Monday, April 26, 2004

CD Roulette

A few years back when I used to live in the duplex on Linwood with Pistol Pete and Johnny B., our Saturday nights got pretty wild. Johnny would once in awhile get too many beers in him and would remove his shirt while we were watching the Twins on TV. The sight of a bare-chested Johnny B. of course would cause my friend Spunky to immediately vacate the premises.

When I saved up enough of my Cheapo paychecks to buy a five CD-changer, our parties got even more the talk of the town. We'd have a soon to be memorable bash and five of us would each select a CD to put in the player and hit the shuffle button. When a song played from the CD one of us selected that person would have to take a drink. Thing is that CD player didn't shuffle things too good and ended up playing one of the CDs far more than any of the others. The result was one of our friends would get mighty snookered while the rest of us had to tolerate listening to more of a pretentious CD by the Fall than any of us really wanted to.

Many years later when my Mom got sick my Dad and I went out to buy a 50-CD changer. This allowed Mom to listen to her many CDs throughout the day without having to get up and change discs. When she died my Dad was kind enough to give me the CD player.

Of course as with most things in my life this led to an immediate dilemma. What 50 CDs out of my collection deserved their anointed place in the upper echelon of my listening pleasure? Finding the task all too daunting what I ended up doing was picking out 50 of my Bob Dylan concert bootlegs and putting them in the changer. It stayed that way for several years and I must say it was pretty cool hearing a 1994 version of "One Too Many Mornings" next to an entirely different arrangement from 1998. The juxtaposition only reinforced for me that Bob is rather skilled at taking a song and turning it inside out to make it sound completely new.

Last month as I was trying to clean out my office and arrange my CDs I decided I would change my music listening habits by selecting 50 CDs from 50 different artists to put in the changer. The challenge was picking what were essentially the 50 CDs that I listen to most with the caveat that some of my favorite CDs were not going to make the cut because I wanted them to be more handy for me to grab and play on my way to work.

After finally making my picks and loading them up, I have found the random playing of songs from the 50 discs to be at times rather entertaining and at other times rather jolting. I may never get used to hearing a Billie Holiday song followed by L7 or a Willie Nelson song followed by Madonna.

So in memory of those wild Saturday nights with Pistol Pete and Johnny B., I thought I'd wrap up this Saturday night not by taking a shot of whiskey but rather commenting on the songs as they pop up in random play order...

1) "Back of a Car" by Big Star: This isn't exactly one of my favorite Big Star songs and it's made more painful by the associative events of this past week when I spent $200 fixing the axle of my Honda knowing that the car is going to need to be replaced in the very near future.

2) "Dance with the Tiger" by Rosanne Cash: For those of you who have ever experienced relationship trubbles I'd highly recommend you listen carefully to Interiors, the CD this superlative song appears on. Rosanne lays it all out for all to hear here and good golly it makes me cry every time I listen to it. This one is a definite keeper.

3) "Junior's Farm" by Paul McCartney and Wings: There are those out there who believe the similar sounding "Get Back" from Paul's former previous more publicized group is a superior song. But how perceptive and current is the nonsensical lyric to this song, "At the house of Parliament, everybody's listening to the President..." Paul sweats and Paul rocks. I love this song.

4) "September Girls" by the Bangles: Just as I think my only interest in this group is Susanna Hoff's irresistible bug eyed look and the poppy hooks they go and cover an Alex Chilton song. That is so cool.

5) "Look What Thoughts Will Do" by Lefty Frizell: My cat Diego-san ironically left the room when this song plays. I mentioned this because a friend named her cat Lefty after Mr. Frizell. Lefty sings, "So good-bye and here's to you, and I'm happy through and through..." Sounds about right.

6) "I Can Hear the Laughs" by Freedy Johnston: We're all clowns Freedy sings as he wears a mask that smiles.

7) "You and Me" by the Cranberries: Dolores O' Riordon's voice is one of three in this world that can cut me to pieces. And she moves funky too.

8) "Hochsteader Polka" by Tubby Esquire: Any of you see the Greg Kinnear movie about Bob Crane? I've seen every episode of Hogan's Heroes 100 times and thus this song always makes me smile. It captures the essence of the show at the same time it mocks it. A life philosophy worth pursuing?

