Time by Flowers

You can truly lose yourself in the tulips, she says
— and the tulips go away
and the peonies come,
and the peonies are going
and the delphinium is coming in
and the delphiniums go
and the dahlias are there.

I love that flowers can tell time.

And that they bring back so many memories or emotions from a time gone by.

Hiding Places #1: The Married Student Lounge

You are My Hiding Place: The Married Student Lounge

Being someone who craves solitude and quiet – I need it, in fact – I’ve always looked for places where I can hole up and brood if need be, where I can be sure to be left alone to sort things out and know my own mind in peace. One of the best places like that I’ve ever found was during my junior year of college. It was kind of a bumpy year for me, because a number of my friends (not that I have a lot…) were pulling back from me, and I was feeling more alone than usual. I was living off campus, not really seeing many people that I cared about, and those I did see didn’t seem to care about me. Then I found the off-campus student lounge.

Picture half of a basement of the upperclass women’s dorm (which was connected to the underclassmen’s men’s dorm – go figure). It was large enough to be an ample-sized room all on its own, with a broad nook full of metal lockers, a lounge area with sofas and comfy chairs, rugs, and a coffee table, and another room attached that was full of study carrels. That, and a bathroom, was it. Hardly anybody ever went there. I don’t even think most of the off-campus students knew about it, and if they did, I doubt they cared. A door in the far wall opened into the portion of the basement underneath the women’s dorm, but that was locked from the lounge side. (I think I was over there once, to visit friends. We had segregated dorms; this was a church school.) You needed a code to punch in on the keypad to get in, and in perhaps the biggest favor he did for me all year (the word “favor” hardly has the magnitude of what I owed him for this gift), my buddy gave me the code.

I hid out a lot down there. At first I was taken aback by the absolute stillness of the place – the fluorescent lights didn’t even buzz. The thick foundation walls muted any noise from the outside, and like I said, hardly anybody ever went there. If they did, they’d be in and out in a few minutes – and then I was alone again. It was heaven.

It’s difficult for me to overstate how great this was. I was rooming with four guys, one of whom I was close to, but he was choosing to stay with other friends for most of the time. The two remaining guys, while nice, were too wrapped up in their own stuff to make very good friends. One played video games constantly and argued with his other friends about Ren Faire, and the other dragged the dresser that served as a TV stand into the middle of the room so he could watch TV while he sat on the can for hours. (No joke.) Our rooms were in a dorm made out of a converted nursing home (which has since been demolished), and at first we thought it would be great because we could have a room to hang out in & a sleeping room. It turned out not to be great, for a variety of reasons. First, for the other 2 – my buddy & I had roomed together the year before & got on famously, and then these other 2 hatched this grand idea to all room together. We had to adjust our setup to accommodate them and their nonsense, which was a little bumpy all around. My room became a place I slept, and that was it. I couldn’t study there (which was fine – I was a library rat, and still am if given the chance), and it wasn’t that congenial to hanging out there. I felt displaced, a little bit betrayed, or maybe hung out to dry would be more accurate. (Only recently have I realized that perhaps the reason my buddy spent so much time on someone else’s couch was because I snored like a son of a gun. Still do, in fact. The fact that it could have been at least partly my fault did nothing to diminish the pain. People let you down.) Then I found the married student lounge.

The tranquility of the place soaked into my soul. It was quiet, but not deathly silent, like quiet can be in a house by yourself or in a hospital, perhaps, at the right time of day. It wasn’t the kind of silence that merely waits to be broken, like when you’re the first one into a room that you know others will most likely be entering in a moment. It wasn’t the kind of quiet that accentuates the little noise there is, the whoosh and hum of ventilation, the buzz of fluorescent lights, the gurgles and creaks that your body and clothing can make when you shift, even the thrumming of your own blood in your ears or the sound of your own breathing. Those noises seemed to get lost there. It was just…quiet.

I felt free there. Nobody was watching me, nobody was ignoring me or trying to impress me, nobody even cared I was there. The rest of the world receded. It was like Aladdin’s cave, like a special hideaway, a refuge, prepared just for me but no one else. There may have been a dozen or 18 study carrels in that side room, but they were all for me. Some had snapshots pasted up in them, lists, occasionally a cartoon, but I almost never saw someone studying there. Those things felt like the part of the décor on the set of a movie or a play – not so much personalizing it or giving it human warmth as simply part of the fabric of the place. There wasn’t any dust on anything, even though who would go down there? The janitor? Did they even have the code? The lockers were there, but they, too, felt simply like part of a set for a play. The couches and chairs were amusing, from another era, hardly sat on. One set of chairs, with a matching end table, were made to look like they’d been cut out of whiskey barrels – I don’t recall if they were molded plastic or wood.

