Monday, December 29, 2008

Self-Discography #8: Moments of 2008

Jennifer O'Connor
"Here With Me" (album)
A summer sunset, with fall fast on its heels. Driving in the morning listening to the spooky strums of "Valley Road '86" and having the CD get stuck (and remain stuck) in my car CD player. Hearing "Always in Your Mind" on a road trip in Indiana and thinking how lucky I really am--to be this age and this self-aware. It's a deceptive album, one full of so many small epiphanies. Underrated and understated. I like an underdog.

Department of Eagles
"No One Does It Like You" (track from "In Ear Park")
Like gothic Beach Boys infiltrating a too-hot Los Angeles September and October... during which I lay in bed sweating, hearing this loop through my head over and over. It conjured for me New York City summers with no air conditioning, when I'd walk through Brooklyn with headphones on, searching for a cool breeze, mystified to find myself living in this place. That same sense of wonder followed me 10 years later to this song, here, on the other side of the continent.

Bon Iver
"For Emma, Forever Ago" (album)
A critical darling whom, for once, I totally adored. "Skinny Love" made me sob in my car when I first heard it last spring. It'd been years since a song had moved me so much on first listen. The rest of the album unspooled around me, hovering somewhere between grace and nostalgia. It's music made by someone shattered and made to pick up the pieces of himself. I know that feeling.

"Robyn" (album)
How many pop "divas" released albums in 2008? Almost all of them. This is the only one that mattered. Perfectly made morsels of songs lined up on a tray for the taking. If only I'd actually been able to dance to this all summer long...

TV on the Radio
"DLZ" (track from "Dear Science")
A moody, masterful track from a moody, masterful album. The first line here: "Congratulations on the mess you made of things." The sentiment seemed to me to be about the country, the upcoming election, the sheer exhaustion and frustration permeating everything this year, as well as a resilience.

Cyndi Lauper
"Into the Nightlife," "Echo," and "Rocking Chair" (tracks from "Bring Ya to the Brink")
These may be the gayest songs of the year (sorry, B-52s comeback.) To that end, they were also moments of solace during a volatile time. It wasn't always so easy to be gay in 2008 (um, hello...equal rights?), but that's exactly why music like this exists.

"Third" (album)
In 1994 I drove through a frigid Midwestern winter with Barbie listening to Portishead's debut, "Dummy." I never thought that 14 years later this same band would still raise the hairs on my arms. I wanted, for a brief moment, to drive through North Dakota in February again when I heard this. Instead, I put "Machine Gun" and "The Rip" on loud during every single trip to the elliptical. Oh, how the times change.

Fleet Foxes
“White Winter Hymnal” (track from "Fleet Foxes")
The week before Christmas. I am watching Ryan wrap lights on the tree, suspended for just a moment, musically framed by this gorgeous song exploding from a simple a capella round. It's nice to feel my heart capable of swelling again.

School of Seven Bells
"Alpinisms" (album)
This year, I discovered there must be a bit of Pacific Northwest hippie in me. That, and I clearly still miss the Cocteau Twins and shoegazers. It's nice to be surprised, and nicer still to hear music that seems as if it's not rooted to anything else.

"Santogold" (album)
December: Driving the 101 in the gloomy drizzle, tracking the green-blue Pacific Ocean on my left as we head north, daydreaming of the spring, the hot sand and warm water at the beach, of being just a little bit drunk on a hot night, hanging out with friends, not giving a shit about what tomorrow brings. It's all rolled into one thing--a mish-mash of moments, just like the mixture of musical styles spread out here.

"Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" (track from "I Am...Sasha Fierce")
What other song could end the year with a perfectly choreographed dance number? If I had a hairbrush to sing into, you best believe I'd use it. Note to self about things to buy in 2009.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

There Is No "I" in "Bunny": M & K's Adventure at The Bunny Museum

I take some responsibility. I'll admit that from the get-go. Kathleen, however, is also to blame. Oh, sure, I came up with the idea, and, instead of surprising her with it, I made the gracious move of warning her ahead of time. But--and here's the crucial thing--she confirmed that she wanted to go. In fact, she emphatically declared her desire in all capital letters in an e-mail. And thus our fate was sealed.

Those who know about the Bunny Museum in Pasadena will look at you and laugh the minute you tell them you are going. If they have no idea what you are talking about, they just say the words "the" ... "bunny" ..."museum?" slowly, perplexed, and with a sense of wonder.

Kathleen, you see, had never been to Los Angeles. And she collects cool vintage bunny things. She's not crazy lady about it. We're talking a few figurines and salt and pepper shakers. And I refuse to simply take people who have never been to L.A. to Venice, Hollywood, Disneyland, etc., so I thought the Bunny Museum would be...well, memorable.

Pulling up to the house in a quiet residential neighborhood, there's really not much to tell you where you are, until, of course, you see the topiary (which I made K pose with):

"Cute," I thought at first, as we walked up the walkway toward the private home that is apparently, if you believe its operators, a "living museum." What that meant, we soon discovered, was that the couple who owns the museum actually lives in it, surrounded by 23,000 bunny, um...things. But first we were greeted by a woman with bleach blond hair that was possibly crimped and then pinned back and up. Her name was Candace and she could have been any number of ages. She asked me to drop my bag into a chest on the front porch decorated with pastoral bunnies in a field; this was to keep it from hitting and knocking over things inside. So far, so good. I grabbed the camera and followed Kathleen and Candace inside...

...and immediately felt claustrophobic as we had to shuffle down a narrow hallway created by shelves crammed full of every bunny knickknack, stuffed bunny, dead-eyed statuary bunnies, etc. imaginable. But before we could even really begin to take in the nature of our strange, new surroundings and assess how the living room was actually divided into three different viewing spaces, Candace insisted we have pictures taken in the TV room, which was the only room that had a defined, clear space in it. (I later discovered that my camera had the wrong flash on, so the pictures are blurry, but they do more accurately show what it felt like to be there.) After the first image, Candace backed up further and asked K and I to make bunny ears behind each others' heads. We felt we had no choice as we whispered to each other, "Is this where they watch TV every night?":

Awkward posing over, Candace ushered us into the dining room, which sat between the living room and the TV room. This was the nerve center of the Bunny Museum, as it held the gigantic table that bore the name of the museum, the requisite bunny image, and was surrounded by some of the most precious bunny figurines Candace and her husband owned--not to mention a collection of old pet bunnies that had been taxidermied and freeze dried after they died and put in a curio cabinet. I think K was close to laughing hysterically already:

Candace told us the story of how she and her husband started the museum by giving each other respective bunny love tokens--a stuffed, plush rabbit and a porcelain (?) figurine respectively. And soon that bunny love grew big, with the couple now giving each other a bunny a day. Now I began to shut down, but instead of going mute, my PR training kicked in and I began to ask questions, such as:

Me: "So, what's the oldest piece you have?"

Candace: "Oh, we have rabbits from every century, all the way back to 100 A.D. Of course, we don't keep something that valuable here in the house. We keep that in a safety deposit box."

Me: "Oh, well, that totally makes sense."

