Tag Archives: New York moment

Dry Hump

TraderJoes440My mother is in the car. My father is at the post office, which is housed in a building indistinguishable from the businesses in the rest of this strip mall. I am at Trader Joe’s, or, as my mother called it until quite recently, Traders Joe—a Spanglishism that results, I would guess, from hearing possessives as plurals, and perhaps from a tendency to confuse the order of parts of speech, as in abbreviating shopping mall as el shopping, or calling The Rolling Stones Los Rolling. That she has at last learned the correct name of this grocery store is, to me, a more potent demonstration of Americanness than her citizenship.

From the second handicapped parking spot I could already hear the music, some song by Los Rolling I didn’t recognize; and now here I am, jutting my chin to Mick and the gang as I dig through the cornucopia of snack mixes—Tempting Trail Mix, Go Raw Trek Mix, Rainbow’s End Trail Mix—in the guiltless banana republic, the outpost of some sunny SoCal empire, that is Trader Joe’s. Shopping here is a cross between safari and beach vacation; I feel a tiny bit colonial, but innocently so. Perhaps it’s because every aspect of the experience is as managed as a Disneyworld ride, up to and including the adorable hippies in Hawaiian shirts carrying signs the size of butterfly nets and restocking shelves with Trader Joe’s products, or one of its cutesy ethnic variants, as recognizably Traders Joe as the Lone Ranger with that teensy-weensy mask stretched over his eyes. The employees at the registers seem a bit too old to be working here, and a bit too cheerful. In fact—again reminding me of Disney—everyone is a bit too cheerful, to the point of seeming a little on edge, so that I can’t help but scan their eyeballs for an amphetamine shiver. And maybe that’s why, despite the crate-and-burlap kitsch of the decor and the lockstep branding of the products and the Pangloss vibe of the staff, shopping here carries a whiff of adventure, of potential danger.

Or maybe it’s the rock-n-roll. Digging through the nut mixes, it occurs to me that the music is a little loud—at least, a little louder than I am accustomed to in such an environment: the blow-up cushion of smooth jazz on which I float at, say, Kroger, or ShopRite, or the yoga-mat silence of Whole Foods. Clearly, the music is a little too present; I have—God forbid—paused to listen, to think, I don’t know this Stones tune, to wonder if I am too disdainful of the British Invasion, or just plain ignorant. I am thinking about The Stones rather than Fancy Mixed Nuts, or any other of the almost-equally-desirable snack products with which it competes, filling the shelves before me. The music has ceased to serve its function, that is, to focus me on and funnel me toward consumption, to create a hypnogogic state conducive to the dreamlike spending of money.

But my distraction is temporary, and soon enough I find my rhythm again. This is just a different kind of store, and so a different kind of shopping is demanded of me: hip, rebellious. Every item that I throw into my cart is a flip of the bird to the grocery-store past, with its long dim aisles and sullen, pimpled checkout girls and pedal-operated conveyor belts. This ain’t no ShopRite! (Bam!) This ain’t no Kroger! (Whap!) This ain’t no …

But this is nothing compared to what awaits me around the corner, past the well-ordered meat and dairy items and brightly-packaged vegetables, past tortillas in all the colors of the Mexican flag. The Stones song ends, and on comes Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” same volume, but seeming louder—that middle-of-the-dial, talk-jock in-your-faceness, the sort of shit Clear Channel has used to pave our cultural interstate highway system. On classic rock stations across the country, the same Foreigner tune, at the same hour, like church bells reminding the faithful to … well, to what, exactly?

You don’t have to read my mind. F, C, G. To know what I have in mind. F, C, G. Honey, you oughtta know. I oughtta know. Damn it, I oughtta know. What am I here for again? Bananas, that’s right. My mom is waiting for bananas. But I am in the frozen aisle. Clearly there are no bananas to be found here.

Well, you move so fine. Danish Pancakes, yes. Let me lay it on the line. Glu-ten Free, Toas-ter Waf-fles. I just wanna know. Choc’late La-va Cake. What you’re doin’ after the show. Choc’late La-va Cake.

I’m trying not to dawdle. But for all these products in their open freezers, like bleachers full of adoring fans, wanting me. Worshipping me. If they had their way, I’m sure they would strip off their packaging and jiggle their contents at me, before jumping right into my mouth. Bananas might as well be in an alternate universe.

