Saturday, January 24, 2015

Married Life, Narrated by Billboard Country Music Ads, Ctd.

Country music songs have much to tell us about the ups and downs of domestic life. So do their Billboard advertisements.

For every happy, singing family...

There are a host of dillemmas, temptations, and complications lurking within jukeboxes and behind closed doors and forgetting minds.

Jeannie C. Riley reminds us of a woman's place:

While Susan Rowe vows never to fall for the follies of a two a.m. romance:

Then again, it's 1975, and Loretta Lynn contemplates the new, next-day facts of life:

Faron Young, hands astride hips, resolutely contemplates the kind of girl he wants to end up with, for a night, anyway:


Meanwhile, George "Hello I'm A Jukebox" Kent, Del Reeves, and Johnny Bond remind us what gets men and women in these troubles in the first place:

And poor Doyle Holly just wants to forget it all. Hell, he'll wake up tomorrow morning a better man, the kind who sings with his family around the table in the kitchen. I'm scared to even listen to this song.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jerry Lee Lewis, that Kind of Fool

Jerry Lee Lewis has wrestled many demons during his long life, among them alcohol. From as far back as 1957 with "Wine Spo Dee-O-Dee," Lewis has been banging a piano and hollering about spirits. His decades-long wrangling with booze has been the subject of many songs, and the source of many private and public anguishes.

This triptych, spanning ten years, dramatizes the appeal, danger, and regret swirling in a glass. We enter, we sit, and hours later we mourn.

"Something kinda tells me I'm gonna like it here!...
There's 16 girls for every guy!"
 b-side (1965)

"There stands the glass
That'll ease all my pain, that'll settle my brain
It's my first one today"
 From She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left Of Me) (1969)

"Look at that fool have one drink, then go home
Look at that fool, he's leaving that woman all alone
And go home to someone who loves him true
I wish ol' Jerry Lee could've been that kind of fool"
 From Odd Man In (1975)

Lewis has been singing within, and behind, a persona for so long that it's often difficult to know when he's being sincere and unguarded. I hear the true Jerry Lee—the man behind the Killer—in this anguished version of Kris Kristoferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" from 2010's Mean Old Man. If you ask me, he didn't really need to cut another song after this.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Huxley on the Essay

From Aldous Huxley's preface to his Collected Essays, published in 1958, as solid and smart a definition, and defense, of the essay—its strengths and its limitations—as I've read:
“I am a man and alive,” wrote D. H. Lawrence. “For this reason I am a novelist. And, being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog… Only in the novel are all things given full play.”

What is true of the novel is only a little less true of the essay. For, like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.

Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay’s three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists in setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from, the relevant data. In a third group we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions, who never condescend to be personal and who hardly deign to take notice of the particular facts, from which their generalizations were originally drawn. Each kind of essay has its special merits and defects.

The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist. Freely, effortlessly, thought and feeling move in these consummate works of art, hither and thither between the essay’s three poles—from the personal to the universal, from the abstract back to the concrete, from the objective datum to the inner experience.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Man In Black In 1970

From a 28-page tribute to Johnny Cash in the May 23, 1970 issue of Billboard.

 A great moody shot, page one of a Columbia Records ad.

Sam Phillips weighs in...
Merle Haggard goes by his sobriquet, and offers a tantalizing inside joke...
 Meanwhile, Glen had better days, grammatically, but the sentiment's there...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ruinous Beauty: A Conversation with Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews @ Antiquity Echoes

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews post photos and videos of abandoned buildings at Antiquity Echoes, one of the most affecting and accomplished websites devoted to the documenting of rural and urban desertion. (YouTube channel here.) Tagliareni's and Mathews's goals are to "preserve, educate, and share...small epitaphs to the often overlooked bits of history that lie rotting all around us." Tagliareni photographs and writes, and Mathews takes videos; both edit and research. Through their dedication, seriousness, and ambition, fused with their considerable skill and their dramatic taste for the Gothic, the couple has created an extraordinarily impressive collection. The sites they research and document range from train stations, farmhouses, theaters, and hotels to mansions, castles, hospitals, and schoolhouses—all empty, all in the process of letting the world back in, most paired with archival photographs of their past, pre-abandonment glory, all staged in ruinous beauty via deliberate, evocative, cinematic compositions. While many photographers of abandonment are content to document from the outside, rarely entering the buildings or the sites, Tagliareni and Mathews go inside, roaming the ghostly, shadowy interiors, probing hallways, crumbling staircases, peering out of pane-less windows, searching not only for the correct photographic point-of-view with which to capture the perverse grandiosity of an abandoned building, but for the tiny detail, the relic that narrates, or half-narrates, imagined stories. Their work is provocative and vital.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Tagliareni and Mathews to discuss Antiquity Echoes, the ethical and legal issues involved in photographing abandoned buildings, and the cultural value of nostalgia.