Monday, April 19, 2004

Notes on the Notes that Matter

Some of us expect an awful lot from the music in our lives. We not only expect the music to entertain us, we expect it to enlighten, inspire, and uplift us. Some of us would be mighty lost if we hadn't discovered a particular song, a particular artist, a particular lyric, or particular melody at a particular point in our life.

This thought flashed in my mind while I was reading the terrific Los Angeles Times interview with Bob Dylan that appeared a few weeks back. The interview is one of the few times in his career that Dylan has talked at all about the way he writes. Among the nuggets of information:

"What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

"I'll be playing Bob Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' for instance, in my head constantly -- while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song."

Long time readers of the newsletter and those of you who know anything about me know that the greatest song ever written, the Beatles' "Hey Jude" also happens to be my all time favorite song. It is the one song that no matter how crappy I'm feeling, how sad I am, no matter how many times I hear it, it always makes me feel infinitely better. I'm always amazed that the structure of the song is so perfect and it supplements its subject matter so wonderfully that whenever I bang out a version on my piano to the frightened attention of two kitties (seven legs between them) even I can't manage to ruin it.

The song starts with a singer's solo voice and by the end of the song (nah nah nah nah nah nah nah) it sounds like there's a gazillion people singing along, consoling the singer as he tries to console Jude. From beginning to end the singer and his friends manage to take a sad song and make it better.

While not quite in the same ballpark as "Hey Jude" my favorite song right this instant is Erin McKeown's peppy little "Slung-Lo." It is another song where the singer is feeling a little blue, a little lost and low as she flicks on her stereo. The music she hears immediately brightens her world. "She was so down, look at her now/She's dancin' til she drops/Everyone knows, give it some time/You'll find what you have lost..."

Indeed the bouncy infectious melody is irresistible and McKeown's little girl vocals provide the perfect frosting to a innocent little ditty that is one of those songs that gets the toes a tappin involuntarily.

The blue-eyed editor included "Slung-Lo" on a compilation she was kind enough to make for me a few weeks back. I haven't been able to stop listening to the CD ever since and when it gets to the McKeown song I inevitably hit the repeat button. I hadn't heard it before yet it is the kind of song that sounds like it has been around forever. "Slung-Lo" is all sunshine and morning dew yet it keenly acknowledges that to appreciate the overlooked stuff of life we have to at least have spent a little time in the darkness as well.

There's probably plenty of music right now to fill up all the heads that exist in this moment in this world so we don't need any more songs. Yet "Slung-Lo" is a great example why we must keep our ears open and our heart in a like state. As we go along it might be more and more difficult to do just that but the rewards of a song that can get the heart beating just a little bit faster (and longer) and the body moving joyfully at the same time is something to behold and to hold on to.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Melting in Visions of a Memorable Day

"Technically, the process is brain damage,"
-Dr. Howard Mierzwiak

It's been awhile since I've been as emotionally moved by a movie as I was when watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Yes the plot sounds gimmicky: Jim Carrey plays Joel who meets Kate Winslet's Clementine on the beach. Her spontaneity wins him over. Inevitably their relationship comes apart. He's too set in his ways for her. He finds out her free spirit comes with a psychological price. One day he finds out she has undergone a procedure that erases him from her mind. He decides to get even and undergoes the same procedure to forget her. But during the memory erasing process he decides that the memory of her, as painful as it now is, is better than knowing she'll never exist for him ever again in any way shape or form.

It's a broken love story of staggering power. As the story unfolded in its clever way I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Co-written by Charlie Kaufman, the same guy who gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind is deliberately unconventional. Yet at its core, at its heart, the film wonderfully contemplates the power our memories have in coloring what we perceive our current reality truly is.

