Monday, December 10, 2007

Paul Haig - Something Good
Paul Haig - Something Good.mp3

This is one of my top-five songs of all-time, period. In fact, I would call it a triumph of human creativity, a spiritually profound work of art that has the capacity to evoke wonder at the miracle of simplicity and inspire personal change and growth beyond perhaps any other song I have ever heard. This, my friends, is the real deal. And it is just so damned simple. In fact, I think that perhaps the only better example of perfect simplicity in pop music history is Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. But other than that one incredible feat, Something Good is my personal favorite, amongst all the songs I've ever heard.

Paul Haig was the frontman for the legendary Glaswegian post-punk band Josef K before the band broke up and he began releasing solo records. His second solo album, The Warp of Pure Fun, is one of my two favorite albums of all-time, along with Psychocandy by fellow Scots The Jesus & Mary Chain. Something Good was released in 1989, the lead single for the LP Chain.

This song is magnificent. Life can be so confusing, so complex, but this song reduces it to something simple, moral, and good - something good. From the very first note, the crash of the cymbal, this song is mesmerizing, the bassline hooking you while the guitar expresses so much deep feeling, some sadness, some resignation. The song's lyrics are about a break up. The first verse:

Open the door
And leave behind the memories
This is for sure
Some things just had to be
And if you return
Then the sun will shine again
But I don't expect
That anything will ever be the same

There is a simple sense of acceptance here that I find very compelling. He states that "some things just had to be" and admits that it would be great if the person came back, but that he doesn't expect anything to be the same. It's refreshingly honest and provides a unique twist on typical love lyrics - something Paul Haig has excelled at throughout his entire career.

Then, the golden goose. "Take something bad...and make it into something good. Take all you had...just like the way I knew you would."

I'm going to say it again, just for emphasis: "Take something bad...and make it into something good." Is that not the simplest, most profound and beautiful thing you've ever heard? I mean, think about the way we approach our lives. Can't our thought processes about the directions we are headed be maddeningly complex? The human mind is indeed complicated, and we feel and think so much in response to what we see and experience. And in the case of something like a break up or other profound loss, the internal reactions can be very varied and intense. How wonderful, how refreshing, how beautiful, is it to hear "Take something bad...and make it into something good"? I mean, isn't that really all that we can do? Isn't that its own moral imperative, its own prime directive that if only we could all follow, we would be as happy as possible? Bad things happen. We suffer. We feel loss. It is part of life. But these things can all be made into something good. I know from experience that incredibly painful losses can be transformed into beautiful things, and that no suffering is needless. Sure, people can point to horrors far beyond that which most (including myself, certainly) have experienced, but I believe that they can be transformed too. And if only we could focus on each individual thing that happens, each tiny thing at once, one step at a time, and turn each bad thing into something good, something positive, life will work itself out.

The second verse continues:

And there is no time
And there is nowhere left to go
You give me a sign
A little thing that I should know
I read it in books
And I turned the page again
You got the looks
But nothing else will be the same

This verse is somewhat cryptic, but makes the greatest sense. It seems, to me, to be about accepting the need to move on, accepting that things end. And how better to do this than to live by the philosophy of "Take something bad and make it into something good"? If we really live by this, if we really believe that something bad can be transformed into something good, that an end can become a beginning, that pain can be turned to joy, then what do we have to fear? They have run out of time and places to go; nothing will be the same again. The final two lines are so beautiful too; the looks are the same, the same looks that can still spark the greatest desire, but what's inside has changed. But this is all said with such acceptance, such matter-of-factness. But it's still so human, so tender, so vulnerable - yet it's done with tremendous strength. "I read it in books, and I turned the page again." It's such a perfect reflection of the song's music; it's driving and strong yet so vulnerable and open. The pulsing bassline never ceases as it breathes like bare lungs, beats like a hand-held heart, and shows a resolve of concomitant fragility and impenetrability, for it is the heart that both makes us tender and gives us power; it is what makes us open to receiving others and able to give to ourselves despite them. This is the magic of the bassline, truly the heart of this gorgeous song.

And isn't this song just incredibly human for that reason? Whenever I listen to this, I feel like I am staring into the heart of humanity, both that of others and of myself. Yet this song goes beyond being human, and the heart that is revealed is the light of the soul; it is the soul's voice. Only from within the heart of the soul can love come, and only from within that same heart can come the resolve vocalized in this song, the desire to continue on despite pain. In fact, for me, it is when I ponder the idea of the soul, of the eternal, of that which is more than mere being, that I find the greatest ability to overcome pain and suffering, and to make something good from it. And isn't there a joy, an ecstasy, within the chorus? The synths rising from beneath our feet toward the sky, illuminating us from within, the words self-luminious and alive. It is ascension itself, the transcendence of time and being that leaves it behind yet grounds us firmly within it and its possibilities, revealing that the eternal, the sublime, is within even the simplest of things. Because for all the transcendent spirituality coursing through the song, isn't it profoundly simple? The "something bad" and the "something good" can be as grand as giving your life for that of another or as simple as finding you're out of the kind of ice cream you wanted and discovering a new one instead. And even in such a small act, isn't there a spiritual enrichment, a moral lesson? Learning to use pain, sorrow - the "something bad" - to create something good is the simplest thing I can think of, that which can be done in the blink of an eye, but whose effects can be felt echoing throughout our entire lives and indeed throughout the whole of the universe and the endlessness of our souls.

Paul Haig's "Something Good" is, perhaps more than any that I have ever heard, one that has changed my life for the better and has made me a better human being and a better soul, and I feel incredibly grateful that it has always been and will always be there for me whenever I need a reminder that there is a good to be found in every bad, if only we are willing to see and make it. This song has exapnded my consciousness and understanding of the beauty of the world and also helped me through some tough times, and I hope that you will enjoy it even half as much as I do, because then I will know that it has changed your life too. This is truly a song that makes even the stars themselves more beautiful.

Now that I think about it after having written this, this may just be my favorite song of all-time.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Chemical Brothers - One Too Many Mornings
The Chemical Brothers - One Too Many Mornings.mp3

Now this, THIS is a really personal song for me. This song goes way back for me, all the way to my freshman year of high school, which was about 10 years ago. I once listened to this song over 100 times in a row in my room, and for years I really had literally every sound in the song memorized. And while many bands and songs I was into in high school no longer captivate me in the same way, this one absolutely still does, perhaps more so than any other. There is something so simple, so elegant, so beautiful about it.

