Tag Archives: music

a little more than i can give

I was 17 years old when I left the comfortable confines of my white-suburban upbringing to head south 400 miles to…another comfortable white-suburban town.  The City of Irvine, California, a small suburb deep behind the uber conservative Orange Curtain would be my home for the next four years.  On the seven hour drive south I could barely contain my excitement.  It was an excitement not because I was leaving my family, who I adored, or because of the typical teenage glee at the prospect of college freedom and debauchery, but because in a few days, after my parents had finished helping me unload my precious belongs (which, at the time, really only applied to the Sony stereo I was able to procure for free thanks to my father’s company’s “Safety Awards”) into my tiny closet of a dorm room (I would later find out that my roommate and I had the smallest dorm room on campus), that I would finally be able to run.  College was a chance to reinvent myself.  No longer confined to the person not that I actually was, but who my family and my schoolmates, who I had known since second grade, perceived me to be.  Their perception was my prison for 17 years and when all you want is to be at worst, invisible, and at best, accepted, you abide by the unspoken rules and customs of your prison for pure survival even if it eats away at you on a daily basis.

I was the good kid.  I never argued with my father.  I did my chores.  I cooked dinner for my family.  I arrived at practice early to set up the nets.  I smiled and laughed easily.  I was smart enough to be accepted by the nerds but not threaten the jocks.  I was able to navigate my adolescence so that if you were to ask my high school classmates about me now you would get either a “Who?” or a “Oh yeah.  She was nice!”  Believe me.  This was success.

But I knew who I was.  And I was well aware of the echoing chasm between everyone else’s perception and my reality.  And so, with the giddyness of a four-year old kid on Christmas morning, I went off to college knowing that, at a minimum, I was free to start over.

As it turns out, my dorm, Mirkwood (yes, the dorms at Irvine are named after Lord of the Rings, which was nerdy in 1995, cool in 2004, and now just pathetic) had a really large Christian contingent.  Don’t get me wrong, we still had our fair share of porn running on the community television set in the living room at all times and a lot of pot, beer, and loud sex at all hours of the night.  As “the real me” wasn’t all that into the porn, pot, and beer, I just happen to fall into the Christian kids.  We had good clean fun and they didn’t seem like the Bible thumpers that I imagined.  They listened to the same music I listened to (well, almost) and they seemed…happy.

All I wanted was to be happy.

UC Irvine is a commuter school.  Upwards of 80% of the students are from Southern California.  A regular Friday afternoon saw student after student slinging their laundry over their shoulders as they headed to their cars and braved the traffic to get home for the weekend.  My dorm was no different.  While housing 60 people during the week, on weekends the numbers dwindled to closer to 20.  The campus on the whole was a ghost town.

I can’t remember the first time I went to church.  I can only assume that one of my dormmates invited me and I didn’t have anything better to do on a Sunday morning.  Why not?  I was raised in a fairly agnostic household.  We never talked about God or religion.  To the extent that religion was a part of my life it was simply cultural.  When I asked my parents why I was lighting incense and bowing before a tall, deep red altar that had fruit, fried rice, and pictures of my grandmother resting atop a red table runner, they told me I was honoring my ancestors.  I should feel free to tell my ancestors whatever I wanted.  So I did.  I never knew my grandfather so I always prayed to my grandmother.  And my prayers always began like this:

“Um.  Hey Grandma.  Um.  I don’t know if you can hear me, but….”

It always felt awkward.  I don’t think I ever really believed she could hear me.  But there was a comfort in it, I suppose.

I would continue to go to church every week with my friends.  It was pure fellowship at first.  The people were nice, they weren’t saying crazy things, and there were little life lessons you could take away from the sermons if you chose to take the God part out of it.  “Be kind.” “Be selfless.” “Think of others.”  Shit, sure.  I can get on board with this.

After the first few months I drove myself to the local Barnes & Noble and bought a Bible.  I was curious.  I had never read the text and I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about.  I very distinctly remember sitting in the aisles flipping through each brand, translation, application, whatever.  “How the hell am I supposed to know which Bible to get?”  Eventually I settled on the NIV New Student Bible.  “Uh, well.  I’m a student.  So I guess this will work.”

Literally.  That was my rationale.

I would read that bible from front to back as though it was “On Liberty” (I was a Poli Sci major).  I highlighted it.  I went over it.  I put question marks in the margins.  As I became more engrossed in my study I started going to college fellowship meetings with my dormmates.  A “college fellowship” is just a fancy spiritual way of saying “church club meeting.”  What kept me coming back to the fellowship meetings each week was the music.  I loved it.  I loved singing along in unison with other people.  I loved watching the worship leaders sing with such passion.  I loved seeing people be moved.  It moved me.  My curiosity grew.

In the Spring of 1996 the Christian groups and local churches organized an “Outreach Week”.  It was week wherein the groups would put together community events on campus in an attempt to evangelize and spread the Gospel.  Most of the time these events involved giving out free food to college students, which as we know, will pretty much (1) draw college students regardless of the event and (2) make college students do anything.  I often wonder how many devout Christians gave up their soul in exchange for a cold soggy slice of vegetarian pizza.

