by Alexa Weinstein on January 27, 2012
Sorry it has taken me 40 years to write back to you. Also, sorry for all the hate you have gotten from me over the years. It occurs to me now that assholes and bad music are not actually your fault. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I will be truly thankful.
I know this is kind of presumptuous, or at least premature, but yesterday morning I became convinced that you had already forgiven me everything. I had just dropped my baby girl off at preschool and was on my way to the pool to swim before starting to work on a thing I had to edit. It was like 8:30 in the freaking morning, yet I was in a great mood and full of energy. I turned to my local indie radio station, and they were playing something I would generally consider to be good music—it was a Bon Iver kind of song, which may or may not have been Bon Iver—and I found myself yelling at it to shut up and turning to Wild 107. I just felt, like, 100% done with sadness and heartbreak and tragedy and loss and serious thought and all things even remotely tinged with emo. DOWN WITH WHINERS! UP WITH BEATS!
And of course, the moment I switched stations, there you were. And I realized that you are always there, right there, just waiting for us to come back. You have always been there for me, whenever I have been able to rise up on a wave of anything and visit the bright realm where you live. You never judged me for riding up on liquor and drugs, or for falling in love with the wrong person, or for fucking up my own life. You have always been happy to see me. And that’s why I believe—no, fuck it, I know—that I am already forgiven. You are not in the business of blaming at all. You never even need to forgive. I hope I can learn to be more like you.
In truth, I have always found your essential nature to be a puzzle. You should be simple, but you confuse me. The definition of pop music is simply that it is popular, right? A lot of people like it at once. It could be anything: dance music, rock, R&B, show tunes, hip hop, punk rock, country. So there shouldn’t be any difference between poppiness and popularity. But there is. You are, undeniably, a musical quality, somehow able to manifest yourself in a thousand different forms within the strictures of whichever genre you choose to visit. How do you do that? You are like pornography; the difference between you and non-poppiness is hard to define, but we know it when we hear it. What, then, are you? Exactly?
I believe you exist in a complex relationship to the following entities:
the promise of romance
the fantasy of fame & riches
the dream of happiness
love in all its forms
My heart tells me you are a kind of living being who grows up between all of these things, taking root, taking shape in the air, not a diagrammable musical element but a phenomenon, an ineffable emanation, an event.
That is as close as I can get. You don’t lend yourself well to description. I respect you much more than I ever thought I did. And I see now that, in hating on you, I was saying much more about myself than about music. What I realized yesterday morning was that you have a way of cutting through all my bullshit and showing me the truth about my current relationship to happiness.
For most of my life, what would happen is that I would ride up to you on a wave of something—a crush, or vodka, or the sun coming out all of a sudden—and even as I loved your brightness and danced around on the wave and everything, I would also simultaneously look down for a second and catch a glimpse of the actual depth of my unhappiness below. It staggered me. I began to wobble and shake on my board. And when the wave I was riding came back down, the fear and sadness of what I had seen would take the bearable, familiar form of negative skepticism. I would return to my usual mode of hating on you, and hating on all the people who listen to you while doing their stupid workouts or shopping for their robot-slave clothes or saying idiotic things as they drunkenly hit on each other. Looking down on you and on them made me feel slightly better about looking down on my own unhappiness. For the record, I’m not proud of this. It’s just how I got by.
But lately, what’s been happening is that you’ve been sneaking up on me. I must be riding up to you on a wave, but it’s a really long, slow, rolling one, so I don’t realize I’m on it. I gradually swell up into your realm, and my eyes have time to adjust to the brightness in stages. So it just kind of feels like normal life. A regular day. But then there you are on the radio, and there I am in my body, and suddenly I realize I am way high up and the wave is so solid below me that my board is like a fucking sidewalk.
And when I look down, in place of that scary plunge of my unhappiness, what I see instead is how hard I fight against feeling this way, how much I resist it, how hard it is for me to believe and accept. I hear the nasty ghost who says I am becoming a traitor to my people—the misanthropes, the heartbroken, the jaded, the lost, the loners, the artists, the people who like actual good music instead of pop cheese—and a traitor to my former self. I am turning my back on all that pain and realness and art. I have somehow become a boring sellout weirdo mom-robot pod person. It is not possible for the actual, interesting, cool me to feel this way about swimming laps at this time of the morning, or to be wearing this size jeans. Barf! On! This! Lady! RUN BACK TO THE DARKNESS.
And meanwhile, it is you, poppiness—it is only because I hear you and you show me the wild wave I am already on that I am able to also hear the shadow voice down inside it. And that voice is how I know this is real. This is it. I think I am actually kind of happy. It’s 8:30 in the morning on a regular day, and this song sounds so much like the best thing I’ve ever heard that I have to sit in the car and dance it out to the end even though I’m parked and I should go in. Even though I’ve never heard this song before in a conscious way and it might not be good at all and I’m not even sure I know what a good song is anymore. I don’t know how much of the goodness belongs to the song, and how much belongs to you, my old, rad friend, and how much belongs to me. But I know you. And I love you. And I am so deeply glad to see you again.
by Alexa Weinstein on August 26, 2011
THINGS THAT EXPLODE IN THE SKY:
Thunder and lightning. Fireworks. Comets and asteroids, satellites and rockets. Shooting stars. A flock of birds, taking off from the power line. Your heart. This band.
I think Explosions in the Sky is one of the greatest bands in the whole wide world, and I am going to try to explain why without thinking too much about it. Some bands are a sound, a certain feeling, and some bands are a voice, and some bands are a kind of song, and some bands are a wall of energy. There are so many more kinds. Explosions in the Sky is a world you can walk into and look around. Actually, that’s not quite right. I think they are more like a musical gateway that you walk through, into a different version of your world that was filmed to rise and swell in beauty until it could match this soundtrack.
