Tag Archives: memoir

Three-Legged Dogs

A Partial Chronology of Butchered, Bruised, Worn, Defective, and/or Repurposed Recordings I Have Known

Analog, sigh. It was a time of cobbling, of gaps and seams, of defects as a matter of course. A combination of economy—blank cassettes cost an order of magnitude more than blank discs—and technology—the culture of obsolescence that arose around the inability to manipulate damaged discs. Now, discs have given way to a shadow-world of music without material form, without fingerprints.

It’s true that a recording is always to some degree a ghost. But as the technology has changed, and with it the recorded artifact, so our relationship to music has changed as well. It’s less intimate, I think, than it used to be. Less personal. The once-obvious seams and crooked hems, the weird silences and truncated ends, the nicks and quirks and tics and scratches and skips: there were just so many spaces we could fit ourselves into. So many things could go wrong without scuttling everything, and there was so much room for us to screw up. And then we had to learn to live with it, like we had to learn to live with the imperfections of our friends and siblings, our parents, our lovers, ourselves. Accident or defect (occasionally a happy one) or a history of wear marked recordings as ours, marked us in turn. It didn’t make them obsolete; sometimes it made them that much more valuable, that much more endearing. An old scar, a maimed rescue. A paperback held together with rubber bands. Jeans you couldn’t wear out of the apartment—we used to be able to wear our music that way.

This is not intended as an exercise in nostalgia, personal or historical, though nostalgia does have its place here, of a weirdly masochistic sort: for the sometimes maddening way our music misbehaved, and that we misbehaved with it, wrestling with the plastic-yet-resilient media in which it was embedded, and which we quite consciously took for it. Our suffering and our struggle created a relationship, a bond. A mutual devotion.

Without further ado, then, a very partial chronology of my three-legged dogs.


1981. When David Z. got Moving Pictures and Dirty Deeds for his thirteenth birthday, we played “Tom Sawyer” over and over until the kid who lived on the other side of David’s semi-detached house, who was a year or two older than us and wore a gold chain, told us to stop. That day left a groove in my ear. Or maybe a skip. Before I ever got a chance to tape Moving Pictures, this same neighbor got hold of it, and—so his story went—his little sister whacked the needle while the record was playing, right at the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” How convenient, having a younger sibling, particularly a younger sister, for a patsy. Maybe it was his way of getting revenge on us, for killing that song before it even had a chance to be born. Maybe he was calling attention to the fact that we were acting like a scratched record, picking up the needle and carrying it back to the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” Anyway, when I put David’s record on to tape it, the opening synth swoosh had been chopped in half; the record jumped right to a heavily-truncated first verse: “A modern day war—” and then into the main chord progression. That was the Moving Pictures I taped. I listened to it relentlessly. It was the only version of “Tom Sawyer” I knew, unless I happened to catch the song on the radio, or hear it at another friend’s house, until I bought Moving Pictures on cassette a year or two later.

1982. My store-bought cassette of 2112 was defective. In the last section of the side-long title track, Alex Lifeson is supposed to intone “We have assumed control” three times, and then whammy-bar the low E until the feedback rings out the song. But on my tape he said it only once, and then the music, the climactic, cataclysmic roar of “VI. Grand Finale,” abruptly stopped, followed by the tape itself, Click—this being a time when the technology of recording was not so far removed from that of mousetraps. On side 2, “A Passage to Bangkok” picked up with the last two notes of the “oriental riff,” and Geddy Lee started right in with “Our first stop is in Bo-gota,” etc. The opening unaccompanied guitar riff was entirely missing—which makes sense, as it was the other side of the same chunk of tape that should have contained the end of “2112.” I always figured that tape was fucked up, but never had the gall to return it. I mean, what if the much older, much cooler record store clerk looked me in the eye and said, “Retard, it’s supposed to end that way?” Could I really risk being that much of a loser? About my favorite band? And so I didn’t hear how “2112” really ended until I bought the live album All the World’s a Stage the following year. But that is an abridged live version, so how could I really say they hadn’t changed the ending for the concert? Here’s the real kicker: When I finally bought 2112 on record and heard the “real” end of “2112,” I was disappointed. In terms of endings, it’s by far the weakest of the three side-long suites the band produced, utterly deus ex machina, as abrupt and contrived in its way as my defective tape. At least the cut-off ending had a certain daring, an admission of failure, like one of those “O! Something!” Melville endings. Suffice to say it’s become quite precious to me now, all that missing music. Or at least “2112” has. “Bangkok” really suffered. The problem is I couldn’t put one back without the other.

1983. I’m still tight with Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, but there was period when I believed I should disparage it, a rite of passage, you might say, and what better way to do so than to record Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast right over top of it? I mean, steamroller that Billy Joel shit into oblivion. I remember the thrill of learning you could actually do this by stuffing wads of toilet paper into the square notches (a.k.a. love handles) in the corners of a cassette. Blank tapes had little tabs over these notches; after you made a recording, you were supposed to break them—the ends of scissors worked well for this—to safeguard the product. But it turned out that even if you broke the tabs, you could reverse the process with wadded toilet paper. And so you could repurpose any store-bought tape. In fact, you could record over anybody’s shit, if you had that sort of a mean streak in you. Man, I loved popping Billy Joel into the cassette player and having Maiden come out the speakers. Instead of “You May Be Right,” “In-VA-ders.” Maiden, my mighty Norsemen, severing the limbs and burning the corpse of that wretched Saxon Joel.

1983. I copied my friend’s Screaming for Vengeance record over one of my dad’s classical piano tapes. I’m sure I had his permission. (I’m not being ironic.) When I put the tape on, there was this lovely little piano lick—seven or eight climbing notes, lasting maybe a second and a half—and then, Bwaaaang!, “The Hellion,” SFV’s instrumental prelude, landed on it like an atom bomb. Here’s my best guess how this happened: Cassettes have about five seconds of lead before the magnetic tape begins. When you taped a record, you had to make sure to start recording after the lead; otherwise, the music would start before the magnetic tape did, and you’d miss the beginning. (In fact, since the piano lick starts in the middle of a phrase, this is likely what happened to my father—which was maybe why he gave me the tape to use.) The easiest way to skip the lead was to turn the wheels of the cassette manually, with a pen or your fingernail, until the black magnetic tape appeared, then insert it in the recorder, set PAUSE and RECORD, drop the needle, and un-PAUSE. But if you forwarded past the lead, and there was something already recorded on the tape … well, there it stayed. I still can’t listen to “The Hellion” without hearing that scant piano lick—it adds so much to the song it’s a shame the Priest didn’t think of it themselves. It probably helps that, in all these years, I’ve never been able to figure out what the piece is.

1985. I spent a lot of time this year copying classical records from my parents’ collection, including one of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. The ppppp introduction of the “Freude” theme is, as you may recall, bowed on the basses; and the dynamics of the symphony are such that, unless you’re blasting the whole thing—which I wholly endorse—you can’t even hear this introduction without turning the stereo way way way up. And even then you’ve got to crouch beside the speakers and hold your breath, feeling about as deaf as Beethoven. On that old record—or rather, the tape I made from it—the imperfections in the vinyl are louder than the basses; the theme is almost lost in the hiss; the music seems so insubstantial that the medium is straining to capture it, like neutrino tracks caught in miles of lead. There is something about being on the cusp of not hearing the beginning of that theme, those yearning basses so deeply buried in the hiss and crackle, rising as the theme develops and is distributed throughout the orchestra, that (for me) cannot be disassociated from the symphony itself. As though the limits of the medium reflected the very distance from which the theme had to travel to reach us, and the impossibility of our yearning as we try to reach through the material that stands between ourselves and the music, an otherworldly visitor. Such hamstrung listening was also about creating the figure of Beethoven for this impressionable and romantic teenager.

1986. When Judas Priest sold out with Turbo, I threw the jilted fan’s tantrum and recorded over all my Priest.* Or almost all. A lot of it, anyway. I kept two ninety-minute cassettes’ worth—I wasn’t quite so betrayed, I guess, that I couldn’t carefully preserve my favorite material: Unleashed in the East in its entirety, and select songs from the rest of their catalog—like an enraged divorcee stumbling out of the house with her favorite lamp tucked under one arm. The challenge was to keep certain songs on albums without using more tapes (one doesn’t squander precious resources on the Judas, the scab, the snitch). So I had to find equivalent-length songs to squeeze into the gaps created by the songs I was deleting. Of course, though I tried every possible mathematical combination, there were no exact matches, and three sides of those tapes (that is, the sides without the untouchable Unleashed in the East) are marked by unnaturally long gaps where I had to let silence fill the space until the next previously-recorded track. There is also at least one glaring error (“The Last Rose of Summer,” I think, partially retained). (N.B.: I had taped my Priest off a friend with whom I no longer spent time; he had taped my Maiden; this was typical of the symbiotic relationship that defined music trading in those days, i.e., pooled money, shared resources.)

1987. My record of Permanent Waves had a skip right where “Natural Science” moves into part 2, “Hyperspace,” so Geddy Lee would sing “Our causes can’t see their e-ffects,” followed by a short tom roll, and then the song would go on: “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects” (buddulup-bup-bup) “e-ffects,” etc. And not even on beat: the tom roll ended a little early, not quite a full measure, which in itself was tricky and sort of cool, at least the first few times, and, in hindsight, points the way toward a detour to some other relationship to my music, a perilous road not taken, at least until some years later.** Whenever I listened to that record, I had to remember to walk over to the turntable and knock the needle gently out of its groove so I could hear the rest of the song, and save myself and my band from the limbo of e-ffects (buddulup-bup-bup). Since I no longer had my store-bought cassette handy, just as happened with “Tom Sawyer,” I got used to hearing “Natural Science” this way until 2009 or so, when I found another copy in a crate of records someone was getting rid of in the basement of my Harlem co-op. The super had already taken his pick.

1991. The year of the Police Squad! mix (in color!), among the finest mixed tapes ever made. I hope its recipient, Patrick U., has kept it, with the intention of eventually bequeathing it to a museum. It paired choice late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock with snippets from the TV show Police Squad! (e.g.: “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” Leslie Nielson: “I’m a locksmith, and … I’m a locksmith.”) But as with so much of this time, it is also a recording of a process: walking down the stairs to where the TV/VCR was; setting the tape up in the little portable tape deck (the sort with the retractable handle in front of the deck and the single speaker behind it, the generation before the boombox); getting the VCR ready; waiting for the house to be quiet; recording open-air. Then trudging back upstairs to the living room, where the stereo with the CD and turntable was, to record a couple more songs; then back downstairs, etc. Of course it sounded good, the way the berries you pick taste better.

