Mooallem on Kaufman

Here’s another knockout feature from Jon Mooallem over at the Times magazine. He interviews Charlie Kaufman in the spring of 2020, caught between the tectonics of a global pandemic and the uprising against police violence in the U.S. And like Kaufman’s movies, Mooallem takes his ideas and bends them across the fractal geometry of our weird present moment.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story, just a terrific illustration of how many of us feel lately: “Time did seem to be compacting, I said. It felt like, at some point in the last few months, a truck backed up and started pumping years’ worth of reality into every single week. The lever kept cranking, increasing the rate of flow.”

More, much more

A new Hum album and a new Don DeLillo novel. What a day! It’s like walking outside to a surprise solar eclipse: two gifts from creative titans I hadn’t expected to see around the neighborhood anytime soon. It’s been a joy. I’ve got the day off, spent the morning listening to Hum, bought a new bookshelf, (assembled same successfully), and then bae and I had friends over for a fine backyard barbecue dinner and a walk through the park with dog (ours) and young boy (theirs).

Well, and that’s the real backdrop here, the deeper thing beyond the new music and the new book. We bought a house in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and we’ll be giving the homeowner life a real shot in these strange times. This week, we’ve been immersing ourselves. It’s a thrill, a nice blend of peaceful arrival and sensory overload.

I read a chapter of Little, Big in the backyard with Forrest this morning. Picked it up again in the afternoon and finished it in the basement, surrounded by the inklings of our new life. The ending of that book was a real knockout! What was it Auberon kept saying about the universe? “The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

And so we’re learning the terrain of our house, inside and out, stumbling on small rooms and sprawling meadows that weren’t listed on the survey, finding hallways that connect here with there and all points oddly between.

Down the road, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park splays fuzzy around the edges of our neighborhood map. Great washes of tree and pond. Mysterious trails racing inward, planes getting larger all the time. I feel a sense of rootedness already, and maybe that’s just the excitement of the deal, but I feel committed to my domain here. I feel ruddy just looking out the window of our house. Like, what stories will we spin today? What endings will we turn into beginnings again?

It’s not that I care…

White Pony is a blistering battering glitz-coke assassin dazzle down the darkest alleys of half-made-up mind in sheets of rain and smoke-ring mirror magazine flash photography and foggy bedroom dalliance with devil-selves in binge collapse backward into gaudy memories of what tomorrow blinks past on radio frequency dial me into something strange and mysterious and drag remains through street carp knife party forever.

Looking back at the haze of high school, I can see the stark cover art of Deftones’ seminal album high atop the apparent Mt. Rushmore of music I was really into back then. There are small, oddly shaped spaces all over this record that still give me bone-deep chills (Chino Moreno’s breathy “Check the claws” lyric on Korea, for example), fleeting moments that reveal how far off the map this band was racing in those years. This is gravity-defying trapeze metal for the new millennium. I’m less convinced of the more recent stuff, but for a while Deftones were without a doubt among the most innovative bands in America.

The scenery

I see a distinct possibility⁠—a likelihood, really⁠—that American democracy collapses before the end of the year, that the very concept of “America” crumbles into something either meaningless or altogether fractured. I’ve talked about this often with friends. What I *mean* by this is harder to articulate. And whether we’ve crossed the Rubicon already in history is a muddy question, but I think it’s obvious that a 21st-century fascism is something with no real historical precedent. Five months out from an uncertain U.S. election, who’s to say that it’s not too late?

A fascist president stokes his rabid fanbase and his rabid detractors in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A global pandemic ravages the country from sea to shining sea. A militarized police force cracks skulls and beats men and women in the streets. A flinty attorney general grips his power accordingly and trounces political enemies. And in every state in the country, bread lines stretch past the polluted horizon.

Now, I mean, whattaya supposed to *do* about any of that? The train has left the station! We’re several decades into collapse, and yet it’s just startling how fast the scenery is whizzing by the windows!

This is the Doppler effect of raw power. Choices are narrowing: Brace yourself or loosen your muscles for impact? How do you prepare your mind, your body, your family, your access to resources⁠—the undergirding⁠ of a life—for the spectrum of possible outcomes? I’ve watched, flabbergasted, as many of the horrors my friends and I predicted in 2016 have come true. The ratcheting. And at the front of my mind each day is the safe bet that the worst is plenty yet to come.

