Hicksy's Infrequently Updated Blog
January 29, 2016
The contest is over, so this is a belated post of a group of silly, difficult, often shameless rhyming puzzles I wrote for the Paris Review Daily. And the answers. Look for more puzzles and parlor games in the nearish future.
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January 16, 2016
I was trying to write a book of what Clement Greenberg called “homemade esthetics,” or a critical memoir in stylish fragments, or a defeated blog post. My initial premise was that I had spent too much of my adult life pining for a composite moment of ecstasy experienced in my youth through recorded music. I couldn’t say precisely when nostalgia for the moment began, but in retrospect it seemed to have been almost immediate, as when you start to mourn an ice cream cone before even reaching the bottom scoop. It was at least premature. By my midtwenties, I saw the moment, an amalgam of emotionally overspilling moments numbering in the hundreds, as irreproducible, unrenewable, and central to my self-conception. Put reductively, I was a young man who had responded deeply to music as a boy, and whose pain always seemed linked to the diminution of that passion. Though this attitude wasn’t drawn from much first-hand exposure to romantic literature, one needn’t squint to make out the romantic inheritance. Wordsworth was twenty-eight when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” his famous poem about nature, transcendence, loss, restoration, and memory, this last described as a “dwelling-place for all sweet sounds and harmonies.” The poem’s speaker has returned, after a five-year absence, to pastoral and sylvan settings overlooking the titular Welsh ruins on the west bank of the River Wye. His bounding earlier visit has become a mnemonic salve against the “weary weight of this unintelligible world,” an exemplar of those times when, lifted from corporeal existence, “we see into the life of things.” At the poem’s midpoint, an em-dash introduces a twinged sigh:
—That time is past,
And all it aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. …
Like a seven-inch single pitched slightly up for a DJ’s floor-clearing segue, I’m now just past forty-five, a more customary and embarrassing perch for the indulgence of nostalgia. It’s a pink-clouded morning in what finally feels like winter in increasingly, portentously temperate Minnesota, and I’m listening to Boy in Da Corner by the Englishman Dizzee Rascal, who was still in his teens when he made the album and whose stage name might derive from Wordsworth’s line. “I’m just sittin’ here, I ain’t saying much, I just gaze,” he raps, “I’m looking into space while my CD plays.” The keyboard bleeps in A minor, drawing much of its tension, if I’m hearing things correctly, from the flattened second, an ominous semitone to most Western ears. The lyric is about gun violence, depression, and lost innocence, but I focus today on how its I, which is both Dizzee Rascal and his listener, foregrounds music in a way that seems natural to many teenagers, inert to many adults. If only for ten or fifteen minutes each day, I’ve been trying to return to that characteristically teenage approach: to listen to music not only when I’m cooking dinner, driving my son to a Magic: the Gathering tournament, doing my back exercises, or studying Google Images to see how much shirt cuff Prince Charles reveals beyond the sleeves of his Anderson & Sheppard coats and whether this length of cuff is in line with my own practice, but rather to listen to the exclusion of all other activity except mediation and dancing, as if music were still primary, demanding, and mysterious.
Before broaching a quiet career as a journalist and novelist, I pursued a quiet career, now intermittently upheld, as a singer-songwriter. Here and there, projects arise that let me quietly combine my work in these fields. In the fall of 2014, I was commissioned to spearhead a theatrical production for which I would serve as musician, emcee, and—playwright is dignifying, but I wrote a sort of playlet that made up half the show. It was a modest but stressful production, and in the weeks leading up to its single performance in January of ’15, I started to suffer more than previously from sciatica, lumbago, and other musculoskeletal and neural ailments. These conditions helped revive nostalgia for my youth; they also induced nostalgia for my early forties.
Sciatica is pain running down the course of the sciatic nerve, from the lower back to the foot. My case has a rightward concentration and is most activated by sitting in uncomfortable chairs, which is almost to say, chairs, and by pedaling a car’s ignition or a piano’s sustain, which I overwork on ballads. Imagine a writer who puts ellipsis points after nearly every phrase, hoping each time for ineffable plangency, and you’ll more or less understand my approach to the sustaining pedal. But better pianists than I have leaned on the same crutch, and composers sometimes demand the pedal’s liberal employment, as Messiaen did for Quartet for the End of Time (“très enveloppé de pédale”), whose fifth and eighth movements are among the most beautiful music I know. And, to pursue my analogy, parts of André Gide’s The Immoralist, for one, were written with an effectively heavy foot on the sustain. My sciatic nerve isn’t swayed by such arguments. My sciatic nerve once dreamed of becoming a concert pianist but has sunk to giving lessons to a dwindling pool of students whose every technical shortcoming is a reminder of pivotally botched recitals and dubiously regretful letters from Eastman.
Lumbago is pain in the lower back that turns sufferers into hieroglyphs for middle age: gripping their flanks, arching backwards, staring forlornly at heart-shaped water stains on drugstore ceiling panels. For me, it’s most inflamed by prolonged standing or sitting. As you may have heard from the manufacturers and advocates of adjustable work stations, sitting is the new smoking. Standing, I have found, is the unalarmed old smoking. Bending, kneeling, lying, running, crouching, cooking, fucking, and waddling six blocks while carrying a laundry basket full of records after a volunteer DJ gig are also smoking. Edwin Reardon, the protagonist of George Gissing’s New Grub Street, hastily composes a novel in the teeth of lumbago, but he has a financial incentive of an exigency I’m unlikely to face. If I were to, the fix wouldn’t lie in writing a book. Though Reardon is more acutely lumbaginous and impoverished than I’ve ever been, I presume to identify with him all the same. “For two or three days it was torture to support himself at the desk,” Gissing writes, “and he moved about like a cripple.” The changes to my gait are subtler, but the specialists detect them—though they can be fooled. Several months ago, a holistic doctor asked if my housemates ever complained about the oafish volume of my footfall. She used more diplomatic terms, but that was the gist. At the end of the expensive, uninsured appointment, I walked again for her observation, this time as if I were in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Her praise was effusive, but I returned to my regular walk as soon as I left her office. Today, the sensation that there are Frankensteinian bolts projecting from my hips has me walking in a squiggle, as if I were on the fishing dock where I experienced my first romantic kiss. Other days, I walk with a slightly equine kick, and my right foot lands with a drop. As it happens, Gissing’s diaries have him suffering from lumbago while turning out New Grub Street’s roughly five hundred pages in sixty-seven days. Every nineteenth-century writer, except perhaps Casaubon, exposes me as a laggardly fussbudget. Many twenty-first century freelance bicycle repairmen manage the same feat.
Because of my back pain and the psychology surrounding it, much of 2015 was marked by ploddingly naturalistic Ambien nightmares, recurring visions of falling off bridges, and a proneness to startlement out of hand even by my own jumpy standards. Under normal conditions, I’m often audibly alarmed by the sound of ice being crushed in a blender; under unusual stress, it doesn’t much matter if I’m the one operating the blender. I was at my worst as April turned to May, my last weeks of making editorially guided revisions to my second novel. As the deadline approached, I worked longer and more anxious hours, with correspondingly heightened back pain, and felt my usual finish-line mingle of satisfaction and disappointment. Even if the manuscript’s most glaring shortcomings had been corrected, mitigated, or at least privately acknowledged, the prodding mystery of just how good the book could be had been answered without deafening internal huzzahs. A week before the deadline, my family went out to dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. After ordering, I decided I couldn’t sit another miserably clenched minute in the restaurant’s wooden chair. I asked my wife and son to get a to-go box for my food. As I walked home, a light rain burgeoned into a biblically punishing hailstorm that others described more mildly, in terms scarcely stronger than sprinkle. I had to take two sedating painkillers before I could mumble off to bed.
After turning in the edit, I was eager to settle into writing a new book, either by reviving one of the three manuscripts I’d abandoned in early stages, or, preferably, by hitting on an untried, uncharacteristically ambitious, perhaps even moderately commercial idea. I have plans, for instance, to write a long novel about the Crimean War, as soon as I finish reading a short book on the Crimean War. In early summer I started an epistolary novel whose three contemporary American characters—an inexperienced saucebox, a suicidal romantic, a scheming libertine—would respectively correspond to archetypes in English, German, and French novels in letters. With a virtuosic rigor not to be overlooked by awards committees, the Richardsonian character’s letters, though modern in spirit and diction, would only contain words found in Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.
Those seven pages seemed inauspicious. After dispatching a series of journalistic assignments for which I was paid at the exact rate I received for comparable assignments almost twenty years ago, I started writing mostly incoherent notes, not for the first time, about my affective nostalgia, my supposedly reduced sensitivity to music. I began by pulling out old records, trying to summon memories of listening to them as a kid, remembering, for instance, a buggy hike in Wyoming on which I muffled nature by listening to a lower-case walkman the size of a meatloaf, hearing Mick Jagger, on “Tops,” sing, “Every man is the same, come on / I’m-a make you a star.” The generalization sounded authoritative, though I didn’t know any men who could pretend to star-making power. The drums seemed to be falling.
Such memories felt essentially true but suspect in detail, and I realized that a browsing, desultory method of uncovering and perhaps instinctively cooking memories threatened a project already at risk of what in business is called “scope creep.” I decided, though I was more nostalgic about adolescence and youth than I was about childhood, to begin chronologically, or at least at the mellow dawn of my record collection.
If my reconstruction is right, I started collecting records not expressly made for children in the late spring of early summer of ’78. I turned eight at the end of that year, by which point I believe I had three albums and four singles. If the singles were purchased (with one exception) in the order of their chart debuts, I would have come to own them in the following order: Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On,” the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady,” and Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” The exception is 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” which I couldn’t have bought during its chart run in early ’77, since I have no memories of owning adult records as a kindergartener, and on top of that we lived during those months in a very small North Dakota town whose residents had to acquire new records through travel or the mail. “Baby Hold On,” then, was most likely my first record, though it carries no inaugural resonance for me. If a Facebook friend were to preside over a thread about first records, I wouldn’t confidently cite the Eddie Money single in my comment (two likes), though I am confident that Barry Manilow’s Even Now was my first album, loyally followed by his 1976 release, This One’s for You, and perhaps, by year’s end, Little River Band’s Sleeper Catcher. It should probably concern me that such threads interest me hardly at all.
Like the Beach Boys and 2Pac, I do, simply in terms of ambulation, get around. Insulting of me to introduce, even by way of quotation, the above comparison to actual victims of torture, and indeed one of the problems circling my physical and psychic pain is the “problem” of relative fortune, that my pain is a pinprick compared to what friends and family members are enduring: struggling to walk short distances, suffering major postoperative complications. I’m a pain interloper. My preoccupation with pain is disproportionate to my pain’s severity, though of course both my preoccupation and the guilt it engenders are exacerbating, perhaps perversely so. As Elaine Scarry wrote, “the doubt of other persons … amplifies the suffering of those already in pain.” If self-doubt has the same effect, it could be an attempt to cancel itself; eventually, the pain’s amplification creates certainty.