Once I laid on the couch along the wall – it must have been on a Tuesday or Thursday night or something, some time when I should have been diligently working ahead but instead took advantage of a slack space in my schedule – and I read an entire book in one sitting (laying, actually). An entire book. One sitting. I think it took me two hours. The book was about depression. I still remember things I read in it – the woman who wrote it said that she walked her way out of her depression. She marched miles and miles each day, walking for hours in all sorts of weather. She said that the sound of her own heels ringing on the pavement rhythmically brought her out of her depression. The very monotony of their sound convinced her, bit by bit, that her life too was going to improve. I still think of that quite a bit, and I too walk to ward off depression; maybe not as much as I should.

Down there, time took a break. I could go down there on a winter’s afternoon, the sky just beginning to gray towards dusk, and when I came up the streetlights would be shining yellow in the full dark night. The emotional and psychological bumps and bruises of the day would blur and melt away, dissolving into the pool of silence I was in. My nerves, scraped raw by other people, began to heal. It was my fortress, my underground stronghold. The keypad and code protected me, and besides, the very anonymity of the place, its existence largely unknown to the student body, didn’t that mean that I was safe? With all the stressors of figuring out a relationship with the girl who eventually became my wife, not having a place to go to, and having my friends head away or drift away, I needed a place to hide, to be safe; to recuperate, to lick my wounds and brood, to refresh my soul in solitude. The married student lounge was all that and more. There I found the silence and the space, welcoming and yet respectful, inviting and yet still cordial, to know my own mind, and to cope.

I don’t even know if the married student lounge is still available for students to use, if it’s still in the same place, if it still has a keycode or even if anybody remembered it after I graduated. I do know that for a rough time in my life, it was my refuge and my hiding place. That place bestowed on me a kind of happiness I identify with very deeply but very infrequently receive in this world. It was a place I could count on being able to go when I felt like I had fewer and fewer people to count on and turn to. I hadn’t thought about that place in a long time, till something someone told me brought it back to light. I’m grateful that I got to have it for a while, and I hope it helps others as much as it helped me. Now I think I will recall it often, at least for a while. I still look for hiding places, but with somewhat less success nowadays. I hope to find more soon – a good hiding place is worth guarding and saving. You never know when you’ll need one.

I have known some of my happiest moments there, by myself.

 

Safe Up Here With You: the Twilight Singers’ “Hyperballad”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rj8eSL4Z1I

Welcome to my latest obsession. I finally gave She Loves You, the Twilight Singers’ 2004 album, a metaphorical spin the other day. (Now that I have Spotify, I’m chocking in some of the holes in my musical knowledge.) It’s an album of covers, but the one that absolutely jumped out at me right away was “Hyperballad”. The through-composed style, the restrained instrumentation and vocal by Greg Dulli, the thoughtful, vivid imagery of the lyrics, the band’s dreamlike performance, relaxed yet hyper-focused…I could swoon. The restless, chiming guitar and yearning, soaring synth lines play off the trudging, rolling beat perfectly, lightening its steps until it becomes as welcome as your lover’s heartbeat. Dulli has been known to chew some scenery at times (“My Time Has Come” from Powder Burns, anyone? I mean, HONKEY’S LADDER?), but here he wholly feels the subtle soul of the song and his unselfish, out-of-himself delivery is totally right-on. He doesn’t even monopolize the choruses — they’re sung in unison, a lovely hymnic touch, like choral music. Trance gospel blues indeed.

The lyrics themselves are something special. Bjork’s words picture someone going out to the edge of a cliff early in the morning and pitching random things off. Then she watches them fall, intent on the sound they make, and doesn’t look away before they hit the rocks below. She wonders what it would be like to throw herself off, and would her eyes be closed or open? It’s both a metaphor and an psychological snapshot from daily life. The words picture the daily choice we must all make to love our person, our people, whoever they are, whatever the cost. They celebrate the daily sacrifices we all make that our partners, our children, our parents, our friends, never see or know, but that we make unceasingly, day by day, so we can stay with that person. The throwing things off the cliff is at once both a purgation, purifying, cleansing, and an act of renunciation — this is what I can do without.

