Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Nevermind Nostalgia: Twenty Years After Nirvana

Nostalgia is a funny thing. The idea of sentimentality attaching meaning to objects, places, and people is as natural as anything human can be, but ultimately the form it takes depends largely on context. Michael Chabon once poignantly suggested that, for teenagers, imagination is about all you have to work with, and that during his own adolescence “my imagination, the kingdom inside my skull, was my sole source of refuge, my fortress of solitude, at times my prison.” True indeed. After all the lunch table ressentiment, the zits, the homework, harried teachers, haranguing parents, and the general gauntlet of puberty as it is and was and always shall be, one can usually find escape and release in the secret world of your bedroom. The limits to this world are physically confined to the walls, bed, and window but, as Emily Dickinson insisted, the brain is wider than the sky. When I was too young to take refuge anywhere else, my room was indeed my castle, which consisted of what alt-rock albums I knew best and could get my hands on -- Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., and Nirvana were definitely in the retinue. I wore R.E.M shirts and parted my hair like Billy Corgan. One of the really unfortunate facts of adolescence is that at the precise time when one’s passion and cultural curiosity are at their highest, when everything is so new and fascinating, the range of available options are limited to the reach of allowance money, the radio, and word of mouth. Don’t get me wrong -- those were, and are, great records. It just took me some time to appreciate that there was a world apart from alternative radio programming and to discover the work of people like Lou Reed, Son House, and Thelonious Monk. I didn’t look back for years. I still don’t. But when grunge and alt-rock were what I knew, oh how I listened! I remember sitting hunched over my black Sony boom box, listening to Alice In Chains, staring out the window at a bright spring day, and feeling like the birds in the trees just didn‘t get it. I wrote my favorite lyrics in notebooks, across the white borders of my walls, and in the snow on the backs of cars on my way home from school. Hearing that Nirvana’s Nevermind was 20 years old was kind of like seeing an old drinking buddy turn to Jesus in his autumn years. I was happy for him and everything, but I missed the old days when we shared the fortress of solitude. It’s past the point of cliché now to call Nirvana’s Nevermind a Watershed Moment In Rock History, the Voice of the Disaffected Youth, A Generational Moment, ad nauseam, oh well, whatever, nevermind. Whoever initially decided that Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation has probably disappeared by now into tastemaker obscurity, paying the bills with commentary on a VH1 special or in the arts section at Newsweek.  Nevermind, as a cultural artifact, enjoys the same status that, say, Bringing It All Back Home, Kind Of Blue, and Sgt. Pepper’s have maintained for years. You might not ever listen to it, but you probably worshipped it at some point, and now you pretty much have to have a copy hanging around somewhere if you want to call yourself a respectable human being. The baby on the cover, a lad by the name of Spencer Elden, was quoted a propos the anniversary that “Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis, so that’s kinda cool. I‘m just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I‘m here.” Somewhere, the afro’d tyke on the cover of Ready To Die is laughing. What’s strange, for me, is that I’m not entirely convinced that Nevermind wasn’t the voice of my generation, and yet when it was released in autumn of 1991 I was all of 10 years old. This makes my personal attachment to Generation X pretty tenuous, and I’m decidedly too old to be a millennial. I’m a member of what Doree Shafrir, writing in Slate, half-jokingly named “Generation Catalano." I never watched My So-Called Life in its one-season heyday, but pretty much everyone else around me did. (I take umbrage at the name, too -- I still get compared to Brian Krakow, but that’s neither here nor there). Nevertheless, I knew exactly what she meant when she referred to being “too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks).” I also remember life without the Internet, as much as I remember innocently downloading songs from Napster, harvesting a handful of Nick Drake songs by the time the sun came up. My youngest sibling, 10 years my junior, says he remembers a time before the Internet but I still think he’s referring to dial-up. Being a sentimentalist at heart, I decided to investigate the contours of my Nirvana nostalgia. Where was that teen spirit, which once seemed to signify so much? Was it still around? Where did it go? Did it even matter? It became clear that the only proper way to do this was to go old school and resist the temptation to sit and download away and let my computer do all the work. I’m more sedentary now than I was back in the day, anyway, and after all I’ve always believed a good test of any music is whether or not you can take a walk with it. I went down to my local alternative record store (it's still open, somehow) and picked up the newly released 20th Anniversary Edition, two discs packed with demos, live cuts, and rare tracks. I went next door for a shiny, metallic gray Discman -- $30 at a CVS, the only one on the shelf -- and some batteries. I clicked the lid shut, fired it up, adjusted the headphones, felt again the old excitement of the disc whirring to life in the palm of my hand, and began to cut a swath through my major urban metropolis. Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be ... About two-thirds of the way through the first disc I was wobbly, electric, ecstatic. I’d forgotten the sheer monolithic power that Nirvana’s verse-chorus-verse, loud-quiet-loud format really had. There’s fire, propulsion, and enough atavistic punk under the clarity of the mix (which Cobain always hated) to keep the nervous energy bubbling without drowning the hooks, the solos, and the unbearably tight rhythm section. Dave Grohl really was Nirvana’s secret weapon, and his drumming is Bonhamesque in its power and dexterity. I was churning, head down, at a steady clip, turning corners, on a plain, feeling stupid and contagious. I dodged a telephone pole or two. One lady I passed suddenly looked at me and began gesturing angrily at her coffee. I looked back at her, genuinely puzzled, shrugged it off, and turned around. I don’t wanna destroy passersby, but no one ever said rock was about sidewalk etiquette. The opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still buttonhole you, look wildly into your eyes, and burst into flames. The song is equal parts indignation and charisma (“It’s fun to lose/And to pretend … Here we are now/ENTERTAIN US!”), and yet melodically elegant, as more than one cover version has demonstrated. It’s just as immediate, anthemic, and vibrant as it ever was. The burbling, aquatic “Come As You Are" still mesmerizes. Cobain’s raggedly perfect pitch beckons the listener in, even as the chorus’ emphatic “When I swear that/I don’t have a gun” seems eerily less random in hindsight. The white noise of “Territorial Pissings” still pummels and wails Krist Novoselic's sarcastic quotation of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” is as funny as it was the first time. As for outtakes, both early demos and boom box rehearsal recordings are included, which give the set a multifaceted, complex, remix-friendly feel. You can enjoy their nifty cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now,” as well as the harrowing “D-7” from a pre-Nevermind John Peel session. “In Bloom” is, lyrically, one of Cobain’s finest efforts. The near-haiku of “Bruises on the fruit/tender age in bloom” registers even more compellingly when intoned between the rolling, raucous choruses. Assuming pop lyrics have an intuitive logic can be a path to madness, but there’s a sarcastic familiarity with which Cobain sings “he’s the one/who likes/all our pretty songs” that always made me wonder if he might be sizing up a certain kind of face in the crowd, the bubba who’s just there to slug brew and get his rocks off, waiting to yell for “Free Bird” during intermission. Cobain did, after all, grow up as the artsy kid in a logging town, which might have contributed a bit to his well-known aversion to fame. It must have been frustrating, to say the least, to have to write in your own liner notes that if any of their fans were in any way racist, sexist, or homophobic “please…leave us the fuck alone! Don’t buy our records and don’t come to our shows!” The grimly sympathetic “Polly” -- a first-person rendering of a brutal crime and a gutsy imaginative leap for an avowedly feminist and pacifistic songwriter -- became a grotesque illustration of the authorial fallacy. This fact is mentioned at the outraged end of the very same liner notes, which makes it a bit easier to see why Cobain’s professed alienation from his audience was more than just a pose. In many ways, this was a part of what the “grunge” or “alternative” culture was all about. Alternative culture rejected the celebrity industry and preferred keeping the personalities of popular musicians away from theatricality. The lyrics were predominantly personal, symbolic, and seemed to come from a private world of dreams, in-jokes, and memories. There was a politics, certainly, but not much in the way of overt social critique. Quadrophenia and The Wall offered sociology (“Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!“) along with their angst. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, not so much. Of course, there was that perennial adolescent theme of adenoidal meathead vs. sensitive bohemian going on at the same time. Mötley Crüe put out two volumes of Music To Crash Your Car To, while Soundgarden brooded about black hole suns and Chris Cornell implored the spoonman to save him. I never quite bought into the ‘I-hate-being-famous’ credo, being far from the only music-addicted youngster to put on marathon air guitar concerts for the benefit of his wallpaper. It seemed too dour, too tragically hip, too affected when I heard it from people I would have given anything to see live and never did. When I eventually read Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Catastrophe of Success“ it began to make more sense. After the personal and professional triumph of The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes years of penury and creative frustration suddenly giving way to nightly room service, sycophantic fans, and alienated disaffection: “I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last ... I found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me ... I got so sick of hearing people say, 'I loved your play!' that I could not say thank you any more.” This is precisely what Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan had been saying, and fighting against, for a long time. It might be a reason why virtually every American performer who gets to the top either begins to lose their grip (Elvis, Marilyn) or become a monster (Michael Jackson, O.J.). The 1990’s media generation was always hyper-aware of the duplicity of pop stardom. One couldn’t open a magazine without seeing mannequin-blank anorexic models in pre-ripped jeans and vintage Clash shirts topped off with scarves that cost a month’s rent. The irony of commodification and the solipsistic pressures of mass consumption were enough to drive anyone to the brink. Don’t forget that “Fake Plastic Trees” came out in 1995. For Tennessee Williams, the means of survival lay in getting back to the art itself, cutting out from the glitz and glamour and finding a solitude in which to create: “It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial.” Using art as a survival technique is as old as the act of creation itself. It can inspire artists to transform themselves and make some of the greatest, most redemptive work of their professional lives. The downside is, of course, that some just don’t survive the transition. For me, then as now, some of the most effective moments on Nevermind are the ones with few pyrotechnics; the songs that don’t kick and thrash around but instead slowly unfurl a spookily effective, surreal, totally unique sonic landscape. Apparently Kurt Cobain was a bit of an amateur installation artist. Friends of his would recall arriving at his apartment to find skeins of dark cloth, furniture akimbo, and various found objects (stuffed animals, plastic figurines, characters from a nativity scene) arranged like miniature sculpture. He‘d destroy them the next day. Some of his best work was like that. “Something in the Way,” recorded live in one studio take, with the phones unplugged and air conditioners silenced, was a devastating choice to close the record. It’s all in the vocal murmurs, the muddy acoustics, the narrator describing living beneath a dripping bridge, surviving on grass, and trapping animals for pets. The chorus has that devastatingly understated cello line, tolling like a church bell as the mournful backing vocals weave in and out of the melody like a winding sheet. I think the mood Nirvana creates has to do with an almost Beckettian concern for the empty, the absurd, the gleaming light above a void, which still resonates many years later. For all the hand-wringing hullabaloo in the 90’s about negativity in popular music totally bumming out our youth, I think the issue is more that Nirvana’s music reflected something dire about the human condition which other music didn’t quite grasp.  I’ve never forgotten the glimmering unreality of the Unplugged concert, the stage set (at Cobain’s suggestion) with stargazer lilies and funereal chandeliers, the way the odd covers and band repertoire are in total synch, and the look in Cobain’s eyes as he sings the last line of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” -- he’s already gone. At that moment, whether he knew it or not, he had less than six months to live. Recently, a beloved friend from my high school years and I got back in touch. One day, he called and suggested we go see The Smashing Pumpkins. I didn’t really listen to them any more, not since roughly 1999, when Billy Corgan shaved his head like Pink from The Wall and started looking and acting like an evil robot. I’d read little else of his poetry book but the title alone -- Blinking With Fists -- made me feel like responding in kind. I’d still never actually seen them live and it sounded like a fine idea. There I stood amid hundreds of bodies, stage lights flashing over us, a teenage dream fulfilled. There was that extra buzz of approval a crowd acquires when it likes what it’s hearing and wants more. Billy played everything electric that night, nothing acoustic, and I found myself doing something the teenage me would have never done. I sang along, word for word, to songs whose titles I hadn’t heard in years and couldn’t for the life of me remember. It was in the middle of “Silverfuck” where the music stops, the bass throbs like a heartbeat, and Billy’s modulated voice sings “bang, bang you’re dead/hole in your head” repeatedly, with variations. At first the voice is quiet, tentative, then matter of fact, spelling out the syllables one by one and eventually rising on the third word to rest, at last, on the percussive thud of the last syllable. The entire audience (an older bunch, unsurprisingly) followed his melody to the letter, soaring and sinking along with him, until the bomb drop of the guitars came in and the whole crowd was on its feet, shouting and flailing along in unison with the frenzy of the coda and the thunderclap of each chord, up to and including Billy’s concluding upward swipe at the strings. As the sound faded I noticed the smirk on his face hadn’t left since the show began. Leaning back, he made guns with his hands and darted them back and forth. I wasn’t too keen on the gesture, but that was ok -- I wasn’t thinking about the words by then, anyway. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Reviews, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Find Myself A City To Live In: Ed Sanders’ Fug You & Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire

Finding the entrance points to New York's musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that's usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders' Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes' astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City's secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways. Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-'60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who "jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks." As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and -- in Sanders' case -- soon the Yippies. "We're on the EAST SIDE," The Fugs sang proudly on "We're The Fugs," a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. "Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE," Sanders declared on "Group Grope." They never quite made it big -- they didn't quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart -- but it was enough. There is glee in Sanders' vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg's pubic hair and "well-scooped cold cream jar" through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  "Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month -- Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!" For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called "the forces of peace," a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs' first recordings) is arguably Sanders' most essential work. In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs' entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles: The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition '38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). But Sanders' details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic '60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it's possible he's just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You's occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal '60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings. For all that, though, Will Hermes' Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-'70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. "I'd been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night," he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway. But the worst was in May [1977], when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University's Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus -- the last Ithaca run of the day -- were gone. ...Fucking subway. Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head,  Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects -- notably Legs McNeil's and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop, and Tony Fletcher's All Hopped Up and Ready to Go -- Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history. In a typical passage, he writes, "As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]'s most indelible music involved the incantations of 'One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,' which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song "One-two-three-four!" He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese's favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades' favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater. Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts -- hip-hop and disco -- arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-'70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music. As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto's Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro's The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York's history between "Ford To City: Drop Dead" and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty's Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians' caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes's period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams. The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.
