The title for this series of posts (read Part I here) was taken from Bill Fay’s song “Pictures of Adolf Again”:
In the papers, on the TV screens
Pictures of Adolf again
As sure as I sit here there will appear
Pictures of Adolf again
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
If you say Adolf he won't come
OK deny representation
By leaders of all nations
But have you got, have you really got
Anyone to replace them?
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
OK then who's gonna come?
Christ or Hitler? Christ or Vorster
Christ or all the Caesars to come?
That's the choice, that's the choice
Sooner or later
That's the choice, that's the choice
You're gonna have to make
Fay is singing, on an album filled with second-coming hopes, about the perils of placing politicians in the role of heroes and even anti-heroes. He’s asking us to think about what happens when we idolize men whose chief aim is power, even when we believe they’ll use that power for good.
Fay’s choice is Christ, whose aim always is to eschew power, give everything away, love all equally. Our answer need not be so Christian, but I’m trying to ask similar questions about what happens when we perpetuate images of men we loathe, and we continually tell stories about how these men we’ve caught are predators. We likely don’t look closely enough at those predation dynamics—who is hunting whom, who is in the strong position and who is in the weak—because we may soon find that the evil one, the predator we both hate and fear, is us.
The thing about Rocky Horror Picture Show is that all the sexy, heroic men die and only the unsexy men—I mean this in terms of bodies but mostly in terms of minds—get to survive. Meat Loaf, who died today, played Eddie, a delivery boy, who for much of my life was the RHPS character I pined the most for. Because I mean look at this man:
Anyway, in the height of the pandemic I wrote a likely unpublishable essay about the ways RHPS intersected with, amplified, and informed my younger body’s developing eroticisms. Who cares, right? But Meat Loaf died today, and though I was never a fan of his music, I loved him, desperately, for enough years that today, in honor of his life and what he gave me, I want to share this excerpt:
In a dream, you walk through your home, which may be the home you live your waking life inside or may be a home your dream has fashioned for you. You turn a dusty corner, open a suspect door, and there it is: a spare room you never knew about. Or sometimes it’s a whole wing of rooms, expansive, promising, ready to be filled. For a long time, that’s what sex became: an extra wing. An affirmation that somewhere within me lay an allure I didn’t know I had. Or a strength. There’s a wish we quiet young men have to shout the loudest inside a loud room.
I grew up to have a quiet voice, and quiet voices wait. There’s going to be a lull. Really, any minute now. Eddie bursts literally onto the scene without so much as a pause, his arrival announced by a siren, an urgent blinking light, Columbia screaming his name. He is a wild, undead thing, an icy, sideburn’d blast from the past, wearing denim and leather, with a motorbike and a saxophone—all the paraphernalia of the dangerous boy your parents are quick to hate.
Eddie wears HATE on his left hand. His danger is that he needs nobody, he doesn’t even need to be looked at. Eddie is all eyes; the gash across his forehead forms a bleeding unibrow to frame them, and at one moment, singing to Columbia, his eyebrows pop with a subtle shrug, suggesting both how passionately he can fall for a girl just from the taste of her, and how little it really matters, how this sort of thing happens to him every time he crosses the street.
The flash of that look floods Columbia with a sea of promises. It’s as dense with feeling as a deathbed’s I’m sorry. For years I watched and waited for it.
Eddie’s body is nothing to look at. The body is something to fuck with. Shoot up junk with. It’s a barrel, a boulder, a bulk that blocks everybody’s path, and it serves as a means of bringing other bodies closer. All he has to do is pull one finger himward and Columbia comes running. He expects her to. Just the sight of him makes everyone in the room scream and run, but soon he has them all dancing, singing a song about fucking teen girls.
Do they know they’ll soon be singing songs about Eddie? “I very nearly loved him,” Columbia will say, and for years I wondered what it was that held her back. When you see sexy bodies everywhere but a mirror, you don’t feel that sex is yours to try. Sex becomes for other people, like jiujitsu or Finnish. I never had a Rocky body. All I wanted was to be looked at by a big man telling me how fun sex was. What more, I wondered, could love be?
