Category Archives: music


Seldom songs will just be played
When it’s not the music
That we need, but
The words.
I would want your love, laying
Right at that couch, in
The living room.
I would want that touch, not
For I need what love gives
But to realise,
All what it failed to make
Of our lives.


Picture : Well, that’s me chilling at the beautiful coastal city of Kochi

Day Breaks: Understanding Life’s Journey through Full Circle

Norah Jones has witnessed a magnitude of success that was quite overwhelming for her own devices. What could’ve been just another experimentation of a pseudo jazz artist, developed into this whole new genre of contemporary music that had overlapping tones of pop and blues. Come Away With Me as a record librated Norah from a sculpting phase of an artist where one simply tries to shape oneself to fit the voids carved out by the industry.

The resounding success of her debut studio album led to a series of transcending musical adventures where genres such as country and indie pop were also explored. In a span of four studio albums we saw Norah grow musically with her commercial prowess unable to keep up with such diversification.

It was in 2012, that Norah Jones deviated the most from her self produced ‘style’ and released Little Broken Hearts that brought electronic undertones to both her music and vocals. The mixed reviews from the critics and lukewarm reception from the audience kind of faded Norah’s presence from the music scene for at least four years. She did have a couple of collaborative albums being released with The Little Willies and Billie Joe but both the works were merely covers of classical hits.

So after this history of rise and apogee of Norah Jones’s musical trajectory, how do we perceive her new album. Well, the answer comes from the singer herself.

Day Breaks has been translated as an album that shows the completion of Norah’s full circle. This term is quite intriguing for it not only represents a journey but also the various threads of realisation that a person has imbued while embarking upon it. Like a circle is made up of many points that lead to the meeting of the starting point with the end, a full circle journey is one’s professional or personal travel that crosses various moments with each having its own space and value in the whole.

In the lead single Carry On, Norah goes back to perch behind her piano and belt out a soothing melody about the most ordinary yet unfelt moments of romance. Though the lyrical context has matured, the glimpse of that innocent smile breaking between piano solos is still the same. Day Breaks have given a rebirth to Come Away With Me with a refined flavour of instrumental profoundness. There are welcoming features of organ, double bass and saxophone. This is not just Norah going back to her debut era but it’s also a celebration of what she has become today.

So, how does this full circle album treats us? The very idea of going back to your roots, embracing your beginnings, is potentially very impacting in one’s quest for answers about self. We often tread upon various versions of ourselves and get thrown into this twisted maze of complexities about our own identity. It is during this mayhem, that going full circle becomes an answer to that much needed calmness.

Reiterating it yet again, going full circle doesn’t reflect loss or giving up. Neither does it stand for denying what the present shows itself to be. One should not confuse this idea with lack of prospective thinking or death of creativity. This is because you can never make a circle until you merge all the points. Or you ignore to tap upon them. When you go full circle you not only begin to understand your own evolution as a person but also find yourself at a position where you can objectively differentiate between substance and superficial. You get the power to describe your own history and take pride in what you’ve done. Such constructive approach towards past can build strong foundations for future realisation of one’s potential. Therefore, instead of crumbling walls of pride, going full circle makes you preserve the ones that matter.

One should hardly pay attention to the commercial success of Day Breaks because that’s not what Norah seems to prioritise with this album. This album is a realisation, a celebration that has made us realise what Norah Jones was, is and can potentially blossom into.


Picture Credits – Rolling Stones

David Bowie Was Probably Worse Than A Rapist

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University back in the 1980s, my favorite book was probably Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. Made into a film in 1971 by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, it told the story the last days of Gustav von Aschenbach. A renowned German novelist in his early 50s, Aschenbach, who is suffering from writer’s block, has come to Venice to get back in touch with the wellsprings of his creative imagination. Instead, he develops an obsession with a teenage boy, a Polish aristocrat on holiday with his family. Death in Venice isn’t a “coming out” story. Visconti was openly gay, and Mann certainly “gay curious”, but Aschenbach is heterosexual. Tadzio, the Polish teenager, does not represent a suppressed homosexual impulse finally liberated by the necessity of coming to terms with writer’s block. Rather, he is the unattainable aesthetic ideal an artist follows until he can no longer find the strength or discipline to pursue his calling. At age 50, Aschenbach has come to the end of his creative life. “There is no impurity,” the dying Aschenbach recalls a colleague saying as he watches Tadzio play on the beach, “so impure as old age.”

So why was I as a 20-year-old so fascinated by a novel about a middle-aged German novelist dying of cholera in early-Twentieth Century Venice? I was of course neither middle-aged nor gay, but I had reached puberty in the late 1970s. The late 1970s, which I now recognize to be final sickly years of the counter culture of the 1960s, were a terrible time to be a adolescent boy. Rock n Roll had long since abandoned the radical, utopian dream of the New Left and the anti-war movement, and had given way to pure hedonism and decadence. Nevertheless, the music industry, which was thoroughly rotten and corrupt, had still retained its rebellious glamour, it’s “cool,” its air of revolution. Just because a particular form of art is dying, doesn’t mean it can’t also throw up brilliant individuals on its deathbed, and the 1970s saw the breakthrough of some of the greatest rock musicians of all, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Freddy Mercury, and of course, David Bowie.