The week culminated in a “Praise Night,” which was a night open to the university community to come, sing worship songs, listen to a message, and watch some skits.  I remember running late to that night.  I don’t remember why.  My friends were already seated by the time I got there so I snuck in to the back of the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall (oh, irony) and sat in the back row.  I had missed the worship and the message but I was just in time for the skit.  The skit had no dialogue but it was scored to wordless music.  As it started I was immediately bored.  My cynical self kept thinking “Really?  They think shit like this is effective?  Do they take us for idiots?”

But as the skit unfolded I stiffened and sat up in rapt attention.  There were five storylines.  Each involved a person doing something (seriously, I don’t remember what exactly they did) that constituted something “sinful” that left them “broken”.  I use “airquotes” because these terms have a more loaded meaning in Christian parlance than in the secular.  But they were all doing shitty stuff and Jesus would calmly walk up to them and try and convince them not to.  But they all ignored him in different ways.  By the end of the skit each one of the five had literally nailed Jesus to the cross.  Two in the feet, two in each hand, and one put the crown of thorns on his head.  After Jesus died they all realized what they had done and they felt immense shame.  But then Jesus, after being resurrected, came back down.  And he went to those five people in an attempt to show himself to them and show them he still loved them.  They literally pushed him away, but he persisted until finally each one of them crumpled into his arms.

I left before the sketch ended.  I literally ran.

I walked quickly back to my dorm room.  I cried the whole way home.  I chastised myself.  I didn’t know what was going on but I knew that I felt like either screaming into the heavens, punching a wall, or crumpling down into the grass in the fetal position.  I got back to my dorm room I grabbed my Bible and ran down to my car.  It was the only place I new I could be alone.  It was 10pm.

I would sit in my car for 8 hours.

I remember so many thoughts and emotions running through me for those 8 hours.  I knew that I hated myself.  The depths of my self-loathing would only lead to a tragic end.  I knew that.  I had known that for years.  I felt inadequate.  Not a good enough daughter, not a good enough sister, not a good enough anything.  I had known that for years, too.  I felt unloved.  This was no one’s fault but my own.  I had no reason to feel this way.  I came from a loving family and I had a sister who looked up to me.  None of that changed the way I felt.

But worst of all, I felt like I deserved to feel the way I felt.  I deserved to feel hated, inadequate, and unloved.  Over the course of 18 years I had come to convince myself that this was my lot.  I had lived with these feelings for so long.  I had dealt with them.  I had managed them.  But on that night, that warm Spring night, I felt overwhelmed by them.

And so I cried.  I sat in the faded tan leather seat of my 1987 white Acura Legend, and I cried.  Hard.  I violently punched and kicked my dashboard and steering as though convinced that I could physically bust myself out of this hell.  By the dim light of my cockpit light I flipped through my Bible.  I read the highlighted passages that gave me hope and comfort.  And I read the penciled gray bracketed verses that I questioned.

Only stupid people believe in God, I told myself.  You have to be dumb to believe this shit.  Because it makes no sense.  God loved us so much he sent his one and only Son down to earth to die for our sins?  And the dude was resurrected?  Please.  I’m no moron.  I’m an intelligent, rational, practical person.  Unless this supernatural story could be explained to me in irrefutable scientific terms, I wasn’t buying it.

But I wanted it to be true.  I yearned for it to be true.  I needed so badly to feel unconditional love and acceptance because it was a feeling I had never known.

Eight hours later, I was tired.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  I wanted so badly to make sense of things.  I tried so hard to believe but my mind simply refused to go there.  My heart and my head, in constant struggle for years, were at an impasse.

So I turned on my stereo to play a mixed tape a friend had given me.  And as the sun began to peek out over the eucalyptus trees that lined the parking lot, I heard this:

“Trust in the Lord with all of your heart
Lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your life straight
Don’t worry about tomorrow, He’s got it under control
Just trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will carry you through.
Lord, sometimes it gets so tough to keep my eyes on you when things are going rough.
Then I turn my eyes up to the sky and I hear your voice and it says to me…”

And so I did.  I sat in my car alone, I put my head against my steering wheel, and I cried a quiet prayer, accepting Christ.

I didn’t tell anyone for weeks.  To me, my experience and my Christian life was between me and God.  I didn’t become a Christian because of other Christians.  I didn’t become a Christian because I thought I would be perceived as a better person or for some sort of pat on the back.  This was my thing, it was private, and in order to adequately explain it to anyone would require me to divulge some of my deepest, darkest thoughts to my friends and family.  I wasn’t ready to do that.

But I felt changed.  I felt a newfound sense of calmness.  Of security.  Friends and family, who had not known I had become a Christian, noticed.  I was less angry.  I carried with me a sense of peace that had not been noticeable before.  But even with all that, I still struggled with how I felt about myself.  And I struggled intellectually and emotionally with how God felt about me.  But I never felt comfortable talking to anyone about it.  “Everyone else is so happy all the time.  Why drag them down?” I thought.

One day I was at my favorite Christian bookstore in Lake Forest browsing the music aisle.  I had come in search of Christian music that wasn’t just faith based but also, well, good.  Because let’s face it, 99% of Christian music is just bad music.  I had two favorite Christian bands at the time: Jars of Clay (of “Flood” fame) and Sixpence None The Richer (who would later be known for that damn “Kiss Me” song from “She’s All That”).  I had just started to become involved with the worship team at my fellowship so I was learning how to play acoustic guitar.  That’s when I saw this:

Huh.  A chick who’s not all dolled up to look “churchy” with a guitar strap.  Interesting.  I walked over to pick up the CD (hey!  Remember CDs???) and turned onto the back.  There, next to the track listing, was the picture of the head of Taylor acoustic guitar.  I.  Love.  Taylor.  Guitars.  So wait, it was a non-churchy chick playing a Taylor?  Here’s my $15, too-nice-to-be-normal Church Lady.  Sold.

