I’m Not Your Friend - I Never Was

bad jokes make me feel better: You know you’re heartbroken when… you start hearing everything in metaphors. I go home to visit my family for Passover. I get a haircut and get lost coming home; my mom calls.

“Are you lost?” “I’m very lost.” “What’s it like where you are.” “It’s pretty. I like it.” “Well don’t forget, you just took you with you. That’s all.”

I am reading Frank Kogan’s book of music writing Real Punks Don’t Wear Black and it’s starting to confuse the hell out of me. On the back, Chuck Eddy writes “Frank Kogan dares you to not listen to music in the context of your life. He knows that dare is impossible, and that in itself puts him head and shoulders about pretty much every other rock critic of the past couple decades.” I am trying to think of other instances in which you are so handsomely rewarded for posing impossible dares and it makes me frustrated.

Right now, I don’t care about being a critic, really. Partially because I think I’ve been a shitty critic lately, and if there’s such a thing as a shitty listener, I’ve been that too. How I qualify being a shitty listener is personal, exclusive, and a self-imposed challenge: I make the music meet me on my terms and forget its own and everyone else’s.

My brother doesn’t keep a lot of CDs in his car (alternately, he does, but they’re scratched to shit); one of them is Room on Fire by the Strokes. It’s okay, but I remember being sad that they shed some of their funk. “Automatic Stop” is my favorite song on the album not because of its limp reggae okay-ness, but because of this thing that happens at the end of it. The vocal melody on the line “I’m not your friend, I never was” doesn’t resolve until the last chorus; when it does resolve, it sounds like it splits in two, creating this weird octave effect. Couldn’t ever figure it out. I listen to it over and over again.

A few days earlier, I’d gone to a friend’s dad’s funeral. Listening to music while heartbroken can be painfully self-indulgent; going to a funeral while heartbroken is shattering. I’ve been to church once or twice in my life (Passover, remember?). The hymns they sing sound boring and cotton/poly like James Taylor sounds boring; I know that James Taylor sometimes makes saucy jokes like Bob Saget or Steve Harvey, so the hymns sound even worse.

I only brought two CDs home because I knew how I was feeling—The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. During the bible readings, I realize that for “Love Love Love,” John Darnielle pinched the line “now we see things as in a mirror dimly, then we shall see each other face to face” from 1 Corinthians 13:12. I should’ve realized not because I know anything about the bible, but because the language is so stiff. It makes me cry and then I feel guilty for crying because I don’t know if I’m crying for Ryan (now fatherless at 23), Cindy (his mother), Kevin (whose face looks even more gentle with its eyes closed, in a coffin), or me. It’s probably all of us, which makes me feel more confused and more guilty.

The next day, I catch up on some work and listen almost exclusively to Golden Afrique 2, a compilation of Congolese music from the past several decades. I listen partially because I read that Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” is #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. What gets me is how clean and privileged his melancholy is; actually, it sickens me, and I remember what I liked so much about Keith Harris’s review of Golden Afrique 2: “It offers a troubled culture's vision of a happy and secure future—and a reminder of just how beautiful and vibrant escapism can sound when it remains a luxury.” How can the well-moisturized Powter sound so miserable and a group of minor musicians from Central Africa struggling under economic and political hardships sound so joyful? And does anyone really listen to “Bad Day” when they have a bad day? What’s that all about? Git. Go.

At night, I carve wood with my friend Josh and listen to the Grateful Dead and Joanna Newsom. I try not to think about what they say because I know that they say dumb stuff, or at least dumbly reaffirming stuff that I desperately want to hear but don’t think I’ll get better by hearing. Neither of us knows what the fuck we’re doing with the wood—we’ve never whittled before—but we manage to tune out the words anyway.

The next day, I pick up my brother Dave from the train station listening to Bitter Tea, the new Fiery Furnaces album. How can I write a review of this that isn’t shitty? I decide that it will be mostly about drugs and a little about me and a little Frank Kogan and a little Nick Southall and even the White Stripes; I decide that I’m going to weather whatever the commenters have to say about it. This presumes they’ll care, which they might not.

“Can we listen to something that isn’t so hectic?” Dave says.

Sure, Dave. I suggest Room on Fire. “I haven’t listened to that in a while.” “Automatic Stop” comes on and he says “eh” and shifts a little in his chair. When I hear the first chorus and Julian’s voice lingers on the “was” in “I’m not your friend, I never was,” I solve the split-note mystery and cringe: he’s NOT her friend, he never was, he can’t be—their romance precludes it. Now that their romance is over, they don’t exist. I wonder if SHE—the grand she who made this narrative possible—feels the same way. After all, five years is a long time and fuck is this difficult. (I think it’s actually about a ménage-a-trois, but I suspend my belief, that’s the whole point.)

Anyway, I realize that the note splits to show both his confidence (the soaring high note) and his resignation (the easier low note)—together, they make it a shoulder to look over. Before that, he would’ve only sounded unrealistically optimistic about his ability to write her off (just high) or too mopey to accept responsibility for why their relationship failed (just low). This is the feeling of learning a lesson.

Dave says

“You know, this sounds dumb, but I always heard it as being I’m nacho friend. I was watching this Comedy Central show where people were telling bad jokes—you know, like ‘What kind of cheese isn’t yours? Nacho cheese?’ I just can’t shake that.”

On the next chorus we both laugh. When the split note thing comes up, I say

“Do you hear that? That splitting note?”

“Yeah…that always pissed me off. I couldn’t ever sing along to it.”

By: Mike Powell
Published on: 2006-05-08
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