2006 Year End Thoughts
The Long-Weekend I Went Without Music
t’s that time of year here at Stylus when if we’re not applying caveats to our year-end lists—for surely every summary must remind you it’s actually swayed by the minds of people—we’re applying them to our Year End Thoughts. So, as this is the first, it’s my duty to tell you that this week’s essays may actually include—gasp, sigh, and look away—the events from the lives of their writers. We start out trying to link them to music, but many of us wander away—hell, we intend to wander away. But that’s the nature of obsessions like yours, ours—sometimes what you’re trying to gather in music is actually easier to hold in your daily life, skin-flinted of sound, and the two become difficult to place in separate piles. For those of you who’ve read my last two—and I get more e-mails about those pieces than any of the myriad reviews I’ve written for Stylus—you might remember my story. It’s not unique, just open-lettered, a universal strange that becomes warm and common in the retelling, and that’s why I return this year to continue where I left off in the last. But, as I said, that final caveat: this will be a supreme self-indulgence, which means, among other things, that it’s fucking long. Read on at your own risk…
In the bluest cold of February, Minneapolis’ nastiest month despite its reach toward spring, my divorce was finalized. The results were no surprise; split the home right down the middle—Minnesota’s a fifty-fifty state, uninterested in hairy details of who’s invested what or just where the money’s come from, ‘cause it’s simple, Scandinavian clean. Besides the short divorce meetings, my ex and I hadn’t seen each other since the previous May.
I was living in the home we’d bought together, a small turn-of-last-century place downtown with exposed brick and high ceilings that I’d come to love. We lived above a popular Italian restaurant; the nights were bright with wine, people tripping across 12th street to the lot on the far side, voices shrill below the fluoros. I was waiting to put the place on the market, sell it, and pull the rest of myself out of those short years. I was happy to have the divorce finalized, stuffed away in the great pulp annals of Minneapolis bureau-crazy. I spent my time alone indoors.
Minnesota’s perfect for hermits. I’d always needed plenty of solitude, a room of my own as it were, in which to read and swallow music whole on my sixty-pound ‘70s Pioneers. As iron-white summer lost its grip to fall, my habits had grown almost too comfortable: return home from work, go for a jog along our train-tracks, shower, and spend the rest of the evening confined.
I was convinced I couldn’t live with anyone again. I couldn’t halve my space with another thing that had to eat, drink, shower, and God forbid, steal my stereo with their TLC and Dido. Marriage wasn’t for me. Sure, these are the ritualistic healings of a divorcee, a means of excusing mistakes by blaming an incompatibility with life—man, you foolish shit, how could you have seen yourself married, at that age! Permanent bachelorhood, oh brother mine, that’s what you need. I didn’t think I was fit for even the most bird-bitten intimacies. So I avoided people. I saw friends on the weekend; we’d gulp cheap beer at my place, me thinking I had only so many more nights to the place so let’s fill it with froth and fun.
Summer spread out in late August bursts, and an old friend convinced me to head out to Portland with him to visit a mutual friend. I wasn’t too interested, originally, feeling a week away from home as a week without those intense nights of the past few months, and really just too depressed to go through a security checkpoint. But I gave in. The first week of October, as Minneapolis’ fall colors peaked early, we flew out. The Pacific-Northwest’s turn of season was far behind our home. The leaves were green, the light still bold, almost fierce.
I met her that first night, after drinking beer from one Portland Shanghai saloon to the next. She was a neighbor of my friend’s, and as two AM rang, she came over. She too had a friend in town. She’d fallen asleep across the street, and so she took the opportunity to sneak out and meet us. She was wearing knee-high socks and Samba Classics, a plaid woolen skirt closing at the knee (shit!). It was the time of night where conversations turn to lists, easy summaries of the small flickering details of one’s life now that speech is free and the hour almost dead. We went in a circle and laid out our all-time favorite albums. A suitable topic for strangers. Top-five style, not desert island but plane-crashing-blaze, time just enough for one final listen, a decision. I’ve forgotten much of her list, but when I heard Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night included, whatever happened to me on sight of her tall schoolgirl socks went wide-eyed, nightwarm.
After a brief trip out to the coast with my friends the next day, sleeping in the rain-muscled cold of the Pac-West, I shut myself off from what I’d come to Oregon to see. She filled me in; she caught me up on what I’d missed. She told me about what she called “The Year I Couldn’t Read,” and given the last years I’d spent doing nothing but, I was puzzled. But, more than that, I was fascinated by how someone so affected by books—twelve months without became the shrewd, playful stuff of Nabokov on her tongue—could talk about it with such shadow, such patient reserve, as though speaking in the dark against those broad sun-crude Portland days. She knew me as a Faulkner child; she saw my deficits in contemporary literature. She told me I needed to catch up with McEwan and Shteyngart, and that I should get the fuck over myself and read The Corrections. We ate sushi at a downtown loft-spot, underdressed and sharing Sapporo to the rich wines and liquors sipped by suits and dresses around us; we went to one of Portland’s seedier strip clubs and drank Pabst with our backs to the stage, each testing the response of the other, turn-on or –off or just a place to go when the sun’s still bright where the air ain’t all that clean? Which?
