Monday, April 28, 2008

Self-Discography #2: "Pacer" by The Amps

November 1995

I began life in New York as a squatter of sorts.

Back in June, panicking right before college graduation, I had been trying to figure out where the hell I was going to live. I hadn't yet bought a plane ticket to go back to Portland. I didn't want to commit to that. I knew I could pack my suitcase and throw as much crap as possible into Barbie's car and hope I made it as far as Milwaukee. In fact, I considered moving there, too--anything to keep me from taking a step backward, metaphorical or not.

As if she'd heard my tossing and turning in the night, Aryn inadvertently saved me by asking me if I wanted to move to New York with her. Her stepmother was going to be in L.A. for six months, working on a movie. I could live with her in the apartment and figure out what to do next. The thought made me instantly tense. New York and I had tangled only a couple of times and it seemed so overwhelming and oppressive in the still-somewhat-abstract. But would moving back to what was left of "home" be better?

I remember little of how my stuff and I even made it to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Nor did I realize I'd be living in a pretty cool pre-War apartment that was, by New York standards, gigantic. Within two weeks, I was working at Starbucks. I had a "life" of some sort, headaches from the smog, bad skin from the smog, and I smoked more than I did back in Vermont.

The luster wore off quickly, with no air conditioning in June, July, and August. The panic came racing back in. I forced myself to make the effort and started working as an intern at Out Magazine, where I went on my 2 days a week I had off, schlepping down to SoHo to work in an office without windows and learn about publishing.

By November I was nearing the end of my grace period in Aryn's stepmom's apartment. I was making all of $7 an hour and couldn't begin to figure out what I was going to do with myself. Until I managed--by some absurd twist of fate--to land a job at St. Martin's Press as an editorial assistant.

To celebrate, I did what I always did when I had any leftover cash: I headed to the Village to buy music. There was a circuit of places between St. Marks and West 4th that I would haunt--snatching up whatever I could find that was tangentially related to what I loved. At that point, it was the girls with guitars on the 4AD label. Throwing Muses. Belly. The Breeders. The squall of an expertly played electric guitar that sounded like it might almost fall apart in the player's hands was the sound I craved. I felt like I was the personification of the concept--a tightly wound ball of twine that could unravel at any moment.

Flush with all of $30, I entered a store in the West Village, the last on my list. I scanned the bins for an old Breeders single and then looked up to see a handwritten note: "Kim Deal's (Breeders, Pixies) new band..." An orange cover with a plug on it. All it said on the front in simple, sans serif font: The Amps.

Yes, please.

December 1995

I have "Tipp City" stuck in my head. Kim Deal's on the stage in front of me and I've been drinking beer. I can't afford to buy new shoes, but I can afford to be at Irving Plaza with Megan, with whom I am now living in Park Slope.

It's an apartment we've found by waiting for the Village Voice to come out every week at Astor Place, dashing to nearby pay phones to call about whatever listing we can afford in a place where we may actually want to live. A 2-bedroom in Park Slope for $1,100 is about the best we can do, considering our lack of real incomes. I make $527 every two weeks at my "glamorous" publishing job, where I've already given up trying to dress up. Instead I show up in overalls, smoke with my boss in the office, and work too hard for too little money.

Megan indulges me when it comes The Amps. I get up. I put on The Amps. I come home. I put on The Amps. I get depressed about something. I play The Amps. I want the gentle wooziness of "Pacer," the barely controlled party rock of "Tipp City" and the utter punk insanity of "Empty Glasses" to mash up in my head. I want to feel like the stoner I am not.

It's partly, of course, because I am finally feeling halfway decent for the first time in six months and my emotions are running all over the place. I feel like I may have finally beaten New York into submission and this album follows me like the cold winds now whistling through all the buildings I navigate on my way to and from work.

On stage at Irving Plaza, Kim Deal is plump, shiny, and bad-ass, a rocker chick who drinks and talks like a guy who claims he likes to go hunting. She plays some Breeders stuff, but most of the people there seem confused by the Amps songs. But not me. I'm the dork singing along, bouncing up and down, screaming "woo!" when "Tipp City" is finally played and I can feel myself let go, just for a couple of minutes. It's a cathartic exercise. I sweat. I jump around and almost dance. When they get to the line "Peacock, caught looking in the mirror..." Megan and I scream the rejoinder: "STOP DRINKING MY BEER!" (I am so good at being a completist that Megan can even sing along with me to "Just Like a Briar," a b-side on the "Tipp City" single--UK-only, natch.)

