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Mark Morrison – “Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)”

Volume Two: “Oh My God!” 

Mark Morrison – \”Return Of The Mack (Acapella Of The Mack)\”

“…you can see yourself trying to find your way in the darkness, lighting the hall and staircase with a miserable lamp, dragging along tied to you as part of yourself, the corpse of your memories, of your wrongs and failures, the murder everyone commits at some time of his life—you can never free yourself of your past, you have to carry the corpse while Life plays the drum…” – Max Beckmann

Several years ago I was listening to some NPR feature about Chicago radio, and there was a piece about a brand-new radio station that had just started broadcasting a couple weeks before. The initial focus of the NPR piece was on the new station’s dubious decision to plug itself right from the beginning using taped man-on-the-street testimonials. The examples played in their authentic-seeming and fully background-noised trebliness: “Oh, yeah–WXWhatever is my favorite station!” “WXWhatever plays all the best music!” “WXWhatever is the only station I listen to, at work, at home, and in the car!”  The NPR commentator pointed out the inherent ridiculousness: The station was brand new; no one in Chicago had (or could have) yet heard a minute of it, so it was logistically impossible that it was anybody’s favorite anything. There was an audible smirk, and then a pregnant pause during which I naturally assumed that he was getting ready to go in on the absurdity of commercial radio. What came next was surprising: He said that the longer he thought about it, the more human their approach seemed. He compared it to the first day at a new school, when all anybody wants to do is to seem like they belong, or at least to not seem like they don’t belong. You concentrate your efforts, he said, on pretending that you know where everything and how everything works, making sure that–in this place you’ve never been before–you don’t look out of place. Even stepping outside your own body and seeing how idiotic you look and feeling the excuses turn to ash in your mouth before you can even make them, it’s tough to fight that instinct. What? Me? No, I’m not new. What do you mean? I’ve always been here. 

….

“We manipulate memory / To make things free” – Lisa Robertson

In the summer of 1989, days before the start of our sophomore year of high school, my friend Ethan and I were lounging in our other friend Andy’s family room, watching MTV. Our semi-rural town’s conservative and overwhelmingly religious leadership’s decade-long lobby against the inherent turpitude of Music Television–and said leadership’s subsequent strong-arming of the only cable provider in town–had only just relented a month or so ago. We’d all already spent years listening to as much music as possible, reading about it wherever we could, and watching on other networks whatever “video shows” we could find, and even if we’d read enough Maximumrocknroll to know that MTV was of course totally meritless corporate bullshit (of course), it still felt like a new mainline had opened up, and its pull was irresistible. Wherever two or more of us were gathered we watched with a thirsty reverence our new cathode-ray Fatima, looking for signs, for connectors. When De La Soul’s “Me Myself & I” came on, we watched it in the riveted way we watched all of them, but about halfway through the video, Ethan jabbed a finger at the screen said with great portent:

This–this is going to be us this year.”

we've formed an image

Right up until the second before he said that, it would never have occurred to me, but in the way that can only happen once someone else’s failed check on their teenage obviousness gives you tacit permission to unleash your own, I immediately gave myself over fully to the inevitability of his assertion. Yes. Clearly, this was our new template, our re-up, this year’s model of the outcast pose we’d cribbed from punk the year before (and from thrash metal the year before that, and from horror movies the year before that, and from comic books the year before that, and from weird cousins all the rest of our years). By the end of this goofy little post-“I Wanna Rock” melodrama, wherein the asymmetrical and unfashionable De La dudes slouch their way unobtrusively through a school day while being endlessly taunted by the popular and conventionally-dressed archetypes who mug nonstop in their periphery, we were certain that the new path had been shown. In the life of the artsy teen, there is a design that must needs be renewed every day, a pattern of positive and negative, assertion of what you are and denial of what you are not, criticism and embrace, creation and rejection. But the greatest of these is: Fabrication. Complete and utter fabrication.   

My friends and I were not outcasts. We did not register in the social structure to enough of an extent that anyone felt the need to cast us out of it. Generally speaking, I think we were at this point pretty much nonentities to everyone except each other. This is why wholesale identity-jacking was attractive in general. What made the identity offered in the “Me Myself & I” video so attractive in particular was the blasé air that we perceived about the protagonists: As reflected in all our previous models of marginality as well as in our own mirror, here were weird dressers with indistinct physiques and hair issues and who felt they were suffering fools daily; but instead of responding with traditional anger or violence, they responded with a kind of soulful fatigue. Where the cycles of dissatisfaction and retribution–enacted by The Exploited, “Institutionalized,” Nail Gun Massacre, that Aaron kid who ended up going to juvie (he was a year ahead of us–remember? had a single mom who was kinda cute?), The Punisher, et al.–had been circuits that we could only ever complete symbolically (and even then, unconvincingly), here at last was a front that we could ride all the way. It wasn’t the giant leap that all those other things had asked us to make, it was just a step–a step so small that it didn’t even register as a lie. It was a fantasy that was made so seductive by seeming so close to where we already were, and we took that small step, overlooked that lie, jettisoned the history we’d never wanted in favor of the history we’d never had, and said “yes” to all of it.

Yes, this too had been our struggle, and yes, it had made us weary, too, and yes, it had left us too as cranky protectors of the true faith. By taking the awkwardness and misanthropy and social discomfort that we had defaulted into (and sometimes affected) and recasting them as instead conscious responses to our daily battle with the morons, we were able to take our almost wholly passive collective history and spin it into a narrative in which we were deliberate agents. By insisting that our middle-teenage selves were not (as we deep down knew them to be) loose and blurry collections of familial traits, social constructs, and recent cultural influences, but were in fact these eccentric, elusive, and uncategorizable things of grace that flummoxed and enraged the simple and the socially identifiable, we were able to effectively subvert our own memories and see in our circumscribed situation the open territory. 

black medallions, no gold

But then, that kind of thing is pretty exclusively the province of teenagers. What seemed at the time to be a slip of the yoke of memory, looking back, seems more like the kind of transubstantiation that can only happen in the time before memory. We were fucking kids, you know? It was a great unburdening at a time when we had almost nothing to shed.

So much has happened since, and history, memory, and circumstance are not so easily escaped. We are grown now, and now, in our time of the corpse and the drum, that open territory seems to always recede before us. We come to understand that in the end, videos, music…these kinds of things, they never mean as much as we want them to; they are beautiful but they are uninhabitable and they cannot stay, any more than we can. Ultimately, in the dark of the night and dark of the head and dark of the heart, there can only be the self–the true, unblinking self, the one we do not get to choose–and when stripped and thrown back before that most dreadful witness, will you still have a song to sing?

….

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville

b/w

“Don’t call it a comeback!” – LL Cool J

Every Mark Morrison music video I’ve ever seen makes at least one truly awful fashion statement. “Crazy” has a guy chatting inna doo-doo raggamuffin stylee from behind an infrared cyborg eyepatch; “Let’s Get Down” has Mark himself in various configurations of a mismatched buffalo-check shorts set, worn cholo-style (with just the top button done) and topped off with a clip visor worn backwards; in “Trippin’,” he’s flanked by bored-looking huskies and wearing a turtlenecked vest (to the casual observer who might wonder whether this wouldn’t simply be a sleeveless turtleneck, all I can say is that it’s like those dreams where you’re in a house and it’s nothing like your house and yet you instinctively know that it’s your house: I just know it’s a turtlenecked vest, okay?); that other video (“Moan & Groan”) where he’s at the microphone stand emoting broadly while shackled with gold-plated handcuffs, so clearly wearing them not as props but as an earnest attempt at, you know, a look. In the video for “Return Of The Mack,” the statement is: door-knocker earrings for men. And the whole video is characterized by similarly questionable aesthetic decisions, decisions that leave it feeling like New Jack City staged five years too late and shot like a perfume commercial. The storyline is hazy, but it has something to do with Mark–in open rebuke of the café au lait honey who dissed him for some bobo-dread scrub in an entry-level bubble goose–posse’d up with two additional computer-generated versions of himself and striding through a dramatically lit chunnel toward the future, with black leather trench coats and dookie chains and door-knockers for all three of them/him. There is also a snake, which I believe represents the scheming ex-girl who herself shows up partway through the video to confront the three Marks in their postindustrial office suite while draped in a black leather trench coat that she seems to have borrowed from one of them. Whew. Nonlinearity aside, the video’s triumphalism is contagious and undeniable. It floats from its first second to its last on a luxury of mist and party-over-here type atmosphere that blurs all edges and blunts all objections. Truly, the mack has returned.

at least two pair

The music is similarly seductive. It’s simultaneously muscular and spongy, slabby and sassy on its own slow-roll majesty. Hip-hop in its approach but smooth-jazz in its self-satisfaction, it is chromed and confident and doesn’t mind moving just a little bit slower than you’re hearing it, hanging back a little even as it swells forth on a three-and-a-half-minute wave of cork-pop and bubbly gush. Every bar is measured in the same wet starburst of picked guitar, and peppered with samples and stabs that sound as though they’re imported from some faraway magical kingdom of Rap Music. There’s no bass presence to speak of, just kick, snare, and sparkle that weighs a ton. Underneath the whole thing is a vastly satisfied professional buzz, the purr of a giant robot cat that has eaten all the money, and can now doze.

But as good as the video looks, it’s also a lazy absurdity of convoluted clichés and a train-wreck of disconnected posturing. And as good as the music sounds, it’s also an meaningless juggernaut of gloss that never leaves the showroom. They both operate in complete fealty to history, memory, and archetype, and evaporate as soon as you look away.

The acapella, though, is the work of a free man. Taken in its full musical (and, if you like, visual) context, the singing registers chiefly as one long torrid ululation–good, but nothing crazy; typical r&b overemotion refracted through an eccentric vocal approach multiplied the fake crying from “La Di Da Di” and divided by the fact that dude’s a couple years late with all this. But when cut loose and taken on its own, you can hear the mania bloom.

