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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XVII–The Impactful Album Challenge

What follows, dear reader, is a revised and slightly expanded version of my participation in the Facebook Album Challenge that’s been making the rounds of late in this merry, merry month of May in the year of our pandemic, 2020.

I include it here so that it’s all in one spot for quick reference for anyone who cares to take a gander, but mostly for me, as a record of how I responded to the challenge, the challenge to post a photo of 10 album covers over 10 days of records that had a significant impact, whatever that means. These could be records that influenced your musical tastes. If you play an instrument seriously or are a songwriter, maybe these could be records that had the most impact on your own path as a musician. For me, it was both of the above, but also I considered records that intersected with my life during important moments of development or growth, that enriched my spirit, and also, that have withstood the test of time for me. I could listen to any of these records right this minute and experience that same sense of wonder and joy and giddiness. For example, when I was a kid, Kiss records were impactful–but very little of their music is on current rotation, so they’re not here. Similarly, The Sweet–a profound early influence–and yet, their cringe-worthy lyrics offend my 21st century sensibilities. But unlike the Kiss omission, that was a super difficult call, one that I’m still struggling with, one that I may have to amend.

I also thought that this might be an accessible reentry for me into a blog series I started years ago, the purpose of which was to listen to a single compact disc from every artist represented in my collection, A to Z, and then to write a little reflection on the experience. I wrote 16 volumes of that series over several years, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words, and I managed to get to, but not finish, the letter H. At this rate, I thought to myself, I might not live long enough to finish, and then I’d never get to write about Frank Zappa! Oh, the horror.

So here they are, my entries to the challenge, revised a bit, with the photos of the “10” most impactful albums on my life and times.

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

XTC, Apple Venus Volume 1: I was nominated by my friend John Stanford to play the album game. I accept begrudgingly, only because I don’t like being “called on” and I’m not too keen on the rules. Nevertheless, I accept, because who could turn down John Stanford. So I vow to break the rules all over the place. Here’s me, with, perhaps, my favorite pop record of ALL TIME, a record that never gets old and seems to me as timeless as Sgt. Pepper. The band is XTC. It’s the second to last record they would ever make together. It’s 1999. I am one decade into my teaching career and I am feeling brash and optimistic and unstoppable, just like this record, just like almost any record from XTC, who are, it’s safe to say, my favorite band ever. They were, to me, The Beatles of the 80’s and 90’s. I could have chosen a half a dozen of their albums for this challenge. For now, I would say, though, “Apple Venus Volume 1” is tied in first place with this one: “Skylarking.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Day 2 of a record album game in which I ignore the established rules. This was maybe the first album I ever obsessed over. I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor with her tiny little portable suitcase turntable and I played this album over and over. This was the beginning of my love affair with music. Maybe the first album for which I ever memorized every word.

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD.: Day 3 of the record album game. Right alongside Sgt. Pepper, I spun this again and again as a child, and, like Sgt. Pepper, it has had the same kind of staying power for me. The neighbor girl and I liked to pretend we were radio disc jockeys. There was this odd little nook in her family’s attic that became our “station.” The requests for this record kept pouring in. We played it over and over. It’s a dream of mine to do a song-by-song cover album of this baby.

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Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Day 4 of top 10 most influential, pivotal, earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-altering record albums. This one blew my little 4th grade mind right open. Adventurous, varied, naughty, literate, literary, beautifully performed; every tune a gem. Not a clunker in the bunch. I was so hard core about Elton in elementary school, some kids called me Elton Jarm. This record was the pivotal one, and shortly after that, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first LP I ever bought with my own money. Two favorites to this day.

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Laurie Anderson, United States Live; Kate Bush, The Dreaming: Day 5. Let the cheating begin in earnest. No serious music fan could name just 10, so I’m squeezing in a two-for. I can think of no two women who had more impact on my musical life than these two. They both enlarged for me the possibilities of pop music, what it can do sonically, and what it can do for the head and the heart. Anderson’s record, the first box set I ever purchased, a live album over 5 lps, brought so much of what interested me in my early adulthood into one brilliant package: she was funny, super literate, poetic, absurd, a trailblazer of music technology and for the marriage of the literary and the pop culture. Pure brilliance. And Kate Bush? This is her fourth album, but it’s the first one that I heard and I found it absolutely magnetizing and sexy and weird and theatrical and I loved it for nearly all the same reasons that I loved Laurie Anderson. But man, Kate could really sing. One of the most distinctly original female voices in rock music.

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Talking Heads, Fear of Music: Day 6. Talk about an appropriate title, the first time I heard this record I totally freaked out, thought it was the weirdest, ugliest, most unlistenable thing I had ever heard. I took it back, claimed it was defective. It haunted me. A couple of years later, after easing myself back in by trying their first two albums, “77” and “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” the “Fear of Music” album worked its way back into my collection and summarily changed my life. It is, still, by far, the weirdest Talking Heads record–but in the best, most beautiful way. “Electric guitar gets run over by a car on the highway. This is a crime against the state. This is the meaning of life: to tune this electric guitar.” Need I go on?

Devo, Are We Not Men? Oingo Boingo, Nothing To Fear: Day 7. Between these two I could not choose. By the time I had accepted Talking Heads into my heart, Devo and Oingo Boingo were busy carving out space in my mind for full on Nerd Rock New Wave devotion. And these two weirdo bands have the distinction for me of the best cover renditions of all time, Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Oingo Boingo’s “You Really Got Me,” both tunes on each band’s debut, respectively. This is not Oingo Boingo’s debut, but their sophomore effort. It kicks more ass; it’s less like a West Coast Devo. I wore out the grooves on this one and years later replaced the record with a CD. Watch me replace it on vinyl again if it ever reappears there. Who knew then what Mothersbaugh and Elfman would have in their musical futures? No body.

