Listening to the MekonsEXISTENTIALISM this morning, I spoke parts of the following to my husband…jet-lagged, and not as precise as I’d like to think is my usual, here’s an attempt to capture my words/thoughts, after a little more caffeine:
I can’t believe I never knew of the Mekons until I met [you] my husband. Not because I knew so many bands, but because the music of the Mekons goes straight into the body, to reach the tender bit that is humanity, or something else I can’t articulate. Anyway, their music feeds that part. As I listened this morning, I thought, why doesn’t everyone see this? Maybe it’s just an inescapable fact of independent art-making, the small batches that come from not being a Big Famous Commercial Commodity. Microbrew of sound. An acquired taste? We should all acquire it. If the world were just, their sounds would spill out to all humanity. We’d hear the Mekons piped through the air in sports bars and over sidewalks. (Wouldn’t that be a different world?) If that happened, we’d have to wake from complacency and consumption; I wonder if we’d ever get anything “done.” If the trains could possibly still run on time, if making and selling widgets would still be relevant, or if our inner parts would thrive better, if we’d get off our rumps beyond widget-making, and make art.
…help me answer these and other raggedy questions by purchasing EXISTENTIALISM from Bloodshot Records here. (And add the most excellent ANCIENT AND MODERN for just $8.95 more!)
Here’s a sweet video of Jon Langford and Jean Cook doing the song “Are You An Entertainer?” If you have 4 minutes and 54 seconds to watch it, please do (you’ll thank me!).
And if you’re near Yellow Springs, take note: Tickets for the Antioch School Gala are still available. YOU CAN SEE THESE TWO AMAZING HUMANS PERFORM LIVE, ON MARCH 4, IN YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO!
Life may seem nasty, brutish, and short, but we need to find the bright spots where we can.
This event is a vital fundraiser for the country’s oldest democratic school. The ticket price includes food, an open wine bar, and performance by Jon Langford and Jean Cook. Where are you going to get a deal like that anywhere else? For more information, check out the School’s website here.
His music was the color of the sky of my coming of age. His potency and unapologetic thrust toward LIFE made room for us to do the same…and by “do,” I don’t only mean do the nasty…he named things we could only stumble through feeling, back in our half-formed days…he was able to let the quivery bits of being a vulnerable human shine through, but refused to let that vulnerability stop him…when I think of the iconic flirtation in the geometry of his mouth…he was such a beautiful gamester…I don’t want to make him into a messiah…but there’s something about a world where Prince’s style of shiny permission-giving could be part of my teenage life so casually, so almost accidentally, that makes me believe there COULD be a messiah like Prince…
“If a person will only think about it, the first fountain pen was
undoubtedly the human body itself, with its seemingly endless
(till death do us part) supply of ink.” —p. 165, Parsifal
“A fountain pen forces no one to read its words.” —p. 224, Parsifal
As I read Jim Krusoe’s writing, which I’ve been doing for a decade and a half, I find it simultaneously familiar and strange. In his work, I hear a persistent drumming behind the prose, a call. My ears strain to grasp the sound; it’s just beyond my reach. It occurs to me that it’s similar to how the musician Bill Frisell allows his past themes to reemerge and weave into the texture of the new, Don’t I recognize that from somewhere? Familiar, strange. By these haunts, I’m both lulled and awakened. What does that memory mean this time?
In Krusoe’s work, that mystery gives me permission to dream while I’m awake. Or, perhaps, as Krusoe puts it on p. 75 of Parsifal: “Somewhere there must be a word, some technical term, for a combination of anticipation, nostalgia, and dread.”
