My Musical Life 0 — 20

Age 4 – Gets into the Beatles.

Age 6 – Writes first song, entitled “I’m A Guy Who Likes Potatoes,” a taxonomy of the ways they can be prepared. Still my finest composition.

Age 7 – Started a Beach Boys fan club consisting of me and my two cousins. No one cared as much as me.

Age 7 – Tell my dad I want to learn how to play the guitar like him. I don’t, but know he will like hearing it. Lessons commence and I am miserable.

Age 10 – Really hear hip-hop for the first time as my step-brother Tommy (he lived with his mom) makes me wear his headphones and plays “Nightmare on My Street” on his Walkmen while he dances in front of me mouthing the words. I was blown away.

Age 11 – Dad teaches me “Blackbird.” Suddenly I love playing guitar.

Age 13 – I become the replacement drummer in my dad’s Southern rock band, Rock Bottom, for the summer. We never play out, but I do develop a life-long affection for the Marshall Tucker Band.

Age 14 – Nirvana

Age 15 – I buy Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain to impress the dudes who work at the Record Exchange, my local record store. I begin buying indie rock when I can afford. I never like it, but the clerks like that I’m buying it. Or I think they do.

Age 16 – I hear “Web in Front.” Now I “get” indie.

Age 16 – Get an internship at WUVT, the Virginia Tech college radio station. Upma is the station manager and I badly want her to like me. Her favorite band is the Fall. As much as I try, I cannot get into them. We don’t click.

Age 17 – Play two songs on my guitar in front of the whole school at a choir concert: Beatles, “Girl” and Oasis, “Married With Children.” And yes, I did the pot inhales in “Girl.”

Age 18 – New Years Eve, back from college. Gang all together again at a cabin in the middle of nowhere singing “A Long December” by the Counting Crows as it turns midnight. Will never forget it.

Age 19 – Write my first piece of music criticism. It’s for a new site called Pitchfork. It’s terrible but they take it. Six weeks later I am (justifiably) fired for a really bad review of Joe Pernice’s one record as Chappaquiddick Skyline. I included more than one Ted Kennedy joke.

Rudy Lawless

The subway near my apartment has elevators to get to the tracks, and as I get in one on Saturday night I hold the door for an older man who’s pushing a large potted plant on a dolly. It’s wrapped in a big plastic bag.

“That a tree?” I ask.

“Trees. I love trees,” he says. “When they sway in the wind it’s like they’re singing together." Which is an amazing thought, and I tell him so.

I ask about the tree and he says he’s coming from the home of a close friend who had died five years before. He and the man’s other friends had decided to each take a piece of the friend’s favorite tree and plant it near their homes to keep him with them.

"That’s beautiful,” I tell him.

“He was a beautiful man” he says in a way we wish someone would say about us one day.

Together we carry the dolly down a set of stairs and keep talking. He talks about growing up with older brothers, tough times after World War II, life in Kip’s Bay. Around us people are staring: Why are we talking? Are we together? Someone explain the dynamic here.

His stories need no prompting. He shifts suddenly to taxes, how much money was taken in the ‘50s compared to today. “Maybe he’s a crazy after all” I think, disappointed, and start looking for an exit.

The train pulls up and as we get on together I say, “I’m going to pop my headphones in, but it was a real pleasure meeting you.” “You too,” he says, and we shake.

Twenty minutes later I’m getting off at 14th St and I wave, making sure he sees me as I go. He motions me back to the door hurriedly.

“My name’s Rudy Lawless. Google me,” he says. And that was it.

As I exit the station I search and find him immediately: a jazz drummer, he’s played with Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, and Etta James. A figure in Harlem, teaches classes and evangelizes jazz. Later I tell a knowledgable friend. “You met Rudy Lawless on the subway??”

Earlier, on the Clark St. platform, I asked if I could take his picture. He posed with a flourish, and we looked together and laughed. 

Do you Google yourself, Rudy Lawless? Let’s get coffee. 
 

