Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Sea of Possibilities

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

My Beloved Vinyl Copy of HorsesFor most socially challenged kids, high school becomes the final torment — a kind of ninth circle — at the end of an already unpleasant progression of mismatched interactions, rejections and instances of outright abuse. But somehow I really lucked out. For me, high school was the turning point: away from the solitude of childhood; toward a brighter world of adults and the promise of a society of shared thoughts and beliefs.

I remember a crazy and over-dramatic vow I made at about age 15. Lying on my bed, I declared (with tears in my eyes) that one day I’d discover a different sort of life, a life in which I could carve out a safe and comfortable place in the world, even beyond the sanctuary of my bedroom. In that imagined future life, I wouldn’t measure my success simply by how well I passed undetected, managing to keep my head below the radar of my peers. Instead I’d participate actively in a society of people who accepted me — even liked me — for the thoughts and feelings, desires and dislikes I expressed openly. As crazy as it sounds, I stumbled into that new society in a northern Arizona high school, filled with the oddest demographic mix a boy from the east could have imagined.

Amidst the Mormon cheerleaders and football players, the kids of Mexican immigrants, the students bused in from the Navajo and Hopi reservations, I settled into an odd little group of like-minded people.

An Additional Mapplethorpe Image, Same SessionDrugs were the glue that united the larger expanse of that group, bringing together kids with little else in common beyond the secret practice of procuring and indulging in illegal substances. But at the core of that assembly of stoners and misfits were the people with whom I really bonded. And while drugs may have been the general glue for the larger group, among my friends, they were only one aspect of our shared quest of exploration and discovery.

We were 16. And, for the first time, we began to feel that we had the power to shape the course of our lives as they stretched out ahead of us. And that course still looked untouched, unformed and full of potential, like a field of new snow in which we were about to leave our footprints. The future wasn’t the scary place it sometimes becomes as we grow older. It was a glorious sea of unrealized possibilities. It was all there for us to mold and shape into the perfect images we talked about late into the night.

Don’t get me wrong: drugs were still a big part of our experience. And much of it was pure fun and giggle fests. [Oh, the disturbing beauty of all those cereal boxes in the Safeway when your LSD just starts to kick in. And how long those aisles have become. And what is up with that woman’s hair? Is she real or just a prop put here to freak out the other shoppers?]

But it was also much more than that. We read the books of Carlos Casteneda and tried to recreate his hallucinations during our dusk-to-dawn peyote camp-outs. We read the books of Aldous Huxley and discussed the future of society over the batch of purple microdots that hit town that fall and winter. And every time — all the time — we listened to music. That music wasn’t just the soundtrack playing behind our primary activities; it was intricately woven into everything we did and everything we thought. That music not only changed the way I heard, but it changed the way I thought about the world, about the power of ideas to affect material things and the power of art to affect the culture around it.

One friend in particular was responsible for bringing the rest of us to the music he’d found. The early solo albums of Brian Eno; the music of David Bowie — particularly the then recently-released albums from Berlin — and Patti Smith. My head would spin with the implications of what they were saying, of the sounds they were creating, and of the way they looked in those gorgeous images on the LP sleeves.

The Iconic Cover of Horses by MapplethorpeI know this is already sounding corny; but I can’t say enough about how much those albums changed my view of the world and my place in it. And one album in particular became the window through which I could see the transforming effect of spoken words and an electric guitar on the world outside. I spent hours listening to my friend’s precious copy of Horses, lying on the floor of my bedroom with the speakers from my portable stereo pulled close to either side of my head.

Even to start a description of the album as a whole would take a small book. And fortunately, someone’s already done that.

[How cool is this series from Continuum: 33 1/3? Each slim volume is devoted to a single, but seminal album. They get a little academic in their tone. But even to buy such a book, you have to love its subject deeply. And that allows you to forgive a fellow devotee even a bit of pedantry.]

But I can share a specific and most vivid experience in a reasonable amount of space right here.

The second to the last track of Horses is the three-part piece entitled “Land.” Its three sections — distinct but intricately intertwined — are named “Horses,” “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and “la mer (de).”

The first section tells the story of a boy who seems to implode in the hallway of his high school as his own image attacks and humiliates him. With the driving chant “Horses, coming in in all directions,” the track segues into “Land of a Thousand Dances” (Smith’s re-working of the tune probably made most famous by Wilson Pickett): “Do you know how to Pony?” And from there, we return to the story of that boy from the high school hallway … sort of.

This last segment, entitled “la mer (de),” is what one witness in the 33 1/3 book refers to as “the poetry part.” By Smith’s own account, she simply froze on the first attempt to record the vocals for the segment and could only muster a few cryptic lines — “Build it.” “Let it calm down.” — as if she were giving technical direction to the band.

An Additional Mapplethorpe ImageSince the instrumental tracks were to everyone’s liking, Smith went back to the microphone to record her vocals separately. What came out wasn’t the verse she’d reworked over several years’ time. It was, as she described it, “…like it was the Exorcist or somebody else talking through my voice.”

