tastes and preferences, and was in the process of easing myself out of a phase of chronically attempting to present myself as somehow cooler or into more edgy art than I actually was, this felt like an extremely, attractively radical stance.
And, that was it for a while. I clung to that small batch of songs and stopped tracking new music as avidly while I got back into making more of my own.
Until, I guess, late 2013 when my boyfriend told me about this great new song that he’d heard on the radio, which the DJ announced was by White Denim, the same band, he realized, that had done that song “Migration Wind.” I got super excited when I realized the band was still together, and got even more excited when I finally heard “Pretty Green,” the first single off their album Corsicana Lemonade.
They’d apparently gone even further down the choogle hole in the intervening years and had reemerged as this incredibly tight, incredibly skilled yet still incredibly fun and funny band, with James Petralli ultimately becoming the most charismatic frontman I’d heard in ages.
The album has not, I think, left my iPhone in the last two and a half years. It’s become one of the rare albums that I don’t have to be in a specific mood to listen to. It’s not bound to a season or a state of mind, the way that, say, The National’s Alligator and The Clientele’s Strange Geometry will always feel like wintertime albums to me, or Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and Duncan Sheik’s Humming are usually my go-tos in early spring. It just makes me happy whenever I hear it. The musicianship is impeccable, each song is killer, and there’s absolutely no dead weight. Pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to an album these days is if it’s something I would actively rather listen to straight through instead of just putting a playlist on shuffle.
Part of the reason I love that album and love them as a band so much is that their goodness is legible to me. By which I mean, I love what they do because I respect what they’re doing because I understand the mechanics by which they’re doing it. I hear these tricky guitar lines and hooky melodies and propulsive song structures and recognize the perfectly balanced combination of chops and smarts, and it feels relatable to me. Like, I recognize how good they are because I recognize that their skills are in line with what I also aim to do musically. It’s just that they’re a couple notches away as far as how deeply and thoroughly they’ve been able to accomplish this. I say this neither to be self-aggrandizing nor self-deprecating; I’m just saying I recognize the continuum they’re on because in some ways it’s the same one that I’m on. Like, for as much as I love and respect, say, Iggy Pop, I have no access to the continuum he’s on. I recognize his genius, but I don’t relate to it, as such. It doesn’t feel “close” to what I know how to do musically.
But anyway, the closeness I feel to White Denim’s music also feels something like having bet on the right horse. Having so embraced their early stuff, and then coming back around after a bit of a gap in time to see their subsequent progress and expanded prowess feels like seeing the compound interest in my 401k starting to accrue. Like, I made a good decision by being at the right place at the right time, having a bit of taste and a bit of luck, and now it’s paying off. Lots of the bands I first saw at that Tomorrow Never Knows festival have since split up or disappeared or become uninteresting to me for whatever reason, so it just feels really satisfying to know that White Denim are not only still around but are also at the top of their game. I freaked out when I realized that they were going to be releasing a new album this spring, Stiff, and to a certain degree, I feel like it even has surpassed what they achieved with Corsicana Lemonade. It’s more soulful and more confident in ways that I’m still getting to know, but impossible not to be instantly moved and excited by.
My love for Steely Dan, then, is both incredibly prosaic and incredibly specific. It’s prosaic in the sense that they’re hugely famous and successful; their talent is obvious and unsurprising. That I enjoy their music so much is in no way special or unique. But, my window onto their work, specifically Aja, feels really bound to that mode of online music criticism that I was steeped in from about 2004 to 2009.
As I started consuming more of that kind of writing on Pitchfork and Stereogum and a variety of music blogs, it was impossible to ignore many of these (mostly dude) writers’ attitudes toward Steely Dan. The attitude was simultaneously reverent, in-jokey, holier-than-thou, and deeply nerdy. I mean, the very nature of the band itself basically invites that kind of conflicted response, but for a time, loving Steely Dan in a very specifically bloggy way felt very secret-handshakey. And, more than anything else, it really revolved around the cult of “Peg.”
Which was really the cult of that guitar solo, which was really the cult of the knowledge of what a notorious industry legend had arisen around that guitar solo, which was really the cult of having your cake and eating it too—being able to deeply enjoy a thing at the same time you could get WAY insider-baseball about its technical details and other trivia. I mean, I’ve watched and linked to this video I don’t know how many times; I’ve read the Don Breithaupt book. All this behind-the-scenes info genuinely satisfies the part of me that always longs to know the more technical aspects of how any given piece of art gets made.
But, as I said above, and as I’ve written about in other posts here, that period of music consumption, while extremely fun and informative and fulfilling in many ways, was also pretty deeply marked by shame for me.
I was ashamed that I no longer felt like a real musician. I was ashamed that though I’d auditioned for a handful of bands after moving to Chicago, none of them seemed to want me to sing with them. I was ashamed that those rejections led me to rack up a chunk of credit card debt as I shelled out money I didn’t really have for a series of classes and lessons I couldn’t really afford because I couldn’t otherwise figure out how to be actively involved in making music on a semi-regular basis.
I was ashamed of my self-described “barfy” taste in popular music. (Guys, I own several Dave Matthews Band CDs. My justification for liking them because I respected their musicianship always reminds me of that Patton Oswalt bit about Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required being “pretty fuckin’ dark!” [Even though, let me not hesitate to remind everyone, I love Phil Collins.]) I was ashamed of the way that not only did I not know anything about cool current music, I also didn’t know anything about the reference points these reviewers had to cool music of the recent past, so I, filled with the shame of my ignorance, rushed to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Pixies, Pavement, The Smiths, and a bunch of others. (Real talk now, OK? I hate Pixies, Pavement, and The Smiths. I mean, sure, there’s a handful of their songs that I genuinely enjoy, and I get why they’re popular and beloved. They’re just mostly not for me, and it was starting to get exhausting to pretend otherwise.)
And so, I tried to navigate this new world of music nerdery, which seemed like it should have been similar to the way I grew up loving and learning about music from my dad and his fellow musician friends. But instead, it just made me feel like I had to abdicate anything I actually knew or liked from those first two decades of my life because it didn’t fit the mode of discourse that was deemed acceptable. Thus, Steely Dan felt extremely confusing to me. Like, here was this band that I could recognize as being “good” on a continuum that I inherently understood (jazz chords! literate lyrics!) that was also somehow acceptable under the terms of this rockist worldview I was straining myself to adopt.
So, I think I dove into proclaiming my love for Steely Dan as something of a talisman to protect myself against any hypothetical, imaginary charges that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I didn’t belong at the cool kids’ table. It was like I’d found a wormhole that allowed me to slip into this other dimension that I’d been trying to get myself into with varying degrees of prior success. But, I don’t think I really even wanted to be at the cool kids’ table because I actually cared about being cool; it was just the only space I could see at the time that felt like it connected to my passion for music. It was less that I wanted to be cool for the sake of being cool; I mostly just wanted to feel like I had the permission to openly express my tastes, to have a legitimated platform for spouting off about the stuff that I so deeply cared about. Which was music. Appreciating it, getting inside of it, living with it, connecting to grace through it.
That being said, none of that at all diminishes how much I do genuinely love Aja! I remember, when I first started really getting into it, the brown line stop at Rockwell nearest my apartment was closed for construction, so I had an extra seven-to-nine-minute walk to the next one at Western on my way to work in the morning, which got me through “Black Cow” and a chunk of the title track. I can remember standing at the Western station waiting for the train to pull in and just totally nerding out on that ending freakout of “Aja.” And then, once I was eventually on the train, by the time we were pulling into Belmont, I was usually toward the middle or end of “Peg,” just inwardly losing my shit over, of all things, the elegance of Rick Marotta’s ride cymbal work as the song plays and fades out.
