Monthly Archives: August 2015

#178: A Friend Has Commented On My Memory

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the result of reposting a “memory” of myself from exactly one year ago

A Friend Has Commented On My Memory

Facebook tells me when someone,
a friend presumably, has commented
on my memory. I like this.
I like, first, that my friends can see
my memory. It’s remarkable.
No where else is it possible to
for friends to see my memory.
If they are in a room with me,
perhaps, and I say something like,
I remember the time–
then, it seems like friends are able,
however corrupted or filtered
it may have become,
to see my memory, or at least,
a very small slice of it.
It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood.
Maybe friends are commenting
on my lack of memory. They’re
saying something like,
That Michael Jarmer, his memory
is not what it used to be.
That’s an unpleasant thought.
Or worse, they might be commenting
on their own memory of me,
in which case, they might be saying
something like, Gee, that Michael
Jarmer turns out to be nothing like
the way I remembered him.
Or worse still, the very worse still,
they speak of their memory of me
because they think I am no longer alive.
You know, in memoriam.
This last possibility is the most troubling.
But I comfort myself: how likely is it
that Facebook would be telling me
what my friends thought of me
after I was gone. Right? Not likely.
How likely would it be that I’d be
checking my Facebook in the afterlife?
Not likely. So I arrive back where
I started, saying that I am appreciative
of the fact that my friends are able to see
and then comment upon and sometimes
even go so far as to like my memory.
I remember as I am remembered
and it’s a loop that goes around
and around.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume VI, Letter C

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A wrench in the works for my project of listening to compact discs, one at a time, all the way through, touching at least once on every band or artist in my collection: I bought a new turntable for the basement listening lounge!  I have been distracted this week by vinyl and paused my project to bip around in the alphabet with the LP record: Here Comes Everybody, The Bird and the Bee, Eels, and Other Lives. Okay, no more screwing around.  Back to the C compact disc grind. Not a grind. Pure joy, actually.

In my rush to get to Elvis Costello I accidentally skipped a C artist, and, disappointingly, have discovered the first truly BAD record in my compact disc collection.  Julian Cope’s “Peggy Suicide” is definitely one for the hopper.  This guy can’t sing and he can’t write a song. His appeal seems to come, perhaps, from his politics maybe, his new wave cred, his striking good looks (at least in 1990), and his experimental, mystical, artsy bent. There may be a few interesting moments, but overall, it’s not good. And vaguely remembering this appraisal from my last listen 26 years ago, I groan out loud as soon as the display tells me this baby is 76 minutes long. God no. Make it stop.

Counting Crows, “August and Everything After.” Another pirate.  Someone must have been trying to turn me on to this band.  They went so far as to print a facsimile of the album cover to slide into the jewel case for the cdr. I like the hippy dippy grooviness and the musicianship, but I find these guys terribly boring. I don’t see it. Another one into the hopper.

Jim Croce, “Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits.” Yes.  This is in my collection.  I don’t know why.  I may have stolen this CD from my parents’ music library. I know I would not have bought it. But it was before my time and after theirs; if my parents bought it, it was out of some vague sense that, yeah, here’s this guy, we know a couple of these really nice songs, should probably have it. No doubt, there are classics here, and that probably, more than anything else, explains its presence in my house, however it arrived here. I’ve got some serious childhood sentimentality around some of these tunes.  “Time in a Bottle.”  “Operator.”  “I Got A Name.”  Hell yeah.  And “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Any early 70’s childhood experienced even in the least degree with music would have been unable to escape Jim Croce.

Sheryl Crow, “Tuesday Night Music Club.” I remember the video for “All I Want to Do” and I remember thinking that Sheryl Crow was perhaps the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I remember, too, at the time of its release, not being quite smitten enough to buy the album, and that I didn’t really think much more about Sheryl Crow until I realized that Kevin Gilbert played on this album and wrote some of these songs.  So years later I found this cd in the used bin and felt I had to have it, for Gilbert’s sake, really. More on this later when we get to the G’s.  There’s no doubting Crow’s talent.  But except for a few tunes on this disc that are really pretty spectacular, it’s not for me an especially captivating record.

The Cure, “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” What a great band. What a great lead singer, one of what I like to call the greatest worst singers in rock.  He’s imprecise, whiny, sometimes operatic, but always 100% in. Emo? Okay, yeah, this guy might be the king of that kind of thing. I forgot how cool they were.  How they were not afraid to drone on a thing for three and a half minutes in order to create a vibe, how inventive the drum parts were, how unattached to two and four, but how, when it was necessary, like in “Just Like Heaven,” it could be absolutely square in service of the perfect pop tune.  Here’s a record whose seventy some minute running time is forgivable, not because every single thing is perfect and nothing is superfluous, but because their ability to change up the vibe from song to song and to create interest sonically in a six minute tune with no chorus to speak of earns them the right to stretch.  One of the best of the last of the great 80’s bands.  I’m sad I never saw them perform.