How did you both get started photographing abandoned places? At your site you write that your intention is to "preserve, educate, and share...small epitaphs to the often overlooked bits if history that lie rotting all around us." Can you talk a bit about this mission?

For the sake of reader sanity, this will be as abridged an answer as we can give: Antiquity Echoes is Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews. We first met in 2006, through Myspace, believe it or not, and some time shortly thereafter we began dating. Being as we both had interests in things less ordinary, we enjoyed the mystique that is often associated with abandoned locations, and visited them often. In fact our very first dates was a visit to the ruins of a rotting old estate, overgrown in the forest.

After a year or so of visiting places, and occasionally grabbing snap-shots as we went, we came upon a place that skewed our collective perspective on not just the practice of documenting abandoned places, but the genuine importance of it. We were in Essex County, New Jersey and happened to be driving directly past a massive sprawling complex of buildings. From the looks of it the place was long abandoned, so we immediately turned around to investigate the place closer. Finding a pot-hole covered access road we made our way to the inner campus and parked away from the eyes of passing motorists. With little effort we came upon a wide open door and crossed the threshold.
Overbrook Asylum

Greeting us in the day-room which we had entered was a scene from some night terror come to life. In a dim corner, perched upon a dry-rotted vinyl chair, caked with dust and flakes of peeled paint, sat a headless body. The fight-or-flight urge was immediate, however we somehow overcame the urge to run flailing back to the care, and quickly the feelings of shock and dread subsided. Upon closer investigation the headless form turned out to be an old CPR dummy. We found its faceless head in the debris next to the chair.

As we ventured beyond the eerie day-room, we were in awe of what we found inside. The place was clearly some kind of hospital, that much was made obvious by the countless beds, large day rooms, and various offices. The deteriorating hallways stretched on for what seemed like forever in all directions. This was not the kind of place we could get to know in the time frame of a single day. The amazement we were feeling then-and-there inspired us to do our very best, and attempt to document what we were seeing before us. Beyond that though, we tried to capture what were were experiencing on an emotional level.

Not having planned this trip, and arriving in the late afternoon, we didn't have very much daylight in which to film. All told we spent roughly an hour inside the old rooms and halls of the disused hospital. Upon returning home we immediately began conducting research to better understand what it was that we just saw. It turned out that the place was indeed a hospital, but not in the way we had assumed. What we spent the afternoon exploring was the decaying husk of the Essex County Hospital Center, or if you were to call it by its original title, “Overbrook Asylum.”

At this point we came to two startling realizations. First, though the places we had filmed up until that point did indeed all carry their own tales and some weight of history, it wasn't until that moment that we had ever seen a place that had affected so many people over such a long period of time. The amount of history found in just a single ward of Overbrook was deeper than all of the places we had been up until this point, combined. The second realization came after some more in-depth investigation into the old hospital center. In researching the history of the facility we were able to gather together a time-line as well as begin to see just how massive of a facility this place once was. There were thousands of stories in those walls. During the hundred-plus years of Overbrook's operation, over ten thousand people spent their final moments there. All these stories were completely unknown to us until we stumbled upon the old hospital by pure chance. We also learned much about the evolution of psychiatric medicine, both in practice and in pharmaceutical development, which eventually led to the downsizing and closure of the massive complex. All of this newly found knowledge was spring-boarded by the most unlikely of things, an abandoned asylum on the side of the road. One which many people likely ignore as they drive past on a daily basis. If we had to put a pin-point as to when Antiquity Echoes actually began, it was at that very moment of realization. These abandoned places held much more than just abstract mystery and picturesque settings. There were countless stories here, and untold lessons to be learned.
Overbrook Asylum

Over the next couple years we set about documenting as many places as possible, focusing on still-imagery and videography. We upgrade equipment as necessary. In 2009 we unceremoniously launched our website. It focused on multimedia presentations of abandoned locations, with the aim of not only capturing viewer interest, but imparting knowledge. It had been our hope from early on that through intriguing imagery and subject matter we would be able to spark a genuine interest in learning that may not otherwise occur, much like what happened to us with Overbrook. We called our website Antiquity Echoes.