Joni Mitchell, Wild Things Run Fast; Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth: Day 8. It was 1984. I was a community college freshmen. The Dolby album was brand new that year, and simultaneously, I discovered “Wild Things Run Fast” from two years before, my first serious listen to Joni Mitchell. I immersed myself inside both of these albums, both artists becoming giant influences. Both records were imbued with this beautiful infusion of pop and jazz in a way that I don’t think I had ever heard before. In the next year or so, these two heroes of mine would collaborate on Joni’s “Dog Eat Dog” album, in hindsight, kind of a failure, but at the time I was over the moon. I love it when heroes collaborate. David Byrne and St. Vincent? Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock? Brilliant. More please.

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Cheap Trick, The Dream Police: Day 9. I could have posted any one of their first five studio albums. This band–a childhood favorite that continues to blow my mind and continues to make great music. Check out anything from “Cheap Trick ’97” onward. Robin Zander, I think, is one of my all time favorite ROCK singers. Even their Christmas album rocks. Yeah, they made a Christmas record. Sad to see that Bun E. Carlos is out of the fold. He was such a force in this band. I loved his drumming, especially his tendency to put the eighth note bass drum hits on the other side of the snare in the rock beat. He and Rick Neilson were the perfect foils for super models Robin Zander and bass extraordinaire Tom Peterson.

Here’s my story: I saw Cheap Trick open up for Kiss without ever having heard a single song of theirs–this was before the Budokan album made them famous–and I thought, even as a young tike, that if you took all those pyrotechnics and motorized platforms and blood spitting and make up and crazy outfits away from Kiss, Cheap Trick was clearly the superior band musically, in every way.

The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing; Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model; Japan, Tin Drum; Gary Numan, Telekon:

Day 10 of breaking all the rules. Appropriately enough, today I share my own personal New Wave Holy Quadrumvirate. There’s no way I could leave any of them out of a group of songwriters or bands or albums that ultimately shaped me into the musician and lyricist I became. Bob Geldof, from the Boomtown Rats, in particular, was my first political songwriter. The wit of Elvis is incomparable. David Sylvian from Japan may have been my first rock star spiritual guru. And Numan was just freaky, a perfect role model for awkward and nerdy teens.

It feels wrong to cut out too early here. It’s hard to express the impact all four of these records made on my young life. It’s worthy of its own blog entry, perhaps. I have been loyal to them all over the years. The Boomtown Rats just reunited after 37 years for a new record and I’ve followed everything Geldof did as a solo artist. Elvis is frighteningly prolific. He’s the artist in my collection that is most plentifully represented, second behind only one other artist. David Sylvian’s solo work has been super exciting to follow, challenging, far reaching, deeply spiritual and literary, and Gary Numan continues to make great, really great records.

Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch: Day 11. Zappa much? While not a completist, I have more Zappa in my collection than any other artist, 37 albums in all, many of which are double and sometimes triple cd collections. This one may not be my all time favorite, but, as it was my first Zappa record, it has a special place in my memories of all-things-Frank. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, indeed! The best musicians in the world playing the weirdest, most difficult rock music ever composed. Zappa also has the distinction of being the first artist, while living at home, that I felt I needed to hide from my parents. I listened at relative low volume in my bedroom or cranked it up when they weren’t at home. The line in particular from “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” comes to mind, a song I would never want to play within my mother’s earshot. Iconoclastic. That’s the word. The music, the words, the thought–he was in every way a musician’s musician and a thinking person’s musician. Everything he did was daring, astounding, funny, intelligent, incisive, brilliant. Cancer sucks, by the way. What might he have done had he continued to live?

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The Police, Message in a Box (The Complete Recordings); Rush, A Farewell to Kings: Day 12 of the Album-Game Cheat-fest. Today, it’s about the drummers, man. These two guys, more than any other drummers, shaped my musical brain. Copeland maybe more so, because I never did develop anything close to Peart’s chops. Stewart’s chops likely dwarf mine as well, but I cut my teeth playing to Police records and could pull most of it off. The Rush stuff I had to fake. In my Cheaty-McCheat-Face way, I’ve included the entire Police catalogue. And then this, I think, my favorite Rush album of all, in it’s original cover artwork glory. I wanted to take a picture of the 40th anniversary edition–but you know, they’ve reimagined all the artwork. I don’t know how I feel about that. I DO know how I feel about Neil Peart’s untimely passing, and you can read all about that here.

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Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings: Day 13. They were punk, they were ska, they were funk, they were soul, they were metal, they were pop, they were super smart; their energy was frenetic, palpable, and, while they chronicled our American ugliness, their music was undeniably joyful and life-affirming. I am somewhat embarrassed that Black American Music is not more widely represented in my collection–but I am so appreciative of this band for bringing to my twenty-something white boy privilege some awareness and consciousness that, truly, I had little of before encountering this band.

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They Might Be Giants, Flood, Apollo 18: Day 14. “Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It’s a word that I have been guilty of abusing, but not this time. 😁These guys were my antidote to the grunge movement of the 90s. I needed the nerd rock to cleanse the palette in between all that Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. And I loved those bands, but I am uniquely aware of their conspicuous absence on this list. Nevertheless, here it is, my penultimate offering in the Most Important Records In Your Life game, cheater version: They Might Be Giants.

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The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin: Day 15. To conclude the 10 day, one-album-a-day challenge, about which I have bent the rules considerably, I choose this 1999 classic, a record I did not hear for the first time until 2001, a record that came to me at a perfect time in my life, a record that matched the absurdity, the profundity, the magnitude of my world, externally and internally. It is, perhaps, with a half a dozen XTC records, one of the most important records of my life. “Suddenly, everything has changed.”

I have penned more words on this blog site about this band than perhaps any other band. Check out the “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography” under F and “A Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of Oczy Mlody.” They have consistently challenged me, intrigued me, touched me in really surprising places, but also, from time to time, pissed me off. Unlike XTC, they have made terrible records. But I appreciate their fearlessness. I appreciate how successful they have become while being so undeniably weird and counter to most of what you might call mainstream pop music. Wayne Coyne, I think, is really something else.

