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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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.
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’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.
“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.
A little over a week ago I went to see a jazz pianist’s trio in concert for the first time.
I’m not a particularly huge fan of his, but find his playing and sense of interpretation interesting. He was scheduled to perform at a local venue that I don’t love, but it’s convenient to get to and, all in all, I figured it would be an enjoyable evening.
But, I also very much want to be entertained, even transported. In many respects I am as forgiving as I am judgmental. It is always my instinct to weigh all aspects of a performance against a sympathy for the artist, especially relative to his or her open-heartedness.
So despite the venue, despite my lack of knowledge of the pianist’s body of work, I wanted to have a good time. It was Friday night; I was out with my love; I was determined to enjoy myself.
Alas, it was one of the worst shows I’ve been to in a very long time!
The pianist himself may have been interesting. I still like his touch and would be keen to see him do a solo set.
But his band was just laughably subpar. Particularly his drummer; he has to be one of the worst professional drummers I have ever seen.
His sense of time was competent, but his musicality was absolutely nil. He careened around the kit seemingly at random, never developing a musical story or other form of through-line to complement the song. His dynamic range was seemingly nonexistent. It was almost physically painful to listen to him play.
For a while, I tried listening past him, as it were, but in a trio setting, he was pretty difficult to ignore. The less said about his solos, the better.
The whole thing felt like the revenge of overly cerebral, hyper-educated, super fancy jazz training. You could hear every credit hour of conservatory work, every endless theoretical deconstruction of meter and pattern, every earnest late-night debate about the future of jazz. I’ve often been mansplained to about jazz, but this is the first time I can recall ever feeling mansplained to through the music itself. “Hello, yes, this is Very Serious Jazztimes. Please sit back and appreciate our genius. Can’t appreciate it? That’s just because you don’t understand it.”
As the concert wore on, the very serious crowd dutifully clapped for every solo and nodded along sagaciously with every chord inversion. It felt like a very Emperor’s New Clothes situation. It got so bad that my brain actually pushed me into relativistic philosophizing.
“Nothing matters! Quality is an illusion! Effort is for naught! If this cat is a successful, apparently lauded touring musician, then why does anyone ever attempt to critique anything? Value judgment is irrelevant!”
Which . . . actually led me to a really amazing place of self-acceptance and release.
(Totally didn’t see that coming.)
I tie myself in knots endlessly attempting to make sure any and all aspects of my creative output are “good.” I rewrite, rehash, rethink everything I put into the world to a ridiculous degree. I often abandon ideas before they’ve had half a chance to survive, simply because I think they’ll be deemed stupid or will otherwise reveal me as an utterly incompetent moron. And not just by vicious strangers on the internet; I worry that my closest friends and confidants, the people whose insight I value deeply, will secretly roll their eyes at my work, or worse, will have to take me aside for a quiet moment of realtalk: “Allison, ouch, that thing you wrote was really, really bad. I really thought you were better and smarter than that.”
I’m worried about it right now, writing this.
This self-castigation is in no way unique to me, I know, but the pain of wanting to create yet not allowing myself to, for fear of imagined judgment or ridicule, nevertheless takes up a significant amount of my brain power and life force.
My father was a perfectionist, and certainly I learned to mimic him in that. I also learned to push myself to attempted perfection in all my pursuits in order to remove one more potential stressor from our already volatile household. If I was beyond reproach in all the possible areas I could control, maybe he wouldn’t have to get mad and yell at us.
These are hard, deeply ingrained habits to break. Yet, this terrible drummer showed me some kind of a loophole.
He had nothing approaching what I would call talent or taste, but it didn’t matter what I thought. He was still playing. He was making his living as a musician. Behind all the musical mansplaining and skittery improvisational hackwork, he looked like he was even having fun. Even if, hypothetically, he’s riddled with self-doubt behind the scenes, he was still functional enough to get out in front of the crowd and play. And, the audience didn’t condemn him—quite the opposite. He was loudly applauded, praised for his effort.