Wherever it came from, everyone liked the track. Smith recorded two more takes and then sat down in a seven-hour session to mix all three, layering and weaving voice over voice to create a dreamy string of blank verse and oblique associations. The result was a form of poetry that simply couldn’t exist outside of a multi-track recording studio.

It’s the business of poetry to build imagery and allusions as the work progresses; such that, as they accrue, meaning and reference seem to spin off in all directions, touching other, disparate parts of the verse.

But in this case, we don’t have simply that linear (horizontal) progression of words into sentences, forming meaning through syntax over time. Instead, the multiple layers of sound and phrases allow these collisions of sense to move up and down — vertically among the various levels or tracks we can hear — as well as horizontally.

The method produces sense and imagery which feel like they’re spinning almost beyond our ability to follow them in any logical way. They urge us to let go;  to allow sense and meaning to bang around freely in our heads; to allow fresh, new associations to condense quickly in unexpected places, creating surprising new meanings before they evaporate and we’re on to the next drop of condensation.

Now, that must sound like a precious observation; but give me a chance here. Think of that 16-year-old lying on the floor of his bedroom with a speaker pressed against each ear. Think of the wonder in his mind at the world ahead, of his first taste of the possibilities his life presents for the years to come. And imagine his eyes closed tightly as these various and multiplying connections and associations of meaning and allusion are bounding around in his brain, spinning off of each carefully crafted piece of verse.

I’ve tried to illustrate what’s going on here, to map out the sparks of meaning that fly off of one verse and ignite another with emotion and importance. But somehow that very process of putting it all under a microscope sucks much of the life out of it. It’s as if, to look at it really closely, we end up chloroforming it and sticking it through with a pin.

But listen to it for yourself. After all, the verse only holds the potential for meaning. It’s only when it’s banging around inside the listener’s head that it picks up enough energy to change the way he looks at the world around him.

Well, at least give it a try.

I guess most of us associate particular bits of music with different ideas or memories or seasons. But the music from those last two years of high school don’t belong to a moment in time for me. They embody a whole view of the world that’s often faded over the years as my own sea of possibility and potential hardened into the choices I’ve made — for better or for worse — and I watched the options ahead narrow and diminish, my liquid dreams of the future dry up and solidify.

But I’m happy to report that this view of the world has never left me entirely. I only need to hear the opening line of the first track of Horses and I remember that it’s never too late to shape the world around me through my thoughts, words and deeds. That sea of possibility floods a little bit, even if not to the edge. The solidified dreams of the future begin to loosen and slip. And even if it only means banging out a single sorry installment of this blog each week, I believe I can still affect my little corner of the universe.

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.

The Creature

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Marx Creature from the Black Lagoon figure, 1963When I was a kid, I had these molded plastic figures of classic Universal movie monsters. I’m sure they were cheap, the sort of thing I could nag my mother into buying me on a visit to what passed for a department store in our town. They didn’t bend or seem designed for the invention of new stories; they just stood there frozen to their bases and called up memories of the movies which first brought them to life.

I loved them. Yet, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen even one of those movies by the age of five or six: The Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon. There was no cable or Turner Classic Movies. Home video wasn’t available yet. And our local TV stations offered only lesser fare in their broadcasts.

But I knew their stories just the same. It’s as if some frequencies in the background noise of pop culture linger forever, permeating the collective American consciousness and turning up in references and reflections all over the place. We don’t have to go to the source to feel some connection with their recurring themes — The Great Depression, Mae West, Joseph McCarthy, the Gettysburg Address, The Beatles — their echoes surround us and become an integral part of our impressions of the world. I guess it was that way with these monsters. I’d run my fingers over their surprisingly fine details and feel that I knew them.

The Creature, scarier after darkThat was great fun during all the afternoons I’d spend by myself in the basement. But come nighttime, their images became a bit frightening. So I played a game with myself. I took the story playing in my head — the one in which the monsters broke out of my closet and found me helpless in bed — and reshaped it into something more pleasant. To my delight (and my surprise even today), the strategy worked.

These large and powerful creatures — misunderstood and unappreciated — would instead come out of my closet to embrace me, to hold me in their powerful arms and to protect me from whatever threatened me in the night or during days filled with violent classmates and mean-spirited teachers. Their secret inner lives, their fears and longing were my secret, too. I stopped being afraid.

Reshaping those pieces of pop cultural narrative to fit my own needs was a clever remedy, if I do say so myself. But it’s hardly exceptional. It’s a recognition that our western pop culture is a conversation and not just a broadcast. And, as a conversation, it allows us to pick from it those pieces that suit our needs, remake them and (ideally) send them back out into the world to continue the thread.

Weird Love Is Cool, Daniel Johnston, 2006-2008So much of creative culture is a matter of riffing on the stories that are already out there, be they high-cultural references (the Bible, the Tale of Genji) or low (comic books, TV perfume ads of the 1970s). At their simplest, these riffs offer an easy way to reference a whole collection of ideas and attributes without having to develop them yourself. But a more gifted artist may connect with that background material in deeply personal ways, creating works of great beauty from the flotsam they skim off the cultural pond.