To this day I can’t talk about that album without getting emotional or tearing up.  It changed everything.  Finally.  Finally I heard someone sing and say the words that were in my heart and my head that I could never articulate.  Finally I felt like there was a kindred spirit out there who saw God the same way I did.  Finally, I didn’t feel like something was wrong with me because I had dark thoughts.  Finally, I had someone to…talk to.

Have I labored all for nothing. Trying to make it on my own.
Fear to reach out to the hand of one who understands me, say I’d rather be here all alone.
It’s all my fault I sit and wallow in seclusion. As if I had no hope at all, I guess truth becomes you I have seen it all in motion Pride comes before the fall.
Can I offer up this simple prayer. Pray it finds a simple ear. A scratch in your infinite time.
Not withstanding my fallings not withstanding my crime!

I am wanting, needing, guilty and greedy
Unrighteous, unholy; undo me. Undo me!

But it was one song.  One song that tore into my heart and articulated exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t have the words.  It is a song that I sing to this day despite the fact that I haven’t gone to church in 10 years.  It was a song about Mary Magdalene:

From glass alabaster she poured out the depths of her soul.
O foot of Christ would you wait if her harlotries known?
Falls a tear to darken the dirt.
Of humblest offerings to forgive the hurt.
She is strong enough to stand in your love, I can hear her say…

I am weak.
I am poor.
I’m broken.
But Lord I’m yours.
Hold me now

Let he without sin cast the first stone if you will.
To say that my bride isn’t worth half the blood that I’ve spilled.
Point your finger and laugh if you choose to say my beloved is borrowed and used
She is strong enough to stand in my love, I can hear her say…

That song saved me.  Whenever I doubted my faith.  Whenever I was angry.  Whenever I felt unworthy of even taking a breath, I sang this song.  I sang it as loudly as I could, my voice soaring to the heavens as though throwing up a rope for someone to save me from the dark cavernous holes I repeatedly dug for myself.

Jen’s songs helped me explore my own thoughts and brought me to a fuller understanding of God’s love for me.  That he could love me, little old broken me who had fucked up more than anyone would ever know.  That he loved me unconditionally both in spite of and because of my brokenness.  It was a soul-shattering revelation that I still live with today.

Coincidentally, right as I had stopped going to church for reasons that aren’t particularly relevant here, Jen disappeared.  No one knew where she was.  Deep down I knew why.  No one could sing these songs about brokenness and grace so honestly and so truly unless she herself were going through something.  I had a hunch she was gay.  It was the missing piece of her story that would make everything make sense to me.

For the last seven years I still wondered what she was doing.  Not because I missed her music or because I wondered if she would ever come back to it, but because I just wanted to know that she was ok.  Through her music (I had never met her) I had come to see her as my friend and I just wanted to make sure my friend was ok.  I grew into the habit of Googling her name every few months for clues but nothing came up.

And then a few months ago, my Googling finally got a hit.  She was back.  She was putting out a new album.  And when I read that at 4am on a random weeknight, I literally let out a shriek.  As I perused her new website I noticed that the tone had changed.  There were no references in her bio about her faith.  “Dude.  Totally gay,” I thought.  You don’t come back to rebuild a music career and ignore your devout and loyal fan base.  People in the secular community don’t understand how huge Jen Knapp was.  She sold more albums than some of my favorite bands, like Arcade Fire or Sleater-Kinney.  Grammy nominations, Dove Awards (the Christian music Grammys, if you will), Gold albums, and sell-out crowds.  Jen wasn’t courting this crowd anymore.

Of course the announcement came.  And my reaction was one of simple relief.  I watched her Larry King interview and thought “Good for you.”  She came out in the way I would expect: fearlessly, honestly, and humbly.  In a way, I was simply proud of my friend, Jen Knapp, for continuing to live her life with integrity.

A few weeks ago I got a chance to see Jen at a small bar in San Francisco.  As the overtly Christian opening acts played, I literally started sweating like a whore in church.  Because it felt like church.  It was the whitest concert crowd I’ve experienced in San Francisco.  They all clapped along to the opening acts as though there were singing gospel songs.  Some even raised their hands to the sky as though it were a worship session.  I of course reacted by drinking fairly heavily.  Everyone rebels in their own way.

By the time Jen took the stage I was standing against the bar, being plied by free beer and liquor after befriending the bartender.  The grin that formed on my face as my diminutive idol took the stage with nothing but her sunburst Taylor guitar was embarrassing and possibly a bit creepy.  When she sang her new songs of freedom I bopped my head and beamed.  I just felt so proud of her.  And when she sang her older faith-based songs I sang.  I sang loudly.  I was just so happy.  So happy that I inadvertently bought her a drink.  Long story.

But I was so happy.  And drunk.  But mostly happy.  I think.