“The guy just goes out and thinks, No one’s gonna understand what I’m doing except for me, but I’m a fuckin’ genius.” – Matt Damon

Far from ahistorical, its first note is a clarion of continuity, the kind of ascendant and hanging “Ohhhhh” previously given vessel in Frankie Beverly, Jackie Hogg, Lenny Williams, Charlie Wilson, Aaron Hall, and on and on. And this voice’s very ribs reach forth from the lineage of messianic anguish and megalomania and entitled eccentricity and willful abandon knotted with complete control that passed like a coiff- and larynx-borne virus from Captain Ahab to Larry Blackmon to Grace Jones to Bobby Brown to Shabba Ranks to anyone else who ever flamed weird and fearless from their mouth and had hair that was all fucked-up on one side. And what this vocal here does is take all that lineage, all those continuities, and lets them pile and pile and pile, indulging each of them in their turn, running through all that history so fluidly that the individual images of the originals get subsumed into ever-accelerating zoetrope flicker. In this heedless cycling-through, it all moves. The old is made new, time vibrates against itself, and the pretender is made real.

The vocals of the full version include a mid-song break during which we hear a woman’s voice, English-inflected and sleepy (or maybe just tired): “Mark, stop lying about your big break…For god’s sake–I need a real man…Stop letting me down…Stop letting me down…” It’s a humorous little moment, and a somewhat pivotal one, in the way that its “Oh yeah? That’s not what she said…” humanizes slightly this preposterously over-the-top figure and eases him back from the brink of pure caricature, and also in its sly acknowledgement (“stop lying about your big break”) of the commercial fact that when this song came out, almost nobody in America knew who the fuck Mark Morrison was or why his “return” from anywhere would mean anything to anyone. (It’s telling that the single/radio version includes only the “big break line”; admitting to your pop audience the realities of the market is one thing–copping to personal shortcomings your first time out is, I guess, another.) 

The acapella gives no quarter to such outside perspective. This is a universe of one. Morrison vipers heedlessly from machete-chop dancehall cadence to silk degrees of loverman confession to the betrayed bleating of a still-glistening man-child kicked too soon from his butter-leather womb. Here his voice is Caribbean, here throaty and Pendergrassian, here adenoidal. Now his accent is from Jamaica! London! Atlantis! And the deeper you listen, the weirder it gets. If the music were around, its glittering batter would ooze through and smooth the song into its familiar braggadocio, moneyed and middling. But the music is not here, and in that vacuum we are left alone with a voice that operates only at the far poles of drama, with no use for anything resembling medium cool. There are only Best Things Ever and Worst Things Ever. Godly and lowly. The shining victor and the abject loser. It is complete immersion in rotating archetype, until every line is a comment that reflects on a reflection that was already a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of something that was a copy in the first place. It becomes a demented hall of mirrors housing both The Mack, high on powdered pharaoh brain and fat on the meat of eagles, bestride the whole world, mile-wide smiling and licking his champagne fangs, and The Pariah, a mock-necked Caliban wracked and bawling like all three members of Jodeci bound into one monstrous body and informed that one head must now eat the other two.

One could argue that singers in general and r&b singers in particular tailor their vocals to the nuances of the musical backing they’re singing against; when stripped from that backing and isolated, pretty much any vocal is gonna sound a little unhinged. To me, though, the “Mack” acapella goes farther. Formally, it doesn’t have the spaciousness of most isolated vocals, nor does it exhibit much sense that it is meant to exist as one part of a full musical production; all of the auditory space is filled with vocals and choruses and back-ups and ad-libs, all sung by Morrison and all delivered as if each part represented a distinct character, and as if Morrison alone was responsible for (and worthy of) populating the entire track. And creatively, it is just so unabashed and frontal, so devoid of any non-extremity; for dude’s maiden voyage towards a wider American audience, he delivers a vocal that not only explodes with contradictory eccentricities–You’ve never heard of me before…but all hail my return! I’m the ne plus ultra ladies’ man…but I lost my girl! This is my big moment, right here…but I’ll be back!–but that also demands to have its story swallowed whole.

What makes this last insistence so audacious is the faint but deep feeling of fugazi that runs through the vocal. The entire performance revolves around Morrison’s ability to sustain the idea that he’s got all the moves. And to a point, he convinces; it’s a strong vocal, plenty of range, expertly structured, and invokes enough established r&b signifiers (The Voice, The Man, The Girl, The Lie, etc.) to get through the door without a hassle. Soon, though, there comes that uh-oh feeling. It’s not unlike when you’re scanning the dial and enjoying an unfamiliar song for the minute or two before its suspiciously non-committal pronouns make you wonder if you’re accidentally listening to something religious, or flipping through channels and coming to rest on some interesting-seeming show whose slightly scrubbed and behind-the-times quality prickle your suspicion that you’ve been tricked into watching a little bit of something Canadian. That feeling of Everything is here, all the right switches get flipped, everything is right where it should be–why does this still seem…off?

Again and again, Morrison gets the substance right but the details wrong: He starts in immediately with the kind of that-boy-can-sang vocal flexing that so often in r&b acts as an annunciation, but he takes it too far too fast; in the few seconds comprising opening vamp–“Ohhhhhh / Come on / Oooh yeah”–he uses three different voices (adopting an ecstatic clarity for the “Ohhhhhh,” a weird nasality for the “Come on,”  then a smooth quaver for the “Oooh yeah”), pushing past “range” and into “schizophrenia.” Beginning in these same early seconds and continuing throughout, it’s made clear that he’s studied the furious entitlement of later-period Michael Jackson and its attendant belief that sheer presence can trump intelligibility, that if your phonetics are visceral enough, the listener will bend their understanding to accommodate your intent (call it The Shah-Mown Paradigm): he swallows both the beginning and the ending of the “Come on!” so that we only really hear what bubbles up in between, something that sounds like “I’m oh!” It mostly comes off, but there remain these moments where the smeariness and indecipherability exceed the pocket, making the listener conscious–in a way that a more orthodox, sonically grammatical approach might not–of the liberties being taken and of an unearned identity being asserted; mid-nineties Mark Morrison is not, after all, mid-eighties Mike Jackson, and while it took until the what’s-up-with-that? observational-humor boom of a few years later (possibly even until the hey-remember-the-8os? talking-head shows of more than a decade later) to really shine a light on the bizarre qualities of MJ’s fevered ad-libs and gravid exhalations, it’s almost impossible to hear Morrison’s vocal even once and not be struck immediately by its overweening self-indulgence, by just how fucking weird this jiggy no-name pop aspirant sounds from the very first listen. Far from any kind of middle finger, though, it is not an act of rebellion but is instead a formal and aesthetic reverence so slavish and inflated that it becomes a kind of disregard for accepted reality.

The vocal’s highness-on-its-own-supply-ness is driven home in the acapella’s last thirty seconds. In this final stretch, there are three iterations of the chorus–each consisting of the title phrase sung three times, then buttoned with the chronologically and thematically muddled threat/promise, “You know that I’ll be back!”–with Morrison ad-libbing between each line to form loose couplets: “Return of the mack! (My little girl!) / Return of the mack! (Once my pearl!) / Return of the mack! (Up and down!) / You know that I’ll be back! (’Round and ‘round!)” and so on. Every “Return of the mack!” is sung identically, but every round of ad-libs is sung in at least two different voices; taken cumulatively, they lay bare every color in his palette, willfully and jarringly exposing the work as just that: a work. But then, the listener’s suspension of disbelief has by now become irrelevant. Morrison has created his own universe, a universe in which he plays all the parts, every one which he’s repurposed from somewhere else, and he stopped worrying about you a couple verses ago, straddling with impunity worlds of pure artifice and worlds of no artifice at all, and he will insist on his authenticity even as he lets you see him change costumes right in front of you.


Why I’m still able to draw inspiration from this in 2012 is perhaps mostly a matter of scale. As the self-doubt and isolationist tendencies of my adult self do nothing but intensify my feelings of withdrawal, there is a steady erosion of my belief that any freedom from the hulking corpse of memory and the martial drumbeat of life is truly possible. All the solutions seem to rely upon the outside world’s acceptance of your particular strain of kayfabe, or at the very least upon some fellow travelers among whom you can circulate your counterfeit without fear of exposure. And I have a hard time trusting in any solution so dependent on the willful blindness of others. But this is not that. The “Return Of The Mack” acapella is not a fledgling radio station trying to snow a whole city, nor is it my friends and I scanning the dial for our next amnesiac waterslide out of suburbia. Though its aims are just as delusional as either of those, its pursuit works through not exactly the former’s denial of wider histories, nor exactly through the latter’s denial of personal histories, but through gorging on the poses of history and memory until rupture is achieved, leaving a space in which a different self might emerge, a self born not of negation, but of explosion. It is, ultimately, just one guy who realizes himself not by cutting loose from that which he is and that which he cannot forget, but by burrowing into it so deeply that he comes out the other side, emerging as something new.
 
In Aimee Bender’s story, “The Girl In The Flammable Skirt,” the narrator has for reasons unexplained inherited from her father a massive backpack that is made of solid stone and which she cannot take off. She goes to school and talks to her teacher:

It’s so heavy, I said, everything feels very heavy right now.
She brought me a Kleenex.
I’m not crying, I told her.
I know, she said, touching my wrist. I just wanted to show you something light. 

 


Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”

Volume One: “Can you tell me if I’m doing it right?”


This is not the minute—this is the day. This is not when they come—this is when they call to say that they’ll  be coming. This is not the knowing—this is the wondering. This is not the sex—this is…

…the kiss.


Lil’ Louis – “French Kiss (The Original Underground Mix)”


Sex is terminal. Kissing is not. And in that absence of a clear goal, of an end of the line, variation becomes everything: The warm drift sustained by a wet concentration, muted sensations pricked with the occasional pop, maroon formlessness perforated by a softly clicking jaw, the seeking out, the reeling back, the push, and the pull, all moving back and forth in the wooziness of the blood. In its way, endless.