Up ahead, a pair of employees chats happily, the female sitting on the railing of the open freezer. And here I thought it was just me, Foreigner, and micro-fetish food items. I am afraid they will engage with me, greet me, ask me, with a wink and a nudge, if I need anything. So I lower my head like a cuckold and push by, listening to Foreigner, who are now asking her, “baby,” if she “do[es] more than dance.”

Do they hear it? How could they not? And when some stripper with a ‘70s haircut and pasties thrusts her hips into my imagination, fingers laced behind her head … do they see what I’m seeing? (My God, where did that come from?)

By aisle three I am beginning to feel just a little goofy, to the point that I wonder if I’m participating in a psychological experiment, or some Candid Camera-style TV program. An elderly woman blithely pushes her cart toward me, a blissed-out expression on her face, reminding me of the mall walkers I witnessed just an hour before—my first encounter with said species, I am unaccustomed to malls, they induce in me the sort of vague dread some people feel when you say the words “uranium enrichment tubes,” or “marriage equality.” Beyond her is a young mother with a toddler, the toddler pushing a toddler-size shopping cart, mom probably a toddler when this song came out. And all the while, Foreigner continue to stroke themselves through the PA:

Are you … hot, mama? Are you old enough? Is my timing right? Did you save your love for me tonight?

Man, seriously? I feel like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I want to scream, Don’t you hear it? Doesn’t everybody hear it? Like I’ve been hurled up to the ceiling, to look down on my shopping self from among the festive, half-tumescent beach balls, loudspeakers blaring beside my ears.

Instead, staring intently at the coffee (organic, shade-grown or bird-killing, nature-despoiling: it’s up to you), I start to giggle.

It’s about time, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s victory or surrender. And then I feel self-conscious, again. For even though it’s okay for the employees to laugh—it’s probably listed in their job duties—it feels wrong for me. I almost expect someone to come and, smiling, lead me out of the store by the elbow.

I reach down and squeeze my bag of Fancy Mixed Nuts, feeling the air inside the package push threateningly against the seam; and I vow that, though I must walk the gauntlet of every item in this store, I will make it to the bananas, I will return with them to the car by the time my father is out of the post office.

Besides, I have to know what brand-stamped global treasures the next aisle might hold. What desires will I discover? What half-naked natives will I see dancing when I spread apart the plastic leaves? This: Reduced Guilt Kettle Chips! Right next to the South African Style Potato Chips! Hilarious ironies of product placement! And this: Giant Peruvian Inca Corn! Who knew such a thing existed? And how did they get these giant Peruvians into the country?

And look at this: Cookies and Cream Cookie Butter! So much for reduced guilt! Indeed, Foreigner informs me that we can make a secret rendezvous. But before we do, you’ll have to get away from you-know-who.

I hold the cookie butter like contraband, plastic and pinstriped, a sort of lard vibrator. I think: So this is what it has come to. Or, rather, this is what it always was. Or, rather: Look what I have come to. Or something like that. Chorus, chorus, repeat and fade, Ponging I to IV, V to I, music endlessly consummated, consummation endlessly deferred. Of course: everything else happens backstage, after the show, all night.

Slowly, I return the cookie butter to the shelf.

It ends better for Foreigner than it does for me. The bananas, in the last spacious, bright aisle, are a letdown. A little bit spotty. A little bit green. Even the guy at the register seems disappointed. Like he was expecting more from me. He’s supposed to smile. He rings up the bananas and the Fancy Mixed Nuts. I pay with a credit card.

Maybe Muzak just doesn’t cut it anymore, at least for post-boomers and geriatric hippies: a more vigorous genre is required to prod us up and down the aisles. Still, you would think the irruption of the crass sex anthem that is “Hot Blooded,” intended to be consumed by stadiums full of delirious teens, into the pristinely-ordered, tightly-managed grocery-shopping bonanza that is Trader Joe’s, would do some sort of damage. Except that Foreigner are about as dangerous as gluten-free toaster waffles. And this has nothing to do with some historical transformation into retro-hip, or embarrassing kitsch, or “classic rock,” or a Tom Frank-style conquest of the cool, where, say, Bob Dylan or Los Rolling have been appropriated (inasmuch as rock ever needed to be) to sell Coke or credit cards. Nein. Foreigner were born fully assimilated. “Hot Blooded” was castrated at birth. 1978 was the year George Romero’s zombies invaded the shopping malls, the year mass consumption finally found its appropriate metaphor.