The song also hints that this is for the sleeper’s protection, or the narrator’s — “this is so I can feel safe up here with you.” Maybe these are the things that the sleeper or the narrator would be tempted to use on each other, once the sleeper awoke and the day resumed its endless march until night. Maybe it’s better to throw those things away, whatever they are, before they get used on someone you love in a moment of anger and there’s no going back: these are the things I have to, need to, do without. But whatever you throw off the cliff every day — anger, pride, wondering how things would be different with a different partner or a different life — it’s never worth as much as the one who sleeps through the predawn ritual of pitching stray objects off a mountain precipice and meditating on their fall and smashing. For that person you throw everything you can lift, everything you can possibly bear to part with, and then some, off the mountain. Everything except yourself.

Kudos to Bjork for being honest enough to admit about thinking about throwing yourself off a cliff. Kudos also to Dulli for seconding her startlingly honest thoughts by choosing to cover this standout song. He knows what it’s like to kill yourself slowly, or to realize that if you don’t change your path you’ll end up dead. This song is about pondering the path you’re on, and ultimately deciding that it’s the right one. You want to be “safe up here” along with the narrator, because that’s what they want too.

Just expressing these kinds of compulsively honest, or dark, thoughts are enough for most people to give you the side eye, if not respond with outright alarm. With good cause, of course…but sometimes you just wonder. The ability of the human mind to play out “What if?” is one of our greatest strengths, and one of our biggest downfalls too. We play with temptation or create fantasy worlds, indulge in magical thinking and act accordingly…and real people, who care about us, get hurt. (Here’s where Dulli’s natural knack for the dark, the twisted, the addicted, the turned-out, yet also faithful and still somehow feeling despite it all, shines through.) Sometimes “What if?” is enough all on its own, as a question in the mind. Always make the choice to be present, to remain, to be steadfast — for others, and for yourself.

 

we live on a mountain
right at the top
there’s a beautiful view
from the top of the mountain
every morning i walk towards the edge
and throw little things off
like:
car-parts, bottles and cutlery
or whatever i find lying around

it’s become a habit
a way
to start the day

i go through this
before you wake up
so i can feel happier
to be safe up here with you

it’s real early morning
no-one is awake
i’m back at my cliff
still throwing things off
i listen to the sounds they make
on their way down
i follow with my eyes ’til they crash
imagine what my body would sound like
slamming against those rocks

and when it lands
will my eyes
be closed or open?

i’ll go through all this
before you wake up
so i can feel happier
to be safe up here with you

The Smirk

Lana Del Rey b & w loungerSo I put on some music the other day when we had another couple, friends of ours, over. It happened to be “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey — I’ve really been into her sound lately, I think she’s got something unique and interesting to say, and that’s why I chose it. My wife asked what it was, because she knows I’m a muso & I secretly (not so secretly) want to talk about it, and I answered, “Lana Del Rey.” I saw a smirk pass across my friend’s face. He managed to suppress it pretty quickly, but it was still there and I saw it. I thought, “Screw you, buddy.” [More or less...] The conversation moved on, but if it hadn’t & I could have spoken freely, here’s what I would have said:

  1. I like what I like, OK? I ascribe wholeheartedly to Louis Armstrong’s dictum that “there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” It doesn’t matter if it’s pop, jazz, big band, metal, reggae, indie twee, or Gregorian chant, if I think it’s good, I’m down, I’m into it. Life’s too short to live by other people’s opinions of what’s “cool” or what you “should” listen to. Forget that. Go find the things that trip your trigger, that make you want to create.
  2. Have you ever listened to Lana Del Rey? Do you actually know what her music says and sounds like, or do you get your information second or third hand from the Internets? Again — are you letting other people tell you what is cool, and what to like or not to like? If you’ve listened to her and you think she’s a poof, then fine. But if you haven’t listened…what room do you have to smirk?
  3. Who says that pop music can’t say something insightful, acerbic, accurate, or profound? Who says it all has to be stupid teeny-bopper music — and even if it is, can’t it still hide some critique or commentary on our society? Lana Del Rey’s got a lot going on, if you listen to her lyrical viewpoint and watch her videos. She throws darts at the inflated corpse that feminism has become, and it drives people crazy. This is a big, big part of why she’s so attacked and vilified. She harks back to a time when people could actually speak freely and act freely, because they were under societal constraints (paradoxically enough), yet people’s ways of life were not so dislocated from human nature. Nowadays, we’ve been taught that everything we feel or want to do is bad, and the opposite is good. We have it drummed into our heads not to pay attention to what we see or think is true, and instead to hold only certain corporately approved opinions and worldviews. I, for one, think that’s crap. I think a lot of young people, especially, who don’t have a lot of life experience to show them what’s wrong with the world, but they look around and they go, “There has to be something else other than this. This is the best you have to offer me? I want something else. I need to go find what it is.” Lana Del Rey, and other dissenters and originals along with her, offer a plethora of different paths, or at least give young people a starting point.
  4. Besides, Lana Del Rey is just awesome at what she does. Ignore the flaming and the media hate, and observe the woman and listen to the music. Is she the dumbest person you’ve ever seen, or one of the smartest? Is she being gauche or poetic, dead dumb or dead-on? It’s yours to decide, but she gives you enough to work with that you keep guessing. You can never fully make up your mind, because you’re not sure how much of it is a put-on, a pose, and how much is real. Besides, when did authenticity become such a gold standard for pop stars anyway? Everyone is acting like she’s a fraud because she uses a different name than she was born with and she happens to have a wealthy father. Does no one remember any of the scads of artists and performers from music history who have used different names? David Bowie, anyone? Madonna? Even Joe Strummer was a diplomat’s son named John Graham Mellor, for crying out sakes. People need to lay off Del Rey and let her do her thing — which she will anyway, and her fans will continue to eat it up.
  5. “Video Games” is a haunting, trenchant commentary on the way we live now. It’s a dead-eyed (in several senses…) broadside that sneaks in through the back door of the bar, draping itself over the pool table and hogging the spotlight from the hanging fixture. When she gets to the verse about being drunk and in his arms, we’re already nodding along and smiling, because we’ve felt that before. Her voice, so grave and somber, flits and bats drunkenly, like a moth in a mason jar, at notions of what she wants, what happiness is. She’s not sure herself, but at least she feels something, in contrast to all those of her generation strung out on Adderall and endless meds for depression, anxiety, and everything else. She senses that feeling means she’s heading in the right direction. It rings true for a whole lot of people who are young, or who can remember being young and feeling that way (not just girls, by the way — her lyrics, delivery, and production all manage to lift Del Rey out of the banal and arc her toward the universal, like a bottle rocket across the sky.) If the song, and Del Rey’s music in general, doesn’t express the current politically dictated orthodoxy, then maybe it’s the propaganda that’s out of touch with reality, not the other way around. We do young people a grave disservice when we furiously lecture them, keep them away from things we fear are bad for them but actually might be fine, and try to clip their wings. When they get the chance they fly faster and harder than we can anticipate, and not always in the best directions. Disillusionment with propaganda means that much good can get flushed away, along with truths that  might be useful or even necessary — and the young rarely take the time to delve through their elders’ wisdom and seek for what is best, plus critical thinking isn’t always there yet. Let the kids hear what makes sense. Give guidance, but don’t oppress. It’s a balancing act, but very needed.

So yeah, that’s what I would have said to him (well, maybe 1 and 2 for sure, and maybe 3 if the conversation was patient and unfolded enough to allow for it) — but, since you smirked, you’re never going to find that out, are you? Good luck with that smirk, because it will continue to narrow your worldview and impoverish your life in ways you can’t anticipate, for years to come. Cheers!

Afghan Whigs on KEXP: My reflections

The Afghan Whigs released their 6th studio album recently (first in 16 years! cue little girl squealing sounds), and as part of that they’re doing the media hoopla thing. I ran across this performance/interview with Seattle’s KEXP the other day — KEXP has lots of artists on, and they’re usually very good, you should check ‘em out. Here’s the Whigs’ time on the show:

My observations:

1) Even though he’s 50, and, let’s be honest, put on a few pounds recently (ahh, the return of Fat Greg Dulli perhaps in the offing?), even though he’s sweating bacon grease indoors in an air-conditioned studio, even though all that time has passed since the Whigs’ first time around — he’s still selling it, still shucking and jiving, still completely into the music, trying to make you feel something, trying to reach across and connect with you by sheer force of will, if not always musicality. That’s showmanship. That’s dedication, craft, and class. Gotta respect that.

