it is only after waiting for five hours for the next train and realizing it is going to leave at least two hours late that I start really, really missing “proper” headphones.


The week begins at four in the morning with the end of a visit home to see my wife. I am doing a language program (Zulu), and have to get back for classes in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. But the early hour is really because my wife is doing her surgery rotation in medical school, and is supposed to show up for work by four thirty in the morning because that’s just how surgeons roll. Luckily the local airport is not far, via a few implausibly residential streets (kids running across our path, recycling bins dutifully presented on the curb).

We don’t listen to any music in the car; it is too early, and also our last few minutes together for a few weeks. In fact, we’ve listened to hardly any music over the whole weekend, partly because we’ve been out a lot, but also because we want no other presence besides the two of us. We made a brief exception for Suzanne Vega while we put up pictures on the walls of our new apartment. Suzanne is an old friend—I play a few of her songs on guitar for my own benefit. I realize now, later, that selling her on the album, convincing her to play it in the apartment, was a way of sneaking into her life despite the absence.

At the airport, I check in and retreat to a darkened corner, over near the mop bucket, with book and iPod in hand: Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Hugh Masekela’s Live At The Market Theatre. The two-gate airport is quiet, so I don’t even notice the tinny white headphones, which are all that remain since my homeward voyage of Friday the 13th. But when we board the propeller plane, I am seated in a window seat that looks out over the wing, sitting on the axle of the buzz and roar that permeates the cabin. Pointless to even try music. Maybe I’ll sleep.

Nine o’clock: sitting in a coffee shop still listening to Hugh—it is a long album, exhausting in spots. The buzz of conversation rises through the morning rush hour, and I can’t decide whether to boost the volume shrilly loud and risk missing phone calls and boarding calls. The ongoing flights are overbooked, and by the time I get to Chicago’s Union Station I have missed all but the last train, which will eventually only leave over three hours late. I tell myself I don’t mind—I have music and a book, I’m a seasoned traveler, nothing can disturb my transit Zen. I cue up Chris Whitley’s Living With the Law, one of my all-time favorite albums. Far too many musicians get called “mercurial,” typically as an excuse for gross inconsistency, but I’ve yet to come up with a better adjective for Whitley. His singing and guitar lines are as slippery as greased pigs. His slide guitar is always on the way somewhere else, one foot out the door, and his singing has the body of a snake: smooth, thin, and muscular.

But the album doesn’t take. In the defeated waiting room clamor I can’t concentrate, can’t make out the phrasing and the inflection of Whitley’s voice in the small rattle of my earphones. There is a baby crying across the room, and every fifteen minutes the PA clamors for passengers to keep their eyes open for suspicious luggage and behavior. It works—I have already been told off by one passenger for keeping an eye on the bags of an old man with a tubercular cough while he made a bathroom stop. I give up on music and switch to watching movies on my laptop—it seems to require less of my fading energies. I get in at two in the morning central time, 23 hours after I got up. Nothing but rants in the journal.


Tuesday

Journal: Halfway through this morning’s session it hailed—marbles bouncing off the tar paper roof outside like popcorn, ricocheting off the window…

In the lunch break between classes, I come back to my apartment to sort through the minor detritus of a weekend’s absence: e-mail, laundry, washing up, suspicious remnants in the fridge. And mail, post, the one without a prefix or a bitrate. After many years of listening almost exclusively to music ripped to a hard drive, I am in the thrall of CDs again, aided by the fidelity of the AWOL headphones.

My listening options leave lots to be desired, even at home. I am living at one remove from out of a bag here in Illinois, but even at home I don’t have anything resembling a proper speaker setup. I am a student, with the finances to prove it; and anyway, if I had a meaningful system, I’d never get to turn it up—we live in a building of stacked apartments, in which I regularly mistake our neighbor’s phone for our own. A good set of headphones is the best compromise, and I am without.

The new (to me) discs stacked on my desk are from the CD trading network I’ve used for a few months. In my nascent, part-time audiophilia (I loathe the term, it sounds like a lesser criminal psychosis), I pay lip service to the fidelity of CDs, but really I’m in it for the process: handwriting addresses, the voyeuristic trespassing into someone else’s life and tastes—what does Chuck in Virginia want with the Golem record? They’ve since done away with the spaces on the envelope for writing comments, but I used to fill them in religiously. I loved the one-sidedness and absence of consequences—like a conversation with God. For a while I tried to come up with pithy, provocational musings: “When was the last time you saw someone else’s handwriting?” was one.

