Wednesday, November 9, 2016

It's Okay to Panic


Given that Grab Them by the P*ssy and Conversion Therapy—which is what I plan to call them—just won the White House I certainly feel and think that a moment of panic, or disbelief, or shock, or what have you, is understandable by those who stand to lose the most, because our future president and vice-president have repeatedly and expressly stated they intend to do harm to immigrants, Muslims, gays, women, and transsexuals. Worse, they will probably be supported in that agenda by Congress and most likely by the appointment of Federal judges. My wife, a cancer survivor, for example, has very good reason to be scared because one of their first goals is to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would prevent her going forward from being discriminated against by insurance companies for such a past condition.

Really, if you perceive the results of this election in a personal way at all, this win by the conservative right doesn't seem like anything irrelevant, distant, or temporary. It's worse than a swinging back of the pendulum, a la the Reagan or Bush years. It's more than a mere reaction against Obama's popularity and successes. It's deeper than a flailing or final gasp of a cis straight white male demographic majority group. After all, it’s basically the ascension to power of a group of blatantly misogynistic, xenophobic, and unqualified men who campaigned that they want to use political power to hurt certain peoples economically, socially, physically, and morally, and not because those target people are dangerous in any real sense but rather purely because they are “different”.

So, we should try to be kind and not tell anyone not to be upset, or panicky, or shocked by the events of last night. Yes, a lot of work still needs to be done; that was always the case, and it remains the case. Obviously, though, for those of us inclined to be liberal and progressive our expectations were not nearly met this election cycle, and so our expectations for our own personal futures, for the futures of folks we love, and for the future of our culture and world in general are suddenly being drastically adjusted, too, and that's a very difficult process to endure. It’s a grieving one, actually.

I therefore understand the panic and the crying, the jaw-dropping and the fright. My tears have come, as well. What exactly will take place I don’t know. As my wiser dad likes to say, no matter what you think will happen, the reality will undoubtedly be different. For now, however, I’ll hold my wife as she cries, and I will look at my son and wonder what kind of civilization we will be giving him. Today, for right now anyway, I still hope for the best, but at once I fear the worst.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Obsessions for Albums: A Personal History of Feelings for Certain Music

Forward

This blog post was born when I was drifting off to sleep for a nap one afternoon recently, and in my state of partial wake I saw in a linear/temporal way a number of the music albums I have been sort of obsessed with over time since I was very young. It occurred to me that detailing those albums, i.e. coming up with a more or less complete list, Google Images searching pictures of their cover art, and writing a paragraph about each would be not only a great way for me to (re)explore their worlds but also to probe my own past, perhaps discovering—unforgetting—some aspects of my experiences hitherto not yet remembered. So, these are all albums for which I have had a kind of obsession at one point in my life. Some are ones with which I continue to be obsessed, even to the point of reserving listens to them for special events or once-in-a-rare-while times. A caveat: I don’t mean “obsession” in a negative sense at all here. My meaning is less influenced by the language of diagnosing mental disorders than by, actually, the word as it has been used to describe moments of passion, love, and awe in our society. Yes, I’ll say that I’m thinking of the Calvin Klein perfume (“…for men”). More than that, though, I’m thinking of the preoccupation, infatuation, or fixation sense of obsession—that is, in the context I’m using, those times of being so caught up with a piece of art (in this case an album of music) that the joyful feelings compel you via strong forces to act, behave, or believe in specific ways. Thus, all of these albums did that to/for/with me, and so they have been obsessions of mine.


Obsession Time: 1979 – 1980
Title: The Black Hole – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Artist: John Barry
Original Year: 1979
Format: Vinyl (Buena Vista) 1979

I was eight years old when this movie and its score were released. To me now later in life it seems like not a great movie, nor a very good soundtrack really. I mean, offsetting the far-out visual effects are much pedantic dialog and an arguably contrived ending; and, while John Barry’s score has creepy/swirling moments that fit the film and its antagonistic space anomaly perfectly, the movements also get heavy with repetition and pomp. But then, one needs to bear in mind that it is, after all, a classical score to an adventurously grim sci-fi Disney (!) production from the late ‘70s. In any case, at that impressionable time in my life, for many months my favorite thing to do was to put this record on, sit in the middle of my bedroom, close my eyes, and feel the waving depths of the chromatically minor violin and cello section tones of “The Overture”. It was my first album obsession, and at the same time it was an early introduction to dark, somewhat droning, almost scary music in a very special way, since it was connected with science-fiction, outer space exploration, and visual effects, stuff that would keep surfacing in my love of music and art in general for years. Truth be told, I never listened much to anything other than the first two tracks, so it was less an album obsession than a song one, to be honest. Yet, I see my meditative love and use for this soundtrack as the moment I first started to find my own tastes beyond the casual listening I’d previously done with music from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and The Moody Blues. In fact, it was The Black Hole that got me making music for the first time—producing droning harmonies on a Magnus Chord Organ 670 that dwelled in my room at the time. I loved this album, or at least some of it anyway. It took me someplace back then, even if that place was where I already was. Wherever I went with it—back to the present, into space—I very much wanted to go there.


