Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Small Revelation, Followed by a Difficult Question (and many footnotes)

I was walking yesterday and realized what it was about music I like so much: its texture. I don't listen to the music so much as I listen for a feeling, an actual tactile sensation. I love when you're listening to a recording and you can feel the walls of the room the musicians were in as they made it. I bristle when I can hear the creak of the piano bench, the metal-wound strings exciting the polished spruce top of the guitar, the tweed cover on an old amp shuffling softly, and the sharp inhale the singer takes just before a line.

That must be why I like live music so much—all that wood and metal, every inch of it crafted, being plied under fine-tuned flesh and bone right before your eyes. Actually being there helps you to sense what the musicians are feeling as they work. You are that much closer to feeling the guitar's body boom against your own belly, to reading the pull of the strings under your fingers as they tell you how hard to press and when to let up to make the thing sing just so. You can feel the electricity shifting down the smooth rubber-insulated cord, across the scratched and weathered floor and into a polished black steel box of tubes and transitors before radiating out across all that amber air and cigarette smoke. I can see why so many artists throw down rugs to stand on as they play, why singers all seem to collect scarves. (Perhaps this even explains the great number of beards grown since the sixties.)

Take the Eagles, for instance. "Desperado" always makes me think of coarse horse hair and saddle leather and grit, and "Peacful Easy Feeling" is the sensation of highway asphalt running under tires or being guided by the soles of one's feet while hiking in the dark. The opening lines of "New Kid in Town," evoke a faded Mexican cantina, but it's the sense I get of adobe walls and paper decorations in the square that keep me from skipping to the next song. Or, as other examples, Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing is an endless expanse of velvet and soft brown hair, and Hootie and the Blowfish's Fairweather Johnson is a porch of splintered wood smoothed over by the seductive tremble of a Hammond B-3 organ.1 Even with music less concerned with a natural acoustic fidelity—metal or dance music, for instance—there's the joy of feeling the music itself as it booms out of speakers and actually makes your body part of the sound wave.

This obsession with touch and texture goes for each of my senses. To me, its never the smell or the taste of the thing; it's the tactility possible in it, as if tiny fingers could reach out and touch for each sense, rubbing back and forth in joyful appreciation of coffee's pulpy, papery smell or the woody grain of a G chord. (I can understand why Starbucks has gotten into the music business.)

The same sentiment goes for my writing too. I spend so much time trying to build up layers of texture in an effort to recreate a feeling—I rarely pay attention to matters of plot and purpose, at least in the first draft or so. It's as if I think that by creating the sheer feeling of something I can infuse the piece with enough power to touch someone, the way the original experience touched me and marked itself for being written about later. It's an addiction to nostalgia, in a way.2

With music, it's a nostalgia for places I've never been. Places I've only dreamed about: sitting in a session with Norah on her piano, me tinkering out some sweetly spare licks as a drummer cooly sounds the depths of the room; standing in the crook between two mountains above Sundance with Pete and the band, hitting a natural harmony and strumming along; or backing up Sting as part of a fifteen-piece band at his villa in Italy, all of us occupying our space without crowding the soundscape. I even get a tinge of this feeling at some sharp, (in my opinion) perfectly done snare hits in the bridge of a song I wrote and recorded with a band a few years ago. Curiously, I wasn't there for the recording of that particular drum track.

Nostalgia is not just for amateur musicians wishing for fame, either. Most songs urge all of us to connect to something distant or past. Or at least, that's one of the surest paths to commercial success. An artist may largely succeed by making the song real—whether the words and music concern them personally or not—so that singer and listener are taken in by the power of perceived recollection.3 I can't say how many times I've heard an artist praised for their "tasteful reinterpretation" of a song that they didn't write, or maybe their failure to do justice to a classic.4 And even when they aren't deliberately trying to hook us with pure emotion, we often hook ourselves. We attach a song to a time or place or person in such a way that experiencing one invariably invokes the other5—how many of us have tossed CDs and tapes after a break-up for that very reason?6 Blues Traveler pokes fun at this notion in their song "Hook." In it John Popper sings:

It doesn't matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel I'll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection
But I've said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
And it don't matter who you are
If I'm doing my job then it's your resolve that breaks

Because the hook brings you back
I ain't tellin' you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely

There is something amiss
I am being insincere
In fact I don't mean any of this
Still my confession draws you near
To confuse the issue I refer
To familiar heroes from long ago
No matter how much Peter loved her
What made the Pan refuse to grow

Is that the hook brings you back
I ain't tellin' you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely
The song reach #8 on the Top 40 charts, undoubtedly because Popper sang with the promised "inflection" while the song made an endless loop through the familiar chords of Pachelbel's "Canon in D."7 He never actually says anything, though; it's all just teasing, a postmodern mix up of floating signifiers and faked emotion.

