Tag Archives: stuff i love

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.

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no one belongs here more than you

I woke up this morning at 8am to a slightly buzzy hangover, the result of a few too many beers, chased by a disgustingly sweet gel a fancy thai restaurant deigned to call a “Kiwi Caiparinha”, combined with the stress of finding that I had left my keys inside the house and my cousin was off gallivanting with doctors who had no business thinking he was cute.  This was actually a blessing in disguise as I drunkenly zigzagged to the nearest Starbucks (the “Bearbucks” as it were) and sat for two hours, wherein I embarrassingly nodded on and off quite a few times while drinking copious amounts of  water and iced tea.  The hangover could have been much worse.

After the lovely bus ride to Potrero Hill I nervously stuttered into my first poetry class.  This was basically me spending $80 to reaffirm that I hated poetry.  To the extent that was my goal, it was a total failure.  But more on that another time.

After the class, feeling energized by my new-found tolerance of poetry,  I hopped back on the bus and headed to Green Apple Books, a famous independent bookstore in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco.  Green Apple, nestled in an area that can best be described as “this is where all the real Chinese people live, eat, and shop”, is a fantastic bookstore that is built for hours of perusing.  I can get lost in the floor to ceiling shelves, slowly making my way over the creaky floor boards, through the nooks and crannies of the store, hoping that a title, author, or subject will trigger my “oh yeah, I wanted to read that!” impulses.  I went down to Green Apple with the intent of picking up two books: A Lorrie Moore book and Kay Ryan’s new book of poems.  Kay Ryan is a Bay Area native and the current Poet Laureate.  We read a few of her poems in class.  They weren’t horrible.

Of course, I made the mistake of stopping at the ATM at lunch.  This was one of those generic standalone ATMs that charge you idiotic fees to get your money.  It also displays your account balance despite the fact that you explicitly told it not to.  Well low and behold, the US Government had found my account number and decided to give back my hard earned money.  Either that or I am unwittingly part of an elaborate Nigerian embezzling scheme involving an Ethiopian prince named Mr. Jackson.  Either way, I wasn’t going to ask questions.

Buoyed by my temporary sense of wealth, I ended up with…hold on…let me count it up…13 books, 2 literary journals, 2 magazines, 2 greeting cards, and a pack of 15 postcards illustrated by Nikki McClure. Most of the books were used, so I was feeling good about that, at least.  Here were the highlights:

After the book raid, wherein I had to shoot some eye daggers at a middle-aged man who loudly told his daughter “We can just get it at Borders”, I wandered back towards my bus stop and decided to stop into Pho Clement, a mediocre pho restaurant nestled between a hipster joint and a Chinese hair salon.  My Timbuk2 back was literally overflowing with books.  I didn’t want to waste a plastic bag (I know, I know, I’m a hippie) so I tried cramming everything into my messenger bag.  I was able to stuff them all in except for three, which I carried.  As I dumped my bag onto the familiar red vinyl chairs at Pho Clement to a loud “THUD” that seemed to startle all the patrons, I set the remaining three books onto the matching red table.  Against the deep red background, the bright yellow jacket cover of Miranda July’s book stood out.  After placing my order with the overly friendly waiter, I settled in and started reading.

Unlike with music, I’m not particularly evangelical about books.  Sure, I’ll tell people if a book is good or worth reading, but I don’t get overly excited about them.  It’s not that I don’t read good books.  I do.  I read books that I enjoy quite a bit.  (AH CRAP!  I just realized I forgot to get Seth Stevenson’s “Grounded”.  Blurgh!)  But it’s rare that I love a book so much that I blabber on about it.

So with that caveat, let me say this: Pick up Miranda July’s book, “No One Belongs Here More Than You.” I’m familiar with Miranda July through her involvement with the Portland artists’ community.  Her name gets bandied about quite a bit by my favorite bands and visual artists.  She recorded an album for Kill Rock Stars, is best friends from high school (in Berkeley) with Johanna Fateman of Le Tigre, she directed a Sleater-Kinney video, etc.  Anyway, if you follow the Portland scene at all then you’ll recognize her name.  I had heard that she had put out a book of short stories, but I guess I buried that piece of information in the back of my head.  It wasn’t until I was wandering the aisles of Green Apple and saw that bold yellow cover that I remembered.