I love the album’s elegantly knowing cynicism the way I love the hyper-intelligent, intricately wrought, stylish nihilism of Kubrick’s films. Any music that so instantly and intensely conveys that level of louche exasperation with, you know, the business of being alive at the same time that it revels in the exactitude of its own artifice is just infinitely OK by me.
My friend Ben and I will still occasionally text each other if we’re out and about and happen to hear “Deacon Blues” playing on the sound system of a restaurant or store. It’s one of those friendship shorthands that has long since lost its original reference point but still remains an active, potent way of conveying “I love you and I’m thinking about you.” I hope to eventually have a chance to see Steely Dan in concert before they stop touring so I can add them to my list of beloved classic artists I can say I’ve seen perform live at least once. I will sometimes say “they never knew it went down! They never knew it,” a la Chuck Rainey, when I feel like I’m getting away with a bit of benign mischief.
My boyfriend and I will go through phases of listening to Steely Dan’s greatest hits CD Showbiz Kids every once in a while, and I have a handful of their other proper albums in my collection, but honestly nothing of theirs has ever captured my brain and heart and ears the way that Aja did that spring a decade ago. So I just allow myself to be open to loving “Peg” whenever I hear it, which is fairly often given its massive, continued popular success (as well as its prominence as a five-starred song in my iTunes library), hoping in some indefinable way that the music’s own paradoxes will give me the courage to stand firm in my own.
“Holy shit!! The harmonies aren’t really all the way there (you can’t step to McDonald), but White Denim just did a super, super, super respectable job covering ‘Peg.’ Bold move, guys!!!”
This is what I e-mailed my boyfriend, with the link to the YouTube video, immediately after I saw the White Denim Facebook fan page mention that it had been posted. This was the only way that my brain could manage, in the heat of the moment, with the implied weight of everything I’ve been discussing above, to convey my excitement about what had just unfolded in front of me like some kind of hyper-personalized cosmic gift.
In 2013 and 2014, my band participated in a year-end holiday fundraiser event (at Schubas, appropriately enough) called Covers for Cover. The concept is that bands play cover songs to raise money for various shelters in the area (ie, for cover). The first year we played all animal-themed songs (to connect with our band’s name, Pet Theories) and the second year we did a set as The Police.
None of us are the types of musicians who would insist on getting these covers too “right” in the sense of note-for-note accuracy or anything like that. As long as the song was mostly recognizable, we felt comfortable adapting the arrangements so that they were more “us.” Not quite as far afield as something like a punk band doing a cover of “The Rainbow Connection,” but also not, y’know, at the level of The Fab Faux or one of those bands that specifically exists in order to present itself as as close to the real deal as you’re gonna get.
Anyway, my whole point is that I’ve had a little experience recently in learning to play cover songs, so I can appreciate the thought process that must have gone into White Denim deciding they were gonna bust out a cover of “Peg.” There’s this delicate nexus of “shit, can we pull this off?” / “what’s something recognizable but not too overdone?” / “what’s something that sounds a bit like us without being too obvious as a reference point?” / “what’s a song we love enough to deconstruct that we won’t subsequently ruin for ourselves through repetition?” The fact that any band would spit “Peg” out at the end of this chain of questioning is so incredibly ballsy that, truly, the only proper response is to laugh with utterly delighted incredulity the way that you can hear Petralli doing just before the camera cuts away to commercial. It’s the laugh of, “yep, we really did just do that; can you believe it? Wasn’t it absurd? And wasn’t it awesome?”
Because, playing a cover of “Peg” is in no way, of course, just playing a cover of “Peg.” It’s referencing all that deep music-nerd knowledge of Steely Dan as these legendarily exacting players. It’s having the chops to actually pull it off. It’s gesturing toward the music people who will get the reference and understand the complexity of the choice and be duly surprised and impressed by it. It’s having a solid enough identity as a band that the song comes off as affectionate rather than ironic. It’s operating at a level of success where all these factors add up to, like, just a fun thing to try to do if you happen to be touring behind a new album anyway.
And, holy crap, it works! I mean, for me, given all of the above, it so works.
I have STRONG feelings about Petralli honestly being one of the best rock vocalists working right now. On White Denim’s proper recordings, he simultaneously manages to have great intonation and soulfulness while pushing the emotional content of his singing beyond just, I dunno, the standard romantic angst or exhaustingly hip self-regard. One of my favorite moments of any rock song in recent memory is toward the middle of “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles)” on Corsicana Lemonade where he laughs a little bit at the end of a phrase and then his articulation changes because you can actually hear him still smiling on the other end of the microphone. Like, the honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, and generosity of allowing that take to stay on the track just astounds me.
You definitely get some of that quality in this live version of “Peg” too. I mean, I have similarly strong feelings about the glorious sneering irony of Donald Fagen’s vocals on the original (if you don’t believe in the singularity of Fagen’s voice, just listen to David Palmer’s lamely vanilla singing on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and tell me he in any way advances the band’s sensibility), and it’s a testament to his musical intelligence that Petralli manages not to make me miss Fagen at all, through either imitation or by somehow misguidedly trying to outdo him.
My dad was a legendarily excitable guy. People used to dryly poke fun at him, “gee, Terry, don’t you ever get excited about anything?” when he’d be shouting and getting red in the face about some new thing that had caught his fancy. I’ve definitely inherited this tendency and often find myself trying to temper my enthusiasm, assuming that, I dunno, if everything is so exciting then maybe nothing is? But, I don’t know how much I actually believe that. The obsessive excitement itself may be fleeting, but to me, it always points to a richer story, with far deeper roots, in a specific context, that’s trying to be told. Thanks for sitting with me while I got excited enough to tell this one.
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I can’t remember when I first started dreaming about architecture.
Was it as early as middle school? Later in high school or even college? Regardless, I’ve always been intensely interested in my dreams, and at some point I made the connection that the closest I ever got to having recurring dreams was the fact that place was usually the most vivid aspect of them. (This was even something “quirky” about me that I highlighted in the bio section of my first blog.) Sometimes I would dream about specific places that I’d end up seeing later in my waking life, but more often it was just a strong sense that I’d very clearly visited a very particular location and had soaked up a ton of information about its layout, floor plan, expansiveness, the way it smelled, etc. It was the first and earliest way I developed an inkling that my psychic perception was tuned perhaps just a bit higher than the average person’s.
(Funny story—a few years ago, when I was formally studying my ability to work with and in my dreams in a class on astral body healing, I had a dream that I was watching a coworker and his husband hang a large piece of art in their home, which I’ve never been to or seen pictures of. The next day at work, I told my extremely logical, agnostic/atheist coworker friend about this, mostly as a joke, and he sort of softly blanched and told me they actually had been hanging up a new piece of artwork the night before. I brushed it off in the moment with him as a funny coincidence but howled with laughter about it later with my psychic classmates, wondering, self-deprecatingly, why I apparently didn’t have anything better to do in the vastness of my dreamworld than fucking watch people redecorate.)
I have very little interest in actually studying architecture, so I’ve never felt like this was some kind of latent hobby trying to express itself through my dreams. The importance of it as a pattern for me was more in the way it provided a container through which I could receive a lot of sensory information, almost like the memory palace mnemonic device in reverse.
This ability to describe the details of these kinds of elaborately rendered mental images ended up being a boon to the eventual conscious development of my psychic abilities when I was repeatedly exhorted by my teachers to just describe whatever pictures came to mind when I was in psychic meditation or giving a clairvoyant reading. I took to the technique quickly and easily, not because I’m so extra magical, but just because it felt similar to the highly detailed dream recall that I’d already been doing for myself for years.