Then there are the pens. The protagonist of his last novel, Parsifal (Tin House, 2012) repairs fountain pens. (Reminiscent of the protagonist in his first novel, Iceland, who repairs typewriters.) This persistent loyalty to archaic means of capturing story on page is a comfort in our era of disembodied ones and zeros. In the narrative weave of Parsifal, a sort of Aesthetics of The Fountain Pen emerges:
“‘In my experience,” Parsifal tells those who ask, ‘there are two kinds of people: those who enjoy complications and subtlety, and those who do not. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety, then a fountain pen is not for you.’”—p. 191, Parsifal
I write first drafts on paper. The fountain pen is my primary tool. Wait! Am I “the sort of person who enjoys complications and subtlety?” Am I really? Or do I like things more tidy? Complications and subtlety are so messy! So uncomfortable! But evidently so appealing, so attractive. As a person who (apparently) enjoys complications and subtlety, the fountain pen thread was one of the primary pleasures as I read this novel. If we can trust the narrator of Parsifal:
“During the first years of fountain pens, prior to the actual Golden Age, which was roughly from 1910 to 1950—prior to the invention of the ballpoint, in other words—it is a little known fact that no fountain pen came with the small clip that holds it snugly inside a pocket of a shirt. That was invented by George Parker, of the Parker Pen Company, and ever since then it’s hard to imagine a pen without one (though some pens are still made this way, primarily for the Japanese market). So it is possible for something to come from nothing: no clip for many years, and then suddenly, a clip. And now, with the fountain pen practically extinct, the clip lives on, attached to ballpoints, and roller balls, and mechanical pencils, and laser pointers.”—p. 246
Jim Krusoe was my mentor in graduate school, and since then has continued to be a significant influence, inspiration, and support. In the classes I teach, we sometimes discuss why different writers write. I’ve never asked Jim why he writes, but I wonder if there’s a clue in Parsifal on p. 181, “Who was it that said our sole glory as humans is to leave behind a record of our crimes and desires?”
Last weekend, I was in a roomful of people remembering George Romansic. (If you don’t know who George was, you can read something about his work here and elsewhere on the internet.) Some of his people spoke that night, some played music, some just smiled, hugged, and wept. If I had spoken, here’s what I might have said.
I last visited George, who was my favorite DJ, in early January 2015. He would live a few more weeks; by then he was badly affected by the glioblastoma that killed him, but when I got there on New Year’s Eve, his George-ness was still quite evident. We hung out. As usual, in his living room, the music playing was vast and diverse and wonderful. George wasn’t up to DJing, so his son John Lewis was doing the work. George smiled when he told me John Lewis had been taking requests, finding just what his dad needed to hear from the freakishly-extensive music library. The music was good, no, not just good but delicious, like the best cafe latte (not Italian, not Starbucks, but a real Seattle coffee, like you’d find at Caffe Fiore or Cafe Lladro, anytime, but if you’re really lucky, when you were hanging out with George). At some point during the visit, John Lewis played some of his own music from his laptop, delicious too; it sounded really really really good. The child is of his father, and of his mother, but also of himself. The light in George’s face when he said his son was DJing was one of the truest things I have ever seen, that love. I see, anyone nearby who’s looking can see how George lives on in his children, John Lewis and Maddie, can see how the glorious light in these beloved grown children keeps the source of their father alive. I am grateful for this.
Now, I recall the room at George’s wake, brimming with creative people who knew and loved George. I want Maddie and John Lewis to remember that room too, and to know how many people (in the room, and elsewhere, everywhere) have their backs. (Maddie and John Lewis, we’ve got your backs. Joanie, yours, too.)
The other thing I might have said then or want to say now is that a couple months before I visited George, when I heard how really serious things were turning with his health, I happened to be reading Lynda Barry’s incomparable One! Hundred! Demons! (which I wrote about here.) I got to the part where she writes:
The groove is so mysterious. We’re born with it and we lose it and the world seems to split apart before our eyes into stupid and cool. When we get it back, the world unifies around us, and both stupid and cool fall away. I am grateful to those who are keepers of the groove. The babies and the grandmas who hang on to it and help us remember when we forget that any kind of dancing is better than no dancing at all. —Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!
And I realized that if I know one person who is a keeper of the groove, along with the babies and grandmas, it is George. Literally, in his many musical breathings in this life, in the boxes of CDs he knew so well, and in a more magical and ineffable way. George kept the groove in his pocket, in the way he would always pick us up at the airport, in the light behind his glasses, in the beat of his kind and gargantuan heart.
