Masters of something

I was in Destin, Fla., last week with my wife’s family, mostly playing golf and hanging at the pool and occasionally slipping off to read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. I ended up reading most of the book on the plane rides there and back, and, as suspected, it made for an ideal “vacay read.” I’ve been a Portishead since a friend turned me on to The Dog of the South a few years back, and so here I am: With Masters, I’ve now read all five of his novels (incl. Gringos twice).

Of course, Portis is gone now. His final novel came out in 1991, so it’s not like he was churning these things out super late in life. But over a few decades he managed to drop five all-timers, “going at least two for five in his attempts to write the great American novel,” Kaleb Horton wrote in a great remembrance last year. He was steady. and he had a knack for dialogue that I’ve been trying to find in my own work. This past spring, I wrote a short play that’s probably going to stay tucked in some lower-rung desk drawer, but which features some two-hander dialogue lifted in rhythm and disjointed weirdness from the master himself. At any rate, reading Portis’s stuff has been a great joy. Rereading promises the same.

Masters of Atlantis is a great lens on delusion. It’s a very American book, rooted mostly in the desperate times of the 1930s: times when cult-like intrigue and conspiratorial grifts sold nicely. If that sounds familiar, it is. Like the Gnomonistic viewpoints in the novel, history runs through cycles. (Or “turnings,” as in the Strauss-Howe generational theory, something that could stand in for Gnomonism, in a way.) Access to esoteric and exclusive knowledge is something we innately crave. We prefer at once to be both inside the mainstream, operating with the crowd, and to have some intimate intelligence that keeps us at a remove, coolly monitoring the known machinations of the world. In conspiracy and New Age MLM business, we find a distinct universe. We find a home.

But it’s the tug between the two impulses that marks our 21st-century anxiety. In Portis, and particularly in Masters, the loons are working well outside the boundaries, despite earnest attempts at press coverage. Back in 2021 America, the mass delusion is coming from inside the house. It’s a weird movement that runs to metamodernism, and I think it becomes hard to pinpoint without the structural world-building of fiction. We don’t like to scrutinize our delusions in America, because the attractive pull of the grand narrative (the #resistance, the viral video, the gamification of global finance, the militarization of police) is a certain gravity that affects everyone. There’s no inside to be outside of; there’s no escape hatch. It’s the internet of things.

I’m reading Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts right now, and I think it comes close to framing this problem in our current social media vernacular. The ironic detachment/attachment to various flavors of inside baseball conspiracy (pick your interests!) is something we’ll want to grasp in 21st-c. novels. Where Portis touched down on the fringes of a certain American tradition, there are new opportunities for writers incisive enough to tackle the ways we’ve reshaped ourselves in the internet (in, say, 300 pages) without coming out and hammering away on some mindless “take.” Oyler is getting there, I’d wager, and there will no doubt be more to read about the delusional touchstones of modern communication. We’re fooling ourselves, six ways to Sunday, and Portis would have understood as much.

70

“The only theory that I have is that it has something to do with seeing your life as a journey that doesn’t go downhill but evolves in different ways. And I think I would have had more joy in my life if I had been able to think about it that way. I think it’s very hard to be both totally present and to be able to think about that. I think, sometimes, I was too preoccupied.”

I’m a big fan of Max Linsky’s work (including Brownscast), and his new project is very interesting. “70 Over 70” will feature interviews with people over 70, naturally, and he starts off with his dad—who provides the above quote in the prologue. It’s an enticing angle on journalism in an era overstuffed with lukewarm alternatives, and Linsky is a great interviewer.

He’s still accepting nominations for the series.