After her set she came out and chatted up the 20 or so stragglers that hung out to talk to her.  I wasn’t part of that crowd.  Because that’s not what you do with your friend.  You don’t stand there and talk to them with a bunch of strangers.  It felt awkward.  Prior to the show I had written her a card, having been reminded by another idol, Carrie Brownstein, how much those cards can mean to the artist and how much they can mean to the fan.  The card was simple.  In my own self-deprecating way, I simply told her “Thank you.”  As I stood outside in the cold waiting for her to come outside, I realized I had my Miranda July book, which I was still reading and loving.  I pulled the book out and slipped the card inside.

When she finally came out and I walked (or ran, I don’t remember) up to her, thanked her for the show, and told her I had a card a book I wanted to give to her.  She unzipped her guitar case and told me to slip it in.  I did, thanked her again, told her to have a good time in Portland (where they were headed), shook her hand, and walked away.  In my head I berated myself.

“Why the hell did you give her a book?  That’s so weird.  What in the world compelled you to do that?”

“I don’t know.  Because that’s what friends do.”

Jen Knapp saved my life.  I can’t overstate it.  She really did.  Through her songs and her example she taught me what God’s grace truly means.  What it means to have the courage to accept it.  What it means to have the courage to forgive yourself and to love yourself.  And most importantly, she was one in a long line of idols who taught me that above all else, live honestly.  Live with integrity.  Live without apology.

Here’s a video of Jen from what I guess to be around 1999.  I hadn’t seen this video before tonight. While she had a much rougher life than I ever had, you can see that we share a lot of the same issues of self-worth, self-doubt, and never feeling “enough”:

Here’s Jen with one of the songs I quoted above:

Here’s one of her new songs.  I’ve been listening to this a lot.

effortless

Lying in bed, drinking beer, and listening to Patsy Cline.  I am always struck by how effortless affect in her voice.  She is the white Ella Fitzgerald to me.  Patsy could sing the phone book and I would be reduced to tears.

This song always breaks my heart.  The way she sings “I’ve got these little thinks…” is gut-wrenching.

no, you may not name your band after a tampon brand

It’s Friday night, I’m marginally sober, and I have a quiet house to myself (the roommate has left to play some game called “flip cup”.  To quote Amy Poehler as Dakota Fanning, “I’m unfamiliar.”).  These are rare moments.  Rare moments that must be cherished the only way I know how — By doing the same thing I would normally do on a Friday night:  watching Gilmore Girls and surfing YouTube clips.

Wait, what?  Elvis Costello with Jenny Lewis *and* Zooey Deschanel?  Indie essposion.

A pre-Janet Sleater-Kinney, which means a pre-breakup Carrie and Corin.  Carrie puts her head on Corin’s shoulder.  In the middle of a song.  A punk song.  Oddly adorable especially because Corin doesn’t even react.  If someone tried to do that to me while I was playing I’d probably bonk them in the eye with my shoulder.  Cuz I’m warm and cuddly like that.

The New Pornographers are one of my favorite bands and they have a new album coming out in a few months.  I had never seen this 2003 Letterman performance of my favorite song.  I’ve always thought one of the biggest coups in indie rock was A.C. Newman (the lead singer and band leader) convincing Neko Case to join the band.

PS — A.C., you are way cuter now that you’re tubby and bearded.

Another one of my favorite Canadian bands, Broken Social Scene, also has a record coming out soon.  BSS are a collective/Supergroup made up of up to 17 people at a time.  Seeing them live at Lollapallooza was seriously a life-changing moment.  And this is the song “Anthems (For A Seventeen Year Old Girl)” that left me mesmerized, pulled me in, and made me a BSS fan forever.  I’ve been chasing the high from that concert ever since.  This performance, with Emily Haines (Metric), Amy Milian (Stars), and Feist is fantastic.

I bought The Stills first album “Logic Will Break Your Heart” solely based on the title.  I knew nothing about the band except that they were from Canada.  But the album title hit me like a ton of bricks.  As it turned out, that album would be on constant rotation on my iPod and in my car for most of 2004 and 2005.  They’ve had some lineup changes since then and they kind of suck now.  But that first album, along with this song “Still In Love Song” are still very close to my heart.

Jennifer Knapp.  I will probably do a separate post on Jen Knapp, who has returned after a 5+ year hiatus wherein she disappeared to Australia to work in a pawn shop to get away from making music.  She’s returned, will put out a new album in a few months, and it looks like she got a tattoo.  For a good two years of college, the only music I listened to was Jen Knapp, Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, and Deliriou5, all Christian artists with amazing musicality.

But Jen in particular was, like, my voice.  She was able to channel everything that I had ever felt, wanted to feel, thought, or wanted to say about my faith.  I bought a Taylor because of her.  I started songwriting and singing in earnest because of her.  In the same way that Kathleen Hanna totally influenced me as I was going through my adolescence and learning what it meant to be a woman in the world, Jen Knapp served the same role during my formative years as a Christian.  She was a huge inspiration and still is.  I’m so happy she’s back making music and I hope that she’s doing so without the Christian banner.

Speaking of Jars of Clay.  I blame them for my default strum pattern, which is basically the strum pattern from “Flood”.  But I do thank them for introducing me to alternate tunings and creative capo work.  And to this day I can recite the prayer at 3:40-5:00.  I spent a lot of time listening to this song in dark when I was in college.

