It is National Poetry Month here in the US, celebrated locally with the wondrous O, Miami festival. In honor* of this I’ve prepared a poem of my own. (*Seriously, the honor is intended, even if the effort doesn’t do much honor to the cause.)
Calliope's Wake --------------- We begin as poets fearless supplicants to the muse baring our souls to all (mockers be damned) through the spring of our endless youth. In summer the World says Enough. Be serious. We resist: Indignation! Protestation! Denunciation! soon Capitulation. Rapids of language dammed we learn to fear Calliope's fiery embrace. Shamed by our surrender we shun art too busy (dying) to revel (living) becoming dismissive mocking. Yet still Calliope sings.
[Continued from part one.]
This morning I took you through the first ten albums to have a pretty deep influence on how I listened to music, and how that music changed the way I look at the world, and who I am. At this point it’s 1977. I’ve graduated from high school, and am getting ready to go away to college. You could say I am now an adult — I certainly thought so at the time — but you’d be wrong. Charitable, but wrong. Whether or not I should be classified as an adult at 50 is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader.
- Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick — In college I took a class called “Oral Interpretation,” which was basically a guide to public reading. As part of the class we had to adapt excerpts from various works of memoir, fiction, and poetry for performance. I selected a chunk of lyrics from Ian Anderson’s loopy parody of concept albums, itself allegedly based on the poetry of a child in a small and quaint English town. After three minutes of solemnly intoning such classic lines as “I may make you feel but I can’t make you think. Your sperm’s in the gutter, your love’s in the sink,” my instructor applauded and asked the name of the poet. Without missing a beat I replied,” Gerald Bostock. He’s new.” The instructor dutifully noted the name as the class snickered.
- Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — I’m not altogether certain which Floyd album I heard first, but the sad story of Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration came to me at a time in my life when my own psychic landscape was getting a bit rocky. The slick production stood out, as did the careful structure of the long-form work “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The title track, though, is one of the few songs consistently able to wrench my heart each and every time I hear it.
- Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Center of the Earth — When I first heard that the keyboardist from Yes was recording a concept album based on one of my favorite proto-science fiction novels, I had to have it. While prog rock has gotten a bad reputation over the years, I will always have a soft spot for the nexus of rock instrumentation and classical forms. Throw fiction into the mix, add an orchestra and a narrator, and let it simmer until the pretense and absurdity have largely boiled away; what’s left is a semi-soundtrack album I spun until I could practically play the horn parts from memory.
- Steely Dan: Aja — In my freshman year of college I met a sophomore girl named Amy, a music composition major like me. She loved the films of Woody Allen and the music of Steely Dan. The first time I visited her she put on this album. When side one finished she flipped it over; side two played over and over and over and over…. and that’s enough about that.
- The Residents: Duck Stab/Buster and Glen — “So you like weird music, do you? Have you heard The Residents yet?” And so an innocent question from my friend George Pearson introduced me to an art and music collective that changed the way I thought about creativity. Like Don Ellis, The Residents deserve an entire post of their own. For now, suffice to say that knowing a group existed that jealously guarded their identities by wearing surreal costumes and performed quasi-punk songs like “Constantinople” kick-started my fascination with performance art, experimental music, and underground culture. I recently satisfied a life-long wish, and saw them perform live at DC’s storied 9:30 Club. It was worth the trip.
- Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells — You probably know this album, even if the name is unfamiliar: an edited version of the primary theme was used as the music for The Exorcist. By the time I bought this my college education had gone off the rails, leaving my compositional aspirations strewn alongside the tracks, but I still heard large scale works in my mind’s ear. The idea that these two side-length pieces were all performed by the composer himself, that one person could compose and perform something that richly detailed was new to me, a kind of auteur theory of music. Absorbing the structure of the work, and doing some reading about how multi-tracking worked, helped keep my dreams alive a little longer, and made me love it even more. Plus, tubular bells!
- Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice: Jesus Christ Superstar — I came to this one a bit later than usual — probably via one of my progressive Christian friends — and didn’t start obsessing over it until after high school. Having been raised without any particular religion, this was my first exposure to many of the details, and I was fascinated by both the story and the controversy. Musically I was once again drawn to the synthesis of prog rock, orchestra, and operatic vocals. (Trivia note: Even though JCS is subtitled “A Rock Opera,” it isn’t an opera at all. An opera requires costumes, staging, and acting (even if the rules on the latter are somewhat lax), while a cantata is purely musical and based on a religious text, as well.)
- David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — If there was ever an anthem for disillusioned, artistic, young outsiders, this would be it. Loosely a concept album, Bowie’s full-throttle glam-rock portrayal of the possibly alien Ziggy blurred the line between fiction and reality, while the songs themselves varied between the nihilistic and the hopeful. By this time my numerous romantic failures, being exacerbated by my continuing struggle just to make rent, had pretty thoroughly alienated me from a world that was simply never going to understand me. In Ziggy I found an ally, and knew I wasn’t alone.
- Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy — Discovering Warren Zevon was a revelation to me. Sure, it was his kitschy “Werewolves of London” that attracted my eternally adolescent attention, but the other songs kept it focused. Here was songwriting with meat to it, songs with lyrics that told stories that meant something, sometimes funny, often tragic, occasionally both at once. The idea of songwriting itself as a form of micro-fiction was new to me, as obvious as it seems in retrospect. I saw him perform live once on a solo tour, but it was during his darkest days of addiction; I don’t think he even finished his set. I wish I’d seen him again after he cleaned up, but soon after he got straight, he got cancer. Sometimes great storytellers don’t get enough time on stage.
