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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

Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man Returning to His Roots

For my birthday, Jane sent me R.E.M.’s latest album, Accelerate. She knows I’ve been listening to them since 1986. Except for one album in the early 00’s, I tend to buy them on the day of release or very soon after. The press about Accelerate sort of pissed me off, so I was in no rush. Critics praised the album, saying the band had returned to their guitar-driven roots. I hate when critics say such things, as if a band is always better when they sound like they did in the beginning. For one thing, Accelerate doesn’t sound like jangly, early-80s R.E.M.; it’s more like the band’s howling, mid-90s sound. Rather than returning to their roots, it sounds as if they revised an earlier style by merging it with the sound of their last album.

Which brings me to another point about what those critics seem to be missing: the last album was very much guitar-driven, although it was quieter than Accelerate. I’m guessing that critics get off on Accelerate‘s loud, garage-band energy. Their last few albums were more quiet and reflective, which are qualities allowed only by a few rock or country dinosaurs. From anyone else, quiet-and-reflective points to self-indulgence and pretention, which are located about halfway down the slippery slope to unmanliness. (Except for rare exceptions–e.g., glam, Prince–this seems to be considered a bad thing.)

What rock critics–at least many who write for the corporate rock publications–seem to yearn for most is the sound of a smart band playing loud music; it’s like watching a well-designed car chase sequence that is actually integral to the plot of a movie. But they can’t just say they like Accelerate for that reason, which really should be enough. They have to make grand claims that R.E.M. have saved themselves from Adult Contemporary irrelevance. (Oh, yes, in the past few years, I haven’t known whether I was listening to R.E.M. or Celine Dion. Thank you, Oh Divine rock critics, for saving ME as well.)

There seems an extreme distrust of experimentation, unless, of course, the results work brilliantly according to a particular listener’s standards. I’m betting that the album of remixes from earlier this decade must have pissed off a lot of R.E.M. purists. I’m all for change, because for all the times it’s a move of desperation, more often it pays off. For example, I’m fascinated by two apology-centered songs, the jangly “So. Central Rain” from 1984 and 1998’s “The Apologist” with its rich mix of piano, organ, guitar, and electronic percussion. In both, singer/lyricist Michael Stipe sings “I’m sorry” repeatedly. In the former, he is sorry for things beyond his control, whereas in the latter he seems to admit responsibility. They both have the R.E.M. sound, but are quite distinct. Maybe because the band members are more mature. Or maybe because over 14 years’ time, things are bound to change, at least a little, if you let them.

Staying the same for years guarantees irrelevance, too. If R.E.M. and other artists who simply won’t go away did not experiment, then purists could not experience the thrill of the so-called homecoming, which is really what satisfies. “Oh, the band sounds like I remember them back when I was in high school. How comforting.” Which is sadly un-cool of them.

Artists are not responsible for comforting the audience. They should explore new possibilities and be willing to make the audience uncomfortable. That’s actually why I started listening to R.E.M. They sounded different, and the lyrics were odd. Much of my Angry Young Man writing was an attempt to find my inner Michael Stipe. I made A’s in English; I knew the rules. But I wanted to say things that weren’t designed to win permission. Writing songs that was freeing but frustrating; I liked creating them, but not having the skills to write music for them made me feel as if I were singing to myself, which I guess I was. I realized I wanted an audience, even though the threat of being found out as someone with unrevised thoughts to share is enough to shut some writers down completely.

I still struggle with the tension between what Linda Flower calls writer-based and reader-based writing. Every writer struggles with this. A thought doesn’t necessarily have form that will make sense to others, or that will be easy to translate into language. Writing is the process of helping others understand those thoughts. Even if I wrote lyrics for a band whose reputation was largely grounded in cryptic lyrics, I would take some shit when audience members didn’t get my point. The trick seems to be to get them to care enough that they might be missing something interesting, so they will ask for clarification, or at least complain in a public forum.

The Audience Is the Filter

Some nights when I’m out in the yard with my dogs, I hear freight trains screeching at a depot about a mile away. The combination of sounds creates chords so intensely dissonant that they are beyond noise. I want someone to make music with these sounds, but I know it would seem forced. Even Brian Eno couldn’t recreate the spontaneity of metal sliding across metal until it comes to a stop. It’s a brief, gorgeous bit of chaos. I hear music. The dogs pee. Then it’s over.

This scene came to mind after I read the 21 July post on “Jewels and Binoculars,” a terrific blog written by Jimmy Guterman (husband of my friend and writing partner Jane, who also has a terrific blog). Jimmy considers the popularity of blogs, wondering if there’s not enough “signal” among the “noise.” He writes,

“Blogs, I believe, are supposed to be about unvetted expression, capturing a moment, embracing the amateur and enthusiast in you even if you’re a professional writer in your real life.”

Yes. I agree, absolutely. Maybe because I don’t make my living as a writer, and I may never, but have become bold enough to share short pieces (some not short enough) that I write quickly and enthusiastically because I can’t resist the urge to write them. It’s the kind of regular, sometimes daily, writing I did in my angry young man phase, a horrible time of my life in which the only wonderful moments I experienced happened when I wrote lyrics to songs that still have no music. (Three chords and the truth only got me so far.)

The great thing about blogging is that the audience is the filter. I say that for selfish, not-so-selfish, and downright altruistic reasons: as a barely published writer, as an educator, as someone who believes in free speech. The amount of content is overwhelming, I agree. But there’s a lot to discover in blogs. In professionally published work, the writing is professionally filtered, which probably improves raw material more often than it flattens it, and I’m sure I’m more grateful than I realize for the consistency in the quality of published work.

But I like having access to writing that reflects what the writer has decided to share, pieces of writing that no external or internal editor has dissuaded out of existence. I don’t mean to suggest there’s a mother lode of great art hidden in plain sight. Some of it deserves my attention, so I play along. Reading blogs is like shopping the clearance racks. You look through stuff, maybe find something you like or not. You can spend all day or go for an hour or so. Whatever you find, it’s a bonus. Meanwhile, the person who made it was probably grossly underpaid.

The search process is difficult to control. You may have the ideal keywords in mind and you may have your favorite blogs fed into your RSS reader. But whatever you’ve enjoyed reading for the past few days may lose its resonance. On to something else, if you’re lucky, deserving, diligent.

The same is true of the writing process. Keep writing. Develop your audience. But don’t assume you can completely control the quantity or quality of either. Consider, though: Do you enjoy reading what you write? It’s okay if you like the noise you’re making. You may be picking up a signal.

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