Some context: A few years ago, my intermittent polyuria became relentless. To prepare for an appointment with a urologist, I started keeping a record of how often and precisely when I peed. It wasn’t unusual for me to close the day with over thirty hash marks on the index card I carried around with me or left on convenient counters. At the appointment, ultrasound images and various tests and probes evinced no bladder or prostate malfunction, no other culprit conditions. Some of the problem, I told the doctor, had to do with my historically temperamental reactions to caffeine, but I understood that anxiety, including anxiety about polyuria, was a component. The doctor nodded. After a short preamble, he said, with more encouragement than admonishment, “You’re letting your bladder control you, when you should be controlling your bladder.” I haven’t had a real problem since.
Right now my body feels out of tune and metallic, like when the G5 key on my piano is sharp and, insult to injury, dogged by an unsympathetic vibration. I know this pain is intrinsic, that it won’t be driven away by positive thinking and Mr. Bean videos. But I feel how depression and anxiety lower my pain threshold, sap my will to pursue every potentially ameliorating course. I’m trying to mute these psychological abettors without denying the pain’s physiological roots. In her essay “In Bed,” Joan Didion, after explaining that migraine is hereditary and inescapable, agreed that there was “what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist.” The description doesn’t quite apply to me, though I’m a compulsive—though not always a careful—reviser, especially when I’m too lazy or vacuous to draft new material. Editing, at those times, is procrastination dressed up as diligence. I enjoy it as much as other forms of procrastination, and as a reader, even of canonical or imposingly talented writers, I often pause to rework sentences in my head, deleting or transposing phrases, changing punctuation. Were I editing Didion’s sentence, I’d first argue that perfectionism encompasses intolerance of error, including the errors of others. As for my own redundancies, infelicities, and mistakes, I’m tormented by them but not painstaking enough to further reduce their frequency, and I’m no longer surprised that I can look at a manuscript thirty times and never spot an obvious typo. Perhaps the back-pain personality is the migraine personality’s sloppier cousin.
Fragments of melody sometimes strike Mahoney on the train, in bars between sets, in the Police Academy bathroom, where today the trainee at the next urinal fears his marriage won’t last the year. The guy’s name might be Gary. After Mahoney’s hmm of consolation, Gary says, “No kids, at least.”
“Makes it easier.” It’s hard to piss with other people around.
“Yeah. They fuck you up, your kids.” He zips. “Well, qué será.”
As the door closes, Mahoney starts to sing, “Whatever will be, will be,” A–D–E–F♯–F♯–E–E, with some melisma, and in class that afternoon he entertains various rhyming phrases, dropping the pickup A as needed. That night, as he starts to expand the song on a battered Wurlitzer with many soundless keys, he suspects he won’t be a career policeman.
Time passes. On another coast, he meets a crafty guitarist and writing partner. Later, he’s seen pleading with a shrug on The Midnight Special.
That’s not actually the origin story behind Eddie Money and Jimmy Lyon’s “Baby Hold On,” but it’s one way to write a song. Their treatment of what Tiny Grimes called romance without finance isn’t as layered, urgent, or unsparing as kindred working-class dramas by Ben E. King, the Four Seasons, or Bruce Springsteen, but it has a throaty vulnerability, and there’s a certain kitchen-conflict verisimilitude in its inarticulateness, its crushed straining to realize a rhyme for back: “Is it true you might want a better life? Is it true you think there’s these things I lack?” The song’s recurring augmented fifth advances the lyrical anxiety, but everything opens up when that unsettled sharp five rises to the pretty six, the expectant seven, and the chord gives way to Em7. “Think about it, baby,” Money sings, “I’m gonna take you to the top.” (Every man is the same, come on.)
The narrator and his listeners were vindicated by the single’s success, but, as a devotee of honorably dashed dreams, I wonder: had the song flopped, would the resulting pathos have elevated the song from good to great? Money could have been the Willy Loman of police-academy dropouts, a cutout-bin soul man of thwarted ambition.
At the piano, I predictably find that the most emotive passages from “Baby Hold On” defeat my vocal range. Dropping the melody an octave proves enfeebling. I switch to “Three Times a Lady,” taxing the sustain pedal. The verse broods in three-four time on a descending chord progression. I don’t have the keenest ears or a dazzling command of music theory, but my fakebook, one typo aside, seems consistent with the recording. For the first four chords, I play A-flat, followed by the same chord with a G-flat bass note, down to F minor (I’m compelled to throw in the seven), and ending with some stoic dissonance on C seven with an augmented fifth and an E bass note. I sight-read the melody in my toddling way, but when I move from playing it to singing it, almost immediately I come out with, “Picture yourself in a boat on a river,” the opening lines to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Stoked by the interpolation, I put Lionel Richie’s lyrics to Lennon and McCartney’s similar melody. The verse progression from “Three Times a Lady,” whether intentionally or not, transposes the first three measures from the Beatles’ verse, then completes the bass descent under a different harmony.[*] Given that both songs are in waltz time (though for its chorus, “Lucy” switches to four-four) and begin their melodies with four repeated soundings of the third, it seems fair to guess that Richie was working in dialogue with the Beatles. So that’s another way to write a song, and one of my favorite methods: play someone else’s and start in on alterations. A fragment of an existing song is transposed, tweaked, expanded, placed under a new melody (in the limited way that melodies can be new); soon the source material is obscured and more or less forgotten, though it might resurface as pentimento. Writing a song over, for instance, the I-V-iv-IV progression is the same procedure pursued without deliberation. Before buying the “Three Times a Lady” forty-five, I had almost certainly become familiar with “Lucy,” both through the Beatles’ original and Elton John’s hit cover. Is it possible that I sensed in “Three Times” an interesting variation and laid the foundation for a lifelong writing preference? By which I mean, isn’t it pretty to think so?
Along the way I picked up that nostalgia was “homesickness” by etymology and had something to do with Swiss mercenaries. Where current usage retains a trace of melancholy, the word almost always describes a blend of historical and personal loss, more profoundly so for the exile than for the self-dramatizing former middle-class teenager. Those in the second camp might try to cloak nostalgia’s personal component (in the way kids sometimes hide by covering their eyes) with a dogmatic, underexamined historicism. Sighs for one’s youth balloon into tirades on the superiority of its art and artifacts. Let me try to distance myself from this tendency. What I have longed for is the undiminished frequency and intensity of emotional experiences with records from all eras, not the ongoing vitality of modes and mannerisms prominent when I was young. L. P. Hartley, in his author’s introduction to his The Go-Between, tries to distinguish affective nostalgia from other varieties: “People who have this feeling about the past aren’t necessarily comparing it to the present, to the disadvantage of the present. It has nothing to do with that, or not much. It is a desire for certain kinds of emotion which can no longer be experienced by the writer: not necessarily pleasant emotions.” I suspect Hartley was asking a lot of that “or not much,” but I understand the disclaimer, and though I sometimes despair of the present (and the ecological future), it seems repugnant and, at least in this country, inherently reactionary for a member of so many dominant classes to pine for the impersonal past, its injustices being generally uglier than today’s.
But it’s true that I’ve longed not only for bygone emotions but for youth itself. Eyebrows will understandably raise over efforts to refine, partition, and qualify that bedrock longing. Though I should have seen it coming, I feel cheated by this longing, since I often chafed at youth when I was in the middle of it, felt I was innately suited to midlife and was just waiting for the years to synchronize with my essence. Needless to say, it’s normal to be sentimental about the music through which one discovered one’s cohort, one’s sexuality, one’s so-called identity. This sentimentality is enforced by those who profit from it and by an ongoing peer pressure that would have us claim, as generational banners, only a limited number of songs from about a decade of our lives. In all other eras, we’re tourists, as if new or new-to-us music couldn’t go on shaping and soundtracking our emotions as we have children or become politically active or get divorced or switch jobs or lose parents or whatever. Mostly I just want to insist that my argument isn’t the one to which Tom Cruise danced in his underwear: “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul.” I haven’t altogether dodged middle-aged estrangement from new music, but so far I haven’t felt unmixedly or angrily estranged, and I continue to hear interesting new things. Annually, I might discover a dozen great or very good new records, few of them with an overarching replicative aim. I assume I’d find seventy or eighty if I devoted more time to the search. The obvious contradiction there is that I’m not interested in a devoted search, but we’re all harmlessly buoyed by strains of passive optimism. My outstanding performance in an adult-education German class leads me to believe I’d be an excellent German speaker, if only I had carried on with the study of German. The analogy, I admit, is imperfect. To return to music, I sometimes suspect the imminent midnights of certain genres or subgenres; skeptically acknowledge that world-historical or musical-industrial forces could be driving down the quality of music more generally; and leave the question for others, keeping in mind that those who call attention to broad and steep decline rarely make a compelling case for their omniscience.
In the meantime, the nostalgia of my own generation and demographic repels me even more than boomer nostalgia, and though I often enough put on records I’ve known since the eighties, I listen sparingly to the ones about which I’m most sentimental. This is a kind of preservation, of self and memory. There are some records that I suspect will reliably spur emotional intensity—for maybe a dozen more auditions spread out over the next three or four decades. Were I to trot them out more often, my heated adolescent memory of buying, unwrapping, and repeatedly blasting “I Will Dare” before my parents came home from work would be replaced with a pensive midlife memory of playing “I Will Dare” at a moderate volume while thumbing through the most recent issue of Costco Connection. I carry on with this strategy even though a great record, if indeed great, is mutable. Greil Marcus, gifted at providing a song’s historical context while demonstrating its temporal instability, argues throughout his work against treating pop as if it were “incapable of acquiring new meaning, or revealing new tones in the face of new events, new times, changed listeners.” And yet when a favorite oldie comes on the radio, even one I’m not precisely bored with, I’ll often rush to turn it off.
As a teenager, I was a greedy and obedient reader of music criticism by writers such as Marcus, Martin Williams, Robert Christgau, Peter Guralnick, Greg Tate, Lester Bangs, and others. This interest was set in motion by my dad’s subscription to Rolling Stone, but it expanded significantly around Christmas of 1983, when I was given a copy of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. In that book, editors Dave Marsh and John Swenson, along with fifty contributing writers, reviewed and rated, as the cover advertised, “over 12,000 rock, pop, soul, country, blues, folk and gospel albums.” Jazz, surveyed in 1979’s first edition, was this time held back for a slim companion volume published in ’85 under Swenson’s solo editorship. During that period, I often found myself at record stores with one of the guides ready to hand, fanned out, say, on a rack of Ls, steering me toward Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits, Love’s Forever Changes, or Loretta Lynn’s Greatest Hits, and I suppose if I had paused to consider Lawler and Cobb’s Men from Nowhere or Love of Life Orchestra’s Star Jaws, the guides would have talked me out of it.[†] It’s a stretch, but not a whopping one, to say I spent more time with record guides than I did with every book assigned to me throughout high school. I was not, in the end, a viable candidate for the more selective colleges and universities.
