A soul with no footprint

The strongest department in my high school was the English Department. Full of thoughtful, patient, insightful people, they mustered enough patience to teach literature and writing to adolescents with great care and affection for both the texts and the students. They were also a wonderful group of people outside of the classroom, and their willingness to engage a student as an adult, to share with them the things they cared about, and to foster real friendships provided a wonderful framework for both learning and development. The free spirit of the group maintained a collection of thousands of records in his classroom, and if you displayed proper care and reverence for his LPs, he would allow you to work in his room during free periods and to play your way through a dazzling, daunting catalog of music. In the fall of 1986, it was Paul Simon’s Graceland that served as the soundtrack to our classes. In the off hours, I worked my way through all sorts of great things – some of them mainstream classics that were new to me and others more obscure. For example, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was one of these, and it changed how I hear and perceive rhythm and patterns in music.

Nick_Drake_Fruit_Tree1More than any other musician I associate with this time and place, I think of Nick Drake. Maybe you know all about Drake. He is well-known now, in his niche way. But when I was fifteen, I had never heard of him, and no one I knew had ever heard of him. So when my wonderful teacher appeared with Fruit Tree, a box set of Drake’s music, it was completely terra incognita. Gently dropping the needle onto that record while sitting in that quiet room opened a window to a powerful, vital new artist, and having his life’s work unfold for me as I played my way through those four records was mesmerizing. Drake is a singer-songwriter, a genre that is prone to self-indulgent, sullen youths with modest amounts of talent. Yet Drake’s fluid guitar playing with its unexpected tunings, the lush arrangements (that presumably made sense in the early seventies but seemed a touch exotic when I first came across them), and his clear, cool voice all combine to make these no ordinary singer-songwriter recordings. I listened to the records while reading the book enclosed in the box set, and there I learned about Drake’s brief career, his troubled mental state, his lack of recognition in his lifetime, and his premature death at 26, by an overdose that may or may not have been intentional. Matching his intricate, exquisite songs up against his complicated young life was beyond me at fifteen, and remains so for me now. I  do not know enough about creativity and depression to draw any deep conclusions. Yet I am left with his beautiful songs and I love to hear them – both to think of Drake himself and also to think of so many happy hours spent communing with the music and records found in that one classroom long ago.

• • • • • • •

As I commute about my life these days, I listen to podcasts on my iPod (using the excellent podcatcher Downcast). I listen to a pretty standard array of shows – news, opinion, arts. I also listen to things like Aviation Week‘s Check Six, as I have always been a plane buff. I listen to a few about design, among them one called 99% Invisible. This show by Roman Mars mirrors his love of architecture, design, infrastructure, and urban decay, and it also veers in other directions, too. I was startled to hear this week’s episode, which was a rebroadcast of a show done elsewhere in 2009. (I should mention this episode is very distinctive stylistically, and it is pretty affected. It’s very different from the style of production found in the regular 99PI shows.) The show is about Nick Drake, and it challenges my illusion that I and only I know about this musician. If you have liked Drake for any amount of time, not much in this show is will be new to you, but the interview with his early producer is interesting. What startled me though, by nudging me to think about a few dates head on, was the timeline of Drake’s life. Born in 1948, dead in 1974, I first heard him in 1986. I had not thought about that interval, but it is only twelve years from his death to the time when my teacher appeared with that box set. Twelve years? Twelve years! In 1986, the booklet text describing Drake had embedded itself in my mind as if it were a chronicle from another age, an ancient time. As I think of it though, twelve years is a long interval for a fifteen year old – nearly a lifetime.

You know that your perception of time changes as you age. You know that the years accelerate and that the phrase “a long time” connotes a different interval to you now than it did years ago. Yet there are not many occasions when you are confronted with an example from your own memory of how far that perception has shifted. Stuck in traffic the other night, when I was not thinking about merge etiquette, I cued up Drake’s album Pink Moon and pondered the sensation of time. Like an effort to recall a dream, despite the initial intensity of that moment when I realized how long those twelve years had seemed to me in 1986, pursuing that thought has had me reaching for ideas that elude my grasp. As the series of dates and intervals sorted themselves out in my mind, the earlier recollection faded away, replaced by my present sense of time and its passage.

• • • • • • •

Should you wish to ponder your own changing perception of the passage of time over long intervals in your life, might I suggest the following soundtrack for those thoughts – twenty-eight minutes of Drake’s album Pink Moon?

