March 30, 2018

On Wanting to Be the Type of Person Who Would Write Something like This

Infinite Jest and Elegant Complexity

I want you to know that as I write this, I'm listening to Wayne Shorter's album JuJu. I want you to know that there's no mention of JuJu on The New York Times' 100 Essential Jazz Albums list, but that I was turned on to it in reading this list of Henry Rollins' favorite jazz albums. "What a player!," wrote Rollins. "[Shorter]’s got McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, one half of the mighty Coltrane Quartet," he continued. I want you to know that "sometimes Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman is on the session," too. "Wayne Shorter is one of the greatest musicians, ever. Juju is a great place to start with his incredible catalog." The album, thus far, is proving to be a masterful exhibit in musical artistry, worthy of such a recommendation. I want you to know I think that. What I don't want you to know is that I can barely remember what I've already heard of it and I'll probably never listen to it again.

Of late I've been visiting McKay's, where my intention has been to pick up movies which I really, truly, actually want to watch. That's been my intention. I told myself I'd go and get an item and really sit with it, really soaking in what it has to offer. That's why I got this Nick Cave disc, and that's really why I started writing here: to be more "intentional" with the process. This comes in contrast to the pattern I'd fallen into of using YouTube or Netflix to pass the time. Often the act of just browsing those catalogs of videos becomes what helps me pass the most time, not the actual viewing. That's really another topic for another time, but the point is: me; movies; intentionality.

What's been happening though is that other motivations have crept in, looking to have their say in the matter. I bought The Wrestler, for example. I imagine I've seen it two — maybe even three — times before, so I know I appreciate the movie, but I really have no interest in watching it right now. It was only twenty five cents though. And I'm sure I'll want to watch it again... someday. Or maybe I'll have a friend come over who will want to watch it. Sure, maybe. Or I can use it in discussion with someone about the films of Darren Aronofsky — of which, it's now the third I own. Less likely, but sure... The point is I own The Wrestler now and I'm not sure if or when I'll ever watch it. And this sort of thing happens all the time, for all sorts of reasons, which leads me back to Wayne Shorter.

I'm no jazz aficionado. I saved JuJu on Spotify when I read that Rollins article so I could check it out, knowing full well that if it didn't hit for me I could just as easily move on to something else. But there are unintentional motivations at play, as well, here. Having listened to the album, now I can reference Wayne Shorter — who, surely, I know nothing about from a single listen of a single album — in conversation. And maybe that reference would indicate something attractive about me: that I'm cultured, or interested in exploring music outside the mainstream, or maybe even that I care about art on the whole. Maybe. But already I've forgotten everything I've heard other than that I've enjoyed some of it. Forgetting happens a lot for me, and I realize this. So, what am I really doing here? Why do I keep doing this sort of thing?

Whether it's fast, slow, avant, or standard, jazz fills a certain space for me — existing for those moments where I want to set a mellow tone for myself (even when the music, itself, is anything but). But I don't really enjoy jazz all that much; not compared to ambient electronic music, for example, which also better satisfies that bend toward mellowness. Maybe I listen to jazz to fantasize a certain self-image — that I'm the kind of person who really enjoys listening to jazz music. Or maybe, I'm the kind of person who enjoys listens to jazz music while reading something challenging and drinking their coffee on a Sunday morning. A bright Sunday morning. The kind of Sunday mornings that make you think, "Now this is the way Sunday mornings were meant to be spent." So from time to time I'll listen to jazz, not because I love it and of all the types of music it gives me the most pleasure, but because it allows me think differently about the person who I think I obviously must be, as a listener of this sort of music.

There's this study from a few years back that found "people in Australia and New Zealand were most likely to use music to create an impression with other people." I found it by googling a phrase which I thought might lead to an explanation of the game I tend to play with myself, where I make decisions of what to watch, or listen to, or read, based on reasoning that has nothing to do with the enjoyment I perceive I'd get from watching, listening to, or reading those things. I've been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and it leads to a lot of other ideas and questions about motivation. If I pick up a movie because I want to be the type of person who would watch that movie (and not because I want to watch that movie), what does that say about me? If I buy this record, not because I want to listen to it all the time, but so I can "own" it, what does that say about me? Why do I "consume" rather than enjoy? Maybe its boredom, or because I think the work in question will teach me something, or because it might impact my mood, or because I find it interesting. Many times, though, I feel like I'm just trying to — as that study suggests — "create an impression with other people."

In 2012 I was talking with a friend. This friend graduated as an English major and we talked about things like watching "films." And in talking with this friend, we decided to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Amazon says the book is 1079 pages long, but I'm not sure if that includes the hundred or so pages of end-notes. The thing is mammoth, and dense, and to undertake it I figured I should get an explainer to help me through, so I also picked up a copy of Greg Carlisle's Elegant Complexity (which is another 500+ pages long). At the time I was trying to kickstart a habit of going to the gym, and I had a lot of time on my hands — so I took things a step further, and decided to read Infinite Jest entirely while riding an exercise bike. And I did that. And I read Elegant Complexity. And I made notes, documenting the whole process. And I'm not sure if I actually enjoyed any of it.

I'm certain my friend and I discussed why we wanted to read the book. Being the twenty-something remotely-cultured white guys we were, I'm sure we had decided that there was value in the completion of a book that a lot of people in our position would never even attempt to read, let alone complete. And by then we'd both read enough of Wallace's writing to know that something from it was likely to stick to our bones. Now, I can't remember what I had for lunch last week, so I can't say for certain that I recall what my true motivation was in reading this thing over five years ago, but my hunch is that in reading this book, I also wanted people to think I was the kind of person who would understand Infinite Jest. I wanted people to think I was motivated, and smart, and sensitive, and worthy of their appreciation, and that this is the sort of thing I do all the time. Why else would I have documented the process online? Why else would I have shared it on social media? Why else would I look back on that period as some sort of landmark for myself, even though there's very little from the book that impacted me, and even less that I can recall?

I have a tendency of being hard on myself, which is where this reflection process veers critical. There's no real value in blaming a past version of self for reading a book for the "wrong" reasons, but there is a sort of lesson that can be gained here and it goes beyond asking "why" I'm doing something. I think it's to be found in actually answering the question, and acting in harmony with that answer. Identity signaling might be (mostly) harmless, but my goal here is to recognize what I'm doing, and challenge myself a bit more to move beyond watching a movie or listening to music because of any implied social cachet to be inherited from doing so, and instead hone in further on what it is I truly get the most enjoyment (or satisfaction, or enlightenment, etc.) out of and experience them with more regularity. It's a process, right? That's the sweet spot, right? Doing the things I do for reasons that are clear to me, without having my wires crossed about why it is I'm doing them in the first place.

In the meantime, I'm now listening to Charles Mingus. I just wanted you to know...

March 22, 2018

On Forgetting This Ever Happened in the First Place

Reading has been something I've really wanted to do more of since I first began respecting well-read, informed-sounding people... which means I've not been reading as much as I felt I should be reading since my teens. Let's say this feeling has been with me for twenty years, give or take — that's a long time to carry around a monkey like this around. But even if I want to read more, any number of reasonable excuses for why I don't quickly come to mind. The most recent I used, when talking to a friend about why I hadn't finished a book she'd sent me, is one I've been telling myself since I can remember: I read slowly. Not only do I think I read slowly, but I tell myself I read slowly because I'm really trying to focus on the words and let them percolate before I can digest them wholly, where they can then be incorporated into my life. This would be a great excuse if it was even remotely true, but in reality I forget, and have forgotten, most everything I've ever read. We all have.

This isn't to say that everything I've ever read has failed to stick with me or affect me in some way. Reading simply doesn't work for me in reality as it does in that noble self-righteous intellectual narrative I'd written for myself. And in writing this story for myself about how heavy a cross to bear the act of reading is, I've created an illogical burden which tends to prevent me from actually picking up a book to read it in the first place. Neat, huh?

No matter how much I want to convince myself I'm savoring every last word of a self-help guide so its advice can be retrieved at a moment's notice from an easily accessible memory bank, "what we get from books is not just a collection of names, dates and events stored in our minds like files in a computer." And even if there is some hard drive in my brain, holding on to bits and pieces of this information, storage decay certainly steps in and does its part to help forget or warp just about everything that somehow might have been remembered in the first place.