LOVE is on Eddie’s right hand. His jerking-off hand? Eddie the ex-delivery boy embodies dark secrets and regrets and failures. The promise of Rocky is that manufactured sexiness can be made real. The promise of Eddie is that your first attempts, your shortcomings, your monstrousnesses will return and haunt you. They’ll show up the moment you think you’re free of them, requiring you to dig out the pickaxe. Add it to Eddie’s allure: he’s alive for 3 minutes and 20 seconds, but they can’t stop talking about him. What a guy. He’s the loudest man in the room, even long after they eat him.
I. But not for its preciousnesses. My office on campus, that is. (My home I share has only a bedroom and the other room.) Imagine you’re standing in the doorway and able somehow to see ahead of you and to the right at the same time and here’s how it looks:
Even if you don’t know me you’ll note a number of preciousnesses: yarn art, taxidermy, an afghan my grandma crocheted in the 1970s, the wood clock with a plastic caught-marlin face I made for my dad in shop class in 7th grade, the one hand-written rejection I got from The New Yorker in grad school, I could go on. No, there’s no window in there, which I’d always considered a dealbreaker but here we are, eight years in with this space, and I miss it, but like I said not for its preciousnesses.
If I had anybody I could make a deal with on this, I’d be willing to lose all that if it would get me access. I miss just getting to sit in there, alone.
II. One thing nobody has ever really written about is how writers need a room of their own.
III. I will try to explain. This morning I took my walk through the park and decided to listen to a podcast, which I don’t usually do, not a podcast listener here, and I looked through suggested ones and decided on Song Exploder, which a friend had once recommended to me, and sorting through the episodes I downloaded the one with Phil Elverum about “I Want Wind to Blow”, the lead track off a record I’ve loved for more than a decade.
I walked through Heroes Grove, which is a long thin stretch of tall redwood trees that smell cedary and wet (I take my mask off in there), and Elverum was talking about how Calvin Johnson gave him a key to Dub Narcotic Studio, and he’d just spend all his time there recording, and trying things out and failing and trying again, and that’s when I missed my campus office, again.
In grad school, I moved in with Neal, into a place we called the Barbie Dream Condo, because it looked like a 1970s angular ski chalet with big round fireplace and exposed beams everywhere. It had two bedrooms and I was given, or I outright took, the other bedroom as my office. The second year we lived there I was given a fellowship that let me off the hook from having to teach to pay my tuition bill, and that was the year I finished my book proposal. I wrote it slowly. A lot of mornings I wouldn’t feel great about my ability to finish the book, or I’d feel lonely, or I’d be disinterested in looking again at porn, or all three of these, and I’d pick up the nearby guitar and try to record a song somebody else wrote. I used Garageband, I learned effects and things, and that year I recorded track-for-track covers of Smog’s Wild Love, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, and Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie.
What was fun about recording other people’s songs? There was the pleasure of getting it right. Most of the chords or tabulature I needed had long before been posted online, but sometimes I had to discover them myself. Like with “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” on Bee Thousand:
It’s a puzzle pleasure, figuring it out, matching the patterns. But the other pleasure was creative, trying to add or insert something that felt like my own. Like how “Pigpen” ends—in the original recording, they dub in a jam from an outtake (“2nd Moves to Twin” featured on King Shit and the Golden Boys) and so I did the same, from everything I’d previously built when trying to record Of Montreal’s “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leofling” (which closes out the perfect Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?). Another example: I hated how “Gold Star for Robot Boy” sounded without a live band behind me, so I turned it into a limping folk waltz.
I’m not a songwriter, and I’m not a loner. I know that I’m a social person, which is why this month especially has been hard, but why then was it so easy to live virtually alone in rural Finland for a month last year? It felt so good to be so alone for so long, and so fulfilling. And the reason was that I had a room of my own: my desk in there was the biggest I’ve ever had, magically, and it sat at the very top of a the house, it was the last door at the end of the hall, and the windows I faced looked out to yellow birch trees rising above suburban roofs, and powerlines three or four magpies would always be perched along.
