Summer Playlist: Beyond the Cyclical


It’s summer, which means it’s time for a new playlist.

Instead of seeking out new music, I decided instead to play through the songs in my current music library, combing for old or undiscovered gems. If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated music over the years from who knows when or where (The Afghan Whigs? Gloria Gaynor? Massive Attack? Who knew?). Or you’ve listened to albums only partially or half-heartedly when you get to (maybe even skipping over) the lesser-knowns.

To get started, I set my 3,496 songs (some of you music heads are thinking, That’s all?) to shuffle—in the car, on the subway, on dog walks, while washing dishes or cleaning house. My strategy: When a lyric hit me, I paused, replayed, listened again; if it really hit me, then I played all the way through and, nine times out of 10, tapped “add to playlist” (occasionally, a lyric out of context went in a direction that lost me).

While I don’t always listen primarily for lyrics, this playlist, it would seem, is decidedly “literary.” I’m only about one-fourth of the way through my library; so far, the playlist consists of 34 songs. Here’s a sampling.

“All Alone (No One to Be With)” by Slick Rick

As a recovering evangelical, I’m bound to be hooked by any song that starts with, “As a youth each Sunday, Dawn went to church.” Virtuous, love-hungry Dawn gets involved with a young man, at “mad high cost”; she gets pregnant, and her heart broken:
She cried, for no longer knew which way she’s headed
Once dreamt of actually wearing white at her wedding
and really being pure
Now she thought she’d die without
Still she finds strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone, no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Without love
(All alone no one to be with)
Good God, the repetition is inescapable and brutal and sad. But Dawn persists:
She decides to have the child because she doesn’t want to sin.
Props to the girl although ahead hard times;
Was Hell finishin’ school and working part-time.
Yet Dawn did it though her youth went to waste.
Little help from the government, she got her own place.
Hard for an independent woman and a kid
And as soon as she could get off the assistance, she did.
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without

Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love…
(All alone no one to be with)
Life without love…
Dawn works two jobs, her son grows up, starts cutting school, then, “tired of seeing his poor mother suffering,” he starts selling drugs, gets caught, and off to prison—“nine hours on a bus to go see him.” And Dawn, again:
Without no man who she once thought she’d die without
Still she finds the strength to continue with her life without love
(All alone no one to be with)…
The song risks all the tropes and stereotypes of the “strong black woman” (pair with Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, specifically her chapter on the dangers of this idealized and constraining stereotype), but what saves it, I think, is its focus on Dawn’s love life. Good on Slick Rick for foregrounding Dawn’s loneliness as her essential tragedy—not just the relentless strength required to live as a black woman in America, and heartbroken over a son’s incarceration, but the fortitude, and pain, of living (and not dying) without the fulfillment of love and partnership, “no one to be with.”

“All I Really Want to Do” by Bob Dylan
I ain’t looking to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you classify you
Deny defy or crucify you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
Another male-authored song that strikes me as awfully insightful on the subject of love and coupling, and resonates, I think, with a female perspective. Dylan’s waltzy guitar rhythms, his playful yodeling and folksy harmonica riffs, draw us into the song’s whirly twirly lightness. But the lyrics home in from the get on the rough-and-tumble of fragile, passionate, independent egos trying and failing to converge in intimacy (truth is, I listened to this song in the car, driving 78 mph north on the Thruway, away from domestic life, for a brief respite).
I ain’t looking to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you

I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t looking for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me

All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you
I don’t know what the little giggle after “feel like me” is about, but I’d like to think Dylan has figured something out—about the folly of ego clashing—by the time he gets to that stanza. Consider also what he means by “friends”—something much more dimensional and full than the word’s most common meaning today.

“Amsterdam” by Coldplay

I only started listening to Coldplay, like, a month ago. And yeah, that song “Yellow” is moody and romantic and the kind of song Ellar Coltrane likes to listen to in Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, but this song, whose title is a pleasing mystery (I’ve never been to Amsterdam, but I do live on Amsterdam Avenue, so that’s also pleasing), feels somehow like it was written for grownups.
Come on oh my star is fading
I swerve out of control
If I, if I’d only waited
I’d not be stuck here in this hole

Come here oh my star is fading
And I swerve out of control
And I swear I waited and waited
I’ve got to get out of this hole
I love the movement here from depression (“oh my star is fading”) to desperation (“swerve out of control”) to regret (“if I’d only”) in the first stanza; then the pivot to solicitude (“Come here”) and defensiveness (“I swear”) and determination (“I’ve got to get out”) in the second. So much going on, like all the stages of grief at once. Then comes a voice—an inner voice? An external one?
But time is on your side
It’s on your side now
Not pushing you down, and all around
It’s no cause for concern
Who is addressing whom? I don’t know, but it feels to me like a shift to second-person narration, self addressing self. In any case, the voice offers what the tormented soul didn’t even quite know it needed: the assurance of time. There’s enough time. With time, you can find your star’s brilliance, settle down and straighten the wheel; you can dig deeper for the patience you didn’t have before, and you can climb your way out of the hole.

“Make It with You” by Bread (Dusty Springfield version)
Oh hey, have you ever tried
Really reaching out for the other side?
I may be climbing on rainbows
But baby, here goes . . .

Dreams they’re for those who sleep
Life it’s for us to keep
And if you’re wondering what this song is leading to

I want to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
For me, the first half of the song—what grabbed me on first listen—was all about reaching for rainbows and living life (as opposed to sleeping and dreaming through it). Yes, carpe diem! But then the whole thing turns—retreats, but in a good way—toward a kind of essential humility:
No you don’t know me well
And every little thing
Only time will tell
But you believe the things that I do
And we’ll see it through . . .

I’d like to make it with you
I really think that we could make it
As someone who married naively in my early 20s, then divorced at 30, I think a lot about the crazy things people promise, with such impossible certainty, during marriage ceremonies. “You don’t know me well” and “Only time will tell” are two of the wisest love-song lyrics I’ve ever heard. Along with “you believe the things that I do” and “I really think that we could make it,” this hopeful realism makes me think this song should be everyone’s wedding anthem.

“Jericho” by Weekend Players
Come fill my senses up with you
You’ve turned the jaded into new
Come fill my senses up with you
Love would be senseless without you
Come fill my senses up with you
You, you, you, you, you, you
OK, people, this song is not about the lyrics, really; it’s all about sultry bass and rich string arrangements and smoky, silky vocals. It’s all about the sensorial, sensual reality of human aliveness and intimacy; the renewal that comes from breathing in—smelling, hearing, tasting, touching—a beloved. Words schmerds.

“You Won’t Let Me” by Rachael Yamagata
I don’t want to say good-bye
I just want to give it one more try
And I’d do anything
Yes I’d do anything
If you’d only let me
I’ve just read bell hooks’s truthtelling and uplifting—and let us recognize just how hard it is to be both of these simultaneously—Communion: The Female Search for Love (the third in hooks’s seminal trilogy on love). While Communion was published in 2002, its insights about the persistence of patriarchal norms in so-called progressive heterosexual relationships (let alone overtly oppressive ones) speak as loudly as ever.
When I began working on these chapters about men and discussed issues with women friends…the question they often asked was “Are there any good men?” My response is “Of course there are.” Since many of these women are in midlife, they often encounter men who are what I call “unreconstructed,” who have not yet converted to feminist thinking in their private lives. These men may grudgingly or happily accept women as equals on the job but when they come home, they often want old sexist gender roles to be in place…[On the other hand] Males who have been raised to be holistic, to be in touch with their feelings and able to communicate them, have more satisfying personal relationships than men who are emotionally closed and withholding.
hooks goes on to write that women of her generation—baby boomers who came of age during the heady days of consciousness-raising and sexual liberation—seeking male partners who are “wholeheartedly committed to feminist thinking and practice” often find themselves attracted to men who are gay, bisexual, or under 35. But young women these days do not find themselves in necessarily better situations: Rachael Yamagata (b. 1977) sings often about heartbreak at the hands of men who just couldn’t “handle” her—emotionally, artistically. Here she sings about the yearning to help “reconstruct” a man, who’s ultimately a horse that can’t be forced to drink:
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to love
Take our time, let it all go
If you’d only let me
I could show you how to cry
In your darkest hour
I would lead you through the fire

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me …

If you’d only let me …

But you won’t let me
You won’t let me
Rachael, I hear ya. You’re a dreamer and a romantic, and so am I. We’ve all been there. You can see it, the better version of him—fuller, freer, evolved—that he can’t see. And to this, bell hooks would say, “I decided to choose men whom I did not need to convert to feminist thinking…when a man changes to please a woman rather than from his own inner conviction, the changes are likely to be superficial.” She would say, I think, Move on.

But I think she’d also encourage us to keep envisioning a new world of fully reconstructed, nonbinary mutuality, where we all have both emotional intelligence and quiet strength.

“Do Something” by Macy Gray
Get up, get out and do something
Don’t let the days of your life pass you by
Get up, get out and do something
How will you make it if you never even try?
Get up, get out and do something
Can’t spend your whole life trying to get high
Get up, get out and do something
’Cause you and I got to do for you and I
It’s summer, and for me that means that the temptation to let the weeks pass too quickly, unproductively, looms. I’m always working, but I’m not always doing something in the way Macy Gray means—she’s singing about underachiever’s syndrome here, the fear of failure, the fear of even trying (why not just stay home and smoke weed, after all?). She’s singing about taking risks, getting “out” beyond the familiar and predictable and cyclical.

All righty, then. Happy summer, all. Let’s do this.

Honorable mentions:

“The Man Who Never Lied” by Maroon 5
“The Makeup” by Cody Chestnutt
“Jamais Seule” by Loane
“Just Like a Woman” by Bob Dylan
“Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson
“All I Want” by Joni Mitchell
“Just My Imagination” by the Cranberries

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

How I Got It: Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’


I’m not sure how I knew when Doggystyle would be released. The debut album from Snoop Doggy Dogg — as Calvin Broadus, Jr. was known before changing his handle to Snoop Dogg, then Snoop Lion, then Snoop Dogg again — came out in November of 1993, and I can’t imagine that I read about it in any of the newspapers or magazines that cluttered my parents’ house. We didn’t have cable TV, so Kurt Loder didn’t tell me about it, a cartoon globe spinning behind his head. I can only assume that my friends were talking it up: “Snoop Doggy Dogg, from The Chronic? I heard his album’s coming out next week.” That was how information spread in 1993. I was 14 years old.