Obsession Time: 1982 – 1983
Title: Time
Artist: Electric Light Orchestra (credited as ELO)
Original Year: 1981
Format: Vinyl (Jet Records) 1981

More sci-fi via music, pretty much. This, though, was a record I could and would play all the way through, and I do mean repeatedly. ELO are an English rock band having become famous in the 1970s for thoroughly incorporating elements of classical music—string sections especially, hence the pun of the name containing “light orchestra”, a term for an orchestra with a few cellos and violins. They were a commercially successful band in those days. Time went number one in the UK for two weeks, and I think that owes as much to its incorporation of time travel and space-age themes in the lyrics and cover art (this was the original era of Star Wars and Star Trek after all) as it does to their abandoning the light orchestra for the synthesizer and other electronics. This would be ELO’s only big synthpop, sort of new wave album as it would turn out. Whereas some of their music seems so dated now, not having aged well, and that includes Time ironically enough, this album has nevertheless apparently, from what I understand, gathered something of a cult following in recent years by people into retrofuturism—a trend in arts that brings back past depictions of the future and incorporates them into music, literature, movies, art, etc.—steampunk, the Chrysler PT Cruiser car, the French music duo Air, and so on. My own love at the age of eleven/twelve for this album was multifold: the beautiful melodies; the visions of space and time travel set amidst natural scenes (“Twilight”, “Ticket to the Moon”, and “Rain Is Falling”); synth-driven pop hooks that seemed themselves somehow futuristic. It was also about the time I was enjoying getting into the then-recent PBS series Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Looked at as a period when the space race was still in serious motion—our space shuttles and Voyager spacecraft were at their peak—and technology was starting to catch up with the dreams of music and video makers, the years from 1977 to 1983 or so were not surprisingly full of expressions of science-fiction in music and movies. ELO was with the times with Time, very much so, and for me (and for millions of others) it was a sparklingly postmodern album that made perfect sense.


Obsession Time: 1984 – 1985
Title: Side Kicks
Artist: Thompson Twins
Original Year: 1983
Format: Cassette (Arista) 1983

I was thirteen when I got into this album, about a year after it had been released. Songs from it (“Love on Your Side” and “Lies”) were my first introduction to the British band, although I didn’t start buying their albums until after their next one, Into the Gap, came out. Until then, Thompson Twins were just another new wave group I liked and whose videos I would record onto VHS tapes off of Night Tracks, WTBS’s then Friday/Saturday night music video TV show. Once I went further—seeing them in concert at the Illinois State Fair grandstand in 1984, for instance—I was absolutely enamored with the group and its music, its image and its aesthetics. I was entering my teen years, with all the amazing and rapid emotional, social, and biological changes adolescence/puberty brings. Thompson Twins were my idolized choice for how (as is often the case with confused youth, as I definitely was) to simultaneously attempt to rebel and find a culture with which to identify. I wore green parachute pants, a camouflage cut-off-sleeves shirt, and soldering metal fake silver hoop earrings to that concert; I went with my gracious mom. I was in a larger sense obsessed with Thompson Twins. Later in ‘84 I would join their official fan club. I really can’t overstate how social in importance this band and album were for me, even when I listened to their music alone. I wanted to be in Thompson Twins. Side Kicks was the US/Canada release of the overseas Quick Step and Side Kick album, and I played that cassette a lot over the course a year or so, especially on mornings I would come back to the house after my paper route about 7am (before my parents and brother were up) and write computer programs in BASIC on our IBM PCjr. The version of the tape I owned contained the entire album on side one and six bonus remixes (including the wonderfully fun “Long Beach Culture”) on side two. The lyrics are mostly about love and broken hearts—the usual—albeit here and there peppered with interpersonal issues like lying and spying. It was a middle period album for the band, between their early, more gritty and rough post-punk roots and their later pop and synthesizer-based hooks. As such, Side Kicks/Quick Step and Side Kick contains elements of both of those phases. It’s not music to which I listen much anymore. Like that of ELO, it hasn’t exactly passed tests of longevity; Side Kicks to me now sounds too steeped in the new wave trends of the early 80s. Nevertheless, there are moments from this album I will probably perpetually appreciate. “If You Were Here” is still among my favorite tunes of theirs, and I know I’m not alone in finding it a timeless song, since shortly after its release on the album it was chosen by director John Hughes as the ending theme for his movie Sixteen Candles, which I mean, come on, talk about coming of age stories. Every new generation of adolescents has its music. Personally, mine was made by this trio from Sheffield, England.