Take it back to the garden

One of the most reliable narratives in the independent music scene is how reliable Dinosaur Jr. has been in their second-act run that began in 2005. In every review of the heady, ass-kickin’ new record, “Sweep It Into Space,” music writers from Pitchfork to Brooklyn Vegan can’t help but mention this arc. And why not? It’s a tremendous story: The band that tore itself apart over misdirected hostilities and a near-total inability to communicate with one another managed to stitch themselves together anew—and release record after record of look-ma-no-hands slacker rock and fuzzy pothead anthems even as the new millennium dragged the rest of society into autotuned pop memes and little more than *the idea of* music for a massive, algorithmically defined audience. The new album is, again, really fucking good.

Take the lead single, the Lou Barlow-penned Garden. It’s a nod to folksy rock traditions from across the pond, with enough lyrical depth to qualify as an autobiography of the band’s recurring attempts to maintain themselves. I might say this, too: It’s fairly different than the typical Dino Jr. tenor (see also: the upbeat mellotron [!!!] on Take It Back), although it never strays too far from the band’s downy guitar-centric style. If anything else, it’s just nice to see the aforementioned friendly trajectory play out on yet another record. In the video, Barlow is playing a J. Mascis signature Jazzmaster, for Christ’s sake! If that doesn’t scream Social Proximity in an era not exactly long on that sort of thing, I don’t know what to yell you.

Do less

The tendency, more often than not, is for people to complicate things quickly and dramatically—although often without intending to complicate things. You see this all the time in writing and communication.

Simplify always.

3/2020

I give in and download the New York Times app so that I can be closer to the headlines each morning. This is late January, and the warning signs are clear that a virus is rushing across the globe. I feel compelled to watch, to study the photos, to glean some sort of meaning from the faraway fear. Even now, before everything to come, I can feel the tidal pull of something vaguely sinister and unstoppable. With the app, I figure, I can dunk my head into the slipstream of news while still in bed.

I wake up on Jan. 31: “U.S. Issues ‘Red Alert’ After Week of Skyrocketing Infections.”

Then: March. We’re getting by, and it’s just a series of dislocating conversations and paranoid exchanges about the pandemic. The word itself feels large and jagged in our mouths. “Pandemic,” like something out of a Don DeLillo novel or a memory from Pangaea. The onset time of this moment is astonishing.

I spend most of the month pacing around the bedroom in our apartment in downtown Cleveland, tied up on the phone while staring into the middle distance of the closet and discussing financial markets, epidemiological research, conspiracy theories, Italian geography, protein spikes. I express doubts. I offer uncertain empathies. Between conversations, I stumble into the kitchen and cross paths with Bridget, herself finishing a long talk with her sister or her friend in Boston. We swap the latest information, reading stray tweets to confirm our distress, shaking our heads in disbelief again. Then we walk our dog around the block and return to a glowing list of missed calls. Ding, ding, ding.

Another notification from the New York Times.

I wake up on March 11: “‘Almost Without Precedent’: Airlines Hit Hard by Coronavirus.”

There is a quiet terror in even the regular stuff like getting into the elevator each morning. Grocery shopping. Cash handling. I wrap a bandana around my face and feel the whole of society tilting as I pick up dog food one afternoon.

I tell Bridget that it’s coming our way. This compelling force. The people in Milan or Tehran or Wuhan are living in our future. Doesn’t it seem like that? What we see in the northern reaches of Italy is what will happen to us in two weeks. We’re moving along a curve now, and the curve is moving through us.

I show Bridget a photo of a burial site outside a hospital in rural Iran. “Is this what’s going to happen here? Bodies piled up in a parking lot outside the Clinic?” I pick apart line graphs, projections of a possible world. I read blog posts by Italian doctors urging us in America to act. It’s hard not to leap frightfully to conclusions, not to tie the grim exaggerations on social media into some reasoned perspective on the matter.

The future runs headlong into the present, and it’s always going to be that way.

We walk our dog, we answer the phone. We cook dinner, we work late in the dull blue glimmer of the screen.

Lockdown is imminent. “Lockdown.” Another new term, something cased in concrete and rebar, the sound of hazard alarms. We tune into the governor’s daily address—another bizarre ritual from somewhere else—and listen for clues about what this means. Begin to make new plans for your daily lived-in life.