Existing as it does entirely in this shared bruit, this closed, waltzing pulse, the true kiss—the kiss, that is, that is not actually Something Else—can have no real release. And so the drums throughout keep a capped, tamped-down quality. Allowing for no exterior outside of this room, outside of this song, outside of our bodies, it is transportation between low-ceilinged places; it is being locked inside of the vast TJ Maxx of desire that exists just outside of consummation—muzzy, overstuffed, and almost. Lingering in that hour between the dog and the wolf. But if it is neither possible nor necessarily desirable to rise above, to leave, the song stretches and presses, revealing fissures that become new things, possibilities into which we could fall and stay. There are inexpert and over-anxious peeks of pitch-shift and tempo wobble to remind us that all of this has been put in place by human hands, and there is a Moiré effect where every subtle shift in alignment creates a new pattern: the synth twists around inside and refracts the straight 4/4 pound into an irresistible little bounce; the beat lolls for half a second and slips from being the rush itself to being something important brought along for later; keyboards scatter as ideas from an anxious mind, and all is velvet murk except for the hi-hats that brighten and feint like a little bit of fresh air caught from the corner of the mouth. The whole thing throbs like a jarful of hearts beating somewhere just on the other side of the tongue, and between here and there it’s just you and you, joined in a maze of endless head. 

(Right around the midpoint are a couple minutes of simulated ecstasy that perch atop the song like a phony janus head of bad loving: too audible to sound like a good kiss and too monotonous to sound like good sex, it does little but over-show and distract. And you know what, let’s not think about all that right now.) 

Distraction can be fatal, though, and by the time you’re wondering whether maybe all this has gone on too long, it has gone on too long. With the constant permutation comes a bluntedness. But, but, but: Isn’t there a sustainability in the edgelessness? Is “comfort” the word? Is this almostness where we learn to postpone, to prolong? No matter—when all the available combinations seem to have been explored, exhaustion yawns out ahead, and the plush anticipatory ripple at the beginning is by the end beeping out in monotony, a homing signal. This dark, sweet thing and all of its seamy potential has turned surprisingly fragile in its overextension. Blinking in that light, it becomes clear that preserving any of this into the next day or the next room will mean carrying it there like a completed jigsaw puzzle.

Or maybe instead of hanging on to it, instead of trying to turn it into something, maybe it’d be better just to start over, do it all again. Soon. Yes. Yeah. For this, too—no, this especially—is the kiss.     




…………………….


CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

 - cf. Debbie Harry’s “French Kissin’ In The U.S.A” (I watched her sing this on some show back then, and remember nothing except the blindingly bright pin-spot of glare off of her ludicrously over-glossed lips; it felt like my own tv was burning a hole in my chest with a magnifying glass), Julia Fordham’s “What chance did I stand / How could I resist / your American arms and / your French kiss?” and especially Lucinda Williams’s “I can’t stay around / ’cause I’m going back South / but all I regret now / is I never kissed your mouth.”  

- See also: the deep-reverb lip-smacking that begins: “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”

- A while back, I was trying to figure out why “French kiss” (the phrase) sounded so antiquated, so...quaint. Then I figured it out: No one qualifies a kiss anymore to specify that it was heavy; they do so only to specify that it was light. In the parlance of my young youth, “French kiss” was useful for distinguishing between a regular kiss and a capital-K Kiss. In these faster and heavier times, though, I think every kiss is assumed to be a Kiss unless it gets modified downward: “Oh, it was just a little/light/fast/quick kiss.” I cannot think of the last time I heard “kiss” modified upward. Even the singer on the Vocal Mix of “French Kiss” kinda pulls back/hurries past the titular phrase, as if she—a grown-ass woman—is a little embarrassed to have to structure her whole performance around this bit of grade-school phrasing.

- I am not now nor have I ever been a heavy house-music dude, but around the time “French Kiss” came out, I read so many breathless write-ups of it that I was on a crazy mission to hear it. I was in my mid-teens, and thus still had the wide-eyed outlook and the stamina to want to chase every rabbit down every hole, but I was also living in semi-rural South Carolina at the time, and access to that kind of music was limited. So, I started leaning on friends to see if anyone had the hook-up with an older sibling or a cousin at college or sister’s boyfriend at the record store or whoever: “Seriously, a tape or a dub off the radio or anything—I just wanna hear it!” My dear friend Pruitt didn’t really like to dance all that much, but his girlfriend did, and she knew some spots; namely, a gay club (“It’s called ‘The Crystal’ or ‘The Crystal Castle’ or ‘Crystal Palace’ or something like that”) in a town forty-five minutes away that “definitely plays that kind of music.” She didn’t feel like going, and I couldn’t drive yet, so—in an act of generosity that you’ll have to believe me when I say was contextually gargantuan—Pruitt said he’d take me. He wasn’t gonna dance, but he’d hang out and listen to some music, sure. (You’ve gotta understand: upstate South Carolina was still finding its way with this house shit, and it wasn’t yet non-stop jacking; it was still completely permissible for dudes to chill at the bar until they found their comfort level.) So once we get inside, I go up to the first person who looks like they might know and ask them, trying to be cool but really just square as shit, “Hey, excuse me, um, do you think they’ll play ‘French Kiss’—uh, the song  ’French Kiss’—here tonight?” This was like 1990, and while “French Kiss” may have been over elsewhere, it was just peaking there in the slow-to-receive red-clay districts, and the response I got was, “Honey, they’ll probably play that stuff ten times tonight!” And indeed, in the couple of hours before I had to leave to make curfew (I am saying: square as shit), we heard it twice. If it didn’t exactly change my life, it definitely changed the way I listen to music, which as much as anything informs the way I think about life. So, sincerest thanks to my man Pruitt, without whom. I think of you all the time, brother, and hope you’re doing well at home.    

- A few years after all this, Lil’ Louis put out the excellent Journey With The Lonely, complete with liner notes outlining briefly but potently his take on 1992 gender politics in a tone located somewhere post-Prince and pre-Tyler Perry (e.g. “My Queens: Judge me not because of what your father did at home / Judge me not by your past lovers / Judge me not by what damaged souls tell U / Judge me not generally, but individually”). The whole package comes recommended. 

- Some of the best advice I ever got: “Don’t lean on the doorbell.”


You’ve Got All That Is Really Needed

Posted by , July 13th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags: , ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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In the course of going through some records in basement storage–all the rinked copies of records I’ve since upgraded, all the extensive discographies whose limp bulk testify to nothing but the pre-internet danger of having the proverbial “little knowledge” (for me, all it used to take was some passing remark in some magazine that “[Rap Producer X] sampled that [Prolific Artist Y] joint” and I’d be off and running–now it’s fifteen years later and I’ve got all these fucking Tom Scott records to deal with), all the records that weren’t my taste at the time but which seemed interesting and were thus purchased “just in case” for a someday that I now know will probably never arrive, etc.–I happened upon a small clutch of records that I must have at some point separated from my main collection for safekeeping, back when I believed that was the way to do it. Most of these shoddily plastic-bagged elite were holdovers from my very early days of record collecting, and had been elevated by nothing so much as the beginner’s simple glee that things like these actually existed and were actually themselves: ”Look, it’s a beat-up copy of What’s Going On! On a record! A for-real old soul record!” “Look, it’s a beat-up Blue Note record! On a record! It’s just like in those coffee-table books, but not in a book!” But one of the records was my parents’ copy of Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am, and it is different.




I Was




There’s a line from Albert Camus about how man’s work is the slow journey to rediscover through art the two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. You’ve gotta understand: I Am is the first record that I have a conscious memory of—the first one I saw, the first one I heard and knew. It was such a constant on my parents’ turntable platter that for several years of my early life I believed that all the music in the world—even the music on the radio—lived on this single red-labeled gold-lettered black disc that had been furnished to my parents on one great day sometime before I was born.

Inwardly, I obsessed over the cover. The front was weird and icky, presided over by the head of a stern old man conjoined with some gleebus baby thing. The back was apocalyptic and threatening but also exciting beyond belief, with fire and mushroom clouds and viking ships and galleons and waterfalls and skyscrapers and temples and ziggurats and thick slabs of broken earth and knights with lances and domed cities and, sweet mother of god, flying saucers glinting in the sky. In the gatefold, though, lay the great harmonizer: Nine black Shogun Warrior superheroes arranged in an indestructible pyramid of power and welcoming–high-foreheaded, opulently clothed, faces either smiling beneficently or furrowed in the understanding of the ages, and towering like oaks in a ferny and flowered Eden where they are attended by a ring of gnostic symbols in the sky and a worshipful blue hermit crab at their feet.

Outwardly, I thought the music was life itself. It felt like the very essence of generosity of spirit, the golden symbol of a perfect, adult peace. All those harmonies, having neither edge nor end, seemed to overlap and interweave in a vast sunlit delta fanning out at the mouth of Everything, beckoning me and everyone I knew into the beginning of the great river of the understanding of What It All Meant. I wish I could be more concrete—tell you how much I loved the horns or something–but the truth is that I understood this record mostly as an element of life, and I didn’t think of it as having discrete musical aspects any more than I thought of sunlight as having color.

My triangular fascination with I Am–as object, as vision, and as sound—was exploded into full pyramidal realization when, at the apex of the album’s popularity, an entire Earth Wind & Fire concert was broadcast on television. It was a real event for my parents: they popped popcorn, made sure to turn on the tv a few minutes early, and watched every moment of the show with great enjoyment, singing along and grooving at their respective ends of the couch. I was like five years old, and sat between them, wide-eyed and trying not to burst out of my skin. In listening so much to the record and poring so deliberately over the cover, I’d arrived at a familiarity with its harmony and mystique that I mistook for understanding. But in seeing it brought to life where all childhood things must be brought to life—on the screen—I felt a capstone fall into place, the completion of circuits that I didn’t know remained open. I watched what seemed like a hundred band members charge from the back of the hall in an incandescent surge of  feathers and banners and pure energy, a wave of angels flooding the aisles and racing toward the stage, mouths already—already!–open in  song. When I realized that what I was watching there in my home was the people from inside the cover actually playing the music on the record that was on the turntable just a few feet away from where I now sat between the people who bought the record and put it on the turntable so that I could hear it all those times, the whole thing was made so real to me, so singular, so mind-wide and wonderful, that I thought my heart was going to blow.

