Splendid Gifts All: My Artistic Choices for the Final Project, Explained

Essay written for the “Great American Road Trip” seminar I took this semester. Link to the song: https://soundcloud.com/andrew-pearson-42/splendid-gifts-all

In October I attended one of my Environmental Science lecture on forest growth. The professor was going over secondary succession, or the process of how forests develop post-disturbance; she described how small plants and shrubs are the first things to grow after a fire, and how they are replaced by short-lived trees which eventually, after a number of years, give way themselves to old-growth ones like oak and sequoia. One of the biggest misconceptions, she declared, that people used to hold was that the “climax community,” in which old-growth trees are dominant in the forest, was the only preferable and ordained way that a forest could be organized. Thus, the task of foresters was to prevent any harm to the massive, “regal” trees and the ecosystems around them. What they did not realize was that such forests were the product of decades- and centuries-long cycles of disturbance and regrowth – that fires are essential to the well-being of a forest because they clear old trees out, make growing space for new ones and even serve to open the cones of certain pine trees. Without fire there is no reproduction or regrowth in such a forest.

As Thanksgiving break drew near and the final Colloquium project became more urgent, I struggled to find inspiration. The books we had read during the year were interesting and a lot of fun, but their novelty had faded and I was left with no good ideas. I had always intended to write a song or compose a soundscape based on one of the books or movies. The question was: which one, and about what?

Housekeeping I found appealing for its nihilism, which was freeing and redemptive rather than cynical, but I still thought it was too dreamy for something as concrete as a song. The Bean Trees was too distant in my memory. The Grapes of Wrath? Forget it. As I mulled the options over I stewed around my room before starting to work on other, more pressing homework. And so it went for the last couple weeks of class.

I had been so caught up in other schoolwork that I had forgotten, until last Monday night, that I had to complete Blue Highways for class by noon on Tuesday, so I picked up the printout I was given and began to read. The author was a little self-absorbed in the first few pages, and it seemed that he, William Least Heat Moon, had been in a rough patch (pending divorce, lost his job) and intended to cure his blues by travelling around the U.S.A. I was curious but wary of the self-indulgence that might follow.

Over the subsequent chapters Least Heat Moon drew me in and kept me in the book. He talked about sustaining relationships with the past, the value of home cooking over chain-restaurant food, the weird roots of words in the common parlance, the kindness and surprising personal diversity to be found among the people of Middle America – all things that I valued but had never really had the chance to bring up with anybody. I was hooked. And when he reached his conversation with the Hopi university student I knew I had found a soulmate. Two, if the student counts. He and Least Heat Moon had the most inspiring discussion in the book, touching upon philosophy and existence and duty to one’s “people”; it was from them that I got the idea for a song that would be based on Blue Highways.

Near the book’s end, on the third or fourth page from the last, I found the phrase “splendid gifts all” at the end of a paragraph and I knew I had the title for a song. I pulled out my guitar, which had been tuned down a step and a half to play another song earlier in the day, and I began to play a chord progression I had worked out weeks earlier in the key of F (which in this tuning would be in B) and sang “splendid gifts all” under my breath to a third-second-root tune, a common note progression. I continued to sing the third throughout the first three bars, switched to a fourth for…well, the fourth bar, and a fifth – oh. Yeah, there are five bars in the chorus and I managed to start the fifth one by singing a fifth interval. I could claim that I intended it to turn out that way but that would be a lie – I only applied my primitive melodic sensibility to a chord progression I had composed.

The chorus lyrics were written with the ideas in mind from Least Heat Moon’s conversation with the student, the ideas about how people are composed of the same organic chemicals that are abundant throughout the universe and how we are not unique or separate from the natural world; we came from nutrients and will eventually give them back to “decomposer” organisms. (“Pushing up daisies” is the best colloquialism for this idea.) The main import of their discussion, and of the chorus, is that there is no reason to fear these prospects or feel diminished by them – instead you, the living creature, owe an intrinsic debt to all life that came before you and will contribute to all the life that comes after through your existence. As I listened to my Environmental Science professor lecture on the cyclical nature of life that day, I had been overcome with this same realization and a deep peace filled me – everything was going to be OK, I thought. Death for one thing begets the life of another by freeing up the raw materials, and life goes on as long as old generations of a species can let go of themselves and give the young a chance to thrive, and once they have run their course they also pass the baton. (As I made the connections I was surprised to realize that I felt more at peace with the idea of being one of the old creatures and giving myself and my help to the young.) Everything is cyclical, Least Heat Moon contends, and this wisdom shows up everywhere in the book, from the Hopi symbology which he examines with the student to Black Elk’s assertion that “all things are circles.” Thus my chorus: “Splendid gifts all/Splendid gifts all/Ashes to ashes and stardust to dust/All things returneth/Death is communion with all.”