The lesson, for me, couldn’t have been more simple. If I truly love what I do, and have the discipline to commit myself to it regularly–obsessively–both jeers and applause cease to matter quite as much. I will find the people who appreciate me, but more importantly, the work itself will provide its own fuel for my continuing to do it as long as I continue to love it.
Yesterday morning I stopped at the Asado on Irving Park for a coffee. I was feeling crabby and unsettled, stifled in some indefinable way.
When I stepped inside, the guy behind the counter greeted me warmly, cheerfully asking what I’d like to order. I asked him to recommend a roast from today’s three offerings and he explained the differences in taste, acidity, and body. I chose one pretty much at random and sat down at a table to wait for the pour-over cup to be ready.
I took my red Moleskin notebook out of my shoulder bag and began writing my way through a litany of all my current frustrations, all my current mental/emotional/spiritual blocks, trying to excavate whatever the root of my discomfort might be. The warm cup of coffee, with my requested touch of cream and sugar, was soon placed in front of me. I eagerly took a sip of the strong, almost ashy blend. I couldn’t help but think how improbable it is that we, as humans, cultivated this beverage at all, and marveled that Chicago should now have so many fancy roasters available to partake in.
I have a love-hate relationship with coffee that goes back years. I first learned to gulp it down with tons of cream and sugar as a teenager during late nights out at the local diner with my theater friends. I remember, during what must have been spring break of my junior or senior year, drinking so many cups one night that I temporarily forgot what caffeine would do to a person. After my friend Kristen dropped me off at home many hours later, I lay wide awake in bed, feeling like a tweaked-out, over-stimulated cartoon version of myself, my heart pounding rapidly in my chest, wondering if the fever-pitch insanity pulsing through my body would ever dissipate enough to let me sleep.
I drank coffee off and on during college, especially on days when I was scheduled for multiple classes that segued into late evening film screenings or other meetings, though I always got frustrated by the inevitable crash that left me feeling like my veins were scraped out by the dregs of the coffee grounds.
At some point as I neared college graduation, a friend introduced me to a magical new elixir called Red Bull, which I embraced wholeheartedly for the way it would buzz me up for much longer and wouldn’t crash me down as catastrophically as coffee did. It tasted like children’s cough syrup and became associated with a certain kind of odious Party Bro, though, so my romance with it as an alternative to coffee was fairly short-lived.
Once I moved to Chicago, I had endless choices for my fix: Atomix near my first apartment, Starbucks across the street from my office, the Bourgeois Pig, Beans and Bagels near the Rockwell brown line stop, Black Cat on Division (I can’t even find evidence online that that place ever existed, though I vividly remember walking there once after a brutal early January cold snap to work on my review of 8 Mile for the website Spiked Online).
In the same way that I struggle with caffeine, I struggle with money (specifically with saving it, and not overspending or getting myself into debt), so at some point I decided I’d have to invest in a coffeemaker so that I could start making the stuff at home, rather than buying a cup somewhere every day. As I recall, I fortuitously received a personal coffeemaker, which could brew enough for just two cups, from one of my cousins in a holiday gift exchange. But coffee brewed at home in an inexpensive machine always tastes kind of crappy, so indulgences in cups from all of the above mentioned places continued, if not quite as frequently.
When I started exercising more and cleaning up my diet with raw foods and green smoothies, coffee was naturally one of the habits I knew I needed to break. I started putting maca powder in my smoothies to both give my adrenals a break and hopefully to compensate for the energy boost I knew I’d be missing. I eventually dropped the habit altogether and felt extremely virtuous about it.
Until early 2010, that is, when I was copyediting Cherry Vanilla’s (amazing) memoir Lick Me and decided to dose myself with a cup of coffee, almost medicinally. My thinking processes after a good cup of coffee always felt more fluid and effortlessly intuitive, and it indeed helped me plow through the editing process on the impossibly short schedule I’d been allotted. Of course, I got majorly hooked again, and I date my current on-again, off-again relationship with the stuff back to that fateful cup.
