A ghost is born and reviewed

Someone dug up Rob Mitchum’s 2004 Pitchfork review of A Ghost is Born and started passing it around Twitter this past week. He gave it a 6.6! I’m a big fan of Mitchum’s work (check out his excellent Dead podcast, 36 From The Vault, with Steven Hyden), and it’s very interesting to go back and read this sort of stuff from a vantage point 16 years out.

Mitchum’s basic contention is that Jeff Tweedy, who had not yet solidified the band under its present-day lineup, was stuck in some sort of praise/damnation cycle by the music press and in a drug-addled languor of his own making, unable to develop anything really *interesting*. The well had run dry, Mitchum is sort of arguing, 10 years into the Wilco experiment.

“…for an artist as lyrically and vocally gifted as Tweedy to resort to expressing emotions through age-old bombast and pyrotechnics, something must be gumming up the songwriting works,” he writes.

The album is certainly less consistent than Yankee, for instance, swerving almost savagely between a passable Krautrock head-bobber in Spiders/Kidsmoke and the bucolic wood-whittling in Muzzle of Bees and then into one of the band’s few spot-on send-ups of a late-era Beatles hit in Hummingbird. But that’s the story, I think.

By this point, and maybe it’s only clear well *after* 2004, but by this point Tweedy was far along the work of cultivating his own purpose-driven sense of self. Whatever comes out comes out: That seems to be the message of a lot of his work (the guy titled an entire album “Star Wars,” for Christ’s sake, and then followed it with “Schmilco”). It’s not slapdash at all, but in the 21st century, that creative process is a helpful reminder to anyone making art. Let it be. Ship it. On to the next adventure.

“Nevertheless, A Ghost Is Born squanders its second-half capital in the final reel, whipping up an impenetrable, unnecessary 10-minute noise squall to conclude the thin-ice beauty of ‘Less Than You Think,'” Mitchum writes. “In interviews, Tweedy has explained the segment as a aural replica of the migraines that propelled him towards pharmaceuticals, but even the deepest empathy won’t prevent its unrewarding drone from propelling listeners towards the ‘>>’ button. Hit it, and you’re treated to the forgettable ‘Late Greats,’ rock-by-numbers with lyrics that unfortunately seem to indicate Tweedy’s complaisance with the obscurity = good, radio = bad logic of his loudest booster-critics.”

That’s just a great paragraph, with enough truth even now to serve as a powerful indictment of Tweedy’s impulses. But I’d push back: That tendency you’re hearing in Less Than You Think is a) an extension of what Jay Bennett and Jim O’Rourke had helped Tweedy explore in previous recording sessions and onstage at gigs, and b) a mood-enhancing drug that would come to dominate Wilco’s live performances to this day. As far as The Late Greats? It’s a shit-kicker of an encore. Whether Tweedy is spending too much time reading reviews is harder to parse here; I think you can go back the guy’s adolescence and find plenty of evidence of this attraction to obscure rock ‘n roll. The guy grew up as a shy punk nerd in Bellevue, Illinois! That said, I enjoyed Mitchum’s use of “complaisance” here.

In retrospect, AGIB is the band’s crossroads album, sure, a gate between the early years of ascent and the later, more mature formation that Tweedy would direct toward ambitious, self-aware projects like Solid Sound, Ode to Joy, “Art of Almost” (!), and even his own appearances in Portlandia, stuff like that. It’s all of a piece.

I give it a 7.3.

Welcome! This is a farmhouse…

Here‘s Trey Anastasio with a nice piece of writing on the original Farmhouse demos (including a beautiful early recording with Tom Marshall handling vocals during one of their long weekend hang sessions in a rented house somewhere in northern Vermont). The joy in Tom’s voice is awesome.

The backstory is a classic bit of Phish arcana from one of the band’s great peaks, 1999-2000. This album was one of the first things that really got me into Phish only a few years later, and it’s still arguably the most habitable entry point for anyone interested in taking a global pandemic as an excuse to spend some serious time diving headlong into that goofy-ass rock band your pal Eric is always talking about. Here’s Trey:

“I started strumming and Tom started singing, and since he didn’t have any lyrics, he reached over and grabbed the note that the owner of the house had left for us and began reading it, verbatim.

“’Welcome! This is a farmhouse, we have cluster flies, alas, and this time of year is bad…’

“And on it went from there. I love the chorus, ‘I never ever saw the northern lights, I never really heard of cluster flies!'”