What had happened to me?! I'll tell you what happened to me. It was seeing the kitchen, which, like every other room, was overflowing with...things--including boxes of cereal and other food items with bunnies on their labels, haphazardly strewn about and stacked on top of every open surface. The kitchen also exhibited the signs of stress this living museum must be under, as the ceiling seemed to be caving in, with pinatas hiding some of it:

Granted, there were cute bunnies to be found amid the chaos of so many other arbitrarily chosen items, such as the yellow cookie jar here:

But I didn't muster the right mix of chutzpah and gumption to photograph the small pantry, in which three live rabbits scattered when you came near them and, when you looked up, you saw insulation dripping out of a hole in the ceiling.

Seeing a door that led to the backyard, I practically lunged for it and Kathleen and I stepped cautiously out into the driveway, where a curious mixture of rabbit paraphernalia awaited us. First, it was impossible to miss the odd, maybe rotting (?) bunnies that transfixed us (see image at top of this post and below):

Were they from a carnival? Were they papier mache? Candace appeared at the back door with a basket of chalk:

Her: "Do you feel like big kids? Do you want to draw some bunny pictures?" (Shakes basket of chalk at us)

Me: "Um, no thanks. Um....what are these?"

Her: "Oh! Those are from past Rose Parades! Aren't they something?"

Us: (nodding)

Her: "Out here is where we also put our broken bunnies." (Sad face.) "You know, of course, things break from time to time, so this is where they go."

So...we were in the bunny graveyard. And sure enough, as we walked a bit of the way down the driveway, we were greeted by an array of odd(er) sights, including in one place, a pile of plastic eggs that were just kind of heaped up against the house for no real reason:

Then there was the broken-eared bunny, which looked like it may be beseeching us to smash it to smithereens so as to put it out of its odd misery--not to mention the series of 3-foot tall stuffed rabbits that looked like maybe someone had tried to decapitate them:

Backing slowly down the driveway toward the back yard, we found little else to entertain us, save this nifty little sign that (at this point) did NOT seem creepy AT ALL:

But as we climbed into the yard, which was littered with stacked debris (was that a door?) in the back, we could go no further, due to the power lines that drooped down through a tree, and effectively stopped you from making a loop through the yard.

Kathleen: "Oh. Um. I guess we shouldn't go that way."

Me: "Well, it's either kill ourselves by walking this way or be killed back inside."

And you know what? We chose to go back inside. Because the piece de resistance was, indeed, the living room, which featured all kinds of bunnies from all over the world:

If you happen to notice a roll of paper towels in the first photo, well... that's because K and I were not the only ones there. Oh, no. Two house cleaners were also trapped, I mean, stationed, inside... carefully dusting and cleaning hundreds upon hundreds of figurines, trinkets, oddities, and so on. While later it would cause Kathleen and I to create whole short stories in our heads told from their points of view--including details such as they could no longer have sex with a boyfriend unless he dressed as a rabbit first--at the time we simply stepped around them, politely saying, "Oh, excuse me."

In the living room, though, we did find a few of our fave things in the entire house. Sadly, the skiing bunny is fuzzy:

But after 30 minutes, I'd really, seriously started to feel like I was in that basement in "Silence of the Lambs," know... filled with bunnies. I was almost ushering Kathleen toward the door, but not before making her pose with something else that looked somewhat psychotic:

And that's when Kathleen made her fatal mistake. She let slip as we were saying goodbye to Candace that she, too, collects bunny salt and pepper shakers. There was a small glint in Candace's eyes (As K said later, "I think I detected a hint of competition"):

Her: "Well, have you seen all the salt and pepper shakers?"

Me: "Um..."

K: "Yeah...I think so."

Candace: "Oh, you HAVE to come see them and get pictures!"

And off we went...back into the dining room, where our tale began, near the freeze-dried pets, and I took photos of the admittedly impressive cabinet of shakers:

Sated, Candace asked if we cared to purchase anything from the small gift rack in the corner, which included her new book, the subtitle of which alluded to living in a "post-apocalyptic world." Fidgeting now, I subtly moved toward the door again, and Kathleen grabbed a few postcards. But instead of simply handing over the $2, Candace instructed her to insert the folded dollar bills one at a time into the slit (what looked like a gash or stab wound) in the back of a purple, fat, plush bunny wearing a shirt that said "Bunny Money" (SORRY: NO PICTURES. MY BRAIN SHATTERED AS I WATCHED THIS.) But you couldn't simply insert a dollar. No, you had to then use a letter opener to forcibly thrust the dollar into the rabbit's back gash, so you could trigger the mechanism inside that made it laugh like a crazed hyaena and vibrate.


And Kathleen didn't have the best hand at making this happen.

And then she had to do it again.

It was the longest payment process I'd ever witnessed.

And yet, I wouldn't trade it, for as we thanked Candace and left, we felt like we had truly shared something significant that had bonded us yet again. This was, after all, a cultural landmark...honored by the Guinness Book of Records, the city of Pasadena, and countless others. And now, we, too, had been inside.

We didn't say much as we descended the steps to the sidewalk and back to the car. Even now I think I've not done the museum justice. But Kathleen still has her own story to tell--somewhere, sometime--I am sure.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Self-Discography #7 "Book of Love" by Book of Love

Sometimes the most innocuous music becomes the most enduring. I didn't know this to be true when I first heard Book of Love. But their now-22-year-old debut album still imparts to me small moments and vignettes of only happiness.

Seemingly manufactured purely for the sake of dance-club hits, Book of Love is hardly the kind of band I thought I'd still listen to in my approaching middle age. I first heard them when I was living in Southern California during the summer of 1990. My first boyfriend was a fan who introduced me to their mix of clever pop songs frosted with drum machines, hand claps, bells, and probably three different kinds of keyboards. The brilliant "Boy, in particular, was a revelation simply because of the disaffected voice (Susan Ottaviano) recounting how she is denied entry to a gay bar and can't play with all the other boys. Her tone--balanced somewhere between dismissive and wistful--was unlike anything I'd heard on Top 40 radio. Learning that two of the band members were gay was not exactly a revelation, but it made them feel that much more important.

And that encapsulates their paradox: On the surface they were shiny, twee, forgettable pap. But the music was also more melodic, yearning, and--dare I say it?--soulful. The jubilant yet distanced tone permeates the eponymous debut, beginning with the nearly effervescent "Modigliani (Lost in Your Eyes)." Ostensibly a love song about looking into someone's eyes and being lost in them--you know, the usual that was already done by, say, Debbie Gibson--the title name checks a prominent 20th-century Italian painter who was known for his mystical, somewhat creepy way of depicting his subjects' eyes. So, I wondered while sill in high school art history, is this really a love song to the painter? Um, well...duh.

It wouldn't be the last time I picked up the album after a number of years, only to be hit by some sense of nostalgia or new found respect for a band that had precious little of it in their own time. It was only upon listening to "Die Matrosen" in 2002 or so, for example, that I realized Book of Love had covered a song by the infamous all-female Swiss punk band, Liliput--a band almost no one had heard of in the U.S. in 1986.

In college, I would sneak songs from "Book of Love" onto mix tapes made for dance parties in the houses on campus and although many people would snort when they'd come on, few could resist the pull of an anthemic dance hit like "I Touch Roses"--cotton candy in sonic form, with no meat or nutritional value, and yet irresistible. The dance floor in the house living room would fill up with any number of Book of Love songs. When you've had a few drinks, they simply amplify the euphoria.