The Marsh and Swenson guides are laid out now on my desk, though the second edition is a replacement of the taped and flaking vade mecum of my adolescence. The covers are in the bright primary colors —red, blue, and yellow, respectively—of a Mondrian painting or a Simon game. As in Rolling Stone and Downbeat magazines, albums are rated from one to five stars: five for records that “must be included in any comprehensive collection” (an imperative I took very seriously), one for those “in which even technical competence is at question, or which are remarkably ill-conceived.” In the general but not the more respectful jazz guide, there’s also a nullifying black square, a miniature Malevich, reserved for records that “need never (or should never) have been created.”
Through these and other guides, I developed the tastes of an ecumenical parrot. My tastes gradually became more independent, but on the whole they’ve deepened rather than broadened. For instance, as a senior in high school, I was introduced to the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jorge Ben by the David Byrne–compiled Brazil Classics 1: Baleza Tropical, a survey of progressive Brazilian pop from the seventies and eighties. On the collection’s LP version, both of Ben’s selections, I noted, were in part about soccer, in the way that Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is in part about baseball. That is to say, they were also about race, about distorted guitars. I’ve gotten to know Ben’s music better over the years, and this month I picked up three more of his albums. I’ve been choosing favorites among the varied renditions of his signature songs (like On Kawara, whose “date paintings” starkly and only record the day on which they were made, Ben is always, and never, repeating himself). His music is harmonically and rhythmically advanced, imperfectly bravura—his falsetto can be thrillingly spot-on or happily approximate. He’s famous for blending samba and funk, bossa nova and blues, which might already suggest marriages of lithe and sinewy, but beyond those fusions he seems to have the dispositional ability—shared by Charles Mingus, John Lennon, maybe Kanye West, and not many others—to be as convincing at serrated ardor as he at sanded delicacy, his singing sometimes growling and forceful, sometimes nasal and exploratory, sometimes as gently vernal as Swinburne’s “lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.” Caetano Velosa, Ben’s peer and admirer, wrote that what he and Gilberto Gil “were most attracted to was not so much the stylistic mixtures that [Ben] brought together as the atmosphere of genuine physical happiness that his presence in the panorama of Brazilian music had established. Saúde (health) was the word that most commonly appeared on our lips when we talked about him.” Maybe I’m coming back to him now because I hope his saúde will rub off.
My listening doesn’t always follow this narrowly expansionist pattern, but it reveals more continuity than disruption. Most of the music I like now has some analogue from my teenage favorites. Maybe that doesn’t say much; my tastes in music—unlike my tastes in all other areas—were precocious and eclectic, so I left behind a good supply of analogues. But my current eclecticism would be recognizable to my younger self, and the spirit of continual exploration I then foresaw hasn’t really come to pass. I miss taking instant delight in new songs less than I miss slowly overcoming resistance: learning to hum along with Howlin’ Wolf’s razored voice or find the weight in Burt Bacharach’s pillowy major seventh chords.
How long, I thought while trying to spur a pressure-point release by lying on a tennis ball, would this go on? By my general practitioner, by an orthopedist, by a chiropractor who encouraged himself fortissimo in the third person, by the ER team my clinic mortally urged me to when the pain seemed possibly cardiac or pulmonary, by two physical therapists, by several massage therapists, by a woman who applied a suction to my skin and hit me vigorously with what looked to be a carpenter’s square, and by several friends and relatives, I had been prepared for a recovery of uncertain duration: possibly swift, potentially long. A year or two? Perhaps remission would coincide with the completion of my book of homemade esthetics, whose last pages would describe a limberly ecstatic middle-aged experience with a piece of contemporary recorded music performed by young people.
Another diagnostic consideration: One of my traditional, though thankfully rare, responses to stress is to spend hours in front of a full-length mirror trying on outfits that in many cases I’ll never wear apart from these private modeling sessions. I work at home. Most days, I spend about eighty seconds getting dressed and could cut that time in half if my back pain didn’t necessitate certain elderly shoe-tying procedures. But periodically I fall into these spells of vestiary narcissism, during which, when I’m not reenacting scenes of dressing-room angst depicted by the cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, I’m writing five-year plans for wardrobe improvements, not leaving to chance details such as the month in which to budget for a sky-blue Bengal-stripe dress shirt with an unfused spread collar and a chest undisrupted by my normally favored breast pocket, the missing pocket a doffed trilby to English style in line with the colonial stripe. Though my family understands why I sometimes try on clothes with no particular place to go, I prefer not to be caught or even heard in the act. After midnight, I’ll find myself tiptoeing around our wood-floored laundry room and closet, especially if an outfit calls for leather-soled shoes (I believe my allegedly thunderous tread has been noted). It’s possible that these hours of coiled gingerliness, coupled with the weight I sink into my right hip when standing before mirrors, worried muscles and nerves already tight or pinched from stress and January cold. When I offered up this etiology for my general practitioner’s consideration, she steered the discussion toward psychological treatments.
In another office several months later, my nylon, undernetted hiking shorts were teased down as I lay on a massage table in a nearly fetal S. One of my gluteal trigger points was being dry-needled, a practice derived from acupuncture but not, as I understood it, concerned with meridians or chi. To take my mind off the resulting spasms, I focused on the room’s optimistic painting of a woman at the calm limit of a challenging leg hold. The woman was a yogi not a dancer, said my physical therapist, herself a former dancer. A trained dancer would know not to sickle—to curve her foot inward, that is, in the shape of a sickle. The word reminded me of our previous appointment, when we talked about vicious circles or cycles and how I was probably in one. I didn’t use the term myself—not as instinctively original as I’d like to be, I’m sometimes squeamish around cliché—but I agreed with its application.
When, during that earlier appointment, my physical therapist asked if I had dealt before with depression, I let out a rueful laugh, soft but overdone. It seemed to cast me as a more battle-scarred veteran of depression than I really am. My depression is enduring and not an act, but I’ve plumed myself on hit, thinking it lent me artistic credibility or wounded glamor. I clarified to my physical therapist that I had melancholy leanings, but that I’d been trying not to let that define my character or self-perception, and that for almost ten years I had more or less managed without pharmaceutical support, mostly through physical exercise and behavioral awareness, a lighter mandate than behavioral wisdom. I didn’t go into my rant about the cynical rhetoric of the pharmaceutical industry and their doctoral panders, or argue as John Berger did in another context that antidepressants helps us “accept conditions which are at least as unjust and wrong as [we are] sick,” or explain, as Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head” played on satellite radio, that although my affective nostalgia preceded my first prescription to an antidepressant, the pills came to fortify, perhaps realize that strain of nostalgia. The drug, of the SSRI class, improved and stabilized my mood for a few years, so it must have helped me enjoy music, but after a while it became decreasingly effective yet more emotionally compressing; I particularly resented it for keeping me from crying. For eight years I cried almost never. The exceptions were effortful, arid, and unrelieving, except for the dire week when I went off the drug precipitously without approval. I’m hardly a constant crier, but I like to know the resource is in stock and can be triggered by certain records: George Jones and B. B. King’s wrenchingly melodramatic reading of “Patches,” for one, or any number of songs by Maggie Roche, who may be the wisest, most nuanced songwriter on sadness and depression. Or, I’ve just been reminded, by Melissa Manchester singing Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s circus ballad: “Don’t cry out loud / Just keep it inside / and learn how to hide your feelings.” (There I am, cross-legged before my pale-blue portable record player, weeping.) When I was eventually able to go off antidepressants, it was a relief to cry again, and a relief to less often feel compelled to. So a certain lachrymal protectionism is at the base of my current resistance to medication.
I didn’t say all that to my physical therapist. Instead I murmured, as one of her manipulations hit a tender spot, that my depression was probably on the rise not only from the pain but from the pain-driven dampening of my exercise regimen. I wasn’t sure if that dampening was justified, or if I should, as they say, “power through.” I was trying to learn, I said, how to balance awareness and diversion. I needed to be attuned to my body, needed to know when it was time to get up from my desk, take a walk, do my yoga-mat exercises, rest, visit the often relieving pool and hot tub at the YWCA. I needed, when possible and without isolating myself, to sometimes skip car trips, concerts, art exhibitions, cocktail parties, and almost anything that could be called long (movies, lines, flights, meals). I needed to be content with notably reduced productivity, rarely profuse even when I was at full health. On the other hand, I was least in pain when most distracted from it: when truly engaged by work, or laughing with my family on a car trip, exercising, enjoying a concert. In other words, the activities that often aggravated the pain were also its best remedies.
At sixteen or seventeen, I wrote a love letter to a very intelligent, precociously poised girl on whom I had an indiscreet crush. I flirted with her ineptly, once punning on her surname—always insufferable, but I see now that my punning also called obnoxious attention to her Jewishness, of which I, less than worldly in most respects, might have been oblivious (I’m reminded of a saying quoted in a Leonard Michaels essay: “If you forget you are a Jew, a Gentile will remind you”). These flirtations—not every time so retrospectively shameful—mainly went down in a sculpture class for which I produced very little, so little that I ultimately stooped to buying castoff bowls from one of the class’s more talented and diligent potters. My love letter didn’t hazard a forthright declaration, but I know it made room for expressive reactions to Frank Sinatra’s concept album Only the Lonely, along with my drawing of the album’s Pierrotic cover painting. Later, my crush wrote in my senior yearbook that she liked me better when I didn’t feel the need to entertain, which was exactly how I felt about myself. It was this very perception I hoped to counter in my unsent letter. She closed her inscription, ambiguously, with a phone number of only six digits.
Back then, when I listened to music alone in my bedroom, I always seemed to be in the presence of imagined others, classmates like my crush who, had they observed me, would have seen how soulful I was, how sophisticated yet often attractively unfashionable my tastes were. Or, though I hadn’t yet developed practical ambition much less technique as a musician, I pictured myself performing the music, especially when it was by men who felt like older stepbrothers, such as the Minneapolis burner genius Paul Westerberg. “The great works of past ages,” Coleridge wrote, “seem to a young man things of another race, in respect to which his faculties must remain passive and submiss, even as to the stars and mountains. But the writings of a contemporary, perhaps not many years elder than himself, surrounded by the same circumstances … inspire an actual friendship as of a man for a man.” Such friends are models too, and though I still take inspiration from living artists, I miss the optimism with which I responded to art when I was young, when I believed my inchoate talent could lead almost anywhere. Over time, certain dreams become implausible; that’s often a good thing, but it hurts.