David Bowie, like Michael Jackson and Madonna, had essentially conquered old age, the plague that destroyed Gustav Aschenbach. The problem was in how he conquered it. Thomas Mann, who saw deeply into the rotten heart of capitalist civilization, understood the process that would eventually drive Michael Jackson insane. Towards the end of Death In Venice, the wellsprings of his creativity now completely dry, and painfully conscious of his middle-aged appearance, Aschenbach visits a make up artist, an almost Satanic figure who, like Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeons, promises to restore his youth. It doesn’t work. Aschebach emerges from the make up studio looking, not like a 20-year-old, but like a painted clown. What undoubtedly gifted musicians and song writers like Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Bowie, tried to do in their art was to replace the normal aging process with the immortality that comes with changing your act in response to a changing marketplace. For Thomas Mann, the idea that you could restore the creativity of your youth by reinventing yourself was fraud. For Jackson, Madonna, and Bowie, it was the gimmick that won them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams.

Madonna was a mediocrity who benefited from breaking into the music industry at the beginning of the MTV-era, but Bowie and Michael Jackson were geniuses who could change their style as easily as taking off one mask and putting on a new one. As soon as the culture changed, either of them could come up with a new act that not only made them money, but allowed them to express themselves in a way nobody had ever imagined. Michael Jackson went from child-star to MTV super-star. David Bowie went from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke. The price that Jackson paid for his drive to remain youthful well into middle-age is well known, racial self-hatred, self-mutilation, pedophilia, and finally early death. We had all thought David Bowie had escaped, that he had gotten away with it, had defied the aging process, and remained vital until his death at the age of 69. More critical observers realized that he hadn’t. Irvine Welsh, in his novel Trainspotting, spoke of Bowie as just another rock star who had “it” when he was young, but lost it in middle-age. A few honest fans recognize that he hadn’t done anything particularly memorable after the early 1980s, but fading away into the mediocrity of old age had been the least of David Bowie’s problems.

If everything in this interview is true, David Bowie should have done prison time for statutory rape.

“Next time Bowie was in town, though, maybe five months later, I got a call at home from his bodyguard, a huge black guy named Stuey. He told me that David wanted to take me to dinner. Obviously, I had no homework that night. Fuck homework. I wasn’t spending a lot of time at school anyway. I said that I would like to go but that I wanted to bring my friend Sable. She was dying to fuck Bowie. I figured that she would sleep with him while I got to hang out and have fun. At the time, Sable and her sister Coral were both dating Iggy Pop, spending time at the home of Tony DeFries [then-manager of David Bowie and Iggy] up in Laurel Canyon. People there were so high all the time — Quaaludes, heroin, whatever. In the limo ride to the Rainbow, Sable said, “If you touch David, I will kill you.” I didn’t think she was kidding.”

If Lori Mattix, David Bowie’s 14-year-old “lover” is to be believed, Bowie did more than commit an indiscretion. He didn’t just get drunk or get high at a party and unknowingly fuck a young girl without asking for her ID. Fully sober, he sent his bodyguard to procure a child for sex, and it wasn’t only Bowie. It was Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and just about everybody else in the corporate music industry. Michael Kaplan’s interview with Lori Mattix illustrates the sickness at the hear t of the corporate music industry in a way perhaps not even he understands. If David Bowie had been a fat, 50-year-old banker in Thailand paying for child prostitutes we’d be calling for him to be sent to the guillotine. If he had been a 25-year-old sergeant in the United States Marine Corps who stood by and watched under age girls being procured for sex for visiting diplomats, we’d be calling for him to be sent to Leavenworth. The fact the he was talented, charismatic rock musician shouldn’t excuse it. In fact, it makes it worse. David Bowie, and every other rock musician who participated in group sex with under age girls, perverted their art, exploited children, not only physically, but spiritually. They seduced an entire generation of Late baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers into worshipping idols, into looking to corporate mass culture, instead of to themselves, for enlightenment.

If Lori Mattix argues that her sex with David Bowie was consensual that’s part of the problem. Lori Mattix is now a woman well into middle-age, still arguing that drugging and raping 14-year-olds is not only acceptable, but “beautiful.” She comes off like a member of a cult, her morals, even her ability to think clearly, having been destroyed by the corporate mass culture she worships, and by the idea that once, as a young girl, she had access to the rich and powerful. It’s likely that if David Bowie had stood up and denounced the sexual exploitation of children in the early 70s, it might have been the end of his music career. Even gifted, talented performers can be replaced. But let’s not think we don’t have an example of someone who stood up and did the right thing, not only at the cost of his career, but of his life. In the 1960s, when Malcolm X realized his mentor Elijah Mohammed was sexually exploiting children, he broke with him and denounced him publicly.

“They’re afraid that I will tell the real reason that they’ve been — that I’m out of the Black Muslim movement, which I never told, I kept to myself. But the real reason is that Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenaged girls, six different teenaged girls who were his private personal secretaries. Four of them had one child apiece by him, two of them had two children and one of those two is pregnant right now in Los Angeles with his third child. The one who first made me aware of this was Wallace Muhammad, Mr. Muhammad’s son and it was their fear that if I remained in the Black Muslim movement, and this came into the knowledge of their followers that they would leave him and follow me. So a plan was immediately set in motion to take me down, put me out and the statement that I allegedly made…or not that I allegedly made, I did make it… the statement that I made about Kennedy was used as a pretext to take me down, but in reality, it was because I had come to New York and told Joseph, the captain in New York and the secretary and the minister in Boston about these children that Mr. Muhammad had and it was that, that right there was the real reason for my being out of the movement.”