The guitars kind of tremble, but not like guitars—more like hands. This trembling is a thing I want to talk about. It’s like hands, but also like leaves. Two years ago, I saw the Flaming Lips (with Built to Spill opening!) at Edgefield, an outdoor venue just outside Portland, on a beautiful summer day very much like the one we had today. The sun was setting as the Flaming Lips started to play. Edgefield is surrounded by these very tall, skinny trees, and during the thousand beautiful moments of the show, my eyes kept going up to the leaves on those trees, trembling slightly in the wind like they were nervous, but also dancing. The sky had a warm glow that wouldn’t quit, and as it got darker the stage lights kept playing off the trees, and sometimes there were huge explosions of colored confetti in the air, because colored confetti is a very Flaming Lips thing to do. I know it’s weird that I’m describing this Flaming Lips show when I’m trying to talk about Explosions, but when we were at that show, all of us outside on a warm night together having this experience, it was as though we had passed through that Explosions in the Sky gate into the version of the world that is that beautiful all the time. We trembled like guitars.
I am thinking about the word symphonic, what it means to be symphonic. Because Explosions is symphonic, but in a different way than, say, the Arcade Fire, and not just because this is an instrumental band. I feel like the difference is more about intent. I love the Arcade Fire—they totally get to me, and I think they’re great—but I definitely feel like the emotion they give me is an intended effect. Not calculated exactly, and I don’t feel manipulated, but when l’m listening to the Arcade Fire I sometimes feel the way I feel in a romantic movie. Like, Okay, fine! I am feeling the exact thing you choreographed for me to feel right now! I am still feeling it, but there is a way that it doesn’t feel 100% genuine, 100% mine. And this is not what a symphony feels like. In an actual symphony, you have a bunch of classical music geeks who have spent hundreds, nay thousands, of hours learning to play a kind of music that is now ignored by most, knowing that after all of that work they will be decidedly un-famous, getting very little personal glory, but doing this because they love that music so much and they are thrilled to be able to play it. Explosions feels to me like the rock & roll version of this. I’ve been listening to this band a crazy amount for at least five years, and I have no idea what any of their names are or what they look like. When I saw them live, there was no front man, no star. They felt like an ensemble. But I’ve gone off on this weird tangent about rock-star-ness, when the thing I was actually trying to talk about was the music, my sense of the intention behind it. It doesn’t feel to me like this music is trying to make me feel something, to have a certain effect. It feels to me like the people playing this music have their backs to me as they chase after something. Like they are trying with all their might, with their eyes closed, to capture and play the sound of what it feels like to be alive right now in their skin in this world. And as I hear it, it sounds to me like what it feels like to be alive right now in my skin, in my world. It feels like it is entirely mine, even though it is also theirs. The crazy things it does to my heart feel intimately personal, and I don’t even care if the same thing is happening to ten thousand other hearts while they watch Friday Night Lights. I know my own heart, and I know when it’s faking a little bit. With Explosions, my heart is never faking.
Also, there is something about balance that is crucial to a symphony. All the elements in perfect suspended tension with each other. The moments of sustained hush, and single-note beauty, and shimmering cymbals, and then those big drums pounding in at the exact right moment, and then the thunder of the whole symphony all together. I can never believe that one person was able to write all of that music, to hear it in their head all at once. This reminds me a little bit of two other scenes, in balance. One is white lights, black night, cheering crowds, heartbreak, being seventeen, and some big stupid game that everyone cares about because they don’t know how else to be that passionate. Another is grass, warm air, bird, crossed legs, giant sky. How could anyone create all of those things at once and put them so perfectly together?
Today was a great day, because I walked through the Explosions in the Sky gate in the morning and I have been here all day. This happened because of my friend, the lovely and talented Nicki Ittner, who through her dream job at Ballroom Marfa is about to bring Explosions in the Sky to Marfa, Texas on September 15th. To me, this is a professional accomplishment akin to being hired by the fanciest law firm in New York. She asked me to write her something about the greatness of Explosions, and so I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now I am writing this in one go and posting it right away, like a real blogger, rather than editing obsessively for a week like I normally do, even though this wasn’t supposed to be a blog post at all. It was just supposed to be for Nicki. Sorry, Nix—things got out of hand.
Let me say this: Explosions in the Sky, outside on a summer night, in Marfa, Texas, for free? Anyone who lives in Texas and could possibly go and yet chooses to miss that show is, by definition, insane.
Also, Portland people, Explosions is about to play Pioneer Square for Musicfest. Outside on a summer night. Just sayin.
Let me also say one more thing, and then I am done. Because I knew this morning that I wanted to write something about Explosions for Nicki tonight, I have been in the land of Explosions all day, thinking about them a little while I played with my daughter in the morning and then listening to them while I worked at a cafe in the afternoon. And because I was in the land of Explosions, a weird and magical thing happened that would never have happened otherwise—this is the kind of thing that happens when you are in this land. When I went to that cafe to work, it was about 1:15 in the afternoon, and I didn’t even think about the fact that when I left the cafe 5 or 6 hours later, I would turn out to have parked in a very dumb place. We have this thing in Portland on Alberta Street called Last Thursday, and it used to be like an art walk but now it has become an actual CIRCUS. They close off the street to cars for the whole evening and the bodies take over. As they should. So when I came out of the cafe, there was no chance of moving my car, and I left it there and walked down the street through the fair. If it weren’t for the car being stuck there, I would never have returned to Last Thursday at 10:30 the same night. And when I did come back, I found myself looking up at a glowing sky, on a warm summer night, surrounded by a bunch of people who were yelling and laughing and wearing crazy silver outfits like Wayne Coyne, all of us outside on a warm night together having this experience. Toward the end of the street, I came into the most packed block of all and found myself in the middle of a dance party. Up above me, there was this school of jellyfish moving together up the street, in all colors, looking like they were swimming through the air. There were a lot of them, maybe 15, and they were pretty big. They must have been attached to sticks, but they moved on the wind like kites. Suddenly looking up and seeing them there took my breath away. I filmed them for a minute, but then I had to stop filming so I could really dance. No one cared that I was alone. I danced full out for a minute, and it was everything that dancing full out in a crowd of strangers can be. Then the DJ had to turn off the music; his time was up. If I’d gotten there one minute later, I would have missed it. The jellyfish would have been further down the street, separated from the dance party, and the dance party would already have been over, and there wouldn’t have been any music. Instead I walked up when all of those things were exploding together, just for a minute, in perfect balance.