Just last week, my high school friend Kathleen came to visit me in Los Angeles and, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me about a song she remembered from years ago with a girl singing about boys, or not being a boy. "You mean 'Boy' by Book of Love," I said, and not only did I then need to hear it, but I had to make her a mix of Book of Love songs to take home.

I've been re-listening to "Book of Love" all weekend, remembering these small moments I've experienced with it: dancing at college house parties; riding in my first boyfriend's car from suburban Claremont to Los Angeles to go shopping on Melrose Avenue, unable to believe that I A) had been sleeping with a boy and B) was in Los Angeles; driving in the middle of the night through the empty streets of Portland with Susan, cranking the music out of my shitty car speakers on our way to go dancing downtown; traipsing through the Australian Outback with my iPod looking for emus and kangaroos.

Now, the album feels like an old friend--the one you see after any number of years and with whom you still have an instant rapport. You may at first forget what you had in common, but then, the memories begin to flow. And before long you're laughing about some memory and re-telling the story--turning it into another part of your personal history. And happily so.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Randomly Rediscoverd iTunes Playlist #1

Just because I was surprised to find it and remember May 2007 so clearly. What an incredible month it was--full of exciting trips, lots of laughter, warm sun, a (then) new boy, beer, and much more. Funny how even the "downer" songs here sound optimistic to my ears:

1. Open Your Heart--Lavender Diamond
2. Winter--Kristin Hersh
3. A Good Start--Maria Taylor
4. Million Dollar Smile--Jennifer O'Connor
5. Georgia--OMD
6. Full Moon, Empty Heart--Belly
7. Fiery Crash--Andrew Bird
8. Everyday Boy--Joan Armatrading
9. A-Z--Tracey Thorn
10. In Between Days--The Cure
11. Black Mirror--Arcade Fire
12. You Know I'm No Good--Amy Winehouse
13. Heavenly Day--Patty Griffin
14. That Teenage Feeling--Neko Case
15. Clumsy Sky--Girl in a Coma
16. Mambo Sun--T. Rex
17. Sunday Morning--Velvet Underground
18. 1234--Feist
19. Earth Intruders--Bjork
20. Silently--Blonde Redhead
21. Rainbowarriors--Cocorosie
22. Back to Life--Soul II Soul
23. Song to the Siren--Chemical Brothers
24. Destroy Everything You Touch--Ladytron
25. Look at Miss Ohio--Gillian Welch

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

At Least One Gay Bright Spot + How I've Come to Still Be Angry

Connecticut officially legalizes marriage for gays, and the weddings begin today. A lovely little piece of news as the infighting, confusion, and anger over the passage of Prop 8 continues in California.

I'd still like to start a drive to put a measure on the ballot in 2010 that eliminates the word "marriage" for all unions performed in state. From then on, you only get a "civil partnership," and if your church, synagogue, what have you, wants to perform a religious ceremony for you, then great. Otherwise, shut up and see that your special union is merely a tax break in the eyes of city hall.

The other option? Make divorce A LOT harder to get. That might do the trick, right? If divorce was not as easy as going to a salad bar, then maybe a lot fewer people would get married. And a lot fewer people would ask you to spend outrageous amounts of money on buying them shit they don't need just because they managed to buy fancy clothes, two rings, and have sex a lot.

Can you tell I am still pissed?

More and more, I can't go outside without looking at people and wondering if they voted away my rights. Which is horrible, because what good does that do anyone in the end? I am also sick of people telling me they're "sorry" about Prop 8. Yeah, you're sorry!? Thanks! Now, please don't DO anything to help the cause or help build awareness in communities that still need to be educated. Just keep saying you're sorry. Or better yet, just don't say anything, OK? Or do me another favor, get divorced (since it's so easy) and then try and figure out how to own your house, get health benefits, and raise your kids when the state doesn't consider you and your partner a couple. Imagine if you had to do THAT? It seems so HARD, doesn't it? Phew, I'm exhausted... and I'm still sorry, but I need to go home and enjoy my rights that you don't have now.

And don't even get me started on taxes. That hits home right now, too. I pay just as much in taxes as the rest of y'all, and yet I don't get equal rights. Yeah, that seems fair. It's a wonder I am not just casually saying "Fuck you" to more people I pass on the street.

Either way, I am done with ever feeling like a victim here again. I am angry, and will remain so. I will continue to march, and to yell, and to lobby, and to find out which businesses supported Prop 8 so I don't have to support them. And I will not let anyone tell me that it's time to simmer down. To do that is to have someone say they're sorry and then just say "Gee, thanks."

In other words, it's really not my style.

As for protests, there is one this Saturday--part of a coordinated effort nationwide:Join the Impact.

And for just one example of how the boycott is beginning to spread, look at this example of El Coyote here.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's Now November 6th...

...and though I am still angry I don't feel as isolated as I did a few mere hours ago. Tim stopped by to pick me up and Ryan came along at the last moment, and we picked up Tim's friend Dave and headed to West Hollywood, where a big rally was taking place to protest the passage of Proposition 8. When we first got there, there were speakers emphasizing what we need to do now, what we have NOT lost. Ryan and I got separated from the others and ended up next to a gay couple whose young daughter was all smiles at all the people around her. Best sign: I WANT THE SAME RIGHTS THE CHICKENS GOT (in reference to Prop 2, which makes it law that egg-laying hens need to be treated humanely).

Just before 8 p.m., a guy moved through the crowd and said we were going to "take the intersection" at Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente, so Ryan and I headed with a big chunk of the crowd into the middle of the intersection, chanting, yelling, clapping. Already, it was cathartic to be surrounded by so many people who were just as angry as I was. We were drifting eastward on Santa Monica until suddenly people in front of us said "Go to Sunset! Go to Sunset!" And so we did--a wave of hundreds of people crossing traffic and heading uphill through residential areas to the busy Sunset Strip--which is much more straight, to boot. And at the Viper Room we turned right on to Sunset and saw emptying eastbound lanes in front of us.

The police presence at first was minimal, as I think we surprised them. After all, we left the rally in the middle of the speeches. We need to yell and scream and remind ourselves that we were not alone--that others felt this way, that we were angry, outraged, and hopeful for the future. Especially on the march down Sunset through what is ostensibly a straight (and often gross) ground zero for scenester nightlife, it was gratifying to get affirmative honks from westbound traffic, see businesses empty as workers came out to stare or hoot with us, give us a thumbs up, or just smile--strippers, waiters, valets, limo drivers, truck drivers, Starbucks employees, even straight guys who looked befuddled and then would honk.

And the march kept going... We didn't know til later that several groups had splintered from the rally and that WeHo police stopped a second wave of protestors further back. Our march continued through Hollywood, as mystified restaurant patrons and others came to Sunset to see what the news was broadcasting. And through it all, only ONE guy heckled us, calling us disgusting and he was drowned out by boos and people yelling "SHAME ON YOU!" We ended up at Sunset and Highland... a good 2 to 2 1/2 miles from where we started, Ryan by my side, yelling and screaming, holding my hand, smiling at me every step of the way.

We'd lost Tim et al back at the rally and now there was no easy way to reunite, so Ryan and I hopped the subway and then got on a quick bus ride to get home... walking in the door, feeling relieved, lighter, buzzed from adrenaline, legs throbbing, throats sore. It's been a while since I have been part of any spontaneous protest like this--especially in L.A., a city not known for its protests. I can;t say if they really do help in the long run, but I'd be happy for more just to share some more time with such an amazing cross section of people.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's November 5th...

