Friday, December 31, 2021

Here's to '22

"Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate." G. K. Chesterton.

These words I'll cling to in the coming months. Here's hoping that the new year works out better for all of us. 


Monday, December 27, 2021

No ordinary drink

Everyone's favorite Didion passages are pinging around these days. As many have observed, she was a master at presenting a widescreen epoch, a vibrant culture personally- or politically-driven, mundane or violent, through its tiniest, most subtle details. I'm rereading the multi-faceted title essay of The White Album, marveling again at how Didion, focussing her lens at just the right moments, evokes, among other communities, the late-1960s music scene via the West Coast without resorting to pedantic statement or its cousin, purple prose. Her dry account of her hang in the studio with the Doors during the Waiting For The Sun sessions is justly celebrated—and having just read Gary Newell's epic profile of Clear Light in the latest Ugly Things I can now envision guest bass player Doug Lubahn muttering "groovy"—yet I might love the passage on the next page even more. 

Didion begins the segment with a simple narrative: "Someone once brought Janis Joplin to a party at [Didion's] house on Franklin Avenue: she had just done a concert and she wanted brandy-and-Benedictine in a water tumbler." Tickled by the idiosyncratic request, Didion pauses, offers an observation, and then, following the winding trails her details lead her up and down, a tour de force conjuring of a geographic and cultural era, pulled off, remarkably, with subtlety. "Music people never wanted ordinary drinks," she realizes. "They wanted sake, or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat. Spending time with music people was confusing, and required a more fluid and ultimately a more passive approach than I ever acquired." 

In the first place time was never of the essence: we would have dinner at nine unless we had it at eleven-thirty, or we could order in later. We would go down to U.S.C. to see the Living Theater if the limo came at the very moment when no one had just made a drink or a cigarette or an arrangement to meet Ultra Violet at the Montecito. In any case David Hockney was coming by. In any case Ultra Violet was not at the Montecito. In any case we would go down to U.S.C. and see the Living Theater tonight or we would see the Living Theater another night, in New York, or Prague. First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of “one” or “two.” John and Michelle Phillips, on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.

Brilliant stuff, as evocative as any Billboard ad, Top 40 song, or deep LP cut from the summer of '68. I bet Tarantino's a fan.

Photo of Didion, "Joan Didion Stingray, 1968 Los Angeles," by Julian Wasser

Friday, December 24, 2021

Thoughts on home, ctd

"This time last year," I wrote this time last year....

And here we are again, a second Covid Christmas and New Years, with a new variant promising a dark winter, stealing away our mental and physical well-being and our ability to press re-set, if that button can even be located. And like last year I'm thinking about home, how it's defined and what it means, for me and my wife, laying low again (by pre-Pandemic choice) in DeKalb, eschewing holiday travels, and for all of us, now that homeward is again a fraught and unhappy notion. Last December I recognized that in 2019 "I was writing that on the cusp of the deadliest year in United States' history," and I was grimly aware that what I'd written felt "quaint, if not archaic."
In 2020 the very definition of home has been radically challenged and reimagined, those with homes—to hunker down in, or to mournfully avoid—and those without forced to reckon with a new understanding of what behind closed doors means. Because we'd made the decision to eschew Christmas/New Years traveling, staying put is relatively easy for us, but I feel for those for whom flying or driving from home to home is a profound and crucial emotional component of their lives; for many, the occasion is the only time to see family and friends. And I feel for the malcontents, too, and, more seriously, the members of dysfunctional families for whom "the holidays" are torture—even those folk, forced now to stay home, may face a startling renewal of the desire for familial intimacies, even the faking of them. Home's pull is surprisingly strong; it reaches across miles and through bolted doors.
We've all gone through so much the last nineteen months, some of us numb to things, others feeling the wounds fresh still. We've passed 800, 000 U.S. deaths, a startling and macabre statistic, a grim reminder, and yet that doesn't stop us from feeling that in-the-marrow impulse to celebrate the holidays, with friends, family, or on our own. But the revelry is tempered, and I have to ask for how long. Since the answer to that question is as unknowable as the fog was thick this morning, I have to simply plug myself into what gives me pleasure, and hope that you can do the same. I'm struck today by what little insight I have as I reflect on the last year, because it feels that so little has changed even though we've experienced a year of joys as well as tragedies. The predictable stuff. All we really can do in the face of a pandemic, aside from the smart, preventative measures that, unacceptably, far too many are still reluctant to take, is to count blessings, assist others when we can, and focus on the small and large pleasures that being alive gives us. I write this in good health, vaccinated and boosted, recognizing my privilege, and luck. I'll mask up, I'll limit my socializing, I'll mourn for the bands I'm not seeing and the venues I'm not seeing them in, and I'll mourn the toll all of this is taking on us, but I'll try to keep counting my blessings. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Joan Didion's usefulness