A new friend recently asked me what it’s like to be psychic, and I verbally swam around and around in circles, flailing through anecdotes and explanations, not really knowing how to most simply and effectively get to the bottom of how utterly non-special the whole thing is. Well, non-special to me, inside my own brain, that is. I’ve given enough successful readings by now to know that they can be profoundly moving and touching for people who are being read by me, and I’ve of course received my own share of magical, transformative, right-on-the-money readings from other psychics and healers. But, much in the same way that it can be super boring to hear the details of someone else’s dream, I feel like it can be super boring for me to try to describe, rationally or intellectually, what getting, or giving, a psychic reading is like. It’s best to just experience one.
I’ve recently been revisiting the writings of one of my favorite mystics, Simone Weil, and was totally tripping out on the brilliance of her “Spiritual Autobiography,” and especially loved this bit:
“[T]here are two languages that are quite distinct although made up of the same words; there is the collective language and there is the individual one. The Comforter whom Christ sends us, the Spirit of truth, speaks one or other of these languages, whichever circumstances demand, and by a necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them.”
By necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them. I feel like this sums up so much about the way I communicate, and so much of what was at the heart of my difficulty describing how I give a psychic reading.
I used to have this whole elaborate theory about what I would tell different people when they asked me what my favorite movie was—to a little kid I’d say Toy Story 2 whereas I might say Back to the Future to one of my dad’s friends or Eyes Wide Shut to a particular kind of film-nerd peer. But, I recently read a short blog post saying that you shouldn’t temper your responses to different audiences because it marks you as an annoyingly inconsistent people-pleaser, that you should give people the chance to experience “the real you” and be OK with not being liked by everyone.
And I felt ashamed of myself when I read that, since I so admittedly do have people-pleasing tendencies that stem from growing up in an emotionally abusive household where it was easier to agree with the existing power structure in order to remain safe rather than risk a controversial statement that would result in my getting screamed at. Now, long since removed from the source of and reason for that defense mechanism, I know that I can still default to giving people the answers they want to hear, just because the energy of disagreement is still so exhausting to me, even though my safety is not necessarily in question. I often feel guilty about not standing up for my own likes, preferences, and opinions more avidly, since I feel like it’s a sign of weakness and lack of character, and that blog post certainly played right into all those fears I have about myself.
But the more I continued to consider it, the more I couldn’t convince myself that I’m actually wrong about it at all. There’s some kind of highly conceptual and philosophical interplay between the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and non-self and this Christian mystical idea of the fundamental incompatibility of public versus private language at play for me here. My people-pleasing habits notwithstanding, I am a different person around different people. Certain aspects of my likes and preferences do feel stronger around different people (I’m not wholesale lying about liking any of those movies). The way that I portray myself in the context of a group is of course different from the way I operate in an intimate conversation with one or two other people, which is of course also different from the way I communicate with myself inside my own head.
So anyway, this is kind of a long, digressive way of getting myself OK with the fact that even though I’ve been wanting to write more about my psychic services and psychic experiences, I’ve been running into trouble figuring out how to split the difference between the private revelations that happen during these magical conversations (and that includes the magic of dreamtime) and the publicly straightforward and expressive way I always try to write here on my blog. (My Gemini Rising in my astrological chart certainly both helps and hinders me here as well—it makes me want to communicate all the time, but I also, always, perpetually see all the different angles, often to the detriment of my ability to squeak anything meaningful out onto the page without completely torturing myself, and my loved ones, about it.)
I love to write! And I also love to talk. I’m incredibly glad that you’ve spent time with me here on my blog, and I would also be happy to talk to you in the context of a psychic reading or healing some time. My Mercurial zippiness is really only sated and balanced when I’m doing both.
After I’d been living in Chicago long enough to see, with my own eyes, the neighborhoods start changing due to new construction (and, yes, gentrification), I started to realize that though we tend to think of cities as being unchanging and solid, they’re actually completely mutable. (Which is why we marvel at these kinds of before-and-now photo essays, right?) Such is the preciousness of our dreams as well. So seemingly solid in so many ways, but also so ephemeral, charged only with the meanings and memories we choose to assign them.
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As I’ve written about elsewhere, the summer that I graduated from Indiana University, I ended up staying in Bloomington a few months longer because I had the opportunity to housesit for two married professors who had gone out of town on a research trip.
I was mainly only responsible for feeding their two cats Bato and Santewa (whom my younger sister renamed Bono and Santana when she came to visit me for a few days), so, other than the few hours a week I spent working a temp gig in a storage facility on the edge of town helping the university catalog the contents of a newly acquired film archive, I had a lot of time left over to sit around and write in my journal.
Obviously, I had just completed the four years of my undergraduate degree (which the student loan center tells me I will finally be finished paying for by the end of 2016, at long last), so even though it’s my nature to think Big Thoughts about most changing phases of life, this felt even more momentous than usual. I had finally finished school! I was becoming an adult! I was entering the Real World! There was lots to journal about.
Of course, top of the list was figuring out what I was going to do, professionally, which in turn, I silently assumed was going to dictate who I was going to become. I had accidentally stumbled into a great internship the summer before while I was studying abroad in London, so I had a vague sense I should probably get another one that related more closely to . . . whatever it was I thought I wanted to be employed doing. Luckily at that point in 2001, there wasn’t quite the professional tyranny of the internship the way there is now, so even though I didn’t have anything lined up, it also didn’t really signal a career death knell the way it would if I were in that situation today.
I felt pretty confident that I might want to become a film critic—it combined two of my major loves, movies and writing—so I applied to the internship program at Entertainment Weekly magazine and they sort of halfheartedly wait-listed me, telling me I should be sure to stop by the office if I ever found myself in New York. This small bit of encouragement of course immediately precipitated my first-ever trip to Manhattan, which had been scheduled for something like September 22, 2001, but that’s another story for another time.
But in the course of my journaling about the shape my life might take going forward, one of the best and funniest things I ended up writing down for some insane reason was a list of all the things I would never do or be by the time I turned 21, since I had already blown past that milestone a year back.
I guess maybe I considered it some sort of gesture toward the process of elimination? Like, if I could just get out of my brain all the things I’d never do and never be, it might somehow help me discover all the things I could do and might be? I need to scrounge up that old notebook at some point to see what I actually put on the list, but as I recall it was mostly things with physical impossibilities—I’d never be a dancer or a gymnast or an athlete. But, I’d also never be precociously successful—I’d never release an album of immaculately wrought chamber pop to critical acclaim by the time I turned 21.
See, I’d recently become obsessed with Neil Hannon of the band The Divine Comedy, and I loved his album Liberation, which he released when he was 23, so much that I probably would have physically ingested it if I could have figured out a way to bake the CD into a pie. So this was definitely some sort of morosely self-deprecating reference to my regret that, despite the fact that I’d never written an original song in my life, I hadn’t managed to make any music as brilliant as his by that point (even if he has disowned the first-ever album he made when he was 20).
As I’ve said before, I have always had an obsession with simultaneity—wanting to know what someone was doing at the same time I was doing something else, somewhere else. But the dark side of what’s usually just a fun, friendly, getting-to-know-you kinda cocktail party conversation is when I start trying to measure myself against someone else’s life journey. I used to measure myself, emotionally, against my father’s life path, telling myself that if he could handle something challenging, then I should be able to handle it too. But I also used to do it, chronologically, with my mother.
I know it’s not uncommon for people who have lost a family member at a young age to feel the rest of their lives ticking along a secret clock counting down to the age their relative was when they passed away. My mom was only 31 when she died, so the chunk of time I had to work with was not only pretty small but also neatly coincided with the years that fucking everything feels most urgent and dramatic in a person’s life.