We can consider the opposite notion, of course, an opportunity for a more egalitarian future built on mutual respect and a resetting of the global economy and environmental norms. But I’m writing about a likelihood here. Which bet would you call at this hour?

This ain’t your neighborhood stickball game; this is a fascist power grab for the long haul. The 2020s. ICE raids and cages and military vehicles. The eerie doubt of a national election to kickstart a white-knuckled decade on Earth.

We are unwilling pioneers, drifting headlong into the theft of America with no clue what lurks on the far side. I write this only to say the ramifications are on a scale that’s unimaginable to almost anyone alive today. I write this only to have written it, to explain to myself later that the possibility was clear from the jump. It was all there in plain, unbroken sight.

“‘Alabama‘ gives this unceasing immersion in grief a form. It’s there in the song’s disconcerting stops and starts, its disarticulated notes, its willingness to abandon virtuosity in favor of a style of playing that is repetitive, diffuse, tentative, and dissonant.”

Two stories

Two stories suddenly came together this week—literally being published 13 minutes apart over at my old haunt, Cleveland Scene. I wrote one of them, about the survivor of a police shooting and how his life has changed in the past six years, and I helped another journalist work on the reporting for the second story, about how certain actors are hijacking Black families’ names and the Black Lives Matter movement to advance some… vaguely boosterish self-promotion? I think both stories speak to the present moment in America, but that’s not why I’m mentioning them.

I wrote a long essay last fall about the shifting ground in journalism. The news media market is falling apart (like so many other commercial businesses), and it’s causing a crisis of identity for journalists who care deeply about the work. For those who care about the careerist ladder-climbing, I guess there as many opportunities as ever. But, from vantage point, anyone else out there would do well to reconsider how and where to commit acts of journalism in America.

One of the main themes in my essay (something currently unpublished but planned as the first draft of an introduction to a book) is that anyone can do this work. Certain parts of the job require some training, in a way, but it’s more a matter of lived experience and professional communication skills. Can you hold a conversation? Can you probe for information? More importantly, can you hold the idea of an audience in mind while doing those things? Well, then, all you need next is the will.

I reached out to Kipp Holloway, the subject of my story, on Aug. 30, 2019. In fact, his story was meant to be the backbone of this essay I keep alluding to. His story fit into the broader situational context I wanted to write about (while writing about journalism). We talked for a few months, but Kipp wasn’t ready. I stepped back and figured we would catch up down the line. I wrote about another story.

Then the American streets cracked open with revolt and deeply rooted emotion.

Kipp reached out to me again and we got around to recording an interview about his life since a Cleveland police sergeant shot him in 2014. We also talked about what the collective audience in this country might be able to do in the present moment, how we all might be able to listen and learn.

My point in this is that it’s those basic interpersonal skills—listening, mostly—that allow us to hear others’ stories and, with a knack for healthy prose or clean audio editing, share them with the wider world. It took almost a year to write that story, when the writing itself took only a few days. (Part of that is the circumstances of this week: I wanted to publish the piece on Juneteenth. But the point remains.) Journalism is at once a patient and impatient game, but it can only be accomplished by listening. What I write is just a neat echo of what I’m hearing from others.

The other thing that happened is something that fulfills the basic thesis in my essay, I think. A friend of a friend reached out to me maybe two weeks ago, saying he had another friend who was working on a story about the origins of some recent organized protests in cities like Cleveland, Akron, Portland, etc. He wanted to know if I’d take a call and maybe talk through some of the early reporting work. Sure.

What this writer had was some good, in-depth internet-scoured research about the people behind some of these weird rallies. His starting point was that something about these events didn’t jibe with the direct action invoked by more grassroots outfits with somewhat longer histories among the people. Who were these cats trying to kneel alongside police officers, anyway? It was a good question and an astute prime mover for what he’d gathered.

But, from there, what’s the move?

This is part of the editorial training that does play a role in (some) newsrooms, even today. It’s an instinctual thing, though, and I don’t think a journalism degree confers much in the way of a good nose for truth. You learn along the way, or maybe you’re born with an innate distrust of power. Who knows? Either way, this writer, BZ, asked for some editing help as he assembled the piece. Whom should he contact? How should he structure this part? What’s missing from this section? Stuff like that. It felt good to provide a perspective—certainly nothing iron-clad or self-important, but a response to questions of ethics and attribution. The more that we can promote stories that illuminate the underbelly of the daily news, the better.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that independent journalism matters now more than ever. The Plain Dealer covered both of these stories, sort of, but the in-depth contextualization is something that takes time and a keen ear for thematic movement. It’s less about the power structure of a corporate news media ecosystem (that’s barely an option for most journalists working now) and more about the will to listen, to learn, to share.