Much to our amazement, even amongst the near-infinite other websites out there on the Internet, Antiquity Echoes began getting noticed. For being a niche website, it was getting decent daily traffic within about a year of its inception. The best part about the website (for us) are the occasions in which we get to speak with people who remember a location from before it was abandoned, perhaps having worked at a now-abandoned asylum, or once enjoyed a stay at a long-deserted resort. Our latest endeavor is actually taking place offline. In the summer of 2014 we were approached by a publisher who was interested in putting out a book about Antiquity Echoes. As of right now we are currently hard at work on said book, which is scheduled for national distribution in the fall of 2015.

Do you have a favorite site among the many you've documented? Why?

While there may be some locations we have visited which stand out more than others, such as Greystone Psychiatric Hospital or the Bennett School for Girls, it's impossible for us to pick a place and say we prefer it to all the others. Where we actually derive the most enjoyment is from featuring locations that are unlike each other, it's the variety of the work which we find a lot of enjoyment in. Lets say we update the site with a set from a sprawling abandoned shopping mall. Immediately after that we would likely aim to feature something more intimate, like an old estate or farm house. No place is more important than another. It's all relative.
Bennett School for Girls

Bennett School for Girls





How do you deal with ethical and legal issues that you may face in your work. Many decry the cult of "ruin porn," where waste and decay, often the result of unfortunate circumstances for a building's/site's original owner(s), is exploited in the name art, or even sentimentality. What are your feelings about this?

To us this is history. Perhaps at its most raw, but also at its most accessible. We have spoken at school seminars from elementary to high school levels, about the importance of photojournalism. If you can gain someone's attention, through interesting photos and videos, then you open them up to learning. It's really that simple.

Case in point: a while back we spoke at a high school, one of the topics was about documenting abandoned asylums. Of course abandoned asylums are of interest to teenagers, they're mysterious and full of ghost stories. The imagery of decaying buildings is a hook, upon which you attach information. Well, by the end of the 45 minute session the class knew all about the history of mental healthcare, evolution of modern day pharmaceuticals, and the de-institutionalization of the country. We know this because after each session we heard people in the hallway telling others about not only the abandoned buildings, but why they became abandoned, and why there are no longer a need for such large facilities. They all listened to what we spoke about, and they retained the knowledge because it was linked with things that piqued their interest. Our website is just a history lesson wrapped up in some cool aesthetics.
State Hospital

State Hospital

Obviously we are not alone in documenting abandoned places, and there's currently so many other people doing it that we hesitate to even call it an underground community anymore. Still, the community is what's so great about all this. There's no way any one person, or group, would be able to document the globe. Thanks to the Internet however, we are all able to witness wonders like the ruined palaces of Russia, the abandoned sprawls of China, or the overgrown castles of Europe. In a global community of this size there will always be bad seeds, but that by no means makes the community bad. As it is with any group, you tend to only ever hear about the bad people and/or actions, and they oft overshadow all the good because of this. 

What is your attitude about trespassing, about breaking the law in order to do your work? (If that occurs.)

Trespassing is a against the law, and there's no real arguing that. Some people may trumpet that their actions are of a higher calling, or say that trespassing isn't a real crime, but it is. Being respectful goes a long way. Police and private security workers are real people, and it's not their fault they have to bust you for being somewhere you're not supposed to be, it's yours. There's no faulting someone for doing their job.

What equipment do you use? Do you have issues with the pre-set filters and lenses that users of Hipstamatic and Instagram employ?