So what's the point of all this? I'm not sure. It could be that nostalgia itself is the hook, and therein lies the danger. Letting ourselves simmer in the recollection of an idealized past can be dangerous, to be sure, but doing so when the past we are enjoying didn't actually exist but in the words of a lyricist or in the chord progression of a songwriter is even more so. It's something akin to allowing Hollywood representations of history to replace the real thing, to making all our past merely "based" on a true story. But on the other hand, nostalgia is what prompted me to write this in the first place; it can be a great motivator. Imagining that I'm on stage with one of my heroes, moving an audience to their feet through the skill of my hand (or is it through my skill at creating fake memories?), is one of the things that keeps me coming back to my own guitar—to feel it actually boom against my own chest and teach me how to make it sing.


1Because Hootie was so overplayed on the radio with their first album, no one ever bothered to listen to their sophomore effort, which breaks my heart. The first album was a decent set of college tunes—this second one is a true feat of skill that plays like a walk through the South. It's everything that Forrest Gump tried to evoke by stacking a soundtrack full of CCR and every other hit they could buy the rights to. If nothing else, listen to this one. And this one.
2Anyone seeking evidence of this can note the outrageous number of commas I must edit out of my work every day. I tend to build sentences in waves of phrases, each rolling in after the one before, washing over the reader like a memory, elongating the sentence into a jumbled mess of inarticulate junk. It sickens me.
3So often this fake nostalgia is for what we see and internalize in a movie, as with "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion, from the Titanic soundtrack. That this technique works well is evidenced by the song's success and the number of girls I knew growing up who practically broke down whenever it came on the radio (which was about every five minutes for a year or two).
4I particularly remember this being said about two Harry Nilsson8 songs, in the liner notes of his greatest hits album. Also, country music is largely based on the skill of interpreting music written by other people. I would say that Cake's version of "I Will Survive" is perhaps my favorite remake of any song ever, despite the blaring curse word added. I also love when artists reinterpret their own work, such as an acoustic version of a hit or a genre shift of a classic. Sheryl Crow gets an F for Cat Stevens's "The First Cut is the Deepest," and Paul Anka gets a A for effort on this album. Other decent remakes are this, this, and this.
5I find it interesting that I associate two songs—Collective Soul's "December" and Sarah McLachlan's "Possession"—with the same location and time: driving down Seventh Street on the way home from Sugar Land Middle School. Oh, that the glory days of nineties grunge, rock, and girl pop had never ended. Also, if you'll allow a little unadulterated nostalgia in a footnote, "No Need to Argue" by the Cranberries in the hall around the corner from the theatre room at Kempner High, the three-part, improvised harmonies of B, M, and N bouncing of tile and locker. My deep, unexplainable love for the album of the same name I attribute to sharing a room with Jen for that year and falling asleep to it several nights each week; the same goes for The Secret Garden soundtrack. Curiously, hearing Sting every other night never took a hold, and I was forced to rediscover him on my own when he put out Brand New Day, an album forever tied to my blue room downstairs at the front of the house. And let me not forget Air Supply, which has the power to instantaneously remind me of those wonderful days with Orgill living in Seoul.
6After A, I could no longer handle The Stray Cats, REM, or anything from South Pacific.
7Actually the song was performed in the key of A, but who's counting?
8(Is a footnote of a footnote allowed?) Anyway, I wanted to comment that the repeated use of Harry Nilsson songs in the You've Got Mail soundtrack was responsible for creating in me a complex false nostalia for New York City and autumn and romance involving Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (who can say which?). Judging from people's feelings for that movie, I'd say Nora Ephron, her cinematographer, and her soundtrack guy hit a homerun on that one, much better than whoever made the poorly titled and quite disappointing Autumn in New York. Now there was a movie that had nothing to do with autumn, nor New York. Boo.

1 comment:

Brett said...

hey what do you know, references to people and places i know :0) is it bad that I still think about wanting to be the recording engineer on your break out album??