This was the very first time I remember feeling like I’d really felt the totality of anything, that shock of recognition. But even as I swooned from the unspeakable thrill of it, it felt bittersweet. Before, even though I was mostly agog at the record and the unified power that seemed to project from every facet of its substance and presentation, I’d been able to fillet enough commonality out of the few little details that I could get any traction on (“UFOs? Hey–I like UFOs, too! I have some books with them in it!”) to think that, yeah, maybe there was some place for me in the obvious enormity of this music and image. Watching the concert, though, and feeling everything galvanize so completely and unmistakably, I began to feel pushed away. It was becoming clear to me that their enterprise was adult and perfect; as a kid and an aspirant, this was a temple that I would have to admire from the outside. And this nascent alienation wasn’t a simple case of watching fantasy cross into reality and subsequently lose its allure or become less extraordinary, but a case of watching fantasy cross into reality and instead become–just by virtue of its being able to exist somewhere besides my own head–more fantastical. Over years I had created in my mind an incomplete image of this impossibly perfect thing, and then in a single moment recognized its complete image, recognized that its perfection was not only not impossible but was something that you could sit in a room and witness for yourself, and recognized, most dejectedly, that it didn’t need me to create anything—it was already fully realized and video-relayable, as polished and unassailable as I could ever have imagined. The adult me guesses that what I was feeling was something along the same continuum as whatever you must feel when you realize that while your children still love you, they no longer need you. Or something. All I could have told you back then, though, is that it sure made me feel funny.




All the records keep playing / and my heart keeps saying




A little while later, when I was six, I was watching something else on the same tv while jumping up and down on an ottoman in our family room. One of my landings hit with just the right English and the ottoman shot out from under me, rocketing the crown of my head right into the raised brick ledge in front of our fireplace. I don’t remember the pain at all, but I remember very clearly the displacing exhilaration of seeing for the first time a large amount of my own blood.

My parents had raised me Catholic, so I’d had frequent opportunity to think about blood and its significance. A lot of the mechanical specifics of that stuff—bloodlines, spilled blood, blood oaths, blood sacrifice, blood into wine, etc.–were beyond me at the time, but I knew enough to know that it was something to take seriously. My ignorance and my sense of gravitas eventually compromised, leaving me at a point where I really stopped thinking of blood as a physical substance, and instead considered it more of an all-important essence, a unifying ether that moved through everyone and everything everywhere ever in the history of time and outer space and the universe.

Once I split my head open on the fireplace, though, my thoughts on all that demystified and became a lot less abstract. I immediately understood that blood was both, high and low: Yes, blood is the great cosmic lubricant, and Yes, it is also this wet stuff that will have to be cleaned off the brickwork. With Comet, probably. Yes, blood is this deep, mysterious force that I hear about in church but do not understand, and Yes, blood is this stuff that I somehow make myself, within my own body. It was untouchable and out there somewhere, but it was also right here, in me, and right there, on the fireplace. I still knew blood as powerful and sacred, running in darkness its immaculate circuits, but as I sat on the couch with a washcloth full of ice pressed into my sticky hair but very much not dead, I also knew that my simple self and my small life and my split scalp somehow figured into some big, weird work. I was somehow the beginning of the line and the end of the line and a stop along the way, all at once.




Interviewer, aghast: "Where does art like this come from?"  Quinn: "My arm, mostly."

My arm, mostly




I don’t think I again felt that thrilled kind of dizzy–so humanly cracked yet so cosmically included!–until I was about sixteen. It was around 1989, and I wasn’t really actively listening to old music at all; I’d fallen in with a crowd that was a couple years older than me, and so spent almost all of my listening time in frantic catch-up, borrowing and junkie-dubbing as many tapes as I could from every one of them in a sophomore’s two-pronged attempt to accumulate some fluency in The Good Shit of recent years while also affecting an enthusiasm that would hopefully mask things like the fact that I had paid money for INXS 45s in the not-distant-enough past. Nonetheless, after seeing Parliament-Funkadelic name-checked so often both in the crusty rock journalism that I was then taking as gospel and in the breathless articles on the sample-based rap that I was then just getting into, I finally knuckled under and rode Hutch with my man Ethan up to Manifest Discs and Tapes on an overcast Saturday, hell-bent on getting anything by Funkadelic, whose name I found embarrassing but who my research had led me to understand was the more rugged chamber. They of course didn’t have any, so I and my eight dollars settled, begrudgingly, for a cassette of Parliament’s Mothership Connection.

Once I got it home and listened to it, I was immediately disappointed. Above and beyond hoping it would make me feel not so bad about having run out of Red Hot Chili Peppers records to buy, I thought it was gonna be a whole lot freakier, sonically speaking–just some outlandish, not-of-this-world shit that would moon-roof my brain and blast my ears clean in a shower of stars. And this was not that. It was all horny and keyboardy, an endless string of funny-t-shirt choruses with no verses, punctuating minute after minute after minute of silly patter reminiscent of those De La Soul skits that I had to spend so much time fast-forwarding through. I heard nothing that I liked, and could hear nothing of what the artists that I liked must have once heard. I knew–knew!–that I should have held out for Funkadelic. Fuck.




Tell me mirror, what is wrong?




I found, though, that even wincing in my frustration the whole tape glided easily by. My music budget was such that I couldn’t afford to not listen to it, but none of my friends liked it, so I always listened to it alone, and I found that I kept returning to it without exactly meaning to. The draw certainly wasn’t the much-heralded P-Funk visual presentation: the tape I bought was a thoroughly budget affair, with the record’s cover art reduced to the size of two large postage stamps and printed noticeably off-register and, inside, a single inlay panel of plain-type production credits second-billed underneath several sentences explaining Dolby noise reduction. Nor was I hooked by the technicolor afronaut mythos that was the record’s ostensible raison d’etre: I was in my mid-teens and pretty much mainlining affectation, so the fact that there was this highly crafted concept did appeal greatly, but at the same time I was dense enough and self-involved enough that most of the metaphors behind the storyline were lost on me, so a lot of the dramatic framing just rolled off of me as cartoony and distracting, little more than an excuse for a bunch of titles that felt ridiculous to say out loud. But if the tape was a letdown in these broad senses, there was something beguiling in the fine-grain.

I thought the opening track, “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up),” was mostly cheesy come-on, drifting and overlong, but after the spaced-out narrator tells the story about checking out earth music and finding it wanting (he gives it a “3”), he then quickly adds “…but it was cool,” and something in the way he says it manages to convey all at once a heavily informed judgment, a neighborly sympathy, an absolution, and a breezy slide forward into whatever’s up next.

The shiny sloganeering of the next track, “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” didn’t have much for me beyond its catchiness, but a couple minutes in there’s a minor-key downturn ushering in a hook that takes a well-worn and passive entreaty for deliverance–”Swing down, sweet chariot…”–and kits it out with “…Stop and let me ride,” a resolution that’s twice as assertive (“Stop”), just as penitent (“let me”), and infinitely more sly; I went back and forth on what exactly the italics meant, but it was always clear to me that the concluding “ride” wasn’t just a ride but was in fact a ride.

In “Unfunky UFO,” the track after that, I couldn’t get over the sub-chorus (or is it sub-sub? I lost count): ”You could feel so much better / if you would show me how to funk like you do.” Even though I knew that it was just a silly little hook in a silly little song, I had preexisting ideas about the kind of control it takes to tell someone that you know what will make them feel better and I had preexisting ideas about the kind of surrender it takes to ask someone to teach you something, and all those ideas  got twisted on their axis when I heard them interlaced so perfectly and so offhandedly. It seemed to me an act of supreme generosity, and even my long-standing hatred of “funk” as a verb fell to the side in the head-spin of hearing the phrase’s double helix of mastery and need bend into a smile right between my ears.

And it went on like that, from song to song, all these stray moments sparkling in their intervals to thread me through the whole tape once again and once again once more. Whatever initial disappointment I’d felt in not having found something freakier got slowly transfused by a feeling of companionability with the record’s mongrel maximalism and its peculiar, underlying peace. The thick sonics and resolute, easy tone made me certain that the underneath was this vast, fluid slab of wordliness and experience, and I came to feel that the record was speaking from a position of knowing absolutely everything, from having been absolutely everywhere, and from having enough ballast—both musical and philosophical–to not have to worry about anything, not ever. In that way, I found it calm and calming. But simultaneously feeding into and emerging out of that depth was this endless effusion of signifiers, ad libs, and jokes. Its central power came draped in frankensteined robes, crying tears both happy and sad, leaking gold doubloons from its mouth, and farting stardust. It inhabited thing after thing fully, and with an odd grace was able to shrug them off without ever feeling like it was throwing anything away, exactly. The record seemed to have more good stuff than it could ever use, and was also enough of a spiritual spendthrift that it couldn’t not use such good stuff, so atop and below and between the music and lyrics proper there’s a near-constant improvisatory drizzle that ends up being the sundae on top of the sundae.

For example, in just two or three minutes at the middle of “Mothership Connection”: George Clinton leers that he’s “doing it to you in 3-D!” but then slides in the brighter assurance that “you have overcome / for I am here…”; just after that, just after the song dips and darkens into a prayer mat and calls for its chariot, his edgy “what’s happenin’, C.C.?…” runs into a welling background refrain that, just in time, obscures his plaintive follow-up: “…Have you forgot me?”; dude takes it way out with gnostic cool–“Are you hip to Easter Island? The Bermuda Triangle?” [Station break for some openly worried synth sounding very much like the theme from In Search Of, a 1970s tv show hosted by Leonard Nimoy that investigated all manner of mystery and supernature and that scared me shitless when I was a young youth; it pictured Easter Island in its opening credits and seemed to broadcast exclusively on weekend evenings when my parents were out.]–only to boomerang back in with the regular-cool “Ain’t nothing but a party!”; an attempt at stately annunciation (“Citizens of the universe, I bring forth to you…”) crumbles under the weight of a grin it just can’t hide (“…the good times!”); the line about “Doing it to you in 3-D!” repeats, but this time with the addendum “So good it’s good to me!” imparting it a gleefully bizarre selflessness by once again flip-flopping the server and the served, this time in the recursive idea that one’s own enjoyment of what one is doing can only come when that enjoyment is commuted into the enjoyment of others (when you’re a teenager with self-satisfaction as your alpha, that’s a pretty big idea).