Storytelling songwriters

Freshman year in college, my wonderful parents generously equipped me with a terrific Macintosh SE/30, which I used daily for five years. It was very speedy, which gave it a long life, but when it was new, it had an unexpected drawback – it played games too fast. I had a copy of Tetris, which I played a lot, and the machine’s speed meant the Tetris played in my room was faster than any Tetris on campus. Not by a lot, but by enough that when I played on other machines, I felt like I was experiencing what would now be called “bullet time,” which made rotating and placing the pieces quite easy and, conversely, when other players would challenge me on my home turf, my Mac would always leave them gasping, as they were not accustomed to its frantic pace. For that little slice of time, in that small venue, I was the best Tetris player around, and it was a fun feeling, albeit not a marketable skill.

Another skill I am fond of is the speed with which I can recognize music. I cannot play music, or compose it, but I sure can place a tune from the smallest sliver of it. (Coincidentally, this too is another unmarketable skill – lucky me!) Still, it is fun to have at least a hint of a musical talent, as I have always loved music, and music has always meant a great deal to me. When I stumbled across the current WordPress Writing Challenge (a thing I didn’t know existed until recently), my first thought was to dismiss it, as I found the suggestion of writing about three images a little contrived for my tastes. I returned to the idea later when I realized that the three images might not have to be pictures per se but instead any trio of evocative images. Rather than rummage through family pictures, or assign meanings to other peoples’ pictures, I thought I would assemble three images conjured by other writers, in this case lyricists. I love music and its ability to lodge deep in one’s consciousness. I love how songs trigger associations unbidden when they come on. And I love the craft of how some writers pack so much thought, meaning, and significance into the modest package of a song. I do not aspire to write songs, but I do admire those who do it with a deft touch. I have written about music elsewhere on this blog (here and here), so let me try to pick some new things, although I am sticking with musicians who I have had the chance to see in person.

• • • • • • •

DavidWilcox-e1355750872305I just included David Wilcox in my last post, so I debated about including him here. I decided I could not not include him. I know of very few writers who so consistently craft an interesting story into their music. My first thought was Farthest Shore, about what is ephemeral and what is permanent – a lovely song, but not quite the sort of imagery I am trying to corral for this collection. So I turn instead to Eye of the Hurricane, which you can watch and hear him perform here. In various interviews, Wilcox has explained this song is about addiction, but like so much good art, it is malleable enough to take on a range of complexions, reflecting you back at you. Wilcox’s best hook in the song comes in these words:

Hope is gone and she confessed,
“When you lay your dream to rest,
you can get what’s second best
but it’s hard to get enough.”

It’s not easy to put big, deep thoughts into cheerful little ditties, and any writer would be hard pressed to distill so much wisdom and loss into one brief thought as that.

• • • • • • •

shindellMoving on, I turn next to Richard Shindell. Similar to Wilcox in age and style, he has a darker, more brooding sensibility, and can paint a very bleak portrait of the world when he chooses to do so. I learned about Shindell from the 1998 record Cry, Cry, Cry, released by a band of the same name made up of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. If all you did was buy that album for its cover of James Keelaghan‘s Cold Missouri Waters, then you would find that money well spent. For today’s collection, I am sticking with singers performing their own compositions, and my first thought was A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress, which is a powerful song full of dangerous ambiguity and resolve and resignation. Yet for today’s assemblage, I am going to lean instead on Shindell’s Wisteria, which you can watch here. If you would like cleaner audio, you can listen to it here, via Last.fm’s Spotify embedding. This song relies on negative space, as a lot of key things are left unsaid. Pining for the past in the absence of another is a common trope, but the contraction at the end of the opening word Let’s suggest he is melancholy for a shared past, which then makes the listener ask a series of pointed questions about what trajectory he and his partner find themselves on. By imbueing the spaces of the house with so much meaning that is unknown and unfelt by the current occupants, he reminds us of how we ourselves are unknowingly surrounded by the past. In this song the payload is carried in chorus, and runs as follows:

The vine of my memory
Is blooming around those eaves
But it’s true it’s a chore to tame wisteria.

I am certain when Shindell mentions taming the wisteria, he is talking about maintaining appearances beyond yardwork, and all the heartache that implies. While it is a sterile thing to talk about the efficiency of writing, I think Shindell manages to condense a tremendous amount of emotional energy into this song in very few words, like a painter suggesting forests with the lightest smidge of his brush.

