My father plays trumpet, harmonica, and guitar, and some days I think that my musical fixations are inherited from him. But my mother is the second most fervid music superfan I know (the first would be my sister), so maybe I inherited it from her; I listen, and intently, but I can’t play or compose. Maybe this is why I write poetry; it’s the closest I can get to writing and playing music without having to, you know, write or play music.
Music is also a large part of how I deal with the world, whether retreating from its intensity with my headphones or using it as incidental music for my internal life. I build playlists to explain to myself how I feel, because sometimes it is easier to do it in sounds than in thoughts or words. I write letters to people in mix CDs (though I send very few of those to the intended recipient). And music always seems to be my synchronicity container. Dvorak’s New World Symphony coincidentally shows up (like it does for my auntie) when something big is going to go down in my life, good or bad. It was my great-grandmother Annie’s favorite piece of music, so my auntie usually interprets it as a sign that ancestors are near, and so you’d better pay attention to what’s going on. The last three months have been quite intense, so I’ve been thinking about Dvorak. In fact, I even found an old piano roll of New World Symphony at the thrift store a few months ago. So I thought maybe I could process it all a bit better by building a playlist, a narrative in music. Here is my digital mixtape describing how my summer’s gone – like the weather this year, it’s been up and down and all over the place.
Broadcast, “Black Cat”
Tender Buttons may be one of my favorite albums of all time, even though I only heard it for the first time in early May. I was embarrassed that this record hadn’t registered on my radar when it came out in 2005; I verified that it’d been played a lot on KDHX then, and I just hadn’t heard it! Strange. I did a little more research and was totally dismayed to discover that Broadcast’s singer, Trish Keenen, died in 2010. She was only 43—she died of swine flu.
Here is the odd thing, my synchronicity-container moment: A few weeks after hearing Broadcast for the first time, I realized that I had not seen any posts from my dear old friend Kris on Facebook. For a minute I almost wondered if I’d said something to offend him, and he’d defriended me. So I checked; there he was. I clicked and brought up his page and immediately realized something was wrong. All the posts were from other people, with a tone witty but melancholy, talking about Kris like he wasn’t here—it turns out Kris died from swine flu in January, when I’d been off Facebook. I’d missed it completely. I put my head into my hands and just sobbed. And then I had all these weird feelings I always have had when a friend dies; I panic, and think strange things like, well, maybe if I send him a note on Facebook exactly at 11:11, he will get it. Maybe I can bend time! Maybe I am magic. I was also completely crumpled up, realizing I had not taken the opportunity to really talk to him after we’d reconnected, after years of not even knowing what city he lived in. He’d even invited me into a sub rosa Facebook group for people he considered smart and interesting, which was hugely flattering to me (you see, Kris was kind of a genius. And when I say that, I mean he was a music prodigy, and also helped build Mac OS X. Compared to him, I’m a huge dummy). When I read about Trish Keenan’s death I had been just flooded with a terrible sorrow. Maybe some part of my unconscious was trying to tell me about Kris? I found out I had missed Kris’ memorial in Salt Lake by a month, too. So now when I listen to Broadcast I feel sad, but it also makes me feel closer to my friend. I first met Kris when I was 14. He was a bit older than me, and was working in a record store—a lot of my musical tastes were shaped by his advice on what to listen to. He was a music superfan, too. I think if he knew Broadcast, he probably liked ’em. But I’ll never know.
Amen Dunes, “Splits Are Parted”
I work as an arts journalist during the day, and when AD came out with a new record, Love, I got an email about it. I get so damn many music emails I can only listen to a few, but for some reason I clicked on it and watched the video for “Lilac in Hand.” And then I went and found Through Donkey Jaw and all of their other weird early stuff. My favorite song so far, though, is “Splits Are Parted.” It starts out so simply, and then just blows up. That refrain of Oh, I could love you, that’d be easy… Once you move past the age of 25, you get fewer and fewer of those charged oxytocin moments where you fall in love with someone and are almost seasick with longing and it makes everything feel like you are walking through beautifully drawn comic book panels. Those moments leave you with this feeling that something huge is about to happen, and that the rest of your life is going to unroll like some strange and epic movie. And then of course two years later it’s contracted into this endless cycle of workdays and Saturdays at Target shopping for mopheads and socks. Thornton Wilder would tell us that the essence of a life, the preciousness of it, exists in those banal shopping trips (or in 12th birthdays). Not being dead like the protagonist of Our Town, I guess I’m still sort of a sucker for big sweeping moments, even if they come via MP3.