It doesn't matter that I work in a job that barely pays more than Starbucks (where I still work weekends). It doesn't matter that I haven't had sex in months. It doesn't even matter that I have a hacking cough from smoking too much. Instead of feeling beaten down, I actually don't want the party to end.

January 1996

The bone-cold has come. So has the "storm of the century." It's a blizzard of two feet of snow. Nothing is moving in the city except the subways. So Megan goes to the gym. She knows she can make it to the train and get to Manhattan easily enough. Though I secretly wish she'd stay so we can go play in Prospect Park, I stop at telling her she's crazy only a few times and stay home to drink coffee and stare out the tiny back windows at the gray and white cityscape.

"Bragging Party" is on the CD player. It's got a strong drumbeat, insistent and forceful, but the guitars fuzz out around it and the few lyrics float across the sound: "You are all that I need to hear, so fill the air with memorized breaths." It's wistful, happy, dreamy, the total antithesis of what's happening outside as the snow tries to smother millions of us in one fell swoop.

The apartment has almost nothing in it. The ancient, gigantic TV sits on a milk crate. I have an armchair from the Salvation Army. I sleep on the futon I somehow acquired at Bennington. Megan has a table that doubles as a place to eat and have dinner. We barely have chairs to sit on. Thank god she has a French press and a kettle or we'd just walk in circles in the living room bumping into the empty cardboard boxes that double as furniture.

I sing along with Kim, not even sure of most of the words to the song as they blend into the fuzz. Later, I will call my friends on the West Coast and brag a little about the snowstorm. I will make myself sound a tad more superior, wanting them to kind of, sort of see me as a tough, if converted, New Yorker. And for a little while, cocooned here, that's exactly how I feel. The snow continues to fall. I sip deeply of the thick, sweet coffee and wonder at the last couple of months. I've made it this far, haven't I? I am here. In New York. Living. It's more than I thought was possible six years prior. And I don't want to be anywhere else--shitty Brooklyn apartment and all.

"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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What, Me Sleep?

Was it the crazy heatwave over the weekend that did it? I fear it melted my brain--especially the parts that help me concentrate, keep me from telling people what I think when it's inappropriate, and also those that control the ability to sleep.

I go through periodic bouts of insomnia. Usually, it's obvious stress causing it; sometimes it's a complete mystery. I'm not sure what, exactly, that stress is right now, aside from some work stuff. But it's nothing major. So why do I feel like my brain's been replaced by some kind of motor and my eyes are stuck open?

When I was a kid and couldn't sleep, I would go downstairs, where, inevitably, my mother had fallen asleep on the couch--a book propped up on her chest. I'd watch her sleep. Sometimes the TV was still on. It looked so much like a photographic still life, slightly dim, slightly out of focus due to the fact that I was tired but couldn't be made to sleep.

Sometimes it lasted weeks. Other times it was only one night. I wonder now, sitting in the spare bedroom at midnight, if insomnia is genetic. I never thought it weird that my mother would constantly sleep on the couch while my dad fell into a deep, rumbling slumber in their bedroom only 15 feet away. They never commented on it. In fact, sometimes it was my dad on the couch, coming home at 4 am after work.

Maybe we were a family of insomniacs: my sister feverishly worked until late in the night many days, my brother was often out carousing, not wanting to be home. In the summer, especially, I'd stay up until 4 or 5 a.m. on a regular basis with my friends Amy and Leslie, who lived in the neighborhood. We loved to see the strata of color in the sky in the east, even though we hated it when the birds started to chirp. They were so loud we would then never fall asleep until the sun was already up.

I am always keenly aware on these nights, though, how much my brain seems to suffer the consequences of what it seemingly does on its own. By tomorrow, if I haven't had a full night's sleep, I'll be a babbling idiot. And yet, perhaps also more entertaining than I've been lately.

Ryan seems a bit mystified by all of this. He can fall asleep anywhere. He can fall asleep while in the middle of a sentence. I've watched it happen. I always sigh wistfully when he falls asleep so easily. He has that magical "On/Off" switch I wish someone could implant in me. He used to always ask what he could do to help me sleep. To which I quipped, "Don't ask me about it. That will help."

I probably just sabotaged myself by talking about it here, didn't I? Time to grab a book and head to the couch. Why not start the family legacy now?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

So, we all had bad hair here near Lancaster, CA, on Sunday. The wind was fierce, but the poppies were in full bloom and it was a gorgeous day. Glad Ryan, Tim, and Justin were brave enough to drive the 75 miles to the middle of nowhere to see it all with me. (Thanks to Ryan for the extra pics, too.)