Throughout the years we have accumulated a lot of equipment, mostly on the video end of things. While we won't name everything we use, we can give a basic rundown here:

For photography we are very partial to the Pentax line of DSLR cameras. They capture color amazingly, and are very well weather sealed. From laying in decayed sheet rock, to temps of -15 degrees, to filming in a summer downpour on a beach, never once have our Pentax cameras shown any issues. Of course we have a few lenses, the most utilized being a Sigma 12-24mm wide angle. Wide angle lenses are an absolute necessity for architectural photography and video. We also use a sturdy tripod, as we tend to have a lot of long exposures due to only using natural light.
State Hospital

On the video side we have a lot more going on. First and foremost, our primary video camera is a Canon 5D MKII. It captures brilliant footage, approaching cinema quality. We can go on about how great that camera is, but this whole interview would slowly dissolve into a Canon commercial if we do that. As stated above, we have a wide-angle lens, and several other lenses which are utilized as required. One of our most important tools is a computer controlled dolly system, which allows us to capture those smooth panning shots. At a non-collapsible six feet long, it's no easy thing to lug around, but it has given our work a style that we are truly proud of. It also allows us to film in nearly pitch black situations, through the use of time-lapse photography. For a single shot we actually will often end up with nearly a thousand photos, which we then stitch together to create a moving picture. Much like stop-motion animation works. It's all incredibly time consuming, with a 15-second shot often taking roughly 45 minutes to capture. The final product is always worth it though.

Now, as for Instagram and preset filters, actually, we have an Instagram and use preset filters on there all the time, so that probably answers your question. Mobile photography and editing has its place, and Instagram is a great example of it. There are some great artists on there, and who is anyone to say what is and is not a great photograph? If an image invokes an emotion, or makes you stop and admire it, then it's a good image. Who cares how it came to be, the fact that it exists is all that should matter.

Can you tell me a bit about Greystone's Last Stand?

Greystone's Last Stand very much embodies of what we have been aiming to do for years now, and have been slowly working toward ever since that seed of intent was planted ages ago when we first stepped foot in the Overbook asylum. It is a culmination of urban exploration, education, historical preservation, and personal insight.

Greystone's Last Stand is a documentary-style film which we are creating in alliance with the organization Preserve Greystone, and with the aid of several other wonderfully talented people including Mark Moran from Weird New Jersey and Phillip Buehler of Modern Ruins. It tells the story of Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, New Jersey. From its opening in 1876, to its current state of abandonment, and the state's plans for demolition. The film began life as a short of maybe five minutes, to help the organization Preserve Greystone garner public awareness for their cause. Shortly after we began filming the state of New Jersey announced plans to demolish the building, and things quickly snowballed from there. People were coming out from all over to speak with us, from locals, to past employees, to community leaders. This past summer we spoke with Robert Kirkbride, a descendant of Thomas Story Kirkbride, who designed the plan which Greystone was built around. More recently we were filming at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, a saved and restored asylum of the same design as Greystone. The owners of which submitted interest to the state of NJ to purchase and restore Greystone, which was turned down. To say that the scope of the film has broadened would be a gross understatement.

We also hope to show that there is a real value in the art of what most have come to call “Urban Exploration”. This community of people with an interest in the abandoned is in-fact a preservation effort. Certainly a nontraditional one, but a strong one nonetheless. Filled of genuinely good people who are interested in the preservation of history and architecture.

Finally, what do you feel is the cultural value of nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It's wonderful to fondly remember the past, but we must not become so lost in it that we neglect the here-and-now. Take away from history the lessons taught, and use them today, so that tomorrow may be better than what came before.

We document abandoned places because they are what call to us. We do not wish to live in the memories of these places forever, but to capture and pass their stories along to all those who care to listen. Hopefully through these actions we see a better respect given to abandoned places in the future, either through revitalization, or by simply not being left to rot in the first place.


Here are a few more examples of Tagliareni's and Mathews's extraordinary work:

Monday, January 5, 2015

Bidding Farewell to Spring with Roger Angell

Roger Angell in NYC in 2014
It's below zero in DeKalb, and gray. I just shoveled the drive. Did I mention it's cold?

Naturally, my thoughts turn to Roger Angell, who began writing about baseball for The New Yorker after he was assigned by his editor to visit Spring Training in sun-splashed Florida, in 1962. The result, his first extended essay on the game titled "The Old Folks Behind Home," ran in the April 7 issue. Though Angell was already an accomplished magazine editor, and the author of two books, the piece commenced his greatest career as America's greatest baseball writer. His visits to, and lengthy, evocative reports from, Spring Training composed one part of his annual three-part look at the game, which included mid-season and post-season wrap-up essays, a triumvirate of peerless reportage and writing that both nodded to and broadened each season's predictable and unpredictable forms, and which for decades became a welcome fixture in The New Yorker pages.