Over the weekend, I have received two Hugh Masekela discs and Fugazi’s Repeater + 3, which I throw on while I wade through dull emails, willingly distracted by trying to figure out what replacement headphones to buy. I listen to laptop speakers because it leaves me free to fold laundry while the unadorned vehemence of “Turnover” struggles with the white noise of the air conditioning unit. This is my first listen to the band. I am surprised by how much I like the first few songs—particularly the title track—yet the music is exactly what I expected. A parenthesis: Several years ago, I was part of a research project in Rwanda, led by a young professor who was German, earnest, and intense to a fault. We lived at close quarters for six weeks, hemmed in by language, race, and an authoritarian society. Fugazi was the only music I remember him talking about, which makes perfect sense now, listening to their articulate Germanic rejectionism. I wonder about emailing him to tell him, but have no idea what I’d write.


Wednesday

On Wednesday evening, I hang out with two Zulu-studying colleagues, both only recently returned from South Africa and thus musically jetlagged and pleased (I hope) to defer to my DJ’ing.

These are our acoustic choices:
-laptop speakers
-TV speakers
-A stereo speaker setup with only one functioning speaker.
Or headphones, I suppose, but we are hanging out together, and getting mutually excited about an album. We could try to fix the silent stereo speaker, but the setup looks delicate, and we are all here temporarily, housesitting. First, do no harm.

For reasons of portability and proximity, we opt for laptop speakers while I do some washing up and the others are on the porch, which is screened by white-painted slats, and looks out onto a graveled parking space and a sunken, rusting pickup beyond. I’m told this is classically Midwestern. Then we move into the living room to enjoy the single speaker. Tonight we are all falling, collectively and individually, in love with Wátina by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, an album I had never seen before it turned up unsolicited in the mail (by far the greatest perk of this job). The liner notes cast the album as a struggle against the erosion of Garifuna identity, but the music is worlds away, an archipelago’s worth of pain and joy. It is as ambitious, textured, and nationalist as Derek Walcott’s “Omeros.”

But after getting only a few songs in, we get stuck into the leaseholder’s record collection—real vinyl, Bitches Brew, Self Portrait a Roberta Flack record where the gatefold is made up of two independent pieces of piano. It is hard work changing records after every song with no table space, so we opt for longer stints—most of a side at least. Dylan, the Supremes, the Band. It is a Zulu study session, in theory, so we listen to Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” although she’s really Xhosa.

Journal, listening to “Chest Fever”: Where Britt got his appetite for salvaged cockups, though ain’t nothing wrong with the organs and implicated vacant density.


Thursday

On Thursday, I listen to no music at all. I wake up, as usual, with the brown noise and sonic clutter from the construction site across the street: rivet guns, groaning engines, shouting men. It is impressive how often you can convince yourself, first thing in the morning, that the two last bangs you heard were necessarily the loudest of the day: they’ve done their dynamiting for the day, from now on they’ll only be painting and product testing shag carpet. If I’m lucky, I get absorbed by the noise, hearing it as a constituent part of the construction, finding patterns—is the shouting at the driver of the roaring motor, or merely over it?

I no longer bother feeling guilty about not listening to music, though I’m always behind with the pile of waiting goodies and I might easily not have heard the Andy Palacio record if I hadn’t been paying attention, which would have been terrible.

I listen to more music—by volume and variety—than anyone I know in real life, and at the same time far, far less than many people I know only through the internet demi-monde, many of whom fit far more albums into their lives than seems humanly possible. I maintain a freehand program of listening, focusing on one or two albums that I’m going to review (I can’t write if I’m listening to music, nothing but notes and phrases at best), one or two albums for pleasure (Tricky, Hugh Masekela), and in theory one or two autodidactic albums to broaden my horizons (Fugazi, Gram Parsons). But it has taken years to partially learn that if I don’t get any breaks I listen like I read books for freshman seminars, in a thankless blur, bland, exhausting. Intellectual rather than visceral.


Friday

Journal notes: There is something afoot in the neighbor-across’ –The pickups are coming and going at a rate of nots and the baseball caps are driving… Major realization of the week number 2 is relatively minor: on the superiority of the opening half of the man’s blowback.

“The man” in question is Tricky, who has begun the rumor mill on his new album, though it will probably take at least a year for anything to be released. Even this makes me very, very excited and evangelical when in the embrace of an album.

So we leave Tricky playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and go kite flying, though the wind is too limp to support our aspirations. We walk past the ominously named “Morrow Plots,” site of the oldest (apparently) experiments in growing corn in the US. My DJ’ing is being impugned in conversation. Or perhaps merely my music collection, it’s hard to tell sometimes. I have promised songs and not delivered. I will not headbang when indicated during “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Further notes (I write while walking sometimes): because the world is littered with band names, most are not Darwinianly fit… �Man Passed out on train,” par exemple… So instead I play guitar for only the second time since I got here, fingers stumbling and soft… My friends, who have never heard me play before, put a bowl and sixty one cents (two quarters, eleven-or-so pennies). I get $1 for a Clapton request but can’t deliver.