You see, the reason I chose this song is because I had a very, very interesting and enlightening encounter this weekend with a significant setting from my past: Sarah Lawrence College. At the risk of this turning into nothing more than a blog writing about myself and only myself, I'll go into it because it relates to this song for me. I graduated in May of 2005, but this was the first real time I had been back while students were in session. I went twice this summer when no one was there just to see the campus and reflect on my time there, but this was different. Out of nowhere, I decided to visit some friends of mine (some of the maybe half a dozen people I still really know there), and stayed the night last night. The experience was one of the most eye-opening ones I have had in a long time, in addition to being very fun.

The big thing I finally, truly realized is just how SMALL everything about life at SLC is. The student body is small (1200 people or so), the campus is small, the food selection is small, the number of social events is small, the squirrels are small. Going there and seeing everyone holed up in their tiny rooms, working on their tiny laptops on their papers on microbiology really drove this home for me. You see, it's a shock after living in NYC (well, Queens) for over a year now, and hanging out there with people I knew in that small environment of SLC. There is so little there, but at the time (when I was a student), it felt like so much. You create your own little insular world there, with its own values, its own activities, its own mythologies, its own politics, its own social group, its own ethics. Because doesn't everyone have to feel like they have their place in the world? And isn't college a time for many where people try to define their niche?

But here's the thing about all this smallness: I finally understand more why I was who I was when I was there, why I valued what I valued and did what I did. I also realized why it's so good that I didn't get into drinking during college. But for me, seeing my old rooms and places where significant and/or poignant moments happened in terms of my relationships and friendships was really powerful this time around, because the realization of how different I am now hit me REALLY hard. And one of the biggest things is - and this is the most obvious thing ever, but it's hard to grasp sometimes - that the place keeps marching on without me, without my friends, without all the people I knew while I was there. That campus was defined by my friends and girlfriends and so forth, but now they're all gone. None of them remain, except a few people, none of whom were close friends at that point in my life. Yet the place goes on. I mean, DUH. But you know what I mean; it's surreal to see it continue. Now the exact same place, the exact same buildings, the exact same ground, is defined by an entirely different group of people, and it will never, ever be defined by anyone I know, ever again. Something about it seems so cruel, the way it keeps marching on without the slightest qualm or regret or hesitation, the way time does so well. And it was so, so strange to walk around there with almost total anonymity. In a school that small, you ran into people you knew ALL the time; it was unavoidable, for better or worse. But it was so strange to walk around feeling that kind of alienation, like I wasn't at home there anymore.

Because, well, that most definitely ISN'T my home anymore. I've changed and grown up (thank God) in ways that really hit home last night. One of the biggest things I realized along those lines is the ways in which that environment forces you to involve yourself to an arguably unhealthy emotional degree with your significant others and friends. There is so little there, that you have to find your meaning and your fun and your activities and means of occupying your time and thoughts SOMEWHERE. I really figured out how it was that I could become so intensely entangled in the women in my life there - there was so little else to do! And for the many people there who never date anyone on campus during their time there, they usually become obsessed with their friendships. Everything, every personal relationship, is put into some kind of bizarre accelerator that makes everything move SO quickly SO intensely. And I think that for me, I found a sense of intoxication on the women in my life; that was my booze. I mean, not literally, but there are certain conceptual similarities. Many people there keep themselves occupied with booze and drugs and friend drama because, well, there's not much else to do. And that can be surprisingly fun and enriching for a time. I certainly had a great time there, and I absolutely loved the small little world I had created for myself there. I ate it up, and was addicted to the close interaction I had with all these different, interesting people - particularly when I was a freshman and a sophomore.

But things changed for me, particularly during my senior year. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I lived on-campus but had class and two internships in the city, meaning I went there three or four days every week. It was here that I really saw how different "real life" was, and how there was oh-so-much more out there than I could even glimpse at Sarah Lawrence. I didn't realize it at the time, but it completely jaded me and made me deeply unsatisfied with life on campus during my senior year. To be quite honest, I became a bit of a Scrooge about it, and grew sort of grumpy because I was just so tired of that kind of living. I wanted my life to expand and grow, not remain stuck in this small world. Now, that isn't to say that my senior year wasn't wonderful, because it absolutely was, but I was dissatisfied with still being a student there, physically there. I wasn't happy with that small world anymore, with the insularity of the campus social groups and accompanying mindsets.

And looking back now, and seeing all my old haunts, I realize how much I've changed since even then, three years ago (my senior year). Everything I had then, while it may still mean something and while I am still friends with many of those people, is gone, or at least totally different. That was like a wholly different reality for me, and nothing from who I was then is truly there any longer. Now, this may sound extreme, but I don't mean it literally. I mean, I am still very much the same person - I love pizza, New Order and bad horror movies, and I still try to be nice to other people and I still value love above all else and so on and so forth. But all those loves feel different. All my weaknesses feel different. Everything is different, even when they remain. I am still who I was then, only I'm not. I have evolved and grown, along with the things that define me, that make me, me. And seeing all these old spaces again, filled with totally different people that know nothing of me and my life and the lives of my friends and college girlfriends, makes me think about all of this. Those days are gone. And the relationships that that artificial setting facilitated are gone. Now, that doesn't mean that the love or connections that inspired them are necessarily gone, because I think there is always a deep reason why two people come together, regardless of setting, but many of the dynamics facilitated by that artificial setting are gone. It's just that even when things remain, they are also gone; they are forever leaving you. I mean think about it: every time someone leaves your house, even if you see them again an hour later, aren't they leaving your life? It is possible that they may never come back, either due to a choice they or you make or circumstances beyond anyone's control. People are always leaving and coming back to one another, there but not there, present but absent. We are always in our own thoughts, our own worlds, our own realities, even when we are sharing time and space with another. But are we ever truly sharing the same space? Even when we have sex, we penetrate space where the other is not.

Here is my current favorite chapter of the Tao Te Ching, titled "The Uses Of Not":

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn't
is where it's useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot's not
is where it's useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn't,
there's room for you.

So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn't.