And that’s it for my list of the “10” most impactful records of my life. But, I’d like you to notice, I have included only music from the 20th century. I have continued to listen avidly and to actively seek new music out. New music continues to shape me and move me. So maybe, I’m thinking, there may need to be a 21st century edition, again, not because anyone is holding their breath to know what my favorites are, but because this activity of writing about music that was meaningful to me is a little bit therapeutic and life-giving. I feel like I’m doing what Whitman was doing in his SONG: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” My record collection, though, is way better than Whitman’s, but serves in many ways, both literally and figuratively, as my Song of Myself.

Postscript: Honorable Mentions in no particular order. “Destroyer” by Kiss, “Give Us A Wink” by The Sweet, The Pretenders debut album, “Life’s Too Short” by The Sugarcubes, “Parallel Lines” by Blondie, “Powerage” by AC/DC, “Face to Face” by Angel City, “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie, “Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo, “The Big Heat” by Stan Ridgeway, “True Colors” by Split Enz, “Temple of Low Men” by Crowded House, “From the Inside” or “Flush the Fashion” by Alice Cooper, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, “All You Can Eat” by K.D. Lang, “Discipline” by King Crimson, and “Thrak,” also by King Crimson, “Songs from the Big Chair” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, “So” by Peter Gabriel, “Globe of Frogs” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Whatever and Ever, Amen” by Ben Folds Five, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths, and “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish. I’ve forgotten something. I know I have.

Until next time, happy listening!

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Thank You, Neil, Part 2: On Becoming a Rush Completist

I pinned down the year I stopped listening to Rush to 1983. Totally immersed in the New Wave and Punk movements of the day, listening to progressive music I found more avant-garde, like Zappa or Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it was the year I graduated from high school, the year after the Signals record came out. I liked the singles from that record; “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” were cool tunes, if not significantly less adventurous and progressive than almost everything that came before, at least rhythmically. But I didn’t own that record and didn’t listen to it all the way through until maybe five or six years ago, when I decided to collect the three Rush box sets, Sectors I, II, and III, collecting every album, studio and live, from the very beginning all the way to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and the live album that followed, Show of Hands. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia (I had sold my entire vinyl collection in 1987 and all my Rush albums with the lot), and the fact that I had gotten over a decade or more of snobbishness against the band, but I felt like it was time to dive back into Rush and I did that in a big way. A few years later, 40 year anniversary reissues of my favorite of the classic Rush records started to come out, and I just had to have Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres on heavyweight vinyl. I was all in. And then, this January of 2020, Mr. Peart, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, he shuffled off this mortal coil. And while I was mourning that loss and listening to those two favorite Rush albums again, I realized that there was almost 20 years worth of Rush albums since Hold Your Fire that I had never heard–not even one song.

I had homework to do.

Apparently, there was a box set made especially for me, especially for this occasion, a collection of every studio album from 1989 to 2007, seven compact discs in all, released, perhaps, before the band knew that they would ever release another record, or, more likely, released after the band’s exit from the Atlantic record label. There would be only one more studio album after 2007, Clockwork Angels from 2012. So, as far as Rush’s studio albums are concerned, save for this 2012 record, which I have not yet heard, I have become a Rush Studio Album Completist.

I read somewhere recently that since Peart’s death, Rush record sales and streams have soared upwards about 2000%. I am happy to have contributed to that. At the same time, there’s a kind of sadness about the fact that the popularity or public interest in an artist always surges after they’ve died. But I think the joy outweighs the sadness: I have always found great pleasure in discovering a band several albums into a career and then being able to check out the back catalogue, to find out what I had missed. I did this in the 80s with Japan, XTC, The Boomtown Rats, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa. Recently, I’ve done this with Father John Misty, St. Vincent, The Dear Hunter, and The Mountain Goats. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing the music of a band’s trajectory almost 15 years in, and then of being able to explore another 20 years worth of music going forward! So, thank you again, Neil, for that.

I worry: might there be a good reason I never heard a single song from 8 albums over 20 years? Wasn’t there a good reason for falling out of love with Rush in the first place? Are these new records from the catalogue going to have any kind of staying power for me now? Or am I just going to listen to them once, say to myself, okay, I did that, and then put them back away for ever?  Well, let’s find out. Here’s a little listening tour in miniature of every Rush album made from 1989 to 2007! Don’t expect full-blown reviews. These are essentially notes I was taking as I listened to each record for the first time. And, F.Y.I.: I did not do this in one sitting.

Presto: The first song out of the gate is one that I know I’ve heard: that opening riff of “Show Don’t Tell” is, perhaps, at least in my memory, the last of the iconic Alex Lifeson riffs, and maybe the last of the big singles. This tune rocks. It showcases each member of the band at the height of their powers. I’m disappointed in the fade-out, though. I like it when bands write endings and record them, especially on the first track of the album. “Chain Lightning” has kind of a new wave thing going on. Geddy hasn’t yet jettisoned the keyboards. But this is no synth pop. I hear The Police in the third tune, continuing to make impressions on the dynamic Canadian trio. It seems clear that the era of the epic prog tune is over for Rush at this point; not a single song reaches six minutes in length. This was also true, I think, of their previous two albums, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire. “Scars” is almost a dance tune. I’m not kidding. Miraculously, it works. The title song begins with the line: “If I could wave my magic wand.” Not a great lyric moment for Neil. “Superconductor” out-Polices The Police. Super rocking song. And its central riff is in 7. Yea! More good songs follow. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing either that I would be tempted for a moment to skip over. In the last song, “Available Light,” a piano predominates the verses. This is a very different Rush thing and it’s lovely. The vocal transition between the chorus and the next verse is an exquisite move. Strong ending, friends.

