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.

The piety of the COVID absolutist

The New York Times has picked up the coronavirus absolutism debate, which is more important than it might seem when encased in the paper’s morning “briefing” format. David Leonhardt links to a Derek Thompson piece in The Atlantic, but the more salient connection, in my read of this 21st-century performance art, is Freddie deBoer’s blog post from a few months ago. The thing is, deBoer nails the overt hostility and the shrieking piety that we see in COVID absolutists (deBoer uses “Covid realist”). To these individuals, this blob, the very interpretation of the coronavirus pandemic is a game to be won or (never!) lost.

We all know these folks, right? The COVID absolutist is not merely the compliant citizen, masking up and avoiding mass gatherings, dutifully maintaining a kindly distance between other shoppers at the supermarket. The COVID absolutist lives among the degenerate faithful, those who rely on a set of beliefs outside themselves—and, inevitably, within others’ improper behavior.

I had a professor in college, in the j-school, who quoted H.L. Mencken on this point: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

It’s an insufferable character trait, and the global pandemic (and its attendant reshuffling of social norms) thrusts it into the frontal lobes of this grunting population—loony to the bone and high as hell on their own shit. They’ve been here all along, waiting to fuse into an obnoxious cluster of human.

“The Covid realist religiously follows the Atlantic‘s pompous, self-impressed, imperious coverage,” deBoer writes, coincidentally drawing tethers in my own piece today. “The Covid realist says, ‘You think you’ll be able to see your friends after the vaccine? Fat chance!’ The Covid realist tells you that, when you’re feeling upbeat about the medical advances, the virus could always mutate. The Covid realist wants you to know that you’ll never see the lower half of a stranger’s face again. When you say that you’re looking forward to going to a basketball game next fall the Covid realist says, ‘Ha, good luck.’ The Covid realist thinks that imagining holding a birthday party a year from now is not only deluded, but irresponsible. The Covid realist does not just want to regulate your behavior. The Covid realist wants to purify your thoughts.”

Eleven months in, it remains all-consuming.

I know a short cut

And I do think there’s something of a loss-of-individuality problem emerging. This has been covered elsewhere, of course, but I see it more and more as time goes on. This is the age of the crowd, the blob, the mass, even as we convey ourselves through tiny windows and custom-branded digital avatars.

I think of Tim Wu’s great piece in the Times a few years back, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” in which he dissects a prime mover in the 21st century. Convenience (for the sake of it, often), automation, templated speech patterns… This is obvious, right? It’s how we communicate with one another and, more importantly, with ourselves. We communicate conveniently.

“The paradoxical truth I’m driving at,” Wu writes, “is that today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization. Customization can be surprisingly homogenizing. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.”

Here’s where I would say, “Nailed it.”

I’m not sure what else is driving this, however, in terms of culture. Why is this mass individualization so… massive and shitty? The internet is a cause, certainly, but I wonder too if there are other forces at work, from the late 20th century onward, that have restricted our collective sense of creativity. Because of the all-consuming second-life habitat of the internet, the boundaries of our actual reality are growing tighter, narrower, more rigid. More rules are placed on adolescents and young adults than ever before (whether this involves financial instruments, debt, capitalist materialism, social norms, standardized testing, police militarization, etc., to say nothing of our society’s deeply beloved racial and classist inequalities). And “rules,” the way a child understands them, are oppressive and claustrophobic and, the more you relent, very difficult to surmount. On a long enough timeline, the most extreme rules are normalized and replaced by an ever-narrower set of social expectations. To whatever degree you hope to self-actualize in this culture, at this time in history, well, good luck.

That’s vague and not well thought out, sure, and it’s somewhat early, yeah, and I’m listening to Kid A again, but my point is that the two trend lines are converging, asymptotically, to create a wary, oversocialized and antisocial sense of community. We’re atomizing as we’re coming together, fusing increasingly crisp carbon-copied stamps of ourselves onto the next moment, inching forward into a future that we’re too eager to describe as a memory before we have a chance to experience it. It’s more convenient that way.

Keep it for your self

I’ve dialed back my Twitter output considerably in the past two weeks, and, N.B., it feels good. As far as that shit-eating platform is concerned, I’m trying to rethink my “approach.” Real highfalutin, I know. The irreverent/savvy goofball angle is my particular favorite, but it’s a ca.-2012, -2013 vintage that just doesn’t sell these days. I can’t tell if that reveals more about the culture or more about me.

Anyway, I figured I’d just move my unnecessary retweet two cents over here today (sorry). Joe Weisenthal, a Twitter luminary of the play-it-straight ilk, provided this dismal clip of the new Dolly Parton Super Bowl ad (???), which, ‘scuze me, but this is about as sad and depleting a message for our impressionable American youth as possible.

Frankly, it’s just classic Super Bowl ad spend nonsense. No doubt, however, that this inane bit *speaks to* countless navel-gazing “makers” who are looking to make sense of the passing days/years, etc. Time keeps sliding by, and, gosh darnit, I just can’t seem to find a moment of happiness! Let’s say we transact against the soul just a little bit more! Sell something now! This is what we’re teaching people these days. It’s embedded in the story we now tell ourselves in 2021. It’s all too on-point for the Big Game.

Austin Kleon has a great piece, “In praise of the good old-fashioned hobby,” that I think was part of a recent book of his. I wouldn’t assume that any of my own wise and tasteful readers (what, four or five of you now?) need this patronizing tone from me, but Kleon approaches the subject more softly, which is maybe a helpful thing in this weird century. I’ll add, too, that Kleon’s blog has been a source of small joys for a while now, particularly for anyone looking to clear their head and soak up some streamlined/cogent thoughts on the writing life. If you’ve read this far, well, maybe you’re like me after all.

Furthermore, Kleon points us to Ann Friedman’s 2018 piece on the subject: “Not Everything Is a Side Hustle.” Can someone phone Dolly, for Christ’s sake?

That this needs to be pointed out publicly at all speaks volumes about the state of things: in our economy, in our class structure, in our shared American culture. This whole pattern language we’re picking apart is the very bone marrow of an American capitalist ethos, and it was absolutely, for a brief moment this afternoon, disgusting to see this self-care grift financed to the tune of multi-million-Super-Bowl dollars or whatever.

See? Sharing all that on Twitter would have been a total waste of time.

You

It goes without saying that we need more original voices, more iconoclastic visionaries sharing their work in the new year. So much of our American culture anymore is just rehashed joke templates and pious entreaties for self-care and performative socialism, a bunch of sad sappy suckers slinging the same half-dozen gags into an unhappy void. To me, that’s the unspoken tragedy of “2020,” if you’re bent on shaking your fist at the idea of year-as-scapegoat: It’s an unsettling vacuum of humor and individuality on a sprawling scale.

I guess my point is that, with social media conducting broad swaths of our society’s shiftless identity, it takes a bold sense of intent to simply be yourself. And with the zoonotic diseases, climatic uncertainties and rising nationalist tides roiling around the world right now, that’s the best thing you can be: yourself. Not a celebrity, not an image, not a god, not an echo of another, not a memory: just you.

Anyway, RIP MF DOOM.

Nine stories

Earlier this year, I wrote a short story titled “Walter and Helen,” and the vague sense of terror that lurked between the lines was something that never let up as 2020 wore on. In the fall, I wrote another batch of these flash fiction pieces, and, now, I’ve gathered them into one tidy bundle to throw into the world haphazardly.

You can read those stories here.