It’s the titillation of adolescence teetering on the edge of forbidden knowledge, the fantasies of sexual abandon and mastery, that we consume, in tightly-controlled environments of endlessly-proliferating commodities—songs, noodles—packaged to look diverse. Wandering up and down aisles, sitting in traffic jams, scanning the statistically-selected music on devices that obsolesce before our eyes, all the well-ordered routines of late capitalist life, cookie butter rebels toggling from stadium to stadium, store to store, dry hump to dry hump, as guilt-reduced as the coupling of rock star and groupie, over and over and over again.

(Not So) Secret Sharer

blazeI live near the Appalachian Trail, and on days I don’t work, I walk the dog there, follow the white blazes a mile or two toward either Ktaadn or Georgia and back again (or, starting north, make a triangle with roads for legs and the trail as a crooked hypotenuse). During the summer I run into a fair number of people, some with dogs, some without, some doing a weekend or a week around the so-called tri-state area, some walking the whole damn AT. Most of the latter start in Georgia and hike north, trying to make Maine by the end of summer, staying ahead of the hot weather. Less common, though increasingly popular, is to start in Maine and hike south, shooting for Georgia by October, cold nipping at your heels.

They are different sorts of people, the northbounders and southbounders. The former tend to be more sociable; they’ll walk and talk with me if I happen to be going their direction, or stop to chat and pet the dog if our paths cross. The southbounders are more taciturn. If they chose this direction, it’s often because they prefer solitude. There is an urgency about them the northbounders don’t have, and it’s not, or not merely, for the end of the trail.

So the Ishmaels walk north and the Ahabs south. How ironic that trail etiquette dictates the Ahabs step aside to let the Ishmaels pass!

When I run into a hiker on the AT, whether Ishmaels or Ahabs, I ask them if they’re going the whole way. A surprising number are. Sometimes I can tell, particularly with the men—the beards, of course, swallowing their faces. Sometimes they ask me where the nearest shelter is, or how far it is to a particular town, and I get to play the seasoned local, though I’ve only been in the area a couple of years, and only started hiking on the AT regularly last summer. Parting, I wish them luck.

One day as I was coming back down the nearest mountain from a southbound walk with the dog, I spotted a hiker wearing a black T-shirt with red, intertwining letters. I could guess the genre, metal, from fifty yards away, and became more confident once I was within reading distance by the fact that I still couldn’t make out the name of the band.* I stepped aside to let him pass. It was actually this young man who informed me that he, not I, was supposed to perform said obsequities. But then he was no Ahab, black T and southboundness notwithstanding. He was only out for a week, hiking part of Connecticut and New York, before returning to some suburban harbor.

Peering at the tangle of silkscreened letters, I had to ask him the name twice. First he just said it was a band. Why would he answer otherwise? I was wearing a treehugger shirt, walking with my dog; I looked for all the world like a treehugger. But then it’s hard to find white metal shirts, and with the ticks as bad as they are around where I live, I don’t tend to venture into the woods in black. I know, a true fan would risk Lyme, &c., &c. Still, once I expressed interest he was more forthcoming, even enthusiastic. He even rattled off a number of subgenres to help me position their sound. I told him I would look them up, and we parted ways.

When I got home I couldn’t quite remember the name. I just remembered it was short, and started with “A.” A name like a riddle, a secret in a thicket of letters, passed between strangers in the woods. It could have been anyone, anyone’s word; now it was mine. A word that would open a portal to fantastic new worlds and powers, like Abracadabra, or Aminadab. How else to explain my scrolling through the first 880 of 8,950 bands with names beginning with the letter “A” in the Encyclopedia Metallum just to find them? Good thing I remembered they were from Texas.

Absu.

absu-456-12611An odd fish, this band. They’ve been around, like, forever, though not quite as long as the Sumerian and other mythologies around which they’ve built their lyrical concepts. They’ve also gone through about a hundred different incarnations. There is a priceless interview on YouTube where drummer, sometime vocalist, and lyricist Proscriptor McGovern (center)—very much the driving force of this outfit, as his name makes abundantly clear, and the one consistent presence through more than twenty years of lineup changes, injuries, and cross-generic side projects—holds forth on mythology and mind-expanding drugs. McGovern is a tad haughty; his interviewer is intermittently bored; neither can help but be. He calls their music “mythological-occult metal,” the title of a 2001 compilation, citing black, death, thrash, classic metal, and “progressive music” as influences—which is just another way of saying the band is a sonic amalgam all their own. This is borne out in the uploaded tracks, albums and live performances: vocals that veer between King Diamond sneers and yowls and black metal hisses; long, multi-part songs alternating Slayer-style speed (and more rarely, death/grindcore tempos) with rhythmic patterns more reminiscent of NWOBHM and Immortal’s pummeling two-on-threes, and interspersed with snippets of soprano voice, acoustic guitar, bagpipes, and so on. As befits such a melting-pot sound, comments after the videos debate appropriate subgeneric affinity—metalheads can spend as much time parsing subgenres as theologians can sins—including one claim that Absu is proof American black metal is present, vibrant, and rivals anything coming out of Europe.