So: "What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?" In brief, is answer is that what we consume informs us despite us not knowing how or why. This isn't exclusive to reading, either, as I can't remember most of the movies I've watched, or the music I've listened to, yet it seems reasonable to think that a lot of it has left a serious imprint on me. How else was I shaped into the person I was other than by past experience?

There's this idea that I've seen others use, and have even experimented with myself, where you keep an ongoing record of the things you read, watch, or listen to — like a ledger. Maybe there's value in recording your media diet, but in reading more about why I can't remember the other things I just finished reading, the biggest takeaway for me has been a push toward the opposite. This isn't to undermine how cultural exploration helps serve as a defense against mental atrophy, which it certainly does, but instead of pushing forward on an amped up media conquest — telling myself that I'm missing out on something substantial until my laundry list of books to read, movies to watch, and music to listen to has been completed — I'm finding a renewed desire to return to the challenging, life-adding books, records, and movies that I've already experienced. And the big driver here is to help make sure I'm actually remembering them.

"I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books," writes Paul Graham on this subject. "I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time." This idea resonates deeply with me, especially when it comes to reading. The books that have influenced me the most continue to sit on my shelf, some once-read, as I try to find new books that are as impactful on me. They sit there because I have read them and now they have been read — full stop. Hell, I've read my "favorite" book only twice, and can't reference any of the lines from it that I'm not recalling from the film adaptation (which I've probably seen a dozen times or more!).

The other day I finished writing an article that features an email exchange which blew me away. I read the Q&A answers three times, edited the piece, and published it. And now, not even two weeks removed, what remains is a fuzzy feeling. Not specific references to words that invoked emotion in me, or any particular quotes from the source about ways to pivot my life in a manner that might lead to a more satisfying existence... Just a fuzzy feeling. Everything else: gone, somewhere.

In the end, this might be nothing more than me just telling myself it's OK to go slow. But it's OK to go fast, too. It's OK to speed things up and browse through books a first time before dedicating myself to a thorough read, just like it's OK to slow things down and read things that are "important" a third, fourth, and fifth time if they're truly and actually important. And if I'm wrong about all this? That's fine, too, because it won't take long before I forget I ever wrote any of it down in the first place.

March 14, 2018

Please Yourself


December 2017...

There was a little voice inside me saying, "Don't do that because, really, who the fuck are you, anyways?" but in August I sent Ron Gallo an email asking for an interview. "Aside from your music," I wrote him, "I'm really interested in talking about some philosophical ideas... for instance, I'd read (or maybe come across in a video) some of your thoughts on clean living and that you were at one point reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I'm curious if you'd be interested in digging into some of those sort of ideas?" Within twenty-four hours Ron wrote me back, "absolutely down. especially to talk about the non-musical things!" That really made my day.

I don't remember what first led me to Ron's music, but once I heard a little I wanted more. This is where Google quickly confirmed for me that I was without a doubt late to the game in terms of “discovering” him. One of the first things I read was a nice explainer written by NPR's Ann Powers for Ron's "Please Yourself" video. I've watched that at least a dozen times now — it's electric.

"Straddling the fence between two (2) mindsets" begins (something resembling) Ron's mission statement, "1. THE WORLD: is completely fucked and 2. THE UNIVERSE: is inside you. TRYING: to lean more towards the latter." This is what speaks through that video, and is something I really appreciate about Ron: he's thoughtful, he's able to say what he feels, and as a bonus — he communicates it in a manner which dovetails with my own sense of humor.

I've seen him play twice since I sent him that first email, and when he took the stage at Exit/In last month he began with a solo trumpet performance. The trumpet was the first instrument Ron ever played. His dad passed it down to him. With that in mind, Ron knows how to appear as though he doesn't know how to play the trumpet really well. "I hope you're better at singing than you are at trumpet" shouted someone after he removed the horn from his lips. Without missing a beat Ron greeted the jeer with a well-timed clearing of his throat and continued on with a deadpan reading of his show introduction. His reaction to the heckler was improv, the reading was schtick, all of it brilliant.
"Irony is kind of a slippery slope. Once you get on board with that mindset and you think you're separate from something, you sort of start to think of yourself as an all seeing eye. It's all a joke and you see the absurdity in everything. I think it's an important thing to go through but you have to maintain the self-awareness to know that you're never really above anything. You have to realize you're a part of the thing you make fun of. That's the line. Being self-aware is just realizing you buy into bullshit just as much as everyone else. If you want to go off the grid and live in a tent without electricity, that's cool and very authentic of you but no one wants to do that. People just want to criticize each other for not doing it. More so than anything else, I care about people realizing their inherent, limitless value. I want to use my platform to reach people in that way. I want to use my music as an art form rather than as entertainment." —Ron Gallo, Popdust interview, April 2017
That same dry wit winds its way through the band's live show, just as it does Ron's social media pages and interviews. Ron can be silly (critiquing his own potency on Yelp) and he can also be wry (covering K-Ci and JoJo), but his tone throughout retains a very distinct purpose.

Born in New Jersey, he spent a little bit of time in Kentucky and played in some punk bands growing up before moving to Philadelphia, where he went to school at Temple University. When he was 19 he started the band Toy Soldiers which, over an eight year span, "went from a two-piece, lo-fi, garage rock thing, to a twelve-piece freak show, and then it went down to a five-piece thing." Toy Soldiers broke up in 2014 but Ron hardly slowed down, releasing the "weirdo, whimsical countrified acoustic album" Ronny via his own American Diamond Recordings label that same year. Ron continued as a fixture in the local scene, but even then it seemed like his tongue was firmly planted in cheek as an artist.

Exiting Pennsylvania with "Search and Destroy," Ron moved to Nashville in early 2016 and by the end of the year had signed with New West Records. That same year Ron released music with the band the Minks and prepped HEAVY META, an album that "talks about a stalker, dead love, domestication, medication of the masses, the cycle of bad parenting, the struggle of pursuing art, self-empowerment, illusion, and personal frustration with the state of culture, music, [and] food."

The chances of writing a better article than Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune profile piece on Ron are slim, so I'll leave the biography writing at that (this video is also a great primer), but the point is to say that what we hear from Ron Gallo now isn't a frivolous blend of heady lyrics and irony. It's something more, and it been a long time coming.

Delivering a message of revolution with a side of cheese isn't just refreshing, but it's something of the point. "I’m angry, saddened and fed up with how easily 'medications' of all kind are just being handed out and creating a plague of addiction, disease and keeping people in a daze. More so than ever, we as a people, should wake up, be alert and not be tamed by the medicine man because we are all a lot more powerful than we are made to think." Statements like this one might read with a heavy-handed tone if not for Ron's ability to vary his focus and delivery, each of which serve as mechanisms to soften his delivery. Ron's approach leaves the messages he's trying to communicate through his music and words exponentially more attractive than if he were just another humorless voice of revolution, self-righteously advocating change to a society that has lost its way.
"I think people should feel their pain, face it, overcome completely as opposed to just relocating it. Also, I’m not into all that 'rock and roll lifestyle' bullshit. It’s not 1975 and I think it’s a good time to stay clear and become our best selves. In the words of Ian MacKaye 'don’t dull the blade.'" —Ron Gallo, DMNDR interview, August 2016
A lot of thoughts have come and gone since August. Looking back, I felt lost for a good portion of it, which may be due to maneuvering through terrain that is entirely foreign to me. Yesterday I passed two years at my current job, as an example, which is something I've never done before. This is also the longest I've ever lived in the same city since the last Millennium, the longest I've had a group of friends since I was a kid, and the longest I've been sober since I was a teenager.

About three months after Ron and I had first connected he sent me another email, "hey man, just wanted to hit you back, things have been a little crazy the last couple months so my apologies for not getting this back to you sooner. i've actually tried it a couple times and then revisit and feel like my answers have changed haha. which, needless to say, these questions are really great and challenging so thanks for that."

Now looking over all of my notes with fresh eyes, about a month and a half removed from that last correspondence, I'm learning something about myself that I don't think Ron's answers could have ever provided for me. Certain blind spots are starting to become obvious...

Ron Gallo at Grimey's

March 2018...

Ron emailed me back last week.

About three months ago I stopped writing here — "for good," I told myself. A few paragraphs continued beyond where I left off above, but none speak to where I'm at today — which, funny enough, is a place where I'm really struggling with exactly what's at the heart of Ron's answers below: Intention. The realization of aimless intention, or worse — selfish intention, is scary as hell to face. If you've been to that place, you know how that feels.