Malcolm X was a hero. David Bowie was probably worse than a rapist.

Sibylle Baier – Colour Green (1973; 2006)

Driving home one evening, I recalled it had been about a month and a half since I’d stumbled across Sibylle Baier’s lost 1970s gem Colour Green. I listened with earphones that first time. But now, in the velvet darkness of the car, with barely another vehicle on the road, it was time to explore how Colour Green could transform space.

The effect proved both evocative and surprising: Baier’s songs seemed to fill the space as much as they revealed a gaping void as bottomless as her melancholy. As the tracks played, the quietness of my tiny Toyota seemed to swell beyond its tangible proportions. Baier’s soft, melancholic voice and guitar, reminiscent of Nick Drake, entranced me. Her songs transported me to the sepia-toned backdrops of her life: wintry domestic evenings, road trips to the shore, distant hillsides. I had spent some time away from the album, but now I was rediscovering each delicate note in a quiet, malleable environment, in which the songs could fully unfurl like crisp leaves slowly flattening between the pages of a book.

Baier’s compositions are cyclical. Refrains melt into verses. Songs bleed sadly into each other like watercolors running down paper. The fourteen pieces unravel as a singular composition, a long, winding exploration of the young woman’s life. Baier’s angelic vocals and acoustic technique navigate ghostly arpeggios and seamless key changes in a seesaw rhythm. The songs are intimate. Her lyrical style mimics the cyclical pattern of her sound; she releases each syllable in a rolling motion, some clauses spilling over their lines and reinforcing the song’s circular movement. This effect becomes particularly noticeable in “The End,” when she leaves the word end hanging, tacking on an extraneous vowel to round out the word and produce a lingering effect. Baier clings to the word’s finish with the same heartbroken hesitation that she conveys throughout the song, as she struggles to grasp the painful reality of a failed relationship. Even as she admits in the refrain: “It’s the end, friend of mine,” she holds fast to the notion that “life is short but love is old.” Within the circular rhythms of the notes, Baier swings, distraught, between grief and disbelief.

Many of Baier’s lyrics employ internal rhymes and repetition to maintain this pendular rhythm. In “I Lost Something in the Hills,” Baier reflects: “Oh what images return oh I yearn/ for the roots of the woods/ that origin of all my strong and strange moods.” For the first seven syllables, her voice carries the weight of deep-set nostalgia in a monotonous tone reminiscent of a medieval church choir hymn. Her rhythmic utterance of the words, coupled with the internal rhyming scheme, conveys a circular motion that transports the listener through the gloomy, atmospheric space to which she seeks return throughout the lines of the song. In “Softly,” markedly more buoyant but still reflective, Baier’s experiments with repetition and pendular rhythms become fully realized within the song’s reiterated refrain, sung in syncopation. She playfully swings between keys throughout the song in a jazz-esque dance.

This particular track, as well as the whimsical numbers “William” and “Wim,” evoke Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Drake and Baier recorded remarkably similar albums in the early 1970s; Drake’s a skeletal, stripped-down sound that diverged from his earlier work, Baier’s a series of reel-to-reel tapes recorded from home over the course of three years. While their contemporaries produced music with full, often horn-heavy instrumentation, Drake and Baier composed acoustic songs that transcended their own cultural-historical context, achieving a sense of timelessness. In Baier’s case, the belated release of Colour Green in 2006 emphasizes the album’s enduring quality.

Baier delicately bends syllables and plucks threadbare melodies that paint the vivid motifs of Colour Green. The songs are a collection of melancholic snapshots, quotidian events colored by a sweeping existential sadness. Many of Baier’s lyrics are rooted in domestic scenes. A working woman slices bread for her children; glimpses of a wintry atmosphere, a “painful February mood,” emerge above the watery surface of the lyrics. A lover sitting in his “lazy chair” asks Baier “what sorrow you bear” as she sheds tears after a harrowing workday. Interspersed between the lines of domestic imagery are small anecdotes of Baier’s travels and revelations as a young woman. In “Remember the Day,” she speaks of a moment in her life when she hovered on the brink of suicide, “considering if one shouldn’t die or if one should,” contrasting this dark contemplation with a stark image of a midday sun. Suddenly, as she recalls mustering the will to “just buy some food,” the song’s rhythm shifts and gathers tempo. She recounts finding herself heading in an unexpected direction toward Genoa, Italy. “Did you ever drive in a moonstruck constitution/ and find to reach a seaport and down there is a solution/ you should if you could,” she tells the listener. By the shore, where “there simply was the water’s smell and remoteness,” she retrieves herself, reflected in the waves of the “old cold ocean.” The visual motifs of a wintry, domestic life and thematic iterations of loss, self-discovery and nostalgic reflection unravel in a cyclical fashion reinforced by her ghostly vocals and acoustic technique.

The most evocative imagery of the album appears in “Elliott.” Long, round phrases with oddly placed emphasis unfurl monotonously from her lips. The only pause in the refrain occurs after the first three words, creating the impression that Baier’s sentences possess little to no punctuation. “I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled says Elliott.” Her use of the present tense thrusts the listener into the midst of the subject’s sad contemplation. The song revels in the melancholy persistent throughout the entire album: “Gayly clad sadness is a radical quantity says Elliott/ sadness is a long brown ribbon says he/ sadness is beautiful.” The singular image of the ribbon, haunting and mesmerizing, mimics the greater aura of the album in a micro moment of self-reflexivity.