...and as exciting as it is that we've elected our first African-American president and Democrats have taken commanding leads in the House and Senate, I am filled with a distinct sense of how hypocritical America is. California has passed Prop. 8, which, for the first time actually *takes away* the rights of a group of people. Arizona and Florida also voted to enshrine anti-gay discrimination by banning same-sex marriage. For all the talk of change and healing and unity that's taken place in the last several years, there are many, many Americans out there who voted for Obama (for "Hope," for "Change") who were just as quick to single out gays and lesbians as people who somehow don't deserve the same rights. I've also never been so disgusted about the idea of marriage. It's not anyone's fault that this is what our country calls this union. But I can't smile fully today. I am still a second-class citizen.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You Tell Me What This Means

What the hell is going on this week? It was 94 in L.A. two days ago. Now it's just warm and it rained for 2 minutes this morning before the sun came back out, made the street steam, and then increased the humidity to 100%. My mother told me she's playing Euchre online but doesn't like that "people are looking at her." Then she told me we were not exchanging gifts for Christmas. Um, OK. Others are flailing in some kind of stupor--boyfriends coming or going; election hell; general ennui. I managed to give myself the largest bruise I've ever had, that makes it look like someone spilled a cup of blood under my skin. Then there was today on my lunch break: parking near the park on 3rd and Gardner to zip to the Grave (aka The Grove, a hideous mall) to go to the Apple Store to look at my iPod--which incidentally my computer has decided does not exist and will not recognize. (Did I mention too that my garage door is haunted and now just opens and closes of its own accord and that my car alarm has taken to going off for no reason? Add that to the list). So, there I am, parking, and out of a Jeep Cherokee across the street is a really attractive man in expensive jeans, boots, and a knit cap, with no shirt on. He walks into the park, a jockstrap showing above his waistband, clearly showing off his chiseled torso. OK.... I am still on the phone with my mother, walking some distance behind him, and off he goes to do...tricep dips on some bars in the park. Fine. Whatever. Into the mall I go, emerging by the patch of grass and fountain in the middle of the complex, where three people who look like a cross between clowns and Pippi Longstocking are dancing and singing to a crowd of think...I am too distracted by clown noses, red, orange, and yellow wigs, white face makeup, and horrible sing-songy, vaguely carnivalesque music. I dart into the Apple store, where I learn my iPod is gaslighting me. There's nothing wrong with it. Fine. Back out into the mall to walk to the car, and now the dancing fountain is swaying to "Last Dance" by Donna Summer, adjacent to the Pippi Clowns, who are angry and have started singing louder and LOUDER to drown it out, plastic smiles riveted to their hideously made-up faces. I almost run through Nordstrom to get out, out, out...only to have to cross the park again, where tricep dips are still happening. It's now 80+ degrees, humid, and may..or may not... rain again. I jump in the car and sit for a moment, wondering if this is how people become agoraphobic. I can't get home fast enough. Where my power is now Oh, wait, now it's back on! So. Um. Back to work.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wardrobe Malfunction

I need a new wardrobe.


And if you know me, I am guessing you never thought you'd hear that sentence coming from my mouth...or fingers.

The truth of the matter, however, is that I own too many clothes that fit like garbage bags. Once upon a time, that would have brought me great comfort. When you grow up rail-thin and every person in your family and neighborhood constantly tells you how skinny you are and you have, oh, a ton of other subtle psychological issues that need attending to, well ... you kind of naturally gravitate toward wearing things like giant windbreakers, baggy jeans, big sweatshirts, overalls, and really long flannel shirts. (OK, the flannel shirts probably came from a weird hybrid of growing up in Oregon and loving Boy George in 1983, but still.)

I could continue to blame the '80s--as I like to do for so many other things that have afflicted me--but the truth of the matter is that it only comes down to self-esteem. And until recently the baggy clothes never seemed to be an issue. It's not like anyone pulled me aside to say, "You know, Mikel, we're concerned about the size of your clothes in relation to your body." They were too busy dealing with me having a retort for everything they said.

The baggy clothes phenomenon probably reached its apex in college, when I spent far too much time being dressed against the cold of Vermont and for the dirt of the ceramics studio. Plus, I tended to buy everything second-hand, so I took what I could get. Yet, even after college, the clothes followed me--through low-paying jobs in New York and L.A. I couldn't really shake them. Nor did I want to. Baggy simply equaled comfort.

The older I get, however, I more I see that clothes that don't fit me do me absolutely no favors. I first noticed it back at my 10-year high-school reunion, when a few people whom I had thought were really exceptional physical specimens were starting to look a little...not so exceptional. I reassessed my vintage polyester shirts that were maybe a size too large and thought, "You know, I could probably do better."

I am inherently lazy when it comes to clothes. I don't want to work at it. Yet, it also helps I'd gained some weight in the last 10 years. Not like Oprah kind of weight. Just that kind of healthy, getting older kind of weight. So instead of looking like I have had mono for two years, I look like I actually eat food.

These days, I am in the midst of developing muscles in my shoulders and arms as a byproduct of trapeze work. The noticeable result is that things just fit differently. I am still skinny-ish, mind you. But I'm also not 11, socially awkward, and worried I'm gonna get my ass kicked on a daily basis. Imagine.

So, suddenly there I am one night, staring at a closet full of clothes from five, even 10, years ago, and wondering who bought them. Do I need that XL t-shirt? Why do I have a dress shirt in the wrong size? Why did I buy those Levi's that make my thighs swim in denim? What is with these giant sweaters?

When I wear a pair of pants that fit correctly, people now notice. They ask me where I bought them. No one points a finger and says, "God, you're SO skinny" before hissing at me a la "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." And then I realize, "Ah, yes. I don't hate my body anymore." How nice to learn that before it begins to fall apart.

Last week, I dreamed I set fire to a giant pile of my clothing. Which, for the record, I would never do. I'd obviously give it all to a thrift store...and let some 20-year-old skinny gay boy buy all the pieces. But now what? Expend hours upon hours of hunting for that non-stained, fitted shirt at a vintage shop? Go to Target and buy all the large boys' clothing that fits me perfectly? Resort to wearing high-water pants because the waist size is perfect? Resolve to only wear one pair of pants and a nice t-shirt for the rest of my life? Bribe Ryan to re-sew all of my clothes so they actually fit me? Maybe I can run for vice president and get personal shoppers? It seems arduous, no matter what.

I told Ryan last week I needed him to come stand in my closet with me and look at my clothes. I imagine a "work scene"--again, like in an '80s teen flick--in which I try on every article and he frowns, smiles, or claps with an affirmed "That looks good!" The man knows his clothes, after all. Or maybe I'll invite a whole bunch of people over for the baggy runway show, in which I model everything that no longer fits...physically or psychologically. Call it shallow catharsis if you like. I need to go choose the right song for the scene.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Self-Discography #6: "Heaven or Las Vegas" by Cocteau Twins

The problem was that, as a teenager, I believed I was devoid of emotion. In my journals from the last couple of years of high school, I would wonder what was wrong with me, why I couldn't open up; why I could not express myself authentically; why I couldn't let rip an ear-splitting scream of frustration.