In a sense, seeing Sarah Lawrence, seeing these spaces where I no longer am, and where nothing I know is, I see greater value in what is, now, in my life. And in returning to a place where I was and am currently not, in using that setting, that space, I have gained profit in understanding what is. Does that make sense? I used what isn't (Sarah Lawrence, at least not for me anymore) to understand what is (my current life). I used my past (what isn't) to gain further insight into what is (my present).

And really, isn't this principle - using what isn't to gain and learn from what is - at the basis of love and personal relationships anyway? Doesn't this principle guide existence itself? All objects, all forms, all organisms, are what they are. And what makes them what they are is a combination of what they are and what they aren't. It's like the basic principle of semiotics (as I understand it): language is the use of what isn't, essentially. It's in the words you don't select that you make a statement, and that these words gain meaning. Think about it this way: how many known forms of matter are there in the world? Why aren't all things just one massive combination of every known type of matter? Why are there individual forms that populate space? Why are forms distinct from space? Why are forms distinct from one another? Even in seemingly solid forms, there are infinite negative spaces: this is the principle behind much of the work of Robert Smithson, with his looks at crystallography. Our bodies need to fill their empty spaces with food, and we could not possibly speak without empty space in our mouths. Our tongues are useful only in conjunction with what is not. And our mouths - isn't a mouth an empty space? It is an empty space defined by what surrounds it, and nothing more. It goes every which way.

But people...couldn't we all theoretically be one? Couldn't we all be one giant beast, like Mothra or Fat Albert? This is where love becomes significant; isn't love only significant because of what is not? Doesn't love only exist because of what isn't? If there wasn't emptiness between people, emptiness which is not, then would love even be possible? Would it matter? And giving, charity (or, as some would say, love) - isn't this only made possible by a lack, by that which is not? How would we give something if it was already one with the receiver? It is inconceivable. And when we feel we overcome that negative space, that gap, when we feel we have achieved oneness with another being; isn't that the whole point in many ways? Isn't that the point of life? Isn't that what makes life truly satisfying? And how would that be possible without that gap, without that which is not? It wouldn't be, and it wouldn't even be an accomplishment, because you would already be being it. I mean, aren't nearly all senses of accomplishment of any sort dependent upon the use of what isn't? We as people are defined by what isn't and how it relates to what is, and sometimes the boundary between the two is impossible to distinguish.

This is really at the core of what I am interested in right now, and what I have always been interested in with regards to art and film. And now, the time has come for me to move from merely writing about others' exploration of this principle and to enact my own experiments and questions.

I almost forgot the fact that this is a music blog. One Too Many Mornings, for me, is like a celebration of what is not and of what is no longer, perhaps even of what will never be. When I was a 12-year old high school freshman, I would sit and imagine relationships I didn't have and never had, imagining bridging the gap that is what isn't. And although all this time has passed, this song can still make me think of that, and it still makes me remember what has been but is no longer. And although songs leave their special places in our hearts - and many have that I enjoyed so much at that point - this one always manages to come back. It is so peaceful, so serene, yet so tender and infinitely vulnerable. It's so inhuman in that it says nothing (save for the weird sample at the end), but the gentle, musical breathing of the woman is infinitely human, as if it is saying simply, powerfully: "I am." And in what she doesn't say, in the language she doesn't use, that statement is made all the more powerful. Enjoy One Too Many Mornings by The Chemical Brothers.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Dinosaur - Kiss Me Again
Dinosaur - Kiss Me Again (Jimmy Simpson Mix).mp3

After my long hiatus, I decided to return with a truly special song, one that is worth even two really good songs. And so, I present to you one of Arthur Russell's greatest of his many great achievements: the Jimmy Simpson mix of Dinosaur's "Kiss Me Again". This is the version that appeared as the a-side on what was Sire Records' very first disco release, and the one that I prefer to the band's personal b-side mix. But before launching into this 13-minute movin' 'n' shakin' monster, let's cover a brief bit of background. Arthur Russell was a classically-trained, Buddhist cellist from Iowa who came to New York in the 1973 and later began recording what are now considered crucial and innovative disco records with a variety of musicians (including David Byrne, noted nerd and frontman for Talking Heads, who plays guitar on Kiss Me Again) and under a variety of monikers (e.g. Felix, Loose Joints, Dinosaur L, etc.). Along with Juggy Gales and William Socolov, he founded Sleeping Bag Records and ended up working in one way or another with an extremely impressive list of folks, including Phillip Glass, John Cage, Francois Kevorkian, Larry Levan, Diane Madden and many, many others. Glass once said that Russell "was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this Earth has ever done before, or will do so again." Arthur was no square. He was a beast, and if you listen to even his biggest releases (which I admit is all I've done, for the most part), you can tell that the guy was a genius. Sadly, he died of AIDS in April of 1992.

Kiss Me Again sounds like fairly standard, good disco right off the bat. But one thing becomes apparent quickly: the song is patient. It doesn't rush into anything like a chorus, and you can tell that even when the vocals come in, the song is still warming up. It establishes this weird, tethery tension that makes you move but feel uneasy at once. You feel awkward; like you don't know where you stand and where the song is taking you. But you do know one thing: this thing is a beast. We start hearing a standard disco diva voice telling us about how she's running uptown and she wants this person (presumably a dude) beside her (at least that is the plan) and so forth. Then the clouds break and she wonders if she is a woman or a saint. This is a really striking line. Things seem to be going pretty well with this dude. She sees him so clear, even though the world is a smoky cloud (or something like that). But there's still this nagging tension, and we wait for some kind of catharsis or development. This tension is only elevated by the bridge where she keeps saying "I know my visions are real", in both thought and movement. What are these visions? Is she imagining all of this? It must pertain to the situation somehow, or she wouldn't be talking about it here. But we are immediately given a sense of an uncertain reality, even though she claims faith that her visions are real. But she acknowledges them as visions, and the music seems to imply a kind of uncertainty.

And then that amazing cello comes in. Where the hell did that come from? That, of course, is Arthur playing. Just what kind of weird disco song is this? Cello? And we STILL haven't felt the song "break" musically. It's still just keeping you moving back and forth in simple motions, creating a mold of movement. And we're three minutes into the damn thing. But that's not even a quarter of the way through, if you read the record label closely. When she begins saying "Here we are again" and begins asking simple questions, we know something is up, perhaps even slightly amiss. You know things maybe aren't as perfect as she made them seem at first. And the music, of course, tells its own story.

