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.
I often like to boast about how infrequently I’ve moved during my life.
There was the house in Indiana I grew up in. The same dorm room for all four years of college. And just three apartments during my nearly thirteen years in Chicago.
Looks simple, right? Looks like I don’t ever move anywhere, right? Looks like my life could be described with a very linear narrative arc focused on my tendency to get grounded in one place and stay there until absolutely compelled to leave, right?
Well, as with any story I tell myself over and over again, I’ve started to realize that it’s not actually the whole truth. I’ve started to realize that the places I lived during the liminal zones in between those big, stable chunks of time are actually some of the most vital parts of my life story. The temporary locales that aren’t as easily defined as “places” where I lived, more like stopping points, are nevertheless key sites where I spent significant time and learned significant lessons. Reviewing them now, they provide unmistakable evidence that gives lie to my insistence that I only feel comfortable if I can put down roots, that I like to be surrounded by my stuff, that I inherited my father’s lack of flexibility, that I suck at moving, that it’s hard for me to find the adventure that my heart yearns for.
How do I quantify the influence of the flat in London where I stayed during my summer studying abroad after my junior year of college? The influence of the insanely beautiful house in Bloomington that I lived in for a few months after I graduated from Indiana University while the married professors who owned it traveled for research? The adorably shitty apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood where I crashed for a while with one of my best friends from high school, temping and going to movies while she traveled for business and while I waited to hear if I was going to get an internship at a high-profile magazine in New York? The spare bedroom in my maternal grandmother’s house where I lived for six months while she was rapidly dying of lung cancer? The two apartments in Chicago where I’ve unofficially lived with my boyfriend while I maintained the lease on my own studio apartment so that my high-functioning autistic sister could have somewhere safe to stay until she could be placed in her own housing for adults with disabilities?
These are all extremely important places in my life, but other than my memories and maybe a handful of photos (that are currently in storage because I’m, ahem, moving again soon), there’s basically no tangible record of my time spent in any of them. This is not the story of a person who has trouble with the idea of impermanence and rootlessness.
Even though the past three years of caring for my sister have been ridiculously stressful in so many ways, it was a complete blessing to walk into my apartment after she’d moved out and be struck with the realization that I didn’t give a crap about half the stuff that was still in there. The apartment had become a time capsule of my life circa 2012. The events that had driven me out of the apartment in the first place had now become the same events that had neutralized my perceived attachment to so much of what was in it. How elegant the effects of the passage of time!
And not only that, but there’s clearly a connection between how personally fulfilled I feel, how avidly and actively I’m creating and adventuring and loving, to how much I ultimately care about where I live and what I have. My being able to happily travel through London or bash around the Pacific Northwest with just a couple small suitcases proves that I carry my own groundedness and sense of at-home-ness with me. I allow other people to make me forget this truth at my own peril.
Long before I consciously started developing my skills as a clairvoyant, I used to joke that the only recurring dreams I ever had were about architecture. And it was true—location was usually the most powerfully felt feature of my dreams, the shape and layout and design of a building the aspects I would remember most vividly the next morning. And sometimes, months or years later, I would even see a place in real life that I’d long since forgotten that I’d once dreamed about. I think the first instance of this phenomenon occurred on a road trip through southern Indiana with my family when I was probably thirteen or fourteen.
“I had a dream about that house,” I matter-of-factly stated when we happened to drive past a beautiful, open, green clearing with a simple ranch house tucked back a nice bit from the road.
“No you didn’t,” my dad shot back. Not angrily or even incredulously. Just as simply and matter-of-factly as I had spoken up in the first place.
I wasn’t usually one to talk back all that much, even at that age, often assuming that there was so much about the world that I didn’t know, that it was best to trust the word of people who were older and thus had seen and experienced so much more of it than I had. So, I didn’t deny his denial. But I do remember very clearly thinking to myself as we sped away down the road, yes, I did. I know what I dreamed.
And so even though I am happy to be moving with my boyfriend to a gorgeous new apartment in a gorgeous new neighborhood, divested of so many of the things that I’d been dragging, with borrowed sentimentality, along behind me from both my childhood home and my grandmother’s home, I also know what I dreamed about the building that I’ve lived in for the past eleven years.
Both the two-bedroom where I lived for six years with roommates and the studio apartment I subsequently moved into across the hall were beautiful places to live and grow. I’ve expressed my gratitude to my landlady, and have energetically cut ties with the building itself, and have even sent some love back in time to myself circa 2004, to promise her that there’s so much juicy wonderfulness waiting to be experienced in this location and beyond.
I’ve never been very good at coloring outside the lines.
I have my rebellious streak, to be sure, but when it comes to expressing myself creatively, whether through writing or music or something else entirely, I want everything to be just so.
Austin Kleon’s whole philosophy of showing your work is great . . . for other people. Personally, it horrifies me. No thanks. I will give you my finished product, or I will give you nothing at all.
And guess what? That often means I give you nothing at all.
The potential landmines laying in wait for my various creative projects often feel too numerous to mention. There’s, of course, the fear of creating something that doesn’t live up to my own standards. The fear of not living up to the standards that other people have for me. The fear of making something that’s basically inoffensive but completely meaningless. The fear of making something that I think is good but that secretly has a huge, glaring flaw that I was blind to until it is pointed out by someone else. Given this gauntlet of potential humiliations, I have to either play to win or not play at all.
My astrological birth chart assures me that this tension in my personality is encoded in the stars—that it can be chalked up to a combination of my Sun sign (Aquarius) being in conjunction with both Mars and Mercury, as well as my Mercury (Pisces) being in opposition to Saturn. This means I’m incredibly competitive but I also have a keen fear of not being taken seriously or of being laughed at for the way that I communicate.
I have the saddest childhood memory of being probably about five years old and helping my maternal grandmother make desserts for our family’s Christmas Day dinner.
In addition to the dozens and dozens of cookies we’d baked, she had a teeny tiny pie dish that she let me fill with the remainder of the chocolate cream left over from the other full-sized pies. I was so proud of having made my own little pie! I wanted to show it off and present it with a due sense of ceremony to everyone, especially because my beloved aunt and uncle, whom I didn’t get to see all that often because they lived in Michigan, were in town.
My grandmother helped me gently take off the plastic wrap that had been covering it while it chilled, and I made a big show of carrying it into the living room after dinner for all to see and appreciate. Well, I fucking tripped and ruined the goddamn pie. Of course, I was horrifyingly embarrassed. I can seriously feel my heart seize up with sympathetic mortification for my young self even now. It was awful.