1993. At the end of my first year of grad school, I got a tape of An Anthology of Tom Waits from a friend; it was taped over a Vanilla Ice cassette that her Japanese students had given her as a gift. She had turned the label inside out, matching her purple cursive against their green print. I value the names of Vanilla Ice songs written in the hand of Japanese students I will never meet almost as much as my friend’s cursive … though neither as much, it must be admitted, as hearing “Ol’ 55” or “Diamonds on my Windshield” or “The Piano Has Been Drinking” or “Burma Shave” for the first time.

1998-9; 2002-3. An ambitious project of making salsa mixes from Latin music shows on Columbia’s WKCR 89.9—initially “Caribe Latino,” which used to air on Monday nights from 10-12, and then Friday Night’s “Mambo Machine,” as well as occasionally the cumbia show on Wednesday eves, and the Sunday-afternoon Latin shows on WBAI, although their yield was considerably lower. I wouldn’t hear the tapes until the next day or weekend, like they were traps set for crabs. (When the show was on I was usually grading papers with the volume all the way down, or out somewhere.) Had I (or my partner) flipped the tape without missing too much between sides? Had I gotten so lucky as to record the part of the show where the DJ rattled off names and artists? It was, to say the least, an imperfect process. There are tracks that cut off in the middle, and tracks that start in the middle, and tracks with gaps in their middles where the tape had to be flipped, though the bits I got, whether beginning or end or beginning and end, were too good to throw back into the sea. There were tapes that caught the first half-hour of the graveyard experimental/ambience program “Transfigured Night,” which was the first way I ever heard Runes, for example, and speaks to the happy accidents and contingencies that come of casting the net widely—you’d be surprised at the sort of things that lurk in the abyssal deeps of radio. And then there is one whole side of a 90-minute tape (I think it’s volume 7 of the 22 I managed to finish) where the radio signal was coming in … poorly. It was the Machito festival—KCR specializes in marathon broadcasts to celebrate artists’ birthdays and passings—and they were playing all this son stuff from the thirties, and where the fuck was I going to find that again, back in 1999? There are places where the static is so bad you can’t even hear the music. Maybe I was a fool to keep it. But there it is, Machito, fading in and out, and me like a ham radio operator, catching the electromagnetic waves from some Siberia of time, an echo-wave reaching me from deep in the past.


Enough. But I’ve barely scratched the surface. All those tapes glitched by the faulty connection in the white jack in the back of the receiver, so that the lefthand speaker crackled and made bands stutter (e.g., Maiden, “Die With Your Boots On”: “No point a-a-asking who’s to blame.”). The Forbidden Evil tape that would garble and unspool, a loop like a hernia, that my friend Pat F., who worked in the local video store, helped me to cut and splice, so that it worked again, but a couple of seconds of “Through Eyes of Glass” were lost, right as the song is leading into the second verse, “My mind is one, now has the crystal power,” etc. An entire post could be written about mixed tapes, audio letters and sentimental objects par excellence.

But to return to the issue of materiality. It might be argued that music exists somewhere beyond the medium of the recording, in some essence apart from it, and to seek perfection in technologies of reproduction is to allow us to better approach and perhaps capture its spirit. My Beethoven example above seems to suggest this, although it is encased in metaphor.

Yet, I would tend to the opposite: the recording is the music, or all we can have of it. Or, perhaps better put, the recording as a physical object exposes the essentially and inescapably material nature of music. And never moreso than when a recording is mangled or otherwise faulty. A music-phobic way to listen to music, then, to try to purify it of the very stuff from which it is made. To imagine bathwater and baby so essentially different. I think that we have lost a certain solidarity with the material world; and, lacking it, we have come to lack something in our relationship to art, which is, first and foremost, material.

And so, when I hear people talking about their high-fidelity systems, their 180-gram mint-condition vinyl, their thousand-dollar needles, their surround-sound speaker set-ups, their subwoofers that make the glass of water set upon their marble countertops shudder as if Jurassic Park’s T. Rex were walking by … how can I help but sigh? Give me ink smeared thick as frosting across a smooth white page. Give me a typewriter with a broken TAB key and a ribbon you have to rewind by hand, like the magnetic tape of a cassette. I want to be able to feel the way the nibs of different pens slide across surfaces of different kinds of paper, feel the ridge of the slight dent made by the typewriter keys, as though it were braille, hear the din of language being made in the smoking factory of thought. Give me a music, as much as a language, that I can touch. Speakers bowing under the weight of sound, smouldering oil lamps, sawdust and stale beer, the creak of old pews, or of an old guitar when a string is torqued one step higher.

Spirit, spirit, spirit. Haven’t we had enough of that? If I can’t touch it, can’t smell it, does it deserve to be called music?


* I have heard this sort of thing was widespread in 1991, when Metallica released the “black” album, and betrayed fans everywhere responded by etching out the Metallica from their collections. Two points follow. One, betrayal is, of course, a powerful way to create cohesion, and it might be said that Metallica’s apostasy produced the genre of thrash metal as a discrete historical object—that it couldn’t have become so without that boundary-forming betrayal (as, earlier, thrash bolstered its identity by defining itself against the apostasy of hair metal). Second, consider that Metallica’s apostasy is perched on the cusp of metal’s splintering into a number of subgenres. I have compared the circa-2005 thrash revival to the Second Great Awakening (“Burned-over,” 8.3.11), and now I wonder if a similarly fruitful comparison couldn’t be made to 1991: the mainstream deemed to have fallen away from the true faith, and the subsequent (or concomitant?) splintering of the genre into sects.

** Not to suggest that my relationship to music was entirely devoid of irony or humor. One of my first great mixing projects (with a friend) was to create a song composed of lines from Rush songs in combinations that made them ridiculous, like an audio version of those channel-changing cartoons in Mad magazine (e.g.: “We will call you Cygnus, god of/ [click] The hypocrites.”). And talk about seams: this mix was so primitive that it was pretty much nothing but seams. That said, there’s no question that we often need to be pushed out of our listening grooves, and, as at least two of the entries above suggest, such defects can open up new ways of listening. Not to add to hip hop apocrypha, but it’s not difficult to imagine that damaged vinyl played a role in the origins of sampling, just as scratching re-purposes the recording artifact for ulterior musical ends. (… But then where to put Steve Reich?)

Addendum, 5.25.16. On reflection, I think there is another reason why I tend to privilege recorded artifacts over streaming music from the web. It goes back to a comment sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris made about listening in the internet age, which I discussed in “T-shirts and Wittgenstein” (5.24.13): that the instant availability of music creates a “crisis of abundance,” leaving the listener without the time necessary to process, or engage deeply with, or fully reflect upon, what he or she hears. Recursivity and focus is replaced by breadth, and—this more an echo of the recent stream of publications about cognition and the net—the listening mind comes to mimic the web. In this regard, the artifact serves as a kind of stopper, the proverbial finger in the dike holding back the sea of music raging behind it; a means to manage the rate of access to new music that would otherwise deluge us. We might say this is a subsidiary role of all media: not just to provide access, but to limit, to act as a screen. To some, such a choice of listening habits may sound parsimonious, even Puritanical. I would prefer to think of it as Hellenic: the ideal of moderation, a means of maintaining or restoring some measure of (in this case) aesthetic health in an age of decline.

Two Quixotes

When I lived in the City, I used to spend my Friday afternoons tooling around the Village, working a well-worn route between used book and music stores, park benches and cafés. Generation Records, on Thompson a little north of Bleecker, was a frequent stop. One of the clerks there, with a badgery sort of face and most of his exposed flesh colorfully desecrated, was—likely still is—their resident metal expert, and now and then I would pick his brains about, say, a representative Wolves in the Throne Room album, or whether the new Deicide was available in an aerosol can.

One day I was in the basement flipping through discs toward the back of the alphabet, grinning at the relentlessly offensive names and cover art of bands and albums I would never hear. Said expert was playing something I thought I should recognize, but didn’t. I approached, inquired; he looked up and, eyes scourging me from under his tight-fitting commie-kitsch military cap, wordlessly stood a CD on the counter. It was Sepultura, Schizophrenia. Old Sepultura, clearly. Really old. And here I had thought Sepultura began with Beneath the Remains (1989). I was staring at a Sepultura album I didn’t know, Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, my Sepultura, proffered to me by someone who probably hadn’t yet been born when it came out.

Upstaged on my own turf by a coffee thug, I immediately wanted to talk about how I had seen Sepultura in their heyday, on the Arise (1991) tour, at a club in Madrid. About the posters I had seen around my Madrid neighborhood advertising the show: death squad on one end, Cavalera and his guitar on the other, facing them down, both cut out against a fire-orange background. About how I had tried to pull the poster down and hang it up in my apartment, but ended up tearing it.

I didn’t say anything.

Some months later I was in Baltimore visiting a friend, who related a somewhat similar experience to me. He works on an urban farm, and on weekends sells the produce in one or another of the city’s farmers’ markets. Who does he meet at one of these markets one weekend but a kid maybe half his age—a little older than his own son—who is enamored of ‘80s hardcore punk? We’re talking Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds et al. My friend was a skinhead back in the day, was still wearing his burgundy Doc Martens when we met in college. (Keeping the hair short was easy: we were swimmers.) When he told this kid that he had been into all those bands, had been to all those shows, had a milk crate full of old hardcore records in his basement, he immediately became an oracle.

Or should have. As it turned out, the kid was reading a book on the history of hardcore, and knew a hell of a lot about the scene that my friend, who had participated in it half a lifetime ago, was not aware of, or had forgotten.

Result: my friend bought the book. He claims to have learned a great deal.


Don_Quixote_6In Book II of Don Quixote, the ingenious knight encounters a duke and dutchess who know of his exploits from having read his “history.” He is famous, and, as is due any knight, becomes the guest of honor at their castle … and the butt of endless jokes, a grand entertainment. He appears as a character walked out of a romance, into the real world of the present (la actualidad). So my friend must have appeared to that temporally-displaced version of himself: as a character from a moment in cultural history. To be viewed as a splinter of a dead scene’s true cross, a living, breathing historical artifact, like a thawed mammoth: it gives one a glow, an aura, for people who value that moment, but whose contact with it is purely textual.