I was also a huge hip-hop fan, with a long and checkered history of signing up for BMG and Columbia House, receiving the first shipment of CDs or cassettes — nine or 10 of them, an impossible bounty — before writing them frantic I’m-just-a-child letters when they later demanded their cash. I would buy whatever I could with whatever money I had — A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, Tim Dog; it didn’t matter much. And although I don’t recall loving Dr. Dre’s The Chronic at the time, I must have been taken by the then-obscure Snoop, who appeared all over it, his silky nihilism leavening Dre’s stern-uncle delivery and the album’s squealing synths. Or maybe I just got swept up in the hype. Either way, I had to have Doggystyle.

There was a CD store one town over that managed to seem simultaneously new and run-down, as if its owners, after hustling to finance its opening, had been too exhausted to properly set it up. Its interior was heavy on milk crates and cardboard signage. It was open for a few months at most, and none of my old friends remember it; when I bring it up, they frown as if I’m describing a poltergeist. But I know that it existed, and that it was open for business on the week of November 23, 1993.

I usually got my music from a shopping mall a few miles out of town, and I’m not sure why I didn’t go there for Doggystyle. I wouldn’t have faked an illness to stay home on the Tuesday of its release — I only did such a thing once, in the second grade, to obtain a few packs of Garbage Pail Kids’ long-awaited third edition — so I must have waited until that Saturday, only to find that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t hitch a ride to the mall. I had to take matters into my own smallish hands.

I’d only been in the store once or twice before, and I’d never bought anything there, but it represented my best chance at obtaining Snoop’s debut. My father had recently upped my allowance to a Zuckerbergian $20 a week, so I didn’t have to go through the ordeal of scraping up loose change — which I’d once done to buy a Bon Jovi cassette (the unlistenable 7800° Fahrenheit). Cash in hand, I likely lied to my parents about where I was going — playing basketball with friends, not searching for murder-and-misogyny-filled music — and set out.

It was about a mile and a half to the shop from my childhood home, but as I remember it, the walk had an epic, questing feel. I crossed the busy street perpendicular to my own quiet one and proceeded down a hill that bottomed out near the entrance to a soccer field. On game and practice days, the rutted, tree-hung drive to the field fills with cars; you can hear cheers and murmurs from the open space beyond. But it was too late in the year for soccer, and the place was desolate. The drive peters out at the lip of the field, where the trees recede and the sky seems suddenly huge above the expanse of grass. My first burst of vivid memory of that day occurs here: me, alone, walking towards the woods on the field’s far side. When I think of Doggystyle — and even when I think of Snoop Dogg — I think of myself, simmering with teenage need, moving across that empty field.

A slim path wound through a patch of woods into which was hacked the Department of Public Works, its snow plows and pickup trucks parked beside a junk-strewn creek. I curled around an abandoned, graffiti-wracked DPW outbuilding and climbed the metal steps of a bridge that led to a surviving copse of trees. The area had a forgotten, suburban-outlaw feel, the sort of hidden place where ’90s kids smoked joints and ’80s kids got drunk and — if the tabloids were to be believed — sacrificed their weak in praise of Great Lord Satan.

An overgrown path led through a second field — three baseball diamonds the merging outfields of which created another soccer pitch — until I got to the first street, the first real bit of civilization, in the neighboring town. I was almost there. A left, a right, and I was at a car-choked thoroughfare lined with shops. My objective sat wanly on the other side. I crossed the street and entered the store. A little bell might have rung. Of course, I was the only customer.

As I recall, the person behind the counter was a light-skinned black man who wore a tight paisley shirt and oversized glasses, like Get Up With It-era Miles Davis. Though there was never a guarantee of finding what you wanted there, I quickly located Doggystyle — success! — paid, and hurried out, excited to get home and listen to my treasure.

I’d like to say that I recall tearing up to my room, ripping off the disc’s cellophane, and blasting “Gin and Juice” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name?),” but that would be a lie. I have no recollection of actually listening to the album once I returned, or what I even thought of it in subsequent days and weeks. I probably thought, as I do now, that the record was crowded with filler, with too many lackluster skits and too many subpar guests. I don’t know. As is so often the case — as is maybe always the case — the getting of the thing was more important than the thing itself.

Frank Ocean and the Black Male Body


R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me
-Frank Ocean, “Nikes”

That looks like a bad dude …
-A Tulsa police officer, on the body of Terence Crutcher
I can’t stop thinking about the video footage shot from above the highway where Terence Crutcher died in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you watch the footage, you’ll see the 40-year-old man walk away from officers with his hands up before Officer Betty Shelby shoots him dead. But what we see isn’t what echoes for me — it’s what we hear. If you listen you’ll hear one of two officers in the helicopter (one of whom was Officer David Shelby, husband to Betty Shelby) authorize Crutcher’s death moments before Crutcher crumples to the ground. Pronouncing, “That” — this is a human being he’s referring to — “looks like a bad dude,” he renders Crutcher a threat in the absence of any evidence outside his body.

These words echo for me because in the footage their effect approaches something like magic. The officer observes, and moments later Crutcher is dead. It’s too perfect — much too perfect — an illustration of how preconceptions about black people begin with the visual, with assumptions about our bodies: how we move through space, the way we cast our eyes at others, our affect, and on and on. It’s too perfect an illustration of how assumptions emanating from the visual field produce physical ramifications, how they structure and are structured by racist fictions about what our bodies mean.

There are three covers for Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, all of which present black men flinching from our vision into various anonymities. One shows us a man disappearing behind weed smoke’s dense haze; the second presents another man (perhaps Ocean himself) ensconced in a motorcycle helmet’s hermetic safety. The third interests me most: it depicts the crooner standing in front of spotless white tile. He’s shirtless, so that we get to peer in on his slender, muscular body, but his hair is dyed green in a Stroop-inspired taunt. He obscures his face with a bandaged hand, beneath which you can make out his furrowed brow, suggestive of a grimace or weeping. Meanwhile, his hand, upper body, and forehead are beaded with water or perspiration.

Of all Blonde’s covers, this one most recalls the album’s original title, Boys Don’t Cry. Ocean dropped that title upon the album’s release, but when I look at this image of him soaked and covering his grief like Masaccio’s Adam leaving the Garden, I can’t help but hear that former title’s echo. It draws our attention to the precarious relationship between the normative gender assumptions that shape our conceptions of masculinity, and the reality of emotional vulnerability that those notions elide. Ocean’s obscured visage bespeaks the tension between the image of the black male body — a cluster of signifiers to which so many meanings attach that we hardly see it at all — and the emotional intricacy underlying these ossified stereotypes.

Amidst another cycle of renewed attention to police violence against black bodies, I’ve come to think that Ocean’s cover suggests possibilities for more nuanced portrayals of black masculinity and emotion than those that currently pervade our national consciousness. Every death of a police-shooting victim underlines the state of hypervisibility in which the black body exists. For black men, this means that a certain fiction is always preceding our bodies, walking ahead of us into rooms, intimidating people on sidewalks, and speaking for us before we can open our mouths.

As Nicole Fleetwood observes in Troubling Vision, this fiction imbues us “with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality.” I take Fleetwood to mean that in America’s cultural imagination, the black male body always signifies as an existential threat, one characterized by predatory violence, hyper-sexuality, and overwhelming physical force. This will be true no matter what we do to attenuate the nervous unease that crowds us. We’re always already hollowed out, reduced to receptacles in which the nation’s most basic fears circulate.

Blonde’s cover short-circuits these assumptions, creates a tear in the visual field that unsettles received notions that black masculinity is legible, easy reading for whoever might chance upon it. Consider his green hair: it employs the Stroop effect to taunt us via a textual-visual misdirect so that seeing and reading are sundered from one another. (In another slight at legibility, the album title is stylized as “blond” on the cover, though the official title is Blonde.) Ocean’s hair reshuffles our expectations before we hear a note of music, demanding that we dedicate renewed attention to an image we thought we knew. It’s an emphatic reassertion, a warning that with Ocean, what you see will not be what you get.

Then there’s that hand, raised to hide an emotional turmoil that, according to the script, shouldn’t exist at all. In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks writes that in order to compensate for the structural violence wielded against them, black men are taught “to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable” and thus adopt a “cool pose” (emphasis mine). This is a masculinist posture that rejects emotional vulnerability — and interiority in general — as inimical to manhood. Hip-hop’s visual codes and genre conventions often reinforce this posture, with the effect of embracing and heightening the fictions foisted upon us by white supremacy’s image repertoire. In Hip-Hop Wars, Tricia Rose argues that contemporary rap’s calling cards have become “distorted, antisocial, self-destructive, and violent portrayals of black masculinity” along with rampant misogyny and homophobia. The cool pose instantiates the representational straitjacket against which black men struggle.

I’m not certain that I can accept hooks and Rose’s assertions uncritically, but that’s for another essay. But if we receive them as true, Ocean’s cover flouts the cool pose in favor of emotional vulnerability, insisting on depth in the face of a dyad that reduces black men to surface. Ocean’s damaged hand is raised in an attempt to enact the earlier album title’s dictum — boys don’t cry, remember? — but it’s a futile act; the gesture only displaces his grief so that his tears reappear in the visual field as the moisture beading his body, each tear a tear in his cool pose. Here, feeling and vulnerability are irreducible no matter what pose we might strike in order to hide it. Call it a new law: the Conservation of Feeling. This hand also blocks us, creates an opacity to stump a presumed transparency. The overall effect is a reinsertion of interiority into a body that had been hollowed.

How does this sound?