I am less proud of my verses, which simply describe Least Heat Moon’s other travel lessons and don’t have a very interesting structure (and most of which don’t rhyme). They are alright. But I was really and truly inspired by the book and the philosophy of intrinsic connection to the world and its organisms, and I hope that my song was able to communicate Least Heat Moon’s ideas as more than platitudes – they are truly inspiring, and I wish everyone could read his words on life and death at least once. So far the song I wrote doesn’t have any hits on SoundCloud, but I am not fazed – I will continue to spread the sublime lessons I have learned.

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“Rape On the Installment Plan” by the Heroine Sheiks – Review

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The Heroine Sheiks’ first album uses massive compression as a tool of production, like the last Cows record — listen to the gluey soup of noise that passes for the chorus of “Okkk?”, as the guitar and bass blend into one another and the cymbals fade in and out as they compete for prominence. That kind of violent cramming, in which all the instruments clamber over one another to find some little bit of space in the mix, is a novel production technique which should really be tried more often. The “Loudness War” currently convulsing cheap garbage rock has none of this ambition, no desire to spew exciting noise. Instead it just leads to terrible pop songs that happen to be clipped into incoherence by stupid producers. Rape On the Installment Plan is great loudness rock.

The band Shannon Selberg assembled is also light years ahead of the one that plays on Out of Aferica (their third album; I haven’t heard the second one). The drummer has some notion of what constitutes forward rhythmic motion, for one thing; no flopping in place a la “You D’Etat”. The guitar and bass are also very textural, and not big on “riffs” as you would normally imagine them — think Ted Falconi, or Damaged-era Greg Ginn before he started playing the stupid “free” solos. The fact that Norm Westberg played in the Swans before (and after) the Sheiks probably helps with this. And the electronic keyboard that Selberg shares with Scott Hill is, as always, something else — it makes the alien noises throughout “Space Invader”, churns out darkly funny schlock throughout “Let’s Fight” and “You Never”, and burbles through “Wandering Mongrel”‘s ominous intro. I have a feeling Hill was responsible for most of the chords and stuff, and Selberg for the funny bleeps and bloops, but I could be wrong since many of the qualities of these keyboard basslines persist in Out of Aferica.

And, of course, the songs. Favorites here include…well, everything. There’s not a bad song on Rape on the Installment Plan, really — I do prize the second side above the first, but they are both chock-full of some of the best rock the Bush years had to offer. It’s danceable, it rocks, and most importantly it spews screaming sludge all over your stereo. I recommend you pick it up today.

“U-Men” Compilation – Review

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I’ve reached track twelve and the music, so far, is killer. I had anticipated that the U-Men would get a little bland over the course of two CD’s and thirty tracks, but that isn’t unusual. I love Dock Boggs and I still can’t stand more than a half-hour of him at a time. Nuts to double-CD’s and their gross excesses.

Compilations of standalone songs and a couple short albums are usually not much fun to listen to (Halo of Flies’ Music for Insect Minds notwithstanding), and mostly I look forward to listening to a few songs from U-Men at a time. I am very pleased to announce that Jack Endino‘s reissue production is fucking fantastic, a gleaming hundred-percent improvement over the hissy, cluttered sound of the old Solid Action comp that previously served as the definitive U-Men document. U-Men also has twice as many tracks. Getting this is really a no-brainer.