Why do I write this? Certainly not to throw my hat into the ring vis-à-vis defining Absu’s sound; I am nowhere near learned enough. Rather, I find the whole experience to be a fascinating example of the mixed modes through which musical exchange happens today. That it should be a band so self-consciously esoteric, so aimed at whatever remains of a metal underground, as Absu, makes the example all the more compelling.

The assumption seems to be that Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, etc. have replaced earlier forms of music-sharing and band/scene-growing. True, it’s a hell of a lot easier to toggle, download and stream than it was to trade cassettes by mail, as the more motivated and earnest among us used to do. There is certainly something to sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris’s point that the internet has softened the edges of scenes and helped to blur once-firm boundaries. Transgressive subcultural capital, it might be said, has been increasingly devalued (see “T-shirts and Wittgenstein,” 2.24.13).

Without the internet—in my case, the Encyclopedia Metallum and YouTube—I’d probably never have heard the name Absu again, let alone their music. And yet: without the other elements—the merchandise (T-shirt, of course) on the one hand, and the absolute and utter contingency of actual, physical contact on a hiking trail on the other—I’d never have heard this band, either. The fact that almost everything is available on line doesn’t mean that one has the opportunity to hear it; pace Borges’s Library of Babel, only a tiny fraction of what’s out there can ever be heard by any one person. Put differently: I am almost as unlikely to have discovered Absu on the web as on the Appalachian Trail.** What with all the discussion about the way the web has transformed music sharing, the concrete, tangible elements, and the way these work in tandem with the web, tend to go unremarked. It is still about shows and venues, from the more genre-exclusive clubs to individual concerts at bigger halls. It’s still about asking the baristas at the hipper cafés—the ones where the youngsters hang out, whose ears have not yet been ossified by Prevailing Standards of Taste—what on earth is that odd thing coming out of the speakers. It’s still about poking a finger at the T-shirt for some band you can’t read and likely never heard of and asking what the hell that says. And it’s still about some guy I will almost certainly never see again, walking through the woods, throwing little bits of music over his shoulder like Johnny fuckin’ Appleseed.

 

* This is something the other guitarist from my old thrash band used to bitch about. How can you expect people to remember your band if your logo is unreadable? But then we were from the ‘80s, where the logos all looked like they’d been done in somebody’s mechanical drawing class. Maybe the increasing rococo-ness of band logos after circa 1989 was indicative of generic metastasis and, in some cases, the impenetrability of emergent subgenres to a classically-schooled old guard. (In hindsight, I should note that Absu’s logo is hardly of the impenetrable kind. It might have just been a bad silkscreen.)

** Admittedly, it’s not about sheer numbers (though don’t forget the 880 bands before A-B-S-U). My likelihood of hearing a particular band clearly increases according to the sites I tend to visit and the on-line communities I frequent. It might also be noted that my likelihood of running into a metalhead in the woods increases exponentially when the metal in question is of the neo-Druidic variety, as Absu’s is. Where else to meet a black metal fan than in the dark church of the northern woods? Anyway, there is still much work to be done on the extent to which the web creates new networks versus capitalizing on and reinforcing existing ones, and the ways in which the two work together. (Also: For an interesting discussion of the way the library itself has transformed due to the web and the promise and peril of digitization—and the role the codex is expected to continue to play, at least for the foreseeable future—see Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (Public Affairs, 2009), particularly “The Future of Libraries” and “A Paean to Paper.”)

Of Plagues and Antibodies

titanicIf someone were to ask me, “Helldriver, what is the most maudlin sound in the world?” the Conan sitting Indian-style in my brain would answer, in the thick Austro-Bavarian accent of a future governor of California, “The most maudlin sound in the world is that of a Chinese immigrant playing ‘My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from Titanic)’ on an amplified tremolo harmonica against a karaoke backbeat, on a subway platform in Harlem.”