Roll the Bones: “He’s got a road map to Jupiter.” This might be the first Neil lyric, at least that I’m aware of, about riding a motorcycle, unless I’m totally misreading the lyric, which is possible. This first track, “Dreamland,” is a palatable rock song. “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” That’s clever. The title track is funky, a happy chance, after the sleepiness of that second tune. I wanna shake my booty. Oh my, there’s a kind of rap thing going on right now and I’m frightened. It didn’t ruin anything, happily. More rock. It’s impossible not to do that chicken head maneuver along with the beat of “Face Up.” An instrumental? Oh yeah. Super groovy. And it’s got an absurdist title: “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)” Whoever said Rush didn’t have a sense of humor? Clearly, when you see them in interview or in that beautifully inspiring documentary, they do, but rarely does it show up in the music. Here it is. This whole thing is in 4–but there are fantastic Neil moments in this one. Things get pretty pedestrian after this. “Ghost of a Chance,” though, is effective pedestrian. “You Bet Your Life” is a celebratory, fun, nutty closing tune. This background vocal chant-thing is exquisite. I’m a fan.

Counterparts: Drum intro after an obligatory, and funny in this case, 1, 2, 3, 4 count-off. “Animate” is the first track here, and it rocks, and it features some lyrics that are at once a return to philosophical and fantastical form for Neil, but also seem to fit nicely into the disaffected and anti-establishment ethos of the early grunge movement. “Stick It Out” continues very much in this vein. This record, so far, is way heavy. Metal, even. I dig. Am I listening to a lost Faith No More album? It sounds great and I just want to bang my head. Some touching and politically pointed lyrics in “Nobody’s Hero,” the closest thing to a rock ballad I’ve heard yet in these albums. Strong, affecting. The next two songs continue to rock, are interesting melodically, and have cool arrangements, but “The Speed of Love” is a little sleepy. “Double Agent” is a rocking thing that in sections returns to progressive odd time signatures and is punctuated with some spooky spoken word. Another instrumental! “Leave That Thing Alone” demonstrates that while musically their instrumental works remain super focused, tight, melodic, their titles can be (or have become) super silly. That was awesome. A favorite moment. There’s nothing unpleasant about the last two songs of this album. Verdict: a very good record.

Test for Echo: It just seems wrong to hear so much 4/4 on Rush albums. The odd time signature was one of those things, as a young man anyway, that defined Rush for me. I’m trying to let that go. On this album, I counted not one crazy drum fill. I could have missed it. I may have spaced out. Geddy’s singing is consistently in lower registers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Out of the first four discs in the box, this so far is my least favorite. It’s just not very interesting, adventurous, or memorable. Is there a single tune that stands out to me? Maybe I’ve had too much to drink. To be fair, I’ll have to return to this one.

Vapor Trails: That opening drum intro kicks ass. “One Little Victory.” Okay, this is the Rush I love. Not super melodically interesting, but it’s sure rocking. “Ceiling Unlimited”: mo’ better melody. Heady words. We’re out of the 90’s now, Dorothy, but still, this is almost punky grungy. And, apropos of the 90s: running time on this one is 1 hour and 8 minutes. Too long. Another motorcycle song: “Ghost Rider.” Yea! Odd time signatures make a return on “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ooh. That’s almost a Beatle-y bridge. This song is long and has lots of parts. I’ve forgotten where I am. A bit of folk-pop in “How It Is,” decidedly uncool. Titular tune, decidedly sleepy. “Freeze” is maybe the coolest, most melodic and thus most interesting thing on this record, which, overall, tends to be seriously good.

Feedback: An album of covers?! Oh my. What do we have here? Seems kind of antithetical to everything Rush has done since their debut album. Maybe that’s the point. This, perhaps, was all formative shit for the dynamic trio. “Summertime Blues”? Really? Cool idea to replace the spoken word breaks with bass solos and drum solos. Nifty and surprising ending. The Yardbirds cover, a song I don’t know, is groovy. Geddy’s vocal on this is especially pleasing. Buffalo Springfield! Stop, Children, what’s that sound? It’s Rush doing cover tunes. The Who! Neil has said that Keith Moon was a big influence. More Buffalo Springfield! The first and only time I’ve heard the song “Seven and Seven Is” was on an 80s vintage Alice Cooper album. I’m learning things about Love. More Yardbirds! And finally, Robert Johnson a la Cream: “Crossroads.” Neil’s playing the super straight ahead rock drums on this whole collection, but nevertheless, this has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

Snakes and Arrows: The last disc in this collection, Rush, circa 2007. First tune, “Far Cry,”  is rocking, guitar riffy, melodic, and begins with a series of classic Rush intro breaks. I have a good feeling about this one. Hey! The odd time signature makes a comeback in the verse of “Armor and Sword,” a beautiful song that seems to move seamlessly between a bunch of disparate pieces that nevertheless all hang together. “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” I can dig the use of the “their” pronoun in this lyric. It changes everything. The following two or three songs are not nearly as remarkable, but still undeniably good and smart. In this lovely instrumental, “The Main Monkey Business,” I think I hear references to early Rush tunes–and I think they’re deliberate allusions to 2112 and Hemispheres and not an accidental rehash. Maybe I’m imagining things. Nope, there it is again. Holy cow: that truly rocked. Followed by a kind of blues-thing-not-a-blues-thing. It seems what Rush is trying to do here and in many of these earlier records from this collection (successfully, I might add), is to rediscover themselves as ROCK band. I can’t remember hearing anything on any of these records that might be considered a ballad. The closest we get is a moment here and there of relative quiet–but only a moment. Fist pump. Devil horns. Head bang. They may have been more “easy listening” in the prog era of the 70’s. Is “Faithless” a kind of atheist anthem? I’d have to read these lyrics more closely. “I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief. I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.” There’s some playfulness, some actual humor, I think, in “Bravest Face,” musically and lyrically. I’m finding this thoroughly enjoyable, all the way through. This last one may be my favorite of the seven–indicating perhaps that they just kept getting better. Rush was a fucking great band. There are bands that I have loved more, bands that I would never have stopped listening to even if you put a gun to my head, that I have been more loyal to over the years, but ultimately, Rush was unstoppable. Only death could keep them down. And that is really saying something.