But in that encounter between one-time participant and passionate historian, we—forgive the transition to the plural pronoun—become texts, signs. We are there to be read, not listened to; we do not speak, but are spoken. We are nothing more than that (faint) aura that surrounds us, exhausts us. Disposable saints, transparent as icons, the better for them to project their desire upon, venerated not in ourselves, but for allowing the worshipper to get nearer to God: that fantastic, unrecoverable past. Like Don Quixote, we are at once honored and ironized, empowered and neutered.

Bits of pottery without pattern, we can’t hope to represent our time. So-called living history is always a disappointment; flesh is no match for text. For they finally know more than we do: all our rare butterflies, the ephemera and esoterica, patiently netted and impaled. Suddenly, we are forced to recognize that our knowledge of our time is piecemeal at best, that we are inadequate historians of ourselves, that we are not masters of ourselves—that we are in fact mastered by their agglomerate, abstract vision, that sees us as part of a comprehensible totality, an island from the air, the earth from space. They can click through our whole history in seconds, and file it away on a chip. Our time, our history, our selves, stripped to bits of information, small enough for them to hold in their hands. What is lost to us is weirdly present to them, more present, yet only through the phantom agency of language.

They know much too much about what we were like to ever be us. How can they hope to be us when we knew so little about ourselves?

Conversely, what is present to me—the ambience, the outrage, the trace sensory impressions and other memories, emotions and stories, all knotted together into a sort of umbilical cord—is mine and mine alone. I can’t claim to know more, only differently. My knowledge, such as it is, is more in my muscles and blood than in my brain, is bonded by things non-textual, things that can be expressed only obliquely, when at all. Experience fuddles text, creates gaps, swells seemingly meaningless moments, hazes everything. When I reminisce with friends, we are not sharing information, but performing a ritual.

What can it mean to that clerk at Generation that I tore that Sepultura poster trying to pull it down? Yet the image on the poster, the weatherbeaten paper … I can still feel it, gritty from the dirt blown onto it while it was still wet, stiff and brittle as parchment.

We may listen to the same music, but we hear something entirely different. I don’t hear the Jimi Hendrix that, say, Germaine Greer did, and I wouldn’t recognize E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Beethoven if he pulled up beside me on the street, horn blaring. My Hendrix is out there, like the house seen from the piazza; the albums, the documentaries, the guy in Salt Lake who fixed my guitar and who saw Hendrix in ’68, are as close as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be able to strap myself to his Marshall cabinet, like to the mouth of a cannon, and experience the thrilling Liebestod of that opening chord. The left-handed general lowers his sword, Brrrang. Nor did my mother bring my infant self to Woodstock, like she did to the TV the night men landed on the moon. My love for him may be deep as the ocean, but my Hendrix is facts spinning around an absent center. Or at least, a different one.

Don Quixote is maybe too literary a figure to describe our experience. No one could be more loquacious, and his surprised interlocutors always comment on how his opinions are as judicious as his vision and actions are mad. In the event that I do speak, I feel more like one of those mechanical presidents on Disneyworld’s Main Street, who recite something sententious, patriotic, and very much in character about U.S. history. My mouth moves like a dummy’s, my eyes light up; when I am finished talking, I freeze again. They will get no more from me—everything else my body jealously guards—and no closer to the Thing Itself.

Half the time, the nickel gets stuck in my throat. Better to sit and wave, like an effigy on a parade float, and try to make my halo obvious as I pass by, and perform gestures as though to bless them.

The genius of the second volume of the Quixote—a genius which far surpasses the first—is in its transformation of the world into text: the duke and dutchess participate in writing the second volume, make themselves characters in Don Quixote’s legend. The madness of the knight transforms the world, which is revealed to be just as much fantasy and theater. So forgive us, young lovers of ‘80s metal and hardcore punk, if, in our roles as characters in your drama, we end up textualizing you as well. The book is reading you even as you read it. You are just as much a ghost. Your costume of me is a little baggy; you don’t quite fit my scene’s drama.

And yet, that is the only way I have myself: textually. I can’t resurrect myself as the monster I was, and were I to try, I would be no less baggy than you. And perhaps I’m gratified to see myself refracted in people half my age, listening to the music that that mythical we did. Amused, moved, the way we are by Don Quixote.

We’re not tilting at windmills, my friend and I. We’ve never tried to live in a mythical past, or to re-live our own. They are at least as much Quixotes as we are: driven mad by electronic libraries infinitely vaster than the knight’s, and by a text, music, infinitely more seductive than the epic of Amadis de Gaula. Because it convinces us, somehow, that it is more than text, that it captures an essence, that it bores a hole in time. That through it, and only through it, I, and my friend, and the clerk at Generation, and the young man at the farmers’ market, touch. What can we, the duke and the dutchess, do but play along?


Goodbye, Music Library!

      Among my handful of sacred places in New York—those cafés, gardens, and institutional spaces where I can best study, write, meditate, mosey, and otherwise get in tune with the Am and Is—I would include the music library of City College.

The library is housed at the southwest end of that beautiful neo-gothic monument Shepard Hall, a block away from my old Convent Avenue apartment. Shepard is shaped like an anchor, or a flexing cross, with the tall tower at the crown, the Great Hall for a shank, and the library in the half-rotunda where the shackle would be. (In cathedral terms, the hall would be the nave, and the library located under the apse.) The library has two floors, with listening carrels on the second, entry level, and the stacks and reading room on the first, accessed by way of a narrow staircase that turns twice, to the left on the way down, to the right on the way up. The stairs are wood, as is much of the work around the doors and upstairs windows. What with the woodwork, the two floors, and the cathedral environs, it reminds me, fittingly, of an organ. Unlike an organ, however, the library tolerates a charming amount of illogic—the improbably narrow staircase, for example. I don’t think you could get a cello down those stairs, let alone a bass.

I love this library for how small and self-contained it is. I loved the Marriott Library at the University of Utah (where I went to grad school) for the latter reason, and for the same reason feel little connection with the New York Public Library: none of the individual branches are adequate to themselves. The Performing Arts library at Lincoln Center is better in this regard, but still too diffuse … and, perhaps, too well-traveled. The music library at City can get a little busy during exam time, probably spillover from the Cohen, City’s main library. During the regular semester, though, there are rarely more than ten people there at any one time. This space filled with recordings, with notes, and with words about music basks in a near-monastical silence.

The Marriott had the kinds of stacks that rewarded careful, curious, passionate browsing. I would always go in looking for one or a few books, and walk out with a pile. I never wrote down call numbers very clearly—I couldn’t, not with those nubbins of pencils, on those business-card-size bits of scrap paper. So I could only ever get into the general vicinity of a book. And then I would have to browse, not by call number, but by title. Digging around, I would find a dozen other titles, some better than the ones I believed I’d come for. (It’s always more pleasant to ballpark, isn’t it, to have to ask, to get turned around, to play Marco Polo with wisdom. Every good book has a measure of serendipity about it.)

The music library multiplies the rewards for such browsing because it is organized around a single subject, and its collections are the cumulative reflection of the taste, wisdom, and judgment of the librarians and the faculty of the music department at City College, of a century (more or less) of thoughtful scholarship and librarianship.* And so, unlike at the University of Utah, where I used to set off with a half-legible call number for a compass and a walking-stick, a trip downstairs in the music library requires no call number at all—just a good bit of time, a bunch of questions you haven’t quite been able to formulate, and a lot of tunes that never leave your head.

Some days I would pick a stack at random and go through title after title, pulling books off the shelves, opening to the table of contents, or to a random page, in an odd, secular gesture at bibliomancy. After I had gone through a few shelves this way—sometimes all the way down to the floor—I might bring a few books over to one of the carrels under the arched, barred windows looking out onto the quad. For a sort-of basement, it gets nice light, particularly in the spring and early fall, when the sun has begun to go down behind the clock tower, and the light splashes across the tables, sometimes too warm and bright to work in. On those days, at that hour, from the steps of the North Academic Center, Shepard Hall looks like the Cathedral of Ys risen from the waves.

I have sat on the floor amid the stacks, too, my books piled in the space past the metal bookends, stumbling upon bits of musical esoterica—connections between Renaissance music and bird songs; the story behind the naming of Damrosch Park—scribbling down titles for future reference, occasionally taking books out, racking up enormous, humiliating, bankrupting fines, to be paid only after much arguing and whining and weaseling.

At least, at the Cohen. Never here. One must stay on good terms with one’s sacred spaces.

I return my books with pencil marks in them, after I have reached the limit of possible renewals, or have been threatened with losing borrowing privileges, knowing that in a few months, or years, or a decade, when I need that book again, I can go back to the same place in the stacks, find my old copy, and my marks again, and perhaps, finally, take notes, and erase the marks, at least some of them, and so return a clean(er) copy, and begin to set my accounts right with the universe.

I have spent afternoons there, too, my unsanctioned coffee thermos hidden in one of the nearby carrels, diligently plugging away at counterpoint homework, or parsing examples from Aldwell and Schachter, or writing out the first draft of some piece bound for the Pit Stop, or copying articles I am thinking of using for my Writing About Music class … or, of course, grading papers, while students paced up and down Convent Avenue and the shadows of the bars started to creep across the carrels.

And then before I knew it, it would be almost five o’clock: the closing announcement is made, and the blind man—the one I used to see walking to school, arm locked with a friend’s or good samaritan’s—emerges from one of the labs and rings the elevator. At Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work, the main library would close at midnight; and, if you happened to be there at that hour, you could participate in the pilgrimage across the quad to the “Hut,” the all-night library on the bottom floor of Gilman Hall. Gilman is the only academic building I know that held a candle to Shepard—held, because it was renovated a few years ago, and many of its most fantastic quirks removed. Leaving the music library at five, I could have relived (as farce) this memory by turning left, heading over to the Cohen; the flukes of the anchor may be buried in St. Nicholas Park, but the shackle points toward the Cohen, as though the newer structure were a vessel tethered to the older one by an invisible rope. Instead, I always went right. This much hasn’t changed. The difference is that I don’t live a block north anymore, but a thousand. I can’t see Shepard Hall out my window. But I can still imagine it, tiny and far below me, I tethered not by rope, but by a string, as the kite I cling to dips and flaps.

I suppose part of what made the music library sacred was that it allowed me to try on another identity. If I always crossed the upper floor quickly, making a bee-line for the stairs, maybe it’s because I felt a little like a charlatan, and was trying not to be noticed. Once, when I borrowed the score for the “Waldstein” sonata (for “Of Liszt and Other Ghosts”), the librarian, who directed me to the right area in the stacks, counseled me that these were mini-scores—fine to read, but not to play from. I assured her that I was in no way capable of playing the “Waldstein,” that I merely intended to read it. But even that was a bit of a ruse. I was like a man with a third-grade education walking around with a copy of Ulysses, just so he could run his finger along the lines and mouth the strange words to himself, marveling at the incantatory nature of the language.