Frances Quinlan’s solo record is fantastic

What I like about Frances Quinlan’s cover of Built to Spill’s towering “Carry the Zero” is her surprising vocal dynamics from line to line. Not only does she divert from Doug Martsch’s cubist crooning, but Quinlan goes on to zag when you think she’ll zig around every bend in the lyrics. In fact, most of the time she even zorgs when you think she’ll zig.

Check out her sweet robo-trip treatment of the centerpiece of the song:

“Like they’re waiting for your guard to fall /

So they can see it all and you’re so /

Occupied with what other persons /

Are occupied with, and vice versa /

And you’ve become what you thought was dumb /

A fraction of the sum”

And where the original tune lands in six-string buzzsaw octave glory, Quinlan veers her rendition into hypnagogic microdose territory, a soft-hued musical palette that encourages the listener to lean back into the pillow, breathe deeply, sink into oblivion, retreat peacefully to that place where dreams are stitched together in the endless tale of you.


“Defund” is a clunky verb, and maybe that’s why folks are feeling skittish about what is otherwise a fairly basic, kinda half-assed slogan for an emerging national movement. “Abolish” is much stronger and more principled. Having a sense of dignity with your words is important, even in times of crisis.

The other problem with “defund” is that it’s too obvious. Who could rightfully come out against such a thing? Public institutions from the local to the federal have spent decades stripping away our investments into education, health care, holistic services for the elderly, housing safety, broadcast media—hell, our dumb, slobbering president is bellowing threats to defund (scratch that, abolish) the U.S. Postal Service, and the pig-bellied social media commenters seem generally to be keeping their traps shut over that. But the national court of public opinion catches an inkling of maybe toning down the federal funds for military gear at your local police precinct, and the gun nut crowd spasms. I’m mystified by the response, but America is a very weird, deeply subservient country.

That’s not exactly a reason, per se, to cut funding for local police (just ‘cause public schools don’t have books don’t mean no patrolman needs to go without ‘iz AR, right?). But it’s a healthy starting point for what seems to be an increasing cohort of apparent public intellectuals who are now sniffing around their municipal budgets.

And so what is a budget?

A budget is a moral document. It shows where our resources are directed—“our” resources, as in “our” shared commitment to a community. The imbalance between police and, say, everything else is a good target for outrage. It’s a chance, at the very least, to fuel grassroots political involvement at the local level. The president’s big reality show paints a grim picture, one that needs to change. But it’s also a spectacle that never shuts off and never lets the people turn their attention more helpfully toward their own City Hall and their own neighborly public officials.

This moment scans to me as a chance to fortify that gaze against locally elected liars and corrupt police departments. The president’s fascist trial balloons are only going to sink us into a moral sleep, keeping our brains glued to screens of all sizes. The independent press is disappearing. Critical thought is out to lunch. If we’re not paying attention, well, y’ever notice how police departments work like the U.S. military, continually picking up a greater piece of the pie? It doesn’t stop—unless we stop it.

I support the abolition of police departments as we know them now. I support a complete rethinking of public safety. This is not an overnight proposition or a hashtag. This is where I’ve been for a long time, entirely distrustful of police officers and higher-ups, and unwilling to compromise on anything but the basic timeline of disbandment. Minneapolis got things off to a great start, though. Might want to take some notes.

You are here

For years now, I’ve talked with friends about the ongoing freeway drag race toward authoritarian rule in America. It seemed like an obvious play from the jump: the reality TV goon spinning a carefully plotted narrative for the cameras. The pageantry of a new fascism. The military vehicles, the guns, the words. “Papers, please.”

The flash of full-body panic in the middle of a car accident.

We all know people who bought this gimmick in 2016, the shit-eating glad-handers who voted for this kleptocrat fool and his sadistic family, his rotating Cabinet cast, his gun-loving fearful followers. They wanted it all, and, boy howdy, we’re gonna get it now! They co-signed the violence, and it’s coming!

This piece is from 2016, already too late. But it’s a helpful reminder to know yourself. Write down your story. Write down your dreams. We were warned.

I know right where I stand. Fuck the president and fuck the police state. These words won’t help anything, but I know where I stand. All we can do is know ourselves and act accordingly.


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.