As for the band themselves, they play a brand of rock and roll that sounds less like the hardcore punk or sludgy Seattle “grunge” rock of their day and more like an amped-up take on the youth-club music of the Fifties. The Sonics are an obvious (and lazy) reference point, though the U-Men are much more innovative and listenable, and one also hears surf beats, swung rockabilly rhythms, sweet country-rock arpeggios, clumsy heavy-metal time shifts and stylistic snatches from the Birthday Party in John Bigley’s “singing” and Scratch Acid in the shiny guitar tone and weird outback-music synthesis. The U-Men are also blessed with a kickass band: Charlie Ryan is a better drummer than any in the groups these guys grew up listening to, Tom Price crafts superbly brain-damaged honky-tonk guitar parts, Jim Tillman and Tony Ransom are good at following the riff (come on, they’re bass players) and John Bigley — well, his vocal technique is immune to description. To be fully comprehended it must be heard. (And I think Tom Hazelmyer plays guitar on “Pay the Bubba” — his usual whammy bar noises are all over the outro.) Taken together they beat out thirty tracks of spikey, echo-drenched rock and roll that is all the more remarkable for how light it is on its feet, especially in the context of the alternately sluggish and mindlessly speedy music that was sprouting up around them. You can bounce off the walls to this stuff, like with the Melvins or Halo of Flies.

Standouts include “The U-Men Stomp”, “Clubs”, “Gila”, “They!”, “A Three-Year-Old Could Do That” and the deathless classic “Dig It a Hole”, their finest work and one of my favorite songs from the moment I first heard it at age fourteen. Most of the tracks are memorable, and the ones that aren’t are still fun to jump around to. Listening to the U-Men in spectacular fidelity, all knobs on 10, at 11pm on a rainy night — what more could a punk ask?

“Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Review

Skeleton Tree

Goddammit, I think I’ve fallen for the hype. I used to think it was lame and overrated, but after almost a year spent on-and-off listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Skeleton Tree album, I think I may well like it by now. It doesn’t sound anything like my other Nick Cave albums, which may be why I took so long with it, but I pretty much guarantee that if this were not Nick Cave I’d have probably written it off a long time ago. I kept coming back to it intermittently and reaching the same conclusion: sad, slow, artsy, unbearable. So, so sad. Anyway, I had better albums to listen to (the Swans’ To Be Kind arrived in the same Amazon order).

Now that I listen back to it, I realize how foolish I was to write it off. The floating electronic textures that I dismissed at the outset are the best thing about the album — they give some harmonic intrigue to “Rings of Saturn” and imbue “Magneto” and “Distant Sky” with a subtle sadness. I still think that “Girl In Amber” is too sluggish for its own good, but it’s not especially offensive in the album’s context. It’s the only slight misstep I can find after ten months.

And boy, the great songs are really great. “Jesus Alone” was the reason why I decided to buy the CD in the first place — those textures I mentioned are present in full force, buzzing and zooming with science-fiction elegance. Most of the bass frequencies throughout the album are massively compressed, resulting in the huge staticky rumble one hears on tracks 1 and 4, and something that sounds like a guitar leaning against its amplifier combines with that bass, an acoustic piano, cymbal taps and a gentle string section to get the gorgeous drone that Nick Cave recites over. I enjoy the little siren noise that pervades the track too. (I will refrain from describing Cave’s new poetry, except to say that it completely ditches the “Biblical” affect he’s pursued for pretty much his entire career in favor of a compelling, associative free verse which suits the disorienting music terrifically.) The track was released on YouTube with an accompanying video, a clip from the film that came out with the album; in it Nick sits at a piano and speak-sings into a microphone while Warren Ellis conducts the string section and watches his collaborator from inside the mixing booth. It doesn’t add too much to the song, though it gives some indication of how much Ellis contributed to the album. I never thought people gave enough credit to the other Bad Seeds — Mick Harvey was always my favorite member of the group, maybe even more so than Nick Cave himself. God, he was a great arranger.

“Magneto” is wonderful — I adore the chorus, where he mutters “In love, in love” over and over with no regard for time at all. Oliver Powers wrote in the liner notes to that Static Disposal reissue that the most compelling kind of improvisation happens when the performer messes with the groove, yet “Magneto” has none; it doesn’t even have a beat. There are traces of strummed acoustic guitar, which fade in and out constantly, but these offer no time. Somehow they prod the shifting cadence of Cave’s voice to greater rhythmic insistence ; it’s as close to a rock epiphany as the album gets.

The music video of “I Need You”: Watching Cave, Ellis, Thomas Wydler and George Vjestica jam is a thing of beauty.

“Distant Sky” is not bad. Its impact is more narrative than musical — the story of the parents realizing that their responsibilities have increased, that they are no longer free or young, hits me where it hurts. And in the context of Arthur Cave’s death “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied”, sung in a cracked voice, is punishing.