The great Joan Didion died today at age 87. For many years I've taught two of her essays in my Creative Nonfiction I class, "In Bed" and "At the Dam," both from her crucial book The White Album, published in 1979. I pair "At the Dam" with the first chapter of Phyllis Barber's memoir Oh Say Can You See. Both writers approach the Hoover Dam as subject matter, yet both arrive via wildly different, stylistically circuitous routes. Barber's journey is irrational, dreamlike, feverish, obsessed, lyrical—Didion's is cool, detached, linear, frowning in its intellectual attempt to answer the burning question at the heart of her and Barber's pieces: why can't I rub away the Dam from my memories? Barber's answer involves family and political dynamics—she grew up in Nevada—and dormant fears of atomic annihilation. Didion's answer is profoundly simpler: "There was something...beyond energy, beyond history, something I could not fix in my mind," she writes; we are mortal. At the end of the brief essay she recalls visiting the Dam, strolling across "the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated."

The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left. I had not thought much of it when he said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is. 

"In Bed" is a vastly different essay, and no less stupendously Didionesque. She writes about her awful migraines, coming to grips with them in an era less sophisticated in its understanding of the affliction and treatment than ours. She recounts in vivid detail the debilitating effects of the pain, the social and personal stigmas it bears, the arrogance of doctors, the hopelessness of friends and loved ones to help the sufferer. (In one of my favorite details, she describes her husband, the writer John Dunne, proffering her an aspirin, an offer "the unafflicted will say from the doorway"—that threshold a graphic image of the wide distance between patient and well-meaning onlooker.) At the end of the essay, we come to its reason for existing, a small epiphany arriving subtly, as at the end of "At the Dam." Didion generally arrives at wisdom without much fanfare—it's the logical, though humane, result of her essaying a problem, a knot that intrigues, a subject worth exploring, the reason, it turns out, for writing in the first place. "And once [the migraine] comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it," she writes. "I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that."
Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain. For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings. 
I startle nearly every time at the contradiction inherent in "the usefulness" of migraine, of pain and suffering, the surprise of that discovery, which is so at odds with self-pity, or a kind of poetics of suffering. No, what pain does is allow us to press re-set, to count our blessings. 

I teach this essay for many reasons, chiefly to illustrate for my students how one doesn't have to have lived a statistically notable or dramatic life in order to write a personal essay, that something as common as pain provides enough texture, bafflement, and surprise as does having rescued someone from a burning building, or having lifted a car off of them in the nick time. But I also teach this essay because I will invariably have a student who, rolling their eyes, complains dryly about the cliché at the end, that the maxim I suffer so as to learn has been done, countless times, before. Sure, I concede, but in the moment of writing for Didion that insight likely felt as if she'd experienced something startlingly new, fresh, as if the top of her head had come off with the perception. I tell my students that this is why we write: though there's ultimately little that's new to our personal and communal experiences, they at times feel like vivid yet half-understood messages from afar, the essaying of which might bring us a bit closer to understanding. Didion understood this so well, from the personal to the political to the cultural. Rest in peace.