And that’s only a couple minutes’ worth. And that’s not even the singers singing or the players playing—this is all just the extras. I spent a long time hating all this distracting side-business, and felt that that Clinton’s cackling self-delight in it verged on ghoulish. He was like a radio dj who wouldn’t quit talking over the records—I wished he would shut up already and quit crowding The Stuff, the real stuff. Now, though, I think I understand.


Like a lot of people in Chicago, I don’t own a car. But before I lived here, I lived in South Carolina, where I did. It’s impossible to overstate how harrowing it was to transition from being a driver there to being a walker here; suddenly having to care about things like “dressing for the weather” and “having singles” and “remembering to bring a fucking umbrella” felt like an indignity of the first order. And while I’ve mostly gotten over it, and am mostly really happy to not have to worry about things like “parking” and “insurance” and ”dibs,” something of that loss of car has always stayed with me, and the thirteen years or so I’ve spent here as a pedestrian have so now thoroughly encased in the amber of nostalgia the preceding umpteen years of driving life that on the infrequent occasions when I do get behind the wheel I tend to get a little moony, overly conscious of Ahh, Driving!, of The Romance Of The Road, all that shit. As embarrassing as it is now, I used to be even worse with it.

Anyway, there was a period a few years ago where I was renting cars pretty frequently, most often leaving work early on Thursday to pick up a car for a long-weekend visit to family out of state. Early in the endless minutes time that I would come to spend in the waiting area of my local Enterprise Rent-A-Car outpost sipping at cone after cone of exhaust-tinged Hinckley & Schmitt, it became apparent that I and my long-distance purposes were in the minority: pretty much every other person in there was renting a car just so they’d have something nice to drive around in, a crisp late-model something–“you know, for the weekend.”  As a pragmatist and a cheapskate, I was floored. Even more surprising to me was that a lot of these folks already had a car, they just for some abstract-seeming reason wanted—no, needed–a nicer one, a newer one, or even just a different one. I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on clerks grilling renters pursuant to the paperwork on the clipboard in front of them and hearing stuff like: “I’m having friends in from out of town who haven’t seen me for a while” or “I’m just trying to give that old Honda out there a break” or “No, I mean, my car’s clean and everything, almost brand-new, really, but still: I’m not tryna roll up to Keith n’ nem’s thing in my daily ride, you know?”

I think those folks had the right idea. They seemed seemed restless but good-natured, working the seams to get just what they wanted, get it newer, get it in a different color, get it for that rate you were talking about earlier, get over, get the keys, get on the road, get back, and get it all over again. Looking back, it’s clear that the real jazz is not the “car” part, but the “rental” part—the inherent disposability, and how that imbues the whole process with an energy and a backhanded optimism, the improvisatory joy that only comes from having and then casting off (cf “Go on and take / ’cause I don’t need what I make” [The Fans, 1980] and “take this beat / I don’t mind / I got plenty others / and they so fine” [Prince, 1988]; see also “def O.J.” [passim, 1979-]).

 



def / wish / u heaven




At the time, though, I was a histrionic idiot and acting as if in renting a car I was petitioning to be part of some sacred brotherhood of drivers, and was thus condescendingly bemused by these motivations that seemed so frivolous and so opposed to my own. I had all these grandiose ideas about Travel and about Access and about other overinflated theoretical potentialities that I felt sure were conferred upon a(n) humble pedestrian like myself when behind the wheel of an actual automobile. Sweaty, dogged-shoe supplicant that I was, I’d been seeing the heart of car rental not in the rental but in the car, the car, Sweet Jesus, The Car: the thing, the shiny, total, pristine thing, low-mileaged and half-tanked, gasketed at every aperture, noise reduced and climate controlled, requiring neither physical exertion nor exact change, lasering ironclad and unassailable across the paved world like a quick wink from a smiling God. Shit was ridiculous.




just sometimes I wonder if I should believe




And ironic, too. Because most of the time I was visiting family in suburban Ohio, and at some point during every single visit I’d find myself in the presence of a version of the kind of bright, epic totality that I seemed to be chasing through these lofty lines of thought, and every single time, in the face of this satori, I would turn away.

My wife and I (and eventually our kid and eventually our kids) would have spent three or four or five days at her dad’s or at my mom’s, days where the time would just sort of spool out, as if from an endless supply. The hours between meals seemed to fill themselves, without effort or design: sitting on a porch looking at owned lawn and owned trees; driving to a big-box store right now or maybe in a half hour or maybe later or anyway before tomorrow to buy things cheaply and, more importantly, easily; microwaving countless dainty cups of weak but loving coffee and making ourselves available to the stream of friends and family who not only knew our people but knew us, back when we were younger and cuter and simpler and closer to what any warm heart would surely know were our true selves. Noon after noon would pass that way, like lucky clouds. And then–bags packed, car loaded, goodbyes said, and individual mailboxes ticking away at both peripheries of the distance stretching out behind us—it would hit:

Couldn’t we just stay?

Couldn’t we just turn right around and slide into this readymade life, the one our families have kept warm for us all these years, and forget the janky, teetering life that we’ve made for ourselves? Forget about our world of worry and logistics and the whole brainfuls of strategy that it takes just to get through a day? Forget about piecing together what we need from what can be had within walking distance, forget the neighborhood crazy who high-stepped up to our two-year-old daughter and called her a “catshit whore,” forget all those new people who never knew the childless us, forget that whole hardscrabble world that lies coiled in wait for our return–couldn’t we instead just disappear back into the easy weave of this place where all is love and air conditioning, all memory and convenience and no cool? We’re still not on the main road yet, so there’s still time, isn’t there?

Well, yes. But no. None of our parents understands what we’re doing in Chicago anyway, and they’d love nothing better than for us to turn in the keys and come home, back into the golden circle. But what makes that circle so wonderful, so magnetic, and so heart-burstingly hard to step outside of is its perfection. And in that perfection, it is closed. The good life that it represents is the good life of the resolved whole, and there is no place for me there.

There is, I think, that good life that is of the spirit, and holds as its goal a connection to a diffuse, universal perfection. Through attainment, one is gradually freed from wants and desires and discomforts, uncluttering the mind and clarifying the self. All of this toward contentment, mastery, the resolution of all things.

Then there is a good life that is of the blood. There is too at its core a perfection, yes, but it reaches not toward this completion but out from it. Its is not the purifying pursuit of some sleek and radiant singularity, but the improvisation of a rough mandala, pulsing out in wide loops, pushed past obstruction, pushed beyond rupture, pushed through all and everything by the filling and the emptying of the working heart.

I see that good life of the spirit—in the brotherly, pharaonic brilliance of Earth Wind & Fire and in the open arms of my families, their smooth circuit of resolved pasts and promising futures joining to electrify a fair present—and feel in it a beauty that lifts me off my feet. But what I don’t feel in it is much possibility. In its resolution, it has little room for improvising; in its abolition of need, it has little cause to burn; in its relentless focus on the essential, it has little time for the extra. There’s not much bounce, you know?

The spirit has meant so much to me for so long that I know something of it will always live in me. But I also know that I can now only live in the blood. I need that spread more than I need any ascension, I need that push and pull more than I need harmony. Attaining some kind of peace will, I guess, always be a goal, but I suspect that I’ll forever be pushing that goal out in front of me, out just past my own grasp. The unified life will never interest, occupy, or energize me as much as the hustle surrounding my capacity to contain it all, my ability to lose it all, my scramble to take it all in, and my rush to give it all away. I’m a great believer in the triumph of the human mess, I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top, I am, again, no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be, and I long ago stopped wanting George Clinton to shut up.

Coming up from the basement and listening to my parents’ copy of I Am, I see the shining symbol of a purity that was and a perfection that could still be, and I smile in its embrace even as I sadden in the knowledge that it will always feel at least a little like we’re hugging goodbye.

But returning the car late on a Sunday with just enough time between here and the city to listen to Side 1 of Mothership Connection on the way, and hearing George n’ nem riffling through words and music like they’ve got the real cards in their pockets and humanity’s own trick deck in their hands, I’m thrilled not by the possibility of any single version of life, but by the possibility of these thousand versions of myself, pushing through the nighttime capillaries toward downtown, into the glittering smile of my own beautiful city.

“crying ‘Take me back home, take me back home.’”

Posted by , January 17th, 2011
Category: Abstraction Tags: ,   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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Things seem difficult right now. I’m cooking too much and sleeping too little and not accomplishing enough in between. I owe too many people and I’m speaking with too few, spending too much time parsing rejections real and imagined. Someone’s always crying and everyone wants something and I want it all for them–I do, more than they could ever know, I do. And it’s all very very important and none of it matters in the least and I am no closer to being the boy that I was than I am to the man I thought I would be and no one wants to pay me for my broken heart and and and blah blah blah.