Anyway, here we are: digging through the music we love as weather patterns tilt and bend outside out window. Crisis everywhere. My favorite version of the song that I’ve seen live was 12/30/17, deep in the second set, as Madison Square Garden zipped through outer space. And for all I know, we’re still at the show, grooving hard in sepia tone and drifting closer to the new year, the fourth turning of some great cosmic story we can’t yet know.

Reopening into the hateful status quo

I’ve been following Umair Haque’s blog for years. He could use a good copy editor, so pardon the punctuation. For a long time, though, his basic thesis is that America is collapsing into a fascist state (a phrase that we need to be using on a regular basis) and that the window of opportunity to realize a new, more equitable future is rapidly closing. The door is nearly shut now.

Reading this (or even the New York Times opinion page, for heaven’s sake), it’s jarring to place economic forecasts alongside the giddy social media posts about people returning to bars and restaurants this week “because we’re all ganna die anyway lol! Gatta live your life!” The short-term need to tell moderate liberal politicians to fuck off is outweighing the long-term health of what little remains of a shared democracy. There’s a chance to reorganize how we understand one another in society, how we live, and the coronavirus pandemic has given us a great reason to set aside the mundane perks of modern dining and really think about what a better world might look like. Again, the door is nearly shut, but we’ve been given a time-out at the 11th hour to reconsider what’s happened to date. A very grim, tragic time-out, but nonetheless we can make outsize moves in a different direction if we collectively decide to do so. Think of it like a social contract amendment that needs to be signed, like, before the end of the day.

Here, Haque illustrates the five transformations of an economic collapse. (The political collapse is well under way, as defined by any number of basic flow charts into fascist rule.) This is all very relatable stuff, very clear economic readout. “Why is it that the average American is the only person in the rich world by now who votes against their own healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so on?” he writes. “Because they can’t afford it.”

This is the baseline for what we had going *into* 2020, and this is the very economic/political mismatch that breeds anger, resentment, violence, dehumanization. This is the status quo right now, anxiety and antipathy on a sprawling scale. Look — that door’s closing fast!

“As a result of depression, an economy’s whole structure tends to change,” Haque writes. And this is the inverted curve we’re already seeing, all very obvious, where the middle class shrinks to a minority. It’s very plain to see in quality-of-life metrics comparing today’s young workers to someone graduating fairly debt-free from a four-year university in 1975. (Now, if I hear one fucking millennial joke…) “The gentle bell curve of a modern society — a broad middle — is so crucial because it underpins and anchors democracy. Democracy is a luxury. It takes time, money, effort. … America’s ruling class is now visibly made of predators, the kinds of men who put men in cages, or addict a whole society to painkillers, just to make more money they’ll never spend.”

It doesn’t happen all at once. Think of the Great Depression: It didn’t just zip by in a few weeks. The people who lived through that economic crisis surely realized that the entire vision and structure of society had changed around them, but perhaps only in retrospect. The day’s immediate needs do tend to outweigh the future’s vast consequence, but I don’t think it’s difficult, really, to try and look ahead to what’s coming. It’s not good. And whatever it is, it doesn’t give a fuck if you’re going to your favorite restaurant this week or not.

Looking ahead, now

At the risk of downplaying the public health threat, I think this essay touches something very important. If you’ve been looking for a chance to put your money where your mouth is, there’s a crystal-clear opportunity knocking on your door (to mix metaphors a bit). I’ve been amazed/unsurprised to see major commercial brands tilting their messaging into the pandemic. It’s chilling.

“Gaslighting,” “#resistance,” these terms are overused to the point of gimmicky advertising in their own right. But they do serve a purpose. They’re a reminder of how reality itself is being remade under our prevailing economic structure. This has been long in the works in places like America, and the coronavirus outbreak has obviously exposed the most blatant inequality gaps.

I don’t think we’ll be “going back to normal,” but there are two ways of reading that. We can either slip more deeply into an oligarchic kakistocracy (this would be the easiest move, the closest we can get to “normal”) or we can use individual choices to throw off demand curves for the most despicable capitalist vectors: meat farms, the dairy industry, six-lane highways, gun manufacturers, charter schools, private health insurers, fracking companies, the iHeart Radio Music Festival.

What does this mean? Eating less meat, for starters; using your car more conscientiously and investing in public transit, disowning guns as the farce they are, promoting literacy and engaging your local public school district, shifting incrementally to a solar energy structure at home, disowning corporate-sponsored music.

And at the risk of oversimplifying, this seems like a helpful riff on Pascal’s wager, a modern economic gamble that might just pay off for future generations. What’s the downside?