by Alexa Weinstein on May 10, 2011
Two years ago today, I decided once and for all to quit hitting the sauce. In commemoration of this excellent decision, for which I will not stop patting myself on the back anytime soon, here are two songs I have written in the past year, which I have tried and failed to record to my satisfaction and have now suddenly, alarmingly, posted to YouTube. One thing I’ve learned since I quit is that you don’t have to wait until you know how to do things (play guitar, for example) before you start doing them.
This song is about reclaiming your awesomeness.
This is a love song for a wedding. I know that sounds like it could be barftastic, but perhaps you will give it a chance.
by Alexa Weinstein on April 28, 2011
After I sent out a link to this blog in November and just before I dropped it like a stone for five months, my dad talked to me about it at length. He had read the entire blog four times through. I was surprised and touched to discover this. He had put quite a bit of time and energy into reading my blog, and it seemed that much of it had been spent worrying a question he was unable to answer.
“I love the writing, it’s just… okay, you know I don’t care about the music. But even if I did, why would I want to read this? Let’s say I’m reading about a game I missed. I want to know what happened in the game. But why would I care about what you were thinking and feeling when you were watching the game? Why would anyone want to read that?”
This is a real question, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to answer it. After wandering aimlessly through various fruitless arguments about the popularity of creative nonfiction, memoir, blogs, reality TV, and all things meta, I have returned to his game metaphor. I kind of like it.
My dad is the kind of person who wants to know what happened in the game. I am the kind of person who could not care less about what happened in the game. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more inherently boring than the game itself. To me, all sports are the same—they are all just various forms of sportsball. Whatever. But if my rad nine-year-old niece who has fallen in love with soccer is playing a regular weekend game with her team, or if Billie Jean King is playing a tennis match in 1973 against Bobby Riggs after he mouthed off and said a bunch of sexist bullshit about being able to beat her because she’s a woman even though he’s 55 and she’s a 29-year-old champion at the top of her game, then yes, I am absolutely interested in every moment of the game. And while I would rather swallow glass than watch a reel of sports highlights, I would absolutely sit with a stranger for two hours and listen with fascination as they talked about their passionate love of watching, or playing, sportsball. I am wholly uninterested in the game per se, and exclusively, solely interested in the thoughts and feelings of the person who cares about it.
Similarly, I am not at all interested in fashion itself—who is wearing what, etc.—but I am fascinated by my friend Minh-Ha’s awesome blog, Threadbared, where she and another scholar dissect constructions of race, gender, class, and otherness in the fashion world. I love listening to my plant-savvy friends talk about the various medicinal and spiritual uses of plants they love, but I feel no desire to learn to make tinctures or flower essences myself, or to learn the names of aaaaaaaaaall those plants. I love reading essays where people proclaim their deep personal love of perennials, or stamp collecting, or Civil War reenactments. And I once played a game of Dungeons and Dragons that lasted all day, not because I had any interest in the game itself—it takes less time for a towel to dry than it takes for a character in D&D to walk down a goddamn hallway—but because I was married to someone who loved role-playing games and I wanted to understand that love.
I have to thank my dad, because all of this has helped me to understand, in a new way, my long-time disappointment with music criticism. It seems, at first, as though my feelings about music criticism should be entirely unlike my feelings about sportsball commentary, because I DO care about music itself. I care about it a great deal. But in truth, many of the details about music that are interesting to fellow rock nerds—who was producing, what kind of weird homemade amp the guitarist was using, where the singer was born, what label originally released the song as a 7-inch—are not interesting to me in themselves. They become interesting only in the context of a larger story. I care about the fact that Mo Tucker wasn’t there when the Velvet Underground recorded and toured Loaded, but the part I care about is that the band replaced its drummer rather than waiting for her to have her baby, and I doubt they would have done that if they’d had a male drummer and he’d been in the hospital recovering from a motorcycle accident, and I feel conflicted about it because I love Loaded but I kind of want to boycott it in defense of Mo, and I wonder how she felt while all of this was happening, and when I’m listening to the album I am often wondering how the songs might have been different with her on drums. But when the conversation then turns to other VU-related trivia, without a larger story or someone’s particular interest behind it, I get sleepy immediately. In the end, even when I’m passionate about the subject itself, the angle on the subject that interests me most is the thoughts and feelings of the people who care about it.
When I’m reading rock criticism, I am always looking for this—the personal take, the individual passionate reaction—and it’s very hard to find. But I think this is because the assumed audience of rock criticism is the rock & roll version of my dad. The reader who just wants to know what happened in the game and not what I was thinking when I was watching it is the same as the reader who just wants the facts about a band: where they’re from, what their basic biographies are, how to categorize them according to various genres, what the critical consensus is on their quality, and how many albums they are selling. I feel much less embattled about this than I used to. Some people care more about getting information, which is legitimate, and other people care more about interior reactions to information, which is equally legitimate (but, I would argue, less valued in our culture). Each of us falls somewhere on this spectrum, and we bounce all around it, depending on the context and the subject. I may be unusual in my strong and wide-ranging preference for interior reactions to information over the information itself, but I’m not entirely alone in the world, and I don’t even think I’m all that weird.