Baier’s poetic command of language and skillful rendering of atmosphere transports the listener through the strange and dark spaces of her life. Within haunting lines depicting the grayness of existence, she provides glimmers of revelation that enlighten and cast meaning. Colour Green unravels as a manifestation of nostalgia, timeless and heartbreaking, a testament to the spiritual fortitude of a woman perpetually “seeking for return.”

Guest post by Elizabeth Hopkins.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a writer, artist, and part-time anthropologist. In her free time she likes to take photographs, eat delicious food, and jam out to good tunes, among many other things. A graduate of Skidmore College, Elizabeth is a Program Coordinator at the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, where she works collaboratively to advance environmental conservation and stewardship.

More Than a Record, Less Than Your Soul: On the Preservation of Culture

A good friend of mine owns a 1985 Plymouth Voyager woody. It was one of the first mini-vans ever produced or so he tells me. I don’t know enough about cars to say. Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments section. It has a nice look; I’ve always liked woodies. But the paneling is very worn. The car is worth about $2000 according to the Kelly Blue Book.

Already in his 60s, he’s grown understandably attached to whatever objects survived their predestined ephemerality; despite meager means he’s looking to restore the Voyager to something resembling its original state so that his 92 year old mother can take one last drive in it before she dies. This will take several times the amount of money the car is worth. The car is a model that’s been lost to time, little remarked upon, not saved in any particular quantities. In a similar vein, when he visits my apartment he seems disappointed that I’ve pulled tear-sheets out of a collection of old McCall’s magazines I bought years ago. He’s afraid that someday, as a species, we will run out of McCall’s back issues.

And in a larger but related vein the study of folk cultures there is a dialectic of the precious; the ephemerality of it all framed in a barely repressed psychosexual dynamic of the damsel in distress, the Victorian maiden so fragile they can’t be let out into the sun. Of course, this is a framing that allows for a performance with another side to it. The concern isn’t any more purely nostalgia at the loss of artifacts and places than the locomotive approaching the tied down displayed and distressed damsel is just a train. The hilariously maudlin nostalgia with which old white men now approach the Delta blues would have confounded a Charley Patton. Early field anthropology was done, intentionally or otherwise, toward an endgame of taxidermy.

Last copies of objects forgotten or otherwise disappear every day; as in the prior reversals that have defined our epoch, the right to be forgotten has replaced the quest to be remembered and our collective cultural memory is determinedly focused backwards. If there is in fact a collective consciousness we now possess the storage capacity to make its life flash before its eyes with time left to display a replay button; the development that now seems questionable is the capacity to cease the ruminating.

“Folk” of course has always been a word used to denote the “primitive” or “noble savage” strain on the domestic front; its self-awareness places the experience of it inescapably in the realm of nostalgia for its own imprecisely dated demise. Folk culture in the age of the internet is logically impossible; no one can obscure their connection to a contribution long enough to pull off the old trick of dying anonymously. The lament that the author of a folk dance or joke or tall tale died without having been acclaimed and the lament that the quaintness of some past age has deserted us reveal the circularity of this vernacular line of thought; man as lamenting machine.

The recording device destroys “folk” culture and we collectively know this even if we’re hesitant to admit it; in any catalog of musical albums the stuff labeled “folk” generally means “played on instruments and styles that predate or evoke the period before the advent of recorded sound.” Musicians hung up on the “realness” of “actual” instruments that has been “lost” in a sea of synthesizers and god knows what, complaints we’ve all been hearing since at least the 1980s, neglect the inverse complaint, the actual perversity of the act of recording a thing defined by how it wasn’t meant to be recorded or was conceived without considering any possibilities other than its own floating transience.

There aren’t regional traditions of music at this point; why should there be? You can learn it off recordings. You’re not stuck with whatever players happened to crawl through town or play the local square dance as the basis for learning how to play or compose. Life goes on. Rock and roll is dead. Rock and roll probably died around 1980. Rock and roll needed to die. The last true rock and roll band were the Rock-afire Explosion. They hit the trick first of being animated dolls that weren’t actually alive. That was the last trick rock had up its sleeve. Many rock acts after have repeated that trick unaware they’re doing it. Some have managed to make Frankensteins that walk convincingly; some may even have, on occasion, risen the dead. But the dead risen are still but the still dead, now walking.

So what is the thing after folk culture and regionalism? After the old authentic?

We’re living in it it. It will be quite some time before anything on it can be said with much of any certainty.

Forgotten Gems: John Fahey’s “Charley Patton”

If he’d never picked up a guitar, John Fahey probably could’ve been a great writer. He probably wished this was the case. His first book proper, an unusual and quite entertaining memoir, was titled unambiguously How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

However, before he wrote this, Fahey was a masters student at UCLA. And like Harry Smith, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and others, canvassing black neighborhoods door to door asking residents if they had any old 78rpm “Race Records” they’d be willing to part with. Interestingly Fahey was good friends with Barry Hansen, the man who eventually became known to insomniacs with radios as Dr. Demento.

It was during this period that Fahey produced, for my money, his best piece of writing: his masters thesis on king of the delta blues Charley Patton. This masters thesis has since been unearthed and published in paperback.