I ran into my grandmother’s bedroom and threw myself on the bed and sobbed. My uncle eventually came in to console me and assure me that everything was OK, but I can’t imagine I was too easily convinced that I wasn’t, in fact, a damn fool. I’m also not sure if they all actually did laugh when it happened, or if I’m only imagining that they did. (I mean, come on—falling down while holding a cream pie is a staple of silent film comedy for a reason.) Regardless, that combination of having worked hard on something, having been excited to share it with people I cared about, then accidentally screwing it up for all to see was a pretty formative experience of shame. No matter that it was purely an accident. It taught me to avoid the possibility of having any other accidents at all costs.
And what else is writing or playing or singing something subpar if not an accident of taste? An accident of deluded self-perception regarding my own skill or talent or importance? Of course, factoring all that in, it becomes a pretty short leap from “I’ve made something that might or might not be good” to “I’m considering making something—is the idea good enough to work on?” to “I’m not making anything at all!”
When I first started this blog back at the tail end of 2013, I overly ambitiously thought I could write three posts per week. I kept up that schedule for maybe two months, before eventually reducing it way down to one per month. And though I write here entirely of my own volition, and am beholden to no one, and actively think of myself as a person who writes, I start to get nervous and itchy as the end of the month draws near, knowing that I have to come up with something to post here. It’s ridiculous! It’s ostensibly a safe space, I’ve disallowed commenting, I’m lucky not to be trolled by nasty anonymous lurkers—I’m set up to win. So what’s the problem?
My poor, sweet, supportive boyfriend gets understandably frustrated for (and with!) me when I start thrashing around in a birdbath of my own self-doubt. I get angry at myself for not writing, angry at myself for not knowing what to write, angry at my own procrastination—and then expect him to be able to console me or find an easy solution for me and my self-created problems.
He is the most methodical writer and creator that I have perhaps ever known; he is the anti-procrastinator, a perfect example of the (very reasonable!) recommendation to write something every day, to be steadily productive rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, to let the effect of the practice be cumulative rather than banking on a burst of glorious inspiration. So, the thing he does best for me doesn’t happen in those moments of acute panic at all. It’s showing me, over the long haul, that there’s another way to make art. And I do strive to be more like that.
But, as I’m torturing myself to start writing something, anything—and torturing him with my whining and thrashing—it’s actually kind of impossible, in rational terms, to convey the degree to which my subconscious is still gripped by the fear that I’m going to drop the fucking pie.
But. The thing that my attempts at self-protection don’t account for is, of course, magic.
And by that, I really mean magic, not just the warm, fuzzy feelings that come when people say something nice about something I’ve done. In focusing exclusively on the potential for disaster, I’ve forgotten that it’s possible for work that begins, instinctively, humbly, inside my own little brain, to blossom outward in ways I never could have imagined.
Like, right now I’m putting the finishing touches on an amazing new zine project that I’ve been conceptualizing since at least the beginning of this year. It’s called Satan Is My Father: A Zine about Forgotten, Misremembered, and Nonexistent Bands.
I got a dream team of eight other writers and artists to contribute essays and drawings on this very loosely defined topic, and it’s by turns hilarious, ridiculous, and melancholy (all my favorite flavors).
I’ll have it ready to share with the world by the end of next week. It’s available to download digitally via Sellfy here, or you can click here to buy a physical copy.
As it turns out, two of the contributors, while they were reviewing the proof copy that I provided everyone by e-mail, discovered that they both had known, at different times and in different places, one of the musicians being written about. I don’t want to give away too many details here because it’s not really my story to tell. But, given the obscurity of this singer and the number of years gone by since her death, it’s a remarkable, remarkable coincidence. The revelation of this synchronicity has catalyzed an avalanche of very healing reminiscences and communication between these two writers as well as with other former members of her band.
I’ve been avoiding taking credit for any of this. I didn’t know this singer; I’m not the one who reached out to her former bandmates; I wasn’t part of that scene. Nevertheless, some kind of . . . shall we say . . . portal opened up through this thing that I was driven to put together, and the connections being made have already been mind-blowing.
Might these memories and coincidences have come to light eventually anyway? Sure, at some point, probably. But watching something this beautiful happen through the auspices of this initially goofy little idea that I came up with is nothing if not a healing for me. It gave me the confidence to at least ponder—what other magic hasn’t had a chance to flourish because I killed an idea before it had time show up in the world? What’s being held back in other, unseen places when I cop out and play small?
And anyway, what good is a pie if you make it all by yourself? At this point, I’d much rather call some friends, ask them to bring something to share, and enjoy a full meal together.
These quotes all proved helpful to me as I was writing this piece.
If I’m not telling it, it’s because I’m ashamed or feel guilty, and I don’t want to live in those places emotionally anymore. I spent a long time there. There’s some risk of overexposing myself but at the same time, telling my story is how I counteract the very real desire to hide everything about me. —Ashley Ford
I did things in my 30s that were ignored by the world, that could have been quickly labeled a failure. Here’s a classic example; in 1974 I did a movie called Phantom of the Paradise. Phantom of the Paradise, which was a huge flop in this country. There were only two cities in the world where it had any real success: Winnipeg, in Canada, and Paris, France. So, okay, let’s write it off as a failure. Maybe you could do that. But all of the sudden, I’m in Mexico, and a 16-year-old boy comes up to me at a concert with an album—a Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack—and asks me to sign it. I sign it. Evidently I was nice to him and we had a nice little conversation. I don’t remember the moment, I remember signing the album (I don’t know if I think I remember or if I actually remember). But this little 14 or 16, whatever old this guy was… Well I know who the guy is now because I’m writing a musical based on Pan’s Labyrinth; it’s Guillermo del Toro. The work that I’ve done with Daft Punk it’s totally related to them seeing Phantom of the Paradise 20 times and deciding they’re going to reach out to this 70-year-old songwriter to get involved in an album called Random Access Memories. So, what is the lesson in that? The lesson for me is being very careful about what you label a failure in your life. Be careful about throwing something in the round file as garbage because you may find that it’s the headwaters of a relationship that you can’t even imagine it’s coming in your future. —Paul Williams
[Acting in the film Young Adult] didn’t give me the confidence to say, “I can do it.” It gave me the confidence to say, “I can put the work in,” which, weirdly enough, a lot of people don’t. And for a long time, I didn’t really have the confidence to do that either, because I had come up out of that whole alternative scene, which was all about, “Don’t try it, man. Just go up and wing it.” I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, “Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.” So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment. I’m giving this my all. Now my all might not be good enough—and I’m just now seeing that with some movies I’ve done—sometimes your all is not good enough, but that’s a scary risk to take. That’s what Young Adult gave me the confidence to do, and working with someone like Charlize, who just gives her fucking all. —Patton Oswalt
As a bookwormy kid, I was, of course, very comfortable and conversant with the past.