I’m not saying that it’s Gatsby or Infinite Jest.  It’s very simple prose.  She’s not trying to show you how many big words she knows, or hit you over the head with repetitive, flowery imagery just because she can.  You’ll finish it pretty quickly.  But her stories and her style had me sputtering with laughter in the restaurant and on the bus.  And seriously, books never make me actually laugh out loud.  It is simple, it’s clipped, and it’s slightly conversational.  Not unlike my writing style, I suppose.  But her writing has a fantastic absurdist quality to it that really pulled me in and then broke my heart.

Here’s an excerpt from “Majesty”, a short story about her dream of meeting Prince William:

I typed “royal family” into a dream-interpretation web-site, but they didn’t have that in their database, so then I typed “butt” and hit “interpret,” and this came back: To see your buttocks in your dream represents your instincts and urges.  It also said: To dream that your buttocks are misshapen suggests undeveloped or wounded aspects of your psyche.  But my butt was shaped all right, so that let me know my psyche was devloped, and the first part told me to trust my insticts, to trust my butt, the butt that trusted him.

That day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.  I have a long skirt like the one he lifted, and I wore it with a new sexual feeling.  I swayed in to work; I glided around the staff kitchen.  My sister calls these skirts “dirndls.”  She means this in a derogatory way.  In the afternoon she came by my office at QuakeKare to use the Xerox machine.  She seemed almost surprised to see me there, as if we had bumped into each other at Kinko’s.  QuakeKare’s mandate is to teach preparedness and support quake victims around the world.  My sister likes to joke that she’s practically a quake victim, because her house is such a mess.

What do you call that exactly, a dirndl? she said.

It’s a skirt.  You know it’s a skirt.

But doesn’t it seem strange that the well-tailored, flattering piece of clothing that I’m wearing is also called  skirt?  Shouldn’t there be a distinction?

Not everyone thinks shorter is more arousing.

Arousing?  Did you just say “arousing”?  Were we talking about arousal?  Oh my God, I can’t believe you just said that word.  Say it again.

What?  Arousing.

Don’t say it! It’s too much, it’s like you said “fuck” or something.

Well, I didn’t.

Do.  Do you think you might never fuck again?  When you said Carl left you, that was the first thing that came into my mind: She will never fuck again.

Why are you like this?

What? Should I be all buttoned up, like you?  Hush-hush?  Is that healthier?

I’m not that buttoned up.

Well, I would love to go out on that limb with you, but I’m going to need some evidence of unbuttonedness.

I have a lover!

But I did not say this, I did not say I am loved, I am a person worth loving, I am not dirty anyhere, ask Prince William.  that night I made a list of ways to meet him in reality:

Go to his school to give a lecture on earthquake safety.

Go to the bars near his school and wait for him.

They are not mutually exclusive; they were both reasonable ways to get to know someone.  People meet in bars every day, and they often have sex with people they meet in bars.  My sister does this all the time, or she did when she was in college.  Afterward she would call and tell me every detail of her night, not because we are close — we are not.  It is because there is something wrong with her.  I would almost call what she does sexual abuse, but she’s my younger sister, so there must be another word for it.  She’s over the top.  That’s all I can say about her.  If the top is here, where I am, she’s over it, hover over me, naked.

That’s little bit of a taste.

I read a lot of books where, even while I’m reading it all I can think is “Dude.  You’re only reading this book because you think you’re supposed to or so you can tell people you read it.  You’re really not enjoying yourself.”  *cough*Kindly Ones*cough*  Not once did I think that with Miranda July’s book.  I’m about halfway through — I started a couple of hours ago but was interrupted by my pho slurping (not a good “reading while eating” food) and a cramped bus ride home.  The stories are short, they are alternately amusing and heartbreaking, and you never really know where she’s going.  But this has been a really entertaining read so far, which is really all I ask for in a book.