Charley Patton was possibly the wildest of the old blues guys, though details are scarce. Nobody knows when Patton was born. Fahey tracks down people including siblings and women Patton was supposedly married to and none of them remember much of anything besides that Patton drank a lot and played the guitar like he was possessed. Decades and decades before Jimi Hendrix, Patton would dance around his guitar as played it, play it behind his back, and do all sorts of other tricks while gigging with medicine shows. Patton had several wives of questionable legitimacy-when Fahey mentions them in the text the word “wife” is always in quotation marks. He drank a lot, caroused, and for the most part never the left the state of Mississippi.

According to legend, Patton died when his throat was slit with a broken bottle by a jealous woman. Fahey uncovers the even stranger truth-Patton’s final “wife” and frequent performing and recording partner Bertha Lee, did in fact slash Patton’s throat with a bottle, but Patton survived and the two were still a couple when Patton died from a heart condition couple months later.

Of course, any facts uncovered in the book are questionable; though Fahey takes the necessary steps and tracks down the people who were left who knew the man, Patton seemed destined from the beginning to exist as an enigma. Paramount sometimes wouldn’t even bother putting Patton’s name on advertisements for his 78s and just called him “The Masked Marvel”.  The question of Patton’s race and parentage has never been satisfactorily resolved. Whoever his ancestors were, they managed to get Patton in the right place at the right time so he could help birth the blues.

The awkwardness of the graduate school thesis form works to Fahey’s advantage. Fahey’s never really took academic writing very seriously. His early albums all had liner notes detailing the fictional history of a blues player who never existed named Blind Joe Death. When Fahey first released his own material he would supposedly press it on 78s under that name and hide them in record store and Salvation Army bins hoping to trick some unsuspecting musicologist into “discovering” Blind Joe Death. The last chapter of Charley Patton, on Patton’s lyrics, a subject neither Patton nor Fahey seemed to care about, becomes a masterpiece of brutal absurdist humor disguised as academic dryness for this reason. Fahey plays it so straight that it can’t help but come off as ridiculous. He’s trolling his thesis adviser, and this leads to passages like this one, on the use of interjections in Patton’s 78s:

Patton uses the words ‘Lord’, ‘Lordy’, and ‘babe’, ‘baby’ in most cases for metrical reasons to fill in a portion of the melody. An outstanding example of this is in ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, in which ‘Lordy’ or ‘Lord’ occurs 28 times. In no case is either of these words essential to or even a rational part of the text. In ‘It Won’t Be Long’ there are 14 occurrences of ‘baby’. This word is not essential to the text. In fact, the use of it in this song creates confusion by giving the impression that the singer is speaking to someone. But the stanzas indicate that he is not.

Technically accurate and exact, in Fahey’s voice it almost becomes too dry and loops around back to where it seems more like he’s hiding something. A put-on that never actually appears is felt like a phantom limb. The resultant tension produces hilarity like this chart detailing discordance and assonance between the content of what Patton is singing and the the melodic approaches taken to the material:

The descriptions of Patton’s sometimes less than coherent felt jumbling of learned verses and folk chestnuts seem to prefigure the emergence of hip hop freestyles. The record company would call the probably sloshed Patton into the recording studio and Patton would shout and growl whatever verses came to mind and sometimes intersperse spoken vamping over a fairly repetitive musical figure and somehow magic happens.

A short entertaining and thorough read for any fans of the blues or fingerstyle guitar.

Wilco-Summerteeth (1999)

This is the Wilco record to get. It sounds like unreleased Velvet Underground tracks played by the Electric Light Orchestra. The country sound that had defined Jeff Tweedy’s recordings up to the point this album came out is dicarded entirely. Something like psychedelia is attempted but not quite reached. Where psychedelia came from psychedelic drugs like LSD and marijuana, this sounds more like the work of people on larger than recommended doses of prescription painkillers. Everything on the album is recorded clean then coated with the sort of cotton candy swirl that had made the sound of The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips a little while earlier.

The lyrics are much darker than on previous Wilco albums. There are a lot of hopeless pleas. “I know that we’re just friends.” “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.” It’s blurry where Tweedy ends and the character sketches begin. His crackly not especially melodic voice is multitracked. The effect is not like on earlier examples of multitracking on LPs. Where a David Bowie track would use two tracks of Bowie singing to make his thin voice sound more soulful, the multitracking on Summerteeth just seems to accentuate the cigarette cracks in Tweedy’s throaty delivery.

The relationship between the band, producer Jim O’Rourke, and particularly the relationship between Tweedy and the now deceased Jay Bennett seems in fullest bloom. Left to his own devices, Tweedy’s genre experiments tend toward rather flat production. They sound like B-sides. Wilco The Album was, whether it thought itself to be such or not, whether the songs had appeared as flipsides to anything else prior, a collection of b-sides-at least in spirit. Summerteeth is a cohesive statement by a band at the archetypal height of their powers.

Lyrics shift between half hearted statements seemingly taken from soda jingles and the sort of self-help books sold at gas stations and bewildered accounts of murderous fantasies of the id. Lyrics like “I’m a bomb regardless”, and “I dreamed about killing you again last night” pop up in the otherwise more subtle lyrics surrounding them meant to convey a contradiction-an energetic tension between the resigned gallows humor of the vocals and uplifting nature of the statements being uttered. Most lyrics on the album are structured around a series of these common phrases until they’re betrayed at the end of a stanza or in their last repetition as a verse by a slip, such as in the much remarked upon “She’s a Jar.”