In high school, I wondered if I was destined to fall in love with a student teacher, the way my mom and dad had met and fallen in love through the theater department.
When I turned 19, I realized there was no way I was going to end up married young, like she had, seeing as how, after I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend, I wouldn’t end up dating anyone at all again (unbeknownst to me at that point) until my late 20s.
When I turned 23, I was extremely glad I was not giving birth to my first child.
But 30, though, I had a slightly tougher time with. For whatever reason, 31, the actual age that she was when she died, wasn’t that big a problem for me. But in the last few months of my 20s, leading up to my 30th birthday, I found myself jangling with nervousness.
It felt trivializing and banal when people tried to joke with me that I was just stressing the carefree end of my 20s, that it was a right of passage that everyone goes through when they realize they have to really get down to the business of making a life for themselves in their 30s. “Ha ha, yeah, I’m sure getting old!” I would meekly joke, while I had this goddamn countdown timer that no one else could see or hear, insistently reminding me of loss, and death, and irrevocable change, constantly buzzing just at the threshold of my awareness.
It’s not that I thought I was going to die too, necessarily. It’s more that I was scared that I wasn’t going to know how to live my life if I didn’t have someone to emulate.
When I finally turned 31 and there were no more of my mother’s milestones to measure myself against, I wish I could say I felt a tremendous surge of liberation. That I finally dropped into my body and into an awareness of my own life force, that I stepped out onto the street, reborn into my own wholeness, like at the end of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Though I may not have consciously felt it as a surge, it . . . actually kinda did happen, almost in spite of myself. I closed down the blog that I’d been keeping since my mid-20s that was initially designed as a way for me to pretend that I actually had become the film critic I’d aspired to be at 22. I went into training as a clairvoyant and joined a band and fell into an amazing romance. The past six years of my life have been beautiful and challenging and creatively fulfilling in ways that I never could have predicted if I were still trying to shoehorn my narrative into a sequel of my mother’s.
But, having just turned 37 a little over a week ago, I won’t pretend that I don’t still secretly kind of long for that yardstick to measure myself against. Being one’s own person is hard. Forging an independent path is scary, especially as someone with perfectionist tendencies who mostly just craves the knowledge and validation that I’m “doing it right.”
And though, yes, my ambitions are constantly driving me toward wanting to define who I am, and what I want to do, and what my path is through this world, I’ve also finally begun to realize the value of focusing on the simpler, quieter, truer, more honest, more direct, more elemental parts of myself—that I love to communicate, I love to observe, and I love to change things, particularly if they can be changed through delight. That’s a list that I’ll look forward to growing into, not out of, or away from, or alongside.
Surprise! 2015 is the bonus-track year!
As I’ve documented before elsewhere, I started making year-end mixes back in 2004 as a way to avoid spending a ton of money on Christmas presents and to share some of my favorite new-to-me music with my pals.
As the years went on, though, and my mode of consuming new music changed quite a bit, I started secretly thinking that I’d call it quits after 10 years. A decade’s worth of mixes seemed like a more than respectable project. Who could possibly argue with my changing priorities, with my decision to step away from making what started to feel like little dollhouses full of adorable but non-functional furniture?
But, well, see, the one thing that doesn’t really change, though, is the fact that I love music.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to music and how much I’ve completely underestimated the way that performing has always informed the way I approach art. It’s honestly been such a huge blind spot in the way I’ve been writing about pop culture all these years! The fact that I am a musician and grew up around musicians and continue to prefer to spend time with musicians (and performers and creatives of all kinds) has been such a bedrock of my identity that it’s been completely invisible to me.
Because of it, I think I instinctively gave WAY MORE weight to various critics and bloggers and online pundits than I probably should have, since I’ve always operated from the (unexamined) assumption that people who express strong opinions about music MUST KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT.
Like, as a kid, I could listen to my dad talk about music for hours. And not because I was forced to or because he expected me to be an audience for his mansplaining or anything like that—it’s just that he, both as a musician and a music teacher, knew an awful lot about an awful lot of stuff and I learned tons and tons and tons about music from him, as long as I kept my ears open.
One of my main tenets for living on this planet is wanting to learn more, to know more about how stuff works, and the most effective way, I’ve found, to make that happen is to listen to experts who know more than me, and try to keep up.
And so, with total naivete, I just went off into the world of music criticism with the same spirit. I mean, obviously I knew what it felt like to disagree with someone’s opinion, and of course I realized that it’s very possible for non-musicians to have an exquisitely well-honed and generous approach to their ability to evaluate music. But overall, I found myself seduced into the belief that I actually didn’t know anything at all about music simply because I didn’t share a lot of contemporary reference points with these vocal, vociferous critics on the internet.
I assumed that lack of familiarity with or awareness of certain artists or albums or scenes meant that I was somehow wrong or stupid, not just that there were certain artists or albums or scenes I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet by the age of, oh, 25. Or that there might possibly be artists or albums or scenes that I knew a little bit about that others didn’t.
A lot of what I was taking for granted, though, is the way that, as a musician, I hear and understand and appreciate music a bit differently than the casual concertgoer or person with Spotify droning in the background, because I know what it takes to create it—technique-wise, yes, as well as from within, from that place of inspiration. And I think that makes me slightly more catholic in my ability to listen to pretty much anything. It’s harder for me to declare “this sucks” because I’m always going to instinctively privilege the fact that it got made at all over whether I personally happen to care for it. (I think this is something of what Travis Morrison was getting at when he said that “Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste.”)
So I would read or hear a lot of declarations about something being amazing, or something being horrible, and I learned to tap into that style of evaluation, thinking that, eventually, I would learn how to project that same amount of absolute confidence and conviction in my writing. I aped it as best I could, but, it never really led me where I actually wanted to go—which was straight into the heart of the joy of the HOW of the thing. I didn’t want to know WHY it was good or bad; I wanted to know how it came to be, how it came to sound the way it did, who made it and where all that creative energy and inspiration was coming from.
Now that I’m finally starting to re-embrace the part of myself that craves that connection to creation more than feeling cool or in-the-know, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to take seriously music criticism that, while well-meaning and enthusiastic, literally doesn’t have the language to discuss what is happening sonically. Like, of course you don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy, viscerally, a certain instrument’s sound or a particular chord progression, but I’ve started to give the side-eye to so-called critics who will emptily describe a “jangly” guitar or a “jazzy” chorus. WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN. My boyfriend (who is a scary-brilliant genius guitar player and songwriter) and I will still howl with laughter when we remember that the Pitchfork review of The Clientele’s album Bonfires on the Heath describes the guitar sound as “echo-wobbly strum,” which is a non-musician’s way of describing what could much more simply, effectively, and accurately just be called tremolo.
In trying to reverse the course I’ve been on for the past 12 years, I’m probably being a bit too harsh. I’m, honestly, still just learning to trust my own heart and ears again, without trying to impress anyone or, god forbid, be some kind of self-styled arbiter of anyone else’s tastes. Sure, there’s the contrary part of me that’s sometimes still going to want to declare that someone completely unknown and obscure is THE BEST THING EVER, or the part of me that’s going to yawn dramatically when the subject of something ever-so-slightly overhyped and overexposed comes up.
But, I’m deliberately reminding myself, repeatedly, that often when things are just kind of obviously good, I’m allowed to, very simply, take pleasure in their obvious goodness.
Hey, if you’d like to take a tour through my archive of the past 12 years of best-of mixes, they can all be streamed through my page on 8tracks!
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I’ve never considered myself the biggest fan of the band U2.
