nstant shame: keep a journal of your “musical life,” whatever that is and however it is supposed to be separated from your regular one, and publish it on Stylus a whole month later, after you’ve had all kinds of level-ups and learned new spells and whatnot. Well, since I like to take humiliation in small doses—and because life’s lessons don’t always come as cloud-rumbling epiphanies but as an ever-growing composite of mistakes and experience—I decided to keep a play-by-play for my own journal, a “Where Are They Now?” for a band you’ve never heard.
THURSDAY, JULY 27TH
My Week in the Musical Life column was kept from June 26th to July 2nd and it started like this:
I am starting to see this girl named Abby. This is the fourth time I’ve woken up next to Abby.
The best things about Abby, besides Abby With the Big Feral Eyes herself:
1. There is a school across the street from her apartment and when I wake up I watch the kids on the street.It went on to talk about how the soundtrack to Black Orpheus was still good, how I was cranky about getting dumped in March after five years with a girl I was and am basically still in love with, and how I felt weirdly dishonest about seeing Abby in spite of it (even though I knew it was healthy). It talked about Allan Toussaint’s break-up chronicle “From a Whisper to a Scream,” which is remarkable because it’s not Toussaint screaming, but the truth of his lover’s betrayal. It’s a low, steady throb, a storm that gathers around him as he realizes that, yes, that is her, just out of reach, with his feet in a canvas sack over her shoulder. The entry talked about how Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” is like a big cradle. Music is good to keep for comfort because music is the most passive pet. It won’t leave us and it won’t talk back. You don’t have to feed or water or coo to your favorite songs. So I quit Allan Toussaint when I was done with him and Allan Toussaint was powerless to protest. In retrospect, he actually came back in another form that Thursday, but I didn’t realize that until now.
2. She has air conditioning. (I don’t.)
Excepter is a really good band, and they have a new album. A month ago, I wrote in this journal that I should be contractually banned from listening to Excepter from work, because it makes me feel like 1. dying or 2. killing something. Unsurprisingly, my worst writing always comes when I have a lot of feelings but haven’t taken time to sift through them. (I almost declined to do this column because I was certain I’d laugh at the sorry self I saw in it [Laugh like when I used to think I looked cool in baseball hats]). The only salvageable thing from Monday is The rest of the day is silent except for a few phone calls. Walking to the 6 train, I hear a man play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes in the subway corridor and I look around for the film director mocking me. The rest is utterly romantic crap about whistling and more unremarkable complaining about girls.
Listening to music is a tremendous part of my life; it’s practically a crutch. But it’s also a barometer. I haven’t listened in to “From a Whisper to a Scream” in a month. I’m listening to Ghostface now, so I must be doing something right.
TUESDAY was better. My friend Thomas used to say “I feel like a thousand bucks.” We never knew what a million bucks felt like, but we knew a thousand, and that felt good. I wake up and I feel like a thousand bucks. My mood swings sometimes weird people out, but come on, nobody’s as entitled to be as weirded out as me. Sometime in February, I found myself standing in the middle of Grand Central Station, crying. I’d left work early and I didn’t really know why. (That’s a lie: I was tired from trying out this cool theory I’d dreamed up a couple months earlier: since I kind of maxed out on working every day, I would max out on relaxing—drugs!—at night and watch horror movies or listen to Steely Dan. Instead, I got a lot of headaches, stopped caring about people—people are not drugs—and started occasionally doing this quiet performance on my morning commute where I’d stumble and nearly pass out. [P.S. I surprised myself by quitting all of it on April 4th.])
TUESDAY eventually bottomed out (spoiler: most of my days that week did). How many times has a friend played something for you and not disclosed that they had some Grand Emotional Experience whilst listening to it and are nevertheless appalled when you don’t buckle under the weight of what they perceive to be its blindingly obvious (or at least chemically provable) majesty? I mean, I do it all the time. But one of my favorite things about music is not only that songs are repositories for memories and experiences, but that a song can hold a near-infinite amount of memories, most of which don’t belong to you and you’ll never understand anyway. “Nowhere Near” by Yo La Tengo is mine, so don’t touch it; if it’s yours too, don’t tell me, because I am territorial and can be ridiculously cruel.