For a writer, that edge—between two identities, two modes of representation, two disciplines—at once inside and outside—is the most natural of places. The erotic gaps between, as Barthes might have put it; the places where knowledge gapes. The music library is the space where, for me, those gaps appear, in the fantasy that always accompanies the word.


* And, of course, the realities of public school budgets. Still, I remember the first time I realized that I, as a faculty member, could request that the library order books. It was a dizzying confluence of responsibility and irresponsibility. I was helping to direct the purchases on which the future of an institution depended. I was standing with a shopping cart at the entrance of a fantasically large bookstore, watching the man with the starter’s pistol.

Bartok, Salt Lake, Emerson & Me

The jazz guitar instructors at the University of Utah liked to tell us, their Intro Jazz Guitar students, that we were much maligned by the rest of the music department. It’s true that we were a motley-looking bunch. Many of us weren’t even music majors. We were drawn from all corners of the university: architecture, engineering, and in my case, English. This was the fall of 1992, and I had just entered the “U of U” as a graduate student. I was supposed to take two classes a quarter, for a total of eight credits. Full-time status, however, required nine, without which I wouldn’t be able to defer my loans. Eventually I found out that I could take one credit of “independent study,” to be used toward my dissertation. But in my happy ignorance I went looking for an undergraduate class to make full time. Music Theory wouldn’t have me—the class was packed with majors—so I opted for Jazz Guitar.

The guitar class turned out to be a great way to refresh between teaching freshman writing in the morning and taking graduate classes in the afternoon. Three days a week I’d lug my guitar halfway across the U of U’s sprawling campus, down from the Medical Plaza apartments at the base of the Wasatch foothills, to Orson Spencer Hall, where the English department was housed. I’d leave the guitar in my cubicle while I went to teach. Then I’d carry it across the rest of campus, down the hill and one leg of the horseshoe of President’s Circle, to David Gardner Hall. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t even the class that helped; just going into the music building, another world within the balkanized world of academia, was purging.

Across the hall from the guitar class, Ardean Watts, then-director of the University Symphony Orchestra, was holding his own “class.” It was called “Music for Pure Enjoyment.” Coming up the stairs, I’d run smack into a bulletin board, the sign tacked there promising “No analysis!” Underneath would be the program for the week. He did the entire cycle of Mozart piano concertos that fall, and if memory serves, selections by Schoenberg, Vaughan-Williams, and Beethoven. Although he always chose the program, Watts invited students to bring in their favorite recordings of the programmed pieces.

But the day I walked out of guitar class and, rather than going down the stairs, timidly crossed the hall and sat down, Watts and a few others were immersed in Béla Bartók’s string quartets. As the narrator of a Ken Burns documentary would say: It was like nothing he had ever heard before. Except Ken Burns says that so many times it ends up sounding like bullshit. To me, it really was like no music I had ever heard before. I didn’t even think a violin could sound like that. It was as if I had walked in on the middle of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and listened for a minute before someone deigned to tell me that, by the way, I was listening to a guitar.

I didn’t tell Watts that, of course. He was a charming old man with a long white goat’s beard and a tremor. He would sit among the students who had happened to wander in that day, sometimes just listening, sometimes engaging his fellow listeners in conversation. He was too enthusiastic ever to sound pedantic. Like everything he had to tell you about music was the most wonderful secret in the world. I didn’t answer him when he told me that Bartók’s compositions were “so logical,” because my first thought was, So was Manson. He must have assumed I was more musically literate than I was—he mustn’t have noticed the guitar. Because for me, there was (and still is) something in the quartets’ apparent lack of logic, their unpredictability, their constant shifting between ideas, as if they were being made up on the spot, that excited me.

Watts also told me that Bartók was the greatest innovator of the string quartet after Beethoven. He brought out the score, which I perused, though I was unable to follow it to the music. Before I left, he showed me the compact disc case: four young men in tuxes, holding up their instruments like proud fisherman showing off their catches of the day. I scribbled down the name.

One day after walking in on “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” I drove over to Discriminator Records (an all-classical music store in Salt Lake, sadly many years gone) and bought the Emerson Quartet’s recording of the six string quartets by Béla Bartók. For a while I listened to a quartet a day. Then I listened to them in pairs, evens and odds, by period, by movement. I quickly learned that I had walked in on the third and fourth quartets, the most dissonant of the bunch, although it’s likely any of them would have affected me in the same way.

Before “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” my understanding of Bartók’s music had been based solely on a few of his orchestral works: The Miraculous Mandarin suite, which had terrified me as a child, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Listening to the quartets, however, re-introduced these familiar pieces to me, forcing me to hear them in a new way. Ironically, though Bartók was himself a pianist, and piano was the instrument most familiar to me, his concertos and works for solo piano have taken much longer to grow on me. This may be a broader problem of the percussiveness of the piano in modern music … except that in other modern composers, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, that very percussiveness often thrills me. Maybe Bartók was just too much the gypsy; I always imagine him carting his wax cylinders between villages in the Carpathians, recording folk music, a task he believed was more important than composing original works. In my favorite photo, he sits at a desk stacked with books, transcribing with his left hand, the horn of a phonograph beside his right ear.


I am sure I’m not the only one who came to know the Emerson Quartet through Bartók, or vice-versa. As the program for their fall 1995 performance of the entire cycle of Bartók’s quartets at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall noted, Bartók has been “something of a cause” for them. They certainly play him as if he were a cause: honed to a near-military rigor, plaintive, demanding. The grueling three-and-a-half hours (with two intermissions) that are required to play all six quartets can only be explained as a cause. I don’t know that they’ve repeated the feat since. Not that they’ve ignored Bartók or anything. They may not play him all the time, or even as often as I’d like; but the quartets are still pretty regularly included in their programs (last August it was the sixth, at the new Alice Tully Hall).

I think discovering the Emerson Quartet represented something else for me, too, something in which Bartók played a role. So many of the classical performers I had listened to were of my parents’ generation or older, because it was my parents’ music, my parents’ records. It was an inherited taste. In my young adulthood, that taste was just beginning to be reshaped under the pressures of new musical discoveries. And now here was a quartet not much older than I, playing a “classical” music that sounded utterly fresh to my ears. So my taste in “classical” music needn’t be preserved in amber, carried around as a sentimental object shaped like home. It was much more dynamic than that. By extension, “classical” music itself needn’t be treated—as its very name damns it to be—like a museum exhibit, endowed with a transcendent authority that simultaneously robs individual pieces of their language. It, too, was something vital, changeable, and renewable.

In the two chances I had to see the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake, as part of the Chamber Music Society’s series, they followed the standard concert-program formula of two classical or romantic pieces to one modern or contemporary.* At the time, the decision to include any modern or contemporary music on the program seemed daring—the “cause” mentioned in the Avery Fisher Hall program, and the reason performers who play contemporary music are invariably described as its “champions.” But to really explain why I thought this was daring requires a bit more context.

Salt Lake City is much more diverse today (religiously, ethnically, and politically) than when I first moved there. The geography of this diversity, however, is probably about the same as when I left a decade ago: a mostly Hispanic working-class west side; a liberal/radical population ensconced in “the avenues” on the foothills around the university and a few other pockets in or near downtown, mostly transplanted from other places (like California); and a conservative, mostly Mormon and native (or, when not native, Californian or Pacific islander) population living pretty much everywhere else. As an out-of-towner, an east-coaster, and an ersatz New Yorker when I wanted to put on airs, I saw the Emersons as the envoys of a dissonance that the staid harmonies of the Beehive State could not tolerate.

Never mind that I had been introduced to this music in Utah, among music students and teachers who were likely much more conservative than I. Never mind that, relatively speaking, Bartók was a pretty conservative composer—I still didn’t know what “postwar” meant in musical terms, and my fusiony conception of jazz was only just beginning to be unsettled by Monk and Coltrane. Never mind, for that matter, Big Bill Haywood, or Joe Hill. No, never mind any of that: I went not just to hear the Emerson Quartet, but to champion a modern music I was sure many in the audience would find intolerable. I got what I asked for, both times: Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 the first time around, and the second, a 1994 piece by the American composer Ned Rorem, which the quartet had commissioned. Some members of the audience tittered, some crossed their arms like the music was arguing with them, some shook their heads and tugged on their wives’ complacent blouse-sleeves. I left feeling clearly superior, lamenting my extended sojourn among the philistines. Back home—not Jersey, but the avenues—I listened to Bartók while my Deadhead roommate chain-smoked Camels and the snow came down hard outside. He was a communications doctoral student from Michigan who liked to drop acid and listen to two different things on the stereo simultaneously. He thought the Bartók sounded cool. And so together we waved the flag of Difference, waved our freak-flag high, standing in the foothills above the city, and watching the storms roll in over the valley.

Today, I look back at what I had there—not just the exposure to a culture of ideas that came from being a grad student in a school full of brilliant people, but those tightly-knit arts and activist communities, driven together by opposition to a dominant culture that was itself less monolithic than I had presumed it to be—and wonder what I was so anxious about. (I’m sure I was already wondering this the second time I moved away, at the end of 2001; it’s always harder leaving mountains the second time.) In a sense, the Bartók quartets were of a piece with everything I was doing in my classes—Derrida and Beckett, Genet and Baldwin, Bataille and Melville. My standard line about hearing the quartets for the first time was that they rewired my brain. But that was just a particularly dramatic instance of something that, in a more subtle way, was going on the whole time I was in grad school. And I think it is the cumulative impact of a thousand such revelations, from the most mundane to the most mind-shattering, that bonds us to the humanities, to the arts and culture, and makes us as eager as Watts was to try to share that in the classroom. Like the sign said: “Music for Pure Enjoyment.”