The sound is cotton candy with the attendant tooth rot. Highly recommended.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 3: The Bank

She is in the blue distance
She’s a visiting wonder
He’s in the blue distance
He’s a dream come true
Am I sleeping and weeping
Or just turning over?

-Blue Gene Tyranny, “Leading a Double Life”

Love: unfinished portraiture, the joyous transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.

Love: unfinished portraiture, the transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.

(Check out Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 here and here.)

The small repeating cast of Perfect Lives, partly a limit imposed by the necessary training required to learn how to read Ashley’s unusual notation, partly a limit of the budget, partly a limit of the cramped confines of the performance space in which it was originally done before its finished incarnation as a TV program, is, like any artistic limitation, not a thing to be written off as entirely a function of its economic circumstances without extensive considerations. Ashley sees limitations in everything up to the medium of the word so that he can assess them to suit his purposes.

That Ashley himself plays numerous characters and the narrator in the TV production is a carefully employed device. As the narrator, ostensibly a third person omniscient one for lack of a more comprehensive term to describe it, he is, like any other narrator, within the world of the narrative, God. He holds his creations loosely, but at the same time, in order to come to the creation of “art”, must structure their existence through the employment of language-verbal, written, visual, musical, or otherwise. When he steps out the position of omniscience, he’s always the character within the storyline of a given episode constricting the thrust of the story into codification. In episode two, he’s the supermarket owner who sets up and recreates the space of the supermarket; in this episode he’s the clergyman who marries Ed and Gwyn after their voyage into the night in a “car filled with holes.”

Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3's visuals, he's positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.

Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3’s visuals, he’s positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.

Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn.

Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn. Note that his hand is moving up and down to “conduct” the ceremony.

Similarly, Jill Krosen and David Van Tieghem, Ed and Gwyn, play both the old couple in episode 2 and Ed and Gwyn in this episode, drawing possible parallels; which situation is which ones past and/or future or could it all be a coincidence?

Ed and Gwyn engage both in the crime/art of the bank heist in this episode, and in perhaps an altogether more dangerous activity that could likely get them locked up far longer than taking the money, if not literally-they plan to get married. The shots of the road have gotten so tight by this point in the opera they’re almost unrecognizable as being much other than an abstraction of texture, and when we see lines on them, they’re sealant. Patchworks. Where they aren’t, they’re the playful but fleeting amendment of chalk.

The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.

The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.

Chalk line on concrete

Chalk line on concrete.

The libretto echoes the visuals and vice versa as usual.

…So, today, they leave in the dark, car

full of holes. No destination or flowers or ring. Ed and Gwyn in the front seat, and

Dwayne and me in the back. If they are engaged,

it’s someplace in the middle of the night that only they can know, and they

bury their tracks.

That’s love. I’m sure it’s night, the engagement.

Starry skies is where Ed takes ’em. (He’s no fool.) Now, one hand on the wheel,

and the

other in Gwyn’s lap, he drives (us) toward an understanding

An “understanding” in Perfect Lives is an enclosure, another point where language seems to solidify that mysterious “ball of hot stuff” only to get away. The universe of Perfect Lives is an accordion that keeps expanding and contracting in seemingly but not actual identical geometric divisions that collapse into a compressed unity only so they can expand again to make strange music. Love here is the barreling forward blind in the night against the anxieties of entrapment. The video shows repeated imagery of prison bar formations over both Ed and Gwyn; their visit to the church is visually echoed in the architecture of the bank.

Gwyn is

Gwyn is “wrapped in danger.”

Ed is locked in the future.

Ed is locked in the future, alone, a “perfect” (closed) “one”.

This imagery of bars is echoed in the bank vault where the heist takes place. The camera circles the heist from 5 directions (that I counted anyhow), and visually separates Duane and Buddy from Ed and Gwyn in the chronology of events the same way the partition of the seats separates them in the car. The heist in itself would seem to constitute its own prison break from the banality of the bank. (“Gwyn works at the bank. That’s her job. She mostly helps people count their money. She likes it.”)


Free this time.

Behind bars the next.

Behind bars the next.

The escape from something into the open freedom of not-quite something to return again to something. The money is there, then it isn’t, then it is. Cages of language are escaped briefly into the thrill and anxiety of uncertainty until they can be reformed into hopefully more amenable cages. “Underneath what it means is what it means,” as the opera eloquently puts it. The old couple at the supermarket can’t escape into anxious thrills and the unknowing (or is it not-knowing?), but Ed and Gwyn can. He “throw(s) (him)self at the feet of (her) recklessness.”

The interjections of the chorus in this episode are mostly in the form of a hilariously loopy love song, a pastiche of early 20th century American pop music; Ashley is celebrating its silly pointlessness as being exactly the point. It sounds a bit off, but then-so does love.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Pt. 1: The Park


Years ago, I became interested in the notion of involuntary speech. My way of approaching Perfect Lives came out of that interest. I had been observing people-particularly in New York-and I noticed that many many people were talking to themselves, publicly. Since I talk to myself privately, there seemed to be only a thin line between their madness and my madness. (Except I thought of mine as music.) At the same time, an idea that I was trying to confirm for myself was that there may be no problem, no discontinuity, between the thinking mode in music, and the way you correct that mode to make it something that everybody else recognizes. It’s the question of the origin of consciousness.