- Tom Waits: Small Change — I won’t even try to lie to you. Peaches Records and Tapes in Fort Lauderdale had this album on prominent display, proudly showing off its cover photo of Waits in a stripper’s dressing room. Once my eyes were sufficiently satiated to allow me to flip it over, I was intrigued by the description of the album’s poetry and jazzy style. Once it hit my turntable it didn’t come off for days. From “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” one of the greatest American songs ever written, through the slurred patter of “Step Right Up,” and to the heartbreaking “The One That Got Away,” Waits used unparalleled lyricism, blues riffs, and his whiskey-wracked voice to create a vision of a broken life that ripped at me even as it mesmerized me. Stories, music, poetry, and the ugly truth all coming together to let a unique talent craft something timeless from the ruins of the past. That’s America.
And with that, we’re done. I hope you enjoyed this recounting of a personal musical evolution. Perhaps it introduced you to a couple of artists or albums that are new to you, or let you see some albums in a new light. If so, let me know in the always-appreciated comments.
Tomorrow: Part three of two, and a bonus.
‘Cause I can tell you know what it’s like,
The long farewell of the hunger strike.
But can you save me?
— Aimee Mann, “Save Me”
Even considering the plethora of mental and physical abberations in my repetoire, I consider myself very fortunate. I may have an obsessive personality, but thankfully so far none of my obsessions have blossomed into addictions.
I’ve come close, though. In my early twenties I was going through my first period of epic relationship failure, so I spent a lot of time relying on my friends for support. Many of my friends were relying on Fort Lauderdale’s Rendezvous Club for their own support; hence I was spending a few nights a week at the bar.
The Rendezvous was a decent enough place, for an ex-biker bar/ex-gay bar/ex-restaurant. They had a pool table, some pinball machines, and a pretty good Jefferson Airplane cover band. But like most people in their early twenties working jobs barely above minimum wage, I couldn’t really afford to hang out at a bar that much, not even one as — shall we say — affordable as the Rendezvous. A friend’s cousin was tending bar and sliding us heavy pours and mixing errors, but hanging out with my friends still had me spending money I couldn’t afford.
Not that the simple matter of money stopped me from going, though, or from developing a taste for cocktails. Fortunately, I made two discoveries before things got out of hand. The first was the miracle of the package store, allowing me to get a bottle for the price of a couple of drinks. The second was that if I wasn’t around other people, I paid more attention to the taste than to the buzz.
Unfortunately, I also discovered that if the rum is good, I really, really like the taste. I didn’t have any problem enjoying the taste all the way through a fifth of Barbancourt every couple of days. Well, no problem other than the money. I never reached the point of borrowing from my friends, or cadging drinks from strangers, but there were a few occasions where my bills weren’t exactly paid on time.
I got lucky, though. A my epic relationship failure was replaced by a somewhat less epic but still satisfying relationship success. This gave me someone else to blow my paychecks on, and something else to do at night other than marvel at how good an aged rum tastes, even down to the bottom of the bottle. Amazingly I stopped drinking entirely, probably a matter of a couple of weeks before it became a life-long problem for me. I am thankful every day for the auspicious entry of that girl in my life, even if that eventually ended in another epic failure.
Today there are almost two dozen bottles of liquor in my house. They stand on a shelf, arranged into neat ranks and files, a tray of shot glasses and swizzle sticks and mixology guides beside them, waiting for guests to come. Sometimes I am tempted to pour myself a couple of drinks, just to help me relax; occasionally I do. However, awareness of the bullet I dodged has soaked through my brain, and I rarely enjoy it. It’s probably a silly concern, but I’d rather err on caution’s side. Dodging one bullet doesn’t make you bullet proof.
Everyone — even if they aren’t aware of it — knows a few people who didn’t dodge, people with serious addictions. I know quite a few, and sometimes it feels as though I know more than my share, but that’s just my perception. Still, the self-mutilators, the depressives, the alcoholics, the addicts: I’m compelled to help them in whatever ways I can. I’ve held friends’ hair out of the way while they vomited out a fifth of Absolut. I’ve answered the phone at 3:00am and then listened to the wordless sobbing long past sunrise. I’ve watched infomercials in the emergency room while doctors stitched up the thigh of a woman who cut a little too deeply this time. I’ve held on to heirloom jewelry for a friend who was afraid she would pawn it to feed her habit. I’ve given away my own inheritance to keep friends from being evicted. And I could go on for pages telling these stories, but to what purpose?
I’m not a professionally trained counselor, and even among professionals there is debate as to the proper course of action when dealing with someone with deeply rooted problems. So I worry: Do my ham-fisted attempts at helping people in pain cause more damage, or does knowing that someone who has seen them at a very low point still cares about them give them a little more strength, a little more hope? Is it better to try to give comfort and fail than to look away and let them go it alone? For me, it is.
And there is my shame: “for me”. How often am I helping someone because it lets me feel like I have some purpose in the world? I’m trying to help people find their ways out of desperate situations, but I’m also trying to repay the universe for my own narrow escape from alcoholism, and to return the kindnesses shown me by others during my own dark days. But while I can easily indulge in pages of self-analysis and psychobabble, I admit that in large part I am motivated by one of my own obsessions. In my optimism I see so much potential in people, yet so few ever get a chance to develop it. Whenever the opportunity arises, I have to try to fix things, to redress wrongs. I’m obsessed with solving problems, but do the problems always have solutions?
I want to save the world, but sometimes the world doesn’t want to be saved.
I want to save my friends, but sometimes my friends don’t want to be saved.
I shouldn’t argue. Sometimes I don’t want to be saved, either.