Heat

New York summers are pregnant. The air drips with humidity, the streets applaud the flip-flaps of determined feet, skirts draped just so over still-pale thighs, stoplights breaking out into song: "Hate It or Love It" everywhere, 50 and the Game calling all cars, Mary hollering back a block away. Around rush hour, the city curiously quiets to a whisper, as if everyone was suddenly struck mute by the comforting breeze of dusk, the dwindling sun ricocheting off the glass towers, drenching the pavement in a refracted glow that makes us all look like movie stars. Yesterday, after a thunderstorm that turned the sky opaque like a curtain-drop, a rainbow just as suddenly stretched its hues across the horizon; at a street corner in Brooklyn, a walk signal blinked forlornly as the pedestrians stared awestruck to the west.

But there's an eeriness about the start of this summer that has me on edge. Maybe it's reading books related to September 11 lately, but every nice day has me looking for low-flying aircraft. Doom is afoot. If you were in New York or Washington D.C. then, you will undoubtedly remember the absolute perfection of that day and those following it. I remember thinking that nature was taunting us, putting us in our place, showing us how beauty could persist even as the very concept seemed hopelessly gauche.

Maybe it's just the frustration of responsibility in the summer, though. This time of year we all want to revert to our skinned-knee selves. We stare out of windows, sit on stoops trying to will the sun not to set, jealously eye beach bags and flip-flops, curse the desks that cuff us from freedom. That's what getting older is blah blah blah, but who wants that racket when a sunburn is but two hours away? But the machinations of capitalism know no rest, and the gears keep turning, turning, turning.

Everyone who is anyone evacuates New York in the summers. The Hamptons develop smog from the cologne and perfume clouds, and planes take off for Florida by the minute. With the rich and famous-to-their-friends gone, the pre-War cathedrals around Central Park go dark, and the rest of the city starts roaming for sex and trouble, in that order. New York is hip-hop's capitol, and the summer is its convention. Beats come from the sidewalk, the clatter of subway tracks pick up contagious rhythms, ringtones and taxi horns harmonize and collaborate. And the tone changes by the light: "Crazy in Love" was Saturday at dusk, the night rich with potential; "Drop It Like It's Hot" that same night seven hours later, the party sparse and grasping so the mood would never let up.

Unlike Miami or Los Angeles — places where seasons are fashion, not meteorological, terms — New York summers are flings, winks across the 6 train and a lingering eye on a crosswalk. We all know it will disappear (those heavy coats always visible in our too-small closets) and yet we fight the clock anyway, relishing the sweat if nothing else. May it never end.

The Staircase

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The last half hour of The Staircase, an eight-hour Sundance documentary about the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson by filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is almost entirely without dialogue. After the court reporter reads the verdict — which sends Peterson to prison for life — she polls each juror in open court, asking if they believe the defendant to be guilty. As each of them answers in the affirmative, Lestrade cuts between the faces in the courtroom: Peterson stunned but still calculating, his daughters Margaret and Martha frozen in grief, his lawyer David Rudolf genuinely shocked by the verdict and prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black no less surprised.

The camera follows Peterson as he is handcuffed and swallowed into the courthouse's belly, trailing him and five deputies through a maze of barred doors and fluorescent lights until he reaches a police cruiser, whereupon he collapses in a mix of grief and relief, his head hanging in shame for the first time in years. Michael Peterson does not cry, but his children — back in the house where their adopted father supposedly killed their stepmother — do. Young Martha, the only child to really truly believe her father's innocence, is inconsolable, while her older siblings silently take inventory of their lives, and realize that they are left with nothing but each other and a sadness that will not wane.

Over eight episodes, The Staircase chronicled the prosecution and defense of Michael Peterson. He was accused by North Carolina law enforcement of murdering his wife Kathleen on December 9, 2001. He claimed that she simply fell down the stairs. As a novelist specializing in Vietnam fiction, Peterson's coffers are full, and so he hires a dozen or so lawyers and experts to defend his life. It doesn't take long for them to realize that he is, most likely, guilty. 

A narcissist, Peterson at times seems to delight in his prosecution, in the attention that he is getting. And it's plainly obvious throughout that he believes he will get away with it. But in the privacy of his home, we see Peterson interact with his children, and his belabored responses and actions toward them reveal a tremendous amount of guilt.