Silver Apples, “Oscillations”
This is another band I discovered only recently (I didn’t feel as stupid about that, because they’re way before my era, and apparently their records were out of print; not sure how I would’ve found them before now). Another wonderful coincidence was that after being totally knocked flat and listening to Silver Apples and Contact and The Garden over again for a week straight, I went to their website. I learned that the drummer, Danny Taylor, had died, but that the founder Simeon Coxe was still around, and playing gigs. AND he was going to be in Chicago playing at the Bohemian National Cemetery on Friday, June 13. (Do I seem morbid? I’m not really; I’ll admit to being a little gothy in high school, though.)
They were the headliners—or I should say he, since it’s now just Simeon and his oscillators. Wrekmeister Harmonies and Majik Markers played too. Originally I had planned to book out of St. Louis around noon, because the show started at 6:30. That would’ve required me to drive up by myself. I’d bought T. a ticket, but he was dragging his feet as far as going; he had some obligation at the community garden. Eventually he decided he wanted to go, but taking two cars to Chicago bordered on insane, since one is enough of a pain in the ass. So, I waited for him to get off work, and we drove together, taking all the toll roads because they were faster. We pulled up to the gates of the cemetery at 10:15, which was supposed to be when the show was about over, but it wasn’t quite. We parked by the cemetery gates. A bunch of hip kids had hung their bikes on the fence; they were loitering and smoking. It was cold outside, and I was still dressed for a humid St. Louis summer. I could hear echoes of music, and I knew Simeon was still playing. T. had to pee, and would’ve preferred to go straight to the motel. But I thought, when am I going to see this guy play again, even if it’s only one song?
I felt embarrassed to go in, but finally got over myself and went up to the table and got a wristband. “We drove up from St. Louis,” I explained to the rock and roll guys at the front gates. “I know it’s almost over, but I still want to go in.” They seemed impressed in a cynical rock and roll guy way. T. ran off to the Porta-Potties, and I went up to the U-shaped garden in front of the mausoleum, where Simeon had his oscillators, and an old-fashioned 1960s light show set up. He played “Oscillations,” and “I Don’t Care What the People Say,” and “You and I.” You know what? It was worth the drive. I doubt T. would agree, because he was still standing in line for the john up till the time that the crowd began dissolving away from the stage after the last encore.
We stayed in Chicago for another 48 hours. I pondered going to Record Breakers to see Simeon Coxe’s new band, Amphibian Lark, but when we drove by, I felt too shy to go in. We went to Intuit instead. When I walked into the main gallery, the first thing I saw was a photograph of a middle-aged lady in cat-eyed glasses and a sparkly yellow ball gown, posing in front of a grove of pine trees on a Christmas tree farm, and I realized we’d made the right decision. It turns out the lady’s name was Edna, and she and her husband, Harry, lived in St. Louis in the 1950s! A Chicago photographer bought their vacation slides at an estate sale and was so struck by the images he curated a show, Lost and Found. They weren’t marked; he didn’t know the couple’s name or history, so he set up a Facebook page called “Is This Your Mother?” to track down the family. He says he was disappointed when the mystery was solved two weeks later. (And it turns out Harry and Edna were childless; she was no one’s mother.) Apparently he’d shown them at The Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles, and I have friends who know him! So, that was the St. Louis Magnetic Weirdness Field in play there. I also got to see a re-created version of Henry Darger’s room in the back of the museum, which was a profoundly emotional experience—people forget that pain is often a huge ingredient when it comes to making art. You can really feel it in that room. But it also has the same feeling I have picked up in every true artist’s studio, where you feel like you are in an peculiar ecosystem of colors and textures and images; it always has its own very strong, very individual emotional field. Stepping into that field always makes me feel like William Blake’s Glad Day guy, where I’m marinating in rainbows.
Swell Maps, “Real Shocks”
Swell Maps is another band I only found out about this year; the epiphanies will never end, I guess. I have found I’d better not start listening to their catalog on a day when I have to transcribe, because I won’t want to click over to my interview files. Anyway, not much to say here, other than that grubby, scuzzy, late 1970s proto-punkness of it, the bleakness and the white-hot anger of it, was the perfect soundtrack post-Chicago partly because it was such a shock to come back to the heat and humidity. Among other things.