Books as Objects, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

The Soundtrack of Our Books

The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.” Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption -- anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience. At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall. When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests. “There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour. New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics -- too distracting -- but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.” The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on in September as an audio book -- it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.” What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel. While senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.” By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says. Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.” But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners. Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.” Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Dylan at 70

The rifle-shot drum hit that looses the organ-hymn drone of “Like a Rolling Stone” still sends me back to the small, thin-walled house of my youth, the blaring record part of my father’s Saturday morning ritual, drowning out my morning cartoons. The melancholy of Blood on the Tracks conjures the teary-eyed blur of love lost during arguments on a worn yellow velvet couch, and yet I am happy to have known such misery. These memories will not change for me, though plenty about my life will change between now and my end. How much has the world changed in the forty-nine years since the 1962 release of Bob Dylan's eponymous debut album? What is the difference between the 1964 wake-up call that "the times they are a changing" and the 2000 pronouncement that "things have changed"? And what of the 2009 premonition from his latest studio album, "I feel a change comin' on"? The easiest and most common critique of Dylan is his inconsistency. True, the muddled, much maligned material from the "Christian period" does not stand up to the revelatory highs of the iconic songs that pin us to a wave of cultural history and personal emotion that has already crashed on the shore of the past, or do a better job than a mirror of showing us who we are by putting us in the shoes of a jilted lover. The intervening decades have raised the notion of consistency to an ideal, whether we're talking fast-food burgers or internet connectivity. But lurking in everything Dylan has ever done, for better or worse, is the myth of America, its chameleon-like quality to be everything to everybody its greatest asset, permitting openness, not for the sake of change but because of its necessity. This is the history Dylan, who turns 70 years old today, has drawn from to create his own history. First published in 1925, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain confronts “history”: “It is concerned only with one thing: to say everything is dead . . . History must stay open, it is all humanity.” From the fading echo of Walt Whitman’s chanting in praise of his country, Williams calls out where we as a culture went wrong, how Whitman’s shamanistic energy was bottled into an antidote for a sickness we never felt, though we were told the ailment afflicted us all: "That force is fear that robs the emotions; a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have a contact." Dylan has kept his ear pressed to Williams’s “back door gossip,” fearlessly transcribing the secrets of the American condition into songs – not Whitman’s chants, more Williams’s rants, gasping in verse, at times not bothering with a chorus, charged with emotion, the byproduct of change. Love, hope, faith, doubt, hubris, death – the challenges and majesties of relationships, which in so much of Dylan are relationships of thoughts, not always bodies in places, but feelings in one’s mind. Yes, the songs brim with sense of place – shadows in meadows; “hot chili peppers in the blistering sun”; lonesome valleys; honeysuckle blooms – and yes, there are people, too – Angel flies in from the coast; Alicia Keys makes a cameo; sisters Mary Anne, Lucy and Betsy are reminded to “pray the sinner’s prayer.” But all of these places and people are of the narrative past, still kicking around in the present, at times with the permanence of a regrettable tattoo: “You try so hard but you don’t understand what you will say when you go home.” Dylan's interest in change is more about the phases of his life than the cultural changes afoot at any given time. This is why the songs are timeless – we as listeners can situate ourselves in them, both in the lyrics and the sound of the songs, the pure emotional release they enable, whether pangs of heartache or the fancy of running along a “hilltop following a pack of wild geese.” Like any great writer, Dylan forges anew something we take for granted: “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken." I don't think Dylan has ever written a song to influence change. But he has long mined that vein of American identity, the one you can't quite see through the skin except when you strain, though if you sit still in a quiet place you can always hear and feel its beat. The themes pounded out have not changed, and in this sense neither has Dylan. He casts his net of perception and pulls in songs. The anger that has bubbled up from Dylan not promoting dissidence during a recent tour of China misses the point of Dylan’s purpose. He sings that you’ve got to serve somebody. He serves himself. This is not to say he is indifferent about injustice, say the arrest of Ai Weiwei, but for all that his words freight, they speak beyond us as individuals, though we listen and make them our own. Writing at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum asks why these critics expected him to sing his most political songs, or do as Bjork did at the end of a 2008 concert there, shouting “Tibet.” If there is one thing Dylan knows for sure is that one shout, one song, these do not change the world, especially in 2011. Today, if Dylan made his move from acoustic to electric, would the crowds even boo or would they just hold up their phones, uploading their discontent? Dylan, like Williams, Whitman, and others of their poetic, patriotic ilk, sucks the marrow from America, gnaws on its bones and slurps – not so much concerned with decorum but getting the flavors – the grease stains on his sleeves, the gristle stuck in his teeth, evidence of the contact. These flavors he tastes are not always the same or always enjoyable, but they spring from deep-running sources, some of which are polluted or diverted, but their purity remains unquestionable. Unlike the aforementioned men of letters whose legacies have grown mythical after their deaths, Dylan has lived side-by-side with his own lore, equal parts his creation and the creation of others. Imagine living a life where people think you did change the world, or that you have the power to change the world. True, for some people, Dylan has changed their world, influenced their personal histories. But how has it impacted the country, the world at large? Acknowledging that he does pay some attention to what is said about him, Dylan recently addressed the China issue via a post on his website. What is more interesting than his assertion that he in no way was censored by the Chinese government is his closing remark: “Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book.” A hyper-political protest singer, a shill for Victoria’s Secret, a seventy-year-old curmudgeon – think whatever you like of him. Write your own history of Bob Dylan, he dares us, it’s the only accurate one that will ever exist.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Take This Waltz: Leonard Cohen’s Tour Comes to an End

1. Leonard Cohen’s world tour ended this month. His road manager maintains a Tumblr, Notes from the Road; it’s a faintly miraculous document, a grainy hypersaturated record of one of the more remarkable musical tours in memory. The last photographs are dated December 12th, the day after the final concert in Las Vegas. Leonard Cohen sits by an airplane window in suit and fedora, half-obscured by the blaze of light over southern California. It was possible to track the course of the tour through the Tumblr, both the performances themselves and the interludes between them, the bus rides and skylines and green rooms. Two weeks ago I checked the Tumblr and found there the Vancouver skyline, its interchangeable condominum highrises and angled cranes, a constellation of glass towers in constant flux with the mountains of British Columbia in the near distance. I grew up not far from there. There was also a photograph of Cohen in Vancouver—impossibly debonair, per usual—signing something for a fan on a backstage sofa, a bottle of water on the table before him. The caption read Never time to rest. Leonard Cohen is seventy-six years old. He has been touring almost continuously since May of 2008. 