Photo of Didion: Henry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Images

Saturday, December 18, 2021

File Under: Rock and Roll

The other night I pulled Lyres' 1984 debut album On Fyre off the shelf. I hadn't listened to it front to back in a while, and I was struck, yet again, by what a great, no-frills rock and roll album it is, a record that sounds a fresh and urgent now as it did when Reagan was President. The Lyres lineup here—Jeff Conolly (vocals/keyboards), Danny McCormack (guitar), Rock Coraccio (bass), and Paul Murphy (drums)—was a prime force in the mid-1980s, the lineup I remember fondly from long sweaty nights at several Washington D.C.-area clubs. Lumped in with the Neo Garage trend by many critics, Lyres stood out precisely because they ignored or otherwise avoided the silly 1960s trappings—the bowl haircuts, the Beatles boots, the affected Nuggets/Pebbles vocals, the fetishistic allegiance to period gear—that, ironically, instantly dated many of the other '60s-influenced bands of the time. At your first Lyres show, you'd be hard pressed to pick out members of the band from members of the audience, or the band's own load-in, load-out buddies. They were long-haired guys in jeans, boots, and leather jackets (underneath you might spy a paisley shirt, if it was the weekend). Connolly's infamous nickname "Monoman" originated from his fierce devotion to 1950s- and '60s-era production and mixing values, and to his formidable, like-spirited record collection, and On Fyre has its share of cover songs, yet when I'd go see Lyres at shows and listen to their records, the principle that stood out: surface stylings came last, what mattered were the songs and the spirit they evoked. Conolly's previous band DMZ tried to pull this off too, and were often successful, but that band's dual-guitar marriage of  '60s punk with 70's punk was also awkward at times. Stripped back to one guitar, Lyres were where Conolly found the permanent (if multi-membered) outfit for him to channel one period through another while creating something original in the loud process.

Conolly dried up as a songwriter after the 1980s, but not before he penned some the era's great rock and roll songs—"Help You, Ann," I Really Want You Right Now," and "Don't Give It Up Now," among them—songs that will last because they catch a sonic breeze that elevates, and transcends, time. Conolly's Vox Continental organ certainly echoes (mimics?) a long-gone era, but it's the only vivid reminder that this clutch of songs has its roots in a particular time in rock and roll history. Mostly, On Fyre puts the 1960s on deep background, the righteousness of the music renewing itself beyond its origin points, and with every spin happily shrugging off attempts at consigning it to label or categorizing it as flag-waving retrograde imitation.


A fantastic companion to On Fyre is Live 1983: Let's Have A Party, a recording of a WERS radio gig in Boston, released by Pryct in 1989. McCormack had been in the band for only a few months, and he plays white-hot here, his guitar recorded loud and in-your-face, distorted and in-the-red in spots; if this was the result of an inelegant live mix, than I'm all for such knob-twiddling casualness. Conolly's organ is comparatively mixed down, and so this performance mutes 60's obsessions (though it's born out by the many cover songs). The result's a primal and raw rock and roll record, its allegiance only to the moods the songs themselves create, not to the cultural background or time in history that the songs originated from. Along with On Fyre, it's a record that stands the test of time and the vagaries of fashion. I place them both among the great rock and roll albums of the 1980s, from any scene. Trends be damned.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"Get down to the meaning"

The good folks at Scottishteevee have unearthed yet another Super Rock gem, a snippet of a television interview the Fleshtones sat for while in Brussels supporting Hexbreaker. Between the "Right Side Of A Good Thing" video and clips of the guys onstage in '82, Peter Zaremba's asked about the garage rock revival. I especially dig his comments starting at the 6:40 mark:
Well, I think that the reason why it was revived was because it was the most direct type of rock and roll, and pure, very pure type of rock and roll, and very minimal. Every once in a while—in all things—you have to get rid of all of the additions and the excess that people put on that don't mean anything, and get down to the meaning, you know? And that was a good place to start. But we're not strictly "garage." That's more of an ethic, and a way of doing things, rather than a style.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

"Confession," after "Confession"

The folks over at Essay Daily run an annual Advent Calendar. This year they're featuring "cover essays," essays where a writer covers, gets inside of, or gives a take on another essay, making it their own. I covered Stuart Dybek's wonderful "Confession," which originally appeared in his chapbook The Story of Mist back in 1993 (a link to which is included with my piece).


A few years back in my essay "Home" in The Normal School, I considered the idea of covering another writer's essay. I'm happy to have been given the opportunity to take a shot at it.