On Blonde, what we hear is a struggle between the masculinist conventions of contemporary hip-hop and Ocean’s assertion of a queered black masculinity, two images of black manhood jockeying for position in one aural space. It’s a drama not unlike the one Ocean presents on the album cover, and if you listen you’ll hear the tears in hip-hop’s cool pose. Take the first track on the album, “Nikes”:
These bitches want Nikes
They looking for a check
Tell ‘em it ain’t likely
Said she need a ring like Carmelo
Must be on that white like Othello
Ocean cycles through some of contemporary hip-hop’s most enduring tropes with impressive dexterity: he plays a vigilantly unattached bachelor weary of commitment and manipulative women, works in references to cocaine and sneakers, and name checks an NBA star. It’s a masterful display of Ocean’s facility with the genre’s conventions after a four-year absence, and like most good hip-hop these days, the verse is deeply boring but also hilarious in the way that Ocean breathes life into tired tropes via inspired wordplay. (Will there be a better couplet written this year than “Said she need a ring like Carmelo/Must be on that white like Othello”? Probably not.) The verse also initiates the album in a moment of dissonance: after seeing Ocean embrace queerness not just as an identity but also as a political orientation, it is jarring to hear him turn to the cool pose’s rhetoric.

But this rhetoric’s cool surface has a conspicuous tear in its fabric. After all, Ocean sings the song’s first three minutes through a distorted filter, sounding as if he inhaled helium before running his vocals through autotune. At times he howls and whoops rather than sings, and if we didn’t know who the singer was, it would be impossible to assign Ocean a gender.  Reverb doubles his voice, heightening its alien quality. A lone, woozy synth that approximates a Theremin runs the song’s length; behind the synth, constant vibrato makes the song’s bass line sound weirdly distended. It sounds like we’ve been stranded in some unfamiliar space. The queer quality of this defamiliarization becomes apparent in the song’s video, which features shots of Ocean sporting eyeliner, suggestively palming a gearshift, and pantomiming fellatio.

Later, he stands alone on a stage, garbed in a white jumpsuit, eyes closed in private reverie, glitter sprinkled upon his face.

Ocean shows us a queer black male body, conspicuous in its refusal to be forced into the kind of hypervisibility that allowed police officers to condemn Terence Crutcher as a “bad dude” on sight. The effect is a defamiliarization of those familiar tropes associated with a toxic masculinity.

This is why I find the beginning of “Nikes” ’ second verse so compelling. Leaving behind the cool pose, Ocean mourns for some fallen black men: A$AP Yams, the New York producer who passed away earlier this year; Pimp C, the Texas rapper whose ghost has haunted hip-hop this year; and Trayvon Martin. When I first heard Trayvon’s name mentioned in company of Yams and Pimp C, I was confused. What did he have to do with these two artists who performed a certain vision of the black male body?

But now I see that including Trayvon in that pantheon constitutes a refusal and an expansion: black masculinity can look like Yams and Pimp C, yes. It can also look like the face of this boy, whose body was read as thuggish and dangerous for no other reason than his blackness. By inserting Trayvon Martin into this list, Ocean asserts the elasticity of black maleness. If Trayvon looks like Ocean, then he also embodies the alterity Ocean foregrounds in this song and video, the possibility of “otherwise,” as Ashon Crawley might say. When that lyric arrives in the video, Ocean holds the ubiquitous self-portrait of Trayvon staring out from beneath a white hood. This image circulated relentlessly in the aftermath of his murder, and public as it has become, we might be tempted into thinking that we know it. Ocean demands that we look again.

Years with Yoko

- | 1

It was 2001 when I first listened to Yoko Ono’s music. I was young and quite stupid and mostly alone. I’d walk around New York with no particular aim, trekking from my job in midtown to a subway station in SoHo because I had nowhere better to be. I took my lunch (one-dollar coffee, banana) in the bakery across the street from my shitty office, where I’d read and smoke (indoors!). I was broke, but buying things made me feel alive. I’d pick up remainders at Coliseum Books, or vintage porn from a sidewalk vendor on Seventh Avenue. One day, on a whim, I bought Ono’s 1982 album It’s Alright (I See Rainbows). It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, on sale.

If I didn’t like Yoko Ono myself, I might think someone who called himself a fan was joking, or engaged in some other thing: adolescent contrarianism or camp, possibly diva worship of those giant Porsche sunglasses, those hats, those short shorts, those gams, the incontrovertible foreignness of Ono’s English. For a long time Ono was basically despised, the inevitable lot of someone married to a person whose fame actually may have eclipsed Christ’s. Fools hate foreigners, and fools hate women, but a lot of people who ought to know better hate the avant-garde, and a lot of people who ought to know better hate the politically engaged, and a lot of people who ought to know better hate polymaths, and Ono is all those things. I think that now the line among sophisticates is that Ono’s musical project is so idiosyncratic you can respect it without quite enjoying it, but I’ve never considered myself a sophisticate.

I associate Yoko Ono’s music with our first year of George W. Bush’s ruinous presidency, prophetess for a new year/decade/century/millennium. That September morning, I watched smoke pluming up over the Williamsburg Savings Bank (then dentist’s offices, now luxury condominiums) from my bedroom window. I strolled through Fort Greene Park, where people, no doubt driven mad by watching television, were playing tennis. That night, I listened to Ono’s album Rising, on headphones connected to my Discman.

That album was suited to that day: war has long been one of Ono’s abiding preoccupations, and war was in the air. “Towns burning/ Throats choking/ Watch out/ Check out.” Indeed, I did check out. I left New York to live alone in a big empty house in the woods, where I spent months writing five hundred pages of a truly horrible novel and listening to Rising repeatedly. I had no television, I had one book (The Ambassadors, for some stupid reason), and I had nightmares almost nightly. Ono entertained me. “You are a New York Woman/ I miss you/ I miss you/ I miss you, my friend,” she sang, and it seemed like she was talking about the women who would have been my friends, if I had any.

On one of the album’s later songs, “Where Do We Go From Here,” Ono sings, “Are we getting tired of blood and horror? Are we getting ready for God and terror?” That Rising was released in 1996 makes Ono seem prescient. I went back to New York in the spring of 2002 and found it so full of God and terror that I couldn’t take the subway, and broke down into tears when a lunatic at Pathmark called me a faggot. I never finished writing that novel.

It probably means I’m a philistine that I never simply listen to music; it’s a secondary consideration, something to accompany me on a commute, while washing dishes, on those rare horrible occasions I decide to go for a run. I respond to music emotionally rather than intellectually, which feels like a failing, if a common one. At some point a couple of years ago, I trained myself to write at night instead of during the day; it was easier to sustain focus after the children were asleep, and I was tired all the time because of the children anyway. I used music to modulate those late nights, giving those hours a rhythm: easy, then invigorating, then calming.

That nightly cycle almost always involved revisiting that first record of Ono’s I had bought. “My Man” is a daffy, earnest love song that’s almost certainly about John Lennon (“When he speaks/ all the birds come around”). It’s sung, rather than screamed — the notion of Ono as banshee isn’t an altogether fair one — and it calmed me. “Spec of Dust,” another song that’s probably about Lennon, a paean to the idea that love is timeless, made me sad. “Why do I miss you so/ if you’re just a spec of dust/ floating, endlessly, amongst a billion stars?”

That record, with its songs of love and rage, made me remember being a dumb twenty-something, full of both: love for some theoretical boyfriend, rage at my creative/financial/professional impotence. Most feel this way as teens and get into punk rock or start a shitty band all their own, but I had an arrested adolescence, not uncommon, I think, when you grow up gay but refuse to think about it, and so I had Yoko Ono. Listening to her in my thirties, in the middle of the night, my husband and children asleep upstairs, I remembered the years in which I was without a husband, without children, and without the discipline to write a book.

I love hearing people’s advice about books to read, exhibitions to attend, films to see, but I am utterly incurious about what music people recommend, because I ask that music perform this service for me, that it entertain me in the moment while also offering some memory of a moment long passed. Dionne Warwick reminds me of those early days of parenthood, my older son lolling around on a blanket and frowning; Kate Bush’s sixth record reminds me so much of a desperate summer I spent lovelorn in Boston that I can barely bear to listen to it. It’s an imperfect way of listening, of consuming, of course; emotions ruin everything.


There are the songs I enjoy because they remind me of some previous time, some previous self, and there are the songs I enjoy because they are tidy, perfect texts of which I am professionally jealous. Ono has always had a flair for language. Undoubtedly her best-known work is the phrase “War is Over! If You Want It,” a line in “Happy Xmas,” the song she co-wrote with her late husband, but more famously the advertising slogan of Yoko Ono Inc., on behalf of all humanity, stark black on pure white in filthy Times Square.

There’s an unadorned clarity to her writing, which might have something to do with her long association with Fluxus, the self-serious art movement that preferred strong words and uncollectable action and performance to a traditional conception of art. The movement was big on disarming straight talk. Ono’s book Grapefruit is pure Fluxus: silly and impossible instructions for actions, process as product. I love that you still see pretty undergrads buying copies of it at the Strand every fall. This is why Ono is so great at Twitter, a medium where she has had a renaissance — she’s been able to talk directly to an audience that might otherwise not know much about her beyond the obvious.

Ono’s oeuvre contains many turns of phrase that I envy — one of my favorite songs is her “All Day Long I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window” which has the very clarity that makes her tweets, and Grapefruit, so perfect. Her songs are poetry that never sound much like poetry, unlike many of Morrissey’s songs, which I can never listen to when I work because I end up writing ersatz Smiths lyrics, with opaque references to the royal family.

But of course the real standard by which you measure a song is more animal than intellectual. In the story “Signs and Symbols,” Nabokov wrote of referential mania, the delusion that all the world — the most innocuous action, the simple existence of some thing — is somehow about you. I imagine we all suffer from this mania when it comes to judging art (hence this passion to see ourselves in the pages of a book) but of course, there’s some other, ineffable thing to the equation. Ono has written a lot of great songs. She’s also written a lot of not great songs, as have most people engaged in this pursuit. The sound of some of Ono’s songs — “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” “I Have a Woman Inside My Soul,” “Loneliness,” “Sisters O Sisters” — simply works for me; music and the savage beast and all that.