I’ve only recently come to discover Kleenex/Liliput, a Swiss post-punk XX band from the late 70’s and early 80’s.  My favorite label, Kill Rock Stars, just re-released their albums and I’m loving it.  An all-female post-punk band that sings in both German and English, toured with The Slits, The Raincoats, and Gang of Four, and was sued by Kimberly-Clark for using the name Kleenex?  What’s not to love?

And that was my YouTube adventure for the night.

I.  Love.  YouTube.

would you be an outlaw for my love?

If you follow me on Reader, you may have noticed (and expressed some level of annoyance) at the amount of Alex Chilton articles I’ve been sharing or tweeting about.  As I sit to write this post, I regret having shared so many articles that expressed, ever so elegantly, exactly what I want to say now.  But even though I knew I wanted to write my own thoughts on Alex Chilton, I just couldn’t help myself.  I was on the road and unable to write a piece myself, but I felt compelled to do my part to make sure that anyone who would listen to my inane ramblings knew not only of Alex Chilton, but why music fans all around the world were mourning.

It was a mission that was validated by the four six-word tweets that I received from strangers and non-strangers throughout the week: “Who the fuck is Alex Chilton?”

Well allow me to retort.  Or not really.

At this point you can google Alex Chilton and get the answer.  You can read a number of eloquent tributes (my favorites are Carrie Brownstein’s and Paul Westerberg’s) that so exactly encompass Alex Chilton’s impact and what he meant to the music community.

So that’s been done.  The point of this post, and the reason why 15 minutes after unlocking my front door after a two-week vacation I opened up my laptop to start typing, is to simply memorialize who the fuck Alex Chilton was to me.

Back in the pre-Napster days, finding music wasn’t as easy as opening a web browser, popping in a search term, and clicking “play now”.  Growing up in the Bay Area suburbs without cool older siblings to guide my way or access to a college rock station (that damn Mt. Diablo successfully blocked any radio signals coming from the punk underground in Berkeley), I pretty much relied on happenstance and MTV’s 120 Minutes for my musical discoveries.  In the case of Alex Chilton, it would be the former.

The odd thing is that I knew Alex Chilton before I “knew” Alex Chilton.  I discovered The Replacements in 1993.  After falling in love with their seminal “Let It Be” and kinda in like with “Tim”, I finally scrounged up enough money to get a used copy of their much maligned “Pleased To Meet Me”.  Of course, being the contrarian that I am, I loved that album, primarily for two tracks: “Never Mind” and “Alex Chilton”.

The dumb thing is that I had no idea Alex Chilton was an actual person.  I just thought it was a cool sounding name that Westerberg threw in there because it had the syntax that he needed.  So there I was, at 15, cranking “Alex Chilton” in my room dancing around like an idiot.  I.  Loved.  That.  Song.  LOVED IT.  The energy and the lyrics completely captured my love for music at the time.

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round
They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song?
I’m in love with that song.”

God.  Every time that part of the song comes on, “I’m in love.  What’s that song?  I’m in love with that song.”  I rock out with the goofiest grin on my face.  It’s just so anthemic and over the years I would, to myself, replace “Alex Chilton” with my artist du jour.  Jenny Lewis, U2, Oasis, John Lennon, Win Butler, Corin Tucker, etc.  They’ve all received the Alex Chilton treatment.  Come on.  Do me a favor.  Crank it up and walk around your room while you’re listening.  If you’re not dancing around and doing the handclaps by the end I simply ask that you check your pulse and try again.

Ok.  Stop waxing.  Keep telling.

I wouldn’t learn who Alex Chilton was until I went off to college.  I bought the Empire Records soundtrack (crap movie, great soundtrack) and fell in love with Evan Dando’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”.  I listened to it on loop when my roommate was in class, cranking it up, lying in bed with my legs up against the wall, trying to stay cool (we didn’t have A/C in the dorms).  One day I was flipping through the CD booklet and noticed that Dando didn’t actually write El Goodo.  Some dude named A. Chilton did.

Lightbulb.

By then the interwebs were in full force and I learned that Alex Chilton was the lead singer of Big Star, a band that people believed should have been up there with The Beatles, he was from Memphis, and he was, in fact, the “Alex Chilton” I had danced to.  I ran across the street to The Wherehouse (remember those?) and found Big Star’s most popular album, “#1 Record/Radio Star” and the rest is history.  The jangly guitar, the dischordant solos, the beautiful lyrics.  Big Star just pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go.

Thirteen.  One of the most beautiful love songs ever written and famously covered by Elliot Smith.  “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”  Uh, duh.  I love Elliot’s version, but Alex’s shaky voice in the original always makes me tear up.

I’m In Love With A Girl.  I would literally listen to this song as I drove around Irvine, equal parts imagining and hoping that a boy would someday sing this simple and sweet song to me.  Hasn’t happened yet, but I still imagine and hope as fervently now as I did 15 years ago.

As I would learn a few years ago while randomly Wikipediaing bands in my iTunes library (yes, I do this to pass time), Alex Chilton was a true artist who refused to bow down to commercial influence or mainstream taste.  He was sorely disappointed that no one was interested in Big Star’s music but he continued to make music on his own terms and basically said “If you like it, great.  If you don’t, fuck you.”  As I find myself gravitating more and more towards that ethos I can see why well-respected artists and musicians put him on a pedestal.  He lived it, he breathed it, he was awesome.