Obsession Time: 1986
Title: Led Zeppelin III
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Original Year: 1970
Format: Vinyl (Atlantic) 1977

My father was in a local rock ‘n’ roll cover band named Starry Eye when I was growing up, and before I became involved in that group’s production crew at the age of 16 or so, there was a time when I was already old enough to stay home alone with my younger only-brother while Dad and Mom were away at gigs. My brother and I were trusted, for better or worse, with fending for ourselves, keeping safe, and naturally having fun. Our choice of food on those evenings was often having a Dominos pepperoni pizza delivered. This long introduction becomes relevant now when I add that our choice of music for that feeding phase of the evening was almost always Led Zeppelin III (which LP was lent to me by Starry Eye’s keyboardist). Why this album? Other than thinking there’s something magically adventurous about it that fit our independent sort of adventures at home, I don’t really know. Maybe something like that, but certainly moreover we just loved the record. I write about my rather immediate interest in Led Zeppelin which took place at that time in other places, devoting a whole chapter in my book The Tea Leaves the Pianist pretty much to my first specific hearing of their song “Kashmir” the summer of ‘85. Zeppelin take credit (about which I feel they might be glad) for suddenly snapping me out of my synthpop obsession. I’d heard “Whole Lotta Love” on Springfield’s new and first “classic rock” format radio station, WYMG, some short while before the “Kashmir” moment. In fact, I remember the very instant in the car, even the road we were on (First Street approaching Ash street from the south), when I asked my dad who the band was. I was quickly fascinated by the blues-based rock, the heaviness, and the unburdened simplicity—the pounding of the rhythm section, the primal urges of the vocals, and what I would later find out was the “overdrive” pushing Jimmy Page’s guitars. By the summer of ’86, I was well past Thompson Twins and Duran Duran and was exploring the world of lyrical fantasies and huge-sounding instruments of Led Zeppelin. Their third album just happened to have the right combinations of and variations in rock, folk, blues, and whatever you call “Hats Off to Roy Harper” (warped out ultra-blues?) which song admittedly my brother and I would often end the album before, although nowadays I have a much better appreciation for such kinds of experimental absurdity. Anyway, I think Zeppelin was the right band for me at a time in my life when I needed some grounding, especially a means of being more realistic with music. I’d yet to discover drugs, so I hadn’t reached my psychonaut period. I was learning to play the drum set at the time, too, and what better teacher whose records to play along with than John Bonham’s? My obsession with III was utilitarian in many respects. It fit my needs. I still love it, and though my fixation with it has waned greatly over the years, I still play it occasionally, and I do so with much happiness.


Obsession Time: 1988
Title: The Dark Side of the Moon
Artist: Pink Floyd
Original Year: 1973
Format: CD (Capitol Records) 1985

Something occurred to me in writing this piece: that I might want to listen to the music I’m writing about while writing about the music. State-dependent memory, and so on. The Dark Side of the Moon was the first album I did this with actually. There’s so much that could be said, so much I for one could say about what Pink Floyd did with and by way of this album, about the studio wizardry they and their engineers performed to make it, about the psychologically-rich lyrical themes and the fantastic music that defies categorization into one genre. I hadn’t even heard Dark Side until one afternoon when I was home alone at the age of seventeen and decided to pinch a little bit of my father’s marijuana stash, smoke it in his bong, and listen to this CD on headphones in my room. It was the first time I had smoked weed. To say I experienced a trip, that I went on one during which a lot happened to me, is to put it mildly, if blandly. In a way, to be more specific, I’ve never returned from the journey I set out on that afternoon. I’d never seen or even truly “felt” music until that moment. I’m not advocating the use of such hallucinogens as something necessary for everyone to make the kind of breakthrough I made that day. To be sure, I know many people would take issue with me if I ever claimed that doing drugs is a requirement for fully appreciating listening to music, taking in art, or doing any activity for that matter. Pink Floyd, for all the associations some folks (to whatever degree accurately) make with their music as being “drug-oriented”, were not big-time drug users, according to the band themselves. Keyboardist Rick Wright later once said, “There is no way that I could play music and take any kind of drugs at that same time.” I’ve discovered the same thing over the years—that my best work is made while I’m sober, or at least while I’m only high on the art itself. I wouldn’t change a thing, even so, about what I did that day in ‘88. We make use of the tools at our disposal to get by, to find new paths, to bravely take new steps on our personal roads of discovery. My son will probably ask at some point if I’ve ever partaken in hallucinogenic drugs, and I’ll be honest and careful in my answer—yes, I’ve done LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and marijuana before. I no longer do so now, and I have no definitive plans to do so ever again, but those substances had their time and place in my life and progression, and my only regret is that I had little guidance or teaching about the important dangers and benefits that come with bringing them into your being. I’m not pro-drug or anti-drug now. I can’t be either one while I have given up some out of situations of desperation with addictions (nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana) while I continue to daily ingest others (caffeine, psychiatric-prescribed mood stabilizers, and various over-the-counter medicines like decongestants). I won’t romanticize weed or ‘shrooms, yet I will say that if booze and cigarettes can be legal and so heavily taxed in our country however, I certainly don’t see why historically safer and (dare I say) even healthier mind-altering things like marijuana can’t be also allowed into that arbitrary moral circle. Drunk driving and cancers caused by the carcinogens of smoking cigarettes kill far more people than mushroom trips and weed highs while at home listening to music ever could. I hadn’t planned on making this entire section about the dangers and pleasures of illicit drugs, but it seems important that I do so, given that The Dark Side of the Moon opened so many psychonautical and artistic doors for me and that marijuana was a big catalyst in those openings. The mathematical features of playing drums—time signatures, triplets, quintuplets, polyrhythms, and so on—became an obsession as well for me as I became absorbed by this album and others I would listen to at the time—ones by Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and many more by Floyd. But, no album has ever held such a high place (pun intended) in my esteem or listening habits over time. Even though its luster for me has faded quite a bit over the decades, I am still floored in an objective way by it whenever I passively hear it or actively play it. I’ve listened to The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety probably hundreds of times. There is no comparison to this album, really, at least when I look at the ways and times music has influenced who I am and who I was to become. For almost thirty years now it has been a number one album for me, and I’m sure it will continue to be.