Also, check out her website for the book.  It’s adorable.

rsd 10

Loved this.  From Sub Pop’s packaging of the Dum Dum Girls’ limited edition 7″ singles for Record Store Day:

At long last…We at Sub Pop Records have finally devised an expensive, fragile, heavy and clumsy way of packaging and shipping mp3s.  The popular, invisible, tasteless, odorless music files are offered here on a piece of paper tucked safely within a handsomely printed cardboard sleeve (sometimes 7″, sometimes 12″, rarely 10″), and accompanied by an easily damaged plastic disc that, when push comes to shove, could, with the proper, expensive and temperamental equipment also produce this same music.  We believe this to provide a superior, conspicuous listening/ownership experience and hope to sell them to you in great quantities.  Enjoy!

I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at Record Store Day.  My independent record store of choice is Amoeba Records in San Francisco.  I love Amoeba because, unlike the small record shops made famous by High Fidelity, you can be completely anonymous.  The store is so huge and the selection so vast that you don’t feel self-conscious being the only person without a penis, piercing, or tattoo rummaging through the punk section.  The staff isn’t so “gear head” about music as to judge your purchases (e.g., today I bought The Pixies, 2 Jacksons LPs, a John Steinbeck reading on LP, ABBA “Supertrouper”, and Heart “Dreamboat Annie”).  I can lose myself in Amoeba for hours, and today I did.  I lined up at 10am (they didn’t open until 10:30) and was pretty much in the store, give or take 2 hours, until 4pm.

This was not necessarily a good thing.

Amoeba, much like Target, kills your pocketbook the longer you stay there.  I had a specific list of albums that were released specifically for RSD (and therefore in limited print) I was gunning for.  I memorized that list, made my way around the store and pretty much got what I wanted.  I checked out around at around 11:30am, $220 poorer.  “Meh.  Support your local record store” I told myself, and I left to sit down and grab some coffee.

But Amoeba would call me back with Charlotte Gainsbourg signing and Jonsi performing in the afternoon.  I headed back to the store and, in need of something to do to kill time, wandered through the aisles.  Well, four hours later I had met Charlotte Gainsbourg, bobbed my head to Jonsi, and handed over another $180 to Amoeba.  WTF?  How did that happen?  Shit like this only happens at Target.

Oh well.  But I was happy with my haul.  Here were the highlights:

  • “The Snake and Johnny Bear” ready by John Steinbeck
  • “Hits Are For Squares”, Sonic Youth
  • “Super Trouper”, ABBA
  • The Flaming Lips, Henry Rollins, and Peaches covering “Dark Side of the Moon”
  • “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, The Byrds (original 70’s pressing)
  • “Live at Kelvin Hall”, The Kinks
  • “The Purple Tapes”, The Pixies
  • “Dreamboat Annie”, Heart (picture disc)
  • “The Jacksons: Live”, The Jacksons
  • “Dirty Things” 7″ single, Telekinesis
  • “Flume/Come Talk To Me” 7″ single, Peter Gabriel and Bon Iver
  • “The Book of Love/Not One of Us” 7″ single, Peter Gabriel and Stephin Merritt
  • The Thermals/The Cribs, 7″ split
  • John Lennon Singles Bag (3 45s with “Mother”, “Imagine, and “Watching The Wheels, only 7000 printed for RSD)

Anywho, I’m stoked not just for my swag but also for the opportunity to support not just independent music stores, but also independent music.  I’m not sure if people really understand how rough it is for indie labels and the bands that sign to them.  It’s not as glamorous as people think.  Not everyone can (or wants to) sign with a major label that has the resources to make life pretty sweet.  And the smaller “true” indies, like Kill Rock Stars (Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith, Quasi) or Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver, Okkervil River, Lightning Dust) don’t make a shit load of money.  But they live music and they sign amazing acts and give them the creative freedom to do what they want.  There’s a lot to be said about that.  There are a lot of acts that made the jump from indie to major labels and it hasn’t always been that successful.