Burn one down

As the strange, paranoid month of 4/20 comes to a close, let’s pass it over to Ben Harper to play us out. I still think this is one of the great pothead songs, a clarion call for community and self-actualization, all the affirmations of the cannabis plant wrapped up in a slinky riff that’s easy enough for even the laziest college freshman to learn on an acoustic guitar.

Cannabis has played an important role in my life since the first time I zoned out completely on bright green trees and cartoonish outlines of objects sometime in high school. It totally blew my mind and got me thinking about the electric fringes of everything: art, music, cooking, writing, the whole of the creative universe. There were years when I spent too much time with it, years when I stepped away from it entirely, and years when I met it only occasionally in lamplit bedrooms or in heady crowds with live music cresting off a nearby stage, all reverential and giddy-like. But it’s always been there, one of life’s great treasures, a wonderful plant that opens doors and bends sunlight just so.

Earth Day

On Earth Day, here‘s a great feature on how “zoonotic” disease and environmental destruction are intertwined.

“There are millions of viruses and bacteria out there that reside in wild animals and can potentially infect humans, and these emerging diseases are on the rise everywhere as humans disrupt ecosystems and exploit animal habitat across the globe. We are living in an age of pandemics, and the next one — let’s call it ‘Disease X,’ as scientists often do — could be even more devastating than COVID-19. …

“‘COVID-19 is just the latest zoonotic disease to emerge that has its roots in the rampant habitat loss occurring around the world and the burgeoning wildlife trade,’ a group of more than 100 conservation organizations wrote in a letter to the U.S. Congress last month, urging it to include in its stimulus bill new funding to combat the conditions that give rise to outbreaks like COVID-19. ‘Global pandemics will likely continue and even escalate if action isn’t taken.'”

The question, then, is how to shift our individual lifestyles while there’s still time. With all the dipshits in public office, it seems like that’s the only option — turning inward and running a grassroots marathon. So, what is it? Taking up a vegan diet? Planting more trees? Abandoning single-use plastics? Melting down your guns to adorable little metal figurines for your bookshelf?

Oh, and on a lighter note, here‘s one of the greatest environmental justice songs of the last 20 years.

Once in a lifetime

After the second chorus of Once in a Lifetime on “Stop Making Sense,” David Byrne pulls away from the mic and starts shaking like a gelatinous thing from outer space, some astral slug, and it’s just wonderful, and then, suddenly, Alex Weir moves into the shot, straight vamping on this tight scratch psychedelic riff, goddamn shredding this chord, and he’s all obscured in shadow, like and then he starts shaking too, echoing Byrne’s movements, crazy frantic, twin wildernesses blooming in moonlight and all that, true ecstatics, and Tina Weymouth’s bass is pounding the foundation of this brief moment, earth-thudding, like the sky splitting open and heaving onto the shore of every note you’ve ever heard, every song you’ve ever loved, the bass line itself a sort of stand-in for god, in the rhythmic sense of the word, a spoken symbol of groovy communion with the everlasting present, one with everything else.

To me, that’s what 420 means.

Walter and Helen

Walter and Helen, the twins down the street, were so bored that they would sit in their driveway and stack rocks all afternoon. I couldn’t believe it. I would ride by on my bicycle, careful to stay at least three barking Benjamins away from the two of them, and ask if they wanted to walk along the railroad tracks with me, maybe go run around park. My dog, Benjamin, was never far behind, woofing like crazy and sniffing around the bushes for an old sandwich or something.

Of course, they said no. It’s like they wanted to be bored, sitting in the lazy sun and burping at each other. Who could live like that?

The other kids and I figured we’d use this time to explore the woods. School was closed. We spent all day outdoors, away from our frazzled parents. On the far end of our neighborhood, there were a bunch of good, knotted tree trunks and leafy back alleys to stake a day of adventures. Knights in the Castle. Zombie Invasion. That’s right: Kirby, Eleanor, Fat Willy, Bryan, RJ, Spud and I would play around in the woods for hours. Benjamin came too. Occasionally, we’d bring out rolls of foil from our moms’ cupboards and wrap ourselves in costume, pretending to be the hazmat officers who were hosing down our classrooms with white chemicals. Benjamin was the hazmat pooch, we called him. Walter and Helen just sat in their driveway like a sack of apples.

Then, one day, they stood up.

“Hey, Eddie! Hey!” they cried out in unison as I pedaled past. “Hey, Eddie!”

I hit the brakes and called Benjamin closer to me. “Well, what is it, Walter and Helen? You been out here long enough?”