2. I fell in love with Leonard Cohen’s music in Montreal, the city of his birth. I secretly hoped I might run into him in the eight months when I lived there, but I didn’t, and eventually someone clued me in that he lived in Los Angeles. His influence on my work at that time was enormous. I listened to his "The Stranger Song" over and over again in the period when I was writing my first novel, and it seemed to me later that the song pervades the finished book through and through. He’s been derided as a writer of songs to slit your wrists to. I don’t agree with this judgment, but it’s not entirely baseless. It’s true that a great many of his songs are surveys of beauty and despair. It’s the kind of music that holds a certain appeal to the adrift, and I had a particular affinity for his work in my first grindingly difficult days in New York City; a period spent trying to forget Montreal, struggling to build some sort of life for myself in a far corner of Brooklyn, escaping into music after long days spent searching for work, dealing with an unmedicated-schizophrenic roommate and writing a) a novel and b) melodramatic journal entries, often hungry and often worried but never doubtful of my decision to come to New York. I frankly doubt there’s a recently heartbroken, financially desperate, recently immigrated novelist in her early twenties on earth who isn’t at least somewhat susceptible to lyrics like “I came so far for beauty / I left so much behind…” But the sadness of his music isn’t absolute. His songs seem written by a man who recognizes that the world contains great beauty and tremendous hope. It’s a worldview that moves me. My husband and I listened to Cohen’s Ten New Songs on our first date. When a few years later the startling news came that Cohen was going out on the road after a fifteen-year break from touring, we began to seriously consider flying north to see him. His only tour dates were in Canada. Traveling to hear him live was an extravagant gesture, but we thought there might not be another chance. He was seventy-three years old, and who knew if he’d ever go on tour again? We bought the tickets and flew to Toronto. Apparently we weren’t the only Americans to have this thought. The Canada Customs agent in the Toronto airport asked me what we were doing in Canada for forty-eight hours. I told her we were going to a concert. “Leonard Cohen?” the customs agent asked. 3. I have a hard time describing the concerts themselves. I can describe the external details—the way Leonard Cohen makes a point of jogging onstage, his impeccable suit and fedora, the one-fingered piano solo he plays for "Tower of Song", the way all his musicians wear hats, the breathtaking white cathedral lighting that blazes over the stage during Hallelujah so that the musicians and their instruments all but disappear in the wash of light—but the problem is that words fall flat when describing a religious experience. When the now-extended tour arrived in New Zealand seven months after I stood awestruck in the audience in Toronto, the journalist Simon Sweetman seemed to suffer the same conundrum.  “If you were at the concert and didn’t like it,” he wrote, "then you had your information wrong. It is hard work having to put this concert in to words so I’ll just say something I have never said in a review before and will never say again: this was the best show I have ever seen.” The first time I saw him live, tears came to my eyes. It was one of the great experiences of my life. 4. The tour began in Fredricton, a small city on Canada’s eastern seaboard. Four weeks later I saw him in Toronto and then the tour went on to Europe, where Cohen played concerts in a zig-zaggy pattern across the landscape, from the UK to Norway to Greece and back to the UK again. A six- or seven-week break after the UK concert, during which time everybody presumably got to go home and see their families, and then the tour reconstituted in Romania. A concert in Bucharest on his seventy-fourth birthday and then across Europe again, a different route. Leonard Cohen’s stage patter doesn’t change much between cities: variations on “It’s wonderful to be back here again. The last time I was on this stage was fifteen years ago, when I was sixty, just a crazy kid with a dream.” He’ll sometimes list the psychotropic medications he’s taken since then (“Prozac… Celexa… Effexor…”) Attending a Leonard Cohen concert is a financially enervating experience. Cohen seems aware of this; it’s not unusual for his stage patter to include an apology to the audience for any “geographic and financial inconvenience” involved in being here with him this evening. It had seemed in the beginning that there might only be a few dates, only in Canada, but in 2009 he was still touring, and a few weeks after he awed Simon Sweetman in New Zealand, he arrived in New York. We agonized briefly over whether to attend. The ticket prices were substantial and we’d just seen him the year before, but he’d turned seventy-four by now, and how many more opportunities would there be? The Beacon Theatre is a horrifically ill-managed venue—there was a terrifying moment before the concert when I feared I might actually be crushed in the crowd out front—but his concert there was as inspired as the one we’d attended in Toronto the previous year. There is something tremendously moving about him. You get the sense that he’s giving absolutely everything he has. He introduces his musicians repeatedly and takes his hat off to listen to their solos. He thanks the crew at length, occasionally with a special mention for the woman “who takes care of our hats.” (On this particular tour, this was clearly an important job. There are a lot of fedoras on stage.) His final goodnight comes only after multiple encores, multiple standing ovations. In both concerts I saw, the horn player threw his hat into the air as the band left the stage. It wheeled up impossibly high and descended in the fading lights. Both nights the crowd seemed caught up in a sort of ecstasy, and the feeling, apparently, is mutual: “The concert comes to a climax of energy and emotion,” said Cohen’s backup singer Hattie Webb in The Oregonian, “and we all leave the stage undoing our ties and waistcoats with a feeling that it has been a momentous night.” 5. We went to see The National perform in Prospect Park a few months ago, on the kind of perfect summer night that makes you remember why you moved to Brooklyn in the first place. The lead singer mentioned that they’d just returned from Europe, and that they were playing on borrowed equipment; their gear had gotten mixed up with Leonard Cohen’s. It was startling to realize that Cohen was still out there, touring endlessly. On the night we listened to The National in Brooklyn, Cohen was on stage in Salzburg, Austria. Summer 2010, the tour slipping into its third year. There had been a few breaks, but not many; they took a few weeks off after that night when we saw them at the Beacon Theatre, and then they went on to Texas. Through the United States and back up into Canada, back down into the United States again, across Europe. There was a bad night in Valencia when Cohen fainted on stage during "Bird on a Wire", three days before his seventy-fifth birthday. He was suffering from food poisoning, but hadn’t wanted to cancel the concert and disappoint his fans. He was rushed to hospital, spent a weekend recovering in a hotel room, and performed in Barcelona on his birthday. On into Israel, where the Cohen tour brushed off threats from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and played a sold-out show in Tel Aviv. Cohen blessed the concertgoers in Hebrew at midnight, three days before Yom Kippur. 6. The tour left Australia on November 25th, returning to North America for the final time. The Notes From the Road Tumblr shows photos of the departure from Perth, the tarmac in Bali and the Hong Kong airport, lines of sulphurous lights. Photographs of the crew and musicians, together in yet another airport. They have been traveling together for a very long time. “Cohen’s performance Thursday in Vancouver,” wrote Mike Devlin in The Vancouver Sun, “will be show No. 242 on the schedule. When the trek comes to a close in December, its final tally will likely read a staggering 247 dates completed, more than 6,000 songs performed and approximately 741 hours of onstage greatness.” On December 11th, Leonard Cohen performed in Las Vegas. There are no further dates on the calendar. I toyed briefly, irrationally, with the idea of flying down to see him one more time before the end of the tour. It wasn’t really possible. The last concert photograph was taken onstage: Leonard Cohen stands before three tiers of fans at Caesar’s Palace, a thin man in his seventies in an impeccable suit, his hair a little creased at the back from his fedora. The crowd is on their feet and he holds his hat up in the air. He’s thanking them, he’s saluting them, he’s saying goodnight. It would be wonderful to imagine that I’ll see him perform again in my lifetime. If I don’t, I’ll still feel impossibly lucky that I got to see him at all.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature

When Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now? Decoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just "enormous language dorks." So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging. One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.”  Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all. Adam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.”  I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff." As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental. Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through. This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”. But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop. It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Why We Wu