James Brown, “Hot Pants”*
The last week of June 2014, was not just one of the worst weeks of this year, but one of the worst weeks of my life. I’m going to spare you the details, but it was only at moments when I had to function in public that I was not a sniveling, weeping mess with under-eye mascara rings to beat Charo’s, though I don’t carry it off quite as coquettishly as she does. The only good things that happened that week: 1. I had the honor of publishing Aaron Belz’s Q&A with Tricia Lockwood; and 2. Some DJ on KDHX played “Hot Pants.” It’s hard to hate the world when James Brown is on the radio. That’s all. I got my tarot cards read on my birthday earlier in June, and the reader told me that late June was going to be fucking awful. She was right, and I’d say that it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, except the awfulness was 89 percent awfulness out of my control. I was shoved into the athanor. Last week I felt so much better, almost like Supergirl; this week, maybe somewhere between those two poles, still a little bitchy around the edges, but not weird and funky and disassociated and unable to eat or sleep. “This too shall pass.”
Martin Newell, “Goodbye Dreaming Fields”
The proper Martin Newell track for a music geek to post would be “Wivenhoe Bells II,” which was actually a Cleaners from Venus song, but same difference maybe. (That song’s a bit of genius; it’s sort of the English version of Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”) But the mood of “Wivenhoe Bells” doesn’t quite fit my list. This song does. It’s about the countryside in Britain, but reminds me of driving down Route 3, past all of the rolling green hills and busted-down, dried-out Midwestern cornfields. Perhaps some will fault me for going with a big, expansive, fat pop song. Listen close, there is an undercurrent of wistfulness to it, a kind of “Goddamit, I’m happy and I’m sad! But look at how big and gorgeous and weird the world is…I’m just going to have to start singing, and playing some jangly riffs!”
Beach House, “Silver Soul”
Beach House: a band name so bleh, I never bothered with them. Then, they do THIS. (Which has been made all the more poignant in the midst of all this World Cup madness, I think.) Sweat trickles running down my back, the heat of sun rays bouncing off the chrome of rear-view mirrors, opaque sunglasses – summer’s always seemed very humid and silvery to me, and those are two words I would use to describe this song. The first scenes of the video even show a silver lady emerging from silver shower curtains, which are billowing open with steam clouds. If they called themselves Fishhouse not Beach House, this song could not sound less like June, July, August. But it’s summer in its most languorous and dysthymic mode.
New Order, “Ceremony”
This went over the transom and became a New Order song, too, and even though I can’t stand much of what New Order did after their first record or two, I find their version of this song just as poignant. Still, side by side, I think I prefer the more raw version, with Ian Curtis’ vocals, but I can’t find a good version of it online. Maybe because it was a crossover song , it’s always sounded like endings and beginnings to me, all at once.
Alice Coltrane, “Ohnedaruth”
Alice Coltrane is jazz and she’s not jazz. She’s devotional, but she still shreds. Never have I had a stomach for treacly New Age music (though *space* music is another thing altogether – I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan of the stuff – it’s too abstract and cold to be sentimental and gooey, in fact it’s the opposite of treacly). Alice’s song here is for the Fourth of July weekend, and the experience of standing out in the Nineteenth Street Garden compound last night, watching lightning bugs spark up from the bushes, and lighting flashing behind all the brick buildings, and kids running down the street with bottle rockets in their hands. Peace but great energy, brewing around the far edges of the horizon.
The Oldest Song in the World…Played on MIDI
So apparently the oldest song in the world is “a Sumerian hymn, written 3,400 years ago.” (Gosh, I love Open Culture, who saw fit to publish a post on this topic.) The musical notation was transcribed off clay tablets, and interpreted via MIDI files, which I find wonderfully strange, like hearing Kraftwerk interpret ancient Roman tunes. And, at the end of the day and the end of the summer, the fact that this little scrap of music has survived for almost 4,000 years is a reminder that beauty is resilient. In the ancient world, music was considered a kind of medicine. I think Kraftwerk, and definitely Alice Coltrane, Martin Newell, Dvorak, James Brown, and everyone else assembled here would say: yeah. That’s true. So I’m done here, and heading back to my headphones, which is to say drinking the soul’s sarsaparilla, and applying the psychic poultice.
*IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: a friend reminded me that this exists, too.