And I’ve been listening a lot to this new song by Iron & Wine, “Walking Far From Home.” A whole lot. I heard it on some website and was drawn in, completely and surprisingly. I’ve been seeing the Iron & Wine name in the ether for a number of years, but I don’t really know anything about it, mostly because I don’t really actually listen to singer-songwriter stuff at all; for no good reason, it’s just a genre to which I’m generally indifferent. I’m pretty sure that prior to this my only express encounter with Iron & Wine was lingering over a magazine ad a few years back that featured the cover art of their then-current record, which was a striking painting of a dog with buddy tongue adrape and a calming green-cheese moon for its glaucous eye, but at the same time looking like it had been flayed, the torqued meat of its turning head streaked magenta and black. That’s why I’m so surprised that this song has magnetized me like it has: Usually, within a genre that I think so little about, pricking up my ears would take a pretty unusual specimen, and “Walking Far From Home” is not that. It’s basically an exquisitely rendered litany, instantly recognizable as descendant from a long line of art-speech catalogs, glories strung like beads:

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small
I saw rain clouds, little babies
And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground
I saw sinners making music
And I dreamt of that sound, dreamt of that sound
I was walking far from home
But I carried your letters all the while
I saw lovers in a window
Whisper “want me like time, want me like time”
I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine
I saw children in a river
But their lips were still dry, lips were still dry

Hear in it the unification of disparate things in the funneling toward inexorable march, the pilgrim’s progress of us all:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
and the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home…
- Ecclesiastes

Hear the giddy, bookish liberation of free-falling through all the possibles:

If our pleasures be interrupt, we can tolerate it: our bodies hurt, we can put it up and be reconciled: but touch our commodities, we are most impatient: fair becomes foul, the graces are turned to harpies, friendly salutations to bitter imprecations, mutual feastings to plotting villainies, minings and counterminings; good words to satires and invectives, we revile e contra, nought but his imperfections are in our eyes, he is a base knave, a devil, a monster, a caterpillar, a viper, a hog-rubber, etc. Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne [the beauteous woman tails off into a fish]; the scene is altered on a sudden, love is turned to hate, mirth to melancholy…
- Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

See pointillist vignettes massing into panorama:

The  conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove songs out to them that would stray,
The pedler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent;)
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips
- Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself

Feel the cubist anxiety of seeing everything everywhere all at once, the anticipation, incomprehension, and faint dread of watching nonsenses and non sequiturs begin to rise up like a body :

The bird in this cage brings tears to the eyes of the little girl devoted to blue. Her father is an explorer. The new-born kittens turn about. In this wood there are pale flowers that cause those that pick them to die. The whole family is thriving and musters under this linden trees after meals. A croupier is dealing out handfuls of bullion. Oblivion is the finest fervour. One thinks only of cries. Hot drinks are served in coloured glasses.
- Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception

Feel the intertwined sympathy and disgust of the witness, unwilling but unblinking:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
- Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Know the postmodern joy of the endlessly open circuit, fragments and refractions willed into narrative through nothing but the sheer exhilaration of their delivery, each line cascading jaggedly into the next (or not):

Ayo, crash through, break the glass, Tony with the goalie mask
That’s the pass, heavy-ice Roley layin’ on the dash
Love the grass, cauliflower hurtin’ when I dumped the trash
Sour mash surge in every glass up at the Wally bash
Sunsplash, autographed blessing with your name slashed
Backdraft, four-pounders screamin’ with the pearly axe
Children fix the contrast as the sound clashes
Mrs. Dash, sprinkle with her icicle eyelash
Ask Cappa Pendergrass for backstage passes
Special guest, no more Johnny Blaze, Johnny Mathis
Acrobat, run up on that
Love Jones actress–
Distract the cat while I’m high, “Sugar, get a crack at this!”
- Ghostface Killah, “One”

That’s a quick history of the motion, but it’s important to know something else, too: that every one of these catalogs and litanies can only truly complete its heart and ours in the ending, in its resolution. They each have a momentum that pulls us in and carries us forth, but until we know how it ends—whether all of these details are meant to be taken collectively as promise or rebuke or affirmation or burden or whatever—their energy is like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close. Until we know, there is something that both sides hold in reserve.

There are times in my life when I need to be spoken to much more than I need to speak. In such times I compulsively push things into meaningfulness, no matter how many facts I’m presented to the contrary. During a particularly coring summer several years ago, I listened obsessively to J Dilla’s “Time (Donut Of The Heart),” thirty, forty, fifty times a day, trying to make it speak. I knew full well that it consisted entirely of chopped and reassembled pieces from a Jackson 5 song, pieces which included no actual words, just a syllable from over here and an intake of breath from over there and a splinter of clipped melisma that just happened to get caught on the tail end of the guitar sample, and so on. But in open spite of that knowledge, I was convinced that “Time” was actually speaking, that I was hearing something literal, something real. There’s one point somewhere in the first thirty seconds where a number of these wordless vocal sonics cross each other, and I was sure that deep in their intersection I was hearing the words “all I can do is love.” I’ve since become familiar enough with the Jackson 5 song to know that I wasn’t right about what it was saying, but when I hear “Time” now, never getting outside of its own ouroboros of desire and pursuance long enough to catch up to the tick-tocking without, I know that I wasn’t really wrong about it, either.

And I think it’s somewhat the same with “Walking Far From Home.” It’s an affecting song, but reading it on paper, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s comprised of a bunch of loose diamonds the author had lying around, lines great and stray that he was just saving for later. So many of the images are profound and indelible in their turn, but taken collectively, there is between them a disconnect that is just enough to preclude some essential spark. They seem to owe more than a little to the power of suggestion, seem unified by inclusion more than conception; it doesn’t feel like the images have been put here in this song because they’re all related as much as it feels like they’re related because they’ve all been put here in this song. It’s a small difference, but for me it’s a heartbreaking one: Because even as I find myself drawn so unexpectedly into this song that is so outside of my usual taste, even as I find myself tugged forward and through on its ducking and cresting undulations of wing, even as I find myself allowing the kind of surrender that seems a little less possible every day, even in the light of these beautiful, beautiful words, I also find myself pulling back at the prickling suspicion that what I’m responding to isn’t really the heart of the heart or the root of the root, but is instead just a succession of pretty, pretty things, things that only mean something because I’m weak enough to need them to mean something, and because if they don’t, then I’m left with not only the absence of meaning but also the shame of having needed so desperately and having judged so poorly. “It’s like, if I can give, please give back. Please.” The fear is that there will be no communion, no intersection, and that these gemmy acts of witness will spool out coolly for another three minutes or for another five or for another five hundred before just tying off with a step back and a gnostic nod, revealing the song’s message to be not a message at all, but rather an expectation—the expectation that we will of course understand what all of these things mean. The fire will turn out to be just a bunch of flames, each pitiless in its own tiny perfection. That is my fear.

Until.

….

A few years ago, The Killers had a song called “When You Were Young.” It’s not a great song, but it was a very popular song, and it contains within it a moment of decision that is notable for having been so widely and commercially audible. The first couple verses are about youth, innocence, aspiration, and the threat of their passing. In the second chorus, the singer sings “when you were young” twice. The first time, he resolves the phrase with a curt downturn, sneering faintly with full understanding of what can and cannot be had, and severing the cord neatly from behind a mask of generation-specific American cool: No, see, this is how it is now. What, you thought it wasn’t? But in the moment before he sings it again, there are loomings–“It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love” ; “Tell me, how can you stand there with your broken heart / ashamed of playing the fool?”–there are doubts and disgorgings, disgust at one’s own attempts at aloofness, and somewhere within a door blows off of its hinges from the force of a refusal to believe that anything must be given up, that it is ever truly too late. And so when he sings it the second time, the singer coils the first three words behind, then whips the last one up, over, and out with all the abandon he’d suppressed just a second before, loosing a “young” of pure joy and yearning, trying to lasso the whole world and not caring if you see him trying, not even caring if you see him miss. If that first “when you were young” was the understanding–that cool is rooted in acceptance, an unwillingness to be affected by any realization–the second is the rejection, the cry out that cracks the mask.

….

Every line of “Walking Far From Home” looks out from its own arrested bloom. Sam Beam’s phrasing and pronunciation allows each a soft, rich little expansion, and then puts a ghost fillip at the very end, pulling back  just shy of full drawl, latching one line closed just as he swans lovingly into the next. The song mounts and mounts like this upon the current of his voice, the grace and beauty of the images becoming almost unbearable. Still, each remains discrete; these gifts all gather in the palm, but the fingers do not close.

Until.

….

Tom Moulton on remixing MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” in 1976: “That was probably the greatest thing I ever did. I would have done anything to mix ‘Love Is The Message.’ They couldn’t understand that….When I got to certain parts of it, it was like being pushed off a cliff and not falling. Suspended.”

….

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a wet road form a circle
And it came like a call, came like a call from the Lord

And there, in the singing of the very last word, is the end of control, the abandonment of mastery, the opening of the heart. He first sings it as a Last Word is supposed to be sung: as first and foremost a completion of the preceding minutes, maybe allowing the end to rise up a little and flare into the drawl he’s been reining in. But he shakes his head, no, no, it’s not enough–and almost before the word is even over, he sings it again, this time not as word but as a repeated syllable, pushing it to bellow and swell into this great, swooping thing, a horizon-wide banner that he’s waving back an forth with both arms to the very limits of his reach. Still not enough. After a rest he sings it finally, as mercury keening high in an arrow to the sun. Even if it were just perfect it would be enough, but this, this is somehow better: At one point during the ascent and again at the very end, his voice slips from that pure heavenly sound and feathers out into a plain-sung “Awww,” flawed, but of complete humanity.

It is a  climb where every step is so vivid that it seems inevitable, every gesture so gravid that it seems unavoidable, and the pull of time so insistent that it seems inescapable. And the realization that its pinnacle can be reached not in the expected moment of triumph but instead in a moment of weakness, of release, is the beginning of the realization that that is where it all speaks. To go through these beautiful, difficult events, to be led so far and taken so high, and to then stumble, but to understand that you’ve not lost, to still be somehow held above, suspended

In that moment at the end of this song is much of what I’ve always looked for in music, and much of what I currently hope for in life.

All I can do is love.


CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

- Since getting stuck on “Walking Far From Home,” I haven’t done too much digging into Iron & Wine. Only enough, really, to confirm a couple suspicions that I had from my very first listening: One, I bet this is one of those bands that’s really only one dude. And two, I bet said dude has a serious beard—like, one of those Will Oldham-level pieces.

- One of the things that hooked me about this song was how it fooled me right at the top: When I first heard “I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven…” I would have bet my gold teeth that the next line was gonna rhyme it with “fall”–like how could this not be some 9/11 shit, right? “…But the door was so small, door was so small.” Okay, okay–not bad.

- The little backtuck Sam Beam puts in the completion of every line keeps making me think of those HAZE tags, with the unusual E that so distinctively spirals not outward, but back in on itself.