I returned home in need of four logger’s meals and eight days rest. We set about seeing what was left, with earth and miles between us, countless. We began writing letters; she’s got a talent for understatement, an inhibition with clarity that clears up so much. We did everything you do against that distance—you talk on the phone until there’s no reason to sleep ‘cause the work alarm is almost here; you start your morning with one e-mail, coffee can wait.
But I had to have her included, in some way, in this off-day world I inhabit. I began to sendspace her music. I sent her albums I’d brought with me to work, hoping to paste something I was taking in that day into her own. The Stones’ Emotional Rescue ‘cause “All About You” is the best Keith cut in their catalogue, fuck “Happy” that’s absurd, and really the final three songs form one of the strongest of Stones’ strings; the Junior Boys’ So This is Goodbye, play “In the Morning” and work your way backward ‘cause there’s a line in the chorus, and I won’t tell you which, that you should hear even if you don’t apply it to yourself; Band of Horses, oh get to “Funeral,” and not because you used to love Carissa’s Wierd when you lived in Seattle but because even though I didn’t know it at the time, we’d eventually be in a small Portland bar where the hipster behind it had left “Funeral” out of the burn he played on the place’s oversized corner speakers—you would ask him about it when it happened, sexy in skirt, knowing how much I loved it, and he thought you were asking about Arcade Fire. We laughed then, yes at his expense, but that’s okay, he was an asshole. “Funeral” should have been on there, maybe twice.
Of course, I forget that most people don’t WANT to hear as much music as I do. She was backlogged; she couldn’t catch up with all I sent. She slowly filled in the open spots, telling me about records she liked and tracks she needed to hear again (Once, when I sent her a selection of my favorite cuts from Neil’s Zuma, she ridiculed me for failing to include “Barstool Blues,” and again, I knew.) She loves Missy’s first record because she can get ready to it for a Friday, Built to Spill is a favorite, and she seems to have an odd personal bond with the Isaac Brocks and Stephen Malkmuses of gold-naughties indie: they either came close to signing her tapes—she has no CD player in her car so she fists through an odd stash under the dash, sun-warped Led Zeppelin, a mix-tape of not-classic rock staples from an old paramour, Dylan’s debut where all you can hear, and that just faintly, is his acoustic guitar, his voice snared in some wilted tape blackhole—or they own large, mossy houses in Portland that she’d like to show me but can’t find. In either case, I soon realized she and I had more in common musically than any women I’d met, and maybe, just maybe, there were actually things she could offer my ear that I didn’t know about.
I was out in Portland again early this month. The Pepsi I bought for her the first time, before I knew she only drank Coke, was still on her swing, unopened and now just a post back to that week, above her leaf-brown kiddie pool and a now-nude tree. She had asked me to pack my five all-time albums; I packed almost fifty CDs, but none of my top five. I wasn’t thinking about those lists anymore. I was on to albums of that year, of those last few months, as a statement of purpose. None of the dust and clutter of yesteryear ‘cause she’s heard Tonight’s the Night and really that’s what it is, all there is. I brought Justin Timberlake; I wanted her to hear “My Love” and “SexyBack”, but she liked “Damn Girl.” She had to hear Clipse, only because she liked Missy and sure this wasn’t Timbaland, but it was the best stuff the Neptunes have put out in years, and have you heard the backstory? Well, order me another beer, nevermind that toothless stoolhopper confused about the time, his war-era watch misfeeding his hour; I’ll be back from the bathroom in a moment, and I’ll let you in on a little Jive.
She knew how much I hated silence, how uncomfortable I had become the last few years with itinerant static—the growth and sly night-time mirth of living downtown, even in a city as commuter-friendly as Minneapolis, so far from the three-am trains and foghorn clarity of her small neighborhood in North Portland-- so she told me I could play an album. She said it again, she yelled it from the stair-top as she dressed: you can put music on. And I didn’t. I tried to play Hell Hath No Fury as we readied ourselves for art crawl Saturday. I turned it off, and put away the albums I’d spent so much time selecting for the weekend. I didn’t think for an instant how much better any moment might be with Loco Dice or Twilight Sad or the new Bloc Party—records with which I’d been filling myself of late—as I was no longer just soundtracking my own solitude. Those dazzled nights have a way of removing the periphery, making the object of focus wide-sprung, horizoned. So what began with knee-highs and Tonight’s the Night became the long-weekend I went without music, like the year she went without reading. But I wasn’t telling odd tales in the dark; this was a thoughtless forward-step without anecdote. And when I returned home, I picked up The Corrections, and when she found out her library’s waiting list was at 107, she ordered Justin Timberlake from Amazon.
I suppose this is my way of saying Happy New Year to all of our readers, and especially those who’ve stayed with me to these final words...