Setting up my dining table command center for a morning of work, I look at the CDs to find the day’s soundtrack. Something not too demanding, lyrics are okay for the work I have to do today. I find Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days. I put it on, but it’s not as simple as I remembered. It propels me back to the early days of Merida, the vague panic I felt when my sleep-deprived mate Robert abandoned me each morning to go off to work. I sat in the rocking chair, nursing the baby to her morning nap, listening to Iron & Wine’s breath, quiet and trapped until she would wake. Sometimes it was an hour, sometimes longer, my infant, my living heart that stepped into the world safe in slumber on the Boppy pillow. Sometimes I waited for my friend Colette and her baby Sabine to come over, so we could strap babies to our bodies and go for a hike, or simply share the overwhelm, the “quite an adjustment” to becoming parents. Or sometimes I read a book, or more likely a magazine, often something about mothering, how to make things perfect, or just how to survive these early, stretchy hours and days. They felt they would last forever. They didn’t. Now it’s now, now she’s off being seven at school with her friends, now I have only a few grains of baby left in the hourglass, which is fine, which is good, which is what I want, which is heartbreaking.
Now, at night, she worries about all the people around us who are ill, or have died, recently. We name them, talk about how. I remind her that there are also babies being born, babies we know or will know. “I was just thinking about that!” she says, sounding happy. We name the babies, too. But still, the ghosts. She writes elaborate notes to the ghosts that are haunting our house, folds and paperclips them into tiny swaddled bundles, and tosses them out the window into the snow, where I will leave them until they decompose. She knows that it’s worth writing the notes, that maybe it will help.
Which is fine, good, what I want, and heartbreaking.
That some day she will read my words. That some day she will understand how complicated it all is, this leading, this being a parent to a person, to an eventual woman. That some day she might also have music that will tunnel her back, how music will do, to a time that seemed it would never end. That everything ends.
Here’s what happens when I see my friends Deborah and Karl Colon (of Changeling) play their music: My heart, having usually been trapped inside my body (where it lives) for some number of days, weeks, or months, sneaks through the sonically-opened window (the one attached to my soul) and my heart unfolds its tired wings, and rises upward or outward, to wherever it is that beauty lives. Yes. This. The heart goes for a visit to Beauty. It’s a tactile sensation. At the first few strains of their music on Thursday night, I felt it, and realizing that this, this, watching the gamboling and frolicking of our children together, this diamond-making that my musical friends do, I thought, and could hardly believe, “This is my life…that this is my life…”
Two of my short pieces (a story and an essay) that will be published within the year include lyrics from Jack Hardy’s songs. (Read some posts about Jack here.) In my response to his family’s granting permission for me to use his words, I wrote:
His music has been (and continues to be) the tea in which my soul steeps, often, almost without thought, which must be why the lyrics make their way into my writing. I know that part of what he intended with his songs was that they be incantatory. I hope that in immortalizing them in these short pieces, his incantations will ripple outward…
This is how life works. And what glorious tea in which to steep!
(What are you steeping in right now? How does your life-tea suit you?)
Before I saw Jon Langford a couple weeks ago at the Southgate House Revival, I had read that Daniel Knox was going to open the evening. I went to Knox’s website to orient myself, but as often happens, I was interrupted before I could listen to anything. The night of the show, I wasn’t paying attention when an unassuming guy walked onstage and sat at the keyboard. I didn’t even notice until he began to sing. His gorgeous, haunting voice rippled among the waves of his musical score, working the tension between fancy croon and despair. Daniel Knox has alarming range in his voice. I don’t know what type of person I would expect to have brought those musical bones to the stage, but the contrast between the guy I saw and the revelation of his music added to the wonder. It was one of those moments of discovery when I learn there’s another entire world that has just casually walked into the room.
His set in Newport included the keyboard, supported by four overturned milk crates, and himself. After he played, I stumbled over some compliment to Mr. Knox at the merchandize table and bought his CD Evryman For Himself. On the ride home, I read the CD liner notes: Ralph Carney and others play with Knox. (“Ralph Carney?” I said to my husband. I know Carney from his work with Tom Waits, icon.)