"The Old Folks Behind Home" was collected in Angell's first baseball book (The Summer Game, 1972) and it's a classic, at once observant, off-hand, and knowledgeable. All of Angell is here: his humor, affection, sly fiction writer's eye for detail, and conversational but elegant style is fully mature. Here's an excerpt from a characteristic paragraph, in which Angell deftly and sincerely moves from observing a game to observing something far larger and more complicated. "Watching the White Sox work out this morning at Payne Park reassured me that baseball is, after all, still a young man's sport and a cheerful one," he writes.
Coach Don Gutteridge broke up the early pepper games with a cry of "Ever'body 'round!" and after the squad had circled the field once, the ritual—the same one that is practiced on every high-school, college, and professional ballfield in the country—began. Batters in the cage bunted one, hit five or six, and made room for the next man. Pitchers hit fungoes to the outfielders, coaches on the first and third baselines knocked out grounders to the infield, pepper games went on behind the cage, and the bright air was full of baseballs, shouts, whistles, and easy laughter. There was a raucous hoot from the players around second when a grounder hopped over Esposito's glove and hit him in the belly. Two young boys with fielders' gloves had joined the squad in the outfield, and I saw Floyd Robinson gravely shake hands with them both. Anyone can come to watch practice here, and fans from nearby hotels and cottages wandered in after their breakfasts, in twos and threes, and slowly clambered up into the empty bleachers, where they assumed the easy, ceremonial attitude-feet up on the row in front, elbows on knees, chin in hands. There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious—the knowledge that we had never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
Vintage Angell: joy blended with bittersweetness without a drop of treacle or sentimentality. No one writes about baseball in such a way.

Exactly forty-one years later, in the April 7, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, Angell published what will likely be his final on-site report from Spring Training. In "Here Comes The Sun," a "Talk Of The Town" piece, Angell finds in the reduced editorial space something typically robust to explore. At age 83, he was in tune enough with the vivaciousness, looseness, and distractions of youth to observe a group of women celebrating one of the women's 21st birthday. The piece begins with a classic Angellian blend of fact and evocation:
With Opening Day gone by, a visitor to the recent spring-training camps can expect to keep no more than a handful of memories of the short season, such as a low line-drive homer in Tampa by the Yankees’ new import, Hideki Matsui, intensely annotated by a horde of visiting Japanese media; or a Mo Vaughn sailer at Port St. Lucie, over the right-field fence and into a sandpit, where it was excavated by an exclaiming pack of boy archeologists; or Renee Conley’s birthday party in Lower Box 105, Row D, at Scottsdale Stadium, in Arizona. Renee and four slender, well-tanned friends of hers—Laura McDermott, Angie Ray, Angie Cronk, and Ann Chaillie—were dressed in jeans, tank tops, and a scattering of forward-facing baseball caps, and their occupation of this sector, close behind the backstop screen, a bit over toward the visiting-team dugout, brightened the afternoon almost as much as the sun, which had been hiding behind chilly rain clouds for the past couple of days. The women put out the news that this was Renee’s twenty-first birthday, and Renee, bowing and blushing a little—she had cropped dark hair and a nice strong nose—accepted the good wishes of the old fans and kid fans around her but then said, well, no, she was thirty-one today. This seemed to put her about in the middle, agewise, in her bunch, who turned out to be servers from the nearby Bandera restaurant. “The best margaritas in town,” said Laura, who is a bartender there. “Only don’t go today, because all the staff will be rookies.”