 
Obsession Time: 1989
Title: Larks' Tongues in Aspic
Artist: King Crimson
Original Year: 1973
Format: Vinyl (Editions EG) 1987

The least of my obsessions is still an obsession. This album has never risen to the same plane as many of the other albums in this list. I picked it for inclusion here nevertheless because in retrospect it occupied a space in my musical fascinations and development that no other album could match at the time, which is to say it embodied all of the characteristics of many of the albums I was listening to my senior year of high school, but also that it was the best of the best of those. King Crimson at their creative peak—which I’d argue happened in 1973 when they put this album together and toured for it—were experts in their progressive rock field. Contemporaneously, fellow prog Brits Yes were exploring 20-minute, LP-side-long songs seemingly for the sake of 20-minute songs (Tales from Topographic Oceans) and although, in my opinion, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were enormously skilled musicians I feel like their work at the time (Brain Salad Surgery) was at once as well bogged down in too many unnecessary technical flourishes. Why I had and still have a special place for King Crimson in my musical heart has a lot to do with the ways they successfully avoided such progressive rock faults. The purity of their craft as well as their relentless drive for experimentation set them apart. Band leader Robert Fripp’s inimitable guitar work and Mellotron keyboard playing were perfectly matched by John Wetton’s bass and earnest medieval-sounding vocals, David Cross’s violin, Jamie Muir’s tripped out world of eccentric percussion, and former Yes member Bill Bruford’s precise and delicate drumming. It’s the latter individual’s work on this album toward which I have always felt the most attraction in particular. Indeed, some of the rest of the elements of LTIA—the sometimes skronky violin parts and screechy guitar solos—had to grow on me. By mid-’89, right before I was to go off to college at Illinois State University and there discover hip-hop like Beastie Boys, alternative like New Order and The Cure, and other new worlds, I was obsessed with classic rock and prog rock, especially Larks' Tongues in Aspic. I was drumming a lot, and I was into the math details of that realm—techniques like strange time signatures and atypical beats like septuplets. Bruford’s work with Yes would have been enough for me, but he had to go and leave that band out of boredom and a desire to explore more radical musical ideas. He joined King Crimson shortly before the recording of this album, and his enthusiasm and attention to detail here are unsurpassed to me; indeed, his performance on “Easy Money”—hand/foot triplets, bizarre syncopations, and so much more—ranks in my mind with any of the jazz-fusion drum set performances of the same era. I was at the peak of my interest in percussion as a means of expressing the technical side of music, and what better album to teach and inspire me? The feelings here range from soft beauty (“Book of Saturday” and “Exiles”) to ambient/drone jam (“The Talking Drum”) to wildly inventive, near heavy metal dirges (“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, both parts). It’s one of the few albums produced during the original prog heyday of the 1970s and revered by me during my prog obsession time period of ’87-’89—along with Yes’s Fragile and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s debut album—that I still listen to and find richly compelling. Such a tour de force it is, their magnum opus.

 
Obsession Time: 1990
Title: Substance
Artist: New Order
Original Year: 1987
Format: 2 x CD (Qwest) 1987 


What a difference college can make. I went to Illinois State University in the fall of 1989 a progressive rock extremist. I was so hardcore in that regard that I was trying to listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra’s album Birds of Fire in my dorm room and not annoy my uptight roommate, which wasn’t working. That spring semester I moved rooms and got a new roommate; he and his friends soon introduced me to New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, Love & Rockets, and Pixies, among others. I still needed some time to come around, though. It wasn’t easy for me to step out of my musical comfort zones yet. I opted not to attend the Love & Rockets concert (with opening act Pixies) at the student center with many of my friends, but I did go see Jethro Tull a few weeks later at Redbird Arena, and to this day I regret both decisions. Not only did I miss a momentous and incredible concert, but I went to one that was terrible and so very loud I suffered partial hearing loss for a day or two. The tinnitus I live with now (the constant low-level ringing and the occasional loud whine, especially in my left ear) might partly be due to the damage caused by Tull that night. Anyway, when I did finally come around and leave prog behind in January ‘90, it was New Order’s Substance that led me by the hand, so to speak. My roommate was gone for winter break and I spent a couple days in our dorm room alone. He’d left me a few of his CDs he thought I might like to check out, and this album was among them. Curious about it, I played it one night, and for whatever reasons it pushed just the right buttons for me. I was ready for something else. What else was there? What else could you do with music than sit stoned and drift off with it or analyze its technical prowess? Get drunk and dance to it, that’s what. This was before the American mainstream grunge/alternative revolution of the early 90s. The creative music coming out of Britain in the late 80s I began to appreciate that winter/spring was all post-punk, dance-rock, and pop in feeling. It was wonderful, and I did dance to it, sometimes drunkenly. Substance was the soundtrack to many memorable late-freshman-year moments, as I recall: my roommate and I playing frisbee on the quad with our speakers blasting out the window comes to mind, for one thing. There’s a soft, lovely, sexy, mechanical darkness to the music on Substance that can fit so many situations and activities. It was among the discs we would grab to take to dances in the dorm; everyone would want to hear “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Blue Monday”. For me, that night in January by myself, I simply listened sitting on my bed, amazed at what New Order was doing with electronics and melodic, constant bass leads. It was not unlike, actually, the kind of purity I’d sensed the year before obsessed with King Crimson and other progressive rock, although this was in many ways antithetical to the aspirations of most prog: too electronic; too dancey; too automatic. I suddenly loved it, and I’ll probably never forget that one night. I still listen to New Order fairly often, especially Substance and their 1983 release Power, Corruption and Lies. It’s timeless music, and it’s very enjoyable.