When Peterson's extramarital dalliances with male escorts are revealed, the case takes a turn toward the sordid, and immediately Court TV and the like begin following it closely. Peterson's explanation is painfully extracted, as he portends that his and Kathleen's marriage was an ideal one, just that she couldn't satisfy his urges the way a hilariously frank man from a military-themed gay escort service could. But as he rationalizes his affairs, Peterson reveals too much, calling Kathleen "demanding" and "a part of every aspect of my life" in a tone that implies a venom that the defense team would rather do without.

The lawyers know that the case they have been presented is an odd one. While Peterson's explanation of a fall can't explain the amount of lacerations on his dead wife's head or the incredible amount of blood at the scene without a magic bullet-type theory, the prosecution doesn’t have much to go on to explain how else it occurred either. The case then comes down to the prosecution making the fall theory seem implausible and the defense the opposite. The inept prosecution fails spectacularly, proclaiming the murder weapon to be a mysteriously absent blowpoke. The item is found by the defense toward the end of the trial in Peterson's garage, and an examination of the metal rod proves that it was not used to kill Kathleen Peterson.

Even though Michael Peterson seems guilty, the prosecution never proves it. Instead, prosecutor Freda Black — whose sack-like dresses and obnoxious demeanor suggest a level of prissiness heretofore undiscovered — simply says the phrases "homosexual," "bisexual" and "anal sex" as often and as angrily as she possibly can, hoping to play on an uneducated jury's prejudices against carnal malfeasance. And, as the verdict suggests, it works: there is little evidence offered that damns Peterson, aside the coincidental fact that a woman he knew in Germany died by falling down the stairs 20 years prior, yet he is found guilty anyway.

Lestrade tells this story carefully, relishing in the minutiae of forensics and Peterson's bottomless well of self-congratulation. There are no epiphanies, just slow unravelings. Most fascinating is watching Peterson's high-priced defense team construct scenarios around their client's thin lies: even though everyone in the room knows that they are building a house on sand, they have makeshift props and buttresses at the ready for every situation. But they can not account for an awful judge, a man named Orlando Hudson whose cases, as a postscript says, are regularly overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and a jury that seems to have little respect for the burden of proof. And so for now, Michael Peterson sits in a jail cell awaiting his appeal, dreaming of Saigon and convinced that the perfect murder is only a competent judge away.

Finding myself as a writer

Enough with the linking to pieces already, I know, but one more: this one on Queens of the Stone Age, which I mention solely for the last paragraph. That graf and that whole A Frames piece in its entirety (even if its bibliography was over the top) are who I am as a writer right now, and for the first time in a long time, I'm okay with that. As any writer will testify, the way the whole exercise works is that you are embarrassed by your own output no more than 14 days after finishing it. That part you thought was so funny and interesting when you first wrote it feels dumb and like you're trying too hard by the time it actually hits print. A good writer is constantly evolving, continually spotting his/her own bullshit in an attempt to find his/her voice and — most importantly — some sort of honesty/truth. That's really hard to come by. We're almost always writing in someone else's voice, even if it's an amalgamation of two cereal boxes, one TV commercial, a direct mail coupon book and two volumes of Proust. Everything bleeds, even the stuff we scoff at for poor grammar and worse ideas.

The goal, then, should be to: a) write clearly b) write honestly c) write from a place that is your own. And by that last point I mean from a point of view that draws from your own experiences and prejudices, etc. It's not "write what you know," thank God, but it's something kind of close. Write where you know, or something like that. In those Queens and A Frames pieces — trite shit to be sure — I drew on my own Christian upbringing in both content and tone to gesture toward the weighty texts that I buried myself in as a kid. This isn't to say that these are great pieces or congratulate myself for turning out the 450,000,000,000th record review written this year; it's to say that after who knows how long of trying, I finally managed to write something that felt like me, in a sense, even if it's just a very small part of who I am.

