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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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My Father’s Mixtape

Dad often asked, “Who’s singing this?” I could picture him on the other end of the line holding his phone out toward whatever speaker emitted the unidentified sounds, whether he was at home, in his car, or standing in the middle of a store with his arm jutting toward the ceiling.

He did this even though I usually couldn’t hear the song. Knowing his taste for what I’ll dare to describe as self-indulgent pop/rock, I could usually figure it out through some detective work. (My ability to assist declined in later years when he developed an inexplicable affection for “smooth jazz.”)

Everybody loves music–it’s a cultural cliché–but Dad’s love of music was an ongoing surprise to me. He had nearly zero musical talent and had trouble staying in tune while humming more than three notes in a row. Nevertheless, he constantly tried to make music, as if it were aural exhaust from the engine that drove him. His nasal, high-tenor doo-dee-doot-doos seemed less an expression of the music he admired than a personal soundtrack, the fully orchestrated version of which only he could hear as the protagonist of a very jolly movie.

*****

Dad bought the Flashdance soundtrack, mainly for “Maniac.” He bought Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, mainly for “Mr. Roboto.” But he liked weirder stuff, too, by which I mean pop weird stuff, specifically the pop weird stuff I liked. He of course had to take little jabs at my music before humming along (so dorky!). At least he didn’t mindlessly settle for Lionel Richie’s easy listening vibe or Laura Branigan yelling her face off. And it really did matter to me that to some extent he liked the music I lived for.

He drove me to buy Duran Duran’s monster mix of “Wild Boys” when it was released early at a record store across town. I was 14, and this exciting event occurred at midnight, but although it would have been logical to wait, I had to have that record as soon as possible or else I would surely die. As we waited in line to pay, I had to suffer his mangled pronunciation of “DOO-ran DOO-ran.” I worried the obviously very cool girls in front of us would harshly judge me, but they were busy talking about which band members were the hottest. One of them said, loud enough for the entire store to hear, “I would totally fuck John Taylor’s legs off!” My dad, distracted by his internal soundtrack, didn’t flinch.

One perfect, angst-free afternoon, he was driving us somewhere in the Celica and let me listen to Men Without Hats on cassette, and not just “Safety Dance,” but all of Rhythm of Youth. His favorite album at that time was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). I had bragged to all three of my friends that he’d bought it for himself. He would mutter about Annie Lennox’s orange buzz cut (“I had that hair cut in high school!), but he couldn’t deny the power of that voice or the comforting beauty of analog synths as we rolled down the highway.

*****

For his visitation and memorial service, my sister, brother-in-law, and I agreed there was no damn way we would fill the service with dirges. We’d stir some emotions, perhaps, but the playlist had to consist of his favorites. Each of us selected a few songs we knew he loved. We had to include some live Frampton featuring the talk box. (I mean, duh.) But the first song we decided on was Cher’s “Believe.”

The man was seriously Cher-crazy when that song was released. He recorded her concert on HBO and sent the tape to me. My partner and I couldn’t afford premium channels, and he didn’t think we should have to miss it, assuming we’d love it as much as he did. Ironically, Cher was the first diva I ever worshipped, but by then I’d forsaken her and was all “what-has-Cher-really-done-since-Moonstruck?” I didn’t even watch his tape, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to his grave not knowing.

Besides, I figured that if he could put up with my school-age fascination with Cher and all those years of my Madonna mania, I could support his adorably giddy version of fandom. It wasn’t as if karaoke was a feasible means of expression for him. He probably could have carried the tune (barely), but would he have risked revealing so much of himself in front of strangers?

I came to feel honored he would let me hear him humming, which underscored so many of our moments together, moments I had thought were pointless. I felt he was letting me know the music he made was really for him, and that making it was the point.

*****

When he died, I didn’t notice it was almost six months to the day after his birthday. Only six months earlier, on January 27, he spent his birthday in the hospital, supposedly for pneumonia, but Mom thinks the doctor who looked at the x-ray could already tell it was something worse than that.

I spent half a year preparing for the aftermath I’ve been experiencing now for the subsequent half-year, unaware of this potentially meaningful bit of numerical trivia, as if I might be able to change everything if I could force the right meaning on it. All I’ve learned is that when I hear a song I think Dad would like, I should abort the phone call before pressing “send.”

A few weeks ago, I heard a voice say, “And don’t expect him to call you, either,” which was slightly yet significantly different than remembering not to call a dead man. It was like watching his casket sink into the ground again, only this time without the benefit of running on an adrenaline high.

It’s really not so bad. I’m functioning, and overall life is good. It’s painful only in the way it leaves me feeling disoriented. There are so many songs and other found inspirations I want to share with him because only he would get why they’re important to me. I consider what he might say. My best guesses feel counterfeit, overproduced. What I need more than anything, just for a while, is silence.

My 2010 Music Picks

Now that the arbitrarily defined calendar year is actually ending, I thought I’d dilute the impact of best-of lists by adding mine.