Maybe the movie moved me so deeply because the purpose of our memory has been on my mind since that question has come up several times in the memoir writing class I'm taking at the Loft with the blue-eyed editor (who happened to accompany me to Eternal Sunshine on this particularly sunny but windy Saturday afternoon). One of the women in the class has let us know she suffers from memory loss due to a medical condition. Her contributions often seem more suitable for therapy sessions than they do to a course in writing. She has told us that one of her biggest frustrations is that since different people relay different versions of events, she isn't sure what she can believe actually happened and thus her trust of her own memories of the described situations suffers.

Every Wednesday for the past several weeks I find myself sitting there with my friend, and being the only guy in a class with 17 women has been at times jarring to say the least. Yet I've found it isn't only my gender that separates me from the others. We've learned so much of memoir writing involves digging deep into memories and the woman with the medical condition isn't the only one who has questioned how much one can trust one's memory. All the others seem to write because they find it helps them sort through and remember specific memories. Not me.

I was reading one of the stories about the suicide of Spaulding Gray where it mentioned that his own writing was often based on trying to find an outlet for memories that were still too powerful, that haunted him relentlessly. Sharing his memories with others lessened the power they had over him. Having not been that much of a fan of Spaulding Gray I suddenly felt a twinge of a connection. I've always written because it felt if I didn't the images, the memories would bounce around eternally in such an overwhelming way that the only conceivable end result would be to end up crazier than I already was.

Sitting there watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind all could I remember was how much energy I've expended the past dozen years in trying desperately to forget one who I may one day manage to erase from my memory all the while sad that I now can't even quite remember how her face looked.

This is the week it's now 15 years since I took a cross country trip/journey with Stephanie Jane. It was a trip/journey that led me to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a novel. But in fulfilling that dream I put an end to my relationship with Stephanie Jane. I stayed up day and night writing that novel, taking memories of the trip, of the journey, of the relationship, of my love of Stephanie Jane and putting them down on paper so they wouldn't echo forever in my head, so the memories could escape and find a permanent place to exist. I'm not proud of that. And it remains the biggest regret of my life. By writing about, by turning my memory of all that happened and my feelings about her into a story, by blurring nonfiction and fiction I deliberately (in a self inflicted passive aggressive way) turned her from a friend into just a made up character. I wanted to forget her at the same time I was trying to immortalize her.

Repeat after me- Clementine is no Stephanie Jane. Yet the Winslet character reminded me of what I loved so dearly about my friend. Stephanie Jane wasn't there to save me from my own darkness yet after telling her (one of the first that I did) what I had recently been through, her response was so typically perfect (and nearly Clementine worthy). "We'll just have to make new memories to replace the old."

I still remember our first time out together we were at a party of somebody who was a friend of a mutual friend. Stephanie Jane sensed I was uncomfortable as I hung out in the kitchen while most of the others were in the living room. When she came back to see how I was doing I told her (carefully revealed to her) that the recently written short story about her I had shared was one of the first pieces of writing I had been able to spill out me having suffered from my first bout of writer's block. She seemed quite honored and said, "I'm gonna make a folder to keep all your writing in."

In the memorable imagery of the movie as Carrey's Joel character is having his memory erased bit by bit we see remembered objects like fences, houses, books, and blankets systematically deleted from his mind. It's wonderful movie imagery, quite effectively capturing that dream like state where you wake up wanting to remember what your mind has just created knowing that no matter how hard you try what you keep when you awake for real won't be what you want to try to always remember.

Likewise it's Winslet's Clemetine who urges Carrey's Joel that to bypass what's happening, to ultimately remember her and his love for her he has to somehow place her in places she didn't really exist. So in a great scene he remembers a time when he was a child watching his mother leave him to a related babysitter- only in his memory he has placed Clementine, dressed in an aunt's mini-skirt and go-go boots as he is a little man-child hiding underneath the family's kitchen table. The proportions shown in the scene are all out of whack and as the memory erasers proceed Joel sees it all whirling down the drain of the kitchen sink, choking on his own breath.

I wanted Stephanie Jane to save me. I had fallen and I wanted her to be the one to pick me up. I later saw that wasn't fair and her limping away in her own way let me know that. I thought her last words to me were going to be, "I still feel the same as always" after I told her that seeing her for the last time sent me way over the edge.