In closing, previously, I used another decontextualized quote of Ron's which read: "Nobody ever needs to hear what any person ever needs to say." But really, that's not true. It's so strange to think that I needed to not have answers to my questions just as much as I needed to hear the answers that have now materialized. I needed this process. Others need to hear these words. And I feel like this is part of a larger message that I couldn't have come to had I tried to force it. I'm really fucking glad I emailed that guy.

Q: Not that there’s anything wrong with Sublime, but from time to time I have to explain to people that I don’t have the band’s album art tattooed on my arm. What I do have, however, is something of a tribute to Henry Rollins — the words “Rise Above” featured over a far far smaller version of the sun he has on his back. You once wrote that “Henry Rollins is the truth,” so I feel like you’ll get me when I say he has had a tremendous impact on my life… I was introduced to him in junior high and started ordering his CDs, and eventually his books. I've really looked up to him ever since.

But for me, he also represents something else that I don’t think I still entirely grasp. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, focuses on his health, and generally does well to think through his ideas, measure his beliefs, and speak up when he has an opinion. Throughout various stages of my life I’ve struggled with each of those things, yet I’ve still returned to my ideal version of him as something to aspire toward. He's influenced this idea of who I want to be, for myself, yet I've often willfully acted in disharmony with that belief.

Ron: Did you ever respond to anyone asking about your tattoo by just singing “It’s What I Got!”??

I think that what is so admirable about Rollins is that he seems to actually EMBODY his truth. Self-realization of any kind is 50% of the journey. Many people have powerful “aha!” moments but unless there is an intention to manifest that truth into the way you actually live in each moment, then what is the point of realizing any truth at all? We can very easily delude ourselves in the name of righteousness. All of those admirable traits of his you listed, which are seemingly positive, are fully dependent on the intention which they come from. For example, the choice to not drink or do drugs can stem from two places: A person's intent to want to perceive truth clearly, love for one’s body, or just an authentic lack of interest. OR, it can stem from a place of fear, judgment and suppression. Someone feeling the interest to partake but they tell themselves they can not based on fear stemming from a variety of places, or judgment of others and the self, “I’m above that” or some delusional quest for toxic purity that actually separates you from other people because you subconsciously judge others for their choices. In this way everything is double-sided and that’s why people should really take time to decide what they really value in each moment of life because otherwise you may be causing yourself delusion disguised as “good” when in reality your true Self does not care on way or the other. I think that’s why Rollins is inspirational because he attempts to LIVE it and change with it.

Q: There’s a galaxy of distance between intellectually recognizing what it is you may want out of life and sincerely living with intention to get there, and on the timeline I’ve found myself on I’m still learning how to execute through continued purposeful action. It’s not even something like personal transcendence I’m aiming for, it’s on as small a scale as consistently digesting an idea and manifesting its wisdom in my own life. I really struggle with that, and to that end, I’m wondering what you see yourself struggling with now, in face of learned knowledge, or if there's a personal understanding you might have where you feel you should be taking different action in your life than you are, or challenging yourself further?

Well, sometime last year, I listened to a talk online given by a teacher named Adyashanti. At the end of this talk, I had an experience, a sort of indescribable period of crying, laughing and then feeling bliss, almost as if I was seeing everything again for the first time. This lasted for one day. When I woke up the next day, it was gone, and this glimpse fueled my search in an even more toxic manner. Now, I had a direct experience, and lost it. What was wrong with me? Why did I lose it? I was so close!

So, I went online to see if there was some way I could meet him, I had a feeling there was something there for me. I found he was hosting a retreat out in CA in February, and so I booked it.

My intention for the trip was: I want to know who or what I am, truly, no matter what it is. I felt like if I had that answer it would answer ALL my questions, and then I could better understand all beings.

The few weeks leading up to the retreat I became overwhelmed with this feeling that I was going to die soon. Even when I saw people out and about, I convinced myself it was the last time.

Well, the plane didn’t go down and I arrived at the retreat. Two-hundred strangers from all ages, walks of life completely silent in each others presence for six days. Six periods of forty minute silent meditation a day, a few lectures given by Adya and meal breaks. One day one, I struggled hard with the mediation, I would go into neurosis then usually just fall asleep. Halfway through day one I told myself it wasn’t gonna happen, I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.

Then on Tuesday morning, everything changed.

Adya gave a talk that morning that seemed like it was custom designed for me. There were a few points he made about knowing your true self and the “search for awakening” that, like a domino effect, led to a moment that completely broke me. I had a very similar experience I had last year but this time, through meditation it was followed with what I would describe as a “direct experience with being.” In that moment, and right now I feel like I have no more questions. To experience your true being is a disorienting thing because the best way I can describe it is a vast, endless space of nothingness, awareness in which all experience, things occur. The other kicker is that, our true being is THE most obvious thing in existence and the fact that we ever lost sight of it is actually very humbling, hilarious and seems impossible to not see it.

So anyway, I got back from that trip a few days ago and in an odd way I feel ready to live now and enjoy myself and not make myself feel miserable or inadequate. Much like we’ve talked so far - finding a way to embody whatever I’ve realized about myself. Part of that being that we are all the same thing, makes Truth and Love good things to try and live out each moment of each day, and that it’s all right here, right now. This is it.

Sorry that was so long!

Q: I watched a video recommendation you’d made titled, Jiddu Krishnamurti “On Observing Ourselves,” and while viewing it my mind latched on to his idea that the observer and the observed are the same thing. While I don’t have anything new to add to the idea of oneness, what hit for me with regard to this idea was recognition within myself that the more I’ve been able to work through the things about myself that I tend to judge, criticize, and fail to love, the closer that’s allowed me to come to other people.

Ron: Yes! What I’ve found is that we ARE the thing that is aware we are thinking. We are the space in which all thought and feeling occurs. For my whole life I didn’t even notice it, I thought it was all just the mind, which creates this almost dream simulation of experiencing life through the very tiny filter of your past, and all your ideas and belief systems. When you start to cut through it all, you find that how you see yourself is how you see others.

What is that thing that is aware I am thinking? To answer that question is worthy of anyone's time.

Q: It’s been a few years since you’ve written it, and you’ve already gone into great detail about what inspired “Why Do You Have Kids?” (and subsequently, why you’ve phased it out from your live set), but I’m wondering if any of the anger or frustration that surfaced between your first and second chapters of your life was due to being outwardly critical of what you didn’t want to face within yourself?

Ron: Absolutely. It’s all way more clear now. I convinced myself at one point that me being critical of the “evils” of the world was a way to fix them. Which turns out was EXACTLY how I treated myself. Judgmentally.

Q: Through the same playlist you referenced “I Believe” and wrote, “When I listen to Mahalia Jackson I believe in the god she is referring to.” While I haven’t yet read Autobiography of a Yogi, I know it has started to bear a significant influence on your life. While skimming through passages from it, “If you don’t invite God to be your summer guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life” resonated with me. In the last two years, or so, I’ve given up on a stubborn rebellion I had against the idea of God, and have started to accept a still-evolving concept of a higher power. I’m wondering to what degree a god or a higher power or even something as vague as spirituality is part of your life?

Ron: I guess I really got into that above haha. What I’ve realized is that whatever this thing I’ve discovered hiding in plain sight within myself is at the core of all beings. A silent, eternal awareness beyond “good/bad” “dark/light” “right/wrong.” Some call it “god,” “love,” “universe,” “reality,” etc. It only knows what IS and has no ability to judge it. Whatever name or symbol you give to it is fine, it actually requires a name or symbol because it is beyond words. That’s why all religions seem different, because they use words and symbols native to their culture/language but actually are talking about the exact same thing.

Q: You’re a fan of comedy podcasts, so maybe you know what I’m talking about - but TJ Miller has mentioned something to the effect of how through absurdism nothing has meaning, therefor it’s up to us to create our own meaning in our lives. (Elsewhere, I think this has fallen under ideas such as “Optimistic Nihilism.”) Grace and hope are concepts that are surprising to find within loud, brash rock and roll, but those are concepts that stand out when reading about your current direction. Forgive me for relaying more of your own words back to you here, but I'm drawn to this statement from Native, “The hope is in people’s ability to change, and I’ve seen it myself. The ability to become happy and put light and goodness out into the world. Everybody has that power, it’s just that some people get caught in the illness of being a human. So it’s trying to chip away at the bullshit and get to that good core. You gotta start somewhere.” As you get out on the road more and are introduced to more of the world and its people, how has that helped shift what you place a significance on in your life, and is there anything that has influenced an understanding of personal meaning in your life?