With the exception of The Baby-Sitters Club series, which released new books periodically that I would greedily read in one sitting once I got them home from the Waldenbooks in the mall, a good chunk of what I chose to read for my own enjoyment or was assigned to read in school was old. From the ’70s trashy VC Andrews stuff I snuck from my own babysitter to, later, the Fitzgerald and Hemingway I came to adore in high school, it just seemed a given that books = the past.
I suppose learning about the past is an inescapable part of most kids’ education, both formal—historic dates, classic texts, facts and figures that had been safely proven and deemed true long ago—and informal—family stories that get repeated over and over, solidifying the sense of This is Who We Art and This Is Where We Came From.
My dad in particular, though, always seemed intensely invested in preserving the past. Though that tendency was definitely exacerbated by my mom’s death in 1987, even before her cancer showed up, he relished showing family movies on 8mm film, listening to cassette tape recordings of former musical triumphs (most notably the recording of a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar that he conducted the pit band for in the summer of ’79), and telling stories of his (extremely mild and benign!) college exploits. Family vacations rarely deviated from the predictable routes to the same destinations we drove and redrove around the Midwest every spring break, summer vacation, and winter holiday we had free.
Perhaps that’s why, aside from other obvious reasons, my mother’s death was so intensely shocking and disruptive to our family system—it was a thing that was unavoidably happening in the Present. Her illness interrupted our preferred location in the past tense.
And then as I unconsciously tried to heal the grief of everyone around me, always aiming to be both a model student and a model daughter, I dove into the past with alacrity. “These are the things that YOU used to like? These are the things that were vital and important and current for YOU? Great, then they shall be my favorites, too.”
I only bring up these details to contextualize the disproportionate and late-blooming shock I felt after reading Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (twice, back-to-back) in the summer of 2001 when I realized, “holy shit—he just wrote this. This is new.”
Like, of course I knew that there were new books being written by still-living authors all the time. I guess, as a young woman in her late teens and early 20s living in Indiana, I just didn’t have the sense that any of it was for me. I was snobby enough, too, to have assumed that all the good work had somehow already been used up by authors of the past.
“I just don’t really like much of anything written after the 1920s,” I was known to simper, when I would even give the 20th century the time of day at all.
What can I say, I was tons of fun throughout high school and college.
And yet, only a few months after I graduated from Indiana University, I had this Eggers book in my hands. It was full of pyrotechnic wordsmithery, pop culture references, and postmodern meta-level tweaking of the very form of a memoir, but was also aching with trauma as it recounted the deaths of his parents and the responsibility he had to assume for his kid brother. Not to mention, the author was barely that much older than I was and had, like me, grown up just outside Chicago. It was all so exciting! I very, very self-consciously thought to myself, with something akin to mystical reverence, that surely this is what it must have felt like to have been alive when Fitzgerald had first published This Side of Paradise.
I haven’t reread A Heartbreaking Work in quite a long while, so I have no idea what I’d think of it now, but I don’t care. I loved it then and it woke me up to the idea that it was possible for good art, art that would be important to me, to be made right now.
As the years went on and I became more conversant with a tiny fraction of the new fiction being published, as well as music and movies, of course, I became consumed with the thought that, in all likelihood, someone out there was currently busy writing a book, or recording a song, or scribbling a screenplay, that would come to mean the world to me a year later, maybe even ten years later. That, while I was folding laundry or otherwise going about the mundane business of my daily life, someone out there was making something that would catch up with me in the future, that would be profoundly meaningful both for the way it touched my heart and for the fact that it, in some respect, was new enough to still have the stardust of its own inspiration and creation on it.
Like, currently, Mark Knopfler’s Tracker.
I’ve never really known the music of Dire Straits and was only relatively recently introduced to Knopfler’s solo work by my boyfriend. I started to joke with him a year or two ago that I knew he was really getting down to business with his own writing projects when Shangri-La started going into heavy rotation on the stereo. So, though I expected to hear Tracker on in the background while we were making dinner or reading before bedtime, it came as pretty much a complete surprise when it started to dominate my own precious listening time on morning and evening train commutes.
It’s all I want to listen to right now. And, it just came out in March! His last solo album was released in 2012, so that means that while I spent the last three years taking care of my sister and starting up this blog and playing in my band, he was holed up somewhere in the UK working on this magnificent collection of songs. This obsession with simultaneity is always a sure sign that I’m really a goner for something or someone; when I start asking, “so how old were you in this year? What grade were you in at school? This is how old I was. This is what I was up to. How funny to think it was happening at the same time!” then you know I’m really smitten.
Even though I’ve just written this whole blog post in preface to talking about how much I love the album, I don’t really even want to write that much about it for fear of breaking the spell. Do you honestly need me to describe in flowery language the burnished tone of Knopfler’s Les Paul guitar in order for me to convey how good the album is? Do you need a track-by-track analysis of his lyrical themes, or comparisons to other songs that kinda hit a similar vibe to the one he’s bringing to life here? Truly, the most accurate description of this album, to me, is not a description of this album at all. It’s this terrific quote from Bill Murray, talking about acting in Wes Anderson’s films:
Well, it’s like if someone plays an instrument, say, a guitar. A young player can play it, and if he wants to play a high note, or a fast rhythm, it has a certain [makes twangy noise] desperate quality to it. But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find. A young player can go [makes clumsy blip sounds], whereas a real player can go [makes smooth blip sounds]. You can notice the difference, and it’s like with that fast pace of Wes’s movies. If you’re real quiet, your whole body will be quiet, and there’ll be echo, and resonance. It’s like your head, or your chest, is a guitar box.
But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find.
That’s Tracker exactly. Much like my well-documented admiration for Mark Eitzel, right now Mark Knopfler and his music are fulfilling a major need for me to hear what it sounds like when highly trained, highly skilled, highly tasteful musicians make music as grown-ups, for grown-ups. It’s the sound of supreme mastery held lightly, finding time that other people can’t find. I feel oh so lucky and oh so grateful to be sharing my own time with it today.