“Skeleton Tree” is the best song on the album. Its lyrics are mostly imagistic but the music is viscerally emotional, with occasional mu Eb chords and a gentle consolation of a melody. Listen to how the structure shifts, as Nick and Warren sing the verse over the verse motif, then over the chorus; listen to how the mood of the line changes ever so slightly with each harmonic context. It took me thirty listens to discern it but the song is so beautiful I can’t blame myself. “Skeleton Tree”, with or without words, would be the ultimate funeral song — it automatically provokes the image of a group of people huddled, post-disaster, wrapped in ragged blankets as the ash falls through the air around them. This is the music of people left behind by tragedy, the ones who really suffer in the wake of death. And Nick and the Bad Seeds deserve the accolades of many for writing a song for them, in a world that makes cold idols of the dead.

Life>Music: What Matters

The prevailing instinct among writers who sample and contemplate works of “art” is to describe what the work makes them feel. This is true of everyone from my English teacher, an enthusiastic pusher of the works of Flannery O’Conner, to Edgar Wright, director of the tremendously indulgent Baby Driver, which, despite its excellent craft and hilarious portrayal of how record collectors deal with their dads’ friends telling them about how much they loved Queen back in the day, contains a soundtrack that probably means much more to Wright himself than anybody watching the movie. The cultural commentator doesn’t consider the listener’s pleasure, what they might gather for themselves from a list of favorite albums or a description of a good book, because the point is not to make recommendations — it’s to vicariously relive the commentator’s love of an object. It’s impolite to jerk off in public; why would I consider it appropriate to wallow in affinity for civilization’s flotsam in full view of people who just want to know if Miles Davis’s electric period is worth examining? Even commiserations between me and my guitar teacher, a fellow fan of Discipline and Birds of Fire, felt like circle jerks, an illegitimate and dangerous indulgence — there was no telling when our tastes would diverge and suddenly we might turn violently on one another depending on whether we held the first or the fourth Van Halen album in higher regard.

This makes a handy supplement to my essay on “How to Be a Good DJ” from a couple weeks ago. Thus I advise you critics out there, budding or fledged, to write things up carefully. Avoid self-absorption. Christgau, regardless of his bullying proclivities and professorial distance, is good at this — even on “A” and “A+” reviews he doesn’t list anything as “the greatest”. Instead he describes traits in a record that people might conceivably find attractive, and what a record’s uses are. This is an effective approach because while I as a fan of Exile on Main Street and Tribute to Jack Johnson find such reviews a little dry, somebody new to these albums would be well-equipped to form their own impressions. The grades, ironically, are the only subjective thing about his reviews. (Compare this with Lester Bangs’ frequent and rather tiresome awe, with which he gives away any appeal the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Iannis Xenakis and the Fugs might have, and thus destroys them with hype. Or maybe, like I suspect, there isn’t much to them anyway.) He has learned, or always understood vaguely, that criticism and evaluation are not about what he thinks, but what other people might think, and he is careful not to color their perceptions too strongly before they even get to listen to the damn thing.

Of course this involves subscribing to the idea that other people’s own record reviews are important, maybe even as valid as mine. This is a hard step for many music people, including me; we have to let go of the notion that the music itself is all-important because of how closely we hold it to our hearts. This is somewhat understandable because of music’s emotional resonance — how can these heartless bastards, you may wonder, not even like Elizabeth Cotten’s songs? Why does her album only have 26,000 views? Why do these people hate me? What is eminently clear, though, is that this kind of clinging is immensely off-putting to people who don’t share exactly one’s own reaction. I am alienated everywhere by these comments section people, who post paragraphs (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with posting paragraphs; I rarely write less online 🙂 about the artistry of King Crimson under the “Frame by Frame” video, or who muse solipsistically that Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” helped them thru a rough pacth in theyre lifes; I don’t want your fucking stories, any more than you want mine. I know I tell stories a lot because I didn’t know any better before eleven p.m. on a Sunday night when my English assignment is close to due; bludgeon me with my mistakes all you want. I resolve not to care. I encourage you music people out there to do the same; I have always shrunk from admitting my mistakes because I feared that people would use the implied flip-floppery to censure me. This was nonsense because personally I had always been willing to forgive people who came around to the right attitude, provided they had not killed anyone with their previous hard-headedness, yet I still stick to unpopular positions because I don’t want to be seen as weak or intimidatable. I still feel this fear. But maybe by starting with something as relatively harmless as record collecting I can let go of rabid contrarianism I adopt for the sake of my “dignity” (if I let people back me into a corner, predetermine my behavior and stances, over something I did wrong then I have no dignity to begin with) and win some real friends, and maybe even converts to Tribute to Jack Johnson, the greatest album ever ma — fuck, I’m sorry, I almost did it again. See, that was a joke. Means I’m on the road to recovery, guys. I advise mindfulness, which you may think is a bourgeois new-age joke but which I assure you is highly useful, if you find yourself under the stress that comes from putting the music ahead of the people in your lives. Don’t be “respectful” of all “opinions”, as many a finger-wagging wuss has tremulously advised someone with something to say; just have perspective. Maybe Romantic Warrior isn’t actually the worst album in the history of mankind; maybe there is no such thing as the worst album.  Maybe I just don’t like the music.