I'm excited by that, of course, but at the same time it's made me wonder why I have this blog. I started it, as I noted in my very first post, to practice writing, to self-promote and to create a self-publication, complete with style guide. And while I've kept up the self-promotion (as the 3,000 "look at what I wrote here" entries and that sidebar can attest), the other two bits have been lost lately. Part of it's a day job whose demands seem to increase daily (Who wants to return to a computer after spending all day being hypnotized by one unless it's for money?) and part of it — not to get melodramatic — is Hunter S. Thompson's death. Reading the amazing amazing amazing amazing Rolling Stone issue about his life made me wonder exactly where I'm heading as a writer, and where it is that I want to end up. And I don't know the answer to that, and I don't expect it will just pop into my head one day, out of the thin blue. But I'm considering it, and trying to sort out how this blog is 'sposed to fit into the whole big mess. I'll let you know when I find out.

"Don't Cha," Tori Alamaze

Thanks to my friend Rich Juzwiak — who really, really needs to start a blog — I've now come across my first listened-to-20-times-a-day single of 2005: Tori Alamaze's "Don't Cha." Google trawls bring up little, aside from this being Tori's first single, and it's released by Universal and produced by Cee-Lo. "Don't Cha" sounds like Mary J. in her hours of darkness — insecure, legs shaky, her feet nervously crossing each other, a quivering sip from a glass of wine, eyelids fluttering as she tries to maintain eye contact. Like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," "Don't Cha" is about a narrator talking herself into a decision she doesn't want to make. After spending the majority of the track laying down her case for why she's worth catching, Tori wraps up "Don't Cha" with resignation, singing: "I know she loves you/ So I understand/ I probably be just as crazy about you/ If you where my man." It's a personal ad in song: SBW seeks MBM to leave SO for true love. Only no one responds and she's left alone in her too-big apartment and sings her troubles into his answering machine with only pitying handclaps and a keyboard drone as accompaniment. Halfway through she starts feeling strong, the rush of laying her story bare convincing her that she's doing the right thing, that she's too good for this asshole, too pretty to waste her time on some loser who doesn't even know how good she would be to him. But then comes another burst of organ, a little louder and harsher this time, and again she's frightened into a corner, suddenly talking about "maybe next lifetime" and wishing she was already there.

"Predator," Ice Cube

In early December the only thing I was listening to was hip-hop, thanks to an amazing amazing amazing (one more) amazing social history of the genre coming out in February that I was reviewing. Each chapter sent me in search of some long-forgotten single or album, and the music never failed to disappoint. While The Predator isn't mentioned in the book (Amerikkka's Most Wanted gets the ink), it's always been one of my favorite hip-hop albums, and recently I've returned to it. Though "It Was a Good Day" is heavily lit perfection, "When Will They Shoot?" is the track that wows me: that orbiting guitar loop, the Cap'n Crunch snare cracks and Cube's furious barking, as if they parked the studio in the middle of Grape Street and hit record. A+

Interview: Colleen

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In 2003, the Leaf label released Everyone Alive Wants Answers, the debut album by a French musician who performed as Colleen. The album received scant notice, but when it did, the response was ecstatic. Full of found sounds and warbly, trembling carnivalesque tones, Everyone is precious and precocious, a playfully morose exploration of sound as mood and emotion, as life and death.

A few weeks ago I emailed Cecile Colleen asking for an interview for this blog. She graciously accepted. Below are the ten questions that I asked and her excellent answers, all unedited. Listen to excerpts of her album here, an excellent DJ mix she did for French radio here and visit her official site here.

are you a sound conservationist? by which i mean that on everyone alive wants answers the songs seem to be not only songs but snapshots of moments in time and space that you felt an emotional pull toward. i have no idea if that question makes sense, but i have a feeling that you'll understand.

i'm not sure what you mean by sound conservationist, and i have to admit that it feels a bit strange for me to talk about songs which are now, for some of them, three years old. I know that people often talk to me about my music in terms of how it brings you to imagine things, but i have to say that when i make music, it's primarily about just that: music. But what this means for me exactly and concretely is hard to explain, because music is the most important thing in my life, whether i'm recording some songs, playing a live show, or learning to play an instrument. Basically the primary motive behind me making music is the urge to hear something and be moved by it, and reach that myself and not just by relying on other people's music. 

your ear definitely leans toward trebly, unsteady sounds. may i ask why?