The sound of Daniel Knox is theatrical, so I was not surprised to see he has collaborated on stage productions. Some of his songs make me think of Kurt Weill, some of Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine is her album I’m most familiar with, but Knox and Apple also seem to share a certain strain of hopeful bitterness), and there’s certainly some Waitsian sounds involved, too. Knox is another of these fabulous interdisciplinary aestheticians, whom, if I were hiring, I would invite to join the IA dream department. After finishing each song, he would toss the pages of music (which I suspect might have been props) to the floor behind him, a floor salad of inspiration.
Maybe because I had no idea what to expect, the milk crates supporting the keyboard added a layer of secrecy to the moment. It was a little like sitting in a basement in college, listening while a friend reads from her journal, finding perfectly-formed gems of humanity inside each line. Knox’s songs are like little sad 70s movies, minimal but complete stories with haunting soundtracks. His work is raw and fragile, but also strong like a metal building, an eternally-surviving frame surrounding a tiny, exquisite flower of pain. I scribbled some of these notes in the semi-dark as I listened, and one thing I wrote (my memory between the moment of going to his website weeks before and being interrupted and that evening at the church was so blurry), was, “and I don’t even know his name—I sat through the whole set not knowing his name!”
There was once a humble Vietnamese restaurant nearby our town. I used to like to get the noodle bowls there. On the menu, with the listing of choices, there was a note: For 50 cents extra, you could order “more interesting vegetables.” I always ordered more interesting vegetables, and although I can’t now recall which specific vegetables came for that half-dollar splurge, the term became shorthand in my house for more interesting anything, usually to do with books or movies or art or people.
Daniel Knox is one of those who deals in more interesting vegetables.
On April 9, I had the pleasure of seeing Jon Langford and Skull Orchard rock the stained glass out of Newport, Kentucky’s Southgate House Revival. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. The windows are still there, or they were when I left the church/club, as evidenced by this photo.)
While waiting for the bill at a pizza place nearby, I worried that by the time we got to the club, it would be packed. When my husband and I got to the church (on time, after all), Langford was in the bar, and we had a moment to say hello and chat. I’ve met him before, and it’s always a treat. Langford is irreverent, generous, and funny, full of the best of what humanity can be.
As an artist, Langford knows about layers. His paintings echo memories of musical icons, ragged images full of heart. Ragged like most adult humans, beneath the veneer. Langford knows there is a crack in everything, and he knows that’s how the light gets in. Doing a Waco Brothers song that night, they were “walking on hell’s roof, looking at the flowers” in a former church, adding layer upon layer. I blogged about Jon Langford and his work another time over here. That night’s was a “small perfectly formed” audience, Langford said. I guess for a weeknight, it wasn’t shocking that the place wasn’t full to the choir loft, but I wish the world were different and I wish that a guy who makes stuff like Langford makes would be valued over, say, (—insert manufactured popular music icon of your choice here—).
It might have been my ears which have been recently more attuned to how we cheat and don’t cheat death, but Langford tapped into something that keeps haunting me lately: We don’t have much time. Do something now. Do something you care about, something you can live with. Drain all the juice, stop equivocating (okay, he didn’t say all that, but he showed it), go. No point saving the good china for good. (I might be imposing ideas from other sources I’m colliding with right now. Like how you see a specific number everywhere, once you start to notice its importance.)
But it does seem that Jon Langford’s songs are about how to be alive. How we decide to be, while we’re living. They are all about waking us up.
The Newport lineup included Bill Anderson, who I know from The Horsies, which was cool because, well, you can go watch The Horsies here. The cumulative power of the musicians in Newport (Langford, Anderson, Jean Cook, Joe Camarillo, and Ryan Hembrey) created something complicated and rich and decadent and shhh, secretly fragile, because it’s so rare. Whatever you want to call it, it was perfect, the air between those stained glass windows. And we of the small, perfectly formed audience were treated to a kick-ass set, uncensored stories, and other hijinks, perhaps because it was the final show on this part of the tour. The band were like ridiculously talented children, up on stage, playing for sheer fun.
That night felt like the best kind of party, celebrating sound, story, and full-on-why-go-halfwayism, and it’s just the kind of party that spring needs, and that I need, to blow out the cobwebs of winter and remind me that
p.s. Daniel Knox opened for Langford & Skull Orchard. The experience of seeing Daniel Knox is another story, which I will write about soon as I can.