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.
I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:
Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.
These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.
Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself. When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.
What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.
Those suspicions come down to two related arguments: 1. You can’t possibly dance well. 2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.
When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.
When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.
Maybe the first band I ever got obsessed with was R.E.M., and the peak years of my obsession were like 1991 to 1993—i.e., the Out of Time and Automatic for the People era. I listened to these records hundreds of times, just hundreds. And then around 1999 I pretty much never listened to them again.
Tastes change. I don’t know that I need to say anything more about it. And yet here I am about to: these records had too many soft textures for me to get excited about listening to them. They weren’t necessarily too slow and still—I listen to Smog once every other week or so, another onetime obsession. They were very 90’s.
And they both had all these missteps. “Radio Song”‘s cornyness. “Man on the Moon”‘s pollyannaism. I got “Ignoreland” of all things stuck in my had a few weeks back and when I listened to it I just got embarrassed. “I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this so fuck you, man.” And that “yeah yeah yeah” in the background of the chorus? Awful.
Could I make a better R.E.M. record out of these two subpar R.E.M. records? Yes. I loved the band enough to do this for them.
I laid some ground rules:
I couldn’t make a record longer than Automatic (48 mins) or shorter than Out of Time (45 mins).
I had to mix the tracks among each other, and not block sort them by album.
I couldn’t follow any song with the song that follows it on the original.
I had to make a record I wouldn’t want to skip any song of, but play all the way through.
I had to call the whole thing Outtamatic.
I wanted a rule that no track could appear at the same position it appeared in either original, but that didn’t work out; “Me in Honey” is my favorite album closer in all of R.E.M.’s catalog. Maybe one of my favorite album closers of all time. I wasn’t about to close Outtamatic with anything else.
Here’s the tracklist. If you’re on YouTube you can stream it here.
2. Monty Got a Raw Deal
5. Sweetness Follows
6. Shiny Happy People
7. New Orleans Instrumental No. 1
9. Half A World Away
10. Country Feedback
11. Star Me Kitten
12. Me in Honey
As you can see I wasn’t very kind to Mike Mills, and as a big huge B-52’s fan I’ve left all of Kate Pierson’s songs intact. I took it as a challenge to include “Shiny Happy People”, which if you ask me holds up better than “Losing My Religion” or “Everybody Hurts” in terms of overplayed R.E.M. songs.
Anyway it’s a better record, so rejigger your listening mechanisms and enjoy it when it comes up in the queue—if anyone’s queueing whole records in 2018.