• • • • • • •

Susan WernerMy original plan for the third writer was turn to Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home. I remembered that I had already written about this song back in 2007, and I have not seen her perform, so alas Patty does not get the nod. (But go listen to that song anyway – you will be glad you did.) I next considered Paul Simon, as he is a master craftsman. I touched once on his song Hearts and Bones here, and I had his song Darling Lorraine in mind, but so many people have discussed his songwriting talents that seemed like a copout, so I turn instead to a singer who has never known his fame, but will always stand out in my mind as one of the purest talents I have ever seen – Susan Werner. I cannot even count how many times I have seen Susan play, and I once even had a cup of coffee with her, trying the whole time not to appear too giddy. While I don’t know what her career goals have been, I suspect she would have enjoyed more popular acclaim than she has found, and it is a shame to me she has not. Her voice is ethereal, she has a lovely sense of humor and stage presence, she is very attractive, and a wonderful musician. Why she is not more widely known is a mystery to me, but the advantage is that she still plays small enough venues to connect with the room in  a way larger spaces do not permit. Thinking about her music, even though many of her songs have an irreverent side to them, I have chosen a tougher one called Barbed Wire Boys (which you can watch here). It’s an homage to the Midwestern farmers among whom she grew up. I had admired it when I listened to it on her album, but it was in a dingy room in King of Prussia where I heard her sing it in person, and the song took on a whole new dimension. It touches on topics that could easily be schmaltzy or trite, and handles them with care and gentleness, conveying respect and affection for the old-fashioned way in which these men lived their lives. It is a wonderful song, with a snippet here for flavor:

Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands,
They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.
And they never complained, no they never made noise,
And they never left home, these barbed wire boys.

• • • • • • •

As an aside, a whole post on music and I have not mentioned either Cat Stevens or the Cowboy Junkies – that may be a record for me. There is no larger point to this collection – simply my fondness for these three musicians and my admiration for their craft. So much awful music spills out into the world over the radio and Youtube and Pandora these days, and clearly a lot of it sells well. What a pleasure then to know there are writers like Wilcox, Shindell, and Werner who can take lessons and episodes from the world around them, rinse them of the unessentials, and clarify them down to the truth underneath. Sometimes when I am confronting writer’s block, it is the long, long gulf between my words and this sort of purity that slows me down, but that sure doesn’t stop me from enjoying it when I find it.

Songs I love

Earlier this week, my friend Kirsten (whom I have known for 28 years – how is that possible!?) posted “A Top Ten (or Nine) List” about songs she loves. Even though she and I have different musical taste, her post stayed with me this week and I thought I would try to compile a list of my own along similar lines.

Before I can begin, I have to mirror Kirsten’s caveat that a list like this is essentially impossible. So much of my love for music is about my associations with a given song. There are some songs I adore that I know are pretty dull, but when I think of the time and the place where that song first clicked for me, it gains depth and meaning that are all external to the song’s own merits. Hence, if you read this list, and you think, “these songs suck!” just imagine how great the circumstances must have been for them to gain such a hold on me.

To compile this list, I could have stared at the ceiling and tried to think of songs with no prompting, but that would have been hard. Instead, I fired up Last.fm and checked out my listening history there. I did not just pick my top ten songs from that list, but they were a useful guide to what I listen to as opposed to what I think I listen to. What follows then are songs I really enjoy, and not an actual attempt at my favorite ten songs, in no real order. With two exceptions, the video links are simply to make sure you can hear the song – ignore the visuals.