And lo, there he sits, feet crossed at the ankles, PA on a dolly, wringing out chorus after chorus with Dion-like fervor. If you live in New York, or maybe any major city, you’ve no doubt heard this song played on a host of different “world” instruments, all vying to out-schmaltz that dreadful penny whistle on the original. As melodies are memes, and memes are viruses, so this one is the plague among plagues of melodies. No cultural mountain is high enough, no lost tribe lost enough, to be safe.

God help us, is there a vaccine?

Waiting for the 4 train, I open my copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to the page where I have stopped, and read the following: “The Countess wants fresh meat. When she was a little girl she was like a fox and contented herself entirely with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks with a nauseated voluptuousness, with voles and field mice that palpitated for a bare moment between her embroideress’s fingers. But now she is a woman, she must have men. If you stop too long beside the giggling fountain, you will be led by the hand to the Countess’s larder.”

Carter! Hear how she bites the throbbing vein of sentiment, nourishing herself on its blood while Celine Dion squeaks piteously. She is the proverbial iceberg in that hyperinflated dinghy’s path. If My Heart Will Go On is music at the service of a children’s story, The Bloody Chamber is a collection of children’s stories at the service of—at the mercy of—Carter’s grotesquely seductive voice.

In Carter’s version, I imagine Winslet hacking off DiCaprio’s hands with a hatchet as he tries to climb from the icy waters into her lifeboat. She takes the one that still clings to the gunwale and hides it under her dress. Back in New York, she masturbates relentlessly with the severed hand of her dead lover.

The 4 arrives. I am boarding the train, giggling to myself—the image of Kate Winslet masturbating with Leonardo DiCaprio’s severed hand is irresistible—when the song modulates up one step in that de rigeur pop apotheosis … just when I thought he had wrung every last drop of sentiment out of the melody. Oh, Angela! Quick! The hatchet!

On the train, a Guatemalan man begs money for his sick daughter in Guatemala City. He has a picture of his daughter in one hand and his hospital ID in the other. He tells his sad story first in English, then in Spanish. While he is talking, I dip into Carter again, read: “She loathes the food she eats; she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce, pet them and make them a nest in her red-and-black chinoiserie escritoire, but hunger always ovecomes her. She sinks her teeth into the neck where an artery throbs with fear; she will drop the deflated skin from which she has extracted all nourishment with a small cry of both pain and disgust. And it is the same with the shepherd boys and gypsy lads.”

Perhaps he has no daughter. Perhaps he does, and she is not ill, but hungry. Who knows what parts of his well-practiced story are true? I read Carter. The Countess does not want to kill; she feels compelled to. She is as pitiful as the rabbits whose blood she sucks. Ill, hungry, she waits for that rational, virginal shepherd boy to arrive on his bicycle and break the spell. Like many of Carter’s stories, this one mobilizes the fairy-tale romance against itself, yet still maintains something of its original sentimental power. Carter, then, is the Countess, at once relishing and regretting the violence she must do.

I can sympathize with the Countess—the monster, the outsider—better than I can with the Guatemalan man’s daughter, an unknown figure suffering an unknown malady in a faraway hospital. Her father’s presence, the bits of evidence he holds in his hands, are less persuasive than Carter’s voice, before which I am as powerless as the Countess’s voles and rabbits. It is his story, most of all, that I guiltily resent. So overwrought, so manipulative. So Titanic.

Do they enable me to withdraw from a world of suffering, these lurid fantasies of incandescent beauty? Probably, but no more than Titanic would. In fact, far less. After all, The Bloody Chamber is a self-conscious antidote to the tawdry Titanic fantasies that undergird our society, where peasant boys die for love and the virtuous poor valiantly panhandle their way to health.

And yet, I don’t give a dime, and the ones who do, why, they were the very ones bathing happily in the melliflous stream of “My Heart Will Go On” on the subway platform.