Ono can and does caterwaul, and I get why people snicker at that. It’s aggressive and weird and disorienting and to laugh at it is an obvious response, if a superficial one. The live version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” on Ono’s 1972 record with Lennon, Some Time in New York City, is bracing, electric, astonishing. You needn’t know the backstory — Kyoko is Ono’s daughter, the subject of a custody dispute so bitter they were wholly separated for decades — to hear the raw expression of pain leavened by maternal comfort in Ono’s screams. In the soundtrack to Ono’s remarkably unsettling short film “Fly,” she delivers a vocal performance that defies description. It’s worth listening to, even if you can only manage to listen to it once; I think the same can be fairly said of the composer Kaija Saariaho or many other difficult artists. But leave aside this aggressively avant-garde work if you like; “The Death of Samantha” and “Walking on Thin Ice” are great rock and roll songs. It’s incredible to me that the same artist could manage to have made both.


My children are older now, and I’ve gone soft, the abbreviated schedule of their infant sleep somehow forgotten. A few weeks ago, I tried to reclaim the night for myself, those stretches of hours that had proved so fertile, so essential, only a couple of years ago. It was in part superstition and in part the simple need to keep myself awake, but I tried to recreate the specific rhythm of those productive nights: ease, then energy, then quietude. I began with the Brandenberg Concertos, but Bach’s cool mathematics often make me sleepy. I played “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” to rouse myself, then the computer offered me “Is Winter Here to Stay?,” a song of Ono’s that I’ve long liked. I was surprised to find that what I remembered, with a sensory clarity that was almost frightening, was not that time alone in a far-away house in 2001 but a similar night alone in the house I still call home. I remembered two years ago, I remembered a tumbler of watery whisky, damp with condensation, the oppressive heat of New York in June, the lack of absolute silence even at two o’clock in the morning, the reassuring sense that everyone I loved was asleep upstairs.

It’s a confounding thing that art can endure. I don’t mean over the ages — what does that matter, we’re destroying the planet — but in our lives. Art is a conversation between you and someone you’ve probably never met, and that conversation can continue for so long. Yoko Ono, who once reminded me of being twenty-three and watching the world blow up, now reminds me of being thirty-six, old enough to have built a world anew for myself. I don’t know why this should be, but I’m grateful that it is. When she screams don’t worry, I almost believe her.


Image: I bought this oddity on eBay in the middle of the night. It purports to be a wire service news bulletin, and I can’t imagine it’s not authentic because who would fake such a thing? The manner in which Ono is discussed in this says a great deal. I like to imagine Ono, who has played with language throughout her long career, would be amused at rather than hurt by its casual cruelty. It’s dated the day after John Lennon was murdered.

Confessions of a Rock Snob

- | 5

If a lifetime of listening to pop music has taught me anything, it’s that there is no incompatibility between intellectual aspiration and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. You can love T S. Eliot and the New York Dolls. In fact, there’s no snob like a rock snob. I should know. I am one.

There’s an amusing scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which a potential girlfriend is trying to pass the audition of one of the rock snob friends of the rock snob narrator:
“Richard Thompson,” [Dick] explains to Anna. “It’s a song off a Richard Thompson album. ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,’ isn’t it, Rob?”

“Richard Thompson,” Anna repeats, in a voice which suggests that over the last few days she has had to absorb a lot of information very quickly. “Now, which one was he? Dick’s been trying to educate me …“

“Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” Dick confides, emboldened by his Richard Thompson success.

“Oh, right.” I don’t know what to say. This, in our universe, is a staggering piece of information…

“But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be. Aren’t you?”

“Maybe. A bit.”
Go ahead and play that Simple Minds record. I won’t bite. But I vastly prefer Richard Thompson, and I’ll tell you why: because sometimes in its deferred gratifications and the demands it makes on the listener, his music achieves a richness beyond the scope of the wholly proficient and likeable Simple Minds. Sometimes, in fact, his music sounds very much like — oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? — art.

The glorious thing about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, is that you can have it both ways. The spectrum of pop music runs from “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen to Björk’s Medulla, and maybe the best of it is smack in the middle – The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” for instance, ostensibly another one of their melodic toe tappers but in truth a performance of such overwhelming majesty and pathos as to render all categorization meaningless. My truth, however, isn’t necessarily your truth, especially in matters as fundamentally subjective as personal taste. Nevertheless, I think there are a few things we can all agree on: that however much it may be abused and misused, music can penetrate to states of consciousness beyond the reach of words; that music deepens, enriches, and nourishes our lives; and that The Remains were the greatest garage band of the mid ’60s.

What — you haven’t heard of The Remains! I’ll try not to sound like a Nick Hornby character, but I must explain that their one and only album, released just before they broke up in 1966, is an apotheosis of garage rock, with sneering vocals, jagged guitar breaks, and irresistible hooks. What’s not to like? Well, some people didn’t and don’t like it. There will always be those who sneer at pop music as infantile pabulum for the masses. Might I have become such a stiff? Given my highbrow predispositions, that nightmare version of myself is scarily conceivable. While I don’t expect to pass the time with strangers in the airport lounge talking about poetry or cubism, I can more than hold my own if the conversation turns to Michael Jackson or Metallica — or could until about 15 years ago, when I finally abandoned all efforts to keep up with the current playlist. And if this egalitarianism sounds slightly patronizing (yes, I too enjoy the music of the common folk), I can assure you, I really don’t understand Mahler.

How in a few short years pop music got from “Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron” to “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia” is a question I can’t begin to answer. All I know is that when the change came (around the time when I was beginning high school), I was ready for it. That’s partly because much of the lyric writing preceding all this self-conscious Poetry was pretty good too. Smokey Robinson’s elegant and ingeniously constructed conceits, Chuck Berry’s marvelous wordplay and delight in the vernacular: I grew up with these words in my ears and learned from them (without realizing I was learning anything at all) to appreciate language as something precious in itself. “Jubilee,” “jamboree,” “home brew,” “wooden cup,” to cite a few choice idioms from Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music:” these words summoned multiple meanings and sounded like poems in themselves. Anyway, when John Lennon started writing songs about his dead mother, I was sufficiently sensitized to language to follow him to places where pop music had rarely gone before.

One of those places was my own consciousness. “Nowhere Man” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks and “Runnin’ Away” by Sly and the Family Stone: these songs spoke so directly to my loneliness and fear and insecurity that talking about them with my friends (it was safer to talk about guitar heroes) risked revealing the dark secret at the heart of every teenage life: I’m not as cool as I pretend to be. In truth, I was even uncooler than most, and in my increasing unhappiness and isolation, I found myself drawn to the moody lyrics as much as to the flashy fretwork. Unbeknown to me as a hapless high school geek, things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. I had four and a half years of intense undergraduate misery and a lot of Joni Mitchell songs still to come.

My parents thought the songs we listened to were barbarous, and by the standards of Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter and the Gershwins — the pop songwriters of their day — many of them were. What the best rock lyricists offered in place of the playfulness and teasing indirection of the great American show tunes were audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade off. Soul music, it’s true, seemed more outer-directed than white pop and rock, maybe because black people just had too much shit to deal with in the real world. But even Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone’s songs of social import shared the undisguised subjectivity that was the lingua franca of the period. What they didn’t share was the outright narcissism of songwriters like Laura Nyro and John Lennon and Peter Townshend. I preferred the narcissists.

Frank Zappa said somewhere that singer songwriters who bared their innermost souls in songs intended for complete strangers were in desperate need of psychiatric intervention. Well, Zappa was a remarkable composer, arranger, and guitarist, and Hot Rats is an extraordinary achievement. (Real rock snobs, however, will always prefer Trout Mask Replica by his erstwhile collaborator, Captain Beefheart.) Yet if Zappa had bared his soul a little more, his music might have had some of the warmth it so entirely lacks. It wasn’t the coldly brilliant Hot Rats that got me through my first god-awful years at college; it was the equally brilliant and madly introspective Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell that did that.

Aside from “Raised on Robbery,” which featured a sizzling guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, Court and Spark didn’t exactly kick ass. That was okay. I had plenty of other kick-ass records to listen to, but they couldn’t do for me what Court and Spark did: help me to know myself, and others, a little bit more. It wasn’t that the songs contained extractable “meanings,” which inhered at least as much in the beautiful arrangements, with their odd tunings and jazzy inflections, as in the lyrics. Line by line readings of pop songs generally fail for the obvious reason that a song lyric depends on its compositional setting. A song lyric is less like a poem than a play, the text of which awaits the interpretive skills of particular actors to bring it fully to life. Which is only to say that as fine as Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are, they pale in the glare of the printed page. But I wasn’t reading her lyrics, which didn’t have and didn’t need consistent rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms; I was hearing them through her ululating vocals and dramatic piano stylings. The totality of this experience, come to think of it, was not unlike that of coming to a great and complex poem — the song (or poem) changed slightly each time I encountered it, and maybe I changed with it. My critical faculties, whether applied to a complex poem or a far simpler pop song lyric, had a long way to go, but I knew enough to understand that parsing Mitchell’s brave and brazen lyrics wouldn’t get me very far. The heavy duty analytical stuff I could save for my term papers on Hart Crane, who did not write poems as simple and touching as Mitchell’s “People’s Parties:”
Cry for us all, Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand
There wasn’t much to analyze here, but there was a lot to feel. Real feeling, the kind evoked by these songs, required a little effort. If I could open myself to the exquisite vulnerability that seemed to be Joni Mitchell’s raison d’etre, I would be living my life more fully, wouldn’t I? Not only that — I’d be entering more fully into the lives of others. Such was the paradox of artistic creation; the further Mitchell delved into her own psyche, the more she revealed about everybody else’s. Stone cold Grace and Jack behind his joker were putting on a good front, but they were as lost as the frightened songwriter and all the other carriers of Mitchell’s introspection. I didn’t even mind being Eddie in the corner thinking he’s nobody, except that I couldn’t get invited to a party in the first place.

It wasn’t all oceanic subjectivity, even on Court and Spark. In “Raised on Robbery,” a rocker about a floozy coming on to a drunk in a hotel bar, Mitchell indulged her Chuck Berry side. It’s the one song on the album openly and gleefully about people who don’t sound remotely like Joni Mitchell. (“First he bought a ’57 Biscayne / He put it in a ditch / He drunk up all the rest / That son of a bitch.”) Satire and social observation are part of the rock and pop tradition too and likewise furnished a part of my education. If Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On didn’t nail the zeitgeist as much as anything by Norman Mailer or James Baldwin, I don’t know what did.