So that’s who Alex Chilton was to me.  A guy who made me laugh, sing, dance, swoon, and think, and who thankfully influenced so many of my favorite bands and artists.  He was revered in the music community and you can almost see musicians walking around with black armbands these days, “September Gurls” ringing from their headphones.

As for me, my “black armband” is listening to “Alex Chilton” on loop.  Because, as usual, Westerberg nailed it:

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round
They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song?
I’m in love with that song.”

Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon?
If he died in Memphis, then that’d be cool, babe.

Alex Chilton, RIP.

in praise of lyric sheets

So in my quest to start buying music in physical form as opposed to “digital rights” form, I’ve been hitting a few used record shops in San Francisco, namely the all famous Amoeba Music in the Haight and Rasputin’s in Union Square.  I used to go to the East Bay counterparts in Berkeley and Concord when I was in high school.  No doubt Amoeba had a far superior selection and was well-organized, but Rasputin had some fantastic deals (lots of $1 albums) and because is not organized well you could find some great hidden records if you took the time to hunt.

Which I did.

I probably should have actually flipped through my vinyl collection before hitting up Amoeba to refresh my memory as to what I already owned.  I didn’t and thus I now own two copies of Laura Nyro’s “Gonna Take A Miracle”, which is a great soul album that I love, obviously.

But I’ve been having a blast flipping through albums, aisle after aisle, for hours on end (I think I must have been in Amoeba for over four hours).  One of the more difficult tasks has been determining what albums I love vs. albums I want to buy.  And one piece of this criteria is whether or not that vinyl comes with a lyric sheet or lyrics printed on the back.

When I was a kid there was nothing better than getting a CD home, ripping it open, popping it into my CD player, and lying on my stomach on the floor and reading the lyrics along with each song on repeat.  To this day I can recite entire songs and albums from memory.  But with the advent of digital music I don’t do that anymore and I really can’t say that I can recall too many lyrics for any song I’ve bought over the past 10 years.

Of course most people will roll their eyes and tell me “Courtney, it’s called the internet.  Use it.”  Yes, obviously we can all find lyrics on the internet now and that’s how I normally do it.  In fact, I have two apps on my iPhone solely dedicated to displaying  the lyrics of any song playing on my iPod.

But, as I learned yesterday, the internet can be wrong.  No, really!  Stay with me!

One of my favorite Sleater-Kinney songs (I know, I know, I’ll stop talking about them eventually) is “Get Up”.  And for the longest time I thought Corin sang the following line: “Is there Splenda?  I am not ashamed.”  That was a really really weird line in the context of Sleater-Kinney, a band famous for singing about the negative female image issues.  “Corin’s singing about her love for Splenda?  Weird.”  Then again, I also thought it was kind of a cheeky line so I just went with it.

Then yesterday I bought “All Hands On The Bad One” on vinyl and looked at the lyric sheet as I was sipping at a coffee shop next to Amoeba called Rock’n Java.  There it was in black and white: “Is there splendor?  I’m not ashamed.”

Well, shit.  That makes a whole lot more sense.

I had a similar Facebook discussion with a friend of mine who thought that in “Skinny Love”, Bon Iver sings,

I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be embarrassed
I told you to be kind

I on the other hand thought he sang, in the third line, “I told you to be balanced.”  Well I bought “For Emma, Forever Ago” yesterday and can confidently report that I’m right.

In addition to correcting my understanding of certain song lyrics, I was also reminded that sometimes lyrics don’t strike you until you see them in print.  One of the CDs I bought yesterday was a used copy of The Go-Betweens’ “Bellavista Terrace: The Best of The Go-Betweens”.  The Go-Betweens are a great 80s cult band from Australia who never made it big despite the fact that they sound a bit like The Smiths (especially with Robert Forrster sings) and write devastatingly beautiful lyrics.  I discovered them a few years ago after one of their members passed away and I’ve been re-listening to their albums(which I own digitally) a lot lately.

Flipping through the CD booklet I was completely floored, for what felt like the first time, by the beauty of their lyrics:

“And what will I miss?  Her cruelty, her unfaithfulness, her fun, her love, her kiss.” — “Part Company”

“‘When a woman learns to walk she’s not dependent anymore.’  A line from her letter; May 24” — “Bye Bye Pride”

“When the rain hit the roof with the sound of a finished kiss, like when a lip lifts from a lip.” — “The Wrong Road”

I had read these lyrics before on the internet, but something about seeing them on paper made them resonate even more.  Perhaps because it made them feel more personal.  These were words that were written down by these men, and not just digitally cataloged by strangers on the web.  I was so moved by these lyrics I kept pulling the album out as I was out with friends at bars and restaurants last night, waxing poetic about the lyrics and reading them aloud to anyone who would listen.  It was like I was high.

I’m such a nerd.  And not a particularly good dinner companion when I get in these obsessive moods.

But anyway.  Yay for lyric sheets and CD booklets.  They *do* serve more than just a practical purpose and they’re not a waste of trees.  They can completely transform how you experience a song or an album.