“Wu-Tang is here forever!  Mother-fuckers!” -Old Dirty Bastard, “Triumph,” 1997 A few weeks ago, I visited friends in Brooklyn, getting a chance to do things that I rarely still do: stay up late, drink beer, act younger than I actually am.  Cloistered in a small, smoke-filled den, we spent hours on topics of interest: classic movies, comic books, that secretary from Mad Men.  We lamented the fall of Bogdanovich and the existence of Ke$ha.  Some time after midnight, conversation turned to the most salient subject of all.  We became impassioned and animated and a little bit unreasonable.  Recommendations were issued; objections made.  iPods were brandished, and the words “Camouflage chameleon, ninjas scaling your building/No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children” were heard and appreciated. The subject, of course, was The Wu. The Wu-Tang Clan debuted in 1993 with the abrasive, perfect Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and in the years since, the group has both faded and expanded.  Their moment has long since passed, yet to a fervent core of disciples—myself included—they remain the only game in town.  Or, at least, the only one worth parsing at 2:06 in the morning.  For inveterate Wu-Tang lovers—those who bought Digital Bullet and can recite “Delirium” from Coffee and Cigarettes—contemporary hip-hop exists somewhere overhead.  Occasionally, like skywriting, a diverting act appears: Hey, look, it’s Kanye West.  Ooh, wow, Eminem.  But inevitably, the novelty dissipates and our thoughts return to the ground.  There, Wu-Tang is waiting: patient, poised, and vulgar. One reason they endure is a wealth of existing material: in addition to the five proper Wu-Tang records, each of the group’s ten members—yes, even U-God—has released multiple solo albums.  A few, such as Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, are canonical.  Many more are simply great: RZA’s Bobby Digital, Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Grandmasters.  But just as important is everything else: the sturdy, third-tier albums that push discussions deep into the night: “You know The Pillage?”  “Ever heard the first Inspectah Deck album?”  “No Said Date has some great fuckin’ songs.”  The Wu-Tang catalog’s depth and sprawl enables excited, cascading response.  One person brings up The W, and an hour later, someone else is defending the second Sunz of Man record. Just as sprawling is the range of styles within the group itself.  More than any other modern act—with the exceptions, perhaps, of Miles Davis and B.B. King—the Clan has laid claim to nearly every corner of its genre.  RZA is its García Márquez, Raekwon its Richard Price, GZA its Bellow.  Method Man is a leering Jim Thompson, Ghostface Killah a slightly cracked Kerouac.  The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard remains unclassifiable, somewhere between William S. Burroughs and vintage Jack Kirby.  Together, they convey aggression, calm, dexterity, disarray.  They can be inscrutable or inane, incisive or broad.  There are rhymes about Heaven and rhymes about shit.  It’s all there.  If you want to listen to rock, your choices are endless.  When it comes to hip-hop, you can choose anything Wu-Tang and find yourself satisfied. Then there is the music itself.  On his early productions, RZA created pressure through restraint; his was the sound of vision being reined in by technological limitation, made to twist outward.  The product was a dazing bent-metal feel, a methodical confusion behind the beats.  It’s an effect easily lost to rising budgets and digital dependence, and on duds like Tical O and Birth of a Prince, an airless clean took over.  Such pixelated ease, had it continued, could well have killed them off—it’s what nearly killed R.E.M., and has killed Terry Gilliam.  But the late-period Fishscale and Cuban Linx II were signals of renewal, roaring and cutting and hungry.  The sound might not have been as dusty or as broken as it once had been, but the result was much the same: a tightness in the throat and a clenching of the teeth. As mainstream rap flags, growing distended and ring-toned, the Wu-Tang’s worth becomes clear.  Yet they do not rest on legacy.  GZA is working on Liquid Swords II; Masta Killa’s Loyalty is Royalty is due later this year.  After a long run of letdowns, Method Man will soon offer Crystal Meth: “I just want my classic,” he recently told MTV News.  “People always say, ‘You already got a classic first LP,’ but not to me… it’s like when your child brings home an 80 on a test.  That’s a good grade, but you know they can do better.”  Who knows what sort of marks Crystal Meth will receive.  It might be the Clan’s next stone-cold A-plus; in all likelihood, it’ll be a solid 83.  Either way, it will add a bit more grist to those half-crazed late-night discussions.  And for fans of the Wu-Tang, the conversation is the thing.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Headphone Elegies

In March of this year, the writer Steve Almond penned a brief article in the LA Times waxing nostalgic about the 70s, when listening to music was an “activity in and of itself... and not just another channel on our ever-expanding dial of distractions.” Almond attributes this evolution of our listening habits to the usual suspects, namely technology and the devices and software that fall under the iPod/iTunes umbrella. Because music listening, says Almond, has become less a “concerted sonic and emotional event” and more a pragmatic function of our increasingly digital lifestyles, we as a music listening culture are missing out on opportunities for a sacred and spiritual interaction with our music. For sure, Mr. Almond is right to say that our relationship with music has been profoundly influenced by taking our music out of the living room, away from the stationary turntable and component stereo system, and inserting it into nearly every activity and event of our days. However, it’s grossly inaccurate to dismiss this impact as sacrilegious or impoverishing when what technology has in fact done for us as a music listening culture is quite positive, something close to liberating, and dangerously powerful. Track 01: "Take Pills" by Panda Bear While the methods by which we now acquire our music have had an impact, to a degree, on our experience of music listening, they have remained markedly less influential than the evolutions in the design and application of what we use to listen to our music. In 2008 and 2009, close to 100 million iPods were purchased globally. The widespread use of personal mp3 players and, more importantly, the headphones attached to those players, have gone on to facilitate for a significant percentage of the population a kind of relationship that has never before occurred between music listener and music. Join the public space and look around: It takes only a brief moment to locate an individual plugged in and headphoned up. Like using an umbrella, headphones serve a particular function, shielding us from the nuisances of the world. Hop on any form of public transportation, plug in, and no longer must you suffer the coughing, sneezing, dry throat clearing, cell phone texting, loud speaker announcing, sneaker squeaking, nervous leg tapping, neighbor yawning, Doritos eating, water bottle dropping and newspaper shuffling that is the shuttle, train, or bus around you. Step off and into the street and headphones continue to serve you well. Why subject yourself to the car honking, police whistle blowing and sidewalk chattering of the urban space when you don’t have to? Track 02: "Sunshine and Clouds (and Everything Proud)" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Headphones though have a function superior to being simply a buffer to keep out the annoyances of the modern world. They quickly and conveniently facilitate our music listening habit, an activity with a potent high. As the neurologist Oliver Sacks says of music, it can call to both parts of our basic nature—the emotional and intellectual. (Throw in physical satisfaction and music might be the perfect mate.) If you’re in search of a superficial engagement, you can find a basic emotional solace at the threshold of a song’s sound; take it in at its surface level and feel satisfied with the instrumental performance and/or the tonal qualities of the words sung or spoken. Listen deeper—to the song’s narrative, meaning, and themes—and you will locate the ideas and concepts that provide the intellectual stimulation Sacks speaks of. If you allow it, music can strike you in the heart as well as in the head. But any music fan knew this already. Track 03: "We Will Never Die" by Bon Iver The result of having taken this emotionally and intellectually stimulating habit on the road, away from the home stereo and into everywhere, is that we have become Hollywood directors soundtrack-editing in real time the films of our lives. Maybe we can’t chop out a tedious 45-minute bus commute from our day, but with the addition of our favorite albums or playlists we can certainly make it speak to us in powerful ways. With the right soundtrack, a movie director can heighten tension, add irony, or inject a scene with some deeper meaning. With our headphones on, we become directors who can enrich even the most boring activities of our lives with provoking music. Think, for example, of a hypothetical Charlie buying