I’m looking at you, Modest Mouse.

So support your local record stores and support indie music labels.  Of course mp3s are way fucking easier.  I buy most of my music through iTunes and Amazon, too.  But whenever something really hits me and I want to get the CD or LP I usually go and order it straight from the label.  I guess it’s my way of saying thanks and making sure the money gets back to them.

slow down, you move too fast

As I disembarked from my regular train this morning at the Montgomery station, I saw this ad for the new Palm Pre.  I normally ignore ads but this one struck me because it seemed to run counter to another mantra, upon which, as a dutiful child of the 80’s, I had been raised:

So Ferris told me that life moves quickly and if I don’t slow down, I’ll miss it.  Palm is telling me that they have a machine that allows me to keep up with the speed of life so that I don’t miss anything.  OMG!  You mean I don’t have to miss that awesome tweet from my friend telling me she’s late for work?  Where do I sign up?!?  I mean really, Palm.  Do you think people are that dumb?  You’re trying to trade on Ferris’ name yet your product is the anti-Ferris.

I’m not one for schedules.  I don’t like my days packed with things to do.  In fact, I hate to-do lists.  To the extent that I have any social life whatsoever it typically involves, at the most, one “event” in a day.  I have no tolerance for running from thing to thing, feeling rushed or otherwise stressed out that I am running late for something.  I don’t wear a watch, I rarely ever know what time or day it is, and keeping a calendar is a complete waste of time for me.  I just really hate being told that I have to be some “where” at some “time” to do some “thing.”

But obviously I’m a functioning adult, trained in the social norms and mores of the world.  I know I can’t take my “you can’t tell me what to do” ethos to it’s logical extreme, though believe me, I try.  So I keep a to-do list.  I check my phone for the time and date.  And I very reluctantly keep a calendar that I very rarely ever check.  You know, because you need to do these things in order to have a roof over your head, remain gainfully employed, and have friends.

As I think I’ve made clear in previous posts, I love song lyrics.  Song lyrics speak to me in the way that great prose speaks to readers and seminal philosophy texts speak to philosophers.  As such, I downloaded an app for my iPhone, PowerLyrics, which allows you to look up the song lyrics to any song currently playing on your phone.  It’s a great app, though not perfect by any means (sometimes the lyrics are wrong and it’s not great for obscure music).  One of my favorite things to do on weekends is to get some coffee, take Chase to Dolores Park, cop a squat, and just watch the lyrics scroll by as I listen to my tunes.  It’s meditative to me and often times, it’s like having a conversation with an old friend.  At least that’s how I feel an hour later when I get up to leave.

For the past week, I have been taking the F train home from my job in the Financial District.  By way of background, the most direct and quick way for me to get to and from work is the J Church train, which picks me up a half block from my house, runs underground and only has six stops.  It takes less than 20 minutes.  But on Monday, for some reason, I thought “well, I’m not in a hurry to get home, the sun is still out, and I’d like to just sit and listen to my iPod for a bit.”  So I’ve been taking the F, which is horribly unreliable (you can wait upwards of 45 minutes between trains), stops at Every. Single. Block., takes 30 minutes to ride, and then requires me to walk another five blocks to get home.  On average, it triples the length of my commute.

But I don’t care.  Because the F gives me more time with my music and, since it runs above ground, I can access PowerLyrics and just sink into the words of a lot of my favorite songs.  It makes a difference for me to both hear the songs and read the words.  I absorb so much more as a reader than a listener.

The past few days I actually didn’t end up accessing PowerLyrics.  I stood patiently in the chill evening wind on the little island in the middle of Market Street and Montgomery for 30 minutes, just people watching.  Men in questionably coordinated suits (really, I can’t think that GQ rubberstamped the blue blazer/olive slacks look) trying to hail cabs, women who could easily double for Banana Republic mannequins rushing to the underground stations with their purses, laptop bags, and small Kiehls/Banana Republic/Anthropologie paper bags that earlier this morning housed either their lunch or their heels, and the weary East Bay commuters, who slowly walked their way to their public transportation of choice, mentally buckling in for the additional hour and a half commute home.