Other people who are like me, what do you call yourselves? What is the flag of this nation? (I don’t want to hear any crap from haters—no one who has ever responded to this blog is a hater, but some hater out there might find it!—about solipsism or navel gazing. I absolutely do not believe that a concern with interiority reveals a lack of concern for other people in the world, and I often find that people who spend a lot of time contemplating interiority have a genuine devotion to the greater good. I think the automatic accusation of navel gazing is a kneejerk argument on the same fifth-grade level as that old chestnut “Why are you so angry?” in response to any naming of sexism, racism, or homophobia.) If you dig interiority, how do you think and talk about it?
After spending some time on Threadbared, I am tempted to get academic for a second, though my academic mechanisms are hella rusty. Two thoughts are creaking through the wheels. On second thought, they aren’t even thoughts, just words that feel like they might be useful. 1. Discourse. I’m more interested in discourse itself than I am in most of the subjects that give rise to it, especially the kind of discourse that “is carried out within a variety of traditions that investigate the relations between language, structure and agency, including sociology, feminist studies, anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory, and the philosophy of science.” What up, Wikipedia! I care about a person’s thoughts and feelings about sportsball or perennials or music because I’m interested in the relations between language, structure, and agency that are revealed when they talk about their own relationship to the subject they love. 2. Phenomenology. I have a crush on phenomenology, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.” What I care about is the structure of first-person consciousness, the intentionality of an experience. The object around which that structure is built could really be anything. Even sportsball.
Finally, and in conclusion, I want to make some emphatic epistolary proclamations.
Dear humans: I care about your thoughts and feelings, even when they are occasioned by subjects and events that are not of particular interest to me!
Dear Dad: I have tried my best to answer your question!
Dear music writers and fans: I know we’re supposed to talk about the music and leave ourselves out of it, but I for one am much more interested in why and how you love the music you do, and I do want to hear about the first-person structure of consciousness through which you intentionally experience music!
Dear lovely readers of this blog: my goal is not so much to tell you about specific music—you can hear about it so many other places—but to communicate some part of my interior experience in relation to music, in the hope that you might be interested even if you don’t care about the subject of music per se, and when I fail to do this it is my failure as a writer, not the failure of interior experience to be as important as information!
P.S. Sorry I had to talk myself back into believing in this blog by writing a post that was not exactly about music. But, you know, see above. (For the record, my crisis of faith was caused not by my dad’s question, but by larger questions about my relationship to writing, communication, and life in general.)
P.P.S. Goodbye Poly Styrene. You and your braces were so fucking beautiful. As a teenager, you had the voice of ten grown women. In honor of where you’re going, here’s Mo Tucker to drum you out as you exit, with all of us standing to cheer. (Sorry about the visuals. Headphones recommended!)
by Alexa Weinstein on November 15, 2010
It’s happening again. It’s happening again! Hallelujah amen, it’s happening again.
I can hear music all the way. Not 67%, like I can when I’m doing the dishes. Not 86%, like I can right before I go to sleep. Not 94%, like I can when I’m having a dance party with my fantastic kid. Not even 99.9%, like I used to on vodka, Vicodin, and headphones. But 113%, like I can when a giant wave of terrible feeling has stormed through my body and left me ragged and raw, kneeling at the feet of the human condition. This is what I do for you, music!
Two weeks ago—on Election Day, just before voting—I signed the final papers on a grueling divorce that took 20 months to complete. I’ve tried four different times to write a pithy, emotionally-true-but-appropriately-surface-skimming paragraph about this experience and have officially given up. Right now, my divorce is more like a 600-page novel in which the author slowly goes mad than it is like a blog post. But I can say two things about it: 1. It’s over; 2. I can hear music all the way. Hell yeah.
Since I signed the papers, I’ve been thrown to the floor again and again by a song I’d never heard in my life—“Where Were You?” by the Mekons. For me, the Mekons are the perfect representative of a certain mental category: bands that other people with promising music taste like, but that I for some reason have always brattily refused to give a chance to. You know, like, by actually “listening” to them, with my ears. I got an anti-Mekons idea in my brain, and I can’t remember why. Maybe there was one song on a mix someone made that I didn’t like, or maybe I somehow got the idea that they might be a tiny bit jazzy (I am allergic to jazziness in rock and refuse to hear any lectures about this), which seems pretty stupid now that I’m reading about them and discovering that they get thrown into every genre there is except jazz—it’s the single and only musical influence I haven’t heard mentioned once. I had never made any effort to find out what they did in fact sound like, at any time during their multiple decades of making records, and I only had this song in my iTunes because it’s on a punk compilation a music friend gave me, and it only came on due to the loving forgiveness of the forces that guide the random. I did nothing to earn the Mekons, but “Where Were You?” had the good graces to come to me anyway.
The basic facts I’ve gathered about this song are as follows: it was released as a single in 1978, before the Mekons’ debut album came out; the Mekons talk about it as one of the songs they wrote when they couldn’t play their instruments yet; Jon Langford, who goes on to sing and play guitar at the heart of the Mekons from the beginning until now (they’re still going strong) and also play in 14,000 other bands and projects and generally become a revered king of weird punk and alt-country, is not singing or playing guitar on this song—he’s playing drums; the guy singing is Mitch, who also stays with the band forever but is apparently their roadie and not a band member; the single sold very well at the time and got the Mekons onto Virgin, who later dropped them; this is probably the least obscure Mekons song you could ever write about, as everyone is crazy about it; it stands up to obsessive repetition like a goddamn champ.