Although lots of my teenage experiences with music were about finding affinity and community with peers and musicians whose backgrounds and sensibilities resembled my own, I was just as driven by the somewhat lonesome, contrary impulse to become an aficionado of music many of my friends dismissed (commercial country, romantic R & B, jazz fusion). I don’t mean these interests were feigned; they were in earnest, but encouraged by the pleasure I took in turning away from what seemed like obligatorily precollegiate tastes. Of course, I wanted to be admired for my maverick preferences. I suppose most of us play out these conflicting impulses at some point or another, or constantly, impulses encompassed by what Lionel Trilling called the “Wordsworthian moral essence,” namely the interaction between “an awareness of the self that must be saved and developed, and an awareness that the self is yet fulfilled only in community.”
Since joining the leading social-media sites after a short period of self-congratulatory resistance, I’ve sometimes found myself listening to music with my old solitary communalism. Now, my imagined observers can be remotely reached with a link to YouTube. I rarely introduce such links with much elegance or drama, but still I’m disappointed when they’re quietly received. In many respects, Facebook and Twitter have been socially and professionally beneficial—or just fun—but this past year in particular they’ve been a conduit for my anxiety and a prod for adolescent insecurities: Is M. pointedly or inadvertently not following me and will there be repercussions if I unfollow M. in retaliation? Why did L. like my self-deprecating comment but not the celebratory but modestly articulated post that inspired it? Did my joke offend B. and does S. think I’m ultimately dumb?
Then again, my in-the-flesh interactions aren’t unsullied by this same stuff: my hunger for approval, my jittery resentments over (probably) imagined slights, my countless conversational regrets. Social media might often remind me of adolescence—namely, of sitting around making fun of TV commercials with a group of people who would theoretically rather be doing something else—but I fear it’s untenable to paint my internet-hatched insecurities as markedly regressive, a distraction from the ripened neurosis of my life’s less mediated aspects.
In late ’78, a single man was invited to dinner at the two-bedroom house my mother and stepfather rented in a small city in North Dakota, to which, the previous summer, we returned after two years in the very small town where records weren’t retailed. My biological father also lived in the city, so I could once again spend alternating weekends with him in addition to the summers and divided holidays laid out in the divorce agreement. The dinner guest, I was told in advance, shared my interest in Barry Manilow and wanted to compare notes with me on his music. My mother also told me in advance that the guest was gay, not because his sexuality required special preparation on my part, but because his visit occasioned my introduction to the idea and acceptability of gayness. The guest, it turned out, was friendly and didn’t condescend to me, which I appreciated, but the Manilow conversation, because planned, or because the man was not only a guest but an ambassador from a previously unknown community, felt awkward.
I have this confused. My parents did have a gay friend at that time who visited us and whose gayness was broadly explained to me, but he didn’t live in our city and was not this dinner guest. My stepfather can only remember two single men who came over alone for dinner back then; both, as far as we knew, were straight. As far as I was concerned, so was Barry Manilow: I didn’t know he was widely understood to be operating out of what would later be called the glass closet; that his music drew on cabaret and other forms steeped in gay culture and innovation; that his collaboration with Bette Midler started when he was working as a piano accompanist at Continental Baths in the moment when, as James McCourt had it in a recreative present perfect, “habitués sitting on whoopy cushions in slouchy postures redolent of Levantine ennui in the fabulously appointed souterrains of the majestic Ansonia, have prompted the very old to declare a new ’30s-Berlin decadence.” But at some point I conflated my introduction to the dinner guest with what I knew about my parents’ actual gay friend from that period. According to the history established by this false memory, I absorbed, at the gate of my life as a record collector, that music could be used to form alliances across race, gender, sexuality, age, class, and geography. The desire to extend my cultural and historical literacy and form such alliances along the way, I claimed, helped spur my later interest in R & B, blues, country, jazz, gospel, folk, hip-hop, international pop, and other genres. This contention, though about as wobbly as its generative myth, wasn’t wholly unjustified: music did teach me about experiences beyond my milieu, did lead me to books and other sources that continued that broadening, and the cross-cultural connections I formed through music weren’t always superficial. But, however well meaning I might have been, I was also reducing the struggle for justice and equality to a facile and essentially consumerist multiculturalism in step with the sort of thinking that treats “diversity” chiefly as a boon to members of the unthreatened dominant classes. I needn’t pulverize myself here; I’ve tried in more substantial ways to put my ideals into practice. But when I consider that I haven’t, for instance, taken truly demanding and steady action to combat the racism I’ve benefited from, the implications of my ethics of taste become rather thin, and at times I’ve been less interested in fellowship than in being applauded for moderately unexpected connoisseurship or bogus enlightenment.
I’m not precisely sure when I abandoned Manilow, but I remember glumly unwrapping his 1980 album, Barry, sent by a family friend not up to date on my capricious tastes. That same year I asked for and received Air Supply’s Lost in Love, so my transition wasn’t to Marshall stacks and machismo; I was just moving cubicles at Arista Records. When, a few years later, I started to take direction from critics, my collection’s substratum was significantly reformed, its most damaging elements discarded like pornography wrapped in two bags and dumped in a neighbor’s trash bin. Until repurchasing them this week, which is no longer this week, I hadn’t heard these Manilow albums in, I’m guessing, thirty-six years. The steep inflation brought on by vinyl’s revival, I was happy to find, hadn’t reached the second-hand market for Barry Manilow’s catalog.
Had Jorge Ben swooped into A&M Studios during the tracking of “Copacabana (at the Copa),” drummer Ronnie Zito and percussionist Alan Estes would by no means have disgraced themselves. First-call session players, of course, don’t get the work just for returning punctually from lunch break and remembering to wipe the sweat off their headphones: Zito, an outstanding jazz and pop drummer, had previously worked for Woody Herman and Bobby Darin; Estes’s CV A to Z ranges from Air Supply to Zappa. They’re the sort of players variously patronized, celebrated, and pitied in songs such as the Kinks’ “Session Man,” the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” and Rupert Holmes’s semiautobiographical “Studio Musician,” which closes Side Three of Barry Manilow Live (“I am the English horn who plays the poignant counterline / upon the song you heard while making love in some hotel”). All that said, the intro and breakdown on the nearly six-minute version of “Copacabana” from Even Now is hotter than one might expect or remember, and the song and performance as a whole ain’t bad either. Manilow’s well-placed flatted fifths, chromatic hooks, and ninth and eleventh chords remind us that he didn’t listen carelessly to his Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross albums, and in the song’s protagonist, Lola, Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman created a cleverly camp Miss Havisham. Even Now also contains a stylish saloon song, “I Was a Fool (To Let You Go),” written by Manilow with lyricist Marty Panzer, and an invitingly melancholy performance of “I Just Want to Be the One in Your Life,” a soul ballad almost simultaneously placed in the hands of Arista label mate Eddie Kendricks and written by Michael Price and Dan Walsh, the underrecognized team behind the Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” later the fulcrum for one of Kanye West’s Jay-Z productions. The earlier This One’s for You has a halfway decent soul original, “You Oughta Be Home with Me,” and Randy Edelman’s “Weekend in New England.” The latter, if read as the story of an intense and closeted affair, modulates to richer soppiness, though this interpretative enrichment, in my experience, doesn’t survive repeated auditions.
What surprises me most about these albums, though, is how unfamiliar they sound. Thirty-six years admits a lot of Lethe-wards sinking, and I wasn’t predicting madeleine revelries. But I thought more would come back to me, potsherds of lyric and melody or at least of vibration of what Wordsworth called “unremembered pleasure.” Besides the hits, only (the nostalgic) “Jump Shout Boogie” rang a clear bell. Memories from age seven aren’t known for their detail and reliability, but other, subsequently neglected music from this period seems to have been more indelible. Is it possible that, in contrast to my retrospective imaginings, I didn’t really listen to these albums all that much? Maybe whole sides went rarely played; maybe my fandom was restricted to a handful of cuts, especially “Copacabana,” one of several story songs I and many of my contemporaries liked without complete comprehension as we transitioned out of picture books: Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler,” Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (the Piña Colada Song),” George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and, an album track I knew well from my dad, Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”
By October of ’15, I’d reached a new altitude of frustration regarding the persistence of my pain and the inefficacy, so far, of physical therapy. I started to claw daily and illegally into the chalky insides of a vintage bottle of borrowed alprazolam. A potently and quickly calming drug, it lightened my perception of pain while letting me work with what seemed like sufficient acuity. I made an appointment with my general practitioner with hopes that she’d give me my own prescription. That appointment was to be followed a few days later by one at an imaging center. X-rays taken in the spring had revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but these new CT images would be more sophisticated, though not as sophisticated and revelatory as an MRI, off-limits to me on account of metal and glass lodged in my head from a years-past accident. Still, the new pictures would most likely give the orthopedist enough information to recommend new treatments, such as, I hoped, a relieving epidural steroid injection. Nothing, except sex, seemed to me as potentially delicious as an epidural steroid injection.
While anticipating that cure, I was spending a lot of time in the pain-free zone of the YWCA’s pool and its steamy surroundings. After swimming three to five laps in my ungainly canine fashion, I’d bring a book or magazine into the hot tub, about the only place I could read without constantly shifting positions and, through those fidgets, becoming more and more nervous and distracted. I relished the pool but wondered if there were risks to seeing it as an oasis, since this was the corollary of a growing locational fixation in which certain chairs, flooring materials, and rooms, particularly my office, had become centers of pain. Surely my dread invited pain to visit me immediately in those spots. Could I teach myself to transform every space, spiritually, into the YWCA pool? Could I office at the YWCA pool?
A pure aesthetic experience, according to Kant, is disinterested. This word, long a skirmish site between usage sticklers and the ambiguously bored, has a protean history and is best defined by the sense of interest it negates. “The delight which we connect with imagining the real existence of any object is called interest,” Kant clarifies. “Such a delight, therefore, always involves a reference to the faculty of desire, either as its determining ground, or else as necessarily implicated with its determining ground.” The illative in that second sentence might not resound with universal clarity, but the connection between interest and desire is clear enough, especially when Kant later iterates that “all interest presupposes a want, or calls one forth.” In these terms, listening interestedly to music could take many forms: while hearing a song on the radio, you might develop a desire to own a recording of that song; you might use a Walkman to listen demonstratively to the song on a school-bus bench across from one occupied by Ashley Cooper; you might learn the song’s melody, lyrics, and chord progression in order to perform it at a talent show with an eye toward gaining still more social advantages; decades later, disheartened by back pain and unmet professional ambitions, the song might make you wistful for portable record players and uncontained possibilities.
A judgement on the beautiful tainted with interests such as these, Kant holds, isn’t a pure judgement of taste and will demand little attention from everyone else. Imagine what a scold he would have been on Facebook. Less prosaically, aesthetic disinterestedness proposes, I think, a paradox along the following lines (I have no philosophical training and can’t be trusted): through intense, deeply felt concentration on a real object of aesthetic interest, the object enters the realm of the ideal, where its real existence is no longer felt. In our absorption, we transcend ourselves and all social considerations. Such experiences are ephemeral and elusive: we’re aware of a brief “quickening of [our] thinking powers,” as Kant has it in a related context, but this apparent mental reanimation resists coherent articulation, can perhaps only be expressed by the sestina or seascape with which we’ve fused.