Best of all, by holding up to our attention source material we might have stopped seeing (because it’s so familiar that it’s become virtually invisible to us) or might just have dismissed (because we regard it as only pulp or kitsch not worth our consideration), the artist makes us reconsider its importance. We may begin to see that source material in a new light; maybe even recognize in it something just as worthy of our affection as the reinterpretation which brought us back to it. We may begin to see pieces of the world around us as something new and strangely wonderful.

Daniel Johnston is an artist for whom certain pieces of the popular cultural landscape are deeply affecting. He was clearly touched early in life by the works of important popular artists, like The Beatles and the comic book illustrator and story-teller, Jack Kirby. His own work is popular in both its style and forms: he writes pop music — short, melodic songs with a deliberately crafted hook or clever turn of phrase — and creates visual work in common media like marker, pencil and highlighter. Johnston’s work is infused with references to that larger pop conversation that helped shape his own sensibilities. And that seems less by a deliberate choice of style than because it’s through the lens of the pop work he loves that he’s come to understand the world around  him. These works inform his music and his visual art because they inform his perception of the world at large.


Johnston’s battle with bipolar disorder has sometimes overshadowed his notoriety as an artist. He’s been labeled a Naif and an Outsider for the apparent simplicity of his vision and his presentation. But the act of breathing in simple elements from the pop cultural atmosphere and exhaling tightly structured, deeply personal and (just by the way) infectious pop tunes is neither naive nor outside the tradition of what artists have done for millennia. His struggle with bipolar disorder (detailed lovingly, but painfully in the 2004 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston) has only helped to shift the focus away from the beauty of his work and onto the quirkiness of his personal vision.

Yip Jump MusicOn his 1983 album, Yip/Jump Music, Daniel Johnston features a song entitled “The Creature.” As you can probably guess from this long build-up, it’s about the Creature from the Black Lagoon … sort of.

Johnston portrays himself in both his music and his drawings in many guises. His awkwardness around women seems to have helped him to feel outside of the social mainstream. And that point of view has given him a very tender affection for those monsters whose outward appearances have separated them from the connections they long to make — Frankenstein, King Kong, the Creature.

This song seems to come from some place deep and personal. Its vague story line suggests something that may have occurred in Johnston’s own life. But it all holds together without his getting too specific about those details because he builds his song on the story we already know, that of the Creature. His take on that story, however, isn’t the standard. His tenderness in describing the monster’s feelings seems to come from personal experience.

Listen to “The Creature” by Daniel Johnston

Johnston’s rough musicianship, the lo-fi production of this recording (originally captured directly to and distributed on cassette tape), and his quirky voice may make his music difficult to warm to on first listen. But give it a chance and you’ll see that this is a wonderful piece of pop: the infectious hook of the melody, that wonderful sputtering brass intro, and the brilliance of the opening lyric:

Love is priceless
And I’m still paying the bill.

Once you allow him into your head and heart, you’ll see that all those quirky traits make his music only more affecting. It’s no wonder his zealous supporters have included other musicians, like Kurt Cobain, Jad Fair, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon; some pretty good song writers in their own right.

Johnston has taken the Creature’s story and presented it so as to emphasize an emotional component the movie buries almost too deep for us to notice. He shifts seamlessly from the first-person declaration of that opening lyric into a third-person apology for the maligned and misunderstood monster and then back again.

The Creature’s panting through his gills.
Can’t you see the pleading in his eye?
He says, “If you want me to, I will.”
Just don’t ask him why.

She was my girl.
Now she’s gone.


The part of the story that Johnston finds most important is certainly there in the movie; it’s just treated with less care than the same theme in movies like King Kong (1933) and Frankenstein (1931).

In superficial ways, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) seems to fit comfortably among the science fiction and horror output of the decade. While most of those movies were tinged with references to the dangers of either the nuclear age or Communist infiltration, you could read this as more straight-forward: mean-spirited and inhuman creature kills people.

And taking our cues simply from the editing and incidental music, that would seem a reasonable interpretation.

But Johnston emphasizes the other story here: that of unrequited love and the violence we inflict on outsiders. All of that is certainly in this story. But the movie treats those complexities without much care and allows them to get buried under suspenseful music and the terrified expressions of bit players.

Just mixing up the shots and swapping the incidental music for something more romantic coaxes out a rather different story from those same pieces.

There’s a genius in seeing through the glossy finish of pop cultural artifacts to their core; in being able to discern where there’s substance and where there’s nothing inside. But Daniel Johnston’s real genius is in taking the culture around him to heart. He makes it part of a sincere and deeply felt view of the world. And feeling so deeply these pieces of story and bits of visual reference, he’s able to build with them something that’s at once very personal and entirely accessible to anyone who’s swimming along side him in this ocean of popular culture.

Listening to his music, I can hear him suggest specific details of his life and personal history. But I can also hear the voice of that monster in my bedroom closet, the one who finally emerged to be my friend and protector. Who could ask for anything more from one man’s art?

* The image of “Weird Love is Cool” is from the wonderful volume, Daniel Johnston with essays by Phillipe Vergne, Jad Fair and Harvey Pekar. (2009, Rizzoli).