“Naw, we’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around it ‘til it pops.”

Well, now I really couldn’t believe it. I loosened my grip on the handlebars. “What?”

“Yeah yeah, we saw it on the computer.” They spoke as one. It was unsettling.

I looked around for Fat Willy, for Spud—anyone. Suddenly, the neighborhood was deserted. Where had everyone gone?

“We’re gonna go get a watermelon and wrap rubber bands around—”

“Yeah, all right, all right, I heard you. Whattaya mean ‘til it pops?”

“You put enough rubber bands around anything, Eddie, it’ll pop.”

I was sweating. In mid-April. “Well, all right, let’s see this. You guys better not have anything funny up your sleeve.” I glanced behind me once again—nope, not a soul on the street—and followed Walter and Helen into their weird garage around back of the house.

They even yanked open the door together. Inside, dull light filtered through never-washed windows. We walked into the drab darkness, Benjamin’s tail subsiding, Walter and Helen both reaching for the twine strung from a single bulb overhead. Click.

There it was: a plump watermelon just sitting on their dad’s workbench. A jumbled pile of rubber bands loomed in the immediate background, ready for the operation. I think I gasped.

Without a word, they set to work. Was I supposed to be involved somehow? Were they guessing I’d join them in this crime? I decided to sort of stand near the door and casually observe. Very soon, it seemed like they just forgot I was there, so absorbed were they by the surgical procedure.

Walter and Helen breathed audibly as they took turns yoking the watermelon with rubber bands. Finally! One thing they couldn’t do at the exact same time! A rotation of skills emerged: Walter snapped the band quickly from the top. Helen moved just a beat slower, strapping the melon with an almost maternal care. Her demented child in a stroller.

Something like an hour passed by. I’d started to doodle in the dust on the windowpanes, drawing little characters in bulky helmets, each gripping a great, elongated hose. I figured by now the gang was somewhere deep in the woods, playing at zombie hunters again, probably wondering where me and ol’ Benny had wandered off to. Or maybe they thought we went for ice cream, and they’d be biking past Walter and Helen’s to get over to the Dairy Freeze on Gabel Ave. Maybe, if I screamed loud enough, they’d hear me.

The twins kept at it, dutifully. They seemed robotic, but what else was new? I started assembling pails and moldy boxes, building a little hut for me and Benjamin to live in. He barked at small piles of dirt in the corner. I smoothed the edges of rumpled newspapers into a sort of area rug. When I glanced up, I noticed the watermelon was basically caving inward. I felt a pang of the unknown, an anxiety lurching around the next corner. If I really tuned my ears toward the melon, I swear I could hear it groaning.

And maybe Walter and Helen were even chanting at this point, it’s hard to remember. The next few seconds all happened in one great flash.

“Oh, boy! Eddie! Eddie, come look!” they suddenly shouted. I bonked my head on a ratty suitcase I’d fashioned into a table and looked over at them. Walter and Helen. The terrible, nose-drippy twins from down the street. What had I gotten myself into?

“Oh, boy! Eddie! It’s going to happen!” They ratcheted the assembly line, each one hurriedly following the other with another rubber band. Faster and faster. “Oh, boy!”

I tried to shield Benjamin, but he couldn’t look away either. He peered around my legs, horrified in a way I’d never seen a dog look before. Eyes like saucers, tail rigid.

Helen daintily placed the final rubber band, and that was it: ZZZSSSSPPLLAAATTT!!!! The thing just exploded out across the garage. Like one of those supernova videos they show in science class. It went in every direction—up, down, left, right, in my hair, on Helen’s blouse, on Walter’s suspenders, on Benjamin’s snout. My little hut in the corner crumbled under the barrage. I think a window broke.

After everything settled down, I realized we were covered head to toe in splattered melon. Richly textured globs and flea-sized seeds. We were soaked, totally drenched in chunks. I tried to catch my breath.

Silence.

Then the twins started chuckling.

“So, that’s it?” I asked, spitting out a fleshy mass. “But what was the point?”

They laughed so hard they started coughing.

“Is this the sort of thing you twins do when you’re not sitting like lumps in the driveway?” I couldn’t get through to them. “Come on, Benjamin. Let’s go meet up with the others.”

Walter and Helen gathered themselves and followed us, giggling.

We stumbled into the shiny afternoon light. I was flecked utterly with fruit bits and juice splotches. Benjamin was doused, his fur all sticky with summer sweetness. It seemed impossibly bright outside. Walter and Helen couldn’t stop laughing. They looked deranged.

