Seen

“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

David Whyte

11/22/97

I would say that 11/22/97 is one of those litmus test shows, the sort of highly stylized disco freakout that with any luck could change someone’s life forever. You’re either on the bus or you’re not after hearing music like this.

And look! Here’s the bus now, pulling up and stopping for any adventure-seeking hellraisers who might be looking for a good time out on the rings of Saturn.

The show opens with a romp through hallucinogenic fields of borderline pornographic cowfunk and emotional entreaties for spacey introspection, all coiled around this 17-minute Mike’s Song opener. You don’t start a show at the Coliseum like that without then proceeding to demolish the fucking place, leaving behind only puddled brains and a crowd of irrevocably groove-addled wanderers.

Around the sixth minute, Trey is teasing the slinky Black-Eyed Katy riff that will show up fully formed in the second set, and but you’ve just gotta check out the interplay between guitar and cymbal beginning at 6:35. It’s smooth as hell, and Fish’s quick drum fill at 6:51 nudges us deeper into the night.

Now, how far out are you willing to go?

SET 1: Mike’s Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Harry Hood > Train Song, Billy Breathes, Frankenstein > Izabella

SET 2: Halley’s Comet > Tweezer > Black-Eyed Katy > Piper > Run Like an Antelope

ENCORE: Bouncing Around the Room > Tweezer Reprise

The story and the telling

Within the week, it had become a universal point of reference, a place outside of ourselves that would help us understand our place in the vastness of it all. It was a religious experience, the cyclical retelling. It was prayer. We related other narratives in our lives to the incident. We discussed our interpretations in boardrooms and coffee shops, in locker rooms and on late-night call-in shows. Murals appeared on the fine masonry of regional financial headquarters, garish images depicting the crucial moments. We redrew the boundaries of our relationships to conform to this sudden history. We rejoiced in the dissection of it all, the dismantling of fragile truths.

The art house down the street from my apartment was showing the video at a secretive all-night screening. According to the postal carrier, the organizers had angles that no one had seen. They’d edited video files to various degrees of aperture, zoom dimensions, time lapse. They had diagrams of velocity. They had some seriously high-tech students from the university behind this effort, he assured me. Of course I went. This felt very important to me. I traded him a bag of mushrooms for the password: “immaculate.” When I arrived, most of the seats were taken. I stumbled in the dark, tripping over boxes of old newspapers and fraying paintbrushes, and settled in for the night.

Nearby, in the back of the room, an older couple began pantomiming the sequence: the thrashing, the gripping, the angry gesticulating, the kicking. Silent affirmations. I was amazed. They’d memorized the pattern language from the moment it unfolded on live television. They’d subsumed the narrative. But how could they not? This was what the story had become: an endless reiteration of the same sentiment that humans had tried to express since they were half-erect nomads on the steppes. “Me” against “you.” Me right you wrong. This is the prayer, the ongoingness of a war.

The film crackled to life. It was as advertised, a rapid-fire loop of the fleeting drama from the field. The same punches, thrusts, grunts, the massing swarm of players, whistles sounding insanely, the commentators providing a preconscious understanding of who was doing what to whom. We viewed the official broadcast, replaying on and on through the night, interspersed with amateur footage from the stands. Shaky social media feeds. We awaited the familiar movements each time, the choreography of ourselves. Now here comes the motorcade, turning left onto Elm. Feet shuffled nervously in the screening room. With every subsequent viewing of the moment, the arc of the helmet, the exchange of information, we changed. The story deepened. I looked at the couple, and they were crying uncontrollably. They were almost smiling while they cried, splashes of tears pounding the art house concrete. What joy! What ecstasy! This was what we had come for, after all, the baptismal denouement of a foul decade in America. The story and the telling. The alpha and the omega.

You keep telling the same story to yourself, the mailman said, appearing suddenly and leaning over the seats, and eventually you’ll meet yourself coming the other way. This is how it’s always been. And isn’t that why we were here? Isn’t that why we watched?

Which side of the sphere are you on?

I’m curious if part of the fomenting unease with journalism (and photojournalism in particular) is the other, emerging edge of the social media sword: People have begun to understand themselves as brands. They might not use the word “publisher,” but, more and more, people are conducting the publicity and publication of their own lives. Personhood is something to conceptualize for an audience—and monetize if you’re good at it! When that perceived power is taken away and used by an external actor (a newspaper, let’s say), I could definitely see some backlash to what one might call an appropriation of someone else’s story. This is especially likely in sensitive political situations like a protest at a university building; the reaction could be quite incendiary. Safe spaces are not being acknowledged, I guess. Journalists are left to figure out how to do their job in this fraught digital-communications environment. Being a part of the student press probably makes this way more complicated to deal with, as the Northwestern reporters and photographers have pointed out in this latest dust-up.

Of course you’re seeing professional journalists around the country hemming and hawing over this. But it’s a great opportunity to look at the more nuanced angles of how we understand ourselves as individuals interacting in a society saturated with the internet.

I’m not optimistic about it.

When I’m in public as a 21st-century individual, going about my day and participating in things, I can publicize my life on Instagram or I can keep it quiet. Journalists make the same decision, choosing editorially to engage with this story or that story or to interview this person or that person. Journalists must discern the narrative of the public from those participating in the public. Now, in a just world, they’re considering the ethics of their work and navigating the public sphere with a clear eye for what sort of information is truly in the interest of the people.