My Favorite Albums Released in 2010

  • Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid: She’s got a great voice, terrific style, and a fascinating vision. It’s easily the best album released this year and one of the best of the past decade. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Say You’ll Go”
  • Arcade Fire — The Suburbs: Yes, there’s some whining about the isolation of suburban life, but that’s just on the surface of this album. I love the way the lyrics make me think about growing up, the sound they’ve achieved, and that it’s as great as critics and fans hoped it would be. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Month of May”
  • of Montreal — False Priest: I still think Skeletal Lamping is thus far the oM masterpiece, but that’s like saying moist chocolate cake is superior to tiramisu. As with dessert, either will make me very happy. At the risk of overloading you with comparisons, I also think this is their most accessible album, but it’s still damn weird and damn brilliant. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Godly Intersex”
  • Stars — The Five Ghosts: It’s like a PR party hosted by ghosts. The tone is light at first, but as the festivities proceed, they experience pain that can’t be touched. Although the songs are some of the band’s most hook-driven, concise songwriting, it’s still a really lovely album. If You Only Listen to One Track: “He Dreams He’s Awake”
  • Caribou — Swim: Intricately woven electronic music that’s gorgeous and fun and modern and full of feeling. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Jamelia”
  • Robyn — Body Talk: This is smart dance music as fun as Madonna’s Confessions, but Robyn explores the yearning and pain of the club scene like I haven’t heard since Pet Shop Boys’ Nightlife. She’s got a great voice to communicate her blend of toughness and vulnerability. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Indestructible”
  • Duran Duran — All You Need Is Now: A lot of DD fans want them to sound like they did in the early 80s, and this album should make them happy. More important, it’s simply a terrific album with nine terrific tracks that capture the band’s range, from fun dance songs to strangely beautiful numbers. I wish the album were a little longer and that they’d re-record “Safe” without the inane guest performance, but otherwise, it’s a winner. If You Only Listen to One Track: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”
  • Peter Gabriel — Scratch My Back: Gabriel interprets songs he admires according to his own dark musical vision. It’s gorgeous. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Listening Wind”
  • Massive Attack — Heligoland: As lovely and warm as Mezzanine while as challenging as 100th Window. Comforting one moment, disturbing the next, and resonant, brilliant throughout. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Girl I Love You”
  • Groove Armada — Black Light: Seems like everybody’s trying to do the early 80s sound these days and almost everybody sucks at it. Groove Armada nails it while sounding completely right-now. Maybe in thirty years Black Light will sound timeless. Or not. Who cares? It sounds good. If You Only Listen to One Track: “Not Forgotten”

The Artists I Listened to Most in 2010 (According to my Last.fm Account)

1 Pet Shop Boys
2 Stars
3 The Flaming Lips
4 Janelle Monáe
5 New Order
6 Arcade Fire
7 of Montreal
8 Air
9 Duran Duran
10 Peter Gabriel
11 Basement Jaxx
12 Goldfrapp
13 Massive Attack
14 Sade
15 Caribou
16 Animal Collective
17 Hot Chip
18 Radiohead
19 Clark
20 Ella Fitzgerald

F**k the Establishment (Pending Approval)

Dan Chaon wishes young writers would read. And not the obvious stuff. He wants them to find really obscure writers, as kids who rock out in their garages find obscure bands to model themselves after.

Great idea. However, young people are so thoroughly trained in literary snobbery–to admire authors only if they appear on some canonical, pre-approved list–that they tend not to want to rebel. Rather, avoiding written texts of any kind becomes preferable.

The fun of finding obscure bands is that you get to add to The List or make your own. The selection process is up to you. There’s no need for pre-approval unless you’re majoring in music and must manage music snobbery by learning to enjoy and/or play like [professor’s favorite from her/his List].

The same is true of writing students, who learn to present their profs’ interests as their own and keep secret what really inspires them, lest they be accused of having pedestrian (or just plain ole fucking weird) tastes. Some fledgling writers do pursue obscure texts and do so openly, but are later chided by their writing professors for enjoying “genre fiction.”

Shouting “Fuck the Establishment!” is exciting, but writers know that we still depend on The Establishment to grant us credentials and publish us and put us on its lists. Because despite the romantic notion that writers should be more like budding rock stars (or, more likely, independent musicians), self-publishing by an unestablished writer is still not celebrated with the same gusto as a garage band self-producing and -promoting a CD/MP3. Only after getting The Establishment’s stamp of approval does a writer have the cred to claim such acceptance never mattered.

My 2008 List, in No Particular Order

I love year-end lists. I hate year-end lists. It’s helpful to take time to reflect, and I invariably learn about music, books, etc. that I would have otherwise missed. But there’s also something lazy about this list-making.

There’s an assumption that artistic achievement is obvious and measurable, even though most critics’ arguments for the greatness of particular works reveal the subjectivity of individual taste. And I suspect those lists reveal as much about critics’ concerns about their reputations as what they enjoyed in the past year. Some like to show how much they agree with others; some insist they are nonconformist royalty.

I’m also frustrated by the assumption that what has been produced in the past year is somehow more important, more timely, than older works. Keeping up is difficult (and I’m a relatively devout consumerist), so I’m still learning about what I’ve missed in past years. But I also find myself revisiting older stuff. Whether it serves my current interests and needs is important; I don’t care when it was created.

So here are some of the artistic products that jazzed me this year, in no particular order. Continue reading

Spree

In KMart, while shopping for bedding, I heard Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street.” It’s a gorgeous song, and I was surprised to hear it among the muzak. The next song was the bland, overrated “Graceland,” by Paul Simon. I realized that someone at KMart Central must have put in the 1986 mix. I remembered how pissed I got when Simon won the Grammy for Album of the Year over Gabriel. An insult, really. And I can safely say I never imagined I would relive that pain with Martha Stewart eying me from all directions.

Rounding the corner into the drapes section, I heard a mother say to her son, “Have I told you recently that you annoy me?” The child couldn’t have been older than three. He sat in the basket of the cart focused on a toy. She pushed the cart, staring down the aisle, her sneer passing, hopefully, over the child’s head. Continue reading

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