And then: the piano. Blood in the water. A tension starts beaming through, and there is a crack in the song's impenetrable facade. And once the chords break out at 3:38, a giant light just fucking bursts through, and everything goes nuts. I think this is one of the most beautiful moments I've ever heard, and I could hear this again and again for the rest of my life. It's definitely the most beautiful moment in the song. It's like being kissed. The whole song is like this tension of being with someone you dig who you know digs you, and the piano comes in right when there is an awkward pause in the conversation, perhaps after a really earnest compliment that tips one party's hand. For a few seconds, there is that delicious tension in the air, and then BOOM! A kiss. The wild ride of adrenaline soaring and shivering up and down your spine, that sickly sweet sensation of lust and fear that fits so perfectly with the deep resonance of the piano and, hell, of disco music in general.

"Oh baby, is this the woman I want to be? The door is unlocked, the windows are open, every time the place looks best for me. I said, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me again, kiss me again..."

Then, a shock. Everything slows down, stops. She can't seem to make up her mind, but he makes it for her. What is she doing? There is a hesitation, a concern, a quiet, savage desperation. Is this the right thing?

Then it goes berserk again, and Byrne goes fucking wild. That guitar line just embodies personal disintegration. It is clear that everything is falling apart for this woman, as she wonders aloud, "Is this the woman I want to be? Tell this what I want to be?" She is brutally breaking herself down for this relationship.

Have you ever gotten back together with someone who you shouldn't have? I think most of us have, and I think that's what this song is getting at, and the music tells the story even more than the words. But, back to the song...

We get that gorgeous cello again, that tension. Then her story begins changing, as she refers to times past in which he hurt her, pleading for kindness and love. Then she says that the first time and the last time are much too confused, and that she wants to be used. Clearly, this doesn't sound incredibly healthy, as they keep coming back here "again and again and again."

And when she returns to saying that she knows her visions are real, we look at this statement in a different manner. It is as if she has to keep telling herself this in order to maintain her sanity, her dignity, herself. There is a desperation in the music and in her voice during this repeated bridge, and we know that this is crucial for her. But what does this mean? What are these visions? Are they, in fact, real? Or is she fooling herself?

Then, following another haunting cello interlude, she wonders whether she is a woman or a toy before the song goes into a haunting, rather minimal little section that formally replaces the earlier piano segment. This part is as haunting as anything I've ever heard in any kind of dance music. Her cries of "Hey baby, is this the woman you want me to be?" come scorching directly from her soul, searing and swirling all around it into a blistering sandstorm of self-doubt and a loss of self-control. Does this dude want her to be ambiguously a woman or a toy? And the way she so defiantly yet subserviently asks what she does. She clearly feels crushed by her wondering, but will she decide for herself, as anyone should? The fact that she asks this says it all...

Then it slows down, stops, again. A moment of pause, of contemplation. A deep breath. Then, Byrne. What a fucking beast. The disintegration is even more pointed this time around, because it is undeniably there, too. She realizes it now, too. "Is this what I want to be? I don't know. Ah, tell me..." Everything has fallen apart for this woman, and her sense of self seems to be gone, lost to lust and misplaced love. All hell breaks lose after the guitar part, and after a sort of insane repetition of various mutations of "Is this what I want to be? Tell me..." she says, "But first, kiss me," and it is clear that all is lost. She has totally lost control of herself and her sense of happiness and even love.

And the brilliant thing about this song is that it's all there from the beginning. The tension embodies that intuitive feeling we have in our gut when we get (back) together with someone we know in our heart we shouldn't be, but we ignore it all for the sake of kissing them. We want to connect, we want to fuck, we want to kiss. We want somebody. And Kiss Me Again embodies that feeling of the best intentions that go awry, but we really have no one to blame but ourselves for getting involved with people we know we shouldn't. And that same initial feeling of "No, this is wrong" continues throughout the song through the musical arrangements themselves, only they build and build and give way to an increasing structure of desperation and a kind of madness, marked by the one moment of great beauty: the kiss. A kiss is almost always beautiful if you let it be, even if it's with the wrong person.

And doesn't this song also just speak to the dangers of the night life, of the boogie? Of the danger in not respecting the body and the heart? I mean, some bands (I'm thinking of Happy Mondays, first and foremost) have based their entire output on that theme, more or less. This kind of culture and lifestyle can be incredibly fun, but also dangerous if you're not prudent like George Bush, Sr.

But more than anything, I think this song is a masterwork. It's absolutely phenomenal. It's so subtle and so barn-burning at once. It's like it burns the barn to the ground, but leaves the wreckage precisely in the shape of Alfred Hitchcock's face or something. And it's thirteen fucking minutes long, with not a minute wasted. I hope you enjoy this amazing song, if you haven't heard it already.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Skinny Puppy - Assimilate

Video footage of the live track below:

Video footage of the Ain't It Dead Yet performance of Assimilate:
Skinny Puppy-Assimilate (1986/12/10 Zopo in Horst, The Netherlands).mp3
Skinny Puppy - Assimilate.mp3

Ah, yes. Skinny Puppy. I thought I would change things up a little bit by throwing a bit of Ogre into the mix, you know, and get your ire up. Now, it should be noted that I am a fan, first and foremost, of live Skinny Puppy, far more so than their studio work (with a few exceptions - most notably the Remission mini-LP). Today's song, Assimilate, is a great song in the studio, but it is SO much better live. I mean, I almost don't really consider the studio Assimilate to really be Assimilate at all. In fact, I would ask that you listen to the live version provided here before you listen to the original studio recording.

This live recording is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the greatest things in the history of music. Now, many of you may disagree, as most people think Skinny Puppy sounds like a wildebeest vomiting up its own shit, but I hope you'll give it a try, because I think it's really amazing. Skinny Puppy can have a reputation for being just noisy, angry crap that's really tiresome, but I disagree wholeheartedly. In fact, I think they are, without question, one of the most brilliant, intelligent, interesting and original bands of all-time. The reason for this is their live act.

