Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Two-step Artist

In my youth I didn’t want loneliness to feel colloquial, sorrow to be pronounced with a twang, a broken heart accompanied by banjos or strummed out in a simple and repetitive chord progression.  My emotions were baroque and required complicated phrasing and stringed instruments.  Or so I postured.  And so I posed.  But put me at a country dance where I could hear any version of “Sea of Heartbreak”, any bad cover by a local band, and I secretly had to acknowledge that was really what it felt like for me.  A ship listing on a goofy sea of wanting.

Even as I was becoming aware of this, I happened upon the poem “Patterns” by Amy Lowell in a cheaply bound anthology we had kicking around our home.  This was different from other poems I’d read before.  It had tricky line breaks and unusual, inconsistent rhymes:

“I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.”

It might offend literary purists out there to know that Lowell became inextricably linked in my mind to Don Gibson, but there it is.  It had less to do with the theme of loss in either poem or song (I had yet to have my heart broken and couldn’t choose if it was more like being “boned and stayed” or set adrift) and more to do with the evolving realization that you could use the shape and cadence of language to create the type of vessel you wanted to contain and convey the unruly sentiment of loss.  The chorus of “Sea of Heartbreak” has a truly clever rhyme scheme which may be mapped as abbbcca with an internal rhyme of “love” and “of” and “divine” and “mine”.  Or maybe it is abcbcddfa with no internal rhyme but long upswinging syllables .  Whatever it is it felt like an ascending spiral in my brain.  Conversely, the poem “Patterns” felt like a descending spiral.  Obviously, I prefer ascending.

Now that I’ve taken a few licks I realize, if form ever presupposes function, I was not built to love an elegant and languishing sorrow with its indecipherable rules and messy boundaries.  Less sturm und drang, more strum and twang, please.  I’m made for the slant rhyme and jaunt of the road house.  Slow dancing, draped across your partner, clinging and undulating and swelling like sea weed, that’s great for love songs.  But if I have to live for a spell within a break up song I want to be able to two-step all the way through it.

Hypothetically Speaking

I dig in my heels 

Let us suppose you are a self covered in the gritty stillness of your hometown, overwhelmed by an adolescent longing for anything beyond the present tense. And this self is connected also to your self that is kneeling on a twister mat carpeting the fort in your grandma’s pear tree where the fruit and leaves are decaying in the shade. Which is connected to your self hiding at the top of the rocket slide after you gave all your pocket change to some kid so you could look at his old playboy.  Which is connected to your frightened self that watches in fascinated horror while a highschool football player walks around the bonfire hoisting a coyote head on a long stick, half-skinned and dripping.  Which is also, somehow, connected to your self that longs to be tangled up in an endless and irresponsible kiss.  Which is connected to your self in a ring of people surrounding two boys circling each other, sweating and cussing, feeling a collaborative yearning for someone to throw a punch, for someone to finally do something.   Which is inevitably connected to this self longing in reverse for a moment you now know was never going to happen because you were given a perfectly constructed thing and spent your lifetime disassembling it in an effort to understand how it worked.

May the Circle Be Unbroken

in which our reluctant heroine considers mothers, mothering, muthahs and music

On more than one occasion I’ve had an argument with my mother that culminated in her listing the criminal rap sheet of a musician as evidence of their credibility (that’s right, credibility) in their field.  In order to appreciate the context of these arguments it should be known that my mom is a very devout mormon, full of faith and strict in her moral judgement of all people.  Still, good musicians get a pass.  The most recent example of this took place last spring in my car.  We were driving to the grocery listening to Johnny Cash’s America IV.  Somehow my mother was offended that everyone thought he was such a bad-ass ever since the film “Walk the Line” had come out.  But he wasn’t a tough guy at all, she said.  Did I know that the only times he was ever in jail were for alcohol related charges?  Whereas, Hank Williams had actually killed a man in a bar fight.  I found myself defending Cash’s music by pointing out how hard he was on his woman and how he nearly drank himself to death but she was unimpressed.

I can’t find any evidence that verifies her Hank Williams story and I don’t know why she hates Johnny Cash enough to fabricate a more criminal background for an imaginary criminal background throw down between the two.  I always assumed it was due, in part, to my dad’s dirty revision of the song “I Walk the Line”, the chorus of which goes “I keep my pants tied with a piece of twine.  Because you’re mine, untie the twine”.  Pretty annoying stuff.  But maybe she took issue with Cash singing lyrics she didn’t think he could own up to.  Whatever her reasoning, it means something to me that she loves music enough to feel protective and think critically about it.  That she’ll argue with me and listen with me.  That she once defended Shane MacGowan’s drug addiction because he was, you know, Irish, and they’re a sad people.  That the night I discovered the brilliant Junior Brown at a show I also discovered she had four albums of his I could borrow.  That even though I connect with her on so few levels, I sense the emergence of her self through this ongoing conversation.