To refrain from engaging the public? That’s not how journalism works. But so few people have even a basic understanding of how journalism works that the whole interaction often falls into frustrating nonsense. Trust in the news media begins to fray (and it’s not helped along by jackasses like the president). Loyalty among subscribers and readers rots. Leery-eyed goons talk openly about wanting to lynch reporters. Journalists are left to sort it out. You get shit like this student newspaper editorial. It’s not happening in a vacuum at Medill. The problem is everywhere.

Rage

I was fortunate enough to see Rage Against the Machine in New York City in 2007 with some of my best friends. It was one of those all-time experiences in the thralls of live music. Just total insanity in the pit. The rest of the bill included Wu-Tang, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy for god’s sake. I loved that show.

It’s good and hopeful that the band is getting back together for some more shows next year. I’m more leery these days about selling this sort of message on a stage like Coachella, but what doesn’t glow with the transactional sheen of commerce anymore? Capitalism has trammeled onward, accelerating its pace madly since the first iteration of Rage Against the Machine in the 1990s. What’s lost in the modern concert-going machinery is made up, I think, in the process of awakening that comes with bands like Rage.

What I learned from their poetry in those early days was what I brought into my career in journalism. I wrote my college entrance essay for Ohio University about Rage Against the Machine and George Carlin, twin influences of political iconoclasm and razor-sharp intellectual wit. In 2006, these were the main things I was processing in myself as I prepared for something approximating adulthood in a complicated world. I used “the voice of the voiceless” as a mantra that guided me through the student press and then into 10 years (and counting) as a professional journalist.

There’s a valid concern in how Rage was taken up in its peak years as angry-white-guy music. Anything aggressive and middle-fingery tends to get tossed around in a sea of misdirected emotions, and, probably, the message gets diluted in the mosh. It’s less a problem with the band’s delivery than with the lack of critical thought among that very audience base: the jacked-up, insecure braggadocios of the world moving through the day from one egotistical non-sequitur to the next. There’s some cultural cachet from listening to Rage Against the Machine; there always was.

It’s good and hopeful that they’re getting back together, yes, but I wonder where they’ll fit into a more flattened society. The inequality they lambasted in their music in the 1990s has only increased and further fractured the America we live in. But the way we talk about that inequality has changed, too, becoming more earnest and probing through the use of social media and the rise of identity-based politicalspeak. Earnestness is not always a good thing, I don’t think, but it’s here.

I’m curious what, if any, sort of reaction the band’s shows in 2020 will get. Will it feel like they never went away? Will it be frustrating? Does radical organizing need a new soundtrack, or will the old one be OK?

Right/wrong

The thing I’ve come to distrust most is certainty. I see/read so many friends and acquaintances and mindless strangers showing off and strutting how deeply right and righteous they know they are. There’s a piety in almost every conversation about political trends, public policy, pet health, a piety that would seem to me otherwise reserved for the courtroom or for the hymnal. It’s rotten. I think the thing I’ve learned—am still learning—is how wrong we are. And even in this, I must imagine, I’m wrong. I’ve got the whole thing wrong.

&c.

There’s a playlist on my Spotify account called “&c.”

I remember creating this, or at least I remember creating the title and planning to build something long-lasting outside of my typical playlists. I usually set up a new playlist every season, quarterly, recording the songs that I’m discovering or even just plain listening to a lot during the spring of 2018 or the fall of 2015 or what have you. This one was going to be something different.

It’s situated between Fall 2016 and Winter 2017. I could say so much about this fleeting chapter in my life, in part because I’ve etched its memory in music. But the actual experiences, like so much else, are better left for another night of story-telling. I’m in a delectable chapter right now; everything that’s come before has its place, but I’m enjoying the present too much to split backward all that often.

I’m listening to this playlist as I drink a few Jackie O’s See Foam IPAs and work on what could be a short story or the earnest stirrings of a novel. It’s about a goofy-ass Northeast Ohio pothead who… Well, I’ll leave that for another time, too.

Here’s the playlist. I’m loving it right now. These songs have meant so much to me for various, unending reasons.

Factor Chandelier – Buildings

ALO – Barbeque

Tauk – Afro-Tonic

The Wood Brothers – The Muse

Railroad Earth – Hard Livin’

The String Cheese Incident – Sometimes a River

Oddisee – Meant It When I Said It

Wilco – Unlikely Japan

The Sheepdogs – Downtown

Soul Position – No Gimmicks

Talking Heads – This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

Courtney Barnett – An Illustration of Loneliness

Marco Benevento – Witches of Ulster

Yonder Mountain String Band – Half Moon Rising

Perpetual Groove – Three Weeks

7 Walkers – (For The Love Of) Mr. Okra

Dinosaur Jr. – Almost Fare

Turkuaz – X.Y.Z. (Feelin’ Tough)

Aqueous – Don’t Do It

Phish – More

Wilco – Kingpin

Umphrey’s McGee – 1348

Cabinet – Spaceman

A Tribe Called Quest – Excursions

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood – The Times They Are A-Changin’

Eyedea & Abilities – Spin Cycle

Blueprint – Radio-Inactive

Rob Sonic – Gorf

A Tribe Called Quest – Whateva Will Be

Billy Bragg and Wilco – My Flying Saucer

Tea Leaf Green – Sex in the ’70s

The Wood Brothers – Shoofly Pie

Jawbreaker – Save Your Generation