Ron: For a while I thought I knew what I was talking about there but couldn’t actually commit to LIVING it. But I knew there was truth there. Not becoming that actually made touring tough, the sensory overload, the crowds, etc. The only commitment I want to make now is to allow everything to be as it is, and try and make each moment an extension of truth and love.

Q: There’s a thread of self-empowerment which I feel is at the core of your mission, it seems, but that’s something wholly different than self-awareness, which I feel is given this a sort of hollow importance in our culture. There’s this interview with Aziz Ansari — and I have to say, I think a lot of what he says is great in his standup work and in the interview — which outlines his personal experience with news & media burnout as it relates. “I don’t think me reading the news is helping anything. I think it’s hurting me. It’s putting me in a bad state of mind. And I could see how someone could hear that about me and be like, Oh, you’re ignoring what’s happening in the world 'cause you don’t want negativity in your head. That seems very selfish. Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s not like I was reading it and then, like, immediately taking action in a way that was helping to fix problems.” But I think that’s only part of the answer — unplugging from an unhealthy interaction, without plugging back into something that carries more meaning. I mean, in his own words he became aware of a habit that was not healthy or beneficial, but replaced it by just tuning out completely. This seems like awareness without empowerment to me. What do you think about this separation that seems to exist within us - analysis without empowerment?

Ron: I think that people become overwhelmed by the malevolence happening in the world because they don’t know right away how to fix it. If the initial thought is “what can I do?!” [or] “how can I get out there and change the world?!” it seems really, really overwhelming and impossible. You instantly feel small and useless when you try to take it all on as an outward thing. This kinda goes back to the one main point, it is ALL internal. Every moment is a choice. The best contribution a human being can make to society or the world is to wake up and embody truth and love in every moment. Rather than see sexual assault charges, or evil politicians or school shootings and immediately respond with hate disguised as activism towards the “evil” side, how about responding with action that stems from LOVE for the “good” side? It’s all intent. If someone wants to get on Facebook and express all their useless opinions and beliefs and talk shit about “bad people” then step away and not manifest ANY of the positive into their daily life then what are they really doing besides making it worse? Do you BELIEVE in Love and Unity? Then BECOME Love and Unity. It will spread and worst case you get to live a life fueled by something almost no one would disagree benefits ALL things.

February 25, 2018

On Nick Cave’s “Feat.” at the Frist


We each went in, M and I, tied by agreement that we would only be allowed to take one — no: five, no: three — pieces with us when we left the Frist. For each of us, our first pick was the first piece we encountered: Nick Cave’s “Architectural Forest.” The installation piece is massive, intricate, and so very impressive — bamboo, wood, wire, plastic beads, acrylic paint, screws, fluorescent lights, color filter gels, and vinyl. I’m trying to think back to what it was that was most captivating about it… maybe the size of it all or the incredible weight of creative investment. It was beautiful.

Several multimedia works and a video installation (“Blot”) followed, but it was Cave’s “soundsuits” that closed the tour of the artist’s work. A placard explained the initial inspiration for the series as a reaction to “the beating of Rodney King by policemen in Los Angeles more than twenty-five years ago.” “As an African American man,” the explainer went on, “Cave felt particularly vulnerable after the incident so he formed a type of armor that protected him from profiling by concealing race, gender, and class.”

We sat down on a bench in front of the exhibition’s signage and M raised a question surrounding limitations of reason as it relates to the meaning behind a piece of work, or maybe as it relates to expression in general. I don’t recall the specifics of her idea, but what I remember deals with the connection between a work of creation and its inspiration not always aligning, and the authenticity of the piece directly relating to the observed distance between the two. I wish I remembered that moment more clearly.

In a 2012 PBS feature, Cave spoke to this a little – “this” being: how does a bizarre ornamental costume represent racially-targeted violence – and he addressed it by challenging viewers to ask themselves what they’re engaged in when they experience a piece. I take this to mean that if you’re engaged in a work, and are exposed to its stated motivation, to then recognize the feeling within yourself as the meaning. This isn’t to take away from prescribed or inherent meaning of art, but maybe just this sort of art. If I don’t participate in the artist’s defined meaning of what they created, there’s no way that thing is going to bear that same meaning to me. Maybe that’s what M meant.


None of this is to say artists can’t be absolutely packed to the brim with bullshit, or that someone’s claimed motivation shouldn’t be challenged, but to debate someone’s artistic intention is an awkward proposition: Doing so risks stripping that individual of whatever fundamental experience it is that pushed them to create their work in the first place, and further limits how they should be able to react to that experience and express their feelings. I feel embarrassed about the simplicity of my naivety with this, but had that line of thinking dawned on me a decade ago I could have saved myself several hundred blog posts worth of grading an artist’s assumed intention in the name of critique (or more specifically, with blogging search engine optimization in mind: in the name of “reviews”).

I don’t know how much much emotional benefit there is to be gained in researching creation and intention, and comparing the manifested work with its inspiration, weighing the two against one another to see if what someone made was any sort of success (let alone if it was “good” or not). Yet that’s my default behavior in this online space — I want to fall into that track of googling just enough about who Nick Cave is and what he’s about to write the skeleton of a profile piece, laying the occasional reference over top of which that might reflect how I personally feel about the man or his work in the hope that a reader would determine my words something of value as they relate to the grander work(s) at the heart of the matter. I’ve gone through that process so many times in the past, not because I’m any sort of journalist, but because that made me feel like I was part of something — that my two cent were somehow worth more than face value.

I took something away from this or I wouldn’t be here, trying to sort through it all, though what I gained seems to have little to nothing to do with the spark of inspiration that originally led to the creation of what we saw that day at the Fringe. By the standards of everyone involved, though, I believe that’s exactly what makes it a “success.”

February 24, 2018

On "October Rust," or: Goth at Heart


Technically I've been to two Type O Negative shows, but my memory of both sets is practically non-existent. The first time around was when the band co-headlined a brief tour with Cradle of Filth, which stopped in at The Quest Club in Minneapolis in the fall of 2003. At the time, Cradle of Filth’s set blew me away with its endless intensity and on-stage theatrics (video of both bands’s sets from the tour’s stop a month later in Philadelphia are now online: Type O here and CoF here), but what I remember most clearly from Type O's set is the density of the music, peppered with the dry wit and charm of the group’s frontman Peter Steele.

The second time I saw the band was in 2007 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. I was drunk, and while my memory of the night is spotty I recall getting sweaty in the pit before leaving the show early to hang out with friends at a bar. That night I met a wonderful woman through a friend, who I recall having some sort of discussion with as it relates to existentialism. I think my ability to drunkenly recall Kierkegaard's name earned me about a month of dates before she finally figured out how full of shit I was. Maybe it's ironic, then, that a quote of his has kept returning to me while revisiting these thoughts this past week: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Silly as the connection is, and as full of shit as I still might be, the concept feels genuine as it relates to trying to make sense of whether the reasons I've constructed for appreciating Type O Negative's music are what first attracted me to them, or if I'm revising history somewhat to paint myself as a more intelligent listener than I actually am.

I could be wrong, but their rendition of "Summer Breeze," as featured on the I Know What You Did Last Summer soundtrack — of all places, is where I think I first heard the band. From there, October Rust was the first of their albums I got a copy of. It remains a favorite, but this is where that sense of revisionist history gets a little dicey. Musically, the music on October Rust is so beautiful, Steele's voice so unique and bold, the bass so thick, the songs so dense, that I can only imagine that the sound alone is what I connected most with at that time. That's largely true now, as well, though. The other day a sentence came out of me that seems to sum up how I've listened to music for most of my life, "Even now, music remains mostly a patchwork of sounds that make me feel different things, but rarely does a song’s lyrics impact me."

Beyond the music though, there really was an underlying sense of humor carried by the band that connected with me. For example, and it's wholly stupid, but the first two tracks on October Rust are throwaways: the opening being 38 seconds of static with the second being a mock introduction to the album itself. Again, it's stupid, but in acknowledging their own self-awareness of just how stupid it is the band sets a tone that helps re-contextualize lyrics throughout the entire release. It's a balance that I would like to think I appreciated as a teenager, but one that firmly admire now.