I mean, I’ve always liked them well enough—the big hits never fail to get my blood pumping when I hear them on the radio—but I think I’ve only ever owned a copy of The Joshua Tree and even then have probably only listened to it about twice all the way through anyway. Nevertheless, I respect them a lot as pop culture figures and know they’re really important to a lot of people whose musical opinions I respect.
In recent years, now that I’ve stopped going to see as many ultra-hot, of-the-moment buzz bands live in concert, I’ve started to make more of a concerted effort to see legends who might not be around much longer—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell. Even though I doubt U2 will stop playing or touring anytime soon, they are getting older and so I jumped at the chance to finally see them at the United Center here in Chicago earlier this summer.
My boyfriend and I got relatively inexpensive seats with a somewhat obstructed view behind the stage. But, since the set design was basically open and allowed for the band to play to all 360 degrees of the room, it was still a totally fine place to watch the show from. Better than fine, actually, as far as I was concerned.
As covocalist in my band Pet Theories, I’m often in the position of connecting most obviously and directly with the crowd, both while I’m singing and while I’m bantering in between songs. So, once I got to my seat at the U2 gig, I quickly realized that I was going to have an awesome opportunity to get a Bono’s-eye-view of the performance space.
I’ve written before about going to concerts and psychically evaluating each player for her dominant chakra; I find it enormously helpful as both a clairvoyant and as a musician to watch the way that powerful performers set their energy. It gives me a fuller appreciation for their art and it always serves as a potent reminder that there’s no sense in trying to hide anything about myself when I’m on stage since I know the audience will feel my truth, whether they consciously realize it or not.
So all I can say is—wow. Bono is enormously skilled at handling A LOT of energy. He emanates power from his heart chakra and his throat chakra, obviously, but he also opens his crown chakra much like an orchestra conductor does, to be a beacon for everyone in the room to follow. It’s kind of a trite observation, but it’s really true in this case—he made a venue that enormous feel intimate and cozy through the sheer force of his presence.
The way I see it, when a performer is in front of a crowd that big, the energy goes both directions, right? The performer herself is obviously exposed, singularly, to all those people. But then there’s also the fact that she is receiving the expectations and communication (both spoken and unspoken) of all those people assembled together simultaneously.
Look, I’m good in front of a crowd. I’ve been performing on stage since I was a young girl and I am a notorious spotlight hog. I love being the center of attention. But being the center of that much attention? I dunno…!
Sure, Bono remains a tremendously charismatic, stirring, and appealing singer. But at this point in his career, I truly believe that pretty much the greatest thing he does is allow himself to be the focal point for that much attention. He jokes about being a megalomaniac, but like, if you’re actually capable of commanding an audience of that size…well, those aren’t really delusions of grandeur anymore, are they? That’s just straight-up grandeur.
It was transformative to watch. Not just because I was impressed by Bono’s psychic skills but also because, as embarrassing as it is to admit, it gave me this very useful yardstick to measure my own ambition against. As a writer, as a musician, as a communicator—would I be able to hold the energy of that many people without completely freaking out? It seems like a ridiculous hypothetical question for me to ask, I know (who’s got the delusions of grandeur now?), but, let me put it another way.
I remember laying in bed one night when I was a little kid. I don’t remember how old I was, but definitely no older than about 13, and probably even younger than that. And I remember consciously making the decision that if my dad could deal with the fact that his wife, my mom, had died; if he was suddenly thrust into the unwanted position of raising three young kids on his own; if he could drive to Chicago from Northwest Indiana every day and work at a job that he dutifully maintained out of financial necessity; if he could continue to find ways to make music despite all these challenges; then, by God, I would be able to handle it all too.
Whatever the “it all” was that my tiny megalomaniac self thought I would be responsible for handling, I’m not exactly sure now. An equivalent amount of hassle and despair and by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants little victories?
It was a bullshit comparison, I know that now. But, sure enough, reviewing the way that circumstances have shaken out in the years since that decision hit me out of the blue, my life does kinda resemble his in ways that I’m not sure can be chalked entirely up to simple heredity.
So, at this point, I figure if I’m inevitably going to be looking to a powerful figure to emulate, and in so doing invite similar challenges into my own life, it might as well be someone like Bono, someone who does incredibly outrageous and fascinating things that I would be thrilled to tackle in my own way.
One of the things I’ve always found most romantic about truly knowing a city is one’s ease with the mundane.
Where you go grocery shopping. Where you get your hair cut. What deli has the shortest lines and the most entertaining customer service at lunchtime.
During the summer that I studied abroad in London during college, I opted not to take as many weekend trips to out-of-town destinations as the majority of my American classmates. It was for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I didn’t care as much about the quantity of sites I could lay my eyes upon as the quality of my relative intimacy with a handful of very specific places.
That summer, I privileged wanting to know every nuance of the precise route I would walk to my local tube station and the precise shadings of light on the Thames as the sun went down well after 9:30 pm throughout the month of July. Sure, I visited Stonehenge once, and it was awesome and super-cool and of course I’m glad that I went.
But I cherish every bit as much my memory of the three-digit code I had to punch to gain access to the main hallway of the office where I unexpectedly landed an unpaid internship, and the way that hallway smelled faintly of cleaning supplies and mildew and pencil shavings, and the fact that every day I carried with me this great little satchel from Eddie Bauer, which was just big enough to fit my portable CD player and a couple CDs (primarily all the Divine Comedy albums that I’d just purchased at the HMV in Piccadilly Circus).
So, in that spirit, I would like to offer you my extremely unscientific, terribly biased, and completely un-comprehensive guide to the Best Places to Pee in the City of Chicago.
I drink a lot, constantly, all the time—water, coffee, green juice, kombucha, bubble tea, occasional beer and wine and whisky. Consequently, I have to pee a lot, often when I’m running errands or when I don’t otherwise have easy access to a bathroom. Over the years, I’ve figured out a few reliable places where I can dash in, dash out, and get on with my life. Some of them require a tiny bit of psychic armor, to make yourself blend in to places you might not 100% belong, but most of them are well and truly public.
FIRST AND FOREMOST, though—a giant RIP to the bathrooms at Native Foods in Wicker Park. I always thought of them as my clever little secret, but apparently they weren’t so secret after all. One of the last times my boyfriend and I were in that neighborhood, I was utterly distraught to find a lock on the bathroom door, with a sign indicating that they were only available for paying customers. Like, of course a restaurant’s bathrooms should be primarily for paying customers. But what an incredible bummer that these animal welfare-obsessed vegans would feel the need to so suddenly, so flagrantly enforce it after several years of being groovy about leaving them open.
Is this obvious? It seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, your local Whole Foods is a pretty great place to pee when you’re out and about. Who could possibly prove that you weren’t there to shop, stopped in to pee real quick, then couldn’t find the thing you were looking for and unfortunately had to leave the store empty handed? Anyway, that’s at least the story I tell myself if I’m feeling conspicuous. Depending on the day of the week, I’m most frequently near the one on Huron in River North (I love being able to skirt back out onto the street through the door that’s supposed to be reserved for residents of One Superior Place), the one on Ashland in Lakeview (this one’s a little dodgy to get in and out of since you have to walk a gauntlet of cashiers, but the ones who work there luckily tend to be too stoned to notice), and the new one on Broadway in Edgewater (pretty sure the bathrooms and coffee shop area in this new store have their own zip code—the building is SO BIG). The dangerous part, of course, is the high likelihood of being seduced on the way in or out by gourmet chocolate bars and fancy jars of stone-ground pumpkin seed butter, thereby potentially making it an extremely expensive trip per flush.