- Another perceived Moment Of Decision that I got a charge from: On “Race For The Prize,” the opening track of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, there’s this grand sweep of strings that I was kinda ambivalent about, because on the one hand it’s really majestic and lovely, but on the other hand, it’s also really straight and glutinous. But in short order it gets all pitch-bent, as if to show you, the home listener, that it’s really just a sample or some synth preset or something, non-sacred and utterly fuckwithable. It was very small, but I’m smiling just thinking about it.

- In Ben Folds’s “Still Fighting It” there’s also a line that ends three times. First time happy, second time bittersweet, last time absolutely gutting :

“You’ll try and try / and one day you’ll fly…”

“…away…”

“…from me.”

The Howl

Posted by , October 20th, 2010
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Early this year, I got two records: Ducktails’ Landscapes and Matrix Metals’ self-titled. The two-thirds of the Ducktails record that I like consists of rinky, wistful throb supporting session-clean guitar that emotes from behind miles of mask; it sounds a lot like a play-along record, like something very important has recently been excised from it. The Matrix Metals record is far more canned and intense; it’s all just atomic fragments of what sounds like incidental music from a thousand instructional videos and offshore-bankrolled cop shows, slap-chopped into madness-inducing, pullulating near-unlistenability, then hastily looped to infinity only seconds after being taped off of someone’s tv, still wriggling. Both records are on the same Brooklyn-based boutique label, and both have cover graphics that look like they were xeroxed from Trapper Keepers, and both seem to be mining different veins of a similar kind of media-aware 1980s nostalgia: Ducktails expelling its anonymous and sentimental soundtrack in that last gasp before teen movies started using radio songs, and Matrix Metals’ compulsive channel-change supersaturating the synapses in clip-art mimcry of what we back in those pre-internet days mistook for “overload.” And while the records’ packaging and attitudes thus hint at a certain 1980s, I can hear in their very sound an echo of a different 1980s, of a more personal 1980s, of something I’ve always thought of as The Howl.



where Brooklyn at?




Deep in the teeth of my initial high-school obsession with Public Enemy and the attendant poring-over of liner notes, I was caught by the nickname of one of their producers, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. A few years later I found out that he’d been tagged “Vietnam” because of an olive-drab army surplus coat he used to always wear, but when I first saw the name I barely gave it a second thought, mostly because I thought it couldn’t have been more perfect or more clear: The music sounded dirty and chaotic and lethal and jungly and inescapable—of course dude’s nickname is “Vietnam”; I mean, what else would it be? Similarly, though I’ve since come to understand that references to the music of “The Big 80s” usually mean big names and big record companies doing big spending in pursuit of a big sound and big videos and big spectacle (if you’re feeling ironic and/or work for VH1, you’ll also want to include something here about “…and big hair!”), but for a long time I assumed that it referred to The Howl, a sonic characteristic that seemed to me to reside in the upper air of a lot of the popular music back then. I heard it concretely in sounds like the drone that surged steadily through Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” flickering between being a real synthesizer and being a fake voice, and I felt it in abstract in things like the ether that worries and paces Phil Collins’s “In The Air Tonight,” and from which even Those Drums cannot fully deliver the song. The Howl was a particular kind of spaciousness that didn’t feel full so much as it felt cavernous; not the huge blank sterility that it’s always been branded, but something more windswept and turbulent; nothing as simple as the deadening effect of studio gloss, but something complex: a haunting–alienating and vast, vast. When I first started hearing about “The Big 80s,” I thought, “Boy, they got that right.”



it's you and me now




All that notwithstanding, when I first started perceiving this Howl, this specific kind of space, it wasn’t at all dramatic or any cause for real reflection. I was just hitting double digits in the mid-80s, and thanks to independent comic books and behind-the-times public libraries, I was already a fan of retro-future science fiction (you know the stuff: loners with fedoras and rayguns, zipping through pristine cityfuls of towering geometry in their hovering Studebakers, high above a sleek and general citizenry), and thus expected that the capital-f Future would be somewhat devoid and empty, and not unpleasantly so.

Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

– Donald Fagen, “I.G.Y.”




this route could be trouble



This Gernsbackian scenario seemed to be the endpoint of what I at first thought I was hearing in The Howl, and I was cool with it. I’m not gonna pretend that the music embodying it was always my favorite shit back then, but I’d definitely listen to something like “The Boys Of Summer” and think: yes, that stylish vacancy and that cleanliness and that low level of cultural detail (minimal, but vivid and carefully chosen: Cadillacs, Wayfarers, etc.–or, actually, no “etc.”), all of it propelled by this faint but distinctly modern feeling of anticipation, of rush…yes, this is the sound of what’s in store. It made sense. Again, it wasn’t always my favorite music, but I felt like it was presenting a very polished and adult future, one that didn’t seem like a bad thing to look forward to at all. Whenever it and I met, we would just step right into one another, both having finally arrived.



I'd like to say that I only paid ten cents for this, but that horrible handstyle is actually there to remind me that this side won't play through without a dime on the headshell. As for the dj markings, I can offer no explanation.



 

In the years immediately following, I began to hear it differently. Probably due to some cocktail of both becoming a more careful listener and the pervasive curdling effect of flowering teen anxiety, the promise implicit in these sonics began to look like something else. While I had initially been drawn in by the music’s cool professionalism as an analogue for that clean, engineered future, the more I listened, the more I began to think that the space constructed in this music was something more lonesome. The limitations of the technology started coming into view: All these synthesizer textures and subtle studio washes felt like clear attempts to affect something like what brushed drums do in jazz–eliminate the dead spaces, fill up the room, and keep some kind of moving current under everything—but they couldn’t yet approximate those imperceptible swells and diminuendos that mark human work, so what was instead created was this creeping, disembodied pulse that seemed to go on forever, and which gave the lie to the alluring immediacy that the songs were insisting upon. The songs were hundred-story-tall feats of engineering that required whole hangars of auditory space to assemble; but they were only meant to show off the height that they could attain—masking the surrounding depths was a necessity, lest the perceptual process of the listener possibly tangle and darken with effort. The kind of records that were able to shake this—Sade, George Michael, “Planet Rock”–succeeded not by puffing to fill more space in a misguided attempt to balloon closer to the listener, but rather by stripping down and flattening the space around them; by ignoring dimensionality, these songs seemed to come much closer to occupying all their possibility. They sound plummy and total. In contrast, the music that I’m talking about here made the killing flaw of believing that the alienating expanses could somehow be camouflaged by, that any limit could be established by perpetual keyboard underthrob, massed chiffons of synthetic angel breath, or any other digital atmospheric whose very reason was its limitlessness, its ability to define a void.

In this flaw is the genesis of The Howl. All of these happenings within the music, when viewed from the outside (which has always been my only vantage point), had an increasingly isolating effect on me. What I heard were these very frontal, appealing songs that nonetheless sounded like they had bad fathoms stretching out behind them. As a teenager, I considered it my prerogative not to think too much about the latter, but I found myself nagged by the weird turbulence that seemed to blow through the whole of these songs in a way that I could neither ignore nor understand. This was not the populist, cosmopolitan tabula rasa that was so tantalizing in that Donald Fagen song, so comforting in its stylish surfaces and lack of secrecy. This was more like a Cy Twombly text painting, recognizable as writing, but cropped into illegibility; there is a clear frequency there, but one that you are nonetheless somehow unable to receive, an inability made all the more frustrating and shaming by the very recognizability of the subject. That’s how it felt to me, to on one level recognize this radio music as reflexive birthright, absolute lingua franca, but to also sense deep in its fiber this eternal current stretching far beyond my vision, ungraspable to me but essential, I was sure, to everything. Whatever was going on up front in these songs, there was always a missed train leaving out the back.



for friend



 

“…Because I know exactly when film noir began,” Thomson said weirdly. And he went on to recount, for a class of students born in the early 1980s, the impact of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.

But that, he said, “was not where film noir began.” We were all of us in the seminar room beginning to wonder what in the world Thomson was getting at, but we were also nervous. “Film noir,” he said, “began in the basement of a Dallas police station, two days later,” when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald—when, to make history into genre, a nightclub owner shot and killed the man arrested for the crime.

But wait, everyone thought—and the question would have been asked out loud if Thomson had not been moving so fast—film noir goes back to the early 1940s; how could it begin in 1963?

–and it was then,” Thomson said of that moment in the police station, “that all the paranoia and fear that film noir had been prophesying for twenty years, the sense that our lives are not our own, that forces we cannot name are ruling our lives and our destinies—it was then that everything that film noir had prophesied in America exploded into real life.”

The assassination of President Kennedy, and then the removal of that event from the realm of what could be known to the realm of mystery, to a realm where one felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression…

— Greil Marcus, The Shape Of Things To Come

Along with The Howl, I was also at the time conscious of another sonic element, one which I never thought of as having a name but which I will here refer to as The Chant. Like The Howl, The Chant was primarily a post-Fairlight phenomenon, but one that aspired to an earthier, more organic sound. It’s in the open-mouthed “ee-yo-oh”s of The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the ersatz bamboo-flute trill that opens Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” and on and on. The Chant always seemed like it was trying to tap into the kind of low-grade globalism that was stirring back then. It was meant to evoke distance, yes, but a benign variety: the distance between you the first-world listener and the rest of your multi-hued fellow travelers on the Big Blue Marble, a distance that can be closed—and so easily, too, can’t you see?–right here in this very song, perhaps via strategic employment of unobtrusive hand-drumming. One world, man–one world. This was a soft distance, the distance in The Chant, the distance between Here and There, and just to register it was to start to ameliorate it; there are all these cool and exotic things and peoples that you’ve never been exposed to, but that’s okay, because now that you’ve been exposed to this scrubbed sliver of the Other, the awakening can begin. Seen?