Having been shaped by popular music, I’m more inclined to think that desire and social considerations enrich rather than pollute the experience or production of art, though of course the latter can also be true. And it may be, as the American philosopher George Dickie argued in the 1960s, that what Kant and others took to be an interested engagement with art doesn’t describe a manner of engagement at all, but rather a cause for distraction. If a song reminds me of a painful breakup or is being performed by an undeservedly successful acquaintance, these extramusical thoughts will turn my attention away from the song. If the distinction between interested and disinterested aesthetic experience has meaning, it might be, as Dickie also argued, one of motivation and intention, not of perception. To illustrate, he has us imagine two men listening to the same piece of music: Jones because he expects to be tested on the piece in tomorrow’s class, Smith simply for pleasure. “Jones has an ulterior purpose and Smith does not, but this does not mean Jones’s listening differs from Smith’s,” Dickie writes. “There is only one way to listen to (to attend to) music, although the listening may be more or less attentive and there may be a variety of motives, intentions, and reasons for doing so and a variety of ways of being distracted from the music.” I’m humbly unsure of that: someone standing by a wall, listening attentively to music being performed in a concert hall that she can’t afford to enter would, strictly in terms of aural perception, be having a much different experience than someone sitting in the front row. Sometimes, such as after I’ve recorded and mixed something in a professional studio, my ears become too anxiously attuned, so that when I listen even to favorite records, every audio-technical flaw, every imbalance and unintended distortion, nags me until I can’t hear the music through the recording. Dickie could probably answer my complaints without much strain, and his qualifications regarding motive, intention, and distraction allow for a great deal of variation: Jones, because his listening is self-directed and unencumbered, might listen more creatively, might be more receptive to the music’s emotional effects, since he isn’t trying to memorize its most salient and testable properties. Or Smith, primed by lectures and texts, might be alerted to subtleties or technical matters he wouldn’t otherwise have noticed or understood; he might better absorb the music’s emotional effects by trying to puzzle out how they’re achieved.
Mostly as a mental exercise, I tried to imagine 1977, the last year in which I didn’t come to own recordings not made for children, as a final prelapsarian chapter of aesthetic disinterestedness before my fandom got wrapped up in a desire to own recordings of every favorite song, to secure social or professional advantages through those preferences, to use music to announce or solidify class distinction roughly in the way described by Pierre Bourdieu, and so forth. Granted, at age six and seven my responses to that music were far from discerning and perhaps wouldn’t normally be admitted into the realm of aesthetics. To the extent that I can remember how I experienced music then, it seems to have been a period of strong preferences and no aversions; all music was good to different degrees. I did come to know there were songs one wasn’t supposed to like—I took heed when my uncle, at the North Dakota State Fair, made lightheartedly disparaging remarks about Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” and when I played “Baby Hold On” for my dad, his indifferent approval was obviously something else. But it took several years to infer general principles from these dismissals, and then, in some cases, to later disavow those principles. Though I don’t believe taste is strictly social, it’s probably true that it begins to take on a flavor of objectivity in abashed reaction to other people’s antipathies. But, as I say, I don’t remember having strong aversions to songs, or even resenting overexposure to the biggest hits, until the early eighties. And music was, after all, wrapped up in social interest, in that developing preferences in music made for teenagers and adults was a large step toward maturation and independence.
So that thought experiment didn’t really lead anywhere, not even to the library where I might have looked into the psychological literature on aesthetic development in young children. But it reminded me of a disruption in my 1978 record collecting: One evening in the fall of that year, my stepfather came home from his job as a reporter for the daily newspaper, entered my bedroom with what I remember as quiet excitement, and gave me an unwrapped, unoccasioned gift. I believe I was playing cross-legged on the floor. The carpet was a Berber in a gray somewhere between that of a cow’s tongue and a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint, but we moved many times when I was a boy, so I might be importing this carpet from some other bedroom. My stepfather placed before me three albums, older albums perhaps discounted in threes, including one that told or continued the story of Tubby the Tuba, the self-operating instrumentalist created by librettist Paul Tripp and composer George Kleinsinger. The album might have been a padded repackaging of the 1948 recording featuring Danny Kaye, but I wouldn’t know. If I listened to the album at all, it was through tears, and the memory of getting the albums remains painful. I knew the gift was given out of love, and I wanted to acknowledge that, but just as adamantly I didn’t want these humiliating records. I had moved on to Manilow, Money, and Manchester and, if only in this area, I could brook no regression.
At the story’s beginning, Tubby is morose and resentful over the drab supporting role he plays in the orchestra, the endlessly flatulent oom-pahs that never let him “dance with the pretty little tune.” After rehearsal, he broods on a log by a river, where he meets a bullfrog who turns out to be a similarly undervalued musician. The bullfrog sings a tune and encourages Tubby to run it by his orchestra sometime. At the following day’s rehearsal, Tubby introduces “his own little melody,” which is championed by the orchestra’s esteemed new conductor and taken up by the rest of the players. “Well, we’ve done it,” says the suddenly reemergent bullfrog at the end, though one is right to ask if the triumph has been properly shared.
Interestingly, Tubby is just the sort of ethically compromised underdog I instinctively return to in my fiction. I have a special interest in plagiarists. To some degree, these characters are authorial surrogates, though I think of myself as basically decent, certainly more so than I was fifteen or twenty years ago, and I’ve been trying not to dwell on past mistakes. At least one of my small regrets has been put to rest: For decades, I’ve carried around a hint of shame over my ungrateful reaction to the Tubby the Tuba album, how it must have hurt my stepfather’s feelings, that there must be some lingering soreness. It turns out he has no memory of the incident.
For many years my record collection was presented, to guests more commonly imagined than entertained, as a defining personal statement and the result of constant deliberation and pointed omission, rather like a diary in which several early pages were pink with eraser ash. Owing to this, my history as a music listener was often narrowed to a history of consumption and retention. After I started regularly seeing live music and performing it semiprofessionally, my emphasis on records ebbed, but in large part the music I valued most remained music I owned, preferably in a format that could be easily displayed. This consumerist and curatorial bias particularly distorts my first years as a music fan, both because so many of my formative records were later expelled from the collection, and because unowned radio hits bulked much larger in my late-seventies listening, along with other recorded and homemade music: my parents playing the stereo at a decent volume almost every night; my stepfather strumming and fingerpicking the Harmony guitar I later took over and mistreated; my mother stomping her feet and nearly shouting, “R-a-g-g m-o-p-p, rag mop! Do-de-doo-dah-dee-ah-dah. Rag mop!”
During those years, I don’t recall regularly having money of my own, and of course there were lots of other things I wanted, such as Star Wars figurines and new decals for the plinthed plastic men who waywardly competed on my vibrating metal football field. Maybe I wanted those other things more than records. I didn’t stay interested in sports or science fiction; to bolster a case for essentialism, I suppose I’ve pretended that my interest in music wasn’t just early to form but preeminent from a very early age.
Anyway, those first records often came to me a bit haphazardly. Sometimes, one of my parents would spontaneously let me pick out a single from the Top 40 endcap at K-Mart. These decisions I remember as rushed and anxious. Maybe I had to make my choice in the time it took my mom to pick up fabric softener. I’m not sure I valued the singles I picked out in 1978 much more than those I didn’t. I might have instead bought favorites such as “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan or “Imaginary Lover” by Atlanta Rhythm Section, whose questionably titled 1977 album, A Rock and Roll Alternative, later scored five stars in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Retrospectively, the late-seventies singles I didn’t own at the time tend to be more evocative to me than those I did, perhaps because my memories of them are public and social—listening with friends, babysitters, and other actual people, rather than with the unseen community I perceived when listening to records or the radio alone, though probably that remote self-consciousness didn’t materialize till later.
In ’78, my father, with whom I spent most of the summer as part of the divorce agreement, ran a small construction company and was the owner-occupant of a tiny house for which he remembers paying six or seven thousand dollars. For a while, he rented the basement to a Vietnam veteran who probably had posttraumatic stress disorder. Next door lived a family with seventeen children; that summer, I spent many days under their collective watch. The mother was a nurse, severe in appearance but good-natured. The father was a farm worker of some sort, a taciturn, phlegmatic, or simply exhausted man, it seems, but I didn’t see much of him. Several of the kids were grown and out of the house by that time, but there was a boy around my age who walked with braces or scooted, and a teenage girl who must have been my lead supervisor and who kept the radio on all day. As I recall, there were two radios: a small black portable whose handle and controls, I imagine, were splotched with house paint, and, in the living room, the bottom part of a console television on top of which snow globes were displayed. I remember standing by the console, looking out for my dad through the window, while Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” played, as it did that summer frequently and embarrassingly. Maybe the song seemed especially and mysteriously sexual in a house that had produced so many children, I don’t know. I vaguely understood there to be some correlation between the family’s fecundity and Catholicism, and maybe I inferred that this correlation would eventually involve me, since, to the extent that Catholicism is hereditary regardless of observation, I was half. My dad, however, doesn’t remember anything about the enormous family’s religious affiliation. Probably I imported this stereotypical explanation retroactively.
When I wasn’t waiting for my dad by the console TV and radio, I sat on the stoop or hung out in the front yard, and in the late afternoon, it seems that the family’s teenage boys were constantly pulling up in muscle cars out of which blasted Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island,” Wings’ “With a Little Luck,” or Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” but, again, it’s possible that I’ve interpolated the muscle cars because that’s what one expects young working-class men to drive in provincial cities during the Carter era.
As a cyclist, I’ve twice collided at speed with cars. These and other accidents may have contributed to my musculoskeletal pain and, as mentioned, they’ve prevented me from getting an MRI. I don’t look back on them fondly. But for comparison’s sake it’s useful to have first-hand experience with the weeping grimaces and more urgent adjectives found near the top of the pain-rating scales hung on hospital walls. I made it somewhat stoutly through those accidents, surgeries, and recoveries, and I’ve shown a reasonably high tolerance for pain in other circumstances. I once grilled over a dozen hamburgers shortly after suffering an undiagnosed radial head fracture.
It’s true, however, that I’ve sometimes displayed an instinct for self-preservation spilling into cowardice. For example, one evening when I was an editor at a weekly newspaper, I stopped on my way home to deliver a CD and press kit to a colleague who had agreed to write a quick-turnaround review for our next issue. As I was standing in her doorway delivering the package, someone shouted a single, now forgotten word, and I turned to see a shadowy figure pointing a gun at me from about fifteen yards away. The word might have been “Freeze!” I’m not saying I literally shoved my colleague out of the way while fleeing to her second-story apartment, but I did arrive up there, panting and unscathed, well ahead of her. We called the police, who, as you may have guessed, were already on the scene, investigating a fresh burglary but not properly identifying themselves to potential suspects.