Nah, it fucking sucks. And I would ask immediately that the person in the passenger seat turn off the radio if “The Sorceror” came on. But it isn’t a matter of life and death. I have to learn this too — that reordering your priorities doesn’t make anything non-survival-related that you value less important. I can love my sister and still think the Imagine Dragons are untouchable demon spawn. Radioactive indeed. I may not care much for her stories and the deep emotional resonance that songs like “Believer”, “Radioactive”, “Polaroid”, “Smoke + Mirrors” and that fucking irritating song that goes “Don’t tell me that I’m wrong/I’ve walked that road before/Left you on your own” seem to hold for her, but I am there for her regardless in tough moments. Music may dominate my waking thoughts, but I am determined to value my people, and part of that is sparing them from stories about how my brother was always blasting Sheer Heart Attack.

Music lovers — keep searching. But be kind to your audience. They may come to be your friends.

“Adopted Highway” by the Dave King Trucking Company – Review

Dave King Adopted Highway

I’m not gonna lie — I made fun of these guys at the show. Initially I got the impression that they played the kind of horrifying wankistry endorsed by those genuinely evil jazz people who take pleasure in (urp) Blue Train and the like. So they had a guitarist. So fucking what. I heard one tune I enjoyed, which they told me after the show was titled “I Will Live Next to the Wrecking Yard” (laughably bad song titles are a unifying theme in the Dave King Trucking Company’s discography); it was on their Adopted Highway LP, an actual record, which they sold to me below the quoted price (twenty instead of twenty-five, for which I must give them credit) and I took it home. I put the favored song on briefly as I entered my room for the evening and it sounded even more neutered and tuneless than it had during the show. I sighed and went to bed. Maybe the record would turn into a good investment, as in asset to be liquefied at an opportune time.

I listened to it again on Wednesday and I realized that the guitarist overtly appropriates the hilarious, anti-melodic histrionics of Greg Ginn, one of the least talented and most consequently overhyped slingers of a six-stringer I’ve ever come across. Listen to My War and you will understand. I was surprised, though, that a player in a “jazz” band like the Trucking Company would tolerate goofery like the feedback solo in “This Is a Non-Lecture”, and I listened some more.

As I did I noticed some other attractive elements. The album has excellent sound and was recorded to analog tape, a fact of which I was surprised they made so little hay. Normally tape devotees promote the shit out of their militant anti-digitalism. I also took especial notice of the drumming on “Ice Princess” (bitchin’) and the compositional quality of most of the other songs by Dave King himself. For jazz this is melodic stuff, bearing little resemblance to the oft-racket of the concert (which may have had something to do with the cold acoustics of the chapel where it took place). According to the record label Dave King’s goal is to meld “American roots music and the avant-garde”; if by this he means introducing tunes into jazz, I’m all for it. I encourage you all to listen to this Trucking Company album — and if they come to your town, vote with your buck and support them a little. These guys deserve it, even if they do play jazz.

How To Be Better DJ’s (Part 1?)

“…there must be some semblance of order to stay alive. That’s why FM underground freeform radio died. Because you can’t turn seven crazy freaky guys loose on the air to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, play the same cut seventeen times or play some obtuse album, ’cause who cares?”