Oh, and while I’m at it, can I just throw in another plug for buying albums for album artwork?  Again, going back to S-K, I had previously only owned most of their albums in digital form.  For “The Hot Rock”, the cover of the album just looks like the band standing on a sidewalk hailing a cab.  Uh, ok.  I don’t really get it but sure.  Now, looking at the album, Carrie actually has a huge diamond ring on her finger that is sparkling rather brightly.  The back of the album is black and has nothing more than a huge diamond in the middle.  It’s only when I saw the album artwork that I remembered that Robert Redford had a diamond-heist movie called “The Hot Rock”.  Take all this along with the lyrics of the title track (which uses a diamond heist as a metaphor for a crap relationship) and it opens up a whole new understanding of the song, the artwork, and the album’s themes.  It’s a shame that artists do put a lot of effort and care into album artwork to further their artistic thematic vision and nowadays we completely ignore it because digital music often doesn’t give you the complete picture.

Anyway, I’m loving this music hunt.  I feel like a kid again.

you can’t hold the internet

Despite the fact that I can go on hour long diatribes on how technology has changed music for the worse, the fact is I love the fact that thanks to Napster and iTunes, the democratization of music has lead to me discovering more bands in the past 10 years than I would have been able to otherwise. There is no mainstream/underground anymore.  As such, finding those obscure bands is remarkably easy.  Despite my cynical skepticism, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But, with the advent of mp3s, I don’t buy CDs or vinyl anymore.  In fact, for any album or song that I bought after 1999, I do not have the CD or vinyl.  Ok, that’s not true.  I have a few vinyls, namely Rilo Kiley, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Postal Service, and Bon Iver.  But I haven’t bought a CD in years.

This bothers me.

I miss the collector aspect of finding music.  I miss the hunt.  And most of all, given my propensities towards collection, I miss having something tangible in my hands.  I miss that feeling of struggling with the stupid plastic wrap on a CD, peeling off the secondary security sticker on top, and pouring through liner notes.  I have to think that a lot of artists are pissed about this as well.  I could go on forever about my disdain of the new “singles” culture of music production, but the bottom line is that artists used to put a lot of effort and care into the production of their albums.  Liner notes mattered.  I can’t tell you how many little nuggets I’ve gleaned about artists from reading their thank yous.  Even little facts, such as their label, song sequencing, album artwork, are all dismissed these days.

So, I am embarking on a project wherein I am going to attempt to identify those albums that I actually want to own on CD or vinyl.  If I was still at my job I would just make this list haphazardly, spend an evening putting each album in to my Amazon shopping cart, and it would be done.  But that’s not an option anymore.  So I’m going to put together a list and slowly work through it as my resources allow.  I think this will be fun.

I apply the same methodology to my Kindle books.  I buy most of my books on Kindle these days.  But if I find the book particularly interesting so that I want it on my bookshelf then I will buy the physical book.  But quick reads that I found interesting but don’t think I’ll revisit or want to lend to friends I ignore.

So that’s the metric I’ll apply to music.  Albums that I love, that I would be sad if I didn’t have, and that I might want to lend to friends.

To that end, I’d like to enlist your help.  What are some albums that you’d want to own in physical form?  I suppose this isn’t all that different from a “Desert Island” list.  But I do think it’s an interesting question to ask.  We are so inundated with music these days that it can become difficult to differentiate between what is necessary and what is just…nice.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I’d want The Replacements “Let It Be” on a desert island.  Can’t say the same about Coldplay, despite the fact that my iTunes tells me that I listen to far more Coldplay than ‘Mats.

Thoughts?  I’ll post up a list soon.

strange and awesome powers

Last night, the new documentary about one of my favorite bands, The Magnetic Fields, debuted at San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival at Mezzanine.  This was the first screening of the movie and I was lucky enough to score a couple of tickets to the sold-out show.  And much to my surprise and delight, Stephin Merritt, the mind and “heart” behind The Magnetic Fields was actually there!

But before I get ahead of myself, a bit about The Magnetic Fields and Stephin Merritt.  Stephin is an amazingly prolific songwriter and revered among indie music fans.  His songs have been covered by everyone from Peter Gabriel to Arcade Fire.  He’s also a renowned curmudgeon, often described as “prickly” and “irascible”.  You can Google him and read all the superlatives but I’ll take this moment to attempt to articulate my reasons for reverence and bewilderment.  What makes Stephin writes beautiful songs and stories in a way that recasts concepts of love, loss, relationships, and story in ways you’ve never heard them previously articulated.  Cliches that we cynical post-modern assholes simply dismiss and scoff at, Stephin transforms into songs and stories slathered in sarcasm.  He’s as cynical as they come.  He looks at life and rolls his eyes.  But this process makes everything sound new and revolutionary.  Anyone who knows me knows my love of “Book of Love”, a track from TMF’s sprawling three-CD concept album, “69 Love Songs”.  The album is, in fact, comprised of 69 love songs.

I love “Book of Love”.  Any boy who gave me that song would be my husband (or, at a minimum, my baby daddy) in a heartbeat.  I love what it says about love.

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing but

I love it when you read to me and
You can read me anything

The book of love has music in it
In fact that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb but

I love it when you sing to me and
You can sing me anything

The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know but

I love it when you give me things and
You ought to give me wedding rings

It is a beautiful song, particularly when sung by Stephin’s disaffected baritone voice.  But the genius of the song is that Stephin is being completely sarcastic.  He has said that he wrote Book of Love as a joke.  It mocks what people are like when they’re in love.  He was recently told that the song was played at a fan’s wedding and he scoffed.  Obviously, this makes me love the song that much more.