Randy Newman composed songs in this more impersonal tradition, and in 1974 he performed some of them at Glassboro State College, the lowly teachers’ school in southwestern New Jersey where I was honing my misery and discovering — thanks to some excellent professors — that I had the rudiments of a mind and might enjoy using it. But while many of my professors were inspiring, my fellow students — except for the girls I pined for and a few deviants manifestly more intelligent than I — were rather less so. At any rate, a clutch of scholars shuffling out of the Student Union with me and passing by the artist’s waiting limousine, had not relished that night’s performance.

“That asshole gets a limousine for sitting at a piano and playing those dumbass songs?” one of them said. “Why can’t we get somebody really good, like Argent?”

We did get Argent, who performed, if memory serves, the next semester. While I’ll always love “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” I love them less than Randy Newman’s off-center, piano-based compositions that do occasionally rock the house but have other things — things like wit, irony, and chromatic shading — on their minds. I wouldn’t have had a lot to say to the student who bitterly regretted spending his five or six dollars on the sorely disappointing Randy Newman (who was wonderful, by the way). Did that make me a snob? Plenty of people would have said so, and would say so now. Truthfully, compared to the real rock snobs I’ve known, I’m a peasant. In the first place, that disgruntled student and I could have found some common ground in Argent. He might not have agreed that Rod Argent’s first band, the soulful, jazzy pop balladeers known as The Zombies, outclassed the eponymous arena rockers known as Argent, but I’ll bet he got just as hopped up as I did during the shout along chorus of “Hold Your Head Up.” Anyway, I wasn’t telling him or anyone that he must make room in his life for progressive Britpop as the expense of the crap he really liked. I’ve been tempted, admittedly. For example, I emphatically believe that P.J. Harvey is “better” in every meaningful sense than Hall & Oates, but listening to her doesn’t make me feel superior. It makes me feel alive. Which, no doubt, is exactly the way Hall & Oates fans feel when they listen to their guys.

David Hume wrote, “We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension; but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.” In other words, think twice about sneering at someone’s taste, because someone else can just as easily sneer at yours. I repent of my past as a rock ideologue in the late ’80s and early 90s, when I was “apt to call barbarous” anything to the right of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Not all that music holds up so well. Nevertheless, the punk and new wave bands of that period remain my touchstones, partly because I associate them with the gradual termination of my protracted adolescent misery and the beginning of a new life in New York, party because they were kinda, well, snobbish. What Talking Heads and R.E.M. and the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths and The Clash gave me was the best of both worlds. They rocked, all right, some more than others, but they also composed thoughtful, lyrical, mysterious, acerbic, furious, and funny songs that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. I was still pretty raw in my 20s. If Patti Smith could teach me something about spiritual experience in “Easter” or David Byrne something about media-saturated discourse in “Don’t Worry About the Government,” who was I not to listen? Mostly I learned by osmosis. (Osmosis: if that’s not the name of a band, it should be.) A lifetime of listening to relatively smart pop music might make you a relatively smarter person. And so it has gone on through the decades. Though I love meaningless, head banging rock ‘n’ roll as much as the next person, I’ve gravitated towards arty indie bands with pop sensibilities: XTC, The Replacements, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. Naturally, I became a dinosaur ages ago, but I figured I’d embarrass myself less by not pretending to care about rap or rave or whatever variants of grunge obtain at the moment. Except for The Feelies, for whom I make regular, devoted, and fanatical exception, the only live performances I attend anymore are at the Metropolitan Opera House. How’s that for creeping conservatism?

And yet I don’t find the experience of opera to be so very different from that of rock ‘n’ roll. In the former case, I might shed a few discreet tears from the privacy of my nosebleed seat in the Family Circle, in the latter case I might jump up and down a bit in front of the stage. In either case, I’m listening pretty hard. It’s never background music, even when chopping vegetables for that night’s dinner, with Mozart or The Supremes on my iPod to keep me company. How does that aria grow so subtly out of the recitative and is that a fretted or a fretless bass guitar I’m hearing on this song? Do non-snobs ask themselves these sorts of questions when they listen to music? No, they probably ask themselves better ones. I’ve never been one to let my ignorance stand in the way of a deeply personal involvement with the music. If you can’t listen closely, what’s the point?

Maybe I’ve always missed the point. Looking back on all those nights in clubland in the 1980s, I sometimes think I was the only person on the floor not expecting to get stoned or laid. I was there to hear the music, and truthfully, sometimes the music sounded better at home. But on the good nights there was something approaching communal ecstasy, and the inhuman decibel levels never failed to pump me up. Once at a show featuring X or Graham Parker or Public Image Ltd. (sorry, can’t remember who or where), some girls, noticing my aberrant dance style, asked my regular concert going companion and cousin John “Rotten” Akey what fabulous drugs I was on and where they could get some.

“What’s he on?” John replied. “He’s not ‘on’ anything. He’s never on anything. He’s just into the music.”

Image Credit: Flickr/Alex W.

Pump Down the Volume: On Writing With Background Music

- | 13

As I write this, I’m listening to the new Beach House album. This is not because I like the new Beach House album (although I do), or because it gives me the chance to say so, thus making me sound slightly cooler (although it might, in a desperate sort of way) or because I’m plugging the record (although it is great, if you enjoy the band’s drunk-on-a-beanbag effect).

I’m listening to it because I’m writing — an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion — something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing — I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen. This paragraph might not carry the woozy dreaminess of a Beach House song — but how would it have sounded if, while typing, I’d been listening to Public Enemy? Or Def Leppard? Or nothing at all?

In 1999, Nine Inch Nails’s The Fragile was released to a flood of media attention. This was when a new CD could seem like a cultural event, and, as such, though I didn’t particularly care about Trent Reznor, I read dutifully about the album. And although I’ve largely forgotten The Fragile — I think it gave me a headache — one nugget from its publicity blitz has stayed with me: Chuck Palahniuk was quoted as saying that he listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club.

I remember being sort of shocked by this, not because it didn’t make sense — one can certainly picture Palahniuk in a dim little room, gritting his teeth at the monitor, bashing out his story as Reznor screams at him — but because until then, I’d thought of writing as a monastic pursuit. Writing, to me, was Philip Roth in a cabin somewhere, the only sounds the tapping of his fingers and the wind rushing through the trees. That was the ideal. To write, you needed calm, and for calm, you needed silence.

Perhaps the image of Palahniuk mustering a novel against the shriek of industrial noise helped to change my view. Because not only do I no longer believe it, I’ve gone in the opposing direction: music is now as central to my writing as an idea and a comfortable chair. I now feel almost unhinged if I try to write without something playing to whisk my mind along. Music has become a brace that props up my thoughts, fences them off, prevents them from slipping away. Silence has come to feel like an unfamiliar field, with too much space to roam.

Along with Beach House, Boards of Canada — makers of beat-driven, dystopian electronic music — has lately been my brace of choice. Such sounds somehow hem me in and push my focus outward, into whatever I’m writing. When I need less help, some sort of jazz usually does the trick — with something buoyant like Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores reserved for the easiest days.

Which brings me back to my original question: what is that music — Boards of Canada’s creepy soundscapes, John Coltrane’s hard bop, Snoopy’s dancing tunes — doing to the words?

I went online in search of answers, and was at first encouraged by what I found. A number of sites have devoted space to the topic, with pieces ranging from the listy (“10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse”) to the self-helpful (one Goodreads thread, “Listening to Music While Writing,” sits under the “Struggling Writers” heading). There are endless suggestions for albums that will not only “summon the muse,” but keep her with you: In a Silent Way, Music For Airports, anything by Philip Glass. No mention of Nine Inch Nails.

The cumulative effect of these posts was the feeling that, with the correct music, you can become the next Joyce Carol Oates, effortlessly meeting your daily quota of words. It’s a tempting narrative, and one that fits with the Internet’s culture of simple solutions: If you’re having trouble with that short story, just put on some Brian Eno. Your latent genius will be unleashed.

But mixed in with all this good feeling were numerous studies and papers the results of which were both consistent and surprising. A New Jersey Institute of Technology study found that “background music significantly disrupted writing fluency, even though no response to the music was required.” The explanation: “music may increase cognitive load because the brain has to handle the additional information.” A University of Windsor study found that its subjects’ “time-on-task was longest when music was removed.” Another, from Indiana State University, on the “Mozart Effect” — the idea that classical music can somehow boost intelligence — found that “playing background music in the creative writing class had a significant improvement on the student’s behavior, but not a significant improvement on the student’s writing.” In other words, music can provide the inner calm that I used to imagine in my Philip Roth fantasy. It just won’t help me write the next American Pastoral.

Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, in a synthesis of such studies, provided the most concise blow to my assumption of music’s benefits: “Playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks…when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.”

And on and on. If the science is correct, my Eno-loving peers and I may be deluding ourselves as to music’s utility. We’re most likely being too romantic. “Writing can get lonely,” a Quora contributor wrote, “but when Moby is in my ears, it feels like he’s on the journey with me.” It’s a charming sentiment. But maybe we’re being too eager to make an unappealing task seem less so — the ice cream cone after the doctor’s office — without any thought to the consequences. Maybe Boards of Canada is less of a brace and more of an anchor, slowing down a part of my mind that otherwise would be free. There’s no way to prove that the things I’ve written would have been better had they been written in silence — but what if they could have been, even just a tiny bit? Though I’ll never know, it’s unsettling to think about.

It’s equally unsettling, though, for me to picture a future in which I write in a totally quiet room, with no one “on the journey with me.” The idea is as unappetizing to me as Palahniuk’s habits once seemed. So what, then, to do? On the one hand, I have my habits and experience, my comfort with routine. On the other, studies that show that music is, at best, a nonfactor, and at worst, a hindrance. Hovering over both is the thought that I’m being unserious, the kid who can’t get a flu shot without the promise of a mint-chip cone.