Take, for example, "Love You to Death." "Black lipstick stains (on her) glass of red wine / I am your servant, may I light your cigarette? / Those lips move, yeah I can feel what you're sayin', prayin' / They say the beast inside of me is gonna get ya, get ya, yeah..." Over a sprawling seven minutes the song teases BDSM imagery (which in itself is something to consider as it relates to humor — to fully immerse oneself in a dominant or submissive role is incredibly powerful and sexy under the right circumstances, but in others entirely ridiculous... There's no way the band was oblivious to this. Just consider the line, "I’ll do anything to make you cum," which is from a song called "Be My Druidess," for Chrissake), but ultimately the song takes flight over a simple lyrical call for validation from a partner, "Am I good enough... for you?" Who doesn't crave that recognition? Who doesn't want to feel that love? When Steele moans the words it's like they resurrect every relationship I've ever had... which is also kind of funny, given the right amount of distance from those emotions.

The other day I was listening to a podcast where a line was thrown out as it relates to this balance, saying that without a sense of humor what we're left might only be dread. Accurate or inaccurate as that might be, taking the thought deeper, dread is so closely tied to self-seriousness, and in those places of anxiety and depression the mind refuses, almost stubbornly so, to acknowledge the lighthearted mechanics of whatever situation it is that has led an individual to that place. This is where it connects to October Rust for me. Throughout the album, Steele's voice carries the most simple lyrics in conveyance of such incredible feelings of romantic dread — as with “I think she's falling out of love” (“Burnt Flowers Fallen”) or simply, “Yeah, I miss her” (“Die With Me”) — but to focus only on those specific moments, or those specific feelings, would be unfair to the very emotions in question, reducing them to a binary categorizations of "good" or "bad." That two-dimensional way of thinking neglects the range of emotions that life conjures: the pendulum of experience which allows us to take life deathly seriously one moment while laughing in the face of dread the next. I don't see how else the well-crafted "Wolf Moon" could take lyrics about craving the taste of a menstruating woman could otherwise exist, let alone communicate as such a genuine and beautiful piece of music.

Peter Steele drove the band thematically, musically, and (I assume) aesthetically, and I can only imagine how much of this contrast was the result of his artistic vision (fuck, that's a pretentious term). Maybe, then, part of relating to the album is relating to aspects of who he was. There's no dearth of mention about his Playgirl shoot or Jerry Springer appearance in practically every piece written about the man (though I appreciate his spot on Ricki Lake more, for whatever it's worth), but this October Rust-era interview does well to speak for who he was beneath any silly headline. In the interview he's sarcastic, self deprecating, and honest in a way that a "goth" singer has no right being. Maybe that's why Steele's death in 2010 felt sort of personal. Because in a way, I wanted to be him.

Through much of their music, but October Rust in particular, Type O Negative created for me a safe space that could be visited at any time simply by putting on headphones. In the exists everything already mentioned here, but also no room for argument over whether any of it — the music, the feelings, the lyrics — were authentic or "real." (My own insecurities around "authenticity" led have led to some strange places over the years, including reaching for some rather unusual "credible" goth references in my non-review of the band's 2007 show, but that's beside the point.) The reality of the matter is, the image of who Peter Steele was, was someone who I wanted to be. Only now am I the age he was when October Rust was released, and it's especially true now that I admire the balance of who he was trying to be — that attempt to embrace the realness of what sex and love are, and what they can be, with the utter absurdity of those realities is what I might most identify with now. That is, when I'm even bothering to actually consider the lyrics in the first place.

February 18, 2018

Why Won't You Listen


It was a familiar path until instead of veering left we veered right. Had we not made one more left where I thought there should have been a right we would have never discovered the message. The doors of a restroom, padlocked shut for the season, were adorned with decoration. “Why won’t you listen,” read one door. Good question. We continued on our way until she stopped and asked me a question.

Of course I wanted to see the quarry. As we walked up the slope, the hum became louder and louder until we stood level with the wall of rock in front of us. It was a quarry, alright, but the sound was more incredible than anything. It was frogs, everywhere, chirping. They were invisible to us, lurking in the marshland, and as we each walked in separate directions, each moving closer and closer to the chirps, those chirps stopped chirping, until there was only one chirp remaining. Watching her step closer to it, that final chirp silenced itself, and now the invisible frogs had all gone quiet. When they did we made eye contact and smiled.

Later, having returned to the path, she told me to look up, to look at a tree. It was amazing. The bark was stripping from the bottom of its thick limbs, while the tops of those same branches were covered in vibrant green moss. As we continued on, I tried to tell her that I appreciated her awareness, but it came out weird. I’m sure she doesn’t remember that. We both needed the other person to be on that trail today.

February 17, 2018

On “Push the Sky Away,” or: Barriers to Entry


I'm thinking back to all the bonus discs that used to come with the CDs I purchased. Sometimes they weren't bonus discs, add-ons to a single CD, such as CD-ROMs. You'd insert the CD into your computer, hope that a compatible version of Quicktime was downloaded, and away you'd go. Primus's Rhinoplasty, for example, had a music video you could watch on your computer. I remember having that one. There was no place else you could see that video, at the time. Now, watching it is as simple as typing a search term into YouTube and there it is — with over 18 million views.

Maybe that barrier to entry's disappearance is important, or at least important to a feeling. It felt like I knew something, that I had something, when there were restrictive steps to get in the way between me and the content I wanted. But then again, I remember paying over $20 for CDs that weren't new releases, because back-catalog discs, rather than new releases, always costed more. There's nothing more prohibitive in this context than high prices. Fortunately I worked in my youth or I'd have had to wait for my 20s when YouTube began gaining momentum.

The DVD that accompanies Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds's 2013 album Push the Sky Away has two songs on it, each featured in video format with visuals created by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. The filmmakers began collaborating with Cave about a decade ago through videos in support of the Bad Seeds's 2008 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, before creating a (rather good) "hybrid drama-documentary" about Cave in 2014. The rabbit hole runs deep though, and maybe that process is worth paying attention to. Looking further into their credits led to their Vimeo page, which led to a half hour long detour away from Push the Sky Away. They directed the music video for Gil Scott-Heron's "I'm New Here" (which might be up there on my favorite songs list, with the chorus simply returning to "No matter how far wrong you've gone / You can always turn around), leading to work on the short documentary, Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, which I'd really like to watch. Then, further down Iain and Jane's Vimeo page, a few videos of the Veils, who I then remembered sitting in on an interview with back in 2009 in the basement of the 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis, with a group of college kids I briefly collaborated with. Despite remembering not enjoying it when it was released, I looked for the video of that interview, though to no avail. This is the rabbit hole.

Returning to the DVD, the features include "Needle Boy" and "Lightning Bolts." In the videos, the songs's lyrics are shared to one side of the screen while studio footage of performances rolls on the other, and on the first viewing a lyric from "Lightning Bolts" made me laugh. On the second viewing humor continues to ring throughout, though you wouldn't know it by the ever-serious visuals of Cave and the Bad Seeds's Warren Ellis, "In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas / I’m by the hotel pool working on a tan / People come up and ask me who I am / I say if you don’t know, don’t ask / Zeus laughs – but it’s the gas / And he asks me how I am / I say Zeus, don’t ask." "Needle Boy" begins with the moan of "At the turn of the century I did many things to protect myself." I'll get back to that...

In the midst of this, I'm wondering where the value of this process lies. I'm telling myself that this is more important, the DVD, manufacturing merit based on the barrier to entry that I'm also now creating for myself. I wasn't sure what was on the DVD when I came home with it, but with a little searching I could have discovered that the two videos are on YouTube (of course). Yesterday's intention of grabbing this work, in its attractive presentation, was continued today when I looked of it inside and plucked out the vessel by which the work is communicated, plugging in the television, grabbing the DVD player from the closet, and sitting down with coffee in hand at 7 in the morning to watch whatever is on the disc. There's a little bit of disappointment that it wasn't "something more." I'm not sure what my expectation was, but having seen Iain and Jane's work with Cave on 20,000 Days on Earth (though I hadn't a clue who directed it when I watched it) maybe something like that was what I had hoped for, even though I hadn't consciously remembered I'd seen the documentary until going down the rabbit hole.

So, intention then, yeah?