I got a lot done there. These days I have that time, but not that space.
IV. Now I’m back to preciousness. Forever I’ve wanted to be the sort of person who could work anywhere. A novelist I know who writes in series, and who publishes sometimes 4 books a year, once met us for a drink, and when we showed up at the bar she was sitting on a bench with her laptop open, writing more of her current novel. It’s always seemed to me a stronger sort of art practice, and I’ve tended to read my inability to follow it as evidence that I’m not really a writer, or that I’m posing, still, at this role I shouldn’t have tried to take up.
Right now I’m sitting in the room that’s not our bedroom. Neal is on the sofa and I’m in the recliner. He’s watching Happiest Season on the TV and I’m listening to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me in my headphones. Normally when I try to work at home I go to the bedroom and sit up in bed, my ass where my head rests at night, but I don’t feel like doing that today, and anyway it hurts my back, so I’m here, distracted every few minutes by something Kristin Stewart or her girlfriend is doing on the screen. It’s okay, the distraction, but this is the kind of writing I can do here. Blog posts. Hallmark Christmas Movie liveblogs. If I can call these things essays they aren’t working very hard, because I can’t.
So I miss the one room on this planet where I’m allowed to go inside and sit, and where I can expect nobody else will come inside. My guess is this is a luxury, that most people on this planet don’t have such a room. So I’m trying not to beg sympathy about this.
The context: this virus forced my workplace to close its dorms, which has led to around $50 million in lost revenue, and my school is broke and poor, comparatively, so this is (or this is being presented to us as) a real budget scare. My salary was cut by 9% a week or so after my partner was laid off at his nonprofit, whose revenue was also cut by the lack of outdoor park events in a pandemic. To save money, my school has closed down all but 2 or 3 buildings, shutting off the power and no longer staffing custodians. This is saving my school a reported $400,000 a month. So even though it’s two blocks from where I’m sitting, and even though nobody is in there, I can’t go into my office because it would require expensive electricity and someone to clean the toilets and urinals after I used them.
When this was made clear to me in August, I decided I was a fool for trying hard to be in my office all the time. Was this really a year to work hard, or was this a year instead to stay mentally and bodily healthy? My school didn’t need me at my best this year.
I still feel that way, but I miss my office. And here’s the thing I’m only just now realizing: it’s not even mine. It’s theirs.
V. If I had a room of my own, I would just sit in it. That would be the point. Then, in time, I’d write something there I liked.
I’m reading these days about the history of opera, specifically the fall of the castrati and rise of the soprano, and thus the aria, and I remembered this, which I wrote in 1994:
That’s a scan from our high school’s literary magazine. I’m proud of this thing, and I like—playing it for the first time in 25 years via musical typing on Garageband—that I chose C minor, of all keys. I also find it very funny. The dynamics!
Title is probably an homage to Camper Van Beethoven’s “Ambiguity Song”. Anyway, this is what a high school junior does when he’s afraid of drugs and sex.
Once, back in Nebraska, I asked my friend Mathias what it was about death metal that he liked so much. I found death metal fascinating as an idea but dull to listen to. It took him a few seconds to think of a response, and his answer astounded me:
“That’s the sound I hear in my head all the time,” he said. “So it’s almost soothing.”
Was he kidding? Possibly yes, probably no, but either way I took it to heart. Left in solitude, and quietude, our brains play a soundtrack of noise and feedback from our lives and the thoughts that careen around in there. Everyone’s soundtrack might be as original as their fingerprint.
And I’ve taken it to heart when I’ve come to understand some of the music I find myself drawn to, and soothed by. If Mathias hears blastbeats and deathgrowls, what I hear is a lot of quickly busy machinations. Or like imagine the nonsynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees—if that’s what bees are doing while they make honey, is chew stuff?