-Robert Ashley, printed interview

So like, um, for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do is it has to deal with, you know, with what photography also has an ontology of, except that it adds this dimension of time to it, and this greater realism. And so, like, it’s about that guy, at that moment, in that space. And, you know, Bazin is like a Christian, so he, like, believes that, you know, God obviously ended up like, everything—he believes, for him, reality and God are the same. You know, like—and so what film is actually capturing is, like, God incarnate, creating. And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table; and God as you; and God as me; and God looking the way we look right now; and saying and thinking what we’re thinking, right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God.

-Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

-William H. Gass, “On Learning to Talk”


I have tried on and off for several years to write an essay on Perfect Lives and in all of these attempts I’ve failed.  It’s the center of my personal canon; the libretto atop the pile of books that form my bible-like any good post-structural Gideon I keep them next to my bed-and I find I revisit and ponder passages from it with a frequency that far outstrips any other book. It defies categorization, understanding, it refuses to be anything but itself and evades the bounty hunters of language that might desire to tame it so it might serve them on their own terms.

As such, there are few things I can accuse Robert Ashley of “understanding” with a clean conscience. But if even the most diffuse work has some sort of pivot point, if anything has a container even if the container can’t be specified to anything smaller than “the universe”, I would phrase the pivot point to Perfect Lives as follows:

Words don’t want understanding. They want children.

Perfect Lives is a work obsessively concerned with flatness; the flatness of Ashley’s voice, the flatness of the Great Plains, the flatness of common language, cliches, the flatness of the television. And so a flatness of language-and everything’s language, everything can be read-gives a suggestive depth and a sense of the things we can’t see (or perhaps that we don’t realize we’re seeing) that nevertheless never stop moving. The video shows static shots, the characters rarely ever move, but the shot keeps changing ever so slightly or with allusive turbulence. As presence implies lack; as the a widely spread line on the battlefield implies few reinforcements; as the things that seem to coat the world grow thin the way the uniformity of the paint on a house only maintains itself by our constant touch-ups, so Perfect Lives glimpses at something larger through the cracks. It’s an architecture that seems to touch the sky by its falling apart.

That meaning is a process, a calculus of the senses made in the face of a nothing that threatens to divide anything into the infinite is dramatized most cogently in the first episode; note how the intellectual determination is characterized as a preference. Interjections by the chorus in parentheses:

He studies the ashtray and tries to rule out preference, pre-

ferring (of course) over not preferring,

but he prefers, gravity (over what other state?) pre-

ferring in this case, (of course) earth

(the earth as they say), preferring

some state over non-state. (of course)

Now he grips himself with determination,

even knowing it causes sadness. (of course)

He is determined to be what?

(of course) He is determined to be serious,

not for the first time, not for the first time, there is the feeling

(of course) of a mistake.

But too late, he has arrived…

Ashley leaves in the corrections one makes mentally when speaking and in these suggests the tenuous, flowing nature of the conclusion of the language is betrayed; the clean confidence with which the writer or speaker is implored to present themselves to the world is but a construction; behind and around it sits, as Ashley puts it, “a ball of hot stuff we haven’t put our minds to yet.” Ashley is the first ‘pataphysician in earnest, a gentle explorer into a world of subjective pluralities after meaning that was always there, but may never have been. The chorus repeats, in each installment, the corks with which the shifting narrators attempt to bottle language unsuccessfully as it fizzes out all around them. (Of course.) It’s a coming to terms (and more terms) with the traumatic experience of facing language to see it has more powers greater than we ever imagined and that we can’t actually own it-the chickens of the word and the image come home to roost and the aftermath in which we all diffusely exist.

The overarching plot of the opera, which is barely touched on in favor of seeming digressions that may or may not be such, dramatizes this shifting exultation or transgression around a thing that seems, sometimes, to be there, and other times, more frighteningly might not. Perhaps it both is and isn’t, and this might be the most disturbing thing of all.

I quote the summary from the back of the Dalkey paperback edition of the libretto:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it the next day.

Episode 1 is the overture and lays out the primary question: There’s quite possibly nothing and quite possibly everything behind language. The gut seems to suggest whatever this sensed (no)thing is contains both the elements of overwhelming joy and of the worst sort of existential misery. What to do? What to say?

Knowledge as conquest of the surrounding world doesn’t seem to be the answer. Throughout the piece, in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Ashley is using words that have multiple definitions to stand in for several of the multiple senses in which they can be used. The word bursts forth as a wellspring of plurality in opposition to the tight academic “grasp”. In this passage, this method is spoken of and demonstrated simultaneously:

I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, (true enough) whatever that means.

I am a city of habits.

I am completely knowable in every way. (true enough)

I recognize superstition in every form.

The anger of the words wakes me in the dream of myself. (true enough)

Note the shift from the earlier interjection by the chorus of “of course”, a confident punctuation, toward the less certain and oddly quantitative “true enough”.

This and the other episodes are portraits of the words use to dance around the means in which we “master” the word. In the overarching structure of the piece is suggested a more anarchistic relationship to the word, but in this anarchistic relationship comes a very different landscape that looks superficially but precisely like the one that preceded it.

This is why Ashley names each installment after a common space. Tomorrow we’ll look at Pt. 2: The Supermarket.

Montage of Heck (2015)

Twenty-one years after he committed suicide, Kurt Cobain remains an enigma. Why did he kill himself at the age of 27? Was it the heroin addiction? The stomach pains? Was it undiagnosed clinical depression? Did Courtney Love have him murdered? If Montage of Heck, the first documentary about Nirvana made the with the full cooperation of Cobain’s family, provides no answers, it does let us watch his self-destruction, almost in real time.