With existent rather than potential pain, though, I’ve done okay. Of course, steady, narcotized improvement from severe accidental pain is one thing; slogging through endless oscillations between pain levels four through six is another, and it’s worth noting that I’m a loudly miserable sufferer of colds who has great trouble sleeping without my special pillow. For much of 2015, I also had trouble sleeping with it. Sleeping on my side, my preferred position by a wide margin, caused a harsh pulling sensation in my lower back and hip, and I couldn’t get used to the horribly goody-two-shoes feeling of sleeping on my back. Because I feared Ambien’s side effects more than I feared fatigue, I often spent two to five hours cycling between my bed, my “zero gravity” camping chair, and my yoga mat before resorting to the pill not too many hours before I had to wake up sorely and forlornly to help usher my son off to school.
I ran out of alprazolam a day before my Tuesday appointment with my general practitioner. I hoped to leave the appointment, you’ll recall, clutching my own, legal prescription for the drug. Over the previous weekend, I’d drawn liberally from a new bottle of ibuprofen. Though the label highlighted the letters PM, twice employed the word nighttime, and featured a crescent moon and two stars, I didn’t register, until my wife intervened, that this particular ibuprofen doubled as a sleep aid. The label also warned users not to operate motor vehicles while on the drug, which I’d drowsily done with my son on board, or to take more than two caplets in twenty-four hours. I’d taken twelve, along with alprazolam and, inexplicably, Ambien. Not long after the ibuprofen’s multipurpose was detected, I gave a heroic solo musical performance for a small and not unanimously attentive audience. So the diphenhydramine and other substances were probably still in my system for my doctor’s appointment, and I may have betrayed a bit of logy despair when I asked for the alprazolam. That drug, the doctor said, was impairing and addictive, as demonstrated, she implied, by my pleading if not desperate request. She instead wrote out prescriptions for yet another awful muscle relaxant and for a more popular cousin of the antidepressant I’d been on previously.
I picked up the prescriptions but didn’t open them. Going off antidepressants in the middle of the last decade coincided with a series of major and mostly happy changes in my life: I left an editorial position to return to freelance, started writing fiction, started exercising regularly, and, in taking a needed break from marijuana and alcohol, settled into what looks to be permanent sobriety, though perhaps my fling with alprazolam should be classified as a relapse. Off the antidepressants I felt more in control of my mind and body, and I dreaded the idea of returning to them about as much as I dreaded continued depression. Shunning potential remedies for depression, I know, is a symptom of depression.
The CT scan of my lumbar spine is, according to the imaging center’s report, “unremarkable.” There’s no evidence of herniation, facet arthropathy, or stenosis. No fractures, bulges, or stress reactions. No degeneration, no destructive legions. “You have the back of an eighteen-year-old,” my orthopedist says, which I suppose, pace the report, is remarkable.
I greet the good news with mixed feelings. Since nothing is visibly wrong, nothing can be done, or nothing beyond the physical therapy I’ve been doing with daily and unrewarded faith. Of course, the CT image, in revealing the apparent health of my lumbar spine, doesn’t rule out an empirical cause of my pain. I could have a pinched nerve, or the problem’s root could be in my hips or legs, though the pain would probably manifest itself differently if that were the case. Another possibility is that I’m crazy. Maybe, desperate to give psychic pain a physical purchase while maintaining my irrational resistance to antidepressants, I’ve been dilating these routine pains into an ongoing crisis. Or this is simply what it feels like to be in one’s midforties. Though I’ve been privately crying about all this throughout the year, for the first time I do so in front of my wife and within earshot of my son. My wife, who deals with back pain of her own along with other hard-to-treat ailments, has never doubted my pain, so it’s mostly in argument with myself that I say, “I’m not making this up! I hurt, I fucking hurt all the time!” She suggests we go to a pain clinic a friend has recommended, but I reject this sharply. I need to be through with doctors for a while. Every forthcoming appointment, I say, only holds out false hope and hinders my strength to confront the problem on my own. Though most of the traditional and alternative specialists I’ve seen over the year have been competent or better, all of the appointments and several thousand dollars out of pocket have probably yielded the same results I would have gotten from looking up a few exercises online, or perhaps from doing nothing at all.
I said at the top that my pined-for moment of ecstasy is a composite. Well, it’s a composite, an idealization, and a stand-in for the key transformative aesthetic experience I can’t honestly point to. Such testimonials—about records or books or movies that completely altered one’s world view, shattered one’s misconceptions and penetrated one’s soul—become more trivializing than elevating, an endless competition to outfeel one another in the same hyped terms. Adam Gordon, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, admits to being “intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no chance.” I’m sure that hundreds or thousands of records have changed me in small yet not trivial ways, but I have a hard time remembering more than two or three specific boyhood instances of listening to music with momentous, perhaps epiphanic bliss, and of these I’m skeptical. I remember a great many pleasurable experiences listening to music, but it wasn’t mere pleasure that I started to romanticize in my twenties. Pleasure of that kind was still fairly common, as it is today. What I missed was something ephemeral yet grand, something noumenal, transcendent, something—you see the words I’m stretching for. Because such moments surpass description, perhaps they elude memory. A related retrospective hurdle is that, while I once thought of transcendence in ways of a piece with its theological and philosophical conceptions, as something more than metaphor, I now see highly agreeable, stimulating, or enlightening moments as being very much part of worldly human experience, even if their inexpressibility hints at a supernal air. Looking to pinpoint transcendent experiences from my past, then, is like considering whether, during those times I ran furiously up dark staircases, I was in fact being chased by ghosts, and, if so, which ghosts they might have been.
At any rate, the moments I might put forth as transcendent candidates are often those in which I became aware that a potentially transcendent memory was being formed, either because the moment resembled a good if not unmistakably sublime moment from my past, or because it seemed in accord with sublime moments described by others. One grows restless to be awed. The speaker of “Tintern Abbey,” on returning to his sustaining spot, seems to will the effect to repeat:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. …
At the Public Enemy concert a friend and I attended in 1988 with the back of a seventeen-year-old, I remember feeling very strongly that I was having a consequential moment of my youth, that in that nightclub, where Chuck D stooped to give low fives to those of us up front, there was life, food, and tired anecdotes for future years. As a middle-class boy of Irish-Anglo-Welsh ancestry, I knew, sort of, to be indicted as well as excited by Public Enemy’s music. I wasn’t one of the five thousand new leaders for the black community Chuck D told interviewers he sought to cultivate; I wasn’t the target audience depicted in the group’s brilliant logo, in which a figure is silhouetted, arms defiantly folded, in the sights of a gun. But I was at least absorbing and embracing the music as it unfolded, before it had been canonized, listening in the moment. But was I? That summer of ’88, I remember enthusing to a friend that, with hip-hop, we were having our punk transformations, our free jazz epiphanies (“Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane,” Chuck D rapped). As Simon Frith noted in 1981, Rolling Stone, so influential on my early thinking about music, instinctively framed new musical developments in these nostalgic terms, in which “the rock experience … is never described but endlessly referred back to as some mythical adolescent moment against which all subsequent rock moments can be judged. Punk, for example, was eventually welcomed by Rolling Stone not for what it said, not for its political or social stance, but because it offered the authentic rock ‘n’ roll buzz—the Clash were just like the Stones!” The magazine neglected hip-hop and was slow to embrace Public Enemy, but the album’s historical importance and grand, evocative ambition (hip-hop’s Sgt. Pepper’s and so on) was immediately advanced by its promoters and rightly accepted by perceptive critical observers; the epochal aura, in other words, was hard to miss. (This wasn’t true for many of P.E.’s hip-hop contemporaries, who, particularly in my Midwest, were often ignored, belittled, or decried.)
Turning to another moment I call on when thinking of irreproducible teenage ecstasies, I remember listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue at age fourteen and realizing, for the first time, that I wasn’t enjoying a famous jazz album deferentially and aspiringly, enjoying it, that is, because it was important and sophisticated and I hoped to partake in its sophistication. I was just taking in the melodies, the harmonies, the interplay, the invention, finding myself emotionally aligned, on that particular morning, with the album’s melancholy and sangfroid. But of course this moment was almost immediately meshed with the self-satisfaction I’ve just described. I was listening while celebrating my passage into a more advanced stage of dilettantism. When I first tried to reconstruct that morning with Kind of Blue, the experience—carried around for decades as one of my signal interactions with music—came to feel lesser because I saw that it was, in the sense earlier described, interested. Of course, to view this innocent pride over perceived self-improvement as a taint is to start by romanticizing the highs of one’s youth, then fault the experience for being inherently youthful. Just as I’ve continued to idealize transcendence and other half-understood ideas no longer concurring with my makeshift positivism, I’ve valued emotional reactions to music over intellectual ones, despite my conviction that aesthetic experience is always a blend of intuition and analysis, feeling and thinking, or at least that one follows the other too closely for separation to be maintained.
My affective nostalgia, I started to see, was multiply misdirected. Even at twenty-five, I couldn’t truly have wanted to experience music at an unwavering high C of adolescent emotion, whether or not I had in fact been so constantly overflowing with aching joys and dizzy raptures when I was of the age. Not for those aches and raptures, Wordsworth sighingly insisted
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. …
I might not feel that maturity’s recompense has been constantly abundant, but in rational moods I’m pleased with the trade-off. Perhaps, because I thought it was preferable to grow more stoic than less curious, I’ve been slow to concede that the real decline has been in my intellectual and social engagement with music. I seldom experience new music with others outside my house, and when music confronts me in public—at grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, parties—it’s much more likely to be old than new. Though I still like to use music to mull over sociological, philosophical, or political ideas, and I’m sometimes compelled to figure out how a piece of music was constructed, I now read fairly infrequently about music, whereas at one time I read infrequently about anything else, and days can pass in which I don’t listen actively or by choice to records, nearly unthinkable in my youth.
Mostly this is because, around age thirty, I largely switched my focus from records to books, and the project of inching from literary naivety to passable sophistication became more enticing than advancing from passable musical sophistication to genuine expertise. Now, when I want a challenge as a receiver rather than as a maker of art—and such impulses, I fear, are on the wane—I’m more likely to take up a book beyond my intellectual capacity or outside my preferred genres than I am to try out a strange or initially repellent record. It’s normal for regret to accompany a largely happy change. I wonder what I might have accomplished had I been more single-minded, disciplined, ambitious, and determined in my musical pursuits. I had a good head start; had I stuck with it, maybe now I’d be a somewhat prominent critic (though the jobs there are now very thin), or a scholar (though I’m not scholarly), or a Nashville songwriter near the upper ranks of the B list (though I prefer to live in Minneapolis).