Some clips, by way of example:
I know 2 people who know of Operation Re-Information, a trio that formed and disbanded during the years I lived in Pittsburgh. This album will forever live in my top 5 of all time, and I don’t have anyone else to share my love for it with, and if you listen to the record all the way through it’s probably clear why: it’s not for everyone. But I hear it like a warm bath.
This is one of my favorite guitar solos ever, and it is to guitar solos what Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is to the Stones’ version: stunted, desexed, neurotic. Do these adjectives reveal my heart to you?
This is perfect music. This is what all classical music should be up to. It’s so busy. It doesn’t stop. It’s hard to write about how this busybusyness stirs emotion in my heart, but it has something to do with the way minimalism (which we’re not at all working with here) works a thing over and over and over to build a foundation for the shift that comes eventually. Bill Callahan does this very well. When you hear one chord for long enough, over and over, the presence of a second chord can floor you, if timed right. It’s like a surprise and a gift but also a cannon or like a beanbag shot at you from riot police. There’s a spatial way you’ve been suddenly pulled from a dark corridor into a room full of light that wins my gratitude every time.
This one’s my favorite. I don’t listen to Sufjan Stevens much these days, usually wanting something less soft and more with an edge, but I’ll always be grateful for these 38 seconds where there’s so much going on for me to hear. Sometimes I like to tune into the clarinets that toot on 3-and-1-and-2, 3-and-1-and-2, and sometimes I like to hear the acoustic guitar whose bass note pattern steadies of 2-beat rhythm amid this 3 cadence.
Those 38 seconds are the music that’s playing in my head at any given moment. If you’re talking to me, that’s the soundtrack I’m tuning out so I can have a conversation.
Last week, my longtime friend Beage texted into a chain we have with our other longtime friend Farrell the question: “White Album: disc #1 or disc #2? Go!” Farrell and I, and Beage, being still, especially around each other, the adolescents we were when we three became friends, immediately went on the attack, arguing our choices.
In short: Beage said 2 (less consistent, better hits) and Farrell and I said 1, and we argued a lot about Paul, and we agreed “Honey Pie” is a garbage song, and were split on “Yer Blues”, which I submit is maybe worse than “Honey Pie” but blah blah blah.
Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to sit through hourslong debates about these pop music minutiae anymore, but often times I miss them.
“Oh well probably now we each have to make The White Album #1.5” I texted, and it was on.
I couldn’t make a record longer than either disc (47 and 48 mins, according to my iTunes)
For elegance’s sake I couldn’t open or close with any opener or closer from either disc, nor could I sort any track in the same spot it has on the original
Because both discs have at least 2 songs each by John, Paul, and George, I had to have 2 songs by each, including Paul (I was originally planning on putting none, because I think very little of Paul McCartney)
Because both discs have 1 Ringo song I needed 1 Ringo song, which was easy, because “Don’t Pass Me By” is one of the Beatles’ greatest hits
Unlike Out of Time and Automatic, there are very few unlistenable songs on these records, and the hardest part was cutting out half of them. Also, a number of songs bleed together, making them unsequenceable without their counterparts. “Dear Prudence”, for instance, starts with plane noise from “Back in the USSR”, so it was out.
My process was to find the one song I wanted to open with, to set a mood, to be funny, to imagine a far different record than those guys did, using all their old materials.
I chose “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
From there, I tried to find the best track to follow it. And then the best track to follow that one. I wanted to make as cohesive a cut as the original, just half the length. So I went on and on until I got to “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was always going to be my closer.
I called it The Wide Album. Here’s how it ended up:
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Long, Long, Long
Wild Honey Pie
Cry Baby Cry
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
Mother Nature’s Son
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Don’t Pass Me By
Look, I’m as surprised as you are by all the Paul in there, but here I am, learning things about myself. My only rule downfall was slotting “Blackbird” at track 11, because it’s track 11 on the original.