Obsession Time: 1991 – 1993
Title: Heaven or Las Vegas
Artist: Cocteau Twins
Original Year: 1990
Format: CD (4AD) 1990

In my sophomore year at Illinois State University, my roommate and I were dating two women who were also roommates, which kind of situation of course always ends well. One day my roommate’s girlfriend went to the Discount Den at the Bone Student Center and purchased a cassette copy of an album by a little known Scottish band named Cocteau Twins. She’d seen a video for their song “Iceblink Luck” on MTV’s Sunday night alternative music video show 120 Minutes and was apparently intrigued and elated. She came back and played the tape for some of us on that sunny spring morning in 1991, and in some subconscious way I felt like I’d just heard something that could possibly change my entire way of being. I’d never experienced anything like their sort of ethereal dream pop. The glossolalia of the singer’s voice was one big thing that hit me—or were their many sound-alike singers singing? …I couldn’t tell. I’d later come to understand it all as a reverb-rich blur of overdubbed guitars with chorus and echo effects, drum programs, melodic bass lines, and, my oh my, that angelic, unintelligible yet bold voice (also often overdubbed to the point of saturation). That morning, though, sitting with my friends and feeling amazed and transported to lovely heights, I only knew that I was falling in love with what I was hearing. At this point, no other single band has had a richer, more powerful, and more lasting influence on me as a musician or even as a person. That tape of Heaven or Las Vegas was an entrance to a world of many visits the following months to the Discount Den—which surprisingly had great curation in finding British import CDs put out by 4AD and other labels; they weren’t inexpensive discs, either, but student loan money can be for many things educational, I’d say. It took me some time to appreciate some of the other works by Cocteau Twins, actually. My next purchases, Treasure and Head Over Heels, were a bit too punk or raw for me at the time, which is to say nothing of their very murky and drum-machine-laden 1982 debut album, Garlands. Still, with years going by all of their music would become so ingrained in my life that friends would often associate the band with me—there’s that band that Tim loves. To me there is something humorous about a lot of their music most people don’t get. When others complain that they can’t understand singer Elizabeth Fraser’s lyrics, I always feel like they’re missing the best part—her vocalizations can instead be heard as quite darling, far reaching, artistic, and even funny. Indeed, there’s something humorous about a lot of the music of Cocteau Twins. It’s not as “serious” as some seem to think. It’s wild, weird and, yes, at times very gothic, but all the same it is dream oriented, something so far beyond the ordinary geographies of rock ‘n’ roll that one searches in vain for a way of mapping it accurately with conventional language. Their soundscape explorations (on albums like Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies with ambient pianist Harold Budd) and their pop hooks (this album and Blue Bell Knoll) brought me to a place of hearing (maybe once again, a la ELO and The Black Hole) music for its own beautiful sake, I think—for the harmonious tones, for the simple meditative feeling—music for nothing at all, nothing special, apart from simply being wonderful.


Obsession Time: 1994
Title: Mellow Gold
Artist: Beck
Original Year: 1994
Format: CD (DGC) 1994