Maybe two years ago I went on a couple dates with someone who was friends with Sharon Van Etten when they both lived in the nearby Murfreesboro. I had seen Van Etten open for Cave at the Ryman two years before and felt like she was some sort of connection between the two of us — this singer, who I had no connection to whatsoever, and only saw by way of an opening spot to other musicians who I'd actually paid to see. Maybe that's the fucked up part of my intention. For a long time I've gleaned connection by way of these sources, remembering their names as a subconscious means to try to find connection with someone else who would then see me as worthy of their connection because of the shared interest. But is it a shared interest if I'm not connected to the source, itself? I can't name a Sharon Van Etten song, and I don't think I could then either, but that didn't stop me from propping myself up emotionally on the memory of seeing her perform as a means of connection. I don't think I ever brought it up during the coffee date, or maybe I did as a passing comment, but it's not that moment, but a life-long tendency to lean on those sort of moments that now frustrate me a little. The intention is to connect, but I question the authenticity. Maybe everyone else has questioned that, too, to this point. I'd like to discontinue that trend. I'd like to think I've already begun.

Saying a song has personal meaning, or communicating a sense of understanding of a piece of music/literature/art, is different than embodying that thing — and that understanding. Watching "Needle Boy" and "Lightning Bolts," I'm reminded of how dapper Cave and Ellis are, how distinguished they appear, seemingly at all times. Beyond dressing well though, the appearance has a lot to do with how I want to believe they live their lives. When seeing the chorus of Bad Seeds gasp between shots of Cave, my mind tells me that these men understand physical love in a way I don't — that they cherish their bodies, that they breathe art and refrain from the trappings of a disposable, isolationist culture. That's a thought, sure, but to encompass those feelings myself, to incorporate that lesson, is something so different. To listen to their music is to recognize a way of living that is different than my way of living. To see these videos are to say that I understand the value in pivoting, personally — maybe dressing more fashionably, or carrying myself in a more distinguished manner. To say, "I've seen Sharon play live," is so much different than providing an example of Sharon's music which actually touches my fucking heart. And while I've carried the Bad Seeds's music with me for ages, the same challenge can be asserted there.

I went to the Ryman concert with a friend of mine, though we sat a pew or two away from each other as the separate seats were the only available for the eventually-sold out show when I got them. That concert came, what, 15 or 16 years after trying to sell myself on the idea that I'd become a Nick Cave reader, though maybe more so with the hope that someone else would think me being a Nick Cave reader was cool than actually due to trying to get anything out a Nick Cave book itself. I don't recall loving the Ryman show, itself. My memory of the show is from a vantage point around here, or so, which meant I was far enough from the stage to miss the heat of a crowd and the detail of an up-close experience. Maybe that had something to do with how much I appreciated the show, but it was also a weird time in my life. I remember seeing the show in 2014, though it actually happened in 2013, right before I was to leave Nashville for Kansas City. Hope for me came with new potential of a shifting life, but at the time I didn't realize how much of my own life I was simply just running away from. Push the Sky Away was released during my time in KC, and I have fond memories of how well it sold when I worked at the record store there. All of that aside, maybe my view of the show would have been different had I been up close, to see Cave shift his approach during the night's fourth song, "Higgs Boson Blues," and literally reach out to draw emotion and energy out of those in the front rows. The intimacy expressed in that video now fills me with more emotion than I recall feeling that night.

The pages of Push the Sky Away are standard liner notes, delivering lyrics in a manner of presentation to the liking of the artists involved. I don't know how many times I've listened to the album — the number is plenty — but I haven't listened to it a whole piece of music in several years. And until this morning I've never done so with lyrics in hand. Maybe that's part of my intention here, with all this — to simply have intention. To approach a moment with a plan. "Higgs Boson Blues" has been on several playlists of mine, and for a couple years was a staple on commutes, but never have I sat through and spent time with its lyrics, just embracing them. Today there was intention.


"The tree don't care what the little bird sings." ("We Know Who U R") "She had a history but no past." ("Jubilee Street") "The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page." ("Jubilee Street") All throughout there are these little moments that catch me and deliver something special, a connection, a thought. Sometimes they're just moments that click, like in "Finishing Jubilee Street," where the music breaks perfectly half way into the song and the backing vocals pick up, "See that girl / Coming on down / Coming on down / Coming on down." Nick Cave is really good at being Nick Cave. "I'm tired, I'm looking for a spot to drop / All the clocks have stopped / In Memphis now in the Lorraine Motel / It's hot, it's hot - that's why they call it the hot spot / I take a room with a view / Hear a man preaching in a language that's completely new / And making the hot cots in the flophouse bleed / While the cleaning ladies sob into their mops / And a bellhop hops and bops / A shot rings out to a spiritual groove / Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues." ("Higgs Boson Blues")

I have little recollection of reviewing Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! 10 years ago, and the writing has its groan-worthy moments, but it's still not terrible. This morning, the album has run through three times, and I've been sidetracked plenty by Iain and Jane's videos (this take of "Higgs Boson Blues" is so beautiful), but the picture is beginning to come together. Intention is leading to surprise. Around the time of me buying King Ink, I often took similar action with CDs, buying them with the hope that someone would see that I owned them, I think. I'm not sure why else I'd have albums I never listened to. By the time of writing this review, in 2008, I had sold my music collection and was relying on mp3s to get me by. That allowed for less artifice, but that hardly meant I was digesting what I was listening to. Maybe by then I'd started to go deeper, but really holding onto a piece of music and allowing it to change me was rare then. Even now, music remains mostly a patchwork of sounds that make me feel different things, but rarely does a song's lyrics impact me. I'm partially ashamed of this, partially not, but many times they're not even heard as words. This is important.

Back to the DVD and back to "Needle Boy." “At the turn of the century I did many things to protect myself.” This is true for me. And at the turn of the decade, I did many more things to protect myself. By then I had moved on from my copy of The Boatman's Call. I don't recall what I did with my copy of King Ink, either — I likely sold it long before. I did the things I did to get by — I held on to the things I did to help me survive the way I did, and I purged things from my life as I did, when I did, to help me survive that part of my life, as well. I'm hard on myself, and it's easy to poke holes in past versions of self, guilting and shaming a previous me for not having today's insights. But that's bullshit.

Now is the only time it was ever possible to look at this chain of events, all these years, and consider the sort of things I've just been considering. I've always loved music, but maybe music was never to me what it "could have been" because I lacked true ownership in it. I've owned over a thousand albums over the years in various formats, but rarely have I ever really bought in to them. But last night, putting money down on this album has given me something of a sense of ownership within the realm of Push the Sky Away that I don't remember feeling. It's literally buying into the idea that there is value in the creation of something that isn't easily disposed of — this small collection of words, and sounds, and images. And making a promise to myself to take what's inside and explore it, to try to see if there's anything inside that can make my life better. The last step is doing something with that, rather than just using it as a prop to again fool me into believing that someone else's opinion of me makes a damn bit of difference, especially when it's based on something so hollow as whether or not I act as if I appreciate a piece of music. This is all worth something. And it's worth returning to. And it's worth learning from.

February 16, 2018

Culture Bully

It's a Friday night in February. It's the 16th. The weather is chilly, and the sky has been grey for about a week and a half. Yesterday was up in the 70s, while the rest of the stretch has been cold and rainy. I've done everything I can to convince the gods to correct this atmospheric trend. I tried doing my laundry, but it made no difference. I made a playlist, still nothing. I even tried journaling about my feelings, but the rain doesn't seem to respond to that either. Recording the weather as fact right now feels real. It feels clean, like I can't bullshit it. It's just a thing that is, and it's important to share because it's also partially what's inspired me to do this.

I went to McKay's tonight and made two purchases, each with a particular intention, and the second item got me thinking... It led me here, actually, to revive a name that I came up with around 13 or 14 years ago when I was in college. I picked up a book and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away. It was in the DVD section. I made the trip with the hopes of finding Doug Pray's Hype!, but came up empty handed there. Instead, Cave's album — a limited edition version, packaged in the form of a hardcover book with a DVD inserted in the back cover.

I'm now reading an explanation from Amazon of the release, touting it as "bound in linen with 32 stitched-in pages, containing beautifully reproduced hand typed lyrics & band imagery," with the DVD featuring visuals by artists Iain Forysth and Jane Pollard. The primer ends with a quote from Cave about the album, "Well, if I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push the Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren's loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat," whatever the fuck that means.