 

 

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To Be a Life-Long Listener

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In education we often bandy about one of our most sincere hopes for our students and aspirations for ourselves, to be life-long learners. I’m a huge fan of this concept. I never want to be complacent about my learning, about expanding the horizons of my brainiac: I want to read new things, write new things, challenge myself as a reader and writer, learn new artistic expressions, consistently enrich my teaching practice, grow and expand my relationships with others and the planet, become more efficacious emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and become increasingly aware of new knowledge, generally speaking, on a wide range of subject matter. But lately, as I get more and more old-agey, I’ve been thinking of one other kind of life-long learning I want to hold on to, the practice of being a life-long listener of music, not just of the things that I grew up with and that had the most impact on my formative years, but to be intentional and conscious of never letting go of the habit of seeking out what’s new, what’s different, what’s around the corner, what I’ve missed. I’ve managed to keep this practice alive, with near nary a lull, all of my life now, since the grade-school aged me started collecting records. It is a habit that sustains me, a habit I find difficult, and have no interest in breaking. It is a significant part of who I am.

I know musicians and music fans, while still active listeners or performers of music, who have no interest in listening to new music, have no knowledge or experience about contemporary music–especially in the rock/pop genre. They’re either still listening to the soundtrack of their youths, or they limit their listening interests to new interpretations or performances of classical and orchestral music, or, if they’re not doing these things, they just simply don’t listen recreationally at all. I don’t understand these people. I don’t judge them. I’m sure they have perfectly good reasons for these habits, and I respect that. I just know that if it were true of me–it would make me excessively sad.

I’ve said this before, and other people have said it too, perhaps more eloquently, that music acts like a kind of photo album, the way music can stir memories, very vivid memories of the times and places and emotions of our lives. When I listen to The Beatles and The Monkees, I’m a child again; when I listen to early Rush, I’m in 7th and 8th grade; my favorite new wave bands take me straight to my high school years; Thomas Dolby’s records take me through college and XTC took me all the way from a junior in high school to an adult with a teaching career–I mean, you get the picture. I like to think that when I’m 70, I’ll be listening to records by St. Vincent and The Dear Hunter, and I’ll be reliving my 50’s! And then, I hope, as a 70 year old man, I’ll be making the trek to the record store (if such things still exist) to grab the new album by one of the bands I discovered in my 60’s, or a band or songwriter I’ve just discovered. For my 70th birthday I’ll ask my family to gift me the new record by Insert Groovy Band Name Here, and I will be happy as a schoolboy to receive it. And I have become exceedingly jazzed lately to be introduced to new music by my son, 14, who, in the digital age, far from developing the collector’s aesthetic, is still super enthusiastic about the music he loves, recently turning me on to Joji and Bill Wurtz. That’s the shiznit. To be a life-long listener.

 

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Concert Review Confessions: St. Vincent at the Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, January 20.

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In part because I have listened to all five St. Vincent albums over recent days in preparation for the live appearance this last weekend here in Portland, I have made no new progress on the H section of my CD collection, on my alphabetical listening and blogging project that seems to go on forever. Instead, I’ve prepared this little confessional.

I love St. Vincent, Annie Clark’s rock project of the last 10 years. I love her music, but I’m also a little bit in love with her. If I were not married and if I was fifteen years younger, I might drop everything and follow her around the world. I’ve not been so enamored with a pop star since I was a teenager. She is enormously talented as a songwriter and musician; she’s got an incredible voice, her guitar playing prowess is prodigious, her lyrics are challenging, provocative and smart, and she is beautiful. Oh my god, is she beautiful.

I saw her band two albums ago on the “Strange Mercy” tour at a local concert club and it was almost a religious experience. I was out by myself in this club with hundreds of strangers and I remember that I was, at several points in the show, on the verge of weeping in the wake of the band’s sonic power, their precision performance, and Annie’s otherworldly presence.

Having missed the last tour, I was super stoked to get St. Vincent tickets as a Christmas present for the appropriately titled “Fear the Future” tour in support of the Masseduction album.  The confessional aspect of the title of this blog entry has to do with a few issues regarding her recent album and tour that have given me some pause, made me somewhat uncomfortable, and have raised questions for me about the nature of her work, the nature of live music, and the design and marketing of a music product.

So, to begin with, I’ve seen St. Vincent perform live on television a couple of times over the last few months since the new record came out. In all cases, Annie was singing and playing guitar in front of a pre-recorded musical backdrop, one that approximates in an almost identical way the recorded tracks on the record. I believed when I saw these spots that it was some kind of television studio expedient–that for some reason she chose to perform this way on t.v. Then I started to see a promo photo or two for the show which again pictured Annie Clark with a guitar in front of a microphone on a barren stage with a colorful backdrop. I was in denial that this would be her mode of performance all the way up to showtime. It was, it turned out, indeed the way she was to perform this concert–all by herself, with voice and guitar, backed by pre-recorded tracks and surrounded by a most sophisticated slow crescendo of lighting, staging, and film effects.

I really wanted her to have a band.  Alas, there was no band. I wondered if she was lonely up there. But from my perspective in the audience, was I bored? No. Was her performance lacking? Hell no. Did it sound bad? No. Was it sterile? God no. Was I disappointed in the show? No. Again, she blew my mind and rocked my world, even without a band. I don’t think there are very many artists who could get away with this. She pulled it off. The show was engaging from start to finish, visually and sonically. And there is something about the material, more electronic than anything she’s done before, even while electronics have always seemed to be in the center of her music, that may have leant itself to this kind of presentation. So, even while I was sad there was not a band, I enjoyed myself, and am no less smitten with Annie Clark than I was before.

Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking about, especially regarding the presentation of the new St. Vincent album and its tour. I have always found Annie Clark’s persona, her vocal stylings, her arrangements, her bold guitar work, and her lyrics–rather sexy.  On this record, in the art, in her dress, and in the visuals for the show, she seems to have amped that up a great deal. When I received the deluxe version of the LP in the mail and opened that baby up, I felt a little bit like I was handling contraband of some kind; it felt a little bit dangerous, and certainly something I wouldn’t be sharing with my 12 year old son. It’s not pornographic in any way, or is it? It depends on how you define pornography. If pornography, as James Joyce defined it, is art that elicits desire, then, well, was this pornographic? This is what bugs me: I can’t or won’t tell. And I also am really interested in her intentions for this design, provided that she had any creative freedom in the matter–which–because I trust her as an artist, I like to believe that she did. Take a look at the album cover and the posters and the t-shirts: a woman’s red stiletto heels, long, pink-stockinged legs, and an ass, adorned with leopard-patterned leotard, her entire torso bent over, one of her arms and her head disappearing through holes in a wall. So, basically, the cover is all legs and ass against a brilliant blood-red backdrop. In other imagery from the album’s art are legs with vividly colored thigh-high latex boots likewise emerging from holes in a wall. In the videos, we see more legs coming out of t.v. screens. Here’s a woman lying on the floor in a clear plastic bag. Annie, for the show, is dressed in what I would call a kind of dominatrix outfit. The only men I remember seeing in the projections during the concert were guys doing yoga while totally wrapped, head to toe, in some strange kind of blue full-body socks. Why do I have second thoughts about publishing this paragraph in a blog entry? What does this reveal about me? I know there is something to work out here, but I’m confused and part of me just wants to listen to this great music. Another part of me really wants to know the significance of this imagery, and how its unquestionable kink matches up thematically with the music. Here’s a lyric from the chorus of the title song, which, even though it seems to be missing an ‘s’, is pronounced mass seduction:

Masseduction: I can’t turn off what turns me on.
Masseduction: I hold you like a weapon.

I want to say that Annie Clark is making a bold and feminist statement about the nature of desire and the fetishizing of body parts and clothing–but beyond that, I am decidedly befuddled. I don’t know what that statement is. I can’t read the tone. It’s absurdist and weird and beautiful. How are you supposed to respond? Are you disturbed or excited or both? Are you disturbed that you’re excited? Are you excited that you’re disturbed? So, finally, I have come to this conclusion, because I trust her: I’m not yet smart enough to figure it out, but she has done for me with this record and this concert and these visuals what great art is supposed to do: make us squirm, make us uncomfortable, make us question, make us interrogate what we think we know. I’m all in, Annie. Thank you. Happy to be a part of your masseduction. I can’t turn off what turns me on, either.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XV–Here Comes Everybody Survives the 20th Century

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The cover of our very first CD release in 1997: The chicken head man and the naked dog foot lady, of course.

Back again so soon? I’ve got about a day and a half to fulfill my Pre-New Year’s Eve New Year’s Eve resolution of writing about the entire Here Comes Everybody catalogue before 2018. In case you’re just stepping into the fray, in short, it has been my project over the last three years or so to listen to my neglected CD collection, one artist at a time from A to Z, and write about the experience. A year ago I found myself mired in the letter H. The letter H happens to include my own band, Here Comes Everybody, which at first I thought I would just sort of skip over, but have since, for autobiographical reasons, changed my mind.

In my last entry I worked through the first six years, from 1986 to 1992 and I shared a stupid but by now kind of famous youtube video of my crazy bad self lip syncing to my own music in 1987. I was listening to and writing about the last CD we released, a 30th anniversary compendium of the first six years of songwriting and recording we ever did as a band. It’s important to note, especially perhaps for younger readers, that, in the 80s and early 90s, independent bands released their original material almost exclusively on cassette tape. Vinyl was way expensive and on its way out. CDs had just arrived, but were also cost prohibitive to produce. Everybody and their dog had a hi-fi cassette deck in their home stereo and in their cars. Cassette tape ruled the day–and for good reason. It was compact, convenient, reliable, and sonically pretty damn good.

All of the material discussed in the last installment of this series was initially released on cassette tape and had to wait 30 years until 2016 for a digital release into the world. After the cassette releases featured on Everything Is Here: 1986-1992, we continued to release albums and e.p.s on cassette tape for another five years, during which there were essentially only two releases, a cassette full-length album called Squish in 1993 and another cassette e.p. entitled Hump Day from 1995 or so. By the time these cassette records came out, the band was full-on grunge/funk/hard rock, a far cry from the synth pop of the 80s and early 90s.

How did we make this radical stylistic turn? Well, we were smitten, as was everyone else in the Pacific Northwest, by the hard rock grunge movement. It’s what we were listening to. It was raw and rowdy and full of energy and political power, and while it really wasn’t stylistically or radically different from the hard rock of the 70’s, it felt totally new and fresh and served as a rebellion against what felt like the antiseptic and artificial pop of the late 80s. And in this moment just before the Life, Friends, is Boring era discussed in the last entry, we had found a new guitar player, Jeff Bryner, a guy who was firstly incredibly inventive and secondly super prolific as a writer. So, combined with our current musical interests in guitar rock and this new dynamic member of the band, the music started to come from the guitar and NOT the keyboard. Eventually, so much so, that René tossed the keyboards altogether and got behind the drum kit. At that moment, by 1995, we were a full-on guitar band. We had left every vestige of keyboard, nu-wave power pop behind us.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. It was new and exciting and I think it was good. But the Here Comes Everybodyness of the music that René and I had been writing during the previous seven or eight years seemed to have been drained out and replaced by something else. I am proud of that work, but it sounds like a totally different band. At one point we toyed with changing our name–and I think we even did a gig or two with some new stupid identity, but it didn’t take, and, eventually, creative differences momentarily disbanded that mid-90s roster.