Upon boarding the antique F trains, many of which have been beautifully restored, I took my seat, cranked my music, and stared out the window with an odd expression of bliss on my face.  I am the odd man out.  Everyone else on the train looks either lost (lots of tourists take the F to get to Union Square or the theater), weary, or just flat out annoyed at how slow the train is moving.  Not me.  I’m loving it.  I could live on this train.  “Take your time!”  I scream in my head.  I’m all good right here.

I love watching the City pass by as the train slowly makes its way down Market Street.  You get the hurried rush of workers lining the streets in the Financial District, annoyed drivers trying desperately to fight their way through traffic to get onto the Bay Bridge (thank God we’re not a honking town), the confused yet excited tourists walking at a glacial pace in Union Square, gawking at every damn window, the grimy Tenderloin, where things that I am totally unfamiliar with and have only seen on The Wire are happening all around, and then the fantabulous Castro, where the boys are just getting ready to do it up.  That’s where the F ends and that’s where I hop off, happily strolling to my house amid the faint smell of pot, bears walking their tiny dogs, and neighborhood locals circling the block, head on swivel, attempting to secure a parking spot.

These have been the best hours of my days.

Today, however, I had to work a bit late.  Not because my job was particularly onerous.  As it happens, it only took me seven days of work, wherein I’m kind of supposed to be in by 9am, to get back to my regular sleeping pattern of falling asleep between 3-4am and waking up at 10:30am.  In other words, I was late to work so I had to stay late to log my hours.  And, since I was up late, I was quite tired by the end of it all.  Walking back to the train I considered just taking the J home.  I was tired, I wanted to see my dog, lie down, and catch up on all the internet related stuff I missed all day.

Thankfully, something stopped me.  The F was calling my name.  So again, I waited in the cold for twenty minutes (keeping myself warm by dancing to “Turn It On” and even doing the handclaps — no really) and finally boarded the green and yellow car that finally pulled up.  I didn’t have the energy to marvel at the nuttiness of my city.  So I plopped down in a distractingly warm seat (seriously, dude who sat there before me, you should get your temperature checked), fired up my go-to playlist and settled in for the ride home.

The first song that came on was “Burn, Don’t Freeze” by…wait for it…Sleater-Kinney.  A perfectly fine song, but never one that I remember as a favorite.  As I sat and listened to the familiar guitar intro, I realized that I actually don’t know the words to this song.  And despite turning up the volume and straining to listen in, I couldn’t make out the words in any meaningful way.  Sometimes this doesn’t bother me.  I can listen to a song and not have a full understanding of the lyrics.  It doesn’t necessarily bother me.  But something about this song was bothering me.  Well, “bothering” is probably not the right word.  But in that moment I was drawn to it.

“Burn, Don’t Freeze” is written in a style that Sleater-Kinney perfected: It is literally two songs at once.  Carrie and Corin sang on top of each other with melody and counter-melody, each with different words.  That in and of itself wasn’t enough to compel me to crack the song.  But two elements stood out: (1) I always want to know what Carrie’s singing because I think she has a way with words and wit and (2) Carrie and Corin’s vocal affects were flipped.  Normally Carrie has a very disaffected and unemotive way of singing and Corin, even when she belts it, has a sweetness or emotion to her voice.  But even though I didn’t know what they were singing about, on this song, Carrie sounded like she was purposefully singing rather sweetly and Corin sounded, well, pissed or bitter about something.  Hence my curiosity peaked.  As their disparate vocal styles, melodies, and lyrics intertwined I realized that purely listening wasn’t going to help me solve this song.

Frustrated, I fired up PowerLyrics.  As I read the lyrics, a slow grin crept across my face.  Remember, Carrie and Corin are singing simultaneously.  You can listen to the album version here.