But the more I think about my adult experiences with music, the more I’m drawn to conclude that my sensitivity to music, though not what it once was, isn’t alarmingly dimmed. When I do listen, I’m not often indifferent. Frequently I’m delighted, provoked, irritated, moved, sometimes to tears. During the period I worked with interruptions on this unpublishably long essay or defeated blog post, my sense of a depleted sensitivity to music faded almost completely, doubtless because I was listening to music more concentratedly and routinely than I had for a while, returning to old records but also discovering things I’d previously overlooked: Conway Twitty’s trembling “(Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date,” for one, with its elegant and extended steel-guitar introduction, and the gorgeous song cycles Benjamin Britten wrote for his musical and life partner, the tenor Peter Pears. I was reading about music again too, books such as Simon Reynolds’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, which intelligently and thoroughly covers many of the issues I’ve been playing with here. And I started writing songs, making a point of writing them rather than waiting for them to drop in. I have to be reminded over and over, it seems, that music waits for me, accepts various levels of engagement but rewards attention.
In the middle and late seventies, Bob Seger specialized in songs about aging, music, and nostalgia, the fading allure of nightlife versus the solitary pleasures of home. Like Rashomon, sort of, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” and “Old Time Rock & Roll,” written by George Jackson and Thomas Earl Jones with disputed contributions from Seger, practically narrate the same event from different perspectives. In the former, a thirty-one-year-old ex-partier is pressed to skulk back into the bars where “all of Chuck’s children” are still playing deathless pentatonics. (Chuck Berry himself dealt with this material in “Too Pooped to Pop.”) In the latter song, a crank uses his dusty record collection to fend off potential invitations to discos: “I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself.” An unattractive position, though I guess I’m forced to relate. In “Night Moves,” Seger’s finest song and his most eloquent treatment of this theme, a make-out spot becomes a heartland Tintern Abbey, complete with an attention to shifting memory and nods to nature (“Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy”). Seger’s voice takes on a drawl and burr out of Otis Redding paired with his usual borrowings from Van Morrison, and the arrangement’s coffeehouse soul recalls “(Sittin’ on) The Dock Of the Bay” and several recordings by Bill Withers. For the last verse, the band drops out, leaving only voice and acoustic guitar. It must be one of the most delicate, intimate passages of any major hit song of the rock era. The narrator has awakened to thunder like the literal and/or figurative thunder he and his girlfriend “waited on” when they were “trying to lose the awkward teenage blues.” Perhaps still half in dream, he starts “singing a song from 1962,” which date he stretches out with gospelized inflections. My most vivid memory of hearing the song comes from some night drive in the eighties on what I want to say was a neglected midwestern county road through shadowy evergreens. More likely it was East I-290 on the way from the western suburbs of Chicago, where my dad grew up, to Chicago itself, where he then lived. I already knew and liked the song, but something about it hit me with force that night, that pop music could be so quiet, that sadness could be so pleasurable, that two people could sit wordlessly in a car picturing a man alone in bed, sweating, I figured, groggily humming a fourteen-year-old pop song, which even then I knew wasn’t really all that old, no older than, say, “Get Ur Freak On” is today. But I didn’t precisely think all that; I can’t sort out what I thought then from what I’ve thought since, what I’m thinking now. Strange how the night moves. Wait: once more with the sustaining pedal: Strange how the night moves, with autumn closing in …
Well, I got somewhat better. Although the CT scan was one of many, probably unnecessary procedures, its findings prodded me out of my disheartening circumspection: my back wasn’t visibly injured and would likely withstand a rowing machine or the hefting of a watermelon. I pledged to try medication if the depression didn’t lift, but I decided first to give up caffeine, which reduced my daytime anxiety and improved my sleep. I’ve rarely suffered from insomnia or turned to Ambien since my last cup of coffee three months ago, and most of those few Ambien were swallowed in a different time zone devoid of comfortable pillows. I gave up the exercises that seemed to hurt more than help but have added new stretches that seem to be improving things, for the most part.
Improvement came, too, I suspect, from talking and thinking less about pain and things at least temporarily associated with it, which is one of the several reasons I decided that my book of homemade esthetics wasn’t a book.
This morning I’m listening to an album I bought yesterday by the composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams. The album’s opening piece, a three-part work for string quartet called The Wind in High Places, takes inspiration from the Aeolian harp, a rectangular box whose music is produced by wind blowing over its strings. “All the sounds in the piece,” Adams explains in the liner notes, “are produced as natural harmonics or on open strings.” A person, Shelly thought, “is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.” Adams’s piece reminds me at times of gulls, and of those exciting and perennially modern moments when an orchestra is tuning, and of teakettles, and of landscape painting more than landscapes themselves, and of the “sobbing draft, that moans and rakes” over the Aeolian harp in Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.” I’m drawn to its orchestrated passivity, its stepping way, how it seems to embody the listening experience rather than asking the listener to identify with it.
“Over the course of almost twenty minutes of music, the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments,” Adams writes. “If I could’ve found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.”
[*] On Sgt. Pepper’s, those measures are rendered by voice, bass, and a filtered organ playing arpeggiated or otherwise broken chords with baroque intimations. In the first measure (“Picture your”), John sings C-sharp thrice, Paul plays A, and the organ goes E–A–E. Very much A major. The next three chords could be charted out as A/G (A with a G bass), F-sharp minor seven, and a chord or harmony (F–A–C#–D) best described in standard notation. A number of shorthand descriptions, such as A/F or Faug, do the job with omissions or additions (you don’t really want the A chord’s fifth; you want both the Faug’s sharp fifth and the sixth). Guided by the broken chord on the record, I like to have the C-sharp and D rub up against each other over the A and grounded by the F bass—it’s jazzily cool sounded at once and can be prettily fragmented. One of my Facebook friends, the Canadian musician Mike Trebilcock, proposed calling this a first inversion of Dm(maj7), or Dm(maj7)/F, which seems right to me, though maybe it doesn’t quite make sense in context.
[†] Star Jaws, I later discovered, was a document of some note and appeal, a 1977 collection of ironic downtown pop led by Peter Gordon and featuring lyrical contributions from Kathy Acker.
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September 29, 2015
By the Book, the weekly Q&A conducted in writing for the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, uses boilerplate questions to peek into the reading lives of writers and other prominent figures, especially actors with sideline literary careers. It lets us imagine, perhaps erotically, Jesse Eisenberg’s nightstand, and encourages interviewees to let fly with unsupported endorsements and dismissals. “There’s a fashion now for fat, hyper-intellectual, cooler-than-thou novels that are loaded with lard and siphoned of believable feeling,” Mary Karr complains in last Sunday’s column, “and those bore the dog dookey outta me.” The format doesn’t permit follow-up questions, so one doesn’t learn the names of any of these monstrously fashionable books.
A later stock question about disappointing or overrated books forces Karr into specificity. “I feel like a turd naming names,” she writes, “but the poet John Ashbery’s reputation is inflated enough to take it.” One notes that this is the interview’s second down-home scatology while entertaining doubts about Karr’s qualms. She has already condemned Ashbery’s work in her 2009 interview with the Paris Review, and in a post to her Facebook page in 2013 (“John Ashbery’s poems are the greatest case of the emperor wearing no clothes in cultural history,” a hyperbole she tempers in the Times). In both interviews Karr concedes Ashbery’s brilliance and explains that she was once taken with his work, wrote a 100-page thesis on Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but later “recanted” (I like the word choice and support its recycling). In the Times Q&A she writes, “His poems are about (he admits this) zippo, and his seductive voice is the most poisonous influence in American poetry.” In the Paris Review she says, “Most young poets cannot reproduce the interesting rivulets made by Ashbery’s stream-of-consciousness. In my early work I tried to sound cool, like Ashbery—though I’m profoundly devoid of cool.”
I’m often moved and delighted by John Ashbery’s work, but he can, as Karr says, endure formal and casual dissenters. And one expects unusual work even of firmly established unusualness to breed a certain amount of ongoing hostility; it’d be no fun if it didn’t. In any case, my gappy knowledge of contemporary poetry doesn’t equip me to speak with authority on Ashbery’s influence, though in a moment I might try to speak without it. What interests me is the common idea (not necessarily embedded in Karr’s complaint) that strong avant-garde or otherwise abstract artists yield an especially pernicious influence. Why should this be true?
As two of the above quotes demonstrate, Karr is particularly on guard against fashionable nonsense and emotional reticence, and she wants to steer young writers, at least most of them, away from the defensive poses she bumbled through on her way to a direct and more authentic voice. Also, we can assume, she’d like to steer people away from received sophisticated tastes if those tastes prove, preferably after some serious examination, to be at odds with their dispositions and talents. In some cases, this might be sensible. One doesn’t, after all, want to fake it eternally; one wants to find a mode suited to one’s personality and intellect. Maybe you’re writing fragmentary lyric essays of thudding incoherence when you could be writing memoirs of chiseled clarity; maybe you’re eight years into the draft of a preeningly make-it-new novel when you could be presiding over a drawerful of witty and unproduced screenplays; maybe you’re a not-bad underground poet destined to be a mercilessly effective literary agent.
Whether or not Karr has continued to follow Ashbery, whose later work is often more approachable, she’s not a skeptical dabbler but, it seems, a confident, lessoned apostate whose volte-face apparently came about through overcoming her own insecure charlatanism. If we aren’t instinctively and perennially hostile to avant-garde work, we will almost certainly, at one time or another, be conflicted and anxious in its presence. That’s after all part of the point. (I’m thinking here of self-conscious avant-garde movements from the time of Baudelaire to the present, particularly historical work that still presents challenges to conventional taste.) Many of us can acknowledge, sincerely or in deference to prevailing opinion, that abstract, innovative, tricky art is sometimes great, but we figure its production should be left to those who seem to have some inborn aptitude for it: polymaths, iconoclasts, lunatics, and other oddities. We might think: I could never be James Joyce; he was a genius and learned Norwegian just to write a lousy one-off Ibsen essay; but maybe I could be Anthony Trollope; he just forced himself to bash out two thousand words every damn morning. Alas, we can’t be either of them.
Those of us who have acquired some taste for vanguard art in most cases developed it through work that had already been celebrated, historicized, or canonized. We could try to understand the work’s methods and discover its pleasures without great fear of being duped. It can take a long time, however, to feel qualified to judge experimental work not yet endorsed by reputable authorities. “I had read L’Après d’un faune without extracting a glimmer of meaning,” Max Beerbohm writes in his great story “Enoch Soames,” in which an aspiring young writer meets an alluringly affected Symbolist manqué. “Yet Mallarmé—of course—was a Master. How was I to know that Soames wasn’t another? There was a sort of music in his prose, not indeed arresting, but perhaps, I thought, haunting, and laden perhaps with meanings as deep as Mallarmé’s own.” That doubled perhaps is the echo of a sentence from earlier in the paragraph: “It did now occur to me: suppose Enoch Soames was a fool!”