So then I moved on to Dunkin’ Donuts as an alternative to Starbucks on my way to work, Einstein’s Brothers when I couldn’t find anything else (their coffee is truly awful), the Julius Meinl on Southport, Regulus’s dearly departed brick-and-mortar shop, the occasional cold brew at home, and now even new kid on the block Bad Wolf Coffee with their exquisite pastries.
My life is awash with temptation and the constant promise of fulfillment coupled with the inevitable risk of oversaturation.
Back at Asado on Sunday, I sipped from my mug and let my thoughts drift away from the doubts and anxieties that had been plaguing me. I noticed at some point that the sound system had begun to quietly play that notorious first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album. I hadn’t heard any of those songs in ages, and I was surprised by how terrific they sounded. Ounsworth’s vocals will never be exactly crowdpleasing outside certain circles of now old-school hipsters, but the drumming was tighter than I’d remembered, and I’d forgotten, too, how catchy the melodies were.
After a little while, I looked up from my now nearly empty mug and realized what a massive healing it had been to just sit in a coffee shop alone on a Sunday morning, listening to an almost ten-year-old album, sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee, and getting some much needed caffeine into my system. Certainly some of my mood lift could be chalked up to the chemical stimulation, but I felt all the morning’s heaviness fall away just the same. I gratefully reconnected with an inner sense of optimism and enthusiasm, and looked forward to a few hours of random wandering and exploring.
As I packed up my notebook and put on my coat and got ready to head out, I returned my mug to the guy at the front counter and thanked him both for the blend he’d recommended and for playing the CYHSY album. He laughed and shared that one of the women who worked there had recently said of that album, “Oh, it reminds me so much of middle school,” and I laughed loudly in response. He and I were probably about the same age, and thus recognized that our experience of that band would necessarily be very different from someone who listened to it as a middle schooler.
It wasn’t really a “kids these days” thing or a “gosh, aren’t we old” commiseration. It was just a nice moment of connection over coffee and music and the acknowledgment of the cycles that bring us back to them both in times when we need them most.
During my teen years in the ’90s, I wasn’t terribly tuned into contemporary music.
Grunge just totally left me cold, and I didn’t realize it was possible to seek out anything, like Riot Grrl, that would have been considered indie or underground—not that it would have mattered. My tastes at that time simply did not run toward much of anything that was loud, or guitar-oriented, or that existed primarily to express angst.
I listened to a lot of show tunes, and jazz, and even piano music that would be considered easy listening or new age, and to Sting’s solo stuff, which makes perfect sense in that context.
But, as my teen years wore on, my first boyfriend introduced me to the music of Sophie B. Hawkins, so I started listening to her first two albums relentlessly, mostly because I missed him so much while he was in California.
I’d developed an affection for PM Dawn at some point, so The Bliss Album…? and later Jesus Wept got a lot of play during those years.
A friend from my high school theater department who’d graduated a few years ahead of me turned me on to Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart, and that made me dive headlong into the glory of Tracey Thorn’s voice for a while.
But, that was about the scope of it for what seems like a long time.
Oh God, and there was the Dave Matthews Band too, I guess. But I’ll even defend that on account of their chops as musicians.
But as my senior year in high school droned on, I somehow started getting keyed into more of what was being played on the radio, and though I can’t remember exactly why, I picked up the Counting Crows album Recovering the Satellites at some point in early ’97. My best guess is that I was probably responding to the current ubiquity of “A Long December,” but even that would have been slightly out of character for me, buying a full-length album solely on the strength of its big hit single. Regardless, the album (on cassette) went into heavy rotation in my life, mostly on the car stereo of my white Chevy Lumina.
I remember driving somewhere with my friend Casey, the album on quietly in the background, and he asked me, somewhat incredulously, “you like this?” in response to one of their big noisy guitar freak-outs, probably the one at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping.”
He’d tried to turn me on to Weezer at some point, making an argument for the tunefulness of the melodies and the wit of the lyrics, and I think he was confused as to why I couldn’t stand that stuff but was newly obsessed with Counting Crows, which didn’t seem, to his ears anyway, that far afield from it. I shrugged and tried to explain that the build at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping” felt like it had been earned, that the song started small and crescendoed logically, giving the whole thing room to grow.