The Food Court at the Merchandise Mart
This location is actually temporarily closed right now while they’re remodeling the main seating area of the food court. But, they’ve helpfully redirected folks to a second bathroom location just down the hall on the other side of the McDonald’s. I’d never been in these bathrooms until very recently, so I’m not sure if they’re brand-new brand-new, or just newly remodeled. At any rate, they’re top notch—very clean and spacious. I’m so rarely in that area on weekends that I can’t really vouch for their status on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the work week, this one is a no-nonsense godsend for efficiency and anonymity.
The Ground Level Shops at the Palmer House Hilton
A couple summers ago, I was in the throes of a self-diagnosed UTI that was just bad enough to be inconvenient and annoying without quite being bad enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment about, so I was self-medicating with copious quantities of cranberry juice and cranberry supplements. I’d just picked up a new bottle of capsules at Kramer’s Health Foods on Wabash and figured there would be a Starbucks in the nearby Palmer House shopping area where I could buy a bottle of water as an outwardly “official” excuse to use their bathroom. Well, as luck would have it, there’s actually a three-stall public bathroom right across the hall from the Starbucks. I love staying in hotels so much that I secretly get a big thrill out of walking through here when I need to use this bathroom. I always pretend that I’m a spy or some kind of glamorous high-profile corporate ballbuster when I go clacking down the echoing corridors.
Second Floor of the Center on Halsted
This one could technically be filed as a subheading under the Whole Foods options, but since the Center is its own entity, I’ll count it separately. Especially if you eschew the often crowded and less than well-maintained bathroom on the ground level immediately adjacent to the bakery-side entrance to the Whole Foods and head upstairs to the spacious, industrial bathrooms instead. The signage designates them for male- and female-identified people, and there are gender-neutral facilities nearby as well, which is an obvious, awesome bonus.
2828 North Clark
Don’t get on the elevators or escalators! Jog up the first set of stairs immediately in front of you, go up the ramp, and turn to the left. It’s a tiny three-stall bathroom at an awkward angle because of the weird layout of the building, and sometimes it can be less than immaculately clean, but this is a great option in this part of the city where, as things get fancier and fancier, it becomes more difficult to find a place where you can pee for free. Just be careful not to count on using it if you’re leaving a movie late at night; they lock ’em down once most of the shops have closed.
OK, Chicago—what have I missed? Let me know if you have a favorite place to pee on the sly.
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As I’ve written about before, my mom died when I was eight years old.
My dad never remarried and though we had plenty of much appreciated help from local relatives, friends, church members, and neighbors, a lot of responsibility naturally fell on my shoulders as not only the oldest child but also the oldest daughter. I was in many ways my mom’s mini-me and I learned to crave the praise and validation that came from being told I was “just like Sharon.”
As the years went by, my dad began to resist and abhor anything that broke the comfort of his routine. Regularly scheduled activities, like weekly church band rehearsal or games and practices during the years my brother played Little League baseball, were fine and posed no problem. But unexpected hassles, like doctor’s appointments or science fair projects, especially if they cost money, increasingly threatened his ability to hold on to his temper and, more than that, his ability to continue fooling himself into believing that he had a handle on, y’know, his life.
Which made Halloween, with its multiple layers of variables, a particularly stressful occasion in our household. Getting three kids dressed up in their outfits of choice was a pain in the ass; candy and costumes cost money that wasn’t always in abundance; the weather was often unpredictable; someone both had to be available to take us kids trick or treating and to give candy out at our front door. In other words, hassle upon hassle upon hassle.
In an attempt to mitigate some of this hassle, it wasn’t long before it started to make the most sense for me to stay home, giving out the candy at our front door, while my dad (if he got home from work early enough) or one of my grandparents took my brother and sister trick or treating. I still got to dress up (the year that I wore a huge, borrowed fur coat and sprayed half my hair white as Cruella de Vil got a particularly enthusiastic response), and I usually still got to go to the costume contest held annually at the middle school gymnasium down the street, so it never felt like that much of a sacrifice to me. I either ate candy from my siblings’ stash or pilfered from the bowl of whatever we were giving out, so I didn’t lose out in that respect either.
But still, I eventually felt myself adopt my dad’s point of view about the holiday—it began to seem like a ridiculous hassle that I saw the point of less and less as I got older. Never one for large parties as a teenager, or the bar scene once I hit drinking age, there seemed to be little point in even attempting to put together a costume, especially since, always self-conscious about my weight, I never felt like I would have been able to pull off the “sexy” costumes that were increasingly de rigueur for girls older than, say, about 13.
Yes, there was a lovely year in college when my best friend and her fiancé and I spent a few happy weeks leading up to the 31st carving pumpkins and watching movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula together, but the best thing about Halloween for me, after a while, was the slashed price of leftover candy at the grocery stores on November 1.
So, even now in my mid-30s, as Tumblr and Instagram begin to fill up with all manner of #spoopy enthusiasm for Halloween, I find myself slogging through a persistent, inherited, but now groundless sense of avoidance. And honestly, it bums me out that I’ve allowed myself to become so Halloween-resistant! This holiday should be right up my alley! It happens during my favorite season and it’s a significant energetic threshold for so many spiritual traditions.
Not to mention, there is almost nothing I crave more in life than being seen. I love being the center of attention. I love wearing strange or outlandish clothing and getting noticed and complimented for it. (Not for nothing did I dye my hair bright pink for several years.) So, Halloween should be a natural for me, right? A day specifically set aside for looking one’s craziest, right? Well, yeah—but I’m contrary enough that I like looking crazy on the rest of the days of the year when muggles aren’t usually competing to get in on the act as well. It’s like the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the gang learned that real demons traditionally take October 31 off. Yeah, me too.
I’d love to give you an optimistic turnaround here and say that I have plenty of things that still make October meaningful for me. But I’m not sure that’d be entirely true. Sure, I love the color of the changing leaves and the crisp air and the fall wardrobe staples and the hot coffee and early sunsets that make it a particularly sensual and invigorating month. But in terms of feeling specifically compelled to observe any kind of annual ritual honoring the slide into the dark part of the year, I sadly find myself coming up short.
Mindlessly replicating old family patterns seems a particularly ineffective and self-defeating way to justify my admittedly, unpleasantly sharp-edged, high-pitched refusal to join in on the Halloween fun. But maybe that serves, in its own perverse way, as my own method of observing the Day of the Dead—communing with the spirit of Hassle and invoking Stagnant Predictability as a way of inadvertently reminding myself that, yes, there’s plenty of darkness in my life and memories still left to explore, no matter how much I may dress myself up in optimism otherwise.
I’ve always been a night owl.
Somewhat mystically, I tend to credit this to having grown up as a theater kid. On nights after attending local musical theater productions with my dad, he’d hang out backstage chatting with the actors and musicians and directors, laughing and sharing compliments and general show talk. I have a distinct memory of being about seven years old, tagging along with him after a closing night performance, and being aware of the clock ticking over to midnight and then making the connection—oh yeah, this is where tomorrow starts.
(Not for nothing is this one of my favorite passages from Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night:
Later she was homeward bound at last in broad daylight, with the pigeons already breaking over Saint-Sulpice. All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.)
Well over a decade later, while attending Indiana University as an undergraduate, I took this preference to its logical extreme, claiming that my brain didn’t really start working properly until the sun went down. I have a similarly distinct memory of a winter weekend afternoon spent torturing myself in the library over a paper that was due imminently that I only finally cracked open once twilight descended. Looking down at my notebook suddenly alive with scribbles, I looked up again to notice the blackness outside and felt like it couldn’t possibly be that simple, that the time of day could make such a huge difference to my productivity. I always joked about my penchant for late nights, but there really was seemingly something to it.