I had the idiot notion to revisit “Nowhere Near.” It is August, 2003, and I am sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to Yo La Tengo. C.B. has just gone for a semester in South Africa, and it’s the first time I’ve really felt her absence; Andy walks into the room and I say “I think this just clicked”—like it was a drug—and he can see that I need someone to hug me. (Hindsight is 20/20, but while reading this now, I think I’d prefer something blurrier) Painful is called Painful for a reason and now, I can barely make it through “Nowhere Near.” I chide myself for being nostalgic and then I remember that my doctor told me to “give these feelings space.” They are like puppies because they’re either going to run around the room and make me smile or they are going to destroy my furniture and piss on the floor and this is a chance I have to take. “Do you know how I dream—how I dream about you?” I laugh to shrug off the fact that it still happens. It happens all the time.
Michael and I sit in the park eating sandwiches while a string quartet plays. I tell him that the cellist is out of tune and that when I die, I want my children to re-enact the entirety of Weekend at Bernie’s 2 with my corpse. Later, I sit in a room with the daughter of a very famous record producer. We listen to music on Karl’s laptop (which plays through his stereo). Standard Hanging-Out-In-A-Room material—U-Roy, Funkadelic; James is going through a big Dwight Yoakam thing, so Dwight Yoakam—then this daughter of a very famous record producer gets up and abruptly puts on Harry Belafonte covering “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and says, loudly, “I LOVE HARRY BELAFONTE. MOURN WITH ME.” I’m going to keep those memories just how they are. It was one of Phil Spector’s daughters, by the way. At some point, she also said “My mother always complains that ‘NOBODY REMEMBERS JACK NITZSCHE.’”
WEDNESDAY was completely unremarkable, except for when the intern at work told me that he had read an article on Gaucho and he loved it and it had my name on it and, and—was that me? Yes, it was, it is. I get a warm feeling because I may have begun to severely complicate an 18-year-old boy’s life today. Writing that article was a royal pain in the ass because that album means so much to me; I always joke with Todd Burns that some Stylus writers should only be given albums they want to slag, because reading mediocre writing about something someone cares about is one of the most painful and embarrassing experiences I can think of. I felt like my Steely Dan piece was going to rock the cosmos to its rotted core—like the album had done to me—and instead, it provoked a whopping two reader comments, a link from Large-Hearted Boy, and a heartlessly flip addendum to a Gaucho thread on I Love Music.
On WEDNESDAY night I got a message from until-recently-presumed-to-be-mortally-dead Stylus contributor Brad Shoup: “Mike listen sorry I don’t check that email anymore and ya’ll have been doing great work and I’m sorry for being out of touch and I’m back and hey! I found another great version of “Dark End of the Street”; it’s by this woman Dorothy Moore and it’s up-tempo and you’ve got to check it out on The iTunes. Hope all’s well. Talk to you.”
THURSDAY: I get to the office and make coffee and buy Dorothy Moore singing “Dark End of the Street” and think that there’s some incontrovertible goodness to the instant gratification of mp3 shopping.
“Dark End of the Street” is the best song ever written. Paul McCartney—I don’t even know why I bother acknowledging his opinion in this case—says “God Only Knows” is, but “God Only Knows” is performer-specific; I can’t imagine sifting through 20 versions of it the way Brad and I have done with “Dark End of the Street.” Chips Moman and Dan Penn wrote it in 1966 during a break from a poker game at a hotel in Nashville. It is 1999 and I am in love with a girl named Amanda. After a lot of tangled and unspecific bliss, she decides to see other people (a decision she characterized as “one of the dumbest and biggest mistakes I’ve ever made” by April 2003. Ha.) (Ha.) Amanda shunned me and I would listen to “Dark End of the Street” all the time because that’s what the song seemed to be about: love in shadows, etc. Over time—and thank you, Clarence Carter—I realized that yeah, it’s an emotion, but it’s also just a song and I can listen to it now without musing endlessly and pointlessly about my own experience. It is reverse transubstantiation: my feelings surrounded the song have calcified, and though I remember them when I hear it, I’m more interested in the song itself now—the cracker qua cracker and wine qua wine experience. Dorothy Moore handles things just fine but nobody can outdo Clarence Carter’s opening monologue (“Even owls make love!”), the sepia haze of Gram Parsons, or sweat-drenched Roy Hamilton’s hysterical vibrato.
This, unquestionably, was the most important thing I’d written that week, because it speaks to a rule of listening—it’s still true now. Songs are, in a way, like people; you can’t erase shit you went through with them, but it doesn’t mean that you always keep the same feeling.