And then 12 years later September 11 happened in our country. And I accidentally found Stephanie Jane again. I called her and she was shocked to hear from me. We cautiously revealed all that had passed since the last time we had spoken. Her voice so familiar shocked me when she said that our true shared love- music- didn't mean as much as it used to. And when I told her how much of her remained inside of me, I think she was honored, disturbed, saddened, and proud, all at the same time.

As Eternal Sunshine revealed itself I knew the tears in my eyes were mine and mine alone. One can't hold on to what one remembers all in the sake of some noble devotion to the importance of one's past.

I remember each and every moment with Stephanie Jane with such clarity despite how much I've tried so hard to forget. Maybe it was writing it all down. Maybe it was that she got through at a time when I needed something and someone to get through and I was willing to reach out to the one with a dreamlike kindness and limp. As much as I idealized her I've come to realize she wasn't a spirit who survived to rescue me. Her growing up in foster homes, smoking, drinking, and stumbling too much I didn't see her for what she told me she was. Yet I did see her for all she could be even if she never quite knew that. I'll always remember that.

Rewrite or Redo

I remember she told me over a glass of whiskey water and a self rolled cigarette that when she grew up she wanted to be a Virginia Slims model. At the time she was wearing her familiar wardrobe of a black T-shirt with a pocket above her left breast, jeans, and high-top black canvass Converse sneakers. Years later I had to admit that I probably couldn't have picked her out of a crowd but I probably would have picked her out of a police lineup. After telling me what she wanted to be I told her my own secret. I wanted to be singer/songwriter Smoky Robinson because after all he had been through he seemed like he was happy. We were sitting in a tiny cube built for children when I told Stephanie Jane that I was haunted. And with great care she told me what we needed to do was make new memories to replace the old.

Growing up I've had two recurring dreams. One involves me wearing a hard earned gray felt hat and getting innocently shot in the head, accidentally stumbling into the line of gunfire and ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though it always scares me (and in many ways scars me) I somehow manage to comfort myself by thinking the dream is a byproduct of watching too much TV. In the other dream I'm lying on a foreign beach where everyone else talks with an Australian accent while I am playing with the impossibly white and warm and comforting hourglass tumbling sand between my toes. Out of nowhere a woman with a limp emerges from the shadows. Without a word she slips her hand into mine, fingers intertwining as we walk without a word together along the edge of the ocean.

I met Stephanie Jane after a long hard fall. My inner voice was shot and suddenly for the first time in my life disconnected and distant. I had been called back to a job I had quit to try and write something, anything, and we were scheduled to work a shift together. The first thing I noticed about her was that she had a distinct hobble. She told me she had a skiing accident the past winter leaving two screws in her knee and a scar on her leg that she wasn't afraid to show me, a complete stranger. A month later she invited me to the airport to see her off to Australia and I couldn't decide whether I could take the step forward and somehow go. At the last minute I drove like crazy to wish her well but she was already gone.

During her last hours all the way around the world on a beach, Stephanie Jane searched for the perfect rock to bring back to me. That perfectly palm sized, pink and red heart shaped rock is still perhaps my fondest possession in this world. Through the years whenever I feel I've lost my way I hold on to that rock for a moment and it reminds me of how far I've come, how many steps I've since been able to take.

When she got back from all the way around the world, from that place that appeared in a once upon a time dream of mine, Stephanie Jane drew a cross country map of a trip we were going to take together. She asked me if I was serious about leaving it all behind, if I was willing to leave all I had, all that was bouncing around painfully inside, behind. We were walking around the road by her parents house in Inver Grove Heights underneath the moonlit sky and I was wearing a light blue sweatshirt she loaned to me to keep me warm in the new spring air. We ultimately took the trip, following exactly the path she had mapped. When we got back I ended up fulfilling my lifelong dream of writing a novel while losing her friendship. I happened to run into her the night I finished writing the novel and was bringing it to Kinkos to make a copy. We looked at each other in the twilight and both fell a long long way. I landed far beyond a self-inflicted numbness. She told me her knees shook all the way home. We ended that phone call with what I thought were her last words to me, "I still feel the same as always."