In order to explain the amazingness of “Where Were You?” I need to talk first about the long, slow builder. This is my personal term for a certain kind of song, for which I am a perennial sucker. The long, slow builder starts out gentle, simple, and beautiful, builds gradually to a crescendo, and ends up rocking its knockers off. When this is done right, I find it irresistible. “Where Were You?” is a terrible example—how long and slow of a build can you have when the whole song lasts less than three minutes?—but its greatness is inextricable from the greatness of this kind of song.
The long, slow builder has three distinct phases. First, there’s the spare and lovely opening, knocking on the door of actual feeling. The beauty makes cracks in the shell around my heart; it starts to find its way in, like water. At the same time, the simplicity makes me a little bit vulnerable—here is a regular human like me who is strumming a chord, hitting a drum—and the slowness opens up a space between my ears where the rest of the song can fit.
Then, just when I’m starting to get nervous about all this nakedness, there’s the building wave, coming up behind. Something restless, hard, and driving, with a little speed and a little more backbone. It’s not that this second flavor allows me to fortress my heart again; it’s the opposite. I love that open and vulnerable state, and I want to stay there and trust it, but if I’m going to do that, it’s going to have to be real. I will need to bring in the other part of me, the battle-scarred, hypercritical, heartbroken part that’s been leaning outside the door looking extremely skeptical the whole time I’ve been opening to the slow beauty. If that raw and jaded wildcat doesn’t get attention soon, she’s going to start causing trouble, getting drunk and angry and starting fights, and as soon as that happens the beauty will start to sound fake and my heart will slam shut. So when the restless discontent comes up in the song and joins in with the slow beauty, I experience a great relief, not because I get to retreat from what I’m feeling but because I get to stay in it. And as it builds, louder and faster and darker, the relief becomes excitement, because the beauty and the restlessness and the softest and hardest parts of me are all about to be let loose.
Finally, there’s the crescendo, the full rockout. In this third phase, it’s crucial that the beauty not be eclipsed; it has to keep on keeping on, holding its own, swelling and rising with the rock at every turn. It has to get a little stronger, grow some backbone of its own. And the restlessness can’t stay in that adolescent rebellion thing, either; it has to deepen and stretch and bend in order to meet the beauty around the back. It has to get a little more articulate, grow some reluctant tenderness of its own. The restlessness has to get colored in, and the beauty has to get outlined in black. They both have to learn to take themselves a little less seriously and have a little more fun. And they have to figure out how to reunite into the whole thing they once were, way back in the beginning, before they were split apart in the first place. All of which is a marvelous lesson for the two parts of me, if they can shut up and pay attention for a second.
The best example of a band that writes nothing but long, slow builders is Explosions in the Sky. A friend of mine says that Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon sounds like the inside of her head; the inside of my head sounds like Explosions in the Sky. They are amazing, and they are masters of the long, slow builder. But I absolutely can’t start talking about them here, or all will be lost. I just had to give you one proper example, because I’m nervous about calling “Where Were You?” a long, slow builder. I don’t know if it can be, considering its length, and you’re not supposed to use the exception to prove the rule. I just don’t know what else to call it, because it accomplishes everything a long, slow builder does—that entire emotional roller coaster, resolving into glorious triumph. Songs of this type usually need six to eight minutes to make it happen; this song does it in two minutes and forty-three seconds. Phase one, the slow beauty, lasts seventeen seconds. Phase two, in which the restlessness appears and builds, only lasts until second forty-nine. The next minute and forty-one seconds is all crescendo, until the thirteen-second outro at the end. It’s the most compact, efficient version of the long, slow builder I can imagine. And there is no trade-off, no loss of emotion for the sake of speed, as you would expect there to be. Just more and more and more. It’s kind of incredible.
But that is not all; oh no, that is not all. The truly amazing thing is that the song is able to accomplish all of that using a ridiculously simple structure. It’s one of those songs without a chorus, where there’s just one verse that repeats and repeats from beginning to end. I have just learned that this is called the strophic form (or, a little more obviously, the AAA song), and that it started with court composers setting poems to music. (The opposite kind of song, where the music keeps changing the whole time and never repeats, ABCD, is called through-composed.) In this AAA song, the guitar plays the same two-punk-chord thing forty times from the beginning to the end. For the first half of the song, there’s nothing else but drums. Halfway through, when the bass, fiddle, and vocals come in, the guitar starts staying on its second chord a little longer after every fourth time (possibly there is a third chord in there, but I don’t think there is) so the bass and fiddle can go to two more notes between verses before everybody returns to the main thing, and at that same point the drums settle into their verse beat, but otherwise nothing changes. The lyrics are just one long, shouted verse repeated twice, with one word changed the second time through, when “like” becomes “love.” Then there’s the little outro thing, where the fiddle drops out and the guitar takes over the two alternating notes it’s been playing for the whole song. And that’s all there is. So, uh… how, exactly? How do they manage to get me on that roller coaster and bring it all the way home in under three minutes, every single time I hear this song, without ever going to a chorus or a bridge? Without ever doing anything but what they’re already pretty much doing at the beginning?
Imagine that you’ve just read a knock-out short story, one of your all-time favorites. Let’s say it’s by John Updike, so every sentence is magnificently crafted. It’s eight pages long, which is as short as it could possibly be—so much has to happen first in order for you to feel what you feel every time you read it, when that luminous last line socks you in the gut. Now you read a short story by a young writer you’re not familiar with, written in simple language without any apparent technical virtuosity, and it absolutely floors you in just the way the Updike story does. Only it’s three pages long, and that luminous last line occupies the entire second and third pages. In fact, the whole thing is just one long paragraph, in which the same basic phrase is repeated over and over, with small variations, somehow getting better and accumulating meaning the whole time. This is what I’m trying to get at.