So yes, the guy writes beautiful songs.  But what makes Stephin different for me is that he believes that you shouldn’t write songs or be creative when you’re in the emotion or feeling you are trying to evoke.  That is, if you’re in love, the last thing you should be doing is writing a love song.  Similarly, if you’re writing a story song, you shouldn’t be writing about something you’ve experienced or are experiencing.  I have never heard him elaborate on this point.  I was hoping that the documentary would get into his creative process but it didn’t touch on this particular issue.

I can only assume the following:  The idea must be that if you write while you are in that empassioned state, you cannot possibly capture the full range of emotion or possibility in the song.  You’re hamstringed to what you’re feeling.  Because of that, how can you possibily articulate something new or express something that is not cliche?  You can’t.  So why bother? You’re too tied to the “truth” of how you feel or what you’re experiencing.

This is mindblowing to me.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to break out of my “I can only write what I know!” mentality and force myself to write from a more objective place (thus the lack of posting here).  It’s really hard.  I am not hardwired this way.  I feel compelled to write what I see and what I feel at the moment.  The problem with this, and why I am entertaining these notions of more detached writing, is that in order for the reader or listener to connect with what I write, they have to care about *my* point of view.  Why the fuck should a complete and total stranger care what Courtney is experiencing?  In a way, you have to care about me in order to care about what I have to say.

That’s not an inherently problematic thing.  The strongest emotional connections I have with pieces of writing or songs almost always stem from my “relationship” with the author, writer, or singer.  If I know where the writer is coming from, their backstory, it creates this emotional connection that doesn’t exist otherwise.  Here’s an embarrassing and tremendously lazy example:  I hear “Simple Kind of Life” by No Doubt and I can cry fairly easily because I know, based on interviews and reading, what was going on with Gwen Stefani when she wrote that song.  “Knowing” her in this way allows me to create what feels like a very real emotional connection with her and thus, the song, despite the fact that it’s not a particularly amazing piece of work.  Compare that to, say, reading The Great Gatsby.  A beautifully written piece of art that, while I can intellectually recognize its genius, carries no emotional resonance whatsoever.

Like I said, that was an idiotically simple and lazy comparison.  Music is a more inherently moving form of art for me personally, so sorry, Scotty F.

Which brings me back to Stephin.  Here’s a guy who writes songs that move me on a frighteningly regular basis.  “Papa Was A Rodeo” is just a fantastic song with glints of country melancholy.  Yet he’s a complete mystery.  No one knows much about it.  In fact, one of the only things we do know is that the songs aren’t autobiographical.  They are not glimpses into his soul.  He doesn’t emote when he sings.  In fact, he looks completely bored.  Is it his mystique that draws me in, searching for little hints as to what he’s feeling in that song?  I’ve thought about that and the answer is affirmatively, no.  I’m not so arrogant as to think that I can find something that Stephin inadvertently let slip through the cracks.  I have too much respect for him for that.

But this conundrum was the driving force for wanting to see “Strange Powers”.  I was hoping for some insight into his creative process and his personality.  While the movie touched on both, it left me wanting more.  I WANT TO KNOW MORE, STEPHIN!  Which of course is exactly how he wants it.

That said, “Strange Powers” does exactly what any Magnetic Fields fan would want (loved the filmmakers’ acknowledgment that San Francisco is the heart of the Magnetic Fields’ fanbase):  It will convert non-fans into fans and make fans into superfans.  It is a documentary, 10 years in the making, that tells the story of the band, showing live footage, and really putting the music and the band front and center.  And that’s not to say there is no insight into the band.  The filmmakers’ focus on the relationship between Stephin and his best friend/collaborator/bandmate Claudia Gonson is really beautiful.  If you’ve ever been a fag-hag or friends with a prickly creative (ahem), there’s so much you can identify with.

Leaving Mezzanine I felt jazzed and inspired.  I’m sure Stephin would roll his eyes and tell me to calm the fuck down.

More TMF goodness:

“All The Little Words”

“I Don’t Believe In The Sun”

“Nun’s Litany”

I want to be a Playboy’s bunny
I’d do whatever they asked me to
I’d meet people with lots of money
And they would love me like I loved you

I want to be a topless waitress
I want my mother to shed one tear
I’d throw away this old, sedate dress
Slip into something a tad more sheer

I want to be an artist’s model
An odalisque au naturel
I should be good at spin the bottle
While I’ve still got something left to sell

I want to be a cobra dancer
With little Willie between my thighs
I may not find a cure for cancer
But I’ll meet plenty of single guys

I want to be a brothel worker
I’ve always been treated like one
If I could be a back-street lurker
I’d make more money and have more fun

I want to be a dominatrix
Which isn’t like me, but I can dream
Learn S&M and all those gay tricks
And men will pay me to make them scream

I want to be a porno starlet
For that I’ll wait ’til Mama’s dead
I’ll see my name in lights of scarlet
And get to spend every day in bed.

I want to be a tattooed lady
Dedicated as I am to art
Characters bold, complex and shady
Will write my memoirs across my heart.

“Book of Love” sung to…a puppet.