Curiosity Killed The Cat, “Keep Your Distance.” My wife is heading to bed early so my nine year old and I go downstairs to listen to music together.  He encourages me to carry on where I left off in the letter C.  This is our first joint listening venture since I embarked on this project.  He’s aware of it, but up to this evening has not been a participant.  What a fortuitous time to begin. This obscure band from England put this record out in 1987–a hugely important time in my own musical history, my wife and I, as Here Comes Everybody, having written our first “good” songs and made our first professional recordings. And I was reaching out to find as much cool new music as I could find.  This record here is a kind of funky new wave dance record, reminiscent of the first record from The Blow Monkeys but with more muscle and a decidedly less nerdy vocal croon. The opening track is “Misfits,” and my son and I find ourselves dancing together in the basement. He’s busting out moves I’ve never seen him make before and it’s glorious.  This record holds up, is musical, tight, and, as of this evening, approved by a nine year old boy.

We have time for one more record before we go to bed, and it’s another gem, for some reason incorrectly alphabetized after Croce, Crow, Cure, Curiosity and not before: Crash Test Dummies, “God Shuffled His Feet.”  Produced by Jerry Harrison, formerly of Talking Heads, and released in 1993, this great record rocked my world just as the David Byrne solo record I wrote about earlier did. It was a time of incredible personal and artistic growth for me.  I remember listening to this record over and over again at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, where I would realize that my pursuit of a writing vocation was no longer negotiable, and where I learned about the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Life changing stuff. And this band, a writer’s band, lead singer Brad Roberts having graduated with a double philosophy/English degree, absolutely floated my boat. I don’t think I know of a single band fronted by a singer who goes this low–not a typical pop music thing.  And they captured an absurdist bent that mirrored my own–I was after all, beginning work on the first novel I would ever write, a novel, appropriately enough, about spontaneous human combustion.  It fit right into the world of The Crash Test Dummies. Here’s this thing, not anywhere close to the best song on the record, but it was, after all, the hit. Remember? The nine year old is amused.

Jesus, I realize again that my alphabetizing is totally messed up.  Must be that during the move four years ago, compact discs were put in boxes in a particular order and then came out of those boxes sometimes in a different order. Either that, or I don’t know how to alphabetize.  That’s not likely, as I am, obviously, correcting the mistakes.  Somewhere between Counting and Crow if correctly alphabetized, a band that brings up the rear of my C section in its current f-ed up order, a band for whom I should not limit myself to just one album because they were and are a truly great band and I think I have every studio record they ever released, is New Zealand’s Crowded House. The pedigree of this band, as it is, spread between three other artists in my collection, Split Enz, Neil Finn, and Tim Finn, provides me with the inclination to choose just one–the only Crowded House record to feature the brothers Finn, an indisputable great album: “Woodface.” A celebratory record. 1991. The Finn brothers together again. I was gainfully employed. Felt like an adult. Some rocking good years, the next decade maybe the best decade ever thus far. And this album, not a clunker in the bunch, a perfect pop masterpiece to ring in the last 10 years of a dying century and to end, albeit incorrectly, my collection of artists and bands that begin with the letter C.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume V, Letter Costello

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It happened when I was listening to The Beatles; I couldn’t choose which record to listen to.  It happened again with The Boomtown Rats, again with Cheap Trick, and now, in my mission to listen to one cd from each artist represented in my collection in alphabetical order, I am faced with choosing a single Elvis Costello album from the 25 that I possess. I found with The Beatles, with The Boomtown Rats, and with Cheap Trick that it could not be done. I’m not even going to try with Elvis, the second most liberally represented artist in my entire collection. That would just be dumb.

As a teenager, discovering that I was nearly alone on a new wave island in suburbia, I gobbled up everything I could find that struck me as inventive, weird, nerdy, out of the mainstream, and I made quite a few important discoveries. The Talking Heads, Blondie, XTC, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Japan, and Elvis were the harbingers of my adolescence. We had a classic rock station that was making some forays, late at night, into this territory, and of course, we had MTV in its very nascence. I don’t know if I saw Elvis before I heard him. I think I heard “Watching the Detectives” on the radio, and “Radio, Radio,” on the radio. That must have been it. For some reason, though, it didn’t occur to me to buy a Costello record until he was three albums into his career. It was the song “Oliver’s Army,” I think, that really did it for me–so “Armed Forces” was my first purchase–and perhaps, I don’t remember exactly, it could have been the video that finally sold me. After a quick perusal, though, I find the verdict is in. No, it couldn’t have been the video. This thing is terrible. Bad enough to kill a great song. Don’t watch it.