* The first half of this post (and a few sentences in the second) is a revision of something I wrote in 1996 or thereabouts, shortly after a performance by the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake. Although I couldn’t find a place for the descriptive passage that follows in the new version, I enjoyed rediscovering it, and so include it as an addendum: Phillip Setzer, violinist, is petite, curly-haired, and dreamy-eyed, a miniature Tony Curtis. He displays a gravity that sets the tone for the quartet as a whole. From the first moment, at least during the more rhythmic passages, he sways madly. Next to him, Eugene Drucker, the other violinist, is heavier-set and less animated than Mr. Setzer; he keeps one eyebrow raised like Leonard Nimoy, the eye zeroed slantways on the music before him, a cowlick plastered to the eyebrow-side of his forehead, his bow-tie a little crooked. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is tall and gangly, sized for the viola the way Setzer is for the violin. His hair is streaked with grey, and he doesn’t so much hug his instrument, as the violinists inevitably do, as try to surround it. Rather than swaying, he rocks the instrument on its axis, fingers walking the neck like spiders. I’ve never managed to see Dutton as well as I’d like, because I always choose a seat in the auditorium where he his half-turned from me. But maybe this is only so I can better observe the cellist, David Finckel, who is my favorite. Leaning back with the instrument poised against him, so that it seems like a giant belly, his feet turned out, he is as much the visual as the sonic anchor of the quartet. The posture gives him a deceivingly sated appearance; he is actually the most active member. Because unlike the others, who hardly glance away from their music, Mr. Finckel’s eyes are as mobile as Charlie Chaplin’s. [N.B.: I’m indebted to Gerald Mast for this observation, in Film/Cinema/Movie.] They dart from Dutton to Setzer, Setzer to Drucker, expressing variously the enormity of his undertaking, to a kind of embarrassment at some inaudible mistake, to satisfaction at a well-rendered phrase. Somehow, these four very distinct human beings create a marvelously coherent sound, as if forged from a single consciousness.

Vinyl Pasts

Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and The J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame were the first two albums I ever bought, and I bought them on cassette. A few years later, I switched to records. I’m still not sure why. Maybe I heard somewhere that vinyl sounded better, but I doubt it. I hardly listened to my records; I would immediately tape them onto one of those TDK SLII-90 blank cassettes. An LP would fill about one side, together with an EP B-side if the album was a little short. If it was maddeningly long (say 48 minutes … just too long for the extra two or so minutes you always got on a “45 minute” side), it went by itself onto a TDK SLII-60, with EP fillers again, if necessary. The records would then go into a milk crate, my version of a reliquary, where they became proper objects of devotion.

If records were sacred relics, tapes were the opposite: relentlessly personalizable, a place to practice band logos, doodle scenes of medieval violence, crack private jokes, and list all sorts of useless information on those very inviting lines that appeared when you flipped the label inside-out. Man, we worked on those cassette labels like prisoners sculpting in soap.

Like a lot of people, when I hit my mid-twenties my taste in rock music froze. I stopped trying to keep up with the constant flurry of new bands and splintering scenes. Besides, there was this whole other genre of music called jazz that I was eager to explore, and which sated my desire for the “new,” even though the vast majority of it seemed to have been recorded before I was born, and most of the practitioners I was listening to were dead. My taste moved on from there, to modern chamber music, flamenco, free jazz and salsa. If I wanted to listen to rock, I could always put on something I’d listened to in high school, or college, or early grad school.

By my mid-twenties I had also moved into buying music in the relatively new medium of compact discs, and for several years I didn’t bother to buy anything on vinyl, except for the occasional dirt-cheap classical record at a garage or library or radio station sale. Then two things happened. First, I started listening to new(er) rock music again—metal bands that had popped up in the mid-to-late nineties, as well as non-metal acts that attracted my attention (Calexico, Radiohead). Second, for whatever reason, I decided to reinvestigate the roots and branches of “my” music from the seventies and eighties. And this meant, somewhat inscrutably, going back to vinyl.

My collection of rock records from the seventies and eighties had always been supplemented by my friends’ collections, and theirs by mine, so that if, say, Andrew had X album by band A, I would buy Y album, and then we would tape them off of each other. As a result, my record collection was maddeningly incomplete, although I probably never felt it as such until I had lost touch with those friends with whom I had shared this music. I had a lot of Rush and Voivod and Testament and Metallica and Maiden, but little Zeppelin or Priest or Slayer or Megadeth or Floyd, which I had mostly taped. There were also certain bands and artists that I hadn’t gotten into until late college or post-college, like (believe it or not) Black Sabbath, when I was already buying everything on CD. Looking at my record collection was like looking in a mirror and seeing only half of my face.

Now, there is no logical reason why, when I started to pick up the old albums I didn’t have on vinyl, I couldn’t just buy them on CD. Most of my friends happily re-bought all their vinyl on CD in the ‘90s. But somehow, when I went to buy the ‘80s metal, ‘70s prog rock, and ‘60s classic rock I never had, or never wanted—again, inscrutably—I had to buy it on vinyl.

Hang in there, now—I know this all seems a bit too navel-gazing, and you’re wondering at this point whether you should actually give a shit. But have you ever stared at your navel so long that it starts to look … well, a little funky? Like maybe it’s not even your navel? (You can mentally italicize either “your” or “navel” in that last fragment-question.) Have you ever fallen into your navel, like Alice into her rabbit-hole?

Until about five or six years ago, my record collection represented a period of vinyl-buying that lasted from about 1984 to 1991. Over the last several years, however, I’ve started adding to it again—buying those missing records I only had on home-mixed cassettes, yes; or that I had only bits and pieces of from friends’ mixed tapes, and never, for whatever reason, got around to getting in their entirety—Exodus’s Bonded By Blood is a good example; or albums that I didn’t like in their entirety, and so, according to the endlessly-malleable analog world we used to inhabit, I had recorded edited versions onto mixed tapes myself. But then I’ve also started buying records by bands I didn’t listen to at the time or the moment, but feel like I should have. Example: given my prog rock-classical music background, it took me a while to break down and start listening to the more noisy, minimal thrash bands. I resisted Metallica until after Master of Puppets, Slayer more fiercely, arguing with myself about the un-musicality of it all, arguments that continued even after I had begun listening to them regularly. This is one reason I only ever had 1988’s South of Heaven on vinyl. But how can any self-respecting middle-aged metalhead have a record collection without Reign in Blood, the most pummeling, aggressive, hate-cathartic album ever recorded? That TDK SLII-90 I used to tape Arjun’s record back in 1986, black-pen blood droplets and a pentagram on the spine, just didn’t cut it. I was like a cardinal with a styrofoam crucifix.

These are dangerous things to say publicly. I risk losing a rather hard-fought identity. Because I was always identified as a metalhead, and so got used to calling myself one. In those days, once you listened to one metal album you were sort of lumped in with the crowd; the idea that you actually discerned among music in a genre that the bulk of the population regarded as “noise,” as “just screaming,” or that you listened to other things, too … well, that was preposterous. And so a sort of chute is formed for you, and you embrace whatever is at the end. I imagine most people’s identities are forged in just this way, via these complex negotiations between resistance and acquiescence.

By buying up all those records I didn’t have—not just the Judas Priest and Nuclear Assault and Death Angel albums I had taped in part or in whole off of friends, but also the Black Sabbath and AC/DC and Dio and Slayer albums I resisted, or didn’t much care for, or even outright disparaged—I am correcting my past. I am flexing my consumer muscle in order to create a version of who I might have been, perhaps should have been, according to who I have become. That I am doing this materially, via a consumer artifact, is crucial; for this way I can mold my memory, and hence my identity, to fit the evidence before me. Because if I became a metalhead partly by dint of being identified as one, then the external evidence is that much more persuasive. To others, yes; but first and foremost to myself.

And what a perfect choice of commodities: records! Grooves in pressed vinyl! It partakes of both the permanence of the engraving and the malleability of the material upon which the grooves are made. It is arguably a better metaphor for memory in the age of mass consumption than Freud’s mystic writing pad. It can even be played at varying speeds, and spun backwards …

As I said, in truth—in truth—I came to some of this music reluctantly, even kicking and screaming, arguing with myself about the aesthetic paradox and poring over Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my very early twenties for guidance and solace, before abandoning the paradox and embracing the aesthetic, so to speak. But it doesn’t matter now, because the vinyl is right there, and it speaks more clearly than memory ever could. It admits no paradoxes; it is uncontradictory, self-identical. And it says otherwise. I have become the image of what people always believed I was—a musical scoundrel—and perhaps what I most wanted to be for them, in whose eyes I needed to complete my identity, rather than what I truly was—what I truly was—which was surely more slippery, much much more slippery—what never exists in such a clear consistent outline as that persona we adopt in others’ eyes, the impressed circle of a record on a paper sleeve—and which is what, for all the emendations and distortions inherent to writing, or rather because of them, these words are here to correct, or perhaps more accurately, to counterbalance, to undermine, to goad …

I’m being a little facetious, of course, a little unfair; I’m having fun with myself at my own expense; the writing begs it of me. And then there is that part of me that imagines I am trying to assemble a collection that is “representative” of the genre, that is in some way “canonical,” that reflects a more “mature” vision … but representative of what, precisely?

All this is why I can never buy new vinyl—those beautifully-packaged, carefully weighed-and-measured re-pressings (mind the pun) of old records, weighing twice as much, “mint,” perfect-sounding (as if there were such a thing as perfect vinyl). I still have the hundred-dollar Pioneer turntable I bought on Route 22 in the mid-eighties. I’ve replaced the needle a few times, sure. But if my records sound a little old, all the better. After all, I’m constructing an illusion of my taste at a particular time; how would new vinyl help? Better to have a bit of scuff and dogeared corners … but not too much! Remember, I taped my records and then put them away, so the ones I bought new are in very good condition. I listen to them more now than I ever did then. And with each spin they become that much more persuasive.


Ding-dong! “They’re here? Quick! Hide the Norah Jones! Hide the Macy Gray! Hey, hey! What? Elton John? Elton John! Oh Jesus, for the love of God—hide the fucking Elton John!”


“Did you guys ever write a song so epic that, by the end of it, you found you were influencing yourselves?” – Steve Colbert, interviewing the members of the band Rush

The other day I listened to Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” from their second album, Fly By Night (1975). This was the first song where the band showed an interest in moving beyond the straight-ahead rock they had been playing around Toronto bars for the previous half-decade, and into the proggier style that would come to dominate their sound for the next half-decade: from the first concept side (remember sides?) “The Fountain of Lamneth” on Caress of Steel later the same year (not to mention the 13-minute suite “The Necromancer” on the same album), to the last one, “Hemispheres,” in 1978, and the two half-side masterpieces “Natural Science” and “Camera Eye” in 1980 and ’81. “By-Tor” is a hair under nine minutes long—only a minute and a half longer than either the ballad to restlessness “Here Again” or the pipefitter anthem “Working Man,” both on the debut album Rush (1974)—yet utterly different in tone, structure, and subject matter. The lyrics are a Tolkienesque fantasy narrative; and rather than an extended jam, the song is a suite, divided into four subtitled sections, the last two of which do things with time and timbre that the band would not have attempted a year earlier, and which crop up on some of the shorter songs on Fly By Night as well.