Here is a jumble of theories about how “Where Were You?” manages to do what it does. 1. By luck or genius, these early Mekons stumbled on one of those irresistible riffs that not only doesn’t get old, but gets better every time you hear it—a top-shelf hook. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody pulled this off using just a couple of punk chords. Then, by further luck or genius, they realized that they should keep repeating it the whole time and not ruin it by adding another part. 2. This is exactly what a hook is: it grabs you right away, instantly, kablam. I am on the hook from the first time I hear it, and so I don’t really need much else. The hook is so good that the beauty and restlessness are already pre-united within it, one whole thing that cannot be split apart. The tension in the beginning that needs to be resolved sounds great, but it isn’t real; there was never any question about the two strains coming back together, as they have in fact been making out behind a curtain the whole time. That’s why the song needs less than a minute to get to the crescendo. 3. The drums are the secret key. They are the only instrument that actually does a few different things before the song is through, and as such they provide the entire roller coaster, which is of course built on the back of that killer hook. A drum roll that doesn’t go right into the verse beat, but drops into four on the floor first to make you feel like the verse beat is the be-all and end-all, since the verse is all there is? Kablam-bam! 4. The fiddle is the secret key. A two-chord punk song featuring a lovely and simple fiddle melody, pregnant with longing? Whut? 5. Magic.
While writing this, I’ve been noticing that the long, slow builder sounds a lot like the three-act drama: setup (of the two musical strains, one beautiful and one restless, which will be our main characters), confrontation between them (in which their mettle is tested), and resolution, complete with climax and denouement (in which both characters come out changed). And hey, this is like so weird, but do you know what else mirrors this three-act script? A marriage. And by marriage, I mean any partnership aiming for the long haul. There’s the beautiful part at the beginning, the confrontation where our two characters are tested—can they rise to it and grow?—culminating in the dramatic climax where it all comes to a head, and the resolution, where they either make it or they don’t. The couple who achieves a form of happiness together gets to be in a romantic comedy; the couple who divorces badly or stays together in misery gets to be in a tragedy. The long, slow builder either ends up in triumphant beauty when the two strains become more than the sum of their parts, or falls apart into separate pieces when the two strains fail to work it out.
All of which might suggest that “Where Were You?” is a love story, if it weren’t for the lyrics.
When I was waiting in a bar, where were you?
When I was buying you a drink, where were you?
When I was crying at home in bed, where were you?
When I watched you from a distance did you see me?
You were standing in a queue, did you see me?
You had yellow hair, did you see me?
I want to talk to you all night, do you like me?
I want to find out about your life, do you like me?
Could you ever be my wife, do you like me?
(Could you ever be my wife, do you love me?)
The voice is tight, half-yelling, and rangy. This guy sounds hurt, pissed, wide open, and entirely desperate. You start out thinking he’s singing to his girlfriend after she’s stood him up or cheated on him or left him, but by the end, you strongly suspect that this entire relationship exists only in his head. He’s singing to a woman he’s only seen across the bar. His longing is so naked that it has him angrily demanding love and marriage from a complete stranger, and already being surprised and hurt that he’s not going to get it. It’s sick and alarming, but so raw and honest that you have to admit it’s kind of beautiful.
Okay, so maybe this is what happens. Maybe the restlessness starts out on the drums, but when they’re about to settle into the verse beat, it jumps. Sensing the coming resolution in the music, and not yet satisfied, it takes a blind, flying leap and lands in the singer’s mouth. So that after that, even though the music has hit the triumphant crescendo where its two strains are reunited into one whole thing, there are still two unresolved strains, because the tension now exists between the voice and the music. You never start needing to hear a second part, because in this part, you get everything—a tense chemistry between the drums and the music, and then between the voice and the music, and the musical crescendo where the beauty and restlessness find a perfect balance—all at the same time. The consonance and the dissonance and the return to harmony, the setup and the conflict and the resolution, the beginning and the middle and the end. It’s all simultaneous. In a parallel universe close to ours, it is a six-minute song; you’re just hearing both halves at the same time. The simple structure is the only thing that could possibly have worked. This is how the one verse manages to carry you through the whole roller coaster, and you never wish for it to do anything else but start over at the end.
It actually is a love story! Goddamn those genius bastards! It is. But it’s not the lying version we are usually sold; it’s the story of what love is actually like. There is so much beauty and hope and harmony, so much gorgeous possibility and explosive joy, that it will drop you to your knees. But even then, even there on your knees, there will still be inside you a deep restlessness, a rumbling storm of all that feels wrong. In the face of this, some people will assign the wrongness to the deep flaws in their partner, some will cheat, and some will leave. Imagine their surprise when they get to the rumbling storm with the next person! We all get to it eventually, whether or not we’re in the right relationship. It’s there when we are yearning for love, it resurfaces when we get to the hard part of living in love, and it tears us apart when love ends. It’s always there, where everyone is—the single ones thinking it’s because they haven’t met the right person, the ones in relationships thinking there must be something wrong with themselves or their lives or their partners, the heartbroken ones thinking it’s because they’ve lost what they had. When in fact, that always-approaching storm is part of the deal. There is no love without it. When you try to shut it down, it’s just going to jump to another instrument or another part of the song. We’re not supposed to resolve it away. We’re supposed to build our songs around it. We have to let it in, in order to stay in the beauty for the long term. It’s the engine that keeps us going forward. If we can face that rumbling, restless darkness, if we can turn up the beauty and the harmony until they are strong enough to stand up to it, the two strains can come into balance with each other and explode in the sky. That’s the only resolution possible.