When live, Skinny Puppy makes me think of Strindberg's A Dream Play, which proclaims at its beginning that its entire content - characters, etc. - is part of one larger, overarching consciousness. Each component is an element of one larger mind, much like Freud's concept of the nature of the dream. For me, live Skinny Puppy is like that; every sound, every yell, every sample, every beat, every word, every chord, is part of one mind expressing itself in a continuous flow of emotion and thought. It is, musically, probably the most immediate sense of pure expression I have ever heard, along with live New Order. Although the band at the time of this recording consisted of three people (and always has at least two), it seems as though everything is just spewing forth from the lead singer, Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie). It is truly a collage that is being crafted before our eyes, and in the moment. Like New Order, Skinny Puppy reminds me of the action painters; they are, in a sense, action pop musicians, acting out of emotion and impulse (not the same degree as the action painters or jazz musicians or something, of course, but as much as you can within the framework of the songs).

I think that this performance of Assimilate is, in a weird way, very, very beautiful. The sounds of the chords in the chorus are what really do it for me. And there is something truly gorgeous to me about what this song means. Have you ever heard something with a more immediate, sincere intensity? There is something almost unfathomably honest about this song; both in what it expresses and what it evokes. It is violent, and it is about violence and destruction, as most Skinny Puppy songs are. And Ogre clearly isn't too happy about something. But still, this song makes me feel deeply satisfied, and even elated in a kind of unconventional way. The sheer force of the music and vocals electrifies me like Ben Franklin (ZOUNDS!), and leaves me with this deep sense of wonder. How did they make such an incredible song? How does this sound this good? But there's something more to it.

Destruction, anger and violence are part of life. By no means am I a fan of any of them, but I think that one thing Skinny Puppy has taught me is that you have to accept that human beings are imperfect, everyone is capable of cruelty, anger and malevolence, and that life is full of endings. Things are constantly being destroyed, and that is part of the rhythm of life, as things sometimes need to be destroyed before they can be reborn as something better. This is true in society, in art, in families and in individual lives. In dreams, death can symbolize a rebirth, a transformation, a new beginning. And who doesn't die? Life means death, without question. But while bodies can be and are destroyed, the human spirit can live on (either through the soul - if you believe in that sort of thing - or one's legacy, creations, children, etc.). Death can, in fact, be a beautiful thing. And to truly love oneself or another, we all have to accept that human beings are flawed, and that they are not always kind and giving. Every human being on earth has moments where they are selfish, hateful and cruel, but we have to learn to accept and love and forgive ourselves and others, even when we and they have those moments. Otherwise, true love is impossible if we are only capable of loving certain portions of a person's personality. That love is not unconditional, and it is incomplete and immature.

Skinny Puppy, for me, is about embracing that darker side. It is not about championing it or saying it must remain uncontrolled or claiming that side to be superior, but it is about learning to love it, despite itself. And sometimes, it is very healthy and positive to get angry about things that are unjust, as Skinny Puppy is very wont to do. In fact, nearly everything they do is about some political issue, be it animal rights (ViViSect VI) or pollution (Too Dark Park) or what have you.

Here are the lyrics to this little ditty. I really had very little idea of where to put the line breaks, but I went for it:

Oil remove shred tear radiation vapor air
It's the fear so unclear man in motion going nowhere
In our homes stuck in the face spread the dirt to the populace
Yellow journal yellow journal set the pace feel the rage
Manifestations of a sort so insidious off the point
Simple solution never confuse sport a gun kill a cop
Crazy world of weary thought so receive me had enough
Deviation tonic mess prolonged existence in a sense (innocence)
Is he who speaks isn't weak wheelchair virtue to speak
Bubonic plague the truth of AIDS immunity avoid decay
In the trench pestilence the Bible screams announce your faith
Mutterings of death do bring suffocate newborn thing
Degradation of an age venereal it's all sensation
Protect design the moral plan
Agony you're not thinking free clanking chains growing pains
Mutterings of death do bring suffocate newborn thing
Degradation of an age venereal it's all sensation
Protect design the moral plan
Infallible as propaganda completely black with no steps back
Agony profusely stains the inner thinking of the brain
Accusations clanking chains experiments groans of pain
It's all preferred no one blames the terror in an animal's screams
In cages our future
Only death only death
Death death death death death

And good lord, the chorus. What the hell is he talking about? I don't know, but I'll be damned if I don't completely agree with him with that music playing behind him. I'm all like, "Yeah, let's rot and assimilate. Let me just change pants and I'm ready to go." But this song has a life-changing power to it, one that opens up this incredible world of a sort of forbidden and neglected beauty; that of the dark side of the human heart, and somehow accepting that without darkness, light would be meaningless and, in a sense, wouldn't really exist at all. For what would it be if it was a given? I guess the thing is that in the chorus, there is a light that bursts forth and ascends upward with each chord, illuminating spectacularly this world full of decay. And in fact, that light appears right as he is speaking of rotting and assimilating, and being "hot" to annihilate (spicy!). In a sense, isn't life kind of hot to annihilate? I mean, it certainly annihilates enough. But that light appears with the rotting and the assimilation, (perhaps the incorporation of the flesh into the soil and its eventual turn in becoming the soil itself which will sprout crops, etc.), as if to say that there is light in all things, and darkness makes that light all the more special. Why must we fear death? Since it is necessarily part of life, how can it be truly bad? All physical things die; even buildings slowly die and turn to the dust that lines our shelves. And as a beam of light shining through a window reveals that dust in the air, the beauty of the sight is really the beauty of decay. In Assimilate, perhaps Ogre is saying that the evils of society will inevitably die, or that despite them, we don't need to be afraid. Life will go on. I admittedly don't know quite how to tackle all the lyrics right now because it's two in the morning, but perhaps you would like to give it a try. I hope you dig it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire


Bruce Springsteen - I'm On Fire.mp3

I'm sure all of you will know this one already, and I must say: The Boss truly is on fire with this one. In fact, I think this deserves an NBA Jam-esque "HE'S ON FIRE! BOOMSHAKALAKA!" I really love each song I write about, but this is one where I will go out on a limb and say that it's Special, with a capital S. Recently I've been trying to make pseudo-objective value judgements (I've been reading Lao Tzu too much, I suppose), but, in my opinion, this song is flat-out one of the best ever written. It is so short, so simple and so powerful.