I’m not sure what to do. I’m now listening to Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince Will Come. I’ve listened to this album, while writing or reading, close to 200 times. It’s delicate and warm, gentle and easy. I’ve got the volume turned down low.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Let Us Now Be Grateful That They’re (Finally!) (Honestly!) (Really Really Really!) Dead

- | 9

You never forget your first time. My first Grateful Dead concert took place on May 15, 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York City. I was a high school senior and my older brother let me tag along with him and a bunch of his long-hair college buddies down from Vermont. The New Riders of the Purple Sage opened the show around midnight ii featuring the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, on pedal-steel guitar — and then the Dead came on and spent the rest of the night scrambling my brain and changing my life.

I stood along the left wall down by the stage, toking on the joints that kept coming my way. The smoke was so thick in the air it was impossible not to get high. I’d been to plenty of rock concerts by then, but nothing like this, nothing so loud, so kinetic, so loose and unpredictable and alive. I knew a little bit about the Dead, mostly through Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but nothing can prepare you for the physicality of their music. It was like riding a locomotive into outer space, the old theater heaving as everyone in the packed house moved in unison. A huge screen behind the band — it looked like the world’s largest bed sheet — zoomed and squiggled with a stroboscopic lava-lamp light show. When the music finally stopped, we stumbled out a side exit onto East Sixth Street at dawn, where we were serenaded by a bunch of Hells Angels doing wheelies up the one-way street on their Harleys in the wrong direction. Oh, hell yes! Throw out all the rules! A perfect ending to a mind-bending, life-altering night.

Though I attended a few dozen Dead concerts after that one, I never considered myself a card-carrying Deadhead. You know, the fans who go on the road for months at a time following the band, taping the shows, hawking jewelry and tie-dyed t-shirts to pay for gas and bail, eating acid the way ordinary citizens eat Cheerios. My attendance at so many shows had more to do with dumb luck than true tribal passion. My college roommate happened to have a friend who ran the box office at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a regular port of call on Dead tours, and so we often found ourselves with our feet propped on the edge of the stage, melting into our free front-row seats as the acid kicked in and the Dead blasted off. No wonder I barely squeaked through college.

My roommate owned every Dead album then in existence, and one of them was almost always spinning on the turntable in our dorm room. So relentless was the music that I can remember an exasperated neighbor shouting through our open door, “Please guys, not ‘Sugaree’ again!?” The Dead were not to every taste, as I was learning, and a backlash had begun to build. In time, bumper stickers would appear that proclaimed I’ll Be Grateful When They’re Dead. The music critic Dave Marsh dubbed the Dead “the worst band in creation.”

Fast-forward a couple of decades to a scalding July day in 1990. I was working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina at the time, and I couldn’t resist the chance to attend a Dead concert at N.C. State’s massive football stadium in Raleigh. It would be a chance to see what my youth looked like as my 40th birthday loomed.

It looked ghastly. What I saw wasn’t mere nostalgia, a bunch of aging baby boomers trying to recapture a glimmer of the good old days, the kind of people you see nowadays at concerts by The Who or Billy Joel or The Rolling Stones, (a.k.a, “the world’s greatest cover band”). No, in Raleigh I saw a whole new generation of fans, young enough to be my children, who were more or less going through the same motions people had gone through a quarter of a century earlier. There were still plenty of “spinners,” those barefoot dancing dervishes. There were still plenty of bandanas, tie-dyes, and patchouli. Only now, that big bed sheet on the stage of the Fillmore East had been replaced by state-of-the-art video screens. There were whole mountain ranges of amplifiers, slick lighting, stands selling expensive souvenir caps, pins, stickers, and tie-dyed t-shirts, plus popcorn at $2 a box. This was the production a very big business, more a corporation than a scruffy, countercultural jam band. In the course of the 1990s, the Dead would become the biggest-grossing tour act in the world. When I mentioned that delightfully crude 1970 light show at the Fillmore East to the Dead’s then-current publicist, Dennis McNally, he told me, “We know better now.’’

I wasn’t so sure. As I wrote in my column, the 35,000 fans who showed up in Raleigh comprised “a huge army of robots going through the same old motions, over and over and over again…a whole new generation of fans who missed the ’60s but learned to mimic behavior and dress that were once outlandish but are now merely old hat.”

Fast forward a couple more decades, and the Grateful Dead is getting ready to put on three 50th-anniverary shows in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, which they swear are going to be their last concerts ever. The death of the Dead has been reported, erroneously, many times since Jerry Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53 in 1995 while undergoing rehab for a heroin addiction. But every time the band was pronounced dead, they seemed to revive with a new name, a new lineup. So while I’m understandably skeptical of this latest proclamation of a final set of shows, I choose to be optimistic that this time the band finally, honestly, really really really means it.

I say I’m optimistic for a number of reasons. First, 50 years is a long enough run for any rock band. Second, there’s nothing sadder than watching a performer overstay his or her welcome (cf. Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan, Elvis). And third, since Garcia’s death the band has employed a number of guitarists to try to recapture his inimitable aura (Trey Anastasio of Phish has the thankless job on the current Fare Thee Well tour), and while I’m not one of those purists who sees this as sacrilegious, I do think it’s vaguely creepy and more than a little opportunistic. It’s also a reminder that the Dead long ago became a very big and very rich corporation with a bottom line to consider. That’s not a knock on their success. It’s just a fact.

What a long strange trip it’s been — long and strange and glorious and sad. No doubt about that. But all trips must come to an end, and it’s time — it’s past time — for the Grateful Dead to bid us good night, good night, good night.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Can U Tell Me? Short Stories as Pop Songs


Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.

Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?

I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”

Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.

At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.

Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.

Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.

A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.

In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.

And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.

In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.

Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.

Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.

This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.

So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.

And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.

Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.

For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.

“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.

No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.

Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.

Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.

When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:

1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)

2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)

3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)

The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.

4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)

After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.

5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)

6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)

A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.

7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)

“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”

Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.

8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)

Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.

9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)

Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.

Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.

Rites of Danhood: On Liking Steely Dan

- | 8

When I was a sophomore in college, a few friends and I moved into an off-campus house that was everything an off-campus college house should be: decrepit, moldy, almost comically uncared for. Among many small, revolting incidents that took place, there was an evening in which I sat, sober and alone, reading a book in the dingy living room — only to be interrupted when maggots began to drop from the ceiling like windblown mulberries. A stray, worm-eaten cat that we named Skeevy often moseyed through our front door to scavenge through our garbage in search of tuna cans. I once watched a roommate drop a piece of toast, butter-side down, on the kitchen floor. He then picked up the bread and, without a second thought, smeared the butter into the linoleum with his sock.

Yes, those were the salad days. One of my fellow dirtbags and I shared a bunkbed in the house’s unfinished basement that was freezing in the winter and slug-ridden in the summer. But we were proud of our little dungeon, and we decorated it in typical collegiate fashion: faded tapestries, a wire-spool table, posters of Mick Jagger and M.C. Escher and Michael Jordan. Dixie cups filled with fermenting tobacco spit sat on seemingly every surface, and hardly a day went by without one being knocked onto the floor.

I describe this scene not to dredge up misguided nostalgia or revel in the boozy grossness of it all. (Well, maybe a little bit.) I describe it for the contrast it offers to a quirk of the three years I spent in that squalid place: my roommate in the basement — who I will not name here, but who remains one of my closest friends — loved Steely Dan.

This may not seem particularly earth-shattering now, but in the late ’90s — a time when shitty, Puffy-fied hip-hop and “modern rock” were dominant, at least among my peers — Steely Dan sounded as if it came from some awkward alternate dimension, a galaxy where everyone wore BluBlockers and danced like pudgy moms. Steely Dan sang breezily about Babylon Sisters, whoever they were, imploring them to “shake it.” They worried that Rikki would lose that number, sounding like asexual lounge lizards while doing so. Whenever this strange, almost aggressively cheesy music oozed from our basement speakers — and it was pretty often, as Gold was one of my roommate’s go-to compact discs — I didn’t know how to react. Even the worst music of the day — Sisqó or Ma$e or Creed — had a personal precedent; it at least resembled, in some way, something I could like: James Brown, Wu-Tang, Black Sabbath. Steely Dan, however, was like nothing I’d ever heard, and not in an enticing way. It seemed to be the worst of jazz and the most boring of rock rolled into one mutant, bad-sex package. It sounded like what sad aliens might listen to when they got around to masturbating.

Yet I otherwise respected my roommate’s taste in music. He wasn’t some fleshy weirdo who danced naked to Aja, at least so far as I knew. When not subjecting me to Gold, he listened to albums that paired perfectly with our surroundings: Blood on the Tracks, Coltrane’s Sound, Animals. He was a good guy, gregarious, fun to be around. Yet there he was on the ratty scavenged couch that we’d dragged down the basement steps, lip full of Skoal, Coors Light in hand, happily nodding his head as “Deacon Blues” filled the room. What was going on here? How could he like Steely Dan? How could anyone?

Over the next few years, my interest in music became more focused on the present. Radiohead became important to me, along with other artists — Beck, Modest Mouse, El-P — who, for the most part, pushed the Floyds and Zeppelins of my college years well into the background. Reaching into the past for an artist became increasingly rare for me — and the idea that I’d reach back for Steely Dan, of all bands, would have made me choke.

But about four years ago, that’s exactly what I did. Like all moments that defy understanding — witnessing a child’s birth or spotting a U.F.O. — I remember it with perfect clarity: I was at a flea market, rummaging through a bin of old three-dollar records. As I flipped through the titles, Steely Dan’s Gaucho caught my eye. I noted it and kept going, past the Loggins & Messina and Kenny Rogers albums. But as I browsed, I gradually became aware of a nagging little voice. “Go back,” it said. “Go back to Gaucho.”

For some reason, I listened. I flipped my way back to Gaucho and pulled the record out. There was the cover, in all its awful glory: a strange bas-relief illustration of a man and woman, slow dancing, bordered by a nauseating greenish gray. It was still in its original wrapper, a sickly film of plastic that was unpleasant to the touch. Gaucho was offensive to my eyes, my fingers, and probably my ears. There was nothing appealing there.