When I first moved to Chicago in 2002, I moved into an apartment on Chicago Avenue that was above a storefront called Beloved.
Beloved was a magic shop. Not presto-chango, rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, but witchery. Voodoo. Gris-gris and powerful herbs in enormous glass jars. Though at the time I was just grateful to have found a place to live, now I think—of course. Of course that’s where I’d end up upon officially relocating to the city.
I lived in that apartment just shy of two years. The shop eventually relocated down the street, then went out of business altogether, then briefly resurfaced online, and now has no web presence at all after some blog entries circa early 2012. The woman who owned the shop was probably not that much older than I was, wore her hair in soft dark dreadlocks, and had an adorable spitfire of a young daughter.
In the time that we shared the same building, I not only often stopped in at the shop just to chat and say hi, but also took kundalini yoga there a few times, asked her for a spell that would help clear out the bad vibes after a particularly disagreeable roommate moved out of the apartment’s third bedroom (which involved me and my remaining roommate smashing open a coconut at the Chicago and Damen intersection late one gorgeous summer evening), and got a couple tarot readings from her.
Despite having developed a fascination with energy work in my early teens, I was never really exposed to, or gravitated to, tarot. The Craft-esque idea of groups of teenage witch girls summoning spirits, playing Ouija, or dressing up in Stevie Nicks-style shawls and capes could not have been further from my personal experience. Aside from attending some karate classes at a local rec center that first introduced me to the whole concept of being able to consciously direct and influence energy in and with my body, I mostly studied these things on my own. Plus, thanks to that karate class, I was initially more interested in Eastern religions anyway, preferring to read about Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism rather than Wicca or herbalism.
Anyway, I’m not sure at what point I even learned what tarot was. But, after I graduated from college, when I was the primary caretaker for my maternal grandmother as she was dying of lung cancer, I somehow stumbled upon a set of Titania’s Fortune Cards. The deck had far fewer cards than a traditional tarot deck and the imagery immediately resonated with me—there were boldly colored images of a house, a four-leaf clover, a heart, a book, a tree, and other iconic, solitary objects.
The deck of course came with a guidebook to the symbols, which I pored over, trying to force my brain and hands into a fluidity with their meanings—but also secretly hoping that the cards would reveal my own magical identity to me, that in laying them down, I would suddenly read the Cinderella-like truth of my power, my imminent rescue from the depressing circumstances of my life, and my assured destiny as someone very talented, very powerful, very appreciated, and abundantly loved. I don’t think I ever really got the answers I was looking for, and the deck was eventually tucked away on the bottom of a bookshelf.
I also have to believe that some of the distance I felt from that deck and from tarot in general is that they just seemed like so much damn work. Learning the intricacies of the symbolism of the cards, how the cards relate to each other when juxtaposed, then the various elaborate layouts giving structure and narrative to a reading—it just all seemed so much like math. I wanted to talk about emotions and relationships and memories—stumbling through a guidebook to learn all these esoteric meanings seemed like it would take an awful lot of time and effort and discipline to get to the good stuff.
I am not a very patient person.
And though of course I worked hard during my clairvoyant training to learn various methods and techniques for giving aura readings and energy healings, I had such an immediate sense of familiarity with what I was learning there that it rarely felt like work. It just felt like a clarifying of instincts that I already knew I had, rather than stuffing new information into my brain that would need to be slowly processed and assimilated.
That being said, my natural, voracious curiosity trumps even my aversion to the idea of strenuous effort, so I’ve been recently trying to familiarize myself with some tarot basics. I have some card apps on my iPhone, I received a Tarot de Marseille deck last Christmas as a gift from my boyfriend, and I recently ordered a Spirit Speak deck on the recommendation of the marvelous babes who run Spinning Wheel Apothecary. (I seriously regret having missed out on the last printing of The Collective Tarot, which is powerfully and brilliantly put together.)
Though I don’t think I’ll ever feel adept enough to give tarot readings to others in the same way that I give psychic readings and energy healings, I have to believe it’s useful for me to at least have a passing familiarity with how the deck works, especially since “tarot” is the first thing that people probably think of when a woman about my age has witchy, energy-working tendencies.
More than that, though, I’m actually enjoying just having this new toy that I can play around with. I’m such a perfectionist in so many areas of my life that it’s enormously freeing to look at this one thing where I can tell myself, “you know what—there’s absolutely no way you’re going to master this, so just enjoy it to the degree that you can manage.” Giving myself a break in this way, these days, is just about the most magical thing I can do for myself.
PS! If you’ve read this far and now are jonesing for a tarot reading of your own, let me unreservedly recommend Angie Yingst. Though she’s physically located in Pennsylvania and gives in-person crystal healings and leads workshops at the Alta View Wellness Center, she does have an option in her online shop for tarot readings done via e-mail. I’ve gotten readings from her for my past two birthdays. She lays a spread out for you using her own intuition for the card pulls, then sends a written PDF report detailing everything that came through. The information she brings in is so rich that the energy seriously lasts me the entire year—I frequently go back and reread mine to reconnect with her inspiration and wisdom. Her readings speak straight to my heart thanks to her abundant intelligence, good humor, and great sensitivity. I highly recommend her blog as well.
Well, it’s definitely not an important large-scale creative endeavor if there’s not one major oh shit moment!
After tracking vocals all morning and into the early afternoon on Sunday, my band Pet Theories and our audio engineer Kevin headed out for a late lunch, giddy and high from the accomplishment of a lot of really awesome work. Back at the studio about an hour later, we settled in for guitar overdubs and other miscellaneous finesse parts that would be folded into and around the basic guitar, keyboard, drums, and vocal tracks.
I grabbed a chair in the recording booth, eager to hear the waves of feedback and elegant countermelody lines I was waiting for Brian to unleash on the guitar. As playback began on the first song, something felt . . . off. Less than off, even; just . . . untasteful. I thought maybe I was just hearing things more soberly with a belly full of rice noodles and broccoli. Maybe the vocals had been rougher than I’d realized in the first flush of accomplishment.
But no—about 30 seconds later, Brian frantically waved his hands on the other side of the control room glass.
“Can you stop the playback in my headphones? Something’s out of synch.”