The main way I usually sum up my thoughts on this song is by simply saying that I think this song is maybe the best expression of male tenderness I've ever heard. And when I say that, I mean that it has an extremely masculine quality to it that most pop love songs don't; they usually strike me as more feminine. But in this one, the desire is so understated; everything about the song is understated. It's so warm and hidden, like a tiny nook you used to hide in as a child. He never actually says that he loves or even cares about this woman, but it's incredibly obvious that there is a deep tenderness there. And rather than state that it is making him hurt, he describes it as literally cutting him apart (It's like someone took a knife baby, edgy and dull, and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my soul). In fact, all he really says about the girl is that she "cools his desire". There's really nothing else there. There's something so male about that; this stubbornness to admit deep feeling, yet finding a way to express it anyway.

But this song takes me to a very real place; it takes me to that nook I mentioned before, and so many times in my childhood. You see, the first album I ever loved was Springsteen's Born In The USA, from which this track is taken. And this song takes me back to being one or two years old like nothing else. I remember the second house I ever lived in, in Willowbrook, Colorado, and the way the living room was kind of dark. Although the stereo was in there, this track makes me think of the family room at the front of the house, all white and bright and sparse. That was the only place I really knew since we moved there when I was like 18 months old. I actually still have memories of the first house, even from when I was under a year old, but the Willowbrook house was the first house I really knew, as it were. Looking back now, it wasn't the greatest house in the world; for some reason, it seems dry to me. What a weird adjective, because I don't mean it literally. Everything seemed dry and unyielding, brittle; like it would resist and then break without giving at all. Everything seemed old, partially because much of my parents' furniture was passed down from their grandparents. I'm On Fire was just too real and too sad for me to like as much then. I think even then I knew what it was about. I have, for my entire life, been a "romantic". I've always wanted to love someone. I've always daydreamed about the perfect girl and being in love.

And while I am still that way, that time seems so distant now, ages 2-6. This song somehow seems to capture those years perfectly; I wanted so much that was just totally beyond my grasp. In many ways, more than anything, I longed for love, and that wounded me so deeply.

I'm just amazed at the mystery of the past, that's all. Listening to this song takes me back to a time I'll never fully remember and never truly understand. I will never grasp the magic of those spaces, nor will I ever have the opportunity to see them again, even as they are now (not to mention what they were like then). So many things in life are transitory, even within the larger arc of those things that last. More and more every day I see the truth in the Tao Te Ching. Time and life just flow steadily, selflessly. They do not love us in the way we think of love. In the greater picture, they give us everything that we need, but they don't treat us with affection. At best, you could say they are practicioners of "tough love". It does nothing to fulfill us, although it always gives us what we need for that fulfillment.

But what is fulfillment? Even when you have what you need, and even what you want, fulfillment escapes us at moments. There are brief blips where we feel empty, despite the fullness of our lives. Sometimes we don't feel like we're in a movie, like there is drama in our feelings and our relationships with others. Sometimes we feel nothing dramatic, and nothing even that important. This can be hard to accept. Sometimes the greatest fulfillment is anything but overwhelming, sometimes it is incomprehensibly and shockingly subtle. Fireworks don't always go off when we finally get what we want, and sometimes the greatest happiness is as silent as dust settling into place, as light pouring through a window, endlessly in silent motion. There are moments when fireworks do go off, when you feel like a key figure in an important scene in a movie, but they are rare. I think this is part of why people enjoy drinking; I think it's part of why I enjoy it sometimes. Things get heightened or dulled, and both feel important, regardless of whether they are.

But again, what is fulfillment? Getting what you want is not fulfillment. I think fulfillment is a state of mind. I choose to desire certain things in my life. I cannot live entirely as Time does, as The Way does, as Lao Tzu proposes. I do in certain senses, but I am a man of desires that I treasure. I am forever bound to my love for affection and, well, love. But what is love (and why do I ask so many rhetorical questions?)? At times, spiritual love, where you let yourself go and just give, is wonderful. That is perhaps the most valuable kind of love, although it is not always appropriate. But learning to do that is necessary to live a fulfilling life. When you can do that, you can truly, truly love. The other kinds, which are desire-based, are perhaps not as noble, but are essential to life and relating to others. For instance, just heaping affection on someone and having them do the same to you is fantastic. Trusting someone to be kind and caring to you is wonderful. In these we expect something from the other, and therefore it is not truly selfless, but there is nothing wrong with that. I believe in feeding the self, too. What we want can be important, too. Sometimes it's just about determining what's REALLY important and what isn't. And sometimes we have to just go for the unimportant things anyway. Life isn't about being noble all the time; it's about being good when it counts.

But being on fire. How can anyone say "I'm on fire" with such calm, such resignation? It's pretty amazing when you think about it. There's almost a contentment, even perhaps a sense of bizarre fulfillment, in the music itself and The Boss' delivery (package delivery for The Boss). It's so tender. It's like he accepts what she's doing, perhaps out of respect for her. Or maybe he's just weak and afraid to go for what he wants. But it would seem that she is cheating on him, or left him (Can he do to you the things that I do?), although the circumstances are somewhat unclear. I like that ambiguity. It's just longing and jealousy, and he ends up howling like a dying wolf, alone in the wilderness at night.

I saw CONTROL last night, the Ian Curtis biopic. I was really disappointed with it, but that's beside the point. Right now, at least, this song is making me think of Ian Curtis. I mean, I guess it's just that I could picture Ian listening to this in Heaven when it came out in 1984 (although I've heard that the 7" release in Heaven was delayed until 1985 due to copyright issues) and relating to it. Just that resignation and sadness. There's no rage here, only saddened desperation that slips into resignation. It's so quiet, and for me, it makes me watch a silent movie of the most distant part of my childhood: infancy. It's like I'm Chevy Chase in the attic in Christmas Vacation, watching the old home movies, without the hilarity. Those times are gone, and they're never coming back. Again, we have a song that for me is all about the past. But even in the song itself, it seems like it's almost not in the present. It's like it's behind a misted glass of some sort, sinking to the depths of the sea. I think of being in the middle of the ocean at night, how lonely everything is. Where is everyone? You feel so far away from everyone and everything, and you literally are, too. But there's a tranquility in that loneliness, and if you can accept your longing, for all its intensity, you can feel a kind of contentment.

I've also been thinking a lot about 8 1/2 recently, which actually feels like a kind of companion piece to this for me, in a weird way. Both are so masculine; they are about being a man, and what it means to face your desires and shortcomings. And of course, women are the key. It's all about women, folks; the mystery of them and the power they have over us. There's something as mysterious and impenetrable (no pun intended) about the beauty of a woman as the magic and of our childhoods, and I think this song captures both (at least for me).