The unproven experimentalist always takes this special risk: of not only being epigonic or downright inept, but of being ludicrously so.
The shame of pretentiousness, the absurdity of conformist nonconformity. Mark Greif’s recent work of intellectual and literary history, The Age of the Crisis of Man, deals in brief with the American vogue for Kafka’s work sparked by the 1937 publication of Willa and Edwin Muir’s English translation of The Trial (the Muirs’ 1930 translation of The Castle was quietly received). By the early forties, Kafka had inspired colonies of imitators in the little magazines, and Greif quotes several observers who had grown exhausted with this particular and sudden flowering of ersatz strangeness. Here is Philip Rahv: “It is necessary to say to them: To know how to take apart the recognizable world is not enough, is in fact merely a way of lettings oneself go.” This is familiar skepticism: we allow that distinguished works are often (always?) ambiguous and that they might remain somewhat mysterious to their creators. But we’re particularly offended when intellectual status is granted to pro forma, undisciplined, purposeless strangeness. By the sixties and seventies, Clement Greenberg, the great champion of abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction, and other innovations, had grown suspicious; he worried about “the large absence of decisions that could be felt as ‘meant,’ as intuited and pressured, and not just taken by default. That’s just it: that so many of the decisions that go into the supposedly newest art go by default, become automatic, and by the same token arbitrary, decisions.”
I just wanted to post a paragraph to Facebook! A few stray thoughts, then, in closing:
“Weaker talents idealize,” Harold Bloom wrote, “figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.” Exciting, innovative, great artists will naturally prod undistinguished derivations. Extravagant innovations might lead to impasses for pathbreakers and followers alike. Needless to say, great art will also inspire other great art, as well as worthy art from those of us who are less than great. It’s true that John Coltrane’s later music led some tenor saxophonists to falsely believe that they too could sustain half-hour free improvisations climaxing with emotive explorations of the instrument’s most Himalayan register. It’s also true that, in and out of jazz, Coltrane suggested extremely rich avenues of expression, and continues to do so. I think maybe John Ashbery’s model has made my relatively conventional novels slightly better; sometimes you need to roll with these optimistic hunches.
It’s blandly true that artists grow interesting through the often humiliating discovery of their strengths and limitations. Maybe you’ve read work in the style of David Foster Wallace or Maggie Nelson by a writer who doesn’t evince extraordinary intelligence. Maybe you’ve thought, condescendingly, that the writer might turn out okay if only he or she could settle on more modest aims. Maybe—sigh—you’ve come to such conclusions after reading work stored in the memory of your own computer. Okay. But do we really believe that apprentice or enduringly minor artists would be better served by different models? Wouldn’t they just create minor work in a different style?
In her perhaps cathartic dismissals, Karr is careful to say that Ashbery is modest and charming—in other words, not a charlatan, even if his work is in her view ultimately empty. Still, general concerns about an avant-gardist’s influence often betray the prejudice that experimentalists are desperate for in-crowd approval and will pursue any abstruse sham to win it. (Similarly, experimentalists will often impute venality and dull-wittedness to formally conservative artists.) Have you ever attended a party where one of the guests is wearing a silly hat? Did you speak to this guest and discover that she was not in fact insufferable? In my experience, experimentalists are no more likely to be phonies than artists working in more traditional modes, though of course their work might be terrible, might cry out for naysaying.
Clarity is a virtue worthy of a life’s pursuit; it’s probably more threatened by careless or dishonest convention than by virtuosic abstraction.
All right, “now give me my pants and money and let me go back and join the others. They’re crying, you know.”
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September 11, 2015
Almost thirty years ago, Lorrie Moore came up with the “Lovesick” anagram “Sock Evil,” but still no one has recorded a complete anagrammatic reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. I’ve at least gotten a start, which spurred a few outstanding contributions from Dustin Long. I figured it was okay to add or delete punctuation:
Sock Evil (Lovesick; Lorrie Moore)
Sordid Bat Rule (Dirt Road Blues)
Thanatos Gyre, Odin Wind (Standing in the Doorway)
Mini Limes? LOL! (Million Miles)
Goat Teeth Inventory (Tryin’ To Get To Heaven; Dustin Long)
Intuitively Hollow Life (‘Til I Fell in Love with You; Dustin Long)
Tart Donkey (Not Dark Yet)
Consul Odd Robin (Cold Irons Bound; Dustin Long)
Yoke Me a Lovely Fume (Make You Feel My Love; Dustin Long)
Twain Act (Can’t Wait–attention Hal Holbrook)
I have a chorus for Track Three:
(G) Thanatos gyre, Odin wind
Death’ll (C) drive me into history’s dustbin (G)
Or a (C) Norse god come around an’ do me (Em) in, in, in!
(C) Thanatos grye (D7) and a’ Odin wind (G).
Another wrinkle would be anagrammatic Dylan songs aptly sung to the tunes of other Dylan songs. So “Yo, Je,” an anagram for “Joey,” could be a vaguely polyglot version of “I and I.”
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August 21, 2015
Last night I saw Terence Davies’s 1988 movie, Distant Voices, Still Lives, for the first time. Some of you may know the movie; if not, it’s a somewhat autobiographical collage about working-class Liverpudlians in the forties and fifties, told largely through music: from Benjamin Britten to torch ballads to British and American folk songs to blues to novelties to movie scores. It seems rare in its retrospective depiction of the richness, diversity, and vibrancy of music accessible to average people after the war but before rock ‘n’ roll. The movie did depict a world that one, particularly women, would want to be liberated from, but music was depicted as a force of that potential liberation, not a symbol of blandness and repression. I understand, too, of course, how exciting and relieving rock and R&B was to many of Davies’s boomer contemporaries, but it was it was great to see a less familiar depiction of that era’s pop music. Great movie in other respects, too.
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August 10, 2015
I’m really excited about the beautiful and cleverly referential cover art Carolyn Swiszcz did for (my 2016 novel) Amateurs. That cover’s still in production, but here’s Carolyn’s website.
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August 10, 2015
Something like Less Than Zero crossed with Dirty Mind, Miguel’s latest album, Wildheart, is a murky exploration of decadence, ambition, alienation, and sex, quite a lot of sex, as performed in the singer and auteur’s native Los Angeles. As on 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, we’re offered a tasting menu of romantic and sexual stances: devoted, paternalistic, coy, dominant, though this time more space is given to rougher role-play. “NWA,” with a spongy bass drum out of Mr. Collipark and a persona out of R. Kelly, promises, you might say threatens, sex hard enough to at least temporarily alter the partner’s gait. The whole thing would be wonderfully sexy, if I didn’t speak English. Elsewhere Miguel is more likable and vulnerable, but the mood, in the great L.A. tradition, is always mixed. The album’s signature moment might be the glammy guitar riff that drives the washout anthem “Hollywood Dreams”: the notes descend with the dream, and somehow this defeat is uplifting.
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July 21, 2015
The sensible thing, I know, would be to post articles as they’re printed, but I try to be faithful to the “infrequently updated” billing. So here are a few pieces of fairly recent journalism: an interview conducted over email with scholar and critic Eric Weisbard about his book “Top 40 Democracy,” and several book reviews for the Star Tribune: on David Gates, on Robert Gipe, on Casey Gray, and on Nell Zink.
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July 20, 2015
… making progress on what I ought to be working on, so I jotted down some notes on Trainwreck instead.
As has been noted, the movie to some degree subverts romantic comedy formulas by giving its female protagonist qualities customarily reserved for the male love interest in a gigolo-reformation plot. Screenwriter Amy Schumer’s character, also named Amy, is in some ways a self-possessed voluptuary—she enjoys sex without commitment, and her pot smoking and apparent alcoholism hasn’t yet stymied her professional ambitions. On the other hand, her partying and the no-sleepovers carapace that attends it is an unwanted patrimony, an echo of her now ailing father, who left the family to pursue unrestrained libertinism when Amy and her younger sister were very young. So it’s sex-positivity laced with shame or at least tied to childhood trauma. The psychology hasn’t been fussed over and is introduced facetiously, though we’re asked to lend it some weight. Needless to say, romantic comedies are in the business of promoting monogamy and convention, but Schumer and director Judd Apatow haven’t risked making their opposites look too appealing.
It’s traditional, of course, for female romcom protagonists, and their literary antecedents, to have a character flaw whose self-recognition and correction enables the happy romantic conclusion, some rigidity that can be softened only by true love, but it’s rare for a woman to play a romcom lead in need of full-scale redemption. This protagonist is the sort of wounded, often repellant, defensively cruel character sometimes played by Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, or Adam Sandler, and as such it’s a bold challenge to double standards of likability.
Lest we feel to at sea with all this inversion, Amy works in publishing, and her love interest, Aaron, is a very successful doctor with a beautiful apartment and celebrated patients—but these conventions are employed with some originality. When Amy first visits Aaron’s apartment, she asks, during dimly lit foreplay, if he owns the apartment, a funny and inspired way to articulate the financial stakes.
Judd Apatow seems like a decent guy, but I sure dislike his movies.
Amy’s father is supposed to be simultaneously loathsome and lovable, though the latter quality isn’t made apparent to the audience. In a rehearsal of one of the most tiresome and (I’d thought, waning) comedic screenwriting conventions of the past several decades, the father is mostly on hand to make sensationally bigoted remarks that Amy the character can chastise while Amy the screenwriter hopes for our gasps of shocked hilarity. In the reasonably crowded and somewhat diverse suburban theater in which I saw the movie, these jokes sparked no laughter, silences that gave me as much pleasure as anything in the movie itself. The movie’s satire of the protagonist’s much milder racism is, alas, a bit flat and shopworn as well.
Some fun scenes, sure. These are notes, not a review.
In another overfamiliar line of dubiously hip sophomoric comedy, a fair amount of attention is paid to ineptly closeted men who blurt out their uncontainable desires in often racy detail. Of course, minor comedic movie characters tend to reveal themselves clumsily—it’s efficient, for one thing—and part of the comedy here has to do with how mismatched Amy is with the sort-of boyfriend she has in the movie’s first act. But certainly much of this material here is predicated on the idea that straight audiences still find queer sexuality inherently funny, but might feel more enlightened if they seem to be laughing at artifice rather than difference, or laughing at someone else’s homophobia rather than indulging their own. In addition to the movie’s two closeted characters, there’s a third guy, from a tryst thwarted in the nick of time, whose sexual proclivities and techniques are ridiculous mostly because they’re undeveloped and incompetent (he turns out to be sixteen), but also because he’s androgynous. When, in a scene set in the living room of Amy’s more conventional sister, a prim bourgeoise makes a homophobic remark, Amy’s rebuke feels unearned.
The Dots were very fresh; excellent mouthfeel.
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