My good pal Brendon, also prone to pulling all-nighters, had a car in Bloomington, and he’d often pick me up at my dorm to run off on errands together in the wee hours, buying blank CDs and notebooks and Pilot pens in the middle of the night at the 24-hour Office Max. “I really respect that this store honors the preferred schedules of people like us,” we’d nod sagely to each other.
Even after college graduation, if I happened to have a few extra days off work, over the holidays or somesuch, my body clock would start to naturally revert to its nocturnal rhythms, writing and reading and watching movies until all hours, then sleeping as late as was socially acceptable as an adult human.
(Although, my friend Casey learned to double-check the time of day that I watched any movie that I gave a bad review to. “I dunno, I just didn’t care for it,” I’d shrug. “The acting all seemed wooden and disjointed.” “Wait a minute,” he’d interrupt me. “When did you put it in the DVD player?” “Um, about 2:30 in the morning,” I’d have to sheepishly admit. “You always think anything you watch after 2 am is wooden and disjointed!” he’d remind me. He . . . wasn’t wrong about that. There was a point of diminishing returns with my late-night endeavors.)
Otherwise, I was always fairly unbothered by my habit of staying up late, figuring that the world was pretty evenly split between morning people and night people, and that someone’s natural inclinations just were what they were. After a while, though, I started reading more and more interviews with successful writers and other highly motivated people, mostly on mid-2000s productivity blogs, where they chalked a good portion of their accomplishments up to early mornings spent at their chosen tasks. “The world is quiet and peaceful,” they all seemed to universally agree. “No one is clamoring after my attention yet, so I can devote myself to transcribing what remains of the dreams still rolling around in my head before getting a jump on the work day. I could never be productive late at night! I’m too exhausted and my brain is too cluttered with detritus of the day!”
And, typical of my general insecurities, I started wondering if I was somehow bad at being a creative person because I liked staying up late. It started to feel like night owls were characterized as hopelessly irresponsible procrastinators, avoiding their tasks until the last minute, putting the burden of their creativity on their less-than-fresh selves. I felt like I must be steps away from developing a debilitating drug addiction or otherwise descending into a hellscape of wasted potential.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like being up early. When properly rested (or, still wired from the night before), the dawn hours are lovely and invigorating. It’s just that I don’t feel like my truest, most lucid self until I’ve had a nice long stretch of time to rev myself into coherence. Even now, in a reversal of what pretty much any given time management theory will advise, I don’t start my work day off with my most important tasks—I leisurely check e-mail and do other somewhat mindless gruntwork for the first few hours at my desk, knowing that it’s only toward lunchtime or after when I’ll feel truly alert enough to tackle bigger tasks that require more genuine brain power.
As a studious, curious person who loves learning about how other people do what they do (cf, my penchant for looking in other people’s medicine cabinets!), the idea of the wisdom of crowds is extremely seductive to me. Not because I want to be a sheep or because I’m necessarily afraid of standing up for myself or standing out from the pack, but because I have such a lust for life that I don’t want to myopically miss out on something that might actually be awesome just because I was so committed to doing things my own way. And hey, just because something’s popular doesn’t inherently mean that it’s bad, right? But, try as I might, being a morning person, in the way that the world typically defines it, just won’t stick.
Funny enough, I get up plenty early these days. I find it truly is the best way to sneak a bit of extra time into my day. But I know enough now not to force myself to try to be “on” in any meaningful way. I use the time to meditate and cuddle with the cats and maybe drink an extra cup of coffee on the weekends. But if something really exciting and important needs my attention, it’s best to come track me down after nightfall.
This is probably the dumbest thing in the world to admit out loud, but—I actually thought the recent Amy Winehouse documentary Amy was going to be about the music.
After weeks of trying to get myself to the theater because I was so looking forward to checking it out, it probably wasn’t til about halfway through the run time when it finally hit me—no, this is just going to be another handwringing rehash of her tabloid exploits with the added tsk-tsk factor of “shouldn’t someone have done something about this?”
It felt like just one more violation of her unbelievable talent and her fragile psychology in a long line of prior, continued violations. As the film went on, and the anecdotes about her drug abuse and other depravity got more and more lurid, I actually went inside myself, psychically, and sent out a beacon to her spirit, apologizing to her for my even watching it.
I truly thought it was gonna be about the music.
In the weeks leading up to our going to see the film, I was in the midst of reading A Genius in the Family, the memoir about growing up with classical cellist Jacqueline du Pre written by her sister Hilary and her brother Piers that was used as the basis for the film Hilary and Jackie.
I remember loving the movie when I saw it in the ’90s but didn’t realize until I did some cursory Googling a few weeks ago what a scandal it caused in the classical world—lots of musicians who knew du Pre during her heyday were aghast at what they saw as her siblings’ exploitation of her personal struggles. Given the disgusting way that Amy Winehouse’s father was depicted in the documentary, the parallels couldn’t have been more clear to me—fame and talent do weird, unexpected things to people. Not just to those in possession of them, but to the people in their orbit as well. And we’re all pretty much complicit in it.
I asked a classically trained friend of mind to recommend me some choice du Pre recordings, not so much out of penance to Jackie or feeling like I needed to apologize to her as well, as much as a way of getting a fuller picture of who she was and why people would feel so keenly that they could get something out of trading on her name (whether in her defense or by dishing dirt) so many decades after her death.
Honestly, as a musician, there are very, very few books or documentaries about music that give me as much detail as I actually want about the process of actually making music. Like, I found It Might Get Loud frustrating, not just for the overwhelming white maleness of it, but because I wanted less of The Edge’s moony recollections of buying his first guitar and more scoop on how he does exactly what he does. As I stated in my review of it way back when, “I wanted to hear more about specific chord tunings, songwriting techniques, recording tricks, all that trainspotting nerdery. . . . I could have used fewer rhapsodic monologues on the theme of ‘when I was a young boy, the guitar just called to me’ and more hardcore information about what they’re actually doing when they’re playing guitar.”
The documentary that got closest to this for me recently was The Wrecking Crew, perhaps because filmmaker Denny Tedesco was the son of guitar player Tommy Tedesco and grew up listening to his dad talk shop with other musicians and, like me with my dad, learned to love the rhythms of those overheard conversations.
Of course I know that these books and documentaries are for a general audience and have to appeal to a wide number of people, most of whom are probably not interested in these things to the degree that I am. But, if you want to get an intimate portrait of an artist, I don’t really think you can actually get much more intimate than interrogating exactly how she came up with her music, getting inside that little chamber of her being where her heart overlaps with her intellect which overlaps with physical technique which overlaps with past experience which overlaps with a future-oriented intentionality.
Don’t get me wrong, I know this is a lot to ask for. Not only for the presumption that an artist would even want to talk about her process at this level of detail, but also because I’m not sure it’s even actually possible!
Speaking for myself, there are only so many variables I feel remotely in control of while I’m playing or singing. I’ve been doing both since I was a child, and yet I still always feel that I’m riding this enormous wave that’s always on the verge of completely crushing me anytime I so much as go to rehearsal, much less make a recording or get on stage. Maybe I’m just a perpetual novice, a hopeless hack, but I’m not sure how much of my own process, such as it is, I could articulate—I mostly hold on for dear life and hope to God not to fuck anything up before the song is over.
There can be joy in there too sometimes, and instinctive communication with my fellow musicians, and an attempt to convey a larger, wordless sense of love to an audience, but for me, it’s almost always undergirded by struggle at worst, or forceful, deliberate attention at best. That’s why I’m always amazed by musicians who drink or are on drugs while they play; it takes every ounce of concentration I’ve got to make whatever mediocre sounds I’m capable of. I could never spare the extra energy and attention that gets eaten up by intoxication.