I wake up on March 12: “U.S. to Suspend Most Travel From Europe as World Scrambles to Fight Pandemic.”

That night, I drive to a 24-hour supermarket for—what? Partly, I want to see what’s happening. I want to be involved in whatever momentum is gathering in American cities. But is there a shopping list that might help out here? Canned goods? Rice? Should I be buying jugs of water?

The parking lot is a mess. Cars idle at odd angles, and broken glass peppers the asphalt. It is midnight. But inside, the store is only half-frenzied. Toilet paper is in short supply, and milk is all but gone. I wander almost aimlessly, more like a tourist than I intended.

I get in line at checkout behind a woman who’d come for a single bottle of ketchup. She seems unsettled by the crowd, looking askance, hurrying the purchase along, but we are all a part of the same thing now. We are fusing into the future together.

Unrequited slacker shuffle

It was the “last” recorded song from The Dismemberment Plan for many years, if you care all that much about album sequencing, the sendoff tune that punctuated a weird/dazzling career on the vanguard of fringey post-punk math rock. “Ellen and Ben.” It’s a relationship parable, I think, or rather a story about a relationship *as viewed from* the outside looking in, a position rigged with misconceptions and unspoken misunderstandings. I’ve probably listened to this song a thousand times, decoding signals in the layered synth notes that move us from one verse to the next: the slides, the blurps, the quirky noises and gentle backdrop melodies that help build the narrative tension (I mean, the narrator is in love with Ellen, that much is obvious, and so what we’re witnessing essentially is an unrequited interpersonal story dredged in memory, the sort of thing that can’t be easily remediated through the present, can’t be wrung out for anything overtly meaningful).

All of this makes the final verse as powerful as it is. It’s a laid-back, fuck-all salutation, a slacker shuffle pointed toward the near future. “You know I would love a surprise.”

Mermaids in America

There’s an argument to be made, and a good one, that the late ’90s Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg and Wilco rank among the most significant musical assemblies of late-era rock history. At any rate, this is critical stuff for those trying to understand the deeper emotional core of an America that’s either lost or forgotten, a land of simple gestures and empathies, a place where we regarded one another with some level of humanity and recognition of shared pain. It’s hard to remain in touch with that tradition without creative through-lines like the recordings that came out of this project. This is important, and the word “important” in inadequate.

I’m sure the argument’s been made.

The Woody Guthrie lyrics earn the headlines and accolades, of course, but the music too is as variegated as the loamy farmland we see from the windows of airplanes soaring cross-country. I think now of the quippy and endearing “My Flying Saucer,” which sets a jangly chord progression against shuffling campfire percussion evoking a halfway exotic mythos (featuring Jeff Tweedy on the cabasa for heaven’s sake). Toward the end of the second chorus, there’s a briefly psychedelic effect on the lead guitar, a twisting tendril on the high note (1:05), which leads into a thick down-tempo solo from Jay Bennett. It’s just that: the voodoo brew of Wilco’s in-studio experimentation with Bragg’s anti-imperialist polemics is just the sort of thing to brighten Guthrie’s legacy and shove it headlong into the turning of the millennium.

You see it again on “At My Window Sad and Lonely” from the first record, this layered and delicate landscape, windswept territory. And then in “Remember the Mountain Bed,” which takes some of Guthrie’s aching, sorrowful poetry and lays it on the lush textures of piano, organ, drum kit, the hollow heartbeat of a nostalgic and abandoned love.

Lush. What a word. It’s perfect here.

I walk above all pain.

***

I had the opportunity to interview Bragg in 2014 (I can still see myself navigating the international call on Skype, sitting in the publisher’s office at Scene while we were still at the West 9th Street address).