In the early 1990s, Cobain, a talented if unpolished songwriter, burst out of nowhere to become the “voice of his generation.”

That’s the popular narrative anyway. The reality is a bit more complex. All through the 1980s, an “alternative” musical culture existed alongside MTV and the mainstream. There were zines, college radio stations, and well known “underground” bands like Sonic Youth and REM. There were “independent” record companies. In the early late 80s, MTV’s standard rotation — Madonna, Michael Jackson, elaborately produced music videos, and British New Wave bands with elaborately produced hairstyles– had grown stale. It was time for the corporate music industry to raid the world of alternative rock in a big way. The prize catch turned out to be Nirvana, who had previously recorded the promising, if hardly earth-shattering, “Bleach” on Sub Pop, the Seattle-based independent record label, in 1989. Nevermind, perhaps the last great hard rock album ever recorded, was released in 1991. Almost overnight, sensitive young men in torn flannel shirts were all the rage. Seattle, the hipster Brooklyn of the 1990s, became the epicenter of punk rock. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden replaced Motley Crue, Poison, and Ratt. Hollywood films like Reality Bites and Singles awkwardly tried to capture the “grunge” aesthetic.

Tucker Max says that “the devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.” For Kurt Cobain, jumping from Sub Pop to Geffen Records brought fame, fortune, a big Victorian house along Lake Washington, and the last laugh at everyone who bullied him in high-school. But it didn’t make him happy. Indeed, one of the strongest points of Montage of Heck is the way it shows how Kurt Cobain genuinely didn’t care about money. He wasn’t a poser, a wealthy rock star who ranted against materialism and conformism before getting into his BMW, and driving off to his mansion in the Hollywood hills. On the contrary, at the very height of his popularity, he stopped touring for 6 months. “All he wanted to do was stay at home, do heroin and paint,” his wife Courtney Love remarks. All of the hype around Nirvana, the ridiculous idea that he was “the voice of his generation,” clearly bothered him. Montage of Heck makes a good case that the money that came from signing with Geffen Records ripped Cobain out of the isolation he needed to create, and would have probably stunted him as an artist had he not died so young.

If Montage of Heck is a difficult movie to get through – it’s well over 2 hours – I think that’s part of the point. Twenty-seven is a terribly young age to die, but Kurt Cobain felt every one of those years like a crushing weight on his back. We meet his mother, Wendy O’Connor. We’re introduced to Aberdeen, the small, coastal town in Washington State where Cobain, a gifted, unhappy, teenager grew up. Kurt Cobain was an early “male feminist,” and Montage of Heck was made with the cooperation of Wendy O’Connor and Courtney Love, but the women in his life come off badly. Wendy O’Connor, an intelligent, but still bitter, angry woman, obviously despises her ineffectual, working-class husband, Don Cobain, and can’t hide how she took it out on her son. Courtney Love, now 50 years old, and a victim of too much plastic surgery, could easily be O’Connor’s twin sister. You can’t watch Montage of Heck without coming away with the impression that Kurt Cobain married his mother, that he never quite established himself as an adult, that once the money from Nevermind and In Utero made it possible for him to get all the heroin he wanted it was only a matter of time before he either overdosed or blew his brains out. The last hour of Montage of Heck is so harrowing – mostly home movies of Cobain and Love, clearly unfit parents, wasted out of their minds in front of their infant daughter – that you wonder how Nirvana ever became as good as it was. Cobain comes off like an undisciplined, childish, boring jerk, Love much worse.

Tracy Marander, Cobain’s first girlfriend, gives us a hint about what he was like as a creative artist. He would sit for hours doing nothing, she explains, then knock off a painting or write a song all at once. Cobain was limited as a songwriter, but what he did, he did well, give a voice to the anguish and rage of an abused child, he did with genuine originality, even genius. What made him so vulnerable to drug addiction and mental illness also made it possible for him to write his music. As long as he was a child, dependent on parents, step-parents, and adults who neglected him, and shuffled him around like an unwanted burden, he had to create to survive, to build a room in his imagination where he could shut the door behind him. Cobain’s journals, and artwork, are rough, unpolished, yet refreshingly honest and straightforward. The memories of an abortive attempt to lose his virginity with a mentally challenged woman he and his friends stole beer from, and the guilt that led to his first suicide attempt, come together like a first rate short story. Cobain, even as a teenager, expresses himself so clearly and so directly that his band mate Krist Novoselic seems baffled about how he could have missed all of the obvious warning signs.

Just about the only thing I wanted to see more of in Montage of Heck was an explanation of how Cobain managed to pull himself together to stage his remarkable performance on MTV’s “Live Unplugged.” Somehow the young man who, in his wife’s home movies seems too sick and weak even to sit up straight, not only performed Nirvana’s greatest hits, but made Ledbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World his own. David Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, is very conspicuously absent from the whole movie. Apparently, he and Courtney Love still hate each other. Montage of Heck could have used his input, as well as input from Danny Goldberg, Steve Albini, and Butch Vig. I wanted to see Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl at rehearsal, in the studio, arguing about how they would stage the concert. I wanted to see their creative process in action, to see Cobain make one final effort to pull himself together before he snuffed out his own life for good. It might have provided some additional insight as to why, in April of 1994, he put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out. Sadly, as good as Montage of Heck can be, Cobain’s suicide remains as much of an enigma as it’s always been.