A tense few minutes passed as our engineer discovered that the vocals on every track we’d recorded that day were coming in a fraction of a beat too quickly. He tried to bump it back in ProTools several times to no avail. On every hopeful replay, the vocals were still rushing in, making us sound like inelegant, or possibly drunk, karaoke singers.
The fraction of time was so slight, it was impossible to even count. It wasn’t like we were coming in on beat 1 when we were supposed to come in on beat 2. It was more like coming in on beat 1.996 instead of beat 2. In other words, hard to point to with precision, but impossible not to feel.
My stomach began doing flip-flops and my throat dried up.
Were we going to have to start the vocals from scratch? Was any of it repairable? Would attempts to manipulate a timing glitch that subtle in ProTools just make everything sound alien and sterile?
Though my initial instinct was to freak out and panic, I recalled an anecdote from Hawaiian shaman Serge Kahili King’s book Changing Reality that I love. When he and his wife were once attempting a major trip overseas, they’d arrived at the airport to discover that their itinerary was completely missing from the airline’s computer records:
We both stayed perfectly calm and vocally thanked and complimented the ticket agent for every small positive thing she did, at the same time ignoring everything that did not seem to work out. Inwardly, we passively, but consistently, blessed with images and silent words all the personnel involved, all the computers and electrical connections, all the planes that might be part of our trip, and everything good we could think of. The agent went more and more out of her way to help us, and so did the people she was dealing with. In about an hour we had a better itinerary than our original one—with first-class seats thrown in as a bonus.
Inspired by this story, I started mentally praising the soundboard for all its beautiful, hard work for us that day, and energetically beamed appreciation and encouragement at Kevin for all his technical smarts and creative aptitude.
Before too long, he discovered that two internal clocks in the hardware had somehow gotten out of phase with each other—one was set to 48 and one was set to 44, forever dooming half the tracks to chase the other half at an infinitesimally slight delay. A total system reboot, while time consuming, was basically all it took to get everything set right again.
This was a perfect lesson for me, in so many ways, since I so often struggle with impatience. I saw that speeding through things does not usually give me the results that I want when I’m insistent upon something I desire happening now-now-now. When shifts occur before they’re supposed to, they’ll likely feel forced or rushed or just in subtly indefinable bad taste.
It also felt like a metaphor for everything we’re trying to accomplish as a band, and with this recording. The sounds that we make might not sound like much to someone who’s not paying attention. But we hope that the people who will appreciate the infinitesimally subtle shifts that we’re bringing to the creation of our own unique sound will hear what we’re doing and be moved to respond.
Thank you so much for joining us on this stage of our journey! We can’t wait to share the final tracks with you. You can keep up with the band and our whereabouts on Facebook and Soundcloud. You can find more information about our most excellent engineer, Kevin Tabisz, and his stellar studio, Uphill Recording, on Facebook and Soundcloud as well.
With one full day of recording behind us, we’re elated, and exhausted.
As I said close to the end of today’s session, I don’t know how bands who hate each other get through this process in one piece. It’s tough enough work with a bunch of folks you get along quite well with.
Which is not to say it’s hard, necessarily. Recording just takes everything you have available to give it. And we gave a lot today.
Here’s some of what’s going into the music you’ll hopefully be hearing soon.
When I tell people that my dad was a musician, it’s often hard for me to explain what it was, exactly, that he did.
The first assumption is usually that he played in a rock band. That he wrote and played original material. That he toured. That he had aspirations of “making it.” That, living an hour outside Chicago, he must have been frustrated by his proximity to an urban metropolis where he could have been schmoozing and connecting with other players if he hadn’t had to raise three kids as a single parent and keep a steady job.
Other guesses might include that, as a piano player, he was classically trained and played in orchestras. Or that he was some kind of session musician, popping in and out of recording sessions, sprinkling some cool sounds on other people’s songs. Or that he was a mere hobbyist, playing front porches and backyards for the sheer love of it.
None of that is really true. Or maybe some of it is? Parts of all those different narratives got combined into a weird amalgam that’s so unique that it disappears through my fingers when I try to hold it for someone else to observe and comprehend.
Born in 1949 to first-generation Polish parents, he began playing the accordion as a young child, and eventually was able to transfer the right-hand keyboard skills to piano. (He always rued that his left hand dexterity was underdeveloped because of this early training on buttons instead of keys.) He played keyboards in bands throughout high school and college, though he also entered Indiana University as a French horn player, since he wanted to go into music education and he needed a band instrument to do so. He also learned to play a bit of violin, I’m told, though I never saw him demonstrate it.
The summers during college, and then in the years afterward, he played with his own trio, a hilariously oddball group made up of him on Cordovox (basically an electric accordion), a singing drummer, and his best friend on vibes. Sheer, total bonkers instrumentation—and three of the most talented, tasteful musicians I can think of, even now. They played mostly cover songs and polkas, and were booked for wedding receptions, anniversary parties, high school banquets, and other large gatherings in the days before DJs were de rigueur. The line-up fluctuated in subsequent years after the vibes player moved to California, with the addition of a trumpet-playing friend, another keyboard, and a female vocalist for a time, before they eventually called it quits after my mother’s death in 1987.
He taught high school band for a few years in his late 20s and early 30s, grudgingly leading the marching band but preferring to conduct the pit band for musical theater performances. When he left education for a 9-to-5 office job that would afford him a better paycheck and more free time on nights and weekends for his own projects (and growing family), he continued writing instrumentation and conducting pit bands for musical theater productions throughout Northwest Indiana.
After the dissolution of his own band in the late ’80s, he also had more time to devote to playing music at church. Then, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he connected with a female vocalist who gigged throughout the region and often let other musicians sit in with her band for a few songs throughout the night, and he became a regular fixture at her gigs in various restaurants and bars until he had the stroke that put him in a nursing home in the summer of 2004.
And not only did he play, he was also a voracious music listener and appreciator. Though he was a jazz musician, his favorites weren’t John Coltrane or Miles Davis—he loved trumpet players like Maynard Ferguson and Don Ellis and Allen Vizzutti.
He loved Huey Lewis and the News and Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan in the ’80s. He went through a massively obsessive phase for weird old doo-wop recordings. Of course musical theater was a constant presence—he preferred Les Miz to Phantom, but loved the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse stuff most of all, thanks to fond memories of his own high school’s production of The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd. And even though he wasn’t super into the rock music of his generation (I don’t have the Beatles or Stones love that many kids of my generation do because their parents were avid fans), he knocked me out one time when, as I was learning more about the ’70s New York punk scene, he casually mentioned how he’d always really liked Tom Verlaine’s playing. He didn’t quite understand what I liked about OK Computer, but Jeff Buckley’s vocal calisthenics at the end of “Grace” earned his unreserved admiration.