*

Carter may be an antidote, but it is only temporary, and when I stop reading, the Titanic virus begins its insidious replication inside my brain cells. A couple of hours later, I find that I am manifestly ill, humming the melody to “My Heart Will Go On” around the office and between classes. Thankfully, there is another little antibody floating around inside me, waiting to be mobilized: through incessant repetition, I find that “My Heart Will Go On” resembles “The Great Gate of Kiev” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The same opening interval, tentative or triumphant, evenly spaced across two measures; and then a four-note phrase that touches down again on the supertonic.*

The differences, however, are what make “Kiev” an effective antibody: it mimics Titanic only in order to scuttle it. The stepwise cascade of notes that ends the first part of the Titanic melody has none of the muscularity of “Kiev”’s 3-1-3. Dion has just blown her wad in an effusive leap, a full octave if you include the preparatory dip; now she turns tender, goes in for the snuggle (that 3-4-3 half-step nudge; another stepwise, descrescendo descent). “Kiev” mirrors a bit of the descent, but the effect (3-5-2-1-7-5) is of clanging cathedral bells, prefiguring the chimes at the piece’s end. “Heart” goes on to repeat the whole choral melody, which is really an embellishment of the verse; in pop, you have to come twice or people want their money back. “Kiev” repeats just the second phrase, then—counterintuitively, at least to my ear—jumps back to the opening four bars. (This jaggedness of phrasing is typical; Pictures’ well-known “Promenade” theme, with which “Kiev” is allied, is another example. In “Kiev,” the latter parts of this opening section will be reshuffled as the theme reappears.) But it is the last part of the opening section—the different use of IV, and another near-repetition before a more emphatic restatement of the opening bars—that most happily throws Winslet and DiCaprio overboard. Overall, rather than present us with the sinuous thread of an emotional narrative (boldly declared love followed by self-pitying longing), “Kiev” is static, ekphrastic, a music of sharply-angled phrases that boldly affirm and resonate with each other, as suits its purpose. (This is not to say the piece as a whole feels directionless; it builds through repetition and crescendo, like Bolero. As has been remarked, if it suggests any narrative, it is one of the traveler approaching the titular monument until it looms above him in all its sublime grandeur.) Titanic is confessional, personal; “Kiev” is ritualistic, cultural. It is marriage, not romance. Cuddling with the Gate is strictly verboten.

The similarities shouldn’t surprise us; romantic love and romantic nationalism are twinned emotions, and can be made to speak a similar language. I don’t mean to elide the difference made by instrumentation, or to understate its importance to “Kiev”’s effectiveness as an antibody: the heroic vehicle of the piano, or the brass in Ravel’s dramatic re-creation for orchestra, versus Dion’s heart-choked voice (or the penny whistle, or the tremolo harmonica).** What I find most fascinating, though, is the way the musical brain responds to melodic, rhythmic and structural affinities regardless of instrumentation and mood.

Anyway, thanks to Mussorgsky, before long I am marching around the office to a fanfare, a bloody Russian patriot.

*

With these two pieces I was able figure out why my brain toggled from one to the other. But who knows by what dark logic my inner ear moved between a Bach prelude and Nuclear Assault’s “Stranded in Hell” the other morning as I walked down 145th Street. Oh, the funny looks I have gotten from record-store clerks for bringing, say, Slayer’s Diabolus in Musica and John Coltrane’s Crescent together to the register, as if the latter would burn the former, like Lucas’s lost ark burns that swastika off the Nazi flag draped over the crate in which it is stowed. Or the Anthrax EP Armed and Dangerous with Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth. But I am not the god of used record bins to say why I should have found these two in the same vinyl vein; nor can I say why bugs for Love Supreme-era Coltrane and ‘90s Slayer should have bitten me at the same moment. Maybe I need Slayer to clean the Jesus out of my system, and Coltrane to clean the Satan out, before either works his nails too deeply in. Or maybe all this is just a symptom of the true plague of the West: an abiding Manichaeism, crippling our aesthetic sense, blinding us from the fact that music is music; that Coltrane and Slayer, in their moments of inspiration, stand shoulder to shoulder, tugging at the same old rope around the heart.

 

* I am reading the song in E, not C# minor, despite the initial chord. I can’t hear the melody resolving any other way. The chord progression of “Heart” (C#m-B-A-B-C#m) is standard rock/folk fare (e.g., “All Along the Watchtower,” etc.), though there it is often i-VII-VI-VII-i. Here, all vi seems to be doing is substituting for the I in I-V-IV-V-I.

** James Horner, who wrote the eponymously battle-horny score for Aliens as well as the theme for Titanic, cannot be a stranger to Mussorgsky, and this makes it doubly tempting, though perhaps unfair, to hear Titanic as a degraded version of “Kiev.”