fruit in the produce aisle while he listens to Talking Heads "This Must Be The Place." He works through the bins of fruit, he’s squeezing oranges, and his mind wanders: I am buying these oranges, my fiancé will eat one while standing in our apartment kitchen, the apartment that we live in, the apartment that we call home, in the community that we call our own; a community with supermarkets like this one, with offices nearby, offices like mine, where I earn a salary that affords me things like an apartment and oranges and... With headphones on and the right song playing, Charlie’s banal produce experience becomes, depending on his receptivity to sentimental thoughts, a fertile stream of ideas and emotions about his concepts of home, family, and community. If present, willing, and plugged in, we like Charlie can influence the emotional and intellectual tenor of our public moments of solitude. We are no longer subject, for example, to the soul numbing commercial ambiance of a supermarket—of what Delillo described in White Noise as “toneless systems” and a “dull unlocatable roar." Instead, we inject into our shopping experiences and mundane errands evocations of our strongest felt memories, relationships, and wants. Track 04: "Pink Stones" by Memory Tapes Headphones liberate us from being distracted by the thumping sonic assault of corporate businesses and the audio debris broadcast by others in the public space. (Both are on display in their worst ways at chain fitness gyms: The loudspeaker announcements for hybrid pilate-mixed martial arts-yoga-spin classes showering down over a roomful of grunting, heaving, chatting neighbors.) When we facilitate our liberation, wherever we are, we gain a particular brand of insight into ourselves. The French scholar Michel de Certeau observes a similar gain of perspicacity when we travel on a train. He proposes that when we are behind a train window and observe landscapes of almost blurry trees, buildings, and chunks of towns, we are seeing and moving through familiar things but yet remain totally separated from them. It’s a bit of a paradox—to be removed from something while being immersed in it at the same time—but this is a process we undertake more often than we think, especially when we use our memories. For example, when we think back and remember our high school graduation, we are not there anymore, in the stuffy summer auditorium or under the buggy football stadium lights, but our minds move us through the distant memories just as if we were. When we travel on a train, what’s far away seems strange in the same way as when we think of our high school friends at graduation, those odd and younger versions of the adults we might not now recognize, warped by the velocity of so many years. Likewise, from behind a train window, trees lose their leaf-edge detail, street lamps and parked cars appear as quickly as they vanish. And in this magician’s trick of speed and sleight of movement, fences, trees, and cars become shadow objects, provoking and echoing objects from our memories, dreams, and secrets. Moving quickly along the railway, always away from these shadow objects, we see briefly vague hints of what we normally furnish our mind with and this estrangement from our own internal mental horizon puts us into a meditative mood of speculative thinking. De Certeau cleverly terms this as “losing one’s footing” from the reality around us and something quite similar happens to us when we plug into our mp3 players and tune out. Track 05: "Here Come De Honey Man" by Clark Terry Headphones, like the train window, create a distance between us and that which is around us. The music in this case acts like the train itself, propelling us forward, moving us through that which we are no longer a part of. We walk along a crowded city sidewalk, participate in the dense humanity as it throbs up and down the street, but are oblivious to the sounds that populate such a scene because our ears are plugged up. It’s as if the train’s two-dimensional windowpane has gone 3-D, enveloping us in a glass box of music, a pope-mobile like protection from the audio infiltrations of the city space. The music, in this way, takes us somewhere else. We are relieved from our position as a member of the dense humanity and we are able to view it, and our place within it, from somewhere else. This death of the present moment is, as De Certeau says, “necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories.” We again become the movie directors of the films of our lives, except now we have a script: The New York city street we walk is reappropriated for our personal fantasies of narrative; the silent others around us become the film extras, the characters of our memories become the stars, and we, for once, get to say action and cut. Track 06: "Building Steam with A Grain of Salt" by DJ Shadow The ultimate effect of having quick and frequent access to private moments during which we can meditate on our memories and ideas—even while in the public space—is that we develop a better and richer understanding of ourselves (if we’re receptive to it). This occurs in large part because our memories and ideas undergo a modulation each time they are put to use. For example, when we read a headline about Michael Jackson dangling his baby over a railing, our ideas about a whole litany of things change. Our understanding about Father, Baby, Dangling, Child Care, Bizarre, Celebrity, Career Train Wreaks, and every other simple component of that story about MJ getting weird takes on a new shape. This is precisely what is going on when we’re listening attentively to emotionally and intellectually stimulating music. When we tune in, we call upon ideas and memories in our minds—let’s say three weeks ago via some song in particular, and then again a few days ago with that same song—and we gain a new perspective on whatever it is that song provokes within us. Why? Because we have a “then and now” to compare and contrast. Even if a song evokes a very particular memory, a tune that reminds us of a cruise ship vacation, for example, we will inevitably think of that vacation differently if only in the slightest way when viewed through the music-filtered perspective of three weeks ago versus a few days ago. Because we can never be in precisely the same mindset at two different times—there are always subtle if not significant differences in what is floating around in our heads at any given moment—we gain two different points of view on the memory of that cruise ship vacation, just like how we had a before and after perspective on the idea of Celebrity Children before and after reading about Michael Jackson and the baby. Music, in this way, serves us like a personalized Lucky Google search of our internal inventories, digging up rare or popular gems from the archives of our lives. By creating moments pregnant for improving our understanding of ourselves, we essentially gain an opportunity for a better understanding of the world as well. Track 07: "Anywhere Anyone" by Dntel Up to this point, my focus has been on the advances in technology that have afforded us the ability to bring our music with us wherever we can carry along our phones or mp3 players. It’s important to note though that there’s another kind of technological portability that has been almost as influential on our music listening habits: Playlists. In the move away from artist and label determined track sequences towards complete user control, the modern music listener has taken over as the primary music curator, able to move songs around at will. The tracks I used to title these sections, for example, were plucked from a playlist of songs I can write to (playlist title: “Songs w/ Little Words”). Most of these tracks are from albums I enjoy immensely in their originally intended track sequences. However, I have also found value in re-contextualizing these songs into new arrangements with other selections of my choice. 10 years ago, this sort of playlist creation was clumsy and slow, requiring cassette tapes or the still emerging mix CDs and burn software. Because of torrent sites, high speed internet, and the mp3’s victory as the format of choice, mp3 player technology has had to keep pace; now, nearly anyone can become a music curator, selecting tracks from various artists, genres, and time periods to create playlists and portable music libraries that are unique and incredibly personal. In taking charge of the order in which we arrange our music, we develop a more vested interest in our music. Like a renter who becomes a home owner, we care about the small details: the opening song as a first impression, the transition between tracks, the playlist title that probably no one else cares about. We become not just curators of music but curators of connections, evaluating not simply songs or albums on their own terms but also how albums and songs relate to one another. In making playlists, we come to understand our music in a more sophisticated way.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

The Weird Sisters: CocoRosie’s Grey Oceans