“Music still acts as a social medium. In the 20th century, it had a monopoly. It was the dominant social medium. It was the way that we spoke to one another as people. If you wanted to hear the voice of your generation, you knew where to listen,” he told me. “Now, that’s changed. There are many more people speaking and expressing their views on the Internet. But the fact that people are still willing to come see me play and listen to what I’ve got to say suggests to me that music’s still got that power. You know, we have something that you can’t get on the Internet. I think that thing might be communion.”

Keep ’em coming

Around 11:30 p.m. or so, back when I was working in a kitchen, shortly before close, we’d often find ourselves in some sort of last-minute rush. This happened a lot in the summer, when the back of the house was sweltering and we were just dying for the release of stiff drink. I can still hear the sound of the ticket machine. The chattering scatter of rapid-fire orders surging into our little space in the restaurant. The late-night crowd ordered wings, burgers, chicken sandwiches, all of that, but sometimes too they’d want ribs, steaks, pastas, the more involved dishes. Part of the flow state in a kitchen includes staying ahead of the curve, which means that cooks are incrementally closing down their stations before the night is truly over. It’s a gamble: If I start shutting down part of the grill a half-hour before close, are we going to be hit with an eight-top of burgers and steaks? But you’ve got to stay ahead of something. You’ve got to assert your control over the environment.

The reason I bring this up is to say that when those orders would come in late at night, when we’d be down to one or two guys in the kitchen, maybe one of us working through some dishes and trying to keep the barrage in order, Sammy would get frustrated. He was a lean Puerto Rican dude who taught me a few things about cooking. He had deep brown eyes and a jocular smile, and he told me you can fry the shit out of wings and they’ll still be good to go. Extra crispy.

Anyway, I remember Sammy during those late nights. He and I would be trying to close down shop, stay ahead of things, prepare the mind for a cold beverage at the bar, when suddenly the ticket machine would light up like fireworks. No warning, usually. Just an abrupt descent into the core of the evening again.

And I remember he’d lean into the madness of it all. Meat on the grill. Pans on the burners, moving fast now, tossing bread into oven and firing up the brain for sheer speed needed to process these orders. The dexterity required is something I look back on fondly, now that I’m removed from the gig, but in the moment it is a soul-sapping pace. There is no choice available but to immerse your entire being into the physics of the kitchen.

Sammy would start shouting to himself, setting a rhythm for the sprint.

“Keep ’em coming, motherfucker! Keep ’em coming, motherfucker!”

It’s an attitude that I think about in times of duress. In certain scenarios, certain moments, the punches just keep coming. There’s really not much you can do. What, Sammy was going to walk? Are you kidding? We’re in it, now!

“Keep ’em coming, motherfucker!”

I don’t know if it’s the most helpful attitude for everyone, but it’s something that has stayed with me. The gritted teeth clenched in a scowl, the unerring commitment to finishing the fucking job, knowing that the cycle will come back around again, forever.

The sounds

I could really take or leave the new Post Malone Hootie cover (?), but thinking about the 25th anniversary of Pokemon reminds me how significant the Red/Blue games were to me: the characters, the sounds, the textures, the humor. This would have been the fifth grade, and world-building of those first two Pokemon games was astounding in its simplicity, its taxonomic explanation of something close to magic. I didn’t get too involved with the later games (and more or less fell out of gaming entirely by the end of high school), but the flashes of grainy 8-bit beats in the background of this new cover tune got me thinking about long-lost sensory details from another era.

The musical themes in those early Pokemon games (the opening, the battle scenes, etc.) aren’t what’s important here, no: It’s the emotional slipstream the sounds conjure in my head.

Ferlinghetti

Another master gone.

I fell in love with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s work in college, on the upper floors of Alden Library in Athens, Ohio. A Coney Island of the Mind was just the right amount of cerebral magic to hook me at the time, perpetually floating through the stacks in a cannabis haze. It’s incredible stuff, and many of those poems have the power to transport me back to those quiet moments. Heartbreaking time travel.