Carrie: I’d set your heart on fire, but arson is no way to make a love burn brighter.  Always thought that the devil was the only one who knew the ins and the outs of the ways of love.  So I sold off my heart to see how this would end.  Now I can’t move an inch for fear it will begin.
Corin: When you saw me on that first day, said I’d blossom under your care.  Wrap me up tight inside your wing.  Is it safe now, is it safe to breathe?

Carrie: You come in between me and the darkness.  Please don’t you ever leave.
Corin: I force my eyes open and now who has changed?  You look different, so different today.

Corin: Holding your eyes in the hardest stare.  Running around like you wanted me there.  Looking at me like I’m the hottest in town, then turning your back when you’re moving around.
Carrie: Backwards, forwards going out of my mind, spinning way off time.
Corin: I ain’t gonna listen to you no more. Breaking outta this place throwing open the door. Use me up just to fan the flame.  But you’ll be sorry as I’m walking away.
Carrie: Fire to water, baby’s putting me out.

Carrie: You’re the truest light I’ve known.  But someday I’ll learn I don’t need your fuel to burn.  Always thought that hell was the only place hot enough to melt our hearts into a locked embrace.  There’s something so safe about a lack of air.  It’s the only way to make sure that you’ll always be there.
Corin: I’m the one who decides who I am.  I’m the one who will shed this old skin.  I force my eyes open, and now who has changed?  I feel different, so different today.

Carrie: We’re buried underground.  That’s where these hearts are found. Devil spins this world around.  Only Love can save us now.  Do you want to go underground?  Lay buried underground?
Corin: I’m gone!  I’m gone!  I’m gone!  I’m gone!
Corin: Don’t you wanna
Carrie: Did you really change your mind?
Corin: Ain’t you gonna?
Corin: Was this fire way too bright?
Corin: Don’t you wanna?
Carrie: Could this be your only crime?
Corin: Ain’t you gonna?
Carrie: Did you really change your mind?

 

I listened to this song on repeat at least 6 times, scrolling through the lyrics on each.  I would listen to Carrie’s part all the way through.  Then I would focus on Corin’s.  Then Carrie’s.  Then Corin’s.  Then try and process both together.  It was so much fun and it turned, what was otherwise a minor SK cut, to one of my favorite SK songs.  Because I had only caught bits and pieces of the lyrics on my prior listenings, I had no idea this was a love on the rocks/break-up song.  I had no idea how poetic Carrie’s lyrics were.  She sounds so desperate and needy (“You’re the truest light I’ve known.  But someday I’ll learn I don’t need your fuel to burn.  Always thought that hell was the only place hot enough to melt our hearts into a locked embrace.  There’s something so safe about a lack of air.  It’s the only way to make sure that you’ll always be there.”) and Corin’s so fucking bitter (“Looking at me like I’m the hottest in town, then turning your back when you’re moving around.”).  It’s so awesome.  I was feeling the high I get after discovering a new band or song that I never knew existed.  I literally skipped home, I was so excited.

I never would have experienced this had I just lazily taken the J home.  But thankfully, I broke my usual patterns and habits and my penchant for meandering about by myself, wanting to feel the pulse and rhythms of the City, not feeling wedded to a timetable or what was “sensible” created this moment for me.  I’m really grateful for that.

With the developments in technology there’s so much pressure to compress as much as possible into our waking hours.  And while that might work for some people it doesn’t work for everyone.  I am constantly amazed at how heeding that not-so-small voice in my head that screams “HOLY SHIT! SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!  WHAT’S THE RUSH???” often leads to those moments where I feel most alive and at peace with my life and with myself.  Getting caught in the race, I’m definitely guilty of  thinking that to do = doing something = living life.  Thus I must “do” as much as possible.  Otherwise, what evidence is there that I was here?  But sometimes, not doing anything, relaxing, and letting life take you wherever it goes *is* living.

Fuck Palm.  Ferris had it right the whole time.

PS — Dear dude who laughed at me when I did my little handclap dance.  I’m glad that me, my iPhone, and Sleater-Kinney were able to bring a smile to your face.

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.

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.