What people saw without my realizing it was my face contorting into various expressions, and they heard my words conveying with an amazing clarity exactly what I thought and felt. And yet...I still believed there had to be a better way. Leave it to a perfectionist to try and figure out a more "efficient" way of expressing what he feels.

Which is why I could have cared less when I first heard the Cocteau Twins. It sounded so mushy...spangly...muted...airy...twee. The vocals trilled all over the place and the guitars seemed as if they were all mashed together with no room to make out the chords properly. It was just one more thing the goth kids were playing so they could sway and quasi-dance to it and then talk about how alternative they were, so far outside the mainstream.

Besides, I was already leaning more folk at this point--my ears seemingly wanting the more literal heartbreak conveyed by Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman. I didn't have the patience to navigate through this aural Jell-O.

One night, however, as I sat huddled in my basement, again trying to articulate with ballpoint pen why it was I felt so inarticulate, Dave Kendall was on MTV's "120 Minutes" blathering on and on in his annoying way about the Cocteau Twins, and just as I was about to turn it off, the soaring intro of "Iceblink Luck" ushered in this wave of musical warmth. I was (and remain) a sucker for a slightly left-of-center pop song,
and this was simply one of the most beautiful--the guitars crisp, the bass perfectly nimble, anchoring it all for Elizabeth Fraser's no longer pixie-ish voice. It swooped low and settled in a beautiful mid-range.

To the goth devotees of the Twins, I would later learn, this song was betrayal. To me, it was like receiving the most beautiful invitation to a party. I put down my pen and closed the journal. I had almost no idea what she was saying. The only words that came through? "...that will burn this whole madhouse down."


I was sitting on the hood of my stepfather's truck in western Nebraska. The air was thick with heat and humidity, but a gusty, westerly wind was kicking up as a phalanx of thunderstorms marched down off the slopes of the Rockies, advancing across the rolling prairie.

I'd been driving for two days already, leaving Portland on a broiling August afternoon to head toward Vermont, where I would attend a college I'd never seen. I was driving the 3,000 miles alone. My mother was panicked; my stepfather, predictably, said little. He just looked at my mother and stated, "He'll be fine."

I'd desperately wanted to leave Portland. I wanted to leave two years of confusion, frustration, and exhaustion that mixed my coming-out, trying to finish school, and deal with my family. Even over the summer--when I thought I'd left most of this behind--I'd been obsessed with a boy who worked at a cafe near the movie theater where I worked. And in predictable Portland gay boy fashion, he'd expressed interest, played hard to get, apologized, and then did it all over again. I'd tormented myself enough in my journal, word after word running in circles that annoyed even me, detailing, outlining, explaining every little aspect of it all. You know, in case I wasn't actually expressing myself clearly.

And when I'd finally hit the interstate, I realized those words were gone. I rolled down the truck windows into 100 degree heat and let "Heaven or Las Vegas" play as loudly as I could. There were words here, but they weren't really words that conveyed accusations or questions; they were not hard facts. They were emotions, suggestions, hints at a new feeling that could replace the spirals of letters that had seemingly gotten me nowhere over the last four years. From the all-enveloping warmth of "Cherry-Coloured Funk"--which I insisted on listening to as the sun set behind me--to the mournful "Road, River, and Rail," I found myself coming back to the cassette every other hour. And when, at night, I tried to write about all that I was seeing from the driver's seat, the words seemed to shrink in number, their meaning becoming slight.

By the time I made it to western Nebraska two days later and saw, for the first time, the desolate beauty of a sea of tall grasses spreading across the visible landscape, my shoulders had begun to drop from my ears. I felt happily empty, in fact. I had no tears of self-pity. I had no words of recrimination. I had no words at all.

I'd pulled over, taking an obviously little-used exit off the interstate and followed the state highway south for a ways before pulling over on the side of the road.

Leaving the stereo on, I'd walked down the highway shoulder, Elizabeth Fraser's voice mixing with the rising wind. Off in the distance, tendrils of rain reached the ground. Lightning flickered in the dark anvil-shaped cloud. I came back to the truck and leaned back against the windshield, my leg splayed down the hood. I strained to hear any words in the music of the album's last and most musically obtuse song, "Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires," which began with distorted guitar in the background of a baroque piano line and erupted into a regal shower of non-words that seemed to express that everything was, as my stepfather would say, fine.

To my surprise, a cloud had grown out of the bottom of the thunderstorm out there on the prairie. A thin tornado. I wondered if I should leave, but it seemed far enough away. The sound of the wind in the grass seemed to carry away the last strains of the song coming from the stereo behind me. For the first time in what felt like years, I was--happily, contentedly--alone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Something I Wrote...In Print...Kinda

I don't do a ton of freelance writing anymore, which is a shame, since I like to write. I just don't usually enjoy the "freelance" part. But I do like the folks at Out magazine and their online incarnation, Popnography. And they graciously let me review the awesome Jennifer O'Connor's latest CD, "Here With Me." Short and sweet. Kind of like the album. Yay!

Check it out here.

More soon, including tales of the Hoosier State, Rum Runners bar, Fort Wayne, Bloomington, and an especially entertaining trip to the Chocolate Moose.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Accidental Aerialist (aka My Trapeze Photos)

I started taking trapeze classes nearly three months ago, on the suggestion of my friend Rick Andreoli, who has become a dedicated aerialist and who had done a story in a local magazine on Cirque School L.A., which was started by Aloysia Gavre, a former aerialist with Cirque du Soleil.

I figured it might be fun, given my youth spent doing gymnastics and some time in dance classes in college. But I was, frankly, not prepared to become quasi-addicted to it. Make no mistake, this is a workout (Aloysia is also a Pilates instructor), and as I've learned more about flexibility, poise, strength, and aerial choreography, I find myself simply wanting to know more.

Most people I know are not surprised I like to hang upside-down from a bar, but I don't think many know yet what it all looks like. Hence, Rick so nicely loaned his camera to a fellow classmate with the following results:

First off, we do not only learn tricks on trapeze. There's also "the tissue"/"the fabric"--a mass of red silk that'll burn you big time if you slide down it the wrong way. I'd never been able to climb anything, so this a learning curve for me:

First up, learning how to do a knee climb:

So, um, yeah... grabbing the fabric and pulling your legs up to straddle it as you flip into a pike position

Then hooking a leg onto the tissue to "lock" you into place.

The idea is that this leg locks you there so you can drop the other and then reach up to gain a hold on the next part of the tissue, drop your legs, and swing into another straddle and knee lock:

Easier said than done. I nearly fell off at one point:

But let's not linger over that. Let's talk about learning how to flip to standing and back to sitting on the trapeze. I only have pics from the low trapeze since Rick was in front of me in rotation, so he was climbing whenever I was on the high trapeze. No matter, you get the idea:

Start sitting:

Pull yourself up and over backward in a straight-leg pike (it's all about the abs, my friends):

Find the trapeze with your toes (hopefully the bar is not swinging too much) and then slowly stand up straight after:

Once standing, then you get to lean forward, straight-armed and (ideally) slowly re-pike, turning forward, and ending up sitting on the bar again:

Of course, this being all about pushing yourself, I was told to try doing walkovers forward and backward instead of piking, which makes for prettier pictures, I think, but it's much harder:

There will be more to come in the next few months, trust me. Once I learn how to connect a Mermaid to a Gazelle to a Gazelle Angel to an Arabesque, Chelsea, Iron Cross, and Russian Roll (not in that order), me and my newly acquired Capezio leggings will, along with others, be doing an exhibition here in L.A. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008


THAT was Sarah Palin's so-called "speech of lifetime"? A divisive, snotty, whiny diatribe that did nothing but set the stage to resurrect the '90s "culture war" moniker?