I don’t know how many people were experiencing something culturally intense the summer of ’94, but I sure was, as were many of the people in my friendship circles, I think. Where to begin? You can research the 90s phenomena of Lollapalooza, alternative rock music, neo-hippy idealism, the mass-market breakthrough of hip-hop, the optimism of the first liberal Clinton agenda, the economic prosperity, and so many other factors about that era that you might be as convinced as I am that in myriad ways it was the best decade of the 20th century in our country. Regardless, things were coming to a boil in my realm the summer of 1994. I was in graduate school at Illinois State University studying English (fiction writing with David Foster Wallace and Curtis White, cultural studies with Bill McBride) and I was living a very artistically eclectic, drug-fueled, kaleidoscopic life. Purely as an example, one time in May of that year I made the drive between Bloomington-Normal and Springfield via Illinois Route 54 (a rather rural two-lane highway) tripping on psilocybin mushrooms, marijuana, and nicotine while blasting Beck’s Mellow Gold on a boombox in the passenger seat of my beat-up white ’84 Chevy Cavalier Station Wagon (on the other side of the tape: Last Splash by The Breeders)—all while wearing nothing but my white boxers underwear and sunglasses—and of course here and there waving at birds and people on horseback. I had good reasons to use my weekends for visiting Springfield, actually, since my brother, some of our friends, and I were turning the basement of our parents’ house into a psychedelic art playground. I first heard Mellow Gold in the midst of all this sometime in April of that year in my brother’s bedroom; I was stoned out of my mind at the time, but to me that now seems irrelevant in a way vastly different than how it was relevant in my original experience with The Dark Side of the Moon six years prior. In other words, I could very well have been sober on first listen to Mellow Gold, and it still would have perfectly fit the larger moment. Better than any other album, Beck’s debut was the freewheeling soundtrack for our group—the hybrid music forms blending rock, hip-hop, country, psychedelia, and blues; the silly, witty, ironic lyrics; the experimental and low-fi approach it takes to not just music but to how we see relationships, technology, the future, and even civilization as a whole. Beck seemed to be saying to us (as we were very receptive to it) that you don’t have to be financially wealthy—you could be rather poor as a matter of fact, which we were—to enjoy life and make fun of it, to create art, to explore new ideas. The radio/video hit song off the album, “Loser”, pretty much spelled it out, that is when it made sense, which it didn’t always have to for us. We were making crazy-looking bricolage sculptures and art installations out of found-junk in a rustic basement in the American Midwest, after all. Even so, ours was a movement with no real future: too much living for the moment and no practical, social, long-term planning. It was a lot of drifting and partying. Mellow Gold would be my favorite album for a while. That is, until our scene dispersed out into the real-world necessities of getting jobs, focusing on school, and sobering up, as the cases may have been. A little bit, it’s hard to tell if I’m still obsessed with this album or if I’m merely nostalgic. Either way, I do still love it, just in a more mature and grounded manner.


Obsession Time: 2003 – present
Title: OK Computer
Artist: Radiohead
Original Year: 1997
Format: CD/web (Capitol Records, XL Recordings) 1997

I arrived a bit late to Radiohead fandom, relatively speaking. Between 1993 and the time I first heard a song from OK Computer I knew them only for their song “Creep”, sadly enough. That changed when my brother put “Subterranean Homesick Alien” on a mixtape for me (along with the B-side “Meeting in the Aisle”), which I listened to riding on a bus on the way to the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities to be trained there as a new Kinko’s employee. I immediately loved the “ear candy” (as I decided right then to call it) of the song. I’d only modify that metaphor now to call the sublime sounds of musicianship in the song—the Rhodes electric piano, the beautifully clear pings of the electric guitars—ear food or nourishment. The lyrics of the song are narrated by a lonely outcast in an “uptight” society who desires being visited by extraterrestrials, and I identified with everything about the words, traveling as I was on that Greyhound bus about to join the corporate workforce and feeling like I was faking every second of my enthusiasm about that fact. Incidentally, one thing I notice about all these write-ups on my album obsessions is how important in most cases the first listen is to both my immediate and later feelings of appreciation, and though with some albums I don’t recall my first listen, I’m sure such an event took place and that it was probably important nevertheless. OK Computer is a little different, however, in that after “Subterranean Homesick Alien” I don’t remember when I initially heard the rest of it. In fact, it took some time for me to become obsessed with it, even after hearing all of it. I kind of grew into a Radiohead fan gradually, really. By about 2000 to 2004 I was starting to feel like they were a band for which I could feel passion. When their 2003 album, Hail to the Thief, was released I was learning to play some of their songs on guitar, as difficult as that can sometimes be, and they were earning increasing respect from me for their songcraft. Every album of theirs since has reaffirmed my deep appreciation for them. OK Computer is a very special kind of masterpiece, however, and thus I find it difficult to listen to one song from it without wanting to hear to the whole thing; although it can only be said to be a concept album by stretching certain threads of lyrical content throughout it (social alienation, technology, paranoia, vehicle crashes) it nevertheless feels very much like one thing on greater levels to me: a single work of complexity and atmosphere that takes the art of music to so many places it has to be considered as one piece of music, almost. Without exaggeration, I feel like it’s the best rock ‘n’ roll album (to whatever degree I can successfully call it that) of the 20th century. In fact, few others come close in my mind—maybe Led Zeppelin IV, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, or Nirvana’s Nevermind—and like those and any other albums people have listed as the “greatest of all time” or whatever, OK Computer is that perfect, brilliant, and amazing partly because it spoke directly to/for/about the time in which it was made/released and also at once still sounds timeless in every respect decades later. I hope I’m always obsessed with this album; it’s the main reason Radiohead could be said to be my favorite band. Nowadays, I listen to it in its entirety occasionally, and I’m always, inevitably reminded what a work of genius it is.