So when I said that Allan Toussaint came back to me on THURSDAY, this is what I’d meant. I’m listening to “From a Whisper to a Scream” now, and I can take it. I can live apart from the song in a way I couldn’t before. And really, the song wasn’t as passive as a pet as I’d guessed; as I grow, the music I care about grows with me. I first heard Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” on alt-rock radio on the way home from some sports practice when I was 12. I’d guess that nobody has these epiphanic experiences with radio anymore, but god do I wish it for every starved pubescent kid on Earth. Anyway, I immediately bought Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I still take different things from them all the time. And now I’m sitting here listening to “From a Whisper to a Scream” and I realize that it’s not all about betrayal, but the pangs of Toussaint’s regret for not being a better man the first time around. Jurgen Leth’s 1967 film The Perfect Human had a sentence for this, a damning, beautiful, inspiring sentence that has stuck with me as a mantra in nearly everything I do: “Today, also, I saw something that I hope to understand in a couple of days.”
Later, thankfully, another truth:
[10:59] Me: do you ever feel like you’re on a helicopter when you're listening to a mannie fresh track?
[11:00] Todd Burns: yes.
The long-lost girl called me on FRIDAY and naturally, I pumped my poor keyboard with more emotional bullshit. I say “bullshit” now because of, again, the Duress Factor. In the past month, I’ve calmed down. But I still stand by the fact that Music is music but hearing the voice of someone you really miss is something different. We’ve talked a couple times. We talked yesterday. At one point, she said “If what we had was so strong, why did it keep breaking?” “If it had ever really broken, we wouldn’t be talking now.” But still, we’re nowhere near; “Nowhere Near”—some songs, some people can only be seen from one trying angle.
Weirdly enough, I only realize now that I didn’t lean on any music after she called; it’s almost as if, for a brief while, music didn’t really matter.
At a party, I get properly (and very) drunk for the second time since April and hear Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy—one of my honest-to-gosh favorite records in the universe—for the first time since… since probably before April. I always only remember about half of the lyrics to the record, and right now, I can only enunciate one or two of them. I love early Eno because it’s weird and beautiful, but it has levity—no torture, no drama. I realize that I haven’t listened to it in a while because I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
I like watching James go through musical “things” because he has no pretenses to reaching an understanding or building a knowledge base about music (a process that sometimes looms over my own listening pursuits). So eight of us eat hamburgers and watch the sunset in the rain and James declares that he’s bought four reggae CDs that day and that we have to go to Karl’s and listen to them. Now.
But I don’t. I take my bike home in the rain and sit there. I listen to selected portions of Goodie Mob’s Still Standing and lament the fact that in all write-ups of the Gnarls Barkley record, what germinated on Still Standing’s “Ghetto-ology” will now be referred to as “the Danger Mouse aesthetic.” Anyway, what do I know? I bought Still Standing because my friend Davey once went to see the Mountain Goats and John Darnielle said “So, are there any requests?” and Davey said “Yeah! Play the entirety of Goodie Mob’s Still Standing!” to which he said “Don’t you fuck with me, because I can and I just might.”
My conclusion to this journal was: These entries have gotten shorter and less searching because something’s been lifted. I can’t say I know what’s been lifted, but I know that it has been. I remember a conversation with (the long-lost girl) where I said “I don’t really have anything that I’m particularly into.” “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Music? I don’t consider myself especially into music.” She laughed. “You are.” Has keeping this diary been valuable? Maybe. Not sure. I’d always scoffed at the idea of therapy because 1. I think it’s for weak people and 2. The less you examine your life, the less it can bother you. But I see a therapist now and I have all kinds of dear diary moments and I give them some air. Of course, my therapist and I never talk about music—why bother?
Even by the end of that week, I’d learned nothing about anything. If I’d waited, I could’ve shared all these fresh, bizarre feelings I’ve been having about North Korea and popular music under dictatorial governments and my great conversation about the idea of “world music” with occasional Stylus contributor Gavin Mueller. I would’ve regaled you with heavy exegetical panting about the forthcoming Mountain Goats album—I’m guessing most of the week would’ve been sacrificed at its feet.
I’m moving soon. My mom once said “just be careful, because everywhere you go, you’re going to bring you with you.” What she doesn’t know is that I wrap parts of me in this listening habit, that “From a Whisper to a Scream” or “Can You Get to That” will again be smelling salts after some emotional accident until I realize that the message I was taking from them was just another revelatory fumble.