I'm not sure if it's trebly sounds so much as a tendency (at least in the first album) to use filters because i love the hiss and treble range associated with old recordings — and for sure that's a love of mine, i love old things in general, old objects, gramophones, mechanical music instruments, and the like. I'm not a computer geek at all and don't spend my time marveling at all the software and gear existing. 

do you listen to music while riding public transportation? does this inspire ideas?

i do, a lot, although thanks to now working part time i have to take public transport a lot less than before, but when i play live i always use public transport to go to the place where i'm playing, so that does mean quite a bit of traveling and having time to listen to music while watching landscapes or just daydreaming. Because i've been so busy in the past year and a half, public transport has actually offered me some very valuable time off, the only time when it was ok for me to do nothing but listen to music. But I wouldn't say it inspires musical ideas as such.

how different are performing and recording to you? do you approach them differently?

Recording and performing are bound to be different if only because of where they happen, especially in my case: when i record music, i'm completely on my own, from beginning to end. No one helps me to record, and i don't ask anybody's opinion on what i'm about to record, or what i've recorded. So it's just me alone in my living room.

Of course performing is completely the opposite, it's really about giving my music to the audience and hoping that some people will be moved by it. 

The one point they do have in common is that in creative terms, they really feed each other: i want to create new pieces because i don't want to play the same things over and over again in the live shows, especially if it's in a city where i've played before, and part of those new pieces might end up being recorded, perhaps for a future release. Or if i've recorded something, i'll try to see how i can come up with some kind of live version of it (if it's technically feasible — sometimes it's just not possible).

They are two different facets of making music but i really enjoy them both.

are your performances successful? are you happy with them?

i have to say that so far, over the course of two years, i've been a very happy performer nine times out of ten: occasionally i will have some awful technical problems, or an audience with a couple of difficult members (this is sometimes enough to ruin it for everyone, especially the other members of the audience who just want to enjoy the music in peace — and my music does require silence), but apart from that i feel i've been incredibly lucky with audiences and how my live shows have been received.

I love the immediacy of live playing, the give and response that you rarely have with a record, except if people write to you to tell you that they love it.

There are always things that i could have played better during a show, so i often have the feeling that i could have done better, but then again i don't obsess over it, perfection in playing is not what live shows are about or certainly not what MY live shows are about, and i don't think that's what people come to see me for, so i always judge a show by what i felt (was i enjoying myself when i was playing? did i manage to forget that i was doing this strange thing — performing in front of people — and enjoy the music i was making?) and how the audience responded. If they seemed happy then i'm happy too.

when will you return to the uk and when will you finally hit the us?

i will return to the UK as soon as someone offers me to play a show there this year, and the same goes for the US! It has been quieter over the past few months in terms of live playing for me because i was concentrating on recording the second album, and i think that you do need a break from time to time, if only to regain the sense of wonder at the opportunity of traveling and meeting people and how lucky i've been to be able to bring my music to people elsewhere; it's all too easy for it to turn into a routine and forget about how special live playing is.

can you sing? are there little snippets of words that you have written that make you want to add vocals to your music? do those get used as song titles instead?

Good question: can I sing? Well i still don't know the answer to that, it's a mixture of yes and no right now, though actually i've taken up singing again rather recently (i used to sing as a teenager, but mostly for myself and mostly other bands' songs); right now i'm learning songs by John Dowland, who was one of the greatest English composers of the late 16th century - early 17th century, he made those incredibly beautiful lute songs which have something very minimal and modern about them. The plan with them is that i'll ultimately also learn to play the guitar in a lute-like fashion (the scores i have are transcriptions of the lute parts for classical guitar).

I find it all very exciting and i think it was bound to happen since i just feel like trying every single instrument on planet earth, and the voice is one of them.

I have no idea though if i will ever sing other than in the privacy of my home.