– Lester Bangs, “Screwing the System with Dick Clark”

I am going to begin an apprentice disc-jockeyship with KMUZ in a few weeks. It’s a small volunteer-driven community radio station based in Salem, OR and it services the Greater Willamette Valley with all manner of programming — as I look at their weekly schedule I see “Antiquity Radio”, music from the first half of the twentieth century, on Sunday afternoons; “Russian Rock Radio” at 6am Saturdays and 6pm Sundays, probably circling the scheduled Masses at some local Greek Orthodox church; and Arlene’s “Mundo Mojo”, worldbeat to wait for work to end to. It hosts a range of shows, that’s for sure, and I bit when they showed up at the Willamette University club fair a few weeks ago. I filled out the application online and a few days later director Melanie Zermer emailed me back. “Since 15 [students] expressed interest, and we do not have many open slots to offer, I would like you to consider how you can work together to have a show,” she generously offered. I felt glad about that — I mean, I’m not Elvis. I can share a bill. It would make things interesting, really, to work with other people on this radio stuff. I would have a presence (or two or three) to bounce off of on the hot mic, instead of just mumbling the title of the song and the station name and what was going to play next.

The more I’ve thought about it, though, the less jazzed I am about the whole radio thing and the more apprehensions arise. I feel as though I’m about to cut into the napalmed turkey from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I really would like to bring my favorite music to a wider audience, and maybe I could work with these other DJ’s and learn more about the stuff they listen to. But ultimately I worry that I’m going to hit the same brick wall I hit in all the record shops and in all the discussions I ever end up having about the music I love to listen to. I speak, of course, of the sheer insularity of the music-appreciation community.

It’s hazardous anyways to try and build relationships based on something as subjective as music. Like they say, there’s no accounting for taste (though occasionally I can tell things about people from the kinds of music they concentrate on), and when you get as deep into the stuff as I have you will find, like Richard Rodriguez did when he reached the top academic levels of the study of British literature, that you have reached an ivory tower indeed. Past a certain point the collection and appreciation of certain musics reach a sort of cultism, where otherwise reasonable people exhibit the kind of devotion Gollum reserves for the One Ring. Words like “loner” and “dark (insert vague genre header)” and “chillout” and “private press” and “proto-punk”, wherever they arise, become incantations, words of power that endow certain records with obscene money value. The pursuit of records has never been a rational quest — if these songs could be had for decent prices and at high fidelity as digital files, and if all music listeners were rational, then easily scratched, unstoreable, usually warped, weak-bassed long-playing records would have been abandoned years ago as the impractical relics that they ought to be. Yet I carry these same records on my shelf and I constantly lust after more. (I have a CD collection too, which fills a seven-inch-thick disc sleeve. I think it must top two hundred and fifty albums at this point.) I do this in the age of digital music and Spotify because what physical music media have is talismanic value, which counts for more than the supposedly superior vinyl sound quality or the “aesthetic” experience of listening to it could ever could hope to in the competition between records and modern technology. George Orwell once said that to “Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, [is] a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness”; that, it seems, is exactly what record collectors are after. I confess that I often go through my own discography, smiling beatifically and feeling utterly at peace as I flick through records and think of the times I’ve listened to them and (more often than not) of their monetary worth and the veritable steals I’ve gotten on the things. I really hate the Hampton Grease Band, but I keep Music to Eat in my stacks because it has a certain cachet — an I-found-it value. The only conceivable reason for this behavior, which I confess I have identified as hoarding in people with other obsessions, is because these albums are spiritual objects — there is something more to them, in my mind, than just the music in the grooves. They feel special.

And I fear that the peculiar homogeneity of music collectors’ tastes will afflict all these other prospective DJ’s, as they seem to afflict me. My nightmares currently consist of me walking up to the orientation in October, pulling open the door and entering the room to discover as my eyes adjust from the bright light out of doors that the other prospective DJ’s are all just me. Most have shorter hair, and a few are bespectacled or have freckles or wear the Soundgarden T-shirt I wear to concerts; but they are totally generic in appearance, in attitude, in music preference, in timbre of speaking voice for chrissakes. And then I come to a horrible, probably flawed conclusion that my record collecting is nothing but a symptom, a distractive hobby that grew out of the pubescent horror show I lived in for between the ages of eight and thirteen, and the worst thing of all is that nobody will get it. It will forever remain a niche thingy like every other feature of my refined taste in comedy and movies and art and religion and music, something only poor little rich kids have ever been able to indulge in — and somebody, sooner or later, will use it against me, and call me out as a poseur and force me to swallow my pride and listen to nothing but Aerosmith and Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift and if I ever poke my sorry presumptuous head above that bourgeois tedium again I will be called out as a snob and wilt like a pressed adolescent flower. I want to believe that I am wrong, that there is more to the music I love than my background and what has been done to me, but either way the college-age DJ’s whose work I have sampled exhibit a crippling ingrowth. That is what I hate about the insularity of the music community: because of its relentless push for the Velvet Underground and Slint and Mudhoney, etc. I can’t bear to listen to most independent radio anymore. (KPIG, which broadcasts from San Luis Obispo, CA, is an astounding exception.) Most of the programmers I have heard are as self-absorbed as the worst sort of record hobbits, crafting playlists based on whatever they feel like listening to that day and sometimes they toss in a little death metal cuz they think it might throw the chillbient techno into sharper relief (only it doesn’t, it just makes them look like fucking assholes). Independent radio is diseased, and that sickness is solipsism — most of the time we seem unable to make people understand why they should broaden their tastes.