I heard my friends yelling something, tearing down the street on their bikes. What luck! I could tell them how crazy the twins were acting, go take a shower real quick and be back in the woods with everyone in no time.

The gang suddenly steered into view, braking abruptly at the end of Walter and Helen’s dumb driveway. The twins shut up and sort of slumped onto the ground. I felt immediate relief. Back to normal, everybody!

Spud cried out first, his eyes frantic with sudden terror: “Holy crap! Zombie!”

The rest of them joined in: “Get ‘im! Aaaahhhhh!!!”

I threw my hands up. “No, no, no, you guys! It’s me! Me and Benny and those awful twins!” I looked around for them, those idiots.

“Kill the zombie!” “Zombie attack!” “This is it, everybody! Get ‘im!”

“No! It’s just watermelon!” They got off their bikes and walked toward us. I started backing up, yanking Benjamin by the collar. “We were just doing this stupid thing with rubber bands! I wasn’t even doing it!” I tripped over a painted cinder block, another mindless project of the industrious twins. My ankle seized in red pain.

Fat Willy had some sort of spiked stick in his hands and he was thwacking it against his thigh. Preparing the weapon. RJ was removing the chain from his bike. Eleanor was twirling her helmet like a primitive rock slung with rope. They looked battle-hardened, streaked with mud. Benjamin curled into my arms. I screamed out in horror: “But it’s just watermelon, you guys!”

Before the stick clocked me in the side of my head, I saw them, the twins, sitting like blameless cows over by the bushes. Covered in fruit and just staring at the grass, mumbling to themselves probably, bored forever.

Disaster

“If Trump is reelected, it’s an indescribable disaster. It means that the policies of the past four years, which have been extremely destructive to the American population and the world, will be continued and probably accelerated.”

Noam Chomsky has been sounding the alarms of nuclear war and climate change for decades. These threats should seem obvious and dire, but, looking around for half a second at how the U.S. is handling a global pandemic, I’m not holding my breath for the electorate to sprout a spinal cord this year. Of course, being stuck at home, we’ve got a lot of time to think through the impact of our lifestyles and our fixation on corporate power. It seems like a lot things aren’t working very well for us.

How might a new America lift up future generations? What principles should guide our community through the current crisis and these looming threats? I do see glimmers of hope in a lot of the fleeting actions carried out between neighbors and coworkers and small businesses. Maybe we need to think smaller? Maybe there’s a better way to develop that kindness?

If a Biden ticket is the next incremental sidestep toward that future, well, it sure seems like the sort of work an intern would slap together on a Friday afternoon, but all right. Onward!

At home

I’ve been writing more than ever these past six months. A lot of these latest pieces have gone unpublished—shuffled into folders on my desktop or languishing in magazine editors’ inboxes. And that’s fine. Maybe I’ll roll out a few stray essays from the winter while we’re all quarantined.

But even with all of that, I’m compelled to write more. I’m at home all day, working and writing and talking with my fiancee about the present and the future. What’s next? What unknowable hardship is lurking around tomorrow’s corner? We can’t seem to turn around anymore with running headlong into some gasp-breathing cluster, upending either our lives or our friends’ lives or far-off strangers’ lives. It’s a shattering sort of feeling, far from numbness. It’s an acute pain that redounds to throbbing, hour by hour.

There’s joy, too. Each day is a new chance to create something. Yes, we’re caught up rescheduling a wedding, trying to buy a house, putting out fires at work, but isn’t that all part of the resplendent present, even in chaos? And apart from all that less exciting stuff, the whole point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of time each day to write new stories, record some music, create little pieces of magic for your future.

Anyway. Here’s a poem I wrote a few weeks ago. There’s really nowhere else to run with this thing. It’s called “Safe Passage.”

there was then, and then there’s now
and it’s hard to get over
never looking back
if that’s the space
you’re facing
and acting out
reacting route
(play-acting doubt)
and acting out again

sure, it’s hard to get over
never getting over it
again
and getting stuck in the past
at the bottom of the stack
of photos neatly packed
away for good

if you’re still wondering
what was so good about it, anyway?
enriching
any day
might come around
any day now
(was so good, you say?)
if you’re all hung up on
days spent spaced
without the frame
of now
no return to form

without return and form
and seeking/mourning
safe passage
in a stormy sea
rollicking
to the mind’s muddled
lack of clarity
and memory

everywhere
is all you are
if you want it

leave the rest outside the door
by the shoes
and doldrum sets
we’ve got plenty more
everywhere
to go around
if you want it