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Miko Mission - How Old Are You?


Download Miko Mission - How Old Are You? (12").mp3

Download Miko Mission - How Old Are You? (Edit).mp3

Since March, Italo Disco has steadily become what is most likely my favorite genre of music. Excluding all Euro Disco (which would bring Fancy and Lian Ross' "Fantasy" into our discussion) and focusing solely on Italo, I think the most awe-inspiring individual track would have to be Koto's "Visitors". But Koto is instrumental, and leans more toward a spacey sound. But when it comes to a true vocal pop song, nothing quite touches the majesty, the mystery, of Miko Mission's "How Old Are You?", which I have presented here in two forms: the original 12" mix and a much shorter edit. For the full effect, definitely go for the 12", but if you want it to be as poppy as possible, go for the edit. But please go for both, if you have the time.

One thing Miko Mission is known for is having fairly non-sensical lyrics, and How Old Are You? is no exception. It's not entirely clear what the hell he's talking about if you think about it logically, but if you feel the lyrics and the vocals, I think they actually pack quite a punch, and make quite a lot of emotional sense. I think you can figure out what they mean just by listening to the music. The opening synth line is absolutely incredible; it's so simple and is deceptive in its power. Then he sings:

When the people go
Then my mind is crying
When the children leave
And tearin' the world with thee

And the most beautiful little flourish rises out of nowhere. It feels almost fantastical, like we are being entered into a fantasy world. Do we really need to be logical here? There is an other-worldly feeling surrounding this and all of Miko Mission's songs, and we must accept that. Obviously, in the first verse, he is talking a lot about absence, and he throws in mention of children being amongst the departing group. Lost innocence, perhaps?

When the music plays
In your fantasy
In the moonlight time
I remember the games of my life

Now he starts going wild. Just like I was talking about in my last post about Stockholm Monsters' "Fairy Tales", here we are dealing with the creation of a mental musical soundtrack to a thought - although here the word "fantasy" is more vague, and may not be a memory. Nevertheless, it implies the thinker as a director of sorts, choosing music and creating scenes of a fantasy. And then he refers directly to memory. It may seem strange, but I think that, in the context of the whole song, the final two lines of this verse are some of the most powerful in the history of pop music. In the moonlight time, I remember the games of my life. And they are clearly important, since they echo and then lead into the mind-blowing chorus. But what do they mean? For me, this is where the core of the song lies. This song, for me, is about bravely facing the loss of your past, of your childhood. These games are done. At night, he is remembering them, and you just know that they are powerful. I am immediately taken back to playing baseball with my parents when I was very young, and going on scavenger hunts arranged by my wonderful babysitter, and laughing and joking with my childhood friends. I also think of college, and the carefree fun I had there, watching horror movies and talking about early 90's NFL teams and flirting with girls at parties. Those days are all gone.

I see an emerging trend here, and perhaps a big window into what has been going on in my mind recently (or, one could argue, over the past several years). Pop songs are obsessed with the past, and with remembering it in a certain way. Even the ones that are descriptions of the present are their own artifacts from personal pasts, since the people who made them did so in the past (duh). All art and movies and so forth are about remembering the past and bringing a bit of that past into the reality of the present. We inundate ourselves with the past in order to make our present make sense, and to come to terms with time. Pop songs give us a soundtrack, a framework, with which to look at the present and our past - and even our future. And while I believe that "living in the moment" is extremely important, we are constantly thinking of the past at every instant, for that is all we have ever experienced. It's kind of like field of vision - we can only really focus on like 1% of what we see, and while we see everything else, we don't see it clearly. But the line is blurry between what is in full vision and what is peripheral, just like with the past and the present. Everything, reality at each moment, is constantly becoming the past. Everything is constantly becoming what no longer exists. Everything is constantly ceasing to exist. Yet isn't everything also coming into being? Isn't the world, our vision, our minds, constantly born anew? It is just hard to grasp it sometimes, and to feel it fully. It is hard to be aware of the present, and the past and present are constantly flowing into and out of the other, creating a nexus far too fragile and complex and of such great movement that we may never hope to grasp it.

At the moment where Miko finishes singing "I remember the games of my life", we are struck with the birth of a new moment, a new reality: the start of the chorus. The synth line we know from the beginning still plays, but dominated by an expansion of itself - the beastly hook that dominates what we hear. The past is there, but with a new layer, a new look for itself. And the very first word we hear is "Now". But the brilliant part is that he asks, "Now how old are you?" In the moment we are brought back to the present, we are asked the one question in life that is entirely about the present but also entirely about the entirety of our past, and completely non-contradictorily. Past and present merge into one at exactly this one concise point, and the answer for each person is unique (if they want to get really precise), just as each person's past and present realities are their own and no one else's. Does this make sense? How mind-blowing that question actually is? I hope I've explained it well enough, because for me, it's pretty intense when you think about it in this light. Or maybe I'm still loopy with joy from the Rockies' win tonight. It's also just so powerful because I think that, in the song, it is loaded with concern with the extent to which the person is connected with his/her past, and how far removed they are from it. Doesn't remembering the games of our lives make us feel old? Or maybe they remind us that we can still have those games, that our youth hasn't yet slipped away entirely.

And then ole' Miko continues:

Where is your harbor?
Have many things to do
Open the door

Yes, I live so true
Without my lover
But tell me if the sky is blue
How old are you?