Listening to “By-Tor” today makes me think of the ribbon of woods running behind the houses along the street where I grew up. The actual wooded area was never more than 50 yards wide; in some places, it petered to a row of trees along someone’s split-rail fence; it was a quarter-mile long at most. None of this mattered; we (the kids on the street) called the network of footpaths traversing them “The Trails,” and gave different sections epic names according to their geography, like “Spider Mountain” for a hill that was covered with brambles. The Trails were a sliver that fell, somehow, between property lines—as if anything in our society actually could—and so we appropriated them: they became our property, in the same way rock ‘n’ roll was our property, if only because our parents disclaimed it.

Going back there today is like going back to your old grammar school and looking your first-grade teacher in the eye. There’s noplace where you can’t see the back of somebody’s house … noplace where “The Trails” don’t reveal themselves for anything but what they actually are. So it is with “By-Tor”: Across the Styx. Of the Battle. Bombastic names for bits of a nine-minute piece of pretty simple music. Even the “suite” just masks an elongated verse-chorus-bridge structure.

Yet, there is a difference, and it’s part of the magic of music that I can still so easily fall into a more youthful view. I can’t see The Trails anymore the way I saw them when I was ten, but I can hear music at least something like how I used to. My ear is easier to trick than my eye, and my memories—as well as my imagination—lie much closer to the surface in sounds, scratching, hammering at my eardrums from the inside.

Which is not to say I don’t listen differently than I used to. I do. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is a song I never much cared for when I was younger. Today, it charms me like an old music box. The easy rollicking chords of the verses, the youthful energy, the directness of approach, the naïve faith with which the music approaches the story (“Of the Battle” features a duel between a growling bass (“By-Tor,” according to a note under the picture of Geddy Lee) and a squeaking guitar (“Snow Dog”))—all these things resonate with me today in a way that the elements of the song that are supposed to signify art-rock complexity (e.g., the time-screwy riff from which the band subtracts one note at a time to end “Of the Battle”; it could have come right out of a Bartok quartet) don’t. For all its pretense, “By-Tor” is indeed just a long rock song, the kind of song a very young band writes when they’re dreaming of epics-to-be.

But then perhaps all epics are relative. And if so, then it should be conversely noted that the grandest symphonies can sometimes seem paltry, the work of children playing at the sublime, as much as an art-rock “opera” or “concept album” can sound like kids who think that, by mussing their hair a little, they’ll sound like Beethoven. If the essence of music is (as E.T.A. Hoffmann so forcefully contended) that Romantic yearning for the infinite, then by definition music comes up short. “By-Tor” may be like the woods behind the house where I grew up, but Beethoven’s Fifth is hardly the Alps in fog, no matter how many of those old Kultur videos I watch. (They were, and perhaps still are, notorious for interspersing performance footage with either pastoral or sublime landscapes.)

Epics are always also retrospective: they exist to inflate events from the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past, to “realize” them in mythologically-pristine form, and so loom large in cultural memory, in the same way the woods behind my old house do in individual memory. Epics, then, are a particular mode of looking backwards, and as such it’s only fitting that they themselves should be outgrown, should themselves be looked back upon from a vantage unimaginable to the time in which they were composed. I remember staring at a map of the action of the Argonautica and marveling inwardly at the way the narrative had magnified a trip from the Greek isles up the Hellespont and along the southern coast of the Black Sea. Perhaps Apollonius thought the same of Odysseus’s travels; and the explorers of the sixteenth century surely thought it about Jason, and the men on the moon, too, about Vasco de Gama, each old cosmos folded inside a newer one, like Russian dolls. And yet, just as quickly as we outgrow epics, we happily shrink ourselves to fit inside them again. It’s one promise music makes, and occasionally keeps: that we can return to inhabit the epic imagination, in a way we can’t really return to the woods behind the houses where we grew up, except in dreams.

Life in the Upper Balcony

I wrote a version of this a couple of years ago on the occasion of Alfred Brendel’s final performance (Carnegie Hall, February 8th, 2008), but never had anyplace beyond a drawer to stick it. I’ll occasionally be revising and posting older pieces, particularly during these, the most relentless times of the semester, when I seem to be able to start things but not finish them. FYI, the posting hiatus is also partly due to my computer having gone kaput. A reminder to all ye who pass this way: have ye backed up your files recently? Well, have ye?

I was watching Alfred Brendel’s final performance when it occurred to me that, were we to cross paths on a busy sidewalk, there is a good chance I wouldn’t recognize him. In person, I’ve mostly only seen the top of his head, so that when I try to call him up to my mind’s eye, his face appears foreshortened, all wrinkled brow and wispy hair. For me to recognize Brendel, I thought, he would have to approach me with his head bowed and cocked to one side—a posture that might seem obsequious, or threatening, or just plain ridiculous, depending, I guess, on his speed.

Then it occurred to me that I would recognize none of the pianists I had seen at Carnegie Hall over the last thirty-odd years, except as imagined above. Like a helium balloon, I have always managed to stick as close to the ceiling as possible.

It’s a money thing, of course. Buying better seats would reduce the total number of concerts I could attend. This was always my father’s argument; I grew up, in a sense, in the Balcony. (An old joke, at least in my family: “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou, Romeo?” “In the Balcony—it’s cheaper!”) And though I may not have two kids or parking or tolls to pay, the ledger-book approach to classical concertgoing has remained my rule of thumb into adulthood. My standard line at the Carnegie Hall box office at the beginning of every season: “Balcony” (which, since I am not a subscriber, implies “Upper Balcony”); and, for piano, “Lefthand side.”

But the financial justification always carried with it an elaborate sustaining mythology: those of us who sit in the Upper Balcony know music in a way that those who sit below us do not. The inhabitants of the Orchestra are as spiritually and intellectually bereft as were their Gilded-Age forebears who occupied the boxes on the Hall’s opening night in 1891. Conversely, we poor saps in the Upper Balcony are martyrs. We are starving artists, academics, lay intellectuals, music students, devotees who carry scores around like evangelicals do the Bible and Senator Robert Byrd did the Constitution of the United States. Our lack of finery is proof of our disdain for material things. Thus, the top of the auditorium represents the top of the hierarchy—closer to God, one presumes—in music appreciation.

A second justifying myth is that the sound is better up here, like the air in the mountains is for consumptives. This is really a corollary to the first myth, since the purist comes to appreciate the music, not the spectacle of performance—a distinction arbiters of taste have sought to make absolute since at least the 19th century. Our distance from the performer thus equates to an ideal distance from the artwork itself.

I can’t testify to the sound being better or worse in the rarefied atmosphere of the Upper Balcony, since I’ve almost never had occasion to sit elsewhere. Once, I shelled out for stage seats when the concert was sold out and the opportunity presented itself; once, a kindly usher let me occupy an empty seat in Orchestra after intermission. A couple of times now I’ve sat in Dress Circle with my parents, who themselves forsook the Balcony a decade ago. Whether because after moving to Houston the original economic calculus for sitting in the Balcony changed, or because they’re exhausted of the martyr’s calvary up the stairs, I don’t know. My point is that I have very little data for comparison.

As for the wealthy philistine versus the humble devotee: I confess I’ve observed a goodly amount of philistine behavior in the Upper Balcony. It seems as likely that somebody has bought cheap tickets on a whim as that they’re rationing the season’s concerts. Nor are my Balcony comrades averse to wearing their Sunday best on Tuesday evening. Nor, for that matter, is the Balcony any safer from the terrorism of the cell phone. (Would that we were all as pedantic as Tibby Schlegel in Howards End: “profoundly versed in counterpoint,” he “holds the full score [of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] open on his knee” and “implore[s] the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum” …)

In hindsight, I wonder to what extent these myths of the Upper Balcony are specific to my family, or can be attributed to my parents’ background. They might have been truer for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, from which my parents carried their formative experiences in concert-going to the United States. The Buenos Aires of the 1950s seems to have been a place where class barriers were more keenly felt, the appreciation of classical music was more widespread, and the devout were content to pay a peso and stand in the back to get a chance to hear their favorite performer.

I suppose the easiest way to tell the educated from the un- would be to survey audience members about what those pesky encores were. But even that would be unfair to those of us in the back, who can never hear the titles when the performer deigns to announce them. Instead, we listen to the murmur of those in the lower tiers repeating the title to their companions, often during the encore’s opening bars. Then again, it does make for a nice conversation-opener with the stranger with whom we’ve spent the last two hours rubbing knees. If the way up is an exodus of the unwashed to the wilderness of the Balcony, at least the way down offers the possibility of community. It is necessarily a different kind of community from that which forms in the lobby. For this one blossoms in motion; it is the solidarity of fellow travelers, of pilgrims, and the strength of the bond emanates in part from recognizing something of the other’s circumstances in your own.

If there is any truth at all to the foregoing myths, then surely we in the Upper Balcony must appear as strange to the denizens of the Orchestra and Lower Tiers as fishes of the abyssal plain do to the average cod. I am one such beast, perfectly adapted to my low-pressure, low-oxygen environment. I suppose I’ve always looked more fit for hiking or bird-watching than for concertgoing. I arrive at the hall carrying my backpack with binoculars and a thermos cup of coffee, and maybe a book for the intermission. If it’s late spring or early fall, I may be in shorts—ready for the grueling hike up the stairs, yes, but also taking my parents’ disdain for the moneyed classes one step further: my attire says, Go ahead. Judge me. I dare you. (Once again, in deference to the Zeitgeist, I’ll blame my parents, who were (it must be said) lax when I was a child about how I dressed for concerts. I pitied the boys in suits, like I pitied my friends who had to go to Hobby Hall to dance with girls. I was eight years old when an usher asked me if I’d lost my pants. Where is the usher who will ask me that today?) I sit sipping coffee as I await the appearance of that rara avis, the pianist. The lights dim; the stragglers find their seats. I hastily screw the lid back on my thermos and stow it, take out the binoculars … there he is! Looking very much like a magpie! He finishes bowing before I can focus the lenses; he scoots the piano bench forward, flips back his coattails, and puts out his hands …

Remember when those redtail hawks first appeared in Central Park and built a nest next to Woody Allen’s apartment? People would sit in the park to watch them through their binoculars and telescopes and zooms. Weren’t the celebs jealous that week, to be upstaged by a bird!