And yet, no, a terrible video cannot kill a great song. I have personal experience with this. “Oliver’s Army” is a great song. As a youngun, I often found myself drawn to tunes the lyrics to which I didn’t understand. I still don’t think I understand this song, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it–its giddiness, its exuberance, its changes, its tongue twisting lyric, and that awesome chorus tag: “And I would rather be anywhere else but here today.” And now that I think of it, remembering less poorly perhaps than before, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” was my first Elvis love–and I remember distinctly hearing it on the radio radio late at night.  So, is it “Armed Forces?” I don’t know!  I haven’t even started listening but for the last few days I’ve had nothing but Elvis on the brain.  What about that first album? Such a perfect thing–such an odd thing–terrific songwriting–almost a kind of country record, and yet, strange, odd, exuding a personality unlike anything I’d ever encountered, horrible sounding, and yet, here’s a record that saves the very best song for last! Don’t get me wrong, “Alison” is a great song, but “Watching the Detectives” is one of the very greatest songs. Oh, crap, finding it impossible to choose, I begin at the beginning and can’t stop myself until I’m five albums in! Here goes:

“My Aim Is True”: A terrible sounding great album.  And it’s only now that I realize (unless I realized before and just forgot about it) that The Attractions had not been formed yet, so none of the greatness of that band is apparent here.  No matter.  As I’ve said, “Watching the Detectives,” with or without The Attractions line-up, is worth the price of admission. If I remember correctly, this was the third Costello album added to my collection.

“This Year’s Model”: This was my second Elvis record–and holy shit, what a revelation.  That first track, “No Action, ” tossed me into spasms of ecstasy.  I mean, OMG, the drummer Pete Thomas practically solos through the whole thing.  It’s full of kinetic energy; it’s explosive, bombastic, much punkier and more rocking than anything on the debut record, a clear transformation–and it worked a similar transformation on me, albeit, backwards.  This is the first album with The Attractions, perhaps the mightiest backup band for a solo artist ever assembled in the world of Michael Jarmer. They were absolutely smoking. Check out the “Ticket To Ride” drumset effect in “This Year’s Girl” and the punk-ass jazz fusion of “Lipstick Vogue.”  And then there’s “Radio, Radio,” indelibly etched into our minds as a kind of protest song in that first Elvis appearance on Saturday Night Live. Sophomore slump? Not even close.

“Armed Forces”: Again, my first Elvis record, and my what a record.  From the lead vocal solo pick up of “Oh I” to the downbeat “just don’t know where to begin” of “Accidents Will Happen,” to the raucous closure of “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding,” this record absolutely rocked my teenage geeky soul and it continues to rock the soul of this old man.  As a kid, I remember being so struck and taken by Elvis’s very particular vocal styling, a kind of nasally Bob Dylan meets Tom Petty, but only English and super smart and way more inventive and musical.  And this, along with my parallel discovery of The Boomtown Rats, really brought to my ears and brain for the first time the idea that rock music could really be about something big–even though I didn’t quite understand any of it. It had a weightiness to it, a gravitas.  Sonically, I love the way the drums sound on this record and the roller-skate organ continues to kill throughout.  This music makes me happy.

“Get Happy”: Here’s a radical idea–let’s put 20 songs on a single 12″ record, 10 songs a side! I think it’s important to mention that even though all these records are now in my cd collection, I bought all these albums when I was a kid on vinyl, the compact disc still six or seven years down the road. By necessity, because of the limitation of the LP format, all the songs on this brilliant record must be super short.  There may be only one or two tunes on this entire album that clock in over three minutes. So the record flies by. And there is gem after gem here, too.  Most notably, “Five Gears in Reverse,” “Opportunity,” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down.” Great songs.  Soulful and short.  But this record didn’t captivate me quite as much as the previous three, but it was still beloved. This record, though, perhaps more than the previous three, improves with age–possibly, it seems less stuck in time, less tied to an era than its predecessors.

And last, but not least, “Trust.” I might go out on a limb to say that this might be my most favorite Elvis album ever. I’m not going to die by those words, but I know that if I could only take one Costello record with me to the desert island, this would certainly be one of the contenders. I remember vividly that I was listening to this record late one night when my girlfriend knocked on my bedroom window. There’s nothing really sordid to report.  She just stood out there and we whispered back and forth for awhile before she snuck off back to her home down the street.  That must have made me one happy camper, and as she walked off, I may have boogied by myself in the bedroom to “Clubland,” “Strict Time,” “Luxembourg,” “Watch Your Step,” and the groovy collaboration with Glen Tilbrook from The Squeeze, “From a Whisper to a Scream.” There was something about the lyric and musical variety of this record and it’s lush production that set it over the top for me–not to mention that I was in love.  That love and the pursuant heartbreak wouldn’t last more than a year–but this record, this record was built for the long haul. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. This drum part. The space. The lyrics. That bass line. That cool vocal delivery.  Elvis at his early career best, I think.  Cheers. Finally I get get back to the conclusion of the letter C.

 

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

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