CocoRosie's new album, Grey Oceans, comes out on Wednesday.  It's their fourth album and their first release from SubPop.  Through Wednesday, SubPop is streaming the album for free at SoundCloud.  For those who don't know CocoRosie, they're a freak-folky, trip-hoppy, fantastically costumed, often cross-dressed, incestuously close and otherworldly pair of sister singers and musicians. If Björk and Billie Holliday had twin girls, they might sound something like CocoRosie (likewise, the offspring of the Cocteau Twins and Bessie Smith).  There are also shades of Cat Power, Portishead, and the classical-folk-hip-hop work of the young singer and violin virtuoso Emily Wells in the duo's work. The story of the band's genesis has become something of a legend and it's integral to their mystique.  No matter who's telling it, it sounds like a fairytale and I think it's better told as such: Once upon a time there were two beautiful sisters named Sierra and Bianca Casady. Their mother, Christina, was Syrian and Cherokee and maybe a little Gypsy too and their father was a creepy Iowa farmer infatuated with Native American religion and Voodoo who took his young daughters to New Age ceremonies where all of the adults got scarily wacked out on peyote. He eventually became some kind of shaman. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of other obscure evils, the beautiful Gypsy mother left her husband and spent her daughters' childhood years wandering through New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, and California, sometimes enrolling her daughters in school and sometimes not.  The girls liked wearing costumes, casting spells, and making up stories about imaginary lands. At some point in this wandering, the sisters were separated. The eldest, Sierra (also called Rosie), ended up in Paris studying voice and opera. The younger, Bianca, also called Coco, ended up in Brooklyn, where she studied philosophy and sometimes went to ironic "Kill Whitey" hipster parties.  Eventually, Bianca got tired of the hipsters and decided to travel abroad.  Her first stop was Paris where, after ten years, she was reunited with her beloved sister Sierra in Sierra's tiny garret flat. There, the girls shut themselves in and recreated their childhood world: dressing up, making up songs and stories. Bianca had brought some sort of archaic recording device to Paris and the sisters recorded some of their songs from the strange and distant land of their private imaginary world sitting in the bathtub (because it made a nice echo), playing guitars, harps, snake-charming flutes, wind-up music boxes and electronic children's toys, jangling chains and coins, thrumming their fingers on tin cans. The homemade demo that resulted from this bathroom session found its way into the hands of Touch & Go Records producer Corey Rusk. He couldn't stop listening to it.  He found Sierra and Bianca, signed them, and together they released the songs under the title La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004). CocoRosie was born. It's quite a tale and you won't find a straighter version of it. (The Casady sisters aren't much for anything that's not tinged with fancy or fairydust, as Fernanda Eberstadt's excellent profile of the band in the New York Times Magazine a couple of years back illustrates in great detail.) And the fantasy and fairytale continues in their music. The sisters' private mythology is equal parts  Victorian childhood and modern Gothic. They are innocents who know about the dark side (miscarriages, incest, racism, disfigured and battered women, cemeteries in the back yard) but still believe in angels, fairies, God, St. Nicholas. This, combined with their ingenious use of found sounds, strange and improvised instruments, samples, echoes, overlaid vocals, their mix of the primitive and nostalgic (feline yowls, a recording of their mother chanting in her native Cherokee, tinkly old music boxes), classical (Sierra's wordless operatic trills and wails), and hypermodern (synthesizers, beat boxes, electronic children's toys, and talk boxy/auto-tune voice effects) might convince you that the Spiritualists were right and that what you're listening to is really a recording of the voices of the dead disrupting a radio broadcast or a trip hop D.J.'s set. This haunting, scary-pretty, Weird Sisters siren singing is not for everyone.  It tends to make lovers or haters. My husband believes that the singing of these madwomen in the bathtub might be put in the mix with death metal, the Barney song, and looped recordings of crying babies, as a tool of interrogation and torture. But I'm a lover: CocoRosie's bathtub album had me at, “Jesus loves me/But not my wife/Not my nigger friends/Or their nigger lives." Hearing this track, "Jesus Loves Me," from La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004) was one few jaw-dropping experiences of my recent musical life—and it wasn't just because of the lyrics. If you listened to the song out of context, as I did the first time, you might think that you'd stumbled upon an early recording of a backwoods white supremacist version of the original 19th century hymn—except that the very white Sierra, who sings lead vocals on this track, sounds kind of like Billie Holiday. (Incidentally, Sierra also sounds like a 90-year-old bedlamite, and I say this with the utmost respect.) This haunting blackvoice inflects many of La Maison de Mon Rêve lyrics.  And not only can CocoRosie sound black, and occasionally use a kind of Gone With The Wind/Huck Finn Southern black dialect ("dat fo sho", "all dem kears"), their lyrics also mimic the idioms of early blues. "I swear I won't call no coppa,/If I'm beat up by my poppa," Bessie Smith sang in her 1923 "T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do." On the bluesy, beat-boxed "By Your Side," Sierra, with the same casual tolerance of domestic violence, sings "I'll wear your black eyes,/Bake you apple pies," in a voice that, again, you might mistake for a quavery late Lady Day.  This isn't Zooey Deschanel, America's milque-y indie sweetheart, giving "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" a try (as good as her retro girlpop stuff for She & Him is, her version of this song feels a little thin). The sisters' songs are unsettling and otherworldly and, I find, totally addictive and transporting. Their first album is still my favorite. In spite of its undeniable affections and stylizing, it still has a naively original quality, and for all of its contrivances it doesn't feel contrived--kind of like Michel Gondry's film La Science des Rêves (The Science of Sleep). The child's imaginary world/children's art project atmosphere feels authentic and touching and wonderful, if also fragile  and a little disturbed. The sisters' second and third albums, Noah's Ark (2005) and The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn (2007) have been increasingly polished and produced and the found sounds, musical styles pastiched and electronic effects have multiplied—though the unearthly feral child/fairyland vibe, the suggestions of unwholesome sexuality (the cover of Noah's Ark, for example, depicts three unicorns in what appears to be a sodomy conga line) , and the invocations of a quasi-Christian fallenness that inflected La Maison remain creepily entrenched in their mythology. And so it is on in their latest album, Grey Oceans, their fourth full-length release and their SubPop debut: Baby girl don't you cry Momma's gonna buy you a glass eye And it will glimmer like starlight Sierra sings on "R.I.P. Burn Face", which is my favorite track on the album.  It's also the most coherently melodic, a lament for those lost at sea, or possibly for a disfigured girl who's drowned herself. (Coherent narratives have never been the signature of CocoRosie lyrics and they aren't now.) The album's first three tracks, "Trinity's Crying," "Smokey Taboo," and "Hopscotch" (which features Bianca's in her signature babyvoice singing a kind of vaudeville-y, children's tap chorus-line tune of the sort that becomes maddeningly lodged in the brain), are beautifully arranged and mixed—really, all of the tracks are. But there's something a bit less personal about this album: Grey Oceans won't send you headlong down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, as previous albums have done. This one feels more generic, more manufactured in its polish. And, worse than generic, several of the tracks on which Bianca sings in her uncanny baby voice sound like counterfeit Björk songs.  The title track, "Grey Oceans," is like this.  The only difference is that Bianca Casady doesn't have Björk's ability to break and balance the fey child's patter with lusty, athletic yelling-singing.  On "Fairy's Paradise" Bianca sings the opening lines, "He draws near the periphery,/In disbelief on delivery," but most of her r's and l's sound like w's (He dwaws neaw the pewifewy,/In disbeweif on dewivewy) and it's, well, it's just ridiculous. "Undertaker," possibly an autobiographical song about the obscurely evil Casady father, features a haunting intro and coda sample of the Casady sisters' mother chanting in Cherokee. It's quite something but, again, Bianca's parody Björk voice just doesn't work, as it doesn't quite in "The Moon Asked The Crow" (in spite of its catchy hip-hoppy beat). Bianca's baby-voice can work ("Armageddon" on Noah's Ark, is great), but here it's brought to the fore and carries the lead vocals on most tracks. And it sounds like Bianca's playing it up more, distorting her pronunciation to a clownish degree, often while singing melodramatic autobiographical lyrics, and what was once uncanny verges into the absurd. But absurdity is not the sum of this album. It's got intimations of the signature CocoRosie strange beauty as well. I am glad to have two such outlandish, otherworldly fantasists in the world and making art.
Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

The Music in My Head

I. I’m obsessed with music. There has rarely been a time in my life when this hasn’t been the case. Listening to music is one of the great pleasures of my life, seeing Leonard Cohen live in concert is my version of a religious experience, and discovering a new artist whose work I love makes me indescribably happy. I’ve long been interested by the interaction between music and memory: the way certain pieces of music can become indelibly imprinted with fragments of the past. I think we all have songs like this: R.E.M.’s "How The West Was Won and Where It Got Us" snaps me back to Toronto, night, walking along Danforth Avenue in the winter of 1997; it was my first winter away from home and I liked to go for long walks after school with New Adventures in Hi-Fi on my walkman. The Verve’s "Bittersweet Symphony" transports me to a particular party ten years ago in someone’s back yard, one of those magical long summer evenings with friends, that song playing again and again on the mix tape. I’ve been traveling fairly frequently lately, and when I arrive in a new hotel room one of the first things I do is plug in my laptop, open iTunes and fill the anonymous room with familiar music. I’m enamored with The National, but I’ve spent so much time listening to their albums with my husband that I find that I can’t listen to them when I’m traveling alone; their music makes me miss him too acutely. Most of us get tunes stuck in our heads on occasion, for hours or days; we are at times unable to stop ourselves from tapping our feet in response to a steady rhythm, even if it’s not the sort of thing we normally listen to; our brains sometimes present us with specific memories in response to specific songs. It seems clear that we’re hardwired for music, or that music is hardwired for us. “Our auditory systems,” Oliver Sacks writes in Musicophilia, his book on the interplay between music and the brain, our nervous systems, are exquisitely tuned for music. How much this is due to the intrinsic characteristics of music itself—its complex sonic patterns woven in time, its logic, its momentum, its unbreakable sequences, its insistent rhythms and repetitions, the mysterious way in which it embodies emotion and “will”—and how much to special resonances, synchronizations, oscillations, mutual excitations, or feedbacks in the immensely complex, multilevel neural circuitry that underlies musical perception and reply, we do not yet know. It’s a fascinating book. Sacks recounts tale after tale of music and neurology: epileptics whose seizures are triggered by churchbells; patients suffering from dementia who return fleetingly to lucidity when classical music is played; people with Tourette’s Syndrome who are freed from their involuntary outbursts only while they’re playing the piano. Might our neurological alignment with music be used to our advantage? This idea isn’t new—you’ve probably heard of the Mozart Effect, but decades before Dr. Frances Rauscher and her colleagues published their 1993 article in Nature describing how exposure to Mozart’s double-piano sonata K448 temporarily increased spatial-temporal reasoning in their test subjects, the Bulgarian psychotherapist Dr. Georgi Lozanov was publishing books describing a method for learning foreign languages that he dubbed “Suggestopedia,” wherein students were exposed to 60-beat-per-minute baroque music—he claimed his technique allowed students to achieve fluency in foreign languages at near-superhuman speeds. But new or not, the idea of using music as a tool is something I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to writing. Like a great many writers in this overly wired age, I sometimes struggle with focus. I’ll pause the writing to Google something (let’s say, oh, “spatial-temporal reasoning”, for example), and half an hour later I haven’t come back to the open Word document yet; I’m Googling something else or answering emails or updating my website or checking to see if anyone’s said anything interesting on Twitter in the past hour. A while ago I began wondering if I might use music to my advantage somehow. Because if music exerts the sway over us that I think it does, if it might trigger not just memories but changes in one’s spatial-temporal reasoning ability, if in certain cases it can cause seizures and briefly neutralize Tourette’s syndrome, then perhaps, I thought, I might use it to help me ignore the distractions of the outside world and stay the hell off the Internet while I’m writing my third book. II. The generalized and ever-present temptation of the Internet aside, it seems to be a universal fact among writers I know that publication makes you suddenly, exponentially busier. I’m not complaining, let me hasten to add, but there are just far more emails to respond to, more deadlines, and more vaguely career-related/shamelessly self-promotional tasks to be performed than there ever was in my pre-publication life, and it’s alarmingly easy to get caught up in the vortex. There are a lot of days when it’s easy to become so focused on working on the career that working on the next novel seems like a bit of an afterthought, as if the writing of novels weren’t kind of the whole point here. In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes of the use of music in his workday. He listens “to loud music—hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites—but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out.” I can’t personally imagine writing to Metallica, but I think he’s on to something here. Closing the door to my office is no longer enough for me, so I’ve been employing a new strategy over the past few months: an iTunes playlist, the songs chosen for their inobtrusiveness and steady quiet beat. After listening to the playlist on a long endless loop through months of work on my third novel, I’ve increasingly found that I focus more easily when I’m listening to it. It’s partly that it helps to shut out the world, but I’ve come to realize that it’s also a trick of memory, an association forged between music and action. I believe this must be more or less the same function as those strange firings of neurons that make me think of a summer party when I hear "Bittersweet Symphony," a winter night when I hear New Adventures in Hi-Fi, my husband when I listen to The National: after writing to this playlist for a while, these particular songs all make me think of my third novel. It keeps me on track, even though in periods of intense writing I no longer hear it: I’ll put it on and begin writing, and then a while later I’ll come to and realize that an hour’s gone by and I’ve missed my favorite song. It’s mostly subdued electronica with a little classical music thrown in here and there, Underworld and Vivaldi and Radiohead. The earlier business of the day, the emails and research and promotion, can be performed to any particular music happens to strike my fancy; but when I hear the soft opening notes of Underworld’s "Glam Bucket," I start falling back into the world of the new novel again. [Image credit: elisasizzle]