And maybe that’s why I’m so hungry for stories about how other musicians do what they do—to compare notes, to see if I’m doing it “right,” to see if I’m doing it like people I respect and admire, the people really and truly touched by extreme grace. The great and overarching refrain of my monkeymind is, “am I doing it right??” And that’s in everything from my gender presentation, to the way I do my job, to the way I eat and otherwise take care of myself physically, to the way I meditate and experience Spirit. I guess I feel like if I can get some validation that I’m doing it “right,” then I can relax and keep doing what I’m doing. And if I’m not, then maybe I can at least save face and quickly get on with doing it another way before anyone else notices. Even the rebellious part of me thinks that I’m never seeking rebellion for the sake of itself, but for the sake of righting a popular situation gone wrong.
I suppose much of this resonates with what I wrote last month about looking in other people’s medicine cabinets and reading personal blogs—my sense of curiosity is nearly always informed by my own selfishness. I want to know more about the world because I want to know more about myself. I want to know more about other people’s music because I want to know more about my own.
So I guess that’s what made Amy, the movie, extra disappointing for me. It wasn’t enough that the rehash of her public problems felt so cruel and even redundant; it’s that the small crop of anecdotes actually about the music gave such a tantalizingly incomplete glimpse at what informed her massive talent—there was her teenage recording of “Moon River” that plays over the opening credits; producer Salaam Remi saying that he would have been willing to work with her for free just because he wanted the experience of having her over to his house to sing and play for a while; her and Tony Bennett’s mutual admiration society; the brief footage of The Kills rocking out at the epicenter of Camden cool in the early 2000s; Questlove enthusing about the way Amy put him through his musical paces over the phone when they were thinking of collaborating after the success of Back to Black; and even Amy’s wickedly hilarious, under-the-breath disdain at her pre-Grammy performance for the fact that Justin Timberlake’s best record nomination was for something actually called “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”
The film was much on my mind in the weeks after I saw it, as I mulled over these questions of musicianship and process and public persona. And, out at lunch one afternoon, the radio happened to be playing the recently released recording of Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good.” I’d heard the song once or twice last year after it first came out (mostly the Timberlake duet version), but hearing it that day, with everything else on my mind about Winehouse and du Pre, its brilliance hit me extra hard. I downloaded the John McClain-produced version onto my iPhone immediately and have been listening to it incessantly ever since.
And, true to form, I’ve been voraciously seeking out what little information I can find about its arrangement—I’m desperate to know more about how it’s put together. It feels so authentic to that Off the Wall-era mode of production that I’m dying to know if the fully orchestrated version was indeed recorded at that time or if McClain put it together posthumously, specifically for inclusion on Xscape. (If anyone knows more of the scoop, please send me an e-mail!!)
Of course, we all know the sordid details of Jackson’s demise. But hearing him sing on popular, contemporary, Top 40 radio again, on an otherwise mundane weekday afternoon, was such a perfect reminder to me that even if people want to get distracted by the trappings surrounding a life in music (and that obviously includes musicians themselves), it’s still possible for music to leave us breathless, and speechless, marveling at its ultimately irreducible wholeness. We seek its wholeness so that we may feel our own more readily.
I’m an extremely, inherently nosy person.
I am an eavesdropper extraordinaire; I will look in your medicine cabinet if you invite me over to your home. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve always loved blogs.
I remember, in college in the late ’90s, when I first discovered that people I only vaguely knew from classes and other activities were spilling their guts online on webpages that absolutely anyone with an internet connection could wander over to and read through to their heart’s content. I was sort of aghast yet fascinated—I couldn’t fathom why a person would voluntarily make their innermost thoughts so readily available for anyone to judge, yet I couldn’t turn away from reading them myself.
Not only that, but I think I secretly wanted to be bopped on the head with a magic wand that would somehow give me the permission I thought I needed to be granted in order to share in the same way. I guess I was looking for self-esteem at the root of it, for enough confidence to take up space, to claim the inherent validity of my own inner experience.
After learning some HTML in a course on computer basics, I messed around with some rudimentary public-facing sites that mostly collected my film reviews and other academic writing I was proud of. But I totally missed out on the whole LiveJournal phenomenon. Even the blog I started in mid-2004 wasn’t overly invested with sharing personal details—I was sort of self-defensively invested in presenting myself as A Writer. I’d convinced myself that no one would possibly be interested in the minutiae of my daily life (yet I somehow fancied that anyone would give a shit about my jejune musings on film and books and art?).
But now in the Twitter era of everyone being a critic/pundit ready to pen voluminous commentary on any given political event or pop cultural radar blip, my knee-jerk contrarian impulse is to head in the opposite direction—to delve more readily into private memory and personal reflection.
I find myself actually craving the languorous rhythms of lists, of people detailing the stuff that they’re currently obsessing over or writing about the places or things or experiences that have made their lives more pleasant, or at least more interesting. It’s no wonder I fell in love with reading perfume blogs—though they can certainly be intellectually rigorous, they necessarily have to linger over personal, sensual experience at some level.
And, contrary to a lot of professional blogging advice that insists that writing must be helpful if you want to monetize your content and build your brand, I’m way more interested in anti-helpful writing at this point, to be frank. I don’t want to be sold anything; I don’t want to swallow heaping spoonfuls of self-aggrandizement disguised as useful advice. I want personality above all else, a window into genuine lived experience. I’ll never get tired of quoting this line from Carl Wilson’s book on Let’s Talk About Love:
But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors—to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare.
So, all that being said—it’s late July. I’m too hot and too exhausted and moving at much too slow a pace to try to think thoughts any deeper than this, and wonder if the same might be true of you as well. Rather than contribute any further to the pileup of self-serious ruminations that I was just busy castigating, I’ll give you a tour of some of the things that have been making my world go ’round lately.
(Please note that, yes, this whole thinky prelude was also a way of tricking myself into writing exactly the kind of gorgeously, poetically mundane and intimate “this is what I had for breakfast” blog post that I always weirdly felt like I didn’t have permission to indulge in.)
Frankie Knuckles House Masters ♥ Lyle Lovett’s Anthology: Volume One (+ concert anticipation for seeing him live for the first time at the Chicago Theatre on August 1) ♥ all things tulsi ♥ Benefit’s Brow Zings ♥ Eugenia Bone’s Mycophilia ♥ Arctic Monkeys’ “A Certain Romance” ♥ Jeff Buckley’s “What Will You Say” live at Glastonbury ♥ moving into a new apartment! ♥ my zine Satan Is My Father officially being available to buy at Quimby’s ♥ this exchange between Bjork and philosopher Timothy Morton ♥ this quote from Brian Eno ♥ Armani Si ♥ Spinning Wheel Apothecary’s powerful Crystal Vision salve ♥ Moon Mapping ♥ Sherman Alexie’s Twitter feed, always ♥ giving a psychic reading via Skype to a woman living in Dubai (hello, time difference!) ♥ our cats marching down the hallway behind us like they’re in a Fellini movie ♥ starting to learn how to use Evernote ♥ anticipation of playing a couple awesome gigs with my band later this year ♥ Keiler Roberts’s Miseryland (and Brian’s insightful blog post about it) ♥ anything Fassbender (fucking Macbeth! ZOMG, Steve Jobs!) ♥ Joshua Clover’s #HowIQuitSpin Twitter epic
Of course the queen of these kinds of posts is Gala Darling with her running Things I Love Thursday feature. Ashley Ford’s 5 Things goes deep into emotions and experiences in a beautifully raw way. I’ve also recently been enchanted by Mlle. Ghoul’s writings—the posts Current Loves and Still Life with Adornments on her own blog and her guest post on the Bloodmilk Jewelry blog, Summer Scents for Those Who Shun the Sun.