(My father always taught me that, when playing or singing, you shouldn’t give away everything you’ve got right at the beginning or there’s nowhere interesting left to go. That was part of what I didn’t quite get about Weezer; the guitars started off so loud and distorted that there was no sonic narrative left to develop. I guess maybe that feels cool, emotionally, when you’re a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy, but to me, it was just like, “ugh, this is making me uncomfortable, please make it stop.” Also, I came to realize in my twenties and early thirties, Weezer kind of sucks anyway.)
And so, Recovering the Satellites is indelibly linked to that time in my life, that final semester of high school and first summer before college.
Imagine my surprise, however, when I realized that the album turns out to still be terrific. I can’t remember when I first pulled it (now on compact disk) back out of my collection for a spin, but every so often since then I get a craving to hear it and am bowled over by the fact that it holds up so well, totally beyond any nostalgia factor.
The melodies are lovely, and Adam Duritz is actually a really interesting singer, and the playing is top notch. When my boyfriend first put The Jayhawks on for me a little while ago, I kind of sniffed and said, “yeah, OK, but I’d really rather just be listening to Counting Crows.”
I used to be embarrassed about how much I loved this album (probably because of stuff like this), but I care so much less about coolness now. Especially given that I can actually discern, after all this time, that my enjoyment truly stems from the music itself and not its popularity. It’s almost the opposite of the phenomenon of sending love to myself backward into the past; I have to give my eighteen-year-old self credit for locking into this thing that continues to bring me joy a full seventeen years later.
For a good fifteen years now, whenever people have asked me what my favorite band is, I usually say The Divine Comedy.
I attempted to oeuvreblog them a few years ago and wrote an introductory essay laying out many of the reasons why. Though the blog project stalled out after only a few entries, I’ve never really thought of it as failed, merely as on hiatus. I’ll get back to it at some point eventually.
And though I’m happy to see Neil Hannon continuing to collaborate with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash on their “cricket pop” project The Duckworth Lewis Method and working under his own name on live musical/opera projects like Swallows and Amazons and Sevastopol, my primary interest in his creative output remains The Divine Comedy. Though his post-Regeneration albums have become increasingly spotty as far as their being consistently listenable from start to finish, they always have at least one corker of a song that really makes me marvel at his skill as a lyricist. (And I say this as someone who’s notorious for not always listening to the lyrics of pop songs.) It’s rare that I don’t have at least one of his albums on my iPod at any given time.
Coming home from work on the train a few nights ago, “Our Mutual Friend,” one of his post-Regeneration masterpieces off the album Absent Friends, came up on shuffle. As usual, I was in complete awe of its narrative complexity and efficiency, then had the strange thought, out of nowhere, that I actually have no desire to ever meet Neil Hannon.
When I was more avidly going to rock shows in my twenties, I fairly regularly had run-ins with musicians after their gigs, usually just hailing them with a quick “good show” as they brushed through the crowd on their way to the green room or maybe a slightly longer but still informal chat at the merch table. With my combination of extreme excitability and extreme self-consciousness, there was only a brief window of time, between the moment when the opportunity for personal interaction presented itself and when my adrenaline completely pushed my nervous system so far into the red that it became impossible for me not to turn into an insanely spazzy mess, when I actually remained cool enough to have a coherent conversation. (I wrote about this phenomenon way back in 2005 over at my old blog.)
One of my more (relatively) successful encounters was in the fall of ’02 when The Divine Comedy played a full-band show in Chicago at Martyrs.
I’d only moved to the city two months earlier and wasn’t yet comfortable enough going to shows by myself, so I, strangely, bought three tickets. One was for me and one was for my good friend Casey, with whom I’d always bonded over The Divine Comedy’s music. We’d even seen them together about a year and a half earlier when we took a spring break trip to London and took a train to the University of Southampton to catch one of their performances at what was probably the student union. When I couldn’t think of anyone else to give the third ticket to, I ended up giving it to my dad.