2) Dulli seems irritable, which is odd. He’s nearly borderline rude. It’s even more puzzling because Cheryl Waters, the host, comes off as a total fangirl. (She bought a vinyl copy of Big Top Halloween. How many people can say that?) Perhaps the two facts, Dulli’s irritation and her obvious love and appreciation for the band, are not unconnected. Or maybe someone starched his shorts too much, or he got an unwelcome text before going into the studio, or the airline lost his luggage, too much caffeine, what have you — hard to say. At the most, it’s just speculation, but he does come off as tetchy.

3) The songs are stripped down as compared to the album versions. This robs them a little of their full musicality, but it ups the punch. “Matamoros” is plain scary, with the loopy non sequiturs in the lyrics delivered in a flat affect that signals “hustler on the move”. “It Kills” shows its bones as a true soul ballad –nothing “blue-eyed” about the soul on display here (an insulting and racialist modifier if ever I saw one.) The propulsive thump of the album version becomes a nearly marching-band chop, which actually makes it seem even more old-school. The song sorely misses Van Hunt’s wild, edge-of-control (emotional, auditory, mental) falsetto, but that extra space also highlights the chord changes through the middle of the song that just grip you and won’t let go. Who else makes soul music like this anymore? No really, who? “Royal Cream” stretches and builds tension, and “The Lottery” clatters appealingly and bangs a groove more than the album original’s spacey/U2 feel, but again, it’s just different, not worse by any stretch. Bottom line, this is a veteran band that can groove and move at will, as one. They don’t make bands like this anymore. Many bands sound polished to a T on record but can’t finish live. The Whigs flourish in a live setting, and always have.

4) Speaking of “It Kills”, perhaps the most riveting moment I’ve ever witnessed in a studio interview-play-a-few-songs-kinda performance comes during that song — specifically, at the end. Dulli plays the final few tender notes of the piano part, then he holds it — and pauses. He stares off into the distance, and you can tell he’s somewhere else, with someone else, thinking of other times, other places; other voices, other people, perhaps one particular person. For those few moments, he’s not in the room. Nowhere close. After a few eternal moments of reverie, Dulli looks back toward someone (the host?) and nods once, with a slight smile on his lips — and it’s still quiet. She supplies a clarification for the listeners at home: “A moment of silence for the Afghan Whigs” — and then the chatter resumes. But for those few moments, the most riveting statement that they could make, the most beautiful music of all, was simply to play…nothing.

5) Dig those smoky aviator shades of Dulli’s — classy.

6) Rick Nelson, the strings player, looks like a librarian or an engineer on the weekend. Obviously he didn’t get the “all black dress code for performances” memo from Dulli. (He often doesn’t, it seems.)

7) Cully Simonson, the drummer, looks like a psychopathic logger in that plaid shirt. He often has a frightening detached insouciance, as if he could shake your hand or push you out a window with equal ease. Maybe it’s the combination of the beard, the hair, and the sunglasses. He doesn’t look like that without the beard or shades.

8) Another favorite moment: when Greg silently yells at a band member to turn it down, whoever it might be, after he’s already made the motion for it once before, during “Royal Cream”. It’s a tiny glimpse in what it must be like to tour with Dulli and play in his sandbox. He’s a notoriously big personality, and all these guys have played with Dulli a long time. In order to run with Dulli one must skip to his lou … but it sure is hard to argue with the finished product.

 

Now that’s a party I want to attend.

Here’s a clip from back in the day, Mr. Greg Dulli on Craig Kilborn’s show (remember him? – Nah, me neither), taking an oldie and turning it inside out. I love the way Dulli takes a cover and OWNS it. His criteria, as he’s said in interviews, is that he has to wish he’d written the song, and then make it sound like he did. He succeeds on both counts here, even with a chestnut like this one. His performance makes me envious that I am not, in fact, having a party with him, or even that I’m not cool enough to even think of being invited to said party. Still and all, for the rest of us, the great unwashed…there’s YouTube.

I had a dream once (which also featured a cameo by Amy Winehouse, relatively not-strung-out for those of you scoring at home) in which Mr. Dulli appeared, looking very much like he does in this video — almost exactly, in fact. Perhaps that’s where my subconscious sourced it. Or maybe my id wants to be invited to Dulli’s party. Or something. At any rate, pop the top on a cold one or pour yourself a cocktail, and enjoy this song.