Obsession Time: 2004 – present
Title: Phaedra
Artist: Tangerine Dream
Original Year: 1974
Format: Vinyl/CD (Virgin) 1974/1995

I first heard this, Tangerine Dream’s fifth studio album, in high school sometime around 1988, when I was seventeen. A friend knew of their work and introduced me to it. We would visit Recycled Records in Springfield, Illinois, and buy discount vinyl LPs. Doing so was how I scored a lot of the progressive rock records I was into listening to at the time. German electronic band Tangerine Dream were a little too esoteric or experimental for me at the time, though, and so while I gained something of an affinity for their spacey keyboard-based work, it wasn’t “rock” enough (like Pink Floyd was) for me for many years to warrant my complete attention. That changed when I was in my thirties, right about 2004 to 2005, and I began to get into ambient music. Brian Eno’s early albums in particular were ones I explored those days, and I started making ambient music of my own—producing several albums’ worth of guitar- and keyboard-driven tranquil, electronic, effects-heavy instrumental and drumless albums. Soon I bought all of Tangerine Dream’s 1970s-era CDs (the 1995 remastered editions)—everything from Alpha Centauri to Force Majeure. Much of the listening to ambient music I did in those days and continue to do now has had a huge influence on my most recent creativity. In fact, some of the long-form pieces of ambient/electronic/drone music I’ve made in the past couple years sound almost like homages to Tangerine Dream circa ‘74 to ’79 (their so called “Virgin years” because they were on the Virgin label). I certainly won’t deny that connection is apparent, and to the greatest extent Phaedra has had the most profound impact on my approach to music as I have aged. To this day, it’s one of only several albums that I refuse to listen to except perhaps once per year because I am so obsessed with their importance in my life, their power over me, that I want to hold on to that charge as long as possible. The times I do choose to listen to such albums as this one are almost always moments when I am sharing them with people under very special conditions—listening together in the dark with headphones, perhaps. It’s a kind of reverence I have for the music. As a secular person, I have difficulty applying the word “sacred” to Phaedra, but for lack of a better term that’s kind of the light in which I hold it. At this time in my life there is only one other album (Stars of the Lid’s The Ballasted Orchestra) that I hold in such lofty regard. It’s a weird thing to love a body of music so much that you refuse to hear it often. (I believe I’ve only put on Phaedra about 20 times.) I might be unusual in that regard; I honestly don’t know because I don’t talk with other people much about “saving” music like that. I suspect some people do it as well, though I would guess it’s more rare than common. It’s just that Phaedra for me is so… good… that I don’t want it to ever not be good, at least on a subjective level. I mean, objectively I still know that Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon is an incredible album—all signs point to “Yes” as the Eight Ball would say—but I don’t “hear” it incredibly anymore; that is, it’s no longer an incredible experience for me to listen to it. Whereas it’s too late for me and Dark Side, I don’t want to be so jaded and burned out on The Ballasted Orchestra or Phaedra. Good thing both groups have other great works. I’ll listen to those instead, thanks. Naturally, I did not listen to Phaedra when writing this.


Obsession Time: 2008 – present
Title: The Ballasted Orchestra
Artist: Stars of the Lid
Original Year: 1997
Format: CD/vinyl (Kranky) 1997/2013

Contrary to popular belief, so called ambient music does not necessarily mean music designed to sort of only float in the background of your daily life like unused furniture or wall paint. Brian Eno, pretty much the inventor of the genre and the term itself for that matter, once rather famously said: “I like [ambient music] as an ambiguous term…. I mean music that can be background or foreground or anywhere.” To me, that sounds right, because it rings true for how ambient music has become in so many ways a part of my life over the years. We play it at my house during dinner time, or while reading or writing I sit and listen to it using headphones, big speakers, or small speakers. The best of it rewards both casual listening and close attention. There are long-form passages, typically—drones and sustained tones—but there can well be details and intricacies, too. Stars of the Lid are the best of the best, I feel, of the people who make music like that, and The Ballasted Orchestra is a masterwork, truly, a stunning success in their catalog as well as the larger genre. Aside from some of their other marvelous albums—Avec Laudenum and Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life in particular—I’ve never heard anything like it. Stars of the Lid is an American duo consisting of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, together since 1993 or so, and if you have no idea of what I speak here regarding their art, I’ll quote Stephen Cook of AllMusic when he writes the following of The Ballasted Orchestra. “[They] fashion eight floating gems with touches of industrial noise and movie soundtrack atmospherics. No drums or clanging guitars here, just darkish, elegiac slabs of ethereal sound taking up 12 to 18 minutes at a pop. The overall effect is both calming and provocative.” That’s about right. I’ve seen them perform live twice, and no other experience is quite like it for me; it is at once trance inducing and energizing. The most surprising technical aspect of what they do is that they make a lot of their sounds using guitars, because actually it’s difficult to tell listening to their work exactly how the noises are made. Their music is just that unusual and bizarre, in a good way. I’ve written about Stars of the Lid other times; I’ve emailed back and forth with Adam; I’ve spoken briefly with Brian; they both seem to be pleasant gentlemen. In my adulthood I have come to a kind of flourishing, I feel, as an ambient musician in my own way, and this long epic album and a lot of the other music by the duo who made it have been absolutely fundamental in getting me to where I am today. The Ballasted Orchestra especially has inspired me and relaxed me; it has given me sustenance when I needed energy to forge new paths in my life. I remember one moment in 2005 when I first heard their 20-minute masterpiece of a song “The Atomium” (from Avec Laudenum) while reclining in a soothing bath. I was living life alone, very lonely, in a small apartment in Chicago at the time. I shed tears—not at the sadness of my then-solitary situation—but at the happiness of finding the company I felt hearing the music, which I changed by way of that night, very much for the better. I’d love to someday somehow properly thank Adam and Brian in person, with hugs maybe, for what they have done for my everything over the years. I’m not exaggerating. Like Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, this album has long inhabited a kind of sacred place in my life. I dared to listen to it while writing this, and indeed it still feels sacred to me.