Land of the Midnight Stumble

       So you climb out of the vanguard and find there’s somehow still money in your pocket, or you stagger out of one of those latenight westvillage cafes after a grading binge, all blearyeyed & braincalloused, a coat of cold espresso on your tongue. it’s midnight. the shitstinking evercoming nevercoming subway stands like a wall between you & your bed. so you do that 7th ave shuffle down to 10th street, hang a right & stumble downstairs, hand the man with the cashbox your last twenty & tip your hat to the big zonked grey bombshelter cat in the corner. & lo & behold who should be on the non-bandstand but Wynton Marsalis, like THE Wynton Marsalis, here just because you didn’t know he would be, & he & the other cats are tearing through a “cherokee” the likes of which you haven’t heard since that zootsoot nineteenfiftytwo life you dream about now & then. not that the cats wouldn’t play beautifully without him, but you just know he’s taking them to another level, what with his jazzatlincolncenter halo & suit he looks like he was born in & kenburns PBS/BGO cachet. & then “you don’t know what love is,” nosir, you most certainly did NOT know what love is, not until you heard those long, breathy notes drippp from his horn like the spit you’ve watched bead & fall from another trumpet’s bell. leaky faucets. nights up. feels like every lonely man & woman in the city just turned over in their beds all at once. all you can think is thank GOD this cat still believes in slumming, because you just don’t imagine you forget he can still play like this & there’s a reason the powersthatbe picked him to wear that suit. & what better reminder than to watch him trade 2s with the rest of the cats on that closing blues, & then 1s, & then halves quarters eighths bang bang jockeying around each other while the crowd hooplas & jesus who knows probably the grey cat himself rolls over & yawns. & by the time the waitress with the impossibly red lipstick has worked her way through the people standing in the back with your drink & you’ve tipped her a dollar & she’s thanked you like you just rescued her from the Kraken you know it’s going to be a much longer night than you’d planned. because the set’s over & the night’s young & you’ve fallen in love all over again with this city of midnight fairylands that tramples on your plans & tears up your maps & throws all reason into the sea. & yet somehow manages to put everything just where it belongs. & you in it.

I Die (A Little)

I was standing on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 145th Street listening to Sonny Rollins play “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (The Sound of Sonny, 1957) when a hearse drove by. True story. Cross my heart &c. It was leading a two-car funeral procession, lights on, curtains drawn. On my headphones, Rollins was dying a little.

Or was he? The problem here is that when Rollins plays “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” it’s just so goddamn upbeat. He swings the hell out of it, stutters the first note of each part of the melody regardless of whether friend or lover is saying hello or goodbye, and then really opens up the horn for the last two bars—so much for that famous “change from major to minor.” I ask you: Is this man really dying a little? Even just a little? I think not. This is the bon voyage of broken champagne bottles and ships’ horns; that stutter is the bit of palpitation anticipating freedom, not return. With Rollins on the bandstand, that hearse was practically bouncing on its rims.

The man turned eighty the other day, you know. You have to wonder if he’d play it the same way—if he’d swing it even harder, say, or be moody about it, or contemplative, or rage against the dying of the light. Or all of the above.

A friend of mine used to have this song on his answering machine, a woman’s voice singing the first two famous lines with a shrill, wavering lugubriousness; then the beep—this back when you used to be able to mix your own answering machine messages on those micro-cassettes, in what I have elsewhere called the endlessly malleable analog world. Then came ring tones; long live magnetic tape. Waiting to cross, I watched that mini-procession wend up St. Nicholas Avenue, Rollins bouncing notes like tennis balls off my eardrums. I almost waved.

Leviathans

An hour or so before dusk last Friday I walked out of the Upper West Side and into Central Park, started north following the dirt riding trail along the embankment of the reservoir. This was the first real day of fall; the park had the feel of a location shoot for Wuthering Heights, sky all overcast and wind gusting leaves off the trees. The trail climbed slowly, meeting the top of the embankment at the reservoir’s northwest corner. From there the water looked like the pate of a great tonsure, and the fountain in the distance like the spout of a whale. Maybe the whole island was leviathan, I mused, and that its blowhole. Walking north again, I glanced back now and then, until all I could see was the top of the spout and the mist. The illusion was complete.