Maybe binoculars are more indicative of life in the Upper Balcony than musical scores or starving artistry. I can still remember the first time I remarked mentally on the lag between watching a baseball hit a bat and hearing the crack. Had I been watching that batter through binoculars, the lag would have remained despite the illusion of proximity. So it is watching piano through binoculars from the Upper Balcony. Were my father not a pianist beside whom I have stood many a time watching the miracle of the fingers making music, I suppose this sight/sound disjuncture would seem like a product of the mechanism of the instrument itself, and not my perception of it. (It could be argued that this dislocation only reinforces the divide between the purity of the music and the spectacle of its production. And yet, where watching classical piano is concerned, the binoculars have only one real purpose: to marvel at the dexterity of the pianist’s hands. So much, again, for the Balcony’s vaunted purity!)

Maybe one day I, too, will get tired of the Upper Balcony, and begin my experiment in social mobility by buying tickets for Dress Circle. After all, my credentials have been compromised: I have a middle-class salary now. Time to stop slumming. It will be difficult at the box office; the ticket-seller will look at me funny; he might even call his manager and whisper something in his ear. But this will be nothing compared to how I’ll feel the night of the concert, when the usher rips my ticket and says, “Straight ahead, three flights up” (that’s the way I’ll hear it); when I stop before the last flight of stairs, on a floor that has never signified anything more than “Restroom”; when I confront the backward glances of those still climbing (their eyes will scream, “Traitor!”); and when I’m forced to find my seat in a hostile new wilderness, as strange to me as Gulliver’s islands, the natives huddled behind the flora, peering at me, readying their gilded spears. With my shorts and backpack and baseball cap, my thermos cup of coffee, and my binoculars, I will no doubt appear as alien to them as Mr. Brendel’s face will forever remain to me.

On Bands, Very Large and Very Small

In the Joshua Redman chapter of his lovely recent book The Jazz Ear, Ben Ratliff—apparently paraphrasing Redman—writes, “Great bands, more than great individuals, make jazz matter in the larger culture” (135). Redman argues that Coltrane’s quartet functioned as a unit and a whole, rather than as a platform for the leader (Sonny Rollins is the foil here). “I think the most interesting jazz these days doesn’t take the form of a soloist backed by accompanists,” he says; “it takes the form of a group interacting, improvising together” (136). Ratliff believes this attitude extends beyond Redman, to “many musicians of Redman’s generation … [whose] Rosetta stones are bands, not individuals.” Interestingly, the bands Ratliff goes on to list are Miles Davis’s, Bill Evans’s, and Ornette Coleman’s from the ‘60s, and Keith Jarrett’s from the ‘70s—this though Redman’s original list included Tortoise and Led Zeppelin. (That’s the gambit of The Jazz Ear, by the way: Ratliff asked a bunch of musicians to pick pieces of music they wanted to talk about, and then interviewed them while and after listening.)

Born in 1968, Redman is just a year older than me; I am “the broader culture” for which the Coltrane quartet “matters.” So Redman’s comment, and Ratliff’s gloss, got me thinking about the special resonance bands have, not just for musicians, but for listeners of my generation.

There are a couple of contemporary jazz bands (Masada and The Vandermark 5) that I love unreasonably. I think this is so because they act as surrogates for those rock bands I once loved unreasonably, their logos etched across my cortex. If you were to take one of those porcelain phrenology heads and substitute ANGER and CREATIVITY with IRON MAIDEN and PINK FLOYD, you’d have a pretty good representation of my one-time mental life. There is an element of nostalgia at work here, of course: my taste may have matured in fits and starts, but I still carry along the residue of a desire; and, since it seems harder and harder to cathect rock bands with anything like the same intensity I used to (though with a few I’ve come close), the old energy, which I imagine must be conserved, is transferred to other genres.

I don’t say this to disparage the music or musicianship of either Masada or the V5. Both bands beautifully embody Redman’s concept of “a group interacting, improvising together.” I’m trying to identify something in excess of the music—a supplement, an aura; an ethos that coheres as a sound. In this respect, it’s not just the gestalt idea that the sum of the playing is more than its parts. That is true of any successful ensemble. Rather, the charisma of the band radiates at once from a persona or identity created by its distinctive, collective voice, and from the contributions of each of its members, in whose individual identities the persona remains intact and present. This persona is eminently marketable, and circulates as much in images, concepts, narratives, etc. as in sounds. It is most marketable, for reasons suggested above, to listeners of my generation; and above all, to male listeners. I’m not sure why; all that shared sweat and camaraderie, I guess. Life as one long Howard Hawks war picture.

It’s not just jazz bands. I came to string quartets on my own, in my twenties, my parents’ taste being focused around piano, orchestra, and combinations thereof. Can I discount the impact of my generation’s popular music on my gravitating toward the chamber ensemble? Do I really need the Kronos Quartet to play Metallica and Meshuggah for me to figure this out? Why else would I be able to name every member of the Emerson Quartet? Do you think they’d hire me to do their logo?

As the cult of the soloist gives way to the dynamic of the group—at least at this point on the helix of cultural history—I can’t help but wonder if the big band, with its greater focus on composition and arrangement, and its often tightly-controlled and thoughtfully-ornamented circumstances for improvisation (I am thinking of Maria Schneider’s comments here, in another chapter of The Jazz Ear), is also experiencing a resurgence.

And then can the orchestra, that nineteenth-century musical equivalent of the jumbo jet, be far behind?

For my part, I can’t imagine it. Excepting the orchestral works with which I bonded in my teens—the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the tone poems of Richard Strauss, a number of piano concertos, a handful of other pieces—I find it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief before the orchestra. I said something in a previous post about a culture of distrust, and I can’t claim to be immune from it. Why belabor with a string section what can be said by a single violin? The orchestra’s size and grandeur seem unsuited to audiences today. Spectacle has moved to the arena and the cinema—and the orchestra with it, to the limbo of film scores and playing backup for heavy-rock ballads. If I ever get around to exploring the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, and Shostakovitch, it will be for my own edification … which is another way of saying that I don’t expect to fall in love. (But I’m happy to be surprised.)

Undiscovered string quartets, on the other hand, retain the potential to move me greatly, both intellectually and emotionally. Again, there is an element of emotional memory at work here that can’t be discounted. To my ear, though, quartets and similar-sized groups (octets are pushing it) work with a manageable number of voices, timbres and rhythms for my ear to parse. As with the band, I can simultaneously appreciate both the discrete threads and the fabric. And to the whole can be assigned an identity that is neither individual (soloist, conductor, or bandleader) nor a faceless mass (the collective of the orchestra).

Maybe it’s an issue of the performance ethic, too. Interaction among members of an orchestra is always filtered through the conductor, many of whom have reputations for being disciplinarians. (The same is true of big band leaders.) My impression is that the history of the orchestra is as rife with mutinies and desertions as naval history. According to a trombonist friend, orchestra positions have a job satisfaction rating on a par with working at a toll booth. Last year when I was in Houston visiting family, the orchestra was out on strike. True, both an orchestra and a quartet have their first violin, but their jobs aren’t really comparable. An orchestra’s first violin seems like a bureaucratic post. Meanwhile, if you’re the Emerson quartet, you can always trade first fiddle down the middle: three Bartok quartets for Drucker, three for Selzer.

Then again, maybe it’s just that my ear has been ruined by digital recording. The warm distortions of vinyl always helped the orchestra’s sound cohere into a mass; and it was the mass, not the individual voices, that made the orchestra compelling.

Sometimes I imagine the string quartet like the first mammals in those Charles Knight paintings of prehistoric life, when the paradigm that dinosaurs died of their own lumbering ineptitude still held sway. Small, supple, adaptable little critters, emerging from behind the stumps and grasses, ready to lay claim to their evolutionary title. Maybe Disney got it right, in Fantasia, when they made of The Rite of Spring the dinosaurs’ death-march. It was an image of the age of the orchestra coming to a close.

Paying the Rent, Now and Then

The first time I went to the 55 Bar (on Christopher Street just off Seventh Avenue) was probably late 1992 or early 1993. A friend of mine living in Weehawken and working in the City took me to see Mike Stern, whose trio played at the 55 every Monday and Wednesday. It was eight dollars a set, and although it seems ludicrous today, I’m pretty sure that included two drinks.

Stern was my initiation into the New York jazz scene, and I could hardly have asked for a better one. A one-time Miles Davis sideman, Stern plays a sophisticated fusion, a cross between the Al DiMeola “more notes!” school, which my guitar teacher, trying to get me to sublimate my heavy-metal urges, had guided me toward as a teen, and the bebop and post-bebop jazz that I had only begun listening to the previous year, while living in Madrid. I had bought my first jazz discs only months before, to supplement the Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk I had taped off an Australian friend in Spain. It was a fittingly cosmopolitan introduction to the music. Now I was back in the States, and for the moment in the New York area, and I was eager to start digging into jazz at its source and mecca.

Stern generally opened his sets at the 55 with a long, driving standard that built slowly from shuffling, chorus-infused lines to a blues-rock-funk climax. At some point along the way the drummer would trade his brushes for sticks, the bass would stop walking and start stomping, and Stern’s pick, which he’d been using like the drummer had his brushes, would begin to bite. During this rising action you could pick out the guitar-heads on their 55 pilgrimmage from the drool on their chins. They were all sitting on their hands, waiting for Stern to hit the overdrive and start wailing.

The slow movement of the set Stern would begin and end solo, fingerpicking, accenting the rounder tones he could get from his Telecaster, a guitar more often associated with country music. The “Tele” probably helped him to split the difference between the overdriven twang of his rock soloing (a Telecaster, after all, is just a one-horned Stratocaster) and his quicksilver bop … as well as to avoid the bulbous sound that players using similar effects often get from their big hollowbody Gibsons.

As for the last movement, it would return to something like the original allegro, though a bit louder, a bit funkier, and featuring an extended cadenza for the drums.

Of all the many tricks Stern smuggled in his deep pockets and up his ample sleeves, my favorite was when he would pick a single note on the high “E” string in swung triplets and interpolate chords on the upbeats. It’s an effective technique for crescendo: the chords zigzag up the neck; after a few bars, the repeated note will move up a third, say—higher ground on which to build another set of relentlessly-climbing triads. The effect is almost pianistic, with the contrast between the insistent high note and the shifting chords generating tension. When the passage was over, Stern would be someplace other than where he began—further up the neck, certainly, but on a new emotional plateau as well, although maybe not quite ready to hit that overdrive pedal. It’s a technique that fellow New York guitarist Ron Affif would take to its logical conclusion, quadrupling the speed of the high note to a mandolin-like tremolo, while reducing the accompaniment from a chord progression to a melodic line. In both cases, technique acts as a signature: it announces the musician’s identity as surely as a composer’s name coded into a score.