When I was 11 my mom came home with Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind” on vinyl, walked straight into my brother Kevin’s bedroom, put on his clamshell headphones and listened to that album repeatedly, sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, singing along with the sleeve on her lap.  By then she had had all six of her children.  I stood in the hall and watched through a partially closed door while several things occurred to me in this order:

  1. My mom doesn’t have a very good singing voice.
  2. I’m watching something private.
  3. She looks really pretty right now.
  4. Like a young woman.
  5. She is having an experience I am not having.
  6. My mom is a person who is not me.
  7. I am a person who is not my mother.

I doubt my own daughter will get to arrive so abruptly at the same shocking fact of her separate identity from me.  We spend so much time in conversation and I’ve never been discreet.  Still, if I can’t pass on every gift my mother gave me I can continue this conversation about music.  I can pepper our morning drives with comments as simple as “That’s auto-tuning.  Her voice isn’t strong enough to hit that note.”  Or as grandiose as “Dylan completely altered our expectations of what lyrics should be.”  Or as fundamentally life affirming as “It isn’t a cuss if it’s in a song”.


I’ve Got a Friend in Jesús

in which our reluctant heroine contemplates deep and abiding friendships and recognizes that all things are political with the exception of actual politics


On the day the second George Bush was elected for the first time,  Damon Moss had bummed a cigarette off me and observed wryly, “that guy hasn’t even set foot in office and already I’m a hobo”.  Early on during the same administration he threw a flower themed party to warm his new digs on Flower Street.  Patrick attended in a floral print skirt, I covered myself in rose-water and the party rolled forward the way all of Damon’s parties did back then, a perfect blend of humorous conversation, sparkling personalities and sangria.  On the way out Patrick and I convinced Jesús Garcia, who was heading for the bus stop, to ride home with us.  I said “Come on!  We’ll both sit in the back like rich people and pretend Patrick is our fancy driver”.  He passed up a disc and asked him to play track 8.

Conor Oberst’s voice is a temper tantrum of a thing, I learned.   It warbles and frets and sounds mostly frail.  It seems to appeal primarily to females under the age of 22, like tiny pants and long bangs and striped crew neck sweaters with 3-quarter length sleeves.  In fact, the first time I saw Bright Eyes perform I actually tripped over Oberst wearing a striped crew neck sweater with 3-quarter length sleeves.  He was so little, half-hidden and crouched down in the shadows along a wall and I thought “somebody needs to give that girl a sandwich”.  I felt self-conscious enjoying his music as much as I did.  But there’s a sort of brilliance in his ever-changing cacophony of musician friends and by then I’d realized that many Bright Eyes songs contain these moments in which they simultaneously recognize and reach the fullness of their potential.  It was a serendipitous stroke of cosmic symmetry that my friendship with Jesús arrived at its own such moment  while I was with him listening to “Kathy with a K’s Song” arrive at its.

In the back seat Jesús held both of my hands and pressed his forehead into my cheek.  My heart stuttered with happiness as the road and the song and the car and all of us in the car rolled quietly forward until he said something like “here it comes” and this sparse, acoustic love song seemed to explode into drums and cymbals and something synthesized and amped and so much yelling that it blew the top off my heart.  Jesús was drunk and sentimental and overwhelming, but something in me rose up in desire to drag him safely to a place of well-being and I recognized in him the same quality.  We were mirror images of our good will towards one another.  Jesús Garcia was my comrade.

On the day after the second George Bush was elected for the first time, Jesús had said, “Punk rock is going to make a huge comeback”.  I loved the simple, bright-sided optimism of that observation.  Later, after the twin towers collapsed beneath the weight of all that history and rage, after we found ourselves at war in Iraq and had begun to feel much less optimistic, Jesús took me to Nita’s Hideaway to see Bright Eyes play.  Just before what would be their final encore he yelled “wouldn’t it be great?” and I knew what he meant.  But what were the chances?  That little guy was pretty prolific with an arsenal full of unplayed songs to choose from.   Still, when the band walked back on Conor Oberst said “I’m going to do a song…it’s a love song.  Because we all gotta love each other, ’cause we have an asshole for a president and we’re all gonna die”, and launched, as a sort of nod to those serendipitous strokes of cosmic symmetry,  into “Kathy with a K’s Song”.  The crowd exploded upon hearing Bush vilified.  But we were perfectly still.   Pondering, I suppose, how the very best songs of protest really are the love songs and how, before you can stand in solidarity, you have to choose your friends.