My memories of the show itself have become fuzzy, though I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking they’d chosen an agreeable selection of songs from their older albums for the setlist. Neil disappeared backstage as soon as the lights came up, but the rest of the band lingered, packing up their own gear onstage, and I spontaneously declared that I was going over to chat them up.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad noted to Casey that I was just like my mother in this regard. My dad sometimes told stories of my mother effortlessly charming her way backstage when they went to concerts together early in their marriage. It was never any kind of groupie thing with her; it was sheer curiosity about interesting people coupled with her own intense, instant likeability and warmth. If I have even a fraction of her boldness and charisma, I consider it truly inherited on a genetic level since these outings occurred way before I was born and were never described to me until many years later.
In a strange way, I often forget that it’s even possible for my mom to have influenced my life at all, since she died when I was only eight. So throughout my life, my heart has always leapt a little in surprise whenever someone would say that I did something “just like Sharon.” It was never surprising when I heard that I looked just like her since, based on photographs, I know that I did. But when it came to behavioral things or mannerisms, that always delighted me most because I knew it was totally unconscious on my part, because it somehow proved that she really was my mother, that she was really part of my body on a level I couldn’t deny.
So, sidling up to the edge of the stage at Martyrs, I chatted with the drummer (I think?) for a bit, and mentioned how I’d been at that show at the University of Southhampton. It was a pleasant enough exchange, and, like I say, one of my more relatively successful as far as playing it cool, though I retroactively have to believe that he was probably more than a bit taken aback by being accosted by this loud American girl when his brain was probably barely coasting along on post-show fumes.
Even at the time, though, I think I was secretly relieved that Neil had made himself scarce, eliminating all possibility that I would be tempted to try to interact with him. Because really, what would there be for me to say to him? Other than expressing gratitude for the years of joy that his music has brought me, I can’t think of anything I’d want to talk to him about. Unlike, say, Robert Fripp, whose brain I would love to dive into and swim around in for a while, I don’t need much more from Neil Hannon than what he’s already given me in his music.
I recognize now that so many of the wearying behaviors of my twenties—like forcing myself into conversations with musicians after gigs—were misguided attempts to assure myself of my own internal worth and viability as a creative person. What I was actually trying to replicate in trying to talk to my indie rock heroes after small club shows was the way my father, not my mother, would have conversations with musicians and actors that he already knew after we went to local theater performances when I was a child.
The glamor of hanging around the auditorium after the house lights came up, standing at his elbow as he laughed and kibitzed with his friends and creative comrades who only moments earlier had been in the spotlight singing and playing for a large crowd, will always inform my idea of what it means to be a part of a larger creative community. And not only to be a part of that community but to be valued for one’s contributions to it. Even when my father didn’t know someone personally, he or she inevitably knew him by reputation as a talented musician and tough but enthusiastic critic and received his praise accordingly.
It’s as if I thought I’d not only permanently inherited his notoriety by association but that it would transfer behind the Northwest Indiana theater community as well. I think at some level I was still operating out of a “don’t they know who I am?” internal programming, even when I was, say, trying to chat up Andrew Bird after a show at the Hideout, like he would have any reason to care that I thought his then-most recent album was his personal best.
As I said last week about learning to reappreciate Phil Collins, there was a point in my life when my sense of my own identity became confused, when I suddenly wasn’t sure if, at base, I was a musician or an amateur music critic. I often still struggle to align myself with what I’ve taken to calling “level zero” of creation, instead of the “level one” of commentary about someone else’s creation. But now that I find myself in a romantic relationship with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite songwriters, and now that I play in a band with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite poets, I’ve had the satisfaction of forming my own creative cohort well outside the bounds of my father’s influence.
More important than even that is the (re)discovery that the pleasure of knowing them actually has nothing to do what they’ve achieved or how our friendship reflects back on me. The success, and the satisfaction, that I’ve so longed for comes not in talking about it after it’s all over, but in living beside and caring for one another as the doing of the thing knits itself into the reality of how we show up for ourselves as creators every day.