Some really great songs came from this era, though. Again, approaching the novelty song, our most successful tunes were often our funniest ones. From the Squish era came “I Like My Neighbors,” “My Dentist Is A Good Man,” and a song about forgetting your own lyrics during performance, entitled appropriately, “I Forgot The Words.” Here’s my favorite, the “Neighbors” tune in its original lo-fi glory:

And then something pretty remarkable happened: the advent of the professional quality HOME STUDIO. We recorded Squish (which opened with the “Neighbors” tune) on a cassette 4 track recorder. It was decidedly and unabashedly lo-fi. So grungy. I remember recording the keyboard live during the mix down! That’s just crazy. But suddenly, in 1996 or so, professional quality home recording equipment became, for the first time in human history, somewhat affordable. That was a game changer for us–and the rest of our musical history from that moment on was totally influenced by this phenomenon.  

Some of the best of this early to mid 90s material ended up on a 13 year anniversary CD released in 1999, appropriately called Thirteen. One of the first of the stupidest ideas I ever had was to release a kind of greatest hits record that would collect on CD the best of what we had released on cassette over the first thirteen years. Stupid? We had no hits. We made 1000 copies, because, you know, 1000 copies is cheaper than 500–really, seriously. It cost, in 1999 about $1,000 to replicate a thousand compact discs, whereas 500 copies would cost only a hundred bucks shy of that–so why the fuck not produce 1000 of those babies?! Well, because there’s not a market for it, that’s why. However, it was fun. It felt good to give the music a digital run, but we couldn’t afford to master it, it includes crappy four track recordings, and it was, as most albums produced on CD in the mid to late 90s were, too flipping long. Who has the patience to sit through a 73 minute compact disc? Outside of the appearance of a few select tracks from this mid-90s hard rock era on the Thirteen cd, this material, so unlike us, feeling to me today not totally authentically us, will likely never see the digital light of day. Although, by special request from a single individual who was a fan of that particular era, I recently burned a copy of Hump Day and sent a single solitary CDR off into the mails. Yeah, I could do that again.

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

Once More With Feeling. Kids in a candy store, having put together our first home basement studio with bonafide real professional recording equipment, we wrote and recorded our first album to be released on a compact disc. On this record, we primarily started the practice of promoting ourselves as a duo. The band, then, consisted of past band mates, HCE alum, who were willing to lend a hand. And we got almost every one of them involved somehow, going all the way back a decade to our very first full line-up.

Its weaknesses are that, again, it’s too long. It’s super self indulgent. We included everything, even the most silliest of things like jazz improvisations over spoken refrigerator magnet poems, nutty manic tunes that are nearly unlistenable, the absolutely absurdist spoken word poem that inspired the artwork, a crazy thing about a naked woman with dog slippers sitting at a bar with a massive, human sized chicken talking about those orange spider mites. Okay.

Its strengths: some of the best songs we had written to date:  The manic opener of “Holier Than Thou,” a satirical piece about any kind of hypocritical moral authority in which I get to do my best impression of an evangelical preacher; “Ba Ba,” a song that takes its title from the monosyllabic background vocal but delves more clearly than “Blue Refrigerator” could about the importance of self discovery and authenticity; “The Love Thing,” you know, about the love thing; other more serious and issue driven pieces; and a lot of really fine performances by so many good friends of ours. Overall, its variety, its manic qualities and its more reflective quiet moments, the instrumental experimentation (horns! acoustic guitars! improvisations! fake jazz!) the whole thing feels like a big ass party.

My goodness. There are four albums that I have yet to mention over the next two decades–the material that I am most proud of, actually. And I’m finding myself, on the eve of New Year’s Eve, at the end of potentially the most exhausting year in memory, unable to go further tonight. So I’ll leave you with this, a kind of sleeper from Once More With Feeling, but, as I’m re-listening now, nevertheless a tune that stands out as a favorite, and features a reunion of the 1987 band, Allen Hunter on bass and Greg Kirkelie on guitar. “Everybody’s made of something. What are you made of?” That’s a pretty good line.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIV–31 Years of Here Comes Everybody

Oh my. It’s been almost an entire year since the last time I added an installment to this series. Maybe I will make a New Year’s Resolution not to wait another year before the next one!

I did not intend to write about my own music in this series, only tangentially as it related to something I was listening to, or, if something I was listening to was an influence on my own songwriting. Why the hesitation? Oh, I don’t know; I didn’t want to seem self-indulgent. I know, that makes terrible sense; I am blogging, after all, primarily using my own bad self as subject matter! What could be more self-indulgent?  And if this is an autobiographical sketch through the lens of the music I have listened to over the years, what could be more autobiographical? And here we are, the founding members of the rocking teen combo Here Comes Everybody, myself (Michael Jarmer) and my wife and musical partner in crime, René Ormae-Jarmer, in the midst of our 31st year of marriage and 31st year of playing music together in this band. It seems fitting now, both because of the momentousness of the occasion, but also because here I am, after 13 blog entries and thousands of words covering the musical compact disc collection alphabetically from A to Z, in the middle of the letter H. All right. Let’s do this.

Because of it’s longevity, Here Comes Everybody has become an integral part of my identity. The thought of doing a solo album is distasteful to me. The thought of being the principle singer and lyricist for somebody else’s band, while not out of the question, is likewise to me unfavorable.  I like to play the drums. I like drumming so much that in the last couple of years I have taken to the throne to drum for other peoples’ projects. But no one else has ever asked me to write lyrics for them, and I’ve only had very brief flirtations over this last 31 years singing in somebody else’s thing. Whether it’s because I’m being selfish and holding on to my talents for this one singular project, or because my talents are not conducive to any other thing, remains to be determined. Whatever it is, I feel HcE is a piece of me just as much as is my inclination to write, or my love of reading, or my dedication to teaching, or any other proclivity or tendency that one would lump under the category of Things That Make Michael Jarmer Michael Jarmer.

So what’s the approach here? Should I follow the rules and write about only one or at least one record–or should I, like I only have, I think, for Elbow thus far, write about every single record? And since this is about my neglected CD collection, should I limit myself to material released on that format, or should I also give air time to the “records” we made that were released only on cassette?!