I’m at the dropoff after the end and he’s staring into the abyss before the beginning, but when I hear this guy shouting across the bar, his disheartened roar sounds completely familiar to me. I know that voice—it’s the sound of my own heartbreak, asking for an explanation. The circumstances are beside the point. For that matter, the mechanics of how this song manages to do what it does are even more beside the point. The song is the point, and all you have to do is listen to it. But I can’t help wanting to know the secret. I want to know how we keep going forward, being driven to greatness by that rumbling storm rather than being driven crazy by it. I want to know how we find the strength and backbone in our beauty, and I want to know how we tend the soft creature in our darkness. Most of all, I want to know how to find the resolution—between the beauty and the restlessness, between the hopeful and broken parts of me, between two people and their unique storms—not the kind of resolution where they agree to go their separate ways, but the kind where they find a way to make something together that’s never been seen on earth. I want maps and diagrams. I know my daughter had to exist just as she is, and I have no doubt she is the best song that’s ever been written. But I want someone to promise me that it was absolutely necessary for her to witness the total disintegration of the love between her parents before the age of three in order to become who she is supposed to be, and I want a guarantee that I will get another chance to show her what being in love looks like. In the meantime, I want to keep playing her all the songs in the world that know what real love sounds like, and I want to keep shouting across the kitchen, demanding answers from music that I’m not going to get, shouting my devotion and my betrayal and my longing and my darkness and my beauty and my storm and my hope.
Pony up 99 pennies to Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records for this song! (Click PURCHASE to see individual songs for sale.)
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• • • ROCK NERD CORNER • • •
1. “Where Were You?” was released as a single on Fast Product (an independent British punk label). Gang of Four was on Fast Product too, and both bands were from Leeds. The compilation I had where this song was hiding is 1-2-3-4! Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 (Disc 2). It’s also on that No Thanks! one and bunch of others. It’s not on any proper Mekons albums, only two compilations. The one I linked to above is a singles-and-rarities collection, Where Were You? Hen’s Teeth and Other Fragments of Unpopular Culture Vol. 2 (Quarterstick Records, 1999). It’s also on a greatest hits, Heaven and Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons (Cooking Vinyl, 2004). Hen’s Teeth is only available for download, unless you want to pay $50 for the CD on eBay, and Heaven and Hell seems to only be available from the UK.
2. I was supposed to use the term “post-punk” to refer to the Mekons, Fast Product, etc. This seems to be the agreed-upon genre for this band, because they incorporate some country and folk into their punk. But that term makes me feel weird, and here’s why. I think punk is big and complicated enough to incorporate all the mutated, cross-genre forms of punk that happen as time goes on, just as rock is. Punk can take it all! It has not ended, or closed down its possibilities! Does anyone find the term “post-punk” to be meaningful to their ears, and if so can you tell me why?
3. Mekons fans! Where should I go next in my Mekons studies? Also, a question: the notes on Hen’s Teeth say that Sarah Corina is on bass and Susie Honeyman is on fiddle unless otherwise noted, which would seem to imply that they’re both playing on this song. But I read something else suggesting that one or both of them joined the band later. I can’t find a definitive answer. Were there in fact two women playing in this British punk band (or post-punk band, whatever makes you happy) in 1978? That would make me happy.
4. What’s your favorite long, slow builder? What are some other compact, efficient ones? What’s your favorite AAA song?
Please comment away, either answering or ignoring these dorky book-review questions.
by Alexa Weinstein on October 15, 2010
My friend T’chaka Sikelianos made a feature-length film called A Yeti in the City. He used a couple of my poems in the movie, and one of them became a kind of short film/music video that stands on its own, with music by The Octopus Project. Prose poem that would otherwise have spent its life in a drawer + music + filmmaking = weird beauty & hope.
If you are a sucker for weird beauty and hope, and the sometimes astounding genius of the small people known as children, I must strongly recommend, nay plead, that you take 8 more precious minutes out of your life to watch the following short film, also by T’chaka Sikelianos. I had nothing to do with this one. It is actually deserving of the terribly overused word “amazing.” Aurora is a real human child, who I have had the honor of meeting, and she really did speak and sing these words extemporaneously one night as she was being sung to sleep by her mom (Alisa, who you see making faces at the camera in the clip above as the grocery girl and who makes music as dancealisadance) and her uncle T’chaka, who hit record on his iPhone and later made this beautiful animation. They are a very special family.
by Alexa Weinstein on October 14, 2010
I went to see The Corin Tucker Band at the Aladdin Theater last week. Their first record just came out, and they were kicking off their tour with a hometown show. From the Portland (The Town for Me) files: I left my house at 8:15 for an 8:30 show, parked about 100 feet from the front door (I could have biked there, but I didn’t, okay? I was paying a babysitter! My car burns biodiesel! Get off my jock!), walked in and bought a peppermint tea and a little cup of homemade chocolate-caramel-macadamia things, strolled down to an empty aisle seat in the third row of the center section, and sat down during the first song of the opening band, The Golden Bears. I’ve never heard them, except when they played a lunchtime show at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls that I mostly missed, but I’m predisposed toward bands with singing female drummers, and bands made of rock & roll couples who appear to be happy together and are still playing out even though they have a kid, and The Golden Bears are both. Julianna Bright, the singing drummer mom, was rocking a white jumpsuit she had specially made for her because she has always admired Pete Townshend’s (granted, who hasn’t, but she actually had one made for herself! such vision!), AND she was able to beautifully carry off Chrissie Hynde, while drumming, in the jumpsuit, on a cover of “Lovers of Today.” Try to karaoke this song and you will understand the enormity of her accomplishment.
I have to admit that I spent a good portion of the evening congratulating myself. For choosing to go to this show alone rather than to Guided by Voices with friends (partly because I knew GBV would be a drunkstravaganza, but mostly because there’s no universe in which I would miss my first opportunity to see Corin Tucker’s new band by choice), for being at a show by myself and genuinely not feeling like a lonely loser, for miraculously having worn a dress and boots rather than jeans and a hoodie and therefore feeling kind of cute, for remembering both earplugs and a notebook, and for drinking tea (unlike the last time I was at the Aladdin alone, when I was still married and my then-husband was home with our daughter and I really wanted to see Howard Jones and no one would go with me so I took a cab there and drank enough glasses of red wine to spill a whole glass on the floor). Listen: without drinks, a friend sitting next to me, someone-loves-me street cred, or self-pity to lean on, I am going to turn to tooting my own horn. I am but a mere human!