Maybe that’s why I bought it. It was the same impulse that makes people eat habañeros or take shots of Everclear. Its very ugliness propelled me to say, “Oh, why not,” pull out a five-dollar bill, and hand it to the vendor. He nodded knowingly as he fished around for change.

“That’s a good one,” he said.

“Yeah, I know,” I nodded, wondering if I’d gone insane.

When I got back home and put it on, I didn’t really like it. As they had 13 years before, Steely Dan still sounded defiantly lame, still made me think of Reno and corny pick-up lines. But — this is crucial — for the first time, I didn’t hate it. Steely Dan’s fans gush about the band’s perfectionism, musicianship, and sly lyrical darkness, but my new, grudging appreciation had nothing to do with those things. What I found was that Gaucho led me to a place that I was ready to explore.

I had rejected that place as a 19-year-old, when I was eager to prove myself both socially and sexually. But I was older now, married, with a mortgage and dependable slippers. Suddenly, Steely Dan didn’t seem so bizarrely foreign. Their songs’ weirdly lecherous languor now lined up more precisely with something inside myself. Had I been single and forced out to the bars, I would have been closer to the corny-line lounge lizard than the college hero that I had never really been. Unlike nearly every other artist I’d actively listened to, Steely Dan didn’t come to me. I had come to them, merely by getting older.

Still, it’s not as if my house became a shrine to Donald Fagen. I didn’t buy any more cheap records, didn’t download any other albums, and only listened to Gaucho every month or so. It was only after burning a few of my father-in-law’s Steely Dan CDs — Can’t Buy a Thrill, The Royal Scam, and Countdown to Ecstasy — that I actually came to sort of like the band. Can’t Buy a Thrill, especially, was an album that I found I could listen to without being in an odd or perverse mood. I didn’t love Steely Dan — not even close — but the disgust I’d felt for them 15 years before was nowhere to be found.

This shift, as minor as it is, has been unlike anything I’ve experienced as a consumer of popular culture. Like most, my tastes have lost some edge as I’ve aged and become a dad: it’s hard for me to imagine myself enjoying, say, Hubert Selby, Jr. or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I did in my early 20s. But I haven’t gone full Sting either, and, until I reassessed Gaucho, I’ve never come back to an artist that I once declared cornball. Nicholas Sparks seemed awful to me in 1996, and I’m pretty sure he’s awful now. The same goes for The Family Man, Elizabethtown, and Matchbox 20.

Or at least I think it does. Because of Steely Dan, I can no longer be sure. What they’ve given me — along with “Peg” and “Dirty Work” and, yes, “Deacon Blues” — is a way to embrace the awful creeping softness that comes with middle age. The self-consciousness I felt when my roommate put on Gold all those years ago — that they’re-all-going-to-laugh-at-you feeling I still get when I dance at weddings —–is gone when I hear them now. Nobody cares what I listen to, and they never did anyway. I’m now free to admit that, sure, Steely Dan is a little cheesy, but there’s nothing wrong with that. What the hell. I’m a little cheesy, too.

Loser on the Moon: On Leonard Cohen, Fandom, and Posterity

- | 13

For those among the world’s inhabitants who take for granted that one day, in some far flung corner of the cosmos, a preternaturally melancholic being — earthling or otherwise — will come by chance to hear a Leonard Cohen song and thereby be made if not suddenly blissful then at least able to enjoy his, her, or its melancholy a little more, a recent edition of Rolling Stone will hold interest. In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.

Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.

They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.

At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?

Theory # 1: Adolescent Attachments
Like many people, whether they know it or not, my adolescence extended well into my 20s. With the most challenging aspect coming all at once, after college, and brought on by what at the time was a bewildering discovery: the world I’d entered in no way resembled the one of my childhood conception. And, as bewildering, the role I’d set myself up to play, based in commerce and convention — in this much ruder, rougher, cynical, uncinematic world — contained neither of the things I ended up needing most, which were creativity and risk.

There I was, making great money at an international accounting and consulting firm, living in Manhattan, in the thick of a super-abundant social scene; with everything, supposedly, in front of me to make a fulfilling, even enviable life. Why was it then I felt increasingly anxious and in despair? And carried about a suspicion that in all but the physical sense I was engaged in a form of gradual self-mutilation? With this condition exacerbated by a lack of understanding from a beloved parent, and my own weakness, ignorance, insecurity, confusion.

And it was in the midst of this storm I found Leonard Cohen’s music. Found and grasped immediately that, more than a perfectly exquisite soundtrack to my suffering, these sounds and words could somehow help me come through. I remember those first experiences well. Alone in a room, sitting or more often lying down, listening and letting my mind unravel was the primary activity. Something done in anticipation of relief, and compelled by a purely intuitive sense that the music was functioning as a kind of cure.

And in this, by the way, I’m far from alone. Legion are the stories about the outsized role Leoanrd Cohen’s music has played for those in distress. Stories like the one told to me by a woman in a bar: how as a teenager, while in a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of way, she ventured into a blizzard to attend a Leonard Cohen concert, and was turned around by it, made okay (And how, years later, she had the opportunity to describe this experience to Leonard Cohen directly, and he replied, ”Do you mean the night it snowed?”). Stories to be found on the vast array of Leonard Cohen-related fan websites, including Here It Is, a site whose sole purpose is to collect such personal anecdotes, testaments, expressions of gratitude. Stories like the one recounted by Christopher Hitchens in his book Mortality connecting terminal illness and the increased likelihood of Leonard Cohen’s music turning up in the mail as an otherwise unprompted gift.

Something is there: in the bare, honest, intrepid voice; the lamenting, mysterious, romantic, at times oddly rejoicing lyrics; the oft-austere, never showy arrangements. Something that at the very least harmonizes extraordinarily well with psychic dissonances; and at most, for some, if they possess the Leonard Cohen gene, induces an outright religious feeling. One all the headier for its universalist and literary qualities, but also the uniqueness of its source: a popular culture figure, somehow both playing the popular culture game and standing outside it, engaged in a seemingly authentic contemporary struggle between the sacred and profane.

Certainly, during my hard time, all of the above were at play. But also something else, which had to do with my only listening to the first three albums — Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate — which are the most pained, wrenching, raw of his catalogue. These, when listened to in a focused manner, first song to last, reliably brought about the kind of reaction Aristotle attributed to Attic tragedy; that is, a feeling of purging and catharsis, for having both experienced and escaped a fate worse than my own!

So then, yes, adolescent attachment — of course don’t mess with it. But is it this alone twisting me out of shape? No. Probably not.

Theory #2: Rug Pull
The Leonard Cohen I thought I knew was an ambitious artist. Early on, while still in his 20s and well before he turned to music, he was a serious and flamethrowing Canadian poet in the romantic tradition; and like the romantics he esteemed, his aspirations appeared anything but modest. Indeed, evidence of this — and a first rate riff in its own right — is something Cohen is reported to have said about his dear friend and fellow flamethrowing Canadian poet, Irving Layton:

“I taught him how to dress and he taught me how to live forever.”

Was I wrong to take this more or less at face value? Especially when combined with a motif I remembered Cohen often bringing up in interviews, wherein he would describe himself as being a “minor” artist — minor in that he knew he was not a William Shakespeare or Homer, but a rung below, a Percy Bysshe Shelley or John Keats, that felt about where he was hanging, or at least trying to hang. This implied a great insight, I thought, about the nature of artistry overall — that ultimately there are three types of practitioners: Major, Minor, Biodegradable. But also, by extension, that if Cohen gave such thought to rank and stature, and saw himself in or near the strata wherein a major perk would seem to be that your name and work live on, that this same might hold attraction for him.

So I was surprised by what I read in Rolling Stone. And somewhat embarrassed, if only to myself, in the way one can get when exposed for being less the expert one thought on a topic of passion and interest.

And this, I think, along with my adolescent ties, makes a good start at untangling my present feelings; and puts me in view of what I’d like to think is inside these feelings, at their root.

Theory # 3: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen
Put simply: it’s up there, in the heights, among the best our culture has produced in the last 50 years. And I’m not referring to the two novels, both published in the ’60s and still in print, which were ambitious, well reviewed, and retain their contingent of champions. Nor to the poetry, Cohen’s original calling, and a form he’s never stopped working in, both for the purpose of song lyrics as well as stand alone works; he is in fact on most lists of Canada’s major poets, and in recent years his verse has even begun to appear in The New Yorker. No, it’s the music I’m of course referring to, which has proved to be his most penetrating and popular means of expression.

Thirteen studio albums, 135 or so songs, released over the course of 44 years. Hardly a prolific rate of output — Cohen has a famously laborious process — but then again how can care, patience, resistance to commercial pressure, and the evident life lived around and between these efforts be held against him? Especially when the end result is large enough that it spins out and looms like its own solar system?

Starting with Songs of Leonard Cohen. A debut made at the ripe age of 32, here is the best advertisement I know for artists exploring new forms, especially at the moment in Cohen’s development that he did: a confluence wherein he was in early maturity as a man and artist, yet retained the youthful arrogance and iconoclasm upon which he and so many young creatives first draw.

Sonically, the elements of the songs are familiar enough. A bare male voice out front, accompanied by strings, mostly guitar. After this, though, we’re onto new ground. First, with the largely unmodulated arrangements, and recurring, hypnotic circularity to the guitar playing. Also though, with the quality of the singing voice — lacking mellifluousness, yes, like many singer-songwriters, but infused with a willful courage, intelligence, utterly disarming honesty. But most of all, with the lyrical content; the storytelling, or better, mythologizing effect a song can have. Because here is a song cycle that contains just enough that is ordinary — a platonic encounter in “Suzanne,” a tenderhearted chance meeting in “Sisters of Mercy” — but otherwise treads far, far, beyond. Abounding, for example, with religious imagery; lonesome wanderings; suicidal meditations; erotic power plays; and, no small part of the magic, the almost-but-not-quite-discernible. Rendered all in what meets the ear as finely pitched poetry.

The result is real estate, opened up for and around the listener.

And with the procession of albums, though they vary dramatically in style and tone, came a deepening and enrichment of this space. Certainly it has always been capable of nurturing far more than adolescents in crisis, as I was when I first got hooked. And really, here is the key. Contained in these recordings is a full literature for adults of a certain bent. Those who gain something essential of themselves when they pass through modern life’s deep and shadowy ravines — and all the more so when their guide is the right kind of priestly, worldly, hungry, humorous, humble; and possessed by a deft poetic gift.