What a load of crap. So apparently we come right back to where we started--with people who conflate church and state and just want a president who will do their bidding on social issues they've never even bothered to think about beyond what they've been told by others. God forbid we think about this country's stand in the world and how the hell we are going to deal with it. No, by all means, let's fixate instead on a woman who apparently can gut a fish while giving birth.

I do love that gender is being taken off the table a bit here, and that Palin just gets to be an asshole because she's an asshole (and an asshole who apparently never took that whole Republican Party "Teach Abstinence" campaign to heart, but that's OK because her family has enough money to deal with the situation, as well as enough money to deal with the medical demands that come with having a child with a disability, unlike, say, millions of others).

The Republican Party's standing on social issues has never been more self-serving, full of double standards, and appalling. Palin was chosen precisely because she could "legitimize" these views. If you can put a pretty woman--who clearly dreams, still, of being on "Designing Women"--on a national stage and have her yell "YAY, GOD!" and "BOO, ABORTION!" then you motivate a group that did not want to vote for McCain previously. Pretty simple/standard PR and Marketing 101. Plus, when women tell other women what to do with their bodies, everyone gets confused and thus we distract from horrifying scenarios, such as Palin holding diplomatic talks with any leaders from the Middle East.

I just woke up with a sour taste in my throat. And I am angry. I am sick of both parties at this point, but the Republicans are simply repugnant. No vision. Nothing but continued hate and fear mongering and telling people of this country how they should live their lives to be considered "good." (I have yet for anyone to explain to me, too, how Republicans who are "fiscal conservatives" are actually helping the country as a whole in the long term.) It's patronizing, dumbed-down smoke and mirrors tactics that ultimately only divide the country into Us and Them. Only now it's coming from an old man whose ego has outstripped his common sense and a VP candidate who's essentially "Mean Mommy." If this is how we're supposed to "make history" (i.e., by not electing Obama) then I guess too many people in this country are simply OK with identifying with their captors.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Self-Discography #5: "Blackout" by Scorpions

In the neighborhood of Northeast Portland where I grew up, there were, by our schools' standards at least, two kinds of kids. Looking back on it, I now realize it never really was about the fact that we were evenly split between black and white. Instead, it was just pronounced that these two groups were the Rockers and the Rappers.

It was the early '80s in a working-class neighborhood of a small city that had little to offer the world beyond its proximity to the Columbia River and huge swaths of virgin timber. This paucity of options seemed to bleed into several aspects of our day-to-day lives as a result. Fathers in our neighborhood worked on trains, drove trucks, were day laboring carpenters and carpet cleaners. Mothers were mostly homemakers. The few that did work toiled at administrative jobs.

And although I knew that I didn't (and really couldn't) fit the mold of either a Rocker or a Rapper--least of all because I was a gymnast breakdancer--I also knew the value of hanging out and listening to what everyone else in my immediate neighborhood did...which meant heavy metal that ran the gamut from poppy (Motley Crue) to bombastically baroque (Iron Maiden).

For the kids on our block--spread between the ages of of about 9-19 across five or six different families--this music was omnipresent. The older boys might disagree, stoned in a neighbor's basement, about the value of a Dio song versus Saxon, but for most of the rest of us, popularity was determined partially by radio play, but reinforced by our neighbors and peers.

The youngest of all of us, Amy, Leslie, and I would begin to dip our toes into the emerging rap of the era--from Slick Rick and The Sugarhill Gang to, later, Whodini, Salt N Pepa, and Eric B & Rakim--but for what seems to be a few years suspended in time, this metal and pop-metal was the main course on the menu.

The band that most successfully bridged the gap between the sometimes alienating heavy metal coming from England, and the more pop-oriented American descendants, Scorpions were hitting big in the summer of 1982. I was only 9 at the time, but I knew the words to "No One Like You" and could revel in the complex guitar solo that segued back into a killer riff, overlaid with Klaus Meine's impassioned love-song vocals. It was a classic pop song plea dressed up in shiny, sharp edges. I knew a hit when I heard it.

And I wasn't alone. "Blackout" simply was; it was my first taste of the "soundtrack to summer." The very tone of the 10 songs to this day conjures crystalline memories of riding in cars to go to the river with kids from the neighborhood on a blazing hot day. Of watching my sister and her friends smoke cigarettes they bought at a local gas station. Of suspiciously eyeing the skinny white guys with long hair and wannabe muscle cars who were, or wanted to be, boyfriends of the girls in the neighborhood. Of clandestine gathering of the older teenagers in bedrooms and basements where they would gossip, smoke pot, or just lie around complaining about their parents.

I wasn't yet privy to the full-blown adolescent fever that seemed to make the band and their albums even more relevant. I couldn't go to the Scorpions concert that my sister and her friends so excitedly road tripped to. And even though Top 40 radio began to beckon to me, I found nothing short of comfort in the Scorpions, equating the band with a time period, only a few years away, when I would be going to high school, smoking my first cigarette, staying at past curfew--each gesture done with no regret and with a sense of freedom.

Listening now, I am surprised to feel, instantly, that same yearning and optimism in an album that is, in many ways, such a product of its time. The title track, "No One Like You," and "Can't Live Without You" are all anthemic, quasi-headbangers about loving girls and the music's fans. And "Arizona," long my favorite song, is really nothing more than a cheesy song about easy lays that could now be played during Spring Break at Lake Havasu.

But then there's "China White," a blatant plea about how the world seems to be dominated by evil in the form of drugs and that we need to change that by looking inside ourselves. If you didn't listen closely to the lyrics--as we really didn't, let's be honest--you wouldn't even hear Klaus flat-out sing "We need to fill our hearts with love." You'd only enjoy the smothering guitar work of Rudolf Schenker, Michael Schenker, and Matthias Jabs.

2008 and 1982 mingle in my ears at this very moment, headphones on late at night, listening to "Blackout" on repeat. In the process of trying to capture the emotions and events of the time when this album gained its importance to me, I have only come to realize that the pure enjoyment of it--as cheesy as it sounds at points 26 years on--is its offering. I still feel, with these sounds in my head, that I could step out my front door and go over to Leslie's house to watch TV until 5 am. I could ride my bike all day, not coming home until dark. I could follow my sister and her friends around as they try to ditch me at the college across the street. I could even lie on the front lawn, fervently daydreaming about all the stuff I am going to do when I am old enough. And summer is over.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Skype This!

Shouldn't my 100th post be something more ... meaty?

Maybe. It's not like that many people are going to be offended by the lack of celebration I am exhibiting by typing about a computer program. In fact, those who know me well enough know that this makes perfect sense. After all, few things in this world bring me more happiness than hearing a computer/robot voice, whether in "The Simpsons" or a bad '80s movie.

For a long time, I'd resisted Skype. I had a few friends in the past who really liked it and extolled its virtues, but I responded with a simple "Meh." It was nothing personal. It's just my inability to really understand technological advances, even though, once I do figure out the rudimentary way of using a device or program, I am SO into it.