I found that the horn-tooting really kicked into high gear during the break between bands, when people got up to hug and yell funny things at each other and I stayed in my seat. This forced me to square off with the ever-present spectre of How Other People Might See Me. Hi, guys! I am the nearing-40 woman at the rock show by herself (clearly single, AKA fucked up and unlovable), all dressed up for no apparent reason, sitting right up front like a nerd on the bus, not chatting with a single person despite having lived in the small world of Portland for nine years. (This is actually much better than running into a casual acquaintance at any time prior to the end of the show. You see someone you sort of know, and when they realize you’re alone, you instantly fear that they see you as a pathetic and lonely tag-along to be avoided, which fills you with rage because you never wanted to join them in the first place! You are happy to see them, but you are only intending to say hi for LESS THAN TWO MINUTES, due to your excellent manners! You are happy on your own, or you wouldn’t have gone to the fucking show! Now you are probably being rude, in an attempt to convey how sincerely you are NOT trying to crash their evening, when all they’ve done is say hi in the most normal way possible.) This is the kind of hogcrap that runs across the ticker tape of my mind, before I remember that I didn’t think these boneheaded things about single people when I was married, and people aren’t assholes as a general rule, and they aren’t thinking about me at all.
Still, while I’m sitting there alone, surrounded by people who are not alone, the hogcrap is occasionally whispering in my ear. I can’t pretend it isn’t. I’m 38, and I’ve had a shit-ton of therapy, but it’s still there. And now that I don’t drink, it’s just sticking around, rather than dissolving as I enter the hall of drunk. The good news is that the way it sits with me has changed. It has the same kind of presence as the velvet curtains at the back of the stage, and the fancy upper-tier theater boxes with no one in them, and the chandeliers. They are clearly there, part of the atmosphere, and if you take a good look you can find a decent number of things to say about them. But they can only hold your attention for a limited time, and they are not dominant features in the experience of seeing a band at the Aladdin. When the music starts, they disappear. It actually is true that I wasn’t feeling like a lonely loser, despite the light whisper of the hogcrap. I was feeling more relaxed and content than I’ve felt in a long time. I was really glad to be alone with the music, sober, watching the people and not having to talk to them. I was feeling… kind of… happy. Toot, horns! Toot your little tooters off.
While Corin sounds like Corin (from Heavens to Betsy through Cadallaca through all the Sleater-Kinney albums), her new band does not sound like any of those bands. There are moments that echo what she’s done before, of course, but this is a new and different animal. I had the sense during the show, and I have it even more now that I’m listening to the album, that this is the first time she has stepped into the role of creative dominatrix and made songs entirely to her liking rather than writing cooperatively with the rest of the band. (I haven’t read anything to confirm or deny this, because I religiously avoid reading about music before I’ve heard it enough times to form a solid opinion of my own; it’s just based on my ears, and might be factually “untrue.” The name of the band might support my theory, or it might just be the smartest thing to call your band when it has Corin Tucker in it.) I am solely relying on a gut feeling that if she made music entirely to her liking, at this point in history, this is how it might sound.
I have to mention that I kept thinking about straight-up 70s rock throughout the show. I thought about Credence as much as I thought about Sleater-Kinney, I made yet another mental note to find out what The Marshall Tucker Band is all about before I die, and when I heard Corin singing in new and different ways, I thought about Fleetwood Mac (more Christine McVie than Stevie Nicks), and even Juice Newton. I know how weird this sounds. But there was some way that I could hear Corin sitting on her couch with a guitar and writing these songs from scratch, starting at square one the way you do with everything after you have kids, going all the way back to every song she ever truly loved, embarrassing or not. And behind that, I could hear all the way back to the first songs I loved and the sound of my own childhood in Idaho in the 70s. This is the kind of thing that really gets me.
I now realize how wrong it is that I didn’t take pictures of Julianna in her jumpsuit or Corin in her classy dress (she has a way of being totally feminine and totally rock without making any kind of commentary on the whole thing—she is just herself in her body up there). I haven’t even mentioned Sara Lund from Unwound playing ridiculously rad drums with Corin (Q: where do you go from Janet Weiss? A: watch this drum battle between Sara and Janet), or Seth Lorinczi (husband of Julianna) doing quadruple-duty rock—guitar and keys in both The Golden Bears and The Corin Tucker Band. Dude! The talent in this town! Nor have I talked about how rad it was to hear the voices of children up in the balcony and learn that they will be bringing three small kids on this tour, or about the moment when the women on stage thanked the screaming women in the crowd who babysit during band practice and I realized I’d never heard anyone do that before. Please forgive these glaring oversights, as this is my first-ever blog post.
You can buy the LP from Kill Rock Stars for $15 and get the instant digital download with it (that’s what I did, seemed like fun vinyl to have), or pay $9 for the CD and wait a few days to hear it like you used to have the patience to do. They will also let you download the awesome song “Doubt” for free, at that same link! It’s a rocker. You can buy the album at Insound ($10.49 mp3, $14.99 CD, $15.99 LP). It’s also on iTunes for $9.99. Or you can stop by your local independent music store—seriously, you should totally ride your bike—and hear it tomorrow in the car. So many choices.
Finally, the best live Corin Tucker Band video I could find. It’s the a capella ballad without guitar—the farthest point away from the rocking side of this band. But it’s a lovely song, and I love the realness of this performance of it. Also, my three-year-old daughter makes me play it over and over, and she has been a heavy rocker since birth.