Then there are the live performances, where all this can be encountered and experienced in three dimensions. This from his first tour in 1970, to his most recent, an extended series conducted between 2008 and 2013. And while, for the pre-2008 shows, I’m compelled to rely on written accounts, for the latter my source is first hand. I attended three shows, and here again religious themes must be employed. Leonard Cohen the performer literally on his knees for large portions of the evening, evincing reverence, effusive in his gratitude, and enacting a communion with the audience evidenced most tangibly among the latter in the form of tears.

Theory #4: Altruism

This is more of an anti-theory.

Because one thing I’m pretty certain not at play in my upset, in the stake I feel in Leonard Cohen’s posterity, is altruism. That is, when I ponder the possibility that future generations will neither listen to Cohen’s music nor know his name, the feeling I’m left with is largely indifference. A shame, I’m aware, as a do-gooder angle would certainly play well. Would certainly be an easy and dare I say fashionable way through this self-examination.

Why am I sharing this? I’m not at all sure. It could be in the spirit of Leoanrd Cohen himself, the absolute value he places on truth telling in his work. And/or it might be more pragmatic. As in I just need to get this confession out of the way so I can get back to more promising ideas.

Theory #5: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen — Part II
It matters who makes the art. We may like to think otherwise. That in our consideration the creator and creation can be kept separate. But the more we enjoy a song, picture, story, movie, the more our imaginations seek out the biographical. And what we find informs our connection, especially over time.

And so here is Leonard Cohen, who does far better than most in this regard.

Starting with the figure he cuts today, and has for the last many years. The always well-attired gentleman with an aura that is part ageing artiste, part Old Testament sage, part retired high-level Hollywood fixer. A man who in interviews speaks thoughtfully, incisively, playfully, at times elusively about his life, career, spiritual pursuits, reputation as sexual gourmand, decades-long struggle with depression (a struggle from which in his early 70s he emerged victorious). Indeed, it’s hard to imagine someone encountering the contemporary Leoanrd Cohen in interview or profile, or for that matter the most recent biography, and not come away more favorably disposed.

Yet really this seems so for all the figures he’s cut: aging-but-still-trenchant cult figure of the ’80s and ’90s, whose musical activities were significantly curtailed by depression and spiritual pursuits, including a five-year residency in a Zen Buddhist monastery. A-list supporting player in the ’60s and ’70s zeitgeist — an always fierce but decidedly non-Aquarian voice whose friendships, adventures, liaisons connected him to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Nico, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Robert Altman, Judy Collins, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Joplin, and the Chelsea Hotel.

Before this, the serious writer living on a Greek island, pushing boundaries with literary narrative and obscenity laws on a regimen of sun, acid, barbiturates, fasting, family life with a Norwegian woman and her young son.

Preceded by Montreal, where Cohen grew up and found himself before the age of 20 the junior member of a school of like-minded artists; a group amped up on poetry, bohemian ideals, friendship, swinging the first axes at Canada’s still petrified cultural milieu.

So, wow, a bio that actually holds the light; that is, among other things, posterity-worthy. And, I realize, whether I like it or not, enforces my attachment to the man, and enriches my enjoyment of his music.

Theory #6: Me, Me, Me
True, also, it occurs in all this there might be some measure of ego involved — mine in particular.

That really, what is fandom anyway, if not an extension of self into the wider world? A blinking light of identity — and the bigger the fan the brighter the shine — wired to what one holds of great value? Worth defending? Getting really, really pissed off over?

And through this association a kind of contract is struck. With the fan, in exchange for a chunk of their identity, getting certain rights, namely to partake in the object of their fandom’s success, honor, recognition, glory. With some not-so-fine print stipulating a further condition: that the fan also suffers their object’s failures, dishonor, slights, nasty crap people post about it online.

Yes, absolutely, and the details of the relationship matter. That is, how long has it been going on between the fan and the object of their fandom? And where exactly was the object when the two first got together?

And while in my situation I’m not claiming to be the equivalent of the first shmoe in Memphis to say Hey, that Presley guy might actually have something, I have been a Leonard Cohen fan for over 25 years. And got on board when he was still a relatively obscure figure. Still prompted a lot of “Leonard who?” And to many who had heard of him, he was still something of a punch line. Misunderstood and underappreciated, even by his ostensible friend Leon Wieseltier, whose 1988 profile in The New Yorker was titled “The Prince of Bummers,” and ignored almost completely the spiritual dimension of Cohen’s work, person, appeal…

So where was I?

Right — ego, mine, and that old playground saw: you mess with my guy and you mess with me…

Theory #7: Beautiful Losersville
Confession: I can’t really recommend Leonard Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers. Oh, it has its merits — supercharged intimacy and urgency, smart hipster philosophy, and an underlying scheme that successfully co-locates the personal, political, and spiritual planes of modern life. Nonetheless, I find the narrative somewhat quickly bogs down. That the acid, amphetamines, and still-youthful mysticism the influence of which he significantly wrote it under are a bit too much on display; while things like coherence, economy, restraint — all guiding values of his music — are nowhere to be found. Creating, all things considered, an effect wherein the mad visions and esoteric riffs tend to go on and on, the plot not so much.

Still, I can’t overstate the importance of this novel to me — this for the title alone.

Beautiful Losers does it for me. The phrase itself. I can hardly think of one I find more brilliant and expressive, apposite for the beat and bankrupt but still somehow divine world I see around me. Or, for that matter, a phrase that works at once as taxonomy, sanctification, a cold hard fact.

And though I don’t recall the precise moment I encountered it, I know it was in my late 20s, which is to say toward the end of my adolescence. This also being several years after I’d gone AWOL on the life I’d stepped into out of college. Several years after recognizing how important engagement with art was for my survival, I had begun to do some writing myself. What an impression this juxtaposition — at least to my American ears! — made. How well it meshed with my own increasingly mashed up ideas on matters large and small, including the various things a person might end up becoming, want to become, the tricked-out words ‘losing’ and ‘winning’ themselves. And, if only implicitly, what validation that my struggle to find a way to live had been worth it. The pleasure I derived evidence that one of the unforeseeable rewards of becoming your self is the capacity to find society, with people as in ideas.

And here again I’m not alone. The term having become a fairly steady seller in pop culture vernacular — found today on t-shirts, tattoos, graffiti, the title of a band, a semi-recent documentary, countless pieces of journalism, miscellaneous communiqués in countless languages. While, at the same time, maintaining heightened resonance for people like me. A coinage acknowledged as being exceptionally representative of a Leonard Cohen state of mind. And that also, it occurs, may still have applications yet unexplored. I’m thinking in particular of something I referenced earlier, the singular space Cohen’s music evokes. That if it were ever to become an actual habitat, a locale perhaps for “the Leonard Cohen afterlife” Kurt Cobain requests in his song “Pennyroyal Tea,” Beautiful Losers might again find use. Would serve well, for example, as a password at the border. Or motto on the currency. Or, in slight variation, a pretty good name of the entire thing.

Theory # 8: The Ghost of Good Scenes Future
But then again, I might have been too hard on myself.

Earlier, when I stated that my emotional connection to Leoanrd Cohen, and in particular the stake I feel in his posterity, has nothing to do with altruism. This might not be altogether true. Which I appreciate. Because while I came away from the prior theory forced to concede I was a thoroughly selfish bastard, now I can reconsider, and make a case that it’s only partially so.

The commonweal — there is an aspect about which I most definitely care: I want there to be good scenes.

And by “scenes” I mean in the sense that gained currency in the ’60s. Counterculture slang, prompted in part by the advent of LSD, verbalizing a sense that had for decades been making its way to the fore: the way we experience our lives has become so influenced by the stories we consume — especially from movies and TV — that for accuracy’s sake, when describing life’s de facto fundamental unit, we may as well employ the corresponding term. Scenes then being what we actually get, a seemingly (but not) endless supply; our lives at any given moment, and especially in retrospect, the net sum of their quality.

And I say, good scenes for one and all.

What qualifies? Perhaps the best definition relies upon a criterion once used to legally define hardcore pornography; that is, we know it when we see it. Because for sure there are as many definitions on the planet as there are actors. Nonetheless, as a baseline, it can perhaps be said that all good scenes involve connection, even when we are by ourselves. Also this: a temporary suspension of what seems to make life a burden, and the sensation, for however long it lasts, that we are getting what we need.

And here is where Leonard Cohen comes in. Because without his music, an entire genre of good scene is in jeopardy. A genre whose basic nature should by now be evident. And, not incidentally, a genre whose best days may still lie ahead — in the rapidly approaching time of outer space habitation. A time when the near-incomprehensible distances between celestial bodies will find their way into the relations between people, with corresponding quotients of loneliness, alienation, drooping and tattered human hearts. A time, in other words, in which Leonard Cohen’s music will find optimal purchase, really make a difference, absolutely pack a punch.


Well, imagine there’s this guy. A nice enough fellow for a dumb cluck, he’s living far from the world we now occupy, in some down-market solar system, on some outer planet’s moon, waiting for a sunrise that’s been weeks on the come. More, this confused young fellow, say about 25, has time on his hands, having recently quit his job trading rocket fuel futures. And psychically too he feels somewhat, no, very much in flux. Is going through that thing when for the first time in our lives we acknowledge certain truths. For example, how little we know, or control, and therefore how uncertain is our future. That thing when we start to feel fate differently. Feel fate, that is, as something that might truly, quickly, unapologetically, no-joke-at-all run us over; or maybe worse, leave us behind. With this depressing our young man, but also, strangely, leaving him in a state of wonder, and open, even hungry to let in more.

And just then a beam of light appears. The new day’s first. And he puts on some Leonard Cohen. What song? It almost doesn’t matter, as countless in the catalogue would do the trick, get him on his way into deep good scene. And yet, there’s one in particular, one Leonard Cohen song I’m thinking of, that might do even more. That is, take him through and clear a good scene. To whatever might come next.

Image Credit: Wikipedia