Upon one of Henry Rollins's many many recommendations throughout his spoken word releases and books, I got into Cave in the '90s, and remember buying a copy of King Ink when I was in junior high. Its cover still seems cool to me, in that way that religious imagery is cool or dangerous because I haven't the slightest clue what it means (so I just assume that it resonates with those more clued in than I as something incredibly subversive). The cover features a cropped image of Jesus on a crucifix — well, there's no indication it's Jesus, but if we're talking The King's "ink," my hunch is we're talking Jesus here — with his wounds draining over a pair of angels, one with their head in hands weeping, and the other collecting drips of blood in a bowl. I can't recall a single thing from the book other than that I carried it around with me for a while, trying to force myself to read it, before giving up on the idea that reading Nick Cave books was going to be "my thing." His music, though, really hit for me, starting with 1997's The Boatman's Call, which I must have picked up used at a Pawn America store in Minnesota around 2001 or 2002.

I felt for a moment, just now, that I was getting off topic, but really this is all on point. Culture Bully was something cool, for me, for a long time. It was a personal blog that, over the course of about 7 years, turned into a music blog, which turned into a music and pop culture and sports and whatever blog. It was a way for me to feel like I was a part of something larger than myself, a means of obtaining outside validation, and ultimately it helped me learn to write. The blog helped connect me with people, and it even granted me an income. But the regret I have, in looking back on that time, is that I didn't write about the things I really wanted to write about. I didn't write about the things I really cared about. I didn't use it as a vehicle to connect with the things that connected deepest with me.

I was dating someone recently. We really enjoyed each other's taste in music. I think it's the first time that's ever happened in my life — where I was genuinely open to suggestion and excited to hear what someone I was dating wanted to share with me, musically. Maybe that makes me an asshole, or something. The first time I remember connecting on a similar level was right around when I bought that Nick Cave album, and I was smitten by a System of a Down fan. I just really enjoyed the idea of someone who was into wacky heavy music like that. Back to a few weeks back, though, where — before my recent crush came crashing down — I suggested we share an album with each other that had a big impact on us — and if it was a good time, maybe we could share an album a week or something. All just as fun, to see what has helped make this other person who they are. Depending on which circles you run in, both of our choices are arguably questionable: M's was Interpol's 2002 Turn on the Bright Lights, and mine Type O Negative's 1996 album October Rust. I can only speak for myself, but I don't think we'd say either is our "favorite" album, just a good place to start. And tonight, after I got home and put my hard-bound linen Push the Sky Away on my dining table, a moment of inspiration struck. Why am I not doing this now? What am I waiting for?

Last night at an A.A. meeting, someone put to words what I often catch myself feeling — that, for them, happiness is right around the corner; the perfect woman is right around the corner; the ultimate job is right around the corner; the feeling of pure satisfaction is right around the corner... and on, and on, and on. For me, it's living a better life is right around the corner. Or maybe, just living a life I actually want to live is right around the corner. The other day I was thinking that I want to be more intentional with what I watch and listen to. I want to get back to learning more about music. I really enjoy that stuff. Which is to say there's one more set of examples of me enjoying the things I take pleasure in being right around the corner. Maybe there's a long way between living a good life and contemplating the merits of a Type O Negative album, but the ache to help use the latter as a means to contribute to the former is active in me right now. And the words are flowing.

It's 43 degrees in Nashville. Tomorrow calls for rain. It still feels clean.

December 9, 2017

Beyond Trinity Lane


“I heard Bruce Springsteen say something along the lines of ‘the beauty of a song is that the meaning changes from person to person.’ So why take that away from people by spelling out how I wrote this exactly about that? I’ve done that, but I’m starting to lay back on it a little. A song can mean so many different things to different folks. I have some songs that I wrote when I was 24, and now that I’m 30, some of the meanings have changed for me.”

That quote, from a 2015 East Nashvillian interview with Lilly Hiatt, has been hanging out on a text file on my computer, staring me in the face every time I've opened my laptop for the past three months. Beyond it are two paths of thought in the document, each circling around the songwriter and her Trinity Lane LP. The first thought is a broad one concerning my relationship with music and writing; the second is more focused, related to Lilly's message and the person I'm trying to become.

Musically, Trinity Lane is a twangy rock record - think roots music inspired by '90s alt-rock. And as a fan, it's my favorite of Lilly's three albums. (Rolling Stone Country just positioned the album as one of the year's best country and Americana releases.) However enjoyable a listen as it is though, the reason Trinity Lane really stuck with me has a lot to do with the intention behind the process of its creation and release

Talking to The Boot in August, Lilly explained how her label asked her to write a synopsis of the album, which she obliged by coming up with something "really vague." "I read it to my boyfriend, and he said it wasn’t very compelling, so I wrote this huge chunk about it where I addressed all of those personal things. I opened that door on my own because I was at a place where I was ready to talk about this stuff and be honest about it, especially because if someone was facing the same struggle, I wanted them to be able to relate to it... This was something I wanted to share.”

"Every time I wanted a man," reads the final version of that synopsis, "I picked up my guitar. Every time I wanted a drink, I picked up a guitar. Love will take you to the darkest places but also to the most honest places if you let it. Learning how to love myself is something I've always been lousy with, and I spent some time on that. I thought about my sobriety, what that means to me, the struggles I'd had throughout the years, since I was a 27-year-old and hung up my toxic drinking habit. I thought about my mother, who took her own life when I was a baby, not far from my age at 30 years old, and I related to her more than ever. As you can see, there was plenty of time spent on my own. I didn't talk to that many folks, albeit a few close friends, and leaned into my family. I stayed away from men, and danced alone in the evenings looking out my window observing my humble and lively neighborhood. I found power in being by myself." Trinity Lane is poetic vulnerability with a sense of purpose.

PopMatters has an audio interview with Lilly from a few years ago, and in listening to it you can hear how sweet she is. She's humble, particular about what she says, and thoughtful of how she reacts to questions. In person she's the same. I met her briefly after her August in-store performance at Grimey's. She extended courtesy to everyone who lined up to greet her, and she did the same with me, pausing in consideration of what I was saying before greeting the words with a hug. On my record she wrote, "Chris, you stay strong!!!"

"Gonna hang on a little bit longer, sleep well, work a little harder; put my faith in something I can't see," sings Lilly on the album's title track. That song is what first attracted me to her music. I'm in recovery, too - a few months into my third year (this time around) as I write this.

Lilly and I are about the same age and both grew up idolizing Eddie Vedder. I wanted to tell her my whole story, but without rambling like some crazy person I shared just a couple sentences, hoping only to communicate my gratitude for putting herself out there the way she has with this album. Lilly has called herself an empath. I feel like she got me. That afternoon, driving back home, a lot of what had been building up inside of me began working its way out. I've never done anything like this before, and am not sure what compelled me to do it then, but when I got home I walked to my bedroom and positioned myself in child's pose at the foot of my bed. I proceeded to bawl my eyes out. All I really remember is feeling compelled to just to let it go. I don't know what any of it means, but only that it's part of where this album has taken me.

 Lilly Hiatt at Grimey's

For several years I made a living from writing about music. That's not quite right, actually. For several years I tried to do as little as possible to make enough money as I could blogging about music, so long as doing so would also allow me to continue the destructive habits that were consuming much of my life. At that I was a great success. I did this while making sure to not challenge myself to become as good a writer as I perhaps could have had I pursued the profession with the same sort of dedication as I did my drinking. Priorities being what they were, that seemed like the right approach at the time.

This year I picked up writing again — the first time I've tried in a couple years outside of my journal — though to this day, an awkward tendency stands out to me about my process: I'm typically quick to publish a thought without much consideration for who it might affect or how it might land. I've been writing in some form or another for almost 14 years and to this day I have that problem (there's a good chance I'm doing that here). The most glaring instance of this came in 2012. At the time I'd stopped drinking and put several months of research into the writing of a short book about recovery, which really should have taken me several years to write had I approached it with a more sincere level of thoroughness.

Before long though, I missed what I had. Or, at least, I missed the external validation that previously accompanied the blogging process. Having an audience made me feel valuable. So in 2014 I started this site with two missions, one public and one private. Publicly I had a somewhat delusional concept I shared with some friends about about building a one-stop local music hub. Privately I wanted to feed my ego. It was never black and white though.

This article about Sturgill Simpson might be one of the better things I've written, but it's also one of the best examples of this struggle: I care so much about Sturgill's music, and am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him for it, but I allowed myself to feel some twisted self-importance when he shared it with his fans. Hell, that opportunity only happened because someone on his team got a kick out of an earlier blog post I'd written and showed it to him. For the longest time the value of my work hasn't been in the work itself, but in whose profile I could glean a little shine from or how widely broadcast my work was shared online. Even then I recognized how ugly that was, and frustrated with myself I gave up on the blog after a few months.