Of course, regular radio is even worse (fight the Clear Channel monopoly!), but every time I try to connect with my people, these supposed purveyors of weird and wonderful music beyond the mainstream, I feel like I’m reading my fellow atheists’ polemics against “the Christians” again. They seem to have lost the whole meaning of music exploration, which is that there is always a superior alternative to the garbage that some horrific music conglomerate is pushing on the population. One size doesn’t fit all. You have to seek out the good stuff yourself, which takes time and cultivation and a lot of luck; but you will, somehow, find music that speaks to you. There are dangerous rabbit holes, as I noted above; the farther you retreat into some corners (French/British progressive rock, ginuwine Brazilian bossa nova, old blues 78’s, 1960’s California folk, etc.) the fewer sensible people you end up meeting. But if you do it right your music journey will lead you to a state of astonishing grace, in which you finally realize that, objectively, there is no right or wrong music to listen to. Everyone will have their own favorite songs and listen to what they find viscerally pleasing, whether they were introduced to it by a friend or by the Internet or by the radio; there is not a damn thing you can do to change it, and they can’t do anything to make you enjoy their stuff. Hopefully you will overlap at some point, but this music thing is irresoluble and should just be left alone if you guys are diametrically opposed. Maybe play some Super Smash Bros. or something.

Of course, my special brand of beatific existentialist libertarianism lasts only as long as I can avoid the evangelical mob screaming at me outside that one Nine Inch Nails show (true story). When a dude in my class today played Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” for a “road song” assignment I listened with studied patience and my fists balled up a little underneath the desk when he said he thought it was very deep and had “a lot of meaning for [him] personally.” This is what I mean when I say that there can sometimes be accounting for taste. I am no fool. I may be only eighteen, but I have thought a great deal about things that matter to me like my music and literature, and if there’s one thing in this world that deserves no sympathy whatsoever it’s the cliché — the trite repetition of whatever’s convenient, what I called the “blunt chisel of aphorism” in a poem a few weeks ago for Creative Writing. I am frustrated by the lack of imagination, the quality of feeling one’s way through life that is implied by the appropriation of somebody else’s words into which you slot a mangled bastardization of your beautiful and unique and new experience. You brutalize your life by describing it only with clichés. (“Why do you intellectualize everything?” somebody once asked Henry Flynt. He replied, “Because hedonism will get you nowhere.”) I know that words have profound and impassable limits, that they can be cheap in the face of the most dramatic events in our lives. But you people don’t have to prove me right.* I can respect the tastes of a person who’s gone out and sampled the world’s music, at least a little. I once knew an impressive guy at my high school, who had an iPod full of songs I had never heard of, all by reggae or hip-hop artists from around the globe — Iran, Jamaica, Indonesia. I’m not big on either one but I gave him kudos. He had done some digging and discovered real connections with some interesting music in spite of itself; I let him be. He was not bound by commercial radio, even if I didn’t like his music. He seemed to think outside the box, and I could learn something from his library if I ever wanted to. I think that’s what I enjoy most of all: trading music suggestions with people and growing through others’ collections. Rarely do I get those chances in record stores or with friends.