The game began—the Giants were hosting a split squad of Seattle Mariners—but the young women were distracted by party-favor comical cardboard eyeglasses, with a jagged “Happy Birthday” in exuberant colors above the frames. Putting these on could be done only by reversing the caps, and once this was done, to cascades of laughter, it was time for a round of Bud Lights and the first of a dozen or so group shots, with the girls hugging up in a tight bunch and showing their perfect teeth to each helpful, “cheese”-urging neighbor fan wielding a borrowed camera. Fan parties can turn into a royal pain if you’re there for the game, but, c’mon, this was spring training, and it was a kick to see how rarely this part of Row D ever actually looked at the field. 
Angell casually and affectionately eaves-drops on the women's conversation, noting their personalities and individual details, all while keeping one eye trained on a meaningless exhibition game.
“Ooo, look, the bases are loaded,” somebody said—we were in the fifth by now—but Rich Aurilia’s grand slam over the left-field fence was more or less missed because the friends were so busy with the birthday cake: two Hostess cupcakes, side by side, with a candle “3” stuck in one of them and a candle “1” in the other. Renee instantly blew them out, to a screaming that became part of the wild game noise as Barry Bonds, the next man up, delivered a monster blow over the berm in right. Nobody ate the cupcakes. 
In short order the women are good-naturedly hit on by a cameraman, and one of them moves down front in the hopes of getting a game ball; she succeeds via the flirty promise of hugs and kisses.

"All that remained," Angell writes in the last paragraph, "was the next stage of the party."
Because of the anticipated beers, the young women had parked their cars at Renee’s place and safely biked to the park. The last party treat was a drawing of slips with various possible post-game destinations inked on them, including Zorba’s Adult Shop, on Scottsdale Road, and a long-shot Las Vegas. “We could totally do Vegas,” Angie Ray announced, but they all had to be back at work tomorrow. Laura was holding down three jobs between Thursdays and Tuesdays each week. Renee’s party would soon end, possibly wrapping up at Billet Bar, a nearby biker joint, with adjoining tattoo facilities. When the friends had last been in there, a bouncer said, “Next time, ladies, back your bicycles into the rack. That way you’re real bikers.” The ballgame was running out—it was 7-3, Giants, in the end—though nobody wanted it or the sunshine and hurrying warm clouds to go away. The night before, President Bush had announced that Saddam Hussein had two more days in which to depart or face war. But this was still spring training, where nothing counts. We had this one coming.
Baseball, sun, tipsy women, escape from the workaday world, and the promises of summer. If "Here Comes The Sun" turns out to be the last time Angell files a report from Spring Training—and I suspect that it will be—then what better bookends can there be: 1962 to 2003, Mantle to Matsui, pre-Beatles to post-9/11, and the timeless observations in the sun that run between.

Photo of Roger Angell by Todd Heisle via The New York Times.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The 1,460-Day Essay

As the new year begins and winter break continues I'll again indulge my fantasy about teaching the four-year essay. Think how interesting it'd be, in theory, to have a student work on a single personal essay over the four-year stretch that he or she's in college. In freshman year they begin working on a nascent draft—it can pursue any subject, can be autobiographical or not, though the author's personality/persona will inevitably be what the essay embraces, resists, and/or is filtered through. Then: they work. Over the course of the next four years they're at work on the essay, the only requirement being that they reflect, mull, and write steadily, that they write with intimacy and candor, and that they never fully abandon the essay at any point during their college career. The essay will change, undoubtedly, as the student moves from his/her late teens into early twenties (or whatever age they are in this pedagogical fantasy of mine). Imagine the possibilities: argument and fiercely-held convictions swaying and moving under the pressures, some faint, some explicit, of maturing, of having one's perspective challenged and broadened, of books read in classes and for kicks, of biases dropped and forged, of arguments with friends and strangers, favorite songs and shows, of falling in and out of love. Imagine how relationships among friends and family changes and how those relationships would affect the essay and the writer's stake in its subjects and arguments. The essay could get mighty-meta—I hate this thing why is Bonomo making me do it—and could move forward in a linear manner, or backtrack, amend, crisscross. Imagine what an essay would look like that you begin at the green cusp of your college career and are allowed to stoke, let grow, let evolve over the drama, melodrama, and genuine and deep metamorphosis and personality-forging that is college.

Of course, given the technical vagaries and politics of universities, of the mercurial dynamic of student commitment, of moving out of state and dropping out of school, and that stuff happens, this Montaigneian fantasy will remain just that. The logistics are too tough to pull off. But I think about it sometimes....

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Up in the Air with R.E.M.

I recently watched R.E.M. By MTV, the music channel's new feature-length video documentary, and it sent me back to R.E.M.'s vast catalog, and back in time. My self-made R.E.M. iTunes playlist is 9-plus hours, and over the course of this past week I listened, chronologically, from 1982's Chronic Town EP to the band's final single in 2011, "We All Go Back To Where We Belong." The songs' and albums' progression and forward momentum over thirty years paralleled the images in the documentary of four skinny, hungry kids with energy to burn sitting for earnest interviews giving way, inexorably, to three middle-aged men who often seemed bored and jaded, whose legendary stage shows had morphed from raw sets in front of hundreds to grand spectacles for tens of thousands.