  1. Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” – No matter how many times I listen to this 1986 song, its meaning always eludes me. Yet the confusion and the uncertainty add to the song. It’s hypnotic and sad and evocative and mysterious. The arrangement and the lyrics are perfectly matched. I once listened to this one song over and over as I clacked my way from New Haven to Hartford, and the song’s suggestion of loss was so mirrored in the fleeting glimpses the train affords you of people’s homes and lives that I always associate this song with the towns near Wallingford. (video)
  2. Frou Frou’s “Hear Me Out” – I came across this group in 2004, after the pairing had already split up. At the time, I’d never heard of Imogen Heap, but I loved her voice, and I listened to their 2002 album Details as compulsively as anything in the last ten years. Imogen’s breathy voice balances over the drum machines and odd synthetic noises in a way that always catches me off guard. She’s seductive, and powerful, and calm, and overwrought. I really find it captivating, and this song in particular grabs me and won’t let go. (video)
  3. Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” – I love this song. The guitar, the drums, the clipped lyrics – it’s essentially perfect. From way back in 1983, part of my memory of the song is the striking, black and white video, which added a lot of atmosphere to the song back when videos were cool. The narrator’s wistful nostalgia, mixed with some less rosy memories, make this both sweet and bleak. “A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back. I thought I knew what love was, what did I know? Those days are gone forever, I should just let ’em go.
  4. Joni Mitchell “Case of You” – I managed to somehow miss Joni Mitchell until my junior year in college. That spring my friend Jason lent me the album Blue, and it hit me like a bomb. The unmistakable phrasing, the wanton lyricism, the carefree joy and the heartache – I was hooked. Junior spring had profound ups and downs, and I think that those peaks and valleys meant that the music I listened to then sunk in deep. I hear this song with its open, vulnerable, defiance, and part of me is right back in the midst of all that tumult. “Part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time.” (video)
  5. Ryan Adams “New York, New York” – Most of these songs have personal significance for me, but this one is different. I’ve never paid much attention to Ryan Adams, but shortly after 9-11, CBS Sunday Morning played his video for this song on their show. The video was filmed on September 7, and when you look at it, the World Trade Centers feature prominently throughout. This was pure coincidence, but after the attacks, it adds an incredible bittersweet poignancy to the video, and from there – in my mind at least – to the song as well. This was one of my first iTunes purchases and I’ve listened it to death. I think it’s a wonderful love song to New York, and it’s also a very catchy tune, but beyond that I think of that strange and horrible day six years ago. The song haunts me a bit.
  6. Kate Rusby “Our Town” – I have Iris DeMent’s albums, and I love this song by her, but it was not until Kate Rusby’s cover of it that this song stopped me in my tracks. It’s such a visual story, and Rusby’s accent gives it such a sense of location and time – reminding me that the mind is far more powerful at conjuring up images via suggestion than via description. “And you know, the sun’s setting fast, and just as they say, nothing good ever lasts.” Captivating. (video, by DeMent, who’s really worth checking out if you don’t know her)
  7. Jackson Browne “I’m Alive” – I still remember the first time I heard this song, way back when I listened to the radio and heard singles, in 1993. I had just graduated from college, and much like Joni Mitchell a year earlier, things were still very up and down. This song hit very close to home, and Browne’s incredible renunciation of the past, his willful embrace of the future, and his affirmations about leaving behind things that dragged him down spoke to me very, very deeply. Trite, I know, but 14 years later this song is still a milestone in my mind. I should also mention that it’s even better loud. (video)
  8. Patty Griffin “Long Ride Home” – This may be the most recent song on this list, at least in terms of when I became aware of it anyway. It was on the soundtrack to Garden State, which I saw on DVD quite a while after it came out. I think this song is one of the best written songs I’ve ever heard. The narrator’s observations are so piercing, the construction of the lyrics so perfect, and the tone so even and unyielding. It’s breathtaking. “Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed, Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said, How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead.” (video)
  9. Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place” – Of the songs on this list, this is one that doesn’t have that much emotional significance – I simply love it. The Talking Heads have such a distinctive take to their songs, and this winds up being almost an inadvertent love song. The song builds wonderfully and suggests a variety of backstories, seen as an incomplete mosaic. It’s a little trance-like, and I can listen to it over and over. (video)
  10. Cowboy Junkies “Speaking Confidentially” – I have to end with the Junkies, because I love them so. I love the band, I love their groove, and I love Margo Timmins, their singer. This song is off of the 1996 Lay It Down, and since that’s the year I was married, this album of course speaks to me of that new and giddy state. The counterpoint to this song on the album is “Hold On To Me” and really you should make this list go to eleven and count that one too. I don’t know what this song means, and basically I don’t care. I love the arrangement, I love Margo’s voice, and I love thinking back to our little house on Tower Road and listening to this while reading in the evening before bed. How little quiet time like that life affords now, with the joyful bustle of kids, but how sweet it was when we had it.

Phew. What a ramble. More than anyone wants to know I’m sure, but I cannot ponder ten songs I love in any sort of half-hearted manner. Thanks for suggesting this exercise Kirsten. I’m sure if I tried this a month from now, I’d wind with different things, but it’s fun nonetheless.