Obsession Time: 2014 – present
Title: Selected Ambient Works 85–92
Artist: Aphex Twin
Original Year: 1992
Format: CD/web (Apollo, R & S Records) 1992/2008

The most anything has ever changed me as a person has not been music per se, but rather parenthood. My wife and I are proud parents of a son who was born in 2011. For me personally, he is the most amazing person ever. No love surpasses it. Among other wonderful things, he and I share a passion for certain kinds of music. His favorite band and mine might be Radiohead, and his favorite song (by his own words) has long been their “All I Need”, which I actually would sing to him through his mother’s belly while he was in her womb, which fact might be contributing to his connection to it. More recently, he and I have delved into the expansive music catalog of Anglo-Irish artist/genius Aphex Twin (real name Richard David James, who also has released music under many other pseudonyms), whose Grammy Award winning and brilliant electronic/dance/ambient/techo music works have filled our house with so much crazy fun over the past two years that I finally ordered my son and and me Aphex Twin t-shirts. Selected Ambient Works 85–92 was James’s debut LP, and according to some reports he began recording it in his early teen years, which would make sense since James would have been fourteen years old in ‘85. For self-ascribed “ambient” music, it’s very beat-driven and programmed in ways that differ from the kind of meandering feeling that comes with most ostensibly ambient art. Nevertheless, the thirteen songs on it feature and convey deep senses of atmosphere, and they are minimalist in fashions that make them prefect for either dancing or sitting and relaxing. SAW 85-92 has furthermore been my son’s and my choice for dinner time music for quite a while. We never tire of it, especially for that daily ritual, and in fact the album is sort of unique for James in that a lot of his later work would be much more frenetically digital, percussively complex (to say the least), and wildly meticulous—much of which my son and I also love, just in different ways. My obsession for this album in any case, though, even while it continues, is the most relaxed and at the same time social of the bunch of my ongoing album obsessions. I seldom listen to it on my own, and it doesn’t feel so much elevated or sacred to me as it does a comfortable and familiar-feeling tool, like some object that slides right into the hand and is easy with which to make great use, always. My long-time personal favorite track here is “We Are the Music Makers”; it samples the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at the moment Gene Wilder, playing Willy Wonka, says to the character Veruca Salt, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”, which itself if a reference to a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy titled “Ode”, the first stanza of which reads:

WE are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;–
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

There’s something delicate and vulnerable yet bold and strong about those lines. They argue for recognition in a world that has given up, seemingly on the person who narrates for the group and on the world itself for that matter. Richard D. James was prescient in his crafting of electronic music or “intelligent dance music” (IDM) as it is often called, which is to say that he was ahead of his time. Few outside the UK knew about his moving and shaking for years, really. Nearly twenty-five years after the release of SAW 85-92, here I was both astounded and pleased when his most recent album, Syro, won a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Album. It gave me hope that anything I do artistically or as a parent or person, however inside or outside the mainstream, might someday be acknowledged as important, smart, relevant, and worthwhile. That’s rather oblique of a statement, I know. More specifically, I aspire to be the best person I can be—a good, compassionate, educated, and informed parent, for example—and when such aspiration translates into public action—words on a blog, say—it isn’t always practical for me to be at ease about myself when others take issue (especially when they do so unjustly or rudely) with what I do, with who I am, and so on. Still, in real life I don’t parent what I feel is well or make what I sense is good music directly for any kind of long-term goals. I don’t think Richard D. James made Selected Ambient Works 85–92 simply in order to be renowned and praised. He did what he did because it was the right thing to do at the time. The best artists are the most “present” in their own lives at that moment, I feel. I practice at being present in my own ways, in my own life—whatever that means each day: be it meditating, keeping sober, and making art… loving people, researching… or anything wholesome for that matter. I’m curious what new music will come along, though, about which I will feel obsessed. The future of the album format has been a subject for debate in recent years, I’ve noticed. Has the availability of streaming individual songs via online services changed how we perceive and consume music formats? Is the album as a package of music becoming irrelevant? For me the answers are no and no, respectively and for the most part. I’m still obsessed with (certain) albums, but maybe in that respect I’m old fashioned and (as usually happens to be the case about being old fashioned) will stay old fashioned. That’s fine with me, at least in that regard. Maybe my son and I will blast Selected Ambient Works 85–92 again during dinner the next time my wife works an evening. Maybe a new album will have been released by then about which he and I will be ecstatic. Or not. If not, we still have lots and lots of music to love. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Life at the Zoo




I was born at the zoo. I live on display.


People come and look at me. Some point.
Some make fun of me. Others look frightened.


My enclosure is designed to have the
appearance of a real home, but
it is really nothing like one.


In the wild I would get to roam and
interact with other creatures. Here, I live
a solitary, confined life.


Sometimes they move me to a new place.
It is disorienting.


Sometimes I pace.


I sleep a lot, especially when they give me drugs.


I would rather live a shorter, more
dangerous life in the wild than this
long, dull life staring at walls alone.



Please make it end.


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