So, a few months back when Lesley told me Chrissy--the ever-elusive Chrissy--was on Skype, I said, "Oh!" and then said, "Meh." Following week:

Lesley: I am telling you, if you want to talk to Chrissy, Skype her.

Me: Oh, so it's a verb now?

Still, I resisted, despite the fact that I missed Chrissy and did want to talk with her. Or "talk" with her.

When I finally was supposed to be working one day and decided I'd see what the hullabaloo was about, I saw this on the Web site:

This can't be good, I thought.

But boredom and work avoidance have funny ways of making you do things, so I downloaded it and I didn't even have to do anything. It was like a magical elf came and cleaned house and then left ME money. It opened up and immediately, there I was. And there Lesley was. And there Chrissy was. And the three of us online at the same time is something akin to hysterical chaos. Really, I fear for anyone who might try and read a transcript of the conversations.

It wasn't even that chatting online was novel, or that I was reveling in suddenly communicating with Chrissy again. It was the simple rhythm of the text/speech between the three of us. Given that we are separated by many miles at the moment, Lesley is dealing with stressful family things, Chrissy is figuring out how to make designs for clients that don't make her want to throw herself out a window, and I'm generally trying to figure out what my own job even is, these short frantic text balloon bursts online are suddenly an anchor. Granted, it feels like a linguistic Slip 'N' Slide, but I have never laughed so much at my stoic computer screen.

I try to keep it to a dull roar and not overdo it. Chrissy is good at simply saying "OK, gotta go, bye," and then disappearing, while Lesley and I send bizarre emoticons back and forth to communicate the easy stuff while avoiding some of the really hard stuff for a little bit longer. Then I disappear, we all go quiet, and two hours later someone yells on-screen "IS ANYONE THERE!?" I stare at it, wondering if I should be philosophical, but instead chat while on the phone with someone telling me why "cream" and "tan" are not the same thing.

Me (on phone): Yes, I understand...

Chrissy on computer screen: Did you hear about the Canadian beheading?

Me (still on phone, coughing): Oh, sorry, excuse me...


Chrissy: I love that they are doing psych tests on the guy who did it. You know, to see if he's crazy.

Me: (guffawing)

Client: Are you OK?

Me: Yeah, oh, yeah. Sorry, just water down the wrong pipe.

After a particularly dizzying exchange of words today, I realized Chrissy needed some time to get where she is. Lesley will be gone for a while and need to come back to some peace and quiet. And I'll still be wondering what the hell I'm doing. But it's indeed great comfort when I can spend two minutes disparaging Mel Gibson, Peter Gabriel, and Canadian psychologists, all in one fell swoop. Where's my copy of "That's What Friends Are For?" anyway?

Ah, yes:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Self-Discography #4: Music to Die By

"True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper (1986)

Even at the age of 13, I was aware that hearing this song, at this moment, was almost absurd--nearly funny. Except for the fact that the sounds emanating from the radio in my room on this warm September afternoon had tears streaming down my face.

I was standing in my bedroom, aching to throw something through the window. My mother was in a car, devastated, driving away with a neighbor who lived across the street. She'd earlier answered a phone call and then slid past me and my friend Amy--who was watching me try to figure out my first algebra homework assignment on the living room floor--and left the house. Amy had excused herself immediately after, more aware than I that whatever that call was it could not be good.

It was only when my mother reappeared with the neighbor and I saw the dismal look on her face that I knew that the hospital had called. My father, who only weeks ago had come home for a couple of weeks, was now miles away literally and figuratively. I don't recall exactly how my mother told me he was dead. I only remember the crush of her weight on me, copious hot tears coming from both of us and then the worst moment: when the news has been delivered and you pull away from each other and it feels like everything in the room--indeed, the entire world--is leaning in on you, pressing against your chest. You go into practical mode: "Now I must do this, and this, and then this." There is no "after." There is only now.

My mother needed to go with the neighbor to the hospital. I was told to go across the street and stay with other neighbors. But I said I'd go to Amy's. It was all mechanical because none of it was real yet. It was simply something told to us that sounded so horrible and yet had not been proven.

And as my mother left, I wandered upstairs, not even sure why I had. And there in my bedroom I stood, bathed in afternoon sunlight, with the radio introducing "True Colors"and the gentle lead-in to the first lyrics: "You with the sad heart..." I stood there, unable to process that this was simply a single released by a record company that paid to have it on the radio. And the voice continued to sing, as if it was a promise: "If this world makes you crazy and you've taken all you can, then you call me up because you know I'll be there."

And in that moment, it was just for me. Before I had to walk up the street and watch Amy come out of her house to hug me--the first time in our young lives we'd ever done this. Before I had to go to school and watch as everyone took a step or two backward, awkwardly unsure of what to say to me, if they managed to say anything. Before I had to endure a memorial service that made me so angry because it did not represent my father as I'd known him. In those three minutes, before any motion had begun, I simply stood. And listened.

"Gazebo Tree" by Kristin Hersh (1998)

I'd grown to hate the phone because it only seemed like bad news came from the receiver. No one ever called me to tell me all the great things happening in the world. They called to tell me that someone's sick; someone's broken. Or, as I'd been dreading the last few weeks, that someone was dead.

My stepsister and I were not close. We were never confidants, and, when we did live in the same house, conversation was at a minimum. She'd gotten pregnant as a teenager and had a son while I finished college and moved to New York.

But New York had slowly been unraveling around me. I was in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend and deciding whether I would leave the city. I was nearly 100 percent self-absorbed, so inwardly focused that when my mother had finally called to tell me that my stepsister was gravely ill, I didn't, at first, have a reaction. And almost immediately I was intensely angry at myself for it--a real emotion at last.

But I also wasn't really kept in the loop. My mother and stepfather were not only enveloped by her being so sick, they had no ability to communicate what it felt like. So when the phone rang and the news that she had passed actually hit my ears, my reaction was not to move. I couldn't afford to fly home. My mother even told me not to, saying I should pay my respects when it wasn't so awful and forced, remembering my dad's memorial service.

For two weeks, as the dismal late winter refused to abate, I sat on the floor in my tiny bedroom in the Brooklyn apartment I shared with three other people and sequestered myself in writing a letter to my mom and stepdad, trying to express some bit of comfort for them. I didn't sleep in-between trying to find the right way to say everything about my stepsister I'd never voiced--in fact, never considered. And my only companions were my cigarettes and this song--a mournful organ line running behind what sounds like an acoustic campfire song sung on a cold clear night in the high desert. "Bless my baby eyes/Don't you know Jesus died/Spare me your moon shining/In my rainy gazebo tree." It seemed like a prayer. Late at night, with my headphones on, staring at 7th Avenue and the garbage trucks, hoping that there was some solace in what I wanted to send home. I imagined a woman alone in a tree gazing up at the night sky, feeling utterly at peace, with no need for human companionship. I couldn't write it down, as it wouldn't make any sense, but it still hangs in front of my eyes every time I hear it.

"We Float" by PJ Harvey (2000)

This should be an elegy, I thought. But would Owen have liked it?

He'd only been dead a few months and I was still wanting his opinion on the music that had just been released. He might think this is too maudlin, I thought, and then ruefully laughed to myself, feeling even sadder in the windy heat of the Los Angeles fall.