I pack it in before long, hints or no. I cue up Mr. Lif’s “Because They Made It That Way,” which, likely because I heard it in college when Lif played down the road once a month, is one of my very favorites. In the silent reception I can’t tell if anyone feels the same, or everyone hates it. New friends, possibly we are all caught short by Lif’s (relatively judicious, depending on frame of reference) use of “Nigga” and, I fear at least once, “bitch.” I am. I suspect (strongly) that Lif means all of the above affectionately. I further conjecture that we all know this. But it takes several more songs for the clouds to clear somewhere.

Journal: I’ll admit it. I’ve never acclimatized to hip-hop’s use of abusives… Someone Great—prompted by colleagues, the other best thing about this job.

But LCD Soundsystem doesn’t fly either. We try the new Prince album, all foreswearing exit strategies, but flag almost immediately, and cave shortly after the one after “Guitar.” Finally, safe terrain, we set off through the Police’s Greatest Hits. I grew up on Police compilations and to my chagrin only recently realized I had no viable copies of any albums besides their fantastic double live album, the first disc of which is thus by default my favorite disc of Police. I listen for Copeland’s fleet, fleeting figures especially; in the mail on their way to me from people who I hope have interesting handwriting are three Police discs and the soundtrack Copeland wrote for Martin Scorsese’s Rumblefish. Oh, and The Score, the Fugees album not the De Niro vehicle. Next week is looking up. Mr. Airplane Man’s C’mon DJ escorts me to sleep; I knew I’d heard the Duke Spirit bested somewhere before.


Saturday

A luridly bright day. Journal: African Shadow-hunting maneuver… white sun, Aryan-intense and a note to ask Todd about disclosure rules about friendships with band members, because you see the friend whose porch I’ve been colonizing all week has a band, called Blixie; Bargeld admirers will be sorrowed to hear that it derives, as you might have guessed, from “Black Dixie.” They have a thoroughgoing, beautiful song called “Please Come Back To Me” but destined to be known by its refrain as simply “Asshole.”

Out walking, on my way to a cooking class, it occurs to me she wasn’t kidding when she asked if I would help her work out some songs for her grand return to Madison, where Blixie resides. Huh.


Sunday

Journal: We’ll have to piece it together from the DNA evidence , but Johnny Clegg was perhaps what I had been looking for all week. Or not. There’s nothing like Andy [Palacio]. And with luck… headphones on Monday. We take to task both of our Gram flowers. He comes on in quite a rush, �Sweep Out The Ashes’

The evening of a long day—we have written a ten minute multimedia Zulu experience entitled Izincwadi Zami, which is short and Zulu for My Books Are Greater In Number Than Thine. I ceded DJ duty and we listened to an extremely old-school playlist that somehow pertains simultaneously to high school kids simultaneously in Harare and Arkansas circa 1994. Amazing how that works. It features more Queen, Bon Jovi, and Alanis Morisette than I will cop to in public.

We are, how you say, pleased as punch. I have some amount of the material for this week’s journal, but editing remains for most of the week. I used to be unable to edit my own material, a debilitating affliction that has somehow become one of my favorite things to do of an evening. The right music helps—editing is not writing—and tonight I have my second ever listen to Hot Chip’s The Warning. My host, whose hospitality I have taken advantage of roughly every night but one or two of the past week, is crocheting a blanket across the room. Who is the blanket for? I’ll find out, just hold on until I finish listening to “And I Was a Boy from School.” How the DFA thing passed me by is mysterious, but not without its perks. I heard a couple of LCD bootlegs and decided it wasn’t exactly my thing, and never revisited the subject. I was in Cape Town at the time; “Losing My Edge” and its New York lofts only sort of translates. But The Warning might be the best of the bunch, and I haven’t even got to “No Fit State.”

The current headphones are not the best—they were essentially free. But the rip is good and, stranger still, legal and DRM-free, coz Hot Chip must be on an EMI-subsidiary, or just naturally canny. At some point I will listen to Andy Palacio and regret that no listen has yet illuminated the far corners of the music (Hot Chip is swathed in a rather fluorescent light, plus occasional strobe; no dark corners there). With a little Pynchonian luck, my new headphones will arrive tomorrow. Apparently these kinds of headphones need breaking in.


By: Andrew Iliff
Published on: 2007-07-23
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