I never once heard him talk about “doing” anything with his music. He did it, and that was all that mattered. I’m sure there was probably some part of him that wished he could have played more, or that he could have found some musical day job that would have paid well enough to survive on, but I literally never heard him mention it or complain about it. At his wake in late 2012, one of his friends said that my dad was made of music. That’s as true to the spirit of how essential it was to his identity as any other description I’ve ever heard.
I only bring this history up to contextualize the fact that my currently playing in a rock band is not actually an obvious thing for me to be doing. The years that I spent performing both on stage and in the pit bands for local musical theater productions—that was obvious. My voice lessons in my early 20s at the Bloom School of Jazz—that was obvious.
But this weird thing that I’ve been doing since early 2010, singing and now playing keyboard in a band in Chicago, performing mostly original material with a few covers thrown in on occasion, is something that doesn’t really find a template in what I learned from my father growing up.
Except, of course, for the camaraderie. Genre to genre, and format to format, that doesn’t really change much. And so I know I’m genuinely happy when my rehearsals with my band Pet Theories start to tickle my memories of how I remember my dad laughing his ass off about something with his drummer, or picking apart an awesome solo off some newfound recording around the dinner table with his trumpet-playing friend. Or even my own memories of giddy, exhausted late-night rehearsals at the theater in high school, or the surprised pleasure I felt the first time I actually heard a well-recorded take of my own isolated vocals on an arrangement of “More Than You Know.”
My band goes into the recording studio tomorrow to start laying down basic tracks for what will hopefully become our first full-length album. We’ve been playing some of these songs together for years; some of them we just started arranging less than two months ago.
And much like how, just now, I needed hundreds of words across about a dozen paragraphs to describe just what kind of musician my dad was, I’d probably need the same amount of space to describe what we sound like, the way that our disparate influences shape what we do and why it works as well as it does.
Maybe there’s an obvious referent for what we do that I just can’t hear because I’m so close to it. But I don’t think so. For a long time, I found it easy to tell people that we sound like The Police. (We even learned to play a handful of Police cover songs for a fundraiser at Schubas in December 2014.)
But even that doesn’t seem accurate anymore, now that we’re all growing more comfortable with each other and with what we each contribute to the overall sound.
I’m excited to hear what comes of the sessions this weekend, and hope to bring you all along for the ride. And even though being in a studio won’t necessarily make me think of my dad, finding time in my busy schedule to make music together with people I respect and admire and adore definitely does.
I’ve written here before about my love/hate relationship with coffee.
I find myself firmly on the “love” side of the divide these days and, as ever, am trying to figure out what that means to me and why.
I’m constantly torn between a desire for solitude and a desire to feel a sense of connection and belonging to other people. In years past, I felt lonely and bereft of companionship, so I’d have to invent reasons and occasions to gather with others–whether it was internet dating, regular outings with girlfriends to visit weird places around the city, serving on the advisory council of my Buddhist temple, or joining a rock band.
These days I’m firmly ensconced in groups of all sorts that demand my attention in a number of ways–working 40 hours a week in an office with an open floor plan and the corresponding expectation for collaboration and conversation at the drop of a hat, weekly rehearsals with my band Pet Theories, caring for my younger autistic sister, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend and our two cats, not to mention being tethered to the Internet through this blog, my Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and the various other tendrils of digital life.
Though these relationships fulfill and sustain me in marvelous way, I do find that I still need to counterbalance all that togetherness with moments of solitude wherever I can carve them out. Reliably, those moments happen during meditation in the morning and zone-out time with my headphones on while commuting to work on the CTA. Increasingly, though, I find that making and/or drinking coffee is actually an important ritual that I perform just for me.
At the risk of sounding like some cheesy commercial from the ’80s extolling the virtues of a coffee break for a busy professional woman such as myself, I do find that having a cup of coffee is a reliable indication of “me time.” My boyfriend can’t drink caffeine, so when I make it at home, the whole elaborate ritual of putting together a pour-over cup for myself marks the kitchen as my space for a precious few minutes (despite our cat Rosie’s very loud insistence that she be given her fair share of coconut cream as an even exchange for her not murdering us while we sleep).
I’ve never been a smoker but have always been envious of the socially sanctioned smoke break, where a person just has permission to quietly hang out, doing nothing but letting the world go by for a few minutes. I know the habit is expensive and that there’s an increasing crackdown on places where people are allowed to smoke peacefully and comfortably in the city, but my romantic vision of this ritual remains. Happily, I find that I get some of the same no-questions-asked latitude for time away from my desk when I declare that I need to get a cup of coffee. Office lunchroom coffee is, of course, terrible–but the stolen moments that belong to me are delicious. And increasingly necessary.
I am completely in love with this place and its no-bullshit approach to what it does. You can read plenty about owner Jonathan Ory’s bona fides and background on various culinary sites around the internet. I’m certainly no foodie so I can’t really chime in on all that, but I so appreciate the vibe that he’s created at the shop.
In eliminating the expected trappings of a “normal” coffee shop–like, y’know, chairs–he’s beautifully put the emphasis on his limited but exquisite menu of drinks and pastries. I very rarely drink coffee without generous quantities of cream and sugar, but here I do–it’s so rich and flavorful and smooth that it really only needs a small sprinkling of sugar granules to make it palatable to me. If it’s unexpectedly busy in the shop, or when the weather’s nice and I want to walk, I’ll get it to go, but these days I’ve been staying to drink it, extending my blissful alone time standing up at the edge of the one long table in the center of the room, maybe halfheartedly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, but mostly just zoning out, bringing myself back to the rhythms of the regular world after an hour or so at the temple.
And though I do crave my alone time, I also never want to take for granted my connection to my loved ones, so I’ve developed the habit of checking in with my boyfriend by text message, sending him a photo of what I’ve taken to calling “the weekly coffee report.” Which is exactly what it sounds like–photos snapped staring down the barrel of my coffee cup, all completely interchangeable at some level but precious to me just the same for the way they represent a certain satisfying groove of habit that’s been worn into my life of late.