And so, with the second line above, we enter consideration of the future. It's all falling into place. And is the absent lover the song's "you"? I kind of feel like it is, except with the question of "How old are you?" That seems universal to me. There's something triumphant in this song, albeit deeply melancholy at once. It's so mysterious. What is he feeling here? What are we feeling here? It can be wonderful and magical to remember our past, but there is also pain in our knowledge that it is gone. My childhood will never be back, and I can never experience things in the same way as I did then. I will never feel the same wonder over baseball cards as I did then, and I will never be able to believe that Santa Claus is real ever again. But there is joy in those memories, and I can still "live so true" without their reality. I can still play movies of them in my mind. It's interesting too, the line "Tell me if the sky is blue / How old are you?", because it seems to jokingly refer to the empirical reality of the sky being blue, evoking thought of what is truly "real" and factual. It also reminds us of things that are constant in life, such as the color of the sky. Then the final new verse comes:

Memories of dreams
Something out of date
I saw the light of ray
But remember the days of my life

How beautiful is that? And again we have memories of the past, but not the past we think of as typical reality, but of dreams. Something out of date, reflections of other mental states. Aren't dreams such totally unique mental states? We know that, at each moment we dream, our minds are in a precise state which they have never been in before and will never be in again. But aren't dreams also "out of date" in that they are timeless? Dreams can provide insight and information, but aren't they still ultimately a mystery? Are memories of dreams real memories? Are they memories of reality? How are we defining reality? Is it only empirical, or not? As I discussed in the last post, empirical reality, time, is often cold and indifferent, or at least it feels that way. It's the way we react to it and understand it, both consciously and unconsciously, that makes reality, reality. How can we possibly comprehend reality outside of our own personal reality, our own frame of reference? Aren't dreams part of our own personal realities; indeed, sometimes the most intimate part of them?

How Old Are You? is about how we feel about our past, our present, and our future. It is about how we encounter reality, and our passage through it and through time, how the past can become the present and the present the past, how a memory can be very real. It invites us to explore what we remember, what we have lost, and what we still have. No matter what, we will always have our memories, our dreams, ourselves - in all our unfathomable mystery.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Prett-aay, prett-aaay, prett-ay good!

Stockholm Monsters - Fairy Tales


Download Stockholm Monsters - Fairy Tales.mp3

I have been hearing about Stockholm Monsters for years, but first listened to them only recently. In fact, I first heard Fairy Tales the day before Tony Wilson died, which is an interesting irony. This was one of the first songs the band wrote (as teenagers!), and in late 1980, they struck gold while playing at Rafters in Manchester. Peter Hook and Rob Gretton happened to be in the audience. When they played this little ditty, the two were incredibly impressed, and pushed for their inclusion on Factory Records. Hooky became the band's manager and produced nearly everything they ever recorded - except, of course, for Fairy Tales, which was produced by the Friendliest Man in Manchester, Martin Hannett. No wonder those drums sound so crisp and piercing.

But enough of that. What a beautiful song, right? I think I'll always associate it with Tony's death, and that seems fitting, since I imagine it was one of his favorite songs since the Monsters were supposedly his favorite Factory act of the early 80s.

Off to a bang with a false start. Let me try again. This song has no false starts, although the drum machines sound quite hesitant at the beginning, like a nervous bird. But its flow is strong and pure, simple and wondrous, like the flow of a brisk stream. It has this feeling of resignation, of moving forward although you're resigned to your loss. Like a death. It makes me look back at what I've lost, but also at what I have gained from it. It's like gleeful sadness. It keeps on going. I've been really interested recently in how time flows, how it just keeps going, no matter what, and I think this song embodies that feeling somehow. How can it be so indifferent? We tend to anthropomorphize things, even abstract things like time. I think there is a method to the madness of life, but dammit if time can't be frustratingly indifferent sometimes. Children grow old, friends change, people die, and nothing stops to let you rest. You don't get a chance to grieve. "Why do you speak when there's nothing to say?" What is there to say, really? Life almost always seems to present even monumental events as mere moments like any other; it makes no judgment as to their importance. Only we can decide what is meaningful, and what is poetic. Only we can decide what is cinematic. Isn't that what it is? Cinema? Aren't movies usually just about turning those indifferent occurrences into personally historic events? Don't we sometimes look at our lives like they were movies just to make them make sense for once?

I know I do. It's kind of like some weird form of anthropomorphism, but for cinema. We characterize moments as celluloid, as light. The mental and emotional transformation of events into light. But what are events? Are they tangible? Perhaps they should be called scenes: the transmutation of life into scenes, the editing. Isn't history a lot like editing a film? Except with a film things are usually filmed with the intent of making them into an important moment, one worthy of the film. Isn't it amazing that moments can feel more full, more present, when we think of them as though they were just light playing in the theater of our minds, with an added soundtrack of our choosing? Maybe we live as documenters, our camera-eye filming everything (the afterimages the imprints on the celluloid), and then in moments of rest we edit. We pick and choose and sometimes forget (the overexposed strip of film) and set out to creating our own histories, the documentaries of our lives to recount to others and convince ourselves of our importance as subjects.

But it can be so easy to feel alienated from yourself, as one can from the director. We never see ourselves work; we are at the heart of the story but we are never seen. We feel our convictions; This must go in, when we love or grieve or feel profound joy. Those scenes must be saved. They remain real when they are on the reel (zing!). But where are we in those scenes? It seems that all we remember is what we see (the camera) and what we feel (the purpose behind a scene, the reason for the narrative). But life always goes on; it is always dissolving into light as our mind's editor works and works.

But also, if one feels that there is a moral and ethical obligation inherent in the act of filmmaking (and architecture, of course, since both are seen and felt by so many), is there also one intrinsic to the act of "editing" one's own life? What is the purpose of each "scene"? What can we gain from its inclusion? What can its retelling offer another human being? Even if time presents us our lives with a confusing indifference, we must decide what really matters, and that is a moral choice, a judgment. Don't these things really define who we are? And I think that sometimes what we choose for ourselves without conscious intention can reveal a lot of meaning, too. Sometimes I think we even have to sift through our memories to decide what is important, too. So many Contra.

Fairy Tales (yes, despite my bizarre tangent, this is still about the song) is our ticket to the screening room. When we hear it, we watch our lives unfold and we see what we have gained and what we have lost, with a strange sense of detachment from it all, like we are helpless; we are the viewer of our own lives. It reminds us of what our infinite limitations in capturing what we desire and controlling what we experience, but also of our ability to retain its memory, to retain its magical light and play it over and over again, should we so choose. It reminds us of the injustice of time but gives us the chance to right those perceived wrongs with the power of memory. We can make those moments which time forgot last forever and feel like the most important events that have ever occurred, because we are the ones who experience our own lives.

How did people think before movies? I am endlessly fascinated with that question, and with the countless ways in which film simultaneously reflects and shapes our minds. I wish there was some way to accurately depict the way memories look.

Some songs make us think about the future and some make us feel the joy of the present, but Fairy Tales makes us feel the fragile beauty of our past. Enjoy.