I remember how Stern used to look when he came in: hair unkempt, face unshaven, wearing a nondescript grey shirt and jeans and holding a diner coffee. He looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, which he might have; and truth be told on some nights he played like he was still asleep, or had woken up on the far wrong side. The waitress would rip our tickets in half (I say “our” because I’ve tried to repay the favor done me and take as many friends as possible to see Stern), and while we drank our first drink we would watch the musicians filter in, greet the people they knew, and chat while they set up their gear. I appreciated the lack of pretension, and the lack of distance between the audience and musicians. In itself this was nothing new: I’d been catching rock acts at small to mid-size clubs for a good five years, and more than once I’d stuck around to chat with bandmembers, whom I generally found to be down-to-earth and eager to discuss their music. But this was something more: a fantasy of being in the musician’s workshop, like one of those all-night jam sessions at the old Minton’s, although for what I knew at the time the comparison is anachronistic.

I always figured the 55 barflies hated those Monday and Wednesday nights, when the tourists and so-called bridge-and-tunnel crowd would pack that little bar to the gills, the acolytes crowding a foot away from the head of Stern’s Tele and jamming up the doorway to the bathroom behind him. The waitresses had to do pirouettes to get drinks to the tables. In this respect Stern’s appearance was apropos: the 55 was a dive, and proud of it. I’m sure they welcomed Stern for the same reason The Tower art theater in Salt Lake City held over the hit sports documentary Hoop Dreams for months on end: even at eight dollars a head, he paid the rent.

It’s the early-nineties décor I remember best of all. One painting in pastels showed a woman doubled over the back of an armchair. At the top was the injunction to “practice safe sex”; at the bottom, much larger: “FUCK A CHAIR.” Next to it was a mural-sized painting of a group of American presidents at a sort of Last Supper, with Reagan in the place of Jesus, a miniature mushroom cloud rising from his plate.


Besides the price, the pictures are about the only thing that’s changed at the 55. I miss them. Today, the walls are covered with the clichéd jazz-and-blues memorabilia you can find in any club: smoky, heavy-chiaroscuro portraits, iconic photos of Miles and Robert Johnson, “A Great Day in Harlem,” Blue Note album cover reproductions. It’s a small but significant difference: the 55 has gone from being a bar where jazz was played to a jazz bar. Maybe noplace can withstand a regular gig by an internationally-known musician for long without changing in some fundamental ways. But in a broader sense, what’s happened to the 55 is indicative of what’s happened to New York City as a whole, which for the last couple of decades has been busy draining itself of all its wonderfully garish “local” color, and repackaging itself as one more franchise in a global urban chain store, drawing liberally on its own myths to manufacture a brand identity.

I still go to the 55 a few times a year, though it’s been a while since I saw Stern, who still plays there Mondays and Wednesdays, just less regularly than he used to. Wayne Krantz was my surrogate Stern for a time, but his invigorating Thursday-night sets have (sadly) come to an end. Of all the other great music I’ve caught there recently, I wanted to single out the last time I saw Chris Potter, in part (but only in part) because it makes for an interesting counterpoint with the 55 of yore (at least my yore).

Like Stern, Potter is a rent-payer, and the crowd was the typical mix of music students, locals and tourists. By the time I arrived, there wasn’t a seat in the house, although several people were being instructed to sit in places where there seemed to be no available chairs. The waitresses were engaged in their usual calisthenics, and drinks were being passed like buckets in a fire brigade. The bar itself—I mean the wooden thing you lean against and set drinks on—was packed two deep all the way down, with the biggest crowd, as always, next to the band, making it well-nigh impossible to get to the bathroom before the set’s end.

I took a spot against the back wall, right by the door, standing with my feet slightly parted and my backpack clamped between my shins—there wasn’t even room for it on the floor next to me. It was actually the first of several elements that conspired to make the night’s set one of those quasi-religious experiences that recorded music simply can’t reproduce. There’s nothing like a little pain to get you in the mood for spiritual uplift: ten minutes of standing with my backpack between my knees, and I was ready to sink down on them and beg the God of Music for a speedy deliverance.

Add to this that it was one of those school nights when I shouldn’t have been out at all, had snuck down to the Village in spite of my conscience and better judgment, reading papers on the train in both directions. In this sense, Music was not only my god, but my mistress as well, and I was at once martyr and sinner. Who knew what my partner would find on my collar when I got home?

As for Potter, he stood facing me at the other end of the pub, as if he were my mirror image, or I his. He seemed to stare at a spot directly over my head while he played. And I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that he was playing for me, and only for me—this despite the acolyte who stood almost directly behind him, also facing me, whose face I watched from time to time, and whose changing expressions I began to mirror, as if I could make his emotions (surprise, wonder, pleasure) my own.

And as for the music Potter played … well, this was almost a year ago; I couldn’t name you a single tune. I couldn’t even tell you who his band was. But that tone … that tone! For Potter was channeling Rollins that night, his big sound poured, and poured, and poured, until the bar ran over with it. It pinned me to the wall more than any crowd could. And it swallowed me, as sure as Jonah was by the whale. Except that unlike Jonah, I wasn’t fleeing the Lord; I’d boarded that boat hunting Leviathan as much as any Ahab, had stayed on deck through the gale, waiting for Him to find me. And when He did, and opened His mouth, I held my nose and jumped in.


A closing observation on the Potter set: Depending on the tune, the bartender would turn the AC on or off. A ballad, and the AC would go off; a burner, and the AC would come back on. I just can’t imagine this being the case twenty years ago, before the music was put on an altar. In fact, I can’t imagine the 55 had AC at all, though I’m sure it did.

Then again, clicking the AC off for a ballad is really only a stone’s throw from FUCK A CHAIR, isn’t it? This little pub-that-could has worked hard to brand itself as a cross between Dizzy’s and dive bar, a place to slum with the anointed. The altar is made of plastic.

And then again, who cares? Altar or no altar, plastic or solid gold, old New York or new, the music has stuck it out, even thrived. The wood paneling may smell like cigarettes, but there’s music there, too. Put your ear to the wall and you’ll hear it, like the sea in a shell.

Spring, Washington Square

I love spring in Washington Square, when the musicians come out with the crocuses and daffodils. You’ll be walking through the Square on one of the first warm days of the year and hear the strains of a trumpet or a saxophone you hadn’t heard since the previous fall, and you’ll recognize it immediately, though the notes, and by and large the musicians, are as anonymous as cathedrals.

The other day I took a train to Park Slope hungover and got my taxes done and had lunch and sat down in Ozzie’s café and finished Sweet Hearts by Melanie Rae Thon (what a writer) and then sat drooling and half-dozing watching the shops across the street re-open while the sun emerged from behind clouds and beat through the window. Then I took a train back to the City. I listened to “Perugia,” maybe the most mournful piece on Brad Meldhau’s album Places, while the B train crossed over the East River, listening to the clatter of the train over the music and watching the water and the city behind and before me for the duration of the crossing. The sun wasn’t going anywhere now, and between the satiety of the receding hangover and the slight caffeine buzz and the nostalgia of the music and the view of the city from the bridge high above, all of these things colluded to bring about one of those lingering moments when you think about old lovers and other possible lives, and you feel a secret sad joyful resignation. I felt pleasantly scummy, too, as if I’d never made it home the night before, as if I were still in my itinerant twenties, all full of wanderlust and the spirit of vagrancy.

So I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I got out at Canal and footed it up to Washington Square, on this first real spring day after half a week of torrential rain. How could the Square not look radiant? And who should be playing on this day but Lawrence Clark. Lawrence is a young tenor player I’ve spoken to a couple of times. He seems to have had a champion in the late, great Rashied Ali, whom he played with at the uptown Charlie Parker Festival in 2008. Another time I tried to go see him at The Kitano, but he didn’t show. (An image from that set sticks in my mind: a drop of spit clinging to the edge of the bell of the trumpet, falling, forming again there.) He played brilliantly at the Festival—better, I thought, than the young altoist whom the crowd obviously preferred, and who won the day’s perhaps unintended (but always implicit?) cutting contest. Her sound was more firmly grounded in R&B; Clark, following Ali, has a tendency to play farther out. The crowd that comes out for the Charlie Parker Festival is not the same crowd that goes to, say, The Stone, or Roulette—not even the crowd for the downtown sets on Sunday, so far as I can tell.

Clark’s blowing has a buttery tone reminiscent of Rollins’s. At least, that was what struck me when I sat down to listen to him play, closed my eyes in the sun like I had in Ozzie’s. Jazz sounds almost preternaturally good after a hangover. You surrender yourself to the music, you let it wash over you. And then all the pores in your body open, and the music saturates you. Of course, there’s a time and a place for intellect and processing, for standing back and comparing musical phrases, for thinking the music even as you listen. But this was not such a time or place. Not in Washington Square, at the beginning of the spring, after drinking too much. These are moments for surrender.

It was a trio, sax and bass and drums. The bass player had thick dirty fingers—Brahms had fingers like that—and a red star on his baseball cap. There was a plastic wheelbarrow set in front of them, for donations. A wheelbarrow. It seemed a bit ambitious.

Look at them: they have no right to play music like this, this well. They might have wandered here off the street. They might have just met. History has not anointed them geniuses. They have no right to play music like this, this well. Which, I guess, is one reason they do.

It was like running into an old friend—even though these musicians wouldn’t know me from Adam—because the sound, the sound was back, very much the sound of the Square. (And this remains true, mind you, even as much of the old vibe seems to have migrated north, to Union Square.) I’ve always loved this quote from Eric Dolphy: “Once the music’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can’t get it back.” But in the Square you can get it back; the circle is inscribed in the square, the music is as cyclical as the seasons, and as transient as the passers-by. That’s the beauty of it: you leave one day in the middle of a song, which fades slowly out of hearing as you walk away; but you’ll pick it up again the next day, or the next week, or the following year. Each band may be staked in a different corner of the park, but the listener lives on the frontiers, the melodies mesh one with another. And in the meantime the other business of the Square goes on around, a Whitmanesque time immemorial of walking-meeting-parting-listening-playing. And so you’re never sad to just be passing through, because you’re never just passing through, because you know you’ll return to this very spot, and the sound will be here, an old friend, waiting, in that one long jam without beginning or end.