Is that maybe the root of my current love affair with coffee? Its perfect balance between sameness and variation? A cup of coffee brewed at home is not a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts is not a cup of coffee from Asado, nevertheless . . .
As Adam Gopnik writes in Paris to the Moon,
Can’t repeat the past? We do it every day. We build a life, or try to, of pleasures and duties that will become routine, so that every day will be the same day, or nearly so, “the day of our life,” Randall Jarrell called it.
Of course the snob in me is torn between raving about Bad Wolf Coffee so that more people will check it out (and help it stay in business) and wanting to keep it my own little secret, a place where I can reliably go to disappear in plain sight for a short while. But I honestly love it too much to keep it to myself; I suppose there’s plenty of time for visitors in the day of my life. So if you happen to see me at the corner of the big wooden table on a Sunday morning, let us give thanks together for the bridge between the transcendent and the mundane, the solitary and the communal, offered by sharing the ritual of a really good cup of coffee.
UPDATE: Bad Wolf Coffee (sadly) officially closed its doors on September 21, 2015. Best wishes to Jonathan Ory on his new endeavors in Charleston, SC!
For several years when I was about middle-school age, my family would go at Christmastime to a local church that put on an elaborately staged production of A Christmas Carol.
This production not only adapted the story into a musical, but also turned it into a musical with an explicitly evangelical Christian theme. The conceit was that Scrooge, rather than seeing the error of his miserly ways after his three ghostly visitations, instead accepts Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior and wakes up on December 25 as a born-again Christian.
Even today, as a precept-following Buddhist, I have to admit that, for its purpose and audience, it’s a pretty brilliant take on the material.
My father, raised Catholic by first-generation Polish parents, had at some point started attending the evangelical Christian church my mother had long belonged to. (Though I’m not sure where and how my mother got there since my maternal grandparents weren’t terribly religious.) My mother died in 1987, and I have to believe that that event wove us even more firmly into the community of that church, especially given how much they did for us during the year or two that she was dying of cancer.
My father’s brother and sister and their children—my cousins—all remained more or less devout Catholics, so my siblings and I were always slight outcasts among our clan. We didn’t get First Communion parties and were exempt from Midnight Masses. However, we never had that many friends our own age at my dad’s church, despite multiple years of attending Vacation Bible School for a week during the summers and the fits and starts of attendance at early morning Sunday school when my father, a gigging musician who often played late on Saturday nights, could get us all up early enough to ferry us there on time. The church was truly most important for my dad as a social group and support network. There was even a woman there, another single parent, whom he sort of dated for a while. Though he never defined their relationship as such to us, I hated her viciously anyway.
In subsequent years, he became more and more involved with the worship music at Sunday services, playing keyboards in the praise band as the music choices began to drift away from more traditional hymns played on piano and organ toward the kind of light pop that called for more elaborate instrumentation. He had consummately good taste and a short-fuse temper, which was sort of a hilariously bad combination in that context. Though never the actual worship leader, he essentially ran their Wednesday night rehearsals, putting the band through its paces and cursing them out when someone was playing lazily or sloppily, the way he would with any other musician in a jazz band or musical theater orchestra. As I grew older, this behavior embarrassed me terribly on his behalf, but his fellow musicians, aside from the occasional frustrated remark or rueful shake of the head, always insisted that they appreciated his perfectionism and were grateful for his attempts to turn them into better players, so that they could then, in turn, give greater glory to God.
So, the fact that we made trips to see this Christian version of A Christmas Carol for so many years in a row really meant something—it meant that it was really, really well done. My father was also deeply sentimental and liked to do the same rituals over and over, year after year, so it was a given at that time in our lives that we would all attend this show as part of our holiday traditions.
The church that put on the show was maybe 25 minutes away from where we lived, in a town we didn’t have much reason to go to otherwise, so even though the drive wasn’t that long, there was always a sense of occasion to our yearly pilgrimage there.
In the early ’90s, my dad had officially given up the huge, boxy full-size van that he’d used for years to cart musical gear to and from gigs, in favor of a more manageable and comfortable minivan with sufficient seating for me and my brother and sister. Though I usually rode in the front seat if it was just the four of us traveling together, I’d have to cede the place if there was another adult, like one of my three living grandparents, coming along with us. Since my dad loved introducing people to this version of A Christmas Carol and thus we often were driving new attendees to the show, my memories of driving to and from this church are predominantly of my sitting in the inky darkness in the back of the minivan, bundled into my winter coat but still shivering against the frigid air. Christmas music would be playing softly on the stereo and whatever conversation might be occurring would feel light years away from my little nest. I would stare out the window at the passing lights of streets I only dimly recognized and would occasionally smell the heavenly scent of greasy fast food billowing on the cold night air.
These trips in the van always felt removed from regular life, but also curiously suspended, coherent, since they were, for a time, a yearly constant, unique unto themselves. And even though there is now scant evidence available (that I can find online, at least) that this show ever existed, and even though my own Dickensian Christmastime traditions favor Great Expectations over A Christmas Carol (that opening scene of Pip in the graveyard on Christmas Eve is as indelibly a part of me as if it had been a real life event), I find myself referring back to this cluster of memories more than I might expect. Not out of nostalgia, really; more like opening the oven door periodically to see if the muffins are done baking yet. I keep waiting for this strange combination of sense memories to cohere into something solid, something that will sustain and nourish me.
Cold air. Nighttime drives. Holiday anticipation. A warm theater. A lovingly produced performance. My father’s standards of excellence. A spiritual lens on a familiar story. Seasonal predictability. Cherished art to share with family and friends.
Is it selfish to want to form a more definite story out of these events and impressions? Is there something a little pushy about wanting to force them into some kind of digestible narrative or anecdote?
Maybe it’s actually OK that these memories don’t quite cohere. Maybe they’re best left as clusters, as constellations, the space between them leaving room for me to trace a line that creates a shape that exists only in my mind’s eye. Maybe this vague shape suggests, instead of a specific lesson, a useful mythology.
“His chest was like Christ’s. That’s probably who he was. I could have followed anybody off that train. It would have been the same.” –Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
I’m a relative latecomer to the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. When I was still more avidly consuming new music and reading music blogs in 2009, I read a post written by John Darnielle saying that The Golden Age was one of the best albums of the ’00s. It didn’t take me long to seek it out, and I became obsessed. It’s rarely left my iPod in the last five years. The lyrics, the acid humor, the arrangements, the pacing, Eitzel’s voice—it’s a treasure trove of elements that I most reliably look for and respond to in music. “The Sleeping Beauty” sat at the heart of my Best of 2009 mix.