And even in my righteous fury I can concede that clichés have vitality in the right hands — Dock Boggs sings murder ballads and drinking songs, and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and hell, maybe even the Rolling Stones cover the old blues tropes like they’re going out of style (which they kind of are). But they work in grand and noble traditions, and all these guys are great formalists. And these words have the weight of lived lifetimes behind them (though I must point out that the Stones really don’t, and sometimes the clichés overtake them — the “car don’t start” line from “Loving Cup” is particularly irritating.) But the profusion of garbage music that has emanated from hit factories and literally evil record companies since about the mid-Seventies is just too much. Somewhere in the backs of their minds the people who listen to this stuff must feel dimly that a crucial element is missing. And I retreat from its corruptions because of this lack of profundity, which is the big hallmark of popular music and really always has been. By “profound” I don’t mean a group has a grand social statement to make; plenty of foolish musicians did that in the late Sixties and their records were bought by millions of people, but they still weren’t really profound. What I mean is that I like music to “speak” to me, if I’ll permit myself one cliché; I want it to click somehow, with an identifiable lyric or a kickass groove or a killer improvisation or any combination of those things. Flipper was good at combining those, now that I think about it. The problem is that what makes that vital electric connection with one person means jack shit to another a lot of the time; of course, that’s much of what makes music interesting. So often we end up with an unlistenable popular Muzak in the restaurants and clubs of the world and overcompensate by creating homogeneous acolytic communities of the One True Church of the Sonic Youth. If Whitesnake is a perfect symbol of the concentrated deactivation of the cortex necessary to enjoy most popular music, the affected cool and “postmodern” smegma of the Sonic Youth stand in my mind for the deliberate adoption of the opposite stance, which we all know is the most insidious way that any enemy can control you. It goes without saying that I am not a Whitesnake guy. What I constantly have to explain to myself and to everyone who raises an eyebrow at my apparent snobbery is that I also do not like the Sonic Youth. (Not anymore, at least. When I was a junior cloistered “music for music’s sake” has its moments. 🙂

And with context established we circle back to the original question: how do we avoid total self-absorption in that very personal quest to break the good and great music out of its isolation chamber? Are we even meant to? I believe that yes, it is possible; after all, the reggae dude did it. He didn’t apply himself to seeking out super weird stuff like I did in high school; he just followed his nose. It’s a way of finding music that could leave a lot of people open to the influence of helpful radio, and perhaps I will reach this audience from my lair at KMUZ. And so, with this in mind, I write us DJ’s a credo to follow in all programming decisions.

  • Repeat after me.
  • We, the independent disc jockeys, do solemnly pledge:
  • To guide our listeners gently, so as not to scare them;
  • To avoid solipsism at any cost;
  • And to remember, above all, to build a community,
  • In both the listening sense, and the concrete sense.
  • May my fellow DJ’s catch me should I stumble in this righteous path.
  • Indeed.**

Hopefully I can bring this philosophy to bear when I go to work at KMUZ. I want to bring more people into the community of music lovers, and I suspect that we at the station are not going to do that with the traditional free-form shows; we have to change things up a little, make our music choices a little less oblique and non-sequitur than typical independent radio stations, and introduce some conceptual continuity and a little familiarity into our programs to make our listeners feel somewhat at home in listening to new musics. We must also have on-air personality, instead of simply describing the songs in between; we have to be interesting DJ’s. I hope that the “community” nature of the radio station will help to provide some color from other areas of town, so that the admitted monotony of “college” rock taste doesn’t oppress the ear of the listener.

Of course it’s possible that we’ve reached the saturation point, and so such ideas may not work. Perhaps enough people have been turned off by the navel-gazing of non-corporate radio and the exhausting compressed uniformity of the “mainstream” that they have retreated entirely into their digital music libraries. I find it difficult to blame them (after all, I’ve done basically the same thing). All we can do is try our best to raise their awareness of the good stuff, and hope they listen in; another old existentialist idea, but it’s the best shot we’ve got. This is a lot of shit to think about before I’ve even started the job, but I think this will help me to do my best at KMUZ. Maybe I will write more on the topic once I have started. “Humanists…serve as best they can the highest abstraction of which they have some understanding, which is their community”, said Kurt Vonnegut. DJ’s and music lovers, I call upon you: let’s serve our people.

Epilogue: As some of you might have guessed, I was reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung today and I finally got through the relentless nihilism phase to Lester Bangs’ essays on the death of Peter Laughner and “The White Noise Supremacists”, and I am elated and impressed. The exuberance of my article would not have been conceivable without Lester’s help today, and today I thank his memory for that little bit of inspiration.

*I’m probably gonna laugh when I read this in my old age, but all philosophy has to start somewhere. Why not be combative?

**We have to end it somehow, and better a nondenominational “indeed” than “amen.”