I had just watched King Kong for the umpteenth time, and for the second in recent memory on the Big Screen, so I had leviathans on the brain. What struck me this time around was that all the movie’s beauty is in its stop-motion behemoths. The name of the craft is actually misleading: the creatures are in constant motion from the moment they appear: tails and necks writhe, wings flap, mouths roar or hiss; when they square off, they feint and jab, pounce, snap, and pummel. There is a great ka-boom every time their bodies hit the ground. Watching them dance, I felt like I was not at a horror movie, but at one of the first great musicals of that genre’s golden age: Busby Berkeley and Willis O’Brien collapsed into each other.

A few days earlier I had gotten an email from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where I briefly volunteered some years back, about the carcass of a blue whale that had washed up on the California coast. The email was encouraging people to go see the animal for themselves, and to touch it—a rare opportunity, it said, to touch the largest mammal that ever lived (the carcass measured 80 feet). There was a link to Facebook pictures of its body, with people climbing along and around it. I thought of the “Bower in the Arcasides” chapter of Moby-Dick, one of my dozen or so favorite chapters in the book, where a sperm whale’s beached skeleton, “woven over with vines,” has become an object of worship and a chapel, “the skull an altar,” incense-smoke rising from its bony blowhole.

As I walked and pondered I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a piece to which I find myself returning with the sort of routine urgency that one returns to a place of prayer. The Preludes and Fugues document the composer’s struggle with the leviathan of Bach, and particularly with the Well-Tempered Clavier—leviathans wrestling leviathans. Like Kong and the Tyrannosaur, though, it’s less a fight than a carefully-staged dance. Perhaps Bach was as ambiguous a god to Shostakovich as the whale’s vine-skinned skeleton is to Ishmael: it “seemed the cunning weaver,” the “busy,” “unseen weaver-god,” “himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful life, and begat him curly-headed glories.” A moment later, Ishmael will break through the ribs and almost lose himself in the labyrinthine chapel; “naught was there but bones,” he declares, before daring, against the outcries of the priests (“That’s for us!”), to measure it.

Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues run the gamut from the meditative and the never-quite-mournful—there is always a kernel of assertiveness lurking inside them—to the agitated and kaleidoscopic. I love the meticulous attention to structure in building his sonic cathedral, necessarily so different from Bach’s, but just as different, I think, from any modern church or skyscraper. I love its domes and buttresses, its cornices and spires, the whole clear architecture of it, and only wish I could stand back from it far enough to see it all at once, like one can from the carcass of a whale, and to measure it, like Ishmael with his switch. To my ears, it is as little Solzhenitsyn’s cathedral as Stalin’s, probably because one can hear Shostakovich raising the stones himself, rather than finding a ready-made home in God’s, or the State’s. (And if you were looking for a Tyrannosaur here, take your pick: God, the State … though we should perhaps add Capital to the list, and not forget the image of Kong astride the cupola of the Empire State Building. It is in those intensely affecting moments right before he falls that his movements most clearly resemble a dance.)

The lamplight was scattered in the turtlepond. The willows were ransacked by the new cold gales. And if I happened to reach the twelfth fugue, one of several regularly-spaced spires, as I climbed the Great Hill, then no doubt I intended to, or someone intended for me to. I had modified the pace of my walk; I had come across a propitiously downed tree. At the top of the Hill I cut across the grass to the flat schist outcrop at its center, another peak among many. Only to me, this evening, it was the crest of leviathan; I could sit on its rocky brow like a leviathanic thought, and say, Here is where the music has brought me; no further. For the Shostakovich—or maybe the Shostakovich post-Kong and dead blue whales—makes me think about what music can and cannot do, what its limitations are, where its natural boundaries lie, to what heights it can climb in its desire for the infinite. Anyway, it was a nice place to finish listening to the wild peasant leaps and washboard chromaticisms of twentieth-century Russia, and to intuit for a moment that there is order, maybe inexplicable, but not necessarily oppressive, that emanates like a light from within.

Circus Masada

Just this: You’re riding the Bx 19 bus up 149th Street to the Grand Concourse. On your headphones, the mad Jewish carnival that is Masada, the song is “Karaim,” on the album Gimel, these words mean nothing to you, but the music still conjures images of acrobats somersaulting between trapezes and elephants stampeding around tents. And what should you see when you look out the window but a black man furiously pedaling a unicycle up the hill beside you, keeping pace with the heaving motor of the bus? This latter-day John Henry, a circus runaway, surely, first to, then from. He’s balanced high above the pavement, his coat is slung over one arm. Such serendipities can happen anywhere. But why do they seem to happen with such greater frequency in New York?

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.