By the time Eitzel’s solo album Don’t Be a Stranger came out in 2012, I was a year into a relationship with someone who knew and adored Eitzel’s work as much as I did. We were both immediately overwhelmed with how good the album was. When we found out Eitzel would be playing a show at the Beat Kitchen here in Chicago the day after Thanksgiving, we immediately bought tickets, and I started obnoxiously Twittering at him, inviting him to spend the holiday with us in the event he was in town a day early and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I never heard back from him online, but when we got to the venue the day of the show, I almost literally ran into him as I was coming back upstairs from the bathroom. “Mark!” I accosted him. “I was the one who kept Twittering at you!” He immediately, reflexively folded me into a hug.
Eitzel sang that night accompanied by an extremely talented piano player, with no other percussion or guitar or bass. And it was one of the most achingly lovely shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve hesitated to write about it for the past two years because I’m still wary of breaking the spell—and of not doing it anything close to justice. Would I ruin the memory, the effect it’s had on me, by trying to put it into words?
I grew up in a house with a musician who never seemed to suffer from any self-doubt or crisis of confidence. But, perhaps because of the not-so-subtle insinuations from family, friends, and his colleagues that I should be his protégé, I’ve always been afraid of, well, sucking. Being a disappointment as a musician would reflect badly not only on me—for not being sprung from his forehead fully formed and ready to jam—but also of course on him for not getting the kind of firstborn everyone figured he was owed, karmically. So, I lived in a constant terror of playing any wrong notes on the piano, or singing out of tune, or succumbing somehow to having bad taste. Despite the inescapable pressure of expectation, I continued to make music in multiple capacities for pretty much my whole life, in musical theater productions and choirs and jazz bands, and truly had as much fun with it as I could reasonably be expected to have.
Yet, finally joining a full-on rock group in my early 30s was the thing that really threw me into a crisis of confidence. Surrounded by guys who’d had years of experience playing on stage at major venues like CBGB’s and Chicago’s Metro, I found myself doubting my talent, doubting my contributions to the band, feeling like I probably didn’t deserve to be on stage with them at all. I believed I was dead weight and that if I was going to have the audacity to sing at all, I should at least make an effort to play some tambourine and other miscellaneous percussion so that it didn’t seem like I was taking up so much space. I even forced the songwriter to teach me how to play his Gibson SG so that I could borrow it to (badly) play a secondary guitar line to fill out the sound on one of the songs.
Imposter syndrome would be an easy and obvious explanation for the self-doubt that was transforming me from a mostly joyful performer into a more hesitant, unsure one. The narrative would probably go something like, “now that I’d finally achieved my dream of being an adult playing rock music in the city of Chicago alongside a group of extremely talented musicians, I was waiting for someone to discover that I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, that I was taking up space as a chubby, not very attractive girl in a role that should rightly be filled by either another dude or by a bombshell like PJ Harvey.” And, that all might be true, and might be folded somewhere in my psychology, but I think it was actually a more acute fear of vulnerability.
In all my musical experiences up to that point, I could hide behind sheet music (in band or choir), behind a character (onstage in a musical), or even behind my father’s legend as a musician in Northwest Indiana (when I sat in with jazz groups in the area). But suddenly there was no sheet music and no script and no one who knew or gave a shit about my dad’s performance history. Suddenly, being required to sing as myself felt like the most impossible and terrifying task I’d ever been faced with.
And, assuming I would be able to figure any of those questions out internally, how would I go about communicating it in performance? How would I allow those answers to become visible or hearable when I sang?
Watching Mark Eitzel on stage that night in late 2012 was an incredibly profound healing on all those questions that had been roiling inside me for years. Everything in me released its tension and went, “ohhhh. So that’s what a singer can do onstage.”
He showed up with an openness that was so complete that it shifted from revelation to command. He wasn’t merely vulnerable so that the audience could gawk at his flaws and idiosyncrasies. He was transparent, irreducible, a 1:1 correlation between who he was being and what he was doing, moment by moment. His heart was not hidden from us.
Often you’ll hear people describe an artist or performer as being a channel, as if it’s somehow more impressive for that person to disappear so that angelic or cosmic information can be transmitted. But Eitzel’s performance wasn’t a gate for heavenly glory; it was the gift of pure presence. He was saying hello to us by offering us the deepest, truest, most graceful parts of himself through his voice. It was the kind of soul-bearing greeting that one usually only receives when falling in love—but he was giving that energy, so intimately, to an entire roomful of people. It was a gift. He gave us his humanity.
I suddenly started to understand my role as a singer in a whole new way. I knew that I wanted to start inching myself toward the kind of performance that could be about so much more than the music, that could be about love and spirit and connection and emotional intelligence and wisdom and a 100% lack of hedging or compromise or bluster. I knew that I needed to find a way to choose that degree of integrity in my own practice as a performer, paying tribute to his example every time I get onstage myself.
And not only that — I have to reach beyond the desire to see someone else reveal him- or herself onstage, and even past the mere wish that I could do it too, and into the realm of pure potential where I can actually tap the strength needed to burn away the bullshit that keeps me stuck in questioning my ability to contribute anything worthwhile and pull incredible beauty forth in my life and my art.
Is this a tall order to fill? Of course. Is there any way to avoid it now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and heard what I’ve heard and know what I know? No.
Music, even in my greatest moments of triumph, has never felt effortless to me. Playing or singing has always felt like walking through a minefield, like any minor misstep I made would be catastrophically destructive to my fellow musicians, to the audience, to the piece of music itself. So, I’ve always approached performance with a studied seriousness, as if my sincerity would at least earn me brownie points in case I ended up being responsible for something going horribly awry.
It’s cliche, but, a guy like Eitzel makes it look easy. Of course he’s had years of experience and preparation to get him to the level he’s at these days, but I think the greater truth he’s showing me is that it really just is easy. It’s much more difficult to hold back and pretend and apologize. The energy it takes to maintain those competing anxiety narratives directly detracts from the energy of healing that is able to be transmitted in turn to the audience.
More than anything, though, I see it as a perspective shift. I’ve come around to the conclusion that everyone can see everything about me when I’m onstage anyway, so I might as well make the choice to show up as the singer of the song without letting the static in my own head drown out the melody. The vulnerability is in the hiding, not in being seen.