Owen had housed me and my things on and off for months when I first moved here. He'd artfully arranged boxes of books in his living room to make them part of his furniture. He'd eagerly agreed to let me have my mail sent to his stifling Studio City apartment, and, when I did stay with him, he'd talk to me incessantly about music. Damn Geminis, I thought. So chatty. But even for keeping me up until the late night jabbering about 4AD releases, why Frazier Chorus was so underrated, and whether that new Massive Attack CD was really that good, there was pleasure to be found in the stream of words that seemed to never slow down.

His sudden death wasn't from illness like so many of the others I had known. No, instead, it was wrong place, wrong time in Los Angeles. Botched robbery of an armored vehicle. Gunfire. And finding out that someone you knew had simply been making a run to the store while he did his laundry was suddenly, irrevocably gone.

And past the horribly hot memorial service and its cast of characters--some treasured, some totally random--we were simply left to wonder, "What now?"

And the music started coming.

CD release dates. I had no one to call up and say, in earnestness, "Oh my god, _____ is coming out in two weeks. I'm so excited." And as the summer turned, oh so imperceptibly, into fall, I found this one of the hardest things to bear, as ridiculous as it seemed.

It wasn't even that Owen was a huge PJ Harvey fan. And when her latest album was released two months after he had died I had no epiphanies about what he would have thought. But then there sat the six-minute album closer between me and forgetting. It was unexpectedly affecting, underscored by something dark, buoyed by something tender: "So will we die of shock?/Die without a trial?/Die on Good Friday/While holding each other tight?/This is kind of about you/This is kind of about me/We just kind of lost our way/We were looking to be free/But one day, we float/Take life as it comes."

Maybe it is maudlin, I debated. I even imagined Owen's fingers tapping out the drum beat while still screwing his face up at the lyrics. I would have had to look at him and say, "Just listen." Only now it was up to me.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Self-Discography #3: "Loveless" by My Bloody Valentine

What the hell is that?

I am in The Record Exchange in Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1991, and the squall of an electric guitar has hit me in the head. It sounds like someone has taken a power drill to the guitar strings and begun literally beating the instrument to death. And yet the squall is beautiful. I see the image of of something bright explode in my head and I feel like I am sinking into molasses. It is instantaneous transport to somewhere else.

It only lasts for five seconds before I realize I am surrounded by other shoppers dressed warmly in wool coats and scarves on this dreary, late fall day. We are crammed into a tiny space that is the only retail establishment in this Recession-slammed town that reminds you there are actually two colleges here. It's also the only connection I have at the moment to the music I used to find so easily back home.

I have moved here sight unseen. I only knew three things before I left Portland:

1. Vermont is bucolic.
2. Bennington College has given me a lot of financial aid.
3. I would be far, far away from Oregon.

That meant there were oh so many things I did not know, such as who the hell this band is I am hearing right now.

I amble up to the front counter and ask the guy behind the counter, "What is this?" He gives me a slight nod and hands me a jewel case with a shimmering image of a guitar bathed in what looks like a mixture of blood and strawberry Jell-O.

There is no break between power-drill-on-guitar and the subsequent muted jam of fuzziness mixed intricately with female vocals that seem unable to enunciate consonants. It is, I imagine, what it would be like if I had developed some rare disease in which musical ability combines with a slow deterioration of motor skills.

In other words, it is not Bennington, Vermont.


It isn't that I mind this place so much. In fact, I feel like I am back in Oregon--only now I am surrounded by people who are much more knowledgeable about obscure, literate, and artistic tangents than I thought was possible. I feel a bit like an idiot.

"Yeah, My Bloody Valentine. They're OK. I don't really care for a lot of the album," says Owen dismissively. He owns all the CDs I want. He's much more opinionated about music than I am. I only know what moves me. I feel it in my gut. I don't really care to know more. He can dissect the subtlest chord change and then look at you like you, too, should be able to hear it clearly.

I don't, most of the time.

Sometimes I try to argue with him, but it's like yelling at the wind. Mostly I try to change the subject. Stupidly, this time, I say, "I've never heard anything else like it."

He flashes a smile, but it's not an indulgent one. "Yeah, you seem like you'd like all that shoegazer stuff."


I try to choreograph a dance to "To Here Knows When." Alone in a dance studio at midnight with a borrowed CD player, I feel as disoriented as the song. This could work to my advantage, I think. Like every academic overachiever, I believe I can simply apply hard work to the task at hand and get the job done. But this is like getting hands on an eel. There's a shimmering rhythm here. It drones and undualtes, guitars washing over each other in a way that feels like the music is playing backwards. But it remains just out of my grasp.

About two hours in, I realize that my enthusiasm, the euphoria the music instills in me, even my gymnastics background--none of it can help me. I am floundering on the hard wood floors like a fish out of water, gasping, not a graceful conduit for the music. I don't fully understand the choreography I am trying to jot down on the notepad in the middle of this empty room. All I know is that it's the middle of the night, it's snowing outside, and in here I am getting nowhere.


The apotheosis of "Loveless" is its final song: "Soon." It gives me chills every time I hear it. Its misleading drum beat morphs it into a dance song that is broken every 30 seconds by a towering wave of noise: Guitars. Swooping, echoing voices that run in and out of one's ears. It is primal, celebratory, compulsive. I make my roommate crazy playing it. I make myself crazier by never being able to hear it loud enough.

There's a party tonight and I want the entire crowd to hear it. I want to see all of them dance, happy that it's near the end of the term. I want that revelatory catharsis that you can often only find when you're moving to the music.

It's long for a dance song, but the final 90 seconds of are a loop of drums and guitar riffs--the perfect ending for a drug- and alcohol-fueled evening. I've sheepishly made the mix tape, unsure if I will even be allowed to play it. But that's how it works. You make it, you bring it, maybe someone will be willing to put it on.

I've spent the entire Saturday perfecting the running order of songs so that it ends with "Soon." The rest of it is mostly shameless pop songs--nothing challenging, nothing that will alienate. In fact, it's probably the most upbeat thing I've ever created. And that night, after drinking more than I need to, I approach the guy with the tape, telling him, "Hey! If you can, would you play this?!" He looks at me like he'll consider it. To which I add, still yelling over the noise, "At least play the last song on Side B! It's about 7 minutes!"

I go back to the dance floor. There's the usual ("Sex Machine" by James Brown), the unexpected-even-to-me ("Join in the Chant" by Nitzer Ebb), the predictable but reliable (various Madonna), and then I hear the drum machine beginning of "Soon," squeaking out a surprised gasp to make my way back to the dance floor.

Forty-five seconds in, the beat is buried with the guitar lines and vocals and there's still a group of people on the floor bouncing, the wood springing under their feet.

And then the exodus starts.

Soon enough, only a handful of us remain. And despite the slight feeling of mortification, I am still swept up in the sound, sweaty, drink in hand in the air, spilling vodka on myself, cigarette in the other hand. I still have no idea what I'm doing here. But the bigger picture fades into five minutes of being blissed out. As I'll tell Owen later, this is hardly shoe gazing.

"Self-Discography" is a series of essays on seminal albums and songs re-reviewed, recalled, and reimagined via the lens of my memory. It is said that smell is the sense most closely linked with memory. For me, it is sound.