In many cases, songwriters are more elastic than prose writers about their words' meaning; authorial intention is important to me, and I can get irritated when it's devalued or ignored. Paul McCartney famously said that he was thinking of his mother Mary—not The Mother Mary—when he wrote "Let It Be" in 1970, but that if a listener wants to think he was writing under divine inspiration and was directing the song toward the Christ Mother, that's fine by him. I usually find this objectionable, but then again I'm not a songwriter, I'm an essayist and prose writer, to whom meaning is precise and earned, and originates in specific intentions and ideas, however lyric and abstract that origin might be. And yet.

Michael Stipe is—let's not belabor this—uniquely blasé about the meaning of his early lyrics. He famously confessed to an online group that he was basically busking nonsense sounds as the lyrics on R.E.M.'s first couple of records. I've always held that the band's full-length debut Murmur is a great all-instrumental album, Stipe's words less prose and content than another wordless instrument. If you weren't around at the time Murmur was released, it's difficult to appreciate how amazing that record sounded; I walked around in a daze on the University of Maryland campus listening to the album, bumping into things. The album was new and old and knowable and unfathomable and catchy and obscure and rocking and folky and funny and somber at once. A phrase in one song, "Laughing," stuck with me: "Logic, logic, laughing too." I believed in this as a kind of faith, a twenty-something kid balancing the excess and discipline of college and romance, friendships and introversion. Yes: one needed a kind of Stoic logic to get through life, but one also needed to laugh irrationally at it all. Brilliant! I have a distinct memory of idling between classes at Maryland one day, listening to this song and half-consciously, half-unconsciously assembling its philosophy.

Decades later, I learned that what Stipe is actually singing in the song is "Lighted, lighted, laughing in tune"—which means nothing, beyond its presence in the mouth and whatever private resonance it might've had for Stipe. But when I hear "Laughing," as I did again three days ago, I sing along to the unlikely marriage of logic and laughter, remembering how reflecting on that that tenuous bond helped to get me through my absurdly volatile early 20s.


2011. Amy and I are flying from Chicago to Austin, Texas. In the plane I'm listening to Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.'s brand new, and as it turned out, final, album. Because of her fear of flying, neither Amy nor I had flown in decades, and though the flight was uneventful, our nerves were shot. I kept replaying two songs on the album that narrated both the majesty of the flight (prosaic to other frequent travelers) and my deep anxieties about flying. "Überlin" and "Walk It Back" have little to do with a plane ride (I think) and yet the ascending lilt and calm in each helped me through the flight, allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the clouds and sunlight glinting off of the jet wings, to rationalize a safe end to the journey, to calm my own nerves so that I could help calm Amy's. Again, certain of Stipe's words stood out in stark relief in each song:

From "Walk It Back":
You, don't you turn this around
I have not touched the ground in
I don't know how long
From "Überlin":
I am flying on a star into a meteor tonight
I am flying on a star, star, star
I will make it through the day
And then the day becomes the night
I will make it through the night
When I listen to these songs, the images and memories each stirs in me have less to do with the songs' compositional circumstances, or with Stipe's intentions, or to whatever head-space the band was in when they wrote and recorded them, than with where I was: 40,000 absurd feet in the air, nervous, next to a nervous girl I care deeply for who was twisting her Southwest Airlines napkin to a fine point. I was balancing logic and laughter, airborne with a soundtrack. These songs will always be up in the air with me, restorative. I'm glad that I have such deeply personal and resonant touchstones on both R.E.M.'s first and last albums.

As it turns out at SXSW, hanging with the Fleshtones' Keith Streng, I ran into Peter Buck at a bar where he was playing with the Baseball Project. He was on guard behind dark sunglasses, escaping the Texas heat. I told him that I thought that Collapse Into Now is "a great flying album." I'm not sure that he knew what I meant. It doesn't matter.

"Laughing," Murmur (1983)

 "Überlin," Collapse Into Now (2011)

"Walk It Back," Collapse Into Now (2011)
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