I think, if it’s true that Here Comes Everybody has indeed become part of who I am, it seems that I owe them at least the same kind of attention I gave to Elbow, a band I only discovered in 2002, a full 16 years after the first recording my wife and I made together. So let’s do the whole damn CD catalogue. And I might mention, but not go deeply into, those cassette-only releases–just because they form an important part of the picture, even though it seems that there’s a pretty good reason those pieces never escaped their magnetic tape origins.

Everything Is Here: 1986-1992. For the 30th anniversary of the band, we went back to the very beginning, remastering and releasing on CD for the very first time our complete early recordings, 4 short albums over two compact discs.  Our debut e.p., “Holy Smokes,” is kind of what you might expect from 22 year old kids in an 8 track (!) professional studio for the very first time, recording their very first batch of original tunes: pure unbridled enthusiasm, blinding self-confidence, awkward amateur performances, and some really strange, albeit 80s appropriate choices–like a band with two drummers relying on a drum machine for all the set work! My voice is quite a few notches higher here than it is now, in fact, sometimes embarrassingly so. I sound like someone’s pinching me really hard. I think I remember the phrase “manic yelp” as being the way our earliest critics described my voice. Yep. Totally accurate. I was indeed manic, and I was indeed yelping. We started as a trio (vocals, keys, and bass)–a configuration we would return to in the late 90s–but clearly we understood that we could not carry the tunes completely without guitar, so we found a hired gun in a guy named Kieth Charley who came in and performed these screaming lead guitar solos on a few of these tunes. They are awesome, sometimes the best part of the tune, even though they are somewhat anachronistic.

By the time our second e.p. came around, we had had the realization that real drums were the way to go and that the guitar should be an integral part of the band, so “Brand New Species” found us in a 24 track studio and with a year of lots of gigging and more writing under our belt, sounding like a real band. Oddly, still a band with two drummers already, we found a different drummer (high school buddy Sean Moultrie)  to play the kit–mostly because Rene had her keyboard duties to perform and I wanted to jump around on stage like a maniac. It wouldn’t be until 1997 when finally I would decide to sit down and play some drums in my own band.

Autobiographical note concerning the roster: René and I were high school sweethearts. Our first bass player, Terry Gassaway, was a high school chum. Our first guitar player, Greg Kirkelie, was not only a high school chum, but a guitar player with whom we played in our very first band ever. Our first drummer, Sean, was a high school chum. Our second bass player, Allen Hunter, was a chum from our teen years with whom we played in our very first band ever. Stephen Westerhout and David Gilde are the only musicians on these early recordings that I did not know as a teen, but I met Steve in college and Dave a little later–we must have only been 27 or 28 when we met. It strikes me as important and kind of profound that I would be willing and happy to play music with any of these individuals again and still to this day continue to think of each of them as friends. Insert something wise here about musical soul mates and the long lasting friendship power of our earliest creative acquaintances. 

The Everything Is Here compendium closes out with our first kind-of-full-length album clocking in with 8 songs, “Wake,” and then another e.p. called “Life, Friends, is Boring,” after John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” While “Wake” was most powerfully influenced by the likes of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,”  “Life, Friends” was our earliest foray into the heaviness that would become grunge. By 1992 we had all had our fill of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Cross all of that with our early new wave and prog rock influences and you’d have a pretty good idea about what we sounded like.

Out of these first four records came at least three tunes that would become emblematic of our quirky irreverence (is that a redundancy?) and, for better or worse, would become our most popular tunes early on: “I Am Not A Social Cracker,” “I’m Gonna Send You A Mail Bomb,” and most famously, now clocking in at over 3500 views on youtube, “Blue Refrigerator.” In 1987 we made a video for that tune, shelved it, showed it to no one, and then, on a whim, after digitizing our old tapes, decided to post it to youtube. The rest, as they say, is history.

During this whole era, from 86 to 92, we gigged like crazy. We gigged ourselves silly. We played everywhere for anyone. We opened up on many occasions for local heroes The Dan Reed Network. We exhausted the local scene. We were under the mistaken impression that the more we played the more likely we would be to “make it big.” What we probably should have done, but never quite had the courage to do, was tour. Finishing college, establishing careers, finding our way in a new marriage, the life of the road was just not in the cards and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t get famous, but we got pretty fucking good.

What’s most interesting to me, personally, about this collection is that it shows how fast and how wide our growth was in these first six years. I find it kind of impressive, enough so that 30 years after that first song was recorded, I felt the work deserved the attention and care of a remaster and a cd release.

I didn’t realize I’d get 1500 words out of that first CD. We may have to do this episodically, one record at a time. We may have to spend a lot of time on the letter H. I wasn’t finished with the other H-artist albums in the collection a year ago–I’ve still got Jerry Harrison, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Holiday, and the Housemartins to explore!  Pre-new years New Year’s resolution: finish the Here Comes Everybody entries before the clock strikes 12 on December 31. Please don’t hold your breath.

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#259: Thirteen Views of Listening to A Song

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I
With my eyes closed,
the lyrics become more vivid–
like icicles in my fingers.

II
Bouncing up and down
on a pogo stick, the drummer
has all of my limbs and I have hers.

III
I watch that wave come up,
a shimmering, a crescendo:
some nonsense makes me cry a little.

IV
A man and a woman
hear this song.
A man and a woman and a song
make a crazy sound, like cymbals.

V
The steering wheel becomes
my instrument; people look at me
and smile as they pass.

VI
Sometimes, a loop occurs
in the memory; the mind hears
that song even while it’s asleep.

VII
I don’t know if I prefer
this song at 33 rpm or 45.
This becomes a weighty matter.

VIII
Listening to colored vinyl
makes this song better,
there’s a tone unique to transparent green
or matte orange.

IX
I can’t remember the last time
I hated a song.

X
I’ve heard this song
ten times in a single week
in various stages of inebriation,
but I chose that.

XI
Sometimes a song comes on
in a public place, and you know it
but don’t know it.
That hurts a little.

XII
Is there something to
the fact that the artists I love
keep getting younger and younger?

XIII
I keep listening. Everything
could be caving in, or simply flying,
or marvelously indifferent,
but I keep listening.

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