Three years removed from that time I decided to try this again, genuinely believing that I could use this website as a platform to tap back into the local music scene, or maybe even get out and meet some interesting people. As I began writing again I sent a pair of emails to Lilly's label asking for an interview. In retrospect, I'm glad those requests went unanswered.

As I dug into the album and began researching online, reading about Lilly's life and what she now hopes to accomplish with her music, I began to recognize something in myself. A few months ago I was having a terribly difficult time speaking from my heart to other people and felt trapped by my own inabilities to do so. 'How in the world can I communicate someone else's truth on their behalf if I can't do that for myself?' I kept thinking to myself. But as no interview came, the urgency to further contemplate my Trinity Lane notes waned. I still knew there was something in there I had to figure out though, which is why they remained on my desktop. Waiting for me.

Months now removed from the first time I heard it, I can't help but think the music on Trinity Lane has come to mean something different to me than it might mean to a lot of other people. Shortly after that day where she played Grimey's I started to recognize what I was getting out of the album. Lilly has talked about how she had a hard time communicating with other people, which is something I feel I also struggle with, but that day she cracked jokes and seemed so vibrant and outgoing. She was so happy there. I remember looking up at the ceiling during the performance, taking a deep breath to hold off the emotions that were coming to me. It was so uplifting to see someone who had struggled so much come out of all that emitting such positivity.

Maybe with a little more literary finesse I might be able to get away with a musical comparison here, reflecting on being trapped in the groove of a record that skips, returning to the same place over and over again before an external force nudges the needle forward to play out the remainder of a song. But all the same, Lilly did nudge me. She was in a dark place, but came out of it only to communicate her story of inspiration with other people through a medium that would allow her to share her heart. And her doing so has helped redirect my efforts away from this space to healthier arenas. Doing so is allowing me to share my voice and time with others who might need to hear whatever my personal version of Trinity Lane is. Active recovery is the sound of moving the needle forward. I so admire Lilly and hope that she knows she's made a difference.

Now it feels safe to delete that text file.

November 10, 2017

We Live to Survive Our Parodoxes


“As the Tragically Hip’s lead singer and lyricist,” wrote CBC’s John Mazerolle last month in memoriam of the group’s frontman, “[Gord] Downie was the face and voice of a band whose discography sold more than eight million copies. The band’s propulsive, muscular rock, coupled with intense live performances and Downie’s cryptic, literary lyrics, allowed the band to attract a diverse fan base that included party animals and armchair philosophers alike.” With several decades of work to their credit, The Hip had long since become the soundtrack of a nation by May of 2016 when the announcement of Downie’s terminal brain cancer was made public. This devastating news was greeted with an added revelation, however: That The Tragically Hip would pursue one final tour as a public goodbye to to their fans.

The final show took place August 20 in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario with nearly 12 million watching the broadcast, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in attendance. As had been the case with the other shows on the tour, Gord dawned a top hat and extravagant metallic garb on stage (to draw attention to the performer and away from the man) and used teleprompters to help him keep up with lyrics as surgery and chemotherapy had disrupted his ability to always remember where he was and what he was doing. An emergency unit was on site in the event of seizures or a collapse and the band closed with “Gift Shop.” It was all so heavy, all so beautiful.

On the morning of Gord’s death I received a text message from a friend alerting me to the news. This same friend bid farewell to the band with me when we watched that final show together last year. I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to the news that day, and somehow kept it together last August, but the weeks that followed have brought with them the sort of emotional outbursts that I had anticipated experiencing during the poetic death rattles of the band’s final show. In the time that’s passed, I’ve read commentaries and goodbye letters, dug into several dozen interviews and video features, watched the recently released Long Time Running tour documentary, and listened to the band’s discography a few times over. It’s taken me a while to put words to the feelings.

The Tragically Hip wrote most of their enduring anthems before the five members of the group were out of their twenties, and by the time I bought my first Hip album (1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse) they were a decade in to their recording history and had already come to represent the country, in a sense. (“What’s more Canadian than a band with two guys named Gord in it?” joked someone in the tour doc.) They also flirted with mainstream American exposure, having experienced minor Billboard success with the 1993 release of “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1995. A few years after Henhouse, they played 1999’s Woodstock reboot.

In my life the band has always been “big,” but I can’t remember a time when their accomplishments didn’t feel somewhat diminished. It’s like there’s always been a cloud looming over them, comparing their accomplishments to some ideal larger sense of success, fueled by their ongoing inability to become every bit as popular internationally as they were domestically. I remember growing up with that perverted idea ingrained in me, that in some ways to be successful in Canada you had to be successful outside Canada. Yet despite these opaque boundaries surrounding what it means to be Canadian (or a success in Canada), the band represented the country well. They were emblematic of the nation’s ambitions, constantly touring the country’s largely empty terrain while maintaining a counterbalance to their everyman sound and grit with a lyrical bend toward the poetic. Inarguably, all this is something to be remembered and celebrated, but the lingering feeling these last several weeks has left me with had to do less with a discussion around the Tragically Hip’s legacy and more to do with the intention behind Gord Downie’s parting efforts.

While Gord’s final LP, the double-album Introduce Yerself, was released last month, it’s the message behind last year’s Secret Path that has resonated most deeply with me since his passing. Its vision is two-fold. In part it’s a “concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from an Indian residential school.” But it’s also a rallying cry, challenging the country’s clean cut outward appearance by using that story to illuminate a larger national black eye. Over the course of a century, tens of thousands of children just like Chanie were removed from their homes and relocated to boarding schools as a means of forced cultural assimilation. “At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died while residents.” Just sit and think about that for a moment. It’s heartbreaking. Knowing this is heartbreaking. Knowing that my whole life I had no idea of this is heartbreaking. That’s what Gord felt, too. “Canada is not Canada,” he wrote in the project’s liner notes. “We are not the country we think we are.”

Secret Path was created to help bridge the divide that continues to exist between indigenous and non-indiginous Canadians, but in absorbing myself in its story, it became apparent that Secret Path also served as a reconciliation with self for its creator. Gord called the album the best thing he’s ever done. He said he had to do it because it was good for his heart.

Throughout the Tragically Hip’s history, be it through songs such as “Born in the Water,” their support of the Clayoquot Sound protests, or their contributions to such projects as Camp Trillium, they continually led an internal challenge to step outside their selves and serve a greater cause. At the band’s final show, Gord challenged Prime Minister Trudeau to succeed where others in his position have failed. (Given Trudeau’s reverence for the man, you get the sense this plea didn’t fall on deaf ears.) And with Secret Path, Gord challenged Canadians’s national identity, urging citizens to reconsider our relationships with the parts of our country that aren’t reflected in the stereotypical celebration of donuts and hockey.

There’s a line in Secret Path’s “Son” which crumpled me when I first heard it. “And when something stirs in your heart, a feeling so strong and intense, when something occurs in your heart, and there isn’t a next sentence.” It had such impact because at the time there were no words, only feelings, for the pressure that was building up under the weight of all the thoughts that had passed through my mind.

My instinct upon starting this was to write a personal tribute to Gord and the band. Maybe so I could tell myself I had done something and pretend like it was meaningful. It’s so easy to put words down, to let them flow out of you, and to consider their publication the conclusion of a metamorphosis process. But somewhere within the dozens of paragraphs I voided myself of in an attempt to understand what I was feeling, I began to feel fear. And the longer I put off facing it, the more I dreaded addressing where it was coming from.

What I think Gord was advocating for — that thing he found in Secret Path which spoke to his soul, that thing he challenged Trudeau on — was a sense of personal accountability. He could feel he had to do something, and until he did it his world just wasn’t going to be right. This last month I’ve been reading all of these words, listening to all these songs, and the entire time they’ve been showing me a reflection into my own heart, allowing me to see that change was needed. They told me I need to look at the thing that’s been haunting me in the eyes and face it. Challenge it. Work away at it until I know I’m done. I’ve been putting off coming here, putting these words down like this, because I didn’t want to then have to be accountable to myself for the change that I recognized to be required in my own world to renew my own heart.

Maybe this the best way I can pay my respects. Through action. And as the band has reminded me time and time again over the past twenty years or so, daydreaming of a better life only gets you so far…

“With illusions of someday cast in a golden light, no dress rehearsal this is our life.”