One World (Not Three)



 

But The Howl embodied something far more difficult: the distance here at home. Whenever I heard The Chant in some song or another, though I might have felt a small reflective twinge of “Wow, maybe there really is all this stuff out there in The One World that I’m just completely missing,” those pangs never stuck for long, because whatever I was missing was obviously some exotic stuff that wasn’t really for me anyway. But when I’d hear The Howl in a song, I felt like I was missing something that I should by all counts recognize; this was resolutely American-style pop music, my native idiom, but some part of it was still eluding me, and in this I “felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression.” It was one thing to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo radiating out of some Paul Simon song and to think for a minute about my remove from sunny, faraway lands that I would possibly never see; it was something else altogether, something far more unnerving and displacing, to listen to Bruce Hornsby And The Range’s “The Way It Is,” to understand it as being a song just as corny and frontal as I knew myself to be, and yet to recognize at its periphery an ongoing dark hum—the barely audible synthesizer druling in the background, yes, but also something woven between the lacunae within it and around it—a faint but ceaseless buzz of unknowability. There seemed to me to be no place at all in this dopey bummer of a song by Bruce Fucking Hornsby for any streak of mystery, but still, there it was—I was sure I heard it; and the fact that I heard it, the fact that I couldn’t ignore it, and the fact that I couldn’t get my mind around what exactly I was hearing, all this combined to make me feel as though I was being cast out of something. That in my inability to make sense of this one part of the ongoing conversation, I was being denied access to the full landscape of my own speech; and that in recognizing that some consistent mechanism was at work through it all, I was being denied even the romance of the void.



a thousand miles away



 

I think my conception of the particular isolation effected by The Howl has a lot to do with being a midwesterner. I spent an important middle sixteen years in the South, but I spent the first nine and the last eleven in the midwest, and to paraphrase the old saying about Catholics, I know that I will behave and misbehave as a midwesterner long after I have stopped residing as a midwesterner. To be a midwesterner is to be an inhabitant of limits and consequences. There is maybe a certain heightened connection to the natural world (maybe), and possibly better overall perspective, but it’s bollixed up in pervading awareness of your (and your neighborhood’s and your town’s and your state’s) relative inconsequence to history and to news. (Note: This might be a good time to point out that I’m talking here about my own decades-old midwest; folks below a certain age are just gonna have to take my word that before the internet collapsed everything this kind of regionalism and these kinds of borders used to exist and used to kinda make a difference.) And what’s more/worse, the temperate quality of the seasons extends deep into the regional soul, tending to blunt your sense of the dramatic and make too much gothic fixation on what you might like to think of as the extremities of your own surroundings feel ridiculous. Much of what happens here happens not where we are taught that Big Things happen, not within buzzy little warrens of import and cool, but instead within open locations of blatancy and blank function. It was all about sifting things out of the empty, staying open to any shred of freak shit that you might be able to fold into your own history, that second set of books you were keeping to someday supplant the utterly unusable history that you came into (“Birthplace Of That Famous Guy Who Left As Soon As He Could!”).



round at both ends



 

That’s why Miami Vice was a really big deal to me: because on the one hand it was other-planetarily exotic and cool and art-directed to within an inch of its life, but on the other hand, it felt fully familiar, essentially midwestern. It was total Howl TV. Long periods of nothing much at all, occasionally punctuated by these small, intense episodes that echoed in my adolescent-head eternity and that I struggled in vain to connect. There’d be some long, elliptical conversation on some long, boring porch or in some big, dumb breezeway, or on some long drive through nowhere and to nowhere, and then there’d be a funeral with a goat in the coffin, or a few seconds of Willie Nelson packing a backgammon case full of drugs, or a scene in a hangarlike warehouse with three purple mannequins hung ritualistically by link-chain collars, a guy in a suit comes along and kisses the mons of one of them, then shoots all three to splinters with a machine gun. It was electrifying because I was a sheltered kid with a nose for the prurient, but it was terrifying because I saw these mindbending things adrift in this sea of empty space, dead time, and meaningless talk—a sea that ultimately washed them over and under and carried on. That these horrific things could happen in the first place was far less scary to me than the fact that they could happen and not be a big deal. Just back to the car. Back to the porch for more talk. The legs of Icarus thrashing in the water are nothing compared to the man focused on his own plow, his bent neck’s nape looking just like his brown horse’s ass. Know what I mean? I couldn’t let myself believe that the boring shit would win, and I was sure that these eruptions were too outlandish to not all somehow form some kind of constellation, and at moments I felt like I had the key almost in hand. But I was young, and the expanses were vast, and a week was a long time back then, and The Howl yawned, and between this episode and the next, the drift would have sucked everything through my fingers.



I gots to plead the fifth



 

Like the kind of desperate bricolage that it took to try and make sense of the interesting parts of Miami Vice, the gymnastics of heart and mind that it took to connect the disruptions in midwestern texture was an intensely energizing effort. Because maybe one of your friends lucked into a handed-down issue of some zine that mentioned a tape that you could special-order from Record Bar and whose liner notes mentioned some book that you could special-order from B. Dalton and which opened with a epigraph that revealed itself to be the source of the cryptic title that was written on an otherwise unmarked cassette dub that someone’s brother in college had left in someone’s car and that you’d been too afraid to ask about because you didn’t want to seem like the kind of square that wouldn’t know what was the name of the tape and what was the name of the band which you didn’t know but now you sort of knew and it all let you feel as though you were, piece by piece, cracking the code to the world of cool that had been at some point long ago cleft at its equator and divided evenly and exclusively between New York and LA. It’s the kind of brief, beautiful bloom that can only occur in a place and time where you have so little larger external context for anything cool that you are forced to rely solely on inner context, to believe that every cool thing you know about must therefore necessarily be related somehow. But it was also nerve-wracking, because the shadow of reason grows, and even as you’re carried along on the exhilaration of finally maybe getting everything to make sense, finally managing to frankenstein everything you like into what you’re sure this time must correspond to an existing and accepted aesthetic, there’s this slowly worming doubt: these things, these things that you’ve been pivoting on, that you’ve used to make the case for (and to) yourself—maybe they’re the wrong things. Even if you’re secure in how your mind has connected all of them to each other, in the pre-internet, no-cable, flyover-country absence of any accessible validating system, the great (if suppressed) unknown is how they connect to everything else that might be out there. That twelve-inch that you blind-bought because you recognized that one name from the j-card, and which you thought sounded great and really tied in with that book that she lent you and subsequently became your, like, map for that whole summer? What if that very twelve-inch is known—by Those Who Know—to be the group’s total sell-out move, the single blight on their catalog? Are you unwittingly going out like those hayseeds from Russia or wherever who stepped off the boat with an idea of America formed entirely by Billy Joel or “Rappin’ Duke” or Charles In Charge or something similarly irrelevant? If it turns out, after all and everything, that you have placed your faith incorrectly, can your center still hold?



"Hey, do you guys have anything by Scratch A47?"



 

For me, that is the test that lies coiled at the center of The Howl, unanswerable. I’ve thought a lot about this particular body of music and about whether I’m asking too little, seeing it as pop music that is mine by right and should thus give up its lone sapphire—its workings—so easily and gratefully, or asking too much, focusing on insignificancies and scrabbling for connection and continuity where there is none. I’ve felt bad for being unable to resolve the pop music that I can hear with the void that I can sense within it, and I’ve felt bad even for feeling bad, because whatever once seemed to be at stake is now either a kind of future that I no longer believe will come or a kind of coherence that I no longer believe matters. And if that’s so—if I’ve been asking too much or too little, if I can now neither complete the circuit nor convince myself that its completion would the key to anything—then where does that leave me and all my years? I’ve been so long chasing these flickers across the widening gyres, and still I remain this version of Penelope at her loom: the essentially under-informed midwesterner operating on obscure pieces of information, seeking unifying profundity in Miami Vice, mooning over the caged quality of the attempted high-lonesome at the end of “I’m On Fire,” panning through it all for nuggets that will shore up my bridge to nowhere. If The Howl was once my sense of whatever was closing me out, it’s become clear that it is instead whatever has closed me in. I don’t worry about my 80s like I used to, but they do retain for me that slight salt of unfinished days, and in hearing records like Ducktails and Matrix Metals and recognizing in them an insistence upon the resonance and the load-bearing capabilities of these gathered echoes, I can feel a connection once again just beyond my grasp.

Space is doubt; I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me. I have to conquer it.

- Georges Perec

But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough

and you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above

if you want to ride on down

down in through this tunnel of love

- Bruce Springsteen

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

- There’s a car around my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that says “HOWL If You Love City Lights Book Store.” There’s another car with “I’d Rather Be Reading Bukowski,” and still another with “I’d Rather Be Reading Jane Austen.” The situation is deplorable, really. I’ve recently seen a car with a Foetus Interruptus sticker, but it feels like too little, too late.

- The only show that comes close to Miami Vice in terms of sheer Howl TV is Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks comes in second, though, for what I feel is an over-reliance on establishing shots of trees.

- One Friday night in middle school, my friend Brent came by with his pastel-accented slimline boombox and we walked around our neighborhood in the dark, blasting “In The Air Tonight” on repeat and affecting a ridiculous Run-DMC-informed strut. We were kinda goofing, but it also felt like we were trying to ward off something.

- At the markets in Charleston, South Carolina, there are these Gullah weavers who are regionally renowned for the intricate baskets they make from sweetgrass and for their sometimes impenetrable dialect. I now know that the Sunset Grill in Don Henley’s song of the same name is in Hollywood, but I was living in South Carolina when that song was all on the radio, and always assumed that the line about how “the basket people walk around and mumble” meant that it was a song about Charleston.

- My man Jonny said one time that the genre-defining toodling that opens “Sledgehammer” was actually sampled from an Alpha Blondy record. Can anyone confirm?

- In high school, I noticed that the negative space between the facing Es in the Sleep Chamber logo kinda-sorta formed the cross from the Psychic TV logo. I was sure that this meant that they were in fact secretly the same band.

- A few years ago, in the course of spectating Sheer Magic’s unsurpassable monthly funk night here in Chicago, my man Rob and I were discussing what it is that makes midwestern soul and funk so potent. We went back and forth about a lot of things, but he ultimately came up with what I think is the right answer: “It has something to do with the seasons.”