I never said out loud to her I loved her but I assumed my writing unfortunately said what I couldn't say to her. She was the kindest, most nurturing soul I've ever encountered.

In the days after the terrorist attack of 9/11 I somehow stumbled across Stephanie Jane's name and phone number in a database. A dozen years and one day short of five months to the date we returned from our trip I called her. "Oh my God," she said upon hearing who was calling. I said I still remembered and still cared and was so sorry for how in the end I fractured and sent chards of glass undeservedly in her direction. I foo fooey told Stephanie Jane that since the end during every Sandra Bullock movie I've since seen how I was somehow reminded of her. Something about their eyebrows, or their mouths, or their eyes, or the soothing and perceptive senses of humor that won't let go. A bit of anger crept into the conversation when I told her I was sorry for how it ended. The now married Duluth seamstress sounded the same as she had all those years ago. I asked her if anyone had ever told her that she reminded them of Sandra Bullock. "Only about fifty times a day," she said. "Just yesterday the guy at the liquor store told me that and then he carded me." We shared a laugh one last time.

Monday, April 5, 2004

Buzzin Bees Flyin' from the Phone

Alberta screamed as she was suddenly stung from a hive of bees flying out of the phone that buzzed by as she held the receiver by her right ear. The sting stung more than it hurt, and somehow it contained some type of venom that caused her to flash back to yet another faraway yet too near place.

In this other world Alberta's mom still was alive. The tradeoff was that Alberta found herself confined to a less than real mental hospital. Sure she could leave but only if she signed some papers that said the staff didn't recommend that she did so and instead recommended that she was a candidate to zaps to the brain, electroshock therapy that was sure to guarantee short term memory loss in favor of a need to forget the recent past.

In her real world Alberta constantly found herself at odds with what was going on. She somehow always wanted to go back yet she didn't. She saw herself as a hyper-sensitive superhero prone to being aware of all that was going on around her even if no one else save for the lone red-head was. Her gift of memory was just as much a curse as a blessing. Go explain that to your drug prescribing nearby neighborhood analyst.

If only she could let go, if only she could come to trust all that went before. Far be it for her to make fun of the suffering she heard existed for others- nope she would always relate- still she couldn't see a reciprocal arrangement exists for her need and convenience. On her way home from the hospital Alberta's mom says the kindest thing anyone has ever said to her. "I've always loved how during our during the most difficult times in our family how you're the one who always knows what to say to make everyone laugh," she said.

When he told her that he loved her but could never be in love with her, the walls crashed and Alberta just knew she'd never feel the same way ever again. In place of passion a numbness appeared and unlike that so called much ballyhooed breakdown she realized it wasn't a matter of feeling too much it was a matter of not being able to feel much of anything. Therapy was recommended by a close friend who didn't know any better. But the last bout of that route led Alberta to feel different from others in that group therapy she found herself in; she wasn't trying to get in touch with her feelings, she was trying not to feel as close to her feelings.

A week into the hospitalization after the sting Alberta had gotten used to the florescent light on the wall above her bed's pillow being kept on all night and the hourly check in from a nurse during the night. What she hadn't gotten used to was Lloyd, a fellow patient constantly strolling up and down the hallway. And Alberta wasn't sure what to make of the day she was brought down to the arts room to try her hand at homemade leather work or pottery.

Ten years after her last writing class Alberta found herself taking another with a new friend who hadn't been around (or very old) when another world existed. The class required that each participant read and/or share a couple of pieces of work with the others. In one of such efforts Alberta found herself writing about the death of her mother and the subsequent death of her cat who had played such a prominent role in helping Alberta deal with the loss of the one who had always believed so deeply in her abilities, in her abilities to mend her own ways. She showed the piece to a friend who said it wasn't as advertised, it wasn't about her cat. So Alberta went out of her way and deleted the part about her mother.

Alberta had to make a choice. What place did she belong and more importantly what place did she want to remain? She was no superhero yet she was tired of the constant self inflicted suffering. Where did her friends and family fit in? Alberta saw the look in her mother's eyes as she let go. She knew where she was and where she would always be at. Ultimately the choice didn't make her feel any better, any more comfortable.