As for words i have a bit of a problem with them — even giving titles to my songs just seems to take me forever. They usually come from novels, are inspired by events in my own life, and for the second album by Dowland's lyrics.

is there a new album on the way? if so, what will it be called and when will it be released?

The second album will be out on Leaf in June 2005 and will be called « the golden morning breaks » (a quote from a song by John Dowland). There is also a recording of a live session which I did for Dutch national radio VPRO which will be released on Dutch label Staalplaat in the Mort aux Vaches series, probably in September 2005.

how strong an emotional attachment do you feel toward your music? do you think of it as an extension of you or as simply a way that you express yourself?

The attachment i feel towards my music is very much part of a broader attachment that i have for music in general, in all its forms. It encompasses the music that i listen to and which is very varied (from 60s pop and folk to jazz to baroque to late 19th century / first half of 20th century composers, early electronic music, music from all over the world, especially South East Asia, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things), but also the music that i try to play on instruments that i'm currently learning (the cello for a year and a half, now the piano, the clarinet soon, and bits and bobs here and there), whether it's pieces by other composers or me fooling around and trying to come up with something for my own use. But I also love reading about the history of and the stories behind music, how music has evolved over the course of the centuries, the life of composers and musicians, mechanical music, the social context behind music, instrument-making and instrument evolution… And of course making my own music is also very important!

When you really love music it's just endless really, and that's what makes it so exciting and fresh: the more you learn, the more you find out about other things to learn about. 

do you have a job? and if so, what?

I teach English in a high school; since September last year i've been doing that part time and it's been a real improvement in my quality of life, and i feel all the luckier because not only do i have a lot more free time than before, but the time i do spend at school is very enjoyable this year because my pupils are on the whole a really good bunch (not good in terms of their English but in terms of their personality).

I'll probably be back to a more hectic lifestyle when the second album is released, but right now i'm having a really great time just listening to music, playing the cello and piano, reading and watching films and spending time with the people i love, so i feel really lucky.

"Here I Am," Dolly Parton

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When Dolly Parton shouts "HERE I AM!" in the song of the same name, a woman emerges from the cocoon of girlishness. You can hardly imagine a phrase sounding more powerful or meaningful. These words have physical power, especially as they come tumbling out of the painted mouth of a pretty Southern girl whose voice lilts with each syllable in an involuntary act of self-protection, concealing her intelligence with an "aw shucks," keeping her mouth open wide, losing her own identity in that of her performing partner Porter Wagoner, trying to follow the rules of a working-class genre even as her mere appearance shattered them.

"Here I Am" appears on Coat of Many Colors, Dolly's first hit record, released in 1971. It seems a natural lead-off track — proud, assertive, bombastic — but instead it's tucked in a cupboard as the penultimate song. And as powerful as her proclamation sounds, it's tempered somewhat by the other lyrics, where Dolly divulges that she's here to help and love, not to get what she wants. The patriarchy can live another day.

But her offers to comfort and mother wither in the face of such obscenity. Look at that album cover, where an asexual child (Dolly? Joseph?) smiles without reservation clad in a drab smock of brown and blue. It mocks the title. For poor mountain folk like Dolly, many equals two. A coat of two colors, ain't I proud? The easy shuffle of the title track finds Dolly relishing her poverty, her "patches on my britches/ holes in my shoes" as her classmates laugh at her. "I couldn't understand it/ For I felt I was rich/ And I told them all the love my momma sewed in every stitch," she coos, shaken with fear but not shame, because this gal has the love of momma and Jesus in the hem of her garment. Thou shall not covet, nor shall thou be ashamed.

Within the context of the album, "Here I Am" seems less about Dolly's self-identification as a woman and more about finding a man who will be a husband and finding a hat on which to hang her heart. But there's an ambition in her voice — her eyes shut tight but her fists balled tighter — that no amount of homemaker dreaming can hide. This is Rosy the Riveter with two-dollar boots, hundred-dollar looks and a few thousand songs in her head. No man can quench that yearning, though many are dumb enough to try, blind to the fierceness that lurks behind those easy eyes and hungry breasts, and unable to recognize the sad sag of a smile that can never be satisfied.